Monday, November 12, 2007

Theoretically speaking...

Music is a very personal, subjective thing. However, as Victor Wooten would say, in practice there is a perfection. The important thing to remember about theory is it's ex post facto. It explains music, but it doesn't define it. Having said that... I personally think theory is the fastest way to get your head wrapped around what's going on in music. This will accelerate your learning process, if used right.

Music is a lot like a language, and if you want to communicate your ideas to people and to yourself, then you need to have some common ground. It's all about what you want to get out of playing the guitar. If you just want to learn a few songs that you like, and you happen to like relatively simple music (from a theory perspective), then not having an understanding of the underlying explanations probably isn't going to hamper your progress very much.

However, if you do learn theory, you'll find that you'll start thinking about the guitar in perhaps a rather different way. Rather than chancing upon patterns, you'll actively be seeking them out. This means that when you learn something you'll remember it better, you'll understand it better, and you'll be able to extrapolate from where you are much better.

Some people have an intuitive understanding of music and how it works, and they don't feel the need to articulate it to themselves or anybody else. I however, am unfortunately, not one of those people. For many years I just "played guitar" and didn't bother with the theory side of things. However, when I did start to get into theory, I saw my playing and understanding of music progress at an exponential rate, compared to when I was just fumbling around in the dark.

The best I advice I can give you is to think carefully about what you want to get out of playing the guitar. If you wish to learn to improvise, or learn "complicated" things, or just have a very broad appreciation of music, then learning theory is a good idea. Heck, even if you don't learning theory is a good idea. I'd personally say it's damn near essential, but lots of people would disagree with that statement (and others, I supposed, would concur).

If you're just playing for fun, then at the end of the day, it's best to decide for yourself whether you think it's worth investing the time and effort in learning theory. I can honestly say that while it may appear difficult at the start, in the same way that learning a language may be difficult, once you have the basics down, everything just sort of starts to come together. I don't think that *learning* theory is ever a bad thing. Letting theory completely dictate what you play... probably not such a great idea. But learning it? Never a bad thing. After all, knowledge is power.

Robert Miles - Paths

This is an awesome video for the Robert Miles track Paths, off the Organik album. I really dig the direction he's gone in since his debut with "Children", it's much more trip-hop and a lot less techno. The Organik album remains one of favourites.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do we have an accord?

First things first, I shall assume that virtually no prior knowledge exists. Let's start with intervals. In western music, we work with 12 tones. Some notes are what we call enharmonic meaning they sound them same on an even-tempered instrument (such as the piano/guitar).

A# / Bb
B / Cb
C /B#
C# / Db
D# / Eb
E / Fb
F / E#
F# / Gb
G# / Ab

The shortest distance between a note is a half-step. This may be represented by adjacent keys on a keyboard, or adjacent frets on a guitar. Let us examine these intervals using the key of C major. The notes contained in C major are as follows:

C D E F G A B (w w h w w w h)

The root note is C. The relationship between each note in the scale within 1 octave, and the root note, is as follows:

C - C = Unison
C - D = Major 2nd (1 step)
C - E = Major 3rd (2 steps)
C - F = Perfect 4th (2 1/2 steps)
C -G = Perfect 5th (3 1/2 steps)
C - A = Major 6th (4 1/2 steps)
C - B = Major 7th (5 1/2 steps)
C - C = Octave (6 steps)

If you lower a major interval by a 1/2 step, it becomes a minor interval. The reverse is true, thus if you raise a minor interval by a half step, it becomes a major interval. Let us rearrange the notes of C major, starting on A. This gives us the key of A minor.

A B C D E F G (w h w w w h w)

A - A = Unison
A - B = Major 2nd (1 step)
A - C = Minor 3rd (1 1/2 steps)
A - D = Perfect 4th (2 1/2 steps)
A - E = Perfect 5th (3 1/2 steps)
A - F = Minor 6th (4 steps)
A - G = Minor 5th (5 steps)
A - A = Octave (6 steps)

Thus, we see what defines the relationship between 2 notes is their distance from each other, and how rearranging the order of the notes gives us a different sound.

Let's now consider how this applies to chords. A chord is usually made up of 3 or more notes. These notes are usually stacked in thirds on top of a root note. These thirds may be either minor or major thirds. So, for a triad, the following configurations are possible

1 - 3 - #5 = Augmented
1 - 3 - 5 = Major
1 - b3 - 5 = Minor
1 - b3 - b5 = Diminished

Applying this with a root note of C, we would get

C E G# (C augmented)
C E G (C major)
C Eb G (C minor)
C Eb Gb (C diminished)

Let us take this further and apply it to 4 note chords

1 - 3 - #5 - octave = Augmented
1 - 3 - 5 - 7 = Major 7th
1 - 3 - 5 - b7 = Dominant 7
1 - b3 - 5 - 7 = Minor/Major 7th
1 - b3 - 5 - b7 = Minor 7th
1 - b3 - b5 - b7 = Minor 7th flat 5th / half-diminished
1 - b3 - b6 - bb7 = Diminished 7th

Of course, there are many other kinds of chords. One might construct chords by stacking in 4ths, or by adding colour tones such as 9ths/11ths/13ts (which are 2nd/4th/6th intervals an octave above the root), or just replacing the 3rd with a 4th or major second, creating suspended chords, as some examples. Experimenting is the key to success!

As for chord substitutions, here are some brief pointers:

For any diatonic chord, one may substitute a dominant chord with the same root note. We call these secondary dominants. They're extremely common in jazz and blues. Dominant chords create a dissonant sound that wants to be resolved, so be careful using these when you're going for a "smooth" sound!

For any dominant chord, we may substitute another dominant chord that is a tritone (flat 5th) away. This is because of the structure of a dominant chord. Let us use E7 as a example.

The notes of E7 are E G# B D

If we move up a tritone, we get Bb7, which has the notes Bb D F Ab

Notice that in E7, the G#/Ab is the major third and the D is the minor 7th. However, in Bb7, the G#/Ab is now the minor 7th, while the D is the major 3rd. Because it's the major 3rd and minor 7th that give the dominant chord it's tonality, we can use these chords interchangeably.

If you're wondering why this works, a tritone divides an octave exactly in half. The major 3rd and the minor 7th are also a tritone apart, thus, when we move up a tritone, these notes swap functions. A pretty nifty trick!

Lastly, we come to inversions. Let us consider the case of C major 7. By rearranging the notes, we have different inversions of the chord, and this is the gateway to substitutions. Next to the chord is a chord that may be substituted for it, along with how the notes that have been changed/added affect the CM7 chord

C E G B - CM7
E G B C - CM7/E -> Em7 - E G B D (D is 9)
G B C E - CM7/G -> G7 - G B D F (D is 9, F is 11)
B C E G - CM7/B -> Am7 - A C E G (A is 13)

To simplify, for any major chord, you might substitute a minor chord a major 3rd up or a major 6th up. The reverse is true. Play around with this and see what kind of sounds you like. As you've probably figured out by now, the possibilities are endless!

NB: I don't have "formal" music theory training so some terminology might deviate from the norm. Hopefully you find this useful though!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Practicing innovation

Try playing through scales in a cycle of 5ths/4ths in 1 position. For example, with the root on the low E, one would play the following

Key - Scale
C major - C Ionian
G major - C Lydian
D major - C Locrian
A major - C# Phrygian
E major - C# Aeolian
B major - C# Dorian
F# major - C# Mixolydian

That covers all the basic modes and makes you think about it as you go along. You should of course transpose this to different keys, start on different strings, and just basically do every permutation of it that you can think of.

When practicing scales, you can of course, do it in a multitude of ways. You could play straight up and down, or just create your own sequences. Try and come up with sequences that you've never played before because that forces you fingers to do something different so you actually develop the ability to play new ideas.

You can also take all these ideas and apply them to arpeggios. One thing I like to do is pick a key and play through all the arpeggios in the key. For example if you're playing in G major you'd have the following chords:
G major 7
A minor 7
B minor 7
C major 7
D dominant 7
E minor 7
F# minor 7 flat 5

You can play these arpeggios anywhere that you fancy, try and play them in as many different ways as you can. You should also add colour tones. One interesting thing to do is add the 2nd/9th interval. If you do this in A minor for example, you would have the following notes.


Compare this to the notes in A minor pentatonic


You'll notice that it's very similar to A minor pentatonic except rather than having the 4th interval, which is a perfect interval and doesn't sound major or minor, you now have a major 9th interval. If you were doing this over a iii chord, you'd use the flat 9 instead of the 9. This gives you an interesting sound that's somewhat like a pentatonic but more melodic, and it's a good way to break out of the whole pentatonic rut.

Another interesting idea is to take a 3 note per string scale, but instead of playing it straight through like you normally would, play the first two notes on each string and then bend the second note to the third note. This breaks out of that whole cliché 3 note per string sound, and also gives you lots of practice bending

You can also take any licks/songs that you already know and try and play them with a swing feel. This helps develop your timing and requires more control than just ripping through something with a straight time feel. One song I like to do this with is Mozart's Turkish Rondo.

You can also try playing any existing ideas with octaves. This doesn't work so well with shred style licks though

Basically to me it's all about doing things that you don't normally do, and the easiest way to do this is take stuff that you already do and turn it on its head.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

If you play in C#, you will be flat

If you want to find the right key, you need to have a basic understanding of key signatures. Here's a crash course:

We'll start with C major, because there are no sharps or flats in that key. The notes are (C D E F G A B). That gives us 7 notes to play around with. Let's see what chords we can construct from these notes;

C E G B - C Major 7 (I)
D F A C - D minor 7 (ii)
E G B D - E minor 7 (iii)
F A C E - F Major 7 (IV)
G B D F - G dominant 7 (V)
A C E G - A minor 7 (vii)
B D F A - B minor 7 b5 (viib5)

Thus, we see that in the key of C major we have 3 major chords (CM7, FM7, G7), 3 minor chords (Dm7, Em7, Am7) and one half diminished chord. This is important because it helps you identify common chord progressions. For example, if you had a ii V I progression in the key of C Major, it would be Dm, G, C. You could also have, as is common in blues, a I IV V I progression. In the key of C that would be C, F, G, C. Usually, the song will resolve back to the I chord. This may not always be major, it might be minor, if it was in a minor key. For simplicity, it's sensible to relate the minor key back to the major. So, if we had Bm7b5 E7 Am, we can relate that back to Am/C major. Note that the Em7 from the key of C is made into a dominant chord to create a better resolution to Am. You could just as easily apply this concept without the 7th interval. in which case you'd have major, minor, and diminished chords to play around with.

In terms of keys, the sharp keys move up in cycles of 5ths. Thus we have
C major - no sharps no flats
G major - F#
D major - F# C#
A major - F# C# G#
E major - F# C# G# D#
B major - F# C# G# D# A#
F# major - F# C# G# D# A# E#
C# major - F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

We've already got 7 sharps, so lets work with the flat keys now. These move in a cycle of 4ths
C major - no sharps no flats
F major - Bb
Bb major - Bb Eb
Eb major - Bb Eb Ab
Ab major - Bb Eb Ab Db
Db major - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Gb major - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb
Cb majore - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

Once again, we've run into 7 flats so we can stop. Right now you're probably thinking "There are 12 tones in the chromatic scale, why do we have 14 scales?!". That's because some of these are what we call "enharmonic". The following scales are enharmonic

B major - Cb major
F# major - Gb major

Thus we are left with 12 "unique" scales.

Now you might ask, how is this of any use? If you take any given song, and you identify the chords in the song (even if they are power chords!), you'll be able to identify what sharps/flats are being used. This will allow you to deduce what key you're in.

The more you practice, the better your ear will become. However, when you're first starting out it can be really hard to identify the chords. The first thing you need to do is identify the bass note, or the lowest note in the chord. Listening to the bass line is a good start. The useful thing about the bass line is if you work out what the bass notes are, you'll have some insight into what key a song is in fairly quickly.

For example, if the bass line goes B E A, then one might deduce that this might potentially be Bm7b5 E7 Am7, or Bm7 E7 AM7. This immediately narrows down your search to two possible keys, A minor or A major. Of course, sometimes you'll encounter inverted chords (i.e. chords with the 3rd or the 5th or the 7th in the bass) or substituted chords. That's where theory comes in handy!

Once you've identified the lowest note, try and pick apart the chord note by note. Eventually you'll be able to hear a chord and identify whether it's minor or major pretty quickly. To take it one step further, after you've done this enough you'll be able to identify common chord progressions at the drop of a hat as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Have you heard?

Jazz. You know you want it. I know I want it. How do we get it? The best advice I can give is this: Don't think purely in terms of scales. Scales are good to know, and they're really important, but that's not all there is to playing jazz (or any kind of music!)

Your first port of call should be understanding chord progressions and working your way through changes. If you really understand how to construct chords and how they relate to each other, everything starts to fall into place a lot quicker. If you're not already familiar with your basic 4-note chords, and all the embellishments, now would be the best time to get those basics down.

In terms of scales, if you understand the chords you're playing over you can get more creative. Here are some examples.

Let's say you encounter a CMaj7 chord. What can you play over that, scale wise? Let's look at the notes. C E G B. Root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 7th. The first and most obvious choice is to play a C Ionian scale over that (C D E F G A B). Depending on the context, you might experiment with a C Lydian (C D E F# G A B). If you lingered on the F#, you'd emphasise the #4 interval, which may or not be interesting and appropriate. You could also approach it think in terms of arpeggios. Again, the most obvious choice would be a CMaj7 arpeggio. But then, if you did an Em7 arpeggio (E G B D), you've got 3 notes of CMaj7 (E G B) but you've also got the D, which is a 9th. You might also try Am7 (A C E G). Again we see 3 notes from CMaj7 (C E G) but you also have the 6th, again, perhaps an interesting sound. At the moment we're sticking to diatonic stuff, a very "inside", comfortable sound. You can do all sorts of stuff and sound "outside" which can be very hip and cool as well, and we haven’t even looked at chromatic/approach tones, and tension and resolution!

The one thing that I find really differentiates jazz from say rock/shred is that you really want a cool motif, or melodic statement. If you play with enough conviction you could even make the whole band sound "wrong" and make yourself sound "right", although that's probably not what you're going for.

I found that the best way to learn jazz is to actually combine the theoretical with the practical. Sure you can have a bunch of scales that you might use, or a bunch of arpeggios, but it's always how it sounds in context that makes it sound good or bad. Take a bunch of jazz standards and play through the changes first, until you're familiar with how it sounds. The try experimenting with it, reharmonizing some chords. You might find some things that aren't just "take this scale and play it here" that you find sound really cool. Also, listen and cop ideas from great players. Pat Martino, for example, has a way of converting everything to minor, and then playing a minor type idea over the changes. Joe Pass likes to look at a chord and figure out what he can do with in the position he plays the chord in. The possibilities are limitless, and you can certainly take these ideas and make them your own and find your own sound.

To answer your question directly though, the Ionion, Dorian, Melodic minor, Mixolydian, Aeolian and harmonic minor are all very common scales you can use. Don't forget that you can substitute dominant chords for almost any chords. If this is a minor chord, typically you add a major third. If this is a major chord, typically you add a minor third. For example, if you were playing a iii chord, say Em7, you could make that E7. That would change from a Phyrigian scale (E F G A B C D) to what is called a Phyrigian major, or a double Phrygian (E F G# A B C D) which is the 5th mode of the harmonic minor.

The applications of these concepts are near limitless. That, I think, is the appeal of jazz. You can make it up as you go along, because there are an infinite number of combinations that you can choose from. There's a lot of theory that can be used to explain how all these concepts work and how to use them. As Victor Wooten would say, music is a language. You learn all the grammar and the rules, but when the time comes to play, you don't think "Subject verb object", you just shut up and play. Some people develop this understanding intuitively, particularly those who started at a very young age. For others, like myself, it's a long uphill battle of learning and analyzing. I must admit though, that's half the fun in itself!

PS: Almost everything I know about Jazz I've learnt, in some way, shape or form, from Rick Smith. He's a fantastic jazz guitarist who plays at Harry's Boat Quay almost every night. If you want to check out some great live jazz, just head down to Harry's and watch the band. You could probably have a few quick words with him inbetween sets if he's got some time, he's approachable and friendly!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Effecting change

As a sequel to the amp retrospective, I've decided to go through all the noteworthy multi-effect units that I've encountered over the years

These were the first two multi-effect units I ever owned. This was way back in the day, when Zoom still had a name for themselves. They were dirt cheap back then, pretty much the cheapest thing on the market. They were neither particularly tweakable nor did they sound very good, but I guess looking back, they were a decent introduction into the world of effects. They were sure as heck cheaper than buying a whole bunch of individual analog pedals, and they at least gave me an idea of what different effects sounded like. Although, with the stuff available on the market these days, I can't honestly say I'd recommend them to anybody anymore. Not that I really would have back then either...

These were my first real introduction to the realm of multi-effect units. Back then, Boss was pretty much THE name in multi-effect processors. I started out with a GT-3, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I quickly "upgraded" to a GT-5. These units were pretty darn flexible in the effects department. I can't say I cared very much for the direct output and "amp simulation" features, especially in light of the Pod series that stormed the scene shortly after I was playing around with these, but for everything else they were fantastic. Typical of Boss, they were built like a tank. Plus, they even had some fancy features that I still don't see as being common place on the market. What stood out the most for me was the intelligent pitch shifter/harmonizer. Pitch shifters are pretty standard fare these days but you could program the harmonizer for the exact intervals that you wished it to harmonize each note to. I expected nothing less from Boss, and to this day I'm still curious to see how a GT-8 sounds, having had a generally good experience with these units.

Ah the beloved VG-88. I really wish I didn't have to sell this one of. It truly was the most innovative and unique effects unit I've ever laid my hands on. Suffice to say, to get real mileage out of it you needed to use a hexaphonic VG compatible pickup with it. After doing my research I decided to go with the Graphtech GHOST piezo hexaphonic pickup system. I promptly ordered the parts and got a luthier to do the installation on my EBMM Luke. One thing I really hated about the whole setup was the 13-pin cable. The connectors on the the guitar were rather flimsy, and since I was playing out with this back then they took quite a beating on stage. After they crapped out on me twice, I lost faith in the reliability of the whole idea and sold off both the guitar and the VG-88. I suppose it was somewhat fortuitous because shortly after that the VG-99 was announced...

One thing most people don't know about the VG-88 is it doesn't actually work through pitch to MIDI conversion. It actually process each string separately, so rather than having a mono signal, you have six signals being processed in parallel. This allowed the VG-88 to do effects that conventional units could only dream of. Pitch shifting individual strings was possible, making alternate tunings at switch of a patch a reality. It also did guitar/pickup modelling, allowing you to make that hexaphonic signal sound like pretty much any guitar you could think of, and some you couldn't even imagine. I personally feel the guitar modelling left a lot to desire, but I don't think that's where the strength of the VG system really was. It's real magic, was in being able to make your guitar sound completely NOT like a guitar.. and that was something that intrigued me greatly.

Because there was no pitch to MIDI conversion involved that meant that all the problems of "tracking" that pitch to MIDI conversion presents were not applicable. There was none of that false triggering of notes or lag in the conversion nonsense. All conventional guitar techniques as well, like pick slides, could be used without causing a sonic fart. The VG system is something I've been keeping my eye on for quite some time. I just wish they'd update the 13-pin system, I'm sure in this day and age something like a Cat-5 cable could be used to send the necessary output from the guitar to the unit, much like the Variax or the Gibson HD.6X-Pro. Until that happens though I just don't see myself jumping back into the VG system again.

The GI-20 and the XV-2020 reprsent the alternative way to approach the hexaphonix pickup system. Unlike the VG-88, the GI-20 is actually a pitch to MIDI converter. That is, your guitar signal is converted into MIDI messages, and this is used to control and outboard synth unit, in this case, the XV-2020. Unlike the VG-88, you really need to clean up your technique to make these units work for you. Sloppy playing tends to drive the GI-20 a bit mad, which makes it far less useful unless you're say, John McLaughlin. Still, it's more or less the ultimate head turner to strum a chord and have everyone looking for the keyboard that's making the piano sound.

When I had my rack rig, it seemed to make sense to go rackmount all the way, and so after shopping around for a rackmount effects unit I went with the G-major. I didn't really feel like I needed the raw power and flexibility of it's big brother, the G-Force. And while the Rocktron stuff looked appealing, the G-major just seemed like the right blend of quality and price point. Plus, it was a T.C. Electronics unit. Unfortunately, the rotary dials on it were rather crap. They died on me twice, and the power supply decided to quite on me once too. Forum posts tended to reveal that these suffered from reliability issues, and when I decided to abandon the whole rack idea, I can't say I was too sorry to see this go. It did sound pretty good, to my ear at least, and it was pretty darn flexible for my purposes (can't imagine ever needing the flexibility of the G-Force or an Eventide), but this is one of those units which you really need two of. One to plug-and-pray, and the other to have in the repair shop.

I've managed to dig up a couple of clips I did with some of these units to give you an idea of the more... interesting things they were capable of.

VG-88 and PSA1 (EBMM Steve Lukather)

Ryu's Theme from Street Fighter II - This one has heaps of MIDI stuff as well so it's hard to tell what's what I guess :

Little samba piece

Roland GI-20 and XV-2020

Ethnic intro

Saturday, November 3, 2007

All geared up

Thought I'd do a little retrospective of all the amps/amp related gear I've owned over the years (as far as I can remember)...

My first guitar amp was a Ross RG30. I remember the day I got it.. it was a gift from my father, around the time I bought my Telecaster. My dad actually scoured the classified section of the newspapers to look for a second hand guitar amp. Turns out the person selling it was a down and out musician living in a rundown apartment in Geylang. My Dad and I went down to his place to have a look at the amp. I had absolutely no clue about amps, or guitars for that matter, back then (this was some 13 years ago). What I do remember was the guy who sold it to us.

He was living in a one bedroom apartment in Geylang, the seedy part (if you could call it that). I remember he said he was a professional musician. He had this guitar case, that was covered with stickers from all over the world. Let's just say even as a little kid I could see that that wasn't quite how I'd want to be living out the prime of my life. Later on my Dad said that he wanted me to go down and have a look at where this man was staying, and what he was doing with his life. I think he was trying to warn me about the perils of being a "musician". Over the years it's become clear to me that there's a difference between being a professional musician, and a "musician", but that experience was certainly an eye-opener for me at 13. Suffice to say, that little solid-state Ross amp wasn't all that impressive.

Once I grew tired of the Ross, and that didn't take long at all, I started reading up on affordable amps that I could upgrade to. It was around this time that I came to know of Tech21 NYC, who were renowned for their Sansamp products. I believe it was also around this time that they came out with their first amp, the Tech 21 Trademark 60. I still remember, the only dealer for Tech21 in Singapore at the time was Sinamex. I went down, and they had one in stock, so I gave it a bit of a test run and then started to think about how I could scrounge up enough cash to take one home.

It was a nice little amp, with a few neat touches. The chicken head knobs, the tweed grill, the tolex, and the foot switch. To the 16 year old kid I was back then, it sure felt godlike! I didn't think it sounded half bad either. To be honest, I was rather smitten. To this day I still think it's a neat little amp for the money.

Awhile after the whole solid state thing, something new hit the market. In a way I think of it as a product that's revolutionized the way people thought about amps and DIY recording, and continues to do so til this day. The first generation Line6 Pod was released. While everybody else was doing these foot controlled multi-effect units, Line6 released this red kidney bean shaped product, which downplayed the "effect" part of the equation and put amp modelling right at the forefront.

I remember heading down to City Music after school on several occasions to give that Pod a test run. I wasn't willing or able to buy it first hand though, but a school mate of mine was letting one go at a good price so I got in on some of that action. Was it awesome? No, not really. Was it worth the money? Hell yeah! The Pod introduced me to the world of digital modelling as we know it today. It was relatively versatile, didn't quite do anything fantastically but did a great many things in an acceptable fashion. I remember when the Pod 2.0 update came out. This was way before flashing your firmware at home was a common thing. I was too cheap to pay someone to install it for me so I ordered the EPROM chip online, cracked open the Pod and upgraded that sucker.

Eventually I got bitten by the whole rack-mount bug, and figured hey if I'm going to own a Pod I might as well get the Pod Pro. I was rather disappointed that essentially it was identical to the bean but for an S/PDIF and AES EBU digital output. Although it did come in a nice shiny metallic unit... and everyone knows that that's the whole point of racks. Lots of shiny metal and blinking lights! The Line 6 floorboard was plenty neat as well. It was the first time I'd seen a Cat 5 cable used to connect a MIDI controller to an effects unit, and I remember thinking that it was an ingenius idea. No hassle trying to figure out which pins phantom power was on, no problems with MID cables, no need to figure out how to map CC commands and all that jazz.... That was all to come later for me.

Eventually I decided to go from solid state and digital to tubes and digital. It was around this time that I scoured all of Singapore for a Mesa/Boogie dealer, only to discover... that there was none. I ended up having to order it in from the USA. After thinking about it for some time I decided to go with a 50/50 power amp and a 2x12 Recto cab (I'm pretty sure his had something to do with my then guitar tutor's Triaxis + 50/50 rig and my burgeoning interest in Dream Theater).

I still reckon that power amp and cab sounded pretty righteous, I eventually got the chance to play several gigs with it when I moved to Australia. It was loud. Really loud. Too loud. And now it's gone. Those two units were heavy though, and they definitely taught me something. If you're going to live on the third floor of a building that has no elevator, don't own 60KG of equipment.. it's just not a bright idea.

Eventually I became a bit of a tube head. It was about this time that I discovered a small boutique company, VHT amps. They seemed to have a good rep and I they were coming out with a new product, the VHT GP3. I'd been reading about these on forums for awhile, and they looked really interesting. Again, there was no dealer in Singapore, so I took a gamble and called up VHT in the states to see how much one of these would run me. Thus began the worst business transaction of my life, and if I knew then what I knew now I would never have let them get away with it. The sales rep on the phone told me that since there was no dealer in Singapore, I could get it at dealer price. Hearing this, and seeing that it was a substantial discount from retail, I quickly made all the arrangements, sold off the Pod Pro, wired them the money, and waited patiently for it to arrive. And waited patiently to arrive... and waited patiently to arrive.

And then... I was told, by Steve Fryette no less, that the amp was going to ring me more than double what I was told. After I had paid, in full, the price that was agreed upon. In retrospect, this was *clearly* a breach of contract. VHT wasn't making a loss on this product since they were selling it to me at what dealers paid for it. I, on the other hand, had put myself through great inconvenience to acquire it, inconvenience which I was willing to endure based on what was told to me by a sale representative (who, indisputably, had ostensible, if not actual authority and hence VHT would have been bound to honour the contract).

Long story short, being the naive child I was, I paid up, received a unit with a bent rack ear, and quietly played it for a couple of years before selling it off at a substantial loss. Sure, it did sound pretty good, didn't turn out to be the right amp or me but I won't dispute it sounded good. But since then I've decided I will never, as long as I live, own another VHT product. I refuse to do business with a company who's founder can't do something as simple as honour a simple business deal with a little kid halfway around the world who was legally in the right but too ignorant to do anything about it, even when wasn't in a position to make a loss out of the bargain.

While in Sydney, I picked up a little Marshall Studio 15. This little amp tube amp was *loud*. I remember one Sunday afternoon I was rocking out, and I had it cranked pretty high. So high in fact, that a neighbour from across the road turned up banging at my door. As it turns out, his wife had just come home from the hospital the day before after having given birth, and he was angrier than an elephant that just had it's testicles crushed by a medium sized boulder.

I think he was expecting some sort of altercation, but the situation was diffused rather quickly and he seemed fairly satisfied with the result. Besides, that was the last I ever saw of him. The shop I bought it from claimed that it was the actual amp used on an AC/DC recording back in the 70s but.. who's to say. Not that I really cared either way...

My love/hate relationship with Tech21 eventually led me to acquire a Sansamp PSA-1. For the longest time, I had coveted this unit, having been a fan of their amps and pedals. I eventually found one in Sydney at a good price and couldn't say no. I used it on and off for quite some time, but like all the other Sansamp products I'd owned, I eventually ended up selling it. It was versatile, and had a unique character, but perhaps it's character was just too unique for its own good.

The distorted tones could get pretty over the top but they always sounded a little bit too fuzzy to me, when I was really going for a more liquidy sort of tone. The cleans, I also always found a little lacking. It really couldn't do that JC-120 sort of pristine clean tone. Everything else sounded a little bit harsher than what I was going for, but it certainly had a charm about it despite all my complaints.

Eventually, I grew tired of having to lug all that equipment around and started looking at Line6 again since they'd just released the Pod XT series. I was particularly intrigued by the Pod XT series after reading up about how Line 6 had updated amp and cabinet simulations, and eventually acquired a Pod XT Pro. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of playing with all that tube stuff it was a crushing disappointment. Nothing sounded, good, nothing sounded right, and I got fed up with it and sold it off fairly quickly. Perhaps a little too quickly because for the last 2 years or so, I ended up playing through a Pod XT Live and loving it.

Ahh the Pod XT Live. It's got me singing praises about Line6 all over again. After they updated the cabinet simulations in the 3.0 patch I think it was, suddenly it was like someone breathed new life into the Pod XT series. I ended up using this as my main unit for the last 2 years or so, I think it was, and it was an absolute blast. The model packs were also worth the coin of the realm that I handed over for them. It's really a neat little unit, that pretty much does it all. Much like it's predecessors, it's not perfect. But it sure gives you damn good value for money.

It was versatile, it was portable, it was rugged, pretty much everything I needed at the time. And really, if someone comes up to me looking for an amp that portable, not too loud, versatile, and affordable, I personally couldn't recommend anything better than this. Hook it up to a decent pair of speakers, or a PA, and you're pretty much good to go.

I'll end off with a bunch of recordings that I have lying around for some of these amps, so you can hear for yourself what they sounded like. That speaks a lot louder than any of my words ever could, literally.

NB:These tracks were all recorded at different times over the span of years, so the recording quality and playing varies greatly between them

Pod XT Live (Chambered 6-string Soloway)
My Friend of Misery cover

Other recordings of the Pod XT Live can be heard in the Sand Theft Audio post

VHT GP3 + Mesa/Boogie 50/50 + Mesa/Boogie Recto 2x12 (Ibanez RG2027)
The Fangs In My Carrot

Here are some links if you want to find out more about any of these amps/companies