The OSC Toy-Box - Guitars & Stuff!
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
The "OSC Toy-box" articles look at some of the instruments and equipment I use when making my music. My ethos regards equipment is always to avoid getting the latest product, or whatever is fashionable at any given time. Instead, aim to get something that's more of a long term investment and/or a little bit quirky and unusual. Learn this equipment like the back of your hand and really exploit its every potential.
Whatever you do, don't break the bank or get in to debt. You can make very cool music that's distinctive and uniquely your own sound without spending a fortune on the latest hardware or software. As you read these article, please remember, this collection of instruments and equipment has been amassed over the course of 15+ years, and wherever possible, I've avoided paying full retail prices, instead opting for second hand, ex-demo, or in some cases even rescuing from the trash!
Fender Telecaster 60s Reissue
My workhorse electric guitar is a Mexican made Fender Telecaster in Olympic-white with a mint-green scratch plate and rosewood fingerboard.
It’s a reissue of the 1960s version of the Telecaster. I chose this is at it's a close replica of the guitar Steve “The Colonel” Cropper played in the 1960s.
If you don't know Cropper, go and look him up. He's got a pretty cool legacy, had an amazing career and is of course, a very tasteful player.
Over the years I've carried out a few modifications to improve it's options and playability.
I added a Seymour Duncan P90 Humbucker in the middle position (between the neck and bridge pickups), along with a 5 way switch, meaning it’s very versatile; capable of both bright and clean sounds, as well as dirty, fuzzy Blues.
The original saddle used a 3-piece design (like the 1960s model) however this plagued the guitar with tuning issues and I recently upgraded it to a fully adjustable 6-piece brass saddle, which improved tuning and resonance.
Like my Nord Electro 2, I bought this whilst still living at home with my parents. At the time, the Pound was very strong against the Euro and I bought it from Thomann, the large German online instrument retailer. It cost under £400, which is considerably less than what this model costs today.
Squier Stratocaster (Skip Find)
One day I was walking past a skip at the side of the road and spotted amongst the rubbish in the skip a Squier Stratocaster with a cracked neck. I dug the guitar out, took it home and stripped it down and cleaned it up.
I replaced the neck with a second hand neck off eBay (that cost about £25) and replaced the (also cracked) scratch plate with a mint green one to match the Telecaster. It also needed a new whammy bar and a couple of the saddle pieces were missing, but they're pennies on eBay.
It plays nicely but is still a bit scratchy (electronically). Rather than fix it bit by bit, I plan to upgrade all the electronics in one go, at some point in the future. I may also paint it white to match the Telecaster. I haven't yet used it on a recording, but I’m confident with a little more TLC in the months to come it’ll be a great addition to my arsenal.
Taylor 410 Dreadnought Acoustic
When I was a teen alongside learning the piano, I was really into Bob Dylan and 1960s/1970s acoustic Blues/Folk music. I had a cheap acoustic guitar and had taught myself chords and some generic Folk picking patterns.
From the ages of 16 to 19 I worked in a musical instrument shop at the weekends. It sold keyboards, guitars and so on. When I was 18 I worked the whole summer and blew most of my earnings on this Taylor (as I was eligible for a staff discount).
It plays like a dream, as every Taylor does. The action is unbeatably sympathetic and responsive. It's ageing well too and has deepened and warmed up significantly over the years.
I think if I was to buy an acoustic guitar today, I'd probably go for a Martin, Guild or Lowden as they tend to have a deeper, maturer tone. However at the tender age of 18, the sweetness and glossy tone of the Taylor won me over. I don't regret it, as this is very much what I consider an Instrument-for-life and I still enjoy picking out tunes on it.
Obviously, it doesn't get much use when making Retrowave music, however you can hear it on the song “Unfinished Business” on the EP Him.
After buying the above Taylor, I became paranoid about damaging it or having it stolen, so I bought a cheap beater to take to friends houses for hanging out and jamming etc. Still working at the guitar shop, I was able to (with staff discount) pick up a Baby Taylor for under £200 (in about 2002/03). I used it a lot as a travel guitar and generally left it lying around the house. It's pretty beat up these days but is full of character and plays well. Just for the record, I got my Baby Taylor before Ed Sheeran made them cool!
I don't think I've used it on any OSC tracks but at university I used it extensively with recording. Being smaller, it lacks bottom-end depth in tone. This makes it ideal for slotting into a mix alongside other instruments.
Also, if I sit down to write music on the guitar, it's usually this one. I'm not particularly tall and so the small size of the Baby Taylor makes it extremely comfortable to use, especially when sitting at a desk with a pen and paper.
I had a scare with this guitar recently. I picked it up to play in the spring, having not played it for a long time and the action was high enough to drive a bus under! On closer inspection, the body around the saddle/bridge was bowed extensively. After a little googling, I decided to try a repair before declaring the guitar beyond saving.
I stripped it down to just the body (as the neck unbolts) and left it on the radiator to dry out for a few weeks. Confident it was completely dry I dampened only the affected area and placed a heavy weight on it (I used a Japanese-to-UK power transformer that weighs about 5KG). I had to prop it at an angle as the back of the guitar is curved and I didn't want to affect this curvature.
After a few hours, I removed the damp cloth (the yellow cloth in the first picture) and left it for another two weeks with even more weight applied on a piece of timber placed across the affected area. I should note that I don't have the appropriate sized clamps, but with about 8-10KG of weight, I felt that was sufficient).
After putting it back together and restringing it, it seems to be better. Not factory perfect, but certainly improved. I'm going to use lighter gauge strings on it (it was previously using 13's) and maybe keep it away from the window where it usually lives (as I suspect drafts and/or condensation may have been a factor in this problem). Hopefully it will continue to stay playable and be the nice, beater guitar it's served as for the last 16+ years.
Resonator guitars are an odd and unusual relic from the pre-electric guitar era. They were invented as a means to make guitars louder, enabling them to better compete with the horn sections in Swing and Jazz bands. The bridge (where the strings are held under tension) is connected to thin metal cones (a bit like speaker cones) that transfer the string vibrations, which then resonate against the brass body, creating natural, acoustic amplification. They are very loud, although obviously not as loud as amplified electric-guitars.
There are a few variant styles, but they're mostly based two principles; the Tricone style (like mine) which uses 3x 4.5-5" cones connected by a T-shaped bridge; and the Dobro style (think Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms" album cover) which uses a single 10-12" cone, with the bridge mounted at the centre of the cone.
With the advent of the electric guitar, resonator guitars were instantly rendered obsolete and the second hand resonator guitar market was flooded. Poor Blues musicians in the deep south of the USA couldn't yet afford electric guitars, but wanting louder instruments for gigging, snapped up these cheap, second hand resonator guitars. Resonators therefore became synonymous with Blues music and have remained in niche production to this day.
It became fashionable to set them up with a very high action, use very heavy gauge strings and play them in open tuning with a slide.
This particular model was purchased in 2006/07 when I was working with Blues bands and attempting to write/produce Blues inspired alternative Folk-Rock. This is a cheap-as-chips miscellaneous branded one. It's called "Johnson" but I expect it comes out of the same factory as several of the budget resonator brands you see online.
I upgraded the T-Piece bridge and resonator cones with National Resophonic parts. National Resophonic is a company that has evolved out of The National String Instrument Corporation who originally invented Resonator guitars in the 1920s. Think of this upgrade like the Resonator equivalent of replacing the pickups of a cheap Stratocaster clone with "Made In America" Fender Stratocaster pickups.
It has a chrome plated brass body (that appears to be corroding somewhat with age, I need to give it proper polish), and I upgraded the tuning heads with Grovers for better tuning stability. The strings are resonator specific and weighted at 15' gauge. Typical acoustic guitar strings would be 11'-12' gauge. I tend to like heavier strings and use 13' gauge on my Taylor, but 15' gauge is almost unheard of on normal guitars. The strings on this really are very heavy (but they help make it sing with a rich tone as heavier strings tend to yield deeper tone with more resonance and sustain).
I play it with a beast of a slide! It's called the "Bronze Bomber". I picked it up online from an American guitar shop when I bought the resonator. It weighs 180 grams (6.3oz), needs packing with paper in order to fit on my little finger and really helps the resonator come to life (tonally speaking).
Naturally this guitar sees very little use these days, as I'm musically in a very different place to that of when I bought it. I occasionally sit down and have a play, but it mostly sits dormant, awaiting something more acoustic-Blues/Rock inspired to be used on. That said, I have put it to use a couple of times on the odd OSC thing. I think it’s on “Unfinished Business” from the Him EP or “Only One” from the Her EP (I forget which, maybe it was both) and I remember using it on an old Super Mario Galaxy remix I did some years ago.
Boss GT-001 Guitar Effects Processor
I've never been overly satisfied with software guitar amp emulation (including some of the really expensive software I've tried in the past like Native Instruments and Waves). I took a punt last year on this in the hope of getting more satisfying guitar tones after reading very positive reviews.
The Boss GT-001 is a tabletop version of the famed Boss GT-100 and is a great little unit. The Boss GT-100 is pretty legendary in the gigging/session guitarist world. It's a jack-of-all-trades box of tricks that basically condenses all of Boss's effects pedals into one neat little unit and couples it with multiple amplifier emulations. This tabletop version is small, stylish and has a built in AD converter with microphone preamp (inc. +48V) and stereo aux input, meaning it can serve as an audio interface; a great feature for budding guitarist-songwriters looking to produce their own music. I don't use the audio interface options, but it's worth mentioning nonetheless.
The patches are customisable on the unit or via custom software and USB connectivity and there are loads of factory presets as well as tons of empty save slots for your own settings. You can also download signature artist patch settings from the Boss website (the patches being interchangeable with GT-100 patches).
If you've read my other OSC Toy Box articles, you've probably noticed by now that I'm a bit of a Roland fanboy. With Boss being owned by Roland and them undoubtedly sharing design resources and technology means the menu systems and structures all feel very familiar. Furthermore, it's got the same aesthetic (brushed metal, painted black, same fonts on labels and same looking OLED) as my Jupiter-50, which is very satisfying on a purely cosmetic front.
I use this for my guitar amp emulation when recording guitar. It absolutely nails that classic Roland JC-120 guitar amp sound with bundles of Roland style chorus. It also has lovely subtle drive and distortion ideal for that Funk-strut style of strumming. You'll be hearing it a lot its guitar tones on my forthcoming album as there is guitar on several songs, ranging from subtle funk drive, clean chorus and even a really heavy 80s stadium Rock distortion tones for power chord work.
This particular one was an ex-display model so I saved about 20% on its retail price.
I’ve got loads of harmonicas (about 17 and counting), which have occasionally come out with OSC projects. I bought my first diatonic harmonica when I was 15 as I was listening to lots of Bob Dylan at the time and I thought diatonic harmonicas were a good and cheap way to get into another musical instrument alongside my piano studies.
In the years that I worked in the above-mentioned musical instrument shop, I gradually amassed a collection that covered me for every key (in major diatonic at least) as well as a couple of oddities like a low F and a 14-hole D that gives you an extra octave at the low end. Very cool for rhythmical "chugging" on fast Blues numbers.
I used to play Blues harmonica in a band and have a very special microphone for them. The diaphragm is a new-old stock Shure 520 from the late 1950s, but it’s rehoused in an Astatic JT-30 microphone chassis. It was custom made by Mic-Gaskets who re-powder coated the body, re-chromed the grill, adapted the stand mount to house a volume control and fitted the alternate diaphragm using a custom-made rubber mount. It connects with an unusual, old-fashioned threaded connector and pictured also is the 1/4" jack adapter for this strange, vintage connector. All together, it's a thing of beauty and sounds incredible through guitar amps.
These types of microphones were originally low-budget, municipal microphones. They were typically mounted on table-stands (see picture on the right, lifted from a Google image search) and would be used to make announcements over PA systems in places like airports and bus stations. They could be easily unscrewed from their stands and cupped in the hand, making them ideal for harmonica players to hold.
Tonally they are crude, dynamic microphones that don't have a great amount of detail. The simplest way for Harmonica players to amplify on stage in the 1950s was by plugging there microphones into a guitar amplifier. The combination of crude microphone and electric guitar amplifier with drive and distortion would give a very distinctive Electric-Blues harmonica tone that is now regarded as the go-to sound for Electric-Blues harmonica players.
The Astatic JT-30 (which is what the outer casing of my microphone is from) was a very popular microphone in its day however it utilised a piezo-crystal element in its diaphragm and although delivering a superior tone to some of their rivals (such as the Shure 520), they were extremely fragile. One drop could break them. Furthermore, moisture in the air corrodes the crystal element over time and as a result there are very few left alive and working today. This mean there exists a glut of broken Astatic JT-30s which, like mine, can be refurbished and used to rehouse new-old stock diaphragms from other more robust microphones of the era (mostly Shure and Electro-Voice).
Fender Champion 600
I primarily used this when gigging as a Harmonica player. It's a lovely little amp to begin with, with valves used in both the pre-amplification and power-amplification circuits. I replaced the factory valves (unbranded and "Made in China") with Russian made Sovtek valves and replaced the generic (Fender branded "Made in China") speaker driver with a Jensen driver for improved tone. It has a low-gain and high-gain input for different drive amounts, and simply one volume knob. Notice the volume knob goes to twelve? That's two louder than ten!
It's very rich and warm, and despite its very modest size, it really packs a punch. Furthermore, the Nord Electro 2 sounds fantastic through this with its electric-piano sounds.
Through these guitars and harmonicas, we've looked a bit of my own musical journey and what I used to get up to before making Retrowave. Although not central to my Retrowave production, they're an important part of my musical development and growth. Furthermore, having these at my disposal means I've got the scope to attempt new and different things in the future, should my creativity take me that way.
Whilst it can seem a little like hoarding, I'd always recommend not getting rid of music equipment unless you absolutely have to (or feel no emotional attachment to it), as you never know when it may come in useful. For example the harmonica on "Unfinished Business": I'd tried a few things in that instrumental break such as a guitar solo, synthesiser solo and a piano solo, but nothing was having the emotional impact I wanted. I took a stab at doing something simple and melodic on the harmonica, in the way Bob Dylan or Neil Young might, and it completely clicked. Despite the EP being Retrowave inspired pop, this out-of-genre instrument nested in there well and helped make the song come to life with more heartfelt emotion than anything else I tried.
A Final Word on Modification
One other thing you may have noticed is that I've modified and/or DIY'd a number of aspects about these instruments. Whilst this is partly to improve their playability, it also helps them sound that little bit different from the stock sound they had when they left the factory. Many other people with have these same instruments, but they won't necessarily sound the same as mine due to my modifications. Furthermore, this helps keep things sounding like me and maintains a sense of uniqueness in my approach.
Lastly, if you're curious about modifying but don't feel confident enough to do so, take solace in knowing that I've never attended any courses or trained in any of these sorts of modifications. Ultimately, this stuff is nuts, bolts, wood and wires, and there are stacks of websites and videos online to learn from. Be confident, research, learn about what you want to do, and have a go! If I can do it, anyone can.