Joy Spring - Nicholas Russell

Listen to the Recording:

This is a tune that I’ve wanted to play since first hearing it as a teenager. It took me 20 years to be able to even consider recording it! 

In this cut I play the song in a very ‘classic jazz’ style using two separate guitar tracks; one lead and one rhythm. Each are panned slightly to one ear in the recording. 

Recording this was an experiment in using some great digital recording tools to afford a very ‘vintage’ sound. I actually didn’t use an amplifier for this recording but instead opted to plug straight into my computer using GTR 3 by Waves to model the amps, colouring the sound quite nicely I think. 

I also mastered the track using Waves Audio Kramer Master Tape, a reel to reel plugin that emulates the distortion and warmth of a vintage tape recording - a very nice touch!

I’m hoping to record a few more tracks like this as time allows.

I hope you enjoy it!

-Nick 

Loyd Loar and the evolution of Acoustic Instruments

In the long family history of musical instruments, the guitar is really just an awkward teenager.

It does have something in common with its much older violin cousins, though: apart from going electric in the first half of the 20th century, the guitar hasn’t really changed all that much since we originally figured it out. Don’t fix something that ain’t broke, I guess.

But there were changes back in the 1920s that were so good, some think, that they could be considered the biggest step forward in the evolution of guitar.

Enter Lloyd Loar

When I think of the single most important mind in the advancement of the guitar, I think of a fellow by the name of Lloyd Loar.

Loar was the chief acoustic engineer at The Gibson Guitar Company, then called the ‘The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. of Kalamazoo’ from 1919 to 1924. During this era, Gibson had numerous traveling bands that existed to entertain, promote and represent the fine quality of their instruments. Loar was Gibson’s composer and concert master who toured with these bands; a consummate musician and charismatic performer.

As it turned out he was also a brilliant engineer. Loar presented himself to the main Gibson stockholder Lewis Williams when an opportunity for a job came up.

What Loar Did

Loar knew instrument design well and he felt he had ideas that would improve the sound and could meet the demands current players. He was hired and many think this is one of the best decisions Gibson ever made. What is now known as the ‘The Loar Era’ were some of the most defining years for Gibson in it’s entire company history.

Loar supervised the development of the legendary F5 Mandolin, the L5 Archtop Guitar and borrowed the idea of the F-hole from orchestral instruments and tastefully place it on fretted instruments.

He also encouraged an artisan quality in Gibson that seemed revitalized their brand. He recognized, like other instrument makers before him, that each piece of tone wood had unique sonic properties and that one may shape the resulting sound by doing things like tuning each top. This requires the delicate carving and shaping of each instrument’s top and braces specifically for the particular cut of wood. This type of care is only really seen on boutique guitar maker’s instruments nowadays.

The Loar Era instruments since have become nothing short of the most copied and desirable instruments the world over. They also happen to be the best sounding!

I’ve only had my hands on one Loar, a 1923 F5 Mandolin, at Folkway Music in Waterloo, Canada. It was the type of thing that had an aura of both history and quality that took your breath away. The sound was of course remarkable due to the excellent build quality and vintage. It was also neat to peak in the sound hole and see Loar’s autograph!

Loar pushed the guitar and mandolin ahead a notch in terms of their respective designs. He was a player, an acoustic engineer and an artisan. His incorporation of old-world craftsmanship into the folk instruments of the 1920’s changed the way instrument makers think about their processes and set a precedent of innovation at Gibson.

I wonder who the next Lloyd Loar will be?

The Authentically Old New Guitar

The ‘Authentically Old’ New Guitar — A brief look into the process of Torrefaction on new guitars

It’s no secret that vintage guitars are well loved among those of us in the guitar world.

We marvel over their patina [….this is the term for the oxidization that happens to guitar finish over time], the chips and blemishes, and even the smell.

We get invested in their mystery and speculate about who owned and played them. Above all of this though, we love vintage instruments because of their undeniably open, loud […yes they are pretty much all louder — the solid wood ones anyway] and resonate sound.

So the question is, why do they sound so good?

Something magical happens to solid wood instruments over time that is hard to quantify. There are chemists who can delve into the finer aspects of the aging process, but I like to call it ‘Vintage Mojo’.

The Originals

In these old beauties, where the mojo is at a maximum, all the parts of the guitar resonate cohesively and are what we refer to as being ‘open’.

The old ones, the Martins and Gibsons from the 1920s and 1930s, do have a certain something about them. They feel alive and they sound downright incredible. They also usually happen to be really, really expensive!

So can we achieve the same ‘open’ sound of a vintage guitar without having to invest the equivalent cost of new car?

New Vintage?

Some current manufacturers believe we can and are working hard on ways to fine-tune their ability to age wood and maybe even dial in a certain vintage.

This process is called torrefaction, and raises a lot of questions. What is it? Is it good? Does it really make new guitars sound old? Will it make your playing better?

Torrefaction has been used for years by many industries. Only recently have we seen it rise to prominence in mainstream guitar making as a valid way to transform the sonic properties of tonewood.

In laymen’s terms torrefaction is the cooking of tonewood at a low temperature to oxidize its sugars, resins and oils.

It makes the wood more stable than traditional kiln or air-drying processes and results in sets of tops, backs & sides that believers claim have similar sonic properties to mature pieces of wood.

“The result was unanimous that these not only sounded the best — a lot of the people thought that these were the old, original ’37s,” says Jeff Allen, Martin Custom Shop Manger, on the Vintage Tone System (Martin Journal Volume. 4).

I’ve been lucky enough to have my hands on numerous torrefied guitars from American builders like Taylor (https://www.taylorguitars.com/media/taylor-guitars-new-600-series-torrefied-spruce-top), Martin (https://www.martinguitar.com/features-materials/vintage-tone-system-vts/), Bourgeois (https://bourgeoisguitars.net/our-news/dana-bourgeois-on-torrefaction-for-acoustic-guitar/ ) and Collings (http://www.collingsguitars.com/options/acoustic-guitars/).

It seems that all of these companies are adopting the torrefaction process into their workflow.

My Assessment

I’m usually fairly skeptical about gimmicks in guitars, especially with instruments like the flat-top that hasn’t changed a lick for over 80 years and is still both relevant and popular.

But, after experiencing torrefied guitars with my own two hands, I’m a believer! When done correctly with quality wood, and for the tolerances of the specific wood type, torrefaction does seem to affect the sound in an incredible and welcoming way.

A word of caution, however; although torrefaction seems to be helping guitar buyers get that much desired vintage sound out of a new guitar, it’s really not a cure-all. A good guitar is still a good guitar whether it’s torrefied or not.

The process of finding a good instrument starts first by selecting a quality guitar that’s right for your body size, your needs, and of course one that sounds good to you! If you’re of the mind to get a new guitar that has been torrefied, take time to understand the processes your chosen company uses and become educated on how your instrument is made.

Hand Care for Guitarists

Hand Care for Practicing Guitarists

Some Thoughts and Tips

Some guitarists play ALOT. Guitarists who are studying music at post-secondary institutions are often playing in excess of 5 hours a day just to keep their chops up (it’s a surprise that the topic of hand-health isn’t included in most Canadian music programs…!) Players on the road or in gigging bands usually have a regime of individual practice time, weekly rehearsals, and then the gigs themselves. New guitarist are often working harder then any of the aforementioned people as they are still figuring things out — likely overworking their hands as they develop proper technique.

The many hours of daily playing, regardless of the particular circumstance, often result in excess stress on the finer mechanics of the tendons and muscles in our fingers, hands and forearms. My goal - and the reason for this article - is to encourage a better understanding of how to create a preventative approach so that the guitarist, novice or advanced, will avoid the problems of tendon issues and be able to keep up their daily practice schedule without injury.

Please note I am not a physiotherapist or health care professional. I speak only as an experienced guitarist who has suffered through left-arm tendon inflammation over the last few years. Through visiting doctors, physiotherapists and through educated trial-and-error I have come to be mindful of my hand health and be aware of what it takes to keep them in shape and ready to play.

Here are some thoughts I have on the topic, and also some exercises that have worked in my individual case.

Tip #1. — You have to think of playing guitar like a sport

In sports we (hopefully) take proper care to warm up and cool down. I feel that these habits are largely lost on guitarists. Some guitarists aren’t into sports — the culture of stretching, warming up and cooling down are not on the forefront of their minds before and after they play. We are often an impatient bunch and just want to get at it, too. This is not good!

We should take proper care to stretch, massage and get the blood flowingbefore playing. I am in the routine of rubbing down my entire left-arm with coconut oil and massaging it for a good 5 minutes before I practice. This seems to work well for me.

Some may not need the oil for massaging — dry ‘washing’ the hands (rubbing them back in forth in a gentle massage) has done the trick for friends of mine as has some relatively simple stretching exercises.

Often we only start to incorporate these stretching and massaging techniques after we show signs of tendonitis or other inflammatory problems in the arm. By always warming up before playing we initiate a preventative approach to hand health rather than a symptomatic one.

Tip # 2. — Develop proper practice/playing technique

Do not start playing the most demanding piece you know, digging into the strings like Stevie Ray on steroids right away. Ease into it. Start with gentle slow lines, or a scale, and gradually warm up your fingers and hand to the idea of playing. You should find that this makes your playing better, anyway. After a few minutes the lubrication that allows your tendons to move properly will be adequate and you can begin playing ‘Donna Lee’ at 300 bpm (…or whatever it is you do!).

Also, make sure your hand posture is correct. Maintaining proper arc onto the strings, playing with the tips of your fingers and also your thumb position at the back of the neck are some common issues with the left-hand, while the right hand position is of equal importance. I don’t have enough time to go into detail on this, but any decent guitar instructor should be able to help you with hand posture while playing. There is likely some reasonable material online about it, too.

Tip # 3. Take breaks!

Enough said. You should take breaks every once in awhile when practicing. This allows your hands to just relax. It’s good for the mind, too. I try to take a break every half-hour or so.

Tip # 4. Be aware of what you do outside of your playing routine

Activities like typing or texting trigger many of the same movements that guitar playing does. It is good to be aware of the use your hand is getting in similar ways to that which it does while playing guitar.

More now than ever we are demanding additional use of our fingers and thumbs with digital devices. This is very taxing on the physiology of the fingers and on top of a rigorous practice routine it makes for very exhausted hands.

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If you are experiencing problems with either of your hands — go see someone. It’s worth it — there are many sport doctors and musician-specific physiotherapists that know this stuff extremely well and can help you out.

They may recommend you lift a small weight to build up tendon strength, or they may recommend you stop playing for awhile.

In my case, stopping playing was not an option as I make a living from the guitar. What I did do, however, was stop practicing for almost a year and take 2 months off playing. I also had to be very cautious and be conscious of when my hand was over-exerted.

My hand issues, though now fairly manageable, are long lasting. I am still dealing with scar tissue that irritates the tendons in my left arm as I play. To help with this I have been on a strict diet of electric guitar - with low action and slinky strings. This has helped quite alot.

Sometimes even switching your posture while playing/practicing can subtly orientate the position of your hand and ease some tension. For example, If you play a steel string with a strap and are having problems, try sitting classical style.

Taking care of the hands is a very important aspect of what we do. It is also easy to forget to do! Good Luck!

Happy Strummin’,

Nick