You are the weakest link…(or what motivates a musician?)

Anne Robinson

Tonight I’m off to play with the Shunters Blues band for the Norfolk Blues Society. The society has been running the blues jams for several years now, and it’s about to stage the Dereham Blues Festival for the third year. It’s been a massive success. I’m not playing this year, but Workhorse (my last band) played last year and it was a fantastic event to be part of.

But back to tonight. I’m playing Hammond tonight, not something I’m overly proficient at. In fact, with only 7 months experience, I’m very much punching above my weight with a such a great band. And that started me thinking about what motivates musicians, and especially what motivates them to step outside their comfort zones and do things that push them to the edge of their abilities?

I started thinking seriously about Hammond and Piano when I injured my left hand last year. I invested in gear, took advice, got a great rig together that I’m still working on. But my hand is now healed, I can play guitar just fine, so why persist with something I know little about?

The best musicians, and the people I grew up admiring, had one thing in common. They didn’t play it safe. Players like Rory Gallagher for example, no two nights were the same – the band jammed every night. Deep Purple, the interplay between Blackmore and Lord, it was spontaneous. Any time you play that way, you step into the unknown.

The guitarist in Ned Kelly’s Ambush, Bob Youngs, said something after a gig not long ago that stuck with me. He said ‘this band is best when it’s not playing the songs’. And I understand what he meant. It was those gaps in the arrangements where we were just jamming out the groove that created extra excitement.

So I have reached the conclusion that while most of us have very diverse reasons and motivations, there’s a group of us that have one driving force in common:

Fear

Seems a strange motivation but bear with me a minute while I explain.

Fear creates adrenalin, not the kind of numbing fear that leaves you debilitated, but that level of fear that it could all go wrong while still being driven to take that risk with lots of people watching.

I have played Cabaret, after the fist few gigs it’s just play, repeat, play. It was largely money for old rope. There was  no fear. The audience would drink, dance and go home. We would get paid. Then we’d do it all again next weekend. No Risk, No Fear, no Adrenalin. It was a good job, undertaken in good company, and I learned a lot from it. But I have never repeated the experience, because I earned more money driving a truck, so for a job of work that made much more sense.

So maybe it’s not fear so much as risk itself. But with any risk comes a degree of fear that it might go wrong, and that fear then heightens the reward. So that reward can only really exist if there is fear of failure, which means the player has a healthy respect for his audience and for his fellow musicians. We care, it’s important to us.

So we’re basically ‘Junkies’ – but in a shared experience. Basically, there’s a good number of us for whom playing a gig often feels like jumping out of an aeroplane at 5000ft with nothing more than a Union Jack Hankie for a parachute. And that’s more than healthy, it’s vital.

And maybe that’s why I still love that era between the mid 60’s and the mid 70’s, where bands like Cream, the Hendrix Experience, Taste, Deep Purple and others were constantly pushing the boundaries every night, forcing each other to constantly produce something more exciting than the last night. It was an era of dangerous music. It’s the kind of music I want to play, loose, interactive, risky. EXCITING!

And that brings me back to tonight – and the NBS Blues Jam. I am the weakest link, the least experienced member of tonight’s house band, just as I am with Ned Kelly’s Ambush. And I’m already buzzing, 12 hours in advance, because I know that I’m going to be working with great  musicians who will lead me to the aeroplane door, hand me my Union Jack Hankie, and then in the nicest way, give me a gentle push!

Does it feel 100% safe. No, but the generosity of spirit that is a driving motivation of the NBS means that I know I’ll be guided to a soft landing spot. And so will you if you come along and play. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, You’ll be amongst friends, the Shunters will welcome you in and look after you.

But the thrill on the way down will be unmissable.

Will the real mahogany step forward….

Wood, it’s a complex subject. And for guitar makers can often become much more complex because of the claimed tonal properties of different woods, a subject I will return to later.

But what is the wood you are buying for your guitar, and where does it come from, and does it really matter that much?

Over the last month I have been working on two commission guitars for customers here in the Fakenham workshop. One is a solid body violin bass, a kind of hybrid between the old EB-1, and a Les Paul bass. The other is a ‘Les Tele’ – it looks like a telecaster but it’s built like a Les Paul with a figured maple top, glued in neck and two humbuckers.

Here’s a picture of three offcuts from the timbers I used across the two jobs.

image

All three were supplied to me as being ‘Mahogany’. But clearly they aren’t the same. So which one is the real Mahogany, and what are the imposters’ real identities?

I’ll give you a few seconds to take an educated guess……..have you made your choice yet. If so, read on:

Starting on the left, the first sample is ‘Sapele’. Many supplier simply supply this as ‘Mahogany’, but although its is from the same family, the Meliaceae family of tree,  it is from the Entandrophragma genus, which is not that similar to what we know as real mahogany. For a start, it is much more dense, making it a heavy wood for bodies. Also it’s grain structure is more interwoven and complex, making it harder to plane and sand. However, it is very good for necks and looks amazingly red even without staining. I have used it for the body on the Violin bass, and it looks simply stunning.

The middle sample was also sold to me as Mahogany. And it is, in a way. It’s African Mahogany, from the Khaya genus of trees. Although the grain structure looks similar, for me this wood is not really mahogany. However, when looking for fairly good lengths for bass necks, this is often the only real choice offered by luthier supplies companies. It’s light so it won’t make the guitar neck heavy, and that’s it’s main advantage. It also takes a stain well. But it’s a pig to work with a lot of the time. Supply is very hit and miss for quality, and I have thrown a piece away recently because it was just rubbish, cracking along the grain and tearing out everywhere, even with freshly sharpened tools (and my tools are very sharp, I assure you!).

The one on the right, is what most people would call ‘Mahhogany’. Almost certainly from the Swietenia genus of trees, and harvested in the only continent in the world where real mahogany grows – the Americas. I have just built a telecaster body from this, and I can honestly say it’s one of the nicest pieces of wood I have ever worked with.

But here’s the catch. It was probably a pretty old tree when it was cut down, over 100 years ago! It was reclaimed from the bar at the Fox and Hounds, Heacham, and probably dates back to the beginning of the last century.

So when you buy an off the shelf guitar and they tell you it’s a mahogany back and neck, and the guitar was made in the far east – which of these species do you think you got?

More importantly, could you tell the difference?

That’s a subject I’ll come back to another day……

Sound Guy Rules – A gentle riposte

Ok, we know it’s true guys – some days us musicians suck and the sound guy saves us. That backing vocalist who is constantly flat; yeah, the sound guy mixed him down. The guitarist who drank too much, the sound guy turned up the keys to cover him. And most of the time, we love you to bits, you’re our ally front of house. But not always… So with all the general advice to musicians out there, I thought I might start with a gentle riposte to all the ‘musicians are such assholes’ articles out there on the web with a few “Dos and Don’ts” for soundguys from us musos! (Don’t take it to heart guys, we know most of you know this stuff already, and we love you !)

1) Be on time. Most rigs are hired in for events in the UK, very few smaller venues have house rig and a house guy. But even if you are a house guy, be on time. There’s nothing worse for a musician than to be still sound checking as the people are walking in. And if the band is set up and waiting for the rig, your relationship with them is already screwed and the night is going to be unpleasant, probably for the audience too as the sound is going to be a rush job.

2) Don’t assume that all musicians are assholes. OK, I know, some of us are, but please take a moment and allow us to remove all doubt before you treat us as the assholes we really are. We might just surprise you by being professionals. Might, I said…..no promises!

3) Know your artist before you take the job. Or if you don’t, do a little research. I watched a great Zep tribute band at a 10,000 capacity venue about 5 years ago. The two guys on the desk had clearly never heard a Led Zep record. Ever. It’s a guitar driven blues rock band, right? We all know that. They didn’t – no guitar in the rig at all, bass drum rattling the buildings all around the square, and enough bottom end to imitate one of those US military experiments where they try to make the enemy drop its guts.

4) Be Sober. Or close to it. We’ll buy you a beer or two if you’re a decent guy but please take it easy. Hearing goes real quick when you’re hammered. Don’t be hung over – that might be worse than drunk, because nobody is Mr Approachable while they’re hanging. Don’t you guys always rage about drunk musos?

5) Monitors – If you’ve taken a job running live sound for a 5 piece rock band with big vocal harmonies and you turn up with a single wedge and no side fill….well you know how the night is going to go. I did a musical in a temporary venue once where we were told we had to use ‘line’ amps – i.e. no speakers and everything was to be monitored back with headphones. I spoke with the sound guy weeks before the shows to set the spec. (There wasn’t a pit, we were in a temporary booth in the wings). You guessed it – turned up on the day and the sound company denied all knowledge of this (basically calling me a fool or liar), and to add to that didn’t even have wedges. We had to go and locate amps and monitors for the V-Drums on dress rehearsal day. The whole week then turned into a pitched battle with the sound guys complaining we were too loud, and us desperately trying to hear the stage. The rows were legendary, and punches nearly thrown!

6) Volume. Don’t be afraid to tell us our stage volume is too much for the room. If the guitarist can’t hear his rig over the drums at the volume you need, he’ll cope if you put a little in his monitor. Come with the solution (see 5), and problems evaporate quickly. Soundcheck at something like gig volume though. How many times have I done a gig where the sound check was great, but as soon as the gig started everything was feeding back and howling….it’s because the rig got turned up and it’s leaking back onto the stage. Even outdoors this can happen, because the PA speakers leak through the back of the boxes.

7) Keep your rig in good order. Test your cables, keep your spares organised. Chasing issues on the day is a pain in the ass for you as well as us and everyone’s nerves get frazzled. Once confidence is broken for the night, it’s rarely recoverable. Or schedule for that matter.

8) (And this is probably the real biggie right here) You are NOT Merlin the bloody wizard. We don’t expect you to disappear. Locating the sound guy during the set shouldn’t be like a “Where’s Wally” picture book puzzle! Especially as the PA all just went sideways, the monitors have failed and there’s a local taxi firm’s radio competing for space in the mix!

Now it sounds like I’m being really negative about the Sound Guy – but I’m not and here’s the main point: There are going to be sound guys out there reading this who are saying ‘I never do that’, and I know. But just like musicians, most of you are decent guys trying to work with you to get a difficult job done in good spirits. Just like the idiot, egotistical, unreliable, drunk, asshole musicians that always get complained about, it’s a very few giving the majority of hard working professionals a bad name.

And musicians, remember that when you came off stage last night ready to kill yourselves and each other because you thought your playing was absolute pants, but then got mobbed by an appreciative audience for whom the sun shone your of your backside, it was probably the sound guy that saved your ass!

Buy him a beer, get his number and hire him again.

( He’s easy to find. He’ll be the guy at the back of the hall looking like the dude at the end of the video – with an exhausted expression and smoke coming out of his fingers!)

A first foray…..

Hi everyone.

How to begin…? Well firstly I should tell you who I am and why I’m here.

My name is Tony Edwards. (Sorry it’s not something more exotic, as several promoters have pointed out, but more of that later). I’m a musician and luthier based in Fakenham, a small market town in the heart of rural Norfolk. As you can imagine, it can be a little difficult getting to know people when you’re in a new place, and miles from the city, so I thought I might try a little blogging to see who is out there, and if there might be some conversation to be had with similarly interested people.

I’ll share some of the interesting projects I have in the workshop, stories from the gigging circuit and maybe some thoughts on general music issues that arise from time to time. Plus I might ramble on a bit about woodworking in general, as it seems to take up a large portion of my time these days.

Oh, and football. I’ll try not to bang on too much about football, but I should warn you in advance that I’m a Hammer. Well I’m sure most of you know how up and down a life that can be..

I’ll try to keep it light and entertaining if I can. I’m not a professional writer and I don’t pretend to be, but feel free to criticise poor spelling, grammar and lousy content, because I do the same with my boys’ homework so I can hardly get precious about it!

So I hope I’ll see you here, Feel free to leave comments and generally get involved.

All the best

Tony