Monday, May 23, 2016

You know you're a cute little heartbreaker ... Epoxy!

One of the joys (and dangers) of my neighborhood is the proximity of Rockler's Cambridge store; all too often, I walk by, see an interesting piece of hardwood displayed in their window, and start to fantasize about buying it and installing tuners, bridges, pickups, ...

Luckily, last week this placement played to my advantage: While searching for a wood filler better suited to this project, I found a post on the Rockler website that explained the different kinds of wood filler, and identified what I thought would be the right product for this job. But in the store, when I described the project to someone on the staff (identified by his name tag as — I kid you not! — "Woody"), he pointed me to something else even better: Mohawk Wood Epoxy Putty Sticks.

The Mohawk wood epoxy both filled the narrow cracks more effectively than the garden-variety filler I used three years ago, AND it's harder when cured. (Win-Win!) The main drawback in practice is that, for this application, you must quickly resign yourself to wasting at least 50% of what you mix: As with any epoxy product, you have a limited time to use what you mix ... but it's well-nigh impossible to mix only the amount you would use to fill a single fret slot. Heck, it's well-nigh impossible to mix only the amount you would use to fill two fret slots, and even that's a race against time — especially given the putty's tendency to stick to the X-acto knife, and the palette knife, and the latex gloves, and, now that you mention it, everything except the surfaces in the fret slot.

Here are photos of the slots filled (but not sanded):

If you look closely, you can see the difference between the five slots closest to the neck pickup (which I filled more precisely, using only an X-acto knife) and all the others (which I filled more quickly, using a palette knife). The latter group resulted in more stray putty on the fingerboard, but that's not a problem: the process of extracting the fretwire slightly raises the wood along the edges of each slot; when you sand those down to the level of the fretboard, you simultaneously remove the excess putty. But don't take my word for it; here are images of the fingerboard after sanding:

... and finally, here's the newly fretless instrument, restrung:

So, there you have it: Phase 1 (making the fingerboard fretless) is complete; now it's on to Phase 2 (finding a way to tie frets around the neck). I've procured an ample supply of artificial gut, in the form of 1.75 mm ABS nylon monofilament (normally fodder for 3D printers). The good news is that it definitely seems hard enough to work as fret material (in particular, it's harder than nylon cable ties), but it seems to require some persuasion (most likely, by a soldering iron) to attain a proper fit to the fingerboard. When I find a practical solution to this problem, I'll share the details here.

Friday, May 13, 2016

We can work it* out

* where "it" denotes any individual guitar fret

Another Friday, another step forward in converting my ESP LTD EC-256 guitar into a fretless model. As advertised last week, today I applied painter's tape on either side of each fret, heated the fret with a soldering iron, and then carefully extracted the fretwire from the slot. Lather, rinse, and repeat 21 more times ...

The curtain is lowered for 30 minutes to denote the lapse of a half-hour.

Adjusting the truss rod to bow the neck slightly backwards resulted in much, much less splintering than in my previous effort (mauling an Epiphone LP-100; I'll have to dig around to see if I still have a photo of those ragged slot edges). Here's a close-up of the empty EC-256 slots; you can see some ribs (un-ribs?) where the barbs on the fret tang took teensy bits of wood with them on their way out, but the damage is minimal:

In another refinement of the process, rather than remove the frets in consecutive order from nut to body (or vice versa) as I did on the LP-100, this time I first removed only the odd-numbered frets, resulting (briefly) in a custom whole-tone instrument:

Removing the frets in this sequence made the work on the upper frets much, much less claustrophobic, especially on the second pass (i.e., removing the even-numbered frets). If nothing else, it simplifies applying the painter's tape, because on that first pass you don't have to clear all frets; rather, the tape can overlap and cover the even-numbered frets.

Okay, now the asymmetric placement of the fingerboard inlays in the above photo is starting to unsettle me, so here's a photo of the completely emptied fingerboard:

Ahhhhh, much better. Next week (schedule permitting), I'll fill the empty slots. Maybe I'm imagining it, but the clean(er) edges make the slots look narrower than the aforementioned LP-100 slots, which in turn makes it seem as though it will be even more challenging to fill the EC-256 slots.

The last time around, I discovered the hard way that the wood filler I used didn't offer a sufficiently fine resolution to truly fill the LP-100 slots. I haven't ruled out using wood glue instead: 1) I'm not trying to fool anyone into thinking this fingerboard was never fretted, and 2) the 12-EDO slot lines will provide a handy 100-cent reference grid for placing the "gut" (actually nylon) frets ... so, with that in mind, filling the slots in a contrasting color becomes a feature, not a bug.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Where angels fear to tread

Spring is sprung, school is out, and a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to thoughts of guitar surgery.

A couple of years ago, I undertook a wildly overambitious project to re-fret a solidbody electric guitar in 31-tone equal temperament. I failed miserably, and was ready to swear off any and all such radical modifications. But then a funny thing happened on the way to abject surrender ...

A few weeks ago, it dawned on me that, yes, I had failed miserably, but not utterly. No, I don't have the skills to saw new fret slots and hammer in new fretwire ... but I did succeed in removing the old frets, and I almost succeeded in filling the old fret slots and making the fingerboard fretless. So although I can’t realistically plan to refret a guitar, I could convert one into a fretless instruement, and then play it microtonally with a slide, and/or tie gut frets (or something gut-like) onto the fingerboard. (Which, indeed, some older, wiser voices encouraged me to do with the previous guitar —but I was too headstrong to listen, as a callow youth of 50.)

So, here we go again ...

... this time with a nifty little gem of an inexpensive Les Paul copy that I stumbled onto in Rockin’ Bobs Guitars, Davis Square, Somerville. Here's the “before” photo:

It's an ESP LTD EC-256. Highlights include a carved maple top and the ability to split the pickup coils; alas, there’s only one tone knob, but at $225 used, this instrument was practically a steal. (The covered humbuckers aren’t my first choice, but if all goes well, I’ll swap them out for some Seymour Duncan open-coil models, and replace the ordinary nut with a compensated one by Earvana.)

After removing the strings (and stashing away the stopbar tailpiece and Tune-O-Matic-style bridge for safekeeping), I removed the cover plate to access the truss rod:

Next, I adjusted the truss rod, reversing the fore-bow (a.k.a. “relief,” which prevents strings from buzzing against frets during play) to achieve a slight backbow. This is a pro tip I didn’t know two years ago; this step should reduce damage to the fingerboard when removing the frets. (If the fingerboard is under compression, then it tends to grip the fretwire; if it’s under tension, then it’ll more readily release the fretwire.)

Okay, that’s enough fun for today. Nest week, I’ll apply painter’s tape on either side of each fret (to protect the fingerboard), and then extract them, with the aid of a soldering iron to melt any glue holding them in place. Wish me luck!

Friday, November 13, 2015

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

... or at least, not any time soon.

This semester, my globetrotting friend and colleague Tony De Ritis engaged me to sub for his freshman Honors seminar in Comparative Arts on his days out of town. He therefore invited me to attend the first class meeting to meet his students, and the rest, as they say, is a Facebook status update:

(Yes, the same student thought of "working-class" and "yuppiedom" as synonyms. He'll learn otherwise today.)

My post prompted Michael Monroe (read his blog here, and/or follow him on Twitter) to mordantly witty action:

Formulating clues to Michael's grid would've represented the path of less resistance ... but no, I had to follow through on my original impulse, which was to craft a cryptic crossword based on the principal works from the course syllabus.

If you're new to cryptic crosswords, here are solving guidelines posted by Henri Picciotto and Joshua Kosman, who construct the weekly puzzle for The Nation. (Confessions of a Bad Liberal: I subscribe to The Nation principally for the puzzle.)

Without any further ado, here's the puzzle, my very first effort as a constructor. The grid won't win any awards, but it does follow the customary symmetry. Bon appetit!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ways to ape an ape, drumming

(Oh, right. Blog. Where was I?)

At long last, this summer I finished the first fantasy-transition (Whew!). On to the next section ...

... which (as ever) seems as though it ought to write itself, as the master plan calls for a fairly simple, one-minute duet of the theremin imitating the sounds of a chimpanzee pant-hooting, and the piano imitating the sounds of same chimp drumming on a tree bole with his feet.

A less scrupulous (or simply less obsessive) composer might efficiently transcribe a previous instance of same from an earlier work (because, really, what composer hasn’t already written numerous such passages?). But, no ... I had to come up with something new.

The pant-hooting is easy enough, and offers a new twist in not sticking to octatonic collections (as I’ve usually done before); instead, the zigzag melodies derive directly from the harmonies dictated by the five-voice Ursatz.

The new sticking-point (over the past month or so) has been composing the piano’s “drumming.” The texture has been more or less a given: in the bass register, intermittent staccato dyads (mimicking < left foot, right foot > ). The difficult part (more precisely, the part I made difficult for myself) was finding the right harmonies, to supply enough intervallic variety to maintain interest, but so much as to push the sound across the boundary between “drumming” and “chordal harmony.”

Initially, I tried to map the opening four-note motto {Eb, F, E, F#} onto the five-note chord(s). But transposing the various dyads and triads in each hand led either to monotony (if both hands move in the same direction, by the same intervals) or jarring pitch duplications (if the hands mirrored each other) ... and avoiding pitch duplications led to a tightly limited set of harmonies (so, again, monotony).

The breakthrough (embarrassing, as it seems obvious in hindsight) is that the right kind of monotony can be achieved with surprisingly little effort by

1) committing to a single pitch-class pentad, with various voicings (as in the piano’s accompaniment of the motto at the piece’s start),

2) mapping a five-note extension of the motto onto the Ursatz pentad of the moment ... so, < Eb, F, E, B, Bb > as the soprano

3) partitioning the pentad into the triad < Eb, F, E > and the dyad < Bb, B >,

4) manipulating all of the above isorhythmically, to generate a series of 2 x 3 x 5 = 30 drumming dyads ...

... and given that each talea will comprise four dyads, the series will occur twice (probably spilling into the second, later section of simian mayhem, in which the theremin will also drum, and the piano will also pant-hoot).

Now, it’s just (!) a matter of placing these dyads with unpredictable rests between them, and selecting the appropriate pant-hooting and shrieking gestures from the theremin’s pitch tableaux. Onward ...

Errata (18 Oct 2015): Duh ... forgot to include the 8va indication under the bass clefs on the l.h. staff.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Grumble, grumble, grumble

For the past six weeks, my aspiration to blog more frequently has collided smack-dab with my disinclination to report failure ... or rather, flailing away at things without making clear forward progress. ("Flailure"?)

On the physical-assembly front, I've discovered to my chagrin that I simply don't have the means (and/or skills) to saw fret slots sufficiently precise to mount new frets by the traditional hammering technique. So, today I removed the botched frets; in the next week, I'll fill those slots, sand the neck to a smooth surface, and procure half-round wire (without tang) to glue into place. On the bright side, the loss of some sound conduction should be more than made up by greater precision of positioning.

On the abstract-assembly front, I've been wrestling with various arpeggiation patterns for the first "fantasy-transition" of Tapestry and Otter. It's a weird balancing act, trying to find a happy medium between What I Could Conceivably Play Myself, Molto Adagio (i.e., something too simple) and What Would Sound Utterly Awesome If Human Beings Could Learn to Execute (i.e., something too complex). And in characteristically amnesiac fashion, I've found myself circling back to rediscover patterns that I tried a week (or two, or five) ago, though now enriched by a bit of quasi-Schenkerian composing-out.

I've probably made things needlessly difficult by not paying enough attention to the transitional aspect ... i.e., the first section of the piece is firmly in place, and I have a very clear sense of how the third section will proceed ... so perhaps all I'm missing in the current sketches for the second section are more details from the first and third, suitably transformed (and/or transforming).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stretching the canvas

Activities of the past fortnight have included:

1. Plotting (in Excel) the timings of five chromatic sinusoids, each sweeping from the midrange down to the low bass, then back up through the midrange to the high treble, and then back down to the midrange. But as in prior works, each traverses a different total span, and these different cardinalities cause the voices to change pitch at different times, generating a smorgasbord of suspensions.

2. Transcribing that numeric data onto musical staves. Given the close registral quarters, colored inks are essential for keeping track of which voice is on which pitch:

3. More or less concurrently with steps 1 and 2 above, deciding on an overall form of nine sections, in an approximate arch. The original extremes-of-the-piano-keyboard "frame" still opens and closes the piece, and will still push its way to the fore from time to time in between. From that, and from the tremolando chords that I doodled after Victoria's dry run for her performance at the Bulgarian consulate last month, I settled on an alternation between sections of irregular rhythm and those with a more regular pulse.

3. Changing my mind about the total duration of the piece; in hindsight, I ought to have delayed steps 1 (and especially 2) until I'd settled on the proportions of the various sections. Shameless Fibonacci fetishism leads to a total duration of 18:17, vs. my initial guesstimate of 17:30. Replacing the appropriate values in the Urlinien spreadsheet took 10 minutes or less, but then ...

4. Recalibrating the Ursatz. Rather than re-create the entire page, recopying hundreds of noteheads, it's a lot less work simply to relabel the x-axis:

And that brings us to today. This morning, I rewrote the Prelude (per my previous post, replacing the foreshadowings of a texture that is now destined for a different piece). Because I'm happy with the frame as is, the path of least resistance was simply to sketch directly onto the first page of the theremin part. First step was to add time indices (in orange ink) ... then to remember (duhhh) that I had previously disregarded the duration of the frame gestures ... hence the second layer of time indices (in red ink). Soon enough, I wound up ignoring the Ursatz for the Prelude, instead respecting the integrity of its pitches and composing a simple countermelody for the piano to interject during the theremin's sustained tones:

In compensation, the start of the first fantasy-transition includes quite a few embedded augmented triads, which simply aren't my cup of chai. I had originally imagined that I would need to add a sixth and seventh voice, hovering above and below ... but while playing with different arpeggiation textures, I hit upon one that doesn't resort to additional voices, other than a couple of octave duplications. The latter simplify the rhythm (vs. quintuplets or septuplets or what-have-you) and the harmony (ranging from four to five pitch classes, rather than five to seven), and (surprise, the surprise) contribute to a richer timbre.