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. . . to a blog about all the things you can do with — or to — a guitar. Topics: DIY, instruments, amps, effects, recording, software, technique, music history, music heresy.

What’s Your Favorite Note?

No, I don’t mean like, “What’s better: B-flat or F-sharp?” Rather, is there a single note from a great recording or performance that haunts your dreams?

Here’s what go me on the topic: One of my Premier Guitar colleagues, Gary Ciocci, recently turned me on to El Twanguero (aka Diego Garcia), a brilliant Spanish-born, Argentina-based electric guitarist who’s created a head-spinning fusion of classic Latin jazz and rockabilly guitar. The only thing I don’t worship about the great Afro-Caribbean music of the 1950s and ’60s is the fact that it rarely includes guitar. But in Garcia’s retro fantasia, it’s as if the great Cuban and Puerto Rican mambo kings had migrated to Memphis instead of settling in NYC.

¡Bien tocado, señor!

Diego “El Twanguero” Garcia: ¡Bien tocado, señor!

When I explored Garcia’s YouTube channel, I immediately clicked on his version of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” a Perez Prado classic that topped the charts in 1955. (You probably know the tune even if you don’t recognize the title — it’s been in a zillion movie soundtracks.) I was eager to hear how Garcia would interpret the famous trumpet slur — perhaps the booziest single note ever recorded. (Yes, theory sticklers — I’m using the word “note” to mean a single articulated note, even when it spans multiple pitches over its duration.)

The tipsy note appears right at the top — it’s the fourth pitch in the trumpet melody. But it gets boozier and woozier with each repetition, and by its dead-drunk appearance at 2’27”, it’s amazing anyone’s still standing up.

Okay, try to convince me that it isn’t the sleaziest note ever! (Just for fun, here’s a live performance, where you can see what Prado looks like when emitting his signature grunt.)

How the hell would you render that on guitar without period-inappropriate distortion and locking tremolo? Take it away, Sr. Garcia!

Love it! ¡Bien tocado, Señor!

That got me thinking about other favorite notes. My #1 choice was easy — it comes at the end of this post. But two others also sprang to mind.

George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much” used to be considered one of the Beatles’ least important tracks, though it seems to have been critically rehabilitated over of the course of the last few psychedelic revivals. It was cut in 1967 between the recording and release of Sgt. Pepper, just when the Beatles were discovering LSD. (It shows). But it wasn’t issued until 1969, when it appeared as a throwaway on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack — the first album I ever purchased with my own money. (And I’ve never recovered from the horror of discovering that side B features no Beatles material — just George Martin’s twee orchestral soundtrack.) But that blast of sustained feedback carved its way into my consciousness.

The experts say George played it, though I doubt anyone present was coherent enough to recall. I’m not saying it ain’t George, though I can’t help noting that whenever you investigate a particularly ferocious bit of Beatles guitar work, the perpetrator always seems to be Paul. (Examples: “Helter Skelter” and the solos on “Taxman” and “Good Morning.”) I dunno — maybe acid unleashed Harrison’s inner beast.

Another note that’s possessed me for decades is from Miles Davis’s heartbreaking take on Rogers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind.” (From Workin’ — the first jazz album I bought with my own cash, at age 14.) Man, you could write a dissertation on the first eight bars of Miles’ solo, and someone probably has. Even though the notes are few and far between, I dare you to try playing along, matching the trumpet phrasing. But the highlight for me is the sublimely out-of-tune note in the fifth bar of the trumpet head. (It first appears at 0’33” in this clip.)

The performance is in A-flat, and the special note is a very flat E-flat — about halfway to D-natural. Man, how does something so wrong feel so … not just right, but transcendent?

That was my favorite note for many years, until I became a born-again Ellingtonian. Friend/genius Stephen Yerkey turned me on to Ellington’s 1938 remake of his own “Black and Tan Fantasy,” whose original 1927 version is universally regarded as one of the most important early jazz discs. But the 1938 remake is equally brilliant. Duke’s band was at or near the height of its powers. The orchestration is sublime. The piano work is radical. Each solo is a jewel. And then there’s THE NOTE.

Now, there’s nothing I find more musically distasteful than a cheesy, star-searchin’ vocalist wowing the crowd with a long sustained note. I hate it just as much when operatic singers do it (as did many of the great opera composers). And using the national anthem at ball games as a pretext is just plain nauseating.

Did Barney Bigard play the greatest note ever?

Did Barney Bigard play the greatest note ever?

Yes, THE NOTE is impossibly long and difficult. But there’s more here than sheer virtuosity. The painfully slow glissando literally makes you dizzy, as if the world were tilting off-axis. (It’s more psychoactive than the Beatles on acid!) It exerts exquisite tension against the backing harmonies, and it lets Duke display his most Debussy-like side in his watery, chromatic piano accompaniment. And the dismount is astonishing: Another wind player would be gasping on the floor, but incomparable clarinetist Barney Bigard (also featured on the 1927 original) concludes with a soft, casual phrase, as if he had all the time and breath in the world. For me, this is the ultimate musical embodiment of “cool” in its most profound African diaspora sense.

Play it, Mr. Bigard! The miracle commences right after 1’15” (but please, treat yourself to the entire performance).

(I know I’ve said this about 50 times on this blog, but I repeat it whenever possible: In much of the civilized world — Europe in particular — the arts are considered precious, and musicians routinely appear on currency. If Americans gave a crap about culture, our greatest composer would grace the $20 bill, not genocidal Jackson. Though admittedly, there’s a strong case for Harriet Tubman.)

duke_dollars

Okay, enough of my yakkin’! What’s your favorite note?

My Favorite Rock ’n’ Roll Solo (It’s Not on Guitar)

I’ve long been obsessed with Sam “The Man” Taylor’s epic sax solo on the Chords seminal 1954 rock ’n’ roll hit, “Sh-Boom.” But I never got around to learning, transcribing, and analyzing it till now. I heard it about 100 times while making and editing this video, and it still thrills me on every listen.

If you’re like me, you know it’s wise to study performances by non-guitarists, but seldom get around to doing it systematically. For once I followed through, and — at risk of sounding like a pedantic dork — I’ve analyzed what I heard and suggested ways to incorporate the concepts in styles far removed from the original doo-wop context.

You can download my transcription (in standard notation and guitar tab) here.

The final part of the video is a rant about how segregation shaped the course of early rock and roll, in which I piss all over the Crew Cuts’ tepid cover version of “Sh-Boom.” (Spoiler alert: It blows.) This was partially inspired by recent despicable comments from musical felon Pat Boone. I’ve linked to the following videos before, but I’m posting them again because the cost of quality music is eternal vigilance against sonic shit-shovelers.

Holy crap! It’s the coolest man in the universe! This foreshadows Hendrix, Prince, and the Beatles. Even lip-synched, it’s everything badass in one minute and 50 seconds. (And it speaks volumes about segregation in midcentury America.)

And then there’s this:

Unholy crap! It’s the least cool man in the universe. And this foreshadows nothing except the worst music of the last 60 years (though it too speaks volumes about race in 20th-century America).

Why beat this dead horse? Why pick on ol’ Pat 60 years after the fact? Maybe he regrets his musical misdeeds. Maybe he’s even developed a more nuanced view of race and racism.

Naw. When self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American churchgoers on June 17th, 2015, Boone leapt into action, penning an angry editorial that condemned … politicians who dared to refer to the atrocity as “racist.”

FUPB. There’s no statute of limitations on your crimes.

James Horner, 1953-2015

James Horner, one of the most successful film composers in Hollywood history, died yesterday after crashing his single-engine plane near Santa Barbara, California. He was 61.

It’s hard to pinpoint the highlight of Horner’s career — he scored such mega-hits as Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Avatar, Braveheart, and many other films. But I can definitely point to a career lowlight: tutoring a struggling 16-year-old freshman music student in a musty, claustrophobic practice room at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall in 1975.

Seen here conducting his Braveheart score, Horner looks just as I remember him from 1975.

Seen here conducting his Braveheart score, Horner looks exactly as I remember him from 1975.

The tin-eared student was me — an incoming music major inadequately prepared for the rigors of college-level theory and musicianship. The TA leading my two-hours-per-day core class suggested I hire a private tutor to save me from sinking, and he recommended his fellow grad student, “Jamie” Horner. Borrowing a little extra cash from my folks, I paid Jamie some meager hourly fee ($10? $15, maybe?) to subject me to ear-training boot camp. It was basic music-major stuff: dictation (notating melodies and eventually counterpoint by ear alone), score-reading, sight-reading, sight-singing, and the like. (I needed the help! Then, as now, I was no “natural” musician. I labored mightily to acquire such skills.)

Jamie (as everyone called him then) was perfectly nice, but we weren’t pals or anything — he was just a busy and ambitious grad student earning a few quick, if measly, bucks via boilerplate tutoring of a slow student. He’s already embarked on his film scoring career, and his example was one of my earliest and most powerful eye-openers about the brutality of the biz.

Jamie was ridiculously gifted. He had laser-like focus on his goals. He was hereditary Hollywood royalty. (His dad was Harry Horner, an Austro-Hungarian émigré and famed production designer, and I think Jamie grew up with people like Otto Preminger as dinner guests.) And he was still ghost-writing scores for dog-shit films for next to nothing. For some, Jamie’s steep uphill path would have been an inspiration. But it scared me the hell away from his profession. (And today’s Hollywood scoring scene is vastly more brutal than it was back in the ’70s.)

I attended school during the last gasp of modernism. The focus was avant-garde 20th-century music, from Arnold Schoenberg to such then-leading lights as Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, and Witold Lutosławski. (You know — the ear-hurtin’ atonality that only perverts and music professors love.) Post-Romantic music was considered hopelessly tacky. No one studied Richard Strauss, especially his later, reactionary stuff! But I remember Jamie walking around with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony score under his arm. He was smarter than everyone else.

My favorite memory: A few years later in school, after I’d caught up and was doing okay, I had the unforgettable experience of taking a few semesters of David Raksin‘s film scoring class in the UCLA film department. Raksin was an amazing figure who worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest talents. (This photo sums up his significance. It’s Raksin on the right, posing with his teacher, frickin’ Arnold Schoenberg himself, Mrs. Schoenberg, and the man who gave David his first big break: Charlie Chaplin.)

Jamie dropped by Raksin’s class to meet David for a lunch date at the faculty restaurant. David kindly asked me along. (He’d taken a shine to me, not for any music skills, but because he liked what I’d written about scoring in my term papers.) So I got to tag along and listen to two geniuses talk shop. I just sat there trying not to say anything too stupid. I doubt I succeeded, but I’m grateful all these years later to have basked in their collective brilliance for a few minutes.

And I’m grateful to James Horner for helping me along. My heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Less-Boring Looping (“Pumped-Up Kicks” Cover)

For a while I’ve been playing this loop-based cover of Foster the People’s “Pumped-Up Kicks” at solo gigs and with my duo band, Mental 99. At risk of sounding like a pompous dick, I’ve annotated the performance, highlighting techniques I’ve found useful for making loop-based performances livelier and less predictable.

I’ve covered some of this ground before, particularly in this Premier Guitar looping-technique article. But here I call out the techniques mid-performance, and I’ve included a few new ones. I hope you find some of them useful.

Likewise, I’ve already written about my live looping rig, but it’s changed a bit since then, and I’ve recently integrated a Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface (plus the stellar plug-ins it allows me to run). An updated overview:

Pedalboard-Diagram

The arrangement perform nicely, and I dig the individual components. But I dislike the system’s Rube Goldberg complexity—it’s a royal pain to set up and schlep. I’m always looking for ways to simply. (Other than, you know, just plugging the guitar into a frickin’ amp.) I’m open to suggestions for streamlining!

Black Mac

I love Apple products, but I hate having Macs onstage (mainly ’cause they’re so much better looking than me). Covering it in black wrap makes it less obtrusive. The Marshall logo is from one of those “toy” stacks (which, of course, can be far more than toys in the studio).

Those $24 Acoustic Strings

As if I weren’t already blowing enough money on arcane strings, I’ve got a new obsession: Thomastik-Infeld Plectrum series acoustic strings (which sell for $24 in the U.S.).

If you hang out here much, you’ve heard me bitch incessantly about acoustic strings. I hate the way most modern strings are all hyped treble zing and blaring volume, at the expense of deep, decisive fundamentals. With due respect to my vegetarian friends, too many strings are all sizzle and no steak.

Screenshot 2015-06-03 14.55.56

Yeah, bright strings can seem energizing in a cocaine-binge sort of way. But all that glassy presence gets fatiguing. Meanwhile, darker bass strings leave sonic space for the treble strings to shine. Even on my teensy-tiny Martin 0-17, these low strings sing in a warm baritone voice, not like some squeaky, poorly Auto-Tuned teen idol.

This pricy Austrian set features brass-coated steel 1st and 2nd strings, while the bass strings are bronze, but with both silk inlays and flexible steel cores. The flatwound 3rd, 4th, and 5th strings nix finger noise and minimize tone contrasts between wound and unwound strings. The polished roundwound 6th string adds a touch of focus to the lowest register, yet introduces no awkward contrasts on melodies played across multiple strings.

The set is low in both tension and volume relative to most U.S.-made strings. Even though the low E is a chunky .059, it has a soft, relaxed feel that makes me want to linger over notes, shaping them. The harmonic range is fantastic, the dynamic range even more so. They’re long-lasting too — this video was recorded three weeks and many playing hours after installing the set.

I’m hooked. Damn it.

(Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man — I don’t want you getting your nasty treble overtones all over my acoustic strings, no matter how frickin’ jingle-jangle the morning happens to be. Just back off, pendejo.)

How to Make a Delicious Amp Sandwich

bacon-amp-sandwaich

Premier Guitar just posted my column on simultaneously recording multiple amps to create cool composite tones, both by blending their default sounds in varying way, or using only selected frequency “slices” from each amp and assembling them in layers (hence the amp sandwich metaphor).

According to one PG reader, “It ain’t a sandwich without bacon.” So I Photoshopped in a few slices. :pacman:

What happens when you mix Fender-style Carr highs, Marshall lows, and tweed-like Divided by 13 mids? It sounds something like this.

Solo Guitar Shows: L.A. Confidential & Furtive Frisco

LA_kitty

Psst…this week I embark on a grueling two-city solo guitar tour.

I’m playing my first ever L.A. solo show next Tuesday, the 12th, with one of my favorite players on the planet: the brilliant Mark Goldenberg. I’d previously know his pop work, but only became aware of his amazing solo playing last year when we both performed at one of Teja Gerken‘s guitar events. It was love at first note. We bonded on our affections for Ellington and ’60s L.A. pop, and the fact that we were both Ted Greene students. Plus, he’s just a cool guy.

The show’s at Genghis Cohen (740 N. Fairfax near Melrose). Danielle D’Andrea plays at 8:00 PM, Mark’s on at 9:30, and and I play a bit after 10:00. Maybe Mark and I will even work up a duet or two.

Admission is 10 bucks. The show is all-ages. If you’re in SoCal and free on the 12th, please join us!

My pal Bill Selby drew this amazing illustration. I'm going to hell for defacing it in Photoshop.

My pal Bill Selby drew this amazing illustration. I’m going to hell for defacing it in Photoshop.

And then, on Thursday, the 14th, I play my monthly solo show at my beloved local dive, San Francisco’s El Rio. This one’s special too: My guest star is another astonishing player, Giacomo Fiore. Giacomo is rightly renowned as one of of our greatest avant-garde classical guitarists, specializing in difficult modern repertoire. But this time, Giacomo’s performing an all-electric set. I have no idea what to expect, though I’m certain it will be astonishing. (In addition to releasing some remarkable recordings, Giacomo lectures at several noted Northern California universities and conservatories, and he gets excellent marks on Rate My Professor. Just sayin’.)

This show is free, but over-21 only. I play at 7PM sharp, and Giacomo starts around 8.

Remember, you heard it here first — off the record, on the QT, and strictly hush-hush.*

* This quote, the post title, and the noir pics are inspired by James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, probably the greatest series of hardcore crime novels ever. (And Ellroy’s newly released prequel, Perfidia, is every bit is awesome.)

Heaviest. Stompbox. Ever.

I’ve been breathlessly awaiting one of these since I saw this. It’s Korg’s Miku Stomp, a spinoff from the company’s Vocaloid voice synthesizer. It tracks your pitch as you play and responds with a synthetic voice that forms various syllables and phrases.

There’s some cheating here: The effect’s latency is quite severe, so I had to slide the Miku track back in time while mixing. Its triggering is also inconsistent, so I replaced a few notes. Miku tracks best when playing melodies on a single string, hence my awkward, position-jumping fingering. (Actually, it tracks pretty well when you play slow melodies full of sustained notes. But steady eighth-notes at 155 BPM as heard here is a major challenge.)

One of the pedal’s most interesting aspects is the way it interprets slurs. When there’s no break between notes, Miku sings a sort of pseudo diphthong. Detached notes get a syllable with a clear transient.

IMHO, the inescapable facts that Miku is silly and doesn’t work terribly well doesn’t diminish her total awesomeness. No doubt about it: heaviest stompbox ever.

The tune, of course, is “Georgy Girl,” which I’ve loved since forever. It was a blast recording the backing tracks with classical guitar, ukulele, ukulele bass, 12-string, toy piano, M-Tron Pro, and a mix of live and sampled percussion. And of course, gobs of my favorite reverb effect: Universal Audio’s EMT140 plate simulation. Yum.

Ultimate Lipstick-Tube Guitar (with experimental tone control & onboard overdrive)

Okay, it’s not the ultimate lipstick-tube guitar for everybody, but it probably is for me. It’s my third lipstick-tube pickup experiment — and definitely my favorite.

You may have heard some of these parts before: I used the neck for all my Mongrel Strat projects, and the Strat-sized Seymour Duncan pickups appeared in my previous lipstick-tube experiments. (I love Duncan’s lipstick-tubes. To my ear, they sound way better than the ones in new-school Danelectros.) The new body is Warmoth’s Hybrid Tele model, in purple with butterfly stickers. It’s très macho. (Better not use if for gigs in Indiana and Arkansas.)

My previous lipstick tube experiments used a MIM Strat body, but I wanted something a little more distinctive, and with a built-in battery compartment (because nothing is a bigger pain than changing batteries in a traditional Strat control cavity). Also, I like how the design evokes both Strat and Tele, since the guitar has three-Strat sized pickups and a whammy, but is wired more like a Tele.

About that wiring: The 3-way pickup selector chooses neck, bridge or both pickups, like on a Tele. Meanwhile, a SPDT switch toggles the middle pickup on and off regardless of the pickup selector, so you get six settings: neck, bridge, neck + bridge, neck + middle, bridge + middle, and all at once. It’s a pragmatic variation on “Nashville Tele” wiring with a switch rather than a pot. That means you can’t dial in varying amounts of middle pickup—it’s all or nothing. But on the plus side, I can jump instantly to an out-of-phase sound from any pickup-selector setting, and it freed up space for the other weird crap I put in this guitar. (Yo, electrical engineers: Don’t bother telling me that combined-pickup settings aren’t really out-of-phase True, they’re not out-of-phase electronically, but they are acoustically, and the distinctive “hollow” sound of combined settings is precisely the result of phase cancellation from two pickups at different positions.)

The weirdest detail is what I call a “cap-fade” tone control. It’s an idea I speculated about back in January, and to which many of you contributed cool perspectives. I pretty much followed the scheme in the original diagram:

cap-fade tone control

The idea again: Instead of sending varying amounts of signal to ground via a tone cap, the pot here fades between a small-value cap (which defines the minimum cut when the control is engaged) and a larger one (defining the frequency of the maximum cut). In other words, instead of sending varying amounts of signal to ground, this circuit always sends everything above the cutoff frequency to ground, with the pot determining the frequency.

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In Search of Ancient Ambience

Screenshot 2015-03-31 10.29.54

Premier Guitar just posted my latest Recording Guitarist column. The subject: Capturing the haunting reverbs of Southwestern ruins via impulse-response reverbs.

Many years ago I marveled at the eerie reflections within the stone-walled ball court at Wupatki, an hour north of Flagstaff, Arizona. On this visit, I attempted to clone the tone. I did the same at the Wildrose charcoal kilns in a remote, mountainous corner of Death Valley. The article includes audio clips, tech notes, and a download link for the impulse responses, suitable for use in any IR reverb program (or in the Logidy EPSi stompbox).

Screenshot 2015-03-31 10.42.24

The 1870s charcoal kilns of Death Valley generate a spooky,, flange-like reverb.

Like a dope, I’d forgotten to bring the relatively high-quality recorder I’d intended to use, so I worked with noisy, lo-fi recordings from my iPhone 6’s Voice Memos app. After some digital cleanup (detailed in the article), the results were cool and compelling, though not a completely accurate audio snapshot due to various types of distortion.

(Actually, I had an earlier experience capturing quick-and-dirty reverbs when I visited the Neolithic caves of France and Spain last year. It wasn’t my idea—I just happened to wind up on a tour group with composer Craig Safan, who was conceptualizing a piece inspired by those evocative spaces. He’d packed a proper Zoom mobile recorder, and we made ad hoc impulse responses by clacking small stones together. Craig has since completed the work, Rough Magic, and he tells me his mixing engineer wound up using our IRs a great deal. I’ve heard the piece, and it’s awesome. It’s not public yet, but I’ll tell you when it is.)

Since writing this Premier Guitar piece, I’ve been pondering whether damaged/distorted impulse response files might be an interesting avenue for sonic exploration. Generating cool sounds via weird IRs isn’t a new idea—the Space Designer plug-in in Apple’s Logic Pro includes a little-known IR preset folder titled “Warped,” which uses unusual sources like synth tones and noise bursts to generate reverbs not found in nature. But my interests are reverbs that are both familiar and surreal—the echoes of distorted reality.

And coincidentally, just as I was writing this post, a friend sent this wonderful video: an old Teletubbies clip, processed through a smeary, distorted black-and-white filter and paired with Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.”

I’m pretty much talking about an audio equivalent to that video processing. Has anyone else thought about or explored this idea?