Review: Martin Signature D-420

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Happy 4/20! Martin wanted to celebrate too and created this monster D-420 signature edition Dreadnought acoustic guitar. I just so happen to have one in studio and have decided to strum out some of my favorite Willie Nelson tunes on it in celebration.

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The Look

What can be said about the whimsical top finish illustration by artist, Robert Goetzl. It looks like I slapped a bunch of pot leaf stickers on a Martin, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing I guess, but definitely suits a specific demographic.
Mahogany back and sides with that pot-covered Sitka spruce top, all look great as a good Martin should. I’m really bummed this doesn’t feature some hemp wood or fiber variant as the headstock or something, but forget the novelty, the guitar looks great.

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The Feel

Martin invented the Dreadnought shape, so they are used to getting it right. This guitar is big and feels like the most traditional dread-bodied models all wrapped into a pot-loving exterior. The neck is of “low oval” shape and feels just right when fretting campfire tunes… in a skyscraper in Chicago.
It features an ebony fingerboard and bridge for extra “high-performance” acoustic guitar features.

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The Tone

This guitar, no matter how it looks or what message it gets across, sounds great; a truly rewarding acoustic experience. The low-end booms out of the dread-body and the mids punch though with fine definition and clarity. Leaving the highs just enough room to round out the tone with enough sustain to fill the sonic space in any folk song.
Along with most acoustic guitars, this one has to be played to be believed. I wasn’t getting the same impression from a recording as I was with it actually in my hands, and feeling each sustained note through the body.

The Recommendation

This guitar is for Willie Nelson.

Review: Paul Reed Smith McCarty 594

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Lately, John Mayer has been generating some hype on the “PRS Stratocaster” he wore on-stage in Boston, MA. Though it seems like PRS just went ahead and made a body style for Mayer that he’s comfortable with, many are feeding the rumor-mill (including Mayer himself) claiming a new PRS signature is on the way. So this got me in the PRS mood, I headed into the live room and picked up a stunning McCarty 594, let’s hear it.nick13

The Look

I’ll be the first to admit, I never really “got” the whole appeal of PRS-looking or “California-topped” guitars. I’ll agree that it does showcase the exotic tone woods used in production of the guitar, but I always was more accustomed to a simpler design.
That does not take away from the fact that this guitar is unbelievably gorgeous. The flamed maple 10-top looks immaculate and powerful. The traditional PRS bird inlays are neat, and add a class to this guitar that is really only prevalent in instruments like this (ones that cost nearly as much as a down payment on a house.)
The back and neck are a mahogany, simple but effective at emulating warm tone of Les Paul of yesteryear.

The Feel

Playing this guitar was a distinctive experience. I was getting the feel of a Les Paul in some ways, but there was another nagging feeling of something different. It plays like its own instrument, it’s not a 100 percent emulation of any one guitar or brand, this is a PRS of the highest level and it uniquely shows in its play. The neck is wide and body is thick for an electric, it feels powerful in the hand. Nothing was difficult to reach or fret, I can see Gibson player as well as the PRS faithful regarding this guitar in the highest degree.

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The Tone

The McCarty features PRS 58/15 LT pickups with “push/pull” coil taps on the tone controls. The pickups are setup for a vintage tone, and in the humbucker mode they crunch right along with the best of the 50s and 60s Gibson pickups. Pushing this guitar through the Fender Vibrolux Reverb left me with tons of tonal options and kicking on the coil tap to “single” let a “jangly” Stratocaster tone ring out through the speakers.
I kept the pickups on single-coil for the rest of the session. I was amazed with the tone this guitar got; almost a “wet” already mixed/compressed stratocaster tone that would be perfect for jazz or R&B.

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The Recommendation

This guitar is for the PRS purist, someone who is with the company until the end. With its price tag, features and playability it is firmly in the “elite/performance” category of instruments. Such a high-end instrument can’t really be limited to a singular use (studio, tour, etc.) This guitar is a “forever guitar” something that will be a workhorse, and always sound great doing whatever is asked of it.

Review: Ernie Ball Music Man Valentine

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In studio today we’ve got a rad Ernie Ball Music Man James Valentine Signature Guitar. Valentine is the guitarist for “Maroon 5,” a very eclectically voiced band, with tracks ranging in genre from R&B, Pop, to Rock. Valentine in conjunction with Ernie Ball has created one of the best signature guitars I’ve ever had the chance to play; let’s get into it.

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The Look

The James Valentine signature is strangely stunning. “Strange” because of its pure simplicity of design. A wedge-shaped ash slab body, with a oil-and-wax rubbed and roasted maple neck are the first features I took in as I grabbed this guitar off the rack. Playing the “Transparent Maroon” model allows just a touch of grain to bleed through the finish, it looks great and subtle. After holding the guitar for a moment, the oversized “4-over-2” headstock caught my eye, and feels really good in the hand and the addition of locking Schaller tuners hints at the “pro” aspect of this instrument.
Ernie Ball is in the business of making “pro level” guitars and this is certainly one of those. From the “Vintage/modern” hardtail bridge, to the volume and tone controls (both with push-push) and a 3-way pickup switch, the Valentine can be an easy studio shredder and solid workhorse for almost any type of guitarist.

The Feel

Obviously the first impression of the oil-and-wax rubbed, roasted maple neck was spectacular. A fast, almost “shredder” quality to it makes even the most demanding arrangements play out with a subtle ease I’m used to getting on high-end guitars; no surprises here.
The body is bigger than most solid bodies I’m use to, but has a decent form factor that really doesn’t compromise the “feel” between comfort and keeping an intact ash slab, for tonal reasons.
This guitar feels like I’m playing a Les Paul with a thinner neck. With a 10″ neck radius, it feels a lot like my native telecasters do, which I like but could be a negative in some hands.

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The Tone

Though this guitar is visually appealing, it’s under the hood where this it really shines. James Valentine mentions with this guitar he wanted to combine the tones of a Gibson 335 and a Fender Telecaster in one, basically one he could play throughout an entire “Maroon 5” set, all types of genre shifts, and tone changes in a one hour period without switching to a new guitar.
When plugging this guitar into a Fender Vibrolux Reverb and getting just a touch of overdrive, I’m hearing the 335 tone right away. Deep driving chords and focused leads, thick tones akin to tons of Gibsons. When I push in the tone knob it coil splits the Music Man custom pickup (which has staggered pole pieces) and a familiar “tele-twang” erupts from the Vibrolux full of screeching highs, and punchy mids.
After noodling around on a relatively clean tone I push in the volume knob to unleash a 20db boost and a crunchy breakup in the Vibrolux. Pairing these with the slab ash body adds some great sustain and some brightness with the roasted maple neck.

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The Recommendation

This guitar is definitely receiving a nomination for being a player’s “forever guitar.” Being as versatile as it is, coupled with the vintage looks and outstanding feel the Valentine signature can be a good option in both the studio, with its tone options and out on the road, with its high build quality and ease of use. Without a doubt this instrument is a “pro-player” level guitar, but has the options and feel to be a great asset in the hobbyist or collector’s repertoire.

How to Buy a “Band Van”

 

Buying a van, or other means of transporting a band’s gear is a huge step in growing as a professional musician. It’s a rite of passage in a band’s life, and it truly separates a group of hobbyist from the die-hard, “ham and eggers” (sorry vegan pals.)

There is an inherent responsibility to both other bandmates and fellow highway drivers when selecting a used vehicle to drive all around the country. Safety, fuel economy and even door locks are all of massive importance when choosing a band’s Walmart parking lot oasis. Keeping a few of these in mind when checking out a local Craigslist gem, will save a lot of money and headaches in the long-run.

Don’t be afraid to voice a concern

In a very Tarantino move, skipping right to the negotiation stage of buying a vehicle first. Talk to the seller about what is expected of the vehicle. If a van needs to hold a full lighting rig, PA system and 5 people, mention that. If that example is the case the vehicle will need to support a ton of weight; ask about the suspension, any issues it may have had in the past. Don’t be scared to ask for service history, if the seller doesn’t have any info on that bring it up when submitting an offer.

At the end of the day, there isn’t an obligation to spend any money at all; this can be used to an advantage when buying. If the price isn’t right and the seller knows most of the concerns, walk away. There will alway be another deal in the Classified, or another roadside beauty to drive by. For lack of a better term, being “bullied” into a price is all too common for buyers in unfamiliar situations, and making assertive offers coupled with voicing opinions on the state of the vehicle can sway a buyer to consider a much lower price to sell for that day.

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The leaf-spring shackle.

Check out “problem areas.”

A quick Google search can reveal most typical “used car problems to look out for,” but a band’s vehicle has slightly different needs than the normal A to B most are buying for. Many band vehicles get a ton of use over a short time, then sit for extended periods. This makes even the most trivial of imperfections a huge deal over thousands of miles.

Take a look at tire wear. If the passenger side tires are worn well past what the driver side are, there may be a significant suspension problem. If the target is a larger passenger or cargo van, take a look at the leaf springs (usually located under the bed in the rear.) These are almost all that’s holding the gear in the back from riding on the chassis frame itself. Keep an eye out for oil or gas leaks under the vehicle; these can signal minor problems all the way up to major damage so it doesn’t hurt to look and ask.

Start the vehicle

This step gets ignored too often and though it is brief, it can mean the difference between paying too much or even buying a lemon. When arriving at the scene of the sale, if the vehicle is already running this can sometimes signal a red-flag. Hearing how the vehicle starts is a good tell of problems and gives a first impression on what sights, smells and sounds the vehicle makes on ignition; not to mention knowing how long it really takes to start. Smelling gas at start-up could mean a fuel or oxygen sensor issue, these are just a couple of examples with how a simple ignition start can save a ton of time in the long-run.

Know when to wait

It can be hectic to be in a situation where a band or other musical project is in the midst of booking a tour and has no van. This can be elevated further when a previous vehicle situation falls through and a replacement is needed ASAP. In these situations this “rule” can obviously be taken with a grain of salt. But in those cases where no shows are on the horizon or other means of transportation are available, know when to wait it out.

Not only can this be a power negotiation tactic in buying the van; but can also help stifle impulse buying mistakes many fall into when excitement mounts. The best example of this is simply walking away from a sale that needed to be compromised on. Maybe it doesn’t have enough space, or maybe repair bills would be a little too expensive. There will always be another used vehicle out there to check out.

Remember what’s being bought

Wanting the best of the best for a band isn’t a bad thing at all. Finding the safest, most efficient vehicle for a touring band can be the difference between a great national tour and being stuck on the side of the road after the first night. A small amount of rust, off-colored body panels or a door lock that only sometimes works, shouldn’t hold a buyer back from pulling the trigger on an overall great van find. This vehicle will be beaten and abused over the course of many tours and shows; it’s important to know that this isn’t a vehicle that will always be in immaculate condition. Keeping this in mind along with preventing mental anguish towards minor problems is nearly the most important steps in buying a band’s van.

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A happy family.