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.

Fitting pickups to gypsy jazz guitars

June 22, 2006

Of course I did write a post about the joys of playing without amplifiers a couple of weeks ago and this is now our favourite way to play. Unfortunately many venues have very bad acoustics and noisy audiences so we do have to use amplification on many of our gigs.

Our new Gitane guitars did not come fitted with pickups so we had to decide what sort we wanted to fit. We didn't want to change the natural acoustic properties of the guitars or their appearance so that ruled out any soundhole pickups or ones with control boxes fitted onto the front of the guitar. That left internally mounted microphones and/or piezo pickups mounted in the bridge. We choose Big Tone bridge-mounted piezo pickups because that seems to be standard kit for gypsy jazz guitars (e.g. Dell Arte guitars, the Robin Nolan trio etc.) and because you can get a higher level of amplification without feedback.

These pickups are quite difficult to fit and we were very fortunate to find Ged Green, a Manchester-based luthier, to fit them for us. He tells us that you have to saw the top off the wooden bridge, rout a cavity for the pickup, stick the pickup in with epoxy resin glue and put the top back on the bridge, and then you have to run the cable into the body and out through a strap button jack socket. Rather him than us! He has done a wonderful job on both guitars and they sound good through our amplifiers. The only quirk is some acoustic feedback from the tailpiece which is easily solved by a piece of felt between that and the body.

Playing without amplifiers

June 9, 2006

Yesterday we played a gig that was essentially providing background music at a summer cocktail party. Although we were playing outside we were on a stone terrace with a short wall around us and some canvas canopies overhead. We had taken our usual electro-acoustic guitars and amplifiers with us but before we unpacked those we tried out our new Gitane guitars without any amplification – it sounded perfect! The guitars were loud enough even outdoors and so we played the whole gig without amplifiers (the double bass player as well). The experience of playing totally acoustically was very refreshing and everyone in the band really enjoyed it – we have resolved to find more gigs where we can do this.

Later we played another gig in a noisy wine bar and had to use our old guitars and amplifiers. When we first picked up the guitars they felt very dead and lifeless but with an enthusiastic audience we still enjoyed the gig, though we did find that 4 hours of full-on gypsy jazz playing in a day was a little hard on the fingers.

Another new guitar

June 7, 2006

Now that I had (I thought) my new grande bouche gypsy jazz guitar for rhythm playing we needed to get a suitable guitar for Shez to play lead guitar in Djangoism. We went to Hobgoblin Music in Leeds where they have a wide selection of the Gitane guitars, and one by a local maker, and were very patient as we spent a long time trying them. What we found was interesting (to us at least). All the Gitane models we very different to each other even though they all look superficially similar. The grande bouche model had a sweeter, less cutting, sound than the petite bouche models but overall was louder. The difference between the slightly shorter than standard scale of the grand bouche and the long scale of the petite bouches was very noticeable. The neck profile on the petite bouche models was very variable with the DG-255 model having a very shallow profile and the DG-300 John Jorgenson model having a deep profile. Our conclusions from this are that one should try lots of different gyspy jazz guitars before buying one as although they are all of similar shape and construction the features which alter playing comfort can vary considerably.

 After a lot of playing Shez decided that he liked the sound of the grand bouche model best. I found that the John Jorgenson model was very comfortable for playing rhythm so we bought that and Shez will use the grand bouche that I bought a couple of weeks ago. This is the reverse of the usual selection of grand and petite bouche models used by almost all gypsy jazz bands but we went with what our ears told us, of course it may turn out that on the bandstand in a noisy venue we might find out why most bands have it the other way round – we will report on live playing as soon as we have the Big Tone pickups fitted.

A new guitar

June 5, 2006

I have been playing in a gyspy jazz band for over 7 years now and we have recorded 2 CDs. All this time we have been playing standard steel strung electro-acoustic guitars (Yahama APXs) which have served us faithfully but don't give that authentic gypsy jazz sound. We have always planned to get 'proper' guitars and now I have had the opportunity to do so. I still didn't want to spend an enormous amount of money so I have looked at the budget end of the ranges available. In the end I have bought a Gitane D-500. This is a grand bouche copy of the original Maccaferri guitar which Django Reinhardt started his jazz playing on but which now seems to be the design favoured by gypsy jazz rhythm guitarists. The scale length is slightly shorter than the petite bouche models so the string tension is also less which makes it easier to play a whole gig's rhythm guitar without too much hand cramp.

The first noticeable difference when playing this guitar is how much louder it is than the old electro-acoustic. This is entirely logical since the electro-acoustic has a plywood top and is designed to stop feedback at high levels of amplification whereas the Gitane is designed for maximum acoustic volume and projection but the difference is staggering. The sound is very authentic and as soon as I played it Django licks sounded ten times better than on any ordinary guitar. The neck is flatter and wider than a standard guitar which I find very comfortable. The finish and fittings is excellent although perhaps the machine heads will need replacing after a few years.

All in all I am very pleased with this guitar and can't wait to use it on a gig. It doesn't have a fitted transducer so I am having a Big Tone pickup inserted into the bridge to help feedback-free amplification in larger venues.


May 18, 2006

The choice of a plectrum with which to play gypsy jazz is personal and I am sure most guitarists have boxes of different plectra which they have tried and rejected. There does seem to be a general preference for thick plectra which do not flex at all when they hit the strings. I used to use plectra made by Clayton out of a smooth plastic material which were 1.8mm thick and didn’t flex. They were good and I used them for many years. I had two problems with them – they didn’t last long, half a gig of rhythm guitar, and they have smooth sides so occasionally slip out of my grip when playing a hot gig. I now use the handcrafted Wegen gypsy jazz picks which are even thicker, 3.5mm. and have ribs on both sides that stop rotation in your grip. Fortunately, since they cost 15 Euros each, they have a very long life.