I've again decided to bring you readers yet another shot of the vitriolic reality of the "Whiteman" a.k.a. Stephen White. Since his last effort to this tutorial, this is the next installment in a series of articles he has been writing for this column on the care and feeding of electric guitars.
THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: OPTIMIZING GUITAR PLAYABILITY
In my previous article, "The Eau d' Stench" I ranted about the problems endemic to guitar strings. This time I'm going to relate some of my experience about tuning, intonation and the "art of the set-up" of electric guitars.
GUITAR PLAYERS probably have more problems with- and questions about tuning (correctly adjusting the pitch of the strings of their instrument relative to each other) and "intonation" (correctly adjusting the length of each string on the guitar in order to produce the best i.e. most harmonious tunability) than with any other aspect of guitar use.
My last article focused mostly on how string defects can cause tuning and intonation problems. Now, we look at how the guitar affects the strings. When adjusting a guitar, there are several goals:
- Good "action" - the least possible distance between the string (when at rest) and the frets without excessive "buzzing" or rattling of the string againest the fret when played, given the player's individual playing style ("technique") and personal preference i.e. how much buzz they are willing to tolerate.
- Good "intonation" - best tunability, given the player's technique (the technical term for this adjustment is "compensation", by the way).
- Balanced, even, electrical output from each string on all pickup selections.
- Rasy, stable, mechanical tuning action from the guitar's tuning machines
- Accurate returning to the correct tuning after using the guitar's vibrat
- And-last, but not least - KILLER TONE!!
Unfortunately, some of these goals are mutually incompatible. For example, really light strings and really low action don't allow a guitar to sustain or sound "fat", compared with the same guitar with heavier strings and/or higher action.
When "setting-up" a guitar, one performs a series of adjustments. Since these adjustments effect each other, they must be performed in a specific sequence. First, I change the strings. I then LOWER the pickups until I know that they will not magneticly disturb the free vibration of the strings and hence distort the guitar's intonation. In my experience, most people including technicians, adjust a guitar's pickups far too close to the strings for the guitar to even be correctly intonable. Obviously, the more intense a pickup's magnetic field is, the farther away it is going to have to be from the strings. In particular, the neck pickup (assuming that it's the same type as the bridge pickup) has to be much farther away from the strings than the bridge pickup. This is because the strings are more flexible over the neck pickup than they are over the bridge pickup, since the bridge pickup is nearer to the the bridge itself, where the strings are anchored and won't move at all. This means that it is easier for the magnetic field of the neck pickup to influence the vibration of the strings. For example, on a regular, garden-variety Stratocaster, the neck pickup cover has to be more-or-less flush with the pickguard, or it's too close! I'm not exaggerating! On many mid-seventies Strats (which have extra-strong magnets), the neck pickup has to be adjusted slightly below the pickguard! Fender's "official" distance recomendations are ridiculous! Those guys are dreaming!
Les Pauls are somewhat easier to deal with, but their neck pickups still have to be lowered until they are about flush with their mounting rings, and sometimes slightly below flush. This initial step is critical! After all the other adjustments of the "set-up" are completed, the pickups are then raised back up until they just begin to effect the string's intonation. They are then lowered down one-quarter of a turn of the height-adjustment screws. It's rather hard to describe the symptoms of this magnetic interference, but I'll try...
Okay, first try this test. Pluck the harmonic at the seventh fret on, say. the first (high-"E") string. Do you hear a slow oscillation or "beating" sound, as though you had played two unison harmonics on the first and second strings for harmonic tuning and the strings were slightly out-of-tune? Even though only one string is sounding? THAT'S magnetic interference! Does the oscillation also have a fast "jello-like" quivering sound along with the slow "phase-shift"-ish sound? That's really BAD magnetic interference! I guarantee you one or more of your pickups is too close to the strings. Another example of this problem can be heard on the sixth (low-"E") string. Just play a note way up the neck (say, the nineteenth fret or higher...) does it "beat"? Does it actually sound like two notes at once? Those damned magnets! Believe it or not, when you get used to noticing this phenomenon, you will be able to tell when you have adjusted a pickup even one-quarter of a turn of the adjustment screw too high (that's less than .025")!
Now, these symptoms I've described mostly apply to the neck (and middle) pickup(s); the bridge pickup's symptoms are a bit different. Typically, the first symptom you'll notice when the pickup is slightly too close to the strings is a slight "damping" or suppressing of the harmonics overall. This often results in a strange tuning problem; you somehow just can't really hear whether the two unison harmonics that you've just plucked are really in phase (not "beating") or not. You try tuning one string slightly sharp or flat, to hear the difference, but it's as though there hasn't been any change! Now admit it-you've ALL had this problem! Man, it's a royal pain in the ass, too! The only good news is, you CAN solve the problem by lowering the offending pickup(s). The bad news, of course, is that you may have to completely re-think all of your tonal settings, gain settings and sometimes even change pickups altogether in order to get back to your previous sounds (on the other hand, your previous sound may have completely BLOWN so, who knows...
Anyway, after this pickup rigamarole, the real work begins. Before you can work on the guitar's intonation, you have to establish exactly where the strings are going to be, relative to the frets-the "action". Adjusting the action involves three adjustments: The truss-rod, the bridge-saddle height, and the placement of the strings over the first fret, which is controlled by the depth of the slots in the nut. Before adjusting the truss-rod, I'll adjust the bridge-saddles to roughly the desired action. Then, I'll examine the neck before adjusting the truss-rod. Appropriate adjustment of the truss -rod is a minor art. Only rarely do I have the luxury of being able to adjust the truss-rod to get the neck into the narrow range of theoretically best adjustment choices. Usually, I have to settle for an adjustment based more on the peculiarities of the neck in question i.e. the best compromise.
The theoretically best adjustment for a neck would be when the tops of the frets under the first string form a straight line, but under the sixth string, the tops of the frets would form a slight "bow" away from the string in the central area of the neck (from the fifth to the twelveth frets). You can see this in various ways. Sighting down the length of the neck, so as to look along the edge of the frets on either side of the neck, is the most commonly suggested method, but it can be confusing. It takes a lot of practice with this method to learn how to interpret what you see. I think that it's easier to see the neck's adjustment this way: Fret the sixth string at the first fret (by the nut) with one hand or a capo; simultaneously fret the same string at the top fret so that the string is lying along the frets for the whole length of the neck. If the neck has a forward bow (technically called "relief") under the string, there will be a slight gap between the string and the top of the frets in the central area of the neck. This gap should exist (on the bass side, anyway) and can be as little as .010" or as much as .050" and still be appropriate, depending on the player's technique. Generally speaking, I find that players who play harder with their picking hand usually prefer set-ups with more relief in the neck. Now, usind this same method to measure the relief under the first string (fretting both the lowest and highest frets), you should see very little gap between the string and the frets in the central area of the neck-say, .010" or less (remember,.010" is about the thickness of your first string: .050" is about the thickness of your sixth string).
Unfortunately, you'll usually find that you get the exact opposite of the result you want when fine-tuning the truss-rod; more relief on the treble side of the neck than on the bass side. This is because the treble strings are pulling harder on the neck than are the bass strings. So, a compromise is in order; Settling for a little less relief on the bass side of the neck than you would find optimal (putting up with a bit more buzz on the lower notes of the bass strings) AND having slightly higher action than you would like on the treble strings in the central range of the neck (assuming that you have the saddle height at the bridge adjusted to give you the action that you want in the upper area of the neck). Once you have the saddle height at the bridge and the truss-rod adjusted to at least a close approximation of their final states, it is then possible to check (and correct) the height of the strings above the first fret. This height is controlled by the depth of the slots in the nut. PLEASE NOTE: Re-cutting these slots correctly is not possible without properly-sized "blind" files. Files for this specific purpose are sold through various guitar-parts and guitar-repair tool suppliers; they are fairly expensive. However, it is still useful to understand the adjustment process and to know what the optimal final placement of the strings is; you can discuss the process with the technician you're employing for the job, and run away screaming if he's a nit-wit!
To check the existing string-to-fret clearance at the first fret, you will need a "good eye" for judging very small changes in small clearances, or a set of "feeler" gauges; these are metal strips used for measuring valve clearances in car engines. we will use the sixth string for this example. Fret the string at the first fret and measure the clearance between the string and the second fret. Typically, this clearance will be between .008" and .015". Now, release the string from the first fret and measure the clearance between the string and the first fret. This clearance should be .002" or so more than the clearance just measured at the second fret. Frequently, the clearance between the string and the first fret will be 2 to 4 times greater i.e. .030" to .060". The slots in the nut must be re-cut to correct this by lowering the slots until the proper clearances are achieved. These seemingly minor errors cause much bigger problems than you would think, because of the nature of the modern twelve-tone scale in music, which is subtly "mis-tuned" to allow one to modulate (change keys) freely. This type of tuning, or "tempering" is referred to as "equal temperment" and is significantly different than the earlier tuning used for just one key, which is called "just temperment".
I will discuss this in some detail in my next installment, explain the goals in compensating a guitar to produce good intonation and explain the method which I use to compensate or "intone" a guitar. Until next time, get your hands on (and read) this amazing book " The Science of Musical Sound" by John R. Pierce, published in 1983 by Scientific American Books - ISBN 0-7167-1509-0.
ODDS AND SODS a.k.a. INTERMISSION TIME
I was originally planning to have Stephen White complete his next installment to his previous article last month, but due to scheduling issues, this will be slightly postponed.
I would like to make a couple of comments and corrections relating to information presented in the second "Blues" article (see "The Glory Years" Part 5). It was stated that Peter Green's infamous Les Paul was wired "out-of-phase" when the neck humbucker was turned around so that the adjustable pole- pieces were facing "southward". Technically, this is NOT quite correct, because the magnet was not turned upside-down itself. This practice would make the guitar sound a little brighter when the neck pickup was used alone and it would also affect the guitar's tone when both pickups were used together. This is what may have given him that special timbre.
It is a real possibility that this could result in a bit hollower sound. Sorry for any confusion there. I know that Steve Howe of Yes turned his ES-175's bridge pickup around because he liked the warmer tone that resulted (his bridge pickup's pole-pieces were facing "north" or towards the guitar's headstock). As everyone knows, his sound was very different for a "rock" player at the time. Another thing I said was that Peter wasn't a Marshall user. I meant that he normally didn't use them on a regular basis, that is, when he played "Live". He was supposed to have ultilized a Marshall amp on "The Supernatural".
I never said that he didn't use Fender amps, either, because I saw him use them from time to time. In those days a lot of British groups rented gear when they toured the States because it was less of a hassle not having to lug their own stuff over here. Besides that, many British players loved Fender amplifiers because that's what they grew up listening to. As you may know, the first Marshalls were patterned after a Fender Bassman design! Yes, I did see Fleetwood Mac playing through Dual Showmans and Twins at the Filmore West. What IS gospel, is that Peter Greensounded great through anything...because of his heart and soul communicating via his fingers. I can get the same tone from my favored Jim Kelley amps as I can from my Peavey Classic 30 amp with the one twelve-inch extension cabinet. Until my `Wreck (a Liverpool) arrives, The Peavey will work just fine for any gig or session. I bought this set-up so I don't waste my good old military 6V6 tubes. These tubes are really hard to find, I don't want to burm `em up ( a Kelley amp uses a quartet of 6V6's, incidentally). EVERYTHING will be retired when I get the Liverpool and a Komet. Speaking of tone, I wanted to share an interesting experience with you this month.
Okay, about fifteen or so years ago, Johnny Smith held a seminar in the college I was was attending at the time. He blew us completely away and was one of the most cordial guys I have ever met. After school, I got into the musical wholesale business. In my daily rounds on the telephone, I happened to call Johnny's Music Store in Colorado. He was so gracious to send me what he considered to be his favorite picks. They were a large jazz-type teardrop shape, which sounded very rich and warm. These picks were made of some type of nitro-cellulose which was a heavy gauge but they somehow felt "thinner" but firm at the same time. Needless to say, I fell in love with them! I had only six of these picks, and I played them until they were virtually non-existant; I would just wear them out until they disappeared!
Eventually, I was out of these picks, so I was basically forced to switch to those black Gibson jazz picks. Not even close! I would of cut off my ear to have ONE of these "Johnny Smith" picks again, I was that addicted to them! Johnny sold his store, and decided to go fishing, so I couldn't get any of his stash! That was about nine years ago. After many calls to try to locate Mr. Smith, I gave up my hopes of ever having those picks again. It is truly amazing what a simple thing like a pick can do to affect your style and tone, not to mention your technique! Your pick seems to become a part of your arm's (and ear's) habit of playing.
About two years ago, I was on a business trip in Stockholm. In one of the stores there, I seemed to had found a pick that looked very familiar! It was white, and the same shape as the infamous "Johnny Smith" model. When I picked it up and flexed it, it was almost identical in "feel", but was a bit lighter in gauge. I asked the store's manager where he had gotten them. He told me to call a guy across town which I had known for some time. Bingo, I finally tracked down the original manufacturer! Much later, I finally called the manufacturer out of my frustration of not being completely satisfied with any other substitute. The gentleman I spoke to had been with the company for about twenty years. When asked about the "Johnny Smith" model, a bell went off in his head, and he sent me some samples. When the samples arrived, there was quite an assortment of colors in this nice, fancy bag. I tried them one at a time, by color, to hear the differences in attack and tone. I finally realized that the pigment that they put in the nitro-cellulose had a profound effect on the sound of the pick. All the picks used in my tests were of a "heavy" gauge and the tolerances were REAL tight and uniform. I used a very fancy micrometer to check the size of these beauties before actually using them in a playing situation.
I had the opportunity to do extensive tests on a myriad of picks, made out of every shade of nitro-cellulose you can imagine during the last six weeks, received from every manufacturer you could think of. I got a very odd collection of the most bizarre colors you've every seen; Imported Italian abalone-like nitro to a confetti mixture of five colors put together in one pick. This is not to mention EVERY other solid color, too! In other words, I had it all! To do this test, it's best to use your preferred gauge so you have the same "feel" that you're accustomed to. After that, it's all a very simple process of listening to the smallest nuances on the attack of the string. I found that the solid-white was virtually the same "attack" as the confetti style pick. I found that the white pigment gives you the warmest, richest and full sound, where the imitation-shell type pick has the sharper brighter attack on the initial plucking of the string. Shell is kind of thin sounding when compared to the white one. Ironically, the black pigment they use in the Gibson picks are the darkest sounding...Hmmmmm!! Every color I tried had a personality of it's own, and this can become a critical part of your final sound. Of course, everybody has their own idea of what suits them the best, so you be the judge. After 31 years of playing, It never ceases to amaze me what I learn on a seemingly daily basis. We're always in "process" when it comes to getting something new from something that seemed to be "old hat" before. So, if you really want to have fun, look very closely at your pick! Now, I know all too well that there are other types of picks made from any material you can imagine; coconut shell, wood, agate, copper and the list goes on. The tests I did were narrowed down to the nitro-cellulose material, and of the same gauge, so that there were hardly any variables which could bias the listening part of the tests.
The funniest thing happened after these tests. I was talking to a friend of mine about the results I had noticed with the picks, when he said "Hey, Dean, I have a surprize for you!" About three days later, I got this care package from him. When I looked inside, there was this dusty old bag of picks that were labeled "#347 Heavy Gauge". They had seemed to be a yellowish off-white color, but they were the same picks as the "Johnnys" I had been searching for! Upon the first note, I struck the gold mine! When I called him back to report the results, I asked him just where the hell he had found them. He told me that these picks had been sitting in a warehouse for twenty years! These picks had been "aged" in their bags, which explained their yellowed hue. I'll tell ya, this "aged" controversy is really making the rounds, huh? Anyway, I asked this gentleman just whether he might have any more of these. When he looked, he told me he had found 15 gross (144 to a gross, so you figure out the total)! As you might guess, I won't be running out of these picks for my entire life now, and I keep thinking to myself, "God, all I wanted was one!" Life can be very surprizing, that's for sure!
GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST
My Paul Reed Smith is set up with 9-42 gauge strings (the lightest set I use on any of my guitar collection). For example, I can switch to my Martin acoustic that uses 13-56, or my "Wes Montgomery" L-5, that really likes a strange combination of gauges which read .014, .018, .026, .036, .046, .056, from the PRS and not be freaking out by the drastic change in string gauges! Stephen has set up each of my instruments to bring out all it's own individual high points according to the "touch" I've developed with the variations of the neck contour and width, not to mention the fret height variables on each guitar. Now, I feel "at home" all the time.
Since the guitar's setup is real critical, I play each axe with a slightly (and sometimes not so slight) different style. This has really opened up my creative outlets, and I can just enjoy playing without thinking about it too much.
Coming up in the near future, Stephen's next column will be titled "That Ol' Demon Wang-Bar". If you were like most everybody else this past Christmas season, you ended getting the Beatle's "Live at the BBC" tape or C.D. under the tree. I certainly did, and it's a real treat for the ears, as you probably agree. I heard ALL kinds of cool tones on it...tones that were not found on the studio recordings.
Again, this raises all kinds of questions regarding the equipment used during those broadcasts. We can presume the microphones were the all-tube type Neumann and AKG's. We can't rule out the R.C.A. old-style mikes, either. The pictures on the inside of the booklet clearly show those big, bevelled-tip style microphones (the Neumanns). Try finding tubes for these microphones today, GOOD LUCK!! They will cost you an arm and a leg, to say the least. But, if you're lucky enough to own one of these old tube Neumanns, like the U-47, U-67 or M-49, there is nothing out there that sounds even close to them.
They are the most non-finicky microphones as far as placement is concerned. You can basically put them anywhere, and they'll have a good sound. It's just a matter of HOW GOOD you want them to sound... I've never played with any of them (as far as placement), for more than five minutes to get an unbelievable tone!
As you might remember, we spoke about how critical your pick is to your "own" sound a couple of issues back. A lot of you VG readers called in to ask about my pick stash and how you could get some. It's real simple... just ask your local music dealer to order you a gross (144) of "D'Andrea" #347 Heavy Gauge in white nitrocellulose, and away you go.
Speaking of picks, I remember Paul McCartney using what is commonly known as a "ukulele pick" made of white felt, when he wasn't using his fingers. Talk about a signature tone! You might know that George Harrison also used a Gretsch "Roc-Jet" (with the De-Armond pickups) in the early days of the pre-Beatles.
Jim Phillips, owner of "Jimmy's Guitars" in Hollywood, used to be in a band called "The Leopards" in 1981. They used all English Vox equipment, which they scored at real reasonable prices at the time. Since I lived with Jim during my stint at Groove Tubes, I used to come home to all kinds of piggyback AC-30's and AC-50's. Boy, those were some crazy times.
With the Beatles' use of flat-wound strings, I thought it might be interesting to relate this to their use in the jazz music genre. You might think that this was the "classic" jazz tone, but think back to the early days of amplified guitar ala Charlie Christian during the late 1930s. In those times, these guys were at the mercy of several things.
Number one, their amplifiers didn't have the world's greatest tone controls... they were VERY mid-rangy due to the fact that these amps did not have a treble control.
Two, they suffered from having speakers with really poor tonal response. If you listen to any of this music (any of the Benny Goodman stuff on the 78 r.p.m. records), you'll immediately notice that Charlie's tone wasn't that clean, it had some "hair" on it.
In addition to the the problems above, think about the pickups available during that era! These were huge single-coil pickups (like the "Charlie Christian" model), that were tremendously bright to begin with, so, take that and combine it with an amp that's somewhat dark sounding and you'll get the picture!
I have Gibson string samples from this period, and guess what? They are round-wound nickel and not flat-wound! Also, in 1940, there were a bunch of after-market pickups that Gibson and De-Armond offered to amplify your arch-top guitar. Some of these pickups from Gibson were called the "EP-22" or the "EP-17".
De-Armond had a whole range of floating type units which were used on instruments such as Epiphones, Strombergs, and D'Angelico. This was before you saw the "Ted McCarty" P-90 pickups that appeared on Gibson instruments such as the early `50s L-7's that were attached to the guitar's pickguard. I had one of those, and it had a great sound with a more modern amp, especially if you were brave enough to use those big ol' "telephone cable" strings (let's say, heavier than a .013 for the high "E").
The De-Armond "Rhythm Chief" is a real good sounding unit. For a real terrifying experience, listen to Herb Ellis'playing on "The Oscar Peterson Trio: Live at Zardi's" recorded in 1955. Herb can be heard using hand vibrato and bends! What is really amazing, is that this particular record is 40 years old, and these guys were just TEARING it up. This album has no drummer, the bass player is Ray Brown, and they didn't need one with Oscar and Herb. A real swingin' album, this one!
Other jazz players from the early to middle `50s were guys like Barney Kessel, who plays a L-7 (last I saw), with a "Charlie Christian" pickup; does he use flat-wounds? No Chance!! I think that the flat-wounds were brought out when amplifiers were tonally improved.
This certainly was the case with Wes Montgomery...he used a flat set that went from .014 to a .058, while he played through a Standell amp with one fifteen-inch speaker. I think it was a JBL D-130F, but I might be mistaken, as he could've used the stock speaker that came with the amp. That's a hard call because he played with his thumb like Albert King did.
Old Gibson catalogs show Wes playing an L-5 model with those alnico P-90's, right before he custom-ordered his one humbucking signature model instrument. Since flat-wounds have much more tension than their round-wound counterparts, Herb probably wasn't using them on the "Zardi's" record, not with those bends!
Think about this as well; do you think T-Bone Walker used flats on his early Gibson ES-5? Nah!! Now, I believe Herb Ellis does use flat-wounds, but not in the "golden- years". All you have to do is ask Ken Fischer about his days at Ampeg, and he'll tell you that the jazz greats used round-wounds during that era. They all used to come down to the Ampeg factory to have their amps repaired or to pick up a new amp, so Ken saw them all play two feet in front of him!
While we're on the subject of flat-wounds, is it my imagination, or does everyone want them again due to some strange phenomenon? It seems as though there is a current trend going in that general direction. Could this be due to the Beatles' surge?
Just for the record, I have to admit that I am a total, complete jazz fanatic. This stuff is my true passion besides blues and fusion. As you might gather, I don't use flat-wounds either. I'm certainly not against them, but they are a "one sound" thing. You'll get stereotyped right away as being a protégé of Mr. Wes or Mr. Harrison!
When I was in high school around 1970, everybody was listening to Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. Me, I was listening to Albert King until someone told me about a record called "1969" by Larry Coryell. Well, after listening to that, I got into jazz big-time! I was the only kid in my class that had a Gibson "Super 400 CES". I used to get teased, and laughed at, because the guitar was so monstrous in it's dimensions, but I was a rebel who didn't care what the other kids thought...I actually laughed at their close-mindedness.
I listened to everything that was considered "square" at the time. Let me say that it sure paid off later, and I'm a much better musician because of it. I didn't play one "rock" lick until I was 24 years old. As a result, I have a very weird style of playing because I did almost everything ass-backwards as compared to my contemporaries.
The point is, be YOURSELF, and listen to your own "inner bell" instead of being programmed by anyone but yourself. Great music is great music, regardless of genre, so soak it up and use the knowledge.
THE FAB SIXTIES A.K.A. THE GLORY YEARS PART 7
I received a call today from a guy in Florida who happened to be recording at Abbey Road Studios in London at the same time The Beatles were doing their "White Album" and "Abbey Road" records.
Tom Hartman of Boca Raton used to be in a band called "The Aerovons" that were based out of St. Louis, Missouri. Their band was extremely popular during 1966-1969. This information should dispel some of the myths about what equipment The Beatles used for some of their more well-known songs as Tom befriended George Harrison during the "Aerovons" three-month stay in London. He got answers straight from the horse's mouth, not mention others such as producer George Martin and tape operator Alan Parsons as well engineer Geoff Emerick, too.
On top of that, it's what Tom SAW that really solves quite a few questions. I stated before that we would analyze some of the Beatles' songs. Well, let's start by listing some of the familiar instruments that the "Fab Four" used, as well as some of the not-so-familiar ones that were used.
John Lennon's favorite axe was the Epiphone Casino model equipped with the "dog-ear" P-90 single- coil pickups. This guitar was Epiphone's answer to the Gibson ES-330. It is a fact that John used his familiar Rickenbacker 325 three-quarter scale six- string at the start, but once he got his hands on the Epiphone, he couldn't take them off the darn thing! Three of the Beatles had one of these Casino guitars, but Paul's had a Bigsby vibrato on it while John had a non-vibrato model. These instruments were used heavily in the rhythm department by the mid-Sixties, but they were also relied upon quite a bit for a few of their neater tunes in the lead guitar's role in addition to some guitar "fill" parts.
For example, the lead fills by Paul on "Help"'s "Another Girl" and the end tail-out was indeed the Bigsby-equipped Casino.
Also, Paul's lead solo in "Ticket to Ride" was the Epiphone, too!
From this account, George did not use his Casino all that much as compared to the other guys. How about this? "Nowhere Man" was recorded using two Fender Stratocasters with the toggle- switch jammed in-between the middle and bridge pickups with a bit of heavy compression and a bit of top-end added at the desk! Sounds like Mark Knopfler's "tone" before "Dire Straits" came to be, doesn't it? Those clever guys!
Another great example of "winging it" and coming up with a cool sound in the process. Also, remember that these Strats did not have the flexible ability of the later five-way switch! As far as amps, I've been told that they had used Vox AC-100s in the studio as well as a bunch of other things. One fellow sent me a great photograph of a studio session where John's side had a Black-face Fender Showman (in piggyback) along with what looks like a Deluxe Reverb and a Twin Reverb (all in Black-face). In the same picture, you can see a Vox 7120 on the other side with Vox P.A. columns which were used so they could hear any orchestrations to the song. So, the guys were using a combination of the hybrid tube solid-state amps as well as straight tube gear. We also know now that they used Neumann U-47s, U-67 and U-48 tube microphones for everything in the studio. This makes complete sense when you hear the warmth and clarity of the sounds on tape.
Other interesting facts; George used an SG Standard for the signature riff to "Paperback Writer" and other songs during the "Rubber Soul" period around 1965.
Tom really believes that the hybrid 7120 Vox amp with it's MRB control (midrange boost) in the distortion circuit of this amp could really fool you because of the control's ability to completely change the sound of any guitar and "mask" it's real obvious tonal characteristics.
The S.G. was also used for the song "Rain" for the sustaining chords during the chorus, as well as for the rhythm guitar parts.
"Doctor Robert" from the "Revolver" album kinda smells of the S.G., too.
For acoustics, it was relatively simple; Gibson J-160E's were used for most songs miked up with the Neumanns. The only song that the guitar's built-in pickup was used for was for "P.S. I Love You" according to this source. That wouldn't surprise me at all since those guitars had a thin sound due to their very thick tops. I've heard the reissue J-160E has a much thinner top, so it will sound much bigger.
A German-made Framus 12-string of no particular model other than it was possibly made in the `60s, was used for the "Help" track. Maybe someone out there knows which model that Framus is, you never know sometimes!! This instrument was also seen in the movie of the same name for "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" (the couch scene).
Electric 12-strings were of course Rickenbacker double-bound 360s as far as I know ("Ticket to Ride", "You Can't do That", etc.). Paul first used his Ricky bass on "Paperback Writer". Another photo shows Paul playing this guitar for the bass line to "Lady Madonna" through a Vox amp.
It's also known that Paul played through a blonde Bassman as well. Those amps probably sounded way better than the Vox units.
One of the coolest guitars sounds the Beatles ever made was the lead solo to "Good Morning, Good Morning" from "Sergeant Pepper" done on a Fender Esquire by Paul. You could always tell when Paul played lead, because of that "sitar" influence. My guess is either that solo was a Selmer amp with an external fuzz-box like the "Maestro" unit, or the guitar being run through that distortion circuit of the Vox 7120. What a screamin' tone! I still love it, especially the last three notes.
I believe that "Taxman" could of been that same Esquire, except this time his solo was played through a smaller AC-30 Top Boost amplifier. "Yesterday" was recorded using an Epiphone "Texan" along with the string section. "Michelle" was Paul playing a Martin Dreadnought (I believe a D-18 or D-28) it sure doesn't sound at all like those Gibson J-160Es, that's for sure! By the time the "White Album" was on the record store shelf, the group had switched to Fender amps for the vast majority of their final recordings.
The Vox 7120 amp's fuzz-tone circuit had been introduced due to the influence of say, the "Rolling Stones'" hit "Satisfaction" in an effort to improve upon fuzz-tones of the time, but after their short reign, Jim Marshall had already begun to do "his thing", which of course was the new sound for a new era. Tom Hartman remembers opening up a couple of the Beatles' guitar cases to find a red Les Paul Standard and John's famous 325 during the sessions for the "White Album". He also recalls seeing John's Fender Deluxe and a blonde piggyback amp of some sort hanging around. The red Les Paul can be seen on the "Let it Be" album photos.
Okay, let's talk about the strings that were used as stock on the Rickenbacker 12-strings at the time. They were equipped with flat-wounds of German origin ( Maxima, I'm pretty certain). Again, these flats have a tremendous amount of tension, so if you think Wes Montgomery had a problem with six strings, think again!! I get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome just thinking about it! There have been many advances in string winding machinery over the past few decades, and we'll explore the changes in design and technique of string manufacturing in the very near future. Once we get into that, then you'll really understand the evolution we've been going through. Let's just say that the strings around the Beatles first appearance were REAL stiff and HARD to play comfortably.
That's why us old guys have such calloused finger tips...we had to grind our teeth to learn how to play in the first place! Our kids really have it easy, because of the lighter gauges available today. The only problem is, is that a lot of string companies have all these silly and downright stupid gimmicks to make you want to buy their strings. You see so much "hype", and when you actually try them out, they don't live up to their claims. Sad but true! If all of these big corporate companies started to put their money into their product instead of worrying about their profit margin, the situation would be better for all of us. Passion for an art-form is really where it's at! Enough said...
Mr. Hartman told me a really funny story about a question he asked George Martin about the song "A Hard Day's Night". Tom had bought all the right equipment to duplicate the sound of this song ( Vox amplifiers, Hofner bass, the right strings, guitars, etc) after listening to this song for about three years. He hadn't been able to recapture the exact sound of the record. When he asked George about the recording techniques et al, George (with folded arms and half-smiling) replied " Well, first of all, it's a really good song, wasn't it?!! Tom said "Yeah, it is a good song!" That comment has remained with him to this day and rightfully so.
The SONG was the thing, and any amount of equipment in the world would not duplicate it simply because the song's structure was the entire key to it. All the other stuff was just "paint" according to George Martin! Well, you can put the nail in that one. I hope that this column clears up a lot of confusion regarding this subject. If it ain't broken, don't fix it. If it works, use it! It shouldn't be long before the new books on the Beatles' gear come out in print, so we'll keep you posted. Many thanks to Tom Hartman for being so kind in helping us get more facts, I feel that telephone call was just destined to occur...not bad for a guy who wanted to ask me a couple of questions about what would sound nice on his Gretsch Tennessean. God, the things that happen around here really make me wonder sometimes...
One last comment about the strings that the Beatles used, they used anything that would work whether they were flat-wound or round-wound. Listen real carefully for "finger-noise" and that will pretty much tell you what was used on which song. Besides, that exercise alone will help your ear out more than you even know!
PART 16 "THE FAB SIXTIES RETURN A.K.A. "FROM OUT THE BLUE"
Since our last episode in Beatle-land, I've been having almost nightly discussions with a fellow that doesn't live too far from Ken Fischer, and this very interesting occurence didn't hurt what is happening right now as this column is being written. Never in a million years would I have thought that someone out there was as tenacious in his quest for the authentic, REAL early Sixties Beatles' tone from a string standpoint.
The gentleman in question is a true nuts hardcore Rickenbacker twelve-string junkie from the get-go. He knows everything that anyone would ever care to about what makes the 1964-1968 Rickenbacker twelve (and six-string for that matter) a truly unique sounding and important instrument of that time in our musical heritage. This guy was completely adamant about re-creating the strings that the Beatles' used during this era, which were the Pyramid brand of Flat-wound strings manufactured in Germany. These Flat-wounds are so different than any other brand of this string type, it's not even funny.
First off, they are made with a very special attention to detail as no others after them. Secondly, the plain treble strings have a sound that is very different from any others I've heard or used. My guess is that the metal sources are not the same as the ones American string manufacturers have been using. One very important aspect is the old-world craftsmanship; most everyone knows that the European countries are downright proud of this well known trademark. They have long been unavailable in this country in the same formula that the Beatles' used.
The machines that wind these all-nickel flat-wounds are found only in Europe, which explains why all the string manufacturers in this country have no real desire to duplicate this particular string. They feel very loose and pliable when compared to the modern style flat-wounds that are made of stainless steel for the most part. As stated before, stainless is an entirely different sound and feel than nickel, and they will never ever be able to capture that warmth regardless of the string being smooth and glassy feeling to your fretting hand.
These Pyramids feel like pasta does right after you take it from the boiling water you just cooked it in! You can bend them very easily, and they are the only MUSICAL flat-wound strings on the planet! Remember that "click" that Paul McCartney got on the early records? Modern flats will not produce that sound at all. Paul used them on his original Rickenbacker bass...just listen to tunes like "Lady Madonna". That's the sound!! Any of you Hofner bass owners out there will just absolutely not believe that you can finally get that tone again and right now to boot.
These strings are just pivital in the production of the "politically correct" timbre, not to mention attitude. Now, I know what you're thinking..."Gee, these strings most likely cost some coin, Huh?" Well, you hardcore guitar fanatics realise that we all live for tone, right? Correcto mundo! Now here's where the fun began. Once samples where in hand, I sent the aforementioned individual down to see Mr. Ken. Kenny has all the right instruments (and amps, natch) to really put these strings thru tests that Hell couldn't ever think of. Fischer's just too clever, as we all know!
A few days later, I received a call from Ken with the results. Ken himself decided to serenade me by playing the opening riff to the Beatles' song "I Want to Hold Your Hand". This was a Telecaster being played through one of his Trainwreck Rockets. God, I just froze in my slippers! You know that "tone" immediately when you hear it, there's just NO QUESTION!!! It was at this point that I had received some samples to try. Everyone who saw them at the San Mateo Show said, "Dean, where the *&^% did you get THESE?!!"
They all knew, that's for damn sure. It's just something you don't forget when you grew up on that magical `60s music. Now, we have yet another interesting twist to this saga. These great strings are going to be available in all the gauges of past times, but there will be newer more "modern" gauges that today's player might be more familiar with as well. For the folks who own Gretsch guitars in the hollow-body format(s), as well as our Rickenbacker lovers (Bass, six-string and twelve-string alike), if you are definitely desiring this tone, these are the only strings that will give it to ya.
Heck, these things would greatly appeal to all the jazz-hounds who like the "flat" sound. They are not dead sounding like all the others I've had experience with. They are very rich and snappy for this type of string... just too cool and special. I could very well be easily talked into using them on my jazz box, dig? I believe you all know that I like round-wound strings from our previous columns. What's really hillarious is that the guitar manufacturers of today (I bet you can figure out who I'm referring to) don't think that a market exists for these sets.
In their dreams... they just don't seem to care! Oh, well, ignorance is a real pity, isn't it? Another shining example of what we called "Big Corporate Thinking." Try to play "Love Me Do" on your short-scale Hofner bass with round-wounds, it won't cut the mustard.
The Pyramid strings have a really cool tone to them when used in a clean setting, but when you punch it up into distortion, they're really happening...you just get goosebumps for days! Now, that our Beatles' fanatics have been informed about the re-appearance of the Fab Four's string of choice, you should check these babies out or forever hold your peace.
I can honestly say that I've been very excited by this turn of events as I can believe in the quality and integrity of this string. I feel like a kid again, what a concept!! See you next month.
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.