Monday, September 3, 2007

Sometimes a Guitar Falls From the Sky

I had the weirdest experience... last night we picked up a used cheapie Yamaha keyboard that someone left by the dumpster. It looks like it just needs a few batteries. Veronica will love it, especially the built-in drums.

Then later on in the evening I was outside shaking out a rug and the same person that left the keyboard by the dumpster came by, and said "I saw you picked up that keyboard... I thought you might like to know I just left a guitar by the dumpster also. I think it's broken."

I went to take a look. I was expecting the worst -- a piece of crap with a broken headstock, or wiring hanging out of it, etc.

It was actually an Epiphone Les Paul Special II, an Indonesian-made guitar, kind of like an SG with a single cutaway. A black/yellow burst finish, pretty basic in appearance, but with a very "classic" dignified look. This guitar is sold by the chains for about $150, or as part of a $200 "player's pack."

I took it home and started cleaning it up. I took off all the strings (normally I recommend only changing one string at a time to avoid a huge change in the tension on the neck, but this thing needed a complete cleaning and evaluation). I scrubbed the fretboard with lemon oil and ultra-fine steel wool -- a lot of dirt came off. I used some of my Dunlop polish on the body, working it pretty hard with a micro-fiber cloth, and replaced the strings with new Ernie Ball 11s. I cleaned the bridge parts and tightened up all the screws.

What was the damage? One of the tuning keys was slightly loose. The tone knob had been whacked and the little grommet holding it in place had popped off, but that took only a couple of minutes to fix. I opened up the electronics cavity, pushed it back through, applied a little finesse with a pair of pliers to tighten up the little grommet. Then I stuck the tone knob back on and it worked perfectly.

I let it sit overnight so the neck could conform to the heavier-gauge strings, then re-evaluated the condition of the neck. It had too much bow, so I adjusted the truss rod half a turn, then tweaked the bridge up and down by quarter-turns of the screws until I found a point I liked. I played it a while, then let it sit overnight again. Then after another day, looking at the condition of the neck again, I backed off a the truss rod a little bit to allow some relief back into the neck, then made a few tiny further adjustments over the course of the day. This is something that requires some finesse and patience. With such a cheaply-built instrument, the neck is never going to be wonderful, but I got it to a reasonably playable state with as few buzzing frets as possible.

This is now a perfectly serviceable guitar! With a mahogany neck and basswood body, it is very resonant, with a loud unplugged tone. Plugged in, it has a nice nasal "midrange" tone and distorts quite well, with nice overtones. It is configured with two humbuckers without covers (I raised the neck pickup a bit), and has only a volume and tone knob, with a Les Paul-style "rhythm/treble" switch.

As far as I can tell, the only things wrong with it are:

- A couple of dings, including one on the back of the neck and some small ones on the top and edges that show the wood underneath the finish (big deal). I might just touch these up with a black permanent marker to make them less visible against the black parts of the finish.

- A couple of the small screws are stripped (two on tuning keys, one on the output jack). Those could be shimmed/glued at some point.

- A couple of the strings flirt with some fret buzz, but not too badly. I can't get this neck perfect; it seems to have a very slight unevenness in relief between the bass and treble sides, but it isn't that bad.

Aside from that, I think the owner was going to toss it out because the strings were rusty and it was dirty. At the cost of a set of strings which set me back I think $4.00, and a couple of hours of work.

If I ever get around to it, I might see about replacing the tuning keys with something more solid, and maybe replacing the plastic output jack plate with a metal one. The slight irregularity in the neck could, after it has settled, be addressed with a good fret leveling. But this is my new beater guitar! I will see if I can find a gig bag for it, and I'll probably be bringing it for lessons since it is easier to carry around.

Sometimes life hands us these little consolation prizes! It really cheered me up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Jag-Stang Available for Parts

Well, I screwed up.

I received the new tuning keys I ordered for my Jag-Stang and attempted to install them.

They didn't fit, which should have been my first indication that I needed to send them back immediately. The holes for the Kluson tuners were too small to accommodate the barrels of the new locking tuners.

But, I wasn't that smart. I tried to enlarge the holes. It didn't seem like it would be that difficult.

I was wrong.

So now I've got a Jag-Stang neck with screwed-up uneven holes for tuners. A luthier with a drill press could probably fix it, routing out the holes to accommodate some even thicker tuners, but it might be cheaper just to buy a new neck. The project is on hold.

Sometimes it is possible to over-estimate ones own abilities, decide what you already have is not good enough, and try to improve it. I'd encourage any aspiring guitarists to be careful not to fall into this trap! It is probably better in many cases to simply hunt for a better guitar, instead of trying to modify one you've already got.

Embarassment and frustration all around! But more importantly, I don't have an instrument I can use to trigger my guitar synth, until I get this fixed or replaced in one way or another. That's the real frustration.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Creative Destruction (or, How to Ruin a Guitar's Resale Value)

Besides the Peavey Limited and an Ovation acoustic, I've got another guitar -- a Jag-Stang. The Jag-Stang is a bit of an oddity; it was going to be a Curt Cobain signature model. Cobain favored the Fender Mustang and Jaguar, because of their thin, short-scale necks. My first electric guitar was a Mustang, and I also love the feel of the neck. Cobain died before the guitar was really anything more than a prototype, and the design did not get Cobain's final approval before his death. In a somewhat ghoulish move, it was put into production anyway, with components based on the prototype, rather than the guitars as Cobain actually modified them. The result is a Japanese-made instrument that is a bit of a mixed bag, with a few good things and a few bad things. First, the good:

- It has a bit of the Mustang magic, with its short scale and thin, playable and quite solid maple neck with rosewood fingerboard.

- The body shape is quite nice.

- It has more sustain and tone than one might expect from a relatively cheap instrument.

Now, the bad:

- The body is a "slab" cut and lacks the nice forearm and belly countour of my 1968 "Competition" Mustang.

- The stock pickups aren't very good, and in particular don't have a modern rock tone at all -- kind of like the original Mustang single coils. Cobain didn't use the Mustang single coil pickups.

- The volume and tone pots, and even the switches, aren't very good.

- It follows the original Mustang switch arrangement, which is odd. (Basically, the Mustang wiring of the two 3-position switches puts each single-coil pickup either off or on in one of two phases. So out of the out of the 9 possible combinations, one setting has both pickups off, which is kind of pointless; one setting has both pickups on, in phase; two of the settings have both pickups on, out of phase; two settings are "neck pickup only" and two settings are "bridge pickup only." If you drop "both off," there are only really four useful settings, since absolute phase has no noticeable effect, only whether the pickups are in or out of phase relative to each other. The same combinations could be achieved much more sensibly with a four-way toggle, or a three-way toggle and one phase switch).

- The Mustang tremolo and bridge were never all that good; the tremolo is pretty much unusable. The modern copy is even worse, lacking the polish of the original. I think Cobain had his Mustangs retrofitted with non-tremolo Tune-o-matic style bridges.

- The fit and finish of the whole instrument is relatively poor. The frets were not all that well-dressed; it has a thick, cheap-feeling poly finish instead of the hard nitro finish; the pickguard tends to peel apart at the corners leaving sharp points sticking out; and the pickguard doesn't line up very nicely with the guitar body shape. It certainly does not compare to the fit and finish of the original Mustang neck and body. (I should know; I've taken both of them apart).

Nevertheless, oddities tend to excite collectors, so this guitar is apparently now considered "collectible" and "vintage." But I didn't particularly want a collectible guitar; I wanted a guitar to play. So, my Jag-Stang has undergone a few changes.

- I ripped out the pickups and purchased some Duncan pickups.

- There are some creative rewirings possible that let you use the switches more effectively. For example, you can use one of the switches to switch out the volume and tone pots.

- I put a Roland guitar synth pickup on the instrument.

- I taped up the tremelo bridge so it wouldn't move.

My wiring job wasn't very good -- I'm strictly an amateur with a soldering gun. It wasn't adequately shielded. It picked up radio stations, in fact.

- Did I mention that it also has a few dings? When you're trying to play with a group, and your guitar starts picking up radio stations -- well, let's just say I lost my temper.

So, eventually I ripped out all my wiring as well as the pots and switches and took the whole mess up to Elderly Instruments in Lansing and had them wire it up. While managing to stifle their laughter at my crappy wiring job, they did a much nicer job, using heat-shrink tubing and foil shielding, and the resulting instrument no longer picks up radio stations. The Duncan pickups I put in sound excellent. I also picked out some new chrome knobs, which look considerably nicer than the stock knobs.

Later, I decided to switch to 11-gauge strings. These are much heavier, and thus harder to play, but produce a lot of crunch and tone. Unfortunately, they also put more stress on the neck, and so the setup changes. The truss rod can only be accessed by removing the neck. Taking the neck off is a big operation and you have to be very careful when re-tightening the screws. You'll have to adjust the bridge height on a bridge that is not all that adjustable. The body wood is pretty soft, so the pickguard screws at this point no longer hold very well. I shimmed a couple of them with bits of toothpick, but that's a kludge.

I have ordered (but not yet installed) some new locking tuners to replace the worthless stock tuners, which are not even as good as the original Mustang tuners.

I'm considering replacing the bridge with a more adjustable version of the Mustang bridge, available from Warmoth.

Anyway, there it is -- an instrument that is now nearly worthless to a collector. But it sounds pretty good, and it is still fun to play. And if I ever get to the point where I can have a custom shop build me guitars from scratch, one of them is going to be Jag-Stang-like instrument done right. Here is how I would do it:

- A short scale neck -- but with 24 frets.

- A body with the Jag-Stang shape, but properly contoured, with a hard nitro finish.

- A decent fully adjustable hard-tail bridge. No tremolo.

- A slightly altered pickguard shape to better fit the body, made out of better material.

- Two Seymour Duncan humbuckers (exact models to be determined).

- Locking tuning machines, a better nut, and no string tree (basically, something more like the Peavey tuning machine arrangement).

- No more stupid switch arrangement like the Mustang; something more like the 4-way I described above.

- Finally, a new guitar synth pickup mounted properly and permanently in the instrument cavity, with a switch to send the signal from the pickups into the hex output instead of the 1/4" output.

That will truly be a custom guitar! It would probably cost at least $2,000 an possibly $3,000 to have made, so it is not in my immediate future. But a guy can dream.

My Latest Guitar

I recently came across a used Peavey Limited ST in the "tiger's eye" finish with a nice quilt, and snapped it up. I have been playing this instrument for a little while now and I still feel like I made the right decision when I bought it. Why?

- This is an American-made instrument. There is an "EXP" model available, made in Korea, but I really want to support American manufacturers. (I realize they don't actually get paid when I buy a used guitar, but I can at least voice my support by promoting the American-made Peavey instruments by my example).

- It has an extremely nice neck, with very low action. This makes it easy and comfortable to play for long periods of time.

- It has a nice tone, with a lot of twang. The humbucker in the bridge position is loud and crunchy. The two single coils sound nice as well, but I have not yet fully explored the different tones I can get out of them.

- The body has chambers cut into it, which not only improves the sustain, but makes it very light.

- The tremolo is the best I've used -- the instrument doesn't drift out of tune.

- It has very nice locking tuners.

- The "fit and finish" is flawless, absolutely flawless -- practically the best I've ever seen.

- Last, but certainly not least, the price was outstanding. Peavey instruments tend to be less hyped; they don't have the reputation of Paul Reed Smith or Gibson Les Paul instruments. Less hype means a much lower price.

There are a couple of downsides; this used instrument has some noticeable fret wear, and so will need a fret job pretty soon. That's OK. It doesn't cost that much, and I live pretty close to Elderly Instruments in Lansing. They do good work, and even taking into account the cost of a fret job in six months or a year, it was still a bargain.

There are only a couple of things I would possibly change. First, because it has a flat top, this instrument doesn't have the contoured arm rest, so that can become slightly uncomfortable to play after a long practice session. Fortunately it does have the "belly cut," although I've been losing weight so I have a little less need for this feature than I used to.

I would like to have an instrument with a 24-fret neck at some point.

If all other things had been equal, I probably would have preferred the HB model with two humbuckers.

If all other things had been equal, I would have preferred a blue top. I have a thing for the "whale blue" or "slate blue" or "midnight blue" colors. But when you stumble across a used instrument you can't choose the finish.

Maybe someday I'll stumble across an American-made Limited HB in flawless condition with a blue quilt top at a ridiculously low price. But until that time this is my main instrument, and I'm quite happy with it!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

On Acquiring a Guitar

Presented herein: a few guidelines for buying a decent guitar. (With a nod to Ed Roman of Ed Roman guitars of Las Vegas; the rants on his web site have inspired some of this thinking).

Before I start throwing out specific tips, I would like to say that finding a decent-playing, decent-sounding guitar has never been easier. People like to romanticize the old days and "vintage" instruments but the truth is that a lot of original vintage instruments were not actually constructed very well. They were hard to play, hard to keep in tune, had noisy pickups, and were in general a big pain. Instruments have improved immeasurably and it is possible to find guitars that are far better constructed than some of the old classics at extremely low prices. By "extremely low," I mean that you can find a playable electric guitar with decent tone in the $100 range. I realize that even that amount might be too high for some people with very limited income, but just about anyone else should be able to stash away enough money to afford an instrument like that. For example, if you can afford cable TV, you could shut it off, save up the money you put towards cable for a few months, and buy a guitar instead.

First, avoid the chains. Places like Guitar Center will generally never stock anything exceptional. The instruments they sell are carefully chosen for one reason and one reason only: to maximize profit. Their salespeople are on commission (this is why they ask "was someone else helping you?") They may occasionally get a decent used instrument in, but it is likely they will price it too high, and they will not steer you towards a guitar that is actually best for you.

Second, avoid hyped guitars at all costs. Guitars tend to gain name recognition and then they start offshoring all their production and ramping up for volume. The guitars then become homogenous, built mostly by machine. The hyped company trades for a while on the reputation established with the hand-built instruments, but begins compromising on parts quality, and very little careful human attention goes into the instruments under construction any more. (Right now, Paul Reed Smith instruments are the archetypical hyped guitar).

Third, if you can, avoid buying a new instrument. Guitars, especially electric guitars, are pretty rugged these days. It is hard to truly damage the instrument even if you do scuff it up a bit, assuming you don't take it apart or try to smash it on stage. Any guitar you play heavily is going to get a scratch or a ding; you may as well buy it with that inevitable scratch or ding already there. You'll be less nervous about really using the instrument, and you don't want to pay the new-car price for a guitar any more than you do for a car.

Fourth, avoid "starter packs." The instruments in these kits are likely to be absolute crap.

Fifth, avoid anything considered "vintage" or "classic." There is a big price premium associated with that perception. A lot of crap gets labeled "vintage" by unscrupulous sellers. And a lot of the "vintage" instruments for sale may in fact be fake.

Don't get caught up in the "collecting" thing. Some people may be able to buy guitars and keep them for a while, maybe even a long while, and then re-sell them at a profit, but this requires a big investment in climate-controlled storage and regular string-changing and maintenance. More importantly, it seems to me that this activity is not really compatible with being a guitar player. Guitars made to play, and if you are buying them as investments it seems to me that you are doing something slightly perverted with them, wasting the work of the craftsmen who put the instruments together. It seems a bit analogous to marrying a trophy wife or husband instead of forming a real life-long partnership with another person and living your lives together. Instruments that are played regularly develop character and individuality. And the person that plays them does, too.

A few more miscellaneous guidelines:

I'd stay away from anything "replica" or beat up in the manufacturing process to look old. That strikes me like buying jeans with the knees already blown out.

You might be willing to buy Mexican or Korean or Japanese instruments, but I personally am on a quest to find decent American-made instruments. There are vanishingly few guitars still made in the continental United States. There are many, many skilled craftspeople here in the United States who can't find work. Some makers, like Ernie Ball/Music Man, are instituting living wage policies in their shops. I want to support those companies.

I'm a bit skittish about buying guitars on eBay, especially expensive guitars. A low-cost guitar might be a very good deal; the seller has less incentive to cheat you. But I still grit my teeth a little bit at the idea of buying a guitar that I haven't actually been able to hold and play. And sellers are often quite deceptive. I personally have seen many sellers mis-representing their instruments. Even if they don't mean to be deceptive, they may just not know anything about what they are selling.

Consider a maker that isn't quite so well known, such as Peavey or Washburn or Dean or Ernie Ball's Music Man brand.

Keep in mind that you will pay a premium for flashy graphics or anything heavily marketed towards heavy metal players. Similarly, guitars that have a freaky color scheme tend to be much harder to re-sell. (I once had a very nice Yamaha bass, but since it had a hot pink finish, when it was time to pass it on, I had a terrible time selling it, and had to accept an extremely low price. Had it been a more conservative blue or black, I think it would have sold much faster).

Avoid starting out with an oddity like a 7-string guitar or a 6-string bass. Twelve-string guitars are really cool but they are hard to play, and you will really only want to use a twelve-string for particular songs. A twelve-string is a useful third or fourth guitar, but you probably don't want it to be your main instrument, and certainly not your first instrument.

Personally, I'd look for something that is light and comfortable to play. That means avoiding gratuitous spikes and points. (A Flying V is a cool guitar to play live, but it is uncomfortable to play when seated).

For a new player: don't start with an acoustic instrument. Start with an electric, set up with light strings and low action.

You can get amazingly inexpensive effects these days. There's no reason, if you're not actually making money playing, to put a lot of money into expensive vintage effects gear, or even expensive modern effects gear, until you've developed a particular style and know what you're looking for.

Similarly, I'd avoid vintage or boutique tube amps unless you are experienced. Personally, I have been practicing with a $20 plastic "Smokey" battery-powered amp, and it works just fine. This has the fringe benefit of avoiding nasty visits from the neighbors in my apartment complex. You may not even need a pricey amp even if you play with a band such as a church group. You can often get away with going direct into a mixer, especially if you use an effects chain that has effects modeling, and if there is a monitor available, you can use it to hear yourself.

Finally, beginners often use the factory presets on their effects gear, which tend to have the distortion levels cranked way up. Turn your effects down a little bit if you can. Most of the pros who play using these effects don't actually crank the effects as high as you might think. Beginners often hide behind distortion, since it covers up a multitude of playing flaws. This can be a bad thing since you won't hear the details of what you are doing wrong.

Let me give a quick example of what I'd consider to be a good "starter" guitar. My local Music-Go-Round in Ann Arbor stocks mostly new instruments by big Asian manufacturers, but they also occasionally get some used instruments in. Recently I saw an American-made Peavey Detonator there for $100. The Detonator is similar in design to a Stratocaster, and sold new for upwards of $1,000. More importantly, it is, in my not very humble opinion, a better-made instrument than all but the higher-end Stratocasters, with very high-quality components. The instrument in question was a bit beat up, with a plain red finish and some nicks and scratches, but the fundamentals seemed to be in fine shape -- the frets were not excessively worn, the action was low, the tuners were fully functional, and the controls and pickups all worked. There is absolutely no reason a beginner shouldn't pick up an instrument like this instead of some kind of Korean-made "starter pack" that it might cost $200, but which is still over-priced considering the actual quality of the instrument included. Save that other $100 and find a decent-sounding used amplifier. Used music equipment stores are piled waist-deep with such amplifiers. (Picking out a good amplifier is a topic for another day). And if you keep that $100 instrument in decent shape, or even get it cleaned up and set up better than when you bought it, you can probably sell it for the same price if you decide that you aren't going to play it any more.

One final point -- a beginner should always take along a more experienced guitarist friend when shopping for an instrument like this. The experienced guitarist would be able to check out the instrument like the one above, try it out, and determine if it has any fatal flaws, such as a broken truss rod or warped neck or badly worn frets. Minor flaws such as noisy pots can be fixed easily and cheaply, but some problems will be much more expensive, and will mostly just give you a lot of pain and frustraiton. Such a friend can also help you set the intonation and action for maximum playability.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rush for Aspiring Guitarists, Part Two

So why would an aspiring guitarist want to learn how to play Alex Lifeson's guitar parts to Rush songs?

Well, there's a lot he can teach you. I can summarize with two words: "fast" and "loose."

He's very fast. He can shred with some of the best of them, playing flurries of notes. But unlike some guitarists, he rarely sticks to a straightforward pentatonic or blues scale. That's valuable to learn. Beginners have a tendency to stick with the scales they know.

He's also a very loose guitarist -- he can zoom up and down the neck with abandon. He very rarely plays a straightforward rhythm part in a single locked-down position; instead, he's always playing very wide chords, blending open strings with fingerings halfway up the neck, and adding individual notes to arpeggios or chords.

He often plays partial chords, skipping strings and/or muting strings. These can be hard for beginners to master, because we're initially taught to strum all the strings, and tend to default to that. Learning how to play only partial chords accurately requires precise right-hand technique.

He often plays runs of notes "horizontally," along the string, while beginners tend learn to hold a fixed position and play in scales. Playing his lead lines will force you to get your hands moving along the neck. For example, the solo in YYZ comes in four parts; the last of these four parts is a flurry of picked notes, followed by a melodic series of hammer-on/pull-off notes, played entirely on one string.

Often his solos that seem to contain a lot of notes actually only contain a few -- he repeats notes, something beginners tend not to do, as they solo up and then back down a scale.

He uses a lot of bends -- string bends with the fingers, single and double bends, and bends with a whammy bar (or "tremolo," although this is a misnomer). I've never been able to get the hang of a whammy bar -- in part because the guitars I had all had really poor whammy systems that would throw the instrument completely out of tune if you touched it. So aggressive and precise use of the whammy bar is something I have yet to master.

But there's a downside to all this: it can be easy to get partway there, to play something that sounds vaguely like a Lifeson guitar part. But it is very, very hard to get the rest of the way there.

Because his parts are so unusual, most transcribers tend to get them correct only to a certain point and then punt, writing down a few chords. Even the tab you see that ought to give detailed fingerings is often wrong. Even when they are right, they may seem impossibly difficult to play. That can be discouraging. To the best of my knowledge, Lifeson has not released a "how to play like me" video training series. It's a bit of a pity -- it would probably sell quite well, since he is really a musician's musician and there are a lot of aspiring guitarists who would like to know just how he does what he does.

In their studio recordings, such as 2112, Lifeson often layers multiple tracks, using three or more guitar lines. It can be a bit of a challenge to pick them out, so there's an honest tendency to take the average -- "oh, he's riffing on an A major chord" -- and just play that. And it sounds mostly right, although if you go that route you haven't learned very much about what Lifeson is actually playing.

Is it any easier to learn off a live album? Well, this can be a little easier, but when playing live, Lifeson often seems to use even more effects -- more flange, more distortion, and more reverb. The distortion together with his artificial harmonics and flange tend to turn one guitar into a wall of sound. This makes it hard to pick out the details. A river of thirty-second notes can be pretty intimidating as well, especially in a Spanish Phrygian scale. He also works in feedback from his amplifiers, which might be hard to copy, especially if you're trying to play in an apartment with noise-sensitive neighbors.

The sheet music is spotty. Most of the Rush sheet music that is available is really arranged for keyboard, although sometimes you get chord symbols. There are some tab transcriptions. Some of them are quite inaccurate, but some of them are pretty good. So far, the best stuff I've seen is in this book, which features detailed tabs, although even these still seem to have some inaccuracies. The tabs available online tend to vary a lot in quality. Even if you have a very good tab, you may still have the challenge of figuring out exactly how to finger the part in question. That often comes down to a matter of taste and a guitarist's individual hands. There are some reaches and fingerings that some guitarists can play that I can't, because my hands are smaller.

But don't give up! You can learn a lot, if you are willing to put in some hard work.

Rush for Aspiring Guitarists, Part One

When I was fifteen or so, in High School, I had a friend who introduced me to various rock bands that he liked -- bands like Foghat, Styx, and Blue Oyster Cult. I liked them all right, especially Blue Oyster Cult, who I found to be fun because of their sense of humor. But as we went through his records I kept thinking "what else have you got?" In other words, the blues-rock of the late 1970s was starting to sound all the same to me.

Eventually he got to a weird album with a naked guy and a pentacle on the cover. "I don't really like this," he said. (I think it was mostly because he was uncomfortable with the naked guy). He put it on.

There are a few moments I will never forget. I will always remember the first time I saw Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which blew my mind when I was perhaps ten years old. I will always remember the first time I kissed a girl. And I'll always remember that first needle-drop on Rush's 2112. It was the heaviest, hardest fastest rock I had ever heard, and I immediately wanted to learn how to play it myself. It had never occurred to me that it was even possible to put so much power and passion and speed into guitars, drums, bass, and vocals. Never mind that I couldn't even fret a barre chord. I wanted to sing it, too -- and back then I could hit those high notes. I spent so much time singing Rush songs, as well as songs by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, in falsetto that for years I could really only sing on pitch when I sang in falsetto. Of course, Geddy Lee can't hit those notes anymore, and neither can I.

I shredded my fingers trying to learn to play that album, but gained enough hand strength to fret barre chords, and with the aid of a few lessons I began, slowly, to gain a little bit of technique and ability to play by ear. I can't claim to be all that good at it -- I know people who are better -- but with persistence I can generally get the job done.

Over twenty-five years later, I still turn to Rush for inspiration. You can argue the overall merits of Rush's music. I'm not going to claim it is all wonderful. They are, well, a little geeky. It isn't for nothing that early Rush is sometimes called "math rock." They loved odd time signatures and difficult-to-play passages that inspire musicians more than average listeners. Extended science fiction and fantasy epics like "Hemispheres" aren't to everyone's tastes. Their lyrics are often pompous and arty and vague. But there is no denying their instrumental and compositional skills.

Moving Pictures featured a couple of traditional hard rock songs that are very good by any standard, such as "Limelight." Even while playing rhythm, Lifeson just can't hold still; his backing is imaginative and busy. But I will always remember Moving Pictures for the instrumental "YYZ," which is actually -- don't tell anyone -- a jazz composition! "YYZ" -- as a structured jazz piece -- will be remembered. It was nominated for a Grammy award, but unfortunately lost. But in 2007 who remembers "Behind My Camel," the Police instrumental that beat it? That song doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia.

For a number of years, after Moving Pictures and Signals, Rush began to produce music I didn't really like very much. Although every album had its moments, on the whole most of the songs seemed flabby and uninspired to me, often too slow and too soft, and too bombastic. More importantly, on these albums the band seemed to take themsevles far, far too seriously. Rush's best work has a sense of humor, and when they perform live it comes through. Geddy plays with a tip jar on his keyboard, Alex occasionally babbles nonsense into his microphone, and in general they look like they are having quite a bit of fun. But in songs like "Manhattan Project" and "Marathon" they were showing off their musical virtuosity, adding synthesizer washes and overdubbed choruses (played live using samples), and blindingly fast guitar soloes -- but somehow it just wasn't much fun. A whole series of Rush albums went by that I barely bothered to listen to.

Recently, it seems like the band has begun to get back some of that sense of enjoyment. In 2004 they released a short album of cover songs called Feedback. The covers are terrific. Their new release, "Snakes and Arrows," is for the most part quite good. They're tanned and rested! And there is a lot you can learn from their music. "Snakes and Arrows" has not one, but three, instrumentals. I think it is time Rush earned that Grammy for best rock instrumental.

Next time -- what it's like for an aspiring guitarist attempting to play Rush. Why to do it, what you can learn from it, and why not to do it.

First Post

I'm starting another blog, to be updated erratically like my other blogs. The topic is the guitar.

I've been playing on and off, mostly off, since I was about sixteen years old. I'll be forty this year, so you do the math. Am I any good? I'm not the best one to judge. I have strong basic technique, but I'm almost entirely self-taught. I'm undisciplined as a player and have a very minimal and eclectic repertoire. So, obviously I have a long way to go. What is my goal? I'd like to play with a band for fun, or for worship services. I'd like to record original music for podcast productions.

In High School, I performed the Rush instrumental "YYZ" with a bassist and drummer at a school variety show. It was pretty terrible, but I still count that among my proudest achievements -- for an introverted underachiever, it was a big thing to do! I played heavy metal with other kids in the garages of Harborcreek, PA, on a red 1968 Fender Mustang with racing stripe, now sadly long-gone.

It didn't sound very good, partly because I couldn't play very well, but also because the pickups in an original Fender Mustang don't put out much voltage, and just couldn't give me the crunchy, harmonic-rich tone I was looking for. Of course, it didn't help that I was playing through a measly little solid-state Peavey practice amp. So I was was always frustrated with that guitar, and eventually sold it. (As a side note, that Mustang, had I kept it in good condition, would be wroth a fortune today).

A few years ago I played electric and acoustic guitar, and occasionally Chapman Stick, with a small band at St. Francis of Assisi church here in Ann Arbor. We had a lot of problems, and I was inexperienced, but I learned a lot, particularly how to learn new material quickly and read and play a lot of chords in a lot of keys. I played the occasional solo. I learned a bit more about reading traditional musical notation, but I still can't really sight-read. I've forgotten a lot of my chord forms. Oh, and I had to sing, and on rare occasions sing harmony while playing. That can be a bit tough -- hearing a melody, playing an accompaniment, and singing a different line, the harmony, all at once. Pros do it all the time, but it was a big challenge for me.

These days I have sold off most of my music gear but I still have an Ovation acoustic and a customized and abused Jag-Stang guitar. I'm practicing again and trying to get back to the basics, get past my last plateau and break out of my bad habits!

What am I practicing? I'm getting back to some of the very first music I tried to learn back when I was sixteen. Songs by Rush, along with a variety of other material including some of the contemporary Christian rock songs I played with the St. Francis band. In my next post I'll write a little bit about Rush, the good and the bad, for aspiring guitarists.