Monday, December 22, 2008

Skullcrusher Mountain Drone Guitar

On "Snowmageddon" (Friday the 19th) my office was officially closed due to weather, but since I live very close by I managed to drive in to do some work. But since I knew I was also going to the the only person in the building, I decided to take my Honeyburst T-60 and my Roland Cube Street along with the Sony PCM-D50 to do a little recording.

The track I wanted to work on is a "drone" backing track that sits low in the mix on Jonathan Coulton's song "Skullcrusher Mountain." It follows the major chord changes to the song, except that it is primarily played using "fifths," or chords reduced to their bare essence, just a root and a fifth and maybe the root again an octave higher, without the flat 3rds or dominant 7ths or other intervals that tend to sound very dissonant and produce a lot of beat frequencies when highly distorted.

I set up the amplifier inside the completely unused ladies' rest room in my building. I put my digital recorder on a chair inside a stall, next to a toilet, so that it would pick up as much reflected sound as possible from the hard tile floor and metal stall walls. I set the D-50's microphones to their wider 120-degree settings so that they would pick up more reflected sound. To avoid my own body damping the sound too much I propped the door open with the amplifier, and sat in the doorway next to it. This allowed me to hold the guitar up close to the speaker to generate the extended feedback on the final chord.

I put on my headphones (wearing them in part to keep myself from being deafened by the high volume) and played my takes while listening to the karaoke "Skullcrusher Mountain" for timing reference.

The final take is assembled from about six parts. Aside from one audible poorly-fingered chord, it sounds pretty much exactly like I envisioned, reverb, noise, feedback, and all. I'm very pleased with the result! It sounds totally grungy.

Note that this isn't a complete song, and doesn't truly make musical sense by itself; for example, there is a silent section in the middle because the drone guitar doesn't play under the bridge.

The MP3 file can be found here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The T-15

I bought a Peavey T-15 on eBay. The ad said:


The pictures looked pretty good, and although the starting bid was a bit high compared to other T-15s on eBay, I pulled the trigger. I also ordered bid on (and won) a set of four T-60 knobs, to replace the missing knob.

Here is what I got. First, I was shocked to find that the seller shipped the guitar in the taped-up case, without a box:

It seems to me that if you pack an item for shipment, and shake the package, if you can hear the item banging around in the case, then the shipping is inadequate. And that is exactly the situation. The T-series cases are pretty tough, and they have pads above and below the guitars, but they don't have foam or padding around the edge to hold the instrument in place. So every time the UPS truck hit a bump, the guitar banged against the sides of the case. You can see how the finish was literally ground off the guitar by this treatment. Here is the fresh-ground finish in the case:

There are several other spots where you can clearly see the ground-off, powdery finish in the case, and the corresponding spot where the case rubbed against the guitar, but the spots in the case are a bit hard to get my camera to focus on. It is much easier to get the camera to focus on the guitar. Here are some of the spots where you can see the fresh damage.

First, these two areas of damage (inside the horns) are entirely in areas where one does not typically find wear and tear. They seem to be entirely a result of the shipping, and they were entirely preventable. Had the seller took even a moment to stuff bubble wrap, or even newspaper, around the instrument to make certain it would not rattle around loose in the case during shipment, this would have been prevented.

It is very common for older guitars to have some finish damage, especially on the lower edge where the instrument may have been dropped, or fallen over. And the top of the headstock almost always has some dings where the instrument has gotten banged against a piece of furniture or another guitar or something. That is completely expected.

Here is the lower edge of the guitar. In this area you can see an older area of damage top left, where the guitar probably hit a floor or a stage twenty years ago or longer. (Note: damage through the finish that exposes the wood is not "nothing major," so the seller's description was somewhat deceptive).

But you can also see the newer shipping damage in which the finish is chewed up, in addition to the old "dings."

The good news is that since this is a nitrocellulose finish, some of these spots (at least, the parts where the damage does not go all the way through to the wood) can probably be restored. The bad news is that this kind of finish repair work is very expensive and can't easily be done in a home (I've done basic repair on polyurethane finishes using superglue and wet-sanding with graded papers, which works great, but nitro requires some nasty solvents). The other spots where the finish is damaged all the way to the wood might be repairable as well, but it would be much harder.

There is a more significant problem, though. I could not get the instrument to tune up well. The E string would not stay seated in the saddle, and did not seem to line up properly with the edge of the fingerboard. It seemed as if the bridge was not properly lined up with respect to the neck and strings. So I took the strings off. I found that the bridge was essentially sitting loose, held in place by only a single wood screw. I unscrewed that, and here is what I found:

The T-15 bridge consists of a cast aluminum piece with a combined sliding saddle for all the strings, that can be adjusted at two points. The bridge itself mounts to the body at three points: it sits on two metal studs bolted deep into the body, and is then kept from wobbling by a third wood screw. The metal studs are height-adjustable. The whole system forms a triangle and the 3 mounting points keep it from skewing around.

This instrument was entirely missing the two large, heavy studs that mount deep into the body. The bridge was held in place only by the single wood screw, which means the force of all six strings was being countered only at that one point, which is completely inadequate (I'm surprised it didn't pull the screw out). It also makes the tuning completely unstable, because if you tighten one string the bridge would literally pivot. It also had very little tone, because the bridge was actually resting on the soft plastic pickguard instead of on its metal studs.

There is yet another consequence: those studs are attached to the ground wire, which grounds the electronics. Without them, the ground wire isn't attached to anything:

Which means that the strings are not grounded to the electronics, and so the guitar picks up hum and buzz from televisions, lights, etc. (I expect some hum from single-coil pickups, but the sound of an ungrounded guitar is awful; it will even tend to pick up radio stations. In addition, if you have two single-coils with a 3-way switch, with the switch in the middle position the noise will generally improve as you have made the circuit hum-cancelling. But this doesn't work with a missing ground).

Now, the seller also has the following wording in his ad:

"As with many of our auctions, this item is being sold "AS IS". All sales are final."

I understand that, so I am not asking to return the guitar. However, I paid the seller $222.22 for this instrument. I paid extra (these often go for less) because this instrument seemed to be in better-than-usual condition.

The seller's ad downplayed the damage to the guitar, and It is not actually in playable condition (between the unstable bridge and the lack of a ground).

In addition, I paid the seller $32.52 for shipping, which was carried out in an entirely inadequate way, resulting in further damage.

The seller can't undo the finish damage, but in order to make this instrument playable at all, I will need to find a set of T-15 bridge studs and install them, and re-install the bridge (assuming the holes are not stripped or otherwise damaged, which I can't tell for certain until I try). That most likely means tracking down another T-15, preferably a heavily damaged or non-functional one, and cannibalizing it for parts. Even a damaged T-15 will cost me, with shipping, upwards of $100. And of course this does not take into account the value of my time in doing this repair work.

Here are the two messages I sent to the seller:

"I received this guitar today. 2 issues:

1. It was shipped _in the case_ with no box and no bubble wrap
or padding. There is fresh damage where finish was "ground off"
by the guitar banging against the sides of the case. I've bought
almost a dozen guitars on eBay and no one has ever done such
an poor shipping job. The case is not made for shipping!

2. There are supposed to be two adjustable metal studs
mounted in the body. The bridge normally sits on them. They
are missing. The bridge is held with _one wood screw_. One
of the studs is also supposed to connect to the ground wire.
Without it the instrument has terrible buzz.

I'm very disappointed by the needless damage, and I'm going to
have to find a set of bridge studs -- I'll probably have to
buy another T-15 to find these.

I want a $100 refund because of these issues. The guitar is
needlessly damaged and with the missing parts s not usable
as-is. I have detailed photos of the issues. Thanks."


"For reference, this is how to pack a guitar for shipping. The
other guitars I've purchased via eBay have all been packed
more-or-less as this guide recommends and they have arrived
in fine condition."

I believe this is an extremely fair request. Any further advice on how to handle this situation?

UPDATE 1: the seller offered to refund the purchase price if I ship the guitar back. So that's what I'm doing. I'm packing it up again in the same case, but this time the case is carefully stuffed with closed-cell plastic foam so the guitar is completely immobile inside the case. I put the incomplete bridge with wood screw inside the case pocket in a folded plastic bag, included a new set of strings, and replaced the missing knob with an original Peavey knob. So it will be his problem again, and I'm only out the shipping cost. I believe him when he says he didn't know about the missing bridge parts. I will leave positive feedback for his willingness to work out the problem!

UPDATE 2: the seller received the guitar, and it was re-listed again on eBay -- with the exact same ad as before, same photos, not disclosing the problem with the bridge, or the additional damage. Said re-listing took place several days before I received my refund. I wrote the seller a note saying "you know, I'd feel better about this listing if you refunded the money I paid you for this guitar before selling it to someone else." I got back a muddled note talking about how they were not really obligated to refund my money because all sales were final, but allowing as how they would anyway. I again politely wrote back saying "I am patient -- I'll look for a refund in a couple of days." The time to debate about whether a refund should be paid is before agreeing to accept the return, not after. I did receive my refund, only a few days after the seller received the returned item. But I repeat: never, ever deal with pawnshops when buying a guitar. I just wish there was some requirement that eBay sellers disclose the fact that they are pawnshops in their listings, because it isn't always obvious. I'm considering in the future asking every seller "are you a pawnshop?" before I place a bid.