Archive for the ‘The Instrument’ Category

Video of the Month: Tom Feldman

Posted by Brian on 1st March 2012 in Guitarists, Technique, The Instrument, Uncategorized, Video of the Month

Video-of-the-MonthGrab a coffee (a large one) and put your feet up. This month’s video is a long one.

In this video, which, admittedly, is a long ad for Tom Feldman’s instructional video series, we get an excellent overview of traditional blues styles. In general, I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but several of my “desert-island” recordings are, in fact, blues albums. And whether you are a fan of the genre or not, much of modern music, and particularly modern guitar playing, owes a debt of gratitude to the blues.

At What Age Can a Child Start to Play Guitar?

Posted by Brian on 19th October 2011 in Beginners, Guitar, Relatives of the Guitar, The Instrument

It is a question that I get a lot and, as with most things, the short answer is, “The younger, the better.” Having said that, there are challenges for the young beginner. The biggest one being finding a good quality instrument that fits.

Unlike the violin, it is hard to find a decent quality guitar in any size smaller than what is known as a “parlour-sized” guitar – about three quarters of the size of a typical guitar – usually suitable for a child who is eight to ten years old, depending on their height. Most guitars smaller than this are nothing more than toys, not really useful for learning anything meaningful. But there are exceptions.

How can you tell the difference between a toy and a proper instrument?

The first clue is where you are shopping. If you’re not in a store that sells musical instruments, and only musical instruments, then you are probably buying a toy. The second clue is price. There are bona fide music stores that sell toy instruments simply because there is a market for them, but if you ask, they will probably recommend something of better quality. Generally, for a new instrument, you need to be spending at least $200 to get something of decent quality.

An excellent option for the very young (or very small) beginner is a baritone ukelele. A baritone ukelele is slightly larger than a regular ukelele and it’s four strings are tuned to the same pitches as the four highest strings on a guitar. (For those who don’t know, the “highest” strings are the ones closest to the floor – the thinnest ones.) You can usually get a decent baritone ukelele starting at about $150. To truly mimic a guitar’s tuning, you would need to replace the “fourth” string – the one furthest from the floor –  with a thicker string that can be tuned an octave below the standard tuning of the baritone uke. (The distinctive tone of ukeleles comes from the fact that the fourth string is tuned to a pitch between that of the first two strings – an octave above what you might otherwise expect.) Replacing the fourth string can easily be done by the salesperson in the store.

Also, a regular ukelele would make a great starter instrument. The tuning is different, but the “intervals” between string pitches are consistent with the guitar and the skill of playing is fully transferable. Good quality ukeleles usually start at about $100 – though some ukelele courses are able to provide decent instruments for $60-75 as part of the course, because they buy in bulk and don’t necessarily have the overhead costs.

I have also seen instruments known as guitar-leles – basically a six-stringed ukelele. However, I have never laid hands on one that I would buy. Any that I have picked up have been terribly intonated (meaning that the notes don’t sound correctly as you move up the neck), despite having reputable brand names and being sold in reputable stores. I would avoid these instruments, unless you are knowledgeable enough to make a good judgement or someone you know can go with you to check the instrument first.

In fact, having a knowledgeable friend accompany you is always a good idea. Don’t be afraid to ask, because most musicians are quite happy to have an excuse to take a trip to the local music shop. And shopping with someone else’s money is always a treat.



If Only I Had a Better Guitar…

This is an old blog entry from Tuck Andress of “Tuck & Patti” fame. If you aren’t familiar with him, you should look him up, but all you need to know for now is that Tuck is a guitarist of the first order… and he has found three bits of wisdom that some of us never find…

Tuck & Patti: It’s the Guitar’s Fault

Book Review: Six String Nation

Posted by Brian on 29th March 2011 in Book Review, Guitar, Review, The Instrument

Back in December, I wrote a post on the Six String Nation Guitar. A guitar that was built using Canadian historical and cultural artifacts.

Shortly after I wrote that post, I was given the Six String Nation book written by Jowi Taylor, who first conceived the idea of the Six String Nation Guitar.

The book is basically a history of the guitar, which has been nicknamed “Voyageur”.

Taylor starts with the initial concept and takes us through the collection of materials and construction of the instrument, to its performance debut, and beyond to its appearances at various music festivals and other events. There are also a number of short pieces throughout the book featuring various people who were involved in the creation of the instrument and stories of how various artifacts from different regions came to be  part of the instrument.

The book is well written and interesting, but what really struck me was the photography. One of the features of the Six String Nation project is that when the guitar is at a public event, a photographer is available to take pictures of different people holding the guitar. The photos are all taken with the same white backdrop, but the artistry of the photos is quite striking. There are also lots of photos of the guitar being played both on stage and off, by a number of Canadian performers.

So if you’re looking for a gift for that special guitar-playing someone, this just may be the ticket.

Ordering information can be found on the Six String Nation Website.
(Note: I have no affiliation with the book, its author, or its publisher.)



Quote, Unquote.

Posted by Brian on 23rd March 2011 in Guitar, Guitarists, Practice, The Instrument

A selection of favourite guitar quotes:

“A guitar is something you can hold and love and it’s never going to bug you. But here’s the secret about the guitar — it’s defiant. It will never let you conquer it. The more you get involved with it, the more you realize how little you know.”
Les Paul

“I got my first guitar when i was about nine years old. It took me five years to learn how to tune it but it was easy from there on.”
—The Edge

“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.”
— Jimi Hendrix

“No matter how long you play guitar, there’s always something else to learn.”
— Tom Petty

“About 10 years ago I knew three chords on the guitar. Now, in 1982, I know three chords on the guitar.”
— Freddie Mercury

“I’d think learning to play the guitar would be very confusing for sighted people.”
— Doc Watson

“I began to learn a lot of chords and rhythms. It was a bit boring at the time but came in very handy later on.”
— Alvin Lee

“I can’t say I’ve really mastered the instrument but I’m able to get it to where it speaks for me.”
— Dave Mason

“I’m really very embarrassed about my guitar playing, in one way, because it’s very poor. I can never move but I can make a guitar speak.”
— John Lennon

“The guitar is the easiest instrument to play and the hardest to play well.”
— Andres Segovia

“I wanted to learn how to do everything a person could do on a guitar. Of course, that was impossible.”
— David Bromberg

“My chosen instrument is guitar and, fortunately, I’m able to muddle through that. I can play guitar to the point where I can express myself artistically.”
— Joe Perry

“The thing about guitar players is we’re all like a brotherhood or sisterhood. We don’t care if you’re great, good, bad, in between or whatever. As long as you love it, then we’re all going to help each other.”
— Tommy Emmanuel

“Because of its low cost, ease of playing, and quick learning curve, you should seriously consider whether the air guitar is the instrument for you.”
— Larry Sanders

“Pain or romance. That’s what I do with the guitar. I don’t do scales. I either make it sound like it’s in pain or in love.
Dick Dale

“I have always felt — from the very first day that I picked up the guitar — that this journey was never going to end.”
— Steve Vai

“There’s so much that can be done on the guitar. And that’s what is so good about the guitar — everyone can really enjoy themselves on it and have a good time, which is what it’s all about. Right?”
— Jimmy Page

“If something is too hard to do, then it’s not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we’ll go inside and watch TV.”
— Homer Simpson

My First Guitar

Posted by Brian on 14th February 2011 in Guitar, Memorabilia, The Instrument

“First guitars tend to be like first loves: ill-chosen, unsuitable, short-lived and unforgettable.”

— Tim Brookes in “Guitar: An American Life”

My first guitar pretty much matched this description to a tee. It was given to me by a neighbour whose adult son played guitar. He had left home, taken his good guitars with him and left behind a couple of  “lesser” instruments. His mom asked me if I would like one of them; and what nearly-eleven-year-old boy would say, “No”?

There were two guitars to chose from, and although I’ll never know for sure, I suspect that I chose badly. I chose the jet-black Gibson Les Paul copy over the sunburst hollowbody Gibson 335 copy; mainly because I had seen more pictures of rock-stars playing Les Pauls than 335s. I do know that now that I’m an adult, I love the sound of hollowbody electric guitars – though that may be a function of not yet owning one.

The guitar was made by Raven and had a super cool Thunderbird-looking logo on the headstock and a huge Wings: Venus and Mars sticker on the body. I’ve only see a handful of Ravens in my life and the last one that I ever saw was this one – on the rack in the store about a month after I traded it in. It was a short-lived brand and this guitar was a pretty good example of why. The intonation was poor and it wouldn’t stay in tune for any length of time.

Shortly after receiving it, I started taking lessons and it wasn’t long before my teacher told my parents that the guitar was holding me back and that, if possible, a better instrument should be found. My parents obliged and bought me a very nice used Fender Stratocaster that I still have over thirty years later. Even though it is one of the notorious post-CBS instruments that are the bane of the Fender line, its been a great instrument for me.

A few short years later I decided that I needed an acoustic guitar, and for the sake of getting $50 off the price of a splendid new Takamine acoustic, I traded it in.  The Takamine has also been a wonderful instrument and has only recently been retired and replaced with a very similar Simon & Patrick instrument. I have absolutely no regrets about buying the Takamine.

But I sure wish I’d spent the extra fifty and kept the Raven.

This is Cool: The Six String Nation Guitar Project

Posted by Brian on 23rd December 2010 in Guitar, The Instrument

The Six String Nation Guitar Project was conceived by Jowi Taylor as a response to the Quebec Referendum of 1995; his goal was to bring together “the many voices and perspectives that together define the spectrum of Canadian identity and experience”. After a few years of research, Taylor set about collecting most of the materials for the guitar over a two year period starting in 2004. At first the collection process was slow, but a few high profile donations, including a piece of Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle donated by Justin Trudeau really got the ball rolling.

The guitar was built in the Spring of 2006 by luthier George Rizsanyi from 63 pieces of wood, bone and metal collected from historic and cultural artifacts representing all 13 provinces and territories. It was presented at the Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill on July 1, 2006 where it was played by Canadian folk icon Stephen Fearing – eleven years after the idea was first conceived.

A sample of the materials used:

  • Top: 300 year-old Albino Sitka Spruce that was killed by a vandal.
  • Back and sides: Oak from the beams of the St. Boniface Museum in Winnipeg.
  • Neck includes materials from the Bluenose and a Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
  • Frets made from steel that was milled on Cape Breton Island.
  • Ornamentation includes pieces of seats from Massey Hall and the Montreal Forum, gold from Rocket Richard’s 1956 Stanley Cup ring, and some wood from a deHavilland aircraft.
  • Bracing includes wood from Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s paddle, a shelf in Sir John A. MacDonald’s office, and Nancy Greene’s skiis.

Jowi Taylor recently presented the guitar at our local high school and a couple of students were lucky enough to play the instrument.

Detail of some ornamentation.


SixStringNationTV (Youtube):






Video Trailer:

Edit (3/1/2011): I was given a copy of the book for Christmas – review to follow…

The first post: The Democratic Nature of the Guitar

Posted by Brian on 13th April 2010 in Guitar, The Instrument

I’ve subtitled this blog ‘Musings on “the most democratic of all instruments.”‘ In his book “Guitars: A Celebration of Pure Mojo”, David Schiller describes the guitar as “the most democratic of all instruments.” I’m here to second that opinion.

The guitar really is a remarkable musical instrument. It ranks among the greatest inventions ever – right up there with Lego and the bicycle. A simple instrument (who hasn’t, as a child, strung an elastic band over a Kleenex box and proceeded to bring down the house with an impromptu performance?), the design of the acoustic guitar has not changed substantially in over 150 years and its ancestors, which can be traced back for millenia, bear striking similarity to the modern instrument.

As for its democratic nature, most North Americans can procure a new, decent quality guitar for roughly a day’s wages, making it one of the most easily obtained musical instruments on the planet. And what an instrument! Within a few hours, almost anyone can learn their first three chords and, if they are willing to open their mouths and sing, perform their first song. At the same time, the person who meticulously studies the guitar for a lifetime will not ever find themselves reaching the limits of possibility for the instrument.

Like a piano, the guitar can be used to play melody, or accompaniment, or both; and among popular instruments, only the piano has a wider usable frequency range – and try carrying a piano on your back or throwing one in the trunk of your car. Also like a piano, the guitar is equally suited to both solo or ensemble performance – whether your desire is to quietly play a classical piece by yourself in your room or to strum along with a dozen or more fellow guitarists at the local jam, the guitar will suit your social mood or temperament.

One also has a difficult time coming up with a musical genre in which the guitar is not comfortably at home. Bluegrass, jazz, classical, rock and pop are all well suited to the guitar, so, chances are you can find something to play on your guitar that is to your particular taste – no matter how particular that taste might be.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the instrument. And I hope that with this blog, I can ignite, or re-ignite, your enthusiasm for playing “the most democratic of all instruments”, the guitar. I don’t know how regularly I’ll be able to post, but check back now and again – you never know when something here might “strike a chord”.