Friday, 20 April 2018

Why do I keep playing the guitar?

I've been playing the guitar for a long time. Here at April 2018 means I'm celebrating 40 years since being given a 3/4 size Yamaha classical guitar for my 7th birthday. Playing guitar since then, I still play guitar.  There have been hardly any time periods in my life that I stopped playing guitar.  Ask my wife, she's known me for 29 years of those 40 years...

I've spoken to a lot of people who played musical instruments, at a high level when they were kids, and stopped a long time ago. So why have I kept playing guitar for so long, and why do I keep playing?

I think one of the clues is that, as an engineer, I am on the spectrum of OCD. Other engineers are nodding with me right now. So that's probably a driver, the obsession and the compulsion. But if I was to sit a test with a psych I doubt I would be diagnosed with "official" OCD, I'm more "high functioning OCD", so it's not just about OCD.

I suspect that playing the guitar is a coping mechanism. Let me put it this way - when I'm playing guitar I'm using up a lot of CPU power, and thus my brain isn't able to spend any time ruminating about the woes and stresses of life. While I'm playing, it's all good, and that makes me feel good. So I play.

...which leads into addiction, I guess. My brain knows that when I'm playing I feel good, because my brain isn't preoccupied with negative thoughts. So to keep getting that hit of "feel good" I want to play guitar. Like any other psychological dependence I guess.

Interesting. There's also my personality traits of stubbornness ("No way will I stop playing guitar!"), competitiveness ("I *will* conquer this song, the next song, and the next!"), pride ("Look at meee! Wheee!"), and there are probably more.

So is it a bunch of "bad" things the reason why I have played guitar for so long, and why I continue to play?

JAW

Thursday, 29 March 2018

What's happening March 2018

A bunch of smaller things happening this month, in no particular order:
  • The other side I have noticed to using d'Addario EXPs is that the silkiness of the string actually reduces the scrape sounds as you run down strings heading for a new chord, where you aren't specifically lifting your fingers off. You can't always avoid it, and it's not always bad, but reducing it is A Good Thing(tm).
  • My classical guitar teaching isn't terrible.  I have two girls that can now sight read treble and open basses to an acceptable level. I teach out of the old Aaron Shearer red book, that I learnt from, which is fantastic if not a little dry.  I supplement with other stuff from the internet.
  • Fingerstyle of the Moon is going well, I have played it at a few gigs and I am still excited playing it at home to myself.  It's fairly consistent; usually comes in around 23-24 minutes of play time, I can play it fairly reliably without too many critical errors. It would be nice to have somewhere to play it weekly, where I can really hone it and make it "amazing"...perhaps I will play it on a big stage when Dark Side of the Moon turns 50 :-)
  • One of the ukuleles in the house had a broken string, I replaced it with a set of uke strings I had purchased on the last string order.  It was a slightly fancy set and I was surprised to find it had a wound 3rd string! (This is my tenor uke). I was so fascinated with the new sound that I have been playing it a bit more recently. I fully cheat; I just play my guitar songs on the top 4 strings, so the key is transposed 5 semitones.  Like wearing a capo on the guitar at the fifth. I had previously found that my brain doesn't do well trying to map out fingering for 4 string fretting from fingering 6 string fretting, like the "extra" fingers want to do something but don't know what, but I am getting better at it.  My repertoire isn't only "Here Comes the Sun" anymore.
  • Both my daughters play stringed instruments; my son plays a reeded instrument but I still love him anyway. Recently the girls have really stepped up a notch in their playing ability, hats off to their teachers.  But what I really appreciate is the eldest is in 3 bands at school, the youngest in 1 band at school and 1 outside of school. And it really really helps musicianship. I've played solo for so long that I don't play well with others.  They pretty much have only played with others.  And I see it when I occasionally play along with them.  I am terrible at maintaining a tempo, and at fitting in - I only really have the ability to be the dominate "Everyone follow me", and then fingerstyle by it's nature is trying to be a one man band so there is also "Stop it, that's my part." I have really missed out not being in a band, I'm so glad the kids get to experience it. But I don't feel too bad, at one gig I was chatting with the audience "I've been playing solo too long, I don't play well with others" and one dude said "You've missed nothing - rather than waiting on other band members to show up, them not having practised, nobody agreeing on what to play, looking for new band members when they quit - you haven't been held back and have been able to hone your craft."
  • Warm season is basically over. I don't have any upcoming gigs. I'm very busy with the family this year so it's not a bad thing, but gigs is why I bother*.
There you have it, all updated!
JAW

*not specifically true, playing the guitar is so ingrained it's like breathing, I can't _not_ play.  But playing the guitar to people who dig what I'm doing is the highlight of guitaristry.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

String manufacturer poll

Out of the 17 people that got back this is how the votes came in:
Augustine     1
D'Addario    13
Ernie Ball    0
Hannabach     1
La Bella      0
Martin        1
Savarez       4

So it would seem that D'Addario rules the street. Unfortunately I forgot to add "Other" as an option (smacks forehead), once a poll is underway you can't change it. The list was compiled from best sellers info on the internet.

I will throw a set of Savarez on sometime though, that still nearly a quarter of all respondents, see what they are like.

Interesting, informative, thanks all!
JAW

Friday, 2 February 2018

Cello Bridge Carving

I've got my youngest daughter on a secondhand cheap 3/4 cello. The bridge had warped, and it started falling over from time to time. Getting a new bridge fitted by a music shop was going to be maybe half the value of the cello, and besides, getting someone else to do the job isn't very JAW-like, so I took on the job myself.

Some internet search revealed that you could straighten a warped bridge by steaming over a stove for a long time, clamping back in a straight position, and letting it dry. I called that Plan B. Plan A was to buy a bridge blank and carve it to the right shape.

You can source cured/dried Maple machined bridge blanks from China (Ebay) for next to nothing, I had 4 delivered for $AUD13(2017). The slow boat from China to Australia is around 3 weeks, so you have to plan ahead. I figured 4 should be enough, gives me the chance to break 3 first :-)

Sally over at https://trianglestrings.com/newcellobridge/ gets two thumbs up for her very thorough tutorial of how to do it. From her many pictures and discussion you can tell she's an experienced craftswoman, whereas I'm an engineer, so I simplified things a bit. There's no point in me recreating her tutorial, go check it out, I'm just going to talk about the different hacks I used, given that I have only basic tools, a modicum of handworking skills, and some basic understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

First up, to get the feet of the bridge to mate to the face of the cello, I used sandpaper. Place sandpaper on the face, hold the bridge on sandpaper, move slightly back and forward in the area the bridge will stand. This seems very sensible to me, rather than carving the feet to attempt to match the face and constantly checking how you are going.

A leg spreader may or may not be absoltely necessary. I made one out of some bolts and scrap metal with my arc welder and angle grinder. When fitted, the pressure of the strings will push the bridge legs outwards, so pre-spread the legs by around 2mm, sand the feet to mate to the face while spread, then when it's all back together the feet will be a perfect match to the face. I don't think this is really really necessary, I think it is better to do it, but I think you'd be fine without spreading. One of the main reasons I made it is so I could show it to my wife and say "Normally you'd just use a bottle of wine..."

The bridge comes as a blank, you need to remove wood until it is the right shape. Proper luthiers carve carve carve the bridge to shape using knives, planes, chisels. I had a crack. Dried Maple is harder wood than you'd think. My knives, planes and chisels are not top quality, it was hard going. However, angle grinder and die grinder loaded with sanding disks make it really easy going. You can find the dimensions for the right shape with internet searches, but some depend on the installation.

For instance I particularly liked Sally's approach of first getting the feet fitted to the face, installing the bridge straight away although waaay to high, putting the strings roughly in place, measuring the string height at the end of the fretboard, subtracting that from the desired string height, placing a template on the bridge in that position, and cutting off the excess with a jigsaw. Genius.

I fitted the bridge several times, sanded it down some more to get the string heights rights, it was tedious. The last time I took too much off on the high string, I was impatient. Moral there is don't be conservative to start with, because you will get annoyed and be less conservative to end with and stuff it up. Measure twice, cut once. I ended up having to glue a small piece of wood back on. Don't do that.


Another good tip I found on the internet was rather than gluing some parchment on the top where the strings go - or doing nothing at all - just put a dob of superglue there and let it soak in. It dries rock hard, strings slip past it nicely and won't cut into the wood.

I fancied up the look with a knife, took the excess wood out with my die grinder and wrote my initials on it, you can see the difference between the blank and my finished product in this photo. It took me the better part of a day from start to finish, but I learnt a lot. I would imagine if I ever had to make another it would take me around 2 hours.

Another skill added to the list. Don't be afraid to try it if you are in the same predicament as me - and violins, violas, cellos and double basses are all similar. Read Sally's tutorial, watch a few youtube videos, and use some of the hacks I mentioned here. Good luck out there!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

String choice update

There are so many strings to choose from. So many manufacturers, string types from those manufacturers, tensions, materials, it's enough to do your head in. And that's just nylon strings! And if you only change strings a handful of times a year, and don't take notes, you'll soon forget what you liked and what you didn't like.

I've talked about strings before, several years back I locked in D'Addario as my manufacturer of choice. Across the board they make a bright sound for a reasonable length of time and are well priced. I have tried medium (standard) and hard tension, and settled on standard tension. Sometimes standard tension is too floppy, but not as much as sometimes hard tension is too stiff.  Standard tension is the best compromise for me.

Finally now I have run through all the different material variants and arrived at a verdict. The EXP45 set.  Well, not quite, I prefer the trebles from the EJ45TT set and the basses from the EXP45 set.  But that is too hard to deal with, so I am sticking to the EXP45 set out of the box, the trebles are okay. But I've taken to only changing the trebles every second set change.  Trebles hold their tone for a lot longer than wound basses, but take so much longer to bed in.

So, why the EXP?  Bottom line is I want long life.  New strings on nylon take too long to stretch in, and the very act of changing strings takes time, so I want to change as infrequent as possible. Yeah, I'm lazy. But the tone has to be to a minimum level - once they sound too dull, they have to go (only beginners will only change strings when they break!)

The EXP is that best compromise; it has the brightness in the basses that lasts the longest. All the D'Addario strings have a nice brightness to them, varying levels, but the EXPs last longest (given that you wipe down the strings after any long sweaty workout, which I always do.)

Done. Finished. End of story.

...except now that I know I prefer coated/medium tension/brightish strings, I should look across all the manufacturers to see what their range is in that space. Argh! But that sounds like a good time to start a new poll! :-)

Below is my findings summary:

EJ45 Pro Arte Standards, $6USD(2018).
  Good comfortable string, they will sound a bit dead after 4 weeks of 
  my normal playing regime.

EJ49 Pro Arte black trebles, $7USD(2018).
  Same as standard with black trebles, no difference. Only for looks.

EJ45TT Pro Arte Dynacore, $11USD(2018).
  The dynacore basses sound good, an improvement over standard. The
  "titanium" nylon trebles are also an improvement over the standard brightness
  but same thickness as standard.

EXP45 Pro Arte Coated, $10USD(2018).
  Basses are the same as the EJ45TT but coated and they do actually hold
  their tone quite a bit longer. Trebles are standard.

EJ45FF Pro Arte Carbon, $13USD(2018).
  The basses are the same as the EJ45TTs, the trebles are super bright
  and quite thin.