Five Things I Learned in 2019

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

Fender staggered headstock

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

Fender floating tremolo

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.]

Relative Minor

MIDI keyboard keys

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

1970s JHS Guitar Combo

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

Hosco SOS nut compensator

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.


A Bad Workman Blames His Tools

Once I started playing guitar again, I experienced some of the same problems I had back in the late seventies, when I was learning to play. Some of the teething problems were:

  • barre cramp
  • sore fingertips and fingernail maintenance
  • muffled and buzzing notes
  • speed and dexterity
Playing the Pink Strat

And, although I played regularly throughout the 80s, the last 30 years’ inactivity had set me back, for two reasons:

  1. lack of practice (obviously)
  2. long-forgotten repertoire

Visitors would occasionally point at my guitar, slumbering in the corner of the room and suggest, “can you give us a tune?”
I would change the subject, because I knew that I’d struggle to find something to play, and tie my fingers in knots in the process. Forgetting your repertoire over time creates a vicious circle: the less you can play, the less you will play.

Blame the Guitar

As a way of avoiding feeling bad about my playing, I decided to blame the guitar instead. This was a valuable lesson, because I realised that the way the guitar is set up has a bigger effect on what it’s like to play (and how it sounds) than I thought. And there’s no point in making (re-)learning harder than absolutely necessary.

I won’t go into details on my personal guitar set-up odyssey, because there are already many online tutorials and videos on the subject. I’m not one to reinvent the wheel. What I will say is that it is important that you do it. If you’re not particularly tooled-up or a handy sort of person, I highly recommend paying a luthier or guitar tech to do it for you. Expect to pay £50, give or take a couple of tenners, depending on the thoroughness of the job, which should include:

  • secure and lubricate machine heads (tuners)
  • secure and lubricate tailpiece/bridge
  • secure a bolt-on neck (but don’t overtighten)
  • adjust neck relief
  • adjust nut height* and lubricate
  • adjust bridge/saddle height(s)
  • adjust pickup heights
  • polish frets
  • clean guitar and fretboard
  • change strings
  • adjust intonation
Measuring string action

These are all things you can do yourself with the right tools. Most people already have various Philips and slotted screwdrivers, and Vaseline makes a good general purpose lubricant. A steel rule marked in 64ths of an inch and half-millimetres comes in useful. You may need an inexpensive truss rod wrench (and a bit of care) to adjust neck relief. Special paper and a fretboard mask for fret polishing can be bought cheaply.

[* The only job I’d advise extreme caution with is nut adjustment. Nuts are deceptively tricky creatures, and can cause chaos if set up badly. Though, if you mess one up, a new nut is cheap, and might actually be a good upgrade. I bought a set of luthier’s nut files from the excellent Tonetech in Stockport, which was expensive, and, on reflection, I probably wouldn’t use now — I’d adjust nut height from the base instead.]

A Good Set-up is Like Buying a New Guitar

Depending on what it was like before, once your old guitar has had a thorough set-up, it could be transformed dramatically. Not only could your guitar be easier to play, it might well sound better, and you will want to play it more.