TNAG Notes: A Cautionary Tale, Small is Beautiful & Gadgets by Stephen Bennett
We’re back! More outlandish opinions, more six-string-centred suggestions and more tuned-up twang than the entire Glasgow Banjo Symphonia. Plus some dodgy alliteration.
A CAUTIONARY TALE
We recently had the opportunity to chat with a world-renowned luthier about (among other things) the joys (and occasional perils) of ‘bespoke’ guitar-building. We’d seen a beautiful example of said luthier’s work for sale on the net and went to the source for a bit of further, inside info. The guarded reaction to our enthusiasm was intriguing, to say the least, so – fearless journalism, and all that - we pressed on (carefully) in the hope of enlightenment.
The guitar had been a custom-build. However, rather than following the traditional route whereby the purchaser imagines owning the best of a much-admired luthier’s work, enhanced (he or she hopes) by a few individual specifications (wood-type, personalised inlay etc.), this customer had bigger ideas. Unusual scale-length, nut-width, bracing-patterns, body-size…the customer insisted on having some say in just about every aspect of the build. The result is certainly a beautiful piece of work. It’s also completely, exclusively tailored to an individual player; who’s now fallen out of love with it and wants to sell. Good luck with that.
We custom order from our most prized luthiers because we covet the quality that makes their work special. It’s always handy to keep in mind, before we dive in too deep, that they probably know a bit more about building guitars than we do. Yes, of course it’s a two-way process – if we’re paying that much, the “mine all mine” glow on delivery needs to be an especially warm one – but even if we’re determined to meet our luthier-of-choice half-way, it’s worth bearing in mind that, should we cross that line, we might be denying them the freedom to produce the work we so admired in the first place.
Small is Beautiful (and a bit bigger’s not too shabby, either)
If you’ve found your way to this blog, reader, you probably own (or aspire to owning) a guitar from a top-notch, 12-to-20 a year, “boutique” luthier whose work comes garlanded with words like “bespoke”, “custom-build” and, often, the dreaded “waiting list”.
Thus, we risk locking ourselves into an invisible box of (mostly justifiable) bias whereby we equate quality, in inverse proportion, with the size of the operation; as a company grows, our faith diminishes – rightly or wrongly - regarding the standard of its output. Fortunately, there are still a few builders out there who defy this assumed logic and Richard Hoover, founder and genial figurehead of Santa Cruz Guitar Company is definitely one of them. He’s been defying it for half a lifetime.
Whereas Collings (SCGC’s nearest counterpart in terms of exceptional quality and consistency of product) may now warrant a “smallest of the big builders” tag, Santa Cruz can, with its annual output of around 500, probably claim to be the biggest of the little guys. What makes both companies’ instruments stand out from the herd is that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s ever picked up a ropey one.
Regardless of model, size, age, whatever…they all deliver. We’re talking class and reliability, here. There’s a sense that the Santa Cruz team (likewise Collings, while we’re at it) only send out guitars they’d rather keep for themselves. By all means save for your dream custom-job – Santa Cruz has that covered, too – but should you find yourself confronting a guitar-shop wall lined with acoustics, just take down the Santa Cruz and play that. It’ll save you a hell of a lot of time.
Besides, for those of us who grew up in tired, work-worn backwaters like Oldham or Swindon or Walsall, certain place names take on a mythical property that can transport us from the rain-lashed bus-stops of our youth to magical realms of sun, music and umbrellas nestling in drinks (as opposed to being blown inside out). Santa Cruz…basking and bronzed in the warm embrace of Monterey Bay. It’s the very definition of Not Blackpool – and of a small, high-class company that’s firmly established its place in the front rank, if not miles ahead, of an increasingly overcrowded field.
Gadgets? Can’t be doing with ‘em
Who among us hasn’t succumbed, at some point in our delusional past, to the notion that some form of electronic enhancement might transform us from puny, mere mortals into all-conquering musical colossuses – colossi – whatever? And who among us doesn’t keep a box in the shed, full of the underused junk that is the fruit of such delusion; used once then cast aside for all eternity (or until we figure out how to use eBay)?
Of course, just as we’ve settled into Grumpy Armchair of Certainty, along comes a tempting new device, fluttering its eyebrows and – at around £250 – playing not too hard to get. Damn. And the most frustrating part? It really works and it’s worth every penny. Curse you, ToneWoodAmps!
Maybe for the first time in the history of the acoustic guitars-vs-gadgets war, here’s something that’s both boldly innovative and reassuringly practical. The ToneWoodAmp (or TWA, henceforth) is a little black box that plugs into your guitar’s jack-socket (or sound-hole pick-up, if you’re squeamish about piercings). Put simply – as this isn’t a technical review, far from it – the TWA lets you play acoustically and have access to a range of genuinely useful effects (reverb, delay, tremolo etc.) without the need for all that pedal-board, tap-dancing nonsense. The interweb is overflowing with all the technical detail needed for proper product research but potential-buyer-suspicion is a good thing (see related box of unused tat). Worried about near-instant obsolescence? Don’t. The TWA is kitted out, already, for the inevitable software expansions so you won’t miss out on future iterations and effect-additions. Frustrating faffing-about factor? Minimal. You may have to experiment with the TWA’s positioning to find your instrument’s sonic sweet-spot but then who won’t suss out the more-than-likelihood that the box will sit slightly differently on a parlour than it would on a J200. Just don’t expect a huge volume boost. Despite “amp” being there in the name, that’s not really the object of the exercise. And yes, you’ll probably end up settling on a few favourite enhancements that fit your style but that just means there are others available should you get the urge. So while it’s good to be wary, it’s also nice to take a few risks, get out of that rut and enjoy the feeling of having extended the boundaries of something we’re already pretty good at.
Admittedly, there’s something slightly counter-intuitive about messing with the purity of your carefully-cultivated acoustic sound but the point here is that this little unit really does deliver something new and tangible – or at least audible (see those million YouTube testimonials). And, above all, it’s fun. The TWA is all about exploration, finding new inspiration and expanding your sonic palette. It’s also a little bit magical; a touch of fairy dust to transform your compositional pumpkin into a glittering, musical carriage. What it’ll do to your Grumpy Armchair of Certainty is anyone’s guess.
“Can I have your autograph, please..?”
Now there’s a subject to get justifiably sniffy about. Of course, we’re far too cool to hang around waiting, then asking…all that naff stuff. And yet…recently, a friend recounted a charming story from her youth in which she and her hippie college pals had spent an afternoon in the company of a polite and engaging young man who seemed far more interested in them than he was in his own perceived, demi-god status. Wrapping up the nostalgia-fest, she went over to a drawer and produced a small, brick-red card, decorated with a perfect-aligned composition in beautifully-formed handwriting: “Stay free. Peace – Jimi Hendrix”. Maybe some autograph collections aren’t so naff, after all.
THIS FORTNIGHT’S FAB-FIVE!
1. Next time you’re listening to a bit of old-time rock’n’roll, raise a glass (or two) to Danny Cedrone, lead guitarist of Billy Haley & The Comets on such seminal recordings as “Rock Around The Clock” and “Shake, Rattle & Roll”. He earned a princely $21 dollars for the latter session and died, aged 33, as the result of a fall, ten days later. The 1955 film, “Blackboard Jungle”, made the group - and that inimitable sound – famous just a few months later. The lead guitarist missed out on all the fuss. So here’s to you, Danny – we all owe you one.
2. No doubt quite a few of us could knock out a half-decent, dropped-D, acoustic version of “Shenandoah” given a few hours practice but hearing Will Ray’s electric live (or studio) version will have you considering a switch to the tuba – or knitting. Think Jeff Beck-meets-Roy Buchanan (in Space) for what must be a contender for the most blissed-out, lyrical exhibition of Telecaster mastery anywhere on record. Jaws Will Drop.
3. If there a finer piece of electric rhythm-riffing than Willie “Little Beaver” Hale’s super-slick underpinning of Betty Wright’s strutting soul classic, “Clean-Up Woman”, then we need to know about it – today! Willie’s still going. His solo stuff is great, too. The nickname, we assume (or at least hope), is a reference to some clearly rather prominent front-teeth.
4. Gwenifer Raymond. The John Fahey comparisons are pretty obvious but the young Cardiff-born, astrophysics PhD, Raymond appears to have a sharper commercial sensibility (conscious or otherwise) with her more focussed compositional approach. The “American Primitive” sound (via Brighton) is all there, conjured from a 1929 (Sears catalogue) Bradley-Kincaid ‘Houn’ Dog’ delivering intense, left-field, retro-blues-ragas that grab right from the off and – more importantly - keep hold.
5. Finally…sacrilege! Banjos. Yes…we’ve said it (twice! See above). But before you combust, dear reader, don the digital armour and delve into one of String-World’s most fabulous websites – romerobanjos.com. Jason Romero, as well as being half of a superb duo with his wife, Pharis, makes some of the most beautiful (and beautiful-sounding) instruments we’ve ever seen. To paraphrase Dorothy…this sure don’t look like Nashville. Considering Jason’s entire operation (miles from anywhere in Horsefly, British Columbia) was entirely destroyed by fire a couple of years ago, no finer phoenix has ever risen from the ashes.
See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett