Ode to Strings

EJ25B Strings

from the D’Addario website – Pro-Arté – EJ25B:

Pro-Arté Composite strings offer the traditional elegance of our Pro-Arte’ line, with the added benefit of an elevated bass response. The exclusive composite core bass strings in the set produce a bold, projecting low-end, providing a more influential tone than nylon basses. Paired with black nylon trebles, this set of Pro-Arte’ Composite strings offers a sound which is both alluring and commanding. This Flamenco Tension set delivers a flexible feel, while still maintaining the quick response that is essential for flamenco players.

I started using D’Addario strings around 1990. I didn’t have a Flamenco guitar when I recorded NF. I only had an inexpensive (around $350) classical guitar and used D’Agostino strings for the basses and Savarez strings for the trebles. Or maybe it was the other way around? Under the microscope of the recording studio, I didn’t find the strings to be very dependable and sometimes I had to change strings several times until I found some that were in tune and the overtones sounded correctly. When we started touring in the Summer of 1990 I had to find something more reliable. I tried D’Addario classical strings and liked them. Each set appeared to be identical. There were simply no bad sets. (I think I rejected only one set in thirty years… that’s unbelievably consistent!)

Sometime in 1990 I was added to the list of D’Addario artists and began to receive free strings. D’Addario responded to problems, like when two D-strings broke during the filming of a TV interview in Canada. Within a few months D’Addario changed the design of the D-string, by adding an additional filament on the inside, and it never broke again.

D’Addario developed the Pro Arté composite strings and I used different versions of those. In 2010 I was using the basses from the EJ45C Composites Normal Tension set and T2 Titanium Normal Singles for the trebles. A year later I discovered the black nylon Flamenco set and have been playing them ever since! When I discovered the EJ25B set and put them on the guitar for the first time I knew they were nearly perfect and a huge step forward. The G string fit much better, both in diameter and in sound, and was more in tune. Nearly 12 years later and I can’t imagine anything better. From time to time different string manufacturers have offered me their strings to try but I have never found anything I liked better. I have been a D’Addario artist for so long that I am grandfathered in… my name is not found among the many names of guitarists on their website. That suits me fine, because I am still getting free strings, which is what matters to me.

I sent Stephen Duros a few sets of EJ25B to try and here is what he wrote:

I’ve always been a fan of D’Addario nylon strings and when Ottmar suggested that I try the EJ25B Flamenco strings, I did. They are exactly what I am looking for in a set of strings. The tension is perfect, the tone is great, bold and punchy. This set of strings has all the qualities I want and my guitar has never sounded better.

So this is my ode to strings. These strings work. I don’t have to wonder whether the B and G strings will be in tune for Waiting in Vain… I can expect a set to last about two weeks and for most of that time it will be rock solid. After two weeks I will hear that some overtones have shifted and it’s time for a new set.

PS: I remember when a member of our crew once offered to re-string my guitar. When he saw my disbelieving look, he said that he played guitar himself and knew he could do it right. I remember replying that while I had no doubt that he would do a good job, I considered changing the strings to be an essential part of playing guitar and that there was no way that I would not do it myself. I guess I wasn’t meant to be a rock star! :-)

PPS: I also appreciate that D’Addario has a recycling program. I participated in all kinds of string programs that collected used strings to send them to areas where people can’t afford to buy strings. These programs didn’t usually last long, shipping costs probably being too prohibitive. The D’Addario recycling program has been going strong for a bunch of years and I always collect old strings in a bag.

Jeff Beck

Guest post about Jeff Beck, by Jon Gagan. Jon wrote about Jeff Beck and I found myself nodding in agreement with every line. So I asked him whether I could post it here.

Jeff Beck 1944-2023

The true power of music lies in its ability to make us feel. It almost doesn’t matter which feeling is evoked: joy, sadness, inspiration, anger, we want to be moved.
It is a true rarity when an instrumentalist comes along who can harness that power to the fullest. Jeff Beck was one of those players. While absolutely no one could out-rock him (one needs only to read the tributes pouring in from just about every legendary rock guitarist alive to know that this is a widely held view) his real genius was perhaps in his ability to play beautifully.

Here was a guy who invented and mastered his own guitar language, wringing emotion out of every note with his hands, the volume knob and whammy bar on the guitar, and his amp. He had the lyricism and expressive powers of the best vocalists and combined that with high voltage to create a singular voice on electric guitar. It’s obvious that he cared deeply about going for something way beyond being impressive, beyond being a rock star or guitar hero. He created beauty, whether it was the rich wall of sound coming from masterfully controlled high-decibel feedback, or gently bending the string into an evocative cry.
His version of Puccini’s Nessun dorma* (Emotion & Commotion, 2010) fully exhibits this incredible emotional range. Nessun dorma is an aria that opera tenors have used as a tour-de-force since Puccini wrote it in the early 20th century. Jeff Beck played it on guitar, complete with the kind of devastating climax that made Pavarotti famous.

He had skills as an improvisor that put him in the company of jazz musicians. The flow of ideas in a typical Beck solo is truly astonishing. He was able to cook a stew of memorable spontaneous melodies, inimitable guitar techniques, and a deep grasp of the blues into masterpieces.

His passion for pushing the boundaries of electric guitar led Jeff Beck to be a serious person. Absent from his life story are the tales of excess and self-destructiveness so common among his generation of famous musicians. In this way he has provided a guiding light for many of us who have a straightforward passion for being as good as we can be as musicians, never mind the trappings of stardom or the rest of it. He reminded us over an extraordinarily long and vibrant career that music and playing instruments is a worthwhile pursuit for anyone who chooses to be truly devoted. He was 64 years old when he recorded Nessun dorma, fully at the top of his game. It wasn’t an isolated feat, either. It is but one example of the stellar work he did in the last few decades of his life. Forever searching, learning, innovating, and expressing emotion.
For me, he has always been the ultimate inspiration.

R.I.P. Jeff Beck. Your contribution to the world is beyond measure.

*also mentioned by Steve in the comments section of Ottmar’s original post on Jeff Beck

Getting Out of the Way

There are, for those with the requisite sense, currents, energy flows, and dialogues to be discerned in the Japanese garden. Shunmyo Masuno contends that when arranging rocks, for example, one must “converse” with the stone, waiting “until it seems to speak and say where it wants to be put.” According to some of the subjects of Listening to Clay, a similar collaboration, or consulting, takes place between potters and their material. Artist Michiko Ogawa, for example, is very specific on this point, stating that she attempts to, “listen to what the material has to say,” posing the question, “What does the clay want to be?”
Listening to Clay

Some will read this and wonder whether that conversation is entirely imagined by the artist, and will question whether it can, in fact, be a dialog. I believe that not only is it a dialog, it’s more real than the consentual hallucination of regular life.

I think there are a few different movements that are part of this experience, several steps of this dance. There is getting out of the way. There is getting into the flow. There is also, acknowledging being part of a larger web of things. We are all just molecules dancing in space, whether we are humans, rocks, or melodies.

I feel kinship with these words: Listen to what the material has to say and What does the clay want to be is analogous to my experience of What does this piece of music want to be. The sentence It seems to speak and say where it wants to be put relates just as well to the notes of a melody as it does to a rock. I get out of the way of the flow and allow the music to materialize itself. The music moves my hands — that is the feeling when it really works. I don’t know where my music comes from. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It comes through me is the sensation I have.

Now I am lying here wondering whether that’s how a tree feels about their branches and leaves. They simply grew where they needed to go.

I woke up at 0200 and was wide awake. Now it’s 0322. Better try to get out of the way of sleep.

Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck, among the most innovative and certainly the most unpredictable of ’60s guitar heroes, has died. He was 78.
Jeff Beck, One of the Guitar Masters of the Rock Era, Dies at 78 – Variety

For me he was THE best. His tone, his phrasing, his bending… Damn, he was so good. I keep returning to Live at Ronnie Scott’s, which I have on DVD. Spellbinding, to watch Beck do some of those things. Jon gave me the vinyl LP of Emotion & Commotion, produced by the great Steve Lipson. I think I also have the vinyl of Blow by Blow, which I bought decades ago. End of an era.

People use the word legend very freely.
Sometimes they are right. Sometimes not.
Jeff defines the word.
This one hurts and also the real fact is that NO ONE will ever come close.
ONE note is all he had to play and it was game over.
His one of a kind playing-talent and work cannot be overstated!
I am still processing like we all are.

Steve Lukather on Lefsetz Letter

Here is a fun listen/watch: Remember (Walking in the Sand)


Yesterday afternoon I had to fix my nails. I was playing guitar and noticed that the acrylic shields were coming loose from two nails. I can usually feel it happen and it can also sound a little different. Of course, I don’t want the acrylic to come off while I am performing although that has happened. Sometimes the nail-shield is loose but nevertheless holding on too tight and I can’t pull it off without damaging the nail underneath. Playing at the Vogue in Vancouver, years ago, I asked the band to improvise while I dealt with a nail and went backstage. Since there was no time for a new shield to dry, I re-glued the shield that had come off. Another time I was playing at Greg Gorman’s birthday party and he told me he actually saw a nail come off and sail through the air as I was playing. For a moment he thought it was an actual nail. Oh, the horror.

I decided to combine a couple of older fingernail posts into one big nail post and added an update at the bottom:

I remember reading a blogpost many years ago where someone had asked Paco de Lucia about playing guitar. The post was taken down later, perhaps because it wasn’t an authorized interview, perhaps because of the language Paco used, not knowing it would be published. I will always remember it though because it was so true. Here is part of it – and here is the link to the full quote:

I could not live without the guitar, but at the same time this is no way of life, because it is such a difficult instrument, so ungrateful; you dedicate your whole life to it, hours and days, and suddenly you come up on stage, and that day you feel in perfect shape for playing, and still you don’t hit one single string right, and you cannot figure out why… it depends on so many things, on how long your fingernails are… I am talking about tenths of millimeters, and you ask yourself. What is going on? Where am I failing? And it could be a badly polished nail…

As a teenager I read an interview with a classical guitarist. She said that one has to file one’s nails a little bit every day. At the time I figured that the statement was hyperbole, but eventually I figured out that she was right. Nail care is the most underrated aspect of being a nylon string guitar player, whether we play classical or flamenco guitar.

In places where the humidity is high nails grow a little faster, as does hair. When playing on the East Coast I may have to file my nails every single day, but in a dry climate like New Mexico or Arizona that’s not necessary.

It amazes me how differently guitar players file their nails. There are many different ways people do the filing itself, and also many different shapes that they give their nails. Some guitarists file only in one direction, others file back and forth, some go for flat nails and others for slightly pointy ones. Mine are rounded, neither flat nor pointy. But no matter what, it’s something a guitarist has to deal with all of the time.
It is not good when one walks onto a stage, excited to perform, and then discovers that the nails grew a little too much… and suddenly one gets stuck on strings. A fraction of a millimeter is all it takes to throw the guitarist off and too long is as bad as too short…

I sometimes wonder whether one can observe how people open doors and cupboards and know immediately whether they are guitar players. As a teenager I trained myself to open everything with my left hand, so I would not chance breaking a nail. I can imagine an episode of Sherlock, the one with Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, where he says it was the guitar player because, although he is right handed, he trained himself to do things with his left hand. Therefore he could have committed the murder instead of a left-handed person.

There are two reasons to fortify one’s nails: to prevent ripping part of the nail off accidentally during the hours of the day that one doesn’t play guitar, and to enable the player to create a stronger tone. The latter is especially important when one performs with a drummer. Being able to play a little louder makes the sound engineer’s job a lot easier.

Recently I did some research into different ways to protect my nails. In the late Eighties I used a few layers of superglue. In the Nineties I added baking soda. This created a much stronger nail, but was frayed with danger. Adding too much baking soda to the superglue creates so much chemical heat that one can develop a blister underneath the nail, a terrible experience. In the late Nineties I switched to acrylic powder with superglue.

Last year I experimented with a bunch of different nail polishes. I figured that since nail polish is a billion dollar industry a lot of research must go into improving it.

I discovered that good nail polish is not actually very hard, and certainly not as hard as superglue with acrylic powder, but it is flexible. That’s how chipping is prevented, and the polish appears to self-repair. And that doesn’t work for guitar playing because it ruins the attack. The nail polish seems to absorb the guitar string rather than to bounce it back.

So now I am back to using acrylic powder and super glue. I did notice that it makes a big difference when I remove the natural oils from my nails by putting a little nail polish remover onto a cotton pad and wiping the nails before brushing on the superglue. And, because it is nice to try something new, I will start using a black acrylic powder I recently found.

Today I still use acrylic powder with Krazy Glue brand super glue. I tried other, more expensive, brands of super glue but since I didn’t notice that they made a difference I went back to Krazy Glue. Another advantage of this brand is that it can be found in any drugstore, should I need more supply while on tour. I also still use nail polish remover before I start with the glue application, because it removes any oil on the nail, evaporates quickly, and makes the glue adhere better.

I bought reusable cotton fabric pads to use with nail polish remover but they didn’t seem to work very well. Besides, the disposable pads are also made from cotton and totally can be reused. Each pad lasts at least six months for me. I put the bottle of nail polish remover and a couple of disposable cotton pads in a baggie. A second baggie contains the glue and a small container of acrylic powder. I have traveled with the same container for years, because I buy larger acrylic powder packages and then pour the powder into this small container.

I buy my files at Sally Beauty at DeVargas Mall, in Santa Fe, and have done that for decades. This is their 4-way file. I never use the coarsest part of the file but the other three are perfect for different situations. I buy at least five of these every time I’m in Santa Fe. I have tried reusable metal files but have never found anything that worked for me. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments. I also use this buffer block, which Stephen Duros turned me on to a long time ago. Perfect for the finest polishing and the final buffering.

I try to fix my nails at least a day before a concert because it takes a while for the super glue and acrylic powder mix to cure. The nail may feel hard right away but it will sound better, much better, after several hours or, ideally, overnight. Let me be more specific: when plucking strings the difference between a recently done nail and a well-cured one will be very small, since we use the underside of the nail, but when strumming or doing rasguados the difference will be much larger and obvious, because we use the top of the nail.

Here is another tip, born out of experience: take the temperature into consideration. Is the stage warmer or colder than the room in which you wait before the performance? When your hands are cold the nails will protrude more and may feel too long. When your hands are warm the flesh covers more of the nail and the nail will feel shorter. If you are in a cold room and decide that your nails are too long and file them shorter, when you go onto a stage that is warm, especially under old-fashioned non-LED lights (which put out a lot of heat!), your nails will soon be too short. We are not even talking about a millimeter… a difference of a small fraction of a millimeter can make a big difference. It forces an adjustment while performing instead of just playing.