Memory Boys



Hey! I got U2’s new album! “Songs of Innocence.” It’s pretty good, kind of looking back, but not in an especially nostalgic way. More in terms of sound–kind of delving into their late 80s/early 90s voice. A little preachier than some–kind of reaching back to “The Joshua Tree” symbolism. (Yeah, I got it that it’s secular and spiritual. Thanks.) I grew up with these guys–we’re about the same age; so it’s good to check in with them, see where they are, where they’re going….

Wait. What? Uh…I have the album on my phone, but I didn’t, uh, buy it. Apparently, U2 worked some kind of master marketing deal with Apple, and the new album downloads automatically if you have an iPhone. Nice if you like U2, but still kind of…unsettling. We’re the world’s biggest band, and don’t you forget it.” Hmm. Either that or: “God, we got to get kids listening to our stuff…they think we’re their parents’ band.” Which, you know, they are.

That said, some great work from The Edge, guitar techno-wizard, some of which will have guitarists digging out their Vox amps and Memory Boy delay units, chasing those 1/16th palm-muted echoes. And some of those monstrous distorted riffs that showed up on “Achtung Baby” and “Vertigo.” “Raised by Wolves” and “Cedarwood Road” kick ass…a term not always associated with U2.  Nice that they decided to record hot–it’s an album that begs you to turn it up. Their last album “No Line on the Horizon” almost sounded like it was recorded in a whisper–like they were either depressed or suffering from migraines. On the other hand, Bono is very high in the mix. God bless him, but isn’t Bono high in every mix?

Kind of the perfect difference between U2 and Radiohead. The latter offered a stunning album–“In Rainbows”–as a pay-what-you-will download and did great, both with fans and critics. U2 says: hey, it’s free…whether you want it or not. Which probably reflects that, when you buy a Radiohead album, you never know what you’re going to get (though odds on it’ll be good…or at least provocative). When you buy U2, you pretty much know what you’re going to get and you listen for the variations (which, honestly, mostly come from The Edge).

The part that amuses me? That somewhere out there, Mick Jagger’s sitting alone in a darkened room, pouring glass after glass of Jack Daniels…utterly bereft that he never thought of this.

So much for innocence.

Three Sheets to the Wind

I make my daily bread as a technical editor, hammering the words of economists and engineers into business English. It’s a good gig for a creative writer: you get to work with words all day, but you don’t have to invent them, which taxes the writing gland (and which is why I gave up journalism, for all its pleasures).

I’ve found, however, that I can’t edit while listening to music with lyrics (unlike creative writing, where I often use music to key off the words, putting me in a particular mood, or bringing me back at the beginning of a writing session).
That kind of leaves you with jazz, which I love—but it can be a bit too complex for sustained listening, and classical, which I also love—but it can become a little too relaxing after a long day of fixing punctuation. Sometimes, you need a little…juice.
Thus, I rediscovered instrumental rock, particularly featuring guitar. That is to say: Jeff Beck, who’s probably my favorite living electric guitarist (Hendrix still reigns supreme). Besides having unbelievable chops, Beck’s playing’s so smart, expressive, sometimes funny, and inventive that’s it’s a pleasure to revisit again and again. And, if you’re losing altitude in the afternoon, there’s nothing like a little “Big Block” to step on the accelerator.

But, let’s face it, a steady diet of the same dishes, even by the world greatest chefs, can get a little stale. Thus, of late, I’ve been exploring a bit, getting into some of the “fusion” players, the straight-up, wondrous weirdness of Eric Johnson and Steve Vai (don’t get help, guys…just keep playing), and, just recently, one Mr. Joe Satriani.

I had my reservations. I kind of associate Satriani with metal and shredding, neither of which particularly speak to me, as much as one might admire the players’ technique. There’s a sameness, a formula, to much of what I’ve heard from the metal guys that just doesn’t click with me: what difference does it make if you can spit out a jillion notes per bar if they’re the same ones used by a hundred other players? And the “I’ve got Big Balls” lyrics get old. Apparently, I lack the metal receptors.

I’d heard good stuff about Satriani, though, and I found him immensely personable in interviews; so I went all the way back to his album “Surfing with the Alien”—the source, so to speak—and, somewhere in there, I began to hear something different. Some great playing, of course, but also a sense of adventure that started to resonate with me. And, as I listened to more of his work, I heard an artist pushing himself—and writing some damn catchy melodies, in with all the whammy bar acrobatics, wah pedal workouts, and flying harmonics. That and something he seems to share with Beck—a sense of humor, which goes a long ways in adding to the likeability factor.

So there I was, feeling some genuine excitement when picking up his brand new album, “Unstoppable Momentum” at Music Millennium: I’d caught up with his contemporary music, and here I was, picking it up hot from the lathe.

It didn’t disappoint. The cuts had the energy and fun, mixed in with serious intent, that I heard from his best stuff, and I thought: cool…I have a new editing soundtrack.

Until I got to “Three Sheets to the Wind,” the album’s fourth cut, and everything…stopped. I went from rocking to listening. Not only did it sound different from the other songs, it was different. A mix of old and modern music, searching for something new—looking both back and forward. And, by the time, the big Marshall amp guitar sound roars in at the climax, I felt the bottom drop out, like wheels leaving the tarmac, and that bird took flight.

Art—good art—is tremendously difficult to pull off, no matter what medium you’re working in. But, when it does, there’s simply nothing to beat it. We may be weird monkeys, with too much gray matter for our own good, but we do make strange and sometimes wonderful things. And, just once in awhile, we get it so right that we transcend ourselves. Which I suppose is why we keep doing it—because it’s such a damn rush when we take that extra step.

So…props to Joe Satriani, and congratulations for succeeding (the rest of the album’s also quite good). Now, of course, he has to start over and do it again. Without repeating himself. Which is why being an artist, in addition to its thrills and straight-up terror, can be such a bitch.

[Editor’s note: So, if you’re a professional editor, pal, how come your blog has so many grammatical glitches and left out words? Because it’s almost impossible to proofread your own writing. Your brain knows how it’s supposed to go; so, naturally, it just fills in the blanks, and you end up recklessly dangling participles, mixing metaphors, repeating words repetitively, or even sometimes leaving out whole.]

A Pause for Station Identification

Smile for the damned birdie.

The Internet is a strange little butterfly: you never know where it might land next. Out of all the blather I’ve poured into this blog, one of the all-time favorite posts (with the most views), is Photography + Music = Art, a handful of photographs I took in my guitar studio, marrying two of my passions, music and photography.

I don’t whether it’s the music, the photography, or the chemistry between the two, but, if it’s the photography, I should mention that splattworks has a companion blog, splattsights, which addresses my photo work. I’ve been taking photographs for years, almost as long as I’ve been writing, and had stuff published, hung in galleries, etc. If anyone wants to check out what I’ve been up to there. It need to get back to the program and put up some new stuff; like most photographers, I have an embarassing number of images in the files. (Obviously, I need to take more pictures of guitars.)

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…tune in this evening for Bombardment: Episode 7.


Rules, but of course, Meant to be Broken

When I first started fooling around with guitar, I found myself disappointed with tone. I mean, I loved (and still love) my beat-up little Squier Strat, in all its Fiesta Red Korean funkiness, but I was playing it through the only amp I had, a very good Roland, but, still, a keyboard amp. At least I couldn’t complain about it not being clean.

So I talked to the folks at Portland Music, and they steered me to a Digitech RP50, which was an awful lot of bang for the buck (thank you, Doug). It was only much later, when I’d invested in some more specialized pedals, that I began to realize both the RP50’s versatility and limitations. It basically rolls a whole pedalboard into a compact unit and includes a drum machine.

My mistake was buying a used Boss DD-6 delay, and I suddenly fell in love with the wonders that are effects pedals. Though I could do some cool delays with the RP50, it was nothing like the wide range offered by the Boss, plus its wonderful clarity.

With time, I ended up buying probably more pedals than I needed, but, what the hell, they’re relatively inexpensive used, and they’re fun. But it kind of left the RP50 the odd man out. I still wanted to keep it in the chain as the drum machine come in handy, but where, exactly, should it go? I ended up putting it after the delay and before the reverb, so the delay wouldn’t double or triple the drumbeats, but, as far as using it for guitar effects, it just added mud. I programmed one patch as neutral as possible, and pretty much left it there. (You can bypass it completely, but you can’t use the drums in bypass.)

But…a month or so ago, we had a prematurely springy evening, so I sat out back with the guitar and the RP50, as you can run headphones through it, and it serves as kind of a mini-amp, and I was startled by how cool some of the settings sounded. Really sweet and clear. So I started moving it around in the chain, trying it here, there. Nothing worked, and I was still up against the delay screwing up the drums. And then, on a whim, I put it at the very end of the chain, right before the amp and in front of everything…and it sounded great. This makes no sense at all: common wisdom is that modulation effects, such as flangers and phasers, go before delays and reverbs…but…there it was. And, for some weird reason, it seems to actually enhance the clarity of the more specialized (and expensive) effects before it.

I have no explanation. Whatsoever. I’m just pleased. Maybe, being my first guitar add-on, the RP50 just needed some TLC and wanted to be back in the game. Whatever. It’s where it’s not supposed to be, and it sounds great. And, suddenly, it’s like I just added ten new pedals to the chain.

The inner sound geek is happy. And the RP is home again.


Ah, the new axe. An Epiphone Sheraton II, which is more or less a Gibson ES-335 without a varitone switch. But it does have those twin humbuckers, and, whilst playing an obscure folk tune called “Street Fighting Man,” I found that if you crank the volume on the pickups, with the bridge on treble and the neck on bass, and then crank up the gain and volume on the amp (for all intensive purposed a Vox AC30), the resulting sound resembles an F-18 leaving the deck of an aircraft carrier.

In short, I love this fucking guitar.

365 Days of Being Experienced

It was almost exactly a year ago that, on a whim, I wandered into a Portland music store, saw a Fiesta Red Stratocaster, and went: I want that guitar.

Since then, we’ve been through some ups and down, Red and I. Some buggy electronics had to be fixed. The cord jack has been replaced. A tuner broke and had to be replaced, and eventually I may have all the tuners upgraded. I’ve switched to the marvelous Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, who have allowed me to play some things I just couldn’t manage on middle-weight Fender strings. I added an effects box and a wah-wah pedal, and I’m thinking of buying myself a looper for my birthday. And I’ve gone from barely being able to play A, D, and E chords and not being able to strum to some facility in strumming and finally being able to play the dreaded B chord and some barre chords. And even eke out a little bit of lead. It’s been a journey.

Beginning around 1980, actually. I was in Southern Oregon for summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, and a buddy of mine wanted to take a look at a Strat a guy in Gold Hill had for a sale. I offered to drive because I thought it’d be interesting (and to help a friend), and when we got there, the Strat was sitting on a stand in front of Fender amp (a Twin Reverb, I believe). When the guy plugged in and played what I now recognize as a minor pentatonic scale, my heart just turned over. That sound. As I recall, my friend passed on the guitar, but I thought seriously–seriously–about it. But I was a poverty-stricken college student and I just couldn’t let myself go for it.

The fork not taken. Now, I wonder how my life might have been different. Not that I’d be in a band or anything, but all the friends I might have made and good (or bad) times I might have had, because having a guitar–especially an electric guitar–changes you. It’s like the door to a another society. I never knew how many of my friends play guitars until I bought one, and suddenly people were saying, hey, let’s get together, man. And not just guitars, but drums, basses, keyboards. Having an electric guitar in your life becomes an organizing principle. Inevitably in life, you realize some things too late (about eight years ago, I realized another fork I missed, which was foregoing photojournalism for straight reporting, a choice that might have let me stay in journliasm while leaving my head free to write fiction). But then, as Tom Stoppard wrote, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Maybe one of those choices might have prevented me from becoming a playwright, which–as frustrating as that field is sometimes–I would very much regret not having experienced. The would-haves and could-have will only make you crazy, and there’s nothing you can do about them anyway.

As with any art, I’m finding that the learning process has slopes, plateaus, and downgrades. You work to achieve a certain facility, then you enjoy that awhile, and then you move on to the next step, only to find out the more you know, the more the complexity of your task increases. Next year this time, assuming I stick with it, I hope I’ll look back to now and shake my head at what little I knew. The current plan is to increase my facility in changing chords and learning some blues licks as to improve my meager lead vocabulary, along with the practicing required to actually play what I’m learning. Plus I’d like to spend more time playing with others because it exponentially jacks up the fun quotient (and makes you a better player, I think). Wisely, I think, I’m trying to keep my goals modest and attainable, because it’s failing to achieve those big leaps that can sometimes discourage you. Now, nearly every day I pick up the axe, I feel progress. That’s good for the soul

But the main thing is it’s still fun, despite some evening such as last night, when nothing worked and I was too tired to tune up properly, and it was just chaotic noise (as opposed to creative noise, which I’m rather fond of). And, unlike the kid who still kind of aches for that sunburst brown Strat with the white pickguard (I still see it in my mind’s eye), I have a lifetime of musical experience as a listener with broad and eclectic tastes to bring to the endeavor. Which is why I can have as much fun playing Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” as I do playing the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

So here’s to Leo Fender (and Les Paul, while we’re at it) and trying new (and old) things. I suppose this has been a year that’s changed my life, but, the truth is, they all do. Just some more than others. And thanks to the friends, family, teachers, and other compadres who have put up with my fumbling and stumbling and blown notes and excuses and apologies and who have graciously encouraged me, even when I was making noises that could cause small animals to shrivel and die.


Les Paul Lives

The headlines yesterday, of course, read that Les Paul passed away at 94–which is about 180 in musician years, so he had a good run. And what a lot of good he did. But even though the man has exited the stage, his ideas, in the form of some of the most beautiful guitars ever made, will live on and on and on, in guitar cases and on countless MP3s, CDs, vinyl LPs, singles, and live performances. (Not to mention minor contributions such as multi-track recording.) So Les Paul lives. More or less forever. (And that’s coming from a Fender guy.)

Les Paul Dies