Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

A Gig Ready Rig For Less Than Five Hundred Quid – Can It Be Done?

One of my students is about to make the leap from “bedroom” guitarist to gigging musician. The only problem is that his gear isn’t really up to the task. He’s playing a Squier Bullet Strat, plugged into a 15W Line 6 Spider amp. In this week’s lesson he asked me what equipment I would recommend he invest in. His budget is £500 for a guitar, amp and all the necessary pedals. He’s playing in a pop/rock covers band doing material by the likes of Oasis, The 1975, Kings Of Leon, The Kinks and Green Day, so he needs a good range of clean & moderately overdriven sounds with all the usual chorus, delay & reverb effects at his disposal.

Can you actually buy an entire rig, including all the necessary pedals, capable of handling semi-pro gigs, for this kind of money? Well, let’s find out…

Firstly we’ll look at the guitar. Having cut his teeth on an S-type instrument, it would seem natural to go with something that feels familiar. Obviously, with a total budget of only £500, for the whole set up, getting something with the word “Fender” written on the headstock just isn’t an option. How about a step up the Squier ladder then?

Well, the next logical step from the Bullet Strat would be the Affinity Strat. Trouble is, these aren’t really that much better than what he already has. A good guitar in the Squier range would be the Squier Standard Stratocaster… it sports decent hardware, including a set of three alnico magnet single coil pickups. This is something to watch out for, by the way: Alnico magnets are generally more desirable than their cheaper ceramic equivalents due to their warmer, sweeter sound. Ceramic magnet pickups tend to sound harsh & brittle by comparison. One of the conundrums of Fender’s pricing structure is the fact that £240 will buy you a Squier Standard Strat with alnico units, but pay £507 for a “genuine” Fender Standard Stratocaster (what used to be called the “Made In Mexico” model), and you get the inferior ceramic pickups… just goes to show that you DON’T always get what you pay for.

squier-std-strat

The Squier Standard Stratocaster

Anyway… £240 will buy you a great little S-type guitar with decent pickups and a pretty good fit & finish. Let’s have a look at the amp side of the equation…

If you’re going to be playing pub gigs where nothing is mic’d up, you’re going to be relying on your amp’s output to do all the heavy lifting in terms of volume. A high end valve amp of 30W or so would fit the bill (the venerable Vox AC30 springs to mind). But the thing is whilst a valve amp of this output would do the job, the cost would be prohibitive and as the old saying goes “valve watts ARE louder”. Or put another way, for whatever reason, a solid state amp never seems to be as loud as it’s valve counterpart for the same stated output. As many a gigging guitarist will attest, a 30W solid state (transistor) combo is unlikely to be heard over the top of an enthusiastic rock drummer at gig volumes. I’d say you’d need 50W at the very least if you’re looking at gigging a solid state amp.

Given that the guy in question already uses a Line 6 amp, and is happy with the sounds he gets, it would make sense to look at something a little more powerful from the Spider range. As luck would have it, there is a 60W version of the amp he already uses. It also has all of the effects he’d need already built in, so no need for pedals, patch leads & a power supply to drive them all. There is a catch though… the price.

A 60W Line 6 Spider amp costs £280. And that’s WITHOUT the floor controller needed to switch sounds (essential for live work). The cheapest such unit would be the FVB2 which costs about another £30. This unit will only allow you to switch between four different sounds on the amp, but still, that should be enough:

  • A clean sound with a bit of chorus, reverb & delay for general accompaniment.
  • A crunchy mild overdrive sound with a bit of delay for power chords & bluesy lead work.
  • A big fat lead sound for those “rock god” moments.
  • That “special” sound with unusual effects like octave shift, trippy delays or auto-wah that you only need for one song. Every band has one of these songs in their set… unless you’re U2 where EVERY song fits this description.
line-6-spider-v-60

The Line 6 Spider V60

Still, we’re over budget, though, so we’re going to need to re-visit the guitar side of the rig to see if there’s any money to be saved.

I have recently become a convert to Harley Benton guitars, owning an excellent LP-style instrument by them, and a dreadnought style acoustic. Both of these guitars were ridiculously low in price & are proper, full-on, excellent, pro-standard instruments. Let’s have a look at their S-type guitars then…

We’re in luck: according to Thomann’s website, you can buy a Harley Benton ST-62 MN SB Vintage Series S-type guitar for £100 (I told you they were great value, didn’t I?) It has a basswood body (perfectly fine – many boutique guitar builders favour this timber for it’s balanced tonal characteristics); a Canadian maple neck & (drum roll, please…) Wilkinson ALNICO MAGNET pickups! Even if you have to factor in the price of a set-up, that still gives you a stonking good guitar for around £150-£160. If my experience with Harley Benton guitars is anything to go by though, it’ll be pretty much perfectly set-up out of the box, anyway.

hb-s-type

Harley Benton S-type

I think we’re about there… we have the guitar; we have the amp; we have the effects (built into the amp) and we have the foot controller. Let’s have a look at what we’ve spent:

Harley Benton ST-62 MN SB Vintage Series:

Line 6 Spider V60:

Line 6 FBV2 Foot Controller:

5.6m Whirlwind Guitar Cable:

Total:

£100-07

£281-00

£29-00

£22.99

 

£433-06

There’s even enough in the budget for a gig bag (if he didn’t already have one) or a bit of a set-up for the guitar (if it needs one). And there you have it… a giggable rig for less than £500.

Until next time…

Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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

Ten Ways To Demonstrate Your “Rock Star” Credentials

As we all know, there is much more to being a “rock star” than simply having musical ability. Often (if Pete Doherty is anything to go by) musical ability isn’t even a requirement. Being a rock star can involve behaving in a way that, in any other walk of life, would define you as an utter twat, frankly. But in the rock ‘n roll sphere, you will be lauded as a genius is you follow these simple rules…

  1. Turn up late: Probably one of the most important things you can do to establish your credibility. A tried & tested ploy used by artists like Prince and Axl Rose, through to plenty of guys I have been in bands with over the years. It doesn’t matter whether you’re keeping a stadium full of fans waiting, or just your band-mates at the rehearsal room. Showing up a minimum of one hour after the agreed time will tell everyone just how seriously they should take you.
  2. Turn up wasted: Again, another important skill to master if you want win friends and gain respect. Who would want to be in a band with, or pay money to see, someone who attempts to play music when they’re sober? So what that the performance might not be the best it could be? Being “professional” is for people who wear suits, right? Downing that Special Brew and nostril-hoovering a couple of lines of Colombian marching powder before a performance will show the world you’re an “artist”.
  3. Nothing is ever your fault: If a song unravels because you go to the bridge after the 1st verse instead of the 2nd, then it’s obviously the fault of the other guys in the band for “not feeling your vibe, man!” I mean, honestly… they learn the song, and play it the way it was agreed… weeks ago? They should know you’re a free spirit and refuse, on principle, to be tied down to anything as mundane as an “arrangement”. Be sure to tell the audience it was the band’s fault, not yours. Your fellow performers will thank you later for calling them out on the error of their ways.
  4. Trash stuff: When on tour, you should destroy anything, and everything, you can – hotel rooms, dressing rooms, equipment, tour-buses etc. This will be deducted from what the band earns, and impact on the money your colleagues get paid. But, hey… the shock headline of “rock star behaves like a brat” will set you apart and enhance your reputation no end. Your fellow musicians will be secretly overjoyed when they have to sleep in the van because no hotel will let “you lot” over the threshold.
  5. You are too musically gifted to carry any equipment: This is another important one. Upon arrival at the venue, find the bar and start drinking (see item no. 2 on the list). It is not your job to carry your own amp, instruments or other paraphernalia (let alone anyone else’s) from the van to the stage. The band know they are lucky to have you and will gladly hump your gear up the many flights of stairs if it means you can use the time to focus and “get in the zone” before showtime. Any comments to the contrary are a sign of jealousy towards your obviously superior talent.
  6. An artiste of your calibre should be paid accordingly: You have a certain lifestyle to maintain and the rest of the guys will be more than happy for you to take a higher cut than them. Or at least, they would be happy if they knew. Probably best not to encumber them with such sordid details, though.
  7. Argue: It doesn’t matter what the issue might be, just argue. Is the stage not high enough? Argue with the promoter. Is the dressing room not spacious enough? Argue with the venue. Are the peanuts dry roasted when you prefer salted? Argue with the caterer. Refuse to go on stage until it’s all been sorted. It’s the only way they’ll learn. At the next gig demand the exact opposite just to keep them on their toes. Once again, everyone else in the band will be looking to you to create the right impression with people who may want to book you again. And don’t worry…catering staff on minimum wage won’t spit in anyone’s after-show lasagne for being called “pond life”. Probably.
  8. Hog the limelight: You may be first on the bill with half a dozen other bands between you and the big name “headline” act, but the crowd is there to see you… specifically you, personally. Ignore all attempts to get you to wrap up and play an extra twenty minutes of songs that, even though the audience don’t know, you’re certain they’re desperate to hear. The silence you hear after each number is a mark of the stunned appreciation of your genius. As is that bottle of piss that just got thrown at you from the front row.
  9. Blame the sound guy: If the gig went badly, don’t forget… nothing is EVER your fault (see item 3). The reason there was no applause, the reason the crowd all went off to the bar, the reason you sang/played off key is because the person on the desk doesn’t know his/her job. Be sure to argue with them at length after the show (see point no.7). This will ensure they try really hard next time to give your show the treatment it deserves.
  10. Take all the credit for stuff that goes right: If you’re the singer, make sure EVERYONE knows that the great solo the guitarist/bass-player/drummer just did was your idea, and yours alone. Sure it wasn’t you who actually played it, but it was clearly inspired by you and the vibe you, alone, created on stage… every note of it. Even if they didn’t previously know this to be the case the musician(s) in question will be happy for you to point this out to the audience and any members of the press who happen to be around after the show. In the unlikely event they do take issue with you… it’s jealousy again. Some people will stop at nothing to wreck your karmic well being. Pathetic, really. Make sure you argue with them too.

So there you go. How to be a rock star in ten easy steps. Been in a band with any “rock stars”? I have 🙂 

First Gig With The Palace Buskers – Sometimes Simplest Is Best

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I was going back out gigging again after a hiatus of a good few years. Well, last night was the first gig with my new live venture, The Palace Buskers. Briefly, to recap, I do a couple of shows each week on a local community radio station in Redcar, PalaceFM. On one of these shows I play guitar whilst my co-host, Dee sings. It’s a sort of “live lounge” type thing, basically. Well, to cut a long story short, we decided to take the songs we’d learned for the radio performances out on the road.

I must admit I was a bit nervous about how it would go down – no backing tracks or any sequenced drums, no bass… nothing but guitar & vocals. Would the audience (and more importantly the landlord who was paying us) feel short changed by the stripped down nature of our set? Well, I can reveal that I was worrying over nothing (or “nowt” as we say in these parts). We kicked off with a soul medley of “I Can’t Stand The Rain/River Deep Mountain High/Midnight hour, with me strumming out the necessary barre chords on a strat (plugged into an amp modeller, straight into the desk), and Dee belting out the vocals. As I hit the final chord of the opening medley, the pub erupted into applause with cheers & hollers coming from all parts of the (admittedly small – it was a Sunday night, after all) crowd.

Next song was Fairground Attraction’s “Perfect” which went, erm… perfectly. Again the crowd loved it & so the evening went on. Song after song went down brilliantly – no heckles, people visibly enjoying themselves even when I dusted off my vocal chords to sing “Whiskey In The Jar”. Barring the odd few mistakes (bound to happen on any 1st gig with a new set) which we covered pretty well, the night couldn’t have gone better & I enjoyed every minute. The venue, The Clarendon Hotel have rebooked us for a gig in early January too which is the truest test of how we did – a venue doesn’t rebook any act who they’re going to lose money giving a gig to.

Russ, the landlord, said what a fantastic change it was to have a live music night that wasn’t just a singer, or singers with karaoke backing tracks, “borderline miming” he called it. He praised our rawness and promised to spread the word on the pub grapevine so that we would more easily get a foot in the door with other venues in the area. Great news!

As you can probably tell, I’m on a bit of a high after this inaugural show & I’m already looking forward to the next one at another local pub, The Britannia Inn on Nov 3rd. What strikes me as being the most enjoyable thing about this new live act, that I’ve stumbled into, is the one thing I was worried may be a our Achilles heel – the lack of a “full band” sound either with drums & bass or backing tracks. It turns out that (surprise, surprise) audiences love live music and they love it all the more for being 100% live – a perceived weakness has actually turned out to be a strength. Also when there are only two people on stage, there is far less scope for things to go wrong (on a scale that the audience would notice, anyway). All in all I’m filled with optimism for The Palace Buskers – it may not be a way for me to showcase virtuoso guitar soling skills a la Satch & EVH (something I always used to try & squeeze into any song given half a chance), but I’m learning loads about making complex songs work with a minimalist arrangement, I’m having fun & I’m earning a few quid into the bargain. Happy Days!

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