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Jamming with Ian Siegal

Jamming with Ian Siegal 0

A few weeks back I got an invitation to a party of an old friend of mine, from back in the days when I'd just started playing guitar again. He's got married, and at the time didn't have proper celebration party..so this was their party, and he told me that he'd got Ian Seigal to come and play for him. It sounded like a great evening, then about a week later I got another message..Ian Siegal was going to do a solo acoustic set and then wanted a band to back him..could I help out?

Ian Siegal opening the evening with a solo set.

Now, for those of you who don't know about Ian Siegal, he is an amazing, performing with the slide guitar technique of Muddy Waters and the voice of Howlin' Wolf, he tours internationally and been nominated for so many awards I can't keep track of them.  I asked my band, Chickenbone Blues, and they were all up for it, so we were all very excited and pleased to be asked.  It goes without saying I was a bit nervous, but I reckon he took it easy with us. During the quick sound check it was apparent that he wasn't going to play in "cowboy chord" positions...capoing his guitar in F, but that was no big deal. I broke a string on my Airline resonator guitar during the first number, so swapped to cigar box guitar for the rest of the high-powered set. We certainly had to work hard...bouncing around in different keys, F, G, Bflat, C and more, but it was very enjoyable.

Mr Siegal giving precise instructions to Alan Nicholls on drums

After the performance, Ian retired to the smoking area where he was holding court, entertaining the crowd accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with some fine renderings of "I Walk The Line" and a Johnny Cash version of "Hit Me Baby One More Time"..declaring that "Any song is improved by singing it in the style of Johnny Cash". I sat in with him for a while, playing a National resonator guitar borrowed from the host..at one point being told the chord changes by Ian as he went into a number I also play, Warren Zevons "Werewolves Of London". As I'd already loaded my gear into the van, and it had started snowing, I decided it was time to hit the road, so I left him to it, and his well-deserved 3rd bottle of wine.

 

  • John Wormald

Internet forums...I try keeping away but sometimes I can't help myself. 5

Over the past year or so I've voluntarily absented myself from a lot of internet discussions, as I've found that proffering advice sometimes results in some unpleasant postings in return. It's not that I want to appear to be a know-it-all, or force my way of doing things on people, but when I see bad advice being given..and then taken as gospel by folks who don't know any better, I sometimes feel that I have to try and put a bit of balance into the situation.

The problem is that there are a lot of well meaning helpful folk out there in the virtual guitar making word of the internet, but not that many wise or genuinely experienced people. There are some very experienced people...but they are either too busy making guitars, or maybe so wise that they aren't going to share their hard earned experience for free with every Tom, Dick and CyberHarry.

Consequently one can observe the inexorable rise of the "overnight expert", with a view and something to say about pretty much everything. It's great that people figure out things for themselves from scratch, and it's a good way of learning, but there are a lot of people with very little experience who are eager to share their own scant knowledge with those who are seekers after truth...and people with latch onto anything and take it as the only true Gospel. Take it with a pinch of salt.

I see it all the time when people start discussing technical matters, such as how to ground (or earth, in UK ) electric guitars, what action to use for slide, how to read music, what causes a pickup to be microphonic...the list goes on and on. Someone will pitch in with an answer that's not quite right, often offering a solution that shows there's no real understanding of what the problem is caused by. If there's nobody else around with any better knowledge, this can get seized upon as the way forward by several eager people, and acquires some credence. It quickly gets accepted and indeed defended as Gospel truth, and anyone who steps in to shed a little light on the matter can quickly find themselves reviled and shunned. 

It doesn't happen all the time, but I see it happen far too often than I feel comfortable with. As an example the other day I saw a discussion about how to wire an electric guitar, and someone said they were having difficulty soldering seven (yes, 7) wires onto one terminal of a control potentiometer. My experience of having wired nearly 1000 guitars told me there was something fundamentally wrong with the way this person was approaching the task, and that I could probably help to make things easier and simpler for the poor guy. There were various solutions proffered, but not one person stepped in to say, "That doesn't sound right, why are you trying to solder so many wires to one point?". Nobody had done the obvious thing and Googled "Electric guitar wiring diagram". When I posted a diagram from Seymour Duncan (a very well respected pickup manufacturer) it didn't really change the dynamic of the discussion thread, it still seemed to carry on in it's own crazy way, effectively trying to re-invent the wheel and coming up with something that was triangular in shape  - i.e. a result that was impractical and illogical.

What many participants of internet discussion boards and groups are very small don't seem to grasp is that there is a real world out there that is totally indifferent to their passions and problems, and there are a lot of big fish in very small bowls. Unfortunately it can tend to create a very insular and blinkered view of the real world that exists beyond the confines of the computer monitor.  There has been a lot of discussion of late about very cheap cigar box guitars, either cheap Chinese kits or people making and selling them for what appears not much more than the cost of the parts. It's obvious that there's a myriad reasons why people make and sell cheap guitars...there are plenty of people who don't value their own time, don't need to make money, haven't a clue about marketing and selling something, or are happy to palm off a piece of junk on someone who knows even less than they do...and so forth and so on. However the whole discussion seems to excite people and stimulate a lot of introspection and breast beating that really does nobody any good. What's certainly happened is that more and more people are making cigar box guitars, and selling them at very low prices. There's a bizarre "cottage industry" scene that's going on that is distorted by the very fact that people don't need to make money at it because for them it's hobby and they have a regular job or other income to support them. Consequently prices (and often quality) can be very low, and yet there seems to be an endless stream of people who want to try their hand at becoming the next leading entrepreneur in the field.

A little less conversation, a little more action...so enough of this, back to the workshop for me.

  • John Wormald

2015...another hard row to plough. 0

Phew, another year end nearly come around, and I’ve kept myself busy again. 2014 saw me consolidating my guitar making and music business…with only the odds and ends of my day job as an architect to deal with, putting my elder daughter Anne to work, helping me around the workshop and in the office, a couple of festivals, workshop and so on. 2015 has moved up a gear, and has been a full-on year of getting the business on a serious footing.

My daughter Anne at Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival

Anne has moved from part time to full time, dealing with all the sales, the website, packing, shipping, prepping for workshop and festivals, running workshops with me...and working on the guitars too...designing artwork, painting, finishing, soldering, fretting. It’s meant I’ve had to up my game to pay her wages, but I couldn’t do it without her…and my wife has retired, so the pressure to keep putting bread on the table has increased.

Blue Sugar Skulls designed and painted by Anne Zilpha

We’ve had to do forward planning, task allocations, weekly progress meetings…in short, we’ve had to get really serious about things. It’s meant registering the “ChickenboneJohn” name as a trademark, getting public liability insurance, product liability insurance, employer’s liability insurance, setting up trade accounts with suppliers, striking deals with overseas suppliers, and joining the Musicians’ Union…yes I’m now a card-carrying member! All of this is the stuff that you don’t see that has to be done when a hobby changes into a business…the most obvious outward sign of this change is sitting on my driveway. I sold my car and acquired a 2.7 tonne Mercedes van, as it had come to the point when doing festivals was pretty much impossible with my little Vauxhall Meriva.

The new Mercedes...how did we manage with my little Vauxhall?!

Inside the van...getting a bit more of that  lived-in look.

We’d bought a big, serious “Ezy-Up” marquee that in itself weighs in at around 80kg, and that together with tables, lights, PA system, banner and all the other gear needed to sell at a festival, meant that it simply wouldn’t fit in the car. Of course, buying the van means bigger bills and business insurance on the vehicle, and it’s part of the cost I have to factor in of running a business.

 

3 days of this is hard work (plus 2 half days set-up and break-down)....but there are worse ways of making a living.

 

ChickenboneJohn at Upton Blues Festival 2015 from ChickenboneJohn on Vimeo.

 

We’ve done fewer workshops this year, but dipped our toes into selling at Festivals, which has turned out to be pretty successful. Not everything worked out, perhaps biting off more than I could chew, and I’ve had to pull the plug on a few things…a midlands guitars show that I’d planned didn’t happen, neither did Boxstock, I missed out on 2 decent festivals. It’s impossible to do everything, it’s all been a learning experience, and now we are already planning out the 2016 season, with bookings for gigs and festivals already confirmed and more workshops and tours being planned. In 2015 I aimed to double my 2014 guitar making target…and although I’m a little short of the projected figure, we’ve made more guitars than ever, just coming up to 200 for the past 12 months.

A few new guitars ready for the next show.

Workshop at Swindon Retro & Vintage weekend

Chilling outside The Roemer, Bremen with the boss, Christian

Beorma Morris outside the stall at Moseley Folk Fest

Here’s a sample of some of the things I’ve been up to...on top of all that there’s gigs and guitar making which were fitted into the schedule. February - Students visited the workshop for filming, workshop in Calne, Birmingham Guitar Show. March - Swindon Retro and Vintage weekend workshops with Hollowbelly, Newcastle Guitar Show, Southside Blues residency at in Birmingham.   April - Holiday in Japan to visit our younger daughter Lizzie. May- Thirsk Guitar Show, beginners’ learn to play workshop, visitor from Sweden comes to learn CBG with me, Swedish guitar magazine interview, pro workshop photoshoot, Up North CBG Fest, Haydock Park guitar show, Kettering Workshop, Oxford Workshop. June - Lunar Festival, Intermediate CBG Workshop, Headlander festival, Milton Keynes Workshop. July - Mostly Jazz Festival, Upton Blues Festival. August - Cumbria Guitar Show. September - Moseley Folk Festival, Bremen Weekender workshops with Hollowbelly, Nijdrop workshop ,Westerlo and Dark Star Hopfest weekend with Hollowbelly, Leeds Guitar Show. October - New Southside Blues residency, Cheshire Guitar Show. November - Recording session, Aintree Guitar show. December - Christmas Party for Dark Star Brewing, “A Winter Less Ordinary” alternative Christmas fair.

Already for 2106 I’ve been asked to go to Sweden and Germany to do more workshops, I’ve got a visitor from Germany flying over for an intensive course of how to play cigar box guitar, a nice “boutique” festival confirmed, we’ve applied to trade at a mega festival..but whether anything comes of that, it’s another matter…the 2016 wall planner is already looking pretty busy. I’ve got a stack of vintage USA made acoustic guitars to restore, Harmony, Airline, Stella, Kay, and some beautiful pre-war Oscar Schmidts..keep in touch if you fancy one of those, and I’m also hoping to be stocking an amazing range of French electric guitars.

Pre-war Oscar Schmidt Stella -if you want it, don't be afraid to ask!

How about this French beauty?...Oh la la! Scheduled for early 2016

None of this would be possible with a great network of contacts...friends, family, customers, musicians, suppliers, venues, promoters...the boundaries blur between the categories, but the kindness, enthusiasm and support of all these people too numerous to mention here have made it all happen for me. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  • John Wormald

Problems with expensive foreign guitars.... 0

I occasionally get asked to have look at cigarbox guitars made by other people, usually to sort out problems with the neck or electrics.  I'm always intrigued to get the opportunity to have a look at other maker's instruments, so that I can  see how they do it compared with my approach, and maybe learn a few tips and ways that I can improve my work. It never seems to work out that way, I usually end up reflecting on how  these guys charge top-dollar prices for less than top-notch work. I don't want to do "knocking copy", but sometimes I feel I have to say something, and I just speak as I find.

Well, I've just had another one in my workshop...with the customer reporting high string action. I know the maker simply by the fact that I've spotted him on the internet -  he seems to be a prolific maker, and his prices are high...(the guitar in question is a 5 string and cost $500).

It came in a custom moulded ABS hardcase, and on opening the case, the guitar looked pretty much like what I'd seen on the website. The first point to note was that the pickup had fallen out...it looked like it had just been hot glued into a cut-out on the neck...but that wasn't the problem I'd been asked to look at. 

Here's the hole for the pickup...looks like it was bedded on a sliver of wood with a dab of glue..and you can see the very skinny neckstick that it was glued onto.

The string action was around 5mm at the 12th fret, so I sighted down the neck (just like taking aim with a rifle) and it was obvious that the neck was badly bent. It's made from a single piece of maple with a rosewood fretboard, all properly glued-up,  nicely shaped and finished, good frets..but it was bent. I put a straightedge and it was showing a 1.5mm bend in the centre of the neck..not good, especially as this instrument has no adjustable trussrod (I don't think it's got any sort of neck reinforcement).

In this shot, the ruler is lined up on the joint between the maple neck and the rosewood fretboard..you can see how much it's bent in the middle.

 This is built with a through neck...and worse was to come..where the neck goes through the box, the already skinny neck had been notched to fit under the top of the box. The part that goes thought the box was only about 9mm thick...and was also bent. The neck had been glued to the underside of the box lid, and so had distorted the top out of true. The full extent of how bad this was was revealed when I laid a steel rule along the top of the box...and it was apparent that the head-end of the neck had pulled forward a lot....

The steel rule was set straight on top of the box, and the joint between the dark fretboard and the lighter coloured neck should line up with the rule...it's quite clear to see that the neck has pulled forward by about 8mm.

 

I've tried to take the photo so that it was in line with the top of the box, and you can see how far out of line the neck has pulled.

So..how to repair it? Well I could reinforce the bit that went through the body, maybe plane off the fretboard, install a  trussrod and put on a new fretboard, and this would mean taking out the neck.  But the neck is glued to the top of the box, and the box is glued shut...it would need some fairly destructive work to open the box and free the neck. This really is frustrating, as I can see how to put right the structural defects, but because of the way way it has been glued together, a repair would be very difficult if not impossible, and certainly totally uneconomic. Even a simple job like replacing a faulty volume control would be impossible because of the way the thing has been glued together.

 

It's got a nice set of Grover Sta-Tite tuners on it, but looking at the headstock, you can see that the nut has been cut about 3mm narrower than the neck...really sloppy work....remember, that's  $500 plus case, shipping, import duty and VAT for this guitar.

I don't begrudge people charging top dollar for their guitars, and being successful at it, but this sort of thing really bugs me...sloppy work, a bent neck and a pickup fixed in with a dab of glue: for $500 that simply isn't right. I'm frustrated at not being able to economically repair this for my client...he bought this 2nd hand, so presumably he's got no recourse to the overseas maker. I feel he's fallen for the big-name reputation, and the product just doesn't live up to the hype. The workmanship in terms of fit and finish is fine, but it is badly designed and wrongly made in terms of that most basic of requirements, being able to resist the pull of the strings. Ah well... this is probably this nicest looking and most expensive "wall hanger" I've ever seen....no names no pack drill, you'll have to work that out for yourselves...and I've got to repeat ... $500 plus case, plus shipping, plus duty, plus VAT...think on, and buy British!

  • John Wormald

Swindon Vintage and Retro Weekend 0

Just back from a busy weekend...Saturday making cigar box guitars, and Sunday teaching people how to play, helped by Hollowbelly. There were lots of things going on...custom car show, stalls, live music, but as so often happens with this sort of thing, I was simply too busy to see any of it. Anyhow, a successful weekend, and we'll be happy to go back again next year.
  • John Wormald

Bottleneck "signature" slide...HOW MUCH????!!! 0

I saw this the other day...a "signature" bottleneck slide that I chanced upon as a result of clicking a link from a Facebook posting. Now, I do my own bottlenecks slides, made for me by the excellent Diamond Bottlenecks in the UK (I reckon they are a great product at a good price), and so take more than a passing interest in what else is out there on the market, but check this out, it's too good to miss...

 

Yes, it IS just a simple "single cut" bottleneck slide ...and the price is $54.99...FIFTY FOUR DOLLARS AND NINETYNINE CENTS!!!! (plus $10.00 shipping)..that's £35.00, compared  to about $12.50 (£7.95) for one of my single cut slides.

 

Giving these slides to "high profile" players and then hawking them at this price as a "signature" piece is some piece of marketing flummery...and I reckon they must be made of solid bull. I know that my comments can be construed as"knocking copy", but this is just too good to be ignored. I have no comments to make on the quality of the slides or players associated with this product, but at $54.99 for a piece of glass cut from a bottle...what can I say? I've made sure that the maker's and the endorsing player's names have been obscured, so you'll have to try and figure it out for yourself, should you be remotely interested in tracking them down. By the way, I understand that the price of the slide includes the cost of whatever liquor that was in the bottle in the first place. At this price, I have to conclude that it must also include the time and labour involved in subsequently consuming said liquor by the maker of the slides...it must be darned good stuff, that's all I can say.

  • John Wormald