Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sin And The Art Of Telecaster Maintenance

[I thought I'd take a breather this week from anything deeply spiritual or theological and allow you the great pleasure of just hearing me gripe about our sinful world. But beware that next week we'll be getting into some pretty heady stuff.]

Sin And The Art Of Telecaster Maintenance
(Apologies to Robert Pirsig)

I haven't played the electric guitar very much the past few years, opting to fingerpick an acoustic most days instead, at least on the rare days that I play at all. My favorite electric guitar is the Fender Telecaster--the first commercially available solid body guitar ever made. People snickered at their arrival in the world. A "plank" with strings they thought it was. And for Pete's sake...a bolt-on neck! Whoever heard of such a thing or saw such a sight? But Leo Fender apparently either had no fear or no shame. While developing the prototype around 1949 or so, he and partner George Fullerton drove out to a little dive called the Riverside Rancho one night where Jimmy Bryant, a brilliant country-swing guitarist, was playing. They got Jimmy to come over to the table while Leo unveiled his new invention. Rather than snicker, Bryant was curious. He plugged it in and began to wail. For the next two hours, you could hear a pin drop (if it was a really big'un) as the folks in this joint forgot about their drinking and came up around the stage, clearly amazed at what they were hearing.

Millions of divers kinds of solid body guitars have been sold since then, but this is still the one that does it for me. Not because it was the first, but because it has the most human-like quality in tone. It almost literally can laugh, scream, and moan the blues or twang away in a country pickers hands. When you find a good one, they just sing.

I haven't owned a tele since the early 90s. While I love the guitars, they're kind of smallish, and I'm kind of biggish. I always felt a little strange strapping one across my chest. They can look darn near like a mandolin on a 6'5" man. But as fate would have it, I came across an old, beat up tele in a music store a couple of months ago. I seldom pick one up I like anymore because they just don't seem to build them like they used to, but this old junker sounded and felt almost too good to be true. The price was right, and I simply couldn't resist.

My first thought was to restore my new acquisition to its former glory. A tele is probably the easiest guitar to work on that was ever made. Swapping pickups, necks, pots and so forth couldn't be easier. As a result, guys like to soup them up, and you'll see all kinds of them out there. You can't hardly hurt them either. I don't want to say they're indestructible, but you could probably toss one down a flight of stairs, and not only wouldn't it break, it would likely still be in tune when you picked it up. The design is a real testament to simplicity, durability, and functionality--three of the best things in life when found together.

The Fender Telecaster reminds me very much of the Ford Model T. The Model T has the same elegant simplicity and easy to maintain functionality, yet it's also easy to hot-rod and do all kinds of customizing with. Over 15-million were made between 1908 and 1927, and there are still tons of them on the road. You can pick up a phone and have any part delivered for them in a single day.

It is almost without a doubt the best automobile ever made when it comes to simplicity, durability, and functionality. I once actually saw three guys put one together from parts in about 30-minutes! Literally, the chassis, body, tires, motor, all the interior parts, windows, everything in 30-minutes. The Model T was capable of running on gasoline, kerosene or ethanol and got better than 20 mpg. Sure its little 4-cylinder motor only produced a top speed of 45 mph, but it was a remarkable achievement in many ways. It had no oil pump, no fuel pump, no water pump, no distributor cap--almost nothing to go wrong. And nearly every metal part on the vehicle was made of vanadium steel, so it was extremely resistant to rust (which is part of the reason there are still so many of them around). It would also go over nearly any kind of terrain and had a reputation for starting right up in all kinds of weather. If I had to drive across the continent tomorrow and wanted to buy the most reliable vehicle for the job, after a century of automobiles to choose from, I would still pick Ford's old Tin Lizzie for dependability.

After bringing home my new tele, I began to search the internet for parts to see what was available, the wait time, prices and so on. There are a lot of aftermarket parts made for teles, and sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the ones worth having from the ones you wouldn't wish on your enemies or even your girlfriend's cat. The only way to determine the quality of workmanship is to handle everything yourself or to rely on a reviewer to do that for you. Many of these parts aren't available in stores and come from distant states, so I have no choice but to rely on the latter.

One thing you quickly learn about the internet, and I learned it long ago, is that the vast majority of what you read on it comes under the heading of misinformation (to put it kindly) or disinformation (to put it more accurately). It's hard to trust anything you read online. First there are these things in cyberland called user reviews. They're as useless as...what's that old line?...a screen door on a submarine. Half of them are written by kids, generally trying to pass as adults, and to them everything is either great or terrible. Most kids, devils that they are, are infatuated with their possessions. They own it, so it must be fantastic. Any similar product is inferior whether they've actually laid eyes on it or not. Or they find some little thing wrong and decide the company that makes the product produces nothing but trash. I think a lot of this has to do with a new American ethos. A couple of decades ago we saw some strange trends beginning with the children in this country. They started insisting on the best of everything. A pair of tennis shoes had to cost a hundred dollars or they weren't good enough. Kids suddenly had to wear a different pair of pants to school every day rather than make the same pair of blue jeans last out the week the way we did when I was growing up. Where do they come up with these notions? Who is it that wants them (or their parents) to spend money so frivolously?

Unfortunately, the adults here at the weird wide web are nearly as bad. I laugh every time I read that somebody has made some very slight modification to a guitar or amplifier, and the difference is now "night and day". Maybe all they did was change the tuning pegs. A night and day difference in the way a guitar sounds after just swapping out the tuners? I don't think so.... In fact, it probably had no effect on the tone of the instrument at all, and I could prove it to them in a blindfold test most of the time, but they probably wouldn't stand for it. Common sense is the evil enemy in cyberland. Here are four cases to make my point. There's really no need to read all four unless you just want to:

1) In the old days we used to record sound to big reel to reel magnetic tape machines. They were insanely expensive and cumbersome. Then someone came up with the idea of recording digitally, first to magnetic tape, but about ten years ago software came in vogue for multitrack recording digitally to a computer. Several software engineers came up with their own apps for this, so you had several to choose from. They all recorded what are called "wave" (or .wav) audio files. You used to see hundreds of messages at user reviews or music forums claiming that this editor recorded better sounding wave files than that one. It seemed that almost everyone had an opinion about it. But truth be known, all wave apps record wave files exactly the same. There is absolutely no difference in the recording process. A wave is a wave is a wave. Either there are a lot of people in the world who can't hear what they think they can, or a lot of people are liars.

2) There are these things called amplifier simulators that guitarists often use to record with called amp sims for short. They're small desktop boxes that you plug your axe into that sound remarkably like a regular cranked up guitar amp but without the volume problems that make your neighbors call the police. Normally you run a line out of them into your mixing board and then on into the computer soundcard etc. You can monitor through a set of headphones without disturbing anybody. There were two main amp sims for a few years: the Line 6 POD and the Behringer V-Amp. And again you could find user reviews and message boards awash with opinions as to which was the best. Most people said the POD sounded"night and day" better. Why? Probably because it cost twice as much. Fact is, both use the exact same IC architecture, and get identical amp/speaker sounds. There was one guy who eventually realized this and came up with a program that could take user presets from one amp sim and transfer them to the other.

3) A microphone in general is just a speaker in reverse. Condenser mics are the most popular for recording. They're simple to make (for the most part), and most are extremely similar in design given the same capsule size, polar pattern, etc. Actually, there are many little things that go into the way sound is captured in them such as the thickness of the diaphragm, the material it's made from, and the tension on it; the distance between the diaphragm and the back plate and so on. The electronics are generally very similar with only small differences mostly having to do with capacitance.

The Chinese have gotten very good at reverse engineering expensive microphones from the West and then building inexpensive knockoffs. They may use cheaper electrical components, but this generally effects the noise specs more than the tonal aspects. The diaphragm material may also be slightly different. I don't know of a microphone made that has more than twenty or thirty dollars worth of electronics in it. As to the other materials, again there isn't much there by way of cost. Nearly all condenser mics have around fifty or sixty dollars worth of parts in total. Yet some of the more expensive mics retail for over $2,000. Can labor alone justify that price? The Chinese knockoffs run anywhere between $100 and $300, and they can, and usually do, sound a whole lot like the more expensive originals. The differences in sound are pretty subtle. The biggest difference is the price. But again, if you go by what people are saying at user reviews and message boards, you'd think the Chinese mics weren't worth a plug nickel. Here's a link to a website that gives sound samples of a couple dozen different mics, all recording the same voices in the same context. Some of the mics are very expensive, and some are very cheap. It's a blindfold test, but there's a key at the bottom of the page that pops up to tell you which mic is which and what they typically cost. I think it's painfully obvious that some of the cheap mics here actually sound better than others costing 2 to 3 times as much.

4) I'm also a bit of a video buff. Film has been the touchstone medium for capturing moving images since the 1800s. But good 35mm film cameras, the film to go in them, and especially the cost to develop that film is incredibly expensive. When videotape was introduced a few decades ago, it wasn't taken seriously as a tool for features. It had a hard look that was too much like real life. It managed to find a home for Network News as an ENG (electronic news gathering) device though, and soaps adopted it for their poor quality daytime dramas where cost was an issue. In recent years, however, manufacturers of miniDV camcorders found ways to record in progressive frames as apposed to the hard look of interlacing and also developed camcorders that could record at 24 frames per second just like film cameras instead of the 30 fps they had been using over the years. These two developments went a long way toward making videotape take on a film look. Really the only thing missing was a 35mm lens for getting the same depth of field. But traditional manufacturers of 35mm lenses sold them for around $10,000 to fit expensive film cameras. Why are the lenses so expensive? Because the traditional film market would pay it. A set of glass lenses is nothing but a nickel's worth of sand. Making it into glass, grinding it, and polishing it are hardly rocket science. But who would pay $5,000 for a top flight miniDV camcorder only to shell out another ten grand for a 35mm lens for the front end? Well, sure enough, some enterprising young guys started making their own 35mm lenses about a year ago and selling them as aftermarket add-ons to fit various camcorder filter threads for not much more less than $200. They're also selling them to fit the newer HDV units as well. Now you can buy something like a Canon XH-A1 and fit it with a 35mm lens for a total cost of around $3500 and shoot video that looks remarkably like film even when spread out on a 30' screen. How did the internet audience react? Do I even have to tell you? They started a typical smear campaign. "Film will never die!", "Videotape will never look like film!", "These cheap lenses are blurry!". In protest of this I put together a presentation of stills taken from movies that had been shot on both film and videotape and put it on the internet challenging people to guess which stills came from which recording medium. No one as yet has ever come close to being able to tell one from the other. Apparently people's eyes are as bad as their ears, or...they're lying.

We can, and should, assume that your average Joe on the internet has no earthly idea what he or she is talking about. Thus the misinformation aspect of things. But, now for the main course in this essay, and that has to do with the disinformation facet.

It's not just consumers that have access to the internet, to user reviews, or message boards. The manufacturers, company employees, salespeople, even folks at home who have stock in companies all have equal playing time, and there are almost no rules to play by. You can see where I'm going with this. Many of the message boards and user review sites that are out there, probably most if truth be told, have been set up by these same people. One of the more popular musical instrument store outlets is G...C... I once overheard two sales employees from there talking about downplaying certain products because they made very little money on them. The commission on a $1000 microphone is much greater than that on a $100 one. Obviously they want you to spend as much as you can afford even if the more expensive item isn't worth the extra money. People like this will purposely leave user reviews saying that inexpensive products are pure junk and that you're wasting your money on them. They'll routinely get together and set up their own message boards and then go on to create several usernames each. Of course the talk of the day will always focus on how only more expensive items are good for anything. If you take the names of these various dotcoms and search them at sites like the Whois database you'll quickly find that many of them are privately registered and give absolutely no contact information. A veil of secrecy is crucial to them doing what they do.

Could it be possible that most people are like this in the real world too, and you just never saw it before? I pity the question. No, I pity the questioner! Fact is that this is the type of dirty pool that has been going on since the beginning of civilization and the trading of goods and services. Before there was an internet people still did the same kinds of things with newspapers, magazines--even word of mouth rumors. There are precious few people in the business world that follow the golden rule.

This is a true story. My paternal grandfather for many years worked in a small shop that made batteries in East St. Louis back in the 30s/40s. After the shop closed, he went to work for a brake shop in the same area. While he was there, he and a friend at the shop got together and invented a car battery that they thought would last a lifetime. Grandpa died before I was born, and he never left any papers about his idea that I'm aware of, so I don't know what the details were. At any rate, they knew they couldn't afford to have the design patented, so they decided to pay a visit to the largest manufacturer of batteries in those days (probably Willard or Delco) to see if they could sell them on the idea. When they got there, the man they talked to actually laughed at them. Turns out his company already had the same idea and had a patent on it. They had no intension of ever making the battery though. The last thing they wanted was a battery that people only had to buy once.

My dad was a great baseball player. He dropped out of school to go to work when he was fifteen, so he never played on the school team. He didn't want to anyway because he had already been playing on a men's team since the age of twelve. The Jaycees baseball league was actually started in East St. Louis by Ray Rice back in the 40s. Dad started playing on one of the teams in the 50s', and in 1952 they won the state championship and then went on to defeat the Missouri champs at an exhibition game at Sportsman's Park where the St. Louis Cardinals then played. Dad's batting average that year was 667. (Yes, he was really that good). Actually, the whole team was great. They won every game on the way to state by no less than seven runs and won the state final by ten runs. A lot of the Cardinal players used to come out to watch these kids play--that's how much they were respected. They're still the only Jaycees team I ever heard of that actually had players drafted by major league teams. The Dodgers came after dad. He promptly turned them down saying, "I play for fun, not for money." Other guys on the team turned down offers too. If you ask around, you'll find that it was probably more common for players to turn down major league contracts than to accept them in those days. They turned them down because major league teams had a reputation for snapping up good young players they didn't really need and then sticking them in the minors at low pay forever just so nobody else could get them.

Lies and deception are the tools of trade around the world when it comes to big business. Politics is even worse. I'm a registered republican. I have to tell you though, that I'm ashamed of our leaders and this idiotic nonsense propagated about universal health care being a product of socialism. It's complete and utter horse hockey from A to Z. Under this new, absurd definition of socialism even the military is a form of socialism. Police departments, fire departments, Medicare, public water systems, social security--all ingredients of a socialist government. Either the leaders of the Tea Party Movement are so stupid they don't even know the difference between civilization and socialism or they're simply a lying propaganda machine for the health and drug industry. I'm all for a reasonable debate about universal health care, but lying is not an attribute of reason.

I've decided to keep my beat up old Telecaster pretty much the same after swapping out the font pickup. There's just something special about this old tele just the way it is, warts and all. It reminds me that you can't hardly buy quality goods anymore. Even guitar amplifiers are increasingly going digital and this spells disposable technology. There aren't many parts inside most kinds of electronic gear you can fix anymore. The prices are getting so cheap that the manufacturers figure you can afford to just buy a new one when something breaks. I'm glad for the cheap prices, but I'm also saddened that even expensive things aren't usually made of truly great quality anymore.

Buying this old guitar, and working on her, gave me a lot to think about. They were mostly unpleasant thoughts as you've just witnessed. I understand all to well how the seedy side of business works. And I understand how it is that so many people in the world are immersed in conspiracy theories. Lord knows they see enough real life examples of it in business and politics every day. My only question is the same one that's been asked for thousands of years. It's commonly called Jeremiah's Complaint:

Jeremiah 12:1 You are always righteous, O LORD,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Of course we know it won't always be that way for them. But still the question remains, why does God let them go on so long? The only answer I can come up with is this: that they will only prosper as long as I need them to. Maybe when I can learn to love the wicked, to stop saying nasty things about them, to stop envying their prosperity, maybe then God won't need them around. Just a thought.


shadowlands said...

'Why do all the faithless live at ease'?

Cos the devil is pleased with the way they are.Spiritually snoring. Give one of them a moment of spiritual clarity that they decide to listen to and act upon, and watch the status quo begin to ruffle. Of course, we all have non-surrendered areas in our own lives, once we begin to let God address a certain defect of character, it's amazing how clingy we can become to 'my will, not thy will'.

You look like your dad!

C W Seper said...

At least I didn't get his and grandpa's big ears!

PS, to anyone reading this: I forgot to place a link in the post for the video stills test. I've fixed the post now.