Friday, November 20, 2015

Looper and Guitar

Just The Two of Us is a tune recorded by Bill Withers and released by both Withers, who sang, and wrote, the classic track, but also by Grover Washington jr. who played saxophone solo on the same track. Washington was a kind of modern day Eric Dolphy with multiple skills on brass and reed instruments. It has a progression that endlessly goes C/B7/emi/G   (the original recording seems to be in F, so F/E7/ami/C) over and over so it is sort of made for a looper.

The guitar only took 20 years to save the money to have built. It's got all I want. Fylde is an English luthier co. with Roger Bucknall slaving away in the workshop for as long as I've been alive. The quality of craftsmanship is A+, the wood is not super exotic in this case to make it affordable. No Brazilian rosewood, or African Blackwood or Bloodwood. No fancy bindings, but it does have custom width striped ebony fingerboard, and custom Native symbology inlay and installed pickup. I guess I'd forgotten that Fylde's necks are not a perfect oval, they have the slight modified V running down the center, or maybe that's required for the inlay of contrasting wood on the back, or maybe it's just this particular Alexander model. I usually avoid that kind of V as I've found it on old Martin's I don't like, but in this case I will trust that this is my future and adapt. I can see there is a slight advantage of having more wood there to rest the thumb on when playing single notes and while playing chords there is no difference. There are many many factors to consider when ordering a custom guitar and neck profile was one I did not consider deeply... Actually, I found an email I sent almost 2 years ago that says,

"The width of the nut is more a preference and the profile is something I don't have much opinion about as long as there isn't a big blunt edge like I've seen on some guitars. I'm accustomed to a shallow neck."

So, Roger indeed took that into account and gave me a very very slight modified V, which he probably did from tradition or on instinct that I would need that little bulge to rest the thumb on. At any rate, I see that neck profile can be ordered and since I didn't specifically say I wanted a completely oval neck identical to the Seagull, he made me a modified slight V, and I'm sure with time it will be perfect for me.I will measure it with a caliper but I feel it's actually no deeper than the Seagull but the bulge still feels different to fingers used to a perfect oval.

 I also found the width of the nut is the same as my requested 46mm but the spacing of the strings is different/wider by about 1.25 mm, and that also takes a slight adjustment, but at this spacing there is never a danger of accidental bumping of strings. After playing the Fylde for a while the Seagull seems narrow. The guitar's name is Native Spirit and it's a tribute to our roots. I've gotten used to the dull sound of my Seagull, the spotty intonation and the buzzing and general sloppy-ness of the 20 year old Seagull. Odd, because everyone who plays it is impressed. I might do a comparison of the two one day but it is sad how lifeless the solid Cedar top/laminate sides Seagull sounds compared to a Cedar/Sapele solid instrument. The Seagull has about half the volume of the Fylde and 3/4 the sustain. The Fylde, for instance, overwhelms the camera's microphone and causes it to spike. The Seagull never had this problem. So now I own the level of acoustic guitar at which there is nothing higher. All solid wood guitars sound basically the same to me, since I am half deaf, but the details are custom and craftsmanship are different. It's a paradox because it takes about 10 years of playing for a guitar to warm up and break in, so ask me again about this Fylde in 2025 and I'll give another review. It's too new to discuss, but I can promise to keep it busy while I can. I'm amazed actually that I played a Fylde in Hobgoblin music in London in 1995 or 1996 and at that point it was the guitar I wanted most. And when near San Francisco I went to Gryphon to have my newly purchased Seagull's action adjusted and the end block repaired, and I played every high end guitar they had, which is pretty much a buffet of Lowden, Breedlove, Collings, Froggy Bottom, Santa Cruz, Martin...although no Fylde. I played all of those other guitars and only the Santa Cruz and Breedlove compared in my mind, but the first love remained for 20 years and I've played every guitar I could find to see if it was a better fit, but still the Fylde was the tops if I was buying what I consider a "Heritage" guitar, something that I don't own, but merely care-take for the future. But I only now realize that after 20 years there is no reason a Fylde will be the same kind of Fylde I played long ago, so why would I expect this guitar to sound the same as the ones I played then? But it not only sounds the same but the light heft, the balance, the construction, the aesthetics all still surpass anything I've played, though I know I could live with any fine instrument. Even looking at a video of me playing it looks normal and I can't say that for every guitar. I still handle it lightly but once I've dinged it on a moped pedal or scratched it with a metal necklace or something that is bound to happen then I will handle it less carefully and it will become absorbed into my collection. It's amazing that it fits so well because my tastes never changed in this realm of guitars. Price tag never was the deciding factor as I felt everything had to appeal to me. This is not the most expensive guitar and definitely doesn't have the most exotic woods, but it's exactly the guitar I would buy again over all the ones I've played. Picking it up today, a few days after I finally got it into my possession, feels normal, like it was always mine and Roger simply helped reunite me with it. I think it's too personal a decision to purchase a custom solid wood guitar, but I certainly recommend playing a Fylde. Of course my video doesn't showcase the natural acoustics of the guitar because I'm trying to learn to use an amplified looper, which requires the guitar go through a bypassed digitech multi-effects processor and into a Jamman Express and then into a portable Fender Amp Can, which should not normally be played while it is charging because of the hum. So this is the humblest audio for such a great instrument. It deserves to be played acoustically in a van. Heck, when I turn the amp on it's volume is the same as the guitar itself.

Some stats comparisons (all measurements in mm):
                                                 Fylde                     Seagull
Nut Width                                  45.89                      46.20 
12 Fret Width                             56.82                      55.28 
Profile 9th Fret                           28.64                       28.46
String Spacing at Bridge              58.31                      55.46
E-A                                             13                            12.42
A-D                                             12.18                        11.55
D-G                                             11.14                         11.91
G-B                                              13.13                       11.32
B-E                                              11.36                        11.25
Action Height at 12th fret*            5.63                          4.63
*I later adjusted the Fylde by sanding the saddle down 1.5mm. I think it's 1/64th from where I want it but will live with it for now.

Noteworthy comments are that I specifically asked for the nut width to be identical and I asked for 46mm. Considering the luthier and I were about 5000 miles apart that measurement was no small chore to coordinate. My micrometer has a user error rate of 5% so that number is perfect. .1mm is too small to feel. The12th fret is equally important but I didn't request anything specific and they are about 1.5mm different. The main difference I feel is the G-B string distance of 13.13 on the Fylde. I'm accustomed to more uniform distances in the 11.5mm range and this is almost 2mm wider but that G string is also the last wound string considered a "bass" string, so I wonder if this width is intentionally separating the bass from the treble unwound B and high E strings*. After 20 years with my Seagull I can tell any difference of less than 1 mm so 1.8mm feels like a chasm. I may have that changed with an offset groove in the bridge but I don't know yet. There are no luthiers I trust here in Central America so any adjustment will have to wait until another day. The main adjustment is the action, which I neglected to request lowered. 1mm in extra height is a major change especially when combined with the spacing difference. I like an acoustic guitar with low action for lightning fast lead lines like my Ibanez electric. My Seagull actually held the original action I had set up at Gryphon Music in the Bay Area way back in 1995 when I only owned one shirt. Now the G string buzzes and the E string buzzes and I think the frets need work plus a change of nut and bridge. But 20 years is pretty damn good lifespan for the action on a regularly used guitar.

*After further inspection the small string slot on the saddle for the B string was not perfectly aligned with the string/peg hole so the string was coming out at an angle that added up to a wider string spacing. Or maybe the initial placement of strings back at the workshop cut the groove slightly off center. After moving it so it is straight, the strings are now closer to uniform.

The looper is a new Jamman Express Xt and is a budget item to give me some entrance to the looping phenomenon. It's not the most basic, but it's pretty basic, which is what I decided I should have. There are many loopers on the market and I had a hard time deciding which one was best for me. The loopers with SD card and memory options all involve proprietary software coded in Pakistan or Myanmar which barely works and looks like it was coded from a room in 1988. Functionality was Steve Jobs real genius and if you like Apple then the software that comes with some of those loopers will make you weep in your mock turtleneck nest. And drums that are included on these digital devices are usually horrible and limited to a few boring rhythms, not to mention that I already own a unit with digital drums. The option to reverse a track or play at half speed is useless to me. So, that left me with choosing a basic looper in a small box and there are about three that would work for $90, but this one is Digitech, which is reliable and economy. There was some static at first which was either the cheap cable or else the brand new input jacks. It went away after changing the cables around. The unit runs off a daisy chain 9v power adapter that runs my other digitech multi-effects unit I never use. The 9v battery has a lifespan of about 30 minutes because there is no on off switch. When plugged in and a guitar cable is inserted, it turns on and stays on and draws enough juice to kill the battery.

At first I thought there was a flawed delay in the start of the recorded loop but it's definitely the timing of my foot that is the problem. I would recommend starting with a very basic and regular bass line to practice. The lack of automatic start (found on the fancier pedals) means one must begin playing instantly after touching the switch or else the track will begin with a pause. Since music is a timed exercise, the idea of timing a guitar strum with the downbeat of hitting a foot switch (but not before hitting the switch) is pretty essential for starting a loop right. To make matters worse, this looper has a fancy switch that engages on the UP of the button, so hitting the switch is only half the act, as the loop will begin to record when the switch is RELEASED. This allows one to hold the button down and clear loops without starting them playing, which would happen if I simply hit and released the switch fast. And ending the loop must be done with equal precision at the instant before the start of the loop will fit in naturally. There was no flaw in the unit but this takes some practice and the first, fundamental, loop is the most important. After that, your looper will take everything played, while in overdub mode, and replay it. This will happen infinitely even if you don't leave overdub mode. Whatever is played during overdub mode will replay when the fundamental loop goes full circle. You can leave overdub mode and let it all play and noodle around or go get a drink, but if you start a 3rd overdub then that 2nd loop will be absorbed into the fundamental loop and you can't delete it without deleting everything. But the 2nd and 3rd loops aren't as hard for me to segue into and out of because something about the timing of the fundamental loop is memorized and I know what to expect. But recording that initial loop has no click track except in my own mind so I have to hit the switch at exactly the right moment or else there will be a pause or if I hit the switch too late then it will only play 7/9ths of the first beat. This is true with all loopers but some have fancy adjustments if you have a click track that will extend the recording to fit the click track. This jamman express has none of that fancy stuff and I hope to work out some blues and soul arrangements. I figured that with an ipod I can have whatever backing track that I want and the need to have additional memory on a looper is redundant. Endless reviews of all loopers suggest there are lemons in all manufacturers. I will revisit this topic after I get settled in my next gypsy hideaway.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.