Welcome…

. . . 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.

Oink You Very Much: Meet the Porkolator!

It was a longer and harder process than I’d ever imagined, but the first of my four new pedals is finally released and in stock now at Vintage King.

Here’s my product demo:

And here’s a just-posted “First Look” video from John Bohlinger at Premier Guitar:

Man, it’s always such a trip when you tinker with an effect and play it in isolation for years, and then hear it being played by someone else. But I couldn’t be luckier: The first person who ever played one beside me was the stupefyingly talented Blake Mills. (He dug it, and he got the very first production model). And now, another performance by another of my favorite players. Pinch me!

There’s lots more info about Porkolator on the Joe Gore Pedals product page. As I explain, this is a highly mutated version of a circuit that was pretty bizarre to begin with: the Interfax Harmonic Percolator. There is so much bad info about the original pedal floating around. Everyone seems use a couple of phrases over and over: “tube-like” and “even-order harmonics.” Wrong and wrong! Everyone’s just copying something (incorrect) they read somewhere else.

A few years ago, I did a story on the Harmonic Percolator and its boutique DIY spinoffs. Even if you don’t especially dig the pedal, it’s an interesting study in how an effect gets tweaked and modernized. Here’s the accompanying video.

At the end I demonstrate an early version or Porkolator, though it’s changed so much that you can’t really compare. I gave this original to famous drummer and not-as-famous guitar player Matt Chamberlin during a film score session. Like many of my hand-built prototypes, it promptly broke. Fortunately, the new ones are built by the talented professional at Cusack Music. I just designed the damn things.

True Guit! A Master Class with Joe Gore & Adam Levy

On Saturday, July 7th, 2018 I will be co-hosting True Guit, a day-long guitar workshop, with my friend Adam Levy at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco.
You can find all the needed details — including cost — at trueguit.com.

I’ve been contemplating such a return to teaching for several years. I taught professionally from ages 13 to 29, but gave it up when I first became a Guitar Player editor. Until I got the editor gig, I’d never filled out a W-2 in my life! (Jim Campilongo, then a fellow San Franciscan, inherited my teaching practice.)

I’ve written many instructional articles in the ensuing years, so I suppose I was a sort of “guitar teacher to the masses.” But I’ve been aching to return to face-to-face contact with students. (It’s in my blood — my parents were both educators.)

Adam Levy: Scholar, gentleman, and world-class guitar educator.

And man, what an honor to collaborate with Adam on True Guit! You may know Adam’s work with Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Ani Di Franco, and on his many fine solo albums. Or you might have read the lessons and interviews he’s contributed to all the leading guitar magazines. Not all great players are great teachers, but Adam is brilliant on both fronts. He has profound musical wisdom and a well-honed knack for communicating it clearly. Plus his calm, Zen-like demeanor is a great antidote to my twitchy bursts of neurotic energy.

I had a blast last year conducting master classes for Adam’s students at the Los Angeles College of Music. But this will be the first time we’ve taught side by side, and we plan to make a habit of it.

If you plan to be near San Francisco this summer — or would just like to be — please consider joining us. You’ll be able to hang out in one of the world’s most exciting cities and escape vicious July heat. (Our summers are famously overcast. Sadly, Mark Twain never actually said, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” But let’s just pretend he did.)

Telecaster Deluxe Variations: Six Pickups and Some Weird Wiring

Fender’s Telecaster Deluxe has had an interesting and checkered history. Once regarded as yet another mediocre product from the company’s era of CBS ownership, these turn-of-the-seventies instruments now fetch huge prices on the collector’s market. I’ve never owned own. But when singer/songwriter Greer Sinclair loaned me one of Fender’s 2010 reissues, it was time for research — and experimentation.

The made-in-Mexico 1972 Deluxe reissue is a cool guitar. It replicates many details of the original: the oversized headstock, the Strat-like belly cut and fixed Strat-style bridge, and the big-ass pickguard. But its pickups are definitely a departure. In lieu of the original’s large-format “Wide Range” pickups, it employs a P-94R (a humbucker-sized P-90 spinoff) at the neck, and a conventional Gibson-style humbucker at the bridge.

The Wide Range pickup was a unique beast. Fender had commissioned Seth Lover, the man who invented the Gibson humbucker, to create a Fender humbucker in hopes of cashing in on the growing popularity of hard rock. With DC resistance in the 10k range, the new Wide Range pickup was a bit hotter than a vintage Gibson humbucker. Wide Range pickups appeared in several of the era’s models, including the Tele Thinline, Tele Custom, and semi-hollowbody Starcaster.

Gibson humbuckers have a bar magnet within, but the pole pieces are not magnetic. But on Wide Range pickups, the pole pieces are magnetic, as on Fender’s single-coil pickups. Situating individual magnets closer to the strings yield a brighter sound with greater note defition and string-to-string separation — characteristics we associate with vintage Fender pickups. So the Wide Range pickup lent a uniquely “Fender” twist to the Gibson design.

Wide Range pickups are slightly larger than conventional humbuckers. Most of Fender’s circa-1970 Tele reissues substitute generic humbuckers of the standard size. Standard humbuckers can sound superb in a Tele, but they’re horses of different colors. Fender has also created some reissues with the larger-sized pickups, but these are also garden-variety humbuckers — the larger format is purely cosmetic. The pole pieces of the factory humbucker on Greer’s guitar don’t align with Fender’s wider string spacing. (But one thing I’ve leaned from my various Fender/Gibson hybrid experiments is that sonically, this can matter very little.)

The P-94R’s cream-colored top looks wicked against the guitar’s finish. It’s a warm, full-sounding pickup from the mellower side of the P-90 spectrum. Actually, it doesn’t sound all the different from a traditional Telecaster neck pickup. (Like that pickup, it works quite well for jazz.) Note, though, that its dimensions differs substantially from those of a Gibson P-90, as you can the in the photo where it sits alongside a historically accurate Lollar P-90. When you change the size of a pickup’s components, you inevitably alter the sound. The tones can be for better or worse — but they will be different.

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Gore Pedals in Guitar Player Magazine

Well, this is an honor! Guitar Player magazine’s Mike Molenda profiled me and my Gore Pedals line in the magazine’s May 2018 issue. (It’s their annual pedals extravaganza, with good ol’ Adrian Belew on the cover.)

You can read the piece here.

I owe Mike a big thanks, and not only for this story and other kind things he and his colleagues have written about my work. (Just last month Mike singled out my upcoming Cult Germanium Channel and Purr Vibrato pedals as NAMM 2018 highlights.) Mike and his GP colleagues were one of the first audiences for my DIY pedals when I first picked up the soldering iron a decade ago, long before I’d gone commercial. Their initial enthusiasm was a much-needed shot in the arm for a nervous neophyte. Mike was one of the first players to add some of my sketchy gizmos to his gigging pedalboard.

Thanks, too, to staff photographer Paul Haggard, who somehow managed to make it look like I know what I’m doing at the bench. When Paul came by for the shoot, we reminisced about how he was my very first connection to the magazine. I knew Paul’s brother, brilliant guitarist Mark “Mirv” Haggard, from the 1980’s San Francisco punk-funk scene, where he played with the Limbomaniacs and M.I.R.V. Pushing 30 and desperate for work, I contacted Mirv’s brother, Paul, who worked for one of GP‘s sister publications. He connected me to the late Tom Wheeler, who eventually hired and mentored me. (Thanks yet again, Paul!)

It’s been a long time since I contributed to Guitar Player, yet the magazine has always been an important part of my life for 30 years. Today, both the print and music industries are shadows of their former selves, and it’s far harder to sustain a guitar mag than it was when I was on staff. Ad revenue is lower and corporate support is weaker. We had it so easy in comparison! Yet Mike, Paul, and Art Thompson have done heroic work in this often hostile environment, putting out quality issues month after month. I’m so proud to be part of their latest effort.

Indispensable DIY Tool

UPIf you build pedals, you REALLY want this $41 tool.

UPDATE: A Facebook friend of mine found the same tool on eBay for $25.49.

Jon Cusack — the pedal builder, not the actor — recently turned me on to one of the best DIY tools I’ve ever owned: The Multi-Function Tester TC1.

Jon’s Michigan shop manufactures  the pedals I design. He and I were trying to pinpoint the optimal gain for the germanium transistors in two of the new pedals I’m about to release.

I’d been using a multimeter to test gain, which is measured in terms of hFE. An old germanium transistor might have hFE of 50 or less, while a hot silicon Darlington transistor such as an MPSA13 might check in at hFE = 5,000. As you can imagine, it’s a crucial measurement for any stompbox that employs transistors.

But like many before me, I encountered two big problems. First, most multimeters don’t have an hFE function. (To make such measurements, the device needs a trio of sockets so you can plug in the transistor’s three legs.) It’s not a matter of cost. In fact, most high-end multimeters, such as the Fluke models  whose prices start at well over $100, omit the function. (To be fair, we’re talking about antique transistor technology, which is pretty much extinct in most modern electronics.) You’re likelier to find an hFE tool on cheaper, more obscure models. So I’d been using bunch of cheap-ass Chinese multimeters just to measure hFE.

But there’s another problem: Those multimeter hFE testers are notorious for their inaccuracy. They’re especially prone to overstating the actual gain. They’re not quite useless, but they’re close.

Jon recommended the TC1 ($41.50), which apparently is only available via eBay in the US. And it’s more useful than I could have imagined.

First off, it gives accurate hFE readings within a hundredth of an hFE unit. It works with silicon and germanium BJTs, FETS, JFETS, and MOSFETS. And dig this: It doesn’t matter which way you orient the pins — it knows which leg is which, so no more  jumping online to verify the pinout of a particular part.

Check out the photo: The LCD image tells me that the pin in socket 3 is the collector. Had I inserted it the transistor the other way around, the collector would be marked with a 1. Better still, it also works with resistors, capacitors, and diodes. You don’t even have to switch metering functions, as on a  multimeter. Just pop in the part, secure it with the clamp, and TC1 does the rest.

Trust me — if you work with transistors, resistors, caps, and diodes, you want this tool. Now I seldom use my crappy multimeter unless I need its continuity (“beeper”) tool.

Thanks for the excellent tip, Jon! 🙂

Tom Wheeler, R.I.P.

I just learned that longtime Guitar Player magazine editor Tom Wheeler has died. No details have been disclosed yet. [UPDATE: Apparently Tom succumbed to a heart attack while leaving a family gathering.]

Tom not only gave me my first job in guitar journalism — he gave me my first proper job ever. When he hired me as an assistant editor in 1988, I filled out my first W-2 form. Before that I was a deadbeat musician, music teacher, and student.

Many will talk about Tom’ titanic influence in the not-so-titanic world of guitar. He shepherded Guitar Player magazine through its most successful years. His The Guitar Book was the era’s standard reference for players and teachers. (My copy was worn out by the time I met Tom.) He joined the staff in 1977, and was head honcho from 1981 to 1991, when he left to assume a journalism professorship at the University of Oregon.

Tom was the finest mentor any young writer/editor could have wished for. (Well, so was then-senior editor Jas Obrecht, who is very much alive, well, and busy writing important music history books. So I was blessed with the two best mentors imaginable.)

I first contacted Tom the year before he hired me, pitching a monthly column on world music called Global Guitar. Tom wrote me a very nice rejection letter. I tried again the following year, and he declined a second time — but invited me down to Cupertino to interview for a new assistant editor position. I took the gig and commenced the long daily commute from San Francisco to Cupertino.

Tom took me under his wing in a big way. He gave me the opportunity to write a cover story my very first month (with the wise and wonderful Vernon Reid). He finally launched Global Guitar. And he was highly receptive to my story pitches and other editorial ideas.

Tom showed me the editing and publishing ropes with inexhaustible patience. He instilled a sense of ethics that guides me to this day: Be honest. Write clearly. And never forget that you’re there to serve the readers, not the publishers or the advertisers.

I happened to arrive at an exciting moment in guitar history, probably the greatest 6-string Renaissance since the ’60s. At that point the magazine focused on shred players, fusion maestros, and classic rockers. It didn’t take any special insight for me to realize we should also include upstarts like Sonic Youth, the Cure, and the Smiths, yet that indie/alt stuff hadn’t yet been embraced by the guitar mags. But Tom accepted such pitches and assigned me cover stories on those artists and many others. Today such coverage seems like a no-brainer, but it was quite controversial at the time. I received much reader hate mail, and those stories were sometimes blamed for the mag’s declining market share. Yet Tom backed me without fail. He also let me write about funk, the avant-garde scene, and players from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

We held our staff meetings in Tom’s office — “Wheelie’s office,” we’d say — and it was always a bloody mess. There were inevitably overflowing mail bins of yet-to-be-heard vinyl and CDs and lofty towers of magazines and loose paper. That’s not to say Tom was disorganized — he never missed deadlines and rarely displayed stress during editorial crunches. There was always just a lot of crap in his office!

I was there for the last gasp of the mag’s original vision. Founder Jim Crockett and former editor Don Menn — two other lovely, supportive guys — soon departed, and GP was sold for the first of many times. After being the only magazine of its kind for decades (and effortlessly raking in big advertising bucks) there was increasing competition from Guitar World, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, and various spinoffs. Tom chafed under the corporate scrutiny, especially when the new publisher upbraided him for being late with some bullshit corporate report while a member of Tom’s family was undergoing a serious health scare. When a chance to teach journalism arose, Tom took it, and he recommended me to assume his role. (I didn’t really, literally or figuratively. We crafted a sort of halfway editor gig with Keyboard’s Dom Milano as publisher, which I held for a few years till I left to focus on playing.) Tom’s parting gift was a copyediting manual I have to this day.

It’s no secret that Tom really loved guitar. In fact, his most lasting contributions to the field may be the hefty tomes he authored after quitting GP. He’d always pause his work to check out whatever gear was passing through, and he played with the enthusiasm of a kid newly hooked on the instrument. Me, I have a neurotic love/hate relationship with the guitar and its players. Tom just reveled in all of it, in the purest possible way.

What I remember most about Tom, though, was his kindness. He was just plain nice! I remember one time when our newly hired NYC editor, Matt Resnicoff, was visiting. Matt, who had previously worked for Guitar World, was flabbergasted to witness Tom take a call from a random reader who wanted to ask about some arcane gear detail. “Whenever someone like that calls Guitar World,” Matt said. ”Our editor tells the receptionist, ‘Tell ’em to blow! We’re not a fucking information service.’”

I saw Tom a few times after he left. I’d run into him often at NAMM shows, and if I could drag him away from his admirers, we’d grab a sandwich. And I’d give him a ring whenever I played near Eugene. One time he came to an Oranj Symphonette gig with his local guitar buddy, Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad of Capt. Beefheart fame. I was so nervous!

But whenever I think of Wheelie, I visualize one specific image: Tom, head down at his desk amid stacks of yet-to-be-processed paper, concentrating on an edit or page proof. (He was a great proofreader.) No matter how deeply focused he was, if you tapped on his door, he would pause, look you directly in the eye, and flash that all-American Tom Sawyer grin, his eyes sparkling exactly as in this photo. He’s not putting on that expression for the camera — he usually looked like that!

Later, when I briefly occupied the corner office, I would attempt to emulate him. I mean that literally: I’d think, “Pause, look up, eye contact, big smile.” But I never mastered the skill like Tom. He was a natural.

Farewell, my role model and mentor. You always were and will always be an inspiration, and I know that countless other players, craftspeople, readers, and writers feel the same. I am eternally grateful for your passion, wisdom, generosity, and kindness.

My New Live Looping Rig: Total “Faylor”

I haven’t posted any new video in months and months. It’s not just laziness or business, though I suffer from both. I’ve just been locked away in my studio, trying to create a new live looping system.

I still haven’t nailed it down, so I’m not going to get into a complete run-down yet. But here are the basic ideas.

I’ve moved from a hardware looper to software looping. When I started this godforsaken looping project years ago, I’d just finished a lot of work on Apple’s then-new MainStage software. At the time, the program’s looper simply wasn’t reliable enough for live performance. Also, my intense signal processing was pushing my MacBook Pro to its limits. But since then, the program has gone through many upgrades. Meanwhile, after years of relative stagnation, Apple finally issued a major MacBook Pro upgrade in 2017. Between the more powerful computer and the refined software, I could finally shift looping and signal processing to the computer. Yeah, there are a couple of disadvantages. For one thing, MainStage’s looper lacks a “copy” function, something I’ve come to rely on a great deal in my arrangements. But it sure is nice not having to run the entire mix through the relatively cheap hardware looper convertors — just the snazzy ones in my Apollo interface. (Of course, now that I’ve transitioned, Electro-Harmonix has just announced a compelling-looking 6-track looper. I’ll have to check that out…)

I’ve put aside for now the Fishman TriplePlay MIDI pickup. I have no complaints about TriplePlay, which is far and away the best MIDI pickup ever created, and a product I recommend without reservation. But I wanted to be free from the hardware setup. This way, I can plug in any guitar, any time. (I’ve been experimenting with acoustic looping — more on that soon.) I’m still using MIDI sounds, but again, it’s all in software via Jam Origin’s brilliant MIDI Guitar plugin. It works incredibly well without a MIDI pickup, but it’s not nearly as fast as TriplePlay. It’s fine for doubling, or for melodic and textural stuff, but it’s just not speedy enough to play MIDI drums at even moderate tempos. Which bring me to the other big departure …

I confess: I’m playing to a drum machine. I’m triggering and changing patterns using a KMI !2 Step foot controller. I really wrestled with this decision. I loved the idea of using no machine tempos — it all came from the hands. But at some point I realized that the main reason I was committed to that approach was for bragging rights: “No prerecorded tracks, and no machine rhythms” I could boast. But who cares except geeks like me? Anyway, I still have misgivings about the change, but I’m going with it for now. I think that means, though, that I’ll create more arrangements without percussion, just so I’m not locked to the machine for an entire set.

Meanwhile working with a tempo clock lets me do fun stuff with synchronized effects. I’m especially besotted with Sugar Bytes’s Effectrix, a mind-bending multi-effector that lets you activate and edit effects on a note-by-note basis. You hear it a lot in the “solo” in this video.

I’ve played a few shows with the new setup. The first one was flawed but promising. The second was an unmitigated disaster. Then I doubled up on practicing and (not kidding) started meditating again, which helped a lot. Last time I tried this live, it went really well! We’ll see how it goes at my gig this week.

Anyway, it’s still a work in progress. I’ll keep the curious updated.

I played this cover tune with no irony whatsoever. I love the original.

Gore Pedals Demo from Premier Guitar

NAMM was fun, though I’m paying a price with this dreaded flu I came home with. (“NAMMthrax,” they call it.) A highlight was getting interviewed on camera by my friend and frequent editor, Shawn Hammond.

Admittedly, there are some cringeworthy moments, especially when my entire Porkolator demo crashes and burns thanks to a funky cable. (I’ve played Shawn’s role at other tradeshows, and trust me, those guys sprint from booth to booth at speeds you wouldn’t believe — definitely no time for do-overs!) But you’ll get a decent idea of the other three. Soon I’ll have proper demos of the new releases, and I’ll share them here.

I was showing my stuff in the brand-new pro audio hall, miles away from most of the guitar stuff. That’s because my distributors, Vintage King/M1, work mainly in the high-end studio/audio realm. (I was set up right next to those magnificent Shadow Hills compressors.)

Still, I managed to see a few old friends and make some new ones. One reunion was with producer Matt Wallace (Faith No More, Maroon 5, Replacements, etc.) who I hadn’t seen in over 35 years, when I was his frickin’ “Intro to Music Appreciation” TA at UC Berkeley. Another was a middle-school friend with no connection to the music industry — his daughter just got a gig at Fender.

And when I wasn’t demoing, schmoozing, or contracting diseases, I was watching the nearby Mix With The Masters stage. That company sells online recording/mixing lessons featuring famed producers and engineers, many of whom gave live presentations in which they walked the audience through their productions. I saw my old pals Joe Chicarelli and Jacquire King, and I got to meet several others whose work I’ve long admired: longtime Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds accomplice Mick Launay, mastering legend Howie Weinberg, and Sylvia Massy. In addition to recording everyone from Tool to Johnny Cash to System of a Down to Julio Iglesias, Sylvia authrored the coolest book ever on creative recording.)

Totally off-topic: While driving from SF, I finally finished the audio book version of Alan Moore’s 1,255-page magnum opus, Jerusalem. Fuck me — the most amazing book I’ve encountered since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas over a decade ago.

Okay — back to my flu meds!

Four New Joe Gore Pedals at NAMM 2018

Happy new year, all. Sorry I’ve been so scarce — mostly, I’ve been practicing guitar! I’m trying out lots of challenging new things (for me, anyway) and I’ll share some of them as videos very soon. I’ve also been finalizing the four new Joe Gore pedals I’m debuting at NAMM 2018. Lookit!

[L-R]: Screech Octave Fuzz, Porkolator Distortion, Cult Germanium Channel, Purr Vibrato

They’ve already gone into the production, and they’ll be available via Vintage King very soon. I have yet to make demo videos and detailed spec sheets, and we still haven’t finalized the prices. (It depends how much the damn germanium transistors in Cult Germanium Channel and Porkolator wind up costing.)

In the meantime, here’s the info sheet I’m distributing at NAMM. Also, Premier Guitar is scheduled to record a demo video at the show and post it on their site. (I’ll share the details when that happens.) I hope I sound less like a squirrel on meth than I did for last year’s show-floor video.

If you’re attending the show in Anaheim, please visit me at booth #15517. (It’s a huge booth run by my distributors, M1. I’ll be crammed behind a tabletop somewhere within.) I’d love to say hi.

Remembering Ralph Carney [1956-2017]

Yesterday we lost a dear friend—and one of the most unique musicians of our lifetimes. Everyone who knew Ralph Carney is mourning the death of a kind, funny, and just plain loveable guy. But you didn’t have to know Ralph personally to appreciate his mad genius. (If you’re unfamiliar with Ralph and his music, check out his Wikipedia page.)

As I write, Ralph’s Facebook page is still up, and it’s overflowing with heartbroken tributes. Each testimonial is uniquely touching, but they all communicate the same message: Ralph was a beautiful man with a beautiful musical mind, and we’re going to miss him like hell.

It’s our nature when we lose loved ones to cite their uniqueness with phrases like, “We won’t see his like again,” or “After they made him, they broke the mold.” But man, have those sentiments ever been truer than in Ralph’s case?

I met Ralph in 1991, when I gave him a lift to my very first session with Tom Waits, recording the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth. (Ralph didn’t drive. If you ever played music with him, chances are you gave him a lift at some point.) I knew who he was, and I was in awe. He’d played on Waits’s Rain Dogs, my favorite album!

But Ralph, of course, was the least pretentious man ever to draw breath, and I immediately dug the guy. That was also the day I met cellist/composer Matt Brubeck, and before long the three of us were playing together as the Oranj Mancinis, later the Oranj Symphonette. (At various times, the band also included drummers Kenny Wolleson, Scott Amendola, and Patrick Campbell, plus keyboardist Rob Burger.)

Ralph and I went on to play together on a half-dozen or so Waits albums and many other projects, from a spoken-word record by the late Kathy Acker to clubbo.com, the massive “hoax record label” project. He and I scored two feature films together. Once Ralph even called me to play on an Allen Ginsberg project, but I was away on tour, dammit.

But Oranj Symphonette is where I truly got to know Ralph’s freakish musicality. I paused for a moment before typing the word “freakish,” but I can’t think of a better adjective. Ralph simply didn’t create music the way most musicians do.

Two things everyone knows about Ralph: He was funny, and he played a lot of instruments. How many? Depending on how you tabulate, somewhere between 30 and infinity. Basically, he conjured beauty, comedy, and tragedy from anything he touched. Ralph’s musical humor varied from sublime to fart-joke vulgar. Sometimes it was wildly inappropriate, like the time Matt Brubeck had hushed the audience with an exquisitely delicate cello solo—until Ralph started honking on one of his duck calls. But most of the time he was left-field brilliant, playing unlikely things on unlikely instruments in ways you or I would be unlikely to do in a million years.

Oranj Symphonette in 1997 (L-R): Me, Matt Brubeck, Rob Burger, Ralph, Scott Amendola.

In Oranj Symphonette, I had the privilege of being the weakest player in the band. (Serious musicians understand why this is a privilege, and anyone who heard the group knows this isn’t false modesty on my part.) Guys like Matt, Scott, and Rob are superhuman players with deep, formal training and sophisticated taste and restraint. But Ralph was anarchy squared. He literally couldn’t be predictable—his fidgety, free-associative mind wouldn’t permit it. If you wanted a musician who could sight-read perfectly or nail the same part identically over and over on command, Ralph was not your guy. His bag was unfettered inspiration.

Ralph’s sense of humor was as uncommon as his musicianship, and the two traits were closely related. It was often through jokes that I got the deepest insight into how Ralph’s mind worked.

Once, backstage at a Latin Playboys concert, someone (one of the Los Lobos guys, I think) mentioned that he’d moved into a suburban-style house, and how weird it was to have a lawn. “Why can’t we all just get a lawn?” Ralph asked wistfully, channeling a dyslexic Rodney King, Jr.

Another time, I could practically see his right brain pulsing: Oranj Symphonette was playing a string of gigs across Canada as part of a national jazz festival. Concertgoers would sometimes request autographs, as if we were celebrities or something. At one point a nice couple approached us. “Can you sign our program?” they asked. “We voted for you in the jazz poll!”

Under his breath Ralph muttered, “Jazz poll … poll … Pol Pot. Can you sign our skull?”

It was hilarious. And sick. And random. And brilliant. And exactly the sort of free-associative backflip that Ralph performed every 10 seconds or so while improvising.

Ralph loved playing the musical clown, but he was a profound, Chaplin-esque clown whose comedy was rich in pathos and melancholy. He embraced styles that can be hard to listen to with a straight face, like klezmer and old-timey hokum. But he never played them strictly for laughs. He was a sensitive, emotional guy, and you heard it in every note he played. (Except maybe the duck calls and slide whistles.)

When we say someone has no filters, it’s often a left-handed compliment, implying rudeness and lack of concern for others—in a word, dickishness. Ralph and filters never met each other, but he was aware of their existence. He was unfailingly kind and considerate and always generous with his time and talent. His filter-free creativity was a joy to all.

I hadn’t played with Ralph since he left San Francisco for Portland a few years ago, though we kept in touch via Facebook. Often it was about politics. Like me, Ralph loathed Trump and everything he represents, and he expressed those feelings with characteristic humor/pain. And of course, Ralph gigged and recorded furiously literally until his last day. One of his Portland pals posted video of a gig from a couple or nights ago, and Ralph uploaded several quiet, elegiac pieces to his Bandcamp page within the last few days.

I was in Portland a few weeks ago, playing a gig with Jane Wiedlin’s new band, Elettrodomestico. Ralph and I failed to connect, but we swapped messages the next day. He told me how much he loved Portland. “It’s amazing here for music,” he said. “It’s like San Francisco 20 years ago!”

Today I’m thinking a lot about San Francisco 20 years ago—and the beautiful soul who helped make it such a memorable time. Farewell, my dear, irreplaceable friend. Everyone who ever met or heard you is going to miss you terribly.

In tribute to Ralph, I’ve posted both out-of-print Oranj Symphonette albums — Plays Mancini and The Oranj Album — to YouTube.