Gear: Man About A Horse, Man About A Horse

In all the flurry of recent project completions and album releases, I thought I’d fire off a quick post here just ahead of my coming tours. (Make sure to check and for tour dates!)
I am so proud of Man About A Horse on the release of our first full-length album. I’d like to acknowledge the makers of fine musical instruments and accessories who helped make this possible.
BANJO: Nechville Midnight Phantom with Timbr-Tronic tone system
I picked up this banjo after two encounters with Nechville; first, at Tom’s booth at IBMA, and second, during a layover in Minnesota which I intentionally lengthened to give me time at their factory. Simply put, I found that the Timbr-Tronic system, which combines a wood tone ring, a ball-bearing system, and (in my case) a titanium cap on the wood ring, was able to reduce weight by several pounds and not sacrifice tone. It is the banjo I use when I play live with Man About A Horse as well as Gangstagrass, making it equally at home with bluegrass and hip-hop stage environments. It fits in a living room house concert and can fill a festival stage for 10,000. So naturally I felt most comfortable playing it in the studio, particularly because we were going for a live feeling in the session.
STRINGS: GHS PF170 Regular Light Stainless Steel Loop-End .09 .11 .13 .20w .09
I have been using GHS strings ever since I started playing with Gangstagrass, which would be about four/five years now. I think I broke one once. I do enjoy the tone and playability of a fresh set, but I can often go for weeks without changing them. They’re easy to change, though, with the slots on the quick-change tailpiece and the guitar-style tuning pegs on my Nechville.
Good strings. They don’t stick, they don’t slip, and they sound great.
CAPO: Shubb Capo Noir C5k-r for radiused fretboard
I haven’t had to buy a new capo for a very long time; I always use the same Shubb C5 capo, and I own one for each banjo. But with the purchase of my Nechville, which has a radiused fretboard, I had to get a radiused capo. So I thought I’d try something fancy, and I got this really cool black capo. With the dark look of the hardware on the Midnight Phantom, it fits in really well. It feels lighter and sleeker than the typical Shubb capo but does the job just as well.
Buying this capo was kind of like buying the banjo, in that I knew I needed a new piece of hardware, so I might as well get one I really liked. The Phantom has a really, really great neck. The radiused fretboard and wide guitar-style frets make it comfortably playable and somewhat guitar-esque while still totally appropriate for traditional bluegrass technique. It does look somewhat non-traditional, though, which is fine for the bands I play in. Part of that non-traditional look is the fifth string. The tuning peg has been moved to the headstock, and the string travels through a tunnel to get there. This makes the whole neck stronger, much smoother, way more playable, and easier to restring to boot! Plus you can’t beat that eye-catching look. I love when people come up to me confused by the vanishing string, and I get to explain where it goes, like a magic trick!
PICKS: Dunlop brass 94530 thumb .0225 index .018 middle
I use a brass thumbpick. Why? Two reasons.
One is that if everything is the same material, the sound will be more uniform. Yes, the thumb is stronger than the other fingers, and it can make the sound pop out more, but it just means you have to modulate your power.
The other is that I got tired of wearing through my plastic Dunlop thumbpicks. Only time I’ve ever had to replace a brass thumbpick is if I lost it, say, by removing my sweater, while wearing the thumbpick, at a jam at the Grisly Pear on the lower East Side, about seven years ago. Hypothetically. If anyone finds it, please let me know. That was a good pick.
Only time I’ve ever had to replace a brass fingerpick was if I bent the wings back and forth too much. Those can eventually weaken and break. Oh, and the one time I tried to use a fingerpick as a screwdriver. Don’t do this, folks.
I didn’t intentionally choose two different gauges for my middle and index, but I seem to have settled on it out of happenstance. If I can articulate a reason why it’s comfortable, I think it has to do again with that idea that different fingers are stronger than others. I feel like my middle is stronger than my index, and having a lighter gauge seems to soften it a little. Also, it’s bent further back than my index pick, which sticks out pretty straight. This makes sense to me when you look at how the fingers are curved as they approach the strings: the middle is longer, and so it has to curl up more to be in approximately the same place as the tip of the index. The resulting angles favor a straighter pick on the index and a more curved pick on the middle. Or so I think. What do I know?

Okay, that about does it. Oh, and I restring using a D’Addario Planet Waves Pro-Winder, but I don’t think I had to do that during the session. And that’s not even counting the pickup system I have installed… that’ll be a whole ‘nother post, I think.

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have any questions!

REVIEW: Epiphone Valve Jr

This is a great thing to have.
Like I said, I have two amps for my electric instruments. (I also have an acoustic amp which I will mention later.)
One is a pretty standard-issue starter modern amp. That would be the Crate FW65. It’s solid-state, which means it can get pretty loud pretty easily and doesn’t need quite as much maintenance as… well, I’ll get to that. It’s got three channels (clean, overdrive, and high gain), which I rarely use, and digital effects, or DSP, which I never use. If you’re like me and you have a loop pedal and you can’t have effects coming out of the amp, or you’re like me and you just want to plug in your instrument and get an awesome sound, these channels and effects aren’t for you. I do use this amp, but this review isn’t about that.
This is about the other amp. The other amp, i.e. the Valve Jr, is a tube amp. It’s also low-power, using only 5W, and physically small, with an 8″ speaker. This means two things.
First, it’s cheap. Okay, that’s not the first thing, but it is nice to keep in mind.
Second, it’s got an awesome sound. Because it’s a tube amp that is both low-power and small, it has an awesome sound.
Here’s basically why: Vacuum tubes used to be common in all sorts of electronics. These days the transistor is more common since it’s easier and cheaper to use. Tubes are a lot like light bulbs. They get hot, they burn out, you have to replace them, you can break them, all that.
But they distort the amplified signal in a very natural way. Turn up a tube amp, and you get some beautiful warm distortion that the best modern solid-state (non-tube) amps of today are all trying to model or digitally replicate or, with hybrid amps, directly incorporate. According not only to lots of players but also to the market, tube sound is the best sound.
Now, the way you get a tube amp to distort is to put lots of signal through the tubes, i.e. turn it up! But that gets real loud real fast. I have some very nice custom molded earplugs (which I should post about later, come to think of it) which I don’t want to have to use. I believe in great sound and reasonable decibels. So I don’t want to turn up loud, but I want to sound great. What do I do?
I use an amp that doesn’t use a lot of power, that only has a few tubes (in this case the Valve Jr has got one preamp tube and one power tube) and I drive it, in some cases, as hard as it’ll go.
Also, since the speaker in this combo is a little 8″ that’s been particularly voiced for the Valve Jr amp head, I’m pretty sure you get a little speaker distortion and a little extra impedance against the amp, meaning that it has to work a little harder, meaning even more distortion at lower levels!
Also notice that this amp has a grand total of 2 control thingies. You got your power switch, you got your volume knob. Turn it on, turn it up. Most tube amps will at least have either a second switch, a second knob, or more. The second switch is usually a standby switch, allowing you to literally warm up the tubes before putting sound through the amp. The second knob would be a gain control so you can drive the preamp and keep the power down, or keep the preamp low and clean while making the amp louder with the master volume. But this amp has the most basic control you will find. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. This makes the Valve Jr a very mod-friendly amp, as you can add pretty much whatever you want and not have to worry about extra stuff getting in the way.
I haven’t modified this amp much, but I did change the tubes!
Now, the stock preamp tube that came in this amp was an Electro-Harmonix tube that produced some very bass-thick distortion at early levels. I like that effect on guitar. But I use this amp for electric banjo as well, of course, hence this blog! So I changed the tube to a Sovtek tube which does not break up as early and gets a brighter sound in general. Better sound for my Crossfire which uses active Alembic pickups.



The six-space Boss BCB-60, in all the glory I can give it.
From right to left:
Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor
MXR Dyna Comp
Boss DS-1 Distortion
Line 6 Echo Park
Boss RC-20 Loop Pedal
The effect chain is pretty straightforward, except for two things.
1) The NS-2 uses a send/return loop. That’s where you put the pedals you want to suppress. I have the compressor and distortion in the loop. The delay pedal needs to be unsuppressed.
So the line goes – NS-2, comp, DS-1, back through the NS-2, to the delay.
2) Then once it hits the delay, it splits into stereo. The Echo Park is stereo in, stereo out, and it can take a mono signal and split it to stereo. I do this for two reasons. I have two amps, each with a different color. Also, the loop pedal is great, but sometimes I want to solo over a loop without getting muddy. When your solo and your background loop are coming out of the same amp, that can pose a problem.
Solution to everything? The L out from the delay pedal goes to the loop pedal, which goes to amp 1, a clean accurate amp. The R out bypasses the looper and goes straight to amp 2, the amp with more color.
Let me be clear: I am VERY happy with this setup. Would buy again. I may upgrade individual pedals or get a bigger board to expand the setup, but with an external wah pedal this board is a very solid basic setup.

My electric setup


Amps, effects and all. Remarkably portable – the least necessary part is the larger amp, as I get better tonal color from the little Epiphone.
I’ll go into detail in another post.