Category: Playing guitar

Hooked: Zach Person on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood”

Hooked: Zach Person on Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood"

The rising blues-rock riffmeister cops to his early obsession with SRV’s iconic number that consumed his teenage brain and is still infused in his own guitar-playing vocabulary.

Riversong Glennwood TS6 Review

The first and perhaps most important thing to know about Riversong’s Glennwood TS6 is that it aspires to hybridize elements of electric and acoustic guitars. This is not a new idea—certainly not in the amplified acoustic era, where the straightest route to eliminating feedback is by reducing the resonant elements that cause feedback in the first place. Some acoustic/electrics achieve these ends by slimming bodies down to electric-guitar thickness. Riversong, however, sticks to traditional acoustic formula by making the TS6 a full-sized instrument. Its dimensions are a little bit atypical: the 16″ wide body and 4 3/4″ thickness are about the same size as Martin’s “jumbo” J body and the Taylor Grand Pacific. The pretty silhouette also echoes the curvaceousness of those larger guitars. Those similarities sometimes feel like an exception, though. At nearly every other turn, the TS6 very happily breaks the acoustic design mold.

 A Nuts-and-Bolts Approach

You don’t have to look very hard or be an acoustic guitar construction expert to see that there is a strong deconstructive thread in the Riversong’s design. The gap in the top behind the bridge, the slim heel, and, above all, the bracing and neck-through build are major breaks from classic acoustic design philosophy. These very overt differences are also a clue to how the Riversong stretches the definition of what an acoustic guitar is.

Most tradition-minded acoustic builders would consider the small space aft of the bridge detrimental to a resonant top. And few would opt for the bolt-on neck and through-body re-enforcement that runs the length of the body. These obvious deviations from acoustic design dogma are just the start. Peek through the side port and you’ll see “skeletized” bracing that looks like sections of a cantilever bridge in miniature. Adjustment to the action and neck tilt? They’re made with an Allen key that you place through an access cavity on the back of the guitar at the heel.

All these very unconventional elements are executed at a very high level of workmanship. I failed to find a construction miscue anywhere. The fretwork is pretty much perfect and the solid wild cherry back and sides, Sitka spruce top, maple neck, and walnut fretboard are all shaped and put together with obvious care.

Electrified Vibrations

Considering that the TS6’s primary mission is that of a hybrid electric/acoustic—and that so many of its fundamental design elements would traditionally be considered detriments to acoustic tone—the TS6 sounds pretty good unplugged. If I had to guess, I’d venture that the Jumbo-like dimensions were adopted, in part, to offset the diminished volume and overtones that could result from the neck-through design. Yet the TS6 is notably resonant, particularly in the low-midrange, and exhibits nice sustain. It may not be as loud or detailed as a dedicated acoustic of similar dimensions, but it holds its own, and the combination of projection from the side port and soundhole creates a nice composite sound image that would be well worth miking and doubling with the pickup signal in a studio or on a quiet stage.

The combination of projection from the side port and soundhole creates a nice composite sound image that would be well worth miking and doubling with the pickup signal in a studio.

The TS6’s amplified qualities and its electric-like playability are the main attraction, though. The Fishman Flex undersaddle pickup and preamp hold up pretty well to hard strumming without getting quacky, but the guitar and pickup work best together in dynamic fingerstyle settings. I tended to work from fairly tame tone settings on both the TS6 and the Fishman Loudbox I used for amplification, but the TS6 left ample headroom for adding sparkle to the basically well-rounded tonal foundation. Playability, as advertised, is excellent for a flattop. The 16″ fretboard radius and jumbo frets make it easy to fret with a light touch. The 1 5/8″ nut width and the neck profile (which to me felt at various times like a 1960s Guild or a Rickenbacker) also conspire to lend a very electric-feeling experience. The neck-thru system’s ability to facilitate and withstand pitch-bending neck wobbles also checks out just as Riversong claims. I can’t remember using an acoustic in this fashion so readily, dramatically, and with such negligible effect on tuning stability.

The Verdict

At around $2,000, the TS6 is a flattop for players committed to the unconventional or performers that can also afford to keep a classic flattop around for recording pure acoustic tones (if they are concerned with such expressions). It’s a niche instrument, but it does a brilliant job of blurring the lines between acoustic and electric.

Hooked: Laur Joamets on Led Zeppelin’s “Travelling Riverside Blues”

The slick, 6-string gunslinger reveals that Robert Johnson’s slide-guitar classic unlocked open tunings and an electric cover introduced him to Jimmy Page’s “haunting, psychedelic sound.”

Hooked: Nili Brosh on Extreme’s “Decadence Dance”

The Danny Elfman shredder details how an older brother opened her eyes to Nuno Bettencourt’s “funky-metal persuasion” beyond “More Than Words.”

Last Call: The Fawn & the Bear

Last Call: The Fawn & the Bear

Playing acoustic guitar is an entirely different experience than playing electric. For that matter, playing an acoustic that’s plugged in is entirely different from playing an acoustic acoustically. Try your normal electric go-to stuff on an acoustic and you’ll probably be disappointed with the results. Plug an acoustic with a pickup straight into a DI or board, and it’s not going to respond or sound like an acoustic in your living room.

As a guitar nerd, I disliked that whole MTV Unplugged series. Mostly it was rockers just strumming away, kumbaya-style, on a harsh-sounding, plugged-in acoustic where you hear the pickup rather than the guitar body. Unless the song was either acoustically friendly or the artist came up with a completely different interpretation of the song, like Clapton did with “Layla,” most acoustic covers of electric songs undermine the guitar part.

Van Halen – You Really Got Me (Acoustic)

In 1978, Eddie Van Halen put his swagger, groove, and ferocious riffs on “You Really Got Me,” and turned a weird Kinks’ tune into a game-changing rock anthem. But watch their 2012 acoustic version: It sounds like a solid but unremarkable player sitting around a campfire. Eddie was a brilliant acoustic player, as “Spanish Fly” from Van Halen’s second album demonstrates, but that was Eddie doing a specific acoustic composition.

Acoustic guitar is a different animal than electric. Ergo, one of the greatest guitarists ever sounds like a mere mortal when trying to make an instrument do what it can’t do. In fact, a basic electric guitar in 1978 wasn’t capable of what Van Halen wanted it to do, so he built his own. But the point of Unplugged was to showcase the song more than the riff.

Most of my session work is on acoustic. I love playing acoustic sessions: low pressure. With electric sessions, you must deal with buzzy amps and scratchy pots that you only hear under the microscope of recording. Take away pedals, amps, pickups, or cables, and nothing goes wrong. There’s rarely equipment failure when you’re not plugged in. But that’s not the only benefit.

“It’s like putting something delicate and sweet, such as a tiny fawn covered in white spots, next to a grizzly bear on its hind legs.”

With electric sessions, there’s pressure to wow the audience with riffs and fresh signature parts. With acoustic, it’s always serve-the-song and rarely look-at-me. Usually you’re laying down a simple, sturdy foundation, supporting the vocals and building the bed for the electric to shred. If done well, it brings out the best in the song and the lead instruments. Acoustic sessions are probably a bit like being a pilot: smooth/simple/routine procedural bits with the occasional terrifying part where you must land a plane with a wing on fire (or play a fast bluegrass solo).

The juxtaposition of an acoustic with an electric is a tried-and-true production approach because those textures work perfectly together. Some of the most epic hard-rocking songs rock all the harder because they start with acoustic. Por ejemplo: Heart’s “Crazy on You,” Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.”

It’s like putting something delicate and sweet, such as a tiny fawn covered in white spots, next to a grizzly bear on its hind legs. The bear and the electric guitar seem even more powerful and scary by comparison.

That said, an acoustic guitar in the right hands can sound as big and awe-inspiring as a great three-piece band in full flight. Players such as Mike Dawes, Andy McKee, and Marcin Patrzalek cover bass and lead with 6-strings, then add their percussive element by beating on the guitar. They use internal mics and reverb to get a huge drum sound that you can’t pull off on a Tele or Les Paul.

Joe Bonamassa Official – “Woke Up Dreaming” – Live From Royal Albert Hall

On the other hand, masters of bluegrass flatpicking, like Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Tony Rice, play single-note melodies that, even when unaccompanied, sound complete. For an amazing example of a hybrid approach, check out Joe Bonamassa’s “Woke Up Dreaming.” At times, it’s classical fingerpicking. Then it’s Al Di Meola-eque blazing, then a hybrid thing that really sounds like two guitar players at once. I’ve listened to that track probably 20 times and I still don’t know how he does it.

Then there’s Tommy Emmanuel, who has everything in his bag. He does the percussive guitar-as-a-drum thing and combines it with Travis thumbpicking and break-neck flatpicking. And Jerry Reed played some of the most complex, funky guitar music ever recorded on his gut-string.

Guitar shredding predates electricity, so it all started on acoustic. Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Skip James, Son House, and the Devil’s own, Robert Johnson (armed with a high-action wooden box with strings bought from a Sears catalog), reimagined what the instrument could do. It’s a long, winding journey, but the road to rock ’n’ roll and blues was paved with acoustic guitars.

Reader Guitar of the Month: A Tribute to Two Mentors

Reader Guitar of the Month: A Tribute to Two Mentors

A love for Ry Cooder, Dave Bernstein, and good Tex-Mex were combined into a sentimental 6-string.

Here is my Tres Hombres Coodercaster. Look, as much as I claim to be a “serious musician,” a songwriter, and a player who is trying to develop his own original voice, I freely admit I’m a hopeless, pathetic wannabe and a fanboy of Ry Cooder. I was first introduced to Ry via his Borderline album: a masterpiece that blew my ever-loving mind in the way it combined many of my favorite genres in one cohesive, unique sound. Ry became my distant mentor, teaching me about “less is more,” the relationship between fingers and strings, the magic of open-string voicings, and the importance of listening and creating space.

Recently, I decided to refurbish my “D” Strat and go full Cooder. My Strat was already a solid working tool dedicated to slide guitar. It sounded and looked close to Ry’s main guitar but just needed a few iconic pieces. I started with a sunburst Fender Robert Cray model for the body: a great hardtail with a vintage-style bridge. I heard that Ry had a very wide neck on his Strat to help with fingerpicking, so I went with a custom 1-3/4″ nut width, ’59 roundback neck by Warmoth that’s about as wide as an acoustic guitar neck. Like Ry, I put a P-90 in the bridge position and was really happy with what I heard when I played.

But, you know, once you start moddin’, you just can’t stop. I knew I would need to make the “Supro move.” When I had the means, I began to build a guitar that would truly serve as a platform to emulate the sounds that I’d fallen in love with. I finally got a Lollar Supro in the bridge and a vintage Teisco Gold Foil towards the neck. The Teisco was not the Teisco as you can see from the screws. But it sounds fantastic, so, I’m okay with it. I kept it simple with one master tone and a Tele volume knob for faux pedal-steel tricks.

With the pickguard, I decided to pay tribute to another mentor: Bay Area guitarist Dave Bernstein, who passed away in 2008 after a heroic struggle with cancer. Dave was one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever met. To many, he was a caustic, bitter, rude bastard. For those who knew him, he was the sweetest, funniest, most patient, most generous friend you could have. Dave had two rare gifts: an extraordinary love and appreciation for music and being totally blunt. He was a respected blues guitarist, backing harmonica artist Mark Hummel for years. Dave had an enormous impact on my life, and I miss him a lot.

Once, Dave and I were having a passionate discussion about Mexican food and where we would go that night to have some. He said, “Let me show you something.” He pulled out his LP copy of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and opened it up to reveal a giant image of a gorgeous Tex-Mex spread. That’s the thing about LPs that still matters—the folded image! As I was savoring that spread, Dave, as usual, remarked, “Now that is the shit.” He was right of course … about so many things. In a strange way, that image has always represented my memory of Dave. So, I had Carmedon Guitar in Jacksonville, Florida, print it onto my pickguard. I love the way it plays, and it sure looks terrific. Thanks, Ry. Thanks, Dave.

Repetition Is Our Friend

Repetition Is Our Friend

It seems the more passionate you are about an artistic pursuit, the more pressure there is to be not just physically proficient at it, but—especially if you create your own material—to come up with something “new.” I suppose this mindset must go back centuries, if not millennia. That said, the ongoing internet/social-media experiment—still a tiny-ass blip on humanity’s psychosocial evolutionary timeline—has also conditioned us to put those tendencies into blazing overdrive over the course of a single generation.

I’m not here to bemoan our tech-driven, mental-health clusterfuck, though. Instead, I want to remind you that the pressure to “innovate” is completely in our own heads. To be a “serious” guitarist, you do not need to come up with some brilliant new fingering pattern or rhythm. You do not need to invent fancy-ass chords. You do not need to create mind-numbing numerological key-modulation formulas or devise a new post-pseudo-palindrome composition format. If you consistently feel compelled to do the aforementioned when you sit down to write music, ask yourself—am I doing this to be “a good guitarist”? Chances are, a lot of the time it’s insecurity or the need to impress (aka “insecurity”) that’s driving it. My mission here today is to tell you that repetition is our friend.

So go ahead—hit that note or that chord again. And again and again and again … See how cool it feels when you do it with conviction?

More specifically, I contend that a single, insistently repetitive and irresistibly grooving quarter-, eighth-, or 16th-note bass line, done right, pretty much always brings a smile, gets asses moving, or otherwise circulates the blood of those within earshot in ways that have to be good for us. (And, of course, the insistent line doesn’t actually have to be played on a bass.)

There are so many examples of this from the last hundred years of music, you’d think it doesn’t bear, er, repeating. We could all name tunes from across the stylistic spectrum that immediately touch something within us based solely on their hypnotic rhythm. For me, a killer recent example is the opening track off Irish quintet Fontaines D.C.’s new album, Skinty Fia.

With “In ár gCroíthe go deo” (“In our hearts forever”), bassist Conor Deegan III’s undeviating eighth-notes are the restless skeleton around which haunting church-choir harmonies, guitarist Carlos O’Connell’s eerily cycling Mustang noises, Grian Chatten’s thick Dublin-accented pronouncements, and co-guitarist Conor Curley’s alternately chiming and stuttering Jaguar manipulations are able to flesh out the melancholy tale and send it to its beautifully disconcerting climax. Without them, the whole thing would be a wallowing, amorphous mass.

Fontaines D.C. – In ár gCroíthe go deo (Official Lyric Video)

But the power of repetition isn’t confined to bass. Fontaines frontman Chatten uses the technique to mesmerizing, tension-building effect on vocals, as well. So go ahead—hit that note or that chord again. And again and again and again. Repeat that phrase over and over a few times. See how cool it feels when you do it with conviction? The power of repetition is why so much modern music follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula (admittedly, a bit too much for my taste).

Of course, regardless of instrument, mere repetition doesn’t work magic on its own. The core bass work on “In ár gCroíthe go deo” would be just another rock-solid eighth-note line without the rest of the band’s careful additions, all bound together by a vision and attentive listening. But—at least for me—it’s valuable to periodically get slapped awake to the power of lines like this. I doubt I’m the only one who sometimes just can’t see the “forest” (the emotion or mood or message I want to convey) for the endless possible varieties of chords, progressions, scales, tempos, time signatures, etc. that are the “trees.”

The Unadorned and Adored Wonders of the Acoustic Guitar

The Unadorned and Adored Wonders of the Acoustic Guitar

I have a love-hate relationship with acoustic guitars. My infatuation with the 6-string really blasted off with the Ventures. That’s the sound I wanted, and the way to get it was powered by electricity. Before I’d even held a guitar, I knew I wanted a Mosrite, which I was sure was made of fiberglass like the surfboards the Beach Boys, Surfaris, and the Challengers rode in their off time. Bristling with space-age switchgear and chrome-plated hardware, those solidbody hotrod guitars were the fighter jets of my musical dreams. I didn’t even know what those old-timey round-hole guitars were called. As the singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey strummed off into the sunset, the pace of technology pushed the look and sound of the electric guitar (and bass) into the limelight and into my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I had to begin my guitar tutelage on a rented Gibson “student” acoustic. At least it sort of looked like the ones the Beatles occasionally played. Even so, I couldn’t wait to trade it in.

By the late 1960s, everybody had to have an acoustic guitar. America’s youth had gone through the Greenwich Village folk boom and entered the West Coast Laurel Canyon scene. Young women who wanted to be Joni Mitchell and Neil Young-inspired men floated on down to local musical instrument emporiums to pick out their badge of artistry. In Europe, folkies blended traditional troubadour tunes with blues and rock, creating a genre that survives to this day. The most fuzzed-out psychedelic combos proudly displayed their introspective acoustic side. Everybody had an acoustic guitar. Of course, country music never forgot. Except for a short interlude of microphone-hugging country crooners, Nashville kept the strum going.

So, what makes the acoustic guitar so indefatigable? First and foremost is the beauty of its sound. Like the violin or the piano, the unadorned guitar has a purity of sound and purpose that is moving in a way electronic instruments are not. In concert, the connection between the musician and the sound the audience hears is undeniable. It’s a tightrope walk, where technology cannot fool the listener. The fewer links in the chain, the closer the bond between performer and patron—and that’s the experience people crave.d

Before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied cowpoke guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again.

Another more practical aspect is portability. Although buskers have more recently turned to elaborate amplifier and looper setups for street concerts, not much beats a great singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Certainly, I can’t imagine dragging an amp and a synthesizer down to the beach to jam some Bill Evans while friends roast s’mores. Okay, maybe. But the simplicity of a naked guitar in a dorm hallway or in a coffee shop can be a refreshing break from the relentless attack of electronic pop culture. In a world of autotune, backing tracks, and the layered-to-death ambush of modern music, a fingerpicked guitar is like a walk in the woods on a spring day. The fact that it can be easily taken anywhere makes it the instrument of choice for so many.

Another strong argument for the acoustic axe is its supremacy as an accompanist. Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t leave a lot of viable options. Although Chet Baker managed a career as a crooning trumpeter, playing a horn while vocalizing requires additional backup. Singing while playing the violin isn’t much easier. The piano is probably the most versatile sounding accompanist, but as much as I like Diana Krall, Ray Charles, and Elton John, their instrument of choice forces them to bring the party to the piano, not the other way around. You can argue that the electric guitar is a contender. Unfortunately, the slight portability downside of needing an amp and its tendency to drown out vocals makes it the second choice, whereas the acoustic guitar checks all the right boxes.

This all isn’t to say that an acoustic guitar lacks the ability to deliver impressive soloing performance. Some of the most inspiring and emotionally vibrant instrumental music is delivered on acoustics. The roster of players currently burning up the fretboard in every genre is immense—possibly the most in history. The acoustic guitar’s forte is to bring passionate and thoughtful melody to any song. This secret weapon has been applied to recordings from artists as diverse as the Beatles, Kiss, and Dream Theater. In the rhythm department, the acoustic steel string has been responsible for the foundational power of the Who, Alice in Chains, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, and countless other “heavy” bands.

So before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied, cowpoke acoustic guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again. They might not be as loud, or as flashy, but they pack an emotional wallop that often flies under the radar. Many decades down the line, I wish I’d paid more attention to what that first student guitar had to offer me. Maybe I’d have kept it, too

Hooked: Des Rocs on Queen’s “We Will Rock You”

Hooked: Des Rocs on Queen's "We Will Rock You"

Daniel Rocco explains how the News of the World track deconstructed the rock-song formula, compares the opening to Jaws, and praises Brian May’s wizardry.

Hooked: Jason Richardson on Lamb of God and Dream Theater

The All That Remains shredster details two technically challenging riffs that leveled-up his playing and he shouts out the latter for springboarding him into 7-strings.