Are we going to Swamp the Lifeboat?


I’m a political animal. Always have been. Those of you who have known me since I was in grade school will pretty much vouch for that. The reason I mention this is that I’ve spent the last 50 years or so having political “discussions” of one sort or another. I can remember arguing if Nixon or Kennedy would be more effective against the Soviets and dealing with Khrushchev.

Somewhere along the way, sometime in the last 30 years, these discussions changed. Everybody usually used the same “facts” as a starting point. If people noticed they were not in agreement on this, they typically would attempt to find common ground if at all possible. And, it usually was. They may have had radically different views on how to proceed from there. Whatever your views on, say, the space program. Most of us agreed that we’d actually landed on the moon in the summer of 1969.

I’m not surprised that plenty of people don’t have the same political views as mine, but I can’t help but note that there are a large number of them that have a considerably different view of what is actually going on. It’s as if “objective reality” doesn’t actually exist. “Facts” do not seem to be a goal that’s worthy of trying to ascertain.

The world IS more complicated than ever. Sometimes, things are beyond the average person’s ability to grasp. My entire understanding of the climate is based on my concept of who to trust much more than any scientific understanding, and unless you are an actual climate scientist, we’re all in the same boat. The same goes for international economics and trade if we’re being honest. It’s hard to find any two economists that agree.

A certain level of trust in one’s leaders thus becomes paramount. That’s the entire basis of representative democracy. Since there seem to be an infinite number of versions of the “Truth”, there seems little in the way of standards to judge who is truthful. An objective observer might conclude “truth” isn’t important to us as we’ve tolerated dishonesty in our leaders for years. We tolerate things in our leaders that we wouldn’t put up with from the people we deal with on a daily basis. When I was in business, I learned to avoid doing business with people who were not honest.

I’m not talking about the size of fish, the length of a golf drive or the answer to the question “Does this make me look fat?”, but things that are a material part of the topic at hand. When people start to think things like “All politicians lie.”, we’ve reached the point that we’re forced into voting for the lesser of two evils.

A republic is not likely to survive if a people can’t trust those who make up our government. The converse is also probably true. Many of the problems with have to live with today are due to decisions the public never voted on. Nobody voted in having the CIA install the Shah as the leader of Iran, for example. One doesn’t have to look far to find wars that we were lead into under false premises. We’ve stopped trusting each other and we’ve lost faith in our leaders.

Imagine you are in a lifeboat. The ship you were aboard has sunk and somehow, none of the crew ended up on the lifeboat. You’re all civilians. Your chances for survival hinge on somehow planning on a course of action. This will most likely involve compromises, but at the very least, people have to realize they are in this together. The worst that could happen is if you ended up with two strong leaders that totally disagree on which way to go, although they have no knowledge of navigation, and manage to polarize the lifeboat and divide it into two camps who end up fighting each other to the death.

OK, so this is a rather extreme example, but how far is it from our current political situation? One common worry seems to be: “What happens after the election?” Our legislature has been deadlocked for the last 8 years and people on both sides of the political divide have great fears of what might happen if the other side “wins”. It looks to me like we’re not too committed to working together and if the lifeboat sinks, so be it.

When I was a child, they used to show the “Wizard Of Oz” on TV every year. I was always fascinated by the Wizard Mentioning “E Pluribus Unum” and having adults explain to me that it used to be our national motto. It was changed by an act of Congress in 1956.

It’s probably not a coincidence this was used in a movie made in 1939 when the US was still not out of the depression and the world looked as if it was falling apart. If the whole country wouldn’t have pulled itself together at that point, you probably wouldn’t be reading this…….

I certainly don’t have an answer for this, but I do know that:

(To quote Dr. Martin Luther King)

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”

Bait and Switch, Donald Trump, and the White Van Scam.

white-van-trumpI don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase:  “Donald Trump is a salesman.”   Having spent most of my working life as a salesman, that always makes me cringe.

I’ve sold everything from houses to automobiles, but mostly, I worked in the consumer electronics industry.   I started selling stereo equipment back in the late 70’s, when the industry was shifting from selling to people who viewed “high fidelity” as a hobby to selling to the masses.  My career started in a small shop in Corvallis Oregon, and I ended up being the manager of the store.

This new way of buying audio equipment presented a new task to consumers, as they now had to construct a system from  the ground up, assembling components from different manufacturers: You might end up with a Pioneer receiver, a Technics Turntable, a Nakamichi tape deck, and JBL speakers.   Most people needed some “help” in doing this. You have to remember this was pre-internet, and there weren’t too many ways for the consumer to educate themselves.

In 1980, I moved to Southern California and ended up working for a large regional chain in a store that was located in a building that had previously housed a supermarket.    Like most stores of this ilk, they used a borderline bait and switch advertising scheme where some item would be advertised to be sold at what seemed like a fantastic “deal”.    The salesman’s job was then to “switch” the customer to something more profitable than the item featured in the ad.

If the salesman (someone wearing a badge that said “audio consultant”) actually allowed the customer to buy the advertised product, he or she would only make between 25 and 50 cents, or some other pittance.   At the time there were laws designed to protect consumers from this, but the stores easily found ways to pay attention only to the letter of the law and not the spirit.  We were all coached at how to deal with this without violating any laws.   We had Saturday morning meetings where we were told what was “on ad” and what “alternative” pieces we should be “stepping them up” to something that better fitted their “needs”.

One of the things I quickly noticed (coming from a small town in Oregon and being innocent to the ways of the big city) was that there were a number of people that managed to sell a lot of equipment despite the fact they actually didn’t know much about what they were selling.   All they had to do was know just a little more than their customers did.   And they also knew how to say what the customer wanted to hear.

After the initial “greeting” phase, the first thing to discover was what the customer was looking for: in other words—were they looking for a “deal”?    If they were, that was music to your ear because you had products a your disposal that had artificially high list prices that you could sell profitably, even if you sold them at a “big” discount.

One of the most effective “bait and switch” ploys centered around loudspeakers: you see an ad for a “12 inch three way speaker” with a list price of $249 on sale for $119.95.   Most of the money spent on building the speaker went into making it appear to be the same as major branded speakers on the outside, by adding a few mostly cosmetic touches.    It was actually junk inside, but a skillful demonstration could hide sonic flaws, especially from someone who wanted so badly to get a “good deal”.

The description “12 inch three way” actually had nothing to do with the quality of the speaker, although the average person thought it did because of the way speakers were usually advertised, the more drivers in the box and the larger the size of the bass speaker tended to go hand in hand with price, and a 15″ speaker with three drivers just HAD to be better than a 10″ with only two, right?

In the 70’s, some people (con men, actually) took this theory to the extreme and started selling speakers out of the back of a van, usually along with some story about having an extra one that the “factory” didn’t know about, or some other such ruse, attempting to show this was a “one time, buy it now” deal.   The idea was that you could buy a speaker that was meant to sell for $300, but for you, if you bought it now, could get them for $79.00!  Here’s a link describing the scam in more detail.

White Van Speaker Scam

So, you must be wondering where “The Donald” fits in all of this.   First off, he doesn’t often know what he is talking about. He’s made enough public statements to reveal an astonishing level of ignorance about such things as the constitution, the global economy, history, international trade, treaties and even what sorts of powers the president actually has.  These aren’t just “opinions”, but a lack of basic understanding of how things actually work in the world.

He also gives an astonishing lack of detail about any of his “policies”, when he even bothers to give any explanation.  (as opposed to his “secret plan” to end the war with ISIS) “Law and Order” is reduced to “Stop and Frisk”, “More Jobs” boils down to lowering taxes on the rich, establishing tariffs and doing away with regulations, and immigration means “building a wall” and keeping Muslims out.

Just pointing out a problem like “we need more good jobs in the coal industry” doesn’t mean you have an actual workable plan to create them, or that you can give actual examples of how you have created them in the past.   Claiming you are a “master negotiator” when you have NO history of actually negotiating a trade deal or a peace treaty doesn’t really tell you a lot.

Going back to the consumer electronics industry, I didn’t stay long in the big box electronics store.   Working in a “shark tank” isn’t the best place to be if you want to make a living and be honest with people.  Fortunately, there were people to work for who believed in doing business in a fashion that benefits both parties, which would create repeat business.

Donald Trump’s view of the world is based on “winners and losers”.    The real way to build sustainable international trade is when both parties find doing so beneficial.    The world is a difficult place to classify everyone as either a “friend” or an “enemy”, and I’d love Mr. Trump to try to explain the difference between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their relationship to the US in any detail.

In the end, the message that both the “White Van Guy” and Donald Trump are saying boils down to “Trust Me”.

Probably the best advice for either of the above’s potential “customers” is the old Russion proverb:  “Doveryai, no proveryai”, which means “trust but, verify”.    The phrase is often attributed to Ronald Reagan, who used it during the disarmament talks with Gorbachev back in the 80’s……..

Trust me…………



The First 21st Century Candidate

We should have seen this coming…..

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the John Wayne Museum Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Winterset, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the John Wayne Museum Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Winterset, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“John Wayne represented strength. He represented power. He represented what the people are looking for today, cause we have exactly the opposite from John Wayne right now in this country. And he represented real strength and an inner strength that you don’t see very often.”

Donald Trump, at a press conference accepting the Wayne family endorsement.

Depending on one’s political bent, the above image is probably either troubling or encouraging.   There can be little doubt, though, about how important image is to Donald Trump.

The flap over accusations of plagiarism by the current Mrs. Trump struck me as a bit of an oddity.    There’s a certain irony in that Mrs. Trump could have avoided most of the negative publicity by admitting that she admired Mrs. Obama:  there was a failure of communication concerning this between her and a woman who had “helped” her with her speech.   Maintaining the fiction that people actually write their own speeches is absurd and has been for over 200 years, at least.  To think that every aspect of a candidates public persona has anything to do with reality, as opposed to being something that is carefully crafted and staged is a bit of a stretch.

Our culture has long been on the “edge of reality” as long as I can remember.    I have a memory of my dad trying to explain to me about Audie Murphy, who was a genuine war hero in WWII, playing himself in the movie “To Hell and Back”.    Murphy had earned the Medal of Honor (among others) while fighting the Germans in the Vosges Mountains.  I remember asking: “Does this mean John Wayne isn’t a “real hero”?”   I had not ever given much thought to the concept that actors were playing roles and following scripts.   I’ll forgive myself for this, as I was only around 8 or 9 at the time.

I can remember a conversation when I was a teenager that involved someone saying they liked to watch talk shows like “Tonight Show” and “Dick Cavett” because you got to see people’s “real selves”.     An adult happened to be in the room at the time and they made some comment about “most people appear on those talk shows to promote something: a movie, book or record, whatever”, and they were “certainly more concerned with presenting an image than revealing their true selves.”

I also remember watching the Kennedy-Nixon debates with my family (they were Democrats) and after watching the commentary I remember most of them didn’t talk about what the two men had said, but how they looked.

This is the key to understanding “The New Nixon” of 1968, who managed to bounce back and become president  eight years after the bitter loss to Kennedy.   This is covered in detail in the book “The Selling of the President, 1968” by Joe McGinnis.

We have always seemed to have a bit of difficulty separating actors from the roles they play, and the advent of reality TV has only blurred that distinction further.  Witness the guy from “Duck Dynasty”, who has managed to turn a somewhat marginal character into someone who’s political opinion has value.

I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that Mr Trump would try to invoke the image of John Wayne as being the embodiment of “Strength and Power “, despite that reputation being based more on fictional characters than anything Mr. Wayne actually did in real life.  But that matters little if people now attach those qualities to Mr. Trump.

I think there’s a certain calculated aspect of Mr. Trumps noted tendency to “go off the script” as well.    It reinforces his image as an “outsider” who says what everyone else is afraid to, and proof that he is not “politically correct”.

The central fact of all this is that Donald Trump has managed to get this far without having any specific policies aside from being strong. smart, and winning.    I guess we’ll see how far this gets him.    


The Start of The Summer of Love

1967Byrds2I recently discovered this handbill for a Jefferson Airplane/Byrds show I attended in May of 1967.    I was 15 years old and nearly finished with my first year of high school.    The Beatles Sgt. Pepper was going to be released in 4 days, and the Airplane’s single “Somebody to Love”, for the album “Surrealistic Pillow”,  was #17 on the charts, and on it’s way to the #5 position.   The Byrds “Younger than Yesterday” album had been released a couple months before the concert and the single “So you Want to be a Rock & Roll Star” had already been up and down the charts, reaching #29.   (There is a certain irony in this being the last hit single by the Byrds, a band that didn’t play any of the instruments on their first recond, except for McGuinn’s guitar.)

This was a period of transition for pop music, the “underground” was just beginning and FM stations playing “album cuts” were just starting to pop up.    LP sales were just about to overtake singles.    Both the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane were about to play at the Monterrey Pop festival in a couple of weeks.

I can’t recall much about the opening acts except they both sounded pretty ragged and one of them played “300 pounds of joy” by Howlin’ Wolf.   I wasn’t familiar with the tunes and the sound system was not very good, so they might have been much better than I thought.

This was perhaps the first show in the Coleseum that featured music played at this volume and the quality of the sound system was mediocre at best.    This impacted on the Byrds in a major way as they didn’t really sound too much like their recordings, especially the vocals.   Neither McGuinn’s or Crosby’s guitars sounded too good, either: and Crosby complained a number of times about how Sunn Amplifiers were “terrible”.  Indeed, I don’t think I’ve heard a Rickenbacker 12 string through a Sunn amp, before or since.   Not exactly a match made in Heaven.   In any case, it seemed that there were signs of strain between group members: Crosby was the only one who talked on stage and a couple times I noticed both McGuinn and Hillman seem to cringe, especially during one of this tirades against Sunn amps.

Considering how things sounded out front, I could only imagine what it must have sounded like on stage, and I wondered if they could even hear each other.   I also missed Gene Clark’s vocals in the mix, especially as the song “Feel a Whole Lot Better” was my favorite Byrds tune.  I understand how difficult this must have been for them, but as a 15 year old kid, they didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

By the time the Airplane hit the stage, the PA system seemed to be better sorted out as you could hear the power in both Marty Balin and Grace Slick’s voices.   Neither Paul Kantner, nor Jorma’s guitars suffered much from being distorted, and in fact you could hear Kantner much better than on any of their records.   On tunes like “Somebody to Love” he really stood out and added an urgency that made the tune really powerful without upstaging the vocalists.

You often heard the phrase “They didn’t sound much like the record” in those days.   The sound quality on studio recordings was getting better and more sophisticated, but live sound was often inferior.    The local bands in the Northwest, like the Sonics, Don and the Goodtimes and the Wailers usually sounded better than their recordings in a live setting, as the PA systems of the era were up to the task of filling a National Guard Armory or a skating rink.   Sound quality in a large 10,000 seat arena meant for basketball or hockey was often hit or miss, and usually the latter.

Some bands stopped touring during this period, (The Beatles come to mind) as being able to re-create the sound on their records was literally impossible.  By 1969 or thereabouts, most concerts were featuring decent quality sound with systems up to the task.  In fact, the sound at the Monterey Festival was regarded as groundbreaking and added to both the mythical status of that festival and the impact that acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who had on the audience.

The other thing that distinguished “concerts” from the local bands was that they weren’t “dances”.     On one hand, this gave the bands a new sense of freedom, as they didn’t need to worry about if people could dance to what they recorded.   But they also gave up a certain sense of the connection with the audience: that symbiotic relationship that could create a runaway feedback loop.

One could go on for a while about this, but it was all just part of the era.   A lot of memorable music made during the 60’s and 70’s wouldn’t have happened if it would have had to pass the “It has a great beat and you can dance to it” test on American Bandstand.

A few days after I attended the concert, the Beatles released the Sgt. Pepper record, and it was suddenly everywhere, on everbody’s record player and most of the songs also got played in the radio.   Rock & Roll started taking itself seriously and people were self consciously creating “art”.

Seemingly overnight, the focus switched from fan magazines promoting “teen idols” to critiques of guitarists techniques and guitar “heroes” like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix became “stars” by being guitar virtuosos.   Musicians political views were openly discussed, and we no longer were privy to what their favorite colors were.

Neither the Byrds or the Jefferson Airplane had any hit singles after 1967.    Crosby was fired later on in 1967, and eventually went on to Crosby, Stills and Nash, after sitting in with Buffalo Springfield at Monterey.   Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship and had hit singles in both the 70’s and 80’s.   How quickly things seem to go full circle.

AM (Top 40) and FM continued to co-exist for quite some time, and some acts continued to appear on both formats and sell albums as well as hit singles, but some groups like “Paul Revere and the Raiders”, “Three Dog Night” and the “Guess Who” got branded as “Singles Bands”, and generally weren’t treated kindly by “critics”, nor a lot of airplay on “Classic Rock” stations that became popular in the late 70’s early 80’s.


The Second Amendment, Weapons Control and the Future

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
bill of rights
The recent tragedy in Orlando has brought the Second Amendment into focus again with a lot of talk that would seem to imply that the second amendment grants access to any weapon and that any restriction is in violation of the Second Amendment.

Many amateur “Constitutionalists” misread the “Heller” case (that held that the second amendment applied to individual citizens as opposed to those who are militia members) as if all restrictions on weapon ownership were now unconstitutional and violations of our second amendment rights.  This is just not true.

These people don’t pay much attention to the parts of the decision that don’t fit into the view that no restrictions are permissible, for example:

“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Or this one:

“Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment , nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Let’s examine this for a bit.   I don’t think that even the most avid anti gun control type folks would argue that private citizens should have the right to own hand grenades, flame throwers, tanks, mortars, bazookas or fighter jets.   There are some, who subscribe to the theory that we have the second amendment to counter a government that has moved on to tyrannical behavior.   But, even those people usually readily agree that the government does have the power to draw the line somewhere.  We’re already standing on the slippery slope.

We’ve already “drawn the line”, we’re just negotiating where it is.

You’ll notice the second amendment does not talk about “guns” but “arms”, and the title of this post refers to “weapons”. Does anyone doubt that there will be advances in weaponry over, say, the next 20 years, and not only in projectile type weapons, either.   Do we really need or want a populace that has access to weaponry of a sufficient quality to stand against the United States Army?

In any case, this can be one of the topics that can be discussed in the nationwide discussion on dealing with weapons we so badly need to have.  But we are somehow being prevented from having that discussion.  Any chance of a rational discussion of this in congress is effectively blocked by the gun lobby, and the perception in this country that “weapon control” of any sort is unconstitutional.

Even attempts to have a rational discussion on Facebook get thwarted by a lot of rather hysterical invocations of “Second Amendment!!!” or get sidetracked by pointless semantic discussion on what is or is not an “assault Weapon”, or the idea that “cars can also be weapons, and so why don’t we ban them?”

The fact that the center for disease control is prevented from even doing a study on the impact on gun violence is telling.    I love John Boehner’s answer in 2013 for why an proposed amendment that would have allowed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the underlying causes of gun violence died in committee: “The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect public health,” Boehner said, “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease. Guns don’t kill people — people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon.”

Since there doesn’t seem to be another government agency that is willing to stand up to the NRA, this action effectively cuts off any objective study and consequent discussion of something that is causing the deaths of over 30,000 people every year.   Repeating 50 year old clichés is the very definition of just kicking the can down the road.

When there seems to be conflicting rights at issue, our society has traditionally applied a “balancing test”  to determine if the rights of the few outnumber the rights of the many.    To do that in a rational manner, it helps to have objective data.    This is a discussion, however, that we need to have.

Between the gun lobby promoting a false version of the Second Amendment and effectively stopping any government sponsored research, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to deal with the weaponry of the 21st century, let alone our current situation.

The first step towards doing so is disposing of the myth that one can’t stand for sensible weapons regulations and still support the second amendment, and so there is NOTHING to discuss. 

We also need to recognize that one side of this discussion doesn’t even want it to happen as if there is no possible action that can be taken.


The American Anti-Corruption Act

All the content below is from the American Anti-Corruption page sponsored by Support.Us , a bi-partisan effort to stamp out corruption in the United state by passing legislation on the City-State- and Federal levels. Please take the time to read the following 400 or so words and if it interests you, follow the links to download the entire act or go to the Support.Us page.

aaca-logo-vThe American Anti-Corruption Act is model legislation that sets a standard for city, state and federal laws that prevent money from corrupting American government. It fundamentally reshapes the rules of American politics and restores the people as the most important stakeholders in our political  system. An Anti-Corruption Act has three primary outcomes:

  • Stop political bribery by overhauling lobbying and ethics laws
  • End secret money by dramatically increasing transparency
  • Give every voter a voice by creating citizen-funded elections

Represent.Us is building a movement to pass Anti-Corruption Acts in cities, states, and federally. Each Act is uniquely tailored to meet the needs of locales across the country.

1. Stop politicians from taking bribes

Prohibit politicians from soliciting and receiving exorbitant contributions from the special interests they regulate, and prevent them from fundraising during working hours.

2. Make Super PACs play by fair rules

Require super PACs to follow the same contribution limits as other political committees, and toughen the rules preventing coordination between super PACs and political campaigns.

3. Prevent job offers as bribes

Close the “revolving door,” in which elected representatives and senior staff sell off their legislative power for high-paying lobbying jobs. Stop them from negotiating jobs while in office, and once they leave, bar them from all lobbying activity for several years.

4. Call all people who lobby, “lobbyists”

Prevent special interest influencers from skirting the rules by strengthening the definition of lobbying and officially registering all lobbyists.

5. Limit lobbyist donations

Limit the amount of money that lobbyists and their clients can contribute directly to political candidates, parties, and committees, and prevent lobbyists from soliciting money for political campaigns. Ban government contractors and their high-level executives, government relations employees, lobbyists, and PACs from making political contributions.

6. End secret money

Mandate full transparency of all political money. Require any organization that spends significant funds on advertisements aimed at electing or defeating a candidate to file a timely online report disclosing its major donors.

7. Give Voters more Voice

Offset the power of big spenders with “Democracy Credits” that voters can use to make contributions to qualified political candidates, parties, and committees. Candidates and political groups will only be eligible for these credits if they agree to a set of contribution limits: they will only accept money from small donors, other groups abiding by the limits, and the Democracy Credits themselves.

8. Disclose “bundling”

Require candidates to disclose the names of individuals who “bundle” contributions for them, regardless of whether those individuals are registered lobbyists.

9. Enforce the rules

Strengthen anti-corruption enforcement mechanisms, provide prosecutors with the additional tools necessary to combat corruption, and put a ban on lobbyists who fail to properly register and disclose their activities.

You can download the entire text of the Act Here

The American Anti-Corruption Act



The Urge to Tinker

People can’t just leave well enough alone.    At least I can’t.    I’ve never left a guitar, amp, car or motorcycle in “stock” condition for long.  “No user serviceable parts inside” might as well be a challenge instead of a warning.    As time goes on this is getting harder and harder.   Modern cars don’t leave that much room for “improvement”, and the tools required to work on them, along with the skill necessary to perform much of that work are much more complex, or at least different.

I grew up in a working class small town culture where seemingly everybody worked on their own cars and owning things like a grease gun, timing light and a dwell meter were common place.  My dad took tubes out of our TV to the drug store to test them, and my first car was a Ford Falcon station wagon with a good body but a tired engine that my dad and I rebuilt over one summer.

I’ve never been what one would call proficient as a mechanic, but I know enough to “get by”, with the aid of a shop manual and basic mechanical knowledge.    I also know when I’m in over my head and when I should take things to a “pro”.    I used to do front end alignment on my VW’s, following instructions in the “How to keep your VW alive for the Complete Idiot” book.   (An apt title if ever there was one) After I rebuilt the suspension on my 98 Z3, I didn’t think twice about driving to somewhere that they used lasers and other sophisticated stuff to set everything straight and was happy to get a “You did all this without a lift lying on the ground?” comment.

Okay, I’ve wandered a little off track here, but I think there are lots of people out there with a similar story.

Many guitar players are as much “into” tinkering and modifying their equipment as they are into actually playing them, and for many, part of the fun involves the time they spend working on guitars and amps.  (For some, it’s probably most of the fun.)

By 1966 I owned a Fender Bandmaster and a 1963 Fender Telecaster (which I still own) along with an Alamo reverb tank.    I probably could have played every gig I’ve had with that particular rig and 98% of the audience would have not noticed a difference.

Guitarists, unless they are fairly wealthy, usually develop a degree of expertise in performing routine maintenance on guitars and amplifiers.  Over the years I’ve picked up a few skills like leveling and dressing frets, filing nuts, setting intonation changing pickups, switches and pots, replacing transformers and I even learned how to set the bias on my Bandmaster.   I’ve even worked on a few of my friends guitars for minor stuff.   I have several mongrel “parts guitars” and a couple of heavily modified Chinese Strat knockoffs that have become mainstays onstage.

Virtually every amp I’ve owned has used vacuum tubes, which renders the technology involved to be on the same approximate level as a 55 Chevy.     Most of us can perform simple tasks and modifications and perform limited “experiments” while avoiding catastrophic failure or electrocution.  I suspect this could be one of the reasons that guitar amps still use tubes when most other electronic devices haven’t used them since the late 60’s………

I recently acquired a Quilter 101 amp head.     I’ve addressed this in the last three blog entries, so I won’t go into details about it.  But it seems about as likely to need repair or maintenance as a crowbar, nor does modification seem too likely, at least in my lifetime.   I’m also running out of stompboxes and speakers to try with it.   At the age of 64, this might be the last amp I will buy——–  maybe I’ll wear out a pot or a switch——–

But, who knows?

There’s still plenty of “fun” to be had working on my guitars, and I’m in the middle of turning this nice ash Tele body into a working guitar.   I won’t deny that working on the gear and trying new stuff has been part of the appeal of being a guitarist, so nobody will get the lecture: “You’d improve your sound by practicing more.” from me.   I discovered long ago that there’s only so much difference that your equipment will make.    “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I don’t actually think I was born to tinker, but I’ve been conditioned that I should do whatever needs to be done myself and only pay people to do stuff that I can’t.   The thought of taking my Sportster to a mechanic and pay them $120 an hour to work on something about as simple as a lawn mower just didn’t sit right with me and the only time anyone other than myself took a wrench to it over seven years was the guy who put new tires on it.

The world is changing, fewer and fewer people work on their own cars and nobody even thinks of repairing a toaster.  Home electronic devices change so fast that by the time something wears out buying a new one is cheaper than repairing an old one.

I remember selling one of the first 63″ Fujitsu Plasma TV’s back in 2003 for $25,000 dollars, and you can now buy a 65 inch LCD TV for $1200.   Probably not a lot of them will ever go to the shop.

I have no grand conclusion to make here.   The world isn’t going to drop out of orbit because we’re all surrounded by things we don’t understand.

It does strike me though, that someone from, say, 1890 probably understood more about everything he or she was surrounded by. The “world” was much simpler to behold on a day to day basis.    Human beings are naturally control freaks to the extent that some of our activity has to be directed at controlling the number of factors that are “just out of our hands” that the simple act of repairing something yourself provides a degree of comfort.

In an increasingly bewilderingly complicated world, each of our “spheres of influence” is shrinking and the era of the “jack of all trades” is surely coming to a close, along with the “mechanical” era.

But, people will still “tinker” with stuff, they’ll just be playing with computer programs and such.   Much like people now modify their vehicles by adding a different “chip” to the engine management software instead of replacing the carburetor.


Does Size Still Matter?

Take a look at the photo below and if you look close you can see the relative sizes of the speakers in each cabinet behind the grill cloth.   The one on top is 8″ in diameter and the one on the bottom is a 15″.    Common sense would seem to suggest that one could draw some conclusions just based on what you can see in the photo.
sizeAnd chances are, you’d be wrong.   The little cab actually will reproduce a lower frequency than the big one and the two cabs are actually pretty close in how loud they will actually play. When people see the little cab, they invariably think it’s almost a toy.

I spent much of my working days in the consumer electronic industry including working for a speaker manufacturer in the 80’s, so I know speaker size is also a “big deal” in that world.    Speaker size is also as much as a marketing concept as an actual physical one.    Back in the 80’s, it was common to see a speaker described in advertising as a “12 inch three way” or a “10 inch two way”, along with some low price indicating Value for money: as if the speaker size and number of drivers were primary considerations.

50 years or so ago, when I first started playing electric guitar, I quickly learned to equate speaker size with quality.    Look at the 1966 Fender Line up and you went from the Champ, which had an 8″ speaker, to the Princeton, which featured a 10″, then up to the Deluxe which had a single 12″ speaker.    Some models had two (or even four) speakers and then you also have the Piggyback series of amps (with a separate sealed cabinet) that went on up to the top of the line Dual Showman with two 15″ JBL speakers.   Along with bigger speakers, the amps also had more power as they got more expensive, so there was an obvious corollary between speaker size, amplifier power and quality.   Not only would the top of the line amps play louder without distortion and have deeper bass, but they would also “sound better”.

Over the years, I’ve owned examples of most styles of guitar speaker and cabinet: open back combos with single 8 speaker, single 10, single 12, dual 10’s, dual 12’s, and four 10’s, and as you can see in the photo, a single 15.   I’ve had sealed cabinets with single 10, single 12, dual 10’s, dual 12’s, and four 12″.  Whew.

But, prior to a couple of weeks ago, I’ve never used a single 8″ speaker in a sealed cabinet.    My previous experience with an 8 has been limited to several example of a Fender Champ.   I always thought of a Champ as a practice amp, or maybe something to record with, but never gave much thought to using one on stage playing with a drummer.  I posted a blog post a few years ago about my experience with a Champ, although I entirely missed the role the smaller speaker played in my enjoyment of it.

A couple of years ago, I played through a Quilter amp that, unbeknownst to me, had a 8″ speaker, specifically the Celestion TF-0818.    I noticed that it sounded pretty full for such a little amp, but I was more focused on the guitar I was playing through it.  I WAS also a little surprised that it was also a solid state amp design.   It was also a $900 amp, as well, a price that would purchase any number of other amps with “real” guitar speakers in them——-

I started reading favorable reviews of quilter products and when they came out with the 101 Mini head for $299, I figured I could pair it up with one of a number of speakers and  cabs I already owned, and thus try it out for little financial risk.

I have mostly been happy with the results of running the 101 into a couple of 12″ cabs with various speakers.    I read a couple of posts on the Quilter Facebook forum about people taking existing 8″ sealed speaker cabs and fitting higher quality speakers in them.   I also listened to a few clips and read positive reviews about the MicroPro with the 8″ Celestion.

So, now I have the little cab you see in the photo, which now has a Celestion FT-0818 speaker inside.  My total investment in cab and speaker is under $120.  It weighs 14.3 pounds.   I’ve mounted the 101 on my pedalboard, which also weighs around 15 pounds,  so I now have a rig that I can easily carry into a club in one trip with a couple guitars in gig bags on my back.  Sweet

entire rigI’ve discovered that it has more than enough power to use a band rehearsals and since I usually turn things up louder in the garage than I do on stage, (proximity of the drums in a small space) once the band starts gigging again (new lead singer) It will work there as well.

I REALLY like the sound of it.    I particularly like the way chords and arpeggios sound with it.  The string to string balance is superb and it has unusual clarity.   It also goes down lower in the frequency spectrum than any of my other speakers, including that 15″ in the photo.

To be clear,  this bass is there because of the sealed cabinet and the other speakers at my disposal seem capable of playing at louder volumes than the Celestion with the bass cranked, although I don’t actually do that in practice.  But set a microphone in front of the cab, and you’ll hear it produces more bass than the open back cabs do, as you will probably have to adjust EQ to deal with that.   I used the controls on the Quilter to reduce the bass to suit my preferences.

The other thing that is noticeable is the relative lack of “beaming” or directionality compared to other sealed enclosures I’ve used.  You can put it right on the floor and yet walk right up to it and practically have to be standing on top of it before you hear it start to sound muffled.   At band practice, I set it up where I usually have a 12″ cab which I have to tilt it up to hear the full spectrum out of it.  I don’t have to do that with the Quilter.    It still doesn’t quite have the spaciousness of an open back cab, but the dispersion is wide enough that the sound is bouncing around off the walls, ceiling and floor a lot more intensely than it does with a larger speaker in a sealed cab.   The sonic difference between open and closed back cabs with a speaker this size would seem to be much less: so it also might be less “objectionable” to folks who prefer open back cabs with larger speakers.

It might be helpful to look at a couple of charts to explain why some of the differences between speakers exist.  Below, find Frequency response curves of both the Eminence Texas Heat 12″, and Celestion FT-0818 8″ speakers.
texas heattexas heat vs celstionIn addition to this information, this little table might come in handy:
guitar-tableFirst off, it should be stated that these figures were obtained with the speaker installed in a flat baffle and measured with a microphone at a distance of one meter.   Installing the speaker in an actual cabinet will have a large impact, particularly in the area below around 2-300 Hz.

A sealed cabinet of the correct volume will allow the speaker installed in it to reach lower frequencies than one installed in a cabinet with an open back.

Further, all speakers tend to become directional when the wavelength of the the frequency the speaker is producing becomes shorter than the diameter of the speaker.  A 1,000 Hz wavelength is about 13.5 inches long and 2,000 Hz is about 6.5 inches.   This explains why the little 8″ driver has better dispersion than a larger driver in a sealed cab.

An open back cab will disperse some of the energy out the back of the cabinet, which will lesson the directionality somewhat, but is unpredictable, depending on what is behind the cab: curtains, glass, a brick wall, nothing, or more likely a drum set.   Also, multiple drivers in a cabinet, such as a 4 X 12″, will also couple and act much like a single large speaker, with directionality starting at an even lower frequency.

It should be clear that the frequency response characteristics of the two speakers are most different above 1,000 Hz, aside from a slight rise in the Texas heat between 500 and 1,000 Hz.   The fundamental frequencies on a guitar neck are virtually  (except for the last three frets on a 21 fret guitar) all below this range.  What differences you hear are going to be largely a matter of harmonics.    Start a blues based solo on the fourth string 10th fret “C” and end it on the “F” on the 13th fret of the 1st string, and your fundamental tones will be between 262 Hz and 698 Hz.  As you move up the neck, more harmonic information moves you into an area where the Texas Heat is becoming somewhat non-linear.    Those harmonics will be noticeably louder than they are with the Celestion.  This doesn’t mean the Celestion is better, just different.   One man’s “smooth” is another man’s “dull”.

In my own particular case, I have a suspicion that the extended flat response is part of why I like the Celestion so much.   The guitar just sounds so “clean” and clear and I also hear the progression from clean to dirty when I use distortion.    I’m also noticing that I seem to prefer using the amp’s overdrive instead of stepping on a pedal.

Looking at sensitivity of the speakers, the Celestion is rated at 95 dB (with a one watt input averaged from pink noise response, measured at one meter distance) and the Texas heat is 99.5 dB.   You’ll also notice that for much of the guitar’s frequency range they are only around 3 to 4 dB apart and that most of the difference only begins above 1.7 KHz or thereabouts.   If you look at something like an Eminence Red Fang, (which is rated at 102.5 dB sensitivity) you typically find that it has an even more elevated response at around 2 KHz.

Keep in mind that the test signal is created by a noise generator and it is at the same level at all frequencies.   A guitar signal, on the other hand, is going to tail off as the frequency rises through the harmonic sequence.    By 5,000 Hz most harmonics are barely audible.   The level of power required from the amplifier at these frequencies is going to be considerably less.   The reality of this is that looking at a sensitivity spec and then predicting that one speaker will require 4 times the power to play at the same loudness level is not likely to hold up in the real world.   there WILL likely be an audible difference, and maybe even enough to make you favor one speaker over another, but likely  not as dramatic as the numbers might indicate.

What a speaker will sound like to the audience depends on a lot of other information you won’t find on a specifications chart.   Much of the sound, if not most, is going to have bounced off several surfaces.    A cabinet that disperses well is likely to sound more even through out the venue.   I once had the unsettling experience of standing out on a dance floor with a wireless unit and discovering that my 4 X 12″ had a laser like beam that seemed to be confined to a narrow spot and was delivering a piercing sound suitable of one of those sonic pest control devices rather than the warm, balanced sound I was hearing on stage—–

The 15″ Weber that’s in the amp you see in the top of the page photo isn’t rated for efficiency by Weber, but comparing it to other speakers I’ve had, I’d estimate it to be around 97 dB.  It’s rated for 50 watts input which is about what the amp puts out.   The little Celestion is rated for 100 watts which is about the maximum output of the 101.   For my style of guitar the two rigs have nearly the same level of volume available before they begin to show some signs of distress.  (making sounds I find unpleasant)

I’ve seen comments on various internet forums where people dismiss a single 8″ speaker out of hand as a viable guitar speaker option.  I think the speaker just says “Cheap Practice Amp with No Bass” to them.

Those who play metal are not going to go out and buy one of these, nor are those who like to feel the impact of a loud guitar.    But for those of us who play a moderate levels, a smaller speaker can handle the signal for an Electric guitar just fine.

I know this is an oversimplification as there are all sorts of other factors that come into play here.    I’ve spent over 2000 words here to barely scratch the surface.   I’m hoping the broad strokes will at least give the impression that new technologies have made it possible for guitar amps that are much more lightweight and compact than previously thought possible, that still can perform like, and maybe, in some ways, superior fashion to older technologies…….

A Brief, and Incomplete History of Guitar Amplification

My recent purchase of a Quilter 101 amp head has made me think a lot about guitar tone and how it has “evolved” over the years.    One thing that sticks out to me is that MOST of the amps that have a “signature” tone, achieved that sound mostly by a happy accident.

quilter101I think the first recorded incident of a guitar amp being created with the idea that users would deliberately drive it into distortion was the Mesa Boogie in the late 60’s.   You can see Marshall advertisements in the 1960’s touting “distortion free sound”.

By the 50’s pickups and amplifiers evolved around each other, as did speakers, which in the early amps, were off the shelf items, rather than devices especially created for electric guitar.   None of these devices seemed to be designed with the idea of a “flat response” in mind.    Pickups, amps and speakers were all considerably “colored” and all evolved rather slowly: but everyone who designed a pickup designed it with the idea it might be plugged into some other manufacturer’s amplifier.

That said, the electric guitar never does seem to actually be an attempt to just make an acoustic guitar louder.    Right from the start, you can hear 1930’s and 40’s guitarists driving their amps into distortion and using that capability as a creative tool.      At the same time, the quest for a clear, undistorted rhythm sound lead to increasingly powerful amplifiers.   The Fender Blackface series of amplifiers hit the market just as baby boomers inspired by the Beatles exploded into garage bands, and needed amps.     These amps had a big dip in the midrange response which was a psycho-acoustic slight of hand designed to make the amps seem louder and more powerful.

Since most of the information in a guitar signal is concentrated in the 100 to 2,000 Hz range, “scooping” the mid range area had a HUGE impact on the perceived volume the amp was capable of.       A Fender “Dual Showman” with two D-130F speakers (you could see the bright aluminum cones through the grill cloth) was considered, (at least in my circle of friends) as the ultimate guitar amp.

As Fender was one of the leading amp manufacturers for professional musicians, this sound, however colored was taken as “just how an amp is supposed to sound” to most of us.   All we knew is that those “tweed” amps we saw in pawn shops got fuzzy at low volumes and sounded rather “dull” in comparison.

Looking at these photos generated by the “Tone Stack Calculator”  on the Seymour Duncan page it’s obvious how scooped the mids were on a Blackface amp.     If you look at the photos, you can see the response curves generated by various positions of the tone controls, which are shown to the lower left corner.  Look at the positions of the controls in the photo that shows a relatively “flat” response.  To this very day, Fender is still selling replicas of this series of amps (along with ones that feature “tweed tone”) by the thousands.   They’ve undoubtably sold more “re-issues” of both the black and Silver faced amps than they did back in the day.

Curve FenderThe above photo shows the response curve of a typical fender Blackface amp with all the tone controls set at “five”.  The “scoop” is quite severe, something around 12 dB in this case.

Below is a more typical tone control setting for a black face amp, in fact, this is my starting spot for my own Fender.

curve fender typicalThis one is what one would need to do to the tone controls to get a flat response out of  a Fender amp from this period.

curve fenderflatFinally, a graph showing a rather extreme setting with the treble control turned fully up.

curve fenderextreme

Most Baby Boomers will remember walking into a pawn shop and  discovering lots of old amplifiers sitting around and remember some that were actually painted or dyed black or maybe even covered with black vinyl in an attempt to make them more “modern”.    The period I’m speaking of was the early to mid 60’s and we all wanted to sound like Dick Dale or the Ventures.    When listening to amplifiers in music stores we determined that the ones that sounded the most like a Showman were naturally the best ones.

At this point in time it wasn’t common for rock & roll acts to show the actual guitar amps they were using.  (Also well before the “Guitar Hero” era)   I remember the first time seeing the Beatles on TV with these strange looking amps with a three letter name that I couldn’t quite make out on my parents B&W TV.   (A friend of mine thought they were VOC amplifiers)

Later on in the 60’s and early 70’s, most of the Guitar Heroes seemed to use Marshall amplification.  Most of us know the first Marshall amps were heavily based on the tweed Fender Bassman.     If you look at the control panel on an early Marshall it’s a dead ringer for what you’ll find on a Tweed Bassman.    The amps didn’t sound like the tweed amps, particularly when coupled with two 4 X 12” cabinets with British made speakers in them, but the sound was a lot closer to a tweed amp than a Blackface Fender. Below is a typical Marshall amp response curve.

curve MarshalThe mid bass dip is far less extreme than the Blackface ones.

Below is a typical curve out of a Vox amp.

curve voxVox amps fall somewhere in between and you also have the “Top Boost” option on the AC-30 to add it’s own personality.    The result of all of this is that people usually purchase a guitar amp with a particular “personality” in mind.    Mesa Boogie, Marshall, Blackface Fender, Vox AC series, Tweed Bassman all conjure up sonic signatures of one sort or another.   It’s not at all like purchasing a PA or Hi-Fi amplifier where the standard is fidelity to reproduction of the original signal.    A guitar amp is seen as a tool for the production of sound, as important as the guitar itself in determining the overall sound and many guitarists “play the amp” as much as they play the guitar.

The above is a huge oversimplification with all sorts of factors one can’t account for by frequency response alone.  We’re just isolating one factor.

Obviously, the above response curves are then added to the ones generated by the pickups and further on down the line by the speakers they run through, effects used and even the cable the guitarist is using to connect his guitar to the amp.  And on top of this, every guitarist has his own tone to add to the equation.   Plug Carlos Santana into Eddie Van Halen’s amp and he’s still going to sound like Carlos.

Introducing a new amp head in today’s market is a rather brave proposition as it has to sound like other guitar amps, particularly TUBE guitar amps in order to fit into the signal chain that’s been developed for use with those amps.    Indeed, Quilter has provided a “Voice” knob on the 101 to emulate the sonic signature of several common amp sounds: “Surf”, “Tweed” and “Jazz”.  They have accomplished this to a degree that would seem to be regarded as a breakthrough.

I’ve been using the Quilter for a while now and it is a veritable “swiss army knife” able to get most of the amp tones I regularly use and some I’ve not been able to make previously.

The Trunkslammers, (the band I play with) only do a couple of covers, so the Quilter works well for me, I only have to sound like me.    Once I convinced myself the amp sounded “tube like” I relaxed and started to explore the wide range of tones that ARE available.  The amp’s lack of a “sweet spot” that most tube amps have where they sound best and the fact that the distortion level is totally independent of the amp’s volume give one  a big advantage that the tube amps I’ve owned don’t have.

On the Quilter Facebook page, there have been posts from people who are not satisfied with some aspect of the 101’s performance.    I would be amazed if this was NOT the case, given the amazing variety of guitar amp sounds out there and all the possible combinations of guitar, pickups, speakers and cabinets, not to mention a range of tastes.   The odds of making all guitar players happy are not too great.

When someone purchases a Fender, Vox, Marshall, Mesa Boogie or Dr. Z amplifier, it’s often done (depending on amp model) with the idea of getting a few specific tones being paramount.    One doesn’t buy a Marshall stack with the idea that it also would be able to sound like a Fender Twin Reverb or a Vox AC30.   While some amps do have a reputation for being versatile, most brands do seem to have certain tones they are associated with.

Given all the attempts of manufacturers to make amplifiers without vacuum tubes sound “like a tube amp” over the last 40 or 50 years, it would seem at this point that arguably Quilter has managed this to an unprecedented  degree with several lines and models on sale.

Sounding “like a tube amp” is only the first stage, and we’ll discover if Quilter is “here to stay” when someone describes an amp as “Sounding like a Quilter”.