Author: Emil JJ

I'm a guitarist and songwriter obsessed with guitars and songwriting. Working on music projects in my home studio, with bands and in my head.

My kid wants to start playing the guitar – the 5 big questions

People often ask me what kind of guitar should someone start with. They either have a kid that wants to start playing or they are curious about it themselves.

There is no hard rule for everyone, but the short answer is: get a guitar that the new guitarist will be excited about.

When I first started, I had a musician uncle who was trying to convince my parents to buy me a classical guitar, or worse yet, learn the piano first. What???? Hell no. Like that geeky kid from the old Twister Sister video, I said, I wanna rock! (more…)

Guitar dogma

dogmaGuitar players, like everyone else, are set in their beliefs. Some of these beliefs and opinions come from experience, but many come from something they’ve heard or read somewhere. In conversations and online posts, some spew dogma completely ignoring many examples of notable contradictions. So, here are some I’ve seen and heard regularly over the years.

1. “Real” guitar players use thick strings

They say: You should use a string gauge at least .11 and above. You can only get a great, thick tone with heavier strings. Stevie Ray Vaughan used real thick strings, so there.

Reality check: Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana and a bunch of other “real” guitar players have been known to use much lighter strings (.08 and .09), and nobody would dare question their tone. (more…)

5 reasons why the Blackstar HT Club 40 kicks ass

htclub40-overview-imageThe BlackStar HT Club 40 is an amazing amp, especially at its sub $1000 price tag. I’ve had it now for about a year and half, and have put about 50 band rehearsals and 20 gigs on it so far.

If you’re on the fence about picking one up, here are a few reasons that might push you over.

1. It has a great crunch/distortion tone

It just sounds really good. Many amps can get a great distorted tone, but not so many of this quality are at this price. The Club 40 has two different types of distortion. You can blend the two types of tubes for a more Marshall-y tone or a more American-style crunch. It can do everything from light crunch to high gain, and it does it all well.

2. It has a great clean tone

Ok, it’s not a Fender or a Vox, or whatever your favorite sparkly amp is. But, again, for the price, it has a great clean tone. At first, I was worried about the minimum tweaking capabilities on the clean channel (it only has a volume and a tone knob, and two flavors of clean engaged by a switch). But, I found that I didn’t miss anything. There is not a bad clean tone at any setting. I often find myself staying on the clean channel and using a few dirt pedals in front of it.

3. It has an emulated out

Most of us guitar players mic our amps live, but mics have their own set of problems. They have to be placed just right for optimal tone and they pick up all the noise on a loud stage. The Club 40 has an emulated out, which can send the amp’s sound out to the mixing board. It emulates the sound and feel of a mic’d speaker cabinet. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. For me, the combination of this tone with my stage tone coming out of the speaker is great, generally better than when the amp is mic’d. I guess you could mic it as well and get even more variation to your sound, maybe even pan one to one side, the other to the other side. It can also be used to send your guitar to your favorite recording hardware, while keeping the speaker volume silent or low. I haven’t recorded with it yet, since I use Avid’s Eleven Rack for all my recordings.

4. It’s been road tested by many

Nothing is more telling of a product’s quality then the number of people buying the product. And, lots of people are buying the Blackstar Club 40. It’s in a price range that most can afford and the quality and reliability have been proven over the years.

5. It takes pedals well

As with most modern amps, the Club 40 has an effects loop for all your delays, reverbs, and chorus pedals. Most quality pedals you put in front of it, will sound great. I run a wah, octave pedal, a compressor, and a few overdrives into it. Sometimes i use my pedals for the crunch and distortion sounds, sometimes the amp’s dirty channel. This gives me a lot of options and levels of dirt.

Overall, I would recommend it to anyone who plays blues, rock, hard rock, metal, and even country or jazz. You can always add a couple of pedals if you need something more than the amp can produce on its own. You can also add an additional cabinet, for a more rounded sound, since the Club 40 has only one speaker. But, for the price and quality, there are few amps that can compare. It’s perfect for band rehearsals, small clubs, big clubs, and even big stadiums (if you’re so fortunate). These days, small amps are making their way to the big stages as well. Just mic it or run out of the emulated output into the million watt sound system at your local stadium.


Pimping up my Mexican Strat

I recently got into guitar playing again after shelving it for several years. I was asked to sit in for a gig, but had no electric. So, I grabbed some cash, went into the local Guitar Center and started looking. I had no idea what to get, so I j just went with a cheap, Mexican made Fender Strat just to get me through the gig. It only put me back $350 and it sounded and played pretty well.

I started getting into playing more and bought an amp and a couple of pedals. I later bought a nice Ibanez Joe Satriani model, followed by a Les Paul and a nice Telecaster. I loved all of the new ones, but still had a thing for my cheap Strat. It was the guitar that brought me back into playing electric, so it had a lot of sentimental value. But, compared to the nicer guitars, it didn’t sound as good, and the quality of some of the components was obviously sub-par.

So, I thought about getting a new American-made deluxe, but I wasn’t in the mood for spending a grand or more on a new strat. So, I decided to start upgrading my baby.

Upgrade #1 : new pickups.

My strat has a H-S-S configuration, and the humbucker was a little ear-piercing. So, I put in a Seymour Duncan JB. Woah!! All of a sudden, my strat sounded killer. It rocked. The other pickups were good enough for now, but I knew I would switch them out one day as well.

Upgrade #2 : new Tremolo Steel Block
So, I researched about other upgrades. One that kept coming up was upgrading the block under my bridge. So, I talked to my local guitar repair shop guy, and he said it will make a big difference. I also didn’t like the current bridge and tremolo bar, so asked that he put in a new one as well.

Upgrade #3 : locking Tuners

My strat went out of tune frequently just after a couple of aggresive bends or tremolo dives. Because of that, I refrained from doing such things. But, then when I’d watch videos of others playing Strats and totally abusing them, they stayed in tune.

When I got the guitar back from the shop and strummed my first chord….I nearly teared up. It sounded amazing and that was just acoustically without plugging it in. The new bar was adjusted nicely and they did an overall setup. I plugged it in and for the first time since I’ve had this guitar, it sounded like a real strat. It quacked, it rocked, it growled and just plain, knocked me over. Even the original middle and neck pickups sounded much better. And, I could finally use the tremolo bar like a madman (I don’t normally, but I now could).

So, with the parts and labor, i’ve already spent more than I paid for the guitar, but still less than if I bought a high end strat. Plus, it’s my guitar. The one that has so much sentimental value to me.

Other Upgrades I’m considering:

1. Coil Split the JB Humbucker – the guitar shop guy said that a popular upgrade for HSS strats is splitting the humbucker so that you can go from single coil to humbucker at the flip of a switch (or a push of a button). And, he said that the JB humbuckers are especially great for doing that, so I got lucky on my choice of pickups.

2. Upgrade the middle and Neck pickups – I still have the stock Mexican strat pickups in the other two positions. They’re not bad and actually sound better due to the other upgrades I made. But, they’re lower output than the JB so they’re not balanced well in terms of volume. Plus, they’re a bit noisy and crackly. But, they’re usable. I’ll eventually get new ones but haven’t yet done the research.

If you have any other ideas, please leave a comment. I don’t mind spending the money on a special guitar I know I’ll keep forever.

NAMM is coming, NAMM is coming

NAMM showThe NAMM ticket confirmation email arrived a few days ago and I’m beside myself. I’ve been to NAMM several times over the years, missed last year, but back at it again. (Read my previous NAMM post for reasons why you should go).

I’m a total NAMM nerd and love everything about it. I love walking for hours and hours through the noisy convention center, looking at all the gear, trying things, seeing amazing musicians jamming, and snapping a few pictures of the stars. It’s also entertaining to see some of the has-beens from the 80’s strolling around still decked out in their old clothes but not rocking them as well. There’s also a bunch of freakish people with small entourages that are probably in some new popular bands that I don’t know about yet. And, there are the buyers and the people working the booths who obviously don’t want to be there, but have to for work.

It’s entertaining to watch the whole mix of folks. It’s loud. It’s chaotic. It’s exhausting. But, I love every minute of it.Last time I went, I came in on a Friday afternoon, checked into my hotel, and hit the show for the last couple of hours on Day 2. Then did a full day on Day 3, and left earlier on Day 4. This year, I’m getting there on Thursday afternoon and leaving when the doors close on Sunday afternoon.

Every year I have a list of gear I want to check out. This year, I’m jonesing for some hollowbody guitars so I can’t wait to try some Gretsch, Ibanez, and Godin boxes, as well as some other lesser known brands. I also can’t wait to see the latest pedal offerings. Some of my favorite brands are Wampler, Xotic, MXR, Electro Harmonix and Earthquaker Devices. I’m also checking out amps by Egnater, Bogner, Orange, and Fender.

The coolest thing about NAMM is that you get to try things out that are not always found in your local guitar shops. And, you get to discover new things that you didn’t know about. The bottom level of the convention center usually has the smaller, lesser known brands that offer some innovative products. Sometimes, you find some gems there.And, then there’s the after show parties, jams and concerts.

Anyways, I’m getting excited and hope to catch up with some of my friends that go as well as make some new ones. I’ll take pictures and post details when I get back. See ya there!


7 reasons why the Avid Eleven Rack is a no-brainer for recording guitarists

Eleven Rack If you are a guitar player who writes music and likes to create high quality recordings, you should definitely check out the Eleven Rack by Avid. The Eleven Rack is an amp emulator and recording solution that is simply amazing. If you’ve been on the fence about this one, allow me to push you over. Here are 7 reasons why you should whip out the credit card right away.

1. It comes with Pro Tools 11. Pro Tools is by no means perfect and it definitely has its set of issues. But, it is a standard in most home and professional studios. If you are going to be recording on a regular basis, it’s a great idea to learn the standard software. Plus, even if you go to a professional studio to record some or most of your project, you can always take those files and work on them from home. Pro Tools costs around $600-700. You can buy the Eleven Rack with Pro Tools for $639 ( from Sweetwater as of this writing). Enough said.

2. It sounds and feels amazing. Amp modelers/emulators have been around for a while, but the Eleven Rack was one of the first that really felt like you were playing through a real amp. You can dial up a Marshall, a Fender, a Vox, or any number of awesome amps. You can switch out cabinets and mics (virtually) for an endless combination of tones. Plus, it has a bunch of effect pedals that are also based on some of the most popular pedals out there like the Tube Screamer, EchoPlex, and the MXR Phaser.

When I got my Eleven Rack a few years ago and hit my first chord, angels sang. It felt like I was playing through a stack. There was no latency. I even heard a slight buzz which I would normally hear playing through a real amp. It really feels like a real amp.

3. You can easily re-amp.  Re-amping for those who might not know is the process of sending your recorded guitar track to different amps after the fact. The Eleven Rack and Pro Tools allows you to record two tracks for your guitar, one for the full sound including amp, pedals, etc, and one just capturing the clean signal from the guitar. You can then later run that clean signal to any of the other amps in the Eleven Rack. You can even run that signal to a real amp in a studio if you wish.

4. Play live with your recorded tones. Most guitarists use a number of amps and pedals in the studio and then struggle to get the same tones when playing live. With the Eleven Rack, you just save the tones that used to record and you can use the Rack as your live amp. You can run it through a cabinet if you want to “feel the air”, or directly to the board and monitors.

5. It takes pedals well. On its own, the Eleven Rack has a bunch of amps and pedals that will be more than enough for most guitar players. But, if you have a favorite overdrive, wah pedal or a delay, you still use them with the Rack. You can run your dirt and wah pedals into the Eleven Rack and they sound great. For your time-based effects (delays, reverbs, choruses, etc), you can run them through the effects loop.

6. It’s a one-stop solution. If you want to record your music, the Eleven Rack has everything you need. You can record all your electric guitars and basses using all of the available amp and pedal emulators. You can run a microphone through its excellent pre, and record vocals, acoustic instruments, or whatever. You can hook-up a midi keyboard and access all the awesome keyboard sounds which include organs, pianos, synths, drums, etc. You can also buy awesome plugins like Superior Drummer, which allow you to add amazing sounding drums to your recordings. And, even though the effects you get by default through Pro Tools are awesome, you can add other plugins including autotune, amazing compressors,delays, etc.

7. It’s the best practice amp you’ll ever own. Do you want to play through a Marshall half stack that sounds like you’re at Wembley Stadium while you’re in your bedroom? There are no more excuses for not practicing. Just turn it on, plug in your guitar and a pair of headphones and you’re set. You can use it standalone without having to turn on your computer or Pro Tools. But, when inspiration strikes, just open up Pro Tools and lay down a track.

So, there you have it. No more excuses for not playing. No more wondering how you’re going to get that demo or album made. The only caveat is that if you are going to do recording, you will need to have a computer that’s compatible with Pro Tools. Just go to Avid’s website to check computer requirements.

Wampler Hot Wired v2 – overdrive goodness

There is definitely no shortage of overdrive/distortion pedals on the market. I, like many guitarists, have more than I probably need. But, hey, us guitarists are tone chasers and we will never be satisfied with what we’ve got for long.

I have some great dirt pedals including the Xotic AC, Xotic BB Preamp, Suhr Riot, plus my Blackstar amp’s dirt channels. I didn’t really need another. But, I kept hearing about Wampler. And I saw the demo videos as well as the raves by a number of my favorite guitarists. So, I decided I just wanted to get a Wampler pedal. But, which one?

The Hot Wired was made for Brent Mason, one of the most prolific guitar players in Nashville (if you don’t know of him, I bet you’ve heard him play). It is a dual-channel, overdrive and distortion pedal in one, that can go from subtle dirt to full-blown distortion. You can use either channel separately or stack them for some sweet, milky distortion.

I periodically fly to some gigs and I’m limited on what I can take on the plane. This pedal has pretty much replaced three of the pedals on my board that I used to stuff in my carry on: an overdrive, a distortion and a boost.

The Channel 1 side is the overdrive. It has Volume, Overdrive, Blend, and Tone, plus a switch that lets you go from Fat, Normal to Fatter. The Blend knob is awesome because it allows you to blend in the amount of dirt vs. your clean signal. So, when you have the right tone, but the gain is a bit much, and you want some more articulation, you can blend in some more clean signal. Really cool!. The Fat, Normal, Fatter switch is also awesome especially if you switch from a Fender single coil to a Les Paul humbucker like I do. You can find the right tone for all your guitars.

Channel 2 is the distortion side of the box. It has a Volume, Distortion, and Tone knob, plus the same Fat, Normal, Fatter switch. It’s a very smooth distortion that can get pretty gain-y. You can stack the two channels together for over-the-top leads. But even when stacked, it is still smooth sounding, not muddy and unpleasant like some other distortions.

You can set this pedal up in a number of ways. When this is my only dirt pedal, I definitely stack them for leads, and use only one channel plus my guitar volume know for rhythm parts. Sometimes I use just the right side for subtle overdrive.

Like all Wampler pedals, it’s built like a tank, has clever usable features, stacks well with other pedals, and oozes high quality.

Here’s a great demo of the pedal. Warning!!! You might be pulling out your credit card before the end of the video.


Guitar Snobbery

A few weeks ago, I was setting up my gear for a gig at a big wedding reception. After soundcheck, I was sitting down nursing a beverage, when one of the waiters working that evening comes up and says hello.

Waiter: “Hey, you’re the guitar player, right? So, how do you like your power supply?”

Me: “What??? My what?”

Waiter: “Your pedal power supply?”

I have a nice Les Paul, a pretty cool Fender amp, and some pedals that are not typical and ubiquitous, and this guy is asking me about my power supply?

Me: “Uh, I don’t know. It gives my pedals power, so I guess it works. What?”

Then he goes into this thing about how he’s a guitar player too, and he only uses batteries for his pedals. He says that other power sources degrade his tone, and was wondering if I ever have noticed the difference.

Trying hard not to roll my eyes, I said politely, “yes, I’ve heard some say that before that there’s a bit of a difference for some pedals, but for me, the convenience of a power supply far outweigh the nominal improvement in tone that some people seem to notice when using batteries”.

Now, I have heard people claim this before in forums and blogs. And it might be true. But, I bet if these self-proclaimed tone experts were put through a blind test, they couldn’t tell the difference between battery power and a good power supply. Isn’t power just power, assuming the power supply is of good quality and there’s no electrical interference?

So, I thought about this short conversation a bit after and wasn’t sure what to think of it. My guess is the guy was trying to sound smart, and maybe he is and could be a great player and a guitar tone expert. But, common sense told me he was full of shit and just trying to impress me with something he read somewhere. Well, I wasn’t impressed.

The ultimate tone is the elusive quest of most of us guitar players. But, in my opinion the majority of the tone comes from the player, a good guitar, a good amp, and maybe some good pedals. Secondary are the other parts of the puzzle: picks, cable quality, cable length, number of pedals, etc. Yes these secondary items can negatively affect tone, but assuming cables are ok, their lengths are not too crazy, and you’re not running 50 pedals through your chain, your tone should be ok.

I think if this guy looked into it a bit, he would see that most professional musicians, some considered purveyors of godly tone, aren’t that snobby. And, some of the best pedals seen on boards of the biggest concert stages and best studios don’t even have a battery option.



Art is encouraged until it is not

Many parents spend most of their free time driving kids around from piano lessons to dance classes, to sport practices and games and back again. They value a well-rounded experience and exploration of the arts, or sometimes feel like they need to compensate for the things that are not available in their schools. But, they don’t often think of what happens when that art becomes a passion and obsession for their kids.

I started playing guitar on my own motivation when I was 8 years old. My parents encouraged me, drove me to lessons, and checked on me from time to time to make sure I practiced. When I was in high school, I played in the jazz band, formed a couple of rock bands, and they encouraged it.

But, then, as I began my college years, they changed their tune. School and career plans were seen as the only priority. Playing music was ok as a hobby, but only after I’ve studied all I could study. The problem was, I couldn’t just turn it off like that. I was addicted to music and the guitar. Even if I tried to concentrate on other things, a melody or a riff would come to me, and I felt compelled to develop it. It became the most important thing at that moment. (more…)

Be good, but don’t be too good of a guitar player

In sports, the most successful athletes are those with the best abilities. The fastest runner, the strongest weightlifter, the main goal scorer, the best baseball hitter will be at the top, winning the most championships and earning the most money.

But in music, it is not so. The fastest guitar player is not the most successful. The best technical player does not earn more money than those less able to shred. Actually, sometimes the best and most technical players are unknown, local small town heroes at best, barely scraping by financially.

So, why is that? Why does a guitar virtuoso often earn less than a kid that can barely play 4 chords?  Should we hold back from becoming too good? (more…)