Next time I’m in Akihabara, it’s hotdogs and french fries instead of the usual kebab.
Chasing anything important, it’s inevitable that you come across some or several obstacles in your path. Instead of listing up those up those obstacles, I’m going to list the tunes that survived the final full rehearsal before tomorrow’s gig at Crawfish:
- Walk Talk
- Voices Inside My Head
- Lady Day & John Coltrane
- Live and Let Die
- The Pinball Number Count
- Summertime Madness
- In My Wildest Dreams
- Don’t Know Why
- Feel Like Makin’ Love
- You’ve Gotta Have Freedom
- Fly Like an Eagle
If you don’t know these tunes, you should. If you do know these tunes, you will hear them like you’ve never heard them before.
I’ve hinted on FB that I would do a special rendition of Space Oddity, but someone in NASA has beat me to that. Still, that version omits the emotional climax of the song: the part where ground control looses contact with Major Tom, and we can only speculate as to his fate. If not death by freezing or asphyxiation, then perhaps Major Tom’s capsuled slipped into a wormhole, and he is picked up by a ship of selfish alien muppets. Maybe his capsule is intercepted by a big black monolith that expedites his evolution into a being of pure energy. Or his frozen body is found 500 years later and resuscitated by our sexy leotard wearing descendants. Then again, the capsule might be claimed as salvage, and Major Tom’s body is rebuilt with nano machines, so that he can never die…
Anyway, the point is not show what a sci-fi geek am, but that none of us really knows what’s going to happen tomorrow night, in spite of my best laid plans, and boldly go where no man has gone before. After that adventures is over, I will do my own version of Space Oddity properly, as a dedication to an adventurous friend from college who already left this world much sooner than I expected, dashing my hopes for a reunion someday.
Green Eggs & Ham is my favorite Dr. Seuss book (because The Lorax ends on such a downer). Each time I try to read it a little differently, the same as I would approach music. That doesn’t mean I change the words, though. Maybe I’ll repeat a phrase or two, which is ok because a lot of phrases get repeated in that book, and that’s the writer’s intention. Occasionally I’m tempted to add a word or two, but I don’t because the vocabulary is intentionally limited. That leaves me with tone, pitch, rhythm, space and foley to improvise each time I read it. Sounds like music doesn’t, it? Those five elements actually a lot of offer a lot of room to express yourself.
But…how did I learn to use those elements to express myself? I didn’t. You don’t. You just do it. But…how do you know what to do, then? I don’t know how to answer that, except to say that those questions are wrong questions for the answer I do have to give. I wasn’t taught to express myself. I was given permission to express myself, and at an early age. When I was in the 1st grade, I brought home a massive reading textbook every night for homework. One night, my Mom sat with me as I read aloud from the page. Suddenly she stopped me and said, “Stop reading like a machine. Read like you’re talking naturally. Make it interesting and exciting.”
That was all I needed to hear to start reading expressively, taking my pitch up and down, adding dramatic pauses, altering the tone of my voice. I had always been a noisy and talkative kid so you could say it came naturally to me, but LOTS of little kids are talkative. Humans, even the shy ones, are expressive creatures from the time we’re born. That’s what all the crying is about. However, we’re usually given incentives NOT to use the first means of expression we have available to us.
The same goes for music. All kids will start making a noise which is pleasing to them the first time they touch a musical instrument. Then someone tells them to stop making noise, and start reading what’s on the page. Only after we can do that do we start receiving instructions on how to express ourselves. How terribly backward, inefficient, tyrannical and sterile that is. When I was 11-years old, I got my first electric guitar. That week, my teacher told me to take a solo over a 12-bar blues in A.
At that moment, I was confused. I didn’t think I could do it without extensive study of technique, harmony, rhythm, etc. But my teacher was saying I could. Less than a minute later, I was improvising for the first time using the technique (string bends), melodic (A-minor pentatonic!) and and rhythmic devices (syncopation) I had inside me, and even more which I didn’t realize I had. What changed in that minute? My teacher had told me, “Use the pentatonic scale (a 5-note scale) to play a guitar solo.”
“You mean I can use it and just play my own thing?”, I confirmed. For weeks leading up to that moment, I had been practiced that scale up and down the neck until I fell a sleep, never having any idea what powerful tool I had in my hands. Another six years passed, and I was playing in my school jazz band, a combo of NYU students, a party cover band, and alternative/grunge band with classmates. At one especially productive rehearsal in my friend’s basement, the alternative/grunge band wrote two brand new songs consecutively. The singer said to me, “Wow! You’re just pulling them out of your ass today.”
That comment sounded cool at that moment, but something about the image of what he said caused some cognitive dissonance in me. First of all, the title he gave the new song was, “Ejaculation.” Second, the guitar riff and chords changes didn’t come from my any part of my digestive tract. It was already there in musical energy flowing through us and around us. I just gave it permission to use my guitar/amp as a channel to be heard. Anyone can do this. Other people occasionally tell me I am a creative person without using my anal cavity as a waypoint. I tell them that all people can be creative…if they can get permission.
False memories of music start to playback in my mind after I’ve been working on a particular piece of music for a long time. After hearing it over and over again, it starts to sound slow, monotonous, square…retarted, even. It’s as if I’m hearing my favourite song on a walkman with dying batteries as while starting to fade into unconsciousness during a bad acid trip. (And no, I’ve never actually had this exact experience. Have you?)
Until last night I simply interpreted these false music memories as a warning sign to move on and find new music to enjoy. However, last night as I stood in the shower waiting the full five minutes recommended by the Body Shop for their hair treatment to take effect on my unruly curls, a different realisation appeared a few centimetres below somewhere inside my cerebrum. What if this were more than a warning, but an defence mechanism against brainwashing? In other words, the false music memories are actually false music rendered harmless by heuristic antibodies.
What I am really trying to say with those $100/hour words is simply that I am in the habit of being wary of the difference between music that is familiar and that I genuinely enjoy. I savour the latter so much that I avoid repeated listening to preserve the magic of music I love, like Stevie Wonder’s Innervsions album. Unfortunately, an occupational hazard of being a musician is the having to listen and/or perform a piece a sickening amount of times for the sake of transcription and study. This is exactly what I was doing before last night’s shower and hair treatment.
What I think my mind is really doing, is isolating the emotional content from the more tangible linguistic and academic elements. Even a jingle made for soda commercial has some emotional content which makes it appealing to the listener. However that comes from the creator’s love for their work, rather than the the contractor’s love of sugar-water profits. Once I asked a session musician friend how he could tolerate having to play terrible music devoid of any integrity?
His answer was that his sincere performance as a musician would gives it the integrity missing in the concept, if only just a little bit. So while the performance contains sincere emotional content, the actually message in the musical concept is something entirely different. Obviously, in the case of a soda jingle, the message is, “Buy THIS soda!” Repeating this message as often as possible is a crude attempt at mind control. Hence, my mind is rejecting the music because of the intrusive nature of the message, and process is to strip the message of emotional power of the music. That’s why I seldom drink soda pop, and then only Pepsi. (Better taste, better logo, better commercials.)
I’ve always been paranoid about some cabal of DJs and record producers crafting the music they think everyone should like, and then conspiring to saturate the media with it until enough people buy it to recover their investment. As a fiercely individualistic individual who rarely tolerates sameness, it makes sense that my mind would have defences against similar attempts at such behaviour programming by the free market, government, school or even my own workplace. It’s so extreme that I even question whether this compulsive rejection itself is not the effect of some liberal education I’ve received from watching so much PBS.
Case-in-point, the tune I was working on last night was an arrangement of the old pinball number count from Sesame Street for my band. The objective of this song’s non-musical content is teaching kids (like mine) to count to twelve. After hearing it maybe hundreds of times in my life; first on channel 13 as a kid, then on Youtube, my iPod, my sheet music software’s GM sounds, and played on my own guitar/bass; my own version of the song in progress my old TiPBG4 has passed the repetition threshold. My mind’s response is to conjure Patrick Stewart, commanding, “Halt! Come ye no further! You’re educational message shall not penetrate the sacred inner sanctum of Adam’s mind!”
Captain Picard then sets phasers to stun and bathes the mnemonic sound analogues in pure energy, rendering them an impotent stream of integers. This time, the reaction is in error, though. I can already count to twelve. I embrace the message of educational content, and this song has already penetrated the inner sanctum (the soul) long ago…aeons ago…from the beginning of time even because music is timeless. The music that moves us is merely a code releasing something trapped inside us that has existed from the beginning of creation so it can reconnect with its source. Every time I hear this song, and think about the people who made it (including the creators of Sesame Street who contracted them), I marvel at the creativity. The results of their efforts probably totally surpassed everyone’s expectations for what was supposed to be a little ditty for teaching kids to count.
Weekends typically find me taking my son to karate and then and window shopping at the local instrument retailers to kill time. This weekend was subtly different because I actually bought something. Normally music stores don’t have anything gear that I’m really interested in using, and usually don’t have the best prices, but this time I wanted to get a multi-plug cable to replace the Ibanez DC3 (daisy-chain) which won’t fit in my Buhwah AC jack, and doesn’t reach my Barber Tonepress from my pedalboard’s Eneloop power supply. I saw one of these, and paid about 500yen too much for it, instead of waiting to search Yahoo! Auction for a cheaper price.
I also saw a used Korg NanoPad2, and got it for 2000. Both were impulse buys, but both were something I really needed. Now I can neatly power all the pedals on my board, and make original beats in realtime with software (once I midi-map the NanoPad to Live.) Also, that trip was almost the last one I made there. My kid’s karate class schedule is changing to weekdays meaning I won’t be able to take him anymore. However, I saw a bunch of cool used pedals that I could potentially covent this time which brought me back on Sunday with my guitar for a test.
Just when I got there the next day, a ukulele player was giving an in-store concert, so I sat down and listened to him and the piano accompanist close their set with a very slow rendition of, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Then I went to another part of the store and plugged into a Roland JC-77 to try the pedals. Then the ukelele player started a group lesson on “Happy Birthday” so I couldn’t play too loud, or at least would have felt like a guilty asshole if I did, probably because I’m there talking to the staff almost every week. Last time, the girl at the register gave my son an egg shaker! Some skinny guy in a necktie kept buzzing past me, ready to pounce if I did, anyway…and anyway, that amp was overpowered. I tried asking if I could try the pedals with something smaller like the 1-watt Blackstar HR-1R, but the answer was no.
The first pedal I tried was the Xotic Robotalk. My friend and local guitar hero Peter Montgomery said he wanted one, which piqued my interested. Turns out this is just a dual-envelope filter. The features and sound are great, but not really any better than my Guyatone Wah Rocker, and harder to tweak. I never did get a satisfactory envelope after adjusting the sensitivity, input and decay. The resonance and direct controls didn’t really do much to improve the basic sound. Still, there is some potential here. I’d like an envelope filter with a boost for solos and this one’s definitely got that. So I might give one of the other versions a try some other time.
The next pedal was a Fulltone ’69 fuzz, my first experience with germanium transistors. It took a while tweaking the input (HIGH) and contour controls (low) to find a sound I like, but again, it didn’t sound better than my Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz — just different. It’s definitely a warmer, softer and more dynamic sound, but I like the extreme compression, overtones and almost synth-like sound of the silicon based pedal. The ’69 had less gain, and harder to tweak the other parameter. In otherwords, I’m happier with a cheaper fuzz. I also tried an old Boss Hyper Fuzz because David Gilmour uses one. That sounded REALLY cheap, but in a cheap way — not such a cool way.
It also has a massive clean boost which didn’t sound as nearly good as the Fulltone Fatboost (FB-1) I tried there that day. It sounded just as good as I imagined, and boosted the signal enough into the Roland’s “low” input, so I didn’t have to use the “high” input which is way too loud even at “1” on the volume knob. The Fat Boost warmed the amp up, and enhanced the round tone of my GB-10. All the controls were very easy to use, and I think I could even get some nice low-gain overdrive from that box. The price they were asking was very competitive, too. I guess they either don’t realize the value, or don’t want to discourage someone spending more on the newer FB-3.
I might have even bought one of those pedals if I wasn’t so constrained by the ukulele demo, and amp better suited to wedding gig than trying pedals in a store. This reminded me why I rarely try gear out in a store. It’s usually better for me just to order it by mail, try it at home and then sell it on an auction if I don’t like it. That saves a lot of time and embarrassment, if not money. Back home in the den (I need a better name for that room), I fixed my AKG headphones, and G&L Legacy’s TBX pot (half of it, anyway) but couldn’t figure out how get the Nanopad to work with Live. It works great with Garage Band, though. So I guess I will follow Yosuke’s advice, and start making beats with that instead.
Jazz standards are not what I had in mind after the last week’s two sessions, but at least all the tunes that got called were tunes I actually knew, like Stella By Starlight, and There Will Never Be Another You, Black Orpheus, and All of Me (thanks Paul McCartney). Of course I forgot some of the changes, but not the melody. So I’ve gotta thank my former (tor)mentor for beating the importance of the melody into my head. There were four other guitarists, three drummers, a vocalist, and one house-bassist holding it down. No pianos or horns, so it felt like a jazz guitar class. Again, I was not the best or the worst there, but I was definitely the only one who played like me, and my GB-10 had the fattest, warmest tone.
In spite of my initial disappointment at playing old standards instead of The Chicken, it was a good night. The place was near Kinshicho station which is just over the border between Chiba and Tokyo, making it a bit closer to home. It was a bit hard to find in among the stacks of hostess clubs, and I rode the elevator up with an adorable little Philipino girl and her Dad who got off at one of those. My obligatory glass of red wine was very nice, and the walls were covered with 60s/70s memorabilia, so I could wander around gazing at pictures of old Japanese pop groups, movie posters and even household appliances while the other guys played, instead of just sitting at a table fidgeting or smoking. But of course it’s the customers that give a bar it’s character.
Sitting up in the front was the cutest Japanese jazz guitar girl I’ve ever seen. She could play, too. In the back, a trio of older jazzers. One of them (the best) gave me his card, and at the top above his name, it said, “A Dirty Old Guitarist.” I couldn’t stop laughing. He proudly told me that his card also got some laughs from Marlena Shaw when she was last in Japan. (Incidentally, Marlena Shaw is BIG in Japan, in jazz/funk/R&B circles.) I also had a long chat with a drummer about unemployment and rural depopulation, public health care, the downside of curing cancer, why Brazilian rosewood is banned as import to Japan, and of course the construction of cymbals.
I was seriously thinking of leaving early, but I stayed until the end. I’d probably go back, too. Even though I haven’t had any desire to play standards for almost a year now, once in a while I guess it’s nice to remind myself that I can actually play real jazz (e.g. improvise something coherent based on standard chord changes with liberal harmonic, rhythmic and articulative embellishment) after years of struggling with it, and then let it go. I’m sure I’ll come back to it seriously when I become a dirty old guitarist myself. Right now, I want to make the most of my few remaining years as a sexy, sensitive, 30-something guitarist.
The idea of a battery dying or going dead in the middle of a performance is enough of a reason that most guitarist think active electronics are a terrible idea. Besides the impractical logistics of unscrewing your pickguard in the the middle of a gig, the conventional wisdom is that the guitar gods of the 60s didn’t have active electronics, than we don’t either. Elder pickup guru Bill Lawrence was quoted as saying “Batteries belong in flashlights.” However the reality is that bassists and acoustic guitarists use active systems all the time, and so do heros like Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and BB King, not to mention lords of metal like Metallica and Zack Wylde. So why do we electric guitarist still shy from them?
Some time ago, I became interested in the idea of an on-board buffer to save space on my pedal board. There is really no way to easy way to mount such a device inside my GB-10, and I never really felt it was necessary with my G&L Legacy’s control circuit. So I got a Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer. However in my search, I found the Guitar Fetish website. After months of browsing, and finally I decided that I needed a solo boost for jam session where setting up pedals on stage is awkward and kind of embarrassing. However when I tried ordering, they wanted me to fax a copy of my credit card an ID. Not wanting to be bothered, I found the same part here in Japan sold under the Artec brand for the same price.
The circuit I ordered is the QTB, which is a rotary switch providing +3, +14 or +20db of clean boost, which is enough to overdrive any amp. They also make an onboard distortion circuit for which I had zero expectations, but how I would have wished for one of those on the first electric guitar I got when I was 11 years old. The mid-boost circuits the make I imagined would just make the sound muddy and inarticulate. The QTB also colors the tone slightly. There seem to be a little less highs and lows, kind of like a tube-screamer. Rumors that these cheap Chinese preamps are noisy are exaggerated. In the buffer setting (no boost), there is no additional noise. At the 20db setting, extra noise is inevitable.
Installing it was a bit of a challenge, but I took my time and completed the procedure in about 3 hours with only one mistake which I noticed early on fortunately. I was afraid there would not be room for the battery and had to put it in between the neck and middle pickups with some tape to hold in in place. Also, the stereo jack required for operation is a bit of a squeeze in the jack cavity, but it doesn’t make any popping noises when plugging in and turning on. The biggest challenge was mounting the control pot. The shaft was slightly narrower than standard sized pots, and the normal nuts didn’t fit but I used one anyway to secure it snuggly onto the pickguard.
My only complaint about this circuit is that I loose the tone control for the bridge pickup. I was using different values for each: 47nf for the neck and 10nf for the bridge. Since I now only have single tone control, I decided to compromise and use a 22nf cap which doesn’t really sound good on any of the pickups. So I may just try the 10nf instead. Also, I noticed that the bass cut has hardly seems to have any effect with the booster engaged. So spent the weekend messing with the wiring, mostly failing. However, at least I have a more palatable treble-bleed now with a 1000pf ceramic cap in parallel with a 150k resistor. Right now the guitar sound mellower, but the tone control does not seem work at all.
It’s also possible that the harshness is just because the pickups are too close to the strings, but if I lower them, the high-E will be weak. So I’m actually considering swapping the Keystones with a $21 set of no-name Chinese pickups with 50mm spacing and about the same impedance as the original Duncans. As for the QTB booster, I like what it does for the sound, but the operation is a bit awkward and redundant. That’s what pedals are for, right? A better strategy would be just to play the guitar with the volume rolled off slightly, and then dime it for solos. This would also capitalize on the treble-bleed’s bass cutting properties. Likewise a good TS-style pedal should do that for solos, as well.