On white paint markers, pedal boards, and singing

I’ve been looking forward to this moment of sitting down at my desk to write. It’s just the thing for me to do on this fine Sunday evening.

There have been a few important things that have happened. The main thing is that the record dropped. Its official release date was one week ago, on Mother’s Day. Some people have bought it. I know that many have given it a listen on bandcamp. I’m hoping to schedule a few shows to try and promote it. I’m even contemplating trying to make a video or two. I’ll tell you more about that as it unravels.

The semester is done. Usually, I would be hopping on a plane now to head to my beloved Madrid, but this year I am not going. Instead, I’ll be here. In an effort to ease into the summer, I have started to tackle a few odds and ends that I have had lingering for some time.

White Paint Markers

I have a few guitars that don’t have the “dots” marked on side of the fingerboard facing upward as you look down on the neck. I hadn’t cared too much about that. Classical guitars typically have no markings of that sort, so I grew accustomed to that back in the day. Even though it has been a very long time since I have studied classical guitar with any seriousness, I still maintain a bit of pride about it. I suppose this pride is manifested in the form of having a few electric guitars with no dots on them. I can feel you being oh so impressed with me.

The main issue is a recent acquisition from Old Style Guitars which is a little Stella. Reuben Cox put in a super cool Teisco gold-foil pickup in it, got rid of the old bridge and replaced it with a floating, tune-able bridge. You might think that this is an acoustic guitar with a pickup. It’s not. It’s not an electric, either. It’s something unique and special. This guitar might just be the coolest one I own.

IMAG0048

My beautiful Stella. Might be the grooviest thing I own.

So I have this bad-ass little guitar that has a ridiculous tone, especially through my Ampeg SuperJet. Why not play it live? I’ll tell you why. It doesn’t have the dots. Because it doesn’t have the dotes, I get lost <insert ashamed emoticon here>. I had to face facts and admit to myself that I would have a problem playing this guitar live without the damned dots. So what am I to do?

Last week, I found myself driving around town picking up random odds and ends that I have been meaning to buy for a long time now. I picked up a new novel to read as part of my renewed effort to read fiction again. I picked up a frame to hold my extra special certificate from Beakman’s world for the office. Next, I thought to finally get something like a White-Out pen to make some dots, but I didn’t find any. Instead, I picked up this Sharpie oil-based white paint pen. This thing is AWESOME. I want to paint pen anything and everything, but I started with making my needed dots.

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Now that I have dots, I know where to put my fingers!!!

You can see in the picture to the left that I have successfully put dots on. This was a game-changer. I swear it even makes the guitar sound better (not really).

All in all, I had three guitars requiring dots painting. One is my single pickup Kay. One is my Harmony arch-top that I use for slide. And last, but not least, is the Stella. Now, I have been actually practicing performing my songs. I’m dialing in some tones and tweaking my amp settings to find the sweet spot that scales up for performing live. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Amazing. All it took was a few tiny painted dots to re-energize me to play again!

Organizing a new pedal board

In addition to thinking about playing live soon, I have an upcoming session date to play on the new Scott Gagner record. I’m really looking forward to going back into the studio again. I’m starting to really get comfortable with studio work and I really like the challenge of coming up with the right parts for a given song. I suppose it helps that I co-wrote a few of the songs on this record, but it’s not even about that. I like the puzzle of trying to come up with parts that Scott might want for his record. We worked on some of the songs this past weekend, and some of them call for heavy use of effects pedals. In my own playing, I have been trying to reduce the amount of pedals I use, but I’m starting to get back into them.

As I was driving back to Merced from San Francisco this afternoon, I spent a little time thinking about what pedals to bring to the session. It was just about that time that I was approaching Modesto. I decided to stop by to check out their pedal board options at the local Guitar Center. I ended up buying a gig-bag like board and a fancy power supply. It made the remainder of the drive back exciting. I got to think about how to organize my new pedal board. Here’s what I came up with.

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My current pedal board setup. I predict that it will change tomorrow.

Right now, I have my tuner, compressor, eq, vibrato, and tape echo. I will probably swap out the compressor since I’m not so crazy about playing through a compressor pedal anymore these days. I used to love it, but I like my current (and future?) amps so much that I want to hear as much of them as I can. My vibrato pedal is a cheapy, but it’s supposed to be the same circuit as the discontinued Boss VB-2. I may invest in the Maggie, but I’m not sure just yet. Maybe for the Scott Gagner session, I’ll put in a Tube Screamer or the Cult pedal that Joe Gore made for me. See? Isn’t putting together a pedal board fun?!?

On singing

Okay. So this section should be a separate entry, but I’m combining it here to keep a lid on any rant I might start here.

First of all, I do not consider myself to be a particularly good singer. I think I’m alright, but not good, and certainly not great. I would like to be better and I’m working on that, but perhaps not as hard I should. Whatever. All I mean to say is that I’m no expert. Not even close.

Now singing. This is a big deal. I have been finding more and more that singing is a really important thing. Nearly all of my close friend-girls harbor some notion of wanting to sing. I wouldn’t be surprised if guys felt that way, too, but we don’t talk about those sorts of things out loud. People are obsessed with singing competition shows like American Idol or The Voice. Somehow I have come discover late in life that the act of singing is a deeply emotional subject for us humans. It’s rather peculiar. I came into singing pretty much accidentally. I sang just to have a reason to play guitar since I couldn’t really get anyone to hang out with me and listen to a bunch of Alex DeGrassi records. Don’t worry, I had enough sense at the time to not try to get people to sit around and listen to Alex DeGrassi records with me.

In my high school band, we found ourselves just singing because that was our best option. It worked out. Well, except for the fact, that the super cheap Radio Shack microphones that we used for rehearsal basically shocked me every time my mouth got close. Anyway, from there, I just kept singing, but I never considered myself to be a singer. It wasn’t until I was starting to prepare for my first record that I actually had to come to grips with the fact that if I wasn’t a singer, I was certainly doing all of the things that singers do, like thinking about how to sing things. It took Jason saying to me that we should think of this (the first record) as a vocal-based record. That blew my mind because that meant that I had to think about being a “vocalist.” Looking back, a key turning point for me was a song that Scott and I wrote called “Falling In Love.” That’s when I started to really mess around with stretching and condensing timing and cadence in different ways. From there, I was able to write and sing songs like “It’s Not Fair” and “Past My Prime.”

Now that I think about singing, I am forming some opinions about singers and singing. It’s not so unlike discussions I’ve had about art. A typical response I hear from people when looking at an abstract painting is a questioning about whether or not they could have done it themselves. I find that many people approach art with suspicion and doubt. I think one part of this might be the fact that people want to be impressed by something. Technique is usually something someone can identify easily. The same happens with singing. Hearing a singer hit a big note, a high note, or a flourish of notes in some kind of soulful run seems to impress people a lot. It’s what people seem to want. They hoot and holler when it happens on The Voice, for example. Change the key up one full step, strain your voice, and belt it out. That’s what gets the applause.

I’m over it. I want to be moved, not impressed. I want the whole thing including nuance, delicacy, elegance, balance, dynamics, as well as power and strength all tastefully juxtaposed.

I was talking this morning with my friend, David, about the recent events with Harry Connick Jr. during American Idol. I’m really happy that I didn’t watch that episode. It would have broken my heart to hear Harry Connick Jr. plea with Randy Jackson, and frankly, the rest of the world about singing from the Great American Songbook with depth and respect. Even some of the best singers out there, e.g. Adele aren’t very dynamic (I got that example from Syd Straw when we were talking about this very subject). I can’t really listen to Beyonce, Rhianna, Mumford & Sons, Muse, etc anymore. It just seems like everyone is singing in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME. This makes me rather unpopular to say these things, but I cannot tell a lie. I don’t like it.

Anyway, call me old or whatever. I think you should demand to be challenged, not demand to be impressed. To be impressed is superficial. Just like guitarists. Some can play more notes per second than I can hear. That’s certainly impressive. But for the life of me, I don’t know how that is compelling.

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7 comments

  1. Josh Daughdrill

    Well done; I certainly enjoyed the comments about vocalists and singing. We too have been forced (right word?) to sing and now demphasize lyrics (or reduce the number of words we sing usually) because of our limitations. But it has been cool to rethink singing and songwriting and develop the voices we do have. Looking for you to play live ’round here.

    • yellowhope

      Interesting! I look forward to reading that article. I’m willing to believe that there’s an immediate neurological response to “big” singing. But perhaps this study and others just beg for a longitudinal study to see what works over the long haul.

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