I have decided once again to bring in our distinguished guest panel of experts to further your understanding of your instrument's function in relation to your playing and your own techniques which result therefrom. This time, our guest is Ralph Novak, of San Leandro, California. Ralph is an expert par excellence on scale-lengths and guitar building. In addition, he excels in other areas of guitar knowledge, as you will see.
In this installment, Ralph will re-inforce the importance of how your guitar's scale-length affects your string's function and sound, as this is just as crucial to your final tone, if not more important then external vices such as your amplifier. Consider this commentary as our version of that all-too-famous "Perfect Pitch" course you've heard so much about in the last few years. Ladies and gentlemen, without further adieu...Ralph Novak.
WHILE Dean's focus in these discussions have centered around the string itself, I'd like to expand that focus to the string as it functions in context: how the string relates to the guitar and the musician. This is information that can be put to use immediately by you; to help you understand those variables that can define your sound, and to get at the root of some basic equipment decisions. While some "science" will be presented, it won't be scary and I promise I'll relate it to the reality of producing music on the guitar.
Let's dive right in: a model of the physical ideal of the vibrating string consists of (for our purposes) three basic parts; These parts inter-relate ...if you vary one element, it affects all the others. These parts are the string's MASS, that is, it's density versus it's size; the VIBRATING LENGTH of the string, or, the scale-length of the guitar; and the TENSION of the string, or, it's tuning. Other elements such as friction and elasticity, while very important to the physicist, are much less critical for us as musicians because these factors are relatively consistant for our application, so can be eliminated as variables.
To apply this relationship to our musical milieu: A Gibson Les Paul has a shorter scale-length than a Fender Strat; if both guitars are strung with a .010 through a .046 set, and both tuned to concert pitch, the Les Paul will have a "looser feel" than the Strat. The shorter scale- length of the Les Paul allows the string to come up to pitch at less tension; more about how this influences tone later, for now let's continue exploring our physical model.
If we tune the two instruments so that each has equal string tension, the Les Paul will have a higher pitch. Further, if we juggle the string gauges so that both instruments have the same string tension at the same tuning, we'd have to use larger (increased mass) strings on the Les Paul or smaller (decreased mass) strings on the Strat. An important factor that is present in this relationship is the "real world" environment: since this is not a mathematical ideal but a functional relationship, we're limited by physical size and the properties of materials we're likely to encounter.
Another way to express this is that these variables in our model will only work best in a limited range: we won't expect to get good performance from a string that is too large or small for our applications, or we won't encounter any guitars with 96" scale-lengths that are played by humans in the traditional ways. As musicians this means that we know that we can alter a variable in this relationship only so much--- if we push the limits we may sacrifice performance in important ways. For instance, if we would like to use our guitar in a "dropped D" tuning, (where the low "E" string is tuned down a whole step), and we are using light gauge strings, the re-tuned low "E" string may have a "flaccid" sound, it may rattle and buzz, and it may not hold the pitch very well.
Moving up a few gauges to a heavier string will help...nothing new here, but more is not neccessarily better. If we push the gauge of the low "E" string up to, say, .090, we may expect to get a rich, sonorous, deep dropped "D"; NOT! The physical size of a .090 string at a guitar scale-length actually works againest getting a good tone. The mass of such a string at guitar scale-length will produce a dead, muddy tone; the "real world" has intruded on our ideal and the physical properties of strings, scale-lengths, and tension have been exceeded.
Notice that the same .090 string installed on a bass with a much longer scale-length than a guitar works perfectly fine; we have increased the scale-length to the point where the string can function within it's normal range. Another "real world" factor in this relationship is the consistency of the mass over the length of the vibrating string; strings that are out of balance or lumpy will distort the vibrational pattern and the series of nodes that create the harmonics generated by the string.
This can be used to advantage in some applications, such as piano or bass strings that are wound so that the core only passes over the saddle: this makes for a "livelier" tone because the string is more flexible at the contact surfaces; but the wound portion of the string must still be consistent in mass over its length for good performance. This is where the quality of the string comes into play. A string that is unbalanced due to manufacturing defects or wear or accumulated grunge will not tune as accurately or sound as rich as one that is uniform in mass.
This factor is vitally important to us as musicians; we spend countless hours developing our technique, honing our sound, and countless dollars on the equipment that delivers that tone. We're shooting ourselves in the foot if we then compromise our tone by using old, cruddy strings or strings that have manufacturing defects. In fairness, it must be made clear that even expensive strings can have defects. The burden is upon us, the musician, to familiarize ourselves with string problems and detect them before the strings cause us unneccessary grief.
Put simply: inspect your strings before you install them. Lumps, kinks, and loose windings can be detected before they ruin your session. Explore some different brands of strings; look for tonal variations and quality consistency. Keep a stock of individual strings of your preferred gauge on hand so that replacement of a defective one, even right out of the package, is relatively painless. Your tone does begin with the string.
The final "real world" factor in the relationship that we'll consider before moving to the tonal effects of these variables is the quality of the contact surfaces where the string interfaces with the instrument: if the nut, frets, or saddle have problems that prevent the string from "breaking clean" at these points, or are loose relative to the rest of the instrument, then performance is compromised. In fact, anything that influences the free vibration of the string will influence performance: contact surfaces, magnetic fields, the rigidity of the "chassis"(solid- body electric versus acoustic for example), the density and mass of the chassis, even how the string is "excited"...picked with plastic or plucked with a finger.
The musical energy comes from the string---how quickly that energy is dissipated by the body and supporting parts of the instruments will influence attack, sustain, and volume. This is relatively clear; we can readily observe that an acoustic guitar, with a flexible diaphragm-like top, will convert the energy of the string into volume and projection; the solid-body electric guitar will not have the volume (unplugged!) as the acoustic, but will have greater sustain because the solid body and rigid chassis absorb the energy from the string more slowly, so the string vibrates longer.
We can observe that a stringed instrument behaves as a "closed circuit"; the string, when excited, influences the way the string responds, and the two parts: the string and the instrument, influence each other continually throughout the cycle until the energy is dissipated. Let's refer back to our physical ideal and examine it from a tonal perspective; we'll recall the Les Paul and Strat example as instruments with different scale-lengths, but the same string gauges and tuning. The Les Paul fells "looser", but how does it sound?
To eliminate the effects of pickups and electronics for this audio test, we'll try these guitars unplugged. We'll still have the effects of the different woods, the hardware, the bolt-on neck versus the glued-in, etc., but try to "hear beyond" these things. If you can actually try this, please do. If you have several Strats and Les Pauls to try this with, even better. Try first playing only the open strings. Listen for these points: is the attack fast or slow? Is the harmonic content of the string relatively bright or fat? Now, try some scales at various places on the neck; look for those other points that we looked for in the open strings, but now also note whether one instrument or the other "favors" the bass or treble ranges.
Try to "listen past" those effects of materials and construction... try to hear what the scale-lengths sound like. Many of you already know that Strats and Les Pauls sound different for more reasons than just pickups and construction details like hardware; the scale-length is one of the big identifying factors in the tone of these instruments. The whole thing comes down to the string! Scale-length will influence tone in that it influences which harmonics will dominate the overall sound of the string.
The bright harmonics that characterize the longer scale-length of the Strat are weak in the Les Paul scale, but the Les Paul has a sweetness and roundness that is unavailable in a Strat. Those of you who know my fanned-fret guitars know that I ultilize the varying tonalities of scale-length to create my instruments; the unique, clear tone of fanned-fret instruments comes from the combining of scale-lengths so that each string has its own voice.
We can observe other tonal effects of scale-length; the Les Paul, with the shorter scale, is a bit more difficult to tune. It is more sensitive to string defects and responds to "note bending" in a more exaggerated way than a Strat. If you've never compared the two instruments this way, try it; if both the Les Paul and the Strat are strung with the same gauge strings and tuned to the same standard pitch, and we bend the Strat high"E" string a full step, then use the same effort to try to bend the Les Paul high "E" string, we get more than a full step of pitch change with the Les Paul...almost a minor third.
The reason that the shorter scale is more sensitive to these changes is that the inaccuracies or changes are magnified because the shorter string length has the harmonic nodes more compressed; there is less length to "spread out" any inaccuracies. This makes tuning a bit tougher and accurate set-up more critical. It also compounds the effects of inaccurate fret spacing or set-up problems like poorly cut nuts and saddles. The shorter scale instruments "reward" us with mellower tone and ease of fingering due to lower string tension, but the longer scale instruments "reward" us with ease of tuning and brighter tone.
Clearly, our choice of instruments has to do with our own personal preferences for tone and playability, and it's important to us as musicians to understand why these instruments may or may not be suited to our applications and needs. Understanding how the string and scale-lengths interact can give us greater insight into acheiving the tone we desire; it's not all pickups and amplifiers. It has been my intention to present information that will help you in your quest for your sound; understanding how the string really is at the core of good tone may point the direction.
Well, by now, I think you are getting into understanding the finer points of becoming your own "tone guru". After what Ralph, Stephen and I have discussed so far in this article series, you have hopefully gotten a wider perpective of how sound and tone are actually produced. I am still of the opinion that your sound is in your fingers in relationship to every other part of the "signal path". If your strings are first in line, it's what you do to them during performance that becomes your "own" sound, because of a factor known as "touch-sensitivity". An easy example is how everyone has their own vibrato, picking attack, and unique bending styles. I have even found that I have a different vibrato for each finger, not to mention what direction the bend is going (up or down).I have five or six different ones for various purposes.
The more aware you are of your own little "quirks", the more identifiable your style will become to you and other musicians. You will be branded for life, so to speak, but keep in mind that your personal style will never stop evolving. We are constantly being subjected to sound, and the influence it has upon our minds is endless. Another thing; even if we take a sabbatical from playing for an extended period of time, we will return to our axe as if it's brand-new! We all have a tendency to still "practice" mentally even though we aren't physically in contact with our instrument.
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A."THE GLORY YEARS" PART 4
This episode will examine how the "Blues" had impacted the "Sixties" era with its wailing, seductive, sound and feel. I want to take a good look at several key players and their roles in how they all took the world by storm with their highly-charged, emotional solo flights. These players are Albert, B.B., and Freddie King, as well as a few other notables in the 60's era such as Michael Bloomfield.
I can remember when I had received my first Telecaster, I was completely over the moon about Albert King's record "Live Wire: Blues Power". That album was responsible for REALLY getting me to play my guitar every moment I could!
The Beatles were cool, but Albert just nailed me to the wall with his bends. They were so dynamic and intensely powerful, that I was unable to think about anything but the first solo intro to "Blues Power".
Me and everyone else in the San Francisco Bay area would make the trek up to the Filmore West on the weekends to get our "inspiration" for the week ahead...Lord knows we didn't want to be in school. In fact, all we would do after school was jam in somebody's garage playing that song over and over again until the poor kid's mother couldn't stand the repetition or the heavy dose of volume or Valium that had hit her (whichever came first)!
The Rolling Stones had a very valid point with their commentary on "Mother's Little Helper", that's for damn sure! Albert's influence is still with me to this day (along with about a zillion other players). Let's discuss his particular techniques and his equipment now, as it was very unique to itself and Albert. When his "Blues Power" album came out in 1968, Albert was playing his all-too-familiar 1958 Gibson korina "Flying V" through an Acoustic model 262 amplifier with two Altec Lansing fifteen- inch speakers and a high-frequency horn built into the speaker cabinet.
A BIG part of his sound came from the fact that he played with his thumb instead of with a pick. Like Jimi Hendrix, Albert also was left-handed but he played his guitar strung right-handed or upside-down. The fact that his guitar has 3 tuning pegs on each side of the headstock accounts for the tension being the same on each side, where Jimi's six-in-line arrangement on his Stratocaster altered the string's tension for his situation, which was, of course played with right-hand stringing, but played left-handed.
This might be of interest to you, as Stephen White worked on Albert's guitar two weeks before he passed away in December of 1992: Albert did not play in standard tuning... he used an altered tuning which was from the high "E" string down: D, A, F, C, F, and C. Remember, this is upside-down! This is an open F6 tuning (with the fifth or "C" in the bass for second inversion) for those of you who have to know. Unfortunately, both Stephen and yours truly somehow misplaced Albert's gauge preferences at the time, but I do recall them as starting at a .009 and going down to a .052. I will report them when I find my notes.
Some of you may have noticed that Albert's tone changed a bit after the 1970's arrived. The main difference was that nasty change to the nickel-plated string that we discovered to be a lot more "twangy" with a tremendous loss to the bottom end of the tonal spectrum. You can even detect the difference playing with your thumb! In his final days, I saw Albert play his gigs with a Roland Jazz Chorus amp which utilized two twelve-inch speakers in an open-back enclosure. Yup, that's a far cry from his closed-back 2-15" cabinets with the horn.
Albert put so much thumb "meat" into his strings, that his Altec's high-end wouldn't take your head off like they would've if you attacked them with a pick. A much warmer sound resulted and it didn't reek too much of "Solid-State". A great example of this sound was witnessed on the album "I'll Play the Blues for You" released in 1972.
Albert's album "Born under a Bad Sign" is also another fabulous record worth listening to. It came out around 1967 and has Booker T. Jones' band the "Bar-kays" featuring Steve Cropper on guitar, "Duck" Dunn on bass, and the aforementioned Mr. Jones on keyboards. Shades of the "Blues Brothers"!
Next on our agenda is B.B. King; especially his 1964-65 release of "Live at The Regal" album. This is the classic record for me as his tone was really good when compared to his other albums after this period. B.B. was playing a Gibson ES-335 for this outing (not the ES-355 that graces the re-vamped cover of the modern re-issue records and C.D.s). I really believe that his "Regal" tone came from a Fender Super Reverb of the same vintage. To my knowledge, B.B. favored the Gibson 740-XL set of strings that are gauged .009,.011,.014,.022,.030, and .038 during the 60's up until recently when Gibson came out with a B.B. King "Signature" set that is gauged .010,.013,.017,.032,.045, and .054. It seems as though B.B. is getting a bit more brave as his career goes on!
I saw B.B. play in Reoun, France, during my trip to Europe at an outdoor festival. My observations are that his sound is MUCH more distorted than in the past. An important note about your own sound; pay real attention to microphone placement... IT IS CRUCIAL!! An eighth of an inch can make ALL the difference in the world, especially when you are playing outside where your sound spreads into oblivion. At this particular venue, B.B. was an innocent victim of improper mike placement: The mikes were right on the dome (or center) of the speaker of his amp (a Lab Series L-5 combo built by Moog Music in the late 1970's).
This made the amp sound thin and tinny, but that famous "B.B. vibrato" made me forgive the poor sound technicians as they didn't have a clue to what they were doin'. When it comes to proper mike placement, I find that if you put the microphone at an angle on the edge or "spider" of the speaker, you get much better tonal reproduction. By the way, we will converse more about B.B. King in the future, because he has some really boss records from the 1950's that are worth disecting; we'll get to that after we're finished with the "Sixties"...we have a long way to go yet.
Just to break things up a bit, let's study the "American Eric Clapton" alias Michael Bloomfield. Michael was (instrumental?) in the mid-sixties "Blues Revival" scene when he came into prominence with Paul Butterfield. His group's debut album, "The Paul Butterfield Blues Band" was initially released in 1965. From the album's photos (and the sound), Bloomfield used a blonde Telecaster with a rosewood fingerboard through Black-face Twin Reverbs. When the second record entitled "East-West" was released, his sound got a lot bigger.
There is a funny parallel to this saga; across the Atlantic in the same year (1966), Eric Clapton started playing a vintage sunburst Les Paul around the same time-frame. Bloomfield was using a Les Paul through Twins, while Clapton was using his through the Marshall combos, but it was Bloomfield who almost single-handedly popularized the use of the Les Paul sunburst (and Les Pauls in general) in this country. Just listen to the second chorus of his solo from "The Work Song" and you'll get religion!
Live, he would use two Twins cranked to the max. Later on, he was a member of the "Electric Flag" whose album " A Long Time Comin'" was full of Bloomfield's genius.
Very shortly thereafter, Mike recorded a record with Stephen Stills and Al Kooper called "Super Session". Stills was using a three-pickup black Les Paul Custom a la Keith Richards on this record.
What do Albert King and Stephen Stills have in common? They both play without a pick!
Bloomfield was continuing his assault on the 'Burst at the time, with what sounds like his old set-up of Fender Twins. We can't forget the fact that Bloomfield used a P-90 Gold-top Les Paul prior to his change to the Sunburst, either. These four records will give you plenty to drool over as they are just as fresh today as when they came out back then. Michael used a regular .010-.046 gauge string during this period, but changed to a slightly heavier set which I recall being somewhere around .011 to a .048 on the bass side.
This happened not too long before his tragic drug-related death in San Francisco. Boy, this was yet another devastating loss for the musical (as well as the Blues) community. I still miss him in a big way. Okay, the tour can't be complete without the guy who influenced more of the British Blues players: Mr. Freddie King. This third gentleman of the "King Family" was really critical to the evolution of the blues as we know it today. It is mandatory for anyone who is interested in the Blues to listen to this gem!
It is LOADED with all of the songs that made Freddie famous; like "Sidetracked", "Hideaway", "The Stumble", "Have You ever Loved a Woman", this complete 24 song compilation is THE definitive collection in anyone's book.
Freddie's tone, vibrato and savage attack along with his gutsy vocals are simply astonishing. His sound was produced using a ES-345 style guitar with a massive "Tweed" punch for amplification. This collection dates from 1961-1964 and as far as I'm concerned, it's the shit!
Freddie was "The Bible" for all of the notable English players like Eric Clapton and Peter Green. We might as well throw in Mick Taylor for good measure, too! Just as a matter of course, Freddie has also been known to use a P-90 version Gold-top Les Paul in addition to the Gibson ES-345 he was most often seen with. Have you ever noticed that a majority of the real black bluesmen seemed to prefer the P-90 style single-coil pickups instead of humbuckers? It's my guess that T-Bone Walker's mojo really had a lingering effect on 'em for quite a spell...
I know I just get the nastiest sound out of my 1956 Les Paul Junior. All of my guitarist friends lovingly refer to it as the "Grungemeister". No fuss, no muss, just pure simple "nail your back to the wall" cranial battery!! Next month, we shall continue our coverage of "Blues: American-Style" as there are a few more players and details to investigate. More facts and figures continue to emerge on a (seemingly) never-ending daily basis.
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A. THE GLORY YEARS PART 5
As you can guess, this part of the "Sixties" era left a deep impression on the musicians who followed later on, such as Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Cream, and a list of too many groups too numerous to mention. The "Blues" definitely struck a cohesive chord with everyone who bothered to listen. A reader by the name of Geoffrey Stich wrote me with an interesting question about a hit song by the "13th Floor Elevators" called "You're Gonna Miss Me" recorded in 1966 in Houston, Texas. Since my brother has all of our 45 r.p.m. records in a brown box buried in the basement of his home in Minnesota, I didn't have real access to listen to the 45 single. After calling several friends about this, I was told that Billy Gibbons of "ZZ Top" would know.
As luck would have it, Billy was in Portland hanging out at Buck Munger's "Two Louies" mansion on his day off from the road. I could hear the song in my head, but that wasn't enough because it was off in the distance of my memory, without listening to the song on a real good stereo system. Buck had the "Reverend Billy G." give me a call to get the answer...Billy carefully pondered the question, and the information emerged out of the "blue"!
The equipment used for the recording of this tune was both guitarists; Rocky Ericson and Stacy Sutherland, using Gibson ES-335's through "Black-Face" Twin Reverbs with both guitarists using external Fender "tank" reverb units and Gibson "Maestro" Fuzz-tones as distortion devices. Thanks, Billy, everybody should know that you are a walking dictionary of musical and tonal trivia! Yes, indeed. "Vintage Guitar" readers can look forward to an interview with Billy Gibbons conducted by Willie G. Moseley at various times over an extended period (so I've been told). Mr. Gibbons is a true gentleman and a scholar, as well as one funny guy! His humour just preceeds him.
There was one particular record I missed in last month's installment; B.B. King's Live "Blues is King" album.
This classic was recorded on November 5, 1966 at some club in Chicago. If you listen closely, you can tell that he's using a smaller band than at "Live at the Regal" the previous year. His sound is quite a bit louder on this record when compared to the "Regal". I suspect B.B. was using a good ole' Fender Black-Face Twin on this recording, but there is something about the tone on the "Regal" album that is quite haunting...maybe it was the miking technique and the room's ambience that contributed to that special sound; it was recorded in a theatre instead of a club.
Another great blues giant who plays upside- down and left-handed is Otis Rush. He played a red Epiphone Rivera for the two albums he recorded in the 1960's; 1968's "Mourning in the Morning", (produced by Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites) and "Right Place, Wrong Time" recorded in 1969. Ironically, Otis Rush is most famous for the songs he recorded during the "Fifties"; particularly "All Your Love (I Miss Lovin')", "Keep on Lovin' Me, Baby", or "Double Trouble" and "She's A Good 'Un" all contained on the C.D. collection titled "Otis Rush: The Cobra Sessions" from 1956-1958.
Otis played a Stratocaster on this stuff instead of the Epiphone, and it should be noted that he switched to a Gibson ES-355 later on, with the Strat as a secondary axe. Otis Rush has one of the most distinct vibratos. It's just real strong and identifiable from the moment your ears hear it. What's so great about the "Blues", is that everyone has his or her own version or interpretation of "how" it's supposed to be played. Yet, it all sounds different from one player to the next! You can have the crazy "over the top" bending of Buddy Guy to a completely different sound a la Hubert Sumlin...the "Blues" are probably the most diverse, educational, and never ending lessons you can receive as a guitarist; there is ALWAYS something that you pick up from a song even if you've heard it a million times!
It's all in the dynamics and the "little" nuances that you almost have to strain to hear while figuring out the song. I know I learn a "new" thing every time I just let the music surround my senses. Your brain on the deep sub-conscious level draws things up to where you finally become aware of them. PERCEPTION is the key word here when you listen!
Since we're on the subject of "Blues", We cannot leave Peter Green out of the whole picture...he might be British, BUT he has a more "American- style" sound. Why??? Because he was one of the greats that didn't use a Marshall amplifier! Don't get me wrong, I love Marshalls too, but Peter used Orange and Vox amps as far as I know. As a matter of fact, with his "touch" and technique, he could make ANY amp sound great. Talk about getting every note's worth! Any collection that includes John Mayall's "A Hard Road" (1967), or Fleetwood Mac's "English Rose" (1969), will have cuts like "The Supernatural" and "The Green Manalishi" just for starters.
Other albums like Fleetwood's "Live: The Boston Tea Party" or their "Greatest Hits Live" give you chills...it's just mandatory listening material. There was a special night in New York at the Fillmore East where Peter played a four hour non-stop version of "Black Magic Woman" and the crowd STILL wanted them to keep on going!
Those were the days, alright. There is a neat twist to Peter's unique sound; the front pickup of his Les Paul Sunburst was turned around so that the pole-pieces were facing towards the bridge of his guitar. This gave it an "out of phase" tonality compared to a standard Paul's wiring. Later on, he turned the pickup around like it was "stock", but the position of the magnet was changed in it's polarity so it retained the same effect when both pickups were used together. Sometimes one innocent accident can result in one hell of a tone! Of course, this effect won't be exactly the same on every Les Paul, due to the weight and density of the instrument's wood and the strength of the pickups in the individual guitar. It was just "magical" in Green's case.
While we're on the discussion about "American Blues", I want to ask a question...that is for you to recall any significant "Blues" record of this time-frame (and before) that wasn't recorded with any type of Fender amp? The simple answer is that if you were a true "Blues Man", you couldn't count the records on many fingers of one hand. Fender model amps were the standard if you wanted to sound really authentic during this period and it still holds true today! Granted, there may have been some guys using Magnatones, Ampeg "Reverb-o-rockets" and some types of Gibson amps too, and if anyone has any real pertinent information of this, I want to get the "skinny" on this subject!
We've been talking about players like Albert King who used his thumb for a pick, but what about the late Albert Collins? He played with his bare fingers and eveybody knows about that "icy" tone he got. There is a C.D. out called "Truckin' with Albert Collins" that contains immortal tunes like "Frosty", "Snow-Cone II", "Icy Blue", "Don't Lose Your Kool" and "Koolaide".
This record was originally released in 1965 as "The Cool Sound of Albert Collins". Albert played through a 1962 blonde-tolex Bandmaster for these tunes with an earlier model Esquire. He purchased his "signature" converted 1961 Telecaster from Ace Music of Santa Monica, California in around 1969. This guitar already had the neck pickup replaced with a humbucker when he bought it. The binding was added on later when he had the guitar refinished.
He used an "F-minor" tuning which was from low to high; F, G#, C, G#, C, and F with a capo placed at various fret locations (usually above the fifth fret), depending on the key of the song. He was seen later on in the 1970's using his Fender Quad Reverb which he purchased the day George Wallace was shot in the spring of 1972. Strangely enough, Freddie King also used a Quad Reverb around the same time in the 1970's up until his death in 1976. To me, a Fender Telecaster is the most touch sensitive guitar in the world, as you can still get a very stinging tone from it using your fingers alone without the use of a pick. I believe that the output of the bridge pickup combined with it being a bit larger in width accounts for this.
A Stratocaster will work well with your fingers a la Jeff Beck, but you have to "dig in" a bit more on a Strat then with a Telecaster. They didn't call Albert Collins "The Iceman" for nothing...his searing tone spoke for itself. His choice of strings were Fender 150's (using a semi-flatwound pure nickel format) gauged .010,.013,.015,.026,.032 and .038. The fact that he raised the pitch of his guitar to "F-minor" with his use of the capo, really contributed to his own unique tone. Note that he must have tuned his "D" string down a step to "C" because a .026 gauge string would feel awful stiff and useless for bending purposes (tuned up to the tonic note "F"). Along with this, "C" is the "fifth scale degree" of the "F minor" triad.
His use of a .038 and .032 gauges for the lower two strings would not affect his bending when tuned a half-step higher ( on the Low "E") or a half-step down (on the "A" string). It must be stated that although the strings manufactured in the 1960's had a wonderful sound, they were not very consistant due to the technology of the day and the production techniques employed. The strings of today can be made MUCH better than before due to the advances in machinery, etc. We really concern ourselves with the materials and their overall quality as well as the winding process. If you compromise ONE little thing for another the quality goes way down the toilet. Extreme care and attention must be given to every detail in the manufacturing of a quality string...you remember what Stephen and Ralph said in their contributions to this article series, and believe me, they're not even close to being done either!
We can and will expand even more on various concepts which involve the production of sound and tone(s). We want to get it to a molecular level so all of our readers completely understand all the relationships that work together to form a special and unique timbre; the ONE that you're looking for. Another issue that relates to good string quality is the volume of product manufactured versus the raw material available. This is not to mention the subject of the consumer's awareness of what "quality" really means.
It's up to us as consumers to BECOME aware and informed of what we're actually buying to keep the quality high instead of just buying product that is not even BARELY acceptable. That's another big reason why this column exists...for consumer protection, and that means YOURS!! After all, it all boils down to how much value you receive for your hard-earned cash. We all know that in this day with our current economy, we can't afford to be "Penny-wise and pound foolish".
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A. THE GLORY YEARS PART 6
Let's cut to the chase this month and examine why a vast amount of kids started playing guitar in the first place. If you are 40 years old, chances are that you started to play our beloved instrument shortly after February 9, 1964. This was the date of the Beatles' debut performance on the "Ed Sullivan Show". America dropped to its knees that evening, and we would never be the same ever again!
Our first encounter with "The English Invasion" left kids and parents alike stunned at what they saw and heard! As you may recall, this was a real heavy sociological and musical event that effected everybody and everything. The music really slayed us, but I really believe that our parents were in absolute horror at what they saw...that was until they saw the "Rolling Stones" a short time later. We were really in big trouble by that time!
In the meantime, we were exposed to a brand "new" sound that was so immensely different from anything we had heard previously. Along with this "new" sound were some real changes in amp and string styles. Just as the Hammond B-3 organ was considered the "norm" in their own sonic catagory, listening to a Thomas organ like the ones used on Lawrence Welk's T.V. show, sounded downright LOUSY. Our ears were conditioned to the rich tone and attack of the Hammond. Any other brand of organ sounded thin and comical by comparison.
In guitar amplifiers, we were used to the sound of tube amps, so when the new solid-state amps came out, they sounded just as alien to our ears as the Thomas organs! Ponder this one...if Rock`N'Roll started with transistor amps and Thomas organs, Hammonds and tube amplifiers would've sounded "weird" to us because our ears were trained to that type of sound and timbres. When the Beatles came on the scene, their Vox amps had a unique sound because of the speakers (15 watt Celestion "Bulldogs"), output tubes (EL-84s), not to mention their class "A" design.
Unlike our Thomas organ analogy, the Vox amps sounded incredibly good instead of horribly putrid. In frank terms, that Vox "sound" put the globe on its hungry ears almost in the wink of an eye! This was a huge sound sensation which is still felt today, as I certainly don't have to remind you what prices the original AC-30 amps are fetching nowadays. There is a lot more to the Beatles' patented sound than just the Vox amps...what about the string types and the guitars employed? These were, without a doubt, magical combinations in anyone's train of thought!
The strings that the Beatles used were much different than the pure nickel roundwound sets that superceeded these true "flatwound" strings of the early '60s. Flatwound strings are very special in their construction versus the other types of strings we've been discussing. Firstly, the steel core-wire is tightly wrapped with a very thin thread of a cloth-like material which "hugs" the core. This process makes the core feel stiffer than the other string types that skip this all together. For a real treat, try taking apart any old Fender-type flatwound string, and you'll find what a job this entails.
A flatwound string that measures .050 for a low "E", feels like it's twice as big when tuned to standard pitch as a roundwound string of the same gauge! In my investigations, I've come across a very interesting cross-section of string samples from this musical era. You folks who have sent me strings don't have to worry because I haven't taken yours apart...I just put a micrometer on them and analyzed them under high magnification. We also have noted some of the cosmetic details, such as what material was wrapped around the ball-end of the string, and measuring what size the actual "ball" is.
I promise I will return all the strings to their rightful owners shortly; we still need to do the "parade of string packages" photo essay. I'm pretty damn sure that the gauges of the sets used back then were around the .012 to .052 neighborhood, as the vintage Gretsch "G" string I received miked out to a .025 gauge. That's pretty close to the Fender flatwound sets I measured, which were .012 to a .050, from the same circa. The outer wrap of the wound strings are composed of a flat tape-like metal that is extremely smooth to the touch, and much "flatter" and less lively sounding as the roundwound style string.
They respond differently in a "feedback" type application, such as in the Beatles' opening riff to "I Feel Fine", as the note is much darker and "rounder" in tonal character than in the later tunes they recorded using the real roundwound strings. In fact, the flatwound strings they used were very integral to that "new" sound they created, when combined with a Gretsch Country Gentleman, for example. When "I Feel Fine was originally released on November 27, 1964, it was announced that the opening feedback to the song was an accident...yeah right! Those guys had no clue that it was probably caused by those good old El-84s going into saturation, but it sure sounded cool.
If it pissed off your parents, it was alright!! Gee, that brings back very fond memories, huh? There is a Beatles' "outake" tape making the rounds, that has about three or four "intros" of "I Feel Fine", featuring that same "accident"; if they could duplicate it in the studio at will, it was no mistake!
From my English sources, I found out that the Beatles used the "Pyramid" brand flatwound strings made in Germany. They must have discovered them during their stint in the "red light" district of Hamburg in the early 60s. I also found out that they had used some off-the-wall cheap brands like the "Cathedral" strings in the very beginning, since they were starving musicians at the time.
I believe that George Harrison was using the Gretsch strings by the time of his first gig on the "Sullivan" show, because that is what came stock on the Country Gentleman guitars from the factory. These sets were actually inside a round plastic container with Chet Atkin's name on them. My samples have a tag on them that say "Made in West Germany". It's interesting to note that the "Chet Atkins" strings switched to a nickel roundwound style by around 1968 or so.
Ken Fischer has told me many times that the "Pyramid" strings had a better, brighter sound to them than any other brand of flatwound strings. We know that Paul McCartney used the bass sets that "Pyramid" made, on his Hofners and his Rickenbackers, too. When you listen to any Beatles album, you'll hear that fat smooth sound he got on every tune until 1968's "Helter Skelter" from the "White Album".
That song is definitely a roundwound set of strings on his bass! This is very prominent when you play the track before "Helter Skelter".
This shows very clearly that they used different types of strings for varying sonic textures depending upon the song...they did this for the guitars as well; listen to the lead guitar break on "Taxman". This is a roundwound string as opposed to the flatwound type used earlier in their career. Yes, they were very clever when it came to recording.
Now, let's get into the amps they used. In the very early period, the guys used Vox AC-15 amps as the rule, and they were the first ones to use the "Top Boost" AC-30s with the mid-cut controls on the back panel instead of on the top of the amp. The AC-30 "Top Boost" was initially designed for the "Shadows", actually. As a matter of fact, the "Top Boost" circuitry was available as a separate unit, which you could hook into your standard AC-30 as early as 1961!
In 1963, Paul was using a Vox AC-50 head with a "Foundation" cabinet that contained an eighteen-inch speaker. By 1964, the AC-100s were introduced for more volume in the bigger venues. They used a quartet of EL-34s for the output section. In 1965, the new solid- state T-60 bass amp was being used in conjuction with a separate enclosure that housed a fifteen-inch Tannoy speaker for the lows, and a twelve-inch "Bulldog" for the high end. Paul used the T-60 setup for almost a year, but he went back to the AC-100 rig (known as the "Supreme" in Britain, the "Beatle" amp in the States).
The Beatles used the AC-100 amps for their appearances at Candlestick Park and Shea Stadium, and are not to be confused with the American-made "Super Beatle" amp manufactured by the Thomas Organ Company in Sepulveda, California.
These amps were all solid-state design. As almost everyone knows, these U.S. Voxes sounded completly different then their British couterparts. The American "Cambridge Reverb" model was alright because they were tube amplifiers.
The majority of the U.S. Vox product was solid-state, and as a result, did not give us the sound we expected! That was a real bummer, to say the least. I remember one friend, who excitedly brought his pride and joy home, to discover that it didn't sound anything like the Beatles records he was jamming to! The retailers at the time wanted to hide in the deepest, darkest hole they could...I would not have wanted to be in their shoes, with all those complaints, that's for sure.
While we're on the subject of what the Beatles used for amps, it must be said that they used a bunch of different things in the studio. I recall seeing photos of Fender amps of various models, a Selmer amp at the "Sgt. Pepper" sessions, and as Ken Fischer remembers, Ampeg shipped them a bunch of B-15N amplifiers. Just as Hendrix had every "tool of the trade", so did the Beatles. Another note about the British Vox line; they had made a AC-30 Bass model which Paul used, but we think it was used for the studio as its 2-12 inch "Bulldog" speaker configuration couldn't take the low frequencies for higher volume situations.
John Lennon was supposedly a big Fender amp fan, and he used them quite a bit in the studio instead of the Vox amps he used on stage. Next month, we'll put together the amp and guitar combinations used for the recording of their various hit records (and as you know, there are scads of`em). This is going to be very cool, as we're going to dig into a lot of other eclectic studio tricks and technology that the Beatles employed under the guidance of George Martin's production genius. In the meantime, I would like to get in touch with Mr. Martin to find out what type of fuzz-tone was used on Paul's bass in the recording of their song "Think for Youself" from the "Rubber Soul" album released in 1965. That particular sound was really nifty for the time it was produced in, and I have always wanted to find out about what actually was used in obtaining it.
I have a feeling that the real facts about the Beatles will stick around for at least a few columns, and we really desire to give you the most accurate and complete picture we can in regards to this subject. The whole "British Invasion" era is quite fascinating as there are a lot of facets involved. What's really interesting, is the effect that it had on society, attitudes, and even fashion, but we all know about that aspect of this time period. In other words, it's a given.
1993-1994 Dean Farley
Author is well-known string guru whose string brand "Snake Oil Brand Strings" is the crystallization of decades of research that he has put in them. These articles are reprinted from "Vintage Guitar Magazine" 1993-1994 issues.