Low End Theory: For Those About to Rock...

Illustration for article titled Low End Theory: For Those About to Rock...

By Brendan I. Koerner

I harbor no illusions regarding my future career path. Having already entered my fourth decade on Spaceship Earth, I'm pretty much stuck with writing at this point. And it's not just my advanced age that limits my options—I doubt the NBA is looking for any 154-pound power forwards, nor is there much call for monolingual secret agents. So journalistic serfdom it is, a profession that ranks somewhere between commercial fisherman and rodeo clown.


Yet a small flame of hope flickers in my heart: maybe, just maybe, I can still make it as a musician. Never mind that I've got an atrocious ear and less-than-nimble fingers; a man can still dream of being an Iommi-like guitar hero, can't he? And part of that dream means surrounding myself with the gadgetry required to sound halfway decent, rather than like a nine-year-old hacking out "Rock Around the Clock" on his Harmony Jr.

Thankfully, putting on rock-deity airs can be done on the cheap. After the jump, how to gadgetize your wannabe self for under $50. PLUS: Another entry for the Low-End Hall of Fame!

Digital Tuner
Yes, I realize that the cheaper way to tune your guitar is with a traditional pitch pipe—or, if you're really a skinflint, with an online pitch pipe. But the sad reality is that many of us musical aspirants lack the biological talent to sync up two sounds. That means we're forced to rely on electronic tuners, which used to feature analog needles. But those have largely been dinosaured in favor of digital versions. Some, like the Musician's Friend DT220, replicate the needle effect on an LCD screen; others, notably the Dean Markley 6007, simply light up when you've reached the appropriate note. I'm actually a fan of the former approach, but that's probably just because I grew up with the needle gauges. The bottom line is that, no matter what the Guitar Center salesman tells you, you needn't spend more than $10 on a tuner. (Additional caveat: at last check, those Guitar Center folks work on commission, so be wary of upselling.)

Illustration for article titled Low End Theory: For Those About to Rock...

There are numerous free online metronomes; this one is my favorite, due to the familiar and easily adjustable user interface. But if your practice room is a dank basement, perhaps your wireless connection won't reach. In that case, you can employ the omnipresent Qwik Time QT-3, which features 200 speed settings (or roughly 184 more than you'll probably ever need, you amateur you). Even more key is the headphone jack; no way you can hear this thing click when your amp is cranked up to 11ear-splitting levels.


Effects Pedal
The high price of effects pedals has always baffled me. I remember buying a used Turbo Rat in 1996, and being utterly shocked that my musical friends considered it a "good deal" at $100. There are certainly plenty of budget options around nowadays, most notably those sold under the revived Danelectro brand (purchased by the Evets Corporation in the mid-'90s). They've got a line of highly stylized effects pedals, such as the "BLT" Slap Echo and the Fab Series D-3 Metal, all for under $20. I've tried this one, and it's decent enough—a nice substitute for my lack of vibrato skills. But I'm somewhat more enamored of such Behringer pedals as the AM100. If nothing else, they seem more sturdily built. Plus they'll attract fewer hoots of derision from real musicians; I appreciate where Danelectro is coming from with the retro colors and Cadillac-fin contours, but their pedals can seem a little toylike as a result.

As I said up top, I'm by no means a good musician, and by extension I'm no great judge of guitar gadgets. My one musical accomplishment of note has been selling a Les Paul to Phil Manley, guitarist for Trans Am. Given my lackluster skills and tin ear, then, I'd encourage my more rock-inclined readers to leave some low-end tips in comments. Anyone got a clue on a sub-$20 swirl effect? I've recently been gunning for a more My Bloody Valentine-like sound, but I just keep ending up sounding like Yngwie Malmsteen on a Robitussin bender. Decidedly unpleasant.

Illustration for article titled Low End Theory: For Those About to Rock...

THE EMERSON THAT WOULDN'T QUIT: In response to my appeal from a few weeks back, yet another reader has submitted a nominee for the Low-End Hall of Fame, a shrine dedicated to those cheap gadgets that have withstood the test of time. Take it away, Alex Raddas:

I have had this TV (pictured at right—ed.) since I was about 8, many hours of Nintendo/Genesis/PBS on this baby. The picture of the power cord is when my dog decided it tasted good and drug it off the TV stand. The hole in the top and the missing plastic feet on the bottom corners are from a moving accident. I was helping my sister move home from college and I had a canopy on my 1985 Toyota pickup, a gust of wind blew the canopy off of the truck, this tv along with a dresser and a Singer sewing machine flew out onto the freeway at 60+ MPH. The TV was the only thing we were able to salvage and it still works great.


Wow. Anyone have intel on whether today's Emersons are this tough?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.


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You can easily replace both tuner and metronome with free software. If you own a recent mac, you have Garageband, which contains both. For PC, there's tons of freeware options.

Danelectro pedals are good fun for playing at home, but don't bring them anywhere near an actual gig. Turns out they don't handle stage volume levels very well, and the distortion that sounded nice and fat through your 10-inch Kustom amp sounds like a chainsaw through a 4*12" cabinet.

I'm a big fan of saving money on your actual guitar though. The truth is, an electric guitar is a piece of wood with strings attached. Don't let the gear snobs fool you, there really isn't anything more to it. I own a Fender, but am currently stuck with my housemate's craptastic Argos-caster. Works like a charm, once you've gone through the trouble of fixing the action and intonation. The only real problem with it is that the pickups (aka microphones) are rubbish, but this is easily remedied by ebaying for some stock Fenders. People swap these out in favour of high-end Seymour Duncans, and since no one really replaces stock pickups with another set of stock pickups, they sell for peanuts. Pickups are easy enough to install yourself, if you have a soldering iron... Alternatively, your guitar shop should be able to do the job for around $50. The total cost of an Argos-caster with upgraded pickups is still somewhere around a quarter of the price of the entry-level Fender Mexistrats, and IMO, you will not be able to tell the difference in tone.