Finding the “Complete” Guitar

I have somewhat of a problem. I’m perpetually dissatisfied with the guitar. The range, no matter the strings or the scale, is never enough for what I want to do; sustain is never enough and on top of all that, I really hate picks. Yes, for years I’ve used what’s otherwise known as “hybrid” or “chicken” picking, but it doesn’t solve some of my fundamental complaints about it. I’ve never been comfortable with any method of gripping the pick and during extended periods of time (especially when playing heavier music) the strings will start to wear away at the nail of my index finger, turning the tip into this brittle, flaky mess which can expose some of the nail bed underneath. It sucks.

Over the years, I’ve realized that part of the way I conceptualize music is counterintuitive to the nature of the guitar. The guitar, regardless of whatever genre it may find itself in, is fundamentally a folk instrument: of the people. It’s a cultural instrument which shifts and reshapes itself depending on the cultural context. My experience with the guitar was more personal, private. This is part of why I was so drawn to “shred” guitar in the past, but it also means that I don’t always approach the instrument with that kind of culturally expressive mindset (to whatever degree one can actually do that). My approach is almost always technical and procedural. I tend to conceive of musical concepts and attempt to carry them out on the guitar; I can’t, at least not authentically, just jump into a pentatonic scale and “express” myself that way.

This, I’ve come to learn, is what holds me back when it comes to improvisation. Now, it may be somewhat ironic to say this given that my live sets tend to be very improvised, but the difference there is that I’m usually improvising with a concept. Sometimes the concept is purely hardware specific–running loops in certain ways through certain effects–while other times it is more musical (taking a two-chord progression and making it last for 12 minutes). I also enjoy taking certain melodic sequences and playing around with them through various effects or by taking odd numbered patterns and playing them with an even rhythm, and so on and so forth.

So when I think of the guitar, I’m hardly thinking of the instrument as many tend to, essentially a cultural icon. It’s a tool, and in my music, it’s a tool like any of the stomp boxes or effects processors I use are. When I say “guitar as oscillator,” I am being somewhat literal. The guitar is a part of the puzzle I’m trying to put together, and it’s increasingly frustrating when the nature of the instrument doesn’t allow me to execute certain musical goals.

It’s part of why I’ve always been on the lookout for the “complete” guitar; and the more I studied music, the more complex that “complete” definition became. The search has led me through 7 strings, 8 strings, fifths-tuning, (note: DADGAD tuning, for me, has actually been a move in the opposite direction, searching for a more simple, non-complete guitar in order to be given a creative restriction) fretless guitars, just intonation fretted guitars, etc etc etc etc.

I could talk about any of those, but the 7 string is what’s interesting right now. A 7, tuned in standard with 12 frets per octave is a standard of “complete” I’m happy to embrace. As far as temperament and tuning is concerned, its complete within its own system–so make that complete*.

My first 7 was an Ibanez RG7621. I still have it; it’s a little beat up and it at one time lived an alternative life with a microtonal neck; but after enough issues with that neck, I restored the instrument to what it was before. It’s got its dings and dents and someday I’d really love to refinish the body and neck to give it a fresh, new life, but it’s still a great instrument. Is it complete? Well, the moment I knew I had to have this instrument was a genuine feeling of completion like I never experienced before.

I was playing in a metal band at the time, toying around with a number of different tunings. I ended up settling on a 6 string tuned to B standard. It growled; it was menacing. Perfect. Problem was, all my scale patterns weren’t what I was used to with standard tuning. I have a lot of issues with standard tuning, but it remains the tuning I grew up learning and still will always be a kind of “home” for me because of this. A 6 string tuned B to B got the riffs done, but I was missing my other chords, scales and techniques and concepts I had previously come up with on a standard tuned guitar.

The 7 string immediately met the desire of merging these two worlds. It was kind of surreal, a true feeling of completion; all of the riff material was there on the lower strings, but when it came time to solo or play something more melodic, I was instantly transported back to the guitar as I grew up with it. I could simultaneously navigate these different worlds without needing to change guitars.

Several years later, I acquired a second main 7 string (I say “main” because there have been a couple of 7s that have come and gone for me). An Ibanez yet again, this one has a fanned fret system, allowing me access to a baritone scale length and a standard 25.5. Once again, this provides me with the ability to traverse different musical modes and worlds all on the same instrument and it currently interfaces well with my setup both in terms of “genre” and the pedals I’m using.

It’s enabled me to appreciate 12 tone equal temperament a little more, and a more traditional guitar setup. I’ve come to accept that there will never be a “complete” guitar, but these 7s go a long way for a specific, wide-ranging sound, which I think is the crux of what I’m speaking of here. The essence of “completion” is about knowing whether or not these instruments fit the needs I have; they are always “complete” in context. There are a couple of things I’d change; both could use a new set of pickups (the fanned fret one is a pain in this regard since it has two active 8 string pickups to compensate for the string spread). Otherwise, when I use one of these guitars, it is complete in doing what it has to do, and in the musical realms where it can’t travel, there’s another “complete” guitar.

Though I often say that I contemplate moving away from the guitar in the future, thinking of these instruments in this way seems to keep them around. It becomes a challenge to find musical applications where these instruments fit a specific need in a satisfactory way and making each one “complete” is about considering what the musical application will be and how it will be processed via effects.

This is why I can’t just be satisfied with blues boxes.

Truths in Shredding

The term “shredding” doesn’t appeal to me. It immediately puts me in a mental space that sounds and feels like the floor of a Guitar Center…and if you’re not familiar with what that sounds like, I envy you.

In my teenage years, though, shredding was everything. As a kid who never really played sports, or so goes my rationale, I had no outlet for what we might otherwise refer to as competition. Now, I’m quite critical of the existence of competition as some kind of natural or healthy construct, but it would still seem to be the case that many physical activities human beings engage in often fall under this umbrella term of “competition,” if not with others, then at least with one’s self on a path toward building strengths in specific categories.

That was one of the appealing things to me about learning techniques and practice methods for developing speed on the instrument (it also sounded really cool…). Music was hard to quantify; what did it mean to be “good” at it? To my mind, especially in my youth, the emotional side of music was up to a number of factors that I could never rely on. Sure, learning certain chords, scales, and how to use them, gave me greater control of accessing certain emotional colors, but it was still an enigma to me. A lot of what moves someone in an artistic piece is abstracted essence of a constellation of very specific social and cultural (and economic…gender…race…) functions and apparatuses, but what it all boils down to is the following: either someone has an emotional response, or they don’t.

Music from Final Fantasy VII pushes me to tears–and not just the songs, but the original midi tracks as they appeared on the PlayStation release really do it for me. Why? A youth spent in a broken home where Cloud was the only person I could relate to in some twisted way ought to do the trick–and it also helps that the compositions are stellar.

So, given that I always understood, at some level, that I was never in control over the previous and existing circumstances that alter the phenomenon of conditioned arising that we refer to as a perceptive response to an artistic mechanism, it made sense to me to focus on the one area that was, it would appear, under my control: Technique. It also gave me a degree of accomplishment, some control over the haphazard conditions of my young life. And, boy, did that go to my head.

The truth in shredding is that it does breed some undesirable behaviors–but to pretend that undesirable, toxic, behaviors don’t manifest in other areas of music and art is, frankly, foolish.

But why the arrogance in shredding? I have my suspicions that there may in fact be some kind of classist underpinning to this–especially when you consider the proximity of shredding and “progressive” metal music and classical music. I mean, it’s right there for everyone to see, really. The cultural signs at work here often find themselves deployed in a hierarchy that seeks to establish a “real” art that always seems to be the product of white, European men.

There is a more defensible position, however, and it came to me when I reflected on Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare. On returning to it, I realized I probably hadn’t fully listened to it in almost 15-20 years, and in that time forgot how much I loved the songs.

The thing with Vai, in any of his music really, is that he’s not the fastest guitarist out there. There are a handful of crazy techniques and approaches that only he does, but what really defines him is his phrasing on the instrument. That’s what I was loving on revisiting Passion and Warfare, the songs were just a joy to listen to, and his playing was a joy to listen to.

But it isn’t a joy that everyone understands. You, pretty much, have to be a guitarist to get it. You have to spend enough time with the instrument, to the point where it feels like a natural, corporeal extension of your own self, that you can really listen to certain types of guitar music and appreciate what’s going on. I think the shock of this, for some, is what breeds arrogance and anger when love of certain, focused and privatized music isn’t shared. There’s a specific constellation of socio-cultural forces that shape someone into being open to this kind of music.

The solution to this, I think, is to become more aware of the socio-cultural essence of the music we listen to–to, if we can’t fully map it out, at least understand the existence of the constellation that builds our respective backgrounds. But where it concerns “shredding,” and this is very important, we need to examine and be vigilant against toxic behaviors that manifest around it–the arrogance, the elitism. I’ve been down those roads and it sucked; left me friendless and eventually led me to hate certain kinds of music.

This is part of the reason why I cringe somewhat when I hear that “shred” word. I get concerned that it’s creating too many privatized spaces while also building out a hierarchy of who “can” and “cannot” shred.

This post is somewhat wandering. I have a lot of loose-knit thoughts on this which I’ll probably put together in a better way in the future.

The Problem with New Gear

A couple weeks ago I waded through the epic sea of other gear heads over at the Brooklyn Stomp Exhibit. It was an intense event with hardly any room to move, let alone enough room and silence to really hear the effects I got to try out.

Despite all the mania, I did get to try out one incredible delay pedal, the Thermae from Chase Bliss Audio. This thing was insane–really, that’s how enthused I am that I have to say that. While the disorientation I was experiencing from the event made it tough to really zone in on what was going on with this device, the layers it was able to generate was incredible–and the expandability through midi and CV audio–make it just what I’ve been looking for out of a guitar pedal that’s more forward thinking in its application. Interfacing something like that with the Helix or my other delay pedals would not only allow me to explore some of my existing sounds in new ways, but would open some new approaches to performance and composition.

But I can’t get it yet! Sure, the price is part of that, but mostly because I know that this device would radically change my approach right now and I’m not yet sure I’m ready for that. My current setup really works well, and I’m not yet done exploring all I can do with that. I’m not necessarily referring to the limitless capabilities of the Helix, but I’m referring to how the Helix is working with everything else.

I’ve got a groove; I know where I want the sound to go eventually, but I’m not ready to shake things up. It’s a lesson I’ve learned to not only be content with the gear I have, but to recognize what I can already do with the existing equipment at my disposal–allowing me to expand mindfully and where it’s necessary, ready for all the challenges and changes that come with adding a new component to the arsenal.

Never Let Sound Go to Waste

My Hughes & Kettner solid state amp is getting up there in its years. It’s still working, but every now and then, it likes to do some admittedly strange stuff.

Following my rule of always trying to capture strange sounds, here’s a demo of some directions I’d like to take this sound and possibly make something out of. A lot of the effects techniques I’m doing here mirrors what I tend to do with guitar loops; it’s always interesting to feed something less musical through to see what arrives at the other end.

Embracing the Simple

My first guitar was a strat. Simple. Lake placid blue, white pickguard, three single coils and a tremolo system with a locking system behind the nut.

I still have this axe. It was handed down to me by my father and has drifted in and out of regular play for years now. It’s a bit beat up in some areas, and that tremolo, while it has its advantageous, sometimes makes me wish it was a straightforward Fender unit–even one of the old ones with six screws.

It currently hangs around, tuned in DADGAD tuning. I break it out every now and fall in love with the sound every time I do; I’m constantly on the fence about dedicating an entire project to just this guitar. (Guess what’s likely to happen?)

But as wonderful as it sounds, and as much as I’ve grown to love open, sus4 tunings, the reality is that it’s a very limited guitar–even more so given this tuning.

Nothing sounds like a strat–and that’s part of the problem. It immediately draws attention as the “strat sound,” almost regardless of what I do to it in terms of effects and processing. The open tuning also locks me into a specific sound and despite being more versatile than one my likely expect of an open tuning, I none-the-less gravitate toward very specific voicings and, perhaps most troubling, the same key. Standard tuning, of course, has the same pitfalls, but since it’s the “normal” tuning, we tend not to think of it as locking a player into a specific set of voicings, patterns and keys.

But it has become such a specific instrument that it defines itself in a way totally dissimilar to some of my other guitars. The 7 strings, the fretless and microtonal guitars, and the miscellaneous other guitars hanging around the place all have a greater degree of flexibility–they can do way more and can act as chameleons, shifting into new forms where they need to. The strat is nothing more than the strat strung up in an open tuning; it refuses to listen to my demands of flexibility and versatility and simply asks to be played.

I’m going to have to give into that demand to create an entire project for it sooner or later.

Duo Lumière Performance on 7/25

I will be performing on 7/25 at the LetLove Inn as Duo Lumière with Robert Kennedy of the Flushing Remonstrance.

This one has been awhile in the making, so I’m thrilled it’s finally happening. Experimental films + live experimental accompaniment.

RSVP on Facebook.

Join us for an evening of mind-bending experimental films with live accompaniment by Duo Lumière.

Duo Lumière are Robert Kennedy from The Flushing Remonstrance on keyboards and electronics, and Eric Jackson on guitar and electronics, combining to create atmospheres and soundscapes to accompany a program of classic and visually dazzling short films.

Free admission, with donations appreciated. Presented by Cinema Under the Influence.

Let it Ring

As I wrote about earlier, pushing the guitar into a sound space it doesn’t occupy natively (that is, the essence of strings pressed against a surface and amplified acoustically or electrically) has pushed me to find more creative ways to achieve not just ambience, but dynamic ambience of the kind we tend to expect from electronic instruments that use a variety of sequencers and other automated processes that allow the musician to operate between the boundaries of composition, experimentation and performance (and no, I’m not just referring to improvisation).

This has been one of those discoveries: letting the ebow rest on the strings (lapsteels are best) and running the sound through a variety of effects that either create unique sounds over time (delays, and stacks of delays, for example) or ones that can be manipulated; plus, when your hands are free, you can more directly adjust and manipulate effects without needing to keep the strings wringing with a pick or your fingers.

This is also a fantastic way to burn through 9 volt batteries on the ebow.

Check that One Off: Microsoft’s To-Do is on Mac

I’m just going to assume that this item was way at the bottom of Microsoft’s list; but since they bought Wunderlist, I started using it less and less and relying more on To-Do. Up until now, however, I could only do so on iOS and Windows. While it’s great that I have a Windows machine stationed at home and an iPhone always on me, my work flow has always been to focus on one device at a time, and that’s made working on my MacBook somewhat challenging while on the go. Yeah, I could access To-Do on a web browser, but I just prefer to have an app in the dock I can always zone in on; I hate juggling around a bunch of tabs–honestly, I was late to the tab game on web browsers and I probably always will be.

Wunderlist was essential for me when it came to granular, specific tasks. I do use a Bullet Journal for analog task management, but Wunderlist was great for getting more granular without interrupting a computing workflow. I was ready to transition to To-Do; it was free and it matched the “theme” of using a lot of Microsoft Office apps for the last few years, but not having it on Mac as a native app was always a bump in the road.

Here’s to productivity! Meanwhile, the open source advocate part of my brain is continually asking why I didn’t just roll my own NextCloud server running on an Ubuntu machine at home to manage all this stuff in the first place…yeaaaaah. I’ll get to that eventually….

Sometimes I Just Want to Abandon the Guitar

I started messing around with electronics very early on; I was quite fortunate enough to have a variety of instruments in the house, including some synths and electronic equipment, so I’ve always had contact and connection to electronic instruments and music. The truth is, though, electric guitarists are always somewhat connected to the concepts of electronic music to begin with when it comes to effects and processing. But there still some marked differences, enough to make me often think about quitting guitar altogether.

Now that may seem like a very melodramatic thing to say–and it is, I mean, I am somewhat of a melodramatic person to begin with. But there is a reason why it isn’t all that crazy or extreme–I do have some very good reasons for thinking about my decision to keep playing guitar in the future.

As I said, electronic instruments have always been “around,” and I have always loved the sounds of these instruments–but I’ve equally been in love with the possibilities of these instruments. The variety of combinations of different sounds gives a level of control over the sonic space in a very individualized way that I greatly desire (I do, after all, perform solo ambient guitar, with the instrument merely as a lens to access sounds I want to express). So, some might suggest, why not just do both?

Well, I could (and often do) use both. The problem, however, is what the result will end up being, and it always centers around a very serious question/consideration to make regarding my music: if electronic instruments will give me greater access to the music I make, then maybe I should just leave the guitar be. I can spend hours and hours crafting a guitar technique or tone to only scratch the surface of a tonality or musical approach that I could instead achieve in minutes on some kind of synth, getting past that barrier quicker and do more with the results.

But the problem, however, is that the process of building these sounds out on the guitar, even if they are sometimes trying to emulate processes and approaches on synthetic instruments, really pushes me to think of the guitar in a new way and produce some interesting results that I might not have otherwise come across if I just jumped straight into synths. And this, by the way, is something quite similar to what many other musicians do already. There’s a long history of guitar players thinking about solos from the perspective of, say, the saxophone, or the keyboard. Paul Gilbert has often talked about “thinking like a drummer” in his approach. So this isn’t anything new.

So yeah, I probably won’t give the guitar up, but goddamn do I find myself continually looking at electronic instruments and wondering, “what if?” And, I should say, it’s increasingly likely that electronic stuff will continue to find its way into my music, so maybe I will get the best of both worlds in the end anyway.

Final Fantasy VII Remake: Get Ready to Answer this Question for All Eternity

It begins. In those chatty moments before a game of D&D, conversation about E3 and Final Fantasy VII Remake floated about, revealing that some of us had not yet played this classic. The question wasn’t fully formed, but for those of us who hadn’t experienced Cloud and crew’s journey, the question was emerging, the question which will haunt those of us who are so immersed in Final Fantasy VII, you can see the mako infusion in our own eyes:

So, which should I play first? The remake or the original?

Here’s the problem: this is going to be a pretty damn complicated question to answer–regardless of how the game turns out. To start from just initial trailer impressions, it’s a mixed bag. We have, on one hand, Aeris (yeah, I ain’t putting the “th” in there until it’s official. Win me over, Square Enix, with Remake and I’ll do it), pleading for help from Cloud in a slightly uncharacteristic way, yet we also have the members of Avalanche responding to the violence and destruction they’re causing in a more direct way, so much so that Barret has to give them a pep talk to get through it; we also see Tifa expressing frustration (one can assume) over how her role in Avalanche seems to have been mostly relegated to domestic duties like cooking for everyone else and maintaining the restaurant, concerned only with filling the place with flowers.

No one really knows what this means. Trailers really are just glorified ads and reading into them is always “perilous.” The story of Avalanche could become deeper, more intricate and involved, calling into question the nature of violence and how the response to oppression is almost always going to end in destruction if not for the oppressor, then certainly for the oppressed who are continually pummeled into insignificance. But of course, it is certainly possible for this to be another foolish attempt to conflate “punching up” with “punching down“. Likewise, what we see of Aeris could be even more damsel-in-distress business, or it could be an extension of her need for protection from a corporate state that continues to stalk and threaten her combined with a form of PTSD from being gifted with mystical visions of the dead–all things present in the original. Lastly, Tifa may punch her way out of her marginalized role as the “wife” who cooks dinner when the men come home, but it’s equally possible she may just end up having to get behind Cloud’s big phallic sword when it comes to defining the hero of the narrative.

So, in choosing between this and the original–especially for newcomers–it’s gonna be complicated. Remake might get a number of things right, especially in the narrative department, but may completely fail in its staggered release schedule, its combat system, or its over-reliance on shit blowing up. It could also be the opposite: perhaps the gameplay will simply be amazing, with an addictive and nuanced combat system but the narrative may make foolish suggestions about the “proper” response to state/corporate oppression, lock its women into dependent, marginalized roles and might just completely ruin the narrative development of Cloud’s mental state and Sephiroth’s role in the plot by showing it all the fucking time.

Either way, we, the many who fell in love with this world in 1997, will have our work cut out for us when it comes to explaining the changes or recommending either representation of this game to those looking to travel to Gaia in 2020.