This is in response to the questions I get asked about the gear I use to get that “super-deluxe Hank Sinatra sound.”
My main axe these days is a Taylor 914CE flatop six-string, with a cocobolo body and an Englemann spruce top. I acquired it new in 2006 from Martin Music in Memphis. The “C” means it has a cutaway body and the “E” indicates it has Taylor’s built-in Expression pick-up and onboard preamp. It also sports a neck full of abalone inlay in Taylor’s “Cindy” pattern.
The Taylor has a great tone and is wonderfully playable. There are no dead spots anywhere on the neck, and the notes just ring rich and full, without any excessive overtones.
If anything, it might be a bit too bright for backing jazz and swing vocals, and too rich to cut through the instrumental clutter of a combo. I haven’t found an archtop yet that suits me, but I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile, I do a couple of things that help dial back the inborn tonal complexity of this great guitar, as you’ll see.
One thing I especially like about Taylor guitars is their ultra-hard, super-thin high-gloss finish. It’s not the traditional varnish or lacquer, but it is nearly bulletproof. I’ve been playing my Taylor hard for three years, and it only sports one microscopic ding.
The Hank sound is all about the vocals (described as “two parts Nat, one part Frank, with a dash of Willie”) so it was important to have a great, portable P.A. system to deliver that sound to a room full of people in a small to mid-size venue. I’ve been using a Fishman SoloAmp for about six months and it’s done an excellent job.
The sound is good enough that other musicians often ask about the Fishman system, with the comment that they’ve got to check it out for their own use.
The SoloAmp (recently renamed the “SA 220 Solo Performance System” – nice move, Fishman) is a linear speaker array, which is basically a number of small speakers in a narrow vertical cabinet about four feet long. Bose has a similar system, but it’s at least twice the price.
This is a new type of speaker technology that is supposed to fill a room evenly with sound, without blasting the listeners in the front row. And it does just that. Without a subwoofer, it lacks a strong low end but I haven’t missed it.
The SoloAmp has two channels, so I can use it for both microphone and guitar when needed. And it has 48v phantom power for my condenser mic. The amp and tripod stand travel in a nylon bag with wheels, so it can be rolled around with one hand. Very nice!
I had to find a really great mic that could deliver the nuances of vocal storytelling in an quiet intimate venue. For better or worse, the audience hangs on every word and inflection, and this is no place for a muddy sound.
After a lot of searching, I ended up with the Neumann KMS-104. This is a beautiful microphone, maybe the best in the world for live vocal performance.
The 104 has a cardiod pattern, as opposed to the 105 which is a super-cardiod. This allows the singer to back off the mic a bit to move around. The only downside may be that it’s a condenser mic, which requires 48v phantom power. I’ve been at a few venues where I’ve used the house p.a. but couldn’t use my personal mic because the board didn’t provide power to the mic.
I use Extra Life Acoustic strings from DR Strings, in a medium-light gauge. I ended up with these precisely because they consistently sound a little dull. Let me explain.
In a jazz or swing venue, I don’t want a bright, ringing, booming, complex guitar sound that conflicts with the vocals or other instruments. I find these strings take the edge off the naturally-bright sound of the Taylor flattop, and the coating means that they’ll last a couple of months before requiring replacement.
For the past year, I’ve moved to much heavier picks, to get that fat dark woody tone. I used to use an ordinary medium nylon pick, but now I depend on a Dunlop 207 Jazztone, in a 2mm thickness. This thickness means there is no flex at all, so I’ve needed to work on a new right-hand technique.
Of course, I can’t leave well enough alone, so I modify my picks for extra grip and control, by drilling six or more large holes. No kidding.
In the future, I’d like to try the Dunlop Primetone picks, in 3mm and 5mm. I’ve tested those super-duper Wegen picks, which run as high as $25 (yes, for a pick!), but found they didn’t offer anything more than the Dunlops I was using.
I’m amazed how much difference a pick can make in a sound! Before you start looking at another guitar or different strings, try some new picks.
I’m using Lyric Evidence Audio cables for both guitar and vocal, and they are the bomb (i.e. great). The only downside is that they are pretty stiff, which makes them easy to trip on.
I found a great resource at Lava Cable. You can speak directly to Mark the owner, who carries about ten different makes of cables, for every application. And good prices, too.
I have a Schertler David, which is a very clean and ultra-compact amp for jazz and acoustic guitar. I can also run vocals through it, but it hasn’t seen a lot of action since I got the Fishman SoloAmp. If I move to a dedicated guitar amp to isolate the vocals, the Schertler will get more use.
That’s it. Now you know how to get that Hank sound. (Oh, and just add Hank.)