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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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.

 

Against the Blue Wall- Steinberger Spirit Deluxe

Steinberger Spirit

Steinberger Spirit

As a guitar player and a traveler at some point I wanted to be able to play guitar where ever I go. I started looking for portable guitars. At first I thought I wanted a classical guitar to play flamenco, but that idea ended pretty quickly. I am not well versed enough in flamenco to buy a flamenco guitar. Then I thought about a travel steel string but as with other acoustics, you need a large enough chamber to resonate, that adds volume and reduces portability.  So I landed on electrics. I have single coils on my telecaster. Which if you read other blogs posts you know I love. Anyway, I wanted some humbuckers. I also wanted a guitar that was comfortable enough to play at home and could double as a travel guitar.

So I ended up getting a used Steinberger Spirit, 2 humbuckers and 1 single coil. I saw a lot of travel guitars with a single pickup and I didn’t necessarily want that. I wanted the combinations that you can use with 2 or 3 pickups.

Steinberger is known for being very innovate and making interesting and well made guitars. Steinberger was one of the first to use a headless guitar. This means the tuning gears are next to the bridge. It also takes double ball strings which are specially made for it.

here are the Specs

24 frets

set in neck

rosewood finger board

Maple body

2 humbuckers and 1 single coil in a h/s/h configuration

volume and tone knob

black hardware

5 way selector

lap stand

Overall length is 30.5” but the scale length is 25.5” which makes for a nice full sound

Tremolo bar
There are also 2 tremolo entry points and 2 sets of strap knobs, so it can be played left or right hand.

Close up of the bridge

Close up of the bridge

There is also a Spirit regular and it has 2 single coils and 1 humbucker but it looks like the go for the same price. There are a few main reasons I got this guitar one is travel, two humbuckers and three high fret access. Sometimes you need to make it scream. Unfortunately the sound does get lost in the upper frets. One problem I have with this guitar is that it has a wider neck. I am used to a thinner neck and it is a little disorienting to play fast on it. I also wish they had made a shallower neck instead of the full c shape it has. However,  for what it is, it is great. I’m sure many people make it their primary guitar. Not necessarily this model but this size of guitar. Another thing I found it that the paint job was a little haphazard and the pickups rock a little bit. This is also the cheapest line of Steinbergers and I paid just under $290 for a used one so I try to take that into account. on the positive side, it stays in turn pretty well, its solid and it puts out some power. I like the white color and the finish is not too glossy where I find my hand sticking to it.

Any thoughts on travel guitars? Steinbergers? I also was seriously considering the Cordoba La Playa but it seems to have mixed reviews. Does anyone own one? Have any opinions?

Humbuckers? I got 2

Humbuckers? I got 2

On the side you can see that black bar. It folds out into a lap stand for comfortable playing. I had always wondered what that was.

On the side you can see that black bar. It folds out into a lap stand for comfortable playing. I had always wondered what that was.

Body Shot

Body Shot, the neck looks really long. It's not that's just the angle.

Headless. Robespierre would be proud. So would my history teacher.

Headless. Robespierre would be proud. So would my history teacher.

The Gibson and their Rosewood

Pure Rosewood

Pure Rosewood

So recently Gibson has been in the news because of their problems with rosewood legality. They have been raided twice in the past 3 years because of “Illegally” obtained rosewood. Which from what I can tell seems to has little basis. I have seen a lot of people talking about how Gibson is a big evil corporation that charges too much for its guitars. To which I reply,  what about the line of melody makers that have come out recently. To me it seems like Gibson has been addressing these concerns and just try to buy a high quality American made instrument for under $1000. I’m not trying to sound like a Gibson spokesperson but I do like their guitars. However, there are a couple of inconsistencies with the federal charges. First there are no charges filed against Gibson, they are simply shutting them down and confiscating wood. Two there are a few countries where rosewood can come from Madagascar, India, Honduras and at one time Brazil although that is no longer. This means that Fender, Gretsch, PRS and every other guitar company has to get their wood from those sources. Why are they targeting Gibson? Three, guitar makers use less than one percent of all lumber for their guitar production. So furniture, construction and other industries are huge consumers of lumber. Why go after these small consumption wood users. Gibson is also part of an organization The Music Wood coalition a Greenpeace based organization for wood sustainability.

The  Lacey act at one point was a good way to keep American companies compliant with international laws. However, this is a total misuse of the law. In addition, this law has made it a nightmare for musicians travelling because any rosewood is subject to seizure. Even if the guitar was made in 1960, 48 years before the law was enacted. This is probably why Gibson has been using baked maple and obeche woods as a substitute for the rosewood and ebony that they have been forbidden to use.

Hopefully, Gibson can get back soon to making rosewood fretboards. Also I don’t want my first Les Paul to have a baked maple neck.

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?