Bass Guitar – 4 or 5 strings, or more?

The idea of a bass instrument is to get low notes. That’s pretty obvious. At first, in the case of stringed instruments like the bass viol (viol family with the sloped shoulders), the idea was to ‘double’ the bass part that the cellos were playing; hence ‘double-bass’. And as with other members of the violin/viol family, the bass-fiddle or upright-bass has four strings.

A Louder Double-Bass

And when upright-basses were taken into the pop music world, they came along, originally with four strings as well, tuned pretty much the same. But there came a point where more volume was needed, especially in noisy, people-packed venues. Someone, according to online resources, a certain Paul Tutmarc, created an electrified bass-guitar, though Leo Fender came up with a better one in the 50s. Again, it had four strings and was tuned like the four bottom strings of a standard guitar.

This type of instrument could be electrified and amplified and was able to keep up with amplified electric guitars and loud drums in dancehalls and theaters. Still, it kept its ties to the traditional 4-string arrangement. Hundreds, thousands of songs, albums, singles had that thumping sound included in their arrangements and there seemed to end to what it could do. Solo pieces were written for it (Portrait of Tracy, The Fish (Schindleria praematurus)) and the most popular hits of all time were pretty much covered by those four low-toned strings.

The More the Merrier?

Guitarists wanted to get in on the low-toned action and at some point, 6-string bass-type instruments like the Dan Electro UB-2 (more of a Baritone Guitar than actual ‘Bass Guitar”) appeared. Then Fender brought out the Bass VI, the Bass V, and things started heading toward more and more strings. Rickenbacker’s 4008, Hagstrom with their 8-string monster (doubled-courses like a twelve-string guitar), and on and on.

Interesting stuff, but here’s where my own, personal opinion comes in…

Keeping in Tune with the Covers

Nowadays, at least since the 80s, there’s another ton of tunes that have the sound of 5- and 6-string basses (with either a string reaching below the traditional low-E string, or a string above the G-string) incorporated into them. Maybe it was professional jealousy, but with the quickly burgeoning use of synths in the 80s and those nice, low, thick electronic tones, electric-bass players wanted in on the action. Whatever it was, that low-B string started showing up in lots of places.

And if you’re covering those songs, you pretty much have to have a five- or six-string. I mean, you could do it with a 4-string, tuned normally, or do like I did for Love Is A Battlefield and have an extra base with the low string tuned down to D, but…easier when the instrument matches the music.

But when you’re trying to come up with an original bass-line for an original piece of music…

Watch Out!

Sorry, didn’t mean to shout. But when you’re noodling around on bass, trying to invent a part that’ll fit an original song, humming to yourself in the kitchen while waiting for the grilled cheese sandwich to come out right, remember that having an extended range bass (a six or seven or eight string), will cause you to come up with ideas you wouldn’t have normally come up with. It’s a case of the instrument starting to dictate what the music should be. This is not a bad thing generally, getting a nice modern sound, but maybe it’s because I’m old-school; I grew up absorbing a certain sound from the music and songs that I loved (or even didn’t) and removing the limitations of a standard four-string electric bass seems somehow…counter-intuitive. It’s almost like having the chords telling you what melody will wind its way through them, rather than coming up with a great melody and getting the chords to fit. Small point, maybe, but I don’t believe I’m the only one who can tell when the chords or melody were written first.

So…

If you’re learning and playing cover-songs in which an extended-range bass was originally used – get an instrument that’ll match; no way around it. However, if you’re writing original songs and starting to write original bass-lines, then at least have it in the back of your mind that having those extra strings and notes available will cause you to come up with bass-lines/melodies of a more modern feel. If you’re going for a 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s flavored tune though, pick up a four-string bass and go for it: sometimes restrictions make you come up with stuff you never knew could be there.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Shopping for Bass Guitar Strings!

A Few Good Tones – Bass Guitar Strings

There’re only a few good sounds you really need when you’re learning how to play bass guitar, and a lot of that has to do with how hard you play, where you pluck the strings (near the bridge or nearer the neck), whether you use fingers or a pick, and just listening to the other musicians in the band or on your favorite recording, and trying to fit in – volume- and tone-wise.

Strings, of course, make up at least a third of your sound; maybe a fourth. Tone starts with the fingers or flat-pick to set the strings vibrating, which in turn causes the bridge to conduct those vibrations into the body of the instrument; while over on the other end of the instrument the nut feeds that same vibration down the length of the neck to vibrate sympathetically with the body. In the middle somewhere are the pickups, being driven by the metal of the string core and windings passing through its magnetic field – creating an electric current – which then passes through the output jack, on to the amplifier to be made louder before it hits the speaker. Piezo pickups work similarly but create the signal from the pressure variations in the substance of the piezoelectric material as the strings vibrate against it.

Fingers (or plectrum) – strings – material of neck and body – pickups – amplifier. Well, that’s five portions which make up the sound, but close enough.

But listen to your bass guitar unplugged; just the physical tone of the strings vibrating through the neck and body of the instrument: the basic, elemental sound it makes and how it vibrates in your hands, up your wrists and arms and against your chest. Like with any other stringed instrument, there’s a lot you can do to make different sounds: pluck toward the bridge and get thinner, tighter notes; pluck towards the middle of the strings to produce a warmer, fatter, mellower tone; pluck harder or softer to increase or decrease volume. And, surprisingly (or not), these differences are translated through the neck and body and into the pickups – magnetic or piezo.

Pick That Up, Put That Down – Pickups

But in ancient times – the 1960s through the ’70s – there weren’t many, if any, pickup-specific manufacturers offering as wide a range of replacement and souped-up pickups as there are now. If a pickup went out, you could take your bass to a local shop and have them find an original factory replacement, or a used one, or perhaps have the pickup rewound. Luckily pickups rarely died, but even when the new, improved, higher-output-low-noise pickups became available, there was the cost. I just couldn’t afford to go experimenting around, changing pickups in and out all the time, so original pickups were the way I, and many others, went.

That still left, however, the strings….

String That Thing

As mentioned before about these long-gone days of yore, there also weren’t as many string choices for the electric bass player as there are today: flat-wound, tape-wound, and…that was pretty much it. Pyramid, LaBella, Fender and Rotosound those were some of the brands. Now we have ground-wounds, half-flats, the wonderful (and by now standard) round-wounds, and any number of combinations and innovations thereof, with coatings and finishes, this metal and that alloy. And with the addition of bass-specific compressors and limiters, distortions, overdrives and chorus units (still one of my favorite effects for bass) amp- and cabinet-modeling software, new and vintage physical amps and cabs, the choice – and range of tone – has never been wider.

Still, as with any guitar, the fundamental sound comes from strings vibrating through the body and neck of the bass guitar. And it all boils down to two types of strings: the flat-wound, and the round-wound.

As might be guessed, the flat-wounds are basically made up of a solid-wire core, steel, like piano-wire steel. This is then wrapped with a flattened wire to produce a smooth, non-ridged surface. The strings sound warm, thumpy, with none of the higher, crisper upper harmonics created by their round-wound counterparts. It’s just the nature of how the flat, almost tape-like metal of the wrapping interacts with the round core. You can hear it unplugged, as well as when plugged into your bass rig.

On the other hand, round-wound bass-guitar strings are constructed of a thinner round-wire wrapped around a round piano-wire steel core. I think the crisp, edgy, bright and clanky tones they produce have to do with the way the round surfaces of the wrapping wire touches and moves against itself along the length of the string, in almost the opposite way the flatter edges of the flat-wound strings’ wrapping interact to create the duller, thumpier
sound. Imagine holding two one-inch diameter pipes alongside each other, side by side, and rolling them against each other. Then imagine holding two one-inch thick bricks edge to edge and trying to do the same; the pipes move and roll against each other easily, whereas the bricks want to remain level.

Of course, it’s not something you can see happening with the actual flat- or round-wire wrappings, but you can instantly hear it in the tone.

Which then, should you try?

Way back when, a set of bass strings was pretty expensive – at least twice the price of a pack of guitar strings and most times more. But even now, buying a new set of bass guitar strings isn’t something one does every other Friday. As someone with little cash at the time, it was tantamount to my buying new tires for my car once a month. Oh I was religious about making sure to wipe the sweat off the strings after practice or gigging, sometimes boiling them in a pot of water with a couple of drops of Dawn Detergent added to refresh them (not all that effective), but I just made do with what I had.

So I’d buy new bass strings only when I really had to; like after more than one would break (each being systematically replaced by members of the carefully-cleaned previous set), and the sound began to be noticeably different between the newer and older strings.

Best practice was to ask questions and find which set lasted longest, weren’t too stiff and thick to play comfortably, then stick with that brand: something playable, reliable, easy to get at any retail store. This was way before the Internet, so there weren’t reviews and customer ratings and having things delivered by FedEx or UPS.

Thing is, my first two basses came with flat-wounds: my Sears Silvertone Violin Bass, and a couple-three years later, the Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucy Lucite. I played the Silvertone for a couple of years without changing strings; I was just happy to have an actual bass and not a guitar with the top two strings removed. But then there was this whole Rolling Stones thing, and Wyman with his space-age clear bass guitar, and that was wonderful. It was only later when I heard of Jaco that I heard also of round-wounds, and that was really the first set of bass strings I ever bought.

I believe they were the Rotosound 66M Swing Bass strings because of the shorter scale-length of the Lucy Lucite. It was a voila! moment. I was so pleased with the sound that later on, with my Rickenbacker 4001, the only thing I did was ascertain the scale-length, before heading out to buy a set of Rotosounds for it

Then there came years of playing guitar exclusively, for which I finally settled on the D’Addario brand, and when I needed replacement bass strings, I simply stayed brand-loyal to D’Addario.

Fast forward a decade or so when I started home recording – especially wearing headphones – and bass-guitar tonality really started to become a prime focus.

Now here’s the thing: when using round-wound bass-guitar strings, you can always turn the tone-knob down to roll off the highest frequencies. We’re talking non-active pickups now. But with the highs rolled off it still sounds
like bright, crisp round-wounds with the highs rolled off, if you know what I mean. A dull version of something bright; like trying to darken an over-exposed picture in Photoshop.

This is just fine for most applications – rolling the highs off – especially when playing live, but you really start to listen more when laying down a track (over and over and over again). And since I’d just gotten my Rick 4001 burgled, I decided on a Jay Turser JTB2B Beatle Bass as a replacement.

Funny…it arrived strung with generic round-wounds!

First thought was: ‘Flat-wounds.’ On this planet, in this reality, it’s a no-brainer: Beatle Bass with flat-wound strings. I looked them up, found who played what, got scale lengths, gauges, etc. The Pyramids were way too expensive, the Rotosound
Tape-wounds were…I don’t know – not the right feel; a little too thick, as well. But right in the middle, with a light-gauge offering was Rotosound and their 77M set.

I have to say that that was the perfect, most inspiring combination: the Turser Beatle and the Rotosound flat-wounds. Even with the tone controls all rolled up, there was that semi-bright thumpy sound which wasn’t anything like round-wounds with the treble rolled off. The sound also had a great deal to do with the fact that the Turser was a short-scale bass (or medium, depending on which string company’s chart you look at) and the combination of lighter strings of a shorter scale length really gave an almost upright bass sound. Or at least a Beatle-esqe sound, which, I found, was good on just about anything I wished to record.

It just sat nicely in the mix, in other words.

By that time I’d also acquired a Squier P/J and an Essex 5-stringer. The Essex (or SX) was strung with round-wounds (D’Addarios, then Dean Markley Blue Steels) because I wanted a growly-clank to cover what the Rick 4001 would’ve done in rock-ish compositions. I strung the Squier
with D’Addario Nickel-Wound XL round-wounds, but quickly changed them out for a set of Rotosound 77’s when my enjoyment and appreciation of the flat-wound sound really took hold.

That’s pretty much where I left off, though I have to add that the Dean Markley’s for the 5-string were a one-off; I just wanted to see how much better they’d be than the D’Addarios.

Which, at least for my recording applications, weren’t much.

What Makes You Smile?

As far as brands and types of bass guitar strings, you can find any number of discussions – many times heated – on various boards and blogs on the web, touting this brand or that as being the absolute best, the longest-lasting, having the best tone, sound, and etcetera. Same with amplifiers, bass cabinets, speakers, cables, software, FX pedals or boards or modules.

Thing is, you can toss all that out when starting out: it still comes down to the basics of what kind of music you like playing or playing along to. Do you enjoy the thick, mellow thumping of an upright bass viol, or the crisp clanking in a speed-metal or prog band? What bass sound do you
connect to? Which makes you go whoa…? What sort of bass string feels good against your fingertips, and makes you smile a little without realizing it?

Flat-wounds. Round-wounds. That’s what it comes down to.

And if you like both, well…looks like you’re going to be a bassist with at least two bass guitars in your inventory.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

Electrical Contact Cleaner

Cleaning Up Your Act

Though not particular to making music or playing the guitar, unwanted noise when turning dials and knobs or flipping toggle or blade switches has been, can be, and might always be, a problem for anyone involved in making adjustments to electronic/electric devices. Most things now have no physical connection needed in order to transmit data from one module or database, to another – technology communicating seamlessly, wirelessly – but many times even pieces of tech need to be plugged into something else in order to function as data gathering or storage devices.

And where there is physical, metal-to-metal contact, given the metals and substances used in connectors, there can be a problem with corrosion, dust or oxidation getting in the way and causing errors.

Weak and Noisy

The problem is especially true when dealing with sound-producing devices being hooked together. The great majority of electronic musical devices – guitars, basses, keyboards, even microphones and other collections of amplifying/sound reproducing systems, i.e. PA systems – still need plugs, jacks and some sort of cabling to interconnect them. Physical connectors, made of metal, allowing digital or analog signals to pass through.

But add time and oxygen in the air – or any other corrosive such as the salt and oils in perspiration – and these connections can become, well…less than optimal. Pick up an electric guitar or bass, plug it in, and perhaps you’ll hear that scratchy sound, that irritating extra noise that has nothing to do with music.

Or if your plugs and jacks in the instrument and amp are fine, sometimes you’ll turn a knob – either on the instrument or amp – and you might hear another scratching noise.

A Feverish Frustration

When I began playing electric instruments through an amplifier, the random (or sometimes not random) noise coming from scratchy volume and tone pots (potentiometers) was maddening. Luckily for me my father had been into electronics beginning in the 1930s or so, starting with the ‘crystal sets’ every boy apparently had in those days. He became a radio enthusiast, a HAM radio operator, was in the Signal Corps in the Army during the 40s, and afterwards worked in the telecommunications industry. His hobby and love in life was still, however, electronics and tinkering with all things electric.

–Which, in my case, afforded some experience in the cleaning of potentiometers and switches. He had an array of liquid (bottled), and aerosol contact cleaners to do the job. When I started playing electric guitar and bass and ran into the scratchy-pot problem I began borrowing some of these noxious solutions to clean the insides of the switches and whatnot.

And they did work.

The only thing was, they only worked for a limited amount of time. They seemed to clean – and dry – the contacts inside the potentiometers, and pretty soon carbon dust build-up from the contacts would again start creating noise.

Over the years, maybe 20, I tried all brands of contact cleaner available from radio parts shops and electronics stores. There was a certain amount of hope involved in each brand purchased, but I was always disappointed.

The problem was compounded when I discovered fuzz-boxes, distortion pedals, echo units, chorus pedals, flangers, volume and wah-pedals. All those plugs and jacks and connecting cables! It was a good thing I was handy with a soldering iron (another gift from my dad), but…really….

And when I finally had too many effects units to quickly setup at gigs or rehearsals and made my first and second pedal-boards, things got even worse: worse because now the pedals were screwed down to the board in close, compact proximity, and in order to squirt contact solution into the jacks and work the plugs in and out a few times, I had to basically disassemble the entire board.

The cleaners I had at the time did work, but it was something that needed to be done about once a week.

The Best

Years after I’d stopped actively gigging and had gotten into home recording, I found a brand of contact cleaner I’d never heard of before. It was mentioned on some home-recording site if I remember correctly. I ordered it, tried it, and, well, never used anything else since.

CAIG DeoxIT.

CAIG has an extremely wide range of cleaning/conditioning products for just about every imaginable application and industry, but I ordered a spray can of DeoxIT D-Series and one can of the DeoxIT Gold. That was it. I still have the first two cans I ever bought because though the stuff is expensive, it just lasts, and you won’t find yourself going through cans and cans of it. I only wish I’d discovered the brand back in the frustrating days of pedal-board maintenance, but better late than never, right?

And I think the reason the stuff lasts (I mostly just use the Gold, now) is because it doesn’t clean and dry the wipers and contacts: it cleans and conditions the internal working parts, preventing build-up and oxidation. Knobs turn more slickly, switches glide and don’t crunch; wonderful. And no noise. Oh, you’ll get a bit of clicks and whatnot depending on the actual age of the pots and switches, but other than that, it’s slick and sweet.

And quiet.

I don’t remember all the brands I’ve tried over the years – stuff from Radio Shack and various other electronics parts stores – but I’ll never spend another cent on anything else.

And, if like me, you have a few guitars or basses you’ve had stored away for a few years – or if you’ve just bought a fixer-upper to be a project guitar – one that spent a lot of time in smoky bars and clubs in the 80s – I still heartily recommend CAIG products to clean things up. I mean, most pots and switches don’t need replacing; just cleaning.

Doesn’t hurt to know how to solder though.

That’s it, and enjoy new-sounding potentiometers and switches with a little help from CAIG.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

The Best Guitar Picks?

Picking a Pick – So Many Choices

Picks; guitar-picks; plectrum. Well, plectra; many names, but the same thing. The best? That’s like asking which is the best car, the best brand of mayo, or the best sandpaper for guitarists’ fingernails. The answer is: It’s what you finally decide on. But until then, the picks you most likely received with your guitar (hopefully, the manufacturer included them) are the classic guitar-pick shape; a roughly elongated triangular piece of plastic, with each corner rounded and smooth. Tear-dropish looking. You might have a selection with L, M, or H (or, Light, Medium, Hard) imprinted on one side, letting you know the thickness or stiffness or gauge of the thing.

A good selection for a starting point.

Other brands – ones you might see in music stores or online – might have the thickness (thickness usually equates with stiffness) designated by an actual measurement in millimeters. This can get a little confusing, especially when confronted with a choice between 0.5mm, 0.6mm, 0.73mm, 0.88mm, 1.0mm, 1.14mm, 1.50mm, or 2.0mm gauge picks. I mean, who decides these specifications?

Then there are the differing shapes: equilateral triangles of various size and thickness; sharp, rounded points; dull, rounded points, ones that are shaped like fingernails but are flat; smaller, classic-shaped; contoured (from thick to smoothly-shaped knife-edge) and…then there’s a whole world of differing materials the picks are made of: the earliest and most numerous being made of celluloid (yes, like in film-stock).

I do miss the fragrance of celluloid – but that’s just me.

But to start off with, we’ll just look at the standard-shaped, standard-thickness plastic plectra, just to keep things simple.

Strum – Brushing the Crumbs Away

Let’s start with the thinnest gauge pick, marked L or Light or Thin. Hold it between thumb and forefinger; not too loose and not a death-grip. With your guitar in your lap, just strum up and down, sorta like brushing crumbs off your shirt. You can allow your other fingers to curl loosely; you might want to use them eventually for a combination of flat-picking and finger-picking so don’t try to curl them up and out of the way too much.

One way to visualize your picking-hand finger-positions is to lay your hand palm-down on a table, so your thumb is resting on its side, then slide your other fingers inwards so they curl, with just their tips touching the table-top. Like a loose fist. Then bring the underside of the thumb so it touches the nearest side of the index finger. Right there, with that feel, is where the pick will be held.

Cradle the pick just about dead center with the pointy end towards the guitar strings, then strum; downwards at first. You’ll feel the pick vibrating between your fingers, trying to get loose and fall away, so grip harder. You’ll get the feel for it after strumming for a few minutes, and when you’re ready, if you haven’t already, start strumming both ways, down and up again. There’ll be a different tug from the pick when you up-strum, but now’s the time to not think about it too much, to over-think things. Just strum. Strum slow; fast; harder; softer. Feel the flat-pick flexing. It’ll probably ‘catch’ on certain strings while reversing strum-direction, so just think about moving your strumming hand and arm parallel across the strings, evenly. Brushing the crumbs.

Angle of Attack

Here’s another concept to consider: visualize holding your guitar upright so the sound hole or pickups are facing you. The guitar strings are running straight up and down. Well…you’ll see how they angle slightly from the bridge towards the head-stock, go through the nut (grooved, white plastic thing that keeps them in place), then up to the tuning keys. That angle is predetermined and historic in a way. It adds nothing to the sound, just the ability to have a thinner neck to easily get your fretting-hand around – though not too thin so you can’t place your fingertips precisely – while maintaining a nice spacing down by the bridge so you can get your picking fingers or flat-pick between the strings. Usually only lap- or pedal-steel guitars have all the strings absolutely parallel to each other because you don’t actually have to press the strings down directly onto the frets.

But getting back to visualizing your strings: imagine now positioning your guitar pick so it’s angled upward along the strings. If you then take hold of the pick and strum, you’ll notice the flat faces of the pick contacting each string; one side for the down-strum, the other side for the up-strum.

This is fine, but depending on how you hold the pick between the index and thumb, with some people – like me, having thumbs with a last-joint which curves backward – when you hold the pick firmly, the angle will be up at the front edge of the pick and down at the back. But having thumbs which let you angle the pick down at the front and up at the back edge, like most people is also great. It doesn’t matter either way; it’s just something to be aware of, to realize what feels comfortable and natural. The main idea though, is that for most things you’ll play, this slight angle is actually beneficial: it lets the edge of the pick slice over the string instead of flicking flat-wise across it. It gives a smoother, less slappy sound.

Similar to what we were talking about with the shaping of fingernails in a previous post.

So with this in mind, start strumming again, being conscious of the angle of the flat-pick as you brush those crumbs away.

Smoother, right?
The feel of the pick between your fingers will be slightly altered, but just keep strumming till it starts to feel natural, then don’t think too much about it again for a while.

Sounds and Colors

Now try out your other picks, the thicker ones. You’ll notice with the thicker, stiffer plectra, the sound is louder with the same amount of strumming force. This doesn’t mean you have to switch picks every time you want to play louder or softer; you can even play quietly with a super stiff pick just by decreasing strumming force, or by cradling the pick just a little less tensely as you make contact with the strings.

And depending on the shape and size of the pick you have, you can also let more or less of the pick protrude from between your fingers. Just picture putting your pick between the jaws of a vice: if you clamp it at the extreme back edge so most of it is visible, then flick a finger across it, it will vibrate and bend quite easily. On the other hand, if you clamp the pick with just the very tip is showing – even a soft, thin pick – it would be nearly impossible to bend it even a little.

Selecting Your Perfect Pick

Okay, so selecting the perfect pick might take some time. Over the years I’ve collected quite a variety of guitar picks. I used to go to the local music shop (Harry’s, in my case) and sort through the compartmented display boxes of picks. My first non-traditional guitar pick was by Dunlop, called the H3 Jazz Pick. Back then they were still made of celluloid, came in H, M, and L. And even though I wasn’t playing jazz, I loved them! They were smaller and pointier than the standard shape, and just felt nice in the hand. Again, this was a personal thing and you might find other shapes that are easier to hold and manipulate (how hard you hold it, at what angle relative to the strings, where you hold it, and the other things already discussed).

I was quite happy with the H3 and would buy handfuls of them. Celluloid, as you might’ve already found out, wear down on the edges where they come in contact with the strings, especially the rougher, wound strings, though the plain unwound ones will do the same thing after a lot of playing. But…Dunlop stopped making them in the late 80s sometime! They introduced the Jazz III in Stiffo Nylon (along with the II’s and I’s with progressively blunter tips like the original celluloids), and I used those for quite some time. They were exactly the same shape as the ones I loved and had absolutely no flex to them at all. They were the first I ran into which used the millimeter thickness designations as mentioned above, and I opted with the 1.38mm.

Still, I wanted a nice fresh handful of the original celluloids and even contacted the manufacturer and asked if they’d ever offer them again. The answer was that celluloid was getting hard to come by, so they were not going to be putting them out again. They did come out with Tortex versions, which were long-lasting (I don’t remember ever wearing one out) and those were okay. Dunlop’s next step were Ultex picks, which I thought was going to be a material similar to actual celluloid, but even when I found out they weren’t, they were…acceptable. It’s just that certain plastics have different feels, even in the same gauge of thickness. I guess if you look at how the molecules of each type of plastic move when flexed, it might be more specific. But the bottom line is, it just feels different.

Included in the picture are three of my remaining celluloid favorites: H3, M3, and the thin L3.

When I found I couldn’t get them any longer I switched to ones made of the other materials because I didn’t want to run out. I didn’t want to get used to something again that I couldn’t get more of; have an Oh no, this is my last good one! moment. I could have hand-shaped some out of sheet tortoise-shell-patterned celluloid, but that would’ve been missing the point, so to speak. I wanted not to have to think about picks, about making them, where to find them, or if the world supply was running low. I wanted something that was standardized, easy to obtain.

I eventually went back to the classic (351) shaped plastic (Fender California Clears) and the Dunlop Tortex picks, because after so many years of playing, I could get used to any shape for everyday use. Funny though, Dunlop still makes standard shape celluloid picks, so…I guess the supply wasn’t all that critical?

Also included in the photo is the large triangular celluloid pick by Fender. For me, the Thin version of this pick is wonderful as a special use pick, used to give acoustic guitars a brushier, strummier sound by holding it lightly and towards the back edge, and letting the tip pass over the strings quickly but delicately. This was especially useful in home recording to get some nice, full-sounding overdubbed fill tracks going without having to use compressors and limiters. A big, soft pick on a 12-string, proper mic placement (pointing down towards the sound-hole from the 12th fret) sounds pretty full without being overbearing.

As I understand it, Santana uses or used large triangles – the thicker ones – and though bigger than standard, it’s what he’s gotten used to over the years and doesn’t seem to get in the way of his signature fluid scalar passages and complex figures. Other people, John McLaughlin for instance, use tiny picks almost the size of a fingernail, but like I said earlier, it still comes down to what fits your hand, how it feels between your fingers and what sort of sound you want to achieve.

Cheap Thrills!

There’s this other thing about guitar picks. I don’t know how many guitarists out there feel the same way I do, but there’s this thing about getting any new piece of equipment; you want to see and hear and feel what difference it will make when you actually get back from the store, or open the shipping envelope, and try it out with your actual rig, your own setup, your own instruments. Like the first time I plugged a fuzzbox together with a wah-wah pedal. It was like, Oh, fuzzbox into wah-wah, sounds…nasally, but wah-wah into fuzzbox sounds sweet!

In the world of guitaring, there’s really nothing cheaper you can buy to experiment with than guitar picks. New guitar strings, maybe, or a cheap peg-winder. But picks are just about the cheapest and most fun things to try out, and if you get a collection of different ones going, or start with an assortment of thicknesses, or shapes, you’ll eventually have lots of sounds to play with.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

What Are The Best Guitar Strings?

Once, while chatting with someone about music in general, and guitar in particular, the subject of blues guitar playing – and players – came up. And along with this, the late electric blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was mentioned.

This in itself wasn’t unusual: SRV was a giant amongst blues guitarists and more particularly those playing electric blues. The person I was talking to said he’d been learning a few riffs and patterns from one of Stevie’s songs, which I said was a great place to start, but the thing that caught my attention was the way the person admitted confidentially – almost apologetically – that he still wasn’t able to play the riffs and patterns with the thick, heavy-gauge strings SRV commonly used.

It took me a moment to nod and sort of commiserate with him, but…the one thing that came to mind – which I didn’t mention due to how earnest this fellow was – was the focus on duplicating one particular aspect of Stevie’s setup instead of going for all the rest; the actual feeling, the passion, the fluidity and absolute command of the instrument.

True, I never heard very much of this guy’s playing – just a few tidbits on an acoustic guitar – but still; it was putting up an extra barrier when none really was needed.

In the late 60s to early 70s, several string manufacturers began putting out lighter-gauge string packs due to players like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and others. Everyone was doing crazy string bends, wide vibratos and lighter strings made that possible. Common string sets before that time were based on what acoustic guitars were strung with: .012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .054 – thinnest to thickest, or 1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th and 6th strings.

At first, electric sets were based on these or similar gauges as well, but then legend has it that a few players somewhere began substituting thinner, unwound banjo strings for the top two or three strings of their guitars and things evolved. And when light, extra-light and ultra-light sets became available commercially, the rush was on.

It may not seem there’s much difference between a .012 high E string and a .008 high E, but there is. Of course, they would break that much easier, but to be able to bend notes easily and with facility was the main object. There were, and are, enough things to fight against while playing the guitar, and removing one of them made all the difference in the world.

Of course, thinner strings sounded, well, thinner, when used on an acoustic guitar, and the volume would be a bit less, but it was the era of the solo electric guitarist and it was all about fast riffs and complex scales and feel.

I remember my first set of Ernie Ball Extra Slinky strings, gauged .008, .011, .014, .022, .030, .038. It was a revelation. I thought they were the best strings in the world. I’d been fighting with strings starting off in the .012 range, struggling with them and I only wished they’d made these strings sooner. It would’ve made being a beginning guitar player much easier on the fingers.

And…there was no problem with ‘tone’ as that fellow I was talking to mentioned,  because the tone in those days – and these days as well – come from the pickups, the effects pedal arrays, the type and power of the amp and the kind of speakers.

And of course, how loud you play. There’s just nothing like speaker distortion, I can tell you; different from overdrives and preamp stages, fuzz-boxes, distortion pedals and everything else. There’s a certain authority with pure speaker distortion that just gives you the chills.

But getting back to strings: I figured why torture myself struggling with thick gauge strings? As time went on, I eventually worked up to .009 sets, then .010 sets, and then went to .011s for a short while before returning to – and staying with – .010s.

Nice round number. I also settled on the D’Addario brand because at the time they were competitively priced and seemed not to break as often. And believe me you don’t want a string to break when you’re playing a Stratocaster with a standard vibrato bar; especially when you’re onstage, in the middle of a song.

And not only that, but they were, at least for me, a good crossover for my acoustic guitars as well.

It’s to the point now where you can get an acoustic starter guitar pack (or electric) for less than two hundred dollars US; complete with soft case, tuner, extra strings, guitar strap, etc. Usually the strings that come with these starter guitars are the medium-light .012 sets – standard for full scale acoustic guitars. But it’s also at a point now where you can buy .010 sets just about anywhere online or at a local music store for cheap, and give your fingertips a break. The strings that came on the guitar are most likely quite old by the time it ships, so a change would be good anyhow.

If you’re not familiar with changing strings and there’s a local music store nearby, you might take your newly-purchased starter guitar there (or buy one there to begin with) and have one of the employees change the strings out to lighter gauge. Just watch the store person doing it, ask questions – such as how much string you leave after you run it through the hole in the tuning head (pull it hand-taught, pinch it an inch beyond the peg and push it back that same inch to give slack enough to wind), and you’ll be set to go.

And while you’re at the store, ask the repairman to check the truss-rod adjustment. That’s a whole thing in itself, but if you mention it to the guy, he or she’ll know what you’re talking about and maybe let you see how it’s done.

Like I alluded to earlier, there are enough things to work through when first picking up the guitar (or any instrument where your fingers come in direct contact with the strings), and something as easy to fix as replacing stiffer strings with softer ones, shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

This Is Mine! I Can Do This!

I think there must’ve been a point when I had the above realization when first starting out on guitar. Looking back over the years, I can see where that might have come from – and where it still comes from.

See, it’s about control, about being in control of something. About being in control of anything actually, because of how out-of-control life seems sometimes. And I don’t mean out of control like going over the edge or losing it; I mean, life just goes and most times there’s a feeling of helplessness, of a lack of power to affect things, to change things, to make things happen. Out of control. Out of my – our – personal input.

I think the first time I felt in control, was, interestingly, not when I first plucked a guitar string and caused it to make a sound. It went back before that. There was a time I used to race bicycles; not the Tour de France sort of racing, but simply going fast. And not in competition against anyone. I’d walk my bike for an hour or two up this mountain road (I wasn’t strong enough or devoted enough to ride up the hill to test my endurance and my fitness), and when I made it to the parking lot of the scenic lookout at the top of the mountain, I’d wait a few moments to cool off and catch my breath, then start back down this sweeping, fast, curvy, two-lane paved highway to the bottom.

Luckily, though it was well maintained and paved, there was little traffic, so the road was most times wide open; a single car passing by perhaps every five or ten minutes. I’d try to time it so no cars or bunches of cars were passing by, then would start off, just to see how fast I could go on the downhill straights and around the fast, sweeping turns. I believe the road was called Round Top Drive, and though it was only 2.7 miles long, it was all downhill and fast. That was the whole point.

But more to the point was the fact that I was in control. If I messed up, I could get injured really badly. These were the days before good guardrails and having to wear bike-helmets and padding, and there was the real possibility of crashing over the top of the low, white-painted wood guard-railing and sliding a couple hundred feet down the mountainside. But I was in control. It was my skill, my barriers – seeing where the point was where I’d actually scare myself and pull back.

Control.

Two hours of walking my bike up the mountain, followed by two or so minutes going back down as fast as I could. But those two minutes were worth it. And it wasn’t just adrenaline; it was the focus, the idea that it was just me doing this. Coming up against my own personal barriers, using my skill, my own daring, and knowing that whatever happened, it was up to me. It was completely and utterly stupid, but for those two or so minutes, there was total focus, self-responsibility; my choice, with nobody telling me I had to do it.

Optional fright, but being ‘in the zone’ as I later learned it was called, was like nothing else.

Fast-forward a few years and enter music.

I can do this. I’m making the sound. I’m deciding to do it, to work at it, to repeat it till I get it right. No parents telling me to practice; in fact, one of them disapproving of the whole I wanna be a rock star thing. But it didn’t matter because this was something I could do.

Me, personally.

Like pushing the ragged edge with my little 3-speed standard bicycle (didn’t even have a 10-speed with the down-curved handlebars), and seeing 45 mph on the cable-connected speedometer next to my nose as I leaned down tight.

I delved into the guitar and music in general. I don’t want to go so far as to say music became an obsession, but there seemed no limit to this huge, vast realm of music; my own burgeoning skill being the only thing holding me back. It was fascinating. It was mathematical to someone who was poor at math. It was a goal.

Of course it became frustrating, but even then, it was still mine. Mine to achieve or to fail at. My responsibility. Under my own control. I think that was the attraction, the force behind the untold hours of practice, making mistakes in my routines, learning better ways, listening, playing along with LPs, playing scales, recording myself on reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Okay, so maybe a touch obsessive. But it was my own obsession. I only wished I had started earlier. I found I could hear things in my head that I wanted to bring out, to play, but I couldn’t. Another frustration. But then there came the idea of learning music, being able to jot it down in standard notation, and eventually that happened – with me majoring in music at the local college.

Mine. This was something I wanted to do for no other reason than to do it for myself.

I think the hardest part was, after learning how to learn, was patience. With myself. There’s nothing worse than getting impatient with yourself, and I was totally guilty of that. And still, at the end of the day, even the impatience was my own – to deal with.

Then, years later, after all the work, and my starting to play professionally, I met up with another roadblock: I realized I wasn’t, and had never really been ‘talented.’ A small point perhaps – especially after working really diligently at it for so long – but there was a certain point, beyond which I could no longer progress. I could write songs, put pieces and parts together, knew about voice-leading and voicing of chords, various ‘feels’ and styles, music theory up to Webern and Schoenberg (not in depth, but in an introductory, comparative way), and got an appreciation of Early Music – John Dowland, Gregorian Chant – Crumb and Cage, as well as Satie and Bach. But I found I would never be like them. Not at any level even closely approaching them.

This also I had to finally own. It was mine as well.

It didn’t stop me from going along my own personal path however; being as good as I could be, even with the limitations.

I think maybe that’s the whole point….

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

 

Silicon Carbide Sandpaper for Fingerstyle Guitarists

Products:

Places to Buy: Various online places, including eBay, StringsByMail, and Amazon, as well as various brick and mortar outlets such as Autozone, Walmart and others.

Size/Count: Single-sheets, 20, 50, 100, Variety packs

Guarantee: No, as these are consumable products

My Rating: 10/10


Product Specifications:

  • Silicon Carbide is what makes up the ‘grit’ of the sandpaper and is ideal for general purpose sanding on wood, metal, plastic, dry wall, fiberglass, glass, and ceramic. Aluminum Oxide is a good alternative sandpaper material though it is less sharp and wears faster; in industrial applications this might be a problem, but for our usage, not so much.
  • Stearate coating and open coat construction minimize loading (which means the dust of whatever you’re sanding doesn’t remain ‘stuck’ between the particles, thereby clogging it)
  • A-weight paper provides flexibility for finishing contours and angles making it easy to get around and under the fingernail edges. Sandpaper paper weights are given in letters, ‘A’ being the thinnest paper, ‘B-weight’ being slightly thicker, and so on.
  • Paper sheet is easily sized according to the task (with a scissors). This is also true for sandpaper brands which have rubberized or padded paper backings.
  • 9″ x 11″ sheets divided into quarters fit most hand-sanding blocks I’ve also seen it sold in rolls and disks but these usually have an adhesive backing to attach to sanding blocks or electric sanders; something which you might do better to stay away from.·

Pros & Cons:

  • Pros: The 3M 415N 320 Grit is the silicon carbide sandpaper I’ve used for years now, and it works perfectly for polishing the edges of fingernails; all important if you use your nails for fingerstyle guitar playing.
  • Cons: But…if you noticed, the stuff is near impossible to find online because 3M no longer makes it. Online places sometimes (rarely) sell the sheets in bulk packs (50-100 pcs) but as you’ll need, at most, just a couple of 9″ x 11″ sheets – since you’ll be cutting them up into 1-inch squares – it’s not cost effective to buy in bulk. You might come across unused old-stock at auto body shops or wood-working/finishing places, but pretty much, according to a 3M representative, 415N has been replaced by the 426U sandpaper.
  • Price: Even the 426U sandpaper comes in bulk packs at $50-$70 per pack and so it’s still not cost effective in my opinion. Better to try eBay and the other alternatives mentioned at the top of the page.

Recommended? I still have most of one sheet left of the 3M 415N, and because I use small 1″x1″ squares, it will probably last me another 10-20 years, which at my age, is most likely the rest of my life. But if I ever do need to replenish my supply, I’d probably look for the 426U at eBay (though the shipping’s high), or the 405U from StringsByMail. The 405U is 500 Grit, but from what I’ve heard, it works great.

I also have to add that I’ve never tried grits close to 320 – the 220, the 180, for example – though I’d lean more towards the finer, higher grit number if possible; 300’s and up.

It would also worth looking into the very popular Micro-Mesh products made by Micro-Surface Finishing Products. These grit surfaces range between 1500 and 12,000 (!) and would be interesting to try out. 12,000 seems almost fine enough to rub out scratches in your guitar finish, but don’t quote me on that.

Anyhow, that’s my assessment, and though it can take a little looking around it’s well worth the trouble it might take, though your local music or autobody supply store might have some of these items just right there behind the counter.

 You never know.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

 

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

 

 

*** Disclaimer: I belong to the Amazon Associates program, as well as other affiliate programs and earn from qualifying purchases. Purchasing a product or service from a link does not increase your purchase price in any way. Please also note that unlike some places you might come across, I only mention and/or recommend products and services that I have personally used or have thoroughly researched.

Fingernail Files

Focusing more now on fingernail files: I had mentioned in a previous post to avoid – by all means – the cross-cut type metal files which shred and tear and split the fingernail edge rather than grinding it cleanly. I also mentioned that the traditional emery board type nail filing sticks weren’t quite slender enough to get right up to where the edges of your fingernail meet up with your fingertip (which it actually might, depending on the way your nail grows). I did however mention a better solution.

SAPPHIRE FILES – Inexpensive and Widely Available

I’ve used many brands of the sapphire – or emery-type – metal fingernail files over the last 40 years or so. They are available almost everywhere, and there are many, many brands. As earlier described, they have a rough, almost sandpapery cutting surface, most times with a rougher grit on one side and a smoother grade for finishing, on the other.

I’ve just stuck with Revlon because I don’t usually lose things. Simple as that. I still have the original sapphire Revlon fingernail file I bought in 1978, and though it’s a bit worn, it still works great. I especially like the pointy-tipped files because you can scrape under the protruding nail a bit, bringing out the inevitable curled-down edges caused by initial shaping, before filing them off.

They seem to last forever and are relatively inexpensive, so I usually throw one in the gig-bag (along with a 1-inch square of the 320-grit sandpaper) or into the accessory compartment of the guitar/bass case. If I’ve got a gig where I’m playing just the bass, I make it a point to take along at least the nail file to keep the nails down to an absolute minimum because even a day’s worth of nail growth can cause ‘nail-clicks’ on the strings.

GLASS NAIL FILES – Are They Better?

But there’s another choice now; something I admit I haven’t tried out: the glass (or crystal) nail file.

These, as the name suggests, are made of glass, molded to shape, and with the cutting surfaces etched in using a special acid. Developed in the Czech Republic, they are smoother, with more ‘grit’ close together and are excellent at not shredding or tearing at the nail. Are glass nail files better? I’ll have to try one out someday – though they’re not cheap – just to see how much better they are than the metal ones. I will get one that’s made of tempered glass though (the Czech glass), because of obvious reasons.

EXPERIMENT, BUT DON’T FORGET THE MUSIC

Until then though, I’ll stick with what I know, basically because it works – for me. Give the glass/crystal files a try. You could do a search to see which is the best crystal glass nail file on the market and either order one or go to a local pharmacy store and purchase one there. If you do, let me know what you think: it’s an interesting subject.

But…don’t spend too much time experimenting around; use what you can find, then get back to practice!

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

 

 

*** Disclaimer: I belong to the Amazon Associates program, as well as other affiliate programs and earn from qualifying purchases. Purchasing a product or service from a link does not increase your purchase price in any way. Please also note that unlike some places you might come across, I only mention and/or recommend products and services that I have personally used or have thoroughly researched.

Guitar Chord Practice Routine – The Left Hand

We’ve spent a little while on your picking hand, the right, and how to get your fingernails in shape or getting accustomed to using finger and thumb picks. But now, holding down those chords.

GRAB A CHORD, ANY CHORD

Now with your guitar chord practice exercises, most likely you’ll have started with the open E-Major chord; which is a good a place as any. You’d think maybe C-Major would be a good place to begin with, but it leads to the G7 and then the – duh-duh-duhhh! – the dreaded F-Major chord, which is, at first, a real hand-cramper.

So, you place your fingers in position, following the dots on the little chord-diagram, start strumming or finger picking the strings, and you’re going along nicely until you start feeling a cramp maybe; a little pain on the inner part of the wrist, maybe some at the back of the hand. You can see the muscles tensing, the tendons working.

When it gets to that point, stop pressing the strings down and rest your hand. There’s really no advantage to holding the chord down beyond the point of tears, or cursing, or teeth-gnashing. It might be okay – aside from getting the aforementioned tendonitis – but the thing is, in your musical career you’re not going to be simply holding one chord down. You’ll be switching back and forth to other chords during a song, so forcing your hand to become a non-moving vice is sort of pointless.

So, lift off a moment, then press down the chord-shape again. Then again. Repeat it – on, off, on, off – over and over again. Not only do the hand and finger muscles have to become strong, they also have to develop ‘muscle memory’ so putting your fingers on the correct strings, at the correct fret become second-nature to you; something you won’t have to think about consciously.

Hold the chord down, lift off, shake your hand out, then hold the chord down again and repeat until you’re finding that you no longer have to look at your fingers in order to get to the chord. With these quick on-and-off repetitions, not only will the muscles get a tiny break between being tense and relaxed, but they will ‘remember’ where and how they are supposed to move in order to get your finger tips to the right place, exactly when you want them to. Even go so far as hold the chord down for a second, taking your hand completely away from the neck of the guitar (pat your head, maybe), then, without looking, grab the chord again.

Then again.

FEELING IT?

It’s about feel, about your hand – not only your fingers but your entire fretting hand – getting used to the feel of guitar neck, the width of it, the thickness, the contour, the placement of your thumb to give you maximum leverage without strain, about the edges of the fret-board, the feeling of the string against your fingertips, and also the feel of the fret below the string.

All very small details, but with quick repetitions – even without strumming the strings or picking them – you start to train your fingers and hand (and arm and shoulders; just be aware of what other parts of your body become involved) to the intricacies of placing your fingers on the strings without having to think about every single motion involved.

It might not sound musical – though you could do a quick strum each time you grab a chord – but in this case it’s not the length of time you hold down the chord, but the number of times you do it. That’s the routine part of your guitar practice exercises.

It’s similar to the difference between a person who’s a weight-lifter as opposed to someone who is a ballet-dancer; the kind of training they each do. One develops thick, heavy masses of muscle while the other develops thinner, longer and quicker muscles. Both strong, but each for a different purpose.

DANCING ON THE STRINGS

And in the case of playing the guitar, the latter is what’s wanted; delicate but quick muscle movements, with just enough pressure on each string to keep it pressed to the frets without overdoing it. Press down, lift off, over and over again. Then, with that part of your guitar practice routine accomplished, go ahead and work with both hands until you can place your fingers on the strings in the shape of a chord just a millisecond before striking it with your picking fingers.

Kind of like a dance, really, though in this case, you’ll eventually be providing the music for that dance.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

3M Sandpaper

The idea of guitarists using fine grit sandpaper to smooth the edges of their fingernails is not a new one. Nail care for classical guitarists has always been a subject much discussed amongst guitar students, or between students and teachers down through the decades; usually face to face, passed down person to person.

TOO MANY CHOICES

Nowadays information is incredibly easy to find. Simply do a search on Google, Bing or Yahoo for classical guitar nails or something similar and you’ll find lots of info. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to sort through things online, and you’ll find all sorts of differing techniques and solutions to the same problem.

In my case, I was lucky. I had a teacher who told me about sapphire fingernail files, handed me a piece of 3M 415N 320 grit sandpaper and told me what to do with it. It took 5 minutes. And it worked so well – the solution having come from my teacher’s years of experience – that I simply used it, and have been, since the 1970s.

When a thing works, there’s no need to look any further.

MAKING DO

But there have been times when I ran out of that specific sandpaper and had to make do with whatever was around the house. That’s when I realized that all sandpaper is not the same.

For instance, a 3000 grit sandpaper might seem right, but thing is, there’s something about the various coatings used in sandpaper – specific to the jobs they were designed for – that makes them unsuitable for fingernail care. Wet/Dry sandpaper seems to have a coating which, when used dry, gives a tacky/sticky feeling when rubbed over the nail. It’s also almost too fine and doesn’t release the nail residue as you’re sanding.

You have to use what you have, though.

YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY

In my personal experience, the 3M 320 grit sand paper mentioned previously, with its silicon carbide cutting material and open coating, works best. Other guitarists’ experience and suggestions may vary, because everyone’s fingernails are different, grow differently, and are of differing curve and overall shape. As such, preparing them for use in fingerstyle guitar playing will differ.

I’m just passing on info that might save you a bit of time searching and trying out different kinds of sandpaper. I trusted my teacher’s years of experience, which he then passed down to me.

And now, me to you.

 

If you ever need a hand with something or have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.
Rick
Fingers On Strings

rick@fingersonstrings.com

 

 

 

*** Disclaimer: I belong to the Amazon Associates program, as well as other affiliate programs and earn from qualifying purchases. Purchasing a product or service from a link does not increase your purchase price in any way. Please also note that unlike some places you might come across, I only mention and/or recommend products and services that I have personally used or have thoroughly researched.