Thursday, December 31, 2009

Folk Metal Heroes

Last on my list of guitar heroes who play metal (but far from last in my estimation) are Esa Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari from Amorphis. They are a mythic folk metal band from Finland and they have been around for 20 years and been a huge influence on the european metal scene but are still relatively unknown in the US which is a shame, but that's the US metal scene for ya.

Tomi K. (not to be mistaken for Tomi J., their singer) plays mostly rhythm and all the intricate treble, picked stuff from their early music. He also used to do their growling in the early, death metal days, but is mostly happy now to keep out of the spotlight. He also plays a mean mandolin and writes part of the music for the band. Esa plays mostly lead in that he plays most of the solos and a lot of single note parts, but a lot of the time he's playing melodies or counterpoint to the keys over the top of another melody. Amorphis is one of those ensemble bands where everyone is doing something different and making it all work together. Esa does the finnish folk melody parts on guitar and Tomi supplies the metal heaviness.

Go to the Nuclear Blast website and you can find their video for Silent Waters or Silver Bride to get an idea what I'm talking about. Their music is very epic and there's a lot going on there. Fortunately enough for a crappy guitar player like myself, a lot of what they do is not so difficult from a technical standpoint that I can't at least approximate it for playing along. The rhythms are pretty straightforward and the folk melodies are off-kilter little modal things that move around, but repeat a lot of patterns, so they are manageable as well.

Tomi's rhythm work is interesting because he spends a lot of time chunking out the barre chords, but he can also do the old school death metal single note treble rhythms and slide into more acoustic arpeggios as well. He's an understated player, not really showing off, but doing some pretty intricate and delicate stuff. Esa's lead work is soaring and emotional and makes really lovely use of his Vox wah to give it a vocal quality. I can't touch his feel or his phrasing. It's deceptively good.

They also do some lovely acoustic work.

They are supposed to be swinging over to this side of the pond again sometime soon. I'll be there.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Metal Heroes Part Deux

Opeth aren't the easiest band for a guitarist of somewhat-less-than-moderate talent to emulate. I love them, and I do my best with what little tab exists, (not that much of it is any good since they seldom use straightforward chords and most tabbers have ears of tin), but when I play much on my own I find myself barre chord riffing and experimenting with slower, simpler melodic lines. No surprise, then, that I love the music of both Swallow the Sun and Daylight Dies. Both of them make some of the most melodic, simple, and massively heavy music out there.

I really don't know what to write about Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen (of Swallow the Sun) or Barre Gambling and Charlie Shackelford (of Daylight Dies) or Greg Mackintosh and Aaron Aedy (of Paradise Lost) as players, except that they are exceptionally tasteful and understated players more interested in making beautiful music than in showing off their chops. Not that they have no chops, mind you. There are plenty of moments that show their technical abilities. Most often, however, they spend their time in service to the overall compositions and the atmosphere of the songs.

I think part of my love for these bands and their guitar work lies in the stately tone they get from their guitars and the way that their music shows that off. They all use a lovely, saturated, sustaining high-gain sound with a nice, full midrange rather than the scoop and chunk of most modern American metal. There's also some nice air and reverb in the mix without it going all cavernous and echoey like a lot of classic metal or early death metal bands.

Too many times it seems to me that guitar players get recognition mostly from having impressive chops that will sell a lot of equipment and magazines to new players who are impressed by speed. These guys remain under the radar, especially in the US music media, because they are more musicians than guitar celebrity spokesmodels. No one is going to buy a magazine chock full of their riffs because they aren't players who can be distilled into a page full of riffs, solos, and rhythm figures. They are more about chord progressions and melodies. Playing their music, which is not too difficult to pick out on your own, teaches you more about music theory and how to think outside of scales and keys and go for those little moments of transformation within the scope of the song.

I should also mention here that all of the guitar players I have mentioned so far have the good fortune to play with excellent, musical bass players who, in contrast to the norm, often play more complex lines than the guitars they are 'supporting.' Pretty much all of these guys are in ensemble bands where the whole is far greater than the individual star power of the parts.

Next up...a shift into the folkier side of metal.

ETA: I've been thinking about this post a bit and have concluded that Mackintosh and Aedy are much more riffy a unit than the other two bands, but the part of their music that sticks with me most is not the riffs, but rather the more lyrical parts. So I cheated a bit. I can live with that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Metal Heroes

Much as I love Steve Hackett's guitar playing, I listen to a lot more metal than prog. Granted, I like my metal on the proggy end of things, but I also like a heaping helping of darkness with it. And when I sit down to actually play guitar I don't end up playing much that sounds like Hackett's music either, other than my having learned a couple of his solos. As such, most of my practical guitar heroes are metal players.

My favorite metal guitarists are Mikael Ackerfeldt, Peter Lindgren, and Fredrik Akesson of Opeth. Again, it's not that they are amazing technical players. Fredrik has some serious shred and speed and I love what he has brought to the band, but what has always set Opeth apart for me is the sheer range of what they do and the tremendous contrasts that they put in their music. They manage to be both beautiful and brutal, intimate and epic. Early on in their catalogue they tended towards a lot of twin guitar riffs like on The Night and the Silent Waters -- not just harmonized lead lines a la classic Wishbone Ash but also contrapuntal classical lines and push-pull lead/chord twinned riffs like at the end of this song and all through Demon of the Fall. The lines and the rhythms tend to be complex and non-linear, always looking for something surprising.

As Opeth matured they began adding keys in the mix and giving their compositions more space and openness. As they did this they also began to incorporate more jazz, blues and old school prog elements in as well -- like the ebow and slide playing on The Drapery Falls or the simple, understated blues solos on A Fair Judgment. Yet through it all they have never gone soft or lost their instinct for the heavy and brutal. For sheer brutal bombast it's hard to beat the single chord outro riff for Deliverance or the angularity of the section of Hessian Peel from the solo at 6:15 through to the break at 7:24.

But, as always with them, the heart of their sound lies in those moments of contrast when they shift from sweet to sour. My favorite example of this is probably the section of Ghost of Perdition where the song shifts from the vocal harmonies of 'winding ever higher' with the lovely acoustic guitar playing into a stunningly beautiful and emotional bluesy guitar close that fades on a high, sustained note that resolves the section only to give way to a one-chord, syncopated riff that starts to build the tension right back up like the long slow climb of a rollercoaster towards that big drop. It's especially gratifying to see and hear live. You can watch the shift happen as the crowd goes from singing along with the delicate melody to a sort of rapture at the solo, only to watch the circle pits start to roil like a growing storm with the first notes of the pedal tone. It's like a brutal organism.

Next up, we'll shift from prog metal to doom.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dream Guitar Musings

Thinking about Steve Hackett's guitars got me dreaming about the ideal guitar, or at least the ideal counterpart to the Hagstrom Swede that I already own. The Swede is an LP type guitar with a stop-tail, twin Alnico V humbuckers, and a 24.75" scale length. I love the smooth, warm sound of its neck pup and the extra sizzle of the in-between setting, but I'd like to see what I could do with a trem equipped guitar as well.

So...in order to keep the important things constant we'll keep the scale length but start to mix things up from there.

Let's start by making it a 7-string to extend the lower end down to B without killing the tension on all the other strings to keep the intervals consistent with standard tuning. I know that I already struggle with one fewer strings, but I figure that if I'm already comfortable playing between the low E and the G strings and muting the low E when I'm playing barre chords with a root on the A that adding a low B will only really give me one more iteration of a pattern I already know. Having the extra string will allow me to cover songs from bands that tune down to D or C in addition to those that use standard tuning. The riffs will need some refiguring, but it should reduce the need for retuning.

Which is a good thing because, as I noted above, I'm wanting to have a trem on this guitar. That means either a Wilkinson or a locking trem if I want to keep anything like tuning stability, and since I want to be able to palm mute all those chunky low chords I'm getting with the extra low string I'm thinking that a Kahler is the way to go. I know that a Floyd is more popular for seven string shredders, but I think that a Kahler is better for extreme metal riffage, and I do love to chunk away.

Final bits of sonic versatility -- I love the way that Parker Flys are wired for both magnetic and piezo run together or to separate channels, so we'll say that the electronics are wired that way with piezo saddles on the Kahler running through a built in preamp to balance the signals. And, for the icing on the cake, let's make the neck pickup a Sustainiac so that we can get that awesome, singing sustain for as long as we want.

A guy can dream.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Guitar Heroes

Not sure how much of an honor it is to be a hero to a crappy guitar player, but...

Yeah, yeah. We all know about Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. They are both amazing guitarists for very different reasons (jaw dropping live playing and amazing composition respectively), so I won't waste your time going over their achievements or the achievements of the dozens of other great guitarists who get a ton of coverage in the guitar mags whether by dint of talent or of marketability and endorsements. Instead I'll concentrate on some of the guitarists I love who get less attention than they merit and from whose playing I have learned a little.

Steve Hackett -- merits top of the list for his solo on Genesis' Firth of Fifth alone. Much as I like some of his solo work, I have to say that what I love most about his playing is the way that he works within a virtuoso ensemble like Genesis in its idiosyncratic prime between Nursery Cryme and Wind and Wuthering, with Steve's special brand of genius most prominently on display in Selling England by the Pound. And again, while I love his pioneering two-handed tapping on songs like The Musical Box and Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, what slays me again and again is the understated grandeur of his soaring solos and his melodic counterpoint to Peter Gabriel's vocal lines. It's not easy to find space between Tony Banks keys and Mike Rutherford's blend of acoustic/bass/bass pedal genius, but it seems that whenever Hackett emerges from the mix he does so with amazing beauty and grace and delivers a performance that is unmistakably his own.

In addition to two handed tapping, Hackett plays some amazing slide guitar in a non-blues setting that ranges from etherial to downright rude. Given his love of sustain and crescendo, I thought for many years that he was a big Ebow player, but it turns out that much of what I thought was a combination of slide and ebow was actually Hackett's use of a Fernandes sustainer and a Floyd Rose playing through a volume pedal. You can see his Floyded out Les Paul in action here:



His solo albums after Genesis started off a bit uneven, but he still usually manages to astound often enough to make each release worthwhile and his nylon string work is always stellar. And at least once per album he reminds the listener of all that Genesis lost when they parted ways with him to chart a more radio-friendly path. He's worked with Steve Howe of Yes in their co-project GTR, and former King Crimson and Asia alum John Wetton on several notable tours. He's even managed to hold down his part of the stage while touring with John Paul Jones, Nuno Bettencourt and Paul Gilbert as part of Guitar Wars.

But mostly he's remained my most constant hero on guitar no matter what other fixations I might have at the time.

[coming next...some metal heroes]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Virtual Guitar Amp Roundup (Pt. 3): What I Didn't Expect

One of the things that surprised me most about the way I ended up ranking the software was how important mics and cabs had become to my overall impressions of the products and how much this varied from my first impressions. Nowhere was this more evident than in the split between Guitar Rig and ReValver.

Guitar Rig 3 was the second modeling suite that I downloaded after getting Pod Farm and I was really excited to play around with it and look at the different amps and stompboxes it modeled. I had it for all of a day before I went out and found the ReValver demo, and when I first heard the sounds coming out of the Peavey XXX sim I thought that it might be the best metal amp sim out there. The sounds were very dynamic and live. I didn't come back to Guitar Rig for a day or two. The ReValver just sounded more like a real amp.

When I did come back to a head-to-head comparison between the two and started playing around with more than just the amps and the stompboxes, I found myself less satisfied with the ReValver. Guitar Rig had more effects models included which, despite the broad versatility of the ReValver models, gave me more tonal options on top of the amp models. At this point Guitar Rig crept back up in my estimation, but there wasn't a lot of daylight between the two.

Then I started to play around with the cabs and mics.

Peavey's cab modeling may be state-of-the-art and very realistic, but they are hard to navigate -- more like searching a list of presets than experimenting with different mic placements and cabinet enclosures. You look through a long list of options broken up into collections organized around cabinet --> mic --> mic placement (i.e. Peavey Collection | 6505 4x12 | sm57(a) )with little description of those options within the software itself. Each cab had a set of knobs to adjust the sound of the speakers, but it was hard to get an idea of how the various changes to those virtual pots translated into sounds. (There was an option for building custom cabs as well, but that option always crashed my software whenever I tried to use it.) Given the sheer number of options to navigate and select from and the difficulty of doing so from a single drop-down menu I quickly found myself frustrated both by the mono boxiness of the default sounds and by my inability to change a single ingredient (cab, mic, placement) without going back to the list and searching for the combination that I wanted to try. And those choices seemed fairly limited in most cases with only two mic positions listed. Given Peavey's thoroughness with this product I am fairly sure that I'm missing or misunderstanding some of the options. I hope I am. But whether or not this is the case, the interface design for this particular part of the software suite is both non-intuitive and not much fun, which quickly turns into a recipe for accepting and criticizing the default settings, which tend towards flat, closely miked sounds with little air or reverb. Meh.

Guitar Rig, on the other hand, gives you two different paths to tweaking the sound and splits the options in easy to navigate and highly intuitive ways. Using the matched cabs function you automatically get the standard cab for whatever amp you choose (i.e. a closed back 4x12 for the Marshall sim) a slider to blend between the sound of a condenser and a dynamic mic, and a slider for the amount of air to put between the mic and the cab. Switching to the cabinet options you get to choose the type of cabinet you are working with, the mic that you are using to record the cab, and the placement of that mic between 4 or 5 different options (on-axis, off-axis, edge, far, and back for open backed cabs), and dials for many other options. It's easier to navigate because the options are broken up into more manageable lists and it's easier to experiment with because you can change one option at a time and hear the difference that makes while chasing the ambience you are looking for. It's less like duplicating a real guitar amp sound and more like looking for a sweet spot that combines all the interactions of amps, mics, cabs, and rooms.

For the record, both the AmpliTube and the Pod Farm lie somewhere between these two on the cab and mic tweaking front. They are more intuitive than the ReValver and more streamlined than either ReValver or Guitar Rig. Guitar Rig is the standout here in my evaluation.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Virtual Guitar Amp Roundup (Pt. 2): Last Things First

Rather than making you read through a review of each piece of software before I give you my final impression and a comparative evaluation, I'll start with my informal ranking and impressions of which ones I've ended up using and enjoying most and what kept me from matching speeds with the others or wanting to use them more. Once again (in case you are viewing the post on its own rather than on the page with the rest of the posts) I'm comparing Line 6 Pod Farm (1.11) with Native Instruments Guitar Rig 3 demo version (3.2.1), Peavey's ReValver Mk. III_Live demo, IK Multimedia's AmpliTube 2 and AmpliTube Metal demos, and Waves GTR3 Solo (3.5).

First a disclaimer -- I'm not putting full weight on my evaluation of either the two AmpliTubes or the GTR3. IK Multimedia gives you a fully functioning version of their software, but puts a 10 day limit on their software demos, after which they inject white noise into the signal on a regular basis to keep you from using the software for recording. Peavey does the same thing with white noise, but with no 10 day grace period, but AmpliTube injects the noise far more frequently and obtrusively than does Peavey, so while I've continued to explore the Peavey software for an extended time, I only got about 8 hours of time to mess with each of the AmpliTubes, and that was a while back. As for the GTR3 Solo software, it's a one year demo but it includes fewer models than the full version 13 of 24 stomp boxes, 10 of 25 amps, 10 of 23 cabinets, and a limited set of mic options. This is a lot of variety compared to a small modeling amp, but not a fair comparison to the full demo versions of the other software or my full but unexpanded version of Pod Farm. It gives you enough to play around with different styles of music, but not enough to get much range within that style. And, unlike the other software companies, Waves withholds some of their more basic models (i.e. plexi and rectifier) and gives you exclusive custom amps instead -- probably in hopes of getting you to upgrade to the full version to try the staples. This does, however, make it hard to compare the tone of models head-to-head if one is so inclined.

After bouncing back and forth between the different software for a few weeks (less the AmpliTubes) and trying to give each piece of software its due, I find that I'm coming back to Pod Farm and Guitar Rig 3 more often than the others. With ReValver getting the nod next and GTR3 just not inspiring me. I enjoyed the AmpliTube 2 demo a great deal while I had it and would probably rank it somewhere around the ReValver based on first impressions. The AmpliTube Metal sounded good, but only included 5 amp models and was by far the most limited in its versatility. Even as a metal head I found myself wanting a bit more range. It could handle classic, thrash, and metalcore/groove just fine, but was too limited to cover anything like the range of Opeth or more progressive sounds.

GTR 3 is a very polished sounding modeling suite. I see that a lot of producers like it, and I'm pretty sure this is because if you look at guitars as something to be added into a mix it gives you very finished sounding tracks. As a player, however, I always thought that the sounds were very processed and didn't have as much range as the others. It's hard to find anything that sounds ugly and dirty. I think I like my guitar with a few less manners. I also didn't like its interface as much. Again, this one seemed like it was built to look familiar to someone who uses DAWs all day rather than for a guitarist that also wants to be able to record or run a virtual rig into an amp miked into a PA.

The AmpliTubes sound great. It's a very detailed and dimensional sound and the way that they set up the cabinets and mics in the interface really helped me to get a better handle on how those things might work in real life. Changing these parameters really changes the sound and gives you a lot of variety even when working with one amp and one cab. The interface is easy to use and intuitive for someone who is used to working with real amps and stompboxes or for someone who has a basic grasp of signal chains. The effects also sound quite good. Like I said above, I thought the AmpliTube 2 was a really strong and versatile product and with more time it might have displaced one of the others.

ReValver strikes me as being a virtual amp modeler aimed at tube snobs that hate modeling amps. It has the dirtiest amp models of the batch, in a low tech, analog dirt sort of way. I've found clips of these models A/B'ed with their real world counterparts and doubt I could tell the difference in any meaningful way. They do sound different, but not in any way that makes the ReValver stand out as a digital simulation. If my biggest goal was to own something that sounded and responded as similar to a real amp as possible I'd get this software. And when the tweakability factor of being able to swap tubes and adjust components and speakers and cabs gets thrown into the mix I'd be all over this if I wanted to build or mod my own tube amps and wanted to narrow in on a sound ahead of time. What I don't like about it, however, is the way that it implements its mic sims and the way that everything ends up sounding like...well...a miked amp. ReValver makes complex and convincing sounds, but they seem less dimensional than the sounds that come out of Pod Farm, Guitar Rig, or the AmpliTube models. The sounds are great, but it would be just as much work to get a good recording sound out of ReValver as it would to get one from a real amp. I also never got the custom cabinet modeler to work without crashing the software.

What sold me on Pod Farm and Guitar Rig in the end was the way that each managed the compromises between being a modeler and being a piece of audio software. The models sound good and get the right feel for a wide range of music. The effects are great, moreso on Guitar Rig than Pod Farm, but then Guitar Rig is also a bit more expensive and Pod Farm can be expanded for not a lot of extra investment. Each gave up a little in realism to the ReValver and the AmpliTube, but they are also easier to use and give you a little more to play with in terms of exploring sounds. Guitar Rig also gives you some impressive options for adjusting virtual mic placement. Pod Farm, on the other hand, gives you a cheap and easy way into the USB world and still sounds great and packs in more versatility than any of the less expensive modeling amps. Trying out all the rest has convinced me that my $50 Line 6 investment got me an awful lot.

If I were going back now to make the investment (USB box and software) all over again I think I would end up choosing between a Line 6 Pod Studio UX1 and the Native Instruments Guitar Rig Kontrol Edition depending on my budget and plans. If I just wanted to play at home and record tracks without the need of channel switching or expression pedals I'd go with Line 6 at half the price of Guitar Rig. If I wanted to use the rig live or needed to switch sounds on the fly I'd definitely opt up for Guitar Rig.

Hope this helps.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Virtual Guitar Amp Roundup (Pt. 1): How I Learned To Love The USB.

When I first purchased my Hagstrom Swede a little over a year ago I had no amp to go with it. I'd been playing off and on for years on a sweet little Fender acoustic I had picked up in the late '80s, but I had not ever taken the plunge and bought an electric, so I was coming at this decision as a complete beginner. I read everything I could find online about amps. There are some, but not many, reliable buyers guides that give you more than a lukewarm sales pitch, but most guides are either linked to a big seller (who is understandably reluctant to say anything negative about the products that they hope to sell you) or is a collection of amp facts combined with bong hit pseudo-science about why tube amps are louder than solid state amps and romantic mythology about what makes all those vintage amps out there so great. [I don't have space or time right now to talk about what makes one amp louder than another, and as for why so many vintage instruments and amps are so great, a big chunk of that is simply that most of the lemons have ended up in a junkyard somewhere. The ones that have been kept and taken care of are either awesome, collectors items, or forgotten attic treasures that may or may not be lemons.]

As I noted in the previous post, a lot of what I was looking for in an amp was variety. I know now what sorts of sounds I like as a player, but I didn't know that at the time, so I was looking for something with a lot of potential for sounds ranging from acoustic to extreme metal. I was also looking for something both inexpensive (< $300) and practical for a small apartment with lots of neighbors and lots of open windows.

The first thing to drop off my list was a small tube amp like the Fender SCXD. I love the sound of tubes as much as the next guitarist, but tubes are expensive and they wear out -- two things that most buyers guides fail to mention. It was also large enough that it would always need to be taken out and put away each time I wanted to break out the guitar. I wanted something smaller, more versatile, and lower maintenance. That left me pretty much a choice between a small modeling amp like a Line 6, Peavey, or Vox, or a direct box virtual setup.

I ended up opting for a Line 6 Toneport GX, which was going for $49 at the time and came with Gear Box software that promised to emulate a whole lot of classic amps, cabinets, stomp boxes and the like and also give me the option to mess with digital recording if I so desired. The only drawbacks to this plan were that I had to play near a computer and could not play live for or jam with friends.

Of course given how I sounded at the time this was probably a feature rather than a bug.

In the last year I have gotten very familiar with the Toneport and discovered that it could be used as a digital interface for any of the other major virtual amp sims. Wondering how Gear Box stacked up with the others I downloaded a free copy of Pod Farm from Line 6 and then went on to get demo copies of Native Instrument's Guitar Rig 3, Peavey's ReValver MkIII Live, IK Multimedia's AmpliTube 2 and AmpliTube Metal, and Waves GTR3 Solo. I've played around with each of these enough to get an idea of how they feel and sound and can give you my impressions of each.

Which I'll do, starting with the next post.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prelude to a Review

I'd like to share my thoughts about the virtual amp software that I've been trying out over the last month or so, but before doing that I think it might be useful to establish where I'm coming from in these reviews with a bit more solidity than the first couple posts might give you.

I hear a lot of people sneer at modeling software and the like with the underlying assumption that there is something artificial about digital simulations and that tubes are somehow more real or more honest.

I'm not even sure what either of these things mean.

I get that it's hard to sound good with fewer additions to the signal chain and that it takes a lot of talent, practice and technique to make an acoustic sound good. I also get that effects and processing and sequencing and the like can mask and augment a performance that sounds mediocre at best without all these enhancements (see pitch corrected vocals in pop/electronica). I'm sympathetic to these arguments in the sense that I'd readily agree that Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler are better guitar players than Edge, but that argument really sells Edge short as a musician because so much of what he gives to U2 has nothing to do with his skill as a player.

Bringing this back to the subject at hand...I don't really care whether or not modeling amps or virtual amps are "real" or even if they do a particularly good job of simulating the equipment that the software engineers claim to have emulated in designing their product. I've never used even a fraction of the equipment that these things emulate, and I don't think that really matters. What matters to me is whether the sounds that my guitar produces when I'm using one of these software packages inspires me to play better or differently in a way that reminds me why I love music in the first place. If using it and playing with it puts a smile on my face and keeps me coming back then I'm interested. If I find myself spending a lot of time tweaking it or stuck in a rut with no smile on my face, well...that's not so good.

If I were a gigging musician I'd be a lot more concerned with simplicity and live switching and reliability. If I were a recording musician I'd be a lot more concerned with how these things sound when they are buried in a mix with a lot of other elements. If I were one of those guys that argues about which players or what guitars or amps are better than the others I'd be spending all my time arguing about a bunch of old equipment I had never played in an effort to sound like an authority. And I'd probably own a cheap tube amp and talk about that old Fender/Marshall/Mesa/Vox that I wish I'd never sold.

That's not me.

I'm the guy that plays mostly badly, mostly in his bedroom, mostly through headphones. And I'm the guy that, every once in a while, changes the settings on my modeling software to something new and different and looks up an hour later and find that he's been chasing the sounds that were in his own head and not sounding like a deficient imitation of his favorite guitar players.

My reviews are going to be biased towards those moments.

Just so you know.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Scale Length, Physics, and 22 vs. 24 Frets -- Why Ed Roman is Full of Crap

A while back while I was looking for my Hagstrom guitar I ended up on the Ed Roman site and poked around a bit to see what he had to say. His site definitely has a high entertainment value compared to many other high traffic guitar sites on the web because unlike most other sites that simply reproduce the marketing copy of the big name guitar makers and avoid much controversy, Ed Roman (or Ed Roman's ghost writer, if he uses one) aims to attract an audience that is suspicious of these marketing claims.

The gist of Ed Roman's arguments can be summed up in two sentences: You're a sucker if you buy a big name guitar from a corporate music store. Smart guitar players buy hand built American guitars from Ed Roman. Ed puts forth this argument wherever he can, weaving it through his ad copy and linking in and out of his webpage to lead surfers from the popular brands on his site to one of the guitars -- an Abstract, Baker, Pearlcaster, or Quicksilver -- for which Ed Roman is the primary distributor.

Ed also weaves together his own rants with "tech articles" in order to further his claims that his own guitars are far superior to any of the big name guitars that he disparages on his site. I was especially intrigued by one of his "technical papers" that featured prominently on his site where he criticized Paul Reed Smith's design for his 22 fret guitars with a 25 inch scale length. This article, which Ed characterizes as "[maybe] one of the best technical articles on this website."

Go ahead. Click and read. His hit counter will love you for it. Just be sure to come back and finish reading this once you are through there.

The quick summary of his article (or of John Johnson's explanation) is simple -- 24 fret guitars are better than 22 fret guitars because the pickup on a 22 fret guitar is right were the 24th fret would be, and this is a "dead node of the third overtone." This is a fatal design flaw because you can't change the laws of physics.

Assuming for a moment that this were true, I have yet to figure out what law of physics prevents someone making a 22 fret guitar from moving the pickup back to where it would be if there were two more frets. Just leave a little more space between the fretboard and the pickup. The difference is only a little more than 0.75" on a 25.5" scale guitar. How hard is that?

But that assumes that the basic claim is both a. true and b. relevant in the first place. Is it?

I put together a table that lists the fret placement for a 25.5" scale neck (found at ProjectGuitar.com and taken from Melvyn Hiscock's well respected book Make Your Own Electric Guitar) and expanded it out for our purposes here:


Fret Dist. from NutDist. From Bridge1st Harm.2nd Harm.3rd Harm.4th Harm.
(Speaking Length)    
00.00025.50012.7508.5006.3755.100
11.43124.06912.0358.0236.0174.814
22.78222.71811.3597.5735.6804.544
34.05721.44310.7227.1485.3614.289
45.26120.23910.1206.7465.0604.048
56.39719.1039.5526.3684.7763.821
67.46918.0319.0166.0104.5083.606
78.48117.0198.5105.6734.2553.404
89.43616.0648.0325.3554.0163.213
910.33815.1627.5815.0543.7913.032
1011.18914.3117.1564.7703.5782.862
1111.99213.5086.7544.5033.3772.702
1212.75012.7506.3754.2503.1882.550
1313.46612.0346.0174.0113.0092.407
1414.14111.3595.6803.7862.8402.272
1514.77910.7215.3613.5742.6802.144
1615.38010.1205.0603.3732.5302.024
1715.9489.5524.7763.1842.3881.910
1816.4849.0164.5083.0052.2541.803
1916.9908.5104.2552.8372.1281.702
2017.4688.0324.0162.6772.0081.606
2117.9197.5813.7912.5271.8951.516
2218.3447.1563.5782.3851.7891.431
2318.7466.7543.3772.2511.6891.351
2419.1256.3753.1882.1251.5941.275


The first two columns are from Hiscock's calculations. The third just reverses these calculations to measure the distance from the bridge rather than from the nut (the scale length minus the distance from the nut) which is important because this gives us the speaking length of the string when fretted at each fret. The remaining columns calculate the location of the nodes for the first four harmonic overtones of the string (at 0.50, 0.33, 0.25, and 0.20 the length of the string, respectively). These harmonic overtones give us the values for the intervals incorporated into the Western musical scale, but that is outside of our concern here. What we are interested in here is the correspondence between column 3 and row 1. According to my calculations here the node of the third harmonic overtone does indeed coincide with the location of the 24th fret -- both are 6.375" from the bridge -- so the basic claim that Ed Roman (and John Johnson) makes is true, but that does not mean that the claim is relevant, or that the conclusions that they draw from this fact are warranted. If we understand the rest of the table and what it is saying we will understand why Ed's point is far less relevant than it pretends to be.

The scale length of the guitar is important for the feel of how it plays and the distance between the frets, but if we are making claims about where to put the neck pickup we need to understand that these relationships only tell us anything absolute about the notes we play on the open strings or at the octaves on those strings because fretting a note changes the speaking length of the string and this changes the mathematical relations between them. If we were playing a harp where the speaking length of the string is fixed, we could optimize the pickup placement the way that the tech article on Ed Roman's website implies, but playing a guitar involves changing the speaking length of the string with every different note. Just look at the way the location of the overtone nodes change as you move down the neck. As the string length shortens so does the distance of the node from the bridge (the only really fixed node on the guitar.

For example, if we are playing an open A string on a standard E tuned guitar then a pickup where the 24th fret would be is at the node for the third overtone of that A note (6.375" from the bridge), but is not at the node for the third overtone of the B note played at the second fret on the same string (5.68" from the bridge). In fact, the node for the third harmonic of the B is closer to where the pickup on a 24 fret guitar would be. So by Ed Roman's line of reasoning you should never buy one of his guitars if you ever plan to play a B note and have it sound good.

Screw E minor. Who needs it anyway.

And this is just comparing single notes on the same string. Think about trying to optimize pickup placement for a jazz chord like a Gadd9 or a Dmin7 with an open string and a three fret spread somewhere up the neck where three of the four strings being played have very different speaking lengths.

So the 'design flaw' that the Ed Roman article points out only really holds true for notes played on the open strings (or at the octaves). The moment you fret any other note the mathematical relations all change. That's the other immutable law of physics that neither Ed Roman nor his physicist engineer friend John Johnson mention in the article.

Guitars are built to be fretted, and the shifting relationship between speaking lengths is what makes chords played on different strings sound so different from each other even when they are composed of the same notes. The only reason Ed wants you to buy that this is a design flaw is so that he can sell you his own guitar rather than one you can buy almost anywhere.

Frankly, if I wanted a semi-custom, American made guitar I'd go with Carvin long before Ed Roman.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nothing Much To Begin

I'm making this blog in order to have a place to post my thoughts on all matters guitar. I've been playing on and off for years -- pretty basic stuff, mostly -- and I pretty much suck as a guitarist. There are pre-teens that have made more progress in a year of playing than I have in all my years. That's okay with me. I only do this because I like playing. I get to make sounds not entirely unlike music, some of which are pretty enough to keep my partner from leaving the room when I play and have fun doing it with absolutely no bad consequences when I screw up. Not a bad gig, all in all.

That said, I love guitar just as much as the next, better player. And I love *my* guitars just as much as the next gearhead. And I love finding new sounds to make with them. I live in an apartment, so my primary setup is running my Hagstrom Swede through a Line 6 USB audio interface into an iMac running any one of a half-dozen virtual hardware sims, demo or full, to satisfy my jones for tones. I use these to play loudly and badly for about an hour every day.

I might write up a review of some of these things in the near future or put together my thoughts on strings, or finally get my thoughts out on why 95% of what I read on the internet about scale lengths and pickup placement and whatnot is a complete load of crap. We'll see.

After all, I have lots of other writing that I'm paid to do, and a guitar that I could be thrashing instead of writing stuff like this.