What I Forgot about Open Mics

Last night I went to an open mic for the first time in many years. A friend of mine started one not far from where I live a few weeks ago and I had planned on supporting her effort. Unfortunately I just joined a new band that rehearses Monday nights, at the same time the open mic runs. Last night we took the night off and two of us made our way over to Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park, IL where Kat Fitzgerald was running the event. There weren’t many folks there, but those of us who were put on a nice In the Round type of event, eschewing the stage in favor of a more intimate close in feel.

I was feeling somewhat stressed due to just having confirmed that we were due for some probably costly home repairs, and had a pretty good crank going, which seemed to be the prevailing emotional state of the entire household as well. I was at the point where I really just wanted to veg in front of Netflix for a few hours, put life on hold and maybe sip some scotch in the process, something I don’t frequently do due to possible interactions with my prescribed meds. Also, I must admit that there was a period where I was a regular at many open mics searching for work with bands. I found myself weary of the open mic scene and the mixed success I was finding there, especially after discovering that most of the people at them were there for a temporary escape rather than recruiting. I was basically burned out on the whole open mic thing. Instead of giving in to the voices in my head, after I finished my dinner I grabbed one of my Godin nylon string guitars, made sure the gig bag had everything I needed and headed out the door.

I hadn’t seen Kat to speak to in several years. We’d been in touch over facebook, but I hadn’t actually talked to her since she moved back to the Chicago area from San Francisco. It was great to see her, meet some new people and make some music with them all. Another person was there whom I hadn’t seen in years, Debbie Mac, and it was nice to actually talk to her as well after not running into her since I’d left a band some four or five years before.

When it was my turn to play I ran through some fingerstyle pieces, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan, Linus and Lucy, and a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes before closing out my part of the set with a spontaneous jazzy blues jam with my friend Bill Kavanagh on bass, and Kat playing Cajon. All in all it felt good, was low stress and I forgot about my issues for a while. I also accompanied a couple other folks as we went the rounds before we closed up shop just a little bit before ten o’clock.

All in all it felt more like a casual gathering of friends who all just wanted to spend a bit of time making music together. Sometimes at open mics I’ve been to there has been a bit of a competitive edge present, not quite the head cutting of some of the old jazz sessions, but there was an element of that present. Not at all last night, which was nice. No one was there to prove anything, just that they were capable of having a nice night out making music strictly for the fun of it, talking shop and getting to know some new folks. I’d forgotten about that aspect in my many years away from it. Here’s to a pleasant sense of community!

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Yes, That was Cool

Getting up this morning was rough.  I got in late from a Tuesday night gig, around 1:30, then finally fell asleep around 2:30.  I really only dozed until my alarms started going off at 6:15.  My a-fib started acting up during the last set and kept creeping in and out while I was sleeping, which wakes me up, so what sleep I had was fitful.  Regardless of playing last night I still had to get up and pack lunches for my daughter and wife, as well as making sure they got to school and the train on time.  I also confirmed a rehearsal for next Tuesday evening and started ticking off my schedule for the next few days in my head, an attempt to stay on track and look at what is coming up next.  My wife suggested I hit the gym today, but I’m seriously dragging and have a rehearsal tonight, some class preparation to do for teaching tomorrow, as well as another rehearsal tomorrow night.  I’m also processing last night’s gig, running over it in my mind and focusing on locking it away into the memory banks.

I have a mental bucket list; it’s in my head and not actually written down.  Last night’s gig was a bucket list event for me at a venue where I’ve wanted to perform for years, and while I performed on my secondary instrument, bass, as opposed to guitar, it fulfilled the requirements I’d set for checking off the list.  Last night I played a gig at Buddy Guy’s Legends here in Chicago, and got paid to do it, the two criteria that I’d set for the bucket list.  There was the added bonus that Buddy Guy was actually at the bar while we were on.  I’d set the getting paid aspect because the venue has an open mic most Mondays where people can come in and jam.  Getting paid makes the gig a professional appearance, as opposed to a recreational one.  From my personal perspective it gives more weight to the performance.

We played two sets, a ninety minute one followed by a half hour break, then closed things out with a 45 minute set ending at 12:15.  The venue is back-lined with good gear which makes playing there a real treat, plus I got to run through an 8X10 cabinet, which can really move some air.  We weren’t overly loud, but I could feel the speaker working and it sounded really good.  One of Greg Guy, one of Buddy’s sons, ran sound, and he had us running with no fuss and a fantastic mix.  He, like everyone else there, was genuinely nice.  He had a clock set up at the front of the sound booth facing the stage, so the performers on stage could keep track of the time without messing around looking at watches, which can sometimes send a mixed message to the audience.

The venue itself is fairly large, particularly when considering that it is right in the Loop where real estate is pricy.  It has a second floor as well, though since we were set up on the stage in the big room I didn’t venture upstairs to look.  The first floor has an open floor plan set up with a large bar at the front and a smaller one toward the back adjacent to the kitchen area.  There are plenty of tables with ample seating as well as a dance floor for anyone who wants to get up and groove to the tunes.  The walls are covered with photographs and guitar after guitar, most with autographs.  Behind the back bar the wall has a series of signature guitars, all signed, including a Jeff Beck model Stratocaster, a Derek Trucks model from Washburn, a Stevie Ray Vaughn Strat paired with a Jimmie Vaughn, a Gibson B.B. King Lucille model, an Eric Clapton Strat and a few others as well.  There are many other signed guitars over the front bar and the entire effect is essentially a whose who shrine to the blues.

All in all, last night was a win on the personal level, and if I get the opportunity to play there again I will quite happily do so.  It’s the kind of venue that is a joy to perform in and they do their best to keep it that way.  I do regret that I didn’t sit down and have a meal there because after looking at the menu I found all sorts of New Orleans based goodness to be had.  Everything on it looked good; even the food items I’m deathly allergic to (shellfish) looked good!  So now that I’ve checked off a big item on the old bucket list, I guess it’s time to revisit it and start looking toward determining the next big item to aim at. Let those good times roll!

 

What Have I done Today to Get Closer to my Goals?

One of the new things I’m doing this year is every day I try to do at least one thing that gets me closer to one of my professional goals.  Granted, every day that I write, I’m getting closer to one of my professional goals, that of a daily writing practice.  However, what I am really looking at is something aside from the things that I already do on a somewhat ritualistic basis.  Today I’m kind of crammed because it was the first day of classes, so I’m a bit behind the power curve when it comes to getting my regular things done, like this writing bit.  I also have a rehearsal tonight in Addison, Illinois with one of the bands that is actually working.  This rehearsal also includes auditioning a keyboard player, so I’ve got to set up my book to put the songs we’re working for the audition up front.  This week I’m trying to get in an hour a day working on jazz standards with one of my guitars.  This is the daily thing that is aimed forward.

I am tenuously forming a goal for a direction to pursue musically that provides me with both personal satisfaction and an element of regular challenge.  I’m still trying to flesh out the concept but it’s related to jazz, so that’s why I’m working the hour a day on standards drill.  I’ll continue with it until the concept crystallizes further and gains more clarity, at which point I’ll sharpen the focus in what I’m doing with the guitar during that time frame.  I am drawn to improvisational music and using pieces for the jumping off point, but I’m interested in finding something that speaks to me as an individual more than the jazz standards do.  I’m not certain at this point if it’s going to come to me writing material, or finding a niche of existing tunes that gives me a better sense of it all.  It could be a combination thereof for that matter.

I’m also open to the possibility of using some classical pieces as jumping off points.  There are many pieces that are theme and variation sets that essentially are the end result of the composer playing or working around the original concept in what could be thought of in terms of a documented improvisation session.  Bach’s Art of Fugue runs through quite a few variations based upon an original concept, and while he used the fugue as the form, and the variations as an example of what could be done, it is quite a remarkable piece of music in its entirety.  When it comes down to it, Bach was known during his lifetime primarily for his prowess on the organ and his improvisational abilities as well.  Today we know him most for the massive amount of extremely high-caliber compositional work he left behind.  It is interesting that there wasn’t much of a divide between performers and composers at his time.

Whichever the form, or even a mixture thereof, I have my glimmerings of where I want to head next in my musical pursuits.  I don’t want to spend the next forty years of my time on the planet chasing my musical tail doing the same things I have in the past, as that wouldn’t be productive in a manner that supports forward movement.  Additionally that’s too much like treading water for my tastes.  I want to move toward something that I feel reflects more of my take on music, and gives me a clearer avenue to shaping what is being presented in live performance and on recordings as well.  I’d also like it to be my project that I take the lead on as opposed to another sideman gig.  This would be another welcome change as well since the bulk of my musical career thus far has been as a dedicated sideman in other folks’ projects.

It has taken quite a while for me to get this far, to the point where I have at least glimmerings of where I want to go from here.  About ten years ago I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do.  I was ready to take the leap, put myself on the line and take the chance.  What I was shooting for didn’t happen, in fact the opportunity to leap passed by in a blink.  It took the wind and everything else out of my sails, mostly because I had my sights so firmly locked on it that I hadn’t allowed myself to come up with alternative scenarios, as in if I don’t do this, then what else is the next best viable alternative.  Here it is ten years later and I’m just now starting to get an idea of what next.  I guess that’s just the way it works sometimes.  So, I’m going to do that one thing today that gets me closer.

 

Revaluating Past Work: My Oso Guitar a.k.a. The Bumble Bee

Back around 2003 while I was building guitars in the shop off of my father’s art studio in Tucson, I experimented with an Oso body.  I call it that because it is similar to the Zuni bear fetishes in shape.  At the time Klein was building an interestingly shaped electric guitar that was designed so the neck would be elevated, angling upward when the guitarist was seated as opposed to parallel with the ground.  This appealed to me, as my classical training has always come into play when positioning any guitar or bass I play.  I didn’t want to copy a Klein, even if I was in the learning stages, so I came up with the Oso body.

I ended up making two Oso guitars, one black with EMG strat pickups and one yellow with two Lace P-90 pickups and a three way switch.  The black guitar had a nice lacquer paint job, thanks to my father.  The yellow I stained and sealed myself.  Between the two the yellow Oso was a more successful instrument once the build was completed.  I pulled it out of my closet today here in Oak Park and put it through its paces this morning, after years away from it, just to refresh my memory and reassess the instrument.

The guitar is quite comfortable on the leg, and on the shoulder as well.  I carved the body from ash, and it is smaller than say a Telecaster so the weight is fairly light, but not as light as swamp ash.  The neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard.  I carved a tall bone nut from a blank, and the bridge is a Schaller roller bridge with the spacer still attached to the base.  The tuners are Schallers as well.  I have the action set as low as I could get it, but there is some buzz on the low E and A at the sixth and seventh fret.  The neck is flat, no bow, so if I took it off and adjust it a bit I might be able to remedy that issue.

The guitar sounds quite good, particularly when using the neck pickup.  It produces a nice clear tone across the spectrum that warms up as the tone is rolled back.  The bridge pickup sounds quite good as well, with some bite but the highs aren’t piercing which is a relief.  When the two pickups are combined the tone is a bit weak and quacky.  Unfortunately it’s not one that I would choose to use, and I don’t think there would be too many alternative takers out there who would.  I am pleased though with how the neck pickup worked out, as it is the one that I use most anyway.

The neck is narrow across the fretboard and the string spacing is a bit on the narrow side as well.  This makes for fast picking, but also necessitates more precision with left hand finger placement.  It doesn’t take much to send the low E string over the edge.  The frets feel a bit tall, especially close to the nut which feels a little bumpy when sliding down to them.  I might be a bit overly sensitive on this right now, as I have some cracked skin that is bumping along over them.  One aspect that does displease me was that the access to adjust the truss rod is in the neck join like the original Fender guitars.  This makes adjusting the truss rod a bit of a pain since I have to take the neck off to make changes.  I built this guitar before I learned how to build the neck with the truss rod access at the headstock, though.  Later attempts eliminated that issue.

Overall, it’s a better instrument than I originally thought it was, and everything is still solid on it fourteen years after I built it.  That pleases me immensely.  That being said, there are definitely points that need improvement.  The neck pocket needs to be about a quarter inch deeper, allowing the strings to come down to the pickups more closely, and then the two areas with some fret buzz could be refined somewhat.  All in all, though it’s definitely not a bad guitar for a somewhat early attempt at building, especially when the reality is that I only did this for about a year, maybe a year and a half.  I have another from the same period that is still in Tucson.  It is blue with has a single cutaway and is a more traditional shape in some ways.  It is loaded with a pair of Rio Grande humbuckers in a Les Paul configuration.  I’m looking forward to bringing that one home and re-evaluating it as well.

 

Busy-ness is Part of the Business

This has been a busy week and promises to continue to be so at least through tomorrow. Monday was taken up to a great extent by my annual physical, which between the commute there, the appointment, waiting for the blood draw at another office and then the commute home consumed about four hours. Tuesday was my light day. Wednesday consisted of a morning rehearsal and one in the evening. Thursday involved a trip to the dentist to reaffix the crown that came off Wednesday night, then a trip to Waukegan, IL for a television date with one of the Blu Wavs, then rehearsal in the evening with another band. Today has been devoted to class preparation for next week, and another rehearsal tonight. Tomorrow isn’t too bad with a guitar student in the morning and a gig opening for The Tubes in Bolingbroke, IL. Sunday I’ll finish up my plan for the semester and send off the syllabi for printing. All the while I’ve been keeping up with my writing commitment and doing the other things I do around the house to help keep things running. It’s good to be busy, but it really amazes me how much time is spent on the background stuff (preparation), versus the foreground (performance). I also find it ironic that the background area is where most of the actual nitty gritty work gets done, but the only money really comes in with the foreground work, which usually takes the least amount of time out of the bargain. As a writer and a musician both, I find myself with the conundrum of trying to turn it all into making a living, and both fields have similar issues.

Most writers that make money in the book market earn it in the form of royalties and the initial payment takes the form of an advance on expected royalties earned from projected book sales. The writer doesn’t see any more income from that particular publication until the advance has been recouped through actual sales. The IRS views the royalties as unearned income and withhold at a higher rate, which is a bit on the cruel side, despite the fact that most authors aren’t actually being paid while they write. The same holds true for musicians who make recordings through traditional record labels, except in that case usually the advance is also expected to cover the actual recording expenses. In both cases, writers and recording artists, the percentage per sales unit that they earn in the royalties themselves is quite low so making real money on the deal relies heavily upon the volume of sales. This is one of the reasons why self-publication and musicians creating their own independent labels has been growing in the digital age. This route creates a stronger possibility that the individuals who are creating the material can actually make a reasonable living without having to sell absolutely massive amounts of product in order to do so.

Of course the individual in these cases has to finance the whole production. This isn’t quite as problematic with writers as it is for musicians, but in both cases it involves a pretty steep learning curve, finding solid marketing and distribution resources, solid planning with a reasonable business plan, and some capital to finance the project. Both writers and musicians at this point can rely upon a strictly digital product, which can cut down some of the expenses on the front end. The advent of the e-readers has radically changed the expense of publishing a book, for instance, so if the independent writer wants to go the digital self-publication route there are several distributors that are more than willing to assist them in the process, most notably amazon.com and iBooks. They take a larger cut, but they are handling distribution and some limited advertising. Musicians can go the same route with iTunes, amazon.com and other download providers, as well as selling downloads through their own websites. However, most musicians need to invest in actual small run productions of cds as well, particularly for selling at shows along with other merchandise that promotes either their bands or themselves. Once again, the funding comes out of the individuals’ pockets.

At this point musicians are having to look into some pretty interesting ways to end up making ends meet and to bring projects together. Touring is expensive, downloading has led to piracy, and people are quite frankly becoming unwilling to part with money to pay for their daily soundtracks. The ease of access that the digital domain has created has also created a negative impact on sales of digital files. Sites like YouTube have an incredible amount of popular music material just a free click away, subsidized by commercials that aren’t lining the performers’ pockets. If there is any money made by the artists themselves, it’s even smaller than anything they would recoup from digital download sales, and while exposure is great, it won’t house or feed you. This type of situation has led to many musicians turning to crowd funding in order to make things happen and some have had incredible success simply asking their fans for the cash to front things.

So yes, I’m busy and I’ve got quite a bit on my plate at any one given time. I’m also still trying to wrap my head around all of this in a world that has changed so incredibly over the past 54 years of my lifetime. Changes in medium have brought so many incredible shifts in both the businesses of writing and music making, let alone the shifts in the technology that are still occurring at an ever increasing rate, yet still I’m loading up the equipment and heading out to gigs, paid and on spec, in the hopes that they’ll lead to something else. Still I’m hammering away on keys of some sort, affixing words to virtual pages where it used to be actual paper rolling into a typewriter or flowing from a pen. I’m still rehearsing, I’m still playing, and I’m still chasing that carrot no matter how many times it eludes me. Next week classes start up for spring semester, and a more traditional type or paycheck for at least part of my income. I’ll be ready.

Cracking Fingertips, a Guitarists’ Winter Plague

There’s nothing like winter to dry out hands, especially up here in the Chicago area.  Right now it’s about fourteen degrees, which isn’t too bad so far as cold goes in this area. The frigid weather brings different challenges for musicians, not the least of which is the cracking skin that often accompanies the drying hands.  It’s a real pain when it involves fingertips, which all to frequently it does.  Right now I have a deep crack running from the corner of middle left middle fingernail almost to the center of the tip of the finger.  This provides a definite challenge playing my guitar, and I’m pretty certain that I left a good DNA stamp on my Martin last night while rehearsing.  I also have some deep cracks on the tip of my right thumb that developed during rehearsal Thursday down in my basement where it might be sixty degrees Fahrenheit.  They’re not quite as much of a hassle from a playing perspective, but they are a literal pain.

I’ve tried copious use of various hand lotions, but really dislike ones that leave a slick residue on my fingers.  I hate sludgy feel on my guitar necks and strings that some of these products leave.  Regardless of what I’ve tried, every winter it’s the same story, performance after performance and rehearsal after rehearsal, trying to find a sweet spot on some injured fingertip that won’t light up my world when it hits the string.  If I manage to make it for a while in the clear, as soon as I trim my nails on my left hand I’m in for another round of cracking.  They often start so small that I don’t even realize that they’re there, until I start finding blood smears on my sheet music, or sometimes on the instrument itself.

The aspirin I take everyday slows the clotting process down as well, which in turn does nothing to aid in recovery.  Most of the cracks run in line with the finger, so each time the fingertip comes down on the string, if I haven’t lodged the string in the crack it has reopened from the pressure on the fingertip.  It’s at its worst when I’m playing steel string guitars with the narrower strings at higher tension.  The nylon still provokes the cracks, but with the bass I can play flatter which helps with muting anyway.  I can at least hit more of the finger pad itself rather then always striking on the tip.  Plus the strings are wide enough that they won’t possibly snag on the edges of the crack and pull it wider.  Yeah, another plus for going low!

Regardless of how religious I am with the hand lotions, it still happens every winter, and I have yet to find a way to really prevent it aside from moving to Florida or somewhere else warm for the winter.  When I do go to Florida or Arizona for a week or so, and escape the chafing cold, my hands feel entirely different.  The skin is more supple, and the cracks that were present finally start to heal, but as soon as they’ve gained some ground it’s back to the cold northern snowfields.  Before long it’s back to fresh splits and cracks, leaking blood and connective fluid as the body fights to rebuild and the cycle continues.

I’ve encountered this difficulty for most of my adult life here in the mid-west and on the east coast.  Ironically enough, the eight years I spent in the arid southwest were spent predominately crack free despite not even running a humidifier in our apartments.  My strings stayed fresh much longer there as well, despite the heat and regardless of how many outdoor gigs I played.  Here the strings gunk up faster, and the skin is challenged by the cold.  I’m sure that someone out there can provide scientifically deduced reasons for all of this, and I could, no doubt, do the research on the why’s myself, but my actual concern in this is how to circumvent the problem entirely.

Even caring for the injuries themselves becomes an exercise in frustration.  Most of the time when dealing with a cut the first thought is to put a Band-Aid on it, but playing with bandaged fingers isn’t a workable solution as the bandages inhibit movement and negatively affect tone production.  Superglue is something that I’ve tried in the past, and while it can provide some assistance I’m not so certain about the sanitariness of the fix.  I’ve purchased and used antiseptic adhesive that is designed for this.  It works somewhat, needs to be applied frequently, smells horrid, and peels off fairly quickly.  It can help get you through a gig and sometimes helps keep the gap closed to speed healing.  What I’d really like, however, is to find a reliable way to avoid the entire injury to begin with that doesn’t involve moving to another part of the country.

 

Tinkering: Minor Guitar Customization

Today I’m going to switch out my American Telecaster’s stock pickguard and Twisted Tele neck pickup with a Seymour Duncan 59’ Model humbucker and a new pearloid pickguard from Warmoth.  I got the pickup at Rainbow guitars in Tucson, Arizona after confirming that I wouldn’t need to rout out the body to install the humbucker.  All in all it should be an easy switch and while I will lose some of the characteristic Tele twang, I will gain a much much quieter guitar.  The Tele pickups tend to be noisy, which I find a bit on the annoying side despite loving the classic Tele sound.  I could have dropped a stacked pickup in the neck and preserved a more traditional Tele tone, but this way I’m going to get more power out of the neck as well so as far as that goes it’s a win.

I have a tendency to tinker with my guitars until I get them how I want them.  Some instruments are easier to adapt than others and I personally find Fender Strats and Teles to be some of the easier instruments to make changes on, particularly the American Standard series, which ceased production this year.  In more recent years these instruments are routed to accept a variety of pickups, primarily humbuckers and single coils, which opens up a range of possibilities when it comes down to personal customization without making any “permanent” changes in the structure of the bodies.  This ensures that the guitar can be returned to an original “stock” configuration at any time, provided you keep the original parts.

The American series also comes with a tilt adjust neck.  This provides for a very even string level up and down the fretboard when combined with the dual flex truss rod.  If the frets are installed and finished correctly, it is possible to set up these instruments with a flat fretboard and the strings virtually paralleling the board at an even height from the nut to the end of the fretboard.  This provides a fast clean playing experience that can cater to a reasonably wide range of personal tastes, once again without any “permanent” changes made to the instrument.  The tilt-adjust feature also eliminates using shimming material to make the adjustments.  Without tilt-adjust, in order to change the pitch of the neck, the neck must be removed from the body, a shim must be made, and then the instrument needs to be reassembled in order to check if it has reached the desired pitch, then repeated until satisfied.  This is time consuming.

Set neck instruments, like Gibsons, don’t have the tilt adjust feature.  Once the neck is glued in, its pitch in relation to the body is fixed.  Most of their electric guitars provide for adjustment of string angle through adjusting the bridge height, and often tailpiece as well.  While one can change out pickups, and tailor wiring to one’s desires, the options are not as wide, particularly when trying to avoid altering the body.  They are also somewhat less forgiving because there is quite a bit more exposed finish areas than found on most Fenders.  Access to the switching and wiring is also more spread out than on Fenders, in some ways.  It is possible to do most of the wiring of a Strat off of the guitar body itself, because the pickups and switch are all mounted on the pickguard.  After that it’s just the ground and the jack that need to be soldered and then it all drops in.  This isn’t the case with most Gibsons.  If you want to get the pot spacing right it often involves mounting everything and then doing the wiring while working in a cramped cavity and trying not to mark the finish anywhere.  It’s doable, of course, but attention to detail is a must because there are the added factors.

Once I learned how to set up my own instruments and basic wiring dos and don’ts, I’ve only taken my guitars to someone else when a much more difficult task was required, like a fret job.  I can do a fret job, but I know my limits and at this point doing a good refret/dressing is something I’d prefer to have a pro do.  It’s not something that I’m willing to accept as good enough for government work.  I’ve known folks who weren’t upset by a fret buzz here or there, but I’m not one of them.  So, today I tinker once again, and I’m hoping for a nice clean result, with no hum or buzz.  Time to get at it!