Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - August 2018

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Guitar Playing in the 21st Century: Precision Ruins Art

 Right off the top I'm going to (have to) write "no, I'm not saying it's good to be sloppy" or some other 211st century reflexively simplistic thing to say.  As usual I'm trying to present a new/different perspective, successfully or otherwise.

Part of my rig for years.  I sold the head because I wouldn't buy it at the price I sold it for, and I'm not really sure that the world needs Yet Another Plexi Marshall Guitar player.  I still have an old Marshall chassis that I will turn into a "hybrid something or another" amp one day as per this article....

 I've been pondering the 70's, which I find myself doing often because it seems to be the "anti-21st century" in some respects.  People acknowledge the greatness that happened in music in the late 60's/70's, but without much elaboration.

 The process of making music in all respects was much, much less precise in the 70's.

 The recording process was technologically more primitive.   Every aspect of it was an effort to battle a technology imperfection that was "trying" to wreck the process, either by distortion or frequency response problems. 

 The procedures were primitive - copy and paste did not exist, one had to take a chance using a razor blade to literally cut the tape and move the physical pieces around, then use MORE tape to put them together.

 The mixing process, the balancing of the sound at the end, was not quite automated, and often involved members of the band, sometimes the janitor/intern at the studio to assist with their 2 hands to set levels on the fly as the multitrack recording was played back for the mixdown.

"That's one thing, but this is a "guitar" oriented blog, Chip"

 O.k, I know.....

 Guitar technology was primitive.  I'm going to say something controversial: the bottom end Ibanez today is made better than Fender strats were in the 50's and 60's.  Leo Fender wasn't out to make the best guitar, he wanted to make a PROFITABLE guitar CHEAPLY.  Necks warped, frets weren't perfect, string action was higher, pickups were randomly wound, setups were random.

 Vintage Marshalls are known for having different "personalities".  Because again, they weren't trying to make a perfect amp, but a profitable one.  The SL68 "Marshall plexi" John Suhr makes is miles beyond in quality what the original was.  Amps back then were always blowing up, and unlike today there wasn't an Invisible Onus to divide yourself into one of the "camps" - Marshall, Fender, Vox.  The Beatles used Vox because they couldn't get what they wanted - Fender amps.  B.B. King, whose tone nobody criticizes, used a solid state LAB amp.  Brian May of Queen is known for using Vox amps, but a lot of his parts is a tiny little solid state amp cobbled together by the bass player John Deacon from a discarded car stereo.  On and on.

 Speakers are the same situation.  Quality, outside of EV and JBL, was sketchy.  People were (as they do now to a great extent) using whatever they could find/afford.  A hodge podge of choices.

 If you look through guitar magazines of the day (of which I have read all of them almost, year by year), you see ads for a much more diverse array of gear.  Most interestingly (to me) was that the ads were not overly self-conscious about selling to one single narrow genre.  It was tools.

 The Result:

 Not only did almost every guitar player have a fairly unique sound (whether by plan or by happenstance), sometimes for every song there was a different guitar sound.

 Today we try to approach things clinically, and I'm super guilty of it: refine the sound to it's "best" example in all respects, because after all - in the 21st century we CAN try to do that!

 That is poor 21st century reflexive thinking on my part, and everyone else IMO.   I get aggravated when someone makes a pat retort to a conflict that is superficially "the OBVIOUS correct approach/solution" - and that is what OBVIOUSLY trying to get the BEST guitar sound is as a pursuit. Art is not that simplistic.  One should strive for a unique combination, which is something I've had to backtrack on in the past few years.  On the other hand - I now have the experience to pick and choose properly as opposed to randomly (trying to be positive here...).

 What I like is a hodge-podge of gear, and my quiver has started to reflect that over the past half decade.  My gear has always reflected a push and pull (pun) of amps, guitars, pedals and effects that were meant to go in a direction of a particular player I like - but not a SINGLE particular player.  That leads me to my next blog post topic:


Sunday, August 19, 2018

What Pick to Pick?

"What pick should I use?" is maybe a Top-10 question I get.  Which kind of has an easy answer:

Raise of hands: who has seen one of their own guitar picks under an electron microscope...?
 (special thanks to student Dave Burke for the electron microscopy!)

 What does that mean?  I presume the person I'm talking to is going to either be looking at the plethora of plectrums (sorry) at the must store.  In which case (sorry again, geez...) I'm sure there will be the ubiquitous Fender medium celluloid pick.

 I may sometimes suggest someone get a thin pick.  From a string collision standpoint, a thinner pick causes the picking hand/arm the least amount of disturbance and resistance, which makes it easier to maintain a steady rhythm.

 There is a lot more to picks than that, though.


 Basically picks are made either of a cellulosic plastic, which is what most people initially think that a guitar pick is - the Fender style pick material.

 The most popular at this time though, is Tortex.  Tortex is a plastic that once had a trade name called "Zytel" if I'm not mistaken (could be).  This is commonly associate now with the Jim Dunlop brand, and are color-coordinated based on their thicknesses.

 Nylon plastic I believe was popular in the 60's and 70's.  There was a brand called Herco that from my Speculative Anthropology (tm) research was the popular brand at the time.  The Herco style had an embossed sand-paper like texture where one holds the pick.

 The remainder are something of a grab bag of outliers.  There was a time when actual tortoise shell was a thing to use as pick material; the Ultex plastic material is meant to replicate that.  Delrin is a thermoset plastic that has some strange properties that would seem to make it a good pick material, but in my experience they wear at really strange rates, and seem to be a bit "dead" response wise.  There are also horrid cheap plastic picks that you don't want to use, you'll be able to figure that out fairly easily. Hard acrylic/ translucent picks have the down sides of celluloid and break sooner, and usually have "flash" on the edges that feels extra-resistant to smooth rhyhm. There are also steel and copper picks, and the curiosity of the Big Felt Pick that it would seem nobody is absolutely 100% sure about.

A thick human hair is about the width of the scale shown at the bottom.  One would think a bomb went off on the pick; does that mean I have "explosive" picking...?  Hah...


 I'm going to start with the felt picks.  You'll see these at every music store, yet at every music store I've worked at nobody can really give you a straight answer of what they're for.  Typically you'll get one of 2 answers: they're for ukuleles, or for bass.

 You want a soft sound on ukes.  But back in the the nascent days of the electric bass guitar, the notion of accepting the difference in sound from an upright double bass was not embraced.  The felt pick I believe was originally meant to NOT sound like a pick, but more like fingers.

 Which they do in a way.  The problem is that they immediately start shedding felt and make a mess.  For guitar it's a nice soft sound, but in both cases: I've never, ever encountered anyone using a felt pick. I've only seen someone buying one because I think they're not sure if they should have one or not.  In the studio they can be useful if someone plays bass with a pick but is having problems playing softly, without making a lot of...

PICK ATTACK NOISE an integral part of guitar sound.

 The standard celluloid/Fender plastic pick almost instantly gets a microscopically jagged edge that creates a raspy high frequency attack sound.

 The angle one puts on the pick can demphasize that, or enhance it.  For certain types of blues playing, exaggerating it adds an more brilliant and cutting initial sound associated with certain guitar players.

 From a playing stand point I hate them with a passion - they're almost getting worse and worse, more and more jagged, raspier and raspier.  They're effectively snagging on the string.  It's something that takes up a little bit of processing power that I don't want there.  But for some, it's part of "their" sound.

 The biggest downside is that THEY BREAK.  They'll split on the tip when you least expect.  You can use a "heavy", but they will still break.  So, snaggy feel, raspy sound, and they break.  BUT...

 ... they're the only pick that makes a proper pick-slide sound - and it's got to be a "medium" or "light" pick.  So, if you want to do those Tom Scholz Boston long pick slides you have to use one of these.  Because a nylon won't really do it, and a Tortex definitely sounds different and less satisfying.

The Tortex material iss great.  They last an order of magnitude longer than a celluloid pick.  Not only that, but as they wear down they basically sound the same, except as the tip gets more blunted you get a more pronounced attack.  They don't break.  They're superior in all ways, except one - they sound silly doing pick slides.

  Nylon picks are kind of halfway between the Tortex and celluloid.  When new they have the least pick attack noise, very smooth feel on the strings.  As they wear in they get a little bit raspy, a little bit less smooth - but nothing like a celluloid pick.

 They have an additional property of being a little bit softer, which for the thinner varieties means some people actually bend them in their grip.  The super thin Tortex picks will do this as well, but with the nylon it facilitates changing the angle of attack which alters the sound - Tortex has a very wide window of "normal sound", it's hard to make them sound excessively raspy even for effect.

 Nylon picks will break, but it's like guitar strings - you don't need to expect it.

Metal of course lasts the longest.  The problem is that the thinner ones cannot sound soft, and all of them have a specific "tinkly" attack sound that some like, some hate.  The biggest downside is that they quite rapidly destroy the wound strings; and you'll get string shavings all over your guitar and into your pickups, and that can be a big problem.  If you have a string endorsement and a roadie to change them constantly, it's maybe not as big of a problem?  Also know that the copper picks will stain your fingers green, and you're probably absorbing a considerable amount of it.

 Delrin, and the outlier plastics - they're a mish-mash of disadvantages over the above.  The Ultex material has a specifically raspy quality that I presume is what tortoise shell sounds like (I've never used one, thankfully that stopped being a thing in the 70's).  It's kind of like Tortex with the snaggy/rasp of celluloid, but a specific high frequency rasp that is a bit more forgiving than celluloid.  If one likes that scratchy pick attack sound, but doesn't want to bother with learning to manipulate it this would be the pick to get.  It's more forgiving, lasts 10x longer than celluloid.

STONE - pretty self explanatory.  Thicker, scratchier, destroys strings, makes strumming feel weird and playing smoothly a more random event.


 The tip determines the sound.  The stereotypical shape is "neutral" sounding.  You can also get pointier tips, which translates less energy into the string, or blunter (pre-worn out?).  Some people will use the side, the "hip" of the pick either for the sound, or because it seems faster (because of the shallower angle of attack).

 There are also all sorts of goofy things, picks with multiple tips, fanned tips, the oddball Dunlop brand "shark" picks that, again, people can't really explain the why of, and the new trend of really odd thicker-at-the-tip picks that some Obscure Metal guys prefer.

 There was also in the 80's a very strange pick, whose name I don't recall, that was nylon but had a diamond-shaped knob on the tip.  It's purpose was to force you to be hyper-careful, otherwise the pick would snag, literally get hooked up on the string.  It worked if you were patient enough to use it - but redundant if you can make yourself practice picking that carefully in the first place!

  Coins: 2 very famous guys are known for using coins.  Brian May of Queen, the British sixpence.  Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. top, a Mexican peso.  Gibbons stopped using a peso a long time ago I believe, but Brian May used one his entire career.  The serrated edge of some picks make a very exaggerated rasp on the attack (listen to any Queen guitar solo for the characteristic squeak), while the round shape has a very specific loose feel.  You can try using a quarter, but remember it's metal: you'll quickly destroy your wound strings.  Gibbons and May are imbued with the magical Endless Supply of Guitar Strings as well as The Guy That Automatically Just Changes the Strings When Needed on Your Guitars.  Imagine that....

 Size.  There is the "regular" traditional Fender/Herco shape.  There is the smaller "Dunlop Jazz II/III" size, usually with a pointy tip.  There is the Oddball 3 Sided Triangle that is awful but apparently popular as "bass picks" in the 70's; maybe for cavemen players that would break celluloid picks so fast they preferred having the convenience of "3 picks in one" over the completely anti-ergonomic shape, and weird string feel?  There are some picks with thicker areas where you hold them, holes in the middle.

It's interesting how the edge has these "gigantic" clumps of abraded material.  I'd guess this is what goes away with the "carpet smoothing trick"?  (Again, thanks to Dave Burke for the electron microscopy!  It's great knowing visually what something *feels* like, and it's interesting how it matches how I imagined it!)

 I presently use a medium-ish nylon regular sized pick, which I get in bulk from China.  I prefer something like an .88mm (medium-ish) Tortex in the "jumbo jazz" size/shape (which means a pointy tip but regular size).  The "jazz", pointy tip makes a thicker pick sound like a thinner pick - less attack - if you can control it, and raspier like a celluloid pick if you rotate it slightly.  If you grip tighter it makes the attack more pronounced, which is good when you play "fast" for note definition - if you want that.  I'd prefer a pointy tip in nylon if there was such a thing, and cheap.  I use the nylon picks as a compromise, because they're relatively cheap: when they start getting worn down I'm not in a mind set of  "I can still use this pick, I can't waste".  I ditch them before they get to the "might split" phase.

 I propose a pick with a Tortex jazz-tip encased in celluloid.  As the celluloid rapidly wears away the Tortex pick is "unveiled"; but if you wanted the "scritchy" celluloid sound you'd still have it by digging the pick in deeper or rotating onto what was still there of the celluloid.  It wouldn't break and would still be usable even as the celluloid wore away.  I'm not sure if celluloid plastic can be bonded to Zytel, though... hmm, I need to email a friend in N.C. that is a plastics engineer?

 There are always fingers, and for some reason today I'm getting more people that want to insist on using just their fingers.  Which makes sense if you're going to EXCLUSIVELY play nylon string guitars and classical music.  Otherwise - you've got to use a pick!

I spotted a virion instantly in this image; my germ radar is well tuned, but I guess not enough hand sanitizer that day..?