Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Guitar Maintenance: How to Take Care of Your Fretboard

I was routinely treating my guitars with fretboard conditioner the other night and realized I was doing another one of those fundamentals you take for granted once you know about it. I always make a point to mention these when I think about them.

My first instructor actually told me about fretboard conditioner after commenting how thirsty the rosewood looked on my guitar. One try was all I needed to make it a permanent part of my guitar maintenance routine.

The rosewood, ebony or other exotic wood used on your fretboard gets coated with oil and grime and will dry out, especially for those of us in more northerly climates. If you do not use a conditioner, just take a look at your fretboard and you’ll see what I mean.

Fretboard conditioners will cleanse and nourish the wood, which improves the feel. An added benefit is it looks a whole lot better! I’ve included pictures of products I have used (Guitar Honey and Lem-Oil) but all you need do is search “fretboard conditioner” to find a bevy of products at your disposal.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

All Les Paul Guitars Are Not Created Equal; or Are They?

My second ever guitar purchase was a Gibson Les Paul Special Faded Ebony. Sometime later I picked up a custom shop Vintage Original Spec based on the 1958 Les Paul Standard. After reading an article in the Blog Psychedelic Zen Guitar regarding choosing different capacitors I decided to look under the hood of these two guitars and discern what sets them apart.

Some obvious differences between the Special and the Custom shop version are price, faded ebony mahogany body vs. translucent sunburst cherry maple, alnico humbuckers in chrome vs. burstbuckers in nickel, and a 1960 slim neck vs. a 50s rounded neck profile. In addition, I’ve included photos of the pots.

Notice the CTS pots with bumble bee capacitors in the custom shop version at right as compared to the standard pots and ceramic disk capacitors in the Special at left. This all begs the question; is the custom shop version better?

In my view the best way to answer is to ask another question; “how many guitars does one guitarist need?” The answer of course is “just one more.”

While there is clearly a price differential between these two guitars, what sets them apart is their personality rather than one being better than the other. They both play and sound great; just different.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Getting Brian Setzer's Sleepwalk Out of My Head

As I was wrapping up a lesson one day and talking shop with my instructor he indicated I needed to check out Brian Setzer's Grammy winning version of "Sleepwalk". I did and it became one of my favorites; and we added The Brian Setzer Orchestra to our cocktail hour repertoire.

Problem is, after listening to it a week or so ago I can't get the tune out of my head. I ran across several versions of him performing this on YouTube and this one is notable because you get good views of his technique. Hopefully, by posting it here I can clear it out of my head; at least until the next cocktail hour.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Guitar Tricks for Building Calluses

I see questions around building calluses come up a lot and remember my initial experiences trying out guitars. Some felt better to my finger tips and others not so much. In hindsight I know the differences were due to string gauge and action. To quickly build your calluses with less pain, make sure you start with lower gauge strings and action on your guitar.

String gauge represents the diameter of a string. You may hear an old salt say, “I use 10s”. What they’re saying is that they use strings where the high E string is .010 inches in diameter. In a set of 10s the low E string will have a diameter of .046 inches. There is more to this than just the gauge though.

Strings with higher gauge will have a higher tension when tuned. While there are many advantages to higher gauge such as tone and sustain (Stevie Ray Vaughn’s unique tone came in part from very high gauge strings), a beginner will not appreciate this due to the difficulty and pain associated with fretting these strings much less learning bending techniques. Frustration increases further if the action is high.

Action is just the term for the height of the strings above the frets. In one of my first posts I outlined how I had taken a run at the guitar back in high school without success. My first guitar was an acoustic of dubious quality with an action around an inch off the frets. If only we had affordable high quality import lines back then!

So, for your callus formation period, I would recommend D’Addario EXL120s or other brands with similar characteristics. These are a super light gauge string where the high E string starts at .009 inches in diameter. As far as action goes, lower the strings (your guitar user manual or a wealth of guides on the Internet will outline how) to the point it is comfortable but not so far you get excessive string buzzing. Action is more of a personal preference anyway so you are not violating any guitar laws by doing this :-).

Once you’ve built your calluses (two or three weeks) you can elect to make changes to your guitar setup from there based on your evolving technique. Most importantly, rock out!

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Guitar Gear: Invest In Strap Locks

On my first visit to a Guitar Center I asked the salesman why the ratty looking guitars displayed in a protected area had such high prices. He went on to explain the art of aging new guitars to the extent they look like touring veterans. If you want to avoid unintentional aging of your nice new axe though, I would recommend strap locks.

I’ve been playing awhile now and do not think twice about an accessory like this. I never heard of them starting out though. That is until I had a brand new guitar pop off the strap and come crashing to the floor when I reached over to answer the phone. Bummer!

At a subsequent lesson, my instructor filled me in on the whole strap lock thing after I told him the reason for the new divots on my guitar. Turns out he had strap locks on his guitar; I just hadn’t noticed the finer detail whilst sweating the details of music theory and guitar technique. He recommended and I ended up with guitar strap locks from Schaller.

If you look at the picture you see they are pretty foolproof. You remove your original strap buttons and install the Schaller buttons. You will likely find that the screws supplied are too small so I reused the original screws from my guitar. You may have to grind down the screw head so it fits into the new strap button.

Attach the strap locks to each end of your strap; the supplied washer and nut enable you to attach them securely. The strap locks connect securely from there because they have a spring loaded pin; you pull out the pin, slide the lock onto the button, and release the pin, which snaps into the strap button. This thing won’t come loose.

From there you can fling your axe every which way but loose or even answer the phone without fear of it coming off!

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Guitar Tabs: Guitar World Releasing Their Tabs Online and More

Transcriptions are one reason I eagerly anticipate each issue of Guitar World. But, I always wished I could easily access transcriptions done before I started subscribing to the magazine. Well, they’ve done it and more!

Guitar World Tabs is organized around a social networking model and provides interaction both with features of the site itself as well as other users. For example, while the magazine provides its own premium tabs, users of the site can also submit their own tabs, videos, and comments (both text as well as ratings).

Navigation is managed through a slick interface like the Cover Flow view in iTunes. You can search for content alphabetically, by top rated, most viewed, and newest.

Studying transcriptions of your favorite artists gives you exposure to a wealth of technique and theory you can use to develop your own style. Guitar World is providing a great service to help you on your way; check it out!

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Connections: How to Make Your Own Backing Tracks and Transfer LPs to mp3 Format

I tend to fixate on using readily available technology to drive maximum results in minimum time for my guitar playing. This post is to close some of the gaps I’ve left in previous posts along with a new approach to vinyl archiving I recently stumbled on.

I have included a simple (not to scale) diagram of the gear and signal path. As in my previous post on creating a simple home studio I’m showing the HP Laptop I use (dv6000 Pavilion) along with Ableton Live version 6 for recording and mixing. The important piece of this diagram that I glossed over previously is the M-Audio Transit USB audio interface.

I use this unit in the mix because it supports 24-bit/96kHz audio. That combined with using the ASIO protocol (Audio Stream Input/Output) I get a high quality low latency interface between Live and the Transit USB.

The TASCAM Guitar Trainer as discussed in previous posts is connected to the external soundcard (Transit USB) so the backing tracks I create sound as good as possible. I glossed over the importance of this in the previous post. The new entrant to my setup is the ION USB Turntable.

If you are anywhere near my age (baby boomer), you have a stack of LPs and 45s in your closet, garage, and or storage facility; or ideally, properly stored and displayed. Transferring LP to mp3 was so laborious that I would just download the ones I wanted to hear again from iTunes or go out and buy the CD version. The ION turntable made it easier because it offers a line level output as well.

My replacement laptop (previous PC crashed) uses Vista and I had just finished getting the drivers working for my home studio setup as well as recovering from self inflicted problems getting the beta Vista drivers for the Transit USB working (the rollback feature in Vista is wonderful!). I was dreading working through yet another set of potentially conflicting audio interface drivers that came with the turntable.

Then, I discovered that the ION turntable features a line level output in addition to the phono and USB outputs. I already had a connector for RCA jacks to mini jack. Voila!, I just plugged the turntable into the external sound card and off to the races with high quality transfer of LPs to mp3 using Ableton Live.

I will go through the steps I use with this setup for vinyl archiving in a future post; they sound great!

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Guitar Gear: Import Lines Make Playability More Affordable Than Ever

I have heard many times that when you are starting out on the guitar any guitar will do because your skills won’t take advantage of a more premium guitar. In reality, this statement is more about cost than it is about the playability beginners really need. Thanks to import lines of guitar though, you no longer need to make tradeoffs between playability and cost.

The major guitar companies such as Gibson and Fender offer import models that are manufactured in places like Mexico, China, and Korea. Even Paul Reed Smith, well known as a high-end guitar maker, now offers an import line. By going off shore, these companies can make these guitars for a much lower price than the premium branded instruments they manufacture here in the United States. These lower priced guitars are not toys though. The premium guitar makers work hand in hand with their overseas partners to provide knowledge transfer and support and ensure the quality of the end product.

Visit this page on the Epiphone website, which outlines a recent Guitar World review of their Worn Firebird Studio and Faded Dot Studio. These guitars are around $200 on the street and this will give you an idea of just how much you can get for your money with import lines.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Recording Industry and the Economics of Scarcity

I have read many articles debating why the record companies continue to defend a model that technology has rendered obsolete. My two cents in the debate is that the reason is the economics of scarcity.

Since “Boomer” is half of my blog’s name I clearly remember scarcity when it came to music. LPs and 45s were very expensive. They were expensive because there were no alternatives except top 40 radio. No alternatives meant a scarcity premium, which digital technology and the Internet eliminated.

If you look at it then from the perspective of the recording industry, their price has effectively gone up; they lost their scarcity premium but kept the price the same. A higher price compared to alternatives (illegal downloads mostly at first) meant and still means lower sales. It makes sense for them to defend the model though because comparatively they get a large premium with each unit sold. In fact, you could look at the anti piracy activities conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) as a cost effective way to keep the scarcity premium as high as possible while they figure out how to transform their model.

The transformation of the music distribution model (legal downloads and music subscriptions over the Internet) is already well underway. Ubiquitous music purchases through your handheld device such as the Apple/Starbucks deal will rapidly expand. How artists contract with labels is also changing as evidenced by Madonna's deal with Live Nation. This shows how industry and artists will better capitalize on the value of their intellectual property. The deal features revenue sharing better matched with the value the music creates and accounts for touring and merchandise as well as record sales. This deal demonstrates why there is still untapped value in music if an appropriate business model is adopted.

The Wall Street Journal Online, one of the few online news sources that have successfully maintained a subscription model, is a good example of the evolution of business models. Rupert Murdoch will likely eliminate the subscription model expecting his readership will expand from its current 1 million subscribers to 10 million as a result. He will make more from advertising revenue than the $50 million lost in subscriber fees. While the content itself is free, no readers would consume the advertising without the content. The content has inherent value even though they cannot grow subscriptions ten fold with a paid subscription model.

Because digital and Internet technology eliminated scarcity as it relates to the distribution of music, the industry has to and is adapting. The surprise at the end of the tunnel is that the very innovations that created this challenge in the first place also provides the impetus to create new models that will enable the industry and artists to actually increase the value of their intellectual property.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Connections: How to Create a Simple Home Studio

I was talking to my next door neighbor yesterday about how he's doing on his guitar playing and he outlined how he used his Apple Laptop and Garageband to create rhythm backing tracks that he uses to practice improvisation. Bravo, I said! I have several posts on how valuable this can be for your progress on the guitar. What occurred to me though and what I have not really emphasized in previous related posts is how simple and inexpensive creating your own home studio really is.

At its most basic you need a computer, recording software, audio interface (hardware/software combination that you plug your guitar into), and of course your guitar. I have included a simple layout of what I currently use (post recovery from a recent hardware failure of my previous PC) for each of these components to record my guitar playing.

· Computer - HP Laptop; Pavilion dv6000.
· Recording Software - Ableton Live Version 6.
· Audio Interface - PODxt from Line6. The drivers that come with the unit enable you to connect it to your computer through USB, which gives you a high quality audio connection.
· I use a pair of Toneport headphones from Bose to monitor the audio. This way you can hear your own playing as well as any tracks you might be playing back from your recording software (or simply a metronome if your software supports that feature) at the same time.

More than likely, you already have everything except for the audio interface and possibly the recording software unless you use a Mac, which comes with GarageBand already loaded. For the audio interface just do an Internet search on "audio interface USB" and you will see a vast array of options starting around $30. As for recording software, I would highly recommend Ableton Live given my experience with it to date if you do not have GarageBand on the Mac. Or, if you want to further minimize cost, you could download Audacity, which is open source software.

That is pretty much it other than rocking out and recording it for prosperity!

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Girls of Guitar World

I started playing the guitar on my 50th birthday. Guitar World became an early reference for me and I eagerly look forward to each issue to this day. I do have to admit though that I am conflicted about “The Girls of Guitar World.”

What I’m referring to are the fetching Guitar World readers and models along with their axes that grace the pages of the magazine and their great website. Is this just a cheap marketing gimmick that someone with my years of maturity should know better than to succumb to?

Then, the other day I am reading my software industry trade publications and realize ads in these magazines feature the same sort of fetching models draped over gear like hardware based load balancers and optical storage devices.

What? Then I remember that everything from drill bits to insurance is marketed like this. Internet technology, no matter how much we love it, does not have a rock and roll legacy. Part of that legacy has always included fetching rockers. If anyone can lay claim to being a part of the rock and roll legacy, Guitar World published since July of 1980 sure can. So, I need to save my conflicted emotions for those cheap marketing gimmicks rather than Guitar World.

Can't wait for the next issue!

Let's Rock!

Guitar Lessons: A Great Investment Anytime

Some of my earliest posts on this blog outlined how valuable finding a good instructor was to meeting my goal of maximum results in minimum time. This is more universal than just for someone wanting to make up for a late start it turns out.

I had asked a friend of mine who has played guitar for 25 years and is still active in well paying gigs to review my blog for authenticity. The last thing I want is for anything in a post to steer someone wrong in their efforts; so I like to gather feedback. Seems he read these thoroughly as he has gone back to take some lessons!

He felt trapped in a Pentatonic box and wanted to improve his improvisational skills both for rock as well as jazz. Two lessons into it he is already reporting an overall improvement in his playing; definitely a good return on the time and money invested.

Although I am gratified that someone read my post the main excitement I feel is that this confirms my belief that there is always something new to learn in this hobby and lessons are a great way to achieve maximum results in minimum time.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Aging Rocker Demographic and its Impact on Guitar Sales

I was discussing my perception that aging rockers must be having an impact on guitar sales worldwide with another blogger at World of Baby Boomer’s fudge. So, I did a quick search on Google and quickly came upon articles showing that a large number of aging rockers are either picking the guitar back up or learning it for the first time as a cure for the midlife crisis.

While the aging rocker demographic has helped fuel the increased demand they also benefit from the explosion of innovative new gear now available as a result. There are guitars, associated other gear, and resources available at all price points to make it easier than ever before to start back up if you are a lapsed rocker or get into the guitar for the first time.

Let's Rock!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Aging Rocker: Side Benefits of Rocking in Middle Age

With some time off over the holidays and over two years into my guitar hobby I thought I would make a list of the side benefits I get besides fun.

“Coolness” Factor: My kids are still not sure why I keep pursuing the guitar. It does enter into the teenage calculus though along the lines of; dad may not have much hair left but he can play “Highway to Hell!”

Concert Awareness: I actually know something about what is going on at a concert now. Previous to picking up a guitar a concert might as well have been a CD player running through the PA system. Now, I know what the equipment is, why it is being used, and have some appreciation for the techniques used by the artists. Concert going is much more enjoyable as a result.

Art of Conversation: I am still a poor conversationalist but now I have more to talk about at a cocktail party than “what do you do for a living” or “how is your 401K plan doing?”

Instant Gratification: With the guitar as in other hobbies you can put in effort and directly see the results. Often times the correlation between effort and results are more nebulous in the work world.

Home D├ęcor: Hanging your guitars on the wall is a great decorating approach.

Blogging: My infatuation with the guitar is what got me into Blogging, which is almost as much fun as playing the guitar!

Happy New Year and keep rocking!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Peace on Earth and a Little “Stolichnaya”

Yep, you guessed it; I made it to my first Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) concert. There were some pleasant surprises along with the standard stage performance.

One thing that immediately struck me as I approached the venue was the demographic represented by my fellow concert goers. Not sure what I expected but a heavy concentration of 20 somethings along with a good dose of those of the midlife persuasion and older was not one of them.

The younger concert goers were not simply girlfriends dragging their boyfriends to the concert either. Paul O’Neill and his collaborators Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva have reached a demographic to die for, pretty much all of them if the concert I attended was any indicator.

They kicked off the concert by donating over $12,000 to local charity; a dollar for every ticket sold. Their informal survey showed that about 75% of the concert goers were returnees from previous years (since we got our tickets at the last minute and were seated in the stratosphere we got a good view of the raised hands). The TSO has established a loyal following.

They performed the story and songs of “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” followed by a mix from their other albums and some covers. All this was accompanied by a dazzling set of lighting and laser effects synchronized with the music.

It seems that anyone who wants to maintain a long term career in the music business needs to continually adapt. The founders of TSO have pulled together a diverse set of influences and created a great product with a loyal fan base.

We’ll be back next year!