My, did all of our Beatles' lovers freak out from last month's announcement! My friend in New Jersey who is behind the resurrection of the famous Pyramid strings is beginning to think that's he's turned into Jerry Lewis after doing the "Muscular Dystrophy Telethon"...his fax and phone are just burning off the hook to put it mildly. Yes, gang, there's a rather large untapped market for these sets out in guitarland.
You see, when something hasn't been available for years and years ( and you just crave the memory of that sound) there's just no substitute, period. I'm so glad there are people in the world who won't accept "No" as an answer to their question of whether they can recreate something from the past that was unique and in a class of its own. Usually, when folks get a response like "These sets are no longer obtainable from any manufacturer, anywhere.", the buck stops at that point.
Hey, if you want to make something bad enough, you'll find a way of getting it done. This is the proof in the pudding, I'll say that much. I must be very candid with our readers; I'm certainly old enough to have had the opportunity to play the Pyramid strings when I was young, but I have to state that I NEVER DID!! It wasn't until August of this year that I tried them for the first time. At 41 years old, no less!
Anyway, I know from the calls I received regarding this subject, that all of you Beatles' fans re-defined the term for the old "Woody" cars that the Beach Boys used to sing about, catch my drift(wood)? I am just crazy about these strings. They are a completely different breed of animal. Now, I'll pop the $64,000 question...what's the very first thing you do when you buy a new (or vintage) instrument?
You rip the original strings off of it (or what was on the guitar) and put your favorite brand of strings on it, right? RIGHT. I cannot remember a single time when I didn't perform this duty myself, even as a young teenager. When asking everyone else I know that very question, they ALL agreed with my theory. Everyone knows that the guitar builders (The factories with the largest volume of production in particular) use the cheapest brand of strings they can find. They just won't spend a little more to make their instruments sound the best they possibly can be made to seduce you into buying it quickly.
There are exceptions, of course, but generally the above practice is favored. The original equipment is sent to the circular file before you really start to enjoy the sonic qualities of your new baby. More info from our panel of experts; Ralph Novak has a stunning twelve-string that he tested the Pyramids on and he was floored. Want more? See Ken Fischer's review this month on these tonal gems. Their answer is always the same; these strings are just mind-boggling.
These magical wires effect you in a way the mythical "Fountain of Youth" did, you instantly lose about thirty years off your chronological age. Here's the scoop...these strings are actually more similar to the strings used on violins and cellos. In other words, they are Orchestral strings in a smaller size to accommodate your guitar. They have a very "Round-wound" sound to them acoustically, they ring and sustain like the "Bells of Rhymney". There's quite a bit of hand labor in the silking of the core and the ends of the string by the ball.
The outside silk is more a cosmetic detail (on the bass strings) that looks extremely nice, but this one extra step takes time to do anyway you look at it. It's a great example of an absolute class act, no holds barred. We did about ten months worth of research on the history and actual making of these strings before the word was put out to the masses. That's a tremendous amount of homework as you might imagine. My buddy has been getting calls from very prestigious plastic surgeons just to give you an idea that a market really exists for these strings.
"Coming out of the closet" has an entirely new meaning for that phrase! These customers are not only upper-income individuals, but seriously hard-core in their love of sound when a guitar is involved. I never got into playing guitar to get the girls or use it as a phallic symbol, I just loved the way it sounded and how it had the uncanny ability to communicate with my true inner self. After all, that's what makes self-expression so personal and exciting.
Everyone has their own method of self-expression, but we just so happen to use our guitars as a vehicle for hearing our own spiritual voice within.
Markets are first created within a person's thoughtform. If you don't believe that a market exists for something, you won't create one, that's a fact. On the other hand, if you think of an idea that is worthy of developing a market for, you'll create it! Markets exist in your head first, then you decide on how to stratigically approach selling your product to people. This is a very simple example of the Law of Cause and Effect. Your thoughts set up the "cause" and your action(s) create the "effect" later on.
If the Pyramids have not been on the market for roughly 23 years, players were forced into using other alternatives that did not give them the authentic sound they were used to. Duh, I wonder why there hasn't been any demand for them--it doesn't take Einstein to figure that out. Somebody simply didn't want to be bothered by the hassle of making a string like the Pyramids, it isn't an easy job to do right by any means.
This brings me to the reason why I chose the title of this month's column. As some of you probably know, George Martin's 1979 autobiography is titled "All You Need is Ears". What a fitting title for a guy who knew how to use this sense to the highest degree. Well, he's absolutely correct...it seems a lot of players remember how their ears responded to the first chord the Beatles' ever played or these tons of phone calls wouldn't be comin' in.
If anything, they're stronger than ever before and their music will live on for many future generations to enjoy and learn from. I know what I want under the Christmas tree, alright ma?
My next test is to try these Pyramids on my '56 Les Paul Junior as it promises to be very interesting. It should sound killer for slide or any other type of playing. This Junior is my favorite guitar to use as a test instrument when checking out new designs of strings as its neck is akin to a Louisville Slugger in size, and the tone the axe produces is downright mean. Besides, the neck won't shift when I change to a heavier or lighter gauge string when needed.
Hmmm...with the Trainwreck Liverpool I'm getting shortly, I think I will have a new religious belief! It's going to be rightious, I cannot tell you how excited I am about its arrival. As a matter of fact, Kenny and myself have decided to name the 'Pool after my lovely mother, Libuse. If you can't pronouce her name, it's because she's a full-blooded Czech. Her name has not been used in Ken's logbook so far, I can assure you of this without any hesistation.
What's going to be really fun, is that the amp's face-plate engraving will be of a court jester laughing at the stick puppet of himself that he's holding in his hand. Can you imagine if I play a gig and someone asks me about the sound I'm getting? I can either say, "Ask the Clown!" or "I don't know, you better ask my mom!" In any case, with the tone I'll get from this little monster, the joke is going to be on them!
Thanks for having the unbelievable interest and support for the new Pyramid string. With the new gauges that are going to be coming in soon, I think we're really going to have a lot of players looking younger by the minute.
Two last comments before signing off; The great English poet, John Keats (1795-1821), wrote a poem that states: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." Paging Peter Townshend, paging Tom Petty, paging Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and Jim, will you please tell your twin brother Roger,..."They're back!"
ALL YOU NEED IS EARS OR USING THE PAST TO LOOK INTO THE FUTURE
Up until now, we've been using the past to further your understanding of WHY strings are the most crucial part of your sound chain. We have used particular songs as examples of a certain sound you may have been trying to acheive or duplicate. I really feel that we need to take a quick break from the past musical trends, if momentarily , to examine what the heck we can do to create new musical sounds and trends.
Just the other day, I was thinking about our modern day "contemporary " sounds. This hit me in quite a big flash...when I listen to today's music, "something" is missing! That particular "something" has to do with the guitar's strings. You can use all the stomp boxes, signal processors and amps you want to produce a sound you're searching for, but wouldn't it be nice to forget all about that heavy rack-mount shit et al, and get a brand new sound without that gear (keeping the amp and guitar, of course) clogging up your signal?
What I'm getting down to here, is that we NEED to develop a new technology string from the ground up instead of just re-hashing the same old metalurgical materials. Nobody out there has come up with a string that can be considered really innovative, yet have a "new" sound, a sound that hasn't been heard yet! To do this feat, it will require a tremendous amount of research and development to create that special "something" that I'm hearing inside my head.
More importantly, it will take the desire, patience and caring of the people who manufacture the wire and so forth to allow us to realize our next new sonic possibilities.
Lately, I've been doing a lot of homework and just downright guessing "what" is going to create that new sound I hear. I've been in touch with quite a few wire manufacturers worldwide and I believe in a short time we will have a new string that will be completely different than any other string design ever before. I feel like quoting Monty Python's John Cleese: "And now, for something completely DIFFERENT!"
As stated before the key to realising our new sonic tones is in the hands of the wire manufacturers. I believe that the European manufacturers are much more open to exploring the development of new metalurgic combinations or what we could call "potions". The American wire makers seem to be less open to exploring this area. It sometimes seems that getting something different out of them is like pulling out all your teeth.
Now, ponder this; What type of "new" sounds are you hearing? In this day of advertising hyperbola, I get real suspicious of the so-called "lastest improvements" when I see the ads in various magazines. Of course, I have tested quite a few of the new strings that have hit the market recently. In all honesty, they all have come up short in one area or another.
Examples are things like these; the upper harmonics won't chime, the string's orbit is out of balance and doesn't vibrate properly, leaving you with weird tones that are very annoying. Most of the strings out there just sound cold and harsh to my ears without really being "musical". Personally, I like strings that sound alive and full of "soul" even when they're halfway dead. I would rather be playing the darn guitar instead of worrying about changing strings all the time.
With today's modern technology, it's extremely probable that you could make ANYTHING right provided you have done your myriad of tests and experiments beforehand. Additionally, nothing gets my goat more than a string that won't stay in tune and hold it's pitch until the harmonics die and your intonation goes out the window. To me, that's when you install a new set.
One hot little tip from Stephen White: Use cigarette lighter fluid to clean your strings. Brands like Zippo and Ronsonall work just great...not only does the dirt and grime dissolve, but so does the acid from your hands. This trick is especially handy when someone else has been playing your ax, because the lighter fluid will neutralize their finger acids.
When two separate chemistries play on the same set of strings, that set will lose it's lifespan dramatically in most cases that I've encountered. I have gotten six months out of one set of strings by using this cleaning hint. For about $2.00, you can save a lot of time and money on your strings. Now, is this cost effective or what?!! Now, for the infamous disclaimer: Only use a few drops on a piece of soft cloth making sure that you get the cloth/liquid underneath the string. Gently move the cloth along the length of the string listening for that "squeak". DO NOT smoke around the guitar while you are doing this cleaning proceedure, or be close to any sort of open flame as lighter fluid can be extremely hazardous to your health, guitar, not to mention your home!
Fortunately, lighter fluid evaporates very quickly, and leaves a harmless residue on your strings, which makes the strings feel a little silky to the touch. Back to the future...Guitar manufacturers like Martin, as an example, have been experimenting with alternative woods and composite materials besides wood for future guitar making. This is simply because the wood supply of mahogany, ebony, rosewood, and the like are going to dissapear eventually if we keep on turning the world's forests into parking lots!
Using my Steinberger guitar as an example, it is made out of an epoxy resin fiber material. Anyone who has played a Steinberger knows that they are very different in their tonality. They have a very quick transient response that will sit nicely in the mix if you use them for rhythm parts, for example. I've always wondered what it would sound like if we could've used a new type of composite/alternative material string on a composite instrument such as the Steinberger. When you think about it, this gives us a whole lot of possibilities, doesn't it?
If you have a futuristic guitar made of different materials, would it not make sense to have alternative string types that would complement/match the new guitar's sound? Hey, an alternative-type string just might sound better on our vintage instruments, too! So, we have to ask ourselves some questions as to what it is that we're really looking for. Do we want a string that will NEVER wear out and keep it's tone forever (what a concept, eh)? How will a "new" string actually change our picking techniques, left-hand bending, our amplifier/speaker's reactions to our touch?
Most importantly, how will it change our music and the way we play it because of the timbral and kinetic differences? As you can see, there is is myriad of choices to be had if everyone pitches in and REALLY takes a hard, intelligent look at this issue. It has been said that human beings only effectively use about four percent of their brains in the course of one's lifetime. What about the other 96 percent that we "don't" use? Believe me, it's all in there, we just have to open up our minds and intuitively tap into the area known as "pure potentiality" to reach our goals. We are the only ones that can start or stop ourselves in our progression.
If we're open and creative enough, having the amount of will to make changes for the benefit of everyone, no one can stand in the way. I would like to do a VG reader survey to analyze the needs or desires of the players that are relevant to this commentary. Please let us know what you're looking for so we can get on the stick and just make it happen! The future can happen right in the present time with your input. It's time to put on your "thinking caps"! See you next month.
YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE OR ILL-TEMPERED GUITAR(S)
Last month we posed a question for the VG readership to ask themselves: What kind of new sounds are you hearing in you heads? Well, this month we've decided to address a problem that has occurred in many a vintage instrument and how you can actually fix it without modification in many cases. There has been a tragic-comic love/hate relationship between your strings and the bridges that were designed on quite a few of your classic axes.
The problem involves the intonation ability or "compensation" adjustment of the bridge so that you can actually intonate it properly and accurately.
Let's go back down memory lane to about 1972 when I acquired my first real "jazz guitar", an early Fifties L-7. My teacher at the time, suggested that I use a heavy gauge string (those old Gibson 440 sets that started with a .014 and went up to a .058 with a .028 wound "G" string). That guitar along with other instruments of its circa had a wooden bridge that you were barely able to get in tune, because said bridge did not have separate string adjustment built into them. You could get it slightly into the ballpark, but still no cigar, pal.
They were annoying to say the least...always out of tune with the instrument, but NEVER right on the money. Granted, some of these guitars sounded wonderful when you had a good one, but frankly , you were always messing with that bridge, hoping that you could "dial it in" on a good day, if you were lucky. As you might guess, it was a perpetual problem. My L-7 was a really good one, you know, big ol' neck, two pickguard mounted P-90's with a gorgeous tone even though the guitar had been "refinished" with a coating of black Krylon paint over the original sunburst finish!
Still wish I had kept it, but you know that story all too well. One day, I went out to my local music store to discover they had just taken delivery of a Gibson Super 400. Larry Coryell was one of my ultimate guitar heroes at this time, so I of course wanted that mysteriously huge and exquisitely appointed guitar that I had swooned over since I had first seen it on the back of one of his first solo albums, "Coryell". It was the "kind" for me, end of story!
I bought that guitar right away and thought since it was quite an up-grade from the L-7, that my intonation problems would be solved. Right? WRONG!!! About one week into this 400, I found myself messing with that darn wooden bridge saddle over and over again! In utter frustration, I brought my new guitar to a local repairman for a look. These folks also had the reputation for making fine violins, so I figured that I could trust them to fix this problem, since they understood these arch-topped wonders.
Later that afternoon, I came back to pick up my guitar after they said the work was to be done. WARNING: This story is best read while lying down, so if you slam your head into a wall and hurt yourself, don't blame me! When I opened up the zipper-case cover, much to my absolute horror, I saw two big screws drilled into the bridge's base!
Now, I know Dracula didn't like looking into the sun, or seeing crucifixes, much less the wooden stake through his heart, but THIS was the the dreaded SILVER BULLET! I mean, I was PISSED. Anyone who knows anything about arch-tops knows that this is a crucial area of the guitar's vibrational "home"!
I very angrily asked the man responsible for this desecration, WHY he elected to put screws into the top of my new guitar. He innocently replied, "Oh, you can't hear any difference, it won't make any tonal changes at all". Did Stradivari install screws on his violin bridges so they would'nt move ? He knew better! I immediately demanded that they remove the screws and fill up the holes.
To be completely honest with you, there were two huge holes put through my heart that day which never healed. My next solution was to find a used nylon saddle "Tune-a-matic" bridge to replace the wooden one. That helped a bit, but that bridge also moved around from time to time. I had taken an Exacto blade and carefully made markings around the bridge's corners, so if it moved I could put it back into position.
Now, with the older "Tune-a-matic" bridge, there is another really annoying reality down the line. Their saddles have a tendency to "sink" down into the bridge housing after time. You probably have seen it happen to one of your Gibsoninstruments. When this happens, it's usually the "G" and "D" strings in the middle. If you feel an action change there, look at your bridge. More on the string-related problems of the aforementioned bridge in a little while.
I must tell you that you can have a "Compensated" wooden bridge made with each string's length adjustment built right in by guys like Ralph Novak and Stephen White. Since wooden bridges sound way better than metal ones, it's just the way to go if you want that "Tone". This type of bridge is totally retrofit and won't hurt your vintage guitar's value since no real modification is needed. You just replace the metal one with the wooden one.
Stephen had spent an entire day working on an old `50s Epiphone Regent trying to find out what gauge of strings really intonated with the guitar's so-called "compensated" bridge. He found that the following gauges worked best; .012,.016,.22w..036,.046, and .050. Excuse me? Don't you think that the string gauges listed above are a LITTLE unbalanced? Yeah, I would think so...the jump from the .022 to the .036 is a bit radical for any good jazz player in my own estimation.
Above, I told you what I used on my L-7 and with the right set-up you don't even feel the tautness of the strings, your fingers just glide over the fingerboard. You can have the lowest action and the highest playability with heavier strings. No buzz at all! These gauges certainly won't hurt the strength of your hands, either.
The next step up in pumping iron is getting the Rickenbacker twelve-string down, that guitar has double the tension of any six-string. Forget that "GripMaster" isometric device, I have found out in my own experience that those things are dangerous if used on a dare from some guy who thinks he's too cool. Just play the size of string that suits the physical aspects of your hands and the rest will follow suit.
Now, back to more intonation terrorism. The Rickenbacker twelve-string bridge (the six-saddle type) has its own inherent tuning problems. Unless you get their twelve-saddle bridge, you're in trouble. There is just NO WAY you will be able to get the lower strings intonated with the octave strings with the vintage-style six-piece bridge, it's just impossible with the immutable laws of physics factored in.
History has proven that guitars like Gibson's ES-335-12, Firebird 12s, Baldwins, Burns, etc. just don't intone properly. You can't just thrown six more strings on a six piece saddle and expect it to play right. "Wow, now we've got a twelve-string guitar!" With the only exception being a Fender Electric XII which was designed to be nothing other than a twelve-string guitar, you don't have many real viable alternatives. Have you ever tried to intonate a Telecaster with the old-style three-saddle bridge using a plain "G" string? Hmmm, what fun!
Actually, a wound third string works quite a bit better as the Fender guitars were shipped originally with wound thirds in the beginning. Same with the Stratocaster, too. The good news is that with Fenders at least they gave you the option of separate string height adjustment to follow the fingerboard's curvature.
Even the Gibson "Tune-a-matic" bridge won't give you that feature, either. Imagine this; if you slot a saddle on the Gibson bridge too low, the other five saddles will have to go down as well. And, when you play the guitar a lot and hard at the same time, the saddle's grooves will go even further down with time. Oh, well. Another bridge which can cause problems is the wrap-around style found on the less expensive Les Paul Junior and Special models along with theirS.G. model counterparts.
Those types with the "ridges" on the top won't intonate with plain thirds, either...wound strings here also work more beneficially. Leslie West sure wasn't in tune with his Les Paul Junior, he had to bend the strings a bit more to compensate. Another possibility that lurks in the lower-end Les Pauls is that their bridges were routed in the wrong spot to begin with in many cases. You must remember that these guitar were considered budget-models at the time and were produced as such.
I was a victim of a misrouted Junior. Yeah, Stephen finally got it "in the pocket" after re-doweling the guitar and re-centering the bridge in the right place, and now, it's a beautiful thing. My question always is revolving around the strings that the guitar companies like Gibson put on their guitars; did they invent all their weird gauging based upon their bridge design(s)? I can say that I don't believe this theory, because there's too many metalurgical variables in the outer wrap and the sizes of the core (and it's material alloy) which can affect the bridge and other components of an instrument that really matter.
Playing in tune is a very critical issue and when you hear all these funny oscillations, it can drive you nuts. I really think that there can be heavier more durable bridge designs to solve all of these problems. I'm off to NAMM to investigate what has been updated since last year. I'm very interested in what might be in store for all of us. For more on guitar hardware, please check out the review from NAMM 1995 in the March issue of VG. I sincerely hope that this column might steer the manufacturers to improve upon what's currently being passed off as "current" state-of-the art stuff. Sooner of later, we're gonna need a source of solid, reliable replacements for all of our vintage instruments to keep them alive and sounding better than ever. Real improvements never hurt. See you next time with what we find at NAMM 96.
MORE STRING CONTROVERSY AND MYTHOLOGY
Whoa, everyone's "Top Ten" lists were beyond entertaining, don't you think? I enjoyed them immensely and I think it was a fabulous idea as well! For now, it's back to business. I've been reflecting a lot on the "String Industry" lately since my last trip to N.A.M.M. in January. I saw some pretty strange ways of convincing people WHY you should buy a certain manufacturers' strings over another. Competition is getting very cut-throat to put it kindly.
There are a couple of things I wish to explain and clarify for you so any confusion will be minimal if hopefully non-existant. The first issue is in regards to whether round-core wound strings are supposedly more desirable in comparison to their hex-core wound opponents. Let's look at a round-core style string. As the name implies, the core is of a round shape.
With a round-core string (keep in mind that we're referring to the last three strings, D, A and the low E), there is a big problem in keeping the outer wrap tightly in contact with the core itself. Traditionally, adhesive type compounds would be applied to the core BEFORE the final winding process is completed. Adhesives generally are quite sticky because they basically act as a glue which is what will hopefully keep the outer wrap from separating and causing "gaps" in the outer wrap.
There have been a lot of arguments about which style of core actually sounds "better". Now let's look at a hex-style core; the hex has six "points" and six "flats" in it's hexagonal construction. The hex-core has no need of adhesives because the six "points" grab the outer winding and keep it from going anywhere. These six "points" are the glue. In my experience, I've never played a hex-style string which felt sticky. On the other hand, every round-core roundwound string has always had some sort of residue on it, why is this so?
The reason is quite simple: any time you wind a string that has an adhesive agent on the core at high tension, the adhesive somehow always manages to seep up between the wraps and get onto the playing surface of the string. Yuk!! How can you possibly play comfortably when your fingers are covered in all this miserable dreck?
With OSHA ( The USA's "environmental police" for our foreign readers) bearing down on the string manufacturers, they can no longer use ( or are restricted in using) a type of chemical acid bath to clense the strings after their final stage of completion. I believe the chemicals they used to employ were either chromic or muriatic acid. These types of acid are commonly used in swimming pools (muriatic acid) and in the etching process of printed circuit boards (chromic acid).
Since I used to work in a printed circuit board shop in the "Silicon Valley" area, I can tell you without a doubt that these acids are pretty toxic stuff. The next issue involves the sound of round-core versus hex-core strings. It is my opinion that hex-core strings are superior in sound as the hex-core with it's six "points" has less actual mass than their round-core counterparts.
Round cores have more mass because they are completely round, while the hex-core is not. In addition, the more metal you have in a string, the stiffer it will be, which is highly influential on the way the string will vibrate. With the hex-core, you are allowed to have a bigger size outer wrap, while the round-core with it's larger mass needs a smaller size wrap to get the equal gauge as with the hex-style strings.
Certain companies claim that they are able to "compress" more metal into their strings by winding the outer wrap onto the core at a much higher tension than usual. Then, their claim is that the string will bend easier when tuned to concert A-440 pitch. THINK ABOUT THIS...how can you have more mass in your string and expect to bend it easier? This goes against the laws of physics. Any time you use too much tension for anything, you're going to receive exactly what you've put into it, being MORE TENSION. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, anyone? No thanks, but I'll pass!
I have not seen a "compound-wound" or "compression-wound" string yet that has not caused me pain in my left hand or leave me with that feeling of struggling to get the music out in a fluid, easy manner even if I'm not doing bends in the first place.
Furthermore, when you install these two styles of strings, a complete re-setup of your instrument is required. In example, if you play a guitar with a tremelo bar, you will see the bridge raise upwards when these strings are up to standard pitch. You have to re-adjust your intonation, the bridge, your spring tension, the works!
Our next subject concerns the type of metal(s) used for the "plain" strings and the plating materials that are used to "coat" the top of them. I'm going to begin with the term "Swedish Steel". You would think that when you hear this terminology, this steel indeed originates from Sweden.
Swedish steel is simply a steel alloy formula that the Swedes invented for its particular toughness and durability. If you've ever visited Sweden, it's climate isn't very forgiving, weather-wise. It is very cold and harsh most of the time, approximately nine or sometimes even ten months out of their year (depending upon where you are). I know from experts that the Swedes gave us their formula quite some time ago.
Well, unless you're buying an "export model" Saab, Volvo or Scania truck, that's where you'll find the original Swedish steel formula. I know for a fact that the "Swedish" Volvos and Saab cars and other vehicles are made from American steel! My point is that if a set of guitar strings were made in Sweden, would it actually be real Swedish steel? Check out what it says in the Stewart- MacDonald catalog about the "Sandvik" brand tools being crafted from "high-quality Swedish steel made in Holland"!
Okay, now we can postulate that the American steel companies have modified the original Swedish formula and many times over. If you see the phrase "Swedish Steel" on a set of American guitar strings, I wouldn't bank on it. As this point, you probably realize that the myriad of different steel formulas sound unique to themselves due to the changes of the metalurgical component/ makeup in any ONE type of steel.
Plating also has a profound effect on the string's sound, too. Tin, silver, brass or gold have special and unique timbres when used as a coating on the unwound (or in the case of gold, wound) strings. American companies prefer tin-plating on the plain strings, while the Europeans seem to favor silver-plating. Silver doesn't have the volume that tin has, and is much softer sounding to your ear. It's a bit sweeter, but not nearly as strong in the "front" attack portion of your pick stroke.
Gold is especially different as it seems to produce a much lower volume than the other metals we've mentioned. Hey, I must admit gold and brass plating look very slick and sexy, but what do they offer the player as a true functional benefit? The honest answer is, "Not much to speak of".
The next factor is how much plating is actually on the string itself. The plating is obviously there also as protection against sweat, dirt and finger acids. If your strings turn brown after a very short period of play, there ain't a whole lot of protection, is there? This discoloration also applies to the nickel-plated wound strings so often found in today's string market. Most likely, if you're "brown", you're DOWN!
My own feeling says the more tin-plating you have on the plain strings, the merrier, because you'll prolong the string's life by a ridiculously longer period of playing time while giving you that "big" sound when you hit the string as the added bonus. A good friend of mine has had the same set of strings on his fabulous early `60s ES-355 for almost three years! When I pick his guitar up, I begin to think about having a tetanus shot just in case, no kiddin'! These are just about as rotten as you can get...they're just way beyond anyone's comprehension, and Greg is saying that they are JUST about broken in.
While we're talking about rotten strings, I've found that the best sounds ever committed to a four-track deck for wah-wah solos was while using old, spent strings. For some reason, when you press the pedal to the bass side of its throw, it gets really vocal and quite throaty. I couldn't put that in the "Top Ten" list due to space, but try it, VERY touching and chalk full of parody. As always, the bottom line is to try anything and everything you can to hear/absorb/understand all of the subtle changes in tone.
Enough of this sick stuff...quaff some Pepto-Bismol and tell your mother how you're feeling in the morning. Oh, one more thing. Stay tuned for next month's offering about how you can become a real Sear's *9856/Craftsman tool kit!
PART 21 "LET´S GO TRIPPIN "" A.K.A. SURF´S UP
Greetings and salutations, again. Since we have covered all that English stuff i.e. The Beatles', we can concentrate on what was happening musically on "our" side of the pond. From the title of this month's column, you certainly don't have to guess where we're heading...the beach, of course!
I had a conversation with Dick Dale awhile ago and he told me the history of "Surf Music" in detail. He was basically a Country and Western player in the mid-fifties. His hero was jazz drummer Gene Krupa. In 1956, Dick had an idea which was to emulate the percussive qualities of a drummer, just on guitar. This is where he conceived that "galloping" roar on the lower strings of his vintage Shoreline Gold Stratocaster.
Being a left-handed player, he strung his guitar upside-down like Albert King and Otis Rush. He always used roundwound nickel strings that had a round core ( that's what was used in strings during this period as the newer hex-core strings didn't become available until the Seventies). Hex-core actually means that the core has six "points" and six "flats" in its design. These points and flats grab the outer wrap of the wound strings and keep it from slipping and separating causing gaps in the surface of the wound strings.This was a great advance in the technical side of string development as it created a more stable string with far less problems that were just mentioned concerning the round-core style strings of the time.
Dick Dale was influential in the development of the Fender Dual Showman amplifier which he concocted with Leo Fender. His amplifier, as I understand it, has a huge output transformer in a piggy-back format using an extension cabinet using 2-15 inch JBL D-130 speakers. When you consider the extremely heavy gauge strings he uses (.014 to a .060) along with his use of a ridiculously heavy pick ( 2mm as I recall) this is what creates that huge percussive sound. Let's not forget his use of a Fender reverb unit, either.
Dick Dale plays SO hard that he told me he's seen his bridge saddles turn a purple color just from the friction of his picking assault! That's really slamming, as I've never heard of this phenomenon happen to anyone else in my whole life. Just listen to "Checkered Flag" on Capital Records, or to "The Best of Dick Dale and his Del-Tones" recorded between 1961 and 1963. This record contains great surf originals such as "Let's Go Trippin'" and "Misirlou", not to mention the giant instrumental cut "The Wedge".
There's no doubt that Dick is the inventor of surf music, and guess what? If Dick Dale hadn't been around with that "Galloping" sound, Metallica would'nt be doing what they're doing, either. It's my opinion that Dick Dale indirectly created heavy metal music...just a little further down the road! I'm sure that I am not alone in this theory amongst people of my circa.
Here's an odd twist in the "surf-saga". English composer Jerry Lordan penned the tune "Apache", which was recorded by Cliff Richards' band, "The Shadows" whose guitarist, Hank Marvin, was considered by anyone in Europe in the late-fifties, early sixties era to be the comsumate guitar hero. The Vox AC-30 was originally designed for Hank Marvin. Hank was the first English player to buy a fiesta-red Fender Stratocaster, too.
Here in the States, we most likely did not hear the "Shadows" version of "Apache", but what we did hear was this very same song recorded by Danish guitarist, Jorgen Ingmann, complete with multi-tracked acoustic and electric instruments, tons of tape-echo and the like in 1961. It was a big hit in the States and did very well.
1960 saw the first release from "The Ventures", entitled "Walk, Don't Run". This title cut was ironically written by jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith! This was a pivotal turn in the course of instrumental guitar-oriented music. We all know how well the Ventures did...they spawned a whole slew of guitar groups and changed the history of American guitar music forever. On their first album, you can even see a Gibson ES-355 on its cover photo if the pretty girl didn't get your complete attention!
The Ventures also covered the "Apache" tune and later re-worked it into "Apache `65" from their "Walk, Don't Run,` 64" album. We can presume with infident ears that the amps used were of Fender origin. On their sophmore release, "The Ventures", the ES-355 was changed to a sunburst Fender Jazzmaster. The other instruments depicted on the first record were a maple-neck Precision Bass with the anodized pickguard and a maple-neck "Buddy Holly" style two-tone Strat.
Mosrite instruments were featured on the "Walk, Don't Run `64" album cover. It is my theory that the Ventures stopped using the heavily endorsed Mosrite instruments due to their very hot overwound pickups approximately four years later.
Every Mosrite I've played has been a bit edgy, but there are exceptions to the rules since guitar manufacturers have a tendency to change their specifications when you least expect it. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Ventures were the first guitar-based group to have an instructional album released, called "Play Guitar with the Ventures" on Liberty Records. Talk about being there at the right time!
Other bands of interest include the Boulder, Colorado-based "The Astronauts" who had three guitar players, one of which as his sole function supposedly played the lower bass notes of his guitar! Another thing is this band had matching guitars and amps to boot...Olympic White Jazzmaster, two Jaguars, and a Jazz Bass with red tortoise pickguards along with their white Fender amps with the white knobs and the Oxblood grillcloths! "The Astronauts" had a hit with "Baja" from their "Surfin' with the Astronauts" LP which is considered by many as one of the best surf records ever made.
In "style", surf music is more related to Flamenco and Spanish music as it is completely void (for the majority) of blues influence. It just seems so evident. The strings of this music are again pure nickel roundwound to these ears. When I asked Dick Dale if he ever used the Flatwound type, he emphatically said, "Hell, no, NEVER!"
Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, I've noticed a big return of post-surf style bands lately... namely "The Mermen" and "The Aqua-Velvets". "Mermen" guitarist, Jim Thomas, is just incredibly brilliant. Very melodic, very creative and in total control of his instrument. In this trio format, he weaves great melodies within his chordal structures, being very adept in his use of feedback and whammy bar techniques. Their music lifts you in the air and completely takes you where you've never been.
His rig is really cool. Imagine this...take all your potentiometers off your American Standard Stratocaster and have separate outputs for each pickup. His neck and bridge pickups go through one Fender Twin each, while the middle pickup is going through a Dual Showman amplifier. Add a Lexicon LXP-1 delay/reverb unit with a volume pedal and splitter boxes and watch out!
This band is more "outside" than the surf bands of the past, but this is just their starting point. A must-have CD is their "A Glorious Lethal Euphoria" on Mesa Records #92634. Go get it, you will agree that Thomas should be the new guitar-hero, period. Anyone who covers Brahms Third Movement, Third Symphony, the WAY they do, is too cool in our book.
In contrast, "The Aqua-Velvets" are more "inside" than the above mentioned band. Their guitarist, Miles Corbin, uses an "off-the-rack" surf-green Stratocaster, running it through a 1971 Dual Showman. Their CD is named "Surfmania", also on Mesa Records #2-92598. Yeah, High Tide is coming again and it's better than ever. By the way, where does Billy Strange's "James Bond Theme" fit into all of this? It sure has some surf elements to it when you listen closely.
It's quite amazing just thinking about the royalties that Johnny Smith got from "Walk, Don't Run". It's also funny that a jazz guitarist would end up writing a surf anthem and a former country and western player would indirectly invent heavy-metal through the same medium, that being "surf music".
THE QUEST FOR FINDING YOUR OWN MUSICAL IDENTITY
So far, in this article series, we've been taking examples from the past to help you find your own identity musically from the strings, guitars and amp rigs used on the older recordings as a model and a springboard to develop your own tone. We still have a ways to go back in time using other great examples to increase your awareness of what "great tone" can be and what was considered real killer sound(s).
This month, I would like to share with our readers a meeting I had with Jim Thomas, lead guitarist of "The Mermen". Right after I had mentioned his band last month, I decided I wanted to get to know Jim. His sound had affected me greatly on a very deep level, so deep it's hard to describe in words. I got his telephone number and gave him a jingle. I told him that his music was very profound and unique to the point that it changed my entire view of what playing guitar is all about.
I feel great guitar playing should move you in directions that affect your inner self to "hear" new things on the subliminal level. In my case, Jim's playing had affected my acoustic guitar playing, more so than my electric playing. This in itself is very fascinating because my acoustic playing is actually my weakest link, considering that in my soul, I'm a jazz guy to the hilt, even though I can play other styles. I had the chance to catch a concert that his group played the following evening after our telephone conversation. The very next day, something very strange happened...all of a sudden I was messing around on my Martin, and tuning it to all these crazy whacko open tunings that I haven't heard before on any records I own.
Now, Jim did use one of his four Stratocasters in a weird tuning, but I'm pretty certain my tuning wasn't even similar in flavor. Like biasing an amp by ear, I just tuned the guitar until it resonated with my own vibrational rate, so to speak. It just sounded right. Just to make sure, I played the re-tuned Martin to the tuning that I heard Jim use on their newest release. Guess what? Not even CLOSE. So, what I had heard the previous evening got me flipping things upside-down, sideways and every other direction imaginable, until it became my own thing. Melodies were coming from everywhere in sight and I was making new music from my own standpoint. This was a real high and I just couldn't stop playing my Martin after hours. The sound was just absolutely killing me in it's own twisted way.
I've never been a guy to really copy anyone's licks per se. I listen to music for the atmosphere and then it just manifests into my own playing as being something completely alien all by itself. One night, I was over at my friend Greg Allen's house. He whipped out this Wes Montogomery CD of "Guitar on the Go", which had a couple of extra bonus tracks on it. The last cut was titled "Unidentified Solo Guitar", which was Wes playing by himself. Man, that piece completely destroyed me...so simple, yet very complex in it's harmonic structures.
In the liner notes of this CD, even Wes' producer at the time, Orrin Keepnews, could not say exactly when this take was recorded. He could only make an educated guess when it was done. Beautiful Tune. It was SO pretty that I wanted to figure it out note for note! Now, this was very interesting for me to do because it gave me a very different insight into Wes Montgomery and the way he thought about his improvisations. I was actually able to really understand what the man was feeling.
On the same CD, there are a couple of alternative takes of the song "The Way You Look Tonight". They're totally different from each other, one is shorter with this devastating solo, while the other take is twice as long with Wes' solo having an entirely different vibe to it, they're not at all similar. This tells us that Wes lived for the moment with every second being different from the last. He understood this principle intimately, taking full advantage of this by not playing the same thing twice.
Just in passing, for this record, Wes most likely used a Standel model amp with reverb and a JBL 15-inch D-130 in it. I have a Standel amp very similar to his, but it lacks a spring reverb circuit. When carefully adjusting a digital Alesis Microverb (yeah, the very first model), it's that sound!
I once heard a rumour from my first jazz guitar teacher, George Mavrakis, that Wes used a different brand of flatwound string for each of the wound strings. I can't say I ever really was convinced of that one, because it would of been a huge pain in the rear to change strings.
Later on, Wes and his brother, Monk, were seen in the Fender catalog with Super Reverbs. Ken Fischer and myself also believe that Fender Twin Reverbs weren't used by Wes, as they are a bit bright sounding for jazz.
Kenny thinks that the Ampeg Gemini model with the 15" speaker was without a doubt the best sounding jazz amp ever made. I believe Wes Montgomery used Gibson Flatwounds, gauged .014,.018,.028,.038,.048 and .058. That being said, back to Jim Thomas.
The night I met Jim, he told me something which really struck a note (or chords for that matter) with me. He said in a very casual manner that what he plays at any given moment just comes out of him, with him having very little to do with it! I thought that statement was way cool. Live for the moment!
I have to report that Jim's rig is a BIT more complicated than I stated last month. You wouldn't believe what he plays through, it would take me all night to list it all...Eric Johnson's rig isn't nearly as complicated. We are booking an interview with Jim Thomas as soon as he gets off the road, he's just an amazing player, not to forget an amazing human being, too. He had shown me a key secret for being within the moment, taking the music wherever it may go in any demented twist of fate.
We also plan to interview a few (?) guitarists, of whom you may not be aware of; such as Norwegian guitar legend Terje Rypdal, who has been in my musical "atmosphere" for at least 23 years. I'm truly convinced that tapping into the vast group of great players that live abroad making very innovative music in our present day will help everyone get their own musical scene even more tuned in.
I've been extremely fortunate to have been able to contact and develop relationships with virtually all of my key influences (the ones who are at present still with us). Their knowledge is very valuable and can benefit everyone who has the desire, patience, and an open mind/ears to learn all they can concerning our very personal, sensual instrument. This is indeed the next logical step in our growth process.
Some of these guys are just beyond your most vivid imaginations and being exactly that, must be heard to be believed. The sounds they produce are just incredibly diverse and stand in a catagory of their own, defying any one genre as their only vehicle for expression. The European guitar community is, in my own opinion, much more free and unconstricted, being able and willing to create new musical territories while shattering any and all their musical barriers at the same time.
This is not saying that I'm forgetting about the great players that our own country has produced, such as Sonny Sharrock for example. He broke the sound barrier more than once or twice with Miles Davis. The European players are different in their approach and their feel than we are, probably as a result of the naturally early exposure to classical forms of music that's inherent in their cultures.
Vintage Guitar is the place to come for information and as far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier! I hope that these information-gathering sojourns will expand your minds and fingers. It is our goal and the common cause of the VG writers to share with our readers the knowledge that we can pass along, so you become as well-informed as humanly possible. This is what our magazine is all about.
Lastly, I'm pretty sure you all realise what direction we're taking. We want you to get it here first while giving you the facts straight up. Until next time, if anyone tells you that I have a weird playing style, you're right, because the Europeans and the Norwegians are coming!
Thanks to ECM Records of Munich for sending the Terje Rypdal CDs not yet available here in the States, allowing me the proper preparation for his upcoming interview (my vinyl is really trashed). Thanks also to Henry Kaiser for his invaluable assistance and to Robert Berry ( of "3" fame, ask Willie Moseley, he knows what I'm "Talkin' `Bout") for his unconditional support and clever ideas. Finally, thanks to Mesa/Bluemoon Records for sending Terje those "Mermen" CDs and especially for your help with the Jim Thomas interview coming up. This is going to be a sonic riot and a joy to hare.
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.