As some of you have noticed, especially if you saw my blog piece from July 2018 and are connected to me on Social Media, I’ve been on a real Queen trip recently. Dusting down those old and vintage records is always great, but every now and then you get your hands on something that is so mind blowing you can’t quite comprehend it. Case in point, I was sent the original 24 track stems for Bohemian Rhapsody.
I instantly loaded them into LogicX and started to listen intently to all the various parts and marvelling how 4 guys in the 70’s could do all that, without the help of modern high tech gear (as the only gear they had were their instruments and the ability to record them). Basically, it’s incredible.
I’m guessing that BoRap is a song that everyone knows and at some point in their life, loved. Whether you were around when it first came out, or were familiar with it when you were young then fell about laughing at Wayne’s World, or just over the years that have followed discovered it on the radio and been fascinated, it’s one of those songs that will always be with us.
There are many videos around that discuss it all but they can get a little nerdy… so I thought I would isolate each track (there are 24) and just tell you, as a fan of the band and of music in general, what I can hear – I’m by no means a recording engineer or producer so this is as basic and real as it can be... So, this could be deemed to be a reaction piece, but in reality, it’s just me marvelling at being able to listen to a moment in history in my headphones.
Track 1: “KIT kick”
The first thing you notice is how big, loose and flabby the bass drum sounds. There is a LOT of overlap in the recording, you can just about hear the hats, the ride and the crash cymbals are fairly prominent. Seriously, the bass drum sounds like an old marching band one, with the player having it strapped to their chest. I can almost imagine an oompah band playing along with it! In the rock bit after the operatic section, Roger has a heavy 4 on the floor… you just can’t help hearing the guide guitars in the background from when they were recording it.
Track 2: “KIT Snare”
This is one of the more fascinating, before Taylor starts playing, you can hear Deacy’s bass and the piano leaking in, also copious amounts of snare rattle… but, the all time best thing a Queen fan can hear is contained in this track. Right at the start, you hear Freddie make a little giggle and then count in “1,2,3,4”… Every time a bass note is hit, the snare rattles and fizzes, it’s amazing that it wasn’t gated or something to remove this, maybe in the final mix they had 24 fingers on the console making sure this wasn’t heard. The snare is tight, once again, quite marching band like – quite gunshot in character - a lot of cymbal overlap, the toms are in this as well. The toms are quite loose and huge. Hearing Roger’s dynamics under the first guitar solo is amazing, he really is hitting them extremely hard. As soon as the operative bit starts, you can hear the sticks click together, sounds like he put them in one hand for a moment before starting again. The toms are all over the operatic section as well, absolutely huge in isolation, referring back to the record they sound a lot more in moderation... It would have been awesome to hear them more up in the mix. All the way through to the end of the operatic section you can hear the bass and the snare rattling… then you hear the guitar overlap into for the rock section once more.
Track 3: “Kit Toms”
This is the one where you start to hear the bouncing… The first thing you hear on the track is “No escape from reality” in perfect (what sounds like) 4 part harmony. Then, utter silence until your start to hear the bass overlapping. All the drums are overlapping into this track, but when the toms hit they are thunderous, loose and powerful.
Track 4: “Kit Room”
Once again, bounced over is “No escape from reality”. In what sounds like the higher part of the chord from the one on the toms track. Once again, lots of bass overlap, this time piano as well, and then later on the guitar. You hear everything with the drums, as it’s obviously capturing the room ambience… man, the toms really come through though and so do the hats in the rock section.
Just the drum tracks in Isolation.
The first thing that catches you out, obviously, is the “no escape from reality” vocal. When put into balance you hear how they’ve managed to put these simple four track together to make a huge drum sound, makes me wonder… how would modern producers handle getting such a huge sound from only 4 tracks with massive amounts of overlap from the other instruments?
Track 5: “Bass1”
Exactly what you would expect, although some of Deacy’s note choices are odd, never noticed them before. The tone is thing and almost hollow, just seems to be high mids with no power and balls across the bottom. Loads and loads of drum overlap, especially with the bass drum, cymbals and a little snare.
Track 6: “Bass2”
This appears to be EQ’d to the opposite of Bass1, loads of low end and a nice amount of tightness around the top end.
Track 7: “Bass3”
Another EQ change, a lot warmer across the lower mid range almost giving it a nasal, honky feel... although by his playing style it doesn’t honk like a more funky bass, you can just really hear the wood in the tone. It’s really quite weird tbh.
Just the bass in isolation.
This is where you sit back and say “Ahhhhh” as it now all makes sense. The three put together just compliment each other perfectly (based on the bits at the end that you don’t hear, I am guessing that it was one line, split into three and each EQ’d differently to adjust during the final mix) making this a truly beautifully balanced bass tone. There is the right amount of low end, the mid is punchy and definite and the highs just add that clarity. I’m guessing these guys really knew what they were doing.
Rhythm section in isolation.
Now it’s starting to sound like the record we all know and love, your brain plays tricks on you and adds the piano, guitars and all those vocal lines.
Track 8: “Piano1”
This is where the recording technique and all the behind the scenes stuff comes into play, on the record the intro is 100% vocals... this track contains the guide piano line for that as well. Picking out the harmonies and then going into that famous cross hand line…. As always, copious amounts of drum and bass overlap… and then a little guitars as well. The piano just sounds beautiful. Makes the listener remember what a dynamic and expressive piano player Freddie was… Right in the middle of the “Let me go” vocal cascade section you can clearly hear Freddie say “one” as well, I don’t know why… Right after that, one of the more interesting spill over happens, you can clearly here Roger in falsetto singing “Mama Mia!”
Track 9: “Piano2”
Double tracked to give a wider sound… the difference in dynamics is subtle, but oh so obvious once you get right into it.
Both Piano’s together.
Well, hello Freddie. There is it. I would be lying if I said I didn’t see him in my mind during Live Aid playing it
Track 10: “Rhtm Gtr1”
Guitars. What guitars? Once again, you hear Freddie count it in… and then there are vocal harmonies all over it, and then what sounds like the most insane cymbal crescendo that sounds like it’s gone either through a filter or a something that appears to change the pitch… I had to listen to it 4 times to try to work it out. About 2 bars in from when the guitar starts, the mic opens up and all you can hear is the ground noise of Brian’s guitar hissing like mad… the tone is exactly as you would expect, screaming – it’s been pushed hard at the front end. It’s almost fuzzy at times, you can hear the sixpence scratching the strings… After the main solo, there are interesting out take notes from Dr May that I have omitted from the capture to save his dignity.
Track 11: “Rhtm Gtr2”
More vocal harmonies… man, this is getting complicated. Obviously double tracked for width and power. More interesting notes and outtakes after the first vocal section… and then the operatic section. Vocal stabs and harmonies everywhere. It’s almost like Freddie is in my head singing “Bismillah” – probably the most freaky thing on the entire track. Main vocal line for “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye”… wow. Just wow. Tons of vocal harmonies, high end… probably Freddie and Roger… this track ends with the main vocal line of “Nothing really matters etc”.
Track 12: “BGR VOX & Gtr”
Hello Freddie, 1,2,3,4 again… then the main vocal line harmony in the intro. He is really pushing to the top of his range here, his voice is almost crapping out on his at some points. Loads and loads of overspill with Piano. The track then goes completely quiet until the “Thunderbolt and Lightning” then it’s all just lower harmonies, more Bismillah to freak me out… All the high end Mama Mia’s are on here as well. Then, hello Brian. It’s that riff that made us all laugh in Waynes World. Never heard him sound like that before, pretty certain this didn’t make the final track. The gain is insane, almost out of control… then during the second run through, before all the nice runs it tightens up again and you are hearing a more familiar tone.
Track 13. “BGR VOX1”
This, I’m guessing, is where the harmony nuts would get lost. In this track appears to be one half of the beautiful harmony opening. I think I can hear 6 different tracks bounced in. There are some unbelievably high harmonies on the section up to the first solo and then during the first few bars. Probably Roger Taylor, ridiculously high… opera. Scaramosh. High harmonies everywhere… the full Magnifico chordal break down. Full vocal chords on “No, we will not let you go”. The whole Beelzebub section is far more complex than the record gives away. How did they do this?
Track 14: “BGR VOX2”
The other side of the intro harmonies. The complexities of the chords they are creating here with their voices… Once again, insanely high harmonies running up to the solo and following bars. More operatic harmonies, more Magnifico… just a poor boy, from a poor family. More insanity around the Beelzebub line.
Track 15. “Lead VOX”
By now, you would have thought I would have expected the track to just contain what it’s labelled as! First line is the harmony from “caught in a landslide” and continues on into the harmony vocal line for ‘poor boy etc’… the main vocal line starts with “Mama, just killed a man”. Surprisingly breathy and laid back.. and then when he ramps it up, that classic Freddie metallic rasp as he’s really pushing it. Into the operatic sections, sounds like Roger doing the high “Let him go”. Low harmonies on “put aside for me”… piano for the main guitar rock section… And we welcome Brian in with some runs during the exit… main lead line for the outro… pretty breathtaking.
Track 16: “VOX1 & Snare”
More harmonies in a landslide, more eyes opening and ‘look up the sky and see’… ‘poor boy’ harmonies, ‘I don’t want to die’ harmonies… just everything… Full chords of vocal “Let him go”…. The “let me go” main vocal cascade… And then a snare overdub for the rock section. Tight, loads of attack and punch.
Track 17: “VOX2”
More complex harmonies from the intro… all Freddie. Double tracked lines for the main line and harmonies for “poor boy”. Double tracked “wind blows” and “to me…”. More double tracks for the “just killed a man” and on to the guitar solo. More full vocal chords of “Let him go” including Roger’s high parts… And we have Brian back with the rock guitar section… Man, that guitar tone is brutal!
Track 18: “VOX3&LdGtr”
More of the above… more intro harmonies. All the way through, so many double tracks and multiple harmonies. And then, that solo. Pretty sure that’s not his Vox amps, but the Deacy amp… the mid range is so nasal! More freaky Bismillah. I’m going to hear that in my sleep tonight I think! And then you hear the guitar, open amp floor noise… that big Bb before the runs and then the big sound for the rock section, but it drops out quickly… then there is tons and tons of overspill from everything. This tracks ends with huge harmonies of the whole “oh yeah” section, layers upon layers upon of layers… Then there is that Brian exit that he plays with his fingers on his right hand. Right at the end of this track you hear Freddie say “Oh, fuck it, let…” – I’d love to know what bought that on.
Track 19: VOX4
As you can guess, it’s just layers and layers of intro harmonies and double tracking. This track also contains the chimes from “shivers down my spine”… based on the floor noise, I’d say this was a guitar, with the strings being played behind the nut. Operatic harmonies… just everywhere, more “magnifico’ cascades… The very high harmonies of “For me” before the rock section, appears then to have a double track of the “stone me”. More Brian playing the exit arpeggios.. and finally, the exit gong makes an appearance!
Track 20: VOX5
I’m guessing you know what is on here. More doubling, more harmonies, more opera… more mayhem. More ‘stone me’ including a wonderful moment where Freddie’s voice sounds like it’s right on the edge, pushing it further than he should.
Track 21: VOX6 & Guitar6
Yep, harmonies, harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. Also, Brian doubling up on the high notes from the main theme (the octave piano part in the main theme) that I’ve always heard him do live but never picked out on the original. During the operatic section, you can clearly hear Brian and Roger adding their sections, but mostly it’s just Freddie either doubling what is already there or adding yet another harmony. Brian outtake for the rock section, I don’t blame them cutting that bit, not a great tone! More exit scales from Brian, completing the exit runs…
Track 22: Vox Ovdub1
This feels like this was when they had it almost there and Freddie was dropping the final piece’s of the puzzle in… the main vocal line “Carry on, carry on” followed by ‘matters’ in here as well. Also, the overdub for “wish I’d never been born at all”. Full harmony chords of “scaramoosh” and “fandango”… more parts of ‘magnifico’… tons of Roger high harmonies… Timpani drums. Full vocal chords of “No no no no no” and some more Beelzebub”. Drum overdubs for the rock section… And then, my favourite bit. Brian’s beautifully constructed guitar harmonies at the end. There must be at least 5 guitars in there.
Track 23: Vox Ovdub2
More bits and pieces tidying up the into vocals… any way the wind blows… some oohs and ahhs over the solo… Rogers very highest Gallieo’s, the highest “he’s just a poor boy etc”. There’s that Bismillah again. More beelzebub harmonies… I never knew how complicated that little section was.. and then finally, we are treated to more Brian’s runs at the end of the rock section!
Track 24: Vox Ovdub3.
Even more overdubs of the main and harmony lines… obviously not all of these made it to the mix… when you put them all on… it’s insane. There is only the slightest amount of modulation coming from the pitching, so Freddie’s voice is on note, every times. Almost to a freaky level. Exit rock guitars in the rock section, sounds like this was the one that was used… I can hear that sixpence again! And the rest of Brian’s harmony exit…
This was a total guilty pleasure for me, and one I was reluctant to look at too deeply as I didn’t want it to ruin the masterpiece we have all heard countless times. But, you know, when you are presented the opportunity to look into something so monumental, you take the chance and have a listen. I’m so glad I did as the respect I have for their talent, especially the producer who managed to get this on 24 tracks has been blown out of all proportion… Basically, the word genius undersells it.
This week, I am giving the floor to a FB friend of mine called Nik Harrison… Who is Nik I hear you ask… Well... “I teach music (piano, guitar, theory, GCSE, A Level etc) but I also teach thinking skills. Critical thinking, applications of (and limitations of) logic, exam revision etc. Also do commentary and debates on various matters concerning philosophy etc for educational purposes, and “thinking horizon expansion”. Play acoustic gigs. Do demos at guitar shows for Stormshadow guitarworks. Run the contemporary guitar performance workshop, and conduct quite a lot of pedagogical (relative to teaching) research for that. Occasionally go out as a professional magician for corporate functions... A pretty broad range."
This all came about because I saw a question on FB… “Why is it called music theory? Shouldn’t it be called music rules?”
And Nik answered… “Music theory is the codification of the most commonly used frameworks within music. It’s a language, and as a language, it’s essentially a set of protocols. It’s not the ‘message’. The message is the music, and the music exists independent of any language that we may use to explain, quantify, or record it (which is essentially the three things that music theory serves to achieve). The music comes first. It’s for theory to keep up with music, not for music to keep up with the theory, or otherwise be dictated to by ‘theory’. Rules are for sports.”
I was quite fascinated with this response, so I asked him to expand on it for our blog… Over to you Nik...
There are essentially two means by which a ‘music theory’ may be devised (inclusive of the amalgamation of both). Firstly, there’s the analysis and quantification of music that people have created when drawn to the sounds and structures that they instinctively feel to be congruent with their musical taste. Secondly, you can take the fundamentals of sound itself, and analyse this. The only naturally occurring phenomena which could be used as a foundation for creating a music theory is the harmonic series. This would lead us to consider the overtone scale (or Lydian Dominant mode) to be the most ‘natural’ place to start, but we don’t do that, we use other things. What may be ‘natural’ may not always be (what we would identify as) ‘musical’ to some people... To my understanding, most ‘scales’ that we now consider to be commonplace evolved by means of primitive instrument engineering evolving to accommodate greater pitch accuracy, together with the influence of the harmonic series which supplied an acoustic physics-based foundation for the subdivision of octaves.
In extension of this, it’s worth noting that the only thing that makes music theory conversations and debates worthwhile is the fact that it's in a state of permanent evolution. This means that right and wrong are not as clear cut as they may be when debating other topics. To suggest that ‘rules’ come into music theory would require consensus amongst academics and scholars alike who are not actually qualified (either individually or collectively) to ascribe ‘rules’ to such a topic as music theory. This is because music (and its associated theory) belongs to the people. It doesn’t belong to academia, no matter how much it may be implied, or how much academia may attempt to take ownership of it. Music theory is very much a living and breathing 'language'. Worthy of note however, is that music itself isn’t a language. This is a common misconception, but it isn’t a language because music isn't authoritatively definable in terms of the same criteria (and respective fulfilment thereof) that a language would need to fulfil (and adhere to) in order that it may be defined as a 'language'. Analogies between music and languages might work at a very simplistic level, but there are a number of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and errors that are all too easy to make if this analogy is taken beyond the simplest of examples. Within a language the objective of communication is served by means of encoding meaning and concepts into syntax which is then assembled within a grammatical framework. There are a number of pre-requisites which need to be in place before it can be understood.
When it comes to music, the pre-requisites that are necessary for any spoken or written language to be successful don't exist (unless you're operating from a number of assumptions regarding a very fixed definition of what music can be). As such, music doesn't operate in the same way, or within the same parameters as 'languages'. A listener needs no familiarity with any 'encoding' of meaning to understand the inherent 'truth' that is music, and this makes the formulation of any manifestation of “music theory” all the more complicated, challenging, and interesting.
Music evolves, and always came first. Theory comes second, and has only been devised (and subsequently evolved into the language of music that we now use) as a method by which we express, record, and preserve music. Because music is evolving, the language that we use to explain it needs to evolve with it, although because of the rate at which music evolves, theory will always be "behind", not at all helped by academics who misunderstand the true relationship "music" has to "theory", who seem to desire it's absolute preservation and maintenance (without really offering any consideration as to how appropriate this actually is). I would suggest that an understanding of music and the understanding of theory are two very different things. They are every bit set apart in the same way that and understanding of "meaning" is not the same as an understanding of "language".
Within a system where 15 key signatures are used to express 12 keys, any engineer would conclude that this is 3 too many than necessary and it’s about time we just got rid of them. I know where these key signatures have come from, and have a strong understanding of why we have ended up with 15 key signatures, but since evolution is a process of simplification, not complication, I think we can reasonably predict what will happen here as theory evolves anyway, so why don’t we just dispose of 3 unnecessary key signatures now? A more prominent over-complication in music theory can be seen in the time signature. Where the bottom "number" which is used represents a note value, why has it gone through an unnecessary process of "encoding" into a number? Why don't be just draw the note value as it would appear in the piece underneath the number telling us how many beats are in each bar?
To my mind, not enough people challenge these theoretical concepts and as such, I fear that it’s best hope of "catching up" with the music (which theory actually serves to record, explain, and preserve) is being systematically eroded by every music theory publication presenting this information and framing it as “the way it is” rather than thinking about it and offering appropriate consideration to what kind of future it actually has?
Thank you Nik! You can connect with Nik on Facebook.
Monday, July 2nd 2018 will go down as one of the greatest, mind-melting nights of my life. If you disregard the day I met my wife and the two nights I become a Father, I’m pretty certain nothing has been as monumental as this was.
I first ‘met’ Jamie Humphries many, many years ago on FB and over the years we’ve become very good friends. We have a very similar sense of humour (our partners will confirm that is being mostly like 13-year-old boys) and share a deep love for our instrument and music. When I first started to chat with Jamie I was painfully aware he was one of the resident guitar players in the London show of “We Will Rock You” and had toured with Dr Brian May… over the years he’s gone on to do the European Tour of WWRY and many other major touring shows. But, you know, he’s now just the guy that literally makes me cry with laughter on a regular basis. Jamie is widely regarded as one of the guys who can do Brian as well as Brian himself... along with that, his knowledge of the Red Special and Brian’s gear in general is frighteningly deep - we always joked about how I would react if I ever got to hold the Red Special. He always said that one day he would sort it for me but I never thought it would actually happen.
It was many months ago that Queen announced that they were touring with Adam Lambert again and hitting the UK in Summer. I mentioned it to Jamie and he said (in an off-hand way): “I’ll see if I can get us tickets, it’s right on my birthday so, you know, it may happen, I’ll try to get us backstage as well”. Lisa and I tried not to get too excited about it, but it was always in the back of our minds. Then, last Friday, I get a text from Jamie saying something along the lines of “Answer your phone you ******” - I hadn’t noticed he was repeatedly trying to call me… when I spoke to him he confirmed that we had tickets for the Monday night and the after-show party.
Then followed the strangest weekend of my life. Two gigs, one tremendous and the other one completely screwed up, all played out in slow motion. When Monday finally came around, we got in the car and made our way to London. The journey, as it often is, was awful but we got to the hotel next door to the venue (10 minutes’ walk from concert seat to bed – BOOM!), checked in and waited patiently for the clock to tick round. Jamie was frantically calling what felt like every 5 minutes as he was stuck in traffic coming from Lick Library in Essex to the o2, the language used was a thing of beauty. Filthy, but so articulately filthy I couldn’t help but laugh at him. We finally met up about 10 minutes before the show was due to start, at the box office, and made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare.
I don’t know what it is about Queen. I’m yet to meet a rational person who doesn’t really like them on some level, it almost feels like they have been, at some point, everyone’s favourite band but at the same time, hardly anyone’s actual favourite band. They just seem to be deeply appreciated by almost everyone. For me, it’s a family affair - they were one of my Mother’s favourite bands, they are one of my favourite bands, one of my wife’s favourite bands and one of my kid’s favourite bands… It seems like everyone has several Queen songs that mean the world to them. It’s not hard to understand why, when you think of the songs, or think of Live Aid, or think of Freddie, or think of the guitar that Dr May made with his Father (Harold) between 1963 and 1965… it’s just one hell of a story and one hell of a back catalogue of simply great songs.
Judging by the way Facebook has reacted to my many posts about this since last Friday, it’s apparent that some people think Queen should have died a natural death when Freddie did. To me that’s a little crazy, why shouldn’t the surviving members carry on? Not only in tribute to the music they created but to Freddie himself, and to the fans that still hold the music very close to their hearts. It was as I was thinking this, that the lights went down and the show started. When you see a band like Queen for the first time, and you are staring a lifetime of memories and happy thoughts right in the face, it takes a few moments to get your head back on. And once I did, there were two things that kept going through my head… the first was “I think that’s the best live guitar tone I’ve ever heard” and “Adam Lambert is incredible” – I turned to Jamie and said something that rhymes with “Duck tree – that tone!” and he laughed and said, “Told you it was good!”.
The following two or so hours went by in a whirl. Song after song of massive hits, a flawless stage show, several guest appearances by Freddie via the video screens, masterfully edited in, and at the heart of it, one of my favourite players, playing the iconic guitar, with just the biggest and ballsiest tone I’ve ever heard. He didn’t play the original all night, but whenever he did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The great thing about seeing a show like that with a straight up Queen nerd is that all the way through I was being updated with what gear he was using. Just perfect for a perpetual tone chaser who can legitimately think of nothing better than avidly listening to Jamie telling me about Brian’s wet/dry/wet rig, modified AC30’s, treble boosters, and the various ‘other’ Red Special’s that were being used.
Once the show was over, we made our way to where the after-show party was being held. Myself, Lisa, Jamie and Kim (the fourth member of our little group who owns Lick Library and Guitar Interactive Magazine) found ourselves in a room with a free bar and bizarrely, a Rock DJ playing some RAWK classics. It was then that the gravity of the situation started to hit me… Big Phil, who is Brian’s personal security guard - and has the title of being one of the most lovely and terrifying people I’ve ever met - came over for a chat… Phil Hilborne – whos impact on guitarists of our age can never be overstated through his work with Guitarist Magazine and Guitar Techniques Magazine - was also was a long-standing member of the WWRY band – came and joined us, I turned around and noticed next to us were Rami Malik, Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazello – who play Freddie, Brian and John in the upcoming film “Bohemian Rhapsody”… edged on by the comfort of having a couple of beers on an empty stomach I had a chat with them, and it was clear just what big fans they are of the band as well. That film is going to be epic. There were so many people indelibly connected to Queen, just there, all around me.
It was when I had just been to the bar again (to replace the beer that Lisa had dropped) that I noticed that Jamie was talking to a guy with a gig bag strapped to his back, I thought “No, that can’t be”, but judging by the way Jamie smiled at me, I knew it was. I knew that Pete Malandrone – Brian’s long-term tech – who kept the original Red Special with him at ALL times, and I mean, at all times, was right there and he had ‘it’ with him. There I was, within touching distance of the guitar that played on all those hits, stole the show at Live Aid, was the cornerstone of that Guitar Legends gig, and is quite possibly the most iconic guitar of all time... So near, yet so far.
Pete wandered off, and then about 10 minutes later, Jamie tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Come with me”. I stood up, grabbed Lisa’s hand, and we were quickly led into another room. After we were all in and the door was closed behind us, Pete took the gig back off his back, opened it up and I was confronted with I can only describe as what looked like a military grade carbon fibre shaped guitar case. My first thought was “That’s so small, it can’t be”. He opened it up (the whole thing was like that scene from Pulp Fiction when Travolta opened the briefcase and Samuel L Jackson said, “Are we happy?”) and it was.
Pete picked up the Red Special… THE original Red Special, and handed it to me. In that instant, it was almost like people describe as “your life flashing before you” trick of the brain, the whole history of that guitar flooded through me. So… what did I do? Well, like an idiot I sat down and started to play the first solo from Bohemian Rhapsody. Jamie started laughing and said “Don’t play Queen licks on that you muppet” and we all just started laughing. I mean, fair comment really. I looked up and noticed Pete’s face was just lit up with a huge smile. There must have been many times when he’s handed that guitar to someone and they react the way I did - in complete awe – and it looks like he genuinely loves to see that reaction. Then he started to go through the history of its construction, you know how it goes... The fireplace mantelpiece, the bike rack tremolo arm and knitting needle top, where the finish had been worn off over the years and where it had been refinished… the buttons used for the fret markers, the bike springs in the tremolo, the single bolt holding the neck on… I stopped playing and just looked at it. Even though I’ve read about it a million times, when it’s in your hands and the guy who knows it as well as Brian does is telling you about it, it takes on a whole new meaning. It was at that point Pete put his hand in his pocket and said “Have this, it was the one he used tonight, I just found it on the stage by his mic stand” and handed me a classic Six Pence piece… I then started to play again (very gently with the sixpence) and that’s the point it jumped out at me. The neck was enormous, the frets are non-existent (it’s never been refretted)… and to be completely honest, the neck feels like a baseball bat that’s had a small part of the front shaved off. It’s uncomfortably huge. The profile of the board is actually really quite rounded but… you know… it’s THE Red Special. He made it with his Father over 50 years ago and it feels like it. It may be weird to play, but it doesn’t matter - that is truly a guitar of legend. After what felt like a second I gave it back to Pete, who put it back in the case (cue Travolta in my head again saying “yeah, we’re happy”), put the case back in the gig bag and we left the room to carry on enjoying the free bar. As the night progressed, more beers were drunk, more people met, more laughs were had (including the continuation of a long-held discussion we’ve been having about Phil’s Red/Pink PRS) and even a free curry. As Lisa and I walked back to the hotel some hours after, most definitely quite squishy from the beer, I’m pretty certain my feet never touched the ground even once.
If you are a Queen fan, go and see them. Especially if you love them but think that it won’t be Queen without Freddie, because other than everything I explained above, the one memory I will have about that night was just how perfect for the job Adam Lambert is. As he said during the show “I know a lot of you think ‘He’s not Freddie and he shouldn’t be trying to be him’… All I can say is this… I’m not trying to be him, I could never be Freddie. I’m here for the same reason you are - I love Freddie and I love Queen and I’m so lucky I get to pay tribute to him with those amazing guys”.
I’d like to thank Jamie Humphries for giving me a true memory of a lifetime, Pete Malandrone for his love of the instrument and allowing me to play many, many inappropriate licks on it, and Dr Brian May for being, well… Brian May.
*header photo: Dave Watson.
A few days ago Brian, Alex and I were talking as Brian was thinking about video ideas for YouTube, and we were discussing guitarists who play live regularly but still get a few things wrong. Not necessarily in terms of their playing, but their approach to the instrument. Once I started to give ideas for subjects it occurred to me that I was just talking about me when I first started playing live, some 27 or so years ago (Man, that makes me sound old).
This conversation made me think about what I would say to myself if I had the opportunity to go back and advise the younger me with the benefit of what I have learned in the thousands of gigs I’ve done since…
- You aren’t as good as they tell you.
When I was 17 I was able to play virtually anything I wanted, I was in a rock covers band playing stuff that was designed purely to impress other guitar players. After a year or so, I thought I was brilliant because people kept telling me I was as I could play fast complicated stuff, but the reality of it was that I was just showing off. Playing for their appreciation and not caring one iota about what really mattered. I should have been more humble and understood that just because I played “It’s a Monster” as an opener, including the solo without warming up (see, still showing off), it didn’t mean I was good, I was just flashy. All style and no substance, or as my dear ol’ cockney Granddad would have said, “all mouth and no trousers”. Which leads me nicely too…
- Take some lessons and learn to read.
My biggest regret in life, thus far, was not sourcing a decent teacher and learning to read properly. I was proud of the fact “I’ve never taken a lesson in my life” and thought it made me a better musician. It didn’t, it just restricted the future me. In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure and honour of becoming good friends with amazing guitar teachers and the things I’ve learned from them, just in passing, have made me 100 times the player I was. Imagine if I’d actually had some proper lessons earlier in life…
- Listen to the rest of the band, ALL of the time.
This was the hardest learning curve of them all, and it’s something I struggle with now. I really wish I had got this into my head much much earlier. After all, being in a band is about creating and playing music with a bunch of like-minded people. Listening to them, bouncing off them, playing WITH them (instead of just playing with yourself – double entendre COMPLETELY intended) is everything. Be in a band, they are not there to back you up, you are an equal part in the end product.
- Gain. GAIN! Turn it the hell down!
The most powerful gain tones are not the ones with loads of gain, just the ones with the right amount properly EQ’d. You will probably need two distinct gain tones, one for rhythm and one for lead. How this is achieved is variable, either volume control on the guitar or via a boost pedal, but you know, your lead tone is gonna sound utterly horrible for rhythm. Usually. Also worth remembering the louder you play, the less gain you are likely to need. I expect there is a technical explaination for this, but I don’t know it!
- Practice the subtle stuff, it’s what will define you to your peers.
Especially vibrato and bends. Make sure your intonation is on point, make sure your vibrato isn’t crap. Because when you don’t work on either, you will sound bloody awful and to the guys in the know that are listening, you will be severely lacking.
- Don’t be afraid of new music.
When grunge hit I was terrified, my dazzling technique meant nothing to anyone, I got completely lost so I decided I hated it and refused to play it. What an idiot. Roll with it youngling, roll with it.
- Learn the neck properly
This is something I’ve been working on recently after a long discussion with Mr Tom Quayle on a very long flight. As usual, he was trying to help me and I was arguing for the fun of it, but he won in the end. He calls it fretboard visualisation. This is knowing what all the notes are on the neck, and how the relate to each other… this way, when improvising, you can move around the neck easier as you know where the sweet spots are. And not the complicated ones, ending a passage on a third, fifth or seventh of the chord you are currently over sounds so much better than landing on the root… so, this is directly related to breaking out the boxes I suppose, something else I was stuck in when I was trying to be me back in the day.
- If it’s being played properly, there’s no such thing as crap music
Kinda guessing that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the music I liked was great and the rest was crap when I was young. I don’t particularly like certain styles/genres of music still, but I listen to it often, because you absorb stuff when you listen to it and it will increase your vocabulary considerably when you are in full flow without realising it.
- If the crowd aren’t being responsive, it ain’t their fault
If the band is boring, make up to you to make it more interesting. Well, this is going to be a contentious one I think... As a lead guitar player, or even the rhythm guitar player, it’s kinda up to you to bring the colour to the songs. If you are working with a great bass player, they will do their bit, but if you are still banging out boring chords and predictable solos, then look at yourself before you judge your audience.
- Protect your hearing
Pretty certain I don't need to explain this any further...
- Carry spares. Of everything
I know, kinda obvious isn’t it. However, there was a time when I didn’t… turned out to be the worst gig of my life!
That’s my ‘have a word with yourself’ moment... For your amusement, the header picture of me is from 1992, and this is the 2018 version - and yes, I do miss my hair!
I’m guessing that like a lot of people who may end up reading this I’m a member of many gear groups on Facebook. I am the chief admin on the Wampler one (and it’s one that’s kept me up at night for all the right and wrong reasons), that is generally extremely good-natured and given me the most pleasure, and a member of ones that appear to be at loggerheads with each other. As someone who classes himself as a ‘people watcher’, sometimes they are the most fascinating places on earth, and sometimes the most horrific.
This morning I read an academic piece that was looking at the community surrounding the Facebook group, Pedalboards of Doom, written by Matthew Haycroft. It was SO refreshing to read something that was overwhelmingly positive about his shared experience, the way he’s watched the group develop and the common themes that are picked up on and run with. In a world of constant negativity, it brought a smile to this grumpy old face.
I sat down and thought about it all and compared it to my own experience with various groups - although I can sympathise with a lot of it, and agree with a lot of it, there are also a lot of situations that have come up that are anything but. With this in mind, I thought I would discuss some of them and see what it says about us, the players (whatever level) and how we react to them
We’ve all seen this - people (and I am completely putting myself forward here for a reference point) that have their mind made up about something and don’t care who knows it and won’t listen to any arguments against. Generally, it matters not if it is about a product, a person, a corporation, or anything else - social media is the perfect breeding ground for opinions stated as fact. It’s something we are familiar with as we see it a lot in our own tone group, and it’s something we enjoy when it’s positive about our product, but what happens when those partisan feelings are challenged? Usually, it means one hell of an argument is going to take place, typically with a complete stranger. The interesting thing happens when someone approaches this with an agenda, an ulterior motive, or just looking to cause trouble. Mind you, these are normally the most entertaining. I’m guessing the real questions here are “Why do we care what other people think?” and “Why is my opinion a fact and everyone else’s not?”
Now, I’m not talking about actual politics and politicians, but the politics of a large group. It’s amazing to see splinter groups form, subgroups and allegiances, usually from people who have NO idea who they are actually dealing with, just with someone who appears to agree with the same things they do about one or two items – Most friendships start this way, in real life, but it would appear on the internet these ties between random people can get very very strong, very very quickly, and some people are prepared to go into a verbal war over them. It often makes me sit and think “How well do you know the person you are steadfast supporting here?” or “How well do you actually know the person you are slamming and give every impression you want them dead?”… and how about “Have you got the complete story here?” Thinking about it, the answer is ‘not even slightly’. People act differently online, I know I do, so why do we show utmost loyalty to someone who just shares the same preference as you do about something like tube screamers? It’s a weird one, isn’t it?
This is my favourite. As much as snobbery cracks me up, inverse snobbery cracks me up even more. You know what I am talking about “Look at his board, must be a Blues Lawyer”, or “Look at his gear, must be deaf to think that sounds good”, so on and so forth. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been called a Blues Lawyer because I gig a PRS and have had a board with two Strymon’s on it… I’ve also been called a “P&W player”, “snob”, “stupid” and the best one, “have too much money to be taken seriously”. I can assure you now, although I do have a law degree, I’m not a snob, can’t really play the blues, don’t have too much money, and I don’t think I’m stupid (although I’ve been known to do stupid things). What are we dealing with here? Envy?
This is another one that cracks me up… people are SO fast to be offended these days. My thought process on this is “Offence is taken, not given, so please be quiet” but I believe I’m in the minority. A lot of time is spent worrying about the delivery method of a statement over the content. A lot of time is spent arguing over language choice over substance. A lot of time is spent taking offence when you have the choice to walk away from it. Why is this? I don’t know. There are some things that are without question offensive and have no place in a group, any group (that is open to the public anyway) so why do people take so much offence about stuff? I’m thinking that a lot of it comes from people who haven’t experienced a wide range of different cultures. For example, I once discovered myself out drinking with an Aussie rugby player, a door security guard from Glasgow, an anarchic Vegan, a member of the conservative party, and someone I’m pretty certain was at some point in their life either a Satanist, white supremacist, or both. A heady mix to say the least. The interesting thing was that the conversation that night was wide-ranging and at times controversial, but not one person took offense from it. Maybe being able to read someone’s body language, hear the inflexions in their voice, or many other reasons meant this didn’t end up in a mass brawl. Why does it on the internet?
Showing off and name droppers
Pretty certain I don’t have to discuss this one too much, we’ve all seen it. It’s like I was saying to Brent Mason the other day…. *chuckle*
Another one that is fascinating to watch, people who deliberately try to push the boundaries of groups, and when they are pulled up about it they cry censorship, usually at a very high volume. Controversial behaviour is a wonderful thing, it’s something I do a lot, often to watch the reaction (you could say that this blog post is being just that, albeit it not being very controversial at all). Controversy changes things, calls things into question, but it has to be done in the right way. Freedom of speech (as much as platforms as Facebook allows) doesn’t come with freedom of consequence though. I’m guessing what I am saying is that people who try to push peoples buttons shouldn’t then get upset when those buttons start to be taken away by those who have complete control of the buttons!
As a rule, I love Facebook groups as they bring a wide section of humanity to them and you can, and do, learn a lot from them. There are some groups I’ve joined, that I’ve barely got out alive from, that I have no intention of ever going back to. Thankfully they appear to be the minority. In conclusion, and as usual when writing this, I’m being somewhat self-reflective and thinking about my own actions as much as others. I hope that I can do better going forward. How about you?
Yesterday was an interesting day! The internet, as it does, erupted into a total storm of indignation and fury because of Gibson (probably the 10th time this year alone) over the news of bankruptcy. It’s the story we’ve all been waiting for, for months and months, and it had finally arrived. Even though we knew it was coming, it seems that even I could be surprised at the amount of acid reflux on display from almost everywhere.
Let’s put it this way, no matter what you might have read, Gibson ain’t going anywhere right now. Let’s look at the facts, they haven’t filed for a s7, they filed for a s11. So, they are restructuring to manage the debt to keep the company strong going forward. In the words of the release “Gibson will emerge from Chapter 11 with working capital financing, materially less debt, and a leaner and stronger musical instruments-focused platform that will allow the Company and all of its employees, vendors, customers and other critical stakeholders to succeed”. This means, in a nutshell, Gibson will liquidate the consumer electronics business it acquired from Philips in 2014, and concentrate resources on its instrument business, that being Gibson and Epiphone guitars, KRK and Stanton Audio. So, once again, Gibson guitars (at the moment) ain’t going anywhere.
So, now that the main talking point is out of the way, what do we think is the reason behind this? Well – I for one have always been a massive fan of the brand, it’s iconic history and the products it produces. From a tone chaser perspective, which is all I can talk about, what’s not to love? I’m guessing that a lot of people (including myself) just feel disassociated with the company and its mission of constantly innovating, which for many, seems to be done ‘just because it can’. A company like Gibson doesn’t really fit into the category of a ‘Lifestyle’ brand. They can never be a company like Nike. When Juszkiewicz et al bought Gibson back in 1986 for $5M, the company was in tatters and they turned it around to the brand that we recognize from latter years. A modern company with a sharp eye for the future. This direction, for me, was the rebirth and possibly the start of the death throws for Gibson as we know it today. Thus, Gibson Brands was born and they diversified - they took up other brands with the vision of a truly global lifestyle entity going forward.
This is where they went wrong I think… Guitars and associated products at this level are not classic consumable products. Most players simply do not replace their main guitar every two years like they do their phone because of new features, they just want a solid dependable instrument to last them until the GAS leads them to a new one. You can’t invoke GAS in the customers by radically changing a classic product for the sake of it, you create GAS by making it better from that strangely inert position we have as players, of looking at something like a LP and just desiring it. We do this because of finishes, woods, quality. Not because of the implementation of auto tuners. Well, it doesn’t for me, and I don’t think it does for other people much as well.
The internet in recent years has seemed to revel in hating Gibson and in particular Juszkiewicz because they didn’t feel like the company was empathizing with them. The advent of new technologies, new shapes, new features just isn’t what people want from Gibson – they look to other brands for this - they want a solid guitar that (other than the G string slipping its tuning now and then) just won’t let you down. I don’t think they want a Flying V that looks like the StarFleet Ensignia, or an olive green J-45, or a new style LP that no one can relate too... But hang on… this isn’t really what they did when you look properly. With those insanely coloured J-45, they made a handful but did not stop making the sunburst, the guitar that everyone wants. It was just a limited edition run. The LP Traditional was made to be the classic Gibson we all know and love and it was the LP Standard that has all the new features… maybe something as simple as keeping the classic called “Standard” and the new featured one “Contemporary” may have made people not think so dismissively about them. Who knows? We are a funny bunch us guitar players, we love it when new products are genuinely innovative, but we also love to be able to lean back on the technology and style we are already comfortable with. This is why guitars should not be treated like mobile phones.
One of the things that has interested me over the years is the constant internet chatter about QC at Gibson being shocking and/or them being overpriced. I am certain that this has caused massive reputational damage to the brand and I’m a little confused by it.
Pricing. So many people talk about them being too expensive, isn’t the US made LP Tribute about $1K? Is that expensive? No it isn’t. Is it a good guitar for that money. Yes it is. They do the models at the top for silly money, but who doesn’t? You get for what you pay for, and if you want a showpiece instrument made by hand completely in the US, you spend a LOT of money. If you want a great brand name on your guitar but not the detailed handmade feel, you have the more budget friendly option. Gibson caters for all of these situations. I’m guessing that in this day and age people just look at cost and nothing else. Guitars run the line of ever diminishing returns, the higher you go, the more you pay for a smaller difference in quality.
QC. I saw a post a couple of days ago that said “I went into a guitar store owned by my friend yesterday and they had 10 Gibson’s on the wall, and they were all crap”. My first question to that person was “Who is letting them go up on the wall if they are that bad?” and he couldn’t answer, in fact, he couldn’t really answer anything so it may well have been a case of seeing a hate bandwagon and jumping on it.
Every company has QC hiccups now and then, but I still just can’t believe it is that bad – we’ve all seen the pictures, read the stories, and heard the talk but what’s the actual reality of it? I wanted to hear from someone who lives with issues such as these everyday so I jumped on the phone and talked to an old friend of the company, Lee Anderton, about his experiences with Gibson (as a prelude, you should know that Anderton’s sell Gibson’s by the truckload). He said this “We’ve had thousands of Gibson guitars come through the store over the years, and as each one goes through our own stringent internal QC procedure before being entered into stock, and I’m baffled by this. I would say that around 1% of the guitars we get are failed by our own QC technicians, which isn’t out of line with many of guitar brands we deal with. In the whole of last year we had 7 Gibson guitars come through here with a broken headstock – the way the forums read, you’d think every other Gibson Les Paul had a busted headstock. Last year I shot a video where I compared the build quality of a used 80s Les Paul Standard to a new 2018 Les Paul Standard. The build quality on the new one was significantly better than the old one. In the end I decided not to post the video as I just felt that people would accuse me of having a vested interest in selling the new ones, which of course I have! The phrase Haters Gonna Hate comes to mind.” That paints quite a different picture than what we read, doesn’t it?
And finally… As always, the internet had an absolute field day with this story, and this leads me nicely to the best thing about the whole thing. I’m a member of a Facebook group called “Petalberdz of Derm” – it’s one of those groups that exists for the sake of fun (never harmful) and just talking about gear – mostly pedals. It’s one of the only places that gives me a genuine LOL almost every time I go in and the thing I’m most thankful for, it’s a completely safe haven from the people who sometimes frequent FB groups just to be smug and overtly opinionated - although we do talk about gear a lot in there, most of the time it’s just a group of people having a really good laugh. Yesterday, one of the more prolific agitators of silliness mocked up an article that appeared to be from The Financial Times about Joe Bonamassa buying Gibson… and someone took it outside the group and it went viral. I must admit, I saw it elsewhere and posted it on the Wampler IG page and it wasn’t until much later I found out that it was just a silly joke that went a little crazy. And boy, did it go crazy. So, Dermers, well played - you had us all.
Thinking about the JB angle, just imagine what would happen if someone like him did raise the capital and bought Gibson. What would Gibson look like, would it be the classic Gibson we all know and love, or would it be the most silly thing that’s ever been thought of? It’s questions like this that distract me way too much at dinner and gets me in trouble with the family. It’s been such a long time since we’ve been able to have banter about an ACTUAL guitar player ACTUALLY owning a gear company I hope it happens for that alone.
None of us know what the future holds for Gibson guitars, I’m pretty certain that like me you want them to continue and carry on making guitars and for them to be fundamentally great instruments - but I personally think that a period of ‘eye opening’ is needed by them to understand what is really happening out there. The stories that are spread about Gibson have an element of truth about them, but in no such way that Social Media will have you believe, and I think it’s come from people genuinely fed up with the lack of connection to one of their favourite brands. There is a fine line between love and hate.
The ball is in their court, let’s hope the pick it up and start throwing it in the right direction.
I think like lots of people I’m totally and utterly ‘fed up’ (edited by request of the boss) with the price of concert tickets these days. I mean, it has been reported that on average people are paying nearly $400 to see Adele, nearly $240 to see Taylor Swift… the cheapest price for the Rolling Stones near me is about $160 (which you would need a telescope to actually see them) and so on and so forth. The question I’ve been asking myself recently is why?
I have a couple of theories about this - and they may be crap, or I may be full of BS (likely), but something somewhere has changed. And that thing, I think, is mostly due to us. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Ticket touts… Scalpers…. Whatever you call them. The advent of the internet and sales on the internet has made it very easy for third parties to get involved and make a quick buck or two (million). It’s really hard to tell which are the legit sites and which aren’t, legislation has been passed to restrict this from happening but the trouble with the law is that it doesn’t move as quick as the brains of the people who are trying to take our money for effectively nothing. Is this a fight we can ever win? Also, the promoters of the events charge what they can get, so why not maximise on ticket prices if they know it’s still going to sell out? Everyone would do it if they could.
Those of us who are of a certain age will remember the Napster ‘revolution’ and remember seeing Lars from Metallica on TV moaning about theft, copyright infringement (and the subsequent lawsuits that followed) and most people laughed at him and treating him pretty badly… I do believe this was when the whole “Lars is crap” thing came from (well, that and the snare sound from St Anger, but that’s a different story) as he was actively stopping everyone’s fun in getting free music, because everyone loves free stuff, right? It’s always been interesting as being a kid listening to rock music in the 80’s, Lars was a legend up until around this time, then everything changed.
Since the whole filesharing thing has been embedded into our psyche (and lets it, pretty certain that at one point everyone has either done it or is close to someone who has) the eventual response by the music industry was to provide streaming services (I know it’s much deeper than this, but let’s face it, it was all they could do) and everyone jumped on it as, well, for all intents and purposes, it was still free. These days a lot people pay a company like Spotify about £10 a month to lose the adverts but in my experience, in just talking to people, most people just put up with the adverts and have it for free, because right now, that concept of ‘free’ music, or a variation of it, is legal.
What does that do for the bands? And I know what you are all thinking, 99% of the bands didn’t get an income from record sales so this doesn’t apply, but I’m looking at the large-scale acts here… obviously, a massive chunk of their income has gone. Completely. There is that famous break down of payments from Spotify that shows that a band in 2016 who had their songs streamed over 1,000,000 times and received a total payment of just under $5000. At this point, I could list how much that would have broken down if those had been airs on the radio or physical sales, but I won’t, because we all know that an income from that would be well in excess of $5000.
You know what this means, don’t you? Of course, I mean that the bands, record companies, management etc etc have to reclaim their income from elsewhere (as they ain't going to take a pay cut) and the only viable place to do that is either via endorsement deals (rare that they pay that well), merch sales (and those are now pirated ridiculously – just check out all the many adverts in your FB feed of companies selling cool band related shirts) and touring. Before the Napster revolution a band used to tour to support the album in order to provoke sales, but these days it’s pretty well their only source of real income. This is a hard pill for us to swallow, especially when you consider that the most expensive tickets these days are bands like Rolling Stones (and I’m pretty certain they’re fairly comfortable financially) but they are still a business, and guys who manage them aren’t going to let them go out on a tour to support an album that won’t sell, so that income figure has to come from somewhere else.
The fans fault (and yes, this is a little tongue in cheek)
Our expectations of live shows are somewhat more complicated than they used to be… Long gone are the days when you see a band and it’s a bunch of people playing the hell out of their instruments with a few lights behind them, you now have full interactive shows with everything from massive custom built OLED video screens showing content aimed specifically to the night of the performance, to fireworks, light shows that are just incredible, complicated sets with raising platforms etc and just about everything else… Shows are now events. Each time we go to see a show we expect it to blow us clean off our feet, it has to be better than the last one we saw so touring bands are obliged to up their game every time. It all kinda adds up. As an amusing aside to this concept of crowd expectation, a mate of mine – Tim Stark - is the chief builder at Mansons Guitar Works, so he makes every guitar Matt Bellamy plays, both in the studio and on tour. Those of you who have caught a live show from Muse knows what this means, as it’s expected now by the crowd… Let’s just say that the expectation of the crowd keeps Tim a very busy man, and those guitars are hand built in the UK, so they aren’t a $100 Squier used for the final song of the night!
The sad thing is that due to the way everything pans out, we are unlikely to see concert tickets come down to a more sustainable level for your regular person any time soon. You will always be able to see your favourite band, well, I doubt you’ll see them, but you’ll be able to hear them as you’ll be SO far away from them you’ll end up just seeing the video screens. The reason many people took the Napster route, and all the services that followed them, was because they couldn’t afford to buy all the music they wanted so they downloaded it. Stole it. The people who could afford to buy the music still did… And now, the people who could afford to buy the music still can and now they are the only ones who can realistically afford to pay top dollar to see the best bands, actually see them. The irony is not lost on me.
Here’s a final thought - I travelled 400 miles (round trip) by bus to see 6 bands in 1988… Helloween, Guns and Roses (full original band), Megadeth, David Lee Roth (with Vai), Kiss (without makeup) and Iron Maiden (full “7th Tour of a 7th Tour” production) for a total cost of £31 (about $60 USD at the time). Even with inflation that only comes to £80 ($115 USD) today. I wonder what that show would cost now?
In all the years I’ve been playing I’ve made the mistake of only listening too and ripping off other guitar players in order to find my own ‘style’. Yep, this was a big mistake. More recently I’ve been listening to other instruments to expand my palette and I’ve been having a ‘meh’ time with it… coupled with a constant desire to get my head around a more modal approach to make my playing more interesting, it just ending up as a more frustration (and let’s face it, I’ve had one of the very best explain it to me multiple times – Mr Tom Quayle)… I’ve understood some of it, but you know, I can’t find a way of putting it into a vocabulary that is mine.
This has been changing recently and it’s come from the most unexpected of sources.
… so… backstory.
I first met Dave when I was about 16, he’s 8-9 years older than me and from the moment I first heard him play I was utterly blown away by his musicality. He’s a piano player. Classically trained, a music teacher, and just a frightening sense of melody and structure. Way back then, I was hugely intimidated (and that’s a reflection of me, not him, a more lovely and open man you could never meet), that I just could not ask him anything… Our paths have crossed many times over the years and although I’ve always had the utmost respect for him as a musician, I never thought of talking to him about it all. A couple of years ago I saw on FB that he was doing a solo show close to me, so I went to see him. First time I’d seen him in years! We caught up and went our separate ways… then at around that time Mrs Wilding had a couple of piano lessons with him and they became friends, he was very understanding that she couldn’t always fulfil her lesson slots due to her illness, and then last year when he became poorly she was there for him and the friendship became stronger. Once he was a little better, he came over and he just fitted in with our family and it became a regular thing - “it’s Saturday, so Dave’s coming over”.
Since the time I first met him and then during the time we barely saw each other, Dave has made a career out of teaching music/piano and has gone so far as to earn a doctorate in music composition. So, if anything, I should have been more intimidated by him than I was before. But, now I’m 44, I’m a lot more secure and confident in my musicality so I’m more open to speak to people…. That first day he came over he only played a little piano and music didn’t come into the conversation, but ever since then at some point in the day we end up playing. I am VERY lucky that my wife is a musician and my kids play everything they can get their hands on, so music is always happening in the house.
It was about a month ago and Dave was just messing around on the piano and this incredible run came out of nowhere and I sat there, on the other side of the room, with my mouth agape. He looked up and laughed and said “what?”… so, I just said “What the &%^$ was that?” and he said “Oh it was just an *insert explanation here* and it made sense. I don’t know why it made sense in what he said, because it was no different from a guitar player saying it, but I think because it sounded different, and I could then look at it and have it in black and white (and also see and understand the chord he was using underneath it) there was what you might call a lightbulb moment.
I’m not arrogant to say that because of this I have Quayle levels of theory at my disposal, but what has happened is that I’ve found someone, and a way, to demonstrate this kind of thing and then transfer it over to guitar and my own playing. I’ve started to understand how different intervals work over different chords and I guess I’m kinda approaching my solo construction slightly differently, maybe in a more piano way… not just a bunch of guitar-shaped boxes and scales, but a more fluid movement between them… but my playing has definitely changed because of my weekly jams and chats with Dave. This became obvious last weekend. As with any local music scene, it’s all slightly incestuous… the band I’m in now Dave was in during the early 90’s. So, after coming over Dave came with me one day (this was about 8 weeks ago) to the gig to see everyone. This was the week that he and I first talked theory and construction, so it was me he was seeing play that night. Then last week, he also came and saw us again, and was a couple of my lead lines caught his attention - a couple of times he looked at me and smiled and nodded… one of the times I said to him, well I mouthed, “That’s your fault” and he laughed… I realised that without actively knowing it, I had lifted part of his approach and taken into the guitar, into my own playing/style.
So, kids, the lesson in all this is this… if you have musical friends that aren’t necessarily guitar players and they have a better understanding of music than you do, pick their brains, take music as a thing outside your instrument and blatantly steal their lines and ideas. There is a huge chance it will make you a better player.
Unlike me to start a blog post with the pure intention of starting an argument! But, you know, sometimes it just has to be done. For those of you who are unfortunate enough to know me in some way will know about my music preferences... My favourite players are on a constant rotation of being ‘the best’ in my head. There isn’t a day go by that I don’t listen to Gilmour, I have epic binges of Vai, Brent Mason is the ultimate studio musician I can think off, Jerry Reed is THE man, Randy Rhoads is immortal… Nuno has the right hand of the Gods.. etc etc. You know how it goes.
The strange thing about this, or maybe I should say “strange beautiful music” thing about this is that very rarely do I stand up and gush about Satriani, but in recent times I’ve been on a Satch trip that appears to be never ending. And it’s lead me to this conclusion. Joe Satriani is the ultimate rock guitar player.
Right, OK. So let’s get this out of the way. No one can EVER take away the impact of the three guys that made rock guitar what it is today, without them we simply wouldn’t have the music we have… So, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and Tommy Iommi. Accepted, vital. They are the heart of it all… but in 2018, are they the greatest?
Here is why I think Satch wins this title (of course, this is a massive subjective issue). Of course there will be dissenting arguments, however... I need to keep the word count down so I'll try to put it in bullet points, this could have been a definitive 20k word thesis!
When you break down what Joe’s music is, primarily you’ll find a shedfull of hooks. Little lead lines that you hum along too. And then right after that, some weird crap that no one can comprehend (at the time) will fall out of your speakers and you end up looking at the CD case (I’m thinking back here to when I first got his music in the 80’s) thinking “What the hell are you on?”. Then, more hooks, more melodies, more weird crap, melodies, hooks… This is where Joe wins for me, the melodic element. I mean, if you look at EVH and Vai, that’s the one thing they miss in their playing. Those hummable melodies that appear in EVERY song, usually multiple times. As musicians, we are constantly looking for melodies and hooks, Joe seems to have them falling out of everything he writes.
Joe’s playing is flawless, in every respect. Whether he be grooving along, sweep picking, tapping, legatoing (is that a real word?) or anything else, he does it perfectly. If you listen to ANY of Joe’s live recordings, or have seen him live, you’ll notice that he is complete control of his instrument at all times. How he manages to hold the whole thing at the edge of feedback in that way and only have it come in at certain times is beyond me… His right hand is permanently locked in, his left hand never seems to drop a note at all, basically, in terms of the physical act of playing, there isn’t a thing wrong.
This may not be a big one to those who are younger than I am, or weren’t into this style of music when it was released, but believe me, back in the day when Joe erupted onto the scene, it was like nothing we’d ever heard before. I was very fortunate as I was introduced to Joe’s music in the mid 80’s, I was early teens, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had heard Vai on DLR, I was well into EVH, Hendrix and all the others… but there was just something else unheard of here. I can remember with pretty well complete clarity the first time I put Surfin’ on, the title track was all well and good – but it was the following three tracks that confused the hell out of me. “Ice 9”, “Crushing Day” and “Always With Me, Always With You”. From that moment on, every album of Joe’s that I inhaled just blew my socks off. How many other people listened to “Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing” the first time and played it again and again thinking “What the hell was that and how the hell did he do it?”. Also, when we are talking about Joe being an innovator. Let’s remember, he taught Vai how to play, Alex Skolnick, Kirk Hammet (don’t go there, that’s another conversation, but if you want to, listen to Master of Puppets, And Justice For All etc and then stop talking) and so many other outrageously good players, you have to take note of the mans impact.
Who else can go out on stage every night, out Voldemort Voldemort and smile while playing like that. You gotta admit, he’s so damn cool it’s just not funny. Even at 61, he’s still a sizeable amount cooler than any of the younger crop of players out there today.
I’ve often heard that Joe is just one major scale away from being a major scale himself, maybe that’s why I love it so much, as I’m a fan of things being in a major key and even when he’s in a minor key it sounds major. I’m not going to delve into his theoretical approach via his concept of pitch axis etc, but everything is about the music and not just the mindless widdlewiddle that so many shredders rely on. This is where he sits apart from players like EVH, sometimes on EVH solos it’s just insanity and all over the place, in the best possible way, but with Joe it always feels like it’s just the song but in solo form. The only people who come close to constructing solos in this way, maybe Andy Timmons or Nuno Bettencourt.
Dude, he taught Steve Vai. End of argument.
As you can imagine, I’ve been writing this while listening to Joe, in particular, the Live! album from 2006. In between grabbing my guitar to play along, or the epic amounts of air drums I’ve been subjecting my wife and kids too (much to their amusement) and generally blubbering on about something that I have no right too, or been able to articulate properly, because it’s all just opinion and you know what they say about opinions. And what they are like. But, I ask you this… put personal favourite’s aside (Joe is not my favourite, at least not today, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?) and think about the wider scope of modern rock guitar and the person who has been consistently updating the genre for 35 years. Once again I’ll refer to the main arguing points… Vai: technique, stage presence, insanity… the top of the tree. EVH: Without him there would be none of this I expect, he broke the mould, but he only broke it once. Hendrix. In my own (highly contentious opinion) he was a blues player, although once again, without Jimi there wouldn’t be the others (but then again we can take that all the back to Chuck Berry and further). Who else? We can list and discuss them all, but when I really think about it all as a whole, it always comes down to one man. Joe Satriani.
Now, as the much-overused meme says… “Change my mind!” - but before you do, watch this. This has absolutely everything in it and just shows what a master of his instrument he truly is...
I’m pretty old – currently staring down the barrel of being 45… So, I groan when I get up from the sofa and my idea of a great concert (as someone attending) is whether it is seated and how easy the access is to the ‘facilities’. Whereas this may sound terrible to some (especially me to be honest), it does mean one thing – I’ve been playing live since I was 17 so I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for a long time. Along the way, having done over a thousand gigs, I’ve picked up some knowledge about some things that I might not have thought about before.
This week I want to talk about speaker placement when you perform… When I was a nipper, before the gig time, I had to keep my sound levels down low at home, because – you know, parents. I quickly found out the best way to do this was to lean my amp back (up against the wall) so the centre part of the cone was pointing at my ears. During this time, I wanted to be Jannick Gers before I knew that Jannick existed… basically, I wanted to stand between Smith and Murray on your bog standard Iron Maiden world tour. My bedroom came complete with a full-length mirror so quite often I was stood with my foot on the bed in that classic “on the monitors” way and other various poses the band are known for admiring my potential for being in the band... It was during this time I realised that where the speaker was pointing made an enormous difference to how I heard my guitar. It was either muffled if I wasn’t dead on, or bright and clear when I was. Based on this experience when I started with my first band I used to put my amp on stuff to make sure it was at head level as much as possible – I found that not only was it the best way to keep my stage level down but also the very best way to know that the people out front only heard what I was hearing. From there I went on to live mix large bands around the circuit which taught me also that in regards to upper mids and high end, speaker placement is absolutely everything. The lower the frequency goes, the more omnidirectional they become (this varies with speakers size) so you can put them anywhere and they’ll be heard, but those high ends have to be facing the right direction and high enough to literally go over the head of people, otherwise anything further than 10 feet from them with people in front of you, they are just gone.
Now, any self-respecting guitar player will be able to tell you that the best tone you get from your amp (providing you aren’t on a weak hollow stage) is to have your amp on the floor, but this is a nightmare for the people out front – you can’t hear your top end if you have your tone going into your calves, and also, if you are anywhere near the drummer you have to be literally twice as loud to hear yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a band where the guitar amps are on the floor and the first few rows have been slaughtered by sheer volume and gnarly top ends while the player thinks he sounds incredible.
With all that in mind, where do you put your speakers when you play live? Are they on the deck, or are they elevated? The current band I’m ruining is set up like this, my cab sits on top of a flight case, it’s a 2x12” (and I have it vertically) with the head on top. This means that because I am stood anywhere between 1 and 10 feet from my cab (usually about 2 or 3 tbh), at all times the top speaker is sitting close enough to head height for me to hear it properly. I have to have my cab a certain way ‘up’ as one of the speakers is truer on the higher end and the other is more about warm mids and lows. The top speaker has to be looking at my head, so I can keep the high end under control. As I play in a band that borders on country music, I have my cleans set on very clean with some sparkly high ends going on, so I sit on that verge of being shrill if I am not careful. I am so paranoid about this that I often hold my nose and blow down it to pop my ears out to ensure I am hearing all the highs properly… Something Mrs Wilding finds most amusing!
My current live speaker set up... vertically aligned so I can hear what I am doing... I don't play shoegaze, I promise...
Well, that’s the story part of the piece out of the way – what about the facts that support it, because we all like the sciencey facts part, right?
Speakers, and the frequencies that they protect vary in directionality. The higher the note, the more directional your sound will be projected. Here’s a little test… play a low E note and then one as high as you can straight after. Do that stood to the side of your amp, then at a 45 degree angle, and then right in front (also do this crouched down if your amp is on the floor). You’ll notice that the low-end notes sound pretty identical in all three but the higher notes will sound much duller when you are at the side.
Most guitar amp speakers are 12” and they demonstrate ‘beaming’ at about 1335hz – that is the frequency they become immensely directional. So, everything below that will feel a lot more omnidirectional. To put this in real guitary terms, a tubescreamer has a hump that is most prominent at 732hz and that’s considered to be a mid-range bump - upper mids is generally thought to be between 1khz and 2khz so everything above the midpoint of your upper mids is being protected in a strict direction. Now, think about standing on a stage with your amp on the floor about 5’ behind you. There is an enormous chance you are not actually hearing the high end of your amp properly, so your tone will be brighter than you think.. chances are you compensate for this by increasing the treble control on your amp/pedals. Now think about all those people who are standing on the floor about 15’ in front of you. Yep, it’s your high end that’s actually hurting them and ruining their night!
There are several companies that try to put a stop to this happening, most noticeably the Deefleex, it provides a deflection panel that sends your upper frequencies up to your ears - this is great - but in order to work properly they stick out quite a bit from your amp, so unless you are playing on a bigger stage, you just can’t use it as it will get in the way... if you don’t have that problem though, this simple solution could make a world of difference to your understanding of how you, and your audience, hears your tone.
While we are talking of speaker cabs, here’s another thing to consider… how you have your cab laying. If you are using a 1x12” cab, the sound will spread out evenly in all directions (this isn’t strictly true, but for the sake of this piece let’s keep it simple), but if you are using a 2x12” cab it will react quite differently. If you have the speakers in your cab aligned horizontally, you will get a bigger spread ‘up and down’ than if you put them vertically which will spread the sound wider. This is why I have my cab elevated off the ground and vertical, so the cab will spread more to the sides that it does up. If I had to put my cab any lower I would put it so the speakers are horizontally aligned, so the sound goes up more. For me, in a band that plays smaller venues, the dispersal of the sound to the sides is WAY more important because there won’t be enough room for a horizontally aligned cab to fill the room with sound. And there’s no point in taking all this gear to a gig if only a few people directly in front of me can hear it, right?