Neck relief, string gauge and fine tuning

Setting neck relief on a guitar is usually a pretty straightforward process, but a topic that inspires a lot of debate. Neck relief is the measurement of the “bow” in a neck, typically measured somewhere along the midpoint of the fret board. If a neck is perfectly straight, there is almost certain to be some string/fret buzz in the lower frets. Relief only affects the first few frets on the neck, buzzing above the 8th fret is related to string height (action).

There varying opinions on measuring relief, and our process is:

  • Capo the first fret, and place your finger on the last fret
  • On the 8th string, check the gap between the 6th string and fret at the 8th fret
  • Adjust to suit, we like ~.011 on guitars, and ~.018 on a bass
  • If you don’t have a feeler gauge, a coated stock business card works as a general guide
  • If the adjustment nut is at the headstock, when looking down the neck at the headstock turn the nut counter-clockwise to remove bow, clockwise to add bow
  • If you have the adjustment at the heel of the neck, it’s the opposite

That’s pretty much it, and working in small increments (no more then a 1/4 turn without checking) it’s hard to do any damage.

Notice we said “adjust to suit” and by that we mean that there is not absolute correct amount of relief. Some players like the neck as flat as possible without string rattle, and that’s just fine. If you have a light playing touch, go as flat as you can.

Adding too much relief can be an issue, as large truss rod adjustments put additional stress on the neck. And high amounts of relief can affect intonation, and even cause some upper fret buzz. To visualize the geometry: With more relief, the string length in relation to the fret board forms a bigger triangle, and the two lengths are less alike (from Middle School, the string is the hypotenuse and the fret board is the long leg of the triangle). The greater the difference increases intonation issues. So lots of relief serves no practical purpose, and if you still have fret buzz with a normal amount of relief, there are other issues.

Due to string tension, relief can vary with different brands of strings, and can even vary from side-to-side on the neck. If changing string gauges, check the relief to see if there is a need for adjustment. The same goes if you are going to a different tuning.

Some string gauge types can also put additional stress on the neck, such as a Light Top – Heavy Bottom set. With a LTHB set there is a greater variance in tension between the plain and wound strings, which can put some additional twisting stress on the neck. Some techs feel that LTHB strings are problematic and recommend sets with more even tension.,

Lastly, don’t use relief as a way to adjust string action. This is especially tempting with acoustic guitars as a way to avoid shimming or shaving the bridge saddle. A tiny tweak might be OK, but putting the neck under undue stress is not a good long term strategy.

There you have it: It’s not rocket science, and with a little practice any player can confidently and safely keep their guitar optimized for seasonal weather changes or using different strings and tuning.

UpFront Guitars Goes To NAMM 2017

OK, so we just got back from NAMM, and as always it’s a fun if not tiring and slightly deafening time. This is not a blow-by-blow rundown of the show, but a few quick observations on what we did and saw.

G&L – G&L did not display at the show, but the factory is 20 minutes away and so we dropped in for a tour. We spent quite a bit of time there, and got a very detailed tour from Ben the Shop Foreman (I won’t throw out a lot of names because I did not ask them that ahead of time. But you can read their build sheets). There is a lot that goes into a guitar, but the process takes place in four major sections: Wood shop, paint, polish and assembly. It’s pretty compact facility and G&L builds in a day what Fender probably builds in 15 minutes. It’s a group of people who build guitars and love doing it. And they are doing it better than ever.

The NAMM Show – With over 1100 exhibitors for just “fretted instruments” it begs the question, “how on earth does one make up their mind on anything?” The shear number of guitar manufacturers makes you wonder how anyone survives. Especially the small builders who are often making very expensive guitars in low numbers. Some of their work is exquisite and some just weird. But how they carve out their market niche and clientele seems challenging to say the least.

The amplifier market seems to be a tale of two cities: The big and fairly big guys like Marshall, Fender, Orange and Vox, and the boutique-ish small builders scattered throughout the show. With margins very thin on amplifiers, many of the small builders seem rather disinterested in dealers, and focus more on direct sales or getting picked up by Sweetwater. Supro is currently occupying the space between average and boutique, and the guitar world needs more of that. For us, the search continues for amp line that is inspiring and reasonably affordable. Sigh.

Keeley Electronics – Except for our beloved Solodallas, we have deliberately avoided pedals. The whole market seems insanely over-saturated, and like a lot of things at NAMM, how on earth does one choose? But pedal effects are a fact of life, and I have a pedal board, so who am I to judge? So we chose Keeley electronics. Why? They have a comprehensive line that covers just about everything, they sound good, are well built, and they shy away from gimmicks and silly stuff, like calling a volume knob “urgency” and nonsense like that. Pro-level pedals for regular folks that won’t cost you $400.

Heritage Guitars – We’ve been looking at Heritage for about three years, but never quite made the jump. We’ve played a couple and they are awesome, but long delivery times, minimal marketing, and the secondary market made us skittish. But they’ve got new ownership, a renewed emphasis on artist relations and marketing, and better operations management that should bring down lead times and bolster consistency. So we are going to take the plunge, and while it will take 3-4 months to get our first batch, we are really looking forward to it.

Norman Guitars, Art and Lutherie – Acoustics have never been a big part of our business, but they are a big part of the market. We’ve dabbled in some higher end acoustics, but I’m convinced that if you can’t have Taylor or Martin, you’ll be forever swimming upstream. Their names are synonymous with the genre, like Kleenex. But everyone needs a solid, affordable acoustic, and we decided to go with two of Godin’s other historic  brands, Norman and Art and Lutherie. Both have been given a little bit of a reboot, and the new A&L guitars in particular have some very cool “Americana” finishes that are hip, and fit in well with singer-songwriter coolness. Take one to Brooklyn, and you’ll be an instant hit.

Best Booth Venue for Music – Taylor. The Taylor room always has interesting people, a nice stage and great sound. And usually a surprise or two.

Biggest Marketing Splash – D’Angelico. Where did these guys come from? Somebody has put some serious bucks into what I thought was a little jazz box company. Even Ukes for heaven’s sake. And Bob Weir was the invitation-only headliner on Friday night. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Pianos, Band and Orchestra – This is not a guitar show, and the amount of space occupied by Piano, B&O and Sheet Music makes one think twice about what makes the industry tick.

Metal Heads – They keep the guitar industry alive and are the guitar’s most faithful supporters, even more than Blues. The autograph line for Steve Morse at the Ernie Ball booth always wraps around at least once.

Line 6 – Was not even in the convention hall, but in a ballroom at an adjacent hotel. I don’t follow the logic on that. Would you take a long walk through a crowd and security to look at a Line 6? Me neither.

Post Show Music in the Hotels – Take a nap, do whatever, but make a point of hanging out a the host hotels after the show closes for the night. The music is frequently good — at least performed well — and you never know who you will run into.

Hear your guitar better when playing live

Here is a very typical situation: You’re playing in a club, and as with most places there is not a lot of room. You’re standing close to your amp and one of two things is happening (or both); 1) You can’t hear your guitar very well, or 2) You’re told that you’re too loud.

Sound familiar? This happens all the time, and if you crank the amp up to the point where you can hear it, the audience gets pummeled. This is especially problematic with solos, as increased gain means increased signal compression, which can make it even harder to hear distinctly.

Here is the solution: In-ear monitors, preferably wireless.

Why would any club band need to resort to in-ear monitoring, especially for guitar? Because it’s the most effective monitoring method, takes up the least amount of space, is easy to carry, never feeds back, and cuts down on stage volume.

Quick aside: I common response is, “yeah but I’d rather tip my amp back, put it on a chair or use and amp stand. Yes, and you typically lose most of your low-end response and whatever tone you’ve been working is completely altered.

Whether or not you currently put the guitars through the monitors, your band has some type of mixer, and at least the vocalist has a monitor. So now all you need is an ear-monitoring setup, and a way to feed your guitar signal into the mixer.

A decent ear-monitoring system is not cheap, and a new one with earpieces will run close to $500. But there is always eBay, and I’ve scored a couple used transmitters and receivers at decent prices. But simply put, with ear monitoring you’ll hear the vocals better, hear your guitar better than you ever have, plus have a better idea of how it actually sounds. Ear monitors also cure the habit of over-playing and over-singing in order to hear yourself. Once you go this route, people might even ask you to turn up (a first for most guitarists).

My own setup is a Shure PSM200 with Shure SE315 ear monitors that have the form-fitting foam earpieces. The foam earpieces fit very snuggly and effectively “noise cancel” the ambient stage volume. I use only one earpiece, in the ear towards the drummer. This cuts the perceived drum volume way down, and with my open ear I get a feel for the general overall mix, but at a comfortable level.

It’s easy enough to mic the guitar amplifier, but my preference is to use a direct line. Radial Engineering makes a direct box called the JDX, which is a reactive speaker load box that goes between the head and cab (or speaker line in a combo). The JDX feeds a direct XLR line right to the mixer. The signal to the speaker is unaffected, and the line to the mixer sounds great, typically much better than what you can get with a mic. And you don’t have to deal with the mic getting jostled, or other resonances coming up through the mic stand. It also helps take room acoustics out of the picture, so if your amp is jammed in some little corner it will help it sound less like crap.

For all but the smallest clubs, the ideal setup is using the guitar amp to get the right tone, and using the PA to help create a balanced mix. But to do this you actually have to know what you sound like, and ear monitors are the best way to accomplish this. I use them everywhere, even in small clubs where I’m often only inches from my amp.

Because you’ll no longer be cranking a floor monitor (or your amp), you’re less likely to damage your hearing, have headaches or ringing ears. And if you’re also the sound guy (like me) it’s one less monitor to haul, there’s more space on the stage, and monitor-induced feedback is eliminated. One successful local band essentially required that any member have in-ears. If not, the player was responsible for bringing his or her own floor monitor and cables. That’s a little militant, but for logistics, setup and sound quality it made sense. Talk to a player that uses ear monitors on a regular basis, and you’ll find a convert for life.

Ear monitoring is not just for pros; the quality of the systems has gone up, and the prices have come down. Most bands that don’t use them have not tried them, or already have a significant investment in their floor monitors . But if you are planning to spend several hundred dollars apiece on good floor monitors, think about putting that money towards in-ears.



Playing Guitar vs. Playing in a Band

As guitar players we all have some sort of musical goals. Whether it be to continually improve, master a certain style, or just amuse oneself. Usually this goal is attached somehow to getting better at playing the guitar. But how many people have as their goal to play guitar well in a band? This might sound rather odd at at first, but playing your guitar well versus playing your guitar well in a band — or with people — can be two very different things.

You’ve seen them on YouTube: Bedroom shredders that can tear it up playing along to a jam track, or just soloing. You probably also know players that can pull off tons of recognizable riffs and mimic their favorite artist down to every bend. These people will get labeled by their friends as “very good guitar players.” But have you ever tried to jam with any of these people? Sometimes considerable technical skill does not translate into cohesive musical thoughts.

In reality, most of us likely spend the majority of our playing time by ourselves. Between work, chores and other obligations, most playing or practice time is generally solo. The skill building of practicing guitar is often a solitary pursuit, but the skill (and joy) of playing music is best enjoyed in the company of other like-minded musicians.

I’ve found that what I know about my playing, my tone, and even how I tweak my gear often goes out the window once I’m playing with others. The interaction of volume, other instruments, the drummer, and a host of other factors has a profound effect on how I actually play and sound. A famous Field Marshall once said that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Much the same can be said about playing guitar solo versus with a band. Until you are in the heat of battle, you’ll never know what really works and what doesn’t

Technique, and musical theory are all important and help us all become more literate at playing the guitar. And so is understanding your gear, and developing your tone. But things such as phrasing and timing — the parts of playing that turn notes into music — are learned best in the company of others. I’ve heard lots of guitar players play “through” a band, trying like mad to jam their preconceived ideas and notes into a song regardless of the outcome. But music is made when players make the most of the space made available to them, and use the band as a platform for their musical inspiration.

Another thing playing live or with a band will do is make you simplify your gear. Unless you have a roadie, lugging around a huge pedal board, outboard gear, and tons of cables is not only inconvenient, but also begging for technical difficulties. After a few gigs, you’ll be trying to figure out what not to take, and refining you setup down to the essential elements. I think part of the obsession over pedals is driven primarily by home players looking for something new and different to experiment with. I firmly believe that good gear and cables matter, but often subtle nuances get blown away by the drummer or the noise level of a crowded bar (it’s why I don’t worry about noiseless pickups. What?). As I said, I love gear, and good gear sounds better than crappy stuff.  But music is ultimately an emotional event that if done well is more than the sum of its parts. A crew chief for a racing team said something to the effect that: If I need .2 seconds per lap I work on the car, if I need 2 seconds per lap I work on the driver.

Any guitar playing is better than not playing. But unless your goal is to play solo guitar or do strictly multi-track recording, try and find a jam session or some other format that gets you out there with other players. There is nothing that can simulate playing with a living, breathing band, and making it work takes a combination of technique, patience, and most of all listening. No matter what your style of music or long term goals, it will make you a better player.

For guitars offered by Upfront Guitars:


Fender: 25 Years at the Ensenada Factory

We sometimes like to take pleasure in kicking the big guys when they are down. GM, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft…the Yankees. Seeing the seemingly invincible struggle sometimes makes us little guys feel better. In the world of guitars, certainly the two electric heavyweights Fender and Gibson have had their share of troubles. Fender has been in headlines for their struggling profitability and the much publicized IPO that never happened (probably because the Private Equity people realized that the stock value just wasn’t there). Gibson of course hit the papers with their government raid and fines related to the improper importation of restricted hardwoods. I still maintain that if everyone else in the industry can manage to buy fingerboards legally, then Gibson most likely was doing something not kosher. Also there’s just something about a $3500 guitar with lacquer drips, but that’s for another day.

Fender however recently hit a real milestone with the 25th anniversary of their manufacturing facility in Ensenada, Mexico. What is so great you say about celebrating a factory that makes guitars in Mexico rather than in the USA? The importance of the Fender Ensenada factory is that over two decades ago Fender realized that as global competition would continue to drive manufacturing to low cost countries, that is was better to control their destiny rather than subcontract it. The Fender factory in Mexico now employs over 1000 people and occupies over a quarter million square feet, turning out electric guitars, acoustics, and amplifiers.

It would be nice to think that this manufacturing could have stayed in the US, but by nature guitar making is labor intensive. And with 80% of the worlds guitar market being under $600, nearly all this market is going to be fulfilled by suppliers in low cost countries. In a recent Music Trades article about the Fender plant, it was pointed out that in 1990 China produced 0% of the world’s guitars. Now China produces over 70% of the world’s guitars, but only 45% of the total market value. In other words, they make a boatload of inexpensive guitars. And most of these China factories don’t have names that we would recognize. They are contract manufacturers that produce guitars and then brand them with names that we do recognize. This is how much of the consumer product world works, but it’s hardly the image we like to have of guitar making as a craft.

Fender deserves a lot of credit for investing to maintain control over their intellectual property, their manufacturing processes, designs, materials and product quality. Building a factory is a huge undertaking, and it would have been much less expensive for Fender to just find a factory to build their designs. However, when we stop manufacturing, we also lose touch with the skills and technology to actually create the product. Product designers who know how their designs are made invariably design better products. Take a guitar pickup for example: Here is a product where several companies can take the same wire, magnets and bobbins but all get different results. It’s the process of making the pickup as much as it is the actual design. When manufacturers and designers work together, products and quality naturally improve at a faster rate. The pace of product development increases too, and it takes less time to bring a new product to market. Although the factory is in Mexico, it’s a day trip from the Fender HQ in Arizona. They are in the same time zone and the same continent, and it makes a difference.

As a lot of people already know and appreciate, a “MIM” (Made in Mexico) Fender is a good quality product. It’s not a cheap guitar; it’s a guitar that delivers top value for the price point. As the factory continues to increase its capabilities, the price point and value of the MIM products  will continue to rise. From the standpoint of brand equity, the Fender MIM products are largely embraced by the guitar playing public, and while some would rather be playing a true USA Fender, nobody is being done a disservice by playing an Ensenada product.

Whether it is Foxconn producing the iPad or whoever actually makes Nike footwear, there is increasing separation between the creators of products and the manufacturers of the products. Some pundits will argue that owning the design is the only true value, and that manufacturing is strictly a matter of finding the lowest cost source. That’s how we get Barbie Dolls with lead paint, and why it’s hard to buy a Toaster Oven that will last more than three years. Guitars are not appliances or toys, and should not be built that way.

Fender has its share of troubles, and for some purists the only real Fender guitars are those made before 1965 when a man named Leo ran the company. But for people of normal means, Fender Ensenada products are the pathway to owning what are arguably the most recognizable shapes in rock and roll. Kudos to Fender for keeping the dream of rock and roll alive.

The Great American Guitar Show – Valley Forge PA, Day 1

We’re down here on the outskirts of Philadelphia for our first Great American Guitar Show in Valley Forge, PA. We came down Friday during the day in order to unload and get set up for the show on Saturday and Sunday.

While we have no way of actually knowing, there have got to be at least a couple thousand guitars here if not more. It’s surprising how much vintage stuff is on hand: Dozens of 50’s Les Pauls, 50’s and 60’s Strats, 50’s Teles, and enough vintage Les Paul Jr’s to make any Keith Urban fan jump for joy. I’m kind of LP Jr. Double Cutaway freak, and for between $4K and $9K I can have my pick of at least a dozen. The topper is a maple top burst 1960 Les Paul for $175K. Hmmm, house or guitar, house or guitar.

Action at the UpFront Guitars booth was pretty good, with a lot of people drawn to the Godin Icons, No-Top ASAT Special, and the ASAT Honeyburst Classic S. The Emerson pre-wired control assemblies were a popular item too, and of the pedals JHS drew the most attention. Our Clear Blue ASAT HB left the building, and I’ll eat my hat if somebody does not walk out with an Icon tomorrow.

Being a guitar show, most of the attention was focused on guitars, but the updated ValveTrain Trenton and Bennington amplifiers received many complements. The new Trenton with its larger cabinet, improved front end and tube rectifier was just stunning. Warm, sweet, with a nice bounce to each note, it was a real honey. It effortlessly developed great tone at low volumes, while the higher headroom Deluxe-inspired Bennington wanted to be opened up a little more than show decorum would permit. We’ll be taking a video on Sunday with the Trenton and our Angry Angus Tele. Michael from Cliff’s Guitars (Wilmington DE) is going to help us with the demo, as frankly after hearing him play we realized we should stick to selling.

Speaking of players, Joe Bonnamassa was also seen walking around the show, possibly looking for something to add to his already extensive collection.

If you are serious about guitars, and especially if you dig the vintage stuff, the Great American Guitar Show is a must-do.