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February 19, 2009

45 Minutes To Go...

Not that I'm counting or anything.

Damn, I'm tired. I'll definitely sleep through most of the flight out!

44 minutes to go...

43 minutes to go...

Oh, must check the inflight entertainment! Best to see what I'll be missing!

February 18, 2009

One More Day To Go!

Just got to get through one more day of work, finish packing, deliver the cat to the old folks' home, find our stash of beads... maybe fit in one more trip to the gym and WE'RE AWAY!!!!

I forget what the exact flight times are, but it's something like 10 hours to Dallas, then immigration and a short hop (90 minutes?) over to New Orleans.

I reckon that if all things go smoothly we'll be arriving at our hotel room around cocktail hour... whenever that may be!

A couple of our friends will already be there... probably waiting for us in the lobby! Another arrives on Sunday... just in time to miss the Derek Trucks concert the night before! Yay!

This may be my last post before we go, so... TTFN!

February 17, 2009

Rockin' Rollercoaster

Okay, so obviously our return to New Orleans after an absence of 4 years and 1 hurricane is going to bring with it a mixture of emotions. For selfish reasons I'll admit that I've been trying to keep sight of the good times rather than dwell on the tragedies of the past.

I first set foot in The Crescent City in 2002, but I already knew that I'd fall in love with it. I had an idea of what it would be like, based on books, movies and the music, but I also saw the truth light up in Tim's eyes whenever he spoke of his pilgrimages to Nawlins during the decade before we met.

I still remember the first hurricane to pass close following my first visit. I was absolutely terrified that something bad would happen. Ever since then I put myself on hurricane watch, tracking storms through the Gulf using the National Hurricane Center website.

At the time of our wedding in February 2005, right in the heart of the French Quarter (not even a block away from Bourbon Street) I'd racked up something like 5 of my own pilgrammages, including two Mardi Gras'.

I was so proud that we had got to that point, that our family and friends were there to share it with us. I was also proud to play tour guide for my folks in the town that I'd come to see as a mirror of my soul. In my dreams I hoped that someday Tim and I would retire to New Orleans, buy a house with a back porch or a balcony and that I'd pick away my dotage, bluesing it up for the passers-by.

I still remember vividly the moment that my Dad stopped in the middle of the street, halfway down Royal, put his hand to his head and muttered, "This is crazy. I'm sorry, son, but this place is a disaster waiting to happen. It's not going to be around long!"

It was the day before our wedding and, really, I just blew off the comment. New Orleans had been around for a long time. It was steeped in history. It had survived storms and flooding in the past. It would prevail.

If there's one thing I know about my father, though, is that he's a superb engineer and he knows a hell of a lot about coastal construction, erosion, defences and so on. I already knew that in principal he was right. New Orleans sits in a basin below sea-level and a direct hit from a hurricane of sufficient magnitude to break the levees would flood the entire area. I knew that in principal he was right. I simply didn't want to believe that fate would be so cruel.

It was.

Seven months later, along came Katrina.

I don't even want to go into the emotions that swept in with the hurricane. Even on the other side of the planet the plight of the people caught up in the storm was felt as a sucker-punch to the gut.

For days I watched the drama unfurl. I watched the waters rush then creep in, ever closer to my beloved Vieux Carre. Miraculously, the flooding stopped short of the boundaries of the 'old' town and even left the Garden District broadly untouched.

The toll of the storm in terms of loss and human misery was immense, but I clung to the single ray of hope that New Orleans could come back as long as its precious heart was still beating. In my mind, as long as the French Quarter was there, there was still a chance for recovery.

I still don't know whether New Orleans will come back, and if it does, what form it'll take. A huge part of its soul was in the people, and the people were scattered far and wide. Many... most, even, have not returned.

The Big Easy is still there, and in three days we'll find out how much of her spirit remains intact. As I said, I'm trying to set my sights on the fun side of this trip. The Good Times. This morning, though, I was listening to Susan Tedeschi's new album, "Back To The River", which includes the track "700 Houses". It brought a tear to my eye so I figured I owed it to everyone who loves New Orleans to share the song with them.

Here you go...

Lookin' out my window
What do I see?
700 houses
Scattered in front of me
Silence all around me
Deafening the air
Not a sign of anyone
I just had to stare

What is this madness?
My hopes and dreams are sand
All the signs that led me home
Are scattered to the wind
I'm searching for my friends
And shaking in my skin
Where have all of my Saints gone?
Will they come marching in?

What can be done?
Another storm to overcome
What can be done?
What can be done?
Another storm to overcome

Let's pick up the pieces
From this tragedy
You and I must come to terms
With this reality
I'm lost and I'm looking
My city's washed away
But you know that I'll be back
I'm coming back to stay

What can be done?
Another storm to overcome
What can be done?
What can be done?
Another storm to overcome

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out!

Check this out! Click on the picture above and you should get a new window with one of the 'live' street cams on Bourbon Street! You can change cam by clicking on 'Cam 2'. So, at the time I typed this it's 4:15am over there on the Tuesday one week before Mardi Gras day! Not too much happening right now. Things should start to heat up on Thursday as the tourists hit the town. We get there on Friday night... and the party will start-ey!

It's all down hill from there, baby!

February 16, 2009

Countdown To Mardi Gras

It's a coming! We still have to dig out our old (prized!) beads from storage, pack, book a taxi to the airport... lots of things! BUT, the countdown to Mardi Gras has started. In just 4 days we'll be on a plane, headed west to Dallas then back east to The Big Easy.


First stop hotel room (to be decorated appropriately with a selection of beads!)

Next stop Bombay Club for a martini or two, perhaps rendezvous with friends old and new

Next stop? Maybe a parade... maybe a bar!

Next stop? Rebirth Brass Band at the Howlin' Wolf!


Meanwhile back in Guitar Land, UK. Teach from Rockschool suggested that a good strategy for improvising was to follow the changes and to try to emphasise the chord notes within the framework of, say, the minor pentatonic.

Now, I've had decent success with pentatonics in the past, but I've never really put any effort into targetting chord tones for emphasis. SO! I made a map! Do you want to see it? Do you? DO YOU?!?!

I started off by plotting out the minor pentatonic shape (G minor in the example). I then overlayed the I, IV and V chords along with the root note for each case. The idea was that I wanted to split up the big 'across the fingerboard', 2-octave boxes into smaller chunks which could then be used over each chord.

Here's an extended pentatonic pattern that I tend to use:

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|--R|---|---|--O|---|--O|---|--O|---|---|--O|
B |---|---|--O|---|---|--O|---|--R|---|---|--O|---|--O|
G |---|---|--O|---|--O|---|--O|---|---|--O|---|--R|---|
D |---|---|--O|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|--O|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|--R|---|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

The I chord overlay would look like this, where O represents notes in the chord and ':' represents a non-chordal tone which you would try to use as a passing note only.

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|--R|---|---|--O|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|--:|
B |---|---|--O|---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|--O|---|--:|
G |---|---|--O|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|--:|---|--R|---|
D |---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|--R|---|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Okay, so the I chord has lots and lots of options for mini-boxes to make licks out of. You're pretty much sorted as all three chord notes are represented within the minor pentatonic.

For example, a good box might be:

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
B |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
G |---|---|--O|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|
D |---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Where you can do a 5-7 bend or slide on the G-string.

The IV and V chords are a bit more problematic, as the minor pentatonic only contains two of the three chord tones.

So here's the IV chord mapping:

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|--R|---|---|--:|---|--O|---|--:|---|---|--:|
B |---|---|--:|---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|--:|---|--O|
G |---|---|--:|---|--O|---|--:|---|---|--:|---|--R|---|
D |---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|--O|---|--:|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|--R|---|---|--:|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Hmmm... slim pickings, eh?

If we wanted to stay put on the fingerboard we might stick with a similar box to the I chord, but with a different emphasis, for example:

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
B |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
G |---|---|--:|---|--O|---|--:|---|---|---|---|---|---|
D |---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|--O|---|--:|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Or perhaps we might move up an octave to the following:

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|---|---|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|
B |---|---|---|---|---|--:|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|
G |---|---|---|---|---|---|--:|---|---|---|---|---|---|
D |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Starting to get tricky, eh? But sometimes limiting yourself means that you have to be creative with what you have!

Let's do the same for the V chord.

  0   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
e |---|---|--R|---|---|--:|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|--O|
B |---|---|--O|---|---|--O|---|--R|---|---|--:|---|--:|
G |---|---|--:|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|--O|---|--R|---|
D |---|---|--O|---|--R|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|--:|---|--O|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|--R|---|---|--:|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Hey, maybe that's not to bad. Again we have a box right back where we started on the A, D and G strings, then another similar to the second, higher box for the IV chord. We also have a pretty cool box up around the 12th fret which looks like this once it's been extended up to the 15th fret:

  8   9  10  11  12  13  14  15
e |---|--O|---|---|--O|---|--R|
B |---|---|--:|---|--:|---|--O|
G |---|--O|---|--R|---|---|---|
D |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
A |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
E |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

So, we can get some great repeating licks from the root note on the G-string to the 11th and 13th on the B. We can bend the 13th on the B-string up to 15 to get up to a chord tone. Pull in the 13th on the high E with your pinky and you add a touch of country twang. Hell, as long as you don't dawdle between the 13th and 15th on the B-string then you should be golden.

Instinctively I know that this stuff should all work as penatonics are so generic that they generally work in 90% of cases anyway. I need to actually sit down with them and listen to the tension/release they generate over a I-IV-V, though, to see how practical this approach is for effective soloing!


Teach just emailed me a couple of points to ponder. Consider thinking about the chord shapes themselves when soloing, so in this case the G would be an Em-shape barre, the C (IV) would be an Am-shape, but then the D in this position would be a Cm shape! Also, obviously you're not restricted to the Gm pentatonic, you could also add in Gm blues and G natural minor scales, all of which work just fine.

February 13, 2009

Rockschool Blurp

No time for a real post so you'll have to settle for a blurp!

Rockschool last night. Improvisation 101. Nothing major (or minor) that I didn't know here. Really just scene setting. Chords in a key. That kind of thing.

Touched on places where you either have to change the scale you're using or at least miss out notes that are going to clash when you come across chords that don't actually fit into a key but which have been substituted.

Need to lay down some chord sequences and practice targetting notes within the chord then using the other scale notes as passing notes. Putting the right EM-phasis on the right syll-AB-le.

That's your lot! No Rockschool next week, then after that we're in New Orleans. Time for a break but mustn't get lazy and fall too far behind!

February 11, 2009

Mardi Gras Memories

In the run up to Fat Tuesday I can't help but think back on times gone by...

Here are just a few Mardi Gras Memories from my scrapbook!

Solo Mojo

My thoughts on learning to improvise:

A B A B A A A F...






One must learn to use notes, phrases, accent, VOLUME and, above all, timing to create a mellifluous sound!

February 10, 2009

Down On The Corner

We're starting to really look forward to Mardi Gras! Just over a week to go before we fly out. Can't wait!

If you find yourself out and about in the Vieux Carre, here are just a few of the places you might be able to track us down, courtesy of Google Maps' street view!

First off, let's start the day right with a hearty breakfast of biscuits & gravy at Deja Vu!

After an hour or two on the streets, it's time for a quick cup of chicory coffee at the Cafe du Monde...

If that caffeine jolt gets you flying, there's nothing better to help gravity regain its grip than a plateful of red beans and rice with andouille sausage from Coop's Place!

So those beers you had over lunch are starting to kick in! Keep that buzz going until it's time for the Derek Trucks band show at the House of Blues...

Woo-hoo! That was a great show, wasn't it? Time for a few more cocktails before settling in for a 4am hub-cap burger at the Clover Grill! Yum!

A couple more beers to wash down the snack and it's time for one last stumble down Bourbon Street before bed...

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!

Oh, and today I seem to be on a 'let's see if it's on' tip. Inspired by a posting on Pribek, I got to thinking about guitar players who actually sound like they're playing guitar, so for your listening pleasure, here's Duane Allman lending a hand to Boz Skaggs on "Loan Me A Dime".

But don't think I'm gonna let you leave New Orleans without a bit of Rebirth! Check out their totally second-line-tastic cut of "Do Whatcha Wanna". Yeah, BABY!

Please Be With Me

No reason... just because...

Upon my word what does it mean?
Is it love or is it me
That makes me change so suddenly
From looking out to feeling free?

I sit here lying in my bed
Wondering what it was I said
That made me think I lost my head
When I knew I lost my heart instead.

So won't you please read my signs
Be a gypsy
Tell me what I hope to find deep within me
And because you can find my mind
Please be with me.

Of all the better things I've heard
Loving you has made the words
And all the rest seem so absurd
'Cause in the end it all comes out I'm sure.

So won't you please read my signs
Be a gypsy
Tell me what I hope to find deep within me
And because you can find my mind
Please be with me.

From "5'll Getcha 10" (1971) by Cowboy
Scott Boyer & Tommy Talton

Do your soul some good and check out the non-album cut featuring Duane Allman (taken from "Duane Allman - An Anthology") by clicking here.

February 9, 2009

Weekend Update

I'm not going to go overboard with posts about my Dad, but I've had a lot of well-wishing comments, emails etc so it'd be a bit heartless not to say something.

Dad came out of hospital on Friday night, so I spent most of Saturday with him, relieving Mum of babysitting duties and, basically, chewing the fat one-to-one. It's not something we've ever really done alot. The conversation ranged from engineering, through will-writing, motorcycles and we even touched on music towards the end. Dad claims the double-whammy of both regular deafness and tone-deafness. He's never had any interest in the musical arts and definitely doesn't 'get it', but I think he sees how I light up when describing why I love certain songs. He willingly humours me when it comes to my little endeavours. At times like that I both feel his equal and also feel him being a father to me. It's hard not to feel moved.

Of course, it could just be the diazapam!

Before releasing him, the doctors administered a long-lasting epidural painkiller and restocked his supply of muscle-relaxants, analgesics and so on. The problem is something do do with his spine. There's some swelling which is pinching a nerve... Even though the root cause is age-related bone degeneration, the long-term prognosis is good. 90% of cases clear up with time and appropriate physio. I kept reinforcing with him that he needs to do the physio or he's just postponing more problems. Hopefully he got the message. What about the other 10%? Well, if it doesn't cure itself then he'll need an operation. At 75 years old that's never a good thing.

Okay, so this was going to be a short status update. Basically, he's in the eye of the storm. He's no longer in agony and even managed to walk to the bathroom with just the aid of a stick. It's been a real ordeal for him, though. He's had to rely on other people which isn't 'him' at all. I think he's feeling his mortality, particularly after being housed in the 'screamer' ward of the hospital where everyone was in pain. I'm not surprised his nerves are a little shot right now.

Okay then. How about something to do with music, eh?

Yeah? Yeah!

I got most of Sunday to myself to practice... well, Tim was physically there, but mentally he was 'at one' with Sim City. You have to understand that when Tim plugs into that baby, well, he's not really there anymore. The only signs of life were the occasional mouse-click, rapid space-bar pummeling and the occasional diva-channelling triggered by his iPod shuffling to a big-vocal anthem.

So, I plugged Red into the new Blackstar, which sounds grrreat, and got to work!

First up, much neglected chromatic exercises. Didn't get too wayward. A good warm-up routine.

Next, checking out the new Rockschool song that I've elected to learn, "Bust Up". To me it sounds very .38 Special, if you know what I mean! Lots of straight two-note partial chord downstroking, just alternating one note from time to time, for example:

e ----------------------------------------------------
B ----------------------------------------------------
G ---9--9--9--8--8--8--9--9--9--8--8--8--9--9--8--8---
D ---7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7---
A ----------------------------------------------------
E ----------------------------------------------------

...then change to...

e ----------------------------------------------------
B ----------------------------------------------------
G ---9--9--9--8--8--8--9--9--9--8--8--8--9--9--8--8---
D ---6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6--6---
A ----------------------------------------------------
E ----------------------------------------------------

You can find it on YouTube, anyway. The fun thing about the song is actually the turnarounds, which sound very cool in an 80's pop-rock kind of way.

I deliberately didn't revisit X-Blues III to learn the tabbed out parts, but I did spend some time improvising over the backing track. This Thursday's going to be all about how to solo effectively as we'll be expected to stand up and noodle in front of each other. Potentially high embarrassment factor.

I also totally ignored "All Funked Up". Hey ho... forgot about that one!

We're scheduled to have a band practice on Wednesday, so I had to switch emphasis in that direction. I ran through some of the old stuff but also took a look at some new song ideas that have been tabled, including:

"You Really Got Me" (Kinks)
"Vasoline" (Stone Temple Pilots)

Oh crap, there was something else, but I can't remember! That doesn't bode well, eh? I'm not a huge STP fan, but Vasoline's kind of fun to play. I won't claim I've got it all down, but it's not that hard to rock out on. Most of the actual song is carried by the vocals rather than the guitar, which just provides a backdrop. Pretty cool. Should go down well in a pub.

Ah... "DAYTRIPPER" by the Beatles. That was the third song!

Anywho, that's your lot for now. Things to do, places to be and all that!

February 7, 2009

I Love Nut Sauce

No, this isn't a lifestyle post. It's an endorsement of the Big Bends product 'Nut Sauce'. My little sample tube of it came in the mail today, so I slapped it on my Les Paul and this was the result...

For once, despite some pretty crazy bending, my G-string was still in whack after 30 minutes of practice. Pretty impressive! I'd recommend anyone with tuning issues give this stuff a go!

February 5, 2009

Rockschool Fiasco...

Oh My F**king God.

Apologies to those of a religious bent for the blasphemy. I'm sorry. I don't believe in The Big G, so oops, there goes my ol' immortal soul... again.

Due to public transport issues, I arrived a quarter of the way through the session, frazzled. I've not had news of my Dad today, so I'm on tenderhooks. We had to perform the pieces we've been 'preparing'.

I played badly.


Next week we're going to focus on improvisation skills. I have two weeks to polish the two songs plus have a stab at learning a third.

Let me just say again... Oh My F**king God.

February 4, 2009

Blackstar HT-5 Combo: First Impressions

Okay, here we go... the first impressions of my brand-spanking new Blackstar HT-5 Combo! As I mentioned in my previous post I have some stuff going on that's held up the full review. I'm hoping to find time to do some sound samples and so on, but for now you get the stuff I wrote immediately after opening the box for the first time...

First off, to put this review in context, I should probably say what I wanted out of a new amp. Although I've 'played' (a relative term... 'owned' would be more accurate) guitars since early adulthood, I only really got serious about improving my skills after August 2004... more specifically after I was given a Les Paul copy (made by Stellar) for by 35th birthday. Prior to that I'd actually given up six-string axe-slinging for quite some time, so receiving a gift-wrapped instrument was quite the surprise! If you're interested in the back-story you can find the real skinny on my bio page, here.

Right, those of you who can't stomach long-winded incoherent waffle, it's probably best to scroll down to where you see "And so onto the actual review"! Trust me, if you don't you'll have to restock your medicine cabinet with Pepto-Bismol before we're done...

To match the Stellar Les Paul, I ran out and bought a 15W Orange Crush practice amp. It cost around £80 as far as I recall. 100% solid state. Made a noise... not really up to much but at that price, I didn't expect anything great.

As I improved, I realised that I needed something a bit meatier, so I gave the Orange the ol' heave-ho and bought myself a used Marshall Valvestate VS100R off eBay. I think it set me back £150. It was soooo much better than the 15W Crush. And soooo much louder! I'd already shoe-horned new pickups into the Stellar... Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates humbuckers... and the combination of super-hot pups and that amp was enough to strip paint off the walls.

When switching the amp on you'd hear a noticable click, then a pop... wait a few seconds... slight hum coming on... followed by an almighty THUMP as Oscar the cat hit the flap at full tilt, uncharacteristically headed 'out' into the dangerous, mysterious Garden-Land.

Poor thing. Cats have such delicate hearing.

As time went on, the Marshall developed more and more of a hum, then a whine, then, a few weeks ago, it started to drop out on volume from time to time. I changed the pre-amp valve, which cured the whine and helped with the hum, but even so I figured it was time to retire the old war horse. I got to lookin' for a new amp.

Yes... yes... I was tempted to go all 'aspirational' and match my (now real) Les Paul with an amp of a similar stature. The name 'Mesa Boogie' came up in conversation with Santa many, many times in the run up to Christmas. So much, so, that Tim even wrote his own little "Mesa Boogie" song & dance routine, borrowing heavily from "Jungle Boogie" by Kool & the Gang. I now cannot even think about MB amplification without seeing that particular two-step shuffle in my mind.

Already having Red Dog, a real Les Paul, in my arsenal I'd decided to ditch transistor amps/hybrids and go 'All Valve'. I wanted to kick it Old Skool.

But therein lay a major problem. I wanted the Old Skool sound, but at neighbour friendly volume levels. How do you achieve that without using a transistor for the power-amp? Even a regular 5W valve amp will blow the roof off before it starts to hit the desired levels of screamy crunchy-crunch.

I'm pretty sure it was Furtheron of "Guitars & Life" blog who first pointed me towards Blackstars. Needless to say, my nose was full of Mesa Boogie Lone Star Specials at the credit-crunch price of £1750 when he mentioned them and I never really took the time to check out the Blackstar combo.

Then I saw a review in a magazine... then another... and another. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about the new HT-5 amps! I started to pay attention.

Bored yet? I know I am! Cutting to the chase, I wanted 'that' valve sound at 'reasonable' (as opposed to 'unreasonable') volumes and whilst I didn't mind the idea of splashing the cash too much, why pay over the odds for a quality amp if you can get something perfectly decent at a decent price, eh?

And so onto the actual review!

Right then. First Impressions? It's black and fairly hefty for its size, weighing in at around 15kg, according to the box (which could have come with carrying handles, thank you very much my 'package design' friends at Blackstar). Aesthetically, I'd say it's understated. It definitely has something of a retro-vibe about it, though the 'Hi, I'm Arial' logo font kinda gives it away that Blackstar are new kids on the block.

It feels really sturdy. The corner protectors aren't 'Marshall' thick, but when you reach around and grope at the back of the cabinet you'll find pretty quickly that this isn't made from flimsy materials. Chunky, tolex-wrapped 15mm ply.

Look closer and things start getting cooler. The knobs are silver and chunky and the leather(ish) handle has some neat looking anchors. All the controls are top-mounted. You're not going to mistake this puppy for a Marshall... which I'm sure was the intention of the ex-Marshall engineers who founded Blackstar. All the fit and finish is exemplary. It looks like a £1000 bit of kit. Turning the thing around the first thing you notice (or you don't notice!) is that the sockets for external wiring are recessed and out of sight. Nothing sticks out. Onstage, rooting around for the right hole to stick a cable in might be problematic, but at home it means that the rear end is kept clean and tidy. Ooh-er, missus.

Oh, and there's a velcro strap for stowing your cable when on the go.

Mustn't forget that the amp comes with a really sturdy footswitch for flipping between clean and overdrive channels. Free... comes with... not extra!

So, black/silver... a bit bland on first glance but then shows quality details on further inspection. Nice. Classy.

It's also soooo much smaller than my old VS100R. Okay, so it's only got a 10" Celestion rather than the old Marshall's 12", but by locating the controls on top and towards the rear you free up the whole front face for the speaker. Compact.

I'm starting to get the impression that these boys thought the design through. Still, mustn't be swayed by streamlined packaging if it compromises sound... it's obviously a closed cabinet. Some people like that, some people don't.

What options do we have on the top panel, eh? Well, on clean we get... volume. Well, that's a good start. On the overdrive channel you get GAIN and... volume. Okay. Well, that's the basics covered. Ah, next to those you have Bass/Mid/Treble EQ which work on both channels. So, that's something of a limitation when switching between channels, but this is a budget amp, after all!

Then you get the mystical ISF knob! Infinite Shape Feature... okeydokey... what does that do? Well, according to the manual (yes, yes, I read the manual) if you twist it one way you get more UK (Marshally) vibe and if you twist it the other you head west to the US of A (Mesa Boogie, Mesa Boogie). Is this a gimmick? Maybe. Supposedly it was originally meant to be a temporary widget that the techs used when developing the amp for fine-tuning the sound, but they enjoyed fiddling with it so much they simply left it on. Think of it as a fine-tune control for the EQ.

That covers the knobs. There's no fat here and there's no reverb. Personally, I like that. I think reverb sucks ass. Yes, yes, I had assumed that it would come with reverb, but now that it doesn't I'M GLAD! Seriously, even on my old amps I never turned the reverb on. I want echoes? I'll play in a bigger room!

Switches? The usual valve-style on/off and standby switches. Very nicely done, too. Again, simple and classy.

Input/Output? A place to plug in your lead (obviously) and a headphone socket which doubles as an emulated line out... which can simulate what you'd hear from either a 1x12 cabinet or a 4x12 cabinet. Okay, so here's where we're finding a bit of additional techno-trickery which is a bit anti-valve-ist, but hey, I'm sure it'll come in handy when recording...

Going round the back again, you get an FX loop, plug-ins for additional cabs... erm... footswitch plug in. All good stuff. Nothing missing here.

So, all the basic controls you need with the only real frills being the emulated line out and that weird little pan-galactic ISF knob.

Now, we're getting to the point where we plug it in... all cables connected, flip the on/off switch, wait 30 seconds and take it off standby...


Damn it. I got a duff one! No... no I didn't. It's silent because there's no hum and no hiss. It's perfectly noise-free, even plugged into the wall-socket that used to make the VS100R grumble like a bitch. Cool!

So, it works, it's quiet. Now to test it out, I suppose!

...and that's where I got to with the review before life intervened.

A bit of a cliff-hanger, eh?

The good news is that I've played with it now on a range of settings, both clean and overdrive and I have to say that this is the best amp I've ever played through. I love it. It sounds clear, open and spacey. I liked the sound of the Valvestate, but this baby is like crystal compared with the Marshall being a fogged-up window. Immensely cool. Every home should have one!

So, if you're out there wondering what 5W valve amp to buy for home/studio use then I'm here to tell you that this little fella's going to do you proud. Run out and test-drive a Blackstar TODAY!

The Iceman Go.. eth...

The snow is melting... slowly... in places it's turning into really trecherous ice. Definitely not weather that the scooters will be out in any time soon... well... maybe Friday... We'll see.

The Rockschool piece "X-Blues III" is driving me insane. It's really annoying to listen to, and frustrating to play as I simply can't get it into my brain which call/response to play when. You have to make sure that each time you play the 'call' you end with your fingers in the right place to play the 'response', otherwise you're up the creek without a paddle.

So here's the thing. I'm distracted. Long story short, my Dad's not well right now. He's currently in a lot of pain, and we've been left hanging as to what exactly the doctors are going to do for him. We're no stranger to Dad having self-inflicted wounds. As I was growing up he was nearly severing fingers or severely burning himself on a weekly basis. This is age-related, though, which is something all-new and scary.

I'm not going to dwell on any of that but it's weird having to get on with daily life, Rockschool studies and all that, when we're on tenderhooks. I've completely ignored the fact that I'm supposed to be working on the other Rockschool song, "All Funked Up", as well as the rock/blues piece.

All very strange.

Hey, I even started writing a review of my new amp before the gravity of this stuff hit me. Got as far as where I was going to insert samples to demo the sound, but that all got blown out of the water. It'll come. All in good time, eh?

February 3, 2009

A Sticky Problem

Okay, so I'm going to get a little personal here. I've been having some issues with my G-string going out of whack. I've not experienced this problem before so I googled it and think I may have come up with the reason for the problem and a possible solution... the judicious application of some nut sauce...

NOW, before y'all report my blog for objectionable content (oh, go on, you can if you want to), here's what's going on. When I first got my Les Paul it was strung with Gibson Brite Wire Lights. They never went out of tune. Ever.

But they got old and I replaced them with GHS Boomers. I think they're actually the same gauge strings, but for some reason the G sticks at the nut and when you bend it (which I do ALOT) the damn thing goes out of tune. Initially I thought that maybe I'd knocked the tuning key and damaged it, but it seems that it's not unusal to have sticky nut problems with G-strings. Some players like to lube up their nuts with vaseline... some use pencil lead... and some use nut sauce. For research purposes, I'm going to try the sauce.

A more drastic solution would be to file out the nut grooves, but I'm NOT that brave!

Oh, and if you decide to follow my lead and try nut sauce out for yourself, make sure that if you accidentally squirt some on your body that you wipe it off imediately as it can eat into the finish!

This has been a public service announcement on behalf of the 'I Can't Believe I've Never Heard Of This Product Before' foundation.

For more information, check out the Big Bends website, here.

February 2, 2009

The Iceman Cometh

Last Thursday, as was riding to Rockschool I looked up at the sky and, instead of the inky black that I'd become accustomed to over the winter months, it was a dark, dark blue. The days, it seemed, were getting longer. I remember thinking to myself, "Summer's on the way!!!!"

And then, this morning...

Actually, the snow came in yesterday evening. We were out visiting my folks on the bikes when it started. It didn't get bad until we were half way home, when arctic blizzard conditions hit and we basically skiied the rest of the way home.

Public transport is out. Schools are closed. Offices are shut.

As far as I know there's only one person whose plans for the day have not been disrupted...