How the pandemic has reshaped my perception of that first live experience with the Zep legend.
Come Father’s Day, it will be two years since I finally witnessed a live performance by one of my all-time favorite singers—the mighty Robert Plant. Sure, I’d watched The Song Remains the Same, the 1985 Live Aid broadcast, the 2003 double-disc, and plenty of other Zep footage, but I’d never seen him in person. It was a hot, humid outdoor gig at Chicago’s Millennium Park near the shores of Lake Michigan, and—even pushing 70—Plant was incredible: Soulful and impressively on-pitch, he walked the stage completely at-ease with his legacy, mostly letting the music do the speaking, but also periodically dispensing warm, dry wit and paying tribute to blues artists of yore that he, Page, Jones, and Bonham borrowed so liberally from. His band the Sensational Space Shifters (with guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson) sounded fantastic, too.
What surprised me, though, was that—as great as the band grooved and wailed on everything from Zep classics like “Four Sticks,” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Gallows Pole” to Plant’s ’80s breakout solo hit “In the Mood” and Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die”—the tune that struck me most was the title track from Plant’s then-new solo album, Carry Fire.
It’s not hard to fathom why newer material might’ve inspired Plant and the Space Shifters more than decades-old numbers they’ve performed a zillion times—especially since the tune meant enough to them to also become the album name. But it is notable that “Carry Fire” struck me harder than so many wonderfully executed soundtrack songs from my youth, particularly since, prior to the show, the song hadn’t meant a whole lot to me. From the outset, the nearly 8-minute epic—with the building intensity of its Middle Eastern-flavored, oud-like lines, hypnotic drums, subtly propelling bass line, and dueling violin-and-Tele Deluxe leads (not to mention the mesmerizing light show)—was captivating, moving. And the intimate, confessional lyrics lent an air of longing and mystery. Now, in 2020—after more than three months of coronavirus lockdown, social distancing, etc.—they take on a different, more poignant meaning … at least for the short term.
I sit and wait for you / Like so many others do / Just like they do for me / Well so I do for you / I'd carry fire for you / Here in my naked hands / I’d bare my heart to you / If you will understand … I'm reaching out for you / Across the broken gate / I feel the gathering years / Beyond these lonely wastes….
As I write this, nations, states, and communities around the world are in various states of easing restrictions on work and social life as COVID-19 fatigue sets in, and with mixed results and feelings by citizens, too. Scientific consensus tells us there is still very real danger to our physical health, though there is reportedly some slow medical progress being made on vaccines and treatments. Regardless, pretty much everyone is suffering through some of the most trying circumstances of our lives—and on so many different levels: economically, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
We’re all “used to” this shitty new facet of existence, even if we land at different points on the spectrum of total life impact, vulnerability, and anxiety. I have no magic answers or big insights to offer. Like most of you, I’m a bit worn down, but grateful I haven’t lost any loved ones to this pandemic, grateful I still have a job, and grateful to still be able to escape some of the shittiness of pandemic life with help from my family, my guitars, and the home-recording projects I’m working on with my band.
The best I can say is that I will continue to carry fire for them—for my wife, kids, siblings, friends, and music. And for you, my friends in guitar. I will continue to bare my heart to you in this space each month (with some ridiculous nonsense mixed in, too, of course). I’ll keep reaching out for you, across the broken gate, beyond these lonely wastes. We will get through this.Be well and remember to take care of yourselves, friends.
A unique and responsive acoustic with an electric soul.
Lovely and unique tones. Supreme playability. Beautiful build. Fair price.
Piezo pickup only.
According to Martin, the company's new SC-13E model was “designed to bridge the gap between acoustic guitar and electric guitar." It certainly does! At first glance, it looks sort of like a D-28-style dreadnought with an offset waist and an unusual cutaway. But with its extra-slim neck, low action, and innovative no-heel neck joint, it feels a lot like a well-set-up electric guitar.
It's an inviting concept for players who feel more comfortable on electric than acoustic. But don't let the striking design details blind you to the fact it's also a fine-sounding steel-string with a lovely and unique voice.
Built to Thrill
The Mexico-made SC-13E has a handsome solid Sitka spruce top. It's graced by a lovely blue and pearloid rosette and retro faux-tortoise pickguard. The glossy finish is immaculate. The understated 4-ply binding includes a thin layer of blue, mirroring the rosette. The back and sides are koa veneer, but, man, that's some pretty veneer! The guitar is gorgeous from any angle.
The 20-fret neck is fashioned from an unspecified hardwood (Martin uses mahogany, sapele, sipo, and Spanish cedar interchangeably for the neck on this model). It meets the body at the 13th fret. But those top seven frets are almost absurdly accessible thanks to the guitar's most immediately striking features: an unusually shaped cutaway and a no-heel neck joint. There's a deep taper where the heel would ordinarily be, making it almost as easy to summit the fretboard as on, say, a Telecaster. I've never played an acoustic guitar with a more accessible top register. Unconventional acoustic guitar cutaways—or, for that matter, any acoustic guitar cutaways—are matters of taste. But I think this one looks pretty bitchin'.
The strings sit close to the ebony fretboard. The action is super-low yet buzz free. It's startlingly easy to barre the strings or play complex chords on the topmost frets. The playability is simply phenomenal.
A Tone of Its Own
The SC-13E's voice is sparkly and articulate. The treble and bass strings balance beautifully. Tones are uncommonly expressive, and when you shift your picking hand toward the bridge or soundhole, you definitely hear the difference. It's equally responsive to picking dynamics—the guitar seems to encourage you to exploit extremes of loud and soft. Particularly striking is the strong natural compression under forceful playing. When I played with about 80 percent of maximum force, tones were aggressive yet solid. But when I advanced to 100 percent force, the guitar didn't get noticeably louder. It simply sounded more forceful.
It's not an especially loud acoustic guitar, nor does it have a great deal of low-end power. Close-miked in the studio or amplified onstage, that's not an issue. But if you need maximum acoustic volume for busking, playing in church, or whatever, you may prefer an instrument with more output and low end.
You know how so many steel-strings crap out under maximum picking force? Strings clatter against frets. Tones get harsh and thin. But that simply doesn't happen here. That's especially impressive given the low action. So, paradoxically perhaps, the SC-13E's dynamic response may suit both skilled acoustic players who exploit the guitar's entire dynamic range and ham-fisted frontpersons that take their acoustic guitars into the nasty zone when they get passionate and strum too hard. Regardless of your playing abilities, it's hard to make this guitar crap out.
The SC-13E employs Fishman MX-T electronics, the OEM cousin of the popular Matrix system. There's no internal microphone or condenser mic—just an under-saddle piezo. Piezos are extremely feedback-resistant, which suits a guitar designed to hold its own onstage with a band at high volume. To many players, piezos sound thin and “quacky." (Okay, I'm one of those players.) But this is an uncommonly nice-sounding piezo system. It delivers higher highs and lower lows than a microphone.
Check out the demo video at 3:20, where I contrast the miked sound with the pickup sound. Single notes from the pickup sometimes display some papery thinness, especially on the third string. But with a bit of reverb, it's quite listenable. Add bass and drums, and no one in the audience will complain.
Meanwhile, the piezo arrangement means you can get seriously loud onstage without making the guitar shriek. (According to Martin, the asymmetric body shape also discourages feedback.) I had a lot of fun plugging the SC-13E into amps and amp simulators for decidedly non-acoustic sounds, as heard in the final portion of the demo video.
The MX-T system also includes a nifty tuner mounted at an angle just inside the soundhole, where the player can see it, but the audience can't. It mutes the guitar output when engaged.
Martin's SC-13E is an innovative instrument, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully realized. Players who've logged more hours on electric than acoustic will almost certainly dig it, but they aren't the only ones. The guitar literally lets my fingers play things I'd have trouble replicating on most steel-strings. It's packed with stage-friendly features: sharp looks, great feedback resistance, a concealed tuner, and more. It excels as both a traditional acoustic and a springboard to sonic experimentation.
Watch the Review Demo:
Keeping the low-end’s high-tech on the down-low.
“For as long as the guitar has existed, guitar lovers have had two choices—live with a temperamental and out-of-tune instrument or make frequent trips to the shop for setups.
Not anymore. All you have to do is play it."
This was the central advertising message for a new Gibson offering in December 2007, at least according to some articles and forums. (Gibson appears to have completely eradicated its existence from their website.) For those who don't recall, the aforementioned passage is from the introduction of the “Robot Guitar," a marriage of a Gibson Les Paul with an automated tuning system designed by German company Tronical. The proposed revolution, however, was soon cancelled, and the business partners found themselves dealing with courts in both the U.S. and Germany.
Think about this: According to the aforementioned marketing text, we've all essentially been unable to tune and adjust intonation on our own. Unless, that is, the copy was meant to say something about the instruments?
Sure, it's not uncommon to bash on Gibson, but one has to respect that they have at least attempted to move into new territory, whether it was the Robot guitar, the partially digital Firebird X, or the Chameleon guitar. It was clear from the beginning these instruments weren't meant for everyone, but it's not like their classic models weren't available anymore.
Gibson claimed their tuning system was an industry first, but it wasn't. Around 1990, TransPerfomance—who now go by AxCent Tuning Systems—introduced a self-tuning mechanism. It required massive mods to the body, however, and was pretty pricey, too.
Tronical's initial system was also quite expensive and laborious. Six individual bridge piezos took the strings' signal and—using the strings as a carrier—a processor commanded separate servo motors on the headstock to get them to the desired pitch. As with the AxCent system, one could easily dial-in different presets or self-programmed tunings.
Tronical's later versions featured pitch-detection directly at the tuners, so the whole system of detection, servos, and power supply could fit on the headstock. Tronical's systems are still available as a retrofit for many of the most-common guitar models. They're also now at a way lower price point.
It may not come as a surprise, but, alas, none of these systems ever emerged for basses. As bassists, should we be furious to be ignored once again, or happy that nobody dares offer these gimmicks for us? Of course, there are a lot more different tunings for guitar than bass and rarely is a bassist changing tunings mid-song. If so, a D-tuner is almost always sufficient. Still, it would be cool to see a system made exclusively for Michael Manring!
The problem is not string-tension. The single-string equivalent “tensions" range from 20 pounds on electric guitar, 40 pounds on bass, and 60 pounds on double bass. There are surely servos or gears to handle those loads, but is it worth it to add extra weight on the headstock of our already notoriously neck-heavy instruments? Not really. And because we already have a rather tuning-stable instrument and so few alternative tunings, we just aren't the right group of potential customers for robotic tuning.
There is a sort of a poor-man's alternative called the “Roadie Bass" (Photo 1), which is a half-automatic single-string tuner that can be used for a variety of instruments with pegheads. “Half-automatic" just means you have to hold the Roadie on one tuning peg at a time. Press a button and it tunes to the selected pitch. And once pitch is achieved on a string, the device automatically readies itself for the next one.
I'm not really sure if this one-by-one, half-automatic tuning is a solution for stage use. A pedal-style tuner like TC Electronic's Polytune might actually be faster since it offers a quick check by strumming all the strings at once, even mid-song. Sure, it requires a bit more work, but it can be considered a little more old-school since you're actually using your hands.