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Category ArchiveLessons, Tips & How-To’s

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Tips on Tone – Issue 10

A guitarist’s desire to play and sound a specific way can only be satisfied by using tools that properly convert an idea into an audible sound. Tools such as the amp, the guitar, recording hardware and software, effects pedals, cables, and choice of guitar pick are all things that affect the way we sound.

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To break it down even further than that, the way in which each of these tools are created will make a difference in how it sounds. For example: a Stratocaster sounds different than a Les Paul, is built differently and uses different materials. These are two of the most iconic guitars in history, yet each has a completely different and distinct tone. So, how do you know which guitar you should buy?

Many musicians look to their heroes. I myself am guilty of a couple of purchases just because “so and so played one!”, and while that may be a valid reason, there’s also a reason that “so and so” played said guitar. It’s not the text “Fender” or “Gibson” written across the headstock that gives the instrument its feel and sound, but rather the materials used and the craftsmanship put into it.

 

The Wood

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One of the main contributors to an electric guitar’s tone (and look) is the wood used in its construction, both of the body and the neck. Different woods will have different resonances based on their density, size, and weight. Even a cut of the same species of wood, but a different tree can result in a slightly different sounding piece. Often a guitar will incorporate more than one type of wood in order to balance a tone. Next time you’re walking down the lumber aisle at the Home Depot, try knocking on different blocks of wood – you’ll hear the difference!

So what wood are you looking for in a guitar? Let’s go over some options.

 

Mahogany and Maple

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Mahogany is a rather dense wood that is often used for guitar bodies and necks. Gibson guitars are famous for their use of the wood in their Les Paul and SG guitars. The tonal characteristic can best be described as warm, with good pronunciation of low frequencies and high sustain.

Maple is a dense, hard and heavy wood. It is most often used for guitar necks, or in conjunction with another wood for the body. Maple will yield a bright, snappy and tight sound, which is why it is so often paired with Mahogany – the two were just meant to be together! Not to mention a nice maple top adds to the aesthetics. Mahogany is often used on its own in a guitar and works well, such as in the Les Paul Special model or some PRS guitars. While full body maple guitars exist, they tend to be pretty heavy and are not as common.

 

Alder and Swamp Ash

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These are two woods that are used widely by Fender. Both woods are used most often on their own as a guitar body. They have a relatively similar weight to them, but can vary depending on the quality of the cut. The main tonal difference between the two lies within the midrange. An alder body will tend to have a very strong midrange presence, while the swamp ash tends to scoop a bit. Both woods have a strong resonance, and a decent amount of sustain.

 

Ebony and Rosewood

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While mahogany is a great choice of wood for a guitar neck, it’s not the best idea for a fingerboard. It lacks the strength and stability that some other woods like ebony, rosewood, or maple have. Because it’s the fingerboard we’re talking about here, your choice of wood used might come down to the way it feels as opposed to how it sounds. That said, a maple neck and fingerboard combo sounds drastically different from one made of mahogany and ebony, or mahogany and rosewood. Ebony is very dense and hard, which adds a lot of tightness and definition to the tone supplied by the mahogany. It is also a very strong wood, and will not wear out in the same way as maple or rosewood will.

Rosewood is more accessible than Ebony, though somewhat similar. It works well with either a mahogany or maple neck, adding highs that aren’t shrill and a midrange that isn’t too snappy.

 

The list goes on, with some luthiers using woods like walnut, koa, purple heart, cherry or sequoia in their instruments. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want both aesthetically and sonically. Building the guitar is as much of an art form as it is using one to create music, and having an understanding of how different woods sound and react can help give you an insight as to what you may want to look for. Next time, I’ll talk about some of the ways these woods are put together to create different tones.

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As always, experiment! Try playing guitars that may have an unknown brand name, but a wood or wood combo that you aren’t used to, and you’ll begin to unlock a world that goes beyond that of brand names and models.

 

Happy Playing!

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Vincent’s Guitar Workshop – issue 9

I remember feeling a certain terror as a young boy plugging my guitar in to play, but not hearing anything come from the amp when I strummed a chord. Frantically I’d check my volume knobs, the volume on the amp, and jiggle the cable around to no avail. “I’m doomed”, I would think. “There’s no way I would try to open that thing up myself, I don’t want to break it even more than it already is!”

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When an electrical device fails, and its functions are a mystery to you, it’s normal to feel a little helpless. The first thought is to take it in for repair, which is your best (and most cost effective) bet if you’re someone who just wants to play. However, for those “do-it-yourselfers” or any interested in learning to work on guitars, this is a beginner’s guide to the minor electrical repair of a guitar.

 

The first step is to identify what the problem is. Is there no output at all? Does the guitar cut in / out when the cable is jiggled? Do you have output from only one pickup? Do you hear a dirty crackling noise when you rotate the volume/tone knob? Is there a constant loud hum that comes from the amp when you plug the guitar in? These are all common problems that can occur, and are usually very simple soldering fixes. In order to get started, here’s a list of what you will need:

 

1)     Soldering Iron (not too powerful, 30 watts will do. You don’t want to fry your components!)

2)     Solder

3)     Wet Sponge (wet paper towel will do)

4)     Screw driver set

5)     Needle nose pliers

6)     Wire cutters/strippers

7)     Electrical contact cleaner

 

Before opening the guitar up, check that the knobs and the input jack are tight. A loose bolt can signal the reason for the problem – if the bolt is loose and a knob is turned, the whole pot will spin. This can eventually lead to wires being disconnected. In order to properly tighten a bolt, hold the top still with a flat head screwdriver, and then tighten with your pliers like so:

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Now it’s time to open up the guitar! Different models will have different access spots. Most often, a guitar’s electronics will either be mounted to the pick guard on the front of the body, or will be accessible through a panel on the back like this one:

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Sometimes, neither of these are available which leads to a tricky process of feeding the components through the pickup cavities, the input jack cavity, or even through one of the thin “F-holes” on a semi-acoustic. Most people call them F-holes because of their shape, but when you are trying to feed a large volume pot tied to a string through it without damaging the pot or the guitar, the name will have a new meaning. More on that later.

 

Here, I’ve opened up an Eastwood Sidejack which has the electronics mounted to the pick guard:

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The first thing you’ll see is that there really isn’t much to it. At least, not for a 2 pickup guitar with basic volume and tone controls. At this point, it’s time to remember what the issue was. If it was just a dirty crackling sound, you may only need to spray some contact cleaner into the problematic component. Find the small hole in the pot, and spray some in. Rotate the pot back and forth until the noise goes away. If this doesn’t seem to help the problem after a few attempts, the pot may need to be replaced. Was there no output at all? Check the connection of the wires at the input jack, and make sure the metal piece that the cable make contact with is properly bent to do so. Check that the “hot” wire (usually red) is connected to the volume pot properly. If you see a wire that’s completely disconnected, well that’s a dead giveaway. How do you know where to connect it if you aren’t experienced? Look for a lump of solder somewhere that doesn’t have a wire attached to it, and just place the wire up to it. Check to see if that fixes the problem. Alternatively, many guitar manufacturers offer wiring diagrams that you can follow and match exactly.

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What if all the wires seem to be connected, but the problem is still there? Hopefully, this is just what’s known as a “cold solder joint”, meaning something is not fully connected with solder. With your hand, gently jiggle each wire around at its connection. When you find one that makes the guitar cut in and out as you move it around, you’ve found the cold solder joint!

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(not in a guitar, but shows a good solder joint vs a cold one on the right)

 

A guitar that is making a constant, loud hum noise could be a grounding issue. Check that the grounding wires are all properly connected. These are normally the wires that have a large portion of their wrapping stripped, and are soldered to the tops of the pots. Follow along the grounding wires to see where they attach to – you will notice each component connects with each other somewhere, and then one wire goes through the body of the guitar to attach to either a bridge post or a tailpiece screw.

 

When you’ve found the wire that needs to be re-soldered, you can get your soldering iron ready. When it’s hot, you’ll need to “tin the tip”, which just means to melt some solder on to the tip of the rod, and then wipe it on the wet sponge. The fresh solder on the tip allows for better solder and heat flow. If the wire is still somewhat attached, you can use the iron to melt the solder holding it and detach it completely. Often a wire may need to be prepared to be re-attached, such as this one:

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Here I cut off the “bad” end, re-stripped the wire, and then coated it in solder to make re-attachment easier:

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The tabs on the pots have small holes in them, and the best connection you can make is when the wire sits in this hole. To do this, make sure the hole is filled with solder. Then, heat up this solder with your iron and thread the wire end through. Make sure the solder fully connects the wire and the pot tab, and there are no holes between them. This is exactly what a cold solder joint looks like, and you don’t want that! If it looks good, let it cool, and you’re done!

 

When I fixed my first electrical problem on a guitar, all fears I had of making things worse went away. It really isn’t too daunting of a task; as a matter of fact, it’s kind of fun doing the troubleshooting and figuring out the problem. Hopefully you’ll feel the same when you fix yours!

 

Happy Playing!

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Tips on Tones – Issue 9

Imagine you’re in line at the local convenience store with whatever you’d normally buy there in your hand. A young person at the front of the line looks hesitant as they ask the clerk for a pack of smokes; overwhelmed by the different brands and sheer number of packages on the wall. After confirming they’re of age, the clerk says “here, these are what I use”, and off goes the kid.

Personally, I’m not a smoker. With that said, a situation like this is not at all unfamiliar to me nor should it be to any who are reading this. Remember the first time you had to buy a set of guitar strings?

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Nowadays I always gravitate to the same package, but I can remember staring blankly at a giant wall full of different colours, brands, prices and sizes of strings wondering “what the heck?”
So, what string is best? Is there a superior brand? Are the fancy “coated” strings for 10 dollars more worth it?  What gauge should we be using? What’s a “hybrid” pack? Can we replace just one string if we only broke one?
These are all fair questions to ask. In this article I’ll answer each one, as well as address some tips for getting the best tone out of the strings you use.
First things first:

The Brand.

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In my experience, the reason people buy a particular brand of string boils down to: recommendation. If you take 2 Stratocasters each strung with a different medium gauge 10 – 46 set, (base set, uncoated… more on that later) you likely wouldn’t be able to say “these are D’Addario, and the other one has Ernie Ball!” (Unless you cheat and look at the colorful ball ends of the D’Addario.)
It’s really not comparing apples to oranges. More like red apples to a different shade of red. The string sizes are the same, the material used is the same, and they are manufactured in the same way. In some cases, they may even be made in the same factory! Rather than being too concerned about brand, you should worry more about your string sizes, or the…

String Gauge

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The thickness of your strings is measured in “‘thou”, or thousandths of an inch. To use the example I used above, a medium gauge 10 – 46 set of strings means that the thinnest string measures 0.10″ in diameter, while the thickest comes in at 0.46″. This set of strings as well as the “light” gauge 9 – 42 are the two most common sizes that brand new guitars are strung and set up with. It is for this reason that these are two sizes that many players stick with – the player is familiar with this size of string and not much work needs to be put into the guitar when it is restrung. A lighter size string such as these are easier to manipulate, so fast playing and techniques such as bending require less effort. However, a thinner string tends to sound…well… thinner when plucked than a larger one. Even moving from a 10 – 46 set of strings to an 11 – 48 will result in a noticeable difference in both feel and sound. Do you want a fuller, fatter tone? Try a string set that’s a size up. Are your hands and fingers dying when you play? Move down a notch. A bit of both? There are packs available that combine thicker E, A, and D strings (to provide meatier sounding rhythm guitar) with thinner G, B and E strings to allow for easier play. If you plan on playing your guitar in a lower tuning, a thicker gauge string will make it so your strings remain tight enough to accommodate the lower pitch. It may take a few re-strings before you find the size that suits you, but that’s part of the fun!
PS – If you are converting to a different string gauge, always get your guitar a setup. The string tension will be different, and you will need to make changes to accommodate that.

The Materials

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While acoustic guitars are typically strung with phosphor bronze, an electric guitar requires a metal that works better with the magnetic pickups. The majority of electric guitar strings are made of stainless steel, or are a steel core that is wound with nickel. While the steel strings tend to last longer, many players gravitate towards the nickel plated string for its softer touch and easier playability.
Some brands take the process even further, offering strings that are coated in a polymer type material. Elixir strings are a notable example. This addition can prolong the life of the string, and make it a lot smoother to the touch. These ones tend to cost more than their uncoated counterpart, but the argument is that you won’t need to replace them as soon. I personally prefer the uncoated steel or nickel, but again, this is something you’ll have to test out and see what you like!

General Tips

Strings sound different when worn-in as opposed to just being put on. It really is a preference thing, though. I prefer a string that is almost new, while many prefer one that has a week of play in it. Either way, this is why I always prefer to restring the whole guitar when you snap a string. One brand new string with 5 old ones will stick out like a sore thumb both in looks, and the way it sounds. The amount of time to go before changing your strings depends on the player, and how much you play. Some professional musicians get a fresh restring every gig! I tend to go about a month before doing a restring on a guitar I play often.
If a string sounds dead or muffled, check to see if it’s dirty. Dirt can collect in the grooves between windings and cause the string to not vibrate properly. Even a tiny piece of fluff on the string will affect its output and resonance.

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Check for dents in your strings before putting them on. If not stored properly, a string can develop a bend in it. Sometimes it will disappear when under tension, sometimes it stays which will alter the vibration of the string. If the notch in the string is located above a fret, it can cause fret buzz.

All in all, don’t be intimidated by the sheer number of strings available. Find one that works for you, or have a different style for another guitar you own. Try things out, and see how they change your tone and playability!

Happy playing!

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Tips on Tones – Issue 8

Every guitar player can remember the day they brought home or were given their very first instrument. We can remember the excitement, the mystery, and the intrigue that came with setting the guitar on our lap, cranking the amp up to eleven, and making our parents wish we preferred to play croquet. That is, we remember feeling that way. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget how to feel that way.

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As we age and mature as guitarists, the instrument can become more and more second nature. The mystery and confusion that was once there slips away, and, although replaced with an understanding and love of the instrument, can make us fall into a cycle of repetition and feel as though we’ve “reached our peak”. It’s great to have a thorough understanding when writing or playing music, but sometimes the raw, energetic yet simplistic vibe can only be achieved through exploration of something you may not be totally comfortable with. The cool thing is: if you’ve already mastered the guitar, you’ve given yourself a strong foundation to be able to experiment with a few other stringed instruments that are similar, yet different enough that you will achieve that “fresh” feeling when you pick them up. In this article, I’ll list and explain a few of these you can try out, and hopefully come up with something you didn’t think you were capable of!

Before introducing another instrument, there’s something you can do with a regular six string to mix things up a bit. Experiment with different tunings.

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The way the guitar scale is set up, it’s very easy to feel restricted or “stuck” without some serious time spent learning the neck and musical theory. While I do recommend both of these, using an open tuning is a good way to “jump in head first”, if you will. It forces you to forget everything you’ve learned about shapes, and play strictly based on what your ear is telling you. Not to mention, with strings being looser or tighter than they would be in standard tuning, the timbre of your guitar will be slightly different than what you’re used to. The most common places you’ll be able to hear examples of open tunings would be from lap steel and slide guitar players such as Jerry Byrd or Ry Cooder, or acoustic singer-songwriters and finger style players such as Joni Mitchell or Michael Hedges. Try some tunings out, and see what you can come up with!

The first guitar alternative I will list will be the twelve string guitar.

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No, this will not change your chord shapes or scales (provided you keep it in standard tuning), but the way a twelve string sounds is enough to make you write and play differently. Just listen to “Hotel California”, “Turn Turn Turn”, or “More than a Feeling”! The iconic fullness and brightness of the guitar tone in these songs is not something that would exist without the use of the twelve string guitar.

Next up is the baritone guitar.

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Again, although this time not tuned E to E, you can still fret the same way you would as on a standard 6 string and have the guitar sound good. That’s because a baritone guitar is still tuned with separations of perfect fourths, with one major third separation between the second and third strings just like a guitar. It’s just tuned lower, from B to B. To compensate for the lower tuning, the string gauge is set higher and the neck scale length is set longer. What does this do? It makes for a very chunky, warm, and potentially heavy sounding instrument. That, and it just feels good to fret those thick strings and strum an open E (well, technically open B on the baritone) chord!

Keeping with the theme of using the same layout as the 6 string guitar, up next is the 6 string bass. Some bass guitars add strings to the bass or treble end only, but this particular instrument I’m talking about is 6 strings tuned E to E, just an octave lower than the regular guitar. What this does is give you a familiar instrument with the low end “thump” of a bass guitar. It’s pretty cool to be able to lay down a smooth bass line, and still be able to strum a full chord.

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Here’s a tidbit for trivia: the seafoam green Fender guitar that “can’t even be looked at” in the movie “Spinal Tap” is actually one of only two Fender Bass VI’s in this color that exist!

The last instrument I’ll talk about is one that sits further from familiarity than the other’s I’ve listed so far: the tenor guitar.

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This is a 4 stringed instrument typically tuned in 5ths (C G D A). While still a stringed instrument, the fact that it has 4 strings that are tuned differently than a standard 6 string forces you to play differently. Some shapes that you would do on a guitar will cross over, but they won’t give you the same result. Barring the third and fourth or the first and second strings anywhere on the neck, for example, will give you a perfect fifth power chord. The size of the guitar, tension of strings when tuned to pitch, and location of the notes (open C string on a tenor will have a much different quality of sound than fretting the same C note on a guitar) all amount to a different experience when writing and playing before even considering the different tuning!

All of these instruments, whether they bring a sense of familiarity or confusion, are a great way to expand your horizons and give you a fresh feeling when you play. Don’t get caught in a rut, try something new!

Happy playing!

Vincent’s Guitar Workshop – Issue 8

I’m the kind of person who likes the beat up, rugged and used look on some guitars; but only if I’m the one who made them look that way. It shows they’ve been played, and each little scratch or scuff tells a story.

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Wear and tear is one thing. Dirt and grime buildup is a completely separate thing! Sweat, oil, and dead skin builds up on the fret board when you play and has a tendency of getting trapped under the frets. Think of it like plaque buildup on your teeth. Metal can become tarnished, or just build up grime on the bridge especially. A lacquered body collects all the oil and sweat from your arms, hands and fingers leaving scuffs and fingerprints. If a criminal touched a black guitar at the scene of a crime, police wouldn’t even need to dust the thing for prints to find the culprit.

Looking at a clean guitar is obviously much more appealing than the opposite. It makes you want to pick it up and play, and it doesn’t feel gross when you do so. In this article, I’ll list and explain some of the products I use when it comes time to maintaining the clean look of your instrument.

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I found a dirty old bass neck in the shop, so I’ll go over the process with photos using that.

1)     The Fret board.

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This one was never played, so luckily there’s none of the characteristic “green powder” in and around the frets, but I’ll still do what I normally so in this situation.

For polishing the tops of the frets, I find the “fret erasers” from Stewmac work best. You don’t need to use all of them, but it’s good to go over each fret with at least a couple different grits. Here’s the difference between a dirty fret and one I went over with just the red fret eraser:

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Small shavings of the fret eraser and dirt will be collected around the frets, so before cleaning, I spray the board with some compressed air. Next, it’s time to clean the fret board.

The product I use here is called “Simple Green”, which is just a general cleaner. Be advised, you don’t want this to soak into the wood! It’s very much a karate-kid technique: scrub on, scrub off.

Make a few sprays along the neck, and scrub it in using a scrub brush or toothbrush paying extra attention to where the fret meets the wood. Once you’ve scrubbed everywhere, wipe it off with a shop towel.

While this process cleans the board nicely, it can dry it out. Next you’ll have to give back some moisture. There’s different oils you can use like lemon oil or linseed oil. I haven’t tried the latter but have heard it does the trick. Applying it is the same idea as the Simple Green here, except instead of scrubbing I use a shop towel to rub the oil in, and then out. After all is said and done, your neck should look like this:

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2) The Headstock

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The headstock had some weird water marks caked onto it, so for this I used a small amount of “Goo Gone”. This stuff works great, especially for removing sticker residue. Don’t use too much, and remember to wipe it off. This should be a “last resort” product for stuff that just won’t come off, and even with it you’ll still need to use a little elbow grease. It also tends to leave the guitar feeling greasy, and the product itself is very runny. Here’s what the headstock looked like after:

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3) Hardware

Next I did the tuning pegs. For all things metal, lighter fluid or any fluid that contains the flammable “naphtha” chemical mixture works very well. Naphtha is getting harder to find, (at least where I’m located) and some brands are removing it from their formulas. Double check that the fluid contains it before you buy.

For light grime, you can just rub the fluid onto the metal with a shop towel. Don’t light a smoke while doing this, unless you want to be in a Jimi Hendrix tribute band.

If the stuff isn’t coming off, you can remove the metal components, and leave them to soak in a bowl full of the solution. A good alternative is a metal polisher like “X-treem metal polish”, but the powder is very dry and messy so if you go that route be sure to wear gloves.

4) The Body

As most people likely did, the first time I polished guitars I used the standard “guitar polish” you find in guitar stores. I’ve never found that to do a fantastic job, leaving swirl marks and taking forever to wipe in and out. One day I bought a product to try and cover up small surface scratches, and found that it served as a brilliant guitar polish! The product is called “Scratch Doctor”, and is intended for car finishes.

Just put some on a shop towel, wipe it onto the guitar body until it’s evened out (it’s easy to see where it’s been applied) then wipe it off. The pictures here don’t really do it justice, but you can kind of tell:

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Make sure you don’t re-use these shop towels. The product can harden a bit on the towel, and you don’t want to leave scratch marks later on.

5) Electronics

If you’ve ever spun a knob and heard a static, crackly noise, chances are you’ve got a dirty pot. A quick spray from electronic cleaner will typically fix it right up. I use “Deox-It” – this is a very expensive cleaner, but it’s also a very good one. A tiny spray is all you need, so the canister goes a long way.

With the pot exposed, you’ll see a small hole in the bottom somewhere. Spray the cleaner in, then rotate the pot back and forth until the noise is gone. Voila! The same process can be used for a dirty toggle switch.

That’s the basics! Try some of these out if you wish. I do not work for any of these product manufacturers, I just find that they work best for me!

Do your research, talk to some techs and see what other opinions are. Most importantly, make sure a product is safe to use before you use it.

Happy playing!

Vincent’s Guitar Workshop – Issue 7

Before you set out on your mission to level your guitar’s frets, the fret rocker was swaying like a baby’s cradle all the way up and down the neck. Now, your baby is fast asleep as the tool stays straight as an arrow no matter where you position it on the fret board. You’re nervous about disturbing its slumber with even one more small stroke of a file, potentially ruining all the work you’ve just put into getting it level. So, what if I told you now that the next step would be to use another file to go across each fret individually before the guitar will be ready for playing?

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Well, that’s what I’m telling you! But don’t worry; the process is rather painless, and as long as you use the right tools and follow this guide, you’ll have your frets properly crowned and polished in no time.

First off, what does it mean to “crown a fret” and why is it necessary? If you look at your recently levelled frets, you will notice they appear very flat on top with tons of horizontal scratch marks.

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This is not a good thing because: A) it is not very visually appealing, B) the strings will scratch up and down the fret when you bend, causing a “nails on chalkboard” effect, and C) the strings will contact too large a portion of the fret, causing your intonation to be off.

When a fret is installed, its intent is for the string to contact the center of the fret and not such a large surface area. What crowning does, then, is shave off the edges of the fret to make it round on top, or at least leave a very fine flat surface down the middle. The idea is not to take a bunch more fret off the top, but instead to just round it out. You don’t want to make all the time spent levelling a waste! Here’s some things you’ll need:

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(From left: Diamond crowning files, sharpie, fret erasers, masking tape)

The crowning files shown here are a tad expensive, but I find they work the best for me. There are plenty of other options out there that don’t cost you an arm and a leg. I tend to use the 150 grit as it gets the job done faster. Note: these files are double sided, each side shaped for a different width fret.

As I stated in my last article, it’s a good idea to use masking tape to tape the fret board between frets as a backup in case you slip. To save tape and time, just use two pieces and move them from fret to fret as you work your way up. I didn’t use tape for the following photos.

To begin, mark off the entire length of each fret with your sharpie like so:

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(sorry about the black mark on the fretboard, there’s a chip on my camera lens.)

The marker will serve as a template for when you start to file. When you file each fret, watch as the thick marker line gets thinner and thinner. When you’re left with a very fine line down the center that’s barely visible, you know that the fret has a nice crown:

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Continue this process all the way up the neck, and you’re done crowning! When you’re finished, you’ll have something that looks like this:

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Before you string up the guitar, it’s a good idea to use those fret erasers to polish up the frets, followed by some compressed air to get rid of the fret filings and residue left over from the polish.

The “fret erasers” from Stewmac are good because they’re colour coded depending on the grit they are. The best is to use a combination of a couple different grits for each fret; I like the green #600 and the yellow #1000. Steel wool is a good alternative for this step.

After you’ve polished the frets, you can clean the fret board and give it a nice dose of lemon or linseed oil, and your fret board should now look something like this:

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All that’s left to do now is string it up, and have fun!

Happy playing!

asd8Airline BOBKAT: http://www.eastwoodguitars.com/airline-bobkat-red/

 

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Tips on Tones – Issue 7

When you look at a wall of guitars all built by the same manufacturer, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between models. (Eastwood guitars would be one notable exception!)

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Companies like Fender, Gibson or PRS tend to offer few body stylings, but more color palettes or electronic setups. The cool thing is that even though two models may look the exact same, chances are they have a completely different sound. While many factors come into play that affect the sound of the guitar, perhaps the biggest factor lies at the beginning of the electrical signal path… The pickups!

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Even more interesting is that the majority of pickups work using the same phenomenon… Electromagnetism!
A pickup is essentially a magnet wrapped in a copper wire, which creates a magnetic field around itself. When a metal string vibrates within this field, it creates a disturbance which in turn creates electrical energy in the coils. This energy flows through your cable to your amp, where it is converted back into an acoustic sound by the speaker.

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So if most pickups operate under this same principle, why do they sound different? The answer is a number of different things: the material used at the core of the magnet, the size of wire and number of times it wraps around the magnet, the number of coils, the pickup’s position on the guitar and proximity to strings, and the pickup’s power source (is it passive or active?)
When looking for a guitar or different sounding pickup to compliment your playing style, it’s good to have an idea what ballpark you might be in. Without further adieu, here’s a few things to look out for during your search!

The Material:

There are two main materials that a pickup’s  core can be made of: ceramic and alnico. Ceramic pickups tend to give a harsher, brighter tone, while alnico are usually more warm and smooth. That said, alnico pickups can be broken down even further into types II, III and V. Alnico III is the weakest of the three, followed by II, and then V being the strongest. What’s the best way to find the right pickup for your playing? As I’ve said in other articles, experiment!

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The coils:

The two main types of pickup coils are single coil, and double coil (otherwise known as a humbucker).
The single coil pickup was the original design, featuring one magnet with one coiled wire wrapped around it. The design worked, but it allowed for exterior frequencies to be picked up and amplified other than the guitar.
The humbucker was invented to cancel out these noises, by adding a second magnet with its polarities facing opposite the other magnet. This creates an out of phase effect, and drastically lowers the amount of noise that can get through. What it also does is increase output, and has an overall warmer, bassier tone than the single coil.

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Where they go:

When you strum an acoustic guitar close to the bridge, it sounds a lot more thin and trebly than when you play over the sound hole. Electric guitars work the same way: a pickup placed close to the bridge will amplify those thinner tones. To compensate, pickup manufacturers tend to wind their bridge pickups “hotter” than their neck pickups. This adds warmth and output, so unless you want an extremely loud neck pickup and extremely quiet / shrill bridge pickup, try not to mix them up!
Pickup height is important too. Ideally you’ll have the pickups set in a way that there isn’t much of an audible volume difference when switching from pickup to pickup. Often you will notice the bridge pickup will have to be slightly higher than the neck to achieve this. Again, experiment and test different heights of your pickups to see how it affects your tone!

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Passive or active:

Passive pickups function in the way I’ve described thus far. Active pickups have one major difference: a preamp powered by a 9V battery. Why? They have a lesser number of coils in the pickup, which requires the extra power boost. The lesser coils make for smaller susceptibility to feedback, but a much smaller dynamic range than that of the passive pickup. Many hard rock and metal musicians have gone the way of the active pickup, as they rarely need to have an output any less than “extreme”.

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At the end of the day, you shouldn’t buy a guitar or replacement pickup because (insert name of famous guitar player) uses it! You don’t know what other equipment said player is using, the way their album was mixed, or how their sound technician works. The bottom line is: you are not (insert name of famous guitar player)! They already did their “tone quest” and found what works for them. So, try as many pickup combinations as you can. Try playing the guitar at various volumes, not always on ten! See how different pickups change your tone or even your mood while playing. You may even discover that the way a different pickup sounds will make you play differently and try new things, which is definitely a good thing!

Happy playing!

 

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Vincent’s Guitar Workshop – Issue 6

If you’ve been following along with my articles, you’ll know that I’m not such a big fan of fret buzz. Then again, who is? Last time, I talked about how to deal with minor fret issues that could cause buzz from one or two frets. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes necessary to have to do an entire fret level to get your guitar playing properly and today I’ll go over the first steps for this procedure.

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The absolute first step before you do any kind of fret leveling is to ensure that the neck is as straight as possible. I explained a good technique for doing so in my “Worksop Issue 5”, so you may refer there before reading on if you like.

There are some contraptions available to help keep a neck straight, or apply force to simulate string tension while you work (such as the Erlewine Jig), but said contraptions are relatively pricey and to explain how to use them would fill up an article on its own! For now, we’ll go without.

With a straight neck and the strings off, you can begin to map out the bad frets. Using a fret rocker or straight edge, test each fret in the same way I explained in Issue 5. This time, however, you need a way to remember where the problem areas are. With a sharpie, mark along each fret where the rocker… rocked. If you’re nervous about slipping with the marker, you can tape off the entire neck as seen in this picture:

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When it comes time to filing, you can use these markings to indicate where you need to pay more attention. Keep in mind the person in this picture is likely making markings for crowning the frets – only mark the fret in the area it’s actually high in.

Once the markings are done, you can get ready to start filing! Again, as a precaution and to save from cleaning up metal “dust” afterwards, you can tape off the neck. It’s also a good idea to lower the neck pickup if you feel you may slip and hit it, and taping off the whole top section of the body will prevent fret filings from flying into the pickup cavities or onto the guitar.

There are a couple different tools you can use to file the frets, my favourite being:

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These fret level bars from Stewmac. I use the 16” and the 8” as the 24” tends to be too long for the instruments I’m working on. The idea is to wrap sandpaper around the beam, and slide it back and forth on the frets to make them level with each other. The weight of the beam should be enough force on the frets, so you shouldn’t have to push down very much. I like to use a 220 grit paper, but there are many who start with a lower grit and change to a higher grit as they progress. This helps make any file marks in the frets get smaller and smaller, eventually resulting in a smoother fret. Personally I prefer to do this step afterwards while I’m crowning each fret, so I find sticking to a 220 grit works just fine.

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Like I mentioned before, the markings you made are reference points while you file. Make sure you hit those points in particular with the file and essentially get rid of those markings. You can also look and see the filings coming off each fret – there will be more buildup beside the high frets of course.

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While you want to make sure your frets are level, don’t overdo it! A fret only so high, and the more you file, the closer you get to needs a re-fret job.  The fewer strokes it takes you to get the frets level, the better.  With that in mind, it’s a good idea every few strokes to go over with the fret rocker and check those problem areas.

 

When you’re confident with the height of the frets, you’re done! It’s time to move on to crowning and polishing. That’ll be next time on Vincent’s Workshop. For now…

 

Happy playing!

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Tips on Tone – Issue 6

Tips on Tone: issue 6

by Vince Schaljo

Here in the great white north, winters can be… well… pretty great and pretty white! Unfortunately they can also be pretty annoying for your everyday commute, just trying to get from point A to point B.
One thing that can really help keep you safe and make your drive easier is, of course, a decent set of snow tires. If you just spent a small fortune on a brand new car, the last thing you want is to slip on some ice and have the thing destroyed!

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Snow tires are a small price to pay for a better drive and reduced risk of damage. What does this have to do with guitars? Nothing! But here comes my analogy anyway. If you’ve spent a small fortune on a nice guitar and a nice amp, wouldn’t it make just as much sense as snow tires to want to represent their sound to their full potential? To reduce risk of damage to components? To help the signal flow from point A to point B well?
The term “it’s just a cable” is one I hear far too often, and while it’s true that most cables can get the job done, (to a degree) not all cords are created equal. Taking good care of your cables is important, and using a quality cord where it is required can actually improve your tone. Not to mention using the wrong cords can potentially cause serious damage to some expensive equipment.

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One example of an error (and I’ve been guilty of doing this myself in a pinch) would be: not using a proper speaker cable when connecting an amp head to its cabinet. Just because the connector end fits into the input doesn’t mean the cable is meant for that purpose. Speaker cables should be used with your amp to head connection at all times, while instrument cables should be used from the guitar to the amp at all times. Why? The biggest reason is the shielding (or lack thereof) in the cables. Your guitar puts out far less power than the amp does, and as such your cable will need a good amount of shielding to keep unwanted external noise out. An amp that pushes so much power out needs a cable that will allow for more electrical flow, and does not require as much (if any) shielding to keep out the unwanted noise. When you plug an instrument cable from the amp into your cabinet, it struggles to feed signal through. It’s used to the easier flow through a speaker cable. You run a huge risk of damage to your equipment by putting this kind of strain on the amp. Not to mention, the small speaker cable required to make this connection will generally not cost you as much (depending on quality) as a longer instrument cable anyway!

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The flipside of this error is: using a speaker cable to plug your guitar into the amp. As I mentioned, a speaker cable typically has far less (if any) shielding. With the low output from your instrument, outside noises have a much easier time getting into the cable which can result in lots of feedback, squealing, and static. It’s a good idea to spend the extra money on a better quality instrument cable for this reason.  You get what you pay for!

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Make sure you buy only what you need. If you’re only ever going to be playing venues where you will never be more than 5 feet away from your amp, don’t use a cable longer than 10 feet! Just like when you throw a baseball or shoot a water gun, signal loses strength as it travels. The longer the cable, the more distance that needs to be covered which can actually have an effect on your tone and output.

 

Lastly, do a good job of maintaining your cables. When you’re packing up, don’t crumple them up and throw them in your car! Not only can this ruin your cables, but it also just makes it that much more difficult to untangle everything when it’s time to set up again. Learn how to properly wrap your cables, and try to keep them from being tied to each other like spaghetti. A small piece of tape or velcro around each separate cable coil is a good way to do this.

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Save your money! Take care of your cables, and take care of your equipment by using the right cables!

 

Happy playing!

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Tips on Tone – Issue 5

Owning well-made equipment is a great way to ensure that what you put into the guitar comes out naturally through the amp. In order for that to happen, however, it is necessary for all the knobs to be set the way you want for the sound you want. Tone and timbre vary from guitar to guitar and amp to amp, so adjusting the same setting on different instruments may not always yield the exact same results! What I mean by that is this: let’s say you had a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall JCM 800 and set the Bass to 7. Then you plugged the same Les Paul into a Marshall JCM 900 and set the Bass to 7. Even though it’s the same guitar and the same amp manufacturer, the amp model is different and will have a slightly different frequency response.

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It’s important to understand how your amp reacts to its settings to get the tone you want – especially if you’re one to use multiple guitars.

The first thing to understand are your basic controls. Bass, Mid, Treble, and Presence would be a good place to start. The first three are generally understood. This is a fixed 3-band EQ, meaning that each control handles a pre-set section of frequencies. As I said earlier, not all amps operate the same so it is important to get an idea for how each dial affects the signal. While bass and treble knobs almost always boost in level, sometimes an amp’s “mid” knob will actually be cutting the level.

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The other thing to get a handle of is how much each knob changes the tone, and where in its rotation it does this. Sometimes you can’t even hear a change in tone from 0-5, while other times you end up on a different planet.

A good way to test your EQ dials would be “over exaggerating”. First off, make sure your amp’s volume is set where you want it because cranking it or decreasing it will have an effect on the EQ.

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Next, set the EQs somewhere you would never actually set them to – either all zero or all full. From here, you can sweep each one either way to see the effect it has on your overall tone. You will likely notice a point in each knob’s rotation where you can really hear a drastic difference. Some people use this “break” point as the setting for each knob, but it really comes down to your own ears and what you’re looking for.

“Presence” is one of many other parameters that you can find on an amp. Other common names could be “shape”, “contour”, or “enhance”. Again, these effect pre-set frequencies but can be thought of more as a master tone knob. “Presence” will typically boost your high mids – highs, while “Enhance” might boost the lows and the highs. It’s important that you look up your specific amp, because again, the controls will vary from amp to amp.
Another thing to keep in mind is the tone you set yourself when you’re playing alone at home probably isn’t the same tone you want to keep when you’re playing with a band. It’s important that the instruments aren’t fighting to be heard, especially if you have another guitarist in the group. You will likely find that in order to have your guitar cut through and really sound good in the mix might not sound as good on its own.

The last thing to look out for that I’ll talk about is your gain setting. It’s very easy to become comfortable with a very saturated and warm level of gain.

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While a higher gain setting can sound super sweet (or menacing as the case may be), too much distortion throws your frequency range all over the place and can potentially mess things up… and not in a good way! The other thing that tends to happen with a lot of gain is your mistakes aren’t as audible. While some may say “but… that’s a good thing!”, getting used to playing without all that distortion can really improve your articulation, and, in turn, improve your tone!

 

Happy Playing!