With a name derived from its Sex Pistols-inspired color scheme, the “Swindle” distortion pedal from UT&T seems designed to emulate the BIG GUITAR sounds of the ’70s. With just two knobs — volume (left) and gain (right) — the Swindle delivers a trouser-load of boost and a smoothly ascending gain. The controls are very interactive, eliciting a surprisingly wide range of raunch, and the pedal cleans up quite nicely with a some roll-back on your guitar’s volume knob, making it a prime candidate for an “always-on” tone shaper that can also cut through the mix when it’s time for your solo.
Check out my no-frills video for some Swindle riffage:
I plan on getting around to doing an actual review of this bad-ass stomp box, but for now here’s a quick video of some noises I made with BC’s new Monster K-Fuzz pedal, based on the Kay Fuzz used most prominently by Daniel Lanois and U2’s The Edge. Beginning tones are with the K-Fuzz in its Silicon and Stock settings, Input Gain at noon. I’m playing a Dearmond M-66 with stock Dearmond tron-style humbuckers through a Quilter 101 head on its “Tweed” setting, and there’s a touch of MXR Carbon Copy delay to add some space to the sound. I start out using the EXP out to sweep the Monster’s “Frequency” control via a Moog expression pedal. Later on you can see more clearly how Frequency relates to the K-Fuzz’s Tone when I unplug from the EXP jack and use the big knob in the top left corner to sweep through the Frequency/Tone filter.
One of my favorite ‘unheard’ guitar effects is Ibanez’s AW7 from their super-ugly but also super-versatile early 2000s Tone-Lock series. The AW in the name stands for Auto-Wah, but this stomper is not simply a clone of the usual Wah/Filter suspects. The designers of the AW7 took the auto-wah idea as a starting point and then just kept piling on the features. What they ended up with was a pedal that not only allows you to select from two distinct Wah/Filters — a standard Wah and a Low Pass Filter (LPF on the pedal) — but also gives you a sweetly raunchy Rat-like built-in distortion circuit that can be either completely off, placed BEFORE the Wah, or placed AFTER the Wah. This placement option is a cool feature that only a few boutique builders still bother with, but it allows you to experiment with a huge variety of tones. Like what? The tone chefs at Gibson.com have a good description:
Wah-wah placed before distortion will allow the distortion pedal to interact with the peaks and valleys of the Wah’s signal. Wah-wah placed after distortion will sound thick and full, but will not be as harmonically rich. It’s worth a try just to see what it sounds like, and although most players swap right back, don’t let that stop ya! Some very famous players have gone the ‘gain-into-Wah’ route.
On top of all that, you can also use the AW7 as a ‘cocked’ or fixed wah by turning the Sensitivity knob down to zero, and you’ve basically got one pedal that does the work of four. Make that five, if you count the placement-changing ability that would require a separate effects loop.
Here’s a no-frills video I did showing some of the features I mentioned above:
I was looking for a new flavor of overdrive, so when I read about there being a low gain modded version of the Mantra from pedal-makers Blackout Effectors, I immediately headed to their website to check it out. There are still a few of these LE versions (slightly ‘blem’) available on Blackout’s Customs page at a very good price, but I was able to score an even better deal on Reverb. It was definitely a worthwhile purchase. Not only do you get the seering, over-the-top high gain of the standard Mantra, but the “Lo” setting reminds me of my much-missed Hermida Mosferatu. So, not super-low gain — although you can dial back the gain, and your guitar volume, for some pretty sweet, full, clean tones — but a very nice option for those of us who like those hard-to-find tones in the margins and spaces between the sounds we are all familiar with. Another aspect of the Mantra I was impressed with was the EQ. With only Bass and Treble knobs I’m able to dial in some very different tonal shadings, and there are obvious aural differences along the entire sweep of both controls. One thing for buyers to note: there are two internal trimpots inside the pedal which, according to the folks at Blackout, are used to ‘tune’ the JFET transistors. Do NOT goof around with these and expect your pedal to sound better; you are just as likely to end up with no sound at all! And if something seems awry with your Mantra, this is also a good place to do some trouble-shooting. Using a small flathead screwdriver you can adjust the internal trimpots with the pedal on; listen for the point where the sweep of both trimpots yields the greatest overall pedal volume. Pick up one for yourself at Blackout Effectors’ online store or search for the best prices on new or used ones on Reverb.
Here’s a no-frills video I made, going through some of the low gain tones (and giving you a brief taste of the standard, hi-gain Mantra):
Big Q I can’t answer: “The EHX Big Muff Pi is conspicuous for its very ubiquity. But does it really deserve its exclusive status as the “fuzz of all fuzzes”?’
Few if any axe-grinders have taken to the concert stage without the giant silver wedge of an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi at their feet at one time or another. My first was an army-green Sovtek that I picked up at the local music store/pawnshop I frequented in my teens. I remember being fascinated by the Cyrillic lettering on the pedal’s wooden box, both amazed and confused that this piece of Soviet engineering had found its way to me, in Morristown, Tennessee. I knew nothing of the Big Muff’s long history, or that Sovtek was really just Electro-Harmonix (builder of my first stomp box: a red and black “Small Stone” phase shifter) in exile. That big green wedge was gateway to a whole new universe of tones — and volume — and it was a mainstay at my feet for the better part of twenty-five years. When I sold ‘Big Green’ in order to finance some new gear I coveted, I almost immediately regretted it; despite there being countless new, different, and even ‘fuzzier’ options available, I missed the tried-and-true sound of my BMP. After a flirtation with going fuzz-less, I was soon pulled back toward the furry side with the EHX’s Big Muff Pi w/ Tone Wicker, which found a home on my board until, lo and behold, I happened upon the Nano Big Muff Pi — the most unintentionally oxymoronic pedal of all time. How can it be ‘nano’ and ‘big’ at the same time?
Not being a wizard myself, I can’t tell you what kind of spell Mike Matthews and his Brooklyn-based coven slapped on this Lego-brick of a stomp box. What I can tell you is that they somehow shrunk all the best parts of the Big Muff Pi into a teeny enclosure that somehow generates its own unique brand of fairy dust. I have both a newish, big-ass-silver-box “NYC” BMP and a newish Nano BMP, and the Nano stands shoulder to shoulder in terms of in-your-face hairiness, and outshines the full-size BMP in clarity. Maybe my ears are biased, but the Nano actually sounds better to me: just a little bit sharper, letting just a wee bit more of my pick attack come through.
Now, if EHX could just get with the program and start using center-negative 9V inputs like everyone else does, we could really get down to business!
Definitely thinking about picking up one of these Quilter mini heads — Dad Rockers NEED tiny amps!
Full disclosure before beginning, I am a “Quilter artist”, which means I am on their webpage as a player and have been mentioned in their social media. I am not an employee of Quilter or involved in any marketing or advertising company. The “free stuff” endorsement deals of yesteryear don’t exist anywhere anymore. In other words, I use and like their product. but they’re not paying me to do that. But….
They did send me one of their 101 Mini heads to beta test for them. I was not allowed to discuss, photograph, or video the little beast until the product was announced. Which just happened a few days ago. Alas, if I’d only made a video before sending it back. *sigh*
Quilter 101 Mini Head Review
So, one day I get a big box from Quilter delivered to me. I open it up, and there’s a little box inside; no…
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I’ve spent the past year or so trying out various tremolo pedals, in search of “the one” that can both suit my gigging needs and give me that little ‘something extra’ to spark the creation of new songs, sounds, riffs and licks. Tall order, I know. From high-priced, high-tech and boutique offerings to plain-jane no-names, quite a few contenders have spent quality time on my pedalboard. I’m not going to rank them (because ‘different strokes for different folks’), but these effects are all worthy of mention as gig-worthy Tremolos that spent considerable gigging and playing/writing time on my board:
- VHT Melo-Verb
- Black Cat Mini-Trem
- CMATmods Tremoglo
- Catalinbread Valcoder
- SolidGoldFX Stutterbox (V.1)
Note: I acquired almost all but one of these pedals second or third-hand via Reverb; I’ve also turned around and sold many of them via Reverb, once I’d decided to move on. I’ve found that this is a better and, in the end, more affordable way to “audition” pedals than using a Netflix-style effect rental service because 1) I can usually find the pedal I want when I want it, and 2) if I’m patient I can make $5-$20 per sale, beyond the initial cost of the pedal — or at least break even.
Now, I can finally declare a winner in the ‘Tournament of Tremolos’ — it’s the Empress Tremolo2. I’ve had it for about a month, now and have used it on two 3-hour gigs and for lots of at-home fiddling around. The T2 is both gig-worthy and musically inspiring, my main criteria, but it also shines in some very specific ways.
Ease of Use? — What a Concept!
The T2 has a digital heart hiding beneath its analog trappings. The Empress site describes the pedal as having an all-analog signal path with the tremolo effect “controlled digitally via opto technology.” Whatever digi-log voodoo mojo they performed works for me, because my ears don’t detect even a hint of artificiality in the tones the pedal produces.
However, the combination of technologies does explain how the T2 is able to save multiple presets (I used 4 — with some additional fiddling around, you can set up to 8!) that allow you to tweak and save all of the manual settings you make for each sound/speed/rhythm you need. I liked the four presets that came with the pedal (I have no idea if they were the factory settings or had been set by the previous owner), but ended up tweaking them to my liking and to the needs of the songs I’d be playing. After adjusting a mellow Blackface Fender-tone in preset 1, and a faster, deeper version of that in preset 2, I made preset 3 a hard, choppy Valco-style trem for a couple of more garage-y songs, and gave preset 4 a less choppy, but rhythmically unusual, flavor of the same.
Changing between presets is a breeze, even for a stone-cold idiot like me. Set the switch to “Presets” then click the bypass button — you are in preset 1 (blue LED). To switch presets, hold the tap tempo button down until the LED changes color, and there you are!
On top of all that, you can tweak each preset on the fly with the knobs on the pedal’s face. Has the drummer counted off that ballad too quickly? Then adjust your preset with the speed knob. These tweaks aren’t saved, unless you go to the trouble of saving them, but making adjustments like this quickly, without having to go through screens or menus on a digital pedal, can be a song-saver.
Go Deep — Seriously, Even Deeper!
Some boutique pedals are difficult to use right out of the box — you probably know which ones I’m talking about — because they offer so many options from the get-go that you have to read the full manual before you can even summon a tone as basic as Link Wray’s “Rumble” tremolo.
The T2 is not only is good-to-go right out of the box (note: the manual is available online and is written to get you started playing ASAP), there are features a-plenty under the hood. Yes, the T2 is gig-ready, but there are enough unique features (e.g. three wave forms, eight rhythm patters) and control options (external tap, expression, control voltage, MIDI.) to inspire you to continue deepening your knowledge of the pedal’s creative possibilities.
If you are interested in some audible samples of what the T2 can do, check out the Empress site; they have numerous sound clips showing off many of the features I’ve mentioned, and much much more.
If you are looking to purchase a T2, new or used, check out Reverb.
If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts on Tremolo pedals (or guitar effects in general), post a comment below.
One thing that being in a rock and roll band for any length of time requires is the ability to endure disappointment. Constant, bitter, crushing disappointment. If you take it to heart every time you get passed over for a gig, ignored by a crowd, or rejected in any of the million other ways a musician can get a thumbs-down, you won’t last long. It was my degree from the “school of rock” that, more than anything else, helped me reach the goal of becoming a contestant on Jeopardy. Lots of people are smart, and lots of people are good at trivia. But I took seven tests and traveled to 3 regional auditions over the course of 10 years in my quest to be a Jeopardy contestant. I’m smart, don’t get me wrong – a dummy isn’t going to make it to the Jeopardy stage, no matter how hard he or she tries – but it’s my extremely hard head, not the spongy stuff inside it, that got me to the show.
While I was good at games like Trivial Pursuit, and had been an enthusiastic participant on my high school and community college’s quiz bowl teams, I’d never considered trying to be on Jeopardy until I was in my mid-30’s and the show held a “contestant search” event at a local shopping mall. There, I aced a short trivia quiz and was given an invitation to attend a second test and possible audition at a local hotel and conference center.
If I remember correctly, there were 50-60 of us who took the longer contestant quiz (50 questions) that day. Out of that group, about a dozen lucky souls were called up by name and asked to participate in the screen test/mock game that is still part of the audition process. I was not called. But, for me, that was the motivator … I’d finally caught the bug: I wanted to be on Jeopardy!
The online tests started a few years later, and from 2009-2015 I took the online test three times, and was invited to three regional auditions: Charlotte, NC; Nashville, TN; and, finally, Atlanta, GA.
At those auditions, I took yet another test — that year’s “contestant quiz” — and participated in a screen test that consisted of playing a few minutes of Jeopardy with two other wanna-be contestants, and being interviewed — usually by Maggie.
Each time I thought I did reasonably well, but I probably got a little better through the process: I know that I was less nervous and a little less personally invested each time.
Looking back, I think it was my experience as a musician that allowed me to continue testing and auditioning, year after year, with no way of knowing if I’d ever make to the ‘big show.’ Knowing the drill from years of working with booking agents, club owners, and various entertainment industry functionaries, I took the Jeopardy staff members who’d conducted the auditions at their word when they said that if we didn’t receive a call in the next 18 months we should try again, that contestants often audition several times before being selected.
Also, I listened to, remembered, and took to heart the coaching that Maggie and other Jeopardy staffers provided at the auditions, tips such as:
- Speak up
- Be yourself
- Have fun
… and more specifically …
- Always identify the category and dollar amount (not: “That one again for $400” or “the same category for $1000”)
- Shorten the category name to keep the game moving
- Wait until the clue has been read in its entirety before trying to buzz in (hitting the clicker early results in a “lock out” of a fraction of a second — an eternity in Jeopardy time)
- Click that buzzer and keep on clicking until someone’s name is called
- Wait until you are called on to answer
- Give your answer in the form of a question, and …
- Give your answer in the form of a question!
I mention that last one twice because, well, it’s important, right?
What is “yes?”
At the third audition, in Atlanta this past spring, I found myself more interested in the behavior of the other potential players than in my own performance. I was thinking a bit like a casting director, I suppose, with an eye towards who had an interesting story, a unique vocal inflection, or a particularly quick buzzer finger. There were some standout characters, so while I was pleased with how I did, I wasn’t particularly hopeful about my chances of being selected.
I was both surprised and pleased when, only a few weeks into the new season of Jeopardy, my phone lit up with a caller ID reading “Culver City, CA.” It was Glenn, one of the show’s producers, with an invitation to be a contestant on the show in about three weeks.
Sure thing, I said.
Here goes nothing, I thought.
I’m a two-time “Jeopardy Champion.” I’m a lot of other things, too — a husband, a Dad, a musician, a writer, a teacher, an administrator, a cynic — but being a winner (and, eventually, a loser) on Jeopardy is one thing I honestly never thought I would be, or could be. Pretty surreal stuff!
I thought I’d write something to try to answer some of the questions friends and family members have asked about getting on the show and playing the game, including the most important question of all:
What’s Alex Trebek really like?
So, let’s start there.
Honestly, I don’t know enough to say. I was in his presence about six hours total, and only exchanged a few words with him during, and briefly after, each of the three shows on which I appeared. He was friendly, handsome, and very good at his job. He’s got a dark, but not unhealthy, tan. He smells nice.
His exchanges with the studio audience were mostly humorous and low key. Between shows (the Jeopardy crew tape a week’s worth of shows — five — in a day) he walked to the edge of the stage and took questions. His wit is clearly on the dry side, and he seemed just as pleased to let a seemingly off-hand joke bomb as he did when it hit. He’s comfortable in his polite, slightly aloof Canadian skin.
As to his intellect, staff members have said that Alex has taken the new contestant quiz (the one we take at the actual auditions) himself almost every year the show has run — going on 21 now — and done quite well.
What I was most impressed with was his ability to navigate the categories and clues during each game so smoothly that his delivery appeared rehearsed. But there was no way it could be, as Alex does not get to see the games — which are selected at random for that day by a third party — or the categories and clues within them until the morning of each day’s taping. He has all of three hours to go through five games’ worth of categories and clues and scan for possible pronunciation or delivery trouble spots.
When I was there, Trebek misspoke or slightly garbled clues only twice that I can recall during the six games I watched or was a part of. These slight errors didn’t affect game-play in the least, and during commercial breaks they were “fixed” on the spot by speedily orchestrated live voice-over dubs by Alex himself. I was impressed. The man is smooth!
On top of that, during the games he has to quickly identify and read the clues as they are called, in no particular order (and sometimes in purposefully weird order, e.g. by Arthur Chu) by each contestant. All he appears to have in front of him is a stack of papers, so what he does to organize the material or anticipate the next clue, I have no idea. Whatever his method, it works, and it appears effortless.
He does seem a bit standoffish regarding the contestants, but that could be to avoid any appearance of favoritism, to allow the producers and make-up artists to get to the contestants and do their jobs, or just to keep himself un-frazzled and in his own zone. As I learned, the energy generated behind the contestant podium is viral, and different in every game, based on the personalities and attitudes of the players involved. I’d wager that a host would be just as likely as a contestant to get swept up in this energy and get ‘thrown off their game.’
More over the next few days regarding how I made it to the show, what my preparation was like, what happened on the days of the tapings, and how good In-N-Out Burger really is.