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BB King Taught Me to Talk

B.B. King’s passing hit me pretty hard for a celebrity death, even though his passing came after a long battle with diabetes and its complications, and was perhaps even expected given his age.

Although there’s probably not a lot of evidence of it in my music these days, BB King is one of my biggest guitar influences. And not in a background “the dude influenced everyone” sort of way: he was the first guitarist I ever intentionally tried to emulate in every way possible. Weirdly, he’s also indirectly responsible for my interest in Celtic music and two degrees removed from Mark Knopfler, the only other guitarist I’ve really tried to emulate. (I didn’t discover my third major guitar hero, Richard Thompson, until I’d been playing for 10 years, and I did not directly borrowed much of Thompson’s technique.)

I started learning how to play blues fairly early after picking up the guitar, and BB King was my first exposure to it. My grandfather used to tape things off public television and mail the tapes to his family, and one of his tapes he sent us had a BB King concert from the early 90s (I think). I watched it constantly, and tried playing along with him. I dissected his playing as best I could (which I can’t say I’ve done with any other guitar player besides Mark Knopfler). I wasn’t smart enough at the time to know that the other thing that truly made him great was the economy of his playing, never playing more than he needed to and actually “saying” something with the guitar. So it was pretty easy for me to play more than he was playing, but I never hit nearly as many perfect notes.

I mainly learned the use of vibrato from him. In fact, I thought I was doing it pretty close to the same way as him until very recently when I watched a video where he did it in slow motion, and I realized I wasn’t doing it exactly right at all. But in revisiting his music, I think I also learned my tendancy to use double stops (that’s where you play two notes at once) as accents from his playing. A lot of other artists do this, but King did them in slightly different places. It’s hard to explain, but I know it when I hear it.

In 1997, about the time I was starting to get really seriously into playing guitar, especially blues, he put out the Dueces Wild album, which had him playing guitar with a bunch of people. Including van Morrison:

I was blown away by Van Morrison’s voice (most people are), and promptly started picking up Van Morrison albums … mostly his stuff from the 80s onward, which is ironic considering that if I had picked up his earlier records, I would have found him doing a lot more blues. Van the Man’s Philosopher’s Stone album had some blues on it, but what interested me more was the Celtic stuff he was doing. He did an entire CD with the Chieftains:

The first Chieftains album I picked up had this song on it:

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Mark Knopfler … it would have been hard to have been alive in the 80s without hearing any Dire Straights. I may have already had a Dire Straights best-of record. But I picked up Knopfler’s Golden Heart after I heard that, which is still one of my desert island albums. It would be a very short hop nowadays to go right back to BB King from Mark Knopfler:

(That’s from 2008.)

In a very short span of time in 1997, I had gone from playing and listening to mostly blues and alternative rock to listening to more and more Celtic folk, which ate up a lot of my attention in the following years, but I can pretty clearly remember listening to a small stack full of BB King records in the car when my dad and I road tripped to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky during spring break of my senior year in high school, including a really lousy tape-to-CD transfer we picked up in a gas station on the way.

For a long time, I thought that the blues was more or less antithetical to Celtic music. (I know better now.) Since I was better at the Celtic stuff, blues technique rarely made its way into the music I recorded, even when I did songs that were closer to bluegrass, which absolutely borrows from the blues. Blues guitar uses bends and vibrato, seventh notes and flatted thirds, almost none of which appears in the folk music I was playing. Celtic music rarely even allows vibrato. I did eventually find some middle ground, and I’m finding more all the time. I still played the blues for fun, and most of the blues songs I played were BB King songs.

Later, when I was a bit wiser, I went back and listened to BB King again, I got a little better at knowing when not to play. I’m still fascinated with the economy of his playing. In between, I learned a lot of sounds to make on the guitar: how to make it sing. How to make it scream. But BB King taught me how to make it talk.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say as much with as little as he did.

So farewell, Mr. King. Thanks for always giving me something to learn and for the introductions to some of my other favorite musicians.


I was thinking, fairly randomly, about my time in the military this week

and the moment I realized that I really didn’t belong in the army. It wasn’t all the times all those people asked me, incredulously, “What are you doing in the army” whether because of my general attitude toward military things or because they thought I had other talents (not bragging, just saying). It was the moment the Iraq war looked inevitable. We were, of course, already in a war with Afghanistan, but my reaction was “Jeez, not again,” while all the people around me were actually excited.

All the people in my unit didn’t seem too worried about it, and some even saw it as something positive in some way. One person asked me why I wasn’t keen to use the skills I’d been taught.

I got this weird vision that the chicken salad he was calmly eating was actually made of human babies. So I said, “How can you possibly want to use the skills you’d been learned? Do you realize what that even means?”

Servicemembers should be the last people willing to go to war, not the first or second. I was the only person around me that felt this way.

I mean, not that I was going to reenlist anyway, but sheesh.

New toy — a recording interface!

Scarlett 18i8

It’s twice as big as the mini mac!

I recently got a FocusRite Scarlett 18i8 — a little USB-based digital recording interface.

It’s been a long time since I did home recording, unless you count my YouTube videos done with the handheld camera my dad gave me. My last set-up was a 4-track Tascam cassette recorder. I still have it, but I haven’t used it years, because I don’t even have another cassette tape player, much less a way to convert the recordings to digital.

Back when I got that, it was a few hundred dollars, and anything resembling a studio microphone to go along with it was hundreds of dollars, with very few options below $1,000, so of course I just used dynamic mics. It was barely useful for demo recordings. Digital options were just coming out at the time and ran in the thousands of dollars for anything that was as functional or as good sounding, so I didn’t even bother looking until much more recently — when I discovered that things like this existed for less than I had paid for the Tascam.

I’m using Joe Scala’s old mini mac with it, and did some things in GarageBand just to get used to everything. All the recordings I’ve done so far are just plugging the guitar (with or without my pedalboard) into the interface. The preamps in the interface are very good, so I’ve been impressed with that so far.

I set up a Soundcloud page to host the recordings. Here’s a couple of the ones I made in GarageBand:

A Mark Knopfler instrumental piece from some of his soundtrack work I’ve always loved:

An instrumental cover of Gillian Welch’s “Hard Times”:

Then this week I picked up LogicPro, a digital audio workstation program that GarageBand is based on. It’s a professional-level DAW for a ridiculously good price, and I immediately liked it as much as Protools. It’s very easy to use and intuitive, even if things are in a different place (or called something different) than what I’m used to. To learn overdubbing and punching in, and to get used to the plugins and amp models, I recorded a little bit of rock and roll:

There are a couple things that immediately struck me: First, the signal:noise ratio is much better than GarageBand, with much less hiss. Everything just sounds a little clearer. Second, punching in (that is, recording at a specific place in the track to correct a mistake or pick up where you left off) is a breeze, with a “count in” setting to automatically play a few bars before the recording starts. It also seems to automatically crossfade overdubs (blend them together so you can’t tell that they were different takes), and a bunch of other super helpful stuff. The plugins (effects — like compressor/limiters, reverb, etc.) also seem very good. Finally, the amp models are excellent. Garageband was good for clean stuff, but the second distortion, whether from a pedal or its own modelers, became involved, quality really degraded. It sounds more natural in LogicPro, and there are some really cool things you can do like changing the “microphone” model or even moving it to a different place on the “speaker,” which I thought was a pretty insane detail to include.

I picked up a couple budget Audio Technica studio mics that got good reviews, and I’ll be using them as soon as I’m set up somewhere in the house appropriate for singing or micing a guitar. Unfortunately, the basement practice room has a leak in the wall that lets in water when it rains, so I need to get that sorted out before I can use the room regularly.

All of the above tracks were done with the Don Quixotecaster. I did use the mandolin on something I didn’t post to Soundcloud, and it worked fine through the pedal board.

I’m really looking forward to doing lots of recording now. I sort of forgot what a good practice tool it was, but also this lets me do one of the things I really love about music all the time — some people like playing live best, but I’ve always enjoyed the time in the studio, where you really get to play around and make mistakes and discoveries (sometimes both at the same time!), more.

Gitboxes, giftboxes, and other stuff from my end-of-year vaction

I had off work for a whole week this week, which hasn’t happened in a while. It was nice. I played a bunch of music with friends — Teavolve and Ledbetters open mics on Monday, Jen on Friday afternoon, and Dave Huber today and lots in my living room.

DT Huber and band (including yours truly on the left) playing at the Baltimore Folk Festival.

Dave Huber had some exciting news: His release, Scorched Earth, was named one of City Paper’s Top 10 for 2013. Pretty cool! And I see some names on the list I can really recommend to folk music lovers, too, like June Star, the Kolodners (Brad runs the old time jam in Baltimore), and Her Fantastic Cats. I played mandolin on Scorched Earth, and Dave has really been a pleasure to work with over the past year.

Cigarbox guitar

Weeeooooh! I’m a guitar!

I’ve also been designing a new circuit for a friend as part of the secret santa “PIFmas” (PIF = pay it forward) thing on the Build Your Own Clone. The present I got from someone else was seriously cool: A cigar box guitar!

I haven’t actually taken a “vacation” in the past couple years. Most of the time the only reason I take time off work is to record. This year I took two: Lexa and I went to San Francisco in October, and this week was a staycation. Traveling was kind of stressful, but staying at home was pretty nice.

So, onward, I guess. I have a couple projects to finish, and I’m hoping to make some more time for writing soon. February’s just around the corner, and this year’s February project will be extra fun.

If you encounter a tree from above

If you encounter a tree from above,
you’ll see a hundred branches
diverging in all directions,
a paralyzing (almost) endowment of choice
and you think, “I can take any one of them and there will be even more branches”;
so you take one,
but discover
they all converge at the trunk
toward and beneath the soil.

It’s so strange that we think that for others, younger than us, it will be different, which is a peculiar kind of hope.

I was interviewer by Petey Twofingers about my DIY habit

I need to clarify (apparently, because I’ve been asked): Petey Twofingers is a real person, and no, I didn’t write the interview. I just read his questions. He did a whole series of these and interviewed lots of people.

It’s long, and it covers more than just DIY. It was very strange to ask myself the questions!

Here’s what it’d been like to spend a year without a phone or social networking

On July 23, 2012, this was the last thing I posted on Facebook:

Continue reading →

Is this an argument against the collaborative art process?

This is Susan Cain’s (somewhat famous) TED talk about introversion:

Original TED talk link:

One of the things she mentions is that introverts feel that they “work best” in low-key environments or when alone. As an introvert, I can say this is definitely true. I do “feel like” I work best in solitude. And I fully agree that it’s important for many people to come up with their own ideas before they must share them with a group. Cain’s very clear that she’s not advocating a single approach for everyone all the time.

Some of the comments on the video (in the original link) mention that art schools, which are places that you’d expect to be full of introverts, often forced collaborative environments, which are often poison for introverts. I’ve blogged recently about how valuable collaborative art can be, but some artists commented on the video that it was a bad experience for them when it was forced upon them in art school. I know that the video actually argues against collaboration; rather Cain argues that greater understanding about introversion is necessary to ensure everyone works at their best. I thought it was worth thinking about how to reconcile these conflicting views, perhaps beyond just agreeing that, like introversion and extroversion, both are equally valid.

I don’t want to draw any conclusions at this time. But after forcing myself to work more collaboratively, I have very recently started thinking about how detrimental my introversion and shyness is not just to promoting my art but creating it.

E-concerts: These are a thing now.

There are all these expectations — which usually I can’t meet — about how many people will come see you play at any given show, even if you’ve never played at that venue before. Sometimes I feel like everyone has a certain amount of goodwill they can get from the local live music venues before it’s all used up, and I’ve used up a lot of it with place that I really enjoy playing in Baltimore. Some people might find that a very stupid way of looking at things. They tend to have more successful music careers than I do.

Well, anyway, today I saw this post from Grassrootsy about something I’m going to go ahead and dub “e-concerts” if they haven’t already gotten that name. What is this? It’s a live performance watched over the internet. It’s not simply taping the performance and sticking it up on YouTube. You’re playing live, and the audience is watching live. Ideally there is some interaction between audience and performer.

Stage-It, the company mentioned in the Grassrootsy post, is not the only way to have an e-concert. Artists have used Google+ to host concerts via the “Hangout” feature. Rob Hinkal from the folk rock band ilyAIMY regularly broadcasts — and then archives — the open mics he hosts on a site called Ustream. The archive part is really cool for people who have no media otherwise. A Ustream video is the only thing on my music page on this site right now, in fact.

Stage-It does have some nice advantages over these other methods, and I’m sure there are other hosts for this sort of activity (including Skype, maybe?), but what I’m really interested in right now is the implications of e-concerts.

Joy mentions that people are “lazy” or just “busy” as a big reason live music isn’t as well attended now than 10, 20, or especially 30 years ago. There are many more factors than that, of course. I think the dropoff in the last 10 years has more to do with economics than anything else. Gas is comparatively more expensive. I used to think nothing of driving for an hour to see a show. Now I calculate that it’s $10 in gas and add that to the cost of the ticket. Does that make me cheap? Undoubtedly. But it’s a reality for many people. Obviously this isn’t an economics treatise. There are many reasons people don’t go see live music as much. I’ve seen people blame easy access to recorded material and live video, but that’s absurd (let’s forego the polemy — YouTube is great for artists). But let’s remember that internet technologies are supplanting physical travelling in other spheres: I used to telecommute a couple days a week when I worked as a science editor, and telecommuting is becoming more and more common in all professions. In some ways, it’s weird that despite a decade of fast-enough internet speeds and the bevy of services available to musicians to promote their art that e-concerts are a such a recent development.

E-concerts are still actual “events” worth bugging the press about, or even gimmicks, something that a band doesn’t, you know, plan on repeating, unless of course it’s really successful, and then maybe we’ll think about it and maybe you should try it out because you might like it …

There are certainly some ways in which an e-concert is inferior to a live show. Loud rock bands may or may not benefit; some hardcore or metal fans probably want to feel the bass when they see a band and won’t get that without being in the room. Whereas for a live show you might have a PA provided with a soundman and good speakers, for an e-concert you’re probably pumping whatever you play through a USB mic, through a sound card, then out through someone’s computer (or possibly TV) speakers.

On the other hand, you don’t have to haul gear, and if you know what you’re doing, you might be able to muster better sound than some venues, especially if volume control is an issue or studio wizardry is a core of your sound. My band, Midway Fair, has a perennial problem where we aren’t loud or intense enough to be at home in rock clubs, but we’re often too loud for coffeeshops. There are very few places I’ve played where I felt comfortable and wasn’t worried about the volume levels or intensity of music that the audience was expecting.

E-concerts will become more common. That’s for certain. What does this do for live music overall? I suppose there might be some worries that if people know they can see you on a somewhat regular basis online, then they won’t spend the time and money required to see you in person. Or maybe the opposite is true: They’ll see you more often, and then want to see you in person when they can, because the in-person concerts will be rarer.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

An Interesting Article Highlighting the Virtues of Collaboration

I’ve posted here before about my desire to work more closely with the other songwriters in Midway Fair on songs in the future. As part of this, I recently sent them a song that needed a second verse that I’ve been unable to complete for nearly two years. ran this article today about a … Taylor Swift song.

These two sentences sum up my current feelings about songwriting — and music making in general.

The unfortunate reality is that she’s operating in a world that’s oddly averse to celebrating the virtues of collaboration and division of labor when it comes to music. In other domains, however, we take it for granted. People produce more and better stuff when they specialize and part of being good at what you do is being smart about who you collaborate with.

I made decent music on my own and wrote decent lyrics. I made much better music once I had a band to work with. I made what I think was really, really good music when I let other people really add their own ideas to those songs.