I don’t want to jam. Is that rude?

“We should jam sometime!”

If you play guitar, you hear this often.  I usually don’t even tell people I play guitar (it’s almost like I’m ashamed), but it still comes up eventually in conversation.  And if it happens to come up with another guitarist, all too often you’ll be presented with the invitation to jam.  If you’re one of the people who hear that and are stricken with fear or disgust, this is for you.

 

Please note that when I say “musicians” I’m mostly referring to western rock/pop musicians.  People that generally play in 3-4 piece bands involving drums, guitars, etc.

 

Why do I have to share?

Music is fairly unique as an artform, in the sense that sharing is almost demanded.  Most other artists (writers, photographers, painters, etc) will certainly share their creations, but at their discretion.  They’ll have a portfolio, gallery, blog, or some other self-curated sample of their work for the world to see.  And that’s assuming they even want to do so.  There are countless people out there creating art just for themselves.  Nobody seems to pressure them to share their work with the world.  Especially not other artists.

 

That’s where musicians are different.  Musicians always want to hear what other musicians are doing.  You have to show off your bandcamp site, or  soundcloud tracks or worse yet, perform live.  It’s almost as though the only reason someone would play an instrument is to present their playing to the world.  Is this being taught in schools and I missed it?  Is it a competitive thing?  I don’t get it, but while I’m fine presenting my own self-curated collection of sounds to people, I don’t want it to be on-demand.  I don’t want to be put on the spot, handed an instrument and expected to perform like a trained seal.  And more than anything else, I play because I enjoy it (not because you enjoy it), and more often than not, enjoy playing alone.

 

Music is less collaborative than you think

Western music has its clearest origins in the church.  Those in power dictated which notes could be used, how songs were to be structured, etc.  The new Justin Timberlake album sounds like it does because of what the church did ages ago.  And as music evolved, a composer took these rules and created songs.  That’s one guy, dictating what a group does.  Not a group of violin players sitting down and working out how a sonata will go.

 

In the modern era, so much music is dominated by individuals.  The Beatles had 3 strong songwriters, but they wrote songs individually.  Some of the greatest names in popular music history are solo acts (Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince; to name a few).  Even when there are multiple names on songwriting credits, it’s usually because one person wrote the song but had others fill in their parts.  The Rolling Stones are another great example, where Keith Richards would write the guitar part and come up with a vocal idea, and then hand it over to Mick Jagger to write all the words.  That’s two people writing the song, but working separately and alone.

 

So why do so many musicians not understand this?  My hunch is, again, out of competition.  If you’re jamming together, you have a chance to size up and show up the competition.  You can try to throw another person for a loop with a complex turnaround.  Or you can smoke them with your incredibly skillful licks.  This sort of thing plays out daily in guitar stores around the globe.  The one-upsmanship is what drives guitarists to play faster than anyone else, or louder, or heavier.

 

Hell is, other people

There are endless articles out there documenting the lives of introverts.  Many, dare say, most artists are introverts.  It simply gets written off as being “moody” or “reclusive” or even just “artsy.”  The truth is, they just prefer the ability to think and process things completely and without distraction.  That in depth take on issues is probably what leads to creating abstract work.  It’s what allows them to imagine things that don’t yet exist.  It’s why they don’t like to present in progress work.  And jamming, flies in the face of all of that.

 

Yes, social interaction is required if you ever want to be known as an artist.  But it is not required for creating art.  Personally, I do my best songwriting work alone and late at night.  There is nothing to get in the way of creating.  It’s quiet, it’s calm, there is nothing else to think about.  If I’m playing music in a band setting and somebody presents a new song idea, I’ll prefer to take notes and work out my part at home later.  I know a lot of people who operate the same way.  Sure, something could be thought up on the spot, but it might be less than ideal.  The time and stress involved in doing that could be much better spent understanding the song as it was written rather than just jumping in with a reflex-driven idea.

 

Our musical tastes aren’t the same, probably not even close

This is the one thing that amuses me most about the concept of jamming.  If two chefs meet, and one of them is a strict vegan and the other works for a greasy burger joint – they wouldn’t likely be eager to cook for each other.  But if you play late 80’s eastern European death metal and I play mid 90’s garage rock… why should we try to bring those sounds together?

 

Yet most musicians don’t even wait to ask that question.  They just discover another person that plays, and assume they want to jam.  At least ask the question of what kind of music the person enjoys listening to and performing.  If it sounds like there is a match in styles, then pursue further.

 

No matter what, I’m a jerk… or a hack.

Despite all logic and reason, in the end, the outwardly-focused jammer wins.  If you shrug off or flat out deny their request, you’re going to be looked at as a jerk.  There’s no nice way to do it.  If you try to make up excuses, you’ll probably get tagged as a jerk who can’t play.  It’s just assumed that being at all talented involves the ability to collaborate and improvise.  The only thing is, everyone assumes there is only one way to do that.

I know jamming has its merits.  I’ve done it plenty of times and it can even be fun in the right scenario.  I’m not saying it should never happen, but just hoping someone out there can at least understand the perspective of the anti-jammers.

Les Paul Smartwood Project: Complete!

So back in, oh maybe ’99 or ’00, I got this Les Paul Smartwood.  I guess it’s technically a “Smartwood Studio”.  I believe the wood on this one is Peroba, but I really don’t know anymore.  I do know that it was ugly out of the box.  I got it for a very low price because nobody wanted it and it was seemingly built on a Friday afternoon.  Frets were all overhanging, setup was horrid, and again, it was ugly.

Here’s the only shot I have of the guitar kind of in its original state.

les paul smartwood studio
les paul smartwood studio


 Promptly stripped and sold all the gold hardware, ripped out the nasty frets, bought new hardware/electronics, started to paint… and then it sat.

And sat…

Until about two weeks ago.  July 2013, probably 13-14 years later.

The only real inspiration for finishing was a pretty logical one, actually playing guitar.  Been getting together with a few buddies regularly to play; myself and the other guitar player both had fender-ish single coil guitars into fender-ish amps.  I showed up with my Gretsch from time to time and it was a little magical with some contrast in sound.  Got me thinking of how much better it’d be with a solid body humbucker guitar.

Oh, I have one!

Shit!  It’s in 50 pieces.

So I got to work.  Put in new frets, 6105 wire that is actually round and not sanded down to a pancake like Gibson does.  Painted, pumpkin orange on top, black on the sides/back.  Threw on hardware, all chrome.  Pickups – Duncan JB/Jazz (which was a cool combo when I bought them, back in ’01), which I don’t love but they sound good enough through my setup.  Amazingly, it all works and looks pretty okay.

les paul smartwood studio 1

 

les paul smartwood studio 2

 

 

 

 

 

Update my Fender Champion 600 project

I still need to do some visual stuff.  I plan to put some snazzy tolex, but am a little afraid since I’ve never attempted it before.  Keep exploring things to change the sound beyond speakers/tubes… transformers and whatnot.  But it seems everything out there will make the amp break up substantially earlier.  That, I do not want.  At any rate, it’s looking better and sounds great.

 

fender champion 600 1x12

New toy – Fender Champion 600

My rad wife got me a neat little gift – a Fender Champ 600.  It’s about as simple as an amp gets, 1 12AX7, 1 6V6, a high & low input, a 6″ speaker and a volume knob.  It sounds pretty great – especially the high gain input.  I’m pretty sure I’ve got some nice old tubes laying around that should make it sound even better.  At 5 watts, it’s loud enough to annoy the neighbors but not so loud that you’ll get evicted.

This little fella has a big purpose though – I’m going to use it for demoing all my effects.  I figure it eliminates as many variables as possible for hearing what a pedal does.  No worrying about eq settings or whether I’m using the effects loop or whatever.  It’s just guitar > pedal > amplifier.  Pretty excited to get started.  Of course, all my recording equipment is in moving boxes, but I might try and get some very simple clips up in the meantime just to get a feel for how the whole process will work.

Fender Champion 600 guitar tube amp

Forming a Band: An Exercise in Futility

I’ve been trying to form a band on and off since moving to Austin about 1.5 years ago.  It’s largely been a painful process.  I know other musicians in my social network, but they either are committed to other projects or there is no mutual interest in working together or both.  So I generally rely on friends of friends, craigslist, hitting on strangers, etc.  I’ve made a couple friends doing this, but am still bandless.  It’s not that I’m real demanding or have a really niche project in mind, it’s just that finding a band with strangers is a miserable process by design.  There are a lot of factors at play when attempting this sort of thing…

Casual tolerance: Even if you’re strictly in it for the money, you still have to tolerate the people you work with.  When forming a band, this is generally the first issue that presents itself.  When you first meet your potential bandmate, it’s likely that one of you will fall somewhere between dull to downright offensive.  It’s like speed dating I suppose (at least the way they portray it in the movies) where you essentially have some degree of chemistry with a person or you don’t.  It’s pretty obvious pretty quick.  And yet when the meeting is done, nobody has the nerve to just say “maybe next time.”  Instead it’s an uncomfortable “I’ll be in touch” even though that’s a lie.

Mutual Musical Interest: You’d think this is already covered if someone responds to your ad or something like that, but taste in music is a very tricky thing.  It’s generally acceptable that you don’t agree on everything.  It’d be creepy if you did.  But this can be a massive source of conflict.  Usually the way it goes down is like this.  Person A says “Modest Mouse is absolutely my favorite band ever… but not their early stuff, that was too weird.”  Person B goes “oh yeah, they’re cool” but inside they are thinking Person A is a moron and shouldn’t be allowed to own an iPod.

Similar Motivation/Objectives: Pretty simple here, but often a killer of bands.  If one person wants to get drunk and jam and the other person wants to release albums and go on tour, there’s going to be problems.  Everyone involved has to have the same general goals in mind for the band.

Compatible Schedules, Personal Situations, Etc: All sorts of weird problems can come into play here.  Maybe one person works nights and the others work during the day.  Maybe one person doesn’t have a car.  Maybe paying $10/week for rehearsal space is not an option.  Whatever it is, you all need to be able to regularly pick a time and place to practice/play and it can’t present an issue for anyone.  Sure things come up, but so often there is a person in the band that always has a problem with commitments.

Comparable Talent Levels: Lots of people have different opinions on this and it usually comes down to what you’re doing and the egos involved.  Personally, I’ve played with people that have post-grad degrees in music as well as people who couldn’t name one note on their instrument.  It really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t negatively impact the music you’re doing.  Essentially, you can be at any talent level as long as it’s not noticeable in a bad way.  However, there’s plenty of times where there is a vast difference in talent and it’s a major issue.

Friendship: Assuming you’re doing this for enjoyment and not a career, friendship will come into play.  Some people can’t handle showing up for practice/gigs and leaving it at that, they want to get more interaction out of the people they do music with.  Others need friendship as a way to work together, resolve disputes, etc.  Maybe you don’t have to be best friends, but at some point you likely have to do more than just tolerate your bandmates.

Not sure about anyone else, but I think it’s amazing bands ever happen.  For what it’s worth, I’m trying to make forming a band a bit easier for the world, hopefully it will help a bit.

Things I don’t understand

Cars that vaguely resemble what we drive today have been around since the 1920’s.  That’s closing in on 100 years.  I’d guess that door locks on cars have been around for at least 60 of those years.  And you know what?  That entire time, nobody has been able to fix the fact that if you pull up on the door handle when somebody hits the unlock button/lever, the door will remain locked.  We’ve all had that annoying encounter when a passenger tries to get in too soon and you have to repeatedly unlock.  It’s like when somebody is walking straight toward you and neither party knows which way to move to get out of each others way.  All these years, we can’t fix the door lock problem.

That leads me to guitars.  The electric guitar has existed even longer than the modern-ish automobile and yet so little has changed.  We still can’t get an open D chord to play completely in tune, for example.  And Bigsby, a company that has made tremolos since the 40’s, can’t make a tailpiece that isn’t prone to squeaking.  Despite this, I just got a new Gretsch.  It has a Bigsby.  I’m sure it will start squeaking eventually.  Whatever, it’s not a bad product, just annoying that everybody deals with the squeak.

What’s more annoying, is the strap buttons Gretsch uses.  Folks call them “strap locks” but they do not in fact, lock at all.  They screw on.  So normal use pulls and twists on them, and they come loose.  Then your guitar is on the floor.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

 

And this is what eventually happens:

 

So $15 later, we switch to something more logical, like actual strap locks that don’t come off on their own by design:

Granted, I got the Korean-made Electromatic model that’s like $750.  But, Gretsch sells guitars that sell for upwards of $4,000 that have this same screwy strap button system.  It’s completely illogical…

Silly picks

I think this was a very bad purchase… The gripping surface has foam. Going to get sweaty and fall apart and be annoying. But whatever, it’s a pick that comes in a little pouch so that’s exciting, right?

20110803-065449.jpg

Acoustic

I purchased a new guitar recently.  It’s an Ibanez AEG20E.  First, the dorky stuff.  I paid $300 for it new.  That $300 got me 100% real wood (5 years ago, not a chance), Fishman pickup, preamp w/ eq & tuner, 1/4″ and XLR out, decent tuners, decent fretboard/neck, a nice setup from the factory, some weird “Ivorex” saddle (fancy name for plastic?), and a nice look.  It’s a thin body, but so be it, it still sounds pretty nice.  That doesn’t add up to an awesome guitar, but it’s amazing for the price.

Anyway, the more magical part is what happens when you play it.  Not just this one, but any acoustic you like.  It puts you in a different space mentally.  You just have one sound, and you’ve gotta get some good noise out of that.  It simplifies everything.  All you can focus on is the sound that happens when you hit the strings.  It cuts through the bullshit, essentially.  Beyond that, it helps when you’re using your other instruments as well.  It’s like a fountain of youth or something for creative stupidity.  You get into this weird habit of relying on effects or amps or other tricks to write and it keeps distracting you.  The acoustic reminds you that you don’t have to use that stuff.  At least not to write.  It’s been useful so far, I hope that continues.

20110704-104226.jpg.

 

The Postal Service? Call my band “dropbox”

Finally getting some positive movement on something I’ve wanted to do for maybe 10 years.  Found someone who wants to put their voice to my music, and do it without any real human interaction.

There’s certainly some magic to the typical formula of getting some artists in the same room and letting them create noise together.  I’ve been a part of some cool stuff with that format.  But it doesn’t work so great when you work more than 40 hours a week and are also in school and have friends that don’t play instruments and a wife you desperately want to spend quality time with and dishes to wash and cats to clean up after, etc, etc.  It also doesn’t work so great when all of the preceding stuff doesn’t leave you in a perpetual state of inspiration.  Or when you have reservations about getting in front of a friend or stranger and playing stuff for them that isn’t polished or finished or even good.

So I’ve wanted to try a different route.  Find someone who has some of the same issues that wants to be a part of something.  Send them your noise and say “this is what I got, if you like it, let’s do something, if not, cool.”  And then they work around their own schedule and motivation/inspiration level.  And maybe something cool would come of it.  It’s kind of a low risk, high reward scenario.  Especially since I don’t really care about playing my stuff live or anything like that.  I just want the accomplishment of having finished pieces of music documented in a way that others could hear them if they cared.

I’ve attempted this more or less over the years.  I’ve found people who start off interested, but get distracted or lose their motivation.  I have someone new that is different from the rest.  A friend in another part of the country.  We have different opinions on music, but not completely opposite by any means.  We are both motivated for the same general end goals with this.  And they even bought recording gear.  Financial investment is a good sign.

The first hurdle was figuring out how to even get started.  It’s silly, but for whatever reason I threw all the normal songwriting concepts you’d use when you’re in a traditional band out the window.  I felt like I had to deliver music that was 100% complete minus the vocal track.  Put a lot of pressure on me and a lot of pressure on the other party as if they had to deliver greatness on the first attempt as well.  As silly as it sounds, it seems the tried and true method of having a rough idea and sharing it is the way to go.  It’s way early, but we at least had a mutual breakthrough like “yeah, this could work!”

Don’t know where any of this will go, and it could totally fizzle out.  But if it doesn’t, that’d be pretty rad.  Either way, that’s what’s up.

Can art be a hobby?

Virtually all of my friends are involved in some form of art. A few do it for a living, but most do not. Of those that have “normal” jobs, families, etc, most of them face the same problems. It’s hard to find the time to do anything meaningful with your art. Even when time is available, one often feels guilty that other tasks are being ignored (repair work around the house, helping with chores, playing with the kids, etc). That kind of takes your heart out of things.

It seems impossible to think someone can do this sort of thing part time and be at all satisfied with the results. Maybe others have it figured out. Maybe there is nothing to figure out. Either way, gotta keep working at it… I don’t even play the lottery.