Electric guitar explorations with the Zen Drive 2 pedal

To my great surprise, I am currently playing and recording a lot of electric guitar. This is a far cry from the last four years of acoustic work that revolved around guitars, ukuleles and other instruments. This is a great chance to revisit many pedals I have including the excellent Zen Drive 2 pedal.

Zen Drive 2

I have always liked this pedak that to my ears has a very Robben Ford tone. I’ve been using it with the Acme DI straight in a DAW, and it sounds fantastic. The sound is in similar territory to the Dude pedal which I have also used on the latest set of recordings. The Zen Drive 2 is great for rhythm as well as lead work I’ve used all manner of pedals over the years and settled on a few which give the very best tones and keep the character of the instrument.

Here’s a video of the Zen Drive 2 in action

Recording in a DI manner is also very ususual for me. I’m really surprised at how good the overall sound is and of course having an excellent producer and using UAD plugins is an absolute game changer. I’m loving this very stripped down way of working and the material is rockier than anything I have recorded previously.

String power for instruments

I continue to be amazed at how much difference some instrument string combinations make when matched to musical instruments. Since 2004 I’ve done a lot of research on what sounds great to my ears in terms of ukuleles and now I’m revisiting electric and acoustic guitar combinations.

Ukuleles are small bodied instruments and of course there are no “best strings” despite the nonsense proclaimed online in uke based social media! Instead different sized ukes with different materials will create some very different sound outcomes.

ukulele strings

For my Shimo instruments Hilo strings are my first choice. The strings are much thicker than anything else I have used. Of course Hilos are now impossible to find, but I did stockpile 160 sets including 23 baritone uke sets. For my two Collings concert ukuleles, the Worth Brown sets sound best to my ears. For low G strings on tenor ukes, I prefer Freemont strings.

Guitar Strings

In recent times I’ve been playing more guitars and have been reviewing string choices for both electric and acoustics. Martin Simpson pointed me to balanced tension Nickel Bronze strings by D’addario. The low E is a 13.5 gauge, so we are in “Stevie Ray Vaughn” territory. These work brilliantly for my two Stefan Sobell acoustics, but would not be the best fit for by Collings guitars.

D’addario also do electric NYXL sets that sound great on my stratocasters. I’m always fascinated at the sonic improvement with a new set of strings and these are quite exceptional. Martin Simpson always advocated the benefits of changing strings and I agree 100%

Of course not everyone gets this and of course social media forums are full of posts asking “What are the best strings?” and in the ukulele world some advocate buying fishing line, rather than invest in actual quality checked ukulele string sets. Part of finding your sound as an artist is in making string choices as they are a key ingredient in determing the final sound.

When is it time for an instrument cull?

Once a year I do a proper review of my instrument collection and decide whether to move on some of the collection. This can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes some instruments have served their purpose and have been superceeded by new aquisitions.

I have a checklist of four fundamental questions when deciding whether to keep or move on an instrument

1 Do I use it live?
2 Do I record with it?
3 Do I write with it?
4 Am I keeping as an investment or for sentimental reasons?

I’m lucky enough to travel across the globe each year and to know where to find the very best instruments. The biggest challenge of living in the UK is that we simply don’t have the choice that would be available in many other countries. Stores like Rudy’s Music in New York and Carters Music in Nashville simply don’t exist in the UK for guitars. For ukuleles there are numerous great stores in Japan than offer instruments I’ll never see in the UK.

Custom Built instruments that are “keepers”

I never set out to be an instrument collector, but mostly seek out instruments for live work, writing or recording purposes. With live work any instrument needs to be amplified and 100% reliable. Some instruments are better played acoustically without pickups and of course every instrument requires different amplification considerations. This is one of the reasons why questions like “Whats the best pickup or amp?” are totally meaningless!

I have increasingly sought out had made custom instruments rather than production line instruments. Yes, there is a higher financial ticket price but the attention to detail and quality is usually much higher. There are few companies who reach such quality standards and Collings guitars definately falls into that catagory. I interviewed Bill Collings many years ago and told him that I have never played any acoustic or electric Collings instrument that was anything other than excellent. Bill had the perfect ability to figure out the very best elements in brands like Martin, Gibson and Fender and then improve on what they did.

I own a number of Collings instruments including an I35 electric, a tenor guitar, a 6 string acoustic and two concert ukuleles. All are superb. In terms of custom builds my preference for ukuleles is Takahiro Shimo and I have eight of his instruments so far. I also own two Stefan Sobell acoustics and a mandola. Stefan is another great builder and like Shimo there is a wait for any instruments as they are greatly in demand. Pete Howlett is also a superb builder from Wales and Gregor Nowak from Vienna continues to amaze me with his instrument builds. Almost without exception any of these purchases are keepers and the production models are the ones that usually get moved on at some point.

Space and other considerations

Ukuleles and mandolins are small bodied instruments, so don’t take up a lot of space. Guitars however can soon take up a lot of space, especially if you have good protective cases for each instrument. Suddenly space (or lack of it) can be an issue.

I’m a big fan of instruments being played and its of course once you get to a certain volume of instruments its impossible to play them all on a regular basis. I’d rather pass on some such instruments so they get the attention they deserve, than have them just sitting in cases.

Here are some of “the keepers”

Wrestling the kraken, learning new instruments

This year I have been learning new instruments and one of the toughest adjustments has been to learning the mandolin. I’ve always wanted to find a mandolin I loved and until this year have tried numerous great instruments but never really got on with any of them. That was until I was introduced to this mandolin previously owned my Martin Carthy by Martin Simpson.

Its been a tough 6 months and Evan Davis has been a wonderful teacher coaxing out some sonic improvements. The initially experience was like wrestling the kraken as I found it really hard to get used to the neck width and the either strings in what to me seems like a very small space. Finally we’ve made friends and I’m starting to get some good sounds from this mandolin and to my delight am enjoying playing it. Up until recently, its been a lot of work where my brain found it very hard to connect to my fingers!

One of the key realisations is that this is very much a percussive instrument and having a proper think mandolin plectrum really helps. I’ve had to park all previous thoughts and expectations from years of playing guitars and ukuleles and start from scratch. It continues to be a massive learning curve, at times frustrating and at times just delightful. I’m glad I’ve stuck with it and have made a plan for 2020 which will include picking up a second mandolin custom made, so I better get myself in gear to learn more tunes and even start writing some material.

Instrument investments

I recently did an insurance review for my instruments and I was amazed at how many have greatly increased in value. There are various reasons including the decline in sterling value, new regulations on making some woods less obtainable and the fact that anything of quality usually increases in value over a period of time.

In the world of ukuleles my own experience is that there are a huge number of “ukulele shaped objects” some reasonable instruments and a few really exceptional instruments. I currently have 22 different ukuleles and have passed on 10. The core 22 are really exceptional and include 7 Shimos, 3 Collings concert ukuleles, a Pete Howlett, a James Triggs Gibson prototype, and a 100 year old Martin soprano. These are all terrific playing instruments, many of which have been used extensively in the studio. They are also hard to find, especially in the UK. I’ve not seen a Collings uke for years and I am delighted to have a pre production concert, a custom doghair finish concert and a concert signed personally by Bill Collings.

Shimo ukulele

In terms of guitars, I have a number of high end instruments that are great playing/recording guitars which have also become superb investments. The Collings I35 Deluxe with Tom Holmes pickups has increased in value by 160% and the Sobell acoustics are also great investments. When I interviewed Bill Collings I commented that I have never played any Collings instrument that was less than excellent. My last Collings purchase was a Waterloo guitar which is one of the best instruments I have ever played, truly superb and I’ll be recording with it later this year. I also have a Collings 4 string tenor guitar which is rare and fascinating to play. I also have a Stefan Sobell mandola which is in pristine condition and an old Gibson mandolin that was previously owned by Martin Carthy and sounds great.

Waterloo Guitar

There is an old saying “Buy cheap, buy twice” I fully appreciate that everyone has budgets to stick to, but I’ve never regretted buying any quality instrument, even if I’m financially stretched for a period. The two biggest impulse buys are from Gregor Nowak in Vienna, a Brazilian cavaquinho and a guitarelle, both of which are outstanding. All these instruments bring immense joy and are tools for playing live, recording or writing. I’ve reduced the collection to 35 instruments at this point in time and they all bring great joy and inspire all manner of creative thinking.

Collings I35 Deluxe work out

Instrument investments

Over the years I have realised that it pays off to seek out the best instruments you can find and to always try out an instrument before you part with any money. I originally played electric guitars, before moving onto acoustics and then ukuleles as well as other instruments like mandolins, reso ukes and mandolas. My other work has allowed me to literally travel the globe and seek out the very best of the best.

I spent years looking for a great acoustic before finally settling on Collings and Sobells as preferred choices. I bought my first ukulele in New York, which was a pre production Collings concert uke which was and still is fantastic. When I interviewed Bill Collings a few years ago I mentioned how impressed I am with his instruments. I own three Collings concert ukuleles, a Collings tenor guitar, a Collings acoustic and an electric Collings I35 Deluxe. These are not only fantastic instruments to play, but have also become superb investments. The I35 has doubled in value and its impossible to find Collings ukuleles anymore.

The Sobell acoustics are also highly collectable and quite extraordinary. These are all custom built instruments and the waiting time is usually around two years. I still consider Takahiro Shimos to be the best of the best and I now own seven of his instruments, including a reso ukulele. If I had never travelled to Japan, I doubt if I would have come across Shimos and never would have recorded over 30 tracks with the Shimo Comet 3. With the drop in sterling’s value these have also appreciated greatly in value. 

In ukulele circles its increasingly hard to find really great instruments and most UK stores now stock mid range Chinese made ukuleles. I mostly now only seek out such instruments in Japan and Ukulele Mania remains the go to place for purchases. My experience over the years is that its smart to invest in the best instruments you can afford, rather than “instrument shaped objects” often churned out in mass production factories. When you buy a really well made instrument, it mostly inspires better playing. Of course price does not always means the instrument s going to be great. Similarly there are some great production instruments (Collings is the best example) and some luthiers who produce variable work. I recently moved on five ukuleles that were hand built, but had different issues which meant they were never my first choice for playing live r recording. 

With changes in legislation regarding wood imports and changing global economics, many instruments are either extremely expensive or just unavailable. The UK only has a few great music stores, so many people never have the chance to see what is actually available. In the meantime online reviewers and enthusiasts often describe many instruments as “awesome” which is (and I’m being polite) more than a bit of a stretch! 

shimo ukulele

The periodic cull to create a great instument collection

I have always been a great fan of superb musical instruments and over the years have become a collector of many really superb items. This requires a significant investment in time and money as well as some good strategic thinking to avoid having to build a house extension. At least with ukuleles and similar sized instruments, space is not so much of an issue!

I’m lucky to be able to travel extensively across the globe each year and seek out the vest best instruments, many of which are never located in the UK. Japan and the USA remain the best places for items and both Takahiro Shimo and Bill Collings instruments still make the top of the list. In both the guitar and ukulele world, there are endless “ok instruments” that sound fine, but there are far less really great instruments that are sonically at another level. Inevitably there is a higher price point for such instruments but in my experience, it’s always smart to get the best instrument you can afford. 

When I have the occasional instrument cull, I apply the following criteria to determine what stays and what is moved on. 

  1. Do I use the instrument for writing?
  2. Do I record with the instrument?
  3. Do I play live with the instrument/
  4. Is the instrument an investment, it’s extremely rare, or has great sentimental value?

Any instrument ticking one or more boxes will stay in the collection. Some instruments like the Shimos will tick 3 – 4 boxes, so they are keepers. All live playing instruments need to have pickups or some means of amplification and not all great writing instruments are great in a live gig situation. One example is the Collings ukes. These are fantastic for writing and recording, but I have never been 100% happy with them being amplified.

The Shimo Comet 3 with a DTar pickup remains my first call for recording and has been used on 30+ tracks to date. I still have my Rob Collings blackwood tenor and mahogany baritone, but I moved on 5 others from him for a variety of reasons including bridge issues. The two remaining items are great (I have my tech sort the tenor bridge) and have been used on many gigs.

Collings Guitars and Stefan Sobell instruments are built to the highest standards and never have any weaknesses. I have two Sobell guitars and a mandola, all of which are superb. I have 3 Collings concert ukes, one tenor, a tenor guitar, an acoustic 6 string, a Waterloo 6 string, and an electric I35. All of these are terrific and to date, I have never played any Collings instrument that is not perfect in construction. Rarer items include a James Triggs tenor uke that was a prototype for Gibson, a 1920s Martin uke and two Parker guitars, the Spanish Fly and The Bronze, now impossible to find.

No ever “keeper” in the collection needs to cost a fortune, but often with production models, there is a big variation in quality. This is why reviews are recommendations online are often nothing like as useful as having the instrument in your hands. I have played many guitars and ukes that in theory should sound the same but can vary massively. Guitarists know that certain eras tend to produce better instruments, but personal contact is always the best way to go. Finally, many instruments can make for great investments, if you know what to look for. I’ve usually at least got my money back on items I have moved on and of course, the only way to discover what you truly love is to spend some time playing the instrument. Usually, if I am in a store and I’m still playing for more than 20 minutes, that instrument is a strong contender in joining the family!

Seeking out the very best instruments

I have been collecting musical instruments for over two decades and am lucky enough to travel the globe in seeking out the very best available. In the last four years I have bought a fair number of ukuleles and as with all instrument some become keepers and some get moved on. I now have criteria to judge whether an instrument is a keeper. Each instrument needs to satisfy at least one of the following criteria

  1. Does the instrument inspire writing?
  2. Do I use it to record in the studio?
  3. Is it used at live gigs?
  4. Is it an investment that will appreciate in value?

I recently moved on four ukuleles that failed to meet any of the above. They were all perfectly good instruments but not good enough to make the cut. I have done the same exercise with guitars and IMO it pays to be ruthless when making such decisions. 

The Best Stores, Luthiers and Brands

One of the challenges in seeking out great instruments is to find the really good ones and to try them out. This is made harder with many great instrument stores now closing. Some of my favorites including Mandolin Brothers in NYC, Matt Umanov Guitars from NYC, Chandlers Guitars from London, Hill Country Guitars from Austin USA, have all closed down. The great thing about all these stores is that you could try a wide range of great instruments at your leisure and find what you truly love. I have often blogged about the quality variation in production line instruments. Yes, there are some good ones, but often the quality is very inconsistent. Statements online about “X model is great” is mostly meaningless unless you have the instrument in your own hands. 

Fortunately, there are still some great stores around, but mostly these are outside the UK. In NYC Rudy’s Music is still miles ahead of the pack. In Tokyo, Heartman Guitars has a good range and of course, Ukulele Mania is brilliant for ukuleles and I have bought some great instruments there. In terms of luthiers Pete Howlett makes great ukuleles, Stefan Sobell is a magician for guitars, mandolas and other acoustic instruments and Takahiro Shimo is still in my view the number one guy for all ukulele related instruments. 

Collings Guitars have in my view make the best quality instruments. I have never played one that is not superb and to my surprise, I bought my first new guitar in ages, a Waterloo acoustic that is fantastic. I also possess three Collings concert ukes and a tenor. These are no longer made and are all superb. There are a huge number of very average instruments out there and the price is not always an indication of what is great. Of course its all personal taste, but when there are no severe price constraints there’s a better chance of the end result being really good. For some custom builds I expect to wait 2 years on average, but its worth the wait.

Below are some of my keepers that continue to provide great joy on a daily basis

Below is the Collings I35, one of my electric guitars and just fantastic

Finally here is The Waterloo I bought in Austin


Instrument keepers and passers through…

I’m in the process of rationalizing my instrument collection and its been a great opportunity to review what I want to keep. I have 4 main areas where I find value in keeping musical instruments

  • For writing purposes – different instruments inspire different ideas and different playing
  • For live work – The Small Change Diaries and The Caravan of Dreams both mean me playing a range of instruments as the music is quite diverse. Most of these instruments have pickups
  • For recording work. I tend to mostly use Shimos in the studio and Collings instruments as well as my Howlett tenor. All are fantastic acoustically and brilliant for recording
  • For investment purposes – Some instruments really appreciate in value. Of course if they are also great playing instruments then all the better!

Over a period of time musical tastes and musical reference points can also change. My first ukulele was a pre production Collings concert that sounds terrific and Collings no longer make ukuleles. I also own 2 other concert Collings ukes and a tenor. These are “keepers” My Collings family include an electric I35, a tenor acoustic and a 6 string acoustic. Most people know that I am a massive fan of Shimos and I own five to date. Two of these are Comet 3s which I have used in recording over 25 tracks. The 5 string LAX Shimo, pineapple and walnut concert are also “keepers” 

The instruments that tend to get moved on are usually perfectly good, but for various reasons I don’t play a great deal. Some of them I like, but don’t truly love. Sometimes I have other instruments that are similar, but just sound and play better. I have 5 ukes from one British maker, two are my main playing instruments for live work and these are keepers. However three others are nice, but don’t fit into my four point consideration plan.

I’m lucky to be able to travel a great deal and explore instruments in Japan, USA and Europe. Some of the most fascinating finds have been genuine surprises. My Gregor Nowak guitarelle has been an inspiration for playing and the Peter Lieberman soprano is fascinating and nothing like anything else I own. My 1920s Martin from NYC is also a definite keeper and really different. 

The best musical instruments inspire playing and bring great joy. If its not to me personally, then I like to think they are going to a good home!

shimo ukulele

shimo ukulele