Monday, March 31, 2008

If you keep pickin' that thing, it'll never heal

Was reading Nels Cline's web page on gear:
When I was 18, I went to a series of "Master Guitar Seminars" with some leading guitarists - mostly jazz guys. Only 2 things from that experience really stand out to this day: One negative and one positive. The negative one involved acoustic session guitarist and onetime Gabor Szabo collaborator (and former Guitar Player Magazine columnist) Jimmy Stewart. He was appalled first that we didn't all have guitars with us (things were pretty unstructured). He then (after handing out several photocopies of his GP column) proceeded to show us all HOW TO HOLD THE PICK. I was pretty much sure at this point that I wasn't going to get too much out of this session! I'd love to accumulate photos of "guitar greats" and focus on their picking hand (those who pick, anyway). It would very quickly become apparent that it's a highly personal matter. Why? Because guitarists quite often are self-taught maroons?? Partially. But also because (I think) that our physiology differs. Look at how Pat Metheny holds the pick ("correctly", in Jimmy Stewart terms) and how John McLaughlin holds the pick (coincidentally very similarly to yours truly). Which one has achieved the greater technique? Who cares! It's obvious that while a few guidelines are OK (to avoid the pifalls of tendonitis or scoliosis perhaps),it's a very individual choice - or accident. To my mind, this holds true for almost all aspects of musicmaking - indeed, of life.
I didn't get the bolds, which sucks. But what is funny: I read an interview with Pat Metheny where he says he developed his picking style in Missouri, and when he got to Florida, he saw others hold the pick 'correctly', tried it their way and decided it was too late to change. He thinks his picking holds him back.

At least that's how I remember it.

Which reminds me. My other guitarist noticed me "picking up" my picking hand when picking. I do that. I know I do. It's a choice. I'm trying to get somewhere between a funk bassist's pop and chicken picker's cluck. It comes off one way when I hybrid pick and grab the note with my Johnny Cash finger, but sometimes I'm just playing with the pick. Curl the pick under the string and lift the hand and you have your pop. And your hand about 2 inches above the strings. Not good for picking fast. But do you always want to pick fast? If I'm popping a string, I kinda want it to stand out, so having to reset the hand works for me.

The Vatican ain't even safe no more

I am at a point in my life where I can plan a year ahead to what my next music purchase will be.

My next music purchase will be something by Roy Buchanan. If I'm lucky, the multi-CD career-spanner. If I'm not, it'll be the Millenium Collection. Not to knock the MC; I have the ones for Cream, Clapton and Skynyrd, and with the exception of "Ballad of Curtis Lowe", I cannot think of a first-grab song from Cream, solo EC or Skynyrd that isn't on those. Good collections.

But as my music money is more and more spent on gas, new brakes for the wife's beater, a hot water heater, etc., the more conservative, in a bad way, my purchases are. Take Roy. Open Masters of the Telecaster you'll see sections on Danny Gatton, Clarence White, Cornell DuPree, James Burton, Steve Cropper, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Keith Richards, and Roy Buchanan. When Arlen Roth wrote the book on the Telecaster, he made sure that Roy Buchanan was in there. I've already received a guarantee that this guy is good. Does it mean I'll like it? No, but it's a good guess. It's a safe choice.

After that, I'll likely get GP/Grievous Angel from Gram Parsons. I've listened to it before. It's good stuff. It was directly influenced by people and songs I really like, and a direct influence on other people and songs I really like. So, very safe.

Everybody has their version of this. Reviews. Word of mouth. Radio. I once bought an album because it was on the Onion AV Club's best-of-the-year list and the influences seemed to line up correctly. It was Marah's Kids in Philly. And it never did much of anything for me.

Just to explain, but safe doesn't mean easy. For me, buying an electric Miles Davis album (1968-1975) is a safe choice, because I know the style and I know I like the style. Buying a Hannah Montana album is dangerous because if I like anything, I'll like one track at most and I'll never play it again, thus wasting my money.

What I download for free is a little more diverse. I can afford to be more open because I'm only putting my time into it, not my money. Most of my listening occurs when I'm doing something else, like programming or driving, so that's "free". But even then, when I look at my most recent downloads, I see safe decisions. I wanted Metal Fatigue by Allan Holdsworth as a teenager, but my local record store sabotaged me. And White Brothers live tracks and practice sessions are safe choices for a guy who bought Sweetheart to Farther Along simply because Clarence was on 'em.

Right now, I'm hearing good things about Nels Cline. This comes after finding less and less to listen to in the band he's been in for 3 years, Wilco. A.M. is still my fave-rave Wilco album. From The Woodshed is all about Nels, and I've heard good things about the Nels Cline Singers album. There's a specific name-check, comparing him to later Coltrane and mentioning that he played Interstellar Space that is really drawing me. (Live in Japan was also a recent download. It's ... a bit much for me so far. Not that I've stopped trying. I'm just giving it a few months.) So, with Nel, I'm worried.

Those who know, are there assurances? Is it safe to queue up Nels Cline? Is Instrumentals more Pangaea or Kids In Philly?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tread lightly on this heart of mine

I got my son a guitar a few years ago. A cheap First Act guitar. 1 pickup like a Superstrat, no top horn like a Tele, otherwise a body like a Strat. LP-like headstock. Not my favorite setup, but the neck work was nice for a guitar that cheap. Mainly, no frets sticking out and read to cut your hand while you play.

My son took a screwdriver to it, losing every pickguard screw, part of a tuner, the nut and disconnecting the pickguard (remember, everything mounts on the pickguard, like any Strat). The vibrato bridge is already kinda messed up, but playable. $30 in parts and strings from the local guitar pusher and I have something I could play. I couldn't amplify it, but I could play.

I have Super Slinkys on this thing. I play Not Even Slinkys normally, and I like 'em. I like the tone and I like the feel, there are things you can't do with 'em. Like 1/3 of what's on the Legendary Guitar of James Burton DVD. Be it known that James doesn't play Super Slinkys. He plays a set lighter than Super Slinkys. Super Duper Slinkys. I've usually avoided using less than .010s, because I didn't want to bend strings out of tune just because of my grip is to strong, but I now want another Tele so I can sling it up light.

(Of course, I also want a baritone, a B-bender, etc. etc.)

Right now, I'm eyeing a $35 pre-wired pickguard from Guitar Fetish so I can get everything back into working order, but I've not decided which one to get. SSS, HSS or HH? Probably a standard Strat deal. And does a black pickguard or white one look better on a black mongrel Tele/Strat?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Another Sip from the Fountain

If you don't know many songs, if you're looking for a quick one to pick up when you don't know much about the guitar, pick up "Closer To Fine" by the Indigo Girls. This is probably a song that should have been on my repertoire list, and it probably wasn't. ( It was. ) It's not a song that I personally think about all that much. I haven't even really liked it in about 20 years. But there are things to recommend it.

First of all, all the college girls know it and love it. They will sing along. And if you are a person who loves college girls and wants them to love you, that's a good one to know.

Secondly, it's a guitar lesson in a song, with some neat things accessible by the beginner.

It's in A, capo'd at the second fret, which means it looks like G. So, I will talk about it like it was G. It's a simple G, too: G - 320033 , C x32010 and D x00232, most of the time in that order. Second most often in reverse order. Get a capo, play the song and try to play along and you 'll know how to get through most of it.

There are exactly two points of musical cleverness. Point A is a tag on the end of the verses. "I'm trying to tell you something 'bout my life" Dah dah dah dah! If you look at it as chords, it's D suspended 4th, D, D suspended 2nd D. Or:
e --3---2---0---2--------------
B --3---3---3---3--------------
G --2---2---2---2--------------
D -----------------------------
A -----------------------------
E -----------------------------
Because you're not really holding those chords, it's not Dsus4, D, Dsus2, D. You're really playing a semi-melodic G F# E F# bit while holding a D. But that's as good a way as any to learn the concepts of the suspended chords.

Suspended because you suspend, or carry over, a note from the previous chord. In this case, you're not really doing that.

Point B is "The best thing you've ever done for me", where you switch between two chords, a C and a Dsus4. Scratch that. Reverse it.
e -----------------------------
B ---3---------1---------------
G ---0---------0---------------
D ---4---------2---------------
A ---5---------3---------------
E -----------------------------
The suspended note here is the open G, the fourth of D. You'll notice that, otherwise, you're just playing a C chord two frets up. What could be more simple than that?

So, that's it. That's every tricky part to "Closer To Fine". That's everything you need. Except the speed and a good right arm. Because, if you can't get it right, if you can't change the chords fast enough, you really sound horrible.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Singing another new song

You might not have heard of Ray Phiri, but you've heard Ray Phiri.

He was Paul Simon's guitarist for the Graceland album and tour.

He's an example of the African guitar style. From here, it's easy to generalize over too much music with too little source material to draw from, but it seems that, from flatpicking acoustic guitar to multi-head Marshall stacks, the western style of guitar is trying to get a more and more solid sound. African music in general, and Ray Phiri specifically, always seems almost gossamer in contrast. It's almost not there, but it's so good that it is.

Friday, March 14, 2008

No, I mean REALLY unsung

There's a set of guitar heroes that the public knows. Ask any music fan to name his favorite guitarist and you'll likely get one of a certain set of names. Eric Clapton. Brian May. Jimmy Page. Jimi Hendrix. Slash. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Eddie Van Halen. Angus Young. Tom Morello. Jack White. Probably a dozen others.

Name a guitarist to name his favorite guitarist, it'll be different. Clearly, the above names clearly belong in the pool, but you're as to see James Burton, Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, Michael Hedges, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Buddy Guy or Danny Gatton. I think that Danny was once called the most overrated underrated guitarist, meaning that nobody but guitarists had heard of him, but all the guitar players and the guitar press thought he was brilliant. (It is the opinion of this blog that he was brilliant. It is also the opinion of this blog that his brilliance is a fact, not just an opinion of this blog.)

I'm looking for the really unsung heroes, the guitarists who nobody knows and more people should

Today, I am listening to Michael Lee Firkins.

Who?, you say.

Michael Lee Firkins has had four albums on Shrapnel Records, the shred guitar label. So, he's a shredder. Clearly. All about the sweep picking and whammy bar. Well, yeah, but not entirely like that.

Michael Lee Firkins does not play slide guitar on any cuts , the liners say. They have to, because on things like "Hula Hoops" and "Deja Blues", it sounds like he's doing slide and even Hawaiian lap steel. Most shredders bang on their Floyd Roses, down until the strings go slack and up a major third, Vai-style. Firkins holds the whammy between his pinky and ring finger, using it gently to get slide effects.

I am also listening to Mattias IA Eklundh.

Who?, you say.

Mattias IA Eklundh is the kind of guitarist who can play Kiss like it's Django and Django like it's Zappa. He's the kind of guitarist who can imitate his inkjet printer with his guitar. He's the kind of guitarist who plays "Smoke On The Water" doubletime and a sixth up so his dog will enjoy it, too. He's a Freak, so much that his album is called Freak Guitar, and Vai liked it so much that he put it out on Favored Nations.

So, who is your really unsung guitar hero?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What I've been listening to recently


Some early NRBQ ("Flat Foot Floozy" is a great chicken pickin' song), some Dwight and Pete, some Marty Party, and lots and lots of Byrds.

Most people's concept of the Byrds stops when David Crosby leaves. For me, that's about when it begins. My collection starts with Sweetheart of the Rodeo and goes on to Farther Along. I grew up listening to the canonical harmonies-and-Rickenbacker sound of classic Byrds. I know "Eight Miles High" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn Turn Turn", and frankly, I've been done with them for a good long time now. They sound like the early 1960s. Sweetheart sounds like the mid-60s. In a good way, of course. I like the album. But it has old production. It sounds old. Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde sounds old. It often sounds like you let a hot country picker in on a Nuggets garage band recording. I mean that in the good ways — Wouldn't it have rocked to have Brent Mason or Pete Anderson on "Touch Me, I'm Sick"? — but I mean it in every bad way, too.

There's lots not to like about Untitled and Byrdmaniax and Farther Along. But they sound modern. They sound contemporary. They have tracks that could still, today, be released on radio. "B.B. Class Road" has the annoying 70's "songs about touring" bit, but by music alone, it's close to early 90s Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart. "Tiffany Queen" sounds close to Wilco's first album, AM, back when they still could twang.

I'd have to look at it deeper, but I think it comes down to production. 1970 is about the time when 24-track boards became more common, and that lead to a certain openness in production. Listen to Forrest Gump and you'll see. It uses period music, and through his college years, into his war years and to his shrimping time, you hear music that was recorded, if in stereo, on four-to-eight tracks, and the way they did that was to record what they could, mix it onto two tracks, then use what they had left to do overdubs and the like. With a 24-track board, you could record everyone simultaneously or not and not have to make those decisions until the final mix. In context, you have Forrest. He's in buildings, he's around people, he's in the jungle or in the football stadium, in the White House or in New York with Lt. Dan, and he's constrained, and the music, originally 4-track stuff, feels constrained. Then he decides to run, and they show him running through the deserts and open spaces of the west. And they play "Running On Empty" by Jackson Browne, which, in the soundtrack, was the first big-board recording. Wide open spaces, wide open sound.

Much of the later Byrds stuff sounds wide open like that.

And it also contains some of Jackson's first song sales, like "Jamaica Say You Will".

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Stop me before I relic again!

I have committed an act of relicization on my Telecaster.

I have bought a 320-grit 3M SandBlaster sanding pad and sanded down the neck finish. It's a 1988 MIJ, with what seems like a whole centimeter of plastic between my hand and the neck. I'm liking it so much. So far, I've only done the neck, but I'm seriously considering taking the paper to the neck between the frets so I can begin working on the beautiful usage wear of, for example, Brownie from the back cover of Layla. That would be nice, but what I have right now? Much more satiny feel than the sticky plastic of before. Much better.

I don't expect to take this way further than that. I'm not going to soak my knobs in a caustic chemical and take a belt sander to my guitar.

At least what I'm telling you now.

But if I do, I blame Stratoblogster.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On one sweet day, he stood beside the King

Netflix has gifted me with The Legendary Guitar of James Burton. Who is James Burton?

James Burton is the man who shows Bruce Springsteen who's boss, starting about 2.5 minutes in.

He's played for Elvis. He's played for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, for Ricky Nelson, for Dale Hawkins, for Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and Gillian Welch and Roy Orbison (see above) and, quite famously, Elvis Presley.

(I meant Elvis Costello for the first one. Wasn't I clear?)

It's been useful. I've been picking up chicken pickin', which was beyond my capabilities before I got the video. Next on the queue is the dead thumb. maybe.

Which will involve me putting on the metronome and hitting the E on the click for a good long time.

Here's the part I want to blog about.

He rocks a .009-.038 set of strings. Top three are .009 .010 .012. .012-.056 is how I roll. So his G is my E.

Again, I think I need a new Telecaster so I can do this stuff.

And I have tentative approval for one from K once the stimulus money comes in May.

This one doesn't go up to eleven

I'm a Tele player, and I'm sitting at my desk, when I should be asleep and getting ready to wake up too damn early for my new job, but instead I'm making the train whistle sound at the beginning of "Train Kept A'Rollin'". The Yardbirds version. I don't have the Aerosmith version, and Johnny Burnette Rock 'n' Roll Trio version is on cassette and I have no player in the house.

It's easy. The song's blues in E (while seemingly containing no E chord), so it's at the 12th fret blues scale. Hold the B string at the 15th fret, getting you a D. G string at the 14th fret, getting you a D. Bend the A to B. Hold the D. Unbend and bend.

And you have to grab the tone knob and roll it from all the way out to about halfway while picking. You can't do that on your Charve/Jackson/Performance/Ibanez superstrat because it probably doesn't have a tone control and if it does, it's way out of the way. It's a bitch on the Les Paul. It's not at all convenient on the normal Strat.

It's a slight reach on a normal Telecaster. My Tele has the control plate reversed, so it's Vol-Tone-Switch instead of Switch-Vol-Tone, so it's downright easy. Stick out your pinkie and it's right there.

There's a video on Youtube (Overdrvn?) where a Canadian metalhead shows off his sustainer. Good video. Makes you want to give Fernandes money. He says he dimed his tone control and left it in the control cavity, leaving his knobs as volume and Sustainer intensity.

And I saw a video on Guitar World with John 5, saying that his signature model doesn't have a tone control, just separate volume knobs for neck and bridge pickups, and a Les Paul-style pickup switch. That kind of on-off trick is pretty cool, and no guitar I currently own can do it. But his guitar can't make a train.

There's an assumption with rock guitarists that goes down to the knobs. They have numbers. "We'll have the volume on nine and the tone on six, and then we'll rock out." Tele knobs have no numbers. They have knurl, so you can grab them with a sweaty hand and still get traction. We don't need a volume pedal. We have a volume knob. We don't need a wahwah pedal. We have that tone knob. There's a sweet spot that sounds kinda jazzy, not all the way bright but not too muffled. There no number, you just hit a note, frob the knob and find it. Unless we want to go all the way bright. Or we want to drop it all the way down and move it up to make a train.

Can you hear that lonesome whistle blow when you play your guitar?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?

This is mostly non-guitar-related:

Today is my last day at this job. Monday is my first day at the next job. If you gotta switch jobs, that's the way to do it. I've had it where my last day at a job was followed by a good long job search. The next job will have an hour commute each way, which means plenty of time to think about music, and a bump in pay, which might mean a chance to get more gear. It might also time me out of my regular Wednesday night gig, hindering my ability to play. And I don't really know whether I can hit the internet from work in the new place.

So, this might be the end of Sans Direction, or at least the serious hindering of it. It might also mean it flowers. Who knows. Anyway, I'm in a general state of nerves right now, which I'm taking as good.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"Careful with that axe, Eugene", or "It breaks my heart to see those stars..."

I have a six-year-old. I don't have a lock on the door to my den. If any of y'all show this video to my six-year-old, I will have to kill you.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Who Dares Wins

It's amazing what you can find just by typing download into Google. I will not announce that, after over 22 years of searching, I am now able to listen to Allan Holdsworth's Metal Fatigue whenever I want, because someone put up a ZIP file. Because downloading music is wrong, people.

Right now, I am listening to Clarence White rehearsing his repertoire in preparation for a 1967 Kentucky Colonels tour of Sweden. When I think of the words "high" and "lonesome", Sweden is, of course, the first thing that comes to mind. It wasn't too long after this that Clarence became a Byrd and Roland, his brother, became a Bluegrass Boy.

Specifically, I'm listening Clarence White try one of his signature tunes, "Beaumont Rag".

And failing.

"I just can't get a handle on this thing", he says between attempts.

I can't describe how heartining that is to me. Because I'm used to other versions, like the one where he duets with Doc Watson at Newport Folk in 1963, where he just tears it up. Here's another version, featuring a couple other monsters of bluegrass. It's a fun thing, but it's a whole mess of notes, and I've not started the learning process on it, simply because it's a whole mess of notes.

Most any song you know, you know the best possible version. It's the one culled from 17 different tracks with punch-ins for the solos. It's the one from the ninth show from the world tour where they had a Record Plant mobile truck parked outside the venue every night. The song is perfect and cool because they worked hard at it. They had to work hard to get it right, and sometimes they just don't. Which means, if you work hard, you might play something jaw-droppingly awesome, too.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

I wear black on the outside because black is how I feeeeel on the inside....

That is a crappy cellphone pic of my #1, with new black control plate, knobs and black-white-black pickguard. Same old paint chips, but otherwise, it looks fierce to me.

She's a late 80s MIJ Telecaster that came (to me) with a MOTS pickguard that I simply didn't like. The pickguard was a five-hole, so right now, I have 2 screws that don't quite match up and three more where I don't have a screw. I should dig out the MOTS and do a head-to-head, because the new one forced back the control plate a little, so the screws aren't going in straight and true.

Allparts makes a black pickup cover for the neck PU, and Hiphot has the Trilogy bridge. I can make it all black. But I think I'll wait to make those changes until I have stacked humbuckers to stick in.