REMARKS 05/14/03

Last modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 12:07 AM

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I should have mentioned this earlier, but I kept putting it off and then I kinda forgot about doing it.... Gee, I thought you woulda figgered it out by now, anyway: I'm on one of my periodic Guitar Binges. I've dumped lotsa bucks on neato music toys recently so this better not be just a casual flirtation. Right now, model and doll-making just isn't where I'm at. I need to prove to myself once again that I am truly destined to be a crummy and mediocre guitarist; maybe then I'll be able to settle down once again and focus on whittling figures out of plastic, metal and leather. I also need to damage my hearing to the same degree that my eyesight has been abused; it's kinda like rotating your tires (but you can't just wear out your eyes and get new ones). So I'm sorry... no more scantily-clad women dolls for a while.

There's probably only one or two visitors who might share this dual interest, so if you're not one of them, you might want to bail out now. For those who haven't experienced this, the "hobby guitarist" thing is loads of fun, especially if you're a Gearhead. First and foremost though, there's the playing: Entertainers learn actual complete songs with the goal of performing in public. Gearheads learn parts and dedicate themselves to the art of noodling. That is, to practice and learn new chops so that if you ever were put in a situation where you'd need to use them, you'd be prepared. There are a bunch of styles and techniques to learn and there are lots of guitar heroes to worship. One could probably spend several lifetimes noodling if the laws of physical existence were repealed.

But the Gear is probably as big an attraction to the Gearhead. There are different areas of focus, just as there are in Joedom. The collector seeks those expensive and beautiful vintage instruments which are far too valuable to risk damage by playing. There are the "purist" tone junkies who like old, comfortable vintage guitars and tube amps with sweet, natural distortion. There are gadget junkies who believe that the higher the knob and patch cord count, the better. I like good distorto-tone, but I'm a sucker for gadgets. I've bought, adapted, created, but usually defiled many guitar gadget boxes in my lifetime.

Because of this, I was strangely drawn to one of the more gadgety tube amplifiers of the late 80's-- an old 60-watt Semour Duncan (the pickup company) Convertible amp. It featured the peculiar idea of user-replaceable circuit boards to switch out different tube and solid state preamps for each channel, so you could customize the circuitry. Well, the idea didn't catch on and Seymour Duncan would probably like to forget they made these things... in fact, I think they have. Still they're great sounding little amps and part of the deal is to collect all their preamps, even if you'll never use 'em. At least the tone doesn't drive an icepick through my brain like the old Twin Reverb does.

The guitar synthesizer is probably the ultimate guitar toy though, and the Roland GR-33 is a Gearhead's delight. It lets you interface your guitar with your computer so you can do MIDI composing (especially if you don't do Keyboards)... but some major cleanup is required. Mainly though, the expansion of your guitar's sonic palette is astounding and it naturally encourages you to play differently, in the phrasings and styles of the instruments emulated. It's a very different experience than noodling for tone through a cranked amp. You sacrifice a lot of the guitar's expressiveness though: your dynamic range is compressed (you can't play really quiet passages and expect it to track) and you have to play very clean. "Clean" doesn't necessarily mean "good" and slurring is an integral part of the emotive sound many artists get: I don't think you could call Joe Pass a sloppy player. (You could however, call him a dead player.)

The GR-33's tracking is incredibly fast, considering that it's analyzing the pickup's analog output and figuring out what notes you're playing, converting them to digital data and playing the sounds through the settings you've selected. But it's not perfect techology. Polyphonic chords still produce off-key squalks and quavering if they're not fingered flawlessly, and even then... It doesn't know what to make of slurs and strong harmonics. These are issues related to "dumb" threshold detection: Unlike switch-operated synthesizers (keyboards), guitars have a gray area of ambiguity in the signal. The digital conversion guessware filters out what it can't understand and everything below a certain threshold, then attempts to describe it digitally. It's not always very good at guessing what's an intended note and what's unintentional noise in borderline cases. A futuristic intelligent, context-decoding processor could probably do the trick, but that would cede a significant area of decision-making over to the electronics. That's a small step away from having the computer correct what it sees as your bad notes choices. In a performance situation, you wouldn't get a chance to approve the change. And if you were really feeling uninspired, you could just have the electronics do all the playing. It's a fun toy, but best characterized as a sidestream off the mainstream of highly-cranked guitar noodling.

Roland's JS-5 JamStation is another gadget which appeals to the Noodler. From a Gearhead's perspective, the appeal is not as sexy as a synthesizer because it doesn't embellish the actual functionality of The Rig. However, it does work harmoniously with one of the purposes of The Rig-- to noodle. One of the long-standing problems of noodling is that those who are not noodling but obliged to be involved, can only stand so much of it. Few drummers and bass players are willing to suffer through a 60-minute blues jam. Even in less extreme cases, their patience is limited and they may start grousing after only 20 takes of a difficult part. In the old days, a boring metronome would tok-tok-tok you through this problem. Or you could play along with "Music Minus One" records or tapes, but eventually the songs end and have to be restarted. Then came Casios and Yamahas keyboards with built-in drum rhythms. Much better, but without chord changes, the noodling was undisciplined and uninteresting. With computer MIDI composition programs, things became much more interesting. And a lot more complicated.The JamStation is kinda like a quick and easy version of that, in hardware form. All the stuff you need to noodle is conveniently laid out in front of you and accessible by buttons. Wanna noodle to Jazz? Press on the button, wheel scroll to one of the variations and press "play". Press a button to turn off an instrument's track. Press the loop button to make a section loop endlessly. Press the tempo button and select a new tempo. This is all stuff you can do in a computer program like Band-in-a-Box, but the JamStation's forte is convenience; it's in a small package easily locatable near your amps, turns on quickly and easily, has decent sounds, and a decent variety of musical styles for you to noodle to. It only takes a second to boot, you can quickly plug in headphones and guitar and tweak volume levels with pots. There are other features too, such as song composing and recording a digital audio track but this isn't the best tool for that... unless you enjoy arcane button presses and working around limitations.

Without a doubt, the best case ever made was the late '60s black Tolex case (with "Fender" amp logo). Just like the one I lost (with guitar inside).

Of course, there's the guitar itself. One is never enough, but for some folks it's hard to come to terms with having more than one "favorite". The other one is usually referred to as a "backup" guitar, and mine's so backup that it lives at work. When you start throwing money at nice & expensive guitars, the concept of backups and a single strong favorite probably diminishes, I suppose. Anyway, feeling kinda bored with my "favorite", a fancy Deluxe Plus gizmo-ish Strat, I got this hankerin' for a GOLD guitar. Totally dumb, since color has nothing to do with the sound or playability. But stuff like that can become an obsession, and despite seeing a lot of the current crop and wonderful vintage models locally (even groovy Rickenbackers), I wanted GOLD. The Les Paul Goldtops are beautiful (and expensive), but I'm a Strat-person. The first local hero (Bangkok) club-playing guitarist I ever met had a gold Strat, so that's where it comes from. Unfortunately, they're not cheap either since gold's an unusual/not very popular Strat color. So the prospect of dumping big bucks on a Fender Custom Shop or vintage case-living virgin didn't sound very attractive to this Desecrator of Guitars and Many Other Things (that's why I'm a figure customizer). Much more fun to get a Japanese gold Strat copy for a tenth the price and pump bunches of money into improving it... with replacement Kinman pickups that cost as much as the guitar! Maybe an official Fender neck too, LOL. When you think about it, this sounds very similar to what's known in Joedom as "kitbashing". Here, as there, a more honest description would be simply "parts swapping". It's up to those other guys (known as "Lex Luthiers") to do the serious scratch-building stuff. Did I mention that I'd carved a nekkid lady into the '71 Strat I lost? I guess that doesn't count though

I'm in the (low priority) process of putting together some guitar stuff pages to fill a few of the information gaps on the Internet; The Semour Duncan 60-watt Convertible manual & schematics probably should be okayed by Semour Duncan before I post them. Maybe an unofficial partial GR-33 manual too, since Roland prickishly doesn't provide a downloadable one (how are folks supposed to decide if they really want one?). Also, I've got some pics and text on cramming an external mount GK-2A module into a Strat's body. I don't know if I'll actually do this (I'd rather mount a piezo pickup system since they reputedly track better and you get an acoustic pickup too), but there needs to be an English-language version of that procedure. Why is it that the really cool, detailed stuff is always at the Japanese websites? Like I said, that's all low priority stuff... I've got guitar gear to destroy and eardrums to abuse.

Jimbobwan, 05/14/03

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