Dotted Eighth Delay Studies

Setting up the U2/Hillsong delay in a variety of situations.

The Sessionists

Esther Subra (vocals), Serena Chew (keys), Justin (guitars), Alphonsus (drums and percussion)

Thoughts on G.A.S.

Why you should save up for an expensive guitar.

Setting Up Disaster Area DPC-8EZ and DMC-8D MIDI Controllers

An easy-to-follow video tutorial to get those patches programmed!

An Overview of My YouTube Channel

Feel free to browse some of the playlists on my channel. Hopefully this leads to you liking and subscribing!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Deja Vu (Project Serve Welcome Tea)

It wasn't so long ago that a fresh-from-Sydney graduate was introduced to a parachurch organization, and auditioned for a place in the performing arts ministry's Project Serve.

I was mostly charismatic with little knowledge of the bible. I head-banged, jumped at least a foot off the ground, and believed that distortion and worship could co-exist. It was a very heart-driven Christianity for me.

Project Serve changed my life. The heart was reigned in by the mind. The mindlessness was replaced by a constant awareness of God's truth in every act I did, whether in public or in private. The gospel became something to be treasured, to fight for, to defend and not merely something private.

Music was seen for what it truly was; something God graciously gives, an aspect of His creation, and like all good gifts we can either use it well or abuse it selfishly. I began scrutiny of lyrics, and saw that what was said was equally important to what was played. Bands I previously followed couldn't be followed anymore, simply for what they stood for and what they encouraged through their lifestyle and in their songs.

I pray that these young ones will discover for themselves how to live a life pleasing unto God, that all aspects of their giftings, be it in music, sports, media, are all for God's glory. We are to be good stewards of what He gives.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pedalboard Revisions (aka The Never-ending Story Part 20-something)

A moment of tonal dissatisfaction, a touch of OCD, and realizing that a compressor after the EP booster actually cuts out too much of the nice frequencies gave me the impetus to rearrange my pedalboard. And behold, I finally did it; I squeezed my entire overdrive section onto the first row. While having better visual appeal, the process flow is a lot more obvious to people who may want to use my pedalboard. You now know that I have a pre-overdrive booster to squeeze more gain and compression out of the AC Tone, BB Preamp and Timmy, and a post-overdrive booster to give more clarity and punch if the need arises (such as playing through a solid state amp).

And yes, I forgot to mention the new additions to my pedalboard. I recently acquired a BB Preamp, better known affectionately as the Andy Timmons pedal. This has the most gain out of the usual 3 Xotic pedals (RC/AC/BB), and to my ears, the most versatile of the lot. You can use this as a clean boost with a good, broad EQ tweak with the gain at zero (like how Lee Ritenour uses it), or set it to mild gain to push an already-overdriven amp to make it sound, well, for lack of a better term, better (like how Greg Howe uses it).

In my case, I cranked the gain all the way up. This is meant to be my Marshall sound; big, loud, chunky and punchy. Even at full tilt, the pedal isn't fuzzy or overly screechy in my rig, and retains the natural tone of my guitars. A Les Paul will sound thick and fluid. A Strat will sound spanky and throaty with a Blues growl. A Tele will still have the sparkle and twang.

I replaced my old-timer Korg DT-10 with a Pitchblack, more for real estate reasons than for tonal reasons. It's 2/3 the size of the DT-10, and true bypass. I didn't hear its effect on the tone until I made the switch, and immediately heard higher definition and more articulation out of my pedals, as if someone had tweaked the EQ in the upper-mids/lower-highs in the right direction.

I also realized that with the new arrangement of having the compressor before the EP makes the tone control useable again. Previously, when I turn the tone past 60%, the overall sound was too brittle and nasal. By cranking the EP to run at 18V, and having the bright switch off, the tone control became tamer and less fatiguing on the ear; setting it at zero gives a dark but warm wrap-around of the notes, and cranking it to full gives a nice treble bite that helps my Strat and Tele sound authentically vintage.

Sigh. Tone, the Never-ending Story, continues.


Friday, December 23, 2011

The Good, Bad, and Ugly

I had a rehearsal with the incredible Jordan Wei and Richard Tan, and took the opportunity to try out various combinations of my guitars/pedals/amp.

I thought running the acoustic into my pedalboard, and running the compressor will help keep the acoustic in the mix. I also thought of running my Variax through the analog pedalboard to A/B against my Tele.

After many swaps in the midst of our crazy rehearsal, here's the summary results:

1. The acoustic sounds best straight to the DI. Putting any pedals in the mix makes it sound more electric-like.

2. The Variax is better paired with my PODX3 than my analog pedalboard. Maybe there's a sweet spot with my pedals, but it's so much harder to get that right than with actual guitars.

3. Nothing can beat the sound of a real, no-modeling, non-silicon electric guitar into a pedalboard into a real amp.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shredding on a Tele

God is gracious and good. Even in the midst of the wrist injury in my picking hand, He continually provides ways for me to continue playing the guitar, and even improve on my technique to be a player who can play more cleanly. I've only recently realized that my left hand is far stronger than I had previously taken notice of. 

Its legato passages are fluid but defined. When I mute the strings with my wrist, I get a very distinct "chunk" sound out of the muted notes as I make my way across the fretboard. I've also managed to learn how to effectively mute unwanted strings during those long lead lines with my left hand, something I was very bad at doing for the longest time.

Not exactly shred, but it's approaching speeds I could play before in my John Petrucci days.

God is so good. Much thanksgiving is due.

While God works in helping me shape my technique, He's also helping me improve upon my existing setup. After playing with a well-setup low-action guitar, I was really inspired to get a similar feel. I starting watching those who play Teles and can play really fast on it (Andy Timmons, Ritchie Kotzen, even Keith Urban). It just seemed that they had the strength of gorillas to be able to have such volume and articulation.

The thought hit me; what if their guitar action was low? I used to adjust the string height on my Yamahas like crazy just to get that sweet John Petrucci spot, and only avoided it on my Strat and Tele because I figured it would degrade the tone. Besides, wasn't it tonal blasphemy to have a Tele with low action and strung with 9's?

I threw convention out the window. Half an hour's worth of tweaking and retuning yielded some very satisfying results.
As you can tell, there's a fair bit of string posts exposed. They used to be flush with the saddle, meaning that the action was a lot higher. Here are some observations:
  1. The exposed string posts can cut your hand. Yes, now I know why some of my shredder friends don't like Teles. I palm-mute quite a lot, and my hand has to rest where the string posts are. Thankfully, I'm a light picker now with a light touch, so the pressure exerted by the string posts isn't strong enough for me to spill blood.
  2. The strings are closer to the pickups. My bridge pickup immediately sounded a lot hotter, allowing me to play faster passages and retain definition and articulation. The effect isn't as pronounced on the neck pickup.
  3. I can get away with legato passages far more cleanly. Oh yes. Bring on the long passages. I used to be so afraid of them playing on a Tele, but I think I've regained some confidence back.
I shall quote a website about lowering the action on your guitar:

"It'll feel so good you'll play it instead of eating/bathing/sleeping. There won't be anything left of you but bad posture and enough hair to comb over your face."

Further reading:
Hotrod Your Guitar
Setting string action on a Telecaster (eHow)

Monday, December 19, 2011


Every weekend is a great time of serving, gigging, fellowshipping, and just living in general. Oh to treasure these days.

Friday: Christmas Under The Stars, Poly Ministry

Saturday: Shema live at Olive Vine
Sunday: Playing at service feels like "Don't Forget The Solo"
"You can either keep Jesus and lose the sin, or keep the sin and lose Jesus."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dialling PODX3 Tones

The little black corner of the room
I was a devout multi-fx user for a great bulk of my life as a guitarist. I figured that it was possible to get by with emulation

While the stock tones were usable in only certain situations, they were nowhere near as organic as what the PODX3 clips were suggesting through my guitars (I suppose that's the beauty of having access to expensive guitars and paying sound engineers to post-process your clips).

Alas, we must work-around the problem at hand. Here are three of my biggest tips for PODX3 users:

Patches for live should be different from patches used to record
You have 128 patch locations at your disposal. Surely you can spare some for various situations. For playing live, I'd get rid of the reverb, tweak the EQ in the midrange to get the guitar to cut through, and generally don't use too much high gain tones because it just gets muddy when mixed together with the rest of the band.

Different guitars need different patches
The problem with digital is that all the nuances accompanying your guitar get lost; every guitar starts to sound the same, just with differing levels of drive, spank and twang (I'm grossly generalizing the differences between a Les Paul, a Strat and a Tele, by the way). I've had to specifically dial in tones that accentuate the nuances, quite unlike my analog rig where most of my pedals are transparent, allowing the character of the guitars to shine through even on the same settings.

A 4x12" cab sim sounds great recorded, but it's going to be boomy and muddy live
The sound guys will be immensely happy if you helped them focus your sound to the mids where the guitar's voice predominantly is, instead of having the big, large and full-range tone that the 4x12" cab sims try to emulate.

And for those who asked:
My top 4 most used tones to date which work best for live situations straight into a PA using a humbucking guitar that has a coil split.

For further reading:
Benvesco's Blog (The person who taught me a lot about tweaking the POD)
089Ray's Blog (This person has spent many hours tweaking, and he's got a great ear. Check it out!)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


One guitar into one amp. The purest signal possible, with no pedals to suck tone, no power supplies to generate noise, and no patch cables waiting to die on you at the most inopportune time.

I occasionally play with this setup when I know that the venue provides a decent amp (which is a pretty broad category in my book; I'm content with both solid-state and tube amps), or when I know carrying pedals will be inconvenient from my previous engagement, especially when I don't drive for the day. If you're into large pedalboards like me, you'll find it extremely limiting.

All of a sudden, you're stuck with one tone. One. No choice of overdriven to suit the mood. No modulation or delay to thicken the sound. Everything boils down to tone exclusively from the fingers, which can be terrifyingly crippling. Fortunately, I have good news (or bad news, depending on how you take it): the audience isn't expecting much. They're not waiting for the roar of a BB Preamp, or to hear the trailing feedback of the delay pedal. They're not overly impressed with a truckload of pedals hauled onto the stage.

What they are expecting is (insert drum roll) music. Honest, heart-felt, confident, music. Jeff Baxter, one of the biggest gear heads in the history of music (due to his big time session work), has done sessions with gear ranging from a few racks' worth of equipment to recording with a DI straight to the console. He has repeatedly emphasized in his instructional that you make the gear work, not the other way around. There's something inside you, and that should be able to come out with any guitar and through any piece of gear.

So, here are some tips I've learnt along the way about guitar-to-amp setups:

1. Set the tone up overdriven, and use the guitar volume to toggle between a lead and a rhythm tone. This does imply your volume pot is useable in that fashion--my Yamaha's can't do that, so in that situation I wouldn't probably use them.

2. Be aware of your technique. There'll be nothing to cover it up. I admit to being lazy with technique when I have my full pedalboard. With that many overdrive pedals and that high a gain level, I still can sound decent with sloppy finger work.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reviving Jennifer

My acoustic is getting old. As of this year, she's been in my possession for the past 10 years. I practically grew up playing this guitar; I learnt many radio pop songs from the Backstreet Boys, Savage Garden, Richard Marx and N'Sync. I learnt my first worship songs from Hillsong, Sonicflood, and Avalon. I got hooked on the alternative sound forever from learning the Goo Goo Dolls, Ash and Gin Blossoms.

I can't remember why I named her Jennifer. It was probably because I thought the dreadnought shape of the acoustic and its larger lower bout reminded me of big bums (and Jennifer Lopez came to mind).

This guitar has probably seen three gigs in her entire life, aside from her usage at cell group and church camps. The call came and there was no readily available acoustic for the gig. Alas, I needed Jennifer to be in a presentable condition. When I picked her up from her stand, things weren't looking good; the frets had accumulated a green layer of gunk, the fretboard was dried out, and the white binding turned green. There was a fair bit of work I had to do, and I decided the easiest to start was to change the strings (which were black with dirt and brown with rust).

I'll make an honest admission here; I don't know a lot about acoustic guitar strings. I probably should start reading up or experimenting. My excuse is that I'm primarily an electric guitarist 99% of the time, and whenever I gig on an acoustic, it's borrowed. I went for a simple set of D'Addario Extra Lights (10's), bought from Believer Music (thanks Wendy!).


I don't know how the string material changes the tone of the acoustic. I use a Seymour Duncan woody pickup, so I figured that any set of strings will do. Besides, I changed my technique significantly over the past half-year. I can't strum heavily anymore, and I don't dig as deeply as I used to. Now when I play an acoustic unamplified, it's reached a state where I'm barely audible. I hope that means I won't be breaking strings anymore (fingers crossed; I haven't broken one in 4 months!).

Here's my "revival kit" spread out on the floor with the tools I used:


The green cloth is actually an army cloth I used to clean my rifle with! It's now a dedicated guitar cleaning cloth. I removed the strings and set out to remove the gunk out of the frets and remoisturize the fretboard. I used the mighty Dr Ducks Axe Wax to do the job:


I was initially skeptical about using Dr Ducks. It seemed too miraculous a product to be relied upon. Seriously? It can clean everything? I knew it had good uses for giving strings a wipe-down after a gig, but for everything else, it just seemed improbable. I'd never have considered using this for remoisturizing the fretboard, but alas, my supply of lemon oil got depleted with the last string change (on one of my rosewood fingerboard guitars).

I was desperate. I give up on all inhibitions and just went with it. The first application dissolved most of the gunk that was caked. The second restored some colour to the fretboard. By the third, the fretboard was looking pretty decent. You know what? Dr Ducks actually works! I'm a happy Dr Ducks convert now.

Here's a close up of the neck and the frets that were worn out:


These frets are so worn out that the strings sit in a "valley". They don't buzz anymore because the rest of the frets have all worn down to a level where they're all even!

About an hour's work later, here's Jennifer looking presentable:


She sounded good during my gig at Olive Vine, which I truly believe was mostly due to the fantastic job of Leon and Randall on the sound team! Kudos to an excellent job.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tech Noob Moments

I don't know what happened. Poof! My top navigation bar just disappeared, and for an hour I just couldn't get it back. I must have mistyped something in the HTML (which, at this moment, has been modified beyond recognition from its original code), and now, no matter how much I try to use the Blogger menu to change the layout style, it just won't show.

There are days when technology just doesn't work...
I came up with a workaround. You'll now find my biography, guitarists' corner and contact in the secondary navigation bar (which links to home, my band, and great links). It took a little reading to remember how to set it up in the HTML code, but it worked. It's just two more clicks to navigate, and hopefully it doesn't put people off. I'm told by the pro bloggers to keep my layout as simple as possible so that readers won't find it a hassle to click around.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Restringing Order

A quick tip for restringing guitars: the order you string them makes a difference in maintaining or derailing your setup, depending on your guitar. I have had the good fortune of owning guitars with decent necks that don't change with temperature fluctuations, and I keep them in a pretty dehumidified environment. Even my Yamahas, the cheapest of the lot, seem to require only minimal tweaking of the truss rod once every 4 to 6 months.

That being said, it does pay to take precautions. As you well know, the neck is under severe tension, and if you restring like I do by removing all the strings at once (just so I can re-oil the fretboard), the neck is going to experience a sudden change from full tension to no tension. To help the neck cope with the tension while restringing, I like to restring in this order:

3rd, 6th, 4th, 1st, 5th, 2nd
G - E - D - e - A - b

Having the G string first helps especially with Les Pauls and their equivalents, where the bridge isn't attached to the guitar body, but hangs by two threaded posts. It falls off when there's no tension, and if you try to restring with the low E first, you might dislocate the bridge.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Grace in Surrender"

Sunday Sermon 19Nov11
Pastor Anthony Lee
"Grace in Surrender" (Luke 1:26-38)

"The world has yet to see what God can do with and for and through and in a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to him"
-Henry Varley

A shoes salesman heard these words and eventually came to be a great preacher--this man was D.L. Moody.

Do you believe that God can use you, an ordinary person?

Lessons from Mary's life (Luke 1:26-38)

Extraordinary saints
1. ...begin as ordinary people
-God intends for the saints greatness; doing small things with great love.
-When Adam and Eve were made, they were destined to rule the earth.
-Abraham was an ordinary nomad; he became the father of nations
-Elijah was a "man just like us"; he became an extraordinary prophet
-Jeremiah was a young man who was uncertain if he could live up to God's calling; he became a mighty prophet
-Peter and John were ordinary fisherman; they became the church's forefathers.

We start ordinary, but God makes you extraordinary. God loves to use someone like you for His glory, through ordinary acts of obedience.

"Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things and I'll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things."
-Lawrence D. Bell

2. ...surrender totally to a loving and powerful God.
-..."for nothing is impossible with God" is better translated as "all words (rhema) from God will never be powerless."
-Rhema (Gk. Seasonal living word)

Has God spoken a rhema word for you? His word is never powerless.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Analog in Disguise (Playing with Solid State Amps)

I got my hands on another EP Booster. Before labeling me as an excessive tone nut, let me justify why. Xotic came up with two versions of this pedal: Version 1 has a bright switch and a bass boost, while Version 2 replaces the bright switch with a +3dB boost (which in essence is a unity gain switch, because when disengaged, there's no boost). You can run this pedal on anywhere between 9V to 18V, where 9V gets you more gain and compression, and 18V gets you more clarity and headroom. I personally like the sound of 18V, so both my EP boosters are cranked with that voltage.

Now, I normally don't gig with my own amp because it's a 55lb monster, and my pedalboard is set up such that 90% of the tone comes from the pedals, and I run the amp clean with no drive at all. This theoretically means that I can play through solid-states and tube amps alike with little difference in tone.

Here's the problem: solid-states don't have a nice power amp, and tend to sound flat, lifeless, harsh (insert negative terms here) without the warm, fat response I like with a tube-driven power amp (to clarify, I find that even solid-state rectified tube power amps sound great to my ears). So while my first EP Booster is acting like a preamp, I'm using the second EP Booster as a "power amp".

Enough anthromorphic babble. Let's jump right into the set up. The rule of thumb with pedals:
  • Pedals sound different when placed in various places. For the EP Booster, placing it before overdrive pedals tends to squeeze more gain and compression out of the overdrive.
  • Pedals at the last of the chain tend to influence the tone most. When the EP Booster is the last in the chain of overdrive pedals, it provides more clarity and dynamic sensitivity, allowing you to roll back the guitar volume to clean up. With my fingerpicking technique, I can also get a rounder tone using my fingers instead of a pick.
You'd notice that the EP Booster only has one knob, and I'm making it sound like there are many switches to toggle. Well, there are switches; you just can't see them. They're dip switches inside the pedal, so you have to use a screwdriver to dig into the pedal. Let's take a look at the manual for where the dip switches are located:
I managed to flick the switches down with the long bit of my fingernail. Either that, or a simple flathead screwdriver will do the job. Don't worry, these are really tough switches which don't break easily. Let's see how I set this up on my pedalboard:

The Setup
  1. EP Booster Version 1 - Run at 18V and at "Vintage" settings (both dip switches down)
  2. Overdrive pedals
  3. EP Booster Version 2 - Run at 18V at "Unity Gain" settings (don't engage the +3dB switch)
  4. Volume pedal
Older setup, mid 2011

The volume pedal is essential to getting the tone right with solid state amps. I think it's got something to do with the fact that when you're hitting the front of a solid state with several pedals, a full signal will cause the front-end of the amp to clip. In a tube amp, this sounds great, but with a solid state, it's fizzy, harsh, lifeless (insert more negative terms here). I park the volume pedal at roughly 80% the way up.

Now, after all this time (and money) setting it up, how does this setup fare in real life?

I took this pedalboard to a gig where I used a Line 6 Spider III 30W. Someone came up after the show and asked what amp I was using, expecting it to belong to the "expensive" category of amps. I believe the word "flabbergasted" adequately described the reaction. :P

I haven't tried this out on a Roland Jazz Chorus though, so don't take my word that it works for all solid state amps!

For further reading:
Xotic's Product Page (for the white EP Booster)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Possible Band Names?

YFC's Performing Arts ministry band needs a name. I know my brainstorming sessions for band names don't really have a lot of scriptural backing to them (like attaching a verse directly to them), but I do keep them biblically sound. Here are my suggestions:

This name came about after checking work emails for the umpteenth time, and thinking about a name which revolved around the idea of turning.

When you read your emails, the subject header is the most important part of the message. If you don't get any of what was said in the main body of the email, at least remember the subject header. Likewise, Christians have the most important message to share: the Gospel. If nobody understood the music that was played, or if no one remembered any song that the band dished out, may the listeners remember that the Gospel was shared.

The concept of turning needs no detailed explanation. Responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ involved a 180-degree turn (maybe the arrow should be halved instead of a full turn?) from my godless ways.

This sounds like a Korean boy group. In fact, running a search on Google yielded a hit on an existing band with this name--some Norwegian power ballad rock band. I can't pronounce the band members' names.

This Way Up
I thought about this while contemplating ordering a guitar from the US, and hearing the horror stories of how guitars come chipped and knocked about because the distributor didn't package the guitar properly.

A box containing fragile items needs to be oriented in the right way, otherwise, as it moves through two points, you'll end up damaging its contents. We all try to move through life living our own way apart from God, but the truth is, Jesus really is the truth, the way, and the life. No one gets to the Father except through Jesus.

There's a four-piece party cover band of the same name on Facebook. Sigh.

Some rejected ideas:
  • Driftwood - Named after contemplating that a piece of dead, fallen wood in a river can only be picked up by a lumber, who will use it for nobler purposes like furniture or river dam construction. I thought it was cool, but it sounds like it belongs to a metal band.
  • One Step Closer - Whether Christian or not, we're all taking one step closer to our eventual eternal destiny. Rejected due to a Linkin Park song of the same name.
What do you think makes a good Christian band name? Let's hear it!

Do You Hear It?

The hallowed Paul Cochrane Timmy pedal. I've GAS-ed for one for many years, having read the reviews, watched the videos, and heard the audio clips. And when the right person came by with the right price, I pounced on it. I still remember peeling back the box and beholding the pedal in my hands for a while, before plugging it in and powering it up for the first time. It was audio bliss. Every chord, every single note line, every pinch harmonic, every slap harmonic--every technique I threw at the Timmy just made my playing sound so much better.

Intense, huh? All that extra expense in an attempt to achieve "boutique" tone.

The Wet Blanket in me was very quick to pull me back to earth. Let's face it, no one's really going to be able to tell the difference between a Paul Cochrane Timmy and a Boss SD-1. No one's going to come up to me and comment how the Timmy made all the difference in making my guitar tone sound good (and the opposite is true; no one's going to come up and complain that the reason my tone sucked was the SD-1). 

No offense to SD-1 users, of course. I've played with that pedal before, and it just didn't work with my rig, and hence, the example. I know fantastic players who have great tone using that pedal.

You're likely going to hear generic comments after a session: "Your playing was nice" and "I liked that tone" for the supporters, with perhaps an equal number of "your playing sucked" and "I hated that tone" from the haters.

As a musician friend of mine commented (or perhaps lamented) before, the only person who can really tell the difference is yourself, or a fellow guitarist who has a good ear for tone. Our pursuit of tone is a pursuit of personal satisfaction, which I think isn't necessarily a bad thing. If a guitarist feels hampered, or is in constant lament over how bad his tone is, he's not going to be focused on being creative with music. He's going to be distracted by how his gear doesn't measure up to his personal expectations.

My suggestion for those who are beating themselves up all the time: save up, spend it, get it, use it. Acquire gear to the degree you have been called as a musician, be it a hobbyist or a full-time professional. Once you put a cap on how much you'll spend (and get), you'll start focusing on making your music sound good.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Strings and Things

I recently stringed up my Fender Stratocaster with 11's in an attempt to test out the myth surrounding different string gauges and its effect on tone. The myths do somewhat correspond logically; higher gauges mean more string mass, and more string mass means larger vibrations, which in turn, ultimately leads to beefier, heavier tone.

I tried it out and got myself really frustrated pretty quickly. Not that the tone was disappointing--in fact, I felt a rather pleasing change in tone. Somehow, the thicker strings EQ my tone from mid-rangy to something a little more round. Rounder is better in my tone book, but that's where the advantages of thicker strings ended. My strat isn't the easiest of guitars to set up, and with heavier strings, the tension applied to the bridge is a lot higher. It pulled my bridge clean off the body, which made it interesting considering I've never played a strat with a "floating bridge". Fun to pull up and down, but throws the whole guitar out of pitch, and intonates terribly.

The next disadvantage really threw in the towel for me. Part of the vibe of heavy gauge strings is that you can really dig in without worrying about the guitar flubbing out. Now, I don't have a strong right wrist anymore, and ever since my wrist injury I've had to modify my technique to accommodate it. I've developed a rather light touch, with very mild pick strokes, and using my other fingers to help pick.

How does playing style affect your tone with heavy strings? For one thing, my volume dropped drastically, and I sounded like a kid in the garage picking up the guitar for the first time. My pick attacks disappeared, and made the finger movement noises from my left hand a lot more prominent.

I did try to salvage the situation: down-tuning the guitar from standard in E to Eb so as to decrease the string tension (it returned the bridge to its neutral position which helped keep the strat in tune), increasing the gain on my overdrive pedals to compensate for the lighter pick attack, and setting my playing height to maximum so as to help my left hand play as precisely as possible.

It worked. Well, sort of.

It just didn't feel right. I couldn't solo with the confidence I had with lighter gauge strings. As you can tell, playability is a big factor for me when it comes to the guitar, and guitars that don't play well or feel well just don't sound good (to my ears, anyway). So a month went by with this ridiculously awkward setup on my strat, and before I knew it, I found myself finding an excuse to swing by Davis and get my DR 9's, a staple of mine for the past 6 years or so.

A few guitarists whom I listen to use heavier gauge strings: Phil Collen of Def Leppard (he mentioned in a rig-rundown on Premier Guitar that it's "easy" to bend 13's!), Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jeff Beck. It's for them, and not for me.

Further reading:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"A Transformed Life" (Laity Sunday)

Laity Sunday Sermon: "A Transformed Life", Matthew 5:14-16

Light takes away darkness. It exposes hidden deeds. It brings truth to those in sin, and brings hope to those burdened (John 3:19-21)

As Christians, we must a life that shows the light of Jesus to an unbelieving world. There is no reason to hide our identity as Christians. If we as Christians wish to place our light under a basket, and are unwilling to allow our light to shine, we have failed in our duty to be God's light.

Paul writes in Ephesians 5:8-13 that once we have the light, we must be transformed, leading a life that God approves.

The fruits of light versus fruitless deeds of darkness: what is your life marked by?
-Sexual immorality
-A spiteful, loose tongue

We don't need better evangelistic methods; we need believers who live like believers. Can your friends/relatives/colleagues notice the difference?

Friday, October 7, 2011

(Struggling to) Tithe

It's difficult to pin-point when it started, and even harder to decide where and when it must end. Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It's a disease rife amongst musicians, and particularly electric guitarists. I seem to have a need for 3 amps, 14 pedals, 2 multi-effects units, and 8 guitars. I seem to be able to justify the need for more gear; a Palmer DI speaker simulator for the gigs and sessions I don't use an amp, an A/B box to split between my AC15 and my THD UniValve, and another Xotic EP Booster to tame the overdrives (a great tech tip used by the great Allen Hinds).

Do I really need all this gear? If I were to be outright honest, I'll have to admit that I don't. The conviction came when I had to come clean before the Lord about my tithing practices since I began work. Why is it so difficult to tithe, but so easy to spend? Why is there a struggle to hold on to the material, if everything I have is a gift from God?

Clearly, the priorities of the heart are misplaced somehow.

I must remind myself that God is more interested in the heart than He is in the amount. He's interested in my attitude towards tithing than how much I put in the offering bag. Tithing is an outward and visible sign of my acknowledgment that it really belonged to Him all along. It teaches me that God wants to enjoy first priority in my life.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Evolution

13 years ago, I was in a class that wasn't working out well for me. I was practicing the same song for 4 months, and I threw the towel in, seeking to learn the guitar myself. This did not bode well in the ensuing months. None of the tab stuff made sense to me, my fingers were too chunky to be making those "insanely fast chord changes", and my calluses hadn't formed. I still remember telling myself that the guitar just wasn't my instrument.

Napster, fellow classmates and church mates introduced me to a whole new world of sonic pandemonium: Blink 182, Greenday and X Japan. Suddenly, the guitar was just so alive with distortion. A renewed resolve got me buying a cheap Yamaha strat copy and a 10W practice amp. Power chords made sense. Tabs made sense. As my basics improved, so did my ear (I wasn't big on transcribing, so I learnt everything by ear), and before I knew it, I was working out every MP3 to prepare for mindless noise-making at the jam studios, and every radio song to impress the opposite gender. I was so dichotomous. My fellow punk/metalheads knew me as the noise maker, the "down-stroke king", and the anti-pop. My female friends knew me as the serenader, the guy who was "in touch" with the emotional songs.

A few years later, with Dream Theater and Joe Satriani changing my musical world once more, I was convinced I could be one of the fastest shredders. I practiced every single day, sometimes clocking 6 hours at a go, and sometimes during the holidays, I managed 10-hour routines.

I happened to listen to my old recordings with my previous bands and projects. I became a shredder, launching a sonic barrage of 16th notes at 200bpm. I loved distortion, cranking the amp to eleven and keeping the guitar's volume and tone at max. I copied riffs, licks and solos from John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani, and pasted them into any and every musical situation, even if it didn't fit into the context. It didn't matter what amp or guitar or pedal I used; they were tools to connect my fingers to the guitar, and to connect my music to the crowd.
Those were fun days, but I was blissfully unaware of how to serve the needs of the song and the crowd. Everything was about how I wanted to sound like, enforcing my tone onto listeners in the name of my personal creative expression. It took me a long time to realize that the band doesn't revolve around me. I had to get my head around the fact that the listener was trying to make sense of the band as a whole, not just the guitarist.

Serving at Youth For Christ was a fairly recent milestone in my life, but it undid all the bad habits intrinsic to my self-indulgent electric guitarist ways. I began to enjoy interacting with the rest of the band, listening out to what each band member had to say, and reacting to it in turn. Victor Wooten said that performing music is a lot like having a conversation; everyone can't be talking at once, otherwise the message gets garbled, so everyone's got to take turns.

Scaling down, pulling back, letting others take the spotlight--these were concepts I came to integrate into my musical identity, which evolved from the "fastest-slinger" to the sideman, and from the show-off to the supporter.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why Did You Laugh?

Genesis 18:1-15

Theological comedy: When God surprises man with His methods, where we think they are ridiculous or silly.

God's ways are not for the amusement of the idle nor is it for the fascination of the curious. He works wonders an in unexpected ways
1. For people who wonder how they will survive
2. To challenge our common assumptions we have about Him

Noah and the ark, where the world then did not know rain, much less a flood

In our text, Sarah laughed because she never thought it was possible for her to have a son at such an old age.
-Note: Her laughter was probably dark, laced with sarcasm and cynicism.

4 assumptions we make about God:

1. We assume God will work within a certain time frame, like setting an alarm clock in our hearts
-When the alarm rings and the prayer request is not met, we may grow to become bitter

God appeared to Abraham and made the promise of the provision of a son when he was 75 years old. God's second appearing to remind him of the promise happened when Abraham was 99 years old, and when Sarah was 90 years old.

Sarah's laughter came from pain and disappointment that God had not yet fulfilled His promise. However, God demonstrated that despite His apparent delay, He accomplishes the seemingly impossible.

2. We assume that God's work is limited to our own abilities
-The bible often shows us that God uses the weak, the least talented, and those with physical limitations to accomplish His great work.
-Notable examples: Moses the stutterer, David the shepherd boy, Joseph the youngest (and later with a prison record).

3. We assume God must work according to our ways and understanding.
-Isaiah 55:8-9
-We are guilty of thinking, "My way is Yahweh." We must understand that God does not think like us. We must trust in God and surrender completely to Him.

4. We assume that God's work is limited to those who never fail Him.
-Genesis 21:1 "Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised"
-God's work is always personal and it goes far beyond us. It is gracious and He includes even those who failed or disappointed Him.

All Things New

I pray that in Your good time,
You may reveal Your glory to these precious ones.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Massive Unboxing!

A clearance sale is bound to strike a good chord in a guitarist. I've always dreamt of owning a THD amplifier for years, having seen small blurbs of it in guitar reviews, and hearing raves amongst my guitarist friends. Reading about the features was enough to convince me that this amp was worth the boutique price tag that it carries.

I finally found a place that sold THD products, and specifically, the combo version of the UniValve! Kudos to Chao for the great tip-off! I made my way from an external course at work, traveling from Science Park to Peninsula Plaza at peak hour, with ERP and parking, just for it. Yes, it's worth that amount of trouble.

The picture doesn't really show its size. It's a whopping 53lbs and I had to leave the box at the shop!


The styrofoam in the box provides more of a psychological assurance than actual protection. This baby is built like a tank.

Installing the wheels. Who would have thought it would finally be available on an amp?

And finally, when I lugged it back home and set it up...
This amp delivers serious tone. Everything I threw at it, even my cheapest pedal and guitar, sounded gold. Here's a run-down on what I love about this amp:

The tubes and the Hot Plate
The UniValve is single-ended Class A amp (don't worry, I've provided links to other sites for those of us who don't know the geek lingo), which is my personal preference when it comes to amplification. I think I won't burn the tubes out as quickly as my other friends do, considering my drive section is completely dependent on my pedals and I run the amp pristine clean.

It has two 12AX7's in the preamp and one EL34 in the power amp. Like most tube amps, there are two channels for low or high gain input--which, I recently discovered, simply meant how many tubes were used in the preamp. In the UniValve's case, it's a choice between one or two tubes, and there's a serious jump in the amount of crankable gain between the two channels. The first preamp tube governs the gain and tone of the preamp, while the second preamp tube directly drives the power tube. By varying the gain of these two tubes, you can influence the mix of preamp distortion and power amp distortion, or run a decently clean tone at higher volume by reducing the gain of both.

The power amp tube makes a profound difference on your overall tone, and the EL34 is a favorite of mine.  It has a middy character to it, and has a ton of headroom and volume. A friend of mine joked that if you want to hear an EL34 break up, stand really far away.

My favorite setting so far is the volume at half and the Hot Plate at half. If you run your rig like mine, where your pedals are your main source of overdrive, playing your amp at a volume lower than its breaking point will sound over-compressed. However, if you run an attenuator, the more you attenuate the signal, the amp becomes less open and you lose some dynamic depth. It's a delicate balance that I've easily achieved with the UniValve.

The controls
With clean amps, I'm a follower of the fabled Fender Deluxe Reverb mojo settings: 6-6-3 (Bass, Middle, Treble respectively), which provide a woody body and a "blanket" warmth to the guitar tone. Instead of a middle control, the UniValve features an "Attitude" control, which I'll let the company describe: "The Attitude control determines how the driver stage responds to signal and how it drives the power tube." 

The general idea is that when turned fully counter-clockwise, it's more a Fender-like response, and fully clockwise is more like Marshall. THD says it's not a presence control, but the effect is in the same ballpark, in my opinion. Personally, I like it one-quarter up, to get that Fender character with a bit of Marshall bite.

At the rear, there are speaker output jacks for anything ranging from 2-ohms up to 16-ohms. There is also a fantastic isolated line out jack and control knob. You can actually use the UniValve as a preamp for other amps, or you can run it like stompbox in your signal chain. It also works great for direct recording., although you have to get a cabinet simulator, either from something like the Rock Bug by Carl Martin or the Palmer direct box. Alternatively, for the cheapskates like me, I record direct to my computer and use a free plugin. There is also a switch to toggle between instrument-level and line-level output. Its probably the best line-out feature set you'll see on a tube amp.

A few quirky noteworthy things about this amp to up the collector's value: it's signed by Andy Marshall himself, and every amp has a quote from philosophers, presidents, famous musicians, etc. My amp has George Harrison's quote, "All things must pass".  

The cabinet
It's a specially tuned-port bass-reflex cabinet that in their words, "significantly reduce standing-waves inside the cabinet, giving it a very deep, even, tight and punchy sound." To my ears, this sounds amazingly like a 2x12" cab. However, what really kicked up the cool factor for me is that the cabs are modular, meaning you can swap out the UniValve head from the cab for any of the THD amp heads. If I was crazy enough to get a BiValve or a Flexi head, it's possible to remove the metal grill, stick it into the cab, plug in the speaker cable, and it will fit!

In conclusion
I'm able to pull off tones ranging from Earth Wind and Fire to Dream Theater through this amp. I couldn't ask for more.

Further reading:

Monday, September 5, 2011

Pedals: The Essentials

Before rushing out to buy your ten distortion boxes, I hope to provide some insight on things that you'll need (and truthfully need, mind you). A few important points to note:
  • Pedals require power, either from batteries or from an AC/DC adapter. Powering pedals is a huge topic in itself, so I'll be brief in this post.
  • Every pedal you want to include in the effects chain needs at least two patch cables for input and output.
  • Pedals with the option for external control (such as tap tempo, or a latched switch to change channels and presets) will need an extra patch cable. Did I mention you need to get the external controller too?
The take-home message here is that every pedal requires a condiment of accessories to function, so accommodate that in your budget for a pedalboard!

Power Supply

Batteries have an advantage of having no power cables that could end in a labyrinthine mess, but unless you're willing to dish out the money and time to replacing them, you're better off getting a dedicated power supply. If you're into playing the electric guitar for the long haul, you'll easily acquire more than 10 pedals (and that's a conservative estimate!), so get it right the first time and get a power supply.


Please make an effort to get a tuner (really, it doesn't matter how much it costs). Regardless of how great your tone is, an out-of-tune guitar is an instant turn-off! If tone loss from using a tuner is an issue for you, put it in the Tuner Out of your volume pedal to remove it from the signal chain, or have a simple true bypass A/B box to split the signal from your effects chain.

Noise Gate
The more pedals you add to the chain, the noisier your signal will get when you stop playing. A gate does what it metaphorically describes; it will close at a certain preset level (threshold), and you can control how fast the gate will close (decay), varying from a fast shut-off to keep things real tight at the expense of sustain, to a slow decay which will let some noise in but keeps the guitar tone natural.

Volume Pedal

Rolling off the volume on your guitar will have the tonal effect of rolling off the high-end and scooping the mids, which could be undesirable as you may want your original signal intact. A volume pedal solves this problem, allowing you to retain your tone at a desired volume level. You can perform the volume swell effect with this by having a long delay set after it.

Bleed and Open-back Combo Amps

I played for RBC's worship conference with Brian Felten (who is absolutely amazing as a teacher and as a musician; I was so honoured to work alongside him!), and the venue we played at was small and enclosed. The placement of the band right next to the audience meant that we were going to have big problems with bleed from the amps.

My amp was facing me, but had its back facing the audience. There were two things I needed to do: find a way to elevate the amp so that the bass frequencies won't travel, and find a baffle to block the sound coming from the open-back combo.

The solution we came up with was this:

You can't really see it, but it's a chair with a backing that fits very nicely over the open-back portion of the amp. It elevated the amp to a height (and an extra blessing was that it was cushioned) where the bass response was still favorable for me as a monitor, but it didn't affect the audience members sitting next to me. The backing was also large enough to prevent excessive bleed from the open-back.

This may seem to be ugly from an audience's point of view, but I am much more in favor of poor "aesthetics" than having the audience bear with a really loud guitar!

Friday, August 26, 2011

BECK (2010)

I'm an avid fan of BECK, mostly because it's a manga that chronicles the struggles, trials and tribulations that a band goes through in their quest to "make it". Which aspiring musician hasn't thought of making it to a festival, to play for a massive crowd, playing your heart and soul out (in the rain, no less, which is a really cool idea but terrible for the instruments).

As much as I like the manga, unfortunately the movie didn't do it justice. The plot development felt squashed and rushed. Like the anime, the movie tried to squeeze too many story arcs together (the band's beginnings, Koyuki's troubles with the Hyodou Band, the band's first few gigs, the band's recording of their demo and subsequent CD distribution, the rivalry between BECK and Belle Ame, and their eventual gig at Greatful Sound). In fact, I felt that it would have been better to split the movie into two parts and develop the individual story arcs more. Maybe then we'd see their relationship with the Indie label, Koyuki's period of tutelage under Saitou, Ray's friendship with Eddie Lee and Dying Breed, just to name a few.

Harold (the manga author) did a great job of depicting how a great band sounds, which, to put it on a canvas, would mean to capture their expressions, their body movements, and their connection to the instruments. This translated well onto film, with the actors knowing how to "rock it out". It certainly resonated with me as a guitarist!


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Like That!? Episode 2

Multi-storey carparks are difficult to park in; they're tight, they're congested, and they need quick hands to navigate the bends around corners to reach the next level in a bid to find an available lot.

I can understand the level of agitation one may feel at the end of the process, but that's not an excuse to be inconsiderate to other drivers:

I may not know the circumstances behind the driver deciding to make such a hasty parking, which may be legitly urgent, but I think spending 30 seconds more to park properly wouldn't make a difference to the situation, would it?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Like That!? Episode 1

A brand new segment of this blog to commemorate the moments that make us drivers go, "Why like that!?"

For this inaugural post, I present to you a parking specimen:

I hope my tone of exasperation is warranted when I say that this guy is too far from the kerb! Private estates have narrow roads to begin with, so it is imperative to park as close to the kerb as possible, not just for other road users to pass, but also for the behemothal rubbish truck to safely pass through the estate when it makes its rounds in the morning. If the truck comes across a bottle neck (caused by, for example, the above), it will not risk scratching the car and give the houses after a miss.

In my book, that's incredibly inconsiderate.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Pedals: An Introduction to Analog

I'll make an honest admission. Even though I've been playing guitar for over 12 years, I only started on analog pedals and amps this year. I've been relying on solid state for all of my tones, from my first 10W practice amp to my present Line 6 PODX3. Of course, it's not like I'm a complete newbie at it; I've gigged with all sorts of analog gear, courtesy of band mates who were kind (and rich) enough to lend me for the night.

Well, why the switch now?

In short, I got bitten by the analog bug. I must have been immune to it all those years when I wasn't earning an income and still a student on a budget. When payday comes, let me assure you, there's a great temptation to rush out and grab as many little metal boxes as your paycheck affords. In a short manner of 3 months, I acquired enough gear to completely fill up a Pedaltrain Pro (see below):

Justin's Pedalboard v2.0, 01Jul11
I've had an idea for what kind of tone I was going to commit to for a very long time, so that explains the apparent "shot-gun" style of acquiring my gear. I always liked warm, articulate and fat tones, particularly those in the style of Andy Timmons, Eric Johnson, Dave Weiner, and Ryo Owatari.

Was the switch easy? Not for me. Switching from multi-fx to analog pedals had the same feeling as switching from driving an automatic to a manual. There are so many other things to take note of which multi-fx settles for you, or completely removes for your convenience: the organization of the pedalboard, getting velcro to stick right, patching effects together, setting the volume of individual effects, choosing the right cables for the right pedal...

However, as highly convenient as digital processing offers, having total control over your signal chain is part of the allure of an analog pedalboard. If you're thinking of venturing into the realm of analog pedals, here are some tips I hope you'll find helpful:
  1. Be specific with your tone. What's the big picture of your tone? Can you describe it in words? By spelling your tone out (it doesn't have to be on paper), you're defining what you really want in your tone and can then make relevant choices. You'll know which pedals you won't need. Trust me, every pedal manufacturer out there will try to convince you that you need their pedal.
  2. Be realistic with your tone. This pertains to both your concept of tone and your budget for tone. You're not Eric Johnson/Joe Satriani/Steve Vai/(insert guitar hero here). No matter how close your rig is to your favorite guitar hero's, you won't sound like him because you're not him. The faster you assimilate this concept, the less you'll find yourself ogling over his ever-changing overhaul of guitars/pedals/amps. This leaves you more time and money to focus on your tone.
  3. Be content with your tone. You must eventually learn to draw the line to stop the purchases and concentrate on making your tone sound good. You made a plan, you stuck to it, you got what you wanted. Great! Now it's time to tweak less and practice more. Gear is only a means to an end, which is to make music.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

All Tied Up

When your power cables are kept in this manner...'re only inviting disaster the next time you unravel it. The first step to a nicely, naturally-coiled power cable is getting rid of the over-coil.

Next, follow the natural coil of the power cable and use a cable tie to secure it in the middle (I use a velcro cable tie, which can be purchased really cheaply at Daiso), forming a bundle as shown:

There, what a relief it is to see an increased level of neatness!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Take Your Pick

Thanks Aunt Nancy for this awesome pack of picks from Hard Rock!

It's good to have picks lying around--in your gig bags, in the accessory pockets of the band duffel bag, in your wallet--you never know when you'll have a guitar dropped in your lap and requested to play a song.

Here's an example of what happened over New Year's Eve dinner, where the performing guitar duo were making their rounds amongst the dinner tables, and Dad just had to mention that I play in a band. Thank goodness one of them was kind enough to lend me his pick:

Dinner at NUSS Suntec, New Year's Eve '10

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tools of the Trade

It's really convenient to blog these days. Remember the days when Blogger didn't have the ability to do rich formatting, upload pictures and link to videos? I survived on Scribefire for my personal blog (which is still alive to this date, with almost 7 years of history!), but now the basic Blogger interface has proven to be just as convenient. Here's what I do for pictures and videos:

I take pictures with my trusty iPhone, running them through instagram for some cool effects, and my Olympus EP-L1. I don't normally have to do much editing, except cropping, resizing, or adding a simple caption, in which case I use Microsoft Powerpoint. Yes, there are tricks to make Powerpoint churn out higher resolution pictures.

Videos are shot with my Canon FS100 (I know, cheapskate, but I got this from an IT fair and it was dead cheap) and sometimes with my EP-L1, with minimal editing with Windows Movie Maker.  When I'm up for it, I'll mic up with either a Shure SM-57 or an Audio Technica AT-2035 (or both, when sufficiently inspired) running into my M-Audio Fast Track Pro.

The audio is then processed through Kristal Audio, which I'll run several plugins to make the video loud enough so that you don't need to crank it (my pet peeve with unprocessed audio on videos), and clear enough so that you can hear what's going on (my other pet peeve with over-processed audio).

Powerpoint, Movie Maker and Kristal. Sure, they're limited in functionality when compared to Photoshop, Premiere and ProTools, but they're free and available for anyone to dive deep into, to satisfy the blogger in you.

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