I am constantly fascinated by people taking the reins and doing something special and something that THEY want, not necessarily something that they want to sell to the public though that’s certainly cool in its own right.
Tavo Vega is one of these people.
He’s been on the quest to nail the tone that Brian Setzer has when he goes from flat picking to finger picking and as a result he now has the Nocturne pedal that was available in the limited number of twenty-five but due to technical difficulties, couldn’t turn off the PayPal order form soon enough and now has a back log of pedals to make. What started off as something he thought MAYBE some other Setzer fanatics would be interested quickly proved to be more popular than he could have imagined.
Tavo was willing to sit down and answer some questions from the 5th Fret about how this whole pedal making thing started and where he hopes to go and what got him into playing. Enjoy!
How old were you when you first started playing guitar?
My dad taught me to sing and play gospel standards in the style of Elvis and Johnny Cash, basic little first position stuff around age 9 or 10. In fifth grade I was taking "official" lessons that I disliked by a proper professor; Zolts Bayor, the school’s violin teacher.
What made you want to play?
I used to watch my Dad and uncle sit on the front porch with a big silverface Bassman. I remember my uncle with the bass in one channel and my Dad with a Fender Coronado II he built, plugged in to the other channel singin’ and rockin’. That was his outlet once I came into the world and he had to quit playing in his rockabilly band. He worked for Fender in the 60s at the time Leo was bowing out and CBS was taking over. I can just barely remember my mom and me picking him up at those old quonset hut buildings in Fullerton (we grew up in orange county). Then he'd come home and play that guitar then listen to Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, Elvis, The Ventures and Tony Mattola.
As I mentioned above, it was 5th grade that it became more of a focus and pushed by my parents to be trained formally. I think I fought it for a year or so, because I wanted to play rock n roll by ear and he wanted me to learn the correct way. I won out though when my let me take his Coronado to school for a lesson with a Magnatone Varsity amp and when I was setting it up some girls walked by and spotted that Fender guitar. When they giggled and smiled at my power chords, that was it. It became my life at that moment, been at it ever since...
What was your first guitar?
Very first was a plastic electric from Sears at age 4, ha! First real guitar was a classical student guitars for lessons, but I played my dad's Montgomery Wards Airline loaded with fender jaguar pickups until he let me use his Fender Coronado II in my high school rockabilly band ‘till my senior year when I bought a candy apple Strat copy and a Peavey 1x12 combo. I guess technically my first electric was the Airline my dad finally gave to me.
How did your band get together?
Been in too many bands to begin to mention since the early 80s. I started with vintage rock n’ roll and I've been back at it now for a while as I started feeling the urge to play "real" gigs again - to play clubs and bars with my own rockabilly music and vintage gospel so I've had some younger cats backin' me on and off since. Got my current Album on iTunes "Songs of Justice" by my trio called Tavo and The Flat Black Thrillers and Ol' Skool Rodz magazine just gave me a great review in the latest issue #35 Sept. 09 (had to blow the horn, it was exciting to be in my favorite hot rod mag).
I hope to start giggin’ again this holiday season, I dig Xmas.
What inspired you to make the Brain Seltzer Nocturne?
One thing I could never get out of my guitar and amp when I folded the pick in my palm to do finger pickin' like Setzer..was that punchy, twangy sheen that seemed to pop off the notes in that BSO (Brian Setzer Orchestra – ed.) Dirty Boogie album. I'm not talking about his talent or what his fingers can do that my dumb hands will never muster, I'm talking about how his finger picking tone almost seems to jump out of the guitar amp more than his picking tone. Obviously each sounds different than the other but when Setzer does it through his rig, it gets all dynamically woody and twangy at the same time. Kinda the sound when you put your ear down against the body to the Gretsch's upper bout while you play.. One ear is hearing the inside of the guitar and the other hears the amp. I love that.
I KNEW there was something special about his use of the exact Roland Space Echo "RE-301".. So I bought an RE-150, RE-201 and an RE-301(the one I have now still own, was a big gift from a secret friend)..tore ‘em apart, studied them and then had a local tech repair them and sell them off. I found out that the RE-301 uses Op-amps instead of Transistors, and they also dumped the use of carbon comp resistors for carbon film. The RE-301 is much cleaner and dynamic in its mids sonic spectrum, low to high. This got me thinking about my recording and live sound experience with microphones and mic pre's. It’s always a challenge to reproduce an accurate acoustic sound from pianos, violins, accordions, etc and a good mic is not good enough, you need a solid pre-amp.
So I kept this in mind reminding myself that a mic needs to have roughly 10x its own impedance from a mic pre to do its best and THAT told me SETZER's funky Filtertrons are wacky little microphones that pickup both string and body vibration in a strange blend of semi-microphonic, humbucking duty, but then the PRE AMP of that particular space echo is coloring, enhancing and emphasizing how well they are hearing what the musicians hands are doing! That’s the freakin’ mystery revealed to me... So now the RE-301s pre-amp is artfully recreated and its mojo lives in a beautiful little pedal box and you can decide to use analog or digital echoes with it. Both are enhanced dramatically with it. I'm tired of guitar effects pedals, so now I have an effects box made for my amp and it’s got true bypass and a 1 meg ohm impedance buffer. Time to learn how to play better melodic Travis picking.
How many prototypes did you make until you found THE sound?
Yes I am a secret U2 worshipper since I saw "New Years Day" the minute MTV came to my television in the early 80s.
How did you make the jump from one for yourself to a limited run of 25?
Uh..My poor dental hygienist wife having to go to work fulltime and one really benevolent friend(gave me a RE-301) kickin’ me to use some other talents in life and stop moping around like a sad-ass out of work musician. Figured if I could sell a few to friends with the same obsession, maybe I'd recover the money I'd taken from our family budget to develop the Nocturne. I ended up making a total of 25 because that was the price break on the boxes. I thought it was nutty to order anymore than 15 but now that’s history.
Are they selling faster than you thought they would?
Sheeze... I was hoping maybe 5 would sell and I could slowly pawn off the others on eBay but they freakin’ all sold out in less than 3 weeks. BLEW my mind but I have this warm feeling inside because now I know I am not alone in wanting this thing. Everyone that bought one of the first 25 is part of a very long journey and I think that is what makes me shed a quiet tear late at night as I lay awake in terror thinking about how I am gonna finish all twenty five boxes in a 4 week time frame. I was dumb to put up the blog site with only one pedal done, but eh, now I've learned to solder tiny, tiny solder joints faster than I first did 4 weeks ago. It’s a major learning experience. Prior to this I've just been modding guitars, amps, building Teles ‘n fixing upright basses and broken pedals. Crazy.
The big question: Are you planning to make more?
I wasn’t, no waaay...until last week, so as of this moment now… Ironically yes. For some reason I lost the password to my Blogspot and that damn Google won’t return my emails so the PayPal button couldn’t be shut off quick enough when the pedals ran out..so uh.. now I'm back ordered. I even had to sell Vince Ray my own kandy orange version.
This led to an immediate sit down with the family. The wife now is the inventory clerk, the 13yr old is the circuit board stuffer and the 6 yr old makes the shipping boxes. This ol’ dude sits back in the air condition-less (100 degrees) shop/rehearsal studio, sanding, drilling, grinding and soldering endlessly with hillbilly and country music blasting. Can’t complain, there is a fridge full of good beer and no boss to verbally beat me up anymore.
Allllll to sayyyy... I in fact just ordered 25 more blank boxes and we go for round two. Round two!! I can’t believe the whole thing. It would be very cool if it turned into something I could count on. Then my family and I could finally move to Nashville like we planned before the So. Cal. housing economy crashed (our 1900sqft home is now worth half of what we owe).
Will you perhaps be adopting Charvel's practice of changing the colors based on run/year of release?
I never knew Charvel did that but it’s a good idea, thanks. My buddy Pistol Pete, the uber-kustom car painter/artist wants me to settle down and just do the pearl orange "tangelo" w/ cream pinstripes only. We do want to keep the looks totally about hotrods and '59 era Vegas though: vintage 'rods meets the rat pack but stays faithful to the Gretsch guitar and
greaser rockabilly/vintage country music we love so dang much.
Are you having thoughts of diving deeper into this pedal making business and hanging your shingle permanently?
I dropped out of college in my 3rd year, got Married and then bought a 28yr old commercial sign and acrylic fab co. that made me more money than I'd ever had before and then I got robbed of everything in one evening, all within 3 yrs. It screwed us up financially so bad early in our marriage, I had to file chapter 11 and I vowed to never ever go into commercial manufacturing again. What do you do with that, and now this new fun thing happening to our family? Maybe the good Lord is saying my days on stage in front of a band are winding down now that I'm 44. That scares me. My whole identity has been wrapped around a mic and a guitar for decades.
I don’t know, other than I want to give anyone that needs a Brain for their Blonde, a Nocturne.. so it’s one pedal at a time?
If you plan on making more, will the price remain the same at $165.00 plus an optional $65.00 for kandy or flake colors?
Well I don’t know what to say into that other than darn PayPal takes $7 dollars of that $165 and free USA priority shipping another $10. If you notice my unique pedal boxes are purposefully made by a hardworking American in NY and they cost triple what the crap offshore $5 Hammond boxes do. You can literally drive a truck over these double thick jobbies. Plus having Pistol Pete, a local Kustom Car painter shoot hot rod paint on these, hand pinstripe and then slather poly over that with my vintage style water decals made by a former employee of the Stardust hotel (gotta dig that font)… The cost is high. But can you put a price on American made art that makes your Gretsch do what mine does now?
I guess you can, and for now its $165, unless you want a trophy pedal and let Pete do his chopper gas tank treatment. I never intended to create a company, never planned to get "paid," but I guess I need to do some kind of planning SOON.
Just off the cuff, a few close friends are giving me the shoulder shrug like "what about us, where's my pedal?" Same with my son, so I thought it'd be sweet to make a Kandy champagne sparkle and Silver sparkle around the holidays, maybe push the Stardust hotel schtick with a 60s aluminum Xmas tree vibe. I'm gonna at least make 2 like that this month as a friend
said she'd do the photo shoot for me. I can have a thousand ideas and be an art fart, being a business man is no fun.
What do you do for a living?
Since I recently quit my two decade long vocation as a church Music Director this last summer and took a break from the band thing to write another album, I've been working at nights doing my guitar biz and taking care of my two boys during the day. That is until this wacky pedal thing started up, now it’s all I do(beside caring for my kids of course). Still have a half-built Tele on the bench all by its lonesome.
What is your experience with electronics and pedal making?
My electronics knowledge for the guitar biz started in magazines back in high school and then internet when I got online to learn how to fix friends’ rigs. I know enough about top grade guitar equipment to cause some folks to trust me helping them have better tone . The only previous experience with pedals was hopping up Tube Screamers, wahs, fuzzes, etc, nothing to speak of. I have no interest in being part of that whole boutique builders guild. Again, I'm a musician with just enough tech knowledge to be as dangerous as needed to have fun guitar toys. :)
What gear do you use live?
My live rig for the last 5 yrs has been a 6120SSU, a Spectrasonic (sold that to pay for all this Nocturne stuff) and a late 63' 6G6-B transitional blonde Bassman (I recapped it with orange drop, F&T and Sprague caps using c5 series Ruby preamp tubes and NOS 6L6WGB Phillips). The cab is a Fender custom shop Tonemaster cab loaded with Celestion V30. My basic pedal board is a Peterson Strobostomp, Nocturne, Fulltone Supatrem, TIM pedal, 80s DM-3 analog delay and Maxon cs550 chorus in b-mode for SRV Vibrotone sounds.
As a player, what are you gassing for right now?
I'd like to be able to afford to get my Gretsch Spectrasonic back and as well my Tophat Super-deluxe 212 back. That is the ultimate modern guitar-amp combo in my book. Plus I kinda miss my post-Fender Roundup.. so light and twangy compared to my 89' Sparklejet clunker.
Just going by the video you posted on your site (located at http://thenocturnebrainseltzer.blogspot.com/) you did an amazing job with the pedal. It was particularly crazy how the great tone sneaks in and then when you pull the plug at the end of the video and plug back in to the amp you're left with an empty feeling, and you know that your pedal REALLY adds something to the mix.
It’s something I am proud to finally own and share..maybe even Mr. Setzer might try one someday.
Many thanks to Tavo for taking time out of his busy day to come into the A/C and answer our questions. A lot of the writers here are fans of Brian Setzer’s tone but know that 301’s are pricey so not everyone is as privy to that kind of tone.
Be sure to check out his blog and watch the videos. Like I said, it’s amazing to hear how much that great tone sneaks up on you. If you’re like me, you’ll be saying “oh that doesn’t sound too different” and then he pulls the plug and goes back into the amp and you realize that there was a HUGE difference after all.
Keep it up, Tavo!