Saturday, May 31, 2008

Your Guitar Amp is Louder Than You Think: Check Decibel Levels

I was browsing my feed list and the mention of hearing aids from The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide caught my eye. I still had some ringing going on in my head after cranking up the volume last night so it got me wondering how loud is too loud?

There’s the saying “if I’d known I’d live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.” Given I’m just now asking myself the "how loud is too loud" question it may be too late. Then it occurred to me that I could use my sound pressure meter with analog display from Radio Shack to at least figure out the damage so far and limit future damage.

The test was simple, I just fired up the amp and the sound pressure meter and started playing at what I thought was a reasonable but rocking volume level. Oops; the meter was hitting a range between 110 and 120 decibels. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association anything over 80 decibels can lead to hearing damage. 120 db is in the "painful" range: jet plane take-off, amplified rock music at 4-6 ft., car stereo, band practice. 110 db is just in the "extremely loud" range; rock music, model airplane. Interesting...rock music is mentioned in both ranges. What did you say?

The moral of the story is that it is louder than you think. But, with some basic measurements you can calibrate your rock out levels so that if you live longer than you expect, you'll still be able to hear the music.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Maybe I Am Recommending Premium Guitar Cables

I did a recent post comparing a really bad guitar cable to a pretty good one. I closed by indicating that while I wasn't necessarily recommending premium cables I was dis recommending really bad ones. That changed for me today when I made an impulse buy of a premium guitar cable.

I was in the checkout line of my local guitar store moving through the consumer gauntlet and they had a selection of guitar cables displayed for my convenience. As I had just done a post on pretty bad and pretty good cables I couldn't resist picking up a "really good" example for testing.

As you can see in the photos, the packaging is certainly premium. No saving the planet here. On opening the package I was a bit concerned that I was getting a basic cable with a pretty wrapper to justify the higher price.

Extracting the cable from its illustrious packaging took some doing but I finally got it free. One nice feature is it comes with its own integrated cable tamer (Velcro strap). I did my comparison with an American Stratocaster going into the clean channel of a Marshall DSL 401. My rationale was the single coil pickup would introduce the most noise while the clean channel would be neutral and better highlight the noise or coloration that each cable could introduce. The difference even compared to my pretty good cable was still dramatic!

I was surprised to say the least. I had a lot less noise and more dynamic range with the premium cable. Now if you are using lots of gain on the overdrive channel you'll note less difference. However, if you think about it, the less you introduce into your signal chain that isn't you, the more of you that will come out on the other end, regardless of what effects you add from there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Move Out of Your Guitar Comfort Zone

One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar - Oscar Wilde. So, what’s this have to do with guitars? How about: Even though I’ve got guitar heroes, I’ve never tried to work out exactly what they’re doing. I just try to find out what’s behind it – Robin Trower.

I often write about how important transcription study has been for my development as a guitarist but found out the benefit comes from figuring out what’s behind it rather than simply attempting to duplicate each note.

I was studying “Bold As Love” as transcribed by Andy Aledort where he includes statements like “...add some twists and turns of your own.” Now I’m the sort of person who reads the manual to be sure I’m doing things by the book. Adding my own twists and turns does not come naturally.

I dove in and started twisting and turning following the same chord progression and it was great; maybe not sounding at first but as a departure. I started thinking up all sorts of licks I had learned from transcription study of other artists and began incorporating them into the progression. Not only was this a lot more fun but it caused me to learn more about what was behind the composition. If you have the blinders on move out of your comfort zone and do some twisting and turning of your own!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Tale of Two Guitar Cables

Lately, I've noticed magazine articles, blog posts, and advertisements for "premium" guitar cables. Premium cables have long been a feature in the home theater hobby world where you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on cables for a relatively small setup. I've tested standard AV cables side by side with premium cables (I used a calibration disk to help gauge differences in video quality for example) and never noted a difference. How about guitar cables?

As an experiment I bought a cheap plastic cable for $1.29 (pictured above left). Step one was to play using my normal setup. Then, I substituted my "test" cable and was amazed at the difference. It wasn't about what the test cable added, it was what it took away. I noticed a large difference in transparency. The amp sort of closed in on itself and I felt like I was listening through a porthole. My usual cable (above right) was a $20 cable. Maybe not "premium" but it certainly would fit into the pretty good category.

While, I'm not advocating you spend big bucks on buying really good cables, my little test does show cable quality matters. Maybe I am advocating that you make sure you are not using really bad cables!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How Much Guitar Practice Is Enough?

I get asked this question a lot. Studies tend to zero in on 10,000 hours as the time needed for mastery. If your goal is to become a virtuoso, there’s your number and no need to read further! For us boomers with a few hours on the meter looking for a great hobby “enough” falls between the minimum (below which you suck) and the maximum (above which you encroach on other necessary life activity such as relationships and career). My minimum is one hour per day and the maximum is two hours and here's how to calculate yours.

Think of the minimum hours boundary in terms of a level below which your playing is such that you don’t enjoy it; the long way of saying you think it sucks. If you come out of a playing session with aching hands and a “glad that is over” feeling, your practice rate has fallen below your minimum threshold. I follow qualitative and quantitative approaches to gauge my progress and how much time it takes to keep the enjoyment factor and that's how I derived my one hour minimum per day. If you practice enough to maintain your minimum you will be energized and want to keep playing, which brings me to the maximum.

If you come out of a practice session and your significant other says something like “well, hello stranger” you know you are in upper boundary territory. Notice, this upper bound is not defined by desire or goals; just practical reality. You’ve reached middle age and have stuff happening man! This becomes sort of a self correcting limit (you know when you've reached it) and that's how I arrived at my two hour maximum per day. If I'm really into it I find optimal ways to get the time in so it minimizes impact to the life balance. I have plenty of time management tips for that. Just click the labels “practice” and "guitar practice".

So, over time, just keep track of your playing time in relation to your enjoyment level balanced against everything else going on in your life and you will come up with how much is "enough" practice time for you. Simple huh? Now, time to rock!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Don’t Let Tube Rattle Rob Your Tube Amp Tone

Tube amp technology has not changed much in 50 years because the tone still can’t be beat. This is not all good news as 50 year old technology comes with quirks such as tube rattle.

I was playing through my Marhsall DSL 401 amp and started to notice an unpleasant background tone occurring on certain notes after the amp had warmed up. It was a metallic rattling/squeaky sound; like when the wheel bearing started going out on my ’66 Plymouth Fury. I could understand something being loose inside amp but the rattling was amplified!

I now know an amp tech and he had me bring it on over for a listen and he said "Oh, that sound?" “Yep!” I say with a dawning realization that this was going to turn out to be one of those obvious things everyone knows but me. “Tube Rattle” he says.

If a vacuum tube starts going microphonic (certain frequencies cause it to vibrate internally) the sound will be amplified through the system. The amp tech opened the back panel and tapped on each of the preamp tubes. Sure enough, once he reached the second one it reproduced the exact sound. A couple of new preamp tubes later (if replacing power tubes replace all at once with a matched set) the irritating sound is gone.

If your tube amp starts to issue a metallic rattling effect it may not be your playing or your wireless access point or your power outlet grounding or your effects pedals.... [oops, gave away some of the rookie things I checked]. Just do the tap test (observing caution of course, don’t dig around inside the guts of your amp, use a pencil to do the tapping) and enjoy your pure tube tone!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Guitar Next Door: 1991 PRS Custom 24

Paul Reed Smith (PRS) has become one of the top guitar makers (what better measure of success than to be sued by Gibson) and is known for its exacting attention to detail. The Custom 24 that Paul Reed Smith showed at his first NAMM show in 1985 still represents the core of their line and is one of the few recognized classic designs done outside of the 1950s. This unique and very red 1991 Custom 24 is today’s Guitar Next Door.

PRS moved to their new automated factory in 1994, so the pre-factory guitars are valued more by collectors even though the quality of the factory guitars sets the bar for how to do automation without compromising quality. This guitar was custom ordered completely in red, even around the top edges where PRS guitars normally have a contrasting stripe. It has the bird inlay option, locking tuners, PRS tremolo bridge, a 5-way rotary selector, and a sweet switch (filter in place of standard tone control). It also features the PRS hallmark carved and figured maple top with the flame option.

I plugged the guitar into my DSL 401 Marshall and wow; these pickups are hot; “native” at your local Thai restaurant hot. The switching positions weren't doing much for me either so I was disappointed that something so beautiful sounded so bad. Figuring it was just me I persevered and was glad I did.

Step one was to look up the switch positions so I could correlate them to the more traditional pickup switch options I’m used to. The switching options according to PRS are:

Position 10: Treble pickup
Position 9: Outside coils- deep and clear - parallel
Position 8: Series single coils – Warm version of the "in between the treble and middle pickups"
Position 7: Parallel single coils – Crisp version of the "in between the treble and middle pickups"
Position 6: Bass pickup

Then I started tweaking switch position, guitar volume, and amp settings and turned out some great sounds. This thing rocks! It still retains its own identity even though you can give it a Strat or Les Paul character. The “sweet” switch is sort of a kludge way of doing a tone control if you ask me and not surprised they did away with this option after 1991. I just moved it back and forth until it sounded ok but didn’t focus on it much.

Action, fit, and finish (the flame is a work of art) are all perfect as expected. I've never played a guitar where the neck meets the body at the 22nd fret. The neck keeps going long after I expect it to run out. It takes some getting used to but opens up a lot of possibilities. The tremolo is silky smooth with great tuning stability.

This guitar has its own sound. While you can replicate a Strat or Les Paul character with it why would you want to? Since your goal as a guitarist is to create your own sound a PRS may just be the ticket!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fired Up About the Guitar

I always enjoy hearing from readers who have recently started playing the guitar and just witnessed one of these stories in the making.

We joined some friends for dinner at their house recently and I was surprised to see some guitars as I walked in the door. “Hey, great seeing you...who’s playing the guitar?” I wish I got the full greeting out before jumping to guitar talk but I thought their kids were more sports oriented. There I go being stereotypical by assuming it was one of their kids. Everyone that comes to my house and sees guitars automatically makes the same assumption. In this case though the stereotype was correct and it was their 10 year old.

He had just gotten an Alvarez Regent Series acoustic as an upgrade to his starter guitar and he proceeded to demo his new found prowess; intro to Smoke on the Water, blues licks, flat-picking techniques, etc. It was like overnight he became a member of the Masonic lodge or something as he was now steeped in guitar rituals and we had a common frame of reference.

While it would have made a great story if his dad was the one playing (shows why I need to keep going with Guitar Boomer) it was exciting nonetheless to see someone learning the guitar and getting enjoyment out of it. I got so fired up I rushed home after dinner so I could play for awhile before packing it in for the night.

Picking up the guitar is beneficial for any age. If you are like me though and have a few hours on the clock as well as dealing with all the stresses of middle age, the benefit is even greater. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bill Hollenbeck 1933 – 2008

I had the pleasure of visiting with Bill Hollenbeck at a vintage guitar show in Nashville this past February. You can read a brief background here and condolences from friends here.

He was the genuine article and very generous with his time given he spent over an hour giving me a crash course in guitar making at the show. I met him once and miss him so I can only imagine what his family and friends feel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Guitar Hero as the Ultimate Guitar Trainer

Like everyone I’ve seen millions of references to Guitar Hero but was surprised on seeing it featured in Guitar World (June 2008). It seems the editors of Guitar World have reconciled themselves to the existence of Guitar Hero after feedback indicating the game has given many first time players the confidence to pick up the real guitar. Anything that gets someone interested in the guitar is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. But, what happens to your Guitar Hero playing once you do get interested in the guitar?

I picked up the guitar at age 50 and now that I’ve played for awhile I view playing Guitar Hero as taking away from practice time. While the game is lots of fun it always comes down to how much better I would be on the guitar if I invested time in it vs. Guitar Hero. Since I really need the practice I opt to play the guitar. This is not the usual 'why play a game when you can play the real thing' post but an 'I want to have my cake and eat it too post'. Why can't they invest development effort into an interface so a guitar can be used as a controller and create the ultimate guitar training platform?

Guitar Rising and Guitar Wizard coming out later this year both provide a guitar interface. The full integration of this type of interface into Guitar Hero would be the best of all worlds, especially for us aging rockers learning the guitar. We could play the game and get our guitar practice at the same time. Anyone reading my articles knows I’m a big guitar trainer fan. We’re talking the ultimate trainer here.

In addition to all the benefits of a standard guitar trainer you would also get continuous quantitative feedback on your playing as you will get the clam sound for missed notes and an actual score for accuracy. You also get what traditional guitar trainers cannot offer, rock and roll initiation of the sort depicted on Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny. The game may not throw things at you but you will get booed off the stage if you suck!

If games like Guitar Hero are indeed creating interest in the guitar like the Guitar World editors say, these game makers are well served by full integration of the guitar in order to hold on to the fans they’ve created for the long run.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Interesting Experience Nets a "Free" Ibanez Bass

You know the legend where someone stumbles upon a vintage Corvette sitting in a barn somewhere that was only driven to church on Sundays and you pick it up for a song? A reader sent this in and I thought it would be of interest:

Yesterday I was in my local pawn shop checking out the guitars in stock and asked the music "expert" there if they had any guitars that might need repairs that they might be willing to sell cheap. He responded that he had a bass that had the head broken off, they shipped it to an on line customer and it had a bad day. It turned out to be a 2001 vintage Ibanez EDB 600. They sold for about $400 to $500 back then. I asked him what he wanted for it and he said make me an offer. I said $10 just for laughs and he said make it $20 and it's yours. I hauled out my debit card and got the bass, Gig bag and Peavey Leather strap for the agreed price. The bag and strap were worth $30 so the bass was essentially free. 40+ years of woodworking and furniture making has taught me to use glue and clamps and the neck is now drying. I'll touch up the paint and for the cost of a set of strings I have a really nice bass, to sell or play. It's worth asking for what you don't see. I would recommend checking out these places as in this time of economic disaster, many such instruments are available. I've never seen so many nice guitars for sale, really cheap. Amps and effects as well. I would recommend that you visit your local pawn shop, as they are anxious to sell now.

Cheers, Gary

Man, I think I'm going to visit my local pawn shop!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Guitar Amp Repair Part Two

I recently wrote about problems with my Marshall DSL 401, which led to a trip to my local amp doctor. When I received the call that the amp was ready for pickup I eagerly rushed out to give it a test.

The diagnosis was bad soldering (three connections not soldered) and bias out of adjustment (way out). I again learned about the difference between single and double sided circuit boards and hand soldering (a big issue with this amp tech). I plugged it in, warmed it up, and the magic is back!

The clean channel was crystal again and fattened up nicely as I turned up the gain. Playing with the gain and volume knobs on the overdrive channel yields great crunch and sustain; all the things that caused me to buy the amp in the first place.

The moral of the story for those of us who cannot put out $2,500 plus for a hand wired amp is get to know a good amp tech!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Support Your Local Guitar Store

I like going to Guitar Center because it has almost everything for everybody. It became my default location for any guitar related needs. I finally broke out of that routine and visited a local guitar shop and found I’ve been missing out.

While local shops carry a fraction of what Guitar Center does they do fill niches in depth that larger stores cannot. I happened by Artisan Guitars earlier in the week and this represents a great example.

Artisan specializes in acoustic guitars and it feels part guitar store part art gallery. I got exposed to everything from completely hand built guitars with recovered exotic woods (works of art as well as functional) to CNC machined ultra low cost yet high quality guitars built offshore. I was able to take my time and find what I needed plus learn a whole lot about acoustic guitars.

Although I say local, not much is local anymore in the Internet and rapid shipping eras and Artisan provides online shopping for their inventory of new and preowned instruments. So, although the large stores have quantity, don’t forget to check out that guitar store around the corner if you want to do a deeper dive into a particular guitar niche. You’re missing out if you don’t!