Stu Brewer - Studio Brewdio

Home of Stu Brewer and his explorations in guitar playing, teaching, creating and gear

Review - Vigier Expert Classic Rock

PA312580.JPG

However much we all love a good humbucker rock sound, single coil Stratocaster style guitars are where it's at if you want that definition and to cut through a mix. For years now I've been on a quest for that single coil sound coupled with functionality and reliability. Seems like a reasonable request no? But as hard as I've tried I have never found one that both sounds good, plays well and won't fall apart mid gig.

I've tried numerous guitars from the company that made the sound famous and spent thousands on boutique versions only to find that they were missing something, that elusive mojo. However all that has change for me with the Vigier Expert Classic Rock.

Build and Spec

PA312590.JPG

On the face of it the Vigier looks like your standard strat guitar, all be it with a very nice anti tobacco burst finish. But when you look a little closer you'll find some of the ingenious tweaks that makes at much more than that. Starting with the headstock, it has oversized locking machine heads and what looks like string ball ends secured through the headstock as string trees. Further down the neck you find a zero fret, synonymous with Vigier's and a rosewood fingerboard. The fret's are stainless steel so no more having to worry about refrets further down the line.

Turning to the back of the neck you find another one of Vigier's innovations, a carbon strip down the back replacing the traditional truss rod. This ensures neck stability whatever the climate and is coupled with a tastefully flamed maple neck.

Moving on to the alder body, the contours are smooth and the overall weight is just right, heavy enough to feel as though you can really dig in when playing but light enough not to give you spinal damage.

PA312587.JPG

There's a single ply scratch plate with Amber pickups, more on those later, a 5 way selector and volume/tone knobs. One thing I am pleased about is that there is only one tone control for all three pickups unlike more traditional designs.

The bridge is Vigier's own 2011 tremolo is extremely smooth and stable. I've been doing my best Jeff Beck/Scott Henderson impressions the past few days and the tuning hasn't budged at all.

PA312596.JPG

The jack socket is locking which is one of the best ideas I've seen in ages. We've all been onstage mid guitar solo, stepped on our cable and heard the buzz of the cable hitting the floor but not anymore!

Finally it comes with a hard case that actually has a use. Some boutique companies package their guitars with large rectangular leather clad hard cases that wouldn't last the night out on the road and are an absolute pain to carry. Luckily the Vigier comes with a form fitted moulded hard case that isn't too heavy, has a comfortable handle and enough support inside so that the guitar won't get damaged in transit.

Sound and Playability

PA312583.JPG

With a name like "Classic Rock" you can imagine the market this guitar is aimed at. The hotter Amber hand wound single coils really lend themselves to that bright 70's rock sound, think anything from Jeff Beck to Richie Blackmore but have that extra bite if you want to head into a more Yngwie shred direction. All three pickups are evenly balanced with a throaty warmth to the neck back, perfect for some Clapton lead tones. 

However pigeon hole this guitar at your peril, its much more versatile than its name suggests. By backing off the volume you can get some wonderful funk clean tones in pickup positions 2 and 4 or that bell like 80's sound that's even better with a touch of chorus and delay.

The pickguard and pickup area has been well shielded so unlike other single coil guitars the hum is kept to an absolute minimum.

PA312589.JPG

Playability wise, the neck is a wide C, not too chunky but enough heft to dig in on string bends. The finish on the back of neck is a very light varnish which I much prefer to a heavily lacquered neck, no sticky thumb getting stuck on the back of the neck here!

When playing it balances itself out well both seated and standing up without any headstock droop. Another innovation is the threaded brass casing within the body that you screw the strap button into. A great idea that solves the problem of shoving matchsticks in the strap button hole if it sheers off.

Verdict

As you can tell I like this guitar and it has cured my lifelong search for the balance between sound and function. The Vigier Expert Classic Rock solves problems I didn't know I needed fixing, such as the locking jack socket and zero fret, while still retaining the sound of its heritage. Vigier as a company take the right approach to technical innovation without compromising sound and I seriously suggest you check out their guitars.

Record Of The Week #5 - "Broken" by Nine Inch Nails

IMG_3336.JPG

I think this short but sweet EP had more of an impact on my younger self than anything else and I still remember first hearing it. When I was around 11 or 12 my main source of music (in the pre-internet era) that wasn't my parents choices was either MTV (when they actually showed music videos) and loaning cassettes from the local library.

I used to devour any cassette that I had vaguely heard of or seen in the pages of Kerrang!.

I started off with the big bands of the time, Guns 'n' Roses, Def Leppard and Metallica and then moved on to groups such as Black Crowes, Megadeth and Faith No More. From this onto the grunge behemoths of Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. One of my favourite things to do was to listen to those albums on a beaten up walkman while doing my paper round and by and large I knew what to expect from each one I listened to.

Then on my weekly excursion to the library I spied the burning lower case "n" on the cover of "Broken" and it looked unlike any other album cover of the time. I had heard of the band but had no idea what they sounded like, other than the fact they were a rock group so must be cool.

032fb0_61a5760715ed41eda9e2e161f64151cd~mv2_d_1332_1282_s_2.jpg

I duly handed over my library card for the cassette to be checked out into my possession for a week and popped it into my walkman to be listened to on the way home.

What I was presented with was an aural assault on my eardrums unlike anything else young and impressionable me had ever heard. The guitar tones sounded raw and processed, nothing like the classic Marshall stack rock sound I had become accustomed to. The vocals were full of genuine angst but still melodic and structured and the other instrumentation introduced me to synths in an industrial setting.

Opening with the fading in "Pinion", that on first listen I thought was too quite. Silly me turned up the volume only to be knocked out with the sheer ferocity of "Wish" and the wall of noise guitar riff that introduces "Last".

I had managed to catch my breath by the time "Help Me I Am In Hell" had finished, a nice instrumental breather before the tour de force in stereo separation that is "Happiness In Slavery" continued the onslaught. One thing that got me was between all the rage was a musical intuition that elevated the music beyond angry noise rants. A case in point would be the way the drums pan between left and right speakers in the drum breakdown during this song. Not since the Beatles had I been so aware of separation between stereo parts.

353a1e242ffebb507cdbf7f814042238--trent-reznor-nine-inch-nails.jpg

The EP ends (if you discount the secret tracks) with the punk stylings of "Gave Up" and from that moment on I was a full on member of the NIN fan club.

Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have released many a great albums since "Broken", "The Downward Spiral" and "The Fragile" being two timeless examples. Yet I always seem to come back to "Broken" as being my favourite release, it still sounds just as aggressive as when I first heard it and in digging deeper into the recording process I've learnt more and more to ignore conventional recording techniques and to experiment with everything. Mellotron through a ton of distortion? Why not!

If you want to find out more I recommend have a read of the liner notes to the recent rerelease on vinyl and also have a read of these articles: http://www.popmatters.com/post/187966-caught-in-the-machine-nine-inch-nails-pinion-wish/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_(EP).

 

Record Of The Week #3 - "The War Of The Worlds" by Jeff Wayne

"No one would've believed in the last years of the nineteenth century..."

Like many people, this album was a major milestone for me growing up. We used to have it on in the car on long journeys, had the LP at home and along with the Star Wars soundtrack it opened my mind to both the wider scifi world (and therefore geekdom as a whole) and the power of a soundtrack to conjure images in my mind the same way a good book or film would.

First kudos must go to the hiring of Richard Burton as the narrator. His booming opening monologue is etched into my mind and his is the perfect voice to portray Jeff Wayne's vision of HG Wells story.

Then it hits you, that massive opening string riff to "The Eve Of The War", bigger than anything by Beethoven that just send shivers down your spine and that even on repeated listens has the same emotional impact. 

Something that has always amazed me about Jeff Wayne's version is his use of the instruments of the day (bare in mind this was recorded in the late 70's so no computers or sequencers) to portray both the past, victorian era London, and the future possibility of aliens. The whole album just drips musicality from the Black Smoke band employed to play on it. Ok the drum sound and use of wah is straight out of the 70's but somehow it still holds up. Herbie Flowers bass playing is immense, listen to "Horsell Common and the Heat Ray" as proof. From the same track you get the first appearance of that huge fuzz slide guitar riff from Chris Spedding and the main riff played on Tar, a stringed instrument from Iran that first got me into weird and wonderful instruments from other countries.

Also from the same track is a prime example of Jeff Wayne's genius use of sound design. Listen to the opening section when the aliens cylinder lid opens. The sound effect used to accompany Burton's narration is perfect to conjure a picture of a menacing space craft opening up to the outside world. In reality the sound was created by rubbing two saucepan lids together, inspired idea! Go try it next time you're doing the cooking.

I'm sure if you've heard the album one of the most memorable noises is the sound of the alien octave shifts (listen to the start of "Horsell Common..." for an example). Those sounds along with all the other synths were created by Ken Freeman. Nicknamed "Prof" due to his skill in building and modifying electronic instruments to create unheard of sounds that are a staple of the whole album.

One sound that wasn't a "Prof" Freeman creation was the "Ulla" alien scream, created by a guitar, talk box and a ton of fuzz and was again a brilliant mix of sound design and musicality.

At the other end of the musical spectrum is "Forever Autumn", with it's haunting opening guitar arpeggios and Justin Hayward's reminiscent vocals. In fact all the vocal talent on the album do a stellar job, from Phil Lynott's rock stylings on "The Spirit of Man", Chris Thompson on "Thunder Child" and David Essex on "Brave New World".

To end proceedings is the NASA epilogue, giving us the thought that maybe this could happen today! Of course it couldn't but to a young impressionable Stu it was the equivalent of a Marvel movie post credit scene and scared the hell out of me but in a good way!

One final mention must go to the amazing album artwork. I used to spend hours pouring over the images on the inner record sleeve and like an Iron Maiden album cover they expanded on the listening experience to the point they became one in my mind.

If you've never had the experience of listen to "War Of The Worlds" on a good set of headphones in a darkened room go do it now!

 

Record Of The Week #2 - "Grace" by Jeff Buckley

FullSizeRender 3.jpg

For the first of this weeks records I've chosen an album so good I even own it on minidisc (remember those!).

When I first heard "Grace" I was heavily into the grunge scene at the time. My world either revolved around flash guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani or alternative bands such as Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. It was while reading an interview by Chris Cornell, Soundgarden's lead singer, that I first came across the name Jeff Buckley and as an avid devourer of music I set about finding out who this person was. His name was cropping up all over the place, in magazines, being name checked by a wide variety of artists and all over the early internet music pages (yes I really am old enough to recall the awful dial up tone when trying to connect to the internet).

So off I trotted to my local HMV to buy a copy and as I listened to it on the bus as I travelled home it totally blew my mind, so much so I remember missing my stop I was so engrossed.

From the opening bars of "Mojo Pin" with its lush reverb, guitar harmonics and Buckley's amazing voice to the beautiful closer "Dream Brother", this album showed me more than any other that was a world outside my guitar centric bubble full of songwriting, masterful lyrics and subtlety unlike anything else being released at the time.

You can tell through listening to the album that Jeff was a disciple of the past, bringing lost melodic writing skills and adding jazz and folk influences kicking and screaming into the angst ridden 90's but with a heartfelt honesty that can only be genuine. Having had to live with the legacy of his estranged father, singer/songwriter Tim Buckley, always seemed like burden to Jeff, having read their joint biography "Dream Brother" which I also recommend and you can tell he's poured those feelings into this album.

One thing that often gets overlooked is the other musicians and influences on the album. I absolutely love Mick Grondahl's bass playing, especially on the track "Eternal Life" (listen to that gnarly bass tone!) and Matt Johnson's drumming is just sublime throughout. A special mention also goes to Gary Lucas, who co-wrote the first 2 tracks and added "magical guitarness" according to the liner notes.

It was the co-written Buckley/Lucas title track, "Grace", that is the real stand out for me. Hated by recent GCSE music students as being one of the exam questions for a couple of years, it perfectly surmises his use of clever arrangements (check out the way the string lines emphasise the vocal line in the second version), emotional lyrics and clever guitar parts such as Lucas's arpeggiated intro riff.

From a guitar tone point of view its simple yet otherworldly, using just a telecaster, a clean amp and clever use of reverb. Listening to the emptiness in "Hallelujah" or the 12 string slide guitar at the start of "Last Goodbye" as an example. Also its worth checking out this Guitar Player article that dissects the guitar playing on the album:

http://www.guitarplayer.com/artist-lessons/1026/jeff-buckleys-grace-decoded/48195

Jeff sadly died before releasing another full studio album and while other live and demo releases are out there I always wonder what his next release would've been like. I believe he would've gone on to be a timeless musical icon that is so rare in modern times but one thing I am happy for is that we will always have "Grace".

Under The Radar - Tinariwen

In the first Under The Radar I'm visiting world music, aka any music that didn't originate in western culture. I find the term world music such a crude tag used as a catchall for a huge variety of great music that often gets missed due to the general nature of its categorisation. I mean would you really lump flamenco hip hop such as Ojos De Brujo into the same category as Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya or Cuban legends Buena Vista Social Club??

Anyway I digress, in my ongoing exploration of new music from around the globe I stumbled across Tinariwen about 18 months ago and immediately loved their unique approach to what is essentially Blues mixed with elements from their native Algeria and is often referred to as "Desert Blues".

Like other groups formed away from the influence of what we consider to be pop and rock, Tinariwen's unorthodox playing style has mutated their approach to the classic band instruments, such as electric guitar, bass and drum kit, and made it something quite unlike anything else.

A similar parallel can be seen in reggae music when away from rock'n'roll's guiding hand they ended up transforming the standard drum beat and putting the emphasis on the 3rd beat of every 4 instead of the alternate bass drum/snare pattern so common in mainstream music.

Tinariwen use their instruments to replicate the droning, monosyllabic chants of their home country, to protest and call for action against injustice or to spill their emotions much like the original blues musicians or punk bands such as The Clash or Billy Bragg.

While travelling in Morocco recently I listened to a lot of Tinariwen and although its not Algeria I really got the sense of where their approach to music came from. You can hear the moods of the desert climate and the hard graft in their songs without having to understand a word of arabic.

Go check them out now and let me know what you think. I'll have a new "Under The Radar" ready for you next week, enjoy!

Top 10 Album's of 2016

So here are the albums released this year that have been rocking the Studio Brewdio wheels of steel! There's quite an eclectic bunch here, from fallen rock gods to jazz upstarts, folk songstress's to groove funkatiers!

I've bound to have a missed a few so let me know whats been on your list this year and what you're looking forward to in 2017. For me it has to be the new Paramore album out in the spring.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my top 10 of 2016 in no particular order:

"Spacebound Apes" - Neil Cowley Trio

I'll start with this absolutely amazing album by Neil Cowley Trio that shows that a concept album doesn't have to be prog rock. From the floaty meditative sounds of "Weightless" and "Grace" to the uptempo delights of "The City and the Stars" and "The Sharks of Competition", this album was topped off by the beautiful score and story with lovely artwork by Sergio Sandoval. What a package!

Look at all the quavers!

Look at all the quavers!

"Blackstar" - David Bowie

This year we lost a musical titan in David Bowie. His ability over the years to mutate the music of the time to his own will and yet keep it distinctly his own is a trait I think no other artist has. This album was no exception. On retrospect it is clear he wrote it as his swan song, the epitaph to his career, even the dark production and his choice of jazz musicians playing out of their usual sphere's shows his forward thinking, knowing this would be his last offering and I think we're all thankful for his parting gift.

"Woman" - Justice

The sound of 70's rock meets disco in a electronic dance wrapping. Although not as good as their last album, Justice have kept the same formula that makes you think this is what would have happened if Led Zeppelin had found drum machines and synths instead of guitars and John Bonham.

"Culcha Vulcha" - Snarky Puppy

I wasn't too keen on their last Family Dinner vol.2 offering but this album restored my faith in the Puppies. Aside from the great playing you come to expect from all the musicians involved there's quite a wide range of styles on offer and the production is silky smooth. The experimentation with sounds shows that their return to the studio after so many great live albums is a different yet no less satisfying affair. I especially like the song "Gemini", that guitar tone!

"Live at Brixton" - Public Service Broadcasting

After loving last years studio offering, "The Race For Space", I'm happy to say that Public Service Broadcasting has managed to translate their story like informative music into a live album perfectly. Also covering material from previous releases, it perfectly encapsulates the Jean-Michael Jarre/Kraftwerk sound modernized. I thought it would struggle live but by the contrary it enhances the experience with great visuals and an almost more coherent sound. My personal highlights are "E.V.A" and "Gagarin".

"Spark and Echo" - mark Letteri

Let loose from his day job, Snarky Puppy's Mark Letteri certainly has a chance to flex his guitar playing muscles more with this album. There's elements of Jeff Beck and Tribal Tech era Scott Henderson here along with flashes of Wayne Krantz all wrapped in its own distinct package. With guitar at the fore, Letteri is clearing having fun exploring his pedal collection with my favourites being "Goonsquad" and an awesome cover of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World".

"theyesandeye" - Lou Rhodes

I first listened to this album while sitting around the campfire with my wife while on holiday in France and it matched the mood perfectly, relaxed and reflective. Lou Rhodes has certainly become more mellow since she moved on from playing with the brilliant Lamb. This is a more personal record than she could've achieved with her previous cohorts and yet is all the better for it.

"The Beautiful Game" - Vulfpeck

My favourite find of 2016, just when I was getting a bit bored with new bands, Vulfpeck came along and totally knocked my socks off. What you'd get if the classical studio recording bands of the 60's, such as the Wrecking Crew, were around today. A funky, jazzy, R'N'B explosion with great chops and even greater showmanship. On songs like "Animal Spirits" and "1 For 1, DiMaggio" they sound like the Jackson 5 on steroids and "Dean Town" is a groove masterclass, listen to that bass line!

"Emily's D+Evolution" - Esperanza Spalding

Already a jazz phenomenon due to her brilliant bass playing, song writing and singing, this album saw Esperanza Spalding take on a more rockier edge and I love it. Based on her alter ego, Emily, she uses that troupe to give herself another musical avenue to explore and it works. The high concept of the album pulls off various genre hoping tricks while always sounding like Esperenza. Imagine a psychedelic jazzy rock Tori Amos and you're only half way there.

"Via Zammata" - Dweezil Zappa

What a bad year Dweezil has had. After being sued by his own family over the use of his last name I'm so happy he was able to release this album. There's humour throughout, the metal stylings of "Dragon Master" is a good example, and sly digs at his on going feud with his brother and sister. You can hear his dad's influences on "Funky 15" and "Malkovich" and although Frank would be fuming at the situation the family is in he'd be smiling his head off at this album.

Record Of The Week 18/12/16 - "Man-Child" by Herbie Hancock

For my first record of the week I've decided to go for Herbie Hancock's "Man-child".

This album was first brought to my attention while I was at ACM by the late great Eric Roche. Aside from being an awesome acoustic guitarists he was my sight reading and theory lecturer before his untimely death in 2005. This album is one of my enduring memories of him and was my first real introduction to non guitar based jazz. Although to call it a jazz album does it a disservice as it has a huge funk influence and you can hear its footprints on later albums by groups such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

He used the first track on the album, "Hang Up Your Hang Ups" as a sight reading exercise and an example of how a song can speed up to create momentum and still be awesome musically.  It starts off at a pedestrian 108bpm and gradually rises to almost 130bpm! We threw away our metronomes and learnt how to actually play with other musicians instead of sticking to a regimented tempo and that lesson has always stuck with me.

Beside the first track there's great tunes throughout the album. The squelchy synth bass in "Steppin' In It" (which to me sounds like an Arp Odyssey), the bpm shifting jam-like "The Traitor", the chilled out vibe of "Bubbles" and the Fender Rhodes stylings on "Sun Touch".

There's also some great guitar playing throughout by Wah Wah Watson (of Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye fame), Blackbird McKnight (who later went on to become the guitarist for Parliament and Funkadelic) and David T. Walker (again a guitar player for the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye).

If you haven't heard this album before and are a fan of the funkier side of rock go check it out now.