TNAG Notes #10 by Stephen Bennett

First, reader, sincerest apologies for the bizarre spellcheck aberrations lurking within our previous missive (TNAG Notes #9). As a result, some sentences made even less sense than usual. Imagine. Nonetheless, suitably chastened, we move swiftly on to an Official Announcement: after Film and Art, we won’t be doing “Books about Guitars” (except for the bit at the end). Why ever not, you ask? Surely, rich literary pickings await. Wrong! We hereby declare all books about guitars (the sub-genre henceforth known as ‘git-lit’) to be rubbish. Unless they’ve got pictures. The odd prime cut has emerged from the tripe over the years but leaving aside one or two cracking biographies and wider-ranging histories of a significant historical period and/or musical movement, we’re sticking with our time-saving and concise critique; rubbish. Here’s a typical blurb…

“Dumped unceremoniously by his militant-vegan, debutante fiancée, a young merchant-banker, Gideon Cringeworthy, turns his back on the City and embarks on a journey to find himself in the exotic, tropical wilds of Southern Cambodia (or on a popular gap-year beach, depending). Our hero leaves Hampstead armed only with bite cream, a cheap nylon-string acoustic and the crazy dream of learning to play at least one Ed Sheeran song in time to perform it at the upcoming Crocodella New Age Gathering, staged annually in a remote jungle clearing on the coast of Australia’s untamed Northern Territory. Will he make it?”

Okay, we made (some of) that up but you get the idea. Guitar books are rubbish. It’s official.

Worried that your guitar never seems in tune? Don’t - it probably never will be.

It’s the nature of the beast. With pianos and harps it’s one string, one note. Tune the string and you’ll always get that note. On the guitar, we expect each string to produce dozens of notes – and that’s before we start with all that bending nonsense. Your perfectly-tuned A string, played open or as a 12th fret harmonic, can sound all over the place in a barred G chord at the 7th fret. Violins, being fretless, don’t have that issue because the hand makes the tiny adjustments that the ear demands. There are so many tuning factors in play on the guitar - intonation, action, string gauge, string age, fluctuating temperature - that accurate tuning can feel like trying to complete a musical Rubix Cube. Get one facet right and the other’s instantly gone to pot. You tune up to play a piece in E and everything’s fine. Detune your low E so as to play the next tune in dropped D and suddenly, your G and B strings start to sound off, which is guaranteed (using the technical term) to do one’s head in. Also, while those bass strings will sound sharper the harder you hit them - and the further you move up the neck - let’s not even mention the ‘C’ word (that’s capo – Ed.). What’s more, tuning to 5th and 7th fret harmonics just leads to more trouble. Yes, the six open strings will be beautifully in sync with one another but the trouble is, the instant you hit that funky C-Demolished chord half way up the neck, it somehow veers off into a screeching B-Demented.

So, what’s to be done? “Constant tweak-age” is the easy answer, judiciously applied and with a discreetly-situated electronic tuner handy to keep things from falling apart. Or you might try adopting the James Taylor method. Basically, this involves the happy paradox of sounding note perfect by always being a little bit flat. The key is to work from your electronic tuner such that, as each individual string/note gets lower, you allow the needle to slip that bit further back from the green line. The high E can hit the mark but by the time you’ve reached the low E, you’re about a fifth of a semitone behind the tuner’s recommendation of what the “perfect” note should be. It works, too – especially if there’s a capo (oops) involved.

Or, then again, you could just get a new guitar and have done with it. Which is where fan-frets come in.

First, the case against. You’re a singer-songwriter whose stock in trade is strumming and fingerpicking in support of your – or someone else’s - voice. What’s the point? Similarly, micro-levels of precision are never going to matter much if you’re banging out pub favourites, however brilliantly, in a weekend covers-band. It’s horses for courses – and horses don’t come cheap. Surely fan frets mean greater expense. Plus, it’s a gimmick, right?

Well…the increased cost thing used to be true but there are now some superb mid-price offerings around (not least on the TNAG walls) to encourage a bit of toe-in-the-water experimentation. As for the gimmick thing (our old friend, “the shock of the new”), fan-frets made their first (ahem) recorded appearance in the 16th century, on those weird teenagers of the lute-family, Orpharion and Bandora. So, who needs one? Well, nobody, to be honest. Just as nobody actually needs a snood or a Hobnob or a China Crisis album. Other things would no doubt ensure continued survival (though without enhancing the quality of life). And we’re all about quality of life.

The case ‘for’, then. What do fan frets actually bring to the party? A more even string-tension, for one thing, which is already a major bonus as far as tuning and intonation goes. If scale length describes the vibrating length of the string from nut to saddle (which it does), the angled nut (and/or saddle) means there’s lower tension on the high strings – with easier bends being one added bonus. Higher tension on the low strings - such that they don’t flop around as much - also allows for the possibility of heavier gauges and, hence, added oomph.

But it’s all so tiresomely complicated, you say! Indeed, there is much technical blather out there; what with all this “just intonation” and “true temperament” business. It’s enough of a struggle mastering the “normal” stuff without worrying about the mysterious terrors of a “multi-scale instrument”. Multi-scale just means each string has its own scale-length. Blah. It’s why grand pianos and harps are that shape. And, besides, Ralph Novak, who revived the whole fan-fret concept in the 1980s, was coming at it from a blues background. He had no greater esoteric vision than that of still being in tune at the end of a three-minute solo.

Qui bono, then (as the TV detectives say)? The answer being, more than any other sub-species, it’s fingerstyle instrumentalists who er…bono; solo players of tunes from Celtic to contemporary, old-school interpreters and New Age explorers, players seeking that elusive, added layer of richness and nuance, players striving for the extra one-per-cent, players embarked on the never-ending, Grail quest for “that sound”. If not of ‘thin, wild mercury’ then at least of fat, purring phosphor-bronze.

As for making adjustments to your technique, five minutes on a fan fret and you’ll probably have forgotten there’s anything different going on. And your hand does open like a fan, after all, so why not treat it to a matching fretboard? Opting for fan-frets has been described as simply looking to push the limits of harmonic complexity and string-power that little bit further. It’s just another new adventure. And these days, the flights are affordable.

A quick plug for (The Other!) Stuart Ryan

Not so much “him”; the one you see on all those TNAG videos, relentlessly depressing us (along with his flash mates, McNicol, Smith et al.) with all that seemingly effortless technical wizardry and, dammit, flawless good taste. No. Forget that version. We’re talking here about the bloke who does the fabulous, mainly Celtic-based, tuition series (“The Tradition” and “The Heritage”) from his website, – loads of lovely, accessible arrangements in book or download form, with accompanying CD/MP3 versions of the tunes. Now he IS good. (Sorry…same bloke! – Ed.) Really? Curses.

This Fortnight’s Fab Five…

You knew we couldn’t resist. Yes, admittedly, you could fill an aircraft hangar with exceptional writing on music and musicians (‘git-lit’ notwithstanding) so having previously trashed an entire Waterstone’s-worth with shameless and sweeping generalisation, here are a few outstanding books and brilliant music writers genuinely worthy of investigation. Guitars do get mentioned on occasion. Soul-searching and self-discovery…not so much.

  1. “1971” by David Hepworth. The contention being that the year in question forms the single most significant “moment” in the history of rock. As arguments go, it’s hugely entertaining and extremely persuasive. Hepworth writes beautifully; never feeling the need (though one suspects the capacity is there) to over-intellectualise his way into more exotic Hoskyns/Marcus territory. This story, like much of its subject matter, aims for pure pleasure.
  1. Just about every musical genre you can think of has its noble champions, often spectacularly gifted writers who give lie to the oft-quoted argument that writing about music is like dancing about architecture; Elijah Wald on the Blues, for one, Robert Gordon on Rock’n’Roll, Stuart Cosgrove on Soul but surely the greatest “overview” chronicler out there is Peter Guralnick. From his unsurpassed detailing of the various risings and fallings of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips to definitive, deep-research treasures like “Sweet Soul Music”, “Feel Like Going Home” and “Lost Highway” (on Country), Gurlanick’s endless capacity to enlighten and inform is unmatched. He is The Man.
  1. As with those of footballers and Z-list “celebrities”, music biographies (and so-called autobiographies) lacking either substance or story are ten a penny. The good ones – quite a few, fortunately - are worth seeking out. Of the recent “auto” kind, Dylan’s “Chronicles” and Keith’s “Life” are both great reads. Springsteen’s works best – and works brilliantly - on stage. It may well be that Woody Guthrie’s “Bound For Glory” played better on film; the immense, pitiless dustbowl landscapes so much more immediate on the big screen. In terms of drawing the reader into a lost world-within-a-world, though, it would be hard to beat the warmth and generosity of spirit to be found in Suze Rotolo’s, “A Freewheelin’ Time”. While Dave van Ronk’s “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” casts an insider musician’s net over the scene he virtually invented, Rotolo’s clear-eyed view from the boundary (or at least from one of the most iconic album-covers of all time) is the connection that welcomes us all in.
  1. We could fill a whole blog on great jazz books (Ralph Gleason’s 1958 anthology “Jam Session” or “The Blue Moment” by Richard Williams, to name but two). Instead, in opting for a smaller pond, it turns out the catch is no less rewarding, especially in the form of Lloyd Bradley’s magisterial “Bass Culture”; as much a history of Jamaica as it is of the local musical styles (ska, rock-steady and dub) that would emerge as the all-conquering sound of reggae.
  1. And coming out of left-field, have a look for “Where Dead Voices Gather”, by Nick Tosches, author of the Rolling Stone-appointed “best rock biography ever” in “Hellfire” (charting the mad-rollercoaster adventures of Jerry Lee Lewis). While it’s partly the story of one of the last ‘minstrel’ singers - Emmett Miller - Tosches uses this individual, all-but-forgotten life as the embarkation point for mapping out the whole tradition of American roots music, right up to the advent of rock and roll. Weighty - but well worth it.

And that’s all the homework for this week. See you next time.

by Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett is a multi-award-winning TV scriptwriter, theatre director, musician and reviewer/interviewer for the sadly, now-defunct, “Acoustic” magazine. He lives with his wife, Gabrielle, in Mystic (which is a real place) and owns far too many guitars to deserve such a happy marriage. He once played football against the Brazilian national team (no, really) and will happily discuss the narrow 12-1 defeat at great length – with anybody.


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