Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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Mixing Metropolis

I’ve just completed a new track entitled “Metropolis”, although it could easily have been called “The Never Ending Mix”, as it was a right, royal pain in the arse to get it finished. Time and again, I would set up another mix & think “yeah… it’s OK, but that drum fill coming out of the 2nd chorus needs to be longer…” or something like that. Anyway I persevered and finally got it sounding the way I heard it in my head, so I thought I’d share with you how I put a mix together.

Before we begin, let’s just get a couple of terms out of the way…

If you’re not familiar with using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or mixing desk a “track” is the individual channel that a performance is recorded onto. You can control the volume, EQ & effects of the take you record onto this track using the controls assigned to it. A “bus” is like a track, but you don’t record onto it – a bus is essentially a track that you feed other tracks into so you can manage a group of them with a single set of controls. The “Master Bus” is exactly what it sounds like – the bus that all of the tracks in the tune eventually end up going through to produce your final mix. Now, let’s take a look at how I mixed “Metropolis”…

First of all, let’s begin with the bass – all I do to this is add a little compression. You can see the settings here in this screen shot of the preset I use in Cakewalk Music Creator.

comp

Next, I plumb this track straight into the Master Bus.

For everything else in the track… drums, rhythm guitars, piano & lead guitar, I tend always to use the same reverb setting (you don’t really want a reverb-y bass sound as it will lose definition). Using a common reverb to all the instruments gives the subliminal impression that they are all in the same room & helps to reinforce the “band” sound that I’m going for. To this end, I put the outputs of all these instruments into a separate bus called “All But Bass” & place my reverb on this bus. Here is the preset I use:

reverb

The output of this bus is then fed directly into the Master Bus.

For the rhythm guitars, I tend to always double track these – play the same part twice on separate tracks & pan these hard left & right. This gives a much bigger sound. Don’t be lazy about it & think you can just copy/paste from one track onto another though… all this will do is give you a louder, centred version of the part. It’s the minute differences between the two takes that give the big sound you’re looking for when they are panned to opposite sides of the stereo picture.

On this tune I ended up doing a total of six rhythm guitar tracks:

  • Left & right clean strummed chords
  • Left & right clean strummed chords with tremolo effect
  • Left & right power chords

Each left/right pair of rhythm guitar tracks was sent to it’s own bus, so I could control the volume of each left/right pair with a single fader. The output of each bus was then sent to the All But Bass bus where it would get a coating of reverb & from there it goes into the master bus.

The lead guitar track, like all the others was fed into the All But Bass bus, but before it goes there, I always tend to add a little delay. Once again here are my settings:

delay

This way the lead guitar ends up with a little delay echo as well as the reverb it gains on it’s way through the All But Bass bus.

Finally we come to the Master Bus itself. Cakewalk Music Creator has a wonderful analogue tape simulator effect which really warms up the sound of the whole mix. Here is the preset I use on this effect:

tape sim

And lastly I always add a subtle touch of compression to the overall mix on the Master Bus & here are the settings for that.

mix comp

I’ll round off by letting you hear the difference that some of these effects make. For the reverb check out these two examples using the drums:

  • Drums with no reverb – Click HERE
  • Drums with reverb – Click HERE

And here’s how the compression solidifies the bass sound:

  • Bass with no compression – Click HERE
  • Bass with compression – Click HERE

Let’s take a look at how that double tracking trick widens up the sound of a rhythm guitar part:

  • Single rhythm guitar take – Click HERE
  • Double tracked rhythm guitar – Click HERE

The lead guitar…

  • Without delay & reverb – Click HERE
  • With delay & reverb – Click HERE

The final mix…

  • Without the analogue tape sim – Click HERE
  • With analogue tape sim – Click HERE

And finally, the whole track as it ended up sounding using the methodology described, as well as a “wash” through the LANDR online mastering service…

Until next time…

Have fun!

 

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

10 Guitarists Who Leave Me Awestruck

Following on from my last post about the ten guitar players who I just don’t get, I thought I’d make this post kind of the opposite. This is my own personal list of the ten guitarists who, for one reason or another, send a shiver down my spine. It may only be one track, or even a single solo, which warrants inclusion on this list. Or it may be an entire body of work… let’s find out:

  1. Gary Moore. There are so many tracks that I could name… The Loner; Black Rose; King Of The Blues… the list is potentially endless. But for sheer musicality, feeling, jaw-dropping technique, and melodic fiery playing it has to be Blues For Narada. Gary seemed, to me, to be the perfect rock guitarist. He had the flashy turn of speed, that was so much en vogue in the 80s when I first heard him. But unlike all the “shred” guys who regularly graced the cover of Guitar Player magazine back then, he always stood out as being less “schooled” and more natural in his approach. Couple his fearsome speed with a gift for melody and an uncanny ability to find any emotion in those couple of millimetres between strings and frets, and you have the ultimate player.

  2. Jeff Beck. Perhaps the most unique of all guitarists… he has a touch that is unmistakeable. His use of the tremolo arm (something I’ve always shied away from) to create slide-like glissando sounds is masterful. He has always strived to evolve as a player, too… that trem arm technique isn’t evident in his earlier work, but it shows that, unlike many “rock gods” of the 60s & 70s he wasn’t one to rest on his laurels. If all you have ever heard of Jeff Beck is Hi Ho Silver Lining, then you owe it to yourself to check out his funk/blues/jazz/rock masterpiece album Blow By Blow. Genius.

  3. Hank Marvin. Quite simply, the man who made me want to play the guitar in the first place. Again, so many tracks to choose from… Apache; Atlantis; FBI; Wonderful Land… but if I had to choose my favourite Shadows tune it would be Theme For Young Lovers. I’d put the melody from this tune up alongside anything by Mozart or Beethoven. It’s THAT good.

  4. Eric Johnson. His second album Ah Via Musicom is a veritable encyclopaedia of stunning guitar technique, feel and variety. You go from the shred-tatstic, but hummable melodic Cliffs of Dover to the Hendrixian High Landrons via the jaw-dropping country of Steve’s Boogie through to the plaintive ballad 40 Mile Town to end with the smoky jazz of East Wes. One of those rare albums where you never have to skip a track… it just gets better from start to finish. Personally I cannot listen to any single track from this album. Like a good novel, I have to enjoy it from beginning to end in a single sitting.

  5. David Gilmour. Is there a better album than Dark Side Of The Moon? I think not. Every note he plays on this prog masterpiece is the exact perfect note for the space it fills. Much like Gary Moore, Gilmour seems to make the guitar “wail” in a way that beautifully invokes the emotional content of the music. I could have named any Pink Floyd album & almost went with The Wall, but Dark Side, for me, is the essential David Gilmour calling card.

  6. Mark Knopfler. The first five Dire Straits albums (Dire Straits; Communiqué; Making Movies; Love Over Gold, and the brilliant live album, Alchemy) remain among my favourite albums decades after I first heard them. Like many people in the late 70s, I first heard Knopfler’s playing on the hit single Sultans of Swing. It was unlike anything else that was around back then. All the other “guitar bands” at the time were either the loud, long haired “New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” lads or the smouldering remains of burnt out punk enjoying it’s final death throes. Then along comes this gritty little laid back blues rock band telling tales about “Guitar George – he knows all the chords…” Couple this seemingly effortless story telling with deceptively tricky country-tinged illustrative strat licks and my 11-year-old jaw hit the floor. It still does nearly 40 years later.

  7. Andy Latimer. Not exactly a household name, I grant you, and many people haven’t even heard of his band, Camel. They are a prog rock band from Cambridge who still release albums & go out on tour to this day. They have a loyal fanbase who, like the fans of many cult bands, are ardent in their support of their idols. I’m not a HUGE fan of Camel, but they are responsible for one of the few albums that may just challenge Dark Side Of The Moon for the title of “Johnny Robbo’s Favourite Album”. The album in question is The Snow Goose – an instrumental suite of tunes inspired by the Paul Gallico novella of the same name. It takes roughly the same amount of time to read the book as it does to listen to the album. My old English teacher at school introduced the whole class to this album when he played it as a kind of “soundtrack” to the book when we read through it one lesson in 1978. The title track showcases Latimer’s gift for expression, feeling & melody and, even now, still excites me the same way it did when I first heard it.

  8. Joe Satriani. I never really got into the whole ‘80s phenomenon of shred guitar playing. All those widdly neo-classical, poodle-permed posers who took themselves much too seriously. They all sounded basically the same… Tony MaCalpine; Yngwie; Vinnie Moore et al. It seemed like they’d all been sent from central casting somewhere in one of those LA guitar schools. Then along came Satch… he was/is a melodic blues player with all the technique of a shredder & the theory knowledge of a music professor. But above all, his music made me smile. There was humour & warmth in his playing in a way that I just didn’t hear in the work of many of his contemporaries. If you haven’t listened to it lately, dig out your copy of his Surfing With The Alien album and be amazed all over again.

  9. Stevie Ray Vaughan. My favourite blues guitarist by a country mile. The music just seemed to flow out of him like he could turn on a tap. Lyrical, fluent, blistering solos that seemed to beam in from the stratosphere, alongside what has to be one of the best sounds ever coaxed out of a Fender Stratocaster. His tone was ballsy, sustaining and full without ever being overdriven to the point of fizziness. His style was equal parts Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Guy, all mixed into his own unique blend that has been much imitated, but never, ever equalled. If I had to pick a single track which sums up what I love about his playing, it would be his version on Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing from his posthumous album The Sky Is Crying.

  10. Tony Iommi. I wouldn’t say that metal is really my everyday cup of tea, but I do like to get a bit heavy from time to time… as & when the mood takes me. Black Sabbath, to me, are the originators of the genre. I think you can divide the history of heavy metal into two distinct eras: BBS (Before Black Sabbath) and ABS (After Black Sabbath). When I want to assault my eardrums with some gloriously heavy riffs, it’s just obvious to me that it has to be Black Sabbath – why bother with anything but the originators of the style? The other thing that truly inspires me, as a guitarist, about Iommi is the fact that he overcame a potentially career-wrecking injury to become one of the most influential electric guitarists of the modern era. As a young man, he was working in a metal pressing workshop and lost the ends of his fingers on his fretting hand in an accident. Spurred on by finding out about the famous jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt overcoming a horrific injury to his fretting hand, he doggedly persevered and regained his ability to play the guitar. Whenever I talk myself into believing that I’ll never master some tricky technique or lick, I take a moment to remember what Tony Iommi overcame & keep on practicing.

So there you are… the ten guitarists who, for various reasons, leave me awestruck.

Until next time… Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

The Golden Age Of Rock & Roll

Before I start, let me declare an interest. I am a child of the ’70s in the sense that I started the decade as a toddler & ended it as a teenager. Therefore, the 1970s is a time which holds special memories for me, many of them musical. Having said that, I still reckon there is an objective case to be made for the 1970s being a “golden age” for rock music, which goes beyond my own sense of misty eyed nostalgia. Here’s why:

If you take the period of, say, 1969 to 1979 and look at the explosion of different musical genres that occurred between those years, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any other decade that can lay claim to the same degree of creativity in rock music. Let’s take a quick look at what happened in the world of rock during that time…

At the start of the decade, the blues based rock of the ’60s began to morph into new styles called heavy metal & hard rock. Bands such as Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and most notably, Black Sabbath, discovered the power of the riff. Of course it had been done earlier with songs like The Kinks “You Really got Me” but by the early 70s you had bands, like those mentioned above, whose whole raison d’etre was the riff. Heavy metal and it’s close cousin, the perhaps more melodic and less demonic sounding, hard rock, are genres of music whose seeds were planted in the 1960s but came into full flower in the early 1970s.

Then there’s the whole phenomenon of progressive rock. Again, it’s roots can be traced back to the psychedelia of the flower power generation in the mid-late 1960s, but the truth is that bands like Genesis, Camel, Pink Floyd, Yes and ELP (to name but a few) forged a genuinely new style of rock music in the 70s. A style of music that didn’t feel shackled by the four minute song format and which dared to explore lyrical ideas ranging from dystopian visions of the future, science fiction and social commentary, as well as literary themes. Musically, prog rock was different too – the emphasis was on wearing your complexity on your sleeve: abrupt time signature & key changes which displayed your virtuosity were the order of the day. Not the usual 3 or 4 chord “boy-meets-girl” stuff found elsewhere.

So, we have hard rock, heavy metal & progressive (prog) rock. Any music fan would consider themselves lucky to grow up in an era when three new genres were coming to fruition, but it doesn’t stop there. We also saw the emergence of folk rock in the 1970s. Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and Pentangle all spring to mind. These bands were distinct & different from other genres of rock music in that they contained almost no blues DNA in their music, relying instead on traditional English folk music as the basis for their creativity. But it was still identifiable as rock in a broader sense.

As was yet another new genre, jazz rock fusion. Often just known as “fusion” this was the coming together of the harmonic complexity of jazz, with all of it’s improvisational, free-form madness, with rock elements like the overdriven electric guitar, synthesizers and experimental studio techniques. Bands like Weather Report, Colosseum, Brand X and Return To Forever, who were all exponents of fusion could not, in a million years, be described as sounding like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. They were a different breed altogether, but it was still undeniably, a form of rock music.

If we cross the Atlantic, it can perhaps be argued that the same motives that drove the English folk-rock bands were evident in the music of the American bands who drew their influences from traditional “Americana” styles of music. Arguably this style of rock saw it’s genesis when Bob Dylan first picked up an electric guitar in 1965. But by the 1970s it was a new genre of rock in it’s own right. This cohesion of blues, country, Cajun, and rock n roll music, coupled with lyrics informed by the likes of John Steinbeck and Hemingway, was the stock-in-trade of acts like The Eagles, The Band, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen & Bob Seger. Once again, it is difficult to bracket these artists alongside the heavy rock/metal bands I mentioned earlier, but can you think of any other genre that they fit more comfortably into than rock? All of these artists can still be found on classic rock radio stations & rock compilation albums.

Back over in the UK, we saw the glitter festooned birth of glam rock, arguably led by Ziggy himself, the late great David Bowie. Glam was by no means, though, a one act genre – artists as diverse as The Sweet, Roxy Music, Slade & Marc Bolan could all be categorised as glam rock. It’s fair to say that glam had it’s American exponents, too. Alice Cooper & Kiss spring to mind, of course. Glam had a lasting influence on both the sound and look of rock as it moved forward into the 1980s. Perhaps, more than any other style of rock music, it brought a touch of theatrics to a rock audience. Would bands like Poison & W.A.S.P. have donned the Max Factor if not for Bowie & Kiss, for example?

Are you beginning to see why I reckon the 1970s are a golden age of rock music? So far we’ve had heavy metal, hard rock, prog rock, folk rock, fusion, Americana & glam rock all emerging in the space of one ten-year period. Then, or course, came punk.

Punk was supposedly a reaction to the overblown & somewhat pompous nature of styles like prog rock. However, even if the punk musicians of the time didn’t realise it, they were in effect continuing the evolutionary process of the rock music they were reacting against. What they were doing was creating a new style of rock, because they were bored with what they were hearing around them – pretty much the same thing that a band like Genesis (who all punks would claim to despise) had done only a few years previously.

Also, punk had it’s roots in another, earlier, form of “back-to-basics” rock music: Pub rock. The pub rock scene, as it’s name suggests, was born out of bands playing on the pub circuit in London. This movement may have been eclipsed by punk but it had a massive impact, spawning acts like Dr. Feelgood, Elvis Costello, Brinsley Schwartz, Eddie & The Hot Rods & The Stranglers. Pub rock can be seen as the precursor to punk, but it stands up on it’s own two feet as a genre in it’s own right.

Of course there was a backlash against the aggression of punk towards “traditional” rock music. The heavy metal movement was spurred on to re-invigorate itself in the form of NWOBHM (the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal). NWOBHM, to my ears anyway, is distinctly different from the heavy metal/hard rock from the early 70s in that it has a more aggressive sound (perhaps as a result of being something of a reaction to the aggression of punk). It was the NWOBHM bands that I grew up listening to on the radio. Unlike the hard rock & metal bands from the early 1970s, who were generally regarded as “albums bands”, acts like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, Motorhead & the like had no qualms about getting their message out in the form of the 7” single. This is perhaps what led to the 1980s pop rock style of bands like Def Leppard & Bon Jovi: rock bands whose focus was on getting top 40 radio airplay, rather than crafting albums that needed to be listened to in a single sitting.

Let’s take stock of the ’70s rock scene: In that one decade we saw the birth of:

Heavy Metal

Hard Rock

Progressive Rock

Folk Rock

Fusion

Americana Rock

Glam Rock

Pub Rock

Punk Rock

NWOBHM

Of course, there are some bands who are difficult to categorise into a single style – I think of the Stranglers as a “pub rock” band for example, but I know that many would class them as punk. There was also crossover between the different styles of rock with bands straddling the border between different genres, as is the case with prog rock and fusion. I think that perhaps the reason why the 1970s was such a ground-breaking time for rock music is that it was the decade when many of the great “firsts” happened. To my mind this is best summed up by quoting a line from a magazine article I read about Led Zeppelin some time ago which said… “Zeppelin were a rock band who had the enviable advantage of not having grown up listening to other rock bands.” The rock bands of the 1970s weren’t following the rule book – they were writing it.

So there you have it, my case for the 1970s being a “golden age” of rock music. Of course, this is by no means a definitive list of the styles spawned in that decade – I could have expounded on the phenomenon of AOR (Album/Adult Orientated Rock) for example. And I’m sure that every person reading this will be able to name at least one style of rock music I’ve missed out. But therein lies my point – the 1970s was a truly diverse time for rock music in the way that I cannot think that any decade since has been. Can you think of any other decade that was as fertile for rock music? If you can’t then it appears you agree with me that the 1970s was officially a golden age of rock.

Feel Free to disagree, as I know many probably will, but until next time… Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Belfast Blue

It’s taken me five years to get round to this, but finally here’s my tribute to Gary Moore.

Thanks for watching & until next time…

Have Fun!

 

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Building a backing track – Mr. Blue Sky by E.L.O.

A bit of a long winded one this week. Sorry folks!

You may recall that, in my last post, I mentioned Songcrafters.org, a musicians’ forum I use to share my tunes and collaborate with other like minded people. Having hit a bit of a dry spell, writing wise, lately I’ve been concentrating on doing covers. Kenny, one of the guys on the site, suggested doing a Jeff Lynne tune or two & we settled on “Handle With Care” from the Travelling Wilburys’ album “Volume 1”. A nice little tune that took little more than an hour to knock together, so I suggested something a bit more challenging as a follow up, Mr. Blue Sky, from the ELO album “Out of the Blue”. This is a summary of how I got to grips with the backing.

To begin with, a quick listen to the song made me realise it would take weeks to transcribe properly, so I cheated and downloaded a midi file of it from the net. There are plenty of them out there, but beware! Free midi files make a good starting point for a song, but they’re rarely 100% correct. For example – whoever had programmed the drum part on the one I used obviously had no understanding of how may limbs a drummer has. They imagined that Bev Bevan (ELO’s drummer) could use both his hands to play a fill on the snare & toms whilst maintaining a ride cymbal rhythm at the same time (maybe he had a 3rd stick gripped between his teeth?). That, and some shocking timing errors meant that I junked the drum track part of the midi file and began again. The drums were done from scratch using Cakewalk Studio Instruments – the “Slight Beef” pre-set kit. A great all round acoustic drum kit VST.

The piano & string section parts weren’t too bad though, albeit with a little quantisation needed to bring everything in time. In the end this was pretty much all I used of the midi file, but it still saved me a lot of work, as Richard Tandy’s piano part (ELO’s keyboard maestro & the only original member alongside Jeff Lynne in the current line up) is quite “twiddly” and when you’re entering each note as a mouse click in the piano roll view of a DAW, it can get a bit laborious.

For the piano sound I used a free plug in VST I’ve made great use of in the past called “4Front Piano” – it has a really good honky-tonk sound that I love. You wouldn’t want to use it for a Chopin or Debussy tune, but for rock & pop it’s perfect. And the string section is once again Cakewalk Studio Instruments.

The bass line was (as ever) played on my cheap no-name bass bought off Ebay for less than £100. I always record this through my Vox Tonelab ST on a patch I cobbled together for it & add compression in the DAW to even out the sound a little. Guitar-wise I used my telecaster for the rhythm guitar parts, which I double tracked & panned left/right, and played what little lead there is on my Harley Benton Les Paul-alike. As usual, they were recorded through the Vox Tonelab with no FX other than the basic amp/cabinet models with reverb added in the final mixdown.

So, that’s the technology dealt with, how about looking at what’s happening in the tune…

First of all, what key to do it in… The original version is in F major, but Kenny asked if we could drop it a semitone. No problem. Here’s how it begins:

The intro is a piano playing an E major chord (now we’ve dropped the key a semitone), joined by the drums hitting a bass drum on each beat. Then the bass & guitar come in, again hitting the E major chord four-square on the beat.

The verse is the following chord progression:

|E / / / |E / / / |E / / / |D#m7 / G#7 / |

|C#m / / / |F# / / / |D#m / / / |G# / / / |

|A / / / |B11 / / / |E / / / |B11 / / / |

There’s a wealth of theory just in this section of the song if you look for it. Here are a couple of highlights: The D#m7 – G#7 – C#m sequence is a II V I progression straight from the world of jazz standards: you’ll find that kind of thing in tunes like Autumn Leaves and Georgia On My Mind. Then the B11 chord is simply an A major triad played over a B root note. Again quite jazzy, but you’ll also find a similar chord in Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town”.

Then we come to the first chorus. This is slightly reminiscent of the minor key descending bass part you can hear in The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as it goes like this:

|C#m |C#m7/B |A |E/G# |

|F#m |E |D |A   |

Next we come to the solo, which is just the verse chord progression with an E major scale melody played over it. Then we’re into another verse followed by a chorus. This chorus deviates from the first one by the addition of a 3rd repeat without the chord sequence, which is replaced by a syncopated bass riff played against a ride cymbal hitting quarter notes. Working out this riff took me the best part of a day! I finally nailed it though and here it is:

Blue Sky Riff

After this chorus we come to the voice box/vocoder part – where the line “Mr. Blue Sky” sounds like it’s being sung by Metal Mickey (a kids TV show robot from the ’70s – if you’re interested in ELO, then you probably remember it, if not ask Mr. Google!). Not having the necessary piece of kit to replicate this, I did my best with the good old Vox Wah pedal. As an aside, Jeff Lynne could have just done this part over a verse chord sequence, but once again, he throws us a curve-ball. Here is what is going on chordally under this part:

|E Bm/E |E |E |D#m7 G#7aug |

|C#m (add9) |F# |D#m |G# G#7aug |

|Asus#4 A |B11 |E |B11 |

And to hear it “naked” click HERE.

Let’s not forget that this song was a chart hit from 1976 – not some obscure jazz fusion piece from side four of a Mahavishnu Orchestra double album! Proof, if ever it were needed, that musical sophistication and commercial success don’t have to be poles apart. Basically, in order to have a hit you DON’T always have to dumb down and chase the lowest common denominator… Are you listening, Mr. Cowell?

Anyway… on with the tune. After the talk box part, we’re back into a standard verse (albeit with a slightly different ending), where we introduce a choral ensemble ooh-ing and aah-ing their way through the chord progression. Not having a choir at my disposal, I grabbed another free plug in, DSK Synthtopia 2, which has a passable choir sound in it. I’ll be using this again for the full-on choral part towards the end of the song. After this verse we come to the final chorus which is kind of a mixture of the first two chorus parts – we have the descending, minor key bass line, followed by that syncopated bass riff.

Next, we’re into the choral part proper. The feel of the drums and bass on this now change radically & go into more of a swing feel, with the bass outlining the chord progression in a jazz style “walking” manner. Speaking of chord progressions, here’s what’s happening underneath the choir:

|C#m |B |A |E/G# |

|F#m |E |D |A |

|C#m |B |A |E/G# |

|F#m |E |D |D |

|A |A | (end on) E

The melody for this part wasn’t too difficult to figure out – once you know what the chords are, it’s a simple matter to logically figure out the right notes for the melody,and add some counterpoint. As well as the choir sound, I doubled this part up on the string section.

And finally… that BIG key change for the outro. This was missing completely from the midi file I began with, so I had to transcribe it & do the whole thing from scratch… hopefully I got somewhere near! It begins on a chugging C chord at 126 BMP (down from the 175 bpm of the rest of the song). We’ve also lost the shuffle feel from the rhythm and gone to a “straight eighth-note” feel. This section has a melody which makes good use to the augmented 4th interval to give an unsettling effect. Again, this melody was done on the piano with the string section & choir pitching in to help it build as it goes along. The big finale is based around slowing the tempo right down to 70-ish BPM over the following chord progression:

|D/A |A/C# |C9 |C9 |

with a simple F# A F# two note melody taking us most of the way to the end on a big D major chord with the string section playing a D major arpeggio in the bass providing a real sense of “safe landing” after all the twist & turns the song has thrown at us.

What a true genius Jeff Lynne is: he wrote this tune when he was in his mid 20s – every last complex part of it. At that age I was still bashing out “We Are The Road Crew” on power chords & could never have conceived this level of sophistication, let alone managed to write something of this calibre! And what an utterly fantastic band ELO continue to be – check out their new album, “Alone In The Universe”. Meanwhile, click HERE to listen to my version of Mr. Blue Sky. As soon as it gets some vocals, you’ll be the first to know.

Until then…

Have Fun!

John

UPDATE…. You can now hear the finished version on the Songcrafters website HERE

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“Standard” Guitars… Why Does No-One Still Play Them?

It struck me the other day that you don’t find many high profile guitarists these days who play instruments from the “standard” range in most companies catalogues. The guitars played by the great & the good these days always seem to have the phrases “Custom Shop” and/or “Signature Model” associated with them. This hasn’t always been the case & to illustrate this here is a quick, randomly chosen list of some of the most iconic guitarists in the pantheon of rock n roll and the guitars they are best known for playing…

  1. Hank Marvin: Fender Stratocaster. This was the first ever strat imported into the UK. Bought for Hank by Cliff Richard, this straight-off-the-production-line guitar defined the sound of the early Shadows hits.
  2. Francis Rossi: Fender Telecaster. Although much modified with G&L parts over the decades, Rossi’s famous green guitar (originally sunburst until it got a coat of paint in 1970) began life as a stock telecaster & was used as such during Status Quo’s ’70s heyday.
  3. Jimi Hendrix: Fender Stratocaster: Hendrix didn’t really have a single “special” guitar & certainly didn’t give Fender a list of his unique requirements. He seemed to like pretty much any strat he bought straight “off the peg”.
  4. Rory Gallagher: Fender Stratocaster. Although Fender now produce a Rory Gallagher signature model, complete with knackered finish & aged parts, Rory’s own guitar was a stock 1961 strat bought brand new, un-modified & fresh from the factory.
  5. Paul Kossoff: Gibson Les Paul Standard. This was a 1959 model – from the much lauded ’58 to ’60 period of Les Paul production. The whole “vintage” thing is very much a modern perspective though – at the time Kossoff bought the guitar, it would have been nothing more than a “second hand” Les Paul. Again, an entirely standard instrument.
  6. Chuck Berry: Gibson ES355. Chuck doesn’t seem to form any emotional attachment to his guitars. He likes the 355 model so he buys one, plays it until it’s depreciated enough in value to be written off against tax, then buys another. No special requirements, just go to the nearest Gibson dealer, take one off the rack & buy it.
  7. Angus Young: Gibson SG. Angus has had many SGs over the years & Gibson now produce a signature model based on his original one, purchased (once again) completely standard in the early days of AC/DC’s career.

I could go on further… Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Richie Blackmore, John Lennon, David Gilmour, Neil Young, Joe Walsh and Keith Richards (to name but a few) all created rock history on mass-produced guitars that were entirely stock. My point is that all of these guitarists all played, for large chunks of their careers, instruments that weren’t created especially with them in mind. It’s also arguable that these were the guitars on which these players produced their best work. So here’s a challenge for you: can you name a similar list of guitarists from the current music scene who are just as identifiable with the Fender American Standard Stratocaster, the 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard, the PRS Custom 22, the Fender American Special Telecaster, or any other “off the peg” guitar?

It’s a struggle isn’t it? Nowadays, it almost seems that as soon as you have an album out, you get your own signature model of guitar & leave the “standard” models for the rest of us – those of us who don’t go out and buy the signature guitar associated with our favourite player, that is. And isn’t that the equivalent of buying a suit which was made to measure for someone else, anyway? And yes, I DO realise that Gibson produced the Les Paul model as a “signature” guitar for Les himself, but crucially, it wasn’t a slightly tweaked version of an existing guitar, as is the case with the current slew of artist endorsed instruments – it was a brand new innovative instrument design which advanced the industry on by a large degree. Can the same be said for a modern signature guitar where the only differences between it and a “standard” model may be a different set of pickups, an autograph on the headstock & a custom paint job?

What about the inflated prices asked for these types of guitars? Here’s an example… The David Gilmour Signature Stratocaster… I had a good play around with one of these recently and my impression is this: what you’ve got is a pretty plain looking, run of the mill strat – not a bad instrument, but nothing earth-shattering, either. It’s been given a black finish (painting over the original sunburst) which has had some faux ageing applied (this, in itself, is a pretty divisive issue, but we’ll save that debate for another time). Now add a few tweaks like a slightly shorter tremolo arm & a subtly different neck profile harking back to yesteryear, along with “custom wound” pickups (in truth, the specs of these pickups are nothing special – Alnico V magnets & a DC resistance of between 5.6Kohms to 6.3Kohms: you can easily find pickups of this type online for less than £100 for a set of three) as well as a “tele” switch allowing the bridge & neck pickups to be selected simultaneously.

Is this guitar really worth almost three times the price you’d pay for the non-modified version? Does it represent a great leap forward in guitar design? Does it guarantee you’ll sound like the Pink Floyd main man? Ultimately does it feel like you’re playing nearly three grands worth of guitar? No… on all counts. The reason Mr. Gilmour plays this guitar is because it’s HIS guitar! Bought years ago (once again) as a stock stratocaster, it’s had all the knocks & scratches that any working guitar would pick up over a few decades of use, along with the kind of modifications that many of us apply to our own guitars as our playing style evolves. It wasn’t conceived & designed from scratch as the only guitar that would fit the needs of the player whose name it bears – the fact that Gilmour didn’t play this guitar for a almost two decades, relying instead on a candy apple red strat fitted with EMG pickups, demonstrates this to a large extent.

If you purchase a DG signature strat, then the only reason I can think of for doing so is as an act of hero-worship – you’re certainly not investing your money in a genuinely superior musical instrument. You could get an equivalent guitar for a fraction of the price, which would sound pretty much identical straight out of the box. You could then (if you felt the need to) add the “tele” switch, replace the stock pickups & tremolo arm. As for the neck profile… well have you ever played an uncomfortable modern stratocaster? No, me neither – the neck profile thing is irrelevant, frankly. If you’re determined to get close to the Pink Floyd guitar sound, you don’t need to spend a huge wedge of cash on the David Gilmour strat. I might even go so far as to call it a cynical money making exercise on the part of all involved… but that’s just my opinion. Feel free to disagree, especially if you’ve actually bought one.

See you next time,

John.

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