Buy tadalis-sx indiaAmoxicillin uk buyGeneric propecia 5mg canada pharmacyMyers drug store inc Pick Attack: The Guitar Podcast

2015 April 17

Hear myself and shred nut Steve Whoriskey ramble on about various guitar-related topics in Pick Roar’s sister podcast, Pick Attack. Let us know if you could stomach another one.

Block Saddles vs Bent Steel

2015 January 18
tags: ,
by Gray

Did you ever wonder how block saddles sound different from bent steel saddles? Here we took a guitar equipped with cast block saddles and replaced them with vintage-style bent steel saddles, recording the same little phrases before and after the change – two clean, two dirty. Take a listen. You’ll hear each phrase twice: first with the block saddles, then with the bent steel.


All else was kept the same: volumes, settings, equipment, the guitar pick, picking position on the strings, even the strings themselves which, listen, was a total hassle, but important because new strings are bright and brands differ.


The greatest difference is in the unplugged sound; live in the room, the guitar is clearly brighter. But once amplified and recorded, there is still a difference. Listen to the individually picked notes of the chords in the first example and there is a more rounded, fundamental tone with the blocks, and a bit of Strat-style zing with the bent steel, due to increased harmonics. The second example, a simple E minor chord played on the neck pickup, is perhaps the most obvious, sounding more open and chimey with the new saddles.

The distinctions become less apparent with a dirty tone, but they are there if you listen carefully. The short lead phrase played with the neck pickup is fatter and fuller with the block saddles, but gains a bit of clarity and bite with the bent steel ones. The last piece, a distorted rock riff played on the bridge pickup, sounds nearly identical with both saddle types, though there’s maybe a bit less weight and chunk to the bent steel take.

Playing Favorites

Subtle differences, yes, but real and demonstrable. It’s easier to understand why Fender itself has gone back and forth over the years, as if unable to decide: “Are our guitars too twangy and bright? Do we need more fundamental tone? Or is that springy sound our signature?” Easier also to see why vintage purists demand their bent steel, with the differences extending beyond the mechanical and the aesthetic.

Hopefully you now know if the difference matters to you.

Yamaha THR10 Squealing Noise Fix

2014 November 8
by Gray

The Yamaha THR10, THR10X and THR10C are fantastic little practice amps, but they have a design flaw. When some of the wires inside get too close together, their signals interfere and a nasty high-pitched whining, squealing or ringing sound results. This may be constant, or only when you play, or only when the noise gate is off. It sounds like this:

Nowhere does there seem to be a guide to fixing this. When my THR10X showed up with this squealing issue, I opened it up, turned it on, and poked around with a pencil to find out what was happening. Turns out it’s a five minute fix. Follow this short tutorial and you’ll be whine free.

Caution: Amps and humans are fragile. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to. Static electricity stored in your body could zap a microchip, rendering your amp useless. Power stored in a capacitor could zap you, making you useless. Proceed at your own risk. I will not buy you a new amp or new hands.

1. Open Up

With the amp off and unplugged, remove all screws holding on the metal casing, including the four chrome hex bolts on the front, and open as shown.


These thick cables with the gray foam insulation are for the speakers. We’ll leave them alone.


We’re interested in this mess of smaller wires at the right edge of the board.


2. Fix It

The problem is that when cable A gets close to the bundle of wires at connector B, the interference generates a nasty squealing feedback sound.


Separating them even this much makes the sound disappear. Yamaha should not have designed the THR10 series with these wires so close to each other, and their flappy little piece of silver shielding between the two is apparently insufficient!


To keep cable A away from connector B permanently, and enjoy quiet, whine-free shredding forever more, secure cable A to this little circuit board with a cable tie.


It’s now impossible for the wires to get near each other. Carefully reassemble the amp and you are done with the repair for the cost of a cable tie.

Yamaha THR10X Review

2014 November 2
by Gray

THR10X and Les Paul

Yamaha’s range of loaf-sized 10-watt practice amps has proven enormously popular, even with the tone snobs; positioned as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the guitarist’s “real” amp, the THR10s acknowledge their position in the food chain, and thrive in it. These are the modelers we can enjoy free of distrust, leaving only fun. Here we’ll look at the THR10X, which specializes in filthy high-gain tones.


Let there be no doubt that aesthetics helped Yamaha convince so many players they needed a desktop practice amp. It’s such an attractive little package, with the rounded corners, metal case and faux tube glow. You want it before you’ve heard it. This version, with its flat green paint and stenciled markings, looks like Master Chief’s lunch box. They’re all cute enough and small enough to look good in an office, living room or bedroom. You get a generous lengthy power cable to help create a little noodling zone anywhere you fancy. It’ll even run on batteries, if you want to rock the yard over summer. You’ll find yourself setting up in a corner here or an armchair there and wailing away for hours.

The desktop amp was not much of a market before. You might have tried to get by with a Pignose, especially if you saw Crossroads, but rock and metal would have been out of reach. There were those novelty Marshall micro amps that clipped to your belt like a walkie-talkie – and sounded like one, too. The Roland Cube series is probably the most popular all-in-one mini amplifier, but of all the things it gets right, distortion is not one of them. Despite the leaps made by the Yamaha THR series, it retains an appealing humility; it’s not trying to be your everything, the ultimate amp; it’s pitched as a fun, convenient guitar buddy while you are away from the real thing.


Let us make our way around the Amp dial, visiting each gainy monster provided by the THR10X. It must be said that the list represents a strange choice of non-aspirational, mid-range amps. If the modeling process is as good as it seems, Yamaha, give us a Cameron, a Fortin, maybe a Diezel! Luckily there are some hot and tasty tones to be found amid Yamaha’s Craigslist selection of amps, but you can’t help but puzzle over the choices, nor how the sweet profiling setup could have been used to recreate more lusted-after models.

  • Power I: Not the finest introduction to 10X tone, with a rumbling, rubbery bottom end that never quite grips like you want it to, paired with the bad kind of angry mids and a buzzy top end – though it does have a pleasant, percussive chocka-chock when you rake across the strings. Playing on the neck pickup gives away the weakness of Power I; it’s the kind of sound where you’re always checking your tone knob is up full. Same results with a various guitars. Winding back the guitar’s volume lets the tone open up, and results in a nice dirty blues tone, where you can actually hear some definition and hollowness from your pickups.
  • Power II: Yamaha says this is the lead channel of an ENGL Powerball, where Power I models the rhythm channel, so it’s not wildly different besides ladling on a lot more gain. It does significantly reduce the nasal mids. Upper register shredding makes the most of this one, the notes flying off easily thanks to crazy saturation and benefiting from a more balanced tone than Power I. But as you reach the wound strings it’s still too muddy and indistinct, robbing low solo notes of their presence and palm muted riffs of their chunk. What good is a metal tone that can’t chug?
  • Brown I: Get comfortable as you turn the dial to Brown I, because you’re going to be here a while. The wild, gritty midrange of a Greenback appears – the sound rock guitar should make – that Eddie drawl ebbs from your fingers, and the pickups open up to be heard. The bottom end isn’t as ambitious as the ENGL models, and is clearer and tighter for it. All manner of happy overtones come pinwheeling off the fundamentals. It’s not just canned EVH, but canned hot guitar tone in general. With the right approach you’ll get ZZ Top, Yngwie, even you.
  • Brown II: The Yamaha rep describes this as later era EVH, a somewhat vague description when, depending on your perspective, that could hint at anything from the Peavey 5150 to today’s Fender line. It ups the distortion, smooths down that vintage hard rock hump in the mids, and conjures some low end for a more modern take, but shares the open characteristics and agitated harmonics of Brown I. Which is best comes down to your mood at that moment, but both gobble up hours of practice time, and both suggest that Yamaha’s process in building these sounds deserves gratitude and encouragement.
  • Southern Hi: As a parting gift, the THR10X takes us to the edge of its capabilities, emulating the relentless buzz saw of Dimebag Darrel’s guitar tone. Though many are miffed by the idea of modeling Dime’s Randall RG100, a solid state amp, the manual mentions 6L6 tubes, hinting at an early Krank Revolution. If you’re a bedroom brutalist, this is where you’ll find the meanest tones in the THR10X, but the illusion is in danger of shattering. Though certainly up to the job of jamming along with some heavy music, asking for so much grind and aggression from a combo amp that isn’t even the size of a bookshelf speaker makes for an aww-isn’t-that-brave kind of novelty rather than something you want to spend a lot of time with. There’s a sense of narrow bandwidth on the input, too, that makes some playing counter-intuitive: where, with a real tube amp, to get the tightest, densest riffage you dig in extra hard with the pick and really lean into the muting, this approach overwhelms the 10X, turning the low end to mush. Paradoxically you have to use as light a touch as possible to get the hardest-hitting result, which sounds pretty good but feels bloody strange.
  • Cleans: Despite the high gain focus, three clean settings are thoughtfully provided. The first, Flat, caters for the myriad things you may want to connect without the coloration of an amp sim: mics, keyboards, all manner of audio toys; if you can get a quarter inch jack on it, you can get it into the THR10X. The Bass setting models an unspecified tube-powered bass amp, so that we guitar nerds can do justice to the lower frequencies, so often disrespected with a direct recording. Lastly, Clean does a surprisingly pretty Fender clean, without perhaps the stridency or bite of the real thing, but a lush, inspiring character that will come in handy for those bits between the noise. The THR’s emulation of power tube distortion can perhaps best be demonstrated here: even with the gain right up, you’ll get no dirt from this model until you turn up the Master, bringing in not just distortion, but compression, warmth, and a loss of low end articulation, while staying very musical.



In the interests of managing expectations, it is worth pointing out that no matter how cool its tones are or how fun it is to play, the THR10X is not magical; it is bound by some severe limitations. It sounds brilliant – for a digital amp the size of a toaster. It doesn’t sound like a stack, a half-stack, or even a 1×12 combo. It can sound a bit like those things heard on a song on the radio. We are talking about a couple of three-inch speakers in a small metal and plastic box. It is clear, if you open up that box, that the team at Yamaha has done what it could to push a big sound out of a little space; most of the inside of a THR is a bass reflex system. Given the success of this series, it seems likely there will be a THR20 one day with, one hopes, larger speakers. Blackstar’s ID Core 20, another diminutive stereo modeler, sounds fatter, with more real-amp feel, thanks to dual five-inch speakers.


Hook it up to a computer and you’ll find that, in the digital domain, unconstrained by physical proportions, there’s nothing cute about the THR10X. It sounds big, with great spread and balance, a sense of scale that quickly builds that wall-of-guitars effect on a recording. It’s not as raw as some might like – quite a ‘final’ sound – but less need for filters and EQ means you get a better-sounding demo quicker, and can focus on playing and editing. The amp can even function as a kind of external soundcard and speakers, with the whole mix coming through. The signal level seen by your recording software is not tied to the THR10X’s real world, audible output, so you can turn down as low as you like, or even record silently. It excels as a desktop recording amp.

Here is a short demo recorded with the THR10X into GarageBand. There are three tracks: two rhythm guitars panned left and right, and one solo guitar down the middle. Totally raw with no effects or EQ.


The software used to control the amp on your computer screen has some quirks, particularly around saving tones, but is useful once you’ve got the hang of it. Running it in one window while recording software runs in another works well. Besides saving and editing patches, which it helps to name after specific songs or tracks, you gain access to some trinkets that are otherwise unavailable. A pop up menu lets you assign different virtual cabs to your sounds, which really helps get the recorded tone you want. Though they vary in character from a warm vintage Marshall to a crisp new Diezel, all five types are 4x12s, which was a bit short sighted. Some 1×12 options would have been nice, as high gain heads can record great through these more focused, less tubby cabinets. There’s finer control over effects than can be managed with the physical knobs, a compressor that is only available here, and controls for the THR’s nefarious noise gate.

The THR10X has the sneakiest noise gate it the business. For a start, it is on every sound by default, and requires connection to a computer to be disabled. It’s not set globally, either; you’ve got to turn it off for each patch and save the patch in that state. If you are sitting playing one of your noise-gate-less sounds, and decide to try a new tone, the gate will sneak back on as soon as you turn the Amp dial. Least forgivable of all, the noise gate is automatically reapplied each time the power is turned on. You can noodle away happily on one of your carefully edited gate-free patches, turn off, come back the next day, turn on, and that little bastard gate will be on again! This goes beyond trying to help you and becomes trying to force something on you, a distressing quality in any technology. Fix this, Yamaha – you’re nicer than this.


Despite this quirk, or the fact that three of the five amp models are largely superfluous, it’s impossible not to love the THR10X. The brown sounds are not just one-trick, stripy red and white ponies, but tremendously enjoyable hot-rodded Marshall tones that adapt effortlessly to a number of styles. The format of a tiny, warm sounding modeler makes more sense for practice and play-along than a tube amp, which always really wants to be ten times louder than you need in such situations. The terrific recording features just put it over the top.

Blackstar ID:60 TVP Review

2014 October 14
by Gray


Blackstar’s ID series is a family of modeling amps, from 15-watt combos to 100-watt heads, that has caught ears and raised eyebrows with a more lively and, let’s say it, organic guitar tone than is expected of the affordable modeler, ever the vessel of squishy, unconvincing burble. While so many try to capture the recorded sound of a miked amplifier, which often feels dead and distant to the player, the ID series finally does something new to invigorate response and feel. The design applies power across the speaker’s voice coil in similar ways to vacuum tubes. Whether or not this sounds like gibberish, nobody has tried this before and it is a game-changer. Modelers don’t feel this good.

Work It

That’s not the only innovation. You start with six Voices – Blackstar’s term – which it helps to think of as preamp styles: two clean, two crunch, two overdrive. But then you get to pick what kind of power tube is emulated, from six popular choices, which not only helps you home in on classic combinations – a raucous crunch with EL34s will set your widely-spread feet upon the soil of planet Marshall, say – but also new ones: what would a sweet little vintage Fender sound like powered by a massive pair of KT88 bottles? How about a Dual Rec screaming at some mild-mannered EL84s? Add in the ISF control that sweeps the EQ from British to American styles, and the control panel is like a little amp lab.

We also have gain, two volume controls (more on this later), resonance, presence, a row of buttons for saving and recalling patches, and a section for controlling built-in effects: modulation, delay, and reverb, all of which can be on at once, all of which are covered exhaustively elsewhere, and all of which are meaningless if the basic tone isn’t there. Some of them sound a bit plasticky. One of the reverbs is really good. Several sound cold and abrupt like they’re modeled on the concrete stairwells of inner city housing.

There’s also a fragile looking USB port, for speaker-emulated recording or fine editing, which would be better positioned on the back. Mini USB doesn’t take the smack of a passing knee or the yank of a stepped-on cable quite like a good old quarter inch mono jack.

Two volumes? The first emulates the power section of a tube amp, so with a high gain sound, say, you might run it lower for tight, crisp reproduction, or wind it up for a warmer, singing sound. The second is an overall master volume for the amp. So you can set the first as high as you like, with all the power tube saturation that would normally loosen masonry, yet retain total control over the actual output volume. It sounds consistently great at all volumes. You can turn it down to zero and record silently into your computer.

Sound & Feel

The ID is startling in its shift towards the kind of tone that keeps us all messing about with the absurd technology of vacuum tubes. This isn’t the end of the journey; the response is still not as live and percussive as a tube amp. But the synthetic fog, the feeling of playing through a wall of processing, has diminished. As a result, the amp is compelling and, perhaps most importantly, inspiring to play. To have this tone available at the push of a button, with no warm up, no wear out, at all volumes, is wonderful.

Then there’s the consistency of digital. No matter the humidity, barometric pressure, phase of the moon, or direction of chi, it’ll sound right, unlike that moody bastard the vacuum tube. This exciting TVP (True Valve Power) technology adds some of the chirp, squeak and creak you experience with tubes, in a way that is surprising and delightful. Notes open up and change under your fingers more like the real thing, and your approach – pick angle, pressure, string area – makes a difference.

Plug in a Les Paul and it sounds like one; guitars have discernible characters we take for granted with sensitive tube amps, but are often robbed of by modelers that seem to read any instrument as Generic Guitar, and belch out the same canned sounds, regardless of wood and electronics. The player who enjoys subtlety and nuance is usually left with a frustrating caricature that refuses to acknowledge different approaches. There is still not the immediacy, nor the dynamics, of tubes, but TVP is nonetheless an encouraging advance that will hopefully continue to be developed. Blackstar is definitely onto something. Ground has been gained.


Available Tones

Known as a rock/metal brand, nobody’s picking up a Blackstar who prioritizes clean tones. But the two clean voices available here are good enough that you might just find yourself happily lost, exploring new areas. They’re not sterile and dry, as you might fear, but have a pleasant sweetened quality, from studio sparkle to club grind. Clean Warm is especially nice, with some give to the tone, compressing dynamically when you play hard and chiming softly when you lighten up. Twist that ISF control towards the American side, slot in some 6L6s, and you’ve got a good base for some Fender fun. Favor the British side, rack up some EL84s, and you’re in Vox territory. The ID encourages experimenting in-between, to come up with your own virtual amps. They will get quite dirty, too, these clean voices, if you really dial up the gain, in a usable, natural way.

That’s where the next two voices take over, Crunch and Super Crunch, forming arguably the tonal peak of the ID series. From stock Sixties moan to modded high-gain howl, these tough tones for modelers to manage are present and very nicely realized. These are the sounds that make you go, “Wow – I didn’t know we were there yet,” with their unexpected complexity and bite. Double stops take on that chewy quality as the harmonies compete, muted notes seem to tug at the speaker – with those two alone you know your Van Halen repertoire is safe – and TVP gooses the whole thing with an almost indefinable vitality. (It’s been joked that there’s no purpose for the TVP button other than to demonstrate how good the technology is. You certainly never want it off, except when toggling back and forth to confirm that, yes, it is making everything better.) One side of the ISF dial provides the thicker, warmer sound associated with the UK; sweeping counter-clockwise slims it down and adds some sizzle, until you can picture a worn black and gold head on some Californian modder’s bench.

OD1 and OD2 attempt to bring things up to date by adding a colossal amount of gain. It is difficult to see the appeal of the first; gain, like acceleration, is exhilarating, but benefits from control. OD1 heaps on the roar of distortion, but is indistinct around the edges, like playing through gravel, making it only really useful for a couple of plodding sub-genres. OD2 has participated in an extreme and grueling as-seen-on-TV workout program, and tightens all of this up admirably to deliver silly grin levels of chunk beneath your fingers. There’s more than enough distortion for anyone, and while it sounds a bit flat and over saturated in the leads, as these sounds do, it makes for crushing rhythm work, assisted by an enormous low end thump. The ID:60 has a slotted port in the back to aid this; even the ID:100 head hooked up to a Marshall 4×12 did not pound the ground like this.

The mystery internal 4 Ohm speaker is a bit hard and cold sounding when brand new, with a chesty upper bass. Six hours break-in with a punishing dubstep playlist put some miles on it, and was worth doing, making things more spongy and warm. All voices share a slightly nasal midrange, likely cast by this 12-incher.


The ID is not built solely with the recording musician in mind. Resonance and Presence settings have an effect on the tone obtained when recording directly from the amp’s USB port, but they are not programmable. So if you save a patch called Song 12 Rhythm, hoping to call that up in a week and continue working on your track, the tone may not match what you did before. You have to commit to never moving those knobs. This is a concession to the gigging musician, who wants to tune resonance and presence to the venue, then have them remain static while he switches patches all night for his set. With its “loud as valve” marketing, perhaps it should be no surprise who the series is aimed at.

Still, there are some nice recording features. First, the level is very healthy coming into the DAW via USB. The stereo track sounds pretty big and amp-like, but might not have the top end you crave; you can select from two mono channels instead, one of which sounds like a mic placed closer to center of the guitar speaker for more highs, the other more like an edge-of-cone position for body and girth. The recorded sound can be a bit lo-fi, like it’s output at 22khz (it’s not, of course, it supports 44 and 48). There’s also a raw guitar signal selectable here to facilitate reamping.

The amplifier is audio class compliant, requiring no driver in order to show up in your recording software. To update firmware, edit effects more finely, and store more patches than the 12 available from the control panel, you must use Blackstar’s Insider software. This interface, built inadvisedly on Microsoft’s Silverlight platform, is not well-loved, but performed well enough under Mac OS 10.6.8 during this review.

Here is a short demo of the ID:60 recorded directly into GarageBand via USB, with no effects or post production.

Look & Design

The TVP label, reminiscent of the ‘TRY ME!’ stickers on kids’ toys, designed to draw attention to the amp’s strongest feature, looks permanent, but is thankfully removable. Control knobs feel light, and I don’t have the greatest confidence in how the lit buttons will perform in five years.

If playing a preset, with say some reverb, there will be seven bright LEDs of various colors beaming from the front panel; more with added effects, and a blinking one for tap tempo. This kind of thing is especially obvious on a darkened stage. Some tube players are not proud to play digital amps for convenience, or would at least prefer not to advertise the fact. While not quite at Peavey VIP levels of gaudiness, a Christmas tree of large multicolored lights on the front is like saying “digital amp here!” Even at home, you might find this takes you out of the tube dream, so painstakingly engineered, when you see your cable snaking into something so computery.


Other digital cues occasionally break the spell of the amp’s warm, engrossing, almost-tube tone. There’s a tiny but demonstrable latency as the signal is processed and output. Sustain a note on the crunch channels – where the best tones live – and as it trails off you’ll hear a halo of white noise around the note. Blackstar is trying to hide this with a non-configurable noise gate on these channels, so when you stop playing entirely, the noise cuts off. But noise gates bring their own problems with attack and decay; playing staccato with the volume rolled back, you get a violin effect as the attack swells in for each note. Open strings that have faded away will come pulsing back in as you play new notes and the gate reopens. There’s an unnatural feel to the hiss coming and going all the time, the same way that dynamic contrast on a TV causes the black level to fluctuate distractingly. The noise gate cannot currently be disabled on these channels – a frustrating design choice. The brutal gate on the two OD channels, however, can be turned off via the Insider software.

Current entry-level modelers have a history of noise gate issues: the Fender Mustang, Peavey VIP, Yamaha THR10, and these Blackstars all have smears on their records. A simple rule: the gate should not default to ‘on’. Every manufacturer wants to emulate the sound and feel of tube amps. A robotic signal jammer that hops in and out of the sound does not achieve this, affecting attack, sustain, and general continuity. Woe betide the dynamic player, used to tube response, who rolls back his guitar’s volume for more delicate phrases and finds himself playing in Morse code. Nobody expects a $4,000 boutique tube amp to be silent, so why try to pretend your company’s $300 modeler is? It just creates problems. The default should be ‘off’ and it should be switchable on the amp itself, without requiring connection to a computer.



The Blackstar ID amp’s approach is frequently inelegant – the gaudy lights, the always-on noise gate, the Silverlight-reliant software, the processing lag. But when you’re playing it, connecting with your music, coaxing out those emotive tones you want to hear, lost in that reverie, such shortcomings certainly tend to shrink. Particularly for fans of high gain Marshall sounds, tired of the synthetic mush typically mustered by modelers in this area, the argument could be made that the leaps made here earn the amp forgiveness for its flaws.

Viewed as an intriguing prototype whose purchase will fund the second generation of a worthy technology, the ID offers a lot of fun and exploration, slotting nicely into a broader amp collection. Viewed as a final product, with plenty of competition, that better damn well do everything right, the ID is likely to frustrate at some point, particularly as a musician’s only amp.

The Wipe-On Poly Guitar Refinish

2014 September 19
by Gray

Before/After Polyurethane

Refinishing a guitar always seemed like a daunting prospect, requiring saintly patience and too much rubbing away with multiple grades of super fine sandpaper, plus a buffer and various combinations of chemicals to make it shiny at the end. After working with polyurethane on some projects around the house, I was pretty sure I could avoid all this and still create a beautiful, gleaming finish. I was correct! Here’s how.

Save time and heartache: learn from my mistakes where highlighted! Learn too from my knowledge-trawls through the manly, pipe smoking world of the wood forums, seeking technique and tips.


What is Polyurethane? A ubiquitous finish that can be sprayed, wiped or brushed, developed for slick shiny floors. The wood forum people look down on it and on every occasion implore you to buy other finishes which are not for sale anywhere. Poly has some annoying properties, but is cheap, hard-wearing, hella shiny, and available. The big home improvement stores carry poly, and everything else you’ll need:

  • Rubber gloves
  • Sandpaper: 60 and 220 regular, 400 and 600 ‘wet or dry’
  • Spray bottle
  • Wipe-On Poly (1 can)
  • Mineral spirits

The stuff you see in round cans is thick, gloopy, applied with a brush. This builds a finish quickly on something flat like a floor or tabletop, but gets belligerent when met with the curves and contours of a guitar body.

Don’t be me: I carefully applied poly to the guitar with a natural bristle brush. It’s too thick and the brush holds too much. You get runs all around the edges that are much more troublesome than just doing it right.

Wipe-On Poly is a thinner concoction, thin enough to be wiped onto the wood without leaving trails. Wood forum people will tell you that, if you must use it, you can save money by mixing your own, a simple ratio of 1:1 polyurethane to mineral spirits. If you’re doing kitchen cabinets or a set of furniture, this saving likely adds up. For a small project like a guitar, I’m happy to pay the $15 for a can of premixed.

Strip and Prep

1. Sand off the original finish with heavy grit paper. 60 or 80 will charge through the thick layers of paint and clearcoat with gratifying speed. No tools are required for this tutorial, but if you do have a sander, break it out; it will work on the flat areas. Wear a dust mask, eye protection, and gloves. Expect blisters. Wear clothes of which you are not fond. It need not take forever with this coarse paper. You’ll see results quickly.

Stop often to slap caked-up finish off the paper, and to test how rough it is versus a fresh piece. Swap out if worn. Paper is cheap, and with worn stuff you’re working too hard for too little effect. Take care once through the finish; you can easily reshape raw wood with such rough paper.

2. When the sweating and the swearing are over and you have a naked wooden guitar, sand the whole thing smooth with 220, going with the grain; that is, in straight up and down strokes parallel to the direction of the wood grain.

3. Wipe the body clean of sanding dust using a rag dampened with mineral spirits. Why not water? Polyurethane is an oil-based finish, and they don’t get on. Water under a poly finish makes cloudy white blotches. You’ll use a rag like this often. Keep it handy.

4. With masking tape or blue painter’s tape, tape off any exposed areas that should not have finish on them, like inside the neck pocket.

5. Hang the guitar up where you’ll be working on it, either by running string or picture-hanging wire through one of the holes in the neck pocket, or by screwing a length of scrap wood to the neck pocket, using those same holes, and hanging that up. I did both at various times, and the scrap wood method works best because it gives you a safe kind of handle to steady or rotate the body when applying finish.

Color and Base

1. Stain now, if you wish, following the guidelines on the can. Test on some scrap wood to get an idea of the color, though it’ll warm up quite a bit under the amber hue of the forthcoming poly. I experimented with mixing danish oil colors until arriving at the burnt sugar combination shown. If you’re not a projects person with scrap wood lying around, buy a 2×4 and have it chopped up at the store. If using Danish oil under poly like this, wood forum wisdom suggests waiting a week until the oil is truly dry before proceeding with the poly. If not, it can never dry, and will keep any finish on top from drying, too.

2. Seal the wood. The first thing you have to get down is a sealing coat, a base for all the others to build on. It’s not pretty, it’s about stopping up the wood so that your later coats don’t get sucked into the grain. Saturate the surface with the polyurethane on a rag, using the reflection of a light or window to see which areas drink up the finish, and redo these spots as often as needed over about ten minutes. This is the only time you get to go back and touch areas like this during a coat, because it always comes out rough. Let that all harden for a day and you’re ready to really get finishing.


Building a Finish

Here is your life for the next while:

1. Any bad runs from the previous coat, sand down with your 220, though you’ll soon get out of the habit of causing these. For smaller imperfections, use black ‘wet or dry’ labeled 400 grit sandpaper, soaked overnight in a bucket of water. Take your $1 spray bottle, loaded with water and a dash of soap, and frequently spray down the areas you’re working on. This is wet sanding. Return the paper to the bucket often, washing off the white sludge. With the flaws addressed, get the whole body back to peach smooth before the next coat by wet sanding with 600. Wipe clean with your mineral spirits rag.

The key to repeatability is not making any of this a big deal. This is not your sweating, grunting kind of sanding. Don’t press hard. The weight of your hand is enough, and you’ll just leave deeper scratches. Go especially lightly at the corners, where the top and back meet the sides. There’s a lot less finish here and you’ll go through in a heartbeat. Glance over, move on.

2. Working directly from the can of wipe-on poly is tricky, so give it a good shake, then pour a decent whiskey measure into a clean jam jar. Be sure to replace the lid between coats.

3. Use a fresh rag each time. Cut up anything soft and cotton into three inch wide strips you can bundle up. Take one, flap it around to shake off the worst of the lint, wad it up and dip it into the poly. Less lint ends up in your finish if you wad up the rag in such a way that all raw cut edges are gathered up away from the guitar’s surface. Press out the excess against the lip of the jar. Dripping wet is too much.

4. Now let’s get it on the body. The best tip from the wood forum knowledge trove is to apply poly like the busboy at the diner. He doesn’t get all intense about it, extending a little finger and drawing the cloth across the table in slow parallel lines. He takes a damp, not wet rag, quickly and without ceremony wipes down the surface, and is gone before you read his name tag. Be the busboy. Wipe it down, get out. Poly hates to be reworked. Go back to try and fix something and it’ll set in an ugly way. You won’t believe this and will try it anyway.

Warning: Lay the rag out flat to dry, not scrunched up, outdoors if possible. Poly makes heat as it dries, and if that heat is unable to escape, because you threw the rag in the trash or balled it up on the floor, it can start a fire. Once dry, it’s safe to toss.

5. In a few hours, depending on heat and humidity, the body can be ready for the next coat. How do you know? With the tip of a little finger, rub lightly at a spot that will ultimately be hidden, such as under a pickguard or neck plate. If it’s not tacky, repeat the sanding and poly steps. You can get four coats done in a day. If you’re ever sanding between coats and notice little elliptical balls of finish like grains of rice, it’s not hard enough yet and you’re going to make a mess. Abort. Come back later.

Don’t be me: Poly doesn’t stick to itself well and wants to run. It really wants to. If you get impatient and try to put on any more than the minimum, you’ll get runs that take much more time and effort to fix than just building up quick, light coats.


End Game

1. The finish gets deeper and glossier the more coats you add. Once you’ve reached your desired look, the trick to getting out without all those steps of dispiriting multi-grade sanding lies in the final two coats. By now you’ll have a feel for the right amount of finish to take into the rag without causing problems. First you need to put down the perfect coat: no runs, sags, dry streaks or rough spots; nothing that needs to be sanded out with your 220 or 400 paper, as the next coat is never enough to hide the scratches. One more ultra light, baby soft wet sand with the 600, giving the body a smooth satin texture for the poly to stick to, a thorough clean up with mineral spirits, and wipe on one last blessed coat.

2. Relax. For the last part, the finish has to be not just dry, but cured, which takes weeks. Leave the body hanging, and sniff it once in a while. If it still smells of polyurethane, it’s still curing.

3. The last trick from the wood people is a good one. Once cured, “sand” the piece with a brown paper grocery bag, which it’s said is akin to 2500 grit. Hit it with 3M Scratch Remover, following the bottle’s directions, pressing firmly in circular motions until the cloth squeaks, and watch a glassy finish emerge to reflect the room around you. Rejoice.

Troy Grady is back to save or rob us

2013 November 6
by Gray

When I first encountered Troy Grady, he was putting together a guitar technique tutorial DVD unlike any other. Aided by a fretboard-mounted slow-motion camera and a keen eye for minutiae, he had drilled down to the core of shred picking; specifically, the near imperceptible differences between those who excel at it (your Impellitteris, your Gilberts, your Malmsteens) and those who, despite good motor skills and an ear for music, do not (hi).

Though unwilling to divulge too much before the project was complete, his method and insight was thoroughly convincing, promising to answer a number of questions I had about this frustratingly under-researched subject. I was going through a critical breakdown of my own stalled technique at the time, trying to identify what minuscule movements would cause me to trip up on what Troy calls descending fours; how the best players held their picks; peering at grainy video of machines like George Bellas to discern the angles and approaches that let them pour cascades of clean, jewel-like notes tirelessly from their fingers.

No one was talking about it. The net was jammed with tutors who promised secrets of speed, but provided just canned patterns to play, with little to nothing on the vital mechanical aspects that would actually improve a student. Glorified tab is not going to do it.

My own little deconstruction helped; I did get off the legato plateau. But not far enough. I needed more. I needed Troy’s DVD. Surely it was almost complete?

That’s when Troy disappeared, five years ago.


Troy Grady in the studio

Troy Grady: Working or something

Last night: an email, a link, a rebirth. Troy Grady, shred fugitive, popped back into existence, trailing an expanded, polished version of his Cracking the Code project, retooled as a web series. Actually as three web series. It’s dazzling. Go see.

I’m not delighted about the timescale, and there’s still paranoia about the whole thing being a wash – what if Troy’s just a wily business school grad with some chops who’s constructed the perfect guitarist paywall? In any other field, people who hold apparently revelatory information behind a barrier that you must pay to cross are not to be trusted. The secrets of real estate! The laws of attraction! Then you see a sleeping bag in their Honda. He wants $60,000 in pre-orders before the project can proceed. He could be in Aruba before our tubes warm up.

Worse: what if, during the series, it becomes apparent the big secret is something totally ordinary, like economy picking? “Yeah, so, it turns out these guys are going down up down down. Crazy. See you.”

But I’ve come too far, held on too long. I have to know.

Don’t Trip, Grady

The following is the pent-up response I left for Troy on his website that, despite its concerns, criticisms, name-calling and threats, he was good enough to publish.

Oh Troy. Welcome back, you bastard.

You show up years ago, radiant as a lighthouse, above a sea of dim fools who think telling people what number frets to press is teaching them how to play guitar. You absolutely convince me that you are the one who has captured, deciphered, and will pass on the secret of picking, the physical secret no one talks about, get me out of a rut that seemed to be endless, up the last flight of stairs to the penthouse of shred. I am ready.

All I’ve ever wanted to do is make that popsicle in the spokes noise of clean, efficient picking. I’ve slowed everything down. I’ve isolated both hands. I’ve scrutinized. I’ve been tricked into watching Tom Hess videos. I’ve done everything Paul Gilbert has said. I’ve blown up the hands of George Bellas to enormous proportions to try to see what’s going on. Is it pick angle? Is it thumb position? Is it muscle relaxation? Is it actually all down to muting? It never comes. Troy knows the answer. I’ll get this DVD he’s making. I’ll watch it however many times it takes, thousands of times. I’ll finally be able to make this blissful noise.

You vanish. The promising world of Troy Grady freezes. I check the website. I check the website again. I give up checking. I check back again, because there it is in my bookmarks, and now it’s been a long time, surely long enough, I can pay my $20 and get woodshedding. I’m left in torment. The only man with the vision to guide the ship has disappeared. I draft open letters like this one in my head. The phrase “I’m not getting any younger” features in them.

Tonight you explode back into existence amid a multicolored maelstrom of new information: slick graphics, expanded scope, a pathway to illumination. The dream is not dead. The dream is more alive than ever.

Yet I’m told it’ll be another two years (and, less importantly but still surprisingly, between sixty and eighty bucks) before I can have all the information at my disposal to even evaluate, let alone learn. Furthermore, I’m told there had better be another 3,000 people like me, or the crowd-source-fund-start thing will fail and the knowledge will slip once again into the ether!

So help you God:

1. The series better complete

2. I better be amazing at the end of it

The new clips look outstanding. It’s going to be digestible and entertaining. The production level is a real surprise. Don’t leave again. I will find you.


Going EVM: the EVM-12L and EVM-12S reviewed

2013 February 4
tags: ,
by Gray


There’s the normal guitar speaker world, stocked with models of past and present from brands such as Celestion, Eminence, WGS, Jensen, and Fane. Then there’s the isolated EVM zone, a strange thing, at a distance like some modern religion you’re peripherally aware of; something that happens to other people.

Those people have effectively opted out of the speaker game/tail-chase that plagues the rest of us, settling on these suspicious, hulking alternatives as the mouths of their instruments and generally getting on with the business of playing guitar. Meanwhile, we obsess about a little more of this, a little less of that, swapping out one highly colored traditional speaker for another, in a cycle of buying and reselling that develops our ear but not our musicianship.

What makes Electro-Voice speakers different? What are these self-satisfied weirdos getting from them? To find out, I bought some.

Stranger Danger

Unique aspects of the EVM speakers are apparent before a note passes through them. Prohibitive cost alone suggests build or quality unlike the old staples: an EVM-12L, the best-known model among guitarists, costs around $265; the ubiquitous Vintage 30 from Celestion, $145. Speakers from Eminence and WGS, less still. EVMs have a reputation for ruggedness, too, holding their price well on the used market. If you need two, or four, or eight, the numbers add up quickly.

As does the infamous weight: 19 pounds, twice that of your average Celestion. Players who must heave their own gear in and out of venues long for a lighter product with similar tone.

More weirdness: a brutalist, eight-fingered die-cast frame gives the EVM a military grade appearance, that only afterwards makes the industry standard pressed basket look flimsy and cheap. When I tried to install EVMs in a Marshall cab, the stock hardware wasn’t up to the task — the bolts couldn’t reach the T-nuts on the baffle because the speaker frames were so thick. The speakers look powerful, and they are, handling 200-300 watts, depending on the model.


Building a simple harness makes the EVM-12L compatible with normal guitar cab connections.

You can’t even count on standard hook up. The EVM-12S examples I have came with your everyday .205″ solder tabs/slip-on connectors, but the 12L features spring-loaded binding posts that want bare wire. I made a little harness, with bare twisted wire on one end and flat connectors on the other, to make swapping easier.

There’s a fear that everything about these will rub you the wrong way, different as they are. Their history of use in PA systems is especially concerning – will they have that dry, characterless sound of a guitar plugged in to a hi-fi? Will their range be too great, shooting out piercing highs that dedicated guitar speakers usually crib off? Will they be stiff and stubborn? Let’s turn ‘em up and find out.

Matching Characteristics

Beginning with the similarities between the two models, both EVM-12L and 12S are surprisingly warm and smooth for flat, PA-like speakers with higher range than most Celestions. They serve up a big fat juicy tone from the neck position of a Les Paul, a real slab; Gary Moore used an EVM-loaded Marshall cab on his huge sounding Still Got The Blues record; Joe Bonamassa gets a powerful, muscled tone out of them today. That bend up to E from the 15th fret on the B string? You can’t help but do your Judge Dredd face.

Their alleged fidelity isn’t a problem with overdriven, modded Marshall sounds as you might think. I expected a raspy helping of fizz on lead and rhythm work, but found only a strong, authoritative smoothness. Yet that fidelity seems to engage at low gain (or lowered guitar volume) settings; both speakers had a shimmer or clarity down here I hadn’t heard from any other guitar speakers (and God, I’ve been through a lot), clear in a musical way, not sterile or hi-fi, but bouncy and sweet. Deep twang and vacuum-packed, 3D-feeling quack tones from a Strat loaded with Klein RNB pickups. How the EVMs can be so crisp and delicate with clean tones, yet bold and fat at high gain, I don’t know. They can reproduce some eye-watering high end, though, letting loose overtones usually buried. With fifteen guitars and two very different amps, there were sore spots along the high E string that were shrieky, real head drillers if experienced on axis, a characteristic that must be weighed against the better ones.

Both models felt less gainy than the likes of a G12M Greenback, an old favorite of mine which seems to add dirt at any volume level. Upping the gain by a quarter brought back some ease n’ grease, the speakers being tight but in a tactile, responsive way.


The 12L immediately felt thicker, if you weren’t a fan you might say more stuffy, than the less well-known 12S. Not being as clear in the top end, it wanted a notch more treble versus the settings that worked for the 12S. The 12L sounded more even, the less aggressive of the two, though it seemed more likely to jab you with those E string squeaks.

The unshakable grip of the speakers made me want to do a lot of chugging rhythm. Comparing back-to-back recordings of the same riffs, the 12S was clearer and tighter at this job, percussive and quick – the speaker has noticeably less bass – though the 12L was no slouch, just fatter sounding.

Chewy double stops were detailed and enchanting on the 12S, with its slightly slimmer tone; more midrange. For girth, the fattest sound, the 12L beats not just its brother but all speakers I’ve tried. It is so rounded, giant sounding, forming a remarkably solid partnership with overdrive and a Les Paul. The 12S, apparently due to its shallow cone, is meaner, having the clearer mids, and rocks the hell out of high gain plexi sounds and 80s riffs. It’s still a reinforced tank of a speaker, though, with a density and power greater than your everyday example; there’s a sense of punch and weight to its performance.

EVM-12 schematic


Purists sometimes insinuate that the EVM speakers should be used in specialized TL806 or “Thiele” cabinets, made to a specific vented design that gets the most from such drivers. In guitar, of course, there are no rules but ‘do what sounds good’ and Electro-Voice’s literature asserts that they work well in “virtually any sealed, vented, or open-backed enclosure,” so don’t be deterred. The port or vent in a TL806 cabinet, EV explains, bellows out the lower octave of bass, coaxed into doing so with little required motion from the speaker, resulting in both extended low end and cleaner sound from the now less taxed speaker. Again, we are less concerned with harmonic distortion and flat response in guitar land, warping the signal at every stage to form something personal and entirely unfaithful to the original plucked string.

I tried the EVMs in three enclosures: an open-backed combo, a sealed 2×12, and a full size Marshall cab. The most striking configuration, found by accident in a moment of transition, was mounting one speaker in a detuned, i.e. the second hole left empty, 2×12. Like stepping on a magic pedal, this boosted everything at once – vibrance, punch, bass, clarity – yet held it all together even more tightly than before. (Interestingly, cabinet guru Kevin O’Connor of London Power published plans for the perfect 1×12; one 12-inch speaker and one 12-inch, detuned port – basically a 2×12 with a speaker missing.) I’ve run more traditional speakers this way, before I knew what it was, with great results, but something about the range and vigor of the EVMs seemed to latch on and make the absolute most of it. Unfortunately, it is a pig to mic, two mics being required to pick up the split duties of the speaker and the port. Fine if you can set it and forget it in a studio, but less casual for a dirty demo in the basement, or for the soundman who points the same 57 at the same part of every player’s speaker, night after night, now being told that he needs two mics, positioned just so, because you’re special. Very possibly you’ll end up with one of the standard setups, which imbue their usual flavors: a bright, detailed, dispersed sound from the open-back; a woodier, punchier and much more directional effect from the closed-back.

Eminence DeltaLite II 2512

This 250 watt speaker with the wacky new magnet material – neodymium – is an alternative replacement for the EVM-12L, and as such, players often want to know if a DeltaLite II can deliver that same, strident tone while saving their spines (and wallets – it’s currently around $100 cheaper.)

Physically, it is the more attractive option. At 6.8 pounds it’s lighter than most guitar speakers, let alone the 19 pound beast with which it competes, and it still has a serious looking die-cast frame. The binding posts are better, screwing down like hi-fi gear, but these and the EVM types are both annoying for guitarists to deal with, who almost universally have incompatible slip-on connectors inside their cabinets.

It’s immediately noticeable that the DeltaLite II has less treble than the EVM-12L. It’s not subtle, something you need to go hunting for with your eyes half closed, but apparent right away. Switching between each speaker in opposite sides of the same 2×12 combo, the DeltaLite II is muddier when playing low notes at the bottom of the neck, when some top end clarity can help describe what’s happening with overtones. Not so little top that you have trouble playing accurately; there still a nice fast attack which keeps you from getting lost, but the sound isn’t as wide or full. A benefit of this cribbed treble is that the speaker exhibits less shriek than the EVM, won’t leap out and spike your ear if you hit something unpleasant. With less fatigue, it’s easy to crank away on the DeltaLite II for hours, and a pleasure to do so. There’s something comfortable about it, stony neutrality with a warm top end. It is however a lighter and less vibrant tone across the range; there’s not the surprising life or illusion of heft that the EVMs impart. While nimble and inspiring, then, for our purposes here the Delta doesn’t fit the bill as an EVM-12L impersonator.

Hello, Amp

The take home message is that EVMs sound neutral – not pushed or hyped in certain frequencies, like the highly flavored speakers we are used to – and powerful. Though on paper ‘neutral’ may read as boring, the opposite is true. There’s a sense of opening a doorway to the sound your amp is really making, rather than listening down a strangely shaped nozzle. This comes at a price – the money, the weight, the inconvenience, the forceful high end – but returning to normal speakers, all of which seem somehow diminished, like they don’t try as hard, flush with their own permanent coloring, is telling. EVMs just do more. Whether or not they do too much is going to vary from application to application, person to person.

If you like the idea of getting off the speaker-swapping rotary, with an outside solution that exudes capability, these may be the last speakers you buy.

Jim Marshall Dies

2012 April 5
by Gray

News isn’t normally the Pick Roar thing. But to wake up and learn that Jim Marshall has died today, aged 88, seems so relevant to the tone-chasing and larger guitar world that it could not go by without comment.

The official website, currently overwhelmed with traffic, posted this statement:

“It is with profound sorrow that we announce the passing of our beloved founder and leader for the past 50 years, Jim Marshall. While mourning the Guv’nor though, we also salute a legendary man who led a full and truly remarkable life.

“Jim’s ascent into the history books as ‘the Father of Loud’ and the man responsible for ‘the Sound of Rock’ is a true rags-to-riches tale. Cruelly robbed of his youth by tubercular bones, Jim rose to become one of the four forefathers responsible for creating the tools that allowed rock guitar as we know and love it today to be born. The groundbreaking quartet also includes the late, great trio of Leo Fender, Les Paul and Seth Lover – together with Jim, they truly are the cornerstones of all things rock.

“In addition to the creation of the amps chosen by countless guitar heroes and game-changing bands, Jim was also an incredibly humble and generous man who, over the past several decades, has quietly donated many millions of pounds to worthy causes.

“While the entire Marshall Amplification family mourns Jim’s passing and will miss him tremendously, we all feel richer for having known him and are happy in the knowledge that he is now in a much better place which has just got a whole lot louder!

“Rest in Peace & thank you Jim.

“Your memory; the music and joy your amps have brought to countless millions for the past five decades; and that world-famous, omnipresent script logo that proudly bears your name will always live on.”

My Marshall Story

I got my first Marshall, a Christmas gift, when I was 15. It was a Valvestate 8240, a rich sounding 2×12 combo with built-in stereo chorus and, in comparison to earlier Marshalls, more than enough thick, chunky gain for a kid raised on the roar of modded amps, like the infamous SIR #36 used by Slash on Appetite For Destruction, or overdriven non-master-volume building topplers, like Malmsteen’s beloved MKII stacks, recorded at 10.

My 8240 had an ingenious Contour knob that I wish had caught on in guitar amp design. The control shifted the focus of the midrange in a musical and effective way, opening up tones from vacuumed out low-mid chug to searing vintage honk, with a smooth sweep through everything in between, so you could always find what you were looking for.

The amp saw me through my first shows and well into adulthood; it was still going strong when I gave it to my brother, unable to take it with me to a new life in America. When I’ve been back years later and played it at his house, it’s surprised me with its warm, chunky tone all over again.

I’m still transfixed by the sear and sizzle I heard on those classic albums as a kid. Though it might have been a while since a stock Marshall knocked your socks off, the boutique boxes we chase today — Splawn, Fortin, Friedman, Cameron, Bray et al — have their roots, sonically and technically, in Marshall design. Thanks, Jim.

What’s your Marshall story?

Tascam TC-1S Solar Rechargeable Tuner Review

2012 March 23
by Gray

If, like me, your guitar is always just a little bit out of tune, at least with the 440Hz world around it, because your tuner’s battery is always flat, then you too will praise the arrival of the solar powered guitar tuner.

When I first saw the TC-1S, advertised in a real made-out-of-paper guitar magazine prior to Christmas 2010, my first thought was yes! and my second thought was why did this take so long? When I was a little child my aunt gave me a solar powered calculator the size of a credit card. I didn’t have a lot of equations to do but I thought it was neat as hell. A mobile electric thing that never runs out! That must have been mid Eighties. By 2010, why weren’t there solar powered things everywhere? And today, it’s still pretty much just calculators.

Tascam, unfortunately, knew it had something unique, and mistook this for the same thing as valuable. The price of a TC-1S was $50 for what, as we’ll see, is quite an under-featured tuner besides the solar bit. I don’t think many sold. A year later, looking for Christmas presents, I looked it up again: $17. Sold! (Currently it is $14.99 on Amazon.)

The tuner is attractive not just for its head slapping solar technology, but its design. It comes in a rainbow of bright, happy colors, like Apple used to offer, soft silicone jackets protecting the clean white device inside. It also has a tough nylon strap and a metal rock-climber’s looking clip so you can attach it to stuff that needs a tuner hanging off it. Tascam suggests hooking it on the outside of your gig bag to keep it charged, but they live in an experimental biodome where no one steals things.

The tuner can be charged via the hidden USB port if you inhabit a lightless nightmare world.

Yes, to keep it charged. If I put my finger over the solar cells on my calculator, the display faded out; either there was enough light to work, or it was off. The TC-1S is charged by light (or by USB if you have no windows or bulbs, like perhaps a hostage) and stores that energy until switched on. This distinction is actually one I’d prefer it didn’t have, as internal rechargeable batteries become problematic when inevitably they lose capacity, as with the iPod. Right now it’s working well. In an east facing guitar room/office that often has the blinds drawn, the TC-1S always shows four bars – full charge – when I turn it on.

Input is simple, the usual internal mic for acoustic instruments, 1/4 inch jack for electric. There is no through or out, so you can’t leave it in the effects loop or between the guitar and amp – the first point in the tuner’s Damn Shame column. A device that never runs out of batteries would be nice to have permanently connected, getting around the four step unplug-replug ballet.

Expecting the simplest possible version of a digital tuner, it was surprising to find four ways to tune up using the LCD display.

  • Needle: roughly emulates an analog tuner, animating three bars of the display as the needle.
  • Strobe: a strobe-style tuner, where the speed of passing bars indicates how close you are to pitch.
  • Fine: a more accurate version of Needle, with the whole screen covering only ±20 cents.
  • Meter: a solid bar grows out from the center to the left or right, depending on whether you’re flat or sharp.

Strobe sounds the least intuitive, but is in fact the most, making tuning quick and easy. It’s like a game where caterpillars of segmented LCD are racing past the screen, and your job is to stop them. Traveling left means you’re flat, right means you’re sharp, their speed indicating by how much. Something makes sense about slowing them  down as you turn the tuning peg, until eventually they freeze. In all modes, the played note is stated on the far right.

The Tascam seems good at ignoring the harmonics that often confuse tuners into giving skittish results, though it’s still a good idea to turn your tone knob down. It does a grand job of getting you in tune quickly without the doubt of more jittery machines.

One place you might appreciate the chance to tune up quickly is on stage, but you won’t be using the TC-1S for that as – second Damn Shame – it has no illumination. With an unlit black-on-gray LCD, it would be like trying to read a Casio by your feet in the dark.

The third Damn Shame: the USB port is hidden under the silicone jacket, so that you have to mangle the thing off of one end to reach it. You get the impression the port was added after the rest had been finalized.

The fourth: the tuner turns itself off after a few minutes, whether you like it or not. Heaven forbid you get caught up in a little jam while checking out how the first few tuned strings sound; the display will be blank when you regain your focus. This auto shutoff also makes it a wee bit annoying for longer jobs like setting intonation, as you have to keep leaning over to turn it back on. I understand why my digital cameras drop into standby after a bit, laptops, but something powered by the sun? We have several billion years before that power source dries up. Let’s splurge a little.

However, I’m still fond of my little blue TC-1S. I like its feel, its shape, its look, and its most important feature: it always turns on. While weak in almost every area – too dark for stage use, too narcoleptic for setups, less accurate than a true strobe, no through jack – it’s now at a price where all of that is fair. I’m more in tune than I’ve ever been, no longer listening out for handy sustained E, A or D notes from the TV while noodling around the house, because it’s always ready to go.

If the next version could power LEDs, add another jack, and stay on ’til you turn it off, it might be worth that fifty dollars.