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Below is a fairly high-level breakdown of the six-string equipment Rick uses onstage most nights. This is an update of this page as of July, 2009. If you're interested in the prior page, you can find it here
There are three of note.
This is the oldest of the three, bought sometime in the 80ís. Up to this point Iíd been playing Les Pauls and now I wanted an axe with a Floyd Rose tremolo. When I saw this axe hanging on the music store wall with those whacked-out mandolin frets way up there on the neck (it has 30 frets), I knew this was the one.
Interestingly, there was a two-for-one sale going on at the time, so I actually bought two of these guitars. Thus, in addition to the white one, I have a second one thatís black with a red and blue crackle finish in stock condition. Because it's stock it doesn't have the GK-2a pickand and therefore doesnít work with my present setup. As a result, it never leaves the house. (More about this later.)
The two standard magnetic pickups arenít used and arenít even connected to anything. Since I strictly use the Roland VG gear, this doesnít matter. I only use the GK-2a hexaphonic pickup. By the way, the GK-2a internal kit on this instrument was installed by Russell, who did a very nice job.
This is Carvinís strat copy, and itís quite a nice instrument. Generally, Fenders and I arenít very simpatico. Fortunately, the neck is not Fender-shaped, so I get along with this axe quite well. This kit was assembled for me and finished by Russell, who also installed the GK-2a internal kit on it. I think the mags on this one work, but I never use them. This instrument is easily as playable as the Washburn, and Iíd be hard-pressed to pick one over the other as my favorite.
I bought this guitar right after I ordered my VG-8 because I needed a GK-2a equipped instrument to use the VG-8. Basically, I think I bought it because guitarís price was right and it was immediately available. The external GK-2a wart kits were running about $250 at the time and the RR Strat was only $500, so, in effect, I was getting a Strat for $250.
Of course, it is a Fender, and like most Fenders Iíve tried, it just didn't hit me where I live. For this reason, I seldom used it on stage. Taking pity on me (or maybe swayed by my incessant whining) my wife ordered a replacement Warmoth neck and a Trem-King vibrato.
The neck is an absolute dream, one of the best necks I've played in ages, and it turns a mediocre instrument into a joy to play.
The Trem-King is far superior to the standard Strat vibrato system. If you'd like to read more about it, click here After spending a year with the unit here are my impressions.
- The unit is very smooth to use, though not quite as smooth as a Wilkinson. One of the reasons it's not is that there is a slight detent at the zero position so you know when the arm is back in neutral. This is a nice feature, I think.
- You can rest the heel of your hand on the bridge without causing the unit to go out of tune. Try that with a Floyd Rose. For those of us who grew up with a fixed bridge Les Paul, this is wonderfully comfortable and seriously improves my picking.
- String changes are as fast as an ordinary bridge. No cutting off string ends like a Floyd.
- Not as much dive-bomb capability as a Floyd, but enough for most purposes. It won't completely slack the strings.
- Uses a simple but ingenious mechanism to guarantee that if you break a string the remaining strings won't go out of tune. This really works!
- No string talk. That is, bending one string does not change the pitch of other strings.
- After all but the wildest trem use, my guitar returns to pitch pretty well. It's not perfect, but it's darn close. I'm ninety percent certain this is a characteristic of the guitar and not the trem unit. It does seem that the more I use it, the better it gets.
- The bar is stiffer than my Wilkinson by a noticeable amount. Even with the minimum number of springs installed, it's still not as effortless as the Wilkinson. Mind you, it's still better than the Floyd and light years past the OEM unit. This is a personal taste item. Others might find the tension exactly perfect for them.
- The handle has a bend in it to bring it away from the guitar body. I find this disconcerting. I can't bend it down to make it more comfortable because if I do, it affects how far I can drop the instrument's pitch. This, too, is a personal taste item and may not bother other users at all.
- The unit is marketed as a "drop-in replacement" for the OEM Strat bridge. This is true as far as it goes. You can just replace the Strat bridge/trem with the Trem-King, with the exception of one additional screw hole, and it will work. It won't work much, but it will work. You'll have very little travel in the unit but you can get some pitch change.
- Getting anything like the range of a Floyd or a Wilkinson requires routing the inside of the trem cavity.
- At the time I bought it, the Trem-King did not include a full scale template for routing the cavity. I just checked the Trem King web site and they now have what looks like lucite templates available. I STRONGLY advise that you obtain one of these if you plan on purchasing the unit.
- The size router bit Trem-King suggests for the routing is a very uncommon bit. I live in San Antonio, a city of over one million people, and I could not find the bit anywhere in town. I called the big chain hardware stores, the mom & pop hardware cubbyholes and the woodworking specialty stores. None of them had it. I ended up mail-ordering it for about $26.
- My router only takes bits with a quater-inch shaft. Most bits of the recommended size have a half-inch shaft. Be sure you get the right size shaft for your router.
- I needed to solder the grounding wire for the pickup assembly to the plate of the tremolo claw. Soldering isn't mentioned as a requirement in the Trem-King docs. Not a biggie, but some folks are very solder-averse.
- The Trem-King performs most of its tricks by using a small horizontal bar (called a "tone bar"), held in place by the tremolo springs, to stop the bridge from moving due to pull on the strings. Unfortunately, under heavy whammy use this bar can fall out, throwing your instrument completely out of tune. It is even possible for the bar to fall completely out of the tremolo cavity, allowing it to become lost on the floor of a dark stage.
- The additional screw required for the installation of the Trem-King creates a small hole between the bridge and the volume control. This means that you cannot go back to the OEM bridge (or any other bridge) without the screw hole being perfectly visible. If you're picky about the appearance of your instrument, you'll want to consider the implications of installing a Trem-King.
- Apparently Rusty Bickford,"Mr. Trem King", is a very conscientious business owner and scouts the Internet looking for references to his product. When he saw my post and that I was having issues with the Trem King, he contacted me personally and offered to do what he could to resolve them. His efforts have significantly improved things, and I now find the Strat/Trem King guitar to be a very pleasant instrument to play. I believe this level of customer service is exceptional. I commend him heartily for it and thank him sincerely for rescuing my investment. Thank you, Rusty!
Roland GK-2a Hexaphonic Pickup
Since I exclusively use the Roland VG gear for all my guitar sounds, the Roland pickup is a sine qua non. Itís the little black bar you see on the guitars just in front of the bridge. Iíve always used the internally mounted kit, since dealing with the big Ďwartí for the external version is just too much trouble. Plus, having all the guts on the outside of the guitar seems to me to be far more prone to problems as well as being cosmetically objectionable.
Iíve had good luck with the GK, but it does have a few kinks. For example, yanking the whammy bar up really far can cause the strings to actually bang into the pickup, killing your sound. Also, the top of the GK is curved to match a Fender Strat with a 7Ē radius neck. For those of us who use a larger radius (say, anyone born after 1968,) this causes the outside strings to be farther from their pickup point than the inside strings. This results in some output level issues. Still, these drawbacks are minor compared to the unitís enormous advantages.
This is the box that started the whole modelling craze. It gives me the ability to model different guitars, different amps and most of the effects that I want with a single device. Iíve been using these since the 90ís and I really like Ďem. It eliminates the need to carry around a whole truck full of gear and thatís such a huge plus I canít begin to describe it.
Not that I donít love Marshalls and stompboxes and huge pedal boards and effects racks and tons of outboard gear, but until I get rich enough to afford a roadie to schlep all that around for me, the VG-8 gives me 95% of the effect with about 5% of the hassle.
I actually have two VG-8ís Ė one to serve as a backup in case the primary unit goes down for some reason. Itís pretty much a necessity, since if the VG goes south on me Iím dead in the water. Itís never happened yet, and the V is built like a tank, but in an infinite universe anything that can happen, will happen, and I like to be prepared.
Since the advent of the VG-99 (see below) I don't use the VG-8 much except for practice at home. It's still an amazingly capable unit with a bucketload of great sounds, but the VG-99 is parsecs beyond the VG-8.
On the last incarnation of this page, I mentioned that I had just gotten a VG-99 and was just beginning to learn how to use it. Since then, I think I've gotten the hang of it and have retired the VG-8 in favor of the newer VG-99.
I'm convinced the '99 is simply the best guitar tool of its kind on the planet. The guitar sounds are excellent - very organic. Clean, distorted, acoustic, weird...whatever...it all sounds great. Since it's not pitch-to-midi conversion there's no latency. To me, it feels like you're playing through the equivalent analog gear. And the possibilities are absolutely endless. This is one of the deepest devices in terms of capability that I've ever encountered.
Fundamental capabilities include
- Emulation numerous guitars (Fenders, Gibsons, Gretsches, acoustics and Basses)
- Emulation of numerous amplifiers (Marshalls, Fenders, Boogies, Rolands, etc.)
- Emulation of multiple speaker cabinets (closed back, open back, 1x12, 1x10, 2x12, 4x12, etc.)
- Emulation of multiple types of microphones on the speakers
- Two Effect chains with gobs of effects (harmonizers, pitch shifters, phasers, flangers, delay, tremolo, rotating speaker, univibe, wah, humanizer, feedbacker, defretter, ring modulator, etc.)
- All of the above TWICE! That is, emulation of two guitar/amp/speaker/effect chains simultaneously.
- Control of the mix between the two emulations
- EQ out the gazoo.
- Midi mapping capabilities
- Lots of other stuff like tuners and pitch-to-midi conversion and a ribbon controller and ... and ... and ...
With all this, consider that I can
- Switch tunings at the stomp of a switch or the press of a pedal. For example, when we play ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" I have a preset with one of the expression pedals set so that with the heel down, the guitar is tuned standard but a full step down (D-G-C-F-A-D.) With the toe down, the guitar is tuned down a full step but in an open-E tuning. I use the toe-down position for playing the slide solo, then go heel down and I'm back to standard tuning a full step down. No guitar changing necessary.
- Change between acoustic and electric with the sweep of a pedal. The preset for R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. has one expression pedal set so that toe down is a telecaster through a twin for a nice, twangy electric sound and heel down is a transparent acoustic for rhythm. I change timbres throughout the song: toe down for lead, heel down for rhythm.
- Simulate two guitars at once. On some tunes I'll have one guitar simulation set to a Strat through a twin for a steely clean sound and the second guitar simulation set to a Les Paul through a Marshall for nice crunch. I can use one of the expression pedals to vary the mix between the two any way I want for a very thick but detailed sound.
- Play two- or three-part intelligent harmonies. Indispensable for covering Thin Lizzy, Allman Brothers, Wishbone Ash or other two guitar bands. I can even set two different harmonies so that in one part of the song I harmonize in thirds, later in fifths. I can finally do Black Betty with the two different user-defined harmonies it requires
- Get that great Echoplex oscillation (aka "Flying Saucer" sound.) That makes Martian Boogie ROCK!
- Kick in a ring modulator when I like. You know that weird tone on the solo to "Paranoid"? That's a ring modulator. Or the cool sounds that Jon Lord is making with his organ on the live version of "Space Truckin'"? That's another ring modulator trick.
- Do a great emulation of the Robin Trower sound. Got Univibe built in.
- Even fake the SRV-through-a-Leslie vibe.
I'm just beginning to tap the potential of this device.
So far, the major downside that I've discovered is that you have to know your presets. Although our set list has the presets printed beside each song, if somebody requests "Red House" out of sequence, I need to know that preset #2 is the Univibe sound. Otherwise I've got to go looking for it. In this respect, a pedal board is simpler. However, try to turn on three pedal effects at once. That's a bit tricky with stomp boxes. It's a can of corn for me, so it all evens out.
Also, it's impossible to use a wireless unit. The cable for the hex pickup has 13 wires -- 2 for each string plus power. It's only a little larger around than a standard guitar cord, but there's no wireless transmitter that can handle that. As a result, I'm tethered to within eight or ten feet of the VG-99. In practice that's not much of a problem since it seems we're usually on stages where I only have about two square feet of clear floor space anyway.
The best part about the VG-99 is that it effictively cures Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I've pretty much got every tone I could want. Why do I need anything else?
This is the foot controller that goes with the VG-99. Well, it goes with it if you pay for it Ė itís a separate piece of gear. Itís actually bigger and heavier than the VG-99 itself. It has two built-in expression pedals, and the company we mail-ordered it from included another expression pedal as lagniappe, so I have lots of options now for real-time control. The cool thing is that the built-in pedals each have a toe switch so you can use them to control an effect (like wah) and use the toe switch to turn it on and off just like youíre used to with old fashioned stomp boxes. Itís also powered by the VG-99 if you like, so you donít have to deal with batteries or wall warts.
Playing in a trio format, you naturally end up performing songs by groups with five or six members. Drummers are always busy just doing the drum thing and bass players only sound like basses, so the guitar player generally seems to end up being the guy that has to cover for the rhythm guitar, lead guitar and keyboards. Oh, and sing, too. Although I can do some pretty kinky stuff with the VG-99, there were still some sounds that I just couldnít cover adequately. So I finally gave in and bought a GR-33 guitar synthesizer.
This is one seriously fun piece of equipment, and it works wonderfully well with the GK-2a. You do have to take pains to play very precisely or the thing gets confused and produces some very unmusical sounds. But if youíre careful, the rewards are considerable. Itís just unbelievably cool to sound like Jon Lordís Hammond coming through a Leslie or Dick Parryís saxophone. Plus, itís a real treat to see the musically more sophisticated audience members trying to locate that piano theyíre hearing.
If you're unclear as to the difference between the GR-33 and the VG-99, let me explain.
The GR-33 is a midi-based synthesizer containing a table of PCM-recorded sounds. For example, there are a number of keyboard sounds stored in the table along with string sounds, brass sounds, percussion sounds and so forth. When you play a note on the guitar, the GR-33 converts that note into midi information (pitch, volume, duration, etc.) Based on the patch you've selected, the appropriate sounds are retrived from the table and played using the pitch, volume and duration information that the GR-33 deduced from the note(s) you played. Your guitar is just a controller, the same as a keyboard. The actual tonal characteristics of the guitar play no part in sound generation. All of the sound is generated from the table of PCM-recorded sounds.
Imagine strumming a full six-string chord. With a standard guitar pickup, all of the notes you play are summed into a single signal. A device like the GR-33 cannot decipher the summed signal to determine what notes were played on what strings. It can't tell that the third string was louder than the fourth string since all the strings are combined into a single signal. The hexaphonic pickup allows the GR-33 to examine each string individually, determining the pitch, duration, loudness and so forth for each note you're playing on each of the six strings. This lets you assign a string patch to the first three strings and a piano patch to strings 4, 5 and 6. It lets the GR-33 determine which pitch a particular string is playing and add a harmony a third higher.
"Reading" a vibrating string is quite a technological challenge. For this reason, the GR-33 is very sensitive to extraneous noise. There is no midi value that corresponds to a string scrape. Thus, if you rub your fingers on the strings and produce a scrape, the GR-33 cannot translate this properly. It will, instead, issue either no sound or produce some apparently random noise based on what it thinks you were playing. For this reason, you need to play very precisely to get the most out of the GR-33.
The VG-99 does not use midi except for control information (patch change, volume pedal and so forth.) It's much more like a standard stomp box on steroids. As an example, consider one of the old MXR Phase 90 phase shifters. You sent a guitar signal into the input, the device altered the signal in some way and that altered signal exited the pedal's output. The tone of what came out of the pedal was based on the tone of what went into the pedal. The VG-99 is like this. Compare this to the GR-33 where the sound that comes out of the unit comes from a table of pre-recorded sounds and has no relation to the guitar.
Now the VG-99 is much more sophisticated than a Phase 90, but the principle is the same. Everything starts with the sound of your guitar. There is no table of stored sounds and your guitar signal is not converted to midi. As a result, all the nuances of your playing are retained. Pick scrapes sound like pick scrapes. Pinch harmonics stay pinch harmonics. True, your guitar's signal has been altered to make it sound like you were playing through a Marshall or a Twin or whatever, but it's still fundamentally a guitar signal. Thus, the VG-99 doesn't require you to alter your playing style.
Having said that, the VG-99 does allow you to apply some pretty extreme modifications to your guitar's tone to make it sound like other things. But the starting point is always the guitar signal.
For me, the bottom line is this: If you're looking for a multitude of excellent guitar sounds, you want the VG-99. If you're looking for the ability to simulate other instruments then you want the GR-33.
I have two, the RC20XL and its big brother, the RC-50. I used to use the RC20XL because itís physically smaller and with the huge footprint of the VG-8, the GR-33 and the expression pedal, I just didnít have room on the floor for the RC-50. However, I ordered a two-level custom pedalboard from NYC Pedalboards. I now have the RC-50 on the board's second level, which lets me get the FC-300 and the RC-50 plus a few other pedals into a reasonable amount of floor space. I use the looper for some harmony guitar parts as well as for tracking rhythm behind a lead line. I also load some sound effects into the unit for playback during certain songs. Like the GR-33, this is a piece of equipment that you could get by without, but itís a whole lot of fun and really enhances the entire musical experience.
We've been doing several tunes that have talk box parts in them and I've just been faking it for a while with the Humanizer effect of the VG-99. This is pretty good, but I wanted the real thing so I added a Banshee talk box to the board. I thought about this for quite a while because this board is getting pretty heavy and talk boxes are one of the weightiest effects around. But, as usual, GAS won out and I mounted the Banshee on the board. This used up all the remaining real estate on the pedalboard, so I don't plan on adding anything else in the near future. (Why is my wife looking at me that way?)
As I mentioned above, I ordered a pedalboard from NYC Pedalboards. I checked out a LOT of boards, but I needed one larger than usual, so none of the pre-fabricated units would work for me. NYC builds to your specs and their price was reasonable, so I ended up using them. The whole trick is careful measurement, but they give you the step-by-step, so that's not really an issue. Turnaround time was good and the quality was exactly what I expected.
The only thing I don't like about the board is that it's wood rather than some composite material, so it's heavy. It's not unmanageable, but it is weighty.
I was also concerned about the pedals being raised off the floor by the height of the board. In practice, this has not been a problem. However, the front row of pedals is about an inch or inch-and-a-half higher than when they were just sitting on the floor. Of course, the RC-50 on the second level is considerably higher than when it was on the floor, but this isn't too much of an issue either, although it does take a little getting used to.
Unlike some of the cooler boards made from composite materials, this one has no built-in way to hide your cables. However, the bottom of the board is essentially a very shallow box, so I removed the top of the box (it's held on with screws), routed a few small channels in the interior bracing, and then drilled holes in the top of the box, allowing me to run cords from one pedal, inside the box and then out to the next pedal. I wired the thing using the George L custom cable kit. I admit that I was skeptical that those screw-on George L plugs would actually function, but they worked like a charm. I found setting up the board was a bit of a project, but actually rather enjoyable.
For a quick look at the board, click here
This is the latest addition of note to the floor menagerie. Once I added the Banshee, I found that the combination of signal cables, midi cables, CAT-5 and power cables was getting a little difficult to manage. PedalSnake to the rescue! For those not familiar with it, the PedalSnake allows you to combine your power cables, signal cables and midi cables into a single snake. It's a pretty simple concept, executed very effectively, and does a great job of cleaning up the snarky cable mess. For me, the biggest problem was that with the Banshee I now had two pedals on the board that needed power. The RC-50 uses 9 volt DC power and the Banshee uses 9 volt AC power. (The FC-300 is powered from the VG-99.) Also, Three Way Split uses powered monitors, so every time I set up the rig I needed three outlets up by the mike stand for the Banshee and RC-50 power supplies and my monitor. Then, in my back line I needed two more for the VG-99 and the GR-33 (9 volt DC and 14 volt AC, respectively.) All these power lines plus the midi cables, signal cables and the CAT-5 took forever to hook up and the process was error-prone. With the PedalSnake I could move all my power supplies to the back line, permanently plugged into a surge protector mounted in the rack, and supply power and signal to and from the pedalboard via the PedalSnake -- a much cleaner arrangement. The only drawback to the PedalSnake for me is that it doesn't support CAT-5. Thus, I still have to have two cables running from the backline to the pedealboard. Still, this is a big improvement over where I was before.
If you can get by with one of the smaller pedalboards that have space underneath the pedal surface to route wires, you can have a really clean setup. Unfortunately, no one makes one of those nice, lightweight, spaceage boards with enough real estate for me yet, and my NYC Pedalboards board doesn't really allow under-board routing, so I still have a bit of clutter. However, it's a great improvement and I'm quite pleased with the PedalSnake. They're very reasonably priced and I recommend them.
JBL EON 10/Behringer B215A
Because Iím using the Roland VG system, I need a full-range speaker system. A standard guitar amp wonít reproduce the acoustic guitar sounds from the VG-99 properly, nor will it handle the extended lows and highs that the GR-33 puts out. For the past several years Iíve used a pair of active JBL EON-10ís. These are extremely portable and do a very creditable job of reproducing the sounds that the VG and GR create. And, with two of them, I can do the stereo thing, although thatís generally overrated in my opinion. The speaker sims in the VG-99 keep the horns in the EON-10ís from allowing the guitar sounds to become fizzy.
However, weíve been using more synthesizer lately, and I find that the EON-10ís have to work pretty hard when things get down into the really low frequencies. In fact, the speaker leads are held in place with clips rather than being soldered. Over time, I've found that the vibrations from the really low synthesizer notes cause the clips to become loose, resulting in an intermittent connection when playing really low notes. It sounds like you've blown a speaker but it's just the loose speaker connections. The clips can be tightened with pliers, but then they loosen again. At some point, I'll probably solder them in place.
Last year I acquired a Behringer B215A powered speaker that I intended to use to replace the EONs. I figured this was a no-brainer since the EON's have a 10" speaker and the Behringer had a 12". Surprisingly, the EON sounded better than the Behringer. This may be the result of having optimized my sound for the JBL over time. However, the Behringer was also larger, heavier and had no cover, so I actually ended up going back to the JBL.