How much difference do construction methods make to the sound of an electric guitar?

Do you remember that scene from Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” where Brian goes up to a group of people at the gladiatorial games and asks:

Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?”

If you’ve seen the film (and if not, why not?) then you’ll remember the reply…

F*%K OFF! We’re the People’s Front of Judea, mate!”

What this illustrates is that there is no difference too trivial for folks to get upset with each other about. The same is true in guitar circles. Simply Google the term “tone wood” and you will, in all likelihood, be directed to any one of dozens of sites where the debate rages… swamp ash makes the best strat bodies, and basswood sounds like crap… a Les Paul with an ebony fretboard MUST sound different from one with a rosewood board… etc. etc.

Some say that a guitar made from plywood will/will not sound totally different to one made from kiln dried Honduran mahogany, or that a coat of lacquer on a guitar does/doesn’t kill the sound (pick a side). These disagreements often happen in the most vociferous manner. Name calling ensues, forum admin get involved and people who SHOULD share a common interest (the guitar) end up making enemies of each other. How VERY sad.

Bearing all that in mind, I thought I’d join the debate. One of my favourite guitars is a cheap & cheerful Les Paul copy by Harley Benton. Now, I HAVE owned a “real” Les Paul or two in my time, so I DO have a benchmark to judge it against. This little Chinese made knock off is as good as any USA built Gibson. And I am 100% right about that! I can say this because whether ANY musical instrument sounds good or not is a matter of personal taste. Unless there is scientific evidence (and we’ll return to that point later), it all comes down to one question: Do I like the sound this guitar makes and is it comfortable to play? If the answer is “yes” then you have a good guitar on your hands, even if it’s a cheap knock-off. If the answer is “no” then you don’t… even if it cost you the same as a small car.

When you look at the construction methods employed by the “boutique” guitar makers and how they differ from the instruments made in the far east you’ll begin to see why anything with “Made In The USA” stamped on it costs so much more:

Methods Of Guitar Construction

The question is, though, does any of this make a difference to the sound? Well, in my experience, I just don’t think it does. As I say, my little £120 Harley Benton sounds (to my ears) just as “Les-Paul” like as either of my Gibsons ever did. Judge for yourself here (I’ll tell you which guitar was which at the end of this post):

http://geetarjohnny.fileburst.com/blog/LP%20comparison.mp3

This is my Harley Benton in a direct comparison with a USA Les Paul. Sure there ARE differences in the sound, but no more so than you would expect between even two “identical” guitars from the same company – certainly not the kind of difference that would suggest nearly a £1000 difference in price.

So, here’s an idea… let’s prove it one way or t’other. Here’s how it could be done:

  • Get a statistically significant group of guitarists in a big venue… say 500 or so in a theatre.

  • On the stage, behind a curtain, have a guitarist who will play the sample guitars.

  • Blindfold the guitarist and get them to play, in turn, a selection of guitars from “boutique” makers and a similar selection of “cheap knock-offs”.

  • Poll the audience of guitarists to see how many correctly identified the expensive guitars.

  • If a clear majority of the listeners (more than would be likely to do so simply by guessing) get it right, it proves the case for expensive guitars.

The reason for blindfolding the guitarist is to make this a proper “double blind” trial. If someone knows they are playing a top shelf guitar, this may influence how they play.

OK, you might say… but surely the guitarist will be able to tell by the feel. Well, yes, maybe. But in my experience even a cheap guitar (if properly set up) can play like a million dollars, so we’ll just make sure we’re using instruments that are correctly adjusted & set up for optimum performance, admittedly an area often lacking in budget guitars – so we’ll take that out of the equation.

And yes… I have seen the “Squier vs Custom Shop Fender” and “Epiphone vs Gibson” “blindfold tests” on YouTube by Rob Chapman & Lee Anderton (Chappers & The Captain). But they’re hardly conducted under proper scientific conditions & crucially, the audience (ie the viewer) can SEE what guitar is being used, which kind of makes the result null & void, to my mind.

So… here’s a challenge. Companies like Gibson & PRS easily have the resources to set up this kind of trial and settle the matter once and for all. I can’t believe I’m the first person to come up with this idea, so why hasn’t it been done? Maybe it would prove them right and me wrong… and I will have learned something. But maybe… just maybe they’re nervous that the result might not back up their marketing claims. Expensive guitars being made using expensive processes with expensive materials sound better? Prove it!

Until next time,

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

Twitter: @JrobsonGuitar

P.S. Guitar 1 = Gibson Les Paul/Guitar 2 = Harley Benton copy

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The Cheapest Guitar I Ever Bought

The cheapest guitar I ever bought was a Woolworths Top Twenty in the late 1970s. It cost me £25.00 from the classified ads in the local paper. Well… I think I’ve just beaten that record, even allowing for inflation. Here’s the story:

Don’t forget to check in on Monday morning for the 2nd in the series of “Lick of the Week” by the way.

Until then,

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

James Bragg Guitars

Back On Air!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that last year I had a little dalliance with radio broadcasting. I presented a show on a local community station in Redcar (Palace FM). It began as a mid-week lunchtime slot, and then I was offered the chance to co-host the Friday evening drive show. Before long I was also presenting a late night jazz programme too. Sadly the station closed down due to technical problems which needed more money to fix than the station could afford.

Undaunted, I decided to set up my own online radio station, Guitar-FM. I had a roster of presenters who sent me their shows which I then uploaded to the server of the hosting company. Sadly, this venture, whilst immensely enjoyable, proved short lived. The problem was that the station sounded too professional & the company hosting it insisted that if I wanted to continue running a “serious” station I would need to upgrade to a pro-grade hosting package, which was beyond my means.

The only other alternative (or so I thought) was to do what many people do and just podcast my shows, without the relevant licences to cover copyright etc., and just hope for the best. Being a musician myself, I baulked at this – if us musicians want to earn a living at our craft then it is beholden upon everyone in the broadcasting industry to pay for the right to use the music they play. So, that was that… broadcasting was something I had enjoyed but now it’s over… well, not quite.

In what I thought would be a futile gesture, I posted a message on an online broadcasting forum (forum.internet-radio.com) pitching a show idea. I never imagined anything would come of it, but, guess what? It worked! Within 24 hours my show had been picked up by GlobalMediaCompany.co.uk who wanted it for their ultimate-radio.com service. The show is a 2 hour 70s themed nostalgia show featuring all the great (as well as some of the “not-so-great”) music from the 1970s. In addition to the music there is a weekly round-up of what was in the news in the seventies and a regular slot dedicated to re-living the TV highlights from that decade – essentially it’s like climbing into a TARDIS and travelling back to the heart of the 1970s!

I decided to call the show “The Hitch Hikers Guide To The 70s” (I’m a bit of a Douglas Adams fan, too you see) and it’s on every Sunday evening at 8pm (UK time) HERE. Why not drop by as the weekend draws to a close and check it out. If you miss a show, then you can check out a shorter version of it, on demand, at RYARA RADIO, a service run by a couple of my old colleagues at Palace FM. Whilst you’re there you can listen to some of the other excellent content made by Ryara Radio, including and alternative 60s music show, a rockabilly themed programme & topical discussion shows. If you fancy having a go at making your own radio show, then why not get in touch with the guys at Ryara who are always on the lookout for new on-air talent. No experience is necessary, just a keen enthusiasm for the music you want to play and talk about. I promise you this… once the radio bug bites, it doesn’t let go – you’ll be hooked 🙂

Anyway, back to more guitar-centric stuff next time, so until them… Have FUN!

 

The John Robson Jazz Project

John Robson guitar Tuition

The Birth of a New Radio Station

Regular readers of this blog will know that in that past few months I’ve been working at a local community radio station, Palace FM. I won’t bore you with the details here, but recently it looked very much like the future of the station was in doubt. Thankfully all that has been resolved now, but whilst everything was in limbo, I decided that the radio bug had well & truly bitten me and that even if it meant launching my own station, I wasn’t going to give up.

I looked into it and discovered it was surprisingly easy to launch an online radio station. There are two basic routes. The most user friendly way is to use a service called Live365. All you do is pay a small monthly fee to cover the cost of playing copyrighted material, upload your music to the Live365 server, hit the “go” button and you’re on air. There are drawbacks though… First of all the monthly fee you pay is dependent on the number of concurrent listeners you have. A basic package can be had quite cheaply, but this only allows you to have a maximum of fifteen people tuning in at any one time – there’s no limit on the total number of listeners, but only a paltry few can listen simultaneously.

The main competitor to Live365 is not so much a company, but a whole industry standard. There is a platform offered by many operators called Shoutcast. This is a way of turning your home PC into a server from which you stream your music & content live to the web. After much searching I found a company called Voscast who use the Shoutcast platform, but also allow you to upload content to their AutoDJ service. This fulfils the same basic function as Live365’s auto streaming service, but to an unlimited number of listeners. This, then, is how my new station will be broadcasting.

The station will be called Guitar-FM and will be playing pretty much any style of music with a strong guitar focus. Obviously this will include a lot of rock and metal (both modern & classic stuff), but there’s also going to be jazz, folk, blues & classical genres too. Sometimes all of this in the same show. Yes, that’s right… there will be actual shows! This is NOT going to be just a way of me streaming the contents of my iPod to the world wide web with no speech content. I’m currently putting together a schedule which will include themed shows in most genres of music which feature the guitar. There’s also going to be some factual programming – shows about the history of the guitar, or how certain styles of guitar-focussed music developed. The sort of programming that BBC Radio1 used to put out on Saturday afternoons in the late ’80s/early ’90s if anyone remembers that?

This brings me to the main point of this blog… Does anyone out there fancy hosting their own show on Guitar-FM? You don’t need any broadcasting experience, just a keen enthusiasm for the guitar and the desire to share it with the world at large. The way the station will work is that individual contributors will record their own show by importing their choices of music into something like Audacity & any half decent mic to do the voice track. These shows will then be uploaded to the Shoutcast AutoDJ service in mp3 format. Then the AutoDJ takes over and plays all the mp3s (including the shows which have been uploaded) in whatever order to whatever schedule that has been determined. There’s no need to worry about the big red “on air” light over the mic – it will all be pre recorded.

So, if you fancy giving it a go, then email me via my website and we can get your show organised. Don’t be shy! This is your chance to tell the world about your band, or your favourite music, or that album you love that no-one else seems to have heard of. It’s your platform to share your musical passion with the world. Not by posting about it on a forum, or on Facebook but by actually playing your music and speaking to people about it!

Oh, and Palace FM? The station is moving home to new premises and will be back on air with live programming in the next couple of weeks when I’ll be bringing a new show to the masses. More details on that in a future blog.

Until next time, Have fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

Going Loopy

Last week I wrote about the experience of going back out & gigging for the first time in a good few years. Just to recap, I’m playing in a duo called The Palace Buskers. We play a choice of classic rock ‘n roll, top 40 pop, some Commitments-style soul with the odd classic rock track thrown in for good measure. All this with just one guitar, a couple of vocals, a tambourine and not a backing track in sight. Needless to say there have had to be some compromises when it comes to making the arrangements work – gone are the big guitar solos & riff-heavy sections of some songs as these simply do not hold water with our rather sparse orchestration.

However, this week I treat myself to a new toy. I bought a TC Electronic “Ditto” looping pedal & I have to say that it has been a revelation. Here’s how I’m using it… Hit the record button as soon as we go into the verse immediately before an instrumental section, then hit “playback” at the beginning of the instrumental and it begins playing the chords back for me to solo over. No more just bashing out the chords, with a few “sus4” & other “twiddly bits” bolted on in lieu of a solo – now I can actually play a “proper” guitar break. What’s more, if I’m “in the zone” (as it were) and want to do an extended solo, the pedal will just keep going round & round until I’ve had enough and give the nod to the singer to come back in – a quick double-tap on the footswitch and it’s silenced.

Here is an example of me using the pedal in this way: This is the solo from our version of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” which begins, as described above, with the verse before my solo (there would obviously be some vocals over this section when we do it live). All I do is loop these chords under my solo & hey-presto I’m a lead guitarist. There are some compromises: for instance, because the pedal is before my amp modeller in the signal chain, I can’t go to a different preset on my preamp for a lead sound. This would also affect the chords being played by the looper pedal if I were to do so. However, regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to use just one sound anyway & vary my lead/rhythm tones via the pickup selector & guitar volume control, so it’s no big hardship. This new found ability to play some lead guitar in the songs which need it makes the pedal worth the eighty five quid I paid for it.

Another way in which I’m finding it useful is for those songs which are essentially just the same three or four chords played over & over. For example, we play Amy MacDonald’s “This Is The Life” which goes C#m to A to E to G#m in a continuous loop for the entire song. All I do here is play the sequence into the pedal in a basic strummy fashion, which then allows me to put all kinds of other textures on top… a riff on the bass strings; a harmony part for that riff; a ska-style chord stab to accentuate the “two” & “four” in each bar; some power chords to fatten up the chorus etc. etc. Holding down the footswitch for a couple of seconds also activates an “undo” function on whatever was added in the most recent layer, so as well as building up the layers, I can remove them too. This allows me to create dynamic variation. Hold the switch down again in the same way & it re-introduces the part previously “undone”.

Here is a quick demo, about a minute in length, that I did within half an hour of getting the pedal out of its box. The only trouble I’m having with this wonderfully intuitive piece of kit is stopping myself from adding more layers than the song needs & making everything sound too “busy” – something which happened on this demo, hence the fade out before it all got out of hand.

I know that some folks reading this will be thinking “So what? I’ve been using a looper pedal for years” & if that’s the case, then forgive me for making such a big hoo-ha about it. Just try to recall that excitement you felt the last time you got a new piece of equipment which sparked your creativity and made you play in a more thoughtful way, and you’ll know where I’m coming from.

Until next time, have fun (I certainly am!)

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

First Gig With The Palace Buskers – Sometimes Simplest Is Best

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I was going back out gigging again after a hiatus of a good few years. Well, last night was the first gig with my new live venture, The Palace Buskers. Briefly, to recap, I do a couple of shows each week on a local community radio station in Redcar, PalaceFM. On one of these shows I play guitar whilst my co-host, Dee sings. It’s a sort of “live lounge” type thing, basically. Well, to cut a long story short, we decided to take the songs we’d learned for the radio performances out on the road.

I must admit I was a bit nervous about how it would go down – no backing tracks or any sequenced drums, no bass… nothing but guitar & vocals. Would the audience (and more importantly the landlord who was paying us) feel short changed by the stripped down nature of our set? Well, I can reveal that I was worrying over nothing (or “nowt” as we say in these parts). We kicked off with a soul medley of “I Can’t Stand The Rain/River Deep Mountain High/Midnight hour, with me strumming out the necessary barre chords on a strat (plugged into an amp modeller, straight into the desk), and Dee belting out the vocals. As I hit the final chord of the opening medley, the pub erupted into applause with cheers & hollers coming from all parts of the (admittedly small – it was a Sunday night, after all) crowd.

Next song was Fairground Attraction’s “Perfect” which went, erm… perfectly. Again the crowd loved it & so the evening went on. Song after song went down brilliantly – no heckles, people visibly enjoying themselves even when I dusted off my vocal chords to sing “Whiskey In The Jar”. Barring the odd few mistakes (bound to happen on any 1st gig with a new set) which we covered pretty well, the night couldn’t have gone better & I enjoyed every minute. The venue, The Clarendon Hotel have rebooked us for a gig in early January too which is the truest test of how we did – a venue doesn’t rebook any act who they’re going to lose money giving a gig to.

Russ, the landlord, said what a fantastic change it was to have a live music night that wasn’t just a singer, or singers with karaoke backing tracks, “borderline miming” he called it. He praised our rawness and promised to spread the word on the pub grapevine so that we would more easily get a foot in the door with other venues in the area. Great news!

As you can probably tell, I’m on a bit of a high after this inaugural show & I’m already looking forward to the next one at another local pub, The Britannia Inn on Nov 3rd. What strikes me as being the most enjoyable thing about this new live act, that I’ve stumbled into, is the one thing I was worried may be a our Achilles heel – the lack of a “full band” sound either with drums & bass or backing tracks. It turns out that (surprise, surprise) audiences love live music and they love it all the more for being 100% live – a perceived weakness has actually turned out to be a strength. Also when there are only two people on stage, there is far less scope for things to go wrong (on a scale that the audience would notice, anyway). All in all I’m filled with optimism for The Palace Buskers – it may not be a way for me to showcase virtuoso guitar soling skills a la Satch & EVH (something I always used to try & squeeze into any song given half a chance), but I’m learning loads about making complex songs work with a minimalist arrangement, I’m having fun & I’m earning a few quid into the bargain. Happy Days!

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

Treading The Boards Again

Some time around the late 1990s I left the band I’d been playing with for a couple of years when it became apparent that our search for a new singer was going nowhere. The previous singer had been fired because of his reluctance to learn songs, show up at rehearsals, pitch in looking for gigs or help with the carting of equipment into/out of wherever we were playing – that particular mixture of prima donna aloofness coupled with bone-idleness often simply known as LSD (lead singer disease).

But I digress… the point is that I quit the band & then a load of stuff happened in my personal life. Getting married for a start, as well as taking on some new work teaching guitar in schools. I just didn’t have the time to go out & gig any more. You know what it’s like, once you get out of the habit of doing something, you soon lose the will to do it. Before I knew where I was I’d been out of the live music scene for ten years. I then made the mistake of trying to put together my “dream” band.

“The Sweeney” was a ’70s tribute band made up of myself, a guitar student of mine on rhythm guitar & vocals, plus the bass player from his old band & a drummer we picked up along the way. It did not go well – you know that band we’ve all been in? The one that takes six months in the practice room & is no tighter at the end of it than on day one? That was this band to a “T”. I was in a band with people who imagined it was acceptable to not return phone calls about availability for gigs; who thought it was perfectly OK to pitch up to the rehearsal having not learned any of their parts; who seemed perplexed at the idea that anyone (me) might be in any way hacked off at the general lack of courtesy shown. I eventually pulled the plug and walked away vowing to never get involved with playing live again – there was no way I needed the grief. Until…

I began working as a radio presenter at PalaceFM, a new community radio station in Redcar, the town I call home. The station manager there suggested that we do a “live lounge” slot on the Friday drive show. She plays the guitar and is one heck of a singer & we seemed to have an easy way of jamming together where we could tell what each other was going to do with the song almost intuitively. So now we’ve decided to take the whole thing out on the road. No backing tracks, as is often the way with duos, we’re just doing it naked (musically speaking). Just a couple of guitars, a couple of vocals, & maybe a bit of tambourine. And I have to say it is SO liberating!

For example I put together a bunch of rock ‘n roll tunes into a medley, but I was never really happy with the ending. So I changed it. Just like that. No having to worry about the drummer or bass player fluffing the newly arranged part, or fretting about if what you think will work in your head will actually hang together when the full band gets their hands on it – I effectively am the full band & if it works when I’m playing it on the sofa in front of the TV, then I know it’ll work at the next gig. Myself & Dee (aforementioned station manager at PalaceFM & singer in this little enterprise) have been rehearsing for only a couple of weeks & now we’ve got the full set pretty much in the can. How many bands have you been in which have got their act together (in a literal sense) that quickly?

Yes, there are compromises to be made – a single guitar (or maybe two) is never going to sound as full as a “proper” band, but I’m loving the challenges involved in making each song work as a solo guitar accompaniment. Usually it’s a case of having to figure out what to do when the singing stops & the guitar solo kicks in. You can’t just launch into a blazing bit of lead guitar with no chords or even a bass line behind you. No, you have to try and hint at the chord sequence by letting open string drones hang underneath little double-stop based instrumental parts which give the whole thing a bit of shape beyond just some “campfire” chord strumming, which you can get away with behind the vocals. Here is an example of what I’m talking about, this is the famous riff from Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over The World”. Finding ways like this of keeping some kind of melodic content going whilst bashing out an accompaniment at the same time is a skill I’ve never really used before & I’m having to learn as I go. For the first time in ages, being a gigging musician has fired up my imagination, I’m learning new skills and I’m having fun. Which is how I remember it being all those years ago before I allowed myself to become so jaded. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks, it seems.

Oh, I almost forgot… The duo is called “The Palace Buskers” & you can hear a roughly put together demo showing off Dee’s fantastic vocals here.

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching