Guitars Repaired. Recycled. Reborn.
Getting a new guitar is fun, and for many of us a great lubricant in the creative process when you feel like you are out of ideas or just in a rut. Getting a new guitar isn't, for many of us, the most responsible thing to do on a regular basis. Upgrades on the other hand aren't quite so hard on the pocketbook and have the same end result.
Bone nut and saddle.
Upgrading the string nut from plastic to bone on any guitar that doesn't have a vibrato is a pretty significant upgrade in terms of the liveliness and sustain of open strings and upgrading the saddle on an acoustic guitar does the same thing for fretted notes. It just sounds better and the energy of the vibrating string transfers to the wood of the guitar in a much more efficient way. It is fairly time consuming for a luthier to cut a bone nut so expect a few hours of labor and the cost of materials. String nuts are not, as it crazy as this is to comprehend for some people, a replacement part. They are individually fitted and adjusted to each guitar by hand and have a significant effect on both the action and intonation of an instrument.
Upgrading the electronics of an electric guitar is one of my favorite ways to make people fall back in love with an instrument that they were bored with.
Upgrading the tone pot circuit is probably the cheapest and most overlooked mod you can do. Most people never touch the tone knob on their guitar because it just sounds like mud. By removing that capacitor (that cost the manufacturer $00.005) and swapping it out with a higher quality replacement you can actually roll off some treble without turning your guitar sound into murk. Higher quality doesn't necessarily mean the $20-$60 reproductions of the '50's blahblahblah... The Sprague orange drop caps that cost a couple of bucks make a massive difference. If you think about it, a couple of bucks is a lot of money compared to half a penny. Well worth it, and you can experiment with values too, personally i always like a lower value cap than what is standard. Lower values roll off at a higher frequency. I find this is good for getting a little bit of snot when overdriven but does not do the thumpy palm muted thing as well.
This is the biggest sonic upgrade you can make in my opinion and will require another full blog entry to scratch the surface. In a nut shell, replacing the pickups in your guitar is not that far off from getting a new guitar. Pickups are inherently expensive and time consuming to make and at some point (maybe in the early '70's?) most major guitar manufacturers just gave up on spending that money and stopped caring. Now in the age of super cheap magnets and cnc machines, stock pickups are overwhelmingly really bad. A set of pickups from a hand-made/boutique winder will blow your mind if you've never had them before and make your guitar sound a lot closer to the guitar tones that you hear on old records that you've always found elusive. I'd always rather have a cheaper guitar with expensive pickups than an expensive guitar with mass produced pickups.
Simple enough, guitars are wooden and they move with the weather. They need to be set up, and a really good set up will make your guitar play better and sound more in tune with your band or recordings than it ever has before.
When you pick up a guitar that you really fall in love with, it is well set up. See if you can't get your tech to adjust the one you already have to play as well as it can and see how close it comes. You'll be surprised.
Compared to the upkeep involved with pianos or violins, having a guitar setup twice a year is very inexpensive.
There are a bunch of other nerdy little tweaks that can be done to make the guitar you already have into a much better instrument. Think about what it is that you like about your dream guitar and what it is that you dislike about your current instrument and hit me up, I'll see if i can point you in the right direction.
I've been thinking a lot about amps. I just sold the best amp i've ever owned with the lofty ambition of building something that suits my needs even better. More on that as I begin the build.
I think I'd like to break down some common misunderstandings that go along with needs, wants, and accepting the reality of your particular situation. Amps them selves are instruments. Some players utilize this fact more than others and I honestly envy the great players that could care less if they were plugged into a 6 foot tall pile of pignose amps so long as it was loud. I don't fall into that category and I suspect that if you are reading this, you don't either. I can name a dozen amps that I absolutely love the sound, response, and feel of when they are cranked but are completely useless to me because there isn't a drummer loud enough to warrant that kind of volume in a club or mid sized venue situation. Those amps were designed before the advent of decent PA systems in clubs and that meant that your amp was your PA system. This is No longer the case. PA's do a great job. Lower stage volumes mean that the rest of the band can actually hear what they're doing, and in turn, you can hear what they're doing (crazy right?). Lower stage volumes also mean that the sound guy/gal won't have to repeatedly ask you to turn down... which leads to them being less cranky and maybe even happy about working your gig, and that happiness often turns into something magical... like them listening to what you're doing and adjusting volumes as the songs change. Again, mind-blowing.
Find an amp that has the sound that you want, at the volume that you rehearse at.
There, that's the magic formula. If you can mix yourselves in the room that you rehearse in, you can mix yourselves on a stage. And that means that all the PA has to do is amplify that sound to fill a larger room. Now there are a lot of ins and outs to properly amplifying your band to fill the room, and that is why a good sound person is absolutely priceless, but having your own mess sorted out before you get on stage makes their job so much easier.
"So... we're a five piece band...how many Watts do i need?"
Here's where all of this simplicity gets annoying. The wattage rating of an amp means very very little. A 15 Watt Vox is as loud as a 22 Watt Fender which is as loud as a 40 Watt Roland... I'm not gonna get into the reasons why because they are irrelevant. It has to do with how they are rated, and companies wanting to boast better/louder specs in the 50's and 60's. It doesn't matter because it is an unchangeable truth but the short answer to the question is, "fewer than you think"
Think about how often a sound person has asked you to turn down. Now think about how many times you've been asked to turn up. It's a bummer when your sound is perfectly tweaked to overdrive the way you want it to and clean up when you roll your volume down and all of that goes out the window the second you turn your amp below that magic spot on the volume pot.
Set the amp you currently have to that magic spot and see how loud it is. Is it the volume that you practice at? When it is set to that volume, can you hear the vocals? the nuances of the drums?
If the answer is yes, then you have what you need in terms of volume. You are lucky.
If the answer is no, you have the wrong amp. My guess is that, unless you are totally belligerent, you turn your amp down to fit the music you are playing. That's a bummer when you've heard how good it sounds turned up and felt it respond in amazing dynamic ways based on how you pick when it's at that sweet spot. Don't blame the club, or the singer, or whoever... everybody is out to make the music as good as it can be, and part of that is them wanting to hear your guitar sounding as good as they know it should. Start trying smaller amps. If your amp is just a little bit too loud, try swapping out the tubes and speakers for less efficient models. I used to use a cabinet with an alnico speaker for smaller clubs and a ceramic speaker for larger ones.The difference in volume was perfect. Borrow stuff from friends, try stuff out in stores, do you have a cool old practice amp? get another one... nobody said you can't use two, rent time in a studio to try a bunch of things with your drummer playing the songs you actually play. It always blows my mind when people try out guitars or amps and play what they think should be played in a guitar shop instead of the music they actually play...but that's a totally different post all together.
Think about how nice it'd be if you could unload into a venue with your guitar case in one hand and your amp in the other.
Well, this is the first installment of my very first blog. My job from day to day varies in terms of what, exactly, I'm working on... but stays pretty much the same in terms of an over all goal, which is to carefully listen to what people say is wrong or not quite perfect about their guitar in artistic terms and try to translate that into the physical world. I'd say about half of the time the problem is actually a physical problem... the guitar has been neglected or kept in extreme hot or cold or arid or humid conditions, the guitar hasn't ever been properly setup (which somehow never happens in the factory, even on the nicest of instruments), or the guitar is just due for some basic maintenance.
The other half of the time the problem is basically the guitar equivalent of being really thirsty and realizing that all you have is pizza.
What I mean is that the instrument that you own isn't being the medium that you had hoped it would be between your ideas and you ears. You're thinking John Fahey and when you play you're hearing Motorhead.
Now to be clear, both artists in my opinion do what they do perfectly, but perfect is not a synonym for appropriate.
Since the beginning, guitar manufacturers have touted their products as being "best," or "most versatile," or "professional." But all of that is nonsense. Every instrument has it's own sound, and with your hands and ideas (good or bad), becomes something unique. Many great records have been made with equipment that is thought of as amateur or cheap, and there are plenty of bad songs played poorly every minute of every day on really expensive vintage and boutique instruments.
Long story short- there is no right or wrong. There is happy and unhappy. If what you have suits you perfectly, gives you the sound you hear in your head, inspires you to play differently, calls out to you to be picked up whenever you walk by... it can't be wrong. Even if it's a $5 thrift store find (which my first guitar was) that has no name and is mostly held together with duct tape and charleston chews. It isn't wrong, or less-than, or inferior to a $200,000 '50's Gibson. It makes your art, it's part of you.
If it isn't all of those things, all is not lost... it can be. That's what I try to do all day, and that's what this blog will be about.
Basically, i'll be posting ideas both simple and nerdy-complicated that might help you figure out what you're looking for.
I considered going in some sort of order with this; from basics to more advanced, but have abandoned that idea. I think it'll be in some sort of order of what's on the bench that week, or if I notice a trend in hearing the same questions from different groups of people, i'll go with it. If you have any particular areas of interest, drop me a line. I may not get to it
right away, but i will certainly get to it. Thanks, and let me know what you're thinking.
Guitars Repaired. Recycled. Reborn.