Music

Modifying My Strat

Now for something a little different - a photo essay about a recent electronics upgrade I did to my Fender USA Stratocaster this week,

Basically, I think someone slammed another guitar into my volume knob at a gig or something, and the knob got jammed tight.  I actually stripped the knurls on the inside of the volume knob trying to turn it, and the knob just fell off.

While looking for replacement pots online, I came across the Emerson 'drop in' kit for quickly converting your Strat to have a Blender pot instead of a second tone pot.  I thought "Why Not?" and spent the AUD$90 odd dollars to grab one off eBay.

My Strat is just a USA Standard one, with Lollar "Dirty Blonde" pickups that I installed a couple of years ago.  It is also wired in the "Eric Johnson" style, with no tone control on the middle pickup.

For those who don't know - the Blender pot essentially allows you to gradually 'blend' in either the neck or the bridge pickup in with the other pickups.  So, YES, you CAN have all three pickups at once if you like, or just the bridge AND neck if you wanted to.

Basically, the second tone pot is the 'blend' pot.  When you have the bridge or bridge+middle pickup selected, it controls how much of the neck pickup is added to the selection.  Conversely, when you have the neck or neck+middle pickup selected, it controls how much bridge pickup is added in.

Seeing as I am a software guy, not hardware, I thought I would get some hired help to install this kit.

Now it was time to look at the plans, and to think about how we would go about the whole installation process...

Once the pickguard was off, it was time to dismantle the components, such as the pots, input jack, and to desolder some of the old pickup wires before re-soldering the new ones on...


This kit lives up to it's namesake.  It is quite literally a 'drop in' replacement for the original pots.  We only needed to desolder the 3 pickup leads, the input jack leads, and the two ground wires attached to the pickup cavity and trem claw.

Once the new kit was in, it was a simple task to resolder those on again.  At times it was a bit stressful handling hot soldering irons around the guitar finish, but we managed to do it.

I DID manage to forget soldering on the ground lead to the trem claw, but that was easily resolved.

Then it was time to put everything back together again.  Remember the stripped Volume knob issue?  I got Spidey to wrap some plumbers tape around the Volume knob shaft so that the stripped knob could grab on tightly.

 Job Is DONE !!!

Job Is DONE !!!

While the strings were off, I decided to give the frets a bit of a dressing and polishing...

I wrote a full review of the kit over at ToneCrowd.com.

Hana (Flower)

 Guitarist/Composer Masaaki Kishibe

Guitarist/Composer Masaaki Kishibe

A week ago, I had never heard of Masaake Kishibe.  Then I saw a 'for sale' thread on the Acoustic Guitar Forum of someone selling a beautiful Charis acoustic guitar, and on the sale thread, the seller posted a video of himself playing a hauntingly beautiful tune to demonstrate the tone of the guitar.

I was immediately captivated, and found out that the tune was called 'Hana', which means 'Flower' in Japanese, and it was written by Japanese composer Masaaki Kichibe.

Needless to say, I researched Sensei Kishibe thoroughly, and discovered that he is still living and playing in Japan, and wrote some very beautiful and melodic pieces for the guitar.

His pieces are actually quite technically simple, however the difficulty is in reproducing the whimsical melodies contained within the song smoothly.  The tempo of his songs are quite slow, yet there is a sense of 'stretching and compressing' the timing to provide the subtle inflections to really bring out the melody and tell a story.

I had only spent a few hours learning 'Hana' before recording it, but I wanted to challenge myself again to see if I could still do what I started last year.  I am already learning a second song by Sensei Kishibe, but this one here is one of my all time favourites.


ANZAC Day 2014

This year, for the first time in a few years, I did not go down to the Dawn Service at the cenotaph for ANZAC day.  Not sure why really?  It has beed a really busy week, and I think I was really tired and worn out.

To try and make up for this though, I thought I would record this arrangement of 'Waltzing Matilda', which is considered Australia's "unofficial" national anthem.  In my mind, this song would have been sung or played on battlefields all over the world by our troops.

Played on my Australian made Maton guitar too.  This brilliant arrangement is by Larry Pattis.


Livin' easy... Livin' free...

 Bonn Scott

Bonn Scott

That was the anthem for Bonn Scott, who died 34 years ago today.

AC/DC were one of the first 'real' rock bands I heard when I moved from the conservative (non dancing, non drinking, non rocking) country of Malaysia to Australia in 1978.

I was just an impressionable teenager, and to be quite honest, I didn't really take to Bonn's voice at the start.   Perhaps it was just *too* different.  I wasn't really intelligent enough to work out what a good lyricist he was.

It was the guitar work of Angus and Malcolm Young that really drew me in though.  The first time I heard the clang of those open chords through a driven Marshall amp, I was hooked.

I was away in boarding school when the news of Scott passing away hit the world.  I was still not a huge enough fan that it affected me too deeply.  Like most other people, I assumed that the band would just fold and the members break away to start other projects.

However, "Back In Black" then became the craze.  EVERY kid in the boarding house had a cassette tape of that album, despite the fact that 60 kids crammed into one building could easily just share one or two tapes.

It is the only album that I have bought more than once.  Five times at last count.  It is about the only album that I can listen to from start to finish and not get bored.

It was the album that defined my youth, and started me on the path of playing guitar.

I will admit though, that it has only been in the past decade where I have really gone back over AC/DC's back catalogue and really been able to appreciate what a great lyricist Bonn Scott was.  It must have been a great blow to the band to lose him at his peak like that.

They are all in their 60's now, the rest of the band, and lately news of their health problems has delayed their tours, which is sad.  I don't think we will ever see another raw energy rock and roll show like them, and I am glad I got to see them twice.

A third time would be nice, but not necessary.  I am grateful to have been on the earth when they were around.

2013 Challenge - A Summary

Well, it's 2014 now.  Wow that time has flown.  This time last year, I started this blog, and set myself the challenge of learning and recording at least one new acoustic fingerstyle piece each month and posting about it on here.

I may have fallen just short of my 'one per month' target, but I think I can be excused a little there.  The whole challenge did spur me on to do other related things, such as building my own acoustic guitar, which took up a fair chunk of time, but was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

There are still about 4 songs that I began to learn, but didn't perfect in time my December, but these will still be completed and recorded at some stage.

I have set myself a new challenge for 2014 (which I will post about a bit later), but I certainly don't intend to let my old challenge get stale and forgotten.  I plan to rehearse and perfect the songs I learned in 2013 and get the professionally recorded in a studio some time this year.  I was thinking that perhaps for Christmas this year, I might create a little compilation CD to give to friends.

In the meantime, here is the compilation of all the songs that were a result of my challenge.

A drummer in the family...

I have posted on here about my older son a few times - he's somewhat of a guitar-o-holic like myself.  However, I also DO have a younger son, now 10, who is also a budding musician.

Sebastian started off playing the guitar like his brother, but I could see that the drive his older brother had wasn't quite there.  He took up the bass for a little bit as well, but finally one day came to me and declared that he wanted to play the drums.

Now, as a guitarist, I was one of those people who believed that drumming wasn't a *real* musical talent - Haha.  Don't worry, I am reformed now.

Well, I had a cheap little electric drum kit lying around the place that my younger son would bang away on, and finally, my wife and I decided that for Christmas this year, we would buy him a 'proper' drum set.

We went down to our local music store and picked out a Ludwig 'Breakbeats' kit for him, which is slightly smaller than a standard drum kit, with a smaller kick drum and only one mounted tom.

I've also now discovered a whole new world of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) related to drums.  I've already replaced the snare head, and looking at other techniques to improve the tone of the drums/cymbals.

We've also booked in some lessons for him in the new year, but he has been enjoying banging away on his new kit in the meantime...

2013 Challenge - November

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Ok, I'll admit that my challenge has become a little inconsistent later in the year.  As things have become busy, and I have been distracted with building a guitar etc, I haven't had the chance to post one song a month as I intended.  Lets see if I can squeeze in a couple of songs in the last few weeks of the year! ;)

Today I would like to talk about my first song I recorded on the acoustic that I built myself (see earlier blog posts for details).  This guitar has been somewhat of a 'challenge' since I built it - mainly with the fretwork being rushed, I have had to remove and replace ALL the frets on it.  The bridge also started to lift on it, and necessitated a total removal and reglue, with the assistance of Jim, a local luthier.

After all that, I finally deemed the guitar playable, and strung it up and decided to record this song with it.  The song is called 'For My Father' by Andy McKee, and when I saw Andy play it on Youtube earlier in the year, I just knew I had to learn to play this song.

It took a few weeks to get up and going - It has quite a difficult timing 'beat' to it in my opinion.  Some aspects of the song require a 'classical' technique, which I had to practice and practice over and over again to try and make it as smooth as I used to play it in my younger days.

That's one of the sad facts that I am realising now - that a lot of my playing skills are diminishing with age, so I had better hurry up and record as much as I can before they get to the point that people laugh at me.

Oh, and I would like to dedicate this song to my own dad, who passed away nearly 5 years ago.  I hope the wherever he is now, that somehow he can hear it and know that I still think of him every day.

Improving My Musical Memory

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If you have been following this blog since the start of the year, you will know that I have set myself the challenge of learning, practicing and recording at least one fairly complex fingerstyle song per month.

Not being a natural sight reader, and not having played guitar regularly for a couple of decades, this was a fairly daunting task for me.  

I generally break down my learning the following way:

  • At least two hours per day for a whole week just playing the song slowly from start to finish so that I can get the whole piece 'in my head'.
  • At least one to two hours per day for the following week concentrating on problems areas (i.e. tricky changes or chordal progressions).  I also try and work on dynamics and adding some 'feeling' to the song.
  • A few days after that doing 'dummy runs' of the whole piece from start to finish under 'concert conditions' to test my recall and confidence.

At this point, I feel I am ready to record the piece.

The problem with this method though, is that a couple of months after recording the piece, I cannot seem to recall it at all.  I have had the situation whereby I sit down with my guitar and say to myself I will play one of the earlier pieces, but then hit a blank.  In my head, I can 'hear' the song, but I have no idea where my fingers have to go to even start the piece.  It's like I have only ever heard the song on the radio and never played it myself.

This concerned me greatly, and I wondered if this is how people suffering from some form of dementia experience the early onset.

I set about examining my methodology.  Perhaps this 'cram' technique was not good for long term recall?  I mean, I can still remember songs I learned 20 years ago and play them off the cuff, but new ones just didn't seem to sink in.  Perhaps my age (47) has something to do with this?

I decided to set about trying something different for the last few pieces I am learning.  I really wanted to see if there was anything I could do to improve my recall and long term memory for these pieces.

1. Changing my practice time

I have always thought of myself as an 'evening person', and in fact do most of my best creative programming work (my day job) in the evenings.  I used to practice in the evenings too, in between programming sessions, believing that this was my optimal time.

However, I have since swapped my practice sessions to the morning, when my brain is fairly fresh and I am finding that if anything, I am picking up new pieces faster than I did before.  It has only been a couple of months, but I feel that the pieces I am learning now are being retained better than some earlier ones.

I think trying to play guitar in between computer programming sessions also didn't work well.  I mean, it works great for just plain relaxing, but as far as focused learning, I don't think my brain switched between the two type of creative flows easily.

2. Getting plenty of sleep

This is related to (1) above for sure.  Trying to learn something new at the end of the day when my brain was fatigued certainly didn't help me.  Now, when I approach a new piece of music with a well rested body and mind, I find there is a clarity there which I have never experienced before.

3. Learning two pieces at once

I mentioned above that trying to cut computer code and learning a new song didn't work well together, but this month I have tried something different in that I am trying to learn TWO whole new songs, at the same time.

This means that I break up my 2 hour practice sessions to spend about 30 minutes on each song on a rotating basis.

At first I was concerned that I would just confuse myself and end up playing the wrong changes, but that hasn't happened.  I find that I can slip into the whole 'mood' and feel of the song quite quickly and easily.  It also helps to break the boredom when I get stuck on a particular bar.  I just switch to the other song for a while and then come back and explore the problem area with fresh eyes.

Whilst I used to learn a song from the first bar to the last in sequential order, working on two songs together means that often I come back to the song in the middle or towards the end.  This is helping my recall for later parts of the songs quite well.

4. Looking after my health

Another thing I have changed is my seating position when playing.  Rather than using an office chair, I have been using a special chair designed for performing guitarist, which coerces my body into the correct posture.

I have also upped my water intake, which I have read helps to improve mental performance and memory.

5. Planning ahead & working smarter

I know constant practice is important to really learn and retain a piece of music, but it turns out that most of the pieces I chose to learn this year use some very unconventional tunings.  It is quite tedious to change and maintain different tunings on a guitar, and you also risk damaging the instrument by constantly changing the tension on the neck (not to mention constantly breaking strings).

To this end, I tended to ignore some songs for a long period as I just couldn't be bothered switching tunings all the time.  What I have done now is to actually purchase a new guitar and 'borrow' a guitar off my sons so that I now have up to 4 guitars which I can leave in different tunings and ready to go.

That way, when the inspiration seizes me to play an older song in open 'C' tuning, I know which guitar is always in that tuning now and can grab it and immediately play it without and distracting preamble.

 

It is still early days in my experiment.  I hope to come back in a couple of months and reported that yes, the techniques that I have outlined here have helped to improve my retention. 

Feel free to check out my progress on this blog and on my SoundCloud page.

Building My Own Acoustic Guitar

 My workbench at Thomas Lloyd Guitars

My workbench at Thomas Lloyd Guitars

Ok, it's been yet another delay between posting here, but this time I have an excuse - You see, I've been down in Melbourne building my own acoustic guitar for the past few weeks. 

I enrolled in the Thomas Lloyd Guitar building workshop, and was guided through the build by master luthier Chris Wynne and his able assistant Bill. 

I actually started a day by day photo essay of the build over at the Acoustic Guitar Forum - the link to the thread is:  

 

In summary, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  I learned so much more than just how to build a guitar.  I learned about how I could go beyond what I thought my limitations were, and after years of self talk telling myself that I couldn't do certain things with precision - when it came down to the crunch, it turns out I got pretty damned close. 

 

2013 Challenge - May

 David Essig

David Essig

Ok, I am starting to ramp up again with the monthly challenge, after going MIA for a short while.  This month's piece proved to be a fairly challenging from a timing and 'feel' perspective. 

I chose Don Ross's excellent transcription of the David Essig classic called "Berkley Springs".   A beautiful piece, but it needs a fairly subtle touch, and there are tiny timing changes in some sections which are hard to nail down at first.

This was also a chance for me to record my brand new beautiful Taylor Grand Symphony BTO guitar that I had just bought.  All my other recordings here have been on my Maton ECW80C, so it was nice to have a brighter guitar for this particular song. 

The tuning is actually higher than standard - to F.  The shorter scale on this guitar also made the job easier as the string tension was not too high when tuned up like this.