GUITARS and RELATED DETRITUS: TIPS, THOUGHTS AND FLOTSAM
REGARDING THE MAN, STRATIFICATION, AND DISORGANIZATION OF FEATHERS IN THE QUILL
This concerns that embarrassing moment many players experience when a song is so similar to another that we take a left turn into the other song without meaning to. You might recognize the voice of experience here…many times I’ve launched into the bridge or B sec of a different song because hey, the connector ramp was right there, how come nobody followed me?
The worst embarrassment I ever had in this regard was in my twenties…not with songs, but with that collection of playing tricks every musician has rattling around like a quill of semi-associated feathers, which said collection I refer to collectively as “lick number 17″.
In order to facilitate the telling of this story, it’s necessary to set the stage: I was hanging with Allan Holdsworth a lot at the time—I had attached myself to his ankle like a barnacle upon his arrival on LA soil, he was too polite to tell me to get lost, and we had become good buds—and like every LA guitarist, I was consumed by his brilliance.
Before his arrival this was a very stratified scene; after his first show at The Roxy (at which every noteworthy LA guitarist was present), the house lights came up and We The Guitarists all stared at one another for over a minute in total, dumbfounded silence…it was a very powerful moment to experience and I’ll never forget it: Suddenly the stratification was gone and we were all brothers…our game had been thrown out the window and replaced by something so blindingly brilliant that not one of us could comprehend its nature or how it was even possible.
It was against this backdrop that the following occurred: On the Road Games album, Allan’s entry into the solo on Tokyo Dreams (a blistering salvo I could NEVER play) somehow got confused by yours truly with mine very own licks, and I went to enter into a solo on a Top40 gig at the Ontario Red Lion with said salvo. I got exactly three and a half notes into it, realized what I had done, abruptly hung my arms at my sides, looked at the ceiling and had a good laugh. If only there had been a camera to get the band’s reaction; even some of the businessmen looked away from the martinis and waitresses for a moment to see what had caused the ‘Stratus Interruptus’.
In fact, now that I think about it, this was the moment that caused me to distance myself from Allan…he was infecting my own musical identity to an unhealthy degree. It was well over five years later that I felt ready to get back in contact, and I’m still wary of listening to too much of his blinding brilliance to this day. Last year I went to see him play live at the Baked Potato for the first time in maybe 20 years. I left that show in a hauntingly familiar mental wilderness I hadn’t experienced in two decades.
The Man will always be, in my humble opinion, The Man…compared to whom all the rest of us slobs are just puny humans.
REGARDING 7-STRINGS, ALTERNATE TUNINGS AND OTHER DEEP-SEATED CLINICAL PSYCHOSES
I tried a friend’s 7-string guitar once; it was so deeply unnerving it literally gave me nightmares for a month. Alternate tunings effect me the same way.
I’ve played guitar, avidly, since I was five. All of my adult life, I’ve been aware of the physical boundary between The Axe and myself, but psychologically that boundary has always been pretty fuzzy. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: We are one. Things are simply what they are and have always been—every note of every string has a lifetime of rich history and associations I can almost call political—and having had perfect pitch since early childhood, if I hit the third fret of the A string and anything other than C results, it’s as freaky and disorienting as if one of my legs were suddenly 6 inches longer. I’m lost in my own body. Adding a 7th string has a similar effect; it’s like trying to walk with three legs.
It’s not that I disapprove of 7 and 8-string guitars, or of alternate tunings…I think it would be great to be able to access these tools for what I do. It just ain’t for me.
My dad used to bemoan my lack of fear where my personal safety was concerned—the stories are legion—but really, just change my tuning or add a string and I go from a fearless Superman to a blubbering freaked-out sack of gelatinous mush.
You can hear alternate tunings and lower parts in my recordings and productions; I do have baritones for the studio, and a Mandolin, etc…but that’s for recording. I train my fingers to do the moves, close my eyes and get through the track while G is where C should be, all the while building big muscle knots in my jaws, neck and shoulders, and beating back a growing wildfire of outrage and confusion in my brain. It used to be that afterward I could diffuse myself with scotch. Now that I don’t drink, I’m reduced to burying my face in a pillow and screaming like a little girl; this has the added benefit giving me a bonus bass octave for vocal sessions the next morning. Win-win.
If you can freely go back and forth between tunings and the number of strings on your axe, as many can, then this brave new world is at your feet and my hat’s off to you. To me, it’s as if you can flap your arms and fly.
NECK-THROUGH GUITAR DESIGN VS. BOLT-ON
The ‘Guitarist Collective’ has never really understood the issues of solidbody guitar design—that aspect of the industry has always been a toy mill for teens where it really lives, after all—so I thought I’d weigh in and let fly with my not-surprisingly-strong opinions regarding this, as well as some other aspects of design, purely on a for-whatever-it’s-worth basis.
I prefer bolt-on over neck-through, and here’s why: Hardwoods (like maple) which have enough strength and structural integrity to be used for a neck are too dense and rigid to vibrate much, sympathetically with the strings, and this of course kills tone. Mahogany is an exception here, but you’d better like a dark sound. Besides, necks can wear out and die or get broken; it’s nice to be able to replace a neck and not the whole instrument. And a bolt-on design, done right, is plenty strong.
Choice of wood for the body runs along the same lines, and of course has the biggest effect (along with bridge design) on tone. It’s long been the rage to have bodies of hard, dense-but-pretty wood with interesting-looking grain; this has always struck me as a prime example of the extremity to which crowd psychology can compromise an individual’s decision making paradigms. F’rinstance, I’ve NEVER met a solid maple body that sounded good to me; they all sound trebly, rigid and uptight. Ditto Walnut.
Alder is a softer, more responsive wood whose popularity for both guitar and bass bodies is due to its capacity to vibrate and respond—but you wouldn’t want to use it for a neck, as with a neck-through design.
Finding a piece of wood that can respond to the mids and lows is difficult enough, and you’ll never get there with hardwoods. Finding a body with balanced response over the whole range of the instrument is almost impossible, but I’ve seen a few; I even own one. It’s doable.
Where and how the bridge transduces the energy from the strings into the body is a sacred marriage (which the vast majority of designs get all wrong—the rampant ineptitude of most bridge designs being a likely subject for another rant in the near future) and the wood needs to be able to respond to that energy. I look at a solidbody as being en lieu of an acoustic instrument, like a violin. A good solid body should sound good unplugged; a REALLY good one, lying face-up in your hands, should vibrate against your palms to the sound of your speaking voice. The aging and curing of the body wood is also a huge factor here, but aged and cured hardwood will always be dense. The growing popularity of chambered design is a good development; I think it heralds the ‘growing up’ of the industry, at least in certain circles and companies.
“So, what’s your favorite wood for a solid body guitar?” I hear you ask. Well…
Allan Holdsworth introduced me to a Malaysian softwood called Jelutan, which is almost like balsa wood. Some of you might recall his white Charvel from the IOU days; it had a Jelutan body. We traded axes for several weeks; I was amazed at the thing’s responsiveness. It sounded like a chambered acoustic / electric unplugged. Years went by and I finally got my own Jelutan body (it’s on my main workhorse Frankenstrat) and I’m going to have another built soon…what a great wood.
More to come.
Humidity and wooden instruments – what we all need to know to keep our instruments alive and happy in a dry climate:
This year California is having the worst drought I’ve seen in my lifetime. Since this record has been broken a few times during the last decade and assuming the trend will continue, I do hereby impart my perspectives on keeping your wooden instruments alive and happy in an inherently and increasingly hostile climate.
I moved from LA up to the Eastern Sierra from ’03 to ’10, where humidity hovers around the low teens, sometimes in the lower single digits.
Upon starting to buy existing instrument humidifiers and soon discovering that they don’t do the job, I began to experiment with humidification for my axes until I found the answer. After much trial and travail, not only in pursuit of humidification but also monitoring of same, I arrived at a system I still use, though I’ve since moved back to L.A….and make no mistake, L.A. can get dry as well. Humidity has been as low as 1% here a couple of times this year.
1) How to make it humid for your instrument:
Water falls through atmosphere, so be aware of that. Your source of humidification should be above the height of your instrument(s).
The effectiveness of in-case and in-instrument humidifiers varies wildly depending on how often they’re recharged, how tightly the case seals and they really don’t humidify the instrument evenly. They’re a good thing to have when you take your instrument out into the world, but not as a means of keeping it happy long-term.
What works best is humidifying the entire chamber the instruments are in; a dedicated closet with weather stripping around the door works nicely, as does an old armoire with weather stripping. NOTE: Weather stripping is key; humidity rapidly equalizes in air, so seal that space, especially along the bottom where the most moist air would flow out.
Having procured a suitable, sealed space, just hang a damp face towel (or full-size towel, depending on the size of the space) up high in the chamber and re-wet it whenever it feels dry; in the event you live in a place like Las Vegas, this will probably be about every 24 hours. You can also add a humidifier to your house’s central AC, but they’re thousands of dollars and prone to growing moldy things in the reservoir.
2) How humid to make it:
Taylor says guitars are healthiest between 45% and 55%. I think that’s a bit high for practical purposes, especially if you’re taking it out into the desert dryness when you play. I find that my instruments are stable and happy between 35% and 45%, plus I can maintain that level of humidity more uniformally, so they experience less variance.
3) Monitoring your humidity:
Fancy hygrometers from cigar humidifier companies don’t work very well…these tend to be showy (read: expensive) conversation pieces and not very good, technologically speaking.
I scored a great digital system for 60 USD (80 now) that has two satellite sensors which transmit information for the main unit to display. The main display unit sits on my desk, tells me the time, temp and humidity in my studio, as well as the humidity in the chambers where my guitars live. It works great and the batteries last about 6 months. You can buy the current version here.
4) How to keep your instrument humid on an outdoor gig in the desert:
You’re screwed. If your neck starts leaning back and your action lowers, that’s your instrument screaming for water. Just be sure to give it a nice drink when you get home.
More to come.
DISTORTION and TONE
If you want good tone with screaming distortion, saturate your preamp section (gain) less and use your output section more. Too much preamp distortion will turn your sound into foam and cost the substance, which is where good rock tone lives. A lot of your amp’s character and tone comes from the output section; this is why small amps are becoming popular. You can crank one of these little guys up into its sweating zone so it’s saying “ahh” without blowing out windows and the singer or soundman won’t throw shoes at you.
If your rig is 50 watts or more, consider getting a power soak of some kind so you can engage the output section. And see how little distortion you can actually get by with…you might be surprised. Your ideas and expression matter to the listening ear, and they usually get conveyed much better with less distortion, like more of an ‘edge’ setting. The rhythmic articulation and accented notes will come out more, too…and that rocks. I should mention that all of this assumes you have a real amp, with tubes. If you’re using solid state or software modeling, I can’t help you.
More to come.
MORE on TONE
Good tone is in the fingers. The more you can ‘squeeze’ the tone from your axe, the more people will want to hear you play. There’s a lot that goes into this of course; more than I can impart in a tip…and I do teach a whole host of playing techniques that improve tone…but it all starts there at your fingertips. You can have the greatest axe and rig in the world and if you can’t get the strings to do your bidding, you’ll never find good tone. With or without a pick, your axe will only produce what you make it produce; everything downstream of your axe is secondary. More on ‘without a pick’ coming up.
PICK vs. NO PICK
If you can’t play without a pick, we should talk. Mastery of the pick is essential to the well-rounded player, but it’s only one tool; your right hand is a whole tool box. Fingers hitting strings can get SO many colors, from tons of different funk styles to screaming rock (I sometimes play shredder solos with fingers) to Jazz to Country to Acoustic and Finger-Picking, such as Travis. Rhythmic articulation, cleaner arpeggiated lines, more aggressive accents; it’s all there. Don’t underestimate the capabilities of your fingers and thumb with no pick. And of course, I do teach this.