journey through the past – gear evolution – getting my gear together

so as a teenager, I was very, very fortunate, to have been born into the time I was, when prog rock was king and instrumental prowess was respected. to have met and worked with so many excellent musicians, to have learned from some brilliant players – and friends – jim whitaker, joe norwood, rick corierre, and my best friend and the most amazing keyboard player I’ve ever known, the late, great, amazing ted holding – may he rest in peace. to have the time to jam, learn, share to our heart’s content – and just play. all the time! what a luxury – I was very, very fortunate.

and then…life happened.  I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to describe what happened next, and it’s not simple or easy – but basically, while I’d worked an assortment of jobs starting when I was 15, when I was 20, I reached the point where I really needed to work full time – so by accident, I got myself hired on at a place where a friend of mine, jon pickerd (aka pfingsten), worked.

little did I realise then, that this would occupy the next 11 – 12 years of my life, that I would very quickly rise up through the ranks from general dogsbody to running the parts department to eventually becoming the service co-ordinator and second in command of the entire business. nor did I really realise the impact of having a full time job, what a negative impact that would have on music – well, at least an impact on how much time was available to play music.

the first thing I needed to do, was sort out my equipment. I’d bought a beautiful ibanez destroyer guitar (near exact copy of a gibson explorer) from my friend joe norwood (an amazing blues and slide guitarist) with, strangely, a customised pickguard made by none other than my friend and former band mate, mitch chavira, who often was the bass player in the same band that joe norwood and ted holding were in (joe was ted’s brother in law, and they were in many, many bands together during this time) – mitch was at the time, working for a plastics or manufacturing house, and joe had him make a special custom pickguard for the guitar, which looks much nicer than the strange, stock white pickguard that ibanez put onto the guitar originally.

I also changed the pickups, a couple of times – ending up with d’marzio pafs (patent applied for humbuckers) – which are still on the guitar today, some 34 years later 🙂

since I was now working, and had a little bit of money, I slowly started to put together some decent guitar equipment for the first time ever.  during the teenage years, I had never really owned an amp, well, for a brief period I did own a fender super eeverb, but other than that, I’d never needed one, I would usually play through ted’s carvin bass head, into one of ted’s homemade speaker cabinets.  effects were limited too, although at various times I owned a tattered second hand, but proper, arbiter red fuzz face (the same one hendrix used – of course) and the thomas organ version of the vox wah (so, a direct copy of the one hendrix used – of course) – but other than that, the only other “effect” I owned was my reel to reel tape deck with it’s “delay” switch – that I used as a guitar delay! – in the ted rick & dave (& jennings) jam sessions.

so slowly, I built up some reasonable gear.  quite quickly, I realised (partially from a lot of very, very good advice from joe norwood, who by this time was working at a series of various guitar shops – and he would let me trade gear up, it was great having a “pal” in the guitar store, I can tell you) that I didn’t really want or need a “guitar amp” – what I wanted was a clean power amp and stereo speakers.  so I bought some really good quality 12 inch celestion speakers, and two cabinets, and joe installed them for me – so I had my 2 1X12 celestion cabinets, and eventually, I was using an A/B single rack space power amp with them. (of course, fast forward to now, 2012, and I am feeling like I missed out – I want guitar amps – a fender, a marshall, a boogie, a roland jc-20…the list goes on.  when I win the lottery, I shall have at least one of each of these!).

that way, I would use devices, whether that was a preamp (I tried many, including the boogie preamp – the silver one, whose name escapes me) or multi-effects units (I had variously, a digitech dsp-128, robert fripp’s old roland gp-16 as well) until I eventually, much later, ended up with a digitech tsr-24S – a 24-bit reverb and multi-effects unit! imagine that – which was the state of the art at the time.

as time went on, I began to get delays capable of more and more delay time.  after having the dd-2 for many years, with it’s one second of delay, I set my sights on a digitech 8 second delay – at that time, that was the longest time available in a decently priced device (although I found it to be very, very expensive at the time – I think perhaps $240.00? or thereabouts) – but I eventually did get it (thanks again to joe norwood), so to suddenly go from 1 to 8 seconds of delay – wow.  and, you could even loop with it, using the special footswitches.  heaven!

now, this description of dave’s gear isn’t really following a strict timeline, nor do I have any idea what devices I got when…I just know, that a long, long series of experiments, changes, always trying different configurations, eventually I ended up with…whatever I ended up with!  I have broken the time into roughly 9-10 year “chunks” so I can have a point of reference, but after a while, it all becomes a big blur of pedals, racks and controllers 🙂

so ten, fifteen years of trying out different gear, different ideas, until I got a sound I was happy with – stereo, always, although that was mainly for my own listening pleasure – I see no point in having auto-panners, choruses, flangers, phasers, or reverbs if you can’t hear them in true stereo – no point at all.  playing guitar in stereo was rare back then – most players still used the “guitar plugged into fender or marshall or whatever” model that had been the standard for so long – but joe norwood was one of the first to have a stereo rig (with not a guitar amp in sight), and I immediately followed suit – and, joe – thank you!

I never looked back. it really was a case of searching for the right gear for the right sound, and over the long haul, as my playing evolved from regular rock guitarist into ambient loop guitarist, the gear slowly mutated with me – so I ended up, in my 30s, with – finally – some half decent equipment.  about time!

I didn’t have a lot of money, so there were a lot of things I would have liked to have tried, but never did – particularly effects, effects with mysterious and wonderful names, like “electric mistress” or “doctor q” or “memory man” – but over the period of the   “second period of gear evolution”, which I am placing very roughly at 1979 – 1988 (so, age 21 to age 30, approximately), I owned mostly boss stomp boxes at first, starting with things like the ce-2 (my first chorus, ever) and then the bf-2 (my first flanger, ever) – and at that time, in my early to mid 20s, these were like technological marvels compared to what had been available in the 70s when I was a teenager – I can remember being so, so thrilled, particularly, with the bf-2, that I plugged a microphone into it and sang bill nelson’s “uhf” into it, using the resonance control to make my voice sound like bill does on his vocal (note: I just found the tape of this, and while it doesn’t really sound like bill’s uhf…it sounds very wickedly cool – I loved that song, and now, my bf-2 could make me sound just like bill! astonishing technology.

I felt no compunctions about recording vocals through a stompbox – I didn’t know any better – and it sounded good to me!  so I just…did it. now, I probably wouldn’t do that – I would add the flanger after recording the vocal, of course, during post-processing, having recorded it “dry”.  but sometimes, not knowing that you “don’t do that” – was a great way to learn, and I achieved some remarkable sonic highs using these most primitive stompboxes to effect and treat tracks and even whole songs.

following these now-primitive modulation devices, after the chorus and the flanger, came the heavy-hitters – delays.  I went through so many delays – again, started with the most basic one, the dm-2, which did well under a second of delay – but still, a stomp box that was quality for it’s time, and eminently usable – I recorded not just my guitar, but also vocals with it…and then, a couple years later, I was thrilled when the dd-2 came out, because it boasted one full second of delay – and loop – unimaginable!  that was really impressive, and I actually had both pedals in my rig for a long, long time.

then there was the distortion side.  I tried many fuzz boxes and overdrives, and I used, variously, the boss hm2, the heavy metal pedal, and another one whose model number escapes me – maybe a dm-2…I think at one point, I may have had as many as eight boss pedals (why not?) hooked up in a long, long line – I also had a vibrato pedal, a vb-2 (of course!) and I am really not quite sure what else.  always a wah of some kind, usually, a clone of the cry baby – nothing fancy.

I did also at one point fairly early on, maybe even during the “first period of gear evolution” from 1971 – 1978 (so, from age 13 to 20, approximately), a mu-tron wah-volume, which was a very modern device, it was pretty cool.  I have no idea what happened to it! I do remember using at one very good live recording session with my friend rick corierre (of “ted, rick and dave” fame), a friend from junior high school who was an excellent drummer – we did several takes of the jimi hendrix song “drifting” which I then took home and overdubbed vocals on – such a beautiful, beautiful song.

mostly, though, I was into boss pedals, the small stomp boxes – they were relatively cheap, very durable, small, portable (although I can remember spending so many hours messing with making them powerable – making sure each power lead was exactly the required length – I almost never use batteries in effects) because back then, you could only really buy an adapter, you didn’t have products like the voodoo labs power supplies that they have now.  so many an hour was spent soldering connectors onto zip cable, and making customised extension plug strips full of adapters for pedals.

if you currently had eight pedals in your pedalboard – then you had extension strips with eight individual power supplies, each with a custom length cable to minimise hum and noise.  a nightmare to build and keep running, but I got pretty good at it in the end.

speaking of pedalboards – well, I will need to create a special edition of the blog that deals with pedalboards, because right up until 2005, when I stopped, I spent a huge amount of time, designing, re-designing, building, and re-building pedalboards.  I learned, and learned, and learned some more – what works, what doesn’t, and so on.  and slowly – the boards got better and better, the sound got better and better, and I made progress. I tended to photograph each one, so hopefully I can create a “stafford pedalboards through the ages” photo page on the audio companion page.

some of the first ones were horrible!  very primitive, I really struggled to make them work, but as I went on, eventually, I hit on a very simple but effective method of making them…in brief, a thin rectangle of plywood, spray painted black (several coats, so it would stay black as long as possible – they got beat up pretty quickly) – double-sided tape – multiple power leads from a single supply – short, custom length cables – and that was that.

so when I think of this decade, I think of slowly improving gear (and consequently, slowly evolving and improving sounds…) and a lot of hard work, designing pedalboards to handle whatever the latest technology was…routing considerations…cables, cables, cables, I used to make all my own cables so there would not be one inch of unneccesary cable in any of my boards – so that was hours of work in itself, and I became quite adept at making cables.

as time went on, better power supply options appeared, better routing options – better switching options – so it would be, ok, first, we have this a/b switch, so there can be two paths within one pedalboard – genius!  maybe one for the distortions and the modulators, and one for the reverb – or some other mixtures – like having two pedalboards on one, that you could switch back and forth between.  and then, a couple years later, another miracle product – the a/b/c switch – wow, three paths, really useful.  and for the rack mounted effects, special 3-switch digitech prorietary switches (I had two of them on my board, with 3 switches each) so I could control my rack devices from the floor…heaven.

of course, it wouldn’t be until the “third period of gear evolution” roughly 1989 – 1998 (from age 31 to 40, approximately) that we had things like dedicated MIDI pedals, when we then got complete control of rack devices, but, whatever the method, I was always the king of the pedalboard, because I wanted the flexibility of sound, and it was critical that both hands were free…

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