Thursday, June 28, 2012

Musical Scenes of Paris

Jazz quartet with no-name "gypsy" guitar
Yamaha FG-335 (1977-81) out on the city
Paris is a wonderful city for walking around. Beautiful monuments give way to distinct neighborhoods. Go one block off the usual tourist attractions, take your time, and you can feel like the city is your own too.

If you keep your eye out, artists are everywhere. Here are three guitar sightings within 500 yards of each other in the historic 4th and 5th Arrondis-sements behind Notre Dame Cathedral.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New Luthier in Rouen, France

On our family sojourns in France this summer, we had the occasion to visit Rouen and the old market square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 after being captured by the English.  Wandering around this historic city that has been a major business center in one form or another at least since the middle ages, we stumbled upon a luthier's shop, "Il pleut des chordes..." on beautiful rue Damiette, and stopped in.  Large street-level windows allow passerby to watch work being done at a work bench at the front of the shop, while a side door down a covered alley leads to the display room to the rear of the shop.

Although the building itself has probably housed a street-level commerce for several hundred years, it turns out that the young owner, Baptiste Bernard, just opened the shop this year.  A graduate of the École Internationale de Lutherie d'Art, he put down his custom violin in progress to talk to me about his work.  He carries stringed instruments from baroque to modern, and is available for repairs, restorations, custom orders, and sales of beginner to professional instruments.  I was interested to learn that he does have clients seeking American-made guitars and mandolins, particularly vintage instruments from the C.F. Martin Company.  Besides the beautiful instruments, I couldn't help but admire this young luthier's entrepreneurial spirit and his beautiful shop.  It's a tough economic time to be starting a business in Europe, but I wish him the best and look forward to visiting again. Be sure to stop in if you happen to be in town.  I'll let the pictures whet your appetite...  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Flying with a Guitar (1979 Yamaha FG-335)!

Few things cause a musician more angst than trusting a precious instrument to baggage handlers and the cargo hold of a plane.  Expensive instruments can also be easy targets for theft en route.  I witnessed first-hand the sad result when my brother picked up his guitar from the carousel at Logan International Airport on a flight back from Europe back in the 80s only to find the top of the neck of his Ovation molded hardshell case bent sideways at a 20 degree angle.  The amount of force the improperly stored case must have been subjected to is hard to imagine.  Thankfully, the case did do its job as the guitar was unscathed, and the airline replaced the case, but guitarists are well aware that dangers lurk when traveling the not-so-friendly skies "avec guitare."  

Anticipating a trip to France this summer after years of traveling without a guitar, I researched the various options for bringing a guitar along.  Certain case manufacturers cater to the traveling musician, whether on tour or on vacation, and offer extra reinforced guitar cases for check-in, such as Gator Cases.  I even purchased a used CaseExtreme "Clam" travel case that actually envelops your hardshell guitar case in a corrugated plastic case with sturdy foam holders for an added layer of protection.  The preferred option, however, is not to check your guitar at all but carry it on.  Here it can get dicey though because if your flight is full, your plane is small, or both, you may have to check it at the gate anyway at the discretion of the flight crew.  Using a padded gig bag will increase the chances that you can fit your guitar in overhead storage or, failing that, that a sympathetic flight attendant will agree to place it in an upright coat check space for you.  The alternative gate check, however, while still better than simple cargo because it will be handled and delivered by hand along with children's strollers and the like, can cause your blood pressure to go up, especially if you indeed opted to leave your hardshell case behind.  Most guitarists simply decide not to travel with any prized guitar, but have a workman-like backup guitar that will not destroy their psyche if it is damaged or has to be replaced.  A travel-size guitar (a downsized model or one that has a collapsible neck) can also be a good choice, assuming you can find something you enjoy playing, as it will easily fit in most carry-on luggage compartments in a soft-shell case.

Before leaving, I confirmed online that American Airlines considers guitars hand carry luggage.  I opted to bring my refurbished 1979 Yamaha FG-335 $90 closet find in a Roadrunner padded gig bag. As I was traveling with a family group of five, including my two kids and one of their friends, we presented ourselves at the gate before the boarding for our section was called without any problem.  Although eventually full, our Boeing 757 easily accommodated my gig bag in the overhead storage.  I noticed at least one other passenger also traveling with a gig bag.  Mine never elicited even a second look from the gate or flight staff.  We'll see if the return flight goes as smoothly.  In the meantime, it's been great to be able to play some in front of a Normandy hearth while on vacation.

Check out a more recent flying with a guitar post here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

1971 Manuel Reyes Blanca Flamenco Guitar

Legendary Spanish luthier Manuel Reyes, Sr. has made some of the most sought after flamenco guitars over his 60 years in the business. Making guitars since 1949, he produced about 20 concert-quality guitars a year, with perhaps only half as many being Flamenco guitars.  In later years the wait list reached upwards of 15 years and all but closed to new orders.  He is now reportedly no longer making guitars due to health issues, although his son Manuel Reyes Jr. is continuing the tradition.  Because of their recognized quality and great scarcity, used Manuel Reyes Sr. guitars in excellent condition can easily run $10,000-20,000, and some have commanded significantly more.

So it was with great interest that I recently had the good fortune to play one of these gems in the home of its original owner, a former student of flamenco guitar who had the guitar custom-made by Manuel Reyes Sr. in 1971.  A "Blanca" model, it boasts a solid European Spruce top and solid Spanish Cypress back and sides.  It has been admirably maintained despite traveling the world over, thanks in part to its custom-made vintage Mark Leaf case, which boasts a built-in hygrometer and a positive seal between the top and bottom of the case to maintain a stable humidity level.  Although my classical guitar repertoire is very limited, I pulled out some rusty Malagueña fragments learned over 30 years ago for the occasion and revelled in the authentic flamenco sound this guitar produced.  It sure sounded worlds better than any classical guitar I have ever played.  Everything from volume, depth, and clarity across all registers was exquisite even to my relatively untrained ear.  Words fail, but it's one of those things: "you know it when you hear it."

Thanks to YouTube, you can check out this short clip of Vincente Amigo playing a 1988 Reyes Blanca to get some sense of how lovely one of these guitars sounds, especially in the hands of a pro.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Martin M-21 Steve Earle Custom Signature Edition

Mitch demos the M-21
On the occasion of a family trip into New York City last weekend, I had time to visit Matt Umanov's Guitar Store in Manhattan and meet one of the guys behind the counter, Mitch Distefano.  An accomplished guitarist himself, Mitch grew up hanging out at the store and has worked there off and on for years while teaching guitar, helping various artists with their songwriting, DJ'g in the City, and performing with various bands.  While pulling down various guitars for me to play, he regaled me with tales of recent celebrity walk-ins, which are a common occurrence at this guitar mecca in the heart of the West Village.  Carlos Santana, for example, anonymously walked in wearing a skull cap recently and other customers were too busy playing away on their instruments to even notice him before he headed back out the door without a word.  Johnny Depp, on the other hand, came in with a bodyguard who had to shoo away the paparazzi to allow him to buy two high-end guitars in peace.

After sampling the Martin 000-28, the HD-28, and a clean 1974 D-18, I asked Mitch whether he had any particularly interesting guitar in the store.  He handed me a beautiful shaded-top Martin M-21 Steve Earle Custom Signature guitar, which Matt Umanov helped Steve Earle design.  The M-size combines a jumbo-sized body (0000) with the slimmer depth of a 000 model.  Matt Umanov helped develop this particular combination after he converted a Martin archtop to a flat top in the 1960s. It was later used as the pattern for the Martin M model, which debuted in the 1970s and has been used extensively by Steve Earle.  First issued in 2008, the M-21 boasts a solid Italian Alpine Spruce top with forward-shifted scalloped bracing, solid East Indian Rosewood back and sides, and a dressed down look that combines various style 18, 21, and 28 appointments.  The old-school headstock, butterbean tuner knobs, and tortoise-color pickguard complete the vintage-looking package, which will set you back $4,000+.

This is a sweet guitar.  The low profile solid Mahogany neck and East Indian Rosewood fretboard plays easily.  The M-sized body is comfortable and light to handle.  The guitar has wonderful presence and a full sound all the way through its high to low registers.  I especially liked the rich bass response. Meanwhile, the understated appointments give it a classic Martin look and feel.  The shaded top on this particular guitar is an additional option that makes for a handsome instrument that looks as good as it sounds.  Give it a try when you get the chance.  You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Guild Face-Off: D-25 vs. GAD-25

So today I finally had a chance to put my 1981 Guild D-25M up against my 2011 Guild GAD-25. The D-25 is the best-selling Guild acoustic model ever and has gone through various iterations.  Mine has a solid (Mahogany-stained) Spruce top and arched Mahogany laminate back.  The GAD-25 has a solid Mahogany flat top and back and is closer to the original D-25 introduced in 1968 and a second version discontinued in 2003.  It is one of the Guild Acoustic Design (GAD) series models built in China to Guild specifications to achieve a lower price point for an all solid wood guitar. First introduced in 2005, this year's GAD model is now called the D-125 and lists for $739 with a street price around $550.

Both guitars are big and powerful, with a warm sound, but one stood out with its crisp note definition in all registers: the GAD-25!  By comparison, the D-25 sounded muddled, especially in the middle ranges.  Thinking it might be the strings that were due for a change, I repeated the comparison with the D-25 strung with my favorites: Elixir medium-lights.  Although the new strings sounded better, it was still an obvious win for the Chinese-made GAD-25 (on the right) over the Westerly, RI-made D-25 (on the left).  The finish work on the GAD-25 is also impressive.  The Mahogany wood binding around the body is particularly striking (although the 2012 model now sports a more prosaic black binding).  And you can get it brand new for less than what you would have to pay for a vintage model in good shape.  Who knew?

2006 Martin Custom D Rosewood

Although, the Martin Custom D is made for Guitar Center, the Walmart of guitar stores, (also available online through Musician's Friend), players should not dismiss this mid-level all solid wood Martin available new for under $1000.  It has a solid Sitka Spruce top with book-matched halves, solid East Indian Rosewood one-piece back and sides, and a solid Mahogany neck.  There is also a Spruce top and Mahogany back and sides version. Its unadorned features include simple white binding around the body and a satin finish, which I actually prefer to more expensive high gloss finishes.  It is a very comfortably-light dreadnaught-sized guitar.  What you get, without paying for more bling and a classic pedigreed Martin model like the D-28, is that wonderful Martin tone and easy playability.

When a pristine 2006 Custom D was listed this week locally at an attractive price, I arranged to check it out in the North End the next day during lunch.  It was a beautiful sunny day and as I navigated the narrow streets, presumably-retired Italian-American gentlemen were out on their chairs on several local sidewalks shooting the breeze just as one might imagine they have been doing in this historic Boston neighborhood for a couple of centuries.  It was thus not incongruous when I left my car double parked on the seller's one-way street, he brought down his guitar, and I gave it a go right on his building's front steps.  I was immediately struck with how warm and mellow this guitar sounded.  Strung with relatively new Elixir medium-gauge strings, it was plenty bright but with a full deep bass register.  Sweet!  With nary a blemish, as advertised, I ended up paying the asking price.  The guitar safely in the back seat, I drove off, leaving behind one of Boston's authentic neighborhoods and a wistful former Martin owner.