Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It's a Tone Lotion and a Turd Polish!

My good blog-friend and fellow Fender follower Stratoblogster posts a rant on the center of tone, inspired by this column in the September issue of Premier Guitar magazine.

Allow me to quote out of context. It's the silly season here in the US, so I'm allowed to do that.

If good tone comes from your hands, why hasn't somebody come up with a tone hand lotion product for guitar players? Ya know some of us would buy it! (Remember, you saw it here first.)


The WRONG thing to do is try to fix a poor, badly intonated instrument by adding more distortion and other effects. This is what is known as polishing a turd. Can't be done-- it's a universal law that even Tenacious D recognizes.

Strat, try new Shimmer. It's a tone lotion and a turd polish!


He makes a long argument, and a good argument that I agree with.

Guitar teachers should help their students with developing pitch and harmony, and provide orientation on the structure and mechanics of tuning and maintaining guitars. Instrument retailers should sell playable guitars to kids and beginners, and provide proper instrument set-up. Many parents- not being musicians themselves- need to be educated about the importance of quality instruments. Many kids quit playing, thinking they just don't have what it takes, when all along a crappy instrument is actually to blame. Parents don't want to spend a lot of money on something that the kid may grow bored with next week. Still, the same amount of $$$ that the X-Box 360 and i-Pod cost WILL procure an acceptable instrument. So what, if the kid decides not to play guitar after all? You were also willing to spend the same $$$ to zombie-ize him with video games, so at least you can say you tried in the case of a musical instrument.

My first guitar was a Harmony POS plywood acoustic with a ToneSuckRtm bridge and zero fret. My first electric was a 3/4 Harmony Superstrat (keep in mind that I was over 16 years old and over 6 feet when I received this). Eventually I got an Ibanez dreadnaught that has a rock-star headstock and skinny shredder neck. But it could play and sounded good, so I got better.

But that "good guitar" cost me $150, I think. When I say a good guitar, and I think Strat means when he says quality instrument, we're talking about instruments that sound good, will intonate, and won't hurt you when you play. It doesn't have to be a high-end instrument. Go to a large guitar store (let's say Guitar Center) with the goal to get the best sounding Telecaster (sorry, Stratoblogster, but this is my blog) in the store, and when you start pulling the instruments off the wall, you might find that the best sounding Tele isn't the most expensive Made in America Custom Shop guitar. You might even find that it isn't a Fender. Recently, the Korean- and Indonesian-made Squiers have been well-made instruments that sound good. I've heard very good things about Rondo and their Agile and SX lines. There are sometimes issues, and certainly most big-store guitars should have a setup before being given to a young musician.

Not that, with electrics, setups are all that hard. Fret MD is a video that Ig recommended a while ago.

But, if you bought a guitar for a new musician, and we'll go with electric for this post, you have not finished the gift without the following:
  1. An Amplifier. It doesn't need to be a full-stack Marshall Plexi or a Fender Evil Twin, and in fact that's likely more amp than your giftee can handle. My amp is a Fender Frontman 25R, with a headphone out and dual RCA ins, so I can hook it up to an MP3 player and listen with headphones. We're talking electric guitar here, and at a certain point, the magic comes when you stop playing the guitar and start playing the electricity.
  2. An Electronic Tuner. Not a pitch pipe. They suck. An electric tuner will allow your musician to keep that instrument in tune, which will then give him/her a solid base to work forward from. Make it a chromatic tuner and you will enable alternate tunings and be useful when you start to do your own setups.
  3. A book on playing the guitar. I started with The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. It's good, but I could probably name a few other starter books. From the quick look I gave it, it seems that the Guitar For Dummies book isn't as bad as you might think.
  4. A book on guitar repair. Or a video, like Fret MD. Most everything you can do to a guitar with a screwdriver, you can undo just as easily, so don't be worried. Be careful, and keep track of everything, but don't be worried.
  5. Cables, strings, a strap, picks Strings should be of the same type as are on the instrument, so you can replace strings without having to re-intonate the bridgge. Cables, because that's how you send signal to the amp. Picks, because that's how most of us play. And a strap, in case someone wants to play standing up.
  6. Space and Encouragement My jam partner, Guitar, said that the two things you need to get good are practice and patience. Practice because it isn't easy, and patience because you'll suck for a good long time before it seems like you've improved. They call the process "woodshedding" because the musician is metaphorically off by himself in another building, poking at the strings where nobody would come in and yell "Turn that racket off!" That's where the space comes in. Now, imagine trying to walk across the United States, from Los Angeles to New York. Each day you can't see the Atlantic Ocean and the Empire State Building, you know you aren't there yet, and you can walk every day knowing that the delicious sandwiches of Carnegie Deli are still a long way away, enough so that you might not notice that you've left California and are now in Arizona, or Utah, or Nebraska. A guitarist can get pretty good without noticing the vast improvement, because she's still not as good as Jennifer Battin. Encouragement in this case is perspective, and it is important.

Any questions?


Patrick said...

I disagree with the electronic tuner. I know, tuning is frustrating, but the ability to tune with no crutch but an A=440 tuning fork (or a sloppy tenor sax player on concert E-flat) is immensely useful in live situations. In the high school jazz band, I frequently had to tune unplugged, unaided, in a room full of warming-up brass. This developed the keen ability to tune fourths and fifths by feel, to hear beats if the D was out a couple of cents, and to recognize which string went out of tune when I squeezed that F#maj11-flat5 chord a little too hard.
Pitch pipes do suck, mostly because the pitch changes depending on how hard you blow. I'd say a good metronome is more important than a tuner, as long as you provide some way to tune one string true and the proper instruction on how to tune the rest.

Dave Jacoby said...

We're getting into DSW territory here. It is well and good to be able to tune using beats. Chances are, it'll be a while before the beginning player will be able or willing to play with others. When they first receive the instrument, they don't know what they're listening for, and learning how to tune to an available A when you don't know how things are supposed to sound is frustrating and annoying, while turning the little knobs until the needle hits the center and the light turns green gives the student some room. It flattens the learning curve a little.

Metronomes are good. My metronome provides an A 440 tone, which is doublegood. But it is in a class of items that you won't use effectively, if at all, until you begin to learn your instrument and understand your needs. Thus second-tier need, not a first-tier need.

But that's my opinion.

Stratocat said...

Everybody must get espresso beans!

When I was starting out, we didn't have anything. I had to walk barefoot 10 miles through 3 feat of snow- in my radio- just to get to the music store for picks and strings.

But those EB Super Slinky's were $2.69 a pack, AND the set came with extra B & hi-E strings.

I'm showin' my age now.

We tuned to one side of the dial tone from the landline phone.