Saturday
Nov152014

A guitarist's toy roll

Now that I'm becoming proficient on a few different stringed instruments, most notably the banjo and lap-slide guitar in addition to guitar, I've been looking for a way to deal with with increase amount of gear that comes with these. In particular, my desk had become a mess of capos, finger- and flat-picks, and slides. In addition to desktop organization, being able to have everything in one place and ready to grab to take to a jam is important. I looked into little boxes and containers, but nothing seemed to work for this assortment of bits (i.e., some long, heavy, skinny things like slides and dobro capos; metal finger-picks that shouldn't get squished; my favorite picks that are easy to lose).

It dawned on me that a tool rool, like I've seen bicylists use (and seem popular with motorcyclists) might work. I ended up googling "waxed canvas tool rool" and ran across the Coffin Tool Roll by Red Clouds Collective. At $65 it's not cheap, but it's handmade by hipsters in Oregon and is a quality product that should last a lifetime. Along with multiple slots/pockets, it has a zippered pouch that seemed perfect for securing those little pieces (like picks) that are easy to lose. I found a 10% off coupon code which basically offset the shipping, and a few days later it arrived.

Rather than calling it a "guitarist's tool roll," which makes me think of the things like truss rod wrenches and small screwdrivers to tighten tuners etc., I think of it as a "guitarist's toy roll" since it's for all the little gadgets and gizmos that are commonly used in playing acoustic music. 

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Friday
Nov142014

"These are a few of my favorite things" #7 - Venta Airwasher

Although we moved into our apartment more than two years ago, I finally finished setting up my office last month. And with winter just around the corner (i.e., low humidity), I've been looking into ways of humidifying the room so that I can keep some guitars out on stands without worrying about them getting too dry. The buidling is an old converted schoolhouse with radiators, and the humidity can get really low in the winter. I set up a small Holmes humidifier that we've had forever, but had been boxed up since a previous move about 10 years ago. It did the job, but it was way too loud for an office.

Based on some online recommendations, I picked up a Venta Airwasher LW25, which has a 2 gallon tank and is made for rooms up to 400 square feet. What I like about this unit is that (a) it doesn't need any replaceable wicks, (b) the tank can be easily filled (i.e., pour water directly into the unit), and (c) it's supposedly pretty easy to clean. And the best part is that it's really quiet. On the lowest fan setting, it's basically silent. At medium, it's no louder than the street traffic I can hear from my office (I haven't needed to turn it to the highest fan setting yet). So far, so good; it works like a charm, keeping my office at 45-55% humidity without any problem.

Tuesday
Nov112014

1930 National Tricone Squareneck

I have become increasingly enamored with my Beard Vintage R squareneck resonator recently. While I’m clearly still a beginner, I can play proficiently in an intermediate bluegrass jam, assuming things stay in the key of G or A.

Over the weekend I headed over to the semi-annual Philadelphia Guitar show. I hadn't been in a couple of years, and I’ve never purchased a guitar there, but it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Since I’m pretty flush with flattop guitars, other than the vintage Martins and Gibsons I couldn’t afford, I spent more of my time browsing the vintage Dobros, Nationals, and other lap steels. There were a couple of interesting Gibson house-brand instruments with original Hawaiian set-ups (a blond Kalamazoo Oriole and a sunburst Recording King Carson Robison Model-K), but the guitar that captured my attention was a National Style 1 Squareneck Tricone.

This particular National was being offered by a dealer from Arkansas who had made his way up to Philadelphia for the show. He acquired the instrument from the family of the original owner in Kansas City. The serial number dates it to 1930, and it is in remarkable condition. There are no big dings or dents, and it is purported to be all original, including the tuners (i.e., have the correct engravings) and cones. The dealer even mentioned that the screws on the coverplate look untouched, so the coverplate may never have been removed.

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Monday
Oct272014

Cavins tenor guitar - Part 2: Sonic representations of wasabi, grapefruit, and orange

This is Part 2 of my series chronicling design, construction, and eventual delivery of a tenor guitar built by David Cavins. See Part 1 here.

As David and I begin discussing this project, he asks me think about what I want it to sound like. But rather than only sticking to the standard lexicon that guitar geeks use (e.g., “warm,” “dry,” “woody”, “lush”, etc.), he encourages me to come up with some other descriptive works to translate the sound in my head into other modes. Here’s a snippet of the email I wrote, trying to capture these sounds:

"Spicy, but like wasabi, rather than jalapeños...there's heat, but it decays quickly so that the flavor of each string can shine.

Another flavor that might be a good descriptor is grapefruit: refreshing, some edge to it, with a shade of sweetness. Not as light or sweet as lemonade; more personality than orange juice.

Translating sound to color, I'm thinking orange. But not electric or neon orange, but instead the vibrant, organic orange of leaves changing color in the fall."

Amazingly, this description makes sense to him. He also has me write about other guitars that I’ve played and liked/disliked, so that we can get on the same page about how we hear and describe acoustic instruments. I tell him about my new Collings D1A, what I like about D-18s, what I dislike about a particular guitar that a friend of mine owns, and I try to describe my playing style and goals.

With this information in mind, we schedule a phone call. Although we spend part of that 90 minutes catching up, most is spent talking guitars. It's a joy to hear David's familiar voice after all of these years, and to be able to tap into his experiences with different design philosophies, construction techniques, and tonewoods is amazing. I learn how David approached the first guitars he designed, building them in pairs with everything the same (or as close as possible) except for one parameter that he’d change. As a scientist, I appreciate this process, and as a guitar geek (and builder of one instrument), I know enough to be dangerous. I learn about the “live back” that he builds...that he doesn’t just want the back to reflect the vibrations that the top produces, but that the back itself can generate sound.

David and I have similar values when it comes to the sociopolitical and environmental issues surrounding wood. He aims to source as much of his tonewood locally as possible, and avoids endangered, or questionably harvested, woods. I’m on board with this 100%. I think that generally the acoustic guitar market is so focused on particular tonewoods that it has ignored (a) the excellent sustainable materials available right in our own backyards (figuratively and literally) and (b) the luthier has a huge part in putting his/her stamp on the tonal signature of the instrument with the design and construction choices that are made and implemented.

We decide to go with Appalachian (“red”) spruce for the top, and sugar maple for the back and sides. David is fortunate to have a top supplier of these materials near him in Missouri, and these are domestic woods that both will have the tonal properties that we are aiming for as well as being responsible environmental choices.

A Cavins tenor guitar in sugar maple; from cavinsguitars.com.

To date, David has build about 30 guitars, although some are unnumbered, so mine will be serial #19. He has built a couple of tenors previously, with a recent one also being red spruce and sugar maple. Now that we have the basic framework in place (e.g., the tonal goals and main woods selected), the next step will be some of the cosmetic choices...Stay tuned for Part 3.

Monday
Oct202014

Cavins tenor guitar - Part 1: What has 4 strings and reconnects me with David Cavins?

image from sprucetreemusic.comWhat’s next, when you have several 6-string guitars, a 12-string, a banjo, a mandolin, a ukulele, and a dobro? A tenor guitar, that’s what!

A tenor guitar is an instrument that was popular nearly 100 years ago (read more here). It’s essentially a 4-string, short-scale guitar, although it’s often tuned to CGDA (low to high), like a viola/mandola, or to GDAE (low to high) like an octave mandolin, but, of course, with four instead of eight strings. Admittedly, I’m brand new to the tenor world, but I’m intrigued and think there’s a lot of fun to be had playing one.

Why would one want a tenor guitar? For variety, of course! Chords will sound different, rhythm playing will be punchier, and you'll approach melodies differently than when playing a standard 6-string guitar. It’s good for my brain to figure out how to maneuver around different fretboards, and it will provide a new sound when playing with other people.

The usual suspects (i.e., Martin and Gibson on the high end, and lots of budget brands) built tenors back in the day, and a few contemporary builders (e.g., Collings) are doing them now. But since a tenor is totally new to me, and I don’t have any preconceptions of what one is supposed to be like, I figured it was time to venture away from factory instruments and work with a luthier on a custom build.

I met David Cavins just over 20 years ago, when we moved into the same dorm at Grinnell College. For the next two years, until I graduated, we ran in the same circles, playing music together, and cooking hot-as-can-be midwest-inspired Mexican food (potato and corn enchildas...yum!). David had an enthusiasm for everything he did, with an approach that always struck a balance between the analytical/scientific and artistic/aesthetic. He was (and is) one of the most thoughtful, open, and genuine people I've ever met, and he introduced me to Americana music, which has stayed with me to this day. However, once I went off to grad school and got immersed in my studies and subsequent career we lost touch, although I thought of him often.

In December of 2011 we reconnected, after David found my blog about the guitar building class I took at Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie. I was excited to be back in touch with him, and was especially thrilled to learn that he also had developed an interest in guitar building. However, while I'm a chroinc dabbler in things, David goes all in, and he was in the midst of setting up shop and developing his line of Cavins Guitars.

For the next few years we’d shoot email or tweets back and forth whenever we saw interesting articles about guitar building. But about a month ago, as I was thinking about tenor guitars, I asked David if he’d be willing to build one for me, and he agreed. What will follow over the next couple of months is a series of posts that will chronicle the build, from my end. This is going to be a fun project, and I can’t imaging doing it with anyone else but David.

See Part 2...

Tuesday
Oct072014

Photo of the week - October 7, 2014

Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Fuji X-E1 with 56mm lens at f/1.2.

Tuesday
Sep302014

Photo of the week - September 30, 2014

Sam Bush at World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington. Fuji X-E1 with 56mm lens at f/1.2. See more photos from this show here.

Friday
Sep052014

This looks interesting!

Saturday
Aug232014

Thank you Mr. Collings, you made this D1A for me

A recent sampling of eight of Collings dreadnoughts, which culminated in the purchase of a D1A with a sunburst finish, has me reflecting on my attraction to Collings guitars. I have had the good fortune to own serveral Collings across the years, moving from an OM2HA to OM1SB to D1VSB to Baby 2H to CJMhASB, and now to a D1ASB (yes, I know this is a lot of acronyms, but the Collings naming/numbering system is actually pretty logical and informative when you get the hang of it). Although I have been going through a Martin phase over the last few years (see here, here, and here), I consistently have liked (and usually loved) just about every Collings guitars I've had the opportunity to play.

 

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Tuesday
Aug192014

Photo of the week - August 19, 2014

Tuesday
Aug192014

40 reasons to drive 9 hours to try 8 Collings guitars

Having just turned the corner on 40, I decided that I could splurge for a new guitar. I love D-18-style guitars (i.e., mahogany and spruce dreadnoughts), and wanted something with even more cut and volume than a Martin D-18 (which I have and love; it's a classic bluegrass, folk, and singer-songwriter guitar). I dig Collings guitars, so I quicky honed in on a Collings D1A. In the past I had a D1VSB (i.e., vintage neck and sunburst top) that I traded for another Collings some years back, so I had a pretty good idea that this was the direction I wanted to go.

It's not as simple as just running down to a local shop and getting a D1A (especially since Acoustic Roots closed several years ago); there are lots of different options that one can get on top of the standard adirondack spruce and mahogany configuration:

  • standard sitka bracing vs. adirondack bracing
  • neck profile and corresponding string spacing at the saddle: 1-11/16", 1-23/32", 1-3/4" standard, vintage now, and vintage necks
  • standard vs. varnish finish
  • standard bracing or sans tongue brace
  • sunburst or natural finish
  • standard or vintage/cut-through saddle
  • other cosmetic bits like bound fretboards and pegheads, back strips, etc.

Rather than ordering online, I decided I had to get my hands and ears on guitars with these various options for a purchase of this magnitude. Luckily, a top Collings dealer is within driving distance, so I decided to take a road trip to Acoustic Music works in Pittsburgh. They have about 200 Collings in stock, and a great variety of different D1A configurations.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Aug172014

Dear sound guy: I will scowl at you if you don't put enough volume on my guitar

Some friends and I got on stage at the Old Fiddlers' Picnic at Hibernia park last week. In all of the pictures, I'm making this face. The sound guy wasn't putting enough volume on my guitar, which I apparently wasn't happy about.

Here's the proof that he didin't have my mic turned up enough (my break starts at about 45 seconds into this clip); I'm not making it up.

Here we are with our purple "participant" ribbons.

Tuesday
Aug122014

Photo of the week - August 12, 2014

Tuesday
Aug052014

Photo of the week - August 5, 2014

The Remarkables; New Zealand near Queenstown. Fuji X-Pro1 with 55-200mm lens @ 200mm, f/7.1.

Tuesday
Jul292014

Photo of the week - July 29, 2014

New Zealand, near Waimangu Volcanic Valley Park on Okaro Rd. Fuji X-Pro1 with 10-24mm lens @ 10mm, f/18.

Tuesday
Jul222014

Photo of the week - July 22, 2014

Jagged, our guide when hiking the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand. Fuji X-E1 with 10-24mm lens @ f/10 and 24mm.

Sunday
Jul202014

New Zealand and Australia in 27 days

I recently returned from an extended trip to New Zealand and Australia (read more about packing for this trip here). The trip was anchored on an academic conference in Melbourne, but if you're going to go all that way, you might as well go big or go home. In case you're planning a similar trip, here's my itinerary...

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Tuesday
Jul152014

Photo of the week - July 15, 2014

In Sydney, Australia. Fuji X-E1 with 10-24mm lens @ f/10, 24mm. Processed with Snapseed.

Tuesday
Jul082014

Photo of the week - July 8, 2014

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Fuji X-Pro1 with 10-24mm lens, @ f/13, 10mm. Processed in Snapseed.

Tuesday
Jul012014

Photo of the week - July 1, 2014

The Kenneth Brian Band, June 10, 2014. Fuji X-E1 with 56mm lens @f/1.2, 1/480.