I’d never played an SG, until recently. I was surprised how light it was. This particular SG had a weird automatic electronic tuning system, called Min-eTune, which works by picking up string vibrations through the headstock, and adjusting special machine heads fitted with servo-motors. It was all a bit futuristic, and, frankly, a bit off-putting.
On top of that, being an “M” variant of the SG (effectively, an SG Junior+Min-eTune), a lot of corners had been cut to bring down price. There was no binding or pick-guard. There was no lacquer. The logo was screen-printed, and the inlays were plastic. The red stain job looked cheap. And the fretboard wood was weird and grainy. It just felt a little bit home-made. What’s more, one of the tuning buttons was missing, and two others were cracked. I gave it a good play, had a nice chat with the shop guy, and cautiously returned it to its place in the window. It seemed a lot of money for something with so many negatives.
Six months later, I returned to Fab Music guitar shop in search of a 12-string acoustic guitar to replace the damaged one I’d sadly had to bin. After trying the one on offer, I asked about the SG. Sure enough, it was still there, being avoided in the window. The shop guy told me he’d given the frets a polish and offered me another play. So, not wanting to be rude, I gladly obliged. It was then that I realised I really liked this guitar, warts and all. So, half an hour later, I walked out of the shop with a 2014 Gibson SGM with shiny frets.
The guitar was really well set up. The nut was cut perfectly. I had to reverse the Tune-o-matic bridge, because it had been put on backwards. I bought a bag of used eTune machine heads off eBay, and managed to get 6 good ones with what I had. I tried to give the fretboard a makeover with lemon oil, but it was still weird when I’d finished with it. Finally, I bought a matching truss-rod wrench, and dropped the action 10 thousands of an inch, to just-about-perfect.
The more I play the SG, the more I like it. It might even be my favourite at the moment. It’s a very different animal to the Strat: humbuckers instead of single coils, a mahogany body instead of alder, a 12″ fretboard radius instead of 7.25″, 24 frets instead of 21, a hard tail instead of a tremolo, and of course a 24.75″ scale instead of 25.5″. So, I can justify having both, using the “horses for courses” excuse! Sometimes it helps to be delusional, and ignore logic.
Like most teenagers learning to play guitar and forming a band, I couldn’t afford a really good guitar. So I made my first electric guitar out of plywood, cheap hardware, and parts from a scrapped guitar.
I was about 16 when I’d saved up for a second hand Kasuga Deluxe, from Reidy’s in Blackburn. The Kasuga was my main guitar for the next 10 years. But, since the eighties, it’s either hung on a wall hook or sat on a stand in my house.
At the end of my computer musician phase, I decided that I missed the instant feedback of playing an instrument. After a brief stab at learning piano, I decided to have another go at guitar. But, as I was now a ‘grown-up’, perhaps I could make up for the budget limitations of the past?
On a whim, in 2012, I stopped at Louandy’s in Colne, which I’d been passing for months, and I walked out 30 minutes later with a used Richwood TL Thinline. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it eventually started to gather dust, just like the Kasuga.
The following year, I replaced my Boss BE-5 multi-effects box with an ME-70 from Banks in York — a digital processor with a dizzying array of functions, which made my home-made Noisewarp look like a child’s toy.
But, where to start? I was seriously out of practice, and I’d forgotten most of my repertoire. I was worried that I wouldn’t know a good guitar if it fell on my head. The last time I’d visited a guitar shop, I was overwhelmed and ran away in embarrassment. But, now I was older and less easily shamed, I decided I’d visit all the guitar shops Manchester had to offer, and spend as much or as little as necessary to get a good guitar.
I guessed that I should have a vague idea of what I wanted — although I would be seeking as much advice and information as possible. I envisaged possibly replacing my Les Paul copy with a real one. Maybe an SG would be a reasonable alternative? A Telecaster or Jazzmaster might be the way forward in the Fender world (anything but a Strat, which is only played by guitar heroes). Do I need to be careful about where they are made? Are the Epiphone/Squier versions just as good? What about the new kids on the block? How much do good guitars even cost these days?
Being my local guitar shop, I visited Fab Music in Stockport first. The shop guy was very helpful, but the stock at the time was mostly odds and sods, with only a few interesting items. I tried out a quirky Gibson SGM with a missing tuner button, which I liked, and a bastardised Fender Telecaster, which was a good price but slightly disappointing in action.
Sounds Great Music near Cheadle was next. This shop reminded me of Reidy’s, back in the day — walls of lovely shiny guitars, some cheap and some eye-wateringly expensive. I was chaperoned by Danny senior, who couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I tried out 8 guitars, including ones I’d never heard of. Surprisingly, I didn’t really like any of the guitars as much as my old Kasuga — even the expensive Les Pauls. I was starting to lose faith in my quest.
As I was preparing to leave, we got chatting about the second hand pink Fender Stratocaster in front of me. Danny said that it had created quite a stir in the shop, and lots of people had gushed over it. I joked about my lack of interest in the guitar heroes’ axe of choice, but asked for a quick play anyway, just so I knew what I was missing. I wasn’t prepared — it was like the guitar had been made for me.
Encouraged by this revelation, I now knew that my dream guitar was possible. I had more of an idea what I wanted, and I started a tour of guitar shops (including Marvel Guitars, Live Louder, Dawson’s and PMT) to find it. But, the longer I spent trying out different guitars, the more I realised that the Pink Strat was still top of the heap, and by a wide margin. So, I headed back to Sounds Great for another go…
This time, I had a proper try-out, plugged into a nice amp. As I was noodling around the 15th fret, playing with the pickup switch, I heard the guitar from the start of Shine On You Crazy Diamond come from the cab. Suddenly, I wasDavid Gilmour, and the guitar was Pink, this was too spooky. I bought the guitar.
Over the following weeks, I couldn’t walk past the Pink Strat without stopping for a play. Within three months, I was back to the level I was at when I stopped playing 30 years earlier. Some of the guys at Music in Sheds were into 60s British Blues, so I was regularly playing Clapton songs and improvising pentatonic solos. I had revisited all my old Pink Floyd records and learned some of Gilmour’s solos. I even learned how to play Smoke on the Water correctly, from a YouTube video.
It was then that I realised: I had become one of those sad old guitar heroes. Damn the Pink Strat!
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Or can you? I always said: once you stop learning new things, you stop living. Here are five things I learned in 2019, eventually.
String Length Affects String Bending
There are several guitar scale lengths in common use. Most people know the Fender 25.5″ and the Gibson 24.75″ standards. People who play both types know that shorter scales lengths require less tension to produce the same pitch, so use a slightly higher gauge on Gibsons to get the same feel. I joined that club this year — though I actually like the slightly slacker feel on the shorter scale.
Once the string goes past the nut and the bridge saddles, most people stop paying attention. But a string actually ends at the tuner and the tail, and is several inches longer than the scale length — more so on some guitars than others. So what? You don’t play that bit. No, you don’t, but the extra bits still move and stretch, just like the main scale, when you bend a string or use vibrato. On a Fender, you could be stretching around 25% extra string on a Top E.
This extra slack makes longer strings easier to bend. But you have to bend longer strings more than shorter ones to reach the same pitch. It’s a double-edged sword. To get manageable 2-4-step string bends, you might need a top-loading bridge, locking tremolo, locking nut, and/or even a Hendrix-style upside-down neck with the tuners in reverse order.
String vs Spring
Talking of tremolos… I never really used them until recently, so they’ve always been a bit of a mystery/irrelevance to me. What I hadn’t realised is that it’s a balanced (“floating”) system, like a tug of war. String tension fights spring tension, and the tremolo arm acts as an extra hand to one side or the other. Release the arm, and the sides are evenly matched again.
When you bend one or more strings, you are also fighting against the spring. As you increase the tension on the strings, the spring gives a little under the strain. This has two side effects:
the bridge gives way, string tension falls, all strings temporarily go flat
you have to bend the strings even more to compensate
So, if you really like the vibrato and extreme bends you get with a tremolo system, bear in mind that you don’t get something for nothing. [And I haven’t even mentioned tuning stability issues.]
Like many, I studied Music at school up to age 14, and learned a bit about theory, but not enough to be useful. I learned guitar by ear, from library books, and by copying records. Tab wasn’t as common in those days.
I guess if I’d done Music O Level, I might have learned a few useful things. Instead, I focused on Maths and Sciences. One thing that blew my mind this year was the discovery that Major and Minor diatonic scales are interchangeable, depending on where you start.
Diatonic who what now?! A diatonic scale is like the Doe-Ray-Me-Far-So-La-Tea-Doe scale we all know. It’s actually 7 notes, with the first one repeated at the end, an octave higher. Doe Ray Me etc. is the Major Diatonic scale. Thanks, Julie.
Here’s the mind-blowing bit: if you start at La, and go up through Tea-Doe-Ray-Me-Far-So-La, you’ve just sung a Minor Diatonic scale. Try it (it might be easier on a piano). It turns out that, by moving the intervals sideways, you can make a sad scale happy. If only life was that easy.
Guitar Amps Are Different
In a previous life, I owned a 50-watt John Hornby Skewes guitar amp. [We called them combos in those days, because the amp and speaker cab were combined in the same box.] I have no idea what happened to it, but, suffice it to say, it’s long gone.
When I was going through my computer musician phase, I invested in a keyboard amplifier — in effect, a PA Combo. At the time, I assumed that the difference between these items (besides about 30 years) was fidelity and a lack of guitar-based frivolities. [I’d noticed that posh guitar amps often had a gain/overdrive section. Clearly, you don’t need this nonsense on a keyboard amp.]
6 years ago, I splashed out on a fancy digital multi-effects box in attempt to re-ignite my guitar playing, which it did for about a month. It replaced another older analogue multi-effects box, which didn’t sound good. Whilst there were many more bells and whistles to play with on my new toy, it still didn’t sound as good as I’d hoped.
So, imagine my surprise, when I recently plugged my keyboard amp into the headphone socket of my effects box, and it sounded 200% better. Apparently, this simple act had enabled the cab simulation feature of the effects box. It turns out that there is a big difference between a keyboard/FRFR amp (or PA) and a guitar amp. Guitar amps have a completely different frequency response.
Intonation Is Not Just for Bridges
Snake oil is real, or so people say I believe. And I just love Kool-Aid. This all started when I purchased a strobe tuner, to compensate for my ageing ears. After doing a fresh set up on my old guitar and buying a new guitar, I decided I needed a more accurate way to check tuning, and to help with intonation.
I played both guitars at different neck positions with a standard grip, and studied the tuner readouts. Strings which got progressively sharp or flat had their saddles adjusted until the intonation looked and sounded good. But then a weird thing happened: the open strings on the Fender weren’t in tune — especially the 3rd and (to a lesser extent) the 6th, which were noticeably flat compared with the fretted notes.
Guessing there was a problem with the nut, I made sure it was cut and finished properly. It was, but I made doubly sure anyway — very strange. Then, someone introduced me to the demonic phrase nut compensation. It turns out that plucked string physics can be quite complicated.
The thicker the solid core of a string, the less flexible it is, the more tension it requires to reach pitch, and the more it changes pitch with bending. Not only do you need to lengthen the string at the bridge to compensate, but you also need to shorten it at the nut. Most of the time, this isn’t necessary, but the thicker the core and the longer the scale, the more the flat open string stands out.
It appears that I am cursed with sensitive hearing, or an overactive imagination, depending on who you ask.