Monday, November 9, 2015

After-Action Report: Derp!

I was set to play on Sunday. I had all my gear together and set aside, and knowing the show-up time was 6:30pm, I was watching Disney-Pixar shorts on Netflix at 6pm when I got a text.

<you're showing up, right?>

<yeah, getting ready to show up at 6:30>

<that's when we start playing>

So there was a lot of Derp!, a hasty loading of the car, the slightest of soundchecks, and, despite all that, a reasonably decent gig. I knew the songs, mostly, so I didn't embarrass myself too much.

I did some, though. The first is the partscaster you see to your right. Despite the pots you see sticking through the control plate, it has no controls. It's pickup-to-jack. It's a partscaster, built from a factory second body from Guitar Fetish, a $5 bridge pickup from Reverb mounted to the body, and a neck salvaged from my son's first guitar, a First Act instrument where the body broke near the tremolo bridge mount. It's proudly a mongrel, and I've enjoyed it as a bedroom guitar.

But I rarely plug in my bedroom guitars, and I found while playing it, in front of people with only the most minimal of soundchecks, that the ringing highs I love while playing it unplugged turned into a shrill icepick when going through my pedalboard and the venue's amp. I generally tilt my pickups a little toward the high strings, in order to balance string volume. Plugging into my Frontman 25R with knobs at 12 o'clock, I went in with a screwdriver and reversed that. We'll see next practice how that goes.

A key part of my pedalboard is the volume pedal. I love to swell in, working with my delay pedal to get a keyboard pad effect. But, they've been having problems with hum, and so there's a noise gate on the amp mic. Which means I pick quietly and get nothing, and I pick louder and I get a surprising pop from out of nowhere. I've talked to the sound guy, and next time, I'll have time to get that worked out better.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

After-Action Report: That Was Swell

Ach. I'm sure I used that one before.

This was a six-piece band: drums, bass, electric guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and vox, vox, vox. I was guitar number two. My pedalboard is comp -> boost -> volume pedal -> Bad Monkey OD -> dirt 2 -> tremolo -> kill switch -> Flashback delay, set up with minimal warble and about 4 repeats. The boost was on all the time, giving me a little more volume. I plugged into a D/I box connected to a mic'd Egnator backstage, and there was a grounding issue that lead to a persistent buzz in the connection. I know that's not my board's fault, so that's not an issue that I'm going to spend too much mental energy on.

I had a recurring lick in the first song that required slide, and I liked it, but there were three notes, defining a D chord: A- F# D-A-F# D-A. I had my pedals set to make my slide sing -- comp, boost, Bad Monkey, delay -- and I rode the volume pedal. I'm told the effect was great, that my parts worked well within the song, but I am not a huge fan of standing around with a muted guitar, waiting for the end of the chorus for my part to come around again.

Much of the rest of the set list had me taking the place of the keyboard, playing long swelled chords to take the place of a synth pad. Another guitarist suggested I tune between songs, especially while doing that, because sour notes run into a delay pedal stay sour a long time. Problem is, I own a tuner pedal, but I don't use it because it's huge and I want the pedalboard space. So, I've been using a headstock tuner. I love it, I really do, but I left it on another guitar, which I noticed in practice, and somehow, it had been left on and now is dead, which I noticed right before we started to play.

I love that phones and tablets now have tuner apps, but while they're great for bedroom players, they really don't work onstage, especially if they're playing music over the PA while you're trying to tune. So, I was stuck with no way to determine if I'm in tune.

The SEALs say "two is one, one is none", and I left myself with no means of tuning.

Tuner pedals have other benefits besides being able to tune. First one is that they're a kill switch. I don't play with terribly high gain, but even when you don't have a rig that'll make horrible noise without you if you don't kill the signal, they're useful. Another wonderful thing about tuners is that you can use them to tell where your signal problem is. Put the tuner toward the end of the board and, if you can still tune, you know that the problem causing no audio is after the board.

So, next on my guitar pedal wish-list is a tuner. Thinking a used Korg PitchBlack or the like.

Beyond that, I'm thinking that something that's less OD and more distortion would be a good addition, so I can get a solid angry GRR when I need it. My previous dirt 2, a Washburn Soloist, has recently started being the quietest thing ever, which is exactly what I do not need. Of course, I have a Digitech Death Metal pedal that contains all the gain, which makes it unusable for any music I expect to play. I think getting something Klon-like will be in the same class as the Bad Monkey, so the EHX Soul Food is off the table, so I'm thinking about something fuzzy, like a Big Muff Pi.

I like the idea of adding a reverb pedal, like a Catalinbread Topanga or EHX Holy Grail Nano, but the venue I play in is large enough that it gets that effect naturally.

I played decently, at least as far as being-in-tune could carry me. I enjoyed myself and, by and large, didn't bring the side down. Most problems were beyond my control, so I didn't worry about them. If the only things to mention in the after-action are technical issues, then it's a good day.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Blowin' Through

Listen to this

On the suggestion of John Bohlinger, I'm taking the Jazz Improvisation course from Coursera. I've taken MOOC courses before, but always tend to peter out before the end, because I never carve time out to do it.

My gig prep time is similarly lazy, in that I maybe listen through the song a few times before practice, play at practice, and go back to the points where my failure to prepare stand out, and learn to nail those parts. Just-in-time rehearsal, so to speak.

I had the title before I hit record. The big difference between jazz and rock music is that, with rock, if you determine the key to the track is G major, you can play G major all through the song, no matter where. If there's a gear-change modulation, we've moved from G to A, and I can play there for the rest of the song.

With jazz, not so much. Instead, you're given chord changes, and what you play depends on what chord is going on at the time. At least, that's the rule for pre-modal jazz. I'm not sure what the rules are for Kind of Blue through Pangaea/Agharta, but that isn't important for this post. Line is, when John Coltrane passed out the chords for "Giant Steps", they didn't know the tempo was going to be that fast, and pianist Tommy Flanagan fell off.

A rock player can be distinguished in a jazz context by the way he things "I'll play in G" (or, because of horn players, Bb) and not pay attention to the specific chords going through. "Blowing through the changes", I'm told they say.

I was going to try to not do that. I went through the chord sheet and at least tried to sketch out what scales were usable where, to pull a Gmin7b5 into an arpeggio (G-Bb-Db-F) and get some clue as to what to do. Then, I plugged into my recording rig (for the second time in my life), figured out how to tell the Mac to use the USB input and not the mic, how to tell GarageBand I want to hear myself and the track, learned the keyboard shortcuts, and recorded the above.

First, man that's fast. Not faster than I can play, but faster than I can think, and there weren't clear signposts saying "You're on the F minor now". My saving grace is that you can go crazy with chromatic notes with jazz, where most musics I play, that's not so good. "If you play a sour note", the line goes, "play it again, play it like you meant it, and people will think you're playing jazz."

I have been trying to play to other jazz on occasion, especially "All Blues", and I'm finding that the tools I go to for most everything just don't work there. The brightness of the bridge pickup is too harsh, distortion and overdrive give a growl, and there's no reason to growl. Neck pickup into a clean amp is all the music needs, and that's all I gave it, and those lessons carried over into this. I could use more engineering, because the direct-to-board playing gave me a percussive click on picking that was not remotely welcome. So, I knew what to sound like, but jazz tone is not jazz playing.

Ultimately, though, I blew through the changes. I didn't even blow through the changes. Or maybe I acquitted myself reasonably well and I'm just too self-critical. Tell me, I'm listening.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My New Toy

I got a $35 Factory Clearance body and a bridge from GuitarFetish.

I got an $8 Squier Tele pickup from Reverb.

The neck came from a First Act mongrel (Gibson-style 3-per-side headstock, Tele body, Strat pocket, tremolo bridge and controls, single bridge humbucker pickup) that self-destructed years ago.

Nut is from another guitar, but really fits neither, so I have a capo on the first fret, making it effectively a zero-fret guitar.

I took the control plate, jack, and strap buttons from other projects, mostly hardware replaced on other guitars. I lost my old jack cup, so black duct tape is serving.

And, for now, it has no electronics besides a pickup and a jack, yet I still reversed the control plate, because that's how I roll. I'm torn between volume-only ("EVH"), volume w/ push-pull or push-push kill switch, volume/tone/kill, old Esquire wiring, Eldred "cocked-wah" wiring and leaving it just like this. I have a wiring harness I might stick in and leave alone, just to be like that.

Because is is a cheap factory reject body (and I still need to work on it to get the neck sitting right, so the high E stays on the neck), I feel free to modify the body in any way I feel like. I have vague plans of carving cool stuff into it with a laser cutter, and I've recently been inspired by the art on Johnny Hickman's "Lucky 7" Les Paul, but looking good pales in comparison to playing good, so that can wait. And I'm thinking about getting another, Tele-style neck, but honestly, I like the way this neck feels.

My #1, besides my #1, is called "Johnny" because it was signed by John 5. My white Tele-style was signed by Bill Kirchen, so I call it "Bill". My dual-humbucker Bullet Tele has yet to be named, and the same with this one. Over time, it'll reveal a personality and receive a name.

I'll set up a camera and play something with it soon. Last time, the mic was close and the amp was far, so you only got the acoustic sound. I'll move an amp closer, or maybe DI it, and try again.

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.