Monday 28 June 2010

What's happening June 2010

It's been a while since I did a What's happening, I've been blogging specific topics of late. However I find myself in front of a computer with an hour to kill, so it's a good oppurtunity to waste yours and my time ;)

On the arrangement side of things, I've completed my cover of "Hysteria", and am quite pleased with the result. I struggle with the solo, so I'm going to sit on it for a few more weeks until I can play it adequately. My covers on youtube are all rough, because they represent me only just being able to play the song...I really need at least 6 months to "bed it in". But, when the arrangement is complete and I can play it adequately, I'm all excited about it and could never wait the six months, so I throw it out there, unpolished and all. I don't think I'm the only one like that.

Now you'd think after thousands of years of people writing stuff for the guitar, and people playing covers of it, that arrangements would be a been-there done-that sort of affair. However I am constantly impressed and amazed when I see my favourite solo instrumental fingerstyle players churn out something unique and new, and wonder how we ever got this far without doing *that*! I'd never pin my lifes dreams or earning on my Hysteria cover, but I'm still excited and a little bit pleased that I've come up with something not totally groundbreaking, but kinda cool and never been heard like that before.

The joys of solo instrumental fingerstyle guitar :)

Meanwhile, my Esteve 1GR11 is finally starting to feel good. Let me clarify - from the moment I heard it unplugged I know it was good; after a month it felt good, and now, must be more than six months later, it is just starting to sound good plugged in.

The road has been a bit arduous - the task was to find a really nice classical guitar, install a really nice pickup, and end up with a really nice plugged in sound. My mate Roman recently pointed out "why don't you just use a mic?" which sounds way too sensible; worse still, in a shop I came across an Alhambra (Naudo's choice of guitar) which I though you could not get easily in Australia, and when I played it plugged in it sounded _great_. The unplugged tone was not as nice as my Esteve, but the plugged in tone exceeded what I had come up with, at least it did through the fairly nice amp in the shop. Let's just say it was a lot cheaper than how far I'm into my Esteve to date...

But now, the Esteve plugged in tone is nearly there. I need to make a new saddle, I filed the one I'm using at the moment a little too far in places - but you do need to do that sort of thing, probably several times, before you really nail it. Call it experimentation.

I grabbed an oppurtunity Sunday afternoon to sit out the backyard where I could crank my little amp and see how it sounds. It was there I hit a wall. Another bloody wall, excuse my 'Strayun.

I'm still using my little buskers amp, which has an okay sound and an okay volume. It was up loud enough that I couldn't really hear the unplugged guitar, all the sound was coming from the amp. It was sounding nice, so I started playing some of my usual stuff.

I began to tense up. I know when I'm tensing up, because I start to play fast, and pick really hard, press too hard on the frets - generally very unrelaxed. When I start tensing up I get frustrated and tense up more. A bottle of amber muscle relaxant can usually de-tense the situation, but I was all out.

I was fighting the guitar, fighting the sound coming at me, fighting myself. I realised then I had hit yet a wall. I'm not good (yet) at playing loud and amplified. Arghh! Why on earth does that make a difference!?

Well of course it will. You play to the sound you are getting, it's not like you can put earmuffs on and play just as you would normally play. Playing the guitar is a dynamic, fluid, feedback system, you respond to the sound you are getting, and play to it. I'm used to playing unplugged, or when plugged in I can normally still "hear" the guitar the amplified sound because I keep the volume down to appease the family. I just don't spend much time playing loud, and as much as I've tried to make the amplified sound just like the unplugged sound but louder - I'm not used to it.

Yet another wall blocking my path. I'm sure there are many more to come, in fact there probably is no end to the walls. But hey, if it wasn't a challenge, why would you bother? :)


Friday 18 June 2010


I'm having problems with pickups, and it all hinges around saddles.  Go on, search around the internet for information about saddles.  They will tell you all about fancy materials to use, maybe a bit about shape, but nothing about what is really going on in a saddle.

So, with a little guidance from one of my luthiers books, and revising some of my first year university physics, I'm going to try to explain some stuff to the best of my understanding.

How does an acoustic guitar work?  You pluck the strings, sound is transferred to the soundboard and you hear the note.  Yeah okay fine, but we'll need a bit more detail if we are to work out what is happening at our saddles.
Okay, in this simplified picture you can see the string (under tension) goes across the saddle and down to the (or through the) bridge, with the bridge glued to the soundboard.  For simplicity I'll say the soundboard has rigid/fixed nodes on either end, even though in real life it is shaped in a figure-8 and there are non-rigid dynamics occuring at the soundboard to side interface...okay, that's too much detail.

When you pluck a string, what happens? It vibrates, creating a standing wave between the point it touches the saddle, and the nut or at a fret if you have fretted a note.  The fundamental frequency is of a wavelength the full distance, but there are also many harmonics added by many other things resulting in a complex timbre of the sound...but again too much detail.

Looking at a plucked string, you can see it vibrate, maybe up/down, maybe left/right, maybe in circles, if depends how you plucked it.  There's the clue - the _motion_ of the vibration isn't what is directly causing the sound, it is *pressure* (tension) that is transferred to the soundboard via the saddle and bridge.  Tension is of course directly related to the motion of the string, at the peak offset of the string vibration it is at maximum tension, passing through the lowest tension at zero offset, heading for the opposite peak.  Think about it, if you pull a string away from it's resting position, you create more tension, it is pulling harder against the saddle (and the nut, but the nut is a lot more fixed and solid than the bridge).

Ah, so the tension goes past the saddle, and pulls the soundboard up and down then?  No; no it doesn't.  That would be like trying to pick youself up by your shoe laces.
The saddle is fixed in place hard up against the bridge, so all that can happen is the bridge/saddle _twists_ the soundboard. That's right, _twists_.  The bridge/saddle ever-so-slightly pulls forwards with the tension of the string; and because it is connected to the soundboard it pulls that with it, creating a "bulge" behind the bridge, and a "dip" in front of the bridge.

The soundboard thus becomes an air pump - as the back bulges up it sucks some air in through the sound hole, and as it goes back to the resting position the air is expelled.

I hope I have explained that well enough that you understand, because now I can finally start talking about saddles.

The saddle sets the amount of torque that is transferred to the soundboard.  If you have a really tall saddle, it is "easier" for the string tension to twist the soundboard, giving a bigger acoustic sound...if the saddle is lower then less torque is transferred, and you get less acoustic sound.  (Let's totally ignore action, it isn't a function of creating sound in this context.)  The soundboard can saturate if the saddle is too high; if you start putting a massive load on it then you won't get a linear tension response in the soundboard and the sound will start distorting.  I'm back to too much detail.

As long as the saddle is firmly held in position, isn't made out of a material that absorbs vibration (for example a saddle made out of rubber) then the pressure is transferred reasonably efficiently and you have a faithful reproduction of the string's vibration to the soundboard.  Different materials will add different nauces to the timbre of the sound, for instance a highly efficient material would be a steel saddle, but we aren't after an exceptionally "true" transfer, what sounds best is a compromise, a material that transfers torque but also absorbs a bit, giving a sound that we like.  Again I'm heading out into details land, and my main point in continuously doing so and then stopping myself is that the creation of acoustic sound from a guitar is _incredibly_ complex, and all I really want to touch on is the absolute fundamental principle, firmly remembering there is more involved than just the basics.

Now, lets put an Under Saddle Transducer (UST) underneath the saddle.  You're going to have to think about this too.  The pressure being transmitted by the string goes over the saddle and then some heads down and back at an angle, so we get a ratio of the force is directed straight down through the saddle.  Note that this is balanced by the force pushing up from where the string attaches to the bridge - can't pull yourself up by your shoelaces, remember? But there is still a squeeze going on between the saddle and the bridge.

Therein lies the beauty - even though the soundboard is twisting to get your acoustic sound and it has nothing to do with the saddle downwards pressure - there exists this place between the saddle and bridge where an exact "sample" of the string tension is available.  By placing an electronic gizmo (UST) in there which turns pressure into a voltage, we have a pickup!
Now I said the join between saddle and the bridge has nothing to do with the acoustic sound - if the saddle was a bit loose, or the saddle slot a bit rough on the bottom it's going to make no difference to the acoustic sound (so long as the saddle isn't absorbing pressure, for example, minutely bouncing around). This however makes a lot of difference to trying to catch that sample pressure.  When an acoustic guitar is built, unless it is going to have a UST installed, they probably aren't going to care about the saddle slot quite as much.

I think you are with me.  Once I had fitted my pickup, I was getting poor response, and it came down to the saddle.  Here are some symptoms, and some resolutions:

* The saddle was a bit loose in the slot, so once it was under tension, it lent forward a little bit.  Doesn't affect acoustic sound, but suddenly all the downwards pressure was directed on the front edge of the saddle, and the UST wasn't getting the full pressure sample.  This is fixed by buying a blank over-size width saddle, and very carefully on a piece of glass or polished marble/granite surface with sandpaper, "thinning" down the saddle to be the exact same width as the slot.  Too loose and it will pull forward, too tight and pressure is lost into the walls of the slot as it is "jammed".

* Having a nice tight saddle will then next show you the saddle slot is not perfect.  My slot in fact flares out a bit at the top - not much I can do about that other than having a new wider slot routed in.  But all the laquer in the slot, from when the guitar was laquered, also caused it to be imperfect.  Armed with a trimmer blade, I carefully scraped off laquer on the floor and the sides of the slot to ensure they were as flat as I could get them.

* To fight a non-flat slot from two fronts, I bevelled the bottom edge of the saddle, just a tiny amount.  If the bottom of the slot still had some lacquer or generally non-90 degree bottom leading and trailing sides of the slot, that is, "radiused" sides, even only a tiny, tiny bit - and even if you don't see it - the saddle would be jamming in that last minute section, losing pressure.  If there was going to be any non-flatness in the slot, that's where it would be, so bevel the bottom of your saddle.

* Even still, I went one further step and put a spacer in the bottom of the slot, underneath the UST.  The spacer I made was two pieces of normal paper glued together cut to the same size as the bottom of the slot, acting as a kind of gasket, balancing out any imperfections.  Although this gasket arrangement will absorb some of the pressure; the pressure gained by it being there is far more than that lost.  Give this a try and see how you go - if the slot is good enough, you won't need to.

* Balancing.  As in, how much pressure is exerted by each different string - if you play all of the strings with the same touch, are any louder than each other?  Typically on a nylon string, the G string might be quite a lot louder than the rest...or maybe the D string.  Combat that by taking some meat off the bottom of the saddle directly underneath the string - basically you are removing some of the ability for the pressure to be transferred from the string to the UST.

If the higher strings are too loud compared to the bass strings, then file your saddle to have a top profile where the bass strings are higher.  This will result in a greater break angle from the string to the bridge tie off, which means more downwards pressure on the saddle.

Alternatively, if your saddle is already crazy high on the bass then add a sliver of paper on _half_ of the bottom of slot, which will take away a little bit of pressure from the trebles/direct it to the bass instead.

There is so much to talk about with saddles, bridges and the acoustic guitar's general ability to make a noise, and so much I don't know.  I've gone on here for long enough, I'm sure to go on about it again in the future!

Oh, and as a final note - no UST is good enough by itself to get exceptional sound. You must always mix it with an AST/SBT or built in condensor mic - the UST is too focussed on the fundamental frequencies, an AST/SBT/mic picks up all that other good sounds the guitar is making :)


Wednesday 9 June 2010

Support group for non-musical guitarists

After two recent messages on youtube (Norty and Cory, similar types of guitar players to me) I decided we need a support group for non-musical guitarists.

Let me explain.

Ohhhh I'm a fraud, a big liar, it's all sham, woe is me; for I know nothing about music, I just know how to play the guitar.

There, got it off my chest.  "Hi, my name's JAW, I'm a non-musical guitarist".  Well in fact I've insinuated it many times in previous posts and messages, I've just never really boiled it down for you all to comprehend.

Now I can see a few of you are scratching your heads, but a lot of you know exactly what I'm talking about.  Let me further explain.

I never play scales, if pressed, I could probably play a major scale, but I wouldn't know what key it is.  I don't know the difference between a delorian and a septatonic key. "C7" is a chord where you additionally put your pinky on the 3rd fret 3rd string, which is in fact a Bb.  Okay the 7 means something about the seventh tone from the root note C - you do pick up a few things even when you aren't paying attention.

I once sat with a guitar teacher, and after asking me some questions and watching me play he summed it up perfectly: "Okay, so you're a pretty good guitar player but you have no idea what you are doing."

So, what's the problem with that?

There is a lot of problems with that.  Foremost, you can't sit down with a real musician and weave the language of music on your instruments with each other.  At best, you could learn a part of a duet by rote, and line them up.  You'll have trouble developing an ear.  My ear is terrible, I find it almost impossible to follow even a very simple melody.  Most of my arrangements I've pulled together from half tabs and midi files.  Creating your own compositions - some understanding of music will certainly help that process.

So why aren't I doing anything about it, and why are there people like us?

It's not that important to me.  It's not where I derive my enjoyment of the guitar from.  Perhaps one day it will be, but it's been 30+ years and I still haven't bothered - sure, I've scratched around the surface and I probably know more than I give myself credit for, but it isn't a driver in my guitar experience.

But it does mean I am relegated to playing solo, not really understanding the very principles behind what I do.

So if you know exactly what I'm talking about; either get on learning music, or join in my support group for non-musical guitarists :)