Acoustics

Straighten up and fly right!

Cape Cod Acoustics - Fri, 04/14/2017 - 12:18
  “Dad!” said my daughter one morning as she watched me play at the Daily Brew, “Why do you hunch over like that when you play?! That is really bad for you and it doesn’t look cool either!”
 
Joanna is a nurse and has never hesitated to let me know what she’s thinking, regardless of the subject (!) and in this case she had a valid point, at least from a health standpoint. She made this comment a couple years ago and now I wish I’d listened to her! My back has been giving me fits all winter, despite multiple trips to the chiropractor and downing ibuprofen by the bottle. I can no longer ignore my posture.
 
Over 50 years of guitar playing can certainly take its toll. I thank my lucky stars that arthritis has been only barely evident in my hands and fingers up to this point, although it runs in both sides of my family so the prospects are not good. But I suspect it is making itself evident in my back so some radical changes must be made.
 
Along with this, I have a couple older students who hunch over when they play and yesterday I spent the better part of a lesson just working on getting one of them to hold the guitar correctly and sit up straight. This sounds simple if you’re young and flexible; not so much with posture habits that have been learned over a long lifetime.
 
Obviously I’m talking about playing while sitting, although good posture habits should show while standing and playing too. I have a picture of myself standing and playing at a large outdoor concert back in the 1970s and a couple more from various later years and I never noticed my less than perfect posture. But looking at them now, I sure do.
 
The first and most important step is selecting the correct chair if you’re going to sit and play. I use standard wooden chairs in my studio (without arms of course) that measure just a shade under 18” from the floor to the front of the seat. They serve the purpose for most students and myself while teaching. The backs are straight but reasonably comfortable. At that height most players can comfortably place their feet flat on the floor, which may or may not be necessary to play with good posture. More on that in a minute.
 
My favorite seating is a couple of padded stools I used for a while. They are 22” from floor to seat, with lightly curved backs for extra support. The seats swivel, which makes it easy for the student to rotate to watch me and then look at the music on its stand. They also have cross bars that serve as foot rests if needed. But while most of my students liked them, a few wanted the old standard chairs so those stools now reside in the basement. But I think they will be coming back into the studio because they are comfortable, functional and encourage correct posture and playing position.
 
Quite a while back I tried some standard “bar stools” but at a height of 29” and no back they were not very comfortable for extended playing, even with cross bars for foot support.
 
When I play out I use a great little stool called the StagePlayer II. It has a padded seat, measures 24 ½” from seat to floor, collapses easily and is light to carry. It has a cross member for the feet that folds up or down, plus a wonderful feature of two padded braces that fold down to function as a guitar stand when it’s break time. I’ve gone through a couple of them over the last five years or so, which is why I don’t use it in the studio to teach: unfortunately, it is not super durable and over time the bolts tend to fail. I replace them as needed though, and retailing for about $50 it is very reasonably priced.
 
Then there are the debatable factors relating to posture and playing. Some players are absolutely adamant about keeping their feet flat on the floor when seated and playing. They do not like resting one or both feet on a cross member on a stool. I get that but my experience with many hundreds of students and pro players is that often there is a bad habit that they develop that pretty much requires feet planted flat. That is holding the guitar neck on a downward angle and resting the forearm on the thigh when fretting chords. Never, never should one do this! It restricts easy movement of the hand and fingers and encourages bad technique like the “baseball bat grip” on the neck.
 
So what’s the solution? If you can stand it, ALWAYS use a strap when playing, adjusted to the correct length while sitting and playing. The overwhelming majority of guitarists think that guitar straps are only for standing and playing and this is absolutely not the case. A correctly adjusted strap takes the weight of the instrument off your arms, allowing for holding the neck slightly on an upward angle. Now add in the use of a stool that forces your thigh downward slightly (foot on the floor, or on a cross member) and your forearm is free to move without your leg being in the way. Which leg holds the guitar is another discussion that I won’t get into now, except to say it’s worth experimenting with guitar body position and you may find things easier if you change up the way you normally hold your instrument.
 
Never, ever sit slouched on a couch while you play. Couches are nice for many things but playing the guitar is not one of them. Bad posture and poor technique are the inevitable result of playing while lounging on a cushy couch.
 
Finally, just why is it that we hunch over the guitar? To see what we’re doing with our hands of course! This conundrum is the worst of all as it relates to posture. Again based on decades of observing players of all levels I have to conclude there are three solutions to the issue of seeing what we’re playing, but two of them are bad. Hunching over – you will pay for this over time. Believe me! (as our president is fond of saying – ha!). Holding the guitar on a more flat plane to better see the fretboard….bad because you have to reach that much farther around the neck to arch your fingers correctly and not damp out adjacent strings. So that leaves only one solution, tough though it may be.
 
Learn to find the strings and frets as much by feel as by sight. Yes, you can see at least part of the neck without hunching over or craning your neck but the temptation to hunch over will always be there. But with perseverance and practice you WILL develop muscle memory regarding placement. If you have any doubt about this, consider the great guitarists Doc Watson and Jose Feliciano. They were never able to see the neck of the guitar and it didn’t keep them from mastering their instruments.
 
So sit up straight, keep the body of the guitar as flat against your body as possible. Your back will thank you. And just think how cool you’ll look!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
 
 

Categories: Acoustics

April 09th, 2017

Cape Cod Acoustics - Sun, 04/09/2017 - 13:45
The interests of trying to be more regular in my posting I thought I’d put up yet another installment of random thoughts, musical experiences, maybe a bit of whining, who knows?
 
I’ve noticed something recently that came about totally by accident. I’ve found I do best with learning new songs – even simple ones – if I listen to them a few times, then allow my brain to kind of digest what I’ve heard. After a few days or a week, when I do sit down to write them out I find that I’m a lot more accurate not only to the overall form and structure of the song but the subtleties also. This makes for a more accurate transcription and also allows me to structure the arrangement I will give to students in a way that best captures both the little things that make a song interesting and at the same time make it not too intimidating. Beats the heck out of quickly transcribing something for immediate use.
 
As I mentioned in a recent post, the majority of my students have been with me for a good long time. I feel that part of my job is to introduce them to new music or stuff that they most likely have not heard but I hope they’ll like. The balance between their overall interests, ability and factoring in how open they are to new material is a constant challenge. It is always gratifying to turn someone on to a type of music they have never heard or been interested in and having them find that hey, that kind of music isn’t so bad!
 
But getting back to my own experience, in some cases I am learning songs only for my own use. I recently came up with a fun little arrangement for solo guitar of the old Herbie Hancock nugget “Watermelon Man.” After listening to it again (after many years) and looking at some sheet music it was important to give it some time to worm its way into brain. Walking around the house or while driving I spent about a week or so humming the lead line to myself and at the same time coming up with a general idea of what was important and what I might not be able to accomplish with a single-guitar arrangement. Then it was time to sit down and get to it. The results were not half bad, if I do say so myself! It has a way to go but the foundation is definitely there. I even threw it out at my regular Daily Brew gig this morning and a few of the regulars thought it was kinda funky and cool. Yah!
 
As I was driving home I suddenly thought of my late uncle, lovingly referred to as Crazy Uncle Irv but just about everyone in the family. Irv was a superb trumpet player, teacher and conductor and a genuine character who usually could be found walking around in his beret while he hummed some song that was in his head. He was a member of the famous Fred Waring Orchestra until World War II intervened and he was drafted. He ended up serving his enlistment in a U.S. Army band in North Africa and later in France. There are many hilarious and amazing stories about Irv but one of my favorites was his account of him and his buddies literally throwing the actor Humphrey Bogart out a window in a bar in Paris when the drunken Bogart (apparently part of a USO tour) came in talking loudly and waving around a .45. But I digress….
 
I realized yet again that Irv was “digesting” whatever music was running through his wacky mind when he walked around gazing into the distance and humming. I get it now. Give yourself time to internalize a piece of music before rushing to try to play it. This is certainly not an earth-shaking revelation, I’m sure musicians have been doing it forever, but for me it is very instructive and important.
 
And speaking of the Daily Brew (sorry, here comes the whining part), why oh why do people think it’s perfectly OK to get right in the face of musician when he or she is playing and begin talking, asking questions to which they expect a response and generally disregarding the fact that the musician may need to concentrate on what’s he’s playing?!? I don’t want to seem disrespectful or unfriendly, but geez. OK, end of whining.
 
More random stuff. I caught a one-hour special on TV the other night about the making of the Beach Boys ground-breaking album, “Pet Sounds.” Wow, wow, wow. It included never before scenes of the recording of the album, present day interviews with Mike Love, Al Jadine, members of the amazing Wrecking Crew studio musicians who played on the album, producers and of course, the genius Brain Wilson himself. I gained even more respect for Brian and his musical vision after seeing this program; catch it if you can. Some people consider Pet Sounds to be the greatest pop album ever made and as much as I love Sgt. Pepper, it would be difficult to choose between the two for that designation if I had to.
 
When we were in Dallas a couple weeks ago we went with our son Matt to a store that had (new) vinyl albums and when I pointed out Pet Sounds he snatched it up. Matt has a small record player in his apartment and although we didn’t have time to listen to it together, I know he has since we left. Now if he could just hear it on a truly great stereo system. Pure musical bliss would ensue!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
 
 

Categories: Acoustics

Under the Covers

Cape Cod Acoustics - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 11:53
I am always intrigued by covers. No, not the kind that go over furniture or your bed. I do miss album covers although with the comeback of vinyl it’s nice to see them in some stores again. I’m really talking about an artist’s personal versions of well-known songs by others. Sometimes it works, sometimes the results are not so great but in most cases they are worth a listen.
 
I was reminded of the potential of covers recently when I started using a song that I thought was written by singer/songwriter Lucy Kaplansky called “More Than This.” She does it in a simple but gorgeous finger style that is more challenging than it appears to be on first listen. I gave it to a student recently and she said, that’s a cover of a Brian Ferry/Roxy Music techno-rock song from the early 1990s.  Well, this was news to me! I never cared much for that genre when it was popular, which is probably why it didn’t ring my musical bell. But sure enough, she sent me a link to the original video on YouTube and there it was. While the video is easy to watch (you’ll know what I mean if you look it up (!!)  ) I found myself turning down the sound after about 30 seconds. Lucy’s version is far better in my opinion, at least from a musical point of view. The lyrics are equally important. My opinion of 1990s techno remains unchanged.
 
You can never really tell how covers will strike you both in the short and long term. Take Dylan’s recent forays into the music of Frank Sinatra. Now, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this at first glance seems to be the most incongruous of musical combinations, especially judging by the reported quality or lack of in Dylan’s live performances in the last few years. But amazingly – it works. Dylan has made a career of breaking convention in all sorts of ways and what he has done is gotten to the core of those great jazz standards with sparse arrangements, superb production and total insight into the meaning of the lyrics. Although no would ever accuse Bob of having the vocal chops of perhaps the greatest pop singer of all time, he does a fantastic job of understanding that it was also phrasing that made Frank so great. Dylan imparts a sense of hard gained knowledge, experience, resignation and redemption to the lyrics with his singing. Give the new recordings a listen and check your expectations at the door. If you do that you are in for treat.
 
Sometimes it’s hard to pick a favorite version of a song. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is equally moving both by herself and the classic version by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They are entirely different from a musical perspective but both effect the listener deeply. The Beatles doing “Twist and Shout” is just as vital as Chuck Berry’s original. And getting back to Mr. Dylan, is “Blowin’ in the Wind” any less important or legitimate by Peter, Paul and Mary than the original by Dylan himself?
 
From the perspective of the guitarist or band trying to break into the local music scene, covers are vital. I’ve known a few musicians over the years who are steadfastly committed to playing only original music and while I admire their lofty goals – which are at least partly based in some notoriety for their music even if they don’t like to admit it – the fact is, those people put their music in front of an audience a lot less than those doing covers.
 
So how does a local performer handle the question of covers? Some try their best to replicate a cover as perfectly as possible. That’s fine and it can be quite gratifying on a personal level but the other side of that coin is that a player may be setting him or herself up for a fall. The closer one gets to the original, the more one will be compared to the original. Even small mistakes can be glaring. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want that kind of pressure!
 
Some players (not many, thankfully) will try to hide behind their musical deficiencies by saying something along the lines of: Well, that’s the way I like to play it! That’s MY version!
 
Is that being interpretive, or just lazy?
 
What’s that old saying – “You can fool some of the people some of the time….”
 
So, my considered opinion is that it is best to work out an arrangement of a song that includes all the required elements but then and only then, make it your own. Things like dynamics that may be different than the original (such as Lucy Kaplansky’s version of “More Than This”) or fooling with verse and chorus repeats, such as was done by the late great Eva Cassidy with her many covers.
 
Doing covers is fun and challenging, for sure. Make a song your own and don’t sweat it too much if you can’t sing like Frank Sinatra!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Sing! Sing! Sing!

Cape Cod Acoustics - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:38
Lots of travelling for me in the last couple of months and plenty of music heard. My buddy in Australia, guitarist and singer Tony suggested addressing the big issue of singing while playing and that kind of bookends nicely with some of the things I saw and heard in my travels. Also some observations closer to home and more recently.
 
On a Caribbean cruise back in late January I heard quite a few singers in various venues on board the ship. Most were quite good and a few were superb. In one of the lounges we caught a duo (man and woman) a few times who both sang and while they were not blessed with fantastic voices they sang in tune and their use of sophisticated backing tracks along with his guitar made for some very enjoyable music. The room was always packed and everyone had a great time.
 
At the motel where we stayed pre-cruise we happened to be there on karaoke night and as usual with those things the talent on display was quite variable, to be kind. But you know what? It didn’t matter. Everyone was having a grand time and there was no shortage of eager participants.
 
A couple weeks later we went down to Dallas to visit our son Matt who lives and works in that city. We spent a great evening down in the Deep Elum section of town where there are dozens of bars and restaurants featuring live music. My wife and I realized we were probably the oldest people on the street (!) but no matter. But as you might expect, the music was heavily tilted toward the younger age group. So screaming thrash rock and post punk was on full display, which I am way too old to understand or appreciate. OK, maybe I do understand. “It’s only rock and roll but I like it! I like it! I like it!” as some skinny old singer once sang.
 
We did hear a very good jazz group at brunch the next day in the same section of town that featured two women singers who were quite good, although I have a thing about too much vibrato from a woman singing jazz. But in any case, the small audience was appreciative and the jazz group clearly loved the music and the opportunity to perform.
 
So what’s the point here? Tony related how he came to singing gradually but now really enjoys it. Putting aside for a minute the conundrum of singing and playing at the same time that all beginning guitarists must go through (in a nutshell, one must be totally confident their playing is solid rhythmically and structurally before they can “forget” about their hands and just sing….) I believe the biggest hurdle singers have to cross is accepting their voices. I always warn my students who are beginning the singing/playing process to avoid listening to any recording of themselves. No matter how much one thinks they are aware of their voice, I promise you that you do NOT sound like what your ears and brain are telling you. That does not necessarily means your voice is bad….just different. Big problem #2 is the natural tendency to compare our own voices to the artist who recorded the song. No, most of us will never sound like that but remember: not only does that person have a level of quality that resulted in a recording contract but they also worked with recording engineers whose entire job is to make them sound good. Now more than ever, studio tricks make even mediocre singers sound good and good ones sound even better.
 
I absolutely believe that humans are genetically programed to enjoy music. And audiences are much more forgiving than you might imagine.
 
That belief is reinforced in me just about every time I play in front of someone. Although I was a voice major way back in music school I never had that great a voice and these days between neglect of my singing chops due to my concentration on instrumentals plus my advancing years I’m probably not even as good as I was back then. That doesn’t matter!
 
A few days ago I went down to Connecticut to visit my daughter and her husband and of course my precious, lovely granddaughter. As always, I brought my guitar. As I began playing and singing “You Are My Sunshine” little Clara instantly began bobbing her head and grinning. Absolutely the best audience I will ever have! And even though she is only eight months old, almost every time she looked at me for the rest of the weekend she smiled and began bobbing her head again.
 
Whether it’s a professional show singer on a cruise ship, a jazz singer in a bar, a fairly inebriated karaoke singer, a purple haired punk rocker or some old guy singing an old folk song to his granddaughter, singing forms a connection between people that we should celebrate. So do it. Just sing.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Got the drop-sies?

Cape Cod Acoustics - Tue, 02/14/2017 - 09:47
One of my favorite guitarists, local jazz great Jim Robitaille is not only inspirational to hear but always fascinating to watch. Jim has technique to the max, controlled and expressive with no wasted motion. One thing that has always intrigued me is his use of both fingers and a pick with his right hand. He can instantly switch from “block chord” playing with his fingers to fluid lead lines with his pick, which he keeps tucked into his hand when not in use. Although I’ve watched him closely I’m still not sure how he does this. I have a feeling if I tried that more picks would end up on the floor than in my hand!
 
Dropped picks. Picks that turn in our fingers when we play making them useless. Is there a solution to this, other than just gripping tighter? Maybe. Here are a few tricks I’ve tried over the years.
 
These days, I’m mostly a finger-style player but I still make a point to practice with a flat pick and in my days of playing lead guitar or strong rhythm guitar in various groups the issue of pick control was always part of the equation. I’ve written before about the importance of using at least a medium gauge thickness flat pick or even a heavy one rather than a thin pick, which may be easier to use initially but encourages bad habits, i.e, depending upon the flexibility of the pick to make a controlled attack rather than your wrist and forearm, which is where control should come from. Plus, thin picks break – frequently – when used in an aggressive manner. It’s instructive that the vast majority of great players in rock, jazz, blues and bluegrass use medium to very heavy gauge picks. Thumb picks are another issue entirely and because I’ve never had much luck with them I’m not qualified to comment of those things.
 
So, what to do? First, don’t get locked into the idea that you MUST use the standard shape triangular picks (with rounded tops and corners) that have been the most popular shape for decades. If they work for you, great, but don’t be afraid to try different shapes and sizes. After many years of using the standard shaped ones (Fender mediums) I went to the smaller Fender “jazz” teardrop shaped picks in heavy gauge. My tone, accuracy and speed improved quickly and I used them for many, many years. Still do from time to time. But the issue of dropping picks at just the wrong time continued. So I began drilling small holes in the center of those picks, usually with a 1/16” drill bit. This improved my grip and helped immensely. I remembered that the small music store in my home town when I was growing up had a big display of picks and some had a round hole that was surrounded by a ring of thin cork. Can’t remember if I ever tried them but later on the hole thing seemed like a good idea, and it was.
 
These days there are a few companies that offer round and star-shaped holes in picks but these are mostly the standard overall size and frankly if there’s one thing I know for sure, I prefer a smaller flat pick. I have no doubt they work however and are probably worth a try.
 
Then a few years ago a student turned me on to Clayton Piktac Adhesive Dots. These little circles of plastic have adhesive on each side, one to adhere to your pick and the other to stick to your finger. They work, for sure – you will NOT drop your pick when using them – and they don’t leave residue on your fingers but I just couldn’t get used to the feel of things. But I have this weird thing about having sticky fingers or anything stuck to my fingers so that’s most likely just me. They come in packs of 50 pieces and are relatively cheap so they may be worth a try.
 
There was a recent thread on one of the guitar forums on this subject (dropping picks) and one person suggested and uploaded an image of his solution. He buys a roll of some sort of fabric backed adhesive material used for bandaging wounds and cuts it into small pieces that he sticks to the top area of his flat picks. He claimed that they not only improve the overall grip but the fabric absorbs moisture from the fingers, making them even more grip-friendly. I tried to find some of the stuff at a pharmacy yesterday and was unsuccessful. I will keep trying but I suspect the added thickness when the stuff is applied will be off-putting, to me anyway.
 
My latest solution has been picks from a small company called V-Picks. These are made of some sort of polymer that makes the pick adhere quite nicely to my thumb and forefinger when slightly moistened or heated up while playing. They come in various shapes, sizes and colors and I tried a variety pack initially. The model called the “Chicken Picker” in thin gauge (which is actually more like medium gauge in terms of flexibility) is my favorite. It is slightly smaller and more teardrop shape than traditional flat picks. I ordered more of them, and while expensive at about $4 each they have become my go-to flat pick. I’m not 100% thrilled with the tone I get from them as they are quite bright sounding but the lack of bulk and great adhering qualities make me reach for one every time I want to do some flat-picking, both strumming and single note playing.
 
I’ve also tried many others that are supposed to reduce the problems of dropping and pick rotation while playing including a bunch with various textured surfaces, rubber pads, etc. and some are pretty good. But in every case I did not care for the overall tonality that I achieved with them.
 
This gets to the good and bad of flat picks for today’s players. There are hundreds of designs, materials and shapes available these days, including some “boutique” picks that cost upwards of $20 each. I’m too cheap to take a chance on those fancy ones but if I ever have the opportunity to try a couple I may end up buying a few. After all, last year I spent more on a “boutique” capo than I have for some guitars! It’s great by the way.
 
The bad: you can spend a lot of time, effort and money searching out the perfect flat pick and you may never find it.
 
The good: Same thing. We have more choices than ever and I think everyone’s playing is better for that.
 
And it all gets back to technique. Take a flat pick between your fingers and grip it as hard as you do when you play. If you feel your wrist and forearm tighten up, you’re probably gripping too hard and whether you know it or not, this will slow you down and make you less accurate. Only grip hard enough to keep the thing between your thumb and the forefinger or middle finger (depending on which you prefer). If you can keep that grip as light as possible – thanks to a pick that stays securely between your fingers – you WILL be a better flat –picker!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Recent observations 

Cape Cod Acoustics - Mon, 02/06/2017 - 07:44
Here’s an interesting phenomenon that I think we all experience when we play at some point or another. Those first five minutes or so seem like our best playing of the session. I mention this to students from time to time, especially when they are demonstrating some frustration.
 
“It seems like I get worse and worse the longer I practice!” they sometimes say. Well, not being with them at home I can’t say for certain just what their practice regimen consists of – although I do try to go through what should go on when they practice. The reality, based on my own playing for many decades is that this is often a false impression. I think our brains focus on the “good stuff” when we first pick up our guitars, but after a bit of time passes we start to hear more and more of what’s wrong with our playing. This is a natural but counterproductive way to approach our playing. It’s likely that you ARE in fact playing better as your session progresses but you must find the balance between the good and bad. I think the trick may be to look at the Big Picture. Ask yourself: Could I even come remotely close to playing that song a week ago? Or a month ago? Am I comparing my playing to what a more experienced player may offer as a finished product? Not a good idea!
 
I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating. Most of us have phones that include some sort of recording app or function. Record a part of a practice session, but resist the temptation to listen to it right away. Wait a couple weeks or longer, then give it a listen. I can almost guarantee you will find that you play that song better today than you did when it was recorded. Feels good, doesn’t it?
 
To shift gears a bit I wanted to report on my recent trip down to the Keys, which I love to do and will be doing again in a couple months. Sad to say, I have been having some back pain issues so I didn’t get to kayak fish as much as I would have liked but I did hear plenty of live music in Key West and elsewhere. This is always very instructive and interesting as there is so much music played there every day and night. Some trends I’ve seen for the last few years are continuing. If the performer is doing a single with just acoustic guitar and vocals, loopers and harmonizers are pretty much standard operating equipment these days. Some performers use them to good effect, others not so much. The better ones use those devices sparingly and they are set at levels that are subtle. The ones who don’t seem to just set the looper up for endless lead guitar noodling when they are engaged. Now granted, I am a guitar player and my standards are probably too high but my reaction to this is…… booooooooring. Stretching out a song that should conclude after four or five minutes to two or three times that long doesn’t work unless you’re Clapton! Harmonizers are great, IF the harmony function is set to be about ½ to 2/3 of the volume of the lead vocals. Anything more than that and they sound fake and frankly (to my ear anyway) a bit amateurish. But hey, they have a gig so more power to ‘em.
 
There was some good stuff however. At my favorite place on Duval, the Little Room Jazz Club I again made a point of hearing pianist and singer Ericson Holt, with his regular drummer. He plays some fine New Orleans-style blues and jazz and has been a regular at the Little Bar on Tuesday nights for a few years. He remembered me from last year (when I turned him on to singer Johnny Adams) and we had a great conversation. Ericson is a true professional and a fine, fine player and singer. Plus he and his drummer are tight as can be. I often forget just how great it can be to play with a drummer who has style and class and understands the importance of dynamics. If you ever happen to be in Key West, be sure to check him out and you can be certain whomever is playing at the Little Room will be very good.
 
One final recommendation. One of my favorite web sites lately is Music Aficionado (do a search). They feature lots of great articles about artists of today and yesterday. I learn something every time I visit that site. Recently they posted a feature on the great Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey, who (along with Hendrix of course) pretty much popularized the wah-wah peddle on songs like “Cloud Nine” in the glory days of Motown. Very interesting!
 
Well, time to practice. I hope I sound as good after a half hour as I do in the next five minutes! Ha!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Make 'em laugh!

Cape Cod Acoustics - Sun, 01/08/2017 - 13:29
I am almost finished with a book my son Matt gave me for Christmas, “Your Favorite Band is Killing Me” by Steven Hyden. It is subtitled “What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life.” This subtitle is mostly tongue-in-cheek. It is a very fun read and the author is a former music columnist with the Grantland website, which is very cutting edge in commentary about many subjects. The book details (from the author’s perspective) the real or imagined feuds between many musicians such as Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Beatles vs. Stones, Neil Young vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kanye vs. Taylor Swift and many others. Hyden tends to go off on tangents to illustrate his points and in many cases he is very funny doing it. His writing is a bit on the snarky side at times but I recommend the book.
 
This reminded me of something that I think is sorely lacking in most music these days: humor. We certainly live in serious times, OK, I get that, but don’t we all need a laugh now and then? One of the best qualities I find in performers, whether in music or the other arts is self-deprecating humor. Take someone like the actor George Clooney. Sure, he’s made plenty of serious movies but don’t you get the feeling he truly loves those somewhat dim and goofy roles in the Coen brother’s movies like the wonderful “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” and more recently, “Hail, Caesar!”? Clooney could easily bank on his talent and looks in serious roles but the bottom line is that, because of his perceived view of himself, you always just KNOW that he is absolutely loving his work, regardless of the role.
 
In music it seems to me that the humor gene has skipped the latest generation of singer/songwriters and acoustic music based musicians. Sure there are a few notable exceptions like Dan Tyminski of Union Station (see them in concert to confirm this!) and some modern country tunes have humorous elements.
 
What I’m talking about is as much about the overall performance as the tunes themselves. Some of the older singer songwriters who cut their musical teeth in small venues where they had to demonstrate some personality along with their music chops understand this. Tom Rush is one example. No one would accuse Tom of being a great guitarist or much beyond an adequate singer but he is positively hilarious in his between tunes banter. John Prine, who wrote one of the funniest songs I know, “Please Don’t Bury Me”, and Lyle Lovett both demonstrate wry humor all the time when they perform. Even James Taylor, who is generally perceived as being the grand daddy of “serious” acoustic singer-songwriterdom has taken in recent years to showing lots of self-deprecating humor, including a hilarious send-up of  “Fire & Rain” on a late night TV show. Jimmy Buffet, God bless him, has always incorporated humor into his writing and shows but hey, when most of your fan base shows up in parrot or shark fin hats you’d best keep things light weight, or lit up, as the case may be.
 
Not all of the oldsters embrace humor of course. It’s hard for me to imagine Dylan ever changing the lyrics of “Like A Rolling Stone” to something like “Like My Rolling Bones” (which might be a good idea judging by his recent tours and albums).
 
I guess what I’d really like to see is a trend toward doing shows as a more involving experience for both the performer and the audience. This is tough for many musicians even with the most supportive audiences. Some are just plain shy and uncomfortable with the idea of talking and feel no obligation to reveal anything more of themselves than what can be gleaned from their songs. The danger in this, which many young singer songwriters don’t understand is that they are setting themselves up for a fall. They are asking their audience to pay rapt attention to the music and “get it.” Some may, some will, some will not. Do they care? Maybe not. But they should. Otherwise, why be out there at all?
 
So here’s a radical and somewhat corny thought, youngsters. Learn a couple……   jokes! Yes, you could fall flat on your face and as a sports figure said recently, “Hater’s gonna hate.” But you will gain some credibility with those who want to know YOU, along with your music. And showing a sense of humor is always the best way to gain friends and influence people.
 
So in the interests of starting you on your journey to hilarity, I offer this pretty bad joke. Do with it what you will.
 
A guy walks into a bar with a set of jumper cables around his neck and sits down.
 
The bartender says, “OK, you can stay, just don’t start anything!”
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics
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