Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dexter Street Studios

Here's the heart of the sound going into the new SFOB CD. It is a Sony Stereo 350, circa 1963. Steve and I spent a couple of hours doing recording tests, tonight, in order to figure out microphone placement, line levels and other variables in an attempt to capture a raw, nightclub-style live sound in my house.

After a few missteps and muddy results, we actually got some decent sound on tape, and we think we have the basic layout figured out.

I am an analog guy...

I spent a bit of time, Saturday, speculating (on paper) how to set things up.  I got it mostly right, and we really only had to adjust a couple of things, position-wise, from what I had theorized.

Now, if I can just get over this cold and get my voice back (such as it is), we can start fine-tuning. Once we think we have it figured out, it will be time to load up the new, pro-level, tape and try to get some "keepers". 

Right now, we are recording on 40 to 50 year-old tape that I got from a guy at a yard sale. His uncle was a court deposition recorder, back in the 50s and 60s, and I got two boxes full of recorded reel-to reel tapes from him, for free. You get the occasional dropout, in the playback, and I'm sure that the film backing is getting weak from age, so I wouldn't want to try to do final takes on it, but the tape is fine for practice and experimentation.

I enjoy this part almost as much as playing on stage...


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dumpster Gold

Yesterday, I passed a dumpster, and had to turn around to check it out. Sure enough, it was overflowing with LP records, all in good shape! I picked theses out, in the limited time I had available.

Artists include Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck, Kiss, Meat Loaf, Lynyrd Skynyrd (2 different albums), The Doors, Blue Oyster Cult (2 different albums), Elton John, Bryan Adams, INXS, Tom Petty, John Denver, AC/DC, Rod McKuen, Arlo Guthrie, George Thorogood, Foghat, Tommy Bolin, and Queen (the Flas Gordon soundtrack, in a plain white sleeve - not pictured).

Twenty two albums rescued from a trip to the dump!

Who throws away what must have been 100+ albums, like that?


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Making It Mine - The 2000 Les Paul Junior

For the past 30 years, or so, I have admired the Les Paul Junior model, with the double-cutaway body. I think it's the best-looking guitar design, ever, for one thing. For another, Lesley West of Mountain, John Lennon, Keith Richards, etc., etc. have all famously played them.

Plus, the P-90 pickup has a different sound than the humbuckers in other LPs. So, I recently picked up the example above. I bought it off of eBay, and immediately regretted it, once I had it. The neck felt way too wide and flat, and the P-100 pickups (a stacked humbucker version of the P-90) had a good tone if I turned the tone knob back to 6. But that cut the output of the signal so much that you couldn't hear me over Steve's drums, at my standard amp settings.

I measured the neck, and measured the neck on Cooper (my 2003 LP Special), which is dead perfect. Oddly, after about ten times of measuring, I figured out that the two necks were exactly alike, wood-wise. The difference lay in the finish which had been laid over the wood.

Cooper is painted, with little or no clear coat over the color coat. Many people don't like that finish, because it rubs off pretty easily.

Embiggen this picture, and you may be able to see what I mean. Cooper has a matte look, and the paint is coming off of the top, while the Junior is glossy-glossy. Personally, I prefer the look of Cooper's finish. Moreover, the neck finish has worn down, nicely, on Cooper, so that I can actually feel the wood grain, slightly, in places. It reminds me of the feel of my 1948 ES-125.

As I did my measuring of neck widths and thicknesses, it occurred to me that the difference in feel between the two was soley due to the excess clear coat on the Junior. So, I decided to fix that.

I took a wood chisel, and started carefully scraping the finish off of the neck of the Junior. I was a bit stunned to see that there was well over 1mm of paint on the neck, which added up to about a 3mm overall difference in width, when compared to Cooper's neck. So, I went wild and took the finish off, down to wood.

What a difference! The neck felt perfect, identical to Cooper's. So, I busted out the wood stain, and put a bit of color on it (again, to match the look of the '48 ES-125).

The results of the staining were very satisfactory. 

Now, all I had to do was address the pickup problem. I had some aftermarket P-90 pickups in my guitar parts, and I considered swapping them out. But, I really wanted to maintain the integrity of the guitar, and stick with Gibson pickups. The problem is, the Gibson P-90s would cost me upward of $200.00, and I just don't have that much to shell out, in addition to the purchase price of the guitar.

I read a few guitar forums, looking for info on the P-100 pickup, to see what others had done. One fellow posted that he simply cut the black ground wire between the upper and lower coils, which essentially turned the P-100 humbucker into a P-90 single-coil.

I wasn't sure that would work (can't believe everything that you read on the internet), but I figured I had nothing to lose. I disassembled the guitar, including removal of the pickguard, and snipped the wires.

I much prefer the look of the Junior without the pickguard.

I put it all back together, sans pickguard, and hooked it to the amp. Oh, yeah! That was what I wanted to hear. A little bit of pickup height adjustment, and a few adjustments to the pole pieces, and the thing was wailing. Yes, it gets the 60-cycle hum in my house (as does every other single-coil-equipped guitar that I own), but it absolutely screams. I even found myself playing on the bridge pickup, a bit, as I was trying it out, and I rarely switch off from the neck pickup on any guitar.

So, I guess I ruined the resale value of the instrument, where those "mint condition, looks unplayed" guys are concerned. But, as of now, I don't ever plan to sell it, anyway. All three of my Gibsons are keepers, at this point.

By the way, I will be playing the junior on five songs, at Herman's Hideaway, this coming Saturday (June 29, at 6:00 PM, if you can make it).


Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Digression About Songwriting

Obviously, this is not Part 2 of “The Search For the Holy Grail”. Rather, I just want to share some thoughts about the process of songwriting, and the weirdness it sometimes entails.

People ask me where I come up with song ideas, or about specific phrases within a song, on a pretty regular Basis. Steve, for instance, was vastly amused by the line, “I’m dead as a doornail, from my head down to my shoes”, in Novocain Blues. Why that particular imagery? What made me chose those words to express a level of emotional numbness brought on the loss of an early love?

Honestly … I have no idea. I wasn’t looking for just the right phrase, wandering the streets of SoHo in the rain (thanks Warren Z), like a demented poet whilst mumbling lines to myself until I found just the right one. “Dead as a doornail” just described the feeling to a T, and I ran with it.

Yesterday, Bryan and I ran over to the gas station, on a work break, to get him an energy drink and  to get me an ice cream bar (Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, covered in dark chocolate, if you must know). While we were waiting to check out with our purchases, a fellow walked up behind us with the largest refill cup I have ever seen, full of ice and some sort of soda.

“Wow,” Bryan said to him. “Mayor Bloomberg would probably  take that away from you,” in reference to the recent attempted banning of huge soft drink containers in New York City.

The guy chuckled, and we all passed the time of day for a moment, as strangers in line are wont to do.

On the way out the door, Bryan turned to me and said, in a quiet voice, “That was a huge drink!”

I replied, “Yeah. I don’t see any reason for the government to get involved, but if you can drown a baby in it, you probably shouldn’t be drinking it.”

Bryan got a big laugh out of that, and asked me how I came up with that particular image in relation to a soft drink cup. And, once again, I had no idea. If you think about it, that’s a pretty gruesome, violent image to come up with in any context, but it just came out of my mouth without me consciously thinking about it.

A lot of songs, or individual lines in songs, come to me in the same manner. A phrase will pop into my head, and I will grab a piece of paper (or a dollar bill, on occasion, if no paper is handy), and jot it down. Some days, as I work in the lab, by myself, I will write down a dozen of these little nuggets. A lot of them never get used for anything.

But, a lot of times, I will be leafing through a stack of these notes, weeks or months later, and something will stand out. One phrase may link with another and form the core of a song. Or, I might find the replacement for an awkward phrase in a song already written.

In much the same manner, I pull my iPhone out of my pocket and hum, or sing guitar riffs or melodies into the voice notes feature, so that I won’t forget them. Recently, I had done just that. Then I went home and worked the music up with my actual guitar, which I then recorded onto my phone.

The next day, Steve brought in the lyrics to a song he had been working on, and asked if I could come up with the music. I put the lyrics on my music stand, and looked at them, then started to play the guitar part I had worked out the previous evening.

It was a near perfect fit, and the song required minimal tweaking to become “Go Get It”, which we are now playing onstage, and will also be on the next CD. It was a weird moment of synchronicity, and I can’t explain it other than to say that Steve and I are on very close wavelengths, when it comes to the music.

Songwriting is equal parts Art, Science and Alchemy, it seems.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Search For The Holy Grail - Part 1

I started trying to play guitar when I was about 16 years old. We had an old Kalamazoo parlor guitar, around the house, the whole time that I was growing up, and I figured out how to play "Smoke On the Water", "LaGrange" and "Wild Thing" on it. Daddy took the Kalamazoo to Saudi Arabia, when he first went over, and somehow managed to break it. So, he threw it away. I wish I still had that thing.

A couple of years later, I picked up a 1960s Harmony Dreadnaught acoustic, in the original hardshell case, at a yard sale in Mississippi. It was not a bad guitar, at all, and I started learning chord fingerings by trying to play the songs in a Beatles "easy guitar" book. I later acquired a Yamaha FG-75 acoustic, and continued working on the Beatles book, along with a few others.

Of course, most of the time I was playing, I was hearing an electric guitar in my head. I had briefly had an old Kay electric, along with a crappy little amp.  But I never learned how to play anything on it, and it was long gone by the time I was actually beginning to make recognizable sounds on a guitar. (I wish I knew where it ended up, too. It was one of the Japanese-built Kays, which we all thought were total trash, back then, and I just lost track of it.)

I wasn't getting a lot of support for the guitar playing, at home. I think my parents just considered it another noisy phase I was going through. So, I never got any lessons, and I couldn't afford an electric guitar and amp, so I muddled along on the acoustic.

The first week that I was in college, Johnny Broyles and I went into a junk store in Martin and I found a Kingston (Teisco) electric guitar, case and amp, for $5.00 (this was 1979)! The top horn of the Strat-like body of the guitar had been sawn off, and then the guitar had been painted white with, apparently, brushed-on house paint. I scraped the white paint off, which exposed the red and black sunburst paint on the guitar. But, I couldn't get it clean enough to suit me, so I cut photos and text out of a bunch of CREEM magazines, and covered the body. Then, I clear-coated over the glued-on magazine pictures.

It looked pretty good for a punk-rocker.

The neck on that guitar was really nice; hard maple with a rosewood fingerboard. It was dead-straight, and I could set the string action really low. Ease of playing, compared to my flat-top acoustic guitars, was phenomenal. Suddenly, I could easily bend strings, and play chords past the 5th fret.

That guitar improved my playing, immensely. Once I got a VOXBox ( a small distortion unit which plugged directly into the output jack of the guitar, and accepted the guitar chord in its own output jack) and I could get the fuzztone/sustain that I was looking for through the little 3" speaker amp, I was in guitar heaven.

This set me on a slippery slope, however. If a crappy little five-dollar Japanese electric guitar could produce a quantum leap in my playing, both the sound and the enjoyment of playing, then what would happen if I got a different/better guitar?

That started me on my own personal quest for the Holy Grail: a guitar and amp which would allow me to play the music I heard in my head.