Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Guitar Blogging

When I started this blog, I was in a phase of studying through some of my theory text library, and so I didn't think of doing any guitar blogging. More than that, though, I'm one of those guitarists who defies any convienient classification. Sure, I play exclusively nylon string guitar (Though, I'm thinking of getting one of those new-fangled Steinberger baritone electric steel strings with the built in sliding capo dealie-bob so that I can play some Pat Metheny transcriptions from the One Quiet Night CD), but almost all of my performances are on an electric nylon string through one of two small stereo PA's I've put together. The only time I play acoustic "classical guitar" is when I'm either playing in Church, or playing a really tiny, quiet gig like an art opening.

Then, there is my repetoire: Yes, I play a few of the standard pieces for classical guitar, but very few, and most of those are Bach miniatures. Over 75% of my two-hour performance set consists of music I've written myself. A lot of what I play that I didn't compose is contemporary stuff that would be beneath the dignity of a "real" classical guitarist: Mason William's Classical Gas, Eddie Van Halen's Spanish Fly, Joe Satriani's A Day at the Beach, Steve Howe's Mood for a Day, and yes, even Stairway to Heaven (Though I do play a chord-melody section that incorporates a lot of Jimmy Page's solo licks into it, if that might redeem me in some eyes). Because of that, I don't think I'm relatable to very many guitarists, in either the classical, or in the contemporary jazz generas.

Besides, my friend Jeff (Solitudex) over at Solitude in Music has the bases covered so far as classical guitar blogging is concerned: I just couldn't lend a legit perspective there because of my inherant "weirdness".

Despite all of this, I think interspersing some guitar blogging from my warped perspective might be fun, and it would also increase the frequency of my posts (Beethoven is coming along, but it is... uh... far more difficult than I had... hoped). So, without further ado.

A Brief History of Guitar: Roots

I started my musical career playing the violin for a couple of years. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I switched to trombone. During this time, I also had a Magnus Organ I messed around with. Then, Mason Williams had the unlikely crossover hit of Classical Gas, so I switched to guitar. I didn't know steel from nylon, so my first guitar was an inexpensive steel string my dad brought back from Japan with him (He was a USAF pilot). That was it. I was a guitarist.

During junior high somewhere, I discovered chicks were kinda cool, so I was an indifferent "student" of the guitar during those years. I just knew chicks liked guys who could strum a pretty tune, so that's sort of all I was interested in doing. No doubt but that Stairway to Heaven was the most "technical" thing I played back in those days. Then, my freshman year of college at Moody College in Galveston, I met a guy who was quite a good player, and he inspired me to get an electric and learn how to play "lead". He also noodled around on classical, so I got my first nylon string at that time, and figured out how to play Bourree in E minor as well. A Les Paul, and Ovation, and a MESA/Boogie MK I later, I quit college and went to what was then called The Guitar Institute of the Southwest run by an unbelievable bebop guitarist named Jackie King. There, I was exposed to guys like Herb Ellis and Pat Martino, who visited and gave lessons on a fairly regular basis. So, I became a fusion dude.

Next stop was Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was an insatiable collector of guitars and amps in those days. I had a 1974 Martin D-28, a 1979 Anthony Murray classical, a pair of late 50's Gibson jazz boxes - L5 and Birdland, a dot neck 335, a couple of Les Pauls, and no less than three MESA/Boogie amps at any given time. I loved them all, but none more than the Gibson RD Artist that was stolen from me during those years (sigh).

Electronics also fascinated me. I had always had a Morley Power Wah and a Morley echo pedal, but when rack mounted delays began to appear, I was the first kid on the block with a Lexicon PCM-41: I still love delay and chorus effects (Though these days more because they attenuate my disgust with the sound of equal temperament than anything else).

Immediately after Berklee, I took a gig as a roadie for a rock band that did a European tour in 1983. Uh... I liked the rock scene: Oodles and gobs of girls. The bass player from that band and I formed a band in Sweden (Simply the most consistently beautiful women on earth are of the Nordic races, so it was a "logical" decision ;o)). So, I became a rock and roll dude.

Upon my return to the US, I discovered the Synclavier via Pat Metheny, and had to have one. Never mind that the entry fee for a Digital Guitar system was about $15,000.00, I got one. I played it with a Steinberger GL2T-GR (A GL 2 with Trans-Trem and Roland GR electronics). Then I moved to New York from Boston and got into a series of rock bands, one of which landed me on MTV's The Week In Rock in 1988: That was my fifteen minutes.

During my band days, I found Joseph Patelson's Music across from "Carnage" Hall (I love that joke!), and began to buy some theory texts just out of a latent curiosity that a teacher at Berklee had planted in me. His name was Chris Frigon, and he now administers the fantastic MSN group called Contemporary Classical Music, which I sub to (I just love life's little circular connections too).

Major Aside:

Through Chris, I get this factoid:

1) J.S. Bach Taught his son, Wilhelm Friedman Bach.

2) Wilhelm Friedman Bach taught Franz Joseph Haydn.

3) Haydn taught Ludwig van Beethoven.

4) Beethoven taught Carl Czerny.

5) Czerny taught Theodore Leschetizky.

6) Leschetizsky taught Edwine Behre.

7) Behre taught Chris Frigon.

8) Frigon taught... Hucbald!

I love that pedagogical history: No matter how tenuous the link I have to Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven is, it's there.

Anyway, I still had my old Murray, so I started to write some counterpoint pieces on it. I was hooked. Quit the band and came back to Texas for a Master of Music at what is now called Texas State University. After that, I went to The University of North Texas for a DMA, but abandoned that degree after taking all but one of the classes for it, due to my disgust with the state of the "composition" department there. But, I was by this time a classical dude.

Then and Now:

All of this intro is just a long way to - perhaps - give you some insight into exactly what has shaped my opinions about the state of contemporary guitar and contemporary composition, and why my resulting opinions are so out-of-the-mainstream: My musical background is eclectic in the extreme.

When I decided to convert to nylon string guitar exclusively, there were a LOT of things I missed: Volume control, tone control, range. At first, I was a purist because I thought I had to be. I mean, everyone else was (Everyone who was respected to a high degree, anyway). But after a while, I couldn't stand it anymore. I figured God lead me through the experiences I had for a reason, and one of those things I learned to do was to program virtual acoustic environments using digital effects devices. I sided as a recording studio musician and engineer, so I had that stuff down.

In 1988 I began a quest to get an electric nylon string sound I liked. At the time, the Gibson Chet Atkins CE was the only game in town. It had a 1 and 7/8" nut width though, so it was unplayable for me. Then the CEC came out with the standard 2" nut width, so I got that. Hated it. It weighed a ton, and it didn't sound like a classical at all, much less did it let me approach the sound I heard in my head (Which is really not like an acoustic classical either). But, I suffered with it and tackled the amplification system.

I had a pair of MESA/Boogie MK III's and a ten space effects rack when I quit the rock biz, so I started there. After realizing that 1) guitar cabs that worked great for steel string stunk for nylon string, and 2) BIG GEAR sucks for a solo act, I began pairing it down, and tuning it up.

Here's what the last seventeen years has lead to:

The guitar is a Godin Multiac Grand Concert Synth Access. I tried a Duet, but it had wimpy bass response and would feed back at the volumes I like to play at. The SA will absolutely not feed back even at stupid SPL's, and the string balance of the RMC Poydrive is superb (And it's a hexaphonic Roland-compatable synth driver too). It's not perfect (No guitar ever is, unless it's a Murray), but it's the first electric nylon string that has allowed me to get my tone in the ballpark of where I want it to be.

The preamp is a Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor with a Lexicon MPX-R1 remote pedal to control it: I have a different virtual acoustic environment programmed for each suite of pieces I have grouped together (Twelve programs in all so far for the twelve suites in my set).

For Power, I have a Bryston 3B-NPB stereo power amp, which is an audiophile/recording studio quality piece of gear, and the only solid state power amp I've ever heard that I actually like the sound of. It rates at 125 watts per side, and weighs twenty pounds less than the MESA Stereo Simul-Class Two: Ninety I had previously (Which sounded better than any other amp on the planet, but which cost over $200.00 per annum to keep in tubes, as well as being ridiculously heavy).

The speakers are Turbosound TXD-081's, which have an 8" low frequency driver, and a 1" high frequency compression driver. I used to work for a Turbosound dealer, and they are the best of the best: Like having road-worthy studio monitors. I absolutely love them, and their frequency response goes way below where a guitar can sound, so anything larger would be a waste. They can handle 400 watts each, so I'm under-driving them, but trust me: I'm by far the loudest classical guitarist on earth when I want to be.

This is my Large Venue rig. I use it only for stage performances. My Small Venue settup is exactly the same, but with a Bryston 2B-LP for power, and a pair of Yamaha AS108 II's for sound (Which are 8"/1" two-ways of the same size as the Turbos). It fits in a four space rack and never leaves my truck to reduce schlepping.

All cables in both rigs are Monstercable: I use them exclusively, and have for over twenty years.

As you can see, I have no compressors (I don't use ANY compression ever), EQ's (The Lex and the Godin give me all I need), or anything else. It's as simple as simple can be: Guitar, Preamp/FX, power amp, speakers. Also very small: Small gear rocks when you are 47 and your own roadie.

It all started here, with the single most beautiful classical guitar I've ever seen: A 1979 Anthony Gaillard Murray with the most intensely figured German spruce top I've ever seen. I like them so much, I bought two, and will play no other acoustic nylon string.

Tragically, Tony died last January. He didn't make many guitars the past few years, which is a shame. He was repulsed by the contemporary "concert" classical guitar - as I am - and had a totally different philosophy about the acoustic classical guitar, which he taught me years ago, and which I share to this day.

To us, the acoustic nylon string guitar is a chamber music instrument, made for salons where the few attentive listeners are quiet. Playing an acoustic classical guitar in a concert hall is an exercise in futility, and making a guitar with that in mind results in something virtually unplayable due to abjectly obscene high actions, which also ruin the sweetness of tone due to the altered direction that the strings oscillate in with high actions. Not to mention that "concert" classical guitars suck ass because they are no fun to play with those idiotically high actions. Try playing some tap technique on those things. How is it that having a guitar that closes off a bunch of technical approaches is cool? It isn't.

My guitar has an action as low as a Flamenco, more than enough volume to fill up a quiet Church or art gallery, and a tone that has made hundreds of people say "Wow!" over the years. I paid $1,500.00 for it in 1979, and wouldn't trade it for any BS "concert" guitar that markets at over $10K.

Years ago Tony went to a luthier's convention of some sort. When he came back he visited San Antonio on his way home, and I got to talk with him. I asked him if he'd seen anything interesting at the convention. He shook his head in the negative. "Just a lot of loud guitars." He was a man of few words, and I loved the guy.

I have a custom eleven string electric nylon string coming this month (It's like a twelve string steel string acoustic, but with a single low E). It started life as a Godin Glissentar eleven string fretless, but I had my friend Ed Reynolds (Eric Johnson's guitar guy) make a custom 2" nut width fretted neck for it, and move the bridge to get the intonation better. Can't hardly wait: Having a twelve string nylon string has been a dream of mine for many years, and having the neck profile I've always wanted, but have never had, will make it twice as sweet. And, of course, it's a bolt-on so I can go back to fretless any time I want.

Next time: Hucbald's Top Ten Reasons Guitars are Better than Girls... Maybe not.


Blogger Emily Santiago said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:16 AM  
Blogger solitudex said...

My goodness!! What a stunning beauty! If the sound that comes out from this guitar is as good as she looks, that would be perfect. You're sure blessed to own her. =)

This sure is an interesting post, though I was pretty confused by the terms you use. Does your acoustic classical guitar means a normal classical guitar with the mechanism to plug in to an amp?

3:46 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Hi Jeff!

Thanks: The Murray in the pic is truely a gorgeous axe in a simple, natural, and unadorned way. What you can't see from the photo is how light it is: Almost everybody who picks it up looks like a cartoon character because of the exagerated movement of them expecting something heavier causes. It's pretty funny.

My Murrays do NOT have any pickups mounted in or on them, and I ONLY use them in intimate settings where amplification is not needed. For me (And for Tony), the classical guitar is all about intimacy and tone quality, not volume. I went through a phase of trying to amplify them, but gave up because what came out of the speakers was never anywhere near as good as what came out of the guitar. Now, if I want amplification, I use the Godin.

Sorry about the terminology, but that's one of the things I was talking about: The vast majority of classical guitarists know nothing about programming a sound in a digital device like my Lexicons, and so if they use amplification, they rely on a sound man. I'm an electric guitarist: Always have been/always will be. I LIKE the sounds I can get with digital devices. Perhaps I'll post a little about how I program sounds for electric nylon string guitar.

4:09 PM  
Blogger solitudex said...

Arh, that's sure interesting! And I never fail to be blown away every time I look at the picture of your guitar. ;) I can't imagine how you manage to put this guitar down every time you stop practising. I can't even tear my eyes off her. =S

I do understand that term acoustic guitars actually include the classical guitars, but it's just the fact that so many people have associated that term with the steel-string guitars that confuses me. =)

12:26 PM  

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