I spent last week covering the Musikmesse musical instrument trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, for Premier Guitar. I had a blast, and Chris Kies and I posted details and pics of more than 70 new products. (Here’s the short list of our personal faves.) Kies shot lots of video, and will be posting more than 50 demo segments to the PG site in the coming weeks.
But Messe is hellishly loud, far noisier than NAMM. When I finally got home and picked up a guitar, it was an acoustic. I was trying something new, based on info I obtained from Mary Faith Rhoads-Lewis, CEO of Breezy Ridge, a company that distributes several brands for acoustic musicians, including John Pearse strings.
I’d previously geeked out here about about the strangest and most expensive guitar strings I’d ever tried: this “rope core” set from Austria’s Thomastik-Infeld. Reader/cool guy Al Milburn turned me on to them, and I wrote about them here. And I recently posted this video demonstrating how the transformed my old Martin 0-17 into a compelling steel/nylon hybrid with a unique and expressive voice.
Anyway, Ms. Rhoads-Lewis told me that the late John Pearse originally created this set for Thomastik, and that the John Pearse Folk Fingerpicking set [PJ116] is identical to what the Austrian company sells. Best part: You can get them in the States for under $20, as opposed to a walloping $35 for the Thomastiks. She also told me that their magic works in reverse: You can put this relatively low-tension set on a classical guitar for a very different sort of hybrid steel-string sound. (This, she said, is exactly what the great Brazilian player Bola Sete used to do.)
I popped a set on my old Yairi classical. The feel was — totally strange, and in precisely the opposite way as on the Martin. The tone was edgy and exciting, but the tension seemed a little too extreme. If just seemed a little too … high-strung, in every sense. Then I tried lowering the entire tuning a whole step, with the sixth dropped all the way to C.
And … oh, my. Check it out:
Summary: Holy cannoli, I love how this sounds. And there’s something psychologically satisfying about the transformation too. See, this guitar has always been a bit … tragic to me. I got it when I was 16. My classical guitar prof at UCLA said I needed a better instrument, and my every-supportive folks, bless ’em, helped me buy this Alvarez Yairi for around $700 (in 1970s dollars). It was a top-tier model for Alvarez, signed by luthier Kazuo Yairi, and boasting lovely Brazilian rosewood backs and sides. It was a huge upgrade for me, but as I got deeper into classical playing, its shortcomings emerged. Had I not shifted my studies to composition, I’d have needed to upgrade again. I envied the Igancio Fleta y Hijos models my two teachers played, but at around $3,000, they were beyond my budget, even with parental help. (Pity — their current value is approaching $50,000.) So I’ve used this instrument as a limited but decent-sounding model suitable for pop work, if not serious classical concertizing.
This guitar had two main problems: an overly dark and thick midrange that overpowers the high end, and a tendency to compress too much when played with maximum intensity. Basically, if just gets kind of “thuddy” when you whack on it. (I know shockingly little about classical lutherie, but I suspect the issue is an overly thick and heavy top.) I’ve tried dozens of string brands over the years, and while bright, high-tension sets helped, they never made the guitar sound great. I considered getting a pro quality classical a couple of years ago (not a Fleta, sadly!), but while auditioning a few at my local classical guitar store, I encountered the budget-priced instruments from Bulgaria’s Kremona/Orpheus Valley. These hand-made guitars sell for under a grand, not that much more than I paid for the Alvazez nearly 40 years ago. The woods aren’t as fancy, but the one I bought provided the bright, open sound the Alvarez never managed. I see that these guitars get mixed reviews online, but mine feels like about $2,000 worth of guitar, and I’m delighted with it. (You can see and hear the guitar in this post.) And since then, my Alvarez has been exiled to a garage shelf.
Man, am I glad I gave it a reprieve! I’m still trying to wrap my head around what’s happening here, but it seems as if the slightly higher tension of the rope-core strings excites the top in a way nylon strings never did. I can’t believe the sheer mass of the low C! I certainly couldn’t get that sound before. I also love the improved and expanded dynamic. Now when I whack it hard, if feels hard! Also, tuned low like this, it gets me close to the sound of an instrument I’ve long coveted: the Argentine baritone classical owned by one of my greatest heroes, the brilliant composer/producer/guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla. My restrung and retuned guitar has such a great baritone presence that the first thing I intuitively played was “I Fell Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet,” the beautiful Mixolydian melody that opens Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. (Yes, I’m going all Frisco on your asses and talking musical comedy.) It’s written for a basso/baritone voice, the kind that shakes the ground when it gets down to that low tonic note. I’ve never gotten closer to the effect on a classical guitar. In retrospect, that’s probably why I found myself noodling around on “Shenandoah” — I always loved the deep-voiced Paul Robeson version. (And frankly, I’ve been a little chicken to attempt the tune, given the amazing versions I’ve heard from Richard Thompson and Mark Goldenberg.)
In short: Despite all the yammering I’ve done about the transformative power of great flatwound strings, this is the most extreme makeover I’ve ever achieved via a simple string change. And now these strange, strange strings blow me away more than ever.
Just for comparison: Two clips performed on the same guitar, one right recorded before I replaced the nylon strings, and the Bernstein tune, played on the new set.
Granted, I don’t play much pure classical anymore, so a compelling hybrid is more appealing to me that a fine but conventional concert instrument. But I’d love to hear what a serious classical player could do on this set. (And anyone who objects on grounds of historical accuracy is full of it: Nylon strings only came into use after WWII, when Segovia popularized the new-fangled Augustine brand.)
Funny: I’ve aways thought “folk strings” meant an easy-to-finger set with soft materials and light tension, designed for casual pickers who couldn’t handle steel strings. (Players like my late mom, basically.) But there is nothing “amateur” about this set. Their response is simply explosive.
And I love that they renewed my enthusiasm for an instrument with so much personal history. Some sad news I heard at Messe only minutes before speaking with Ms. Rhoads-Lewis inspired the idea. I was talking to the Alvarez rep, who told me that Kazuo Yairi, who oversaw the Alvarez/Yairi family for many decades, died only a few days before the show. He not only built countless fine instruments for his own brands, but also trained many luthiers from around the world at his Japanese workshop. My condolences to all who knew this well-loved man, and my thanks for providing so much musical inspiration.
Any downside to the new strings? I’m not sure I could hang with them in standard tuning, even though it’s a cool sound. I’m also encountering a particular type of string noise more than usual: the sound of my right-hand thumb sliding along the strings as I shift between picking positions. I’m not sure whether it’s because the strings are so new, or because the extreme tonal changes the strings make possible enchants me so much that I can’t keep my damn hand still. But whatever — either the strings will adjust, or I will. Anyway, you can definitely hear the noise in the video, and also the tendency for the string to stick in the nut and go sharp — I’ll have to apply more nut lube. (Don’t go there.) There are some clumsy clams too, but I just used the warts-and-all performance because I wanted to capture my initial enthusiasm.
I don’t always mind string noise, actually. I like when you hear a acoustic guitar creak like a wooden ship at sea. My attitude was influenced by another of my loftiest heroes, genius producer/engineer Tchad Blake. When I first met Tchad some 20 years ago on a Tom Waits session, he said something about fret and string noise that’s always stayed with me. I paraphrase, but the essence was, he compared acoustic guitar sound as a still desert landscape. All is silent — until a lizard scuttles under a rock, or a bird flutters its wings in the bushes. Those intermittent noises only enhance the silence. Lovely image, right? And a good example of Tchad’s uniquely poetic perspective on music and sound.
So many years later I was tracking acoustic guitar with Tchad while making Tracy Chapman’s (beautiful and sadly overlooked) Where You Live album. Tchad asked me to replay a part because of accidental noise.
“What?!” I screeched. “What about the lizards and birds and rocks and things?”
“I know,” Tchad said. “But come on, man — that?!”
I played it again.
P.S.: This is also the first time I’ve recorded with the Edna microphone, one of two cool-looking models that Portland, Oregon’s Ear Trumpet Labs was kind enough to loan me for the monthly Strung Out solo guitar series I’m presenting at my local SF dive, El Rio. (I’m performing there this Thursday, the March 27th. Just saying.) Sounds pretty great, right? They’re not expensive for studio-quality condensers — $450. I don’t own a good small-diaphragm condenser mic, even though they’re usually my faves for acoustic work. This goes for about half the price of the Neumann TLM103 I usually use for acoustic demos, and I slightly prefer Edna’s sound. Plus, it looks cool, and I’m grateful for any visual distraction from my sallow, jet-lagged face. ;)