Sunday, 31 January 2010

New Guitar

I bought another guitar last Friday.  But before I talk about that, how do you buy a guitar?

"Play guitars, until you find one you like, then buy it."  Pretty simple huh.  Guitars are like women (my apologies if any women are reading this, substitude man for woman). When you come across a guitar you love, you will just know.  Everyone has a different taste, what one person loves another won't...which is great, what a boring old world it would be if everyone was the same!

For a newbie, buying a guitar is probably even easier.  Decide what you want to do - wailing lead rock/jazz/etc, you'll be a plectrum picker on an electric.  Strumming chords and singing around the campfire, you'll be plectrum or maybe fingerpicker on steel string, maybe nylon.  Playing some tricky fingerstyle pieces, you'll be fingerpicking or maybe plectrum on nylon, maybe steel.  Once you know, go buy what you can afford!

My guitar path was a start on nylon classical style, which then became folksy/chord strumming on nylon, which then became rock/heavy rock/heavy metal on electric, which then became fingerstyle on steel string and has come nearly full circle to fingerstyle on nylon.

Now while I was playing fingerstyle on steel I was never quite getting the sound I wanted, and I spent years trying to work out the problem.  It was the way I played.  I realised I could either change how I played, or go to nylon and keep playing the way I played.  I like how I played (I did try to play to suit the steel) so I set about buying a nylon.

I found what I thought I wanted about two years ago; a good cross-over nylon.  It had a cutaway, narrow neck, thin body with a great 2-way pickup in it.  I've been playing it for over a year.  But during that time I realised that I didn't really want a cross-over nylon, I wanted a proper classical nylon!  It took me a while to realise it.  Having a thick neck again was the main driving force.  For tight complex stuff you need that extra width.  Since buying my new guitar (52mm neck at the nut verus the old 46mm) I have already found it easier to play just from string spacing alone.

Herein lies the problem: classical players play classical guitars.  There are plenty of great cross-over nylons with everything you need; well, my old guitar was already that!  But in a classical you won't get a 2-way pickup, in you want a cutaway then it will probably have a narrow neck.

I looked for a while, and nothing turned up.

So my alternative approach was to buy a good classical guitar and fit my own pickup in it.  I've completely stage 1; I've bought a classical guitar.  No cutaway, no pickup; it's an Esteve 1GR11.  It was kinda expensive, but my mate Rob down at Clef on Hay Street looked after me, lets just say he let it go for somewhere between $AUD2500 and $3000.  A lovely sound and very playable.

Next step is to fit in an B-Band A6T 2-way pickup.  The B-Band in my old guitar is just magic.  The 2-way means an under saddle transducer (UST) and an Acoustic Soundboard transducer (AST).  Under saddle picks up direct sound via the saddle, in-body (AST or condensor mike) picks up all the subtleties of the body.  You mix the ratio to get the sound you want.  B-Band don't use piezo, they use some other technology that they don't really elaborate on.

I _could_ get someone to fit it for me, but since I am actually an electronics engineer, and  have plenty of manual labour skills and the tools, there is no excuse in not doing it myself!

I reckon I've been pretty persistent with my guitars. Some fellas after playing the guitar for a mere 5-10 years will have a collection of 20 guitars.  This latest addition of mine is only my 5th regular "proper" guitar I've bought.  Not bad going for 31 years of playing the guitar!

JAW

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Right Hand...more than likely part 1...

One of my 3 readers, Rich, inspired me to write about the right hand.  It's a good call, because as far as the left hand goes, there isn't a lot of difference between a fingerpicker and a wailing one-note-at-a-time lead guitar shredder, but the difference between right hands is chalk compared with the proverbial cheese.  Each fingerpicker will have his own take on the right hand, I'll try to stay open minded, but I only have one opinion, my own ;)

First up, you need to have accuracy.  I was nearly going to say stability there, but accuracy doesn't have to come from stability everytime .  Somewhere in our brains there is a 3D spacial awareness of self, and we have to tap deeply into that for all forms of guitaring.  There are a couple of shortcuts - for example you can stare at your right hand.  You can put your pinky on the soundboard.  You can rest fingers on strings not in use.  You can just have your arm resting on the guitar.

Each of these things creates a relative hand-to-string position and your brain can calculate the offset of what it is requested to do next.  For example, consider a flat picker, he's just downstroked the G string, his next move is an upstroke is the B string. His brain controls the amount of movement, learned from experience, to perform the task. Do it enough and you'll never miss.  It's only a short move afterall!  It is possible to move to any string next - but the further away the more risk of an error.

If you are just fixing your relative position by your arm, you brian doesn't have a lot of reference feedback to go by - it's a long, error potential causing distance from where your arm rests on the guitar to where your hand is.  If your pinky is on the soundboard your reference is much shorter and there is less error.  For me I find resting pinky down as an anchor is awkward and detracts from playing, but that won't be the case for everyone.  Pinky anchor at your own leisure.

We all look at our right hand from time to time, the visual cue is valuable position feedback for the brain.  Playing staring at the right hand will also detract from playing, it's as if there is only a certain amount of CPU cycles available in your brain, and once you start using your eyes you have stolen a lot of CPU cycles that you could spend doing other more useful things, like looking and making contact with your audience ;)  But a quick glance at the right hand to fix a reference point, especially when you are about to launch into a flurry of activity, is beneficial.

Three treble strings - three fingers; a thumb to move around the three bass stings.  Sounds pretty sensible!  And if you are playing a Travis picking style song, well, the right hand is basically dead still, the correct finger at the correct time moves to pluck the correct string, the thumb, which is a bit more manouverable than the fingers, can fairly easily jump between one or two strings plucking.  If it is a repeating pattern, well that's even easier!

I'm not a big fan of Travis picking, it is a bit formuliac.  It has its place, but you wouldn't want to play every song Travis picking style.

Same can be said for classical.  Picking out a p-i-m-a-m-i (that's thumb-index-middle-annular(ring)-etc) is fairly standard fair for classical.  Nice, use it all the time.  Easy to play because your fingers are right there, relative positioning is almost a given.  Can get repetitive if used excessively.

Let's look at Naudo.  Throw the book out the window, he is playing every string with any finger and he's not just plucking, he's downstroke flicking, part strumming, holding his fingernail like a pick and lead-guiaring, he's slapping and whacking!

Well go and get your book back, a lot of this is based on the "normal" styles, but if comes down to accuracy, and how to get it.  And that is helped by minimising reference errors.

Stability to start with will minimise reference errors.  I use a classical style postion to get stability; that is, you have your wrist basically locked, your fingers pluck mostly from the second knuckle and your thumb is nearly stiff moving from the joint at your hand.  A wise fella once told me if you think you are playing from your fingers you are probably playing from your hand, if you are playing from your hand you are probably playing from your wrist, wrist-elbow, elbow-shoulder.  I'm still not quite sure what he meant, but I've taken away that if I essentially lock my hand and wrist in a fixed position then I'm probably playing from my fingers like I should be :)

My wrist is at quite a high angle, it doesn't need to be, I just find that is the most comfortable.  If it doesn't hurt and it makes it easy to play, go with it.

So with a good stable right hand position, relative positioning of your fingers is less prone to errors.  Playing top E and bottom E is always going to be easy, you have a wide margin for error, "start out wide and feel your way in". 

What I see Naudo doing is keeping movement to a minimum.  A heavy handed follow through on a single string leaves your fingers out there somewhere and can blow your reference to the next string, whereas a short effective stroke leaves you exactly where you know you are.

Classical players talk about rest stroke and free stroke.  Rest stroke means that as you play a string, your finger follows through and comes to rest on the string next to the original string.  This is of course a good method of keeping a reference, because rather than your hand floating you are physically touching a string, "reseting" in your brain the reference position (because you know which string you are resting on).  This is very similar to pinky anchor or resting your not-in-use fingers on known strings.

I've gone off rest stroke over the years, it is all free stroke for me these days.  I don't like the sound of rest stroke it is always heavily accentuated; I can get that if I need it from a hearty free stroke pluck.

But now let's throw in some flicking/strumming Naudo style in between songs - if that doesn't mess up your reference then a well grounded player you are ("Strumming" is moving more from the wrist or arm, "flicking" is just from the fingers, ie wrist more or less locked.) I've taught myself to flick chord pieces with all three fingers, kinda like a little chip or flick across the chord fragment I'm after.  At first I played them fairly wide, strum style with wrist movement, but it creates the risk of reference loss.  Most of the time after you have strummed a chord fragment the next note is a pluck in the melody, and by gee, you want to pluck the right note!

Looking at Naudo he adds flicks with only his second or third finger keeping his index finger ready at a target string, and the movement contains no wrist.  It is minimalist, and reduces the risk of a missed note pluck.  You extremely rarely see him miss a note; his stability and reference is rock solid so his accuracy is almost 100%.

The other trick he employs to further reduce risk is making sure the whole chord is formed.  If you miss a note and hit something out of chord someone is going to notice.  But if you miss a note, but the note you hit is in chord, it won't sound quite right but it won't sound wrong, if you know what I mean.

And there we come to probably the most critical point of all - what do you do when you make the mistake and pluck the wrong string?  The brain has to quickly re-reference and get back on track.  Hopefully the sound of the one wrong note is enough of a clue to the brain to say "I'm up a string too high" or "I'm down a string too low" and get your hand to take the corrective action. Alternatives include breaking out into a wide chord strum to fill your way through the bar and then pickup in the right place at the start of the next bar; or having a second attempt - many times in a melody if the note comes an off-beat late it could be construed as just adding a bit of lib.  Of course a second attempt means breaking out of the picking pattern you are in; is it possible?  I find these days the answer is a resounding yes; it is possible, just maybe, that I am heading toward true thumb independance...

Sorry my 3 readers, this has been a real brain dump, devoid of structure!  There is so much to say about the right hand that I'd need to spend the time just planning a table of contents of what I have to say about it.  But since this is a place of venting, ranting and rambling, that's all you are going to get for now :)  I'm sure one of my three readers, you know who you are, will pipe up and steer this in a particular direction.  This is a time that a forum would be useful!

For example, I didn't even mention fingernails...(but I have done in the past).  Oh to bring all these things together in a coherent manner! ;)
JAW

Monday, 18 January 2010

What's happening January 2010

It's been a while since I've What's Happening'ed, I think I mentioned before that I am moving house; well, I've moved house. It has, and will continue to keep me busy for quite some time. But not so busy that I don't have a little bit of time for guitar :)

I recently did an arrangement of "Sunshine of Your Love", it came together pretty quick and not too bad. It's quite groovy to play, check it out on youtube. I say it's "quick and dirty" because that is all that I have time for - there are no embelishments - there is no solo, no bridge or break, it is just the guts of the verse and the chorus and that is it. I figure that I don't have time for all the fruit, and it is better to finish something to a point, than to never finish something at all. Maybe one day when I have ample time on my hands I will revist these things, and give them the proper embelishments they deserve.

Doing that song was an inspiration from seeing another guitarist play it on youtube (jazzguts), and that I had once attempted it without success. These days my arrangements are becoming a bit more formulaic, which is good and bad - good because it is easy, good because I'm starting to have a more distinct style, good because I'm enjoying myself...nup, can't think of anything bad! :)

Last Friday I had a bunch of mates over, and after a few amber muscle relaxants I invariably pull the guitar out and play some tunes. An old mate of mine, whenever this occurs, _always_ says " all you play is old stuff no-one can sing to, you should play some Def Leppard." Okay, so he's a Def Leppard 80's diehard, I've never held that against him, I can't talk I'm a 70's Pink Floyd tragic.

To be honest, many years ago I learnt the Def Leppard song "Hysteria". However it was a long time ago and it was a "normal learning of a song by a guitarist". This means you learn the main riffs, the solo, and maybe some chords - but it isn't an arrangement, it doesn't hold itself together, it's just pieces of a song you can play. One could almost say it is a waste of effort except that you need to do these things when you are young to get the years of playing that sort of stuff behind you.

So last night, I googled a tab for the song to re-aquainted myself with the chords and riffs and set about arranging it, to spite my mate th enext time he pipes up ;)

Straight up I recognised it's going to sound best in Drop D tuning, being very D-centric. The main riff is the hook into that song, but by itself just doesn't fill up the guitar - a song needs to be completely balanced throughout; you can't play a riff, then strum, then go back to the riff, it just sounds stilted; there is no fluidity and continuity. So I threw in a very basic bassline, just the chord root note 4 beats a bar to beef it up. It will be enough, considering I'm going to be playing the melody on top of the riff as well.

As with most things, the song is in chords, but the main verse/theme chords aren't a normal chord, Dropped D tuning helped a bit and playing it in the non-open position helped a bit as well. Once I had that sorted the melody basically played itself, all the melody notes were right there somewhere nearby. I was pleased :)

But now here's the rub - my missus was in the room at the time (and tolerating me playing the same thing over and over and over again) so I asked for some feedback.

I had isolated two ways of playing it, one was very classical/thumb independence, the first thing I nutted out, basically all the notes required, plucked individually. The second was in the style that is starting to become more of a signature in my arrangements; rather than just plucking out notes I flick downstroke across partial pieces of chords on the on-beat. To me it adds a nice percussive direction, rather than a bass-bass-bass-bass it is more like bass-snare-bass-snare; but at the same time it has the notes required. To me it adds a huge dimension to the sound of the arrangement, creates so many more subtleties to just the primary fundamental frequency of the note you are playing - and performing it is starting to come quite natural to me.

"I like the first one. The second sounds wishy-washing."

Arghh! How can you say that! It's the direction I'm heading, and you don't like it! (It's not the first time when asked she's always picked the non-JAW style version).

"It sounds like you are turning it into a country folk song or something. The first one accentuates the main feel and emotion of the song."

Now I'm just hurting ;)

So, here is the two versions of the signature riff. Unfortunately flicking the strings doesn't tab out well, I've gone with 045xxx meaning a light downstroke flick with your three fingers, basically each finger on each string, giving a slightly percussive sound but still striking the right note/chord in the riff:
Drop D tuning
E|-----------------|---------------|
B|-----------------|---------------|
G|-------0-------0-|-------0-------|
D|---4-------4-----|---4-------4---|
A|-5---5-------5---|-----5-------5-|
D|-0---0---0---0---|-0---0---0---0-|

E|---------------------|------------------|
B|---------------------|------------------|
G|-----0x--0-----0x--0-|-----0x--0-----0x-|
D|---4-4x------4-4x----|---4-4x------4-4x-|
A|-5---5x--------5x----|-----5x--------5x-|
D|-0---------0---------|-0---------0------|

So, to the 3 people who will read this blog entry, which one appeals more to you? :)
JAW

Monday, 11 January 2010

Tabs...are they good for you?

Tabs are like a bag of lollies. No, wait, tabs are like a bowl of rice. You couldn't live solely on bags of lollies, but you could live on bowls of rice - but a diet of rice alone is not a great diet.

But like lollies, tabs are fast, easy, instant gratification; they pep you up, make you happy and give you quick energy...but there is no real nutrition. Life doesn't have to be all about nutrition though does it? Can't we just enjoy ourselves from time to time?

The beginner guitarist is at a critical stage; I wouldn't like to put a number on it, but out of all the people who have said to me "I'd like to be able to play the guitar" and then I've shown them a few things, and push them in the right direction, lent them a guitar - so far zero have continued to pursue it. And no, I don't think it is me ;)

Playing guitar is a bit of a glamourous looking pursuit, to see a guitarist "rockin' out" looks like the most fun you could have standing up...but it represents *a lot* of practise, frustration and sweat to achieve that. So in the early days it is either immediate results - or a heck of a lot of persistence - that keeps the interest going. You need those immediate results to get past the initial hurdle.

That's where tabs come in. They are easy to learn (search wikipedia for "tablature", it's a good primer) - and tabs give you immediate results. The first thing a guitarist needs is be shown how to play the riff to "Smoke on the Water" or something really easy that they can suceed with and inspires them. Learn three chords and then be able play about a million songs. Hook them in with the easy stuff, then show them how to find tabs.

But tabs shouldn't last forever. Learning by ear, working things out by yourself, being able to sight read from music score, learning scales by rote, music theory, composing your own music - these sorts of things will round you out as a guitarist and musician.

Once you have the guitar bug for life, tabs in fact will start to feel tedious. I still refer to tabs as a reference or a starting point; however I now dislike rote learning a song from a tab. You are wondering why I generally tab out all my arrangements then aren't you? Quick answers: it's a tool for me to nut out and write down what I'm thinking during the arrangement process which often takes weeks of small increments - in fact sometimes I type stuff into powertab to see what it sounds like, before attempting to play it! - often I forget stuff if I haven't played it for a while but a quick glance at the tab gets me back on track - I like to share my stuff with the world and have people enjoy it, and then play it back to me with their own changes and twists that I never considered!

So yes, tabs are good for you, but everything in moderation - do something too much and it will stop being good for you. It's true of much in life.

JAW