David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: preferences, opinion, @musings info

My, what a strange rig you have

"My, you have a strange guitar rig." No one has (yet) said that about my guitar gear as a whole, although I've had plenty of similar comments regarding individual aspects.

Most recently, a string guru commented on my "strange" choice of custom-gauge strings, saying that they must be very unbalanced. Even the manufacturer of my strings, D'Addario, had something on their web site about how balanced-tension sets (my custom gauge set is based on balancing the tension of all six strings) sounded "awful".

I've been using my custom-gauge sets (9.5, 13, 18 [wound], 24, 32, 44) on all my guitars for four years now. I discovered this "strange" and "awful" combination of gauges after six months of experimentation, changing string sizes and formulations every two weeks on five different guitars. I have several complaints with the usual sets of packaged strings:

  1. The high strings are too floppy, while the low strings are too stiff. Great, I suppose, if you like to play leads with lots of bends on the top three strings, or slam out rhythm chords with a pick. Nothing wrong with that - it's rock 'n roll, after all. Slinky, unwound upper strings make bending easier, while the heavy lower strings keep your low notes from sounding sharp if you attack the strings ferociously. Heck, some string manufacturers even emphasize the difference between high and low strings by selling sets with extra-heavy bass strings.
  2. The unwound G string "clangs". That's what it sounds like to me, anyway... But players love the unwound G because they can easily do bends of a step-and-a-half or even two full steps. So the "correctness" of the unwound G has passed into the realm of "common knowledge".
  3. The tonal balance is weighted toward the bass stings. The bass strings have a wider cross-section moving through the pickup's magnetic field, which - all other things being equal - means more output from the pickups. If you know your physics, you'll know that all other things are not equal. The lower frequency strings vibrate slower (less output) and at a higher amplitude (more output) than the higher strings. You could do the math if you were so inclined. My ears told me that my guitars sounded bass-heavy with standard gauge strings.

A balanced-tension set with a wound G corrects all three problems. Bends feel and behave the same across the fingerboard. The wound G doesn't clang. And the low strings don't overpower the high strings.

Moving along to the amp... I have a few that I use regularly. My favorite is a Fender Vibro-King. Some players (like me) love 'em for what they are. Others, mostly Fender traditionalists, call the Vibro-King a "buzz box" because it doesn't have the scooped mids and clean headroom of a post-1960 Fender amp.

For me, the Vibro-King works well. I have a lot of dynamics in my playing. The amp cleans up beautifully with a light touch on the strings, yet snarls and growls with a heavier touch. No distortion pedals needed unless I want a saturated, Santana-style lead tone. (I rarely do, preferring instead the ability to retain dynamics while using feedback for sustain.)

That's another thing. No pedals, most of the time. No, I'm not a blues purist. Far from it. I prefer the unaltered sound of the guitar (except for amp reverb). Delay effects blur timing, while modulation effects have a fixed, boring repetitive cycle. Wah can be nice - sometimes - for tone shaping. And a volume pedal can be handy for extra control over dynamics. Mostly I use the amp and guitar controls and playing technique to change my guitar's sound.

Guitars are not as easy to change as strings, amps, effects... Yes, you can change pickups, bridge, nut, tuners, frets, color... all the (relatively) easy things. And you can choose from a wide range of body styles - more so for solid body guitars. But guitar makers - particularly the larger ones - stick with popular aesthetics and simple construction. If you want something else, you have to commission a luthier, tell him what you want, wait a long time, and hope you were right.

I commissioned a custom guitar, and it worked out well for me. I wanted a guitar that would let me get controlled feedback at lower volumes (small-club stage volumes) with a low-gain amp. I can't do that with a solid body guitar, or even a typical semi-hollow guitar. Full-hollowbody guitars go too far the other way - they're too lively. The construction of my Koll custom guitar combines elements of a semi-hollow and true hollowbody guitar.

Most guitarists want to eliminate feedback. I want to be able to (and can, with my Koll) get controlled feedback at the volumes I normally play. Odd? It really depends upon your perspective...

The important thing to me is getting what I want - sound and feel - from my guitar rig. That's no different from you or any other guitarist. I spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for me. Sure, some elements of my rig are "odd"... But it works.

June 13 2004 22:54:19 GMT