Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Sitar Next Door

Usually people bring home trinkets like carved elephants, silks, and a new appreciation for whether to add ice to their soft drink when visiting India. Not this neighbor who decided to bring home a Sitar, this week’s Guitar (Sitar) Next Door.



Most of us over 50 associate the Sitar with Ravi Shankar (his is the closing performance from the Monterey Pop concert film) and the Beatles (think Norwegian Wood). The Sitar is a stringed instrument that gets its tone from resonating chambers made from gourds, a long hollow neck, and sympathetic strings. I saw Michael Hedges playing a Harp Guitar in concert before his death and that is the closest thing I know to a Sitar in the world of guitars.

While Sitars are commonly available here in the U.S. (just search on Amazon) this example was purchased ‘in situ’ in India itself. Purchases of this type (almost any type) involve some high-pressure negotiation and hype “the last one we sold was to Paul McCartney.” I will hand it to them that they were not willing to part with the instrument without also including the case (it looks like a case for a shoulder launched weapon for the uninitiated). This was probably a reverse negotiation tactic, as I cannot envision trudging this through the airport without a case. Strange looking case or not, the Sitar is an incredible sounding instrument in the right hands. Take a look at this video for an idea of Sitar playing (note the pedal board!).

You can bring home a variety of souvenirs from any foreign land but I would say this one is a better conversation piece that a carved elephant or silk scarf!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Nashville Flooding Destroys Irreplaceable Guitars

I posted an article covering my National Guitar Workshop experience and mentioned how guest artist David Grissom keeps a complete setup stored in Nashville when coming to town for studio work. This was the first time I heard of this practice but it makes perfect sense unless your storage warehouse is next to a river 12 feet over flood stage.

It started raining on a Saturday and did not stop until Sunday evening. By the end, we had encountered the worst flooding in the area since the 1930s. The toll of this disaster was over 20 dead along with loss of homes and the irreplaceable memories within. Nashville also lost part of its music heritage at Soundcheck Nashville, the largest storage facility in town located next to the Cumberland River.

The river flooded the facility and destroyed thousands of guitars and amps. Many of these were museum pieces worth $100,000 or more. Local guitar repairer Ed Beaver summed it up in The Tennessean; “This is the music version of the Louvre Flooding.” This story hit a bit closer to home for me as I got my guitar hobby start with lessons at the Musician’s Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

“The Musicians Hall Of Fame And Museum is the one and only museum in the world that honors the talented musicians who actually played on the greatest recordings of all time.” Joe Chambers, the hall’s proprietor, had to vacate his location to make way for a new convention center and had his collection in storage at the Soundcheck Nashville facility. You can look in this video as he surveys the damage and get an idea of the kind of instruments and history destroyed by the flood waters.

This flood also has interrupted musical heritage yet to be born as Gibson’s Nashville factory is also closed. If you plan to buy a Gibson electric do it now as supplies are running out. The plant expects to be back in operation in July.

Rebuilding continues but part of Nashville’s musical heritage is lost forever.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Expand Your Guitar Horizons with Lawson Rollins

I take advantage of annual “Top 10” lists as one mechanism to discover new music. These lists offer plenty to choose from since they are broken down according to Critics Picks, Reader/Listener/Viewer Picks, Genre, and everything between. One fulfilling discovery this year is Guitarist and Producer Lawson Rollins. He has renewed my excitement about this blog’s favorite musical instrument.

Rollins’ style is the Spanish guitar as characterized by his playing as one half of Young & Rollins. A look at his video The Fire Cadenza on YouTube expresses much more than I can say in words though. I did a double take at first because I could not fathom how such depth comes from such economy of movement. You can download the Guitar Tab for this piece on iTunes courtesy of transcription help from Guitar World's own Andy Aledort. How cool is that?! I downloaded Infinita, Rollins’ first solo album during this same iTunes visit and there is much more going on here than just Spanish guitar.

Infinita is a World Music tour traveling through salsa, samba, and Latin jazz. Rollins throws in some blues, the bossa nova, and flamenco for good measure. He provides virtuoso guitar playing and writes the songs and basic arrangements. He achieves an improvisational feel on the tracks by leaving space for the other players to create their own interpretations for the album. Rollins’ digs deeper into the roots of world music on his second solo album Espirito, which just came out January 19th.

Espirito’s world tour takes on the characteristics of the Amazing Race as it digs into biguine, reggae, son, and swing rhythms. He takes me beyond Spain to hit styles of India, Persia, and the Arab world. This is definitely off the beaten path and worth checking out if you want to expand your horizons or even as music immersion in the event you are scheduled to visit some exotic locale abroad!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Guitar Next Door: 2006 Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul VOS

Exercise caution when striking up a conversation with someone at Guitar Center who turns out to manage the Gibson Custom shop. You may end up with a reissue 1958 Les Paul VOS, today’s Guitar Next Door.



Gibson claims the VOS or “Vintage Original Spec” is their most accurate reproductions of the classic late ‘50s models yet. They accurately recreate all of the original instruments' features and characteristics. This example is in the original Cherry Sunburst of the 1958 model year and includes Gibson’s hand-carved plain maple top and solid mahogany body. Some of the period accurate recreations are the vintage style tulip tuners mounted in a straight line, long neck tenon, Burstbucker pickups, and what Gibson calls an accurate rounded ’50s neck profile (shaped like a baseball bat). Does all this attention to historical accuracy do anything for tone and playability? You bet it does.

This guitar even sounds great unplugged. Plug it in though (a Marshall DSL 401 in this case) and the fun begins. I hear the Eric Clapton / Jimmy Page tone burned into my brain from listening to Cream and Led Zeppelin LPs over and over and over again in high school. The tone is courtesy of the lower output vintage pickups coupled with bumble bee capacitors. Yes, they are lower output but can deliver a big over driven rock tone while retaining the ability to produce more nuance of tone than you can get with hotter pickups. This guitar can deliver tone from "Elegant Gypsy" to "Blizzard of Oz" and everything in between.

The custom shop hand selects mahogany and maple wood stocks for the VOS series. Strict weight limits in wood selection aside, this is still a heavy guitar. Expectation is the 50s profile rounded neck would make it play heavy as well. A couple minutes with the guitar though and it is a natural fit. It plays much easier than the Les Paul Special I have with the slimmer 60s style neck. This guitar feels good to play and it makes you want to play more. All of the research into late 50s Les Pauls including x-rays to get trussrod placement right has paid off.

This all begs the question though; if the guitar sounds and plays as nicely as it does because the reproduction is so accurate, maybe this is less of a tribute to the Custom Shop and more of a tribute to the job Ted McCarty and the team did during Gibson’s electric guitar “Golden Age.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How to Build Your Chops - Enjoy Your Guitar Favorites “Unplugged”

I posted an article about how playing an acoustic guitar builds fretting hand strength so your electric guitar playing will seem effortless in comparison. This only works though if you find something interesting to work on. Otherwise the acoustic part of your practice routine becomes boring and you will not do it enough to get the full benefit. One way to add interest is come up with “unplugged” versions of your favorite rock tunes.

This idea struck me while sitting in a coffee shop subconsciously listening to music wafting out of the sound system and realizing it was an acoustic version of Stone Temple Pilot’s “Interstate Love Song” a perennial favorite. The acoustic version sounded great.

A couple Internet searches after returning home I worked out the basics and began creating my own rendition. As this involves experimentation and repetition my fretting hand was numb and fingertips sore after the first day. After a couple days the chops are stronger than ever (strong as post middle age chops get anyway). You can find examples everywhere in our connected world. I checked out radio streams from iTunes for example and ran across an acoustic rendition of 10 Years’ “Through The Iris,” my next acoustic experiment.

Acoustic playing is a great way to keep the chops in shape and keeping the fun up motivates you to put in the time necessary to gain the benefits. Try the “unplugged favorites” approach; you will be glad you did.


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