Strung out: The strain of steel-string changes

Without doubt, my least favourite chore to do is changing guitar strings.  I’m not sure why, but it rates right up there with vacuuming the stairs (terrifying) and dusting the ‘objet trouvé‘ (middle class woes).  Perhaps it’s to do with bad experiences of the past:  Frustratingly breaking strings mid tune-up, the top ‘E’ string nearly slicing open my eye in an explosively Dali-esque flash of snapped steel.  Or, the moment when you forget that the tip of a steel guitar string is perfectly designed to puncture the human finger, leaving me scampering off for a tetanus injection.

Whenever I do actually pluck up the guts to do it (roughly once a month, or weekly when I’m gigging lots) it’s rarely as bad as I think, and it’s a good chance to give the thing a nice clean, and brighten up the sound loads.

Steel strung acoustic guitars are fiddly, almost as awkward as a classical guitar (more on that in the future) and it seems like you need at least one extra hand to get the job done.  Thank god for YouTube then, as there are lots of very helpful guitar experts, techs and luthiers who are willing to share their experience.  This video in particular taught me a few tricks which I now use, making the whole thing much easier and more effective….

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yULjWcYcrM&w=560&h=315]

Ok, so we might not all have an ELECTRIC STRING WINDER like that dude, but we should at least have some of the following tools…

  • 2015-01-23 10.49.50A nice soft cloth to give the guitar a once-over.
  • Some guitar polish (not essential, but it’s nice to give it a bit of a pamper)
  • Pliers/wire cutters, to trim the excess string off.
  • String winder – this is the one thing I would not do with out, they make the job loads easier!

2015-01-23 10.34.49There’s me showing off my camera’s ‘macro’ mode with this sultry close-up of my string winder.  They cost about £1-2 in most good music shops, and are a total godsend.  Not only do they make the job of turning the machine heads much easier, but they have a notch (the gap on the far left end of the winder in the picture) which helps pull out the string bridge pegs (at the other end).

Rather than take you through the whole process here, I’ll just mention some top tips I like to follow (most of which are in the above instruction video).

Firstly, like the guy in the video, it’s really best to have your guitar laying flat on a table, rather than trying to hold it as you’re changing the strings.  It may be obvious to most, but I’ve wasted loads of time in the past not following that advice, trying to wrestle with the guitar, the strings, and the winder.  Use a towel or blanket to cover the table or desk top and protect your guitar’s finish, and then you’ve got both hands free, and your instrument safe.

Next, when you’re getting the string to hold onto the machine head, you don’t need to tie it off.  Just give the string a kink around the ‘peg’, wrap it around once, then let the tension of the string grip to itself as you tighten it up.

I like to pull the string fully up…

2015-01-23 10.36.51

Then feed it back about an inch and a bit and tweak it until it kinks….

2015-01-23 10.37.13Then wrap once around.

That’s normally enough to keep the string in tune, and then you don’t have to mess around un-tying lots of string knots when you come to take them off for your next string change.

Trust me, you don’t want to be un-tying strings, it’s a thankless task which more often than not results in the above mentioned finger-skewering!

I like to trim off the excess strings as I go…helps with the O.C.D. and keeps them out of the way…2015-01-23 10.38.46When bringing the strings back up to tension and tuning them I use a clip-on tuner to make sure I don’t go too far, snapping a string.  I also like to take it slow…I imagine that whacking the guitar from zero to full tension in super-quick time isn’t going to do it any good.  Also when doing this I have a habit of backing away from the guitar, as I’m constantly paranoid that a string will break and slice something off.  This level of cowardliness is not an essential part of guitar maintenance, just something I’ve developed.

And I suppose that’s it.  It’s never actually as bad as I make it out to be, and it’s always worth it, when the guitar starts settling in to tune, and sounds great. Good luck!

Merry Plucking Christmas

It’s at this time of year, as we all start to wind down for Christmas Day, that I start to get all reflective, looking back on the achievements of the last twelve months.

CHRISTMAS-BANNER

It’s been one of the best yet, with all sorts of exciting developments, discoveries and stories.  I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to all the lovely pupils who have chosen me to help guide them on their musical journey.  And it’s great to still have contact with some of my old Liverpool clients / friends via my online Skype lessons.

With a relocation to Sheffield back in February, there’s been all sorts of new experiences here, as I get to know new people and explore this fascinating place.  With the new location has come lots of other exciting ‘side projects’, getting involved in local heritage organisations, and starting a new large-scale composition work exploring the history of the city.  Oh, and a new allotment plot, that’s pretty exciting too.  Look forward to lots of christmas veg hampers next year!

Finally, in October I settled into a lovely new ‘HQ’ at the vibrant and bustling Harland Works, in the heart of Sheffield’s ‘Little Sheffield’ area.  It’s a great place to work and teach, and to welcome visitors and clients, and there’s dangerously good coffee and cake at The Harland Cafe, just downstairs.

I’m positively buzzing at the prospect of an even better year to come in 2015, as plans take shape to increase my offer and really set down roots in South Yorkshire.

Accelerated Learning

As well as making music, I’m one of those odd types who loves running around on muddy hills. I’m an aspiring Fellrunner. There, I said it.  Since moving to Sheffield, I can be found several times a week, getting hopelessly lost, out of breath, and up to my ankles in bog, somewhere, in a field, In Derbyshire (to paraphrase Pulp). When I spotted a workshop advertised on twitter called ‘Hills Made Easy’, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hang out with other similar intrepid runners.

The group workshop was led by the ‘Two Stu’s’ – Stuart Hale and Stuart Bond from the Accelerate Performance Centre.  ‘Stu number one’ is a respected and hugely experienced sports and nutrition coach, with years of training elite and ultra athletes under his lycra-clad belt,  ‘Stu number two’ who assisted on the workshop, is an incredibly talented and dedicated athlete competing at the top of his game, and was a great inspiration and model for us attendees to follow.

What I found most interesting about the two sessions was the ethos of rigour and precision which underpinned their approach. We were encouraged to work towards achieving a more efficient, strong and effective hill running technique, before even thinking about fitness or speed. The mantra I picked up which was instilled throughout was – Technique and Strength. With these two in hand (or, leg) the rest would become, as the workshop name suggests, easy.

The parallels with musical progression are clear and very relevant. Good technique on the guitar is so important. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for embracing and celebrating individuality, but if you have an idiosyncratic playing style, like running up a steep hill, you’ll find playing much harder!

One of the rare moments we were encouraged to 'peg it', running alongside Trevor, and excellent runner - witness the huge grin on his face to see how much fun it was.
One of the rare moments we were encouraged to ‘peg it’, running alongside Trevor, and excellent runner – witness the huge grin on his face to see how much fun it was. (Picture courtesy of APC)

Strength as well, is appropriate – the right kind of strength. You won’t see many muscle-bound hill-runners out there on the fells. They’d soon grow tired (or frustrated) of lugging all that muscle mass and weight around with them. But good runners ARE strong. The strength is there, where it counts – in the core muscles of your midriff, keeping your body stable and in control and allowing you to keep good form. It’s in the legs and bum, transferring controlled and purposeful power through your feet into the ground. Similarly, good guitarists will have built up a secret strength in the many and complex muscles and tendons of the fingers, hands and wrists. It’s not a strength achieved from gripping exercise balls or pushing weights, it’s a slowly and hard-won power built through slow and steady work on technique.

‘slow and steady wins the race’.

I often encourage my guitar pupils to SLOW DOWN, and to BREAK THINGS DOWN. The worst way to practice a piece of music is to attempt to blast through it from start to finish at full speed. One day soon, maybe. But most of us need to put in lots of careful work to get to that stage.  To use another expression, ‘walk before you run’.

Rather than just running around Rivelin for an hour, hitting every hill up or down, we were taken to specific points, and asked to do short, measured repetitions. Repetition. The old chestnut. The ‘nitty gritty’ of the workshop involved focused repetitions running up and down very short but very tricky hills. Only about 20 seconds of running each time, with plenty of recovery time between goes. This allowed us to keep our energy up, to maintain focus, and to practice our form and technique. The odd times where I tried to ‘push it’ or got tired, I could feel the technique, and everything else, slipping, along with my feet.

The group looks on as one of us braves the downhill in style (Picture courtesy of APC)
The group looks on as one of us braves the downhill in style. (Picture courtesy of APC)

This real-life and very physical illustration of the importance of technique brought home to me the importance of structured and methodical practice. It’s great fun tearing through my current ‘project’ a Bach Fugue (the focus of a great Julian Bream masterclass here), from start to finish. If you’re prepared to tolerate the several shonky notes and missed chords along the way, you can enjoy the complete musicality of the piece.

But, I know from experience that the ONLY way to master the piece, to really ‘get’ the trickier passages, is to break it down and practice it slowly. It can be boring, it can seem backwards, over simplified, but it works. Four bars max, often just two, or one bar. Play at half speed, and repeat. And repeat, with plenty of breaks in between to allow your fingers and brain to recharge. And don’t be in a hurry to speed it up. You will learn what you need to learn just as well at this painstaking speed.

John Williams, one of the greatest if not the greatest Classical Guitarists, spent much of his early practice time being supervised by his dad. That’s a bit much isn’t it? A bit weird? I have a mental image of his old fella sitting there, staring at his fingers, grimacing. But the reason he did it? To make sure young John wasn’t sat their for hours on end practicing mistakes. Practising slowly, and with care and attention, helps us avoid practising ourselves into bad habits. When you feel things becoming easy, like you’re floating through your exercise in an out-of-body state, then are you ready to take it forward.

What I found after both of the sessions was that strange new parts of my legs had started aching. But I was glad, because it demonstrates that I’d been put through it’s paces in a new and challenging ways. Progress had been made.

Now every time I stumble on to the hills, I do so with a new sense of purpose, with the mantra of our APC coaches fresh in my mind. I know that if I keep striving for good form, and take my time to build the strength I need, some time in the future, I’ll enjoy running in a way I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.


 

For more information about the Accelerate Performance Centre, and their excellent Sheffield shop, Accelerate Store, visit:

http://www.accelerateuk.com/
https://www.facebook.com/accelerateuk
http://twitter.com/AccelPerform