Friday, July 15, 2016

The Closet Classic

I went to visit my cousin, and my family stayed with his family for a few days. On the first night, we had a nice dinner and had a great visit, then around 11:00 we all decided to turn in.  His wife took us down to the basement to show us where we were going to sleep.  There was this acoustic guitar in the corner, and my cousin’s wife must have noticed me looking at it, and said, “Oh we got that from one of our aunts.  I think it is a good one.”

She left the room, and my wife went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.  But I just stood there, staring at this guitar.  “Ohmigod,” I thought to myself, “that’s not what I think it is, is it?”  Generally, if there is a guitar in the room, it is the first thing I notice, and this one was just kind of in the corner glowing at me like that scene where they take off the lid of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I turned on all of the lights that were available in the room, and picked the guitar up.  Very carefully.

I had never seen a guitar like this before, let alone held one in my hands.  It had a mother of pearl logo “Gibson” on the headstock with matching split parallelogram fret markers.  There was no label on the inside to tell me the model.  The covered tuners reminded me of the ones on my 70s Marauder so I assumed it was from the same period, but the buttons were plastic.  The pickguard had a point like a Hummingbird but without the ornamentation.  The body was a sunburst.

When my wife returned, I told her about this guitar and she got into the whole Antique Roadshow vibe to the story.  With her help and going on the internet, I was able to determine that this was a 1956-1960 Gibson Southern Jumbo or SJ.  I found one for sale on line for $4000 in okay condition and another one for sale in England in good condition for over 5000 pounds or over $10000.  The one lying on my cousin’s basement bed was in very good to excellent condition.  There was zero fret wear.  There were no scratches on the finish, though there was the beautiful antique craze patterns in the gloss which does nothing to the sound but shows how old this thing was.   The only defect on this SJ was a small chip in the headstock. 

In my hands, the guitar felt like a dream.  I started to tune it, but the tuners were old and sticky, and there was no way I was going to break one off just so I could diddle around on it.  I was able to get the three bass strings in tune without a lot of resistance, and plucked a few lines on it.  Despite the age of the strings, that articulated Gibson thump was there, just like Libby Cotten or Pete Townsend.  I then slackened off the strings a bit to get an even tension on the neck. 

The next morning, I told my cousin and his wife what I had discovered about that guitar that was in the basement.  I think they were a little disbelieving until I showed them the UK website with one for sale for $10000.  I asked them where they got the guitar and they explained that their aunt had probably bought it, meaning to learn to play, but never got around to it.  She passed away, and it just sat there some more until the uncle was getting rid of a bunch of her stuff, and thought it would be good for their son.  They wrapped it in a sheet and took it home.

They asked what they should do with it.  I told them they had 3 choices:
  1. 1)      Sell it.  I don’t think they would get 10 Gs for it because they would have to sell it themselves internationally, but maybe they could sell it for less to a local dealer.
  2. 2)      Keep it.  Put it in a case until they figure out what to do with it or keep it as an investment.
  3. 3)      Play it.  The guitar was made and bought to be played.  It is one of those dream possessions, like a Harley or a nice piece of jewelry.  BUT, I love guitars, and even I was nervous about wrecking it.  My own guitars are cheap(er) workhorses, meant to be played, tinkered with, and definitely not worried about.  I wouldn’t ride a Harley to work, and I wouldn’t wear a sapphire to the grocery store.

My cousin and his family will have to give it some thought before they deal with this unexpected treasure.  I had always been skeptical of these stories of people finding treasures in their family’s homes.  How could people not know what they had?  But my cousin’s story made a lot of sense.  The whole “chain of knowing” about this guitar had been broken.  It truly was a Closet Classic.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Slide Has 5 Lives

Last time, I talked about building a lap slide with my limited woodworking skills.  What I didn't talk about was how after I built it, I used it a for a while and then I let it gather dust for a few years.

I think in my head, I was going to use it for David Lindley-type applications, but I began to realize that the only David Lindley song I might try is "Mercury Blues" but after attempting that song (which I don't do well), I had trouble finding more applications.

Dust gathering.

I tried some blues-type songs, but I could get those kinds of sounds, and with far more ease, by retuning a regular electric guitar and using a bottle-neck slide technique a la Duane Allman or Bonnie Raitt.  So if I could get the needed sound out of a regular guitar, why did I need a lap slide?

Dust gathering.

Then I tried to use the lap slide for country-type applications.  Yeah, it added a nice layer of slide guitar on some songs or recordings, but if I really wanted that country sound, I needed those cool intervals that pedal steel guitars have.  But I wasn't able to get those intervals on my G or E chord-tuned lap slide.

Dust gathering.

What was left?  Hawaiian music.  Historically, this was probably the first use of electric slide guitars way back when.  It was fun to play "Aloha Oe" for the first 100 times, but after that, it got a little stale.

Dust gathering.  For 6 years.

New Tuning!
I was looking for something else on YouTube, and I came across this video of some guy tuning his lap slide to a C6 chord.  He was able to get those cool pedal steel intervals, plus the Hawaiian sound from this tuning.   As the name states, the guitar is tuned to a C6 chord, or a regular C chord with an A (the 6th note in a C scale), low to high: CEGACE.  Strummed by itself, the guitar has that dreamy Hawaiian feel to it.  But by picking the 3rd and 6th strings together or the 2nd and 5th strings together, you get those great pedal steel intervals!

String Gauge
I was on holiday when I found the video, so not only did I have to wait to get home to retune and play my lap steel, but I also had to go out and buy 6 individual strings to get the right gauge, (15, 18, 22, 24, 30, 36) for this unique tuning.  I thought I could get away with a regular set of strings, but the tension would be too slack or too tight.  A regular tuning spans two octaves, and the C6 tuning is just over two octaves.  The custom gauge of string helps to keep the proper tension across all the strings, if not, the weight of the slide will pull the strings out of tune too.

Speaking of Slides...
Up until I got into the C6 tuning, I was using my regular, hollow, finger-style slide on the lap slide. After a while, I bought a big bullet slide.  Its weight helped with the tone, tension, and tuning while playing the lap slide.  I did find its weight and its size to be a little unwieldy, especially if I wanted to angle the bar so it was only touching one or two strings.  Eventually, I bought a Shubb-style slide. The contours on the sides make it much easier to maneuver the slide while still having sufficient weight to get the right tone.  I am also using a thumb pick to get the right attack on the bass strings.

I found some YouTube videos, some websites, and an ebook that are helping me to rethink the fretboard with this new tuning.  It is like learning a new language, but it is a lot of fun.  I am getting some of those sounds on the old songs my dad used to listen to on country radio.  I've used this tuning on some of the songs I play with the band, but far in the background, as I am still working on the proper voicings and tone.  I still get the "tortured cat" sound from time to time, but I am getting better.

The Moral of the Story
If you have a slide guitar and you want to breathe new life into it, retune it to C6 and expand your horizons!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Making a Slide Guitar (with grade 8 woodworking skills)

I went to a dance (yeah, I know, but it was a school fundraiser), and a rockabilly band was playing.  It was a four piece band: singer/rhythm guitar, lead guitar, stand up bass, and drums.  They were a fun band and really swung.  For a couple of numbers, the lead guitar player pulled up a very basic-looking lap slide guitar, and it sounded really good.  I've tried playing slide on a regular guitar and it hasn't gone well, so I was wondering if a lap guitar would be better for me.  To my wife's chagrin, I kind of stopped dancing after that because I wanted to watch this guy play, but I also wanted to figure out how this guitar was made.  It didn't look hard: a plank, strings, and a pickup.

The next few days were spent trying to find out about slide guitar construction (and being nice to my wife).  On the internet, there wasn't that much information about lap slides, (but there is a lot of advice about being nice to your wife), so I just jumped in.  Doing a little inventory, I found I had a lot of the parts I needed, left over from previous mods, and I just needed some wood, a few electronic parts and a bridge.

The Body
I bought a nice piece of maple that I was going to cut in half and glue together like a sandwich so it would be nice a strong.  But I realized my tuners were not going to fit through two layers of wood, so I made sure the top layer extended beyond the bottom layer.   I still had to rout a bit of the thickness out so the pegs would clear the top.

I used tuners from an old Gibson Marauder.

Like the Marauder, I cut the headstock on an angle
 for a straighter, less-binding string pull.

The Bridge and Electronics
I bought a top-mounted bridge online and installed it on the end of the body.  I routed and drilled out places for the pickup and electronics.  I mounted them on some pieces of hardboard which was cheap, available, and easy to cut.  I didn't have a knob so I drilled out a red die, like on some hot-rodded rockabilly guitars. 
The pickup is a leftover stacked Dimarzio. 

The Frets
Okay, here is where I totally cheated.  A real woodworker gave me a nice thin piece of cherry for the fretboard, and I read about fret distance calculators and scale lengths.  It looked way too complicated.  Wanting to get on with it, I just photocopied the neck of a student guitar.  It was nice and wide, and the 24" scale made it nice and easy to place the nut.  The nut is an aluminum nut cover used to convert regular guitars into high-action slide guitars. 

The fret markers are happy face stickers, 

The "Finished" Product
I strung the guitar up with some Ernie Ball regular slinky strings that I had, tuned it to open G, and plugged it in.  Amazingly, it worked!  I used a lug from a socket wrench set as my slide (until I bought some actual slides).  The fret markers are surprisingly true, so when I put the slide over the frets, the guitar is actually in tune.  The Dimarzio has a lot of bite when I crank up the gain on my amp.  I had to run a ground wire to get rid of a little hum. 

I actually did this project a few years ago which you might be able to tell by the dust in the pictures.  A lot of the things I thought were going to be temporary, (e.g. the unfinished finish, the paper fretboard, etc.) have stayed, so far.  I drilled a hole and strung some leather through it so I could hang the guitar. 

Clyde the Slide
looks kind of like a Chapman Stick.

I name all of my guitars, and old Clyde is still doing well.  But I'll save more recent activities for future posts.  

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Embers: the song I want played at my funeral.

I refound the song I want played at my funeral.  It is called, "The Embers" and it was written by Billy Cowsill and Jeffrey Hatcher.  The version I know is by Jim Byrnes from his Fresh Horses CD.*

I first heard the song when Byrnes played it at a concert I attended at the Terry Fox theatre.  I don't know if it was poorly promoted or not, but there were maybe twelve people in attendance.  Byrnes, Jesse Zubot, and Steve Dawson still put on a great, intimate show.  When they played "The Embers", it was one of those magical moments.  Maybe it was because there were so few people, it felt moving and personal, like coming across a unicorn in a forest, and you look around like, "Is anyone else seeing this?"  During the performance, Dawson played a slow slide solo on his Weissenborn which unfortunately is not on the CD, but captured somewhat in my memory.  I bought the CD at the end of the show, and the trio signed it. 

Lyrically, the song does not capture my view on love and life, but it does have the right feel for my view on love and death.

*It might be out of print, so you can find it in the first binder of CDs in the computer room. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Playing with Others

At work a few years ago, we started a little band at work.  I'd probably played longer than anyone else in the band, but I learned as much or more than everyone else too.  The biggest thing I learned, and it sounds really obvious, but playing with other people is different than just playing by yourself.  There are some small things and big things too.
  • Being in tune is really important.  At first, we just used to self-tune, but I thought we sounded weird and phasey sometimes when we played together, so I started tuning everyone.  I think they thought I was just being anal until I started recording us, then they all went out and bought tuners.
  • A song is not a long solo.  Lots of guitar players, especially when they first start really getting into it, solo all.the.time.  If you want to alienate a band with your awe-inspiring talent or your self-indulgence, keep it up.
  • Guitar players also are good at parts of a song (the intro, a riff, a solo), but if you play in a band, you have to learn the whole song, all the way through.  
  • Same with playing in time: try not to speed up during solos and choruses, and if you make a mistake, yup, keep playing. 
  • Tone is more important than being loud.  This 50 watt modelling amp I have sounds awesome at home.  It is big and bassy sounding.  It can fill the room nicely, and when I crank it up, it can fill the neighbourhood.  BUT when I play with the band, this amp does not cut through the mix.  That would be okay if I am just trying to give atmosphere, but if I am playing the main riff or doing a solo, my guitar does not jump out whereas the other guitar player has this little 15 watt amp that cuts through every time.  I've since switched over to a smaller tube amp that sounds a little thin on its own, but fits nicely in the mix with the band.
  • Use effects sparingly.  Stomp boxes are very seductive.  There are so many sounds and knobs and buttons.  Multi-effects or stand-alone units or on-board effects?  So many choices!  But as important as your sound is, the rest of the band won't be thrilled with you scrolling through menus, twiddling knobs, or fooling with your presets.  Do that on your own time because all of that tweaking is getting in the way of the big idea: playing with the band.  All you really need is a clean sound, a dirty sound, and a lead sound, and you need to be able to access them quickly (i.e. without having to plug something in during the middle of a song, stomp on 5 buttons, etc.).  Also, if you play with the same, heavily-effected sound, it is going to get old fast. 
  • Singers rule song choice.  Unless you are an instrumental band, the singers should choose the songs or at least the songs should be chosen with the singers in mind.  You might have to give up some great guitar-heavy songs if the songs are not in the singer's range or register.   Think of Lou Reed singing "Stairway to Heaven".  Sure, you can capo or rearrange, but you will probably have to move on.  In doing songs from the singer's perspective, I have moved out of my guitar-based song rut.  My playing hasn't really improved, but my musicianship is definitely getting "wider".
  • Decent monitors are essential for playing live.  With another staff band, we were playing at our school talent show.  Listening to the student performers, I was surprised how consistently off-key the singers were, that is, until we took the stage.  Sure, we were on-key because we could hear our amped instruments on stage, but because we were playing to a backing track played on the PA, we were so out of sync with the rhythm track. 
Though these points sound preachy, you need to know that I have made ALL of the mistakes I have stated above.  Of course, these remarks are based on my own limited experience, but heck, so is the rest of this blog!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Start with the Start, Stupid.

Last fall, I picked up a big bodied Gretsch on Craigslist, and proudly showed it to my wife when I got home.  She saw that it was hollow bodied, and asked me to play it.  I strummed a bit unplugged, and she said, "Hmmm, it's quieter than I expected....Do you think it needs new strings?''  I rolled my eyes at her, and packed the guitar off upstairs. 
I fell in love with this guitar as soon as the sellers took it out of the case: gloss black, lots of chrome accents with a Bigsby, big body and a wide flat neck to match.  It looked like liquid cool, and I conjured up the Gretsch twang inside my head.  I tried it out on the big Marshall amp they had, and it had the growl, but not the Gretsch twang.  I bought it anyway, thinking I would get the twang on my brighter amps at home. 
But when I got it home and played it for my wife, still no lively sound, just as my wife could identify with her untrained ears.  I kept the lie alive, fending off buyer's remorse, because how could a guitar that looked and felt so great sound so lifeless?  I tried it in a very bright amp, and still it had a happy mellow jazz sound, but no real nasal bite.  Disappointed?  Not yet.
You'd think I would be able to get the big sound out of this slick Gretsch.  I tried amps and effects, and was able to get a somewhat brighter sound, but not the right fundamental sound.  I went on the internet, and found out that the pickups in this guitar are a bit dull sounding.  I found a mod where you pull out one whole row of screws which did help a bit, but websites recommended changing the pickups altogether.  I didn't want to do this to a "new" guitar.

So thinking about what my wise wife said, I swapped off the old strings for some D'addario flat wound.  There was a big change in sound. The sound had more presence, and was definitely louder.  It was very mellow and the flatwounds eliminated finger squeak.  It had a great jazz sound, so instead of using the big Gretsch for country, rock, or rockabilly, (what the guitar is made for) I started using it to explore jazz.  If you know Gretsches, this is like using a banjo to play jazz, but the big body and hearing some jazz in the summer just pointed me in the jazz direction.   It made me feel more jazzy, but the feeling didn't last.  Or maybe the feeling lasted, but it wasn't a feeling I wanted for this guitar.

At the same time, I felt the Ernie Ball strings on my Strat were too brittle sounding.  I'd played this brand of strings for 30 years.  They were my go-to brand but this was the first time I'd felt any ear fatigue with them.  Maybe it was from playing the overly mellow Gretsch so much recently. 

"Hey!  Wait a second!  My Strat is too bright and thin, and my Gretsch is too mellow sounding.  Hmmmm," I thought.  Yup, I did the thing you aren't supposed to do.  I took the strings off one guitar and put them on the other, and vice versa.  Waddaya know?  The Gretsch came back to life!  Acoustically, the guitar sounded louder and the amps sounded like I lifted a blanket off them.  And my Strat was tamed along with a fast feel with the flatwounds.

So many lessons learned here.  First, I should have listened to my wife.  Second, the fundamental part of the guitar sound is where my fingers touch the strings.  I should have started there in my sound investigations too.  And talk about a cheap fix.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best buy?

Further to my last post, I was thinking of the best cheap guitar I ever bought. 
It was a Squier Stratocaster. It was love at first sight.  It was glossy black with a beautiful pearloid pick guard.  There was a worn spot where your forearm contacted the guitar.  The frets were in great shape, and the string action was nice and low. The maple neck was a vintage butterscotch tone, and it had the smaller, more attractive headstock with the spaghetti Fender logo.
But beyond all of this physical beauty was how it felt. Sure, it sounded good too, but I have never felt a guitar that felt so good in my hand in the business area, between the fifth and tenth fret.  It felt like it was made for my hand.  It was like when my dad taught me how to break in a baseball glove. Both cases, glove and guitar neck, felt like buttah.
I got it for a song, hunting around on Craigslist.  I had been on the hunt for a bit.  I'd played a few Squier Strats in stores, but was not impressed by the workmanship of the Affinity line especially.  They had flimsy components and sharp frets that hung out past the fretboards. But the gem I bought had no such issues. 
And where is this beauty now?  Well, that's the thing.  It was never meant to be mine in the first place.  I was looking for a nice gift for my brother in-law's fortieth birthday, and I came across this treasure. Okay, I admit that it crossed my mind to go find a different one for Kevin because I liked that one so much, but I knew that as a player he would really appreciate such a sweet guitar.  And he did. 
It turned out to be the perfect gift for him.  As added bonuses, I got to go hunting, and I do get to visit the little prize every so often.