Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the electrics)

This was inspired by Pogo. Actually, I get flack from people that know me because I get all sidetracked on political rants, cooking, and almost never write about my life in the music industry.

So, this one goes out to Pogo and all the other guitar players out there. It's about how I tend to look at my guitars as a tool box and not a collection of instruments.

First I'll start with the workhorses, these are guitars I use most of the time. They are Stratocasters. With a twist. I built them. The only cheating I did was that I took the body blanks to a friend of mine who is a master builder for Fender and he snuck them onto the computerized router/planers. Oh, yeah, and the necks were built by the same guys that built my 5-string banjo. They have the presses and stocks of cured woods and they build beautiful stuff. I told them that I wanted ebony fingerboards, big fat silver frets, a minimum of inlay (that's a personal thing, I don't like the feel of the big inlay stuff under my fingers) and that's what they gave me.

For the guts of the instruments I went to the guys who used to do the sound tech work for the Dead and a bunch of other San Francisco groups. They have a thing where you can get a Strat harness, all wired up. It's like the fabled '65 "Fat" strats. Two single coil pickups, one double humbucker at the bridge. There is a switch that will turn the bridge pickup to single if that's the sound I want but I usually leave that one alone and just go for my Silver Anniversary Edition strat when that's the sound I want.

I use a Fender stock bridge, no tremelo or stuff like that. The tuners are top of the line Schalers. I can't stress enough to beginners or even dedicated amatuer players. If you have, like friend Pogo, gotten an off-label axe to start out with, if you want to progress I would suggest that the first thing you do is replace the bridge and the tuners. A bridge that won't hold the strings steady and still under high tension and tuners that lock into pitch are crucial. It's also one of the ways those joints save the money they save. Think of it like beefing up the suspension and getting low profile wide ass tires for your off the floor sports car. The bodies and necks on them are fine, they are built to factory specs. You can, a little at a time upgrade them at your pleasure. I would start with bridge and the tuners because, if you were to upgrade the electronics you would mainly be amplifying an out of tune axe. ugh.

I string them heavy. My reasons are that thick strings under higher tension when tuned to pitch produce a richer tone, greater sustain and hold their pitch better than skinny strings. I buy my strings in bulk from a warehouse online. Right now I'm working with Dean Markley Jazz sets. When the case of strings I am using gets low, I will look for the cheapest sets in the high gauges that I like. I also like flat wound strings for electrics. Less finger noise. These are the gauges of the strings I use starting with the high E. .013 .017 (.026 wound).035 .045 .057. Anybody reading that who is a player is probably saying "Jesus Horatio Christ that's thicker than my acoustic!" You're right. If you want to get that big, ballsy, sound, this is the best way to get it. I would also suggest that if you try to go to higher guage strings to do it slowly. You don't get extra points for murdering your fingertips. A lot of little practice sessions, where you quit when it keeps on hurting too long after you take your hand off the strings is better than marathon runs that risk blisters or even bleeding. Expense really doesn't buy you any quality here. Good decent strings sound like good decent strings. I change the whole set when ever I change strings. I also change the whole set when I've put around 20 hours on them. If it's a live show situation I change strings right after the last show of the night.

I finished the strats with a combination of tung oil and clear laquer. They gleam. Deep, warm gleam. I have three of these all built along the same lines. I have three because one is tuned standard, one to open G, one to open D. The open tunings are for working with a bottleneck. It's a whole other instrument really and will get it's own posting. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Buy a chromatic electronic tuner. Don't skimp and buy a cheapo. Buy one that will allow you to see how far off you are. You'll get to where by sound and by feel you'll be able to get close. The thing is though, with pitch close does not count at all. I use an old Korg with a VU style meter and a through line so I just plug the guitar into the tuner, plug the outline of that into the amp. I check my stuff all the time.

I like the way that Stratocasters sound. They sound to me like an electric guitar should sound. There are other types of electrics out there, hell, I own a few of them but, for me, it's that stratocaster sound. Nothing like it. When it's totally called for I reach for one of my other tools in the box. These are pretty much stock off the rack guitars. I use them for sounds that you just can't get anywhere else.

'68 Les Paul Sunburst (because nothing else sounds like a Paul) I love their sound but for long term playing they are too damned heavy. My left shoulder is ruined from years of slinging Pauls. I play it sitting down.

'65 garden variety Telecaster in trick stringing scheme. The trick is to take the bottom four strings and bring them up an octave. This compresses the chord structure and makes a tight brilliant sound that will penetrate through all kinds of noise. For blues, rock and roll, or country rythym work it cannot be beat. I did fiddle with the pickups a bit also, I use an old middle pickup off a strat at the neck and a big old humbucker off a dead Paul at the bridge. I just realized that telling all of that probably has you saying "Garden variety my ass!"

'68 Rickenbacker 12 string (when the producer wants something that sounds like a Ricky 12, the only thing that will do is a Ricky 12) I have a small change here that makes a huge difference too. The separation on the bottom two strings is two octaves instead of one. That's how Leadbelly did it. That's how I do it.

'74 Gibson L5, the ultimate blues axe. Everything else pales.

Those are the current electrics in the line up. Others have come and gone but these have stayed. I love them all in their own way.

crossposted at Big Brass Blog Gettin' Bigger all the time!


Blogger Tata said...

I don't play, but I grew up and have most of my life lived with guitar players. Somewhere, I have a jar of those beads at the end of the strings. Making jewelry out of them proved an adequate defense against finding them with the vacuum - such is the price of living with music.

2:08 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

The best way to find the little tiny ends that come off of the tuning pegs is to walk around barefoot. It's the same principle as with sewing needles.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Tata said...

Forget bracelets and chokers. Mail 'em my way and I'll make Christmas garland.

Of course, your tree would have to be steel-reinforced...

7:17 PM  
Blogger pissed off patricia said...

I left pogo a message to come and visit your site. He doesn't have a blog but I know how to contact him.

3:32 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i was hoping someone would do that or that he might click through a comment on your site or crawfords. i figure he will wander by soon. i've never thought of myself as much of a teacher. when i am around my nephew's band i am constantly surprised by them asking me "how did you get that sound?" and i look kind of silly and really can't explain it. the benefit has been going back to the technique in question and trying to identify and clarify the steps that i have either never exposed to myself or just have done so long now that they are automatic.

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minstrel Boy,

nice blog. Here is a site you might like to look at too. Michael Stevens has been a friend of mine for over 30 years now and he is an incredible builder. Here is his web site

yo soy Horsedooty!

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minstrel Boy,

nice blog. Here is a site you might like to look at too. Michael Stevens has been a friend of mine for over 30 years now and he is an incredible builder. Here is his web site

yo soy Horsedooty!w

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry for the double post if you can delete you are welcome to.

yo soy Horsedooy!

9:02 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i am very familiar with michael's work. i have a few collegues that swear by his instruments and i have been very impressed with the ones that i've played. thanks for the link. and welcome to the blog horsedooty. there's beaucoup horse dooty around el rancho harpo...

9:34 AM  
Blogger Maggie Rosethorn said...

I've been sitting here reading your very interesting post and laughing hard at myself. I hate to date myself, but when you mentioned Pogo at the start of the post, and every time afterwards (including Patricia's post), I see Pogo Possum and his friends in my mind. I always loved Churchly LaFemme, Albert, Mam'selle Hepsibah and the rest.

But I really enjoyed your post on how you string your guitars, their types, etc. too.

11:38 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

I love Pogo, have for a long time. I don't care if that dates me as badly as knowing all the words to most of the drifter's tunes. pogo has become one of my favorite philosophers.

One of the things I am hoping to expose here is the huge amount of craft and artisanship that is involved with the art of music. Like my little telecaster rythym axe. the way it is strung is what makes it sound like it does. the way it sounds has gotten me jobs and made me money. i tell people all the time "lead guitar players get fan clubs, rythym guitar players get contracts."

12:10 PM  
Blogger J. Goff said...

Not a guitar player, but I can play a mean jazz bass clarinet. I'm currently in with one of my friends whose a jazz pianist and we've got a duet going that is going to be playing at a local bar soon. So, anyway, rock on, me Mintrel Boy!

Oh, and that Allison Brown cover of Elvis Costello? AWESOME. Almost better than the original. It's my new song I can't stop listening to.

1:09 PM  
Blogger J. Goff said...

Also, me Minstrel boy.


1:10 PM  
Blogger J. Goff said...

Jeebus, I just can't type today. Wev.

1:11 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i love the sound of the bass clarinet. it's fat, mellow, a very round tone. i bet it sounds cool with a piano.

4:45 PM  

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