Modern Gretsch Guitars

nylons on a resonator (and introductory post)

1

Hello,

A former violinist (mostly baroque and other early music) who somehow lost interest along the way, I started to rediscover bluegrass and the old-style blues a year or so ago. After some barely concealed suggestions from a good friend (lutenist and guitar player) that I really ought to find another instrument to play, the idea started hatching to learn the guitar, playing the blues and get a resonator (not necessarily in that order) :)

I quickly identified the G9240 Alligator as a good compromise to start with (and probably stick with): resonator technology and sound but a wooden body that should give it a rounder and (hopefully more versatile) sound.

The deal with the "ministry of internal affairs" was that I'd see my violins first to make place for a new instrument, but in the mean I got to start tinkering on her old small 1/4th guitar meant for my niece.

Meanwhile, I came across some discussion somewhere (can't remember where) that spiked my interest: about putting nylon strings on a resonator, and how that can give an interesting, different sound. Definitely something I'd want to try (the easier-on-the-fingers aspect not being lost on me either :))

I received my Alligator last week and so far I'm liking it. As far as I know how to play the (any) guitar, of course. It'll go to a local luthier for a set-up checkup (and touch-up where necessary; the low E is probably a bit too close to the fingerboard edge), and he's accepted to look into cutting an additional and DIY replaceable nut for mounting nylon strings too.

Has anyone here tried this before (putting on nylon strings or figuring out a nut that can be replaced without too much hassle)?

I just replaced the original low E (supposedly a d'Addario phosphor-bronze?!) with the one from the nylon set I think would work (Savarez Alliance HT Classic 540J, high-tension). Surprisingly that string is slightly thinner so tension is a tad lower but it still sounds loud enough (and possibly even a bit richer precisely due to the lower tension and stiffness).

The only tricky bit is fixing the string at the tailpiece; I resorted to looping the string over itself at the front instead of at the back. Any suggestions how to do this (better) for the other strings would be appreciated!

2

Welcome to the GDP, RJVB. I don't know resonators very well but if you're planning on using it through an amp, I'm thinking it will require electric strings for the pickup to pick up the sound.

Someone with more knowledge is likely to chime in, though.

3

Chet Atkins used a Del Vecchio resonator which had nylon strings but was designed for them. Personally I don't think the fingerboard is wide enough for nylon strings and I'm not sure the strings would have enough mass to move the cone for a decent tone.

4

Howdy and welcome to the GDP - and what an interesting backstory. Gives new dimension to the notion of “roots” music, as in “how back ya wanna go, huh?”

Without looking, I don’t know if the Alligator is electric - but in any case, the pickups in the Gretsch resos are piezo-electric, essentially converting vibration through direct contact directly into current. Not electro-magnetic. So nylon strings wouldn’t directly defy amplification. Plenty of nylon “electric” guitars depend on this.

But to the extent to which a nylon set has less overall mass and tension (and therefore downpressure on the bridge) the guitar may not amplify as efficiently as with steel strings, and you may have more trouble with getting all strings to amplify evenly.

I’ve been a reso junkie for decades (which shouldn’t imply any skill level), but it’s never occurred to me to go nylon. A few considerations occur to me.

My first gut reaction is that you’re likely to lose considerable volume and body resonance, particularly in the low end, because the strings will have that much less energy to excite the cone. This may or may not concern you - but one of the original impulses behind the late-20s development of these guitars was to make a LOUDer instrument, and most of us appreciate their cannon-like projection.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with the more intimate voice of a classical guitar, and crossing that with the spectral signature of a resonating cone could yield an interesting voice. And blues can be found in any tonal container.

Assuming the sound is pleasing, though, I’d be concerned with the lower string tension and the neck. You’ll almost certainly have to relax the truss rod as neck responds, and as the guitars are built for steel, I wouldn’t be sure the rod will adjust FAR enough to compensate. I could be wrong about that. Something to watch for.

Many acoustic resos, Gretsch included, have a tendency to develop buzz/vibration at the front edge of the tailpiece where it rests (or almost rests) on the body. That’s resolved by sticking something dampening and unobtrusive under that edge - little strip of rubber or cardstock. I suspect the nylon strings will change that dynamic, with their lower tension. Whether they’ll decrease the problem (by letting the front edge of the tailpiece rise a little higher) or exacerbate it, I can’t predict. But be prepared.

A couple other observations. I believe the Alligator is a biscuit-bridge design, with the bridge “biscuit” (a small round wooden support) mounted directly on the apex of the cone. This has the midrangiest, “honkiest” response of all three resonator designs. It projects well with steel strings, without pesky low frequencies to mud up the works - but if you LIKE a broader response... I don’t know how this tonal signature will work with nylon strings. Could be interesting - but my mind’s ear is hearing a plastic child’s guitar. Either with Roy Rogers or Barbie decals on it (depending whether the plastic is tan or pink).

If I was choosing a likely reso for nylon strings, I’d go for a spider-bridge design, like the Boxcar. (I think. Gretsch’s reso names elude me. I still don’t know what mine is named without looking it up - and it’s my favorite reso.) I think that design’s fuller-range response might better flatter the nylon.

Finally - whether or not you play the guitar amplified, we discovered via direct comparison between two otherwise identical examples that the Gretsch reso WITH pickup sounded richer and just better than the same guitar without the pickup, unamplified. Why? The pickup is built into a bridge assembly, and the materials and inherent properties of that bridge just sounded better acoustically.

So if the Alligator doesn’t have a pickup, you may want to exchange it for a model that does. (Maybe a spider-bridger while you’re at it.)

In any case, it sounds a fascinating project, well worth the experiment. That you have your luthier’s willing assistance is good - I think you’ll need him, both for the crucial tweaking likely necessary at the nut and for any neck or bridge issues that eventuate from lower string tension.

Good luck, report back, and we’ll need audio samples!

5

My first gut reaction is that...

I see what you did there. :)

6

My first gut reaction is that...

I see what you did there. :)

– Tartan Phantom

You beat me to it, Rob. I was going to say the exact same thing!

7

Welcome RJVB, I think Proteus is giving excellent advice, he has a wealth of knowledge. I admire your desire to learn to play the guitar, it's a tremendously versatile instrument. While I can't offer anything better about resonator guitars I can say, as a violinist, that a mandolin is a great crossover instrument as well. I inherited one a number of years ago from my grandfather and hit the ground running. Same fingerings as the violin (GDAE), same lowest and highest note. I have a lot of fun with mine, it's a great bluegrass instrument. I certainly don't wish to derail your interest in the guitar, just plant a seed for further down the road. I get a lot more gigs knowing both instruments.

8

I admire you guys who can make sense of what even seems to me the much more logical 5ths tuning scheme of the violin/mandolin/practically-every-other-stringed-instrument family. Every time I play it (and I started on tenor banjo, so I should get it)...I don't get it. I know a bunch of chord shapes and can move them around, but my brain has yet to make the synaptic connections that yield something like an instinct for the patterns across the neck.

Why the 4ths-oops-plus-a-third! tuning of the guitar should make any sense, I don't know. Maybe I've just put in the necessary hours to turn that into instinct.

And yet lots of players manage both tunings adeptly. I like my mandolin, tenor banjo, and bouzouki, but I'd have a hard time fooling anyone with my competence.

9

LA Studio Guitar whiz and Wrecking Crew member Tommy Tedesco used to have a column in downbeat in which he described his studio gigs, including instruments played, wages earned, etc. He would bring all sorts of instruments --- banjos, bouzoukis, balalaikas, ouds, cavaquinhos --- whatever. But he made no bones about the fact he tuned them all like his guitars. He wasn't hired for authenticity, but rather for providing color, tone and atmosphere. Nobody cared if he used authentic tunings --- only that he played the parts and sounded good doing it, in a minimum of takes.

10

Ah yes. He had a similar column in Guitar Player. And an excellent point.

When it gets to crunch time, I have tuned the banjo like a guitar, just to get a part recorded efficiently. It doesn't even feel like cheating when it's for a recording, but the rest of the time somehow I feel like I owe the instrument the respect of trying to address it in the intended tuning.

11

Thanks for the insights! I chose a biscuit reso because its sound signature seemed a bit more "wooden" to me, and more compatible with a wider range of music styles. It's possible though that I just found more good examples of the Alligator on youtube than of the Boxcar (which AFAIU doesn't have a removable bridge cover?)

It's clear I'll be needing high-tension nylon strings, possibly even extra-high if those exist. I don't mind losing loudness, the neighbours (and my wife) might even prefer thatLower tension will probably also mean that the action must be higher to prevent buzzing on the next fret up. I'm getting a bit of that with the nylon low E I put on yesterday. I'll ask the luthier who'll be doing the conversion about potential issues with the neck. They could probably be avoided by putting nylon only on the 2 or 3 high strings, but the cone might not like that? That low E is beginning to stabilise and it's rather clear that it sounds really better than the original E sounded and the original E and even D sound. More harmonics, but also deeper, and curiously it's got noticeably more sustain than the A. Pity I didn't have place and budget to order two instruments to do side-by-side comparisonsI'm really curious how those Alliance (fluocarbone) high strings are going to sound. I put an Alliance mid G on that 1/4 guitar (originally intended for metal strings too!) and it sounded very good despite not being intended at all for such a small instrument.

I'm used to fiddling around with pieces of leather, paper or whatever helps getting rid of buzzing so I have no particular apprehension there. Either way the strings currently press onto the cover plate so any buzz I'm getting is from bad left-hand technique ...

I'm surprised that the electrified Alligator (G9241) sounds better; I would have guessed that the pickup would decrease the sound quality under purely acoustic playing, which is all I'll be doing. If the bridge with pickup does sound better that probably means it's better made using better woods. And that means an upgrade should be possible (if ever I start to feel limited or really start hating the plastic looking black paint on the biscuit).

As to tuning in 5ths vs 4ths ... I guess it depends on what you play. 5ths work well on a violin (and even a 'cello) because we have 4 fingers and thus get the next string up when we stop with the pinky. I'd guess that makes playing melody easy (easier?). That said, the whole viola da gamba family (of which the double bass is in fact a member) is tuned in 4ths and 3rds, and they too were used for melodic lines (but probably more for chord playing than the violin family).

Banjos ... last time I looked there was were about as many ways of tuning them as there are tuning schemes for harpsichords :)

Edit: audio samples? By the time I feel confident enough to post any you may have forgotten about this topic O Maybe I can convince my lutenist friend though when she drops by in a few months, that would also make for something very different in terms of repertoire :)

Edit2: gut string makers have been continuing the old experiments with loading strings with metal particles (often bronze) to make them heavier without making them much stiffer/thicker. I see no reason why that wouldn't be possible with nylon (or comparable tech like Aquila's nylguts), and that might just make them visible to electro-magnetic pickups.

12

Chet Atkins used a Del Vecchio resonator which had nylon strings but was designed for them. Personally I don't think the fingerboard is wide enough for nylon strings and I'm not sure the strings would have enough mass to move the cone for a decent tone.

– Mr Tubs

Chet Atkins used a Del Vecchio resonator which had nylon strings but was designed for them.

Here's a link to a forum thread about those guitars and the strings Chet Atkins used:

http://www.misterguitar.us/...

I don't read that thread as "his guitars were designed for nylon strings", only the bottom 3 btw. It's rather the strings that were designed for this kind of usage, and D'Addario still have an extra-heavy gauge in their Pro-Arte line-up, including one that has a silk-and-steel wound mid-G to give a smoother transition to the metal high strings.

The thread also confirms my impression: nylons give richer lows.

I had a visit from my lutenist friend today, she liked the narrow'ish fingerboard and always looks for that in the few guitars she has. She only uses gut and nylgut strings, so I'm guessing that the fingerboard width of the Alligator shouldn't be an insurmountable obstacle. As long as you don't expect to be able to play exactly the same way as you would on metal strings...

13

Quick update: I retrieved the guitar yesterday. First thing the luthier said: "very good idea to put on nylon strings!" He really liked the richer and very different sound, and there's still enough punch to the sound.

The stringholder is a bit of a problem. Not so much for fixing the strings; several high Es snapped already, severed by the edge of the hole on the back of the holder.

14

Quick update: I retrieved the guitar yesterday. First thing the luthier said: "very good idea to put on nylon strings!" He really liked the richer and very different sound, and there's still enough punch to the sound.

The stringholder is a bit of a problem. Not so much for fixing the strings; several high Es snapped already, severed by the edge of the hole on the back of the holder.

– RJVB

Stringholder? You mean the tailpiece? I'd expect issues with nylon strings breaking there. Thin nylon meets a thin piece of metal. I'd also think it'd be an ongoing problem. Someone makes an ebony (I think) tailpiece. I think I saw it at Stew-Mac. That should/could alleviate the issue. Something could easily be designed at home to protect the transition from string to metal. It sounds like the experiment had great results. Enjoy!

I've seen a resonator ukulele as well. Anything's possible.

15

I can venture a guess, that a barrier between the sharp edge and the string, would eleviate string breakage. Even a slip of paper could work, if you can get it to stay in place, as you tie the string. I'd play around with it, and find something that you can get between the string and the metal edge. I'm glad you liked the results of your experiment, good luck with the R&D on the string breakage issue.

16

I wonder if a Del Vecchio uses the same cone as a single biscuit National, etc. ?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Del Vecchio in person. I believe they were made in Brazil

17

Here’s Eric Johnson with a Del Vecchio. Interesting bridge area, I have no idea what’s going on there

18

All very cool. Maybe I'll try a set on one of mine next time I restring.

For breakage, I'd get either a transparent plastic straw or thin surgical tubing, cut it into maybe .25" lengths, split them lengthwise, and wiggle them onto the front edge of the holes where the strings tie onto the tailpiece. Either should soften that edge enough to stop cutting strings.

19

The tubing idea is interesting. I should see if I still have some of the tiny bits of felt that are often used under metal E strings on violins (in that case to stop the string from cutting into the maple bridge). Those should do the trick too.

For now we just used an old wound metal string as a file to smooth the inside of the hole and give it a bit of an upward bend, and then deburred it with a hand-held 3mm drill bit. Seems to be doing the trick too, for now.

FWIW, the thinner gut strings can even cut themselves if you use the wrong kind of knot. I'd expect the same to be true for nylon.

An ebony tailpiece would be nice for aesthetical reasons too so I'd love to hear about more it :)

20

Here’s Eric Johnson with a Del Vecchio. Interesting bridge area, I have no idea what’s going on there

– Tele295

Rather large biscuit, narrow bridge cover and a cover plate that sits very close to the top of the cone?

I wonder if that cover is made from wood or veneer-covered metal. I can't really decide whether it looks gaudy or cute to me :)

21

I finally found some time to play the guitar today. I definitely like the sound, even with just "strong" (as opposed to extra-strong) tension the high strings are tight enough to be capable of giving a fair amount of 'twang". They're a bit more subdued relative to the lower 3 strings than the metal strings that came on the guitar; having only heard the guitar in my own beginner hands I cannot yet say if that's a good thing or not.

I do think that I'll probably want to get a slightly higher bridge installed so I can finger-pick closer to the bridge without bumping into the cover plate, and also make the low E and A less prone to buzzing against higher frets.

Is there an online store where one can order replacement bridges or do they always come with a biscuit? If I understand the info on stewmac correctly I'll want to stick with an ebony-topped bridge (= as the original currently on the guitar).

22

I managed to order a bridge recently and then spent 3 hours with my luthier installing and adjusting it. It turned out that the original saddle/bridge/whatever was indeed glued to the biscuit so he made a new one out of maple (without a lathe...). Interesting little job: the screw holding the ensemble to the cone is actually long enough to protrude into the bridge.

Anyway, my low E is now 0.5mm higher than before, a difference which decreases from string to string so that the high E sits at the same height as before.

The new biscuit is slightly thicker and a more dense piece of wood; as a result the instrument sounds even better now.

PS: part numbers: 009-7084-000 (saddle) MSRP is €9.60 009-7091-000 (cone/biscuit) MSRP is €59.00

23

Sounds like an interesting project, I'm glad you got it all sorted out, and it's even better now.

24

Yeah, and everyone who's tried the instrument has been very positive about the result :)


Register Sign in to join the conversation