Tag Archives: church

Recordings Retrospective, Pt. 1

I attended a repressed christian high school that communicated this idea:

“Rock and Roll is bad, unless it’s ‘christian,’ and even then, it shouldn’t sound too enthusiastic.”

This is probably what they thought of me:
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And this is generally what I thought of them:
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And this is what  they seemed to want from me:
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By the time I was fifteen years old, I was a pretty competent guitarist, cutting my teeth on Led Zeppelin, Clapton, Hendrix, Rush, Iron Maiden, etc. Those players’ work was both challenging and accessible. Van Halen would get my attention next.

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At seventeen I became devout in my faith, and began a sincere quest to figure out how I could play rock guitar in a “christian” environment. Some of my school buddies and I were given a handful of songs by a pastor who used to play in a christian band. We played once at a youth group which was fizzling out, and then later at my senior chapel. That chapel service  concluded with my principal telling me what an abomination both the music and I were. I then got an earful from each of my teachers. In. Every. Single. Class.

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Approximately 1/6 of them  clandestinely offered encouragement, afraid that any public praise might have a negative backlash against them. What a sad commentary on a subculture.

It took my a few years to recover from that, and frankly it’s a miracle my faith survived. It did lay the foundation for a healthy distrust of religious organizations though. In the years that followed, a complex fortress has been built on that foundation. It’s not a ringing endorsement for the institutions and/or the people running them.

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A year after that fateful senior chapel, I was coached by some older musician friends on how to use  a 4-track cassette recorder. It was a time-consuming  process using uncooperative gear, but it taught me how to squeeze every last drop out of what was available. To this day, I think that approach yields the best final product, because everything is so dear.

Last week, a friend of mine lent me an old  4-track cassette recorder, so I could digitize  the tapes I made back then. THE ORIGINAL 4-TRACK TAPES. I was taken back to yesteryear, the home project studio era, the age of tape hiss and track limitations…

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[I would have given ANYTHING to have a home studio that was this well-stocked!]

I’m starting at the beginning- 1988 or so.  This was the first song I recorded. It was given to my high school bandmates (I was not present) by a pastor named (I think) Dan McCollum. I don’t know if that’s the writer’s name, or if I have even spelled it correctly. The song is called  “More Like You.” I recorded this when I was 18-19 years old, brand new at singing lead vocals. It took me hours, and  sounds like a sheltered kid making his first recording, because it is. I thought maybe I could be some kind of christian rock star at this stage.

 

Remember when you hear this degraded, lo-fi recording that I was young, new to recording, and had never sung a lead vocal before. I covered my vocal with some era-appropriate effects which actually turned out quite well. I tried to replicate this many times and failed.

Anyway, here’s me singing and playing, as a teenager. It’s totally OK to make fun of me, my mullet, and my “play ALL the notes” approach to the guitar. Enjoy the slides of 1988 equipment, too. That’s the stuff I used back then!

 

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!

 

Achieving Obsolescence And Finding Freedom

My first guitar instructor attempted to teach me Jazz when I was a kid. I wasn’t all that interested in Jazz, but I practiced.

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Side note: This kid actually looks a little like my son, who has, as of yet, never expressed any interest in holding a guitar. Alas.

It was clear after a while that I had plateaued. Fortuitously, my teacher moved across town, and the lesson arrangement ended about the time it had become obsolete. In the months that followed, my playing ability EXPLODED.

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I learned more in the few months that followed, as I was finally free to work through the information and instructions as they spilled back out of me, than in two years that preceded them.  I looked approximately like this:

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Later I studied classical guitar, but not for very long. I slid into young adulthood with a few jazz chords in my pocket, and some proper classically-induced structure and dexterity. Plus, I could solo like a BOSS, so I was determined to join the next Led Zeppelin. How hard could that be? My first band, a batch of high school friends, never took off.

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The next band never even made it to a second rehearsal. The other guitarist didn’t understand rests… Soeverythingheplayedwaslikealongrunonsentencewithnobreaks.

It was astonishing.

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A few months later, I ended up in a cover band with some guys who were a few years older. We had a casual run playing gigs about once a month on average, for about four years or so. It was in that band (which had no name) that I learned how to apply all those years of music lessons (I wanted to call us “Proof of Purchase”). I learned to sing harmonies, and actually became one of the principal lead singers (The other guitarist didn’t like the name, and was bossy). I learned how to write and arrange, to record and produce (Seriously, he wanted us to be called “Cornerstone,” or something cornball like that). It was then that I realized I was in a dead-end band (which still had no name, and obviously tended toward bad taste). The other guys were hobbyists at best, and weren’t interested in turning from their career plans to make music with a bozo like me.

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I was the ripe old age of 22 when it ended. The band had a meeting, decided on a hiatus, and then started back up again without me. I was more driven to create and perform, and they were more interested in just having fun. I became obsolete, and found the freedom to pursue my own music (Quite honestly, I had no intention of going back). So I spent the better part of a summer recording some songs I had written, using thoroughly lousy equipment. It turned out to be a surprisingly good recording.

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Six months later, I started attending a church I had visited a few times with my college girlfriend. I ended up playing in the worship band, and this was right when I was reinventing myself as a guitarist. For about 18 months, I learned to be a sideman, developed my tone, and experimented with new ideas. While I did that, I met two other guys who were interested in starting a band. So we started a band, and kept it going for about 5 years. Eventually the drummer got bored with the fact that we didn’t pull in huge crowds like some of his newer gigs. He bailed, and that was really the end of that. That project had become obsolete, and I became free to explore new ideas again.

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I started a surge of writing and recording new songs. By that time, I was a sideman in a few bands, and got a few of the other players to help me record. My main gig built up to the biggest thing I was ever part of, and then right at the pinnacle, my singer died of a rare disease, leaving me obsolete without her voice to carry the music we wrote. After some pain, I found the freedom to set that down and move on.

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Since then, I’ve produced a couple of albums, done different projects, and written music of my own again. I got involved in the music of another church, directing the music in one of their services. Over time, I’ve moved out of a music-director type role into a broader creative director type role, I’ve become obsolete in the music ministry, and it frees me up to explore new options.

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It was while that role-shift was happening that one of the music teams wanted to cover Queen’s “I Want It All.”

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One of the tricks to this is Queen’s propensity for triple or quadruple-stacking each vocal harmony part. So I constructed a backing track to fill in some gaps, and we performed it. Not one to waste an effort, I went ahead and casually worked on doing my own full cover of the song, which you can hear, HERE:

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Why? Because I wanted to do something ambitious for fun. Because I can.

Right now I’m a grown man who plays music in America’s watering holes and houses of worship. Dudes like me… We’re not cute young things who think we’re bound for stardom. We’re normal family men. We’re the main buyers of musical products. We’re the core of the whole US economy! We’re the ones who hold the songs together when the church music sounds like junk. We’re the ones who MAKE the band sound good. And we’re the ones that change the whole atmosphere when we arrive or depart. AND, when we discover we’re obsolete, we’re the ones who discover new sounds and expressions, and make new and better music when we’re free.
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Get obsolete. Leave the system. Find freedom. Leave the rest of them turning the crank on the same old machine.

Live. Play. Create.

Also, you should agree that “Proof Of Purchase” was a great band name. Humor me.

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What would it look like to embrace obsolescence, get free, and discover your next new awesome step as an artist or musician? What keeps you where you are? Are you in any danger of running out of new ideas? How do you find new methods of creativity in the same sandbox?

Testify, my people!

Dangerous Defaults, and The Great Christian Pedalboard Escalations of the 21st Century.

In the early 2000′s, I was gigging regularly in three bands as a sideman, fronting my OWN band, and playing every weekend in a megachurch to around 5000 people.

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In an attempt to get the most sounds possible (remember- I had around 5 steady gigs), I had ended up with a gigantic pedalboard holding 13 stompboxes, controller switches and pedals, and a MIDI controller. These then went into six rack-mounted effects processors, and ran stereo into a pair of UK-made Vox AC-15 amplifers.

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I was constantly unhappy.

Something always needed adjustment, and it was never right. My cable costs alone were astronomical. It took a full hour to break it down and load it into my car, and another hour to set it up.

I had an epiphany about it and simplified my whole rig down to a pedalboard with about 9 pedals; no rack gear and only one amp. At the time, my final pedalboard (NINE PEDALS!?) still seemed pretty big. By today’s standards, it’s quaint.

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Fifteen years later, I’ve earned a modest reputation as a guitarist, etc. I was lucky to be associated with great artists who got (deserved) attention, and I happened to have played in several of the largest houses of worship in the area, right as each of their respective music ministries was really hitting its stride (I like to think I was partially responsible for that).

Today, what has really come to surprise me is how much MONEY is being spent by church guitarists on gear. Sweet Christmas, the pedalboards make mine look cheap, old, tragic and small!
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One of the conditions I have come to recognize about myself is that, after a certain point, there is a law of diminishing returns with music equipment. In fact I think it actually becomes subtractive. Even as a pro guitarist, there is a limit to the number of guitars I can own before they become burdensome (seems to be around 15 for me). After that, I literally use them less; grabbing the nearest one because it’s convenient. It becomes a default. A DEFAULT.

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The same goes for effects. The more I have, the less I explore and experiment. I settled on a “meat & potatoes” approach to my gear at some point, where I wanted the basic tools to allow me to express my PLAYING. What I’m observing now is an approach by which church guitarists are using expensive guitar rigs so that their playing expresses their effects. They have all kinds of novel noises, but no strong guitar presence.

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24 strings plus glorious mustache = strong presence.

Not too long ago, a famous worship band went on tour. They appeared on some daytime talk-shows here in the USA, and then performed in Israel by the Sea of Galilee, all looking very sincere (so much gravitas). The daytime TV performances were of particular interest to me, as I could see the musicians doing their jobs. I saw two gigantic pedalboards with complex lights. What I heard was, chords, chords, two-note thing, chords. Ugh. It takes TWO of you to accomplish so little?

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Recently, I joined Instagram. Mostly I’ve been photographing my guitars, and gathering guitar-related followers. A few of these are church guys. One proudly displayed his latest pedalboard layout in a photo. It has to have $2500 worth of equipment on it. Maybe he’s gigging all over the place, but that’s not the impression I got.
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My amazingly creative Instagram handle is “david_eberhardt” if you’re interested in finding/following me.

The point of all this is not the excess of equipment. It’s the related dearth of sonic imagination.
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There’s some sort of trade-off. I don’t know where it happens, but this idea has been driving me for some time. I’m convinced that the more options we have, the less creative we become. Hollywood’s preference for CGI spectacle over plot or character development is a good indicator of this.

When I had comparably very little equipment in my freshly-started home studio, I produced some of my best work. It won awards. It got me on the radio. People started following me. Back then I was doing everything I possibly could to discover sounds and fit musical phrases in to songs.

A few years later, I had too much gear, and I felt like I was chasing after the music instead of having it roll out of me naturally. I was basically throwing gadgets at the problem, instead of looking inside myself for the solution. Somewhere in the process, I also discovered DEFAULT.

Maybe that’s why modern worship music seems so artistically bankrupt. There are fewer deep introspective musical approaches, but plenty of products marketed as solutions. There is plenty of technology, but not much technique. There is not enough artistic desperation, but plenty of default.

Years ago, I heard the story of how Peter Gabriel famously took all the cymbals from the drum kit to force Genesis to start playing differently. It inspired me to force periodic challenges upon myself. I tend to prefer playing a Fender guitar (I have perhaps too many of these), so every January, I force myself to play my Gibson Les Paul as much as possible until the weather looks like Spring. This month, I forced myself back to my classical guitar to learn a piece I’ve been meaning to learn since I was in high school. I’m planning to start practicing acoustic guitar chord-melody pieces again shortly.
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A lot of it boils down to starting over, from scratch, to get away from the defaults.

Some years ago, I decided to explore a new sound with my bandmates. We were a mostly heavy rock band that was venturing into art-pop. I came upon this idea that if I tried a finger-picked acoustic guitar passage against my drummer’s African hand percussion, we might discover something interesting. We did. Adding a little electric guitar ambience gave it a great mood, and we discovered something that became very successful in the work we did together and separately in several bands/projects in our area for quite some time.  That song was “Our Yesterdays,” which you can hear, HERE: https://youtu.be/L1Yd69PRQSY

How do you avoid defaults? What challenges do you put in front of yourself to keep you growing as a musician and an artist? Are there any disciplines you employ? What about equipment? Do you have stuff you could get rid of? On what merits do you keep or unload gear? What do you do to find inspiration?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Shout ‘em out!

Being an Inspired Guitarist in the Modern Church

This one may touch a nerve, so I apologize in advance.

Let me first say that it’s my great honor to have played with some of the area’s finest musicians in several of the region’s largest houses of worship. I don’t mean that they’re “good for church players.” I mean that they’re considered GREAT by anyone who hears them anywhere.

Therefore, it grieves me that since I’ve gotten to be among such fine players, as a rule, christian/worship music is so derivative and unremarkable. Certainly, it is  expertly produced, copying all the most successful current formulas, but it covers no new ground. Now it’s considered provocative or edgy only if someone writes a phrase like “wet sloppy kiss.” I neither want to know the artist nor hear the song. Don’t tell me. Just. No.

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I’m not convinced that these people know what deep, real songwriting entails. It can’t just be something quickly scribbled out in response to s brief emotional surge (though I concede that could legitimately happen occasionally). If the net result is a lyric that rhymes “praise” with “days” again, it might be time for a new writing scenario.

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I’m not sure what chord he thinks he’s playing. 

Check out this example: Regardless of your opinions on the band or the song, Led Zeppelin spent THREE YEARS writing Kashmir. First, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant traveled through the East, absorbing music and culture. Afterward, Page began writing a part he found interesting. The band began working on it together after he brought the idea in. Three years after the writing started, they completed what is generally considered their finest work. Here’s a more detailed account from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_(song)

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Here’s another one:  Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was an idea being kicked around for a while. There is some indication that Freddie Mercury had been writing parts of it as early as the late sixties. When the song was released in 1975, they had spent three straight weeks RECORDING it (after the writing process was finished). From Wikipedia – “May, Mercury and Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day. [emphasis mine] The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs.” Read up on it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemian_Rhapsody

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Let’s be honest. Christian/worship songwriters are clearly not investing this amount of time or attention, at least in the music-composition… OK, and yeah, probably not the lyrics either. The genre seems desperate to make the smallest possible changes to its formulas, and it shows. There are no innovations or departures, only safe repetitions, tendered over and over again.

So how can this subset of the music industry move into a new era of creative growth? I think the MUSIC ITSELF has to be inspired. When you hear Kashmir, the music speaks volumes before Plant sings a syllable. It took a long time of trial and error to arrive on the sounds that were being used, and the parts each instrument played. This is what christian/worship music needs to do- something new, inspired and different… something AUTHENTIC.

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An artist friend of mine attempted to pay me a compliment a couple of years ago. He said, “There’s something so worshipful about the way you play guitar.” What he tried to convey in that statement was that there was a distinct mood that was being created, and that it ushered him in to a place of deeper spiritual communion. Well, that’s exactly what I have tried to do all the time, no matter where I played (most of which was outside of the church). Success! As an artist, I want to move people emotionally/spiritually. If I’m not playing something that inspires ME, how can I expect to inspire others. That’s MY authenticity, for good or bad. It can’t just be default chords and the coolest effects. The actual phrases that I’m playing need to be saying something.

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I include this picture only because it’s awesome and hilarious.

I approach what I do with great care, and a thousand questions, like… What sound am I going to make? Which guitar does it best? Which pickup? What notes/chords/fragments/phrases? Is it better to play the notes low on the neck, on the higher strings, or high on the neck on the lower strings? Will I use a different type of pick for this song? Slide? Ebow? What effects? Should I play more in concert with the song’s mood or should I add contrast?

Then I’m interested in seeing how I can get the rest of the band to interact with that.

Caution: Not everyone is ready to make changes.  Worship leaders, in particular, are usually successful by perpetuating the status quo, so they have no pressing need to change their game (understandable). In my modest experience, they tend to be resistant to ideas that don’t originate with themselves or other worship leaders. If you press, you might find yourself sitting at home on Sundays.

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“Look, they really just want to hear me doing the same thing I did last week.”

If you’re a guitarist (or any musician) playing in a modern church, what can you do to drive your music team into a new place of authentic expression? Do you just copy the trends because the trends are what your bandmates expect to hear? Or do you reach for something beyond the music; something you hear in your heart/mind that you’re inspired to find on your fretboard (or equivalent)?  I will always try to bring the full measure of my influences and inspiration to my playing, either inside or outside the church. What about you?

Sound off.