In Praise of Older Instruments

Shopping frenzy revolves around several times of the year, and to some extent that is true of musical instruments, but those are mostly new instruments. Vintage instruments are a year-round pursuit for serious collectors. We’re seeing that now in Geddy Lee’s tour for his book Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass.

Vintage instruments tend to go for stratospheric prices, and Geddy’s book is as close as most of us will get to the majority of basses shown in it, but what about the older guitars that were praised to the skies when they came out and then seemed to just disappear as fashions changed? I think that there are several good reasons to look into these instruments seriously:

  1. It’s good for the environment. Although even mass-produced instruments aren’t terribly polluting, and excellent luthiers are making impressive instruments, many of the best tone woods are endangered.
  2. It’s good for the wallet. There are some great bargains in used instruments. Back when materials were cheaper some great instruments were moderately-priced and are even cheaper now
  3. Some instruments get better as they age, especially acoustic ones, so playing some older but not yet “vintage” instruments can be very pleasant surprises.
  4. You can probably think of more reasons for yourself and your situation.

I have been lucky enough to score big on some used instruments. I used to travel a lot and although I had a great traveling classical guitar, I needed a steel-string. Once I started looking at sizes of guitars vs. airplane overhead storage I realized that a Steinberger regular guitar would fit just as well as a new “travel guitar” and have a full size neck as well as that amazing tuning system. Many people think of these as “an 80’s thing” but when I tried to buy one online I found out that a LOT of guitarists wanted these. I started looking for either a Steinberger Spirit guitar or even the Hohner licensed version. It took me a few months on eBay to finally snag a Steinberger Spirit but I got more than I bargained for. It had been treated with loving care, which I found out when I discovered that the seller lived about 20 minutes from me! Not only was the guitar a dream to play, but he had replaced the original pickups with Seymour Duncan ones: a jazz one at the neck and a hot rock one at the bridge. This became my go to guitar immediately. (He was only selling it to buy a custom-made guitar, and was so sad to see it go I felt guilty … until I got home and played it again.)

Another great find was in a pawn shop. These are places I had overlooked, so imagine my surprise when on my second visit to one I found a Fender Jazz Bass on the wall. It was an MIM (Made in Mexico) which I learned can vary greatly in quality, depending on the luthier. I brought in my bass Vox amPlug and played the bass for an hour, and sure enough this was a killer guitar. I was even able to haggle the price down to about $300 (US) with the best gig bag I’ve ever seen.

So if you are looking for a guitar or bass, or most other instruments too, take a close look at used instruments. Listen closely to them, and check for problems since there may well be some. For example, the Jazz Bass had a buzz, but it was easily fixed with a truss rod adjustment. If you buy from a store make sure that there is some warranty. If they have a reasonable return policy take the instrument to a repair shop and have them look it over. Sometimes problems are easily fixed  while other seemingly minor ones can be deadly in the long run, such as the head stock that has been glued back on and hastily painted over (I’ve seen this). If you can, just like buying a car, arrange to take it to a repair place before buying and see what work it needs. If it is reasonable, you should be able to negotiate the price to take care of it.

Remember that luthiers are making great guitars all the time, and what is “in” is largely fashion. To paraphrase Drake’s great Grammy speech, this is an “opinion-based industry”, and the look of guitars is constantly changing or “new features” added that you don’t need. What is not changing is the need for a design that gives a good tone and sustain, good pickups, and that indefinable magic that happens when you find the right guitar, bass, or kazoo. Just because you don’t have a lot of money, it doesn’t mean you can’t find a great guitar in your price range. And the money you save can go toward a better amp. (More on amps in another post. They are a more complicated purchase.)

Finally, never be afraid to bargain. No one is losing money selling instruments in a store, and the prices of used instruments are really subjective. If you notice that a guitar has been hanging on the wall for a long time, there’s a good chance they will lower the price just to get rid of it. This is true even of new instruments. If you live in Canada (or a country with a currency stronger than the Canadian dollar) we are in the middle of Long & McQuade‘s annual “Inventory Blowout” sale. I don’t mind giving them a little free publicity because I got my beloved 5-string Ibanez bass for $289 (Canadian) from this sale a few years back.

How often can we say that we are helping the environment as we stock up on guitars? We can do some good and find a killer guitar at the same time. So when you need a new instrument think “used” (or “pre-loved”).

Dorico Releases 1.2.10 Update

Today Dorico announced the release of version 1.2.10, a relatively minor update except for the continuing expansion of percussion capabilities and some other goodies. Of course, for Dorico even a “minor” update contains all sorts of improvements. A great review of the complete percussion suite plus the new features is available at Scoring Notes and is well worth reading. And as usual, Daniel Spreadbury gives a detailed look at the new features on his blog here. Basically, any style of notating percussion can be used or accommodated, a tour de force of music-based programming.

Existing Dorico users can download the update here. The same page has documentation.

Here’s a sample of their drum kit editor. You can move each drum to the line or space you prefer:

A few more examples of the vast array of options in notating percussion. These features are demonstrated by John Barron on Discovering Dorico, his monthly vlog on YouTube. Of particular interest is the number of instruments that you can assign to a single player, and how Dorico can handle different notational styles within the same part. You can see this demonstrated in February’s edition of Discover Dorico here.

Possibly the most interesting note on Daniel Spreadbury’s blog comes at the very end, where he notes that this is the last planned free update, so users will have to pay for the next one. So I will say one last time: if you have not yet bought Dorico, you can download the trial version and see exactly what you will be buying if you purchase it now. Download the full free 30-day trial version here.

I regret to say that there is still no support for guitar tablature or chord diagrams. I know how disappointing that is for many of us, and it looks like we will have to pay for it when it does eventually get added to Dorico. This has certainly come as a surprise to me, and please don’t ask me to explain why (as several of you have) because I don’t know. I can guess that it is difficult to implement without infringing on the copyright of the team’s own previous work in Sibelius, but that is pure speculation. For now, I am doing my guitar and bass projects in Sibelius (7.1.3 as much as I can, 7.5 when I must).

As sad as that is for guitarists, it is the one flaw in what is truly one of the most remarkable pieces of software I have ever had the pleasure of working with. If you work with any ensemble (even one that includes a guitar part that can be expressed as chord names) you really owe it to yourself to check out this amazing program. I still can’t get over being able to keep an entire multi-movement work in a single file, and show composers must be in heaven. And that just one of hundreds of features that makes Dorico the finest notation program yet devised.

My apologies for my long silence, but health issues just keep popping up. I have been saving up some good stuff for the next week or so, including the purchase of MuseScore, some cool new Play-Alongs from Hal Leonard, and a new kind of book layout that lets you be the whole band through some clever arrangement and a looper pedal.

Steinberg’s Cubase Marketing Works on Me!

I can usually resist valueless marketing but Steinberg got me with a truly valuable invitation to start using the free copy of Cubase that I have gathering dust on my hard disk.

A couple of years back my basic interface died so I was looking for a replacement with two audio inputs (mic/line) and two MIDI inputs (IN/OUT); as basic as they get. The best deal I found was the Steinberg UR22, which has the features that I need plus great feedback from users and (I discovered) excellent sound. It also came with Cubase LE AI Elements 7 (the least powerful version of Cubase only available with OEM hardware) at no extra cost. Since I use Logic, I didn’t need another recording program so I let it sit. Some algorithm (or [gasp] possibly a human?!!) noticed that I had not been using it. I don’t know how. Didn’t I ask for tech support enough? Didn’t I ask questions in the forums? Didn’t I check for updates? Or something more sinister????

However they did it, I got an email encouraging me to start using it, and to sweeten the request they gave me three libraries of more modern drums, bass, and guitar sounds as VST add-ins to Cubase: Indie Rock, Dubstep, and Urban. OK, it worked. I followed the directions to download and register them, then watched a tutorial on how to use them in Cubase which was not relevant to my bottom-of-the-barrel version, but it was simple enough to figure out using the top menu bar rather than the nifty little icon that my version doesn’t have. The sounds are technically great, and depending on your taste, great as well. For free, it’s hard to beat, and very nice to get something of value that I will use in future projects because they sound so good I got ideas just running through them.

So for someone just starting out, or on a tight budget, it’s hard to beat the Steinberg UR22 and free Cubase software, especially if they are going to send you free libraries from time to time. Given the fact that this is the same company that produces Dorico I have to say that Steinberg has high standards and gives you more than your money’s worth with their products.

So the Steinberg marketing worked and I’m glad it did. This is a great model for any company that wants to get, or retain, customers. Give us something useful and if it fits our needs we’ll use it.

Make Money While Practising

Every few months the guitar magazines rediscover that regular practice improves playing. This is often touted as the “secret” of the current great guitar player. I’m going to assume that you all know that by now. (If not, try doing 15 minutes of focused practice every day for a few weeks and see what happens.)

I have a few suggestions for your practice sessions that can actually save you money, which is like having more money to spend on that dream instrument while being able to play it better when you get it. It’s like getting paid to practice.

Here’s how: Focus on something you need to learn, not something that you can already play in your sleep (chances are you stopped hearing it a while ago). If you don’t know the whole neck of your instrument, learn it several ways. Up and down one string, across every position, skipping notes, in scales and modes, there are all sorts of ways to make sure that you know where Bb is on the D string, for example.

The second thing is to listen as you play. This will train your ear, and it will also let you hear your guitar (or any other instrument you play). This is crucial, because if you don’t know what your guitar sounds like, and what you can do with it, you won’t be able to spot a better-sounding one in the music store.

Third, I suggest having a set routine that runs through the whole neck, every string and at least every three frets. This should be short and one of the first things your play every day. Notice the changes in tone in all of the various ranges of your instrument. That’s why you want to cover the whole neck.

Finally don’t forget to learn a few songs so well that you can play them perfectly even in front of the person who wrote or played it. You want to be able to listen to the tone you are getting without worrying where your fingers are or if you are hitting the right string.

OK, now that you’ve done that (or when you have) let’s save you some money. Most players tend to freeze when they go into a guitar shop and there are a lot of players there. “Man, is everyone else great on the guitar but me?” Naw, they are just playing their “store set” of exercises and songs. But now you have a store set too! So no matter what that guy in the corner who thinks he’s the second coming of Eddie van Halen is doing, you can do your own thing and listen to the guitars you play. And play a lot of them. Bonus tip: there are subtle differences between every guitar, even ones from the same company in the same model with the same configuration that come off an assembly line. The great thing about wood and the other materials that make up guitars is that you never really know how one piece is going to react to sound. A tip that you won’t need if you listen is that the price of a guitar has little to do with the sound of a guitar. I did a test one day of 15 Les Paul’s in one of my favourite music stores, about half Gibson and half Epiphone (actually 8 were Gibsons). The best two were about the same with slightly different tonal ranges, and they were both Epiphones, over $500 cheaper than the cheapest Gibson (in THAT shop on THAT day; your mileage may vary). The point is that it’s always worthwhile to compare. A friend did a similar comparison with Telecasters and found a Godin that was the best sounding one in the store for less than half the price of a Fender Tele. In that case he wasn’t sure which sounded better, but since I knew a song he’d just learned I suggested he play it on all of them and see which one sounded best. There was no doubt in his mind when he bought the Godin.

You probably see my last example coming, but I’ll tell you anyway. Years ago a friend in a band I was in wanted to upgrade his “Strat knock-off” with a real Fender. We both knew the sound of his guitar well, so we expected great things at the store. He played three Strats and asked me to play them too. Our consensus was that they sounded no better than his guitar — no worse, but no better. In this case we were lucky enough to find the same type of amp that he used, because a better amp can bias you, but in this case he made the biggest savings of all and had a new respect for his knock-off guitar.

So a regular focused practice routine can save you money. At the very least you will end up as a better player. You will also be ready to try out instruments at unexpected places and times. Look into how Geddy Lee and Jack Casady found their favourite basses — the ones their signature models are based on — and you will realize that it was their ability to hear the special tone of the instrument that was crucial.

A lot of the guitar biz is based on players not realizing what they actually have already. As with anything in life (cars, significant others, phones, etc.) be sure to know what you have before you try to upgrade. And if you do upgrade, check out what you are really getting.



Steven Slate Drum Sale

If you have read my review of Steven Slate Drums in Just Jazz Guitar you know that I consider them the best-sounding drums I’ve heard. The great news is that they are on sale at 50% of their regular price until Thursday, June 16, 2016 at midnight, including expansion packs for both SSD4 and Trigger.


Expansion packs add new kits, new instruments, and new presets for Steven Slate Drums and for Trigger. If you are not familiar with Trigger, it is an amazing program that can extract drums from your recordings and replace them with any of the Slate kits you like. The difference can be almost beyond belief.

Take a look at the sale on the Steven Slate Drums site and if you are not familiar with them check out their video tutorials to see why so many producers as well as home recordists rave about them.

If Trigger is new to you there are several good short videos that show how to use it to improve the drums on a recording such as this one and more in-depth reviews like this.

If you use a drum kit in your recording, be sure to check out Steven Slate Drums 4 and Trigger today, and take advantage of the sale. (Even if you miss the sale, the Drums are still a great price for such great sounding instruments.)