The physicality of playing gypsy jazz rhythm guitar

July 25, 2006

We went on a week’s holiday recently. Usually I don’t take a guitar because part of the holiday experience is to forget about the things we do all the rest of the year, this time I had to take one because I had a gig four days after we returned and I needed to keep in shape.

This got me thinking about the physical nature of playing gypsy jazz rhythm guitar. In a usual gig we will play at least 12 tunes. Each tune is generally 32 bars long and we play the form around 8 times a tune with solos. Each bar has four beats (except for waltzes of course). If you add all that up it gives about 12,500 beats in a gig! so a rhythm guitarist is tensing and releasing his fretting fingers 12,500 times and playing around 15,000 plectrum strokes with the other hand (because there are at least a couple of upstrokes a bar). The only way to prepare for that sort of feat is to put in a lot of regular practice before the gig!


George Washingmachine

July 22, 2006

An unlikely name for a great player.

Djangoism played the support slot to George Washingmachine at the Regal Arts Centre in Worksop last Thursday. We knew nothing about him so had no idea of what to expect – what we, and an appreciative audience, heard was fantastic swinging jazz in the style of Stuff Smith/Marty Grosz/Louis Armstrong. On this tour George was playing violin and singing (it seems he plays a lot of other instruments too) with Dave Blenkhorn on lead acoustic guitar, Dave Kelbie on rhythm guitar and Sebastien Girardot on double bass. Everything was delivered in a relaxed, effortless style with some great arrangements and splendid solos from George and Dave. There are just a few more dates of their current UK tour, if you are in London this weekend then do try to catch them.

Lollo Meier

July 6, 2006

A few posts ago I mentioned that Lollo Meier, a gypsy jazz guitarist from the Netherlands, was touring the UK at the moment and I was lucky enough to see him last night. Although the gig was sparsely attended (World Cup football and a hot summer’s evening conspiring against gypsy jazz) it was a memorable evening of great music. Lollo sounded even better live than his excellent CD which I have been listening to a lot recently. His soloing was great and his rhythm playing was fantastic, really driving Andre Donni’s clarinet playing along. Dave Kelbie and Andy Crowther provided an exemplary rhythm section. Special mention should got the venue, the Regal Arts Centre in Worksop, which is a very welcoming place which puts a lot of great gypsy jazz gigs on (Angelo Debarre, John Etheridge and Lollo Meier so far in 2006).

Amplifiers for gypsy jazz guitars

July 4, 2006

My recent posts have been centred on equipment whereas the main purpose is to get on playing and listening to gypsy jazz music. However one does need to look at equipment from time to time and at the moment I am reviewing all our equipment – the first occasion for 7 years so it doesn’t take up that much time really.

My last post looked at the methods of amplifying gypsy jazz guitars and described the hybrid microphone/contact pickup method that we use. If you are not going to use a full PA system then you need a standalone amplifier for your guitar. The first thing to mention, though almost everyone knows this by now, is that an amplifier designed for straight electric guitars will be no use at all and will make a horrible sound. This is because such amplifiers are designed with a huge mid-range bias, which is what we expect for an electric guitar sound, usually the impedance of the input section does not match piezo pickups and there is no microphone input for a hybrid system.

Fortunately, probably due to the popularity of ‘unplugged’ gigs by big name rock bands, there are now many acoustic-specific amplifiers on the market. We have used Trace Acoustic amplifiers for the past seven or eight years and they have served us very well. They are now looking rather battered but they continue to work extremely well. The only reason that we have replaced them recently is that the battered appearance didn’t fit in with the smart appearance required when we play at functions (a relatively lucrative though slightly mind-numbing experience which we tend to regard at worst as paid practice though often it is much better than that with quiet appreciation by the client’s guests). Trace Acoustic amplifiers haven’t been made for at least five years because the company that made them went bust.

This time we have bought AER amplifiers. AER (Audio Electric Research) are a German company who have been building amplifiers specifically for acoustic instruments since 1992. Their amplifiers are used by a number of gypsy jazz guitarists including Angelo Debarre, Robin Nolan and Martin Taylor – which is why we looked at them. There are a number of different models ranging from a 40W Alpha model up to larger multiple input versions that are in effect a mini PA. We bought a Compact 60 model which is 60W and has two separate channels – we use one for the Big Tone pickup and the other for the soundhole microphone. There is an onboard digital reverb if you use that effect, we have a touch on the lead guitar but none on the rhythm guitar. The sound out of the amplifier is great and requires very little tweaking of the EQ, it is also very loud – much louder than you would ever need on a gig but it is a better idea to use the bottom end of a powerful amplifier rather than a small amplifier near its limit. The best feature, for us, of the AER amplifier is its ergonomics. It is a small cube shape that weighs only 8.5 kg and it comes with a well-designed padded gig bag with a shoulder strap. The importance of the gig bag really becomes apparent on gigs because it has side pockets for leads, microphones, tuners and strings so you really can turn up with just your guitar case and the amp in its padded gig bag.

We also bought the Compact Mobile model. This is identical to the Compact 60 except that it contains a battery so you can play for 3 to 4 hours without any electricity supply – great for busking and at outdoor venues, but there is a considerable 7.5 kg weight penalty for this function so no shoulder strap on this gig bag!

Amplifying gypsy jazz guitars

July 2, 2006

In previous posts I have extolled the virtues of playing unamplified and it is a great experience – the sound that you are making comes from your guitar and not a box somewhere remote from you, to play quieter you play softer, to play louder you play harder and all the members of the band can hear each other. However in the real world of strange venue acoustics and non-concert conditions amplification is a necessary evil. What is the best method of amplifying gypsy jazz guitars?

Microphones –  if you have a full PA system with main speakers pointed away from you, plenty of monitor speakers facing you and preferably a sound engineer then using an external microphone for amplification is possible. There are still problems – you mustn’t move in relation to the microphone (not too much of a problem when seated) and it can be difficult to get sufficient volume without feedback. There is also the problem of transporting a big PA around – until you reach superstar status and festival organisers do everything for you.

Magnetic pickups –  not a good solution for most players as the sound becomes too much like an electric guitar, some older players did use the Stimmler pickup which fitted in the soundhole but the sound was an acquired taste.

Contact pickups – these are pickups that acquire and transmit the vibrations from the guitar itself (rather than the air around it) and are much less prone to feedback. They are usually based on a piezo crystal system, sometimes with preamplifiers in the guitar, sometimes without. They are often mounted in the bridge but can be a tape which is stuck onto the body of the guitar (cosmetically better on the inside). These pickups tend to produce a crisp quite trebly sound which is very good for projection but which might lose some of the mid-range mellowness of the guitar.

Hybrid microphone/contact pickup systems –  this is the method that we have been using for live gigs for the past seven years and it has worked well. The guitars we used to use had two separate pickups in the bridge and the body of the guitar and the sound from these could be mixed using the on-board preamplifier (they were Yamaha APX models). We then had a condenser microphone on a small boom stand pointed at the upper end of the fretboard at get the ‘air’ sound of the guitar. Most of the volume came from the contact pickups but the microphone input definitely enhanced the sound. Now that we use our Gitane guitars with Bigtone pickups in the bridge we use a slightly different system with a small clip-on condenser microphone fitted to the edge of the soundhole. This has the advantage of not requiring heavy microphone stands and we don’t have to worry about moving away from the microphone.