June 2014 Archives

A major upgrade

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So, I've been dabbling in the guitar for a while now. I go in waves with it - I'll play the heck out of it, learn some new stuff, and then other priorities will jump to the front and the guitar will sit for a while.

I've managed to build-up a fairly decent selection of equipment, with my Marshall mini stack, my Orange Dark Terror, the Mesa Dual Rectifier 2x12 cabinet, a slew of pedals, and a few nice guitars (most recently purchased a Martin acoustic that is truly wonderful).

Aside from not having enough time to really play as much as I'd like to, there's been a problem with my electric guitar equipment - it's too loud.

Most folks would say, "That sounds like an easy fix - just turn it down!"

And.... unfortunately, it's not that easy. Most guitar amplification systems are designed to be played at stage volume (in other words, "ear blisteringly loud"). Their design prohibits them from sounding good at lower volume, thanks in part to (what is, for the most part, a very primitive system) the use of vacuum tubes for pre-amplification and amplification.

A vacuum tube is essentially like a fluorescent light - it's either "on" or "off" - there isn't a real happy medium. So, when you try to play a tube-powered amplifier at lower volume, it just sounds terrible. Crank it up a bit, and things sound wonderful; but at "bedroom volume," I would rather (and always did) play without any amplification.

Playing an electric guitar without amplification is fine, but it does make you a bit sloppy, and it prohibits you from doing things like hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc.; you need the amplifier to hear those and to practice them.

I could've purchased a tiny pocket-amp (like 1 watt), but then I'd lose all tone, depth, and crunch. I thought about building a soundproof room to practice in, but that didn't seem practical (plus my basement gets damp during heavy rain).

After much searching, I found a company that sells a hugely impressive amplifier that also offers a bedroom mode setting that doesn't sacrifice tone, even at whisper quiet volumes. The company's products are 100% handmade in the USA, have been around for 40+ years, and are used by all of the rock greats.

Only problem? Not available in Madison. So, I had to resort to seeking them out at larger music shops whenever I'd travel. Here I am at a shop, playing on the awesome Mesa/Boogie Mark V amplifier on top of a Mesa/Boogie 4x12 Rectifier cabinet (that's about $3900 worth of amplification back there) with a Jackson Custom Shop electric guitar (retail: $4995). Yikes! No wonder I'm smiling...

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I loved it. Each time I goofed-around with the amp, I was impressed with the versatility, the sound, and the quality of it. The amp features three distinct channels so that you don't need separate amplifiers or a ton of pedals to get great sounds.

Channel 1 plays cleans (no distortion) like nobody's business - sweet, smooth, and full. From pure acoustic-like sound to gritty Rockabilly (like the Rolling Stones or Beatles) - it's all butter.

Channel 2 of the amplifier served-up classic 80s and 90s hard-rock tones - think Van Halen, Ratt, AC/DC, and the like - crunchy distortion, mid-kick, the true "rock" sound.

Channel 3 must have been created by Satan, because it was the darkest, scoopiest, most demonic tone I've heard from an amplifier. It features a channel called "Mark IV" and when dialed-in correctly, it sounds exactly like the classic guitars from Metallica's Master of Puppets album. Yummy.

And the best part? It sounded awesome regardless of the output level. The amplifier has three power output settings for each channel: 1-watt, 45-watt, or 90-watt.

The worst part? It's freakishly expensive, and I couldn't justify spending that much for an amplifier, especially when I still stink as a guitarist. That, and I'll never tour or play live with it, and this amplifier is truly intended to scream on stage, not sit in a bedroom whispering away. It would be like owning a Formula 1 car and only using it to idle down to the grocery store on sunny Tuesdays.

Fast forward several months, and I decided to start looking for a used version. Problem? These amps are more scarce than hens' teeth. And, the few used ones that are out there are either beat to heck from touring, or, priced near full MSRP. Ugh!

Well, I decided to bite the bullet (surprise!), sell all of my existing equipment, and buy a Mesa/Boogie Mark V head. I quickly sold my Orange, Marshall, and pedals. That left me with just a little gap between the price of the Mark V and my cash on hand from the sales.

Last week, I found a shop that had a new Mesa Mark V and... I bought it. SQUEEEEEEEEEEEAL!!!!

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I anxiously drove home with the new head, set-it up, and plugged it in. It pairs perfectly with my Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier 2x12 cabinet.

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The little panel next to the amplifier (the amplifier is on top, the speaker cabinet is below) is a "foot switch board." The board allows you to change between channels (sounds) on the amplifier, add/remove reverb (echo), turn on/off the Equalizer, turn on/off external effects (pedals), boost the volume for solos, or mute the entire set-up. Here it is closer-up; you use your foot to tap each of the buttons while playing.

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I spent a number of hours tweaking the configurations for each of the channels, and am amazed by how versatile this amplifier is. That single head replaced two full set-ups for me, as well as displacing 6 separate effects pedals. I can get better sounds from that amp by itself than I could with all of my other gear combined. Unreal.

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I really love the fact that I can set it to the 1-watt setting, drop the output to just barely "on" and still hear and experience the full-capability of the amplifier. I have a feeling I'm going to be doing a lot less exercising and a lot more guitar playing... ;-)

Thank you, Mesa/Boogie!!!! Awesome, USA-made piece of equipment.

So saggy

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Gotta' love old houses.

Over the winter, I noticed that one side of the overhang on my front porch seemed to be sagging. I took a closer look a few weeks ago and discovered that the buttress responsible for supporting the left side of the overhang was rotted and had slipped about 2" from its original position.

Apparently, whomever originally crafted the overhang felt that a single nail would be sufficient to support the weight of the 4x4 buttress and the unknown weight/make-up of the overhang itself. I'm no engineer, but I'd like to think that I know a little better than to hope that one lonely nail would support what has to be several hundred pounds of weight.

So, I ran off to the hardware store to gather some materials so as to rectify the saggy overhang. I consulted with my handyman pal, who suggested foregoing the buttress and doing a standard post, anchored to the cement steps. I liked his suggestion, so that's what I did.

True to my nature, I got super anxious to do the work, and immediately began cutting, drilling, and repairing as soon as I returned from the store. As I admired my first bit of work, I realized that it might make a good blog entry... so, I made sure to photograph the other side's work.

Here we see the original buttress design. This side of the porch had not yet started to sag, so it looks fairly normal.

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I had to remove the aluminum cladding from the buttress and from the overhang, where the buttress enters the structure. With the cladding removed, I then used a bottle jack and another 4x4 to serve as a support for the structure - I carefully jacked-up the support so that the overhang was sitting just slightly higher than level.

I then took my saw and cut out the buttress. The temporary jack was now holding all of the weight of the overhang.

With the buttress out of the way, I hung a plumb-bob from the center of my post opening on the overhang to determine where to drill for my cement anchors:

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Up next, I used a hammer drill with a masonry bit to drill a 5/8" hole into the cement steps. True to nearly everything in this old house, the steps weren't actually centered under the overhang, so my post wound-up sitting slightly over the edge of the cement steps... as I said earlier, "gotta' love old houses."

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The hammer drill and masonry bit made short work of the cement. With nearly zero effort, I had a perfect 5/8" wide hole that went about 4" deep into the cement. I don't know why I waited so long to purchase a hammer drill - they're truly awesome. Here's the hole, with the plumb-bob indicated things were "on target":

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I cleaned the hole of any residual cement dust, inserted my anchor sleeve, and then installed my post support. The post support serves to anchor the cedar 4x4 as well as to elevate it from the cement and act as a moisture barrier.

I'm not planning to keep this overhang for too long; I'd like to build a "real" porch on the front of the house within the next few years, so I didn't worry too much about getting real fancy with the post and support. Here's the post support being assembled in place:

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With the "foundation"' all set to go, all that I had to do was measure and cut my 4x4 cedar support and fit it into place. And, here's where things got fun again (thanks, old house!).

The right side of the overhang wasn't built anything like the left side. I discovered a "stepped" system of 2x4s in the overhang, which meant I'd have to notch my 4x4 to fit into the 2x4 steps above.

I measured things 5-6 times and then used my miter saw to cut a series of ribs into the 4x4.

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With the ribs cut, I used my hammer to knock them out, and then cleaned-up things with a sharp chisel. Since no one would ever see this part of the post, I wasn't worried about getting a really clean cut - I just wanted to quickly and effectively knock-out part of the 4x4 so that it would fit flush with the overhang's structure.

I measured a few more times, and then cut the 4x4 to length, to ensure that the overhang would sit level. Here it is, just before I set everything into place.

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I set the post into place, secured it at the top with some lag bolts, and then secured it to the support with some stainless steel 2.5" screws. I lowered the jack, removed the temporary support, and all was done. No more sagging.

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I need to remove the last little bit of the old buttresses; I didn't have a "Sawz-All" at the time, but I do now, so it'll be nothing for me to cut those flush and cover the exposed (rotten) siding. Done and done.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2014 listed from newest to oldest.

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