Saturday, February 23, 2013

Trying out the AER Alpha

I  have played this little amp several times over the years but never got to really test it. This week I borrowed one from a friend (thanks Aad!) and took it on stage and tested it in my studio. I recorded a split video with it that faithfully reproduces its sound.

The first thing that is striking about this amp is its extreme portability. Its dimensions are (HxWxD): 260 x 265 x 235mm (10.24 x 10.43 x 9.25 inches) and it weighs ONLY 6.2 kg (13.67 lbs) so this is by far the lightest and smallest amp I have ever taken to a gig. There is a padded gig bag that comes with it. It is really amazingly portable this way. The amp is 40 W and it carries an 8" twin cone full range speaker and a decent reverb. I am sure you can find more specs on the internet. Before I start wrting about my findings, I should make one observation though. If size and weight are not an issue for you, you should get something else of course. I am on  a mission to get the best possible sound out of the smallest and lightest possible amp. That is what I am after and I fully realise there are better sounding (tube) amps out there. But these will invariably be bigger and heavier and therefore not worth investigating. I might as well stick to my Polytone then (with 15"speaker).

I took it to the Crow without really being able to testdrive it at home and that was a bit of a mistake. I just placed it on the floor and plugged it in. I think this amp needs to be on a stool or on a stand (there is a provision for that on it).

It was loud enough but it sure lacked some headroom. Also it sounded a bit treblier and boxier than I liked when I boosted its volume. This amp sounds fine in low volume situations (warm and mellow) but playing in a combo with a drummer you need something more substantial. Maybe this also had something to do with me placing it on the floor.

At home the amp sounds just fine. At times I detected some boxiness but for an amp this small it still sounds pretty amazing, in the lower registers too. It should, because with a price tag of 679 euro it's pretty expensive.

The AER amps were originally designed for the amplification of acoustic instrruments and they probably do a great job at that. It was never designed for electric guitars with magnetic pick-ups so some people argue there are better amps for that purpose. Yes, my Polytone Mini Brute with its 15" speaker does sound  better. Still, after having played the ZT Lunchbox, the ZT Club, the Roland Cube 60 and the Ibanez Wholetone over the last weeks, I like the AER Alpha best until now. It does an amazing job at lower volume levels and its portability is unequalled (maybe apart from the ZT Lunchbox but that amp seriously lacked in the lower register and is no match for the AER Alpha therefore).

My conclusion is that the AER Alpha is great for drummerless, low volume settings and playing at home. For louder gigs in noisy environments the new and more powerful AER Alpha Plus (50 watts, 6.2 kg) or the AER Compact 60/2 (60 watts, 7.5 kg) seem a better option. I am sure these will provide more headroom and bass reflex. One of these is what I would go for in the AER series because I do want to take it out to noisy rooms.

And now I guess you want to hear it. Like I said earlier, I think the sounds in the video are pretty representative for what it sounds like in a low volume setting. In the first one I am playing "Blues for Alice." And the second one is just some wanking on the changes of Autumn Leaves. I am playing the Tal Farlow. All EQ on the amp is flat and all controls on my guitar open. No sound tweaking was involved. Watch in HD!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Carved versus Laminate

In most jazz guitar communities the "carved versus laminate" discussions appear regularly. That has been the case for years. Some argue that guitars with carved tops are superior instruments. Laminates are sometimes even depicted as "low budget plywood guitars." This is surely an uninformed and simplified view. A good laminate is often just as expensive and laminate guitars have been and are used by top players all over the world: Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Pat Martino, George Benson, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Pat Metheny, Herb Ellis, Grant Green, Jim Hall, Emily Remler, Jonathan Kreisberg, Martijn van Iterson, etc.

I admit the acoustic sound of a carved guitar may, or rather, should be superior but the differences in amplified sound are often hard to discern. If noticeable at all ... Remember my Gibson Blindfold test? There was just one guy out of many that could single out the L5 and the Johnny Smith ...

Here's a few quotes from J. Hale Music on the issue:

"So are carved archtops better than laminate? Only if you and your audience can hear the acoustic tone of your instrument. If you plan to play amplified in a club setting, a carved archtop could be a disaster ...

 ... If you want to have the best acoustic tone, you will want to get an instrument with a carved body (carved top and carved back). If you plan to use the instrument in a noisy environment where your audience will predominately hear the amplified tone, then an archtop with laminate construction will serve you best."

Makes sense to me. It is simply easier to get a good sound from a laminate guitar in a live situation. They are less prone to feedback. Also, carved guitars seem to be more vulnerable to humidity conditions. Therefore laminate guitars probably make better "workhorses." But ... if you absolutely require the acoustic tone of your guitar and you can handle the feedback issues, go carved.

By the way, I have played some laminate guitars that sounded prety good unamplified. Especally vintage Gibson laminates from the 50s and early 60s are very resonant and lively. These guitars were built more lightly with thinner tops and had fine acoustic properties, even as laminates. Here's my 1963 Barney Kessel unplugged and recorded as an acoustic guitar:

I have owned guitars with a carved top myself and ended up selling them to get Gibson laminates. Next to feedback advantages, I seem to prefer the sound of Gibson guitars such as the ES 175, ES 350, Tal Farlow etc. It's simply the classic bebop sound that I hear on my favourite jazz guitar albums by Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney. They seem to fit my style of playing better. I have added three tracks with some classic bop sounds played on laminate guitars. They are my kind of sounds ... But I realise this is a personal thing.

That said, of course there are many beautiful sounding carved guitars that you hear on classic jazz guitar recordings by the greats. Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Johnny Smith, Peter Bernstein, Mark Whitfield, Bruce Forman, Jesse van Ruller, Julian Lage, Louis Stewart etc. etc.

One of the most beautiful and unique carved sounds I ever heard have come from my countryman's Jesse van Ruller's old Levin. He is not playing that guitar anymore these days. It was severely damaged when he drove over it accidentally after a gig, or so I heard. But listen to this:

And of course there's plenty other examples of great guitar soundsfrom carved top guitars. In the end it's just a matter of taste. And only that. I have read too much nonsense about the presumed superiority of carved top guitars on internet fora - usually by very inexperienced players - that this needs to be said.

To be frank, there's a number of popular (often) lower end carved top models that I really dislike. I'm not going to drop brand names here but I have played quite a few with floating pups that I thought sounded really trebly and shrill. And I played some luthier made guitars with carved tops that did not rock my boat either. Just because a guitar has a carved top, it does not mean it will be a tone monster. Same for laminate guitars by the way. Well constructed guitars will sound good, regardless of the whole carved/laminate issue.

So it all comes down to preference. End of story.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bop Till You Drop 3: more MVI and Joe Cohn

I still owe you the third installment of the Peter Beets concert featuring Martijn van Iterson and Joe Cohn. The other vids can be seen in earlier Blog entries.

The last part of the concert consists of three tunes: "Tricotism", "Blues for Giltay" and "They Say It's Wonderful (wrong title in vid). " This completes the entire concert.

The full concert comprises 9 tunes, 6 of which I posted earlier.

Parker 51 
I'm Old fashioned
You're my Everything 
In Your Own Sweet Way
Three Little Words
Easy Listening blues
Blues for Giltay
They Say It's Wonderful

Click the tune to go to the page where you can view the video. The last three you can find below. Joe Cohn is a marvellous player and see him play with MVI was indeed a very special occasion. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

POD 2.0 for bebop? Some first impressions ...

This week I finally purchased a POD 2.0. The power adapter of my old amp modeller (Digitech RP 300) was broken and I wanted something better. I had tried out a POD a few years ago and it seemed to have potential for jazz guitar sounds too. Without trying it out I bought one.

At home I plugged it and and I was pleasantly surprised. I soon found an amp model that sounded just fine to my ears. You can hear it in the vid below. There are some more sounds in the video at the bottom. Though it was obviously never designed for straight ahead jazz guitar playing, some of the clean amp models sound great for this purpose. Not that many, but enough to make it even attractive for classic archtop sounds. And it's not that expensive anyway, so even if it had had just one useable sound it would have been ok with me. 

I like simplicity. The sounds that I prefer on the POD are those that sound great right away, without having to tweak them and without having to adjust the tone knobs on my guitar. I don't like fiddling with my gear to get a good sound. And I don't like to roll off the tone knob on my guitars. The sound has to be there quickly and easily. The best amp models IMO are:

1. 60 Tweed Fender Champ with 1x12" cabinet
2. Budda Twimaster Head with 1 or 2x 12" cabinet
3. 60 Vox AC 15 with 1x12" cabinet

I prefer these because, like I said earlier, they do not require tweaking. But there are more interesting amp models. I highlighted some useable ones for straight ahead jazz in yellow. Of course the Roland Jazz chorus is among them. All the good sounds for bebop guitar are to be found in the second layer amp models, so from amp models 17 onwards. You need to hold the tap button to access those.

Why do I prefer recording with a modeller in the first place? Well, that's just a matter of convenience. It's a bit of a hassle to record with a microphone in front of my Polytone amp and I prefer to record silently. At night even. You can see my video rig here:

Of course I recorded some sounds that I would like to share with you. Here's a few clips glued together. I am soloing over 3 standard progressions. So for starters, it's just single note playing over a guitar backing. I will post some chord sounds later. I hope I got the amp models right in the captions under the vid :) There was no sound tweaking involved, all eq was medium and tone knobs on the guitar open. No effects on the POD used either.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Jammin' with Joey

I have been using Aebersold play-alongs for decades and Joey DeFrancesco happens to be my favourite contemporary Hammond Organ player. So I am happy Aebersold has issued two great play-along albums that feature the Joey DeFrancesco trio. You can find them on Spotify too.

Volume 118 "Groovin' Jazz"
This play-along features Joey with his trio groovin' on blues, standards, and originals. Rhythm Section: Joey DeFrancesco (B-3 Organ); Jake Langley (guitar); Carmen Intorre (drums)

Big Easy                            
Love For Sale
On Green Dolphin Street
How High The Moon
Fallin In Love With Love
'Round Midnight
Softly As In A Morning Sunrise
I Can't Get Started
Bb Blues
I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You
East Of The Sun
Rhythm (Bb)

Volume 123 "Now's the Time"
Another super-groove play-a-long featuring Joey with his trio accompanying you on Blues and some  standards. Rhythm Section: Joey DeFrancesco (B-3 Organ); Paul Bollenback (Guitar); Byron Landham (Drums)

Now's The Time                        
Four On Six
The More I See You
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Luch Portion
I Fall In Love Too Easily
Bye, Bye, Blackbird
Gee, Baby Ain't I Good To You
February 14th
I'm Getting Sentimental Over You
Slow Blues in Bb
Obama Nation

I have been jammin' along with them for a while now. Here's three recent vids that I recorded with them. The first two vids are from volume 118 and the last vid (I am playing my old Strat that I retrieved from the attic!!!) is from volume 123. The Strat sounds surprisingly nice. Had to roll off the tone knob quite a bit though ....