I’ve owned a lot of different acoustic guitars over the decades. A “twingy” B string sound had never needed a solution prior to 2016…because the B string blues had not surfaced until the little Ibanez Performance started sounding “off. ”
At first, I didn’t give it much thought. As a rather intermittent singer songwriter, using the guitar primarily as accompaniment for my own tunes with only occasional performances in front of live audiences, my situation wasn’t like a professional needing to tickle the ears of everyone in the auditorium in order to pay his rent. Besides, the strings hadn’t been changed on the Ibanez in approximately forever, give or take an eternity or two. It probably just needed a new set of phosphor bronze, right?
Ah, but then came the clam. A Seagoing Clam, to be precise, a spiritual tune penned in March of 2016 during the middle of a ten day brown rice fast, expressing some of the tenets of Eckankar, the Religion of the Light and Sound of God. I’ve been an Eckist (member of Eckankar) for forty-two years, but this, I realized, was the first song I’d ever written that felt…significant to the extent that it begged to be released to the full membership if possible. Preferably at the World Wide Seminar in October, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where thousands would be in attendance.
And thus began the twingy B string blues adventure. As of this writing, I can’t say for sure whether or not A Seagoing Clam will be accepted for the Seminar–that’s still in the works–but for months now, I’ve been “working up” my skills to make sure that if it is accepted, my performance in Minneapolis will have the best possible chance of, to paraphrase Garth Brooks, “…treating the music right.” I’ve taken the stage in Minneapolis before, but that was in the 1970’s. Ring rust much?
At first, not having kicked it with a live audience since the mid-1990s, I needed to build my confidence back up as a performer. Like any of us born to the stage, I’m at my best in front of a live audience, but (this time quoting Vince Lombardi), “…perfect practice makes perfect.” Daily practice, in this case working through the song a minimum of five times each and every day, month in and month out, sharpening both vocals and guitar work. All seemed to be well, coming right along…except for that persnickety B string.
A new set of strings on the Ibanez Performance did make it sound a whole lot better, but sure enough, that B string was still twingy. Love that word, “twingy.” Just came across it last night in one of the online forums–my apologies to the picker who coined the term, as I don’t remember which forum it was, or who said it, but when he described the problem sound (which, it turns out, is common to a lot of acoustic guitars out there), I knew he’d come up with the perfect name: Twingy. It’s like twangy, except there are jangly ear-troubling off-harmonics that serve as the Chinese torture of guitar music, gradually destroying the player’s ability to concentrate on anything else. In my case, it got so bad that I was mucking up my vocals because of the irritating, unpleasant distraction.
Well then, what to do? I’ve never trusted “guitar mechanics” to fix a problem with any axe I’ve ever owned, with the singular exceptions of reworking electric pickups now and then or replacing a worn out pick guard. Besides, the Ibanez Performance is a straight acoustic, and I really wanted to be able to plug in at Minneapolis, should that opportunity come through. The vintage Ibanez Artist electric sounds fantastic but won’t stay in tune through even one song these days…and that puppy has to weigh twenty pounds. Having that much weight dragging on a strap my “rodeo shoulder” wouldn’t appreciate? A recipe for distraction disaster at the critical moment, right there. I’ve got a Takamine acoustic-electric, but that’s (a) parked at my sister’s place in Montana and (b) has yet to be restrung since being purchased in a pawn shop.
Hey, what’s a guy to do? I went into that pawn shop to see if I could find a heavy duty electric drill–which they did have, as it turned out–and the Takamine leaped from the wall to attack my wallet. A clear case of musical mugging….
Aha! The perfect solution! Off I went to Tucson, returning with a brand new Martin. Gotta have the best possible axe for the Clam, right? Couldn’t have been an excuse to seriously upgrade.
The Martin lived up to its name in every way. Beautiful sound, a joy to play, all is sweetness and light in the Mary Poppins world of music at the Border Fort. With, hoo boy, one tiny exception. Mere days into working with the new high end guitar, an instrument light years beyond anything I’d ever owned before, I noticed…. Gah! Twingy B string!
Maybe it would go away if I ignored it.
Maybe it was my mild hearing impairment, a dysfunction only in the B note frequency.
Nope. Listening to YouTube pickers doing scales and demonstrating the B note made it clear: No twingy-ness there at all.
Well, fudge and crackers. Now what?
Fortunately, we now have the Internet. Last night, hours spent searching through forum after forum. Wow. Who knew so many pickers had B string problems? True, my “ideal” guitar would be a nylon string classical-electric that would stand up to the gaff given the average hard-usage acoustic, regardless of picking style, fingers or plastic. Since that miracle has yet to be invented, though…forums. More forums. And even more forums.
As the clock ticked on closer and closer to midnight, several things became clear in my mind: Nope, don’t put classical strings on an acoustic guitar. (Which I knew, but all those warnings reinforced that understanding.) It wasn’t a matter of which steel treble strings were being used; I’d already tried Martin, Elixir, and Ernie Ball brands. The Ernie Ball strings, just added a couple of days ago, are coated 80/20/s, breaking in nicely, muted enough (due to the coating, after break-in) that the sound works really well with A Seagoing Clam…except for ye olde twingy B string. Probably not the bridge.
In the end, it seemed–in my mind, anyway–to boil down to a nut problem. Unfortunately, the old novelty song, Everybody Loves a Nut, is not 100% accurate when it comes to twingy B strings.
And then…a miracle! One gentleman mentioned simply placing a bit of tissue (paper, presumably, like Kleenex or some such) between the B string and the nut. The result? In his words, “…problem solved!”
Whoa. For the first time, this felt like the real deal. No attempting to reshape the nut, which would undoubtedly end up causing more problems. No dealing with a luthier who probably couldn’t hear the problem in the first place–my wife can’t, and she has batsonic hearing that can pick your mind at forty paces. This sounded like the real deal.
Tonight, once things had settled down at the Border Fort, it was time to see what the “tissue solution” could accomplish. Except…tissue paper sounded a little too wimpy to me. What if tightening the string as time went on, since I often use one set of strings for weeks or even months between changes if it’s practice only and no gigs are scheduled …what if that process tore through the flimsy tissue and negated the fix? What could work the same way, only better…?
In the end, a tiny snip from one of my handkerchiefs seemed like it might do the trick. True, not that many men pack hankies around these days. Seems like they prefer baggy pants and showing their underwear, often not even knowing what you’re talking about if you mention a handkerchief. But, being old school, locating a handkerchief is seldom a problem for me. They’re right there, next to the socks in the sock drawer.
Out came the little pair of scissors from my Dopp kit (another old school term–think shaving kit), snippety-snip, loosen the B string, place the bit of cloth, cinch the string back down, and…done.
Pam was asleep, down for the night, so I had to go outside, plant my derriere atop the toolbox in the bed of our 2002 GMC pickup truck–atop a pillow, mind you, since my bony bottom and painted steel aren’t exactly a comfortable fit. Turn on the little electronic Snark tuner, make sure none of the strings were out of whack in that respect. And…wow.
The cloth muted the B string a bit; plenty of pickers probably wouldn’t like the effect at all. But for me, it’s…well, not exactly perfect, but close enough for company work. A lot of my songs are written in the Key of C, so the B string is fingered at the first fret (for the C chord). When playing A Seagoing Clam, there’s a “walk-down” from the treble to bass strings that really showcases those two high, unwound steel strings. And–for my purposes, at least–the resulting sound, thanks to the handkerchief’s donation, is fantastic. Even to my ear, parked right there above the sound hole, the former twingy effect is gone. There’s a subtle hint that it might come back to life if it had a chance, but only that, nothing more.
Caveat: The high E string still rings out its clarion call, but all of the other strings–thanks to the coating of these Ernie Ball versions plus the B string’s handkerchief “muffler,” are slightly “dead.” Anyone who needs (or prefers) a hard, jangly sound will not be impressed with my handkerchief solution or even the coated strings. But for those of us who more than anything crave a warm, mellow sound that won’t jar the ear, I really think I’m onto something.
For our readers who may not recognize terms like Eck, Eckist, or Eckankar, the definitions can be found in A Glossary of Eck Terms at Eckankar.org.