Saturday, February 9, 2019

Once more unto the breach

In 2003 and 2004, I struggled to hammer out a libretto for a music-theater piece. The experience was so nerve-wracking (because every additional day that I spent flailing with words meant one less day to compose the music under and around them) that I swore never again to play wordsmith.
Last year or so, I started hatching an idea for a new music-theater piece. Per the above, I resolved not to take it beyond possibly sketching a synopsis until I could find a proper poet to flesh it out in verse, and it's only last month that I started doing the barest of research to generate an outline, much less a complete synopsis.
Somehow, enough time has passed since my prior trauma that, instead of systematically completing that outline, and then a synopsis ... over the past few days, I started drafting the actual texts for an opening chorus and aria. I'm not sure what, exactly, nudged me over the edge. It might have been the realization a couple of weeks ago that the piece ought not to take the form of an opera, but rather, an oratorio. Or it might have been the realization that the poetry ought not rise to too high a standard (i.e., it will be much funnier as pure kitsch). And, weirdly enough, it might have arisen from volunteering to write music (not words) for someone else who previously has written about opera, and is now thinking of writing her first libretto.
But there you have it: words, words, words (well, 82 of them, anyway), in various degrees of rhyme & meter, at a level suitable to start creating music along the way, instead of waiting for a complete libretto. Here's hoping I can keep this rolling in the weeks and months ahead.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Bedated uplate

... wait ... strike that, reverse it ... or then again, maybe stet?

Long story short, the extremely low action of a tapping instrument renders it particularly susceptible to any change in the system ... like, f'rinstance, different gauges of strings. Yes, when I changed the strings, the difference in string tension requiree a slight truss rod adjustment (as in, just a 60° turn for both rods). Which reminds me ...

I didn't approach this as a professional research project, so I didn't take notes on where I read what. But somewhere along the way during my online research about Krappy Guitars, I encountered a complaint from someone who said he couldn't adjust the action on his instrument, blaming Kevin's "proprietary" hardware. For all I know, this might be true of that person's instrument, but it's certainly not true of mine. Here are some photos of the bridge:

Yes, the height of each string's saddle is adjustable (with a simple flat-head screwdriver), and each string is fully intonatable (with a hex wrench inserted into the end of the bridge screw that determines the horizontal position of its saddle). Best of all, when I removed the truss rod cavity cover, I discovered that adjusting the truss rods doesn't involve a hex wrench (as I've used on Les Paul copies by Epiphone and ESP), but rather, a crescent wrench (so, it's much easier to apply torque without slipping).

This should be all the functional changes for now, other than experimenting with different ways to damp the strings at the nut. I'm not convinced that simply stuffing felt under them is the best practice (and I see in at least one video that Trey Gunn has augmented the felt by wrapping something around the lowest bass string). And okay, I might need to adjust the intonation on a few of the strings (most likely the low G, which represents the single greatest change in string diameter: from .075 to .065, which is literally an order of magnitude greater than the changes on the other strings, all measured in thousandths of an inch).

On the fingerboard, I applied faux-abalone faux-inlay decals that are 3mm wide, thinking that 5mm strips would be too much. I was wrong, so 5mm decals are on the way. If I feel really ambitious, then I'll re-do the faux-abalone bulldog face on the headstock, but first I would need to figure out the genuinely best way to do it. (For now, my first attempt is adequate, especially when partially obscured by the strings that pass over it.)

So, bottom line ... the Krappy Touchstyle Guitar is not, in fact, a crappy touchstyle guitar. I take it for granted that yes, a Chapman Stick or a Warr Guitar provides a superior instrument, but for three figures instead of four, Kevin has made a thoroughly functional instrument.

Next step: learning to play the thing ...

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Vertical, or horizontal?

I was alarmed to see that the marvelous touchstyle guitarist Trey Gunn (formerly of King Crimson) has suffered repetitive-stress injuries in his left wrist, such that his default position for playing his Warr Guitar is now horizontal, across his lap, rather than in a traditional guitar position. This leaves me wondering how much I should try to find a comfortable vertical playing position ... that is, maybe I should skip directly to the lap position.

The immediate hardware implication is that I might need to move the strap buttons (or simply add new ones) to facilitate using a Dobro-style guitar strap to secure the instrument while I play. The immediate software implication is that as I work through preparatory exercises in Emmett Chapman's Free Hands and Greg Howard's Stick Book, vol. 1, I will need to revise Every. Single. Left-hand. Fingering.

So, my initial progress might prove very slow indeed as I experiment with both positions, and especially as I try to find the optimal placement along four dimensions to minimize strain on my left wrist, as helpfully spelled out in a post on a Stickist discussion board: 1) how close to one's left shoulder the headstock is held; 2) the rotational angle of the fretboard relative to its long axis; 3) the fretboard's angle from the vertical; and 4) the elevation of the instrument relative to the player's body. Wish me luck!

Minor repairs

As I've gotten to know my instrument, it occurred to me that I ought to post some detailed description and photos, as a way to help people better understand what you get when you buy a Krappy touchstyle guitar. The tl;dr is that it is NOT a crappy guitar! Details follow:

1. The only significant problem I've encountered is that at the 19th fret, the 2nd string "frets out" to the 20th. This is probably a consequence of the guitar's journey from North Carolina to Massachusetts: that is, with the change in humidity, the neck's curvature has altered ever-so-slightly. And I do mean slightly: If I apply more pressure and push the string against the 19th fret more forcefully, then the string clears the 20th fret ... but of course, the whole point of touchstyle playing is not to fret with that much force.

Lest any skeptic cast aspersions on Kevin's lutherie skills, I will emphasize that none of the other strings "fret out" anywhere on the neck ... that is, everything is monkey-dory on all ten strings from the 21st fret right up to the 24th. And the delta-humidity hypothesis is supported by the fact that the guitar arrived ... slightly oily. I infer that before shipping the instrument, Kevin took the trouble to re-oil the wood, and surely wiped away the excess (because, seriously: who would be masochistic enough to pack an oily guitar?!?). Now take that wood with no excess oil on its surface, and ship it in a sealed carton during summer: the air warms, relative humidity drops, and the wood dries, weeping some finishing oil that it had previously absorbed.

Cut to the chase, I will take a fret file to that spot on the 20th fret to bring it back into line. I've encountered this sort of thing previously with mass-produced guitars by Epiphone and ESP, so really, this is no big deal.

By the way, Kevin posted a demo video to YouTube, in which he performs King Crimson's "Heartbeat" on the instrument prior to shipping.

2. Otherwise, the only other touch-up I see in the instrument's immediate future is to pick at the felt that mutes the strings at the nut (as piano technicians do when they re-voice the felt on piano hammers). That is, at present it seems to allow more vibration than is optimal, though I have to admit this may actually mean that I'm just not playing at sufficient amplification.

The journey of a thousand taps ...

... begins with a little trip down the rabbit hole of calculating string gauges. The instrument shipped with a first string of .008 in. diameter, which to my ear sounds sadly underpowered versus all the other strings. So I knew that I would want to go up to an .009 (or perhaps even a .010, eventually), but what about all the other strings?

There are multiple resources on the web to help a person calculate proper string gauges, and I tried several. When D'Addario's String Tension Pro calculator works, it works beautifully; the catch is that it doesn't really tolerate backtracking to tweak one or two pieces of information. If you want to change any detail of what you've previously entered, the site requires you to go back to the beginning and enter everything all over again — and for a 10-string instrument, that's incredibly clunky.

So, I created a spreadsheet comparing string diameters and string tension for various sets of strings, including the set already on the instrument, the set offered by Mobius Megatar for Chapman Stick tuning (with the bass in inverted fifths — that is, ascending in perfect fifths from the middle of the neck out to the near edge), and then played around with calculating the gauges that would achieve varying levels of balanced tension across the neck.

Lucky for me, before I placed any order, I found the Stringjoy site. I'd seen (and immediately bypassed) their ads in my Facebook feed, but when I discovered the generous informational videos posted in their blog, I knew I'd found the right people. I sent them an inquiry describing my needs, and within 24 hours their President, Scott Marquart, replied with his recommendations. I was happy to see that I had calculated correctly for all of the plain steel strings and some of the wound guitar strings, and I was relieved that Scott stopped me from ordering wound bass strings that would be too slack for practical use (that is, the bass strings need to be at a slightly higher tension). Those strings are on their way; I'll report back after trying them, though there is some work I will do while the strings are off (see next post).

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap ...

In this month's edition of potentially self-destructive behaviors, I bought a touch guitar.

I've been curious about these instruments ever since the mid-1990s, when I discovered King Crimson's music, especially their work on the albums Discipline (with Tony Levin playing a Chapman Stick) and Thrak (with Levin on Stick and Trey Gunn playing a Warr Guitar). However, as impoverished grad student, I couldn't even think of buying one of those instruments, or even a budget-priced Austin Douglas guitar [sorry, their website is no more]. Over the past 20 years, every couple of years or so I would check to see what's out there in the way of used instruments, but they always carried a four-figure price tag that I just couldn't see paying until, perhaps, after I were to become proficient and actually use the instrument in my professional work at least as much as I've used the theremin.

Last week, via one or another online discussion form, I found the site of luthier Kevin Siebold in Raleigh, North Carolina, who makes 1-, 2-, and 3-string guitars from reclaimed wood and sells them under the defiantly punk name Krappy Guitars, with a disclaimer that soaks the principle of Caveat Emptor in grain alcohol and then sets it on fire:

Our warranty: There is no warranty, expressed or implied. We fully acknowledge our product is crap, and your purchase signifies that you have entered into an agreement to buy a product that is lacking in quality, contains poor materials, and is worthy of much abuse and destruction. We will in no way provide any customer service, so don't even waste your time!!!

However, that manifesto doesn't apply to the touch-style instruments that he makes. I was intrigued to see that he offers an unadorned neck (with fretboard and tuners) for do-it-yourself-ers, and wrote him to ask about pricing. Strictly speaking, this must've been a nuisance e-mail, as within a minute of hitting "Send" I discovered his Pricing page that displayed exactly the information I'd requested (oops!) ... and I had to admit to myself that I surely don't really have the time to assemble another guitar from parts (back in the mid-oughts, I made a Tele-style Partscaster, but that was when my judgment was clouded by mind-altering drugs). Oh, well ...

... and yet, Kevin replied almost immediately, asking me whether I would be interested in buying a used 10-string instrument with a padauk fretboard and canary body:

This was too good to pass up. No, it doesn't offer all the functional amenities of a Chapman Stick or a Warr Guitar (e.g., there are no tone controls, the two truss rods are accessed and adjusted from the base of the neck, rather than its middle, there's no belt hook), nor all the cosmetics (viz., no fretboard inlays—those fretboard dots are plain white decals—and no multi-layer glossy finish). But it's well-constructed, the hardwoods look beautiful, and it shows virtually no wear and tear; I suspect the original user gave up when he discovered (as I'm discovering now) how much time and hard work it would actually take to transfer his previous bass and/or guitar experience to touchstyle techniques. And its price "used" was only a fraction of the cost of a used Chapman Stick or Warr Guitar, never mind the price of a new one.

I will post updated pictures after I've applied some faux-abalone "inlay" decals. I'm inordinately excited to learn about the latter, as they will also offer a much easier (and more easily reversible!) way to mark temperaments such as 31-EDO on the LTD EC-256 that I rendered fretless a couple of years ago.

But that's all for the near-ish future; right now, I need to start learning to play the thing ... well, right after I walk the dog. Did I mention that her visage may well wind up on the headstock, rendered in faux-abalone decal?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Kicking and screaming, into the 21st century

At long last: ca. 26 years after I first became aware of Max = ca. 10 years after I first purchased Max/MSP = ca. 9 years after I first became aware of Pure Data = ca. 3 years after I first downloaded Pure Data ...
Where was I? Oh, yes ...
I've finally created a new patch, rather than simply copying a patch from of a tutorial. In this case, I went to town on the Random Melody patch in Johannes Kreidler's tutorial, available at

My patch isn't ready for prime time, but it works: It sets up simultaneous treble and bass tones, and the user generates randomized counterpoint, with options a) to move a randomly selected voice to its next randomly selected tone, or b) to specify moving the treble voice to its next randomly selected tone, or c) to specify moving the bass voice to its next randomly selected tone.
Next steps: 1. Replace the randomly-selected frequencies (with resultant random harmonies) with randomly-selected intervals in Just Intonation, 2. Add a mechanism to interject rests within each line, and 3. Add a mechanism to vary the volume levels appropriately. (The last will presumably require generating long strings of coin tosses in advance of each real-time event, so that the machine can anticipate when to make either voice louder or softer.)
As you might have guessed, the goal is to create something that's very nearly musically satisfying, that requires only a third, human-improvised voice to complete. (Did somebody say "theremin"?)