Category Archives: Reviews

Gear Review: Union Tube & Transistor “Swindle” Distortion

swindle-1With 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:

Video Demo: Black Cat Monster K-Fuzz

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.

Gear Review: Ibanez AW7

aw7One 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:

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.
IMG_1491_2
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.
IMG_1494
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.

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.

 

 

SolidGoldFX Funkzilla Review

The auto-wah, touch-wah/envelope filter is a bit of a niche effect. Die-hard rockers and funkmeisters always seem to go for the clunky, full-size Vox or Dunlop wahs, and there are no shortage of those and their imitators to go around. I could never get the hang of constantly working a pedal with my foot while having to focus on what my hands were (supposed to be) doing. I canguyatone wr 2’t pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time, either. For the hopelessly uncoordinated who still want to get funky, a wah/filter effects pedal is a must-have. Since trading away my first Cry Baby after many thwarted attempts at playing “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” I’ve owned several of them. My first was a little purple Guyatone WR2 “Wah Rocker” that I bought used out of the window of a music store in Nashville for around $90, I think, in 2004. It was a very simple auto wah, with knobs for Threshold and Decay, and a bypass switch. Even an idiot like me could use it! Sadly, it disappeared somewhere along the long, winding and somewhat inebriatedly navigated road of my semi-professional music career. At this very moment it’s probably being used as a door stop in the ladies’ bathroom at a truck stop somewhere between Richmond and Bristol, VA. Enjoy your second life, my tiny purple friend!

My next companion in the funk wars was the dutifully named Modtone Funk Filter. With three knobs, which included settings for low pass, mid pass, and high pass filters, it was more tweakable, if less actually ‘funky’ than the Guyatone. Still, it had a thick tone, especially in the ‘mp’ setting, that fattened up single string riffs and give an interesting punch to my brief solo breaks. Unlike the Guyatone, which was an auto-wah (the sweep of the filter — what’s controlled by the pedal on a “big” wah pedal — is automatic, and controlled by a speed, or in the case of the WR2, a “Decay” knob), the MFF is a touch-wah or classic envelope filter: it responds to the signal going in, and an “attack” control gauges how sensitive the filters affect is to your playing dynamics.

Speaking of breaks, the Modtone is now broken. The 9V input assembly cracked (that’s weird, I know!) but that was a simple enough, straight-forward fix: $1 for a new power jack and some soldering time. However, I am not the world’s most deft electrical tinkerer; when attaching the new 9V assemble (which worked!), I also seemed to have dripped some solder or got something too hot — in any case, now it powers up, but doesn’t work. It will probably take awhile before I can trace down all the components that will need to be replaced in order to fix what I unfixed when I was fixing. No worries, though, as it joins yet another broken Modtone pedal in my “I’ll get around to it” box which I will probably cannibalize for parts.

Which leads me, finally, to the SolidGoldFX Funkzilla, which I borrowed when I recently re-upped my subscription Pedal Genie. For those of you unfamiliar with the service, it’s like Netflix for guitar pedals. You pay a monthly subscription fee, create a “wish list,” and they send you a pedal from that list. Keep it as long as you like; when you are ready to return it, put your pedal back in the provided box, and email the kind folks at Pedal Genie to request a mailing label. They will shoot it to you via email; tape it onto the padded flat rate envelope they sent along inside your pedal order, seal the boxed-up pedal into the envelope, and drop it in the mail. As soon as they receive it at the Pedal Genie office, they will send you another pedal on your list. It’s cool, and convenient, and a great way to try out unusual and/or boutique pedals before actually dropping $200-300 on one. I’ve gotten a Caroline Kilobyte, a Strymon Lex, an EHX B9 Organ Machine, a Tech21 Fuzz/Boost, and, now, the SolidGoldFx Funkzilla. Of all these, the Funkzilla has been my favorite, and it’s the only one I’ve been so enamored with that I’ve begun stalking it on Reverb and eBay. They are still running in the low $200’s, even for a used one!funkzilla pedal

The Funkzilla is more than just an auto-wah or filter effect; the ease of use, tweakability, and overall design make it almost an instrument itself. Billed as the “ultimate filter pedal,” the device comes in a sparkly purple rectangular enclosure; with its white knobs and white “Electric Company” style lettering, I was immediately struck by how ‘funky’ this pedal looked. While the rows of knobs and switches made my brain hurt a little, I decided to plug and play before searching online for a manual. It didn’t take long at all to figure out how the controls worked and to get busy using the various settings for musical inspiration.

The Funkzilla is basically a two-function monster. There’s Tap mode, which utilizes the Speed, Mode, and Depth knobs, as well as switches to select among three wave-forms, repeat-multipliers (1, 2, or 4), and >dir< which controls the “direction” of the filter’s sweep in both modes. I’d liken the Funkzilla’s Tap to an extremely tweakable Tremolo; the Mode knob gives you several different rhythmic “chopping” patterns to select from, and their character and speed are easily shaped by the aforementioned knobs, the ‘tap’ button, the wave-form selector or the multiplier switch. I could’ve spent hours playing around with just half of the pedal’s functions, but what I was looking for was the funk, so my quest continued.

Envelope mode is where you find the familiar filter effects lazy-footed guitarists are in search of — and this pedal certainly delivers. The Depth, Frequency and Attack knobs are active in this mode, and allow you to contour the filter to mimic a wide range of sound shapes, from a spanky quack to very musical, talkbox-sounding vowel sounds. And the >dir< feature really comes alive in this Envelope mode. I’d never imagined that reversing the filter sweep would do much more than muddy the initial input signal, but the effect was something nearly akin to a Slow Gear volume swell. For something I would’ve considered superfluous before trying this pedal out, the >dir< feature is one of the things that really sets this pedal apart from the pack.

My gigging experience with the Funkzilla was a very positive one. I put it after my EHX Soul Food overdrive, basically in the middle of my pedal chain. (BTW I know most sources say to put a Wah before an overdrive, fuzz or boost, but I actually prefer the ‘darker’ results of distortion going through the filter, instead of the other way around.)  I stuck exclusively with Envelope mode, as I felt that I’d need more time to really get a handle on Tap mode before I could use it effectively.  Even using only half the pedal, I found the results exciting and inspirational, both for rhythm and some solo passages. I had to do very little tweaking during the show, and was pleased to see that the purple sparkle of the pedal, contrasting with the white knobs and white labeling, made onstage, low-light knob twiddling easier. So, the funky color is both a stylish choice and a practical one. I don’t currently have an expression pedal that I could use to test the effect’s functionality with the added interface, but I imagine it would add even greater flexibility and increase the possibilities for live exploration and invention.

I don’t have a rating system for gear reviews — should I have one? — but if I did, I’d give the SolidGoldFX Funkzilla two thumbs up, four guitar picks, five gold stars, etc. My only knock would be the cost, but my experience with guitar effects is that you often get what you pay for, and the Funkzilla, even at $250 new (and still $200-225 used), packs a lot of value into that funky purple box!