Reality Distortion

Posted: August 5, 2015 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 8.47.52 AMGear is a big part of rock music and let’s face it, gear is cool! When I was a kid over at my friends house I first saw real Fender amps with their shiny silver grill cloth. I dreamt about those amps. I’d ride the bus into downtown Seattle and just hang around music stores with all the gear. I’d go to concerts and marvel at all the gear being set up, walls of Marshalls, Rows of SVTs, nothing was more impressive! Later on I proudly played the Hollywood club circuit with my two Marshall stacks. Then later, in Andy Taylor’s band I used four Marshall heads along with eight Mesa Boogie 4×12 cabs loaded with EVs. Awesome power! (Between you and me I only played through two cabs at a time.)

Now it’s 2015 and amp size is not as important as it used to be, it’s more about tone, and pedals rule. When I was a kid in the ’70s there were only a few pedals by MXR, Maestro, Boss, Electro Harmonix, Thomas Organ, and a few others. But now, open a Sweetwater catalog to the pedals section, there must be thousands.

A few years back, in this blog I showcased my Yamaha/Soldano combo rig. Sadly, that amp died. I kept having problems with it so I put it out of it’s misery. I took the tubes out, put the amp on my table saw and cut the head section off and threw it in the trash. I attached a new piece of plywood on top of the speaker cabinet, covered it with tolex and metal corners from MojoTone and voila, an open back 1×12 cab. A few years back I built a 1×12 cabinet from scratch so now I have two. The cabs match except the old one has a closed back. It’s the best of both worlds. I get punch, projection and low end from the closed back and I get my sound spread around by the softer, open back tone. 

After cannibalizing my combo amp I dusted off my vintage 5150, 100 watt head that I demoed at the Frankfurt Music Mesa back in the ’90s. I re-tubed it with the new tubes from my combo amp and it just sounds great! Even though the 5150 has more power than I need, it works great running my two 1X12 cabs. Fyi, a hundred watt tube head is not really twice as loud as a fifty watt, but it’s a bit fatter and has more bottom end, and I like that.

Some posts back I wrote about young, high level guitarists I’ve interviewed for Boss Tone Radio and to my surprise their willingness to run their amps clean and get overdrive and distortion from pedals. Until now I’ve been in the old-school camp where I demanded my distortion come from the tubes and the amp being overdriven. Well, this last year I was blown away by a new, digital, Boss DS-1X distortion pedal. After demoing it at shows and stores I was amazed at the tone! What the heck, I tried the new school style of running the 5150 clean and using the DS-1X for my distortion. I’ve determined overall the DS-1X actually sounds better than the 5150′s amp distortion! The DS-1X even cleans up when I turn my guitar volume down. 

The DS-1X pedal uses digital technology to treat high notes different than low notes. The result is fat high notes and tight low notes that is just not possible with pure amp distortion. Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.53.40 PMThis pedal is so good, Boss will have to pry it out my my cold, dead hands before I give it back. I would have never guessed this pedal is digital, it sounds so warm and rich.

This blog is not here to praise Boss but those gurus in Japan got this pedal right! Another pedal they got really right is the Boss RE-20 Space Echo. It’s a replication of the old tape delays I used in the 80s. The left pedal turns it on and off, and the right pedal is used to tap in the tempo of the delay. Delay in-rhythm always sounds better. Also I think a tape delay can be run louder than a standard digital delay because the tape echo just doesn’t step on my tone as much as a digital echo. Check out my delay post.

Back to distortion, a further advantage of using a distortion pedal is that I don’t have to use my amp’s effects loop. This will make my new pedalboard simple. I just place my chorus and delay pedals after the distortion, and I’ll have the same result as using the amp’s effects loop along with amp distortion. I just taped the pedals to this piece of plywood, but now I am building a more permanent board so I’ll need a bigger piece of plywood.

One thing I should let you know that I noticed about the DS-1X. Maybe because it’s digital, sometimes there is a short delay when clicking it on. I’ve demoed so many prototypes that don’t really work yet, I’ve gotten used to this. I just click the DS-1X pedal a half second or so before the downbeat and I’m okay. I just love the tone so much this doesn’t bother me.

Btw, “The Reality Distortion Field” is a reference to Steve Jobs’ amazing ability to alter reality, not unlike the Talosiens from Star Trek’s, The Cage and The Menagerie. But us guitarists get to create our own distortion, in reality.


Rock on!


Ice in Your Veins!

Posted: March 22, 2015 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 2.54.36 PMI just finished editing a new Boss Tone Radio interview with Brendon Small. Brendon is a really good guitar player who also happens to be a stand-up comic and TV show creator. His current show is Metalocalypse. Brendon co-writes the show, does voiceovers for some of the characters, and creates all the music. If you haven’t seen Metalocalypse you can check out a few episodes at youtube.

Brendon’s a funny guy but he’s also really smart about guitar. He told me a story of when he was 15 and he did his first performance at a talent show. He blew it bad. After the show, Brendon went home, unpacked his guitar, then looked down at his hands and his guitar and had a conversation with them. He told them, “we are not going to do that again”. This reminded me of what Howard Roberts once told me.

Howard was the great jazz guitarist who played on those big TV and movie recording sessions in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Have you ever heard the iconic guitar riff for the Twilight Zone? That was Howard. You’ve heard Howard a lot, you just don’t know it. Here’s a short list of TV themes Howard played: The Munsters, Bonanza, Green Acers, Get Smart, Batman, The Beverly Hillbillies, Wild Wild West and on and on. Here’s a link to wikipedia if you want a bigger list. Howard also started a music school in Hollywood called Musicians Institute. I went there in 1980 and was very lucky to have Howard as one of my teachers.

Howard had ice in his veins. (A good excuse to use my Marshall fridge picture, above.) Howard could go into a Hollywood session crowded the best musicians in the world and virtually, instantly translate a chart of notes into what the composer had imagined the guitar part should be. All while surrounded by the best musicians, composers and producers of the day, a full-on pressure cooker situation. When the record light came on, it required the ultimate confidence and concentration, not to mention Howard’s uncanny ability to never make a mistake. If he made a mistake they would have to stop the session and all the musicians would have stop and fix it. After a couple of mistakes you would never be called back.

Howard told me a simple way to avoid mistakes. He said you can always reduce music to single notes, one at a time, strung together. He said, whenever you make a mistake, find the wrong note, play it, visualize it, and say NO! Now play the right note, visualize it and say YES! Make a mental note of the right note, concentrate.

I told this to Brendon and he said, yes! That’s it! You’re raising a puppy! You are training your playing like you train a puppy. Don’t let it get away with anything. Off the couch! Down boy! Brendon also said be honest with yourself, record yourself and if you hear a problem figure out how to fix it.

That talk Brendon had with his hands paid off. Check out his playing on Dethklok’s, Doomstar Requiem and his solo albums.

I’ve Got Mail

Posted: December 9, 2014 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 2.23.33 PM Hey Paul,

… I have been playing for a long time but have never had any formal training. Self taught as they say. I’ve learned through hearing mostly, not seeing or understanding. I’m finding myself somewhat at a crossroads in my playing. I want to play more technically and understand what I’m playing, but lack the foundation to do so. Figuring out scales and remembering them seems to be challenge. If I had a more rudimentary walk through of them I might understand them better. Do you have anything like this?


Thanks for the question Jay. STELAR is full of rudimentary walk-throughs. It’s the Rock, Blues and Metal improvisation program here at, you can read about it a few posts down below this one in the list on the left of this page. STELAR stands for: Scales, Timing, Expression, Licks, Apply and Repeat. Also ShredGuitarOnline’s, H & T (harmony and theory) section will clear up a lot on scales and the technical side for you.

For those of you who are “Free Tips and Tricks” members I added STELAR’s Slow Blues Segment to the free lessons section. At the link you can watch the videos, and download tabs and jam tracks for this segment. If you are not a Free Tips and Tricks member you can sign up here

For you Jay, since you’re a full member:

1. Follow the STELAR ten-week course. Check out the videos, download the jams and tabs. Keep the tabs in a binder. Be sure to check out the “Expression” videos from each segment. These give you tips about playing with feeling and vibrato. Also check out the Essential Classic Licks sections. If we compare soloing to speaking, we all use the same words but we sound different because we are different! When we play, we all use the same classic licks, but they sound like us too. Everybody, BB King, Steve Vai, Brad Paisley, virtually all guitarists use the Essential Classic licks covered in these sections. These are rudimentary!

Choose a few licks from each segment and practice them over the jams. The jams are at different tempos, pick the tempo you like. Don’t choose licks that are real difficult. Highlight your new licks in the binder with a highlighter pen, so when you go back through you’ll easily remember what you are working on. Something that helped me build my vocabulary is naming each lick I was working on, for example: “C-Shape Arpeggios” or “Dorian/Blues Hammers”, and I kept the list of the names on a sheet of paper. Any name is okay, it’s just to help you remember the lick. This way, when you are improvising and you run out of ideas you can scan the list and spark your memory.

2. Follow the H & T ten-week course above. Even if you don’t totally understand something, push on through anyway, it’ll probably clear up later. Or, ask another musician, or email me with your question, I love to answer questions. At the end of 10 weeks, things will be much clearer and you will be a better player. I promise!

One more thing, don’t ever think you need to learn every scale or chord. Most of the greatest classic rock players only play in a few places on the neck!

Check out these posts on learning:

Grass Growing


Pizza or Sushi Theory:

Rock On!




Posted: September 18, 2014 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 1.23.14 PMTime is an inescapable fact. Einstien called it the fourth dimension. Time is what we live in, can you imagine life without it? Nope, you can’t because we never experience a second without it. Music occurs in time. A musician’s ability to play in time, and what we call his feel, is as important as melody and harmony. In fact, melody and harmony can’t exist without time! Time is the fabric we weave our music through.

I’m writing this on a plane from Charlotte to Seattle coming home from a guitar show. At the show yesterday several people came up and tried out gear at the Roland and Boss booth. There were maybe, seventy booths with various guitarists trying out vintage, rare and some not-so-rare guitars. 

This brings me to an axiom I learned years ago: “The worse the guitar player, the louder and longer he will play.” Probably the main reason he’s so bad is that he doesn’t know it. At least, if he knew he was that bad he wouldn’t broadcast it to everybody at the show. Here’s an example, a guy came up to our booth, plugged in and played fast. At first I thought, he’s pretty good. Then, as he continued to play I noticed his fault, he had a terrible sense of time. It was awful to listen to!

When I was a kindergarten, about age 5, my report card read: “Paul plays nice with the other kids, he is good at art, but in music he has a terrible sense of time!” Because I became a professional musician my Dad kept that report card as a joke. But it was true. I had to work hard at developing and perfecting my sense of time. If you feel like you could use some work in this area I have a couple tips involving counting and picking.

First understand, in music, time is the process of subdividing the bar, and individual beats. Drummers learn this right away, they don’t really deal with melody so they are all about subdividing.

At GIT, I knew guitarists who would buy drum books full of rhythms and learn them. For me, I’d learn music off recordings and figure out how to play the rhythm perfectly. A song with a tricky rhythm that pops into my mind is “Mean Street” by Van Halen. Eddie’s guitar parts are single notes and chords in a syncopated 16th note type rhythm. Syncopated means: accenting notes on weak beats. 

In music, the best way I know how to divide time is to count. In 4/4, when playing sixteenth note rhythms, we divide each beat into 4 separate notes. Since there are four beats, we have a total of sixteen notes available per bar. When counting through the bar any note must fall on one of these counts. If not, the note is late or early, and it will sound wrong. Count the bar like this:

 “one-e-and-a two-e-and-a three-e-and-a four-e-and-a”. 

Furthermore synchronizing your picking to this counting will force your picking motion to keep you in time. Maintain “one” as a down stroke, “e” an upstroke, “and” a down, “a” is up. Following the rule: down strokes on strong beats, upstrokes on weak beats. 

 Below I underlined where the notes or chords occur in the first bar of the main Mean Street riff:

 one e and a two e and a three e and a four e and a”.

If you maintain the down-up picking for the Mean Street riff it will be: down-up-up-up-down-up-up-up-down-down-up. Maybe it’s easier to just follow the picking:

 ∩  V  V  V  ∩  V  V  V  ∩  ∩ V

Try this on one note, or a chord. It may be hard, but if you maintain the picking this way you’ll very likely subdivide well and play this syncopated rhythm “in good time”. This is because physics makes your hand want to move: down-up-down-up all the time. When you have three ups in a row, the act of bringing your hand back into position for another upstroke will force the time to be correct!

This “downstrokes on strong beats and upstrokes on weak beats” is not carved in stone. I see a lot of great players who don’t always follow this principle, but then again those guys are usually great players with great time! I was born with less that perfect time and that’s why I know how to subdivide the beats by counting and I use my picking direction to help too. This way I can compete with the guy who was born with great time!

Don’t forget a poor sense of time is as painful to listen to as being out of tune. Some of the guys I heard at the show yesterday actually hurt me to listen to them, ouch, no kidding! Ahh, but the opposite is true too! When a musician plays a rhythm “in time” so perfect, like Van Halen or Steve Lukather, everything sounds great. That’s when people ask: what pickups is he using? What tubes? What pedals? You just can’t always put your finger on it, but it sounds and feels good!

Time makes the tone!!

Guitar Shows and a Multiple Effects Unit

Posted: June 2, 2014 by phanson in Tips & Tricks

Paul at ShowThis month I attended a couple of guitar shows for Boss and Roland, one in Dallas and one in Chicago. These event’s usually happen once a year. The promoter secures a location, in Dallas this year the show was held in a couple buildings next to the Cotton Bowl, and in Chicago it was the same location as last year, in a hall about 45 minutes from O’Hare airport in an area called St. Charles. The shows are usually on a Saturday and Sunday.

Guitar stores, guitar collectors, manufacturers, guitar builders, accessories and parts dealers, anybody trying to sell anything to guitarists, will rent table space and set up a booth. (That’s me at the Roland/Boss booth in Chicago above). For an admission fee the public can walk around and look at all the cool stuff and wheel and deal if they want to buy something. At the Chicago show I saw a ’97 Gibson Flying V that I want to buy. At Dallas I saw a white strat (below) that was made the year I was born, if you look close, the price tag was $49,000.57 Strat

Boss and Roland figure having a booth and a couple of gear experts at these shows is a great way to market their newest pedals, multi-effects, guitar-synths, amps, etc.. So we set it up and folks can try out the gear with headphones, or they can watch me do real-time demos and answer questions.

One product, I was demoing I have to tell you about is a new Boss multiple effects unit for $299, the Boss ME-80. My friend Steve Lynch just bought one. With his band Autograph, he’ll fly to a gig with his guitar and a multi effects unit containing his preset tones. The promoter provides amps, drums and everything else for the band. 

This ME-80 (pic below) is a floor unit with eight pedals built-in. It also sports an expression pedal for wah and whammy etc. It can be run in one of two modes. In “manual mode” each pedal can be assigned to a different effect and then operated like a pedal board. In “memory mode” you can save your presets then scroll up and down banks to access your preset tones.

This ME-80 also operates with free Boss Tone Studio software USB’d to your computer. With the software you can access all the ME’s effects and knobs from a computer’s screen. I tried it, the software is pretty cool. Since I’ve been involved with Boss for a while I’m familiar with the ME-80s predecessors. For quality of tone, ease of use, and price this one takes the cake!

ME-80Like regular pedals the ME is designed to plug into an amp, but you can also take the headphone jack out and go direct into a mixing console. The headphone out engages a speaker simulator.

One reason the ME-80 is better than the ME-70, the previous model, is that the ’80 has eight pedals compared to the ‘70’s four pedals. If you look at the picture (above) each pedal is actually two pedals. I noticed no difficulty in pressing the top or bottom pedals separately.

The ME-80 runs on batteries and comes with no power cable, but a standard Boss PSA adapter that powers regular Boss pedals is all you need. Boss also created a website where you can download custom “patches”. For some reason Boss and Roland still call a preset, a “patch”. Left over from synth days when you actually had to use patch cables to set up a sound on a synth. If you’ve ever thought about a multi fx unit this might be a good one to look at. Check it out.