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.

Guns N’ Roses N’ Germanium

 

Woohoo! In this just posted Rig Rundown from Premier Guitar, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Richard Fortus shows off his fascinating stage rig, which happens to include my Cult pedal. It appears a 55:05. But gear geeks should watch the entire video, even if they’re not GNR fans. It’s full of interesting stuff—and lots of surprises.

Richard is the coolest. I’ve known him since the ’90s, when his then-band, Love Spit Love, played a show with PJ Harvey back when I was in the group. Besides being a great player, he’s the nicest guy ever, and he still has the enthusiasm of a kid discovering guitar for the first time. Plus, I’m jealous of how my PG pal John Bohlinger makes this sort of on-camera, impromptu interview look easy. (Trust me—it’s not.)

This part is especially flattering, and it’s not in the video: Like many primitive germanium effects, Cult doesn’t like buffers, so it should usually be used at or near the front of an effect chain. But of course, Richard performs using a buffered wireless system. He had someone build an “unbuffering” box that makes the pedal “see” pickup-style capacitance. I didn’t even know you could do that till Richard told me about it (though I’ve heard about other similar strategies since then).

Gotta say: It’s a special sort of thrill when something you concocted on a filthy little workbench winds up in the hands of a fine musician. Thanks, Richard and John!

Get In the Van!

So I get to do a little West Coast tour with Elettrodomestico, a new band led by my pals Jane Wiedlin and Pietro Straccia, a fine guitarist, singer, songwriter, and gentleman. Plus my longtime musical partner Dawn Richardson is drumming.

The album came out great. Jane and Pietro have such vocal chemistry together. And on a zero-minus budget, they’ve made a video for each song. Here’s the one for “Rabbit Stew.”

If you’re near a show, come by and say hi!

P.S.: Yup, I’m definitely playing the entire tour on this thing.

Introducing Elettrodomestico!

I’ve so been waiting to share this! My dear pals Jane Wiedlin and Pietro Straccia have a new band called Elettrodomestico, and Yahoo Music is previewing the first single, “Aloha.” Jane and Pietro finished their debut album, If You’re a Boy or a Girl, earlier this year, and they let me play on it. (I got do the bass and lap steel on “Aloha.” Pietro played the cool mutant surf guitar.)

I’ll be playing bass with the band (this bass!) for upcoming shows, including a West Coast tour in October. (I’ll post dates soon.) Also onboard is my longtime musical collaborator, drummer Dawn Richardson. It’ll be the first time I’ve toured as a bassist.

Elettrodomestico is Italian for “home appliance.” (Pietro was raised in both Italy and the U.S.) Jane and Pietro sing, play, and write so beautifully together, and they both have such extraordinary pop instincts. It would be a blast to play with them even if they’re weren’t such cool people and good friends.

Despite having zero budget, Jane and Pietro have made a cool video for each frickin’ song on the album, drawing on their artistic circle here in San Francisco. I especially love the “Aloha” video, with its beautiful stop-motion animation by Molly Barata.

And I never get tired of mentioning that Jane gave me my Hello Kitty! Stratocaster.

 

 

“Love Will Tear Us Apart”

I’m about to rip up my long-running live looping rig to make some changes I’ll write about soon. But before doing that, I’ve posted the solo live-looped version of “Love Will Tear Us Part” that I’ve been playing live. You know, just in case I can’t follow the trail of breadcrumbs back to where I started.

When I first heard the sing more than 35 years ago, it frightened me. So different! So dark! So hopeless! But when I was in Palm Springs earlier this summer, they were playing it over the P.A. at the supermarket. So I guess everything’s okay now.

Charlie Christian (and That Pickup)

Despite being obsessed with Charlie Christian for decades, I’ve never played a Gibson ES-150, the guitar he made famous. I’ve never even messed with a “Charlie Christian pickup,” even though it’s been a fairly common retrofit ever since the late Danny Gatton installed one in his Tele’s neck position. But I’ve always wondered: Could the C.C. pickup work in styles other than jazz? How would it sound in the bridge position? (The ES-150 had only a neck pickup.) And most of all, how would it sound with nasty fuzz?

Lollar Pickups helped me answer those questions with a loaner of three humbucker-sized Charlie Christian pickups. These differ cosmetically from the originals, lacking the cumbersome mounting hardware and the ornamental top plate. But they’re convincing sound-alikes, with similar magnets, wires, windings, blades, and modest output. (Their DC resistance is just under 3k ohms). Here’s what I discovered!

Clearly, it’s not a pickup for every rock guitarist (though it’s perfect for a swing-era jazz sound). Still, I found its non-jazz sounds strange and compelling, and I can definitely imagine using them in the studio. What do you think?

While making comparisons, I spend hours reacquainting myself with Charlie’s recordings, of which there are only a few dozen. His career was absurdly brief — it was less than three years from his first recordings with Benny Goodman through his death from tuberculosis (and probably other bad stuff) at age 25. But that was long enough to forever alter the guitar’s history.

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