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Why Musicians Speak Cryptically

Cryptically. Yup, that’s a word.

When I was a young teen, I’d read interviews given by seasoned musicians and was often left wondering precisely what the hell they were talking about a great deal of the time. Folks like Eric Clapton would refer to getting ‘lost’ or ‘out there’ and I wondered if it wasn’t some vague drug reference.

I began playing guitar at seventeen, and was, for much of the time, sorely aware of how poor my playing was. I was super-conscious of every little hiccup, always thinking about what I was doing, and as a result often made major mistakes, sometimes even forgetting the words to my own tunes.

By the age of twenty-nine, I was beginning to feel the urge to follow another path and leave all of my influences behind. This did not happen overnight, but began to make itself apparent only when I ceased to care about what these influences were doing anymore.  I began to play with rhythms and chord voicings which appealed to me, rather than spending time attempting to figure out what someone else was doing. Later still, I began to feel that words and vocals were somewhat unnecessary. I would sometimes ‘hear’ nice melodies in my head, but there were no particular vowels or consonants that would seem to fit, so I would stumble through a the process of picking these melodies out. This was at once awkward and time consuming. Having had no formal training in music, I decided to learn all of the major and minor scales, bit by bit.

I practiced for an hour a day for over a year, seemingly getting nowhere, although I could easily tell that I was gaining in dexterity. I absolutely could not remember all of the minutia.

One day while another guitar player friend was over, my son Sterling walked into the studio and asked me to figure out a song for him. It was She Talks To Angels by the Black Crowes. He handed me the CD and I plopped it in and hit play and picked up my acoustic guitar.

“Oh well, there’s your problem, the guy is in an alternate tuning.” I reached up and re-tuned first one string and then another, still engaging in the subject at hand with my friend, and absent-mindedly began to play the song, “Here, just do this.” I told him, showing him the fingerings.

It was at this point that my son motions toward me, looks at my friend and says, “How the hell did he do that?” to which my friend responds, “I have no idea.”

I looked at them both. “Do what?” I asked. I didn’t know what they were referring to.

“Have you never played that song before?” my friend inquired. I responded that I had not, that I’d only heard it at various times, but did not listen to the Black Crowes. He just looked at my son and shrugged.

Some days later, I was listening to an Aimee Mann CD when something I’d never heard caught my ear. I grabbed my Tele, plugged it in and began to fiddle around as my mind wandered aimlessly. I don’t know how much time had passed, but after some amount, I ‘woke up’ to what I was doing. Then it hit me. I’d been sitting there playing my ass off without even thinking about it. This was light years away from where my journey had begun.

After so many years, I finally came to understand what others were referring to when they’d talk about going into that ‘place’ in their mind. I call it the Zone, and it’s a completely sober experience. It’s a place in between your ears that doesn’t have eyes, or conscious thought. It is akin to driving down the expressway and then ‘waking up’ after having driven several miles. We’ve all done it. It’s kind of dangerous and thrilling all at once, but somehow or the other, we have maneuvered an automobile at a given speed between two lines without really being able to recall precisely how much time has passed.

This is the Zone. When one enters this place while playing guitar, one is not consciously thinking of what one is doing, the fingers develop a mind of their own. This is where the best stuff happens.

Here’s the best tip: Always be recording when you’re playing. It’s like taking photos while you’re on vacation, believe me. You want to have this on tape in order to prove that you really went there. You won’t regret it.

If you’ve never visited the Zone, there’s always a first time.


My Thoughts Since the Passing of Walter Becker

It seems we rarely give pause in respect to the passing of time, until we reach a certain point in our lives, and only then do we regard it peripherally. Additionally we give little thought to the passing of time in the lives of others as well. Especially those figures who are of the semi high-profile sort. As much as some of us like to think that we know about what they do, in the end, we find that we know very little, and that in reality they were little more than punctuation in our own lives.

The weight of this observation didn’t hit me until this past Sunday evening as I lay in bed. I had, as one could guess, been preoccupied with listening to music the majority of the day, and had not listened to the news until switching on my radio that night.

As soon as I heard the announcer mention the name of Walter Becker, I knew what words were to follow. Walter was one whose name would rarely be mentioned in context with anything else within the past forty years. One had to know who Walter was in order for his name to be familiar.

Walter looked like the guy you’d see in the seventies, sitting outside the mall waiting for a ride. One of the most unassuming bottom-to-top-to-bottom-to-top-again success stories in modern American music, Walter lived out his life in obscurity, in plain sight.

It occurred to me that this man had lived and died within a period of 67 years, and all that I knew about him could easily fit into a thimble. Even though throughout the years, I had painstakingly reverse-engineered his guitar leads and his bass licks, and had attempted to capture his ultra clean, rich lead tones to no avail.

Had Mr Becker not partnered with Donald Fagen during college, both men may have easily faded into the backdrop which is composed of the rest of us, and aja, one of my ten favorite albums of all time would never have materialised.

With the death of Glen Campbell last month, and now that of Walter Becker, the passing of time has become all too apparent to me.

We never know when we’ve caught our last trout, or completed our last composition.

What Is True Will?

You’ll often hear ads on television and radio which promote motivational speakers. These speakers often focus on the use of ‘will power’ in order to get monumental tasks accomplished. Thousands of posters, and countless memes have been dedicated to the use of positive thought and will power.

But what is will power, and is anyone actually in possession of true will?

How many times can you recall yourself saying something to the effect of, “I’ll never do that again”, or “From now on, I’m going to______________”? But how many times did you find yourself doing ‘that’ again, or forgetting the vow you solemnly made to yourself ‘from now on’?

These sorts of shattered illusions are what expose the true measure of our will.

When I was twenty years old, I made a short list of objectives that I fully intended to accomplish by the time I was thirty. I didn’t reach any of the goals. Not a single one.

But my intentions were good, of course. It seems that we always start out with the best of intentions in whatever we endeavour to do. Right before things go straight to hell.

So for the next thirty years, I was determined to see if there was one thing in my life that I could see through from beginning to end. One thing – surely couldn’t be too terribly difficult to accomplish. What, then, was the one thing that I was certain that I could devote the rest of my life to? Well, the one thing that I valued among everything else was music. I had begun my quest as a songwriter around the same age that I’d made my list, and it is true that I had not abandoned the journey. The fact was, that I had yet to be come successful at it. My dream was to be able to play several instruments tolerably, engineer sound, and produce my own material. Bands such as Todd Rundgren and Steely Dan were huge influences in this respect.

Success is a term that is generally associated with money and being well-known, respected among one’s peers, and the like.

Nonetheless, I persevered, and although I had learned a great many things in relation to the field – I was working in a retail establishment which sold musical instruments and sound equipment – I had still to make the strides that I had intended by the time that I was forty. Often it was necessary to remind myself why I had begun in the first place.

Throughout the course of rearing two children, and working all kinds of day jobs, I redoubled my efforts to set money aside for musical gear, and recording equipment. I also set aside one hour a day to practice at my craft, this was apart and completely different from the actual playing of music, which would consume even more of the time that I had precious little of.

By the time I was fifty years old, I had become connected to my Muse, and was writing profusely. The musical path that I had begun was a bit of a surprise, but I followed my Muse wherever it led without question. I completed my studio, which I christened Good Intentions, and chose ‘Hell Paving Company’ for the name of my publishing domain. It cannot be said that I was not acquainted with the irony of it all by this time.

In 2014, I tore my studio down with the intent of erecting it in another, more suitable room of the home. All of my gear sat in a corner collecting dust for the next three years. Chronic Fatigue is a cruel mistress, and my life had been slowing to a crawl since I had contracted it in November of 2007.

Then one night last month, while lying in bed, I was listening to the 20 odd sketches of tunes that I had recorded into my Android. I stared over into the dark corner that hid all of my recording equipment.

“Starting tomorrow, I’m going to start putting my studio back together, even if it kills me.” I told myself. The task was daunting.  But I knew that if I died before getting the tunes – which the Muse was still being so charitable in supplying me with – properly recorded, I would go to hell. Hell is a completely different place for writers. I imagine it to be a place where only poorly maintained manual typewriters exist, paper is at a premium, and the thoughts come too quickly to transcribe.

Mainly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving these tunes orphaned. Nobody except I had heard them, and my task was to get them recorded and give everyone else a chance to hear the wonderful imagination that the Muse is so blessed with, for you see, I do not feel that these pieces of music are mine. I have been assigned a task, and it is up to me alone to complete these pieces.

Eight days later, although my back and shoulders were killing me, the studio was together, and I found myself becoming painfully reacquainted with the plethora of cables and the routing of which I had all but forgotten.

Today I fired up all of the components, and with the exception of the ancient synthesizer, everything seems to be working. Maybe if I just jiggle the handle….

So I have discovered that perhaps there is indeed a bit of true will left inside of me at the age of 61. And that I may have, in fact, discovered the meaning of true success.


Recording Mythology, Pt. 49 / Being a Slob Is Hard Labour

I might ask that I be forgiven, for the following article is a lengthy thesis concerning the creation and playing of Music, although it may not seem as such, or inasmuch, at least as as one may expect. Presented in two parts, and in a roundabout way (out of necessity), it will draw on several other subjects, all interconnected, that I shall ellucidate on along the way. Because of the somewhat arcane nature of the proceeding, I may lose many readers. This is a calculated risk that I am prepared to take for a purpose greater than my own.

I have borrowed the title for today’s article from one of the many aphorisms used in Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft courses which were held during the late eighties. Robert turned out some ground-breaking material with Brian Eno and others over a period of three decades, but he is undoubtedly best known as guitarist for the band King Crimson, who turned out some astounding (and what some would call bombastic) record albums during the seventies.

I discovered Mr. Fripp’s Guitar Craft through happenstance in 1989. I firmly contend that I would not have realised what it was that his instruction had to reveal, had I not become a seeker through the study of a particular system known as the School of the Fourth Way, only two years prior.

As it is demonstrated in the School, Luck cannot be wholly discounted.

Upon perusal of Mr. Fripp’s technique, it quickly became apparent to me that Robert had also submitted himself as a student to the School, and that his approach to music was centred around the application of the studies. In due course I was a ‘card-carrying member’ of Mr. Fripp’s league of practitioners.

A short sidebar is necessary at this point.

As a member of the School of the Fourth Way, students are shown that:
1) there are many Universal Laws which man must live under as a condition of life, and
2) there are likewise many unnecessary laws which man normally lives under, of which an individual may possibly free himself, granted a general knowledge of these laws has been acquired.

One of the irrefutable Universal Laws is one of scale. That is to say that all things follow an embedded pattern. Thusly known, all things become, to a great degree, predictable, except that only their scale differs. This has been demonstrated to my satisfaction in more than music and mathematics.

For instance, absolutely nothing within the known Universe shares any particular balance. In actuality, the existence of imbalance accounts for the movement of all things, seen and unseen. If any sort of ‘equality’ existed, movement would cease, and everything would come to a halt, except unless to immediately change direction. Consider the pendulum.

In every respect, ‘Equality’ is an imagined value around which many of man’s ‘laws’ are based, but such are the follies of mankind. An objective observation of nature is all that is required to see that nothing will ever be ‘just’ nor ‘equal’ in life nor in death, and that the entire facade of ‘fairness’ is an unachievable ideal. No amount of dreaming can change this reality, as this law is omnipotent within universal physics.

Likewise, any time a member of the School recognises another member, it readily becomes apparent which associate is the more advanced in their study by application of a ‘special language’. I do not mean to imply that a different language is spoken, only that in the School, certain key words are given particular meaning, through which a great deal more information is transmitted than would normally be possible. Usage of these words, and subsequent construct of phrases, thus communicated, and received by the aware pupil, establishes a status among individuals, admitting free exchange of knowledge.

It was in this way that I realised Mr. Fripp’s superior School knowledge, much of which he explicated through his Guitar Craft series.

In the School, I larned that most people rarely ever acquire any knowledge of genuine value for one of two reasons:
1) because their ego cannot bear to allow that someone else might actually be in possession of some bit of knowledge that they themselves are not already in possession of. Thus, a man who imagines himself to already be in possession of something is less likely to really ever have it, nor attain the ability to recognise the genuine article should he ever happen to stumble across it.
2) because they imagine that there is some special reward for their inactivity, and that if they simply believe long enough, wishing very hard, they will suddenly be endowed with knowledge in some miraculous manner. These are the sort of people who believe in sorcery, magic chants, free government health care, and manna from heaven.

Knowledge is a possession of true value, and cannot be stolen, nor had through any sort of deviation. There are no ‘short cuts’ in acquiring skill or knowledge. It may only be achieved through difficult work, applied over a long period of time. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. A lazy student will learn nothing, and soon the opportunity to learn will be removed.

Another shortcoming of man is his imagined ability to teach himself. This is another artifact of ego’s design. As he is, man possesses no true will, and is therefore incapable of committing himself to anything, in addition he hasn’t the tools nor the knowledge to teach himself. Therefore, in order to be taught, a man must become sincere with himself and the ego must be humbled.

As soon as the ego is sufficiently broken, a man may realise the need for a teacher. The teacher will be one to whom the so-called ‘will’ of the student must be surrendered for a period of time. This period of access allows the teacher to create veridical will within the student, after which time the student may be capable of directing his self-will, bringing about the possibility of further development.

Our developmental goal in Music is to become a ‘musician’ with a capital M and without quotation marks. This development is likely to take many years. If we are to become this type of being, we are to answer to a higher calling than that of ego which dictates trendy styles, or strange and unconventional behaviour. These are typical distinctions of guitar slamming morons.

Morons are of no use to Music. It normally takes them more time to get properly dressed and made-up for a performance than they ever commit to the practice of Craft. Getting all decorated to play guitar is unnecessarily hard work. Striking artfully masculine or feminine postures, and flailing the instrument with energetic flourishes may be entertaining, but are all uncalled for when they are merely part of a calculated act. Worse yet, the quality of the music generally suffers.

But as Mr. Fripp stated, being a slob is hard labour.

Let us return to our example involving the idea of equality, or as I refer to it, man’s ‘mirage of perfection’.

With equality, there would be no struggle, and without struggle, there would be no friction, and without friction there would be no tension; without tension there would be no movement, and without movement, there would be no development. Consider the tuned and plucked string in contrast to the slack, resting string. The taut string ‘neutralises’ a specific quantity of tension, struggle, and friction, through the development of the sounded note, full of possibilities. The string at rest exhibits none of these properties. Without movement, neither time nor music exists. But as artists we are in luck, for we have an universal supply of tension, struggle, friction, and unrest.

Our purpose in Music is to become the messenger which the aforesaid qualities may resolve themselves through. Alchemising the raw articles of discord, chaos, and disarray, we convert them into their polar opposites. The resulting sounds should sooth the soul, for this is the true purpose of music. Our job in Music is to make ourselves available.

Morons, having been given precedence over the musical landscape by money hungry ‘producers’, and due to their musical obfuscation, have caused great harm to the soul of music. They have disoriented the consumer, and they have assaulted Music, much as a leech might attach itself to its host, and drained it of a great deal of its medicinal properties.

It is always easy to identify these musical imposters. The music that they make is always of a coarser texture than the raw materials used in making it. The subject matter is generally inflamatory, espousing anger, and radiating negative energy. Individual pieces rarely seem to resolve musically, and the favoured frequencies tend toward the extremes with very little utilisation of the midrange frequencies.

The flourishing genres of darkwave, gangsta rap, techno-industrial, noise, porn groove, and death metal are the most common carriers. Coincidentally, this type of anti-music is most often created by those individuals who arrogate peace and ‘equality’, but whose works often share their hatred, betray their underlying disdain for women or anyone who disagrees with them, and their nazi-like proclivities.

Another of Mr. Fripp’s aphorisms applied here might be: Everything we are is revealed in our playing.

Music can assist us in finding ourselves, but only if we go forward with the expectations of finding ourselves. If we pursue music in a foolish attempt to ‘become someone else’, we will never find anything of lasting value.

One individual who said it best was also a member in an extremely successful tribute band. “It was like being a drag-queen man,” he said. “After playing for half my life, pretending to be [someone else], I realised one day that I’d allowed him to make a failure out of the musician that I should have been.”

The argument has been put forward that those driven to produce music typically suffer some emotional instability or trauma inflicted during childhood, and therefore seek out music to deal with the affect of the scars. Whereas this myth may sound a ring of truth, it is a canard on the whole. Many musicians have been known to suffer from nothing more than normality, but it seems that those with the aforementioned formatory defects end up receiving the bulk of the attention, if only because they appear more exciting.

Let this account serve as proof of another fact: Music has the ability to provide a theraputic counter-effect, but only when approached in a proper and respectful manner. When used as a vehicle to promote, or reinforce emotional instability rather than quell it, nothing but explosions can result. Consider Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix.

After having seen both sides of the veil, I can assure the reader that neither drugs nor alcohol have a positive effect on music nor the musician. If the above examples are not enough, they bring to mind dozens of others. Artists from Billie Holliday to Eric Clapton have attempted to wage their internal wars using various substances as allies. Billie lost her war when her perceived ally turned out to be her foe. Eric won his fight when he realised what his enemy was. In neither case did the substances in question provide any of the aforementioned artists access to a ‘supernatural music portal’.

One cannot be dosed or maddened into becoming a musician. A musician is merely one who is drawn to play music, and one is, or is not. If, however, one is drawn into it, there is risk that the individual become consumed, that is to say that the individual may come to seem ‘single dimensional’ to some, perhaps eclectic to others. This may not always bode well for the musician if he allows himself to become obsessive in his development.

A humourous account will drive my point.

I once happened to become acquainted with Robert, a classical guitar teacher whose obsession gave rise to a most unpleasant key feature. His fixation on his musical discipline was such that it spilled over into his daily affairs, apparently making normal hygenic functions seem unnecessary. Although his speech was eloquent, and his teeth pristine; his hair was stringy and oily, his beard unkempt, and his clothing unwashed. He wore these sandals that appeared to be taken from the corpse of Moses, and all of his nails were in need of attention. He was generally accompained by a very pungent aroma. I felt he looked out of place without military fatigues and a cigar.

One day, he came into the music store in which I worked. ‘Sven, I’m in need of several good metronomes, and I am hoping that your establishment might be capable of satisfying my needs.’ (For those who may wonder, my name is not Sven, but that was the name which I’d chosen for my name tags during my ten-plus year tenure in retail.)

‘What sort of fire do you require, Squire?’ I asked with typical Cyrano de Bergerac bent. (Everybody who knows me would have known what I really meant.)

‘Well, it mustn’t be one of the analogue sort, ‘ he said (if only to irritate me), ‘only the digital ones will do; I attempt to impart perfect timing in my students, and I expect no less from the time-pieces that I provide them with.’

I looked him over. ‘For pause, the pendulum served Segovia satisfactorily. Now what once befitted the boss bumbles the bookmen?’ I touched a finger to my cheek, cutting my eyes skyward for effect.

‘I can tell the difference!’ he huffed and puffed. ‘Neither my students nor I are bumbled, as you put it. With all respect to the maestro, digital precisions have made the pendulum obsolete.’

‘So your skills, Castro, deals killing blows to those of the Maestro?’

He protested with the demur of a lemur, to such extent that Dennis, the owner of the store, made a rare emergence from his official retreat. ‘What’s going on out here? What’s wrong?’

‘The sun is on fire! He says we’ll expire!’ I told him, pointing at Robert.

The look of indignity on Robert’s face became one of bewilderment. ‘This asshole won’t sell me a metronome without giving me the third degree in verse,’ he explained to Dennis the Penis.

‘Everyone learns from third degree burns.’ I interposed.

The owner began to make excuses for me and told Robert that he’d fired me over a month ago, but that I continued to show up to work.

I returned to the task I’d been attempting all morning, with Dennis tending to Robert’s needs and putting his feelings right. ‘Have a good morning, Your Weirdness,’ he shot at me upon departing.

‘Bye-bye, Fry Guy.’ I was heard to reply.

Dennis turned, pointing toward the door with his hand held close to his torso, whisper-hissing,’You know that guy?’

‘Something inside has soured and died?’ I anticipated.

Dennis lowered his voice, ‘He fuckin’ stinks!’ he winced, heading back to his office. ‘Oh, by the way, you’re fired.’ he called out before re-entering.

Dennis was a horn-hating trumpet player. But then, everybody has their hang-ups, right?

Just don’t allow it to become an obsession.


Recording Mythology, Pt. 47 / Habits Were Made To Be Broken



I was listening to one of those radio stations on which they loosely format their programming around Big Band era music, but will play almost any contemporary vocalist whose tune has, over the years, achieved ‘standard’ status. There was a Barry Manilow song being played, and I was paying attention to the arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment.



Barry came up in music the working man’s way, through jingle writing. He was responsible for the old MacDonald’s commercial tune, you deserve a break today, so get up and get away to MacDonald’s. His own break came in the way of getting discovered by Bette Midler.



It occurred to me that, since his accomplishments in earlier recordings, that as his carreer progressed, his arrangements had become somewhat formulaic, and as a result, all his tunes had taken on the same shading. In other words, Barry had begun to sound like himself.



I soon began to wonder if this wasn’t actually true in everyone’s case to a great degree, even my own, and what could be done to thwart the development of this, what I considered to be, a terrible hinderance to creativity.



I recalled a thread on Facebook of which I’d been a participant, where scalar practice was being discussed, during which time another individual, who was not only a formidable guitarist, but instructor as well, repeated the mantra “practice, practice, and then forget it all”.



Practice, practice, and then forget it all.



This is a rock of advice which will always contain more secrets than it will reveal. The problem is that barnacles of habit will begin to form, and the rock itself is forgotten. More often than not, one may come to repeat the phrase like a parrot, for the dissemination of such advice is generally much easier than heeding it.



Those who discover the true purpose of practice understand the value in ‘forgetting it all’.



Many individuals fail to take the same advice regarding production work, however. These habits may begin innocently enough via ‘favorite settings’. After having recorded for over twenty-five years, I cannot for the life of me understand the logic behind these favorite settings, be it on an guitar amp or a stereo compressor. The fact of the matter is that, for every new recorded tune, the dynamics will change considerably. Unless you are recording all of the songs at one time (unlikely) or the style is identical for every tune (Boston), you are going to want to change the settings of one or both in order to convey the difference in feel of that respective song.



Albeit I have a ‘basic’ setting for my vocal mic compressor, I still have to torque down the attack or release time depending on whether I’m recording an alpha screamer or a beta boy tune. Sometimes I may crank up the compression for the effect itself. Fact is, you simply can’t ‘set it and ‘forget it’.


The constant redialing of settings assures that at least every tune won’t suck, just in case one may.


And turning the knobs also keeps potentiometers from oxidising.



Another habit that may creep in is the order of processing units. It’s too easy to lay out all of the stomp boxes based on how they look coolest, but in what order will they achieve the best sound? This is a point of contention among guitarists and shouldn’t be discounted.



Then there’s the subject of which instruments to include in the composition. We might be tempted to follow Barry’s lead and involve the entire symphony orchestra on every number. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every tune that I write to emulate the sound of God emerging from the clouds.



For instance, during one session, I was working on an elusive sound bed. The finished product was destined for a tense underwater scene in a big movie production with a colossal budget and a cranky client. I was so desperate to capture an ambiant sound I was hearing, that I groaned down into an empty coffee can and… good Lord, that was it! But dare I take such a low-tech risk with Mr. Cranky himself? Well, if my procedures were drawn into question, what he didn’t know would be referred to as a trade secret, and therefore could do him no physical nor emotional harm.



I socked on the headphones and held the closed end of the can to my guitar mic and groaned hard and loud. I laughed as I reached over and turned the reverb onto ‘cathedral’ or ‘oil tanker’ or whichever, and blended a wee bit in. Presto. I hit the record button. It took a few dry runs to get the breathing breaks right and then it required double tracking both groaning and humming so that the proper ‘ethereal feel’ was achieved, but after a little work and a bit of oxygen deficit, I had the sound bed that I needed. The rest was just guitar swells using false harmonics, a slide, a volume pedal, and delay.



How did my ‘trade secret’ end up sounding?



The point here being, if we don’t continue to try new ideas, devices, and/or settings, we risk falling instead into the same predictable habits, thereby becoming boring, and we’ll never know what we may be missing.



Playing it safe and falling back on a proven technique only sounds fresh for so long, kinda like Tom Morello using that ‘wild & crazy’ string stretching effect in every single freaking lead that he plays, and that becomes pretty tiresome rather quickly, according to reliable sources.



One might do well to ask oneself, ‘What does the song call for here?’ rather than pouring over banks of presets and asking ‘What sounds are available for me to use?’ The first question is open ended, it allows our mind to ponder different possibilities. The second question limits our imaginations to some other goofball’s ideas.



In another scenario, I was tapping on everything I could find, using a drumstick, a mallet, even my fingertips. I was hearing something between congas and tabla, but not bongos. Nothing I had was giving me the sound that I required and soon I was in my milk crate, throwing boxes around. With nothing to be found, I went to my repair bench and picked up a coconut shell half that I used primarily to create wood dust. I clattered it on the bench ala Monty Python horse hoofs. Ah! An idea. I picked up the other half and re-mated the two halves with hide glue. After it dried, I bored out two of the three ‘eyes’ of the shell and alternately slapped on the openings using my fingers. Knowing that I was almost there, and realising that one more larger hole would give me more variance in tone I needed, I used a paddle bit to make a one inch hole in the side of the shell over which I could cup my palm while slapping the first two holes with my fingertips.



Many of you may be thinking, ‘Dude, that’s too much damn work,’ but in the end I got exactly the sound that I was looking for, and all it cost was a little time. Granted, it wasn’t very loud, but that’s what clever use of proximity effect and reverb is for.



Just in case I’ve piqued your curiosity, here is how the resulting ‘percussion’ turned out:



Remember, the hard part is the fun part, so if you don’t enjoy being uncomfortable by constantly having to break old habits to make room for new ones, you’re probably in the wrong business.




Recording Mythology, Pt. 46 / Twenty Years After Hell Froze Over


New Years Eve.


I didn’t have anything to do.


I refuse to give the police state more leverage against me, so I didn’t get on the road at all, nor did I set off any fireworks.


The county that we live in has outlawed fireworks, restricting our ability to celebrate freedom from oppression. Right. Naturally, thousands of normal folks are forced to become ‘outlaw for a night’ and take the scenic thirty minute drive just over the county line where mobile firework stands appear and disappear within a week. Needless to say, the skies around here burn on the holidays.


The dude down the road must spend a fortune on thunderous nuclear warheads which he patriotically detonates with fierce defiance every July 4 and New Year, so we just watch his money explode instead.


I quit drinking.


I no longer allow the government to tax my pleasure. It had become apparent that they, as well as big alcohol, profited far too much from addiction, depression, and violence, and I despise crony capitalism. I still miss a good glass of wine, but my CFS had gotten in the way anyhow.


As far as pot goes, I used to enjoy it when it was a inspiring buzz rather than a useless stone. The new stuff sucks. And once the government gets a taste of the revenue they can obtain in taxing the stoners in Colorado, we’ll see who “won”.


Coffee is my drug of choice now. French Roast.


To be completely honest, I had no yearly resolutions to make. I work on big things in a nine year cycle, so this was a typical night for me.


I decided to settle in and review a concert documentary which I’d stumbled across a few days before.


Jeez,” I thought aloud when I came across the DVD, “twenty years have already passed since this concert was recorded!? Where has the time gone?”


Believe it or not, 2014 marks two decades since hell reputedly froze over.


The Eagles formed innocently enough back in 1973 when Glenn Frey and Don Henley sat down to try and write a few songs together. Things coalesced, and the band got really big, really quickly.


In the ten years that followed, there were minor personnel changes. There was the addition of Don Felder, later the departure of Bernie Leadon, the addition of Joe Walsh, and finally the departure of bassist Randy Meisner whose shoes were filled as well as could be expected by singer/bassist Tim Schmitt.


The perfection that such an act expects from themselves and one another takes a toll over the years and as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In many ways it had gotten to where they were competing only with themselves. By 1980 the fellows couldn’t stand to look at each other so they parted ways.


The friction was supposedly the worst between the two who had started it all. When asked if the band would ever perform together again, a frustrated Henley replied, “Yeah…when hell freezes over.”


Tough odds to overcome. 


But hell froze over fourteen years later. The members last comprising the band were carefully reunited with the assistance of Irving Azoff, everybody shook hands, and rehearsals quietly began.


If only everything could be done so expertly.


Now, I was always impressed, above all else, with the quality of the songwriting of the members, thus was a fan of the band off the bat, so my objectivity in this respect may be drawn into question, but few acts have garnered my monitary support throughout their entire existence, and the Eagles were no exception.


There was one album which I didn’t buy due to my severe distaste for all things cowboy.


Never caring to stand out, I certainly never have gone out of my way to fit in.


The explosion of the urban cowboy fad in the mid seventies was too much for me. I heaped scorn on anybody who wore boots, and especially a hat. Pure Prarie League, Michael Murphy, Marshall Tucker, and many other acts that ‘went cowboy’ received the butt of my ire. To this day, I do not own a copy of the Eagles ‘Desperado’ album, so that should prove something.


Finally, the band hit their stride in bucking trend and playing to their strengths. Dead-splat in the middle of the disco era, the Eagles were writing gems like Hotel California.


The performances presented in this reunion concert were absolutely spot on.


Most of the best songs throughout the band’s tenure were there, and the absence of Meisner was held in silent respect by their not attempting to perform any of the tunes which he’d penned and sang. A sensible move. Schmitt did a couple of his own memorable songs instead. He’s a fantastic bassist, and also sings as good a high harmony as anyone, but there’s only one Meisner.


This is a sticking point for me: I’ll always remember Tim as being a member of the band Poco. He wasn’t in the Eagles long enough to replace the image I have of Meisner in the lineup. To be honest, it took me a while to get comfortable with Walsh as a member of the band. He’ll always be part of the James Gang to me.


The guys claimed to be nervous their first time out before an audience in so long, but once on stage, the professionalism which they’d honed from previous years and countless tours came back in a performance which melded the five into one, and it all appeared so effortless.


When the band began the opening chords to songs such as ‘The Last Resort’ and ‘Wasted Time’, I held my breath. These fellows were really putting themselves to the test, but they delivered with astounding accuracy. This was no half-assed concert put on on in an attempt to make some fast money. It was obvious that the band was hell-bent on proving, not only their durability, but their merit, and they did it with colors flying.


Professionalism at this level is something to behold, and nothing short of mesmerising.



Recording Mythology, Pt. 44 / Why I Never Use The Presets


My guitar effects are utilitarian…and digital. That’s right, I said it.

To be honest, I’m not one of those ‘analogue or death’ junkies. I’m not averse to using digital processors when it comes to cleaning up my signal, and old analogue effects were as noisy as a first grade classroom.

Starting out, I had a collection of DOD effects pedals and a Dunlop Crybaby during the seventies and into the eighties when I’d installed a Bill Lawrance pickup in the soundhole of my Yamaha acoustic. I’d use the wah as a notch filter and coax all kinds of noises out of my poor old Yamaha. Once, I’d removed the strings from the guitar and had it sitting on a stool. The pickup was still plugged inline, and eventually the monitors achieved feedback. Wow.

“How can I possibly use this?” I wondered.

Well, I had a Radio Shack ‘Realistic’ stereo reverb unit that I’d patched into the loop somehow. I discovered that when I’d crank the depth, then plunge the delay at resonance, the monitors would walk around on the desk. The effect sounded haunting. I recorded a piece with that setup before I fried the tweeter crossovers.

Then came the ‘all-in-one’ units. I resisted for a few years until they’d worked the bugs out.

So now I’ve gone digital, but my effects bank is already vintage. Actually, I still use one of the first generation digital pedal boards that Boss produced. As was almost always the case, Boss got it right the first time out. At $689.99 in 1994, their Expandable Multiple Effects unit, or ME-X as it was called, kicked serious ass, and is their most flexible unit in my opinion. Other individuals must concur with my assessment; when you can find one, the ME-X still commands a respectable price.

What made the ME-X so cool, is that the user could augment the digital effects – delay, flanging, chorus, and echo (all stereo) – with three other analogue effects of their choice in the form of stomp boxes. Boss units, of course. The conclusion was a logical one: everybody knows that digital overdrive and distortion sounds lame and lousy, and the Boss team realised that at the outset, so why not allow the user to tailor their grind, coarse to fine? Excellent idea.

But then, there are the presets. As a matter of fact, all of the presets on any multiple effects processor end up sounding corny and dated, and those on the ME-X are no exception. They make me want to don makeup and Lycra. Talk about wet to the point of saturation. One even makes the guitar sound like a Koto. I reckon the folks at Boss Nippon had a sense of humour.

Still, I always wondered why the manufacturers ever went to the trouble of building presets into these units, anyhow. Maybe some people needed a ‘jumping off’ point, but I can’t imagine why. If they’d ever used an effect with knobs (and in ’94, most everyone had) effects started out at clean and ‘turned up’ to extreme. On digital units, the parameters began at zero and went up to some value of effect, so the same logic could be applied with the same results.

Using the presets on an effects unit to record with will always come back to haunt you. I don’t care how cool they sound, they’re always modeled after some hot-shot guitar slinger of the manufacture era, and God only knows how history will later regard the fool. You don’t want a poor recording decision following you around like a lost dog ten years from now.

I swear though, I believe that in the beginning,  some folks thought that the presets sounded so cool, that they actually used them, even some of the ‘professionals’. Don’t believe it? Just listen to a Bryan Adams album. If he wasn’t using the Walking Hammers preset on the Zoom 4010 when he recorded several of his tunes, I’ll be dashed. Their ‘brand’ of drive (or distortion) along with the mids curve on that preset was an obvious clone, and so, uh…’Zoomy’.

I suppose that I might have a better ear for tone than music, because although I will never be the musician I aspire to be, I I can run through banks of presets and name nearly every weasel whose ‘tone’ the presets are designed to approximate. A players sound is like his fingerprint. And tone or no tone, using another players tone is tantamount to plagerism, because if you are not in posession of that player’s fingers, you ain’t gonna sound like them, regardless what you buy.

My advice to the aspiring artist is – since there’s already one of somebody else – why try being number two? Be yourself. Open your ears and your mind, and break into those presets. Start developing your own tones and you’ll create your own sound. Therein lies the reward.