This week, we travel all the way to Nazareth, Pennsylvania to interview two of the most influential people in the acoustic guitar world, Fred Greene (Martin Guitar’s Vice President of Product Management) and Tim Teel (Martin’s Director of Instrument Design). The decisions that Fred and Tim make have a huge impact on Martin’s current (and future) guitar offerings. During this hour-long conversation, we chat about the rationale behind new Martin models, how Martin prepares for big unveilings like the NAMM Show, the impact guitar forum chatter has on their creations and much more. This off-the-cuff, insightful chat is easily one of our favorite conversations about the guitar industry we’ve had to date.
Some of the many great soundbites you’ll hear during this conversation:
“If you’re a young person, you don’t want your dad’s guitar.”
“Everyone wants to hook everything up to their computer and that’s a real challenge for us.”
“The best guitars are the ones that people love or hate.”
Parker Millsap - "Singing to Me" | Fretboard Journal - YouTube
In addition to crafting a fine song, musician Parker Millsap is known for having an oddball vintage guitar or two in his collection. During this visit to the Fretboard Journal offices, he performed “Singing to Me” (a track off his excellent 2018 album, Other Arrangements) on his “very Italian” Julio Giuletti archtop. Millsap found this Giuletti at a pawn shop in either Charleston, South Carolina or West Virginia (he can’t remember) and loved it so much, he ended up buying two more just like over the internet. “The bridge just has a piece of fretwire with some notches in it,” Millsap explains. “It kind of has a buzzy thing… but I really like it.”
Bassist extraordinaire Tal Wilkenfeld joins us on the Fretboard Journal Podcast to talk about coming to the US to pursue music, opening for the Who and about the making of her new album, Love Remains. We also talk about her gear of choice, including her rather unique baritone guitar (built in part by Jackson Browne).
When we heard that bass virtuoso Tal Wilkenfeld had a new album out, we weren’t prepared for what awaited us: Yes, you can hear plenty of bass on Love Remains, but there are also insanely catchy hooks, tender songwriting and incredible rock & roll production. Wilkenfeld – who has graced stages and studios with Prince, Jeff Beck, Clapton and other luminaries – put the focus on her songwriting for this project… and it’s as great as her bass prowess. We reached out to her on the Fretboard Journal Podcast to talk to her about the effort, her incredible career and her gear of choice. Below are some highlights.
Fretboard Journal: How long has this record been brewing?
Tal Wilkenfeld: Well, I first starting writing songs the first day I picked up the guitar, when I was 14. I got sidetracked when I started just becoming mono-focused on the guitar and my ability to communicate through an instrument to be as seamless as it was to speak English.
I just sort of abandoned words and one thing led to another, to quote my own song! And I started gigging with all the artists that I’ve played with. And then, at a certain point, I just realized that I had abandoned my roots. I wanted to start writing songs with words again, so here I am.
FJ: Growing up in Australia, what were you listening to when you first became infatuated with the guitar?
TW: Jimi Hendrix, Rage Against the Machine, Herbie Hancock. Those were my first three CDs.
FJ: Were you able to find a local instructor to kind of steer you on the right path?
TW: I did start out with a teacher, but I don’t know if I was the best student. I kind of went off on my own and did my own thing. I tend to have to figure out my own way of learning and it doesn’t always match up to a teacher’s curriculum.
FJ: What is your preferred way of learning?
TW: I like to ask a lot of questions. And the questions are often rooted in concept rather than technique. What is someone trying to say as opposed to how do you play that? What’s the meaning behind what you’re saying there?
FJ: When did you take up the bass?
TW: When I was 17.
FJ: Were you curious about it or was it for a gig?
TW: I wasn’t allowed to practice much when I lived in Sydney, because I was told to focus on my school work. So when I moved to America, I was very excited with this newfound freedom and started trying to practice all day. And that lasted about a week until I gave myself tendonitis [laughs] and had to stop playing for a while. And then when I was ready to start playing again, I moved to the bass. It was a happy accident.
FJ: You recently opened for The Who. Were you performing Love Remains songs on that tour?
TW: I was. I got a really great response from the audience and we were getting standing ovations in nearly every town, which was very surprising to me because we were playing songs that people have never heard before and a lot of [people] were just there to see The Who. I was pleasantly surprised and so was Pete Townshend.
I sent the music to him and he was supportive of it. That’s sort of how the whole thing came to be.
FJ: You’re constantly touring and you do a fair amount of session work. When did you carve out the time to do this record?
TW: It was actually a relatively quick process, despite the fact that it took a long time to get out into the public. It was really about 10 days in the studio. All the other elements around releasing a record is what slowed it down.
FJ: Let’s talk gear on the album. I know you’ve played Roger Sadowsky’s instruments for a while. What did you actually bring into the studio, gear-wise?
TW: Most of the record was done on Jackson Browne’s P-bass. Both of his P-basses, actually, because I didn’t have a P-bass yet. And a Harmony bass that I just purchased and then I did one song on a Sadowsky five-string [bass]… “Haunted Love.” You can see that on YouTube. I used a five-string with a capo on the third fret for that song.
Tal Wilkenfeld - Haunted Love - 3/7/2019 - Paste Studios - New York, NY - YouTube
Guitar-wise, I was using some old Gibsons. And I used a baritone acoustic guitar on “Corner Painter,” which was Jackson Browne’s guitar. Then he ended up getting one made for me that I’ve been now using on the road…
FJ: Who made it?
TW: He made it with a luthier named Billy Asher. They basically took the body of a Yamaha guitar or something and then put a different face on it, pushing the bridge back and making it playable with these heavy strings. So just a make-your-own guitar.
FJ: That’s pretty awesome.
TW: No brand. And then [I used] Ben Harper’s Epiphone guitar. I used that on “One Thing After Another.” It’s now my guitar and I play it on tour. Those are pretty much the instruments.
FJ: You’re borrowing from some pretty amazing musicians! Have you played with Jackson a bunch?
TW: Jackson was the executive producer on the album and has been a friend for some time now. He acted almost like a consultant for the record.
FJ: What does that translate to?
TW: Yeah, kind of just like ask him anything I needed to ask him and he was, he made himself available for that role. Very generous man. He has supported a lot of younger musicians, like Dawes and Blake Mills. He’s such a generous man.
FJ: Are you writing new songs all the time?
TW: Yes. I do write a lot and create a lot. And it’s just a matter of balance. If I get called for a session or if I’m doing my own stuff that I, I have enough instruments to choose from. And we all lend each other instruments here in LA. Like this group of us, if somebody needs something like we lend them or whatever. It’s not a big deal.
FJ: What does the life of a session guitarist look like these days in LA? Can you kind of describe some of the varying sessions you get roped into?
TW: The session scene is dying; it’s minimized substantially. Every year, it gets slower and slower because most people are now making records in their living rooms with their laptops and a lot of instruments from drums to bass are programmed and played on a keyboard. So, there’s less and less of that, which is fine for me because I’m spending more and more time doing my own stuff and working with other artists on different collaborations.
In the world of electric mandolins, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the more widely available the instrument, the lower the quality. But the Eastman El Rey may be poised to change all that.
Introduced at Winter NAMM 2019, the El Rey hits stores this summer. At $1299 MSRP ($1039 street), it appears to be targeting players who’ve gotten their feet wet with entry-level axes like the Epiphone MandoBird, Eastwood Mandocaster and Fender MandoStrat and are looking for something a little nicer. Until now, that has meant going to a custom builder—the El Rey seems to be intended to compete not with the aforementioned models, but with the Jonathan Manns and John Smiths and Steve Ryders in the spectrum of e-mando lutherie.
And for the most part, it seems to be well equipped for the task.
In the past 40 years, major producers have gravitated primarily toward the “shrunken guitar” type of electric mandolin, with a shallow neck angle and a hardtail bridge. E-mandos with floating bridges, patterned after acoustic mandolins, have mostly been the ubiquitous bargain-bin imports from factories with little evidence of quality control. In that context, the Eastman El Rey, with its traditional mandolin styling and careful attention to detail, is a breath of fresh air—bringing to mind the Gibson EM150 and EM200 (both discontinued in 1971) or serving as a much more playable upgrade from the Harmony “Batwing” (which disappeared around 1976).
The single-cutaway body with its distinguished 4-ply top binding matches Eastman’s El Rey guitar, naturally, but also serves as a simplified take on the F-style mandolin design. Acoustic mandolinists should find the neck profile to their liking. A dark brown sunburst finish accentuates some attractive figure in both the bookmatched maple top and the 1-piece mahogany body. The El Rey does sport a pair of F-holes atop its tone chambers, but there’s also a solid center block of mahogany, which solves the feedback problem—I turned it up as loud as the amp would go and the signal remained clean.
Again in a nod to acoustic mandolins, the El Rey came strung with a 40–11 loop-end set of nickel strings—heavier than many electric players use, but more or less standard for bluegrass players. If you want easier string bending, of course, lighter strings are always an option. It’s fitted with high-quality nickel Grover tuners, standard mandolin frets and a 1-piece nickel Eastman tailpiece. You’ll find ebony in the expected places—the 2-piece bridge, the headplate, the standard-scale fretboard with its understated thumbnail inlays along the bass side—but also in some unexpected ones, namely the tone and volume controls and the handmade pickup ring. This latter surrounds a custom-made Lollar humbucker that very much resembles the Seymour Duncan mandolin pickups of yesteryear that you might have found on a Schwab Deluxe in the 1980s.
One can’t help but appreciate the decision not to skimp on the pickup: it delivers a good clean tone, not too bright or dark, not the least bit tinny, nasal or quacking. It isn’t “woody” but is still recognizably a mandolin. A series/parallel switch might have been nice, but the sound should lend itself to shaping with effects, if that’s your bag. However, there is one small problem: on the El Rey that I reviewed, the pickup suffered from the dreaded “weak E” syndrome. In other words, the signal from the E string did not match those of the other strings in terms of volume. This is something that needs to be fixed, possibly by changing the angle of the pickup within its ring, or by adjusting the E poles so they sit closer to the strings. At this price point and with a custom pickup, players should not have to tolerate a problem usually associated with lower-end e-mandos. (Many MandoBird owners modded their axes with custom pickups for precisely this reason.) Surely the Eastman folks and Mr. Lollar can put their heads together and solve this.
That single objection aside, the El Rey is a versatile instrument that comes along at an auspicious time (Fender and Epiphone having ceased e-mando production for the nonce) and should find a place in a variety of amplified ensemble settings. Retailers are preparing to offer it with an Eastman gig bag (which, if you’ve not seen one, is amply padded and has a built-in neck support), although the review copy came in a nice shaped hardshell F-style case. Who knows, perhaps because of the Eastman name, the El Rey will find its way into stores that usually don’t stock electric mandolins. One can always hope.
Twice a month, guitar amp guru Skip Simmons fields your questions on tube amp buying, restoration and repair. Co-hosted by the Fretboard Journal’s Jason Verlinde.
Submit your guitar amp questions to Skip here: firstname.lastname@example.org or by leaving us a voicemail or text at 509-557-0848.
Some of the many topics discussed on this episode:
3:27 Skip’s roll call of who is getting an A/B box
5:11 We discuss episode 12’s Baffler, the 3 Channel Psychedelic Control Center
9:10 A new Baffler!
11:44 An unlikely backup amp suggestion
14:30 This episode’s sponsors: Grez Guitars and Mono Cases (and TAVA t-shirts, coming soon)
17:00 Little Charlie’s Spanish rice (yes, our first recipe)
18:22 More parenting tips
19:11 A preview of our next amp schematic 101
22:34 More Champ mod talk: One difference between Blackface and Silverface Fender Champs, the Hammond 290AX transformer
27:38 Gain stage: What makes an amp distort
32:14 Bringing a Blackface Fender Tremolox with a solid state rectifier back to stock
37:21 A ’60s Kay 704 “Vanguard”
43:54 An amp motherlode in Lodi, California
45:35 A Princeton Reverb with a pilot light that is too bright
48:43 A Gibson GA-20 RVT found in a trash bin
54:28 Channel jumping and a vintage Airline Model 62-9013A
1:01:48 The pop you hear turning off your amp
1:07:03 A speaker dilemma on a 1962 Brownface Deluxe
1:09:28 Converting a PA head to a tube mic pre-amp
1:14:20 Turning an old tube radio into a guitar amp
1:18:18 Norwegian lues and Helge Tallqvist
1:19:11 This week’s recommended music
1:20:49 High-powered tube amps and the Hiwatt 400 bass amp
1:25:32 Using a light bulb limiter instead of a variac
1:27:34 Speaker replacement on a Gibson GA-40
1:31:50 A tribute guitar repairman Glen Quan, inventor of the Badass bridge
Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter Jacob Miller joins on this week’s Fretboard Journal Podcast. We talk about gear (including the lucky horse trading he did to get his cherished ’40s Epiphone archtop), his debut album (This New Home) and much more.
This week’s podcast is sponsored by Mono Cases. Check out all their case and pedalboard offerings at monocreators.com.
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Jacob Miller - "Cut My Teeth" | Fretboard Journal - YouTube