Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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Creating An Entire Solo From Just One Lick

Many guitarists get to the point where they’ve got a couple of scale patterns under their belt and/or learned a solo or two from TABs. The problem they’re then faced with is how to turn this knowledge into an ability to come up with a solo for themselves. This is what this lesson aims to help with.

One solo I use to introduce students to the world of pentatonic soloing is Noel Gallagher’s lead break from Oasis’ “Live Forever”. If you listen to the track, you’ll hear this lick at around 2:15…

001

Click HERE to hear this lick.

The scale being used here is the G major or E minor pentatonic, meaning that this lick will work in any situation where a G or Em chord is the focus of the chord progression you’re soloing over. Now, let’s use this simple phrase as the basis for building an entire solo.

So, where do we start? Well, timing is an important element in an effective solo and a good rule of thumb is to avoid playing the first note of your solo on beat 1 of bar 1 of your solo. It tends to work better if you begin either slightly before the start of the bar or slightly after. Take a listen to this example – to begin with I play the lick starting exactly on beat 1 of the 1st bar. I then play it again, but this time I start on beat 4 of the bar before & finally, I play exactly the same phrase beginning on the “and” of the 1st beat of the bar. Essentially, you’ve got the lick on beat 1, then a bit early, then a bit late. I think you’ll agree that the second two examples sound somehow “stronger” than the first one. Click HERE to listen.

OK, so let’s use the lick which begins on the “4” of the previous bar as our starting point. This (as you’ve heard) will sound pretty good. What next? Well why not repeat the lick? Using repetition like this will help to give your solo a sense of continuity. Click HERE to hear me play the same lick twice. Notice how, on the second time, I still play the first note of the lick on beat 4 of the bar… we’re going to keep that the same throughout the solo.

So that’s the first couple of phrases in place, what next? A trick I often use is to take a lick and play it backwards – it totally changes the sounds & feel of a lick. Click HERE to listen to the lick we’ve been using, played backwards, and here is the TAB.

002

Now, listen to the original lick, played twice, followed by the reversed lick, also played twice. Click HERE.

So far, so good – you’ve got an 8 bar solo out of one simple lick. But is there anything else we can do to make it sound a little more interesting? Well, as it happens… there is! All of these licks can be moved down 12 frets to the open string position (simply subtract 12 from all of the TAB numbers). You can ALWAYS do this… move a lick up or down 12 frets and it will stay the same – just a lower octave version of itself. Click HERE to hear me play the four licks (original + repeat followed by reversed lick + repeat) the same as I did in the last example. The only difference here is that I’m going to alternate between the open string position & the 12th fret. I think you’ll agree that this sounds particularly effective. Don’t worry if some of those open position bends are a little tricky – as you’ll hear on the next example, you can easily turn a 2 fret bend into a 2 fret slide… in fact that little bit of variation adds an extra texture to the solo.

Right… what else can we do? Well, let’s move away from our original lick a little bit by moving it onto a different pair of strings. In case you aren’t aware, the scale pattern we’re playing from is this one (notes used in lick shown in GREEN)

004

How about we move the lick from the 3rd & 4th strings onto the 2nd & 3rd strings – you can see from the diagram where the notes would be. That would make the original lick look something like this…

003

We can now do all the same tricks with this version of the lick that we did with the original one… reversing it, and moving it down to the open position. Click HERE to listen to a solo using these new ideas in addition to the previous ones.

This provides you with a great set or resources to conjure up a solo. For the purposes of keeping it easy to follow, I kept the licks pretty recognisable here, but you’re not restricted to that in the real world… why not take the end of one lick and graft it onto the beginning of another? Then you’ll have another lick that you can flip backwards and get even more mileage out of… the possibilities are endless! Couple this with the ability to move to other pentatonic patterns around the neck (get those shapes learned!) and a bit of note targeting & you will NEVER run out of licks to play. Click HERE to listen to a final example of me adding in all kinds of variations on what we’ve discussed here. All the licks have their origins in that initial Noel Gallagher phrase we began with… as promised at the start… an entire solo from just one lick!

Until next time…

Have fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

My Writing Process

When it comes to writing music, I will occasionally stumble across an idea when I’m just noodling away on the guitar. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. What normally happens is that I begin with an overall feeling or emotion I want to convey & go from there.

Knowing that minor chords sound sad & major chords sound happy is a good starting point, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can find more colours for the palate. Here’s what I mean…

Supposing I want a minor chord “sad” feeling for a piece: well I know that the aeolian mode will be good for expressing a sense of sorrow or loss; the phrygian mode is a good starting point for something a little darker; the harmonic minor scale adds an exotic touch to proceedings – there are all kinds of options for refining exactly what kind of minor/sad mood you want to create & the same is true for conjuring up something with a major chord/happy mood. Take a listen to the examples below to hear what I mean.

If the subject of modes is a closed book to you, then you can find an introduction to it HERE. All modes & scales have their own inherent moods. Here is a list of those that I use most often when writing with a description of how they sound to me:

Aeolian Mode – sad/angry (with a faster tempo)

 

Dorian Mode – still sad, due to the minor chord at it’s heart. But perhaps a little “sweeter” sounding than the aeolian. Good for jazz & blues riffs.

 

Phrygian Mode – Very “dark sounding”. The flat 9th in this mode creates real tension. Everything you can do with the aeolian mode is true of this one, but it just sounds a bit more intense.

 

The Harmonic Minor Scale – essentially just an aeolian mode with a raised 7th note. It somehow sounds a bit “eastern” & exotic.

 

The Neapolitan Minor Scale – basically a combination of the phrygian mode with the harmonic minor. Even more “snake charmer” sounding than the harmonic minor scale.

 

The Ionian Mode – sweet and melodic and easy on the ear. Easy to write beautiful music with this one. Perfect for conjuring up images of happy warm summer days.

 

The Lydian Mode – like the ionian, but that raised 4th note adds a touch of dissonance. It’s a happy scale, but with a slight edge to it.

 

The Mixolydian Mode – Because it’s based around the notes of a 7th chord, this is ideal for writing anything bluesy.

 

The Phrygian Dominant Mode – This is what you get if you take a harmonic minor scale and focus on it’s 5th note. A great scale for adding a touch of faux-flamenco to a piece. Sometimes also known as the “Spanish Phrygian” scale for this very reason.

 

The Lydian Dominant Mode – basically, a mixolydian mode (which sounds bluesy) with a raised 4th note (like the lydian mode). This adds that unsettling “madness” to it which is perfect for adding a touch of insanity to a blues riff. Best example of this mode in action is the Simpsons theme tune.

 

What’s even better is that you can mix these modes & scales in the same piece of music to combine their effects. Want to write a sad, dark sounding tune with a chorus which dispels this feeling like the sun coming out from behind a cloud? Easy… write your verse in the aeolian or phrygian modes, then go to the ionian mode for the chorus.

The relative sound of each mode is also something to take into account – for example, if you go from the ionian mode into the mixolydian, then the mixolydian will sound somehow “darker” by comparison. However, go to the mixolydian mode from (say) the phrygian or harmonic minor, it will sound comparatively brighter and more “up-beat”. Like an artist choosing colours, the effect of a colour (in this case, a mode or scale) can be influenced immensely  by what it is placed next to.

There are other scales & modes that I haven’t mentioned here and they all have their own unique flavours… the whole tone scale; the diminished scale; the enigmatic scale etc etc. However, the ones I have listed are my favourites and represent my choices most of the time.

Once I have the scale/mode chosen I’ll then write a chord progression around it, where all the chords are made up from the notes found in that scale or mode. Then it’s a case of strumming that chord progression into any kind of recorder (I normally use Audacity). Once I have that, I can begin to experiment with melodies.

For me, the best way of doing this is to play about with a software synth in a DAW, where I can drag & drop notes around until I have a melody that speaks to me. I have a few staples that I like to use when coming up with phrasing ideas for the melody, and one such stand-by is known as the “clave rhythm”- just make the main notes in your melody land on the 1 of the bar, the “and” of beat 2, then on the “4”. I find it helps to begin a melody on the “4” of the previous bar as a lead in. Also, now and then, it helps to one or more of these prominent notes, just to allow the melody some space to breathe. See below:

clave

And here are three quite different ideas based on this rhythm… a melodic ballad based on the ionian mode, a chunky rock riff using a mixture of the aeolian mode & harmonic minor scale, and finally a mid-tempo melody based on the dorian mode. As you can hear, this same rhythmic idea can be made to sound quite different depending upon the context in which it is being used.

 

This is just a starting point though. Sometimes I’ll take a melody & play it backwards or shift it along by half a beat, or chop it up an put it back together in a different order. The point is that it provides a start from which the tune can then evolve.

I know that this all sounds a bit methodical & some people believe that such practices have no place in a creative sphere like music. There are those who believe that any form of artistic expression should not involve any kind of thought process – it should all come from an unfathomable place, somewhere deep inside where the soul (if you believe in such a concept) resides. However, I consider myself to be a craftsman & I take a pride in being able to craft a piece of music from scratch whether I’m feeling inspired or not. Also, once you become fluent in all of this, it isn’t something you truly think about that much… in the same way as when you are fluent in a language, you’re not thinking about spelling & grammar as you speak… you just unconsciously apply the techniques you know in order to express yourself. Well it’s the same with music (or any artisan craft for that matter).

Occasionally, I will get a fully conceived piece in my head and then it’s just a case of nailing it down on the guitar – finding the notes & chords that I heard in my head. But this is far from the norm for me. And I really value being able to come up with something out of nowhere, just by working at it. Once I’ve got a basic “skeleton” for a tune (crafted in the manner described), I often find that it’s THEN that the inspiration will come & I’ll start flowing with ideas for how to develop the tune. Ideas that simply wouldn’t have been there if I’d sat down with a guitar and waited for the muse to call.

As I said… this is what works for me – feel free to do it your own way. Until next time…

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Mixing Metropolis

I’ve just completed a new track entitled “Metropolis”, although it could easily have been called “The Never Ending Mix”, as it was a right, royal pain in the arse to get it finished. Time and again, I would set up another mix & think “yeah… it’s OK, but that drum fill coming out of the 2nd chorus needs to be longer…” or something like that. Anyway I persevered and finally got it sounding the way I heard it in my head, so I thought I’d share with you how I put a mix together.

Before we begin, let’s just get a couple of terms out of the way…

If you’re not familiar with using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or mixing desk a “track” is the individual channel that a performance is recorded onto. You can control the volume, EQ & effects of the take you record onto this track using the controls assigned to it. A “bus” is like a track, but you don’t record onto it – a bus is essentially a track that you feed other tracks into so you can manage a group of them with a single set of controls. The “Master Bus” is exactly what it sounds like – the bus that all of the tracks in the tune eventually end up going through to produce your final mix. Now, let’s take a look at how I mixed “Metropolis”…

First of all, let’s begin with the bass – all I do to this is add a little compression. You can see the settings here in this screen shot of the preset I use in Cakewalk Music Creator.

comp

Next, I plumb this track straight into the Master Bus.

For everything else in the track… drums, rhythm guitars, piano & lead guitar, I tend always to use the same reverb setting (you don’t really want a reverb-y bass sound as it will lose definition). Using a common reverb to all the instruments gives the subliminal impression that they are all in the same room & helps to reinforce the “band” sound that I’m going for. To this end, I put the outputs of all these instruments into a separate bus called “All But Bass” & place my reverb on this bus. Here is the preset I use:

reverb

The output of this bus is then fed directly into the Master Bus.

For the rhythm guitars, I tend to always double track these – play the same part twice on separate tracks & pan these hard left & right. This gives a much bigger sound. Don’t be lazy about it & think you can just copy/paste from one track onto another though… all this will do is give you a louder, centred version of the part. It’s the minute differences between the two takes that give the big sound you’re looking for when they are panned to opposite sides of the stereo picture.

On this tune I ended up doing a total of six rhythm guitar tracks:

  • Left & right clean strummed chords
  • Left & right clean strummed chords with tremolo effect
  • Left & right power chords

Each left/right pair of rhythm guitar tracks was sent to it’s own bus, so I could control the volume of each left/right pair with a single fader. The output of each bus was then sent to the All But Bass bus where it would get a coating of reverb & from there it goes into the master bus.

The lead guitar track, like all the others was fed into the All But Bass bus, but before it goes there, I always tend to add a little delay. Once again here are my settings:

delay

This way the lead guitar ends up with a little delay echo as well as the reverb it gains on it’s way through the All But Bass bus.

Finally we come to the Master Bus itself. Cakewalk Music Creator has a wonderful analogue tape simulator effect which really warms up the sound of the whole mix. Here is the preset I use on this effect:

tape sim

And lastly I always add a subtle touch of compression to the overall mix on the Master Bus & here are the settings for that.

mix comp

I’ll round off by letting you hear the difference that some of these effects make. For the reverb check out these two examples using the drums:

  • Drums with no reverb – Click HERE
  • Drums with reverb – Click HERE

And here’s how the compression solidifies the bass sound:

  • Bass with no compression – Click HERE
  • Bass with compression – Click HERE

Let’s take a look at how that double tracking trick widens up the sound of a rhythm guitar part:

  • Single rhythm guitar take – Click HERE
  • Double tracked rhythm guitar – Click HERE

The lead guitar…

  • Without delay & reverb – Click HERE
  • With delay & reverb – Click HERE

The final mix…

  • Without the analogue tape sim – Click HERE
  • With analogue tape sim – Click HERE

And finally, the whole track as it ended up sounding using the methodology described, as well as a “wash” through the LANDR online mastering service…

Until next time…

Have fun!

 

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

10 Guitarists Who Leave Me Awestruck

Following on from my last post about the ten guitar players who I just don’t get, I thought I’d make this post kind of the opposite. This is my own personal list of the ten guitarists who, for one reason or another, send a shiver down my spine. It may only be one track, or even a single solo, which warrants inclusion on this list. Or it may be an entire body of work… let’s find out:

  1. Gary Moore. There are so many tracks that I could name… The Loner; Black Rose; King Of The Blues… the list is potentially endless. But for sheer musicality, feeling, jaw-dropping technique, and melodic fiery playing it has to be Blues For Narada. Gary seemed, to me, to be the perfect rock guitarist. He had the flashy turn of speed, that was so much en vogue in the 80s when I first heard him. But unlike all the “shred” guys who regularly graced the cover of Guitar Player magazine back then, he always stood out as being less “schooled” and more natural in his approach. Couple his fearsome speed with a gift for melody and an uncanny ability to find any emotion in those couple of millimetres between strings and frets, and you have the ultimate player.

  2. Jeff Beck. Perhaps the most unique of all guitarists… he has a touch that is unmistakeable. His use of the tremolo arm (something I’ve always shied away from) to create slide-like glissando sounds is masterful. He has always strived to evolve as a player, too… that trem arm technique isn’t evident in his earlier work, but it shows that, unlike many “rock gods” of the 60s & 70s he wasn’t one to rest on his laurels. If all you have ever heard of Jeff Beck is Hi Ho Silver Lining, then you owe it to yourself to check out his funk/blues/jazz/rock masterpiece album Blow By Blow. Genius.

  3. Hank Marvin. Quite simply, the man who made me want to play the guitar in the first place. Again, so many tracks to choose from… Apache; Atlantis; FBI; Wonderful Land… but if I had to choose my favourite Shadows tune it would be Theme For Young Lovers. I’d put the melody from this tune up alongside anything by Mozart or Beethoven. It’s THAT good.

  4. Eric Johnson. His second album Ah Via Musicom is a veritable encyclopaedia of stunning guitar technique, feel and variety. You go from the shred-tatstic, but hummable melodic Cliffs of Dover to the Hendrixian High Landrons via the jaw-dropping country of Steve’s Boogie through to the plaintive ballad 40 Mile Town to end with the smoky jazz of East Wes. One of those rare albums where you never have to skip a track… it just gets better from start to finish. Personally I cannot listen to any single track from this album. Like a good novel, I have to enjoy it from beginning to end in a single sitting.

  5. David Gilmour. Is there a better album than Dark Side Of The Moon? I think not. Every note he plays on this prog masterpiece is the exact perfect note for the space it fills. Much like Gary Moore, Gilmour seems to make the guitar “wail” in a way that beautifully invokes the emotional content of the music. I could have named any Pink Floyd album & almost went with The Wall, but Dark Side, for me, is the essential David Gilmour calling card.

  6. Mark Knopfler. The first five Dire Straits albums (Dire Straits; Communiqué; Making Movies; Love Over Gold, and the brilliant live album, Alchemy) remain among my favourite albums decades after I first heard them. Like many people in the late 70s, I first heard Knopfler’s playing on the hit single Sultans of Swing. It was unlike anything else that was around back then. All the other “guitar bands” at the time were either the loud, long haired “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” lads or the smouldering remains of burnt out punk enjoying it’s final death throes. Then along comes this gritty little laid back blues rock band telling tales about “Guitar George – he knows all the chords…” Couple this seemingly effortless story telling with deceptively tricky country-tinged illustrative strat licks and my 11-year-old jaw hit the floor. It still does nearly 40 years later.

  7. Andy Latimer. Not exactly a household name, I grant you, and many people haven’t even heard of his band, Camel. They are a prog rock band from Cambridge who still release albums & go out on tour to this day. They have a loyal fanbase who, like the fans of many cult bands, are ardent in their support of their idols. I’m not a HUGE fan of Camel, but they are responsible for one of the few albums that may just challenge Dark Side Of The Moon for the title of “Johnny Robbo’s Favourite Album”. The album in question is The Snow Goose – an instrumental suite of tunes inspired by the Paul Gallico novella of the same name. It takes roughly the same amount of time to read the book as it does to listen to the album. My old English teacher at school introduced the whole class to this album when he played it as a kind of “soundtrack” to the book when we read through it one lesson in 1978. The title track showcases Latimer’s gift for expression, feeling & melody and, even now, still excites me the same way it did when I first heard it.

  8. Joe Satriani. I never really got into the whole ‘80s phenomenon of shred guitar playing. All those widdly neo-classical, poodle-permed posers who took themselves much too seriously. They all sounded basically the same… Tony MaCalpine; Yngwie; Vinnie Moore et al. It seemed like they’d all been sent from central casting somewhere in one of those LA guitar schools. Then along came Satch… he was/is a melodic blues player with all the technique of a shredder & the theory knowledge of a music professor. But above all, his music made me smile. There was humour & warmth in his playing in a way that I just didn’t hear in the work of many of his contemporaries. If you haven’t listened to it lately, dig out your copy of his Surfing With The Alien album and be amazed all over again.

  9. Stevie Ray Vaughan. My favourite blues guitarist by a country mile. The music just seemed to flow out of him like he could turn on a tap. Lyrical, fluent, blistering solos that seemed to beam in from the stratosphere, alongside what has to be one of the best sounds ever coaxed out of a Fender Stratocaster. His tone was ballsy, sustaining and full without ever being overdriven to the point of fizziness. His style was equal parts Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Guy, all mixed into his own unique blend that has been much imitated, but never, ever equalled. If I had to pick a single track which sums up what I love about his playing, it would be his version on Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing from his posthumous album The Sky Is Crying.

  10. Tony Iommi. I wouldn’t say that metal is really my everyday cup of tea, but I do like to get a bit heavy from time to time… as & when the mood takes me. Black Sabbath, to me, are the originators of the genre. I think you can divide the history of heavy metal into two distinct eras: BBS (Before Black Sabbath) and ABS (After Black Sabbath). When I want to assault my eardrums with some gloriously heavy riffs, it’s just obvious to me that it has to be Black Sabbath – why bother with anything but the originators of the style? The other thing that truly inspires me, as a guitarist, about Iommi is the fact that he overcame a potentially career-wrecking injury to become one of the most influential electric guitarists of the modern era. As a young man, he was working in a metal pressing workshop and lost the ends of his fingers on his fretting hand in an accident. Spurred on by finding out about the famous jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt overcoming a horrific injury to his fretting hand, he doggedly persevered and regained his ability to play the guitar. Whenever I talk myself into believing that I’ll never master some tricky technique or lick, I take a moment to remember what Tony Iommi overcame & keep on practicing.

So there you are… the ten guitarists who, for various reasons, leave me awestruck.

Until next time… Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

10 Guitarists I Just Don’t “Get”

A bit of a polemic this time. Have you ever found yourself wondering what it is about certain guitar players that make other people wax lyrical about them? You may, from time to time, have frowned in confusion about just what it is that everyone else sees in a particular player. These are the ones which illicit this reaction in me. Feel free to disagree… I know you will, but music is a very personal thing & these are just my opinions…

  1. Billy Gibbons – Is it just me, or is this guy little more than style over substance? It’s all about the furry, odd shaped guitars, that spin around his belt buckle, and squealy pinched harmonics every other note. I saw ZZTop, (whose name I pronounce as “Zed Zed Top” on account of me not being American, by the way) on the BBC Glastonbury coverage this year. His tone was dreadful… like a wasp farting into a kazoo underneath an old army blanket. And his playing was plodding, pentatonic noodling – I’ve heard more inspiring fretboard skills down the local pub on open mic night.

  2. Now, I know this choice is going to upset some people, but I have to be honest… I really don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to Jimmy Page. I’ll admit that I do own Led Zep IV & I listen to it occasionally… Stairway To Heaven is a great track, but that’s kind of where I lose interest. Watching that reunion “Celebration Day” gig on the telly a while back, I was struck by how much his rambling, dissonant, never-quite-in-tune, over-indulgent soloing reminded me of Nigel Tufnel on a bad day.

  3. Often, it is said, the best way of achieving immortality is to die young. It’s also a pretty good way to be declared a genius when clearly you aren’t… or weren’t. Never was this more true than in the case of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana were just starting to hit it big at around the same time I began teaching guitar for a living. So I knew just how long it took to master the few barre chords necessary to play songs like Lithium & Smells Like Teen Spirit… not long. Not long at all – these are NOT difficult songs to play. And didn’t he just nick that “quiet bit/loud bit” idea from Frank Black & The Pixies, anyway? “Ah…” you might say “but Kurt had immense inner pain & he spoke for a generation.” Really? I was part of that generation (I was born in the same month of the same year as Kurt) & he didn’t speak for me… or indeed anyone else who liked to listen to inspiring, musical, virtuosic guitar playing. And as for “inner pain”… every 6th form poetry club is awash with it – being glum doesn’t make you a genius.

  4. Yngwie Malmsteen. I bet you thought from my little rant about Nirvana that I am a dyed in the wool “shred” fan. Well, think again. Whilst I begrudge the “genius” status bestowed on anyone not equipped with the requisite technical skills, I also have no time for any guitarist who seemingly places astonishing technique above musicality. I remember having Yngwie’s first album on vinyl in the mid 1980s. I never got as far as listening to side two. Although his technique was/is gobsmacking, it always struck me as being like a circus act… no matter how amazing the daring young man on the flying trapeze may be, it does wear thin after a while. By the end of side one, I was bored… every time.

  5. Neil Young. Let’s face it… we all know he can’t sing. His voice is a peculiar nasal whine that has the same effect on me as sucking a lemon whilst scratching fingernails down a blackboard. But we’re talking about guitar playing here, right? Well let’s address that then. I have never heard anyone get such an awful, ham fisted sound out of a P90 equipped Gibson Les Paul. A guitar like that should sing with mellow sustain but instead, it’s all fret buzz, dead notes and the kind of plunky, bum-note-filled solos you can hear in any music shop when a new guitar is being tried out by a teenage “guitar hero”.

  6. David Evans. Who he? Well, he’s the guitarist in Paul Hewson’s band. You may have heard of them, they’re called U2. “The Edge” (as Mr. Evans somewhat pretentiously requests that we call him) has built a career out of plunking away on open chords whilst letting his delay echo effect give the impression of him playing more notes than he actually is. But that, in itself is inspired right? Yup… and it was being done long before Dave “The Edge” Evans supposedly “invented” it. The godfather of using tape delay to augment his guitar sound was, of course, Les Paul back in the 1950s – the kind of innovator that The Edge is often called. But isn’t.

  7. Eddie Van Halen. Oh… another controversial choice. Like the aforementioned David Evans, Eddie (or is it “Edward” these days?) is credited with inventing an entire style of playing. Namely the phenomenon of finger tapping. He has even stated in interviews that he gets annoyed by people stealing “his thing”. Except, it’s not “your thing”, is it Eddie? Robert Fripp was doing it on King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man long before Van Halen released their first album, as was Steve Hackett in Genesis. And flamenco guitarists have been employing this technique for centuries. Sure, Eddie popularised this way of playing but what exactly did he do with it? Songs which sound like they were written by a teenage boy who’s wondering what it’ll be like when he finally “does it” with a girl, and the adolescent, immature obsessions with partying, getting high & thumbing a nose at the “squares” of the older generation. Throw in a few bars of Eddie’s tasteless, un-melodic pyrotechnics half way through each song (he’s got some fast licks & he’s going to use them whether they serve the song or not) and you have the formula. Perfect example? How about Jump?

  8. Ritchie Blackmore. I know, I know… He played on one of my favourite albums, Machinehead, but that still doesn’t excuse the years of truly awful soloing since then. If you want an example of the kind of thing I mean, listen to his tuneless, meandering, ego trip of a lead break from Knocking At Your Back Door. Then listen to the live album Nobody’s Perfect released after the “classic” Mark II line up reunited in the 1980s… it’s horrible (particularly the dreadful version of Child In Time). And that was also the opinion of Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord, who disowned the album largely due to Ritchie’s bum-note infested speed-finger widdling. If you love Deep Purple, and want a great “best of” album, check out “Live At The Olympia ’96” where Steve Morse plays the songs the way they deserve to be played… tasteful virtuosity personified.

  9. The Blues Police are probably going to come & lock me up for this one… B.B. King. There, I said it. I love blues, I really do. But I just don’t see what all the fuss is about with BB. I really don’t want to speak ill of the recently departed, so I’ll just say that I find his playing a little bit… erm… boring. Give me Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin or T-Bone Walker any day. These are guitarists who (to my ears, anyway) convey the passion & angst of the blues in the way that B.B. King never really did. Sorry.

  10. Finally, and probably most controversial of all, Eric Clapton. Yes, he has recorded some absolute gems… Layla being the most obvious example. When he’s on form, there are few guitarists who can touch him – take a listen to his solo on Roger Water’s Pros & Cons of Hitch-hiking, it’s a masterpiece of tone and phrasing. Or how about Derek & The Dominoes version of Key To The Highway? Utterly spectacular! The problem is that he only seems to play this way about 10% of the time. For every “Layla” there are dozens of drab mediocre “I want a new Ferrari, so I need to make a new record” type tracks. Have you ever heard anything as tedious as Wonderful Tonight? If you have then I bet it’s either Lay Down Sally or Holy Mother. Even his old boss, John Mayall (of The Bluesbreakers) said of the 19 year old Eric “Some nights he (Eric) would just turn up and strum his way through the songs, like he couldn’t be bothered.” Also, there are those of us still remember his remarks in 1976 about “keeping Britain white” in support of Enoch Powell. It was this rant, at a gig in Birmingham, that spurred the “Rock Against Racism” movement to be created in response. If, like many, you idolise this man then check this out & see if that alters your perception: Eric Clapton’s Racist Rant.

So there you have it. Sorry if I’ve ruffled any feathers but I can’t pretend I feel otherwise about each of these players. Some, or even all, of them may be responsible for “that special tune” which gives you goosebumps and sends shivers down your spine. If this is the case, then please don’t take offence – none is meant. I just needed to get this off my chest.

Next time it’s the 10 Guitarists Who Leave Me Awestruck. If I’ve slagged off any of your favourites here, feel free to rip my list of heroes to shreds next time. Until then…

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

My Lottery Win Guitar

The other day I got an email from the National Lottery informing me that there was yet another big rollover jackpot to be won. Having watched a few YouTube videos recently from various custom guitar builders, I decided to spec up my own “fantasy” guitar. The one I would have built if my lucky dip ticket delivered the goods. Here’s what I came up with…

First of all, the choice of timber. I’m loving the sound of my mahogany Harley Benton LP copy at the moment, so it would be a mahogany body & neck. The construction would be of the “set neck” type, like a Les Paul, but with improved top fret access – take a look at the Harley Benton SC450+ (my LP copy) and you’ll see the kind of thing I mean.

So, it’s starting to look a lot like a Les Paul, then, right? Well, yes and it would also include such Gibson attributes as a figured maple top on the body (I think “birdseye” maple, rather than the traditional “tiger stripe” bookmatched variety) as well as a rosewood fingerboard.

Where it differs mainly from a Les Paul, though, would be the scale length. Years of being a habitual strat & tele player have instilled in me a preference for the Fender 25.5” scale. On the traditional Gibson 24.75” scale, I just start to feel a little cramped when I go much above the 12th fret.

Right then, a Les Paul with a strat scale length? Well, yes, but now we come to the body shape. It would have to be a tele. There’s just something about this particular outline that I find aesthetically pleasing in a way that no other body shape stirs me. While we’re on the subject of the telecaster, has there ever been a more elegant headstock shape? I think not. Certainly, the “3-a-side” Gibson arrangement would not be on my “ultimate” guitar. Apart from anything else, it is a design flaw… it makes keeping a guitar in tune a nigh-on impossibility due to the angle at which the strings have to travel over the nut.

Now, the neck… I think you’d have to go a long way to find a more comfortable playing experience than the current crop of American Standard Fender guitars, so in terms of neck profile, fingerboard radius, fret wire etc. it would be a carbon copy of an American Standard tele with (of course) 22 frets. One attribute I particularly like in a guitar is that slight “rolled” edge to the fretboard. It just makes everything feel “played in” & comfortable, so that’s on the list too.

Are you picturing it yet? A mahogany, set neck tele with a rosewood fingerboard, improved top fret access & a birdseye maple top. Well, it gets better…

If money isn’t a factor in the spec (and why would it be if I’d scooped the Euromillions?), then I’d go for the uber-expensive option of a “drop top”. If you’re not familiar with this idea, it was invented (I think) by Tom Anderson Guitars in the ‘90s. It basically means that the maple top is formed over the curved top of the mahogany body enabling you to have all the comfort coutours you find on a strat. Expensive & difficult to do, but hey… I’ve won the lottery, remember? It goes without saying that I’d also have the ribcage contour on the back of the guitar too.

Now, how about the hardware? Well, starting at the headstock, let’s have some nice tuners… Grover… Gotoh… Schaller… anything with a nice 18:1 ratio for smooth tuning. I’m not a big fan of locking tuners – if you put your strings on correctly by tying them off properly, you get just as good tuning stability & it’s less to go wrong. They would have to have nice looking buttons though… we’ll come to those later when we talk about the finish.

Moving to the other end of the strings, let’s talk about the bridge. A “hardtail” would be my choice. I’ve never been a big fan of the trem/whammy bar, so it would be a beautifully crafted but simple affair with through-body stringing. A “hardtail” strat bridge, basically. But there would be one twist – it would have to have piezo saddles to allow me to get a pseudo-acoustic sound. I’m not trying to sound like a Martin Dreadnought or Gibson J200, but it would be nice to add a little acoustic-type texture to a mix.

OK, so as we’re talking about the actual sounds the guitar is going to make, let’s have a look at the pickups. It would be a two-pickup instrument, with a big, warm, meaty vintage voiced humbucker in the bridge comparison. Not for me, the screaming “tear-your-face-off” squeally shred-bucker. No, it would have to be something more like a Seymour Duncan 59 – a great “old-school” sounding pickup.

When it comes to the neck position, I have always favoured single coil sounds. Be it Stevie Ray Vaughan or David Gilmour or Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, I just love the lyrical quality you get from the open sounding tones of a neck single coil. Therefore there is only one choice of neck pickup for my lottery win guitar… the venerable P90. It would have to be a noiseless variant on the theme, though… I haven’t checked it out, but I’m sure such a pickup exists.

Finally, on the topic of pickups, they would be controlled by the usual 3-way switch. A “blade” style switch, like a tele, in roughly the same place (mounted, like the pickups, directly into the body – no scratchplate or pickup rings on this instrument). The pickup selector would have one final trick up it’s sleeve, though: in the middle “both pickups” position, it would have to have that Peter Green “out-of-phase” tone you hear on Need Your Love So Bad.

All the pickups, including the piezo system would be controlled by a master volume pot & a “blend” control balancing the output of the magnetic & piezo units. No tone control – in nearly 40 years of playing the guitar, I have never, ever used one. The master volume should also have a treble-bleed capacitor installed so I can go from a ballsy overdriven sound to a clean tone without losing any high frequencies, simply by rolling off the volume.

And finally… the finish: A lovely dark, tobacco sunburst. Coupled with that birdseye maple top it should end up looking reminiscent of the dashboard on an old Jaguar. The body edge will have the “faux-binding” effect that Paul Reed Smith pioneered back in the 1980s. Oh… and those tuning buttons on the machine heads? Well, I’m torn between having mother-of-pearl or maple, to match the body finish… erm… mother of pearl… no, maple… no…mother of pearl… Oh to hell with it, I’ve won the lottery so I’ll have two guitars with a set of each!

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

Until next time,

Have fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist