Something Different

At the end of my last entry I mentioned briefly that, musically, 2011 had gotten off to a good start. Here’s a little more detail on that:

One morning early in March, just as I had arrived at work and was waiting for my computer to start up, my cellphone rang. The caller, oddly enough, was a woman named Tori, who my wife and I had met only a few times through mutual friends.

Turns out that Tori is a writer, and that she had been invited to participate in an event called Funny Ladies 2, the second annual fundraiser for a local theater company. The reason she was calling me was that she had written songs for the event, rather than an essay or skit, and she needed an accompanist. She’d first contacted my friend Brian, who in turn suggested that I might be better suited to play the style(s) of music her songs were going to require.

Now, people who know me are well aware that I am not a fan of comedy. I’m blessed with many funny friends and family members, and there’s a lot of laughter in my life. But scripted jokes just don’t do it for me. I don’t watch sitcoms. I don’t go see comedy films. Don’t watch standup. Fast forward right through Letterman’s monologs. So naturally, I said “Sure, I’ll do it.”

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Over the course of that month we got together once or twice a week to learn three of her songs and to put together a bit of an act. Of course, it wasn’t at all clear to me whether any of it was actually going to make people laugh, and I think that may have been a bit frustrating for Tori. She kept asking me “This is funny, right?” or “Do you think this is funny?,” to which I could only respond, “Uhh…you’re going to have to ask someone else if it’s funny or not.”

She needn’t have worried. When the evening finally arrived, the room was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. We were scheduled last, a musical nightcap following an evening of readings, stories, jokes, and skits. Even for me, as out-of-my-element as it may have been, it was an enjoyable night, and when our turn came to take the stage the audience was primed.

We played three songs, interspersed with a little stage banter, and basically brought the house down. People loved us, and we started getting job offers before we even left the building. Which was marginally unnerving, since the three songs we had just performed were, in fact, the only three songs in our repertoire.

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Doing our thing at Funny Ladies 2. (I don't know what the heck I'm looking at.)

Just a day or two later, one if the show’s organizers asked us to consider putting together a full show, to be performed at some time and place to be specified later, and we’ve been working –however slowly– toward that goal ever since. We’re rehearsing every other week and methodically building our song catalog. Along the way, we have performed at another benefit show and done a couple of open mic nights at a local restaurant. So far it’s been great fun, and has given me a way to stay involved in my music despite all the complications with my work situation, which I’ve chronicled previously

Of course it’s also been an opportunity for me to use my “new” guitar in a real-world situation and see how she performs. Again, I can’t say enough good things about it. It feels great and plays easily. I’m getting great tone and volume, plugged and unplugged, and it gives me exactly what I need in any environment: subtlety in rooms where the audience is relatively quiet and attentive (the benefit shows), and plenty of cutting power in noisier rooms (open mic night). Everything I wanted and hoped for.

A 2010 Update

Well, I’ve neglected this blog for an awfully long time. And I realize now that, previous to announcing the downloads of my old band’s records, my last real entry was pretty bleak. So here I am, back to bring things up to date and, perhaps, paint a little brighter picture of things.

When I made that last report, my work situation had deteriorated so much that I couldn’t continue my lessons and had basically given up practicing. Things were bad. Unfortunately, about a month later it got a whole lot worse: My entire department was laid off, save for myself and one other member of my staff. Needless to say this was not a step in the right direction, and the fact is that to this day I have still not been able to find a way to make time for regular, structured, productive practice, let alone resume my lessons.

But on a brighter note, 2010 actually turned out to be a great year to hear other people’s music. When things got so bad, my wife and I quickly realized that for sanity’s sake we needed to make a very concerted effort to get out and enjoy ourselves, and as a result we saw lots of great live music. Tonic for the soul.

In January we saw Swell Season at Radio City. On Valentine’s Day we went to Brooklyn to see Stephane Wrembel at Barbes, the first of three times we would see him in 2010. In March, we went with friends to see Beppe Gambetta in Morristown, where John Carlini, my teacher, was among a number of musicians who made a special appearance. We saw Wilco at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair; Joseph Arthur, solo and unplugged at the Rubin Museum; The Avett Brothers at Radio City; and Leo Kottke at NJPAC in Newark.

In April, we traveled to NC for Merlefest, where we saw lots of old favorites like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Henderson, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tony Rice, and (again) the Avett Brothers. We also saw Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as Elvis Costello. And as is always the case at Merlefest, we discovered some new folks like Bearfoot and Harry Manx (who also opened for Leo Kottke later in the year, at the aforementioned NJPAC show).

Early in the year, when things were in the process of turning from bad to worse, we had decided not to return to the Newport Folk Festival despite having enjoyed it so much in 2009. Then we had such a good time at Merlefest that we realized skipping Newport would be a big mistake. As soon as we got back to Jersey we reserved a room and ordered our tickets. Good move: Some of the highlights at Newport 2010 were John Prine, Calexico, Yim Yames, Sam Bush (again), Low Anthem, Levon Helm Band, Swell Season (again, just weeks before the announcement that they were splitting up), Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and yet again, The Avett Brothers.

In addition to seeing all this live music, I was also fortunate enough to get together once or twice with a couple of different local musicians. One of the first people I met when I moved to Maplewood was my friend Jim, who happens to be quite a good jazz improv picker. We’d been threatening for years to get together to swap a few tunes, and in May we managed to do it. In addition, my friend Mike and I were able to go down to the monthly jam session in Little Silver another time or two during the year.

So all in all, even though I wasn’t able to fully get back into the swing of things, 2010 was nevertheless a good year for music. And as it happens, 2011 is starting to take off pretty well, too. But that’s another story. Or two…

A Peek Into The Past

I started playing guitar sometime in 1978, when I was in the eighth grade. Almost immediately I was getting together with friends to form bands. Of course my first thought was to become a rock star, but pretty soon it became clear that we could get a lot more gigging opportunities (and have a lot less gear to lug around) if we played bluegrass. By the time I was a high school sophomore I’d been through various incarnations of two or three bands, and everything finally shook out into a band called The Southland Ramblers. The personnel included me, my father, another father and his two sons, and a couple of friends. By late 1980 we were gigging regularly, had a bit of a following, and were starting to make a (very) little money. We decided we should make a record.

We picked out an assortment of some of our popular tunes, practiced them for a few months, and headed down to Arthur Smith’s recording studio in Charlotte, where the whole thing was recorded and mixed in one eight-hour day. “Here Come the Southland Ramblers” came out in 1981. We got 1000 copies of the LP and 500 8-track tapes, and it was just about the coolest thing any of us could imagine. Even better, people bought ’em!

Might as well make another one, then, right? In 1982 we recorded “We’re At It Again” at Bias Recording Studio in Springfield, Virginia. If anything, we were even more excited about this second record because it included a few of our original songs. Again, everywhere we played, people bought ’em up. Sweet.

We never found out what the connection was, but at some point after the second record came out, we got a call from Granite City Studios in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, asking if we’d like to record there. They offered us a really good deal (free recording and mixing, if we agreed to buy the records directly from them), and so came about our third record, “The Autograph Album.” Almost everyone who’d bought our first two records had asked us to autograph them, much to our surprise, so with this record instead of a front cover we included a 8×10 black-and-white glossy inside the shrink wrap. Hence the album name.

Well, as the younger among us headed off to school and/or out into the working world, the Ramblers inevitably dissolved — though the records, for a time, continued to sell. It’s a nice footnote, as well, to mention that later on my dad bought my mom a dobro, she learned to play, and they formed a band and continued to use the Southland Ramblers moniker for several more years.

All of this is preamble to the point of this post: Just before Christmas, an old friend of mine from high school, a very fine drummer named Bob Dunlap, transferred all three of our old records to CD for my mom. Thanks to Bob’s efforts, I’ve consequently been able to convert the songs to mp3 and post them on my website.

It’s been odd for me to hear them after all this time (I have copies of them, of course, but I haven’t owned a turntable in decades), and I can’t possibly offer even a remotely objective opinion about them, but for better or worse they are now available for anyone hear.

You can download them (for free) from my other website by clicking here. I’d love to get any feedback you might have about them. And, if you haven’t done so before, please feel free to click around and explore the rest of the website while you’re there. Let me know what you think….

The Latest is Not The Greatest

Since beginning this blog I’ve tried pretty hard to keep it focused cleanly on the subject at hand, which is to say my guitars, my guitar lessons, and my opinions and experiences related to both. I’m not completely convinced the world requires a public record of any of these things, but I am positive that what the world DOESN’T need is a public record of the more personal aspects of my life. I have made a conscious effort to only mention friends, family, my workplace, etc., insofar as they have some connection to or impact on the aforementioned guitar-related experiences.

And so it is that I write now about outside forces that have affected my musical pursuits over the last couple of months; not to complain (God knows I’m doing enough of that off-line these days), but rather to keep this record complete.

Since my last entry in October, a number of changes have taken place at work, chiefly the unexpected departure of my boss and the relocation of our NYC offices. Along with the continued crappy state of the general economy, the consequences of these two occurrences have been staggering. In addition to all the usual trials and frustrations of moving, our office relocation was also an office resizing — from a crowded-but-adequately-sized space to something roughly half the size. Over a month later now, we still haven’t figured out quite where to put everything. Worse, the absence of my boss has left an oversized hole in upper management which has resulted in an oversized dose of micromanagement coming from the top. My level of exhaustion and frustration is staggering and at least vaguely depressing.

All this may seem completely off the mark as related to the topics of this blog, but the connection is that all this has thrown me and my home life into such upheaval that I have almost completely stopped all my musical activity. First, my daily schedule became so irregular and unpredictable that I was forced to suspend my lessons. Since then the stress and overwork have increased exponentially, to the point where I’ve also suspended my practice time. I haven’t lost my interest and enthusiasm, but I’ve found that the only way for me to recharge my batteries is through passive activity: I can listen to music, watch TV, read…. I just can’t expend the energy to pay attention, make the decisions, and concentrate on the myriad of details necessary for mindful, constructive practice. Of course this, too, adds to my general frustration.

It’s very hard for me to see where this is all leading. My gut tells me the situation at work is unlikely to improve. It remains to be seen if I can find a way to personally deal with the situation more effectively, or if I’ll have to make changes of a more drastic nature. Certainly I can’t continue indefinitely down this same path.

Pickin’ & Grinnin’

Since settling in Jersey, I’ve been keeping an eye and an ear out to find bluegrass or folk musicians who might like to get together and play. I know they’re out there. They aren’t standing around on every street corner and coming out of the woodwork like they are in North Carolina, but they’re around. Every time we go to a show featuring any of our favorites — Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Dan Tyminski, Tim O’Brien, etc., the venues are packed and the audiences are enthusiastic. And where there are fans, some of those fans are also musicians. So they’re definitely here somewhere; it’s just a question of finding them.

My problem in finding other musicians is twofold, comprised of equal parts passivity and laziness. First, I rely too heavily on a personal theory that like-minded individuals will inevitably be drawn together without making any particular effort. But then, I’m so content to sit around the house doing nothing that in order for my aforementioned theory to actually work, those like-minded individuals would pretty much have to be miraculously drawn into my living room in order for me to find them. Not completely outside the realm of possibility, but somewhat unlikely.

This being the situation, I’ve been in Jersey six years now without meeting any of these fellow folk and bluegrass players. Upon this gradual realization, it occurred to me to post a message on our town’s online forum to see if anyone would respond. In less than 24 hours I found someone within a 15 minute drive from my house.

Unfortunately, we made contact just as everything in my life seemed to be going haywire all at once. My wife got sick, work went nuts, and my car broke down. So it was that even after we found each other, it took several weeks for us to get together and swap a few tunes.

But finally in September we both found a free Saturday and my new-found picking buddy Mike and I got together. He came to the house around 2, and we played through everything that came to mind until after 5:30.

For me, the coolest thing is that Mike played banjo, not guitar. Don’t get me wrong; two (or more) guitar players can make some great music and have a heckuva great time playing together. It happens often. Throw in a banjo, though, or a mandolin or pretty much anything other than a guitar, and you’ve automatically given the music another whole dimension. Also, I happen to just really dig the banjo in the first place, and I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a banjo player. It’s been at least a decade, maybe more. I had a blast. Mike also plays steel guitar, so there’s more fun to come on future Saturday afternoons.

This also was my first opportunity to play my new guitar with another musician, and I was really pleased with it. Strumming rhythm, the tone meshed well with Mike’s picking, and the volume very easily held it’s own. I stumbled through a few leads and a couple fiddle tunes, and it was plenty easy to keep my single-note lines loud enough, as well.

It’s been quite a long while since I played with another musician and I was rusty, to say the very least. But there was no way to diminish the quality of the instrument I was playing or the amount of fun I was having. From every aspect it was a great afternoon, and as Mike was leaving we made a preliminary plan to go together to the next jam session of the Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Association of New Jersey on the third Sunday in October.

More on that when the time comes.

What I Did This Summer

Summer activities have severely eaten into my practice schedule and, to a greater extent, my blogging time. But lessons and practice do go on.

Over the last weeks and months I have been working with John on some fingerstyle bossa nova rhythm. Mostly, but not exclusively, the changes to “The Girl From Ipanema.”  Although I’m a big fan of the song, and of bossa nova music in general, the real intent here is to build up my dexterity with unfamiliar changes and to increase my chord vocabulary. After all these years of playing essentially the same…what, maybe 40 or so?…chords over and over, I am completely astounded to rediscover what a difficult thing it is to learn new chords, chord shapes, and progressions.

Along with that, I’ve been working on reading the (Ipanema) melody line as written in my song book. I emphasize “as written” because the timing presented in the lead sheet is a bit more unconventional than anything I’ve been reading thus far, and it also doesn’t necessarily match any of the vocal renditions I’m familiar with. Of course I don’t want to be a slave to the written page, but as with the chord changes, I’m considering this to be less about learning the song per sé, and more as an exercise in learning to read and count.

As we’re covering this, John is explaining a lot about the theory behind the music; how certain structures and specific voicings work together, what other options there might be for different transitions, how those options affect the mood or the feel or even the melody itself. In all honesty, the biggest part of all this information is still quite a bit over my head, and I only comprehend the smallest, most basic concepts. But every time these discussions take place, a little more of it falls into place in my head.

Most recently we’ve returned to Bill Leavitt’s Modern Method books. Book Two, page 60 to be exact: “Position Playing.” John tells me this is “where the training wheels come off.” So far I’m only working on the first two pages, but the challenges are already obvious to me. Baby steps….

Out of it all, though, some things shine through in perfect clarity:

-Building my chord vocabulary and practicing chord solos John has written for me has very definitely helped me to feel more confident about playing up and down the neck. My knowledge of the fingerboard is still seriously lacking, but it’s clear to me that I’m continuing to make progress and that the territory above the fifth fret is not the no-man’s-land I’ve always thought it was.

-My reading skills have greatly improved. When I started lessons, I knew next to nothing about relating standard notation to the fretboard. Now I’ve reached a point where recently, as I was reading through some tablature, I noticed that I had switched to reading the notation without realizing it. To be sure, I’ve got a long way to go as a reader. But again, obvious progress has been made.

-Working with the scales, exercises, etudes, etc., on a regular basis, with established goals and focused intent, has opened a new awareness  for me in regards to my attention to fundamentals. Concentrating on this work has made me realize how lackadaisical I’ve been in the past with my accuracy, and how little attention I’ve paid to tone.

-Making the time for daily practice continues to be my biggest challenge in this whole endeavor. Too often I’m not able to strike the balance and fit everything in. But I just keep doing what I can….

A Closer Look

As I write this, it’s almost exactly three weeks since I received my first custom hand-built guitar, Ken Miller #139. Having followed its development closely throughout the build, even to the extent of traveling to Florida to visit Ken’s shop, I had every reason to believe that I would be extremely pleased with the results. But however high my expectations, I was completely unprepared for what a wonderful instrument it turned out to be. Having had some time now to get to know her a bit, I’m taking time to write down some of my impressions. I’m also adding a few more photos.

First, this guitar is simply gorgeous to look at. Although it doesn’t show especially well in these pictures, the Adirondack spruce top has a tight grain interspersed with subtle bear claw figuring, with more prominent figuring across the lower bout.

click any photo for a larger image
click any photo for a larger image

Equally subtle are the blue-green hues of the abalone rosette.

These somewhat understated features are contrasted against the powerful visual statement made by the back and sides. Fashioned from the highly figured quilted Honduran mahogany of “The Tree,” they can be almost dizzying to look at.

The bindings throughout, as well as the armrest bevel and the headstock veneer, are of Brazilian rosewood. Wooden purflings are teal and black. This photo also shows some of the bear claw figuring in the spruce top.

The fingerboard is ebony bound by Brazilian, with stainless steel frets. At the twelfth fret, more abalone inlay: the Tibetan word for “karma.”

Karma

But of course the true measure of any instrument is how well it performs, and here is where #139 really shines. The fingerboard is extremely easy and the set-up is great. This combined with it’s light weight make it a very comfortable guitar to play, made even moreso by the armrest bevel.

Most impressive of all, though (saving the best for last), is the sound. I’ve played many, many guitars over the years, and recently tried out many more before I began working with Ken. It is not an overstatement to say that none of them matched #139 for tone. All my life I’ve heard guitarists say a given guitar “rings like a bell,” and now I know what they mean. The trebles here are clean and bright, and the mids full and rich. The bass has a woody, robust complexity without any sacrifice in tonal clarity. Across the entire fretboard the guitar responds to the lightest touch with wonderful tone and tremendous volume and sustain.

If it is not already obvious, I will state it plainly: I don’t believe I could be any more pleased with or excited about a guitar than I am with #139.

Here At Last!

This morning at 11:30 I brought her out of the box, and I’ve hardly taken my hands off of her since. Ken Miller #139 has finally arrived! I did take a few minutes for some pictures:

 

Click Any Image for Larger Photo
Click Any Image for Larger Photo

The Back

And it sounds every bit as good as it looks! I’ll write more at some point when I can bear to stop playing it for awhile.

Four Little Words

After Sunday night’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, as we were getting ready to hit the hay, I took a minute to check my email. There it was, the email I had been waiting for, really, since sometime in August of last year. The first sentence of Ken’s latest message:

“Your guitar is done.”

It made me laugh out loud. I had the urge to make Suzy come in the room and read it, maybe to verify that it actually said what I thought it said. But instead I just yelled into the other room and read it to her.

In the remainder of the message, Ken said it looks, plays and sounds good, and that he’ll ship it out on Friday for a Monday delivery. So…here it comes! The wait is almost over.

Closer and Closer

Sunday night I received a few more pictures from the Millers. Ken had started varnishing the guitar last week, and here was a peek at the results so far. I’m not completely sure how long the entire varnishing process takes, or how long it has to dry or cure. But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that we’re moving nicely into the final stages of the build, and I’ll soon be playing my new guitar. Take a look.

The Adirondack spruce top, showing the beveled armrest (lower right):

click any image for larger pictures
click any image for larger pictures

The Honduran mahogany back, made from ‘The Tree’:

The Brazilian rosewood peghead, and a peek at the mahogany sides:

Another shot of the back:

At the 12th fret, shell inlay of a Tibetan word meaning “karma”:

Even in uncompleted pieces, it’s beautiful. I can hardly wait.