Saturday, September 22, 2012

Guitar Lessons

Dave and I have been wanting to get together and play for a while now (since immediately after the last time really), and schedules worked out such that I could get over to his house for a couple hours this afternoon and goof around. I was anxious to get together with him for a couple reasons; first, he hadn't seen my new baby in person yet and I was anxious to see what he had to say about it, and second, the last time we got together he was able to teach me a lot (that stuck) in a fairly short period of time. I was also hoping that he would be able to make a couple of minor adjustments that I felt the new guitar needed.

I will preface my comments on today's session by admitting that I have been happy with the new guitar, but that there are a few things I have had minor reservations about. I expected the tone to be warm, bright and clear. At home it sort of was, but seemed to be missing a little something. This might have been a case of burdening one "copy guitar" with a lifetime of musical expectation that perhaps even the real $2500 version couldn't meet, but I couldn't help feeling that something was missing. String bending was a little difficult, and there seemed to be a lack smoothness, for lack of a better term. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but something just didn't feel as wonderful as I expected it to feel. Not that it was bad, but it was good and not "wow". I kinda had my heart set on "wow".

Prior to showing up at Dave's, I asked for a good general purpose string recommendation, and he said to buy D'Addario "tens", which I did. When I got to Dave's, I proudly unveiled the new purchase and he was suitably impressed (good brother that he is). The first thing he did was plug it into his Bugera tube amp, and I had my first "a-ha" moment. My baby did NOT sound like that at home! Same guitar, same strings, same cabling, nothing changed... but when he plugged in and strummed a few chords... I heard "wow!". I love the amp I have at home (a Line 6 Spider IV hand me down courtesy of Dave) that has all sorts of cool modelling effects (phasing, delay, drive, etc), but for pure clean sound I am now convinced that a nice simple (high quality) tube amp has a special something in terms of sound. This has the very likely possibility of turning into an "oops I did it again" moment in the not-too-distant future...

The remaining hour and a half or so that we spent together today was a combination of a lesson on chords and some pointers on different chord shapes and their use up and down the fretboard, and a chance for Dave to polish his guitar maintenance skills. The strings that came with the 335 looked discolored in places, which is a sign of age and exposure, and I had some questions about the action of the 5th and 6th strings. Dave had no issues with the action (just relax and don't strum so hard!), but the strings did need replacing, which he did. He also raised the low side of the bridge a little just in case, but it probably didn't need it. Before he replaced the strings, he also cleaned and oiled the fretboard, which was surprisingly dirty. After doing so the feel was much smoother, and closer to what I had hoped for and expected.

While Dave worked on my 335, I had the chance to noodle around on a couple of guitars - his Casino and the newly arrived Epiphone SG, which he recently picked up on eBay. The Casino is a true hollow body that is otherwise similar to the 335, and the SG is the signature guitar of Derek Trucks (among others), a fairly recent musical man-crush. The Casino is warm and rich, and I loved the SG. As Dave had mentioned to me earlier, it is incredibly neck-heavy, but sounded wonderful. And an absolute steal at the price he was able to get it for.

All in all, a fun couple of hours. Productive in terms of learning and also a revelation about what a tube amp can sound like. By the end of the session, I had learned some valuable things, but more importantly, Dave had put the "wow" back in my holy grail guitar. Not bad for two hours on a Saturday afternoon...

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Holy Grail... Sort of...

Epiphone ES-335 Pro
I did a very very silly thing today. In a moment of weakness (or was it strength?) I took the plunge and checked a holy grail item off the list. As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been playing a lot more guitar recently and have made some strides toward actually being able to play some things passably well.

One of my favorite bands growing up was the Moody Blues (still is for that matter), and Justin Hayward has always been one of my favorite singer/songwriter/guitarists. His signature guitar is a Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow body. In cherry red. The guitar of Nights in White Satin, Tuesday Afternoon and most other classic Moodies tunes. The guitar that I have seen live in concert at least a dozen times. The guitar that probably more than any other made me want to learn how to play the guitar, or at the very least make me wish I could.

Since a very early age, that guitar (along with Eric Clapton's black Fender Stratocaster "Blackie") has been on the short list of "someday I need to own a guitar like that, even if it's just decoration". It's a very short list, perhaps including only those two plus a Jimmy Page classic sunburst Les Paul and (much more recently) a Derek Trucks red Gibson SG.

Before kids, I checked the black Strat off the list in 1993. Today, after some eBay watching, I went to the local Guitar Center store and bought a little piece of my adolescence. Specifically, an Epiphone Custom Shop Limited Edition ES-335 Pro. Epiphone is Gibson's second brand, and the usual Epiphone version of the ES-335 is referred to as "the Dot" because of the distinctive dot pattern on the fret board. The ES-335 Pro is a limited edition of the Dot with upgraded volume knobs that allow push-pull switching of the pickups from single coil to double coil mode (and rectangular fret inlays, not dots). This has the effect of making the guitar sound more like a Gibson or more like a Fender depending on the setting. The difference is substantial, and a tribute to modern electronics.

The Whole (electric) Gang
I haven't had much of a chance to play around with it yet, but it has a wonderful warm rich tone that is very different from both the Strat and from the Les Paul copy. It could use a minor 5th and 6th string action adjustment to remove a tiny "fret buzz" on the middle of the fretboard, but that is a simple adjustment that Dave can help me make.

Do I need a third guitar (four if you count the hand-me-down Yamaha acoustic)? Of course not. I barely play well enough to justify one nice one, let alone three. And the Strat from twenty years ago is still qualitatively the best of the three instruments, probably by a fairly wide margin. But that misses the point for the most part. Or misses the point entirely. Life is short. Love of music can manifest itself in many ways, not the least of which I suppose is a middle aged guy with a small guitar collection. So I see nothing wrong with indulging a fan-boy moment. Does owning this make me Justin Hayward? Sadly, no. That takes talent, ability, hard work, dedication, luck, a voice, songwriting ability and a time machine. But it sure does put a smile on my face, and there is something to be said for that.

Given that a real Gibson ES-335 goes for $2,200 rock bottom minimum, this is almost certainly as close as I will ever get to my dream guitar. But it's close enough for me.