Some of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while might recall I’ve been playing Dr. Frankenstein in my basement, building a replica of the legendary Marshall 18-watt amplifier. You can catch up on the story here:
Day 1 – The start of the project.
Day 23 – Loopy from solder smoke, I have a mystical vision.
In February, with the wiring completed, Al “Igor” Scott and I tickled the beast to see if it’d twitch. Well, it twitched.
I’ll let Al tell the story. This is an excerpt from a post in response to people asking how the amp project was going:
Hey everyone, Rob DID finish it. And I took pictures when he switched it on. The thing smoked, caught fire and then burned the house down. It’s all on film. How come you don’t post it, Rob?
No….. That’s not what happened.
There was a loud piercing squeal. Like a smoke alarm going off. So we turned it off and looked at it. Hmmm. All the knobs were turned down. So we put them half-way up. Turned it on, squeal gone! Could it really be that simple? Seems it only squealed if the tone pots were all the way down. So we centered them. Pure silence. Blissfully hum free.
Rob got the Les Paul.
He turned the volume up full.
And the most gorgeous sustained distortion poured out. Rich, detailed, articulate, phat. Like that first taste of beer on Friday. Like butter on pancakes. Like sex with everyone you’ve ever dreamed of. At once.
And when wild man Rob held the guitar to the speaker (the way you know he likes to) the feedback careened out just like it does on TV!
We were in Rob’s basement, and just then his girlfriend arrived and said she heard it from the street. “You guys having a party?”
It was at this point that I noticed the 18 Watt has no gain knob. Just volume.
“Right,” Rob said. “You want distortion, you gotta play loud. Like our forefathers did.”
So we kinda did burn the house down after all.
Now Rob seems to be in the midst of figuring out the cabinet issue. I’ll let him post about that.
Uh, Rob? Can you stop singing and finish the amp?
Here are some videos of the Moment of Truth:
Baby’s First Scream – It turns out the 18-watt design I used sometimes has a “ground loop” problem when the tone or volume pot is turned all the way off. I solved the problem by grounding the volume knob to the chassis.
Baby’s First Power Chord – After months of soldering in silence, this was a sweet, sweet moment.
Since that evening, the amp has sat cold and silent on my workbench while I mulled over the question of the cabinet. Hardwood or tolex? Handmade or profe$$ionally built? On 4/27, I finally ordered a cherry cabinet from Weber Speakers, which has an 8-10 week wait for all hardwood cabinets.
Every time a UPS truck passes my house, I jump…
Today I had my first singing lesson. Wow! What an intense, scary, illuminating experience.
My teacher, whose ad I found in Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger, is Susan M. Carr. Her website describes her as “a superior technical teacher,” and she’s worked with all sorts of artists I like—from Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), to Chris Ballew (The Presidents), to Jesse Sykes. My impression has been that most voice teachers are classically trained and classically inclined, and when I saw Susan’s list of clients, I thought, “Well, if she isn’t a fan of my kind of music, at least she’s used to it.” That, and “I wonder if Jesse Sykes is single. Could Susan hook us up?”
I’m looking for a singing teacher because I don’t like my voice. At my best, I’m shaky in an earnest, Isaac Brock kind of way. At my worst, I’m off-pitch, hesitant, and inaudible. I know there’s a rich, expressive voice in me, underneath all my layers of anxiety. Perhaps not a “Wow, he’s got a gorgeous voice” kind of voice, but definitely a “Now that guy really sang it like he meant it” kind of voice.
Susan asked me to start the lesson today with a song I’d written. I picked “Roadkill Serenade,” a twangy breakup song. I figured when my voice cracked Susan might think I was just doing a country yodel.
The song felt good—that is, my songs never feel great, but I performed it as best I could, trying to fill the house with my voice, remembering occasionally to pay attention to the meaning of the lyrics and let them inspire my delivery. Then Susan asked to hear one that brought me toward the top of my vocal range. I could only think of one song—”Hail! Thunder! Lightning!“—a song I’ve learned not to perform live. I love my recording of the song, but it took a dozen vocal takes to compile the final vocal track, and even then my favorite parts are guitar riffs and my friends shouting along during the final verse. When it’s just me and my guitar, “Hail! Thunder! Lightning!” is Fingernails! On! Chalkboard!
But I knew this was the time to screech away, so that’s what I did, pounding out the chords on my acoustic guitar, all the time wishing I could melt into a wash of distortion, heavy drums, and kooky cell-phone noises like I do in my recording. I did get my wish in one respect: Twenty seconds before the end of the song, right at the climax, my cell phone went off. The song fizzled to the sound of my suddenly grating “Wind Chime” ringtone.
Susan was attentive and responsive through my performances, smiling at a turn of phrase or dramatic pause, and while she didn’t praise my singing when I was done, she certainly didn’t look concerned. Instead, she had the same ease that I have with my nervous beginners, as if to say, “No, that wasn’t a beautiful performance, but don’t worry about it. This takes work.”
I got a glimpse of how much work this was going to take during the second half of the lesson, devoted to learning how to sing from the diaphragm. This is a concept that has always baffled me. I remember sitting in the back row of my high school theater during rehearsals of Guys and Dolls, waiting for my scene to come up while Mrs. Sablinski worked with Gretchen, the female lead. “Sing from your navel,” Mrs. Sablinski implored. As poor Gretchen (often the butt of jokes because of her big lips) belted out “If I Were a Bell” for the 10th time, a couple friends and I pulled up our shirts and lip-synced with our belly buttons.
Gretchen is probably starring in Rent now, and it’s only right that I should be paying $75/hour to yell “Key!” at a photo of Billie Holliday while pushing down on a pile of books stacked on a table. ‘Cause that’s how you learn to sing from your navel.
At the end of the lesson, Susan asked me sing a few lines of “Roadkill Seredade” again, using some of the techniques she taught me. What came out was a fuller, more commanding voice than I was used to. Instead of feeling liberated, though, I felt out of control. Where was this voice headed? And here’s another interesting thought…Who am I to presume to sing like that?
I drove home shaky but hopeful, testing my new voice. It sounded good.
Recently one of my students told me he wanted to join a rock band, and asked where he should start. Here are some ideas for finding musicians in the Seattle area:
Legend has it that bassist Kim Deal hooked up with the Pixies by answering an ad for “Bassist who is into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary.”
Seattle Musician – This is how my former band, Tilted Blue, found a new bass player. Lots of postings.
The Stranger Classifieds – Another vibrant website.
Craigslist – Also great for buying and selling used instruments.
Does the thought of trying out for a band make you want to hide? Consider going to an open mic and auditioning musicians for YOUR band. Watch the performances and look for someone you’d like to play with, then approach them after their show and see if they’re interested.
Here are a couple lists of open mic’s in Seattle:
If you can take a week off during the summer to immerse yourself in music, I highly recommend the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. I wrote about my experience at last year’s workshop here. PSGW is a great place to meet other musicians. While the camp emphasizes acoustic music, I met quite a few classic rockers there too.
If you have other ideas on finding jam partners or band members, please leave a comment.