The Myth of Being Multifaceted

 

Recently, I watched an interview with ace guitarist Steve Vai, who has become pretty philosophical in recent years. His main point was to not waste time on things that aren’t your strong suit, but instead, to focus on your strengths. This was interesting to me, as I tend to lament my weaknesses and dismiss my strengths. It also surprised me, knowing that he has been pretty weird and experimental at times (Look for his interest in Bulgarian wedding music sometime. I’m serious).

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I have noticed that the greatest artists, with few exceptions, tend to do ONE thing well. A few years ago, I ended up teaching guitar lessons in the same guitar shop where my first guitar teacher was also giving lessons. He is a dyed-in-the-wool jazz guy, but grew up in the classic rock era (I learned all my cool rock songs from him when I was a kid).

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I. AM. IRON MAN!

 

One day, I had a break between students, and I realized as I eavesdropped on his teaching, that he really didn’t play “rock guitar” very well. I was relieved. I know that I wasn’t much of a jazz player, even at the height of my studies with him. I assumed that my skills as a rock guy were easy for anyone. Apparently real jazz guys aren’t also natural rockers. This makes sense. Every jazz guy knows that rock guitarists aren’t natural jazzers.

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One of the things Vai landed on was to NOT waste a lot of time trying to do something that doesn’t seem natural to you (unless you are honestly inspired to pursue it). This is really simple and really true. I have no interest in becoming a jazz guy, but I do like to study up on it here and there. It informs my playing, and contributes to my natural style.

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I currently work as a creative consultant for a church in Cincinnati. I was initially contracted as a musician and band leader, but now my direct music involvement is comparably rare.

As the organization slid down the year towards Christmas, I began driving the creative team to land on a very specific sort of presentation for our Christmas Eve services. In years past, it had been a hodge-podge of music styles and sounds. They always said they wanted it to be “classic,” but everyone had their own opinion of what that meant.

I usually brought an archtop and an electric 12-string to change things up, but that was really all I could do while all us multifaceted musical cooks were making a generic musical soup. Everyone was gravitating toward their natural strengths, which is good; but it was pulling in too many directions, and not actually moving very far.

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This year, we eliminated electric guitars, keyboards and bass, and had most of the music driven by a grand pianist with a string quartet. One song was simply two acoustic guitars and vocals, and one combined the lot with a drum kit. Rather than everyone banging away on each song, we separated the instruments into separate arrangements, only combining them for one climactic song. Everyone had light involvement, bringing each of their specialties to the forefront briefly and minimally (except the pianist and strings, who were the feature).

Multiple sources called it the best Christmas Eve service we had ever done.

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Years ago, my band (each member of whom liked all kinds of music) released an album that went in many different musical directions. We reasoned (reasonably) that The Beatles and Led Zeppelin did such things, so therefore our ability to do likewise would get a lot of people to like us. We were wrong for two reasons: First, we were neither Beatles nor Zeppelins, and second, we were aiming at the wrong generation. We thought everyone would like something. What actually happened was that everyone disliked something. So much for a multifaceted album.

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At about the same time I ended up playing guitar in a band backing a young female singer who was doing something in between The Indigo Girls and Sheryl Crow. That’s a fairly specific niche, and her album (which was far more cohesive) absolutely dwarfed the one my other band made in terms of success. It made me a minor league local music celebrity overnight, and within a year, she was one of the biggest names in town.

So between the wisdom of Steve Vai, my own experiences (pro AND con), and the obviously positive receptions, it’s pretty easy to conclude that there’s something to be said for specificity, rather than attempting to be multifaceted.

  1. Specialize in your specialty, and push tangents to the background. Here’s how that works out for me as an artist- I’m a guitarist first, a singer second, and I fumble around on bass (making progress), piano (haven’t made any progress in 20 years), and some other things like percussion and harmonica. I try to practice guitar a little every day, even if it’s just dexterity exercises while I watch TV. I try to sing a little through the week, just to keep my voice operational (it atrophies). Usually that means I have a studio project on which I’m singing. The rest happens when it happens.
  2. Spend the time defining the specifics. “Classic Christmas,” for example, is a wide open definition. We labored for weeks on defining those terms, and more than one set of toes got stepped on when we pointed back at the drawing board and said we weren’t doing modern christian radio pop, or having the same singer(s) featured on many songs.
  3. Go in the direction you’ve chosen, and commit to completing the objective, even after the novelty wears off. This can be brutal. You choose, for instance, to make an acoustic album. Making album takes at least twice as long as anyone expects [I, for one, run out of steam at the halfway point, and crawl like Frodo through Mordor to the conclusion]. While I’m sick to death of hearing the same songs the same way, with all the same sounds, it’s a fresh experience for everyone else.

What’s your speciality? What are some tangents that pull you from it? Have you ever produced something that tried to go in too many directions? Have you triumphed with a specific? Tell your story. Go!

 

Product Review: Xotic SP Compressor

My love affair with compressors began in high school.

I was all like, “I Image result for love compressors!”

At the time, I had limited gear, limited access to it, and limited funds to acquire it. In addition, there was no real source of information to guide me. Based on descriptions of the effect alone, I thought a compressor might make a good boost to my gain stages for solos. Turns out this was correct.

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My first compressor was made by Arion. Remember Arion? They made plastic pedals. The compressor looked like this:

The fact that it was designated “SCO-1” somehow made it seem VERY cool to 17-year-old me.

In any case, I got it brand-new at a local music store for about $25. It did what I thought it would, though it made me aware of what I’ve since described as a “papery” sound that cheap (and/or poorly-operated) compressors can produce.

Next came the Boss ME-5, Boss’ first multi-fx, which had a Boss compressor built in. Later, I got an ME-10 (because I needed MORE effects!), but then traded it for individual pedals, one of which was an MXR Dyna-Comp.

I used the Dyna Comp, mostly cheerfully, for several years, until I started to notice that it was hit or miss… and as time passed, it seemed like there were more misses than hits. I tried several compressors… various Boss comps (they all have that flat, overly squashed “papery” sound), Ibanez CP-9, some hand-made Ross clone, a couple of Jangleboxes, an Orange Squeezer and maybe a few others that I can’t remember. Someone suggested the MXR Super Comp as a viable contender. I found a used one, liked it, and used it for years. I even recommended it. In fact, it worked so well for me that I bought a second, for a smaller pedalboard I assembled.

For reasons that escape me, I sold the first Super Comp and kept the second. Maybe it isn’t as good as the first, or maybe my tastes are changing as I age (or both). In any case, I started researching and shopping for a new compressor in earnest about six months ago. That led me to the Xotic SP Compressor.

It’s a mini pedal, about 2/3 the width of the small MXR enclosures (like a Dyna Comp or Phase 90). It’s surprisingly TALL since Xotic thought it needed to carry a battery. In this day and age, I was a little shocked by that, as almost everyone now has access to power supplies and pedalboard solutions. It’s height helps make it more accessible, should you decide to put it in the second row of your pedalboard. You might not need a riser for it.

Here in the Tone Parlour, I tested the SP with my early-90′s British made Vox AC15 combo and my Telecaster.
   

The SP features a small toggle switch to choose high, medium or low compression ratios. I suppose this eliminates the need for another knob, but I think I would prefer a small knob. Frankly I would also prefer smaller knobs (in the ballpark of those smaller knobs Boss uses)  for the other two controls, which are simply Volume and Blend. There are also four dip-switches inside if you want to make more serious tonal alterations to it. The SP features a small fairly bright vivid green LED to indicate if the pedal is on or off. Controls are responsive and intuitive, and the build quality is excellent.

Here’s a link to Xotic’s manual on it: https://xotic.us/media/wysiwyg/Effects/SP_Compressor/manuals/SP_Compressor_manual.pdf

Guitarists tend to want either “color” or “transparency” in a compressor. I tend toward the latter. The blend feature on the SP helps quite a bit. I can either use NO blend (full effect), and build a compressor setting that I like tremendously, or I can build a whole different setting with the blend in play. Right now, I’ve landed on a setting with the compression toggle set on medium, the blend turned down from full-on to about 3 o’clock, and the volume just past noon.

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It was easy to back my playing off, and have the compressed signal sound enough like my dry tone for me to call it “transparent” with confidence. But something cool happens when I play harder into the SP,  and the glorious midrange growl of my Telecaster gets a little more pronounced. So… it’s “transparent,” but with some colorful side-effects? Maybe? Hard to describe.

In passing, I mentioned earlier that I had used a Janglebox in the past. When its toggle is set to high, the SP will do a pretty good Janglebox impression. The reason I don’t own a Janglebox (I think I have owned as many as three of them) is that it lacks sufficient output gain after compression. I want to use my comp as a slight boost as well. While this just didn’t happen with a Janglebox, the SP has more than enough gain to spare.

At some point, I may write an article listing the things about which I have said, “I can’t believe I waited this long to get this.”

It’s too early in the honeymoon for me to definitively say this about the SP, but it really clearly sets itself apart as a superior piece of gear.

Really impressed.