I was talking to Alex about a forthcoming blog he has coming and I (as usual) ended up quoting an Iron Maiden song to him. The song is B side from 1986, so you know, not one of their most well-known, but me being the Maiden geek I am, it did seemed appropriate.
Alex’s blog is going to be about common problems for people starting out in bands, and I instantly thought of the Maiden’s song “The Sheriff of Huddersfield” which was basically them mercilessly taking the piss out of their manager Rod Smallwood. There is a wonderful line in that (Bruce doing an impression of Rod) that says “Pride and Ego my lads, pride and ego, it’s what makes the world rotate.”
As I was then thinking about what he said, I had somewhat of a revelation myself, so I thought I would put it down on th’internet (one for the good people of Huddersfield there, and Yorkshire in general to enjoy) to remind myself in the future about my place in the universe and playing in a band.
I play in a pub band, doing covers. Nothing outrageous, but we make good noises at all the right times. We do our favourite songs in the hope that the people coming to see us enjoy them also. We are not a note for note type of band, we do everything our way – sometimes that way is like the record, sometimes it’s really not. This means I have a lot of scope as the guitar player to go off on one and enjoy myself with rather long and protracted solos.
Last week we played a gig and did a song we don’t do very often, “Bring Back The Sunshine” by Eddie Rabbit. We do it nothing like the original, it’s more done in a rock ballad style and I get the opportunity every time to pretend to be David Gilmour.
In my opinion, I did the greatest improvised solo of my life last week in this song, I literally gave myself goosebumps as I was playing it. Mrs Wilding comes to virtually every gig (she often plays the piano with us as well, but wasn’t on the night in question) as she just loves listening to me play. As we’ve been married for over 15 years she knows my playing well and knows when I am happy playing and when I am not, once I had finished my solo I looked up at her and she was beaming at me, smiling all the way up to her eyes and back down again, so I know that she appreciated it also.
Once the set had finished I went outside to cool down and waited for the inevitable glory to be poured on me by my bandmates. You may think I’m joking but we’ve all known each other for literally decades and I’ve been playing with them for that long, not as a regular member of the band but I’ve been dropping in and out for ever, so we know each other really well and we have absolutely no issue with telling each other when one of us does something really good, or really bad. I think it makes us a better band as we trust each other implicitly. I joined the band full time 18 months ago and we’ve often commented on how musically we are a good fit as we are all just fans of each other’s playing. I’ve said before I consider Rick, the bass player, to be the greatest I’ve ever seen and stand by that.
So (there it is again, I really must stop going that), I’m outside and out they come and I say “That was great”… the bass players says “Love that picking thing you did on Liza Jane” and the singer said, “Bring Back The Sunshine…” (here we go, I was about to receive the glory I so richly deserved) “… would be great if you went down low at some point, give it some more dynamics”.
I was devastated. Literally felt like my heart dropped into my stomach. Nothing about my mega solo at all. Mrs Wilding had said it was great, she loved it, she even recognised some of the set pieces I had done within it
It’s taken me until today to realise that my pride and ego have got the better of me, and for that, I openly and publically apologise to them. If I think the solo was that good, but it didn’t catch their attention enough to comment, then I need to make it better. I can remember exactly what I did and how I did it (which is rare when you are a prolific improviser) as a lot of it was sections of some tasty licks from other players put together to make my own version of a solo. I obviously need to make it better, I need to think about its structure and a way to make it more memorable. If I want to catch their attention, I need to actually catch their attention with something and not just assume that because I think something was good, that they should notice it.
Basically, I need to work on me. Pride and Ego my lads, pride and ego. It’s what makes the world rotate.
I’ve not had a good internet based rant for ages so I think it might be time to dust off my sword and shield and dive on in…
Part of my job is to answer questions, research products, keep an eye on the competition and the like so I quite often tour the forums (or, as this is 2017, the social media equivalent) as it’s the best way of discovering what is around, what is coming, and what people are leaning towards. Mostly, it’s a very rewarding process but sometimes I read things that make me want to stop the world and get off. My main frustration tends to be geared towards the attitudes that appear to be forming, as you watch them grow and become a thing, it’s very frustrating because once you do this long enough you see it coming and you want to be able to stop it, but you are powerless.
The latest one, or should I say, the one I’ve been noticing for about a year or so now is in full flow.
Inverted Gear Snobbery.
You may have noticed this, as it often revolves around brands such as PRS, Strymon, Two Rock and even sometimes the high-end effects manufacturers such as ours (yes, I know Strymon are that as well but let’s face it, they are a force of their own these days and stand above the resst of the market in that particular field). You’ll notice several reoccurring comments. “Praise and Worship” and “Blues lawyer” and both of these send me postal.
Praise and Worship
I despise labels in music, to me, it’s either rock and roll or it’s not. I tend to personally dislike the things that aren’t in my head rock and roll, but you know, that’s me. However, rock and roll isn’t what its common label is, it’s anything cool, edgy, different, powerful, emotional. So, Justin Beiber’s “Love Yourself” is rock and roll, and "Rockstar" by Nickleback isn’t. It’s not about the chord structure or being guitar-based, it’s about the passion, performance and the delivery. If a song is delivered on a Sunday morning, in a church and delivered with passion and power, who cares. To me, it’s still rock and roll. It’s just a genre of music, it has its own style, its own way of doing things… so, there tends to be the Trifecta of Strymons on the board as let’s face it, if you want mental delays, reverbs, modulations to be all over the place, all the time, and have it under control, is there a better tool for it? Nope. Not right now. So why is it a problem? I don’t know, I’ve asked people why and they just laugh and make derogatory comments. It’s all a little strange really, but boy, do they enjoy making disparaging comments about those Strymons and lots of booteek level pedals that are on the board.
This gets right on my nerves as well, so what if someone has worked hard in their career and now has a massive amount of disposable income. So they buy a $4k PRS and play blues licks on it, who cares? What difference does it make? If someone wants to spend their money on a nice guitar, why shouldn’t that, why does it mean we should mock them and make fun of them? Music is being played, and that’s a good thing.
So (and yes, I also hate paragraphs that start with that as well), what is this about? Why do people instantly judge people based on the fact they have nice things. Why is it an issue if a random P&W guy uses 3 Strymons for 6 songs on a Sunday morning, or if a successful lawyer owns a few extremely nice PRS. The only issue should be “are they being put to good use”. If they are bought to be put into a bank vault, then yes, we should be in an uproar, but in my experience, they generally aren’t. A lot of people wear their gear as a badge of honour, as a status symbol, but that’s no difference to a young guy and his impressive jewelry or sneaker collection, someone who collects books, paintings, watches, cars… anything. What difference does it make? Do people with a PS1 mock the people with a PS4? No, they don’t.
A lot of this, I think, stems from inverted snobbery that maybe comes from a little jealousy. You’ll often notice that the guy making the most noise is the one with the old TS and Strat into a Fender amp. Or a Gibson into a Marshall. Often runs alongside the “If it wuz good enuf for Jimi” comment or similar. I quite often respond to “what difference does it make, it’s a subjective issue”. Gear is here for one reason and one reason only, to make the people using it happy. If the gear does that, then job done. Just don’t look down on the people who choose to do it differently than you do. Both styles are good. Both are valid. Both have a place. I see a lot of it come from people perceive that 'blue lawyers' drive the price up, do they? How many 'blues lawyers' do you see that have a Klon, or a Dumble... in my experience, none. All their stuff tends to be new and shiny.
As an ending to this rant, I have to declare this. I play a PRS. I gig with 2 Strymon's and 4 Wampler's. The picture above is my board. I have a law degree, but I don’t play the blues much and it’s pretty well-known I’m hugely unlikely to be playing in any given P&W setting anytime soon. How about you listen to my tone and what I play instead? How about we listen to what the guys with the Strymon's and the nice PRS do instead? Why do we listen and judge something so easily with our eyes when in this case it’s our ears that we should be using, not any gear based preconceptions that are invariably saying more about the person saying them than the person under ‘discussion’.
As you may know, we run an extremely lively group on Facebook, imaginatively named “The Wampler Pedals Tone Group”. Feel free to click on that and join us.
We are quite proud that in the most, it’s very unlike MANY other pages that talk about gear, as generally there isn’t much trolling and everyone is there because it’s a ‘safe’ place to talk openly without much in the way of come back. I say ‘much’ because as we’ve got 10k members, it does sometimes kick off in there, and when it does Alex and I have to make like Gendry and bring the axe to any particular party that might be in full flow.
At the start of the weekend, there was a classic post that ended up in somewhat of a 'heated debate'. It was the classic "Tone is in the fingers" comment that people reacted too, and then others reacted back. It was one of those posts, you know what it's like...
ANYWAY... This started me thinking. How can we look at this issue objectively and see if it’s true. Or if it’s half true. Or if it’s crap. At the very moment in time i as thining about it I received a barrage of texts from my friend Jamie, utterly pointless ones (because if I am being honest we have a similar sense of humour, that of a 12 year old boy, and are constantly texting each other stuff just to make the other laugh), but as usual they were very funny. As I was texting him back I had what you might call a lightbulb moment, because the best thing about Jamie in regard to the question mentioned above is that he has spent a lot of the last 10 years as the guitar player in the show “We Will Rock You” (where they are very very fussy about tone and you HAVE to sound like Brian May does as much as possible to be even considered). He is unique in this thought process because he has the rare position of being friends with Brian May and has toured with him... So, as he has spent his time using gear to sound like someone and then had the opportunity to play though that same person’s real rig, I thought I’d put the question directly to him…
JW: “Hey Jamie, I want to ask you a specific question but before I get there, I'd like a little back ground first... So, the We Will Rock You (WWRY) show, how long have you been doing that?”
JH: “I first started in 2007 as the sub guitarist and went on to be “Guitar #1” in Europe (at Brian’s request). So far I’ve played the show in UK (including the tour), Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. All this means I have to do all the signature Brian stuff and I'm the one that goes out on to the stage every night and plays the solo from Bohemian Rhapsody as a visual part of the show.”
JW: “What was the requirement for gear in the WWRY show?”
JH: “We had to sound as much like him as possible, so that includes a Red Special guitar, Fryer Treble Booster, big chorus and authentic AC 30’s. I went on a personal mission to get as close as I can so I got a different treble booster, the one that is worn on the strap, had the pickups replaced on my Red Special to the ones wound the same as Brian’s with old 60’s magnets and even the Bourne Pots which are slightly different. All this is integral to the tone, THAT tone.”
JW: “So, how close do you think you got to Brian’s tone with that gear?”
JH: “To be honest, the gear is really important but it’s more about getting into the headspace of how Brian plays and using his techniques. For example, the sixpence, the belt pack booster BEFORE the wireless system, the using of the finger to brush the string, the almost regal way he phrases his runs, pre-bends and his vibrato. So, it’s just as important to use the fingers in the way he does as it is to have the gear, but it’s more important to get into his mindspace and work out what he plays and how he plays it. There are so many different things that make up his sound.”
JW: “You also toured with Brian – so when you played Brian’s gear, how close can you get to him”
JH: “I think as close as anyone can get by getting into that mindset, but it was still only really close, because I’m not Brian. When I am playing like him, I exaggerate the things he does to make it sound more like him to make those signature parts work, but I’d say it’s impossible to truly 100% sound that way, but I think we (the guys who really really try) can get close enough for a lot of people to question who it is, providing we have the right gear and right mindset. When we played Hyde Park in London, I got to rip through his entire rig at huge volume, because that’s my childhood right there, I was so happy… and it sounded so good, Brian and Pete (Brian’s long serving tech) where there, and they said I was really really close to ‘THAT’ sound”
JW: “So, is tone all in the fingers or all in the gear?”
JH: “It’s in the fingers, and the gear, but most importantly, it’s in the mindset and the approach to how you make the gear work and appreciating that the phrasing along with it, that is actually as much to do with the tone than anything else. It’s all as important as each other.”
So, what do we make of all that? Let’s think about what Jamie was saying, and let’s face it, he’s employed to sound like Brian as much as possible and he went the extra mile to do it (and, as Queen own the show he's employed by Brian to play like him). He can get really close by employing the same gear, the same touch and most importantly the same mindset. So, it would appear that tone is not all in the fingers, or the gear after all. Everything is important, everything makes the tone, but you have to be thinking in the right way first.
Jamie is a session musician from the UK, now based in Sweden. He endorses and is endorsed by: Music Man, Mesa Boogie, Massive Unity, Two Notes, Steinberg, DiMarzio and many other incredible manufacturers. You can catch him on tour this year with The Champions of Rock in Scandinavia, see his instructional videos on LickLibrary and buy materials from his website, jamiehumphries.com
... yep, hear that all the time. It's almost up there with the meme of Jimi with the caption "Jimi plays without true bypass pedals and everyone still manages to enjoy his tone.
Those, amongst others, are the things guaranteed to make us roll our eyes and yawn. We've even had someone imply recently that professional guitar players don't really need fingers.
So, let's look at this properly. Let's have a think about the guitar signal, its path, pedals and what is needed and what isn't. Actually, let's not. Let's just remember this.
Guitar pedals are a tool that some people enjoy using. They are not essential. They are not invalid. They are a tool. Put it this way, if you were walking past a stone mason or carpenter working would you shout up to him "What you using that drill for bud, Christopher Wren didn't need that when he designed and built St Paul's Cathedral in 1675!" - I doubt you would, I doubt anyone would. Well, I hope no one would because basically, that would be a fraction silly.
We, as always, were having a discussion about this the other day. We'd seen many outrageous comments from certain people online and we were trying to contemplate it properly and we sort of came up with this. Guitar pedals are like a spice rack full of a wide range of spices. You sometimes pick on to make something a little better, you sometimes don't. We, and I'm guessing others in our industry, feel that we do not expect your entire playing life to revolve around pedals, we just expect that there are times when you feel like the tone you are chasing is not quite right and there may be something out there to help you get it. It's become more and more obvious over the years that more and more people are using pedals (helped that company's like ours make pedals that sound really good these days, as previously, not many of them truly did) because they give you better tones, they give you more options. If you have a decent clean amp, spend a few hundred bucks on your favourite pedals and they will be able to transform that amp into any number of other amps. Your Marshall can become a Fender and your Fender can become a Marshall... or a Vox, or a Randall, or... or.... or.... Certainly easiler than having to buy a new amp every time you want to change your gain choices!
So, consider your base tone, the one you love more than anything, a nice juicy perfectly cook steak (apologies to the vegetarians out there, but this is the best way to describe it). Sometimes you want it straight up, nothing fancy, just as it comes. Other times you might want it to have some pepper on it, or pepper sauce… other times you might want the full cumin rub, or even mustard… you can have it any way you like.
Your pedal box IS your spice rack, and let’s face it, would you want to go to dinner repeatedly with a person who cooks in the same bland way every time? Sometimes it would be great, others…. Just boring.
Anyone know how Keef likes his steak?
So, I got to thinking the other day about the venues I play in… I’ve been playing in some of them for 26 years now, some are new, some have disappeared for ever and some have had more visual changes than The Mountain in GoT.
Before we start with this I need to remind you of my location, I live and gig in the South West part of England, a glorious county called Devonshire, better known as Devon, affectionately referred to as The Shire. From around here we’ve seen bands such as Jethro Tull and Muse (as well as many others) spring to life and has been the breeding ground for bands such as Radiohead and Coldplay. So, we’re not shy in having a live music scene.
When I started gigging, waaaaaaaaay back in the early 90’s I mainly played in pubs. Proper British pubs, usually owned by the Landlord and/or Landlady and they loved live music. A few of the pubs were owned by the Brewery, but they were left alone to do their thing. Throughout the 90’s I played in all sorts of bands, from classic rock to tribute bands and even some very early reach into a country rock band. As far as I can remember (and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then) every one of those pubs, or clubs, sounded great. And by that I mean that acoustically they were fantastic, there wasn’t much in the way of sound bouncing around, loads of stuff up to absorb reflections and we could rock up, tune up, turn it up and rock out without fear of the room making us sound any worse than we already are… And let’s face it, I was 17 when I started gigging so just by the gear we could afford we didn’t sound as good as we could have!
Towards the end of the 90’s I left this area to go to University to study stuff that I didn’t need to know, and by the time I had left I was married and kids followed shortly. Most of my gear was sold off, you know the score, and I was pretty resigned to not playing in a band anymore, because ‘life’. I still hung out on the scene sometimes, attended the odd jam to keep my ear in, but it was by then something I used to do rather than still did.
All this kind of changed when I started with Brian, I started to accumulate gear again, my interest in playing the guitar reached new levels of intensity (I was interested in the notes I played now rather than how many I could play) and when an opportunity to join a band again came up last year (the band I took my first tentative steps into country with) I welcomed it with open legs!
Being back on the circuit was a weird experience. Some of the places were unrecognisable from what they used to be, some were pretty well identical, and new venues in locations you would never expect were all over the place. Here is the thing that really became obvious to me though, many of the real venues (of those that are left, but that might be a subject for a more intense rant at a later date) were now owned by large corporations, chain bars, theme bars etc etc. I don’t know if those things are ‘a thing’ over the other side of the pond, but certainly here the local pub seems to have died somewhat. You walk into a venue these days and you’ll be greeted with the same place as the place you played in last week, just in a different town. Guaranteed that these places will have hard floors, very little in the way of seating/tables and there are mirrors everywhere, massive windows… Basically, it all looks like it’s fallen out of a plastic factory into a prefabricated pub construction machine.
Nett result for live music? You’ll sound crap no matter what gear you have. And believe me, in this band the instruments/toys/back line items on display are incredible. We have GREAT gear. But, the sound bounces off these surfaces and just accumulates everywhere and tumbles into itself and the high ends become shrill, the low end just disappears and even a small pub has a lot of overbearing natural reverb. And that’s just plain awful.
Now, I’m not stupid, I understand why these places have changed, well – why a lot of them have anyway. These big chain corporations exist to make money, and mostly they do. They appeal to a transitional customer base, so they have big flat screens all over the place showing live sports, hideous music blaring out and sell high powered small drinks that are designed to have a high turnover. But NONE of this relates to a live music pub. None of it relates to making the band sound good. None of this relates to encouraging the next generation of future rock stars, or old farts like me who just like making music with their buddies, to get out there and do it. A room doesn’t need to be specifically tuned, far from it, it just needs ‘stuff’ to soak up the reflections. Carpets. Curtains/blinds on the windows. Seating. Tables… and don’t get me started on ceiling height!
We have seen many an excited landlord tell us of their plans for refurbishment that means ripping out the carpets and ‘opening the place up’ and every time we hear it our hearts drop through the bottom of our shoes, out the door into a bottle someplace back in to the annals of history. We foolishly thought that when smoking in licenced premises was banned here in 2006 we would see more places embrace the soft floor model (as let’s face it, cigarette burn marks on carpets are disgusting) yet even more now you see the ‘wipe clean’ version appear everywhere. You see hard walls with glass front posters hung, you see endless wide open spaces with the odd stool dotted around and you know that unless the place gets packed with people who intend to stay until the end, you are going to sound painfully loud and harsh for a lot of that room.
So, here is what I would like to say from this particular soapbox. If you are a live music venue and pride yourself in being one, take note of what the bands that play there sound like and ask them what they think of the room acoustics. I can guarantee you that at least one of them (in the band I play in, it’s the bass player) who can tell you exactly what makes your room sound better or worse than the rest of the circuit. Take note of the sound of the band ALL around the room they are playing in. If they sound awesome when you are stood right in front of them but back by the bar it sounds like the guitar tone is splitting your ears apart, there is a problem. Go around to other venues in your area and listen to the bands you have in your venue sound like and think about what the differences are. You’ll be amazed what a few small, and relatively cheap, changes can make to the live music experience. It’s not hard to see why the rooms with the best sound attract the better bands and most importantly, the customers who are going to stay and drink the pumps dry.
I could list all of the places around here that sound amazing, all the ones that sound terrible and all the ones that have recently made a change for the better or the worse. I won’t, because I want to continue playing in them because let’s face it, I’m not in it for the glory or the chicks, I’m in it purely because I love the music we play and I think I play with one of the most naturally gifted bass players alive today. Why he’s playing in a band with a guy like me I’ll never know, but he’s ace. It’s just a shame that a lot of the places we play in you can’t really hear how ace he is.
I’m not one for blatant self-promotion, but if you read this, and you have a venue near you (that is in charge of their own destiny) that sounds great, or not so great, post this on their social media, even if one place puts something up to make the room sound better – and it literally could be something as small as curtains on windows on the back wall, then job done.
*and yes, the header picture of this piece is that bunch of old farts I mentioned above, including me, playing live in a GREAT sounding venue!