Monday, March 31, 2008

Where Do You Find Parts for Your Guitar and Amp and Everything Else?

I picked up an Antique Electronic Supply® catalog at a recent vintage guitar show. The catalog is a veritable cornucopia of goodies, ranging from phonograph needles and stranded aerial wire to reverb tanks and replacement grill cloths. For some reason I loaned it out as soon as I got it but it was returned today.

Broken knob on your amp or guitar? They have it covered. Want to experiment on your guitar? They have a full range of pickups and capacitors. None of the above? Take a look out of curiosity; it is an eclectic selection of cool toys.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Warm Up Hints When Learning Guitar in Middle Age

If you are learning the guitar in middle age it takes awhile each time you play for your fingers to start responding to what your brain is telling them to do. This isn’t because you are “old”. You just need to warm up like any other guitarist. For maximum progress in minimum time establish and follow a repeatable warm up routine.

Repeatability allows you to judge where you are in terms of flexibility as compared to previous sessions. Your warm up period will give you the feedback to let you know when you’re limbered up enough to start pushing harder. Properly warmed up you will get more benefit out of each playing session as well as avoid injury.

If you pick up your guitar and pound out the intro to Dragonforce's “Through the Fire and Flames” at 200 bpm (transcription in the May Guitar World) as your warm up you may strain something regardless of age. “No pain no gain” doesn’t apply here. If you’re warming up and things aren’t clicking, avoid the pain but get the gain by just doing something else for 10 minutes and coming back to it. You will be amazed at the difference.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Greenpeace and Guitars?

I was perusing guitar related news the other day and ran across “Greenpeace” and “Guitar”, which I thought was an odd combination. It turns out that Greenpeace has enlisted the aid of guitar manufacturers to avert a crisis with Sitka spruce.

Sitka spruce is a wood species prized by guitar manufacturers for soundboards and their source is Sealaska, a Native American logging company; the largest private landholder in Alaska. The best tone and appearance is from old growth forests but there is only a 15 year supply left if logging practices do not change. Oops.

Although the vast majority of this wood goes overseas for construction, Greenpeace enlisted the participation of the guitar makers because they and their customers are a high profile group as compared to a maker of door sashes for instance. Greenpeace brought Sealaska and guitar makers Gibson, Taylor, Martin, and Fender together at the 2006 NAMM to launch the effort. Yamaha has since joined the organization.

So, add yet another benefit to making music; promotion of sustainable practices. The current status is Sealaska has agreed to a full assessment of its logging practices this summer and will hopefully move to full certification against the Forest Stewardship Council standards from there. You can keep up on this information by visiting the Greenpeace Musicwood site.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Can Baby Boomers Go Home Again?

I ran across this Associated Press article: Returning to the family roost where it highlights a trend towards baby boomers returning to live with mom and dad due to the slumping economy. Yikes!

When times are tough you do what you have to do; I can understand that. However, since I actively advocate that Baby Boomers get music, this scenario is not one I’ve accounted for.

If you’ve decided to take the guitar plunge and will be moving home for awhile (hopefully not because you got in finacial difficulty due to guitar gear addiction), keep in mind that mom and dad may view that as a mixed blessing. Take it from me, in the early going; things may sound better to you than they do to others.

You may want to consider headphones for your practice rig…...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Do Baby Boomers Really Need Permission to Learn the Guitar?

I did a brief interview about Guitar Boomer on the Growing Bolder radio show. One of the comments was that it was great that aging people had permission to take up new interests and be successful. I didn’t know how to take that at first until I realized it is about permission from within.

What happened with me was that hitting age 50 was a noticeable aging milestone because of AARP eligibility. While I was happy to join a new club (exploring life at 50 and beyond) I felt like I was no longer eligible for my current club (everyone not clearly defined as ‘old’). This was a bummer given nothing about my attitude and preferences had changed. Instead of learning the guitar which I had wanted to do for years I felt like society expected me to take up water aerobics instead.

In reality it turned out the expectations were in my head rather than societal. While everyone seems to care about what Britney Spears does next, society could care less about someone deciding to start rocking in their 50s.

The bottom line is that if you’ve never played an instrument or haven’t for many years you may experience some angst. However, your angst need not have an age component to it. Once you overcome that attitude you are no different than anyone else wanting to make music. Just view it as a way to obtain dual membership in both the "not yet old" and "50s and beyond" clubs.

Remember; you have your permission to rock out!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why It Is No More Difficult to Learn the Guitar at Age 50 vs 15

One comment I get frequently is “it must have been a lot harder to learn the guitar when you were in your 50s than in your teens.” I have to admit, this is something that weighed on my mind when I contemplated learning the guitar later in life. My experience however was that it is equally hard to learn at age 50 as at age 15.

I found an instructor early on and I had the benefit of observing a beginning player scheduled in the slot before mine. Although he was in his early teens I saw we both had the same issues. We both seemingly had mittens on our hands given our speed and dexterity at the time. We both had sore fingers as we built calluses on our fingertips. We also overcame these impediments at roughly the same rate for about six months until my younger counterpart began pulling away from me.

My first thought was “there it is, he’s got a 35 year advantage on me and it’s finally showing up.” I commented to my instructor one day that his student was really taking off to which he indicated that 9 hours of playing a day will do that for you.

Learning the guitar or golf or any other skill is a matter of storing information in your brain’s neural tissue. The way this happens is through practice. Rocker turned neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin indicates in his book “This Is Your Brain On Music” that 10,000 hours of practice rather than talent is what makes a virtuoso. In fact, reading this book may be one of the best guitar accessories for aging wannabe rockers as it shows the connection between music and brain function and how that is what determines your musical progress vs your physical age.

If you are in average health there is no evidence supporting the assumption that picking up a guitar later in life would be more challenging than earlier in life. It is just a matter of training your brain (practice) and you already have decades of experience doing that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pickup Innovation for Your Acoustic Guitar

I began the guitar as a midlife hobby driven by guitar heroes such as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page so an electric guitar was the thing. Recently, I took the plunge and bought my first acoustic and glad I did. During the process I discovered some very clever engineering going on when it comes to acoustic pickups.

Since I did not see the familiar sound hold fitted magnetic pickup on the Epiphone AJ-500RENS I purchased I assumed it did not have a pickup. Later I ran across a review of the guitar and it was talking about L.R. Baggs pickups. Well, I didn't see anything so went to their website and realized the guitar came pre-fitted with an under saddle piezo strip type pickup. This is cool technology!

The unit is L.R. Baggs' "Element Active" system and has a transducer strip that goes under the saddle on the acoustic guitar. I've included a graphic from the manual to the left showing how the transducer sits under the saddle. It has what is called an endpin pre-amp; basically a tube (pictured above left) that threads through the tail block of your guitar. The endpin serves as your strap button and input jack.

The final component of the Element pickup system is the volume knob pictured at right. This is sound hole mounted as pictured. It is convenient to use but unobtrusive.

The great thing about this pickup system is you retain the clean looks of your acoustic guitar but have a great sounding amplification option when you need it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Baby Boomer Guide to Guitar as a Midlife Hobby

Researchers have proven that music making will:

· Exercise the brain
· Fight memory loss
· Reduce stress
· Lower blood pressure
· Stave off depression

Who wouldn’t want some of that? Especially those of us with a few hours on the meter. The guitar is a highly portable instrument enabling music making anywhere any time. So, what stops us Baby Boomers from picking up the perfect hobby? Well, here's some common mental blocks and how to avoid them.

People will think I’m nuts starting at my age.” Don’t worry; you will have lots of company. There are so many people in the baby boomer demographic picking up or re-picking up their axes it is almost a cliché.

I don’t want to even go into a guitar store; I’ll stick out like a sore thumb.” I interviewed a guitar store worker last week for an upcoming post and he indicates 80% of their business is "old guys" coming in with a gleam in their eye and they’ve got the money right now. Believe me, the guitar store will be happy to see you.

I’ll need lessons and I can’t see myself dealing with some hotshot teenager.” Hey, your money spends like anyone else’s and they will be ecstatic to have a student who will actually practice between lessons.

I’m just too old; I don’t have the reflexes anymore or whatever is involved.” Well, they don’t have a little blue pill for guitar playing prowess but Les Paul is still playing in his 90s arthritis and all (doctors orders – there’s those benefits again). Just don't think you can use this one as an excuse.

I feel like a rocker inside but I’m bald now on the outside.” Listen man, check out lessons, you don’t play with your head! Granted, when you were growing up, rock was synonymous with big hair. Lots of rockers shave their heads now anyway whether bald or not. Joe Satriani is bald. ‘nuff said.

Rock out, you'll be glad you did!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Guitar of the Week: Parker Fly

Back in 1992 luthier Ken Parker did an X-Men type thing and created an evolutionary leap with the Parker Fly. Luckily, this Mutant was for good and is Guitar Boomer’s Guitar of the Week.

Ken Parker has repaired and built guitars for 25 years. He poured all of his knowledge working with thousands of guitarists into a design whose features were completely original to the Fly. His unique contributions included features such as a flat spring vibrato with built in piezo-electric pickups along with standard magnetic pickups (a first in 1992), lightweight resonant wood body strengthened with composites, and a totally unique shape.

All this tone potential is controlled with three-way magnetic pickup selection with push-pull coil tap as well as custom Fishman piezo-electric pickups and stereo voltage-doubled pre-amp. This provides guitarists with an extreme acoustic and electric range out of one instrument. The use of lightweight woods strengthened with composite fibers means this guitar weighs in at a svelte 5 pounds.

If you want everything in one guitar that stands out from the crowd, you need to try out the Parker Fly.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How to Choose the Right Guitar Pick

Your guitar pick or plectrum if you want to be formal about it is one of the most important but often overlooked aspects of your technique and tone.

Think of it this way, the pick is the absolute beginning of your signal chain and half of your interface with the guitar (fretting hand being the other). This should be viewed as a pretty important accessory. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and thicknesses and Wikipedia has an exhaustive entry on everything you could ever want to know about picks if you are interested. However, all this variety of technique and tone potential is untapped unless you try some of these out!

Next time you are at your local guitar store, pick up a variety and start experimenting. Try one of your best licks (or worst) out with the pick you are currently using. Then, pick up one of your new picks and try the same lick. Quickly grab the next pick and do the same lick. Rinse and repeat. With each pick, if you know it is a loser right off, set it aside. Keep iterating through this process until you’ve narrowed it down to the pick that feels the best. It may be the one you’ve been using all along and then again maybe not.

Also, keep the rejects on hand for later. As your playing continues to evolve, you will want to go through the pick selection process periodically going forward. What you don’t like today may be just the thing tomorrow as your playing evolves.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hazed & Infused: A Vintage Rock Rorschach Test

I ran into what I'm calling a Vintage Rock Rorschach test this past weekend at the “Feile Franklin!” festival.

Franklin, Tennessee has an historic main street with buildings dating from the American Civil War era; some still sport bullet holes from the 1864 Battle of Franklin. The local heritage foundation puts on a variety of fundraisers to support historical preservation. “Feile Franklin!” an Irish oriented beer and whiskey tasting is one such fundraiser. They close off the streets downtown and you can wander around to participating shops to sample. During this journey I encountered “Hazed & Infused” dry hopped ale from Boulder Beer Company.

According to Boulder Beer this ale is “Hazed” in its natural unfiltered state and “Infused” – dry-hopped with Crystal and Centennial hops. Nonetheless, everyone got the Led Zeppelin Dazed and Confused reference. However, there were others doing more assertive sampling who saw a Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze/Love or Confusion reference in their interpretation of the inkblot. I'll not say which group I was in, but, Jimi Hendrix has “favorite son” status in more states and cities than Charles Lindberg and knowing about his stops in Nashville during the Chitlin' Circuit days was weighing heavily on my mind at the time.

BTW, a great beer and now available in 20 states.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Guitar of the Week: Gibson 1930s L50 Archtop

My week became a lot more interesting when a work buddy brought in his 1930s Gibson L50 Archtop from his seemingly inexhaustible archive. He was good enough to put it on temporary loan so it can be Guitar Boomer’s Guitar of the Week.

Gibson manufactured the L50 (poor man’s version of the L5) from 1932 to 1971. From talking to my guitar buddy and researching on the Internet this example seems to be between 1934 and 1943 (the wartime models featured a wood crosspiece on the tailpiece to save metal). I’ve included a photo of a tailpiece and tuners that came with the guitar and are thought to be the originals. Note the raised diamond on the tailpiece, which started showing up in the mid thirties.

I’ve included photos of the front and back of the guitar as well as the original case, its current home. Note that the wood is not book matched on the back; further evidence of its role as an economy model. Also, this guitar was manufactured before truss rods became a standard feature.

This example is a few years old now and needs some restoration work. It still plays nicely though with great tone. The luthier arts have been around for centuries so it should be no surprise they had things figured out long before the 30s.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Jimmy Page Limited Edition Sculpture Arrives!

A month or two ago I was bemoaning the rain check I received in my Christmas stocking instead of the anticipated Jimmy Page Limited Edition Sculpture. I’m happy to announce that #0183 out of 3,000 finally arrived and is now brightening up my man room.

There is minor assembly required; you have to glue the sculpture’s feet to the base and then glue the hand holding the violin bow to his upraised arm. Thankfully, directions plus a vial of super glue are provided. Once I had Jimmy assembled I decided to quiz my kids on rock history.

“Who is this?” I ask
“Jimmy Page” they answer
“What band did he lead?”
“No idea” they say
“How do you know who he is?”
“We don’t, you’ve just been talking incessantly about your Jimmy Page statue and when will it get here”

So much for rock history being taught in the schools.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Guitar Gear: Going Acoustic

I finally fell off the gear abstinence wagon and bought my first acoustic guitar; well, the first since the cowboy special I had at age 12; the one with the action an inch off the fretboard. The journey began with a wine tasting at Arrington Vineyards and ended up with a helpful salesperson guiding me through a dizzying array of models and features at Guitar Center.

My parents came into town for a visit and we brought them out to Arrington because they frequently offer live music (makes sense given it is owned by Kix Brooks). While enjoying an acoustic trio I cracked the ‘how many guitars does a guitarist need; just one more’ joke, fishing for validation and my 72 year old mother comes through with “if you don’t have an acoustic guitar yet you really do need one more.” Thanks, mom!

I got a crash course in guitar physics during my recent visit with Bill Hollenbeck, master luthier. I also read a helpful acoustic guitar buying guide from my Guitar World back issues where contributing writer Chris Gill echoes my mother’s statement. According to the article, regular practice on an acoustic helps build your technique by encouraging you to play more cleanly and accurately.

Entering the acoustic room at Guitar Center was still overwhelming in spite of my bit of research. My goal was a low priced import that sounded almost as good as a higher priced domestic model, like the Epiphone Dot Studio I wrote about recently. No go. After trying 5 or 6 different models in that range I realized the price would go up.

The salesperson outlined that the main difference for the next price range up was solid woods vs. laminates. So, the next 5 or 6 I tried were Sitka spruce tops with rosewood sides and backs and mahogany necks. From the first strum I realized this was a different world. The tone was lively and had a lot of presence. They all sounded great, just different and I chose an Epiphone Masterbilt (AJ-500R pictured above), which had the sound I envisioned for an acoustic.

Whether you want to explore your gentle side or simply improve your technique, take it from Guitar World and my aging mother; every guitarist needs an acoustic guitar. Go out and get yours today!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Shred Parallels: Dragonforce and Focus

My daughter pulled me aside the other day to view a YouTube video of Dragonforce performing "Through the Fire and Flames". Her and her brother and most everyone else continue working on this song in Guitar Hero. Beyond being amazed it immediately brought to mind a short lived group from the 70s, the progressive rock band Focus, and their song Hocus Pocus.

This was very big in the early 70s. Everyone was amazed at Jan Akkerman's sheer guitar speed. He and other guitarists such as Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Eddie Van Halen moved away from a blues driven style during the 70s and more to a jazz, rock, and world music fusion.
So, out to the garage I go to dig through my vinyl archive to do a snapshot of the LP and it is pictured above.

I've included videos of both groups from YouTube so you can judge the parallels (or lack thereof) for yourselves.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Guitar of the Week: Hamblin Small Jumbo

I was commenting on an article from “eric makes music” where he mentioned his tenure at the Roberto-Venn school of luthiery. He also provided me a lead on Kent Hamblin, and Hamblin Guitars; Guitar Boomer’s guitar of the week.

Hamblin Guitars builds handmade guitars catering to fingerstyle players out of a shop in Telluride, Colorado. His guitars are handmade (no CNC equipment) with traditional techniques except where needed to achieve tone goals. For example, the guitars feature some modern techniques such as bolt-on necks with carbon fiber reinforcement. The design goals strive towards achieving an even response across the scale length and a sparkling tone quality.

The Small Jumbo features a mahogany neck with bound ebony fretboard, chrome Schaller tuners, and a single cutaway option and is available in a variety of woods (cocobolo back and sides with a cedar top recommended for the Hamblin signature sound). Kent Hamblin will also tailor neck shape, width, and string spacing to order.

If you ever make it to the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival, stop by and visit or better yet, visit Hamblin Guitars online at