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!

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.

 

Sharing A Stage: Opening for The Tubes

Last night Speed of Sound, a classic rock cover band I play bass in, opened for The Tubes at Tailgater’s in Bolingbrook, Illinois. I spoke to three of the band members, guitarist Roger Steen, bassist Rick Anderson and keyboardist David Medd. All three were approachable and had no problems conversing with a local semi-pro who just happened to be in the opening act. Anderson quietly offered me the use of the bass rig that was rented for the band with two stipulations: that I didn’t play too loud or blow it up before he got to play. I had to smile at that. It was a huge Ampeg head on top of an Ampeg 8X10, which Anderson stated was basically, overkill for the venue; a 4X10 would have been fine. I thanked him, but opted to run with my much smaller rig set up on the other side of the stage where I could hear the band better.

The gear that The Tubes contracted filled a good portion of the large stage, and as openers we set up our gear in front of their backline after they were done with their sound check. It was quite evident that they had no interest in a loud presence through the monitors and desired a very comfortable stage volume. They’ve been doing this for about forty years or so, thus they are quite familiar with what they want and need versus the “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” perspective that many aging rockers tend to adhere to. That being said, the front of house sound was huge, clean and clear.

It was clear that Tailgater’s had set up for the event as a concert style production with high dollar tables filling the area that normally would be a dance floor in front of the stage. One of the band members noted that ticket sales were down, but he still maintained a cheerful and professional demeanor despite this. The sound check took a while, and it took the sound team a bit of time to get the keyboards into the stage mix at a level that the band was happy with. At the start the keys were washing everyone out except the drummer, and it took about ten minutes to nail that issue down, including switching out a monitor. Once they cleared we set up and ran our sound check. I have such a small footprint that I can set up in about two minutes, so I sat in place and looked out at the venue wondering how many tables were going to be filled.

People were starting to file in while we did our sound check. The doors opened at seven. We finished our prep by about 7:40 and then settled in to wait for our 8:30 hit time. People started filling the place up close to eight while I was trying to find a quiet place to sit down and breathe without anyone talking to me. My A-fib had kicked in shortly after arriving at the venue, putting me in a bit of a cold sweat, sucking my oxygen levels down, and sapping energy away, so I requested a stool just in case I needed it on stage. During sound check I was having difficulty getting enough air to push into my higher register for the vocal backups, while seated so all I could do was hope that the A-fib would pass by the time we hit. I talked to our front man after the check and gave him a heads up to which he replied, “oh no, I was hoping you’d cover some for me since I’m still kind of sick.” All I could give him was I’d do what I could. So there I was twenty minutes before the show, sitting on the stage steps doing deep breathing exercises to try to bring everything into sync.

We hit right at 8:30 to a fairly full house. The more expensive seats in front of the stage weren’t full, but the rest of the place was packed in. We were only supposed to go from 8:30 to 9:30 and that’s what we did, running through our set and roping in the crowd. It’s really nice to play to a good crowd. When you’re playing well, and they like what you’re doing it creates a mutual energy feed. Despite there not being a dance floor, we had people up and grooving to the tunes, dancing in the areas the wait-staff had roped off and solid applause after every song. A guy could really get used to this!

The breathing exercises helped get my ticker back in line, so I managed to hit the high notes when and where I was supposed to and I provided fill in support for our front man when he needed it. It felt good, while I was up there, or better stated, I felt good. I was surprised at the volume we were producing, though. We’re essentially a power trio plus a front man. So our instrumentation is guitar, bass and drums at this point. We’re looking into adding a keyboard player in the future, but our core is pretty basic. Despite this we have no difficulty providing a wall of sound, especially when we’re fully mic’ed up and pumping through an excellent club system. We definitely warmed up the crowd for The Tubes’ performance! All in all it turned into a pretty solid good night. I’m looking forward to many more in the future.

Making it Work: Performing When Physically Compromised, or Again with the Cracks. . .

My fingers are patched up and I made it through a couple hours of rehearsing this morning.  The thumb splits reopened but the crack in the left middle finger held.  I’ve resealed the splits and reinforced the middle finger crack with a liquid bandage that I started applying yesterday.  I have another rehearsal tonight of about three hours, one tomorrow night, Friday night and then a gig opening for The Tubes Saturday night.  With the liquid bandage I think I’ll be all right and not get too bloody.  The good news is that I just had my physical, along with my bloodwork coming back in.  No blood borne pathogens here, which is what I thought but it’s always good to have that type of opinion backed by science to prove it to be fact.  Oh, and I have a TV gig tomorrow afternoon as well, a taping session of three tunes that’s part of a Valentine’s Day program featuring Chicago area blues acts.  It’s at the Comcast Studios in Waukegan, Illinois, so here’s to that.

It wasn’t as cold in the basement this morning as it was last Thursday when the splits popped open on my thumb.  Playing in cooler environments provides me with some physical challenges.  For one thing, when the temperature is creeping under sixty degrees my hands stay quite dry, as well as the skin staying cold.  This creates a situation where the skin isn’t as flexible as it is in warmer temperatures, which leads to a greater potential for damaging it as occurred last week.  Additionally, the cooler it gets the colder the hands get no matter how hard the fingers are working.  What normally presents no speed issues suddenly breeds them as my hands simply never adequately warm up.  This also can increase the potential for acquiring a repetitive stress injury, because the muscles aren’t working in an optimal environment for relaxed movement.  Cold tends to exacerbate stiff tendons and muscles creating more tension than normally present, as well.

Right around sixty degrees used to be fine for me, but I’m getting older and my circulation isn’t what it used to be.  I have gigged outdoors when the temperatures have dropped into the low fifties, upper forties, which is downright unpleasant for a string player or any other player who can’t perform with gloves.  When I was in the southwest gigging, there were many outdoor gigs that started out at a comfortable temperature but had dropped pretty low after the sun went down and time spun along.  This was in the late fall and early winter, then early spring.  We did a lot of outdoor gigs during that time frame.  It’s pleasant to begin with, and many of the places have tall propane space heaters spread out across the patios, which keeps the folks outside eating and drinking for the evening, so you do your best to stay warm and play your heart out even if your fingers are starting to go numb.

I no longer live in the southwest.  Up here in the Chicago area, the outdoor gigs are over by the time October rolls in.  The restaurants that have music and patio dining start moving things inside as the weather starts getting dicey, so inside is the place to be.  The rehearsal areas are another thing, though, particularly if you’re not long on paying rent for a rehearsal space.  Band members’ basements are the preferred locations in this case, but they’re often not the warmest areas, particularly in the older homes like mine.  It’s still warmer than the garage with a kerosene heater though, and I’ve done plenty of time in those as well.  There, it can get painful after awhile though and the concrete flooring never really does warm up enough for my feet to not feel like ice blocks.  The basement is much better if the rest of the family can deal with the additional “noise.”

I get cracks every winter regardless of where I rehearse though, so it’s just something I have to deal with.  We all have something that we’ve simply got to play through, and we do what we can to insure that the job gets done.  For instance, Johnny A, an incredible guitarist who does awesome instrumental rock/lounge music has scoliosis, curvature of the spine.  Standing with his guitar strapped to his body for performance purposes causes him a great deal of pain, so he sits either on a stool or a chair for his performances.  It’s what works for him, so it’s what works best for the audience as well because he gives a great concert when he’s not in pain.  He and I share this issue, although mine isn’t as bad as his.  In my case I use the chair for rehearsals and gigs where I don’t have any room to move around.  If I’m stuck in one spot wedged in between the drummer and someone else all night, I’m in agony the next day.  Other people have other issues that they deal with as well.

The key to all of this is finding a way that makes the situation doable, like Johnny A with his chair, or sealing my cracked fingertips in as many coats of dab on bandage that will stay put.  There’s always going to be something that has the potential to create an impediment to a solid performance, and part of a performer’s responsibility is finding a way through the problem that delivers the goods expected.  Whether it’s summer heat, too much sweat gunking up the hands, mosquitos or whatever else the situation throws at you, it’s up to you to solve it one way or another, meet the commitment, and play your heart out regardless.  Now, it’s about time for another coat of liquid bandage. . .

 

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!