Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fix Your Broken Things and Save Money

A few weeks ago, like any other day before then, I turned on my trusty powered speakers. The left speaker sounded as great as it ever was. The right speaker let out a nasty hiss and was essentially useless as a speaker.

Yesterday, I got around to fixing that speaker. The problem was caused by two blown capacitors. Other than dealing with the manufacturer's liberal use of glue, this was an open-and-shut repair job: Unplug the unit, unscrew the back panel, pull out the insides with the circuit board, unsolder the busted capacitors, solder new capacitors, return the insides, re-screw the back panel, replug the unit, and test it out -- so far, so good (knock on wood).

For today's blog post, I want to quickly highlight a few important tools to have to fix broken things around the home and office.

1. Google/YouTube/The World Wide Web. In exchange for advertising and using your personal information in their various algorithms, you get a whole lot of information. Use it. Okay, evaluate whether the info is BS or not, then use whatever is helpful. You can literally save hundreds of dollars from finding good how-to advice. For example, a leaky faucet might just be a broken faucet cartridge, which costs about $5 for a new one. The alternative would be to buy a new faucet, which would cost around $50 for a cheap model, not to mention that it's more complicated to replace an entire faucet.

A broken temperature dial on an old car might have an easy fix: Open up the center console and use zip ties on any wayward wires. It's literally a $2 fix. Otherwise, the dealer can track down a replacement unit, and charge you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for parts and labor. You can Google almost any solvable problem, especially in the realm of do-it-yourself repair. You just need to search using the best keywords possible.

2. Safety goggles. Yes, you'll need both Google and goggles in your toolbox. Safety first!

3a. Screwdriver(s). Until the Doctor lends you his sonic screwdriver, and regular one will do. A Phillips driver, a flat-head driver, and perhaps a selection of Allen (hex) keys -- standard and metric -- should get you started. You'll eventually need other kinds of screwdrivers, wrenches, etc., and while we're at it --

3b. Cordless drill. You'll get drill bits and driver bits. A good drill/driver isn't quite a sonic screwdriver, except that it can get loud. If you don't have an immediate, regular need to create holes on surfaces, maybe you can hold off on this purchase until sometime later.

4. Soldering iron and solder for soldering, and a solder sucker or desoldering braid for unsoldering. It's not scary at all to change circuit board components or fix faulty wiring. Just don't burn your house down. I couldn't have repaired my broken speaker without having this equipment around. (I am fortunate in that I am a guitar enthusiast, and many guitar modifications require all this soldering stuff.) I just had to buy a 10 pack of replacement capacitors for about $10. In case my other speaker develops the same fault, I already have everything I need to fix it.

5. Cutting tools. It's a good idea to have a craft knife (i.e., X-Acto knife) for small things, and a variety of saws for larger things. And scissors. Never underestimate the utility of a pair of scissors. Just don't maim or dismember anyone, including yourself. I couldn't have removed the busted capacitors without an X-Acto knife to carefully hack and slash through the manufacturer's ridiculous use of glue.

6. Hammer(s). For now, cover the basics: A claw hammer, a rubber mallet, and Mjolnir.

I think that pretty much covers the basics, as far as the minimum amount of tools to fix a bunch of broken things. I suppose pliers, glue, Spackle, paint, clamps, extra screws, nuts, bolts, and stuff like that would also be useful. Of course, you'll inevitably expand your bag of tricks, err, tools, err, box of tools -- like we all do. I realize that it takes an investment to get a tool collection started: About $5 for goggles, about $30 worth of screwdrivers and hex keys, about $50 for a light-duty drill, about $30 for soldering stuff, perhaps $50 or so for cutting tools, and maybe $15 for a selection of hammers. So basically, you might expect to buy $180 to $200 worth of equipment that you might not already have, not counting how you can access the Internet for information (computer with ISP plan, smartphone with data plan, the library, etc.). Of course, you'll buy more tools on top of the initial $200.

I could have given up on my broken right speaker, ditched both speakers, and buy a new set of sound monitors. That would have cost about $200 for a similar placement, and even more for a quality upgrade. Instead, I used what I already had (the initial investment from long ago) and bought $10 worth of parts. That was it. For the next problem, and there will be a next problem, the chances are good (but not guaranteed) that the fix would also be relatively inexpensive.

Plot twist! In addition to fixing broken things, these very same tools can be used for modifying things, as well as creating new things. Shocking!

I hope this helps! Cheers!

Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King + Lucille = Less Was ... Still Is More, R.I.P.

The legendary B.B. King passed away this past Thursday. Musicians who are more qualified than I have eulogized this incredible bluesman. I should have written this on Chord du Jour, and I might repost it there in the future, but the best way I can write about B.B. King is to look at one of the most distinctive features of his guitar playing: The aptly-named "B.B. Box."

Even if you've only heard a handful of B.B. King songs, keep in mind that King played his notes on his guitar "Lucille" sparingly, utilizing a signature vibrato technique to make his notes and melodic phrases ... sing. King apparently wasn't interested in strumming chords; he let his backing band do that. King's solos and lead licks, however, played to the chord and therefore these mini-melodies often had a chordal quality to them.

To put this in perspective, the basic rock/blues style of guitar playing will only play to the key, not the chord. If the chord progression is in E, major or minor, then the guitarist would likely improvise using the E blues scale, regardless of the chord changes underneath (as long as the overall key is E):

B.B. King, as many have observed, played within the B.B. Box, which is a certain zone on the thin strings of the guitar, up or down the neck, depending on the key of the song. I am being wildly inaccurate and overly simplistic in my analysis, but King basically fretted four or five notes -- and bent a string to get to other notes he wanted to play.

A typical 12-bar blues chord progression in E starts with the E dominant 7th chord, E7, for four bars.

It is perfectly acceptable to play the E blues scale over the E7 chord. It is also valid -- and harmonically logical -- to play the E Mixolydian mode over the E7 chord. Some guitar experts say that B.B. King played the major pentatonic or a fragment of the major diatonic scale over the first chord of the 12-bar blues. For simplicity's sake, let's say he went for a bit of the Mixolydian mode. In our example, it's the E Mixolydian mode:

The blue-colored notes represent the B.B. Box, or at least an approximation for the situation. Only five of those six notes should be fretted; it would behoove all of us to bend the B string a full step from the F-sharp note to the G-sharp note, and give it some B.B. King-style vibrato for good measure.

The next chord for E blues is the A7 chord, for two bars.

At this point, B.B. King tended shift the B.B. Box into something more bluesier, namely, the blues scale. In our example, it's the E blues scale:

The blue text indicates the state of the B.B. Box for this scale. Instead of bending to the G-sharp note, which gives the scale a major key flavor, bend to the G note instead, to give the scale a minor key flavor. (Even though it's not in the above chart, you can bend one half-step from the F-sharp note to the G note, to make it easier for your fingers.) There is a chromatic run from the A note to the B-flat note to the B note. The B-flat note is what is usually known as the diminished fifth, or the blue note in the context of the blues scale. In other words, when the band is playing A7, either play the E blues scale and/or an E almost-Mixolydian mode with a G instead of the G-sharp ... if that makes any sense.

The chord progression returns to E7 for two more bars, so return to the Mixolydian mode, major key notes and all.

The next chord in E blues is B7, for one bar.

Play the E Mixolydian mode or the E blues scale. Mix it up. Just play.

The progression returns to A7 for one bar. Play the E blues scale again.

The closing chord and turnaround for the 12-bar blues in E tend to be E7 for two bars, including perhaps some A7-Bb7-B7 riffage (approximately) at the turnaround to the next 12-bar sequence. Play either E Mixolydian and/or E blues -- just make it sound good.

For reference, let's look at the B.B. Box "zone" for E Mixolydian and E blues side-by-side:

When he played the B.B. Box, B.B. King did so much with so little. He didn't have to shred 16th and 32nd notes to make a statement; he either bent the string to the minor 3rd or to the major 3rd, depending on the chord. He shook a note around at the end of a phrase. And Lucille sang the blues, every time.

My humble tribute to this legendary guitarist is but a simplistic analysis of just a small part of B.B. King's mastery of music. B.B. King sang and played the blues, and his very existence and influence will forever be a part of time itself, never to be erased, and never to be forgotten ... and so, the thrill remains.

R.I.P. B.B. King.