Excerpts from Taylor Guitars' Wood & Steel newsletter, Spring 1995
Wood & Steel: Let's take care of this issue right away - since we last discussed the subject, have you changed the gauges of the strings you use on your LKSM?
Leo Kottke: Well, it depends on the guitar and the brand of strings. I generally don't buy individual gauges anymore. On one of my two 12-strings, I use a 6-string set of GHS phosphor-bronzes, .013 to .056. That guitar has more bottom and can handle more punch. On the other one, I use John Pearse medium phosphor-bronzes, which have a smaller core and tend to clarify the bottom. The octaves are peculiar for me, and I've been hesitating to talk to the string companies about this, but I pair the GHS .056 and the .046 with either a .030 or a .032, and an .018, respectively. But, on the .036 and the .026, I use a stainless steel octave - a .014 and an .011, respectively.
I would use a narrower gauge than the .011, but they aren't available in stainless steel. I use stainless steel to accommodate the magnetic pickup. To the ear, it has about half the magnetic zap of regular strings. If you use a magnetic pickup, those octaves on the .026 and .036 are just unbearably loud, unless you're using nickel strings, which I think are still too loud. After a lot of years, I'm happiest with phosphor-bronze and a magnetic pickup, with that stainless steel solution to the level problem.
WS: Now that you mention it, probably the second most frequently asked question is about which pickup(s) you prefer, and why.
LK: I found out, after all this time, that there is no answer. It is possible, though, to find what suits your own playing style. I have a very punchy transient in my playing, and all of the piezopickups (or whatever they're made of now) - both Lloyd Bagg's under-the-saddle pickup and Larry Fishman's - have a feature where they'll distort. I don't know if that's the correct technical description, but if you hit that kind of pickup very hard on the transient, it breaks up very quickly. That's something I hear, and it scares me to death. And, I want to make this as clear as I can - it's also something I do not understand technically, and I could be telling you stuff that's so full of hot air, I probably shouldn't even open my mouth.
What I should tell you is that, depending on the sound system - wait a minute, let me start all over again. I'll stick with "there's no answer to it," because I use different pickups in different situations Secondly, what you use is determined by your own personal attack, the room you're in, and the kind of sound system you're using. So, these days, I'm generally using a Sunrise pickup, because that suits my attack the best. It's also the easiest for me to balance. In some situations, the sound system turns the Sunrise to just...mud. Or, you have no top and no bottom, in which cases the Fishman or the Baggs seem to work better. And depending on whether I'm flying or driving [laughs], I use a variety of pre-amps. The ideal situation, which is also the silliest, is to have everything you've got with you at all times, and adapt to each job.
In the past few months, I've got a Fishman Matrix and a Sunrise in the LKSMs, with a Fishman Dual Parametric [two-band parametric equalizer with built-in direct-input box]. I can run either pickup through that device, with just enough EQ to solve the more glaring problems that come up. I love that practical approach, because it allows me to adjust, if the system I happen to be playing through prefers a piezo-type pickup. It makes my life a little easier.
WS: One of our readers wrote to ask if it's true that you drill two holes in your guitar, in order to run separate wires to your pickups.
LK: Yeah. I really don't like to blend the two sound sources [saddle and soundhole]. I prefer to keep them separate. These days, the main reason [I run separate wires] is that, if I'm using a Fishman Matrix, it allows me to use their internal pre-amp. If I ran one plug as a stereo jack, with a different pickup dedicated to each side, I wouldn't be able to use the Matrix. By the way, without a shadow of a doubt, that's the most common question I get "What kind of pickup is that?" Usually, it's followed by, "What kind of pre-amp is that?"
WS: So...what kind of pre-amp is that?
LK: To give an accurate answer, there are several types of pre-amps that work beautifully: The Pendulum; the Rane Map-33; and this little Fishman Dual Parametric. Also, the Sunrise tube interface. By the way, at the [Taylor] factory concert, I was conducting a little experiment. I used a Sunrise through a little TC Electronics booster box, which elevates the signal, through a dbx compressor/limiter. That worked pretty well, but I don't think you can get that little booster box anymore. In an ideal situation, I'd have all of those things at every job, plus the Fishman, Baggs, and Sunrise pickups. If that sounds a little ridiculous, it is.
WS: It's interesting that you can talk to six guitarists, and each prefers a different pre-amp.
LK: I think that's a function of how different players attack the stings, whether you use a pick, how much fingernail you use... The crystal pickup, which is still real prevalent, responds best to people who have a light attack and use a lot of nail of pick. As fr as I can tell, using my ear, that would describe James Taylor, for example, who gets a beautiful sound using a Jim Olson guitar and a Lloyd Baggs pickup. But, if you really pop 'em, like I do, you start to sound kind of tinny and harsh. With a parametric, though, you can notch that. And, by the way, that's a really valuable thing - a notch filter There's only one pre-amp that gives you that, and that's the Rane. That has saved my skin in a couple of situations.
WS: Such as...
LK: The most common place for that to happen is outdoors, when the sun is setting, like at Humphrey's. If you're playing outdoors when the temperature and humidity are shifting, you frequently get this enormous "hump." It's just the loudest, most gawdawful thing in the sound spectrum, somewhere between 100 and 140 cycles. If you use the parametric to knock that out, you have nothing left. But if you have a notch filter, which is narrower than what you can get with the parametric, you can just hit it right on the nose and it's gone, and you're home free. You can get a passive, dedicated notch filter that will match the impedance of your device and you can plug it in. But you'd be carrying four or five of them around with you, so then you're getting silly again.
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