Songwriting, Songstuff and Polar Bears

I only really got back into playing guitar about three and a half years ago, after a break that lasted about 13 years. The timing coincided with two major life events; becoming unemployed and becoming a father for the first time, both of which happened in the same week in February 2009.

I suddenly found myself in the situation of transitioning from a high-pressure consulting gig, to being a full-time father of a newborn baby girl. I’d done a part-time MBA before going into consulting, so I had placed my career at the center of my life from the beginning of 2004 until then. Five years of 60-70 hours a week grind. Well, probably more. Before the MBA I was a chip designer at that Big Phone Company that Finland is so famous for. That could be quite an intense job at times too.

Of course in February 2009, I was looking for a new job, but financially-speaking we had a lot of runway. So I wasn’t particularly anxious. Thanks to my unemployment insurance and Finland’s excellent welfare state safety net, we knew we wouldn’t have to sell the car until after the summer and we could afford the mortgage probably for the rest of the year.

This is a time of life I actually remember as being very happy. Although there was a lot of uncertainty, I’d got out of an unhealthy job situation and I could feel the stress leave my body.  I also had this incredible gift of a child and family to care for. Newborns of course sleep a lot, as do mothers of newborns. I was left with a fair amount of time on my hands in those early weeks.

It’s at this point that I dusted off the case with ‘Fender’ on the cover and reacquainted myself with my Stratocaster.

I bought this guitar, a Made In Japan sunburst model with a rosewood fretboard, as soon as I got out my first post-university pay cheque in 1994. On the same day I also got a Trace Elliot Supertramp combo (in British racing green) and a Tascam 4-Track Portastudio. My paycheque wasn’t big enough to pay for them all outright you understand, but I put down a deposit and paid for them in installments over the next 18 months.

Although I love guitars with a passion, my aim has never been to be a virtuoso, but really to write songs. I am fascinated by the creative process. Inspiration and craft. I get a rush creating original material. This is what motivates me to pick up the guitar.

I’d dreamed of owning a 4-track since I was a teenager, so getting that Tascam was incredibly exciting. After buying it, I had a brief burst of creativity, writing very few complete songs, but filling tape after tape with riffs and ideas. Then life intervened, and around the end of 1996 I put the guitar down, boxed up the 4 track and other things preoccupied me. I left the UK in 1998, without my musical gear and other things took center stage for over a decade.

By 2009 of course, Tascam four tracks were obsolete. But we had a Macbook and on every Macintosh computer there is a software package called iLife, which includes an application called Garageband. A feature rich, yet user friendly ‘DAW’ (digital audio workstation). A software recording studio. A Tascam on steroids.

Since then, I’ve continued to mess around with Garageband whenever I get the opportunity. Initially the same pattern of lots of ideas as in the 1990s, no finished product. But earlier this year I set myself the goal of completing one song a month and uploading a finished’ MP3 to a blog. I started in March and by the beginning of this month I actually had six tunes up there, so I was a little ahead. It helped that a friend of mine did a kick ass remix of the first track I uploaded to the blog, that really got me moving.

Then about ten days ago I started contributing to a forum called Songstuff. This is a place on the web where amateur, semi pro and pro songwriters come to share their tunes (often via Soundcloud). I signed up for this forum with the aim of getting feedback and advice from others on my material, but I find it equally interesting to critique and give feedback to others. It’s also just a great place to discover new music. The level of talent and standard of material you find there is staggering.

I’ve removed three tracks from the blog, because after joining Songstuff, I know I can make them better. I’ve become more aware of what is possible with home recording and now also I have something of an audience that I want to like my music. I want to raise my game.

If you are interested in hearing my music you can go to my Soundcloud page to steam the tunes

or the blog to download MP3s

http://polarbearsofarizona.wordpress.com/

I apologize in advance for the singing…

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The Ones That Got Away

I started getting into the idea of playing electric guitar when I was around 14 years old. Up until that point I had been learning classical guitar, so when various kids at school  started  jamming together with the aim of forming a rock band, I was keen to get involved.

At that time there was a pool of equipment that kind of circulated around those teenagers that had an interest in playing music. Typically someone would acquire one of these pieces of gear from another kid, then sell it on when either they got bored with the whole making music thing or they graduated onto something better.

There are three items of this kind that stick in my memory — an electric guitar, a keyboard and an amp.

The guitar was a Les Paul copy made by a company called Kay. There is some info online about them. It was black with white binding and it was totally horrible. It was a nasty buzzy, high action, twisted neck motherf***** of a guitar, seemingly strung with barbed wire. It had likely been changing hands between schoolkids in my town since the late 60s. I got it in about 1985 and paid about 10 quid for it. I don’t recall exactly what happened to it, but I likely offloaded it around my 15th birthday when I got my first ‘real’ electric guitar — an Aria Pro II Wildkat (an entry level ‘superstrat’). This was like night and day. I count the Wildkat as my first real guitar. It’s possible that the Les Paul copy wasn’t as bad as I remember, that it was just such a shock after playing a nylon stringed classical guitar, or that it just needed a setup and some TLC, but my memory is that it was The Worst Guitar Ever.

The Worst Guitar Ever?The amp and the keyboard were a bit of a different story. Around about 1986 or early ’87, I knew an older kid who had passed through the band phase and was now trying to offload his gear. He told me that he had a keyboard that I could borrow for a couple of weeks and if I liked it, I could pay him 15 or 20 quid for it. He also had an old amp he’d been using with it that he could throw in. I agreed to the trial period.

They keyboard didn’t impress me much. It was a very old analog synth. It was monophonic (only one key sounded at a time, no chords) and had only a very small keyboard. This was at the time when the Yamaha DX7 digital, polyphonic synth was all the rage. So this little analog thing was about as fashionable as flared trousers and trog oil. After playing around with it for a little bit, I told the seller that I wasn’t interested and gave him back his stuff.

I didn’t pay much attention to the amp at all. It was quite loud, but hummed quite a lot and also seemed at least 15 years old. I just wasn’t interested. So I didn’t try to make a deal for that either.

The keyboard player in our band ended up buying the keyboard and used it at gigs we played. I don’t think he bought the amp.

But I did remember the names and brands written on the gear.

In the 1990s vintage analog synths and tube amps came back into fashion and became highly sought after. I heard ‘Blow Your Head’ by Fred Wesley. Indie rock bands such as The Stone Roses and Oasis started making it big and were using vintage British amps. Slowly, a little at a time and with a growing sense of horror, it dawned on me exactly what I had turned down back in 1986.

Here’s a couple of pictures.

The keyboard was a Minimoog analog synth. And the amp was a classic Vox AC30 probably from the 1960s or 70s.This amp was made famous by The Beatles among others. Although not famous enough that either the seller or I had ever heard of it however. Now of course, with the Internet, this could not happen. Any 15 year old wanting to check out what something is worth just has to stick the details in Google.

Of course now, both the Minimoog and the AC30 are both considered highly collectable and very valuable. A Minimoog Class D on eBay has a Buy it Now price between $3000 and $4000. A vintage Made in England Vox AC30 is about $2000.

So back in 1986 I could’ve had over $5000 worth of vintage kit for the equivalent of $30.

Shit.

Update: I’m reliably informed that the keyboard was not a Moog, but rather a similar, but less desirable Jen. Only worth about $300 these days! Can’t believe it. I’ve been dining out on that story for years… Just shows how fallible the human memory is!

Axeman on the ampage (GAS slight return)

Those of you who have been to this neck of the internet woods before may remember that I concluded my post about my acquisition of a used Ibanez Artcore with the words “what I need next is an amp”.  So here we go. What kind of amp should I get?

I get my musical kicks messing about with GarageBand and trying to improve myself as a player by studying books, or working out how to play songs I like. I am the quintessential bedroom guitarist. Right now, if I want to play amplified (using either the new Artcore or my trusty Traveler Speedster that I brought with me to the US), I have to crack open the Mac, connect my M-Audio USB interface and fire up GarageBand. I then have to connect headphones and the guitar. Cables everywhere. Not convenient. The tones available from GB are also frankly a bit pants and it’s very fiddly to mess about with little pictures of stomp boxes, visual EQ, all that malarcky.

I’d really like to be able to just switch an amp on and begin playing without all those extra cables. It doesn’t have to be loud, in fact it would be better if it were quiet. I’m only looking to play at typical home volumes. 15-20W should be plenty.

Back when I first started playing electric guitar, selecting an amplifier was a simple business; you  bought the loudest one you could afford. My first amp, was a 5W solid-state practice amp purchased new from Rushworths in Chester (the kind of music shop where the salesmen used to wear Man at C&A suits and demo guitars with Nile Rogers disco licks). I do not remember the brand. I’m not even sure it had a tone control. It was not very powerful even for bedroom use and I managed to completely wreck it by overdriving it all the time, so after a few weeks it was incapable of clean tones.

My second amp, bought used, again before I was 16, was a huge thing with two 12” Celestion speakers and made by a company called Intermusic (amazingly I just found one tthe same on eBay for 68 quid — see photo!).

Part guitar combo, part domestic appliance, all Beast!It was100W and came in its own flight case with wheels. When it was time to play, you just took the front off. It weighed a ton. It was like lugging a washing machine to rehearsals and gigs. If I recall correctly, it didn’t have any distortion channel, but it did have reverb, which at the time was a major wow for me. The band I was in at the time christened it The Beast and as it had multiple inputs, we ran absolutely everything through it simultaneously; guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards. At our first gig we built a Frankenstein’s monster of a sound system out of the school PA, some speakers borrowed from a pub and other stuff borrowed from the singer’s cousin’s metal band– and The Beast. Sadly, it began farting after about 3 or 4 songs and died shortly thereafter. I can still remember our keyboard player looking panicked, running around mid song twiddling the knobs trying to revive it, then shrugging and grabbing a tambourine for the rest of the set. The speaker transducers had ripped out of the cones and then, without load, the coils had melted and short circuited. It needed two new speakers. I believe I traded as part of a deal for a bass or PA head a year or so later.

My third amp was a 65W Peavey Bandit. It was super nice, but I ended up selling it while at uni and short of cash. I currently have a Trace Elliott Supertramp combo (in British racing green colours), bought in 1994, in storage back home in Finland. At 80W It’s a big green beast, but not with a capital ‘B’. I’ve never had it turned up much more than the number three position though.

Since the last time I bought an amp, things have changed however. In the 1980s, the only mainstream options available were all analog solid-state amplifiers, such as the ones listed above. But since then things have got much more complex.

There are three broad categories of amp now available in addition to basic solid-state.

Tube amplifiers use pre-transistor ‘valve’ technology and have enjoyed a renaissance during the last 10-15 years, as players search for the classic tones from the 1960s and 70s. Tubes distort differently to solid-state transistors, leading to richer and warmer tone. However, they take time to warm up and are less reliable than transistor amps. They also rely on over-driving the tubes in order to achieve distorted tones. This means that the tone is volume dependent. You need to turn them up high to hear the tubes start to crunch. This is a disadvantage (in a practice amp at least) that some manufacturers get around by creating specifically low-power designs and/or adding output attenuators to bleed off power before it hits the speaker. You can get some pretty interesting looking simple tube amps for not much more than $100, but they tend not to include the volume reducing tricks that would make them appealing to someone like me (a father of two young kids who doesn’t want to get divorced over playing dodgy blues guitar at 1 am).

Hybrid amplifiers use a tube within a largely solid-state design in order to try and get some of that valve warmth, but benefit from solid-state reliability, flexibility and cost.

Modeling amps take the guitar’s analog signal and convert it to digital format before processing in a DSP to simulate a wide variety of different amp models, including tube distortion and classic speaker combinations. The tones produced are meant to be pretty good, depending on the model you pick. Purists of course will always prefer tube tone, but for the bedroom hobbyist these seem to be a pretty good option

Tah-dah!

Whenever I spend more than about $25 on anything, I always do a pretty large amount of research and whenever I’m looking at guitar gear I even see this as part of the fun. So here it is, a comparison of a few practice amp options. In table form. Yay!

I’m really not interested in the plain vanilla solid-state options, so I’m limiting the search to modeling, hybrid and pure tube types. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that have caught my eye.

Brand Model Type Output Power (W) Headphone Out? List Price ($)
Fender Mustang I Modelling 20 Yes 109
Roland CUBE-20XL Modelling 20 Yes 160
Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen Modelling 15 Yes 200
Bugera BC15 Hybrid 15 Yes 109
Vox Valvetronix VT20+ Hybrid 20 Yes 170
Epiphone Valve Junior Simple Tube 5 No 160
Fender Champion 600 Simple Tube 5 No 170
Bugera V5 Advanced Tube 5 Yes 197
Blackstar HT-1 Advanced Tube 1 Yes 250
Blackstar HT-1R Advanced Tube 1 Yes 300

In terms of tone then the Epiphone Valve Junior and Fender Champ 600 look just tons of fun, but the lack of headphone socket rules them out. Plus these are the kind where the tone will be volume dependent. They could be great if I had a shed in a garden to play in, but all I have is a spare room in an apartment.

If money were no object, an ‘advanced’ tube amp such as those from the British company Blackstar might be great, but that’s a lot of cash. The hybrid amps by Bugera and Vox look very interesting. Especially the Bugera based on price.

In terms of modelling amps, Fender has some interesting options. GDEC stands for ‘Guitar Digital Entertainment Center’ apparently and means that you can load backing tracks and guitar lessons onto the amp via an SD Memory Card slot. This doesn’t really appeal to me as I can use an iPod with an aux line in to achieve the same and with so much content available (often free), I don’t want to be locked into buying Fender-branded SD cards. But another feature of the GDEC really does appeal to me – the ability to use Fender’s FUSE software on a Mac or PC to craft tones and then load them onto the amp. You can even apparently download tones from the FUSE user community. Luckily the Fender Mustang I also has the FUSE software capability and seemingly all the GDEC features (presumably the same or very similar processing engine) and with an extra 5W of power, this seems like the better deal.

The Roland Cube series is an alternative modelling amp, but they’re more expensive and lack any FUSE type functionality. Online reviews are also meh compared to the Fender amps.

So logically, the most interesting options appear to be the Bugera BC15 hybrid amp or the Fender Mustang I modelling amp. Really at this point I should go and try these ones out and work out which one I like the best in real life. But I’m suffering for Gear Acquisition Syndrome and I’d really like to have something as soon as possible. There’s nothing interesting on Craigslist and Guitar Center have a $20 coupon right now.

I am going to negotiate with The Authorities with the aim of getting a Fender Mustang I. I’ll let you know how it goes.