A History of Alt Rock, A Heritage of the Blues

I love the pentatonic scale. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  My hearty thanks to Charles Dickens for that last sentence.

But, I do love the pentatonic scale. If you’re not musically inclined, don’t worry. I only mention it as a means to my main point. So that you know, the pentatonic scale is something you’ve heard on nearly every major rock recording…ever, just about. Listen to the guitar solo of “Stairway to Heaven.” Classic pentatonic usage (A minor, if you’re wondering).

There’s something strangely simple, strangely raw, strangely classic about it’s sound. And it sounds amazingly bluesy…

Legend has it that Axl Rose met Slash when he posted a classified ad which read “Wanted: hard rock guitarist, blues influenced” and Slash showed up. If you know me long enough (or if you simply finish reading this sentence) you will learn that Slash is the reason I began playing guitar. His music, style, and attitude are the reason I picked up the instrument.  I mimicked his moves and swagger when I could only barely play Smoke On the Water.

Music influences work a little like a family tree. You can obviously see how you favor your dad. And you probably notice some mannerisms or features in common with your granddad, though maybe not as much as between your dad and granddad.  Perhaps you seem some genetic similarities between yourself and your great-granddad.  My point is that the closer (in time) the relationship is to you (say, your dad), the more obvious the similarities. Musical influences are the same.  My style has a lot in common with the alt-rock of the 90’s because that is what was happening when I was learning guitar. Though I bear some resemblances (in my playing only) to Slash because he was my inspiration to play guitar.

He was greatly influenced by Joe Perry (Aerosmith) and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), as was I but not as directly as he. Still there are those blues traces that came down to me.

This brings me to the blues. Every form of rock n’ roll began with the blues (yes, even Nickelback). As the talent and music of legends like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, and Sonny Boy Williamson began to slowly creep into the limelight in the 60’s (decades after many of the initial records), the blues began to influence more and more white musicians. The “British Invasion” of the 60’s was really an invasion of so-called British blues whereby British players like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page pioneered a style of rock-blues that borrowed heavily from early-20th century American blues.

The thing that I have realized about my guitar playing is the classic blues lives on in the way I play. And really it lives on in the way nearly every guitarist I’ve met plays. If you’re a rock guitarist, then the blues is in your blood, so to speak.  This is why I have always been drawn back to the style of the 2nd and 3rd generation blues-rock players (Page, Clapton, Hendrix, Perry, Vaughn, Slash, and even more modern guys like Billy Corgan). And no matter what styles I may dabble in, hand me a guitar and ask me to play the first thing that comes to mind, and it will be something sounds like these classic guitarists. It’s in me blood, matey!

In what ways or in what types of creativity and art do you seen the influence of the artists who came before you?


Performing Tanya Godsey’s “White Page” At Listening Party

This weekend I had the honor of joining singer/songwriter Tanya Godsey in a performance of her song White Page from her upcoming album “Telling Time” which releases September 20.  Also playing were two of my good friends who also happen to be amazing musicians: Lane Baker on bass and Clay Wood on drums.  Enjoy this video, check out Tanya’s site, and pick up her album when it comes out on 9/20.

Say “Hello” To My Little Friend

Any musician will tell you (as will his/her spouse) that the search for the “right tone” will never end. There are simply too many variables. Not only do guitars, amps, pianos, banjos, etc. vary in tonal quality from one unit to the next, but the musician’s own ears and tonal tastes change over time. There was a time when I was the biggest Smashing Pumpkins fan in the world. I wanted Billy Corgan’s tone so for me it was a Marshall half stack, a Big Muff Pi and a Fender Strat. That was over a decade ago. Today my guitars of choice are a Telecaster Deluxe and, my #1, a Gibson Les Paul Standard.

After every purchase my wife breathes a sigh of relief as if to say “maybe now he has the rig he wants.” But the shelf life for any given piece of gear for me is about two years (my Les Paul is the only exception to this rule; I will never part with it).

Recently I decided that the Orange Tiny Terror head that I was so excited about two years ago just wasn’t doing it for me. So the ol’ girl went up on eBay. Monday I purchased my latest love (musically speaking): a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue. I was really pumped about this amp because I have not owned a combo amp since I was a teenager and I was anxious to get back to something simple (ain’t it funny how no matter how much technology leaps forward, we always go back to the old stuff). I also needed something warmer and less aggressive than the Orange. And my experience with the Orange, a British amp, that the Brit tone is just not for me. And as I looked around at the players that I admire, I realized that a good number of them use the DR. So after playing a couple at some local music stores I made the leap to a Fender. Incidentally I have never owned a Fender amp before so these was completely new territory for me. And it sounds incredible. Exactly what I was looking for…for now anyway. My telecaster sound perfect and my Les Paul, of course, sounds great through anything. I won’t bore you with all the gory details especially since you can read all about it on Fender’s site.  But I just wanted to share my latest acquisition for the handful of you who may care.

I Built an Overdrive Pedal

As a guitarist, my general, loosely-held philosophy is the more tonal options you have at your disposal the more versatile and creative you can be. Now this doesn’t mean you have to assemble a rig that rivals The Edge or spend a ton of money on boutique pedals. You just need some pedals that do what they do very well and know how to use them effectively and tastefully.

But thankfully for a tightwad like me there are some great companies who sell kits from which everyday folks can build their own effects that are exact clones of some of the most famous effects pedals. After doing a few small projects (a tap tempo switch, a channel switcher, a Feedback Looper) I decided to take on a full-blown overdrive pedal. I chose the BYOC Overdrive 2 simply because it had the most options and the best instructions and was touted as a dead-on Tubescreamer clone.  After about 10 hours of work and some much-appreciated help from my friend Daniel (and his two hands) and my wife (and her paints), what emerged was a marvelous Tubescreamer clone that also features a few added tricks. To my ears (and I’m still making adjustments), the OD 2 (or Z Drive, as I call it) is very much like a Timmy or Fulldrive 2 and definitely reminiscent of a Tubescreamer. The smooth sounding overdrive dirties up my tone just right and the Boost side of the pedal REALLY boosts the volume. I’ll have to be careful with that one or I could pull a Marty McFly.

My plan is to build more pedals to get just the sound palette I need/want. I would encourage you to do the same. However it’s not for the faint of heart. Much patience is required. And some extra hands go a long way too. So brush up on your soldering skills and give it a go.

BYOC OD 2 Assembled

This is a piece I wrote a while back.

It may end up as a future Fragile Kings song but in the meantime I thought I’d share it just to showcase some of my music.

Getting Geeky on Guitar

So I have been getting nerdier in my old age. I have been a guitar geek more years than I can remember (okay, I can remember: 16 years). Looking for great tone and talking about the latest (and the oldest) gear are among my musical past times. Lately I have discovered a new level of guitar geekery: effects pedal modification.

I am just dipping my toe in the water at this point. My first project is to repair and modify a 90’s era Electro-harmonix/Sovtek Small Stone Phaser pedal. Two problems are inherent with this pedal. First it is not true bypass. This means that even when it is not engaged you can still hear the faint swirling of the effect going on in the background. True bypass means that the signal is routed directly from input to output (bypassing the circuit altogether) when the pedal is not engaged so that only your true, unaffected tone comes through. Replacing the footswitch with a 3PDT true bypass will remedy this. It should be a straightforward repair.

The second problem is the volume drops when the effect is engaged. The fix for this is a little trickier. It involves removing two resistors from the internal circuit board and replacing them with two higher impedence resistors. I know this may sound like greek to some of you but trust me…it’s going to be tricky for a newbie like me. However I am looking forward to giving it a shot.

I may also release my inner design geek and remove the guts from it’s ugly army green enclosure and put it in a new enclosure of my own design. We’ll see how the initial repairs go first.

My other endeavor is to build a footswitch for another pedal of mine out of a pill box, a basic momentary switch, a 1/4” mono jack and two pieces of wire and do it as cheap as possible. This will be a very easy build but will be fun nonetheless.

I hope to get to do more tweaking and building in the future. But one step at a time: let’s see if I can fix my Small Stone without ruining it.

Turn your Mac mini into a low-cost recording studio

Turn your Mac mini into a low-cost recording studio

Switchfoot live tracking the new single “Mess of Me” in studio.

My Review of the Orange Tiny Terror Guitar Amp

My Review of the Orange Tiny Terror Guitar Amp

When Did the 80s Start to Rock?

In the American vernacular there are several words and phrases that have changed meaning as culture has changed. Consider the word “cool.”  No longer does it refer to the temperature of a room only.  It also describes an attitude, a state of being.  To be “cool” is the ultimate goal of every high school student (and it’s not because the GAP has some great sweaters on sale). 

Another word that has (unfortunately) changed is “gay.”  It once meant “of good cheer.”  Now it of course refers to homosexuality (as do the words “funny” and “queer”).

So when did “dude, that is so 80s” go from an insult to a compliment.  There was a time when one would say “dude, that is so 80s” and it meant “dude, that is over-the-top, outdated, wussified, and/or a bad hairdo.  Now when  you hear “dude, that is so 80s” it is liable to be followed by a high five.

It happened slowly. I remember the 80s somewhat. I remember the hair,the clothes, and of course the music (new wave, hair bands, spandex, classic MTV when they actually played music videos). Then came the 90s and grunge and alternative music rendering everything 80s as dorky and excessive.   However now in the 21st century, twenty years out from 1989, I am starting to see the 80s come back.

I first became truly aware of this phenomenon when I was watching an episode of “Psych.”  A staple of the show is each episode will begin with a flashback from the youth of the main character Shawn Spencer and his best friend Gus.  Usually the year of the flashback is 1987.  During these flashbacks viewers are shown an event in Shawn’s life that will shed light on some of his behavior and ideas as an adult.  The flashbacks have 80s pop culture refrences galore. Everything from kangaROOS shoes (with the pocket on the side) to Shawn and his best friend Gus dressing up as the Tears for Fears guy and Michael Jackson, respectively. 

Another example of the 80s comeback is the clothing that I see many people starting to wear and that I myself am drawn to. Think thrift store.  T-shirts with screen printing or that depict colorful logos (usually advertising an event of the past that the wearer is unfamiliar with).  I recently found a shirt that said “Walking In Memphis” on the front and the backside depicted a guitar with the words “Interact Fashion Show 2005.”  I bought it. I simply liked the way it looked. And tight jeans is another fashion that is coming back especially among young people (who are the only ones who can really get away with it). 

Personally I am in the market for some ROOS.  When I saw that episode of Psych recently I exclaimed “I forgot about ROOS!”  I was never able to own any so I will revisit my childhood and purchase myself a pair of kangaROOS.  With any luck I will be able to find some that are navy blue with velcro straps. 

Dude, that would be so 80s!