One of the nice things about cooperating with God and getting his power flowing in your life is that stuff that used to not work will start to work. Right now, I am having that experience with music.
Longtime readers with incredible memories will recall that I took up the guitar and quit because I developed strange knots on the finger joints on my left hand. Last year I started playing again.
I am not a hundred percent positive what caused the joint problems, but I do know that I was doing a highly questionable exercise routine at the time. It was called “Hands of Steel,” I think. I found it on an online teaching site. The motions were repetitious and stressful.
I thought I had repetitive-motion injuries.
I’m not so sure now. Last year I banged my right pinky on my compressor, and weeks later, a knot developed on one of the joints, just like the knots I had had on my left hand. I didn’t think I had injured myself. There was no real pain or bruising. But the knot rose up anyway, for no other apparent reason.
It’s almost gone now. I still don’t know that happened. You would think that if repetitive motion was the problem, my right hand would not have developed a knot, since I don’t do much of anything with the pinky on that hand.
I will definitely stay away from “Hands of Steel.” I think it’s a really stupid and dangerous method.
Last year I picked up the banjo again. There is something about the banjo that improves my playing on other instruments. When I play the banjo regularly, my musical memory improves a great deal. It’s also good preparation for the guitar. There is a lot of work for both hands, and none of it is strenuous.
I got back to the piano, and I started sight-reading practice again. Then I picked up the guitar.
After playing the banjo for several weeks without touching the guitar, I apparently changed my touch. I used to have a “death grip” issue with my fretting hand, but it appears to have gone away. Fretting too forcefully is bad for your playing, and it also leads to fatigue and injuries. It may be what made my joints hurt. Anyway, now the guitar is much easier.
Several of my guitars were messed up in one way or another. Two had pickups that were too shrill, and I had put off trying to figure that problem out. One, a Telecaster, needed a different neck pickup, and although I had bought one (Strat Texas Special), I hadn’t installed it.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve straightened the guitars out. I learned something interesting: piercing “icepick” tones from a guitar pickup can be caused by putting the pickup too far from the strings. Most people say it works the other way around, so if you listen to them and try to fix it, the problem gets worse, and then you give up. I moved the pickups on a couple of guitars and got better sound from them, and I went from a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates bridge pickup to a Seymour Duncan Alnico Pro II on one instrument.
Today I moved the Strat pickup to the Telecaster. I had to get a special pickguard, because the Strat pickup is bigger than the original pickup. You can hack up the original pickguard, but it’s not a good solution. I bought a pickguard from Guitar Fetish. I now wish I had spent more and gone with Warmoth, because the Guitar Fetish pickguard required some filing and sanding to get it to fit. Anyway, it’s on the guitar.
I made myself a new pedalboard. I have a big Pedaltrain about two feet wide and 20″ deep (I guess), and it’s just too big. I took a piece of wood about 9″ across and 12″ long, and I cleaned it up and glued another piece of wood to it to prop up one side. I painted it with truck bed paint, and I screwed rubber feet to it. Then I added some velcro from Home Depot.
It’s really excellent. Storebought pedalboards start at about $35, and even small ones are big. And they don’t use solid wood the way I did. This one is perfect for three pedals. I have a daisy chain transformer that powers it. No fancy low-noise stuff. I’m not totally sure why people need those things, although I do have one on the Pedaltrain.
I tried to get my pedals in good shape. I fired up a Boss Blues Driver and a Way Huge Fat Sandwich. The Fat Sandwich has a magnificent tone, but it’s too distorted. At the lowest setting, it’s pretty crazy. I’m going to try to find out how to modify it.
I considered getting a Way Huge Red Llama, which is an overdrive pedal (less distorted than a distortion pedal), but then I remembered my old Tube Screamer TS-9.
I got this thing in about 1997, when I got the Strat I never play. I never liked this pedal. It had no edge, and it didn’t sound warm. I should have sold it.
I checked around and found out that there were some modifications that might make it better. The original Tube Screamer is the TS-808 (I think), and it had different resistors in the output. I found out the correct values and stuck them in there, and it sounded a little better.
Then I read that it was possible to warm it up by making the clipping asymmetrical.
A guitar signal is AC, which means it’s a voltage that goes up and down around some zero point. Most of what we call “distortion” is clipping. That means part of the voltage extremes gets cut off. Imagine an arch shape with the top sliced off. That’s what it’s like. The voltage ordinarily goes up, hits a round peak, and comes back down. When you clip, it goes up, hits a flat ceiling, and comes down.
The Tube Screamer has a couple diodes in it that affect the clipping. Because the factory diodes are identical, the clipping is the same regardless of which direction the signal is taking. If you change one diode, you get clipping which is different on one side of ground than the other.
For some reason, this makes clipping sound warmer. Look it up; I have not bothered to study it, so I can’t explain it. I could say something about “even harmonics,” but really, would that make it clearer? Doubtful. It would sound like an explanation without actually being an explanation.
I opened the Tube Screamer up again, pulled out a clipping diode, and replaced it with an LED. Then I put it together and tried it out.
It’s just about perfect now. The tone is warm and inviting. It responds well to the pick. It’s somewhat louder than it used to be. Now when I use the pedal, sometimes I just sit picking notes so I can enjoy the tone.
I have piles of guitars, and several are pretty nice, but I keep going back to the cheapest one: the $300 Epiphone P93 Riviera, from China. The action is a wonder to behold. It plays itself. The sound of the Lollar P90s is open, with an inviting edge that grabs you by the throat.
It’s actually a little frustrating. I would like to get this kind of experience from my more expensive instruments, but it’s not happening. My Japanese Burny Les Paul clone is the closest competitor, and it’s only about 90% of the guitar the Riviera is.
I would like to have one more guitar I really enjoy using, because no matter now much you like a guitar, sometimes you want to play something else, and you don’t want to go from a perfect guitar to a really good guitar. You want to make a lateral move.
I keep watching my finger joints. They haven’t gotten sore or swollen, and I practice a lot these days. I speak defeat to the spirits that work against my flesh. I forbid my flesh to have joint problems. I use the tools I’ve been given. So far, no issues.
My playing is getting better very quickly, and I’m finding the way through doors that seemed closed in the past.
One big help: I found a good instructor. The guy I was using a couple of years ago was great in many ways, but he did not have a systematic approach, which I needed. This week I found Justin Sandercoe, and right now, he’s my teacher.
He’s a Tasmanian guitarist, and he created a website full of free videos. He goes step by step. He explains everything. He even creates practice lists.
He doesn’t teach people to fake it and flail, the way most teachers do. You have to learn proper technique, scales, and so on. He eventually goes into the CAGED system, which is something I would really like to conquer, even if I don’t rely on it much.
You can find him at Justin Guitar.
Things are breaking loose. I can do things I couldn’t do before. Suddenly, I am much better at writing blues licks. Instead of writing stuff that sounds like a white kid from Connecticut wrote it, I write stuff that sounds like the blues, and I do it easily. What a relief. And I actually play sometimes, instead of just practicing. Isn’t that really the point of all this work and expense? You can sink your life into music and never learn how to do anything but practice.
I’m thinking about making a slightly larger pedalboard and finishing up the two-speaker cabinet I never started, and I may put my Bassman clone in a different chassis, to kill the noise. I have parts for a few more amps. I should put them together. But mainly, I’m excited about the music.
I will let you know if things continue to improve. I has been great so far. I can’t tell you how great it is to wake up every morning and realize my hand doesn’t hurt. If you’ve ever been healed of anything, you know what I mean.