Why is it called music theory? Shouldn’t it be called music rules?

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.

Queen, Adam Lambert, and playing THE Red Special...

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.

Playing the Red Special

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”.

Word.

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.

The Comfort Zone?

I’m a creature of habit, 100%. Borderline OCD makes me happy when things are “normal” and in a routine. It’s something I’ve noticed for many years that permeates through all of my daily life, down to food choices, what deodorant I use, all that stuff. When I go to one of our local restaurants, I’ll normally order one of the three or four different dishes I usually get. This same thing was overtly apparent after getting a Suhr a few months ago, then the PRS Silver Sky. My OCD kicks in, and when things are out of place, it’s just impossible for me to bond with instruments, pedals, amps, etc. A lot of it is expectation versus reality, then adding my desire for consistency it makes for a lot of gear flipping.

I was very fortunate to find an incredible deal several months back on a Suhr Antique heavy relic, with three Thornbuckers in it. It was an incredible sounding guitar, and the neck felt great in my hands. I had it for about two weeks, to where I was enjoying it but there just wasn’t something quite right. At the time, I had it built up in my mind that “It’s a Suhr, it has to be something wrong in my mind, these guitars are supposed to be perfect.” I played it for another couple weeks and found myself still feeling like it wasn’t quite where I wanted it. Despite my better judgment, and complete lack of experience, I watched a couple of YouTube videos, changed to my favorite strings that I use on every guitar (Ernie Ball Regular Slinky’s, I’ve been using them for over a decade now), and adjusted the truss-rod and the saddles on the bridge. Threw a set of Dunlop strap locks on there, and sure enough, that’s what it needed. It came down to it being a comfort level thing, where those strings and the security strap locks give me mentally helped complete the puzzle.

The strap lock thing is entirely for a reason, and to this day I’ll put a set of strap locks on every guitar I ever own in the future. When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I had a PRS Custom 22 in Scarlet Red. That PRS was a guitar that I had saved for over two years for, and it was my first genuinely nice guitar. I was in a hard rock band and did a lot of jumping around and carrying on, and we were practicing before a gig in a garage. We were mid-jam when I jumped in the air, and when I landed the back of the strap broke and my beloved PRS went flying and hit the concrete floor. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I was fortunate because it mainly took a 1’ chip of finish off down to the wood near the jack, but the back as absolutely scratched to death. I couldn’t repair the considerable chunk of finish that chipped off, but I was able to at least wax some of the scratches out of the back. No guitar to this day feels safe unless I have strap locks on it now. I soon stopped jumping around pretty permanently after that.

The string situation comes down to preference and comfort. I’m used to the tension and tone that the Regular Slinky’s (10’s) give me, and although I’ve played guitars with other strings that worked just fine, nothing quite feels like home like a set of Slinkys’. I’ve gone through the phases of trying heavier and lower gauge strings, and for me, heavier than 10’s make my carpal tunnel act up, and anything lower than 10’s feel like playing spaghetti. I’ve tried various brands, from NYXL’s, D’Addario’s, and even boutique strings, and though they all sounded good and played fine, it always comes down to a manner of familiarity and what my ears expect along with how the strings feel under my fingers. The same thing went on with my PRS Silver Sky, where I just wasn’t comfortable until I put my favorite strings on there, adjusted the truss rod how I liked it, and even adjusted the pickups down to better suit my tastes. After those small adjustments (and a set of strap locks), it immediately felt sturdier and like I was “at home.” It just proved that I’m horrendously set in my ways, sometimes to a fault. The irony is that I’ve changed “favorite picks” so many times that I can’t count on my fingers and toes (albeit most revolve around a thicker, JazzIII XL shape).  

Am I weird and the only one who does this? Not sure. I guess one way to look at it is that I know what I want more-so than in years past. The same has occurred recently with pedals too. I’ve moved more OD’s and fuzzes and dirt boxes on and off my board for so long now that there were days when I had a board full of nothing but dirt, to try them all. Now, I’m down to 3 dirt pedals that have stayed relatively consistent on my board, and they’re about what you’d expect: Klone (depends on the board size as to whether it’s a mini or a large one), Tubescreamer, and a Bluesbreaker of some sort. I like them versatile enough to cover lots of ground, but not so much that they overlap a whole lot. The same goes for most of the rest of my board, and I think it’s what it means when people talk about finding their own personal tone. I still flip pedals, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I think in that situation, getting in the comfort zone can be kind of nice (especially financially).

What would I say to my younger self about playing live

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!

 

 

Tone chasing on social media has its drawbacks

I’ve been trying to write this blog for over a week, and each time I sit down it just hasn’t clicked. I normally have no problem with just starting to write and letting it flow, but here lately it’s just not clicking. I read Jason’s blog last week, and in the midst, it dawned on me what my deal was. I’m suffering from a bit of a slump. Not in a pity-party kind of way, but more accurately a social media and gear kind of way. In the past few weeks I’ve been extremely busy with work, the kids, working on the house, and just things pulling from every direction it seemed. That’s not unusual and accurately describes life in general, especially as a parent. But it hit me too that I couldn’t really nail down the last time in the past few weeks where I was able to truly jam without interruption for more than a couple of minutes. The combination of lack of playing plus spending more time on social media trying to stay connected with the every-changing gear world, I realized that I was starting to burn out on guitar. Not playing, but all of the other facets of gear culture. Overexposure to it made uninteresting and not nearly as fun. I took a step back this weekend, worked it out so my mother-in-law could keep the kids for a couple of hours, and let loose for a solid two hours. It felt like the stress melted away, and my shoulders felt lighter.

So, what is it that was burning me out? I don’t want to get back to that state again, and my goal is to cut it off at the pass and recognize the signs before it gets to me. For me, the overexposure to gear culture and the constant chase just wore me out mentally. Chasing tone is a self-imposed deal, so I’m not expecting any sympathy. It’s so easy to hop on Facebook and talk on whatever group you’re into at the time (there are hundreds to choose from, one for just about any sub-faction of gear you can imagine) and see what the current trend is. Most of it reflects the constant chase for the next tone (more on that later), some questions, some jokes, incredible or cool videos that keep your attention for 3-4 minutes. Then it’s on to the next group… and it’s the same stuff. There are the hardcore collectors of individual pieces of gear that are fascinating to watch, but then at some point, it becomes “Okay, we get it.” This is not a dig at collecting at all. It’s just the realization of what the gear community is in general. Mix in some of the things Jason mentioned in his previous blog, and things can get ugly, very quickly. Bad attitudes, light-hearted people trying to diffuse the situation, and the agitators, who have nothing to do with the argument but feel they need to interject something witty to get involved or push some more buttons for entertainment. The internet (and Facebook especially) is a fantastic place to meet great people all around the world, but it also becomes a soapbox for people to yell their ideas out to the world. Here lately it seems like people are actively looking to be ticked off or offended. Some days it’s, and everyone gets along, and some days it seems like someone collectively peed in everyone’s cornflakes that day. 

Now, back to the constant chase for tone I mentioned earlier. I’ve chronicled my quest for tone starting early in my guitar-playing life, and it kind of arced to a peak the past few years and is slowly arcing back down to less desire to chase tones and acquire new stuff at the rate I previously had been. Along with the social media overexposure of talking gear day in and day out, I’ve come to learn awhile back that no matter how expensive the pedal, it’s not going to change the way I play *usually*. Again, (in general) a lot of the pedals I’ve tried from all manner of builders have been excellent, but it got to where it was more of the same with slight variations than something overtly new and exciting. No matter what pedals I play through, I still sound like me. It’s been a bit refreshing as it’s eased the GAS off a bit, but it’s also very enlightening how much time I spent twisting knobs instead of learning and playing the instrument. It was very apparent when my buddies and I got together for a jam a few weeks ago, where I had forgotten more than I care to admit…but my TOAN WAS SICK! Yes, I sounded great, but some of the theory I knew before had a lot of dust that had to be cleaned off, and some I forgot altogether. That was officially the day that it hit me that no piece of gear makes up for skill and knowledge of what the heck you’re going to play, and how well you adapt and improvise using the experience you have. That same day, I let someone talk me into unnecessarily selling a piece of gear before I honestly had time to bond with it because it didn’t fit a “traditional mold.” I ended up repurchasing the guitar back from who I sold it to and love it even more now than I did before. I know that sounds cliché to let other’s play so heavily on how I feel, but I’m truly guilty of it, and I dare say that many others are on social media as well. How many times has someone bought a pedal or guitar or amp off a recommendation from a friend you trust, only to find out it doesn’t gel with you and your playing style and rig? There’s a large element of “keeping up with the Jones’” that happens a lot in gear culture, and the desire to like what’s currently popular despite it not hitting the spot. The idea of such a popular pedal means there shouldn’t be a reason not to like it, but sometimes it’s just simply the case.

I know this entire article seems a bit cynical, but it’s the side-effect of doing something you love to the point where you don’t necessarily love it as much as you did before (or that’s what it was in my case). Yes, there are incredible new offerings by a multitude of companies that are still pushing the boundaries, and it’s not knocking them at all. For me it’s more so the need for a hard reset, disconnecting for a bit, reassessing what’s real and enjoyable in life outside of Facebook. I also have been letting the race of the gear culture pass by a bit before jumping back on the freeway to chase again (so many euphemisms in this article). Yes, there are pedals that still interest me, but I'm gear-fasting a bit to try to hone my craft instead of covering it up with effects. For me, disconnecting from social media this past weekend, cranking my amp and genuinely practising and learning some new songs was a bit of a therapy session for me that was much needed. It made me value what gear I love, sold off ones that had been sitting for a while, and gave me a bit of a renewed interest in learning and growing in my guitar knowledge again. It’s like I spent so much time wanting to play and not being able to that social media and gear flipping filled that void for a bit, but it’s not substantial or sustainable. But the feeling of picking up that slab of wood with strings on it and the joy it brings will never go away.

 

 

Facebook Groups - Opinions, arguments, fights, support, community and constant bemusement

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 

Being partisan
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?”

Politics
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?

Snobbery
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? 

Taking offence
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

Being controversial
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?

Gibson, the future, the past and the truth about that Joe Bonamassa story...

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.

 

 

 

PRS Silver Sky Hands-On Review

I’ve had the fortune of owning the Silver Sky from PRS for about a week now, tried it through several different amps and even played it out with my buddies this past weekend to get a feel for it. I figured there’s no time like the present to take a look at what I found that I like, what I’m not a huge fan of, and my overall impression of the instrument that has divided the gear community more than just about anything in recent memory. Keep in mind this is a personal view, may ramble on a bit but I’m trying to be thorough for anyone who is truly on the fence about these guitars.
 
I’ll start off with straight out of the box. I’m not one of the lucky ones that won the lottery and got a case with my Silver Sky (for any who aren’t aware, the first 500 shipped with a gig bag, the rest ship with a padded gig bag). First impressions are positive; it’s a solid gig bag with padding on the inside that keeps the guitar from moving all around. Decent pockets for all your stuff, and backpack shoulder straps for when you want to throw it on your back. It’s not overtly protective, but it was protective enough that the only thing in the box was a bit of light bubble wrap around the top and bottom of the bag and put in there to roll, and it survived the trip (but freaked me out upon first seeing it). Upon removing it from the gig bag, I immediately noticed how light it was (lighter than my American Pro strat). Upon initial views, the finish (I got the red, Horizon finish) was expertly done, no flaws, blems or quirky stuff anywhere on the guitar. I instantly noticed the slightly darker paint shade on the lower bout of the horn, which was subtle but kind of accentuates it to make it have a 3d quality. All of the edges were clean; no hair-line paint cracks around the neck (which admittedly my American Pro had out of the box).
 
Upon the first strum, it was already in tune. It made the trek from Texas to here in VA in relatively frigid weather and was ready to roll out the minute it landed. The neck has been a big talk of the guitar, talking about the 7.25” radius instantly turned a lot of players off. For me and my small hands, it was comfortable. The frets are smaller than the modern jumbo’s I’ve been playing for years, but it didn’t detract from the experience at all. They’re a bit taller than my friend’s ’64, but the thickness of the neck and overall feeling of playing it felt like playing an old friend. As to be expected with a guitar at that price, the attention to the frets was perfect. No sharp fret ends, everything was just smooth, all the way around. The rosewood used on the fretboard has some gorgeous figuring to it, and the birds are there but not as “in your face” as my old Custom 22 and other PRS’s are. Unplugged, it’s a relatively loud guitar compared to some of the others I’ve played. Chords ring out really well with plenty of sustain and bending feels great. Now, the dreaded question associated with the 7.25” radius is…does it fret out? The answer is 97% NO. The only time I experienced a single fret-out was on the high E string, playing way up around the 20-22nd fret. That’s ONLY on the high E string though, and I had to do well over a step and a half bend to get it to fret out. It also doesn’t do it on the other strings, but admittedly I’m personally not playing up that high very often, so it’s not a deal-breaker. The bridge itself is great, very sleek and stays in tune quite well even when bombing on the trem arm. I’ve always put my bridges down to the body on my strats since I was a teenager anyway, so that felt right at home. The tuners are solid and work very smoothly, and of course, the PRS locking option is just one of my favorites anyway out of ease of use.
 
All that stuff is well and good, but it only means but so much unless it sounds excellent. I only had about 5 minutes the first night, and it left me feeling a bit bewildered at how to describe the sound of the pickups. There was something different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it without spending more time with it. Now that I’ve played quite a bit on it, the easiest way I can describe the pickups are strat-like, but with rather hefty variations on some of the frequencies. Overall, I’d say that they’re not as warm and boomy as a strat is. The Silver Sky’s pickups are much…brighter isn’t the word I’m looking for. Present maybe? They have this air about them that is different from any strat I’ve owned. Overall there seems to be less compression on the low end, more presence, and much more percussive quality when reacting to picking dynamics. Generally, on a strat, I would be a neck, neck+middle, and bridge+ middle type person. I’m just fond of the 2, 4 and five positions and often overlook the bridge standalone and the middle standalone. The bridge on the SS is quite nice sounding, and I understand what JM meant when he said: “the lows have high end, and the highs have low end.” The bridge is quite warm, still single-coil but leaning ever slightly toward P90-ish in nature (especially with dirt). The middle was the most surprising for me of all the pickups because it feels like it has the best of both worlds so to speak. It’s got quite a bit of low-end, but there’s some quack and brightness that lets it cut without being like an ice-pick. I never played the middle before to its true extent, but it’s quickly becoming my favorite. You can definitely see John’s influences in each pickup setting. The neck pickup does the SRV-ish thing but doesn’t quite snarl like my strat does outright, but when you dig in with your pick, it really responds almost like hitting the amp with a boost (see my comment above about being very reliant on picking dynamics). The four position has the quack but is smooth and kind of sexy, with some low end that really blooms as you play. The middle is very much Jerry Garcia-ish, and you can definitely see the effect Jerry had on him playing with Dead and Company. Bridge + middle had that great classic sound but compared to my strat it seems to have a bit more mids that smooth but fatten out the overall sound of that position. 
 
While we’re talking tones, the Silver Sky works exceptionally well with most any pedal you use it with. Pairing it with a TS gives that fat and powerful tone you’d come to expect from its lineage, while still adding a bit of extra clarity to it. Utilizing a K-style OD makes your signal cut like a hot knife through butter and fills out the sound to the point where I could see myself only using a Klone if it came down to only choosing one form of dirt. In all honesty, it’s one of the first guitars in a very long time that I haven’t had the desire to use effects on much. I've instead been opting just to play clean or edge of breakup with a bit of spring reverb on for depth and just adjusting my playing style and pick attack to really bring out the nuances. Speaking of which, this guitar it’s overtly forgiving when it comes to playing. Being that it’s so touch-sensitive and all that, every nuance (good and bad) are amplified tenfold. For me, it was eye-opening because I would just play kind of sloppy on a strat with rakes and all that, and the Silver Sky made me take a look at my attack and adjust to clean my chops up a bit already. It’s undeniable that you can hear John’s tonal choices in each of the pickup positions and the reaction to the string attack, which are very much his trademark thing. Overall, it’s effortless to channel JM tones, but I also feel it’s easier to NOT sound like some of the classic strat players, and you have to almost channel their playing style more so than on say my American Pro to get those classic tones. Again, it’s going back to reinforce that it’s a very responsive guitar. You get what you put into it, nothing more, nothing less.
 
Getting into the nit-picky part of my review and some of the things I’m not as big of a fan of are based on the knobs and selector switch and the headstock. The sweep of the pots themselves is very nice and musical the whole way through, no issues there. The knobs themselves, unfortunately, feel very cheap and aren’t snug on the pot itself. They each wiggle just a bit on top of the pot, and despite trying to push down harder (thinking maybe they just weren’t on there good), but to no avail. They’re not majorly shaky, but there’s some wiggle movement going on, even if it’s relatively slight. It’s something I can overlook in the long-run. The pickup selector clicks much more securely into each of the five positions than any of my other strats do, but overall it also has this cheap, fisher-price toy kind of feel to it (same as the knobs). They might not be cheap at all, but just from the onset, they FEEL cheap. I have a couple of friends who have gotten theirs as well, and they said the same thing. Regarding the headstock, the shape is fine and I kind of dig that it’s unique and quirky. The truss rod cover and tuning handles are a matching dark grey plastic, which I also feel makes the look and feel a bit cheap aesthetically. I would have at least opted for black, or maybe even just a different shade of grey, but again I'm just being nit-picky now.
 
Overall verdict? It’s a very solid, well-engineered instrument that pays homage to the legacy of the strat, but then branches off and does its own thing. It admittedly plays more like a PRS than a strat, and the pickups and feel of the neck are just different enough to justify owning both a Silver Sky and a Fender Strat. Did it reinvent the wheel? Heck no. Was PRS aiming to? Not that Paul or John ever mentioned in any of their interviews. It’s another viable option for people who love S-style guitars, with PRS’s impeccable attention to detail on their finishing work. I am a fan of John’s, but despite it being a signature model it doesn’t feel pigeon-holed into just his tones. Other’s mileage may vary considerably, but I for one am glad to see PRS step into that world that so many other brands have been occupying for so long (with FAR less fuss than PRS got). Check one out if you get the chance, and you’ll see what I mean about it just being *different*. 
 
 

Why are concert tickets so expensive?

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.

Their fault.
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.

Our fault.
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.

ANYWAY.

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?