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Comparing large Gibsons and Martins from the 40s


tpbiii
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Hi all,

For the past decade I have been struggling with demoing vintage guitars on the internet.  A full ten years ago, I put together an audio system -- with video -- that really could achieve faithful sound reproduction if you had the proper listening environment.  I thought at that time that if people acquired an appropriate listening system, they really could hear the real thing.  However you can't heard cats -- there is no way musicians will ever do that.

The other question was what to use for test materials.  When I did comparisons of speech and audio systems, the input was from various speakers reading phonemically balanced sentences that really did not convey meaning: THE PIPE BEGAN TO RUST WHILE NEW; OPEN THE CRATE BUT DON'T BREAK THE GLASS; ...  Basically stuff with no emotional impact that would interfere with the the quality judgements.

The problem with music is it almost always has a potential emotional impact.  I have several hundred recordings made by me and others in an attempt to judge the instruments.  As an acoustic scientist, I don't really need to use real music -- just chords and scales up and down the neck work fine.  But that is not the kind of things that are typical posted on line -- and the recording environments are so varied, judgements are essentially impossible in a nuanced sense.

The series of recording done by Tony Watt is the latest attempt -- they cover 32 instruments.  Since Tony is a bluegrass player, he is biased toward large instruments, particularly from the 30s and 40s.  He has done the same material for each of the instruments -- a rhythm demo and (the same) fiddle tune.  Although I have instruments that cover the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, the greatest density (most complete set) are the 30s and 40s.

Because of the general interest here in banners, I thought a good demo to build would be the 40s -- including both Gibsons and Martins.  With vimeo, you can create an environment where it is really simple to compare instruments -- play them on demand with a single click.  So I have put together such a demo.  I did include one 39 instrument -- a Martin D-28.  As it turns out Tony did not play my 44 D-28 (Ol' Yeller) and I thought 39 would be close enough and you really need a RW Martin from the WWII era.

Large Martins and Gibsons from the 1939-1948

I don't really know if you guys are the right audience for this.  Let me know if you find it useful -- if so, I'll put up the 1930s.

Best,

-Tom

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This is a great comparison.  I have run a music jam for the past 20 years, that used to primarily be a bluegrass jam until, sadly, the old time bluegrassers who were the majority of the jammers (who had been at the jam when I started attending it in 1985, before I took the reigns of it)  all one by one passed away.  They were the real deal bluegrass jammers and are sorely missed.  
 

But the sounds of those vintage Martins that you demonstrated vs the Gibson’s...to me sound like the best accompaniment to that high lonesome bluegrass sound that used to go on at my jam.  

 

So to me the Martins win over the Gibsons in this one, although that’s really because of that bluegrass flat pickin’ sound that is a Martin guitar sound.  

To me, though, the comparison you did really demonstrates how Martins were the standard and Gibsons were the alternative different voiced instruments to Martins.  Very cool!

Thanks for posting the bluegrass Martins/Gibsons comparisons.

BTW, the jam I run in the northern part of Illinois  still goes on, at least once this COVID-19 crisis is resolved.   It’s now primarily any type of acoustic music, but once in awhile one of the still remaining  old guys or their younger counterpart bluegrassers show up and the whole jam again takes on a bluegrass tone as it’s certainly infectious and its great to again jam with a real deal bluegrasser.  
 

If ever you will be in the  northern suburbs of Chicagoland, let me know in advance and I’ll fill you in on where the jam takes place, etc.

 

QM aka “ Jazzman” Jeff

 

 

Edited by QuestionMark
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1 hour ago, QuestionMark said:

This is a great comparison.  I have run a music jam for the past 20 years, that used to primarily be a bluegrass jam until, sadly, the old time bluegrassers who were the majority of the jammers (who had been at the jam when I started attending it in 1985, before I took the reigns of it)  all one by one passed away.  They were the real deal bluegrass jammers and are sorely missed.  
 

But the sounds of those vintage Martins that you demonstrated vs the Gibson’s...to me sound like the best accompaniment to that high lonesome bluegrass sound that used to go on at my jam.  

 

So to me the Martins win over the Gibsons in this one, although that’s really because of that bluegrass flat pickin’ sound that is a Martin guitar sound.  

To me, though, the comparison you did really demonstrates how Martins were the standard and Gibsons were the alternative different voiced instruments to Martins.  Very cool!

Thanks for posting the bluegrass Martins/Gibsons comparisons.

BTW, the jam I run in the northern part of Illinois  still goes on, at least once this COVID-19 crisis is resolved.   It’s now primarily any type of acoustic music, but once in awhile one of the still remaining  old guys or their younger counterpart bluegrassers show up and the whole jam again takes on a bluegrass tone as it’s certainly infectious and its great to again jam with a real deal bluegrasser.  
 

If ever you will be in the  northern suburbs of Chicagoland, let me know in advance and I’ll fill you in on where the jam takes place, etc.

 

QM aka “ Jazzman” Jeff

 

 

Bless you -- it could happen.  Thanks,

-Tom

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Tom, I've just listened through all these once, and even I am getting a grasp  of the differences.

What I do not have a good understanding of is exactly how the rhythm and lead roles work in traditional bluegrass.

Could you point us toward some classic or modern ensemble performances that could clarify this for a bluegrass neophyte?

The more I hear of your rosewood SJ, the more I can see how it holds its own against Martin rosewood dreads from the same period when it comes to providing the big rhythm foundation that seems to carry bluegrass.

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I recall back in the 1960s thinking the  closest Gibson ever got to a Martin dread was the rosewood body  Epihone Excellente.

I have to say while I have developed the attention span of a gnat these comparisons kept me involved.  But I also admit it all kind of lost on me.   

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Posting that was great, but like me if you are watching and listening from a laptop computer, chances are you are listening with small small tinny low fidelity speakers.

But listening to all the clips that D-18 to me sounded the nicest. I hate the word best or greatest and its all subjective anyway what is The Best. Remember its the best for you.

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8 hours ago, j45nick said:

Tom, I've just listened through all these once, and even I am getting a grasp  of the differences.

What I do not have a good understanding of is exactly how the rhythm and lead roles work in traditional bluegrass.

Could you point us toward some classic or modern ensemble performances that could clarify this for a bluegrass neophyte?

The more I hear of your rosewood SJ, the more I can see how it holds its own against Martin rosewood dreads from the same period when it comes to providing the big rhythm foundation that seems to carry bluegrass.

Well there are a lot of examples.  In the 1990s, I wrote an article about bluegrass jamming that was published in BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED.  The people who were playing it knew the rules that made it work - but hillbillies were not great communicators.  My wife had spent about a decade earlier sorting it all out, so I wrote it up.  Turned out it was an unrecognized need -- it has been republished over 400 times (that I know of) on every continent but Antarctica and translated into ten different languages -- mostly by bluegrass clubs. Here is the whole article http://barnwell.ece.gatech.edu/rolesx.htm  for anyone who wants to read the whole thing.

Here is the part about rhythm.

Quote

 

Since backup is so important, I am going to talk about it first.

Backup

The foundation of bluegrass backup (often called rhythm) is three instruments: the bass, the guitar, and the mandolin.  The basic bluegrass rhythm pattern is a boom-chick boom-chick pattern.  The boom here is often called the beat, and the chick is called the back-beat.  A simple bluegrass bass pattern is simply to play the tonic of the chord on the beat and the 5th of the chord on the backbeat.  The guitar typically plays a single bass note on the beat (boom) and brushes the strings of the chord on the backbeat (chick).  The mandolin plays either not at all or a very light chord stroke on the beat (boom), and then a sharp chop on the backbeat (chick).  A mandolin chop is performed by striking the strings of the chord quite hard, but then almost instantly damping the strings to stop the sound.  The result is a short, percussive sound which is just barely identifiable as the chord.

When done correctly, the effect of a good rhythm section is remarkable.  On the beat (boom), you get the tonic from the bass fiddle and the bass strings of the guitar, setting the pace for the music.  Then, immediately following, you get the dramatic counter-sound of the backbeat (chick) with the roar of the full guitar chord accented by the percussive chop of the mandolin.

So what about the other instruments?  Well, potentially the most wonderful and certainly the most dangerous backup instrument is the banjo.  One basic form of banjo backup is vamping.  This is basically just a banjo version of the mandolin chop, and it is used pretty much in the same way -- that is to punch up the backbeat.  It is used in this way with the mandolin to backup other leads, and it is used to backup the mandolin when the mandolin has the lead.  The other form of backup for the banjo is to use the same syncopated three-finger rolls which are used for a banjo lead.  This can be very effective, but it can also be terrible when it conflicts or competes with other instrument or vocal leads.  The best rule of thumb here is that, if you are a banjo player, go out of your way to learn syncopated backup techniques, and then, when you really know them well, use them very selectively and occasionally.  The reason for this is that the banjo is such a loud, in-your-face instrument that it can interfere with, rather than backing up, the lead.

Almost equal in power and danger to the banjo is the fiddle.  Fiddle backup is generally done by playing short tasteful riffs, usually referred to as "fills", that compliment the vocals as a breath is taken between lines or at the end of a verse or chorus. Next time you listen to your favorite bluegrass album listen to how the backup instruments come in and out. Something to keep in mind is that it's often said "It's more important to know when not to play than when to play". Another way to put it is, "sometimes less is more".  This idea of playing during the "breaths" can also apply to playing fills between the lines of another instrument’s lead break.

Other advanced techniques that compliment another instrument's lead break are playing a harmony (the same way that a vocalist sings a harmony) or playing a counter-part lead that contrasts with, but at the same time compliments, the lead. Always remember that these backup techniques should be lower in volume so as to never overpower or take away from another's lead.  Also, some fiddle players replicate the mandolin chop or banjo vamp by a sharp abrupt stroke on the strings using the frog end of the bow. If other instruments are already providing the backbeat, then it is not that interesting for the fiddle to provide this element.  A fiddle can also add fullness by playing slow moving "string" parts consisting of half or whole notes. This is particularly effective in slower songs.

One final word about loudness.  It is really important to adjust the level of the backup to match the level of the lead.  Since the level of the lead often changes dramatically during a song, you must change too.  A banjo at full cry can be very loud, and you may need to play flat out to blend.  On the other hand, a soft voice or a guitar lead may be very soft, and you will need to cut way back.  The basic rule is always listen to the music, not just to what you are playing but what the whole jam session is playing, and continuously adjust.  The music will sound better, you will enjoy it more, and the other jammers will enjoy you more

 

 

The backup goes all the time -- although it modulates depending on what else is going on so not to overpower the vocals, harmony, or instrument breaks.  The participants basically take turns.  Here are three examples -- two with vocals and one instrumental -- from the local bluegrass "music barn" in Atlanta.

 

 



 
The guitar demos would make sense to a bluegrass player -- they are two of the required pieces needed: guitar rhythm and guitar lead.  The other pieces are bass, lead and rhythm on the other instruments, and lead and harmony on the vocals.  Arguably you need bass and rhythm always -- and some of the other pieces.  The cool thing is if you can play and you understand the rules and stick to them, you don't even have to know the other players.😎 
 
I guess you and I share a love of (and a history in) folk revival stuff.  It would be lovely to have a compact way to demo the guitars to non bluegrass players.  My current (flawed) approach is to have good acoustic players and singers use -- and react to -- the instruments, but how useful that might be to the community at large is hit or miss.
 
Best,
-Tom

 

 

 

 

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3 hours ago, Sgt. Pepper said:

Posting that was great, but like me if you are watching and listening from a laptop computer, chances are you are listening with small small tinny low fidelity speakers.

But listening to all the clips that D-18 to me sounded the nicest. I hate the word best or greatest and its all subjective anyway what is The Best. Remember its the best for you.

Although the RW guitars are usually preferred by rhythm players, mahogany is often preferred by lead players.  So many agree with you.

Modern D/A converters are excellent.  Thus a good pair of headphones should give you some really good sound.

Best,

-Tom

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1 minute ago, tpbiii said:

Although the RW guitars are usually preferred by rhythm players, mahogany is often preferred by lead players.  So many agree with you.

Modern D/A converters are excellent.  Thus a good pair of headphones should give you some really good sound.

Best,

-Tom

I had a D-18 and a D-28 and D-35 all at the same time. And on many days the 18 was my preference.

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Tom, Bobby Hicks and his five-string fiddle blow my mind. I couldn't figure out how he was getting that sound until I did some research.

One thing I notice is that when Brian Stephens stops playing rhythm to play lead, the bottom simply drops out. I had not appreciated the role of the rhythm guitar in bluegrass until listening to that more closely.

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11 minutes ago, j45nick said:

Tom, Bobby Hicks and his five-string fiddle blow my mind. I couldn't figure out how he was getting that sound until I did some research.

One thing I notice is that when Brian Stephens stops playing rhythm to play lead, the bottom simply drops out. I had not appreciated the role of the rhythm guitar in bluegrass until listening to that more closely.

Yea, a lot of bands now have a rhythm and a lead guitar.  It is not as dramatic as it would be if the guitar rhythm dropped out in other phases of the music because the level must back down when the guitar has the lead anyway.   

For 25 of the 30 years we did this energetically we had a lead guitar.  In our case, that was the most skilled band member -- starting in the late 80s, the flat picked guitar became very popular in bluegrass.  There are now quite a lot of "mostly guitars" jam sessions -- maybe three guitars with a bass and one or two other lead instruments.  These sessions tend to crank up for the mandolin, banjo, and/or fiddle rather then modulate down for the guitars.😄

Best,

-Tom

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12 hours ago, zombywoof said:

I recall back in the 1960s thinking the  closest Gibson ever got to a Martin dread was the rosewood body  Epihone Excellente.

I have to say while I have developed the attention span of a gnat these comparisons kept me involved.  But I also admit it all kind of lost on me.   

Because bluegrass imposes a structure on the roles of the guitar, it is easy to design demos that most BG players can relate to.  In fact bluegrass was only invented after the 20s and 30s instruments (mandolin, banjos, guitars) came into existence.  When you broaden the scope, I don't know how to design broadly popular and effective demos. 

Suggestions?

Best,

-Tom

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