Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Custom Fretted Glissentar Update

Sussing out a new electric nylon string guitar is always a nightmare. Each different transducer system or internal mic system makes different demands. For example, the first electric nylon string guitar to appear, the Gibson Chet Atkins CEC, had a solid body and infinite sustain, but it sounded muddy and overly heavy in the midrange. There were literally no strings on earth that would let me get the sound I was after, or even a reasonable compromise that I was happy with. But, it was the only game in town at the time, so I suffered with it. I was using a MESA/Boogie Triaxis all tube preamplifier, a Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor, a MESA Stereo Simul-Class 2:Ninety tube power amp, and a pair of Boogie 1x10" open-back cabs with EVM-10M's for that guitar, so you might expect that I got a good sound. Not so. Even adding a stereo 31 band graphic EQ didn't do the trick with that guitar, but I lived with it for several years anyway.

Then Godin came out with the Multiac Grand Concert guitars, and things improved. The first one I got was the Duet with the L.R. Baggs Duet system, which consisted of a ribbon transducer under the saddle and an internal condenser mic. That guitar was a breakthrough on several levels over the Chet. First of all, is was a hollow guitar, so it 1) Weighed a ton less than the ridiculously heavy Chet Atkins, and 2) It actually sounded more like a classical guitar. The Duet allowed me to shed a lot of unnecessary weight from my guitar rig: After twenty-seven years of using MESA/Boogie amplifiers exclusively, I got rid of the TriAxis and the Simul 2: Ninety. The Duet didn't need nearly the business the Chet did in the EQ department, so that went as well. What I ended up with was startlingly simple: Just the Lexicon MPX-G2 in stand-alone mode as the preamp and effects unit, and a solid state Bryston 2B-LP stereo 60 watt per channel amplifier running a pair of Yamaha AS-108 II mini PA speakers. My lower back thanked me.

By that point, I had learned a lot about electric nylon string guitars versus electric steel string guitars. With a steel string electric, the amp system is just as much of a musical instrument as the guitar is: Over 50% of the sound you end up with is the amplifier at work. As a result, a nice tube amp like a Boogie, Marshall, or Matchless is the way to go there. Not so with a nylon string electric: All of those amps sound like crap for that application. What I learned is, with an electric nylon string guitar, the guitar is the instrument, and the amplification system should ideally be invisible: You don't need a fat midrange sound for warmth, what you need is a colorless, odorless, and tastless ultra-clean sound with a deep-black noise floor. So, the Lexicon in stand-alone mode with the tony Bryston power amplifier (Which is a super high-end piece of recording studio gear designed to run near-field monitors) ended up being perfect, and I mean perfect.

But I still ran into limitations with the Duet: It was prone to feedback at the SPL's I get to during outdoor concerts, and it was super-choosy about strings. I tried Galli Genius Titaniums, but the carbon fiber trebles were too harshly bright (Which was a shame, because they last for... ever). The G was always flabby, and that's where the feedback problem originated. I ended up using D'Addario Pro Arte' EJ46C composites, and the J4603C composite G-string made the guitar manageable. But, I was still not completely satisfied.

So, I found a good deal on a Multiac Grand Concert SA (Roland synth access) with the RMC Pickups Polydrive, so I thought I'd try it out. BAM! Eureka! Whatever you say, this thing rocked! The Polydrive is immune to feedback so far as I can determine, it is very forgiving of string choice, and the range of usable tone is quite broad. One thing: It doesn't sound like an acoustic nylon string guitar. It sounds like... well, it sounds unique.

That taught me something as well: The electric nylon string guitar is an electric guitar: I never demanded that an electric steel string sound acoustic, so why should I demand that an electric nylon string sound acoustic? Getting through that biased mindset literally set me free to explore the potential of the Lexicon. Some of the virtual acoustic environments I program - the more complex athmospheres, anyway - use reverb, pitch shift chorus, phase shifting, flanging, comb filtering, etc. now: I'm letting the instrument be what it wants to be, which is an electric guitar.

Enter the Glissentar (You just knew I'd finally get around to it). The Glissentar comes from Godin as a fretless eleven-string nylon string instrument which is inspired by the Arab al-ud, which is the fretless ancestor of the lute. Talk about going back to the beginning for inspiration! I had dreamed for years of an electric baroque guitar with unison courses or something along those lines, so I decided to get one and have someone fret the stock neck for me. Well, one thing lead to another and a $300.00 fretting job turned into a gazillion dollar custom fretted neck by Ed Reynolds (Eric Johnson's guitar tech). Since the Godins use a bolt-on neck system, this was not as difficult as it might sound technically.

With anything this radically experimental, there are going to be teething pains. For some reason known only to God and Godin, they decided on ball-end strings for the Glissentar. That limits your choise of string sets to one - The Godin Glissentar set - unless you are willing to make your own ball-end sets up. Fortuanately, the Glissentar set Godin sells are made for them by D' Addario and are just like the Pro Arte' and EXP sets I prefer for electric nylon strings anyway; but there were still some issues.

First of all, the low E-string is a single string and not a course. This results in the bass being weak when played on that string. So, I got a D' Addario .047 Super High Tension EXP E-string for more output. Since the winding on those strings thins out to make them easier to tie off, I was just able to knot them behind the regular metal ball end, and it worked fine... in principle. In reality (The one I inhabit, anyway), Ed had cut the nut to perfectly fit the stock strings, so I had to get the E-string slot widened out.

The A, D, and G courses from the standard Glissentar set work perfectly. The G's are metal-wound, and I like that so much, I'm going to go to wound G's on my Multiac GC SA too: When you think about it, all four of the lower strings are tuned in fourths, so they should be wound to match the string tensions more easily. After the major third form G to B, then use unwound nylon. The nylon G is the source of all the feedback problems anyway (Due to its flabby low tension). The reason this isn't done more often? Tradition and the fact that the thin windings on the metal-wound G's tend to wear through quickly. Since the G is so much more problematic on an electric than on an acoustic due to its tendency to feed back, I think this tradeoff will be worth it for me.

Now for the B and E courses. The Glissentar uses a ribbon transducer under the saddle, which is by L.R. Baggs (It's like half of the Duet system). I don't like this. At all. It's fine for single line fretless runs, but it isn't nearly as clear for harmony and polyphony as the Polydrive is. Richard has spoiled me with his wonderful invention. At some point, I'll probably change out all of the electronics, but for now I just want to get this itteration of the instrument sounding as good as it can. The B and E courses are traditional nylon in the Glissentar set, and they have a very low tension to them. This was positively unusable, as the wound strings just completely overpowered them. It actually sounded like two different instruments from the wound to the unwound strings, which were quite dull by comparison. What I needed was a super-bright treble set with a strident output level. There is nothing like a carbon fiber set for that, and Savarez Alliance CF trebles are very, very bright, plus they are small in diameter for their string tension, which is a definate plus when working with courses of strings! POP! Just tying these strings behind a bead didn't work, as they are so super-smooth the knot would just slip through the bead. I finally got my rusty Boy Scout knot tying skills polished up and figured that out. SNAP! The string channels were too narrow for the Savarez strings, so back it went for more nut work (On the nut and by a nut. But a nice nut). Ahhhhhh! Finally. I bought the Glissentar last September, and here I am, almost half a year later, and I'm just beginning to get it in the pocket. I won't tell how much this all cost me, but once I get an idea in my head, I am nothing if not persistent... and profligate in my spending.

I'm quite pleased with it, and it is now at a point where I'll be able to begin to work it into my set. Just as soon as I develop the Schwartzeneggeresque forearm muscles it will take to play it! In order to get the strings to ring clean, I had Ed make four saddles for me: Ridiculously low, low, high, and ridiculously high. Ridiculously low and low didn't work due to buzziness, and ridiculously high was like trying to harpoon Moby Dick or something, so I have settled on high. It's still going to take a while. But it sure is FUN!

Not tonight hon, I have a new axe (As if).


Blogger Michael Manning said...

Remember I'm not your authority here, but my middle brother has a very old LP called "Chet Atkin's Workshop". From memory (as a 5 year old) I recall he had a Gretsch on the cover. But the sound was warm as if you were plugged into a Fender Acoustic Amp. Have you tried one?

12:44 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I love Chet and saw him live many years ago. I believe he could have made a guitar out of a cigar box with a broomstick neck and barbed wire strings sound warm!

1:30 AM  
Blogger Alex Brubaker said...

I just picked up a Glissentar a few weeks ago and would largely agree with you on your diagnosis of the instrument. From the wound strings to the unwound, you've basically got two separate instruments. My approach has been to try to blend them together to get them to work in unison. My technique is a long way from perfection, but rather than view it as a classical guitar or as an electric guitar, I've been looking at it not as a guitar at all. It's difficult, as I am, first and foremost, a guitarist, but opens up so much. Just in the way I would pick up a cello and approach it differently from a guitar, that's how I've been handling this.

With my setup, I'm running through a presonus TubePRE, BBE sonic stomp, Fishman AFX Reverb, and into a Roland AC-60. There are some other pedals in the mix, but those are what stay on all the time. Once everything is dialed in, my amp is running flat - and it sounds amazing. I'd love some more headroom for the low-end, but with that exception, the instrument sings up and down the neck.

And, as I've noted, I keep looking at this as its own instrument. My only question with what you're doing is why add frets? This is my first experience being able to delve into micro-tonal experimentation and I can't think of any reason I would want to add frets to this.

3:04 PM  

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