General Chat (58)
I got name-dropped on the podcast this week (#239), it all stemmed from a conversation that Brian, Alex and I were having over the weekend about the future of rock music. Then subsequently, the future of the guitar, and the guitar heroes of our youth. As Brian said, I was naming Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but unfortunately, my opinion was not expanded upon in the conversation properly, so I’m going to explain on here where I was coming from.
During my life I have seen 4 guitar related musical explosions that have directly affected the sales of guitars and guitar gear in general. Or course, I can only speak from my own observations, it’s probably different from your ‘angle’, whatever that may be!
The first one I remember was the late 1970’s (and I only really have a visual memory of this as I was young). We used to live in Greater London and one of the last memories I have of that area before we moved to Devon was seeing a full-on London Punk. Full Mohican haircut (is that moniker for a hairstyle appropriate these days? If it isn’t, I apologise for my ignorance) on top of the full Vivien Westwood style of clothing. At the time it scared me as I was only about 5, but, looking back at it now, I fully understand what was happening.
Punk came around due to the frustration of the music, the politics, modern culture and just about everything else. People needed an outlet, and that boiled up to the point of explosion and the extremes of these people became very famous. For us, it was the Sex Pistols who spearheaded this charge and at the time people thought “What the hell is that?”…
If you watch interviews with members of the movement discussing the musical aspect of this, it was frustration with music popular at the time and they need to push back against it. Just listen to John Lydon talk about the Eagles and you’ll understand where I am coming from. Subsequently (and most importantly, relevant this piece), legions of people picked up the guitar and joined in. This music was never on the radio, in fact, the major broadcasters of the day refused point blank to play any of the punk stuff. That is until it became SO big they couldn’t avoid it, even then it was only the parts that were the most commercialised, maybe one or two songs.
Fast forward a few years to the mid ’80s. Now, from the blues came rock and from punk came the attitudes of thrash. These attitudes were existing quite happily until that mad moment when the kids of the day first heard players like Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen and so on. Everyone who had been enjoying riffing out suddenly heard all the virtuoso music and thought “What the hell is that?”. This was, if I am being honest, the time when I looked at the guitar in a different light. I was already fully embedded in rock music, in particular NWOBHM, and loving all the widdlywiddlywiddly stuff, but those guys are responsible for more hours of me woodshedding than any other. With this, guitar sales shifted away from the Strat’s, Tele’s and Les Pauls and the pointy headstock era was born. Over here, that music was never on the radio.
The next one is a weird one, as for me it was a two-part instance that happened 4 years apart, but it came from the same attitude. Firstly, in 1988 Guns ‘N’ Roses exploded here, they were anti virtuoso and relied on that Les Paul into a Marshall tone… unlike the other bands they benefited from being played on the radio, well, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ was. Here they weren’t really regarded as a rock band per se, because the first song they became known for opened with the lines “She's got a smile it seems to me, reminds me of childhood memories, where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky”. That didn’t really sit with those of us that were used to headbanging along to “Ace Of Spades”. They were considered to be pop rock which explains why the ‘Use Your Illusions’ albums outsold ‘Appetite for Destruction’ at the time (although now, the first album flattens those completely) – I remember hearing ‘Welcome To The Jungle” for the first time and thinking “What the hell is that?” Sales of guitars peeked again and Marshall got to join in the party, although stopping making the 800 series in favour of the 900’s might not have been the best move ever as something was missing from those amps.
The second part of this joint explosion, and the one I think was the most important in my lifetime, was in 1992 when Nirvana fully exploded. Which, like G’n’R, happened because of one song on the radio… Nirvana gave the impression (to me at least) to be coming from the same direction as punk did. As a direct response to the music of the day, the virtuoso players seemed to have forgotten about the riffs and the songs, the over production. The reason this one sticks in my mind so much is because I was working in a guitar shop when this happened. Over the space of a couple of months my customers went from “Dad Rock” types or “Big Hair Shredders” to young moody kids who wanted to strum the hell out of their guitars, stare at their feet, and think the entire world was against them. Because, well, they thought it was. Strat’s, Tele’s, Jag’s, Mustang’s and interesting guitar sales went off the charts… the Les Paul’s died on their arse, we could shift a few Epiphones, but Gibson’s… nope. For years I had confused looking parents talking to me while their kids glared at me through their hair and grunted in response when I tried to talk to them. However, when they got a guitar in their hands their faces lit up. All I could see in the faces of the parents was “What the hell is that?”
After that everything kind of flatlined again, until the radio picked up on Oasis and Blur. I’m not going to say much, but, (as someone working in a guitar store at that time) if I ever hear a kid play Wonderwall again I’m going to scream. So, net result, guitar sales spiked for a few years. I can directly relate this movement to when the 60’s guitar music thing happened, the fact that most Oasis songs appear to have a riff directly borrowed from that era further proves my point. Bizarrely, this appeared to bring up the sales of acoustic guitars more than electrics, but the raise happened across the board. There was no “What the hell is that?” moment though, unless you happened to see Liam Gallagher be interviewed without an interpreter.
So, where does this leave us now? The thing I find most interesting about it is that half of these movements happened without the support of radio in any way. One (albeit two bands) came from just one song being on the radio and the other was pure pop music, so radio play was inevitable. Punk was NEVER on the radio. 80’s rock (whether it be NWOBHM or the more extreme elements of it towards the end of the decade) was never on the radio… Actually, that’s not entirely true, “Soft Metal” or whatever it was called, often was. it was usually some disgusting “oh baby I love you” style song with heavy guitars in the chorus and a nice wailing solo, but the rest wasn’t.
All this leads me to the discussion Alex, Brian and I were having over the weekend which prompted the podcast and which has now prompted this piece. I was saying that “we need the next Nirvana to hit” (and I say this as someone who isn’t really a big fan of them) but did they ever promote sales in guitars to the ‘kidz’. Brian’s main argument is that “People don’t listen to the radio anymore, so there will never been another big guitar group”… However (over here at least) that never stopped the punks of the 70’s and the rockers of the ’80s. In fact, it was what made them. Being overlooked was what defined them.
What’s next? Who will be the next supergroup to explode sales of guitar gear? If you look at the way most of those bands came about, the ones that caused guitar sale peaks in my lifetime, it was because they were standing against something. Now, that may be a political stance but, at the core, mostly it was about the music. Right now, popular music (in my humble opinion) has never been so crap (yeah I know, I sound like my Father). Well, maybe the mid 90’s pure lollipop pop scene, but the jury is still out on that, time will tell.
Politics right now is at the most divisive I can ever remember it being, music is consumable. The music industry is churning out gallons of forgettable sewage and vacuous crap that does nothing more constructive than make the likes of Simon Cowell even more disgustingly rich than they already are. Instant fame is touted as the only answer, fame is handed to the lucky few, young impressionable kids on a plate on televised talent shows and most of them are instantly forgettable – and then forgotten. How many kids watch these talent show with a dream, not understanding the odds of even getting an audition for them? The internet affords us access to endless hours of new and great music, giving artists the impression that they have the chance to be bigger than The Beatles… but can they ever be? Of course they can’t. No one ever can be. But can a band come along that stands up against the drivel? Stands up against the politics? Stands up against the system and the ‘machine’ that runs everything?
It’s time we had another Nirvana, another Sex Pistols. It’s time for another band that can rise up and smash everything to pieces. Like Punk, 80’s rock and grunge, this explosion will NEVER happen on the radio. The radio is as much about music these days as MTV is. This explosion will happen from the internet. From an independent source as that is always where the life-changing music comes from. There are endless great bands out there at the moment, my daughter spends most of her free time these days working out “Panic! At The Disco” riffs on my guitars so the hope is there, but it’s not fully realised yet. What band is going to come along and speak to her fully like the Pistols and Nirvana did to people of her age at that time? I have no idea, but the world is begging for it.
We don’t need another guitar hero at all; the age of the guitar hero is dead. We need another Steve Jones. We need another Kurt Cobain. These were the anti-heroes that exploded guitar sales. We need someone to put a finger up to the industry and make a stand against it. The guitar itself is not dead (as Blake points out on the podcast, everyone is looking at Guitar Center and saying “Man, the guitar is dying” as their sales are going down) but are those people looking at the underground independent manufacturers that are thriving? No, they are not, because the media is only interested in reporting the companies that have shareholders to keep happy....
The one thing that is obvious to me is that what is actually dying, albeit slowly right now, is the corporation strong hold on the MI industry and music in general. The underground is rising, the next Sex Pistols or Nirvana are posed to maximise on the ambivalence of the general public and I hope that they will shake it to the core.
We need another “What the hell is that?” moment. We need another guitar anti-hero.
You may have noticed we released details of our new pedal recently – a fuzz/octave called “Fuzztration”. Instead of waffling on about the origins of it, the circuit, and the tones within; I’m going to talk about the name, the look and the marketing angle of the Fuzztration as this is quite a departure for us, we are breaking our mould somewhat with it – and to be honest, it was a long and painful journey to get to this point.
This is a pedal that has been in discussion for a while and the earliest reference I have of it in my “Wampler: Pedals – Logos” folder is from July 2017. Brian had been talking about it for probably a year or so before that… so, when we say we throw stuff around for literally years before a release, this is a case in point!
In order to tell the story properly, I have to give away a little of the process. When Brian has decided on a circuit, and what controls it is going to have, he cracks on and breadboards it. Once that is done and he is happy with it the tones/response etc, he forwards all the relevant information to our chief engineer Jake Steffes to ensure his vision of tone will work in the confines a pedal. I can clearly remember Brian telling me about it and describing it as “it’s a versatile fuzz, rea thick and the octave can kinda sound like the solo tone from KWS ‘Blue on Black’ tone, as well as all the regular stuff”. With that in mind, the original concept of the pedal was to be called “Blue on Black”.
As soon as the pedal has been allocated its place in the release schedule; Brian, Alex and I started on the long a tortuous process of naming the thing. Avi, head of production and distribution, had a stock of matte black powder so it was decided really quickly that it would be that colour, because ‘cool’.
Jake forwarded me the controls and it was clear it was going to be “deluxe” sized so I did what I always do, take a look at the market and see what’s cool and what isn’t. One of my favourite dirt pedal concepts is Jamie’s exquisite Acapulco Gold with the massive ‘gain’ knob. So, I decided early on a large knob controlling the clipping would look great. Other than that, it was pretty straightforward. 2 stomps, 4 other knobs, 2 switches, power and in/out jacks. I quickly spoke with Jake about putting a big knob for the clipping, and he said it would be cool, so… I wanted it on the top right with the other controls on a nice shallow W formation to the left. The first thing I had to do was to find a larger knob that would still look like a Wampler and fortunately for me, Alex told me that the knobs on the Bravado were the same as our pedal ones, just bigger. So I made him measure one... With these measurements confirmed, Jake laid it out and we quickly had the basic layout in the bag. Jake nailed this process and I tip my hat in his general direction. I try to change things around a little now and then so I requested a blue and green LED because I’m kinda bored of red and blue and I knew that this was coming on the Paisley Deluxe (that was still months out from being released) and we’ve used it many times before. This is always a gamble, as we didn’t know what the rest of the pedal is going to look like yet.
Once Jake has laid it out, he sends me the ‘drill pattern’ and I can transfer it to the templates I have in photoshop and start to work out the look/name. These are pictures from Aug 9th 2017, three concepts for the Wampler “Blue On Black” – Only one was ever printed, and it looked… well… crap.
From here, must have been April ’18 (it was decided a long time ago it would be released some time forward so it went on the back burner) I was distracted and inspired by a piece of music by my favourite composer, Camille Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre. I simply LOVE this piece of music, it’s dark and deliciously spooky which I thought would be amazing for a fuzz pedal. I went as far as a couple of mock ups for it, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work. I would have loved to have the first demo recorded to be that piece of music on a Fuzz/Octave though… I might do it one day, just for the lololz.
The name was abandoned. From there, I thought of Valkyrie, for two reasons. Lisa and I had just watched “Vikings” on Amazon and I’m a long-time player of the game Clash of Clans which has Valks in it. I actually really liked this, as it was dark and nasty, aggressive and cool. Two concepts were quickly done, and the one I liked (on the right) was drawn by an extremely talented artist from Seattle called Stacy LeFevre – we couldn’t agree on terms so the concept, name and design, were put to rest.
So, we are back to the drawing board once again. At this point, myself, Brian, Alex and my partner in designcrime – Richard Oliver were going quite insane. Frustration levels were reached and breached and there would be literally weeks between conversations. Names did go back and forward, but we were so annoyed with it we distracted ourselves with other releases that were more pressing. I love working with Richard as he understands me (bonus) and has become a great friend during this time. In fact, it was Richard who nailed the artwork for the Pantheon (which was named by Matt Kimes). After the Valkyrie idea had been shelved, Richard came up with a ‘big list o’ fuzz names’ – some great, some silly…. Even at one point suggesting “Chewbacca; and have the octave switch called ‘Laugh it up Fuzz Ball’, it’ll be funny if not really really litigious and not in a good kind of way.”
Another name came forward at this point, I think from our good friend Frank Falbo, and we still like it even though it’s been decided not to be used for this pedal. So, I’m not going to talk about it here! I have it in mind for a couple of pedals down the line… time will tell.
At this point we were extremely frustrated with it. We’d all had enough. No one dared mention it for a while, apart from Brian who would remind us it needed to be done. We are now in about July or so. Texts were coming and going because it was getting to the point where we couldn’t avoid this any longer…
Whilst on holiday in Tenerife, Richard got a text from Brian saying we are still struggling for the name for the fuzz, and everyone felt their creative well for this name had run a bit dry… so, he followed Marketing 101 and asked the nearest young person for help. This happened to be his daughter, Leila, who was 15 at the time and we’ve been told has impeccable musical taste (despite hating on Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden which in my book is a travesty and I blame that squarely on the parents). She came up with a couple that were funny, then randomly said “Fuzztration”. He initially dismissed it but then thought - wait - that's EXACTLY the feeling we get from naming this pedal… That day, I received this in messenger from Richard:
I instantly copied and pasted his message and text it to Brian and Alex and we all thought that it was a killer name. The next hurdle was the graphic and the logo. Richard asked what I thought and said something along the lines of “Some kind of artsy vision of someone who’s screaming, or got their head in their hands or something, I just need to find the thing that triggers it in my head”. I really wanted a screaming face because Edvard Munch is a genius and that’s one of the most symbolic pictures of all time, also it perfectly fitted the process of getting here. And then there’s Pink Floyd… The Wall. The symbolism of both are iconic.
Here is the process Richard and I went through – I resisted the scream originally, as we were at the time keeping our designs simpler.
So, images 1-4 are me getting annoyed and it not working, 5 is me working towards the font to use with the new name, 6 is Richard’s concept for the screaming man I had previously mentioned (that was a strong contender) and then through my thought process of the face and the colour scheme. I wanted to put a heart beat on it as the more frustrated I got, the more my heart started to pound… The face is a mixture of my face from this picture (taken August 29) and one from a free site on the internet mashed up and put together with elements of both - you’ll have to work out which bits are me and which bits aren’t.
Here are the print tests. As you can see, the eyes didn’t work, nor did Richard’s face, but my screamer did. Once we had decided on the knob colour, on we went...
As this pedal is hot on the heels of one of our most successful releases ever, I knew that we had to go big on the teasing. So, if you scroll back through our social media for the last month or so, you will see that fuzzes are mentioned a lot more. Brian starts to talk about fuzzes on the podcast, he even mentioned this one a few times. I started to tease the graphic style and on Oct 31st I released this graphic for the Halloween moment of silliness that contained literally hundreds of lines of text in the back ground, I talk about everything in there... there are song lyrics, undying declarations of love for my wife and kids, my desire for a holiday, a new amp… so many things – including a little troll moment for one of our customers, Jeff. Within the lines of text were also clear and large hints about this next pedal release, I’m quite delighted and annoyed that literally NO ONE zoomed in to check.
So, here it is, the Fuzztration and that was the cliff notes version of how it came to be called this. There is quite a lot missing, because I don’t have records of it all as much of it was deleted in several fits of rage along the way. A lot of people have been asking us for a LONG time that we needed to release something kinda muff like, but make it better. Based on the work we did on the Tumnus and Pantheon, I was very confident that Brian can take the concept of a classic circuit, and make it infinitely better. And he did.
Frustration over, Fuzztration lives.
This past weekend was a bit of an anomaly for me. My wife was working two 12-hour shifts at the hospital, and my mother-in-law was keeping our two kids on Saturday, so I had a day pretty much to myself. Of course, there’s always something to do around the house like laundry, dishes, vacuuming, etc. but I decided to take the day and have a bit of fun. I loaded my Strat, Pantheon and vintage Twin head up and hit the road, off to visit a great friend of mine who lives two hours away. I had to get stuff done that day and couldn’t shuck everything I was doing, so I left the house at 6:30am and drove in the cold, wet rain up to the coast and proceeded to have a great time. Roxy and I have been Facebook friends for several years, and we’ve also traded and sold gear to the point it’s almost comical. I swear he’s got half of the stuff I’ve ever sold, and some of the gear I’ve even bought back from him and inevitably sold back. We jammed for about two hours and had an awesome time just hanging out and talking gear. He got to try my original ’68 Twin, and I got to try some of the amps he’d mentioned in our conversations (including a hand-built 20w from Bruce Egnater, his home-built amp, and one of the coolest little amps I’ve ever played in my life (more on that in a second). We messed with some pedals (including our Black Friday release) and just had a blast. It was great catching up, and it made me realize several things about myself and my gear choices.
First things first, I’ll discuss that amp I was talking about above. This was a 1-watt Marshall head and cab with a .25 watt switch on the back called the Offset. To be completely honest I’ve always sort of written off sub-20 watt amps as not being something that would ever tickle my fancy. I play into a clean platform almost exclusively, so the idea of such a low headroom amp seemed like a waste of time. I will be the first to admit that it was a stupid idea and that they are incredible. I plugged straight in and for only 1 watt and a single 10” speaker, it sounded MASSIVE. I was a bit shaken to my core because of it and I’ve pretty much been thinking about that amp constantly since then. I’m trying to work out a deal, as it’s a limited-edition amp and I WANT IT SO BAD. GAS hasn’t been quite this furious in a long time. It’s got extremely simple controls: Volume (Labeled Loudness) and Tone, then the Hi and Lo setting for the power scaling. That’s it. No frills. No FX loop, no drastic EQ changes. Simple and to the point. I REALLY liked it.
Enough about that epic little amp, onto more self-reflection and epiphanies (lol). Normally I’m one to pack up a big board and maybe bring a couple of guitars to a jam. Variety is the spice of life and all. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb and leaving my comfort zone by just taking a single pedal and a Strat that I’d only recently just modified with upgraded pickups and hadn’t taken it out for a jam yet. There was no real reason to worry, as it’s an American Pro strat that I had a guard wired-up from David Maue from Tonal Concept Pickups, where he had an original set of John Mayer Big Dippers that were wired in the neck and middle, and one of his custom PAF’s in the bridge. He put a push/pull pot in the bridge tone control to split the coil in the humbucker, and the other tone control allows me to use all 3 pickups together. As I said before, the only pedal I took was a Pantheon with a fresh 9v battery, and a TC Electronic headstock tuner for good measure. The greatest feeling was plugging into each amp and feeling confident in what I was doing. Admittedly my playing wasn’t perfect as I rarely get to practice much anymore (life, you know how it is), but overall there wasn’t a tone I felt I couldn’t achieve with that setup. Being totally honest it would have to be the fingers and the mind behind it to make that combo sound bad, but it was nice not having to hide behind a board like I’ve used as a safety net for so long. It did, however, dawn on me that with my lack of practice came the lack of remembering how to play most of the songs I used to know how to play. I’ve spent so much time noodling and learning riffs and just messing around that it was a bit disconcerting. Good thing is I know exactly what to work on, as I do want to get back to being able to play some covers like I used to. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it” was abundantly clear.
I guess the biggest thing I can take from all of this is that I’m thankful to have close friends who can talk gear, inspire GAS, and allow me to just be myself and play. It was nice having the guitar I had schemed over for so long and mess with to be just right turned out exactly how I wanted. That’s the first guitar where I sat down at the end of the day and had absolutely nothing to find wrong with it or a desire for it to do more. In the end, I will say that a lot of the tone comes from the hands, but having the right tools to translate what you’re putting out helps quite a bit and inspires confidence as well.
It's story time.
Hello, my name is "Us" and I am ‘somewhere’. It’s very noisy and there are a lot of people I know, along with some that I don’t, all around me. I feel quite light-headed, it’s like some kind of intense sensory overload being here. As I look around, I notice that in front of me are a large set of double doors set into a wall, kind of like the famous gates of Jurassic Park. The walls are too high for me to see over them, but, short enough for me to see that behind them is a large open park type place with a few buildings rising up.
Over the doors, written in huge letters, it says, “Welcome Guitar Players!” Obviously, I enter. In the back of my mind, I seem to understand that I can enter this place because of something I have previously signed up for, something that gives me access to the other area. However, this was a LONG time ago and I vaguely remember that the personal information I used to gain access was really basic and was in no way cross-checked or verified.
The first impression I have, once inside, is that it is quite exciting. It is a lot more peaceful than outside and it feels comfy, it’s the kind of place I would like to hang out...
All around are small gatherings of people talking to each other. I am instantly drawn to a crowd of people looking at someone’s new piece of gear. As I walk up, giving the gear more than a cursory look, I hear various people saying “Congrats” and “Nice one!”… but there are also a small amount shadowy figures lurking around them saying things like “Should have got this instead” or “it would have been better if…”… these conversations are happening all over the place, all with their own set of shadowy figures. I don’t think the shadowy figures are here for the same reason I am, at least in part, maybe they are here for another reason as well.
As I walk around I see a lot of friends. Some of them I know well, but in a strange way, I get the impression I’ve never actually met them before. It’s like I don’t really know them, but at the same time, I kind of do. It is amazing to see each and every one of them and it makes me feel great if not sometimes a little awkward.
I can see some old guard musical heroes who I can actually go and talk to, but they look like they might be borderline grumpy, so I just say hello and tell them I’m a fan. I sometimes try to draw a commonality with them via a shared experience of their music before I carry on, but only if I can manage to catch their eye of course. There are new musical heroes who are casually talking to everyone, lots of up and coming players attracting a lot of attention and loads of just normal players - players just like me, walking freely between them. It would appear, upon closer inspection, that a lot of these normal players seem to think they belong in the other categories. Some have even made their own nametags declaring this!
Some of the players are excitedly playing people music, sometimes their own, sometimes their version of famous songs. Some are just listening to the music that is readily available elsewhere. Available outside. Available outside outside. On the first impression, it appears that a lot of people are being introduced to music they have not heard before. This is great! But, then again, when I look a little closer, I notice that some of them are literally holding people close to the speakers and shouting “LISTEN TO THIS” and not letting go. Some of them are repeatedly asking if I want to buy a t-shirt, some of them are talking about anything other than guitar gear in the vain hope that other people are listening...
I pause now and then to take in the people who are standing on tall soapboxes, shouting at random people about almost anything. They have a few people close to them, hanging on to every word they say and just blindly agreeing with everything. Those who have the audacity to not actually be listening to them, or those who dare to offer a different point of view, are treated with nothing short of the utmost disdain. Once again, I notice that the shadowy figures are literally everywhere, they seem to like to be wherever there is an element of chaos.
Around the perimeters, there are countless market stalls – some small, some big, and some that are huge. They vary from the ones that have one or two people working on them, desperately trying to keep up with the people who visit, to the ones that appear to have an endless amount of resources and people to respond to the random questions that are being asked. Some are provoking conversations in the hope of catching the attention of the casual passerby while some are tempting people with shiny new gear. At almost every stall there appear to be people who think they are straight up comedians – while some of them are hilarious, a lot of them are very ‘niche’ at best.
Some of these stalls look just like guitar stores and others appear to be set up by gear manufacturers, many are a mixture of both. A lot of them are really colorful, some with hilarious posters hanging on the walls (that seem to change quite often) and there are a lot of people playing the products… A really strange thing I notice is that it’s the same people playing at almost every stall simultaneously. It’s all really weird. There are a lot of people approaching these stalls, but most don’t stay for very long. A lot of the people working the various stalls seem to know each other. Some seem to be legit friends but some appear to be friendly to each other’s faces while being angry and bitter behind each other’s backs. There are a lot of stalls that look the same – similar looking products, similar advertising, similar silly jokes. It’s hard to see which of the stalls was there first so I don’t know who is being original. The most intriguing thing I can see is that some of the stalls appear to be in open warfare with the others. It’s funny watching people openly poaching people from other stalls to bring them to their own.
Scattered around just about everywhere there are, what appear to be, large meetings of people who are talking as if there are old friends. These meetings seem to be named as well, possibly to grab the attention of the people walking around. They all look as if they are having the best time, comparing gear, ideas, music and pretty much anything else you can think of.
As before, there are shadowy figures who jump in to say something controversial before ducking out again… I manage to watch one shadowy figure flit between many of these meetings, start a problem at each one, quickly leave and then do the same thing again and again at other meetings. The shadowy figures are mostly ignored but sometimes they are challenged and, in some cases, quite a violent verbal altercation takes place. Although I can’t identify them at all, I glimpse a look at some of their faces and they do seem to be having the best time imaginable.
Now and then there are what appear to be closed meetings, held within a contained area (the buildings I saw from outside), you can’t see or hear anything that happens within until you are permitted entrance. You have to formally request to go into a lot of these, sometimes it looks easy, some of them have rules posted on the doors and in some, you even have to answer a specified set of questions to gain admittance. The rules of these ‘meeting places’ are absolute and the rules of outside do not apply. In fact, the rules published are the only ones that are in any way policed, although it would appear a lot of people think that the rules of the outside should take precedent.
These meetings are sometimes very busy, sometimes not. Some are just like minded people hanging out but some appear to be sponsored by one of the market stalls around the outside. I go into a couple and mostly they are great. Sometimes, the people inside get very rowdy, acting up, just blatantly going against the rules. These people are usually thrown out, or somehow have their volume turned off for a specific amount of time. It would appear that when people are removed from these places they often get extremely angry and go to other places, (similar to the ones they were in) and straight up insult the people from the other meetings. Once outside the meetings they have just been expelled from, they form into the shadowy figures I have seen running around.
I spend what feels like hours in here, listening, watching and looking at all the people. I’ve really learned a lot in my time here! Once I have really had enough, (it is now excruciatingly loud and overbearing) I can see that a lot of people are angry and I can, and cannot, quite understand why. All around there appear to be people who are thoroughly miserable and can’t find the exit, but at the same time don’t appear to want to find it either. I decide to leave and fortunately find the way out and it’s by the very same set of doors I came in by. As I walk towards the doors, with the noise of everything and everyone ringing in my ears, I look up and notice the sign above them. On the on the back of the sign that welcomed me through the doors is written: “Thank you for visiting the Guitar Community on Facebook, we’ll see you in about 10 minutes (or less, I expect)”.
As I walk away, the doors shut behind me. But it’s even louder out here and everything is chaotic so I look over my shoulder. I look at the doors. I focus on the sign above them. I listen to the delightfully busy murmur from the other side and decide right then to turn around and go straight back in.
The first impression I have, once inside, is that it is quite exciting. It is a lot more peaceful than outside and it feels comfy, it’s the kind of place I would like to hang out... All around are small gatherings of people talking to each other. I am instantly drawn to a crowd of people looking at someone’s new piece of gear. As I walk up, giving the gear more than a cursory look, I hear various people saying “Congrats” and “Nice one!”…
As some of you have noticed, especially if you saw my blog piece from July 2018 and are connected to me on Social Media, I’ve been on a real Queen trip recently. Dusting down those old and vintage records is always great, but every now and then you get your hands on something that is so mind blowing you can’t quite comprehend it. Case in point, I was sent the original 24 track stems for Bohemian Rhapsody.
I instantly loaded them into LogicX and started to listen intently to all the various parts and marvelling how 4 guys in the 70’s could do all that, without the help of modern high tech gear (as the only gear they had were their instruments and the ability to record them). Basically, it’s incredible.
I’m guessing that BoRap is a song that everyone knows and at some point in their life, loved. Whether you were around when it first came out, or were familiar with it when you were young then fell about laughing at Wayne’s World, or just over the years that have followed discovered it on the radio and been fascinated, it’s one of those songs that will always be with us.
There are many videos around that discuss it all but they can get a little nerdy… so I thought I would isolate each track (there are 24) and just tell you, as a fan of the band and of music in general, what I can hear – I’m by no means a recording engineer or producer so this is as basic and real as it can be... So, this could be deemed to be a reaction piece, but in reality, it’s just me marvelling at being able to listen to a moment in history in my headphones.
Track 1: “KIT kick”
The first thing you notice is how big, loose and flabby the bass drum sounds. There is a LOT of overlap in the recording, you can just about hear the hats, the ride and the crash cymbals are fairly prominent. Seriously, the bass drum sounds like an old marching band one, with the player having it strapped to their chest. I can almost imagine an oompah band playing along with it! In the rock bit after the operatic section, Roger has a heavy 4 on the floor… you just can’t help hearing the guide guitars in the background from when they were recording it.
Track 2: “KIT Snare”
This is one of the more fascinating, before Taylor starts playing, you can hear Deacy’s bass and the piano leaking in, also copious amounts of snare rattle… but, the all time best thing a Queen fan can hear is contained in this track. Right at the start, you hear Freddie make a little giggle and then count in “1,2,3,4”… Every time a bass note is hit, the snare rattles and fizzes, it’s amazing that it wasn’t gated or something to remove this, maybe in the final mix they had 24 fingers on the console making sure this wasn’t heard. The snare is tight, once again, quite marching band like – quite gunshot in character - a lot of cymbal overlap, the toms are in this as well. The toms are quite loose and huge. Hearing Roger’s dynamics under the first guitar solo is amazing, he really is hitting them extremely hard. As soon as the operative bit starts, you can hear the sticks click together, sounds like he put them in one hand for a moment before starting again. The toms are all over the operatic section as well, absolutely huge in isolation, referring back to the record they sound a lot more in moderation... It would have been awesome to hear them more up in the mix. All the way through to the end of the operatic section you can hear the bass and the snare rattling… then you hear the guitar overlap into for the rock section once more.
Track 3: “Kit Toms”
This is the one where you start to hear the bouncing… The first thing you hear on the track is “No escape from reality” in perfect (what sounds like) 4 part harmony. Then, utter silence until your start to hear the bass overlapping. All the drums are overlapping into this track, but when the toms hit they are thunderous, loose and powerful.
Track 4: “Kit Room”
Once again, bounced over is “No escape from reality”. In what sounds like the higher part of the chord from the one on the toms track. Once again, lots of bass overlap, this time piano as well, and then later on the guitar. You hear everything with the drums, as it’s obviously capturing the room ambience… man, the toms really come through though and so do the hats in the rock section.
Just the drum tracks in Isolation.
The first thing that catches you out, obviously, is the “no escape from reality” vocal. When put into balance you hear how they’ve managed to put these simple four track together to make a huge drum sound, makes me wonder… how would modern producers handle getting such a huge sound from only 4 tracks with massive amounts of overlap from the other instruments?
Track 5: “Bass1”
Exactly what you would expect, although some of Deacy’s note choices are odd, never noticed them before. The tone is thing and almost hollow, just seems to be high mids with no power and balls across the bottom. Loads and loads of drum overlap, especially with the bass drum, cymbals and a little snare.
Track 6: “Bass2”
This appears to be EQ’d to the opposite of Bass1, loads of low end and a nice amount of tightness around the top end.
Track 7: “Bass3”
Another EQ change, a lot warmer across the lower mid range almost giving it a nasal, honky feel... although by his playing style it doesn’t honk like a more funky bass, you can just really hear the wood in the tone. It’s really quite weird tbh.
Just the bass in isolation.
This is where you sit back and say “Ahhhhh” as it now all makes sense. The three put together just compliment each other perfectly (based on the bits at the end that you don’t hear, I am guessing that it was one line, split into three and each EQ’d differently to adjust during the final mix) making this a truly beautifully balanced bass tone. There is the right amount of low end, the mid is punchy and definite and the highs just add that clarity. I’m guessing these guys really knew what they were doing.
Rhythm section in isolation.
Now it’s starting to sound like the record we all know and love, your brain plays tricks on you and adds the piano, guitars and all those vocal lines.
Track 8: “Piano1”
This is where the recording technique and all the behind the scenes stuff comes into play, on the record the intro is 100% vocals... this track contains the guide piano line for that as well. Picking out the harmonies and then going into that famous cross hand line…. As always, copious amounts of drum and bass overlap… and then a little guitars as well. The piano just sounds beautiful. Makes the listener remember what a dynamic and expressive piano player Freddie was… Right in the middle of the “Let me go” vocal cascade section you can clearly hear Freddie say “one” as well, I don’t know why… Right after that, one of the more interesting spill over happens, you can clearly here Roger in falsetto singing “Mama Mia!”
Track 9: “Piano2”
Double tracked to give a wider sound… the difference in dynamics is subtle, but oh so obvious once you get right into it.
Both Piano’s together.
Well, hello Freddie. There is it. I would be lying if I said I didn’t see him in my mind during Live Aid playing it
Track 10: “Rhtm Gtr1”
Guitars. What guitars? Once again, you hear Freddie count it in… and then there are vocal harmonies all over it, and then what sounds like the most insane cymbal crescendo that sounds like it’s gone either through a filter or a something that appears to change the pitch… I had to listen to it 4 times to try to work it out. About 2 bars in from when the guitar starts, the mic opens up and all you can hear is the ground noise of Brian’s guitar hissing like mad… the tone is exactly as you would expect, screaming – it’s been pushed hard at the front end. It’s almost fuzzy at times, you can hear the sixpence scratching the strings… After the main solo, there are interesting out take notes from Dr May that I have omitted from the capture to save his dignity.
Track 11: “Rhtm Gtr2”
More vocal harmonies… man, this is getting complicated. Obviously double tracked for width and power. More interesting notes and outtakes after the first vocal section… and then the operatic section. Vocal stabs and harmonies everywhere. It’s almost like Freddie is in my head singing “Bismillah” – probably the most freaky thing on the entire track. Main vocal line for “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye”… wow. Just wow. Tons of vocal harmonies, high end… probably Freddie and Roger… this track ends with the main vocal line of “Nothing really matters etc”.
Track 12: “BGR VOX & Gtr”
Hello Freddie, 1,2,3,4 again… then the main vocal line harmony in the intro. He is really pushing to the top of his range here, his voice is almost crapping out on his at some points. Loads and loads of overspill with Piano. The track then goes completely quiet until the “Thunderbolt and Lightning” then it’s all just lower harmonies, more Bismillah to freak me out… All the high end Mama Mia’s are on here as well. Then, hello Brian. It’s that riff that made us all laugh in Waynes World. Never heard him sound like that before, pretty certain this didn’t make the final track. The gain is insane, almost out of control… then during the second run through, before all the nice runs it tightens up again and you are hearing a more familiar tone.
Track 13. “BGR VOX1”
This, I’m guessing, is where the harmony nuts would get lost. In this track appears to be one half of the beautiful harmony opening. I think I can hear 6 different tracks bounced in. There are some unbelievably high harmonies on the section up to the first solo and then during the first few bars. Probably Roger Taylor, ridiculously high… opera. Scaramosh. High harmonies everywhere… the full Magnifico chordal break down. Full vocal chords on “No, we will not let you go”. The whole Beelzebub section is far more complex than the record gives away. How did they do this?
Track 14: “BGR VOX2”
The other side of the intro harmonies. The complexities of the chords they are creating here with their voices… Once again, insanely high harmonies running up to the solo and following bars. More operatic harmonies, more Magnifico… just a poor boy, from a poor family. More insanity around the Beelzebub line.
Track 15. “Lead VOX”
By now, you would have thought I would have expected the track to just contain what it’s labelled as! First line is the harmony from “caught in a landslide” and continues on into the harmony vocal line for ‘poor boy etc’… the main vocal line starts with “Mama, just killed a man”. Surprisingly breathy and laid back.. and then when he ramps it up, that classic Freddie metallic rasp as he’s really pushing it. Into the operatic sections, sounds like Roger doing the high “Let him go”. Low harmonies on “put aside for me”… piano for the main guitar rock section… And we welcome Brian in with some runs during the exit… main lead line for the outro… pretty breathtaking.
Track 16: “VOX1 & Snare”
More harmonies in a landslide, more eyes opening and ‘look up the sky and see’… ‘poor boy’ harmonies, ‘I don’t want to die’ harmonies… just everything… Full chords of vocal “Let him go”…. The “let me go” main vocal cascade… And then a snare overdub for the rock section. Tight, loads of attack and punch.
Track 17: “VOX2”
More complex harmonies from the intro… all Freddie. Double tracked lines for the main line and harmonies for “poor boy”. Double tracked “wind blows” and “to me…”. More double tracks for the “just killed a man” and on to the guitar solo. More full vocal chords of “Let him go” including Roger’s high parts… And we have Brian back with the rock guitar section… Man, that guitar tone is brutal!
Track 18: “VOX3&LdGtr”
More of the above… more intro harmonies. All the way through, so many double tracks and multiple harmonies. And then, that solo. Pretty sure that’s not his Vox amps, but the Deacy amp… the mid range is so nasal! More freaky Bismillah. I’m going to hear that in my sleep tonight I think! And then you hear the guitar, open amp floor noise… that big Bb before the runs and then the big sound for the rock section, but it drops out quickly… then there is tons and tons of overspill from everything. This tracks ends with huge harmonies of the whole “oh yeah” section, layers upon layers upon of layers… Then there is that Brian exit that he plays with his fingers on his right hand. Right at the end of this track you hear Freddie say “Oh, fuck it, let…” – I’d love to know what bought that on.
Track 19: VOX4
As you can guess, it’s just layers and layers of intro harmonies and double tracking. This track also contains the chimes from “shivers down my spine”… based on the floor noise, I’d say this was a guitar, with the strings being played behind the nut. Operatic harmonies… just everywhere, more “magnifico’ cascades… The very high harmonies of “For me” before the rock section, appears then to have a double track of the “stone me”. More Brian playing the exit arpeggios.. and finally, the exit gong makes an appearance!
Track 20: VOX5
I’m guessing you know what is on here. More doubling, more harmonies, more opera… more mayhem. More ‘stone me’ including a wonderful moment where Freddie’s voice sounds like it’s right on the edge, pushing it further than he should.
Track 21: VOX6 & Guitar6
Yep, harmonies, harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. Also, Brian doubling up on the high notes from the main theme (the octave piano part in the main theme) that I’ve always heard him do live but never picked out on the original. During the operatic section, you can clearly hear Brian and Roger adding their sections, but mostly it’s just Freddie either doubling what is already there or adding yet another harmony. Brian outtake for the rock section, I don’t blame them cutting that bit, not a great tone! More exit scales from Brian, completing the exit runs…
Track 22: Vox Ovdub1
This feels like this was when they had it almost there and Freddie was dropping the final piece’s of the puzzle in… the main vocal line “Carry on, carry on” followed by ‘matters’ in here as well. Also, the overdub for “wish I’d never been born at all”. Full harmony chords of “scaramoosh” and “fandango”… more parts of ‘magnifico’… tons of Roger high harmonies… Timpani drums. Full vocal chords of “No no no no no” and some more Beelzebub”. Drum overdubs for the rock section… And then, my favourite bit. Brian’s beautifully constructed guitar harmonies at the end. There must be at least 5 guitars in there.
Track 23: Vox Ovdub2
More bits and pieces tidying up the into vocals… any way the wind blows… some oohs and ahhs over the solo… Rogers very highest Gallieo’s, the highest “he’s just a poor boy etc”. There’s that Bismillah again. More beelzebub harmonies… I never knew how complicated that little section was.. and then finally, we are treated to more Brian’s runs at the end of the rock section!
Track 24: Vox Ovdub3.
Even more overdubs of the main and harmony lines… obviously not all of these made it to the mix… when you put them all on… it’s insane. There is only the slightest amount of modulation coming from the pitching, so Freddie’s voice is on note, every times. Almost to a freaky level. Exit rock guitars in the rock section, sounds like this was the one that was used… I can hear that sixpence again! And the rest of Brian’s harmony exit…
This was a total guilty pleasure for me, and one I was reluctant to look at too deeply as I didn’t want it to ruin the masterpiece we have all heard countless times. But, you know, when you are presented the opportunity to look into something so monumental, you take the chance and have a listen. I’m so glad I did as the respect I have for their talent, especially the producer who managed to get this on 24 tracks has been blown out of all proportion… Basically, the word genius undersells it.
This week, I am giving the floor to a FB friend of mine called Nik Harrison… Who is Nik I hear you ask… Well... “I teach music (piano, guitar, theory, GCSE, A Level etc) but I also teach thinking skills. Critical thinking, applications of (and limitations of) logic, exam revision etc. Also do commentary and debates on various matters concerning philosophy etc for educational purposes, and “thinking horizon expansion”. Play acoustic gigs. Do demos at guitar shows for Stormshadow guitarworks. Run the contemporary guitar performance workshop, and conduct quite a lot of pedagogical (relative to teaching) research for that. Occasionally go out as a professional magician for corporate functions... A pretty broad range."
This all came about because I saw a question on FB… “Why is it called music theory? Shouldn’t it be called music rules?”
And Nik answered… “Music theory is the codification of the most commonly used frameworks within music. It’s a language, and as a language, it’s essentially a set of protocols. It’s not the ‘message’. The message is the music, and the music exists independent of any language that we may use to explain, quantify, or record it (which is essentially the three things that music theory serves to achieve). The music comes first. It’s for theory to keep up with music, not for music to keep up with the theory, or otherwise be dictated to by ‘theory’. Rules are for sports.”
I was quite fascinated with this response, so I asked him to expand on it for our blog… Over to you Nik...
There are essentially two means by which a ‘music theory’ may be devised (inclusive of the amalgamation of both). Firstly, there’s the analysis and quantification of music that people have created when drawn to the sounds and structures that they instinctively feel to be congruent with their musical taste. Secondly, you can take the fundamentals of sound itself, and analyse this. The only naturally occurring phenomena which could be used as a foundation for creating a music theory is the harmonic series. This would lead us to consider the overtone scale (or Lydian Dominant mode) to be the most ‘natural’ place to start, but we don’t do that, we use other things. What may be ‘natural’ may not always be (what we would identify as) ‘musical’ to some people... To my understanding, most ‘scales’ that we now consider to be commonplace evolved by means of primitive instrument engineering evolving to accommodate greater pitch accuracy, together with the influence of the harmonic series which supplied an acoustic physics-based foundation for the subdivision of octaves.
In extension of this, it’s worth noting that the only thing that makes music theory conversations and debates worthwhile is the fact that it's in a state of permanent evolution. This means that right and wrong are not as clear cut as they may be when debating other topics. To suggest that ‘rules’ come into music theory would require consensus amongst academics and scholars alike who are not actually qualified (either individually or collectively) to ascribe ‘rules’ to such a topic as music theory. This is because music (and its associated theory) belongs to the people. It doesn’t belong to academia, no matter how much it may be implied, or how much academia may attempt to take ownership of it. Music theory is very much a living and breathing 'language'. Worthy of note however, is that music itself isn’t a language. This is a common misconception, but it isn’t a language because music isn't authoritatively definable in terms of the same criteria (and respective fulfilment thereof) that a language would need to fulfil (and adhere to) in order that it may be defined as a 'language'. Analogies between music and languages might work at a very simplistic level, but there are a number of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and errors that are all too easy to make if this analogy is taken beyond the simplest of examples. Within a language the objective of communication is served by means of encoding meaning and concepts into syntax which is then assembled within a grammatical framework. There are a number of pre-requisites which need to be in place before it can be understood.
When it comes to music, the pre-requisites that are necessary for any spoken or written language to be successful don't exist (unless you're operating from a number of assumptions regarding a very fixed definition of what music can be). As such, music doesn't operate in the same way, or within the same parameters as 'languages'. A listener needs no familiarity with any 'encoding' of meaning to understand the inherent 'truth' that is music, and this makes the formulation of any manifestation of “music theory” all the more complicated, challenging, and interesting.
Music evolves, and always came first. Theory comes second, and has only been devised (and subsequently evolved into the language of music that we now use) as a method by which we express, record, and preserve music. Because music is evolving, the language that we use to explain it needs to evolve with it, although because of the rate at which music evolves, theory will always be "behind", not at all helped by academics who misunderstand the true relationship "music" has to "theory", who seem to desire it's absolute preservation and maintenance (without really offering any consideration as to how appropriate this actually is). I would suggest that an understanding of music and the understanding of theory are two very different things. They are every bit set apart in the same way that and understanding of "meaning" is not the same as an understanding of "language".
Within a system where 15 key signatures are used to express 12 keys, any engineer would conclude that this is 3 too many than necessary and it’s about time we just got rid of them. I know where these key signatures have come from, and have a strong understanding of why we have ended up with 15 key signatures, but since evolution is a process of simplification, not complication, I think we can reasonably predict what will happen here as theory evolves anyway, so why don’t we just dispose of 3 unnecessary key signatures now? A more prominent over-complication in music theory can be seen in the time signature. Where the bottom "number" which is used represents a note value, why has it gone through an unnecessary process of "encoding" into a number? Why don't be just draw the note value as it would appear in the piece underneath the number telling us how many beats are in each bar?
To my mind, not enough people challenge these theoretical concepts and as such, I fear that it’s best hope of "catching up" with the music (which theory actually serves to record, explain, and preserve) is being systematically eroded by every music theory publication presenting this information and framing it as “the way it is” rather than thinking about it and offering appropriate consideration to what kind of future it actually has?
Thank you Nik! You can connect with Nik on Facebook.
Monday, July 2nd 2018 will go down as one of the greatest, mind-melting nights of my life. If you disregard the day I met my wife and the two nights I become a Father, I’m pretty certain nothing has been as monumental as this was.
I first ‘met’ Jamie Humphries many, many years ago on FB and over the years we’ve become very good friends. We have a very similar sense of humour (our partners will confirm that is being mostly like 13-year-old boys) and share a deep love for our instrument and music. When I first started to chat with Jamie I was painfully aware he was one of the resident guitar players in the London show of “We Will Rock You” and had toured with Dr Brian May… over the years he’s gone on to do the European Tour of WWRY and many other major touring shows. But, you know, he’s now just the guy that literally makes me cry with laughter on a regular basis. Jamie is widely regarded as one of the guys who can do Brian as well as Brian himself... along with that, his knowledge of the Red Special and Brian’s gear in general is frighteningly deep - we always joked about how I would react if I ever got to hold the Red Special. He always said that one day he would sort it for me but I never thought it would actually happen.
It was many months ago that Queen announced that they were touring with Adam Lambert again and hitting the UK in Summer. I mentioned it to Jamie and he said (in an off-hand way): “I’ll see if I can get us tickets, it’s right on my birthday so, you know, it may happen, I’ll try to get us backstage as well”. Lisa and I tried not to get too excited about it, but it was always in the back of our minds. Then, last Friday, I get a text from Jamie saying something along the lines of “Answer your phone you ******” - I hadn’t noticed he was repeatedly trying to call me… when I spoke to him he confirmed that we had tickets for the Monday night and the after-show party.
Then followed the strangest weekend of my life. Two gigs, one tremendous and the other one completely screwed up, all played out in slow motion. When Monday finally came around, we got in the car and made our way to London. The journey, as it often is, was awful but we got to the hotel next door to the venue (10 minutes’ walk from concert seat to bed – BOOM!), checked in and waited patiently for the clock to tick round. Jamie was frantically calling what felt like every 5 minutes as he was stuck in traffic coming from Lick Library in Essex to the o2, the language used was a thing of beauty. Filthy, but so articulately filthy I couldn’t help but laugh at him. We finally met up about 10 minutes before the show was due to start, at the box office, and made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare.
I don’t know what it is about Queen. I’m yet to meet a rational person who doesn’t really like them on some level, it almost feels like they have been, at some point, everyone’s favourite band but at the same time, hardly anyone’s actual favourite band. They just seem to be deeply appreciated by almost everyone. For me, it’s a family affair - they were one of my Mother’s favourite bands, they are one of my favourite bands, one of my wife’s favourite bands and one of my kid’s favourite bands… It seems like everyone has several Queen songs that mean the world to them. It’s not hard to understand why, when you think of the songs, or think of Live Aid, or think of Freddie, or think of the guitar that Dr May made with his Father (Harold) between 1963 and 1965… it’s just one hell of a story and one hell of a back catalogue of simply great songs.
Judging by the way Facebook has reacted to my many posts about this since last Friday, it’s apparent that some people think Queen should have died a natural death when Freddie did. To me that’s a little crazy, why shouldn’t the surviving members carry on? Not only in tribute to the music they created but to Freddie himself, and to the fans that still hold the music very close to their hearts. It was as I was thinking this, that the lights went down and the show started. When you see a band like Queen for the first time, and you are staring a lifetime of memories and happy thoughts right in the face, it takes a few moments to get your head back on. And once I did, there were two things that kept going through my head… the first was “I think that’s the best live guitar tone I’ve ever heard” and “Adam Lambert is incredible” – I turned to Jamie and said something that rhymes with “Duck tree – that tone!” and he laughed and said, “Told you it was good!”.
The following two or so hours went by in a whirl. Song after song of massive hits, a flawless stage show, several guest appearances by Freddie via the video screens, masterfully edited in, and at the heart of it, one of my favourite players, playing the iconic guitar, with just the biggest and ballsiest tone I’ve ever heard. He didn’t play the original all night, but whenever he did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The great thing about seeing a show like that with a straight up Queen nerd is that all the way through I was being updated with what gear he was using. Just perfect for a perpetual tone chaser who can legitimately think of nothing better than avidly listening to Jamie telling me about Brian’s wet/dry/wet rig, modified AC30’s, treble boosters, and the various ‘other’ Red Special’s that were being used.
Once the show was over, we made our way to where the after-show party was being held. Myself, Lisa, Jamie and Kim (the fourth member of our little group who owns Lick Library and Guitar Interactive Magazine) found ourselves in a room with a free bar and bizarrely, a Rock DJ playing some RAWK classics. It was then that the gravity of the situation started to hit me… Big Phil, who is Brian’s personal security guard - and has the title of being one of the most lovely and terrifying people I’ve ever met - came over for a chat… Phil Hilborne – whos impact on guitarists of our age can never be overstated through his work with Guitarist Magazine and Guitar Techniques Magazine - was also was a long-standing member of the WWRY band – came and joined us, I turned around and noticed next to us were Rami Malik, Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazello – who play Freddie, Brian and John in the upcoming film “Bohemian Rhapsody”… edged on by the comfort of having a couple of beers on an empty stomach I had a chat with them, and it was clear just what big fans they are of the band as well. That film is going to be epic. There were so many people indelibly connected to Queen, just there, all around me.
It was when I had just been to the bar again (to replace the beer that Lisa had dropped) that I noticed that Jamie was talking to a guy with a gig bag strapped to his back, I thought “No, that can’t be”, but judging by the way Jamie smiled at me, I knew it was. I knew that Pete Malandrone – Brian’s long-term tech – who kept the original Red Special with him at ALL times, and I mean, at all times, was right there and he had ‘it’ with him. There I was, within touching distance of the guitar that played on all those hits, stole the show at Live Aid, was the cornerstone of that Guitar Legends gig, and is quite possibly the most iconic guitar of all time... So near, yet so far.
Pete wandered off, and then about 10 minutes later, Jamie tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Come with me”. I stood up, grabbed Lisa’s hand, and we were quickly led into another room. After we were all in and the door was closed behind us, Pete took the gig back off his back, opened it up and I was confronted with I can only describe as what looked like a military grade carbon fibre shaped guitar case. My first thought was “That’s so small, it can’t be”. He opened it up (the whole thing was like that scene from Pulp Fiction when Travolta opened the briefcase and Samuel L Jackson said, “Are we happy?”) and it was.
Pete picked up the Red Special… THE original Red Special, and handed it to me. In that instant, it was almost like people describe as “your life flashing before you” trick of the brain, the whole history of that guitar flooded through me. So… what did I do? Well, like an idiot I sat down and started to play the first solo from Bohemian Rhapsody. Jamie started laughing and said “Don’t play Queen licks on that you muppet” and we all just started laughing. I mean, fair comment really. I looked up and noticed Pete’s face was just lit up with a huge smile. There must have been many times when he’s handed that guitar to someone and they react the way I did - in complete awe – and it looks like he genuinely loves to see that reaction. Then he started to go through the history of its construction, you know how it goes... The fireplace mantelpiece, the bike rack tremolo arm and knitting needle top, where the finish had been worn off over the years and where it had been refinished… the buttons used for the fret markers, the bike springs in the tremolo, the single bolt holding the neck on… I stopped playing and just looked at it. Even though I’ve read about it a million times, when it’s in your hands and the guy who knows it as well as Brian does is telling you about it, it takes on a whole new meaning. It was at that point Pete put his hand in his pocket and said “Have this, it was the one he used tonight, I just found it on the stage by his mic stand” and handed me a classic Six Pence piece… I then started to play again (very gently with the sixpence) and that’s the point it jumped out at me. The neck was enormous, the frets are non-existent (it’s never been refretted)… and to be completely honest, the neck feels like a baseball bat that’s had a small part of the front shaved off. It’s uncomfortably huge. The profile of the board is actually really quite rounded but… you know… it’s THE Red Special. He made it with his Father over 50 years ago and it feels like it. It may be weird to play, but it doesn’t matter - that is truly a guitar of legend. After what felt like a second I gave it back to Pete, who put it back in the case (cue Travolta in my head again saying “yeah, we’re happy”), put the case back in the gig bag and we left the room to carry on enjoying the free bar. As the night progressed, more beers were drunk, more people met, more laughs were had (including the continuation of a long-held discussion we’ve been having about Phil’s Red/Pink PRS) and even a free curry. As Lisa and I walked back to the hotel some hours after, most definitely quite squishy from the beer, I’m pretty certain my feet never touched the ground even once.
If you are a Queen fan, go and see them. Especially if you love them but think that it won’t be Queen without Freddie, because other than everything I explained above, the one memory I will have about that night was just how perfect for the job Adam Lambert is. As he said during the show “I know a lot of you think ‘He’s not Freddie and he shouldn’t be trying to be him’… All I can say is this… I’m not trying to be him, I could never be Freddie. I’m here for the same reason you are - I love Freddie and I love Queen and I’m so lucky I get to pay tribute to him with those amazing guys”.
I’d like to thank Jamie Humphries for giving me a true memory of a lifetime, Pete Malandrone for his love of the instrument and allowing me to play many, many inappropriate licks on it, and Dr Brian May for being, well… Brian May.
*header photo: Dave Watson.
A few days ago Brian, Alex and I were talking as Brian was thinking about video ideas for YouTube, and we were discussing guitarists who play live regularly but still get a few things wrong. Not necessarily in terms of their playing, but their approach to the instrument. Once I started to give ideas for subjects it occurred to me that I was just talking about me when I first started playing live, some 27 or so years ago (Man, that makes me sound old).
This conversation made me think about what I would say to myself if I had the opportunity to go back and advise the younger me with the benefit of what I have learned in the thousands of gigs I’ve done since…
- You aren’t as good as they tell you.
When I was 17 I was able to play virtually anything I wanted, I was in a rock covers band playing stuff that was designed purely to impress other guitar players. After a year or so, I thought I was brilliant because people kept telling me I was as I could play fast complicated stuff, but the reality of it was that I was just showing off. Playing for their appreciation and not caring one iota about what really mattered. I should have been more humble and understood that just because I played “It’s a Monster” as an opener, including the solo without warming up (see, still showing off), it didn’t mean I was good, I was just flashy. All style and no substance, or as my dear ol’ cockney Granddad would have said, “all mouth and no trousers”. Which leads me nicely too…
- Take some lessons and learn to read.
My biggest regret in life, thus far, was not sourcing a decent teacher and learning to read properly. I was proud of the fact “I’ve never taken a lesson in my life” and thought it made me a better musician. It didn’t, it just restricted the future me. In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure and honour of becoming good friends with amazing guitar teachers and the things I’ve learned from them, just in passing, have made me 100 times the player I was. Imagine if I’d actually had some proper lessons earlier in life…
- Listen to the rest of the band, ALL of the time.
This was the hardest learning curve of them all, and it’s something I struggle with now. I really wish I had got this into my head much much earlier. After all, being in a band is about creating and playing music with a bunch of like-minded people. Listening to them, bouncing off them, playing WITH them (instead of just playing with yourself – double entendre COMPLETELY intended) is everything. Be in a band, they are not there to back you up, you are an equal part in the end product.
- Gain. GAIN! Turn it the hell down!
The most powerful gain tones are not the ones with loads of gain, just the ones with the right amount properly EQ’d. You will probably need two distinct gain tones, one for rhythm and one for lead. How this is achieved is variable, either volume control on the guitar or via a boost pedal, but you know, your lead tone is gonna sound utterly horrible for rhythm. Usually. Also worth remembering the louder you play, the less gain you are likely to need. I expect there is a technical explaination for this, but I don’t know it!
- Practice the subtle stuff, it’s what will define you to your peers.
Especially vibrato and bends. Make sure your intonation is on point, make sure your vibrato isn’t crap. Because when you don’t work on either, you will sound bloody awful and to the guys in the know that are listening, you will be severely lacking.
- Don’t be afraid of new music.
When grunge hit I was terrified, my dazzling technique meant nothing to anyone, I got completely lost so I decided I hated it and refused to play it. What an idiot. Roll with it youngling, roll with it.
- Learn the neck properly
This is something I’ve been working on recently after a long discussion with Mr Tom Quayle on a very long flight. As usual, he was trying to help me and I was arguing for the fun of it, but he won in the end. He calls it fretboard visualisation. This is knowing what all the notes are on the neck, and how the relate to each other… this way, when improvising, you can move around the neck easier as you know where the sweet spots are. And not the complicated ones, ending a passage on a third, fifth or seventh of the chord you are currently over sounds so much better than landing on the root… so, this is directly related to breaking out the boxes I suppose, something else I was stuck in when I was trying to be me back in the day.
- If it’s being played properly, there’s no such thing as crap music
Kinda guessing that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the music I liked was great and the rest was crap when I was young. I don’t particularly like certain styles/genres of music still, but I listen to it often, because you absorb stuff when you listen to it and it will increase your vocabulary considerably when you are in full flow without realising it.
- If the crowd aren’t being responsive, it ain’t their fault
If the band is boring, make up to you to make it more interesting. Well, this is going to be a contentious one I think... As a lead guitar player, or even the rhythm guitar player, it’s kinda up to you to bring the colour to the songs. If you are working with a great bass player, they will do their bit, but if you are still banging out boring chords and predictable solos, then look at yourself before you judge your audience.
- Protect your hearing
Pretty certain I don't need to explain this any further...
- Carry spares. Of everything
I know, kinda obvious isn’t it. However, there was a time when I didn’t… turned out to be the worst gig of my life!
That’s my ‘have a word with yourself’ moment... For your amusement, the header picture of me is from 1992, and this is the 2018 version - and yes, I do miss my hair!
I’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.
I’m guessing that like a lot of people who may end up reading this I’m a member of many gear groups on Facebook. I am the chief admin on the Wampler one (and it’s one that’s kept me up at night for all the right and wrong reasons), that is generally extremely good-natured and given me the most pleasure, and a member of ones that appear to be at loggerheads with each other. As someone who classes himself as a ‘people watcher’, sometimes they are the most fascinating places on earth, and sometimes the most horrific.
This morning I read an academic piece that was looking at the community surrounding the Facebook group, Pedalboards of Doom, written by Matthew Haycroft. It was SO refreshing to read something that was overwhelmingly positive about his shared experience, the way he’s watched the group develop and the common themes that are picked up on and run with. In a world of constant negativity, it brought a smile to this grumpy old face.
I sat down and thought about it all and compared it to my own experience with various groups - although I can sympathise with a lot of it, and agree with a lot of it, there are also a lot of situations that have come up that are anything but. With this in mind, I thought I would discuss some of them and see what it says about us, the players (whatever level) and how we react to them
We’ve all seen this - people (and I am completely putting myself forward here for a reference point) that have their mind made up about something and don’t care who knows it and won’t listen to any arguments against. Generally, it matters not if it is about a product, a person, a corporation, or anything else - social media is the perfect breeding ground for opinions stated as fact. It’s something we are familiar with as we see it a lot in our own tone group, and it’s something we enjoy when it’s positive about our product, but what happens when those partisan feelings are challenged? Usually, it means one hell of an argument is going to take place, typically with a complete stranger. The interesting thing happens when someone approaches this with an agenda, an ulterior motive, or just looking to cause trouble. Mind you, these are normally the most entertaining. I’m guessing the real questions here are “Why do we care what other people think?” and “Why is my opinion a fact and everyone else’s not?”
Now, I’m not talking about actual politics and politicians, but the politics of a large group. It’s amazing to see splinter groups form, subgroups and allegiances, usually from people who have NO idea who they are actually dealing with, just with someone who appears to agree with the same things they do about one or two items – Most friendships start this way, in real life, but it would appear on the internet these ties between random people can get very very strong, very very quickly, and some people are prepared to go into a verbal war over them. It often makes me sit and think “How well do you know the person you are steadfast supporting here?” or “How well do you actually know the person you are slamming and give every impression you want them dead?”… and how about “Have you got the complete story here?” Thinking about it, the answer is ‘not even slightly’. People act differently online, I know I do, so why do we show utmost loyalty to someone who just shares the same preference as you do about something like tube screamers? It’s a weird one, isn’t it?
This is my favourite. As much as snobbery cracks me up, inverse snobbery cracks me up even more. You know what I am talking about “Look at his board, must be a Blues Lawyer”, or “Look at his gear, must be deaf to think that sounds good”, so on and so forth. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been called a Blues Lawyer because I gig a PRS and have had a board with two Strymon’s on it… I’ve also been called a “P&W player”, “snob”, “stupid” and the best one, “have too much money to be taken seriously”. I can assure you now, although I do have a law degree, I’m not a snob, can’t really play the blues, don’t have too much money, and I don’t think I’m stupid (although I’ve been known to do stupid things). What are we dealing with here? Envy?
This is another one that cracks me up… people are SO fast to be offended these days. My thought process on this is “Offence is taken, not given, so please be quiet” but I believe I’m in the minority. A lot of time is spent worrying about the delivery method of a statement over the content. A lot of time is spent arguing over language choice over substance. A lot of time is spent taking offence when you have the choice to walk away from it. Why is this? I don’t know. There are some things that are without question offensive and have no place in a group, any group (that is open to the public anyway) so why do people take so much offence about stuff? I’m thinking that a lot of it comes from people who haven’t experienced a wide range of different cultures. For example, I once discovered myself out drinking with an Aussie rugby player, a door security guard from Glasgow, an anarchic Vegan, a member of the conservative party, and someone I’m pretty certain was at some point in their life either a Satanist, white supremacist, or both. A heady mix to say the least. The interesting thing was that the conversation that night was wide-ranging and at times controversial, but not one person took offense from it. Maybe being able to read someone’s body language, hear the inflexions in their voice, or many other reasons meant this didn’t end up in a mass brawl. Why does it on the internet?
Showing off and name droppers
Pretty certain I don’t have to discuss this one too much, we’ve all seen it. It’s like I was saying to Brent Mason the other day…. *chuckle*
Another one that is fascinating to watch, people who deliberately try to push the boundaries of groups, and when they are pulled up about it they cry censorship, usually at a very high volume. Controversial behaviour is a wonderful thing, it’s something I do a lot, often to watch the reaction (you could say that this blog post is being just that, albeit it not being very controversial at all). Controversy changes things, calls things into question, but it has to be done in the right way. Freedom of speech (as much as platforms as Facebook allows) doesn’t come with freedom of consequence though. I’m guessing what I am saying is that people who try to push peoples buttons shouldn’t then get upset when those buttons start to be taken away by those who have complete control of the buttons!
As a rule, I love Facebook groups as they bring a wide section of humanity to them and you can, and do, learn a lot from them. There are some groups I’ve joined, that I’ve barely got out alive from, that I have no intention of ever going back to. Thankfully they appear to be the minority. In conclusion, and as usual when writing this, I’m being somewhat self-reflective and thinking about my own actions as much as others. I hope that I can do better going forward. How about you?