Photo credit:Linda McCartney
When I’m teaching, I look for ways to reinforce the relationship between styles, guitars and techniques. One particular class of grips are what I refer to as the ‘Cowboy’ chords: basic chord shapes, or ‘grips’, that accompany a right-hand strum or fingerpicked pattern.
Typically, I’ll make the ‘cowboy’ reference in relation to ‘Dreadnought’-sized guitars. My intention is neither to be dismissive of the chords nor the instruments, but rather to create a shorthand reference within some pop culture context.
In reality, there is nothing specifically ‘cowboy’ about the grips (or the guitars), nor are they always simple to execute (F chords in particular). They are, however, the fundamental building blocks of western music and, for the guitarist, essential shapes to play a multitude of songs in pop, folk, traditional and country styles. They are not going to give you the extended harmonies that are built-in to a Gershwin song, for example, but those require an understanding of what I refer to as ‘Adult’ chords.
As the jazz age of the 1920’s gave way to a depression era, the percussive ‘chunk’ of the Gibson arch-top guitars replaced the banjo in swing jazz bands, with their sophisticated harmonic vocabulary.
Simultaneously, folk heros like Jimmie Rogers, ‘the Singing Brakeman’, sang with simple strummed chord accompaniment and laid the foundation of country music with his flattop Martins.
In the 1930‘s, studios churned out reels of western ‘cowboy’ movies*. The cowboy pop singers of the era translated this ‘wild-west’ iconography into their songs and the radio carried hits like ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and ‘Back In The Saddle Again’. Their guitars sported pearl inlays, mirroring their Colt 45’s. The Martin Orchestra Model (OM) guitar, was the ideal size and volume for singers like Roy Rogers.
But, guitar-wise, there was a new sheriff in town. Guitarists and singers like Hank Williams and Gene Autry enjoyed a volume boost from the significantly larger body of the ‘Dreadnought’-sized guitar. It became the perfect foil for the banjo, mandolin and fiddle of the bluegrass ensembles and quickly established itself in both ‘Country’ and ‘Western’ music.
In time, this iconic instrument came to represent the American acoustic guitar in other styles too. Elvis wielded a D18 on the cover of his first RCA album. The chart successes of the Kingston Trio helped to sell enough D28s to prompt Martin to move to a bigger factory to keep up with the orders. Lennon and McCartney took D28s to India and wrote much of the ‘White Album’ on them.
There is a wide variance in the specifications of Martin ‘Dreads’ over the years, but those of the 1930’s ‘Golden’ era and their relatively ‘authentic’ modern reproductions in particular, are among the most powerful and dynamic guitars ever made.
As a fingerstylist and studio musician, my personal preference is for the OM-size of my signature model, but there is no denying the iconic role of the Dreadnought and its ‘Cowboy’ chords in the history of American music.
*My home town of over 30 years, Studio City is named after Republic Studios, producer of the Gene Autry movies. Later, Republic became CBS Studio Center, where as a young girl, my wife Hope would go after school to visit her dad, Sherwood Schwartz, on the set of his TV show ‘Gilligan’s Island’.
For the last decade I’ve been associated with C.F.Martin & Co., having the series of custom signature guitars that were described in my last blog post.
However, there was a period in the 1990’s when I was actively performing and recording with instruments from San Diego-based Taylor Guitars. I first visited their old factory in Santee in October of 1990 and ordered the small-bodied 812 Sitka/Indian concert cutaway guitar pictured here
At that time, they were making about 10 guitars a day. I was able to choose my own custom serial number. The side-located fingerboard position markers were, for a few years after, described as ‘Juber Dots’. The headstock sports a very cool inlay (by Larry Breedlove) based on the bird tattoo that my wife Hope has on her ankle.
This ‘Bird’ Taylor the lead guitar on this Al Stewart track that I produced and recorded in 1994:
Later, I ordered a Sitka/mahogany jumbo 12 string acoustic to use on recording sessions for a new TV show. ‘Home Improvement’ ran for 8 years and that Taylor 12 string became a signature voice in the musical stings and transitions of the show, featuring comedian Tim Allen as Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor.
The guitar pictured on the cover of my ‘LJ’ album was a cedar top/mahogany body 20th Anniversary model that was customized with a cutaway and became a precursor to their ever-popular 514C model. Notwithstanding that photo, the album itself was mostly recorded with the ‘Bird’ guitar and introduced my playing to a global audience.
As well as performing, recording my own albums and being a studio guitarist, I was an active clinician for Taylor during that period.
On my regular trips to San Diego, I made regular visits to the factory in El Cajon and witnessed their rapid expansion, thanks to Bob Taylor’s re-imagining of the art and science of guitar manufacturing.
On March 18th, I’ll make my annual appearance at Anthology in San Diego, which as well as being one of my favorite venues, has an interesting connection to Taylor. The menus sport covers made from guitar tone woods and the club features a display of the company’s instruments.
It’s impossible to consider the modern acoustic guitar without recognizing the influence of Bob ‘The Guitar Man’ Taylor. He continues to do remarkable work and his efforts toward sustainable wood resources are having an impact on the world of guitar manufacturing.
A quick google search will offer you perspectives on tone woods from manufacturers, boutique builders and wood suppliers. These comments are from my own perspective as a player and are purely subjective.
It’s been a privilege to be associated with C.F. Martin & Co Guitars (est.1833).
My signature Martin OM (Orchestra Model) guitars were conceived as modern performance instruments adapted from 1930′s vintage specs. Modifying string spacing, adding a cutaway and offering a selection of tonewoods, I’ve aimed at putting a custom, but value-added personal stamp to a classic design.
In the course of ten years, we’ve collaborated on editions in Mahogany, Brazilian Rosewood, Indian Rosewood, Madagascar Rosewood and Big Leaf Maple. All have Adirondack (Red) Spruce tops. They are built to the same basic specifications, so any differences in weight and sound are characteristic of the woods used in that specific instrument. I tour and record with these various incarnations.
The top itself is a significant component of the the tone of the guitar, along with the body dimensions.
Adirondack spruce (Picea rubens) has a ‘megaphonic’ quality, with a great deal of headroom and can easily handle a hard attack. The string gauge makes a difference – I’m using a ‘true medium’ set with .013″ on top and a .056″ on the bottom. The extra tension makes the top ‘work’ and allows for a wide dynamic range. I find Sitka Spruce typically has an ‘in your face’ kind of sound, with less of the fundamental. Cedar can be warm and rich, but with steel strings it tends to have fairly low headroom and can get ‘crunchy’ when attacked.
No doubt, an experienced luthier will say that one cannot visually tell the stiffness of the top. In my experience there seems to be a correlation between the grain width and the sonic signature. The wider grain Adi tops seem to have more ‘oomph’ in the sound. However, this is based on a ‘mere’ 10 years of use, so it may simply be that the wider grain ‘opens up’ faster.
Body woods exhibit a range of ‘velocity of sound’ which is the extent to which the body, specifically the back, reacts to the vibration within the sound chamber.
Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) is the traditional wood for high-end guitars. In use since the 19th century, it offers a powerful combination of warmth, projection and treble presence. Paired with Red Spruce, forward-shifted X-bracing (characteristic of 1930′s Martins), 25.4″ scale length and a 1 3/4″ nut width, it represents a ‘holy grail’ combination that, along with age, makes the pre-WWII Martin guitars so desirable.
Since Brazilian was placed on the CITES http://www.cites.org/eng/app/index.shtml appendix I of endangered species, it has become increasingly expensive and reserved for special editions, custom and boutique guitars. There are luthiers that have some stunning examples of ‘stump wood’ with some amazing figuration, but the traditional straight-grained stuff is hard to find. In 2003 Martin did a limited edition of 50 (plus 4 prototypes) of my OM28B LJ. Very cool guitars – very 1930′s sounding, especially with a flatpick. Brazilian has a smooth compression and doesn’t overdrive. Much like Red spruce, it keeps giving back, the harder it gets pushed.
Madagascar rosewood (Dalbergia baronii) In the last decade, Madagascar rosewood has become recognized as a close relative of Brazilian, while still having its own character. It has a lush woody tone with less of the ‘ceramic’ tap tone of Brazilian. Although not yet on the CITES appendix I list, it has, like many Malagasy rainforest products, fallen victim to the political and ecological issues that exist on that island. I also have a 12- string version that is quite amazing. Typically 12′s come in larger body sizes, but the OM body is well balanced and the Adi top responds well to the extra string tension.
Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) sounds ‘denser’ than the other common Rosewoods – it’s a characteristic of having a higher ‘velocity of sound’. There is a warm, chocolate-y low mid-range that embraces the player. The back is working quite hard to contribute to accomplish this, and, to my ears and fingers, it does this at the expense of projection. Coupled with Sitka spruce, which contributes less deep bass than Red spruce, it offers the more-than-serviceable combination that is offered in many modern guitars. I like it also with cedar – the slightly ‘honky’ tone of a driven cedar top, blends nicely with the ‘wetness’ of the Indian. However, as I play with no right hand nails, just fingertips, I find Indian typically a little too dense for my technique.
Mahogany Martin build their mahogany (Sweitenia macrophylla) guitars to be quite light, which seems to contribute to the ‘airy’ sound and ‘woody’ clarity when fingerpicked. Played hard, ‘Hog’ has a quick compression with a characteristic overdriven ‘bark’, which gives it a cutting tone for flatpicking. It’s my favorite for writing and I have recorded more with this wood than any other. It’s also typically used for the neck, being quite stable with consistent sustain. There have been various types of mahogany family woods used in guitar-making including sapele and khaya Ivorensis, but macrophylla is a ‘genuine’ mahogany.
Maple I’ve been quite fond of characterizing the various body woods like wines, with Brazilian being the most Cabernet-like and mahogany perhaps being more of a Chardonnay…… However, I’ve had a harder time so categorizing Maple.
I chose Big Leaf Maple, as being less hard than the European varieties. Of all the woods I’ve discussed, it has the lowest ‘velocity’ and functions to project the tone without much coloration. From the playing perspective, it doesn’t ‘fold back’ to embrace the player, but rather enhances the articulation of the top with little color or compression. Playing without fingernails, I don’t need to work overcome the Rosewood ‘cushion’. The two-piece neck is made from North Eastern US Maple which provides a nice sustain and stability. My goal was to emulate the musicality of the orchestral string instruments, but in a small bodied flat-top guitar, rather than the archtops or jumbos that Maple is typically used for.
There’s a common expectation that a maple guitar is thin-sounding, but an Adirondack top has a full-frequency spectrum so that it is not an issue in these models. In respect of its transparency, I’m leaning toward spirits, perhaps Vodka, rather than wine……There’s an excellent string-to-string balance and the bass and trebles separate well within the musical texture. It also maintains a strong presence within an ensemble.
It makes a powerful stage guitar, tending to project what I put into it tonally, without coloration. I have used it unamplified in a small auditorium and while it doesn’t ‘feel’ like it has the low-end support that rosewood provides, it fills the room nicely across the frequency spectrum. Amplified, it puts out a clean precise tone.
Koa Finally, for a limited edition of 25 (in collaboration with Wildwood Guitars in Colorado), the Martin custom shop produced a koa version. Designated as an OMC-44K these are intended to be ‘presentation’-grade instruments. Style 44 designates Martin’s highest grade of wood. The only guitars in the series with all-hide glue construction and a specific intention to use light-weight woods. The Spanish cedar neck is a legacy of guitars Martin built prior to 1920 when mahogany became the principal neck wood. It brings an ‘airy’ quality to the sound that complements the smooth high-end that koa produces. Hide glue is an upgrade that Martin have only recently begun to offer and brings the extra resonance and touch sensitivity associated with their vintage instruments.
Koa seems to have the warmth of a rosewood, the woody-ness of mahogany, the clarity of maple and the sustain of a vintage Les Paul……Perhaps an aged single malt Scotch will serve as a respectable metaphor.
There may be a few of the earlier guitars in dealerships, but the Koa is the only one currently available.
(no guitar-specific content)
New York! London! Lincoln!
Lincoln? Not exactly an iconic city in the theatre world, but this capitol of Nebraska has an excellent theatre company, TADA, that is currently presenting the regional premiere of our musical ‘It’s The Housewives!’ .
Developing a new musical is complicated business, typically involving workshops, backers’ auditions and rewrites. It is often a ‘stop-start’ process, one that we experienced with our score to ‘Gilligan’s Island: The Musical’, which took 13 years from the initial workshop to the definitive version. Since then has had multiple regional productions, including a national tour.
Hope and I produced the first run of ‘Housewives’ in Los Angeles in 2009, where it had an extended run at The Whitefire, a small Equity-waiver theatre. The score is derived from the repertoire of Hope’s comedy/rock band ‘The Housewives’ which was active in clubs, radio and TV during the 80′s and early 90′s. Her initial inspiration came in 1978 and, since we started writing together shortly after we met in ’81, we accumulated quite a collection of funny, domestic-themed pop and rock songs that seemed natural for a stage musical. How to integrate them into a theatre piece was a dilemma.
Seeing ‘Jersey Boys’ was the catalyst for Hope to imagine it as a ‘juke-box’ musical, creating a ‘fake story of a real band’. Imagine ‘Dream Girls’ meets ‘Spinal Tap’! She collaborated with her writing partner Ellen Guylas on the show’s play book, bringing their TV sit-com script-writing skills to the stage.
The TADA company has not only excelled at providing quality entertainment to the Lincoln community, they have also created a niche in presenting new theatre works. The husband and wife team of director Bob Rook and musical director Cris Rook embraced “It’s The Housewives” and it’s exciting to see their their interpretation of the show. To have such an opportunity hand over the ‘work’ (in the artistic sense) to another team and progress the development of a musical, is entertaining, instructive not to mention somewhat scary.
Unlike my guitar composing and arranging, where I perform my own inventions, with a stage musical, one has to sit back and watch the process unfold in the hands of talented people. My challenge was substantially in the music preparation realm – creating the vocal lead sheets (only a few typos…), backing tracks and transition cues.
In LA, I was musical director, as well as the ‘spreadsheet-wielding’ producer, but in Lincoln, Hope, Ellen and I became audience members.
Costumes, choreography, set and lighting design all contribute to bringing the narrative to multi-dimensional life. A skilled team can find fresh perspectives in the vision of the show’s creators: a clever dance sequence; an atmospheric tableau; an extra-smooth set change; an unexpected twist in the style of a song. TADA have done a splendid job and we are most appreciative of the opportunity that Bob and Cris afforded us.
Regarding a new show, it’s asked “Will it play in Peoria?”, but perhaps the question should be “Will it have legs in Lincoln?”. Judging by the audience reactions, it looks like ‘It’s The Housewives!’ has ‘Wings’…….
How long does it take to ready a transcription folio for publication?
For my Beatle arrangements, at least a decade, if I include the time taken to cultivate a healthy relationship with the publishers….. A few tunes from my ‘LJ Plays The Beatles’ and ‘One Wing’ CDs made it into a Popular Songs fingerstyle folio I did a few years ago, which helped smooth the way for an all-Beatle book.
Ironically the ‘hit’ from that particular collection was not a Beatle tune, but my arrangement of the Lieber-Stoller-Ben E. King tune ‘Stand By Me’, which was featured in a diamond commercial on TV.
A significant criteria in my tune selection for ‘LJ Plays The Beatles Vol. 2′, was that keeping the repertoire to Lennon-McCartney tunes would allow a folio to match the recording. Apparently, George’s tunes are governed by some different agreements and would complicate the issue.
The challenges of creating solo arrangements of these tunes are a subject for way more discussion than is appropriate to a brief blog post. Catch me at one of my clinics or extended workshops for some in-depth study – see my schedule.
I finished recording the CD in May of 2010. I had already prepared most of the arrangements in Sibelius, my preferred notation program. Then everything was revised to match the recordings, plus transcriptions were done of the more improvised tunes – with some help from Dr. Dave. The files were sent to my excellent editor Jeff at Hal Leonard Publishing, who did a total revision and emailed me pdfs of his pencil amendments to the print-outs. After I approved the changes, and added a few of my own, the music then went to the engraver to incorporate all the alterations into the original Sibelius files. That took us to into December.
Last week, appropriately enough while I was a guest on the ‘Beatles Tribute Cruise’, I received pdfs of the engraver’s proofs, with some pencil annotations. They were final enough for me to sit in my studio for 4 days and record brief lessons on all 15 tunes for the CD that accompanies the book. I made a few corrections as I read through the tunes, but my part of the process is essentially done. I’m expecting that the book will be out in May 2011.
So, in answer to my original question, essentially a year, excluding the arranging time prior to recording the album itself. That’s with the benefits of digital technology (and some well-sharpened red pencils). I can’t imagine doing it with woodblocks…….
Heads, Hands and Feet was a cool band from the UK. They were active in the early 70′s and, for me, the band was most notable as my introduction to the guitar genius of Albert Lee. I first played with him at a 1979 Buddy Holly week concert in London with the Crickets, Don Everly and our Wings line-up. A short time later at an in-studio jam with Eric Clapton (two of my idols in one place!) Since then I’ve enjoyed playing guitar with him on many occasions and I’m looking forward to sharing the stage in late April at a festival in Soave in Italy.
However, my topic today is actually some of the occupational hazards of being a guitar player. Head-wise, or more specifically hair-wise, as a studio player one has to contend with the dread ‘headphone hair’. Not mention the various 90′s-era bad-hair gigs due to high humidity and an overly-experimental barber (notice, no links here to youtube videos…..). But I can’t complain about having been blessed with a decent head of hair.
Also, I keep my ‘head’ straight on the road with a form of meditation. I learned TM in London in the mid-70′s and it is a terrific antidote to jet-lag.
My feet are well-covered by ‘Moc’-style Merrells – they are easy to slip in and out of at airport security – a major travel priority these days.
I’m amazed how little attention I paid to my hands and fingers until recently. I don’t use fingernails for my right hand picking, only flesh, so I’ve been spared the issues some fingerstyle guitar players have with acrylic nails. I do have problems with cracks in my calluses though, mostly a result of dryness. I’ve used various moisturing products and Superglue when all else fails, but there is always a residual weakness in the callus.
A recent bout with a nasty left hand index fingertip split led me to Randy Jacobs MD, the inventor of Guitar Hands, a lipid-based moisturizer. He set me straight about maintaining a healthy layer of lipids and the dehydrating effect of Superglue (Stevie Ray Vaughn mythology notwithstanding) and he treated the fingertip with a mild topical cortisone ointment. Randy’s product really does make a difference, my hands are not suffering the low humidity of the Southern California Winter, plus I feel like I’ve grown a brand new fingertip……. LJ
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