. . . 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.
. . . 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.
I was polishing up my solo solo version of this lesser-known Mancini tune, and I was reminded once again of the late composer’s genius. Sure, we all know he was a great tunesmith and brilliant orchestrator. But the deeper you dig into his compositions, the more remarkable things you uncover.
Even though Mancini worked exclusively in pop idioms, I rank Hank as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. Everything he composed seems to have some remarkable and unlikely compositional twist, even the best-known tunes we take for granted. Consider the slippery chromaticism and crunchy minor-3rd modulations of the Pink Panther theme. Or the familiar “Baby Elephant Walk” melody — if you take a step back, you realize how bizarre it is, rocketing up as an arpeggio before leaping down to a dissonant note. It’s also easy to forget how shocking the Peter Gunn theme was, with those violent dissonant accents, not to mention its unprecedented fusion of brainy Stan Kenton harmonies and greasy guitar rock. (Jobim is the only parallel I can draw in terms of writing wildly original chromatic themes that somehow become universally beloved pop melodies.)
This song is Mancini’s take on the exotica style created by the likes of Martin Denny and Les Baxter. (Mancini was far too tasteful to include exotica’s signature big-call effects, but I lack such restraint.) But check out the cool melody and the way is straddles the underlying harmonies:
We’re in A minor, but no A notes appear in the main melody. Instead, the tune lingers on the 9th, emphasizing B over the Am7 chord and E over the Dm7. Eventually an A does appear — but not till the downbeat of the B second, by which point we’ve embarked on a long, twisted trail of chromatic modulation.
My Mancini obsession goes way back. In the ’90s, I was privileged to play in Oranj Symphonette, a jazz group lead by cellist Mat Brubeck (yeah, Dave’s son) that also included peerless keyboardist Robbie Burger, mad multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney, and drum titan Scott Amendola (later replaced by the equally awesome Pat Campbell). Sadly, our two Rykodisc albums are out of print, but there’s buttloads of our stuff on YouTube.
Damn, I miss that band. Reunion, anyone?
I’ve just returned from a vacation to Southern Italy and Sicily. It was a nerdy scholarly tour, with an emphasis on ancient Greek archaeological sites. (There are apparently more and better preserved Greek ruins in Italy and Sicily than on the Greek peninsula.) It was terribly serious — my wife and I spent a lot of time photographing Roman play figurines in front of Greek ruins, adding the occasional dinosaur and Vespa, just to go the extra mile in pursuit of historical accuracy.
But I had also music on my mind. I can’t go 100 yards in Italy without flashing on some piece of trivia from my college music history days. You can barely turn around without bumping into La Scala or whatever. Nearly every town along the train tracks triggered some music-geek memory. “Lookit,” I’d blurt at my ever-patient wife. “Arezzo! That’s where the most important music theorist of the Middle Ages invented staff notation and conceived the Guidonian Hand!” (If you’re ever forced to travel with me, bring snug-fitting, noise-cancelling headphones.)
I’d been to Sicily a couple of times before, but only to Taormina and Siracusa in the east. This time we started in Palermo. (Man, I love that city! So vibrant, funky, and delicious.) We then worked east, stopping at one Greek or Roman ruin after another. My favorite, I think, was Selinunte, a vast city of 30,000 until those Ba’al-worshippin’ Carthaginians trashed the place around 400 B.C. The peak population was triple that of Pompeii (which I also just visited for the first time), but unlike those ruins, Selinunte is nearly tourist-free, and you can freely clamber over and through the remains of ancient homes.
When we arrived at Siracusa, I had a mission: When I first visited some 35 years ago, I was, like most visitors, awed by the remarkable echoes within the Orecchio di Dionisio (“Ear of Dionysius”). This tall, narrow, S-shaped grotto is part of the limestone quarries into the hillside behind Siracusa’s famed Greek theater. which is also chiseled into solid limestone. The space produces a remarkable echo, a series of strong, clear slapbacks that melt into moist-sounding reverberation.
On this visit, I was armed to capture the sound as an impulse response so I could mimic the effect in software. I carried a small digital recorder and (on the advice of blog reader Shizmab Abaye, in reply to my last attempt to capture historic ambience) an old-fashioned clipboard with a spring loaded clip.
(I’ve written about impulse responses before. In a nutshell: You record a percussive sound in an ambient space, and then process the recording in software so that you can mimic the ambience after the fact—for example, make it sound like you’re playing guitar in an ancient limestone cavern. How does it work? Easy—magic!)
However, your recording needs to be as free of other noises as possible. When we got to the grotto, it was full of tourists, one of whom was singing.
It sounded beautiful. I felt like a shit for just wishing he’d shut up. He eventually did. When the cavern grew relatively quiet, I started snapping the clipboard and recording.
A week or so later I was back in the studio. I scoured the recordings for the clearest clipboard snaps with the least background noise, and dropped the resulting files into an IR reverb plug-in. (I used both Audio Ease’s Altiverb and Space Designer, the convolution reverb included with Apple’s Logic Pro.) I got the best result from a snap recorded about 10 feet from the clipboard. Here’s how it sounded when applied to a couple of spooky guitars (low-tuned classical and a Dobro played acoustically with EBow.)
It’s not a precise replica of the space (even a touch of background noise compromises the results), but it’s a cool, eerie reverb that definitely doesn’t sound like some factory preset.
I also snagged some other evocative IRs. In Taormina, we visited the Greco-Roman theater. (I’d played a gig there with Tracy Chapman in 2006. It was amazing to perform on that ancient stage with Mt. Etna looming in the background! We stayed an extra day, and that evening Italy won the World Cup. The rioting that night put to shame the meager outpouring of emotion in my neighborhood when our local baseball franchise wins the World Series.)
Naturally, I’d forgotten my clipboard on my recent visit, but they were dismantling the performance stage at the end of the concert season, and some worker conveniently left a hammer and some planks just lying around. I tried capturing the reverb as heard from the stage, plus a stronger echo in one of the side archways providing access to the stage and seats.
Finally, a not-so-ancient ambience: In Sorrento we stayed at the Hotel Tramontano, a fusty, old-school place with a remarkable history. It was a regular stopping point on the 19th-century Grand Tour. Prior guests included Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Ibsen wrote Ghosts while camping out there. Ernesto de Curtis even composed that sodden Italian restaurant warhorse “Torna a Surreinto” while lounging on the clifftop balcony. (You may know the tune as Elvis Presely’s “Surrender.”) Amazingly, I was in this beautiful tourist town for three days and didn’t hear it once. Life can be kind.
Anyway, I captured a spooky reverb in one of the stairwells.
Besides having a couple of new sound design tools, I’ve also got unique souvenirs: Mediocre sound recordings to counterpoint all my mediocre photos!
Got an IR reverb plug-in? Want to try these out? Download them for free here. Then just drop them into your IR ’verb of choice.
I’d like to call out several items of interest in the November issue or Premier Guitar. The first one is personal: As head honcho Shawn Hammond mentions in his monthly editor’s letter, I’m changing roles at the magazine. After two years as a part-time senior editor, I’m going part-part-time as a contributing editor.
It was a tough call for me — it was a fun gig working with awesome people on subjects I love. But I’ve felt an increasing need to dedicate more time to my own projects: playing, recording, writing, developing gear, and trying to make my tonefiend.com blog and YouTube channel seem a bit livelier than something you’d encounter at Urban Ghosts. (It’s one of my favorite websites, but not the attitude I’m aiming for here.)
If you’ve enjoyed the articles I’ve contributed to PG, well, first of all, thanks! And second, note that I’ll actually be contributing more columns and reviews than before. That may sound contrary to the laws of physics, but it’s possible because I will no longer be editing material by other writers. (I’d been processing an average of 35 stories per month in addition to my bylined pieces.) Picking up the slack will be new hire Ted Drozdowski, a fine writer and player, a lovely guy, and one of the music journalists I looked up to when I got into the guitar mag racket decades ago. (Ted was part of the now-legendary Musician magazine of the ’80s and ’90s.) Meanwhile, I’ll be contributing my Recording Guitarist column and at least three major gear reviews per issue.
Also in the issue are several tech-oriented pieces that I found particularly interesting. My old pal Frank Falbo — a leading pickup designer and master luthier — contributed a great piece on pot and capacitor substitutions. More than anything I’ve read, Frank’s article nails down exactly what changes to expect when swapping out part values, documented via audio files.
For me, the most fascinating part is how varying tone-pot values change your guitar’s tone, even when the tone knob is wide-open. Yeah, a lot of us would expect some change, because pots of varying resistances exert different loads on your pickups. But as far as I know, no one has ever nailed down the exact differences the way Frank has.
Spoiler alert: The differences are massive — it’s a far bigger deal than I’d always assumed. Check out Frank’s first set of sound clips and prepare to be impressed.
It’s not a new idea that you can shift the overall tone of a guitar “bright-ward” or “dark-ward” by swapping pots, but Frank makes explicit how dramatic such changes can be, and what to expect from the likeliest substitutions.
I also learned much from two articles I wrote. The first is a shootout between five sets of ultra-vintage-style Strat replacement pickups, featuring models by Amalfitano, Fender, Klein, Manlius, and Mojotone. (Spoiler alert #2: They all sound pretty great, though the Kleins and Mojotones were my personal faves.)
I only realized after evaluating tones that the two sets I loved most don’t deploy a hotter pickup in the bridge position, while the other three do. (I don’t mean some blazing-hot bridge pickup, but one just a tasteful tad louder than the others, an approach many Strat players seem to love.) In the Klein and Mojotone sets, the middle pickup is loudest. Food for thought.
There are good reasons why few guitar mags run serious pickups reviews, and almost never compare models directly: It’s labor-intensive, and it’s damned hard to establish a level playing field. Here, I tried to remove as many variables as possible, installing all the pickups in the same test guitar, scrupulously measuring everything from pickup height to mic position, and laboring mightily to create identical demo performances for each set. My favorite part appears on the final page of the article, where you can directly compare each pickup from each manufacturer side-by-side.
Finally, you might find interesting the audio clips in my latest Recording Guitarist column. It’s about is direct recording, a topic I’ve been covering since this blog began. I got cool sounds using a JHS Colour Box (a dumbed-down Neve channel in stompbox form) and especially with the Neve preamp simulations in the latest Universal Audio software. I’m hardly the first to point this out, but wow! Some recent plug-ins are so stupefyingly realistic that they can mimic analog gear pushed to extremes — a longstanding weak link in faux-analog plug-ins. I found it easy to create cool and compelling sounds without amps or amp simulators. Let me know what you think.
Okay, now I’m nodding off from jet lag. I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy, which generated some interesting musical thoughts and discoveries that I’ll share here soon.
It’s a surreal scene. It’s not held at a convention center, but at a generic airport hotel. Exhibitors set up in plain old hotel rooms on three floors. And unlike NAMM, there are no noise restrictions — pity the poor hotel guests who weren’t amp freaks! It was wild, walking down a long hotel corridor, with some high-end amp and guitar blasting through each doorway. But within each room, there was an odd sense of intimacy. It could even be sexy, assuming your erotic ideal is the Line 6 Helix.
Gear highlights? I don’t know! I was on my own, glued to my pedalboard for two days. (Though I got to take a closer look at the Milkman amps crafted by my San Francisco neighbor Tim Marcus.)
But I did get to share Vintage King’s suite with several cool brands: Moog, whose Minifooger pedals I reviewed for Premier Guitar (and loved). Also there: Magnatone. I was plugged into a magnificent Super Fifty-Nine (which I also reviewed and loved). New to me, though, were two killer models from Jackson Ampworks.
But I can tell you two non-gear highlights: For the first time since the late ’80s, I got to hang out with Jim Crockett, who founded Guitar Player in 1967, inventing the guitar mag.
Jim ran the show when the mag hired me in 1988. It was my first real job — till then, I’d only worked as a guitar teacher. Jim was so cool, going out of his way to welcome the nervous new guy, and providing many pats on the back.
The magazine got sold not long after I started, and has changed corporate hand many times since. So while I only worked with Jim for a few months, I’ve spent the last several decades listening to everyone moan, “Man, it was so much more fun when Jim was here.”
Thanks Jim — I’ll never forget your kindness.
Also unforgettable: the mad yo-yo skills of Vintage King’s Dan Serper. Clearly, raging 7-string pro-metal guitar-playing isn’t his only talent! (The background noise is amps blasting from adjacent rooms.)
UPDATE: I just posted detailed pedal descriptions at gorepedals.com
Anyone going to the big LA Amp Show this weekend? I’ve never been, though I’ve heard it’s a blast. (Literally: Unlike at NAMM, exhibitors set up in separate hotel suites, reportedly without noise restrictions.) I always like geeking out at musical instrument trade shows, but this one is special for me: It’s my pedal premiere, the public debut of my next four stompboxes. They’re not shipping quite yet (except Duh, available here), though they’ll be out in time for a crunchy-as-hell Kwanzaa.
The pedals pictured may look like my usual sketchy handmade stuff, but they’re actually slick factory-made versions, painstakingly styled to look like sketchy handmade stuff. (Michigan’s Cusack Effects is my manufacturer.) They sound like my handmade prototypes, but are less likely to break every 15 minutes.
I’ll be showing them off in the Vintage King suite. (They’re my production partners, and for now, my sole retailer, though the pedals will eventually make their way to hip guitar shops.) Magnatone, Jackson Ampworks, and Moog pedals will also share the VK suite, so my pedals will be in lofty company.
I’ve already written about Filth, Cult, and Cult Germanium Channel, though I haven’t yet finished their demo videos. (If you’ve spent any time on this site or my YouTube channel, you’ve heard them.) But I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned Gross Distortion, a twisted new take on a cool old crunch circuit. Here’s a demo I just made:
… and here’s how I describe it on the upcoming product page:
If you make it to the show, stop by and say hi!
Here’s a fingerpicking idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, though I couldn’t figure out a great way to present it till now.
It’s a challenging series of ultra-syncopated variations on traditional Travis picking — a funky fingerstyle challenge.
I started down this path while trying to create one of those fake-out song intros. You know — the kind that starts with solo guitar, and you think you know where the beat is. But then the drums come in, and your head spins as you realize you were perceiving the downbeat in the wrong place. What if, I thought, you started with Travis picking that, unbeknownst to the listener, was displaced by a 16th-note? That would guarantee a rude awakening when the beat kicked in.
I tried the pattern that way and found it nearly impossible. It took some slow, brain-twisting practice to play those familiar alternating-bass patterns with the rhythmically accented thumb notes falling on offbeat 16th-notes. (And it took even longer for it to feel natural and start grooving.) Maybe the technique comes naturally to some minds, but not mine!
I expand on the notion here when a lesson covering all the possible permutations. It’s more than a mental exercise: The musical implications are vast. As cool as traditional Travis-picking is, and for all the variation it permits, it’s almost inevitably locked into a sort of barn-dance feel with the accents fixed on beats 1 and 3. Learning to shift those accents has many benefits: It develops rhythmic independence. It lets you deploy your thumb in unusual syncopations. And it unlocks a world of funky grooves suitable for Latin and African music, bitchin’ new hybrids, and of course, the fake-out intros that inspired the idea.
I hope you find the concept as compelling as I do. Happy picking!
You can download the notation and tab for these exercises here. It’s a PDF file that you can save and print.
Man, pontificating ain’t easy! KMI, who make the SoftStep controller I use almost every day, solicited a “Albums That Meant a Lot to You” list for their website, and I replied with “Ten Albums That Made My Head Explode,” which just went live on their site. And that made me want to hear your lists.
I don’t know why exercises like this can be so hard. First you can’t think of enough … and then too many … and then you worry you forgot an important one … and then you spend an hour reflecting on whether Joni Mitchell or Béla Bartók is more important … and then you read the whole thing through and realize how insufferably pretentious you sound. At some point, you just surrender and hit SEND. And that’s the moment you start second-guessing the whole thing.
For such a low-stakes effort, the pressure is high! And now I’m putting the pressure on you: I’d love to read your lists of mind-exploding music. Please post them to comments below, and add as much detail as you like. (And feel free to use the “runners up” dodge — I certainly did.)
I’m not sure if there’s much difference between “music that altered my mind” and “best music” lists. I guess it depends on how much importance you place on music that leaves brain specks all over your walls. For me, the brain-speck stuff usually is the best music.
I realized after the fact that only about half my picks have audible guitar parts. How about yours?
I just posted 50 “new” guitar performance videos to YouTube.
See, I recently finished the 100th video for my YouTube channel. Not quite ready to face the second hundred, I spent a few days reviewing all those clips. Some stuff I’m proud of. Some makes we wince. And I thought a few bits might stand on their own as music, so I plucked my 50 favorite exceprts and posted them as standalone performances, minus such distractions as tech mumbo-jumbo, incessant snark, and color. (But if you are curious about something you hear, note that each clip includes a link to the tech-slanted piece where it originated.)
(Fifty is a lot of videos. Just because I’m repeating myself doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard work!)
While poking around under the YouTube hood, I also did some long overdue organization. Beside the 50 added clips, I sorted everything into specialized playlists: electric, acoustic, geek stuff, and the new performance-only clips.
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.
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.
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.)
Okay, enough of my yakkin’! What’s your favorite note?
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