Ending the Guitar Tone Obsession

Do we guitarists obsess too much about tone? I’ve realised I certainly do. If I look back to the first 15 or so years of playing the instrument tone was the last thing I thought about. The gear I had was just what I can afford and I did the best I could with it. But thanks to the internet we can now all learn about the gear we don’t have, and how the gear we do have isn’t any good, despite it being perfectly fine beforehand.

I’ve owned plenty of guitar amps but only two during the first 20 years as a musician. This is partly because I went a long time between uni and a decade and a half later not playing live and mostly recording via a computer. The other reason being I didn’t see the need for a different amp. Only in recent times – perhaps with various forums and others to blame – that I’ve bought and sold so much gear.

My first amp when I was 17 was really my Philips boombox, a friend had showed me how you could get a cable from Tandy that would go from my guitar to the line-in connections of the stereo. If you turned it up loud it distorted too. Though my family weren’t too impressed with that as I stumbled through Whole Lotta Love.

Within a year I had a small Squier solid state combo. This was supposed to be a small practice amp but it had two volume settings – off and too loud. But I then bought a bigger amp from a mate of mine who’d gigged it around his six form. It was a Hohner Marlin 50C. It was a solid state combo with two channels (or at least a clean and drive setting), chorus and reverb. I knew nothing about hear back then so I never did use the effects loop – wasn’t sure what it did – though it would have been very handy at the time. And never realised I could have bought a very cheap footswitch to help me switch between clean and dirt – I used to run back to the amp and press a little button, same for the chorus and reverb. But I still have very fond memories of the amp.

It was the amp I was stood on playing Purple’s Black Night at full volume in our halls of residence one night for a sing along with friends when the porter gave me a bollocking. It was an extra seat in my uni room. It also occasionally served as a table for my kettle and coffee stuff. I used it a lot live at uni – including quite regularly at the Christian Union (don’t ask – I’m trying to forget them) where teaming up with a noisy drummer of like mind we completely Van Halened it all up contrary to the leadership’s wishes. It’s the amp that I used my forgotten school electronics skills on to replace knackered pots. And sadly it’s the amp that was falling apart when I threw it away when I was in my early thirties and moving down to that London from Manchester.

So not a classic amp in any terms. But I remember it doing the job, back then I was more interested in playing and impressing girls than “tone”. I don’t think I ever even thought about “tone” back then. My guitar gear amounted to an Epiphone 435i superstrat, Korg G3, Jim Dunlop Wah and the Marlin 50C. And that was all the gear I had for a decade. And it did the job.

Since then my gear list of shame has grown long. I’ve bought and sold all kinds of kit, partly because I like new toys, partly because I was chasing a tone that existed only in my head. Even with the right gear I would obsess over the settings endlessly. The temptation to fiddle is always there – especially with digital modelling devices. How many of us can say we’ve played through a POD for an hour without tinkering with the sound?

Well I’ve had enough of all that. Enough of seeing the vacuum tube as the holy grail. Enough of caring what other people thought of the gear I had, rather than what I thought. I’ve just spent an hour playing guitar. I had my POD HD500 running into the power amp return of my Laney Ironheart head. With the POD set to Stack Power Amp I selected the Plexi model, didn’t touch gain or EQ at all, added a reverb and then just spent an hour jamming. I didn’t even switch off the cab or mic modelling, I just played. I didn’t second guess what other people might have set it to.

By the end of the hour I thought it sounded amazing. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But what I didn’t do was worry about it. I just played with what I had. And the honest truth is I’ve not enjoyed playing guitar so much in ages.

Bruce Soord – Wisdom of Crowds Review

We have to listen to plenty of rubbish music here at Grumpyrocker. But sometimes we’re sent something so wonderful to review it makes life worth living. Bruce Soord’s collaboration with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse is such a record.

The resulting album – Wisdom of Crowds – is a real treat for fans of progressive music. In some ways it’s the album I expected from Steven Wilson/Michael Akerfeldt’s Storm Corrosion collaboration. Instead that duo gave us something much more odd – but no less compelling. But I digress…

No, what we have here from Bruce isn’t an album that strays too far from his day job of The Pineapple Thief. Soord plays all the instruments – delivering a delightful blend of modern progressive rock, folk, pop, electronica and industrial. Fans of The Pineapple Thief would feel right at home, as would fans of Pink Floyd, Marillion, Anathema, The Gathering, The Porcupine Tree or even Muse.

What sets this album apart is the choice of vocalist. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a big fan I am of Katatonia’s work – but I wouldn’t have pegged Jonas Renkse as the ideal vocalist for such an album. I would be wrong though. Even shorn of the numerous ethereal effects he enjoy’s on Katatonia’s records Jonas sounds phenomenal on Wisdom of Crowds. He lends the whole album an air of melancholy. Bruce Soord wrote the album with Jonas in mind and it tells, it’s not often you here something that sounds so right. Even though here’s nothing approaching metal to be heard on the album Jonas sounds just perfect for the role.

So no metal riffing, but there are some very pleasing noisy guitar moments – particularly in the powerful second half of Frozen North, one of my favourite tracks from the album. There’s plenty of instrumental moments to enjoy; soulful soloing, interesting sound effects, powerful electronica beats and epic soundscapes.

Just as impressive as the bombast is Bruce Soord’s restraint. Here we have nine songs of modest length for progressive rock, with only two tracks just slipping over seven minutes. Other bands may have been tempted to record their ripoff of homage to Echoes, but there’s nothing so indulgent here. Instead it’s genuinely beautiful music married with perfect emotive vocals.

I’ll shut up now. Just go buy Bruce Soord and Jonas Renkse’s Wisdom of Crowds, a major candidate for album of the year. Take a listen…

Suspension of Disbelief and Citroen

I am liable to post the occasional rant, this is in keeping with the character I like to portray on this blog. It’s mostly an act really for my own amusement. But sometimes life does throw up things that are genuinely very annoying and a problem with our car is one of them.

Of course running a car is not a cheap business as one expects the occasional repair bill due to wear and tear. When such matters arise and there’s a danger one’s car will be off the road one does not expect to be told that the required part will not be available until the end of summer.

This is the situation currently with Citroen here in the UK and parts for its pneumatic suspension on higher-end Picasso models. We have such a car and we are waiting for the parts with the hope that our suspension doesn’t completely fail at speed with our family in the car.

In the higher end C4 Grand Picasso there is a suspension auto-levelling system. Occasionally – though it’s impossible to work out why or when – the car will decide to raise or lower the rear suspension via air bags fitted near the rear wheels. This is achieved via a small air pump.

My research online suggests this system is a piece of junk. These air bags are often prone to failure and can even be damaged by simply jacking the car up. There are so many failures written about online and so many people waiting for dealers to fix the problem that it sounds more and more like a safety and poor design issue. And as such should be dealt with by a full recall.

Citroen denies there is a fault with the design, that complete rear suspension failures are merely routine wear and tear. I think not. It is clear that this is a serious fault with the car. And a potentially dangerous one.

Our car is suffering with this issue. A month or so ago the car was sitting right down on the rear suspension. Starting the engine resulted in a “service” warning on the dashboard. A pained moaning sound from the rear compressor was heard as the suspension laboured to pump itself up. After a minute or so that car was level, the warning light disappeared and we drove off.

We spoke to our local Citroen dealer who told us this was a known fault and that the car was safe to drive once the warning has gone. This is our experience – in that once the car has managed to finally pump itself up you can drive. But we have occasionally arrived at a destination to see the car has got very low indeed. And our experience is that in cold whether it is worse. In the few days before we realised there was an actually problem, the low suspension managed to result in damage to the underside of the car.

The dealer has looked at our C4 and said we do need our suspension airbags replaced. This was a day before we were about to drive to North Wales on holiday. No worry says the dealer, the car is safe to drive, we haven’t got the part yet so we’ll sort it out on your return. We did get through the holiday, though there were moments that it seemed the car wouldn’t pump up again, it took so long.

However we’re back now and eager to fix the car. Only we’ve discovered it can’t be fixed. You can’t get the parts. The dealers can’t get the parts. Believe it or not we’re in a situation where a popular car model has a clear major fault, one which is disabling hundreds of cars across the country – yet the manufacturer doesn’t actually have any of the parts to fix it. Not only that, when it does get the (relatively inexpensive part) it charges the driver a ridiculous price for something simple that can be fitted in ten minutes.

We’re not talking about a major engine part here. We’re talking about some simple suspension airbags that can be fitted in minutes. But Citroen doesn’t have any inventory. In fact things are so bad that there may not be any until the end of the summer according to our dealer. Our dealer also complained it was actually getting hard to get hold of Citroen on this issue.

What the bloody hell is going on?

This isn’t some obscure car part. Surely Citroen must know by now that this suspension design is not fit for purpose, yet still can’t manage to have parts available for car owners. And judging by the many reports I see online of this same fault in other people’s cars I can’t help but think this repair is something Citroen should be paying for.

If we’d run into these problems and the dealer had been quickly able to fix the suspension then I doubt I would ever have posted this. I would have seen it as some wear and tear, been happy we got it fixed in a hurry and gone on with by business. But the ridiculous situation where people have cars sitting around for months waiting for one simple part really does make one think that Citroen must be the most inept car manufacturer selling cars in this country today.

And the irony is this fault isn’t with relatively inexpensive cars. Oh no. Buy a lower-spec C4 Grand Picasso and you’ll have to get by on regular old reliable springs in your suspension. It is only us twits who have bought the more expensive Exclusive model that have to put up with this airbag fuckwittery. So we’re paying for the privilege of having a suspension that is putting the safety of our family on the line while Citroen continues the lie that this is merely wear and tear. That\’s bollocks Citroen and you know it.

C4 owners with this problem are told they can continue to drive as long as the suspension does pump up and the warning light goes. But the danger is that the leaks in the airbag system are putting extra strain on the compressor and this can lead to this failing, an even more expensive part. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if Citroen could just make enough airbags for its failing cars.

I am fearful for a situation that strands one of our small children somewhere where I can’t collect them due to our C4 finally giving up. We’ve decided for now not to do any long or motorway journeys in the car and use it as little as possible. But as my wife needs her Vauxhall for work and I look after the kids, there are times I have to use the C4. So we sit and wait and wonder how long it will be before Citroen supplies the right parts.

The real shame is that we really do like our car. In other respects the C4 Grand Picasso has been a wonderful car to own, drive and cart our family around in. But this episode means it is likely to be the last Citroen we own. It’ll be back to Ford next time around – thanks to the ubiquity of Ford spares.

I will of course report back should Citroen manage to actually fix our car. In the meantime, we’ll be tip-toeing around the country lanes and hoping the car doesn’t completely fail on us, scraping its arse around the lanes like an arthritic dog.

This is a pretty poor show by Citroen and I’d like to get more word out about it. So if it’s not too much trouble please do retweet a link to this blog post or post it on Facebook. Thanks.

Update 29/04/2013 15:50 I’ve just had our Citroen dealer (who has been very helpful through all this) and Citroen UK phone me. The dealer said they were listing our car as off road and putting in an order for priority stock of the part. A few minutes later Citroen UK phoned to confirm this – that stock was on the way from France and we’d get replacement parts as soon as possible – possibly this week. Meanwhile we’ve been offered a courtesy car. Which should alleviate problems getting Will to school. So we shall see. No doubt I\’ll be updating this post again later in the week.

Update 30/04/2013 10:15 Good news. Citroen phoned just now to say our parts are being shipped as a priority to the dealer by the end of the week. And we’re getting a courtesy car today. Glad things are getting sorted out. This just shows the power of social media. My concern is for the hundreds of other people still waiting for these parts – are they only going to get sorted quickly if they kick up a stink on Facebook or Twitter?