Archive for ‘Rock’

March 16, 2010

Fuzzy Wuzzy – The Fuzz Pt.1

by George

Why do we (lovers of rock and roll like myself) have such an attraction to the gnarly, distorted sounds of overdriven instruments (guitars, bass, synthesizers, whatever) heard on thousands of classic albums? What’s the appeal? Is it a conscious choice to embrace these unpure signals or the subconscious at play?

I think it goes along with the whole ethos of rock and roll: making loud sounds LOUDER because you can and want to. Expression in its simplest form: volume. The pleasure and, dare I say, relaxation that comes from a slow and steady stream of airwaves that bathe your senses as you sit in front of a blaring stereo. Or the celebration of firing off your favorite track from your iPod, listening as it travels like an ever-climbing rocket launched toward the sky. What’s wrong with pretty, soft and sweet?? Nothing…that’s what cheesy ballads are for.

I can’t explain it, but as a guitarist and music listener I am completely obsessed with distorted, overdriven, fuzz tones…this obsession leads me on what seems like a never-ending journey in search of the thickest and wooliest tones I can find (on record and in the form of various musical instruments/effects/random items used like instruments ala THIS). I find the greatest appeal and charm in the fuzzes; overdrives are great for a crisp boost and adding smoothness to a sound, distortions for articulation and sheer power; but fuzzes sit in between the two like a bearded, fat man in the middle seat on the 3:15 bus.

Without getting into all the minutia involved with these effects (silicon vs. germanium transistors, transistor bias, input voltage chokes, etc.) there are so many variations on this fuzz sound that you can have a different one for breakfast every day of the week…mmmm. From a soft clip to a hairy, lo-fi growl; a mid-scooped rasp or a throaty, mid-high bark; a smooth grind or a sputtery, dying battery bit-crushed sound.

Listen closely to the loose, slightly uncontrollable quake of the most famous fuzzboxes of all time, the Electro Harmonix Big Muff; that beautiful sound created when a note or chord is so saturated with electrical input that it has reached critical mass; one that has begun to crumble and is on the verge of collapsing in upon itself. It’s almost as though these devices are shaking the subtle harmonics out of each note, dissolving the composure of these tame and normal sounds and releasing their inner soul. Electric bloom!

Let’s take a trip through the history/highlights of the fuzz sound:

Early/Mid ’60s: Musicians stumble upon this magic box that makes their instruments sound like they’re capable of leveling a small building. Naturally, the human ear (and more importantly brain) likes this and wants more.  No longer do musicians have to tear the cones in their speaker cabinets to get this glorious sound. British bands like The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones come to America with their fuzz boxes; little girls scream; young men revel in the sound of syrupy, distorted guitars…

Late 60s/70s: The Beatles take fuzz tones psychedelic, Hendrix single-handedly destroys and rebuilds what we knew as guitar playing (using only wood, steel strings and a FuzzFace pedal) and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour slyly sneaks some fuzz into his soulful lead guitar voice.  ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons was stringing together up to 6 Expandora fuzzes to create his ‘Lapdog of Distortion’, heard on records like Tres Hombres, which he used to bring some Texas heat to the blues. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin…Rangemasters, Tone Benders, on and on we go…

Late 70s/80s: Besides a couple Sabbath-clone bands, I’ll be skipping this decade. You can thank hair metal for that one (bastards!).

Late 80s/90s: Ahhh, rebirth of the fuzz: J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr., Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo & Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins break out those ancient fuzz machines and in doing so, help define the alt-rock thing going on at the time. Enter the almighty fuzz lords Kyuss…masters of the massive-volume amp riffage that would later give birth to bands like Queens of the Stone Age and stripped down garage-rock bands to follow in the…

2000s -now: Fuzz revival is in full-swing with lo-fi garage rock and between the albums Elephant & Magic Potion you can hear almost every classic fuzz tone known to mankind. Then there are bands like SunnO))) that are capable of re-awakening dormant volcanoes with their sub-sonic, fuzzed-out rumble.

In a future installment, I’ll do the trifecta for gearheads:  a trident review of some fuzz pedals that have me giddy as a school girl:  the Swollen Pickle MkII, Fuzz Factory and the Bluebeard Fuzz.  And if this wasn’t totally boring for you, check out the awesome documentary Fuzz: The Sound That Revolutionized the World.

-George

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February 25, 2010

‘Ground Control to Major Tom…’

by George

Have you ever listened to silence…complete and utter silence.  You might think that you have, but you haven’t.

This is nearly impossible on earth because we do not live within a vacuum.  Even the slightest vibration disturbs and propagates through airwaves enough to defeat silence.  But this is not a science lesson.

And while there is no sound in all the vast reaches of outer space, there is a lot of sound about space; it even has its own sub-genre if you wanna get picky about it (see Space Rock). And despite being a completely silent place itself, we are so intrigued by this unknown world that we have created sonic representations of how we imagine the galaxies to sound.

Any unknown, whether it be a person, place, etc., makes the best theme for a piece of music because there are no boundaries; it’s not something that everyone knows, has seen, experienced or can define.  It leaves itself open to for the utmost personal interpretation and does not limit creativity with harsh reality or preconceived ideas.  Space, to some degree, represents and defines the limits of our human understanding: we describe something/someone out-there as spacey; we space out when not paying attention.  Anything beyond the boundaries of normalcy must be from outer space.

While all music can be an escape from everyday life, there are certain compositions that offer an even farther refuge from this world…one Beyond the Infinite.

So what does rock and roll sound like in space.   It varies slightly depending on which artist you ask, but generally speaking HUGE.  It appears there are few subtleties amongst the stars.  Large, sustaining notes that stretch far into the stars; unlimited reverberations and echoes of sound from a distant planet; an intoxicating, lush swirl of sound; droning loud & distorted tones; a sputtering sequence of synthetic and alien bleeps and blurts.

Each of the instruments used to create this cosmic symphony serves a purpose: the percussion propels the listener’s vessel into deep space like a steady rocket; you feel the pulse of the bass and sub-low frequencies as you climb farther into darkness and then, you see the vivid and colorful guitar and vocal tones and textures of melody and harmony, like the bright astral bodies that litter the galaxies and pass by you on your interstellar voyage.

Pink Floyd, while speeding through the cosmos in Interstellar Overdrive, decided to Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and took a few albums to come back to self-reflective reality here on Earth.  ‘Surely’, said Hawkwind, ‘Space is Deep‘ as they rode along in their Silver Machine until they heard Earth Calling.  Blue Oyster Cult is another well-versed student of Astronomy.  Even Black Sabbath have travelled Into the Void and beyond to Planet Caravan.

It’s liberating to listen to these sounds and mental place oneself outside the world as we know it; to carry only your imagination with you and be transported from reality.  I doubt that any record made about the confining atmosphere and gravity of Earth would be nearly as exciting.

Put on something ‘spacey’ (preferably on vinyl so that you can hear the hiss and pops), turn off the lights (lava lamps can stay on) and climb aboard.

-George

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February 10, 2010

“This thing really boogies!”

by George

The Mark series of amplifiers has been the jewel in Mesa/Boogie’s crown ever since its inception in the 70s.  Starting with the Mark I and continuing until the present, these amplifiers are known for their vast sonic capabilities and their almost endless supply of creative mojo.

This line of amps, in all its many incarnations, has not only been utilized to create the tones heard on many landmark records, it has been, in part, one of the creative forces to shape them.  Listen to Carlos Santana’s singing and smooth lead tone from the MkI on his Abraxas record.  Or delve into the MkIIC+ on Master of Puppets; a mighty sound that became the standard in defining the absolute fastest, tightest distorted guitar tone ever obtained by man.

In it’s two latest incarnations, the Mark series amps have been the last word on tonal versatility and for this reason, it has mainly been championed as a studio player’s amp.   No matter what session you’re working on, these were easy choices as go-to amps for their flexibility and quality of tone.

Now, on to the Mark V…

I’m reviewing the 112 combo, which looks small but sounds like this…

At first glance, you will either become flustered and giddy like a schoolgirl, or immediately annoyed and unsure of yourself as a person.  This is because the front panel of the MkV has no less than 35 controls…on the front!  In comparison to most amps, this is insane and seems most unnecessary.  Ahh, but the rewards of mastering these controls are sweet; if you are brave enough to travel through the labyrinth of knobs, switches and sliders there is a world of tone waiting to be discovered and, dare I say, created.

Like most modern amplifiers, the layout of the MkV is divided into three channels, each covering a different tone range.  Typically, moving up each channel provides an increase in gain and tonal extremes, but that is the wrong way to look at this amp.  Generally speaking this is true, but perhaps a better way to think about the three channels is more like tonal ballparks, each having their own unique range of gain.  Each channel has three ‘modes’ that alter the impact of the basic controls (master volume, gain, presence, treble, mid & bass) over the sound; for example, within the same channel, increasing the bass in one mode may add punch and girth, but in another, result in a flabby, un-controlled tone.  Also selectable by channel is the power rating (10, 45 or 90 watts per channel).  Dropping the wattage can quickly overdrive the amp and yield some sweet and crunchy rock tones.

This all goes, finally, to the graphic equalizer (if you don’t know what that is, look to your left), which lets you fine tune your sound by boosting/cutting select frequencies.  Applying the classic V here yields the signature high-gain sounds of some of the most iconic rock music in history.  If you don’t want to custom tailor the shape of the gEQ, you can set a preset amount of V to be used with a preset knob unique to each channel.  All of this is footswitchable, of course.

So no one gets lost, here’s a more visual layout:

  • Channel
    • 3 Modes
    • Power Selection
  • Graphic EQ

The back panel is mostly boring, so we’ll skip that.  The only features back there worth mentioning are the Reverb control, which allows you to set different levels of shimmer and spank on each channel individually, and the effects loop, which allows you to insert effect pedals/processors before the amp’s power section.

The footswitch for this monster of tone is the size of a small barge and controls channel switching, reverb, EQ, a sound mute for tuning, the effects loop and a solo boost (a volume boost used for when it’s time to melt faces!!)

Next post, we’ll set sail on the sea of ROCK!!!!

Cheers,

George

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