Monday, December 15, 2014

Guitar Strings 101: The Three Bears

We all know the story of Goldilocks, the young lady who thought she could mess with bears' stuff and not get the claws. The finer points of breaking and entering aside, it remains a good metaphor.

Strings come in ranges, measured in inches. Ernie Ball Regular Slinkys are 0.010 to 0.046 inches, high E to low E. The significant string is the thinnest, corresponding to the highest note. In this case, these are called "tens".

Jazz players and Stevie Ray Vaughn play with thicker strings, believing the greater mass gives the pickups more to get signal from. They hurt most players fingers, especially if they do something as foolish as try to bend them in standard tuning. Thrash metal players tune down from standard tuning, and the heavier strings make up for the slackness. This range starts at .011 and goes up from there, and we'll say that these are "Papa Bear" strings, too heavy for most uses.

Big bender types, like B.B. King, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, crazy bending country players, and the guitarist who writes this blog, go for thinner strings because they bend like butter, and if you want more signal, you can always turn up the amp or something, but they require self-control, so you only bend when you want to and don't bend/tighten until they break. This range starts at .008s, and is "Mama Bear" territory.

Somewhere between is the "just right", where you can bend what you want, but the strings are tight enough to not bend accidentally, where they don't hurt you, but you don't wreck them when tuning up or something. For some, it's .010s ("tens"), for some it's .009 ("nines"). Some makers even have a .0095 set. This is "Baby Bear", and since some guitars with tremolo systems are very hard to set up after string gauge changes, players get adamant. (Teles like mine are easy and forgiving in this regard.)

The same ideas are true for acoustic guitar, but since there's actual physics of making audible sound involved, and most acoustic players don't bend strings, the "Baby Bear" range is more like .011-.012 for the high string.

If you are an inexperienced guitarist: I suggest you go with tens, until you can express a reason related to your playing. Not "This guitarist plays heavy strings", but "I can't get the bends I need" or the like. If your fingertips hurt, you're squeezing too hard, which is pulling you out of tune, making your changes slower, and hurting your fingers. There is no good in it, and you're far better off getting your fingering together before you start playing around with other string gauges.

If you are shopping for a guitarist but know very little about guitar: This is not the place to guess. Ask them. They will tell you what they play, in greater detail than you really want. If they play with a tremolo system — if they have a strange metal arm sticking out of their guitar — there is a balance between strings and springs that needs to stay constant, or else they need to spend hours with screwdrivers and hex keys and tuners getting it back. The player in your life will tell you the gauges, the brand, the product line, and, if you get it wrong, it's like giving a fruitcake, socks, or an ugly Christmas sweater: they'll try to smile to be polite, but inside, they're groaning.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cover Me Up


"Cover Me Up" by Jason Isbell.

Arranged and performed by Cameron Mizell.

Played on a Telecaster, like all songs should be.

Monday, October 20, 2014

All The Buzz

My baby.
I play guitar for my church. The core of my rig is a Boss GT6, but I've found it impossible to have a solid clean tone without the dirty tones just blasting it for volume, so I have a board with a compressor, Washburn Soloist distortion, DigiTech Bad Monkey, EHX LPB-1 clean boost, EHX Signal Pad attenuator, Danelectro Cool Cat tremolo, and Morley Little Alligator volume pedal, which I connect into the input of the GT6. The pedals are connected mostly with the kind of cables in a jar next to the cash register at Guitar Center. I power the board with a Visual Sound 1Spot, and normally, it's been no problem.

Signal starts with my #1, a mid-80s Telecaster I added a four-way switch to, which is my #1 guitar.

Yesterday, toward the end of service, I noticed a small buzz coming out of my system. I nudged some pedals and got a big buzz. I used the volume pedals to drop the volume and tried to figure out where the buzz was coming from. After service, I poked and found that switching out the cable connecting the board to the GT6 caused the buzz to go away, and switching in two longer cables brought the buzz back.

This is close, except I swapped locations for the Signal Pad
and Cool Cat, and swapped out the Death Metal,
which as too much gain for anything I need. I should redo
with the dirt pedals in the front row. 
Yesterday evening, setting up to play again, I simplified to just Tele -> GT6 -> DI, and immediately got all the buzz in the world, and found that, by turning down the volume on the guitar, I could change the pitch of the buzz. I expected either 1) nothing would happen, showing the problem was in the pedalboard, or 2) the volume would go down, showing the problem was with the instrument or involved the single-coil hum. What I got surprised me and I could base no diagnosis on it.

I was handed a loaner guitar and the issues went away.

This morning, I plugged my #1 into my amp at home and it sounded just like I'd expect.

I honestly have only the slightest idea as to what went on. I've had problems at that venue before, and the problems I've had with buzz there, I've had nowhere else. Then again, I'm normally either into the DI at church or my amp at home (or elsewhere).

My thoughts about the fix include:
  • taking the #1 to the shop and see if my rewiring is problematic
  • moving up to the next level for patch cables
  • going from a 1Spot to a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power or the like
  • finding a means to have a special ground for my gear
I'm in a confused state on the issue, and will have to plug things in and try things out to try to solve things. Any comments or suggestions?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Walking Bass for "Without God"



This is Robert Randolph from the album Sacred Steel Vol 2: Live! This is before Family Band, before playing with Clapton at Crossroads. My favorite version of this is from the album The Word, which was Robert playing with the North Mississippi All-Stars and John Medeski on organ, where they just pump on this jam for seven minutes. Get the album.

There's a bass part that gets repeated for a long time that goes something like this:
G +------------------------------------
D +--3---------0-1-2-3---------0-1-2-3-
A +----0-1-2-3---------0-1-2-3---------
D +------------------------------------

I could play it for a long time before I got what was going on there.

What's going on is, it outlines an F chord, starting with the octave, dropping to the major third (A), then climbing chromatically through the fourth (Bb), flat fifth (B), perfect fifth (C), jumping to the major sixth (D), minor seventh (Eb), major seventh (E) and back up to F. I hadn't really broken up what else was going on, so in my mind, I was categorizing it as being about the A chord, not the F chord.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

That Went Better

It's been a while since I've written up anything, and that's largely because I haven't been playing much to write about. I did play last Sunday, though.

My #1 with colorful reflection and a skinny western-style strap.
I bring my #1, a 1988 MIJ Fender Tele, and my newer HH Squier Bullet Tele as a backup. I took to getting skinny western-style guitar straps, but with my recent weight loss, I've found they hurt my collar bone, so I swapped in the 30-year-old wide strap I've mostly used for my acoustic.

I've put my amp pedalboard (currently comp > Washburn OD > DigiTech Bad Monkey OD > EHX LPB-1 clean boost > EHX Signal Pad attenuator > Danelectro Tremolo > Morley volume pedal) in front of my Boss GT-6 because I've found it very easy to choose settings that change the sound without the volume that way, while doing the same with the GT-6 is more difficult, and the sound of GT-6 through a PA is different than the sound via an amp, so I can really only do it before practice/soundcheck/service where there's a time crunch.

What made it interesting to me was the styles I had to cover. We started with "Alive" by Hillsong Young & Free, which had me hit a bright and clean disco tone with a very loose right hand, followed with "Your Love Never Fails". I hit grainy arpeggios with the Bad Monkey while the acoustic player held the major part of it.

At the end, there was a surprise substitution of "Revelation Song", which was great for me, because it's a song I know by heart and have a lead in. There were a few train wrecks and we could've gone with another run-through, but by and large, I think we nailed it, which always feels good.

Monday, March 3, 2014

That Went Poorly

I played at church Sunday morning, and call time is 7:45am.

It snowed the night before, so the roads were slick, which meant that I was later than I wanted to be.

We play through Avioms for stage monitors, and they come with a headphone jack. I had a pair of Shures on-loan from the church, and they had been sounding worse and worse, to the point that, on the practice for this week's practice, I finally gave up on them. I brought my work headphones home precisely so I could use them for service. And somewhere between home and church, they broke somehow. I was able to use the worship-leader's pair, as he was using someone else's loaner higher-end Shures, but when I found out, I almost cried.

Because I slept well from 10pm to 2am, then woke up, and because of a headache that could've been illness, could've been caffeine withdrawal, or any humber of other things, I could not sleep for more than a half-hour after that. So, I was coming into this situation tired and with a headache. In fact, between the headache, the sleeplessness and the snow, I was considering calling in sick.

In general, when given a choice between playing a lead part and playing big chords that fill the sound, I'm asked to play big chords, and through the many years of playing, I have come very able to play the rhythm parts to songs I don't know, just by reading the charts. I find it improvisational and fun. But, I found at practice, he wanted me to play the lead parts. Which I did not know.

Practice was Thursday, and so was the funeral of the drummer's family member, and practice without the drummer makes everything suck.

The final two pieces are the first two songs. The first song has an unaccompanied guitar lead-in, and the second song is in a slower tempo, but the worship leader wanted them to segue, so the first song was given a slower tempo to match. I learned the lead-in on Friday, but I learned it at standard tempo, not the slower tempo. And even if I had it down on Thursday, I couldn't have practiced it slowly with the drummer, because the drummer was not there.

So, we never were able to have that intended intro come off as planned. I was too tired to adjust the timing. I was unprepared coming in to play that lead lick that slow. Broken gear and exhaustion pushed me off my game. (I had my walking-around headphones, which, having a third channel for the mic, did not it well in the jack, but it could've worked too. Remember, kids: Two is one, one is none.) There were other leads, and I handled them well, but the beginning is the one I judge that morning by, and by that, I judge that I came in and stunk up the place.

Give me a chord progression and a tempo, I can find something cool to do with it. Give me a strong composed lead and change the tempo from the recorded version and I fall down, it seems. And knowing how you suck is the first step to stop sucking like that.