Sunday, 20 September 2009

Trip to the Luthiers

My trip to the luthier proved very beneficial, but not for the reason I went there.

Some background: I was quite sure that my new(ish) nylon string guitar had bad intonation. You could tune for open fret, but when you played a note it always sounded sharp. The harmonic didn't seem to match the 12th fret. I've always thought I had pretty bad pitch detection, so I lived with it, but increasingly it became more annoying, especially when I played from a capo. So, I lined up a local luthier to have a look at it.

The luthier is Paul Sheridan, who makes about 10 guitars a year, mostly for overseas buyers. Fantastic guitars, lets come back to that in a moment.

He slings my guitar up on his bench, and immediately begins checking - with ruler and magnifying glass to verify the frets are correctly spaced, and then with a tuner to check frequencies. I was suprised that he wasn't using a stroboscopic tuner, "Yeah I've always meant to buy one, and I've been through about four of these (Korg analogue needle variant) so I could have paid for one by now." Basically, the guitar was pretty good up to the 12th, it starts getting a little bit messy after there.

"If you've got a really good ear you'll hear it, but otherwise it's pretty good."

What? I've always thought my ear was really bad. "If you've been playing for a long while, your ear will improve, you might start to be able to hear the discrepancies." One thing I mentioned was that I do tend to pull on the strings when fretting, which he noticed while I was playing some stuff later on.  "You should watch that". Basically "no fault found", operator error ;)

While I was there I got him to show me some of his guitars. He builds them all out of Australian woods, and has moved to a "lattice brace" on the sound board, basically a grid pattern instead of the traditional fanned bracing. When I played his personal guitar, immediately it has so much sound and body, it was just beautiful. While he continued to work I must have spent 3/4 of an hour just playing it and enjoying it. He didn't seem to mind, we talked about the sounds (describing different sound qualities is as hard as describing the different tastes of red wine) - and talked about all sorts of other things.

Turns out he doesn't play the guitar much - but is starting to get back into it. He also seemed at a bit of a life-juncture; wasn't getting as much joy as he used to from his work. I had to remind him once or twice during our conversation "You're living the dream!"

He was intrigued with my playing style; well at least I thought he was, maybe he was just being polite ;) We talked about arranging fingerstyle songs, and the classical guitarists he builds guitars for, talked about guitars, and life in general.

He pulled out another guitar, one that he had built with a traditional fan braced soundboard.  I played it for a while then apologised profusely "I like this one better!"  I am a bit of a boring taditionalist, but what is comes down to is what sound you want.  I like a crisp brightness over mellow warmth.  Pauls lattice style gives that warmth - and huge volume and projection - whereas my little Japanese styled guitar is crisp and bright with low volume and projection, but the pickups and amplification make up for it, which is what I wanted to achieve.

I've come to realise that in the nylon guitar scene there seems to be two types, Japanese style and European style.  I know this is a gross over generalisation, but at a very simple level when you play a guitar it is either full of warmth and body (European style) or crisp and bright (Japanese style) or neither (look for another guitar ;))  Volume, projection, ease of play all come into it, but on purely a sound point of view there are the two basic characteristics, and you can't have both, they are opposite types of sounds.

So I wasted about two hours of Paul's time playing his wonderful guitars and talking his ear off (I love to talk about guitars and playing them, hence the reason this blog exists).  I came away with a bit of new clarity about what I should be expecting from a guitar, and the realisation that the "problems" with my guitar were actually problems with me.  Thanks Paul.

Even better was him walking me through the construciton of his guitars - all his milling and machining gear, how he forms each part, his use of carbon fibre (?!), his special humidity controlled room for drying and seasoning; basically all the hands on side of guitars.  Fantastic!  I must build myself a guitar or two at some stage in my life ;)

...and probably the biggest tip I got from Paul, when I asked him how I will know when I find the right guitar for me - "It's like falling in love with a woman, you'll just know."


Monday, 7 September 2009

What's happening September 2009

Another quiet month on the guitar front, I'm leading a hectic life at the moment aside from family and work we have just bought a new house and a now frantically preparing our existing house to sell.  It's amazing how much stuff you can accrue over 15 years, and how easy it is to "let things go" on house maintenance. The sad thing is - and it's a common occurence - after painting and repairing and fixing, our existing house hasn't looked this good in years! ;)

A good mate of mine convinced me to write up my solar guitar amp story, which took a while but was a good thing to do.  I had so much to say about it that I'm sure I've missed bits; and I waffled on for so long that it probably started to become disjointed, at least now it's documented and maybe I'll revisit it again one day to tweak it up.

What I found during my waffle was that I had made a lot of concepts up from a sound engineering design point of view.  And I wondered why I had to make stuff up; why I wasn't just levering of other peoples good work.  Perhaps I wasn't looking in the right places for information, or perhaps the average guitarist who wants his guitar amplified doesn't think about sound reproduction physics, that he just plays on different setups until he finds something he likes, and buys it.  I'm sure there are some people out there who are well versed in sound amplification, I just haven't heard from them yet.

In a way I'm the same as the guitarist looking for a sound they like; except that I have been designing amplification to try to achieve the sound I like.  The first step is to firstly hear the sound you like so you know what you are aiming for - but to then try to translate that into reality, well, that's hard.  Anyway, I won't waffle here as well - go read my article here:

On actually playing the guitar - the other night I stole an hour from my family and hid in the shed playing.  Normally I play the pieces I know to keep them fresh, and change them a bit, but this time I tried something different, to play the whole of Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish.  I have played all the songs on there in one form or another over the years, some I have fingerstyled already, others I'm halfway through.  I enjoyed it, and actually did quite well.  Still a long way to go, but part of that long way is keeping enthusiasm.

Why DSotM?  Probably because I am a pink floyd fan from way back, athough I don't listen to them anymore - a long story other pink floyd fans will not want to hear - but importantly because it is a concept album, melody/riff themes are linked and reproduced, every song is recognisable to the public, it is the longest charted album of all time, and every song is fingerstylable.

As I played through I found myself thinking about different ways to play the stuff I already know - different as in technically more complex (and challenging) but more true to the album.  I'm not so much trying to improvise a fingerstyle version DSotM, I want it to be a faithful, accurate translation.  Of course in doing so there is a lot of creativity required so it is still all me, but as a fan I know when I want to hear something I get more enjoyment in hearing how the subtleties of piece are captured and translated in fingerstyle rather than how the arranger added his own improvisations.

Maybe it's just me.

For now however it's back to preparing the house.  My DSotM arrangements have been going for years, and will be for many more, the enthusiasm is still there and the mental process continues, but it's not the right time just now for full imersion.