In the Rear with the Gear

Toys. We love them. We love the new effects box, the new tuner, the new garageband software, you name it, we’ll spend an afternoon pouring through it.

Guitars. If we love toys, we go insane over new guitars. I want to try out the Ibanez S5470 so bad I can taste it…but no one local has it. If I am to own it (at $1300) I have to order it sight unseen (if you know where I can find one in the SF Bay area to try out, please email me!!!).

Amps. If the effects sound great, and the guitar feels great, than your amp will rock! Well, it should…right?

Maybe.

When I was a teenager, I would crank up my Peavy when my parents were out of the house and it was still daylight. Woo hoo, rock star! And I got into bands and I played in dark, damp, cold garages and it still sounded ok. So my amp was tried, tested and true.

Uh, no, not quite.

Cranking it in your 15×15 bedroom has it’s own acoustics. Playing in a garage has HORRIBLE acoustics. It echoes all around with the concrete floor and the flat, hard sufaces around. And when you finally get your amp out there in Club X or Uncle Stevens birthday in the recreation hall, you’ll find out something we all go through.

My amp doesn’t sound ANYTHING like it did!

What you’ve been doing all this time is adjusting your tone to the warm and cozy ambience of your bedroom, with the carpet, and posters on the wall and a big bed to absorb sound. The garage is the opposite, but it’s still close quarters. But now, with an elongated hall in front of you, the game has all changed.

Now don’t panic. Have you ever heard of a sound check? The band always has a sound check in the afternoon for the gig at night. Every stadium, club or hall has it’s own personality, so the sound engineer will work with everybody’s sound, the vocals, the bass, the drums, the guitars, the keys, everybody and mix the sound that sounds best to the room.

For a small club you may not have the luxary of your own sound guy. You’ll notice that your amplifier needs to have it’s own tonality hiked up. What sounded warm and nice in your bedroom sounds flat and tinny in your venue and you’ll have to warm it up, boost bass and midrange and take some off the treble. If it’s a warm room with carpet and drapes, you might want to bring the teble up more, reduce the midrange and add reverb. It’s a subjective thing but a second opinion does not hurt. Keep in mind that if you are playing with a smaller amp, like me, you’ll want it elevated. Something waist high or a bit higher will do. I used to carry a restaurant stand and used that. Some people use crates to stack it on. If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time hearing yourself, and the other band members will too.

If you’re using a small amp (like me) you’ll need to be mic’d through the PA for many gigs. My small Line 6 amp with 1 10″ speaker just isn’t going to have the spread needed. You’ll hear me if you’re right in front of me but across the room you won’t. Mic me and put me through the PA columns and I’m now live and in color. The only problem is I won’t have control over my sound. I’m going to have to trust the sound engineer to pay attention and make sure I’m heard over everybody else.

By being mic’d through the PA I have one more nice thing – monitors. Monitors are the small speakers that line the front of the stage and point up at a near 45 degree angle at the performers. It might seem unnecessary at first with all these speakers everywhere to actually need some pointed at the performers but monitors are wonderful. In a small club, you may not need them but in larger venues, you just won’t hear yourself, you won’t hear vocals, you won’t hear bass. Nicely mixed monitors are very much “instant feedback” as to what you sound like and a real necessity. Try playing a High School gymnasium without monitors and you’ll soon find your sound bouncing back at you off the back wall, creating a feeling of mush as you play. Sound smeared on sound. Monitors can help with that.

I would really like to someday own a Marshall full stack (the full stack comes in two 4×4 cabinets and are modular) but right now I live in a limited living space and just can’t afford the room, plus I’m upstairs. Not practical. In the meantime I’m going for the smaller amp and going mic’d.

If you have different experiences with this subject, I’d love to hear from you.

Rock on,

Spencer

How the Replaceable Become Irreplaceable

In my last post, I mentioned that I, Guitar Hero to Many, was once kicked out of a band that I helped start. Anger, frustration, and a sense of betrayal are the emotions that come to mind when I relive that moment.

But, as with any painful experience, I learned.
First, how did this happen?  I started the band with another guitar player.  We added a singer who also played fairly well – he was no shredder, but he was passable.  The original guitar player also played some keyboard.  So, in the end, my services were considered superfluous.  And as such, the band could make more money per person if they dropped me.
I have to admit, it makes sense.  But that’s probably because I have an MBA now 🙂
So what can you, my dear reader, do to make sure this doesn’t happen to you?  Here are some suggestions.  You can adopt any or all of them, depending on your situation.  Keep in mind that these are not foolproof and people make crazy decisions all the time that defy logic.  Every band has some politics in it and if you have tension with someone else in the band, you may still end up on the outside looking in.
1) Be professional.  This is the very basic thing I expect everyone in a band to be.  Be on time, be prepared, have your charts, bring your ipod if you need to, have your chord, your pick, etc.  Avoid showing up to practice in any altered state.  You get the idea.
2) Sing.  Many players don’t sing and if you do, that’s a big plus.  I’ve lost auditions by not being a strong singer.  I don’t have a high range and that works against me.  In fact, I’m considering getting a vocal coach to see if I can get my voice back in shape, as I’ve lost about 3 half steps off my high end.
And if you’re a bass player who sings or a drummer who sings, you’re even more golden because it’s not expected of them.
3) Have practice at your place.  This is not an option for me currently, but at one time it was.  Drummers don’t want to move their stuff all the time, and those Marshall stacks are heavy.  If you can do it, and you live in a safe neighborhood, you might consider it.  Just be considerate of your neighbors.  You don’t want the cops showing up at 10:30pm.
4) Find work for the band. This is a big job.  You have to put together a promo packet, drop it off at clubs, agents, etc.  Make phone calls, try to get into those clubs that are hard to crack. You may even consider charging the band a 5% finders fee.  Or not.
5) Chart songs for the band.  It makes their job easier and you become proficient at it.
6) Run the website for the band.  Every band needs a website and if you’re handy with html, you can set up the design of the page, add pictures, mp3’s, a newsletter, and video clips.  Own the domain name 🙂  They’ll have to change their name if they split from you and start all over again.
7) Own part of the PA.  It would be hard to kick you out of the band and then ask “Hey, man, no hard feelings, but can we borrow your mixer for Friday’s gig?”
8) Play another instrument.  If you pick up some keyboards or a sax or some other instrument that adds to band on a handful of songs, that could be an advantage.
Every now and then you have to take stock of the band as a whole.  What is the vibe of the band?  Is someone constantly complaining?  Giving the silent treatment during practice?  Throwing a party and inviting the band but not you?  Are there fights over the direction of the band, the set list, the types of jobs you’re playing, etc.  If the band isn’t acting healthy you need to address it.  Have a sit down.  Act as a mediator and let people air their grievances.  You might be able to intercept a larger problem before it happens.
If you follow some of the 8 guidelines above, people will think twice before replacing you with their best friend from Moraga.
Rock on,
Spencer

Change, the Mother of Reinvention

Most people fear change.

It’s natural.  Marriage, new baby, new job or job position, divorce, dissolving partnerships and new partnerships all bring with them some uncertainty.  People wonder what it means to them, what are they giving up, what new responsibility are they taking on, and how will it all get done?
Sometimes we put change off so long that by the time change does come along, you welcome it because you’re sick and tired of the status quo.  But I would venture to say that’s not the best way to have change in your life.
In my own life, I have at times put off change which has greatly deteriorated the situation I was in.  Phrases like “get out now while you still can” were not in my vocabulary.  I have stayed in comfort zones to avoid the blizzard of change before and it’s hard to know if it’s the right thing to do or not, and only time will show the answer.
Sometimes, like it or not, change happens.  This week my band lost two of it’s members.  It was time.  One had stopped making the band a priority a long time ago, and the other didn’t seem to think the band was the right fit with the first person leaving.  So just like that, Brazen goes from 5 to 3.
It’s not all bad news.  With every change comes opportunity.  I firmly believe that.  Rare is the case where  someone (myself included) is irreplaceable.  If you’re an original band, people are harder to replace since you are forming a sound, and if that person had a distinctive voice or writing talent, then the blow is much harder to take.  If you’re in a cover band (i.e. a band which plays hit songs, which are the majority of local bands out there), people are easier to replace.  There are lots of guitar players out there, lots of drummers, and even a good deal of bass players.  The trick is to find someone who is the right fit.  If they can’t make practice because they enter kite flying competitions every weekend 20 weeks out of the year, perhaps they really shouldn’t be considered.
I was once kicked out of a band I helped start.  I started it with another guitar player and the singer we added could also play guitar fairly well.  So here we were, a 5 piece band with 3 guitarists.  That lasted about a year before they somehow picked me as odd man out.  After that, I set out to make myself harder to replace.  Like I said, lots of good guitarists out there so I had to differentiate myself from the other shredders.  One of the ways was I did this was to provide a practice place in my garage, as well as equipment storage.  Hard to kick a guy out when he’s holding all your gear under lock and key!  There are other things you can do, which I will cover in my next blog entry.
The moral of this story is change is survivable.  It takes work to replace people and Brazen will not sound the same going forward, but that’s ok.  We have enough people to continue to work on the repertoire and fill out our song list.  
This band needs to see the light of day.
Rock on,
Spencer

Why I Do It

There have been times when we’re done setting up the band and having a soda when someone in the band remarks “Have you ever taken the amount of money we’re making, divide it up between all the hours – travel, setup, play, teardown, travel back, and realize we’re making like minimum wage?!”

Depending on the job we play, it may be true.  Then why on earth do it?
Well, if I wasn’t here at some club pushing an amp around, what would else would I be doing?  Watching a DVD or out spending money somewhere.  So, as far as the budget goes, it’s a constructive use of time.
But that’s not the real reason.
Life has it’s ups and downs.  Significant others come and go.  Jobs go through good times and bad.  And these days everything costs more (inflation) and companies are tightening their belt, which means limited raises and bonuses.  We’re squeezed.  And if you’re in college, you have to be worried about employment after you graduate.
Yet when I strap on that guitar and the drummer counts off a song, I feel better.  In fact, nothing else matters in that time.  You can’t play guitar and wonder how you’re going to get your refrigerator fixed at the same time!
It’s therapeutic.  It’s enabling.  And, you just might make a few dollars at it.  It’s a great way to express yourself that doesn’t cost a thing except the gear itself and the electricity to run it.
I’m currently going through a challenging time at my “day job”.  It’s very stressful and even while I may look for work elsewhere, I have to really put effort into my job in the meantime.
I have band practice tonight and wouldn’t miss it for the world.  No matter what happens today, no matter what goes wrong, no matter who says what, it’s all washed away when I go into our practice studio and MUST leave my problems at the door.  Even if I exchange them for “band problems”.
Rock on,
Spencer

Roll Hard Drive

Last week my band was rehearsing in a studio owned by a friend of ours named Steve. Many times he leaves us be as we hammer out songs but last week he came in and said he needed to get his recording equipment set up and could use the practice in recording us.

We were working on our four songs for the Battle of the Band contest and decided to take him up on his offer.

The world has changed in the years that I layed off music. Whenever we had to make a demo tape, it was just that – tape. Big reels spinning majestically as the needles on the mixing board bounced around. I spent a lot of time in recording studios, although I can’t say I can run the stuff (although I’d like to learn how).

Now everything is digital. There is no tape – the sound gets recorded onto a hard drive. All our lovely tones get stored as 1’s and 0’s. My amplifier (Line 6) was miked into the board, while the bass went a direct line in. Drums were miked.

In a normal recording session, the songs are recorded in layers. Usually drums and bass first, then guitars and keyboards are added. Then the singer sings the song. Then solos, if any, are recorded. Maybe strings added, maybe more background vocals.

Since we weren’t doing anything to be released, we just went “live” – the whole band played at once. Steve was running back and forth to make sure mics were placed optimally. Of course there were the usual false starts, etc. But we hit our four songs and went into the booth for a listen.

I was amazed at how good we sounded. There were some mistakes on some of the songs, but the energy was up and everybody was on. I did a guitar solo in “Rock and Roll” (Led Zep) that Steve really liked. We had already been playing for an hour when he recorded us so we were warmed up and ready to go.

When he’s done mixing the songs, he’s going to transfer them over to a CD for us. This is a real treat to have something of better-than-average quality to play for others. I’ll have to get it onto the Brazen MySpace page where ya’ll can have a listen and tell me what you think.

Keep rockin’.

Spencer

Battle of the Blands

We like competition. Who’s the fastest, the biggest, the strongest, the whateverest. We love the Olympics and I have to admit being a boxing and UFC fan myself.

When it comes to music, competition really makes no sense. I wish I had a dollar for every time I was asked “Who is your favorite guitar player?” or “Who is your favorite band?”. I have favorites, but no single favorite. In my collection you’ll find Aerosmith to Zappa with some John Coltrane and Beethoven thrown in for good measure. I do develop temporary favorite songs or pieces, but these come and go, depending on my mood.

Last week I was in a battle of the bands competition in Redwood City, CA. One of our band members who works at a large company suggested they have such a competition and we all agreed we would do it, get more exposure to the band, a bit more time on stage, etc.

When I showed up, I was amazed at the PA they had set up for the band. My guitar amp was miked through it and they guy running sound was pretty good. We were the third act to play and so it was a bit anxious to sit there and listen to others.

We had agreed to play four tunes, starting with “Rock Me Right”, the Susan Tedeschi cover and ending with our crowd pleaser, “Rock and Roll” by Led Zep. Everybody seemed to like our stuff and we executed fairly well on all the material. I then got my gear out of the way for the next band and threw it in my car. I hung around for a while and listened to some of the other acts.

It was then the absurdity of the competition really hit me. What was the critieria by which we were being judged? The acts included a female singer (who read the words off a page) with piano accompanyment, a skinny kid with a psuedo English accent playing guitar and singing originals, then there was us, then a Death Metal band that played for like a half hour, then a pop band that played 6 songs (we were told to keep it to 4), and a few more pops bands after that. This is apples and oranges being compared, folks. Of course, I wanted to win, and my girlfriend said we were the best (that’s loyalty!) but what were they looking for?

Well, we didn’t win. The six tune pop band won….then I found out what the prize was – playing at a future company picnic on a Thursday afternoon. Not even coupons for a nice dinner somewhere!

In retrospect, I think this was a mistake for us to do. It took the band off course from being gig-ready faster and caused a bit of tension in the band. It’s now behind us and we can start to look towards picking up more songs. We haven’t had practice since, soI don’t know if not winning will affect morale briefly or not.

Time to get back to work and get us booked into a club somewhere, get out there for Company’s Christmas party and of course, New Years Eve.

Keep rockin.

Spencer

Well, if it’s on the web, it must be…true?

Not so fast!

I was working on the lead to the 80’s classic “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar the other day. The guitar lead is done by her main squeeze, Neil “Spyder” Giraldo. Anyone with a cool nickname like that has to be a good guitarist.

Anyway, Neil always had a very “polished” sound and the lead in this hit song is very nicely planned out. I had played this years ago but had forgotten it.

So for Wednesday’s practice with my band, I sat down with my iTunes and started to work on it. Maybe I didn’t have enough caffeine that day, maybe I needed more sleep, but it wasn’t coming to me. So I thought “Hey, why re-invent the wheel, someone else has done this and stuck it out on the web in tabs so I’ll snag these first 11 notes since I have the rest of it”.

Sure enough, the first hit on google I took a look at. But….this couldn’t be right. It had these notes all on the 1st string, Hammer on Pull of (HOPO) 12 14 12, HOPO 10 12 10, HOPO 9 10 9, HOPO 7 9 7. Not only are those the wrong notes but it’s one note to many. That’s 12 notes and the intro is 11.

Suddenly, as in an epiphany (don’t you love those?) it came back to me as:
String Fret
2 12
1 11
1 12
1 14
1 11
1 12
2 14
1 11
2 12
2 14
2 12

All notes picked. I don’t even thing the last note is pulled off since it’s punched pretty well with vibrato.

Now, I don’t fault whoever put up the wrong tablature in first place. He or she spent some time hunched over a speaker and that was the best they could do. And on top of that, they were nice enough to share what they had with the rest of the world for free.

That said, let your ear be the final judge if someone has the right content on the web. Remember there are no restrictions on the web and sometimes it’s easy to believe what we read.

Be a “critical” consumer of tab content on the web. Some day, if you keep at it, you’ll be a better guitarist than most and you’ll be able to correct these mistakes yourself.

Rock on

Spencer

Guitarists – the Second Class Musician?

Everybody plays guitar.  Uncle Harry, after too many glasses of wine might pick it up and start strumming.  Sister Mary Montesano leads a 2nd grade class in a rousing “Row Row Row Your Boat” on her acoustic.

But what really makes a guitarist?
Well, that depends and what you’re shooting for.  Not everybody wants to be in a jazz band, or a Metallica copy band or a studio musician.  But I will share some experiences with you from my college days as a music major.
Guitarists were a bit disregarded in my school for a few reasons: first, it was the most popular instrument.  Everybody seems to pick it up at one time or another, but not everyone has picked up an alto sax or messed with a basoon.  Second, most guitarists don’t read music and for most other instruments – sax, trumpet, piano, etc. that’s where all the other musicians start.  So we guitarists are illiterate (tablature NOT included), in the view point of the brass section.  And third, guitarists are somewhat used to being the “star”.  Guitarists get a lot of credit for showmanship over talent.  For example, I’ve seen rock stars stand on stage with one foot on a monitor, hit their low E strings and dive bomb it with their whammy bar and look triumphantly out on the screaming crowd.  Folks, this takes as much talent as slamming a door shut.  Yet we get adoration for such shenanigans.
So what does a guitarist have to do to get some respect around here?  (Or around a jazz band).
First, you need to be able to read music passably well.  This isn’t as rough as it sounds.  The challenge with learning to read music on the guitar is knowing where to play that C note since there are many positions on the guitar.  I got fairly good at reading when I was taking classical guitar classes at my local junior college.  It does require a classical guitar (acoustic with nylon strings) to get the whole benefit, but they start you in “First” position meaning you won’t go past your 3rd fret which allows you to really get to know the notes on the sixth string on the first three frets.  From there, you move on to Second Position and so forth.  With time and experience, you can scan a piece of music and start to get an idea of where you want to play it on the neck.  It may take a few tries but that’s what the studio musicians do (and other instruments as well – they don’t want any surprises either).
You can get a book on classical guitar or take a class at a local college or private lessons.  Classical guitar is a discipline and you’ll need to grow your fingernails out on your right hand (something I never got used to).  But spending *some* time in this area is a nice way to learn how to read music more fluently.
Second, be familiar with your chord forms – Major, Minor, Major 7, Minor 7, Dominant 7.  Then know the 9th chords – Major 9, Minor 9, Dominant 9.  From there you learn some of the “alternate” harmonies – min 7 b5, dom 7 + 9, etc.  You should start off learning the “Big” version of these chords, using 6 or 5 strings of the guitar.  Later on, to improve your chord “comping”, you should learn the 4 string versions.  In an ensemble, this gets you out of the pianist’s middle range (they get cranky when you step on *their* comping) and you get to play in a higher register.  A great book to recommend on this is one from my former teacher, Warren Nunes, called the “Jazz Guitar Chord Bible” and you can get it at http://www.music44.com/X/product/3438-D1 or just do a search on his name.
Third, STOP PLAYING IN A BLUES!  Seriously, we guitarists have 3 favorite keys – G, A, and E.  Not only do you need to get familiar with the other keys, but you need to get proficient at changing keys during the song.  This is called “modulation” which rock songs and blues songs don’t usually do.  They stay in the same key the whole song.  But jazz songs can go all over the place.  I was playing in the Ohlone Junior College Jazz Rock combo class in 2007 and one of the few jazz tunes we did went from key of G to Bb to G to Eb.  The other guitarists looked like they were just teleported into a cornfield in Effingham, Illinois.  Deer eyes in the headlights.  Everybody was just all too happy to give me that solo.
One way to get proficient at this is to solo over the Cycle of Fourths which I’ll talk about in my next blog.
 Rock on, or in this blog, Read on!
Spencer