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does the fun never start?
"You have questions; I tend to mumble."
I occasionally get asked, and I frequently see and hear folks in guitar forums and clinics ask questions about guitar setup, string gauges, tunings, live sound processing, home recording strategies, and various other stuff that would send most sane folks into a prolonged coma.

I can tend to go off about the keyboard about this and that, so I figured I'd just write down a bunch of stuff the vast majority of the populace couldn't give a rip about. If you're in the resultant minority, this drivel is for you.

In all seriousness, if you have any questions or comments, including but not limited to "you are so full of it, mister," drop me a line.

And now: things.

» Open/Alternate Tunings and String Gauges
» Dual-Source Pickup Systems and Processing
» A Strategy for Air Travel and Guitars
» The Perils of Home Recording - coming soon
» The Benefits of Going Custom - coming soon

Open/Alternate Tunings and String Gauges - February 2004
I've been playing in open and alternate tunings for years and, the truth be told, I haven't devoted much time to playing in Standard tuning beyond basic chord shapes, scales and rudimentary classical studies (though I must confess I'm currently in the process of... "discovering" Standard). In some ways it's rather sad, but there you have it. I'm an odd one. I'm not going to get into the hows and whys of open/alternate tunings at the moment, but I am going to detail a few things I would suggest you try if you're interested in using them on your guitars, specifically, things having to do with strings, gauging and setup.

The general rule of thumb when it comes to using open/alternate tunings is to tune [generally] down from concert pitch, concert being Standard tuning: EADGBE. Why tune down? Because tuning up puts undue stress on the guitar's neck, bridge and soundboard. Because strings can go PANG! more or less without warning and leave nasty facial scars if one is not careful. So: be careful. Tune [generally] down.

I use many different tunings, and I do occasionally even stray long enough to land in Standard, but I find myself most often in some permutation of a D or C tuning. I routinely play in DADGAD, DADGBE (drop D), DGDGBE (G6), DGDGBD (open G), DGDGCD, DADF#AD (open D), CGDGAD (low-C), CGCGCD (Csus2), CGCGCE (open C), CGDGCD, CGCGAD, among many others. In the last six months I've been using a wonderful, related family of D/A tunings including DADEAD (dah-dead, lovely, eh?), DADEAE and EADEAE. And sometimes I get really strange and play things in Cmin11 or tune down to Bb. Crazy.

You can see on most of the tunings above, the trend is to tune the bottom (6,5) strings down, along with the top (2,1) down from Standard tuning, though in a few, such as CGCGCD, the 2nd string (normally B) is going up. But mostly we're taking tension off the strings. Even in a tuning like CGCGCD where we're taking the B up to C, we're taking more tension off, generally, with the 6th, 5th, 4th and 1st strings going down.

When you tune down like this you're going to get, obviously, a little more slack in the strings. This can be somewhat pleasant at first, making your acoustic guitar's action feel almost like an electric, but you may also find that you'll have some intonation difficulties and you may encounter some buzzing with the tension coming off the neck a bit and the strings getting closer to the fretboard.

A lot of guitar makers out there, Taylor being one of many, recommend using light-gauge strings with their guitars, particularly smaller-bodied instruments like an OM or Grand Concert. If you're playing in Standard tuning, this is usually pretty good advice. Can you string one of these instruments with medium gauge strings? Sure you can. Especially if you keep in mind that one string maker's "light" can be very different from another's. If you put too-heavy strings on a lightly-braced guitar top or one made of a softer tonewood, could you damage the top? Sure. And: maybe not. It depends. It mostly comes down to string tension, setup and, of course, the particular guitar's construction.

Here's what I do, on just about all of my guitars, most of which are smaller-bodied Grand Concert or mini-jumbo Grand Auditorium size. I use "light" gauge strings on the 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd strings (_ADGB_ in Standard), and I use "medium" gauge strings on the 6th and 1st strings (E____E in Standard). The slightly beefier 6th and 1st strings tuned down a step or two "feel" roughly equivalent to a light set at standard tension. In fact, I have a very hard time playing a standard set of "lights" in open/alternate tunings - I tend to pull the 6th and 1st strings off the fretboard. And hey, it's the strings, not me. The heavier gauges help.

I'm very fortunate to have an Endorsing Artist relationship with Dean Markley Strings and I would recommend them to anyone - I like them that much. I use their Alchemy Gold Phos and Gold Bronze strings (phosphor on my maple and 12-string guitars; bronze on my mahogany guitars). The "Custom Light" set offered by Markley comes in .54, .42, .32, .25, .16, .12. I play a custom set in .56, .42, .32, .25, .16, .13. You might consider taking the .16 up to a .17 if you play in DADGAD, or otherwise tune the "B" string down a fair amount of the time. It all depends on what you like and what sounds good with your guitar. Note that with the "Custom Lights" you get a .25 G string, which is a bit heavier than most "light" sets. I really like that gauge on the G; it helps particularly when I tune down to DADF#AD and works nicely on the DADEAD family of tunings - taking the 3rd string G down to E. A word of caution, however, when using that tuning: when you tune the E back up to G, make sure you go very slowly. I've broken I can't tell you how many G strings by retuning up from E to G too quickly. The G string has the most string tension of any on the guitar, so take it easy when changing the tension here. Too many broken G strings... there's a joke in there somewhere, I just know it.

I use the gauges above for my six-strings and I've never had a problem with the soundboard or bridge. I should mention also that I have my luthier set my guitars up for DADGAD, as opposed to Standard. When I tune down to C, the action is only slightly lower.

For the 12-string, things get a little more interesting.

There's been a resurgence of interest lately in 12-string guitars, both for strumming and fingerpicking. Players like Leo Kottke, Dan Crary, Chris Proctor and many others continue to break new ground with the instrument. Proctor and Kottke in particular subscribe to the theory that going with heavier gauge strings and lower ("heavy and low") tunings brings out the best qualities of the 12-string: huge, bell-like tones and massive bass response. I'm in the same camp.

First off, most folks know that you just simply can't take a set of "regular" gauge strings, put them on a 12-string, and tune up to Standard tuning. You'll snap the strings, and/or you'll damage the guitar. You need a special light gauge 12-string set if you want to tune up to Standard. Even so, many players find that the tension put on the neck with such a set at concert pitch makes it difficult to play, especially without a professional setup/truss rod adjustment. Personally, I don't play in Standard much at all, and I don't like the sound of a 12-string tuned up to concert. I much prefer the sound down a major third, to C, or even lower. And I like heavier gauge strings.

By way of example, here are the gauges Kottke and Proctor use on their 12-strings:
Kottke: .56/.35, .47/.26, .38/.18, .30/.14, .17/.17, .13/.13,
            tuned most often to C#.
Proctor: .58/.36; .46/.24; .36/.12; .25/.10; .17/.17; .13/.13,
             tuned most often to C or D.

Don't try either of the gauges above if you want to tune to Standard/Concert (EADGBE). Mass carnage is predicted. Tune down a major third and you might be very happy with what you hear and feel. I'm still experimenting, but right now I have a set of Dean Markley Alchemy Gold Phos in .56/.36, .46/.24, .36/.12, .26/.10, .17/.17, .13/.13 on my 12-string. Much like what I've done with my six-strings, I've gone a little heavier overall, particularly on the 6th, 2nd and 1st strings.

For me, the most important things when considering a 12-string set are:
  • Tuning down.
  • Going with heavier gauges, particularly wound octave strings on the 6th, 5th and potentially 4th strings.
  • Having a setup done with the guitar in DADGAD, but a step lower: CGCFGC (see tunings below).
  • It's also possible to have various nut/saddle adjustments made to dial in intonation and string spacing.

Proctor has a great video out called "Techniques for Contemporary 12-String Guitar," and he's written quite a lot on his web site about the various gear he's using and his thoughts on setup, et al. Definitely worth a look.

I use a lot of the same tunings on the 12-string that I use on the six-, but I also take them down a step or more from where I have them on the six-string. Here are a few tunings I use for the 12 (yes, retuning is double the pain) and the equivalent (actual pitch) a step or more down.

12-string tunings - heavy and low

CGCGCE (open C)
BbFBbFBbD - whole step down
AEAEAC# - major third down
CGCGCD (Csus2)
BbFBbFBbC - whole step down
AEAEAB - major third down
DGDGBD (open G)
CFCFAC - whole step down
DADF#AD (open D)
CGCEGC - whole step down
CGCFGC - whole step down
EADGBE - standard
DGCFAD - whole step down
C#F#BEG#C# - minor third down ("Kottke Standard")
CFBbEbGC - major third down

If you need to play at concert pitch you can always use a capo to bring the strings back up in pitch after tuning down. I should mention that on some 12-string sets, particularly those with all unwound octave gauges, it may be difficult to capo all strings evenly, due to the difference in size between wound and unwound strings. You may need to alter your capo slightly. This little problem is one of the reasons why I prefer wound octave gauges where possible.

I encourage you to experiment with tunings and string gauges. There are no hard and fast rules, only possibilities, many of which I didn't touch on, such as longer-scale necks for lower tunings, baritone guitars (really low, really fat), and many other tidbits you should under no circumstances attempt to parlay as chit-chat on your next Big Date.

To sum up, when we're talking tunings and string gauges it all comes down to what feels comfortable, a good setup and most important, what sounds the best on any particular guitar. Have fun, and when in doubt, two words: Safety Goggles.

Dual-Source Pickup Systems and Processing - February 2004
[Update: 10/26/04 - Since writing this article I've added a combination of a D-Tar Solstice Preamp and a D-Tar Equinox Parametric EQ to my pile of gear. Used in combination, these units greatly simplify my live setup. Here are some updated details on the signal chain. The basic ideas captured below should still be of use to you if you are considering blending two pickup sources.]

Pickups and amplification of acoustic instruments in general is at once a fun topic and one which makes me shudder. Like anything gear-related, there are endless possibilites and variations, from extremely simple to staggeringly complex. What players tend to adopt depends largely on the time they're willing to put in fiddling with twisty knobby bits, the types of music, environment and venues played, and the fatness of said player's wallet. I've used a number of different systems and in fact still have various pickups in various guitars. I still experiment. But I've more or less settled on a method of blending two signals from two different pickups to produce one overall sound, i.e., a "dual-source" system. And I aim to tell ya about it.

There are a host of methods available to capture multiple signals, and there are several different processing options (big and little magic boxes) one may put to use. I'm not going to cover all of them in detail, but there's a helpful article written by Greg Gualtieri of Pendulum Audio called "Pickup Combinations - Who Uses What, and Why?" that covers the basics very well, even if it's a little bit slanted toward Greg's SPS-1 (which is a phenomenal unit). Additionally, Chris Proctor has written some great articles for the guitar press (see, in particular "Electronics 101") and has some excellent information on his site regarding his personal methods of amplification. There are many ways to plug in and play and it can be a little daunting choosing which systems to use. The articles referenced here should give you a closer look at the various possibilities.

I'm going to hedge here and say that the most common type of acoustic pickup in circulation these days is the good old undersaddle piezo (sometimes called an undersaddle transducer, or UST). Used as a single source, it does have advantages. It's simple to use and is basically feedback free. The problem with many of these pickups is they sound pretty much like crap. The marked characteristic is a sort of brittle, thin sound and more or less unnatural "quack," as it's called.

To compensate for the quack, a few pickup makers, notably Fishman, started producing a "stereo blend" pickup system, composed of a piezo, as above, and an internal miniature mic, often controlled by an onboard (installed in the guitar) preamp, which blends the two signals (this is one kind of "dual-source" system). One of my main guitars, a custom Taylor 612ce, has a UST/mic system installed. For ease of use, it's hard to beat, and with the addition of a mic the sound is acoustically closer to that of an unamplified guitar, meaning it sounds more natural, while the UST guards against feedback. I should say that my goal in amplifying is simply to make my acoustic guitar louder, without coloring the sound. The down side(s) to this kind of system, as I have it installed, are that the onboard electronics require cutting a hole in the side of the guitar (more on this in a moment - it's possible to process the signal externally), and the quack is still there to some extent. You can can run the pickup in stereo and apply separate EQ to the piezo and mic down the signal chain (you cannot apply separate EQ using the onboard preamp, however). Most folks just run the system in mono and adjust the blend between piezo and mic. It works, and for quickly getting an acceptable live sound it's a good and relatively flexible system.

I'll quickly mention a third method, from which I've taken my preferred method of dual-sourcing (which, yeah, I'll get to in a moment), involving a magnetic soundhole pickup and soundboard transducer (frequently referred to as an SBT). If you'd like in-depth information on using such a system, Proctor's site, above, gives you all the gory details. Basically it comes down to this: magnetic pickups wonderfully reproduce lows, but they frequently sound harsh on the highs. Soundboard transducers, which are usually small contact pickups stuck inside the guitar on the, well... soundboard, are the opposite - they're nice for the highs (generally speaking) but aren't as nice for the lows. If you have the capability to address the frequencies (highs, mids, lows) with an external dual-source preamp/EQ of varying stripe, you can use the two pickups in conjunction and essentially "assign" the lows to the magnetic and the mids and highs to the soundboard transducer. I'll touch on how to do that below, and again, see Proctor's site for more information. The only real drawbacks to this system are that it requires a dedicated EQ box, some diddling and, if you're not used to playing with a pickup in the soundhole, it can be a little awkward getting used to having the thing in there, particularly if you're playing fingerstyle. Additionally, not all magnetic pickups are alike. Some have adjustable pole pieces, which makes fine-tuning pickup response a lot easier, some don't. Some are easier to install and remove for travel.

Anyway, keep in mind this idea of assigning a pickup a certain duty. That's what I'm getting at. Really.

After experimenting with USTs, SBTs, UST/mic blends and magnetic pickups, as well as external mics (I should say, after all of this, external mic'ing is probably the "truest" and, well, best method of amplifying, but is considerably more difficult to control room-to-room and can, in louder environments, be highly prone to feedback - see the Gualtieri article above) I've begun installing a passive, stereo, dual-source soundboard transducer pickup system in my guitars. To my ears, the sound is the most acoustically accurate of the systems I've tried. The acoustic guitar has so many unique resonances. I feel it's best to try to at least make an attempt at addressing them somewhat independently.

My former teacher and good friend Al Petteway turned me on to McIntyre pickups a few years ago (Carl McIntyre is probably best known for his resonator guitar transducers, though he makes pickups for a variety of acoustic instruments), and I give Al the credit for coming up with the particular pickup combination I'll lay out here. I should mention that Al runs his dual-source setup in mono to a single outboard EQ, and I frankly have no idea how he gets such a great live sound, other than the facts that he plays really expensive guitars and is an extraordinary player. I'm not quite so fortunate in either respect, so of course I have to needlessly complicate things.

Okay, moment of truth. Here's the system:
  • McIntyre GF-30 Acoustic Feather soundboard transducer on the bridgeplate (interior)
  • McIntyre SBT-04 soundboard transducer (Carl doesn't have a fancy name for it) slightly above and forward of the bridge on the soundboard (interior)
  • pickups are run to a 1/4" stereo jack, then out to a stereo "y-cable" (1/4" stereo to 2-1/4" mono) or TRS stereo cable, depending on the blending device inputs

I like the GF-30 Feather transducer primarily because it sounds more natural than most of the USTs I've heard. My hunch is that this is because, unlike a UST, it doesn't make direct contact with the guitar's saddle - instead, it attaches to the guitar's bridgeplate. The Feather does produce a very woody sound, and Mcintyre recommends an outboard EQ. I had mentioned above that SBTs are generally good for highs. Well, that's true. But application location plays a part. I've found the SBT-04, applied as McIntyre recommends, on the bass side of the bridge, just above and slightly forward, produces very nice low end. It's not quite what you'd get with a magnetic pickup, but to me it sounds more balanced in conjuction with a second transducer.

[I should mention that as much as I like Carl and his products, as of 2006 I've also started using a K&K Pure Western Mini in a few guitars, sometimes paired with a K&K Twin Spot, wired stereo. I initially started using K&K products due to the interior construction of my baritone guitar and the need to place pickup transducers in very specific places within the guitar. As it turns out, K&K makes some great gear. Definitely worth a look. I like Carl's accent better, though.]

The system requires no onboard electronics (so no holes in the guitar other than the one in the endpin for the output jack) and no batteries are required - two big advantages in my book. One of my biggest regrets - really the only one I have - with the custom 612ce mentioned above, despite its convenience, is the hole put in the side for the barndoor preamp (Taylor's new ES system makes similar compromises to both the guitar's side and end block). The onboard electronics debate is a real dilemma for many guitar buyers. Having tried just about everything, I would strongly recommend going with a passive system if possible, despite the promises of a pickup which requires a custom hole or set of holes in the guitar. Pickup systems change and improve year-to-year. That hole for that 1999 (or brand-new and improved 2003/2004) system doesn't. It's possible, provided manufacturers give you the option, to retrofit new systems into old holes left behind, but it's a drag and not always an option. If possible, avoid it. That's my two cents. Or several hundred dollars, depending. Batteries are less of a concern, but they do go dead at inopportune times, require sometimes awkward replacement depending on location, and can cause headaches in security lines at the airport and elsewhere when the screeners spot a bunch of wires connected to a contraption with a power source. Been there, been frisked.

So I've mentioned the system I'm running. And I've mentioned the concept of "assigning" a pickup a particular duty. With that in mind, here's what I tell the McIntyres to do:
SBT-04: You get the lows.
GF-30 Feather: You get the highs and some of the mids.

Using the stereo y-cable, I am able to send either pickup to, really, any EQ device - a direct input box, a rack-mount unit, a mixer, etc. There are a somewhat small number of external units in production which allow the acoustic guitarist to blend and EQ two pickup signals. All of them have advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few which come to mind:
  • Presonus Acoustic-Q - My friend Jim Tozier has used one of these units to blend two signals using a standard stereo ring-tip cable, and, for what it's worth, McIntyre likes them. The big pluses are compact size and low cost. The only real downer is that you cannot apply separate EQ to the two signals, only the final blend. This is a deal-breaker for me. Otherwise I'd be all over it.
  • Rane AP-13 - A very popular rackmount unit. More expensive, but good bang for the buck. Straightforward controls. Not as portable, however.
  • Raven Labs Universal Instrument Stereo Preamp - Excellent unit with a following but getting up there in price. Again, a larger, rackmount box.
  • D-Tar Solstice and Equinox - Rick Turner and Seymour Duncan's combined pickup and preamp offerings in one company. Interesting units. Solstice and Equinox can be combined to blend multiple sources and apply parametric EQ. This is my preferred system as of 10/04.
  • Pendulum Audio SPS-1 - The magic box. The first time I heard someone playing through one of these (when I opened for Stephen Bennett) I was blown away by the sound. Requires a fairly keen grasp of parametric EQ to make it worth the price, which is high. Still, if money is no object and you don't mind carrying a rack, this is the one to have.

There are a few other units, like the blenders from Fishman, Highlander and a few others from Raven Labs. Most of them don't allow you to fully address each source independently and most are more or less designed for UST/mic combos, though two signals are two signals - they'll work.

So what do I use? None of the above.

[Update: 10/26/04 - Actually, that's no longer true. I am now using a combination of a D-Tar Solstice Preamp and a D-Tar Equinox Parametric EQ. Used together, these units greatly simplify my live setup. Here are some updated details on the signal chain. Continue on for details of the old-school setup and concluding thoughts.]

If you use a passive system and outboard EQ with your acoustic instrument you've probably heard of the L.R. Baggs Para-Acoustic D.I. (PADI). It's one of the most popular, most portable and easiest to use DIs out there. And it's relatively cheap. It affords the user five-band EQ, midrange controls and provides a very helpful "notch" control which can help eliminate feedback at certain frequencies. It's a great little box. I've used one for a while. Now I use two.

I've talked to Baggs about making a dual-source PADI in one unit, but until they do, I just use two PADIs in conjunction with one another. PADI #1 gets the mono cable output from the SBT-04, which is what I use for the lows. I cancel out all of the mids and highs using PADI #1, and I dial out a few trouble spots in the low end with the notch control. PADI #2 gets the mono cable output from the GF-40 Feather. I cancel out all the lows using PADI #2, cut the mids slightly and set the midrange control to 1.2 kHz and have the highs set flat. That's it. That's the system.

It's a little clunky. It's two boxes instead of one and that creates a few unique challenges. There are now two XLR outs instead of one, which is usually not a big deal, going into a board. Going out to an amp, depending on what you're using, you may have 1/4" inputs, and you now have two coming out of the two Baggs. You need either more than one input in this case, or you'll need to take the two 1/4" outputs and connect those to a 2-1/4" mono to 1 1/4" mono cord, which could then go to a single amp input.

If you use a mono-input tuner pedal like the Boss TU-2, as I do, because you're splitting the signal between the two PADIs, it's impossible (or at least I haven't found a way) to mute both PADIs, and thus the listener will hear the sound of my tuning and retuning through one of the (stereo) PADIs even while using the tuner pedal's mute switch... which sort of defeats the purpose. What I've done to get around this, since I tune and retune a lot, is add a Boss FV-300L stereo volume pedal to the whole mess. I use that pedal solely to accept the guitar input(s) - there are two - and fully mute the signal when I retune. I go out from the volume pedal to the tuner pedal's input. The only drawback here is that the volume pedal's tuner output only applies to input 1 (on the volume pedal). Using my current system, the tuner pedal won't apply to a guitar I have plugged into input 2 of the volume pedal. More on multiple guitars in a moment. This is getting confusing. How about a picture?

two baggs for you, sir.

That shot may or may not help you. That's an awful lot of cords, isn't it? What you can hopefully see is that the dual-pickup system comes out of the guitar via a y-cable. The blue (one half of the "y") cable goes to PADI #1 (lows), the red cable (the other half of the "y") goes to PADI #2 (mid-cut and highs). I go out from the two PADIs via mono cables to a 2-1/4" mono [female] to 1 1/4" mono [male] adapter cable (it would probably be best to shorten all of this with a 2-1/4" mono [male] to 1 1/4" mono [male] y-cable), into input 1 of the volume pedal. The tuner pedal on the left gets a signal from the volume pedal's tuner output. This leaves input 2 on the volume pedal for another guitar, with potentially completely separate EQ (like the 612ce, or another guitar with a separate PADI, for example). From the volume pedal I have two outs, which I usually send to a dual-input Crate CA30D acoustic amp, which is suited for small venues and can function as a monitor.

I'll admit that, at the moment, it's a little more complicated than I'd like. This is probably not the setup you'd want to bring with you to an open mic. One of the main drawbacks to using a dual-source system with external EQ is that you'll need that EQ wherever you go if you want to plug in. It takes longer to set up. And running a stereo jack with a mono cable can sound pretty atrocious. For that reason, when I do play open mics or gigs requiring quick entrances and exits, I'll usually bring a guitar like the 612ce with onboard electronics. I plug in mono, I deal.

A few other items to keep in mind:
  • The fewer cords/stages in the signal chain the better. I don't hear much of any sound degradation between the PADIs and the volume pedal, but I'll admit that I don't have golden ears. Others might. Also, shorter cable lengths are better. I play seated, so I'm able to keep most lengths at less than 10 feet. All cables are not created equal. Try to use the same make of cable throughout the system. I prefer Monster Cable Jazz cables, but I've had a hard time getting Monster to make a stereo y-cable without a special order and a long wait. Planet Waves makes good, reasonably-priced cables which work well in this application. I'm in the process of moving to a setup with Planet Waves y-cables. Right now it's a mishmash of Monster, Planet Waves and Horizon cables. This is not ideal.
  • Each PADI contains a battery, as does the tuner pedal. That's three things which could go wrong. I press on in the face of adversity. Investing in long-life batteries and getting on a regular replacement schedule are good ideas. Don't leave things plugged in when you're not playing. If things start sounding distorted it could be a battery dying.
  • While I consider a dual-source system to be the way to go (at least today), if you play with multiple guitars, you may need to reset EQs on the fly, per instrument. This is a pain with single-source systems - imagine what it's like with double or quadruple the sources to process. There are actually some very sophisticated (and expensive) ways of doing this digitally using some of the newer modelling devices, etc, but for most folks this isn't a practical option. If Baggs made a dual-source PADI (c'mon Lloyd! puhleez...) I'd buy at least a couple and dedicate them to different guitars to get around this problem. All guitars are going to sound a little different and will need slightly different EQ tweaks.
  • I'll say again that the key for me in processing a dual-source pickup system is being able to apply separate EQ to either source. It's also possible, I should mention, to apply separate effects to either source (again, see Proctor's site for more), like a delay to the bass (pickup #1) and chorus to the trebles (pickup #2), then reverb to the blended signal, if you're so inclined. There are no limits. Get jiggy with it. Or don't.
  • Once you commit to a stereo dual-source system, you've committed to some kind of EQ unit.

I hope this has made a little sense to you and given you a bit of information to go on when considering blending two signals. Keep in mind that pickup/mic systems and EQ for same change and improve approximately every six months. As such, I think it's important to have a flexible system which doesn't permanently alter the guitar itself if at all possible. I tend to also avoid spending truckloads of money on pickup systems - an upgrade is almost always around the corner. There are a lot of good pickup manufacturers out there, including but not limited to: McIntyre, Fishman, Baggs, Pickup the World, D-Tar, K&K, Lace, B-Band, Joe Mills, Highlander, Dean Markley, Taylor's proprietary system and many others. They're all worth trying, even potentially combining. All require a certain amount of EQ. Enjoy the journey...

If you'd like to visit a great site with recorded dual-source pickup combos, I highly recommend Doug Young's Acoustic Pickup Comparison test.

Finally, I'll finish up with a funny story, to me anyway, that I like to tell after going on for hours about this stuff, which I've apparently just done. Anyhoo.

I was at one of the more inspiring performances I've witnessed: Pierre Bensusan at Jammin' Java in 2003. Most would agree - Pierre is in a class by himself. I hung around long enough after the show to catch him taking down his stage setup and asked him a few questions. He was playing his orginal Lowden from the '70s through a rackmount EQ.

Me: "Pierre, you sounded great. I just wondered - what kind of pickup are you using?"
Pierre: "Pee-sso. Piece of shit."
Me: "Ah. Okay. And what kind of EQ?"
Pierre: "Brand X, piece of shit."
Me: "Well. You sounded fantastic."
Pierre: "Thank you."

Pierre did sound phenomenal that night. I went home and looked up the model of the rackmount EQ he was using. It was a ~$100 unit. Ditto the piezo UST. Which just goes to show you: We all suck compared to Pierre.

But seriously, ultimately it's all in your hands. And your ears.

A Strategy for Air Travel and Guitars - September 2005
Everyone seems to want to know the best way to travel with a guitar on the airlines in these days of heightened security. Many folks have opinions. Get ready to count another. Here's what I do and have been doing on multi-carrier flights all over the U.S. and Europe over the course of the last four years. So far it has worked quite well for me. Hopefully it will work well for you. Should you choose... to accept... the flight challenge.

And here it is:
Check it and forget it.

Simple? Yes. Yes it is. Fraught with potential damage and danger? Yes. But what isn't these days?

Let me break it down for you, though. Because there's a little more to it. But not much.

When I fly with my guitar(s), which is to say: often, I always check them in sturdy flight cases, not regular plywood cases (even the really nice kind, like a Cedar Creek or Mark Leaf) or, heaven forbid, gig bags. I do not try to carry the guitar on the flight with me. Later I'll tell you why. For now, know this: When I fly I check my guitars - in flight cases - like luggage and then I move on to having a life. I do have a strategy though, and I follow a routine each time I get to the airport to ensure, the best I can, that my guitars fly as safely as possible. I'll get in to all of this quite soon. But, hey... Now hold on there. Simmer down. Listen up.

Let me be perfectly clear. Let me beat this dead horse... Only a flight case, people. Only a flight case. DO NOT check a regular hardshell (TKL, Geib, etc. plywood; SKB or Hiscox, etc. molded plastic) case. I strongly discourage this.

I strongly encourage this: Flight. Case.

You have been warned, admonished and variously beaten about the head, face and neck by long-windedness. This may or may not continue (I would bet on the former). Let us now move on.

Right now I'll tell you the flight cases I use and recommend, and when I use them. Yes. Let me do just that.

I use two different flight cases, and when I use them depends on where I'm going and what guitar I have with me. They are:
1. Calton Deluxe Flight Case. There is no other flight case currently manufactured that comes close to providing the protection of a Calton. Don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. These people are wrong. (Yes. They are. They are wrong. Ignore them.) The cases are heavy. The cases are expensive. And they are the only flight case that I will use for my high-end, custom guitars. In fact, my main guitar won't fit in any other case, because it's a custom shape and requires a custom case as such. So for me, it's a Calton for that or any guitar I check that is worth more than $1500 (in just a sec I'll tell you why that dollar amount is significant). When I fly with my Calton I use (and endorse) Colorado Case Covers. These case covers provide an additional element of insurance and protect your [significant] investment in your flight case by padding it and shielding it from the elements (think extreme heat/cold), among other benefits. I highly recommend them. Read more about Calton here and more about Colorado Case Covers here.
2. SKB 18RW ATA Roto Flight Case. This case is a step up from SKB's regular molded case offerings - so please don't dismiss it as unworthy until you've actually checked it out. It is a flight case. It has a handy molded handle and cool little wheels so you can zip around with it. In many ways, I must admit, I prefer travelling with it to my Calton. It does not provide the same level of protection, however, though it is a tough bugger. Here's what's really great about it, though. I've used mine for 20+ flights in the U.S. and Europe. It has taken, at my (certainly) and sadly but probably others' hands, some pretty nasty falls... and lived. So far I have had no damage to my guitars travelling and flying with this case. SKB currently only makes the case sized for a dreadnaught. I use it with my Larrivée L-01, which is not quite a dread but does have overall dimensions that fit the case interior perfectly. Here's the great thing I was going to get to: SKB insures the user against damages up to $1500 (you should read more about this policy and its exclusions, as well as get some more information on the case here). So I spent $180 for the case (2005 models have gone up a bit in price), and when I use it I travel with a ~$600 guitar, and I have insurance for damages of a little less than double the total worth of both. Not bad. I highly recommend this case for anyone looking for an excellent value and who normally doesn't travel with expensive guitars. Just make sure your guitar fits. And do note that if you ever do have to seek reimbursement for damages, the exclusions based on guitar size, etc., not to mention the fact that you're going to have to prove the airline did it, are things with which you may have to contend. My advice: if your guitar fits and it's not too expensive, use this case. Do note that the interior of the case will accomodate a 15 3/4" lower bout, maximum. This is just slightly too small for many dreads, some grand auditoriums and just about all jumbos. The interior padding is rigid, so there's no "making it fit."

Okay. Those are the cases. Cases are important. What you choose should be based on, in my opinion, the value of the guitar. I will also say this, and it should really be your guiding principle with any and all of this hooey: DO NOT FLY WITH IRREPLACABLE INSTRUMENTS. Despite every caution that you take, something can go wrong, and eventually... it probably will. It is a very good idea, if you fly with any frequency, to have a "travel" guitar. And not [necessarily] one of those cutesy short-scale jobbies. I mean a guitar with which you're comfortable travelling. For probably 60% of my flights I'll have setup No. 2 along. The SKB and a "replaceable" guitar. I have a very nice, but also very replaceable, Avalon custom guitar that I use when performing on the road. It goes in a Calton. The point is that you probably shouldn't fly, with any regularity, with a $10K+ custom guitar. It's just a bit too risky. I wouldn't do it. Good luck to you if you do. The best you're going to be able to do is go with, again, a Calton. And your good karma.

Nearly as important as your cases and flying with a guitar you're comfortable with is your strategy for getting that guitar through security, preferably without anyone opening up the case, or hassling you otherwise. And it's possible. To accomplish this goal it will take:
  1. A small amount of effort on your part.
  2. A willingness to always stay calm and cooperative, even in the face of [occasionally, verily I say,] dolts. So maybe a little more effort on your part.

You can do it. Fly the unfriendly skies.

Here's what I do and how I do it.

First and foremost, be nice to everyone from the counter to the TSA to the flight crew... and all points in between. It may occasionally be difficult, but it's in your best interest. Fake it. Why? Because you need something. That something is your stuff taken care of. And it only takes one ticked off, underpaid, overworked, overburdened (um, the airline industry isn't going so well - you might have noticed - and this breeds a certain... "lack of compassion" we'll call it, among the strapped and fearful of job loss - let's just say their minds may occasionally be elsewhere, and not necessarily "really getting" some guy raving about his $7,000 extravagance in hardshell) airline or security employee to ruin your trip. And if something happens, believe you me (what does that phrase even mean?), there will be precious little, if anything at all, that you will be able to do about it. So... Don't come off pompous. Don't be demanding. Do try to calmly explain that you're concerned about your instrument, if and when you feel the need to express that sentiment. Hopefully and most likely - if you're cool... is everybody cool? - you won't need to broach the subject. In my experience, no one working at any level of the airline industry responds very well to yelling and ranting. Trust me, they've heard someone yell louder than you. It will get you precisely nowhere, and possibly in a place far worse than nowhere. A little finesse can go a long way here.

Okay. Are we ready? Good. Before we get to the airport, though, let me tell you what I do in terms of getting the guitar and case ready for travel.

  • This is probably pretty obvious, but make sure there is a tag on your guitar case with your name and address on it. The plastic kind are good. The leather kind work too and if they're tough enough, tend to break/crack/get destroyed less easily.
  • I take everything out of the case that isn't the guitar. Everything out. Strings, string winders, string cutters, tuner, everything. Have nothing in there but the guitar (okay, I do leave a few business cards in there - which is a decent way/ploy to convince someone, if it ever comes down to it, that a guitar belongs to you, should this ever come up, and you should pray that it doesn't). Why get everything out of that case? Because the case is going to go through x-ray. And the absolute best thing you can hope for in getting through security is not having to open that case up. Many of the Very Bad Things that happen to guitars and instruments come during the "inspection" process. Having nothing in that case that is going to cause the screener to wonder "just what the heck is that?" greatly reduces the chance that the TSA will want to open that case and have a look inside. Which is a Very Very Good Thing. Three great words to hear: You're All Set.
  • I loosen the strings, though some people don't (Frank Ford isn't one of these people, fwiw - Frank Ford is the most respected and knowledgable guitar repair dude in the country, and he happens to agree with me, or I with him, or something). I pad the headstock lightly with a sock, or thin foam. I roll up balls of newspaper and put them under the peghead, in the peghead compartment (and I just leave them in there - they're in there now). The point where your guitar's neck rests on the interior neck support is the area most susceptible to breakage if the guitar is dropped. Why rolled up balls of newspaper? Because closed-cell foam isn't strong enough to absorb the kind of impact you're looking to avoid. If you're concerned about your finish on the underside of the peghead, use a thin foam wrap around the peghead. I'm not.
  • If you have a pickup in your guitar that requires a battery, take the battery out of the guitar and put it in your checked luggage. If it comes loose in the flight it will rattle around, probably inside your guitar, and may damage it. Plus, a battery connected to a bunch of wires pretty much looks like a bomb in x-ray. You're going to want to avoid this sort of thing whilst making your happy way through security. If you have a magnetic soundhole pickup, the best thing to do is remove it and put it in your baggage. Don't put it in your carry-on. It probably has a battery and wires in it too.
  • I have FRAGILE stickers (patches sewn on to your case cover would be the equivalent if you're using one of those) at multiple points on top and bottom of the guitar. You can put a THIS SIDE UP sticker on the guitar but I pretty much guarantee no one will give a rip.
  • I put all of the junk (strings, winder, etc.) I took out of the guitar case in a checked bag (I put said junk in a small stuff sack which I then put in my suitcase). I leave my checked bag unlocked. You can, if you choose, use a TSA-approved lock or zip tie. Back up 14 words or so. Why unlocked?

Okay. We look good. I think we're just about ready. Let's, like... go. We'll talk on the way. Let me get that door for you. Okay. Drive, Jeeves. Right. So.

  • The rule at the moment is "no locked baggage," unless you use the TSA lock or a zip tie. This is so the TSA can more easily search baggage - for your safety, dig? You can lock a bag (or case), but you're subject to search, and you must be present for said search. For my checked luggage (not my guitar case, but my clothes and such) I generally leave the bag unlocked.
  • I do lock my guitar case (except for when I don't, which I'll get to). Here's how I deal. I lock my guitar case and check in at the counter (always at the counter - find a human if possible) and I express that I would like to hand carry the guitar over to the TSA. In most of the airports I typically fly through, this is possible. However, in a few airports the TSA does all screening "downstairs" (SFO is one such airport). I have a strategy for that, which I'll get to, but for now let's say counterperson X from airline Y tells you yes, you can hand carry to the TSA. So you do that. Once I get to the TSA I explain, very, very kindly and very calmly that "The case won't stay shut without the latches being locked [this is somewhat true for the SKB and less true for the Calton, but I like to have my case locked in either case, so I fib]. I'm happy to open it for you if you need to take a look." Nine times in 10 the TSA will send the case through x-ray without incident, will tell me we're all set once it passes through, and I'm on my way. Occasionally the TSA will want to open the case and inspect the contents. If this happens to you, be cool. Open the locks, let them have their way. One thing I've done in recent trips to try to subtly state the point that the handling of the guitar is important to me is the placement of a small piece of paper, slipped through the strings above the soundhole, that says, gently: "Extremely Fragile. Please Handle With Care. Thank You." Don't leave until they give you the "all clear" and the locks have been re-locked. Just remember that they're doing their job, which is perhaps a little poorly managed, yes, but it is ultimately to keep you, your family and your fellow passengers safe. Keep it in mind. Back to matters at hand.
  • We've covered the cases where you are allowed to leave the case locked and you meet with the TSA face to face. How about the other scenarios? DO NOT let an attendant at the counter check your case (especially with it locked) and send it through the conveyor. Ask the attendant if you may take it to the TSA yourself ("I''ll walk this down to the TSA for x-ray if you don't mind. Is that okay?"). If they tell you no, that items are screened below, I recommend you unlock the case. If the case goes down locked without you there to open it on screening, the TSA can, according to their rules, pop the locks and take a look. Don't let this happen. I've had to plead with a counter attendant to retreive a case before when she let the guitar go down the conveyor as I tried to repeatedly explain that the case was locked. And you can probably imagine how well that went. I got lucky - the guitar made it through (but no one went downstairs to help me out). You may not be so fortunate. If you fly a lot with a guitar I think it is well worth your while to invest in a case cover (like the Colorado Case Cover I mentioned above) for all sorts of reasons. One additional benefit of a cover over the stated protection it affords is that if you do fly with the latches unlocked, at least the case cover is one more barrier between a person who wants to have a look at your twanger and said twanger. Now, only a zipper stands between this person and your twanger, but... Wait... What are we talking about? Nevermind. Case cover = good.
  • DO NOT FORGET THE CASE KEY. Got that t-shirt. If you can't open your case if/when requested, the TSA will take the guitar, they will likely not ship it back to you or hold it for you (think eBay), and you'll be, esssentially, I don't want to get too technical here: screwed. I had to have dad-in-law come to Boston Logan and pick my guitar up when I forgot my key. Put that case key on your keyring NOW. And don't lose your keys.
  • Provided you get your case through security and on its way to the plane, you still have to get you through the rest of the phalanx. As such, don't have anything in your carry-on (like a string winder/cutter, say) that could cut hot butter. It will be confiscated and you may find your cavities being searched. I take a very small backpack onboard these days. In it: a book, an mp3 player, some earplugs, some water, a bit o' gum. That's about it.
  • When you arrive: go directly to baggage claim. Do not dawdle. There is a good chance your guitar will come out in "oversized baggage." Try to find that door or area. It's usually where the golf clubs and skis and various bulky bits come out. Occasionally though, your guitar will come out with the rest of the bags on the conveyor (which kinda sucks). If you can have a friend or family member stationed at either point, it's helpful. You want to get that guitar straightaway and prevent anyone else who has been really thinking long and hard about taking up a new instrument - no time like the present, yoinks! - from doing do. When you get your guitar, open up the case immediately (okay... maybe not immediately - because your guitar may have gotten really cold and you may have a problem with "finish checking" [little cracks that can appear in the finish] if you open the case too quickly and there's a change in air temperature - but my advice is to somehow get a read on that guitar's condition before you leave baggage claim, because if you leave and find something wrong later, it's going to be tough to prove that it happened before or during the flight, or on the way to you - final word, good, insulating case covers can help here) and make sure there is no damage. If there is, head to the airline. Be prepared to rumble. At this point you should still be nice, but I'd probably have a hard time too. So far I haven't had any problems. Knock on wood. No, wait - don't!

Now one thing I avoided talking about with the strategery above is gate-checking or hand-carrying or whatever you want to call it. This is where you still do all of the stuff that I mentioned above in terms of packing, but you carry your guitar with you through all of the security screening folks all the way to the gate. And you finally get to the flight and you have the guitar tagged and some levitating angel picks it up with the power of their mind and gently transports it on air down to the plane's cargo hold and loads it in with feathered wings onto a water bed. Or not.

If you want to try this variation, be my guest. I know several folks who do and have done this regularly and it can work. There is some conventional wisdom that goes something like "your luggage gets more violently handled on the conveyor system getting to the plane than it does getting loaded on the plane, or once on the plane with all of the other luggage." Might could be. Folks who really, really want to be gingerly with their guitars might want to try this method.

Why don't I? Because I have a flight case (plus a case cover for my Calton) for my guitar. And it has, can and will take it. And because I just wanna get where I'm going. I don't want to have to deal. And because I have seen, on more than one occasion, some poor soul who thinks they're going to hand carry a guitar to a gate, and somewhere along the way, someone at some point in the security chain has a problem with it, and they send the poor soul back and make them check as luggage (frequently in a plywood - read: not flight case). This sucks. Another reason why I don't do this is because multiple security checkpoints multiply increase the chance that someone along the line is going to want me to open that case. And I don't wanna. The safest guitar is the one in a flight case, preferably locked, safely through inspection and on the way to the plane.

Every airport is different. Every flight and security crew is different. Fare thee well.

Okay. I've saved the best for last.

There are many folks who claim to "carry their guitar on the flight, always have, always will," with no problems whatsoever. You may be one of these people, and you may have been saying to yourself while reading the above, "Right - what's all this, then?" I can only say, to those likely silver-tongued souls, the following: "You are a very, very lucky, very, very fortunate, or very, very attractive lot." Perhaps a combination of any and all. Many of these folks claim to fly, with nary an issue in lebenty-ought years, with standard plywood cases, happily carried on and perfectly eased by sinewy limbs into expectant and generous overhead bins. (Or closets! The attendants love me!) I have actually seen these people in my air travels. They do get on flights. With their guitars. And they fight for space in the overhead bins. And they take up huge gobs of room in the overheads when and if they find an empty one. Personally, I have a bit of a problem with people who carry on 50lbs of crap anyway, so I don't do it. I know some folks have their reasons for doing it, but I can't stand it. Because? Because I'm in just as much of a hurry to get to my connection as you are, that's why. But now I'm waiting on you to pull all of your crap out of the overhead, and we're all late. And also you hit me in the head with your wheelie.

And I'll table that discussion to get back to more pressing matters.


What will happen to our guitar-carrying hero when they get on a flight late and the bins are full? Or when, and yes it happens, the crew just decides that that guitar case isn't going in the cabin that day (or, hey, the bins are too small)? You may have heard of that "TSA Letter" that you can carry and whip out whenever anyone gives you, an upright, tax-paying musician for chrissake (you got yer 1099s, you know you do... right?), any guff. May I just tell you the following? It means nothing. What you are allowed to do on that plane is solely at the discretion of the flight crew. Go on, argue with them. You may end up in handcuffs. Enjoy. That letter is useless. It really is. I'm tellin' ya. Stew no care. Guitar man cry.

What will happen to your guitar in its plywood case (or worse, far worse, in its gig bag) - your nice TKL or Geib or Reunion Blues or whatever - is that it will go down below in cargo, and it will get squashed by 1,000s of pounds of luggage. And if it survives intact you will have been very, very lucky (nothing more) and maybe you'll have learned a lesson and perhaps you'll go out and buy a flight case for future travels. And if your guitar doesn't survive then be prepared to go round and round with the airline and basically don't expect anything back. You will almost certainly lose. More.

So that's why I don't carry on (and I'm just not going to bother with carrying a flight case on - mine won't fit in any but the largest of bins, and come on, it's a flight case). And while you may be able to get away with carrying a guitar on these days if you try really hard and you're really, really nice and you've done the route a bazillion times and you know the crew and all of that, my prediction is that soon enough airlines will prevent folks from carrying instruments on. Just a feeling I have. And even if they don't, you can only be lucky so long.

I will mention, finally, that a lot of players like travelling with a small-scale guitar, whether it's truly a mini guitar, or a parlour sized guitar, or whatever. I have done it. You might have a chance of carrying one on in a gig bag without incident. But honestly? I'd just get a full-size guitar like the L-01 I mentioned above (or more beater, obviously), spring for the SKB flight case, and be done with it. I would not fly with regularity with a parlour guitar in a gig bag. I know some folks do it. I wouldn't. For all the reasons I've outlined. And also because I had someone nearly snap the neck on mine (no, seriously) in the overhead when they threw a wheelie on top of it. Because, you know, they were Really Important and In a Big Hurry. That's why.

So there you go. My advice: Get a flight case. Get one that meets your needs. It doesn't have to be a Calton, unless, of course, the guitar is worth more than $1500 (see above). It makes sense for many folks to fly with a less expensive guitar. If that makes sense for you, by all means do it. It's certainly less potential loss. Check it like luggage (in a flight case! Have you been listening?!). Enjoy your flight. If you're really concerned, try gate-checking, but be prepared for potential hassles along the way. Be nice to everyone. Sit back and relax. Good luck.

What was that crunching sound?

More articles are coming soon.

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