Saturday, June 30, 2012

So, You Want a Great Guitar Sound...

Want a great rock guitar sound? Do everything "wrong". Allow me to explain.

For a variety of reasons - some of them understandable, some of them daft - many aspiring rock guitarists think that a "great guitar sound" means buying a guitar with a "hot" (high output) pickup, a large amp cranked to the max, and maybe a distortion pedal in between. But if a "great guitar sound" is one that sounds more pleasing to the human ear than other possible alternatives, what I just described is not a "great guitar sound". Here's why.

What we hear as a sound is a wave of pressure through the air. The speed, or frequency, of these waves, we measure with a unit called a hertz. A hertz tells us how frequently the wave is cycling per second. So, a wave of 500 hertz means that the sound wave is cycling at a frequency of 500 times per second.

Human beings can hear sounds which range from about 20 to 20,000 hertz, but crucially, we cannot hear all those frequencies with equal ease. In fact, our ears are designed so that there is a bump in our sensitivity to frequencies around 3000 hertz (also known as 3 kilohertz or 3k, a kilohertz being equal to one thousand hertz). This makes sense, as the primary frequency in human voices is around that range. Now, virtually any sound or noise is an array of different frequencies, with some being more audible than others. But the more frequencies in 2 to 4 kilohertz range in any sound, the more we will hear that sound as harsh and unpleasant, simply because our ears are so much more sensitive to frequencies in that range.

Now, back to your guitar sound. The particular wood used to make an electric guitar will have some effect on a guitar's tone, but the primary determinant of a guitar's sound is the pickup. A pickup is the device in an electric guitar which senses, or "picks up", the vibrations of the guitar strings, and converts them to an electric signal, which can then be amplified. Naturally, different kinds of pickups affect the characteristics of that signal in different ways.

One determining factor in how a pickup affects sound is the number of winds that the pickup has. (Pickups are made by winding metal wire around magnets).  Essentially, the more winds a pickup has, the louder (or hotter) the output of the pickup becomes, and the the more the pickup broadcasts "mid-range" frequencies, in the - you guessed it - 2 to 4 kilohertz range. Which means, the harsher it sounds.

Further, as the output from a hot pickup is distorted, the more the signal from the string itself is clouded over by harsh, white noise. This doesn't happen with low output pickups, at least nowhere near as much. In short, up to a certain point, a lower wound pickup gives you a better, "cleaner" guitar sound. Now, obviously there's such a thing as a pickup with too low of an output (like, no winding at all). That's no good, either. But I'm saying there seems to be a sweet spot for the optimal number of pickup windings, and it's not in the "high wind" range. (By the way, if you do have a relatively low output pickup but want a more distorted sound, you simply run your guitar through a volume pedal or volume-boosting EQ pedal. The pedal increases the guitar output without increasing the "noise"that a higher-wind, higher output pickup would have.)

Does this sound too simple, or too good, to be true? It shouldn't. This is just how you get a more pleasing guitar tone, and certainly how you can get a great distorted rhythm sound through which you can still hear string clarity.

Consider one of the greatest power-chord rock songs of all time: "Won't Get Fooled Again", by The Who. Millions of people envision Townshend in the studio playing a Les Paul with souped up pickups, standing in front of a wall of Marshall amps, to get that sound. The truth is that Townshend played the song on a hollowbody Gretsch 6120 which Joe Walsh had given him, fitted with Gretsch's standard (low wind) Filtertron pickups (the same set up Brian Setzer used for his classic Stray Cats material). Townshend then ran the signal through a volume pedal and into a Fender amp, thereby distorting it. Presto - a truly awesome distorted power chord sound, which retains a lot of string clarity.

My dad, on "Takin' Care of Business", used a hollowbody Gretsch with Filtertrons as well, and got another classic dirty rhythm sound. Malcolm Young, of AC/DC, has always used Gretsch guitars with Filtertrons for the same reason. His brother Angus plays a Gibson SG with humbuckers - but the humbuckers are also low, or "vintage", output. Add to this the fact that producer Mutt Lange (who produced "Highway to Hell", "Back in Black", and "For Those About to Rock" for them) regularly twiddles the EQ knobs so as to zap out the 3K range entirely from his mixes, and you have an explanation as to why the classic AC/DC guitars sound so good. (I should add here that while Filtertrons can be great for distorted rhythm, they are less suited to lead work).

Speaking of lead work, consider what most historically-minded rock 'n roll aficionados and guitarists consider the greatest lead sound ever: Eric Clapton's sound on the John Mayall and the Bluesbreaker's "Beano" album. And, guess what? It was a '59 Les Paul, with relatively low output humbuckers, through a small Marshall combo amp. That was a set-up which maximized tone and signal over noise.

Another great lead sound was the solo on "Stairway to Heaven". People think it's a hot-rodded Les Paul through a Marshall stack. It's actually an old '59 Telecaster, outfitted with its standard (relatively low output) single coil pickups, through (by most accounts) a small Supro amplifier. Add in a tiny bit of natural room echo/reverb, and boom, there's another classic sound.

What Townshend, Page, and other pioneers of classic rock guitar sounds had was tone; and they had it, because they weren't using hot-rodded, high-output pickups to play through three different distortion pedals and gigantic stacks, boosting their noise to signal ratio. They were, for the most part, using older guitars, with lower output pickups, to get subtler, sweeter distorted sounds, which paradoxically, make their guitars sound far bigger than most modern distorted guitar sounds. And certainly, those vintage sounds (the analogue tape didn't hurt) were far easier to listen to - not because there is something "magic" about their age, but simply because the set-ups were, in effect, optimized for appealing to the human ear. That those old records were recorded using tube (valve) amps on to analogue tape with vintage compressors helped too, of course.

For those interested in experimenting with achieving better guitar tones, you're in luck: we live in a Golden Age of boutique pickup winders.

Fralin, Lollar, Wolfetone, Bare Knuckle, Seymour Duncan, and many others offer great vintage-sounding pickups (especially humbuckers). There is also the Filtertron, the pickup that Townshend used for the great rhythm sound on "Won't Get Fooled Again". (I suggest going to the TV Jones website if you're interested in that; they make a wide assortment of Filtertron reproductions of varying hotness. (Remember, though, that if you're looking for a lot of sustain for rock leads, a classic Filtertron may not be your best choice). But my favourite pickups for years have been the WCR pickups. Jim Wagner has managed to produce a unique-sounding take on the classic humbucker, which to my ears, sounds even better than many of the original PAFs I've tried (I know, it sounds sacrilegious, but I think in a blind test, you'd agree).

In any case, good luck with your quest to get a great guitar tone. Send me an email if you want to discuss.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I took my kids to see "Brave" last Friday.

I admit, I was excited. I don't go to the movies much, but it seems like every time we've gone in the past year, we've seen a trailer for it. It seemed promising: Pixar is a quality outfit, the lead looks just like my daughter Red Bear, everyone loves movies about Scottish people fighting, and you naturally assume that when a studio blows that much money promoting a movie, it's gotta be good.

Well - the animation was excellent. The voices were excellent. The look of the characters was excellent. The music was not that great (they should have used more ancient sounding music, to match the time period), but potentially, we could have given them a pass on that. The real killer was that the story was surprisingly, disappointingly, thin.

And that's what I don't get. How can that much work go into every facet of a movie - the promotion, the voices, the animation, etc. - without a corresponding amount going into the story itself? The story is the basis of the whole thing. That has to be robust, compelling, and believable. It has to make sense. Once the basics are in place, the story needs to be fleshed out, with supporting characters, and a compelling subplot or two.

"Brave" rounded second, but never made it home. It is the story of a young princess named Merida, whose dad, the king, is an amiable doofus, and whose mother (Queen Eleanor) wants her to marry whichever suitor wins a contest. But Princess Merida doesn't want to get married. She wants to ride horses and enjoy her talent for archery. After an argument with her mother about the whole situation, Merida consults with a witch, who promises Merida a way out. The witch then turns Queen Eleanor into a giant bear.

The rest of the movie consists of Merida and her mother - as a bear - trying to figure out how to turn her back into the queen. Actually, not true - they find out pretty quickly how to turn her back. But, they just don't get around to it until the last, pseudo-cliffhanging moment. Hm. Also, Merida and her mother find another large bear out in the ruins of an old castle, who had previously been a prince, and who had previously tried to kill the king. There is some mother-daughter bonding/reconciliation, as they fish out in the woods. And there is some overreaching on the part of the director (some lady I'd never heard of) to try to create dramatic moments, when the drama has not really been generated by the story itself.

Aside from the comical depictions of the suitors, none of the jokes work. A bit more comedy would have been good, especially in the form of "Timon and Pumba" style supporting actors. But there was none of those. What character arc there is for Merida, was not particularly dramatic. And while it was obviously important for Merida to turn her mother back into a human, we could have used even higher stakes (like, if she doesn't turn her mother back into a human, the entire kingdom is overtaken by evil invaders - hell, anything). There was also no real subplot, and hardly any main plot at all. It just wasn't enough.

There was a whole lot of work put into making this movie, but the core story structures, and their development, were just not there. I'd give it maybe a 6.3/10.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hatred: An Ode

I guess "hatred" is sort of a strong word. But what I feel is kind of in the ballpark (yes, I've gotten kind of sensitive about my topic today :).

I logged on today here, after a year, to post something new; and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a dramatically changed Blogger. It was disorienting. It took me a full seven minutes to even figure out how to get to this little page here, where I am currently typing, and no doubt, it will take quite a bit more time to figure other stuff out.

And, my question is: why? Why dramatically change what was working (instead of incrementally)?

It was like this on Gmail. There was nothing wrong with Gmail. In fact, there was so "nothing wrong with it", that Gmail went from zero to incredibly popular very quickly a few years ago when it came out. Yet, despite the fact that tens of millions of loyal Gmail users wanted no change, and had absolutely no complaints to make about Gmail, and were entirely uninclined to spend even a minute - let alone an hour or two - trying to find out where Google's software nerds have just hidden all their favourite features in the new program they didn't want, Google went ahead and changed everything anyway. Were there any user surveys? Of course not. Any preliminary market research? No. Any responses to the widespread dissatisfaction with their lousy overhaul? Far too much to hope for. Out of curiosity one day, I searched for hours trying to find any thread or forum where more than a slim minority liked the new Gmail changes. Almost everyone hated them.

It is not that I am against change. That would be crazy. It is that I am against mindless change, with regards to things that matter - like, when people say they are going to vote for one party or another, because they want "change", without ever contemplating for even a second what specifically they think needs changing, and for what reasons, and what shape that change ought to take. That kind. Or the kind that takes a much-valued good or service, and suddenly, dramatically changes it, just because. Just because the new CEO smelt the urine of the last CEO on the hydrant, and had to lift his leg and pee all over it to mask his predecessor's lingering presence, and for no other reason.

Anyway, I have spent a year away from my blog, and I intend to write on it more regularly. That is, if I can figure out how to use the newly reconfigured Blogger :)

(For those brave few who may want more exposure to my Town-Crank-on-Steroids bloviations, send me a Facebook friend request, and read some of the threads there).