Monday, November 18, 2019

5-String Guitar Project

Mid-November, 2019  (updated March 2020)
Spoiler alert: possible heretical musings below.
Disclaimer: I probably need an editor.

Many players are aware of Keith Richards' use of open tuning and that he has rigged guitars dedicated to such tuning(s) with a string removed.
It took me too long to connect this particular solution with one of my own guitar-playing problems only (relatively) recently identified: I have fat fingers, making narrow neck guitars (even typical width) hard to play.
Note: I also have a rather large bass-playing hands, so a wider neck solution may not work for smaller hands, I don't know.

What do I mean by fat fingers? Everyone who tries to learn a stringed instrument will find that it takes time to learn precise finger placement. In the case of unfretted instruments you have to put your fingers in the right place for correct intonation, but I am talking about the other direction - placing a fingertip on the string in question such that it doesn't also damp adjacent strings.
My first quality guitar, a Gibson J-50 adjustable, has a rather narrow neck (40mm nut width) with correspondingly narrow string spacing but it never occurred to me that this was an impediment. Certainly I tried the wider neck of my brother's classical guitars but I suspect the lack of radius (among other factors) prevented those from feeling friendlier to my left hand. I'm a thumb-wrapper too, but these days that doesn't seem to be an issue on wide necks. 

Gibson (40mm nut)
Takamine (48mm nut)
Standard tuning C chord shape. My first finger cannot avoid the high E string on the Gibson. In fact my nail is damping the G string as well, whereas on the Tak the G and E strings can ring.
My right hand has it's own ongoing issues with the plectrum. It seems that starting largely self-taught I adopted a way of holding the pick that a teacher decades later identified as being some kind of bad (at least for rock strumming). I worked at that and as a result lost my original comfort - however limited it may have been. Over time my struggles forced me to become something of a hybrid finger-picker. I'll do some pseudo-flat-picking with a fingernail but not much with a flat pick as I always need to switch quickly back to finger picking. My hat is off to those who manage to somehow palm the pick for fingerpicking then get it magically back in position for more flat picking. Freaking magic. 
The point of all this is that I became slowly aware that wider string spacings (hence wider necks) were conducive to finger-picking. Of course the merest peek into the classical guitar world makes this glaringly obvious.

The Takamine EAN30C was my first wider neck guitar (48mm at nut) and remains a much-played favourite as the wider neck really delivers on the promise. It also features electronics, smaller-than-dreadnought body and a cutaway.  What's not to like?! Oddly enough the headstock is made to look like a classical even though it has steel strings. It also has a cedar top.
A more recent addition in my quest is the Seagull Agostino Peppino model, with a nut width of 1.9" (about 48mm). Great sounding guitar with spruce top, cutaway, electronics etc, however the modern dreadnought body may be why I play it less.
Without having to buy yet another guitar I took half of the strings off my old Japanese Epiphone 12-string: nut width 51mm, a joy to play! Love the smaller body (it's a Serenader) but sometimes miss the cutaway.

But what to do with all the guitars that have narrower necks? (I know - get rid of them and yes, I sold at least one.) 
Enter the five-string concept. Spacing 5 across the land formerly occupied by 6 strings yields a workable instrument for the fat-fingered man.

Note that attempting to play normal 6-string style in standard tuning with one string missing will be less than satisfying (unless you're very power chord oriented). Open tuning is a different story, although one already accustomed to 6 string open tuning will certainly notice the absence of a string.

I am by no means an expert on open tunings having confined most of my open tuning time to D or G, with a touch of DADGAD. These common tunings have much in common with banjo chords, so I'd say that anyone who plays banjo and guitar owes it to themselves to at least try open G or D on guitar, if you haven't already.

Tried to learn guitar but found it too difficult? 
Consider trying again with open tuning! I'd argue that open tuning can be a great way to get started, even with 6 strings.
Remember, John Lennon started by playing ukulele chords on guitar.
Most of my open playing chords are on the same 4 strings (other than the barre of course). I think many players only tune open for slide work, another universe to itself, but I rarely get around to that - so much to amuse me in the world of fretting.

Most of these pictures are of my first experiment on a cheap plywood-top guitar (Carlo Robelli).

First I removed the low E string and notched the nut to space the remaining 5 strings more evenly. Result: a quite playable guitar!

 Next I drilled some additional holes in the bridge to accommodate similarly spaced strings.

This is an ad-hoc clamp intended to support the bridge and bridge plate (internal) while drilling, to minimize splintering at entry/exit "wounds".

 Speaking of that plate, here's what it looks like inside the guitar.

 These were taken prior to acquiring the appropriate 3-degree reamer to give the holes the proper taper for the pins, why they're sticking out so far.

I'm thinking permanent change like this might involve plugging the unused holes for strength, those new holes got closer than I thought they'd be after reaming. But again, these are first time experiments on a cheapo guitar. 

Before                             After
Nut modified not bridge.     Both nut and bridge modified.

Thanks to my old buddy Mark Dodge for suggesting a picture taken from same angle as that first picture (above). 

Afterthought: I said I wouldn't consider hacking up my Gibson for such a project, but after failing to play a clean C chord on it I found myself staring at the bridge wondering about a less invasive method. Why not just drill some very small holes (big enough for the strings to pass through) here, here and here? 
Hmm. Notion shown above on the junk guitar.

The Gibson bridge doesn't look quite so forgiving of such an idea, but further pondering suggests only drilling the center hole and using existing holds for strings 2 and 4. Still, I'm reluctant, quite apart from the inconvenience added to string-changing. On the other hand, many people replace the klunky adjustable bridges on these old classics and my local luthier Roger Thurman pointed out (after one glance) that this particular bridge is askew anyway, explaining tuning problems I'd had through the years! Maybe my fat fingers can ride this old Gibson again after all.

Update: The Gibson remains unmodified.
See below for improved solution requiring NO NEW HOLES. 

I am thinking this opens up a lot of possibilities for double-neck guitars. I have more than one with usable bass but a too-narrow-necked 6-string. Stay tuned! 

Kindwhile, if enough folks read this I can eventually hear someone saying: "But WTH can I play in this open tuning? What good is it?"
Examples abound, many (if not all?) songs on Dylan's Blood On The Tracks for starters. 

I'll unabashedly submit one of my own too, a humble unfinished demo from a few years back that doesn't even have a proper name yet. I think I'll call this Goodby Cruel World.
Thanks to Alan Nemeth whose drum samples I cut/pasted for the (too loud) drum track, and childhood friend Tony Thorne-Booth for the lovely keyboard contributions (not loud enough).
Fool disclosure: that was done with 6-string open D tuning (but I'm adapting it to 5-string with not too much fussing). For sure there are plenty of tunes that would be lacking on 5 strings instead of 6.

In response to someone wondering what the instrument in question actually sounds like I recorded some songs and edited them together (so you wouldn't have to listen to them all the way through) for a taste of some different styles. I intended to isolate the guitar but that track was not so great (magnetic pickup with some strings much louder than others) so you're stuck with my singing: A 4-minute demo of some songs.

Some songs that work for me (or I think have potential) on this guitar:
  • Revolution (F)
  • Friend Of The Devil (F)
  • Wish You Were Here (F or G?) 
  • Simple Twist Of Fate (capo up, *5 maybe, Bb)
  • It's All Over Baby Blue (capo 4, A)
  • Jemima Surrender (capo 2, G)
  • Ripple (capo 2, G)
  • Daydream (Bb, no capo)
  • Ole Pigweed (capo 3 Ab)
  • Key To The Highway
  • Midnight Rider
  • Know You Rider
  • Goodbye Cruel World (*orig) 
  • Ophelia 
  • Dock Of The Bay (F)
  • Norwegian Wood (F)
  • You Won't See Me (F)
  • If Not For You (F)
  • Fine Fine Fine
  • Prodigal Son
  • Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You (F)
  • Two Of Us (F) 
  • Maggie May (F)
  • Across The Universe  
  • Street Corner Talkin 
Note: *Capo higher than 4 makes that minor 2 chord harder. Don't need for Simple Twist but do need the range for vocal.

January 2020: Time to move the concept on to a better guitar (with electronics), this Alvarez AD60CEBK was available. Perhaps I neglected to mention that after staring at that unused tuning machine I decided to double up the C string (octave, like a 12-string).  For some reason I didn't like it so well doubling the low root (F) which I tried first. I also went with a heavier gauge on that lowest string, had started with original ADGBe strings but now they're the former EDGBe. Didn't want to drill any new pin holes, trying this plexiglass plate to hold the strings in place. Seems to work but next time I'll use thicker, it may be bending a bit. 

March 2020 update.
Q: Exactly what is the tuning that I settled on with the above guitar?
A: Fat to skinny the tuning is F C(C) F A C.

Q: Hey how about a nice wide 7-string neck and convert it to 6?
A: Maybe, not as wide as I expected but definitely in the ball park.

Bottom line: maybe I should just look into digital liposuction.

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