Hear your guitar better when playing live

Here is a very typical situation: You’re playing in a club, and as with most places there is not a lot of room. You’re standing close to your amp and one of two things is happening (or both); 1) You can’t hear your guitar very well, or 2) You’re told that you’re too loud.

Sound familiar? This happens all the time, and if you crank the amp up to the point where you can hear it, the audience gets pummeled. This is especially problematic with solos, as increased gain means increased signal compression, which can make it even harder to hear distinctly.

Here is the solution: In-ear monitors, preferably wireless.

Why would any club band need to resort to in-ear monitoring, especially for guitar? Because it’s the most effective monitoring method, takes up the least amount of space, is easy to carry, never feeds back, and cuts down on stage volume.

Quick aside: I common response is, “yeah but I’d rather tip my amp back, put it on a chair or use and amp stand. Yes, and you typically lose most of your low-end response and whatever tone you’ve been working is completely altered.

Whether or not you currently put the guitars through the monitors, your band has some type of mixer, and at least the vocalist has a monitor. So now all you need is an ear-monitoring setup, and a way to feed your guitar signal into the mixer.

A decent ear-monitoring system is not cheap, and a new one with earpieces will run close to $500. But there is always eBay, and I’ve scored a couple used transmitters and receivers at decent prices. But simply put, with ear monitoring you’ll hear the vocals better, hear your guitar better than you ever have, plus have a better idea of how it actually sounds. Ear monitors also cure the habit of over-playing and over-singing in order to hear yourself. Once you go this route, people might even ask you to turn up (a first for most guitarists).

My own setup is a Shure PSM200 with Shure SE315 ear monitors that have the form-fitting foam earpieces. The foam earpieces fit very snuggly and effectively “noise cancel” the ambient stage volume. I use only one earpiece, in the ear towards the drummer. This cuts the perceived drum volume way down, and with my open ear I get a feel for the general overall mix, but at a comfortable level.

It’s easy enough to mic the guitar amplifier, but my preference is to use a direct line. Radial Engineering makes a direct box called the JDX, which is a reactive speaker load box that goes between the head and cab (or speaker line in a combo). The JDX feeds a direct XLR line right to the mixer. The signal to the speaker is unaffected, and the line to the mixer sounds great, typically much better than what you can get with a mic. And you don’t have to deal with the mic getting jostled, or other resonances coming up through the mic stand. It also helps take room acoustics out of the picture, so if your amp is jammed in some little corner it will help it sound less like crap.

For all but the smallest clubs, the ideal setup is using the guitar amp to get the right tone, and using the PA to help create a balanced mix. But to do this you actually have to know what you sound like, and ear monitors are the best way to accomplish this. I use them everywhere, even in small clubs where I’m often only inches from my amp.

Because you’ll no longer be cranking a floor monitor (or your amp), you’re less likely to damage your hearing, have headaches or ringing ears. And if you’re also the sound guy (like me) it’s one less monitor to haul, there’s more space on the stage, and monitor-induced feedback is eliminated. One successful local band essentially required that any member have in-ears. If not, the player was responsible for bringing his or her own floor monitor and cables. That’s a little militant, but for logistics, setup and sound quality it made sense. Talk to a player that uses ear monitors on a regular basis, and you’ll find a convert for life.

Ear monitoring is not just for pros; the quality of the systems has gone up, and the prices have come down. Most bands that don’t use them have not tried them, or already have a significant investment in their floor monitors . But if you are planning to spend several hundred dollars apiece on good floor monitors, think about putting that money towards in-ears.



Alnico magnets and guitar pickups – How to choose?

The heart of any electric guitar is the pickup, and pickups play a huge role in the overall sound of any guitar. So it only makes sense that when players look to improve their sound, the pickup is the most common modification. There are dozens of reputable pickup makers to choose from; from large volume producers like Seymour Duncan – who virtually invented the aftermarket pickup market – to boutique winders making vintage style pickups with OCD-like fervor. And to a great degree they are all working with the same basic materials: Wire, magnets, screws, and various methods to hold it all together.

Arcane Strat Special Pickup

For an item of such critical sonic importance, there are not many ways to quantify their design. Besides the typical specification of DC resistance, which is a function of wire gauge and number of turns of wire, magnet type is the other most commonly specified feature of a pickup. The choices are typically a ceramic magnet or some type of Alnico, which stands for Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt. Alnico magnet materials have been around for decades, and are the material of choice for the majority of high quality pickups. The benefits of Alnico material is that it’s efficient (think in terms of power-to-weight ratio) and it’s also very stable and holds its power well over time.

There are several different grades of Alnico, and the different grades are based on their metallurgical makeup. The most popular for guitar pickups are Alnico 2, 3, and 5; oftentimes referred to as II, III and V. Generally speaking the grades are not in order of “goodness” and the numbers simply denote a particular material composition. Besides what magnet grade is being used, the pickup maker can also vary the amount of magnetic charge (Gauss) the magnet has. Magnets bought in bulk are usually shipped un-charged, and the pickup maker energizes the magnet as part of the build process.

There has been a lot written on the qualities of the various Alnico grades, and the how a magnet material affects the sound of a pickup. So while I’m not blazing any new trails, here are my general opinions on the impact of Alnico grades, gained from my own personal experience and experimentation.

Disclaimer: There are so many other factors in making a pickup – wire gauge, winding tension, winding pattern, potting – that attributing the tonal characteristics solely to magnet material is somewhat folly. Also, some magnet grades are closely tied to pickup style, so you’re unlikely to see a high output metal pickup using Alnico 2 material.

Alnico 2 – Alnico 2 is used most often as a bar magnet material in humbucking pickups. This was the grade used in the early “PAF” pickups, and as a result is commonly employed in vintage-flavored designs. Examples of pickups using Alnico 2 material are the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover, Alnico II Pro, and the Arcane ’57 Experience. Pickups using Alnico 2 material tend to have a slightly soft attack, generally warm tonal characteristics and a slightly loose, bouncy feel. Wound strings have a somewhat woody tone and for some may lack enough definition. While pickups of this sort are generally not wound for high output, when pushed they develop a nice singing quality and make a pretty nice pickup for leads. Players who like to work their amps hard versus using pedals will dig Alnico 2.

Alnico 3 – Alnico 3 magnet material is used in both Gibson humbucker type designs and Fender Telecaster style pickups. Common in early Telecaster bridge pickups, Alnico 3 has good attack qualities, and a clear high end that some would describe as “grainy” and complex. In humbucker pickups, they create a nice balance of warmth, bite and clarity. This is the material used in the Arcane Triple Clone, which is modeled after the 1960 Gibson PAF. Tighter sounding than Alnico 2 pickups, lead tones are crunchy and pleasantly tight, and don’t get overly mushy in the neck position. A nice pick for both rich complex cleans and medium gain rock.

Alnico 4 – Not as common as the other more traditional materials, Alnico 4 is used by few pickup winders such as David Allen, Bare Knuckles, and Mojotone. The opinion is that Alnico 4 combines the warm feel of  Alnico 2 but with better attack and note definition. We really like the tone and pick response of the David Allen P-51 humbucker, which is an Alnico 4 pickup.

Alnico 5 – Likely the most popular magnet material, Alnico 5 shows up in both humbucking and single coils designs; Strats, Teles, and P-90’s. Alnico 5 pickups are characterized by strong output, clear tone, and punchy attack. This all sounds pretty good, and just about every conventionally constructed Stratocaster pickup uses Alnico 5. Some of most popular humbuckers use Alnico 5 including many Seymour Duncan models including the SH-1, JB,  and just about every Rio Grande pickup. Compared to Alnico 3 they may lack a little sonic complexity, but for those about to rock, Alnico 5 is a very good choice.

The Wrap – As they like to say in commercials, “your results may vary.” Your own experience with your own guitar will be the best teacher. Fortunately, pickups are neither very expensive, or hard to install. So do a little testing of your own and see you what you think. You can always drop me a line at sales@upfrontguitars.com.