Guitar: An American Life

There is a wonderful book that came out several years ago called Guitar: An American Life by Tim Brookes. The book goes through the history of the guitar especially its life in the Americas and the US as well as Brookes’ journey through getting a new guitar. His old trusty guitar was broken on a flight and he decided it was time to get another one. I really liked the history of the guitar and how it is intertwined with the banjo and  the identity of the American people. The guitar used to be a ladies instrument, where as now it is a phallic symbol for rock stars. This is a great book for someone who is interested in history, guitars or both. Mr. Brookes is an writer for his blog and NPR, as well as his own books.

I am glad I got this book and it has definitely given me a new appreciation for the life and art of a luthier. However, the only problem I had with the book was the treatment of the electric guitar. He seemed to treat it as an instrument for punks and that folkies and classical musicians were at the top of the guitar chain. As someone who is interested in everything, I think that is a narrow view. Especially since the electric guitar is an American instrument. Sure it’s based off the Spanish style guitar, but at this point they have totally different uses, sounds and histories. Although to be fair putting both acoustic and electric guitars in a book that size would do neither justice. Hell there long books totally dedicated to telecasters and SGs.

I still recommend this book to anyone interested in the amazing history of the guitar or who is interested in the relationship a luthier has with his clientele.

This is his website.

http://www.timbrookesinc.com/

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Hello Music and Indaba Music

This is a quick one.

For all of you song writers out there there is a recording competition going on through Hello Music and Indaba music. For those who don’t know Hello Music is a discount seller like woot.com. They sell a few music items every day like guitars, processors, pedals, amps, basses and services. Unfortunately no banjos which I happen to be in the market for right now. They started sometime last year and so far I have been following them, but I have yet to buy anything. They do repeat, especially Orange amps, Les Paul studios and american standard strats. Inbada music is like bandcamp.com where you can sell or disperse your music around the internet. right now there is a contest to win $2,000 worth of recording gear for writing original songs. I know I’ll be entering. I have a couple new songs up my sleeve, and I am still a total stranger to home recording. Good Luck.

Here are the links

http://www.hellomusic.com

http://www.indabamusic.com/

Also I am looking for a new banjo so if anyone has any suggestions or good sites to buy from I am all ears. Musician’s friend and guitar center are not that good selection wise, but I have been looking at banjo.com. I had to step up from my Epiphone because it was too unbalanced and I like to play clawhammer.

 

Music Wood and Sustainability

Taylor against a blue Wall

Taylor DN3- This is my guitar, it is not made from Bamboo.

I love guitars, obviously, but I am also into conservation. I have been seeing a lot recently about wood conservation and most of it from guitar makers. This comes from an industry that in realy consumes a very small percentage of the world’s lumber. Consider how much lumber goes into building one house versus one guitar. Even if the wood used for guitars is much better and is hardwood, rather than soft wood. Or consider how much paper is used in a day, all of that comes from wood pulp. Maybe a good reason to go out and buy an iPad.Music Wood is a Greenpeace based organization that has joined with Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Martin and Taylor guitars to help advocate conservation of wood. This means that the guitars are build with sustainable woods purchased from reliable dealers. I am totally in favour of this and maybe this will help change the government’s mind about taking rosewood from Gibson. I really like supporting companies that practice sustainability and really by being careful they are helping themselves in the long run. When I first saw this list I was very proud to see almost all of my instruments came from companies who were on the Music Wood list. Now if only Schecter could buy sustainable woods.

The site is good, it has a lot of articles on differences that are being made in the music industry. One feature I thought was cool is the interactive map that shows which woods come from and which woods are used on which parts of the guitar. They *are also working on a documentary, which will be out in 2012*. I think it sends out a good message. I usually am a Sierra Club and Conservation International man, but this definitely makes me like Greenpeace more. Now if only they could stop asking me for my credit card number on the street.

On the other hand I have been seeing more sustainable resource guitars and instruments. I saw a bamboo guitar and there are a lot more carbon fiber guitars coming out now. I haven’t played any bamboo ones but I have played a RainSong carbon fiber. I like it, it sounds pretty good and it is not sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. I still like my Taylor but if I lived in Arizona i would consider it. However, I’m not ready to give up on wood.

Here are some links
Music Wood
http://musicwood.org/index.html
RainSong
http://rainsong.com/
Bamboo Guitars – Who knows?     Also bamboo is a rapidly growing grass
http://www.bamboo-guitar.com/

* I edited this thanks to Josh G. He pointed out the documentary is not out yet. So don’t fret if you thought you had missed it.

 

Fretboard Journal

Issue 23 of Fretboard Journal- Gillian Welch on the cover from Fretboardjournal.com

Issue 23 of Fretboard Journal- Gillian Welch on the cover from Fretboardjournal.com

If you are interested in all things guitar (both electric and acoustic), bass, banjo and/or mandolin, I would recommend Fretboard Journal. It is a great magazine and I think the articles and photos are far superior to many other boutique guitar magazines.  They have been publishing for about 6 years now and it’s a quarterly journal. It’s also the only magazine I don’t throw issues away. I’m not a photographer but there is something very down to earth and real about the photos they take. It makes these incredible guitars seem very accessible and tangible. Unlike other magazines that but there rare beauties on a pedestal never to b touched or played and any worthwhile musician knows that instruments were made to played not collected and kept in a display case. That is why Stradivarius violins are still played and rented out to violinists. Sure its Yitzhak Pearlman and Hilary Hahn but still they are being used.

They recently released their fall issue with Gillian Welch on the cover. She is one of the most important women in Folk and Americana music today, and I love it. When I found out about his magazine about a year ago, it really started to motivate me to read about different tone woods and try experimenting with guitar building and modifying. I guess you could say along with Old Crow, Fretboard Journal helped make me the man I am today. It also has opened me up to the wide world of independent luthiers and builders. That may also mean I’ll make my next guitar a small business one rather than a corporate one.

The issues range from $8 to $18 depending on how you buy it, at the stand vs. subscription. This is the only magazine so far that I bought a subscription to the day I saw it. If that isn’t enough to convince you I don’t know what is.

Wonderful magazine, great topics.

Martin D -16 and Adirondack vs Sitka

D-16 Adirondack From Martinguitars.com

D-16 Adirondack From Martinguitars.com

So I was looking through one of my many guitar magazines, and I saw a great find, a Martin D-16 for $2000. I don’t think this is a sale price because on the Martin site it is $2700 retail. The features on it are (straight from martin guitar.com)

-14 playable frets

-Solid Adirondack top

-Solid Mahogany or sapele back and sides (basically the same type of tonewood. They use to call sapele

mahogany for a long time just because mahogany was a more prestigious name but now they separate the two)

-Neck is made of select hardwood, probably mahogany again

-25.4” scale length

-Corian nut and 1-3/4”

-Finish on the top and sides is polished gloss, not nitro cellulose probably where they are saving money

-satin neck finish

-Ebony bridge

This is certainly a beautiful guitar but it looks like the kept the rest of the guitar pretty plain to justify the use of Adirondack spruce

Why the big deal?

Guitar tops are usually made out of 3 different types of wood; cedar, spruce and mahogany. If you notice 2 of these are conifers or softwood, cedar and spruce. Then the last is a hard wood or deciduous.

Adirondack (also called red spruce) is usually preferred over Sitka spruce because of the stiffness to weight ratio. You want a lighter weight to higher stiffness. So Adirondack has a higher weight to stiffness ration, or low weight high stiffness. This makes it ideal for guitars where you want to have a lot of vibration but durability. Sitka spruce has a high ratio also although not as high as Adirondack. However there is one problem. Sitka spruce trees are enormous one of the largest conifers in the Americas. Adirondacks are small and hard to get large sheets of wood for guitar tops. This is the same dilemma for Englemann spruce which is similar to Adirondack. This is not to say Sitka is bad (laminate is bad), but Adirondack is better.

So this also mean it is much more expensive. It can be a $1000 upgrade to switch from Sitka to Adirondack. So this should make it clear why the guitar is a good buy.

Sitka Spruce from wikipedia.com

Just look at the size of it , Sitka Spruce from wikipedia.com

Cedar is generally used for classical guitars because that’s just how it is. Apparently, spruce used to be used a lot more for classical guitars but now cedar has become the standard, but high end classical guitars use spruce more. However, cedar is softer and classical guitars have a lot less string tension. I also believe that using cedar put less strain on spruce trees which is good for regrowth.

Mahogany is used as a top to get more of a bass, warm tone. It doesn’t have the clarity of Spruce that many musicians look for. Still a good tone wood and used more on the sides and back.

Sides and back don’t actually add that much to the sound of the guitar. Antonio Torres Jurado actually built a guitar with the sides and back made out of paper mache to prove that the material doesn’t matter. I still like solid back and sides to my guitars but sound wise the top makes more of the difference. So if you can afford it go with the best top you can buy. It should also be noted that personal taste trumps all of this so if you like a laminate guitar’s sound. Go with it.

There is so much to say about tone woods and next will probably be rose wood, but I’ll save those problems for another post.

Any other guitars you think are a great buy? Or maybe ones to stay away from?