5 Myths Electric Guitar Players Can’t Let Go

Myth 1: Tube amps are expensive kit for experts*

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A loud, expensive tube amp img src: 515musicservices.com

When electric guitar really became a mainstream hobby in the mid ’70s, “solid state,” transistor amplifiers were already available, and had a reputation for being more reliable and less expensive that amps using vacuum tubes, as all the older amps had been. So from around then until around the mid 2000s, they were the cheap amps that all beginners had to learn on. Eventually you’d scrimp and save, and buy yourself a tube amp that was way too loud to play in your house.

This has all changed. There’s large range of low-cost tube amps that are affordable for beginners–especially used–and that are either very low powered, or have a low power setting, that allows you to play them at home with having to hover the volume between 0 and 1.

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The new Kong TubeFifteen with 1W setting. Retails at 340 Euros img src: session.de

Beginners should be getting these amps. Not only do they allow new players to learn about guitar tones with the gold standard of tone, but their low wattage allows players to learn about power amp distortion that you hear on those old rock records–because many are quiet enough to turn up far enough to begin driving the power section of the amp. Many owners of high wattage tube amps have never heard their power amp drive because they daren’t turn them up loud enough. If a beginner needs an amp, recommend tube amps. Every time.

Myth 2: The Stratocaster is the default, do-anything electric guitar

The Stratocaster guitar, designed way back in 1954 by Leo Fender with consultation from various country guitar players is undoubtedly the most popular electric guitar design in the world. They’re used in every context of playing, and stages are positively lousy with them.

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This is wrong img src: et.wikipedia.com

But the Stratocaster has a really particular sound. It’s far from generic. It can be described as ‘quacky,’ (as Strat fans may describe my opinions). Many players, who pick it up for its great ergonomics and toughness, sound much better with other styles of guitar.

While a Telecaster can genuinely be used in any context, from jazz to heavy rock, there’s a short list of players whose sound was actually enhanced by using a Stratocaster–and that list doesn’t go much further than Dick Dale, Buddy Holly, and Hank Marvin. David Gilmour sounds way better whenever he straps on a Les Paul.

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This is right img src: mentalfloss.com

Myth 3: Guitars don’t stay in tune with Bigsby tailpieces

I suspect that this myth started with players in the ’60s before it became common for players to have their guitars set-up. Players would lightly use their Bigsby or Gibson Maestro vibrato arm and the guitar just wouldn’t return to pitch properly.

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OMG! Sum1 tell him it’ll never stay in tune! img src: neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.com

Guess what? 99% of the time it’s because the nut (the bit at the headstock end of the fretboard with slots cut in it to guide the strings back to the headstock) is badly cut and the strings are sticking in it–and hence not returning to pitch.

The nut is not an easy thing for a beginner to get right DIY style. But take it to a competent guitar repair person and nothing short of constant whammy dive bombs will knock it out of pitch.

You do not need special bridge saddles like nylon or teflon. And you especially don’t need roller saddles that can ruin the tone of your guitar. Any decently cut saddles will do. Lots of guitar players who’ve known this have used these tailpieces for years in live settings. Someone like Brian Setzer, or Neil Young, wouldn’t keep shaking that bar if it was impossible to set them up to stay in tune.

Myth 4: Certain brands of guitars have better resale value over time

It’s so common to see this said that it’s become frustrating. You buy a guitar for R10,000 (US$777). Ten years later you successfully sell it for R11,000. You congratulate yourself that you chose the right brand and made R1,000 on the deal. I’m sure some of you can see what’s wrong here already.

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“When I retire, I’ll sell my LP Studio and buy a house, lol!” img src: gak.co.uk

In real terms (adjusting for inflation), very few instruments, and certainly no entire brands, ever reach the new retail value over time. But people make these claims as a justification for choosing some brands over others. What they usually really mean is that their more expensive brand has more real value after the 40% drop after taking it out of the shop (you can look at the used prices of guitars that are still available new in the stores to confirm that this is roughly true) than a cheaper one. But of course the 40% they’ve lost is much more cash too.

Example: You buy two guitars, brand A, and brand B. Brand A is super prestigious American guitar. Brand B is a less prized Asian guitar. A costs R20,000, while B costs R10,000. You try to sell them 6 months later, and you can get R12,000 for A, and R6,000 for B. So A is still worth more, but you’ve also lost more money than on B. Ten years later, at inflation of 5% per year, A costs R31,000 in the store, while B costs R15,500.

But when you try to sell your 10 year old guitars, A sells for R18,600, and B sells for R9,300. They’ve nearly reached the figure that you payed for them. But they’re still worth 40% less than the item in the store. They haven’t increased in value at all and A hasn’t gained in resale value over B. Even in terms of the speed of the sale, the greater desirability of A is offset by the higher price–people will more easily part with a smaller sum of money.

Guitars aren’t particularly good investments (very few increase in real value) but used guitars can are pretty easy purchases as they tend to maintain their value over time (unlike cars, for example), whether the brand is prestigious or not.

Myth 5: You need to jack up the action to use a guitar for slide

This one’s bewildering and walks hand in hand with the clear fact that, while everyone tries slide guitar, only a handful of people, “get it.” There is an, “it,” to get, but it’s not about jacking up the string height. I can only presume people get this idea from lap and pedal-steel players, or at least seeing those instruments.

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This is a different thing from slide guitar img src: makingmusicmag.com

The thing about those two instruments though, is that they don’t have frets and aren’t designed to have their strings pushed down onto the board. But a cursory glance at almost any electric slide guitar player will make it obvious that players fret notes, play fretted chords (although the players who play with the slide on the middle, or index finger may be unable to do so very effectively), and, in many cases, switch between slide playing and fretted playing mid-phrase.

Having the strings hovering at a dizzying height would not make that very feasible. In fact, slide guitar players use medium to low action. Their touch with the slide is so light as to avoid accidentally fretting out with the slide, but the low action still makes it very easy to fret and bend with the fingers. The one aid they will tend to use is a heavier string gauge so that the strings are less easily pushed down onto the frets by the touch of the slide. .11s and .12s on the high E are not unusual on electric guitars used predominantly for slide.

It was brought to my attention that some may think I’m dissing solid-state amps. There are fantastic SS amps out their for pro players who love that sound–such as the Roland Jazz Chorus. But for learning to play electric guitar, they’re less versatile than tube amps. And my main point is that, among budget beginners’ amps, solid state amps are not the only option. Not even a good option, in my opinion.

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A South African Guitar Maker: Hayward Guitars

Graeme Hayward begged to be retrenched. The corporation in which he’d worked for years had been purchased and was down-sizing. But Graeme was easily offered one of the remaining jobs. He’d had enough. He convinced them to pull the offer and give him a severance package instead. Stepping out of the rat-race, he rented a Salt River workshop, filled it with industrial power tools and began making guitars.

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Graeme Hayward’s Salt River guitar workshop

Graeme is no novice builder; he’d built guitars in his spare time before. He completed several of what has to be the gold-standard for electric guitar makers–exact replicas of the 1959 Les Paul. With its carved maple top, glued-in (rather than bolted on) mahogany neck and its legendary scatter-wound pickup coils, the ’59 Les Paul is possibly the greatest challenge for any guitar maker to get right.

And he did it. I know. I’ve played it. I know way too many details about the original guitars, and the only thing I could find on his Les Pauls that wasn’t identical to the ’50s originals was the little plastic cover that hides the access to the truss rod that adjusts the guitar’s neck tension. But now Graeme is taking that hard-won skill and using it to build guitars full time during the longest recession since The Great Depression and with our president pointing the SA economy at the waterfall and rowing with all his might.

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The unfinished flamed maple top of a bound, semi-hollow T-style guitar

If he succeeds, it’ll be a triumph of craftsmanship over widget-making. I went down to visit Graeme at his workshop at 9 Friend Street, Salt River. Hollering through the gate got Graeme to open up for me. It’s not just a workshop, it’s a place for people who love guitars to come and hang out. The hall is decked with pictures of iconic guitars, and the men and women who made us worship them. Couches make it a great place to talk about our beloved bundles of wood and wire. Graeme tells me he’s going to build a fake fur-lined case for finished guitars for players to paw at, and possibly a feature wall of stand out instruments to ogle.

The main workshop contains an array of very large and serious machines that transform raw timber into objects of desire. Guitars in various states of completion are everywhere. The South African guitar expo is coming up next week, and Graeme is working non-stop to get his projects ready to show off. Chief among them is a series that marks a return for South Africa–resonator guitars.

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Two styles of resonator guitar bodies at an early stage

Resonators were designed in the era of big bands, before amplified electric guitars, to make guitars loud enough to be heard alongside brass instruments. Since then they’ve become synonymous with blues, thanks to great players like Bukka White, Son House, and Tampa Red. They were also very popular during the Hawaiian music craze, which is why many were decorated with palm trees and other island scenes. Made of steel, these guitars are known for being polished to a mirror finish. Paul Simon sang, “The Mississippi Delta, was shining like a National guitar,” on his song, Graceland. And it’s here that Graeme’s route departs.

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The laser cut top-plate of a chemically distressed resonator body

Computerised machines have made producing perfect guitars trivial, he says. Even some budget guitars, like the LTD line made by Japanese guitar legends, ESP, are in many ways better made than electrics that were largely handmade, and might cost two months’ salary, back in the 1950s. But the downside is the decreasing individuality in each instrument. Those of us who adore guitars think of them almost as friends or pets. It’s not pleasant to think that our guitar may be pretty much indistinguishable from another. Graeme wants each of his guitars to be beautifully playable, but still unique. So a laser-cut cover plate has a bridge plate mounted on it that Graeme carefully hammered out himself over a mould. The neck shapes are shaped to different specifications using a range of cutting jigs, but the final finishing is done by hand.

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A luxurious, flamed sapele, T-style fat neck with a buffed cocobolo fretboard

He’s turned to alchemy, experimenting with dangerous concoctions of chemicals, to distress the bodies of the guitars. No mirror-shine for him. Each guitar looks like it’s been discovered in an attic after 70 years, but with its playability and voice intact. He’s cooking the character into his guitars to make something completely unique and unavailable elsewhere.

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Details count: a vintage punch makes deliberately uneven serial numbers

And hence, South Africa’s economic ailments may prove beneficial. With the exchange rate of the Rand with the dollar, Yen, and Euro weakening, Graeme’s handmade guitars and hand-wound pickups may become increasingly affordable even to working musicians overseas. But he’s not leaving it up to luck. He’s also going to have guitar building workshops in which local players can pay a sum, and then spend several days building their guitar from scratch in his workshop–using premium woods and hardware–and take home an exceptional electric guitar that they’ve built with their own hands under Graeme’s guidance. And on Saturday mornings he’s going to welcome players who want help getting their guitars set up to play better–so that we come in, talk guitars, and walk away with an instrument that plays and sounds its best.

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Three glue in necks with their cut mother-of-pearl logos in holly wood veneers await finishing

Tape Hiss & Sparkle At The Armchair – April 2017

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the whole band and have been good friends with bass player, Helen Westcott for many years. Hopefully I won’t give you a biased perspective. Also I hopefully won’t have to say anything that’ll will make them hate me forever.

One of the big advantages of living in Observatory, as my cellist friend, Nicola, said last night, is that you can decide late in the afternoon to go and see a music show, and then just amble over there. The Armchair, which used to be a bank and has a vault door behind the bar, has been hosting gigs since at least 2001. I can remember gigging there with Krakatoa in its first couple of years.

Now though, the creeping death of gentrification has severely restricted the volume at which you can play there. So the room has wooden covers over all the windows like they’re expecting a tornado. It makes it hot. Very, very hot.

So it’s a good thing to be there for bands that need you to sit still and listen carefully as the sweat drips down your neck. The opening act was Martinique, a young woman who markets herself under the name Matinino. She faced us seated at an electric piano in a broad-brimmed black hat and black dress, and sang personal stories through story-book lyrics. She blended her clear high voice with itself through simple use of a looper pedal, complementing these harmonies with a confidently played grand piano sound.

It just so happens that she completely had my number. I’ve just been gorging myself on psychedelic folk bands of the early ’70s. Pentangle, Bröselmaschine, Vashti Bunyan, and, particularly, Trees, whose song, The Garden of Jane Delawney was very much in the same vein as Martinique’s story-book, dream lyrics.

Nicola said that she’d like to see her behind a real grand piano, even though she agreed with me that the deep reverb on the voices and the piano blended very well–at the expense, perhaps, of not sounding very ‘live.’ And I didn’t like hearing about looper pedals during a show. To me it always sounds like the musician is trying to draw attention to something exciting and new, while actually loopers have become something of a scourge as musicians understandably try to get a bigger slice of the pitiful performance money while still sounding like multi-piece bands.

But she used it well, and these minor pet-hates in no way stopped me being utterly enchanted by her songs. She’s definitely on my to-see-again list.

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Simon Tamblyn img src: alexanderbar.co.za

I saw Tape Hiss and Sparkle in an earlier line-up and was not impressed. Simon Tamblyn, the singer, song-writer, and guitar player was in an irritable mood and managed to put me into one before the end of his set. This time was completely different. The whole band were enjoying themselves immensely. Their friendship and rapport was obvious. As the band traded jokes over the course of the show, Simon’s laconic, understated humour was enjoyed by the audience too, which laughed harder at each successive quip.

Simon has an comfortable eccentricity. He married a black kilt and red boots to a casual black t-shirt. Helen elegantly carried off a kind of pirate chic in appearance and playing style–her mist-blue Precision bass growling with a picking motion that looks like she’s sewing a seam at speed. Drummer (and published science fiction author, as I quite recently discovered), Mandisi Nkomo–who’d guested briefly with Martinique–looked incongruously prim in a high buttoned shirt and a high-seated, delicate touch on the drums.

Simon’s songs carry an early 2000s vulnerability that’s mirrored in his very inviting performance. I remember seeing him as lead singer in the alt-rock outfit, The Sleepers, where he seemed out-of-place among the Tool-obsessed rockers. Singing confessional songs, like he’s admitting his secret fears at the end of a garden party tête-à-tête, he felt far more convincing. I have a limited basis for comparison of his singing style since I missed much of the music which likely influenced him. The vocals remind me a bit of The Decembrists.

The songs are lyrically coherent in a venue like The Armchair in which you can hear them. And they’re full of hooks. But in a stripped-down band like this, doing these kinds of songs, I felt strongly that I’d enjoy the songs more and more as I became more familiar with them. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that they were songs that could easily grow to love, but I didn’t love them yet.

The band worked well. The powerful sound of Helen’s bass provided a solid, indie body to what might otherwise have come off as a light, folk sound. The drums were necessarily light due to the noise restrictions, and only the bass drum was miked up. But Mandisi’s playing is excellent. When I see them again, I’d like to hear the whole kit amplified.

My biggest gripe is with the guitar sound. Simon was playing what looked like a vintage Epiphone concert guitar which I’m sure sounds excellent acoustically. But plugged in it has that typically nauseating quack of an unmodified piezo pickup. I’d like to see him either switch to an electric like a Telecaster, or get a more sophisticated direct-input box that either equalises the sound better, or something like an Aura Spectrum DI that puts the acoustic sound back in.

But if the piezo sound is my bugbear, I must admit that I hardly noticed it by the end of the show. And that sharp attack does cut through the band nicely when strumming. It was in the solo guitar parts that it got my goat.

A Brief Note On The “Benefits” Of Colonialism

South Africa has been thrown into a debate on a “truism” of colonialism by a tweet from Western Cape Premiere and former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille:

The debate around this quote has revealed a pillar of white supremacy that has been upheld for generations, even by liberals. It is bizarrely impervious to reason. People repeatedly state that this is an obvious fact, while it is, in fact, pure nonsense. Here are the assumptions underpinning it:

(1) Without the domination by force of European powers, countries could either never have been exposed to technological and institutional developments in Europe, or would never have seen the value of adopting them.

(2) Without European wealth and power, it would have taken far longer for the ‘primitive’ societies to adopt these useful developments.

Both of these assumptions through which people assert this myth are totally false. This can be shown by the only example of a country that categorically was not colonised*. This nation was able to defeat a major European industrial power in a sea war as early as 1905. It was able to strongly contest domination of the Pacific with the two greatest technological super-powers of the ’30s and ’40s. Now it builds robots in glass towers. The two assumptions I listed would have predicted Japan to still be fighting feudal wars out of peasant hovels–which was the state they were in before the European voyages of discovery.

Now we can debate the extent to which Japan would have been a typical case if other nations had remained uncolonised. But the fact that the only example on record does not even remotely match the assumption that, without colonialism, peoples would have remained stuck in the state in which Europeans found them, immediately debunks the so-called, “truth,” of these assumptions.

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Japanese fight Russians with modern weapons in the early 20th C img src: arcimboldo.cz

The overwhelmingly likely outcome is that there would have been vast variation between nations had they never been colonised. Some may have reached the 21st century in poverty and disaster due to vagaries of history. But many that are now struggling to catch up with European prosperity would very likely be way ahead of where they find themselves today. Why can I say that?

Because colonialism extracted resources, labour and materials, from colonised countries to feed the economies of the colonial nations. Without colonialism, cultures could have used those resources for themselves–whether for their élites or in more egalitarian ways, it matters little. The point is that they would have had more resources for self-development, and greater incentive to spread the use of technology internally instead of using it only for the extraction of resources to foreign states, and the comfort of a colonial minority.

Japan was an aristocratic oligopoly. But those oligarchs could see the benefit of enriching their commoners to become fit soldiers and consumers of the industrial products they made. The only reason many assume that this would not have been the case more commonly in the absence of colonialism is a species of racism that suggests that brown people do not recognise their own self-interest. The failures of slow development of post-colonial states is blamed, in this racist narrative, on the ‘nature’ of the post-colonial inhabitants, rather than the well-recorded history of exploitation, declining terms of trade, and cold-war manipulation of leadership by the world’s big economies (most of which were developed through colonial extraction in the first place).

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All this without colonisation. A Tokyo street circa 1910 img src: gettyimages

Every time one of these post-independence nations begins to succeed, one gets the impression of the racist narrative shifting slightly to accommodate the contradiction to the ‘nature,’ based argument–where Indians, Chinese, and Koreans are now natural business people rather than indolent degenerates. Will the rapid growth in West Africa cause people to argue that West Africans are somehow inherently more productive than the ‘ignorant savages’ in the rest of the continent? I doubt those espousing these views will consider the fact that, for example, fast-growing Ghana was the first African nation to gain independence and has thus had more time to overcome its colonial legacy than some others.

What’s particularly dismaying is how people who consider themselves liberal or progressive fail to examine these assumptions. Because technology appeared in these countries while they were colonised, they assume that colonisation was necessary to its appearance, rather than seeing that these technologies became available while those countries were colonised, so naturally their introduction was through that channel. But there is no reason whatever to assume that there would have been any great barrier to that technology in the absence of colonialism. It assumes technological transfer was a benefit of colonialism, when it, in fact, only accompanied colonialism–a force that caused such economic and cultural devastation that even the two nations that were the economic powerhouses throughout civilisation, India and China, are still struggling to catch up.

Europeans did not take to the great oceans to colonise. They took to them to trade. That would have brought their technologies around the world even had they not found opportunities to seize control of their trading partners by force. Japan demonstrates what happened when Europeans found no such opportunity. Trade and technology transfer with Japan did not cease as Zille’s claim would predict, but was vastly accelerated compared to the countries that received their technologies through European domination.

Not everyone would have wound up as successful as Japan. And technological and institutional development would not have helped to make benevolent societies (as Japan proved by itself embarking on a programme of colonisation). But colonialism reduced, rather than increased, opportunities to develop technologically and institutionally.

I should make it clear that I have read Zille’s full series of tweets and she was not taken out of context. She was praising autocratic Singapore which she suggests as a model for South Africa with its paradox of anti-worker, free-trade libertarianism, and harsh authoritarianism which, she argues, embraced rather than lamented colonial institutions. This makes her not only ahistorical on colonialism but actually anti-democratic too. She does not, for example, suggest the Nordic countries as a model with their magnificent standards of living due to embracing democracy, and worker and human rights, rather than suppressing them.

*Some nations that were nominally not colonised (Thailand, Liberia) were very much unable to make policies that in any way contradicted the wishes of great, Western powers and were effectively under their sway.

My Yamaha Pacifica

I was playing in a surf guitar band, looking for something to replace a truly awful Squier Stratocaster.  My thought was to get a Strat.  But I was a bit put off by the extortionate prices the shops were asking for them – double the US prices (I didn’t realise then that this is an old story).

So I walked into MusicFest SA in Parrow, Cape Town – an exceptional store that made you feel welcome. They’d always try to make a plan to accommodate you.  There was this vintage styled Yamaha Pacifica on the wall.  My buddy had bought a reverse headstock, floyd-rose bridge PAC721 second-hand as his first serious guitar.  It was a wise investment.  So wise that it’s still his main guitar today – and he’s a great player (I’ve seen kids do the “I am not worthy” genuflection when he solos at his shows).

Most people are familiar with entry-level Pacificas like the PAC112. These have a reputation for being amazingly well built guitars that, with a couple of upgrades, can be serious, pro-level instruments. But this one was clearly better spec’d than the US Stratocasters I’d seen in the shops–Made-in-Japan, swamp ash top, alder back, Warmoth neck (with recessed and beautifully finished bolts), Sperzel locking tuners, a two screw vibrato tailpiece, etc., etc..

I just kept coming back and playing it over and over.  Finally they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Looking online it was less than half the cheapest price I could find it anywhere in the world, and a whole lot less than I’d have spent on a Fender Strat with less sterling specifications.  I’ve never regretted it.  It’s all the “Strat” I’ll ever need. I used it for surf for years until I got a Jazzmaster. Recently I’ve been playing it again and just marvelling at its versatility (I also scraped 13 years of gunge off the fretboard).

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My Yamaha Pacifica 904

And I’m not the only person who thought so. I found an old Guitar Player in which the PAC904 was reviewed along with 36 other solid-body guitars, including a few American and Japanese Fender Strats and Teles (some of which caught serious flak).  This is what the huge review panel – including guitar tech guru Dan Erlewine – thought:

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Yamaha Pacifica 904 ($1,249; case $150)

This classy-looking Strat-style guitar has an absolutely sensuous 251/2” -scale Warmoth maple neck and rosewood fingerboard, as well as a rounded four-bolt neck joint.  The neck is smooth and blemish-free, and the wide, low frets are beautifully dressed and finished.  They’re so highly polished you can see yourself in ’em.  Likewise, the hard white nut is the best in this lineup.
The 904’s flawless tobacco-sunburst finish looks like some ’30s-era Gibson flat-tops, and it really enhances the highly figured ash top over the alder body.  The mint-colored pickguard adds a hip vintage vibe.  Nice modern touches include a satin-nickel Yamaha steel fulcrum bridge, Sperzel locking tuners, and a truss rod that’s adjustable from the body end.
The Yamaha pickup scheme consists of an Alnico V single-coil neck, single-coil middle, and double single-coil at the bridge.  The controls include volume, tone, 5-way selector, and a push-on/push-off tone-knob function that cuts the rear coil of the bridge humbucker.  The switch was dodgy and would not stay reliably in its “in” humbucker position.  The 904 is very nicely built and finished right down to the graphite-paint-shielded interior and the neat shielded wiring.  The back of its cover plate is also foil-shielded.
The Pacifica 904 delivers an array of superbly balanced clean and distorted textures.  It plays very nicely too; like we said, this neck is mighty good.  The trem feels like a classic Strat and gave us no tuning guff whatsoever.  The neck and middle pickups retain good clarity in the high-gain modes, offering excellent harmonic overtones.  The bridge humbucker is especially fat and clear.  The 904 also offers great Strat cluck in the in-between positions (one editor preferred them to those on his ’63 Strat), and the coil-cut position delivers yet another lovely clean sound.  The Pacifica deserves an A+ for tonal balance, but its sophisticated voices are cooler for clean shimmer than field-clearing macho shred.

– Guitar Player, February 1995

 

One thing they don’t make clear is that the guitar doesn’t have the usual splittable humbucker. Instead it has two single coils at the bridge of varying strength. This means you get a full power single-coil pickup (think Hendrix or Dick Dale tones) and a full power humbucker sound when you hit the push-push volume knob. I don’t know why more guitars don’t offer this, and I don’t know why Yamaha are the only company that seems to be able to make a decent push-push knob (mine, unlike the review model, was not dodgy at all and still works perfectly).

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Original ad showing colour options img src: flickr.com

Most Pacificas are out of production.  But I strongly recommend people look out for the higher end used models. Like most Japanese guitars, the model numbers reflect the specs–higher number means more good stuff. There’s a pacifica for every need, from the very rare solid flame top, set-neck, shred monsters, to totally basic vintage style hard tail guitars. Confusion among guitar players that they’re all budget guitars means that people often sell high-end Pacificas for stupidly little money–making them a great way to put top-notch guitars into the hands of a beginner.

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A solid flame-top PAC1412 img src: flickr.com

Kruger Christmas 5: Glimpses and Lists

Tomorrow we leave Kruger. It was an odd kind of trip, sightings-wise. We saw just about everything on most people’s wish list. But sometimes from afar or in a brief flash. A cheetah chased a herd of impala across the road. We could just tell what it was from a splash of spotted-tawny between a car and the dense bush. We saw wild dogs after a tedious wait behind a huge queue of undisciplined cars. They were fast asleep under a distant tree.

But given that two whole packs died of canine distemper since last year, we’d just been remarking on how unlikely it was that we’d see any at all. Once the dominant predator of the savannah woodland (the only creature that hunts successfully more often than it fails), they’ve been literally dogged for the last century by this always lethal infection carried to them from domestic canines.

The great thing about Kruger is that it’s a roll of the dice whether you’ll have great sightings or not. That may not sound like a good thing. Why not just go somewhere where the animals are lined up, neat and orderly? But it’s all up to you to add more dice to your pool to maximise your chances: getting up at the crack of dawn, planning routes based on recent sightings, and searching diligently.

We did few of those things, relying mostly on blind luck. We have a fair pool of it, and it paid off an hour ago when we got a good look at a young leopard in yet another unruly cluster of cars and busses.

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The saving grace when sightings are slow and unsatisfying is looking for birds. I’ve never been bothered to keep a list before. I just loved watching and photographing birds. But I have to admit: keeping a list makes it much more engaging. Instead of just moving on from little brown birds, or speckled waders that all very much look alike, I was invested in figuring out what they were. In the process I learned many new things about birds–such as that little brown birds are best identified from (a) the type of environment in which you find them, and (b) by their calls.

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A Thick-Billed Weaver. They make the prettiest nests between two reeds

The list made it just that much more exciting to see a few that I’d always known about for years but had never seen. Birders have their own (sometimes awful) jargon, and they call these ‘lifers.’ I had a few. I was excited to see a Black Heron (which I would have called a Vampire Heron for the way to covers its head with it’s black wings like Bela Lugosi under his cloak to better see prey beneath the water), a Squacco Heron, Wattled Starlings, White Crowned Lapwings, etc.. You get the idea.

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Steppe Eagle

Writing up some of this Kruger experience was also an experiment in blogging while on the road. I think that, when you’re with other people, it can be difficult to take the time to edit photos, write text, and upload those pictures. But the bigger problem is not unique to being on the road. It’s about who I’m writing for and what voice to use.

On Facebook I have a pretty good idea of my audience. Ditto on fora. I’m a fluent, sometimes funny, sometimes fierce writer. But here, with very little feedback, I find myself writing in a reserved, slightly formal manner. I find it way easier to rant about politics or make pointed remarks when I have some idea of what people’s expectations are, even if it’s to upend them. I can only hope I can loosen up with time.

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African Darter

I shall still comment on a couple of Kruger related issues, some of which may jolt me out of my formality with either outrage or bewilderment–like the curious experiences of dining out in Kruger rest-camps. That will be after our drive back across the width of this country to Cape Town, and the alarming reality of 2017.

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Woodland Kingfisher

Kruger Christmas 4: 2016, Why You So Mean?

The news of Carrie Fisher’s death was a blow. 60 seems way too young for such a vibrant, witty, irreverent survivor to go. The zeitgeist of the year says that it’s uniquely awful. 2016 is being talked about as if it’s a curse, springing ridiculous political twists and mowing down beloved public figures.

Of course, more than a few people have pointed out that when many of our celebrities are baby boomers, born from 1945 to 1950, we’re going to start seeing a lot of attrition. Other wise folks have pointed out that social media is locking us into the 24hr news cycle–where outrage follows disaster follows farce. Sadly, most of the world now seems to believe that we’ve entered a dark time.

That’s because most people don’t know the underlying trends, and confuse incidents with the direction of events. Even worse, trends respond to sentiment, and this pessimistic outlook in the face of what could honestly be described as a golden age for humanity, could be dangerous.

Famine has more or less disappeared since the 1940s. For the first time in the history of humanity. Child mortality has plummeted. Birth-rates even in “developing” nations are rapidly dropping to the levels of wealthy countries. Absolute poverty is declining around the world. More people die in car accidents and suicides than from war and murder, and not because car-accidents and suicides have increased by much. Even cancer rates in developed nations, in direct contradiction to exploitative conspiracy sites like naturalnews.com, are down–partly because smoking rates continue to fall. Installing new solar energy plants is now cheaper than building any other kind of energy production per megawatt. Cheaper even than wind power. We can see a future of incredibly cheap, totally clean energy just on the horizon.

The future for humanity, barring unforeseen disaster, is looking pretty cushy. But this comes at the expense of the other organisms on the planet.

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Kruger is a time capsule. A little piece of the South Africa that was before the 20th Century. A place that was as rich a haven for indigenous trees and animals as it was for indigenous humans. Now the majority of South Africa is given over to human-made landscapes. Agriculture doesn’t approve of bushveldt trees and marauding elephants. Not to mention feisty lions. Without the environment, smaller mammals, birds, and insects are rarely able to adapt.

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As we find ever more ingenious ways to eradicate deprivation among humans, the situation for the environment is likely to deteriorate further. Clean energy may eventually halt global warming and reduce pollution. But it’s unlikely to reverse habitat destruction.

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Many, perhaps most, of the visible species of animals may become extinct in the next hundred years due to this encroachment. We’ll likely live in a world that is easier and safer, but considerably less interesting. So a place like Kruger has become truly precious. The wilderness that once threatened us is now a place of peace and nostalgia.

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Although we’ve already lost so much, it may be wise to soak up as much as we can now. Because much of it will be gone within my lifetime. People outside the Middle East should be much more worried about that than about Islamic State, which is losing its absurd battle to reverse the tide.

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