Monday, 21 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."


Tuesday, 8 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.


Tuesday, 11 August 2009

What's happening August 2009

For those who may not have noticed, I put a a video of "Another One Bites the Dust" on youtube.  Another Naudo copy, but like all of my Naudo copies, modified to suit me ;)  It's good to have a few rockier pieces in my set, I've come to notice that all of my stuff is quieter...which suits the nylon sting (it's not really a rockers guitar), but it suprises people when I make it bark, which is good fun.

Speaking of people, I *finally* did a gig last Saturday night.  It was a favour for my cousin, she had helped organise a school function at a winery and knew I liked to play.  Was a crowd of somewhere about 50-70, mostly indoors in a long rectagular room that had concrete floor, concrete walls...the acoustics were not nice.  It wasn't a big room, so I found that people were talking louder and louder to hear each other over each other, and me.  Generally no-one was actively listening, I was background, but I was catching some peoples attention and getting a few claps which was nice.

When I realised the bulk of the people who were actively listening were outside, I relocated out there where it was quieter and the acoustics were great - basically a courtyard with lots of vines growing around the place to absorb reflections.  It was easy to dial in a great sound.  By this time I had a glass of red wine in me and I had already played for an hour so I was well and truely warmed up, I was playing really well.  Since I only have about 75mins worth of stuff I was repeating things, but nobody had heard them earlier so no dramas.  One guy, who also loved pink floyd, was so impressed with some of my floyd renditions he bought me a bottle of red wine!  Excellent!

Now you are probably wondering what my setup is.  Okay, for those following you may recall my passion for battery powered amps, and I had been building version 3.  I finished it about two months back, really pleased.  It is based on car audio gear as the speaker/amplification engine, built into a custom made light weight ribbed 3mm marine ply box that also serves as the seat.  The sound straight from the guitar through the car audio gear was a bit plain, so I first added a reverb pedal, and then later added a 7 band EQ pedal because the way I play tends to have powerful midrange, and the midrange EQ built into the guitar doesn't have bands specific enough to take it out.

So to dial in a sound, firstly I start with flat EQ on the guitar going through a Behringer reverb pedal.  I always use  the "modulate" setting, and wind up the level/tone/delay according to the room size I'm in.  If I am outside then I'll wind up the reverb more, but inside the rooms normally offer a bit of "natural" reverb so I wind it back in.  I don't use much reverb, just enough that you can only _just_ hear it; I think the acoustic sound needs the warmth of reverb but it should not dominate. 

From the reverb pedal I go into the 7 band EQ.  I normally sweep out the midrange and accentuate the highs and a bit of extra bass.  The car amp and speakers are built for bass (think of the doof doof drivers) so it doesn't need much extra bass.  The car amp and speakers actually has a very flat response across the frequency curve which is great.  The enclosure is fairly linear, I think there are some minor resonances, I might need to stuff some more foam into it.

So I can do a basic 3 band EQ tweak on the guitar (normally leave flat) into the reverb, then do a post 7 band EQ tweak, then into the amp.  I've found I can pretty much get a good sound with this setup.

I'll have more to say about the amp and the sound and playing at gigs in the next few months; I'm still looking for a cafe to play during lunch times, haven't had much response so far (talked to two), but I'm not pushing it.  I'm probably about to move office again so I wouldn't want to hook up a regular gig only to find that I no longer work near it!

Suffice to say that yep, I got out there, I was a little nervous at first but I got into it really quick and thoroughly enjoyed it - looking forward to the next ;)


Wednesday, 17 June 2009

So you want to play the guitar...

"I'd love to be able to play the guitar like you, where do I start?"  Well, about 30 years ago.  And I'm still a long way from being satisfied.  Grrr & humphf.

There is no doubt the kids pick up new things faster than us grown ups, including the guitar, but it's not a lost cause.  To adult newbie guitarists looking for advice on how to play the guitar I say "learn how to sing."  Huh?

It's about engaging an audience.  People like to hear what they already know.  Okay, this precludes any new material from ever entering the greater collective, but let's leave that out of the equation for now ;)

If you can play a three chord song and sing in tune, you'll get an audience.  Even if you keep that audience to your mate, your dog, or the bedpost, you'll get an audience.  If you can play the theme riff to "smoke on the water", you won't get an audience, in fact, you might get a smack on the back of the head, and you'll deserve it...

If you can sing, then playing & singing a 3 chord song is about as hard as learning the theme riff to "smoke on the water."  I don't need to remind you which I consider more valuable.

So, get a guitar, learn how to strum some chords, once you know three chords, you now have at your disposal approximately 1 million songs you can play...learn how to sing a few!

Most importantly, learn how to play the whole song, from go to whoa.  And play it from go to whoa everytime you play it.  The scourge of the guitar world is half-song playing guitarists ;)


Monday, 8 June 2009

What's happening June 2009

I found myself at home, the three kids in bed, the missus out for several hours - food in my belly, kitchen cleaned guesses for what happened next ;)

Now for the past month or so I've been putting any "spare" time into finishing the solar guitar amp.  It is basically finished, just some paint and trim and other non-essential, but essential items to go.  Recapping the project - 12VDC battery, recharged by a solar panel on the side, using car stereo speakers and amplifier, in a lightweight but sturdy box that also acts as a seat.

So interesting notes since I last mentioned it:

* my 5W solar panel that I've had for 5+ years has definately lost some oomphf.  It used to be able to kick out about 400mA, now only about 300mA.  Not a problem though, just a shame - the continuous power use during operation is about 600mA at an acceptable backyard volume, peaking to maybe 1.5A.  So for every hour that I play, it needs to get full sun for about 2 hours.

* I decided to keep it simple with the solar regulator this time - a Schottkey diode to stop the battery discharging at night (Schottkey diode has about a 300mV forward volt drop, as compared to a normal diode 700mV drop) - and 5W 15V zener diode to cap the battery voltage to prevent overcharging.

* I was running just a Behringer reverb pedal to "open up" the sound a little, and tweaking the EQ on the guitar.  I ran into two problems - the output voltage on the reverb pedal was a bit low for the car amp and I couldn't get a good mid balance on the guitar EQ.  I've always had a problem with the mid frequencies, it's the way I play the guitar.  The mids are always overpowering, but very notchy - it's like when I hit the G string I strike it twice as hard as any other.  The solution - I put a Behringer 7 band graphic EQ after the reverb pedal.  This boosted the signal into the car amp, and allowed me to better balance out the frequency response.  Worked well!  The Behringer effects pedals are pretty good, they appeal to the electronic engineer in me.  They are digital based effects rather than analogue, which means they are cheap (the real work is done in software an mass produced bit of hardware) and you don't have to compromise the effect due to hardware, just write good software!

But, I always...the kids were in bed, the missus out and I didn't have anything to do on the amp...not to mention I had already played my repetoire recently; so I took to thinking about some arrangements.

First up I had sitting in the back of my mind Ben Lacy's cover of "Let's Dance".  Absolutely brilliant; I've always been a bit of a Bowie fan.  I didn't have much reference material, 2 youtube videos that weren't close up and pretty poor quality, and another youtube video of someone who played the main riff, but he was flatpicking it.  After about an hour I had worked out some of the basics of it, but was dissapointed that I wasn't getting very far very fast.  I decided it would take a lot of time to transcribe, and that time is not something I have in abundant qualities.

Next I switched to Naudo's "Stand By Me" which I had already transcribed some of.  I played it back, watched some more; but again, it just wasn't coming to me, so I stopped.

So I went right back to my 20 year project - a solo instrumental fingerstyle cover of "Dark Side of the Moon", which I'm a few songs done already.  I'm tweaking up Brain Damage and Eclipse; when I did them say 10 years ago, I was still a bit "classical" in my playing and the melody wasn't on top like it should be.  I've got a new approach now which is better, I played it through a couple of times, got a bit bored of it, so thought about tackling a new one: "Time".

I'd already worked out that I would drum the intro similar to how I do "Come Together", and that was working out quite well.  There is more than enough detail on the web about the song, looking at tabs helped out with the chords and notes, didn't even need to listen to the song.  The verse is F#m, A, E.  I started playing it in my style, and it was so easy, and sounded great!  Slipped in the Sus4 where needed, some basic lead frills, again so easy!  Even the chorus Dmaj, Amaj, through in a C# bass, Bm just worked straight out of the box.  I love it when it is easy! ;)

I noodled it for about 30 mins before thinking about the solos - they are very distinctive, and are *definately* required as part of the arrangement.  Hmm, that's where it got hard.

About then the missus came home and I stopped.  I'm a little bit excited with "Time" however, which is a great way to be when you are looking for arranging something new and different!