Dueling D’s & Other Concerns

This past Saturday I returned to Mandolin Brothers to compare my trusty Martin D-28 to the Collings D3 that has, so far, been the frontrunner in my quest for a new guitar. I was pleasantly surprised — not by the Collings, which was everything I had expected it to be, but rather by my D-28. The differences in the two guitars were clear, but not nearly as radical as I had thought they would be. The Collings, to be sure, is more responsive, brighter, and has an overall fuller sound. But the D-28 very definitely holds it’s own. In fact, I would say the D-28 was the best-sounding guitar I played that day with the exception of the D3 and one used Santa Cruz Tony Rice Model with Brazilian Rosewood back and sides (which was priced way too high for me, anyway).

Of course, one advantage my Martin has over these guitars is that I have been playing it for about 27 years. Obviously it has “opened up” in a way that these guitars have not. Which speaks to how good the Collings (and many others in the room) will sound 27 years from now. At some point a lot of these babies are going to be absolutely smoking, no doubt about it. For now though, the D3 is the only guitar I’ve played in a price range I’m willing to entertain that also has a significantly better sound than the D-28.

As an aside, I made it a point to give another try to the Doc Watson model Gallagher they have in stock. I had played it on my previous visit and was quite disappointed in it. I believe my description of it in this blog was “boxy.” This was a surprise, because going into my search I had thought I might very likely end up with a Gallagher. My faith was restored with this visit. I’m not sure if the strings were changed between visits, or if my ears were a little cleaner this weekend, or what have you. But for whatever reason this guitar sounded better by leaps and bounds than it did when I played it last. It still didn’t outperform the Collings, but it’s clearly a better guitar than it seemed to be a month ago.

All this said, I keep coming back to the idea of a custom build.

As I have mentioned before, I have been somewhat taken aback to learn that there are many reputable, highly sought-after luthiers out there building fine custom instruments that ordinary mortals like myself can actually afford. For a lot of people this might seem like a no-brainer, but for me it’s more like a brainteaser. It opens up so many possibilities and calls so many questions to mind that I don’t know quite how to handle it. One part of me thinks this is my chance to commission a one-of-a-kind instrument, and another part of me thinks that may be just one step too far out of my league. I’m not convinced I know enough about what I’m looking for, or that I can articulate it clearly enough to communicate it to a builder. Not to mention simply getting my head around the idea of buying a guitar that I can’t play first.

In an effort to address this last concern, I contacted Ken Miller, a luthier in Tallahassee, FL, in the hopes that one of his guitars may have a home somewhere within reasonable driving distance to me. Or, alternatively, if I might have one of his “stock” guitars sent to me under his 7-day approval policy. Luckily, he has graciously offered to put me in touch with one of his clients in my area. If all goes well, the idea is that the client and I might arrange to meet so that I can get a look at one of these guitars firsthand. Assuming this happens, it will go a long way toward helping me determine whether to go custom or “off the shelf.” To be continued, as they say….

Making Up for Lost Time

Sunday was the first time I got back to practicing since traveling to the Canadian Rockies for vacation last week. Traveling plans didn’t allow for me to take along a guitar, and there wasn’t one available to me while I was out there. And I would not have had time to play anyway, as every day was filled with an amazing and breathtaking (literally) hiking/sightseeing experience.

As great as the whole experience was (and it was great), the long and short of it from a six-string perspective is that I didn’t practice for a full week. And man, what a difference a week makes!

Late Sunday morning I sat down to practice and was astonished at how much ground I had “lost.” I had been getting relatively smooth with all my new chord changes before leaving town, but today I was finding myself searching around and grabbing the wrong strings. Or, on the occasion that I found the right chord, I was dulling out strings to produce more of a thud progression rather than chord progression as I played along.

Gradually, after just sticking with it and REALLY slowing things down, I began to get back in the groove a bit. After about 45 minutes or an hour, I think I got back to roughly where I left off last week.

Later in the day I caught up on some shopping, as well.

I had planned to go back to Mandolin Brothers on Saturday. I want to take my D-28 in to compare with the Collings D3 in the same room at the same time. And of course I’m also curious to see what other instruments they may have gotten in since I was there last. But, having just arrived home from our trip on Friday night, there were many things to take care of and Saturday got away from me before I had the chance to venture to Staten Island.

On the plane home from Canada, though, I had finished reading Clapton’s Guitar, a book about master luthier Wayne Henderson written by Allen St. John. In the back of the book is a listing of several vintage guitar shops around the country, including Lark Street Music in Teaneck, NJ. My cardiologist had mentioned this place to me once after seeing the Martin Guitar logo on the back of a jacket I wore to a checkup, but I had forgotten about the place. Late Saturday night I checked the web and found that Lark Street Music is open on Sundays. So Sunday after a late lunch (still a little off schedule from our trip), Suzy and I headed off to Teaneck to see what I could find.

While not as jaw-dropping as Mandolin Brothers, Lark Street is still an outstanding guitar shop. I played Martins, a Mossman, several Gibsons, including one from the year of my birth and another that sounded better but looked as if it might fly apart at any moment. (Of course, that’s probably why it sounded so good.) I tried out my first Blueridge guitar, a very pleasant surprise, and several models made by the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, by far the best of which was a curiously small-bodied baritone guitar.

The two guitars that stood out to me were a Martin and, again, a Collings. The Martin was an OM “Negative,” which I had never heard of. It’s a limited edition guitar with black body and white appointments, the most oddly striking of which is the white fingerboard. At first glance I dismissed it as flash, but eventually I took it off the wall and found that it had a great feel and a very nice tone. If there were no Collings guitars in the world, I would have been mighty tempted by this thing.

But of course there are Collings guitars out there, and the D2H I played at Lark Street was a real winner. Perfect feel and outstanding tone. This guitar rivals the D3 I placed on hold at Mandolin Brothers. I don’t think it’s quite the D3’s equal, but it’s extremely close. Once one of these guitars is in my hands, I just can’t seem to let them go. Beautiful, beautiful instruments. I can’t wait to get back to Mandolin Brothers to play that D3 again….

A Disappointment, Then Baby Steps Toward A Decision

This past Saturday I went to Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleeker Street. I was very much looking forward to it not only because guitar shopping is fun in general, but also because the shop itself is somewhat storied. Apparently Bob Dylan shops there, for example. Or at least he has in the past. But surprisingly, it was not as cool an experience as I had expected it to be.

First of all, there’s music playing over an audio system throughout the store. It was good music, but it makes it very hard to hear whatever guitar you might be playing. If you’re playing one at all, that is.

The arrangement of the store is such that you need assistance to try out any of the guitars. Of course I understand the reasons for this and I have no argument with it in principle. The problem is that none of the employees seemed very interested in helping me.

I made a pass through the entire store to get the big picture and see what they had to offer. Based on my experience at Mandolin Brothers a few weeks ago, I zeroed in pretty quickly on the Collings guitars. They were hanging on a wall behind a counter which was attended by two employees. One was doing some paperwork with a customer, and the other was talking with some friends. And talking some more. And then some more. 

At first I thought these friends were customers, although they were clearly not actually buying anything. But hey, I’ve got no problem with a guy building customer relations. I understand that. I gave ’em some time and space. And they talked some more. And some more. Eventually, having overheard some dribs and drabs of their conversation, it became clear that they were just hanging out, shooting the breeze. Meanwhile, there I stood, an actual customer clearly in need of relations, ya know? The Talkative Employee kept looking my way, but he never quite managed to tear himself away from his buds.

After a time, I spotted another employee who appeared to be free. As I approached him, he gave me a perfunctory glance and then walked into a back room somewhere.

So I walked back to Mr. Talkie and just inserted myself into his life. I asked if I could take a look at some of the Collings guitars behind him.

“Which one?” he asks.

Truth to tell, I would like to try more than one, of course, but by this point I was pretty put off by the whole vibe and just wanted to get on with it. I asked him which he would recommend.

“Well, these are VERY specific guitars,” he tells me. “What kind of music do you play?”

So I tell him I play lots of different kinds of music, but mostly bluegrass, folk, and maybe a little country-blues.

“Well, now, bluegrass and country-blues are two completely different things,” he says.


I feel pretty sure this guy knows his business, but I’m guessing I’m not the only guitar player in the store who plays more than one kind of music. I’m not sure exactly where he was going with this interview. But anyway, just to get my hands on a guitar I said, “OK, what I normally play is a D-28.”

“Then you’ll like this one,” he says, handing me the D2H. “It’s the most like your D-28.”

Of course, I’m not shopping for something like my D-28. Why would I want something like my D-28 when I already have the D-28 itself? But by that point I had become pretty disenchanted with the whole process, so I just didn’t argue.

I took the guitar he handed me, found an out-of-the-way stool, and played for 10 or 15 minutes. Nice guitar, but, as he said, pretty much a copy of the guitar I already have. From what I could hear, at least, given the music playing throughout the store. Suzy concurred, though, that it was far inferior to the D3 I had played at Mandolin Brothers, and as I have said in previous posts, she has a great ear.

I handed it back to the guy and we walked up the street to find some dinner.

I’m sure I could have gotten more attention in the shop if I had asserted myself more, but I don’t feel like it’s expecting to much to have one of these guys simply say “Can I help you?”. I don’t want to be hovered over when I’m shopping, but I want some attention.

I’m not prepared to say I’ll never go back to Umanov Guitars, but my expectations are going to be pretty low if I do.

In the meantime, I have not been able to get that Collings D3 from Mandolin Brothers out of my head since I played it last month. Even Suzy still talks about it once in awhile. I have to go back and hear that one again. I called yesterday morning and put it on hold via their “right of first refusal” policy. I won’t be able to get over there again until next weekend, and I wanted to do all I could to make sure it will still be there.

Lately, though, some of the postings in the Flatpick-L archives have gotten me awfully interested in Ken Miller Guitars. Ken is a luthier in Tallahassee, FL, who makes stunningly beautiful guitars. And folks on the list who’ve had the opportunity to play them are unanimously impressed with and enamored of their playability and tone. Now I’m thinking I have to figure out a way to get my hands on one of these before I finalize any decisions.

Diggin’ A Little Deeper

Yesterday evening I had my second lesson with John. I’m feeling like now we’re really getting into it. I’m sure from his perspective we’re just getting started, but to me it’s like we’ve already jumped into the deep end.

First, we briefly ran through “All of Me” together. While he played the lead lines, I haltingly played through the chord progression he had written out for me last time. He gave his approval at the progress I had made, and then we moved on to some listening exercises in which I had to identify by ear the differences between major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords played on a CD. I did pretty well except for one D minor chord, which I was pretty sure was augmented. Even when he played it back for me I couldn’t quite grasp it. Weird that just that one chord seemed to throw me.

The biggest part of our time was spent with him working out and showing me a chord solo for “All of Me.” That is, a combination of chords and single note melodic lines to be played as a lead. Sort of the jazzy counterpart to the “Carter scratch” in old-time and bluegrass music. In the same key as the previous progression, this little lead part nevertheless contains only one of the same chord forms as the progression I’ve been practicing. Again, we’re just moving right along.

To finish up, we cracked the cover on A Modern Method For Guitar. We played through several of the first exercises together, and John marked the pages I should concentrate on for the next few weeks. Sometime in September, he says, we’ll probably be ready to move into Chapter 2 “where the training wheels come off.”

Spend, Spend, Spend

A few months ago, when I began to really think seriously about re-focusing my energies on the guitar, money quickly started slipping out of my pockets.

The first thing I did was re-subscribe to Flatpicking Guitar magazine. I had been as subscriber for a few years when the magazine was first launched. At some point I let the subscription lapse, and then when we moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in 2003, I threw away the issues I had saved. I knew at the time that I was going to regret it, but in the general discombobulation of moving my judgement was off and out they went. Now here I was, regretting it as expected, so when I re-subbed I also ordered a copy of every single back issue. Twelve years’ worth.

And while I was clicking around on the FGM website, I discovered Tortis picks from Red Bear Trading Company. According to what I read, these picks mimicked the feel and tone of real tortoise shell. I never actually played with real tortoise shell picks, but I had heard all my life about what a perfect material it was. The final straw this particular day was the endorsement from Jack Lawrence, one of my favorite flatpickers and longtime performing partner of Doc Watson. I knew that Jack used tortoise picks, and according to his testimonial on the site there was no appreciable difference in tone and feel between the Tortis picks and the real thing. So there went another $20.

To my mind this is my most extravagant purchase so far. I’m accustomed to spending considerably less than a dollar apiece for picks, and subsequently loosing them under the seat of my car and/or washing them in my pants pockets. To think about laying out a twenty for a single pick sort of blows my mind, but I did it. Luckily, I love the thing. It’s quite a bit thicker than the Clayton picks I’ve normally used in the past, but after using it for a couple of days I don’t notice that any more. But the difference in tone is noticeable every time I play. Remarkably different. I’ll never go back.

Anyway, back to the shopping list…

Past experience showed me that I was not very good at using a metronome. It’s not so much a timing problem as a rhythm problem. I can keep pretty good time. I just don’t always feel the beat in the same way most people do. For example, I tend to tap my foot on the opposite beat that everybody else taps. I don’t speed up or slow down so much as I accent in the wrong place. This makes using a metronome kind of confusing to me.

Of course that’s the strongest reason of all to get one and use it. The things that are the hardest to do are exactly the things you need to practice the most, ya know? So I ordered up a metronome.

During our phone conversation when I set up my guitar lessons, John told me to bring manuscript paper. I went online to order that, and as usual I found a few other items to “Add To Cart” while I was on Amazon.

A paperback copy of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build The Perfect Instrument. And a CD of River Suite for Two Guitars, the album of duets John recorded with Tony Rice. I had the vinyl album when it was new, and later on a cassette copy when we got rid of all our LPs, but I’d never gotten the disc. Oh, and a copy of Zen Guitar, a book I read about in the FLATPICK-L archives. Finally, while I was at it, some plastic inserts for three-ring binders to store all those magazine back issues.

No sooner had these items arrived than I went to my first lesson. John suggested I look for a good songbook with some jazz standards to work with. Returning to Amazon, I discovered pretty quickly that I can’t shop for songbooks without actually holding them in my hands. But there’s plenty of other stuff there that I can shop for. I went ordered A Modern Method for Guitar, written by William Leavitt, Chairman of the Guitar Department at Berklee College of Music when John studied there. John had mentioned that this is the book he works with for “serious” theory study. He hasn’t actually told me to get it, but I figure it can’t hurt to have it. I also ordered Music Theory for Dummies and a copy of John’s solo CD, Further Adventures.

Finally, today at lunchtime I walked down to Guitar Center and found the huge Just Jazz Real Book, with lead sheets to 250 songs. I’m thinking this will keep me busy for some time to come.

I believe I have everything I need for awhile now, but really, what do I know?

Just Like Starting Over

My left arm and fingers must be wondering what’s going on. Aside from the usual sore fingertips that always come when you play more than you’re used to, which I completely expected, my left forearm is in an uproar. I believe it’s because I’m using my fourth (pinky) finger more than ever.

I’ve managed to carve out at least an hour for practice every day since before I started lessons this past Tuesday. After making the initial arrangements for lessons back at the beginning of the month, I started to practice very regularly. I hadn’t played very much at all recently, so I knew I’d be rusty. I also wanted to get a practice regimen established ahead of time so that when the lessons began I could focus entirely on the material at hand.

Back in the mid-’90’s, a friend and I went to a Steve Kaufman flatpicking workshop outside of Philadelphia. Over and above all the guitar instruction, what really struck me most at the time was what he had to say about how to practice. When you hear that old saw about how it’s not “practice makes perfect,” but rather that “perfect practice makes perfect,” as far as I can tell they’re talking about Steve Kaufman.

So I set myself to following as much of his advice as I can. I arranged a little space in our guest room where I can leave all my materials out and at-the-ready. I bought a metronome (as well as an assortment of books and CDs — sometimes it’s hard to stop clicking at Amazon.com), and I got to work. In accordance with Steve, I go through a brief warmup period of strumming just to loosen up and get the blood flowing. Then I spend the first half of my practice period playing and tweaking songs and tunes I already know. The last half of the session is for learning new material. Kaufman’s methods go much deeper than that, of course, with methodology directed at exactly how to work on your material and such, but you get the idea. The long and short of it is I got myself into a structured, methodical, logical practice habit.

Then along came the chord forms and exercises from John Carlini.

Practicing an hour every day with the second half of the session given over to new material means I’m working on these chords for a half-hour stretch. Of course I’m seeing progress after just these few days. In fact, I’m already starting to feel comfortable with most of the forms. But it’s a workout in every sense of the word. An hour or two after each session, I can feel it in my left arm; that hurt-but-it’s-a-good-hurt feeling  deep in the muscles. I suppose it’s possible that I felt the same things back in the day when I first started playing, but I don’t recall it.

I can see where this is headed, getting myself accustomed to and comfortable with the entire fingerboard, which is precisely what I need. In many ways, though, it seems like I’m learning a completely different instrument.

I’ve Got A Lot To Learn

Today I had my first guitar lesson with John Carlini.  I got there early, traffic being much lighter than I had expected.  It felt a little intrusive, showing up early for an appointment at a guy’s home.  If it were an office I’d aim to be early, but at a person’s house … I dunno.  He seemed perfectly fine with it, so I guess that’s that.

Perhaps it was just another manifestation of the general nervousness I had about the whole situation, as I mentioned in a previous entry in this blog.  And that wasn’t the last of it.

John led me into his home studio. While we tuned our guitars and got set up, we talked in more detail about the things we had discussed in our phone conversation.  I was kind of settling in to the situation when he said, “Well, play me something.”

Of course I knew before I ever got there that I’d need to play something.  But now that it was actually happening I found myself looking around the room at all sorts of records, posters, and photos of all these great players.  Not the least of which, of course, is Tony Rice.  Pictures of Tony Rice with John.  By the time I finished flubbing my way through a few bars of St. Anne’s Reel, I could literally feel the sweat trickling down my back.

Either John didn’t notice or he’s accustomed to it, because he just went right on about the lesson at hand. Jumping off from another tune I played a little of, Jack Lawrence‘s “Ten Miles to Deep Gap,” we went into a discussion of the C scale, the chords based out of the scale, and a great exercise based out of it that can be used to work on tone, precision, quickness, and to acquaint myself with moving up the neck.  He told me more in that first 15 minutes than I could digest in a month.

But that wasn’t all.  He gave me a lead sheet for “All Of Me,” and wrote out a bunch of jazz chords for it. One of my goals in these lessons is to move away from the first position and learn the whole fingerboard. These chords are all over the place, and not an open string in the bunch.  This is step one on my journey up the neck.

Even having arrived early, I was 15 minutes late leaving.  It was great fun for me, regardless of the fact that I feel somewhat overwhelmed.  This is going to be a blast.

Man, What A Guitar Shop!

For weeks now I’ve been scouring the web trying to figure out where to go and what to look for in my new guitar search.  I’ve registered with two or three new (to me) online guitar communities, looked through old issues of Flatpicking Guitar magazine, etc., etc.  I’ve read up on guitar makers like Gallagher, Collings, Huss & Dalton, Froggy Bottom, and others. Time to go out into the world a strike a few chords on some actual instruments.

It happens that we live only about 20 miles away from Mandolin Brothers, one of the country’s most respected shops for acoustic guitars.  I’d never been, but I’d read about them for years.  With my wife, Suzy, navigating by my trusty MapQuest printout, we headed out for Staten Island.

The building is so nondescript we almost drove right past it.  This is probably a good thing for a place that routinely houses entire rooms full of guitars with price tags running up to $20k and higher, but I had my eye out for the usual storefront display you so often see, with guitars hanging in rows behind huge plate glass windows.  Just as we were about to pass it, Suzy saw the name on the building and I pulled in to the small gravel parking lot on the side.

Inside, past the front office desks piled with papers and books, is a guitar lover’s dream world. Room upon room filled floor to ceiling with guitars and other fretted instruments of every description.  I’ve been in a lot of guitar stores, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.  I didn’t even know where to start.

Of course there were people there to guide me.  One of the guys asked if I had anything specific in mind, or if I was just browsing.  After a fairly short back-and-forth, he put a new Martin D-35 in my hands.  The feel of the neck was outstanding, and it sounded like a cannon.  I think people here in Maplewood could probably hear it.  And the price tag was half what I had given him as my upper limit!  When was the last time a salesperson of any kind offered you a product that was half what they knew you were willing to spend?  I could learn to like this place.

After noodling around on that guitar for a bit and gazing at a few others while Suzy checked out the composite guitars, we made our way into the small-builders room.  I messed with a Gallagher Doc Watson model (too boxy-sounding), a couple of Santa Cruz models (not significantly different than my own D-28, to my ears), and a wonderful baritone guitar, the maker of which escapes my brain now.  I imagine I played 12 or 15 different guitars in that room, none better than the Collings D3.

I had never played a Collings, and didn’t much care for the first one I picked up.  But the D3 was out of this world.  Bass notes that rattled my chest, but at the same time very clear mids and crisp highs.  Great volume and responsiveness all up and down the neck.  This was quite clearly the best-sounding guitar I have ever personally played.

I could very easily have ended my search right then and there.  But I determined in my mind before leaving home that no matter how much I liked whatever I found today, I was not going to make a purchase.  I intend to play LOTS of guitars before I settle on one.  Perhaps that means this one will be gone my the time I’m ready to buy, but that’s a chance I have resolved to take.

But right now I’m hoping it stays there for awhile.

Getting Up Off My Butt

Yesterday morning I spoke to John Carlini on the phone.  At the suggestion of Rolly Brown, I had emailed John to inquire about taking guitar lessons.  I got a reply on Monday saying to call on a weekday morning to talk it over.

I was a little bit surprised to find that I was nervous.  I’m not generally intimidated by people, but I suppose I had thought about this long enough for the realization to settle in that I was speaking to a man who had worked with not just one, but several of the musicians I had most respected in my life.  All of the discomfort was completely in my own head, of course.  John couldn’t possibly have been more pleasant, down-to-earth, and normal.

He asked how long I had been playing, what kinds of music I was interested in, all the questions a teacher might ask a prospective student.  Nothing out of the ordinary, and all pretty matter-of-fact.  I would guess the entire conversation lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and despite my nervousness and inability to articulate much in the way of a specific goal I’m aiming to achieve with these lessons, when I hung up I found myself with directions to his home and an appointment to begin bi-weekly lessons on June 17.

That gives me two weeks.  I’ve got to get some serious practice time in between now and then.  I haven’t played in months, and I am sure the rust has settled in nice and thick at this point.  All the talk and speculation is over now.  I gotta get to work.

A Tale of The Unexpected

Shortly before 10:00 this morning I posted a message to FLATPICK-L, an email list of acoustic guitar enthusiasts, in which I mentioned that I had been kicking around a notion to take some classical guitar lessons.

As mentioned in the By Way Of Introduction… page elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been playing guitar for a long time without ever having more than the most rudimentary instruction.  I’ve arrived at a point where I’m curious to apply some good solid theory to what it is I’ve been doing all these years.  And more importantly, I’d like to know the fretboard better than I do.  Less importantly, but still of some interest, I think it would be nice to know how to read music for guitar.  Not just tablature, but actual notes on the staff.

I’ve never played classical music, but I got it into my head that classical lessons would be a way to learn these things.  And surely whatever I learned that was pertinent would transfer to whatever music I wanted to play at any given time.

Anyway, before 3:30 rolled around this afternoon, National Fingerpicking Champion Rolly Brown had read my post and responded to me with a suggestion.  Given that I live in Maplewood, NJ, Rolly’s speculation was that I must be within relatively close proximity to John Carlini, who would likely take me on as a student.

John is an excellent guy to study with for sightreading and fingerboard skills, and also understands bluegrass,” Rolly wrote.

John, whose musical resumé is wide and deep, is well-known in the acoustic guitar community, especially in bluegrass and folk music circles, as the former musical director for the David Grisman Quintet, and also for River Suite For Two Guitars, an album of guitar duets he recorded with legendary bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. Additionally, John writes a regular column for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, the only guitar magazine I have ever subscribed to.  I had no idea that he lives near me, nor that he gave private lessons.

Pretty exciting.