Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Does Guitar Based Classical Music Still Exist?

Given that most of us harbors several surprisingly “wrong” versions of the topic, but is Classical Music (Western European Classical Music) played on a guitar – for all intents and purposes – already dead in the 21st Century?

By: Ringo Bones

I used to think that it is so, but the funk metal band Scatterbrain playing WA Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca using electric guitar, bass, and a Rock drum kit on their Scamboogery album doesn’t really pass muster as true-blue Classical music played on guitar. Neither does Taylor Swift with her custom 12-string guitar played through a 10,000-watt PA system connected to a 130dB sound pressure level-capable speaker system so that she can be heard throughout the 10,000-acre venue of a state fair qualify as Classical music. Nor does Yngwie Malmsteen playing a heavily arpeggiated Nicolò Paganini piece through his custom Fender Strat and a bank of Marshall stacks when the same piece of music should be played through a “Balokovic” Guarneri del Gesu violin to qualify as true Classical music. And so does Jennifer Batten playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee using her electric guitar through a Marshall amp. Given that the Classical music previously mentioned will probably the only ones likely to be played on mainstream FM radio, is guitar-based Western European Classical Music really dead in the 21st Century?

When Andrés Segovia first popularized what is now referred to as the classical guitar more than a century ago, folk and Classical Music were only the genres of music played on such instrument. Most Western European Classical Music that were played on Segovia’s newfangled guitar were often compositions from previous great composers like Mozart and Bach (Bach Guitar Recital) are “rearranged” to be played on Segovia’s newfangled musical instrument. Even the Vivaldi Guitar Concerto in D Major music piece was probably composed way before the invention of Segovia’s guitar.

The first guitar virtuoso to popularize guitar-based Classical Music in the 20th Century is Julian Bream whose debut guitar recital at Cheltenham in 1947 aged 13 also probably made him as the first bona fide post World War II teen idol as he played with the London Symphony Orchestra. Influenced by Andrés Segovia and Francisco Tàrrega and recognized as one of the most important classical guitarist of the 20th Century. Julian Bream was also very successful in renewing popular interest in the Renaissance lute. Though from the perspective of today's teen-aged girl groupies, Julian Bream's post-war teen idol status is about as far removed from the Jonas Brothers as you can get.

During the early 1990s, Nicola Hall, a female Classical Music guitarist using an Andrés Segovia-style nylon stringed guitar did manage to briefly make guitar-based Classical Music register in the late 20th Century's music industry’s radar. With the release of her Virtuoso Transcriptions for Solo Guitar, some “brave” FM stations in my neck of the woods often played this particular Nicola Hall album on air after Yngwie Malmsteen popularized the high-decibel side of guitar-based Classical Music back in 1992. Given the dearth of “Classically-trained” musicians using the guitar to play Classical Music, is the guitar for all intents and purposes a “Rock n’ Roll” instrument?

From my point of view, I think it is unfair to blame the Rock n’ Roll musicians, given my rather very eclectic taste in music. Though it is safe to squarely put the blame on the music industry executives for not doing their part for popularizing guitar-based Classical Music. Maybe Classical Music lovers will just be resigned to hope that the suave, bearded Italian named Andrea Bocelli – who despite of having an excellent voice – is yet to pick up a Segovia-style guitar. Or maybe someone should give some half-Ukrainian half-Uyghur red haired green-eyed 13-year-old girl who plays a blisteringly fast version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee on a Segovia-style Classical guitar a recording contract.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Gregg Wright: The Forgotten Great Guitarist of Michael Jackson?

Once famously known for almost upstaging the King of Pop, does Gregg Wright still register in the consciousness of most Michael Jackson fans and guitar enthusiasts?

By: Ringo Bones

Yes, there’s truth behind the legend that Gregg Wright almost upstaged Michael Jackson – the undisputed King of Pop – on one of the dates of the “disastrous” Don “Bride of Frankenstein” King backed Victory Tour of the 1984 Jackson 5 / The Jacksons reunion concert. But does anybody – especially Michael Jackson fans and guitar enthusiasts – still care about Gregg Wright and his former adventurous guitar sessions with the King of Pop this day and age?

More famously known for his guitar work with Michael Jackson and Mick Fleetwood / Fleetwood Mac, Gregg Wright is an artist in his own right, despite of a number of critics shelving him as a mere Jimi Hendrix clone. And sadder still – especially in my neck of the woods – Gregg Wright’s music, be it in CD or vinyl form, are few and far between. Only working musicians – all of them older than 40 - knew him in my neck of the woods, reminiscent of the popularity of Lonesome Crow era Scorpions in America.

The only “album” of Gregg Wright that I’m lucky enough to acquire is his Gregg Wright’s Left Hook album titled “Round One”. As luck would have it, I managed to find this CD being sold in our local garage sale about a month ago. Round One is Gregg Wright’s self-produced debut CD, which Wright also originally sold during his concert tours in the UK and Europe back in 1995. After being well received by his fans, the debut CD managed to sell thousands of copies – which sadly is mere peanuts in comparison to the millions sold by Britney and those Boy-Bands. Ironic being it was Michael Jackson who made the concept of Boy-Bands a very lucrative music biz proposition.

Gregg Wright’s Left Hook is the name of the band on the “Round One” album with Gregg Wright himself performing the main guitar and vocal duties; Backed by Mick Broadbent on bass guitar and backing vocal duties and Keith Line on drums and backing vocals. The “Round One” album is rather short at just about 29 minutes long – an EP would have been more apt. On first listen, the songs may sound fairly ordinary. But it does possess a habit of pointing to the future of Modern Blues / Rock Fusion. Especially when you consider Gregg Wright’s guitar playing, which sounds like what kind of music Jimi Hendrix would be doing if he is still alive.

Although Gregg Wright’s very “enjoyable” mimicry of Jimi Hendrix – especially the flamboyant stage costumes and the signature upside down Strat - will only irk further the critics who labels Wright as just another Hendrix clone. Yes, Jimi’s influence is unmistakable, but Gregg managed to add his own vibrant punch into this veritable musical slugfest and therefore can’t be accused of just being another run-of-the-mill Hendrix clone.

Given the band’s overall performance on Round One, Gregg Wright’s Left Hook – to me – is a band worthy enough to go through an 18-hour 2,000 US dollar plane ride just to experience them live. And Gregg Wright’s stint with Michael Jackson and the rest of the Jackson 5 on that ill-fated Victory Tour is probably the closest thing we’ll ever experience of the Jackson 5 playing at the 1969 Woodstock or a Jimi Hendrix collaboration. Gregg Wright could have been the “It Factor” of Michael Jackson’s This is It Tour. Sadly, the untimely passing of Michael Jackson back in June 25, 2009 put an end to that and Gregg Wright could suffer that terrible wasting disease that affects a sizable number of great artisans known as anonymity.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

United Airlines: Unfriendly to Guitars?

Ever since that “unfortunate” incident with Dave Carroll’s guitars a few months ago, are most airline company’s unfriendly when it comes to guitars and other musical instruments?

By: Ringo Bones

Growing up in the 1980s, I’ve often viewed United Airlines’ corporate slogan “Fly the friendly skies” with such surrealism after a number of incidents of passenger jets being hijacked by “PLO-sponsored terrorists”. Fast forward to 2009, the same surrealism returns again after the unlikeliest of songs by David Carroll titled United Breaks Guitars, retelling his “ordeal” with United Airlines’ baggage handlers became a runaway success. Noting that the only other song in existence that recounts about broken guitars is Broken by NY Loose where Brijitte West sings an ode to her broken Gibson SG that also became a hit back in 1997. But is United Airlines really at fault? After all if the prominent Blogosphere journalist Arianna Huffington harbors doubts whether Dave Carroll’s damaged guitar and mental anguish is really worth 180 million dollars, then how airline companies handle our fragile baggage – like musical instruments – should be looked into.

One of my audio-buddies who was fortunate enough to be a touring Classical Music cellist – though not fortunate enough to afford his own touring plane – has told me that as far as 1999, airline companies are not really that friendly with touring musicians and their “fragile” musical instruments. My cellist friend had a first-hand experience with Southwest Airlines’ baggage policy. Southwest Airlines’ baggage policy states that they would not guarantee safe arrival if the instruments were checked: they call it a “conditional” guarantee. Meaning Southwest is responsible for loss only, not damage. No wonder why most musicians – especially guitarists - buy their own touring plane as soon as they can afford one. But – in defense of David Carroll’s recent incident - have you seen a typical musical instrument case lately?

Most budget guitar, cello, and violin travel cases / flight cases that are made with ABS thermo shell and other high-strength exotic fiber composites that I have personally examined. Like those from Bam and the Gage Case are sturdy enough to withstand a direct hit with a 9-mm parabellum automatic pistol and sub-machinegun rounds. While up-market flight cases designed to protect musical instruments with pedigree – like a 1724 “Ludwig” Stradivari or a “Balokovic” Guarneri del Gesu, even your typical eight thousand dollar CF Martin & Co. acoustic guitar – will more than likely stop a 7.26mm X 39mm Kalashnikov round fired from 30 meters away. Maybe Mythbusters will test my hypothesis someday.

Given the “workmanship” that goes into a typical musical instrument flight case, United Airlines’ baggage handlers must be doing their very serious Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme impressions to have damaged Dave Carroll’s guitars that are safely tucked in into their respective guitar flight cases. Even a newbie lawyer can safely say, “case closed” - but is Dave Carroll really 180 million dollars richer? Maybe that’s a question only he and his travel insurance provider can answer.

Friday, October 9, 2009

BBE Sonic Maximizer: Guitar Tone Friendly?

Despite of being endorsed and used by high-profile Heavy Metal guitarists and bassists during the late 1980s and early 1990s, does the BBE Sonic Maximizer really improve your guitar’s tone?

By: Ringo Bones

After listening to Liz Phair wring out righteous tones from her Fender Duo Sonic guitar on Red Light Fever from her eponymous 2003 album for the umpteenth this past few years. I can now safely conclude that a) you don’t need to play at warp speed to perform a really beautiful guitar solo and b) gorgeously loud midranges are a guitarist’s birthright. Given my recent experiences on how the BBE Sonic Maximizer tends to make those very midrange tones sound like the visual equivalent of an airbrushed photo, I now wonder if the guitar world still really needs this quirky black box. But when it comes to Liz Phair’s guitar playing, I just couldn’t airbrush her already excellent tone - Especially not somebody with that kind of soul. Thus the question now is why did the BBE Sonic Maximizer ever gained inroads into the tone obsessed world of electric guitar playing?

After being endorsed by Megadeth and Skid Row during the Golden Age of Heavy Metal – i.e. the late 1980s and early 1990s. Almost every guitarist around the world coveted of using a BBE Sonic Maximizer just because a growing number of guitarists with a major label deal had began using one. Plus given the growing number of boom-boxes and as an audio system ad-on in both pro recording and domestic hi-fi setting, one could safely say that this is one piece of kit that’s aggressively marketed. But how did it sound?

After obtaining one rather cheaply from our local pawnshop that accepts electric guitars and related pro audio gear. All I can say that the BBE Sonic Maximizer – though can do wonders if you are recording into cassette tapes and intend to use cassette tapes as master tapes – is one of those technologically driven products that can sound mediocre, even awful, in its intended application. Its ability to boost the bass and treble ends of the spectrum tends to ruin the sound of most – if not all – applications related to electric guitar recording and / or connecting your axe to a concert PA system.

One of the main reasons that a very distorted guitar tube amplifier sounds so good is that guitar amp speakers can’t reproduce the higher-order harmonics generated as the guitar player overdrives the tubes by cranking up the amp to 11. If it does it tends to make your guitar rig to sound very shrill and somewhat weak. And there is a surprising amount of infrasonic to low bass energy put out by a typical guitar amp. Due to the guitar strings reacting in a resonant manner with the magnetic bias of the guitar’s pickups. And probably the only time when the BBE Sonic Maximizer produced a righteous guitar tone on the intro of Megadeth’s Train of Consequences from their Youthanasia album. But most of the time, the BBE Sonic Maximizer when used in electric guitar applications tend to make your guitar tone shrill and overly weak while making the bass frequencies honk like a drunken tuba player during Oktoberfest.

While I never compared one side by side, there was a similar audio processor intended to enhance the high and low end of the audio spectrum that came out during the height of the BBE craze. It was called the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² with Big Bottom. It was supposedly claimed to enhance the high-frequency region of your recordings or electric guitar while making your 8-inch woofer sounds like a 15-inch woofer without making your rig and recordings sound muddy due to tape saturation and / or system overload. Though it was favorably reviewed in some forums by a number of guitarists for improving their tone, I haven’t yet heard it being compared in a side by side showdown with the BBE Sonic Maximizer.

From my point of view I think the BBE Sonic Maximizer and the Aphex Aural Exciter Type C² with Big Bottom were probably produced as tone enhancers by their respective makers - Probably because during the time of these products release, vacuum tubes were getting very scarce. And their respective manufacturers probably decided that since vacuum tubes – and their tone enhancing properties – are going the way of the dodo, it is only logical to create a solid-state based replacement. I can only guess how a BBE Sonic Maximizer could sound – tone wise - if the folks at BBE Sound Inc. decide to make one using Electro-Harmonix 12AX7 preamplifier tubes or equivalent.

Remembering Woodstock: Which Woodstock?

It’s been 40 years since that fateful day of August 1969 when the first ever Woodstock was born, but which Woodstock made the best impression in the minds of most of the world’s guitar slingers?

By: Ringo Bones

Whether you’ll agree with then or not, many of us guitar slingers see the 1969 Woodstock as that historic moment that raised the electric guitar to its present – and probably it’s future - iconic status. Even though I’m born a few years after the original Woodstock, I’m somewhat old enough to own a brain that automatically defaults to that iconic summer of 1969 event whenever the topic of Woodstock springs to mind. Thus further reinforcing the belief that: “If you remember the 1960s, you’re not really there, man.” Given the relatively low-key festivities commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock in 2009, I wonder if it still registers in the global consciousness of guitar slingers everywhere.

When Jimi Hendrix played Woodstock back in August 18, 1969, he had really made it to the very top of a musical mountain that has become ever tougher to climb as the years went by. Having just disbanded The Experience – Hendrix’s then iconic trio – Jimi has thus started to explore fresh musical horizons. Hendrix assembled his new band for the Woodstock gig – Gypsy Sun & Rainbows – while a hastily scratched out set list forever made him a musical icon in the guitar world. Sadly, only hardcore “Hendrixphiles” ever remembers second guitarist Larry Lee and the two percussionists, Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez - The almost “last minute” additions of his now iconic 1969 Woodstock lineup. With the sun rising over Yasgur’s farm – it was 9:00 Monday morning when Hendrix, the festival headliner, actually took the stage - fortunately for us.

Chances are there are probably more guitar slingers out there who remember the 1994 “Seattle Grunge” Woodstock supposedly commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the iconic musical event. Instead, it projected the impression of a mud-drenched and psychotropic addled marketing ploy of David Geffen and those two guys who owned Sub Pop records doing their damnedest to make Seattle Grunge a global phenomenon in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s untimely passing. While the 1999 Woodstock that supposedly commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the original event will forever be remembered for the 12 ounce of bottled water being sold for eight dollars each - Not to mention the misogynistic grope-fest.

Even though our supposedly grandiose 40th Anniversary festivities slated for celebrating Woodstock this 2009 has decided to become low-key. Is it because that we are currently in a global recession? Or is it because of the untimely passing of someone who should have been performing in the original 1969 Woodstock – i.e. Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5? Who knows, maybe Ang Lee should have done something better than that somewhat quirky 1969 Woodstock based comedy?

From my perspective, the 1969 Woodstock has always been about my two favorite musicians / guitarists – namely Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix. While Jimi Hendrix’s lasting legacy was establishing the artistic and technical how-to in playing electric guitar in front of thousands of people. While Richie Havens – after opening for the 1969 Woodstock - still made the acoustic guitar relevant in the time of man walking on the Moon and other scientific advances - if you play it right by the way.

Richie Havens was probably one of the first “celebrity environmentalist” after he promoted environmentally sustainable living. Havens is probably the most famous resident of Arcosanti, an environmentally sustainable village designed by architect Paolo Soleri. This was in the early to mid 1990s, at the time when then US vice president Al Gore speak about the dangers of excessive greenhouse gases produced by industry, the extreme Christian Right of America were still too clueless to deny about global warming in the vice president’s face. Not to mention Richie Havens’ talent for making remakes of other people’s songs sound like his own. His remake of James Taylor’s iconic Fire and Rain is still often mistaken as being originally done by Havens himself – a perception often harbored by novice James Taylor fans.

Despite of being the venue of America’s first “boy band” – i.e. does Sha Na Na count? The1969 Woodstock will forever be remembered as the venue where high decibel electric guitar playing came of age. Not to mention this is probably the first venue where cultural diversity through music first became cool to the under 25s.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A (Not So) Brief History of Electric Guitar Pickups

Without pickups, electric guitars won’t make a sound, but do most of us guitar enthusiasts know the origins of this iconic invention?

By: Ringo Bones

The electric guitar pickup has been around for quite some time now that – believe it or not – it even was invented before the electric guitar! And unlike that fraudulent Wikipedia entry – reminiscent of that David Beckham being an 18th Century Chinese goalkeeper – single coil electric guitar pickups were not invented by Slash of Guns N’ Roses. The patent application for a single coil electric guitar pickup appeared as early as 1926. Although no particular person was credited in the single coil pickup’s invention; it was probably John Dopyera – a Slovak émigré to America and inventor of the dobro – probably invented the single coil electric guitar pickup. After a growing demand by Jazz guitarist at that time to find a six-string that can be played as loud as a grand piano, or loud enough not to be drowned out by a typical Big Band’s brass horn section. Which is kind of strange given that Richard Wagner would have been the most likely one to demand such an instrument to be played in his gigs at Bayreuth – or is it Gustav Mahler?

It wasn’t until the 1930s when single coil pickups began to be used in the musical instrument we now know today as the electric guitar. Rickenbacker International Corporation of Santa Ana, California – founded by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp – were credited to be the first ones to make a production run of the electric guitar in 1932 utilizing those single coil pickups that were first patented in 1926. Although Les Paul was more famously known as the electric guitar’s inventor because he holds the most number of patents that enable us to play and appreciate more of the electric guitar. Like the multi track recording technique.

Single coil electric guitar pickups are renowned for their tonal sparkle and clarity, but are notorious for picking up noise signals - Particularly those from power transformers or motors operating from the 60-Hz alternating current. Worse still, single coil pickups propensity for stray EMF noise pickup gets worse when comes near to electrical devices reliant on “mangling” the 60-Hz sinusoidal waveform in order to supply them with a high-voltage DC - Like those Budweiser neon signs populating most club stage venues being lit up by solid-state multiplier circuits. Not to mention the 15.75-KHz horizontal sweep frequency generated by the fly-back transformer of CRT-based computer monitors - which makes single coil pickups buzz like a 10,000-strong hive of angry yellowjackets. More bad news to those recording their guitar tracks with a desktop PC-based hard disk recording system. All spell bad news to those who fell in love to the ping and shimmer of a vintage Fender Stratocaster.

Back in 1954, Seth E. Lover – a design engineer for both Fender and Gibson – designed what is now commonly known as the humbucking pick up. Humbucking pickups are composed of two single coil pickups connected in series and out-of-phase with each other. Or the end of winding terminal of one single coil pickup is connected to the end of winding terminal of another single coil pickup (or the start of winding terminal – whichever produces the loudest sound, better tonality, hum cancellation etc.). This pickup is simply a double-coil pickup interconnected so that the signals introduced by extraneous noise such as hum are cancelled out while retaining the signals introduced by vibrating strings. Although not perfect in canceling hum – though it is perfect for canceling that pesky 15.75-KHz horizontal sweep fly-back transformer noise of TV monitors – the performance in terms of signal-to-noise ratio improved significantly.

As a rule, single coil pickups are much louder than their humbucker counterparts. And although most – if not all – Fender Strats made from the late 1950s onwards has a dual-pickup setting where the reverse-wound / reverse-polarity middle pickup becomes a de facto humbucker pickup – with the requisite hum cancellation – by setting the switch to positions 2 and 4. It still can’t match the open tonality of the accompanying single coil pickups. Humbucking pickups produce a sound which most veteran guitarists describe as “phasoid” and has a midrange hump that can manifest itself as a honk when used with the requisite vintage tube-based amplification – not that there’s anything wrong with it though. Just ask those legions of Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplifier owners.

Fortunately, there had been advances in single coil pickup design since Seth E. Lover invented the humbucking pickup in 1954. Although most of it is primarily “tone-driven” not noise cancellation. Like those Lace Sensor pickups by Actodyne General Incorporated - which the company also holds patents for the US Patent # 4,809,578 with their Lace Micro-Matrix Comb technology. Made famous by the guitar legend Jeff Beck in his custom Fender Strat, Lace Sensors are revered by guitarists around the world as the Holy Grail of electric guitar single coil pickup technology - Although there are others who swear by Full-Frequency single coil pickups by Evans – which were made famous by Queensrÿche during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But for those who prefer “scientifically verifiable improvements”, they gravitate towards EMG pickups with their active electronics that prevents all of the harmful effects of external noise signals -although they are seen as anathema by those who grew up on vintage pickups sporting post-WW2 era Alnico magnets.

At present, electric guitar pickup designs that capitalize on hum and noise cancellation while retaining the vintage sound of Rock N’ Roll are touted as the most advanced pickups in the market today. Like the latest models of DiMarzio’s Virtual Vintage passive replacement pickups that uses transformer winding technology – probably from Nikola Tesla’s old notes – that damps noise signals while retaining that traditional Fender Stratocaster-style spank. But others still clung on to their real vintage pickups like those original Alnico magnet equipped Fender-style single coil pickups and P-90 pickups. Although none of today’s major electric guitar pickup manufacturers had offered solutions to minimize and eliminate noise coming from cellular phone / mobile phones and their transmitting towers (and Internet Modem noise?).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Should We Be Using Op-Amps for Our Guitar Effects Fuzz Boxes

Although 99.9% of guitar effects / fuzz stomp boxes now use op-amp chips, if great tone is the goal, is it a question of should we be using op-amps instead of can?

By: Ringo Bones

If you are old – or rich - enough to experience the hi-fi wonders of the 1990s when 500 US dollar CD players began to sound as good as entry-level vinyl LP replay. Then it is more than likely that you heard the hype of the “tone enhancing” effects of premium-grade op-amp chips. After choosing to emulate my past experiments of using op-amp integrated circuit chips with audiophile credentials in guitar stomp boxes for ultimate tone. You could probably end up asking yourself should we – rather than can – be using op-amp based guitar stomp boxes? Before proceeding to the long-winded narration of my experiences with “boutique” op-amps, here’s a primer on what happens when an electric guitar is played.

Whenever you pluck the strings of your electric guitar or strum a chord, the guitar’s signal varies from a few millivolts to as high as 1 volt peak-to-peak depending upon how hard the strings are plucked or strummed or the kind of pick-up used. The electric guitar’s output signal when viewed on an oscilloscope is characterized by a sharp rise to a maximum value and then diminishes rapidly. This makes a tube-based electric guitar amplifier with a good vacuum tube pre-amp section or a fuzz box – i.e. distortion effects stomp box – a necessity if you want a pleasingly sustained tone from your electric guitar.

During the 1960s – when Jimi Hendrix and countless other guitarists – began experimenting with electric guitar effects boxes, most of these fuzz boxes were made with discrete small-signal transistors and germanium signal diodes. This provided those effect’s signature smooth tone and a long sustain compared to more recent op-amp chip based fuzz boxes. When the venerable 741 op-amp (LM741 op-amp and related variants) became available in 1966 after being made by most IC manufacturers, it was tried as an active amplifying device in guitar fuzz boxes to see how it compares to discrete small-signal transistors.

Sadly, many found out that the rate of decay is much faster than a conventional guitar fuzz box that uses discrete transistors. Op-amp based guitar fuzz boxes only became popular in the 1980s during the rise of high-decibel Heavy Metal music when the harsh sound of the op-amp based electric guitar effect fuzz box became de rigueur. Not to mention the silicon signal diodes that replaced the almost extinct germanium signal diodes only made the op-amp based fuzz boxes sound even harsher and Death Metal ready. Thus making the tonal versatility of a Marshall amp bristling with EL34 tubes really worth the very steep price premium.

By this time you could be asking yourself, if the “hi-fi world” can get away with using those gorgeously toned Electro-Harmonix reissued tubes, why can the “guitar world” benefit from using op-amps with audiophile credentials to improve the tone of their fuzz boxes? The short answer is music performance recordings, either from vinyl or CD (the two leading “state of the art” domestic mediums) has a vastly more complicated signal waveform in comparison to what a typical electric guitar produces no matter how beautifully played. Audiophile-grade JFET input op-amps like the AD845, LF356, or high slew rate types like the LM318 might be the cheapest way to make Iron Maiden or Veruca Salt sound as if they were playing right in your bedroom. But these premium grade op-amps don’t do squat – tone wise - when used in guitar fuzz boxes.

Audiophile-grade op-amps only shine when supplied with a well-regulated plus / minus 15 volts split power supply. You can’t tell the difference if you use them in place of your bog-standard LM741 found in your Hyper-Metal fuzz box being supplied by a 9-volt PP3 battery. And if you ever try to shoehorn a switching-mode power supply to power these audiophile-grade op-amps from a 9-volt PP3 in the hopes of a 12AX7 based preamplifier on the cheap. I tried it and it doesn’t work. Or it does play, but tone-wise you’re better off taking the all-tube route. An overwhelming number of fuzz boxes today are even using op-amps with much lower specs than the venerable LM741 op-amp. Good luck trying to find guitar stomp / fuzz boxes using high slew rate types like the LM318.

As it was in the 1960s as it is today, tube amps are still the best way to get the ultimate fuzz tone effects. If the contrary is true, how come I still see thirty-something housewives wearing a Lunachicks T-shirt hunched over their 1965 Fender Twin with soldering iron in one hand and a 6L6 tube in another? In truth, fuzz circuits do mirror the “quality hierarchy” found in the hi-fi world namely tubes are the best, followed by discrete transistors, and op-amps being the budget sector. Even though a skillful designer can still create great sounding gear using the right op-amp in the proper application.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Remembering Les Paul

Responsible for inventing half of the electric guitars used in contemporary rock and pop music for starters, try imagining the music industry without Les Paul?

By: Ringo Bones

2009 could be remembered as a very sad year for the music world’s icons. First, it was the untimely passing of the King of Pop back in June 26, then Les Paul – the inventor of the now iconic Gibson Les Paul – passed away last August 13 a week after his 94th birthday after succumbing to medical complications due to pneumonia. It would be very hard to imagine our contemporary music world without Les Paul because he invented the two very important things that made rock / pop music possible – i.e. solid-bodied electric guitar and multi-track recording.

Les Paul’s journey to fame and fortune is by no means easy. After inventing his now famed “The Log” which became the prototype of his now iconic solid-bodied Gibson Les Paul, it was first rejected after he offered his invention to the Gibson Guitar and Mandolin Company for mass production. But Gibson did succumb in the end to purchasing the manufacturing rights to Les Paul’s invention due to the increasing necessity of electric guitars that can be played loud without breaking into acoustic feedback.

Another of Les Paul’s invention that made our contemporary popular music possible is the multi-track recording without which laying down tracks would be a more expensive and time-consuming affair. Les Paul used to great effect the merits of multi-track recording when he and his wife – Mary Ford – began recording hits in the late 1940s that became million-selling records. Like the songs “How High the Moon”, “Vaya con Dios”, and “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”.

Les Paul also pioneered the two-handed playing technique, long before it was being popularized by Eddie Van Halen during the late 1970s. Which the now Fender-Stratocaster-with-Lace-Sensor-pick-ups-using Jeff Beck describes Les Paul’s guitar playing as not only lightning quick, but also musical as well. When I saw a then very rare early 1950s black and white footage of Les Paul doing a blisteringly fast two-handed playing as a somewhat pricey VHS recording back in the 1990s, it made me speechless as well. His archival footage really did show electric guitar playing techniques that in this day and age is still more advanced than the norm.

And let’s not forget the now iconic solid-bodied electric guitar named after the great inventor without which heavy metal rock music would hardly be viable. Imagine former Guns N’ Roses axeman Slash, Jimmi Page of Led Zeppelin, Brijitte West of NY Loose, and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt without their trusty Gibson Les Pauls played through Marshall amplifiers? Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler “might have” invented the musical theory and the decibels behind Heavy Metal Music but Les Paul made the genre a technical possibility.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rusty Shaffer’s FretLight / SmartLight Guitars: Underdeveloped Technology?

Given Guitar Hero’s toy like guitar interface, should Rusty Shaffer make his own version of a Guitar Hero-like video game based on his FretLight / SmartLight technology?

By: Ringo Bones

After a friend referred to me a Guitar Hero related article that could arouse my interest being featured on a March 2009 edition Business Week magazine, I now begin to wonder the “what ifs” being implied by this feature story. The particular article is titled “Can Optek Turn Guitar Hero Fans Into Real Musicians?” by Peter Burrows. Though where the author of the article and I began to diverge in opinion is when the author suggested that the Optek Music Systems serve as a “gateway” for Guitar Hero video game enthusiasts into real musicians.

While my personal opinion suggests that it would be better if Optek Music Systems merge with the makers of Guitar Hero to “improve” the video game’s “cheesy” and “unrealistic” toy guitar interface. By using the one Optek Music Systems already sells called the FretLight / SmartLight series of guitars to make the video game more realistic to those people who actually play the guitar. Sadly, this won’t be a reality any time soon. But first let us review the origin of Optek Music Systems first since they are unfavorably eclipsed in popularity in comparison to the Guitar Hero video game.

Optek Music Systems was started by Rusty Shaffer in 1989, at about the same time I began to seriously hone my guitar playing skills in the hopes that I could be – in a year’s time – to have a proficiency comparable that of the greatest guitarists of the time. Like Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, etc. Even though I have scores of subscriptions to “tutorial” guitar magazines at the time – even those trendy Heavy Metal photo-mag publications – but I never ever saw an ad of Rusty Shaffer’s Optek Music Systems. Which is kind of unbelievable given that MIDI interface technology for electric guitars was beginning to be touted by the NAMM bigwigs as the “next best thing”.

The earliest Optek Music Systems ad that I ever saw was a June 1996 edition of Guitar Techniques magazine about a South Korea-manufactured FretLight pro priced around a thousand quid. It wasn’t until September 1997 that SmartLight adverts became a regular site in guitar magazines. And by then, despite of endorsement by established industry musicians like Neal Schon of Journey and scores of others, FretLight / SmartLight guitars are still an “esoteric” toy despite of the overwhelming popularity of electric guitar based musical genres during the 1990s – especially a form of Alternative Rock called Seattle Grunge.

Optek Music Systems’ SmartLight and the “older” FretLight guitars work via the use of a computer-controlled series of light-emitting diodes or LEDs strategically placed on the guitar’s frets. These LEDs light up on a particular / specific fret(s) and string(s) position(s) as dictated by the “programmed music / song” to show where one has to press his or her finger. These guitars usually come with a CD-ROM containing the programs of specific musical / works or songs that the “novice” guitarist can learn from. The greatest advantage of SmartLight / FretLight guitars is that they can be used as an ordinary electric guitar and can be played through any conventional electric guitar amplifier. Unlike that of the “toy guitar” interface / joystick used in guitar hero which can only be used as a pricey flyswatter when not connected to a video games console.

Should Rusty Shaffer team up with the makers of Guitar Hero to create a “premium” version for aspiring musicians, or should he create his own alternate version – i.e. a way better version – of the Guitar Hero video game? Well, given that Mr. Shaffer is already well-connected in the music biz, it could be much better if he set off on his own in creating his own video game-based guitar tutorial using his SmartLight and FretLight guitar technology. By going on it alone, Shaffer could exercise more “creative control”, and given his connections in the music industry, he would have very little trouble using copyrighted music works for use in his PC / video game-based guitar tutorial. If this succeeds, Rusty Shaffer could start making a Classical Music variant of his PC / video game-based tutorial via the use of violin and cello variants of his SmartLight and FretLight guitars. With titles like “How to Play Violin Like Itzhak Perlman” or tutorials that examine Yo Yo Ma’s technique on his rendition of J.S. Bach’s cello suites. The possibilities are endless.

Ways to Improve the Sound of Your Vacuum Tube-Based Electric Guitar Amplifier

Given that these amps use active components that pre-date the invention of solid-state electronics, is it still feasible to tweak our tube-based electric guitar workhorses for better sound?

By: Ringo Bones

Like it or not, tube-based electric guitar amplifiers are here to stay because high-speed and wide-bandwidth power transistors touted to have better power efficiency and “sound” than their vacuum tube / valve counterparts often have an average production life-span of two weeks. Especially when declared obsolete less than a month after being featured in “trendy” electronics periodicals – if you believe their press coverage story. Maybe those non-ferric bodied power transistors are relegated to stealth aircraft seeing RADAR use for the military?

If the corporate world of solid –state technology doesn’t give a damn to us electric guitar enthusiasts, then maybe these tips of upgrading your trusty-but-rusty tube-based electric guitar amplifier will at least add another 50 years of enjoyment. If you possess the requisite knowledge of the science (and art) of thermionic circuitry, then the following suggested tweaks could prove very valuable.

Going Triode – No ifs or buts, this tweak easily transforms the tone of any push-pull type electric guitar amplifier into something that sounds closer to a single-ended Black Face-era Fender Champ. 6L6 Beam tetrode-type tubes and EL34 pentode-type tubes that constitute the majority of push-pull output electric guitar amps can easily be converted into triode mode by strapping the screen grid of every output tube to their corresponding plate – if your amp uses multiple pairs of output tubes. This method also works with pentode-type tubes. Electric guitar amplifiers manufactured during the late 1980s to mid 1990s often feature a triode / pentode (beam tetrode) selector switch that allows you to switch between operating modes. But you should take precautions on both types in avoiding parasitic oscillation – i.e. using grid stoppers. The advantage of going triode includes lowering of the output impedance resulting in the amplifier sounding more dynamic and musical – i.e. gorgeous harmonics and tone. The disadvantages are the output power is usually divided in half, and the “spongy” tone will not be the liking to those “Heavy Metal Guitarists” weaned on full pentode / tetrode volume.

Use High-Mu Output Tubes – If you have grown fond of the “conventional” 12AX7 or ECC83 double-triode preamplifier tube phase-splitter stage of your electric guitar amplifier, then using high-mu output tubes has the advantage of retaining your stock preamplifier stage since high-mu tubes are so easy to drive. The high frequencies would improve and you now have the advantage of lowering the negative feedback without your preamplifier stage going dull (high-frequency roll-off). And even if the output impedance increases a little, your guitar amp’s musicality also increases. The problem is high-mu tubes require a higher power supply voltage or H.T. than your standard 440volts DC, so power supply circuits and the output transformer needs to be redesigned to handle the higher power supply voltage of high-mu tubes – usually 1,500volts DC - or the speakers will go ballistic. Those don’t come cheap you know. The benefit of having a good tone via this route usually outweighs the hardship of an almost complete guitar amp overhaul.

Using Beefier Tube Preamplifier Stages – Those 12AX7 and ECC83 tubes used in “conventional” double-triode phase-splitters are not exactly designed to drive banks of pentode or beam tetrode power output tubes. Not to mention that conventional double-triode phase-splitter has an inherent problem of high input capacitance caused by the Miller Effect. This causes high-frequency loading on the input tube and reduces bandwidth. Making it very difficult to use appreciable amounts of negative feedback without instability due to the phase shifts incurred, and negative feedback is “somewhat” of a necessity with “modern” pentode and beam tetrode output power tubes. Beefier preamplifier tubes like the 4-watt anode dissipation 5687 preamp tube, which can be used as an "improved” input tube. So does a 6AU6 low-noise R.F. pentode because it can maintain stability when used in a “modern” tube amp design with appreciable amounts of negative feedback. Or a dedicated phase-splitter tube, like the ECF80 triode-pentode tube. The problem with these types of tubes is that preamplifier circuits using these designs that are already relegated into the “public domain” are few and far between. For example, your friend from college will not be willing to take it likely that you are making millions of dollars from your friend’s vacuum tube preamplifier designs that he formulated during the 1990s - Especially when your friend from college is currently one of the millions of victims of the on-going subprime mortgage crisis. Lastly, using beefy preamplifier tubes might sound great for domestic hi-fi tube-based amplifiers, but in electric guitar amplifier applications, they tend to make the guitar amp sound “dry”. Like those hard-sounding Carlsbro transistor-based guitar amplifiers that became widely available during the early 1990s.

So there you have it - A few ways that you can tweak the sound of your electric guitar amplifier. If you have other ideas that I haven’t discussed here, please feel free to drop me a line.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Death of an Iconic Guitar Store

As the management of New York City’s Hotel Chelsea jacks-up their rent to attract more up-market clientele, will this force the smaller shops renting their place to close – i.e. guitar stores?

By: Ringo Bones

Another iconic landmark of New York City is now set to close shop due to the recession and their landlord’s decision to jack-up rent in order to woo more up-market clientele. A few years ago it was CBGB’s, the ancestral birthplace of Punk Rock. Now it is Dan’s Chelsea Guitars located at the ground floor of the Hotel Chelsea. This hotel has served as a prime destination for Bohemian artists as far back as when Mark Twain was still writing masterpieces. And Dan’s Chelsea Guitars had served clients as iconic as Bob Dylan and Sid Vicious during the store’s long history. It probably even inspired big wigs like Jon Bon Jovi to write songs about the iconic hotel.

Now forced to perform a Bernie Madoff-inspired fire sale in order to get rid of their excess inventory. Dan Courtney, owner of Dan’s Chelsea Guitars is now deciding to close down his venerable guitar shop because there is no point in running it when the rates are so high, the shops earnings will go to the landlord, ruining the economic viability of the once iconic shop. The axe merchant has now fell victim to an axe of a more lethal kind – business wise. Which is kind of sad, given that the electric guitar had since become a part of post-World War II Americana and ushered in the birth of Rock n' Roll.

New York City has been famous the world over for having esoteric-item shops being run by an eccentric shopkeeper who could care less about selling you anything if you harbor a bad attitude about their wares - Even if you have the commensurate amounts of dosh. Given the number of years it’s been around, Dan’s Chelsea Guitars have served quite a diverse clientele. From a Hassidic Rabbi trying out a Gibson Les Paul caught on Dan’s mobile phone camera to probably lesser known but equally iconic New York City based guitarists like Gina of Lunachicks. Given that the shop has probably been selling classic used and broken-in Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters at reasonable prices, will the skillful guitarist who don’t have more money than sense be able to afford decent-sounding new ones with prices approaching 10,000 US dollars each?

Using Aging Tubes: A Dangerous Guitar Tone Tweak?

Though very, very rarely mentioned in interviews by superstar guitarists, is the use of aging tubes to create your very own unique guitar tone very dangerous to your very expensive gear?

By: Ringo Bones

I’ve probably lost count since 1997 on how many guitarists around my neck of the woods explored in finding ways to make their renditions of Veruca Salt’s Earthcrosser intro sound more “soulful”, especially by resorting to tone tweaks that could irreparably damage to their extremely expensive (3,000 US dollars MSRP) electric guitar amplifier. From connecting four 8-ohm speakers in series to a push-pull based tube electric guitar amp – which could result in a very high voltage build up of the output power tubes – to using aging tubes. Though by far, the use of aging tubes is the most common. Given that tubes are becoming very scarce compared to latest generation mobile phones – especially in the US – the “poor” unsigned amateur guitarist is more than likely be using output power tubes in his or her electric guitar amplifier that are past its prime.

I’ve read an article about the summer NAMM 1992 in Guitar Player magazine about a company introducing a digital electric guitar effects processor - with an effects setting - that emulates the sound of an aging tube, such tone never became popular. Even during the guitar-heavy musical genre of Seattle Grunge that went mainstream a few months after reading that feature.

Given that I’ve only began building and owning tube-based amplifiers in the mid 1990s, I’ve asked some veteran audiophiles on how an aging power tube sounds in a “hi-fi audio setting.” Most of them pointed out the “quirky acoustics” of the Tori Amos song China from the Little Earthquakes album as what music would sound like when played through a tube amp with output power tubes past its prime and will be arcing anytime soon.

Back in April 2009, I was asked to help an amateur unsigned guitarist who wants his performance to be video recorded for You Tube posting. He was using a family heirloom 1965 Fender Twin Reverb with aging 6L6 tubes. He did manage to conjure up a very unique tone until 30 minutes into the session when one of the 6L6 tubes started to arc and fused into its tube sockets, though it did manage to emit a very cool apocalyptic-sounding high-pitched squeal when the final chord was struck.

Given that equipment of this vintage still uses plastic / phenolic resin output power tube sockets for the 6L6 output tubes / valves instead of being upgraded to military-spec porcelain tube sockets with silver plated contacts when it became widely available during the mid-1990s. Fortunately, only the output section of his Fender Twin was damaged. But it resulted in a very expensive repair bill, especially when you live in a place where most people live on slightly less than a dollar a day.

It is still a mystery why guitar digital effects processors still don’t add an aging tube emulator proviso on its menu of effects, especially ones that do advanced 24-bit 96-kHz digital signal processing are now relatively cheap and widely available. An aging tube sound / tone obtained through digital domain physical modeling is a much safer way of doing things compared to using actual aging tubes on your very expensive tube-based electric guitar amp since complete catastrophic failure resulting from such practice is not that far from impossible. Maybe guitar effects manufacturers are ignoring this sector of the market at their own peril since the sound of an aging tube is very interesting and very soulful.

The 6L6 Beam Power Tetrode: An All-American Tube?

Made famous for its use as the output tube of the famed 1965 Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp, does the 6L6 beam tetrode really claim the fame as an all-American tube?

By: Ringo Bones

As the guitar amp that many electric guitar players view as the “soul-mate” of Leo Fender’s late 1950s iconic invention – the single-coil pickup equipped Fender Stratocaster – the 1965 Fender Twin Reverb guitar amplifier has over the years managed to inexorably sneak itself into posterity. But given the venerable guitar amp’s claim to fame of being as American as apple pie and baseball, does the output power tubes that made the 1965 Fender Twin possible – namely the 6L6 beam tetrode power tube – really claim the fame as an all-American tube? But first, let us examine this remarkable vacuum tube’s – or valve as they say in merry old England – history.

A guy called Schottky originally invented the screen grid-type tubes / valves called tetrodes while working for Siemens of Germany during the 1930s. Schottky’s work with tetrode-type tubes eventually lead to the creation of the 6L6 beam power tetrode and the KT66 tube. The 6L6GC tube was first introduced in1936 for a new generation of audio power amplifiers that produced high gain and lower total harmonic distortion with the help of the newly discovered principle of negative feedback. Amplifiers using the 6L6 tube became so popular over the years that it was eventually used in the 1965 Fender twin Reverb guitar amplifier that produces an 85-watt output using an all-tube driver stage. Often equipped with 12AX7 pre-amp tubes for the input stage and phase splitting duties and a12AT7 pre-amp tubes to drive the spring reverb section of the guitar amp.

As major American consumer electronic manufacturing firms made the shift from using vacuum tubes to solid state components like transistors and integrated circuits or ICs - which were reaching the point of becoming cheaper to manufacture than their thermionic counterparts. American audiophiles and electric guitar players who are still reliant on tube-based gear were left high and dry when it comes to acquiring replacement tubes. Some went to buying new old stock (NOS) US manufactured tubes, only to find out that these items slowly crept up in price as the years went by despite of their reliability and wide availability. Especially during the 1980s where everyone in the US seems to be starting their very own Heavy metal band, and you know how this kind of music is very reliant on tube-based electric guitar amplifiers when it comes to getting a good tone and feel.

Eastern Block countries during the eve of the fall of the Iron Curtain became a very important source of vacuum tubes for electric guitar and PA amplifier use almost overnight. Unfortunately, Eastern Block tube manufacturers – especially in China and Yugoslavia – still have a very steep learning curve to conquer in order to produce vacuum tubes that would equal the reliability and sound quality of American made tubes. It was only during the mid 1990s that Russian made tubes finally equaled their American NOS counterparts and China – and other Eastern European countries – had to wait till the very late 1990s or early 21st Century for their tubes to equal American made ones.

Those of us who don’t have more money than our common sense and/or were born a few years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. It will be very unlikely that we’ll be using ultra-expensive American NOS versions of the 6L6 beam power tetrode tubes on our 1965 Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp. It is more likely – probably 99.9% - that we’ll be using Russian Edicron 6L6GC tubes if we want for our beloved 1965 Fender Twin to sound its best. Though a Chinese made Golden Dragon 6L6 will provide a little more power if we tweak the power amp circuit so that the cathode resistor voltage readings of the 6L6 tubes will rise to about 35 volts or so with reference to ground.

So is the 6L6 beam power tetrode tube an all American tube especially when used as the output tubes of an all American guitar amp like the 1965 Fender Twin Reverb? Well, it probably depends on how you define what constitutes being American anyway. Given that the American culture has been further enriched each time Americans indulge in the niceties of newly arrived ethnic groups then yes the 6L6 tube does pass muster as an all American tube. Whether it is made in post-Soviet era Russia or the People’s Republic of China. Especially the Chinese made ones, which fortunately haven’t managed to self-destruct during the Free Tibet concert or the Chinese made 6L6 tubes on guitar amps played in a Jetsun Milarepa fundraising. This tube is as American as apple pie, baseball or just “Rockin’ in the Free World”.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Great Guitarists of Michael Jackson

Ever since he went solo, Michael Jackson managed to work with some of the world’s greatest guitarists. Do you still remember them?

By: Ringo Bones

One of the great bonuses of being older is the opportunity of enjoying Michael Jackson’s great musical works without being overshadowed by the various scandals that made him a case study for the US legal system. Though his untimely passing last June 25, 2009 probably made everyone around the world remember Michael Jackson for the musical legacy that he left behind, but how many of us – including his die-hard fans – still remember the great guitarists who worked with him?

After embarking on his solo career, many have wondered back then whether Michael Jackson can assemble a group of musicians that are as good – or even better – than his Jackson 5 stable-mates. And assemble he did – especially his scores of session guitarist – though good as they are, Michael Jackson did rescue some of them from relative obscurity. Not only that, Michael Jackson’s studio sessions probably – for better or for worse – revolutionized the way in which we put the sound of the electric guitar onto tape since the days of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Paving the way of the MTV-style Heavy Metal Music revolution of the late 1980s.

After Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough from his Off The Wall album became a dance-floor staple during the “Golden Age of Disco”, Michael Jackson introduced a Gibson ES-355 wielding Jazz guitarist named Larry Carlton into the Billboard charts. Which also popularizes the recording studio practice of off-axis miking of guitar amps soon after Michael Jackson scored his first batch of funk / rock hits at the start of the 1980s. A technique mostly associated with one of Jackson’s primary recording engineers Bruce Swedien.

By the time Michael Jackson released his Thriller album – which eventually became the biggest selling album of all time on a worldwide basis. The guitar-heavy track Beat It only made 2 already successful guitarist even more famous. LA studio session ace and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather played the rhythm guitar parts while the scorching guitar solo was done courtesy of “then” Heavy Metal guitar god Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen’s particular tone on “Beat It” almost became the de rigueur timbral roar of the 1980s-style rock tunes championed by MTV back then.

At the time Michael Jackson released Bad, most of his fans began to notice and wonder about his “weird physical transformation”. Though bad can never equal the scale of success that Thriller managed to earn, it did gained the curiosity of some Heavy Metal music fans due to it’s guitar content. I mean it sounds like a FM radio-friendly pop album trying to compete with Castle Donington Monsters of Rock heavy metal musical extravaganza – i.e. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

Jackson’s Bad also introduced guitar mavens Steve Stevens and Jennifer Batten into the Billboard Chart radio airplay mainstream. Though Steve Stevens is well known to us guitar fans for tuning-down his guitar – i.e. the low E string is tuned down to D, while Jennifer Batten probably championed women who want to play guitar as good as Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani. Plus Batten’s flamboyant stage costumes and guitar playing probably influenced “some” Riot Grrl bands to play guitar with technical precision – i.e. Lunachicks.

Though Michael Jackson did follow Bad with Dangerous back in 1991, which he then took Slash – the then lead guitarist of the then infamous band Guns N Roses – in Give It To Me. Michael Jackson's judicious choice of session musicians - especially guitarists - is probably one of the secrets why his musical compositions are sure-fire hits. This is probably the last time when Michael Jackson’s excellent musicianship and stage performance were not eclipsed by his outrageous lifestyle choices. We can only hope that Michael Jackson will be remembered more for his musical contribution than the scandals that plagued him after September 14, 1993.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Can a Guitar Make a Guitarist?

Given that an overwhelming number of famous guitarist owe their fame to their trusty and very particularly distinctive guitar, can a guitar – especially very good ones – make a great guitarist?

By: Ringo Bones

From B.B. King’s Lucille to Junior Brown’s Guit-Steel guitar slingers - made famous either by talent or by frequent MTV appearance - from every genre imaginable are often remembered for their “personalized” and particularly unique guitar. And the particular guitar that makes them famous is more often than not the one they primarily use. Either in the recording studio or in live concerts.

Now 83 years old and still thrilling audiences in his European Summer 2009 Tour. B.B. King is probably unique among the famed “Blues Gods” because he uses only one trusty guitar – the famed Lucille. Either in the studio or on stage, his very distinctive playing technique had influenced legions of guitar players from Blues, Jazz and even Heavy Metal. From my perspective, it seems that B.B. King had long ago become one with his trusty Lucille.

Though not as well known on a global basis, if you’re lucky enough to be a Junior Brown fan, then you’ll know what I mean that his primary instrument is indisputably one of a kind. Brown’s primary guitar – known as a Guit-Steel – is a double-necked melding, thanks to a hefty helping of modern polymer resin and fiberglass, of a six-string electric and pedal steel guitars. Legend has it is that this unique instrument was envisioned by Junior Brown in one of his dreams. Created and designed by Junior Brown himself with the help of Michael Stevens back in 1985, the instrument for all intents and purposes is what made Brown the “unique artist” he wanted to be. This unique instrument was even updated by Brown and Stevens back in 1995 and since was named “Big Red” which made Junior Brown truly a unique sounding guitarist currently in the touring circuit.

But famously unique looking – and sounding – personalized guitars do not all look pristinely beautiful like B.B. King’s Lucille or Junior Brown’s Big Red Guit-Steel, or those 8,000 US dollar PRS dragon inlay electric guitars or equally as expensive Martin & Co. Acoustic guitars. Some do look like something being sold in a garage sale for less than a hundred bucks. Like L7 guitarist Donita Sparks’ Gibson Flying V-based monstrosity which she named as the Flying Vagina. Which eventually became one of Guitar World magazine’s featured articles back in July 1992 when her band was catapulted into fame after scores of touring dates across America. Friends of mine who are forever rabid L7 fans say that particular article prompted them to check out what this L7’s Flying Vagina stuff is all about back then.

Even though a very good and unique looking guitar can always inspire every guitar virtuoso to the very pinnacle of creativity. Some “Guitar Gods” sometimes try to prove the point that it is their talent – as opposed to their guitars – that made them into a Guitar God. Jeff Beck demonstrated this years ago by playing a 75 –dollar entry-level / beginners electric guitar and managed to make it sound like one of his trusty 3,000 US dollar Fender Stratocaster. Although Jeff might be certainly much happier “test driving” one of those 8,000-dollar guitars from PRS, just to see if they are really the “wellspring of creativity” some owners tout them to be. Or maybe it is the guitar amps that make a guitar god? So it's good news then to EL34 vacuum tube manufacturers in Russia, especially when our current global recession won't be going away any time soon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of Tone Woods and the Electric Guitar

Every electric guitar maker and player has their preferred kind of wood, but how much contribution does the wood makes in making the electric guitar sound greater than the sum of its parts?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since Les Paul made his original solid body guitar out of a wooden railroad tie which he then called “The Log”, wood – or more specifically the type of wood – had become the be all and end all of luthiers the world over. Especially those luthiers whose reputation rests on making the ultimate electric guitar – i.e. the kind that produces the most soulful and wicked tone. But before we proceed, let’s trace back the historic origins of the luthier’s obsession of the perfect tone wood.

During the past few centuries, tone woods priced by luthiers and other musical instrument makers like the spruce used in Stradivarius and Guarneri violins grows indigenously in a few mountainous in Europe. Tone woods grow slowly and steadily – especially in a cold, stable climate. And preferably from a time before global warming started to affect tone wood growth physiology. As a result of this slow and steady growth, tone woods acquire a dense grain structure.

Scientific research conducted during the past few years had found out that various species of fungi is the secret behind the wonderful musical sound of these tone woods as evident in Stradivarius and Guarneri violins. So the “secret lacquer” formula’s contribution to the musicality of these violins may had been purely “cosmetic”(?). These fungi make the tone woods acquire a more musical sound by strategically loosening the woods’ grain density enough to create a desirably sweet tone. Although most luthiers still swear by their various proprietary secret lacquer concoctions because to their ears – and to the ears of their musically inclined clients – these lacquers do contribute significantly to the musicality of the finished musical instrument may it be a lute, guitar, harp or violin.

Fast forward to post WWII America where even though various types of woods – each type with their own devotees – now constitute the starting material in the construction of electric guitar bodies. Though most contemporary luthiers still swear by (reached a consensus?) the inherently flammable nitrocellulose lacquer – to the dismay of the US Environmental Protection Agency - as the ideal finishing material for their electric guitars. Which could explain the dramatic result when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his Strat during a stage performance using just a lighter and a can of lighter fluid during the Monterey concert. Although there seems to be a choice of wood that will match every electric guitar’s intended function.

Solid-body Gibson Les Paul’s tend to be constructed out of lightweight Honduran mahogany with a nitrocellulose lacquer finish allowing the wood to breathe, thus preserving the wood’s resonance. The practice started back in 1949 with their Gibson Super 400 a semi-hollow guitar equipped with f-holes. While the Fender Stratocaster tend to be constructed with a well-chosen maple using the same nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Although those American worker-made Fenders that allow their makers to have a “decent” 401-K tend to take on average 3 years to build and tend to cost above US$1,000.

Probably the latest type of wood to become in fashion in electric guitar building is the relatively rare Hawaiian koa wood. First started to appear during the early 1990s and tend to be priced higher than US$2,500, luthiers don’t apply lacquer to these guitars since application of any type of finish tend to ruin these kind of guitars “sweet spot”. Joining in the ranks of exotic woods that gained preference by luthiers during the 1990s are various basswoods used in guitars that are endorsed, played and ultimately made famous by famed guitar god Joe Satriani. Although very beautiful, electric guitars made out of koa wood are now viewed by many as so 1990s. Especially by those who were never fortunate enough to afford one during that time.

Given that most buyers of these guitars tend to play them on amplifiers with chock full of effects like distortion and what have you, I have since wondered if the very expensive and environmentally sensitive woods used in modern electric guitars mattered at all. Although most “very good electric guitars” being used by a new generation of semi-pro and amateur guitar players are more than likely family heirlooms from their dads and granddads (sadly, guitar playing back then is a mostly “he” endeavor). Though these guitars are even more likely made during the golden age of electric guitar making – i.e. the late 1950s and early 1960s before Beatlemania spurred every guitar company to mass-produce substandard guitars. Thus insuring the fortunate few amateurs a good start.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who or What is Trying to Kill Rock Guitar?

As we enter into another decade in the 21st Century, will there always be a threat to rock guitar – perennial or otherwise?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though I’m old enough to have experienced the “Hair Metal” phenomena of the 1980s and alternative rock becoming “mainstream” during the 1990s, reading the September 1997 issue of Guitar Player magazine whose headline reads “Who Killed Rock Guitar?” no longer fazed me. After all - or in spite of the story being 99.9999% right - rock guitar had faced worse threats than techno / electronic music. And the advent of illegal peer to peer filesharing of copyrighted digital music is only one of them.

Alarmist warning us that the end of guitar-based rock music is nigh probably started to became widespread around 1989 to 1991 during the advent of Tipper Gore’s PMRC-era rock music censorship crusade. Though most of us in this business has since forgiven her due to her husband Al Gore’s passionate concern for our environment, the guitar maker Ibanez was nonetheless quick to gain inspiration from then seem so insurmountable problem of media censorship. Remember their Metal Musician / melodius volumeus maximus advert when then guitarist of the band Testament Alex Skolnick becomes a museum piece because US government / PMRC censorship killed rock guitar? Back then, I thought this could probably how rock guitar would die. Though it was just a one-off apocalypse averted, some perennial threats to the continued existence of guitar-based rock music are discussed below.

The “Fickle Fan” Phenomena – This probably gained worldwide press attention during the end of World War II when popular music sales revenue became significant enough to gain the notice of Wall Street. Most casual record buyers that make the fortunate few talented rock-oriented guitar players into overnight multi-millionaires usually have an over-actively expressed novelty-seeking gene. They tend to bore easily and are in eternal search for the next best thing. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of them don’t give a rat’s ass about what they are buying in the first place. For every music buyer who can tell the difference between the sound quality between the US and EU pressing – may it be CD or vinyl LP - of Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms To Hold You album, 10,000 or 20,000 probably can’t tell or won’t give a rat’s ass anyway. I just hope that a growing trend that started in 2008 of 13 to 14-year olds who are fascinated by 1980’s bands like Diamond Head, Ron Reyes and Henry Rollins-era Black Flag or Girlschool is not just a passing trend.

Style-Over-Substance – Even though the band Kiss are more well-known for their on-stage make-up, costumes, and stage theatrics than their great contribution to the history of guitar-based rock. Having a unique look – and I do mean look as in what sells according to Madison Avenue insiders – is unfortunately what primarily allows a particular artist or group to sell records. Like the recent “Teen Guitar Virtuoso” phenomenon of recent years. Though Bonnie Rait did deserve being on the cover of Guitar Player back in the 1970s when she was still 15 and this maybe what started the phenomenon in the first place that made Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne a runaway success during the past few years. Though some would point out the “revealing” attire of Lita Ford and Joan Jett when they fronted The Runaways as 17-year-old guitar virtuosos during the late 1970s.

Over Exploiting a “Trend Du Jour” – Nothing expresses the greed of the music industry than this practice. It diluted the impact of alternative rock as it gained mainstream popularity during the middle of the 1990s because record executive kept on signing “second-generation” alternative bands that are nothing more than pitiful clones of established bands who were already hard at work since the end of the 1970’s. Or the proliferation of Metallica-like bands during the late 1980’s because many record label execs say that this is the next best moneymaker.

Saving the greatest threat to guitar-based rock music for last is the now widespread perception held by most kids today is that guitar-based rock music is their father’s music. Some kids even extend that point in saying that rock is their grandparents music. Though this threat can’t be overlooked, you can’t also overlook the current fascination of some kids on the “older stuff” – i.e. the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or make that the British Invasion circa 1980. Especially to bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head and surprisingly Girlschool. Newbies who want me to teach them guitar fundamentals / Mel Bay chord introductions say that someday they want to be as good in guitar playing as the musical virtuosity featured in rock bands previously mentioned – especially Iron Maiden.

Given the current heavy rotation of the latest Coldplay music video on MTV which is an homage to a rather rigid format of guitar-based rock – i.e. the kind of music written and performed by Elvis Costello and U2 – only reminds everyone that rock guitar is far from dead. Majority of Chechen and Ukrainian teen girl émigrés in our neighborhood are currently busy perfecting their rendition of the guitar solo on Megadeth’s Tornado of Souls using fairly high end equipment – i.e. Fender Blackface-era Champ replicas equipped with boutique tubes like Electro-Harmonix 6V6s and authentic vintage Gibson SG. Which is quite a far cry from the typical Guitar Hero-addled delusions of grandeur if you consider the Gibson SG and boutique amp set-up probably cost at least 3,000 US dollars. Is guitar-based rock going to die someday? Not by a long shot judging by what’s currently going on in my neck of the woods. So rest assured the guitar makers and luthiers - i.e. guitar making industry and repair - of the world will still be gainly employed for years to come. The question now is whether guitar-based rock will be seen by the new generation more as a 21st Century incarnation of Western European Classical Music than a well-crafted contemporary musical composition like it was when Elvis started the Rock N’ Roll craze over 50 years ago.