Flat Guitars (or Why I Break Strings)

by Neil Fein

I was walking through Demarest Hall when I heard a familiar guitar. “Is that a Peavey Falcon?” The guy stopped strumming the black electric guitar and confirmed that it was. We chatted for a bit; it turned out he was having the same problems I was, specifically that the guitar didn’t stay in tune as well as it could. The tremolo was the culprit, and he had fixed the problem by disabling it, tightening the floating bridge against the face of the guitar. I never used the whammy bar in any case — it still seems like cheating to me — so I later did the same to my Falcon. That was 1988, and I haven’t missed the functionality at all in the last two decades.

Tremolo

I learned how to play guitar in 1982 at Buck’s Rock summer camp. My instructor was a British guy whose mnemonic for remembering the strings was “Every American Dame Gets Boys Easily. In 1987, I played an awkwardly named solid-body electric, a Gibson “The Paul”, in a school concert that raised about $700 for charity. I still remember playing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes in front of an auditorium of high-school kids, the instrument falling out of tune in the middle of the song. (Video here, listen if you dare.)

My folks bought me the Falcon shortly after that concert, as a high-school graduation present. The guitar looks like a black Stratocaster, but has a great, deep, sound. Compared to the Gibson, the Falcon has a deeper, richer sound. Over the years, I’ve replaced the pickups to improve the sound, lined electronics cavity to cut down on line noise (helped further by this gadget), and replaced the nut twice.

Headstock

I find it somewhat odd that a guitar player whose style hinges on percussiveness and in general whacking the shit out of the strings learned to play on guitars that wouldn’t stay in tune; I would have thought I would have learned to play more gently. (My second teacher, a session musician who mostly taught me jazz progressions, certainly would have preferred it if I hadn’t been energetic at the expense of precision.)

All I can suppose is that I’ve got a perverse rebelliousness in how I react to musical instruments; my first thoughts are to wonder what sounds I can eke out that weren’t intended by the designer. If it can make a sound, why shouldn’t it? I would generally change my strings once a week, at least on an acoustic guitar, to avoid strings breaking while playing. (With a heavy gauge string, a string snapping during a show can be painful.)

Ironically, once I finally got a guitar that stayed in tune as I pounded away at the strings, I learned to play more nuanced material and started making it through shows without breaking strings.

Body

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