Tuesday, June 30, 2015

There Is No Culture War, No Political Correctness, Only Shame ...

Civilization requires order. Civilization does not require the details to remain the same. It seems to me that there are three big ways that civilization deals with disorder and disorderly individuals:

1. Exile,
2. Execution, and
3. Shame.

For the most part, modern civilization is global. A disorderly individual leaves one location for another, and the person's reputation is bound to catch up. Exile is no longer a thing anymore, as long as the Internet is around.

Execution is in the government's domain. A non-governmental entity -- a person -- who executes another person has committed a form of murder, and is now subject to punishment by the government. Imprisonment is also in the government's domain, as well as most other kinds of punishment.

That leaves us with shame. In the United States, part of the First Amendment reinforces the right of individuals to express their opinions, without any governmental consequences. An American, in America, can speak his mind without fear of imprisonment or execution. On the other hand, if this American says something offensive to at least one other American, then the First Amendment does not protect him for the consequence of a social backlash.

The social zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, dictates who is to be shamed. A while back, it was perfectly acceptable to insult people with disabilities. Now, it's perfectly acceptable to shame those who insult people with disabilities. What has changed? From an objective point of view, nothing much, really, because order happens either way. (Imagine that you're a god or an alien or any sapient entity outside of humanity, and you might agree with my assertions.)

In some ideological circles, last decade, it was believed that "patriots" wholeheartedly supported the actions of the federal government; protestors were committing treason. These days, in those same social circles, "patriots" speak out against the government; those who support the current government are traitors. Of course, there was a change in the political party in power, but the government's actions are about the same as before (e.g., the PATRIOT Act). What has changed? From an objective point of view, nothing much, really, because order happens either way.

I can expand upon this with current events: For a long while, the Confederate Battle Flag was okay to stay where it was; now, there are more voices in favor of leaving that particular symbol to the history books. What has changed? Nothing much, really, because order happens either way.

For much of American history, it was okay to treat lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual/queer people as second class citizens (at best) and abominations (at worst). Now, it's okay to shame those who are against marriage equality. What has changed? Nothing much, really, because order happens either way.

For many years, Donald Trump made lots of money for himself and others. He also lost lots of money for himself and others, as well. In that time, his A-hole public persona has sold a lot of things to target audiences, and thus Trump's behavior was tolerated by his peers and superiors. Now, due to the changing zeitgeist and shifting demographics, whatever he said recently is not acceptable to his peers and superiors. What has changed? Nothing much, really, because order happens either way.

From an imaginary objective point of view, there is no culture war. The socially-conservative way of life might be losing ground, or it might be gaining ground, depending on the year. "Happy Holidays" has the same warm sentiment as "Merry Christmas." What has changed? Nothing much, really, because order happens either way.

From this same point of view, there is no political correctness. "Person with _____" might be a bulky use of language, but it ultimately means the same thing as the terminology of yesteryear. Also, that archaic phrasing might possibly be a current derogatory term, and therefore, the speaker would likely be subject to some form of shame. What has changed? Nothing, because order.

If you believe in the divine right of kings, but you live in a democratic society, you might be shamed, for the sake of social order. If you are an agnostic in a very specific theocratic society, you might be shamed, for the sake of social order. If you are a Mormon amongst Baptists, well, you know. If you believe in magic, but you live around scientists ...

Of course, the thing with shame is that the real struggle is the control over it. Maybe the divine right of kings will be a thing again -- it sort of is, with all the celebrity-worship going around. The shift of shame has to be either organic (population changes, cultural evolution, etc.) or subtle (usually encapsulated in genuine entertainment). Any attempt at an overt shift of shame -- preachiness, namely -- probably won't be a successful attempt. Failure, of course, is also subject to shame.

What is the point of all this order? I can only guess, but my guess involves the following: Power will shift among the powerful class, the powerless class(es) will buy all sorts of stuff they don't need, and nobody is supposed to notice anything.

What a shame.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cobbling Together My "Perfect" Electric Guitar #alittlethunder #fender #gibson

Growing up, my ideal form of a guitar was a Fender Stratocaster with a maple fretboard, black paint job, a white pickguard, three stock single-coil pickups, and a whammy bar. I don't know why the guitar had to be that specific; I must have seen a random '80s pop-rocker earnestly strumming away on a black-and-white Strat on TV.

In 1994, I acquired a Fender Stratocaster with those same specifications. To this day, I cherish playing that guitar. When pretending to be Hendrix, Clapton, or Gilmour, you can't beat jamming on a Stratocaster.

While hands-down my favorite guitar, the Fender Stratocaster isn't my "perfect" guitar.

In 1996, I purchased a "backup" for the Strat: An Epiphone Special II. It is the lower-end, well, lowest-end derivative of the Gibson Les Paul, with a similar body shape. With a rosewood fretboard, sunburst paint job, no pickguard, and two humbucker pickups, my Epiphone is basically a diametrically-contrasting guitar to my Fender. For much of the late '90s and into this century, the Special II wasn't so much a backup, as it was a complementary guitar, especially for recording purposes. For $150, which could have bought a lot in 1996 dollars, the Epiphone Special II was a good buy. Oddly enough, this was the first year that the Special II was in production, so as far as cheap guitars go, it's basically "vintage."

Playing both the Fender and the Epiphone gave me a lot of insight regarding what I like and dislike about both styles of electric guitar. Since the Epiphone Special II is a low-end Gibson, I'll refer to the overall style of this guitar as a "Gibson." I like the non-angled headstock found in most Fender guitars. Gibson guitars usually have angled headstocks, which might possibly break in a freak dropping accident. I would rather transport my guitar with a soft gig bag slung on my back versus lugging around a hard-shell flight case, so I prefer Fender headstocks.

I really don't care about the material used in for the fretboard of a guitar -- maple or rosewood or even ebony, as long as it works. I found, however, the scale length (that is, twice the distance from the nut to the 12th fret, or roughly, from the nut to the bridge) is something worth considering. Gibson-scale guitars tend to have a shorter scale length than most Fender scale guitars. Gibsons are usually 24-3/4", while most Fenders are 25-1/2". All other measurements being relatively equal, a Gibson tuned to standard tuning will have looser-feeling strings compared to a Fender tuned the same way. String-bending is easier on a Gibson than on a Fender.

I dislike hum. Whenever I play my Stratocaster with lots of fuzz, distortion, and overdrive, I tend to select the "in-between" position between single-coil pickups. This usually cancels out the hum of the stock single coil, almost like a humbucker. Whenever I play my Epiphone, well, the humbucker is already there.

I prefer the output jack of an electric guitar to be on the face (like my Strat), rather than on the side of the body (like my Epiphone, and many Gibson-style guitars). When practicing and/or fiddling around on a guitar, while sitting in a comfortable chair, there aren't any cable connectors poking about on a Fender-style output jack location. You'd need a right-angle cable to do the same with a Gibson-style output jack location.

I rarely use a whammy bar, but I don't mind having a tremolo bridge ... or not having a tremolo bridge. The paint job doesn't matter to me, and neither does the shape of the guitar.

In early 2014, I modified my Epiphone Special II. I removed the neck-position humbucker, and replaced it with a single-string humbucker (by Paul "Ubertar" Rubenstein) under the low E string, with the intent to use an octave pedal for some "fake bass" while playing the guitar. In doing so, I replaced the selector switch with an additional output jack, and I rewired the whole mess. The bridge humbucker now has an output jack on the face of the guitar, while the fake bass pickup has an output jack on the side of the guitar. If it wasn't for the worrisome angled Gibson-style headstock, this Epiphone would have been a darn near "perfect" electric guitar. Having fake bass only under the low E string also limits how I play the guitar. It's great for Dropped- and Open-D songs and riffs, but it's inefficient for almost everything else.

1995 or 1996 First-edition Epiphone Les Paul Special II.
In late 2014, I saw a Facebook post from Captain Anderton (known for the Top Gear-like guitar gear videos on YouTube, to me anyway, because of the accents of course) about an invention by guitarist Andy Alt called A Little Thunder. It is a guitar pickup -- a humbucker -- that provides bass notes under the low E and A strings, with no external octave pedal needed. There is also a "low note priority" mode, in which you can play a chord, strum both the low E and A, and the pickup will choose the lowest note to sound out -- preventing some muddy bass chord playing. At the time, A Little Thunder was selling pickups via a Kickstarter campaign.

A little thunder god named Thor, with A Little Thunder humbucker pickup.

I had to buy this new pickup; it's what I attempted to cobble together -- and more! And so I pledged X amount of dollars to Andy Alt's ALT campaign on Kickstarter. I didn't want to replace the pickup on my "fake bass" Special II, and I refuse of modify my Strat, so I was on the search for a new guitar. It had to:

1. Be inexpensive,
2. Have a non-angled headstock,
3. Have a Gibson-scale length,
4. Have a humbucker-sized pickup slot to accommodate A Little Thunder, and
5. Have an output jack on the face of the guitar.

I bought a Squier Cyclone (by Fender) during Musician's Friend's 2014 Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale event. The Cylone's shape is based on the Fender Mustang. Interestingly, the Fender Mustang is a short-scale Fender, shorter than Gibson scale. The Cyclone also:

1. Was inexpensive, at about the same price as my 1996 Special II, but in 2014 dollars -- therefore, way inexpensive,
2. Has a non-angled, straight Fender headstock,
3. Has a Gibson-scale length, longer than the Mustang,
4. Has a humbucker slot in the bridge position, and
5. Has an output jack on the face of the guitar.

With a rosewood fretboard, Lake Placid Blue paint job, a pearl white pickguard, and a tremolo bridge, the Squier Cyclone was a perfect match for my needs.

It's almost as if my Strat mated with my Special II.

Earlier this month, June 2015, A Little Thunder arrived in my mailbox. The ALT pickup was slightly larger than the Squier's stock humbucker, so I had to use some metal files and sandpaper to fit A Little Thunder through the pickguard. After a relatively simple wiring job, we were in business. The inventor himself, Andy Alt, was available online to answer all my installation inquiries.

Lake Placid Blue is a tricky color.

I am so far impressed with A Little Thunder. Compared to my modified "fake bass" Epiphone, my guitar playing is no longer limited to E-string basslines. I have the A string as well, making I IV V progressions simple again, without jumping all over the fretboard! The "ALT bass" tone of A Little Thunder has ample growl, contrasting the sort of thin tone of a single string pickup through an octave pedal. The low-note priority mode has some tracking issues -- it's basically a computer making split-moment decisions on which string to play, so I must applaud the pickup's efforts. Low-note priority works well for slower songs, as well as for dropped-D, power chord riffing on the E string, to prevent muddy basslines. For general rhythm guitar/ALT bass usage, I seem to gravitate toward turning off the low-note priority function, and instead play either the low E or A string, but not both. I have the other four strings for guitar chords anyway, and I don't like muddy bass chords.

A "perfect" guitar equipped with A Little Thunder is a dream to play. It is a guitar that is also a bass. Combine that with a lead vocal microphone with a harmony vocal effect, and a footswitch-triggered drum machine that triggers LED light patterns, well, I now have a band show.

There is effectively a live band at my fingertips and toes, and I could play as many simple arrangements of almost every song in popular music. I can play alone or jam with another musician, and the sound will almost always feel "full." I just have to come up with a good setlist ... and practice.