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My New Sheraton, the Blues, and Bippy’s Open Mic

I got a new toy recently.

Jon's red Sheraton

In the late 90s, when I was in high school, I had an Epiphone Sheraton II. Who knows how I paid for it at the time, because it would have been more than $500. It’s like a Gibson ES-335, a really common blues guitar. I’ve been missing it for quite some time ever since I sold it while we were saving up for the house. Then I ran across this one on Craigslist, played it, and picked it up used from a guy up near Bel Air. It’s a reproduction of a 1962 Epiphone model, and it has a different tailpiece and different pickups. It’s a much better guitar than the one I sold, but that’s not really what this post is about.

One of the reasons I was okay selling that other guitar, aside from wanting to buy a house and downsizing my “stuff,” was that I felt I had more or less moved past the kind of music that I used it for. I went from playing blues and 90s alt rock in high school to playing acoustic folk/Americana/bluegrass/old time almost exclusively, and by the time I formed up Midway Fair I was playing something more like alt-country and Celtic music. I have difficulty focusing on more than one thing and generally I’m pretentious, so my feeling that the blues was nothing but guitar wankery sort of took over. Most of the time it is. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like playing it, and ignoring that side of American music was and is, frankly, incredibly short-sighted of me, and I’d only really pull it out when it served as some sort of selling point (like describing the Midway Fair song “At the Dawn of the Day” as “blues + Celtic”).

There’s an open mic I go to about once every month or two in Ellicott City, at a place called Bippys. It used to be the open mic at The Friendly Inn, but moved when that place stopped doing live music. Since I’ve been going there almost uninterrupted (except for living out of state) since 1997, I’ve been there longer than anyone by several years. It’s a lot of blues players, and a few classic rock players. Everyone is much older than me. And most of the time I end up playing by myself, playing music that they really aren’t there to hear.

So last week, I took the new Sheraton out for its test run, and decided to whip out almost entirely new material. Paul Beckwith played bass with me, and Steve Hammond played drums. Great players — they can follow even stuff they’ve never heard. And I was forced to keep things simple.

I think it went over better than any set I’ve played there, but I noticed that most of the simplest songs I played were “solo” tunes, and that many of them were, if not exactly blues, much more blues-based than songs I played with Midway Fair. And they were fun and comfortable in a way that a lot of the Midway Fair material often isn’t.

So now I wonder. Was it the simplicity that made me think that, or is this my brain trying to tell me to keep it simple stupid?

[Oh, the guitar did fabulously for anyone curious.]



“Stop Mumbling”

“Don’t mumble” is a tough one for me. Basically: people are scary.

Jon at Brown's Orchard

Me playing at Brown’s Orcharge on 3/16/13. Yes, that’s Eeyore, suckahs. (Photo by Michael Friedman.)

Anyway, I’ve never really been a mumble-y singer (at least not in the last 10 years or so …), but I do tend to mumble when talking, on the microphone and off. Lexa called me out on this recently, so I made a special effort this past Saturday not to mumble.

Clearly this is one of those “fake it” things … apparently it improves your whole performance, because I can’t remember ever having such an positive response to a solo performance (especially not one where I noticeably forgot the lyrics to TWO songs I play quite often). Also, I noticed I smiled a lot more. People actually laughed at the jokes.

My friend Michael Friedman, who’s a wonderful guitarist (and fellow gearhead — he owns a few of my creations), split the show with me. Michael plays classical on an electric guitar, and his touch is just unbelievable: it doesn’t look like his right hand’s fingers are moving at all. Just incredibly deft and completely at home on the fretboard. Plus he’s pretty hilarious between songs.

We played at an orchard (Brown’s Orchard, near-ish to Harrisburg), which is something different. They’ve got a little country store/grocery and a cafe. I ate corned beef and played a few Irish songs.

I did have a few issues related to equipment and volume that made my first set a little uncomfortable: my dirt pedal sounded a little louder through the Centaur acoustic PA than through my amp, and the first time I hit it I was scared of blowing out the nice folks having a wine tasting five feet from the speaker. I don’t think anyone really noticed, but there were times when I felt like I really ruined a moment or two. I was also scared in the first set of being too loud for the room (not exactly a small room, but it “felt” small), and it was cold outside and I hadn’t warmed up, so I got some helpful comments on the high notes being pitchy, which I think I corrected in the second set: I got compliments on my vocals (always unusual for me) after the second round and it felt more comfortable.

And one person said, “I like how you don’t mumble.”


Time for the real work: Rewriting

The title’s a joke: I actually enjoy the rewriting process, and I don’t consider things I enjoy “work.” Rewriting is when you get to play with songs.

Musicians use the word “play” in a very generic sense that isn’t really the primary meaning of the word, which is an activity that kids (and juveniles of many species) engage in naturally, where you explore and exercise your imagination. For some reason, adults very often lose the ability to do this, and what we get in place of it is a lot of inhibitions.

So for me, most of the work is just breaking down inhibitions when I first start writing the song, and again later, after I think the song is “done,” to begin the rewriting process. But once I’m in my mental “play” space, good things happen. One particularly interesting example of this was the rewriting process for “Blue Eyes” with Midway Fair. I met up with Tim one night and played him what I had so far. It was a sort of mopey, slow feel with some Decemberists influence. Then we proceeded to run through a dozen different styles of music until the song just clicked with a rock and roll feel. Before that, it was one of my least favorite songs and would have been filler on the album (and better deleted). After, it’s one of my favorite songs to play live, and I think Jen had fun with it in the studio.

But our plan, as a band, for the next little bit, doesn’t involve arranging things for live shows, and we’ve also decided to be a bit more collaborative. So I’ve passed off some of my songs to Jen just asking for her thoughts, and decided to … rewrite someone else’s song. Today I did a little bit of work on Joe Scala’s “Grounded”, which really hit home for me when he wrote it. Turning a skeletal song like this into something that fits the band isn’t exactly easy. It has a kind of weird rhythm part that doesn’t work with other instruments in the mix (the lead parts I tried to play with Joe on Monday at Teavolve didn’t mesh well), so the first thing to do is convert the guitar to a rhythm that DOES leave space for other people. The next thing to do is normalize some things so that the backing vocals are easy to perform live.

This is very basic rewriting. But doing it on my own isn’t likely to yield the best results. So it has to be run by other people, especially Jen, who’s a better arranger than I am.

All of this in the end, though, has to come down to a song fitting into “our” style, whatever that means. I know it when I hear it. And the only way to hear it is to try everything without reservations or prejudices until it comes out.

One year of DIY — the story of my first working pedal, built one year ago today

I started building guitar pedals just over a year ago, and today is the one-year anniversary of the completion of my first working pedal, a tap tempo tremolo from MusicPCB. It was my fourth attempt to built a pedal, with two failed attempts at building a different tremolo and a partially failed BYOC fuzz (it worked, just not like it was supposed to).

Here’s what I built, the Cardinal Tremolo:

Okay on the outside. Horrors await within. Also, the depth knob was backwards.

I colored it with sharpie paint pens. When I opened it up recently, I was pretty much horrified by the insides. I don’t even have a picture of what it looked like originally, because I was too scared to open it up once it was working. I’ll just describe what was in there: Bad soldering. The PCB was mounted in such a way that it was sitting on top of the jacks for the guitar and amp, with some electrical tape insulating it. It was lopsided and would pop up when I opened it. The LEDs were just sort of hanging around in there, with wires taped to the inside of the enclosure to hold them down. The wiring was too long in some places, too short in others, and had solder burns and its insulation was melted off in places. But the important thing at the time was that it worked and sounded good. In fact, despite the horror inside, it worked quite consistently and held up to being on my gigging pedalboard for quite some time, with one or two failures at various times.

Eventually, I graduated from using paint pens and started using real paints. I built dozens of pedals, and the cardinal trem stopped looking charming and started looking kind of, well, crappy. So I repainted it in June:

Cardinal tremolo

Looks a lot better, doesn’t it?

Recently, the pedal had started to act funny. The tempo would change when I turned the pedal on, which was a little inconvenient to say the least. I was really scared that the pedal would have to be retired, but I was a l0t better now at fitting things into tight spots. So I pulled the PCB out of the enclosure and went to work.

Here are some things I’d learned in the meantime: How to solder properly. That having the right tools for the job is essential for a good build (good soldering iron, helping hands, etc.). How to dress wires neatly. Generally, how to build and box a circuit board so that it is a solid tool that won’t fail.

I redid all the off-board wiring. I replaced a couple dodgy looking parts. I re-positioned the switches to make a little extra room and turned the board 90 degrees so it no longer could come into contact with the jacks — now the PCB looks like the case was actually set up to accommodate it! (I was a bit lucky that it did fit sideways.) The LEDs got little metal bezels so they looked uniform and professional. I replaced all the jacks and the bypass footswitch so I could be sure that the soldering on them was solid. So here’s the inside and outside as they stand now:

Cardinal Tremolo reborn

Look! Bezels!

Cardinal Tremolo reborn guts

The insides previously were an indescribable horrific mess. This looks like it was made to be built this way!

A bit of irony regarding fixing this is that for the new project I designed this week I’m planning now uses the same digital chip as the Cardinal tremolo for tap tempo and everything — but I’m pairing the chip with a circuit that does both normal tremolo and the extremely-rare-but-awesome harmonic tremolo found on Fender amps from the early 1960s. Since this would retire this Cardinal, and because I arrived at the final version of the design on the anniversary of building it, I’ve decided to name the forthcoming circuit the Cardinal Tremolo. Plus it gives me an excuse to paint more birdies!

With a year of this hobby behind me, it’s amazing not only the number and variety of effects I’ve build — fuzz and distortion, boost, compression, delay, tremolo, vibrato, phase shifting, octave, envelope filter (bow chicka bow wow) — but what remains to build, things like ring modulation and more complicated or just different versions of the same effects I’ve already built. I’m incredibly proud to have six of my own designs completed in my first year at this hobby. I’m also proud to have made a dozen pedals for friends and other musicians and have them tell me that the pedals sound great (just like playing music, this is a hobby where you need feedback to know if you’re crazy). Of course, I never would have had the knowledge to do these things without the incredible support network in the DIY community. I’m consistently amazed at how generous people are with their hard-won and frequently highly technical knowledge (so I do my best to pay it forward).

And there’s always more to learn and experiment with. I’m looking forward to my second year.


I Made It! [FAWM 2013 “win”]

Well, I wrote 14 songs in one month.

Ordinarily, the writing is the easy part and the rewriting is the real work. Condensing all that writing into such a short time period, though, really is really tough! As Joe Scala put it, having your imagination turned on all the time is exhausting. It wasn’t always fun, but there were some good times, and I got a handful of songs I really liked, and a few others that I think have potential. I know the point of February Album Writing Month is to get into gear and be creative, so I guess it was successful.

Here are my three favorites:

#6, “(What Kind of Heart Beats) In the Black Breast of The Beast”

Easily my most comprehensive song for the whole competition — I think the chorus is very strong, the guitar part is as good as anything I’ve ever written, and it fits the overall Midway Fair aesthetics of cinematic folk songs and “pretty music about ugly things.”

#5, “[dys•lin•guan•y]”

One of the most unusual stories I’ve written. There were other better “song” songs I wrote, but this one had a particular level of emotional resonance that I think gave it an edge.

#13, “The Language of Flowers”

Before I got around to recording this song, I had some worries. Although it’s far from the best demo I recorded (my voice was pretty ragged, and the sound is not so good), this is one song I think has a ton of potential as a band song, and I also think that the lyrics are quite strong and only need very minor adjustments.

And an honorable mention for #1, Rowhouse

Although a completely unserious song, it was a good performance and a lot of fun. also, people seem to like it.

Finally, Joe and I collaborated for our #14, “Carnation”

I think we had a good result for our first song written together. This was the first time I’ve co-written a song with anyone, and I enjoyed the process, though it was pretty tough getting past the “someone’s watching me write” jitters. It was a good way to end our respective albums.

Wrapping things up

Would I do this again? Hrm. I’d have to think about it. Joe and I talked about doing it as a “band” next year and co-writing or at least working on all fourteen together, or perhaps doing the RPM Challenge (which is 35 minutes or seven songs), both of which is a bit more appealing to me now. I learned a little bit more about the pace of my work, and it was kind of poisonous to my experience when there were times I wanted to continue working on something I knew was good and could be great (like “Black Breast of the Beast”), but I had to interrupt my momentum to work on the next song because the goal was quantity, not quality. What I’m saying is, I would definitely do a challenge like this again, but maybe not this exact challenge.

If anyone’s interested, almost all the songs can be heard on my FAWM site. There are a couple that are hidden to people who are not logged in to FAWM because I genuinely do not feel they were good enough to post to the general public. Here’s the link:

I also highly recommend checking out Joe Scala’s songs from this year’s FAWM on his blog, especially “Grounded” :

Song 14 … process

Copping my buddy Joe’s title scheme

For #14, and to help reduce the stress or pressure on both of us to finish, I suggested that we get together and actually collaborate, since we’re supposed to sort of, you know, work together anyway. You can read on Joe’s blog about the kind of weird free-association that led to our setting and subject matter (the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution”). The interesting part to me has been the difference in how we work.

I tend to think in character first, and my best work has always been just telling a story about a character. I learned this from Catch-22.

Even though creative writing teachers dredged up the old chesnut that “character is story,” they don’t really explain it and often don’t assign reading material that demonstrates it in the best way possible. Instead you read lots of short stories that are often “slice of life.” A lot of “modern” writing (the kind of hyper realistic [boring] stuff descended from guys like Raymond Carver that permeates “academic” literary fiction) simply creates characters that have some character and having them do some stuff and then calling it a story. Sure, they might have some sort of conflict, but when I think back on a lot of the stories like that I had to read, I’m always struck by how oblique and bleak it was, and that the point of the story was more often to have “just some guy” doing “just some stuff.” The characters are often lonely, or at least alone, or nearly so. There are rarely antagonists, and the characters therefore don’t even rise to being protagonists. People think this is realistic. It is. It also makes for very … unimportant storytelling. And you can have an almost infinite amount of it, because the little problems of the world that don’t add up to a hill of beans are almost infinite.  So there’s tons of it out there. It’s ironic how much of it is upheld as being important writing.

Catch-22, which I read after college while working on the first draft of a novel, did something completely different that, for want of a better phrase, blew my mind: it had the same plot and situation for lots of people, and threw them all against the same problem and against each other. All the chapters are named after a character, and it follows that character through some part of the story that might be told elsewhere.

It was so much more life-like. Sure, plenty of people deal with little situations in life, but real conflicts arise from the clash of characters against characters. The more important their desires, the grander the story, because you start to find the true worth of people. It no longer matters if the conflicts are real or anything like that, as long as they follow internal rules. the characters are exaggerated, but that’s the point. When you go back and read the great literature of centuries past, there aren’t “little” stories. Everything is grand, and larger-than-life.

Or at least, that’s my opinion.

Where was I going with this? Well, I knew I didn’t want to finish with a story that was small, everyman type of stuff. Even if my characters were everymen, I didn’t want them to be in a small situation. So when Joe brought up the Portuguese revolution, it was a pretty good opportunity to brainstorm character ideas.

Joe’s writing process was very different. He seems to work in imagery and brainstorming until he finds a phrase he likes. His lyrics tend to be more musical, and word-for-word are denser than mine, because he doesn’t focus as much on making sense in a story, just of conveying an image or feeling.

While I was working on the story, he was writing stream of consciousness based on the concepts from which I was writing the story. Then he organized them into things that matched up: rhymes, categories of images, etc. It was interesting to watch and also interesting to see where it had come from.

Anyway, after a bit of this, he sent me a message on Gchat that there was one particular image and phrase he liked, about explosions and the blooming of flowers, and said he was taking a break.

It was particularly interesting, because it’s not an image I ever would have come up with in my writing process except through a great deal of more forced thought, and it was pretty much a perfect analogous image about two diametrically opposed things (peace [flowers] and war [bombs]).

I went back while he was taking a break and recomposed it into a story, with a rhyme scheme and structure, and I’m pretty happy with how it ended up being so completely different from the song idea we started with.

We’ll be committing it to tape tonight. Still composing the music in my head.

Gaaahhh! What is in my stomach? (FAWM update)

Probably TMI, but there’s a horrific stomach bug going around, and I’ve got it … so my body is currently dictating my final entries of my FAWM, and they are at present lyric-only or instrumental.

I’m still not thrilled with the music for #8; I have decent music for #9, now though, I just can’t sing because of the quesiness. I wrote #10 on Monday, the day the neighbors called the cops on me, and avoided touching the guitar until the practice space came together, so losing four days was problematic. It’s a shame, because I really like #10, and it’s a legitimately mostly-happy bluegrassy/old-timey love song, which I don’t think I’ve written since … the first track on my solo album ten years ago. The lyrics for number 11 came together fairly quickly on Thursday and Friday, and I think I’ve got a working tune. It’s a song about an advertising executive. I want to write a cool guitar part for it, but no appropriate riffiness is coming out at the moment.

Fortunately Matt Pless gave me the day off from the recording session we had today and I got lots of sleep and wrote a jig. I’m also staying home from work tomorrow so I don’t pass this horrible, horrible crap onto anyone else. I’m pretty sure I’ll still make #14 (I can write two songs in four days no problem, right?), but the likelihood of recording demos for the second half of songs is currently very, very low, and there might be another instrumental in the mix, though I do have unfinished lyric ideas for three songs left.

Possibly the weirdest music thing I’ve DIYed … (work in progress)

It’s a practice space in my basement!

Practice space

It’s small (about 6.5′ x 8′), but cozy. It’s a work in progress. I painted the drywall today. I don’t think I can paint the plaster, so it’s just going to get blankets hung on it, while the drywall is going to have a picture or two. I need a small rug or something to go under the piano, and a piano bench or drum throne to replace  the chair. There’s a loveseat under where I took the picture. I have some small Ikea shelves to hold things. I also need to get something to stuff the ceiling to cut down on some sound travelling — probably just old pillows and stuff like that.

It’s especially nice to have space to set up the piano again. I haven’t played it for a long time and was a little worried I’d forgotten how, but I played “Better Off Without a Wife” on it as soon as I moved the music stuff in and can still manage drunken Waits chords.

I still won’t be able to play loud — it’s not exactly an isolation booth — but I should be able to play at what I consider a normal volume without my neighbors calling the cops on me, which is something they’ve started doing even for me playing an acoustic guitar.

Mr Sanders

Is there a point to completing FAWM by including material I’m not proud of?

I noticed that FAWM has a function to hide a song from the public. February Album Writing Month is meant to be a personal challenge — despite being a somewhat large community of participants, I can’t imagine anyone has time to listen to more than a handful of songs a day and still do things like, well, write, severely limiting the audience — and there are certain some songs that, let’s face it, ought to be kept under wraps. I’m currently sitting on a couple (#8 and #9) I’m not thrilled with.

It would be weird, though, to do this. The artist who truly creates only for themselves is rare, and they would not do FAWM in the first place. One could easily have their own album writing month any time they wanted and not worry about the support. But if the songs are hidden in public, that prevents external validation of completing the challenge.

Which brings be back to the songs I’m sitting on. There’s something fundamentally distasteful to me in the concept of writing for the sake of writing, without finishing the composition. Two days is not enough time for me to finish a song. I don’t have time to compose a guitar solo, there’s not enough time to get distance from the lyrics to lend perspective and properly edit them, and there’s no time to test the song out against listeners to determine if the song structure needs work. The idea that the songs can be fully explored later is a poor excuse for underwriting in the first place and then publicly releasing unfiltered songs.

I used to be an editor, so this is important for me.

At some point, I would have to decide between releasing something I don’t care for and completing the challenge. In the one case, I’m disappointed that I compromised artistic standards under an artificial constraint, and in the other I fail at a personal challenge I took on.

Neither is particularly appealing.


I spent the weekend mostly making and updating some older prototype pedals to make sure they were ready to take to Invisible Sound’s tone geek thing. I’ve also been asked to record madolin with Matt Pless for his upcoming record AND with Dave from Whale Show (who I’ve been playing shows with recently), so my February is now stuffed to the gills with music.

The pedal thing was partly to get feedback from other players about my designs, and actually building *my* Hamlet, since I didn’t have one made for me yet. I also finished a harmonic tremolo for my buddy Keith, since it’s something he’s wanted to try for a long time. I hadn’t been building much except to verify the PCB designs I recently sent off to get fabbed.

Obviously this is a pretty significant distraction when I’m supposed to be writing like a madman. I did get one song written and recorded over the weekend (#7), but given the time crunch to complete this challenge, wouldn’t it have been better to spend the weekend writing and skip tone geek this once?

Maybe. But I had dinner with my parents on Saturday night, and my mom reminded me that taking a break from anything is important. I have a day off coming tomorrow if I want it, still deciding, because it’s not like work disappears if I don’t show up. I think, though, that the only way good writing comes up is by expanding your experiences, even everyday experiences. Spend all your time alone and it’s all introspective, and while some writers can pull that off with incredible results, Van Morrison I ain’t. This means that if you’re in the proper state of mind, things that would normally be a distraction from your work can become opportunity.

The big thing is that I’ve had to force myself to pay attention. I mean, really pay attention. Not the pay attention most of us go through life with, which is mostly autopilot and a moment of shock when a driver cuts you off. It’s things like noticing that the mode on the Strymon Mobius pedal that someone brought in has a tremolo preset called “Shaven” and on the way home noticing the street sign for South Haven Street written as “S. Haven.” Yes, this is nigh-useless for a song, but the point is I’m not sure I would notice that if I weren’t in a desperate hyperactive state of readiness for something, anything, that can be jumped on to write about. And just noticing that South Haven street sign meant I was noticing other things: The dilapidated warehouse with furniture out front, the look on a guy’s face at the pump when the wind cuts through his jacket, the particular blue gray of this afternoon’s sky. Forcing myself to paying attention means that this becomes habit in some way and it’s far more likely I’ll notice the moment something musical (or at least interesting) comes out of someone’s mouth or when something on the radio really captures my attention. And this isn’t a feeling I can ever remember having before, since most of my writing is a deliberate, short-term burst, and I then work on honing the rough draft into something better.

For the moment, there’s not enough time to reflect if this produces better work, but it does occur to me that when folks like Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton (yes, her) spend an entire year doing nothing but writing, that they must be in a manic state like this, where everything is a song. There are clearly some FAWMers who are somewhat on this level of being keyed in to thinking in song. I’m not sure I’ll get to that state, but at the moment, it’s working, and they say it only takes 21 days to make or break a habit.