Tuesday, October 27, 2009

United Airlines: Unfriendly to Guitars?

Ever since that “unfortunate” incident with Dave Carroll’s guitars a few months ago, are most airline company’s unfriendly when it comes to guitars and other musical instruments?

By: Ringo Bones

Growing up in the 1980s, I’ve often viewed United Airlines’ corporate slogan “Fly the friendly skies” with such surrealism after a number of incidents of passenger jets being hijacked by “PLO-sponsored terrorists”. Fast forward to 2009, the same surrealism returns again after the unlikeliest of songs by David Carroll titled United Breaks Guitars, retelling his “ordeal” with United Airlines’ baggage handlers became a runaway success. Noting that the only other song in existence that recounts about broken guitars is Broken by NY Loose where Brijitte West sings an ode to her broken Gibson SG that also became a hit back in 1997. But is United Airlines really at fault? After all if the prominent Blogosphere journalist Arianna Huffington harbors doubts whether Dave Carroll’s damaged guitar and mental anguish is really worth 180 million dollars, then how airline companies handle our fragile baggage – like musical instruments – should be looked into.

One of my audio-buddies who was fortunate enough to be a touring Classical Music cellist – though not fortunate enough to afford his own touring plane – has told me that as far as 1999, airline companies are not really that friendly with touring musicians and their “fragile” musical instruments. My cellist friend had a first-hand experience with Southwest Airlines’ baggage policy. Southwest Airlines’ baggage policy states that they would not guarantee safe arrival if the instruments were checked: they call it a “conditional” guarantee. Meaning Southwest is responsible for loss only, not damage. No wonder why most musicians – especially guitarists - buy their own touring plane as soon as they can afford one. But – in defense of David Carroll’s recent incident - have you seen a typical musical instrument case lately?

Most budget guitar, cello, and violin travel cases / flight cases that are made with ABS thermo shell and other high-strength exotic fiber composites that I have personally examined. Like those from Bam and the Gage Case are sturdy enough to withstand a direct hit with a 9-mm parabellum automatic pistol and sub-machinegun rounds. While up-market flight cases designed to protect musical instruments with pedigree – like a 1724 “Ludwig” Stradivari or a “Balokovic” Guarneri del Gesu, even your typical eight thousand dollar CF Martin & Co. acoustic guitar – will more than likely stop a 7.26mm X 39mm Kalashnikov round fired from 30 meters away. Maybe Mythbusters will test my hypothesis someday.

Given the “workmanship” that goes into a typical musical instrument flight case, United Airlines’ baggage handlers must be doing their very serious Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme impressions to have damaged Dave Carroll’s guitars that are safely tucked in into their respective guitar flight cases. Even a newbie lawyer can safely say, “case closed” - but is Dave Carroll really 180 million dollars richer? Maybe that’s a question only he and his travel insurance provider can answer.

Friday, October 9, 2009

BBE Sonic Maximizer: Guitar Tone Friendly?

Despite of being endorsed and used by high-profile Heavy Metal guitarists and bassists during the late 1980s and early 1990s, does the BBE Sonic Maximizer really improve your guitar’s tone?

By: Ringo Bones

After listening to Liz Phair wring out righteous tones from her Fender Duo Sonic guitar on Red Light Fever from her eponymous 2003 album for the umpteenth this past few years. I can now safely conclude that a) you don’t need to play at warp speed to perform a really beautiful guitar solo and b) gorgeously loud midranges are a guitarist’s birthright. Given my recent experiences on how the BBE Sonic Maximizer tends to make those very midrange tones sound like the visual equivalent of an airbrushed photo, I now wonder if the guitar world still really needs this quirky black box. But when it comes to Liz Phair’s guitar playing, I just couldn’t airbrush her already excellent tone - Especially not somebody with that kind of soul. Thus the question now is why did the BBE Sonic Maximizer ever gained inroads into the tone obsessed world of electric guitar playing?

After being endorsed by Megadeth and Skid Row during the Golden Age of Heavy Metal – i.e. the late 1980s and early 1990s. Almost every guitarist around the world coveted of using a BBE Sonic Maximizer just because a growing number of guitarists with a major label deal had began using one. Plus given the growing number of boom-boxes and as an audio system ad-on in both pro recording and domestic hi-fi setting, one could safely say that this is one piece of kit that’s aggressively marketed. But how did it sound?

After obtaining one rather cheaply from our local pawnshop that accepts electric guitars and related pro audio gear. All I can say that the BBE Sonic Maximizer – though can do wonders if you are recording into cassette tapes and intend to use cassette tapes as master tapes – is one of those technologically driven products that can sound mediocre, even awful, in its intended application. Its ability to boost the bass and treble ends of the spectrum tends to ruin the sound of most – if not all – applications related to electric guitar recording and / or connecting your axe to a concert PA system.

One of the main reasons that a very distorted guitar tube amplifier sounds so good is that guitar amp speakers can’t reproduce the higher-order harmonics generated as the guitar player overdrives the tubes by cranking up the amp to 11. If it does it tends to make your guitar rig to sound very shrill and somewhat weak. And there is a surprising amount of infrasonic to low bass energy put out by a typical guitar amp. Due to the guitar strings reacting in a resonant manner with the magnetic bias of the guitar’s pickups. And probably the only time when the BBE Sonic Maximizer produced a righteous guitar tone on the intro of Megadeth’s Train of Consequences from their Youthanasia album. But most of the time, the BBE Sonic Maximizer when used in electric guitar applications tend to make your guitar tone shrill and overly weak while making the bass frequencies honk like a drunken tuba player during Oktoberfest.

While I never compared one side by side, there was a similar audio processor intended to enhance the high and low end of the audio spectrum that came out during the height of the BBE craze. It was called the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² with Big Bottom. It was supposedly claimed to enhance the high-frequency region of your recordings or electric guitar while making your 8-inch woofer sounds like a 15-inch woofer without making your rig and recordings sound muddy due to tape saturation and / or system overload. Though it was favorably reviewed in some forums by a number of guitarists for improving their tone, I haven’t yet heard it being compared in a side by side showdown with the BBE Sonic Maximizer.

From my point of view I think the BBE Sonic Maximizer and the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² with Big Bottom were probably produced as tone enhancers by their respective makers - Probably because during the time of these products release, vacuum tubes were getting very scarce. And their respective manufacturers probably decided that since vacuum tubes – and their tone enhancing properties – are going the way of the dodo, it is only logical to create a solid-state based replacement. I can only guess how a BBE Sonic Maximizer could sound – tone wise - if the folks at BBE Sound Inc. decide to make one using Electro-Harmonix 12AX7 preamplifier tubes or equivalent.

Remembering Woodstock: Which Woodstock?

It’s been 40 years since that fateful day of August 1969 when the first ever Woodstock was born, but which Woodstock made the best impression in the minds of most of the world’s guitar slingers?

By: Ringo Bones

Whether you’ll agree with then or not, many of us guitar slingers see the 1969 Woodstock as that historic moment that raised the electric guitar to its present – and probably it’s future - iconic status. Even though I’m born a few years after the original Woodstock, I’m somewhat old enough to own a brain that automatically defaults to that iconic summer of 1969 event whenever the topic of Woodstock springs to mind. Thus further reinforcing the belief that: “If you remember the 1960s, you’re not really there, man.” Given the relatively low-key festivities commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock in 2009, I wonder if it still registers in the global consciousness of guitar slingers everywhere.

When Jimi Hendrix played Woodstock back in August 18, 1969, he had really made it to the very top of a musical mountain that has become ever tougher to climb as the years went by. Having just disbanded The Experience – Hendrix’s then iconic trio – Jimi has thus started to explore fresh musical horizons. Hendrix assembled his new band for the Woodstock gig – Gypsy Sun & Rainbows – while a hastily scratched out set list forever made him a musical icon in the guitar world. Sadly, only hardcore “Hendrixphiles” ever remembers second guitarist Larry Lee and the two percussionists, Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez - The almost “last minute” additions of his now iconic 1969 Woodstock lineup. With the sun rising over Yasgur’s farm – it was 9:00 Monday morning when Hendrix, the festival headliner, actually took the stage - fortunately for us.

Chances are there are probably more guitar slingers out there who remember the 1994 “Seattle Grunge” Woodstock supposedly commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the iconic musical event. Instead, it projected the impression of a mud-drenched and psychotropic addled marketing ploy of David Geffen and those two guys who owned Sub Pop records doing their damnedest to make Seattle Grunge a global phenomenon in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s untimely passing. While the 1999 Woodstock that supposedly commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the original event will forever be remembered for the 12 ounce of bottled water being sold for eight dollars each - Not to mention the misogynistic grope-fest.

Even though our supposedly grandiose 40th Anniversary festivities slated for celebrating Woodstock this 2009 has decided to become low-key. Is it because that we are currently in a global recession? Or is it because of the untimely passing of someone who should have been performing in the original 1969 Woodstock – i.e. Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5? Who knows, maybe Ang Lee should have done something better than that somewhat quirky 1969 Woodstock based comedy?

From my perspective, the 1969 Woodstock has always been about my two favorite musicians / guitarists – namely Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix. While Jimi Hendrix’s lasting legacy was establishing the artistic and technical how-to in playing electric guitar in front of thousands of people. While Richie Havens – after opening for the 1969 Woodstock - still made the acoustic guitar relevant in the time of man walking on the Moon and other scientific advances - if you play it right by the way.

Richie Havens was probably one of the first “celebrity environmentalist” after he promoted environmentally sustainable living. Havens is probably the most famous resident of Arcosanti, an environmentally sustainable village designed by architect Paolo Soleri. This was in the early to mid 1990s, at the time when then US vice president Al Gore speak about the dangers of excessive greenhouse gases produced by industry, the extreme Christian Right of America were still too clueless to deny about global warming in the vice president’s face. Not to mention Richie Havens’ talent for making remakes of other people’s songs sound like his own. His remake of James Taylor’s iconic Fire and Rain is still often mistaken as being originally done by Havens himself – a perception often harbored by novice James Taylor fans.

Despite of being the venue of America’s first “boy band” – i.e. does Sha Na Na count? The1969 Woodstock will forever be remembered as the venue where high decibel electric guitar playing came of age. Not to mention this is probably the first venue where cultural diversity through music first became cool to the under 25s.