Friday, October 30, 2009

The Halloween Set

I'm performing tomorrow night with my son Isaac, my friend Jim, and (if she can make it) my friend Ann, at a private Halloween/birthday/anniversary party. While this was not quite the original plan, I have spent most of my vacation (I've had the past two weeks off from work) polishing up these songs and rehearsing them with my friends. In fact, between rehearsals, working out parts, working on arrangements, scrounging last-minute gear purchases, and getting sheet music and lyrics together for everyone, it's been pretty much all I've been doing for the last ten days. My wife has been watching nervously and asking "you're enjoying this, right?" I am, mostly, but I'm also using it as an excuse to drive myself and try to push my playing and performing to that elusive next plateau that musicians are always seeking.

My rotator cuff is blown out from strumming and my calluses have calluses, which are now peeling off. I'm going to have to take a few days off after this!

I'll be playing 6- and 12-string Ovation and Adamas acoustic guitars and Applause ukuleles. I can has endorsement contract?

The set is an, er, eclectic mix of children's songs, humorous songs, and two classic spooky folk/rock songs.


Beck -- The Golden Age

Robyn Hitchcock -- The Ghost Ship

Paul and Storm -- Nugget Man


Jonathan Coulton -- The Future Soon

Jonathan Coulton -- Chiron Beta Prime

Jonathan Coulton -- Still Alive

They Might Be Giants -- Fake Believe

The Eagles -- Hotel California

They Might Be Giants -- I C U

They Might Be Giants -- Particle Man



They Might Be Giants -- ZYX

Gordon Lightfoot -- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Jonathan Coulton -- Creepy Doll

They Might Be Giants -- Dead

Jonathan Coulton -- Re: Your Brains

Jonathan Coulton -- Skullcrusher Mountain

Elvis Presley -- Jailhouse Rock

I don't think we'll be recording this set, but I'll be making videos of some of these songs in the near future, particularly the ukulele and guitar parts. I'm down-tuning for some of the songs: I can sing Skullcrusher Mountain much more easily in C instead of E, and The Future Soon much more easily in B flat. I may eventually wind up setting up some instruments specifically to keep down-tuned. It's kind of like, as one Twitter friend commented, a "reverse capo!"

UPDATE: it turns out we did get video of the performance. Not very good video, but video nonetheless. See my YouTube feed. Watch them quick before YouTube takes them down for copyright violations, since we covered a number of different songs. Personally I think a strong case could be made that these short excerpts fall under the fair use exception to copyright, but I don't run YouTube.

Ann did not show up, so we had to make do without her. Fortunately we had planned for this possibility and rehearsed with other folks leading the songs. Jim did a great job on a few songs. Isaac did a reasonably good job on Still Alive. The rest were up to me. I didn't sound too bad for some of the songs, especially after I was warmed up. Everyone seemed to have a good time. But I know I'm not a terribly strong singer -- vocals are still sort of my achilles heel as a musician. I'm not just awful, but I just have a tendency to drift off pitch, even when singing something in my range, and especially if I'm singing solo while accompanying myself on guitar. If I have other folks singing to calibrate myself against, I do much better.

I've had numerous suggestions for voice lessons, and I'm considering it, but -- well, I stopped taking guitar lessons after child #4 was born because I just couldn't guarantee any practice time, and since we juggle one car, relying on my wife to help me get to lessons on time was just not going to fly. I may still be able to find a teacher who can accommodate weekend times or something like that. But our lives are very, very busy now, so it may have to wait a little longer -- at least until we no longer have two in diapers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Guitar Pron 10: Two Squier Venus Guitars

The Squier Venus is an interesting design. Like the Super-Sonic (see Guitar Pron 5: The Squier Super-Sonic), this one was made by Fender Japan in the 1997-1998 time frame. As one of the "Vista" series instruments, it is built considerably better than the "Squier" name might seem to imply. Also, although the Jagmaster gets more respect, these Venus guitars are better-built (although the workmanship is not what I'd call fantastic, only good; there are almost always minor fit-and-finish issues on these instruments that remind me that they didn't get a lot of attention in the build process).

It has an extremely flat body, and it is made of (I think) basswood, making it very light. The body has wide "hips," and a very, well, curvaceous pickguard design. It's definitely a feminine take on classic electric guitar design. The lighter body makes it kinder on someone a little smaller. This instrument may be made for a woman, but with that jangly tone it is also strong enough for a man! The scale length is 25.5 inches, the same as a Stratocaster. I wonder why Courtney Love didn't design a short-scale like the Jag-Stang?

Note also that it is a hardtail, which is unusual in a Fender or Squier instrument that isn't a telecaster. And not only that, but it has a tune-o-matic bridge and string ferrules running through the body. And yes, that neck is bound!

These instruments came with gig bags, not hard-shell cases, and so they are usually pretty dinged up. It's a bit tricky to find a case that fits this wider body design, although some generic cases will fit. With the very flat body, you may want to put some kind of extra pad inside so that it is not hanging by the neck (storing it this way long-term might tend to cause the neck to warp).

I recently came across someone selling two of them locally, and not through eBay, so decided to make an offer on both. Both of them are in good condition but needed a little work. The black one needed a good cleaning and setup, and the neck was misaligned a bit. That was easy to fix, though. It's now set up with 10s and the action is raised a bit, and it plays wonderfully. There's no tone control -- it's got very basic electronics, just a humbucker, a single-coil, and a 3-way switch. Courtney Love was allegedly fond of just the Seymour Duncan Little '59, which is interesting because that's one of the pickups I chose for my heavily modified Jag-Stang -- another project I need to complete someday.

I apologize for the quality of these photos -- it's hard to get a good view of a black instrument. I did not get a chance to set them up against a photogenic background like I did with the Super-Sonics. I'll try to get some better shots of these after I finish up the rest of the minor repairs.

There is also a sunburst model that is in even better condition, but for some reason is missing some screws and springs on the pickups. I also have to re-solder some wires, but that is not too difficult. I don't have a photo of the sunburst one put together yet. I'm sorry the color is so bad in these photos -- this classic burst paint job is actually very nicely done and not garish at all. I'll try to get some shots in natural daylight after I get it put back together and set up.

There is another color commonly seen, and that is sea-foam green. I'll give that one a miss, thanks. It may be a classic surf color, but it's just too ugly for me. There is also a relatively rare Venus 12-string that I'd like to try -- I've never played a 12-string electric. I'm also still looking for another Vista-series Jagmaster, preferably one with the truss rod adjustment at the headstock.

Guitar Pron 9: Godin LG

Godin has some guitars out now that represent incredible bang for the buck. Assembled in the U.S. out of Canadian parts, the lower-end of the range, the LG, is really a tremendous instrument. This one is a lovely red over mahogany, with the grain visible, and black hardware.

While a pretty basic guitar, the sunken bridge and very comfortable body contouring give it a little extra style.

The design is very reminiscent of some of Gibson's offerings, particularly the classic Les Paul Junior. I'm not fond of the heavy Les Paul designs, but the Les Paul Junior is one of the few Gibson guitars I might consider actually buying one day. However, with instruments like this LG available with decent build quality and a more comfortable playing experience, it's hard to get as enthused about the Les Paul Junior anymore.

This is an older LG, with the "tetrad" pickups, and pulling on the tone control engages a coil tap.

The only design elements I don't really like are these grooves into the body to allow the strings to reach ferrules that run through the body, for extra sustain. They just seem slightly cheesy, and the ferrules have some problems: they are a little fiddly when trying to thread the strings, and they introduce a sharp edge where the strings tend to break.

The only other thing I'd change is to provide a truss rod cover; even on a basic model, this should not be really considered optional. But despite these minor shortcomings it's really a very attractive and playable package, and I'd whose-heartedly recommend a used LG to any student looking for a decent and economical instrument, but I also wouldn't hesitate to play a real gig with mine.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Guitar Pron 8: Steinberger XQ-4 Bass (v1)

The recession has hit musicians pretty hard and so I've had the opportunity to pick up some instruments on eBay recent at prices that would have been unheard of just a few months ago. I have long wanted to own an older Steinberger (ideally, one of the L-series basses and a P-series guitar), but they tend to go for crazy money. This one came along for a price that I thought was actually reasonable, though.

In a previous installment I reviewed a v2 XQ-4 made recently in the "Music Yo" era: see this blog entry.

This one is older; I don't have a precise date, but looking at serial numbers, it probably comes from around 1990. The Gibson buyout was in 1986, at least according to Wikipedia, which means this one was produced somewhere in that transitional period. I think the neck was likely made at the Newburgh plant, but I'm not entirely certain of that. I am certain that it is a "v1" Q-series instrument; the lines are a little different, the body is thicker and heavier (maple instead of swamp ash), and it has a few little design issues that were improved upon with the v2 design. It won't fit in a form-fitting case made for the v2 models.

But I'm also sure, after playing it, that it is a better instrument. It lacks the stacked HAZ Labs EQ, although the active EMGs do use one 9-volt battery. Some of the details feel a little off. When it arrived, the nylon strap peg on the butt end was broken. It sticks out a little differently than the pegs on the v2 model. Fortunately I happened to have some black locking tuning pegs that look very similar and which fit perfectly. I'm not enough of a purist to try to find originals, if the originals are flimsy.

It has some finish cracks, and a number of dings and scratches; the battery holder had come loose and was rattling around in the compartment. That's an easy fix. There's a cringe-worth little gash in the neck itself, but it doesn't affect the playability. The sound of this thing is unmistakeable, and fantastic.

While the instrument with the Moses Graphite neck sounds nice, and has some punch to it, it also can be described as sounding a little "warmer" -- more like a wooden-necked bass. Apparently that was a deliberate design decision and the Moses Graphite necks are "tuned" to provide a woodier tone. There's nothing very natural-sounding about the old-school Steinberger tone. It's metallic; it doesn't sound at all like wood. "Harsh" is not too strong a word, but you could also call it "pure." EQ it down, and it could make a decent jazz bass; pop a string, and you've got Dave Stewart playing a crazy funk bass line in a Eurythmics tune. The sounds it makes are absolutely iconic, and I grew up with them, so they are also nostalgic. My bass playing is not really good enough to do this thing justice, but I'll have to make a recording, just to show it off. There's just something different, and fascinating, about these instruments.

The bridge on this thing feels a little more solid, even though it lacks the steel insets of the V2 instrument. It has a neat down-tuning feature: an adjustable lever that can be popped up to lower the E string down to a D. I'm not sure I will use it much, since changing just one string like this screws up the scale patterns in my head, but it may find a use. Impressively, the string stays perfectly in tune.

The only thing I really am unhappy with is that this instrument didn't come with a hard-shell case; it came with only a flimsy gig bag. Since it's relatively heavy, that's just not adequate; a lot of the dings on the instrument, and the broken strap peg, could have no doubt been avoided with a good case.. So I will be keeping an eye out for one, either a case made for this model or one I can adapt to fit it.

However, I also feel pretty certain this thing won't be staying in its case very much. That's the real reason that all the "vintage" Steinberger basses you see for sale are so beat up. The owners just couldn't keep their hands off of them!

Update 17 Dec 2009

Ed Roman writes of this model that it has excellent tone, but is not balanced very well. He's correct -- the body is awkwardly heavy. It wouldn't be my first choice to wear on a strap for a live show. However, the Nashville v2 XQ-4 I have has the opposite problem -- the body is too light compared to the neck. There probably exists somewhere an XQ-4 with a Steinberger Blend neck, HAZ Labs EQ, and a swamp ash body that is just right; I'm keeping an eye out for it.

He also says they have a "horrible appearance (my opinion)," and, well -- yeah, the combination of some sharp edges together with some rounded edges make it a little weird looking; the "design language" is inconsistent.

I've done a little recording of this thing and it sounds fantastic. The active pickups do push out quite a bit of voltage, though -- the difference in voltage between a light pluck and a hard string pull is huge. I have to be careful not to clip the input to my Apogee Ensemble. My son plays upright acoustic bass, and has larger hands than I do. I had the input level set perfectly for my playing, but when I handed it to him to play, he plucked the strings much harder, and the levels were blowing out all over the place! I am still planning on trying some kind of active direct box such as the Radial JDV Mark 3, which lets me select the exact loading for different kinds of pickups.

I have just completed a "Buy it Now" on an XP-4 bass, and it should be arriving soon. The P series were a short-lived model with small "flying V" shaped wooden bodies and Steinberger Blend necks. Per Mr. Roman again, these "sound great" because of the wooden body -- better, he claims, than the L series. I have 3 days approval to decide if I want to return this instrument for a refund, so I will be examining and testing it very thoroughly. I would also love to find a P-series guitar with the S-trem (a hard tail, which I'd really prefer, apparently was never offered).

I'm not really interested in the Trans Trem -- I'd probably waste way too much time fiddling with it, trying to get it to work perfectly in tune. Since I am very picky about tuning, it would probably frustrate me no end. It's an intriguing invention but, to my mind, just slightly impractical in implementation; some versions seem to work better than others, and they all seem to require a lot of maintenance.

I am also scratching my head and pondering whether I want to try to acquire an L series (all-composite "boat oar") Steinberger, if I can find a good one at a great price. They are considered the most collectible of the bunch and were tending to go for crazy money, although the current economy has apparently created a buyer's market for guitars of all kinds. It gets at the question of exactly what I am doing. Some of my instruments are for playing and recording, and some are for investing. Would I buy a "boat oar" instrument strictly to invest in, knowing that it isn't going to be one of my personal favorites? I guess it depends on how much confidence I put in my own taste and judgment!

Update 22 Dec 2009

The P-series instrument has not arrived yet, but last night I tried to change the strings on this XQ bad boy. I discovered that the bridge has suffered some abuse. The D-string tuner seems to be missing a spring and possibly some little spacers; the knurled knob grinds right up against the bridge and has chewed a semicircle of exposed aluminum. The threaded rod for that tuner may be slightly bent; it turns much harder than the others. The E string tuner, which has the detuning mechanism, also seems like it may be missing a spring, and the knob was not staying put on the threaded rod but coming right off the end. It took me some time and a lot of aggravation to figure out how to expand the tuner and get the knob clamped back on. The E string tuner had 3 little spacers so I borrowed one to put on the D string tuner, which helps a little, but I have no idea if that how it was originally put together. It's an ingenious design, but a little fiddly, which is the same complaint I've read about the transposing tremolo. The jaws apparently have a tendency to break, and the saddle blocks have a tendency to wear badly and cut the strings.

My best guess is that a previous owner (perhaps the guy who sold it to me, perhaps someone else) took it apart and some springs, and maybe some spacers as well, went flying. I discovered myself that the tiny spacers are awfully easy to lose.

I also discovered that two of the four screws that mount the bridge to the guitar body were missing. I can't imagine why, since the screw holes in the body are not stripped, and those screws seem pretty important. Did someone cannibalize this instrument to repair another one?

Anyway, I called Ed Roman guitars. They have the 4-string DB bridges in stock, but they want $240 for one. I'll have to think that over. This one works, but not as well as it should. It might be wise to get a replacement bridge now, while they are still available. New-old stock Steinberger parts are getting scarce; Music Yo no longer sells parts from their stockpile.

Anyway, Ed Roman Guitars told me they don't have screws that match mine. The screws are an odd shape, wood screws with a high, rounded head, and black. Once again, screws are the bane of my existence as a hobbyist luthier. I'll have to go screw-hunting once more; if I find some screws that are close, maybe I'll just paint them black.

Update 08 Feb 2009

The P-series bass arrived just before Christmas -- see photos here. I decided not to make the same mistake I did with this one, so I had a new set of strings ready for it, and changed them to verify that the bridge worked as expected. It did -- the new instrument is in great shape. The P-series bass sounds fantastic. The passive EMG pickups were only used in those instruments, and a relatively small number of P-series basses were made.

The v1 XQ-4 is still disassembled. I have found screws that will work to mount the bridge to the body -- they are rather exotic "Fillister head" black wood screws. Your local hardware store is very unlikely to carry these. The originals were Philips drive, but I couldn't find exact matches anywhere. The ones I finally ordered are slotted for hex (Allen) drive. The important thing is that they fit the bridge and the existing screw holes in the body perfectly! There must be a story behind Steinberger's use of such an exotic fastener.

I just sent Peekamoose guitars a note asking if I could send them the bridge to rebuild, without shipping the entire bass. I'd rather not buy a new-old stock part, since then I'd be left with a slightly damaged bridge that I couldn't sell. I'd really prefer to get the original parts working properly. We'll see what they say. If I have to pay to ship this very heavy bass both ways, it might be more cost-effective just to buy that new-old stock bridge.

Guitar Pron 7: Adamas 12-String

Here is another eBay find -- a near-mint Adamas 12-string acoustic guitar with a woven carbon fiber top. This one seemed perfect for me since the cobalt blue top is one of my favorite colors.

The "epaulets" are made of a series of different hardwoods.

12-string bridges always look almost comical, and this one is no exception.

The neck looks a bit like the neck on a Peavey Cirrus or a high-end Carvin guitar.

12-string guitars are almost aways top-heavy, due to the massive tuner hardware involved. These tuners are particularly fine.

The real thrill in this thing, though, is the way it sounds. The top is incredibly resonant, and it projects a ridiculous amount of volume if you dig in with a heavy pick. I almost can't use it to accompany my vocals without a mic and PA system. It could really project to the back of an auditorium. Go a little lighter, and it is as expressive as a brush on a snare. The sound is not woody, like a Martin, but brassy and metallic, almost electronic sounding. In fact, it sounds a lot like a Steinway piano, or a harpsichord.

The action is low, and it is easier to play than just about any 12-strings I've ever used, although I don't think my hands are really ever going to enjoy playing sustained barre chords up the neck of a 12-string, and even my guitar teacher, whose hands are stronger than mine, gave up with a laugh when he tried to bend the strings. The sound isn't for everything, but I do love the sound of a 12-string!