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.