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Monthly Archives: May 2017

String gauges

During my first few years as a guitar player, I didn’t have the first clue about string gauges. Sometimes I bought the pink pack (Ernie Ball Super Slinky, .009-.042), sometimes it was the yellow (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky, .010-.046), depending on what they slapped onto the counter when I said I wanted some strings for my Fender. Inevitably, I got less overwhelmed and more picky over the years, and by the time I was 14 or so, I had settled on 10-46.¬†However, it was only two years before we started playing more extreme metal, which seemed to demand downtuning. The guys at the music store recommended 11:s in order to take up the slack, and that worked well for a while, and when I experimented with 10-52 it felt even better. When we gave up the extreme stuff and tuned back up, I got used to the increased tension, and thus I stuck with 10-52 for years and years.

It took a concerted effort for me to go back to regular-gauge strings again. During my formative years, I developed the habit of never practicing through an amplifier, which inevitably made me play harder to compensate, which was exacerbated by the fact that I could seldom hear myself properly on stage. In those years, I developed a hard and rough playing style that not only had my fingers and lower arms fatigued within five minutes on a stage, it was also murder on regular strings. My dad preferred 9-42 strings in those days, and when I borrowed his Fender and hit a chord, you could hear the “bawaiaoum” of the bottom E string hitting F and then settling back on pitch. But a few weeks of proper warm-up exercises and diligent practicing with distortion allowed me to develop a lighter touch and an almost effortless right-hand technique, and thus I was able to go back to Regular Slinkys again.

Making this journey was a massive learning experience, and sometimes you cannot grasp the obvious until it jumps up and hits you right in the face. Here’s what I’ve learned. The feel of a string depends on three factors: length, thickness and pitch. Obviously, it is impossible to change the scale length of a guitar. Furthermore, one tends to prefer a certain tuning standard, mine is standard 440 Hz concert pitch, if nothing else then for the fact that music tends to be a team sport. Once during my downtuning days, I tried to jam with some other guys that were in concert pitch, and it was almost out of control. When they followed me, it was a cacophony since we were two semitones apart, and when I followed them, you could smell the smoke in the room, that’s how hard I had to think. Long story short, the scale length is fixed and you generally want to tune to the same pitch as the other guys and gals, so the only thing that is left to experiment with is the string gauge.

What I learned from my own experiments was that there are even subtler physical things going on with a guitar. When I tuned up to concert pitch back in 1993-94, I started noticing that the intonation was off. I could be in perfect tune and when I checked my intonation at the 12th fret using a tuner, it was spot on. Still, when I played certain chords, they would sound horrible. Open G was especially nasty with the low G audibly sharper then the higher open-string G. I tried lightening my touch, but to no avail. I examined the fretwire to see if maybe my rough playing had worn it down, but it looked all right. The clincher came when my next guitar, the yellow Stratocaster that I still own, developed the same problems after a while. I almost sold it out of sheer frustration. But the problem vanished overnight when I dumped the 10-52 strings for the slightly thinner 10-46. The conclusion was that thicker strings vibrate less at their extreme ends, i.e. next to the nut and bridge, which creates the physical effect of a shorter effective length, i.e. a higher pitch. You also have to expend a bit more energy to fret notes closer to the nut. Ergo, intonation was off on the first few frets, but not on the fifth or 12th frets. The thinner strings were able to vibrate in their full length and make the problem disappear. The last major revelation was that the problem actually hadn’t occurred gradually, I had only been made aware of it gradually. It wasn’t even an issue until I went back to concert pitch on the BC Rich in late 1993, or on the Stratocaster in 2000. As long as I tuned the strings down, the lesser tension enabled a freer range of vibration. I never noticed any problems on the Les Paul that I got in 2001, because it has a shorter scale length and consequently less tension to begin with!

Since about 2008 or so, when I reinvented my guitar technique, I have been constantly experimenting with string gauges (and picks; more about that in a separate article). The biggest variable in the equation is me. I rarely go for more than a few days without picking up a guitar, but when I do, it varies wildly what I do with it, and for how long. If I’m in the middle of a recording project, I might concentrate more on rhythm and clean playing, and if I’m between projects, I might practice the hell out of scales and sequences. If I have been slacking off for a while, 10:s feel too tight on a Fender, but when I get going again and rebuild my chops, I get used to them and they’re perfect. Conversely, 10:s always feel right on a Gibson, but after a few weeks of intense playing, they start feeling flimsy and I am tempted to experiment with 11:s. I just love the beefy feel of 11:s on the shorter-scale Gibsons. They sound monstrous when riffing, and really solid if I want to play more feel-type leads. Even though I seldom shred on record, I like doing it for fun, and with 11:s, it’s like running a 100-meter dash in moon boots. I’m not even going to mention the one time I put an 11-54 set on my Stratocaster, now that was a challenge!

A few years back, I was bothered enough by the tightness of 10:s on a Fender that I tried finding a compromise. One workable solution was a hybrid set, 9-46. It had the correct amount of oomph on the wound strings, but was nice and bendy on the plain strings. Two things, however, ruled that out. First and foremost, it made logistics twice as complicated. I didn’t like the idea of having to keep two different gauges around on the off chance that I would break a string and find myself missing a replacement. Second, I discovered that tension isn’t the only criterion to pay attention to. Sure, the difference between 9 and 10 just about compensated for the extra 0.75 inches of scale length on the Fender. But I didn’t like the lessened resistance of the thinner string against my pick. It’s like I need a certain amount of inertia against my right hand.

So the inevitable conclusion is that the string gauge that works across the broadest possible range of conditions and on all my guitars is the middle-of-the-road 010-046. I simply have to keep my chops up in order to enjoy my Fenders fully!

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Posted by on 23 May, 2017 in gear

 

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Marshall Code 25 – nine months later

In August of 2016, I bought the first Marshall Code 25 combo that landed in my regular music store. The initial impression was very positive. How has it held up?

The upside is that the Code 25 is a compact little amp that takes up hardly any space, and I haven’t been inspired to tweak new sounds since a handful of the built-in patches are just fantastic. I have drifted away from my original favorite patches (41 Bluesbreaker, 51 JCM 800 and 67 Silver Jubilee) in favor of 44, 52 and 68, which are basically identical except for the added reverb. Sometimes I do a bit of tweaking on the fly just for variety’s sake, mostly it’s about rolling off the bass, but sometimes I’ll add some chorus when I feel like channeling Mr. Lifeson, and whenever I use it with one of my Fenders, I add a bit more gain. Patch #44, Bluesbreaker with Reverb, with a Fender and the gain at 7 or 8, is a very inspirational sound indeed!

What I don’t like is that the speaker still appears to be underpowered, it just can’t handle the bass frequencies whenever I play with less distortion. It farts out in a very unmusical way. Hence the rolling off of the bass that I mentioned above. I can also report that I still haven’t been tempted to track anything in Reaper with the Marshall. It might edge out the Blackstar ID:30 as an out-of-the-box practice and home shredding amp, but it just can’t do the big, boomy Fender sounds that the Blackstar can, and it doesn’t sound as organic when going from the line out into my sound card. And I do get tired of that classic Marshall master volume taper: inaudible – [scratch] – LOUD AS HELL.

Having said all that, I still think I got my money’s worth and I haven’t regretted my purchase in the slightest. I would recommend this amp to anyone looking for a compact, affordable practice amp. Just don’t expect it to do it all, and if you prefer American sounds, look elsewhere.

 
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Posted by on 22 May, 2017 in gear, review

 

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Pick choices

After playing acoustic and electric guitar for 30+ years, I have come to two major conclusions about picks. Number one is that it is basically pointless to try to state that one particular pick shape or gauge will be more or less suitable for a certain style or genre. Every time I try to offer up a blanket statement about stiffer picks and speed playing, I come across a shredder who plays with medium or even light picks. The first conclusion leads into the second, which is that you should always be on the lookout. Picks are just about the cheapest pieces of equipment, so you can’t afford not to buy every variety there is, and try them out.¬†You never know what is going to be the secret sauce for you.

I played for 23 years before I found the perfect pick for my style, which turned out to be the Dunlop Jazztone 204. On one hand, I was amazed that the simple act of switching picks enabled me to get faster and more accurate overnight. In the spring of 2008, I was convinced that the plateau I found myself on stretched all the way to the horizon. On the other, I’m kind of peeved that it had to be that pick. Sometimes I’m jealous of bass players, or guitar players like Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck, who express themselves using fingers only, without having to worry about dropping those small but essential pieces of plastic. But I find it more annoying that I can’t just use any old pick. It has to be a very specific and fairly hard-to-find model!

The most obvious thing with the Jazztone 204 is that it is rigid. I have one next to me as I’m typing this, and when I use my thumb as a fulcrum and pull for king and country, I can get it to flex a few tenths of a millimeter. This is no news as far as I’m concerned: when I first got into hard rock and metal guitar, I noticed that I could achieve more speed and more consistency with a stiffer pick. I find that for my playing, more thickness means that I am control over the string release. Over the space of just a few months, I went from faux tortoise shell Fender medium picks (0.7 mm?) to Dunlop Delrin 500 1.14 mm (the cerise one). The next point I want to make about the Jazztone 204 is the cross-section. When I first discovered Dunlop Delrin picks, I noticed that they had beveled edges, and that proved to be vital as well, since the bevel means that the string slides more easily off the pick. (That, incidentally, is why I’m not wild about Dunlop’s 1.5 mm picks. The gauge is just about perfect, but the bevel is assymmetrical: shallower on the back than at the front.) The 204 is even smoother, it is a less pronounced ridge where the pick starts getting thinner towards the edges. Thus far, there is no major difference between a 204 and the Delrin/Gator Grip 2.0 mm. Moving on to the penultimate but perhaps the most important feature: the shape of the tip. The 204 is about as blunt as one of the opposite corners of a more traditional pick, and that appears to be the secret sauce for my playing. The first thing that struck me when I got a 204 and dug into the strings was that someone took 80 per cent of the friction right out of the equation without taking away the tone. I know that some players like the positive feel of a sharper tip, but my playing has evolved so that I happen to prefer the exact opposite. I barely nudge the string, and that works wonders for my speed and stamina. Lastly, the 204 is a jazz-type pick, which means that it is fairly small. To be perfectly honest, I only tried it out because I was distracted by a conversation, had I been fully aware it is unlikely that I would have touched such a weird-looking pick. It almost doesn’t look like a guitar pick! But after a few weeks of intense practicing, I found it hard to go back to a regular pick, they felt like credit cards in comparison!

All of this goodness comes at a price. They aren’t more expensive than any other Dunlop picks, but they are indeed harder to find, and that’s why I tend to hoard them. Whenever the store has them, I buy a couple, and I have about 30 in an Altoids tin at home. No, the drawback is that they are pretty impractical. The classic way to store picks is to squeeze them against the strings against the first fret, and there is simply not enough surface area on the 204. This has become even harder after I started using the Teflon-coated Elixir strings. It is impossible to tuck a 204 underneath the pickguard of a Stratocaster or Telecaster, so I have to use one of those rubber profiles that you stick on a mike stand. And even that is a less than optimal fit. Still, I accept these drawbacks since no other pick gets me that tone and that feel. It’s not that I can’t play if I don’t have a 204 on me. I can use just about anything, a pick, a coin, a credit card, to get a decent sound out of a guitar. It’s just that my muscle memory has reset itself around the feel of a 204 across the strings, so whenever I alter something in that very delicate equation, I lose the top few per cent of my speed and accuracy. Sometimes, I deliberately use a different pick in order to slow down and work on other aspects of my playing. I might use one of the Hendrix picks my parents gave me, just for the mojo. But most importantly: just because I think I’ve found “my” pick doesn’t mean that I have stopped looking. I have to remind myself that I thought I had “it” for almost two decades with the Delrins.

 
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Posted by on 21 May, 2017 in editorial, gear, Uncategorized

 

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