Saturday 22 June 2024

What's happening June 2024

I finished my arrangement of "It feels like we only go Backwards", I have played it through many times, several people have heard it, vaguely recognised it but couldn't tell me what it was. I count that as a win! It is a good arrangement in that it has a few challenging parts. The bass has a prominent "one and ... three and", so funk style, and I'm not used to playing a bassline like that. It took me a while to get that under my fingers - although I didn't take it too far - in the places where the melody is complex I drop the "ands".

However it is good to push out of your comfort zone with your arrangements - it helps you develop skills that you can then use elsewhere. It's pretty easy for me to play everything in my default style, which is the drum equivalent of kick-hat-snare-hat, which translates to bass note-mid note-mid chord fragment flick-mid note...adding in any melody notes on top as required. If you can get all the variations of bass rhythms locked into your brain to naturally occur then you have a pathway to great sounding arrangements. I have said it before but I'll say it again - Travis picking a song sounds great...for the first song...but not for every song! (I recognise my  hypocrisy here - I play too many songs with a chord flick on beats 2 and 4...Kel Valleau did it for years and then suddenly stopped...maybe I take a leaf out of his book?)

I've also said before that I wish I had played more bass as a kid. With apologies to my classical brothers and sisters, but the bass rhythms you find in classical music don't have the groove of the bass rhythms in rock and pop. It's only been in the last decade or so that I have come to discover the wonders of bass groove and how it glues a song together.

It's all about musical growth.

Speaking of which I turned my attention to a song I have had on my back list for arrangement for a long time, "Don't Dream it's Over" by Crowded House, which is claimed by both Australia and New Zealand as their own. It too has musically challenging parts that don't fit with my default. There are prominent chords and melody accents on "1-ah", as in "1-ee-and-ah", being the 4th sixteenth note in a bar.  This really clashes with my desire to hit the snare on beat 2, one sixteenth beat later. I've found a compromise where I can hit the prominent chord and still feel the off beat 2 and 4 groove.

There's also some great melodic choices - after digging into it I found all sorts of interesting treasures - for instance the chorus "hey now hey now" the chorus are G-A, but the melody is E-B-F#-B, so you end up with unusual chord fingering of the quite haunting chords of G6-A6sus2.

It's all about musical growth.

(I highly recommend oolimo for analysing the chords you are thinking about.)

Saturday 25 May 2024

What's happening May 2024

Earlier this month I recorded a Jawmunji Talks video. I enjoy doing them, I have a lot to talk about. Unfortunately I don't have a good setup for recording them, and I'm not great at them either. Interestingly about the same time I recorded it Rick Beato put out a video talking about his obsession with the perfect look for his talking videos. I could relate to evertything he was saying. My computer is under a staircase, it's pretty tight but I make it work. It doesn't however give me much room to create an ambience. It would be nice to have a big room with the background filled with all my musical stuff, with warm lighting, and a set of cameras and microphones set up permanently so I can just go in and record whenever I felt like talking about something. One day one of my kids might move out and I will repurpose their bedroom into a music studio...

I need to work on my talking videos, I need to articulate more, and possibly plan what I'm going to say if not script it. I like the idea of being able to just talk without scripting, but when I watched that video back I realised that I missed saying some things I wanted to say, and said some things that were unnecessary. This media we are on right now - text - so easy, I can just go back and edit anything! And I do! And sometimes, when I'm a consumer, I prefer text, but sometimes I prefer video, so it's nice to have both.

It was good to dust off OBS Studio, I hadn't used it in a while. It's such a great program for staging AV productions. I had plugged in two logitech C920s, a Zoom H1N as audio input, a knock-off Behringer USB interface, and two display captures. It handled them all live, the USB interface was slightly more laggy than the Zoom H1N, so I had to mute the Zoom when I was playing the guitar (I was using the electric). I be honest I should just play the nylon string guitar through the fact a dynamic mic for voice and a condensor for the guitar. Mmm, maybe dynamic for the guitar, but I do love a condensor for the guitar, it captures everything, if not a little too much everything. I should look into being able to capture all audio feeds and all video feeds at the same time to do post production on - so all video angles and all audio streams, but I doubt my little laptop could handle that.

Anyway, something to chip away at in the background.

Meanwhile, I've had an obsessive dive into a Tame Impala song I first mentioned I should cover back in 2013. "It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" has been in my to-do list for a while, it's a nice psychedelic rock song, and Tame Impala is from my home town of Perth Western Australia, I need to have more Perth band songs in my setlist. It won Single of the Year for our local music awards in 2013, it has a nice high melody with a very groovy bassline.

I'm at a stage when the basslines in my arrangements are starting to get a bit more complex, which I am really enjoying. My thumb is starting to know where to go, both in rhythm and note selection, rather than just sitting on the root note for the whole bar.

It does make for playing it quite complicated though. But that is a good thing, it's how you progress!

The song is in F, but I'm just tired of needing a top string A over a bottom string F in arrangements, which it would have a few. So inititally I dropped it back to E, which ends up with the main chord progression of E-B-F#m. The latter two aren't trivial chords for arrangements.

I bashed out the melody and the bassline into Musescore with very little playing the guitar. I wanted "the actual" melody and bassline to be there at the start, after that I can grab the guitar and work out what I'm prepared to tackle and what I won't. There were some great sounds but some unusual fretting, and I've worked out that if I don't keep it simple then the songs won't stay with me, so I dumbed it down ever so slightly.

I came back to it the next day and considered instead of dropping from F to E, going from F to G. This created a much easier chord progression of G-D-C, but I needed to drop the melody down an octave to fit, otherwise it's a high B over a low G, which is slightly easier than a high A over a low F, but then I may as well stick to E.

The lower melody over the higher bass is also easier to put together on your left hand, but you've now compressed the song together in the middle frquency range. It gaves a warmer feel (it's how the Artic Monkeys play their cover of it) but to me it turns it into a lullaby. So I'm wrestling with "do I make it easier to play but more frequency compressed, or harder to play and a wider range? Not to mention that G-D-C is such an overused cowboy chord sound.

I know what Naudo would do :-)

Sunday 28 April 2024

Yamaha G-231 II

This G-231 II Yamaha guitar is quite sentimental to me, my parents gave it to me when I was eleven - I was big enough to upgrade from my 3/4 guitar to a full size guitar. It was not the cheapest guitar for its time, maybe a model or two up from basic - it's got an ebony fretboard and the build quality is not bad - thanks dad.

It's the guitar that made me. The one that I honed my fingerstyle skills on. That by the time I was 15 I was thrashing with a plectrum (you can see the damage on soundboard) - luckily my mum bought me an electric guitar shortly thereafter. It sat around for 10 years mostly unused, occasionally brought out as a reference guitar when I needed to remind myself about nylon string classical guitars. It was lent out a few times - it was with my nephew for a few years while he was learning guitar. It lived at my old holiday house for 10 years, I would play it to the trees when I was there. It sat under my desk at work for years and I would play it in the lunch room for an hour on Fridays.

It actually sounds quite nice. But, it hasn't been great to play for a long time. Two main problems - the neck has slightly caved into the body under string tension, which happens to pretty much any classical guitar by the time it is ten. So it makes the action really high. There's no truss rod to tweak it back a little, but besides, it's the neck-to-body connection that goes out; the truss rod is about neck relief, so it's not reeeally the right approach.

The other issue is that higher up the neck the fret  heights are a bit out of alignment. Possibly an issue stemming from problem 1, it certainly doesn't help, but some fret positions up the neck are buzzy.

I have thought in the past about sawing through the neck from underneath (stopping at the fretboard) and then regluing - essentially creating a little triangle that pulls the neck angle back - to fix the high action. Seems savage, so I haven't done it.

But after my water soaking to get the double bass bridge back to square, I wondered if there was something I could do similar - clamp the guitar up forcing the neck backwards, splashing some water around tp ,ake things I asked the internet...and discovered a bloke in Queensland had been doing "Steam Neck Resets". I watched his videos and read some stories of other people who had tried it with success and I was convinced.

I decided to start with the fret grind and recrown. Classical guitar necks are flat, you so only need a flat block of wood and some sandpaper to do the initial grind back. I started with 240 grit, and I drew a black line across each fret with a permanent marker, sand for a bit, see whether all the black lines have been touched, draw the line back, repeat - basically I'm aiming to have a dead flat initial surface. I was suprised to find some grooves worn into the first few frets in the usual places. Nylon rubbing through steel!? That was unexpected. There was some very minor imperfections up where the fretting seemed buzzy, I wasn't convinced.

I spent a little time filing off any sharp fret ends as well, where the neck had shrunk a bit over time leaving some sharps. The file I used was a bit rough, I need to add a fret end file to my list for next time.

I then, still drawing black lines on each fret, ran my fret crowning file across. It worked okay, it's a cheap fret crowning tool, so I wasn't really happy. I will buy a good one for next time. Once I had each fret where there was approximately a thin black line across the top - meaning the original fret grind was still intact, but the rounded crown shape was still there - I moved to the next.

The final step was to hand polish each of the new crowns. I popped on my fretboard protector and worked my way down the frets, with decreasing grades of sandpaper, 400 to 600 to 800 to 1200 to steel wool. But the time I hit the steel wool it was nice'n'shiny. I could see in a few places where I had missed some scratches in earlier sanding, but over all, a nice job.

I had nicked the fretboard in a couple of places with the crowning file and the fret end file, nothing terrible, just a little amateur. I think it makes sense that the first fret grind I ever did was on the guitar that made me the guitarist I am today :-)

After an oiling it looked great. But no time to restring and test it - straight to the steam neck reset, I was very keen to try it out!

1. Make a mark across the frets 2. Block & sand until all marks touched
3. Fret crowning 4. Just a thin line still remains once filed
5. Sand through grits to polish 6. Sit back, admire

I bought a length of aluminium square tube and clamped it hard to the neck in a few places. I was using clamps that had rubber feet so they wouldn't mark the neck. The aluminium was sitting direct on the fretboard, but the frets are nickel-steel so they won't be marked by aluminium.

I then clamped the body to a length of board, with a few towels in between to keep surfaces safe. The goal is to have everything rigid so that when you apply the final clamp at the top it will pull the neck right back at the point when it joins the body. We aren't trying to bend the neck, we are trying to claw back the distortions where it all comes together. If you look carefully, kinda everything is involved - the soundboard, the heel, the sides, the internal ribbing.

I like concept though - put force in the direction you want to go, steam it so the wood and possibly glue becomes a bit pliable again, hold it there until it has dried out, and then when you release it and restring it, it will be back to where it once was. Maybe it won't last, maybe it will go back to where it once was? So what, do it again! - it can be a 5 year maintenance schedule.

Result - I steamed it 3 times over the course of a week, and when I restrung it the action was about 0.25mm lower than before. So my verdict is yes it works, but you need to steam it more over a longer period of time, the consensus seems to be 3 weeks. And note that I really pulled a lot of force on - around 12mm deflection clamping force as measured at the saddle - and that only gave me 0.25mm resulting action decrease. So my lesson there is don't be frightened that you are going to accidentally go to zero action, you probably won't. Ahd then if you did, whip up a new higher saddle - they are easy enough to make.

Sometime I will have another crack at this, but I wanted to get this guitar back to work. After restringing there were improvements in playability, and the buzziness higher up the neck was reduced. Not gone, but more tolerable.

A worthwhile endeavour - for more info on this technique search for "John Miner Neck Steam Reset". Still not "great" to play , but better now.

Jig to hold everything in place Initial measure at bridge 8.0mm
Fill with rags and lots of steam This last clamp is particularly important
Cranked to 11.5mm - needed more Finished with 2.75mm action at 12th fret

In the meantime, I will keep my eye out for an unloved/broken vintage guitar that could do with my attention and I will go through these processes again, but without any pressure of needing to get it back to work.

Friday 19 April 2024

What's happening April 2024

A while ago I decided I needed an electric guitar. I bought an interesting one that had a UST pickup in it. I remembered pretty quickly afterplaying it for a while that electric guitar necks are too narrow - generally a nut width of about 43mm. I next had a company in China build me a custom neck - 48mm wide - but I accidentally specified Stat style heel rather than the Tele style heel that guitar actually needed so it wouldn't fit on the guitar. Not dismayed, I picked up a cheap Stat copy from my local pawn shop and fitted the neck. It was okay, but I hadn't made a good nut for it, so the intonation was bad.

Nonetheless I started using it as my practice/arrangement guitar, mostly because it is quiet and yet the neck feels like a classical neck, and the string tension is not that far off a nylon string. I've been playing it more than my actual classical... a lot more.

I thought to myself "why don't I fix up the nut so it intonates better, and do some of my normal recordings with it?" Because to set up a recording with microphones with the classical requires a bit of effort and the house to be quiet. My house is rarely quiet.

Getting the nut better is becoming an easier process for me, I have made a few saddles and nuts now. I have a feel for what you need to do, and am getting a bit quicker at it. This one was easy, the strings all just needed to be closer to the fretboard.

I remembered why I stopped adjusting it last time - you have to be able to file a very narrow groove - the width of a string - into bone. I had tried the welder nozzle cleaner files and they are okay, but not with the really fine files, it's not really possible.

I remembered a trick I had seen on the internet - modify a set of feeler gauges. The idea being that feeler gauges come in all the exact widths you'd need, and they are kinda tall so they don't flop around like a 0.4mm round file. So I grabbed my feeler gauge, measured up each string with a caliper, got the corresponding feeler gauge out, and roughed up a section with a heavy duty file. I didn't need to make it super rough, or even a very long section. I did clean up the burs on the sides by running the edges flat over some sandpaper, and rounded it ever so slightly so it wouldn't cut a completely square slot.

The end result is great. You don't need to file much, it is only slightly abrasive which is fine for a thin bone slot and you aren't going deep anyway.

I quickly had the nut slots the perfect width per string deep enough that you only had to press the string down a tiny bit before it was touching the fret. How far? Well, I figure if you fret at the first fret, and then look at how close the string is to the second fret, you want about that same distance. Leave a bit extra - nuts wear down during tuning, so have a bit of meat there so it lasts longer than the first string change.

Once I re-tuned and then fretted at the first fret the intonation was not perfect but a lot better. I still fret like an acoustic player - mashing those strings down so of course I am going to go a bit sharp anyhow - I need to develop a lighter touch for electric guitars. But I was happy enough.

The next stumbling block recording on an electric, is how to play with headphones on through whatever effects pedal you want to hear, possibly listening to a click at the same time, all while recording just the guitar.

This should not be a stumbling block of course, people have been recording through interfaces for years. I had bought a nice little Behringer mixing desk with USB output for a cheaper price than an interface, and that has come in super handy as both a mixer and for recording. Because whatever you mix can be sent straight to a computer as a 44.1kHz 16 bit USB stereo signal.

The problem now is latency. If you are sending your mix to a giant amp that you are listening to, and recording in the background, then latency is not a problem, it can be seconds, who cares! But if you pluck a string and are listening in headphones from the computer then there should be no delay (no latency). I reckon I can hear latency starting at around 10-15ms.

Out of the box the average computer hardware running Microsoft Windows will not achieve 10-15ms. The standard Microsoft audio driver is "DirectSound", and it is not made for real-time audio. You will be quite sad if you try to use it for real-time audio.

However if you switch to ASIO as your audio driver, you should be able to get your 10-15ms. Unless you have a specific ASIO driver for your USB interface, download and install "ASIO4ALL". From Reaper/Audacity/etc go to your audio setup, choose ASIO, and click on the ASIO Configuration. Things to try: test out Hardware Buffer, I found setting this with anything around 12ms-20ms worked great. Try setting the block size to 64. Keep the sample frequency at 44.1kHz/16 bit.

If you hear latency, then decrease the values. If you hear noise - like the occasional pop and click, then increase the values. I was able to find a noise free setting that had a latency that I could tolerate.

With that all done, I found with ASIO I couldn't play a click track or anything else at the same time! That is because ASIO will only run exclusively, it won't share with other audio. I found if I went back to DirectSound and recorded a click track, and then back into ASIO mode I could play the click track and overdub, so it's okay.

Otherwise, try out WASAPI. This is the Microsoft equivalent to ASIO. It's pretty good, it will run in shared mode so it is almost the same as using the default DirectSound in that respect. It has similar settings to ASIO, play around with the buffer size, and set the thread priority to Time Critical.

I found I couldn't quite get as good latency out of WASAPI as I could from ASIO. This is all on an 8 year old Dell laptop running Windows 10, so hopefully you have more joy!

So once I was ready with a guitar that would play in tune, with a recorder that could record noise and delay free while I was listening, I hit the next road block.

Well, two road blocks.

I couldn't get the tone I wanted, and my fingerpicking doesn't translate well to coil pickups. Huh?

Tone - I am using my Zoom G Four multi-effects pedal, so I can dial in any patches I want. I found an acoustic simulator with a tiny bit of reverb, running through the neck pickup only at about 50% tone was barely okay - I could live with that - but it just isn't the sound of a classical guitar.

Fingerpicking with a consistent dynamic and tone is hard on electric! I only had to pick ever so slightly different between notes, almost imperceivable, and that different dynamic leaps out. Only have to flick the strings percussively a tiny bit different to the previous and it is the difference between a kick drum and a closed high hat!

I dialed in some compression and this squeezed those inconsistent dynamics together and made them less obvious... but you know what? It squeezed the dynamics together! I _want_ the actual dynamics that I want when I'm playing!

So my years of nylon string has meant I don't have the ultra-fine control of my dynamics I need for an electric guitar.

I haven't given up, but for now, I think I will stick to practice on the electric but recording on the nylon. (Oh, and all this practice on the electric is making me rusty on nylon...)

Monday 25 March 2024

Maton EM225C

I don't talk about this guitar much, I have a love/hate relationship with it. Which is a shame, because I've been through a lot with it.

I bought it new in 1997, a Maton EM225C, I'd never owned a steel string acoustic before. I can't even remember why I bought it, I think it was a case of "working near a music shop, play some guitars at lunchtime from time to time, fell in love with one." It's the guitar I used for my highest viewed songs on Youtube with millions of views between them. It's the guitar I had when I discovered Tommy Emmanuel, which permanently changed the course of my guitar life. It's the guitar that I hung on the wall for 10 years when I realised that I prefer pretty much everything about nylon string guitars. But it is also the guitar I play regularly, with a plectrum, in the band at my local church, because that's the sound they need.

Since it was the only guitar I played for 10 years, it had suffered a lot of fret wear and was getting buzzy on certain strings in certain frets. The good fellas down at Profret gave it a grind and a recrown which helped the playability. It had a lot of grooves in the usual places, now it doesn't.

I noticed however several weeks that when I was digging in hard with a pick an awful buzz had returned. Oh no! Where did that come from!? After a moment of thought I realised that I had put on a new set strings that were a slightly lighter gauge.

Acoustic guitars have a truss rod, which is fighting with the string tension to set the neck relief. If you go from heavier strings to lighter, the strings are pulling less, so the truss rod will now pull the neck further back - giving a lower action - but also potentially creating fret buzz, especially when you dig in, due to this reduction in neck relief.

All good - years ago I worked out that the truss rod nut in a Maton is actually a 1/4" square head, so I made an adjustment tool which had an old 1/4" drive socket welded back-to-front on a length of steel rod, and a T handle for twisting. You whip the 7/16th hex head end pin, stick the tool in there and twist. Lefty Loosey Righty Tighty, leave the strings on, retune between adjustments.

This tool is handy for getting afeel of what your fretboard is doing. If you look closely you can see the neck relief (the bow of the neck) starting from up at the nut. That's what you want, juuust enough neck relief that there isn't any buzz when you are digging in as hard as you ever go.

This multipurpose guitar measuring tool also came in super handy for checking measurements, accurate to 1/4mm. I adjusted out a half, strummed heavily, still heard a little bit of buzz. Kept adjusting and tuning until it seemed better. I can be very heavy handed with a pick, so I need the action to be quite high.

Where does the buzz come from? The string ever-so-slightly rattling on the fretwire one fret up. So imagine you've fretted a note, so the string is pressed up against the fret you are at, there is a small gap between the next fret up and the string. As you pluck, espcially when you are heavy handed, at that initial attack on the string it will just slightly contact the fret up for a short period of time, which gives that buzz.

This can also happen from the other end, with the nut. That is only when you are playing an open note though, if the nut is so worn down you are getting the same issue but on the first fret. I had this problem on my Esteve a while back

Make sure have your tuner handy. Adjust the truss nut at string tension, small amounts at a time, retune between adjustments.

I played the next gig, but I was still hearing a little bit of buzz remaining. But the truss rod was already backed out to the point that removing more tension was not doing anything! What that means is the strings aren't heavy enough to pull the neck out for enough relief, even with the truss rod offering no resistance. If that happens, the next attempt at a cure is saddle adjustment.

If you can put some more meat back onto your saddle, then the string is up a bit higher from way down at the bridge, so there is a bit more action, the buzz may go away. It's just amazing, we are talking tenths of a millimetre between the string and the fret for the difference between clean sounds and buzz. And it might only buzz on particular strings at particular frets.

There are two ways to add meat to your saddle; super glue + bicarb soda to build the level up is my favourite, or reach into your bag of bone blanks and carve another one. I've done both in the past, this time I went with make a new bone saddle, the original black plastic one had served its purpose.

Since the existing saddle is pretty close in dimensions, I traced the outline of it onto a new saddle blank with a bit extra and ground it out with my die grinder. It's pretty quick to rough it out, then smooth off the corners with sandpaper, working through the grades. Yep, I do finish on 1200 grit and then polish with a bit of metal polish or whatever you have. Bone does polish to a mirror finish, it's quite amazing.

I popped it back in and loosely restrung it. I then marked where the strings were, and filed some little grooves in the back. So the strings won't move from side to side when I wildly strum. I got out my caliper to make sure the distances between the stings were fairly constant. Looking at my old saddle, there were some deep grooves in there, I guess 10+ years of hard playing will wear down a saddle just enough that a change of string tension will introduce buzz.

Retuning and strumming hard, I couldn't get any buzz. Yah! Which meant I could wind some tension back on to the truss rod. I watched carefully with my string action gauge at the 12th fret as I put tension back on. When I got down to around 3.25mm I could hear the buzz coming back. At 3.75mm it was pretty clean, so I left it at that. Around 1.5 hours from getting started to finishing, so it's not a super lengthy job to whip up a new saddle.

At my next gig I didn't hear any buzz! Yay, problem solved! Good luck out there!