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Monthly ArchiveMay 2008

Toronto Maple Leafs Team Photo

Sometimes pictures say more than words…

Toronto Maple Leafs Team Photo (2007-2008 Season)

Toronto Maple Leafs Team Photo (2007-2008 Season)

Guitar: Understanding Scales

Most guitarists, when in their formative years of learning and playing, tend to focus on learning chords. Lead guitar is often something that comes later on, as you need to understand how harmonies work over the existing backing chords.

Now, within lead guitar there are two main types of learning – the physical techniques (such as hammer ons, bends, vibratos etc.) and the theory. The first step with the theory side of lead guitar should be to get a basic understanding of scales.

Think of scales as pots of “flavours” – each scale has its own unique flavour because of the different notes it uses. Different notes act as different tensions over a particular chord, and eventually guitarists learn which tensions compliment particular chords. Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste what goes with what. That’s where your creativity takes over.

Technically, a scale is merely a sequence of notes – that’s it! However, it is the intervals between each note in the sequence that defines its structure and flavour. For example, we have the natural major scale (also the 1st mode called Ionian). The numerical notes of the major scale are:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Simple, eh? That’s because the major scale is the basis from which we build all other scales. Even minor scales are referenced against the natural major scale. For example, the natural minor scale (also the 6th mode called Aeolian) is:

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 – the “b” means “flat”, so what it’s really saying is “the 3rd, 6th and 7th tones of the natural major scale have been flattened”. This is what creates what has been named the natural minor scale (or Aeolian).

All scales work in a similar way, being noted against that original major scale position.

Therefore, in light of all this, it would make sense to learn the natural major scale first! Once you’ve done that, you have your foundation scale upon which to build all other scales/flavours.

Now, when learning a scale, the notes will be spaced out over the 6 strings. These are known as intervals. Looking at the major scale once again…

1 W 2 W 3 H 4 W 5 W 6 W 7 H… then the sequence starts again at 1.

The W stands for “whole step” – this is the equivalent of a two fret space on your guitar. So, if you were on the 3rd fret on the low E string (the note G), moving up a whole step would put you at the 5th fret (the note A).

The H stands for “half step” – this is the equivalent of a single fret space on your guitar. So, if you were back on the 3rd fret on the low E string, moving up a half step would put you at the 4th fret (the note Ab).

Obviously though, to be practical, we want to play the scale across 6 strings, not just 1. This is where you need to know about string relationships and how a note at one fret on the low E string is the same as another fret on another string. That’s what allows you to condense the scale into a “box” about 4 or 5 frets wide, across the 6 strings of your guitar.

Essentially though, it’s these whole steps and half steps that determine the structure of notes/tones in a scale and therefore determine the overall flavour of the scale!

At this stage, it’s not that important to know the actual notes you’re playing (e.g. the notes of the “B major scale” would be: B C# Eb E F# Ab Bb), but rather just understand the sequence of intervals in the scale. This will allow you to visualise the scale more generically, in any given key.

The A major scale, B major scale, C major scale, C# major scale etc. all have their own notes, but the intervals they all use are the same… the major scale’s sequence of intervals!

There are many resources on the web to help take you to the next stage of learning scales. Once you know how intervals work within scales, you can also learn how chords and arpeggios are essentially created from the same bag.

However you progress, don’t become complacent and learn things parrot fashion – don’t just learn scales… understand them!

Post by: Mike Beatham
Mike Beatham runs a free, easy to follow guitar lessons site with backing tracks and audio exercises for you to develop your own unique playing style. Visit FretJam.com/ to learn guitar at your own pace.

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

The big daddy out of New Jersey in the 60s was Ampeg. While they never made much of an inroads into the guitar market (though the Plexiglas was radical), they were the East Coast’s answer to Fender for much of the 50s and 60s in amplifiers. And, come flip tops and, later, SVTs and they actually surpassed the king of Fullerton in bass amplification.

But New Jersey had a few other great (albeit minor) amplifier companies of the 60s and 70s. You had, from various divorces from the Ampeg company, Stanley Michael’s great Sano company of amps and, later, Jess Oliver’s line of amps (under his name and briefly, a few rare ones under the “Sam Ash” brand in the late 60s). The solid state Andre amplifiers are a surprisingly good sounding series, founded by former Ampeg troubleshooter and designer Gene Andre. It seems like every great amplifier company in New Jersey had some ties, at some point, to the Ampeg Company.

Every one, except (perhaps, maybe—there’s not much written about them) the Hilgen company. Hilgen, by anecdotal evidence at least, did not make a lot of amps and they didn’t make them for very long. They did, however, make them very well, and they made (however briefly) some stunning looking and sounding guitar amps. Like late 60s and early 70s Sanos, many models of Hilgens sport great “swirl” paint grills reminiscent (surprise) of late 50s Ampegs.

They also sport circuits that could have been (and may have been) Xeroxed from Ampeg schematics.

While everyone in California was making amps with 6V6s and 6L6s, and everyone in Chicago and Michigan was using 6V6s and 6L6s and the occasional EL84 (Lectrolab and Gibson/Kalamazoo), it seemed the Jersey makers alone who were finding a good use for the 7591 output tube (although, Kalamazoo/Gibson DID use this one for a couple of models, notably, the super underrated BASS 30, a twin 10” amp that sings with a guitar).

After a few Jets and Reverberockets rolled off the line with 6V6s in 1964, Everett Hull (head of Ampeg) got complaints from Jazz players (his main clientele) that the amps were breaking up too much. From then on (until the monster early 70s amps that the Rolling Stones made famous), the Ampeg Jet and Reverberocket sported the sturdy (and cleaner, at least for a while longer, headroom-wise) 7591 tube. In between a 6V6 ad a 6L6 in output-wattage, the 7591 turns out (while rock-and-roll-hater Everett Hull spins in his grave) to be a fabulous sounding tube under breakup. In the right circuit (and, as Mack amps designer Don Mackrill so rightly points out, it’s the design, more than any other factor, including the tubes, that defines the tone….still, the tubes play a part and they do have different characteristics), a 7591 is a killer rock and roll tube. Push a Reverberocket past its intended operating point and you have yourself an amp that is just as great sounding (in its own way) as a Blackface Deluxe Reverb.

Unfortunately, the secret is out on the Reverberocket. What cost $350 two years ago and $450 last year is now up to around $600-700. Soon, I won’t be surprised to see Jets and R-Rockets going for a grand. They are amazing sounding amps—built like tanks.

But where does that leave all of us cheap, gear addicted tone freaks? Looking for Hilgens (or Sanos…see my earlier column about the Sano Twin Twelve in the archives…another awesome amp on the cheap), that’s where!

Want a great amp with sweet, blossoming distortion at gig-friendly volume? Want a nice pulsing output-biased tremolo? Deep, lush, jazzy Ampeg-style reverb (capacitor coupled, rather than the Fender transformer style…a different tone altogether…neither better, but both cool)? Want it in a small, relatively light package? Here’s your new (old) amp:

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

The Hilgen “Victor” Model R2522. For the tube geeks among us, this starts with a 5AR4 rectifier before running into a couple of 12AX7s for preamp and reverb send duties. Then comes the only expensive and hard to find (although not impossible) tube—a 7199 for ‘verb recovery. From the factory, it came with a 12AU7 for phase inverter, which I switched out to a 12AY7 for a little more drive on the output tubes. I tried going up to a 12AX7, but that made for too much gain and resulted in a mushy, compromised output. The 12AY7 gives it more heat than stock, but still retains the crisp, tight, articulate character of the amp, as intended.

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

The controls along the top (from L to R): Volume, Tone, Speed (tremolo depth is pre-set), Reverb. And it’s got that cool grill cloth with the odd crest (?!) in the lower right corner.

Up to halfway on the volume, it’s a lush, deep, rich, plumy clean amp (remember, it was designed for Jazz and clean headroom). Over half-way, pushed more that it was supposed to be, the amp comes alive at a sweet rock and blues machine. It’s a loud little amp—probably just a little bit under a Deluxe Reverb for gig volume. The distortion is rich and creamy, with a fair amount of grit, yet it still maintains the crispness and tightness for articulate chords and voicing. This is a fabulous amp, with one of the riches reverbs around. The tremolo is good—but not great. It lacks the depth of a classic Valco or Danelectro tremolo, but it still has a nice tone to it, overall.

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Hilgen Victor Model R2522 Amplifier

Originally, the Victor came with a CTS ALNICO speaker. It’s a fine sounding speaker, but I replaced it with a more efficient Celestion Vintage 30 for a little better output and punch for gigs. For a loud show, I’ll run this and a Deluxe Reverb together—a monster sound out of two amps that weigh under 35 lbs each. Can’t beat that.

So, grab a Hilgen now, while they are still affordable. They tend, right now, to go for between $300—400 (though sometimes they can sneak in around $250 if they are poorly listed on eBay). They’re well worth it, work and sound-wise. It’s a beautifully made, hand-wired amp that would go for between two and three grand if it were being made in the boutique market today. Grab one for under $500 while you can. Start looking—they don’t come around often, but they’re well worth the hunt. Get yourself a Hilgen, and drop me a line when you do.

Off With Her Head! (1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar)

Maybe it was punk rock, with its rejection of good guitar playing. You know, any old bloke can bash on a guitar and who cares if it’s in tune. More likely it was punk’s more popified successor New Wave which opted for tasty yet understated guitar textures (in tune), though still without the slashing guitar solos, matching costumes accepted. Think Andy Summers and the Police. Whatever the cause, right at the beginning of the 1980s a new type of guitar appeared on the scene. An understated, minimalist guitar with no head, like this 1986 Ibanez take on the form, the Axstar AX75!

1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar

1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar

While Ned Steinberger is generally the luthier most associated with the appearance of the headless bass and guitar in 1979, the minimalist concept his guitars reflect should really be seen as an evolving process. Back in the late 1930s Les Paul began analyzing the notion of an electric guitar and came up with his famous “log,” an Epiphone archtop that he cut the sides off and inserted a solid chunk of wood to eliminate feedback. His audiences couldn’t get used to the idea, so he had to screw the sides back on for performance, but he was clearly searching for the minimum needed for a good guitar.

There are no doubt other examples. Arguably lap steel guitars built since the early 1930s also fit this description. They’re little more than a chunk of wood or aluminum representing the string length of the guitar, with a pickup and tuners that could go at either end of the instrument. About as basic as you can get!

1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar

1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar

The idea of a minimalist electric Spanish guitar resurfaced again in 1967 when Dan Helland, a guitar player and teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin, reached a conclusion similar to, but likely independent of, Les Paul’s, deciding a guitar could be no more than a neck stuck on a 2×4. Somehow he connected with the Holman-Woodell guitar company of Neodesha, Kansas, who were at the time manufacturing the solidbodies marketed by Wurlitzer out of Chicago. His design called for a neck stuck on a square slab of wood yielding the famous La Baye 2×4 guitars and basses. He had about 45 of these made and took them to the 1967 Chicago NAMM show where he sold zipity doodah. Helland gave up guitar design and became a photographer.

A little bit earlier another fellow named Dave Bunker of Puyallup, Washington, began to turn his thoughts to a better guitar idea. Bunker (yes, Bunker Hill is named for a relative!), born in 1935, began playing guitar in around 1949 and in around 1951 started teaching in Puyallup. The in 1955 he saw the traveling demonstration show put on by the great tapping guitarist Jimmie Webster and Dave adopted that technique. Conventional guitar design is not optimized for tapping, so naturally Bunker began to experiment and in around 1961 started making his own guitar designs. One of his ‘60s inventions was the idea of the “tension-free” neck. Basically this consisted of a heavy brass nut fixed to a thick brass bar that was attached to another block of metal in the body. A wooden neck was routed out and slipped over this brass core. Strings were anchored into the nut and stretched down to tuners on the butt end of the guitar. The brass neck core took all the tension of the strings, keeping the wooden neck free of any tension whatsoever. Like Les Paul’s “log,” Bunkers guitars often had variously shaped wings that could be bolted on to give more of an illusion of “guitar,” but he was getting down to the bare minimum!

1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar

1986 Ibanez Axstar AX75 Electric Guitar

One other name that should be mentioned is Allan Gittler (1935-2003). In the mid-‘70s Gittler began to really, really get to the minimum of what a guitar was to be. In around 1975 he introduced the Gittler guitar, basically a skeleton. The body was a steel tube, with tubular nut/string attachment, tubular frets, about as low as you could go and still have a guitar!

Then came the Steinbergers and Andy Summers and the heyday of headless. Everybody had to have one. Some makers simply ripped off the Steinberger. Others, such as Cort, licensed the design. Others, such as Modulus Graphite and Ibanez, came up with their own unique takes on the popular form. Which brings us to this Axstar.

In around 1985 Ibanez found its sales flattening out and needed something new to pep them up. The result was a new series called the Axstar. Two models were conceived, both to be made for them by Chushin in Japan, rather than the usual Fuji Gen Gakki. One was popularly called the “shark” because of its obviously finned shape. The other was this headless, commonly called the “battle axe,” designed in Bensalem, PA, by Ibanez’s then chief designer Mace Bailey.

There’s actually a lot more to this guitar than just another headless wannabe. It has a carved maple cap over an alder body, for one thing. Secondly, there’s a two-octave fingerboard. Then there are the low-impedence pickups pumped through active electronics with bass and treble cuts for tonal control. Always a winner! The picture is completed with a Steinberger-style bridge assembly. Only somewhat derivative, with enough to make it pretty interesting.

And pretty rare. It’s not known how many of these were produced, because Ibanez production records only exist for the Fuji factory, but not many. Neither Asxtar solved Ibanez’s sales woes. Their next attempt at jump-starting things was the wonderful Maxxas, but that’s another story for another day…

In any case, despite the respectable power train and the sophisticated construction, with no head, the Axstar deserved to be included among the classics of this understated art form!

Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Close-up pictures of the Airline H44 guitar – now available in Taxi Cab Yellow!

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow

Eastwood Airline H44 Guitar in Taxi Cab Yellow