How to Buy a New Guitar Amp

Step 1: Accept that your old Marshall AVT50 hybrid amp has a noisy fan. Assume it is irreparable and convince yourself that you should get a new amp.

Step 2: Determine what sounds you want. Since you like power pop, it should be something with some shimmer and chime that can also crunch, like a Fender or a Vox. Acknowledge that you like the sound of your little Vox AC4 but it’s a bit boxy. Resolve to trade both of these in for a larger tube amp that will “take pedals well.”

Step 3: Determine your power needs as loud enough to gig but not loud enough to annoy the neighbors. Set your budget as “selling two guitars.”

Step 4: Do all the research on the legendary Beatles/Queen/U2 amp, the Vox AC30. Determine it is way too loud for your home and way too heavy for your back. Abandon those Beatles/Queen/U2 tone dreams.

Step 5: Remember they make an AC15. Do all the research on the Vox AC15. ALL OF IT.

Step 6: Find out they make AC15s in limited-edition, Dan-compatible bright colors like red and purple. Spend the rest of the day looking for anyone who still has these in stock. Find a purple one, with a vague description and without a photo, so you’re not really sure.

Step 7: Immediately get paranoid that what you really want is a Fender because what if you want a Fender?

Step 8: Start looking for the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III because you heard somewhere that they’re great and they “take pedals well.” Do all the research on the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III. ALL OF IT.

Step 9: Find dozens of web forum discussions that pit the AC15 against the Hot Rod Deluxe. Note that everybody who loves either amp has replaced the tubes, reverb tank, and speaker to make it “a pretty good amp, eventually.”

Step 10: Locate the one local store that has both an AC15 and a Hot Rod Deluxe in stock. It’s not the store with the purple one. Grab your main guitar, the one you intend to use the most with this amp.

Step 11: Go to the store with your guitar and announce that you are here on a fact-finding mission, and you do not intend to buy anything today. The salesman will hear “I want to buy an amp today” and attempt to close the sale immediately.

Step 12: Spend a good 30 minutes alternating between the two amps. Repeatedly turn down the master volume every time the salesman turns it up. Note that you cannot turn the Fender up past 2 without it being oppressively loud. Ask if these amps “take pedals well.”

Step 13: Decide both sound excellent. Express a slight preference for the AC15. Fend off the salesman’s renewed attempts to sell you the amp today.

Step 14: Go home and think about what you experienced. Ask yourself: Did both amps “take pedals well”?

Step 15: Mention to friends that you are considering buying an AC15 because the Hot Rod Deluxe III was too much in all respects. Accept their recommendations of a Blues Junior instead.

Step 16: Do all the research on the Fender Blues Junior. ALL OF IT. This includes finding out that they also make it in fun limited-edition colors.

Step 17: Find dozens of web forum discussions that pit the AC15 against the Blues Junior. Note that everybody who recommends either amp has upgraded the speaker, reverb tank, and tubes to make it “a pretty good amp, eventually.”

Step 18: Check your friends’ updated advice in the meantime. Write down the names of the four completely different amps have been offered as alternatives to the AC15 and Blues Junior. Note how much more expensive all of these options are in comparison to your budget.

Step 19: Sell one of your guitars. Convince yourself this is a good reason.

Step 20: Determine that the fan in your Marshall AVT50 is a $12 part that you can probably repair yourself. Note that your current amp “takes pedals well.”

Step 21: Give up. FQ,S.

Step 22: While closing windows of all your previous research, casually notice the existence of the Egnater Tweaker series, which is designed to sound like Fender, Vox, and Marshall amps via small toggle switches.

Step 23: Do all the research on the Egnater Tweaker. ALL OF IT. Find the owner manual. Watch the video as the man who made it explains how it works and why he built it.

Step 24: Find dozens of web forum discussions that pit the Egnater Tweaker 15 head against the AC15 and the Blues Junior. Note that most people who own a Tweaker offer high praise for its versatility and most of them do not even replace all the parts to make it sound good. Also, it is made clear that this amp “takes pedals well.”

Step 25: Realize this is probably the thing you’ve been looking for all this damned time.

Step 26: Locate a used Tweaker 15 head and matching 1×12 cabinet at a local guitar store. Get super paranoid that someone else will get it first.

Step 27: Go to bed. Barely sleep.

Step 28: Arrive at the guitar store with your guitar when the store opens.

Step 29: Plug in. Play. Try all the switches and knobs for a good half-hour.

Step 30: Fall in love.

Step 31: Physically stand guard over the amp so nobody else can buy it.

Step 32: As you get checked out, smile when the sales associate says “It’s about time someone bought that. It’s been here since July.” Assume this means it was waiting for you.

Step 33: Live happily ever after.


The truth about “To defeat the Cyberdemon, shoot at it until it dies”

Doom has returned, and with it, an old wound has been opened. Over the years, the GamePro ProTip “To defeat the Cyberdemon, shoot at it until it dies” has become something of a meme. It’s inspired websites. It’s come full circle to become an achievement in the newest game. But mostly, it’s been held up as an example of lazy game journalism. “Ha ha, that kiddy vid rag was so bad, they think this is good advice.”

The trouble is, it never existed. The ProTip never appeared in GamePro, the kiddy vid rag where I worked for seven years.  Continue reading

Summer 1985

In 1985, when I was 14, I traveled with a small company of Evita for about five weeks. Of the 25 men in the company, three were straight:: Juan Peron, Che, and myself. Juan and Che bunked together. I will admit to being freaked out when my roommate asked if I wanted to be on top — because, you know, he’d be drinking with the cast post-show and it would be easier and quieter if he didn’t have to climb the little ladder of the bunk bed we shared. I was 14, I grew up in the suburbs, and I was uncomfortable.

The cast members didn’t have to hide who they were, and they were awesome to me the whole time. We played board games, we talked about movies and current events (“Finally, they’re bringing back Coca-Cola Classic!”), and one guy cut my sister’s hair (“Go take a look and see what you think — we can always take more off, but it’s a bitch putting it back on”). I quickly came to understand there was no significant difference beyond age, which was the same difference I had with every adult I met. There was nothing to fear.

That summer set the standard for me, and I’m still grateful. I still think of Fred and Patrick and DC fondly, but I don’t know if the troupe ever considered the good they wound up doing by just being themselves. I also wonder where some of them are now. I remember reading the TIME cover story about AIDS in the green room. It was fresh and new and terrifying, and nobody really knew what to do about it.

But I cringe when I see homophobic people now, because they’re afraid of (and sometimes violently angry about) nothing, and they just haven’t gotten to know anybody different from themselves to demystify the whole thing.


Facebook is the reason I haven’t been blogging much here. I think I should change that, because even though I look back at some of my angrier screeds and cringe, this is still the one and only space where I control everything. I don’t have to hope that my friends see it in their feed, you know? It’s here if you want it.

Anyway, 2015 is coming to a close and as always, I’m taking stock.

April was my one-year anniversary at Ubisoft, and it’s been an amazingly good fit. I still really like working there; I just need to do it a bit less, because as the year went on, I worked 10- and 11-hour days (not in a crunch time) with alarming frequency.

We finally got a house. Originally, Kat and I were hoping to go to Disney World for our 20th anniversary, but we thought more practically about that expenditure and realized we should get serious about owning our own place at last. Staying in my own four walls has been the best vacation ever (and we’re still surrounded by Disney stuff). We apparently had a lot of good house karma built up, because we found a place relatively quickly, had our offer accepted quickly, and got some key renovations done quickly too. It’s always a hassle and there were a lot of steps, but I feel very grateful that it went as smoothly as it did.

I didn’t get the next Palette-Swap Ninja project out this year, which I had hoped to do. Still working on that. It’s hard.

Mostly I want to take naps over the holiday. Hope your naps are happy too, if you celebrate naps.

On Being Willing To Learn…For Fun

I run Jeopardy games at PAX whenever I can. These are custom-built game shows in every sense of the word — handmade buzzers, bespoke software, and custom-created questions by and for the PAX attendees. It’s trivia, so it’s not all going to be stuff that you know immediately — but my question team and I take great pains trying to create content that geeks in attendance might be able to recall with a little hint or some mental effort.

This year at PAX Prime, after one of the questions went unanswered, a contestant (who passed an entrance exam before they were selected) complained, “But I wasn’t alive then!”  Continue reading

How to Prepare for PAX

This originally appeared on the old 1oS blog, but I’m updating and reposting it here, as I think it might still be useful. 

Someone asked me if I had any advice on what they should expect when attending PAX, or how they should prepare for their first gamer convention. I do! And some of this advice is also good for any gaming or nerd gathering (SDCC, E3, etc) and some is specifically for the PAX culture. But I hope you find it all helpful.
Continue reading

The Tangerine Dream: Refinishing the Retronix R-800

I got a great deal on one of the first Retronix R-800s — the Korean-made models of J. Backlund‘s designs — thanks to Kickstarter. Fantastic look, very comfortable neck and body contours, trem bridge with coil-tapped humbuckers — extremely well built and designed for flexibility. The company even threw in a hardshell case as a surprise to backers, custom-fitted to the unusual shape.

The only thing that bugged me about it was the color. The Cobalt Blue turned out to be a lot darker than the prototype photo suggested — “blurple” at best, and to my eye, almost black unless sunlight was shining directly on it. I was really bummed, to the point where I considered selling it, but then realized maybe I should just have it refinished. And so…

Continue reading

Operation House it Going: Welcome to Sunkist Manor

Kat and I have been slowly saving for a house for years. We have moved eight times — as our jobs and offices relocated, so did we — and each time, that sapped more of our savings. We aren’t wasteful; we have expensive interests like photography and guitars, and we generally believe in buying quality. So when we finally got serious about looking for a home this year — in honor of our impending 20th anniversary — I think we were in line for a little house karma.

And so, when we found a nice house in the Laurel Park neighborhood of Richmond, on the border of El Cerrito in the East Bay, we put in an offer and it was accepted in early May. A few weeks later, we had keys!

You may have noticed the house is bright orange. It came that way, a recent repaint. I am not going to change it. I love it. We call it Sunkist Manor. And it has an unusual history.  Continue reading

Three Answers to Impossible Gaming Questions

I wrote this editorial back in 2011 for One of Swords and just found it again. Now that the sun has set on 1oS, I’d like to post it here in hopes it might do more good.

I get a lot of questions from gamers every day. I try to answer as many as I can with sourced facts or, failing that, honesty. Sometimes it’s simple stuff that the Customer Support team can handle without breaking a sweat. But if I don’t know the answer and I don’t have much hope of finding one, I’ll tell you so you don’t feel jerked around.  But I have noticed that there are three lines of questioning that I often cannot answer to anyone’s satisfaction. It’s not that I don’t have an answer, or even that an answer does not exist — it’s that the answer is either incomplete or simply not accepted by the person asking. So they ask again, hoping for a different answer that matches what they wanted to hear in the first place. And that doesn’t work out so well.

Here are the answers I have the most trouble explaining:
Continue reading

Operation House It Going

For our impending 20th anniversary, Kat and I want to finally own our own home, so Operation House It Going is underway. We have a mortgage broker, a real estate agent, and excellent credit, but not enough money for a down payment. The SF Bay Area housing market is rough, but we are hoping to find a fixer-upper in the East Bay.

As a game reviewer for 15 of the last 20 years, I’ve been happy and grateful but never rich. Life also throws you financial curveballs, so our nest egg simply isn’t what we had hoped it would be. I’m probably going to sell my Les Paul to reach our goal, but there’s something else that might help, too.  Continue reading