april 2013

While adding higher-pitched strings to a bass was a no-brainer, the low B often caused problems.

Fig. 1. This creatively rearranged headstock creates a longer low-B 5th string.

Fig. 2. Two systems for lengthening the 5th string at the bridge. The commercial model on the right is an aluminum tube.

In the “good old days,” basses had four strings, the music grooved, and bass players knew their place and role in the band. And then someone gave them a 5th string, and before long the first bass soloists showed up and demanded a 6th string (or even more).

While adding higher-pitched strings to a bass was a no-brainer, the low B often caused problems. Players found it too floppy and undefined, or complained that its sound didn’t blend in with the rest of the strings. Many manufacturers—and especially smaller custom builders—answered this complaint by making fretboards with extra-long scales, or adding fanned frets and so on. In the process, some less-than-brilliant ideas popped up.

Ever heard the “longer is tighter” argument? The reasoning behind it goes like this: For a given scale length, string, and pitch, you can increase tightness and bass output by adding string length behind the bridge or nut. For many, this conflicts with what they learned in their first school physics classes, but the argument pops up so often (even among well-known luthiers) that it’s worth taking a closer look.

Fig. 1 illustrates one manufacturer’s attempt to put the longer-tighter theory into practice. In this headstock drawing, the low-B tuner is moved to the top to increase the 5th string’s length behind the nut. The builder must have been very convinced of the concept because in the process of executing this design, he scrambled the succession of the tuners, mixed rotational directions, and surrendered the straight alignment of the strings.

Fig. 2 shows two DIY ways to lengthen the 5th string at the bridge. The commercial model—an aluminum tube—was called the “B-string extender” and well promoted.

So do these approaches work? Let’s look at the extremes: If extending the 5th string at the nut truly tightens the tension and increases low frequencies, a headless bass would have the floppiest B with the least amount of bass.

Or imagine this: You have a standard headstock, but instead of attaching the string normally, you bend it around the headstock, lead it all the way back to the body, and tune there. It’s a great way to get a tighter string and bassier tone, right? Just think, in the studio, you could attach a bass to a stand and run the string across the room. It might be so tight, you’ll need a hammer to pluck it, but the tension would tear down walls! Or how about bringing a cable drum with a rolled up string onstage? Yes, this sounds like nonsense.

Why doesn’t this work? Here’s the formula for calculating tension (T) or pull of a string of a specific weight (w) per inch or centimeter, at a given scale length (l) and frequency (f ): T = x* w* (l* f )²

Note: (x) is a simple constant, depending on your numerical system. FYI, the tension of a .130" B string at 30.9 Hz is about 32 pounds or nearly 15 kilos.

Use a thicker string with increased specific weight and get more tension. Same thing if you tune higher or use a longer scale length. Sorry for all the math content, but you can easily see there’s no mention of any extra length behind the nut or bridge.

Now let’s consider elasticity—essentially the technical term for the “tightness” we feel when plucking a string. We’ll skip the formula, but elasticity is a term that’s defined by length: the longer, the more elastic—at least for an “ideal” friction-free bridge and nut. Once there is measureable friction, there will be no difference at all.

So once we add length to that passive part of the string using this kind of B-string extender, all we get is less tuning stability and in the worst case, even less tension.

There are ways you can beef up your low B. These include getting a new, stiffer neck, improving the body-neck connection, or simply trying a different set of strings. (D’Addario offers an extensive list of string parameters, which can be helpful as you explore and experiment with strings.) If you like a particular set of strings, but the low B doesn’t work on your bass, why not simply try out a variety of individual B strings?

If you’re still not convinced about the low-B extender, give that cheap, multi-nut DIY mod a chance. But keep in mind it will add mass to the bridge. Whatever that does to your tone, it will not alter the string tension.

Read MoreShow less
Down to the nightclub! Kenny Vaughan and his trio playing their regular Monday night gig at Nashville’s 12th South Taproom—an intimate pub where you can chat with the musicians between sets. Photo by Ariel Ellis

In today’s world, communicating online (rather than actually speaking on the phone or in person) is certainly the norm rather than the exception, but there is still a twinge of the old soul inside of me that craves the old way.

In my February 2013 column, “The Importance of Being Social,” we talked about the scope and significance of online networking, and how to make a social site work in your favor for musical pursuits. In today’s world, communicating online (rather than actually speaking on the phone or in person) is certainly the norm rather than the exception, but there is still a twinge of the old soul inside of me that craves the old way.

Granted, I send emails and Facebook messages like the rest of you—I’m just not saying I like it. Don’t get me wrong: If you are trying to land session work, gigs, writing partners, or looking to find a band to play with, then having an online presence is extremely important. I don’t discount this at all. What I’m doing is making a case for the original friend—a living, breathing individual you can actually hold a conversation with—not the one the Internet says you have a lot of.

Have you ever noticed there are a lot of musicians who don’t tweet or use Facebook on a regular basis? It’s not often you see a tweet in the vein of “I wrote a hit song today,” or a top session guy posting that “I just got paid triple scale.” They simply go out and do their jobs without the fanfare the pop stars feel they should bestow upon us. There is a very fine line between promoting and bragging. That said, anything we post could be viewed as being cocky—and the more high profile the gig, the cockier it could appear. Like anything else, it’s all in the presentation.

Even though we’ve been hashtagged and poked to death over the past few years, we’re actually still in the infancy of social media. And I’m not trying to fight the phenomenon, but instead embrace and evolve with it. The only caveat is that it’s on my terms. Too often, we get swept into the fray because someone else is on a website and we think we should be there too. Instead of simply reacting, find out how a particular site works and then make the choice if it is right for you.

Having your nose buried in a computer screen, however, can only get you so far. You need face time to get real results. No, I’m not talking about the iPhone feature. Face-to-face interaction with someone is still the most effective way to negotiate, create, and sell. When you present yourself or ideas in front of someone, it makes it a lot harder for them to say no, simply because of the emotion tied to it.

It was reported in a recent survey that people are discovering the bulk of new music on YouTube. This is a good thing. There is plenty of worthwhile stuff on YouTube, from Rig Rundowns (shameless PG plug) to rare concert footage. But not getting out of the house to check out the bands and get hit in the face with tone and volume is bad. What happened to going to see live music and then actually talking with the musicians after their set? Where are the late-night, pint-riddled discussions about tube versus solid-state, or flatwound versus tapewound?

Fortunately, those days are still alive here in Nashville. Pick any of the East Nashville bars on a random Tuesday, and you’ll see players who tour with some of the biggest names in the industry. And they get together and talk. You’ll hear about road stories, new gear, available gigs, and sessions that may be coming up. Yes, Nashville is certainly a saturated market—with more musicians per square mile than common sense—but I would imagine that there is a place in your town where musicians interact or hang. If not, maybe it’s time you find or start one.

I’m sure that more than a few of you out there are content with communicating primarily online and have no plans to change. If that’s your thing, then rock out. But remember this: No man is an island. We need the interaction to mold our relationships. I could hire you for my band straight off the Internet, but you’ll be gone in five minutes if you don’t have people or hang skills—blazing chops or not. Conversely, there are many marginal musicians that get great gigs because they have a great attitude and positive outlook.

Am I saying ditch the Internet? Of course not. The Internet and social media are both fixtures in our lives. Yet these tools should be used to complement our lives, not run them. The music we so love to make is best heard live, and interacting with the people who make it is best done in person. There is a great big world full of musicians waiting to play music with you. You just have to go talk with them.

Read MoreShow less

The Les Paul-influenced Swede was first introduced in 1970, while the higher-end Super Swede (originally called the Swede DeLuxe) was introduced circa 1977.

With a design reminiscent of a Gibson Les Paul, the Swedish-made Hagstrom Super Swede was introduced circa 1977 and had a production run of just about five years.

Located at the guitar’s output jack, the serial number indicates that this particular Super Swede could be one of the last built in Älvdalen, Sweden.

Hi Zach,
I own a vintage Hagstrom Super Swede with a serial number of 53 078140. I’ve played and displayed this guitar in my home ever since I bought it back in the mid-’80s. I read that these models were available in mahogany and maple, and I think mine has a maple top, but I’m not sure. It has a beautiful sunburst finish and I love this guitar—I’m just hoping to get more information on it and the company. There are sites for Hagstrom information out there, but the Super Swede is not mentioned as much as the company’s surf-style guitars that were produced earlier.
Leonard in Vancouver, British Columbia

Hi Leonard,
Let’s begin with a little history. Albin Hagström of Älvdalen, Sweden, began his career selling German accordions, founding Hagstrom in 1921 and incorporating in 1926. By 1932, the company had established its own production facility, and in 1936, the first of many attempts to set up distribution in America with a sales office in New York was made. Because of World War II, however, a U.S. sales office wasn’t actually in place until 1946, and it only lasted until 1949. Hagstrom began producing electric guitars in 1958, and at first, these guitars were imported into the U.S. by the Hershman Musical Instrument Company in New York, and labeled under the Goya brand name.

Hagstrom-branded instruments started appearing in the U.S. around 1962, with a fully expanded lineup of guitars and basses showing up by the mid-1960s. Initially, Hagstrom guitars were visibly influenced by the pearloid finish of the accordions the company produced for so many years, but their guitars became more traditional-looking as time progressed. A good example is the James D’Aquisto-designed Hagstrom Jimmy, released in 1969.

With the introduction of their pioneering “H” Expander-Stretcher truss rod, Hagstrom was also known for innovation. This was further evidenced with the Swede Patch 2000—the first guitar with a built-in synthesizer—and the Hagstrom H8, an 8-string bass with four sets of string pairs.

Unlike the many other guitar manufacturers that moved production to Asia in the 1970s, Hagstrom continued to produce their guitars in Sweden. By 1983, however, they could no longer compete with all the Asian-made guitars on the market, so Hagstrom experimented with having a few prototype instruments built in Japan. The quality of the prototypes was not on par with their Swedish-made counterparts, so instead of compromising the Hagstrom brand, the company discontinued guitar operation altogether. Hagstrom continued to build accordions, and still does today. In 2005, the Hagstrom trademark for guitars was revived for a line of guitars built in China, styled mostly after the popular Hagstroms of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Hagstrom is distributed in the states by U.S. Music Corporation in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

The Les Paul-influenced Swede was first introduced in 1970, while the higher-end Super Swede (originally called the Swede DeLuxe) was introduced circa 1977. Hagstrom catalogs are quite vague regarding specifications, but the main difference between the two is that the Super Swede boasts a set neck, while the regular Swede has a bolt-on. Another difference between the two is that the Swede has two 3-way switches. Separated by the neck and located in the upper bouts, one is a traditional pickup switch while the other is a 3-way tone switch. The Super Swede is absent of this tone switch, but does have a coil tap mini-switch near the knobs. It also appears that the Super Swedes featured maple tops for select finishes, including golden sunburst, wine red, and tobacco brown. Keep in mind that there are a few different variations of the Swede and Super Swede with different body sizes and pickups/electronics.

According to the serial number, your guitar was the 140th guitar built from batch 078. The “53” appeared before all Hagstrom serial numbers beginning in the early 1970s, simply to help with bookkeeping. I found out that batch 076 was produced around 1980, so it’s possible that your Super Swede could be one of the last produced in Älvdalen. Hagstrom manufactured a total of about 1,500 Super Swedes before the company shut down.

Other nice features of your Super Swede include the ebony fretboard with pearl-block inlays and the pair of humbuckers with individual volume and tone knobs. In excellent condition, your Super Swede is worth between $1,400 and $1,750. According to sources, some Super Swedes were custom finished and have become very collectible. Since the Super Swede was only produced for about five years, it is certainly one of the more rare Hagstrom guitars out there. Definitely a treasure!

Read MoreShow less