Monday, June 28, 2010

Fretless update - strings

More on the fretless acoustic guitar project.

So it does appear that tying the nylon strings to the tailblock is going to prove a lot more workable than trying to use the ball-end approach. If nothing else (and after one tie pulling out on me, dagnabbit) I learned the trick to this technique, which appears to be to have the tail of the knot under angular tension, here taking advantage of the rounded upper edge and slight cantilever of my tailblock:

This seems obvious in retrospect, of course, much like some climbing knots, but doesn't necessarily occur to you at first.

It seems like these strings are still stretching after an entire weekend, although they're a lot closer to settled now than they were when I put them on. (As I look at all the little angles, twists and other places where stretching can happen, I suppose this should not be that much of a surprise.) What is encouraging is that the knots are no longer pulling through, and I can get on to bigger and better things, like playing them. What's funny now is to look at the strings and see all the pinch and wind points that represent my learning curve; hopefully the next string change will see a one-shot installation, with an even cleaner playing surface in the end.

Hey, sometimes it takes a time or two, but I do learn. :-)

Here's another take of the soundhole, bridge and tailblock, with the amusing visage of three ball-end steel strings and three tied nylons:

Up at the headstock, you can see yet more string blemishes right off the nut. Sigh. What's interesting in playing is that with the thicker first string there, I find myself wanting the string groove to be located just a hair more inboard--it's very close to slipping off the edge of the board if I get sloppy. If I do end up adjusting the action to accommodate these strings (which I suspect is probable, at some point), I'll probably try to cut only on the inward face of the groove, both here and at the saddle. It won't take much, but I do notice it. More learning!

Finally, note here in side-view yet another lesson: since the nylon strings stretch so much, there is no need to wind two or three times around the capstan before starting to tension the string, as I've always done with steel strings. By the time you're up to pitch and stable, you'll have a lot more winds on that sucker! (Note here that my third string has considerably fewer winds on it than the other two--here's the story: after cutting off the ball end, tying a double-knot on the tailblock and trimming the obvious kink at the other end from the previous attempt, there was only enough string left to even reach the third-string capstan with a little assistance from a needlenose plier. So the winds that you do see are all there from stretch!)

So, my little Frankenstein woodworking project limps along, sounding far better (to my ears, at least) than it has any right to, and I continue to learn little things about luthierie. It's all good. Hell, I'm still a bit dumbfounded that I managed to build something I could not only play, but improve upon noticeably. (Just wait, this will probably embolden me just enough to try something else. Keep your eye protection on! :-)

Interestingly, when I got around to plugging it in, I found a pretty sizable disparity in output between the steel basses and nylon trebles: to wit, the basses sound simply huge, and the trebles are distinctly softer. Acoustically, they sound very even, but this pickup strongly favors the steels. (Probably not much of a surprise there, viz the physics of it.) What's encouraging technically is that if the nylons are softer, they sound very even across themselves (much moreso than the previous difference between wrapped and plain steel strings). I'll do a little experimenting with the tone pot on the onboard preamp to see what I can come up with, and of course there's always the controls further down the signal chain. There should be something workable there.

And the sound! Maybe it's the "my baby" thing talking, but I think there is a personality there, and the sound is as intoxicating as the feel. With a little luck, I'll get around to recording some samples. Fingers crossed!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fretless update

And verily, today I did place upon the home-built fretless guitar three flatwound basses and three nylon trebles, and wound them up to see what would happen.

This idea came about from discussions with the redoubtable Steve Cornish, who has been incredibly gracious in letting me use the "back room" in his shop for mandolin lessons. I had long liked the idea of flatwound bass strings, especially as they'd be easier on my padauk fingerboard, but then again I had originally conceived this instrument as a nylon-strung project--I even ordered the LR Baggs pickup that was optimized for nylon strings. Steve seemed to think that blending the two types might be worth trying out, and set me up with .050, .040, and .030 flatwounds, and the lightest ball-end nylon trebles he had on hand. I came home, re-sanded the fingerboard with 600-grit paper, oiled it up, and put the strings on. My target tuning was the Guitar Craft standard tuning, C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4.

First, the bad news. I don't think I'm going to be able to tune that first string to G4. Just as I got it there, the ball-end pulled completely through the tunnel in the tailblock. Since the string itself was fine, I tried tying a bigger knot in the end, and backed the tuning off by a whole step, just as I've had it for a while now. It still makes me nervous, as I can see it trying to pull through again even tuned down to F4. I suspect I've got a lot to learn about how to work with nylon strings, which--for starters--stretch in a completely different way than steel. Okay, learning curve! I may intensify a search for an appropriate first string as I go along, and I may experiment with actually tying that string as on a classical guitar bridge. I think my tailblock may permit that, and a double loop may resist pulling through better than what I've got now. (Suggestions from nylon-string experts welcome!)

Along with that, I may want to fine-tune the fingerboard and action (nut/saddle) a little bit, since the nylon strings are considerably thicker than their steel predecessors. I'll play it a bit first and see what makes the most sense.

At first glance, my sixth string now does seem a bit floppy, tuned as it is to Bb1. That's low. If I settle on this tuning (Bb1-F2-C3-G3-D4-F4), I may revise the gauges of the flatwounds to be a little beefier. Continued experimentation!

Touch wood, that's it for the bad news--and all of those items should be easy fixes. Now, for the good news.

This is exactly what I wanted this instrument to be.

The feel of these strings is just plain sexeh. (As in, "I'll have what she's having.") The flatwounds are everything I wanted them to be: easy on the board, quiet and smooth under the fingers, and surprisingly lively in the upper registers, with a great "mwah" sound. And I think I am going to really love the nylons, which have a very similar feel under the fingers and a distinct "mwah" of their own, plus a much more balanced acoustic output and sustain than the tiny steel strings they replace. My fingers can actually feel them there; the plain steel strings would dampen so quickly that I found myself rolling up on my fingernail to get a workable note, which certainly ruins any sort of consistent technique! :-)

Slides on the top strings have gone from optimistic to sensuous, with an unexpected personality that I look forward to developing. Playing in the upper registers sounds a lot less "forced", and string-to-string balance looks to be much improved. The whole instrument sounds warmer and I think I am starting to hear a distinct voice in it. Initial testing playing across the boundary--going from steel flatwound to nylon in scale runs--sounded much more even than I would have guessed, and I'm pumped to try this out for a while.

Thus far everything has been acoustic. Tomorrow, I'll add a little electricity and see what happens. :-)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

PowerTab editor

PowerTab software ( is an editor and playback engine for stringed instrument tablature. It has several drawbacks but the price is right (it's free, or rather what is technically called "card-ware") and it is pretty easy to use. I've used it for years now, for the following purposes:
  • Playback: I can control a PowerTab score to play some or all of its parts at appropriate volumes, in MIDI format. This is great for practicing exercises or learning a new part.
  • Scoring/Arranging: I can use PowerTab to score up a progression or a song, writing in parts for multiple instruments, and then send the resultant file to partners; in this way we can work on a piece remotely, making our in-person meetings much more efficient.
  • Composing: I've written a couple of pieces using PowerTab; having an editor is great for making on-the-fly changes (how would this sound?), and when writing for multiple parts, having the immediate playback option is nice.

(A mandolin exercise in the Editor)

The editor does have a couple of drawbacks. The biggest of these is that it is Windows-only. There are also a few editing options that are a bit clunky, and the score "checker", which checks your score for correctness in rhythm, musical direction symbols, etc., can seem a little heavy-handed on occasion. In some instances, the standard music notation (which it displays above the tablature staff) actually notates incorrectly; that is, there are times when that note really should be called D# and not Eb. And finally, there are some limitations and quirks that you might expect with any software, that can seem like they're slowing you down--however, you don't seem to notice those unless you're really using the software pretty fully, which isn't a bad thing!

Those drawbacks aside, PowerTab is quite helpful for personal use (I probably have created 100+ scores at the time of this writing, and I assure you I would not suffer it if it didn't work!), and as a common tool for working on ensemble pieces. For sharing with other musicians who know notation but not tablature, and for those of us who like to try and build our knowledge of notation, having the standard staff above the tablature staff really is nice. It imports from and exports to MIDI, and allows you to set up instruments from 3-7 strings with different MIDI playback patches (e.g., steel-string guitar, nylon guitar, violin, banjo, piano, etc.). You can set up your own chord diagrams and write in the rhythm slash bar rather than in the tablature staff, etc.

I'll try to link back to this post whenever I make reference to PowerTab (certainly if and when I post a score), so that anyone who is interested can get pointed in the right direction. I am starting to use other music software in addition to PowerTab, but it still fills a nice need, and you can't beat the price. :-)