Who controls the 8th string?

Written by peterkienle on November 18, 2014
6 strings - perfect!

6 strings – perfect!

A few years ago I started playing seven string guitar. It’s only an added B string below the low E. And while I am practicing quite a bit, composed several pieces for seven string classical guitar and adapted J. S. Bach’s 15 Two Part Inventions and all of the Well Tempered Clavier for the instrument, only now do I start feeling somewhat comfortable. Sure, there is the issue of smaller string spacing on my seven string electrics. Then there is my habit of using the note on the low E string as sort of an anchor point for the notes on the other strings. And then, maybe, the extra neurons needed in the brain to add control over that added string may not grow as quickly in an older person.

add a low B string and make your brain grow new neurons

add a low B string and make your brain grow new neurons

To add insult to injury, this past summer I found a really nice eight string guitar on eBay – and when I pick that up my musical-guitaristic instincts are once again of no help. This time however I seem to experience it from a more neutral observer. As long as I totally ignore any of the strings on the bottom (let’s say the low E, B and F#) I can just pretend it’s a normal guitar. When I then try to incorporate the E and B strings I “know” what the notes are called and I see the patterns they form with what I play on the upper strings – at least to a certain degree and when I am not looking at the fingerboard but imagine where my fingers are in my head.

But now I get to that eighth string. That F#. As long as I play by ear and just extend the scales downward to the eighth string I am fine. My fingers know where to put themselves. But when I try to play chords based off of that eighth string I notice that I have to “calculate” the note name just like a beginner – relative to the open F#. It doesn’t help that my brain also thinks that the lowest string is a B.

add a low F# string feels like a new limb

add a low F# string feels like a new limb

The funny thing about this effect is that the low F# string feels like an added third arm might feel. It’s there but there is no software in place to control it. Just like when you hook up an external device (printer, hard drive, etc) to your computer and there is no driver installed – the computer might notice that something was connected but it has no idea what to do with it.

Like I mentioned, I went through this process after I started the seven string guitar thing. I realized that over about 35 years of playing guitar there were so many patterns, shortcuts, good and bad habits, chord and scale shapes (and much more) in my brain that I was never thinking on a note by note level. Almost as if certain chord voicings were attached to practice sessions or gigs where I discovered them. Or whole musical passages where associated with a specific person or date. Adding an extra string seemed to require to rearrange many of these associations or make new ones.

Now, as I am going through the eighth string learning pains, I observe from a third person perspective. While I am playing I can almost “feel” the blank spots of my guitaristic brain as I torture that new, unknown string. It feels a lot like stepping from firm ground onto an ice sheet. Somewhat dangerous on a gig but a lot of fun. And it also includes some personal research into how I learn.

The morning-after-blues

Written by peterkienle on October 26, 2014

This past week I was brutally reminded why being a musician is so hard. It’s not because of the need to practice (although you have to do that.) It’s not because you basically starve if you have no other job, or your spouse loves you very much and has a good gig with health insurance. It’s not really because it often sucks hunting down gigs and then often end up playing at venues that are “wrong” for what you play – although we are getting closer now.

This past weekend blatantly displayed to me the stark reality. The story started about two years ago when my friend Lothar, who lives in Tübingen, Germany, mentioned that he just started a big band – called the Wüste Welle Big Band. He asked if I had done any creative arrangements they could play – just something different from the ordinary fare. Well, I hadn’t. And I never had arranged for big band before and I wasn’t going to either. But Lothar kept bringing it up again and again. He was especially interested in music from my “fusion”, i.e. BeebleBrox years. Somehow that did ring a bell. Over the course of two years I arranged a handful of music for big band. And, believe me, that was like pulling teeth! Although I am proud I did it.

After two concerts with the big band in the summer of 2013 Lothar went for the high hanging fruit and applied for the opening slot of the “Jazz & Klassiktage Tübingen 2014.”  At first it looked like they were going to play my tunes and my arrangements with their regular guitarist but then it turned out that I was going to be the featured guest!

Due to all sorts of time and budget constraints my trip was only four days long. I left Bloomington on Thursday morning. Arrived in Tübingen for rhythm section rehearsal on 10am Friday. Full band rehearsal late afternoon and evening. Short night sleep. Breakfast with my mother. Dress rehearsal and soundcheck. When we started playing the first tune I was running on adrenalin. Some excitement was added due to the fact that I was tasked with making announcements! Apparently they weren’t too bad, or at least entertaining enough as people were laughing tears. The gig went by, the playing was great! More compliments and people coming up afterwards to shake hands than in all of the past decades. Short night again. Sunday return to Bloomington and then……

Monday morning. All the magic is gone. No more big gigs on the books. It’s the Monday-after-the-big-weekend-blues.

It’s not that I haven’t experienced these before. Back when we were trying for “bigger” things and actually got as far as opening for acts such as “Tower of Power”, Yes, Santana and then some. Every time when the big gig is over and Monday rolls around you realize that you are at the bottom again and will have to climb up that mountain for a quick but exciting dash down the hill – lift tickets are not available. I guess over the past ten years or so I have played so many background music gigs that I kind of forgot. It’s like climbing the mountain only to discover that there is no snow!

And yet, that up and down seems to be a very essential part of an artist’s life.

Also, my mom was at the concert.


Restoring my first electric guitar

Written by peterkienle on September 1, 2014

Last week I finally finished the restoration of my first electric guitar. A Framus S370 – basically a German Gibson SG copy. I didn’t quite find out when this was built – probably very early 1970s. I bought it used from Musik Ecke in Albstadt, West Germany. When I opened the rear cover I found the original invoice which dates my purchase to November 1974.

Original invoice - found in the back of the guitar

Original invoice – found in the back of the guitar

This guitar was in great shape when I got it. Then, a few years later, I decided to replace the stock neck pickup with a DiMarzio humbucker. This is when the onslaught started. The measurements of the pickup openings and placements of the screw holes are not standard and to my shock the DiMarzio upgrade was not as easy as I thought. Having no access to tools other than a pair of scissors, a screwdriver and a soldering iron I “adapted” the opening and through the ingenious use of molten polystyrene plastic (left over from some Revell model airplanes) I added the proper mounting holes to the pickup. A little more here.



My SG and me – Alabama, 1990

All the markings, stickers, dirt and gunk was added to this instrument when I was a teenager. The stickers are a normal thing as I just learned from my daughter Melody who coincidentally got her first electric guitar, an Epiphone SG copy, a while ago. Brand new, and it already has stickers all over. What turned out to be an enormous headache in the restoration was some sort of “metal-protection” spray a friend had recommended. Essentially all metal (or chrome) parts received the treatment. I guess that’s what made all the gunk stick to the guitar.

Before surgery

Before surgery

After de-gunking, front

Stripped of all hardware. Oh weh!



This guitar has appeared on many of my recordings. It was tuned in minor sevenths for a recording project in the early 80s. When I was experimenting with my Chapman Stick it was tuned in all fifths to emulate the bass side of the Stick – the lowest two strings where old strings from a bass.

I ordered a pair of new pickups from Stewart McDonalds guitar supplies and some other hardware. When I took the guitar apart to start the process the body looked fine and after some acetone application to remove the grime things started looking up.

The real problem were the plastic covers. The small one covering the electronics in the back and the pickguard. I just didn’t find a way to remove the stickers without scratching the plastic. Also, the pickup openings and screw holes didn’t agree with the new pickup dimensions.

Plastic covers!

Plastic covers!

A good first “real” job for my Fireball V90 CNC machine, I thought. I didn’t have the V90 very long and little experience. Never done anything more complicated than some wood working. It took some time to actually establish a pipeline to get the dimensions and shapes into Cambam plus (which makes the control code for the machine.) The first pipeline (Adobe Illustrator to trace the scan, Cinema 4D to make it into a 3D model and then Cambam to make the gcode) somehow shrank the shapes just enough that it wasn’t visible on screen. That was frustrating. The solution was to keep it 2D and bypass Cinema 4D. It took two sheets of ABS plastic to finally get everything correct. The fourth cut was it. I am not doing this professionally!

V90 in action

V90 in action

...in my sunny driveway workshop

…in my sunny driveway workshop

After much cleaning, filing, polishing, soldering – and after almost 40 years of abuse – the neck needed only a little truss rod adjustment. This guitar has always played very well. Framus necks from that era are a bit beefy but I like it that way. Also I really like the huge rectangular fret markers. Most other guitars I own are very frugal in that regard and on a dark stage it is often hard to glimpse where your hand is on the neck.

That was a very satisfying project and I am very happy I invested the time and effort. I can’t wait to take this “new” 40 year old guitar on a gig.

all done!

all done!

Copyright © by Peter Kienle