This past weekend was a bit of an anomaly for me. My wife was working two 12-hour shifts at the hospital, and my mother-in-law was keeping our two kids on Saturday, so I had a day pretty much to myself. Of course, there’s always something to do around the house like laundry, dishes, vacuuming, etc. but I decided to take the day and have a bit of fun. I loaded my Strat, Pantheon and vintage Twin head up and hit the road, off to visit a great friend of mine who lives two hours away. I had to get stuff done that day and couldn’t shuck everything I was doing, so I left the house at 6:30am and drove in the cold, wet rain up to the coast and proceeded to have a great time. Roxy and I have been Facebook friends for several years, and we’ve also traded and sold gear to the point it’s almost comical. I swear he’s got half of the stuff I’ve ever sold, and some of the gear I’ve even bought back from him and inevitably sold back. We jammed for about two hours and had an awesome time just hanging out and talking gear. He got to try my original ’68 Twin, and I got to try some of the amps he’d mentioned in our conversations (including a hand-built 20w from Bruce Egnater, his home-built amp, and one of the coolest little amps I’ve ever played in my life (more on that in a second). We messed with some pedals (including our Black Friday release) and just had a blast. It was great catching up, and it made me realize several things about myself and my gear choices.
First things first, I’ll discuss that amp I was talking about above. This was a 1-watt Marshall head and cab with a .25 watt switch on the back called the Offset. To be completely honest I’ve always sort of written off sub-20 watt amps as not being something that would ever tickle my fancy. I play into a clean platform almost exclusively, so the idea of such a low headroom amp seemed like a waste of time. I will be the first to admit that it was a stupid idea and that they are incredible. I plugged straight in and for only 1 watt and a single 10” speaker, it sounded MASSIVE. I was a bit shaken to my core because of it and I’ve pretty much been thinking about that amp constantly since then. I’m trying to work out a deal, as it’s a limited-edition amp and I WANT IT SO BAD. GAS hasn’t been quite this furious in a long time. It’s got extremely simple controls: Volume (Labeled Loudness) and Tone, then the Hi and Lo setting for the power scaling. That’s it. No frills. No FX loop, no drastic EQ changes. Simple and to the point. I REALLY liked it.
Enough about that epic little amp, onto more self-reflection and epiphanies (lol). Normally I’m one to pack up a big board and maybe bring a couple of guitars to a jam. Variety is the spice of life and all. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb and leaving my comfort zone by just taking a single pedal and a Strat that I’d only recently just modified with upgraded pickups and hadn’t taken it out for a jam yet. There was no real reason to worry, as it’s an American Pro strat that I had a guard wired-up from David Maue from Tonal Concept Pickups, where he had an original set of John Mayer Big Dippers that were wired in the neck and middle, and one of his custom PAF’s in the bridge. He put a push/pull pot in the bridge tone control to split the coil in the humbucker, and the other tone control allows me to use all 3 pickups together. As I said before, the only pedal I took was a Pantheon with a fresh 9v battery, and a TC Electronic headstock tuner for good measure. The greatest feeling was plugging into each amp and feeling confident in what I was doing. Admittedly my playing wasn’t perfect as I rarely get to practice much anymore (life, you know how it is), but overall there wasn’t a tone I felt I couldn’t achieve with that setup. Being totally honest it would have to be the fingers and the mind behind it to make that combo sound bad, but it was nice not having to hide behind a board like I’ve used as a safety net for so long. It did, however, dawn on me that with my lack of practice came the lack of remembering how to play most of the songs I used to know how to play. I’ve spent so much time noodling and learning riffs and just messing around that it was a bit disconcerting. Good thing is I know exactly what to work on, as I do want to get back to being able to play some covers like I used to. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was abundantly clear.
I guess the biggest thing I can take from all of this is that I’m thankful to have close friends who can talk gear, inspire GAS, and allow me to just be myself and play. It was nice having the guitar I had schemed over for so long and mess with to be just right turned out exactly how I wanted. That’s the first guitar where I sat down at the end of the day and had absolutely nothing to find wrong with it or a desire for it to do more. In the end, I will say that a lot of the tone comes from the hands, but having the right tools to translate what you’re putting out helps quite a bit and inspires confidence as well.
I was doing my typical boredom-induced zombie scrolling deal on Facebook the other day and happened upon a Woody Harrelson meme that said, “When people who only play “original music” crap on my cover band” and has Woody drying his eyes with money. It made me laugh, but it also made me think of another post I saw a while back that argued that cover bands aren’t “local music.” Both of these polarizing posts kind made me question where musicians place their value in their music, and I just wanted to talk through some of the points here (especially after having a discussion with a friend who has very different opinions than mine).
I’ll start from my end because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I love writing music and creating riffs and songs, but at the basis of my playing, I just enjoy playing covers. They’re fun, they get people up and moving because they’re identifiable and it’s a relatively straightforward thing that you can build from with your own unique flourishes should you choose to or play it exactly like the records...the choice is up to the player. For me, I like playing it note for note with the recording. It’s equal parts nostalgia and the desire for perfectionism is a world that lacks it completely. My OCD makes me want to nail each note exactly how the pros did it, and when I finally accomplish it then I feel successful. That’s been a driving force and where the bar has been set for myself since I started playing. I’ve always played covers because that’s actually how I’ve learned a lot of theory is piecing it together how the pros do it, because I don’t have the focus to sit down and practice scales…I never was a “studier.” When I did learn scales, it turned me into a robot because of that cushy feeling of false safety; if I stayed in the box I knew I couldn’t play a dreaded wrong note. But, it led my lead-work to be…scaley? No emotion, just notes in the scale. So, I went back to piecing theory together from songs, and that’s how I’ve personally connected the dots. It can be considered derivative if you broke it down, but it works for me and makes me happy and I try to play to the song and the band as much as trying to stand out.
My buddy is from the opposite line of thought. He gets ultimate enjoyment from writing songs and riffs. His fulfilment comes when he creates a lead lick or catchy rhythm part that he wouldn’t mind hearing again. He knows a few songs, but 95% of the time he chooses to create something in a jam than to cover a song, it’s just not interesting to him. He’s very into unique tones and doesn’t want to sound like Angus Young or EVH or any of the classics. He wants to create his own sound and for lack of a better description, to leave his own mark on the world. It’s something that I never wrapped my head around as a teenager as we’d go to jams and he’d want to make something up instead of playing a known song (to him that was boring). As we got older we both realized that a lot of what’s so great about guitar is the ability to adapt, so we’ve made stuff work.
Fundamentally, going back to the meme’s as referencing (welcome to citation in 2018), who is wrong and who is right? The answer? Both are right and wrong. I know, that sounds like a cop-out but hear me out. There’s playing music for fun, and then there’s playing music to earn money (surplus income, or sole income if you’re a full-time musician). You’ve taken a lot of time to hone your craft, and exposure bucks don’t pay the rent, unfortunately. So, fair compensation for the service you’re providing is what’s needed. To that end, a musician must be willing to adapt to what the customer is expecting. Whether that’s a bar gig trying to help sell some food and beer for the venue, or whatever scenario arises. In general, however, people are looking for identifiable songs. I’ve had several friends who have gone to bars to find out the band was playing nothing but originals, and they ended up leaving. It’s just the society we live in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many of the famous acts played covers until they got their foot in the door and added in their own material along the way. I guess my point is that there can’t be a polarizing thought-process when it comes to music. Being part of a community means helping it grow, and admittedly it’s something that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own integrity to achieve either. My point is, even the biggest stars in music STILL play covers, because there’s something identifiable and nostalgic about hearing those notes, and sort of tying those nostalgic feelings to the personality of the artist covering them…sort of a way of the person covering the songs to express a bit of who they are and what they love.
In the end, what is the point of cutting down another musician? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cover band or an original band in the end. If you’re doing what you love, screw it, it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve seen discussions of covers being derivative, but that’s something that is defined by each player.
Playing music is the greatest, and surely, that should be enough?!