What I Did This Summer

Summer activities have severely eaten into my practice schedule and, to a greater extent, my blogging time. But lessons and practice do go on.

Over the last weeks and months I have been working with John on some fingerstyle bossa nova rhythm. Mostly, but not exclusively, the changes to “The Girl From Ipanema.”  Although I’m a big fan of the song, and of bossa nova music in general, the real intent here is to build up my dexterity with unfamiliar changes and to increase my chord vocabulary. After all these years of playing essentially the same…what, maybe 40 or so?…chords over and over, I am completely astounded to rediscover what a difficult thing it is to learn new chords, chord shapes, and progressions.

Along with that, I’ve been working on reading the (Ipanema) melody line as written in my song book. I emphasize “as written” because the timing presented in the lead sheet is a bit more unconventional than anything I’ve been reading thus far, and it also doesn’t necessarily match any of the vocal renditions I’m familiar with. Of course I don’t want to be a slave to the written page, but as with the chord changes, I’m considering this to be less about learning the song per sé, and more as an exercise in learning to read and count.

As we’re covering this, John is explaining a lot about the theory behind the music; how certain structures and specific voicings work together, what other options there might be for different transitions, how those options affect the mood or the feel or even the melody itself. In all honesty, the biggest part of all this information is still quite a bit over my head, and I only comprehend the smallest, most basic concepts. But every time these discussions take place, a little more of it falls into place in my head.

Most recently we’ve returned to Bill Leavitt’s Modern Method books. Book Two, page 60 to be exact: “Position Playing.” John tells me this is “where the training wheels come off.” So far I’m only working on the first two pages, but the challenges are already obvious to me. Baby steps….

Out of it all, though, some things shine through in perfect clarity:

-Building my chord vocabulary and practicing chord solos John has written for me has very definitely helped me to feel more confident about playing up and down the neck. My knowledge of the fingerboard is still seriously lacking, but it’s clear to me that I’m continuing to make progress and that the territory above the fifth fret is not the no-man’s-land I’ve always thought it was.

-My reading skills have greatly improved. When I started lessons, I knew next to nothing about relating standard notation to the fretboard. Now I’ve reached a point where recently, as I was reading through some tablature, I noticed that I had switched to reading the notation without realizing it. To be sure, I’ve got a long way to go as a reader. But again, obvious progress has been made.

-Working with the scales, exercises, etudes, etc., on a regular basis, with established goals and focused intent, has opened a new awareness  for me in regards to my attention to fundamentals. Concentrating on this work has made me realize how lackadaisical I’ve been in the past with my accuracy, and how little attention I’ve paid to tone.

-Making the time for daily practice continues to be my biggest challenge in this whole endeavor. Too often I’m not able to strike the balance and fit everything in. But I just keep doing what I can….

Hot Fun in the Summer Time

At the beginning of August my wife Suzy and I attended the Newport Folk Festival for our first time, joining in the celebration of it’s 50th Anniversary. I suppose it’s only tangentially related to the topics of this blog, but it was such an enjoyable musical experience that it made me want to jot a few lines just to mark the occasion.

The festival is held in the Fort Adams State Park, where essentially the entire venue is surrounded by water. Boats are sailing by both far and near, many pulling up just off the shore to drift and listen to the music from the main stage. It was a blazing hot weekend, but the venue was so gorgeous and the festival was so good there could be no cause for complaint.

In purely logistical terms, it was easily the most manageable outdoor festival we’ve ever attended. The crowd was large, but not overwhelming. The three stages were far enough away from each other that there was no discernable noise interference between them. Yet they were close enough together to make for very quick and easy maneuvering back and forth to catch the all the acts you might want to see. And three stages was just the right number; enough to offer a variety of performers at all times, but not so much that you got the nagging feeling (a la Merlefest in NC) that you were always missing something important somewhere else.

Most importantly, of course, the 50th Anniversary lineup of performers was excellent: Legends and festival icons like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Musicians of all kinds from across the decades: Iron & Wine, Mavis Staples, Del McCoury, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Neko Case, Guy Clark…. Practically every name on the list was an act we wanted to see, and none disappointed.

NOTE: All performances from this year’s festival are available for listening and/or downloading on NPR’s website. I would especially recommend the sets by Gillian Welch, Iron & Wine, Billy Bragg (beware curse words and political veiws), Guy Clark, and David Rawlings Machine (whose cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ was a standout of the whole festival for me).

This was also our first time to visit the town of Newport (and the state of Rhode Island, for that matter), and we loved it. Our B&B, the Spring Street Inn, was pleasant and very comfy, and was conveniently situated just down the block from an excellent coffee shop called Spring Street Espresso. A very short walk toward the harbor was the main drag of interesting restaurants and shops on Thames Street. Basically everything we could want, all within an easy few minutes’ walk in any given direction.

Simply put, we enjoyed everything about the trip. So much so, in fact, that we’ve already booked the same room for next year.

A Closer Look

As I write this, it’s almost exactly three weeks since I received my first custom hand-built guitar, Ken Miller #139. Having followed its development closely throughout the build, even to the extent of traveling to Florida to visit Ken’s shop, I had every reason to believe that I would be extremely pleased with the results. But however high my expectations, I was completely unprepared for what a wonderful instrument it turned out to be. Having had some time now to get to know her a bit, I’m taking time to write down some of my impressions. I’m also adding a few more photos.

First, this guitar is simply gorgeous to look at. Although it doesn’t show especially well in these pictures, the Adirondack spruce top has a tight grain interspersed with subtle bear claw figuring, with more prominent figuring across the lower bout.

click any photo for a larger image
click any photo for a larger image

Equally subtle are the blue-green hues of the abalone rosette.

These somewhat understated features are contrasted against the powerful visual statement made by the back and sides. Fashioned from the highly figured quilted Honduran mahogany of “The Tree,” they can be almost dizzying to look at.

The bindings throughout, as well as the armrest bevel and the headstock veneer, are of Brazilian rosewood. Wooden purflings are teal and black. This photo also shows some of the bear claw figuring in the spruce top.

The fingerboard is ebony bound by Brazilian, with stainless steel frets. At the twelfth fret, more abalone inlay: the Tibetan word for “karma.”

Karma

But of course the true measure of any instrument is how well it performs, and here is where #139 really shines. The fingerboard is extremely easy and the set-up is great. This combined with it’s light weight make it a very comfortable guitar to play, made even moreso by the armrest bevel.

Most impressive of all, though (saving the best for last), is the sound. I’ve played many, many guitars over the years, and recently tried out many more before I began working with Ken. It is not an overstatement to say that none of them matched #139 for tone. All my life I’ve heard guitarists say a given guitar “rings like a bell,” and now I know what they mean. The trebles here are clean and bright, and the mids full and rich. The bass has a woody, robust complexity without any sacrifice in tonal clarity. Across the entire fretboard the guitar responds to the lightest touch with wonderful tone and tremendous volume and sustain.

If it is not already obvious, I will state it plainly: I don’t believe I could be any more pleased with or excited about a guitar than I am with #139.

Here At Last!

This morning at 11:30 I brought her out of the box, and I’ve hardly taken my hands off of her since. Ken Miller #139 has finally arrived! I did take a few minutes for some pictures:

 

Click Any Image for Larger Photo
Click Any Image for Larger Photo

The Back

And it sounds every bit as good as it looks! I’ll write more at some point when I can bear to stop playing it for awhile.

Four Little Words

After Sunday night’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as we were getting ready to hit the hay, I took a minute to check my email. There it was, the email I had been waiting for, really, since sometime in August of last year. The first sentence of Ken’s latest message:

“Your guitar is done.”

It made me laugh out loud. I had the urge to make Suzy come in the room and read it, maybe to verify that it actually said what I thought it said. But instead I just yelled into the other room and read it to her.

In the remainder of the message, Ken said it looks, plays and sounds good, and that he’ll ship it out on Friday for a Monday delivery. So…here it comes! The wait is almost over.

Closer and Closer

Sunday night I received a few more pictures from the Millers. Ken had started varnishing the guitar last week, and here was a peek at the results so far. I’m not completely sure how long the entire varnishing process takes, or how long it has to dry or cure. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that we’re moving nicely into the final stages of the build, and I’ll soon be playing my new guitar. Take a look.

The Adirondack spruce top, showing the beveled armrest (lower right):

click any image for larger pictures
click any image for larger pictures

The Honduran mahogany back, made from ‘The Tree’:

The Brazilian rosewood peghead, and a peek at the mahogany sides:

Another shot of the back:

At the 12th fret, shell inlay of a Tibetan word meaning “karma”:

Even in uncompleted pieces, it’s beautiful. I can hardly wait.

New Interview with Ken Miller

Fellow blogger and FLATPICK_L list member ‘GoodAcoustics’ recently published an interview with Ken Miller. It covers how Ken got into building, his thoughts on materials and methods, and his ideas about how his instruments compare to others. Interesting, informative, and concise. Check it out at GuitarBench.Com.

Injury Update

Regular readers may recall that I developed an elbow problem a couple of months ago. At the time I attributed it to playing my guitar for an extended period during a home recording session, based on my experience since then I remain convinced that this is the case. Playing guitar seems to be the only activity that affects the condition, and any subtle changes I have made in regard to playing position, length of practice/playing sessions, and even the music I’m playing, will cause some change in the condition. As I said when I originally wrote about it, I determined to treat the problem by playing in shorter time increments and paying strict attention to playing posture. I also have made a point to wrap the elbow in an ACE bandage, especially when sleeping.

VERY slowly, but surely, all this seems to have paid off. Since that initial injury, this morning is the first time I have absolutely no stiffness or soreness in the elbow. In my mind I keep expecting to feel a twinge when, say, I pick up the milk jug for my cereal, or pull my t-shirt over my head. But so far, nothing.

I’ll continue the wrapping and the short practice sessions for some time to come, because I feel sure if I’m not watchful the condition will return. But today at least, I feel like nothing ever happened.

Thinking about all this lately, something interesting occurred to me. While I was in Florida visiting the Millers, we all played music together for a fairly long time on Saturday night. On Sunday, though, my arm didn’t feel any worse than it had on Saturday. So now I’m wondering if perhaps the neck profile on the Miller guitars, which is considerably thinner than on my D-28, might have been a factor. Of course there are all sorts of variables involved, but if I’m still having discomfort when the new guitar arrives it will be interesting to see if I can tell any difference in how each affects my problem.

Moving Right Along

This week I got an update from Virginia and a few new pictures. I suppose once work gets under way on a project like this, things progress rather quickly.

For starters, the back bracing has been shaped:

click any picture for larger images

The top and sides, last seen in the gluing process, are dry and ready for the next step. These images also give you a good look at the unkerfed linings:

And the back has been glued and weighted:

According to the email, the guitar body is now out of the forms altogether, and ready to be routed for the bindings. Also, Ken will soon be starting work on the neck.

Can’t you just feel my suspense building?

Good Times

Well, the time finally arrived. Last Friday morning Suzy dropped me at the airport and I headed down to Tallahassee to visit Ken and Virginia Miller. Due to a delay during my layover in Atlanta I arrived in Florida roughly an hour later than planned, but otherwise the trip was smooth and uneventful. Ken was waiting for me in the terminal, and after just a few minutes’ ride I was standing in his shop staring at the makings of my new guitar. Too cool. We chatted about it briefly, and the Ken showed me around the house and to the guestroom, where I unloaded my stuff and settled in a bit. Then it was right back out to the shop for a closer look.

I’d received an email just a few days prior saying that the side bending was done, and that was the first piece I saw. Made of highly-figured mahogany from ‘The Tree,’ the sides were now pieced together in a jig:

click any picture for larger images

Next, he showed me the top. The bracing:

The face:

The shell rosette:

The back is made from the same mahogany as the sides:

The back bracing is in place, but not yet trimmed or shaped. The center stripe support is also made from ‘The Tree’:

Ken and I chatted about the build, and guitars in general until time to start the grill for dinner. It was sprinkling rain outside, but we stood around on the screened in “pickin’ porch” and got to know each other a bit while we waited for the coals to catch out on the deck. Soon Virginia arrived from work, and joined the conversation. Before long, there was grilled chicken, baked sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli on the table, and we washed it all down with fresh brewed iced tea. (Why can’t I ever remember to make iced tea at home?) Delicious.

After dinner we all made our way back into the shop, where Ken pulled out a large storage container filled with small panels of rosewood. He grabbed a clear plastic headstock form, and I was able to dig through the woods and pick out my own piece for the headstock veneer:

We also looked over the fingerboard and bridge pieces:

To cap off the evening, we each grabbed an instrument from among the wide assortment in the living room and played a little music. It’s been quite a long while since I played acoustic music with actual live musicians, and I had a blast. My own guitar picking is nothing to write home about, but I don’t believe anybody enjoys playing any more than I do.

Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then went to Wakulla Springs. This is a nature preserve where Ken and Virginia were married. There’s a natural spring that pumps up to half a million gallons of water per minute into the W. river. On a boat tour we rode around the perimeter of the river, seeing all sorts of wildlife in the area. Various fish; osprey, anhinga and other birds; turtles; and of course, alligators. This park also served as the set for “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and two of Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan movies. On our way back home Virginia drove us through downtown Tallahassee, past the Capitol Building, the courthouse, and other municiple buildings. People were out enjoying a street fair on the side streets and in the park.

After lunch, I watched as Ken went about gluing the top of my guitar to the sides. This photo shows a good look at the side bracing, also made from ‘The Tree’:

The upper shoulder of the lower bout is built up with an extra thickness of wood. This will later serve as the structural underpinning for a beveled “armrest”:

The bridge support is made of dogwood:

Ken’s signature and the date are already in place inside the top:

After fitting the sides to the top in a dry run, Ken smoothed out one little area to achieve the perfect fit:

Then it was time to glue it up:

With everything in place, he weighted it all down for a tight seal:

Before long it was time for dinner. Virginia drove us to Mockingbird Café in Havana, where we ate snapper and quail and had pie for dessert. The café offers live music on Saturdays, as well, but we decided after two or three songs that we’d really rather go home and make some music of our own. Back at the house we picked a handful of fiddle tunes and Virgnia sang some good killing songs and a few gospel numbers. Unfortunately I had a very early flight home on Sunday morning, and before we knew it bedtime had rolled around.

Sunday morning at the crack of dawn, Virginia poured me a travel cup of hot coffee and Ken delivered me to the airport to make my way back home. I can’t begin to say enough about what great people I found Ken and Virginia to be. So warm and welcoming it seemed as if we were old friends despite the fact that we’d never met before. We parted company vowing to get together again, and I look forward to the next time we can do just that.