Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Tone Cloud

Well, I have to admit, in the great scheme of my life, I really don't deserve anything as beautiful as this Gretsch guitar. I mean really! Even in this photo I just took it appears to be magically floating above the guitar case it rests on.

Anyway, here's my story. 

I got back into playing stringed instruments about 5 years ago when it abruptly appeared that my wife, Anita Gayle, and I were actually going to be able to retire and pursue different interests (like music, art, and our Standard American Diets) that we felt were not viable enough to invest much time into during our careers and family life together. Our kids were on their own, we'd had enough of working for other people, and our health was slowly declining, which we figured was a natural process when you live long enough.

We moved to Asheville in 2011, a beautiful eclectic town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina with a thriving art and music community. State politics aside, we have enjoyed our time here very much.

As we had decided, Anita Gayle and I jumped into our retirement with all the vigor we had engaged while performing our job descriptions when employed, but with an emphasis on the idea of starting second careers. To address our health issues, we decided to drastically change our diets and adopted a plant-based way of eating which dramatically reduced our blood pressure and diabetic issues virtually over night (see Anita's Healthy Life and Vegan Minus Oil blogs for details on our healthy transformation).

Anita Gayle at first, because of her former working experience in Family Consumer Science, began creating plant-based recipes and videos through a blog promoting the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. After a few years she has added painting to her interests having painted, so far, over 40 acrylic paintings in various sizes of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and legumes. (see

Meanwhile, I began exploring music where I had left off after college and began collecting, playing, and recording various instruments, AND writing this blog (and a few others). Slowly, I progressed in my knowledge of music (with the help of my bass teacher, Kevin Lampson, and uke friend, busker Neil Laurence, and others), and began to recognize elements in music like the nuances of tone and harmonics that made my appreciation of musical instruments even more intense and varied.

As an effect of my new-found insight into hearing and making music, I began designing and building instruments on my own - simple stringed affairs that I made from old film cans I had collected during my 40+ year career as a film maker. I called them canjos, and I learned a lot about the nature of sound from making them as well, the least of which is that each one possesses individual, distinctive tonal qualities unlike any other.

Armed with this newfound aural sensitivity, I began listening more critically to each of my guitars and bass guitars and began noticing the differences in tonal quality between acoustic and solid-body electric guitars. Thus I noticed, as so many guitarists throughout the history of electric amplified instruments attest to, my Fender Telecaster sounded very different than a semi-hollow body Gibson Les Paul or Gretsch White Falcon. This realization on my part manifested itself as what I might call "need", although I believe that a more precise term for what I was feeling was "want", or maybe "great need", or simply, just greed.

So, my quest to fulfill my need/want/greed began. After a few months of research (and coming to the realization that I could never justify paying $3,000 and up for an exemplary Les Paul or White Falcon (damn you, Neal Young and Steve Stills), I had my greedy eyes on a double cutaway Gretsch Electromatic (one third the price, but possessing much the same tonal quality and cosmetic features of a full-blown Falcon).

What sealed the deal, and actually made it possible for me to buy this particular electric guitar at this time, was that Sweetwater Music Instruments and Pro Audio, an up-and-coming online store, had a limited-time finance deal I could not pass up - 36 equal monthly payments with nothing down and no interest! I have not heard of any such deal for a long time, especially not with online musical instrument merchants.

So, I made a deal with Anita Gayle who, after all, actually owns half interest in anything I buy, to drop an ice tea that I usually order every day at our fav hangout, and go for the free water instead, saving $1.50 per diem (the guitar and case will only cost $1 a day for 36 months). Voila! Me get guitar!

Such a deal! Sometimes modern capitalism does indeed work.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Levy's Straps, As Good As It Gets

From time to time, I write posts about musical products or accessories I come across that I regard as exceptional values. So, here's my take on one such product, Levy's Leathers guitar straps.

I already own two other Levy's guitar straps, wide and made from soft, beautiful suede leather, which have helped me be a better bass player since they make my two thumpers more comfortable on my shoulder so I can play longer. So yesterday, when I was practicing with my Telecaster which weighs almost as much as a bass, I decided that I needed a new strap that might be a bit more comfortable than the nylon web strap I was using. Plus, I figured I should buy a strap that was not only better on my old shoulder, but looked cool, too, and matched the black and white motif of my guitar.

I headed down to Asheville's Music Center store where I was greeted by one of the sales staff, Jim, who always helps me find just what I need. I told him what I was after and he said, "Well, your timing is good, Bill". The store had just received a shipment of straps from Levy's and he proceeded to go through a large carton of straps with me until I found just the right one at a very reasonable price. Sold!

As you can see, I got a perfect strap for my black and white Tele with soft, black cloth webbing and white accents. Ta Da! Problem solved.

But, while looks aren't everything, this strap, like all Levy's products I've seen, are built to last with great design, quality materials, and the highest workmanship. And best of all, this strap, about an inch narrower than my other two Levy's straps, is just as easy on my shoulder as the wider straps. I really like that feature the most.

So, am I happy with my Levy's Leathers straps (all three)? Well, if you don't know the answer to that question by now, you might want to read this post again.

Note: I see that Levy's motto is Your Guitar Is Worth It. I would add that their guitar straps are worth it, too.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sony PXW-X70

During my long career as a professional film and video maker, I used and owned many really wonderful state-of-the-art film and video cameras, so I've seen the rapid evolution from silver halide emulsion imaging to orthicons, vidicons, plumicons, saticons, newvicons, trinicons, and then into CCD's, HD and now 4K.

In my work. I used cameras made by Arriflex, Panavision, Cinema Products, Ecair, Bell and Howell, Bolex, Mitchell, Beaulieu, Canon, Panasonic, RCA, Ikigami, JVC, Sony and recently, GoPro.

But, I'm retired now and last year I sold my 4-year-old pro video camera (a beautiful Sony EX1) while it still had some life left in it. So, when my wife, Anita Gayle, wanted me to shoot more videos for her cooking blog and promotional videos to help market her paintings of fruits and vegetables, I thought that I could shoot them with my really nice Sony Alpha 65 DSLR since it shoots beautiful HD video images as well as 24MP stills..

That's what we did and her videos turned out pretty darned good, if I do say so, etc., etc.

But, there were some issues with the camera that presented me with particular challenges I had not experienced before during my career-for-pay.

First, the audio. The thought of using a built-in camera microphone is as foreign to me as a surgeon using a butter knife to remove an inflamed appendix. It can be done but the results take longer and are less than optimum. Sure, the A65 does have a little mini jack that allows plugging in an external mike, but there is no manual adjustment of audio levels  possible, no limiter, and no headphone jack to monitor sound quality when recording. But, hey, you might get lucky, right?

Second, the kit lens that came with the A65 camera is f3.5 and gets slower as one zooms in. No chance of using "available" light without shooting at ISO 800 or above resulting in a big increase in grain. And, oh yes, the zoom lens only operated manually and not very smooth, either - not acceptable if desiring professional video results.

True, the images were stunning enough, but I had to play back each shot to check the audio and pump light into the scene when shooting indoors, and oh, yes, NO ZOOMING. It was similar  to attempting to trim the branches of a fruit tree using a shovel. Less than satisfactory.

So, we kept the Sony A65 since we also take stills and it is perfect in that role, but, after much research, came up with the best, most economical professional video camera I could find in the long, drafty halls of the internet stores - Sony's PXW-X70. It's lightweight, sports a new 1" Sony CMOS imager, has all the audio controls one could ever want, and a relatively-fast Zeiss zoom lens. I won't bore you with the specs, but you can find out for yourself at Sony's site about their PXW-X70

I note on the portrait I took of the camera above:  I took that image today on our kitchen table. The reason I choose the checkered tablecloth and the blue-tinted 50's look to treat the subject was because if, in the mid-1950's when I first became interested in cameras, movies and TV shows, this Sony digital video image and sound capturing device would have magically appeared on my mom's kitchen table, we would not even have recognized it as any kind of camera at all.

So, the bottom line is that it's great living in the future - even for a "seasoned" Camera Geek like me.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fender Rumble 40 Combo Amp

The Fender Rumble 40 Combo Amp is a great addition to my bass kit. Shown with my Gibson SG Special Bass, the combination really provides a versatile lower end for any type of music. The newest models in Fender's Rumble series are much lighter than previous models with completely new designs from the ground up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Ibanez Gio 6-String Bass

This Ibanez 6-string electric bass is the latest addition in my growing musical arsenal of deep-end stringed instruments. It's built like a tank and really opens up my possibilities as a bassist by adding more notes at both the high and low sides of the scale.

With a beautiful mahogany body, rosewood fretboard and maple neck, it's not really as heavy as it looks, but it does sound heavy - very heavy.

This affordable but quality-built Ibanez 6-string bass features a DXH-6 neck pickup and a DXH-6 bridge pickup, and Phat EQ active bass boost which adds additional low-end power, reportedly more that any other 6-string bass in its price range. It really gets down on the get low.

Paired with my Fender Rumble 40 combo amp, I've recently been shaking the foundations of my home with this 6-string monster. I've also noticed that playing it makes going back to my other two 4-string basses seem easier. 

But hey, this is a good thing and I'll take whatever I can get, right?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Buncombe Built Exhibit Opening

 Me, Billy Radd, and some of the quirky instruments I've Built on display

Laura Graziano, cellist, Steve Miller, instrument maker, and Derek Graziano, musician, luthier and lapidarist. 

Kitty Love welcoming attendees to the show

Last Friday evening, the Asheville Area Arts Council held an opening for their Bunbombe Built Exhibition of musical instruments built in our county. Held at the AAAC Gallery in Asheville's Grove Arcade, the three-hour event was hosted by Executive Director Kitty Love, and curated by Linda Go and Gar Ragland.

As far as I could tell, a good time was had by all. I certainly had fun talking to the public about why and how I make instruments out of film cans and cigar boxes.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Babicz FCH Difference

Yesterday I replaced the stock bridge which came on my 2014 Gibson SG Special Bass, that I received from Anita Gayle last year for my birthday, with a beautiful Babicz FCH (Full Contact Hardware) eCam Saddle System. The resulting increase in the tone of my bass is dramatic with much more dynamic range. I liked my Gibson SG Bass before, but now? I love it!

The FCH saddle also allows hight adjustment of each individual string and the ability to fully lock down the bridge saddle so that string height and intonation adjustments remain secure even when changing strings, features not found with my original stock saddle.

Jeff Babicz designed his FCH to gain the maximum amount of direct string coupling to the body of the instrument providing over 50 times more contact service per saddle compared to the conventional stock saddle. In fact, the new 2015 version of the Gibson SG Special Bass and other models now come stock with a Babicz saddle just like my new one.

It literally took me only 10 minutes to change out the old bridge with the FCH and adjust and set the intonation of each string. And, tricked out with some RotoSound black nylon flat-wound strings, I suspect that my bass looks and sounds like no other (I might be wrong about that, but I'm sure there are not too many other bass guitars with this particular combination/setup at this moment).

So, all in all, this is the best upgrade I have made on any of my stringed instruments - bar none.