Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - November 2019

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Mistakes Were Made: How Not To Order a Custom Suhr Guitar

 One of the biggest of many mistakes I've made was when I ordered my Suhr guitar back in the pleistocene epoch!

Not a Suhr.  Kit guitar body for "the ultra-light guitar lessons over-the-shoulder for 5+ hours a day project".
 Horrid with no clear coat (yet).

 I was in a position where my present "daily driver" was in bad shape, needed new frets badly.  My #2 had become my go-to guitar because of that, and it too had gotten pretty bad fret wise.

 Tired of refretting, or getting bad refret jobs, an opportunity came in which to order a custom guitar from John Suhr, who was about to establish himself as the pre-eminent electric guitar builder (for various reasons).  He also came from the environs of the Usenet newsgroup in the nascent days of the internet; he was a "real" person I routinely saw online.  Unlike Tom Anderson, James Tyler and some other great builders. 

 I thought I had reached a nexus point, time to step it up a notch.  I had to sell my clean amp in my 2 amp set up, some pedals, another guitar - and then desperately saved for a month while I was already on a ramen-noodles diet budget.


 1) I was too intimidated by the investment I was making to order what I should have.
 What I mean by that is that I was too conservative.  All of the guitars I'd liked the sound of were very light.  My favorite sounding guitar was ironically a basswood '83 Squier Strat - that weighs nothing.

 Basswood had/has a bad rep back then.  Ibanez RG's were made out of it, and it was associated with shrill metal tones.  Those were the only guitars I had experience in basswood with at the time really, and my strat, which I considered a fluke.

 So I ordered a "light weight swamp ash" (that's actually fairly heavy).  A good, kind of safe choice.  And it sounds kind of good and safe.  I should have taken my chances with basswood, modern prejudices aside. Today I'm wondering what roasted/torrified basswood sounds like.

 2)  Another aspect of the above is that I chose black.  Like Darth Vader black.  Plain black.  My mindset was again, it's safe - I knew I would at least like it, if I didn't love it.  It's a great, thin finish, one thing that's cool about the guitar is that finish is starting to shrink and the grain of the body is starting to be evident.  Nice. 


 When I was a little kid I was massively into building plastic model kits.  As part of that I begged my parents into getting me a cheapy Badger air brush, and I proceeded to try to make versions of what had been a fad in the early 70's, Kustom Van Paint Jobs.  Candy colors, AND special manipulations of metallic paints - drips, and "freak drops".  I painted my bike this way, and numerous skateboards.  Later as I got into skateboarding more seriously, a friend's father ran a car paint shop - and I was always envious of the the crazy but pro Kustom Van Paint Jobs he'd have on his boards.

 John had just started offering drips, but I was reticent; I was a bit more, and how do I know I would like it?

 I would have loved it.

 Most importantly though, here's the big mistake: while I appreciate insanely figure maple drop tops, I'm not super fond of them for myself.  A number of students have ordered Suhrs on my recommendation with nice tops - because of this mistake:



 I should have gone with a root beer drip, or what I now realize has been my favorite color since I saw something similar on a motorcycle as a 5 year old: arancio borealis metallic orange, now a Lamborghini color.  Anrancio borealis drip.  Yep.  I should have done that.

 To the reader of this, if in a similar predicament: get a crazy drop top, or a "crazy" paint job!

 What's really dumb is that I was known for always playing put together part guitars, most of which had crazy paint schemes (metallic drips...) or stickers.  None looked *nice*, however.  Had I gotten a Suhr with a metallic drip it would have been another story.

 3) I ordered a Floyd Rose on it.  

I swore off locking trems about 10 years ago.

 I'd think "this is an aspect of what I've learned from my John Coltrane/Branford Marsalis with Sting sax phase".  Unfortunately that's also what Allan Holdsworth was thinking, and another ultra favorite of mine - David Gilmour, who now has actually played sax on one of his solo records.

 I'm influenced by both of them but hated hearing someone reference either if I use the bar, or why I had it.  So I just stopped using it.  I may return to it one day, but for now I'm back to vintage spacing Strat bridges. 

 So the best playing guitar I have, that sounds good and I paid a lot for had an entirely wrong bridge as I see it in the year 2019.  Great.  But the neck is spectacular, but in need of new frets. Oh well  Not that I could have predicted I'd decide this at the time, but never the less - there it sits, next to a kit guitar backup with similar accoutrements. 

 Now I record mostly with .... the aforementioned basswood Squier Strat.  Whose neck my Suhr is partially shaped after.  Dumb.

 While I couldn't have predicted Mistake #3, #1 and #2 were dumb and I regret.  I find myself giving a variation of this spiel to a student or 2 every year when they ask about getting a Suhr, and thought I should put it here in case someone else is about to make a similar mistake.


 Seems obvious, doesn't it?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"... Two EEs Walk Into a Bar, and..."

 I've just wasted time reading a Gearslutz thread-war regarding IRs (impulse response).   

 Briefly, if you don't know what an IR is: an impulse response is a data file of  the "captured" transform characteristics of a signal through a device.

 In other words, the math behind what happens to a signal when it is changed by running it through a device.  In the guitar idioms, through an amp or more specifically, a speaker cabinet+microphone+microphone preamp.  You do a process involving running a test tone through the speaker, recording it on the computer, converting it to an IR file.  You then apply it in different software to replicate what the speaker does to the output signal of a guitar amp to replicate its sound without having to play at a loud volume.

 Most "amp modelers" use this technology called "convolution" math.  Some use it to replicate different points of the circuit of an amp as well as the speaker, others just the aggregate result.

  On Gearslutz it's the usual argument, "can you tell a difference?", in another thread "are they ok or not?", a classic battle in the vein of digital vs. analog, records vs. CD, MP3 vs. lossless.

 The problem is that it seems nobody is paying any attention to the application differences, while also ignoring reality.

 Reality is that an IR does nearly perfectly capture a snapshot in time of *one state* of what an amplifier or speaker does to a signal. Without a doubt, if one bashes an open A chord through a guitar rig and it's captured with an IR, if you play the open A chord the same way through the IR it will be indistinguishable. 

Stray from playing that open A the same way, you'll also stray from the identical results.  How much will depend on how stressed the speaker was initially, and how much air loading was happening inside the cabinet.  This is also discounting the electrical non-linearities of the amplifier to speaker combination.

  What that means is this:

 If you're playing guitar with a constant, steady-state signal a speaker IR works great.  What means is that if you're playing modern metal with a very compressed (non-dynamic) amp sound, AND you don't want the sound of a speaker and cabinet being killed with volume, it can work great. 

 Or if you're playing non-dynamic, clean guitar sound based music - like modern pop-country music.  It works maybe a little less well in this case, because often there are passages where the instantaneous level deviates greatly on the "twangy" attack character of some sounds.  It's still plenty convincing for live use.

 Where IRs start to fail is when the input signal varies drastically.  This happens in blues-based music.

 Blues based music is rife with multi-levels of dynamics, where chords or notes are struck differently, to emphasis a change in tonal character. This is typically done with the awareness of the historical context of "classic loud guitar sounds" - which involves a fair amount of speakers behaving erratically and non-linearly relative to the input.

 Furthermore, a lot of that historical context involves recordings with a fair amount of ROOM AMBIENCE.

 What it comes down to is that if you try to play "Since I've Been Loving You" by Zeppelin, with it's hyper-delicate and soft, guitar-volume turned down and light touch morphing to a hard-hitting loud sound through an IR, it doesn't sound identical.

 Because the IR only perfectly captures the speaker in one state, the volume at which the IR was recorded at. 



 Impulse responses only takes a snapshot of one state of the speaker, one state of the room.  If you match that perfectly you get perfect results.  Otherwise, you're in an Uncanny Valley scenario.

 People that choose to enter into this "argument" while ignoring that the application, the GUITAR SOUND has everything to do with the results.  For some things it's fine.  For others it's a degree of "almost there". 

 In the thread I'm thinking about there are 2 guys, one with a million dollar studio, both with electrical engineering degrees.  They're going back and forth on the following 2 truths:

A) In perfect steady state situations, IRs create identical results as the captured hardware creates.

B) In non-steady states situations, the results are not perfect.

 It's alienating to me that 2 people that should be educated well enough to realize there ISN'T a dichotomy there, will present A or B as a mutually exclusive premise. 

"... but listen, you can't hear the difference!" (in a perfect clinical example with identical input signals)

"... but listen, it doesn't sound anything like a real speaker cabinet! (under non-clinical, multi-variate state input signals)

 This is a fundamentally basic thing to grasp, but apparently nobody does, and everyone is willing to expend enormous amounts of energy arguing that A or B negates the other.  This shouldn't be a high i.q. thing, but simple observation of reality.  Yet I haven't seen, ever, a cogent and self aware evaluation of the upsides and downsides to the digital vs. analog guitar amp argument.

 In certain specific scenarios digital works well, and in some cases it's a much better choice than analog.  However, it doesn't cover all scenarios that an analog arrangement can occupy.  

 So please, world: stop "demonstrating" amp modelers by just bashing out chords with a lot of distortion through a close-miced speaker IR.  You need to demonstrate different dynamics on the input, with different registers: low chords, high chords, low notes, high notes, complex chords all at different volumes.

 You're not going to get the non-linear mechanical effects of the speaker cone distorting, or a cabinet that is being pummeled by pressure into extreme resonant ringing, or the spectral shifts of low to high volume. It's not going to feedback the same. An IR CANNOT DO THAT. 

 But you probably don't *need* that unless you're trying to replicate a Hendrix, Page, Jeff Beck or VanHalen live recording. 

 Yes, modeling amps will do a great job matching certain sounds at a specific input structure.  They'll fail on other things - but it may not matter based on what music you play.

 It also is a better option if you have to make compromises because of volume or lack of the best selection of gear in the analog domain.  

 It's funny to hear people knocking digital amps when they only have a small, ersatz variation on some sort of Big Classic Tube Amplifier than they can't play at the crazy volumes their favorite recordings were made at.  Or conversely, people who play very steady state compressed metal insist digital amps are perfect, who never do anything that requires a finessed and dynamic touch that creates a signal of many varying tonal inflections at different levels.

STOP MAKING NON-SEQUITER ARGUMENTS!  Creating a dichotomy out of presenting a single hypothesis doesn't mean you're finished with your thesis.  That's not being scientific.  It's just being ignorant, and this kind of presumed exclusionary single hypothesis basis for everything is wrecking modern society.  Seldom will a problem consist of a single parameter.  Digital amps vs. analog is not a single parameter topic.