8/23/2015

Gear Musings, Part II

I played a Friday happy hour gig with my band from work last week. It went okay. I'm pretty rusty at playing live so despite the decidedly low-key nature of the gig, my nerves still wind up a bit. I blew chunks on a couple solos, but most were okay and a couple were actually very good. I wasn't exactly in The Zone though and to be brutally honest I know that I over-relied on my stock licks. And that's fine. It's a good goal, but it's hard to be inspired every time.

This band practices at low volume and my usual approach to tone has been to set my amp up for a good clean sound, then use pedals for all the dirty sounds. That's a really compromised way to do it because for this band I rarely use clean tones, so I'm optimizing around the exception scenario. But after the previous gig I realized that we play loudly enough at gigs that I could use my preferred approach: Crank the amp to get the ideal crunch tone (somewhere between Keith Richards and Malcolm Young), then use my guitar volume and picking attack to get different variations of clean and overdrive, and hit a boost pedal when I need a little extra gain/volume for solos. So that's what I did. I used a little bit of my amp's master volume along with an Air Brake to tame the volume a bit, but it was honest-to-goodness cranked amp tone. It's always a treat to be able to play that way with a band!

Because I was playing a guitar with singlecoil pickups, it wasn't quite as gainy as I'd prefer for some of the songs. But all things considered, I like the way it worked out. My sound was nice and crunchy and organic. The lead tone was maybe a little bit boxy though. I think that's because I used my old blue Fulltone Full-Drive for my boost, which is a little bit nasally. I think I'll experiment with some of my other overdrive pedals to see if one of them might be a bit more transparent as a boost.

The Pedal Power that I mentioned in part I of this thread worked flawlessly. That's great because I didn't spend any time testing it out before the gig. I just threw together a small pedalboard consisting of a Vox wah, the Full-Drive, a Digitech DigiDelay, a Digitech Polara reverb, and the Pedal Power. I wired everything up, plugged in the Pedal Power to make sure everything was getting juice, then threw the pedalboard into my gig bag before hustling to Durham for the gig. I never soundchecked it so I was taking a risk, but I did have batteries in the pedals as backup in case the Pedal Power gave me any problems. As it happened, the Pedal Power worked just fine. No glitches and no noise. I could have left the DigiDelay at home since I never actually used it at the gig, but normally I like having a little bit of slapback for soloing.

After the gig, I'm now second-guessing my previous need for a smaller amp. I love my current amps except that they're all fairly bulky and heavy. I've been lusting after the new Vox AC10C1 because tone-wise it's similar to my Ceriatone but it's very small, lightweight, and low-powered so it's easy to carry and I can use the cranked amp method more often. But if this band gigs at volumes high enough to use the Ceriatone, then the need for an AC10 isn't quite as strong, although the size and weight of the AC10 would still be a tremendous advantage. Especially since I have to schlep my stuff down from the 3rd floor of the house!

8/20/2015

Some Gear Musings

Went to practice last night and discovered that somehow I'd misplaced my pedalboard power supply. Not sure what I did with it. But without it, my pedalboard is basically a boat anchor. Had to just plug straight into the rehearsal studio's amp. It was a Fender Super Sonic 22, which I'd been wanting to try out anyway. The Super Sonic's clean channel is pretty much standard Fender, which is to say clear, punchy, and bell-like. One of the reverb tubes was microphonic (rehearsal studio amps are never well maintained) and the reverb fed back like crazy, so I can't speak to how that sounded. But I expect it was good sounding, as Fender reverbs usually are. The dirty channel on the Super Sonic is just flat-out odd. First it has two gain controls, one being kind of bright sounding and the other dark. In operation, it's kind of like bridging the inputs on an old 4-hole Marshall, which I'm very familiar with. By setting the relative balance between the gain controls you can emphasize saturation in either the highs or the lows, which adds some flexibility. But in order to get a good sound to my ears, the tone controls have to be set to positions I normally wouldn't use with other amps. I had to really crank the mids to get a a nice sound out of it. It is also excessively bright and thin at very low volume (no matter where I set the EQ controls). I don't think it would be usable for me at really low volume. But cranked up even a little (say, about 3 on the master volume) and it fills out on the bottom end. Because of all the midrange you have to add, the Super Sonic 22 doesn't work well for scooped mids sounds, but that's fine by me because I don't care for that sound anyway. That gain channel is also a little boxy and compressed sounding in my opinion. I could live with the amp, but for the $1200 they ask for them new, I think there are more inspiring choices.

So the studio amp got me through practice but I still needed a power supply. Today at lunch I went to the local bigbox music store and sprang for a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus. The Pedal Power is almost an industry standard. They've been around for a long time and lots of pros use them because they just work without much drama. My old power supply was a Godlyke Power-All, which worked fine with most 9V pedals but produced a strange electrical interference noise with certain modulation pedals, including the chorus side of my Visual Sound H2O pedal. I'd always wanted to replace the Power-All with a Pedal Power due to this issue, but Pedal Powers are comparatively pricey and it never seemed that urgent while my Power-All was working okay. But I decided to pay the ransom now that I needed a new one anyway. The Pedal Power has fully isolated outputs so all the pedals are electrically isolated from one another so there is no funky noise problem. It also has a lot of options to work with pedals that have oddball power requirements. If it lasts (and it seems to be built like a tank), this should be the last one of these things I'll need. Fingers crossed...

8/04/2015

Elliot Easton and Perfect Phrasing

I first got into The Cars back in high school. I adore their first three albums in particular. They had a very distinctive sound - perfect little pop songs with clicky-sounding guitars, quirky vocals, and ironic lyrics. I also liked how they incorporated the synth in those early records - it provided simple, single-line counter melodies with odd timbres, instead of the thick, lush, space-consuming pads that Greg Hawkes evolved to in the late '90s when polyphonic synthesizers became commonplace.

But the sleeper in The Cars' garage in my opinion was Elliott Easton. He gave the simple pop songs musical substance. That guy was just incredible. Even the metalheads respected Easton because he could flat-out wail. But he didn't just wail; he was the quintessential play-for-the-song guy. His solos are like perfecty crafted little songs-within-songs, with an intro, a build-up, a climax, and a landing (sounds sexual!) - all in a few seconds. He had a wide-ranging vocabulary and worked in blues bends and vibrato, country and R&B style double stops, hammer-ons/pull-offs, and a million other tricks, but he never sounded like he was just showing off. Everything he played was melodic and genuinely complimented the song. The structures, melodies, and the note selections suggest that he worked out his solos ahead of time, but the way he played them seemed improvised and off the cuff. His phrasing was just immaculate! A thing of beauty and wonder.

I figured I'd share a couple of my favorites as examples of his wonderful soloing.

Just What I Needed (skip to 1:46 for the solo) - A great example of his playing in my opinion. It's mostly major pentatonic, but he works in a couple of notes here and there to fit better with the underlying chords and sound more hip. He also sticks the landing with a flourish using rockabilly-style major 6th doublestops. Not many New Wave guitarists would have thought to do that, nor had to stylistic vocabulary to pull it off.

 


Shake It Up (skip to 1:16 for the solo) - I like how he enters the solo with Chuck Berry doublestops, then goes into melodic blues licks. This solo shows why even the metalheads liked him - the dude had formidable chops!




Touch and Go (skip to 1:17 for the solo) - This is probably my favorite Elliot Easton solo because it's so melodic. He stretches out just a little longer than he usually does. I just love the playful phrasing, as well as the way he drags the beat a little toward the beginning. This solo is broadly structured like the solo in Just What I Needed - the build-up and the way he climbs the fretboard to end it. But he gets to navigate more chord changes, which he does really masterfully.

8/03/2015

Bass Lake Trail


This is a pretty extreme example of where the camera couldn't capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. There are different approaches I could have used to expose this, but the one used was to set my exposure so that the sky was its actual color and brightness. This avoided blowing out the sky (except for the sun), at the expense of most everything else being in silhouette. All that foliage you see originally appeared pitch black in the unprocessed image. But I lifted the shadows in post and all the wonderful backlighting on the foliage was revealed, which is the way the scene looked in real life. The ability of a RAW file to retain all that information still amazes me even though I've seen it a million times. One fun element to this photo is the sunstar, which is the by-product of the small aperture (f/11) that I used.

8/02/2015

Morning Moon


On Saturday I got up before dawn to get some photos. It had been way too long. If felt great to exercise those muscles again. I had Bass Lake all to myself, except for one ambitious fisherman.

8/01/2015

Mopac & the Blue Suburbans

Mopac & the Blue Suburbans are a blues band out of Austin, TX. They may still be together, I don't know. The band kind of comes and goes, depending on the whims of their principal players. Mopac has been through many lineups, but the common thread is that the musicians are usually weekend warriors who make their livings in the high-tech industry. The main guy, Doug Miller, is a veteran marketing executive who has been with a lot of different companies in Austin and he also happens to be a killer harp player. I met Doug when we worked for a software company called Dazel and he invited me to join the band.

At the time, Mopac was a straight-up blues band and we played that format for a few years. But toward the end of that iteration of Mopac, we added a jump-blues song. For whatever reasons, that song just clicked with us. We played it really well and it was one of our more popular songs. When that version of Mopac disbanded not longer after, Doug and I formed a band called Fat Cat Jump, in which we decided to focus exclusively on jump-blues. This was at the beginning of the late '90s swing revival started by Brian Setzer and his cover of Jump, Jive, and Wail. It was really great timing for Fat Cat Jump because we loved those old jump songs; the market was really ripe for it with the swing revival; and we had a schtick in that we used a Chicago blues instrumentation (guitar, harp, bass, drums) instead of horns.

Doug and I hit the woodshed to really learn how to play jump. I spent hours and hours learning as many inversions of swing chords as I could, as well as chord substitutions, lots of variations of 12-bar blues progressions (if you think there are only 3 chords in blues, you are truly only seeing the tip of the iceberg); and jump soloing licks. We also spent a fair amount of time and money trying to get as authentic a sound as possible, using old tubes amps and horsetrading gear. I bought a hollowbody Epiphone Sorrento with a Bigsby vibrato. We recruited a stand-up acoustic bass player, and we went through a few different drummers. This band was pretty well-rehearsed and it showed. We were very tight. With the connections that we had to the high-tech industry, we played a lot of happy hours in downtown Austin. Probably the best gig we had was a standing weekly residency at a bar called The Spot, opening for Monte Montgomery.

After a few years Fat Cat Jump disbanded. But Doug and I didn't miss a beat. We brought in some of the old Mopac guys, revived the name Mopac & the Blue Suburbans, and just continued on with the same material. In fact, gig-wise we did even better than Fat Cat because we had more people in the band with connections which led to better opportunities. We ended up with a virtual residency at a club called Speakeasy that was the perfect venue for a jump/swing band. It had a lot of mahogany and red velvet and you entered through an alley - it looked like a speakeasy and we sounded like a band you'd see in a speakeasy. We were kind of made for each other. We also finagled our way into a few really choice gigs, like opening for Jimmie Vaughan. As I mentioned this was in late '90s.  Austin is a tech town, and that was the high point of the dotcom boom, so money was flowing, people were smoking cigars and drinking martinis, and we played swing and jump blues for young, beautiful, newly wealthy people.  We provided the soundtrack to their excess and while the whole dotcom thing makes me think, "What the hell were we smoking?" its was a blast being in the middle of it.  It was like being a minor character in The Great Gatsby.

Eventually though, I became dissatisfied with Mopac. One, I got burned out on jump-blues. It's tremendously fun music and it was challenging to learn, but it's obviously a very particular style and I was sort of missing the other aspects of my playing that had to be suppressed to play jump with any sort of authenticity. But the bigger factor was that we had plateaued as a band and it was a pretty low plateau. Mopac was never as serious about the music as Fat Cat Jump, and we were never as tight. With the exception Doug and I, the band wasn't really motivated to be a badass, take-no-prisoners musical unit. Some of the other players were perfectly happy just to wing their way through the songs. They didn't want to put in the effort to be really good, or more accurately they simply didn't see the need to. They were satisfied impressing their non-musical friends on Friday nights. Sometimes we sounded absolutely terrific. And sometimes we were a musical train wreck on stage, which I simply can't abide. We had lost a few more ambitious members over this issue during my tenure and after dealing with it for way longer than I should have, I finally quit myself. By the end, I was glad to be out of it. But with the years softening my memory of the bad parts, I look back fondly on the experience now. It was a good time and we had moments that were very rewarding.

I recorded these songs with Mopac and the Blue Suburbans. I'm not exactly sure of the date, but it must have been the late '90s or early '00s. Despite what I wrote about our tightness as a band, our playing on these songs is pretty damn good. Especially considering there's little to no overdubbing on them - they were recorded live to 16-track analog tape. We recorded at our then drummer's home studio. I think he did an outstanding job recording and mixing this.







7/20/2015

I Got Loaded

I wrapped up a new recording last week. It's a version of the old Louisiana party tune, I Got Loaded, by Camille Bob who recorded the song originally in 1965 with Lil' Bob & the Lollipops. I got some great help on this one. Gary Lane recorded the vocals, and the final guitar solo over the fade-out was recorded by Mark Skelton. I think they both did an outstanding job and I remain privileged to work with such talented people. All the other instrumentation was performed by me.

A sad irony is that just a few days before I finished this song, Camille Bob died at age 76 in Opelousas, LA. I had no idea of this until I sat down to write this blog post and started Googling to find informational links for my post. I'm not an expert on the life and work of Camille Bob, but I've loved this song since I first heard it in the early '80s covered on Los Lobos' major label debut album. It's clear that Bob, like so many great Louisiana musicians, had a knack for writing fun, catchy tunes that make you feel good when you might otherwise be feeling down. He was also one of the first musicians to have integrated audiences in Louisiana, so there was substance to go along with the fun party tunes. The world needs more of that and his loss is our loss.

So I present my recording of I Got Loaded now as a tribute to Camille Bob for making the world a little better place.


7/06/2015

Independence Day

I had a great 4th weekend. I got few chores done, but mostly it was just relaxing and hanging out with the family. Finished off the series finale of Six Feet Under, which I'd started watching on Amazon Fire TV a few months ago. It was a very good series ended by one of the most satisfying finales I've seen. I'd read that the finale was excellent, but in the couple episodes leading up to it I was wondering how they were going to pull that off. But boy they sure did! The use of music was particular excellent and effective. Now I'm going to have to find something else to do with my weekend mornings when everybody else is still asleep. Maybe I'll start watching The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, since I seem to be the only person in the world who hasn't seen those series...

On the 4th we had a small get-together with our neighbors. I've been learning how to smoke meats, so this was an opportunity to put that to use. It's an all-day job to smoke and one thing I've learned is that smoking a lot of meat is only slightly more work than smoking a little, so if I'm going to do it, I'm going to make a lot. This time I made two briskets and 4 racks of pork spare ribs. I have an electric smoker so it's not as labor-intensive as a charcoal or wood burning smoker. But you do have to keep it full of wood chips so you're tied to it for the day. The other thing with an electric smoker is you have to watch the weather! It started raining about halfway through my smoke and I had to quickly build a lean-to with a tarp to keep my electrical appliance from getting soaked. The briskets turned out really well – juicy, smoky, and flavorful.One thing missing from my brisket is a nice smoke ring, but taste-wise they're very good. Better than what I can get at most restaurants. This was my first time making ribs and they turned out really well, if I say so myself. The meat tasted great and was falling-off-the-bone tender. My wife thought the rub I used was a little too peppery. It's a valid opinion because the primary ingredient was in fact fresh-ground pepper. But I personally like a peppery flavor, so I'm fine with. But next time I'll adjust the recipe a bit or try a different one to see if I can find something that works for everyone. I found a recipe for Aaron Franklin's famous Espresso Barbecue Sauce online and made that as well. I love that sauce and the recipe was pretty close. But next time I'm going to personalize it a bit by decreasing the vinegar a little and maybe adding a bit of a sweet element to it (not a lot, just a little bit) and I think it'll be perfect. [Update: I found a slightly different take on the recipe that seems to be closer to what I'd like. Check it out – keep scrolling down past the end of the article...]

On Sunday we took the kids to see Inside Out. This was probably the least enthusiastic I've been about seeing a Pixar film, mainly because the commercials just weren't very compelling. And also because the story concept is almost identical to Herman's Head, which was a pretty mediocre show. But as it turns out, the movie is very good and the commercials don't do it justice. Pixar has a perfect touch for making movies that are sentimental without being sappy, throwing in healthy doses of humor for the adults, and for making movies that appeal to children without patronizing them. Inside Out continued that tradition in my opinion.

So today I return to the grind at work. Oh well.

6/25/2015

The Show Goes On

My little work band just got called up at a corporate event to play a song. I'm telling you, playing somebody else's guitar, through somebody else's amp, with somebody else's sound, is such an awkward and uncomfortable experience. It's like wearing somebody else's underwear. In this case, it was assless underwear. But I tried to act like I owned the joint.

6/21/2015

Airline Suckage

I generally avoid bitch posts where the writer just gripes about things. But I've been traveling a whole lot lately, which has put me in the mood to do one. So I present to you, D7's List of Things That Suck About Airline Travel.

  • Airplane Prison  I get that a lot of delays are not the fault of the airline. But twice now I've been on a plane stuck on the runway for over 6 hours at DFW due to weather-related delays in take-off. I'm not exaggerating, it is absolutely ridiculous. If a plane is stuck on the tarmac for more than, say, 90 minutes, then suck it up and get the passengers off the damn plane.I know it slows things down when the logjam finally clears, but you need to look at that as a cost of business. Either that, or refund them their money. Because holding your passengers hostage is simply wrong.
  • Prison Overcrowding  The airlines have figured out how to squeeze every last penny out of a flight and a huge part of that is making sure every flight is full to capacity. The focus on flight capacity means that all airlines overbook flights as a matter of policy. It makes for uncomfortable flights in the best case, and getting bumped in the worst. And for all tickets sold after capacity is reached, it is by definition selling a product which does not exist. WTF?!
  • Carry-On Hoarders  Between carrying on too many bags or way over-sized bags, a lot of people squander a ridiculous amount of overhead bin space. If that space were plentiful I wouldn't care, but it's not. Carry-On Hoarders consume everybody else's carry-on space, making the rest of us subsidize their indulgence. They also slow down load-in/load-out. Fortunately this problem isn't nearly as bad as it used to be though because airlines have gotten a lot more aggressive about making these a-holes check in their bags.
  • Checked Baggage Fees  The airlines themselves are responsible for creating a lot of Carry-On Hoarders. Most of them now charge for every checked-in bag instead of bundling one checked bag into the cost of the ticket like they used to. Which leads me to...
  • Nickel and Diming Us to Death – I hate the fact that airlines have made every tiny little convenience an exorbitantly priced added cost  checked in bags, a decent seat, a reasonable boarding number. I could get behind that if the base price of tickets were lower, but in my observation they haven't really changed since the airlines started all this paid convenience crap.
  • Gate Crowders – This is understandable, but it's still annoying when people start crowding the gate even when their zone number is a long ways from being called. I think people do it because of the Carry-On Hoarders – they're trying to make sure they can get their carry-on luggage into the overhead bins. But it makes load-in take longer and it adds stress to an already stressful situation. 
  • Dwindling Legroom – Originally I was going to call this one, "Seat Recliners" but they're not really the problem. The seats are made to recline so people reasonably expect to be able to do that. But once again in the airlines' zeal to maximize profits on every flight, they've crammed in too many seats, and the leg room just doesn't support reclining. I'm 6' 2", which is tall but not real tall, and on some airlines if the guy in front of me (frustratingly, it's always a short person) reclines his seat, my knees are jammed into the seat back for the duration of the light. It's extremely uncomfortable and with average person heights increasing, average leg room is going in the wrong direction.
  • Smell Baggage People and their smelly food, cologne, perfume, body odor, farting, whatever. 'Nuff said.
  • Bathroom Pigs – Good grief people, have an ounce of personal pride! Pick up after yourself, wipe up the water you've splashed everywhere, and for the love of all that is good in the world, don't pee on the $#@ing floor.
  • Rude TSA Pricks – Unlike a lot of people, I'm generally okay with security lines at the airport. I look at it as part of the price I pay to travel safely in the 21st century. But a lot of TSA people have "customer fatigue." Over time, they've developed a contempt for passengers and it shows in the way they speak and interact with us. They're apathetic in the best case or outright hostile in the worst. They speak to you like you're an idiot or a nuisance for them (so, exactly what do you have better to do?). From a customer service standpoint, these people are cancers. They kill the TSA's reputation and they poison the attitudes of other employees to whom they're exposed. That said, the TSA workers who take pride in themselves and the job they do are a joy and they make traveling so much better.  
  • The Walmart School of Lane Optimization – Like I said, I'm okay with standing in the security line given the worst case alternatives. But I hate it when I'm standing in a really, really long line at security and it's being serviced by one or two lanes while several other lanes stand unused. We pay for those lanes through our taxes! Open them up and have a sense of urgency about your job! If you don't have the staff to do it, then why did you install more lanes than you can actually use? Either stop wasting our money or stop wasting our time; right now you're doing both.