october 2010

As a woodworker and working musician, Steve Grimes was fascinated by the prospect of combining the two professions and began building guitars in the early ’70s.

Building guitars for a living and having a reputation as one of the best luthiers in the boutique category would probably be a dream scenario for most admirers of the guitar. How about having your shop 4,000 feet up Mt. Haleakala on the island of Maui? As a woodworker and working musician, Steve Grimes was fascinated by the prospect of combining the two professions and began building guitars in the early ’70s. Now with almost 40 years of building high-end archtops, flattops, mandolins, and ukes, Grimes has amassed an impressive client list which includes such luminaries as George Benson, Walter Becker, Steve Miller, and Willie Nelson, to name a few.

While Grimes does have a large selection of standard model instruments, he specializes in custom tailoring one-off guitars to suit the tonal, aesthetic, and playability requirements of his customers. When asked about one of his more interesting custom requests, Grimes recalled the “Family Tree” guitar he built for a well-known collector. A double-soundhole, flattop guitar, Grimes designed a fretboard with a tree of life inlay, but instead of flowers in the vine he made highly detailed engravings of the faces of the customer’s family. From the grandfather on down to a four-year- old daughter, Grimes succeeded in capturing the expressions so well that the young girl recognized all the family members.

Grimes Guitars is a relatively small shop with only one other luthier on staff. The instruments are produced slowly and meticulously by hand with just about 20 created each year. Grimes builds a few guitars at a time from start to finish, believing that he is better able to control the response and tonal characteristics as each instrument progresses.

When questioned about what present trend in luthiery would have a major effect 20 years from now, Grimes says, “I think that the current trend toward mechanization and computerization will continue to evolve, yielding guitars with high quality and lower prices.” He continued, “But I think we are still a long way off from having a computer being able to discern good wood from bad, voicing guitars depending on the stiffness of wood, and catering to the specific tonal and aesthetic needs of players looking for something special. I expect I’ll still be taking custom orders in 30 years.”

Jazz Laureate
The woods used for the Jazz Laureate—available in cutaway and non-cutaway—are selected from hundreds of samples of master grade wood for their exceptional tonal characteristics and visual beauty. The backs and sides are cut from the same billet of old cello wood, ensuring visual and tonal continuity, and Grimes personally chooses and tests this wood for lightness, stiffness, sustain, and purity of tone. Appointments include five-ply wood purflings with an optional dyed wood strip in the center of the five plies, and wood bindings consisting of curly koa, rosewood, silkwood, curly maple, or African blackwood. Inlays include a multi-layered diamond consisting of alternating strips of paua shell abalone from New Zealand and mother-of-pearl.

This custom guitar, called the Pescatore, features soundholes that resemble fishhooks in the ancient Hawaiian design. Needless to say, it was built for a customer that loves to fish. The Pescatore is a departure from Grimes’ more traditional archtops in a few ways. For one, the body is not symmetrical, and it features two points in the upper bout. The location of the two soundholes imparts a unique tone since there is more room on the bass side between the bridge and the widest part of the body, and a larger area from neck to tail for the bass tones to develop. The bridge is 100 percent ebony with no metal studs or adjusting wheels, allowing the bridge to be 75 percent of the weight of a traditional archtop bridge. A lighter bridge has less damping effect on the overall tone and volume. The action is adjusted by loosening the strings and simply sliding in a slightly lower or higher saddle.

The Beamer Steel String
This double soundhole guitar was originally designed for and made popular by acclaimed Hawaiian slack key artist Keola Beamer. By moving the soundhole away from the traditional spot at the end of the fretboard, a larger area of the top can be utilized to achieve a bigger sound overall. Grimes likens the difference between one traditional 3 7/8" and two 2 7/8" soundholes to the bass richness of a 15" woofer compared to a 10" woofer on a stereo system. Available in OM (15 1/8" wide) and Concert (16" wide) sizes, the Beamer is offered with an Engelmann or Sitka spruce top and the choice of koa, mahogany, Indian rosewood, maple, or walnut for the back and sides.

25th Anniversary Koa Edition
1999 was Grimes’ 25th year of producing archtop instruments. To commemorate the milestone, he designed an archtop guitar that originally was intended to be a limited edition guitar. The design proved to be so popular that he’s still taking orders for this model. Only the most special sets of wood Grimes has acquired over the years are used to construct the 25th Anniversary Model guitars, and they all feature wooden binding and purfling with maple, rosewood, African blackwood, ebony, bloodwood, or curly koa. Available in 16", 16.5", 17", and 18" sizes, the pictured guitar is finished in Light Parchment and is loaded with an optional DeArmond Rhythm Chief 1100 pickup.

Bird of Paradise
The Bird of Paradise model is a semi-solidbody electric guitar that features carved, curly maple top and back plates with a Honduras mahogany core. The body is 60 percent solid, providing excellent sustain without the unnecessary weight of a solidbody and the feedback problems inherent in many acoustic-electrics. Designed with excellent balance in mind and weighing approximately 7.5 pounds, it is comfortable to hold for longer periods of time. Sporting an oval soundhole, the pickups and electronics are per customer’s specifications. This particular Bird of Paradise is outfitted with a pair of Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers.

Pricing and Availability
The approximate waiting period for a Grimes guitar is currently 18 months or more, depending on the order. Pricing varies per model, from $9200 for the Bird of Paradise to $18,500 for the 25th Anniversary to $22,000 for the Pescatore. With a variety of add-ons and options, the sky is certainly the limit.


Old school picking drills from Rusty Cooley

This month we’re going to take a look at what I consider to be some old-school picking drills. I developed these exercises when I was studying how Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, and Shawn Lane approached the guitar.

All of the examples in this column are in the key of C# natural minor (C#–D#–E–F#– G#–A–B) and played with strict alternate picking. I have narrowed each example to only two strings because most guitar players start running into problems when more strings are involved. We are breaking everything down to its smallest component and mastering it from the inside out, so to speak. In other words, once you master these examples, adding other strings will be much easier.

Here are a few pointers:
  • Make sure you grip the pick close to the tip
  • Don’t move any of the joints in your thumb or fingers
  • All of the motion should be with your wrist. However, this will vary a little bit from player to player. For instance, I use a little elbow at times. I have watched all of the fastest pickers and they each do it differently, so don’t get hung up on this.
  • The pick should only dig in the actual depth of each string
  • Only move enough to cross from one side of the string to the other. Speed comes through economy of motion.
I use a kitchen timer and practice each example for five minutes a day. The idea is to have a set amount of non-stop repetition. The key factor in increasing speed is to find the top speed that you can play each example cleanly, and then push it until it starts to fall apart. When it starts to fall apart, back off to a more comfortable tempo and then push it again. It’s the constant pushing and pulling that will help you break through to new top speeds, while maintaining overall control of your picking. It’s better to have an overabundance of technique than to be lacking it, because a well-developed technique will always be there when you need it.

Each example is pretty simple to learn, as they’re all composed of sixteenth-note triplets. A few of them have odd groupings, especially the last two. The last one is groups of 6 and 7 and because of this, each time you start over the picking flips, so watch out for that.

Okay, until next time, keep shredding. If you have any questions, email them to rusty@rustycooley.com. Also, you can check out my new band at www.myspace.com/dayofreckoningmetal, and join my official forum at http://forum.rustycooley.com/.

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Warmups and stretches to keep your hands and wrists in shape

If you have not had a guitar-related injury of some sort, you probably know someone who has. Your wrist? My shoulder! Oh, my aching back. Ice it. Put some heat on it. Rest it. Use it. Stretch it. Ah, the athleticism of being a guitarist. Around final exam time in the Guitar Department at Berklee, those volar wrist splints start to look like a fashion trend. The power of observation and awareness of your technique can save you from injury, as can careful and deliberate warm-ups, stretches, and rest.

Most of the muscle strain I’ve experienced in my hand came from my early days of practicing bebop heads, searching for the melodies and memorizing patterns that my left hand had never been asked to do before. Finding new and interesting chord voicings added to that tugging and pulling on the pinky side of my hand. When it got so I could aggravate my hand simply by a slight turn of a steering wheel or by pulling up a blanket at night, I knew I had to get some rest—and advice. I visited my friend, guitarist, and teacher, Rich Falco, of Worcester, Massachusetts. He gave me some great stretches to try, and admonished me to use my right hand to carry my amp if my left hand was hurting, for heaven’s sake.

First stretching lesson: Open your hand wide, making space between each finger very slowly, then hold it. Close your hand into a gentle fist and hold that. Do that several times, as often as you think of it throughout the day. It’s a convenient stretch—no guitar necessary. I do it on my way to gigs in the car, while walking, and any time I have a moment to sit and relax.

After many years of playing my full-sized jazz box on gigs, I recently decided to try using my 3/4-sized jazz guitar, which I had only been using for teaching to that point. Since I had been having some shoulder trouble for the past two years, I thought downsizing might be worth a try. Throughout the set, I noticed the funny little way my left shoulder would shoot up and out and around, as if it were trying to help my arm reach around some giant structure to allow my fingers to land on the strings. Once I adjusted, I began to wonder if I had been unnecessarily flailing about on my larger guitar for years and never bothered to notice. I preach economy of movement to my students—had I not practiced it in my own playing?

I turned to Katherine Riggert, D.O., a sports-medicine specialist at UMass Memorial in central Massachusetts (who, by the way, lives with her guitar-playing husband and all of his guitars). We shared a few dos and don’ts, confirming the validity of the stretches I’ve been doing for myself—and teaching my students— since my meeting with Rich Falco.

“I consider musicians a type of athlete,” says Dr. Riggert. “You have to develop good habits. If you want to play guitar for a long time, you have to develop good form, or you’ll develop overuse injuries.” She encourages us to consider the whole body rather than just the fingers when assessing our guitar playing habits. What affects the elbow, affects the wrist, affects the hand. We fall into the position of doing whatever it takes to get the sound out sometimes. “If you’re not paying attention to your posture, that can lead you to rely on how you hold your wrist.” Standing with a strap that is adjusted too low, for example, can lead to over-flexion—or bending too much inward—in the wrist. Posture problems and the weight of the guitar can lead to “degenerative joint disease in the neck, which itself can cause problems in the hand.”

Dr. Riggert cautions: “Before stretching, get some circulation going in your hand. You shouldn’t stretch a cold muscle.” She recommends an assisted stretch with your other hand helping. Very gently and slowly bend each finger back and hold for a few seconds. Then hold all four fingers back together. You can also use a table to facilitate the stretch— try it palm up and palm down with your fingers on the edge of the table. Dr. Riggert also recommends shoulder shrugs and a gentle neck roll before performances.

I get all of my students to join me in a meditative warm-up using the guitar (note: not a tennis ball, or any other sort of hard-to-squeeze device). Start with your first finger on the fifth fret of the high E string. Hold it for four long beats, then add your second finger to the sixth fret. Hold each finger down this way until all four fingers are down, separated at each fret, pointing in a parallel direction to the frets. Repeat on each string and take your time—feel the gentle pull.

If it’s too late for prevention and you’re dealing with discomfort or injury, but you can’t cancel an upcoming performance, you may have to find ways to recover while still playing. “There’s rest and then there’s relative rest,” Dr. Riggert points out. “Relative rest is something you can do early on when you sense an injury coming, so you cut back your practice time and take lots of breaks.”

Complete rest, however, may be what’s necessary until symptoms resolve. “It’s easier to treat overuse injuries early on in the process. Tendonitis can take years to resolve. Chronic tendonitis, or tendonosis, is a disorganization of the tendons rather than an inflammation, and that is much harder to treat.”

To make a safe return to playing, Dr. Riggert recommends a gradual approach, with rest breaks and rest days. Use the time to “figure out what happened in the first place. It’s gradual. That’s how it has to be. That’s the frustrating part.”

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