Thursday, May 29, 2008

Restringing the Guitar - One Player's Method

This is what works for me and the way I play – your mileage may vary. My goal is to have strings that don’t slip and also are easy to remove when I need to restring in a hurry. I think that by being careful and methodical about it, you can have both. My method varies slightly depending on the guitar and the gauge of the strings, but here are the basics for traditional setups (i.e., fixed bridge or non-locking tremolo), and is applicable to most electric or steel-string acoustic guitars.

- Change strings one at a time or two by two. This keeps tension on the neck and on tremolo springs, if so equipped. You also get to have a tuning reference using the existing strings, unlike when you change all the strings at once. If you have a fully-floating tremolo, it’s probably better to change the strings one by one, unless you have a way to block off the tremolo while you restring.

- Precut the strings to the length you want. I allow for 2 to 3 winds on the wound strings, and 4 to 5 on the unwound strings. I use the distance between posts as a reference for the length of the string after it reaches the tuning post. This distance varies by the make of the guitar.

- Inserting the string into the post: If it’s a slotted-post Fender-type vintage tuner, push it all the way into the slot and bend it down. For other types, push it through the hole and let about 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch protrude. Some people leave more, but I’ve never had a problem with this short a length, and I don’t like poking myself with the protruding ends.

- For non-slotted tuners, wind the string once around over the protruding end, and then wind all subsequent turns under the end. For slotted tuners, just start winding the string down. Keep it neat so that the string comes off the post at the lowest wind.

- For non-slotted tuners, bend the protruding end of the string in the reverse direction of the wind. In other words, if the post turns counter-clockwise to tighten the string, bend the end in the clockwise direction, and vice-versa.

- Tune the strings up to pitch and stretch them out. I do this four times on each string, tuning, stretching, and re-tuning until stretching the string doesn’t detune it. Be careful with the 1st string – it’s really easy to break when you pull up on it.

- Lubricate the nut. At this point, I’d recommend putting a bit of graphite in the nut slots, as I’ve described previously.

Editorial section

If you notice that there are a couple more instructions for non-slotted post tuners than for the vintage-style slotted ones, you’ll understand one reason why I like the vintage-style tuners better on Fenders – ease of restringing. I don’t know why Fender persists in using the cast, Schaller-style tuners on all their non-vintage reissue guitars, other than the fact that they’re probably easier to install. The reissue vintage tuners are much more exact and reliable than the originals, and I believe the lighter weight results in better tone for that type of guitar, another good reason for liking them better.

That’s why the last two Fenders I bought that came with the sealed, cast tuners immediately got vintage replacements. Stewart MacDonald ( sells retro-fit grommets that convert the larger tuner holes to the correct size for vintage tuners. They also sell vintage replacement Kluson tuners.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Lenny's Club Gig Survival Tips for Guitarists

While I’ve never reached any kind of notoriety, I have played in bands most of my life. The gigs I’ve played have ranged from opening for major acts in ten thousand-seat halls, all the way down to grueling four-sets-a-night club gigs in miserable smoky hole-in-the-walls where two dozen people would seem like a crowd, that is, if there was a crowd instead of a few disinterested drun…er, I mean, patrons, sitting at the bar. Here are some tips and tricks, none of which are particularly original, that have helped me over the years.

Guitar set-up and maintenance – the basics

- Number one and most important, get your guitar set up by a pro. You only have to do it once (unless you change string gauges), and it will help the guitar play in tune and stay in tune more than any other thing you can do. A pro can tweak the nut so that the strings don’t catch in the slots, and he can set the intonation properly so that the guitar plays in tune. Just do it.

- Learn to string your guitar properly. There are many methods, but they all involve a few basic principles.

- Be neat about it - don’t allow winds to overlap (except intentionally)

- Use only as many winds as you think you need

- Unless you’re trying to convey a chaotic, punk-like vibe, trim the ends. You don’t want to poke your eye out with those things.

- Stretch new strings out before you start to play. Be careful with the 1st string – I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve broken by using too much force while stretching.

- Use an electronic tuner. Don’t be proud – this can actually help your ear by showing you what in-tune really sounds like. Better yet, buy a stompbox-style tuner that mutes your output when engaged. No one wants to hear you tune on stage, and the joke about the Chinese song, “Tu-Ning” is only funny once.

- Unless you play like a gorilla or your strings are rusting off the guitar, you shouldn’t be breaking strings. If you start breaking strings for no particular reason, and it’s usually the same string in the same place, take the guitar to a pro. There’s probably a burr on the bridge or on a fret somewhere that can be smoothed-out. I’ve only broken one string in the last fifteen years while playing, and that was because I had just gotten a new guitar and didn’t know how to deal with the Bigsby when restringing. I have friends that continually break strings at gigs and don’t understand that this is not necessary.

- Wipe off your strings every time you play, and not just a quick up and down on the neck. Take a clean polish cloth and wipe each string off individually, sliding the cloth up and down the string between two fingers. Note: Although I didn’t intend to get into health issues here I have to comment on this: If you have very acidic sweat and your strings corrode quickly, you need to know that (in my opinion and the opinion of others far more knowledgeable than I), this acidity is not an optimal condition for your body, and you should consider modifying your diet and/or seeing a natural health practitioner for advice.

Guitar set-up and maintenance – some tricks

- Lubricate the nut with graphite. Pull each string out of its slot at the nut and tap in a little Extra Fine graphite powder (available at hardware stores in tubes). Put the string back in the slot and blow off the excess powder. I do this every time I change the strings, or for vibrato-equipped guitars, before every gig. A #2 pencil works as well. You can also put a bit of Vaseline on the string tree as well, if you’re playing a Fender. Chapstick works well, too.

- Use Teflon plumber’s tape on your Stratocaster-type vibrato arm. If you like the arm to flop around, skip this, but if you like to find it where you left it, then this might be helpful. Wind some tape around the threads of the arm a couple of times, and then screw it in. (You can also use the same Teflon tape if a lever switch tip is loose.)

- A bit of thin insulated wire can be a cheap and effective straplock. I've seen people use handfuls of duck tape to keep their straps on while they perform. Unless you like the punk look and don't care about getting a lot of sticky duck tape goo on your finish, I have an alternative for this. Get some insulated, solid cord wire, about 24-gauge - telephone wire is perfect - cut two pieces about 6-inches long. Put your strap on the strap button and wind the wire around the button and the strap end in such a way that the strap can rotate a bit, but can't come off the button. Do this for each end.

Common Sense preparation for your gig

- For Fender-style guitars, always carry a spare switch tip. I’ve knocked these off on a number of occasions, and I’m not really into tearing my hands up on the bare metal of the switch. If you don’t have spare and the tip starts slipping off, wind some plumbers tape around the switch and press the tip back on, or tear a bit off of a paper match and stuff that in the plastic tip cavity and then press the tip back on. This assumes that you can find the tip that came off, of course, and that no one has stepped on it yet..

- Bring Duct Tape. Better yet, buy the more expensive Gaffer's Tape from a theatrical supply store. It's worth it, because it doesn't leave a sticky mess on everything once it's removed. Tape down your cables where you think you might trip over them. Also tape down any PA cables that you think are in danger of being accidentally yanked by members of your audience. Come to think of it, bring both, use the good stuff for your guitar gear and the cheap stuff for everything else.

- Take a narrow strip of tape, and tape some picks to the mic stand (be orderly), or you can tape them to the top of your amp. You can also buy an inexpensive pick holder made by Dunlop that clips on a mic stand.

- Bring a towel and stick it someplace close by. The first time you (or someone else) spill a drink on your amp, you'll realize this was a good idea. If you don't have any accidents, it's great to have one if you start sweating due to exertion, hot lights or the even hotter blonde up front.

- While we're on the subject of wiping things, consider bringing some wipes as well. This isn't some OCD thing, and if you get something sticky on your hands before you play and don't have time to hit the restroom, you'll thank me for thinking of it.

- Carry a couple of different lengths of guitar cable. If you’re going to be playing on a postage-stamp sized stage, you don’t need a 20-foot cable getting in your way, unless you want to walk off the stage playing your guitar.

- Do I have to tell you to carry spares of important stuff? I’m talking about spares of everything – picks, strings, strap, cables, batteries, tubes, fuses, underwear (just kidding, I think…) – whatever you use, you need a spare. If you can bring a spare amp, or something like a POD preamp, that’s good insurance.

- Bring a second guitar and keep it tuned and handy. If you break a string, you can probably switch mid-song. Don’t subject your audience to watching you fumble through putting on a new string – it’s not professional, even if you can tell a few jokes while you’re doing it. If you don’t own a 2nd guitar, chances are that you can borrow it from a band mate.

- Bring Band-Aids and a small roll of surgical tape. You never know when you’ll get a cut, and having a Band-Aid can make the difference between enjoying your own scorching solo and wishing the night was already over.

- Bring earplugs, not necessarily for playing, but for listening to any other band that may be playing before or after you, or for excessively loud break music (just in case you have no control over that). However, if you’re playing with a very loud drummer or if you’re stuck in a place on the stage where your amp is blasting at your head, earplugs can be your best friend, and I recommend them highly.

- If you only have hard cases for your guitars, invest in gig bags. For most club gigs, a gig bag is much more convenient than a case. It’s fast and easy to get a guitar in and out of a gig bag, and you don’t need any room to lay it down like you need with a case. You can toss an empty gig bag anywhere, and it takes up a lot less room than a case. The only time I carry a hard case is a gig where I know I’m going to have to leave my guitar unattended, and there is a possibility of it being moved or knocked around by someone else.

- Carry a six-inch piece of two-by-four. This ultra-cheap accessory can be inserted just under the front of a combo amp or speaker cabinet to lean it back a bit for more projection. You can spray paint it black if you want it to look a bit more pro. Another inexpensive alternative is the ubiquitous milk crate, which makes a great amp stand, plus you can carry your cables in it. A chair will do as well, but if you really want to look professional, there are plenty of amp stands priced under $50.

- Unless you want to wear yourself out before the gig or risk straining your hands, get some sort of hand cart to move your gear around. This can range from a heavy duty hand truck, or – what I used for some years – a cheap, folding luggage cart. One of the best carts I’ve used is a folding model made by Ruxxac. It’s a bit pricey at $125 -150, but I’ve found it to be the best piece of ‘musical’ gear I ever bought. Hey, if you’re twenty, forget I mentioned it, but as you get older, you should think seriously about this. Also, bring some cheap work gloves to move gear. It may look dumb, but it’s worthwhile to keep your hands safe before the gig.

- Bring your own water and snacks. Sure, most clubs will offer bands free sodas and even a limited bar tab, but then you’ll have to depend on the wait-person to bring you everything. This may be problematic in the middle of the set when you need it the most. Another time to consider is the end of the gig, when you’re probably thirstiest, and most of the help are gone or cleaning up. The snacks – they’re for the trip home (or if the club food is really, really bad).

- Make an equipment checklist, and tack it up where you keep your equipment, at home or at your rehearsal space. If you’re in a hurry loading up for a gig, it’s way too easy to forget something. A checklist is extra important if you’re in more than one band, as your setup may vary. Make a separate checklist for each band.

- Keep important phone numbers in your wallet and programmed in your cellphone. Make sure you have the club’s number and your band mates’ numbers before you leave. If you get stuck in traffic, or if your car dies halfway to the gig, you’ll need to call the rest of the band, and you may need to call the club as well. If your cellphone dies or the battery runs out, you’ll need that paper list.

- Be sure you have a set list, and make sure it’s printed big enough to read without picking it up after every song. If you are new to the band, get a set list ahead of time and make notes on it.

- Consider investing in a wireless unit. First of all, it will make you feel a lot freer to move on stage. But most importantly, you will never be shocked by a badly grounded microphone again, and you will be safe from electrocution by miswired club power. I always take a cheap Radio Shack AC outlet circuit tester to clubs I’m playing for the first time. Once I found two outlets fairly close together that were wired in reverse polarity to each other. This means that if you had the PA plugged into one and your guitar into the other, the result would be fried lips - at the very least. I can understand that some tone purists don’t like wireless units, and I sympathize, so at least get an AC outlet tester, and always test for shocks at the mic before you start. If you’re covering James Brown, ‘Owwww!’ is an acceptable lyric, but it doesn’t work for a lot of other music genres.

At the Gig

- Don’t just plug the cable into your guitar and leave it dangling. Get into the habit of threading it around the back of the guitar, through gap between the strap and the body of the guitar. The first time you step on your cable and pull it out in the middle of a dramatic solo, you’ll figure out why this is important.

- Beer does not quench your thirst – it just makes you want to drink more beer. Stay hydrated with water. Approach the gig as if you were an athlete – remember to stay hydrated, and eat foods that give you energy.

- One more word about Beer (or any other intoxicant): If having a little puts you in the mood, don’t assume that having more is your ticket into the “Zone”. You’ll only play too loud, ignore signals from your band mates, and generally act like an ass. Yeah, you’ll be in a zone all right, but not one that anyone willingly spends time in.

- Ok, the personal stuff – common sense, really. Be friendly and polite with the club staff. If they ask you to turn down, do it. If they ask you to turn down past the point of being reasonable (like if your drummer has to use chopsticks to play at their preferred volume level), consider whether you want to play this club again. If that answer is “yes”, turn down, or act like you’re turning down and bring the dynamics down a bit for a few songs. If “no”, then – well, I don’t have to explain that, but be careful – a bad reputation can get around. Ask ahead of time what the policy is for guests, drinks, and food. If there’s a house soundman, be especially friendly, even if he’s not. He has control of your sound and is probably not getting paid very much – enough said.

That’s it for now, thanks for visiting!