Monday, 10 April 2017

What's happening April 2017

Deli Chicchi, where I was playing most Sunday nights, closed in the evenings for the season, which is a shame. It has been a good experience playing there; a regular gig keeps me on my A game. If I play my set through at least once every 2 weeks I play well. It's fitness isn't it? You train for an event, triathlon or something, and you struggle to get to your peak - if you stop for so much as a couple of weeks, and you fall from your peak very quickly. So a regular gig for me is pretty important as I'm not a professional player as such. Although, if I had to play my setlist every day of my life, I reckon I'd tire of it. Weekly would be fine.

However, my mate Shaun Street of Street Artist Management still has me on his books and when he hears of something that fits my niche he'll put my name in. A cafe in Freo are getting me in, Friday week, 8-10pm, possibly looking at potential for regular gig. Freo is about a 35-40 min drive for me which is a downer, but Freo is kinda the soul of live music in Perth so it's gotta be done.

Otherwise with the downtime from gigging I've turned my hand back to Dark Side of the Moon. I play through "Money" regularly, the last song to get any attention. The bulk of the album is done, but, as with so many things, 80% of the work is 20% of the final product - which in this case is Gilmour's classic solo parts. This project has been going on a long time, according to my records it started properly mid 2007, even though I'd been playing a simple "Us and Them" from my twenties.

I play Dark Side of the Moon full album at gigs when it looks like the audience might be into it, takes me a around 20 minutes to play what I have so far. But at the moment I skip parts because I haven't fully learnt them. I have decided that I need to be able to play all songs on the album, and focus on getting the 80% done. So a cutdown "Money", cut down Great Gig and Any Colour You Like. I've also never turned my hand at the Time solo. Let's call all that "Phase II" :-)

But with that said, I'm updating "Breathe" to include the slide guitar part at the start. Which is very cool, and kinda difficult. Hard to play an open chord and a 14th fret high note at the same time, but I have a few ideas I'm working on...

Besides, I owe you guys another recording of where I'm at!

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

What's happening February 2017

I've been playing quite regularly at Deli Chicchi which has been great, it means I get to flex my muscle memory on my set list, which had been a little rusty, but now it's not too bad. There are a few songs I've had to let drop, I might relearn them, we'll see. I think it is alright to part ways with a song, I don't think there is a rule that says once you have gone to the effort of learning a song you have to be able to play it forever.

Doing a 2.5 hour set every Sunday evening gets your chops in good form on your "standard" setlist, but more importantly it gives you the courage(?) to play songs that you aren't so good at. And then you slowly get better at them. Bottom line - you keep playing, you keep getting your skills up, you are in your top form. Once a week for my full set list is all I need, in fact, once every two weeks would be enough. My set list is actually over 3 hours long, so I don't play everything I know. But I rotate through them. And usually play my real crowd pleasers at the start and at the end, when the people have changed.

I'm not playing this Sunday so I took the opportunity to change strings. I like 2 weeks for the trebles to bed in before I'm playing for an audience. I *think* I string the guitar for the fastest bed in times, but I'm still tuning between songs for at least a week after new strings. Those trebles just keep stretching! I'm coming off a set of D'Addario EJ49NTs which are the pretty much identical to my standard EJ45s. I've been experimenting with the different D'Addario offerings, I did the carbon variant last year which I talked about before and now I'm trying the EXP coated ones. Supposedly the EXP coating on the basses make the tone last longer. We shall see! I could feel the coating immediately, it makes the strings feel silkier.  Undecided if that is good or bad.

So far these are the strings I've tried:

EJ45 Pro Arte ~$5USD(2016)
EJ49 Pro Arte black trebles ~$7USD(2016)
EJ45TT Pro Arte Dynacore ~$10USD(2016)
EXP45 Pro Arte Coated ~$10USD(2016)
EJ45FF Pro Arte Carbon ~ $13USD(2016)

String selection is a huge problem because there are so many manufacturers and models and tensions and they all feel slightly different, and unless you take good notes you won't remember what you've liked. Initially I experimented with manufacturers and stuck with D'Addario. Then I experimented with tensions and stuck with normal tension. Hard tension makes me dig in, and nylon is about subtleties, if I wanted digging in I would have stuck with steel strings. Moderate tension would be too far the other way, normal tension already feels too loose I couldn't imagine going softer.

So now it's just trying the different models. I liked the carbon, but the trebles were just a touch too thin for me. Again, closer to steel. Black trebles are no real difference. Except they are black. EXP coating I'll report back. Dynacore I reckon I'm going to like. The carbon set has Dynacore wound basses which are great so I know what to expect there, but with my standard nylon trebles.

Bottom line, my standard EJ45s and change them every few months - remembering to wipe them after every play - is a good set of strings that lasts for a while at a really cheap price. I'm prepared to pay more for a longer lasting set though, I dislike changing strings, it takes too long to bed in!

Meanwhile, with school being back for the year, and my kids back into music, I see the head music teacher once a week again. When he saw me last week - "JAW! I've got some guitars for you!" and presented me with a Strat copy and a bass, both donated to the school. "Can you sort these out for me!" "Ha, sure!" (Last year, I offered to do some of my compulsory parent hours helping out with the music department.)

I tackled the bass guitar first. Needed a polish and a clean and new strings, but when I plugged it in, nothing. Pop off the volume and tone controls, ah. The pots had come loose and when the dials had been twisted the whole body spun and snapped all the wires. Well, any excuse to fire up the soldering iron is fine, but what wire goes where?

Internet to the rescue, 3 unmarked dials...hmm. Looking at various wiring diagrams I decided that it was going to become "jazz standard wiring". This is when the first two pots are volume knobs, in parallel, where two knobs independently varies the gain from the two pickups. You can put the pickups in series for more thump, but I liked the thoughts behind parallel. Bit of solder and a proper retightening of the pots and she's a nice instrument.

Next stop, fix the electric guitar! I'd already done an electric for my sister's boy last month, it was not in good shape. Installed a new tremolo block, and new nut, got it all going but I couldn't for the life of me intonate the 6th string properly, I think I'm going to have to operate on the nut some more. And the volume/tone pots are both stuffed - you know when you turn a pot and it hisses and clicks - because the internal connections inside are not making good connection anymore. So more work required on that one, I'll have to put in new pots. Pots (Potentiometers) are a common point of failure in electronics as they are used so much, and wear down. I had to replace 3 out of the 6 pots in the amp that came with that guitar!

So a fair bit of guitar repairs going on at the moment.

I'm still practising "Money" as part of my Dark Side of the Moon project, and "Why Can't This Be Love", 5 minutes of playthrough on each every couple of days does wonders. That's the most efficient way of learning a thing.

...heh, last Sunday at the gigi I had been playing for a while and a teenage girl wandered over in the middle of a song "Can you play 'Time After Time' by Cyndi Lauper?" I had to stop the song because she was expecting an answer and I couldn't process playing and her question at same time (you guitarist know what I'm talking about), so I said "No, sorry, I haven't arranged that one." Well she looked at me with the expression "what's wrong with you, why won't you play it for me?!?" which I took as a compliment - she thought I was so good that I should be able to play absolutely anything. Well the situation stuck in my head so last night I pulled the chords from the internet and attempted a hacky JAW style fingerstyle arrangement. You know what, I think it will work without too much effort :-)


Monday, 19 December 2016

Information+choices overload indecision

I had to break through another information+choices overload indecision barrier over the weekend. You know the barrier. You need/want something, not exactly sure what type/model/manufacturer you need/want, so you have a look and are overwhelmed with information and choices, and bottom line "I don't want to feel that I made a mistake, or look like I made a mistake" so in your indecision you do nothing. If you don't suffer from this afflication, well done, my hat is off to you.

In this case, it's amplifaction. Not even specifically guitar amplification. Let me explain.

At home I have an electronic drum kit which has never had a dedicated amp, and the kids especially The Boy likes to play on it. I don't like them using my amp for it, because drums are really thumpy and can "blow" a guitar amp. My daughter plays bass guitar through an awful keyboard amp. My gig amp is an old Ashton busker's amp which has an adequate sound, but it doesn't have a lot of punch.

So I happend to walk past a music store, and went in. "I want a cheap amp that I can put an electric drum, a bass guitar, and an acoustic guitar through." (Yes I knew this is impossible, but I wanted to see what he said ;-))

A super-chatty and helpful bloke then spent an hour and a half with me. Here's a quick list about what we talked about in relation to my issue:
  • Electronic drums have a huge thump on the bass drum waveform, which requires a lot of power and speaker size to properly service. Guitars generally don't create anything thumpy like a bass drum so guitar amps aren't designed to do that.

  • Bass guitars are lower frequency but also don't have that thump of a bass drum waveform. They will work on a guitar amp but again, guitar amps aren't designed for that lower frequency.

  • Practise amps and guitar amps aren't just about amplification, they are also about effects and getting a "sound" out of your guitar. Years ago I decided for a classical guitar completely clean is what I like, let the room shape the sound. Some equalisation is nice to overcome room limitations, but the guitar does that at the pre-amp. Perhaps a tiny bit of reverb is nice for some people, like if you were playing outside with no "room feel", but for me, any effects just "muddies" the sound.

  • You can buy speakers - passive speakers, and active speakers. Passive means you need an amp to drive them. Active means they have an amp in them. An active speaker is kinda like a PA (Public Address) system, but PAs generally have a bit more going on - some sort of mixing, multiple inputs, a sub separate from one or more midrange speakers, and built in amps. More like a package. An Active speaker is a speaker, with an effect-free amp built in.

At this stage I hit "I dunno!" <hand goes to head>. All I wanted was something so the kids could play the drums again, but it was versatile for anything else. But the "active speaker" format was starting to look pretty good. You can buy hugely powerful amps built into a plastic box with a 12", even a 15" speaker, just give them a signal and they reproduce it, a truely flat frequency response (what you hear is the same as from the instrument simply louder - no bass increase, no treble increase, it's flat). Sure, We all get twitchy with this Chinese plastic gear "It should be made of plywood, and heavy, and yudda yudda", but when I did a test play through with a shop nylon, it was really, really nice.

Uh oh. Now it was a case of "why don't I buy a new amp for me, and let the kids blow up my existing amp?" And then it came back to something I have been avoiding for a decade - "Okay, if I'm going to buy and amp for me, what should I get?" Because now we were back into the land of guitar amps. Arghh!

"Okay, show me The Best." I played through some good 'ole AER Compacts. "Righto - stop right there, I don't need to see any more. I have researched amps many times over the last decade, and was about to buy an AER years ago, but didn't. If I need an amp for me, it will be an AER Compact. And this one is still a beautiful sound." They are still $1500 amps however and that doesn't fit in my budget.

And that got me through the barrier, w00t! Because see, I already know that I "need" an AER, but currently don't want to afford it. And one of these plastic fantastic active speakers will achieve what I need right now (drums, bass, acoustic, even the piano). (The shop dude reckoned if I had two of them, with a little mixer, that would actually be a really good fit for me - it would "fill" a venue creating stereo sound and it would be great.)

I had been looking at the secondhand market on and off for a year for an amp. I was in the shop. This amp fitted what I needed. It was more than what I wanted to pay, but what I wanted to pay was zero. So I walked out with it, a Behringer Eurolive B112D.

Heh, it says "1000W". I'm an electronics engineer, you aren't fooling me Behringer. In fact a brash statement such as that immediately puts me off. What I had to do was ignore that "specification" and judge it purely on what it could do. And when I put it on the drums, and kicked that bass drum, streuth! The 12" speaker and whatever actual power is driving it is _plenty_ enough. And then I played my nylon through it, and the fatness of the sound was beautiful. It's coming with me to gigs from now on :-)

...but in the back of my mind lurks the AER Compact Classic Pro - the classical guitar version AER amp. I mentally decided that all gig proceeds I get from now on will go into a jar labelled "AER" :-)

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

What's happening December 2016

A few musical things have happened since I last spoke, been an interesting few months.

The year 11 student, let's call him "Dave", we managed to get one session in before exams and holidays hit in.  I got him to play me some stuff, and tell me about himself and what he is doing.  He plays some really nice fingerstyle, funny how those young hands/muscles/fingers are so dexterious and nimble.  Not too many songs in the bag just yet, but good quality what is there.  A few half-songs, so I had to pull him up on that - no half songs allowed!  Interestingly, he's not even a guitarist, he's a drummer!  Self taught on the guitar, he just loves it and is very motivated.  And that's the key - self learning and motivated.

Like my son, who was doing recorder this year, being year 4 (age 9).  I remember doing recorder about that age.  He was taught from a book "black belt recorder" or something like that, the idea that you get "belts" as you progress, aiming for black belt.  He took it on as a challenge and had another boy he was in competition with.  I thought "whatever keeps you going is good", and although the competition got unhealthy at some stages, he was playing the recorder all the time.  Why watch TV when you can play the recorder?  My wife and I were impressed at his abilities, I printed out some recorder sheet off the internet "here play this" and much to my amazement, he sight read it, a little clumsy, but he basically saw a note on the page and it immediately turned into a note on his recorder.  Fantastic!  That's what you want!

Played the piece that is until he abruptly stopped.  "We've never learnt that note." "Oh.  Let's look it up!" Turns out it is one of those half thumb high notes. "Oh, Mrs Davis told us about them, but we didn't learn them.  But I see how it works, I'll practise it."  And within a week he played that song for his class.  And just today, at last day of the year school assembly, he won the award for highest achievement for year 4 music.  Got himself a scolarship to play Alto Sax next two years to boot.

Okay, proud Dad there a bit, but my point is that my son, like Dave, are self motivated and keen.  That gets you wherever you want to go.  That leaves natural talent behind.  That keeps you playing an instrument for life.

Meanwhile, plenty of Sunday afternoon gigs at the cafe.  As Summer is rolling in, the place is getting quite deserted.  Last week I played for 6 people.  Quite a way down from the 30-40 in Spring.  The owner is still keen, he's swapping between me and a singer/guitarist; I'm not charging as much so I've been getting the gig a bit more recently now the number of patrons are down.

The problem with the gig is that I play for 2 and a bit hours, pretty much non-stop, and then I put the guitar away when I get home...and don't pick it up again until next Sunday.  I like the gig, I like the interaction with people, I like to play through my sets.  But I must get enough of a fix that I don't work on new arrangements, or anything else during the week.  It's almost like playing the gig turns it into a job...

Now I've spoken about hand/finger pain a bit over the last few years, and how my current stretching and daily shot of turmeric keeps it minimised.  Well I've got a new one for you.  I'm calling it Oldmanitis, but after 2 weeks of pain which included visits to the doctor and physio, it's been identified as Cervical Radiculopathy, likely at the C7 vertebrae maybe 8th.  Also known as "pinched nerve", it radiates pain into your shoulder and pins and needles down the arm and into the hand.  Mine is getting better and the physio is not concerned. I still have full muscle strength.  Daily anti-inflammatories are helping, "it should be gone soon."  Before you ask, no, it's unlikely that it is guitar playing related, most likely from cycling.  I try to do 80-100kms a week commuting to work, which I've been doing for 5 years now, to keep fit.  I recommend it, but don't get yourself a pinched nerve in the neck. Fortunately it doesn't hurt to play guitar!

Until next time!

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

What's happening September 2016

I am still playing from time to time at Deli Chicchi on a Sunday afternoon/evening. The owner Glenn believes in live music and good on him. Sure you can have your home theatre big screen blasting out a blu ray recording of The Eagles live, and you will get a great experience, but you weren't there "in the moment" and even though live music at a pub/cafe won't be quite the same grand experience, you will get "in the moment". Both experiences are great but here in my small city of Perth, people, as a generalisation, haven't (re-)discovered the joys of live music. So get out there!

I haven't recorded anything lately even though my computer game tune arrangement is ready to go and I have already played it several times in public. So nothing to report on that front.

A few times over the past few years I have spoken about finger pain, last year; in 2011, all the way back to 2010. The sad conclusion I've had to draw is that yes, if I go to hard on my left hand doing awkward fretting I am going to cause myself pain. Is it arthritis setting in? I don't think so. Am I managing the pain? Yes; just. It's a sad thing when you know you are capable of doing something but you shouldn't do it. So pulling back is a hard thing to do.

Stretching fingers/wrists and hands helps but it isn't a cure-all. I have some regular stretches I do while I'm at work and they increase how far I can do without busting into pain-and-damage land. Stretching during a long playing session, especially simply pulling your hands back at the wrist is a good idea. I have also been taking turmeric pretty much every day for more than a year now. Yes, the yellow spice; it is a natural and cheap anti-inflammatory. Mix a quarter of a teaspoon with water and down it, once a day in the morning. I've become accustomed to the taste, it grows on you. When I have forgotten to take it for more than a week I notice that I get into pain-and-damage land much sooner. So I'm giving it a tick and sticking to it.

I am going to catch up with a year 11 student at my kid's school sometime soon. I saw him once at a music show belting out some pretty good fingersyle; he has skills. I thought "I could show him some stuff, and save him from having to learn the hard way the past few decades what I have learnt." So I spoke to the music teacher and he introduced me. He seems keen, I will find out what his goals are and see if I can help him get there. It would be nice to be a "guitar mentor", I feel like I've got stuff to give. Life is big, and wide, and varied, and everything isn't about guitar. But at least the parts that are about guitar can be as worthwhile and fruitful as possible :-)