I put together a short video about my second guitar build (for those keeping count, I’m currently building 3 and 4). This guitar was a build for my brother, who currently is playing metalcore band Ikari, and wanted something that was atypically metal, so I made him a tele that sounds like something more grungy.

This guitar really took way longer than I expected, and was way more challenging that I had anticipated. Partly this is due to work getting in the way, but partly because I unintentionally broke my own rule of keeping things simple and only incrementally stepping out if my comfort zone. This is basically the rule that should prevent me trying to do too much and being overwhelmed in a project: each time (in this case, each guitar) stick with what you know but change just one thing to something new that you don’t know how to do.

With the first guitar, I mostly took existing bits and tweaked them to build a guitar that is to my tastes. So whilst I did have to do some woodwork, it was nothing too scary, and mostly it was within my comfort zone. And that worked: I still play that guitar most every day. For the second one I thought I’d try to increment in two ways (as a guitar has two major parts, why not do a small step on both?): I made the body from scratch, and I did the fretwork on the neck. Turns out, both of these were quite bigger challenges than I’d anticipated, so I should, in retrospect, have only done one. As such the project dragged on and on and risked never getting finished as it became more of a burden than a thing of fun.

But thankfully my second rule of that I apply to this sort of thing saved the project: I had a customer. Had I been making this guitar for just me, then I’d probably have just stalled and it would have languished. But to try and make sure I had a focus for the build, I started out by deciding I’d make one for my brother (who is a totally awesome guitarist), and I’d make it to his requirements. This meant that when the project seemed not fun, I still had a reason to drag myself into makespace and take yet another run at those darned annoying frets.

The guitar was originally meant to be finished for last christmas, and it’s only now in late May that I’m finally handing it over to my brother. I still am not happy with the guitar: I can see all the things I’d do differently, but there comes a time when you have to just ship it, take those lessons, and move on. I have impossibly high standards of what I’d like to achieve, but the only way to get there is keep trying, rather than just endlessly refining on thing. Making this video was actually quite cathartic; for the first time I actually just enjoyed playing it in the endless takes that didn’t make the video. Would I do things differently if I was building this guitar again? Of course. But actually, making the video enabled me to see actually I’d made something pretty cool, that if you asked me 12 and a bit months ago could I build, I’d have struggled to believe you.

Which is a good point to reflect: I set out to build my first guitar based on watching too many youtube videos on luthiers about 12 months ago, having not done any woodwork for 25 years. by having some simple rules in place to try and make sure the project didn’t stall, I’ve actually built two guitars, and I’m in the process of building two more. When people look at my guitars they mostly look at them and thing, “wow, I could never do that”, which is what I’d‘ve thought 13 months ago. I now mostly preach these two rules of personal project management to people: you can do it, you just need to set yourself up for success correctly by limiting scope and having a delivery target to hold yourself to to get through the bad times.

26 Feb 2017

As part of my adventures in amateur luthiery, part of understanding what to build is researching what’s gone before, so I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of vintage guitars. Less that I want a vintage guitar (although I’d not say no to a Tele from my birth year, if you happen to have a 76 spare), more I want to see what’s gone before to inspire me on what to build next.

I find it somewhat fascinating how little guitar design has evolved in the last half century; the popular guitars of today are now knocking on 70 years old now: the Fender Telecaster was designed in 1949, the Gibson Les Paul, came out in 1952, and the Fender Stratocaster in 1954. But then I guess classical string instrument design hasn’t changed much either in the last few hundred years, at least in terms of superficials.

Anyway, as part of that I’ve amassed a set of links I thought I’d share incase anyone else was interested in having a look at guitar history.

Book-wise, I can recommend The History of the American Guitar by Tony Bacon, and for my particular go-to guitar Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster, also by Mr Bacon. Neither book is vastly deep, but both give you a good overview over how things have evolved over the last 100 years in terms of guitars, both in terms of sound and use, but also the trends in both taste and business that have driven them.

As ever, YouTube is a treasure trove of things. For a quick look at a lot of vintage guitars, then I can highly recommend the Guitar of the Day playlist from Norman’s Rare Guitars. Five days a week they produce a five minute video showcasing another rare guitar they have in stock, give you a little history, and play it through a clean amp so you can hear it too (“all the EQs at noon, just a little reverb…”).

For a longer dive into the world of a vintage guitar addict, this programme about the buying habits of blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa is well worth a watch:

A hat tip to Andy Field for pointing me at that video. If you actually play too, then I also enjoyed this interview with Bonamassa on how he gets his tone to be like that of the 60s blues starts like Cream, Jeff Beck, etc.

Finally, if you like fiddling with guitars, I can also recommend the Mod Garage column in Premier Guitar; they have loads of columns about how wiring evolved for old Teles etc., and some variations to make them suitable for modern ears.

If you have any recommendations for other sources, please let me know!

22 Dec 2016

I forget what depressing bit of news made me aware about how little I know about the global planet patterns beyond the obvious ones like the gulf stream, but it gave me an idea to try and find a way to make me more aware of the planet’s ebb and flow.

A little looking around the Internet later, I found this wonderful site, which gives an up to date animation of various metrics for the planet around the sea, air, particulates, and pollutants, which is simply called earth.

A picture of the earth website showing the wind patterns

Armed with this our wall mounted monitor in the kitchen now just slowly cycles through various of these maps, showing us the evolving global state of things like precipitation, ocean currents and wave heights, CO2 emissions, and dust particulates. Hopefully over time I’ll get a better understanding of how the planet behaves.

If you want to see why China’s efforts to green its economy are important, you can have a quick look at these maps of sulphur dioxide emissions and carbon monoxide emissions.

17 Dec 2016

I was posting more regular guitar videos earlier in the year as I tried to improve, but then I started taking actual guitar lessons, so I stopped for two reasons: I had a motivator to practice (which was why I was doing them originally), and because for a while I became a much worse guitarist as my teacher tried to undo my bad habits and build me back up.

But, after four months or so of lessons, I’m really pleased with how I’m progressing, so I thought I’d share this little take on the intro to Hideaway, as originally performed by John Mayal and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Claptop (They were covering Freddie King, but it’s the Claptop version I’m covering here):

It’s only really the first 12 bars I’ve learned, but I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made over the last third of a year, particularly (as a friend already commented to me) my picking technique, which has come a long way.

Not having any bandmates, I’ve had to make do with filling in for them myself when practicing, and so I’ve gone the way of using a combination of computer generated drums and a looper pedal. The looper pedal just lets me record bits and play over them, probably best demonstrated by KT Tunstall when she does Black Horse and the Cherry Tree live, which I remember being amazed by when I first saw, and still a great performance today. The drums come from GarageBand on the Mac, which has a bunch of algorithmic drummers that can create backing drums for a wide range of play styles and beats. Put the drums together with a looper, you have a nice backing track.

The main joy though of learning guitar has been learning to go off the beaten track. I’m starting to learn not just to play songs, but why songs are the way they are: understanding the scales that make up a solo and the patterns than make up a blues rhythm, etc. Allowing me not to just try play songs I love, but just mess around and explore. It definitely is a liberating experience to use the looper to just lay down a rhythm and noodle over it for a while and see where your playing can take you.

In my younger, idealistic, /. reading days, Linux was the true way, and Microsoft as portrayed as the big bad, reduced to a dismissive two letters, and one of those wasn’t even a alphabetic character (M$). That younger me (this was pre OS X zealotry, and my current general platform ambivalence), would have been quite shocked to see this: my zsh based environment running happily, natively, under Windows 10:

zsh terminal runs happily in Win 10 on my MacBook

For total cross platform love, that’s running on my Apple MacBook in boot camp :)

So far it’s working very nicely – there’s a little complexity with the file system view, but the fact that apt-get works and I can install common Linux tools the way I’m used to from Ubuntu is quite nice.

After a couple of months of effort, I’ve finally finished building my first guitar.

A simple telecaster with a twist, but I’m still very pleased with the result. It’s been over a quarter of a century since I last did any woodwork, and this project had me in Makespace wielding the plunge router and pillar drill.

It really is a testament to the learning potential of the Internet. Most of what I needed to know here I learned from YouTube tutorials, particularly the Crimson Guitars channel. Ten years ago there was no YouTube, and I think we tend to take it for granted now, but as an education tool for things like this, it’s just wonderful – I doubt I would have ended up with a finished guitar had it not existed, given the other demands on my time.

The finished result looks lovely, but also plays great. It’s a common twist on a common guitar, but this exact combination of bits makes this one unique.

I’m looking forward to doing more and slowly making more and more of the parts. The second guitar will be made for my brother to his specification, and I plan on building the body from scratch this time, doing the rough shape on the CNC router at Makespace and then finishing it by hand.

After many years making software, it is rather nice to build something physical.

3 Jul 2016

When I was around five or six my Dad took us a couple of times to the Formula One, both at Brands Hatch and at Silverstone. My only real memories of the event now are the traffic jams and my being sick so Dad had to bring us home early, something I feel most guilty about now I’m an adult and understand the pain in getting to such events, sorry Dad. But these memories, as vague as they may be, still made it all the more special when this week I got to drive the circuit at Brands Hatch for a day: I’d one been here as a kid besotted with F1, and now I was going to be challenging myself on the twists and turns of that famous circuit. Something my 35 year ago self would never have believed would happen.

Driving a Caterham onto the Brands Hatch start/finish straight

Brands Hatch is a track I’ve become quite familiar of in the last year, thanks to its inclusion in Forza Motorsport 6. Some friends and I would run a weekly fastest lap challenge, and we used both circuit configurations on Brands Hatch, so I put a lot of hours into it, and learned to love it for its technical challenges, particularly the the longer GP circuit configuration. This configuration is actually not used much these days due to noise restrictions, so when I spotted a track day open up on the GP circuit, that same circuit I’d’ve watched as a kid, I leapt at the opportunity to go.

Having long ago read Jonathan Gitlin’s piece in Ars Technica about whether you can learn to race a real track using video games, I was curious to see how well the countless virtual hours I’d spent lapping Brands Hatch in Forza would help or hinder me in real life. Would it just be too different that it’d not help, would I have learned some bad habits in the virtual game that I’d need to unlearn? I was already aware from doing track time previously that virtual driving, as fun as it is, really doesn’t come close to the physical experience of real driving. Track driving is not like regular driving – you’re having to constantly pay attention to every detail, you’re accelerating hard, you’re breaking even harder, it’s both physically and mentally quite a workout, something impossible to recreate properly in your living room.

Waiting to get on track

When I got to Brands Hatch for the first time in over three decades, the first thing that became immediately obvious to me was that the virtual video game experience just does not convey properly the elevation changes in the track. I know from Forza that Brands was hilly, but the two dimensional projection on your TV that is free from really world effects like gravity and momentum acting on your body just do not get across to you how steep a lot of the track is. This meant a lot of my assumptions about the track were out of the window immediately. I’ve no idea what Forza can do to get this across – whether it is just the lighting in the game, or they need to make it slightly more caricatured to get it across better, but it was quite an eye opened that after the steep dip down as you turn right off the start/finish straight, what in Forza feels like a gentle climb up to the hairpin is in fact an immediate steep climb, like a sharp drop and climb in a roller-coaster. Quite sensational to drive and master. Similarly, the slightly less aggressive dip and climb on the back section of the track is visually conveyed in Forza, but I was unprepared for the G-force shift on my body, as you’re going quite quick at that point, and as the road takes your car up your body takes a moment or two to realise it’s not still going down.

About to head from hill to dale

And these differences made me love Brands Hatch as a track all the more. What I like about track driving, over regular driving, is it’s a challenge to master, at the same time as being quite exhilarating. Anyone with a right foot (and, given technological advances, those without too) can make a car go fast in a straight line: just press the accelerator hard. There’s no challenge to that. What I love about track driving is being able to string corners together whilst keeping speed up to get a fast lap, better than the one I did previously. That takes planning, experience, judgement; the fastest line through a corner does not mean having the most velocity, it means balancing speed and position perfectly, something that is hard to get right, but feels great when you nail it. And then there’s trying to nail it consistently, which is another challenge too.

Thankfully, given that my learning on Forza was out the window due to the elevation changes, I had some one on one tuition booked (included as part of hiring a car with book-a-track, I assume to make sure you hand the car back in one piece). After twenty minutes adjusting to the elevation changes and learning the lines, Brands Hatch came back to me. Thus by the time I had my afternoon tutorial session, I was actually on top of where the racing line was, so rather than continue to learn the track, we worked on my technique, which was wonderfully educational (many thanks to Richard, my tutor, for that). So although I had to relearn the track, my time in Forza did make that settle in much more quickly, allowing me to get more consistent earlier in the day than for my friend attending who hadn’t experienced the track before.

Hitting the apex on a corner

In the afternoon there was light rain, forcing us to slow down, but that was actually quite good from a learning perspective, as it forced you to slow your pace, and you could work on your lines, an opinion I found shared amongst fellow drivers in the paddock at Brands Hatch for the first time. There’s one particularly hard corner on the back section, called Sheene Curve, which is a medium tightness right hander at the top of a climb; what makes it really quite tricky is you need to commit to turning into it before you’ve crested the hill if you want to get the best line through it. In the dry, I was carrying sufficient speed my nerve wouldn’t let me, forcing me to ironically go slower through the corner. But the damp afternoon conditions gave me more space to place and anticipate and work on my position, so by the end of the day I had the line nailed, and I was taking that section quicker despite the damp.

By the end of the day, despite being hugely tired, I was very happy. I’d got the privilege of driving a classic racing circuit from my childhood, and managed to unlock some of its secrets at the same time as improving my overall technique.

I went back to Forza the following day just to check how it compared, and elevation issues aside, it’s pretty damned spot on. All the breaking markers were in the right place, even the painted line on the track in one section that I used to judge an apex was there. As true testament though, I was able to disable all driver hints, and just drive the line I drove on the real track and nail the corners fine, including the blind apex.

Forza has a limited selection of UK tracks, making it hard to repeat this education before going on tracks that I’d like to tackle next (at least until I realise my dream and get on track at Laguna Seca). Thankfully there’s another racing simulator, Project Cars, that includes tracks like Cadwell Park, Donnington, and Snetterton, so now I can get to planning my next track day.

11 Jun 2016

In my continuing quest to improve at guitar by posting a new song (roughly) each week:

A good few years ago I did a 365 photography thing, where I posted a picture to Flickr, taken that day, for a full year. This was a great discipline for becoming a much better photographer. By December it wasn’t that I was loving every photo I took, but the frequency at which I was pleased with the results was much higher, and therein lies the point of such a challenge.

In a slightly less formal vein, having picked up the guitar recently, I’ve been trying to get into the habit to post a little snippet of something I’ve been practicing on guitar every week or so to YouTube. Originally it was just to share things with my brother (who’s an absolutely amazing guitarist and drummer), but having got into the habit I’m trying to keep it going. Here’s the most recent one, a brief take on R.E.M.‘s Be Mine:

If you suffer through the playlist you’ll quickly become aware that it’s rank amateur material – I’m really not that good. However, to become better one mostly just needs to practice, and having a little structure by which to do that helps, so work travel allowing I’ll try to keep that going.

One thing I am trying to do is do some actual learning. Back when I first picked up guitar twenty odd years ago I just went to the Internet, found songs I had on CD, and tried to play along (I wonder how many other guitarists of my generation got started thanks to Chris Bray?). It was enough that I could strum along to some R.E.M. and Radiohead (I was in my R phase at the time), but means I don’t really know why I play what I play, and can’t go off the rails.

This time, whilst still hunting the Internet for tunes I like (which ironically is harder these days, as someone has tried to make money off it all, rather than it being somewhat community spirited back in the Internet’s heyday), I’ve also been trying to learn theory behind playing thanks to YouTube channels like Justin Sander Coe’s. Justin’s channel is great for beginners like me, and I only wish YouTube had been around twenty years ago when I started, rather than waiting another decade before even existing. I dived in at intermediate level on Justin’s videos, thinking I knew a thing or two already, before downgrading myself to beginner when I realised I really needed to go back to square one to undo some of my bad habits. Even things like just practicing my scales every day have helped train my fingers to behave more. I really recommend Justin’s videos.

I’m mostly writing this so that someone can tell me I’m wrong and I can then be happy.

When the iPad Pro came out last year, there was much made of its abilities as a content creation platform, something I was reminded of when Quentin shared the link to the nicely done review by Serenity Caldwell of the Apple Pencil. Unfortunately, as a photographer who’s been trying to embrace the iPad as a workflow piece for a while now, I’m still finding the whole thing hugely unsatisfying. I’m not quite sure whether it’s Apple or Adobe who are to blame here, or (as one must always consider) perhaps it’s both.

I upgraded my iPad about 12 months or so ago on the hope that a modern iPad would now have enough power to do interesting things (Apple at the time hyping it’s 64 bit processor IIRC). I was also at the time trying to get back into photography, partly by slimming down my workflow that had made photography such a time consuming task. I thought if my X-E2 can talk straight to the iPad (which it can) then I can do simple edits there and upload, and life would be good. It wasn’t. But it’s no longer the hardware’s fault, that appears to be plenty fast. It’s the software that’s holding it back.

I am a bit of an archivist in nature, so like to have my photos stored somewhere I know I’ll be able to get them later. I used Apple’s Aperture software for this until Apple discontinued it (sigh), at which point I moved to Adobe’s Lightroom, the only real competitor. For the record, I dislike Lightroom, which I find much more clunky than Aperture, and doesn’t seem to integrate any better with Photoshop, which I thought might be the one big advantage. But I digress, as there’s no real competition here, I’m stuck with Lightroom.

When I saw Lightroom was available on the iPad, I thought my switch to a iPad only workflow would be achievable. But no, I was mistaken; Lightroom on iPad is not really Lightroom as anything other than as a branding exercise. Yes, it’ll sync with the bits of your desktop Lightroom library that you have already synced to Adobe’s cloud storage, but it’s no good for general library work (you can’t edit metadata for instance) and its editing tools are very limited compared to the desktop version too. It’s basically a something that lets me see my Lightroom photos I’ve remembered to sync on my iPad, but not really much else. Thus, I abandoned my dreams of camera to iPad to web, and accepted I was going to need a laptop again for photography.

When the iPad Pro launched Adobe was certainly on stage with Apple showing off their latest round of photo apps, including Photoshop Fix, all working nicely with the Apple Pencil, so I thought that here was time to re-evaluate. But, as improved as these things are, they still offer a much more limited experience than on the desktop, and still require that you use the desktop for storage management. It’s still amateur hour on the iPad basically.

What does it take to fix this? There’re two missing bits in my mind that either Adobe need to fix or Apple need to provide for Adobe to use (ignoring any business side worries Adobe might have about the iOS side eating into their cash cows).

Firstly, there’s a UX problem. As I said before, the Lightroom UI on the desktop is very clunky, and although more minimal, so is Photoshop (albeit much less so than Lightroom). These UIs rely on panels popping in and out, lots of sliders places close together; it’s all very fiddly. Making something that has the same number of dials on the iPad is going to require a rethink. What they’ve done to date is not even try, which is better than failing, but as a photography nerd, I want the ability to make the photo how I want it to look, and not to be restricted to the tiny subset of tools that can be made to work with how the current way of thinking about touch UIs for photography dictates (basically, it’s like Instagram wrote the book how we should do touch photography, which is a very depressing). This is a very hard problem, but someone needs to solve this if the iPad is going to replace the desktop for editing photos at above the casual consumer level.

Secondly, there’s a storage problem. I shoot raw format so I have the best image possible saved should I need it later, but raw photos are big: 40 photos to a gigabyte is my rule of thumb for that. The iPad is going to fill up very quickly at that rate. Even my X-E2 camera won’t let me off load photos to the iPad in that format, only sending the JPEG preview. What we need is a way to do the Adobe cloud sync thing with my raw images so the iPad is a conduit to the cloud, and then I can pull down the ones I want to edit and sync them back up once I’m done. That won’t be cheap for Adobe to run, but as a prosumer type I’d be happy to pay for that, as I need to back up my photos some how, and this service can double as that.

Ultimately, the iPad hardware got good enough with the iPad Air, but it’s just the software that’s holding it back here. I’d love to move to an iPad workflow one day, but it’s going to take a chunk of hard work to make it at all viable. Perhaps some plucky startup can show them the way.