Tag Archives: guitar

Who controls the 8th string?

6 strings - perfect!
6 strings – perfect!

A few years ago I started playing seven string guitar. It’s only an added B string below the low E. And while I am practicing quite a bit, composed several pieces for seven string classical guitar and adapted J. S. Bach’s 15 Two Part Inventions and all of the Well Tempered Clavier for the instrument, only now do I start feeling somewhat comfortable. Sure, there is the issue of smaller string spacing on my seven string electrics. Then there is my habit of using the note on the low E string as sort of an anchor point for the notes on the other strings. And then, maybe, the extra neurons needed in the brain to add control over that added string may not grow as quickly in an older person.

add a low B string and make your brain grow new neurons
add a low B string and make your brain grow new neurons

To add insult to injury, this past summer I found a really nice eight string guitar on eBay – and when I pick that up my musical-guitaristic instincts are once again of no help. This time however I seem to experience it from a more neutral observer. As long as I totally ignore any of the strings on the bottom (let’s say the low E, B and F#) I can just pretend it’s a normal guitar. When I then try to incorporate the E and B strings I “know” what the notes are called and I see the patterns they form with what I play on the upper strings – at least to a certain degree and when I am not looking at the fingerboard but imagine where my fingers are in my head.

But now I get to that eighth string. That F#. As long as I play by ear and just extend the scales downward to the eighth string I am fine. My fingers know where to put themselves. But when I try to play chords based off of that eighth string I notice that I have to “calculate” the note name just like a beginner – relative to the open F#. It doesn’t help that my brain also thinks that the lowest string is a B.

add a low F# string feels like a new limb
add a low F# string feels like a new limb

The funny thing about this effect is that the low F# string feels like an added third arm might feel. It’s there but there is no software in place to control it. Just like when you hook up an external device (printer, hard drive, etc) to your computer and there is no driver installed – the computer might notice that something was connected but it has no idea what to do with it.

Like I mentioned, I went through this process after I started the seven string guitar thing. I realized that over about 35 years of playing guitar there were so many patterns, shortcuts, good and bad habits, chord and scale shapes (and much more) in my brain that I was never thinking on a note by note level. Almost as if certain chord voicings were attached to practice sessions or gigs where I discovered them. Or whole musical passages where associated with a specific person or date. Adding an extra string seemed to require to rearrange many of these associations or make new ones.

Now, as I am going through the eighth string learning pains, I observe from a third person perspective. While I am playing I can almost “feel” the blank spots of my guitaristic brain as I torture that new, unknown string. It feels a lot like stepping from firm ground onto an ice sheet. Somewhat dangerous on a gig but a lot of fun. And it also includes some personal research into how I learn.

Restoring my first electric guitar

Last week I finally finished the restoration of my first electric guitar. A Framus S370 – basically a German Gibson SG copy. I didn’t quite find out when this was built – probably very early 1970s. I bought it used from Musik Ecke in Albstadt, West Germany. When I opened the rear cover I found the original invoice which dates my purchase to November 1974.

Original invoice - found in the back of the guitar
Original invoice – found in the back of the guitar

This guitar was in great shape when I got it. Then, a few years later, I decided to replace the stock neck pickup with a DiMarzio humbucker. This is when the onslaught started. The measurements of the pickup openings and placements of the screw holes are not standard and to my shock the DiMarzio upgrade was not as easy as I thought. Having no access to tools other than a pair of scissors, a screwdriver and a soldering iron I “adapted” the opening and through the ingenious use of molten polystyrene plastic (left over from some Revell model airplanes) I added the proper mounting holes to the pickup. A little more here.


My SG and me – Alabama, 1990

All the markings, stickers, dirt and gunk was added to this instrument when I was a teenager. The stickers are a normal thing as I just learned from my daughter Melody who coincidentally got her first electric guitar, an Epiphone SG copy, a while ago. Brand new, and it already has stickers all over. What turned out to be an enormous headache in the restoration was some sort of “metal-protection” spray a friend had recommended. Essentially all metal (or chrome) parts received the treatment. I guess that’s what made all the gunk stick to the guitar.

Before surgery
Before surgery

After de-gunking, front
Stripped of all hardware. Oh weh!


This guitar has appeared on many of my recordings. It was tuned in minor sevenths for a recording project in the early 80s. When I was experimenting with my Chapman Stick it was tuned in all fifths to emulate the bass side of the Stick – the lowest two strings where old strings from a bass.

I ordered a pair of new pickups from Stewart McDonalds guitar supplies and some other hardware. When I took the guitar apart to start the process the body looked fine and after some acetone application to remove the grime things started looking up.

The real problem were the plastic covers. The small one covering the electronics in the back and the pickguard. I just didn’t find a way to remove the stickers without scratching the plastic. Also, the pickup openings and screw holes didn’t agree with the new pickup dimensions.

Plastic covers!
Plastic covers!

A good first “real” job for my Fireball V90 CNC machine, I thought. I didn’t have the V90 very long and little experience. Never done anything more complicated than some wood working. It took some time to actually establish a pipeline to get the dimensions and shapes into Cambam plus (which makes the control code for the machine.) The first pipeline (Adobe Illustrator to trace the scan, Cinema 4D to make it into a 3D model and then Cambam to make the gcode) somehow shrank the shapes just enough that it wasn’t visible on screen. That was frustrating. The solution was to keep it 2D and bypass Cinema 4D. It took two sheets of ABS plastic to finally get everything correct. The fourth cut was it. I am not doing this professionally!

V90 in action
V90 in action
...in my sunny driveway workshop
…in my sunny driveway workshop

After much cleaning, filing, polishing, soldering – and after almost 40 years of abuse – the neck needed only a little truss rod adjustment. This guitar has always played very well. Framus necks from that era are a bit beefy but I like it that way. Also I really like the huge rectangular fret markers. Most other guitars I own are very frugal in that regard and on a dark stage it is often hard to glimpse where your hand is on the neck.

That was a very satisfying project and I am very happy I invested the time and effort. I can’t wait to take this “new” 40 year old guitar on a gig.

all done!
all done!

The medium makes the message

If you read many of the posts on this blog you’ll notice that I have been a musician for most of the past 30 years or so. Specifically, a “Jazz Guitarist”. Many knowledgeable folks have tried to classify what “jazz” is or what qualifies a certain piece of music as “jazz”. I admit that I actually don’t know or care – I just like to improvise. And not in the sense of playing a ’solo’ but making up music alone or together with a band.

Lately I have been playing a lot of solo guitar gigs and much of my practicing consists of improvising music just on guitar alone. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I throw all harmonic rules out. Most often I start out with a standard jazz tune or an original but since I am by myself I can go wherever I want. I don’t have to stick to the ’chorus’ (which of course is utter blasphemy when playing with other people). In principle I take material I know how to play (and what it sounds like) and try to stick it together in a hopefully logical and musical way. This material can be small melodic fragments or interesting chord sequences unrelated to a specific tune or piece of music. Or I take larger chunks from music I have played before (the famous introduction to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” comes to mind). Often, just trying to play the bridge of a well known standard in a different key will introduce a new dimension and risk, leading you down unexpected alleys. And then there are random unintentional notes (call them mistakes) which often play the role of ’genetic mutations’ where the basic idea is good enough to be repeated and each repetition sounds less than a mistake – clearly a kind of evolution. This sounds easier than it is but after a few ’normal’ tunes a certain flow develops and I start playing differently. The result may not sound all that different to a listener – after all I am still using the same material – but to me it seems to come from a different source. The music mostly comes out by itself. The two hours of my gig usually just fly by.

I have often tried to find patterns and rules to explain to students how I do this (actually one of my friends, who is a cognitive neurologist, is also interested in this). Some people have called this process ’stream of consciousness’ or ’channeling’. And here comes the 78 degree turn: Many years back I had a great fondness for the books of one Jane Roberts. Roberts claimed that she channeled an entity called Seth. In the beginning the channeling happened through a Ouija board and later verbally through Roberts. At the time when I read these books I didn’t care where that material came from. I just found it very fascinating since it dealt with a lot of things I kept thinking about, such as UFOs, alternate realities, weird stuff from various holy books, the works. It was like reading a novel. The common explanation for action with an Ouija board are involuntary movements of the operators’ finger muscles. So essentially, the information that is produced comes from the participants. I guess it’s a version of facilitated communication which has been pretty much proven to be a hoax.

Moving on to Roberts’ verbal delivery. While delivering for the Seth entity she used a different voice and her husband Robert Butts often asked in-context questions. Do I think Roberts actually delivered messages from Seth? No. I think she was improvising. She was, in other words, telling a story, made up from material she had picked up, knowingly or unknowingly, from many sources. Naturally the material was blended with original ideas (Roberts was after all also a Science Fiction writer) and it seems some ideas pop up again and again over her channeling career, mutating and evolving.

One can of course argue my conclusion but I think Roberts did the same thing that I do when I improvise music on my guitar only in her medium. Nothing ’supernatural’ about it. The medium makes the message.

Auto psycho analysis of a guitar player

This is going to be a very personal item. That doesn’t mean it will contain juicy details or revelations of secret information. It just means it might not interest anybody else but myself – hence the ‘Auto psycho….’.

In my professional life I pretend to be a guitar player – for the past 35 years or so. I can’t believe that myself. If you care to suffer through my long bio you would notice that I never played in a very successful musical group. I also never played music in a highly profitable band – such as a cover band or a wedding band. I am sure that was partially due to my own conviction that my art was somehow ‘pure’, however stupid that sounds (and some of the music that comes out of such a conviction.) And somehow potential employers must have ‘smelled’ that I wasn’t cut out to emulate somebody like a Carlos Santana or Eric Clapton.

So now, after all this time there are close to a thousand tunes I have written, plus about 90 works for Classical Guitar and a handful of quite esoteric CDs I recorded. And there comes a time when one has to figure out why a career went the way it did. When I was still a greenhorn on the guitar but good enough that I didn’t have to think about every note I played, when things started to ‘sink in’, as they say, I was already playing occasional jazz gigs. Jazz mainly because it wasn’t as restricted as most other music styles I knew at the time. I relatively quickly started listening to myself and the band I was with as if I was sitting in the audience. “Would I get bored now by the guitar solo if I was in the audience?” I would ask myself as I was playing. As my abilities developed this avatar of mine, sitting in every audience I played for, started listening to the whole group. And it was greatly influencing what I was playing and many times whom I wanted to play with. This had really two distinct but connected effects:
1) Rather than looking at the actual audience reaction I judged the performance by my avatar’s reaction
2) Since I tried to impress my avatar, and he was me, I really played for myself

In the past years I have often heard from people who come to our concerts that they admire my style. They say I play like nobody else. I don’t know about that but at the same time it’s flattering. I have many influences in my playing and don’t deny that if I hear John Scofield play a cool thing I like I’ll try to figure it out and use it. Obviously my narrow mindedness carries much of the blame that I fail to impress a broader audience – I don’t play for them!

Now, all of this sounds like it’s a true disadvantage. After all, it looks like a perfect way to forgo fame and fortune in favor of a self-serving artistic goal. I don’t want to talk about artistic integrity or some such high-flying claim. And I don’t really believe in reincarnation, a soul, telling the future from tea-leaves or something along those lines. But I can see something decidedly ‘supernatural’, out-of-this-world in the recognition that now I am the guitar player I went out to see when I was in my teens. Because back then I was the teen who went out to see a guitar player in concerts. This teen would imagine to be that guitar player. This teen probably didn’t even listen to what the actual guitar player on that gig played but rather what he (the teen) would play were he in his (the guitar player’s) place. And then, over the years, this teen slowly, and unnoticed really, evolved into that guitar player and today looks into the audience and finds that one person who he used to be.

To become utterly philosophical you could say that this would have created two poles. You don’t get much of an interchange with one pole. It’s silly, really, but I am still striving to become what that teen saw in that guitar player 35 years ago. Or simply said, I now realize that I am the carrot that was once dangling in front the teenager I used to be.