EPA in the USA and what it might mean for musicians in Europe (or “I, I believe that’s all volks!”)

Volkswagon

While the British media has been obsessed by the tittle tattle of Lord Ashcroft’s ‘Porkgate’ revelations, a much more serious issue has emerged in the USA, and it’s one which might affect musicians  quite heavily in the longer term, especially musicians who travel plenty for their living.

We’ve all seen the internet meme regarding the state of the music industry and transport:

500 bucks

Let’s be frank here – most internet memes are largely rubbish thought up by people with either nothing better to do or an axe to grind. This one though, does have the benefit of some truth to back it up. We don’t expect to get rich playing music, and transport is one of those great handicaps which over the years has contributed to that lack of wealth.

But there’s more to the recent story than meets the eye, and it concerns a subject that many musicians are deeply involved in at a personal or political level (as I see on my facebook feed every morning) – the Green Movement.

Now I’m quite happy to confess that I am as concerned with environment and conservation as the next man – I’m certainly not in favour of wrecking the air, water or countryside – and being a rural dweller these days I’m more aware of the complexities that throws up.

One such complexity has been thrown up by the way that the European nations and the UK in particular has looked at the subject of ‘Climate Change’ and the way it has used both the tax system and environmental protection law (such as the Climate Change Act 2008), to shape peoples actions .

But let’s look at the tax system first:

In the early part of the century, the way that UK cars were taxed moved to a system purely based on CO2 emissions with the added boost of the ‘Fuel Duty Escalator’ (I know the Chancellor has just changed VED but it only effects new cars, and musicians won’t see a change for some time I suspect!).  CO2 is a harmless, odourless gas. It’s plant food. Humans emit this as a part of respiration, and breathe it in with no detrimental effects. So why did government incentivise it’s eradication?

GLOBAL WARMING.

Now I don’t want to enter a debate on global warming per se here – it may or may not be the case that CO2 is contributing to climate change. However – what is not at issue is that climate change is not killing people in the UK.

The jury is not similarly out on Diesel fumes though. The pollution caused by diesel fumes is definitely responsible for accelerating the deaths of many people in the UK from respiratory disease. Mainly this occurs in urban areas where the levels of pollution are incredibly high. But look around the western world at which cities are most affected by this kind of pollution and you might be surprised at the results. None of the big issues are in the USA, where gas guzzlers have long been thought by Europeans to be killing the urban population.

No, we’re talking about Paris and London, Birmingham and Manchester. Much of this is caused by public transport (which is almost entirely diesel fuelled above ground) and by goods vehicles. These have to conform to strict criteria in London now, a project that seems set to move to other UK cities soon. But the private car has been so far largely unaffected (Well apart from Catalytic converters which burn PM10 soot particles down to PM2s – so you can’t see the smog in the air, but small enough to pass through the lung wall, a spectacular own goal by the motoring regulation authorities).

That is until now. Let’s talk about Environmental Protection Law.

Volkswagon in the USA have been caught out bending the EPA rules on engine emissions, the fine is likely to cost them $18 BILLION – and that’s before they have to recall most of the diesel cars they sold since about 2007! What’s more, they have put their hands up publicly and admitted what they were doing. They lost about a third of their share price yesterday.

But how will the British government react?

The Americans got their Environmental laws right in many ways, they looked at all the pollutants that industry emits and attacked all of them in a comprehensive bill – the Clean Air Act of 1970 – (yes, it was Nixon’s administration – and it was updated by Carter in ’77 & Bush senior in ’90). It also set tests for all automobile emissions (which the EPA update and enforce). At the same time, our British government did little, probably because they owned most of the motor industry, transport and power generation – they would be attacking themselves.

British government now will probably react how they always react – they will incentivise us to change direction by hammering us with huge taxes. It’s a law of government, taxes always on the whole tend to rise. For example, they won’t incentivise us to dump our diesels by reducing the duty on petrol significantly!

Many musicians, myself included, drive diesel vehicles. And with good cause. If you’re lugging about lots of weight over long distances you need a vehicle that will last the mileage, give fair economy, and won’t feel like an asthmatic ant with a heavy bag of shopping every time it encounters a hill. And many of us run vans too. They are an essential part of our trade.

But our profit margins are small, if not non existent at times. If the price of diesel goes up, how will we cope with that change? If they fine private diesel vehicles for entering cities, will players be able to afford to travel in knowing that they might make a loss on a gig?

I suspect that the price of diesel will rise dramatically over the next few years. There is also a lack of supply issue – we don’t produce enough in western Europe to meet demand.

But added to this is what the EU (and more importantly UNECE) will do. Certainly now, they must go ahead and pass a new directive over the next couple of years which more closely mirrors the US EPA’s motor regulations, and that would be very sensible. But the difference between the EU and the USA is the level of tax placed upon both the sale, maintenance and running of vehicles. Petrol is very expensive here – most of that is tax. There is VAT at 20% on repairs to vehicles, fuel, parts and purchases, roadside and recovery membership schemes. There’s Vehicle excise duty, Insurance Tax – and the scandal that is the insurance industry in the UK goes unchallenged by government who have failed to deal with the mess left by changes to the legal system and the rules on third party claims companies.

And the headline cost is the simplest one to measure:

USA – 35p per litre for Unleaded Petrol

UK –  110p per litre.

That’s a massive difference – and has led to smaller engine petrol cars becoming more common in the UK, and let’s face it – if you’re buying an older petrol car the chances are it’s not going to be a small engine one if you’re a musician. Try hauling around your PA in an 1000cc Ford Fiesta. It will return about 25 miles to the Gallon and drive like Trabant. Larger engined petrol cars are already under attack due to our old friend the ‘Climate Change Act 2008’ (CO2 targets) – so going there for us won’t in the long term be an easy or cheap option. And there will be fewer good examples on the second hand market as the 2008 Act’s effects filter through to the ‘Ten year old banger’ market that that supplies the back bone of the music industry’s transport needs!

Lastly, people on lower incomes (like most musicians) also tend to put off repairs, don’t service regularly, and run older less efficient and more polluting vehicles.

But for us, the big changes won’t come too quickly – we will still be able to buy older larger cars for a while and drive them into town (our vans are already regulated in London). But it will in the end change the way that we choose our musical gear. And European suppliers will have to wake up and fill this market with high quality, affordable, compact and light gear. PA will inevitably get smaller and more powerful, no-one will want to haul around two 4×12 cabs in a decade or so, and if like me you are a piano or Hammond organ player, well it’s all digital from here on in!

I’ve been looking at a couple of A100 Hammond splits over the last week – and an estate car to move  one if I could find a good organ at the right price. After this morning’s headlines, I might just reconsider sticking with my compact digital organ after all….and the wife’s old Ford Focus.

If you own a Volkswagon, it’s possible the authorities in the EU/UK will order a recall for a new engine map that will adhere to the standards advertised by Volkwagon when they sold the vehicles. You will see a noticeable drop in performance. Other diesel owners might well eventually get caught up as other car firms are investigated, the practice will not be confined to VW I suspect.

And if you’re a motor racing fan – the secret plan for Volkwagon to enter the Formula 1 engine supply market just got put back a few years………..

$18 Billion!! Ouch.

The Golden Age of the Electric Guitar (or “It really was better when I were a lad”) Part 1

People from all walks of life will try to tell you there was no golden age for anything – that it’s all just false memory and nostalgia. “Ohh, it was all better in my day dearie” like your grandma used to say about the 1940’s, when in reality the night sky was full of falling bombs, your neighbour’s house was no more than a pile of bricks and the kids were living with strangers in Cornwall.  At least that was my Granny’s experience, in east Dulwich, South London.

But for us, the guitarists, it’s not just nostalgia – there really was a golden age of the Electric guitar. And coincidentally it largely coincided with the golden era of the Long Playing record.

But let’s go back further, to April 12, 1954. To a second take at the end of a recording session, where Danny Cedrone laid down what is arguably the opening 16 bars of the electric guitar era. Bill Hailey used Rock Around the Clock as a B-side to ‘Thirteen Women (and only one man in town)’, a totally forgettable piece of 1950’s pap. And that was the last anyone thought about it for a while. Cedrone went away and subsequently died on 17th June that year. He apparently stopped off for a quick bite to eat in an upstairs restaurant in Philadelphia and slipped on the stars as he left – the fall breaking his neck and killing him instantly.

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The guitarist everyone has seen playing the famous solo is Franny Beecher – there’s no footage of Cedrone (above) making that historical recording. And the record was largely forgotten for another year until it was picked up for the movie ‘Blackboard Jungle’ – and suddenly the rock’n’roll guitar solo was born.

I’d bet that most of the guitarists reading this article can either hum that lead break, or moreover, tried to play it. If you haven’t, go learn it!

Of course, by the time Rock around the Clock was a hit, Hailey was seen as very much yesterday’s man. Over the hill. There was a new kid on the block – and he had his own guitar, and his own hot shot guitarist, Scotty Moore! That man was of course Elvis Presley. Elvis ignited the imaginations of millions of teenagers, and Scotty was his main man.

Scotty’s style was instantly recognisable, a thumbpick and fingers style that came from a mixture of country and folk, electrified to a new level. He played on all the early hits.

But when Elvis was drafted, that was pretty much it for Scotty – he worked for Sam Philips at Sun for a while, made a solo record (which Sam subsequently fired him for having made), and then played on one more moment of Rock, and indeed televisual history – the 68 comeback Special. He didn’t play live again for 25 years.

Scotty changed the public persona of the guitar player in a rock band. Suddenly the guitarist was a star too and not just some anonymous or interchangeable side man, (though in Scotty’s case a reluctant one, his personality being much more reserved and shy).

But at the same time as all this was going on, the Blues guitar was on the rise in the form of Chuck Berry, BB King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters and John lee Hooker. However, Blues guitar was not a mainstream art form in the land of its inception. It wasn’t until it was discovered across the Atlantic in Britain that it really found a wider audience.

American forces radio had played Blues music in the UK in the 1940’s and beyond. But it wasn’t until London had it’s own venue – Alexis Korner’s ‘London Blues and Barrelhouse Club’ that the scene started to explode. American blues artists, (notably Muddy Waters in 1958), came to the UK to play to mixed audiences. White London got the blues. But not only that, they had the electric blues. And they didn’t just leave it where it was – they ran hard with it.

Korner formed ‘Blues Incorporated’ in 61. Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker played with Korner, so did Mick Jagger. John Mayall started his Bluesbreakers. More clubs opened up and down the country, and while Rock n roll was considered finished in the USA, nothing more than a passing fad, Blues became the staple of the new young British Guitarist.

And it spawned a whole generation of guitarists who were both technically gifted, and inspired by the blues.

Britain has probably never had a better generation of blues guitarists: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Eric Clapton, all inspired by the blues, all made their names in the 60’s electric blues scene.

See you for part two…..when the volume really starts to rise!

Pick up your “Six String Razor” (or More than just “Saturday Gigs”)

Need guitarist

If you understand the reference in the title of this post…..then I think this might just be the job for you!

Around the beginning of the summer of 2015, my good friend and long term co-conspirator Nigel Augur came to me with an idea. Could we put together a live band again, but to play some proper 70’s rock music and see if there was an audience for it. Not Glam, serious rock music.

So I called up an old friend, guitarist Bob Youngs, to come on board. (Now no-one  screams 70’s rock quite like Bob – right down to his two mid 70’s strats!) At the time it was simply a Saturday gig, a bit of fun, a side project. Bob has a demanding day job, but threw as much time into the project as he possibly could. The result of that is that we ended up in just a few weeks with a working, gigging 5 piece rock outfit, that quickly has become quite locally popular.

But success has forced a problem upon us – it’s no longer just a Saturday gig. With the need to work more regularly now an issue, Bob has volunteered to step aside to allow us to find a guitarist who can take on a heavier workload.

I want to put on record here our immense gratitude to Bob, because he has stuck heart and soul into it despite having learn songs in hotel rooms up and down the country and make journeys back from working in Edinburgh, Cornwall and Newcastle to get to gigs on a Friday night.  Also, he’s been an absolute gentleman in pledging to keep us going while his successor is found.

So now the quest to find a new guitarist begins

Are you the guitarist we are looking for? We don’t care about your age or experience- I’m 43, but both the bass player and Drummer are in their early 20’s.

What’s really important to us is that :

  1. You got the chops for the job – it’s a 5 piece with Hammond/Piano. All the lead work is yours. I don’t play any guitar at all, Nigel plays a little bit of acoustic. The bonus here is that you’re going to get a lot of opportunity to play, nobody will be planting their tank on your lawn.
  2. You’re a good rhythm player – you can sit into the groove.
  3. You have some presence on stage. You’re part of the band, and it’s very visual. That’s not a dressing up thing, you won’t be asked to wear a costume and platform heels! It’s just that we want a guitarist who wants to entertain as well as play.
  4. You have the right attitude – This band works very well on a personal level. Everyone has a ego, but it’s all kept in check because we understand that what we have is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
  5. You can learn songs fairly quickly.
  6. You are within reasonable reach of the King’s Lynn area or are prepared to travel, as that is the location for the rest of us!

So as you can see, we aren’t really asking for much! But while I can’t promise you fame or riches, the band is already there and working, and has a lot of potential to do well. We are planning an original EP for early next year, many more gigs and hopefully some festivals and bike rallies for next year.

Most importantly, although we are very professional in our attitude towards what we do – we are also having a lot of fun and the atmosphere in the camp is very good.

So here’s what to do if you want to be part of  this:

Send me an email at: tonyedwardsguitars@gmail.com

Or PM me on facebook (though that’s not quite as effective).

If you have any footage on Youtube or elsewhere, or audio online – stick in a link. Don’t worry if the sound quality isn’t too good, we aren’t worried about that, we just want to hear you play. Anything that gives us an idea of what you can do will help.

To give you an idea of what it’s all about – here are three early demos recorded at my small home studio:

The Road to Wijk aan Zee (or whoops, where did I leave my keys….)

A few months ago I got a call from an old friend Paul Handgraaf in the Netherlands. I hadn’t expected it, I thought we’d probably said our final farewells in March when he’d invited me to the Rory Gallagher international Tribute gig as an acoustic soloist – a show I practised for weeks to be able to fulfil and only scraped through with a lot of help from Frank Van Pardo on the harmonica. As many of my friends on here will know I have struggled a little with a left hand injury in the last year – my guitar playing has not quite been what it was (and my acoustic playing hardly stellar to start with!)

But he asked me if I would come and play some electric in 2016 and before I’d really thought about, I’d said yes (which is exactly what I’d done the previous year!)  So when we spoke again a few days later, I put it to Paul that I shouldn’t come alone – we should put the old band, Secret Agent, back together, and bring it back for one final lap of honour. Paul  was excited, Tim and Mark quickly agreed to it, and it was on.

We have had some great fun there, and a few mishaps. The first year we almost didn’t make it to the gig at all – the weather kept our flight on the ground at Norwich for four hours. When we did land in Schipol, the pilot had to come in almost sideways to battle the crosswinds and we almost touched a wing down (and a Lufhansa 737 had already done that rather famously that day).  That weekend ended with a four and quarter hour gig in Jan Van Bodegraven’s pub ‘the Rose’ to celebrate what would have been Rory’s 60th birthday.

And of course the following year I famously left my car keys in the hotel room and Theo Van Baar broke the Dutch land speed record by getting back to the hotel and retrieving them before the flight left for England!

There was one thing I hadn’t thought of. I no longer own a strat! All my guitars are Gibson length 24.75″ and P90 or Humbucker guitars. My one single coil beast is lying in two pieces after an accident from the recent house move (and is loaded with TriSonics). It would work for this but somehow it wasn’t the right choice.  So the idea soon occurred to me to build something specially for this particular gig.

I remembered a body that another luthier down in the West Country had offered me some while back. I had a potential customer for it already – so I had him send it up to me. My customer however, wants something carved and the elm isn’t ideal. So I had a body.

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So now I needed a neck. For this I wanted something special, because is going to be a special guitar for a special occasion. I had recently made a Strat for a customer using some birdseye maple. So I selected a cut from the stockpile and cut it to rough shape.

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Next job was to cut a fretboard. Using the dimensions from a standard B fender neck (from the 60’s), I cut a section of ebony to shape (because this is after all, a guitar for a special occasion). I should explain here that there’s a lot of false info out there on Fender neck shapes. In the 60’s, Fender had 4 neck widths – the A neck the narrowest and D the widest. So a C neck was nothing to do with the depth or shape of the back of the neck, it was merely a fretboard width. I used to own a 60’s strat, it was initially B neck but there was so much wear on it that it was almost an A, with the rosewood fretboard having been eroded at the edges and the frets cut back several times in its life.

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I cut a slot into the neck for the truss rod, slotted the fretboard and glued the sections together with Hide Glue. Once it was set, the next task is to shape the fretboard. I like to do this before I trim the neck material because it gives me a really solid base to work with – and also because I like to glue the fretboard to the wide blank so that the glue never contaminates the finished shape of the wood. It’s not the easiest way to do this, and most Luthiers shape first and then glue, but it was a method I got used to due to limitations in my original workshop and I have largely stuck with it (i.e. I didn’t have a router table or reliable templates!)

Fretboard shaping is done with a freshly sharpened hand plane – this gives a compound fretboard shape, rather than the standard Fender or Gibson radius. Imagine the fretboard as a section of a cone. When you take the plane along the lie of the string, you are setting the straight edge to taper towards the centre. So this is the most efficient way to get the perfect lie of the string. My fretboard goes from 7.25″ at the nut to 20″ at the 22 fret (yes, I cut an extra one!).  The neck was then trimmed on the band saw, and the edges pulled together with the small hand plane. You can see that the birdseye maple has taken a small nick on the side of the headstock. This is because the birds eyes are are very hard ‘seeds’ that have been overtaken and contained in the growth of the wood – they tend to be held in but prone to coming away under force. I’ll have to back fill that later.

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So next the shaping of the neck. I’m not a fan of the small early 60’s Fender neck – it doesn’t suit my hand at all (even though I have small hands). Recently I worked on my good friend Bob Youngs’ 70’s strat. That thing has a largely untapered ‘U’ shape to it on a B shape fretboard. That was incredibly comfortable  to play so I decided to replicate that as close as I could – 0.9″ at the first fret, almost an inch deep at the 12th.

I set to work with a Draw knife (mine is over 100 years old and a gift from an old friend whose Grandfather had bought it new) – and the spoke shave. That gave me the rough shape, which is then refined more with the cabinet scrapers.

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And this is where the choice of Birdseye Maple really becomes a pain  in the rear end – and why luthiers often don’t like to use it. It really tears a lot. It has no consistency of density or fibre – the grain pattern is interrupted by the seedlings. So even with a well sharpened cabinet scraper it’s going to be very rough to the touch. So it will need to be hand sanded for a very long time with very fine papers to get to a smoothness that can be finished with lacquer.

So here’s how far I am this morning:

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The neck is shaped, the body has been fine sanded and cleaned. So now it’s off to order pickups and hardware for the guitar so that I can drill for the bridge and the neck plate, and also to choose some pickups for it.

See you all for the next instalment….

Gibson return to sanity? (or Who do you think you are kidding Mr Juszkiewicz?)

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Well the news is out – Gibson has finally seen the Downfall Video and realised that they were wrong all along about their 2015 line up. Hooray I hear you say.

Are you all mad?

The Gibson Les Paul (when made properly), is a quite stunning guitar. But seriously, when these first hit the stores they were asking best part of £3000 for a standard with a good flame top. But they have proven so popular that you can pick up a new one for little more than half that now on the interweb.

And why is that? Because they were far too removed from what a traditional Les Paul should be and the quality control was appalling for the price they were asking. Who really wanted the ‘Wider Neck’, the ugly ‘G-Force’ tuning system and an adjustable brass nut. All of which were put on to try to get around the deficiencies that Gibson had begun to manufacture into their own guitars to start with.

Players had complained that with the heavier frets, the string was getting caught in the binding edge. So rather than sort out the binding and do the job properly, they made the neck wider.

One of the most regular jobs I get asked for is to replace the Corian nut with bone, because it constantly causes tuning problems (though it shouldn’t if it’s cut properly). So they change it for Brass, which I thought was a rather silly idea that had gone out in the 70’s. (Sorry Bob!)

And they lowered the frets – which means that the guitar will need re fretting in 5 years rather than the usual 7-10 with their pathetically soft fretwire.

And then there was the internal electrics. What was that bloody circuit board all about? (This one dates back a little further I think – replaced a few myself).  It’s supposed to be a £3000 guitar – surely they can manage a small metal plate and four CTS pots. Having the thing made up by machine was nothing more than a piece of ugly cost cutting, with no practical advantage whatsoever. Many of the imported instruments were found to have cracked boards in the UK.

Lets face it, many of the 2014 models are still on UK shelves. They couldn’t shift them at the prices either. Now they are available at significantly reduced cost at places like GAK and Dawsons, as the realisation sinks in that UK dealers network simply cannot take new product while the old stuff sits unwanted.

So what’s the real problem with Gibson?

They still haven’t figured out that a top Les Paul Standard is worth about £2000 tops.

Come on guys – it’s a factory made, mass produced, largely CNC cut guitar. Yes they are finished by hand, sanded with hand guided machines and sprayed by a person. But really? £3000 for your standard model. Guys, the world has moved on. There’s too much competition and the standard of the £700 far eastern guitar is far too high.

Gibson’s Standard offering should be pretty much a ’59/’61 LP standard (OK I know it will be chambered because the modern mahogany is a bit heavy). It should have good Kluson style tuners on it, a bone Nut, two PAFs, good hard fretwire, binding that fits and should retail at about £1700 with a good top on it. You shouldn’t have to pay VOS prices for that. If you think that all these ‘premium features’ like wider fretboards and the like are a real seller, make them the premium price feature. The fact that they haven’t, tells the real story. The players want the real thing – making the real thing the exception is just a ploy to keep the price of the ‘Custom shop’ guitars high – when the custom shop is simply code for ‘A real Les Paul Standard’.

But I’m happy!

In fact, I’m ecstatic. Because while the Gibson company tries every which way from Sunday to throw itself under the bus the guitar buyer is slowly starting to realise that the name on the headstock doesn’t supply any tone.

I have had customers this year who would never have previously thought have having a hand made guitar, simply because they thought it would be too expensive. But they have found that nearly all the good UK luthiers can beat the big boys for quality of parts, service, construction and tone. And not by a little. And you get the neck shape you want, you get to design the thing from top to bottom.

Custom treatment, and for a lot less than the ‘list price’ of a Les Paul ‘Custom’ (and at my prices, less than a standard, even with the recent discounts!).

Tele Paul

So check out your local luthier. Buy British!  There’s still a good few of us left and really care about what we do. (Once this industry has died out it will never return).  Or go to your local music store and pick up the guitars, check the feel. I’ll bet you’ll find something for under a grand that you like the feel of. If the pickups aren’t up to much there’s always Bare Knuckles, another great British company making absolute premium products. You’ll still save a fortune.

And remember, the name on the headstock is not connected to the jack plug.

PS – Did you know, if you put Ace Frehley’s name on it, you can buy it for a meagre £7000 minus chump change. What a bargain….knock yourselves out!