Friday, January 25, 2013

WOODS FOR GUITAR AND BASS (a guide for dummies)

Hello and welcome to this week's article! Today we're going to talk about woods!
How do the different types of wood change the sound of a guitar or a bass?
Like every string instrument, guitars and basses are all made of wood (except for some particular model), and the wood type influences the resulting sound.
The incidence of the wood on the final sound is particularly audible on acoustic instruments, since in the electric ones it's easier to mask a cheap wood with a good pickup, that is sometimes capable to transform radically a signal, yet a good wood choice can give a strong print to the final sound.

The wood type, the kind of tree used to build the body, has a big impact on the tone, but along with the type of wood it's important the amount of it (if the quality is good, the more wood = the more tone), the shape (some shapes are more likely to resonate than others), the age (more years = less moisture inside the wood = more resonance) and how the neck is jointed with the body (if the guitar is neck-through-body, the sound will resonates better and have more sustain).

We must not forget that trees are living things, therefore not all woods of the same tree specie are made equal, for example if we take two identical instruments of the same brand and made with the same wood, we can still find some tonal difference: this is because some part of the body will resonate better, others will resonate less, and on some part may be present a knot or some other natural imperfection that will stop the sound to propagate at best through the body.
If a piece of wood is perfectly flawless and properly aged, it's classified as "10-top", and its value is much higher than the other pieces, therefore it will be used to create higher level guitars (such as
the top-end Paul Reed Smith guitars).

Here are the most common woods used for Guitar and Bass body and neck:

- Mahogany: Mahogany's weight and density are similar to maple, however mahogany carries are more mellow, soft and warm tone to it, with a great sustain. Les Paul guitars, along with the vast majority of "rock guitars", are made with Honduran mahogany.

- Maple: Maple is a very popular wood for necks and fretboards. Easily identifiable because of its bright tone, characteristic grain patterns and moderate weight, it's featured on many Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars. It's tonal characteristics includes durability, a good sustain with plenty of bite.

- Ash: Ash is available in two types: Northern (hard) or Swamp Ash (soft). Hard Ash is popular because of its hardness, with bright tone and long sustaining qualities.
Swamp Ash is much softer; many 50's era Fender guitars were built with this wood, which has a much warmer feel than Hard Ash. Both variations have an open grain, meaning that a lot of lacquer is required to seal the wood. Excellent for clear finishes.

- Basswood: Basswood is a very light wood - even lighter than alder. It is very soft, and should not be subjected to much abuse. This wood has a nice warm, soft tone.

- Alder: Alder is light in weight with soft tight pores like Basswood. Tonally, alder retains more of the highs that Basswood softens, but it also gives some room to the lows. This brings to a broader spectrum of tones, which leads to the perception of a little less mids than Basswood.

- Rosewood: Rosewood is one of the heaviest woods available. The sound is very warm (Indian Rosewood is even warmer and heavier than the Brazilian one), although the high end sounds are dampened. Usually Indian Rosewood is reserved for fretboards only.

- Walnut: Walnut's tone is slightly warmer than maple, although it still has good sustain. This wood can look excellent with oil finishes, and is moderately heavy, but still lighter than maple.

- Tulipwood (tulipier): it's a premium wood similiar to maple, sometimes used to make Stratocaster clones. It's lighter than mahogany but with similar tonal characteristics.

Focusing on neck and fretboard material, Maple is a common wood for necks, as it is stiff, and creates a bright tone. Rosewood and maple are used for fretboards: Rosewood creates a warm tone, but ebony, a slightly less common wood, is very heavy and creates a bright, hard attack, and has a longer durability than Rosewood.
If you are on a guitar shop you can try to lay your ear on the guitar/bass body and knock lightly over it, to hear how much it resonates: the more is the sound, the richer will be the tone, once it's plugged into an amplifier.
This is also a way to find parts that doesn't resonate: if we have to choose between two identical guitars this may be a criteria to find the best one, the one with less "dead" parts on its body (on cheaper guitars, though, these tests to understand the resonance of the wood are harder, since the manufacturers covers the wood with dense layers of lacquered paint to cover the imperfections and its cheapness).
As a general rule, though, when plugged into an amplifier, softer and less dense woods will produce more volume, less attack and less sustain while heavier and denser woods will produce more sustain and a sharper attack with less volume.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013


Hello and welcome to Today's article! 
This week we analyze an interesting branch of modulation effects, the one more tied to the "vintage" and psychedelic sound of sixties and seventies: Tremolo, Vibrato and Rotary Speaker.

Tremolo is an effect that simulates a rhythmic opening and closure of the guitar's volume control, it can be set to different timings and it must not be confused with the Tremolo Bridge.
A good example of tremolo can be heard at the beginnig of the Nancy Sinatra's song "Bang Bang".

Vibrato, instead, is an effect that rhythmically alters the pitch of a sound, through a frequency modulation. It is easily achieved with vocals (with the singer periodically contracting its diaphragm) and string instruments, making the string to vibrate with our fingers or the whole bridge to move via the Whammy Bar, but there are also many electronic devices that can produce a similar result, and their "warbling" sound often appeared on Surf Rock or Noise Rock records. A good example of this effect may be found at the beginning of the song "Machine Gun" by Jimi Hendrix.

Rotary - Leslie: this last variation is basically an actual speaker rotating inside a box (created by Donald Leslie, thus the name), and its speed can be controlled the musician. 
The result is a phenomenon called Doppler Effect: a frequency change of the perceived wave based on the varying of the position of it source. This device was particularly used with the Hammond Organ, a true protagonist of '60s and '70s music, that can be heard on many Deep Purple songs (for example in "Living Wreck"). 

These three effects, which are quite similar as a result, have two fundamental controls in common (although by downloading some of the free Vst listed below you'll notice that there are many more parameters available):

Speed (or Rate): controls the frequency of the variation, typically from a maximum (very fast) to a minimum, which may be as slow as one cycle taking several seconds.

Depth (or Intensity): controls the amplitude (in volume or in pitch) of the variation. The minimum depth is often zero (no effect on the sound at all), while the maximum depth does not normally cut the sound off completely at the cycle minimum, but may reduce it by as much as making it inaudible.

Today many DAWs already feature some basic Tremolo, Vibrato and Rotary Effect, but if you want to try something new and different here's a selection of the best freeware effects available:

Pan-Oh-Rama - Autopan, Tremolo and Filter

Bts TremoloDelay - An Interesting Tremolo and Delay simulator

Stomp King RoTube - Tube warmed Rotary / Leslie effect

MVibrato - Traditional Vibrato with adjustable shape

MTremolo - Easy and fully automatable Tremolo

NdcTrem+ - Tempo Sync-able Tremolo effect

Mr Donald - Midi Controlled Rotary / Leslie simulator

Real Rotor - Organ - focused Rotary / Leslie effect

Effectizer - an interesting Multi Effect plugin that features Tremolo too

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

SINGLE COIL PICKUPS! PART 2/2 (a guide for dummies)


According to the bridge of the particular guitar, strings may have a different distance between them, thus the pickups have to set the polepieces at a certain distance between them in order to intercept the vibration at best.
Here are the most common strings spacings: when choosing a pickup take notice of your guitar's bridge or you will degrade the overall sound of your guitar:

Guitar type                                                                             1st-to-6th string distance
Standard spacing
(Vintage Gibson guitars)                                                                       48 mm
(Most Fender guitars, modern Gibson, Floyd Rose bridges)            51 mm
Very close to bridge, extra pickup                                                        52.3 mm
(Roland guitar synth hex pickups)

Fender Telecaster spacing                                                                     55 mm

Steinberger Spirit GT-Pro spacing                                                          60 mm

The three most famous types of Single Coil Pickups are: the Gibson P90, the Telecaster Single Coil and the Stratocaster Single Coil:

Gibson P90: the most famous Gibson single coil pickup, born in the '50s, features a traditional "Soapbar" shape,  alnico bar magnets lying under the coil bobbin and two screws to adjust the distance from the strings (the closer the pickup is to the string, the more vibrations it will catch).
The result is a snappy sound typical of the single coil pickup, but with some hum problem, that over time led Gibson to focus its production mainly on Humbucker pickups.
Today, anyway, there are still many manufacturers that produces P90 pickups with hum cancelling technology, so that it's possible to achieve this typical sound without hum.

Telecaster single coils: The Fender Telecaster features two single coils: the neck one produces a mellower sound, while the bridge pickup produces an extremely twangy, sharp tone with exaggerated treble response, because the bridge pickup is mounted on a steel plate (commonly known as "Ashtray"), which gives the tone a particularly metallic character. These design elements allow musicians to emulate steel guitar sounds, making it particularly appropriate for country music, and, lately, alternative rock.

Stratocaster single coils: The Fender Stratocaster is a guitar in production by more than 50 years, and through its long life it featured any kind of pickup in the market, yet if we refer to the Stratocaster set, we think of three single coils with magnet poles of different heights to compensate the different outputs of the strings, and a 5 ways pickup selector.
The particularity of this selector is that it lets the player to choose one of the three pickups or a combination between two of them (but the output will be the one of the lowest output of the two pickups), and this helps achieving a very wide range of tones.
It's typical for a guitar player to switch often between pickups while playing, according to the tone needed, and this is typical when using Single Coil pickups, more than with Humbuckers.
The masters of the classic Stratocaster sound, among the thousands of guitar player that used these pickups, are Jimi Hendrix, Marc Knopfler, David Gilmour, The Edge and Eric Clapton.

Bass pickups are very similiar to the guitar ones and shares the same problems (in some case, such as the original Fender Musicmaster, there was no difference between the guitar and bass pickups. They were exactly the same part), and a characteristic of some model is to feature oversized polepieces, on both Single coils and Humbucker, such as in the Music Man basses.


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Saturday, January 5, 2013

SINGLE COIL PICKUPS! PART 1/2 (a guide for dummies)

Hello and welcome to this week's article! 
Today we're going to talk about guitar and bass single coil pickups!
Let's start off by saying what a pickup is: a pickup is a magnet (with a core of material such as Alnico or Ceramic), wrapped with a coil of thousands of turns of copper wire, that electromagnetically converts the vibration of the strings to an electric signal; this signal is fed to an amplifier and then sent to a speaker, which makes it audible.

The first pickups to be mounted on a guitar were created by George Beauchamp in the early '20s, and consisted of two large "U" shaped magnets and one coil, known as the "horseshoe pickup".
The pickup was mounted for some Rickenbacker lap steel guitar, these devices started to appear  on a regular guitar more than 10 years later.
The pickup (and therefore the concept of electric guitar) became popular around 1936, with a Jazz player called Charlie Christian, which featured a pickup on his hollow body guitar, a Gibson Es150, and his endorsement made this device finally famous.

The single coil Pickups were the first to be created, and consisted as we said in one coil for each pickup, that granted a certain output according to the power of the magnet and the amount of copper wrapped around it: the more the power, the more the input level from the guitar to the amplifier, therefore a fuller tone, richer, more suited for distortion.
The lesser the output, instead, the more the tone tends to be similiar to an acoustic guitar and acquires the vintage character typical of the '50s and '60s guitars.

A known issue of single coil pickups is Noise: for some reason this kind of pickup is prone to catch a hum known as "the 50/60hz hum", caused by magnetic disturbances, and this problem can become pretty annoying when turning up the amplifier gain, therefore through time many manufacturers started to research their own way to solve this problem, and the two most effective results has been the Humbucker (Click here for a dedicated article), and the active pickups (created by Emg), which can be both Humbucker or Single Coil and consists on a low output pickup passing through a battery powered internal preamp that raises the output level keeping it clean and crisp.
Other producers (such as Lace Sensor, Kinman and Fender itself with the Vintage Noiseless Pickup serie, produced around the year 2000) succeeded in creating Single Coil pickups that produced no hum, by using innovative materials and trying different winding techniques.

Hum problem is a minor problem for Bass, since this instrument is usually less distorted and less hi-frequencies oriented, yet for some music genre it's suggested anyway to use active pickups, since even bass can reach high levels of distortion.
Another interesting feature is the fact that the magnet polepieces can be set in the pickup following different criteria: one for each string as it happens most of the times, two for each string (as in the case of some Fender Precision and Jazz bass), or "lipstick" / "Rail" type, with a single pole taking the vibrations of all the strings, or just a group of them.


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