Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Practice pays off with an insight

Over the last month or so, I've been practicing scales. Sitting with a metronome and running up and down different modes of a scale might sound boring (and it can be), but ten to twenty minutes at a shot is bearable and builds a solid base for the future.

Besides, I'm not crazy. I'd change it up: I'd make up little games like one finger on the left hand, jumping all over the fretboard- up the scale at this position, down the scale at another, cross over on the 2nd string. Always on the beat. I'd ramp the tempo up and down. Switch from 8th notes to 16th notes. Hammer hard on a transition that was hard. Work on it until I got it and then switch to a different mode and work in its hard transitions. Do three note step runs, five note step runs. Run a bar at 16th notes and then pause and ping for a few notes before digging back in. With some imagination (and a wee bit of gin) you can make up new games to entertain you for a while.

Playing with a metronome is good, but a drum machine is even better. It helps you count the beat and you can focus on hitting the note with the snare, adding accents and character to the note rather than just hitting it on time. Muffle, pinch harmnonic, clean, soft, hard. And playing clean through your amp reveals the misses that an overdriven sound can hide.

Regardless, when warmed up I'm capable of working the metronome with plucked 16th notes at a tempo of 90 beats per minute which, when you do the math, is six notes a second. Kind of a milestone. I'm no shredder, but that, to me, is pretty darn good for actuallly picking each note, not just hammering on and off through a scale run.

Its the kind of foundation that will let me, in a real playing situation, pull myself up to the tempo of the band and surprise myself with a clean run.

Which brings me to the insight and the payoff. I came across this simple lesson earlier today and it made perfect sense.

I couldn't wait to experiment though I had to (work, errands, dinner). My month of ramping up had left me with nothing if not an ability to take a snippet of a scale and consider it a lick. I've played along with blues songs before, and even felt decent about staying close to the boundaries of the pentatonic in the appropriate key, and the notes I would play would be harmonic- sometimes even emotional- and I could go up the neck and play them here, and I could go down the neck and play them there. But heck, I sounded like a computer program. Play up the scale. Now do it fast. Go down to another mode slowly. Play scale notes. Do it fast then slow.


But tonight, with the insight, it was different. I was able to take a small piece of the scale and center around it, repeat it and change it, reach out to another note on either side, come back; play the same thing up a string and come back, trill around with different emotions, play part of it. Repeat! Hold a note for a long time and make it talk again.


No, I didn't record it.

Suddenly I knew which pickup I wanted because I was trying to get an emotion through. I knew that I needed to crank down the tone knob on the bridge but keep some saturation. I was a boogie-woogie monster. I'd throw it on the neck and clean. I knew my place in the twelve bars. I'd throw in a minor chord along with the rhythm and hen jump back into a solo. I'd go a few beats without even playing a note just to add to the feeling of what I was doing. I got lost in it and was giving Tab Benoit a little bit to handle- certainly not on the skill side, but man, can't anyone deny we were feedin' off each other. As much as an mp3 can feed of someone, that is.

Bottom line, I was feelin'it. Breakthrough.

Oh, and that Hamer Stellar is Stellar.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Wood moves

Just as rust never sleeps, wood moves. Right in step with the spring equinox, in the last week I've noticed some of the doors around the house emerging from their winter sticknicitude* while others are reverting from winter freedoms to their summer catchy stations. A sort of changing of the guard for the doors.

It also reveals itself in my guitar necks. As fall sets in and leaches humidity, the wood in the necks of the guitars slowly dries out and start to raise the tension on the strings and straighten their necks out as if they could approximate good posture. What to do but tune them down a bit and give the truss rod some relief- loosen it. At ease, gentlemen.

But now it's spring, and the humidity rolls in, reversing the winter's arid effects. Day by day now I've noticed the action turning into a trapeze wire. The tuning slumps low. And so the truss rod is given a tweak in the opposite direction. Straighten Up! Look Sharp! Attention!

Is this significant? Well, yes and no. As with all things minute in nature, the movement can be undetectible to those not paying close attention until finally it crosses a threshhold and -whoomp, there it is.

Yes, that's an analogy for the typically subteranean shifts in our daily political lives. I beg of you to pay attention to the seismic tremors big and small happening in our country these last six months, because we've gone way past that threshhold of visibility and are entering into critical stresses.

Yes, wood moves. Back and forth, back and forth with the seasons. But you can't fold a guitar- you'll break its neck.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Vote Democrat, get free stuff"

It might just be okay to leave a child behind once in a while...

There are so many things I could say... but I think Julio speaks volumes by himself.

Quote of the day

"More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

-Woody Allen


Monday, March 23, 2009

The many faces of Jack

Mrs. Toadroller (I can call you that, can't I Cheryl? I don't want people knowing your real name) put up a post with pictures of my boy Jack's sundry expressions over at her blog.

I thought I'd better respond with one of my favorite collage of the Pteryjacktal:

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Ain't he something?

Yes, quite Stellar indeed

She's a Hamer Stellar 1, probably 99/00 time frame, with a crimson hued burst to black with some great lines and carves. It's unique and will fight its way into rotation with my other Hamers- a China goldtop P90 and a Korean Standard. It's got two nicks on the front edges, a little rash and some bumps on the back, but overall, a great looking guitar. And it's a Hamer. You know it plays just fantastic- beefy neck, not heavy, balanced, and resonant.

I didn't quite realize it when I hit the "buy it now" button at $150 (delivered), but upon arrival today I realized that I must be rescuing this fine piece from what can only be considered guitar abuse. A friend selling for a friend, so the story goes; regardless it made it here, luckily in one piece. Here's what greeted me opening the rather large shipping container:

Umm, why is it only one third filled with packing peanuts? Thank you, UPS, for treating it with care or it could have been a disaster.

Scissoring through the mummy-wrapped bubble plastic, it let out a whiff. "Smoker," I warned Cheryl. This thing was grimy, slimy, with rusty strings and, for some reason, black magic marker on the back. One knob was missing, the other was hanging on at an angle that made me worry about the shaft of the pot, but not a problem- the knob was an oversized mis-fit and the shaft was fine, the pickup switch tip was nowhere to be seen. There was a huge chunk on the edge of the fretboard. Crap! No, wait, it came off. Dirt. Whew!

I was pleasantly surprised that it contained a genuine Seymour Duncan (TB 4, it turns out) bridge pickup and a no name "Patent Applied For" neck pickup.

I stripped it down and spent the next 2-3 hours clearing the grime, cleaning off the magic marker, polishing the body to an incredible luster (this thing glows, you know?), oiling the neck, graphiting the nut, restringing with 10s, adjusting the truss (the neck was like a canoe until I snugged it up- straightened right out), adjusting the action, and setting the intonation which was, no surprise here, waaaay off.

How can one do this to a beautiful guitar? It's neglect, I tell you! Criminal neglect! Come here, little Hamer, I've got a home for you.

Here's a "before" photo. Notice the overall haze on the body and all the gunk around the pickups:

Here's an after:

I waited until after all this cleaning and restringing to plug her in . I couldn't bring myself to even touch the strings it came with. Bloom-floom, beautiful music from the neck pickup. Swapped over to the old SD bridge pickup to see what she could do and phlaaat-spizz. Super thin and a ton of noise/hum...

Opened up the cavity and whoa! Spaghetti!

That ain't right. I followed leads, scratched my head, did a little research on basic wiring patterns for a 3 way switch with only one volume and one tone, scratched my head some more, looked up Seymour's advice, and identified what was likely the problem. The wrong leads from the bridge pickup were soldered to the wrong stub of the pickup selector switch. Five minutes with a soldering iron and fat as shat she's alive!

I'm having a blast here because I rescued a beauty of 24 fretter, dual hummer, oak/lacewood mystic lava lamp topped, fine Korean built Hamer for the princely sum of a buck-fifty and it's a keeper. Can you believe the character in this top? It changes in the light from different angles. Like I said, it's a lava lamp.

Here are some shots of it"




Thursday, March 19, 2009

Oops, sorry, TODAY is a very bad day for America

How successful has Obama's first 100 days been?


He's made us and our great grandchildren wards of the state with the debt he's enacted. Oh Dennis, you silly, our great grandchildren? Come on! This will be ancient history by then! Oh really? I'm a great grand-child of the depression and I know its effects on my life. This is roughly the same time-cycle as the great depression to now. And a significant portion of our country's history.

He's brought banking into the fold of government responsibility; dare I say nationalized them. Who's next? The core of manufacturing.

He's just defined how much is too much. 250K and then 90% tax rate. Don't forget what the tax burden is for someone making 250k. Oh Dennis, that's just for those companies mismanaged by the evil greedy who deserve such a punishment! Why yes, yes it is. For now. In the industries suckling at the pig. But it's not fair that one group should be allowed to make more than 250k and others not. Why, that makes them Rich with a capital R and that's not fair. As promised in the campaign, the rich are those making over 250k, and this is just the first tug on the noose to put an end to such unnecessary over-abundance.

Congress floated the idea yesterday... I do believe it was our favorite schlepp Barney Frank that did so... that he'd tax those bastards 90% if he could. And sumbich if the house didn't act in less than 24 hours. Astonishing.

Healthcare is going to be a cakewalk. Especially when the retiring boomers start whining about how their retirement funds disappeared (if they had ever actually been responsible enough to create them, which many, many weren't) and they simply can't afford it; someone's got to take care of them, they're the old and infirm.

Sorry. I'm pissed, I'm embarassed, and most of all, I'm dissapointed in the American people for still believing these things are good. I want to run every stinking Subaru and Prius with a liberal bumper sticker (which is, last check, all of them) off the road right about now.

A very successful first 100 days indeed.

Beyond any liberal's wildest dreams. A multi-orgasmic 100 days of liberal achievement whose first wave was at the coro-nomination, second surprising gasp was on election day, and whose third throbbing peaked during the sickening whorefest of the inauguration. The filthy fourth can easily be found over at Barney's playhouse this evening.

Tomorrow's hangover is gonna suck for America.

I'm anticipating something Stellar

Don't let cash burn a hole in your pocket. No sir.

My solemn vow was to stash cash for a genuine USA Hamer Studio. They can be found on Ebay or Craigslist or a few other guitar oreinted forums for under a grand and, at such prices, are well worth it.

But dang if this Hamer Stellar 1 didn't show up with a Buy it Now for $150 delivered.

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This is the guitar from its crappy listing photo. It looks like at least a good polishing and a replacement knob are in order. Probably more. Notice, in comparisson to the photo below, the moire patters on the finish due to the low resolution.

Here's a much better photo I found of the same model. When I get mine, expect a review and better pics:

Courtesy of this flickr album.

It took five minutes of hard research and googling of this rather unique bird (which also yeilded the same guitar's previous listing at $250 Buy it Now) and the fact that I actually had $150 stashed away and, well... It's supposed to be here tomorrow from UPS. So that's a reset button on saving for the genuine Hamer USA Studio.

What has this thing got going for it? It's a Korean Hamer. That doesn't suck. More intriguing is its theoretical through-body maple neck and its oak/lacewood top, a transluscent red burst finish, a 24 fret, 25.5 inch scale length, and what will probably be decent if not great Duncan Designed humbuckers. I doubt that it's a through-body; it's probably a maple core body with a maple set-neck and oak/lacewood veneer. Many of the on-line reviews seem to be confused about this. I know what a through body neck actually is and promise to set the record straight.

So what? Well, its oak/lacewood finish caught my attention as that's exactly what is on Four, the custom guitar my good friend Birger is making for me. See the mini-slide show to the right. And Four has a maple (and mahogany core) through neck. And it's the same scale length.

Bottom line, if it's in any kind of decent condition, I've got the confidence to clean it up and get it playing great. I can experiment with pickups till the cows come home. Or resell it for a profit. I'll also probably throw the old Kramer Striker up for sale.

While the Striker is one of my first electric guitars and was what I first sought- humbuckers, pointy hockey stick neck, Kramer name- I've never really bonded with it. It plays great, it's light, looks cool, the pups scream "Ratt," and the Korean fit and finish is exemplary. But it sits in a case in the closet. To me, it's $200 or so back into the Hamer USA fund or whatever else sidetracks me.

Like building a small tube amp. Stay tuned...

I think it was asking for help...

Yesterday was a day of significance for Americans.

I drove from Augusta, Maine to my regional corporate office in Burlington, Mass through mid-day for a meeting, dinner, and a late night return. The farce of Obama's outrage against AIG's executive bonuses was playing itself out in real-time on talk radio and I caught before, during, and after perspectives from a variety of sources.


A huge American flag unfurled into the wind and into my view as I rounded a corner. The sight of it there- large, alone, billowing, evoked in me an emotion I've never, ever, EVER before experienced about our flag, our home. I don't know if it was shame, disappointment, fear, regret, or guilt, this strange stew of anxiety. But when have you ever looked at our flag with anything but a positive or supportive emotional response?

I listened, crestfallen, as Obama railed away at the injustices and the greed and the evil ways... as he borrowed tired cliches from his political ancestors ("The buck stops with me"? Come on!)... and floundered despite his great oratory prowess ("...and" "but let us recall..." "I want to make... one... thing.. clear") and finally made his power-grabbing point- that this was all just proof and evidence of the need for more regulation and control in this and all capitalist industries. Let's tick them off together, shall we? Banking, Insurance, Health Care, Automotive, Investments... What's left?

Obama and Congress sanctimoniously, righteously, soullessly had the gall to crucify a pawn to satisfy the masses screaming for Barabbas. To quote Captain Renault in Casablanca:

Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

That's right, Barney. I'm talkin' to you. You hypocrite.

Late at night, swimming north into the darkness that is I95 through the Kennebec Valley of Maine, my MP3 player glowed with an image of Ronald Reagan as he delivered, single-handed and boldly, a defiant challenge at Brandenburg gate to "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev... Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

My day started with the shameless shameful and ended with liberty's successful stand at the gate of tyranny. I pulled over and cried.

Our flag stood there yesterday, huge and proud in the wind. I saw it. I don't know who else did.

I think it was asking for help.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I can't put the Hamer down

More than bicycling. More than juggling. More than golf, for heavens sake, I've fallen for playing the guitar.

And more than strats, teles, les pauls, wolfgangs and kramers, I've fallen for a simple, amazing guitar. A Hamer XT Sunburst Archtop gold-top with P90s.


Now, to fall for a particular guitar and have it become your favorite is expected... right after you get it. It's the honeymoon period of newness, it's difference from the others, in lavishing some love through a re-string, neck adjustments, pickup heights, playing and learning how it sounds. Eventually, however, the other guitars get a little jealous and beg you to spend some time with them and your new love begins to slowly move into its slot in your regular rotation. Just ask Woody in Toy Story. The shine can come off the relationship in a matter of weeks.

I have a number of guitars ranging from cheap to expensive; American to Japanese to Korean to Chinese and China, for all its political implications, has arrived on the manufacturing scene. People hear China and think cheap. Recall, though, that thirty years ago, people heard Japanese and thought cheap. Twenty years ago people heard Korean and thought cheap. This particular guitar is - you guessed it- manufactured in China. It made it to my house in time for Christmas last year. $300 included a TKL hard shell case, second day delivery, and the usual case candy- all brand new and unplayed. Hang tags hanging, as they are supposed to, on the peghead.

The story...

It's funny how something you at first find awkward and, even a bit ugly becomes unique and endearing to you as you gain familiarity. I felt that way about the original pocket rocket Rabbit GTI twenty five years ago. Then I bought one as my my first car and have nostalgiac memories of that little BMW wanna be; it drove like a beemer and it had the maintenance needs of one- just the cost of entry was lower. I felt the same about Hamer's paddle-like, oversized and gloss-black headstock shape merely a few months ago. But now it's a mark of distinction to me... a membership in a club where simple nods of appreciation are knowingly exchanged.

I asked Santa for this because I had a yearning for a guitar with a set of P90 pickups in it. I was back and forth between this and a flashier, lower in price Xaviere XV-560 guitar from Gutar Fetish. Flashier in that it's got GFS P90s (which a lot of people will go to as a decent aftermarket P90 at a low price), is a semi-hollow body, and has a "look at me!" maple quilt top. Look at pictures of the two side by side, and you're going to choose Xaviere's candy almost all the time. But as the saying goes, candy's dandy, but liquor's quicker. I did the usual poking about the internet, reading reviews, lurking on discussions of Hamers, and watching youtube videos. I even found a fellow with videos of the Hamer P90 and a Xaviere with the same basic design (Semi hollow with the same P90s) as the particular model I wanted. His opinion was more towards the Xaviere but...

Here I am on Christmas day:

It's got this neck, you know? Ask any guitarist with a little experience about their favorite guitars, and they're bound to say "It's got this neck, you know?" I've got a bunch of guitars. I like them all and have found all their necks to be... fine. No issues, can play, can't dislike them. And then I picked up this one and it was different. And I've stepped into the brotherhood of guitarists who get that far-off, misty look in their eyes and say things like "it's got tone, man," or "It's got this neck, you know?" The neck is thicker than most. The subsequent reading I've done indicates this was the norm on 50s era Gibson Les Pauls. All I know is that my medium sized hands just wrap around it; it fits. I can play quickly, smoothly, precisely on it. It's interesting to go from a shredder's speed guitar like my Peavey EVH Wolfgang or my slappy strat-style Ibanez Roadstar II to this. It's a different beast; easier to play and not as hard on the fingers.

It's lighter yet stronger than any of my other guitars and all day long comfortable. Its weight is a bit of a conundrum to me, as it's a mahogany body with a maple cap and a mahogany neck- it should be heavy as mahogany is generally dense stuff. But this thing is light and comfortable. Strength comes from the thick neck and with it comes a resonance, a wholesome brightness; play this thing unplugged and you can feel its vibe in your hands. This transfers directly to its amplified sound.

My boy Jack loves it.

For the electronics, the P90 pickups are Hamer branded jobbies. I don't have any other P90s around for comparison. They work and have unique character. The volume pots are nice- there's a good boost from 9-10 on the dial, making it easy to play along at 9 and have a quick touch for playing a solo. Said the dunderer who's been able to accomplish almost half of the simplest of solos, e.g. Judas Priest's "Livin After Midnight," but hope springs eternal that some day... this nice feature will be of value to me. The fun thing about the P90s is that they are so much more forceful than typical single coils, yet they have a tight, tight bass. Cleans are full of character. They're fun to do bouncy blues strumming. I'm learning how to overdrive them- they're very sensitive to amp equalization and gain- and since they're so different from regular single coils and humbuckers, I'm still on the learning curve. But if you want something that just starts to breakup the pre-amp into distortion when you push it, these babies are for you. I'm sure I'll get the tweaking bug someday and replace them with a brand name P90- a Seymour Duncan as used in the Hamer USA on which my guitar is based, or some handmade BG pups or the Lollars. I don't know enough now to judge, and I'm not ready to dump $150 into a guitar when I can pick up another guitar for roughly the same price. Time will tell; until then I'm enjoying the sounds and the learning curve.

Real Hamer guitars- "Hamer USA" guitars, are hand crafted to a purists perfection by a small crew in Connecticut. And by hand made, I mean hand made. Start here:

Hamer USA's can be found on places like eBay for under a grand and that, my friends, is a bargain if quality means more to you than the name on the headstock. Though I can't imagine being embarassed with a Hamer in a room full of Fender and Gibson custom shops. Might be true the other way around... I've gone so far as to declare I'm not buying any other guitars but Hamers from here on in, and a Hamer USA at that. This is foolishness and these words I have already eaten, as I just bought a Korean Hamer Stellar 1 on eBay and am looking forward to lavishing it with love and affection. More on that one when it arrives. It's a 25.5" scale, 24 fret PRS interpretation with dual humbuckers from what I know about it. For $150 delivered I couldn't pass it up. Move over Kramer, a Hamer's about to take your place.