It doesn’t matter if you’re a tone snob, tone deaf, a riff junkie or the guy who spontaneously combusts if he doesn’t play a guitar solo on every song he writes. The one thing that unites all modern guitar players is gear. Please note that I use the term “unite” in the loosest sense possible.
I caught up with guitarist and frontman Bruce Lee Mani of the Bangalore based act Thermal and a Quarter and we talked about guitars, practice and rigs. Bruce relies heavily on digital gear and for me this was a real eye opener in terms of what you can do with affordable digital processors and some critical thinking.
I would go so far as to say that he’s really pushing the limits of his current set of multi effects pedals.
But first a little about his guitar and playing history.
Bruce first started playing Stratocaster style guitars around 2006. Erisa who’s a custom guitar maker from Pondicherry built him the guitar that he’s been seen playing for nearly a decade now. Before that he had a Parker Nitefly and a Washburn MG-74 with a Floyd Rose which was a typical 80’s style shred axe.
The Parker Nitefly has some very unique features apart from the obvious contoured body that looks pretty cool. It comes with a Graphtech Nubone Nut, Parker Vibrato Bridge, Sperzel Trim-lok-in-line Tuners, Seymour Duncan Hum/Hum and Graphtech Ghost piezos.
The combination of regular magnetic pickups and piezo pickups allows for a wide variety of tones and the piezo offers a range of acoustic tones as well.
The current range of Nitefly guitars are also MIDI upgradeable.
The Nitefly allowed Bruce to experiment with cleaner tones and egged him toward evolving the sound he’s best known for today.
The Bruce Lee Super Strat
Pickups: Lindy fralin vintage hot
All pickups are shielded with a thin copper sheet and a single ground running into one of the pots.
The pick guard is also shielded with an aluminium sheet.
The shielding along with great pickups and electronics make for one extremely noiseless guitar that performs spectacularly in the studio and on stage.
The entire thing works like a regular Strat, the only mod is that the tone controls also work on the bridge pickup unlike a traditional Strat.
The thing about the guitar that Bruce speaks very highly of is the tremolo. Its a Hipshot US tremolo.
What sets it apart from a regular tremolo is that it has hardened steel pivot points set into a bent top brass plate forming something like a ball and socket joint that reduces wear and tear considerably and increases accuracy. Over the last 10 years, he’s had to make little or no adjustments to it and it still works like a charm.
If you find your tremolo not working as well as you would like it to, the Hipshot is definitely worth looking at.
The body of the guitar is one piece red cedar, the neck is once piece white cedar and the finger board is satin wood.
Bruce spent a lot of time during his formative years as a guitar player working on exercises or “drilling” as he puts it. Like getting 16th notes and 32nd notes at 200 BPM. It’s something that is quite often overlooked by guitar players who aren’t into music that required you to shred. But, he says, this was a great foundation for him and allowed him to explore many styles comfortably. Over time his guitar regimen has changed and now he focuses more on writing stuff that’s somewhat out of his comfort zone and trying to get really good at it through practise. There are many approaches to becoming a good guitar player, but a disciplined practice regimen when you have the time for it is never a bad idea.
You might be wondering why this article has yet to mention anything about his guitar rig. Firstly, its because writing about Bruce’s setup is daunting and I’m trying to put it off for as long as I can. And secondly because you can’t have great guitar tone without a great guitar player and a great guitar. And no matter how much I may rave about a certain piece of equipment I feel those two things always come first.
Alright, so finally lets get down to the rig (takes a deep breath)
Guitar : Line 6 POD X3 Live (Upgraded to Helix but used similarly) and a VOX AC30
Synth: Roland-GR55 Guitar Synth
Vocals: Blue Encore 300 Live vocal condenser microphone into a TC Helicon Voicelive 2
The interplay between all these units is really interesting. At the core of all the processing is the Line 6 POD X3 Live so lets start with that.
You’ll notice the X3 has a lot of inputs and outputs. I will only be mentioning the ones Bruce uses in his rig. Although the unit isn’t manufactured anymore, The documentation for the X3 is still available online and if you’re interested in knowing more about its routing capabilities you’ll find all the information on the Line6 website.
If you aren’t familiar with Line6 products the X3 is what’s called a digital amp modeller. It can emulate a range of guitar amps, cabinets, microphones and stomp boxes. Basically, you can create a virtual guitar rig and plug it straight into a PA system or a studio console for recording without the hassle of having to lug around a ton of gear.
At the time of its release in 2007 Line6 had taken full advantage of advances in digital processing and the X3 was a huge upgrade with a host of new amp models and effects but the feature most talked about was its Dual Tone function. It’s basically the ability to run 2 completely independent virtual rigs with 2 completely different effects and amps into 2 separate outputs simultaneously.
Bruce takes full advantage of this feature in what could best be described as a hybrid setup.
He has two signal chains setup on the X3
Signal chain A has no amp models or spatial effects. It’s essentially on bypass and it runs into his amp through one of the Live outs which are the 1/4 inch outputs right next to the guitar input. His VOX AC-30 is slightly driven at all times and a few stomp boxes are setup on this signal chain like boosts and drives. There’s an SM57 in front of the amp that sends this signal to the console.
Signal chain B has amp modelling, effects and stomps. It’s the entire virtual rig with all its bells and whistles. This runs out of a set of XLR direct outputs which you can find right next to the Live outputs. Both these outputs run directly into to the mixing desk to form a stereo pair. It’s in stereo because Bruce has all his spatial effects running on this chain like reverb and delays. Effects like these usually sound better in stereo.
In addition to this the output from the FX loop which is set to pre FX runs into his vocal processor. It has an input to track your guitar chords as you play and can generate appropriate vocal harmonies based on the chord.
The AUX input on the X3 is used on heavier songs and tracks with different tunings. Before I can get into details about that, a little bit about the GR-55 Guitar Synth.
In order to use the GR-55 you need a pickup that sends individual string information to the unit. In Roland’s case they have the GK-3
The pickup sits right in front of the bridge and tracks individual strings. It then sends that to the GR-55 through a 13 pin cable. The pickup is also designed to take the signal from the regular magnetic pickups and send that to the GR-55 and you’re meant to take the guitar output from the Synth and send that to your amp. However, Bruce has a Y cable designed that sends the GK-3 pickup to the synth and another 1/4 inch cable to his X3.
This frees up the guitar output on the GR-55 for another really cool trick. Apart from generating a wide array of synth sounds the unit also emulates actual guitars and this feature comes under Roland’s COSM modelling technology. The algorithm is so well designed that the tracking is virtually instantaneous as opposed to the synth sounds which take a bit of getting used to.
Essentially Bruce uses this feature to make up for not being able to tour with a guitar tech and 20 guitars. The COSM modelling allows him to change his guitar from a Strat to a Les Paul or a Tele instantly. Apart from emulating multiple guitars and their pickup positions it can also emulate different tunings. So instead of having to retune his guitar every time he plays a song in drop D, DADGAD or any other tuning for that matter. The GR-55 also stores the tuning of your choice along with the modelled guitar patch for a particular song and it lets you move between guitars and tunings at the flick of a switch. He also uses the acoustic guitar emulation on some tracks.
Brace yourselves because this is where the AUX input on the X3 comes back into the picture. The guitar out from the GR-55 goes into the AUX input of the X3 and on tracks where the emulated guitar output from the GR-55 is in effect the AUX input of the X3 runs both signal chain A and B.
If you catch them live you may notice some of the modelled sounds on tracks like.
If Them Blues, Edifice of Lies, Motorbykle, Dresden Drum Beat and Silicon Outhouse to name a few.
You’d think all of this would be more than enough to keep track of in a live situation but Bruce insists that he could be doing more with the pedals.
In any case there are definitely some really interesting take aways from this rig. And some great solutions to some common guitar conundrums.