Wednesday, 20 May 2009

I played for John Lennon! ;) anyway, last Saturday when I took my daughter to keyboard lessons at the local music store, while waiting for her lesson to finish (where I spend the time playing various guitars on the shelf), I got to play for John Lennon, and not only that, he said I was pretty good ;)

Okay, so it wasn't really John Lennon but the John Lennon look-a-like/tribute band musician Marcus Cahill, who happens to live in the area and was running the store at the time.  I had a brief chat to him about what he does, and why he was working in a music store.  No suprises - he gets good gigs overseas, and makes reasonable money, but here in sleepy Perth Western Australia there isn't much demand for his talents.  I got the impression that doing some work in a music store was not about trying to make ends meet, but rather to give him something to do during the day!

There's a couple of interesting tidbits to derive from that.  That it is possible to carve a living from being a not-specifically-world-famous musician.  That if you are prepared to continuously travel the world you could probably be fulltime run off your feet performing.  But if you just want to live in a suburb, in a city - even if you have enough money to live on - there isn't enough work to keep your hands busy so you may as well have a second job.

I don't have aspirations to be a working musician, I quite like my day job (okay, maybe not everyday, but on a whole, my day job brings me a sense of satisfaction.)  It is good however to see that for those who do want to be a working musician that it is possible to achieve, but maybe have a backup plan just in case you don't make it - or you *do* make it and just want to live in a suburb, in a city and live a "normal" life :)


Friday, 8 May 2009

Play plugged in

I did some more work on my home made battery powered amp last night, and did some test plays.  Apart from a resonant frequency rattle in it (will fix another night) it was quite faithfully reproducing the guitar signal, resonably flat frequency response, good power output - but you know, I immediately felt dissapointed.  After playing a few songs, playing with the reverb effects and the EQ on the guitar, I came to a conclusion that I have known for a long time but finally admitted to myself:  I'm not good at playing plugged in.

About 99% of my time I play unplugged.  Over, say, the past 30 years, my fingers and ears have learnt what I need to do to get the unplugged sound I want.  How hard to pluck the bass, where to position relative to the soundhole for a tone, that sort of thing.  Sure it varies from guitar to guitar but very quickly you can adjust your playing to suit the sound you are chasing.

I've always wanted, or hoped, that if you had a good guitar with a good pickup then the plugged in amplified sound would be exactly what your ears are hearing, just louder.  Well it's not, and you know, I don't think it could ever be.  Maybe if you had an external microphone with the same frequency response as your ear, located near your ear, piped into an amplifier that was completely faithful to the signal (ie flat frequency response), maybe then it would sound the same, but amplified.

Last night I decided I should stop fighting, and start learning.  Given that the amp you are using has a mostly flat frequency response, so not boomy in the bass, or too much gain in the middle - well even if it is - you should be able to compensate firstly with some signal processing and secondly with your playing.

What I found first was that with my reverb effects at any setting, on or off, I couldn't get the sound I wanted to hear.  Secondly, playing with the graphic equaliser on the guitar (bass, treble and adjustable frequency midrange) I couldn't get the sound that I wanted either.

Frustrated I played some different songs, suddenly I played a song on a setting that didn't sound so bad.  I started varying my playing to enhance the sound further - playing very delicately, where normally I am quite forceful and rough.  I found a sound I was happy with.  Smiling, I moved to another song and you know what, couldn't stand the sound again.  Experimented with different playing, still no good.  Tweaked the EQ, tweaked the a bit better.

I came to the conclusion that I don't know my instrument when plugged in; everytime I have recorded a song I always edit afterwards in software to compensate back to the sound I want.  I need to learn how to get a live sound from the guitar frequency response adjustments, with reverb settings (I love having a little bit of reverb) but importantly my playing style.

See, the electric guys don't have this problem, they are always plugged in, and invariably going through some effects.  The sound is what they learn from the word go.  Us acoustic guys don't get that inbuilt training.

I haven't spent enough of my guitar life playing plugged in.  It is time I remedied that.


Friday, 24 April 2009

What's happening April 2009

I haven't put in much guitar playing recently, again it's all work work work, family commitments and a two week holiday in my country retreat (okay, I've got a guitar there, but I don't play it much).  Generally it's a bit of a low spot in my life for guitar playing, which is a shame but reality, guitar playing is just a hobby.  As I've always said "working sure takes a big chunk out of your day".

I'm practising "Head over Feet" every now and then when I get a guitar in my hands; it's finished and memorised, but I struggle to play the solo cleanly.  I've really created something difficult for myself there, how very Bohemian of me ;)

I'm still building my battery powered amp, and it is nearly finished.  I've actually played through it and it's not bad.  Coming off a battery it is absolutely noise-free, I found it a bit boomy in the bass, I was hoping for a very flat frequency response.  I specifically built it "funny shaped" to try to address resonant frequency issues, but I've built it light weight with thin walled material so that is probably where resonances are coming from.  However, it didn't have a back panel on it at the time, I plan on making it an infinite baffle enclosure and stuff it with wadding so that should flatten things out.  Already though, it is looking to be a good amp.  Very powerful as well, and yet, not very hungry on the juice.  I was measuring a peak of about 1.5Amps (at 12VDC) for a very acceptable loudness in my shed, ie, I couldn't hear the sound of the guitar in my hands, only the amplified sound.  On the 7.2Ahr battery that means the battery will last much longer than I could play for!

I'm going to have to confess something here however, I'm in a mode of denial, escapism and fear.  I've wanted to start playing publically for well over a year now, and I'm sure that I am good enough for it.  But fear has caused me to be constantly finding excuses.  At first it was because I couldn't get a good sound out of my guitar.  So I bought a new guitar.  Then it was that I couldn't get a good plugged in sound, so I shopped around for amps, and found quite a few that were nice.  Then I said "but it has to be battery powered for the street", which none were.  Since I had previously built battery powered amps in the past, I took to making my own.  And I have dragged it on and on and on.  It is very close to finished, there is no reason why it couldn't be operational next week.  But see, that means that I have to start performing ;)

Once I am performing, I know I am going to love it.  That is a double edged sword, because I will want to do it more, and practise more, and all that other stuff which takes away from my family and work.  That scares me a bit as well.

But fear is not a good reason to not do something, and a bit of self control to avoid getting obsessed is good for the soul. day, soon, okay? ;)

Talent versus Persistence

It has become apparent to me, and it might even be true - no matter how much you practise and try, you cannot make up for a lack of talent.  You can come close, but you'll never achieve what you weren't born with.  Before we all hang our guitars on the wall to gather dust, or start flaming me for outrageously negative statements, let me explain:

First of all, you don't believe me?  If it weren't the case, then all you need to do is keep practising and you could be a Tommy Emmanuel/Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods/any leader of their skill.  Take Sungha Jung, he's what, 13?  I have probably played the guitar for at least twice as many hours as he has in his life - probably a lot more - yet he is superior player to me.

There is that edge, something different happening in the brain, in talented people.  Something that isn't learnt, it just is - like being born with the genetics to be two metres tall rather than one metre fifty.  But unlike being tall, or short, which is something obvious we can see (and we're happy there is nothing we can do about it), we can't see what is happening inside a brain, and whatsmore we can get pretty close to what those talented people are why can't we push on a little further to achieve the same?

Fortunately talent isn't everything; I won't try to put a number against it, but I'm sure that an un-talented person (such as myself) who has put in a lifetime of persistence is going to do better than a talented person who hasn't.  The hard slog will pay off in the end, thank goodness - otherwise nobody would bother - but watch out, when those with talent start putting the hard slog in too, well, it's lucky we have day jobs, and we're primarily playing the guitar for our personal enjoyment ;)


Thursday, 26 March 2009

Why Naudo is Best

Those who have followed my work will probably realise that Naudo is my guitar hero.  I study, analyse, transcribe, re-arrange his work and spew it out myself, never to his level, but enough to satisfy me.  I've emailed with him a few times, and with Juan his friend and cameraman, and of course sent him some money to further his incredible talent.

Okay, so out of all the fantastic guitarists out there, why does Naudo click with me? Well, more importantly, why did he click with so many people he became #1 most subscribed musician in Brazil on youtube before he was ousted "for copyright infringements"?  Sure he is an amazing guitarist, with an incredible repertoire and he seems like such a nice gentle fellow - but let's dig a bit deeper.

Us humans are creatures of habit, and music is no exception.  When we were young - and probably not so young - we would hear a song on the radio that we simply loved, and listened to it over and over and over until is was pretty much permanently burnt into our brains.  There would probably be a hundred songs in your brain right now just like that , and thanks to our socialistic tendencies I bet what is in your brain overlaps with what's in other peoples brains; ie, popular songs.  For starters, that's what Naudo plays - popular songs, and there will be one he plays that you love.  Click number 1.

When you hear your favourite songs performed by someone else - specifically *sung* by someone else - you immediately begin comparing.  Singing is such a personal thing, and such an infinitely variable thing, that the singer either needs to be singing it identically to the original, or in a way that really, really appeals to you to win you over.  How many times have you heard a professional band redo a song you love "and it's just not as good as the original"?  Well Naudo doesn't suffer from that problem, he doesn't sing, but he plays the melody of the song clearly enough that you know exactly what you are listening to, in fact you can't help but sing the words in your head as he plays it.  And when you sing in your head, it is the voice of the original artist.  Click number 2.

Then there is the gobsmack factor.  Yep, plenty of guitarists have this and what gobsmacks you might not gobsmack someone else, but generally, when you see someone playing something complex on the guitar smooth and fluently, you tend to go "wow, that's pretty good" and be drawn into click number 3.

Bringing all this together, Naudo arranges these popular songs you love in a complex & stylised manner, injecting a bit of humour (love the 'whit-whews' and snippets midway through from songs such as jingle bells) but most importantly he captures the essence of the song into his arrangement.  It is as true to the song, in his style, as it can possibly be.  Click game over.

I've played the guitar for many years, playing what I want to hear.  But now I want to play not just what I want to hear, but what others want to hear as well.  Naudo is my guide, as a solo fingerstyle guitarist, how to achieve that.

Here is an example of one of Naudos arrangements I've transcribed, in video lesson format: