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StarF**ker Central, Part I – Tony Levin

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a number of my musical idols. Being that I’m not all that famous myself, it’s cool that so many of them are down-to-earth enough to have a conversation with a relative nobody like myself. Here, first entry in an occasional series about my brief encounters with musical “heroes.”

Tony Levin is generally considered to be a very cool, somewhat quirky guy. He’s a great bassist and an innovative musician (among other instruments, he also plays a Chapman Stick). His book “Beyond the Bass Clef” is a fun read, with gig anectdotes and studio stories – and the odd crazy invention (bass rig with capuccino machine) and oatmeal cookie recipe(!) It was during a book signing that I got to have a brief conversation with him, and I just so happened to have a fun story to tell, which he quite clearly appreciated.

As you may have read in a previous post, I own several pair of Tony’s “Funk Fingers” (small drumsticks that attach to a bassist’s fingers for a percussive sound.) Tony used them on several tunes with Peter Gabriel. In the meantime, I actually used them on two of Second Story’s more popular tunes, and as a result, if you came out to see us, you were quite likely to see them in action at least once.

A friend and regular audience member came up to me after a show one evening all excited – he told me that, the previous weekend, he had watched Peter Gabriel’s “Secret World Live” video. “And his bassist – he had those crazy drumstick thingies like you have!” I, of course, filled him in that Tony was actually the inventor of those “drumstick thingies.” As you can imagine, when I recounted that story, Tony got a nice laugh out of it.

I found him to be generous with his time, attentive to his fans, and quite friendly overall. Cool guy. And he signed my book.

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My Hoyt 6-string Fretless (Mark Gollihur Signature Model)

Yeah, you read that right – the gorgeous work of art in my hands to the right is my “signature model” bass – made entirely to my specifications by Karl Hoyt, luthier and family friend (he’s also made 3 basses for my dad). I even sent him a sketch of the body design – I wanted the extra long upper horn for balance (that’s a looooong neck with lotsa tuners on it) and a short lower horn for easy access to the upper range.

I love my bass; it has a through-body maple neck with an ebony fingerboard, and amazing side wings that are a “hippie sandwich” of wenge (an African wood with the color of chocolate-y goodness) surrounding a gooey center of mahogany. It even features an amazing hand-made bridge of solid ebony – and matching ebony knobs! The bass is truly a work of art.

The electronics are also custom-tailored for this axe; a Bartolini preamp blends the undersaddle piezo pickup for natural “acoustic” sound, while the (now quite rare) active Lane Poor magnetic soapbar pickup sits in the “sweet spot.”

This bass, which I’ve strung with LaBella Deep-Talkin’ Black Tapewound strings, sounds amazingly woody and warm – it just has this wonderful singing tone with no hint of nasal ugliness. And with its low action, the mwah that you can produce with this thing is just unstoppable.

This was the first 6-er that Karl had made, and it was also his first neck-thru, if I remember correctly. He has made quite a few very cool basses, including an acoustic-electric and a couple of electric 5-ers for my dad (1 fretted, one fretless). In fact, if you look back into my July posting archive, you’ll see a mock ad (from a “Wordless Wednesday” post) that my Dad and I did up just to break his stones. Karl’s a funny guy with a goofy sense of humor – and he makes cool basses.

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Upgrading EMG pickups to 18 volts – one of my favorite mods!

I’ve long hosted this information at my website, but I figured putting it here might help more people find it. I get emails from people occasionally who found it, did it, and just have to tell me how great it made their bass sound. So here it is!

Getting More “Oomph” from Your EMGs
The simple $.79 mod that may save you from buying new pickups

I find it interesting that EMG’s have seemingly fallen out of favor with most modern bassists. I’ve been using them for more than 10 years, and with the exception of my killer Hoyt fretless 6 (which has a Lane Poor and piezos) all of my basses have had them. And I’m very happy about that, and have no plans to change them.
The fact is, most people have grown tired of that signature EMG sound, which has become somewhat eclipsed by newer, boutique pickups (which, don’t get me wrong, rock) — and EMGs have become somewhat passe’ to many modern bassists on that ever elusive search for the perfect tone.

So I was thinking — if everyone else has moved on, am I just down with the old sound, too stubborn to change? Has the “in” sound moved on, leaving me hopelessly clinging to the “modern/active” tone of the past? Am I simply “out of touch” with the essential tone for the modern bassist?

Pauses for effect…
Nah. I realized that all of my EMG-outfitted basses of the recent past have had one major improvement, which — for me — has made all the difference in the world. The amazing thing is that those selfsame EMG pickups you already have (and are considering replacing) may have that tone you’re looking for, lurking in the dark recesses of some forward-thinking design. And you can coax it out with a little effort, some basic soldering, and a little bit of pocket change.

The smart folks at EMG had the thoughtfulness to make their pickups able to handle voltages from 9v to 27v, reportedly to make them phantom-powerable (another intriguing thought, but the subject of another digression.) Some enterprising folks discovered that adding a second battery (thereby powering the pickups at 18 volts rather than the stock 9) makes an enormous difference in the voicing, sound quality, and headroom that EMGs can provide. That “choked” or “signature EMG” tone is no more. Clarity and “oomph” is yours for the taking. This mod improved all of my preset sounds, from the “rumble and click” setting to the “balls and chunk” preset. And it only takes 15 minutes and costs like a buck to try it; and for the faint at heart, it’s totally reversible.

Think I’m nuts? This is directly from the EMG Site:

“Can I use multiple batteries?
Yes. If you’ve got room for multiple batteries in your guitar, you can use two batteries wired in series to power your onboard circuitry at 18 volts. The output level will not appreciably increase, but you’ll have increased headroom and crisper transients. This is especially useful for percussive/slap bass styles where you can generate enormous instantaneous power levels across the entire frequency spectrum. You can also wire two batteries in parallel to provide a regular 9 volt supply but with much longer lifespan between battery changes.
Although most of our products are rated for 27 volts, we recommend a maximum of 18 volts. The additional benefits of 27 vs. 18 volts are negligible.”

Hold that iron!
All the standard disclaimers apply…
Please don’t blame me if you screw up your bass… this information is for you to implement at your own risk. However, this is stupid-easy. And I have personally performed this mod on 4 basses (3 of mine and a co-worker’s, who then helped two of his friends do it) and everyone has been tickled pink thus far. Though I’m pretty sure that the mod works with all EMG active pickups and circuits – you might want to check with EMG to make sure you won’t fry anything.

For instance, from EMG Tech Support:

“The EMG-HZ pickups are passive, not active. There is active tone circuitry in some (maybe all?) LTD basses that requires a battery. You can run the circuitry on 18 volts without damage to the circuitry as long as the modification is done correctly.”

This won’t work (obviously) on EMG Selects (they’re passive, silly) and I don’t have information on whether this works on any other active pickups by manufacturers other than EMG. I don’t know if this works with your Ibanez, or your Warwick, or what. Though I’m pretty sure that it’s an approved and kosher upgrade on the Woogie Fritzmeyer Signature Model. Got it? Good.

So on we go! It’s not tough, if you have moderate experience with a soldering iron.
Highly recommended – read ALL of the instructions before you start!

Materials required:

  • Soldering iron and solder
  • 9V battery “clip”
  • Something to snip and strip wiring (wire stripper, teeth, whatever you got)
  • Electrical tape
  • A couple of new batteries
  • a 9V battery holder is preferable – it keeps the battery from bouncing around in the cavity. (Surrounding the batteries with foam is a decidedly low-tech but effective approach, as well.)

The Instructions:

Figure 1: What you’ve got now.

The clip for the 9 Volt battery currently attaches directly to one of the prongs on the 1/4 stereo output jack; this way you’re not draining the battery when nothing is plugged in.

  1. Take out your current battery.
  2. Figure out how you’re going to jam 2 batteries into that little compartment (an important step – you may need an extra length of wire or some creative thinking, depending on your bass.)
  3. Heat the iron and desolder the black wire from the existing 9v clip from the output jack.
  4. Solder the red contact of the new 9v clip to the black contact of the existing one and completely insulate with the electrical tape.
  5. Solder the black wire of the new clip to the output jack where the old one attached.
  6. Do whatever else you need to do while you’re there — put in the battery holder, if applicable.
  7. Put in two fresh batteries – mixing old and new will give less than stellar results.
  8. Play and be stunned and amazed. If not stunned and amazed, reverse steps to negate, or use “Upgraded to 18v electronics” as a unique selling point when you get rid of this bass.

Figure 2: How it will look.

Here’s what it will (essentially) look like when you’re done (but don’t forget to insulate the wire-to-wire solder joint to prevent shorting.)

For those afraid of commitment:
Fellow TBL’er (The Bottom Line Bass Digest) Rick Blair suggests this alternate method which simply involves creating a harness with a three pack of battery clips:
“Wire 3 battery connectors in series and connect a battery to two of them and the third connector to the original battery connector in the bass. If you ever decide to go back to a single 9V battery, merely unplug the harness.”

Important Note: this section has been recently updated due to some people having trouble with this method. Please completely think the whole thing through as you’re doing it to make sure polarity is correct – reversed voltage may damage your preamp or pickups.

Figure 3: The temporary harness
(Again, don’t forget to insulate the solder joints to prevent shorting!)

For the real wackos:
You can, if slightly off-kilter in the noggin, even add a THIRD battery to increase to 27v. However, I’m told that the upgrade from 18 to 27 is not nearly as dramatic as that from 9 to 18; and it’s probably not worth the extra battery costs or trouble to make room in an already crowded cavity.

Hey, this mod is also applicable to guitars as well. I used to have an old Peavey six-string that screams.

Good luck, and keep living the low life!

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