Hello Kitty

A few weeks ago, I found this at my local Guitar Center for $50. I also saw a small, pink Vox amp that was sold on the same day; it looked like a small child had quit his/her hobby.

This particular guitar had a set of cheap trapezoid tuners on them, which are notoriously poorly built. I had some spare Fender vintage-style gold tuners lying around, so I immediately swapped them out. True to their reputation, a few of the old tuners fell apart immediately after I removed them.

I’m also thinking of replacing the wiring/pickups, but honestly they already sound pretty good. Here’s a short clip:

A Pointy Bass

Earlier today, I bought this Jackson JS2 bass guitar. My first stringed instrument was actually a Yamaha bass that I played for a few months before switching to guitar, and sticking with that for the last 18 years.

I’d been wanting to pick up the bass again for a few months now, and had been going back and forth between a Sire V3, an Aerodyne Jazz Bass on Reverb that the owner had fitted with Nordstrand pickups (that eventually got sold anyway), but when I saw this on sale at my local Guitar Center, I thought it was perfect. I wasn’t sure how committed I’d be to learning it, so I didn’t want to spend a ton of money, and at $250 with a gig bag, this was a steal.

I don’t know enough about bass guitars to know what to look for in detail, but the workmanship on this thing is pretty great. It has a maple neck and a rosewood fingerboard with really cool “shark fin” inlays, and the fretwork looks and feels excellent. I can’t speak to the quality of the pickups and electronics, but it sounds… like a bass:

I’m sure that as I get better, I’ll know whether or not this needs an upgrade, but for now, it sounds pretty great just going straight into Reaper (my DAW), with a compressor and pre-amp VST.

The thing I love the most, though, is the pointy headstock. As I was fawning over this thing in the store, I realized, somewhat ironically after playing Strats for the last 18 years, that my tastes for guitars and bass guitars were the polar opposite: While I dislike pointy guitars (e.g., Ibanez RGs), I wasn’t a huge fan of the Jazz or P-bass shape.

Overall, I’m really pleased with it. I’ve already spent the whole afternoon learning how to mute the strings with my right hand, and I can’t wait to practice more.


I recently got a new set of guitar pickups from The Creamery, which is a one-man hand-wound operation in the UK.

They’re slightly higher output than typical Startocaster pickups, and comparable to the output from my MIJ Squier (which has ceramic pickups in them). However, unlike the Squier, these don’t get as muddy under distortion.

Here’s what the neck (rhythm part) and neck+bridge (lead) sound like:

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

To be honest, I’m generally not a huge fan of the “book of someone’s advice” genre. What usually happens is that someone writes about their life story while coming up with some “supporting evidence” entirely post-hoc, before selling it to you, having lacked the decency to at least make it a paperback so it can fit easily in the trash once you’re done with it. However convincing their anecdotes are, what I usually look for is not just how they succeeded, but also what happened to everyone else who followed their advice. Put differently, If I also had to read the books of all the people who have taken so-and-so’s advice to “think big” or “follow your dreams” and didn’t end up rich or famous, how would I feel about that advice?

I think “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is different for three reasons: (a) the stakes are on a different level, (b) Chris Hadfield is the right kind of person to take random advice from, and (c) the advice itself is boringly plausible.

It’s really easy to come up with principles when all you’re risking is the potential to lose a lot of money and fall from the lofty heights of being a billionaire to only having hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s another thing altogether when you’re about to crawl into a space ship that just might crash and burn, scattering your ashes across the earth. And you’d definitely have to believe in your principles when you’ve watched other space ships do just that, as was the case with the Challenger and Columbia disasters. “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is different from other “self-help” books because astronauts like Hadfield are trying to stay alive, and not to “help you get rich” (for $9.99 a month, usually).

I’ve listened to Chris Hadfield share the pride he has in the dock he built with his neighbor, tuned in as he gave impromptu commentary about a NASA launch from a hotel room, and watched him answering student questions in a tiny classroom in Greenland. It seems that very little of his time is spent seeking attention or approval. Rather, he seems to live a purposeful life based on doing things that he finds satisfying, which is a rare gift. With most people who write “books of advice”, I find myself questioning whether I’d want their life. After all, that’s the advice they’re giving – how to be like them. The list of people whose lives I’d like to emulate is very short, but Chris Hadfield is on that list.

Finally, the reason I put stock in the wisdom found in “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is because very little of it is radical. Hadfield offers no “hacks”. Instead, through his anecdotes and recollections, he describes a rational process of how to set goals, overcome adversity and ultimately, find some measure of success. Although his experiences are surreal, the thoughts and actions that guide him throughout his journey are almost mundane: There are no temper tantrums, very little yelling, lots of discipline and plenty of sacrifice. They’re precisely the type of things that most of us don’t want to hear: That it’s just that hard.

Ultimately, I’m most inspired by the assiduousness shown in his account. While many of the memoirs I’ve read feel almost trans-human (“Here’s all the extraordinary things I did to succeed”), “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” made me think: “Oh, I guess that’s just what happens when you work really hard for something, and get a little lucky, too.” The book feels intellectually honest, because it tells a story that is necessarily true: Even though not all of us can be astronauts because not all of us will be lucky enough to be born with the right bodies, or in the right countries, and so on all of us can live a life worth living. Coming back to my original analogy: I would want to read the books of all the people who took Chris Hadfield’s advice but didn’t end up rich and famous, because I think they’d be just as interesting.

A Player’s Player’s Stratocaster

Most guitarists are pretty habitual – we might have different guitars, but they tend to be the same “kind” of guitar.

I’m a Stratocaster “person” – while I might “want” all sort of guitars, the guitars I end up “needing” tend to be Strats. I like the prototypical sparkly tone that its single-coil pickups produce, and the “quacky” sounds from the in-between pickup positions (i.e., using the neck and the middle pickups together, or the middle and the bridge pickups). I like how the neck is bolt-on, so if I ever have to ship a guitar, I can just disassemble the entire guitar. Most of all, I like its rounded edges, and how it looks like a rocket ship – in contrast, I think the Telecaster looks like a cheese board.

However, there are a few things about the Stratocaster that annoy me (and I’m sure, other guitarists). Thus, I’ve built this guitar, that address most (if not all) of these foibles.

First, the bridge pickup on most Strats sound like someone taking an ice pick to your ear. The lower output from a single-coil (vs. a humbucker) and the position of the pickup combine to result in an extremely bright, “trebly” sound. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for Strats to come in a HSS (humbucker, single-coil, single-coil) configuration, with the bridge pickup being replaced by a fatter sounding humbucker. However, the ones on the market tend to use uncovered humbuckers (with the magnetic pole pieces exposed), which, in my opinion, look messy. Thus, I opted to put in an EMG H4 in this guitar, which stands out with its blacked-out cover.

Secondly, the bridge on vintage Stratocasters are of a classic, but obsolete design. These have six screws bolting the front of the bridge to the body directly while allowing the rear to float (for use of a “whammy” bar). However, the tuning stability of this design has always been questionable, to the point where many players such as myself opt to “deck” the bridge (tightening the balancing springs until the bridge lays flat and is immobile). For this guitar, I found the body of a new Fender Player Series Stratocaster, which uses a 2-point tremolo, on eBay.

Thirdly, a Stratocaster normally has three knobs: a master volume, and two tone knobs that traditionally adjusted how much treble bled through on the neck and middle pickups. However, I’ve never used them separately, and more importantly, having three knobs means that the one nearest to the bridge blocks my picking hand when I want to rest it there. Thus, the simple solution was to have just a master volume and master tone (controlling all three pickups), which leaves more space around the bridge.

Finally, the most important part of a guitar is probably its neck, as it’s the part that you’re in contact with the most. For this build, I used a one-piece pau ferro neck made by Warmoth. Besides having the benefit of not needing to be finished with oil or clear-coat, it also looks super cool because of its unconventionality; Strat necks tend to come in one of two flavors: all maple, or maple back with a rosewood fingerboard.

Some additional specifications for guitar nerds:

  1. The pots are 500K CTS pots, and the volume has a built in treble-bleed.
  2. The neck and middle pickups are from a late 90s Deluxe Super Strat.
  3. The neck has a thin C-shaped profile with stainless-steel 6150 frets.
  4. The string tree is a Graph-tech design from the early 2000s – they make a different version now.

A Bad Copy

I’m very rarely proud of my songwriting, but I am proud of getting the words “demagnetized” and “database” into this, and having it all make sense (well, you can be the judge of that).

I wrote this after spontaneously remembering Richard Feynman’s letter to his dead wife, with the heart-rending quote: “You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.”

Along the way, it turned out a little less sophisticated, and a little more emo, but I think the point is the same.


I shouldn’t feel this way missing you, that’s how I know it’s not Right
back where I started, same old story, but it feels different Tonight
I’m counting the hours, hoping it clears, hoping to see the morning light

Seems like with you I’m always struggling to do what I Should
I keep track of the times she didn’t hurt me like I know you Could
you be the one for me, or do I have you misunderstood?

You’re like a tape, demagnetized; a painter painting without eyes
a CD player skipping tracks; a database that someone hacked
a Stenograph for broken fingers; a phonograph where static lingers
a mural viewed from above; a bad copy of her love

The only time you want with me is when I’m at my level Best
if I don’t ask her how she picked me from the gutter from all the Rest
assured I’m keeping score; you’re failing badly at these tests

Even though she isn’t here, all alone somehow I feel no Pain
is what I feel when I’m with you and sunny skies turn into Rain
will wash away my memories of you until you’re just a name

You’re like a tape, demagnetized; a painter painting without eyes
a CD player skipping tracks; a database that someone hacked
a Stenograph for broken fingers; a phonograph where static lingers
a mural viewed from above; a bad copy of her love

Thirteen Years Later

A few days ago, I found a recording of me playing the guitar in 2005:

Listening to this has been quite a trip: I can hear influences that I’ve shaken off over the years – around the time I played this, I went through a big Duke Robillard phase.

Here’s, a very similar thing I recorded thirteen years later; it’s also a slow blues in C:


A Gypsy Jazz Love Song, Redux

Last weekend, my friend Sarah and I re-recorded this song I wrote. I played the guitar, and composed the random 8-bit accompaniment. She’s a way better singer than I am, so you should definitely listen to this.

This was also recorded using Reaper and my Taylor Academy 10e. I redid all the solos on the acoustic guitar.