Saturday, January 21, 2012

annual pilgrimage

This week was my annual pilgrimage to the NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA.  NAMM is a huge conference for dealers of musical instruments (and everything you can imagine might be tied to them) and manufacturers.  It is a big deal in that business and many of the manufacturers essentially do their entire years sales in the Anaheim convention center so they all trot out their newest and slickest.

I first attended about 5 years ago and was struck first by the booth babes... you've seen photos of them at auto shows.  They were exactly the same.  6 foot tall women wearing very little clothing and more often than not, surgically enhanced in multiple ways.  As the economy went down over the last few years, the booth babes were the first expenditure to be cut and very, very few displays had them this year.  Business seems to be on the way back up and attendance seemed higher than the last few years although there were some obvious manufacturers who were absent.

It is a convention only for people who are in the business so if you don't have a tie with a manufacturer, a retailer who will send you to the event, or are a big enough star to be able to get in for publicity's sake, you can't attend.  I get in on a visitor's pass with Lowden Guitars and really enjoy getting to spend some time with George and his family, seeing their primary demonstrator at the booth, Thomas Leeb, and getting to see the newest and slickest that George and company have produced this year.

For those of you who don't know,  Lowden is a small Irish family run company that builds what I consider to be the finest guitars in the world.  They build about 500 guitars a year and are played by some of the finest guitar players in the world including Pierre Bensusan, Alex DeGrassi, Richard Thompson, and Thomas Leeb.  Many other famous players have played Lowdens at one time or another in their careers and there are scores of wonderful players around the world who love these amazing guitars.  I've been playing them since about '86 or '87 and currently own two.  My primary guitar is an O25C Custom built in 2000 after my first Lowden, an L25C built in early '86, was stolen in Philadelphia in August of 1999.  My second is a recently acquired S10P built in '87.  It is old, beaten, abused, and scarred.  The two guitars have slightly different voices but they clearly come from the same gene pool and both really sing.  They are not inexpensive guitars, but at this quality one would never expect them to be.  That said, I have not played any guitars at any price that I would choose over a Lowden and I have played some very expensive guitars.

African Blackwood F50
Lowden had a bunch of gorgeous guitars in their booth but was really getting buzz about three of them.  One was a medium size guitar with a redwood top, very elegant appointments including a bevel on the lower bout that makes the guitar more comfortable to pay, and back and sides of a very rare and expensive wood (at least in sizes needed for guitars) called African Blackwood.  The wood has all of te characteristics needed for an excellent guitar and this one is.  It was also the most expensive guitar at the booth.

The real buzz came from two prototype fan fret guitars.  Let me explain the concept behind these guitars.  Longer strings work better for lower pitches and shorter strings work better for higher pitches.  This is called scale length and tells you the distance between the nut (the piece of bone near the top of the guitars neck) and the saddle (the piece of bone in the bridge).  The vast majority of guitars have a single scale length for all six strings which like many issues in guitar design, represents a compromise.  Once you've chosen your scale length, there are formulas that tell you where to put the frets so the guitar can play in a well tempered scale (another compromise to tuning).  What would happen if you had multiple scale lengths so the lowest strings were longer and the highest strings shorter?  Theoretically the low pitches would be richer and deeper and the high ones clearer and more bell like.  This is especially noticeable for folk who do lots of altered tunings.  Of course, it requires some voodoo with the frets, nut, bridge, and braces to make it all work.  Most visible is the arrangement of the frets... like a fan.  A few individual builders have been producing guitars with these multiple scale lengths but they are often incredibly expensive and beyond the experience of almost all guitarists.  George produced two prototypes of fan fret guitars and every player who visited the booth wanted to try them.  The high point of my time there was when Colin Hay, known to many from his days in the 80's band Men at Work, and a friend of his played a gorgeous duet on the two fan frets in the quiet room at the Lowden display.  Just sublime.  The sound of the guitars was really beautiful and they fit together, hand in glove.
fan fret guitars

I forget what the actual string lengths were, but, if I remember correctly, the lowest string is more than 1.5 inches longer than the highest one. Notice in the photo that the frets are arranged in a fan.  The slanted bridge on the right hand guitar is the logical way to get a slanted saddle but the interior bracing of the guitar must be changed to accommodate the different placement of the bridge.  The guitar on the left uses George's normal bridge with what struck me as a Salvador Dali'esque extension for the slanted saddle.  This allows George to retain his signature bracing pattern.  Some who looked at the guitar asked whether that additional wood would deaden the sound or lessen sustain.  I certainly couldn't hear any deficits. 

The orientation of the frets did cause many of the players to scratch their heads.  Some reported that once they ignored what their eyes were telling them, they didn't feel any difference in playing.  Others said that it would require some small adjustments to technique.  I was in the second group.  Given the depth and balance of George's "regular" guitars, I'm not sure I see the need need for the fan frets and so I can't see a situation where I'd feel the need to adjust.  Others, especially some fingerstyle players who often play with the lower strings dropped a step or more, may see the design as a wonderful thing.

I didn't see much of the rest of the show... I walked through the entire center once and I did look at cases and gig bags since I need a new one for my S10P, but other than that, I stayed pretty close to the Lowden booth.

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