Building a guitar – 1

So I’d decided to build an acoustic guitar, and after I researched just what the wood would cost I changed my mind. Really good wood, the kind of perfect wood you need for an acoustic, is unholy expensive these days! A kit, which is really just rough cut pieces, is $400-$500. Of course, to buy the guitar such a kit would allow you to build would cost about $2000. Even so, more than I have to spend at the moment so I decided to pursue an electric guitar first.

I’ve wanted a Telecaster for years, and so I decided to make a design similar to that. The blond model with a black pick guard. My goal is a guitar that works. I’m not going to try to make it perfect, or authentic, or beautifully finished. Just competently made and functional It will probably be finished with a few coats of oil over sanding to 220 grit. Maybe shellac, if my arms feel strong enough for all the sanding. I figure it will take at least 2 more guitars before I get to where spraying lacquer and buffing to high gloss will be worth it.

The first step was to make a template using a drawing off the internet and a trip to Kinko’s to print it out full size. I used spray-mount adhesive to stick it to some baltic birch plywood, and then cut and sanded to the lines. Not too bad – over 16″ the drawing was out maybe .030″ according to my most expensive ruler.
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In the mean time I dressed some ash I’d bought, and glued up a body blank. Why is it impossible to buy a piece of ash without saying to everyone ‘Hey, I just got a nice piece of ash!’. Anyway, it was a nice pie…attractively figured ash board. Now it’s a lot nicer looking and the right dimensions for cutting into a body.

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While the body blank was drying I got started on the template for the neck. The surgical loupe was there so I could read the .010″ graduations on my ruler – my eyes just don’t go there anymore. I pasted a drawing of the headstock on the plywood to get started, and then calculated the length and where the taper should start. It’s about now that I realized that there are really very few critical dimensions on a guitar – really just the distance between the nut, bridge and frets. The rest is just aesthetics. I like this kind of wood working!

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Today I got the body routed out – not without a flaw here and there due to tear out and unexpected router mishaps. I’m going to try to repair as best I can, but really the guitar is meant to be functional and practice more than family heirloom. A few dings to start with just means I don’t have to worry about the first one that comes after it’s finished.

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I have a lot more work to do, but so far it’s been about what I expected. I will have to order some parts before I get too much further, as things have to be located to fit.

So far I think I’ve discovered a better way to do this. Instead of making the body, and routing the neck pocket, I think maybe it should go the other way. First rough the neck, then route the neck pocket in the body, then rout the outside of the body. I’ll have to try that next time.

More to come!

Irish Tin Whistle Revisited

So the other day my wife arose from an intense reorganization session in the basement, gave me a look and said “guess what I found?” in a sing-song voice. There’s a ton of things that have gone missing in our house and it was hard to guess. She beat me to it by holding out my Clarke Pennywhistle (affiliate link). Maybe a year ago I’d gone looking for it, and come up with a bit less hair but otherwise empty handed.

I’d bought it back in the 90’s, to play while hiking and backpacking. I’d gotten the Clarke book and cassette, promptly lost the cassette, and learned a few tunes before (I think) I got distracted by the guitar. This happens – I get into one instrument, and then another calls. By the way, I still pick up the guitar.

Anyway it being recently found I decided to give it a try again.

I’ve started learning some tunes, and accumulating some whistles – they’re very cheap, $20 is the high end – and a few books. I’ve discovered that copying the tunes down into my music Moleskine both puts them into a nice, easy to carry format and also prompts some learning from a different perspective. When copying the notes, I think about the melody and rhythm as I do it, which helps a bit. Having only a handful of songs available keeps me focused. I’ve found that copying them requires intense concentration (I do it in ink) to avoid mistakes, and it’s an excellent way to take a break from something.

The Chiff and Fipple, the main online site for tin whistling, is a great please to learn about the surprisingly large world of tin whistling and the forum has been a great resource.

One of the things I’d learned was that a lot of folks use stoplight waiting time to practice. While stopped at a light, it’s easy to pick up the whistle, play a few bars or a song or two. Light turns green, you drop the whistle, and on your way you go. I drive surface streets to work, through perhaps ten lights along with a set of train tracks. I now see red lights and trains as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.

The girls enjoy tooting on them as well, but don’t yet have the dexterity or attention span to really learn music yet. Soon.

Another aspect of this is that you can make your own whistles and flutes out of PVC pipe – they have the same fingering. I’ve made a few flutes, but the main thing I’ve learned so far is that getting a clear, solid tone out of a flute is far more difficult than one would think!

If you’re looking for a cheap, simple way to bring a little music into your life, give the tin whistle a try.

Agile Partner's TabTookit – another great resource for learning guitar

A short while ago I wrote about apps that I’ve been using on my iPhone to help learn how to play guitar. I’ve just found out about a new one from Agile PartnersTabToolkit.

Their first app, Guitar Toolkit was clearly at the top of the heap, and it had to be to justify it’s $10 price tag. I consider $10 for an iPhone app to be well, well above average.

The TabToolkit is a guitar tab reader that supports intelligent tab formats, like Guitar Pro. The intelligent formats contain more information than just text, such as rhythm, and can contain multiple instruments. TT also has a metronome, and a view of the fretboard where notes are highlighted as they are played.

So, you want to learn a song? You start with either downloading the tab file from your PC via wifi, or using the built-in downloader to snag it off the web. Once the file is in TT, you can adjust the playback metronome speed, metronome sound, whether or not you want to hear the note being played, whether you want to see them being played on a fretboard or keyboard, and then hit play.

During playback touching the screen stops the playback, and you can drag the music back and forth to get to a particular spot. Then hit play again to restart playback.

I think with the right set of tab files, TT would be one heck of a resource for learning guitar.

But while all this makes a really cool app it’s not what bowled me over. That came when last night I got an idea for how to improve it (see below) and went looking for the developer’s email address in the app. Instead I found a feedback function. It asked me for my email address, and gave me an area to enter a message. I did so, and hit send.

An hour or so later I had a reply. It could have been just a canned thank-you, but it contained the idea I suggested. Regardless, to be able to submit an idea and get feedback that quickly is awesome. I can’t say that Agile Partners is the first to provide this facility, I don’t if they are or not, but it’s something any intelligent iPhone developer should jump on.

While the Tab Toolkit is a great app, there are some things I think would make it even better:

  • Provide a way to select the bars that play. This could be done by making the bar dots at the top of the display toggle when tapped, or by holding on the red line to toggle start/finish spots. Rarely do I need to repeat an entire song – it’s usually a riff or solo that needs the most work, and it would be nice to just repeat those.
  • Provide auto repeat. Play the song or selected bits, then show a countdown (user selectable in the length, or maybe just 0,3,5, or 10 seconds) and repeat.
  • The speed at which the music scrolls is inconsistent because sheet music isn’t written to a horizontal scale that corresponds to the rhythm. So when you’re in a bar that has lots of notes the display moves very quickly. When in a bar that has just rests or a note or two, it moves very slowly. This is pretty disorienting. I would like to see them add dots above or below that correspond to the beats, so help interpret the horizontal scale. Either that, or change the display of the music so that the horizontal scroll speed stays more constant. Of course, it could be that I’m the only one who thinks this is a problem 8-).
  • Being able to change the metronome speed from the playback window would be nice.

Highly recommended!

(re)Learning Guitar

I first learned guitar when I was in high school. I didn’t so much learn guitar as learn that there is a big difference between wanting to be a rock star and wanting to become a rock star, but some of it did stick.

It’s been kind of a love hate thing over the years, as expectations consistently outpaced my devotion to practice, but every so often I’d get back into it with renewed interest, relearn some old licks, maybe a few new ones, and then put the guitar back in the case until next time.

But having kids changes things, and now I’ve got little girls who like to dance and sing – why not learn some folk tunes for them to enjoy? Plus it would be nice to get them more exposure to music.

So I back at the guitar again, and this time it’s been a lot more fruitful. First, when I’m not trying to emulate some guitar hero’s best work the results are more satisfying and easier to come by. Second, I’ve put a lot more time into learning the fundimentals, which has really paid off.

The resources for learning guitar have changed a lot since the last time I did this, and there are some really good ones:

The iPractice iPhone app is good for practicing chord changes. I haven’t messed with using it for scales yet. It has a nice built-in metronome, and is adjustable for speed and number of repeats. I wish I could add my own chord progressions to practice as the library is limited. All the same, it’s a good app.

The Guitar Toolkit app is expensive compared to most iPhone apps, but it is worth every penny. The tuner alone is awesome, but the chord library and metronome make it a must have.

The Skeptical Guitarist books are really, really good. I learned more from them in a few minutes about music in general than I have in any other book I’ve picked up. Bruce’s Christmas song books are also really nice. I wish he’d make a book of simple family entertainment/campfire songs in the same style.

Susan Palmer at LeadCat Press has put out the Guitar Lesson Companion. It’s the prototypical guitar lesson book – that is, it has exercises. While the Skeptical Guitarist goes a great job of explaining things, it doesn’t really have any exercises. It also doesn’t really push you to learn to read music, which Susan’s book does. I’m finding the two complement each other nicely.

Last but not least, the NoteBrainer iPhone app has made learning to read music easier. In fact, I had the trebel clef pretty much nailed within a day or so of playing the app.

Between all of these I’ve made decent progress, and I’m looking forward to carols at Christmas time.