Attack of the 27 String Guitar

As the saying goes, sometimes 6 strings just isn’t enough. And sometimes 26 strings isn’t enough either.

Enter Keith Medley, a Kentucky native and Nashville sideman, who’s been building guitars almost as long as he’s been playing them. When he got off the road in the late 80s, he dedicated himself to building custom guitars, first for one of the large manufacturers, and eventually for his own company, Medley Guitars.

His crowning achievement to date is a 27-string guitar, built in his home shop, from a design he drew in the late 70s. As Keith puts it:

“I build guitars for no other reason than to make music. The music I hear is more than what can be played on six strings, so after many detailed sketches and long nights of contemplation I came up with a unique 27-string instrument.”

Check out the video of Keith and the 27-string guitar below. And if you like what you see, and want to see more, please consider donating a few bucks to the documentary film in progress about Keith and the instrument.

Watching the video, several things are evident. The guitar has incredible tone from top to bottom; Keith has the perfect combination of fingerpicking, left-hand legato technique with hammers and pulls, and bends and slides to get the most out of the instrument; and he has a very refined sense of composition that really complements the sound of the guitar.

So the only remaining question is: how long does it take to tune that thing …?

The Photography of Martin Cohen

Martin Cohen

For over 50 years, Martin Cohen has taken hundreds of thousands of photos of some of the greatest musicians in the world of Latin and jazz music. Whether the subject is Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Celia Cruz, or Tito Puente, his photography is both an invaluable archive of music history and a symbol of his devotion to the music.

This week, the New York Times published a great article and sampling of these photos, chronicling one man’s relationship to the lens and the artists. So great is the body of work that a new US Postage stamp, to be issued later this year commemorating Latin music legends, will bear a photo he took of Tito Puente in the 1980s.

As so often happens, the love of the music inspired Martin to form a company based around the musical instruments used in the music’s creation; a company that’s flourished since its origin in the 1960s; a company by the name of Latin Percussion — also known informally as LP.

To me, even more fascinating than Martin’s exploits as a photographer or his work as founder of LP, is the fact that the instruments he created actually affected and influenced the music he loves. LP instruments are actually woven into the fabric of jazz and Latin music history.

The opportunity to become a maker of percussion instruments presented itself in the early 1960s when a trade embargo with Cuba caused a drought in quality bongos. A mechanical engineer by trade, Martin fashioned his own set, which came to be prized by musicians everywhere, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, besides offering hundreds of quality percussion instruments, LP strives to educate budding drummers everywhere via their websites like Congahead, about which Martin writes:

“I began this website in order to share my good fortune in knowing many of the world’s finest percussionists and instrumentalists. I wanted to share the images, recordings, interviews, and movies I made of these legendary musicians. Within Congahead you will find many exciting sound clips, movies, photos and interviews from my personal collection.”

To further illustrate, here’s a clinic in precision — a percussion solo by Leo Di Angilla using LP Classic Accents Congas, LP Karl Perazzo Timbales and LP Caxixi:

Setting the Moog for Musicians Everywhere

Moog Synth

It’s not possible to discuss electronic music without encountering the influence of Bob Moog. One of the first inventors of the portable synthesizer back in the late ’60s, his instruments have been used by a myriad of musicians and artists, from The Beach Boys to Aerosmith to John Cage.

Whether it’s the overdriven monophonic synth bass powering bands like Parliament and Devo, or the whirling Theremin sounds used by Jimmy Page in Whole Lotta Love and No Quarter, Moog Music has been a driving force. And since Bob’s passing in 2005, his current legacy is only gathering steam.

This past weekend rang in Moogfest 2010, a three day festival in Asheville, NC, where Bob spent the last few decades of his life. With more than 60 acts ranging from bands to DJs to Theremin soloists to synth geeks playing at five different venues in downtown Asheville, the event averaged 7,000 to 7,500 people daily to help raise money for the Bob Moog Foundation. The foundation’s goal: the creation of a “Moogseum” in Asheville centered on Bob’s extensive archives.

Today, Moog Music makes an incredible array of electronic instruments, ranging from their signature analog synths to pedals to guitars to iPhone Apps. Here’s a quick look at some of the goodies:

The Moog Guitar

Etherwave Theremin

Moogerfooger Ring Modulator Guitar Demo

Filtatron iPhone app

One constant point of contention is the pronunciation of his last name. Though many people, including members of his extended family, pronounced it “moo-g” as in the sound from a cow, I recently found out that he preferred that which rhythms with “vogue”. During one NAMM show some years ago, when Jim and I approached the Moog booth to discuss how might be able to work together, the sales rep went to find Robert Moog himself to talk to us. As we waited and I started to fret about which pronunciation of Moog I was going to add to the “Mr.” in my head as I addressed him, he appeared, stuck out his hand, and preemptively said, “Hi, I’m Bob …”

And so Bob he became.

10 Ways to Make Your Band Better … Fast

rock_band

Whether you’re thinking about putting together or joining a new band, or you’ve played in one for years, it’s easy to fall into certain traps and patterns of behavior that hold the band back. The very nature of playing in a band can be conducive to bad habits.

Here are ten quick tips to make rehearsals more efficient, your sound fresher, and your band more confident when playing out.

Some of these ideas may already be in play with your band, some may be quick reminders, and some may be completely new. But whatever the situation, keep them in mind during your next practice, rehearsal session, or gig:

  1. Use Electronic Tuners – Don’t tune to each other. Everyone should have their own tuner, and should tune to it constantly. Most effects units for guitar & bass have a built-in tuner. Learn how to tune silently and use it every chance you get, even in the middle of a song when you’re tacit (e.g. laying out).
  2. Kick Everyone Else Out of Practice/Rehearsal – Practice is for the band, not to impress people you’ve invited to hear the band. That’s what the gig is for. If there are people in the practice space that are not actively taking part in the creation of the music, it’s time for them to leave. You can meet up with them later.
  3. Don’t Play When Someone is Talking – If someone is constantly noodling during practice, then they need to either keep quiet or take a hike. It’s not possible for anyone to make a useful point or suggestion over the drone of someone’s musical mumbling, and it’s the fastest way to create anger, frustration, and fisticuffs. If it’s you, stop it. If it’s someone else, unplug them.
  4. Locate Drummer and Bass Player Together – They are your rhythm section. They are the foundation for everything that can be good about your band. They can’t completely make the band, but they can easily break it. Thus, they need to be in sync, and the first step toward this is physical proximity.
  5. Play Half as Loud – Everyone wants to be heard. So what happens? Everyone, in succession, turns themselves up or plays just a little louder so that their part is just a bit more prominent. A few go-rounds of this and the volume is so loud that you can’t objectively hear the music anymore. Drummers can use Hot Sticks or similar to bring down the volume. While playing, if you have to shout to the person next to you in order to be heard, the band is too loud. You also won’t be able to practice as long because the extra volume causes everyone to fatigue faster.
  6. Eye Contact – If you’re just looking to rock out in your own head space, you might as well play along with your MP3s. Playing in a band is about playing with other people, hopefully people you like. Take time to look at each other, both to acknowledge when the band is really rocking, and also to take cues when there are upcoming changes in the song. If the bridge is meant to be played twice and the band keeps forgetting this, you need to work out a signal from someone as a reminder, and then everyone needs to pay attention to the cue.
  7. Record Your Rehearsals – The only objective way to evaluate how you sound is to record it. Check for problems with tuning, starting tempos and subsequent changes (bands tend to speed up over the duration of a song), overall volume levels, and how locked in the band is playing. Anything that sounds unprofessional should be eliminated.
  8. Rearrange Your Best Song – Take your best song and re-work it in another style or feel. Try it in an acoustic/unplugged vein, or re-arrange it as an emo or ska tune. Part of what you get out of it is, of course, some new version that your audience will find interesting (you can always switch up to the previous version whenever you like), but the other part is that your musicianship will grow. You can then draw on what you’ve learned as you write or adapt new songs to be added to your repertoire.
  9. Play Covers as Originals – If you play cover tunes, you should alter their arrangement or feel to fit the originality of your band. This may take a little bit of time to hone, and that’s OK. The point is: you’re a band, not an iPod. Make sure the audience can tell the difference.
  10. Rehearse the Gig – When preparing for an upcoming gig, the band should run through the set list a few times as if it were the real thing. This means no stopping, no matter how many mistakes are made. You should simulate all aspects of the performance, such as chatter with the audience between songs from your frontperson/singer, or equipment changes/mods/re-tunings that occur between songs.

Of iPads and Musical Interfaces

One thing I love about the age we live in are the advances in technology and what they present to musicians and artists to further their own craft and most importantly, their ideas.

The laptop, and now more specifically, touch tablets like the iPad allow designers and developers to really stretch out in the interfaces they can create for musicians.

I mean, does this start the mind wondering about the possibilities or what?

The First iPad Street Musician? from Ilya Plavunov