Monthly Archives: July 2021

A Life in Guitars, part 3 – Basses and Other Things

The unsung hero of most of my recording work is a Fender Modern Player Jazz Bass from about 10 years ago, purchased with the proceeds of a tax rebate. In keeping with my preference for finishes that show the grain of the wood, this one’s in translucent black (that is, it’s a dark grey stain).

The Chinese-made Modern Player series was a bit like the Vintage Modified series that Squier did until recently, or the current Fender Player series – subtly contemporary takes on classic recipes. What makes it a “Modern” Player Jazz is a pair of humbuckers, rather than the usual single coil pickups you’d get on a Jazz bass. The sounds are still traditional (it’s a passive instrument, after all), but they’re slightly more present and high-output compared to the tones you’d get from the usual Jazz single coils. It’s a good bass to have if you only have one bass, as it will do old-school tones perfectly well, but the extra power and projection on tap is very handy if you’re playing something a little heavier. I’m only an occasional bass player, admittedly, but I’ve not thought about getting anything different in a decade. It’s all the bass I need.

Modern Player Jazz bass close-up, with me and the light fitting reflected

Also in the house are Mel’s guitars. She has a Yamaha classical electroacoustic, another classical that was originally her mother’s, and a Squier Jazzmaster that I gave her. I originally bought it for myself in 2012, as a treat after my pacemaker procedure and to mark surviving a year after my diagnosis. Mel had donated her own Squier Strat to a raffle that her neighbour was running to raise money to support stroke patients, and I felt she shouldn’t be without an electric guitar and that her good deed deserved another, so to speak.

It was at her flat for a couple of years, but since we moved in together it lives in my den, along with the other guitars, and I make use of it sometimes on recordings – especially as it’s the only guitar to hand with a working tremolo, and sometimes you do need to be Kevin Shields or J Mascis.

Finally, and these aren’t even at my house but with my dad until I work out how to safely transport them and where to store them, are my mother’s old classical and my grandfather’s jazz guitar, which he gave me when I was a young pup, just starting out.

It’s a Hondo Fatboy, which is a copy of the Gibson L5 – a (very) large-bodied archtop with F holes, first made in the 1920s. The Fatboy was made from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, but this one appears to be from around 1980 or 1981. The model was manufactured in Korea by Samick, and was one of the first (or perhaps the very first – sources vary) production guitars to feature DiMarzio pickups, which may surprise some of you who associate DiMarzio only with super-high-gain pickups for metal dudes.

Hondo Fatboy – a big beast of a guitar

When my grandfather gave it to me, it had been in a cupboard for some years, which had taken its toll on the neck. It had a super-high action for years, because that was the only way I could get all the notes to play without choking. Eventually, I realised that meant something was definitely wrong with it, and even more eventually I realised that it could probably be repaired, so I took it to Bob Johnson of Legra Guitars for his expert view. Diagnosing a severe case of warping, he took the neck off, took the fingerboard off the neck and straightened them both (at this point, I can’t remember how – I imagine by heat-pressing them). He also replaced the knackered old wiring. For my part, I swapped the original uncompensated saddle with a tune-o-matic style bridge – precise tuning being more important in my world than historical accuracy, though I do still have the original bridge.

And so that’s it. To non-guitarists, that probably seems like an abundance – a vast, indulgent collection. I know guitar collectors, and they wouldn’t recognise me as one of them. Serious collectors could buy all my instruments by selling just one battle-scarred 1970s Telecaster. What I do have is a toolbox with some very usable tools in it. Each instrument serves a purpose and earns its keep. I use all of them.

That said, if I had to pare it down, I could. The bare-bones version of my collection would be one electric, one acoustic and a bass. The acoustic would be the Takamine, obviously. Equally obviously, the bass would be the Jazz (it would have to be). The electric – despite how much it would pain me to lose the Casino and Les Paul – would be the Strat, though I’d have to modify it by putting a humbucker in the bridge position. Strat single coils just don’t give that heavy distortion sound I sometimes need. A coil-tappable humbucker would be the best solution. I’m not a fan of the HSS configuration on Strats visually, but it would be a sonic necessity.

I imagine a good percentage of people who read these blatherings are guitar players. If that’s you, I’d love to know what’s in your collection. Do tell me. Better still, show me. I could look at pictures of guitars all day.

The Fisher King – Watertown Carps (out now!)

Last year, when I was furloughed (and therefore not working) and the UK was in lockdown (meaning I was at home at least 23 hours a day), I got quite a lot of music done.

First up, I finished mixing Borders (Cruel Expectations), the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album. Then I moved on to Away from the City, the first joint release by Melanie and me. After that, I began working with Yo Zushi on some of his songs. We had tentatively started recording the previous November, but lockdown was when things began in earnest, and only one song begun at the late-2019 session made it to completion.

Since we couldn’t work in the same space, Yo would send me guitar and vocal recordings he made at home, and I’d build arrangements for them. On a couple of occasions, I sent him a completed backing track I’d written and recorded, and he wrote a melody and lyrics. It became enough of a partnership that Yo felt it was appropriate to release it as a collaboration, not as a Yo Zushi solo record. So we became Watertown Carps, and soon had a whole album.

I’m delighted to say that the album, Mermaids, is due to be released on 9 September by Rose Parade Recording Co., a Cardiff-based independent label run as a community-interest company. That makes them unusually democratic and collaborative, and it’s really cool to be working with people who so transparently care about what they do, who they work with, and how they do it, and who have been putting out great music too (TJ Roberts’ Love, Loss and Other Useless Things from last year is an absolute indie pop/power-pop banger – my choice cut is Somebody’s Someone, because I’m a sucker for that kind of washy guitar sound and a vocal harmony, but there’s something there for everyone).

Our first single proper, The Fisher King, is out now: it’s a Willie-Nelson-meets-Pavement lo-fi indie-country song that’s actually on some level about fishing. You can listen to it on Spotify, or whatever your favoured streaming platform is: https://open.spotify.com/track/3yesAZYPKjRwZrG9HhwPc7?si=122502f563cd44f7

I’m really excited for September. We’re hoping (praying) that we’ll be able to do a launch gig.

A Life in Guitars, part 2 – Electrics

My longest-serving electric is a Fender Highway One Stratocaster. I bought it new in 2007, but I think it had been kicking around in the shop for a year or two as it has a 1960s-style small headstock, and at some point around 2006 the Highway One range was revamped, with the Strats getting bigger, ’70s-style headstocks (and hotter pickups). Because it was an older model, it had been discounted, bringing it down to a price where I could, at a stretch, afford it. Highway Ones were conceived as workhorse “player’s” guitars – officially American made, but with at least some of the manufacturing process taking place in Fender’s Mexican factory, and hence sold at a lower price than American Standard and Professional models (or whatever they were called at that point). They had thin nitrocellulose finishes, supposedly designed to scuff up and look played-in quickly, but again, that was probably at least partly a cost-reduction thing.

Strat, when blue. Live with Carterhaugh at the Camden Eye, 2008. My good friend Chris Martin on drums

Mine began life a cool translucent blue, but about four years ago I followed my heart and asked the great Andy Gibson (guitar tech based in Denmark Street) to remove the paint, so I’d have the natural-finish Strat I’d hankered after for years. It’s put in a lot of hard yards for me, but still looks, sounds and plays great. To aid tuning stability (which I have to say is rock solid), the tremolo is blocked off.

That same Strat, stripped bare and refinished by Andy Gibson. Photo by Andy, taken in his workshop.

My other main electric is my most recent purchase. In 1997, while still at school, I did a few weeks’ work for my dad during the summer holidays and used the money earned to buy an Epiphone SG. I hung on to it for years but decided in 2019 I’d earned an upgrade to a Gibson model. Thing is, when I tried out various SG Standards, Specials and ’61 Reissues in a shop in Camden, I didn’t like any of them as much as a Les Paul Tribute model that I’d tried out on a whim because it was on display near the till. Although I’d have willingly paid whatever the asking was for an SG Standard if I’d have fallen in love with it, the Les Paul was about £300 cheaper, too (like my Highway One Strat, it had been discounted as it was the previous year’s model).

Live with the Les Paul. James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, Spit & Sawdust 2019

Les Paul Tributes are the cheapest Gibson LP range, selling for a couple of hundred quid less than Studios. They have the same pickups as Studios, but an even more stripped-down finish. That’s actually a plus point for me – as you can probably tell, given I love the Takamine EN series soundhole rosette and I stripped the finish off my Stratocaster, I’m very much of the less-is-more school aesthetically.

Les Paul, close up

Anyway, this Les Paul was more to my taste in terms of feel than any of the SGs I tried, even the one I liked the most, which was the Standard. The SG Standard had a thin neck, wide but low frets and high-output pickups – it just felt aggressive in a way that even a set-up (lowering the pickup height, raising the strings a little) wouldn’t have compensated for. The Les Paul could do aggressive, but it sounded sweeter played clean, and seemed more versatile. I’d never really seen myself as a Les Paul guy, but there was no denying it. I liked the LP a lot more. I’ve never regretted the purchase. That said, I’m pretty sceptical of some of Gibson’s cost-cutting measures like mounting all of the wiring on a PCB, so I asked Andy Gibson (yes, him again) to pull all that out and rewire it by hand. Now I can clean the pots if I need to, and it’ll be easier to change pots and pickups down the line if I get the urge.

My third electric is an in-betweener, although I bought it before the Les Paul, in 2014. It’s an Epiphone Casino, in natural finish. You know the drill: P90s, no centre block, trapeze tailpiece. It’s pretty much stock, other than the bridge – the original unit buzzed annoyingly so I replaced it with a Tone Pros (once again, courtesy of Andy Gibson). Casinos are incredibly adaptable. They can chime like crazy if that’s what you need them to do. They can get jazzy. They can give you a gritty, bluesy lead tone, as Gary Clark could no doubt tell you. They even sound great with heavy distortion, though – being hollow – they’ll feed back at the drop of the hat if you’re playing above bedroom volume levels. But, whether playing clean or overdriven, I’ve seldom had a problem finding a spot in relation to the amp where I could control the feedback, and I frequently use my Casino to double-track distorted rhythm parts, as it gives a distinctly different sound to my Les Paul. Distorted P90s have a sparkle to them that’s undeniably single coil, but a more balanced sound than Fender-style singles, with greater low end and added volume. That’s what works so well about the Casino for me: occupying something of a tonal halfway house between Strat and Les Paul, it’s fantastic as “glue” within a mix, bridging two sounds that otherwise might be a little disparate. It’s in the mix on virtually every song I record that has electric guitars, often in such a way that you wouldn’t know it’s there.

Casino, in rehearsal at One Cat studio, 2015-ish

That’s mostly it. But there’s a bass to account for, and some miscellanea, in case anyone is still interested (Still? They didn’t care in the first place, says the voice in my head. Probably correctly.)