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!

 

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Building Instruments: A Business Experiment in Tucson

I’ve always been interested in guitars, and later that interest grew to include basses, and then a variety of stringed instruments. When we lived in Delaware, in the late 90s and into the early 00s, I worked at a music store, Mid-Atlantic Music where my boss, Nick Bucci, did repair work and was also beginning to build his own instruments. Nick was, and still is, both an excellent guitarist and luthier. Even his earlier instruments were formidable. I used to love watching Nick work on instruments, whether he was repairing something or building something from scratch. Watching Nick, led to learning basic repairs, set up techniques and wiring tips from Nick. I had some issues with not rushing things, which led to a fair share of mistakes, but by the time we left Delaware I was more than competent at doing setups and various other small repairs. I also had the bug, and was starting to move toward building.

My first attempt at assembling an instrument was a FrankenStrat I put together in Delaware from a Warmoth body and a reissue Fender Strat neck that I purchased from Tommy Alderson, another of Nick’s employees and currently one of Steve Morse’s guitar techs. Nick painted the body for me and I did all of the assembly. It was a decent strat in the end which went up for sale before we moved to Tucson. From there I bought an A style mandolin kit from Stewart-MacDonald, along with some tools and scrapers. It was an expensive mistake, and ended up being unplayable, but that didn’t stop me from buying an F style mandolin kit when we hit Tucson. It was more difficult than the A style, but it is still playable some fourteen years later and is currently hanging on my studio wall in Oak Park. From there I was determined to start making some functional instruments.

I came into a small inheritance at the time which financed tooling up and purchasing building supplies. My father generously let me use a back room in his art studio in Tucson to set up shop and I started designing and building electric guitars and basses. Honestly I loved the whole process. Working with the wood to carve necks and create bodies was a tactile joy. I loved the feel of the wood giving in to take shape under my hands, and the smell of the sawdust. Quite frankly it was one of the happiest periods in my life, out there in that shop creating something out of nothing. It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was very gratifying despite the intense learning curve. My time with Nick had given me a basic understanding of what I needed to do, but I hadn’t done any actual woodworking since middle school shop so many years ago.

I had to learn how to use the router effectively, and I found that it was a difficult tool to master. There was quite a good deal of torque involved which was quite tiring physically for my forearms and hands. The neck shaping was also quite physical because the roughing out was done with rasps and draw knives. I used a radial sander for smoothing and shaping as well, both on the necks and bodies. There were many blisters from the draw knives and a sore spot where I braced the necks against my chest during the process that would ache for days. There were always piles of wood shavings and sawdust everywhere. How it didn’t get into my dad’s painting studio still amazes me. I did keep the door shut between his area and mine, and then while I was running the sanders, band saw or router I always kept the windows and outside door open to push the sawdust outside as much as possible.

I read books about building, watched Stew-mac instructional videos and bought a compendium of wiring diagrams to learn from. While I had watched Nick refret instruments, I had never done it myself so that was a massive learning experience in itself. After close to a year in the shop I started building instruments that actually worked, played well and sounded good. Ironically enough my successes were primarily bass guitars, one of which I still own and play upon occasion, although it is quite heavy. It was at about this time that my daughter was born and I found myself going over to the shop less and less. My mother was more than willing to look after Phoebe while I was in there, but money concerns were building as well so I went into teaching part time at Pima County Community College. Soon thereafter I closed the door on my shop, focusing on playing as much as could, teaching and raising my daughter.

I still have the equipment to build, and finished a bass last August using a neck I’d built in Tucson. Most of the time, though, my shop in Oak Park is gathering dust and cobwebs. One of the things I learned was that building is an expensive process even after you have the required tools. The raw materials, particularly good ones worthy of building with, are inherently expensive, as well as the hardware and electronics. I do miss the feeling of the wood taking shape in my hands and the smell of sawdust from the various woods used. I also will value the experience of pursuing something that was a passion for that year or so, even if it didn’t lead to a profitable business in the end. Who knows, perhaps I will return to it someday in the future.

Reviewing the Past Year with Eyes on the Next

After being gone for close to a week I find myself back in Oak Park, Illinois and back to the good old Midwestern gray skies once again.  It was nice to see blue skies out in Tucson, Arizona, and to enjoy a short hike in the desert without burning up in the process.  My family and I arrived home yesterday evening and picked up our dog, George, from Spike’s Boutique Hotel for Dogs shortly thereafter.  This morning I had a rehearsal with one of the blues-rock bands I’m playing with, The Blu Wavs, and tomorrow night I have a gig with them in Palos Heights.  I’m off this New Year’s Eve, which is a plus because I can spend it with my family as well as avoiding the inevitably impaired drivers that come with that particular holiday.  On the negative side it’s usually one of the better payouts of the year, so I’m missing that.  Saturday is New Year’s Eve, and my wife likes to set aside some time to review the passing year, making note of good things that happened, places visited and experiences accrued, as well as some time to consider the incoming year and set some benchmarks for it.

This past year has had some interesting turns, particularly toward the end, assisted somewhat by taking both the summer and fall semesters off from teaching college.  This past summer I did teach three weeks at the Dominican Gifted and Talented Camp, one week of Creative Writing, one week of Star Wars Fan Fiction writing, and then one week of American Literature focusing on Ernest Hemingway.  It was fun for the kids and for me as well and it was two more weeks than I taught the summer before.  I had two weeks scheduled for the previous summer, but only one flew.  This summer I was scheduled for two and picked up the third due to a scheduling conflict with the originally slotted instructor.  I managed to acquire the third through a combination of networking, social media, and luck.

The summer was slow in terms of gigs because I was officially band-less.  I did a couple of pickup gigs for local block parties, which were fun, and I also performed with a group that was assembled for an original music block that was also fun.  Through these gigs I added contacts and now have some increasingly reliable folks with skills to draw from for similar situations.  Starting in August I started increasing my musical commitments to what I have right now, four groups, two of which are actively performing and two of which are in the process of building up to it.  This is a welcome shift in the tides as well, as I was not working nearly as much from a year ago in August to last June.

I’ve also landed a part-time gig teaching English Composition for this Spring Semester at Moraine Valley Community College.  I have two classes stacked around mid-day on Tuesday and Thursday.  The pay is much better than where I was teaching last year, and it only requires that I’m there two days a week versus the four I was at the old position.  I’ll still need to plan preparation time, grading time and allow for a longer commute, but the result is I will still have a good amount of time for my writing and musical projects, two distinct plusses.  MVCC is south of Oak Park, and is very close to a large natural area with many acres under the auspices of the Cook County Forest Preserves that are quite nice.

With everything that has come along during the past six months or so, I’m finding myself developing a strong desire to clarify my musical direction, especially the overall arc of where I want to go with it.  I’ve piled on the projects, hoping that they will start to generate income, and a couple have started to bring in some funds, at least in bits and pieces.  It’s definitely not a living as of yet, but it’s a start.  However, I do think that I need something more from it all, as well as a good deal more cash coming in from it.  I’m coming to the conclusion that I really need a solid direction that is under my control and that excites me.  I’m a fairly steady guy; not much really gets me excited.  I look forward to things, but in so far as getting a real charge out of pretty much anything, it really doesn’t happen all that often.  So this is something that I really need to do something about in the next year.  I think that it is truly vital that I do this in the very near future.  After all, another year has passed and so has another birthday.  It looks like one thing is certain, I’ve done some preparation for tomorrow’s time with my wife and daughter!

 

Facing the Buffet and Making Choices: A Musical Smorgasbord

About a year ago I went through one of my “turn the focus to classical guitar” periods.  I had been playing with a community classical guitar group for fun, and had joined a classical guitar sextet to do more challenging material as well as possibly gigging with them.  I periodically go through these phases where I want to return to “serious” music, whatever that really means I’m not certain.  I posted a list of pieces I wanted to revisit, relearn and add to my solo repertoire.  That list is still on one of the windows in my studio, poking up behind my computer monitor.  Today it’s reminding me of where I’ve been before and where I’ll visit again some time from now, or tomorrow.  In many ways music has become a buffet table laden with delights from the many different places to explore, some exotic, some complex, some simple to the point of primitive, others heavy, weepy, joyful and downright creepy.  It’s all there right in front of me and I want it all at once.  I’ve also found that when I’m faced with the buffet I have difficulties determining my identity in all of it.  The easy answer is I’m a musician, but I’m not one that necessarily falls into a convenient slot for further identification, and that’s largely due to my own broad interests.

I have performed classical music as a guitarist, a pianist, and a choir member with large and small ensembles as well as performing as a solo classical guitarist.  I’ve also performed in alternative rock bands, dance bands, funk bands, blues bands, jazz bands, folk bands, country bands, jam bands, Americana groups, R&B bands, zydeco bands, cowboy rock and roll bands, hard rock bands, light rock bands, classic rock bands, country rock bands, and I’m sure I’m missing some other genres that I’ve done as well.  I’ve enjoyed all of them, some more than others, and when it comes down to brass tacks if the other players are good I’ll consider most genres as fair game and interesting in their own way.  I often like to be in a variety of groups at one time, playing different types of music in each, because variety keeps me ticking.  Too much of the same, along with too much repetition, kills the mix for me, and most of the time it doesn’t matter to me if I’m playing bass or guitar as long as I’m playing and performing.

One of the dangers of facing the buffet is overfilling the plate, particularly if it’s a really good buffet.  One of the local restaurants that I love is called The Khyber Pass, an Indian restaurant with an absolutely killer all you can eat buffet.  I have to be careful there because I’m always tempted to stuff myself to the bursting point, and all too frequently have because it’s so good.  The musical buffet presents the same danger, particularly when it comes to projects.  Sometimes it’s difficult not to over-commit, especially when opportunities start coming in.  When you have highly eclectic interests, like I do, often in order to get the variety I crave I have to play in multiple groups.  Most groups focus on a particular genre or target, and variety bands, particularly working variety bands, tend to be pretty tightly knit as well as few and far between.  This means that variety frequently requires multiple commitments, which in turn can lead to overcrowded plates.  When the opportunities are rolling in I have difficulty not overfilling the plate and then wanting to fill it with even more.

Now I’m looking at the list of songs on the window, wondering what I could pull off working on, how much time I have available, and then thinking about the new standards type of jazz project I’ve been considering doing, the four groups I’m currently with (two startups, one fully out of the gate and one getting out), and then my solo interests.  I have a lot going on, yes, but still want more, as well as more club dates to pay the bills.  I’m truly bellied up to the buffet, but I’m starting to wonder how much of it is dessert, versus how much is what really sustains me.  If I’m running with the food analogy, I have to also take into consideration what I need to eat to keep me as healthy as possible and what will keep me running best.  I have often found that when I want more, it’s usually because I’m not getting enough of something specific; there’s some important aspect that is missing in the equation so quantity becomes a way to appease the desire that hasn’t been either attended to or even defined.

Much of my musical journey has been a search for that missing aspect that needs to be fulfilled.  I’m still searching for the ultimate “right fit” and while I find myself periodically down for the count, I still inevitably pick myself up and return to the search.  I have to do this; it’s not optional for me.  It’s really integral to my personal make up, so I return to the search and keep bringing plates back from the buffet to my booth where I dig in once again.  The classical guitar comes out with the technical exercises and complicated pieces, the bass tunes down to E flat for the classic rock band and then up again to standard for the blues rock bands, and the acoustic steel string and nylon strings come out for the other work, all the while seeking that elusive compromise that makes it all work together, and brings home the cash.  I’m still searching, and I will be probably long after I find what I’m searching for.

 

 

The Importance of Cross Training In Music

As a musician on the local level it is a very good practice to become a well-rounded player, particularly if you want to work with any regularity.  This becomes even more important if your goal is to significantly add to your earning potential.  It doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in all genres, but at the very least you should be conversant with your instrument in several different genres.  This opens up the possibility of playing in variety bands, which is the primary type of group hired for corporate gigs and/or weddings, in other words the better paying gigs.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t aspire to being the go to player for blues in the area or, rock, country or whatever.  Everyone has a specific area where they’re in their prime environment, their specialty as it were.  But if you’re in it for the long haul, and at the very least to supplement your income, it is in your best interests as a player to branch out.

There are many benefits to reaching beyond your initial comfort zone.  For one, whatever you learn, and learn well, becomes integrated into your musical language.  For instance, if you understand what makes a decent solo and the vocabulary thereof, you might find yourself intermixing some aspects of this into your approach in another genre, like blues or rock.  This can provide a different perspective in how you approach your solos that can start to make you stand out from the usual assembly of licks that might comprise someone else’s blues solo.  Robben Ford is an excellent example of a player who is highly conversant in blues, jazz and rock forms.  He has in fact mastered all three, and while he is perfectly capable of delivering a high octane scorching blues solo he often digs into his multifaceted background to bring jazz and rock influences into his solos and choice of material.  In doing so he has created his own vocabulary which is quite rich in chord voicings, phrasing and delivery.  When you hear a Robben Ford solo, you know who you’re dealing with.

Listening is also an incredibly valuable practice to improve as a musician, and once again it is important to have an eclectic approach to what you listen to.  It is very important to be an active listener as well as a passive one.  Most of us listen to a ton of music throughout our days, but most of this is actually passive listening.  We’re listening to background music; it’s a soundtrack for our other work, exercise, or whatever we’re doing at the moment.  It slips in and out of our immediate attention, but mostly stays in the background.  This is passive listening; listening for fun.  Active listening is when the music is the absolute focal point.  You’re listening with a purpose, to understand what is going on in the tune, how it is structured, how the lyrics work or don’t and why, what the instrumentalist is doing while the vocalist is working, where the solos are and their shapes and colors.  All of these things, and more, lead to a better understanding of the art form, leading us to learn from the experience of hearing a piece of music.

So, how does listening play a part in becoming a more well-rounded player?  If we both actively and passively listen to a wide variety of musical genres it helps to create an inner pool of knowledge.  This is where we start to learn the characteristics that make up the vocabulary of the many different styles of music that we might encounter as a performer.  It enriches our background, and gives us so much more to draw on.  It exposes us to other areas that might become additional focal points of interest, and in doing so helps to ensure that as musicians our art form is a lifelong learning process.  Even a blues bass player can learn and employ what he or she has learned from listening to the orchestral works of J. S. Bach.  The man wrote beautifully constructed bass lines that serve the same purpose as a beautifully constructed blues bass line.  From looking at Bach’s bass lines, the blues bassist will learn about the values of contrary movement which will make his or her bass lines more interesting to hear, as well as to play, just as an example.

If you have a broad background to draw upon, the chances of working more, as well as maintaining interest in the art, increase dramatically.  People do get bored from too much repetition or too few challenges.  When you seek out knowledge of differing musical styles, the learning process is engaged, your repertoire increases, and your musical potential does as well.  If you want to even be a semi-pro player, it’s going to take work on your part as well as a dedication to both your art and your craft.  If you take a gig with a variety band you’re going to be crossing genres, which can both provide for an interesting gig as well as a challenging one.  You might face jazz, country, rock, blues, funk and R&B all in the same gig.  You don’t have to be Wes Montgomery, Vince Gill, Geddy Lee, Buddy Guy, and Otis Redding to do it all, but you will need to be able to represent the genres with a certain level of dexterity to successfully pull the gig off.

 

Fear and Risk Taking: Keys to Growth

In our society we are currently living with an undercurrent of fear that permeates much of what many of us do.  Some of us are afraid of the consequences of giving sanctuary to Syrian refugees because a trace few might be terrorists, while some of us fear the consequences of not helping the Syrians by giving the Middle East yet another reason to hate us.  Some of us fear people who are different than we are, and even more are experiencing fear of what our government might become.  We fear so many things, but mostly things we perceive as being beyond our control.  These are the fears that keep us up at night because we feel impotent, that there’s nothing we can do to change something or prevent something from happening.  Fear can be a paralyzing factor for many of us, and can prevent us from taking risks in our lives.  Let’s face it, anything that is worthwhile in life involves some form of risk taking, and often fear gets in the way of our making necessary leaps to get to a higher plane of existence, whether it’s work, love, or even self-improvement.  As musicians and human beings, the only way we will grow and become better than we were yesterday is through taking informed risks today and tomorrow.

The only way people become better at doing something is by doing it.  Most people can accept that as a logical premise because we’ve seen it proven repeatedly.  Despite this many people become too comfortable in their bubble, and they work very hard to maintain that bubble of comfort to the point that they will not leave it, even if they want to.  If you want to become a better tennis player, you don’t play people who aren’t as good as you, or even those on your same level.  You need to seek out players who are better than you are, players that force you to up your level, and push you to become better.  You learn from the experience, and it’s the same way with being a musician.   If you want to learn how to improvise solos, you put in the practice time, yes, but then you must at some point get together with some like minded players and jump off that ledge.

You also need to be prepared to fail, and know that this is going to be the case.  Do it anyway, and keep doing it.  Eventually growth will occur and you’ll find yourself improving, your confidence will become greater and your comfort level will expand.  Once you reach a point where you are comfortable, are getting good results, and consistency, then you can start looking for the next level’s worth of challenges, the next ledge to jump off.  Does this mean you ditch your band?  Not necessarily, because work is work, but there might come a point where you need to move on in order to keep growing, learning, and becoming the best musician you are capable of.  You might want to keep a comfort zone, a safe area that you can return to that provides you with needed support.

Fear serves its purpose and as such is not something that should be ignored.  After all, it has helped keep our species alive for thousands of years, and can warn us about potentially hazardous situations on many different levels.  However, we can’t permit fear to dictate whether or not we do something that could be highly beneficial for us.  Yes, sometimes we will fall flat on our faces, but we need to be able to determine whether or not the potential payout of taking the risk and succeeding is worth the risk being taken.  There is often truth in clichés and the one that states, “nothing risked, nothing gained” is pretty accurate.  If you want to move forward you have to take the first step, and then follow it up with the next and so forth.  Otherwise, you are going to go absolutely nowhere.

Remember, when you do decide to take a risk it is usually a pretty good idea to make an informed decision to take that step.  Scope out what is involved, give yourself a solid honest critique of where you are in relationship to the target, and then assess whether you are on a good ledge to leap from in accordance with your current abilities.  If you’re just starting out on bass, and a spot opens up for the Saturday Night Live band, auditioning for that position simply doesn’t make sense simply from a repertoire requirements perspective alone, but finding a slot with a group of garage band jammers might be the actual appropriate leap to make.  Be honest with yourself, take some risks, and commit yourself to growth.

 

Accepting a Challenge: Subbing for Band Members

Over the past weekend I did a couple of gigs with a band that I normally don’t play with, subbing for them on bass. They are a trio made up of guitar, drums/vocalist, and keyboard player who also supplies the low end a la The Doors. The keyboard player was hospitalized due to an emergency and the band was under contract to perform on a Friday night, with a Casino gig that came in for that Saturday night on the Friday afternoon of the first gig. I picked up the gig through the guitarist for the band, we play together in another band (two guitarists and a harmonica player), just under ten days before the Friday gig.

The song list was rather lengthy, about seventy tunes on their website, sixty or so through my friend and another few coughed up on the drummer’s list, so it was about 75 tunes all told that were possible for the gig that turned into gigs. I went through the list and cut out the ones I’d never heard before which pared it down to about 60 or so, about 70% of which I’d either not done before or it had been literally years since I’d performed them. Talk about a challenge. I had, in reality about 9 days to prepare and two rehearsals with the band to get everything in line.

As a sub your primary responsibilities are to get the band through the night and to do your best to make the experience as solid as possible. Regardless, it’s not going to be the same experience as when the band has been rehearsing for weeks/months together in preparation, but as a sub the goal is to get as close to it as you can. I spent quite a bit of time preparing for the gig and wasn’t too stressed about it. I figured that there were going to be mistakes made but they would be outweighed by the things that went really smoothly, and that was pretty much the case.

The first gig went reasonably smoothly and ended up being two sets at a nice venue that was pretty empty. It was a holiday weekend, one of the last where the weather would warrant escaping with friends and family for fun before the warm weather disappears and fall comes to a close. We got a few people out on the dance floor but the people who were present were the regulars who came to drink, watch the Cubs game or shoot pool. We wrapped up around midnight after a 9pm start.

The second gig was at a casino just short of two hours away. It was a pretty cool gig largely because it was fully backlined with full time sound men providing support for three bands over a twelve hour period. We started promptly at six and ran three one hour sets with twenty minute breaks. There were a few tunes that had some issues, but on the whole the evening went well, the dance floor was jam packed with couples shaking it and the casino floor surrounding the bar band area was at least lined three deep outside bellied up to watch.

So far as subbing went it was a successful weekend. I’d done my part to get them through their gigs, they were pleased on the whole, and I had a profitable pleasing experience. Yes, there were some moments where it took me a moment or two to get into the right feel on a few of the more unfamiliar tunes, but they weren’t what the audience noticed as the flow of people requesting band cards and delivering compliments attested. The preparation time spent paid off and, yeah, it was good.