Big Sound, Little Muff: Or, this Pi’s for You!

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,  Judge-Me-By-My-Size-Do-Youdifferent, 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!



Review: Quilter 101 Mini Head

Definitely thinking about picking up one of these Quilter mini heads — Dad Rockers NEED tiny amps!

CD's Guitar Blog

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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Gear Review: Empress Tremolo2

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)

IMG_1493_2Note: 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.IMG_1492

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.

What Now?

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.

Trivial Tales: Being on Jeopardy, Pt. 2

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.

Rob Russell

One sweater vest to rule them all!


Trivial Tales: Being on Jeopardy, Pt. 1

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.


Alex Trebek Rob Russell Jeopardy November 2015

Seriously, I miss the mustache. Don’t you?


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.

Vapor Trails Delay Giveaway 

Enter CME’s Seymour Duncan Vapor Trails Delay giveaway … Winner selected on Xmas Eve!

Review of Degrees of Inequality (2014)

Mettler, S. (2014). Degrees of inequality: How the politics of higher education sabotaged the American dream. Philadephia: Perseus Books. ISBN: 978-0-465-04496-2

Suzanne Mettler’s book Degrees of Inequality is sub-titled, “How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream.” What is most satisfying about this text is its focus on the often mysterious how; politicians and media talking heads are constantly speculating on the why behind political actions, but the intricate mechanisms of how are often unknown or simply ignored as unimportant. The picture that slowly develops as Mettler’s tome builds towards its crescendo – the housing market crash and the window of opportunity it permits for reform (roughly, 2007-2011) – is a dark one, dominated by a trinity of villains: untended policy, political polarization, and plutocracy. And while the author provides ample evidence of both how higher education is still an essential part of the American Dream and that the “sabotage” of that dream has been conducted primarily by our elected representatives, what she does not offer in ample supply are solutions. Thus, this reader is left with the feeling that his worst fears have been confirmed: yes, there are monsters in the basement; and no, there is no way to kill them.

Mettler elaborates on a thesis that few of us involved in higher education administration would disagree with; that is, that partisan politics, not a dearth of good ideas or reform initiatives, have undermined the progress and promise of post-WW II higher education reforms like the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965. According to Mettler, political polarization, especially since 1994, has led to an unwillingness in both parties to participate in basic policy maintenance, allowing effective policies to “drift” into ineffectiveness (e.g. student aid that has failed to keep up with rising tuition costs), and for unintended consequences (e.g. growth of for-profit colleges), policy design flaws (e.g. Pell Grants have no cost-of-living adjustments), and the effects of other, unrelated policies (e.g. the rising costs of K-12, prisons, and Medicare in the states) to re-shape what Mettler refers to as the “policyscape” and, sometimes, work against their intended purposes.

The author contends, rather effectively, that partisan rancor has resulted in a virtual plutocracy — a government by, and for, the wealthy — and in a higher education system that clearly privileges the already privileged. Equal access does not mean equal success, and Mettler demonstrates that this is even truer today than it was 40 years ago, as gains in retention and graduation rates among students from middle and low income families have not kept pace with those experienced by students in the top quartile of family income; among some groups of students, including African-American and Hispanic college students in the lower two quartiles, retention and graduation rates are actually lower than they were decades ago.

While Mettler’s book closes on a note of hope, speculating on how the “reform window” that existed in 2007-2011 might lead to eventual opportunities for greater reform, the overwhelming message of this book is that, while the U.S. needs more college graduates than ever before to remain a global economic and political power, the political gridlock of partisanship has made LBJ’s dream of Americans having access to “all the education they can take” a still-distant goal.

I selected this book because I felt that the author’s views were likely similar to my own regarding how the many inequalities inherent in our current higher education system have been created, and exacerbated, by the influence of moneyed interests, thoughtless political expediency, and bitter partisanship. While Mettler’s book isn’t revalatory in terms of content, the author does go into a satisfying degree of depth regarding the causal factors in this scenario; in addition, Mettler provides analysis of empirical data, such as state spending trends, matriculation and graduation rates, and income differentials, that strengthen her arguments in some illuminating ways.

For instance, I was unaware of spending mandates in K-12, prisons, and Medicare that help to “squeeze” higher education funding on the state level. I was also ignorant regarding the fact that tax deductions related to higher education are a drain on direct aid like Pell Grants, as well as an example of a policy that promotes inequality, as it strongly favors families with incomes between $100,000 and $200,000 per year who have sufficient income to take advantage of the deductions. While I knew that default rates on federally-backed loans for students at for-profit colleges were higher than those for students at public and non-profit privates, I was unaware of the complex web of support, complicity, and opportunism that included elements of both parties and existed to ensure continued federal support of for-profits in Congress.

All things considered, the elements of Mettler’s book and argument that are likely to stick with me are the many voices she used to connect the idea of the “American Dream” to higher education. At various times she quotes or references founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and no portion of this book is more powerful than the introduction to Chapter Two, where the author invokes the words of President Lyndon Johnson on the occasion of signing the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law. Speaking to those gathered to watch the signing at Southwest Texas State College, his alma mater, Johnson stated:

And when you look into the faces of your students and your children and your grandchildren, tell them that you were there when it began. Tell them that a promise has been made to them. Tell them that the leadership of your country believes it is the obligation of your Nation to provide and permit and assist every child born in these borders to receive all the education that he can take. (as cited in Mettler, 2014, p. 51)

What I found the most frustrating regarding Mettler’s book was that, beyond opportunities available in response to economic crises and a call for strong individual leadership (as exemplified in the text by politicians like President Johnson and, more recently, Jim Webb), the author offers no clear solution to the “fine mess’ we’ve gotten ourselves into. While access to higher education has increased, the advantages gained by the completion of a college education are still not available for those in the greatest need of those advantages: minorities, the poor, and working class adults. The only changes that could provide a meaningful window for higher education reform are those that are tremendous in scale: campaign finance reforms, electoral reforms, procedural reforms in the Senate and House. As the author points out, the United States has never lacked for “innovative ways to promote higher education so that it would serve crucial and ambitious public purposes” (p. 200). Innovation, however, requires the oxygen of opportunity in order to thrive, and the “policyscape” Mettler describes is an airless one.



Man Poses as Target on Facebook to Hilariously Troll Angry Customers


When customers started angrily commenting on Target’s Facebook page about its new gender-neutral toys policy, this Facebook user saw a comedic opportunity.

Mike Melgaard made a fake Facebook page and pretended to be a Target customer service representative, and then responded to the outrage over the company’s decision to stop labeling toys and other items by gender.

“I definitely side with Target and support their decision wholeheartedly,” Melgaard told AdWeek. “That being said, this was, for me, more about the laughs. I absolutely love satirical humor, and I think America could use a little more laughter.”

Target provided this statement to AdWeek in response: “At Target, we are committed to providing outstanding guest service to our guests wherever we engage with them—in our stores, online, or on our social pages. Clearly this individual was not speaking on behalf of Target.”

Here’s some of Melgaard’s best work before his…

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7 Things About “The League” Cast that You Probably Didn’t Know


If you’re not watching “The League,” or at the very least, if you don’t have the show in your Instant Netflix queue yet, then you don’t get to sit at the cool kids table. “It’s Always Sunny” and “Archer” tend to get most of the Internet attention when it comes to F/X shows, but it’s “The League” that — in its third season, at least — is the most consistently funny. It’s like an ensemble version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that just happens to revolve around a fantasy football league, though the premise is tertiary to the actual shenanigans. Also, never take fantasy football advice from anyone on the show. They’re is some kind of pansy 8-person league where everybody’s team is stacked with studs, and it’s a snake draft. Snake drafts are for amateurs.

Anyway, it’s an awesome show, which has featured guests appearances this season alone from Jeff…

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So THIS is a “Transparent Overdrive!” One of the first Paul Cochrane Tim Overdrive/Boost Pedals

Was looking for a good discussion of “transparent overdrive,” but this is that and a lot more.


So recently there’s been a lot of focus on “Transparent Overdrives.”  It seems to be something that lies in the realm of boutique guitar pedals (although certain companies have made inroads into this idea, by hook or by crook).  The basic idea is that it adds volume/gain/drive to your pedal, but only as if you reached over to your amp and cranked it up accordingly.  So, if you’re not in the situation where you’re close to your amp’s controls, or heck your amp just doesn’t get higher volume/gain/drive on its own…you turn to one of these pedals.  It’s not the kind of overdrive that imparts its own “thing” to the game like a tube screamer would (and definitely not  like a distortion pedal would, think the ProCo RAT here).  It’s kinda like hitting a “More” button.

So anyhow, the tag of “Transparent Overdrive” got put on the Tim pedal that…

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