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Guitars

Gear4music LA Deluxe Electric 12-string

I am a product of my upbringing, and, although I have grown to prefer quality over quantity, I still love a good bargain. So, my interest was piqued when I learned that Stockport’s Fab Music Store had a very cheap 12-string electric in the shop.

Gear4music 'LA Deluxe' Electric 12-string guitar

It was on sale for a mere £75. Scanning the internet, I found that it was only another £24 brand new. Ugh! I bet it’s awful! Well, hang on… not according to some of the reviews. This required a shop visit.

Sure enough, in person, it looked cheap and plasticky. The strings were held down on the headstock with a bar held in by 2 woodscrews which looked like they could fly out at any minute. The neck was pretty huge, but I guess it had to be for the extra strings. It clearly needed a set-up. However, it was in mint condition, and there was still cellophane on the pickguard. I bought it. For the money, what did I have to lose?

The nut was mostly cut OK. I only had to file one slot. The action, on the other hand, needed some proper adjustment. I soon discovered that the truss rod was loose. A couple of turns later and it was just how I like it, with the tiniest amount of clearance under the string at around fret 8, when fretted at first and last. I also made sure the Heath Robinson headstock string guide bar wasn’t loose.

Solving the cheap bridge intonation problem.

I fitted new strings — a set of GHS GB-12XL 9-40s — which always takes a amazingly long time on a 12-string. The bridge saddles were all over the place, and needed herding into a nice shallow arc. As expected, the intonation was awful, and I adjusted it as best I could, given the design, which had the thinner strings’ saddles screwed onto the thicker strings’ saddles.

After checking the pickup heights and tuning up, I plugged it in, and I was off. It played OK. Keeping in mind it had been a long time since I’d played a 12-string, and wrestling with the size of the neck, I managed to make a half-decent noise. The pickups sounded a bit thin and characterless, but this was a budget guitar, to be fair.

But the intonation? There was a problem. I couldn’t physically get enough distance between the high and low saddles on the 3rd string. So, higher up the neck, one was flat and one was sharp. Months later, I had a brainwave, and swapped the plain 16 G for a wound 18, and moved the saddle towards the neck, and I also swapped the plain 10 D for a 11, which completely fixed the intonation problems.

A year after the tragic scrapping of my unrepairable old Melody 1200 dreadnought acoustic 12-string, I now have a working electric 12-string guitar. It’s not amazing, but it’s perfectly adequate. My outlay was £75, a bit of time and effort, and the price of a strap and a set of strings. A bit of Chorus, and I’m in 90s heaven.

Categories
Guitars

To Trem or Not to Trem

The Kasuga Les Paul copy I used for 10 years doesn’t have a tremolo. My home made guitar had one, salvaged from a long-since-scrapped guitar, but I stopped playing that as soon as I got my Kasuga. So, it’s safe to say, I’m not used to tremolos, and I didn’t really have any feelings towards them. Until I got my Strat.

Stratocaster tremolo

Like most people, the novelty meant that everything sounded like I was sat on the washing machine on spin cycle. And, pretty soon, the novelty wore off. Problems with tuning stability outweighed its minimal use, and the tremolo was soon decked* and forgotten about.

A year later, and I’m listening to some Pink Floyd. I notice David Gilmour’s vibrato, especially on the bent notes. His big bends are famous, and, after a lot of practice, I can do them justice, but vibrato? It occurred to me that he’s using the tremolo with the bends, and it sounds great. So I decide I’m having some of that. But, do I really want to open that can of worms again?

I decide that I’ll attempt a compromise: I’ll keep the springs just tight enough to deck the tremolo, but not tight enough to stop a bit of whammy. That way, I won’t officially float the tremolo.

My first mistake was to remove 2 of the 5 springs from the claw. 3 springs made the tremolo too loose to deck and too easy to lift with a bit of bending. So rather than trying 4 springs, I went straight back to 5, and started loosening the claw. After a surprising amount of loosening, I reached the biting point. The springs were tight enough to keep the tremolo decked with a bit of bending, and slack enough to add a bit of vibrato.

Setup by Steve Robinson

All in all, this was an excellent result, and I will keep the tremolo going for the short term. Tuning stability seems fine, probably helped by the excellent setup done by Manchester guitar tech Steve Robinson in Sale, Manchester, early this year, which included a new bone nut and a string tree spacer.

* A decked tremolo is rendered inoperable by tightening the claw, using all 5 springs, until the bridge plate can’t move.

Categories
Guitars

Losing Sight of Sound

It’s been about a year since I started playing guitar again. It’s been quite an effort, but a very enjoyable one. I’ve re-learned how to play, found fellow musicians in South Manchester to play with, and I’ve learned lots of new things to play in the process. I’m pleased with my progress, though there is always room for improvement.

But, despite all that I’ve achieved in this time, I felt that something was missing — something which was stopping me from getting full benefit of playing guitar again — and I’ve only just worked out what it is: it’s how the amplified guitar sounds.

The Noisewarp, Mk. I
Ping-pong cassette and Noisewarp (mk. I): featuring Booster, Swell, Sustain, Overdrive, Fuzz, Phaser, Wah/Volume pedal, and tape echo.

In the 80s, I was very much into tinkering with music gear. I had a soldering iron, and I wasn’t afraid to use it. I read practical magazines about electronic music, which gave me plenty of ideas for experimentation. I modified the electronics in my guitar, I made effects boxes, and I built a demo recording set-up. When I had consolidated all the best bits, and got tired of wiring it all up at rehearsals, I made an all-in-one unit, which I called the Noisewarp.

Live at Darwen AFC

Any shortcomings in my “reasonably-priced” electric guitar were more than made up for in the sonic box-of-tricks I’d created. You’d rarely hear the guitar played clean. More often than not, two or three effects would be running at any time. Experimenting with a large palette of delicious sounds proved to be inspirational for writing and recording music. Discovery was a catalyst for creativity. And the more gadgets I collected, the more ideas they generated.

1970s JHS Guitar Combo
A 50W JHS combo, like the one I had in the 80s.

Years later, when the equipment had become neglected, I sold Noisewarp’s various components. As I’d lost my guitar combo some years earlier and was no longer gigging, I played unplugged, or through the stereo. Missing the Noisewarp, I bought a used multi-effects box with the basic pedals. But it didn’t sound great, and the guitar playing continued to wane.

Boss BE5 Multi-effects
Boss analogue multi-effects pedal, with compressor, noise gate, chorus, overdrive and echo.

When I made electronic music, I bought a combo for gigging — a Roland KC-350. Billed as a keyboard amp, at 120W, it was powerful enough for a full ensemble of weird and wonderful sounds from a DAW and midi controllers.

Roland KC-350 keyboard combo
Roland KC-350 120W ‘keyboard’ amp combo.

In the years to come, I tried to jump start my guitar playing with new guitars and gadgets. I swapped my basic effects box for a super-duper digital multi-effects box. But while there were lots of new sounds to play with, it didn’t seem to inspire any experimentation.

Boss ME-70 multi-effects box
Boss ME-70 digital multi-effects processor, with effects too numerous to list.

In 2019, the penny finally dropped about amps. By accident, I read about the “Rec Out / Phones” socket on the Boss ME-70 effects box. I learned that it was designed to recreate the sound of a guitar amp cabinet, and that this modified sound was duplicated on the output jack.

Suddenly, the sterile fizzing sound was gone, and it sounded much more like it was supposed to all along. It turns out that the Roland is what’s known as an FRFR Amp (full range, flat response), and, like your stereo, it doesn’t sound great with an electric guitar or pedals. You need an actual guitar amp, which has a very un-flat frequency response. There was a cartoon light bulb moment, and I felt a proper Charlie.

I traded in the ME-70 for the updated ME-80, offering better quality modelling, even more effects, and enabling presets to be edited and organised on a computer. But, I was still finding it tricky to get good tones from my gear quickly. It was all a bit hit-and-miss.

Boss ME-80 Multi-effects
Boss ME-80 digital multi-effects processor, a more refined, sophisticated and ergonomically superior successor to the ME-70.

I read a couple of interesting articles by sound engineers on getting the best from your amplification, instead of swapping it for something else. The articles planted the seed that it was possible to make dramatic improvements to the character and quality of your sound by thoughtful use of your amp’s basic tone controls.

Then I compared a premium valve combo with the corresponding simulation (playing the ME-80 through the Roland). The valve combo easily won, sounding clean, warm, smooth, and full of character. I attempted to recreate the tone of the valve combo, using just the EQs on the Roland and ME-80’s amp modeller. Half an hour later, I was there. In a blind A/B comparison, the Boss/Roland might have even sounded slightly better! The improvement was striking.

So, there is a massive difference between different types of combo and amplifier/cabinet, which dramatically changes the character of the sound. And it seems that I can’t take EQ for granted. I need to learn how to analyse tone, listen to how EQ affects the sound, and not be afraid to experiment. I may actually find that I already have really good gear, if only I knew how to set it up well.

To be continued…

Categories
Guitars

Learning to Ignore Logic

Back in April 2019, I was touring the guitar shops of Manchester. I played a lot of guitars in those visits. One guitar which left an impression early on was a Gibson SGM.

Gibson SGM ad photo

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.

Min-eTune on the Gibson SGM

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 rosewood 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.

Melody 12-string acoustic guitar
My old Melody 12-string acoustic. Sadly, no more.

Six months later, I returned to Fab Music guitar shop in Stockport 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.

Happy chap with a 2014 Gibson SGM

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 Gibson SGM (2014)

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.