Never Underestimate a Guitar’s Saddle

Last week, my new Taylor 552ce got what seems like a small adjustment but was really a huge upgrade – I had a quality bone saddle installed.

Though but a few inches in length and maybe 1/4″ wide at most, a seemingly small component such as a saddle can have a huge impact on the resulting tone of the guitar.

For those who are unfamiliar, the saddle is the part in the bridge that effectively terminates the vibrating length of the string. The string “breaks over” it into the bridge where it is then anchored via pins or a pinless system.

Alas, the saddle does much more than that. The energy of the string actually passes through the saddle onto the guitar’s soundboard (the top piece of wood), making the top vibrate.

Needless to say, the material that the saddle is made from will have a major impact on the final tone of the guitar. Most production guitars some with some sort of a plastic saddle (Micarta and Tusq being the most common). Though easy to run through a milling machine and mass produce, plastic just doesn’t do that great of a job transferring the strings’ energy to the soundboard. It effectively acts as a damper.

Compare this to most boutique guitars which come fitted with a bone saddle. Bone does a much better job of transferring the energy from the strings. The result is a louder guitar with a more punchy low end, more shimmery high end, richer overtones and longer sustain (slower decay).

Every guitar is different of course, but I can say this – I’ve installed bone saddles in every acoustic guitar I’ve ever owned. How many did I go back to plastic in afterward? None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.

Now, my Taylor 12 was an exception in that I had it installed professionally because of the greater degree of complication. 6-string guitars are easy enough to do on your own. 12-strings are much more exacting with the intonation and having to cut guide slots in the saddle for the course pairs (lest they rest too close together).

So if bone is so much better, why would even high end production guitars use plastic? Well, again, automation. Due to the nature of bone it can’t really be milled and must be hand-finished. That said, manufacturers do keep some bone saddles in stock for aftermarket purchase, just not pre-installed in their guitars. I don’t know how many they sell, only that the end result is well worth it.

Taylor says they recommend plastic saddles in their acoustic-electric guitars because of their pickup system and possible inconsistencies with bone, but I’ve not noticed any issue with mine after changing the saddle. I had to adjust the EQ/preamp a bit, but the energy transfer to the pickup is no different. As such, I’m inclined to dismiss Taylor’s concern as hogwash.

For those worried about animal cruelty or unnecessary killing of animals, let me rest assure you no animals are killed just to make guitar saddles. The bones used in the making of them are a byproduct of the beef industry.

So that’s well and good, but what did I notice in my Taylor 12? Simply put, the bone brought out the shimmer of the course strings in a huge way, giving it more of a traditional, jangly, big bodied 12 string sound. It also increased the volume, sustain and overtones. The guitar was great before, don’t get me wrong, but the bone saddle just elevated it to another level. It was an all around good decision to upgrade.

Anyway, food for thought for you guitar players out there.

Sometimes All You Need…

…is a brand new guitar!

I definitely didn’t see this one coming but hey, I guess I’ll roll with it.

So I went over to Guitar Center on San Pedro here in San Antonio looking to demo any one of two Taylor 12 string models – either a 362ce or a 562ce. I had these models in mind for many specific reasons – small body shape (easier to handle) 12-fret neck-to-body joint (fuller tone) short scale length (less tension), and a mahogany top (warmer/less bright). I wasn’t looking to buy either one (as I’m not a fan of cutaway body or electronics, but Taylor doesn’t make those without the ce so I was going to demo and, if I liked what I heard and felt, request a quote for a custom build).

In the general section of the acoustic room they didn’t have any of those but they did have a few low end Taylor 12s – 150e models. I picked one up to fiddle with it, and it was OK for the price. Went to ask about driving it through an amplifier and they took me to the back room to do so. As I was testing the electronics, I looked over and saw one lone 552ce in a locked hanger. The only difference between the 552ce and the 562ce is the former has a cedar top instead.

So I asked an attendant to get it down so I could test drive it as it were. They readily helped, and apparently it had been forever since it had been played because it was so out of tune. I tuned her up and played a few chords and was instantly enamored – each course rings loud and true with ample volume (surprising in fact for such a small body), it’s very comfortable to hold and it plays like absolute butter – just as easy as a well set up 6 string guitar. That’s no easy feat on a 12 string.

I probably played that thing for 15-20 minutes, both plugged and unplugged (the ES2 electronics actually sound fantastic, making me actually want to keep the electronics in case I ever play live anywhere). I also decided I likely preferred the cedar as the mahogany top would have probably been too muffled for my taste (and thus cedar is a happy medium between spruce and mahogany) as well as for aesthetic reasons. My heart was set but I still wanted to see if I could get a custom build without the cutaway.

I went to ask the clerk about that and financing and he advised me that asking for a non-cutaway special build would likely be more expensive as it’s not a production model, even though a non-cutaway is generally less expensive. Well damn. The guitar sounds fantastic as is, so I figured what the hell, I’ll try to figure out a way to walk out with it that night. Applied for GC financing and was approved instantly (this is why it’s important to take care of your credit!) for 48 months same as cash/interest free financing. It was a no-brainer. The guitar was mine.

(Note: the following day I was actually glad I kept the cutaway as this guitar is a 12th fret neck-to-body joint as opposed to a 14th fret so accessing the upper frets would have been extremely difficult on a non-cutaway.)

So that’s the story of how I wound up with my dream guitar. No doubt it’ll get lots of use. It’s an absolutely incredible instrument. Even if you don’t normally play 12 strings, this one should be accessible to you. It really did blow me away with the sound quality and ease of play.

Anyway, off to enjoy my guitar some more. Have a good day!

Full Review: MacLellan Revelation Bagpipes

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Alright, now that I have a few playing sessions on these, I feel like I can give them a full review of this instrument (highlights, lowlights, etc.). Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Roddy’s pipes, but I’ll do my best to be as objective here as I possibly can.

To save time, I won’t go much into detail of the unique features of this bagpipe, which you can read about in my previous post so you know what I’m talking about as far as that’s concerned. Also, for reference, my full test setup was as follows: Ross suede bag, tube trap, Kinnaird Edge drone reeds.

So let’s start off with the cellulose polymer lined drones and the silica cartridge stocks mentioned prior. How well do they really work? The answer: very well indeed. As mentioned prior, I completely removed my canister drying system and replaced with just a simple tube-style water trap. I am an oral firehose, so some kind of canister or dessicant system is a must for me, so reducing to just a tube trap was a real torture-test of the moisture resistance of this bagpipe.

After an hour long session of playing, I disassembled the bagpipe and noted the following: 1)  absolutely no visible condensation on the drone reeds, and 2) only the slightest bit in the drone bores. There were no visible beads in the bores, but the polymer lining appeared to be slightly wet. Nowhere near enough to condense on the surface and dribble down into the drone reeds to cause tuning or stability problems. Though my tube trap was totally full and I dumped about a shotglass worth of water out of it, the silica and polymer did an excellent job of removing the rest. I’m so impressed I’ve decided to also just run my ABW set out of the silica cartridge stocks for the superior moisture control, thus removing the need for a bulky, heavy canister.

Drying out the stock cartridges couldn’t be easier – simply remove them from the instrument and allow them to air dry naturally. For quicker drying, a hair dryer on medium heat can be used for 20-30 seconds. You do not want to microwave these the way you would a canister system, for it could distort the shape of the cartridge and not allow it to be reinserted.

So we’ve established that this bagpipe does have superior moisture resistance, better than many wooden bagpipes I would imagine and definitely better than every other Delrin bagpipe out there. So what about the tone and air efficiency? Concerning air efficiency, it’s got the same air efficient profile of my ABW MacLellan, so I noticed no difference there (it surprised me initially when I got my first MacLellan how little pressure was required to produce a superior sound).

Tonally speaking, this bagpipe is a total winner. It lives up to the claim of sounding more like a wooden bagpipe. There isn’t any of the harsh, brassy, metallic tone that’s often found in all-Delrin bagpipes. The cellulose polymer lining does a fantastic job of tempering that, giving a more natural, wood-like tone. Compared to my ABW set, the drones aren’t quite as loud, but have more than ample presence. Maybe Robertson-esque or Lawrie-esque is how I would describe them (not quite as loud as a classic Henderson, but not as subdued as a classic Glen, MacDougall, etc.).

The bass drone features a great depth and richness of sound, which are complemented by warm, ringing, but not bright, tenors. The blend is steady, seamless and brought out many rich, ringing harmonics in the three chanter/reed combinations I tried with these pipes. Those combinations being: McCallum McC2 solo poly w/Husk reed, MacLellan standard solo delrin w/Apps G3, Dunbar/JM Aurora solo poly w/Troy McAllister reed, all 3 the same strength (about 23-24″ H2O – very light but necessary for me). The drones went well with all the chanter/reed combinations, and save for some adjustment of the tuning screws to pitch each on the tuning pins, I didn’t have to touch the reeds. Of course, each chanter/reed combo retained its unique tone and pitch, as to be expected, but all were a great blend. Though all chanters tested were solo chanters, I’m sure they would go equally well with a band chanter.

My preference was the JM, but that’s with any setup as it is slightly lower-pitched than the other two, which is my liking (probably the lowest pitched solo chanter around – Jim McGillivray and Dunbar did a great job designing it and it sounds fantastic. It also has a fairly narrow finger spacing making it very comfortable to play).

As far as downsides, there were a few to note, but I already knew these things going into it. The first thing to note is the weight. Delrin is a fair bit heavier than wood, and the pipes are noticeably heavier than my ABW set in the same drone profile and with very similar adornments. However, removing the canister system negated this effect and actually resulted in a slightly lighter setup than my ABW set with canister. The other is the blowpipe, which seems to have a small-ish bore and is slightly restrictive. In its place, as I have for the past several years, I play an aftermarket blowpipe from Peter Crisler, which is wide-bored, adjustable, and has absolutely no restriction whatsoever. Lastly, and this is very minor, but the cartridge stocks have a rather large outer diameter to accommodate the cartridge. This can make fitting to certain pipe bags with grommets/collars a bit of a challenge. I had to work to get them into my Ross bag, and I’m sure a Bannatyne or Canmore bag would be an even greater challenge.

All in all, color me impressed. Roddy really has elevated the Delrin bagpipe to heights beyond any other before it. Not only is it more moisture resistant, the sound is virtually indistinguishable from a wooden instrument, while retaining the durability and resilency of Delrin that make it the ideal material for playing extreme heat, cold, wet, dry, etc. environments that would likely damage a wooden instrument. Sure, there are production Delrin instruments from other manufacturers that are half the price or less depending on decoration, but the extra cost and wait is well worth it for a superior instrument.

I highly recommend these pipes.

PS: I tried to capture a sound clip, but I don’t have any professional recording equipment and my phone and computer mics were overpowered by the sheer volume. I’ll try to get one sometime if I can get some better recording equipment.

The Newest Addition to My Musical Instrument Family

At approximately 1:30 PM CDT Friday, prior to my departure for San Antonio, I took delivery of these:

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To supplement my existing 2008 MacLellan bagpipe in African Blackwood, I decided around the beginning of this year I wanted one of Roddy’s new “Revelation” instruments. This bagpipe is made of Delrin plastic, which is not an entirely new concept within the bagpipe world as Delrin has some distinct advantages over wooden instruments – mainly when it comes to playing outdoors in extreme heat, cold, arid, wet, etc. conditions. Wooden instruments are very sensitive to the environment around them, and any time you add in these factors, you risk cracking, warping, among other things. (To be fair, I’ve played my ABW set in some extreme conditions without ill effect, but it always left me nervous afterward.)

That said, Delrin isn’t without its drawbacks. Due to the density and hardness of the material, it often times results in a rather brash, hard, and unrefined tonal quality as compared to wooden instruments. It’s also not porous like wood, which results in moisture condensation from the player’s breath forming inside the drone bores much more quickly than with a wooden instrument. For these reasons, I’ve held off on a Delrin instrument.

Enter the new Revelation design from MacLellan. Debuting in 2017, this instrument elevates the Delrin bagpipe to a level beyond anything any other Delrin instrument has. Roddy has made some really unique innovations, bringing together the best qualities of Delrin while eliminating the drawbacks.

The first thing of note is the cellulose polymer lining inside the drone bores:

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Cellulose polymer is used extensively in the bagpipe world, as many synthetic drone reeds are made from it. Cellulose polymer adds two things to the bagpipe, namely moisture absorption more like a wooden instrument and, being a wood-based material, makes the air column resonate more like a wooden instrument, thus softening the often brash sound associated with a Delrin instrument.

The other thing is the incorporation of a silica gel cartridge inside the drone stocks (the stocks being the part that ties into the bag – for those of you who aren’t bagpipe people):

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These also have the cellulose polymer lining as you can see, but beneath the perforations lies a charge of silica gel desiccant. This also absorbs moisture, much like the various canister systems. For this reason, I plan to run both sets of pipes through the same stocks for that effect, so I can eliminate my heavy, bulky canister system and replace with a simple tube-style spit trap as a “first line” of defense against excess moisture and have these take over from there.

Between these two innovations and a slight tweak of the internal dimensions, MacLellan really has elevated the Delrin instrument. In addition to these benefits, due to the material these can be traveled with worldwide without issue, whereas most woods used in the making of bagpipes today are now listed as endangered per CITES and need special permitting to travel with.

Of course, as with all of Roddy’s instruments, they can be customized to suit your personal decor. This is part of what drew me to his instruments originally – they have a unique, distinct look in the world of “cookie cutter” bagpipes. They are works of art. My Revelations are no different, and I chose designs that I think are a reflection of me. My pipes are done in his chalice profile fully combed and beaded, with imitation horn button mounts and dragon knot engraved bronze slides, ferrules and caps:

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So there’s that. Hope you enjoyed some of the eye-candy. I’ve been gradually getting them set up this week, from re-doing the hemp thread joints (as I do with any new set of pipes I receive), fitting the bag, cover, cords and reeds, and hopefully sometime this week I’ll get to calibrate the reeds and play a few tunes. We shall see though.

In the meantime, here’s a great video of Roddy explaining a lot of what I’ve explained above. It’s quite interesting.

The Scratched Out Face…

So it’s been but a day since I’ve had my new tattoo. For those who missed the post, here it is:

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The question I’ve gotten from a few people is who is that person in the picture frame? Whose face is marked out of that picture? Some have speculated it’s an ex-lover, an ex-friend or something of the sort. Truth be told when Jade first drew it up I didn’t quite know either (note: this was an element in the original concept drawing she did with the hourglass and scroll, but it didn’t fit on my left side). I just knew it spoke to me in some way and asked her to add the element back in for this piece. Well today, in my daily BSing and virtual cuddling with my beloved neuro-sister Laina, I figured it out.

So who is this person? I can’t speak for Jade and her vision in the original drawing. That said, as I’m the one wearing the tattoo, it’s up to me to define, so here’s your answer: that person is *ME*.

Now hold on a second, why would I scratch my own face out? It’s easy really: I’m not the same person I was a few years ago. Hell, I’m not the same person I was two months ago. In that light, the scratched out face represents the old me. The me who dealt with my pain in very unhealthy ways (of which I will not go into detail here). The old me who was judgmental of others. The old me who hated the mere concept of neurodiversity and got so angry with my fellow autism spectrumites who said “I don’t want a cure.” The old me who thought I was sick, broken, and a freak of nature. The old me who thought I was doomed for failure from the day I was born.

In short: the picture represents the me I don’t ever want to revert back to.

I’ll keep that picture as a reminder of where I’ve been and where I don’t want to return. The picture stays there on my desk (or, in this case, in my dermis) reminding me not to look into the past, but to the future instead.

Moving forward is not about forgetting my past. It’s about processing it and moving on from it. It’s about becoming the truly best version of me I can be. Placement wise, it’s almost in direct line with my semicolon – my very first tattoo as a symbol that I’m still here. Whether or not that was a conscious thing for Jade when she stenciled it on I don’t know, but to me it ties that in. After all, my first tattoo is what set all this in motion anyway – launching this blog, which led to me crossing paths with so many of you, and for Laina and I to eventually meet in person. My ink journey started my transformation, but that was only the beginning. My trip to San Antonio at the end of March was a bigger step – being in the presence of the person I now believe is my “twin soul” who helped me realize my own worth as I am.

I’ve still got a lot of work ahead of me, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. Nothing worth it is easy after all, now is it? Alas, this is the start of better things ahead.

And that, my friends, is the story behind the scratched out face.

Next Tattoo Preview

You know I can’t go more than a few months without a new tattoo, and it’s been two months since my last one thus the time is getting near again.

For this one I wanted something like a tabletop scene to “complete” what I just completed on my left arm. What would I normally be doing while writing? Probably smoking a cigar and sipping some wine right? Hence the concept for my next tattoo was born, which I pitched to Jade and she loved, so here’s what she came up with:

Appointment set for Saturday May 4th so stay tuned; as always my lovely followers are among the first who will see it!