Friday, May 29, 2009

Guitar Next Door: 1996 Gibson Country Gentleman

“Don’t point at anything you don’t intend to shoot” is the watch phrase of gun safety training. “Don’t make a guitar off the Gruhn Guitars website your wallpaper unless you intend to buy it” is the guitar safety watch phrase. The owner of today’s Guitar Next Door did just that, and gave me the opportunity to take a look at this beautiful 1996 Gibson Chet Atkins Country Gentleman.

The Country Gentleman originally came out of Chet Atkins’ association with Gretsch Guitar sales rep and designer Jimmie Webster in 1954 yielding first the 6120 and then the 6122 Country Gentleman in 1958. George Harrison used one of these in the 1963 era Beatles. Chet Atkins left Gretsch in 1979 shortly after the death of Fred Gretsch, Jr and later collaborated with Mike Voltz of Gibson on a design released in 1987.

This example was manufactured in 1996 based on the serial number and is a beautiful sunrise orange and shows that stage presence factored heavily into the design. Take a look at the photo of the headstock; the tuners have these flip out crank handles for quick and easy restringing. My initial thought on seeing photos of George Harrison with his original Country Gent was that it looked like someone carrying a stuffed Marlin under one arm, it seemed big. However, the guitar is very light, thin, and great fitting. Closest thing I have experienced to this model is the Jim Nichol’s Signature Archtop from late guitar builder Bill Hollenbeck. 

I plugged it into my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe and played something I thought would be archtop oriented like Sleepwalk (remote approximation of the Brian Setzer version) and the Beatles’ “All My Loving.” This amp never sounded so good! It has a comfortable and fast neck and the Bigsby Vibrato Tailpiece feels and sounds great. 

Hmmm, I think I need download some new wallpaper for my PC!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rethinking Your "Guitar" Swing

I listened recently to some improvisation I recorded over backing tracks and came away underwhelmed. It was long on licks, short on musicality. Although licks were strung together notes only randomly arrived in the right place at the right time in relation to the rhythm track; emphasis on the 4 tone when playing blues over the IV chord, 5 tone over the V chord and so forth. Bummer!

My problem is the “more notes are better” improvisation approach and it was giving me similar results to attempting to mash the ball every time I tee off in golf. Whether lack of musicality or a bad slice, the approach needed to change. I decided to focus on note selection and simplicity versus flash; like developing a consistent golf swing for accuracy before going for distance.

Simplicity for me was recording a simple 12 bar slow blues track with I, IV, and V chords. Then, experiment with the notes out of the blues scale to emphasize over each chord. Next, I allowed one “lick” per 12 bars and worked out a simple “turnaround” for the last two bars. Finally, I recorded a solo track over the backing track so I could compare the new approach. Seems like a 150 yard drive straight down the fairway is better than a 200 yard shank that lands in a neighboring fairway!

I do this for a hobby and stress release and have no illusions of being a pro. Nonetheless, I want to improve and this exercise yielded an enormous improvement in the musicality of my improvisation. The main difference was a relationship between the improvisation and the chords I was playing over (the entire point) and it sounded better as a result even without face melting licks.

If you do not like where your your improvisation work is going maybe it is time to explore working on your guitar swing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Depressurize With Music

I was sitting around the house bumming out about the unfairness of advancing age and having to go on blood pressure medicine after my last physical. Then, I hear a story on CNN in the background; The power of music: It’s a real heart opener. Not enough music is a lot better explanation than stressing out about the economy, eating too much of the wrong kind of foods, and limited exercise!

Seems the worse the economy gets the more stress and work are involved keeping up and the less guitar time I’ve been getting. The work of research cardiologist Dr. Mike Miller indicates I need to be getting more guitar time in. Playing music and even listening to it causes the inner lining of your blood vessels to relax and produce chemicals that protect the heart. He is also of the belief that music can be so relaxing that it can slow down the aging process; wow, prolong treatment (extending life span) is not just science fiction! One thing to keep in mind though is variety because you do not get the blood vessel benefit playing or listening to the same thing repeatedly. 

More guitar playing is now part of my therapy along with the proverbial diet and exercise thing you hear on the pharmaceutical commercials. On the variety front, a neighbor introduced me to the music of Joe Bonamassa. Download of his latest album on iTunes introduced me to Albert Cummings and I am off to the races listening to new stuff! I have heard of stranger therapies; if more guitar playing helps me maintain healthy blood pressure without a prescription I’m there!

If all else fails this “therapy” still has its advantages; “can you turn your volume down?” - “no honey, I’m doing therapy right now.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lynyrd Skynyrd Trail

We recently started a new ‘Historic Trail’ road trip tradition. Rather than following the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail or the Historic Oregon Trail we decided to create our own tradition based on place names in rock songs. Muscle shoals Alabama qualified as our first based on two criteria; Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” of course - “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/and they’ve been known to pick a song or two”, and it was relatively close. I expected a wide place in the road to explore for a couple hours but discovered the legendary “Muscle Shoals Sound” instead.

The journey began with a drink in the hotel bar on arrival and gazing at their wall of fame depicting artists such as Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon, Little Richard, Bobbie Gentry, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. Since I knew Bob Dylan was not from Alabama I figured it wasn’t about locals making it big. A brief read of town history on the back of the bar menu clued me in that Muscle Shoals was churning out a bunch of hits in the 60s and 70s. The “Swampers” is actually Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), and David Hood (bass); founders of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969 and also called the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. If you do not recognize them just think of songs like “Mustang Sally”, “Kodachrome”, and “When a Man Loves a Woman”. They played on them all and hundreds more. Apparently many people hearing their music were surprised they were white and I guess I’m one more.

Armed with newfound knowledge, we headed off to find FAME Studios, one of the prominent studios of the eight running at the peak. Turns out it is an unassuming 50s looking building and I walked into the front office asking about tours. “Nope, this is a working studio, man, and there is a session going now.” They are still turning out hits; how cool is that? They let us look in one of the open recording rooms and we then headed off to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame for more music appreciation and education (including being about the billionth people to record Sweet Home Alabama in the museum's sound studio just behind a group of Germans). 

Overall we ended up spending two days exploring. One lesson learned in all of this is do not take what you hear for granted as it is easy to imagine music is pumped out of generic factories. There’s a story behind everything; "wide spots in the road" rarely turn out to be so.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Power Tab Editor - Why Not?

I purchased Blues-Rock Evolution by Jeff McErlain and it featured the Power Tab Editor "... free shareware thanks to Brad Larsen, who wrote it and shares it with players the world over." Trying to get older software (year 2000 release date) running on Vista is like dancing with a chicken, but I was anxious to see the tabs so took the plunge.

After a surprisingly trouble free install (a tribute to backward compatibility) I opened the first tab file and wow! Dynamic tab! Power Tab plays the tab and notation using midi on your machine. I was impressed enough that I jumped on to the Internet to search for the current release, which is where things came down to earth.

As a child I dreamt one night I had a wonderful toy car carrier. It was a big Mack truck carrying Corvettes and Thunderbirds and I had it parked under my bed for safe keeping. Next morning I leapt out of bed to retrieve my rig and found nothing but cobwebs and dust mites. I had somewhat the same feeling when I got to and saw the caption “Power Tab Archives Closed” followed by article links with “Music Publishers’ Association” MPA in them. Dang! No wonder there are no new releases; seems Power Tab Editor is another victim of Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Now I’m all for people making money off what they create, I just wish publishers could bow to the inevitability of DRM free distribution. After all, legal downloads of DRM free music such as Amazon and iTunes Plus is ubiquitous now. Still, some content such as electronic books and apparently Power Tab format still have not arrived at their ultimate DRM free end state. Late breaking news of a PTA Relaunch though indicates a resolution is at hand. As of April 3, 2009, release of Power Tabs via the Internet has a new lease on life with royalties being paid through advertising. You can go to Power Tabs Discussion Forum to track the progress.