Discussion, Music, Advice

A Greener Option?

The Environment & The Music Industry

I don’t know about anyone else but the recent Extinction Rebellion Climate Change protests in London and, to a lesser extent, in Shaftesbury last Saturday (no, really) got me thinking about some of the ways the music industry addresses the issues. For example, the go-to material for dark wood guitar fingerboards was, up until recently, Rosewood. This became protected on the CITES list in 2017 and restrictions placed on its trade across international borders. In response, many manufacturers, most notably Fender, switched to alternatives such as Pau Ferro or Walnut.

Image by Niklas Pntk

Image by Niklas Pntk

As the regulation was actually aimed at halting illegal logging in the furniture industry, there is a feeling that, in this instance, musical instrument manufacture was caught up in the crossfire. Industry leaders are debating whether to lobby for Rosewood to come off the CITES list for finished musical instruments, instrument parts and accessories at the CITES meeting in Sri Lanka in May 2019. For more info, click here to read the report from the Musical Industries Association.

The response from Fender to remove Rosewood from their manufacture shows that even the biggest names in the industry can and will take environmental issues seriously. The Canadian manufacturer Godin (which includes Arts & Lutherie and Seagull) source their materials from the Canadian forestry commission: trees that have to be cut down as part of forest management, creating fire breaks and so on to protect the forest, are used in the guitar manufacture. It is a sustainable by-product that allows the natural habitat to remain healthy.

Local Musicians and Music Stores Doing Their Bit

Shopping Locally:
Buying an instrument on-line might seem like a sensible thing to do to cut emissions, however, it may not always be the case. For example, if you buy an instrument from your local supplier, it can be done as part of your planned shopping trip. Buying that same instrument on line might actually increase the number of traffic movements significantly as the delivery firm has to collect it from the retailer, return to the distribution hub and then move it back out for delivery to the customer. Also - I always advise people to buy the instrument they have actually played rather than the picture they’ve seen on line!

Not saying it’s the best option but worth considering… (Image by David Mark)

Not saying it’s the best option but worth considering… (Image by David Mark)

How many times do you see bands arrive at venues in 4 cars rather than the minimum number required? Drummers, I am not necessarily aiming this at you - you have enough kit to actually need the whole car! No, I am thinking about when you are playing at a venue that already has PA and yet we still turn up with one musician per vehicle. I know it’s not always possible, but there are times when we can do better so it’s definitely worth considering.

As musicians we can do more than simply write protest songs: it’s got be worth a go, right?


Building Your Rig

Making It Work For You

At its best, live sound should reproduce the sound in your head.

There are any number of reasons that this might not happen. Some of the easiest to remedy are the ones that are caused by the space in which you are performing.

For example, trying to force your rig to do too much in an outdoor setting. I attended an outdoor live event a couple of years ago, at which the sound was nothing short of diabolical for the simple reason that the rig was just too small. The event organisers kept pushing the sound to the point where the bass simply broke up and the vocals distorted. This was especially galling as the acts I saw were brilliant!

Some noise, yesterday (Image by Yatheesh Gowda)

Some noise, yesterday (Image by Yatheesh Gowda)

My basic rule of thumb is this: ‘you can always cut a bit off but you can’t cut a bit on’. Having more power than you need is simple to remedy: turn it down. The PA I described earlier would have been excellent for an indoor show but was inadequate for an outdoor event.

Clear Vision

So what’s my point here? Well, over the past couple of years I have spoken with a number of people who have been looking to upgrade their live rigs but who have not been clear in their own minds how this is going to be used. For example, it is highly unlikely that an acoustic duo is going to need a 24 channel desk, separate power amp and 10,000W per channel cabs in order to play coffee house gigs or small pubs. By the same token, if that duo needs to play a larger venue, a pair of acoustic amps might not cut it either!

Building your live sound should be done with a clear idea in mind of how it is going to be used, in what sort of venue and with what level of flexibility necessary. Try to future-proof your rig by considering what you might need to do in order to adapt it should your requirements change. For example, have you got channels on the mixer to mic up the drums, if necessary?

CAD Touring 7 percussion mics

CAD Touring 7 percussion mics

Having a clear idea of how and where you are going to use this kit will allow you to ‘buy once, buy right’ with regard to the core of your PA, letting you scale it up or down as needed, and save you money. I’m always happy to chat things through, if you’re stuck!

Advice, Music

‘Is That A Good Instrument?’

Sounds odd, but I've been asked that question many times and it always makes me scratch my head a bit. I mean, from a sales perspective, I doubt anyone would expect a negative response! I suppose it is the perennial question about whether price equates to quality.

Does Expensive = Good...?

Cards on the table, I am a bit of idealist. I believe that music is a great leveller, cutting across social class, language, culture and age groups. I also believe it should be for everyone not just those that can afford it. When I set up Underground Music, I made a conscious decision to limit the price headroom to a fairly arbitrary £500. I did this because I believe that there is huge value for money to be had below that price bracket - if I am selective about which lines I choose. For example, the Gretsch Streamliner range:

The brand new Gretsch G2622 Streamliner, launched at the 2019 NAMM Show

The brand new Gretsch G2622 Streamliner, launched at the 2019 NAMM Show

A few years ago, Gretsch made the decision to compete in the under £500 market and launched the Streamliner range of centreblock and hollowbody guitars and they have taken the guitar world by storm! Suddenly, it was an affordable option and players who had been looking for a classic, F-hole double-cut guitar had a real choice to make: go for the Epiphone Dot or the Epiphone Sheraton and grind your teeth that it doesn't say 'Gibson' on the headstock, or buy a Gretsch which says 'Gretsch' on it? You can pick one up for £435! 

The brand new Korg B1 digital piano launched in October 2018 - twin 9W amps, full 88 key weighted keyboard, 8 voices plus reverb and chorus, metronome, sustain pedal et al all for only £335.00. In store now.

The brand new Korg B1 digital piano launched in October 2018 - twin 9W amps, full 88 key weighted keyboard, 8 voices plus reverb and chorus, metronome, sustain pedal et al all for only £335.00. In store now.

What about the Korg B1 Digital Piano? A weighted keyboard, the full 8 octaves and some cracking piano samples. Simple control system and light enough to be portable. £335. Seriously. 

I guess what I'm driving at is this: I spend ages selecting the lines, making sure I can stock the instruments that give the best quality and yet remain within my self-imposed price ceiling. The instruments I stock are affordable because I am selective (and a bit of an idealist!).

So, is that a good instrument? I should jolly well hope so! 

Is it the right instrument for you...? Ah, well that's another matter. :) 

Music, Review, Advice

Is It Time For An Industry Re-Think?

Bigger = Better…?

There are some musical instrument brands out there that everybody knows. They have had, and still have, their names on the instruments played by some of the biggest artists in the world.

However, should this name and reputation mean that you should only be able buy their products at the biggest stores?

Case Study

Here is a case in point: Gibson, one of the Big Two in the guitar world, decided to drastically cut back on their number of dealers and only allowed those that agreed to a stringent set of regulations to continue selling their Gibson and Epiphone brands. Some that agreed to this decided that it wasn’t effective and left the programme; others said that it was a success. However, the stores that decided against going along with Gibson in the first place didn’t go out of business - they just sold different competitor brands!

A Gisbon, yesterday

A Gisbon, yesterday

Gibson, however, filed for bankruptcy in May 2018, following years of debt, has recently ousted Henry Juszkiewicz as CEO (October 2018) and has only just had half a billion dollars-worth of debt cancelled by bondholders in a rescue package designed to keep the brand afloat (October 2018). These facts are not necessarily linked to their dealership structure (many other factors at play here) but it is good evidence to suggest that no single brand is indispensable.

Equally, it shows that music stores can and will survive without certain brands in their stock profile.

Get It Off Your Chest

Why am I discussing this now? Well, it is simple really. Two major manufacturers, this week, have shown a similar level of short-sightedness when it comes to treating their dealers with respect. I will not name either of them, however, one has decided to impose a pan-European stock buying profile of c.25,000 Euros per annum on dealers without warning or explanation, whilst the other is trying to tell me that 10% off RRP is what now constitutes a ‘trade price’. When I pointed out to them that I could buy their product from a well-known on-line retailer for 12% less than their ‘trade price’, and save another £10 on delivery, I was stone-walled and told that all dealers have the same discount.

For no reason, here is a picture of Jimmy Hill.

For no reason, here is a picture of Jimmy Hill.

In Conclusion

I make no judgement on either but, suffice it to say, I have already contacted their competition and have new dealerships in place.

No brand is indispensable but, if they want to sell their product, their dealers are - whatever their size.

Advice, Music

Power Mixer or Powered Cabs?

I had a really interesting conversation with a customer the other day about his live rig. He was using a Yamaha StagePAs system, which uses a small powered mixer / amplifier and passive speakers, but wanted to get something a bit bigger.

In an ideal world, I think he would have liked to have a mixer with more channels, say between 8 and 12 stereo / XLR with separate USB or auxiliary channels for backing etc but retain the Yamaha speakers. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that idea, however, the speakers present a problem: they are powered by the mixer he wanted to replace. In order to keep them, he would need to either:

  • Buy another mixer amplifier, or
  • Buy a passive mixer and separate amplifier.
An example of a powered mixer - the Peavey XR1212 features 2 powered amps rated at 600W each. 

An example of a powered mixer - the Peavey XR1212 features 2 powered amps rated at 600W each. 

As we were chatting, it transpired that he already owned a 1000W powered cab that he was using as a monitor. This cab alone had more headroom than the entire Yamaha StagePAs. If he had another, he could have the option of using a passive mixer (which tend to be cheaper) and it would solve the mixer amp / mixer + amp problem.  So, the solution presented itself.

Which To Go For?

So are powered cabs better than passive speakers? I certainly feel that they offer huge flexibility for a live performer. You are able to amplify your sound simply and you can set the headroom on the cab itself without concerning yourself with the output of your amplifier. On the downside, they are heavier and require power to both sides of the stage but I feel the benefits outweigh the costs.

The 1600W HH Tessen TNE -1201 powered cab - only weighs 15kg

The 1600W HH Tessen TNE -1201 powered cab - only weighs 15kg

What about passive speakers? Well, if you are using a mixer amplifier you don’t need to worry about power to the cabs and it is simply a matter of ensuring that you speakers have enough headroom to deal with the amplifier. For example, if your mixer amp kicks out 1000W but you only have 100W speakers, you have a problem! Divide the amplifier’s output by two and you will need a minimum speaker wattage of 500W per channel (I’d go for a bit more for safety’s sake). 

When I started out, back in the late 80s, the band I worked with always used a passive, analogue mixer, with a separate amplifier driving the two front of house PA speakers. Frankly, there was nothing wrong with that set-up and, to a large extent, there still isn't. However, at the time, there really wasn't another option. As technology has moved on, it has given us more options. The wrong option is the one that doesn't work for you or in the situation. The band I'm in currently uses a passive mixer and powered cabs. We can scale it up or down as required and it means we can play in more places as a result.

Advice, Guitar

Charity Shop Guitars

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not having a dig at anyone here! I regularly pick up bits and bobs from charity shops and I have bought some absolutely lovely things. I am not here to criticise anyone!

What I wanted to talk about was buying guitars from charity shops or car boot sales and some of the things to look out for that might end up with your purchase costing more than just a new set of strings.

The other day, a lovely chap brought in a guitar that he’d grabbed at a charity shop. To be fair, I totally get why he wanted it: it was a really nice looking instrument. He wanted to get it up to speed and asked if I would take a look, which I did for him. On first inspection, a couple of things came up that he hadn’t noticed. Firstly, the frets had been worn down so much that they were flat. Secondly, the bridge was cracked through and someone had broken off a bridge pin in the hole. On closer inspection, the bridge had a metal adjustment plate that would raise or lower the action – this was missing both screws and the bridge saddle itself had been sanded down to a sliver. Thirdly, it also needed at least two machine heads (tuning) replaced – you may as well replace them all in that case as it wouldn’t really cost any more. When I looked at the machine heads, you could see that they had already been replaced at some point. And finally, the top itself had been damaged on the lower bout. It may have been possible to salvage with a bit of TLC but cosmetically, if nothing else, it didn’t look good.

Anyway, once I’d given him the news he asked roughly how much it would cost to put right. I wasn’t sure how much the damaged top might be to fix but I gave him the price of the parts and labour for the rest. He smiled and said he’d leave it...

...because he’d only spent £4.00 on the guitar.

We both had to laugh – the guitar actually cost less than a packet of strings and he re-donated it to the charity shop.

Worth A Look?

So, what do you need to look out for when checking out a bargain at the boot sale? Well, I’d start at the bottom and work up.

Not all charity shop or boot sale guitars are beyond saving - look out for the basics and you should be fine

Not all charity shop or boot sale guitars are beyond saving - look out for the basics and you should be fine

Firstly, check the bottom of the guitar. Has it taken a bang? Sometimes the guitar may have been dropped and the strap button pushed into the base of the guitar. Make sure everything is where it should be.

Next, check the guitar for cracks. An acoustic guitar is a relatively delicate instrument and can be susceptible to knocks. A crack in the wood might not be fatal but it will definitely affect the tone. If you’re unsure, I would leave it. A crack or damage to the top (the front face of the guitar) and you should walk away.

Take a look at the bridge. This is where the strings attach to the top. On classical guitars, they are tied on; steel strung acoustics have pins that hold the strings in the body. In many cases, the bridge is stuck onto the top, rather than screwed down. Is it lifting? Over time, the glue can soften and the string tension literally pulls the bridge off. This isn’t terminal but would need to be repaired and is something that a guitar tech or luthier can do relatively simply.

Check the top itself. Is it bowing? Often, the boot-sale guitar is a creature that has spent many years in a loft space, heating up, freezing, getting damp, drying out etc and, over time, this affects the wood itself. If the top is bowed, you will struggle to get a decent tone out of the guitar. In an ideal world, I’d say walk away from this one but, if you must have it, you’ll definitely need to have it repaired. On a cheap guitar, the repair will definitely not be cost-effective. Another good test is to give the top a push: does it creak or can you feel any mechanical movement? It may be that the bracing under the top has come free. This can be fixed by a guitar tech or luthier as it will require re-gluing and clamping in place. Not a big job but it takes a while.

Have a look at the neck. Sight down its length and check to see if it is bent or twisted. I once saw a bass that had been sat in a caravan for many years that had a neck like a corkscrew! No amount of fiddling with a truss rod was going to fix that one! If the neck bends up / back slightly, this may be easily remedied if the guitar has a truss rod through the neck. If not, especially on classical guitars that tend to have set necks, then it would be best to think again.

Check the frets: are they worn? Do they have chips or gouges on them? It’s more common than you’d think but guitars are built to be re-fretted. However, a re-fret can be pricey. If you were looking at re-fretting a cheap acoustic, I doubt it would be worth the expense. Re-fretting a more professional instrument may well be a good investment, especially if you intend to make this your primary choice.

Finally, take a look at the headstock. Are there any cracks around the neck or the machine heads? Certain brands of guitar are famous for having a weak joint where the headstock joins the neck and they have a nasty habit of breaking off or cracking if the guitar takes a knock. Check the machine heads. Do they turn easily? Are the cogs chipped or have missing teeth? Replacing machine heads is a very simple fix and they aren’t generally very expensive so don’t feel it’s a deal-breaker. Also, check the nut (slotted for the strings where they join the neck). Has it taken any damage? Once again, replacing a nut is a simple job and the parts are cheap (around £10) so you can feel pretty confident that, even if you need a new one, you can go ahead with the purchase.

In conclusion, you can definitely pick up some absolute gems at the charity shop or car-boot sale and there is no reason whatsoever to ignore a bargain! If you can keep these tips in mind, you can buy with a bit more confidence.

Happy hunting!