A Question of Style (bear with me, this could be pretentious….)

I always think that theres a moment when you know you can play the guitar, and I mean play to a certain ability. I think, that moment is when you, or others are aware you have a certain style.

For guitarists, and probably any contemporary musician, whether it’s Rock, Folk, World or Jazz come to think of it, forming their own style is an incredibly important moment. Probably equal to that moment when a visual artist or a writer finds themselves. You could be painting with oils or playing blues in G. One day there comes a time when all of a sudden all the art you were exposed to/records you bought as a kid collide with your backgound playing music you didn’t like at the time, add a dash of life experience, both good and bad and………………BOOOM! there it is, your style. Your artistic footprint as it were.

As I write this I am currently listening to final unmastered mixes for my bands debut album. It is indeed a weird time, one of hope and fear if I’m brutally honest. Whats shocked me is that the 11 track album we’ve been working on will be a statement of my guitar playing, and how it stands in my……ahem…..thirties. It will also be something that other people will judge me by. The record will define others perceptions of both my and our (HoS) collective playing.

Due to the nature of Guitar playing, I think most (but not all) guitarists tend to form their voice on the instrument, more from their natrual limitations, rather than any god given ability.

I was listening to the classic and seminal ‘Holy Diver’ by Dio the other day. Now many Rock fans and guitarists will comment on the feiry nature of Vivian Campbell’s Riff’s and soloing, how he sounds almost out of control, as if he’s about to explode in some great outpouring of anger. I read an interview with Campbell some years ago, where he attests a large chunk of his guitar style of that time was due to the fact he could not alternate pick properly, and instead used downstrokes….adding a certain attack to both his tone and playing. He also went on to say how intimidated he was by his contemporaries at that time, such as George Lynch and Jake E Lee and how he felt inadequate compared to all the other ‘LA’ guitarists at that time.

I found this funny as since Campbell’s departure from Dio in 1986, pretty much every single guitarist who’s followed him has had to play like a boil in the bag version of him – Craig Goldy, Rowan Robertson, Tracy G, even the excellent and quite frankly amazing Doug Aldrich plays like a slightly updated, bluesy version of Viv. In the end the affable Irishman’s technical limitations have pretty much defined that bands sound, throughout their career. Weird huh?

There are other examples of this Bernard Butler’s tone remained the signature of Suede long after he’d been replaced by the rather geeky Richard Oakes. Hell Oakes used pretty much the same guitars and equipment as butler….at least until puberty anyway;)

The other types of player, the ones with no technical limitations are harder to define. Van Halen for sure, but he always wrote great riffs and had that lovely brown sound to boot. Steve Vai’s melodic twists and perversions have always stood him out especially in Zappa and PIL. Satriani? I kinda recognise him, but the more modern ‘Widdly’ players. You know the ones with bad hair learing out of Guitarist magazine, they always have a Cornford amps endorsement…..I don’t know, and in a way I find that more depressing. Jamie Humpries is bald and tall and looks like my sisters milkman and Rob Balducci has tinted shades……Hmmmmm. It’s like a game of Cluedo.

Back to my own style, well I always think that these things shift and move as you get older. 15 years ago, I think my soloing was much better than it is now. I was cleaner, faster and had some lovely melodic shifts. Having said that my rythym guitar was lazy,unimaginative, and the band I was playing in had trapped itself in some horrible 80′s cul de sac. I prefer the 2006 version of me. I might not be able to run around the neck as I once did, but I think I’m more interesting to listen to and I’m in a much better band. The best ever if I’m honest.

But that question of style came back to me recently. I was talking about my playing to my older brother. Also a guitarist, Thin Lizzy fan and sometime middle aged rocker. He started to go on about my soloing on a certain song by a previous group years ago and how he loved the way I played completely outside of any structure during one small section of this solo.

It dawned on me then that whatever my perceptions of my own abilities, some people will formulate and define you by things you’ve done in the past. Whats weird is the very few solo’s I play now are regimented and structured melodic peices to serve the song. Wheras the 22 year old Jez, often just ‘winged it’ and played by the seat of his pants. Often crashing horribly, If truth be told.

I think that if time travel were possible. I should go back to 1991/92 and check out the younger me. Just to see if I thnk he’s any good;) then stop off a Ladbrokes to do a spot of life transforming spread betting.

I wonder…

A Fender Bender

I recently picked up a copy of the latest Fender catalog.The biggest shock reading it is simply how many variations of Strat/Tele/Precision/Jazz Bass exist at every single price point.

Fender’s current Stratocaster range encompasses 160+ models, ranging from a £149.99 Chinese made Squier to the more silly Custom Shop models at around £5,800.00. The Stratocaster is a truly global product. Currently being made in China, Japan (for the domestic market only), Korea, Mexico, and of course the U.S.A .

While about on my regular perusal of London’s Denmark Street. I recently had the chance to try 3 different Strats. A Custom Shop “Clapton”, an Eric Johnson signature and a new and rather interesting variation of a 62 reissue.

Clapton

 

First off the Clapton had a great neck, from what I could see the specification was pretty much the same as the normal Clapton signature Strat. However the supposed “extra hand finishing” of the neck made it an extremely playable soft Vee profile. Bends were comfortable and the guitar felt good off the bat. The guitar itself is essentially a 57 reissue with hotter pickups and a mid-boost active preamp built into the centre tone control enabling thicker more Gibsonesque sounds. A pretty common sense idea from the former Cream legend and one time Celebrity Smackhead.

However the 3 ‘Noiseless’ pickups were pretty horrible. ‘Toneless’ might well be a better description. They just felt tight and weedy, with the active boost switched in the guitar sounded scratchy and cheap. My other niggle is the 1 ply pickguard, it may be “Claptons choice”, but it just felt cheap and nasty. YEUCH!

Then I stopped and looked at the price, £1199 was the sale price, these guitars are normally around £1600.

Next up was the Eric Johnson signature. Johnson is a legend amongst guitarists and once said in an interview that he could tell the difference in tone between Ever Ready and Duracell Batteries, (If he can hear it, I wonder if Jodie Marsh can feel it ???).

The guitar is essentially a 57 reissue with a thin nitrocellulose finish and staggered machine heads, thus eliminating the need for a string tree. As with the Clapton the body is two peices of alder. 1 peice maple neck etc etc.

The EJ felt classier and sounded much better, thanks to its two custom wound pickups. However the biggest shock was the bridge block, which looked as though some one had managed to shove a radiator into the rear cavity. It was bloody massive.

Tonally this was a great improvement, the guitar seemed to sing through the Vox AC30 I was playing through. However it still seemed a rather pointless exercise. Given the price of top notch replacement pickups and the fact I could buy a vintage style steel trem block for about £50. Why not buy a good used US or Japanese 57 reissue and get my local luthier to do the mods for me?????

At £1399.00 this was still an awful lot of money to me. Maybe if EJ is your hero…?

Finally the rather unusually helpful sales assistant brought in an FSR (Factory Special Run) 62 Deluxe players Strat. This is a rather clever idea. The guitar is essentially an American 62 reissue with more modern appointments such as 22 fret neck,a flatter radius fingerboard and modern electronics courtesy of Fenders new SCN (Samarium Cobalt Noiseless) pickups and S-1 switching.

The guitar was well set-up and played really well, The vintage C shape neck being offset by the wider fingerboard, made for a comfy playing experience, while still giving enough neck mass to really dig in on those money notes. The neck felt better than its two counterpart’s, which says a lot about the bubbles of perception we associate with some of the so called marketing terms such as “extra finishing” and “highest quality”.

These buzzwords are seen more and more in guitar magazines now than ever before.

As I understand it the pickups use rare earth magnets, which are supposedly able to deliver a greater magnetic feild using less mass…… which could be a total load of snake oil bollocks……….however!

The sounds of this guitar, almost had me wanting to sell a kidney there and then. The neck was full bodied and gave all those tones you know….Hendrix, Knopfler, Blackmore, Frusciante…..?…..it was all there. By depressing an indent on the volume control. The pickup engaged an extra coil underneath, therefore giving huge fat warm saturated tones. On the bridge pickup I engaged the S-1 and it turned into a feiry beast perfect for slamming out facemelting rifferama. Back off the S-1 and what was left was a perfectly good range of classic strat tones. On clean, with the S-1 engaged I found a superb collection of spikey funky strat tones. Nile Rodgers…..Jamie West-Oram’s clean sounds from those Fixx records. It’ll do everything.

My only niggle is the vintage style tremelo bridge, anyone wanting modern tonal performance and a flatter radius fingerboard are probably going to want maximum tuning stability too, so why not fit a nice modern tremelo, probably with locking machineheads too. Fender????

That gripe aside, I’m usually very cynical of modern US Strats, especially given the fact that build quality and hardware are as good, if not better on Fender Japan’s domestic grey import J-Craft guitars. But this instrument had that wow factor. What also impressed me was the price of £1099.00. Now I’m not so sure how “limited” these actual production runs are. But this guitar impressed me, and in this day and age thats pretty good. If your a guitarist who plays a variety of styles or simply needs one instrument to do everything, then file under reccomended.

All the Django!

Yes him the Belgian Gypsy Jazzman.

Many years ago I bought a Django Rheinhart CD in a bargain bin of my local Woolworths, just to see what the fuss was all about.

I instantly fell in love with his beautiful tone, phrasing and dynamics, which are both?joyous and sensual. Here is a guy who plays lots of notes sometimes but they all have a point. If you’ve not heard his playing then I suggest you buy a compilation CD now. His influence transcends both Rock and Jazz. The fact he could play like that with only two fingers after being badly burned in a caravan fire makes a mockery of todays whingeing spoonfed players with their £100 guitars that play perfectly and endless teaching tablature books & DVD’s showing them how.

So being the hypocrite I am I recently I bought this fantastic book:

Django Reinhardt - Know the man, play the music

It comes with a free CD and full tablature of many of his Classic peices. I’ve managed to play a few cod lines learned off records but I intend to sit down with this book next time I get a big chunk of free time.

After I’ve learned to play the book’s contents I am going to buy one of these. Isn’t she beautiful?

Essentially she’s a reasonably accurate copy of a Selmer Macaferri D-500 with the widemouth soundhole, a quick glance at the Ivor Mairants website reveals some pretty impressive specs. Solid Spruce top, Rosewood back and sides, 24 fret board, bone nut with zero fret etc etc.

The brandname is Gitane…..superb. This is a guitar you could go on a journey with. Drink lots of wine, make love to women on either side of your social spectrum and hang out in seedy late night cafes capturing the spirit of Bohemia.

I did get to play a Gitane at last years Music Live, which was a weird experience as I was led into a quiet room by the campest sales assistant ever. I also shared the quiet area with a young girl and her crying baby.

I just played a few bits I know, just all those cliche “wine bar” licks and while the neck is so clubby that one feels like you are playing the hull of a boat, the tone is superb. So good that the brat stopped screaming and just stood there mesmerised by the rich full bodied warmth of the guitar. I hope I changed his life for the better and that he won’t grow up mugging old ladies sniffing glue, and getting high on turkey twizzlers. Instead I hope he buy’s a cravat and a bottle of port and freaksout his pramface offspring contemporaries.

With Vintage original Selmers going for silly money and various reproductions going for not much less. These are a veritable bargain at around £500.00

 

Does the guitar industry think I have no long term memory?

http://www.vintageandrareguitars.co.uk/

I’m sure anyone living in the UK with a passing interest in the vintage guitar market will have at least perused their excellent website or visited their shops in Denmark Street and Bath. Theres a venerable treasure trove of Classic Guitars. Strats, Tele’s, Les Pauls, SG’s, Firebirds,Ricky’s, J200′s etc etc. I just nipped on their site today to see if theres anything I fancy, just in case I have a sudden windfall of course;)

Anyway this Les Paul caught my eye a splendid R9 in Darkburst

Gibson R9 in Darkburst

at £3.650 its a serious investment for some and a decent player for others. However I almost spat my Becks out over the laptop when I saw this…..

A 79′ Antiqua Strat. Last time I saw one of these on a guitar shop wall. I was 17 and it was £250. Now……? Its £1395.00

Lets put this into some perspective…

I’m 37 years of age. The school of thought I grew up with was that the greatest Electric guitars were made in the Classic era of the 50′s – late 60′s. But much of that was trial and error. The Les Paul as we know it wasn’t fully formed til 1958 and even then they could not sell them.

Then after about 1966 the big corporations got involved & quality nosedived, cheap parts, 3 bolt necks instead of 4, monkey metal bridges. Sandwich construction and nasty thick finishes etc etc.

This dire state of affairs continued until the big two started to pull their socks up in the 80′s. This was caused by a number of factors. Fender recruiting Dan Smith from Yamaha and the subsequent management buyout in 1985. The arrival of high end Japanese guitars, the rise of luthiers such as Hamer the change of hands and subsequent rejuvination of Fender/Gibson & of course the arrival of a certain Paul Reed Smith.

Now I don’t believe everything I read and I’ve tried a few of these guitars back in the days when I had more hair, more horn and they were merely “secondhand”.

When I was 17 I went round a mates house for dinner & his uncle lived with them who had a guitar collection. He was generous enough to let me try a few & my favourite was his early 80′s 62 Strat reissue & my least favourite was his original 1976 Strat, which appeared to weigh a ton & sounded awful & seemed to have a really badly finished sticky neck and the roughest pickups since an episode of Clubreps! YEUCK.

I suppose this confirmed my beliefs about construction standards of the 70′s.

Then slightly later on I tried an Antigua strat, it was Ok. But at the time it was £300 and it was an unremarkable guitar at an Ok price.

But now with original 60′s stocks vastly depleted, vintage dealers are full of 1970′s instruments. All of a sudden the darkest period for quality control in the electric guitars history has now become the good old days.

But my generation has been brought up with the idea of a 70′s instrument being substandard. Are we supposed to have a dose of collective amnesia?

Fair enough if your called Tarquin Rhodes-Deprice and play in one of those indie bands who went to Brighton Institute of Modern music http://www.bimm.co.uk/ share a flat with your cousin Toby who edits the Observer Music Monthly and need that old cred guitar to wear as some sort of badge of authenticity….. to distract from the fact daddy is on the board at Warners, but why not buy one of these…

Peter Cooks http://www.petercooks.co.uk/ have one in Stock for a measily £399.00 !!

That’ll give you £1000 to spend on some retro designer jeans and a Toni & Guy haircut. If you want the Strat version then Ishibashi http://www.ishibashi-music.com/ will probably be able to sort you out for around £500 ish depending on VAT & Import duties. There not on the Fender Japan section of the website, but if you email web-shop@ishibashi.co.jp they usually have some in stock.

You see how I like to help the struggling young musician;)

 

“Out of Stock Til Thursday Mate”

I thought I’d kick-off my musings with one of my favourite subjects.

My Local Guitar shop used to be called Wishers. It was run by a guy called Mark Hopkin. Mark had excellent product knowledge, his prices were fair and realistic. Although as a pimply teenager they didn’t see that much of what little money I had. Later the Hopkins sold the business to Carlsbro. The shop got a lick of paint and looked a little bit generic. The range of guitars seemed to go down. There was less used stock and no rarities. It was never quite the wonderland I remembered as a teenager.

The shop changed hands again, eventually becoming part of the Soundcontrol chain. Now Soundcontrol have been on a bit of a spending spree in recent years and have bought all the Carlsbro/Academy of Sound shops, not to mention Musical Exchanges in Birmingham. They have sort of become the Dixons of the musical instrument world, or at least are trying to be.

Now heres the rub. Everytime I try to use Soundcontrol, they simply never have anything I want. I tried to buy a speaker lead the other day, y’know the one that goes from your 100 watt head to your cab. Yeah you can use a guitar lead, but the voltages are much higher than a normal guitar lead is suitable for, so really you need a lead with a much thicker core. Otherwise in the long term, things may fry and that’s expensive.

Now I would expect an employee of said shop to understand such a principle. However he did not. So after trying to sell me a cheap 1/4″ guitar lead, they admitted they were out of stock of proper speaker cables til Thursday. Needing said item ASAP. I ended up buying a speaker cable online instead. What about plectrums, surely a big chain store will have plenty of those…….

.70mm Dunlop Yellow Tortex…..”err out of stock til Thursday mate”.

I always hate the way people in music shops use the term mate. It’s usually the same way a backstreet mechanic uses the term when they are standing their ground over charging you £80 for changing a sparkplug or something.

While I was there I glanced at their prices. Generally you’d expect a company such as SC with massive buying power to be able to undercut all the smaller retailers??????? Surely???

£1049 for a Gibson SG Standard?

The dollar is …what… $1.87 to the pound? The list price in the States is about $1700. That’s just over £900. Remember people that’s the RRP. Most American shops will go significantly lower. But they’re in America I hear you say?

A quick internet search of UK retailers reveals GAK are doing the same guitar mail order for £799. Now surely SC could be competitive on this. Now I know Gibson like to crank their prices up on a regular basis. But a £250 price difference between two big retailers?

Surely Soundcontrol’s days are numbered. In days gone by maybe hire purchase and credit cards would have given them more business. But with the UK approaching consumer credit meltdown how can they sell guitars at this price?

And what happened to Mark Hopkin? Well he now runs http://www.guitars4you.co.uk/ a quick glance at their website reveals a healthy set of prices and a comprehensive range. Particulaly if PRS, Dusenberg or Musicman are your thing. Theres a tasty looking Fender Texas Fat Strat in the used section. Although I prefer the white ash finish of my friend’s example.