Many years ago, I cobbled a makeshift studio space together in the old coal room in my first house’s basement. It was a 6′x11′ room, scarcely larger than a closet, with only an approximately 6½-foot high ceiling. Some of the earliest professional work I did down there was with a “boom box” as my studio monitors. True story.
It looked like this:
At some point, Cream’s White Room got stuck in my head. So I started a demo recording of it. I have no idea what ever became of the project. Yes, I definitely remember programming it, recording parts of it, and even dumping some rough mix onto a cassette, along with what were some new (back then) original songs. It just didn’t survive.
A few years later, I made a huge gear-upgrade purchase, and to test out my new gear, I created a few percussion loops, and recorded myself singing Van Morrison’s Moondance with some simple instrumentation. I had gotten the idea from hearing a much better singer do a much cooler version. Little did I know, but I had just snagged myself on a hook that would sink insidiously deeply into my psyche.
Fast forward a bunch of years. In the interim, I have recorded hundreds of songs for different clients, and dozens of my own songs as well, not to mention different commercial projects, voice-overs, etc.
I got this regular live gig, which I ended up really hating (it paid well). After a few cancellations, I had all this pent-up creative energy. So I solicited my Facebook friends for requests, and began recording cover songs with only one microphone, acoustic guitars and hand percussion.
It was more fun than I had thought possible.
A few of those songs, over time, grew up into larger productions. Eventually, I just started tackling big cover song productions of songs that “clicked.” I can’t describe what made a song click. It just did. Somehow I knew I could do it. In other cases, there were requests that I fulfilled for other people.
Anyway, after collecting these finished works for a while, it appears that I have a batch, a volume. Call it “Volume One.” There are certainly more in the pipeline.
They won’t be ready for a while. In the meantime, enjoy what I’ve done so far, HERE
We can call this the “Probable Last Blog of 2017.”
I used to get very serious around this time of year. Some of that was stress or cynicism, maybe part of a youthful desperation to be cool. That’s all long past. Now I simply enjoy the opportunities for merriment and lightness. So if you’re looking for something deep and/or meaningful. it ain’t here.
Lately I have been busily replicating or re-inventing cover songs (the choice of song is pretty random). I enjoy the challenge of trying to exactly replicate an arrangement; finding the right sounds, playing the right notes, etc.
Changing a song is easier in some ways, since matching the original is already an ethic that has been discarded. However, changing a well-known song is a huge risk. Well, I like risks. In fact, here I am with my brown pompadour and matching tie/pants emsemble, cheerfully hastening toward risk.
As Christmas careens recklessly around the corner from Thanksgiving and heads straight at us like a windshield towards a bug, I start thinking about working on Christmas music. This of course, is way too late to achieve results.
So I started earlier this year. Actually, I started LAST YEAR, and just casually refined and finished them this year.
The first is “Away In A Manger,” which was recently described to me as a boring carol that could never be redeemed. The next is “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Over the years I have voiced my low opinion of turning hymns and Christmas carols into ROCK SONGS. So you may hereby enjoy my admitted hypocrisy.
This is approximately how I looked while recording, except that I have way better guitars, a taller tree, and my recording space may never be this tidy.
For “Away In A Manger,” I wrote a chanting sort of chorus to break up the cloying verses. I had hoped that my church’s creative team might like to see the band work this up, but they just sorta sat there looking uncomfortable.
Me: “Hey guys, I worked up a rockin’ version of ‘Away In A Manger.’ I think the band could do it. What do you think?”
Had I known they were going to balk, I might have done it in a higher key (the music director is a baritone). That said, the guitar riff works a whole lot better in this key. Maybe it’s just not that good. In any case… Here’s “Away In A Manger.”
“Children Go Where I Send Thee” presented some challenges. First of all, it goes on FOREVER. So I abbreviated it, added a modulation, a Pink Floyd flavored guitar solo, some Queen-flavored harmonies, and threw in a little joke as the numbers count down. Enjoy the hilarious levity.
Here’s “Children Go Where I Send Thee”
How do you break out of creative conventions? What do you think of my silly little Christmas experiments? How do you creatively cope with the assorted holiday vibes? Feel free to share your thoughts.
~See you in 2018~
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
- Ecclesiastes 1:9
“It’s all been done, it’s all been done. It’s all been done before.”
- Bare Naked Ladies
So what have you done today?
I used to labor under the mistaken impression that I was going to create music that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. Today, this seems pretty unlikely. I’m not less interested in being creative, but now I’m interested in doing what’s authentically mine; taking music and expressing who I am with it; taking what I do, and making it my own.
About ten years ago, I was the main guitarist for a large (now monstrously huge) church in Cincinnati called Crossroads. The head pastor complimented me on my guitar playing one day, and asked me why it was that the music seemed so much better when I played with the band. This was no slight against the other musicians, all of whom were fantastic players, but he recognized that I brought something extra; special; other. It was nice to be recognized.
My answer, after I thought about it, was this:
When I play a song, I don’t think of it as someone else’s music anymore. I think of it as MINE. It’s MY song to play. In that 3-4 minute window, I take the fullness of who I am, and how I feel at that moment, and I project it out through my guitar into the universe as notes and sounds.
Let’s go back in time…
Over the years of honing my craft, I discovered a few things that worked well for me. I distilled things from my assorted influences, and put them all together to create a nice little niche for myself to occupy. In fact, I was so successful at this, that in a city full of superb guitarists, I still get asked to join bands, work on projects, etc, when there are hundreds (maybe thousands) who can probably play circles around me.
These guys aren’t impressed with me at all.
YouTube and Instagram illustrate to me every day that the top level of my technique is pretty mediocre compared to what a planet of bedroom guitarists are doing these days. I have no illusions about my skill/talent. But I am confident of my niche.
Maybe this is common, I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know. No one can play guitar like I do. Lots of people can play guitar, and they might even play similarly (Many are vastly superior!), but none of them can bring what I bring. So when I go out on stage, I’m convinced that what I play is worth being heard. It’s mine, and no one can play it like I can.
How do you get to that musical know-thyself point? It’s a little like learning to hail a taxi. You stand there waiting for one, and finally one stops. Over time, you get better at hailing those cabs, and then more of them become available. Pretty soon you’re just jumping into the street, and a taxi is right there to take you where you’re going. It takes time and practice, but it happens.
That doesn’t mean every idea is great. Not every taxi automatically takes you to the coolest location in town. You’ll need to know your way around, and choose the right locales.
Here’s a taxi I jumped in to- Last year, it seemed like a fun idea to play Van Morrison’s classic hit “Brown Eyed Girl” with minor chords instead of major. The whole thing started off as a joke- a prank to play on drunk bridesmaids who requested the original, to see if they could tell the difference. Well, the idea took off, and with a little massaging, it became clear that I had landed on something really interesting.
Morrison’s original basks in the glow of pleasant nostalgia, driven by simple bread-and-butter chords. Changing the music to minor chords upends the whole mood, and makes it a lament for lost love; lost youth; lost innocence.
I find this transition remarkable. You can listen here:
Anyone can do this sort of thing, but this particular thing was MY idea. The same approach goes in to all the guitar parts I make up for other songs. I hear what’s there, and I react to it. I hail the taxi, and take it to my destination. I take what I do, and I make it my own.
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.
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.
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:
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.
The next band never even made it to a second rehearsal. The other guitarist didn’t understand rests… Soeverythingheplayedwaslikealongrunonsentencewithnobreaks.
It was astonishing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was while that role-shift was happening that one of the music teams wanted to cover Queen’s “I Want It All.”
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
So far I’ve posted a lot about music and guitar from the abstract and philosophical perspective, with a few links to videos I’ve made. I’m not really a video guy (total noob at best), and the process is time consuming. Also, my only camera is on my phone.
I compose and perform and record and produce music as a vocation. So, taking a break from my usual bloviation, I offer these two simple songs I recorded for some friends’ wedding in early October a few years ago. This was during a time when I was recording a LOT with just one microphone, acoustic guitar, vocals and occasional percussion.
The first song is a cover of a Train song. Somehow I even managed to sing a bit like Patrick Monahan (at least, I think so).
My typical studio production involves creating layers of guitar sounds and stacks of vocals (I blame my fandom of Queen and Boston- don’t judge me). I really enjoy the exercise of paring everything down to the most basic elements, from time to time. Being a fundamentally insecure person, it’s a good practice to get out from all the sounds I hide behind.
What do you do to break up your routines? If you’re naturally an acoustic-plus-vocal artist, what’s a foreign avenue you explore? If you’re connected to a particular music style, what alternate styles do you investigate?
This particular Invicta was made in 1980 by a company called Electra. For a while, Electra (and some others) were making copies of Gibson and Fender guitars. A trademark-infringement lawsuit ensued, and Electra started making different guitar shapes. This one cheekily blends the body shape of a Les Paul and a Telecaster. They used this basic shape for a number of models with different features. If you’re interested, check out this link to see different Electra models: http://www.rivercityamps.com/electra/
Side note: Someone bought the rights to Electra guitars a few years ago, and has started manufacturing several models (and variations) again. I have no personal experience with these.
I got an Invicta very much like the one I photographed, either the summer before or after 8th grade (I forget which). It was the closest thing to a Gibson Les Paul that I could imagine owning, and it was on that Invicta that I learned to play solos that sounded like I knew what I was doing. I felt (and somewhat resembled) like this kid:
The status quo of electric guitars has always been held by Gibson and Fender, hence the imitations that have happened over the years (including a robust market of counterfeits). Up until I was about sixteen, I was a dyed-in-the-wool classic rock fan. Van Halen’s 1984 album changed the guitar status quo overnight, and soon enough, the trends changed (later still, in Cincinnati, Ohio). The classic rock sound and look was no longer cool.
Eventually, I bowed to the trends, and started yearning for something a little more modern. I got a “shredder” guitar, and started incorporating the techniques and tricks of that genre. I lent and eventually sold the Invicta to my friend Aaron, who still has it. My shredder guitar is long gone. It’s interesting to me, in hindsight, how the status quo was Gibson/Fender in 1984, and “shredder” guitars, or “super-strats” in 1985. Seriously, there was a point where those classic Gibson/Fender guitars were just hopelessly passé. The trend continued relatively uninterrupted until Grunge arrived like a dam breaking, and the Gibson/Fender status quo returned.
Interestingly, music styles have become the influencers of guitar types, instead of the other way around. And you BETTER have the “right” guitar for the gig. What do country players use? Telecasters. What do hard rockers use? Les Pauls. Texas blues? Strats. Think a roots-americana type band is going to love it if I show up to a gig with my emerald green Ibanez RG? Nope. Wrong gig, dude.
True story: I was invited to audition for a heavy rock band a few years ago, and, based on older photos, they were reluctant to extend them an invitation until I showed them I had shoulder-length bleached-blonde hair (this did not end well for my hair). I received a notification of what types and brands of guitar equipment were expected… no mention of my capabilities or tones. They wanted a Gibson or PRS guitar, and a Marshall, Mesa, or comparable amp head. I had a couple of cool Gibsons, but my vintage AC30 was not invited! I actually considered getting a Plexi or a Dual/Triple Rectifier. Reason and good advice prevailed. I politely declined the invitation. That band never went anywhere anyway.
Here’s my point (finally). As artists, when we seek to engage people by bowing to the status quo, we’re engaging in a sort of law of diminishing returns. In a world of Les Pauls, the Stratocaster stands out (and vice versa). In a world of standard classic rock guitars, Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstein” super-strat stood WAY out. And then, in a world full of copycat super-strat type guitars, the classics, all of a sudden, stood out.
It isn’t just guitars, its artistry. I’m really impressed by music artists who do something that is both unique and approachable. It’s such a difficult fine line. When the status quo goes left, an artist should choose a direction based on inspiration, not imitation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that left is bad or that right is good. It does mean that mimicry leads to a location that gets crowded quickly, and listeners eventually relocate.
So what the Invicta represents to me, is a time when a company tried to do something that was different, incorporating bits of what was known with something inspired and different. I truly enjoy playing different types of guitars, because the unique shape and sound of each type somehow prompts me to play differently. I can’t NOT play ripping solos on an Ibanez RG. I can’t manhandle my 1941 Epiphone archtop the way I fight a Strat or Tele. While these are all common shapes, the Invicta stands out in my guitar-stable, as a whole different breed. I enjoy that it inspires different approaches while delivering what is still classically mine.
Isn’t that the kind of instrument we should all be looking to play?
What’s the instrument that makes you play differently? Is there some cool lesser-known brand or model that really turns you in an unusual direction? What about different sounds? Where are you finding those? I’d love to hear about them.
I was 11 when I learned Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.” Up to that point, I really had no concept of what could be done with a guitar, and I was stunned by the beauty of this music I had never heard. To this day, Jimmy Page remains my biggest influence, though I don’t really sound anything like him.
It was sixth grade, and it was as if a veil had been removed from my ears. Suddenly I was REALLY HEARING the music on the radio. The next year, MTV went on the air, and suddenly I could SEE Rock and Roll… and guitars; beautiful awesome guitars! Prior to this, and even for several years after, it was almost as if showing rock bands on mainstream network TV was inappropriate.
MTV didn’t have enough material to fill their programming time, so they showed concert footage. It was there that I saw The Who for the first time, and Rush and Triumph and Van Halen. Through produced videos, I saw Lindsey Buckingham with Fleetwood Mac, and some teenagers called Def Leppard and U2. As MTV grew, guitars seemed to wane in importance as the 80′s went in the direction of Madonna and Michael Jackson. But by then, I was a guitarist, tried and true.
I have three main spheres on influence on my playing: classic rock, shredders and early metal, and what I once heard someone call the “guitar anti-heroes”
The classic rock genre is easy, because it’s where I started. There’s Page and Hendrix and Clapton, Brian May and Pete Townshend and Alex Lifeson. Lifeson in particular carried me into and through the 80′s, where the others didn’t do much that was new or different.
It was Van Halen who changed the game for me (and millions of others). The early metal bands caught my ear, particularly Iron Maiden with Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. Vivian Campbell’s work with Dio floored me, and then Vai and Yngwie and Satriani appeared and floored me again. I thought I was doing well keeping pace with them (for a teenager) until I discovered Nuno Bettencourt. That’s when I knew I couldn’t keep up. The consolation at that point was that I had a girlfriend who was WAY more interested in my songwriting and singing.
It was then that something clicked for me. It was all about “the hook.” Peter Buck and Lindsey Buckingham and The Edge and Andy Summers and Mike Campbell and modern Alex Lifeson all suddenly made sense to me. I started writing guitar hooks into each song, and people really connected to that. When I ended up in the band I toured with, it was because my guitar hooks gave voice to the instrumental passages where our fantastic singer wasn’t actually singing. Every part became identifiable.
It was Page that taught me atmosphere and the incorporation of unusual chord voices. Hendrix taught me soul and swagger. Clapton gave me heart. Brian May gave me dexterity. Alex Lifeson gave me unconventional thinking.
Van Halen gave me freedom. Vai let me get weird, and Satch pointed out the beauty of melody. Nuno made me reach farther to reconcile funk with rock, and have fun with it. Peter Buck brought me back to the value of a jangly rhythm. Lindsey showed me how to get out of the way of the song. The Edge taught me how to make small things carry a big sound. Andy Summer let me use my jazz training to up-end stale pop formulas. Mike Campbell taught me how to write phrases that speak without words, in the middle of wordy songs.
I finally got the chance to put it all to work, to take it all out into the world, sort it out, and apply it in front of hungry listeners. I think it worked. I had a pretty good run with it. I developed a style that reflects those influences and became a pretty unique blend of them all.
Who are your main influences, and what did you take from them? How do you apply it to what you do? How well does it work? I’d love to hear about it.
I had started a band with a drummer and bassist, assembling an original song list that sounded like it would fit in the Grunge universe, but also allowed us to play some more complex stuff. We were already doomed to fail.
Our drummer, who had a great aesthetic sense, was a teenager with a skinny teen boy’s body, and had little stamina behind the kit to play long and hard. Our bassist was a singing guitarist who picked up the bass to start a band with me, and he played bass like a guitarist. I was a know-it-all lead guitarist, determined that we could change everyone’s mind in Cincinnati about what they wanted to hear.
Grunge? Really? Who listens to THAT? We’ll do BETTER stuff.
These guys are hacks, and they’ll never be successful.
The fact that we had lasted for six months was, in itself, a triumph. But we were getting antsy. We wanted to gig. We wanted an album. We wanted to sell an album at our gigs.
In 1994, the home recording market had been exploding for a couple of years with the release of Alesis’ ADAT 8-track modular digital recorder. It used super VHS tapes, and multiple ADATs could by connected together to make more simultaneous tracks available. Link two ADATs, and you had a 16-track system. Link three, and you have 24 tracks. Well, I had an ADAT, and a friend had one too. So we had the capacity to make something like an album.
The Alesis ADAT: Finally, home studio recording can sound like the pros, when it isn’t eating your tapes.
What we did NOT have was a good recording location, or sufficient microphones.
With polite inquiries, my bandmates and I got the OK to use a church sanctuary late one night. We set up our gear, and hastily recorded ourselves playing all our songs to get the drums on tape. We knew we could overdub everything else later. Our engineer friend cobbled together some sort of method to get signal on to tape, and give us a stage monitor.
So far, here are the ways we had already failed:
We recorded before we were ready, because we were impatient.
We recorded hastily.
We planned to overdub, and made no effort to get good bass, guitar or vocal performances on tape.
Our recording system was cobbled together. No headphones!
We used a click for tempo, and played it through our stage monitor. The click bled into the drum kit’s overhead microphone. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but our young drummer tended to get nervous, and fall out of time.
When I got everything back to my townhouse, I heard all the flaws in playback. Being the persistent sort, I took it as a challenge to make it all work. I spent a lot of time processing the bad drum tracks, and then tried to add my guitars in such a way as to make the drum recording work.
Here are some more ways we failed:
We kept on trying to polish a turd, instead of starting over and doing it right.
We used substandard gear.
In the midst of this, we became self-conscious. Our sound was rather heavier than what our friends listened to, and we started trying to get them to like us by writing things that were a little lighter.
At about this time, I sent a demo in to a regional indie label, and got a polite rejection letter that read, “We think your sound is a bit too avant-garde, and we’re looking for something more like the next Hootie And The Blowfish.” I sure wish I had kept that letter. In any case, I sat right down and wrote something a little Hootie-flavored. Our sound was already evolving, and we reasoned that a couple Hootie-like songs mixed in with our King’s X / Soundgarden heavy stuff would make us more widely appreciated.
More things we did wrong:
Tried to please everyone.
Changed our sound.
Handled rejection poorly.
Still, what made perfect sense was to keep pounding away on a poorly-conceived album. On every work lunch-break, I raced over to my recording rig to sing a little, or get some guitars recorded. I overdid everything. Right in the middle of all of this, our bassist moved back home to Indiana. This only lasted a few months, but it put an end to our gigging and rehearsing. In the meantime, I finished the album (mostly just to prove I could). This seemed noble.
I mixed the finished album at a friend’s studio, and started working on the visual components. CD’s were the standard, but a lot of bands still trafficked in cassettes. I could see no way to afford a CD project, so I had the album mastered to a DAT, and had a small run of cassette copies made. Then (and remember this is the 1990′s) I poured money into a good tape deck, a laser printer, card stock, cassette labels and cases. I spent a ton of time learning to design logos. I printed out the adhesive labels and inserts for the cassettes, and made a few every day. Our bassist moved back to town ,and we got right back to the business of making music. He hadn’t really played bass since he moved, but that didn’t stop us from recording.
When the album was finished, here’s what we had:
Time spent trying to fix things that should have been scrapped.
A homemade cassette album that featured…
Songs that didn’t belong together.
Money thrown away on supplies and equipment.
All you have to do to end up with a similarly inferior product is to copy any of this process.
Twenty-some years later, the home recording universe is a different place. Any crap performance can be edited, and almost any bad sound can be processed into something listenable. But is that what you want? A fake representation of your abilities? To me it’s like a toupee. It isn’t real hair. You didn’t grow it, and you’re trying to fool people into thinking it’s the real you.
If your bandmates can’t perform well on their instruments, just don’t even start. Take the time to get it right. Break rehearsals down, and take turns listening to how everyone plays. When it’s tight and accurate, THEN you’re ready to start the rest. Take the time. Earn it. Somewhere down the road (sooner than you think), you’ll be listening back and wondering about your time and energy spent. Don’t you want to be proud of it?