Category Archives: guitar

Put Down the Weston, and No One Gets Hurt

SometimEmpty Buildinges, before a photo shoot, I’ll grab something like B&W Magazine and just look at the photographs: randomly turn the pages and let my gaze float. Away from the house, I might arrive a little early and look through photo.net on the phone. It’s kind of like a runner doing stretches or a musician playing scales. I sometimes think of it as “tuning up the eye.” I start seeing regular life as images. Maybe it lights up the brain’s photo neuron pathways.

For one thing, you start seeing the world in shapes—a triangle here, a rectangle there—and the relationships between them. The empty space becomes a shape of its own. Like Miles Davis, you start playing the space between the notes. And you start to see tones. You look at scenes to spot that 18% gray for the camera’s meter to latch onto—especially important if you’re using a spotmeter. (I find that my Canons read more like 12% gray.) A frame begins drawing itself around the everyday. Once you begin seeing that way, it’s sometimes hard to shake.

In almost any art, it’s vital to experience the work of others. If you write plays, read plays (or reread favorites). Play guitar? Listen, even if the guitarist works in a form that leaves you a bit cold. The country Telecaster picker can teach the Ibanez-wielding shredder a few things and vice versa. Take photographs? Look at pictures. Lots of pictures. All the time.

A point comes, however, to put down the book or magazine or close the website. Obviously, if everything you shoot comes out looking a bit too much like your favorites, it’s at least best to look at someone else’s work. Sometimes, though, it’s best not to look at anyone at all. The tank fills. In fact, particularly if you’re feeling stuck, it’s best not only to put away the big Weston collection but to stop looking at photographs altogether. Just for a stretch. Do something else. Anything else. Maybe not go to the movies (as they’re moving photographs), but go for a drive. Listen to music. Dig in the garden. Go for a walk and leave the camera home. Let the photo brain take a rest. The same goes for whatever art you’re engaged in.

A few art forms lead themselves to this. One of the things I like about writing for theatre is that it takes two forms. The first comes when you’re composing, whether that means conducting research or actually putting down words. The second comes when you have a production or reading, and you collaborate with a director and actors. You get the introvert and extrovert time. Even so, really making a concerted effort to stop thinking about your form, much less practicing it, not only can make you happy—it can keep you sane.

That is, we kind of get locked into our art. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when you’re facing a deadline. Other times, it’s a symptom of the artist’s obsessive side. People often ask me how I can write every morning before work. They praise my discipline, but, really, it’s a mixture of habit and bloody-mindedness: I can’t think of anything else. And my brain’s become so conditioned that it starts coughing up ideas around 6:00 and won’t let go until I shake some words loose. (It’s worth noting that some of those dedicated writing hours are spent staring into space and sipping coffee to kick the brain into working order; other mornings, I just give up and read something: the brain’s hung up its gone fishing sign.)

This won’t necessarily be easy, especially if you’re locked in deep. If you practice multiple arts, whether professionally or as a hobby, working in another form can distract the mind—shiny, shiny!—and give your overworked gray areas a breather without going into total withdrawals.

Strangely enough, the tension you may feel not working on your chosen art may be a good thing. It’s a sign that your unconscious mind is throwing its weight around, churning under the surface. Because, realistically, you’ll never stop working. It’s just not going to happen. You’ll start dreaming about it. You’ll experience intrusive thoughts that will make you want to run to the pen or the camera. But if you can get to the point, where you’re not in acute discomfort and you’re enjoying something else…like life…finally returning to your form can bring more than relief. You might find that you’ve improved. That you’ve been able to do something that, previously, you could not, whether it’s automatically spotting that 18% gray or playing a guitar riff that’s been eluding you.

Though a seeming paradox, sometimes you have stop to progress. You have to give your unconscious time to run. Often, it’ll surprise you. If nothing else, you’ve had a break, a little vacation from the Effort That Never Ends. And that’s never a bad thing.


Memory Boys

chunka-chunka-chunka

chunka-chunka-chunka

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.


Vox in a Box

Paranoid VoxoidFirst, the bad news: the real thing will set you back at least $1,600 new. At the low end. A true, working, vintage model will cost considerably more. Much more. And there’s nothing like the real thing.

The good news: you can fake it for considerably less.

We’re talking about the Vox AC30 amplifier, particularly the Top Boost model. In a field that seems dominated by Fender, Marshall, and Mesa/Boogie (the sort of holy trinity of clean, crunch, and gonzo) and their “inspirations,” Vox amps kind of sit off to the side. Which is funny because if you run an AC30 light, you get the lovely, clear, chimey midrange and sparking treble associated with the amp. Turn it up, and you get a rich, soulful crunch. Crank it over, and you get this fantastic, singing overdrive. The trinity, all in one. And none of it sounds like anything else.

That’s where it gets tricky: what exactly is that Vox sound? You’d think you could nail it by listening to AC30 players, but the amp’s versatility and quirkiness complicates that. This is an amp serving the Beatles, the Shadows, the Stones (in the Decca years), Tom Petty, Peter Buck, Ray Davies, Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Thom Yorke), Matt Bellamy, Dave Grohl, Braid Paisley, Tom Verlaine, the Yardbirds, and Brian May.

If one player serves as a Rosetta stone, it’s The Edge. Famously he’s said to have played a battered, 1964-era AC30 (in a Seventies cabinet) on every U2 album and concert. Not every cut, of course. At this point, The Edge can pretty much own any amp made, and he’s known to use Fender Deluxes, Fender Blues Juniors, Roland JC120s (like that’s a surprise), and a 50-watt Marshall. But, if you say his name to a guitar freak, an AC30 comes to mind. And there’s probably no better example of the classic AC30 sound as “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There’s the delay, of course—part of The Edge’s signature. I believe he’s playing a Fender Stratocaster: those single-coil pickups add to the chirp. But it wouldn’t have quite the same…shimmer without the Vox. Chime, jangle, ring—whatever you want to call it: it’s more than just a clear treble. There’s a fullness and a warmth to a sound that otherwise could prove piercing. Somewhere, there’s a piano hiding inside that box.

That broad, balanced clarity carries through to AC30 players who run their amps hot. Brian May runs a whole backline of them, and obviously he cranks the hell out of them for that overdriven, “violin-like” sound, but, despite the gain, you can still hear the notes. You have to work pretty hard, slathering on the effects, to blur the AC30’s crystalline qualities (that’s you I’m looking at, Kevin Shields…even though even Shields dirties it up with Marshalls).

And maybe it’s no surprise that “effects” and “AC30” go together: there’s something the amp loves about delays, tremolo, reverb, and other modulation effects. A touch goes a long ways, but the amp holds its sonic fingerprint even…if you’re The Edge.

The amp also weighs about 50 pounds and can get seriously loud—very likely more than you’ll need in smaller venues. So it’s not really the amp for open mic night.

The good news is that the modelers and pedal designers have long had their eyes/ears on the AC30, and digital approximations have been built into many multieffects units—high and low end. Ersatz, perhaps, but it’s a start, and the technology continues to improve.

A better option, especially if you already have a tube amp, is to set it up to run as clean as possible and add a stompbox dedicated to replicating an AC30. Tech 21 make a well-regarded Liverpool box, and similar boxes include: the Martin AC-tone , the Menatone Top Boost in a Can  (come on, that’s a great name), the Xotic AC Booster, the Catalinbread CB30  (note: one of many gifted Portland guitar effects companies), and the Joyo AC (which only runs about $40…Joyo’s a whole story in itself).

I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the Boss BC-2 Combo Drive. They seem to have bottled a bit of the AC30 mojo in a unit that rolls from sparkle to roar (with a sweet crunch in the middle), and I think I hear just a bit of compression to add a tube dynamic, because AC30s are known for their responsiveness. It works okay by itself or with a solid state amp, but pair it with a clean, neutral tube amp, and you might find yourself wandering down Abbey Road. For a couple of hours. This video from guitarist Pete Thorn lays it out quite nicely: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nJZUU_ZJHzc (Hint: crank it up.)

Plus, you know, it’s hard to toss an AC30 in your gig bag. Your ears may be a little bummed, but your back will thank you.


Glacial Progress is Still Progress…or Butchering the Classics

So July is, mercifully, over. I knew it was going to be one of those months, given that I’d be wrapping up the End of the Pavement festival and participating in JAW. I did not know I’d being going half-mad and buying a guitar, but these things happen. The good news, for me–maybe not for the world at large–is I’m writing again. It just seemed like a few lines scribbled here or there, but I took stock today and realized I’ve written 40 pages on a new play, tentatively entitled “A Great Fear of Falling”; plus I started work on another, for the moment to remain secret, project.

The lonesome guitar strangling continues apace, but I’m happy to say that I’ve practiced every single day since I bought the damned thing, mastered a number of chords (even if I haven’t mastered changing smoothly from one to another), and last night I very tentatively played the lead line into the Stones’ “No Expectations.” That was satisfying. I love that blues-slide shit. It’ll even be more satisfying when I can actually play it.

Less satisfying but fun was playing perhaps the worst version of the Stones “Respectable” ever put forth. If you can imagine “Respectable” with psychedelic phase shifting played to a country beat…well, please don’t. But at least I hit all the chords and it actually sounded like the song, even if the song was never meant to sound that way.

That’s originality, right? Innit? Hello? I’m having much better luck playing the blues, which is what I bought the thing for to begin with. This week’s addition of an effects pedal has greatly broadened the palette of sounds with which I have to play, and I can now make godawful screeching noises that could paralyze cats and cause sparrows to stiffen and fall from the trees.

Like I said: progress.