Tag Archive: guitar

Feb 18 2019

Book review: The Birth of Loud by Ian S. Port

birth_of_loudMore guitars next with The Birth of Loud by Ian S. Port, this is the story of Leo Fender, Les Paul and assorted musicians and other guitar and amplifier makers.

As a recently started electric guitar player, and long time listener of guitar based rock, this is right up my street. It is most likely that any electric guitarists reading this will have a guitar with either the Les Paul or Fender name on it, or like me, have a cheaper variant of something like the Fender Stratocaster.

People started to attach amplifiers to guitars in the 1930s, the problem with a guitar is that it is not very loud when compared to other instruments. The problem with naive amplification of an acoustic guitar is feedback. The body of the guitar is a natural amplifier, it resonates at particular frequencies. Couple it with an electric amplifier and once you get above a certain volume the electric amplifier makes the body of the guitar vibrate, which it then re-amplifies making a horrible squealing noise (when done accidently). I know all this because feedback is an important part of undergraduate physics courses! Solid-bodied guitars avoid this problem by having no natural amplification.

Les Paul was a musician who experimented with instruments, guitars in particular and recording technology. He had a string of hits in the 1950s with his second wife, Mary Ford. He gave his name to the first solid body guitar from the Gibson company. More importantly he demonstrated what the new electric guitar could do. In terms of guitar hardware Les Paul feels somewhat incidental, as a musician he experimented with his guitars and recording equipment but he had very little involvement with Gibson and the guitar that bore his name.

Leo Fender on the other hand was a technician, an expert with design and electronics. He collaborated closely with musicians to bring them the instruments and amplifiers they wanted but he did not play music himself.

Both men had produced solid-body guitars in the 1940s which were pretty close to fence posts with strings and pickups attached. Such devices worked as guitars but ergonomically and aesthetically they were poor. They weren’t alone though, Paul Bigsby made what is arguably the first practical solid-body guitar and lap steel guitars with solid bodies had also been around for a number of years 

Fender’s first solid-body commercial guitar was the Telecaster launched in 1950, renamed pretty much at birth from Broadcaster because Gretsch had a drum kit called the Broadkaster and threatened to sue. This was followed by the Precision Bass (1951) whose design is also apparent in the Stratocaster which came later (1954). These instruments had somewhat prolonged and difficult births. Fender was keen to perfect them, and whilst his sales team led by Don Randall went out and sold them there were frequently long waiting times in the early days and designs were finalised and production ramped up. The early Fender factory sounded rather chaotic, and there were problems with product quality. The Gibson Les Paul was first released in 1952.

It strikes me that the Les Paul / Leo Fender rivalry is actually relatively unimportant. Les Paul was one a a range of musicians whose demands drove the development of electric guitars and amplifiers. If Fender had rivals it was with Gibson, Rickenbacker and other guitar companies. They vied for the imprimatur of the popular artists of the time, Les Paul initially but then musicians like the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix.  

Carol Kaye is also introduced, I first came across her in a BBC4 TV programme Guitar, drum and bass. She appeared as a bass player on an enormous number of hits from the sixties, playing as a highly sought after session musician at a time when you get the impression that songwriters didn’t bother writing a bass part but left it to the session player to come up with something on the spot. The link with Fender is the Precision Bass she used.

I had fun hunting down some of the tracks mentioned in the book, Dickie Dale and the Del-Tones – Misirlou is a particular favourite which I’m trying to learn to play. Fender’s contribution to Dickie Dale were robust high watt amplifiers with spring reverb which made the surfer rock sound. And if you want to hear Les Paul then Lover published in 1948 is an important milestone. It is like nothing else that went before.

The bulk of the story ends at the close of the sixties with an epilogue describing what happened to everybody in the aftermath. Both Fender and Gibson became parts of larger organisations, CBS and Norlin respectively. They both seemed to have suffered from corporate neglect, leading to poor quality products, until they experienced a revival in the late eighties following sales to private investors. Gibson recently filed for bankruptcy whilst Fender seems to have thrived.

The book is comprised of many short chapters with long titles. It’s a very easy read, and a nice story. There’s a lot of the descriptive prose of imagined meetings and scenes that I associate with this style of journalistic story telling. It is well referenced, and the final sections of the book provide ample pointers to those who wish to learn more about the history of the electric guitar.

Jan 19 2019

Book review: The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists by Joseph Alexander

Continuing with the guitar theme here I reviewguitar_theory The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists by Joseph Alexander. Reading the Beginner’s Course I felt I was missing out by not understanding why there were the notes there were and how they could be put together. The Beginner’s Course gave me enough knowledge to realise that generally songs were not just made by mashing a whole pile of notes together and hoping for the best.

My background is in physics, so I have very clear ideas as to what I consider to be a theory. Physics covers music somewhat indirectly, during training physicists are taught about “oscillations and waves” and “harmonic oscillators”. So to a degree I approach this book expecting to find a physics-like theory, music theory is not like physics theory.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part covers how musical scales are constructed, how chords are formed and chord progressions. The second part talks about each of the modes of the major scale, with fine names such as the Dorian, Lydian, Mixolydian and the Phrygian. Following some introductory material the second part of the book follows a regular pattern for each of this modes, so has the feeling of a reference section.

I found the first section jumped in a bit fast, I’ve not looked at musical scale notation for a very long time, and would have welcomed a bit more explanation. A guide to guitar tab notation would also fit well in here. The basics of both of these forms are straightforward enough but there are various symbols and conventions which are difficult to search for and could have been usefully collected here.

Indeed the existence of natural, sharp and flat notes is not explained. As I understand the natural notes A,B,C,D etc where discovered in antiquity to provide harmonious music. Although there are hints here that in the Western world we have all been trained to hear harmonious music in tunes composed from natural notes.

The natural notes represent musical sounds which have certain relationships in terms of frequency. The sharps and flats were added some time later based on a uniform division of the octave (a doubling of frequency) into 12 evenly spaced notes (in frequency). The notes on this scale fall approximately onto the natural notes but in addition provide some sharp and flat notes. The notes F flat and C flat do not exist which explains the irregular appearance of a piano keyboard and makes everything more complicated. The interval between a natural note and its sharp or flat is a semitone. The interval between two consecutive natural notes is a tone.

The C major scale comprises all the natural notes starting at C (CDEFGABAC), since natural notes are not evenly spaced in frequency this means that the steps between notes are not equal in size. No problem for a scale starting at C but if we form try to form a scale starting at a different natural note such as A (ABCDEFGA) then it sounds “wrong”, in fact this is a minor scale not a major one. To make a major scale we need to match the pattern in step sizes found in the C major scale which for A is (A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, G♯). The non-uniform nature of the gaps between notes in the major scale makes the rules for forming scales very wordy.

I’m leaving it as an exercise for me to write Python code that constructs scales, this would help me see music theory as a more physical theory.

Chords are sets of three notes drawn from scale with the same spacing on the scale, so on the C major scale the C chord is formed of the first, third and fifth notes (CEG), similar we can make chords D (DFA) and E (EGB). Where there are whole tones between the first two notes in the chord is a a major chord, if there is only 1.5 tones then the chord is a minor chord. 

Early in the book Alexander makes reference to how the major scale is “too bright” for rock, this comment along with others later in the book discussing different modes and which forms of music they suit was intriguing to me but no expanded upon. Similarly with chord progressions (sequences of chords) there is clearly some theory as to moods that different chord progressions invoke but there’s no discussion of this in the book. This is where musical theory diverges from physical theories. 

Looking back I think I picked up this book too early. It feels like revision notes for someone taking a rather high level music examination. I’ve certainly learnt from it and I can see it as a useful reference in future but for me it raised more questions than provided answers.

Jan 13 2019

Book review: Justinguitar.com Beginner’s Course by Justin Sandercoe

This review is a bit of a departure for me, it is of beginners_courseJustinguitar.com Beginner’s Course by Justin Sandercoe.

I’m a big fan of book learning, so when I decided to learn how to play the guitar a book was the obvious place to start. To be honest I picked the justinguitar.com book largely because it was ring-bound, a quick search reveals many other options but envisaging how I would use the book a ring-bound version seemed to make sense.

It turns out this somewhat arbitrary method of selection has worked out quite well. The book is accompanied by a substantial website (https://www.justinguitar.com/), which includes free video versions of the lessons in this book, amongst much other, mainly video, material. The videos are typically less than 10 minutes long, which is ideal. Looking around similar video courses Justin Sandercoe is, by comparison, clearly a very good teacher. His videos are quite casual in their feel but focussed and well put together. There are also purely app based guitar course but that seemed a bit modern for my tastes.

The book is divided into 9 stages, in each stage new chords are introduced as well as associated techniques, such as rhythm patterns and in the later stages scales and fingerstyle picking. A key element of learning chords is “fingering”, which finger goes where.

I got on really well with the chord change aspect of each stage, you’re invited to record how many chord changes you can do in a minute – which is absolutely my thing! I have a spreadsheet recording how my pace has increased over time. I have made satisfying progress. I also feel somewhat triumphant that I can do apparently notorious F-barre chord although don’t ask me to change to and from any other chord at any great rate.

There is an associated songbook, each stage enables a few different songs. I haven’t made a great deal of use of this yet. I found each stage came with a list of 10 songs but I didn’t know which to focus on to improve my skills. Possibly the answer is “any of them”, choose the ones that appeal to your musical taste.

The emphasis is very much on the rhythm side of guitar playing which isn’t where crowd pleasing showing off lies. Sandercoe does have videos showing you how to play classic guitar riffs (like Smoke on the Water, Seven Nation Army, Creep) but these aren’t included in the book. I found these more motivating than the songbook.

It has taken me a couple of months to get through the first 6 stages of the book. I’ve jumped ahead for a few things – starting to play scales, experimenting with fingerstyle playing and playing a 12-bar blues shuffle. As it stands my chord change rate is a bit lower than the goal for the whole book and I’m not very good at strumming and changing chords, certainly not strumming anything but the simplest patterns.

Learning chords from the book works really well. I found learning strumming patterns required the CD sound tracks at the very least and really needed the video lessons, certainly for the more complex patterns.

Beginner’s Course includes listening exercises at each stage, I must admit I didn’t do well with these. I practiced them using an unrelated app which probably didn’t help – I felt I wasn’t making progress. The focus of the app was very much on the speed at which you could recognise chords rather than accuracy.

There’s a little bit of music theory included in this beginners course – simple stuff relating to where notes appear on the guitar fretboard but there’s no real discussion of how chords are constructed and the relevance of musical scales and chord progressions. I’ve looked elsewhere for this since I’m interested, I think Sandercoe actually introduces quite a lot of this material indirectly.

What I’ve really enjoyed in playing guitar has been managing to do a recognisable rendition of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes within a couple of weeks, playing the 12-bar blues shuffle from the beginners course book, making a passable attempt at Creep by Radiohead. I think my next task is to hunt out the videos for songs that Sandercoe has done which appeal to me and give me motivation to practice some key skills. At the moment I have my eyes on Smells Like Teen Spirit (power chords), Jolene (finger style playing). Hey Joe (riffs), Thunderstruck (fast, simple riffs). It helps that these tracks will impress the girl in my life (Mrs H, aged the same as me).

This review is different from most of my book reviews, it is more about how this beginners course works for me than a review of the book in itself. Learning to play the guitar competently is the work of years, this book is a good start on the path.

Nov 17 2018

Me and my guitar

guitarPerhaps I’m having a mid-life crisis, or perhaps it is the appearance of slightly paunchy, balding rock heroes of my youth at Glastonbury or maybe it is just that my son has started guitar lessons, but I have bought a guitar.

I’ve never played a musical instrument, I don’t count the obligatory recorder of the 1970s which every child abused.

It turns out this post is going to be a bit of a “gear” post.

I got a Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster HSS from Dawsons music in Chester. Squier is Fender’s cheaper brand, introduced so that they could make some money instead of other companies making it on their Stratocaster knock-offs. Included in the pack are the guitar, an amplifier and some plectrums. I have to say I’m pretty impressed by the build quality. The inclusion of the amplifier makes it a pretty weighty package so don’t plan on walking home with it!

Starting on an electric guitar seemed to surprise some people, I don’t believe it’s a particularly odd choice. A starter electric guitar is a bit more expensive than an acoustic but you have the motivation of becoming a rock God, rather than the nun from Airplane! I thought maybe I could practice more quietly by plugging in headphones but in the end that hasn’t mattered.

Shortly before buying the guitar I’d done a little strumming on my son’s three quarter size acoustic guitar and got Justin Sandercoe’s Beginner’s Guitar Course, attractive since it comes ring-bound. I also got the accompanying Songbook. You can try out Justin’s lessons for free on his website. I’ll probably review the books in another post but I came to them because Googling for guitar lessons brings him up fairly high on the rankings, he explains things well (check out some of his videos) and is clearly a popular choice for guitar lessons.

I got a headstock tuner – this is a little device that clips onto the guitar headstock and helps you tune up. The steel strings on my electric guitar seem to stay in tune for a few days, whilst acoustic, nylon strings need tightening up most days. There are any number of smartphone apps which will fulfil the same purpose but the headstock tuner is more convenient, and I suspect more accurate. I also got a capo, which is a clamp that goes across all the strings of the guitar and can therefore change the tuning – I haven’t used this much yet. My tuner turned out to be a little too cheap and I’ve had to fix it with superglue.

On my list of things to get are are equipment for changing guitar strings, apparently not required until about three months in and guitar strap locking washers (which I don’t need for now since I play sitting down). I’m sure other gadgets will be tempting me, and I notice that people seem to rarely own just one guitar!

I also got some headphones, playing with the amplifier on low is fine but you tend to hear the direct noise of the strings which isn’t particularly pleasant, and now I have a tiny amplifier that plugs straight into the guitar and on to the headphones, and a music stand. Fortunately guitar gadgets are cheap compared to SLR camera lenses!

The thing they don’t tell you about learning to play the guitar is the pain in your fingers. Oddly, non-guitar players assume this is in your strumming hand. It isn’t. The problem is with your fret hand, which has to hold down thin wires quite hard. Asking for protection on online forums gets you the same response as asking a beginners question on a computing forum. You get called useless and are given no help. Three weeks in and I have callouses on three fingers of my left hand, and the pain is much reduced.

I suspect there will now be a series of blog posts on matters musical and guitar.