Don’t wait for lockdown to be over. Your band needs you now.

It doesn’t feel like it’s a good time to be in a band right now, does it? It’s not safe to get together for auditions or rehearsals, and it’s not even possible to rehearse online (curse you, internet latency!) as I discussed in a spring 2020 post here . But that doesn’t mean this lockdown time should be wasted. There’s still a lot of positive band-work to do.

How I miss this place. Our soundman’s basement studio.

Forming a band and keeping it together is a challenge no matter what level you’re at. A band is way more than just a few people getting together to play music. There’s emotion and passion involved. There’s time and commitment, and a whole lot of people management. No matter what age you are or what type of music is involved, a band is an organic thing. I wrote about this in a previous post here, but here’s the gist in graphic form:

A successful band needs these three items in equal amounts.

A band lives or dies by the health of this three-part dynamic of talent (being able to play an instrument), chemistry (being able to get along), and schedule (being able to rehearse regularly). Prior to the pandemic lockdowns, these three things kind of worked themselves out together. People jammed together and decided if they wanted to continue. The chemistry would continue to grow – or not.

But just because we can’t get together right now doesn’t put an end to this process. I strongly recommend bands keep the momentum going by getting together on Skype or Zoom at the same frequency that they used to rehearse, maybe even on the same evening. There’s still a great deal to talk about: set lists, song endings, harmony parts, solo breaks, onstage banter, equipment, and other elements of a live show. You can discuss places to play, people to approach, or just talk music, sports, or anything else. The point is, even though you can’t work on the music, you can still work on the chemistry and continue to gel the band.

This is also a great time to work on the tunes themselves. Even though we can’t rehearse together, there are karaoke versions of tunes out there that can be downloaded with specific instruments removed, so that each band member can work on what’s important. These tunes provide consistency and can act as the base tune. You can use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to edit fadeouts into the hard endings or transitions that you plan to use when you play this tune. If there are solos to be learned, the time is now to practice the hell out of them. Same goes for your originals.

If you have harmonies, either vocal or instrumental to work on, or transposition of tunes into different keys, that’s something you can use Jamulus or JamKazam for. Sure, the latency is too much for real-time jamming, but how many times have you done the Spinal Tap thing, all searching for those harmony parts, wasting valuable and expensive rehearsal time? Jamulus and JamKazam at least give you the opportunity to practice segments of tunes, and that’s something you would do in person anyway.

This is also a great time to build up your brand, by participating in social media – Instagram, maybe Twitter, maybe Facebook or Tik Tok, as well as setting up relationships with event planners, bar owners, gig booking sites – all those people who will want you to play for them one day.

If you are looking for a new member to join, or if you are someone looking to join a band, the weekly video chat call is a great place to spend some time and see if you like each other, and what you have in common. You can all audition each other personality-wise.

The idea here is to not let the pandemic lockdown put dust on your instruments or dry out your desire to play. Every band member has the opportunity to do their part in getting the band’s various components individually so you can hit the ground running when the time comes. We all want to get back to playing live music, but it’s easy to forget that even in pre-pandemic days, there was more to forming a successful band than just the rehearsal.

It’s the best way to make up for this train wreck of a year.

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A Matter of Distance – Why Rehearsing Online Can’t Work

Like all other musicians on the planet, I really miss rehearsing and, of course gigging. So, like many of us, I went online to see if it was at all possible to rehearse using internet technologies like JamKazam and Jamulus. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Everyone’s assumption is that because we can all use Skype, Zoom and all the other video conference technologies to chat in real time, then we should be able to play music together. But the issue is one of latency.

When you talk with other people over Zoom, the minuscule delay that that happens between the time you say something and they hear it, is is just that – very minuscule and fits perfectly in with the brain’s natural interpretation of spoken sound. But music depends entirely on sticking to a beat, and as soon as you have more than one person involved, everything depends on matching that beat. The internet just cannot simulcast in absolute real time.

When a band rehearses in a studio or plays on a stage, everyone plays within mere feet of each other. Sound waves travel through air at roughly 1,000 feet per second. So you would have to be standing 500 feet apart from each other to start to notice troublesome delays. An audience at a large outdoor show might have people standing more than 500 feet from the speaker stacks, but the music from all the band members is mixed together and sent out at the same time, so even if it arrives half a second after the musicians played it, it will all arrive to those people at the same time.

“Can you hear me now?” The Stones in Rio 2006 – note the repeater towers all the way down the beach. Image courtesy Medium.com

For mega concerts like the Rolling Stones in Rio (1 million people), or any outdoor mega concert, speaker towers are set up both at stage level and also much further away and they are synchronized to ensure the sound going to the further towers is delayed slightly so that all sound waves from all speakers stay in line with each other without creating a cacophonous echo. That, by the way is also why we use floor monitors or in-ear monitors – to block out potential problems that come from too many speakers at different distances.

As a side note, it has always intrigued me how big acts do the whole audience participation thing, getting them to clap along or call and answer, without the musicians getting thrown off the original beat. For my money, Freddie Mercury was still the best at understanding this.

Freddie Mercury from Queen working the crowd – Wembley 1986 – Click the photo to see it on YouTube.

Live music is about connecting to that beat, and the speed of sound makes synchronization a non-issue. The internet, however, was not built to work at the speed of sound. It has always been about sending packets of data through a network of hubs, and anyone who is old enough to remember 14.4 modems knows how agonizingly slow that was. The very fact of being able to have a video conference with family members during this time of lockdown is still a fascinating concept to all of us who grew in the pre-internet era.

But for rehearsing music, it’s still not good enough. The problem is latency – a delay of 30 microseconds or more, and that’s too much for musicians to handle. My experience using Jamulus – but which could be applied to any of the online jamming brands – is that a delay of even 10 microseconds makes it feel like someone is playing just behind the beat.

Let’s take an inexperienced drummer for a moment. Why am I picking on drummers? Because a drummer’s job is to keep time, and to keep the flaky front people in line. Adrenaline and excitement make it very easy for a guitarist or lead singer to start a tune off too fast, or to waver the tempo as the tune goes along. We rely on drummers to be the metronome for the tune, and to deliver timing in an artful way. Inexperienced drummers, who have not yet recognized the true value of what they bring to the music, will sometimes fall behind the beat, just by a little bit. They enjoy themselves a little too much and start “playing along” to the tune instead of leading it. Just like anyone would do when tapping their foot or their steering wheel to a favorite tune.

The problem with a drummer who slips slightly out of the pocket is that the other musicians will then try to slow down in order to match the drummer’s reduced tempo, and chaos can ensue. Obviously, overcoming such slippage is the goal of any serious performing band.

But that’s what happens, in my experience at least, with online jamming solutions at their best. It’s certainly nice to hear your bandmates, especially after weeks of isolation, but playing inevitably starts to drag as everyone’s brain struggles to compensate for this minor lag.

Many online jamming solutions put the word “jam” in their name, and that’s because jamming is different from rehearsing. We can noodle around, playing tunes loosely and working on chords an harmonies, and yes, there may be great value in that. Think of all the precious rehearsal time you have spent trying to agree on the ending of a tune, or which harmony to take in a chorus. Those types of things – working on bits and pieces of a tune – would work well with a jam software, although I would suggest that Zoom, Skype or similar might be easier to use, because of the visual component.

This is a USB Audio interface. It sends an XLR and a line input (mic and guitar/keyboard) into your PC via USB. Price is roughly $100-$150.

In all of these situations, it really helps to have good audio equipment – that means sending your microphone and guitar signals through a USB Audio Interface device into your computer. Relying on the computer’s own teeny mic will not really cut it. Again, drummers need to decide whether to mic their kit, or maybe dust off the e-drums and plug them in. And of course, everyone needs headphones. You will also need an ethernet cable to connect your computer to your home router, because WiFi generally adds to the latency.

But to repeat, jamming, is not rehearsing. Rehearsing focuses on getting a tune (that everyone has already practiced thoroughly at home, amirite?) and putting it together as a multi-person product. It relies not only on the latency-free delivery of sound waves, but also on the eye contact and body language that all performers rely on to guide each other through the tunes. This, sadly, cannot be done online.

My summary, then, is that you will not be able to rehearse properly online until it’s safe to be physically in the same room again. But here are three things you can do in the mean time:

  • Use Zoom, Skype, Google Meet or some other video conferencing technology to meet up once per week to talk. Have a band meeting. Discuss tunes, family, whatever. If you used to rehearse on Wednesday nights, then schedule an online band meeting for Wednesday nights. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, band chemistry is vital to its ongoing success, and this actually might allow for more “together time” than you have had in the past. I know that even after this lockdown passes, I will ask my band to have a meeting once per week, outside of rehearsal time.
  • You can discuss starts and ends, and practice them online. That’s not the same as rehearsing the entire set, but it will make sure that once you are together, you will all have complete agreement of how the tunes should play. That will win back some lost time at least.
  • Use karaoke tunes to practice your parts with a virtual band. I’m a devotee of karaoke-version, which provides high quality versions of tunes with or without lead and backing vocals, and for couple of dollars more, you can create a custom track that strips out or lowers the volume on any of the instruments on the recording. Forcing yourself to play tunes without the existing singer/musician leading you on helps you step over that crucial barrier between recognition and recall.
  • Follow Steve Mac on Twitter (@The_WaveWatcher). He delivers a steady stream of highly valuable tips for gigging musicians that are an education unto themselves.

Soon, hopefully, we will be able to return to our rehearsal spaces and venues. It will be a different world for a while, which much greater focus placed on physical spacing and hygiene.

Until then, stay safe, keep practicing, and don’t let your instruments get dusty!

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To Be a Fly on the Wall in Genesis’ Studio

Mike Rutherford experimenting.

Some of the most fascinating gems to emerge from the YouTube mines, in my opinion, anyway, are videos of recording and rehearsal sessions from the bands I love. In the era before ubiquitous video cameras and cellphones, the act of filming was less frequent and more specialized. A band might bring in a film crew or journalist to film them rehearsing, which meant lights, cameras, and lots of strangers milling around, destroying the intimacy of the session. Much of the video we see of our musical heroes are either professionally produced concert or music-video footage, or cellphone video of a concert.

But when you love the intricacies of the production and rehearsal process, nothing beats amateur home-made video, usually shot by one of the band members, or someone very close to them, like a family member. This is when you get to see what it’s like to work as a rock star – and I mean work. It may seem wonderful to be able to spend hundreds of hours in a studio, but this, to some degree, is still work under pressure. It may be the pressure of a looming tour, or the pressure of having to come up with a new album that the record company will accept.

One of my favorites is a video shot by Phil Collins in 1982 or so, featuring the members of Genesis, holed up in a farmhouse studio in Surrey, experimenting with sounds and riffs that would one day become Home By the Sea, for the eponymous 1983 album. Released as a DVD bonus video, it’s wonderfully informal. Phil himself walks around showing off his new VHS video camera (he emphasizes it’s not BetaMax). He captures Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and producer Hugh Padgham – who is the splitting image of David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap, as they experiment with sounds and licks.

It’s remarkable to observe simultaneously the abundance of toys – keyboards stacked almost overlapping, guitars, amps and pedals, but all strewn around the room in an almost makeshift fashion. It’s equally fascinating to observe the lack of any trappings of stardom. Their cars, their clothes, even the food – just very basic. Phil himself seems as proud of the clunky 8-bit titles that he’s adding to the videos as he is of his drumming and his scratch vocals.

Genesis producer Hugh Padgham prepares to perform surgery on the tape.

It’s so neat to be able to look back across time, to identify a sound or a riff just being experimented with, knowing that this will soon become part of another gigantic hit for the band.

Perhaps my favorite scene of all, though, is Hugh Padgham making an edit to one of the tunes. This was in the pre-digital world. Bands recorded on 2-inch tape. It was all linear. The more successful you were, the more tape you got to play with. There was no ProTools, Garage Band or DAWs back then. You had tape and you had razor blades. With the precision of a surgeon, he rolls the tape back and forth across the play heads, to find the exact moment – the exact fraction of a second, where the cut must be made. There’s no Undo button to fall back on. He makes the cuts with smooth draws of the razor blade, removes a section and sticks the tapes back together.

“At Abbey Road, they tape both sides,” someone mentions. “Oh,” says Padgham.

There are quite a few of these rehearsal/recording videos available on YouTube. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones often had hangers on as well as artists like Andy Warhol eager to capture this other side of the glamorous business of making music. But the Genesis tapes really make you feel like you are there, like a fly on the wall, watching great talent at work in the most unpretentious of ways.

Here’s the link to the full video.

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What is Yacht Rock anyway?

I watched a recent Ford TV commercial (November 2019) that showcased the Ford F-150 pickup truck and focused on its trailer towing capacities. The spot portrays a truck deftly launching a decent-size pleasure boat into a harbor. The boat is named Brandy and the music that played through the spot is Brandy by the 1970s band Looking Glass. This is the tail-end of the second decade of this new century, and still this tune, like many others, persists.

Screen capture from a Ford F-150 commercial, featuring a boat named Brandy.

Brandy is a favored staple of the yacht rock genre. But what, many ask, is yacht rock?

Yacht rock refers to tunes that were released mostly in the 1970s or early 1980s that have the following traits in common:

  • They are very catchy, with choruses and hooks that will bury themselves in your brain for weeks.
  • They are more soft-rock than hard. Not really as soft as James Taylor or Carole King, but definitely not as hard as Deep Purple or Aerosmith.
  • Their production values are very high, with lots of exquisite harmonies and layered guitar and piano work.
  • They generally convey good feelings – especially travel, wanderlust and moving toward some new horizon, especially by sea.

The term yacht rock was coined decades later in a mocking way, suggesting that tunes like Brandy, Sail Away by Christopher Cross or Summer Breeze by Seals and Crofts were only listened to by wealthy people as they lazed around on their own yachts.

But the term has been embraced by those who love the music, and it helps to separate it from the dozens of other types of excellent music that people choose to gravitate to. Other members of the yacht rock artists community include Hall & Oates, 10cc, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, Boz Scaggs, and Jimmy Buffett, but there are also many bands who might be considered one-hit wonders, like Diesel (Sausalito Summer Night), Starbuck (Moonlight Feels Right) and Ian Thomas (Painted Ladies). Even if they had more than one hit in their career, these are the tunes people know, love and request.

So, it’s a genre that is unique to the 1970s – an era where tunes were a product of the individual talents and work histories of the musicians who recorded it. A blues-oriented drummer will add a very different spin than a drummer whose roots were in jazz, funk or early rock ‘n’ roll. The 1980s by contrast placed greater focus on electronic enhancements, the 1990s offered up retro-influenced grunge along with new country.

Today’s era of Spotify has essentially removed the idea of album-oriented music, replacing it with individual downloadable tunes, and more often than not, they are composed not on a piano but on a MacBook. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Music always moves with the times.

Yet 1970s music still captivates people of all ages. If you grew up with this music, then it holds a special place as part of the soundtrack of your life. But younger people who weren’t even born then tend to discover these tunes through other media, especially movie soundtracks, online games, and TV commercials. And in many cases they like it.

Aging rockers, those 70+ performers who are still filling stadiums, are doing so because their original fans are now bringing their kids and grandkids to experience the music. The Desert Trip mega concerts in California featured the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Roger Waters, and it’s a sure bet that the audiences weren’t 100% in the 60-70-year-old demographic.

This is not to say that 1970s music is better than today’s music. It’s just different. Every generation, and every calendar year showcases amazing acts – artists who both fulfill and exceed the current status quo to deliver musical satisfaction to fans. Its fascinating to think who from this decade’s lineup will be playing a Desert Trip style concert 40 years from now. Taylor Swift? Ed Sheeran? Ariana Grande?

To us at Absolutely Jack, we find yacht rock to be a perfect blend of catchy and familiar tunes that make you tap your toes or even dance and sing along. Personally, these are tunes that I can play a thousand times and never tire of playing them. Each time, it seems, I will hear something new – some extra harmony or acoustic guitar flourish that the group lovingly added during the recording to make the texture just that bit better.

So…if you work at a company based in the Toronto area and are looking for a faithful recreation of the 1970s yacht rock sound, I hope you will consider us. You can follow us on this LinkedIn page as well as on Twitter at @absolutelyjack. Our website, as you might expect, is absolutelyjack.ca. Here is a selection of the yacht rock tunes we play in the ambient sets. Or visit the Spotify playlist here. We also offer danceable sets because, hey, people just love this stuff. And you don’t even have to own a yacht.

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Paul Shaffer – We’ll be here for the rest of our lives.

schafferPaul Shaffer is a fascinating guy. At once both nerdy and cool, he has lived a musician’s dream, playing continually and successfully, backing up everyone who is anyone, and spending what seems like every waking moment immersed in music.

His autobiography, We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, is a fabulous romp through thirty or more years of his life, from his time as a young man growing up in Thunder Bay, where his lawyer father looked past his obvious talent on the family piano at Bar Mitzvahs and expected him to pursue a career in law, up to his long-time gig as musical director of David Letterman’s show, and beyond.

The audiobook is even better than the book itself, because Paul himself narrates it. His tone of voice carries with it a certain tone of disbelief, as if he can’t actually believe all of this is happening to him.

He describes coming to Toronto for the first time, as a student at U of T, finding work as a piano player for a local strip club, before hooking up with the cast of GodSpell that gave birth to the cast of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and many other comedy legends.

He is the living embodiment of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous quote, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” since every job he got seemed to lead to another bigger, better one.

He was the musical director for SNL; he was in Spinal Tap; he was almost an original Blues Brother (Belushi dropped him in a jealous snit for his collaborations with Gilda Radner), he busked with Miles Davis and David Foster in Scrooged, and of course, he penned “It’s Raining Men.”

His biography is a great adventure story in rock music history, a definite good read. Another great Canadian delivering great entertainment.

The Shaffer Move

Paul Shaffer leading the band.

As a performing musician myself, I always admired the way Paul pulled the Letterman Show band together for nice tight endings. Even though every member of the band was already a hotter-than-hot session player, it’s still a challenge to prepare and play tunes for each individual show. A half day’s rehearsal is not much to go on.

Watching them cruise effortlessly through tunes that could jam on much longer than the commercial breaks allowed, Paul would always pull the band towards a conclusion by raising his arm.

Now I know he is not the only band leader in history to ever do this, in fact I’m sure they all do. But the way he did it, night after night with such cool authority made it easy for me to refer to it as the Shaffer Move, when explaining it to the bands I work with.

Shaffer at Sea

Paul and the KTBA band. Such a fabulous jam!

I am always happy and proud to see Paul appearing with other music legends. He’s the go-to guy who never tries to put the spotlight on himself, but puts it on the music instead. Case in point: here’s a great video of a Paul Shaffer Super Jam – a 2019 cruise ship gig called Keep the Blues Alive, featuring Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Samantha Fish, Jimmy Hall, Walter Trout, Anton Fig and many more. It’s a fabulous jam, and Paul pulls it all together.

Another great Canadian music success story. Paul Shaffer, ladies and gentlemen!

 

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The Curious World of In-Ear Monitors

Stevie Wonder was one of the very first developers/users of IEMs. Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

My band is taking the plunge into using in-ear monitors (IEMs) and without a doubt, the plunge metaphor is apt. It’s like teaching kids to swim. IEMs are both loved and less-than-loved by performing musicians. On the plus side, they can deliver a perfectly balanced sound mix, tailored to each player, while removing floor wedges and the ever-present threat of feedback. They also provide excellent hearing protection. On the minus side, they remove the three-dimensional feel that you get from walking around the amps on stage. Some performers say they lose the direct connection to the audience. Hence the swimming metaphor. For many musicians, the experience is like trying to hear underwater. It’s alien and isolating.

I Can’t Hear You

This is one of the most common complaints I hear from musicians not wearing IEMs in a rehearsal or live situation. It can be extremely difficult to focus in on different soundstreams from different amps and speakers, since sound tends to travel in straight lines. It can be doubly difficult when rehearsing or playing in a small space with hard walls, since sound also tends to reflect off those walls creating intersecting straight lines.

It’s a wonder anything gets done at all. And the reason why it does, more often than not, is everyone inches their volume outputs up, progressively over time, resulting in a huge wash of sound leading to temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

IEMs put an end to this by delivering a mix directly into your ears. With a decent mixer/soundboard, and all  instruments mic’d or DI’d, there is no longer a need to play amps loud. Singers do not have to strain to make themselves heard. Lead guitarists do not have to boost their volume for the solo and then…er….forget to turn back down again.

Don’t Forget the Ambience

To remove that feeling of isolation from the physical space around you, simply include a couple of ambient mics in the mix. These will pick up some of the room sound, including audience comments, and will add that sense of three dimensional space. This is just like adding reverb to a guitar signal. The human ear is accustomed to processing secondary audio signals such as room echo. It’s the normal way of hearing. So of course it’s vital to mix that in.

Make Sure They’re Comfortable and Correct

Me rehearsing with IEMs in.

IEMs are specially shaped to fit in the average person’s ear, and should also include a soft rubber cap that seals off the ear canal from external noise. You cannot – or should not – use earbud style headphones, because they do not seal out the external sound.

They should also be physically easy to wear and should stay in place. The wires should go around the back of your head and down the back of your shirt to avoid getting snagged on guitar straps or clothing. If you generally stand still to play, then the wire should basically run all the way back to the mixing board. If you like to move like Jagger, then you’ll definitely need a wireless pack. These can be expensive ($600-$1000), but if you’re not gigging every second night, consider renting one from your local music store.

The App: The Magic Touch

Another complaint musicians have about IEMs is the time it takes to get a personal mix from the sound tech. The tech has lots to do, and setting up individual balances for every musician, along with the house sound, recording and everything else can be time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Double so each time you want to tweak your personal mix because it’s not quite right.

This is the QSC Touchmix app. This stock photo does not show it, but each can can be labeled.

But hey, there’s an app for that. Many newer boards now come with a phone/iPad app that allows each musician the freedom to adjust her/his IEM balance as much and as often as needed. This to me is the magic sauce that makes it all so worth it. All the faders are labeled, and the settings will stay in place even when you turn off, pack up, and then set up for the next gig.

If You’re Pushing Back an Ear, Your Mix is Off

IEMs still take some getting used to. They are a different experience. But you can say the same thing about a lot of things. Multi-effects pedals in place of stompboxes, voice sweeteners and harmonizers, loopers, MIDI, shooting your performance with Periscope. These are all new things that once didn’t exist, and now they do. Once upon a time Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric. The Beatles got weirdy-beardy. Lady Gaga stopped showing up in an egg. Things change and most often for the better.

When I see someone who is new to the IEM experience playing with one earpiece hanging out so they can hear their own amp or voice better, I have to tell them, “Your mix isn’t right. You shouldn’t need to do that.” That’s like getting a car, putting it in gear, and then getting out and walking alongside it, because it’s the only way you can really feel the road. If you can’t hear yourself in your mix, then fix your mix. Don’t forget also that using IEMs in only one ear risks hearing damage as your brain starts sending its own confused signals as it tries to balance out a very uneven sound pattern.

The Proof is in Who Uses Them

My band is still getting used to them. Half the band (myself included) love them and want to stick with them. The other half still needs convincing. Ultimately I will ask any hesitant musician to take a look at their musical heroes. The odds are they are using them. Why? They have access to anything they need, yet they still choose to perform with IEMs. Though most of us don’t travel with a 6-person sound crew, the wireless, digital sophistication of soundboards and apps make IEMs accessible to all of us, which, I believe, benefits performers and audiences alike.

More Info

This is a YouTube video put out by Darren Mullan of the amazing Australian band Hindley Street County Club, that not only explains IEMs, but shows you how they sound. If you want to read a more detailed summary about IEMs, check out this article from Sound On Sound.

 

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Those wonderful lost-then-found famous guitars

The news of Peter Frampton’s condition, a degenerative muscle disease called inclusion body myositis, and announced by Frampton himself on February 23, 2019, is of course bitter news made bearable by the fact he’s not dead, but will just be slowing down some. Those blisteringly fast and sublimely melodic solos that he has created during 50 years of touring and recording will remain, as will he and that amazing smile. I am sure, even after he completes his upcoming blowout tour, there will still be a lot for Peter to complete.

The Frampton Les Paul on the full-length cover of “Comes Alive.” Just one more reason why double albums are more fun than digital downloads.

Reading the news of his condition in a New York Times story led me to an another Frampton-related article from 2012, which talked about his reunion with his iconic triple-humbucker Les Paul Black Beauty that went missing after a cargo plane crash in 1980.  The article, by New York Times writer James McKinley Jr (Twitter: @jamesmckinleyjr) describes how the instrument escaped a fiery obliteration in Venezuela, only to be adopted by an individual in Curaçao, then discovered by a customs agent who repairs guitars in his spare time, and returned to Peter with the help of a diehard fan in the Netherlands as well as the head of the island’s tourist board.

Frampton was naturally delighted to get his guitar back and it didn’t take him long to be sure it was genuine. That’s one of the benefits of being a full-time pro-guitarist. You get so intimate with your individual instruments, you can recognize them by touch alone. He took the pickups to Nashville to be replaced, but he kept the scorch marks on the neck.

Peter Frampton on the left, Myles Goodwyn on the right, each with their long-lost guitars safely home. Hmmm. Is there something about losing a cherished guitar that makes rock stars turn to plaid?

A similar thing happened to April Wine frontman and composer Myles Goodwyn, who got his 1962 Gibson Melody Maker stolen in 1972 and returned only last year, December 31, 2018. He, too, knew it was the real thing as soon as he got got back in his hands.

It’s weird to see my two musical heroes in almost the exact same pose (and clothes) celebrating the exact same happy ending to a multi-decade mystery.

Me playing “Could Have Been a Lady” with a Frampton ending.

(As a side note, in tribute to these two great guitarists, I play a version of Could Have Been a Lady with a Frampton solo at the end, which always goes over well. You can see video of it here.)

I am sure there are many, many stories like this. The love for a particular guitar is made even more poignant by the fact that these artists can afford to buy as many guitars as they want, or have guitar manufacturers give some to them in exchange for an endorsement. When George Harrison lost his Gretsch Country Gentleman (it fell off the top of their tour van on the M1 in 1965 – read the story at the BeatlesBible here), he admitted he could have as many guitars as he wanted, but he had grown attached to that particular one. B.B. King’s Gibson, Lucille, enjoyed a better fate when it was rescued from a burning hotel. It was just that precious.

George Harrison and Lucy

Mentioning George Harrison inevitably leads to the amazing story of Lucy, a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop that had been repainted red. It had been owned by Rick Derringer, John Sebastian, and Eric Clapton before arriving at George’s Beverly His home. It was then stolen and taken to Mexico where it was essentially held for ransom. The full story is available in Beatles Gear, All the Fab Four’s Instruments, From Stage to Studio by Andy Babiuk. An excerpt, focusing on Lucy, is also available at B&B Guitars here as well as in my post here.

Guitars have a style and a personality all their own, and these models, epitomize this. Great tunes were written on them, concerts were played with them, and many famous hands touched them. As such, the artists’ souls and physical selves have blended with the wood and the finish and they have all changed and matured over time.

As for Peter Frampton, he will always be one of the greatest guitar virtuosos of rock. His solos were not just blues scales – they sang. There was melody to them. George Harrison, (of course), Eric Clapton, and Myles Goodwyn – all that beautiful music. And part of it came from the inexorable connection between the artists and their guitars.

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Downloadable Music and the Flipped Listener Relationship

Mr. Thoughty2

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about “everything that is wrong with modern music.” The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. He wasn’t one of those 70-something prog rock old-timers spouting on about today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era.

Thoughty2 describes how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are mostly written by a very small group of people, primarily two people in the US and two in Europe who compose using a computer. He also mentions a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop that echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

I’m not seeking to knock Thoughty2 here. He makes a great argument, and says great things about the Beatles. But every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 is saying, but it’s also possible to think this is a standard “kids today…get off my lawn” type rant. I recall similar arguments put forward in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music from Sinatra or the Big Band era. You could go back even further and imagine Thoughty2’s great-great grandfather complaining about how George Gershwin is tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer, had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of effort involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975 an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour. The first album I actually bought was Equinox by Styx, for $4.99. It was gorgeous yellow vinyl.

People would listen to the album side from start to end, poring over the artwork and liner notes as they listened. If the album was good enough, they would commit to getting up, crossing the room, flipping the record over and placing the needle down onto track 1 of side B. There was a lot of physical engagement in listening to an album.

But while recorded music was expensive, concerts, were cheap. That’s because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. But as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, the moment music becomes free (as it now has), artists and their employers – the record companies – will have to recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

Because modern music is free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the purchase decision, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase. There is always more on its way, coming to you with almost no effort on your part. And that has profound impact on how the tunes are crafted.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal, familiarity, and instant appeal. To be too different entails too much risk and instant abandonment. Tunes must have an immediate  instant hook – no long-extended introductions allowed – and in many cases the tunes play out as a backdrop to the artist’s video, both on YouTube as well as on the live concert Jumbotrons.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort if it is to make money.

Blue Swede: The hair! The collars! The Oogachakkas!

The early hook rule applied back in the 1970’s too. A tune had to have something compelling within the first four seconds to get the attention of a record company, and later, the listening public. Perhaps the best and most compelling song opening is the “Oogachakka-ooga-ooga” opening to “Hooked On a Feeling,” by Blue Swede available on YouTube here.

So I’m not sure I an agree with Thoughty2 that there is anything wrong with modern music. It’s what people want to hear, and is a direct product of instant and always-on media that modern consumers have grown up with. It’s just a very different approach – one that has flipped everything around.

I will always stick to the old-school, vinyl-oriented music of my 70’s youth. But music is to be enjoyed, so whatever kind floats your personal boat is never wrong. If it brings you joy, if it makes you feel good, if it adds to your life, it has done its job.

But just for the fun of it, and in case you have a couple of hours to spare, here’s a list of tunes with long introductions that I think are worth the effort. If you want more, here’s the list from Songfacts.com.

Baba O’Riley – The Who
Bat Out of Hell – Meatloaf
Bloody Well Right – Supertramp
Funeral For a Freind – Elton John
I Need a Lover – John Mellencamp
Sound and Vision – David Bowie
Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

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The Physical Aspect of Rehearsal: Recognition versus Recall

This is my pedalboard. It’s not that complicated, but it’s complicated enough for me.

Fellow band members often ask me why I lug my pedal board and guitars to each band rehearsal. After all we’re just going through the tunes – we’re not playing a show. My answer is that rehearsal is not just about knowing a tune. It is also about knowing how to play it, and playing it demands full body muscle memory. More than once when playing live I have hit the wrong pedal and ended up with a fuzz tone when I meant for clean. Or I have mistimed my return to the mic for that next harmony.

Musicians of any age and stage must remember there are levels to the practice regimen. First, there’s practicing at home. Next, there’s rehearsing with a band. Then there’s actually playing a show. Then there’s playing a bigger show. Then there’s playing a big show with many other acts.

Every one of these demands something more and teaches you as much as it pulls from you. Here are just a few examples:

The Difference Between Recognition and Recall

If you have ever studied a second language, have you noticed it is easier to understand someone speak it than it is to speak it yourself, even if you’ve taken years of language classes? That’s because when you hear someone, your brain recognizes the sounds it has heard before and can deduce meaning from them. But when you try to speak it, you have to reach back into the vaults and pull words out manually. That’s an act of recall and it’s much harder.

The same thing applies when learning a tune. You play along with a song on Spotify no problem. It seems easy to learn because your mind is being cued along, even in microseconds. “Here’s where verse 2 starts.” “Here are the words to verse 3.” “Here’s the bridge.” It’s all there. Even a tune you haven’t heard in 20 years, you will likely be able to sing along with because the playback cues your memory and you recognize the pattern of words and notes in something just approaching real time.

You take that song to your rehearsal space and start practicing it with your people, and it’s easy to forget everything. I call it bandnesia. The total lostness of the song. “Wait,” you say, “is the solo after the second verse or the third one?” “How many times do we repeat that line?” You get frustrated, knowing you’ve practiced this tunes dozens of times with your headphones on. But the problem is, you’ve practiced recognizing it all those times. Now, with your bandmates, you now have to recall that tune, and so do your fellow musicians. And you must all recall it the same way. That’s what rehearsal is.

Then you get onstage. This is a different world. There’s the excitement of the crowd. There’s adrenalin rushing through your system. There are the distractions of lights, bigger sound, and the sheer awareness of being looked at. That’s a wonderful sensation, but it can really mess with your memory. I have seen musicians completely forget what note or fret to start a tune on when they’re up there under the lights. Total blank. It happens, and it’s nothing to be afraid of, but it is something to be aware of. Maybe write out the starting chord on your floor sheet, for example.

Each of these levels – practicing at home, practicing with the band, playing on stage, is 10 or even a 100 times more challenging than its predecessor. There are things that rehearsals just cannot prepare you for.

Muscle Memory is Different Than Mental Memory

That’s why I bring my full gear to rehearsal. Every single action, like hitting the right pedal, tuning up between songs, knowing that mysterious place in the universe that picks vanish into and most importantly, being fully aware of your physical self – how you move, how you smile, how you connect with your bandmates and your audience, how to smoothly switch guitars or change up settings – how to look up at the audience even during the difficult solos – all of these need to be memorized just as much as the words and the notes.

It’s a hassle bringing all that gear to rehearsal and spending valuable time setting it up and taking it down. But you watch a great live show and you can see just how well planned and practices every move, every line of banter, every spontaneous huddle and chat between the guitarist and the bass player in the middle of a song. And most importantly, the sharp start and impressive end to each tune.

If You Want to Be Spontaneous in Life, Plan to Be Spontaneous

Keith spits out his cig under a perfect keylight in Scorcese’s shine a light. He always knows what he looks like. See it on YouTube here.

Yes it’s a joke, but it’s not. Even Keith Richards, the loosest, shaggiest guitarist of all time, knows exactly where the best camera angles are, he knows how to coordinate his layered clothing style and how to sling that guitar really low. Spontaneous does not mean unrehearsed. It means it appears spontaneous to the audience, and that requires practice. It’s theater. Even Kurt Cobain did it. It just didn’t look like he did. Which is the whole point.

One can never over-rehearse, in my opinion, because the wild unpredictability of live performance will always deliver new challenges. But I have worked with many musicians who say, “We got this tune, let’s move on,” to which I always reply, “No you don’t.” Let’s do it again.

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Forming a Band? – Read a Business Book

This is a post about becoming successful as a band. It’s about music, so don’t let this next paragraph turn you off. In fact if it does turn you off, that’s likely part of your problem. So here goes.

There is a great book that you can find in the business section of any bookseller, online or otherwise. It’s called the E-Myth Revisited, and it’s by Michael Gerber. I recommend it constantly to clients and to my professional speaking audiences because of its simple premise: just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’ll make a good entrepreneur. That’s the myth. That’s what the letter “E” stands for in the title: Entrepreneur.  To succeed in business, you have to have a triangle of talents: 1.) your subject matter expertise; 2.) your marketing ability; and 3.) your management ability.

In terms of being a musical act, your subject matter expertise means your ability to perform live, which is very different from simply being able to play your instrument. Marketing ability helps you locate new business, and management ability helps the business run. Most businesses fail because the entrepreneur only wants to focus on what he/she does best, leaving the other two sides of triangle unattended, at which point the business collapses.

It’s the same with bands. Many people form bands with the idea of jamming once per week and then hopefully getting a gig somewhere. There are a lot of talented, passionate musicians out there. But for the band to make it out of the basement, they must fit themselves inside the place where talent, chemistry and schedules overlaps. People have to be able to play, but they also have to get along in some form – be on the same mental page. And they need to be able to get together no less than once per week, in order to keep up the  momentum.

  • If you have talent and chemistry, you will likely have a great time jamming and experimenting in the basement, and for many that is certainly enough. It’s the sheer joy of playing music with kindred spirits. Nothing wrong with that, but it won’t get you many gigs.
  • If you have talent and a schedule for regular rehearsal, you will likely have a band for a while, but once new members pass through the honeymoon stage of “Wow! this is cool,” their true personalities will emerge. Just as with any team that is formed in the corporate world, the danger of things falling apart is high if the chemistry and sense of team is not omnipresent.
  • If you have interpersonal chemistry and an schedule that allows regular rehearsals, but the talent is not quite there, well, lots of practice is in order. Playing live onstage is a lot harder than jamming in the basement. Some musicians are indeed lucky to learn this by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the road, hardening up their skills under the lights. But for basement bands, it’s vital to use that valuable rehearsal time to rehearse as a band, rather than noodle around.

Once a band finds itself in the perfect center of this Venn diagram, it must then have a read of – or listen to – Mr. Gerber’s book to understand fully that industry they are operating in is called show-business, not show-play. A band is a business. It needs management and marketing just like any other entrepreneurial undertaking. That means boring stuff like budgets, contracts, bank accounts, insurance, punctuality, advertising, competitive analysis, pricing strategies and a business plan. That’s not so much fun, but there’s the rub. Without all of these items backing you up, the band will just fall back in on itself.

Have a look at these guys. Read up on them. From their earliest days back in NYC as Wicked Lester, Gene and Paul had a business plan to create a product. Not just play music, but create a product filled with marketing and branding excellence. Remember the KISS Army? This was a major step up from the fan clubs created for the Beatles and people like that.

You might not want to look and sound like KISS, but have a look at how they put on a show. It’s an experience. There are many other acts you could choose to study in place of KISS if you want. Alice Cooper and Meatloaf were part of the first rockers to put choreography into their acts, paving the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks, the Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift are role models of a hugely satisfying, yet largely unadorned spectacle. They don’t wear kabuki makeup, but their energy and sheer strength of performance surpasses the songs’ own impact. Of course Mariah Cary, J-Lo and a host of others now fully understand the importance of visual amazingness in their concerts.

The point is, regardless of the ultimate goals of a band, whether it’s to play professional festivals like SXSW or simply a local pub, the odds of getting there increase when a business approach is used. Although most musicians say they play music in part to get away from the trappings of the business world, it cannot be denied that music is a business and performing it is a product. So alongside the biographies of your favorite music heroes, it might be a good idea to also have a copy of the E-Myth Revisited.

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