Projects and Musings

Rockschool - why I was against it, and why I've changed my mind

Rockschool.jpg

Rockschool has been available for a number of years now. It was starting to become a bigger thing as I was first opening the teaching studio in Hunstanton about 15 years ago, and I was encouraged to offer it as the primary source material for teaching. I rejected it a the time for a number of reasons. But it’s a position I’ve reconsidered.

The Pros and Cons

My first argument against was “Why do you need a teacher if the teacher doesn’t have to think for himself to create any product?” For me it was a matter of professional pride that I could write and deliver a syllabus of tasks and ideas that would guide the student through the process of learning the instrument, while being able to tailor that to the students own musical taste to at least some degree. That’s still a valid argument, especially when faced with a student that knows exactly what it is they want to achieve.

But there are a growing number of students I find don’t have that direction at the outset - they haven’t been exposed to lots of guitar music in the way that previous generations have been, so they don’t have a clear idea of what they want from the instrument. Some of them are just very young, so haven’t had time to develop much appreciation of the wide history of guitar or rock and pop music. Rockschool gives them a set direction and some confidence that at the end of each step of the process there is a goal to reach. It’s a road map, not the only element of learning, but a single strand of it that becomes augmented by other more imaginative paths as their awareness of the instrument grows.

Another argument is the examination itself, and that music isn’t a competition against some set goal, but a very individual game. That was very much a view that I held at the beginning, but I think now that we are as a educational society much more used to the idea of examination, it’s no longer so much of a pressure. And anyway, nobody is forcing anyone to take the exams, a student might choose to use the course and not take the exams. It’s not the deal breaker that I once believed it to be - I was simply wrong about it for a number of years.

UCAS points are now on offer - this was not always the case. This gives value to the higher grade exams which previously had no intrinsic value for the more experienced student.

What about the courses themselves? Before the last few years I thought they were pretty poor to be honest. Especially the lower grades, which were very uninteresting and had a tendency to have groups of notes that seemed to have no real musical value but were put together to exercise a certain point. This is much less the case now, the pieces make much more musical sense to my ears now, and therefore are more useful. The course has improved a great deal with the last update, and I think it is important to recognise that the writers have made some real strides in that area.

The largest argument that I have taken on board is the one of directed learning. I have come across a number of students over the years, especially younger ones, who lack a little focus simply due to age or having a number of activities to navigate each week. Having the course materials in the format presented helps them focus on each task. Other teachers have had a great deal of success with students who have focus issues because they like the printed book format and the backing tracks. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that in cases where mild Dyslexia is present, the printed format itself makes the course materials easier to digest than hand written music.

In conclusion

It’s not for everyone, but from my initial position of absolutely not offering Rockshool, I have to say I now see a great deal of merit in it for particular students and will be offering it with much more enthusiasm than I thought possible a few years ago.

It does help some students with organisation, demonsterably so, and students with exam passes are encouraged to keep going and get over the next hurdle. The exams and the examiners seem to be fair, and don’t seem to be trying to fail the student but to give them room to show what they can do.

So I’m glad to say that I have definitely changed my mind about Rockschool.

CITES: What it means for Luthiers, customers and guitar owners (and me)

Hi all.

This last few weeks I’ve been looking at Guitar design for this building season, and have decided to make a model that I can replicate easily as a flagship and a junior version. This will be based on my original design of 10 years ago, which I never fully utilised apart from for my own guitar and two juniors before I moved on.

The idea is to refine that and make it accessible to players by using more standardised parts and sustainable and affordable woods, without compromising the original design aesthetic or balance.

However, at this point I decided to take a good look at how CITES will affect the export of guitars going forward, as I have exported guitars before and expect to do so again.

So, to make this easier to digest, I’ve made a video, and the basic text is transcribed below for reference.

Directly under the video is a bibliography of internet sources I used to compile the information. If anyone can point out any mistakes in how I’m dealing with this, please email me and I’ll issue any necessary corrections or updates, or add more information to this post if necessary.

Q &A on the implementation in the EU of the Listing of Rosewood and Palisander into Cites appendix II

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/cites/pdf/cop17/implementation_of_cites_cop17_listing_of_rosewood_clean.pdf

 

Q & A on the implementation into the EU of the inclusion of new species into the CITES appendixes at CITES CoP17

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/cites/pdf/cop17/implementation_CITES_CoP17_listings.pdf

 

Commission Regulation EC 865/2006

https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/en/ALL/?uri=CELEX:32006R0865

 

Council Regulation EC 338/97

https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:31997R0338&from=EN

 

CITES press release 2017 - New rules.

https://www.cites.org/eng/new_CITES_trade_rules_come_into_effect_as_2017_starts_02012017

 

How Cites Works

https://www.cites.org/eng/disc/how.php

 

The Cites Appendices

https://www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php

 

What is CITES

https://www.cites.org/eng/disc/what.php

 

UK Govt info page - Endangered Species imports and exports

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/cites-imports-and-exports

 

The Control of  Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 2018

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2018/703/regulation/2/made

 

Wood Database - Restricted and endangered List

https://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/restricted-and-endangered-wood-species/

 

CITES Conf 16.8 resolution on the movement  of musical instruments

https://cites.org/sites/default/files/document/E-Res-16-08-R17.pdf

 

Animal and Plant Health Agency

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/animal-and-plant-health-agency/about/access-and-opening#animal-health-and-welfare-services

 

EU permits Certificates and Notifications

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/cites/info_permits_en.htm

 

CITES press release on Mahogany Controls

https://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2003/031111_mahogany.shtml

Most musicians and luthiers will now be aware that under new rules, there are issues with the import and export of Rosewood. The problem is that the rules are very complex, and apply differently in different territories. The Advice that is often being offered refers to the US market, not to the EU, and not specifically to the UK which is approaching a situation which might become very different if and when the UK leaves the EU.

 

CITES is the Convention International Trade in Endangered Species. It's been in force since July 1st 1975, and it's an international agreement between a number of parties which includes both nation states (of which the UK is one) and regional trade blocks such as the EU. There are 183 parties to the treaty, and each has to transpose the rules That means that different nations and regions differ in how they implement the rules.

 

There are three levels of protection offered to species, set apart into lists or appendixes to the treaty. Appendix 1 listing is for endangered species, those most at threat of total extinction. In the case of Luthiers and wood suppliers this has related mainly to Brazilian Rosewood. This went into appendix 1 in 1992 - so technically all international trade in Brazilian rosewood ceased at that point.

 

Appendix 1 really is very restrictive. You can't move anything in Appendix 1 across international borders for any commercial purpose . That includes if it is on an instrument, such as a fretboard. You can however, get a passport to move it across borders to use it for performance or exhibition.

 

In the EU, the rules on this are very tight, and I'm told that the law is now being enforced where it has been the case that often it simply wasn't.

 

So how do you get a passport? Firstly, if the instrument is pre 1947, it falls outside the EU rules and the passport is a formality (Its useful to have one though, how do you prove the instrument’s age if you get stopped and asked at customs?). EU rules specifically date back 50 years before their implementation.

 

Secondly, if the instrument was first imported into the EU between 1947 and 1992 and you have some evidence of that, it should again be a formality (but the passport is absolutely necessary to comply with the law).

 

However, if it was imported into the EU after 1992, it would appear that this was done illegally, and therefore obtaining the passport might be very difficult.

 

The rule is that the wood, to be imported into the EU for the first time legally now, must be an antique: It must have been worked to its current state before 1947.

 

Even to sell a guitar with Brazilian Rosewood on it in the UK, (not for export), you must have an Article 10 certificate with your name on it, and it is illegal to even advertise the guitar for sale without this certificate number being included in the advert. To get that certificate you have to be able to show that the guitar was legally imported.

The one bright point here is that it's not illegal to own a guitar with an appendix 1 wood without certification. You're probably just stuck with it is all, unless you can obtain that certificate.

 

What's more important for luthiers is that we can move appendix 1 guitars across borders if they have the right certification for the purpose of repair and performance or exhibition. The passport or export licence for any instrument with CITES prohibited parts is APHA - the Animal and Plant Health Agency, part of DEFRA.

Appendix 2

 

But that doesn't really apply to many of us. We mostly don't want to export vintage instruments. But we do want to use rosewood and bubinga in guitars we make for local buyers. (Yes, Bubinga has also just landed in CITES appendix 2, it's now restricted)

 

So how does Annex 2 differ from annex 1?

 

For the luthier, we can be assured that if we are buying from a good supplier in the EU then the wood has been harvested legally. We don't need a certificate to buy it, or work it, or sell it inside the UK or EU. The wood, to have been imported in the first place, must be granted a certificate for export from the nation of origin.

 

If you want to travel with a modern guitar (post 1967 ish when Brazilian rosewod disappeared from production), that has an Indian Rosewood fretboard. Don't worry, that's not a problem in reality. There's an exemption for any transport less than 10kg in weight of prohibited wood. If it isn't Brazilian Rosewood, you're going to be OK. You can travel to gig, you can send abroad to exhibit, or have the instrument repaired, or it can be re imported into the EU if it was legally imported at some point

 

But that doesn't mean you can sell your guitar internationally - person to person private sales are not exempt in the way they are for other laws in the UK such as trading standards laws and the Sale of Goods Act etc - you still need an export licence.

 

To get the export licence to sell out of the EU, we must have proof that the wood has been harvested legally.

 

If the wood was imported before Jan 1st 2017, then the required form is a copy of an invoice for import from the supplier. This then shows that the wood is supplied pre listing in CITES appendix 2. If you bought it before Jan 1st 2017, then of course all you need is your own receipt.

 

If the wood is imported after Jan 1st 2017, the correct form is to have a copy of the import licence. That can be redacted to remove some non essential personal information such as the price paid, but it must show the customs stamp at the bottom. This form can then be submitted to APHA with the export licence request for the guitar. You can talk to them, they're fairly reasonable folks. I spoke to them this morning to confirm this information. Or alternatively there is a email address, wildlife.licensing@apha.gov.uk

 

So now we're on to the matter at hand: Brexit

 

What does Brexit mean for the Musical instrument trade across borders?

 

If we're talking about trade between the USA and UK, then almost certainly there won't be any difference, certainly in the short term. Even if we leave the EU, it will take years for us to write our own regulations, and we probably won't bother in this area unless the guitar industry lobbies for a relaxation of the rules for vintage guitars - to get rid of the predated 50 years rule.

 

However, trade into the EU, if the UK does eventually leave the EU will be very different in regards to CITES - this is where it gets complex and a bit political and depends on the final deal we do with the EU.

 

The CITES regulations in force are not EEA relevant. They are EU rules, not Single Market rules. Norway for example, has its own regulations, and is not in the EU CITES area.

 

However, the EU Withdrawal Agreement as it stands at the moment tends to favour a Customs Union type agreement. CITES rules checking is a function of customs checking at ports.  Article 41 of the Withdrawal Agreement as currently proposed, states that any good put legally on the market in the UK is legally in circulation in the EU and vice versa. This provision continues until the Withdrawal Agreement is superseded by the future agreement. If the backstop kicks in, then this appears to continue to be the situation.

 

However, at this point the WA hasn't passed Parliament, and is unlikely to be able to do so in this sitting of Parliament - but until we leave fully there is likely to be no change to how we deal with EU countries. That could be many years away, if at all.

 

 

 

So what does that me for Me as a luthier.

 

Certainly for the foreseeable future anything that is not built directly to order for a customer will not use Rosewood or Ebony. Why not ebony? Well, because I've had problems with supply being poorly kiln dried and suffering shrinkage. I imagine this is due to suppliers rushing through stuff they haven't checked due to demand outstripping supply.

 

I'm now working on a design for a guitar based very much on my original model of a decade ago, but with sustainable woods and substitutes that don't appear in Appendix 2 of Cites. So I won't be using Central or South American  Mahogany for example, which is Appendix II - in fact, Honduran mahogany went on the list in 2011, it's been commercially extinct for years.

 

That means there will have to be some design adaptations - European Ash is a great wood, nice straight grains and high density gives it a good sustain and attack character, but it's heavy.

 

Sapele, despite its appearance and the temptation for people to call it 'African Mahogany', is nothing of the sort. It's not even the same genus of plant. It's a bit harder to work with because it has very interlocking grain. It's not endangered and therefore doesn't appear in CITES.

 

However that doesn't deal with the Rosewood issue for fretboards.

 

That has to be a synthetic answer. We know that some companies have already been dealing with an Ebony substitute. That, due to the poor quality of the ebony I've been recently supplied, is where I'm starting. Martin have used Richlite for a while. It's a synthetic substitute for Ebony.

 

However, there's a British company offering its own substitutes for both Ebony and Rosewood, and at a comparable price to A grade boards currently available via luthier supplies. The company is called Rocklite and I've got both their Rosewood and Ebony boards in stock, and that's what I'm going to be using for  the guitars I'm about to start making.

 

So, to recap:

 

If you've bought a guitar with a rosewood fretboard, and you want to travel abroad with it to play gigs, it's absolutely not a problem so long as it's not Brazilian Rosewood. If you want to travel with it you will require an instrument passport from APHA.

 

You can travel with any item less than 10kg of an Appendix 2 wood, without certification, so long as you aren't exporting it for sale. There's no need for a passport in law. However, if it were a luthier built guitar, you might want to travel with the receipt for it just to prove the point if asked, that it was purchased inside the EU. That would normally be enough to put off even the most officious customs officer. Nobody but a total idiot with no understanding of the law would confiscate your Ibanez jem at customs (unless they thought you were evading Vat or import duty!) If you're travelling to play, that's absolutely not a problem.

 

If you have a vintage instrument with any Appendix 1 rosewood or ivory tuners - get a passport or risk losing it at customs. In the UK, the issuing authority is APHA, (the Animal and Plant Health Agency).

 

 

Bumblebee Replica

Back at the beginning of the summer I decided to clear some old stock parts and some wood that I hadn't used. One such pairing of pieces were a neck that had come in as part of a bulk buy and a large single piece Alder blank that was always going to be ideal for a strat. That had been allocated to a vintage Strat relic, but the customer then went for an ash blank that I had so this became a surplus body waiting for a project.

So in line with my policy of 'summer blowout' projects, I thought - let's make a superstrat. So I cut the body with a single pickup hole for a humbucker. But when I put the neck and body together, and was thinking about paint colours, I could just see that one guitar in my mind - Eddie Van Halen's 'Bumblebee'.

However, there are production models of that, so it didn't seem like a particularly interesting thing to build. But what if I could actually build it how it originally was, not the modern version of it that Fender currently produce? Now that would be interesting. What's more, what if I could actually make it work the way that Eddie originally did - a functioning standard trem with nothing but the tools and equipment that Eddie originally had? Now that was more of a challenge.

The Guitar

I looked into the history of it quite closely. Bumblebee, as everyone knows, is the guitar featured on the cover of Van Halen 2. But it isn't on the record. In fact, I'm not certain that it's actually on any Van Halen record.

The original guitar had a black pickup in it - I get the impression it was a Seymour Duncan pickup. It was apparently too hot according to old interviews with Ed, and he swapped it for an old Gibson pickup, which he rewound and potted. There's a picture of this which seems to be either a studio or rehearsal picture, which seems to show the original guitar as it was, with this one change.

 

cd864d5121a4797345071b75f1f7c0a6--david-lee-guitar-room.jpg

You can see in the picture the changed pickup, but still the vintage trem and the original neck. and that's the guitar I tried to copy.

It was this guitar that was played on the second leg of the Van Halen 1 European tour mainly in support of Black Sabbath, but also at their first UK headline gig at the now defunct Rainbow Theatre.

So what happened to it? Because you don't see it again by the end of the VH2 tour. Firstly, the neck was swapped with with Frankenstein's neck. When we first see the 'red' covered black and white Frankie on the pictures from the VH2 tour in 79, then it has a black headstock. At the same time, the Bumblebee has a plain neck, no finish, with a locking trem (the original Floyd with no fine tuners) on it. By this stage it has a Dimarzio Super Distortion in it, and the zebra pickup probably just went back in the spares bin. 

Then, following the VH2 tour, it seemed to be ditched in favour of the original Frankenstein, which then gains the full Floyd with fine tuners, and has the original neck restored to it with the locking nut. I can't find much evidence of Eddie playing it beyond that point, though it does appear on pictures in the early 80's. 

When Wayne Charvel sold out to Grover Jackson, Jackson tried to make copies of the guitar and there was for a short time a production 'Charvel' bumblebee. This was nothing to do with Wayne Charvel himself, and Eddie apparently send desist notices via his lawyers. Jackson sent him several of the guitars as a peace offering, but I'm not sure they were ever used and may have been given away in publicity drives. The copies stopped being made commercially.

In the end, the guitar lay apparently unused for two decades, until the untimely death of Darrell Dimebag Abbott. The guitar was a favourite of his, and when a replica was requested for burial with Darrell, Eddie simply gave his family the original and it was buried with Dimebag.

The Replica

Specs:

Alder Body (1 piece)

Maple Neck (painted black on reverse and headstock)

Standard Fender Type tremolo with Heavy Steel block

Gotoh Tuners

Hand Wound Alnico II Pickup (Zebra), about 10k

9-40 nickel steel

 

In Use

As you can imagine, any guitar based on Van Halen's original designs will have the limitations that he suffered, and that caused him to take on the locking trem as a remedy. But it's also true that the fender vintage trem does sound better with its large block and increased body contact. It has more bottom end and better sustain. 

The pickup, a hand wound one, mimics as closely as I could the sound from VH1 - as this is the sound that I have to reference at that time. Of course, there's no evidence that the bumblebee was ever recorded anyway - but there's no secret in that Eddie didn't like high powered pickups in the bridge position. We also know that he used a Gibson pickup, probably Alnico 2, from a 335 for his original Strat. He rewound it a little hot and potted it.

The setup is also pure Van Halen. 9-40 strings were his favoured gauges at the time, probably a result of Hendrix having used the same strings and that they were sold as a 'Fender' balanced set for strats in the 70's. The guitar is setup with these strings 1/2 a tone down at Eb, as Eddie did back then for David Lee Roth's vocal.

Keeping it in tune is fairly straight forward, so long as you don't ask the impossible of it. Eddie didn't favour the 'trem pull' trick - he set his tremolos flat to the wood. That means that if a string went sharp he couldn't pull back on the trem to release it. Another trick often used is to press the tremolo hard down and then tune the sharp strings back to pitch - but this causes  a hard bend of the string to flatten it badly until the bar is depressed to create the friction again. Eddie couldn't deal with that due to the sheer amount of bending he used.

Eddie's rememdy was to try to keep all the components as straight as possible. 5 Strings were wound up the posts to reduce break angle and friction at the nut. The 009 sits under the string tree for which the 50's 'wing' style was always favoured, but the string wound down to reduce the friction across the tree. The nut was opened out a bit, not enough to rattle, but there was enough space to make sure there's no pinching.

At the tremolo end, all but two screws were removed, creating a two point trem, neither of which hold down the tremolo plate or reduce movement. The 2 springs are set so that the tremolo always returns to to the flat position with a certain force, so that the grounded position doesn't shift without positive pressure on the bar, even with a string break.

The final move was given away with the release of the new 'Fender Frankenstein' replicas (the £25k ones). Inside the case is a bottle of the original lube that Eddie used to use on his nut. Basically, it's cheap 3 in 1 oil. So that's what I did, and it works pretty well. I'm not going to say that it never catches, but it creates a balance where you can bend strings and use the bar heavily and yet maintain tuning, even at these incredibly low tensions.

So here is - the video: Van Halen's Bumblebee....

The 'Saint' Hybrid

IMG_20180718_124434.jpg

About five weeks ago, I was approached by a long standing customer to help him with a project guitar that he was hoping to build. He had a neck, but wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with it. His wife had bought it for him for his birthday, along with some other parts as a bit of a surprise - because he's been talking about doing a build project.

We had a mahogany neck, that really belonged to an LP Junior, two good planks of hard rock Maple, and some other bits and bobs. so I set about drawing up a Junior type guitar for John, but before long we could tell that this wasn't really where he wanted to go. I had an old neck lying about the workshop that I had brought in to use on a tremolo testing jig that I built a decade ago to test a new trem design I'd had engineered ( a story for another time maybe). So we opted to use that instead and put the Junior neck into stock.

John had his mind on a bolt on, probably something strat like - but he wanted something slightly different too. So we started drawing out bodies and came up with a body that is kinda half Strat, half Telecaster.

Now hybrids like this aren't anything new per se - but they tend to be either very much more one than the other. Telecaster body with an altered scratch plate, or a strat with a tele bridge. We decided to very much design the body around the scratchplate for a Strat because he already had a loaded plate we could use - but with the telecaster top bout and the less rounded edges.

Anyway - the result you see above.

But it's got me thinking - I really like this design. It's got a slightly 80's vibe to it, more Charvel than Fender. If I were to build this a stock guitar, (though maybe with my own headstock design), would players be interested in it as a fairly cheap (sub £1000) intro to handmade guitars with the option of bespoke colours on demand, alternative body woods, bridge and pickup choices?

Let me know what you think.....

Red Rocker - Sparkle Esquire

Simple things...

A lot of the guitars I build for customers are quite complex in terms of wiring and configuration. Even my old No.1 has parallel/series wiring and three pickups.

But back in the 90's, I used to throw away the switches, the neck pickup, the tone control, and just go for a total hot rod simplicity. This is a guitar like that:

The concept was simple - a rock esquire that you could hit hard, would hold its tuning under a firm hand, and would be fun to play. This was the result.

At the time of starting this project, my spray booth was out of action. So rather than wait, I spoke to a friend in King's Lynn, Graham, who is a custom Motorcycle and Car sprayer. He suggested a sparkle finish, layered with real glitter in lacquer. The result was spectacular!

The specs here:

Alder Body, Red Sparkle Finish, Single Blade split coil Humbucker, Six saddle Bridge (string through body), Push Pull coil tap, Single Vol (no Tone), Maple Neck with Birdseye Maple Fingerboard, Paua Dots, Gotoh Tuners, Jumbo Frets, Bone Nut.

I'd like to get this one out and being used, so for a quick sale I'll take £575. Come and talk to me if you want to try it!

All the best

Tony