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

Farewell Activision & LA, hello Ubisoft & SF

I’ve got a new gig! In early April, I will start at Ubisoft as Community Developer for Studio SF, the team behind Rocksmith & Rocksmith 2014.

This is awesome for several reasons. First of all, anybody who knows me knows I define myself with the words “guitars” and “gaming.” I think Rocksmith 2014 is brilliant, it’s a perfect personal fit, and I’m thrilled I get to work with the dev team. Since Los Angeles and I never got along, I can’t wait to get back to the Bay Area; I’ve missed my friends, real sourdough bread, and weather. My friends who work at Ubisoft speak highly of it, and I’m a sucker for a good pun in Latin.

I leave Activision very proud of what I was able to start with One of Swords and I’m extremely grateful for the unusual amount of trust Activision placed in me for the last four years. I’m thrilled that 1oS will continue, particularly [REDACTED DUE TO NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT]. But if you’ll allow a quick look back, here’s two One of Swords features of which I am particularly proud:

Interview: Pitfall! creator David Crane
David Crane is a key reason I am a gamer today. The chance to talk to him on Pitfall!’s 30th anniversary was a personal thrill — he was one of my boyhood heroes.

The Secret Skylanders You’ve Never Seen
This look at handmade prototypes was one of the times I really felt like I got to share inside access. It’s a story that would not have happened through another outlet.

After 215 episodes, the One of Swords Podcast has come to an end, but Kat and I plan to launch a new podcast soon. Follow @DanAndKatTalk on Twitter and we’ll post details when we have something to share. UPDATE: We’re live.

That’s it. Thanks for all the support. I’m coming home.

My trip to Norman’s Rare Guitars

I’ve wanted to go to Norman’s Rare Guitars for a long time — mostly because Nigel Tufnel wears their shirt in This Is Spinal Tap.

“We’ve got armadillos in our trousers.”

Norman’s is also where they got/rented/borrowed all the guitars for Nigel’s guitar room scenes — including the infamous Fender Bass VI that “can’t be played…never.” After talking about going there “someday” for a long time, Kat finally kidnapped me and took me there as a surprise. I didn’t expect to buy anything but the shirt, but in the words of Marty DiBergi, “I got more — a lot more.”  Continue reading

So You Want to Buy an Electric Guitar…

I’ve been approached by several friends this year who want to buy a guitar, and I know the arrival of Rocksmith 2014 has something to do with it. I am happy and proud to be The Guitar Whisperer for them, but I realized that my advice has slowly grown over a series of emails to the point where I felt it was worth posting publicly. My goal is to tell you what you need to know to make a buying decision that’s right for you without slipping into too much jargon or cork-sniffery. So with that in mind…  Continue reading

YouTube and the path of Zen Guitar, part 2

A few months ago I talked about Tina S., the YouTube guitarist who, while technically proficient, never smiled, never seemed to connect with the music she was playing, and how different that was from my own experience, particularly following the path of Zen Guitar.

Today a friend pointed me to 21-year-old Marta Altesa, a London bassist who has not only impeccable taste in gear but proves herself to be the emotional opposite of Tina S. Watch her body language as she crushes “Master Blaster”:

The little smiles, the head nods, the way her whole body bounces to the beat– she’s no less technically proficient than Tina, but she feels everything. She starts out serious in her video of “Get on the Floor,” but can’t make it 15 seconds before breaking into a grin.

Even on the hardest parts, she’s clearly concentrating, but she loves the challenge. It’s evident. And while “Forget Me Nots” has a bit more “guitar face” in it than her other videos, her lock on the groove and connection to the joy of playing music is not only real but undeniable:

This is what is to play music. This is why any of us do it, why we work and learn and fail and try. It’s to have what Marta has in these videos.

It inspires me to see her so inspired.

YouTube and the path of Zen Guitar

I am a mediocre guitarist at best. My technique is downright terrible. The nicest complement I ever received was from a friend who was very technically skilled, who told me that when I played, he could tell just how much I loved it.

So it’s with some concern that I watch the Tina S. videos.  Tina is a teenaged guitarist making waves with her cover of Van Halen’s “Eruption” on YouTube this week. It’s quite impressive:  Continue reading

Advice for guitarists

  • Learn to play a song. Doesn’t have to be tricky, doesn’t have to be long — but everybody can play riffs and call themselves a guitarist. Playing songs is what makes you a musician.  
  • Learn to play a song your parents know and would like to hear. They will be proud of you. 
  • Learn to tune without an electronic tuner. Armed with one reference note and harmonics, most strummers will never need anything else ever again. 
  • How you get that one reference note: Buy multiple A440 tuning forks. They are cheap. Keep one in your guitar case, one on your desk/home music area, and if you carry a bag with you every day, keep one there too. 
  • Skill and talent mean more than your gear — but don’t buy crap. If it’s cheap, there’s almost always a reason, and that reason often becomes an excuse for not playing. If you do not enjoy interacting with your instrument — it’s not comfortable, it doesn’t stay in tune, it doesn’t reflect who you are — you will not play it. Save more, spend more, buy quality, and get what you really want. Your playing will benefit. 
  • Don’t end your practice on a bad experience. If you are trying to learn something and you are sucking, end your session with something you are good at playing. Don’t walk away angry or frustrated or you won’t want to come back. 

I broke the guitar rules

I have two rules when it comes to collecting guitars. I didn’t start out with rules — I didn’t even start out to be a collector! — but in looking at what I’ve acquired over the years, there have been two constants, which became deliberate choices after I noticed the pattern:

1: Nothing in brown sunburst. Any other colored burst is fine (Kat’s bass is a sparkly blueburst; the T5 is a blueburst over a tiger maple top), and even just showing the natural wood is fine. I know it’s “traditional” but after 50 or 60 years, isn’t it time to break with tradition?

2: Nothing in black. In this case, it’s not even tradition — it’s a cliche. For some reason, it’s even worse in the world of bass. For every 14-year-old who says “I want a bass,” I always reply, “Oh, good! What shade of black are you going to get?” Playing a black bass does not make you a stud. It makes you a sheep.

Now, my guitar tastes run toward the unusual. I like guitars that respect the truly classic American designs, and I have my fair share, but I usually buy ones that put their own spin on those designs, have some special relevance, evolve them in some interesting way, or just plain make you do a double take. But no matter what I’ve gotten, those two rules have always been in place: no sunburst and no black.

Baaaa. Baaaaaaaaaaa. I bought a black bass last week.

Mind you, it does strongly illustrate the evolution point. I have been using Line 6 gear for six or seven years now. I loved their POD guitar amp simulators, so I bought their bass unit to match. Then I upgraded to a newer POD, then a floor unit, which I used on stage with Fast Times. Then they started making guitars, so I tracked down a Variax 500 in (thankfully) candy apple red — it thinks it’s two dozen different guitars, so I can go from Telecaster to dobro to Les Paul to Rickenbacker to sitar by turning a knob. It’s also entirely programmable via Windows or Mac, via POD and a USB cable. I can make custom hybrids and weird guitars that should not exist but now do, virtually.

The black bass I got is a Variax bass. It does most of the same things as the guitar, but for four-strings — six flavors of Fender, plus Rickenbacker, Steinberger, Gibson, uprights, even some synth toys. Being a Beatles fan, I’ve been lusting after a Hofner violin bass for years, but they are fragile and limited. The Variax model based on the Hofner got high praise, so to be able to have that — AND Flea’s Modulus bass, AND a Stingray, AND a freakin’ 8-string — well, it was worth breaking the rules.

The eBay seller sent the wrong gear with the bass, plus there’s a noticable ding in the front that he says wasn’t there when he shipped it. I had to take off the knobs to remove the bits of frayed plastic that once protected the pickguard; the pickguard screws were rusted from sweat, and the strings show corrosion, so they’re getting changed. I put on Schaller straplocks as usual (had to do the toothpick-and-wood-glue trick since the previous screws were on the beefy side), and I tried a few straps to offset the boring blackness of it, but — embarassingly — my lovely 2.5″ basic black suede strap works best. Anything else takes away from the interestingly shaped pearloid pickguard. I have to admit…it looks classy. All my other guitars offer form and function, but this time, I had to be honest with myself and say that I value function over form. And it’s not ugly.

Besides, they only made this bass in two colors. Guess what the other one was.

As a result of this acquisition, I am regretfully selling my uber-funky Fernandes Vertigo bass if you are interested. It’s this one — heavily customized (Lace Sensor pickups, Badass II bridge, Q-Parts knobs, solid tuners, and of course Schaller straplocks) and totally refinished in non-factory-standard Sherwood Green nitrocellulose. Just drop me a line if you’re interested, because I have to obey the “one-bass-enters, one-bass-leaves” rule.

Dan vs. Zazzle (or, The Curious Case of Schroedinger’s Calendar)

Zazzle, I always liked you. You saw what a lousy job CafePress was doing with on-demand one-off publishing, like hats and mugs and shirts, and said, “Hell, we can do that, and we can do it better.” So you took their business plan and ran with it and it was good (and it led to copyrighted banner images like the above, which are the exclusive property of Zazzle and not me). Besides, I like supporting San Francisco businesses, even if they don’t have original ideas.
Continue reading