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

How To Figure Out What Chords Are In A Song

One of the problems that students bring to me on a regular basis goes something like this…

I got this TAB off the internet & when I play it, it just doesn’t sound right. What am I doing wrong?” In most cases the answer to this is “believing the internet.” Just because something is typed up nice & neat and has a description saying “100% accurate” or similar, it doesn’t mean it’s right, and frankly quite often it isn’t. Wouldn’t it be much better to be be able to listen to a song and figure out, with rock-solid certainty, what’s going on? Here’s how I do exactly that…

Of course there are some songs that take no working out at all once you’re familiar with a few basic standard chord progressions. The 12 bar blues, or the tried & tested I VI IV V (like G Em C D, for example) which everyone from The Everly Brothers to John Legend via The Police have used at some point. But what about something which isn’t instantly familiar like that? How do you figure out chord progressions which are unfamiliar to you? Well, a little bit of music theory helps, but if that scares you off, then here’s a method guaranteed to work:

First of all, you’ll need a free piece of software called Audacity. If you don’t already have it, you can get it from HERE. What you’re going to be using this for is to isolate one chord at a time so you can figure them out one-by-one. To illustrate how to do this, I’m going to be using a section from a tune I recently did a cover version of, an instrumental called “Sylvia” by the Dutch progressive rock band, Focus. The section in question is the 2 bar organ break which happens after the 2nd verse, and across this 2 bar segment, there are six chords in total. If you can work something as densely packed as this out, you should be fine for pretty much anything! Click HERE to hear it & let’s load this into Audacity, here’s how it looks:

Sylvia-Organ-Break

OK, so let’s isolate the first chord in this little section of music. Listen for where the chords change & watch the cursor as it moves across the screen. Make a note of where the chord begins & ends using the time markings across the top of the screen. You can even slow the music down using the “Change Tempo” option in the “Effects” menu if this will make it easier – just select the whole thing and use the option described. Make sure you change the TEMPO, not the SPEED, as this will affect the pitch, which we obviously don’t want to do. Then you should highlight (select) that portion of the music that you want to figure out – just that chord. Here’s what this looks like:

1st-Chord

Now, here’s the clever bit… Hold down the shift key & press the space bar. That 1st chord you’ve selected with loop round & round infinitely. This will give you time to ascertain what it is.

How do you do that? Guesswork? Well… not really! Here’s a foolproof method. Begin by playing an open string on your guitar as the loop plays. Any string – it doesn’t matter, although I prefer to use one of the top 3 strings as it just sounds clearer to me. After playing the open string a few times, go to the 1st fet, then the 2nd, 3rd & so-on. What we’re listening for is a note which sounds “in tune” with the chord being looped. Click HERE to hear me doing this on the 2nd (B) string. You should be able to hear that the final note, found at the 3rd fret, sounds pretty good when played over the chord. What this means is that I’ve identified a note which is actually part of the chord. Any note which sounds “in tune” with a chord will sound that way because it is already there in the chord: an important point to remember. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Right… we’ve identified that the chord in question has a D note in it (because the note at the 3rd fret on the 2nd string is a D). Where do we go from here? Well, we now need to know which chords contain a D note. Some of these are obvious… A D chord has a D note in it, for example. As does D minor, but what others are there? Well, there are fixed relationships that govern chords and the notes they are made up of & if you know these, then it becomes a simple matter to figure it out. If this isn’t something you’re sure of though, don’t worry… here’s a list that might help you:

  • You will have a major chord based on the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord based on the “in tune” note
  • You will have a major chord 5 semitones (frets) above the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord 5 semitones (frets) above the “in tune” note
  • You will have a major chord 4 semitones (frets) below the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord 3 semitones (frets) below the “in tune” note

In the case of a D note, this would give us these possible chords:

  • D major (a major chord based on the “in tune” note)
  • D minor (a minor chord based on the “in tune” note)
  • G major (a major chord 5 semitones above the “in tune” note)
  • G minor (a minor chord 5 semitones above the “in tune” note)
  • Bb major (a major chord 4 semitones below the “in tune” note)
  • B minor (a minor chord 3 semitones below the “in tune” note)

Now, simply try out each of these chords over the same loop as you used earlier & you can easily determine which is the correct one. Click HERE to hear me doing this. It seems pretty obvious to me that the correct chord is the second one… D minor & I repeat this at the end to make absolutely certain.

By using this method, I identified all six chord in the section of music. It goes like this:

Count

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

Dm

C

Fm

Eb

Ab

Bb

C

And HERE is how it sounds played on the guitar. This sounds pretty good when played along with the original, but on it’s own it sounds a little disjointed when compared to what we hear on the track. It’s not that any of the chords are wrong, it just somehow lacks the ascending “sense of direction” that the original possesses. This is where we start to investigate the bass-line…

If we look at the notes present in each chord (and you can do this by figuring out what notes you’re actually holding down as you pay each chord shape, or by knowing a little chord theory), you will be able to see the following:

  • Dm = D +F + A
  • C = C + E + G
  • Fm = F + Ab + C
  • Eb = Eb + G + Bb
  • Ab = Ab + C + Eb
  • Bb = Bb + D + F
  • C = C + E + G

Look closely and you should be able to spot an ascending line of notes running through these chords which goes: D to E to F to G to Ab to Bb to C. Let’s hear what that chord sequence sounds like if we put that ascending line of notes in the bass. Click HERE to hear it being played. And there you have it! This is the chord sequence from the organ break of Sylvia by Focus. I deliberately chose quite a tricky little chord conundrum for this example just to show how something which could be intimidating can be broken down into chunks and worked through using simple techniques. As long as you can hear if a note sounds in tune with a chord or not, then you have all the skills you need. You’ll never be at the mercy of the internet ever again when it comes to finding out what the chords are for that song you’re trying to learn. You can also see (hopefully) that a basic understanding of a few simple music theory fundamentals will cut down on the amount of work you need to do. You might just want to investigate those!

Of course, there are other chord types too… as well as the majors & minors we’ve looked at here. But the thing with more complex chords is that they all have quite a distinctive sound & once you learn to recognise what a diminished, augmented, or sus4 chord sounds like (to pick a few examples at random) you’ll soon find there are no chord progressions you cannot figure out. It just takes practice! It was my good fortune to find myself playing in a professional cabaret band when I was only a fledgling guitarist & I had to learn lots of diverse songs… and learn them ACCURATELY. Back then I didn’t have Audacity, but I had a CD player with a loop function & before that, I used to use a twin-tape deck to record the same chord over & over from one cassette onto another: Record > Pause > Rewind > Record > Pause > Rewind… over & over again.

It’s never been easier, with a little bit of free software, to get to grips with learning songs for yourself. And as your experience builds, you quickly gain more confidence & begin to recognise the same basic chord progressions being used again and again which, in turn, cuts down on the number of songs that need to be tackled like this. That little snippet of Sylvia, for example, will remain locked in my memory, and I’ll have no problem identifying it (or anything similar) the next time I come across a song which uses it.  This description may seem a little long winded, but that’s because I’ve gone into a lot of detail. Working out this segment of the chord sequence took me no more than about five minutes in reality. The point is, though, that you have to start somewhere or you’ll always be at the mercy of someone else showing you how to play the songs you want to play. Don’t be intimidated… give it a go! What have you got to lose?

I hope this has been helpful & until next time… HAVE FUN!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Having Fun With A Delay

You may already know of the little trick I’m about to describe in this blog, so apologies if this is the case, but for anyone who loves to experiment with effects to come up with new sounds an even get a new lick or two out of the process… read on.

If you’ve ever heard Albert Lee’s amazing guitar work on Country Boy, you may not realise that (in places) he’s not actually playing quite as many notes as you may think. It’s all about the clever use of a delay effect. Let’s look at how you (like Albert) can sound like you’re playing twice as fast as you actually are.

First of all, you need to know the tempo, in beats per minute, of the song you’re playing. Let’s imagine you’re at a fairly commonplace speed of 120 B.P.M. Now, simply play a simple riff in a strict “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” count. Something like this (click here).

Next, set your delay effect to a time exactly the same as 0.75 of a beat. If we’re at 120 B.P.M, then one beat lasts half a second (500mS), so set your delay time to 0.75 x 500mS. This works out at 375mS, or 0.375 of a second. Also, you should set the “feedback” control on your delay effect to zero. Feedback (in the context of delay fx) is the amount of echo that gets “fed back” into the input of the effect. The higher the feedback is set, the more repeats you will have on each note. For an authentic “Hank Marvin” sound you want quite a bit of feedback. However, for the technique I’m demonstrating here to sound effective (excuse the pun) we only want a single repeat on each note – hence no feedback. You should set the “wet” mix to 100% though – we want the repeat of each note to sound as loud as the actual played note

Here’s what our original “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” motif sounds like with settings described above (click here).

Isn’t that cool? It’s not just country players like Albert Lee who put this to good use though. Try playing the harmonics on the 4th 3rd & 2nd strings in the same “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” count like this (click here). Now let’s hear it with the delay on it (click here). Remind you of anyone? A certain Mr. David Evans perhaps? Oh, alright then… “The Edge”. Here’s the wonderful Bill Bailey doing a routine about his reliance on this particular delay trick…

 

And here is me putting it into action on a little country tune I wrote in the style of Danny Gatton (the fun begins at about 0:58)…

I hope you found this informative & until next time…

Have Fun!

John

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project

Ten Ways To Demonstrate Your “Rock Star” Credentials

As we all know, there is much more to being a “rock star” than simply having musical ability. Often (if Pete Doherty is anything to go by) musical ability isn’t even a requirement. Being a rock star can involve behaving in a way that, in any other walk of life, would define you as an utter twat, frankly. But in the rock ‘n roll sphere, you will be lauded as a genius is you follow these simple rules…

  1. Turn up late: Probably one of the most important things you can do to establish your credibility. A tried & tested ploy used by artists like Prince and Axl Rose, through to plenty of guys I have been in bands with over the years. It doesn’t matter whether you’re keeping a stadium full of fans waiting, or just your band-mates at the rehearsal room. Showing up a minimum of one hour after the agreed time will tell everyone just how seriously they should take you.
  2. Turn up wasted: Again, another important skill to master if you want win friends and gain respect. Who would want to be in a band with, or pay money to see, someone who attempts to play music when they’re sober? So what that the performance might not be the best it could be? Being “professional” is for people who wear suits, right? Downing that Special Brew and nostril-hoovering a couple of lines of Colombian marching powder before a performance will show the world you’re an “artist”.
  3. Nothing is ever your fault: If a song unravels because you go to the bridge after the 1st verse instead of the 2nd, then it’s obviously the fault of the other guys in the band for “not feeling your vibe, man!” I mean, honestly… they learn the song, and play it the way it was agreed… weeks ago? They should know you’re a free spirit and refuse, on principle, to be tied down to anything as mundane as an “arrangement”. Be sure to tell the audience it was the band’s fault, not yours. Your fellow performers will thank you later for calling them out on the error of their ways.
  4. Trash stuff: When on tour, you should destroy anything, and everything, you can – hotel rooms, dressing rooms, equipment, tour-buses etc. This will be deducted from what the band earns, and impact on the money your colleagues get paid. But, hey… the shock headline of “rock star behaves like a brat” will set you apart and enhance your reputation no end. Your fellow musicians will be secretly overjoyed when they have to sleep in the van because no hotel will let “you lot” over the threshold.
  5. You are too musically gifted to carry any equipment: This is another important one. Upon arrival at the venue, find the bar and start drinking (see item no. 2 on the list). It is not your job to carry your own amp, instruments or other paraphernalia (let alone anyone else’s) from the van to the stage. The band know they are lucky to have you and will gladly hump your gear up the many flights of stairs if it means you can use the time to focus and “get in the zone” before showtime. Any comments to the contrary are a sign of jealousy towards your obviously superior talent.
  6. An artiste of your calibre should be paid accordingly: You have a certain lifestyle to maintain and the rest of the guys will be more than happy for you to take a higher cut than them. Or at least, they would be happy if they knew. Probably best not to encumber them with such sordid details, though.
  7. Argue: It doesn’t matter what the issue might be, just argue. Is the stage not high enough? Argue with the promoter. Is the dressing room not spacious enough? Argue with the venue. Are the peanuts dry roasted when you prefer salted? Argue with the caterer. Refuse to go on stage until it’s all been sorted. It’s the only way they’ll learn. At the next gig demand the exact opposite just to keep them on their toes. Once again, everyone else in the band will be looking to you to create the right impression with people who may want to book you again. And don’t worry…catering staff on minimum wage won’t spit in anyone’s after-show lasagne for being called “pond life”. Probably.
  8. Hog the limelight: You may be first on the bill with half a dozen other bands between you and the big name “headline” act, but the crowd is there to see you… specifically you, personally. Ignore all attempts to get you to wrap up and play an extra twenty minutes of songs that, even though the audience don’t know, you’re certain they’re desperate to hear. The silence you hear after each number is a mark of the stunned appreciation of your genius. As is that bottle of piss that just got thrown at you from the front row.
  9. Blame the sound guy: If the gig went badly, don’t forget… nothing is EVER your fault (see item 3). The reason there was no applause, the reason the crowd all went off to the bar, the reason you sang/played off key is because the person on the desk doesn’t know his/her job. Be sure to argue with them at length after the show (see point no.7). This will ensure they try really hard next time to give your show the treatment it deserves.
  10. Take all the credit for stuff that goes right: If you’re the singer, make sure EVERYONE knows that the great solo the guitarist/bass-player/drummer just did was your idea, and yours alone. Sure it wasn’t you who actually played it, but it was clearly inspired by you and the vibe you, alone, created on stage… every note of it. Even if they didn’t previously know this to be the case the musician(s) in question will be happy for you to point this out to the audience and any members of the press who happen to be around after the show. In the unlikely event they do take issue with you… it’s jealousy again. Some people will stop at nothing to wreck your karmic well being. Pathetic, really. Make sure you argue with them too.

So there you go. How to be a rock star in ten easy steps. Been in a band with any “rock stars”? I have 🙂 

A Classic BBC Series From The Early ’80s

Been a bit pushed for time this week as I’m launching my own radio station – watch this space & I’ll keep you updated on developments. Anyway, I thought I’d share with you a series that pretty much sparked my career. This is an episode of a BBC show called ROCKSCHOOL which used to be screened on a Sunday afternoon in the UK. Within a couple of weeks of watching this very episode, which shows the basics of rock soloing, I answered an ad for a guitar player. Hey presto, I was in my first band!

Sure, it looks a bit dated now – especially the reference to Iron Maiden as being a “new” band – but the content still stands up, I reckon. Whatever, I hope it will provide a nice little trip down memory lane for those of us who cut our teeth in the musical cauldron that was ’80s rock. Watch out for a couple of appearances by a very young & fresh faced Gary Moore. I’d love to know what happened to the musicians in this studio band. Anyone know what they’re doing these days?

Until next time, have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching