Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Software Vs Hardware

Once upon a time, I had a reputation as an inveterate 'fiddler' when it came to guitars. I just couldn't stop tweaking, changing pick-ups being my favourite ploy. In fact, when I bought a guitar from a well-known luthier once he said to me, 'And don't you dare change those pick-ups!' as I left his workshop. He knew me and my DIY habit well, y'see...

The thing is, now I don't know why I did it. I must have spent a fortune on replacement pick-ups back then: Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Paul Reed Smith – all these guys are richer because of me. I was looking for something, but I'm not quite sure what because my experience since then has taught me that a good player can get a good sound out of even the most average instrument. It's not the gear, it's the player, after all.

I sometimes see it in students I've taught, though; that idea that if they could get hold of a very expensive instrument, effects unit or amplifier then all their problems would somehow go away. After all, isn't it easier to play great blues guitar on a great blues guitar? The answer, in case you're wondering, is 'no'; it's certainly no easier, but it's arguably more pleasurable and I think that's the answer to the whole conundrum. We invest more in peripherals or changing instruments because of the way it makes us feel as opposed to the way it makes us play.

So if walking on stage with a vintage Strat makes you feel better about being there and has the knock-on effect of making you play better then it's worth the investment. But it's a heck of a lot cheaper to adopt the mindset that the majority of your investment ought to be directed at your playing, rather than your gear!

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Les Paul – Object Of Desire!

With the passing of Les Paul, I thought I'd offer a few personal reminiscences concerning the instrument he created...

When I was a kid, owning a Les Paul was very, very high on my 'to do' list. I wasn't particularly interested in Strats or Teles or even acoustic guitars; I just wanted a Les Paul. I even had pictures of people playing them taped to my bedroom wall!

This was around the dawn of the 1970s and it was still very hard to find anything with either Gibson or Fender on the headstock out in the provinces where I lived. If you were after the real thing you had to travel to London, which wasn't particularly difficult for me, seeing as I spent a few years at school there. And so it was that I became one of the all-time guitar clichés: a kid with his nose pressed against the various windows of guitar shops on Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road. A friend of mine and I would make a regular lunchtime pilgrimage to those shops and dream of the day when we'd actually get to pick one up, let alone own it!

When I left school I got a job and saved hard for an electric guitar. Alas, a Gibson was beyond my means and so I opted for a Shaftesbury Les Paul copy in black instead. It took me three very hard months of saving, but eventually I went over to a music shop in Staines, Middlesex and put the money down. I can still remember arriving home with my new pride and joy – the shop had thrown in a rose-covered guitar strap and I didn't even care that it wasn't very rock'n'roll. I was in love...

The trouble was, I didn't have an amplifier. That had to be saved for separately and took me another gruelling few months. Meanwhile, my only recourse was to travel to my fellow window shopper school friend's house to use his – and he lived around 40 miles away!

I played a couple of gigs with the guitar and it sounded good enough, but not like the 'real thing'. At the time, I didn't understand why, believing it must be my lack of chops – not knowing that a plywood body and a pair of cheap humbuckers are never really going to do the same job as solid mahogany, maple and Gibson's overall finesse.

When my fortunes changed a little and I was at last able to upgrade, I still couldn't afford a Gibson Les Paul and so I settled for an SG for £150 from one of the same shops in London that had a groove in their window where my nose used to fit. It was a nice guitar, but it still wasn't a Les Paul.

In the ensuing years, I went through many guitars, bands and phases. There was a jazz archtop phase, a Strat phase, then another Strat phase and so on. Fast forward to 2001 and I was in the Guitarist magazine offices one day when a Les Paul Standard arrived for review. We bonded. I bought it. So after years and years of pining for a 'real one' I now have one sitting in my closet waiting for me to get over my current 'acoustic phase'.

One of the other cases in there contains the original black Shaftesbury Les Paul copy. It might not be a real one, but it carries a lot of sentimental weight, believe me!

RIP Les – and thank you.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Clone Wars

I don't usually follow links posted on social networking sites that inform me 'If you like THIS GUY then check out THIS OTHER GUY' but this morning I succumbed. What I found when I got there was that THIS OTHER GUY was so similar to THIS GUY that I had to ask the question, 'why?'. This was far beyond being influenced by someone – this was actually trying to be that person, lock, stock and barrel!

Perhaps it's a thing that we all find ourselves thinking when we first try setting foot on that unstable and perilous landscape that is the music biz. If we follow in the footsteps of another artist, then we too might find a way – grab a hold of the comet's tail of their success, so to speak.

It might be that this is the thought process which has fuelled the abundant 'tribute band' scene. The would-be clones have found themselves a home, satisfied to rent the applause from their audience without ever really owning or truly deserving it.

It troubles me, though, I have to say. It's not just prevalent in the music business, either; next time you go into a book store, check out how many titles on the shelves are obvious clones of 'The Da Vinci Code'. Even the covers look similar...

Maybe this actually answers my own question: people copy successful artists and writers because there's a living to be made from doing so. But if the results are just super-diluted facsimiles of worthy originals then, to me, there's no point.

Of course, we have to question a marketplace that actively encourages style piracy – but the morals and attitudes of publishers and record companies is another thing entirely!