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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Sat, 05 Aug 2017

These are the guitar strings I'm using right now

These are the guitar strings I'm using right now.

On the Gibson ES-175 electric archtop, I'm moving away from flatwounds for the first time. At least three players I admire, Pat Metheny, Joshua Breakstone and Bruce Forman (all links go to their string choices), are using roundwounds on their archtop guitars.

You do get some finger squeaks, but the sound of the lower four wound strings is much clearer. I guess you can say it's more defined -- less "smoky" maybe. Whatever you call it. The guitar is sounding better. (in case you were wondering, my flatwounds of choice were D'Addario Chromes -- the .013 set, and I usually replaced the higher two strings -- the .013 and .017 -- with an .014 and .018).

I'm using the .013 set of Ernie Ball Nickel Wound strings -- the pack with the eagle on it. I'm also sticking with the .013 and .017 in the set instead of opting for the slightly heavier replacement strings:

On my Fender guitar, a 1979 Lead I (though for some reason the serial number says it's a 1981), I actually used D'Addario Chromes flatwounds -- the .012 set -- for a long time. Way back in the past, I used .010 and .011 roundwound sets: Ernie Ball Slinkys, GHS Nickel Rockers (before I knew there was a difference between pure nickel and nickel-plated steel).

The .012 flatwounds were definitely too big for the nut on the lower couple of strings, though the extra tension didn't affect the neck at all. That 1970s Fender neck is a single piece of maple with no added fretboard and a skunk stripe behind it to cover the truss rod, and it's super strong. I have never needed to adjust the truss rod.

I wanted something slightly lighter. Strings that would fit in the nut slots without any filing, and a clearer, less-boomy, more defined low end.

I picked up a set of Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings, which start with a .011 high E and tend to run slightly lighter in the lower strings than the usual .011 set.

The strings have been great. Returning to roundwounds on both my Gibson and Fender is like I'm playing two new guitars. You can change your sound so much just by changing strings and picks -- two of the cheapest things in the guitar world.

Slinkys are nickel-plated steel, and I do have a set of this same gauge made with pure nickel windings called Slinky Classics. Pure nickel is supposed to be more subtle than nickel-plated steel. Maybe they'll sound better. But I like this current Ernie Ball Slinky set so much, I don't want to make the change.

I don't need a .052 or .054 for the low E (like Ernie Ball's Skinny Top Heavy Bottom and Beefy Slinkys), and this set is balanced very well for what I want.

Here's what the Ernie Ball set looks like:

My Yamaha flattop guitar -- it's probably 5 years old at this point -- has a solid top and is a "solid" guitar all around. It's put together very well and is pretty tough.

The guitar shipped with Yamaha's own custom-gauged set of .012s -- roughly equivalent to light-gauge strings. I think the strings were phosphor bronze, which tend to have a longer life.

I probably should have stuck with .012s when I changed the strings, but I decided to go up to a medium-gauge set that begins with a .013. I went for Ernie Ball Earthwood 80/20 bronze strings.

They sound amazing, and they're cheap enough that I don't mind changing them sooner.

This was my first time changing flattop strings. I've changed strings on electric and classical guitars hundreds of times -- I even do the thing where you tie the nylon strings to the bridge.

But bridge pins? I was a bridge pin virgin. I had the bridge-pin puller on the end of my string winder. One of the pins popped out with such force that it hit the ceiling. After that I made sure to block the path with my hand. I did have one of the pins edge out a bit after I tightened the string up. But I got it done.

I'm not a fan of bridge pins. It's just the tension of the pin and the angle of the string tension holding everything together. I'd prefer an archtop tailpiece. That I can deal with.

I also had to crank the truss rod quite a few turns after I replaced the .012s with .013s. I started with quarter turns, but I had to keep cranking and cranking, loosening the strings in between adjustments. I thing I have it right now. I got tired of cranking after awhile. It plays well and sounds great.

Here is my Ernie Ball Earthwood set:

So, what did I play today? I have been working on "How High the Moon," but today I worked on the chords for "Waltz for Debby." I'm very, very slow. That's what I'll say about it.S

I just tried Dunlop Ultraglide 65 String Cleaner and Conditioner

I got a bottle of Dunlop Ultraglide 65 String Cleaner and Conditioner and tried it today on my flattop strings, which happen to be an 80/20 bronze set from the Ernie Ball Earthwood line. The strings are not the most resistant to dirt and corrosion, and they are nowhere near so far gone that they need changing but weren't exactly out-of-the-package new.

The Dunlop 65 appears to be a very lemony oil, and it easily went on the strings with the spongy applicator, after which I wiped off the excess

The strings were cleaner, and a lot smoother. I definitely recommend this stuff. Clean strings aren't the worst thing, and this stuff makes it easy.

Back in the day I used to use rubbing alcohol to clean my strings. That can be drying, to say the least, if you get any on the wood of the neck, and it certainly doesn't make the strings feel smooth. This stuff from Dunlop is a lot better.

A bottle costs somewhere between $5 and $7 -- about the price of a set of strings. It's worth it.

Sat, 31 Dec 2016

The guitar is wood and strings and fingers

I found this picture of my 1976 Gibson ES-175 in my 2016 photo folder. I now remember taking it to show my new guitar-playing friend Dave Green what the guitar's pickguard looks like so he could compare it to his Japanese-made ES-175 copy.

Here you see much of the guitar's body. What pegs it as a 1970s Gibson archtop electric? It has chrome pickup covers and a chrome tailpiece (as opposed to nickel, which tends to age, albeit gracefully) and "witch hat" volume and tone knobs. The nickel covers -- made famous on the rare and pricey PAF (Patent Applied For) humbuckers -- tend to age, albeit gracefully. I believe Gibson introduced the "witch hat" knobs in the late 1960s. Earlier Gibson electrics came with "top hat" or speed knobs.

You can't see it here, but the neck is made of three pieces of maple (as opposed to a single piece of mahogany on earlier models) and includes the thickened "volute" near the nut, meant to strengthen the neck at the point where many Gibson's suffer from catastrophic breaks.

All three of those things contribute to neck strength: maple instead of mahogany, laminated instead of one piece, volute instead of no volute. The volute was unpopular and eventually discontinued. It doesn't bother me. I kind of like the "feel" of knowing I'm at the end of the neck.

The bridge on this guitar, for this year of production (1976) is a bit of an anomaly. It's a compensated rosewood bridge, the kind that Gibson had been using for decades on its archtop guitars, both acoustic and electric. I call it an anomaly because one of the changes Gibson made on the 1976 ES-175 is switching from the traditional wooden bridge to a metal Tune-O-Matic like you would find on a Les Paul or ES-335.

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Mon, 26 Dec 2016

A Chicago song I actually like

I've never been a big fan of Chicago, the band. I've heard this song before and had no idea it was by them. But I really like "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"

Sun, 30 Oct 2016

The Archtop.com "sold" list - a treasure trove of guitar history

You can learn a lot about archtop guitars by going through the "sold" archive at Archtop.com. You can see descriptions and photos of hundreds of actual instruments. It's a valuable historical and educational resource that is really helping me learn about Gibson archtop guitars. What's missing? The prices. For that you need to look at the current inventory list.

What makes these Archtop.com lists so valuable is that there are so many examples of real guitars that have sold. The measurements show how the various models changed from the 1920s and '30s to the present day. They could turn the archive into a book, and I'd buy it.

Mon, 26 Sep 2016

Video: Swing expert Jonathan Stout plays 'It's Only a Paper Moon' on a 1929 Gibson L-5 at Norman's Rare Guitars, and then I keep on writing ...

Swing guitarist Jonathan Stout lays out his philosophy on swing music, the guitar, Charlie Christian, Allan Reuss, REALLY old Gibsons and Epiphones, X-bracing vs. parallel bracing and more on his Swing Guitar Blog and Campus Five YouTube channel.

His latest video was recorded on another YouTube channel because he made it at Norman's Rare Guitars in Tarzana. where Jonathan plays Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon" on a 1929 Gibson L-5 acoustic.

Jonathan is a wonderful guitarist who explores three distinct "directions" on the guitar: swing rhythm on the acoustic archtop, swing-style chord-melody on the same instrument and Charlie Christian-style swing-to-bop soloing on the archtop electric.

They really are three different kinds of playing -- watch Jonathan's videos and see what I mean.

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Sun, 10 Apr 2016

Have you heard of Blankenship Amp Repair and ARS Electronics, both in Van Nuys?

I have to confess that I'd never heard of Blankenship Amp Repair and electronic tube seller ARS Electronics until just now. And both are in Van Nuys.

Ilene told me about her co-worker, a guitar collector, who bought an old Fender Super Reverb amp that might have been in a fire, but definitely didn't come with any of its four speakers.

He was taking the amp, or what was left of it, to Blankenship Amp Repair, where Roy Blankenship will fix your amp or make you a new one that's just like the old ones, only better (and with better parts). His clients include just about everybody in rock 'n' roll. To learn more about what Blankenship Amp Repair does, check out its Facebook page.

If you're more the do-it-yourself type, and need electronic tubes for anything from guitar amplifiers and vintage radios to broadcast transmitters, radar and x-ray machines and military equipment, ARS Electronics on De Celis Place near the Van Nuys Airport probably has it. They also sell connectors, speakers, capacitors (if it's old, the capacitors are probably bad, and you need new ones) and transformers.

Take a look at the ARS Electronics history and contact us pages. It looks like a great place to get just about anything made out of glass that glows and isn't a light bulb.

Sat, 14 Nov 2015

Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings on the Fender Lead I, plus musing on guitars in general

After years of using flatwounds (generally D'Addario Chromes beginning with a .012) on my Fender Lead I guitar, I decided to go light(er) and roundwound with a set of Ernie Ball Power Slinky nickel-wound strings (.011, .014, .018p, .028, .038, .048).

And I'm liking the sound and playability very much. While I like the feel of really heavy strings (I use D'Addario Chromes, the .013 set, with an .014 subbed for the high E and a .018 for the B string), I think those strings overwhelm the solidbody Fender guitar. Or least that's how I feel for the way I play it.

I really like the plain 3rd string, which contributes to the overall evenness of volume and tone.

Even with only a bridge humbucking pickup, the Lead I has a very wide tonal range, and I can easily dial in a good jazz sound.

So much depends on the way you have everything set up -- the knobs on the amp and guitar, the way you play it. I generally use a heavier touch and keep the volume lower.

As I say above, I've gravitated to really heavy strings, but now I'm thinking differently, and I really like this Ernie Ball set. The lower strings, and the low end of the instrument in general, have a lot less muddiness (and a lot more definition).

The guitar, which I've had since I bought it new in what I think was 1979 (but the serial number indicates 1980) is a nice, heavy instrument.

I've pondered "converting" it to a Lead II with two single-coil pickups. I even have a Lead II pickguard ready to go, but I've just never gotten around to that mod (I would need the pickups, pots and tone capacitor, and then I'd have to figure out the wiring).

I'm using the orange Roland Cube 60 amp that, like pretty much every electric guitar I've ever had, I purchased when I was in high school.

About the only guitar I've "let go" over the years was the nice handmade classical that I used during my time in the music program at CSUN. I can't even remember the name of the company, but it was a nice guitar. It had a cedar top -- you could really smell it. I'm more of a spruce-top person, so I'm not all that sorry I don't have it, but it was a very, very nice instrument, and I think I'd enjoy playing a well-made classical guitar built with really good wood.

Takeaway: Players of different kinds of music on the guitar think that they need a certain type of instrument, strings and amplifier to credibly make a certain kind of music. For jazz that seems to be an archtop guitar, heavy flatwound string and amps with a whole lot of headroom so you don't have to drive it too hard to get the volume you need. While I agree with the amp requirement, and I absolutely love the sound of an archtop guitar (both electric and acoustic), when it comes to strings (light, heavy, flatwound, roundwound) and even type of guitar (solidbody, flattop, classical, full archtop, archtop with bridge in a block of wood), there are plenty of viable, sonically rich options.

Note: The Ernie Ball strings image came from the Musician's Friend site. I used an iPod Touch to take the Fender Lead I and Roland Cube 60 photos. The sweet case that Ilene sewed for the iPod Touch can be seen next to the guitar.

Fri, 24 May 2013

Joe Pass: 'Summertime' (1992)

Here's a Joe Pass solo performance from late in his life. He's playing a custom ES-175 guitar that Gibson made for him and delivered to him in 1992, according to longtime friend and fellow guitarist John Pisano.

The guitar differs from stock ES-175 models in a few ways. It has a slightly thinner body, a single pickup in the neck position (which is like ES-175s with a single pickup, though "modern" ES175s usually are equipped with two pickups), an ebony fingerboard (instead of rosewood) and gold hardware instead of nickel (or chrome).

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Thu, 23 May 2013

Joe Pass: 'All the Things You Are'

This is the video I use when I'm testing systems to see how they deal with YouTube. The video is HTML5-ready, so it'll display in browsers on systems that don't have Flash installed or enabled.

It's a performance from late in Joe Pass' life, and it shows his way with a standard.