writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

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A Tale of Two Guitars

So, when I was reviewing the two amplifiers I use recently, I mentioned I was planning to review my two main guitars, to compare and contrast, and I’m a man, at least in this regard, of my word.

I suppose before I start I should confess these are not my only guitars. The others that I own (I had a gorgeous Danelectro 12 string on loan from Mr Brutal for a while, but he’s borrowed it back at the moment) are: a Kiso-Suzuki copy of the Gibson J200, which I think I may have mentioned before, with a bridge so cracked it would cost more to repair than it’s worth; a Freshman Acoustic 12-string which these days is tuned to Open D and used exclusively for slide guitar; and a blues box guitar, picked up in a Black Friday sale at the Works bookshop, of all places, a couple of years ago.

Which leaves me with my two main guitars: A Lâg Tramontane T100 ACE; and an Epiphone EJ200CE.

Prices first of all, just to see we’re comparing like with like. I bought the Lâg a few years ago, but it currently retails at around £350 – £360 (although I found it quite tricky to track down in this country now; a lot of the sites were American). The Epiphone is currently on at £360, so, in other words, they’re pretty much both firmly in the mid-price range for acoustic guitars, not being the cheapest by any means, but certainly not up there in the stratospheric levels you can shell for a bit of wood and six strings.

Looks? Well, here they are together.  Both, to my mind, beautiful in their own way: the Lâg, at least so far as I know, not trying to copy any other maker’s guitar, and with that distinctive headstock and the wee Knights Templar stylee cross at the soundhole.

The Epiphone, of course, very definitely is trying to copy another guitar, namely the Gibson J200, a fabled model that’s been used by Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. Like the Lâg, it’s available in a range of finishes, and I was very tempted by the sunburst version before plumping for the all black model: a mean looking machine, indeed. (Gibson have 20 more facts about the original J200 if your curiosity isn’t sated).

As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how, or why, guitar makers put up with others making copies of their models: in any other context, you’d think the original makers would be suing the copyists’ asses just as quickly as they could make it to the patent office. However, every other guitar you see is a copy, often of famous models by either Fender or Gibson (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Hummingbird, etc etc). Time was, back in the 70s and 80s, when most of the copies were made in Japan (for example my Kiso-Suzuki); then, Korea became the cheapest place; these days it’s more likely to be China.

In the case of the Epiphone, it was originally a company in its own right. Originating in Turkey with a Greek owner, in 1903 owners and company relocated to the US where, by the 50s, it was a main rival to Gibson for archtop guitars, at which point it was taken over by Gibson’s parent company. However, far from being bought up to be closed down, the two companies were run separately. Epiphone guitars continued to have their own name and reputation – the Beatles used them, before inevitably, trading up to the bigger cachet of the Gibson name.

And there’s the thing for me. Every guitar band you see on the telly these days are either toting Gibsons or Fenders and, contrary chap that I am, that just makes me all the more determined to play something different. Plus, of course, the Gibson equivalent of my guitar costs £5,000. Yes, that’s £5,000. Could it sound nearly 14 times better than my Epiphone? No, I really don’t think so either.

Because the Epiphone is a beauty in every sense. As you can see from the photo, it’s a big beast of a thing (the J, dear reader, stands for Jumbo) so it wouldn’t be for everyone (interestingly, Emmylou has her own smaller equivalent made by Gibson, the L200. Do hope the L doesn’t stand for ‘lady’). Played acoustically, it’s surprisingly quiet, with an even, pleasant, but unremarkable tone. Indeed, in the shop it nearly lost out to the Epiphone Hummingbird. And then I plugged it in.

Where the EJC200 really wins out is in the quality of its electronics. With an under-saddle and under-bridge pick up, and nanoflex technology (no, I don’t really know what it means either) it sounds just fantastic when amplified. The Lâg, in contrast, sounds great played acoustically, but its electronics are, well, a bit french. So much so, that when I’m recording with it these days, I mike it up rather than using pickups. That’s not so easy live, and the best I can get from it is using the Vox amp, as described in the review of the amps.

Bottom line? I’m really pleased to have both of these. For finger picking and the generally quieter stuff I do with Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the Lâg is a superb instrument. For playing in the house, again it’s a pleasure. Its tone is gorgeous.

Which is not to say the Epiphone doesn’t get played in the house too. Although the Lâg isn’t hard to play, the bigger guitar is particularly easy: someone said it plays like an electric, and it actually is as easy as that to knock out chords on. Plug it in, though, even with a loud electric band, and it comes into its own.

Here’s a wee instrumental I’ve put up on Freesound, the excellent sound sample site. It’s basically a song that didn’t make the cut for my next album lyrics-wse, but I’ve put a bit of both the Epiphone in strum mode, and the Lâg in finger-pick mode. I’ve not done anything clever effects-wise in the production process, deliberately: just a bit of light reverb to take some of the dryness out. On other tracks, though, I’ve used the Epiphone much more extensively because, with its dual inputs and better electronics, it produces a very handy, malleable signal for tweaking.

If I had to have only one of these guitars, I’d have the Epiphone. But I don’t, and for my purposes at least, they’re a near-perfect complement to each other.

Finally, should you wish to hear more from these guitars, a Youtube review of each:

The Epiphone review’s long, but I love Topdazzle’s no nonsense approach.











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Selling Your Digital Soul: Or, the Slight Return of Doris and the Spambots

You’re probably too young to remember The Clash the first time round. A heady mix of left-wing leanings, high cheekbones, no little talent and a bucket-load of attitude, for a time in the early Eighties they were uncrowned Kings of Rock for all those earnest young lads like me who thought music had to mean something. They even conquered America, with Rock the Casbah.

Anyways, one of the things that impressed me about Joe Strummer and comrades was their consistent refusal to go on Top of the Pops. I mean, the whole politics of it – even for an earnest young chap like myself – wasn’t totally clear: going on ToTP was described as ‘selling out,’ even though the show was on a publicly owned station, and the money for going on, we can safely assume, was not exactly fantastic.

Perhaps the lads had an early inkling of what Jimmy Saville and some (but not, it must be said for legal reasons, all) of his fellow DJs were up to on the show. Perhaps they just felt that not going on a deeply cheesy round up of whatever crap had risen to the surface in the undifferentiated chart of what was still referred to as ‘pop’ music wasn’t too bad an artistic statement. Jools Holland’s show might be a tad formulaic some nights, but the quality of the stuff on that is light years ahead of what we had to endure a generation back.

All of which seems a long time ago, back when there was only one phone in the house, in the hall; we all drank water from the garden hose, drove home seatbelt-less and blind drunk every night in cars with no power steering or even working headlights, and regularly sucked on our fingers and plugged them into the nearest wall socket just to give the younger kids a bit of a laugh. And no one ever came to any harm. Back then, punk bands were proper bands, who could play their own instruments. Well, apart from most of the Sex Pistols, obviously. And Paul Simonon in the early days.

Nowadays, though, we live in a gentler, digital age, where you can watch your concerts on YouTube and spare yourself the bother of washing the spit out of your hair when you get home. Because you’re already home, on your iPad or tablet or mobile phone, watching stuff for free and scaring the bejasus out of the commercial interests who prowl the internet, stalking its darker, jungly reaches, like predators caught on the wrong side of an evolutionary curve, desperately trying to change their spots to blend in.

Because the Internet is a puzzling, slightly frightening place to advertisers and other interests desperate to monetize it. Incidentally, is monetize really a word now? MS Word has recognised it as such: o tempora, o mores! (Word doesn’t recognise tempora, of course).

Long term readers of this blog may recall a previous post about an approach I had from a company called Media Discovery, who wanted to advertise on my blog. Just give us a page on your blog, said a nice-seeming woman called Doris; we’ll advertise and will pay you. I agonised about it all for a while and then decided that, like the Clash but on a much smaller scale, I didn’t want to sell out.

Then something else happened. Like millions of others, I use WordPress as a platform to launch my musings and meanderings at the world. It’s free. It’s easy to use. And … er … it carries adverts on your blog? A little message started appearing at the bottom of my posts, saying ‘occasionally, some of your visitors may see an advert here.’ Eh?

I clicked on the ‘tell me more,’ link, and discovered that, yes, WordPress had found a way of monetizing my blog, by sticking adverts underneath it. Maybe. I couldn’t tell from my end. I could purchase a no-ads option for $30 if I wanted, though.

Now, I may be a bleeding heart liberal, but I’m not actually stupid. Of course WordPress has to make money to survive in the internet jungle; even out of bozos like me who only sign up to the free stuff, don’t buy any premium ‘themes,’ or generally succumb to any of their money-making blandishments. Even they must try to get money out of a Scotsman.

However, this just seemed a little bit, well, cheeky. It nearly drove me back into the arms of Doris, that nice-seeming woman at Media Discovery. If I’m selling out without meaning to, I reasoned, then I might as well sell out to someone called Doris who, it appeared, gave me some control over what I was endorsing.

Doris, I said, make me an offer (for like all of modern life, we were on first name terms immediately). Well, Andrew, Doris said, I ran your site through our client services team and the closest match we have is a gaming client for 125USD per year.

Well, Doris, I replied. Here’s the thing – not quite sure what you mean by gaming. If you mean playing computer games, I don’t do that, so I couldn’t really endorse any of them (I was assuming they weren’t going to be promoting my good friend Gavin Inglis’s game, Neighbourhood Necromancer).

If, on the other hand, Doris, I continued, you mean a gambling site, while I’m not actually ethically opposed to that, it’s again not something I do, and I guess I have some concerns about online gambling, and addiction, and all that.

Doris was very understanding in her reply. How about you look at the article first, she suggested. Well, okay, I said, but I still have those concerns.

The draft article, was ingenious, I have to say: all about how listening to music while you’re playing online poker can help concentration. Apparently there’s a New York Times article. Motivational rock such as Eye of the Tiger could work. And while you could say what you like about most of Kenny Loggins’s ‘inoffensive smooth jazz output,’ the article went on, it was a fact, apparently, that Danger Zone remains one of the most ‘terrifyingly-motivational’ (sic) songs ever written.

Warming to its theme, the article (which, apart from the grammatical schoolboy error, above, was pretty well written, to be fair) went on about how, if you were playing poker, you were really better listening to instrumentals, such as trance, house, or classical music. Beethoven’s 7th was particularly recommended.

I politely declined Doris, for a second time. I may say she took it very well, and sent me a nice note thanking me for my interest. I didn’t go into reasons with her, but principal amongst them, of course, was Kenny Loggins. I mean, Kenny Loggins! Inoffensive jazz output, indeed! As Arnold Brown once said, I don’t call that easy listening. I could give them Eye of the Tiger, but Danger Zone? I don’t think so.

The other reason I decided not to get in bed with Doris – in the commercial sense, I mean – (actually, that sounds worse…) was I did a bit more research on Media Discovery, and found that, yes, there was a price to pay for your 125 bucks. The links that Media Discovery put on your site are picked up by Google, who demote you on their search engines, so that you lose about 90 – 95% of your traffic through search engines.

Not ideal. I think it’s probably a bit strong to call it a scam, but it’s certainly not something I would want to happen.

So my digital soul remains pure – at least for now. I do remain open to offers. If Fender want to lob me whatever their latest incarnation of a Telecaster is, I’d be happy to review it. Hell, I’d put out for Gibson, too. Especially after they let me on their Guitar Bus that time in Nashville – another story.

But Kenny Loggins. I mean, Kenny Loggins.



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