December 2012 Archives

These go to Eleven

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For those not familiar with the title for this entry, I'd encourage you to check out the 1984 movie, This is Spinal Tap. It was a movie by Rob Reiner that featured a fictional heavy metal band; it was full of cliche rock-n-roll stuff and is pretty much a cult classic.

I chose the Spinal Tap reference for this entry because I've really enjoyed getting back into the world of guitar. When I first picked-up a guitar back in 1998, I had no idea what I was doing... I went and bought a Fender Squire, a cheap-o practice amp and started hacking away. Amy bought me a nice acoustic guitar, but because I didn't know what I was doing, there wasn't any point to having decent stuff. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I gave up on the guitar rather quickly.

Fast forward to 2012, when I decided to give it another try. I bought a beautiful Gibson Les Paul Studio guitar and a decent Line 6 amp. I subscribed to online lessons and spent a lot of time searching YouTube for other lessons and pointers. I've been playing an average of 2-3 hours per day and have been picking-up things rather quickly.

I love - LOVE - the Gibson Les Paul, but I wanted a guitar that was a little "faster" - something more suited to heavier music. So, I went to the Guitar Center and spent nearly 5 hours testing guitars. I chose an Ibanez in natural ash - it's thin, fast, and sounds absolutely chunky (in a good way).

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That guitar really emulates the classic Ratt tone - I love playing songs like Lack of Communication, Back for More, and Round and Round on it. It's so fun.

When I'm not practicing or playing around on the guitar, I'm reading about guitar history, technology, and components. During my time spent researching and reading, I stumbled across a rare amplifier set as manufactured by Marshall, called a "micro stack."

If you've ever seen a music video, or been to a rock concert, it's likely that you've seen the "wall" of guitar amplifiers. Those are called "stacks" and they typically consist of an amplifier (or "head") and two cabinets, all of which are stacked on one another - hence the "stack" name.

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A typical Marshall cabinet consists of 4 speakers, in either a 10" or 12" size (per speaker)... so, a 4x12" cabinet might stand 3 to 3.5 feet tall. Stack two cabinets on one another and add the head, and you've got a stack that will easily stand 7-feet tall. The amplifiers usually run around 100-watts of power, and due to their design, don't really sound good until they're cranked-up to nearly "10."

The problem with that is you can't easily play/practice in a residential area... 100-watts of guitar power is literally deafening. Running a stack at a low volume usually sounds rather crummy.

Enter my research and the micro stack that I stumbled across. The good folks at Marshall introduced a micro stack in 1985, and it consisted of a 12-watt head with two cabinets that each housed a single 10" speaker. The net result was a stack that stood 3.5 feet tall and could be played at reasonable volumes while still sounding good.

The 12-watt system (called the "Lead 12") was produced from 1985 to 1991, before being "upgraded" to a 15-watt system (called the "Lead 15"). Unfortunately, the 15-watt units sounded terrible - they were manufactured in China (rather than the UK) and are considered to be inferior to the Lead 12. The Lead 15 is still manufactured today, and they sell for around $400.

I wasn't interested in a Lead 15... so I set about searching for a Lead 12. As you can imagine, they're not readily available... collectors have snatched them all up, and there weren't that many to begin with. I bid on (and lost) two Lead 12's on eBay; one sold for $564, another for $618. Yikes!

I turned to craigslist, and after a good week of searching, found a Lead 12 in Denver. I called the guy and discovered his Lead 12 had an interesting back story. Apparently, the stack belonged to Sebastian Bach - lead singer of the 80's hair metal band, Skid Row. The guy claimed that his brother was a roadie for Skid Row and that Sebastian used this particular Lead 12 as a practice amp while the band toured.

When the touring ended, Sebastian gave it to this guy's brother, who then gave it to this guy. It sat in a basement for 20 years before being offered for sale on craigslist... I asked if he could substantiate the story, and the guy said he had hundreds of photos of him and his brother hanging out with the likes of Skid Row, Motley Crue, and Great White. Hmm. Well, regardless of the story, I decided to buy the stack for $225 and asked Kelly (Amy's sister) if she'd pick it up for me and bring it to Wisconsin over the Christmas break.

Kelly arrived in Wisconsin last Sunday and delivered the stack to me. Here it is in all of its original, dirty, smoky, and musty glory:

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The picture doesn't do it justice, but the thing was filthy. After testing it to see if it worked (it did), I spent a solid 4-5 hours cleaning it with toothbrushes, Q-tips, rags, soap, and a lot of elbow grease. When I was done, it looked like this:

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It sounded good, but something was amiss... on heavier notes, I detected a "flopping" noise - as if a speaker was rattling or something like that. I did some troubleshooting and determined the potentiometers ("knobs") needed replacement. It's a common issue with the old amps... So, I went to eBay and ordered a replacement set for $45 - they should be here next week.

I also went about researching the serial number for more information. This head has a serial number of W03787 - the "87" means it was manufactured in 1987, and the "037" means it was amp #37 made that year. If rumors are correct, units 0-50 were made for artists, of which Sebastian Bach would've been one of. So, perhaps the story is true...

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I played the stack quite a bit last week - I really liked the sound of it, floppiness and all. It had a great 1980's metal sound; very much like what you hear when you listen to bands like AC/DC, Dokken, Guns 'n Roses, and Ratt. Crunchy with just a little buzz. I also really like the way it looks exactly like a full stack - they did a great job with the look and feel of it.

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When I returned home yesterday, I fired-up the 'ole computer to find information about a few other bands that I really like and am trying to learn how to play songs from: Chevelle and Metallica. Well, it turns out that they both have something in common: Mesa Boogie.

Mesa Boogie is a California-based company that manufactures incredible amplifiers and speaker cabinets. Their deepest, darkest sounding lines are the Rectifier and Mark series. Unfortunately, a Rectifier cabinet runs around $1200 and a Mark V head runs around $2400... a little more than I'd care to spend, especially given my hack status.

On a whim, I decided to check craigslist again, and wouldn't you know it, but I found a Mesa rectifier cabinet for sale in Milwaukee. I called, and the owner still had it. After some haggling, I decided to drive in and look at it. It was in great condition, and after some additional negotiation, I left Milwaukee with a 2x12" Rectifier cabinet in my possession (I paid less than $300 for it).

Here's what my living room looked like last night as I was testing it out. I stole the Marshall head to power the speaker and it sounded incredible. That little 12-watt head did a phenomenal job with the big Mesa cabinet:

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The Mesa cabinet has a super tight, deep, dark sound. It's truly shocking to hear how different it sounds from the two Marshall cabinets. I also noticed the head sounded fine - it didn't have the floppy sound that it has when connected to the stack... which leads me to believe the stack may have a speaker issue. Hmm... I'll still replace the potentiometers, but I may have to search for a replacement speaker or two. :-(

Unable to sleep last night, my fingers sore from playing for nearly 5 hours, I started searching for a head that I could dedicate to the Mesa cabinet. I didn't want to use the Marshall with the Mesa because the Marshall head is a 16-ohm unit (the Mesa cabinet is 8-ohm), and I'd prefer to keep the Marshall stack as its own unit.

Thanks to the internet, I "auditioned" several potential candidates to power the Mesa cabinet - Orange (from the UK), Mesa (California), Hughes and Kettner (Germany), Peavy (Mississippi), and Randall (USA).

Each had their merits, but the Orange series sounded the best to me and seemed to get the most rave reviews, especially the "Terror" series of amps.

The Orange "Terror" line consists of several amps that fall into the "lunchbox" category. They're called lunchbox amps because of their size - they're literally the size of an old school metal lunch box, yet they pack a wallop.

For heavy metal tones and bodacious power, it seemed as though the Orange "Dark Terror" was the way to go. It featured a tube pre-amp system and a 15-watt tube power stage. I decided to drag my 100-pound Mesa cabinet over to the local Guitar Center so that I could audition some Orange heads.

Wow. The reviews and online demos didn't do the Orange any justice. The thing was an absolute beast. It had a scary sound - pure evil metal, but in a really good way. Crunchy, dark, bowel stirring. Delicious. It was also loud - painfully loud. Set to "2" on the scale, it was literally screaming. I had no doubt this thing could ignite an earthquake... I had to get it.

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It looks innocent enough, but believe me - it's an absolute beast.

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That evil orange power indicator has an ominous glow to it. Pure awesomeness.

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The switch to the right allows you to choose between 7 and 15 watts. I tried the 15-watt setting for about 2 minutes but couldn't handle it... while it sounds amazing, it's simply too loud for in-home use. Those tubes can really crank out some serious power!

And speaking of tubes - here's a top view of the power tubes as seen through the top of the head. The tubes are the silver-ish cylinders (there are 5):

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And here's my wall of sound, all together. I love it. I should probably get back to playing and practicing.

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Snowmageddon

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Wow.

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We certainly got a healthy dose of snow today, eh? Having lived in Arkansas for so long, and then with a few recent mild winters, I lost respect for how impressive Wisconsin winters can be.

My workplace was open today, but encouraged everyone to work from home, so I did just that. The photo from above was taken at around 8:00am, just as I was trying to coax the Flea to go outside. She had other intentions... here she is at around 10:00am.

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Sometime around noon or so, the snow picked-up again; according to the news, Madison had nearly 13" of snow by noon. While I was attending to conference calls and work-stuffs, I peered outside and was shocked to see the snow "falling" horizontally. This photo was taken at around 1:00pm.

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Flea had decided to move, but not by much... apparently she got too warm under the blanket, so she adjusted her position.

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With work winding down, I decided to go outside and attempt to tackle the snow. I opened the garage door and almost collapsed. The snow blower has a 22" wide opening and is about 16" tall at the opening.

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The best part about the snow? It was super wet and heavy and the snow blower could barely handle it. Oh wait - no, that wasn't the best part. The best part was trying to shovel the far end of the driveway, where the snow plows had deposited nearly 4-and-a-half-feet of packed, icy, dense snow that I had to move 100% by hand. OMG.

It took just over 3 hours to "snow blow" and shovel the driveway... and, it looks like I need to do it all again... oh, this is fun.

Here's what the back deck looks like as of about 5 minutes ago:

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I just turned to the local weather station, and they're reporting Madison has hit 19" of snow. Next up are the winds - 45mph gusts tonight. So much for the shoveling.

And guess who absolutely does not want to venture outside, not even for a second?

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But enough about the snow...

I had a good time this weekend - I helped a friend from work fix an electrical problem that manifested in headlights that refused to work. She was quoted something like $2500 by the local dealership to fix just one side. I did some research and found out the problem was most likely related to either the "ignitor" or "ballast," both of which are located inside of the headlight assembly.

With a little more research, I found the OEM part numbers and was able to order new parts from Amazon (love that site) for just $292. So, her and her spouse swung over to the house on Saturday and we tackled the repair. Here's her car at its "worst" -

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A few hours later and the surgery was a success. The lights all worked, we zipped-up the car, and they saved about $2100. To celebrate, they took me to Smoky's Restaurant - a very classic steakhouse in Madison. I hadn't been there since around 1989 - not much had changed, but the steaks were phenomenal. If you're in the mood for a good steak, I'd highly recommend Smoky's. Wow.

And with that, I think I'll sign-off. The power is now flickering, so I'm not sure how long I'll have an internet connection. Stay warm!

Fish Fry Review: 5100 - McFarland

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Hey McFarland, what gives? You've got some really solid fish fry spots in your little south-of-the-Madison-area-borough. I mean that in all sincerity - Toby's, Green Lantern, and now, the 5100 - one can't go wrong when seeking fish along highway 51.

A couple of us fish fanatics were in the mood for a fish fry and were looking for a new place to try. A quick search of Yelp showed several options, and after a short debate, we settled on the 5100. I know what you're thinking, because we thought the same thing... "what a bizarre name - is it a dance club?"

And the answer is well, no. But sort of yes. 5100 occupies the building that once served as the Park Ponderosa, a semi-famous McFarland icon/banquet hall/dance hall that entertained locals for 40-years. The folks in charge of 5100 rejuvenated the building and gave it an open, sorta-northwoodsy look that works really well. It's surprisingly comfortable in the place.

We grabbed a table in the bar area near one of many large windows that look out toward McFarland. A server quickly appeared, iPad in hand, and shared the evening's specials. 5100 offers a nice variety of taps, including plenty of craft offerings. Prices were more than fair - $3 for happy hour pints.

With our drink orders converted to bits-and-bytes by the iPad, our server suggested we try the house-made cheese curds. Now, I realize there's a sucker born every minute, but if I had a nickel for every place that claims to sell "hand made" or "home-made" curds, I'd be rich. However, she specifically said, "house-made," so I pressed for more info.

She told us about how the 5100 curds start as fresh curds, sourced from local dairies. They're then introduced to a batter that consists of Spotted Cow beer, select spices, and a light batter mix. Ok - that sounded legit, so we took a chance and placed an order. With a few taps of the iPad screen, she smiled, turned and went to grab our beverages.

Within minutes, our drinks and curds arrived, and upon first glance the curds appeared to indeed be house-made. One taste of the delicate dairy delights and I was convinced - these were the real deal, and they were phenomenal. I took this picture after we had devoured nearly half of the plate:

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The batter was really tasty; it featured a hefty dose of black pepper, a hint of salt, and the definite flavor of Spotted Cow. The breading was perfectly applied - not too thick, not too thin, and it clung to each curd. The curds themselves were top notch - soft, gooey, and nary a sign of grease. I would rank these among the top 1-2 curds in our fair city - just behind Middleton Sport Bowl's curds. Get them. Trust me.

5100 offers just three types of Friday fish options: deep fried cod, baked cod, or smelt. No perch, no walleye, no bluegill; no worries. Get the deep fried cod. We all did. And speaking of options - your fish plate will come with fries, like it or not.

Our fish plates arrived just after we had polished off the order of curds. 5100 serves up 4 generous chunks of cod; an All You Can Eat (AYCE) option is available for $3 more, but you won't need it.

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The look and feel of that dark batter instantly took me back to my childhood, when we'd fire-up the oven and unload a box of frozen Vande Kemp fish fillets onto a cookie sheet, bake 'em and call it a dinner.

Fortunately for the 5100, aside from looks, this batter has nothing in common to the aforementioned blue box batter. Similar to the curds, the fish batter was slightly salty with heavy beer and batter taste. There wasn't any hint of pepper in the batter, but I wouldn't be surprised if the mix contained a touch of it. And just like the curds, this batter was expertly applied and perfectly fried - it clung to the fish like superglue sticks to fingers.

The cod was some quality stuff - firm, flaky, snow-white, and super fresh tasting. What a difference it makes when restaurants pony-up for the good stuff and then take some care to prepare it. We all scarfed-down the fish faster than you could say "gangnam style."

I'm told the slaw was decent and that the tartar was excellent. I'm not a fan of either, so I can't comment directly. But I can say that the fries were capital-DEEEEE-licious. Slightly thicker than traditional fries, they were piping hot, crispy and tasty.

Our server was excellent, checking-in on a regular basis and taking really good care of our table. We stayed for an additional beverage or two, genuinely enjoying the atmosphere of the place.

5100 = WIN

Food = 4.5 stars
Service = 4 stars
Value = 4 stars
MISC = 4.5 stars

A great fish fry, for sure. While Toby's may be more popular, 5100 is no slouch. It's not as jam-packed as Toby's, the curds are better, the drink selections are better, and the service is better. I'd happily visit 5100 for fish any time. Heck, I'd visit it just for the fun of it.

Great job, 5100 - kudos!

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