Gitbox Culture

Musings on guitars, guitarists, guitar styles and approaches, technical matters and guitar design by a professional guitarist with a Ph.D in ethnomusicology. Also covering electric bass, lap and pedal steel guitar. And what the hell, banjo.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Exploring the limits of gear portability

I live in a downtown area of Toronto, and I find that quite a few of my gigs are within walking distance. I prefer to walk over taking public transit or driving; it's better for my health, better for the environment, and the walk gives me time to think or just listen to music on headphones. An added advantage to walking is that I am not at the mercy of transit delays (common in Toronto) or heavy traffic (ditto); I can be sure that if it takes 45 minutes to walk to the gig, I will get there in 45 minutes.
Until recently I didn't think that I had the option of bringing a full rig to a gig on foot.   The good news is that I've managed to miniaturize my gear over time and I can now walk to gigs with no problem.
An essential ingredient is the ZT Lunchbox.  This very small and light but loud solid-state amp is easy to carry for long periods. The Lunchbox weighs about nine pounds and really does feel like a lunchbox as I walk. The secret to the usability of the Lunchbox on gigs is plugging it into the PA from the line out on the back. The line out sounds very good and I treat the signal as I would an acoustic guitar - some in the main speakers and some in the monitors. I put the amp on a barstool and lean it back on the cord, which gives it a nice angle to beam the sound right at my head. That way I get plenty of direct signal, but I also know that I'm getting out to the house and everyone on stage can hear me, without getting killed with volume. This setup works very well and I now use the Lunchbox for every gig. My Fender Twin has not left the house in over a year.
For years, I used a large Furman pedalboard for effects. This was great but very heavy and impossible to take on the streetcar, let alone walk to gigs. I now use a Line 6 M9 multi-effects unit. This unit allows me to arrange six pedal 'models', from which I can use three at a time. I usually run it with a couple of different overdrives, a tremolo or wah, a reverb, delay and compressor. The nice thing about this unit, too, is that it's pretty small and not too heavy. I use a double gig bag - I put a Strat or Tele in the bottom compartment and the M9 and cables in the top one. That goes on my back with the double straps and I carry the Lunchbox in one or the other hand. If I really need to, I can carry a music stand or mic stand in the other hand, though I haven't had to so far.
I can't overstate how much being able to carry my gear to gigs has improved my life and reduced my travel stress. Parking can be a real problem in the downtown core and the transit and traffic situations I've already mentioned. It's also nice to be able to have a beer and not worry about getting nailed by a spot check. I'm sharing this with you because I wouldn't have thought it was possible to get a complete rig to a walkable size and weight, but I've done it and you can too.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Scans from a 1961 musical instrument catalogue

I recently found this catalogue among a lot of music books at an antiques mall in Freelton, Ontario. It dates from 1961 and features the Harmony, Supro, Stella, Martin, Gretsch and Fender lines of guitar, as well as Hohner harmonicas, Martin brass instruments, several other kinds and brands of instruments, accessories, and sheet music. I thought it might be fun to scan a few pages to share - I've been poring over it for a few days and I know that some of you enjoy this sort of thing as I do. Sorry about the blurring at the spine - I would have to take the staples out to get the pages completely flat on the scanner. Check out the 1960 price list at the bottom of the post!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The banjo and guitar in transition, Part 1: The banjo and industrial-age anxiety.

This is Part 1 of the written version of a talk that I gave at the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society on January 8, 2012. I was asked to put together an hour-long presentation to a group primarily composed of 78 and cylinder record collectors and aficionados and home repairers of wind-up record players from the Edison Home cylinder machine to the sumptuous Victor Victrola "Credenza" model. I have been a member of CAPS since January of last year, and whenever I can, I attend their meetings at the Centennial College campus. I decided that this group might enjoy something on the banjo and guitar, subjects on which I have some knowledge and some playing ability. I am certainly no expert on guitars, banjos, or the jazz and dance bands of the 1920s and 1930s. Nonetheless I titled my presentation "The banjo and guitar in transition: the 1920s and 30s." My aim in this essay is to explain the process by which the banjo largely disappeared from the musical mainstream (i.e. jazz and dance bands) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Why was the banjo relegated thereafter to dixieland and bluegrass, two of the most conservative musical styles ever to arise? Specifically, what were the cultural forces underlying this change of fashion?
In the last eighty or so years, the guitar has gone on to dominate the popular music scenes of both the West and the many global instantiations of "pop" and especially "rock" music. Within the world of jazz, arguably the most 'prestigious' music of today, supplanting classical music as the music of choice, the guitar is preeminent, and guitarists like Pat Metheny, George Benson, John Scofield, Bill Frisell are some of the biggest jazz stars of today.  The banjo has an image problem. 
How did this happen? The transition was not overnight or even dramatic. Many dance band banjoists doubled on guitar in the twenties and thirties, and chose their instrument to suit the desired sound increasingly.  A good example is Duke Ellington's longtime banjoist Freddie Guy, who started playing banjo with the group in 1924, but began to incorporate guitar on recordings in 1931. But slowly, surely, the tide began to turn. After 1933, Freddie Guy never played the banjo on record again. When Django Reinhardt began to record his historic Hot Club of France sides in the early 1930s and Charlie Christian brought his electric guitar to a 1939 audition for Benny Goodman, the banjo all but disappeared from commercial dance bands, and was a rare sight in the great big bands of Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, and their ilk.

Versions of banjos appear in musical cultures all over the world. At its essence, the banjo is a cut calabash gourd or ring with an animal skin stretched over it, fitted with a neck and possessing at least one tightened string, with the skin serving as a vibrating medium and the gourd or body providing resonance. Because of their physical properties, banjo-type instruments create musical sounds that have a characteristic percussive attack and short decay.
Among native Africans, the instrument was known as the banza, or banjar.  It survived in American slave culture largely because it escaped the ban on drums that had decimated the instrument stock of West African musical culture in the New World.
This instrument, whose name was standardized to 'banjo' by the early 19th century, was most often a rawhide covered gourd with a simple fretless neck and a short drone string accompanied by one or more longer melody strings. Four strings were standard until 1830 or so, and then five thereafter. This five-string banjo was primarily played by black musicians until the 1830s, when craze for blackface minstrel shows in urban centers brought the banjo to the leisure activities of the growing white middle class.  Along with the bones, the banjo was the iconic musical instrument of the blackface minstrel show. Each touring show left a trail of enthusiastic amateurs who longed to master the familiar, yet somehow exotic instrument. The music they played were largely simple accompaniment patterns using the thumb and index fingernail of the strumming hand, in a style roughly equivalent to the "clawhammer" or "frailing" old-time banjo style known today.
This is the best minstrel banjo clip that I could find on YouTube. Many of the YouTube videos labelled as minstrel banjo are in fact "classical" banjo pieces, taken from 1855 and 1865 banjo tutors and played on fretless minstrel-type banjos.
Around the middle of the 19th century, banjos began to be professionally manufactured. At first these makers were individual artisans and later, companies like A.C. Fairbanks and S.S. Stewart, who made banjos for Sears Roebuck.
The banjo was a most adaptable instrument for general use. It was loud, percussive for dancing, relatively easy to play, and portable. By the time banjo tournaments were reported in the mid 1800s, the banjo was a genuine amateur musical phenomenon. The popularity of the minstrel show was a cultural moment not unlike the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show; in both cases, a generation looked on and said "I can do that."
By the 1870s the banjo had acquired frets, like a guitar. This made the banjo even easier to play. The instrument was strung with gut strings throughout the 19th century, with steel strings coming into vogue around the turn of the 20th century.
Manufacturers like S.S. Stewart in Philadelphia looked with envy at the guitar companies, who were benefitting from a 'parlour guitar' craze among middle-class white ladies. The shareholders in the fortunes of the banjo industry wanted to associate the banjo with upscale domestic life, not the minstrel stage or the saloon.  The most efficient way to make that connection with the public was by associating the banjo with classical music, the music of the cultural elite.
The association of the banjo with classical repertoire, and the resulting fashion for banjo playing among upward-mobile ladies of genteel manners would drive up the demand for high-end banjos with sumptuous decoration, like this Majestic banjo.
The five Dobson brothers, banjoists all, popularized the banjo among New York society women in the 1860s, and by the 1880s classical banjo was a popular culture phenomenon. Touring virtuosi gave concerts and salon performances, a formal banjo technique based on classical fingerstyle guitar was developed and expounded in tutor books like Frank Converse's A New And Complete Method For Banjo Without A Master (1865). Banjo clubs joined mandolin and guitar clubs as a preferred social activity among polite society.

Even as the banjo was gaining respectability much to the delight of the banjo manufacturing and music publishing industry, the instrument was still associated with a kind of anti-modernism.  This nostalgic aspect resonated with the doubts that many people had about the overall good of progress.  The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of mechanization, factories, steam power, and railroads.  Little farming towns were turning into industrial cities, sometimes virtually overnight.
Formerly agrarian people were leaving the southern plantations in droves for northern factory work and prosperity. A longing for home, sweet home began to be felt in songs and stories of the era. Pastoral visions of pre-modern life - simple, uncomplicated and stable, soothed fears of progress and change.  The banjo, with its acknowledged black origins, served as a useful symbol of musical primitivism and a vehicle for nostalgia. Even the stuffiest classical concert banjoist knew to encore with "Massa's In De Cold, Cold Ground."
Around the turn of the century, banjo went in two directions, along with American music at large. Classical music continued to be played on the instrument, though the amateur enthusiasm for banjo had waned; otherwise, the banjo was employed in the service of "characteristic" music, a euphemism for "black" musical forms - cakewalks, minstrel music, ragtime and coon songs.
Two banjoists best represented the 'characteristic' banjo repertoire on early recordings: Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps.
Vess L. Ossman was born Sylvester Louis Ossman in Hudson, New York in 1868. He played five-string banjo in classical (guitar) style, with gut strings.  He made his first recordings for the Edison company on brown wax cylinder in 1893. Ossman was not the first banjoist to record. According to Allen Koenigsberg's Edison Cylinder discography, Will Lyle made 50 banjo records on invitation on Sept 4, 1889. These cylinders are not known to exist.
Ossman was one of the most recorded musicians of his day until about 1910, when Fred Van Eps superseded him. He recorded cylinders for the North American Phonograph Company, nearly 70 discs for Berliner, cylinders for Bettini in 1898 and 1900, and 12 7-inch Zonophone discs at the turn of the century. Ossman began his long association with Victor on July 19, 1900. On that day he recorded several songs for Eldridge Johnson's Consolidated Talking Machine Company.
He was internationally famous by the early 1900s, undertaking two concert tours of England in 1900 and 1903. In later years, he moved beyond solo and accompaniment work to include duets, trios, banjo orchestra. One of his most-recorded aggregation was the Ossman-Dudley Trio, featuring Audley Dudley on mandolin and a harp-guitar player. He died in 1923.

Fred Van Eps was born in Somerville, New Jersey.  He taught himself to play by listening repeatedly to Vess Ossman on brown wax cylinders, and as such was among the first generation of musicians to learn from recordings rather than in-person from other players.  As a teenager, he bought an Edison Type M cylinder phonograph for $100 but paid it off the next week by attaching 14 ear tubes and charging 5 cents a song to friends. Van Eps also recorded his own cylinders on the Edison machine and used them as demos to get hired by Edison in 1897.
Van Eps' early recordings in the 1890s were often remakes of Ossman arrangements, but he enjoyed strong sales, eventually touring with the Eight Victor Record Makers from 1917 to 1922.  Capitalizing on his fame, he formed a company with studio singer Henry Burr to market the banjos that Van Eps designed.  His son, George Van Eps, became a well-known jazz guitarist who played with Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Red Norvo and others. Fred Van Eps died in 1960.

Around the turn of the century, as technical improvements in banjo making allowed for the use of steel strings, the sound of the banjo became even louder and brighter than before.  Steel strings also allowed use of a plectrum, or pick. The four-string plectrum banjo was similar to a five string with the short drone string removed, while the tenor banjo, also with four strings, had a shorter neck, a higher overall pitch, and the tuning scheme of a mandolin or violin.  This made is easy for mandolin players, of which there were many, to double on banjo.  The tenor banjo, sometimes called the 'tango banjo' because of its use in the momentarily popular tango bands, also began to be used in the increasingly 'hot' and ragtime-influenced dance bands of the 1910s and 20s.
With high acoustic volume and cutting power, the banjo became the standard chord/rhythm instrument of jazz bands, which in their early days were oriented towards dance music of a wilder sort.  The banjo found good use in the hands of Bud Scott with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Clarence Holiday with Fletcher Henderson and Mike Pingatore with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. The banjo had found a place in the mainstream of popular music by the early 1920s.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gibson factories in Memphis and Nashville raided

Crazy - the proud Gibson company was raided today under suspicion of illegal importation of wood. Pretty sad if it's true.
Gibson responds:

Monday, July 11, 2011

String bending and intonation

A couple of hours later, my fingers are still burning after working on this exercise for about 20 minutes. While I've preached the importance of in-tune string bending and regular bending practice to students, I've always favoured jazz and classical-style playing in my own practice regimen, such as it is. At a recent rock/blues trio gig I was disappointed at my intonation while executing whole-step bends. Thus my renewed quest to improve this aspect of my playing.

The author of the exercise claims that out-of-tune bending is a dead giveaway that a player is inexperienced. I admit that I judge other guitarists on the intonation of their bends, along with vibrato control and control of the portamento rate. I'm lapsing into synth talk here - in another life I owned a Yamaha DX7 and actually made a serious effort to learn how to program it. I never really succeeded in being able to program the thing but I did learn a lot about sound in the process. For example, a sliding pitch that moves smoothly from one point to another is called portamento. This term is often confused with glissando, which a quick movement through a portion of the chromatic scale. It's the difference between bending a string and sliding along the frets from point to point. I'd like to find or create another bending exercise that trains in bending at different, controllable time durations. I'd like to be able to choose different rates for expressive purposes the way someone like Eric Clapton does and did. After a little bit of YouTube searching here's a video that touches on bend durations. He gets into it at around the 10:30 mark, but it's really just more of an encourage to be aware that you can use different durations for different effects. He doesn't provide any exercises or even any attempt at classification, as he does earlier in the video for bend types.

Here's a less demanding version of the exercise by Justin Sandercoe. The search results for "guitar string bending lesson" indicate that this is a popular topic. If you have a favourite video on this topic, please let me know and I'll post it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Alternating thumb - a country/blues crossover.

Practicing with fingerpicks and a thumbpick today, going through some books of folk and blues songs. Lately I've been consumed with writing songs for the upcoming Fraser Daley CD, and delving into some old-time guitar styles for ideas. I was playing along with this earlier:

I'm not sure that I'm convinced by the harmonica imitation, but a great record nonetheless. I love when country musicians play blues, and vice versa. Sam McGee (1894-1975) was an old-time country musician from Franklin, Tennessee. His style has been (rather anachronistically) called "Travis picking" after Merle Travis. But it's clearly much older than Travis, and seems to have been adapted to folk purposes from 19th century parlor guitar styles.

Parlor guitar wasn't far from 'classical' banjo of the late 19th century.

And all of this is not too far from prototypical blues guitar.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"One question....why a Squier?"

Dedicated GC readers may remember my tribulations a few months back regarding my substandard Fender Highway One Strat, bought in Strat-desperation for a Pink Floyd cover gig, with regret slowly creeping up thereafter.
It's gone.
I traded it down to a Squier Classic Vibe Strat, the 50s version. Looks like this and sells for $330 CDN plus tax at Canada's own version of Guitar Center, Long and McQuade.
 It was a bit of a journey to get here, and for now I'm very happy with this guitar. It wasn't long ago that I wouldn't even deign to touch a Chinese-made guitar; there was no point. Dull, weak tone, out-of-tune and cheap-feeling necks and a generally plastic feel top the list of reasons 'why not.' Yet here I am, a cheap Chinese Strat my main rock guitar and me proudly testifying on its behalf when asked the question at the top of this post.
It started with seeing Kevin Breit (see my email interview with Kevin here) playing one at the Orbit Room in Toronto and him commenting on its surprising excellence. From there it was to the online forums and finally to my local big box guitar dealer, where only the 60s version was to be found. Coveting a maple board Strat, I special-ordered the 50s guitar, something I've never done before. When it arrived it was perfectly set up, with an expensive-feeling neck and a nice clear Strat-y tone. I've heard and played better, certainly, but there's something psychologically gratifying for me about my guitar being easily replaceable; there's also something cool about not paying $4000 for what was designed to be the Model T of electric guitars, a populist plank. There's something just wrong about the idea of the Custom Shop for me, and relicing? I just can't get with it. So I strike a blow for the common man, and for offshore CNC machines, with my Squier scepter boldly in hand.
Nice two-colour sunburst, too.