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

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

Which Music Format To Choose

I’m old enough to have bought, and listened to, music in a wide variety of formats over the years. I remember my parents playing their K-Tel compilation albums on an 8-track cartridge player in the family car. Talking of parental influence, I also recall listening to their old rock n roll & big band 78s – Glenn Miller, Joe Loss, Bill Haley, Frankie Vaughan, Alma Cogan & Tommy Steele to name but a few. My first actual purchase of music was Tiger Feet by MUD on 7” vinyl single played repeatedly on the mono Dansette record player in my bedroom (with “Mr. Bagatelle” on the B-side, oh yes… I remember it well!). Then came the cassette revolution. Christmas 1977 saw me get my first ever tape recorder, a Binatone. Anyone else remember placing the little condenser microphone in front of the record player speaker to tape their singles?

I suppose the next big step was the advent of the personal stereo – you could take your music with you anywhere you went in glorious stereophonic sound. Just remember to carry a BIC biro in your pocket to fast-forward/rewind without draining your batteries, obviously! Then, in the mid 1980s, came the compact disc. Such was the novelty of hearing music with absolute crystal clarity that I once walked the best part of a mile to a friends house to listen to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on this new format – I had the album on vinyl, but the thrill of hearing it on a good, expensive Hi-Fi (there was no such thing as a “cheap” CD system in 1985) with pin-sharp sound was worth a trek across town. Throughout the 1990s other formats came & went… DAT & mini-disk both spring to mind but, with the advent of the mp3, the actual physical medium the music was stored on (tape/disc/CD etc) became secondary to the way it was encoded digitally.

Where is all this going then? Well nowadays we are bombarded by musical formats galore including WMA, mp3, AAC, OGG, WAV & FLAC. I recently found myself in the market for a new mp3 player as my old Sony NWZ Walkman had finally died on me. The replacement I chose supports the FLAC format (Free Lossless Audio Codec), a digital music standard which has all the Hi-Fi buffs salivating over it’s supposedly vastly superior sound quality. Being curious, I downloaded Dire Straits’ “Alchemy” live album (once regarded as a benchmark test for audiophiles in the early days of laser discs & CDs) in this format and loaded it onto my new player. Using a pair of pro-quality studio headphones, I pressed “play” in eager anticipation of being blown away with a hitherto unknown level of clarity & dynamic response.

The reality of it was quite underwhelming, it has to be said. I genuinely could not hear what all the fuss was about. I compared the perceived sound quality of the FLAC version of the album to the 256K mp3 format of the album I’d been listening to for years. Not even the slightest difference in sound quality, to my ears at least. I then tried another, more recent, album – Snarky Puppy’s “GroundUP”. First in FLAC format, then 256K mp3. Finally I tried Gustav Holst’s “Planet Suite” in both formats – maybe the difference would be more apparent with the greater dynamic range found in orchestral music. Erm… no. Still not a jot of difference that I could hear.

I’m well aware that as we age, our hearing changes – a 19 year old can hear higher frequencies than a 50 year old. Being nearer the latter number in terms of age, I can only put my lack of distinction between the FLAC & mp3 formats down to this phenomenon. The point is, though, that I don’t perceive music as sounding any different to the way it did when I WAS nineteen. At no point when I’m listening to an album from my youth do I think “This just doesn’t sound as sharp as it did thirty years ago.” I still enjoy music in what (to me anyway) sounds like crisp, clear, full-range quality, even if that’s not what I’m actually hearing due to my ears not being what they used to be – the perception is still as good as it was in the “olden days”. Is this perhaps why it was mainly us youngsters who raved about CDs in the 80s? Could anyone over the age of 40 in 1986 not hear how much better a CD was compared to a cassette? Whatever the reason, it’s an easy choice for me when deciding which format to listen to. FLAC files take up massively more space than even the highest bit-rate mp3s, which to my muddy old ears sound exactly as good. Using FLAC would mean I could fit much less music on my new mp3 player for no perceived benefit. And I don’t have to buy my music collection all over again as I did when I made the transition from vinyl & cassette to compact disc. Getting old, it seems, does have it’s benefits!

Until next time, Have Fun!

 

John.

 

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist