Thursday, 27 November 2008

Play (Virtually) Anything

I saw an episode of the excellent South Park recently. It was called 'Guitar Queer-O' and clearly based on the PlayStation game that has recently grabbed the public's attention. (Of course, Guitar Hero has also grabbed the attention of the music industry as they've been positively queueing up to get the music from various bands included in the next version. The royalties would probably get Woolworth's out of the red. They never miss a trick...)
Anyway, there was one point in the episode which I found really resonant; Randy Marsh (Stan's dad) comes home to find the boys playing Guitar Hero and asks his wife if they've learnt to play guitar. She tells him what goes on in the game and he returns to the living room to ask the boys if they'd like him to show them how to really play the song they'd been 'playing' on screen ('Carry On Wayward Son' by Kansas). He gets out an amp and a Les Paul and begins to play the song for real. Afterwards he says to the boys, 'I can actually play a lot of these songs on guitar. Do you want me to show you how?' Cartman replies... 'That's gay, Mr Marsh...' and they return to the virtual world of cheering audiences and guitar riffs at the press of a button.
Now you might think that I'm about to make some sort of cosmic point here, but I'm not. Well, not really... It's just that I was nearly in exactly the same situation about a year ago. My sons apparently conspired to buy me Guitar Hero for my birthday, the only thing stopping them was... well, I could really play, so what was the point? But I guess I'm not opposed to the idea that guitar superstardom should be available to everyone as part of a video game - although I do have issues with the Wii equivalent because it sounds bloody awful! I might allow myself a slight concern that playing the guitar might just be misconstrued as being 'easy' and I do think that if you're willing to go so far, why not go the whole way and learn for real...
Oh, I said I wasn't going to make any points, didn't I? Sorry. It's hard...
Still, I expect that common sense will click in at some point and people will realise that learning to press some coloured buttons on a plastic guitar isn't really playing. I mean, just because I've successfully completed the first two Halo games doesn't really qualify me for real time intergalactic combat, now does it?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

My Day In The Sun

I was once given away as a prize in The Sun newspaper... Well, okay, it wasn't exactly me personally they were offering up but my dubious skills as a guitar educator - which amounts to the same thing, in many ways.
It all started when I was promoting a new book - I forget which - and my publisher rang to ask if I fancied being sold into slavery in the tabloids. The idea was that we'd offer a free guitar lesson as part of a massive music promotion The Sun was running. I agreed, despite not exactly being a fan of The Sun or any of its orbiting planetabloids. I mean, I stopped reading newspapers when Murdoch bought The Times, don'tcha know?
Anyhow, the competition was run - I believe people had to save the ring pull tops from Coke or Pepsi cans and send them in - and so I guess the tabloids could be held responsible for rotting teeth as well as fragile young minds. And I was their willing accomplice... oh, the shame.
Naturally I bought a copy of the paper just to see what they said about me. No matter how I feel about them, a kindly word or three from a national newspaper is always worth appending to the ol' CV, after all.
In the end, I think they damned me with faint praise by publishing some lukewarm comment about the book I has just written and so, alas, my CV is still unadorned by national rag-praise.
Somebody obviously donated copious quantities of ring pull tops as there was a winning bid for my 'free lesson'. So my publisher called once again and gave me the lucky fellow's name and address - only problem was that he lived in the South East and I live in the South West and so there was the obstacle of distance to overcome. In the end, I received no reply to my email to him and so the prize was left unclaimed - maybe he needed the travel expenses to pay his dentist bills instead.
It wasn't the weirdest experience I've had as a writer, but certainly one of the more bizarre...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Going Bespoke (Part II)

Work has started on the new guitar (see blog below for more details). Here, Roger Bucknall is choosing the wood for the back and sides, by going through a few piles of 'Rio' (which used to be known as Brazilian Rosewood before it became environmentally contentious to use it for instruments and such like).


This particular Rio is quite legal and fully licensed - I mention this because I don't want Greenpeace kicking the door down in a morning raid, thinking I've breached some sort of international agreement with Brazil.
So why choose the more expensive option of Rio for the guitar's back and sides? Well, basically it was because my ears told me to. Let me explain... On a standard Fylde Falstaff  the back and sides are made from carefully selected Indian Rosewood. This particular wood is very good at its job of providing a sturdy 'box' to support the guitar's more flexible spruce soundboard and I was quite prepared to have it on mine... Until, that is, I played an instrument with Rio back and sides. 
It's difficult to describe the difference - it's a bit like banging on about wine - how a Chateau Whatever '59 differs from the more excellent '62. But it did make one heck of a change to the character of the sound - at least, to these tired old ears. The only way I can describe it is that, dynamically and tonally speaking, Indian Rosewood gave me five gears - but Rio was the equivalent of upgrading to a six gear sports box. Whatever it was doing, it made the whole guitar sing - I could feel every note I played as well as hear it and so I just had to include it in the recipe for my new instrument.
The saga continues... watch for further updates soon!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Going Bespoke

As a few people migth be aware, I'm a sort of 'born again' acoustic player these days. After years of playing with Strats, Les Pauls and sundry archtops, I've come to rest as a member of the unplugged fraternity.
I started playing acoustic guitar - my first instrument was a 3/4 size classical - and so I guess it's a case of 'coming home' in many ways.
My return to the ways of the flat top steel string was as a result of making an album a couple of years ago. To begin with, I was going to play everything on it... guitar synth, baritone, nylon string, archtop - you name it. But I was lucky enough to have Martin Taylor as my producer and he advised me to stick to acoustic so that the album had a uniformity all the way through. I took this on board as very sound advice and completed the album using a Yamaha LLX 500C.
Now, I have to say that despite spending years and years working on guitar magazines and reviewing all kinds of instrument, I had never really looked at acoustic guitars subjectively. You don't - the whole object of reviewing instruments is to remain unbiased and objective. But now, all of a sudden, I was an acoustic guitarist and that changed things for me. I became more interested in things like which woods gave me the best sound, which body shape was better for me personally and stuff like that.
I was really happy with the sound of the Yamaha, but thought that I could possibly improve things as long as I got the basic formula right - shape and materials, etc. I pondered on the whole question for a long time, visiting shops and trying 'off the peg' instruments, but nothing really floated my boat. I had narrowed things down to things like knowing I wanted a spruce top and rosewood back and sides, but most of what I found was either laminated or otherwise unsuitable. It put me in a bit of a quandry, to say the least; what's more, I was scheduled to be making album #2 early in 2009 and so getting something sorted soon became a priority.
As luck would have it, my friend Gordon Giltrap phoned me and I mentioned my dilemma to him. He offered to put me in touch with Roger Bucknall at Fylde Guitars in Penrith and, after meeting with Roger at the Cheltenham Acoustic Guitar Show and trying oodles of different models, I settled on one... This one:


This is a Fylde Falstaff. The top is Englemann Spruce and I have asked for the back and sides to be upgraded to Brazilian Rosewood (or 'Rio' as it is called these days). The neck is Honduras Mahogany and the fingerboard is ebony. All-in-all this represents a brilliant recipe for a great sounding acoustic guitar and I must say that I'm incredibly excited about receiving it.
At present, it's being built for me and I hope to be able to post some pictures of the process some time soon.
Stay posted!