DRAIN Rig Rundown

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The String-Tension Follies Experiment, Continued

Instrument makers have always tried to manipulate string length to optimize tone and feel, but how much is myth and how much is science?

Length, gauge, friction, voodoo? Revisiting the mystery of real or perceived string resistance in a science-y way.

In a previous column, I investigated the relationship between overall string length and its resulting tension ["The Doors of Perception," August 2020]. I cobbled together a crude measuring fixture and determined that the length of string beyond the bridge and nut did not affect a string's (linear) tension at a given pitch. After being assailed with comments and emails loaded with physics lessons detailing the math behind my conclusion, I now know that it was folly to assume any other conclusion. The laws of physics state that string tension is determined completely by the active (vibrating) length of the string, the pitch the string is tuned to, and the string's mass. In simple terms, this means that for a given vibrating length, the tighter you pull the string or the heavier the gauge, the more tension it will have. Nothing else, like peghead length or tailpiece position, matters—full stop. Still, the feeling persisted that I could sense a difference on instruments with long lengths of string between the bridge and tailpiece, such as an archtop jazz guitar. I'm not alone.

There have been many seasoned musicians I've known who swear that a flipped 6-in-line headstock tightens up the low strings. They've reported that the strings were tougher to bend and felt stiff. Some of the string manufacturers I spoke to in my research, despite their knowledge of the science behind the materials and construction of guitar strings, offered that there might be a perceived difference. But how could this be? You'd think that if you feel tension, it could be measured, yet my test instrument showed no change. Could there be another force at work, like lateral resistance? It seemed impossible, but it was time to resurrect the string tension fixture to find out.

My string test contraption was originally built to measure the linear tension of strings, but I only had to make a few changes to convert it to quantify lateral resistance. Admittedly, human fingers can detect minuscule changes in pressure, so I wondered if my 20-pound test instrument would have the resolution to pick up any variation. My theory was that if the overall length of a string was longer, there might be a perceivable difference in the force needed to stretch a string to a given interval. I'm counting on the physics majors out there to rush in at this point with the equation that I'm oblivious to.

Perhaps the friction (or lack of same) at the nut and bridge is what we are feeling when a guitar feels easy to play, or, conversely, when we say it fights us.

Nevertheless, my method was to use a pair of .012 plain steel strings and bend them the distance needed to raise the pitch one full step. Each string would have a different overall length despite their identical vibrating length. The full-step bend at the 8th fret position is a lick that all (non-classical) guitarists employ regularly. It's also the figure we often use subconsciously to determine playability when evaluating a guitar. I used this exact move in an attempt to impress Joe Bonamassa while sampling one of his '59 sunbursts. He avoided eye contact.

In my initial tests, I observed that it required a force of 1.8 pounds to raise the pitch one full step, regardless of the total length of the string, as long as the vibrating length remained 25.5". Thinking that perhaps the string's light gauge made any difference too small to measure accurately, I repeated the experiment with a .056 low E string. My test replicated bending the same B note three frets (a step-and-a-half) sharp to D. This is a pretty bold move on a guitar, but I thought maybe I'd see some evidence of difference if I really strangled it. Again, no difference was indicated, as both examples required 4 pounds of pressure to reach the higher note.

Now, I'm sure many of you will be quick to point out that this was a pretty shoddy exercise. I didn't make absolutely certain that the friction at the nut would be equal when extending the length to the tuner. Friction is a factor often brought up when this subject is discussed. Should I have used a ball-bearing roller at the nut? Perhaps the friction (or lack of same) at the nut and bridge is what we're feeling when a guitar feels easy to play, or, conversely, when we say it fights us. What about those players who have that little quivery vibrato that sounds like Joan Baez? Do they feel these forces? As for my research, at this point I was beginning to tire and made myself an espresso.

I'm hopeful someone smarter than me will figure this out and make a YouTube rebuttal. Meanwhile, I'm planning my next test to see if longer scale length is why Eric Clapton "lost" his tone after Cream. Until then, rock on friends!

Molly Miller’s High-Energy Balancing Act

On her new record with her trio, Molly Miller executes a live-feeling work of structural harmony that mirrors her busy life.

Photo by Anna Azarov

The accomplished guitarist and teacher’s new record, like her lifestyle, is taut and exciting—no more, and certainly no less, than is needed.

Molly Miller, a self-described “high-energy person,” is fully charged by the crack of dawn. When Ischeduled our interview, she opted for the very first slot available—8:30 a.m.—just before her 10 a.m. tennis match!

Miller has a lot on her plate. In addition to gigs leading the Molly Miller Trio, she also plays guitar in Jason Mraz’s band, and teaches at her alma mater, the University of Southern California (USC), where, after a nine-year stint, she earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in music. In 2022, she became a professor of studio guitar at USC. Prior to that, she was the chair of the guitar department at the Los Angeles College of Music.

Molly Miller's Gear

Miller plays a fair bit of jazz, but considers herself simply a guitarist first: “Why do I love the guitar? Because I discovered Jimi Hendrix.”

Photo by Anna Azarov

Guitars

• 1978 Gibson ES-335
• Fender 1952 Telecaster reissue with a different neck and a bad relic job (purchased from Craigslist)
• Gibson Les Paul goldtop with P-90s

Amps

• Benson Nathan Junior
• Benson Monarch
• Fender Princeton Reverb Reissue (modified to “widen sound”)

Effects

• Chase Bliss Audio Dark World
• Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl
• EarthQuaker Devices Dispatch Master
• EarthQuaker Devices Dunes
• EarthQuaker Devices Special Cranker
• JAM Pedals Wahcko
• JAM Pedals Ripply Fall
• Strymon Flint
• Fulltone Clyde Wah
• Line 6 Helix (for touring)

Strings & Picks

• Ernie Ball .011s for ES-335 and Les Paul
• Ernie Ball .0105s for Telecaster
• Fender Celluloid Confetti 351 Heavy Picks

To get things done, Miller has had to rely on a laser-focused approach to time management. “I’ve always kind of been juggling different aspects of my career. I was in grad school, getting a doctorate, TA-ing full time—so, teaching probably 20 hours a week, and then also doing probably four or five gigs a week, and getting a degree,” explains Miller. “I had to figure out how to create habits of, ‘I really want to play a lot of guitar, and gig a lot, but I also need to finish my degree and make extra money teaching, and I also want to practice.’ There’s a certain level of organization and thinking ahead that I always feel like I have to be doing.”

“The concept of the Molly Miller Trio—and also a part of my playing—is we are playing songs, we are bringing back the instrumental, we are thinking about the arrangement.”

The Molly Miller Trio’s latest release, The Battle of Hotspur, had its origins during the pandemic. Miller and bassist Jennifer Condos started writing the songs in March 2020, sending files back and forth to each other. They finally finished writing the album’s last song, “Head Out,” in December 2021, and four months later, recorded the album in just two days. The 12-song collection is subtle and cool, meandering like a warm, sparkling country river through a backwoods county. The arrangements feel spacious and distinctly Western—Miller’s guitar lines are clean and clear and dripped with just the right level of reverb, trem, and chorus, while Jay Bellerose’s brush-led percussion trots alongside like a trusty steed.

The Battle of Hotspur has a live feel, and that aspect was 100-percent deliberate. Miller says, “That’s the exact intention of our records—we want to create a record that we can play live. Jason Wormer, the recording and mixing engineer that did our record, came to a show of ours and was like, ‘This is incredible.’ He’s recorded so many records and was like, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever recorded a record that sounds the same live.’ And that was our exact intention. Because I feel like [the goal of] the trio itself was to be full. It’s not supposed to be like, ‘Oh, let’s put saxophone and let’s put keys and other guitars on it.’ The concept of the record is a full trio like the way Booker T. & the M.G.’s were. It’s not, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you added another instrument?’ No, we’re an instrumental trio.”

Musicality is what separates Miller from the rest of the pack. She has prodigious chops but uses them appropriately, when it makes musical sense, and her ability to honor a song’s written melody and bring it to life is one of her strong suits. “That’s a huge part of what we do,” she says. “The concept of the Molly Miller Trio—and also a part of my playing—is we are playing songs, we are bringing back the instrumental, we are thinking about the arrangement. The solo is a vehicle to further the story, to further the song, not just for me to shred. So often, you play a song, and you could be playing the solo over any song. There’s not enough time spent talking about how to play a melody convincingly, and then play a solo that’s connected to the melody.... Whether it’s a pop song, an original, or a standard, how you’re playing it is everything, and not just how you’re shredding over it.”

Miller still gets pigeonholed by expectations in the music industry, including the assumption that she’s a singer-songwriter: “I don’t sing. I’m a fucking guitar player.”

Photo by Anna Azarov

Miller’s strong sense of melody can be traced to her diverse palette of influences. Even though she’s a “jazzer” by definition, she’ll cover pop songs like the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Miller says, “I spent nine years in jazz school. I practice ‘Giant Steps’ still for fun because I think it’s good for my guitar playing. But it was a release to be like, ‘I am not just a jazz guitar player at all!’ Why do I love the guitar? Because I discovered Jimi Hendrix, right? What made me feel things in high school? Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and No Doubt. It’s like, Grant Green’s not why I play the guitar.

“I play jazz guitar, but I’m a guitar player that loves jazz. What do I put on my playlist? It’s not like I just listen to Wes Montgomery. I go from Wes Montgomery to the Beach Boys to freakin’ Big Thief to Bob Dylan to Dave Brubeck. The musicians I love are people who tell stories and have something to say—Brian Wilson, Cat Stevens.... They’re amazing songwriters.”

“Whether it’s a pop song, an original, or a standard, how you’re playing it is everything, and not just how you’re shredding over it.”

Despite a successful career, Miller continually faces sexism in the industry. “I went to a guitar hang two days ago. It was a big company, and they invited me to come and check out guitars. And I’m playing—I clearly know how to play the instrument—and this photographer there is like, ‘Oh, so are you a singer?’ And I’m just like, ‘No, I don’t sing. Fuck you,’” recalls Miller. “It’s such an internal struggle because of the interactions I have with the world. This kind of gets this thing in me where I feel like I need to prove to people, like, I am a guitar player. And at this point, I know I’m established enough. I play the guitar, and I know how to play it. I’m good, whatever. There still is this ego portion that I’m constantly fighting, and it comes from random people walking up to me and asking about me playing acoustic guitar and my singer-songwriter career or whatever. And I’m like, ‘I don’t sing. I’m a fucking guitar player.’”

Molly Miller gets to both tour with and open up for Jason Mraz’s band. Here’s a taste of Miller leading into Mraz’s set with some adeptly and intuitively performed riffs from a show in July 2022.

Pixies Announce The Night The Zombies Came

Photo by Liam Maxwell

Pixies announce their brand-new studio album, The Night the Zombies Came, due for release on October 25.

The Night the Zombies Came is Pixies’ tenth album if you count their classic 1987 4AD mini-LP Come On Pilgrim and the first new music since 2022’s acclaimed Doggerel LP. Thirteen new songs that find Pixies looking ahead to the most cinematic record of their career.

Songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Black Francis explains, Fragments that are related and juxtaposed with other fragments in other songs. And in a collection of songs in a so-called LP, you end up making a kind of movie.”

Druidism, apocalyptic shopping malls, medieval-themed restaurants, 12th-century poetic form, surf rock, gargoyles, bog people, and the distinctive dry drum sound of 1970s-era Fleetwood Mac are just some of the disparate wonders that inform the new songs.

Pixies - Chicken (Official Lyric Video)

The Night the Zombies Came sessions also saw Pixies welcoming new bass player Emma Richardson (Band Of Skulls) to the lineup, the first British band member to join the Pixies. There’s also an expanded role for guitarist Joey Santiago. After contributing his first-ever Pixies lyrics on Doggerel, for the new record, Santiago wrote the words to ‘Hypnotised’ by completing a complex lyrical riddle of sorts, known as a sestina.

The news of The Night the Zombies Came arrives amidst a packed touring schedule set to take in circa 70 live shows worldwide through 2024 - with even more dates to be announced for 2025. The band just wrapped a tour across North America with Modest Mouse and Cat Power and is playing through Europe before returning to the U.K. in August for a run of already sold-out headline shows at Glasgow Academy and Halifax’s Piece Hall. Major festival performances at London’s All Points East, Victorious, and headline shows at Galway Airport, Belfast’s Custom House Square, and Dublin’s RDS Simmonscourt are all scheduled.

Pixies’ upcoming tour dates are as follows:

2024 Europe and UK Tour

JULY

24 Razzmatazz, Barcelona, Spain [SOLD OUT]

26 Low Festival, Benidorm, Spain [FESTIVAL]

28 Noches Del Botánico, Madrid, Spain [SOLD OUT]

30 Lété Au Chateau, Provence, France [SOLD OUT

AUGUST

1 OpenLucht Theater Goffert, Nijmegen, Netherlands [SOLD OUT]

2 OpenLucht Theater Goffert, Nijmegen, Netherlands [SOLD OUT]

4 Ronquieres Festival, Braine-le-Comte, Belgium [FESTIVAL]

5 Lokerse Feesten, Lokeren, Belgium [FESTIVAL]

7 Den Atelier, Luxembourg [SOLD OUT]

8 Musik Im Park, Schwetzingen, Germany10 Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic [SOLD OUT]

13 House of Culture, Helsinki, Finland [SOLD OUT]

14 House of Culture, Helsinki, Finland [SOLD OUT]

16 Parkenfestivalen, Bodø, Norway [FESTIVAL]

17 Stereo Festival, Trondheim, Norway [FESTIVAL]

20 Academy, Glasgow, UK [SOLD OUT]

21 Piece Hall, Halifax, UK [SOLD OUT]

23 All Points East, London, UK [FESTIVAL]

24 Victorious Festival, Portsmouth, UK [FESTIVAL]

25 Rock en Seine, Paris, France [FESTIVAL]

27 Galway Airport, Galway, Ireland

28 Custom House Square, Belfast, UK [SOLD OUT]

29 RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin, Ireland

2024 Auckland and New Zealand Tour w/ Pearl Jam

NOVEMBER

8 Go Media Stadium Mt Smart, Auckland, New Zealand [SOLD OUT]

10 Go Media Stadium Mt Smart, Auckland, New Zealand

13 Heritage Bank Stadium, Gold Coast, Australia [SOLD OUT]

16 Marvel Stadium, Melbourne, Australia [SOLD OUT]

18 Marvel Stadium, Melbourne, Australia

21 Giants Stadium, Sydney, Australia [SOLD OUT]

23 Giants Stadium, Sydney, AustraliaPixies’ upcoming tour dates are as follows:

How to Get Real with Bassist Sebastian Steinberg

Bassist Sebastian Steinberg’s credits range from deep-cut avant-jazz to the highest levels of pop stardom.

The low-end groove-master—who’s worked with Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple, and Iron & Wine—shares some doses of wisdom.

Umpty-ump years ago, at the beginning of my music magazine career, I conducted my first ever interview. It was with bassist Sebastian Steinberg of Soul Coughing, and I was excited to be talking to half of the rhythm section powerhouse behind this avant-rock, sounds-like-nothing-else quartet.

Think weird samples, colliding harmonies, and half-sung boho poetry, all over some seriously sick grooves, with Steinberg driving the bus to Beelzebub with his thick upright tone and funky feel.

“In the middle of every groove, there’s the stupid part,” he told me then, drawing my attention to, as an example, the steady high-hat part in Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” If a groove makes your head nod, he said, “there’s something absolutely idiotic weaving its way down the middle.” As a bass player, he cautioned: “Sometimes you’re it.”

This idea stuck with me over the years, so I thought I’d see what Sebastian was up to. I caught him at a good time. After three well-received albums in the ’90s, Soul Coughing went their separate ways, and Steinberg went on to play both upright and electric with a variety of artists, including several that he describes as “fearlessly original.” That’s him on Fiona Apple’s acclaimed pandemic release, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, as well as singer-songwriter Iron & Wine’s latest album, Light Verse. This summer he’s touring Europe in a trio with drummer Matt Chamberlain and pianist Diana Krall (who didn’t want to play with “jazz guys”), and in the fall, he’s hitting the road with a reunited Soul Coughing.

I asked what it was about his approach that appeals to certain artists. “I like to play songs,” he answered. “But I have a musical curiosity and I can throw in my own ideas. My hands tend to be the smartest part of my body, so I can follow where the music leads.”

Steinberg says Fiona Apple’s 2020 record, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, “surpasses anything I’ve ever been involved in.”

Interestingly, when Sebastian started working at different points with Apple, Iron & Wine, and Krall, all three artists asked him not to listen to their previous albums. They wanted to create something new, current, and genuine, rather than, as Sebastian puts it, “trying to do stuff that’s already happened.”

“I’m not the bass player for everyone, which I’m really delighted to discover,” Steinberg continued. “But I’ve been sort of working out that there is a place for me. I’ve always been drawn to music that tends to ruffle feathers rather than smooth them. I gravitate towards people who are really strong individual thinkers, sometimes very much at the cost of their convenience, comfort, and public opinion. But the music is real. When musicians are real with each other, they’re as real as it gets.”

Sebastian describes the making of Fetch the Bolt Cutters as this kind of very real, exceptional experience. “It surpasses anything I’ve ever been involved in, including Soul Coughing,” he says. “I haven’t made an album so true, where nothing like this music has existed before, since Soul Coughing’s first album,” he said, referring to 1994’s Ruby Vroom. “Both albums were alive, unfettered, and truly unexplored territory.”

Fiona put the band together in 2016, inviting Steinberg, drummer Amy Aileen Wood, and multi-instrumentalist David Garza. “The four of us would go to the house, stomp around, sing in a chant she’d made up, and literally play like children or birds. After a while, songs began appearing. By the time we started going into the studio, we’d developed a level of trust and intimacy with each other, because we’d been playing in this non-specific but very personal way together. It's the most powerful band I’ve ever been in.”

“There are so many ways to approach music that transcend what the instrument was built to do. But you should know what it was built to do, because that’s a great job. It’s the best seat in the house.”

Sebastian notes that you do have to balance this kind of boldness with musical functionality. “Bass is a function, not an instrument,” he says. “There are so many ways to approach music that transcend what the instrument was built to do. But you should know what it was built to do, because that’s a great job. It’s the best seat in the house.”

So how does one go about getting real? “It’s about getting out of the way of whatever niceties musicians tend to inflict on each other,” he says. “You have to overcome fear and let the truth speak. Find the music and play it. Don’t bring your ego into it, but don’t let somebody scare you off from the music. And if you believe in what you’re doing, stick to it.”

A note of clarification

Last month’s column was about playing style, with Funkadelic bassist Billy Bass Nelson as an example. However, the magazine was already off to the printer when I finally connected with Nelson after several attempts. He told me that he did not play with a pick on Fred Wesley’s “Half A Man,” but often used his fingernails to get a similar attack. He also suggested two other songs that exemplify his style: Parlet’s 1978 track “Love Amnesia,” and the Temptations’ 1975 single “Shakey Ground.”

D'Addario's Beginnings: Pat Metheny & Phosphor Bronze | Jim's Corner Ep. #4

A brand-new YouTube series telling the 400-year-old story of the D’Addario family and how they created the world’s largest music accessories company.

This series features Jim D'Addario, Founder and Director of Innovation at D'Addario and Co., sharing his family's remarkable journey from 17th-century Italy to a 21st-century global enterprise.

In the first four episodes, available now, Jim D'Addario takes viewers back to the beginning, from making strings from animal guts, to knotting ukulele wire as a family around the television. Jim recounts the creation of strings that inspired legendary riffs, including one by The Who, the launch of Darco strings, the merger with Martin Guitars and the company’s humble beginnings with his wife, Janet and brother, John. Jim D'Addario's firsthand accounts provide an intimate and personal perspective on the milestones and challenges that shaped D'Addario into the brand it is today.

How D'Addario Invented The Modern Guitar String | Jim's Corner Ep. #1

Episode Highlights: