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

How To Figure Out What Chords Are In A Song

One of the problems that students bring to me on a regular basis goes something like this…

I got this TAB off the internet & when I play it, it just doesn’t sound right. What am I doing wrong?” In most cases the answer to this is “believing the internet.” Just because something is typed up nice & neat and has a description saying “100% accurate” or similar, it doesn’t mean it’s right, and frankly quite often it isn’t. Wouldn’t it be much better to be be able to listen to a song and figure out, with rock-solid certainty, what’s going on? Here’s how I do exactly that…

Of course there are some songs that take no working out at all once you’re familiar with a few basic standard chord progressions. The 12 bar blues, or the tried & tested I VI IV V (like G Em C D, for example) which everyone from The Everly Brothers to John Legend via The Police have used at some point. But what about something which isn’t instantly familiar like that? How do you figure out chord progressions which are unfamiliar to you? Well, a little bit of music theory helps, but if that scares you off, then here’s a method guaranteed to work:

First of all, you’ll need a free piece of software called Audacity. If you don’t already have it, you can get it from HERE. What you’re going to be using this for is to isolate one chord at a time so you can figure them out one-by-one. To illustrate how to do this, I’m going to be using a section from a tune I recently did a cover version of, an instrumental called “Sylvia” by the Dutch progressive rock band, Focus. The section in question is the 2 bar organ break which happens after the 2nd verse, and across this 2 bar segment, there are six chords in total. If you can work something as densely packed as this out, you should be fine for pretty much anything! Click HERE to hear it & let’s load this into Audacity, here’s how it looks:

Sylvia-Organ-Break

OK, so let’s isolate the first chord in this little section of music. Listen for where the chords change & watch the cursor as it moves across the screen. Make a note of where the chord begins & ends using the time markings across the top of the screen. You can even slow the music down using the “Change Tempo” option in the “Effects” menu if this will make it easier – just select the whole thing and use the option described. Make sure you change the TEMPO, not the SPEED, as this will affect the pitch, which we obviously don’t want to do. Then you should highlight (select) that portion of the music that you want to figure out – just that chord. Here’s what this looks like:

1st-Chord

Now, here’s the clever bit… Hold down the shift key & press the space bar. That 1st chord you’ve selected with loop round & round infinitely. This will give you time to ascertain what it is.

How do you do that? Guesswork? Well… not really! Here’s a foolproof method. Begin by playing an open string on your guitar as the loop plays. Any string – it doesn’t matter, although I prefer to use one of the top 3 strings as it just sounds clearer to me. After playing the open string a few times, go to the 1st fet, then the 2nd, 3rd & so-on. What we’re listening for is a note which sounds “in tune” with the chord being looped. Click HERE to hear me doing this on the 2nd (B) string. You should be able to hear that the final note, found at the 3rd fret, sounds pretty good when played over the chord. What this means is that I’ve identified a note which is actually part of the chord. Any note which sounds “in tune” with a chord will sound that way because it is already there in the chord: an important point to remember. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Right… we’ve identified that the chord in question has a D note in it (because the note at the 3rd fret on the 2nd string is a D). Where do we go from here? Well, we now need to know which chords contain a D note. Some of these are obvious… A D chord has a D note in it, for example. As does D minor, but what others are there? Well, there are fixed relationships that govern chords and the notes they are made up of & if you know these, then it becomes a simple matter to figure it out. If this isn’t something you’re sure of though, don’t worry… here’s a list that might help you:

  • You will have a major chord based on the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord based on the “in tune” note
  • You will have a major chord 5 semitones (frets) above the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord 5 semitones (frets) above the “in tune” note
  • You will have a major chord 4 semitones (frets) below the “in tune” note
  • You will have a minor chord 3 semitones (frets) below the “in tune” note

In the case of a D note, this would give us these possible chords:

  • D major (a major chord based on the “in tune” note)
  • D minor (a minor chord based on the “in tune” note)
  • G major (a major chord 5 semitones above the “in tune” note)
  • G minor (a minor chord 5 semitones above the “in tune” note)
  • Bb major (a major chord 4 semitones below the “in tune” note)
  • B minor (a minor chord 3 semitones below the “in tune” note)

Now, simply try out each of these chords over the same loop as you used earlier & you can easily determine which is the correct one. Click HERE to hear me doing this. It seems pretty obvious to me that the correct chord is the second one… D minor & I repeat this at the end to make absolutely certain.

By using this method, I identified all six chord in the section of music. It goes like this:

Count

1

2

3

4

1

2

3

4

Dm

C

Fm

Eb

Ab

Bb

C

And HERE is how it sounds played on the guitar. This sounds pretty good when played along with the original, but on it’s own it sounds a little disjointed when compared to what we hear on the track. It’s not that any of the chords are wrong, it just somehow lacks the ascending “sense of direction” that the original possesses. This is where we start to investigate the bass-line…

If we look at the notes present in each chord (and you can do this by figuring out what notes you’re actually holding down as you pay each chord shape, or by knowing a little chord theory), you will be able to see the following:

  • Dm = D +F + A
  • C = C + E + G
  • Fm = F + Ab + C
  • Eb = Eb + G + Bb
  • Ab = Ab + C + Eb
  • Bb = Bb + D + F
  • C = C + E + G

Look closely and you should be able to spot an ascending line of notes running through these chords which goes: D to E to F to G to Ab to Bb to C. Let’s hear what that chord sequence sounds like if we put that ascending line of notes in the bass. Click HERE to hear it being played. And there you have it! This is the chord sequence from the organ break of Sylvia by Focus. I deliberately chose quite a tricky little chord conundrum for this example just to show how something which could be intimidating can be broken down into chunks and worked through using simple techniques. As long as you can hear if a note sounds in tune with a chord or not, then you have all the skills you need. You’ll never be at the mercy of the internet ever again when it comes to finding out what the chords are for that song you’re trying to learn. You can also see (hopefully) that a basic understanding of a few simple music theory fundamentals will cut down on the amount of work you need to do. You might just want to investigate those!

Of course, there are other chord types too… as well as the majors & minors we’ve looked at here. But the thing with more complex chords is that they all have quite a distinctive sound & once you learn to recognise what a diminished, augmented, or sus4 chord sounds like (to pick a few examples at random) you’ll soon find there are no chord progressions you cannot figure out. It just takes practice! It was my good fortune to find myself playing in a professional cabaret band when I was only a fledgling guitarist & I had to learn lots of diverse songs… and learn them ACCURATELY. Back then I didn’t have Audacity, but I had a CD player with a loop function & before that, I used to use a twin-tape deck to record the same chord over & over from one cassette onto another: Record > Pause > Rewind > Record > Pause > Rewind… over & over again.

It’s never been easier, with a little bit of free software, to get to grips with learning songs for yourself. And as your experience builds, you quickly gain more confidence & begin to recognise the same basic chord progressions being used again and again which, in turn, cuts down on the number of songs that need to be tackled like this. That little snippet of Sylvia, for example, will remain locked in my memory, and I’ll have no problem identifying it (or anything similar) the next time I come across a song which uses it.  This description may seem a little long winded, but that’s because I’ve gone into a lot of detail. Working out this segment of the chord sequence took me no more than about five minutes in reality. The point is, though, that you have to start somewhere or you’ll always be at the mercy of someone else showing you how to play the songs you want to play. Don’t be intimidated… give it a go! What have you got to lose?

I hope this has been helpful & until next time… HAVE FUN!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

How To Record Massive Sounding Rock Rhythm Guitar Parts

Getting the right guitar sound on your recordings is vital. After years of experimentation here is the way I’ve settled on getting a big guitar sound for power chord based rhythm parts.

One mistake I always used to make was using far too much gain or overdrive. Go back & listen to some of the great rhythm guitar sounds from classic rock tunes (check out early AC/DC or Van Halen) & you’ll notice just how “clean” those “dirty” sounds actually are. Piling on the distortion is often counter-productive – it just makes everything sound “fizzy” and less powerful. Here is my basic rock rhythm tone, I’m using a Vintage V6 strat copy with an AXESRUS “Totally Tappable” hot-rails style humbucker in the bridge position (a great little alnico pickup to turbo-charge your strat & it’s cheap too!). In this example, I recorded the guitar dry – no reverb, and when you hear me switch to the neck single coil you can hear just how clean my sound actually is). Click HERE to listen.

Next, let’s hear that AXESRUS pickup playing a typical rock rhythm guitar part. Again, I recorded this dry – I’ll explain why later – click HERE to the riff being played.

Next up, I added some bass & drums, as well as adding some reverb to the guitar part. I ALWAYS record without any effects other than the basic gain/overdrive from the amp modeller. The reason I do this is because it gives you much more control over the final sound. If you record with all your usual fx on, it is very limiting – for a start, you can’t change your mind later and take the chorus off, or tweak the delay time for example. Many amp modellers (to my ears, anyway) over-do the reverb, delay & chorus in their patches so as to make the unit sound like it’s doing wonders for your sound. Often when you record with these sounds, the fx (reverb especially) has the tendency to “blur” the edges of your sound and make it sound a little mushy & indistinct in the final mix.

Also, if you need to drop in and fix a little part of your performance, not only are you going to be getting rid of the couple of notes you want to re-record, but you’ll also be getting rid of the reverb & delay “tails” from the notes which precede them & “overlap” the notes you’re replacing. This can make that part of the performance sound a little dis-jointed and makes the edit or drop-in much more obvious in the final mix – something you don’t want. By placing the fx on the sound once it’s recorded, you avoid this potential give away.

Having grown up playing through Marshall amps with no built in reverb, it feels natural to me to hear my guitar sound dry whilst recording. If you’re addicted to your huge ‘verby, delayed, & chorused sound, and feel a little “naked” recording without sounding like you’re playing through NASA mission control you may want to try weaning yourself off these fx gradually – just a thought. Anyway, here’s my guitar part with accompaniment & a bit of Cakewalk’s “Tiled Room” reverb preset. Click HERE to listen.

OK, I could just leave it at that, but there’s one final stage I usually go through: double tracking. What I do now is to record exactly the same thing again on another track & pan both performances hard left & right. Don’t be tempted to just copy & paste one part onto another track and try panning them – all you’ll end up with is a much louder performance panned to the centre. It’s the minuscule differences which occur naturally as you hit the strings with ever-so-slightly different amounts of attack on each take, and the tiny differences in timing that you’re not even conscious of which separate the two supposedly “identical” performances. Panning these two parts, one 100% left & the other 100 % right gives a great stereo spread & the slight phase differences between them creates a natural form of chorus, which if you’d recorded with that effect on in the 1st place would be a little over the top. Click HERE to listen to the finished, double-tracked guitar part in the final mix.

I hope you found this informative & until next time…

Have Fun!

John

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

The Birth of a New Radio Station

Regular readers of this blog will know that in that past few months I’ve been working at a local community radio station, Palace FM. I won’t bore you with the details here, but recently it looked very much like the future of the station was in doubt. Thankfully all that has been resolved now, but whilst everything was in limbo, I decided that the radio bug had well & truly bitten me and that even if it meant launching my own station, I wasn’t going to give up.

I looked into it and discovered it was surprisingly easy to launch an online radio station. There are two basic routes. The most user friendly way is to use a service called Live365. All you do is pay a small monthly fee to cover the cost of playing copyrighted material, upload your music to the Live365 server, hit the “go” button and you’re on air. There are drawbacks though… First of all the monthly fee you pay is dependent on the number of concurrent listeners you have. A basic package can be had quite cheaply, but this only allows you to have a maximum of fifteen people tuning in at any one time – there’s no limit on the total number of listeners, but only a paltry few can listen simultaneously.

The main competitor to Live365 is not so much a company, but a whole industry standard. There is a platform offered by many operators called Shoutcast. This is a way of turning your home PC into a server from which you stream your music & content live to the web. After much searching I found a company called Voscast who use the Shoutcast platform, but also allow you to upload content to their AutoDJ service. This fulfils the same basic function as Live365’s auto streaming service, but to an unlimited number of listeners. This, then, is how my new station will be broadcasting.

The station will be called Guitar-FM and will be playing pretty much any style of music with a strong guitar focus. Obviously this will include a lot of rock and metal (both modern & classic stuff), but there’s also going to be jazz, folk, blues & classical genres too. Sometimes all of this in the same show. Yes, that’s right… there will be actual shows! This is NOT going to be just a way of me streaming the contents of my iPod to the world wide web with no speech content. I’m currently putting together a schedule which will include themed shows in most genres of music which feature the guitar. There’s also going to be some factual programming – shows about the history of the guitar, or how certain styles of guitar-focussed music developed. The sort of programming that BBC Radio1 used to put out on Saturday afternoons in the late ’80s/early ’90s if anyone remembers that?

This brings me to the main point of this blog… Does anyone out there fancy hosting their own show on Guitar-FM? You don’t need any broadcasting experience, just a keen enthusiasm for the guitar and the desire to share it with the world at large. The way the station will work is that individual contributors will record their own show by importing their choices of music into something like Audacity & any half decent mic to do the voice track. These shows will then be uploaded to the Shoutcast AutoDJ service in mp3 format. Then the AutoDJ takes over and plays all the mp3s (including the shows which have been uploaded) in whatever order to whatever schedule that has been determined. There’s no need to worry about the big red “on air” light over the mic – it will all be pre recorded.

So, if you fancy giving it a go, then email me via my website and we can get your show organised. Don’t be shy! This is your chance to tell the world about your band, or your favourite music, or that album you love that no-one else seems to have heard of. It’s your platform to share your musical passion with the world. Not by posting about it on a forum, or on Facebook but by actually playing your music and speaking to people about it!

Oh, and Palace FM? The station is moving home to new premises and will be back on air with live programming in the next couple of weeks when I’ll be bringing a new show to the masses. More details on that in a future blog.

Until next time, Have fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

Treading The Boards Again

Some time around the late 1990s I left the band I’d been playing with for a couple of years when it became apparent that our search for a new singer was going nowhere. The previous singer had been fired because of his reluctance to learn songs, show up at rehearsals, pitch in looking for gigs or help with the carting of equipment into/out of wherever we were playing – that particular mixture of prima donna aloofness coupled with bone-idleness often simply known as LSD (lead singer disease).

But I digress… the point is that I quit the band & then a load of stuff happened in my personal life. Getting married for a start, as well as taking on some new work teaching guitar in schools. I just didn’t have the time to go out & gig any more. You know what it’s like, once you get out of the habit of doing something, you soon lose the will to do it. Before I knew where I was I’d been out of the live music scene for ten years. I then made the mistake of trying to put together my “dream” band.

“The Sweeney” was a ’70s tribute band made up of myself, a guitar student of mine on rhythm guitar & vocals, plus the bass player from his old band & a drummer we picked up along the way. It did not go well – you know that band we’ve all been in? The one that takes six months in the practice room & is no tighter at the end of it than on day one? That was this band to a “T”. I was in a band with people who imagined it was acceptable to not return phone calls about availability for gigs; who thought it was perfectly OK to pitch up to the rehearsal having not learned any of their parts; who seemed perplexed at the idea that anyone (me) might be in any way hacked off at the general lack of courtesy shown. I eventually pulled the plug and walked away vowing to never get involved with playing live again – there was no way I needed the grief. Until…

I began working as a radio presenter at PalaceFM, a new community radio station in Redcar, the town I call home. The station manager there suggested that we do a “live lounge” slot on the Friday drive show. She plays the guitar and is one heck of a singer & we seemed to have an easy way of jamming together where we could tell what each other was going to do with the song almost intuitively. So now we’ve decided to take the whole thing out on the road. No backing tracks, as is often the way with duos, we’re just doing it naked (musically speaking). Just a couple of guitars, a couple of vocals, & maybe a bit of tambourine. And I have to say it is SO liberating!

For example I put together a bunch of rock ‘n roll tunes into a medley, but I was never really happy with the ending. So I changed it. Just like that. No having to worry about the drummer or bass player fluffing the newly arranged part, or fretting about if what you think will work in your head will actually hang together when the full band gets their hands on it – I effectively am the full band & if it works when I’m playing it on the sofa in front of the TV, then I know it’ll work at the next gig. Myself & Dee (aforementioned station manager at PalaceFM & singer in this little enterprise) have been rehearsing for only a couple of weeks & now we’ve got the full set pretty much in the can. How many bands have you been in which have got their act together (in a literal sense) that quickly?

Yes, there are compromises to be made – a single guitar (or maybe two) is never going to sound as full as a “proper” band, but I’m loving the challenges involved in making each song work as a solo guitar accompaniment. Usually it’s a case of having to figure out what to do when the singing stops & the guitar solo kicks in. You can’t just launch into a blazing bit of lead guitar with no chords or even a bass line behind you. No, you have to try and hint at the chord sequence by letting open string drones hang underneath little double-stop based instrumental parts which give the whole thing a bit of shape beyond just some “campfire” chord strumming, which you can get away with behind the vocals. Here is an example of what I’m talking about, this is the famous riff from Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over The World”. Finding ways like this of keeping some kind of melodic content going whilst bashing out an accompaniment at the same time is a skill I’ve never really used before & I’m having to learn as I go. For the first time in ages, being a gigging musician has fired up my imagination, I’m learning new skills and I’m having fun. Which is how I remember it being all those years ago before I allowed myself to become so jaded. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks, it seems.

Oh, I almost forgot… The duo is called “The Palace Buskers” & you can hear a roughly put together demo showing off Dee’s fantastic vocals here.

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching

Which Album to Stick On?

If you’re over forty, in the “prime of life” as it were, and are into music in a big way, then I bet you any money you’ll identify with this…

About ten years ago, I found myself going through my CD rack (I wasn’t fully mp3’d up at that point) and was unable to find a single thing I wanted to listen to. Led Zep IV? Nah… Still Got the Blues? Hmmm… not what I fancy just now. How about some Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon? Well… maybe later. And so it went on. Every album I pulled off the rack just didn’t excite me at the prospect of a listen.

This happened more & more frequently and I was beginning to think I was falling out of love with music – an alarming prospect for a musician. Even when I got my first mp3 player and had the novelty factor of being able to carry a suitcase full of CDs around in my pocket on a device no larger than a bar of chocolate, the same basic problem soon resurfaced: I was bored with all the albums I owned…

I’d heard the guitar solo in Sultans of Swing too many times for Mark Knopfler’s laid back, lyrical fretwork to move me any more; the acerbic wit of Frank Zappa had lost it’s razor edge; that breathtaking long high “E” note in the middle of Parisienne Walkways, which once would have turned my knees to jelly, now left me cold; albums that I’d queued in the rain outside HMV to buy on the day they came out felt like they belonged to a part of my life that was no longer connected to me. What was I to do?

The answer was quite obvious… listen to some new stuff. There was a whole world of music out there that I’d spent my whole life ignoring. On a whim, I sent off for a cheap compilation box-set of classical music. It was a bargain price and I was curious to see if the music I’d been force fed at school, and as a result had ignored ever since, had any merit to me as an adult. The answer was yes, it did. Not all of it by any stretch, to this day I suffer from what I call a “Baroque Block” (something to do with all the overly regimented sounding twiddly bits, I think). But give me a bit of Elgar or Holst or Debussy, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like they used to when I first heard Gary Moore play The Loner all those years ago.

It wasn’t just classical music I explored. I took the same approach to jazz, and found there was a whole world of great, expressive, tuneful (yes… tuneful jazz – it does exist) music just waiting to be discovered. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley & John Coltrane are all on regular rotation on my ipod now. None of these artists would have occurred to me if it weren’t for my fatigue with the classic rock stuff I’d listened to for decades.

Thinking back to my 17yr old self, part of the joy of listening to Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple was the sense of discovery involved – “the piecing it all together”, if you like. Figuring out that Led Zep were born out of the ashes of The Yardbirds, and that Rainbow & Whitesnake were branches off the Deep Purple family tree, or that David Bowie played the sax break on Walk on the Wild Side, to say nothing of the finishing school that was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (alumni including Eric Clapton, Peter Green & John McVie, the nucleus of Fleetwood Mac to name but a few)… it allowed me to put the music these, and other, bands/artists made into some sort of context and helped me understand it all the better. I now find myself on a similar journey of discovery… Understanding that Debussy was influenced by Javanese Gamelan music; Getting my head around the difference between a concerto & a symphony; Learning that Miles Davis & Cannonball Adderley played on each other’s albums etc. etc.

To some this may not seem relevant to whether the music is appealing or not. And to an extent I’d agree, but knowing the background to the artists, bands & composers who appeal to you can definitely help you better appreciate the music you like anyway. Plus, this kind of insight can spark that sense of curiosity to find out about even more “new” music (even stuff that’s been around for years, that you’ve never taken any notice of).

An the best bit is that I now I DO get excited about going and listening to my “old faithful” classic rock & blues again. I just needed some time away from it to discover something which provides a little contrast, that’s all. Music is a bit like food to me: For example, I love a good pizza (ham & mushroom, please). But just imagine how jaded you’d get with pizza if that was all you ate for 20+ years, steadfastly ignoring all other food stuffs on the grounds that “they’re not what I’m into”.

I now enjoy a rich and varied musical diet and I have no difficulty nowadays finding an album to stick on. I also make a point of trying to discover at least one new thing to listen to each month, be it jazz, rock, orchestral, folk, blues or anything else which defies classification.

So if you’re feeling a little out of sorts, musically, then try doing what I did. Go off on a tangent; check out that band everyone raved about years ago, but just seemed to pass you by; take a gamble on a musical genre you’ve never listened to before – even if you don’t like it, at least you’ll be able to say you’re making an INFORMED choice. I guarantee that sooner or later you’ll find something to re-ignite your musical fire. Also, you’ll find some wonderful juxtapositions every time you put your mp3 player on random shuffle: as I was typing this post I’ve been treated to Sweet Home Alabama segued with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, into Bobby Darrin’s wonderful version of Beyond the Sea which has just given way to Iron Man by Black Sabbath. Who could possibly get bored when there’s that kind of variety on offer?

 

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