23 Oct 2005 04:06 pm
Electric Kool-Aid Amp Test: Day 1
I’m gonna build an amp.
Not content to leave my fate up to highway traffic, rockfall, or old age, I’ve decided to go where no spacey musician belongs—into a box of wires, jacks, knobs, caps, tubes, pots, screws, nuts, transistors, transmogrifiers, thermal detinators, and crystal gravfield trap receptors; from which, if all goes as planned, I will emerge with a replica of the legendary Marshall 18-watt guitar amplifier.
If all does not go as planned, I’ll know by the 290 volts coursing through my vitals—double the amount I’d get were I to, say, stick a paper clip in a power outlet.
Why risk electrocution? Marshall built the 18-watt combo amp for just three years, from 1965 to 1967, and they only made a couple hundred before replacing them with the cheaper, inferior 20-watt series. Back then, guitar amp manufacturers were trying to make their amps as clean (distortion-free) as possible, and the 18-watt was advertised as having a “distortion-free volume level.” Ironically, it’s the distortion you get—when you crank the volume—that tone snobs love. Michael Doyle, the author of The History of Marshall says they have “one of the greatest Marshall distortion tones [he's] ever heard.”
I’m building this amp partly on that promise, and partly on the recommendation of the thousands of gentlemen feeding their midlife-crisis-induced gear lust in the 18 Watt online forum (“An 18 Watt in every home” is their motto), and partly on the promise of life insurance money and/or litigation claims should I daydream about wailing guitar solos while I solder.
Which brings me to Al Scott. Al’s one of my guitar students, and we’re swapping guitar lessons for amp-building guidance. He’s also a writer for the Seattle Times, an ex-speaker-repairman, an amateur amp builder, an excellent teacher, a really nice human being, and my scapegoat if I fry.
Today we set up shop in the basement of my house, on a long, empty workbench that’s just been begging for a project since I moved in this past summer. We took the kit out of the box, fresh off a cargo ship from Malaysia (several companies sell 18-watt kits, but the Malaysian company Ceriatone is the cheapest reputable one I’ve found). We organized the parts on my workbench, and spent most of the hour talking about tools I’d need and deciphering the wiring layout.
A layout’s like a schematic, in the same way that The Moby Dick Coloring Book by Sally Daisyfield is like Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Even so, it took us a few minutes for us to realize that we were looking at the wrong layout—one for the 18-watt TMB, an updated, higher-gain version of the original 18-watt. Once we downloaded the correct layout, things started making more sense, and Al left with me feeling confident that I could color between the lines for the first few hours of work.
The first thing I need to do is screw all the parts onto the chassis, which is a metal plate that holds everything in place. Once I get that done, I’ll post some photos and tell you how it’s going.
If you don’t hear from me, please contact Ken Silverton at New York Life Insurance. His phone number is 206-324-2960. Tell him my policy information is under the stack of Guitar World magazines in my office bookcase, and that it was Al’s fault.
Chord Chart Updates
18 Oct 2005 12:19 pm
New Chord Charts Available
15 Oct 2005 10:06 pm
The Speed of Sound
Last night I had an epiphany.
I was at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play their gorgeous mournful music. It was an incredible show. I knew Gillian Welch was a great singer and songwriter, but it was Rawlings’ virtuosity on the guitar that blew me away.
Anyway, my epiphany started around the second song. Gillian was moaning one of her dark parables, keening her way through a heart-wrenching chorus, when she slipped into another verse and, ever-so-slightly slowed down.
I snapped out of my reverie for a moment, and thought, “Oops, did they just pull the reins in on a racing tempo?” Keeping a consistent tempo is one of the most difficult skills to learn as a musician, and it sounded like Gillian and David might have let their intensity get the best of them. Yet they had made the tempo shift completely in-sync, their harmonizing voices and interwoven guitar parts locked in tandem. The effect was as if someone had touched a finger to a record and slowed the music down a hair.
Then it happened again, at the start of the next verse. Again, their voices and guitars were synchronized, conducted by a baton only they could see.
The ebb and flow of tempo continued through several other songs during the performance. Once I realized they weren’t mistakes, my heart tugged when the songs would slow–the effect gave the music an added weight, like a moment of silence in a speech before a profound statement is made.
I’ve chisled “Thou Shalt Keep a Consistent Tempo” into my students’ songbooks ever since I started teaching guitar. “This isn’t classical music,” I’ve told them. “Rock and folk music sounds sloppy if you speed up and slow down. Even if you’re doing it on purpose, it ends up sounding melodramatic, like an opera.”
Well, since last night, I’ve decided to bust out my chisel and amend my commandment: “Thou Shalt Keep a Consistent Tempo Unless You Really Freaking Know What You’re Doing.”
08 Oct 2005 08:24 pm
Rock Star for a Day
Let’s be frank. How many of us, given the choice, would really want to be rock stars? Sure, having people hock your nosehair on Ebay at $200 a strand might be fun for a while, but let Keith Richards’ face tell you what it’s like to rock long and hard.
But to be a rock star for a day? Who wouldn’t want that? On October 30th, about 25 of my students are going to perform in downtown Seattle for what I call the Coffee Shop Jam. They work hard on a song–really polish it–and then perform it for a great crowd. For many of my students, it’s the only time they’ve performed music outside their house.
When I started hosting Coffee Shop Jams two years ago, I knew they would motivate my students, but I had no idea they would be so popular. “You’ve got something magical going,” one of my students told me at a recent lesson. She’s also said that performing her song was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
Nor did I expect the audience’s reactions. The Jam is open to everyone, but most people who come are friends and family members of the performers. You can imagine what it might be like if you were invited to your friend’s performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind”–patiently waiting until your friend takes the stage, enduring all the untrained voices and fumbled chord changes. It sounds like a good Saturday Night Live skit.
It’s true that Atlantic Records has never sent a scout to a Coffee Shop Jam, and it’s unlikely they ever will; yet many audience members have told me that they’ve been touched by the beauty of the songs, and the passion and courage of my students.
For example, my girlfriend Christine invited one of her friends, Libby, to come to the last Coffee Shop Jam. They were sitting together when Gary took the stage to sing “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor. Libby spent a good part of her college years in nightclubs–I don’t think she’s a big James Taylor fan. And yet, as Gary invited the audience to sing the final chorus, Christine turned to speak to her friend and saw a tear on her face.
When I created the Coffee Shop Jam, it was just a tool to motivate my students. It’s become so much more than that–a chance for my students not just to show off, but also to really inspire people through music.
And if rock stardom happens to occur, I just hope they remember to moisturize their face.
You can see videos from the first Coffee Shop Jam here, and photos from the last one here.
Chord Chart Updates
05 Oct 2005 10:43 pm
New Chord Charts
I’ve transcribed 22 new songs for my students in the past few months, and just uploaded them to my website a few days ago. Have at ‘em!
To see all 285 songs I have available, click here.
Girl – Beck – This song is currently the most popular song in my collection, averaging about twelve downloads a day. Seems I’m the first person to write out the chords to this sweet song off Beck’s new album, Guero.
Blue Eyes – Cary Brothers – Soon I’ll have taught every song on the Garden State Soundtrack–I’ve already taught the Shins’ “New Slang” and “Caring is Creepy,” “Don’t Panic” by Coldplay, “Such Great Heights” performed by Iron and Wine, and “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkle. Ohmygod, Zach Braff and I have, like, so much in common.
405 – Death Cab for Cutie – The 405 is a highway to the east of Seattle.
Marching Bands of Manhattan – Death Cab for Cutie – Another transportation song—this one uses water-as-metaphor-for-isolation-and-bridge-as-metaphor-for-love imagery, like the title track off the Transatlanticism album. When you live in Seattle (Death Cab is from Bellingham, just north of here a bit), and you travel our ferries and bridges enough, I guess you’re bound to start looking at life this way.
16 Military Wives – The Decemberists – My favorite song off their new album. There’s a great music video here, with cameos of Death Cab’s guitarist and producer Chris Walla and The Long Winters’ frontman John Roderick.
The Sporting Life – The Decemberists – Deceptively difficult strumming on this one (16 Military Wives is hard too). Remember to swing!
Heartache Tonight – The Eagles – When I got my wisdom teeth removed after graduating from high school, I spent three days in bed high on Percocet listening to Bob Marley’s Legend and The Eagles’ Greatest Hits over and over. I was in heaven.
Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil – Finally, I get to teach some Dead songs and prove to my parents that my Grateful Dead cover band in college was a valuable educational experience. See mom and dad, all those late nights playing for drunk hippies at the Cypress Lounge were just stepping stones along my career path!
Grateful Dead – Ripple – This song was performed at the memorial service for several college friends of mine who died in a car accident returning from a Grateful Dead concert. I think it was a great choice–I love the mystical chorus.
Such Great Heights (real version) – Iron and Wine – The first few times I taught this Postal Service cover it was to introduce fingerpicking to students, so I used a very simple Travis picking pattern. The fact that I could hardly pick my own nose at the time I started teaching it also may have had some influence on the simplified arrangement. Now I can pick my nose very skillfully, thank you, so here’s the real McCoy.
Just a Ride – Jem – It’s just two chords, but what a ride.
Gamble Everything For Love – Ben Lee – Another cool fingerstyle song. Ben sounds a bit like Elliot Smith.
Redemption Song – Bob Marley – A Jesuit novitiate taught me this song when I was a sophomore at St. Ignatius College Preparatory. Years after I graduated, he sued the Jesuits for sexual harassment. Wonder what redemption meant to him….
Bird on a Wire – Willie Nelson – Leonard Cohen wrote this song. What incredible lyrics. “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”
How You Remind Me – Nickelback – I don’t care for Nickelback that much, but when I teach songs I otherwise wouldn’t give a listen, I find things to appreciate. One of the roses among thorns here is that this is a great voice workout. “I’ve BEEN wrong, I’ve BEEN down…” My poor neighbors.
Wave over Wave – Jim Payne – I learned this song from Andy Hillhouse, my Celtic Guitar teacher at this summer’s Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. I learned it using the DADGAD tuning, but it’s written here in standard tuning.
Some Postman – The Presidents of the United States of America – Chris Ballew’s wife grew up down the street from a couple of my young students, so they got him to sign their guitars the last time they saw him at the community pool. I love it that my students get to hang out with rock stars. It can’t help but inspire them to practice more.
Donald and Lydia – John Prine – A wonderfully odd love song by a songwriter born with an old voice.
That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round – John Prine – A playful tune with some dark lines. I think Prine’s a genius.
One – U2 - Perhaps the best song by one of the humongoust rock bands ever. The electric guitar part has given me fits for years, but I think I’m close to finally figuring it out. Someday I’ll tab it out….
Island in the Sun – Weezer – My old band Tilted Blue covered this song at a corporate barbecue for Fox Sports Northwest. I’m glad I’m finally learning how to play it right–I remember completely slaughtering the solo during our gig. It says a lot about our other material that, despite my performance, the crowd requested that we repeat this song for our “encore” (three drunk newscasting interns yelling for more cowbell).
I’m Always in Love – Wilco – Jeff Tweedy has a great gift for musical lyrics: “When I let go of your throat-sweet throttle….” A great song by one of my favorite bands.
Have fun, and let me know if you see any errors. Thanks!