Categories
General

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.

Categories
General

Staircase Theory

I still remember what it was like to learn guitar in my teens, back in the late 70s. It was bloody hard work. I recently read that Fender had done some research, and worked out that 45% of their guitars were sold to beginners, and that 90% of those beginners gave up within a year.

That’s pretty shocking news to me, but understandable. Even now I’m playing again, it often feels like learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain. But it was always this way, and I’m sure it always will be. But, it’s not all bad news…

Keith's first guitar, a spanish-style acoustic

Back in the 70s, I would spend hours with a guitar, trying desperately to persuade my fingers to do what was shown in my library books about songs and chords. They would tangle and fall over each other, miss the frets, snag the strings and usually arrive late. It was very frustrating.

After a few months of banging my head against a wall, I found that things had suddenly become easier overnight. My hands obeyed my commands. It was like I’d been given a new body, better at playing the guitar. But, a few weeks later, it was back to climbing the mountain, and I forgot all about that strange day when everything got easier. Until…

Keith playing the Kasuga at home

…another few months later, it happened again. This wasn’t just a one-off thing. It appeared that learning guitar was more like climbing a big staircase than a mountain. I would struggle for weeks to absorb new techniques and songs. Then, after a protracted period of struggle, it would all fall into place very quickly.

There must be a very good reason for this phenomenon, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Maybe it’s something to do with muscle memory. It certainly still happens to me, 40 years after starting. And this time around, the gains were greater: the stuff I learned when I was young was still there, and just needed a bit of exercise. I was back to where I was when I stopped playing (comparatively) very quickly.

So, now I’m back on the horse, I’m also back to climbing the big staircase. That first step was a easy one. I wonder what the next one will bring.