Monday, June 20, 2011

Pocket Ref (Glover, Thomas J)

Rating: 5
Year: 1989/20006 (3rd Ed.)
Genre: Technical
Read again? all the time.

Maybe it's a little too big for a pocket, but this hefty little book is incredibly useful.

Do you need to know the hand signals for guiding a crane or hoist operator? Page 105.

Wiring diagrams for common trailer wiring harnesses? Page 41.

Perpetual calendar? Page 737.

Airport 3-letter codes? 290.

...for Frankfurt, Germany? 301.

If you look on page 384, you'll note that rabbit skin glue can be used for bonding wood but is mainly used in gilding, artwork and furniture repair.

Page 537 starts a section on knots.

This little book seemingly has it all--mathematical formulae, physics and chemistry, masonry, military ranks, automotive, carpentry & construction, first aid, surveying and mapping, tools, weather, welding, and conversion tables packed into nearly 800 pages.

Getting Great Guitar Sounds (Ross, Michael)

Rating: 5
Year: 1988/1998
Genre: Music/Technical
Read again? Yup.

One thing a serious musician will spend endless hours and wallet-loads of cash on is getting good tone, whether it's from a guitar or a trumpet. It starts with an instrument that will play in tune--and stay that way. It needs to be comfortable, too--if you're fighting the thing, you're not going to play it well.

Michael Ross starts us out with the instrument itself. The sound you get from an electric guitar depends on more than just plugging it into an amp. The big factor is wood. What's it made from (alder? Ash? Maple?) ? How is the neck attached (bolted on? Glued on? Neck-through-body?)? What's the neck material (maple is typical)? Is it a hollow-body? Solid? Semi-hollow?

From there, you get into string size, scale length, and hardware, all of which contribute to how the guitar itself sounds both before it's plugged in and to the overall sound. Then you've got pickups and controls, on-board electronics...

Lots of choices, there; to the non-musician they might all sound the same. But to a tone junkie, there's a huge difference between the sounds of classic Van Halen, Angus Young, Alex Lifeson, Joe Satriani, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards, and James Hetfield. Each has a distinctive sound that begins with his guitar.

Ross doesn't overdo it; he keeps his descriptions clear and non-technical, discussing how each component will affect the overall sound of a guitar.

That's just Chapter One.

With the second, Ross guides us through pickup choices (single-coil, humbucker, active) and location (bridge, neck, middle), wiring, controls (active, passive), and then finally to amplifiers. The amp itself will affect your sound--it doesn't just make the guitar louder, it colors the tone depending on how you play through it.

In Part Two, Ross discusses effects pedals, the tools a guitarist can use to further affect his tone: compression, distortion, preamps, delay, reverb, chorus, flange, and pitch shifters, all available as stand-alone "stomp boxes" or in all-in-one multieffects units.

Part Three sees us putting all this stuff to work; many of the effects sound better when they're arranged in a certain order, but there will be songs when you want a clean sound, your guitar's natural voice, without all the extra trimmings. From here, he looks at "live" vs. "studio" sound and the give and take of using vintage instruments, amps and effects.

His final note is about musicianship: none of these things matters if you don't have the chops. Alex Lifeson will sound like Alex Lifeson no matter what guitar/amp/effects he's using--the instrument's tone is important, but not nearly as important as what Lifeson does with it. The single most important part of your sound

Ross' advice:
--Play with authority. Play each note like you mean it--even if you screw up. Screw up like you mean it.
--Make your sound and playing fit the song! If you're going to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you have to lay into it with both hands. Stevie played hard, till his fingers were bleeding--and he meant it. But you can't play like that if you're supposed to be subtle and romantic.
--Listen. Pay attention to your favorites and try to figure out how they got that sound.

The closer is a rundown of some guitar greats and how they got their sounds: Jeff Beck, Clapton, Van Halen, Hendrix, David Gilmour, Andy Summers, The Edge, and Kurt Cobain, to name a few.

The book is a little more than 70 pages and sized to match standard music books. Pics are in black and white. Ross discusses various brands without pushing any of them in a sales pitch, making it clear that the thing that matters in any of this is that you pick what you like to get the sound you want.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Star Wars: Thrawn 01--Heir to the Empire (Zahn, Timothy)

Rating: 5
Year: 1991
Genre: Sci-Fi / Star Wars
Read again? Yes

I started on this book in late April; it's hard to concentrate on a novel when you're exhausted from kidney surgery, so it's no fault of Zahn's.

This was the first Star Wars novel I found in the years after "Return of the Jedi." I devoured it in a matter of hours, all 400-plus pages, and immediately wanted the next book in the trilogy. That one was only out in hardcover, but I gladly snapped it up and devoured it as well.

It's been 5 years since the Rebel victory against the Galactic Empire at the Battle of Endor. The second Death Star is gone, the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead. The remnants of the Empire still hold onto parts of the galaxy, but until recently they've been without a leader.

Grand Admiral Thrawn was a rarity in the Empire: he's not human. This blue-skinned man with glowing red eyes was one of the Emperor's master strategists. Now he's providing the leadership--and victories--the Imperial Remnant badly needs. Thrawn intends to bring down the New Republic and bring the Empire back to its former glory.

Meanwhile, the New Republic has established Coruscant as its capital planet, as it was for the Old Republic...and for the Empire. Luke Skywalker hasn't been able to sense any disturbances in the Force that would point to this being a bad decision, but he's uneasy.

Han Solo and Leia Organa are married; she's pregnant with twins. While her husband is out in the galaxy trying to scare up some of his old smuggling contacts with the offer of honest shipping jobs, Leia is up to her shoulders keeping the New Republic's government going.

Thrawn leads several lightning raids against minor Republic assets, forcing their overtaxed fleet to spread itself thinner and thinner and leading us to wonder why he needs stolen mining equipment and a deranged Dark Jedi. I won't spoil it, because it's pretty damn creative.

Unlike Alan Dean Foster and Brian Daley, Zahn's not giving us a crappy science fiction novel that uses Star Wars words. He's got a feel for the people that was sorely lacking in any of the movie novelizations or the early spinoffs by Daley and Foster. One nice touch is that the main characters--Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian--all have history with each other. Zahn uses this for inside jokes and tag-lines, as in one scene with Han, Leia and Luke:
"Yeah, as it happens, I do," Han said, his voice hardening. "I also have a pretty good idea what could happen if our late pals with the stokhli sticks brought friends with them."

For a long minute Leia stared at him, and Luke sensed the momentary anger fading from her mind. "You still shouldn't have left without consulting me first," she said.

"You're right," Han conceded. "But I didn't want to take the time. If they did have friends, those friends probably had a ship." He tried a tentative smile. "There wasn't time to discuss it in committee."

Leia smiled lopsidedly in return. "I am not a committee," she said wryly.

And with that, the brief storm passed and the tension was gone. Someday, Luke promised himself, he would get around to asking one of them just what that particular private joke of theirs referred to.

I really liked that callback to the argument between Han and Leia from "The Empire Strikes Back." Little moments like this add a lot to the "feel" of the characters.

About the only thing I didn't like is some of the euphemized slang terms that everyone in sci-fi seems to indulge in. Zahn uses "cloak-and-blade" in place of cloak-and-dagger, which isn't as bad as Daley's "howlrunner" in place of "Space Wolf." But given that a ship is a ship, and so many other common items have the same names (or are "translated" for us into English), why not call a dagger a dagger?

Maybe I should drop a point for it, but Zahn has done such a good job that I can cringe but let it pass.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rush Complete (2 volumes) and Deluxe Anthology

Rating: 3
Date: 1986
Genre: Music
Read Again? Yes

Gotta say first off, by "Complete" all the author(s) meant was "We did arrangements of all their albums through Power Windows," not "Every song in its completion."

Keep in mind that Rush is a "power trio"--drums, bass, and guitar.

Now consider that the books are arranged for vocal and piano, with chord symbols for guitar. Heh.

There's no TAB, so I was at a big disadvantage when I started learning songs from these books. I can read music notation...very slowly. I suck at it. Fortunately, those chord symbols are there and they helped a lot.

The arrangements themselves are best treated as sketches of the actual songs; they're heavily simplified and edited, with no solos or any of the badassery a Rush fan would be looking for. I knew this when I bought them, though--they're Rush memorabilia--and they were all there was in 1990, as far as I knew. While I learned by ear most of what I can play, I had the books just in case there was a phrase or chord I couldn't quite figure out (assuming it was in one of the books).

Another fun thing to do would be to program each song as written into Cakewalk or a similar music-writing program, just for something to do, and for something to laugh at. I wish I could rate these books higher, but they just don't make the cut, especially when compared to the arrangements in Guitar Magazine or some of the newer music books on today's shelves.

Volume 1:
Fly By Night
Caress of Steel
A Farewell to Kings

Volume 2:
Permanent Waves
Moving Pictures
Exit...Stage Left
Grace Under Pressure
Power Windows

The Deluxe Anthology is just 27 songs culled from the two-volume set. Same arrangements, so the same comments. My copy's pretty heavily annotated, which tells me that I depended more on this book than on the other two.

Rush (Guitar Superstar Series) (Donato, Ray)

Rating: 4
Year: 1986
Genre: Music
Read again? Yes

I re-named this "Rush for Sissies" on the inside front cover. Donato's arrangements aren't as bad as those in the "Rush Complete" or "Deluxe Anthology" books, but there was a lot of correcting to be done, once I knew enough to know the difference.

The book's arranged specifically for vocal and guitar, with both standard staff and TAB notation. The main thing missing in every song is chord notation. Donato simply notes the generic chord name--"Bb sus 2." It's not a terrible omission, given that you can look at the TAB notation to see which fingering of a B-flat suspended-second chord Alex Lifeson was using for that song.

The actual mistakes aren't glaring, but they irritated me 20 years ago, when I was trying to learn to play like my guitar idol. Things like having the guitar silent when it's not, entire sections of a song omitted (done deliberately, without a good reason) or shortened, solos omitted (but included in other songs?). Knowing how hot-headed I was in 1989 or so, I'd have been pretty pissed off at shelling out $20 I could barely afford only to find that the arrangement for "Tom Sawyer" was as sucky as this one. One thing he does do well is keeping up with the insane meter-changing of certain songs.

Still, figuring it out by myself and going back to fix Donato's omissions and errors made me learn the songs and made me more confident in my own ability to listen and understand Lifeson's note choices. I wouldn't have gotten that if Donato had been note-for-note accurate, so I'll only take one point off.

The songs:
New World Man
The Spirit of Radio (w/solo)
Jacob's Ladder (solos omitted)
Between the Wheels (solo omitted; has guitar echoing synth; choruses wrong; ending wrong)
Tom Sawyer (solo omitted; main intro riff wrong;)
Free Will (solo omitted)
La Villa Strangiato (solos omitted)
Red Barchetta (intro wrong; solo omitted)
Distant Early Warning (sketchy solo?)

Where the hell have I been?

I got really tired of Robert Asprin's "Myth" books after the tenth one, but I never bothered to write any of them up after the third one, back in December.

I haven't really read much of anything since then--too tired, too bored. I've been falling asleep at random times of day, sitting up all night, always tired enough that reading just never mattered.

I suppose having a bad kidney and having surgery to remove it might be a good excuse :)

I won't promise much for the time being; I'm reading a novel, but slowly, in between naps and sleeping and whatever I can fit into those waking moments.

Projects for Guitarists (Anderton, Craig)

Rating: 5
Year: 1995
Genre: Music, Electronics
Read again? Yes

Of my three project books, this is the one I never really cracked open. By the time I got this one, my interest in building my own guitar effects--and my interest in electronics--went on a back shelf in favor of other things.

This isn't a re-packaging of Anderton's "Electronic Projects for Musicians"; he does give some basics in the first couple of chapters, but the 35 projects in this book are all new, many gathered from Anderton's columns in Guitar Player Magazine):

Wall-wart tamer (mini extension cord with switch)
AC adapter hum-buster
Making crossfade & pan-pot pedals
Effects-order switcher
Power/Status indicator monitor
Stereo/Mono breakout box
Buffer Board
"Clarifier" On-board preamp/EQ
Beat the DI blues with IGGY (direct-injection box)
Frequency Booster
Phase switcher
AC power supply/battery eliminator
AC-powered practice amp
Signal switcher
Volume pedal de-scratcher
Cheap & Cheerful (Guitar) tone mods
Humbucking Pickup Tricks
Pots & Pans (pan-pot add-on to guitars)
Telecaster Rewiring
Balanced/Unbalanced Adapter
Direct Injector
Tape Recorder to Echo-unit conversion
Building a Better Bypass
Restoring Vintage Effects
Vintage Effects de-hisser
Adding Presets to Vintage Effects
Go/No-Go Cord Tester
Testing Impedance
LED Level Meter
"Tri-Test" Cord Checker
Designing an on-board (in-guitar) pre-amp
Octave-doubling fuzz
Rocktave Divider
"Stack in a Box" tube preamp

One very helpful section helps you translate between American and International capacitor values (this information would have been useful in Penfold's book).

Well-written, with plenty of drawings and parts lists. There's no "sound page" as with Anderton's other book, but I won't quibble over something like that.

Electronic Projects for Guitar (Penfold, RA)

Rating: 4
Year: 1992
Genre: Music, Electronics
Read again? Yes

Of the three musical electronics project books, this one was the most difficult to understand, since the author uses British (or European? Metric?) notation on some components. Once I got used to that, though, everything fell into place.

Not that I ever built any of the projects. I got some ideas from Penfold's book, all of them added to a big folder with all my other electronics/music stuff, but nothing ever seemed to get built. I was always working on something else--fixing a car, learning a song, playing along with Rush tapes (NEVER the LP's!), stripping electronic components from broken TV's, radios, or whatever. I've got a sizable collection of resistors, capacitors, and all storage.

Penfold gives us 16 projects after a cursory course in soldering, assembly, and testing:

Guitar preamp
Headphone amp
Soft distortion
Auto-Wah (he spells it "Waa")
Wah-wah pedal
Dual Tracking effects unit
Treble booster
Dynamic treble booster
Dynamic tremolo
Direct-injection box
Improved distortion box
Thin distortion unit
Guitar tuner

The schematics, assembly drawings, and parts lists are well-done; the projects are built up on simple breadboard with point-to-point wiring, but since there doesn't seem to be anything critical you could probably get away with the "dead bug" assembly method to make things take up even less space.

Some of the schematic symbols and part numbers didn't match anything I'd seen before, but that was before the Internet and Google, so sourcing most of the active components (transistors, integrated circuits) or equivalents shouldn't be too hard.

Electronic Projects for Musicians (Anderton, Craig)

Rating: 5
Year: 1975, 1980
Genre: Music, Electronics
Read again? Yes

Around the same time I was learning to play guitar--late '80s, early '90s--I was also into electronics.

I figured it'd be fun to build my own guitar effects and such...but I never built anything. I studied, planned, tinkered with stomp boxes I already had, but to this day I've yet to start or finish any of Anderton's example projects.

It's not him. It's me. Always wanted to say that.

The book's a reasonably comprehensive mini electronics course. In the first four chapters, Anderton introduces various electronic components and where to source them, what sort of tools you'll need, and assembly techniques, enclosures, soldering, testing, and the all-important "smoke test" when the project either catches fire or works like it's supposed to.

Chapter 5 introduces the books' 27 projects, including a simple pre-amp, headphone amp, tone controls, distortion, an 8-input mixer, phaser, talk box (think Joe Walsh or Peter Frampton), and a noise gate...hell, here's the list:

Passive tone control
Headphone amp
Bass fuzz
Ring Modulator
Dual-filter voicing unit
Adding bypass switches to effects
Guitar rewiring
Bipolar AC adaptor
Treble booster
Electronic footswitch
Tuning standard
Super Tone Control
8-in, 1-out mixer
Using a volt-ohm-millammeter
Practice play-along
Phase shifter
Making patch cords
Talk box
Tube-sound fuzz
Envelope Follower
Noise gate

Chapter 6 discusses different ways of patching the effects together, since your overall sound will be affected by the order in which effects are connected.

As a bonus, my copy of the book came with a flimsy record page with examples of many of the effects in action.

Looking over the list, I can't see me building a Tuning Standard because in the past 20 years small tuners have become cheap and small enough to fit in your guitar case. Most of the rest might bear revisiting, though--I'll need to dig out my big folder full of scribbled notes and schematics. It's always more fun to just look at the stuff, try to figure out how it works.

Overall, the book's well-written and illustrated, with parts lists for each project and plenty of assembly photos. Of the three books like this in my collection, this is the best.