Sunday, October 30, 2016

Professional Grade Acoustic Flat Top Guitars For Flatpickers

An Introduction To The Elements of Fine "Flat Tops."

I should start this off by naming what I mean by high end, when I talk about high end acoustic guitars, get your wallet out, I'm starting at about $1,500.00 new. It's true, you can get a great guitar for less, but you'll only get one at the level of quality which I shall discuss "used"-should you spend less. No worries there, used instruments are often broken in, and this increases the quality of their sound, and thus the enjoyment for the player.

Second, just what on Earth is a flatpicker, and what is flatpicking? Simple, a flatpicker is someone who plays melodies on an acoustic guitar with a pick, plectrum, or whatever you wish to call it. Flatpicking, however, can be done with any music you desire. Typically, flatpicking is associated with folk, bluegrass, traditional Appalachian, jazz, and public domain music

For all intents and practical purposes, flatpicking is most often done using a dreadnought guitar, though there is absolutely no reason why it can not be done on a guitar of any size. Not only is it typically done on a dreadnought, it is typically done on an acoustic guitar with the standard fourteen frets on the neck of the guitar clear of the body. Great guitars also come designed with just twelve frets clear of the body, and great flatpickers sometimes prefer this design. Norman Blake, in particular, has become in later years the prominent flatpicker who chooses this design over the standard.

The Martin D 16 and the Ovation Adamas are Both High End Acoustics That Flatpickers Play.


The Classic Headstock of C.F. Martin Flat Tops, a Stradivarius Violin, and The Author with his fine Santa Cruz Model "D"

A common headstock of a Martin guitar, which is usually a very uncommon instrument of great value.
A common headstock of a Martin guitar, which is usually a very uncommon instrument of great value.
Violinist David Garett with a Stradivarius violin
Violinist David Garett with a Stradivarius violin

C.F. Martin & Co.

Though it can't be helped, it's my intention here to discuss guitars, and not so much guitarist, and believe me, I'll let you know my preferences-but any discussion of high end acoustics should start with C.F. Martin & Co. The Martin guitar company is the benchmark by which all others are measured, and most likely, this will always be the case. I've heard it said that the Martin Guitar Company is the oldest company in the United States of America. I'm not certain if that is true, or not, but I assume that it is.

There are some more important historical details that should be shared here concerning Martin Guitars, and they are significant in many different ways. First and foremost the Martin guitars produced before World War Two are widely considered the finest flatpicking instruments in the world, and their value reaches as high as the consumer's desire and ability to spend. These are bound to be exceptional instruments in every way, and the legend of these guitars has nearly reached the legend of Stradivarius n regards to the violin.
"Man, that guitar sounds amazing! Is that a pre-war?"

I'd heard this comment directed towards ME, of all people, as I entertained a family at the Walnut Valley Festival years ago-out in the campground, and cold beer was my pay.
"No sir, mine is a Santa Cruz," I'd replied.

But lets get to the not so perfect facts about the Martin Guitar Company: Martin offers a lifetime warranty to anyone who purchases one of their guitars new, and this warranty is only for the original owner. That sounds great, right? Well, fine guitars are fragile things, and wood has to vibrate in order to produce sound. Over time Martin began to build their guitars sturdier. .. .and this caused them to loose the quality of sound that they were known for. No worries, in more recent years Martin realized their error, and completely turned production around. I'm not sure of the dates when their guitars were in decline, nor the date on which they began to make them wonderful again. Even if I were intimate enough with the details to provide those dates for you, I wouldn't. Why? Because every single guitar ever made is unique, and no two guitars are equal. A guitar built during Martin's less than stellar years may well be better than a specific comparable guitar from earlier, or more recent years. In the aftermath, another thing that's happened is that now fine acoustic guitars are being produced by so very many luthiers that we are now in what I consider "the golden age" of guitar production.

Gibson Acoustic Flat Top Guitars, and a Walnut Valley Flatpicking Champion!

The Gibson Guitar Company

The Gibson guitar company is another fine old American company that makes high end acoustic guitars. It is my opinion and my experience that these guitars are not nearly on the same level as a comparable guitar made by C.F. Marin & Co. Please don't yell at me, and put your pistol away, please-you are making me nervous. Gibson guitars are fine guitars, they hold great value, and are very visible on CMT, etc; that, however doesn't make them great guitars for flatpicking. Three times in my life I've been lucky enough to visit the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. Often times, this festival is referred to simply as "Winfield." At the festival, which falls on the third weekend of September every year, they hold the WORLD contest for flatpicking, and should you go to see this amazing spectacle, then you'll not see a viable contestant playing one single Gibson guitar.

 The top three winners in that contest gets their pick, first gets first pick, obviously, of the fine, high end guitars that they've got for prizes; and none of those will be Gibson guitars either. The guitars aren't the extent of the prize though. Gibson, however, is far and away a great guitar company, and one that leads the pack in the production of fine, high end, electric guitars, such as the Les Paul, and the SG. The second guitar that I ever owned was a small Gibson that fit my small frame then-and rest assured, I loved it. I tend to think that the Gibson acoustics are voiced more for fingerpicking, and strumming. Think of Jimmy Page playing "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," from Led Zeppelin I

Some of the many tonewoods used for Flat Top Acoustic Guitars!


So what is it that makes a guitar special, or at least, what makes a guitar a studio or contest quality guitar for flatpicking? Primarily, there are two things that are always present in these types of instruments. Great, solid tonewoods, and the way in which the guitar is built. Perhaps you've never once considered the wood with which a guitar is constructed. The wood, my friend, makes the guitar almost as much as the luthier who built it. There are too many great tonewoods for me to mention in the ideal sized hub, so I'm going to stick to the basics. Maybe another time I'll delve into the alternative tonewoods that are becoming increasingly common due to the deforestation we've wrought with our greed and stupidity.

For the ideal flatpicking guitar you'll always be dealing with a solid spruce soundboard. Great guitars are always constructed with solid wood, and though not all great guitars have solid spruce soundboards, all great flatpickers use guitars with solid spruce tops. Why? Spruce, SOLID spruce soundboards project notes louder and clearer than any other wood used. Cedar is sometimes used as a soundboard for fine acoustic guitars-but cedar is often "over-driven" by the heavy attack that a flatpicker uses with his or her pick, and this distorts the sound, and makes cedar a wood more associated with fingerpicking, and fingerpickers.
The solid spruce soundboard, as hopefully I've stressed enough here, is the most important feature in any guitar that will be used for flatpicking. There are many different kinds of spruce though, and there are many different opinions as to which one of them is superior. Generally speaking, Adirondack spruce is the favorite, and, of course, the most expensive. My Santa Cruz guitar that you see me playing at top has a much more common breed of spruce used as it's soundboard, Sitka spruce. What's uncommon about my beautiful and rare Santa Cruz is the wood used for it's back and sides, which is Brazilian Rosewood.

So obviously, what comes next, since we know that great sounding guitars are made from great, solid tonewoods, is the type of woods used in the construction of the back and sides of these instruments. Typically, these guitars are going to be made from either a kind of Rosewood, or one of Rosewood's cousins, or Mahogany. These great tonewoods have very different properties, but before I get into that, I'll say a little bit about Rosewood. Brazilian Rosewood, as I understand it, is illegal now to either import or export, because it's an endangered species of tree. The physical beauty of Brazilian Rosewood is beyond question, and the specific tone that it ads to an instrument is dark, rich, and down right mysterious. Brazilian Rosewood guitars are still being made, but brothers and sisters, you'll have to dig deep to buy one. These guitars usually START at around $5,000.00. Do not fear or fret(unless you're fretting a note, of course!) you can still own a great rosewood guitar because Indian Rosewood is very much available.

 As previously stated, Mahogany is the other top choice for fine flatpicked guitars, and Mahogany offers a much "brighter" more immediate tonality than does Rosewood of any kind. Mahogany, it seems should be the type of wood that a picker would prefer, and Rosewood the ideal wood for a rhythm guitar. I can explain all of that-the preference for Rosewood guitars lies completely at the hands of the great Tony Rice, and his ownership of an amazing guitar, that was once owned by the late, great Clarence White. The legend of this pre-war Martin D-28, and it's sound has made flatpickers everywhere a little bit goofy when it comes to their spending habits. yes, I'm a hypocrite, I'm broke, and my Brazilian Rosewood Santa Cruz will never, ever be for sale.

I'm nearly the place where I find that word count is critical, and so I'll wind down by stating that should you have a solid spruce top, and either solid Rosewood, or Mahogany as the back and sides to your guitar, or one you're considering buying-then rest assured, all other aspects of this instrument will typically be "spot on," and great specs for playing. I should also mention that Mahogany too has "cousins" that make fine, less expensive tonewoods, My benchmark for the low end of this type of guitar is made by Taylor Guitars, and it's back and sides are of a Mahogany cousin.

In conclusion, never, ever forget guitars made of solid woods, not laminates are your fine, heirloom type instruments. I think I'll simply have to follow this thing up with more information, and specifics about some other significant brands and models. Thank you for reading, and should you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me with them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Gibson J-45 Acoustic Guitar - An American Classic

A Beautiful Sunburst Gibson J-45

Gibson's J-45 is a historic guitar

Since the 1930s the United States of America has been THE nation where the finest guitars were created on the planet Earth. The USA exports a lot of musical instruments, it's probably a hard fact most of them are guitars. Gibson guitars are equally famous and renowned across the world as are C.F. Martin & Company guitars, but Gibson also is famous for making electric guitars, and not just acoustic ones. Despite the political machinations of rogue tyrants who hate the populace and the economy of a nation, Obama is no match for Gibson guitars. Mr. Obama has nothing to offer us, Gibson guitars does.

Gibson makes wonderful guitars, and I've owned one in the past, and should I become a more fortunate man, I'll own one again. One of the very most famous guitars in the entire world is the Gibson J-45. Gibson claims it's J-200 is THE most famous guitar in the world, and it's surely recognizable and supremely desirable, but in my mind, the J-45 is its equal. Wikipedia has a nice page about the Gibson J-45, and on the page the claim is made that "generally," this is Gibson's most famous guitar.

A 1958 Gibson J-45

The J-45 is one of the most well known and desired dreadnought guitars in the world

The J-45 is a round shouldered dreadnought. Gibson chose to call these instruments "J" for jumbo, instead of "D" for dreadnought, they're designed specifically to compete with C.F. Martin & Company's D line of instruments. The J-45 was created to replace the J-35. I've no idea why the people at Gibson would think the wonderful J-35 needed replacing, and in recent years Gibson has also re-introduced the J-35 guitar.
The J-45 was given the title by the manufacturer, "the workhorse guitar." That's what it is, it is a no frills guitar, it's not fancy, but it's an all solid wood dreadnought; built of mahogany back and sides, and spruce top. For that reason, and it's general size, the guitar is the Gibson version of the Martin D-18,but there's more to it than that, isn't there?

The J-45 is legendary for nearly always being a sunburst guitar, having a sunburst finish on the top. Now there have been persons who will say the sunburst finish serves to hide the less than wonderful spruce soundboard's flaws, and sure, a sunburst finish could do just that. We are talking Gibson guitars though, they're world renowned, and the J-45 is possibly their most purchased acoustic guitar. I assure you Gibson wants you to love your J-45, they're pretty unlikely to be putting a bad top on a J-45. It simply wouldn't make sense for them to do that, they've got a reputation to maintain. In any event, shoppers should always play a bit on several instruments before deciding upon one. You also definitely CAN find J-45's with natural finished tops, those are just one letter different on the model number, as they are called "J-45N's."

A J-45 Custom with natural finish

Gibson J-35, J-45N, and J-50 Guitars

The interested buyer can always have his J-45 customized, custom built. The natural finish J-45 above is just such an instrument. In fact, the J-45 above has rosewood back and sides rather than mahogany, and it's got a few more custom details too. In the case of one with a natural finish and a rosewood body, one wonders should it not be called something else entirely; but it does fit the J-45 body build, scale and other specifications, bracing and such is the same. That one is priced at $2,775 and is also acoustic electric. You can most certainly have a J-45 with L.R. Baggs Element Active Acoustic Pickup System included.

Regarding the Gibson J-50, well, it's just a J-45 with a natural finish and a few differences in the binding used, which are very minor cosmetic details. So the facts of the matter are, the J-35, J-45, and J-50 are all nearly the exact same instrument. First came the J-35, which was then replaced and discontinued by the J-45 which had a sunburst top. The J-50 came later, but is not currently in production, and like the J-45N of old, is a very rare sort of instrument to find for sale or to own. The J-35 has been reintroduced. I hope that makes sense to everyone.

A 1970 Gibson J-50

J-45 guitars and various species of spruce as the guitar's soundboard

Now in this day and age of lots of choices in guitars, there's literally the perfect guitar out therefore everyone. It's a matter of experimentation to know what specific guitar fits your hands the best, your ears the best, and your budget. Great guitars generally cost some real dollars, but the reason for that is they're truly fine works of art in and of themselves, and they're built to allow the owner or player to create works of art, and then to be passed down to the next generation.

There are all sorts of things that go into guitar building which affect the play-ability and tonality of a guitar. Some of the most respected builders in the industry will tell you the type of wood used as the top or soundboard of the guitar is the single biggest factor in how the guitar sounds. Now, there is no "this wood is best," and the reason there can't be a "best" is because no two guitarist play the same way. If you are a heavy handed picker then you could probably say red spruce is the best; but if you are a fingerstyle player or a soft handed picker, then you may very much prefer cedar tops to spruce tops, or Engelmann spruce to either sitka or Adirondack

So there is the J-45 True Vintage model, and what is that? Well, it's made to exact specifications as were the very first J-45 guitars. Modern J-45's will generally have a sitka spruce top, there's nothing at all wrong with sitka, but a very good board of red spruce, which is otherwise known as Adirondack spruce, is likely to be a better soundboard for some very specific reasons having to do with the species of trees and their properties. The True Vintage J-45 has the red spruce top, and so it cost a bit more. They sell those at about three thousand dollars.

A Gibson J-45 True Vintage (Red spruce top)

Again, Gibson guitars are a time tested legend in guitar making. It's absolutely embarrassing as a nation we have at present a president who would literally have Gibson raided for Gibson donating to the Romney campaign, but that's what happened. Gibson guitars absolutely exists for their having made such fine guitars that they're literally always in demand, another thing is, they aim to please by always having so many options there will literally be a Gibson guitar which suits your very specific needs and desires.

Tonewoods are a huge deal in the guitar world, and exciting new tonewoods and combinations of woods are becoming increasingly common. There's just a lot of choices out there, and among the choices now available are the Gibson J-45 with Hawaiian Koa wood for it's solid back and sides. I've even seen natural top J-45's with Koa back and sides.

Gibson J-45 Custom with Koa body and herringbone trim!

Like mahogany, Koa is a wood which also can be used for not just bodies, but also tops or soundboards. Among the least traditional Gibson J-45 guitars you'll likely not see but are out there to be seen, is the J-45 with not just a Koa body, but also a Koa top. I've never seen such a guitar, but they are there to be seen and for sale online. I've personally never got to play a guitar with a Koa top, but I have got to pick and strum a bit on some Koa bodied instruments. It's a fine and beautiful wood, and is becoming more common, especially when used as back and sides of fine acoustic guitars.

A Gibson J-45 Custom with Koa body and top.

John Hiatt and His Gibson J-45

John Hiatt and the Gibson J-45

Over the many years of the Gibson J-45, many a well known and loved artist has used the Gibson workhorse guitar as their instrument during recordings and live performances. Bob Dylan as played the J-45, Buddy Holly played a J-45, and nowadays John Hiatt has his own model of J-45, and the J-45 John Hiatt is available right now. John Hiatt prefers a sitka spruce top, and so the J-45 John Hiatt has that soundboard, a solid "modified V" mahogany neck (one piece), Madagascar rosewood fingerboard, advanced X scalloped bracing, Fishman Ellipse matrix blend and preamp system, a bone nut and Tusq saddle.

The John Hiatt J-45 also has a triple-burst finish, a fancier double ring rosette, and a John Hiatt signature engraved on the truss rod cover. Gibson is only making 100 of these John Hiatt J-45's, so if you want one of those, you are really going to need to plan for it. I'm pricing the John Hiatt J-45 at $4,515 on the web.

Bob Dylan playing a Gibson J-45

J-45 standard specifications

The Gibson J-45 standard is the modern J-45 which is the real workhorse guitar for every day players and/or performers. it's a solid mahogany body, classic specs, but with a sitka spruce top. You can purchase a J-45 with or without electronics, and rather obviously the electronics change the price tag a little bit. Other specifications are as follows:
  • Binding is 4-ply top, single-ply back
  • The neck is mahogany
  • Scale length is 24-3/4"
  • Round neck profile
  • Rosewood fingerboard or fretboard
  • MOP dots as fretboard positioning markers
  • Neck width at the nut is 1.725"
  • Traditional Gibson Rosewood Bridge
  • MOP dot bridge inlay
  • White bridge pins
  • Nickel Grovers tuning machines
  • Tortoise teardrop pick guard
Of course this fine guitar also comes with a wonderful hard shell case, and a limited lifetime warranty from Gibson to the original owner. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Outlaw Music - The Grateful Dead

The Music of The Grateful Dead

I've always loved the music of The Grateful Dead. I recall running around with my grandfather at a young age, and at the Canton, Texas flea market, First Monday, we'd happened into a booth where there were some musical instruments to look at, and things everywhere that had something about something called The Grateful Dead on it on everything. I had to ask someone what it was, and I was told that it was a rock and roll band.
I have to admit that I was mostly a metal head at that early age. I saw those cool skulls and stuff, and thought that The Grateful Dead must be some kind of heavy metal band. I couldn't wait to hear my first Grateful Dead tune. Boy, was I ever disappointed!

The Grateful Dead


Folk Rock, Sinners, and False Saints.

The Grateful Dead performed anything but metal. They are masters of American Folk Rock, and so much more. The Grateful Dead along with others like Gram Parsons, and his Flying Burrito Brothers, and the later stages of The Byrds, performed American Cosmic music, which melded folk, rock, and storytelling into a high art that hasn't been approached since the mid 1970's.
But there is so much more to The Grateful Dead than any of that. The Grateful Dead pioneered not just new themes in music in an age of change in America. They pioneered new concepts of how a band relates to it's audience. They interacted with their audience in a way that had never been done before.
What the Grateful dead did better than anyone not named Johnny Cash, however, was perform songs about unsavory sorts of persons - all out Outlaws, if you will. Murderers, Thieves, Womanizers, Drug Dealers, and more. It's a tremendous slap in the face of those that are forever trying to pretend as if they do not indulge in any sort of "sin" that we Grateful Dead lovers are able to live out the parts of our lives that we don't present to corporate America through their music.
Life is full of ups and downs, and anyone who tries to pretend that everything they do or ever did was on the up and up - is simply a liar.

The Grateful Dead


Modern America, Outlaws, and The Grateful Dead.

Admit it, if you live in the United States of America - you live in a police state run by oligarchs through their corporate fascist system that they've created. The ethnic monopoly that controls the entire mass media has instilled some sort of meme in order to make every single person that is exposed to their lies, garbage, and subtle manipulations, feel as though they are guilty of something.
You see - not feeling guilty for what we are all charged of makes us want to speak our minds in opposition to what they imply that we deserve their derision for.
In a land where the Department of Homeland Insecurity finds that support of the United States Constitution and it's citizens Bill of Rights is reason enough to investigate a person under the malignant and false pre tense of being a "domestic terrorist" for such - the common man, the thinking man, and any non conformist to corporate media memes is now the target, the "outlaw," if you will. Corporations like Monsanto - a corporation that has never produced any product that a human being can safely be exposed to - is pushing to make it illegal for you to even grow your own vegetables. They rely upon your ignorance and your willing compliance. Do not give them what they do not own, and do not deserve.
Get your Grateful Dead on!
We no longer have our government. The tail is wagging the dog. We are all outlaws in a world where the oligarchs seek only two classes of people - 1. them, and 2. US.
We can only live on, and preserve our traditions, tune out their contrived and plotted confusions, social divisions, and guilt. We must form our own networks of information, and our own communities of barter and trade - totally eliminating any middlemen that use the fruits of OUR labor to support fascist murders of lands and the rape of resources and persons overseas - so that THEY can become more wealthy, and the divide made much greater between our means, and theirs.
The mass media sells fear, but the righteous go as boldly as lions. We will not conform to their slave class, no "overman" will exists in the elite class/ slave class world. There will only be elites, slaves, and outlaws.

Grateful Dead Memorabilia

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