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Guitarists (and most bass players) suffer from a debilitating condition whose mere acronym strikes fear into the hearts, minds and bank accounts of spouses and long-suffering partners everywhere: GAS. Gear Acquisition Syndrome! There is no cure, as the afflicted victim recites the mantra of “you can never have too many guitars” to anyone inexperienced enough to engage in conversation. The sufferer can easily be identified through both visual and aural clues: barely audible muttering about humbuckers, “ten tops” and all-valve signal paths; wearing clothes that even a tramp would declare shabby while simultaneously clutching a £3000 guitar; a tendency towards disappearing into the bathroom for protracted periods clutching Guitarist magazine; and constantly beleaguering their other half over the almost-Sisyphean deliberation about which guitars to take to gigs.
To that end, here for your delectation and delight (you lucky people!) is a fairly exhaustive run-down on Jay MacDonald’s gear. (Apologies in advance for anything forgotten, there’s quite a lot of it.)
warning: may cause envy, heart palpitations, equipmentitus and visitations of visions of violence.
Guitars Used on Enigma EP
Probably Jay’s favourite guitar, although that changes depending on which way the wind is blowing. It’s certainly one that sees a lot of use in both live and recording situations.
Another favourite, and probably the most versatile “traditional” guitar in his collection. Usually used to double rhythm guitar parts in conjunction with the Cobra. It’s fitted with Anderson’s Switcheroo pickup-selection system, which gives it 27 possible sounds. His wife is keen to point out that this was his wedding present at every opportunity.
Line6 Variax 500 series
The original digitally-modelled guitar. Primarily used for recording acoustic guitar parts on the EP, as it sounds extremely convincing. Gareth tends to use it live for both electric and acoustic sounds (it has pretty decent 12 string settings as well), as it models most of the iconic guitars of the last 60 years.
Charvel San Dimas Style 1 (in Slime Green!)
For anyone who learnt to play guitar in the 1980s, this is an extremely desirable axe! It displays to all and sundry the unequivocal statement “I like to abuse tremolo systems and have absolutely no taste!” Ironically, the extremely tasteful and melodic solo that closes As They Lay My Body Down was recorded with this guitar, as were most of the solos and lead guitar parts on the EP. It originally had Seymour Duncan pickups, but now sports a pair of Bare Knuckle Nailbombs, for extra subtlety. Jay doesn’t really go in for the naming of guitars, as they usually have perfectly good monickers bestowed upon them by their creators, but certain instruments have picked them up along the way. This one’s called Slimer.
ESP 400 Series Stratocaster.
In Fiesta Red, of course. Jay replaced the bridge pickup with a Seymour Duncan Lil’ 59 humbucker a few years ago. It tends to get used for clean parts where you’d normally reach for a Fender Strat, although live it also doubles as Jay’s Drop D tuned guitar. It’s referred to as “the Red Strat”, boring but both accurate and precise.
Fetchingly finished in a satin purple hue, this is actually Jay’s wife’s guitar, but she lets him use it for double-tracking clean parts (as long as he promises not to sweat on it!). It has a one-piece maple neck and sounds different enough to the ESP to be useful for “widening” the clean guitar sounds on a track. Araldia (who has an infuriating habit of coming up with names that stick) calls her Psyche.
ESP LTD M107
(ed. note: there would be more pictures here, but we had to keep the porn from being to graphic plus being a bass player I feel its safer to limit the exposure to six skinny strings)
It’s black, has a reverse pointed headstock and seven strings. Be afraid, be very afraid! Although the convention is to tune the lowest string to B, on Light Your Journey Home Jay tuned the bottom string down to Drop A, and then double-tracked it, because he likes causing internal bleeding to unsuspecting hamsters.
Charvel Model 2
Named “Priscilla”, this eighties model single-pickup shred machine revels in a sparkly metallic pink finish (Charvel called it Burgundy Mist, but they’re just being coy). Jay always lusted after an original Model 2, as the hot guitar player at school got one for his sixteenth birthday back in nineteen eighty whenever, and Jay was exceedingly jealous for a very long time. Now he’s not.
Jackson Randy Rhoads
First an explanation as to why he possesses possibly the ultimate in tasteless metal pointy guitars: Jay is hugely influenced by Michael Schenker, a man permanently welded to a Gibson Flying V. Jay thinks he looks extremely cool wielding these, but unfortunately hates Gibson guitars with a passion normally reserved for bacon butty vendors on a Hajj. The Jackson allows him to indulge in Schenkeresque fantasies without actually having to soil his hands. Its fitted with Seymour Duncans (a JB at the bridge & Jazz in the neck position), a Floyd Rose Vibrato and has an Eerie Dess Swirl paint job, which is very, very cool. He really ought to use this guitar more.
It’s an off-the-shelf budget Telecaster with no redeeming features. Jay picked it up from a friend when his daughter expressed an interest in learning to play, and after she’d thrown in the towel is was consigned to its case where it remains to this day. Apparently, in order to provide a tonal palette for every eventuality, one should own Leo’s most utilitarian creation, but it’s a lot easier to dial-in a tele tone using the Variax than struggle with an actual tele.
ESP 800 Series Stratocaster
This is a pretty rare, extremely well made strat that was far better quality than anything Fender themselves were churning out at the time. She’s named Araldia, after Jay’s wife’s nom de internet, and tends to be the most-played guitar in the collection by dint of being the one most likely to be hanging on the living room wall at any given time. She was at one time Jay’s main squeeze (hence the name) but unfortunately also weighs about the same as the average Les Paul and is far too heavy for Jay to swing around at gigs for protracted periods of time any more.
Jay bought this second-hand in 1989. It’s his oldest guitar (made in 1982) and the first decent quality instrument he possessed. It’s fitted with DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers and has a Floyd Rose vibrato. It doesn’t do clean at all, as the output from the pickups is so hot it’ll overdrive practically any amp you plug it into. Prior to acquiring it he had a succession of truly shite, practically unplayable chunks of premium chipboard lovingly crafted by the blind, deaf chimpanzees that passed for luthiers employed by Marlin, Artist & Kay. It was hand-made in the Birmingham workshop of John Diggins, and named Jigsaw by him when Jay returned it in two shopping bags and requested it be re-assembled! At the time (the early nineties) Michael Schenker’s propensity for trashing guitars was also an influence, and a number of instruments bit the dust. This one was saved because it’s truly exceptional, and actually plays better after being rebuilt.
Fender HM Strat
Back in 1988, Fender started panicking over the market share certain hipper guitar companies were appropriating from them, and tried to beat them at their own game. It was a dismal failure because musicians hankering after a traditional-looking strat with modern appointments couldn’t countenance 24 frets, a lurid dayglo paintjob and a frankly scarily-thin neck with a ridiculously flat fingerboard and absolutely huge frets; while the Charvel-, Kramer-worshipping Hair-Metal fraternity wouldn’t be seen dead with the Fender logo on the headstock! Which is a terrible shame as this American-made shredding machine has quality hardware and pickups (by Kahler & Dimarzio, respectively), and was probably the best production-line superstrat available at the time.
Washburn D12CE Acoustic
As someone whose first forays into guitar-playing revolved around pretending to be some elegantly-wasted LA man-whore with a make-up budget that exceeded the gross national product of most banana republics, Jay never particularly got on with acoustic guitars. After all they didn’t come fitted with double-locking tremolo systems, and pinched harmonics sounded absolutely rubbish on them. Somewhen in 1995 he tried to correct this character deficit by buying a reasonable acoustic, but quickly came to the conclusion that they were too bloody difficult to play with any degree of precision! Over the years the Washburn has matured into quite a sweet-sounding guitar. Jay, however, has never matured and still doesn’t like playing real acoustic guitars, hence his reliance on faking it with his Line6 Variax.
(ed. note: please see pictures above - you can’t miss the bloody thing!)
This little 5 watt all-valve amp head has been an absolute revelation for recording guitar parts. It was pretty much exclusively used for all the electric guitar sounds on every publicly-released Sankara song. It provides the perfect Marshall-like tonality for distorted rhythm parts while also supplying American-style chiming clean sounds when required. There’s enough gain and tonal variation on tap to go from a thick sweet Wes Montgomery-style clean tone at one extreme, to a brutal spine-crushing, hamster curdling modern metal sound at the other. It also sports a silent recording socket with switchable speaker emulation, a feature that facilitates tracking guitar parts in the wee, small hours.
Line6 Pod Pro
Like the Variax, this rack-mounting digitally-modeled preamp emulates a considerable amount of vintage amps & effects.It was only used sparingly during tracking, though.
Jay’s live signal chain still rely’s on Line6 gear for pre-amplification He uses an Audio Technica wireless system feeding the Line6 PodXT Live floorboard which provides the myriad tones and effects used throughout a performance. As Jay prefers his delays and modulation effects to be synchronised to the song’s tempo, he needs separate banks for each song, with the various effects and amp sounds saved into different patches. This enables him to radically change sounds with the tap of a single footswitch and thereby concentrate on posing while on-stage instead of tap-dancing across a pedalboard the size of the Ark Royal every time he has to change sounds. The output from the PodXT Live goes to a Marshall 9002 200 watts a side stereo power amp driving Marshall 1960A 4x12 speaker cabinets. His guitar cables are by Planet Waves, speaker cables by Cleartone, strings are D’Addario EXL110’s (10 - 46 gauge) and plectrums .71 gauge Jim Dunlop Tortex.
Jay’s Comments on “Enigma”
Gareth wrote the majority of this song on keyboard and the challenge for me was to create enough differentiation between the various sections. We had to build the arrangement to reach a chorus, then bring it back down enough to build the dynamics up to the second chorus. The toughest thing for me was fitting the guitar around his existing keyboard parts without stomping all over them and losing that build up. Sometimes it’s better not to play anything than attempt to crowbar your ideas into a song.
The instrumental parts on Exalted Star were pretty much written by Rhayn. I very slightly tweaked a couple of things and then Gareth added the lyrics. I wanted a more attention-grabbing intro, though, so I came up with the lead part over the existing chords and then got Gareth to double it on keyboards.
As They Lay My Body Down
This is one of Gareth’s obligatory ballads. He wrote it on acoustic guitar and envisaged the arrangement as “sort of floating away”. My initial approach was completely wrong! While Gareth and I were putting together the structure, I was trying to fit distorted power chords in the verses and sticking riffs everywhere and it just wasn’t gelling. After Gareth left, I stripped everything I’d done off and took it back to just his voice and acoustic guitar. Then I added a few country-sounding lead parts on acoustic and the song came alive. Yet again a salutary lesson in knowing when to shut up! Gareth wrote the solo and got me to track it line-by-line with the idea of getting Rhayn to play it on a classical nylon-string guitar, but ultimately “demo-itus” raised it’s ugly head and we went with my electric solo.
When we formed Sankara, I gave Gareth a bunch of riffs and song ideas I’d originally written and demoed for Bluehorses that we never used. Gareth took one of these, cut it up and shifted parts around to suit him. I then added the intro, linking riff and middle 8. It starts with a solo simply because I was feeling indulgent and wanted to channel my inner Michael Schenker. I helped Gareth out with the lyrics on the last two verses when he got stuck.
How to record an EP without spending any money (except on Jaffa Cakes!)
The more noise you make, the more the sound waves bounce around in the space you’re recording in, reflecting off walls and being picked up by the microphones you’re attempting to capture the sound with. This isn’t really a problem if you stick a mic right up against the speaker in a guitar amplifier and turn the volume up to nausea-inducing levels, but gets awkward when dealing with the overhead or room mics on a drum kit, or recording the singer. The traditional way of dealing with this is to get an acoustician to spend lots of your money designing a sympathetic space to record in. This can cost a LOT of money. Some of the truly great studios would set you back millions if you recreated them today.
Our way of dealing with it was to remove as much interaction with the space we were recording in as possible. In practice this meant that all the guitar and bass parts were recorded by plugging our instruments into the audio interface and then simulating the interaction between speakers and microphones. I’ve got a very nice all-valve amplifier that has one of the best speaker-emulated outputs I’ve ever come across. Every single electric guitar part on the EP was recorded through my Blackstar HT-5 amp head straight into my audio interface. Rhayn DI’d his basses by connecting his Mark Bass Little Mark III amp up via its DI output, which I then tweaked while mixing by adding an amp & speaker modelling plugin.
Anything that sounds like an acoustic guitar, isn’t. Sorry. It’s a Line6 Variax - a guitar that digitally models other guitars, 26 in fact (plus a banjo and an electric sitar for good measure!). There are a number of models of 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars lurking inside it’s electronic innards that sound quite convincing. Pianos and other keyboard sounds were again recorded straight in courtesy of Gareth’s Roland digital stage piano and synth module. In fact if I could only convince Gareth to undergo minor surgery and have a USB socket grafted to his larynx, it would make my life a hell of a lot easier!
We started off recording Gareth in the same studio that Vinden tracked his drums in (thanks again, Viv!), but after getting Exalted Star and Full Flow in the bag, we ran into scheduling conflicts that would have held us up even further had we continued down that route.
The issue, you see, is that Gareth can’t help himself. If there’s any way he can crowbar three-part harmonies into an arrangement, he will. In places he stacked up whole choirs of his voice (particularly in the outro of Enigma). Now Gareth is both accurate and precise (a very rare combination) when it comes to laying down vocal parts, but it still takes time to do it. And while the rest of us can soldier on through fatigue, illness and the general malaise that is tracking parts at 10am, a singer IS his instrument. If they’ve got a cold, forget it. If they’re worn-out or stressed, they aren’t going to hit the notes with the same pizazz. And there is a limited window of opportunity to get a great vocal take. They can’t just keep churning it out, take after take, until everyone’s satisfied. I tend to work on the principal of keeping vocal sessions to a four-hour maximum. Any more than that and I find you only have to get them back in to repair stuff anyway. So we decided to try and find a way to track the vocals in the comfort of my house, too. By adopting a DIY approach we ensured that Gareth could track the vocals when HE felt like it and I would have more control over the engineering (at one point during the tracking of Exalted Star, Gareth ended up with his back against the live room wall, singing into a microphone 10 feet away!) I always record his vocals through a compressor to control the dynamic range and adjust the gain control depending on how loud he’ll sing a particular line.
It took a bit of effort – and some ingenious hoop-jumping – but we managed to get everything else recorded at home. I also learnt some valuable lessons in how not to record things, and ultimately we’ve gained enough experience to never need to use a ‘proper’ studio again.