Posts Tagged ‘guitar’

bossI seem to have bought one of these; a device that will revolutionise my performances. As I don’t have a band, nor the ability to find one (nor the patience to lead one, nor the finances to pay one) this will be the way to enhance my live sound. What a loop pedal does is to enable you to set up various musical phrases, chords, beats etc. that will repeat (as if on loops of old-skool tape) as you play, adding depth to your music.

I do mostly acoustic gigs, however most of my songs are ‘band’ songs; they’re written with a full folk-rock/indie arrangement in mind. Only in the studio can I fully realise them as I originally heard them in my mind’s ear when they were composed. Some of you will have heard my song ‘Drifter’, performed here with flautist George Roberts:

Here is the recorded version:

So when I play live, there is a bit of a mis-match between what I’m presenting to people and how I actually see myself as an artist. I do have some folky tunes that don’t require extra adornment, but most of my stuff would benefit from some level of embellishment.

The trouble is that extra layers of sound don’t neccessarily add interest to a live set; in fact, for a solo act they can work against it. In ‘organic’ music (as opposed to electronic), the interest is generated by the fact that musician is actually playing in front of you in real time. Layers of recorded sound (even if you’re recording them  yourself during the performance) can detract from the spontaneity and humanity of your performance. If a solo performer’s sound gets bigger and more interesting during a gig, they themselves tend to lose charisma in comparison.

The widespread use of these pedals has led to a genre of ‘loop-folk’ where acoustic guitarists layer-up guitar parts, often to a beat that they have laid down by tapping the body of the guitar. Unfortunately, they usually use simple three or four chord sequences that don’t vary. The fact they are usually using the same sound for all their parts doesn’t help. I will have to work out how to drop in and out of loops so things don’t get tedious – dynamics and chord modulation are important to me.

This device will never become my ‘band in a box’. For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t want to dilute the immediacy of my performance (such as it is), nor do I want to risk a poor imitation of the recorded versions. But it will enable me to feature my guitar technique more, which is more from the rock tradition – soloing over chords – than the folky self-accompanying style, which is what I have been restricted to. It will also enable me to lay down beatbox rhythms  and vocal harmonies, and add tonal colour.

These pedals should be used wisely, like The Force, otherwise the dark side beckons!

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Ok, here’s the first in a series of posts about seminal moments in musical TV history. To be more specific, they are about various times in my life when I happened to see something that blew my mind, my heart, and generally left me in an exhilarated heap on the living room floor. This happened several times in my young life; and the occasions were often influential on my musical self.

Let’s start with BB King. It was July 1986 and like most people in the UK, and the world probably, I was watching the Live Aid concert on TV. Early on, BB King appeared with a performance beamed from a gig he was playing in Holland. I had already heard of him but as soon as he started playing I couldn’t believe that a guitar could make that noise.

His playing is so intense, but sparing. He contributes to the groove like a player in James Brown’s backing band. His voice is like the well-worn larynx of a southern gospel preacher with a fondness for rye whisky, roaring and barking the blues.

At the end of the first number ‘Why I have the blues’ he dazzles with some raw jazz phrasing that has been burned into my memory since I first saw it. I recorded the concert on a cassette tape recorder pushed against the TV speaker and those few seconds are my favourite part of the gig. It’s the slightly overdriven tone he uses here that really exites, combined with spiciest fretwork ever.

Here I may be controversial – on many of BB’s recordings he uses a completely clean tone that sounds annoying after a couple of verses. His playing is always at its best – like here – when it’s gritty and gutsy.

I went to see him the year after. The size and presence of the man is extraordinary. He had everyone at the Sheffield Octogan in the palm of his huge hand, with the call-and-response crowd skills he shows here. The trumpet player from this clip was there as well, still waggling his head around in a frankly worrying fashion – an unconventional brand of blues headbanging

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When I was a kid I was in love with motorbikes – along with dinosaurs and knights, they were one of the great obsessions of my childhood. 

I can’t remember how it started, but by the age of nine my bedroom walls were lined with posters of Kawasakis, Suzukis and Hondas; I amassed a sizeable collection of books on the subject and I drew and painted the machines incessantly. When we moved onto a street with a motorcycle showroom on the corner, the fire was stoked still further and I would indulge my two-wheeled fantasies constantly.

All of this was of some concern to my mother, who envisaged me killing myself as soon as I got the chance to ride. An ex-nurse, she was full of lurid tales about road accidents involving motorcyclists and would recount them regularly in order to put me off. It didn’t work however. It was clear to me then, as it is now – the motorcycle is the most exiting invention humankind has ever devised.

The sound of a bike is enough to quicken the blood; the growl of an exposed engine turning over gives off a feeling off danger before you let even out the clutch. That element of risk is what makes it sexy, combined with the individualism of the solo rider, who is bonded to his metal steed in a way humankind has known ever since we first tamed wild horses millenia ago.

I have never understood how anyone could get exited by a car. Sitting off to one side of the vehicle, dragging round a whole lot of extra seats, space and weight, the car driver is contained; cossetted within a piece of vehicular real-estate. Contrast that with hurling yourself through the cold air, exposed, with an angry engine between your knees. A motorbike is pure freedom.

As I got older, my interests changed. To everyone’s surprise, and some relief, I didn’t become a motorcyclist; I kept my feet on the street. But I still salute the individualism that the motorcycle represents, and the cultural impact it has had.

Motorbikes have appeared everywhere in popular culture, from films like Easy Rider to literary eulogies such as “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. But my favourite piece of motorcycle culture is a song by the English singer/songwriter Richard Thompson.

A master of storytelling and character in song, Thompson (a founder member of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention) recounts the tale of a rebel motorcyclist who woos a  flame-haired woman “Red Molly” on his motorbike, only to come to a messy end, handing her the keys to the machine on his deathbed. Accompanied by his unique, virtuoso guitar playing, this is a Thompson classic. Enjoy…

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Can I start by saying that this is not an attempt at a “how-to” article for budding songwriters. For one thing, I dislike tuition in popular music, but also in an important sense, I don’t really know how I write songs anyway.

For me, there is a fundamental mystery at the heart of the creative process and the last thing I want to do is attempt to codify or systemise the thing.

We are already living in an era when TV talent shows have reinforced the idea of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do things, where the expression of your musical feelings is something to be tutored and judged by self-appointed ‘experts’, rather than something you figure out for yourself.

All I want to do here is outline the route I’ve travelled as a songwriter and point out some of the things I’ve discovered on my journey so far.

(N.B. when I refer to ‘pop music’ I mean everything including rock’n’roll, disco, heavy metal, rap etc…it’s all pop music to me.)

IN THE BEGINNING…

Apart from a short stint playing the trumpet at school, my first steps towards songwriting came when I took up the drums at age 13, and joined a band with some older guys who lived around the corner from me. The guitarist in the band showed me a few chords on the guitar and I took things from there, using my Dad’s classical guitar and chord book.

Like many youths in the mid-80’s I was a big fan of The Smiths and Billy Bragg. But I was also obsessed with Dire Straits, not something I had in common with many of my peers at that time – I could only enthuse about the band with my dad. One thing I liked was Mark Knopfler’s conversational vocal style, his tunes often being half-spoken. You can hear this in their big hit Money For Nothing, and also on a song called Wild West End from the first Dire Straits album.

My songs at that time were (and mostly still are) about myself in relationship to the world around me. As a sensitive teenager, The Smiths’ wit, honesty and melancholy touched me, while from Billy Bragg I absorbed the possibility of being a self-contained musical force.

INSPIRED BY MY INSTRUMENT

Songwriting for me has always gone hand-in-hand with the exploration of my instrument: the guitar. If every song gives you the opportunity to say something different, it’s also an opportunity to play something different. Bands like the aforementioned Smiths and U2 seemed to find a different guitar approach to each song. They gave me the impetus to experiment with my instrument. Just putting my fingers on the neck of my guitar at random allowed me to find new and interesting chords, which would suggest melodies. I was also fascinated by blues, jazz and improvisation, painstakingly teaching myself to bend notes with the feeling of B.B.King.

At 15, I discovered the radio DJ Andy Kershaw, who played a wildly diverse selection of music from around the world. My routine was to sit by the radio with my guitar and jam along to whatever he played on his BBC radio show, which could be anything from bluegrass to hip-hop, calypso to African Highlife. Spontaneously coming up with guitar parts to each track was stretching me and giving me a feel for arranging songs.

For me, arrangements are part of composition. I’ve never been convinced of the wisdom of the aphorism (possibly attributable to Noel Gallagher) that “you can tell a good song because you can play it on an acoustic guitar and it still stands up”. Firstly, you don’t subject a song to any kind of test other than whether you like it. And second, a song is ‘sung’ by the instruments as well as the voice. For instance, one of the most brilliant, catchy and memorable songs I know is David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” and if you played it on acoustic guitar it would sound rubbish.

At one point I felt frustrated that my songwriting wasn’t sounding ‘like me’ yet, just reflecting my influences. So I decided to explore this by deliberately writing in the style of famous artists for a while, as if I was them. I no longer remember any of the tunes, but I do recall that I was writing for both Aerosmith and The Smiths at one point.

SONG STRUCTURE

If you listen to a diverse range of music, then you are exposed to different kinds of song structure. Of course there are no rules, but there are various features which recur commonly in popular music. Here are my thoughts on some of them.

1. THE VERSE

The bulk of a song’s lyrics are generally in the verses, and there may anything between two or nine of them (if you’re Bob Dylan) Most common, though, are three verse songs. Whether or not your song has a ‘beginning, middle and end’ to it, the three verse structure implies a narrative, however subliminally, and this is something you can play with or against.

Bruce Springsteen’s songs are sometimes like mini-novels, with tragic or heroic characters struggling against the dirty side of the American Dream. Despite what can be achieved like this, there have been some great lyrics which either don’t mean a great deal or are impossible to decode.

I particularly like the lyrics of Michael Stipe because they sound great, whether I can understand them or not. REM songs are full of beautiful phrases that wash over you in an impressionistic way that doesn’t tie them down to a specific meaning.

2. THE CHORUS

What is a chorus? Broadly speaking, a chorus is something that repeats three or more times throughout a song, is catchy, and sums up the overall message somehow. A chorus often steps up the drama or emotion in the song. It’s the satisfying bit that the verses are working towards, but unlike the punchline of a joke, it seems to gain power the more it’s repeated. It can be a contrast to, or a development of the musical style of the verse.

I won’t give examples of great choruses here; we all know hundreds of them. They are probably the biggest reason we love great pop music. At the same time, some songs don’t need a chorus at all; a good example being “House of the Rising Sun”, as recorded by The Animals.

3. THE MIDDLE EIGHT / BRIDGE

These terms are interchangeable. ‘Middle eight’ refers to an eight-bar middle section and ‘bridge’ suggests something linking sections of a song. Whatever you call it, this section is essentially about introducing something a bit different to the song. Something that changes the mood but still fits in, like a pleasing detour. Lyrically it’s often a way to get philosophical or take a sidelong view of what you’re singing about.

Not every song needs a middle eight/bridge. Then again, sometimes they get repeated in a song. But they’re at their best when they vary significantly from the main sections but still resolve nicely back into the song.

KICKING OUT CONVENTION

The Smiths are an example of a group that would never let anything as trivial as convention get in the way of an addictive tune. Listen to ‘Panic’. I would defy anyone to describe the structure; whether it’s one verse with two different choruses or two different verses and one chorus (and maybe something is a bridge?)…whatever the case, everything builds up exquisitely to that final singalong : “Hang the DJ…”

 

THE ONGOING CHALLENGE

Songs come to me at unpredictable moments, and not just when I have a instrument in my hands. A tune or lyric can appear in my head when I’m in the shower, walking down a street or even in a dream. Sometimes they can be almost fully formed and only need a little finishing off, but it’s not always that easy. I have had verses or choruses kicking around for years before I finally find the other pieces that make the song work.

OTHER STUFF

If you’re singing a song people tend to assume that you are also the narrator, but that’s not always the case. Tom Waits’ songs are often sung from the perspective of a character, maybe an escaped convict, a ship’s captain or that strange character he’s created called Tom Waits.

Whether writing from scratch or jamming a tune together, collaborating with other musicians is one of the most fruitful ways of finding songs. Except for someone like me!! I enjoy improvising with other musicians but if I have a compositonal idea, I generally find that it is part of a complete (or potentially complete) song – a song that exists somewhere in my head, which only I can uncover. I envy musicians who are able to co-write but I’ve always been more comfortable working things out on my own.

Other things I think about when writing/arranging songs are hooks, riffs, counter-melodies and harmonies. I wont go into them all now but they are all important to me when I’m composing.

THE INSTINCTIVE UNIVERSE

So far I’ve been talking about approaches to ‘songy’ songwriting i.e. making hummable tunes. But there are other influences that are hard to talk about in the same way because they come from a more experimental tradition. If I was to discuss the songcraft of Jeffrey Lewis or Syd Barrett…where would I start? I wouldn’t try because they radically deconstruct musical forms, and their music is suffused with their unique, oblique personalities.

This is why teaching pop music is stupid and pointless, cos so much of what attracts us to great pop music is instinctive and personal by its very nature.

During it’s most powerful phases, pop music progressed at a breakneck pace and no-one knew what was going on. On the whole it was made by people with little technical musical knowledge, certainly when compared with the classical music world. Classical music requires training and study, but in pop music, inexperience and naivety can be as effective as skill and knowledge.

As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking up an instrument as a kid is the fact that it has no rules attached to it. It is a gateway to your own world, not somebody else’s.

But the proliferation of ‘fame academies’ and pop music courses is creating a generation of musicians who are so self-consciously analytical about making music, and so calculating of their commercial potential, that any character they might once have had is obliterated.

I continue to be inspired by different genres of music but at heart I’m something of a traditionalist and enjoy a ‘well-crafted’ song. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is one of the few new-ish artists that’s able to do that, with a real personality coming through. Unfortunately there are only so many melodies out there to be discovered and we rarely hear tunes of a Motown-quality any more. But we keep trying!

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Originally published in Seba Rashii Culture Zine
Dinosaur Jnr
East Village Arts Club, Liverpool
03/9/13
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Tonight’s support band, the 6-strong Kult Country, is adept at whipping up Arcade Fire-isms to peaks of rhythmic intensity, with a female violinist moonlighting as a percussionist on a couple of songs.
The final number, complete with crunchy, barking vocal effects shows a commendably experimental streak. But that’s not why we’re all here. Oh no…
 
Onstage is a veritable city of Marshall amp stacks with a gap in the middle for a drum kit. Just looking at this arsenal of amplification is enough to give you an ear haemorrhage.
The band about to plug into it have carved a particularly distinctive furrow into rock history, for while inspiring many a teenage dirtbag to pick up a guitar, they have never come close to deploying noise-by-numbers. J Mascis, the perennial mixed-up kid, is as close to the winsome world of indiepop and psychedelia as the badlands of punk and metal.
Taking the stage to a welcoming roar they launch into “In a Jar”, and there it is, like a slab of burning granite – the fully cranked Mascis guitar.
 
With barely a break between numbers, they alternate singalong buzzbombs such as “The Wagon” with mid-tempo rockers; “Out There” showing off Mascis’s chordal sophistication.
The one fatal flaw is the sound. Mascis’s just-got-up vocals – such a distinctive part of the Dinosaur Jnr spell – are all but lost in the mix.Standing enigmatically silent between songs, the now white-haired Mascis leaves all the audience interaction to bassist Lou Barlow, who delivers a chummy banter from beneath a curly mop of which ELO’s Jeff Lynne would be highly jealous.
 
Things reach a peak during a thrilling jam on “Forget The Swan”, an 8-minute rush of stoner punk adrenaline, Mascis’s epic guitar solos powered by solid rocket boosters that never burn out.
Towards the end of the set they do a song by Deep Wound – the band Mascis and Barlow formed in high school. It’s a boisterous enough punk number, but following it, “Freak Scene” provokes the first moshing of the night.
Ending on The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, Dinosaur Jnr have done just enough to prove to all present that, white hair or not, they still have a winning way with a decibel.
By Tom George
Photo by Tomas Adam www.getintothis.co.uk
 

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Ten years ago this summer, I embarked upon a musical journey through Western Europe, equipped with little more than six strings and a sense of misadventure. It was a memorable trip, and three years later I wrote up the escapade for an issue of The Korovian, the in-house journal of Liverpool music venue Korova (now defunct but rumoured to be making a return).

What better time then, to revisit that sun-kissed summer once again…

Tour of Beauty (Pt.1)                                                                                       

June 2003. I was a part-time muso dolebag facing another summer with a whole lot of nothing going on.  “Got to get me some kicks!” I thought. So I logged on and booked a flight to Barcelona, out of my self-imposed oblivion.

There was a plan, of sorts. I knew I could make money with a guitar on the streets, and a dreadlocked busking veteran had once told me that there were rich pickings to be had anywhere in Spain.  Now I don’t mind living on my wits, indeed it gives me a great sense of freedom, but the airfare for this little venture had damn near cleaned me out, and I got on the plane with just 300 Euros to last me seven weeks.

Hey, instinct told me to do it. And instinct was right…

As soon as I left the plane, I was hit by an all-over body massage of 30 degree heat. Truly, I’d made the right leap. I was EUPHORIC. So euphoric that I walked straight into Alanis Morrisette’s more beautiful twin sister, who told me her name was Alison, and whisked me through Barcelona’s Metro system, in the spirit of traveller solidarity, to the cheapest, cushiest hostel in the city.

The Kabul hostel has 4 floors of dorms and is a snip at 15 Euros a night. More importantly, it looks out onto Placa Reial, a massive square with fifty-foot pine trees and a fountain – a perfect chill-out zone. That evening I walked out to find hundreds of people sitting around in groups, drinking, smoking and swapping stories. I only had to sit down to make friends, and everyone wants to meet The Guy With The Guitar…

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Next day I went scouting for the best busking pitches, and I didn’t have to look far. Las Ramblas is a wide street that runs between the beach and the town centre, and like Princess Avenue in Toxteth, it has a raised walkway down the middle. This teems with tourists day and night, and cafes have their tables set out on the walkway.  My technique was to work my way up Las Ramblas, playing 3 songs every twenty feet or so, and passing my hat round the tables.

Maintaining people’s attention like this gets exhausting after 3 hours, but it’s worth it for the interaction, and the big tippers.

There were several others working the same circuit as me; a tall smackhead with a penny whistle, a sexy green-haired juggler girl, and countless ‘human statues’ dressed as biblical characters or celebrities, who would move when you made a donation – easy money, if you ask me.

At night in Placa Reial, business inevitably merged with pleasure. I’d do a bit of Beatles, Dylan or whatever came to mind, pass the guitar round and meet new characters from every continent. Often, it felt so cheeky to soil the encounter with a sheepish “…any contributions, then?” but I was doing it to survive, and got respect for that.

One night a crowd of us stumbled off to the beach where, rumour had it, there was much partying to be had. I gatecrashed a campfire drum-party, introducing a little Bob Marley to the mix, while rappers took turns. Having played myself to exhaustion, I finally crashed out hugging my guitar, ‘cos it had taken me this far…

Next morning I awoke in searing sunshine, to a total absence of partying, no new ‘friends’ and no guitar either. I had 50 Euros to my name and a mission – to find the cheapest instrument in the city and get back to work.

In the hostel I had met Gali, an Israeli with a voice like Grace Slick. We teamed up and honed a crowd-pleasing set of covers – California Dreamin’ and the like – and worked the café tables with ‘Serena’, my new acoustic guitar which I’d managed to buy for just 30 Euros. (Gali had advised me to name it this one, otherwise it might leave me too)

We were a great team. I’ve often found that a boy/girl combo can become more than the sum of its parts, as audiences can speculate on the precise nature of the chemistry between you. There was no sexual spark between Gali and me, but for some reason we constantly tried to outdo each other with obscene jokes.

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Exploring the back alleys one day, I came across a tiny bar which had just opened; a  bohemian cubbyhole with red spotlights and cushions. I got talking to the owners, two English guys who had decided to move to Barcelona on the spur of the moment. I had just moved into a big apartment that I shared with four others, and I too was starting to think “Fuck! I could just live here, full-time!” The new place was 25 Euros a night, but I was making twice that every day and having a ball.

But as perfect an existence as all this seemed, it was soon to become clear just how precarious a street musician’s life can be.  One night, I was involved in an amazing jam session in the square. One lad had a huge Djembe drum, and a charismatic French rapper was instigating call-and-response chants with a fifty-strong crowd who danced around us. We were really hitting a peak when a police van zoomed into the square. Two cops got out and started waving their hands and pointing at their watches; it was 2AM, so reluctantly, we wound things down.

Of course, once they had gone, we resumed our party. The cops soon returned, and dragged the drum into the back of the van, driving off with the poor owner of the instrument in hot pursuit. As far as the authorities were concerned, cultural vitality has its limits.

It was August and Gali told me she was moving on, heading for Paris. Not only that, I had just been stood up on a date by a girl from the English bar. But I didn’t care – 175 Kms South there was a ticket waiting for me at Benecassim, Spain’s biggest music festival, where in various ways, my trip would get even hotter.

To be continued…

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