Carpe Guitarum

Carpe Guitarum- Road Dog- Summer ’02

I just returned from a tour that spanned the month of April. 23 appearances in 26 days in 9 states. For the next week I’m considering changing my nickname to “Couch Dog.” But I digress… I meant to talk about the tour/home dichotomy.

Touring is to the performer as the NAMM show is to a guitar manufacturer. For the guitar builder, NAMM is the time and the place where you exhibit, in a concentrated and exhausting manner, what you’ve been slaving over at the factory. It’s where you make future business contacts, where you get lots of information about the rest of the music business universe and about how your products stack up against those of the competition, and where you hope to take orders for lots of guitars to help keep your company healthy and you building guitars for the next several months.

For a performer, touring is also the time when you bring forth what you hope are your best products for inspection and judgment of your audiences, where you rub shoulders with your fans and try to make new ones, where you play guitar for anyone who chooses to come and listen, where you hope to get some sense of the validity of your own subjective impressions about your recent musical activities, and where you generally hope to get a glimpse of what’s happening out there in the real world away from your practice room. In addition, you hope to do well enough during your performance tour to allow you to come home prepared and ready to take care of the other important half of your career, the homework part.

In some ways the tour is the tip of the iceberg. Just as Taylor doesn’t manufacture guitars at the NAMM show, I don’t get a lot of R and D or productive new music started or further developed on the road. I’m presenting my finished products to everyone for inspection, so while there’s lots of learning to bring back home, it’s learning that will need time and reflection to provide its benefits. There are just too many interruptions and too many miles, for me to write much on these trips. It’s a time-consuming thing to produce new music, and to keep evaluating and improving the whole of a performance presentation, and it can’t all be done on the fly.

As I return home I recognize once again that life off the road has its own rhythm, not all of which involves guitar-related activities. (Today I fixed sprinklers AND worked on new music, but that’s not exactly what I mean.) In recent years I have even begun taking days off from playing, practicing, or (this turned out to be much more difficult) even thinking about music or the music business. My earlier attitude had been that a career of performing on guitar implied that substantial practice needed to happen every day, but more recently I have learned that the occasional day off is both physically and mentally invigorating.

I have also found that I need about twice as much time at home as I do on the road to keep a balance between the creating/improving side and the performance side of this life. I describe the home half of the process with the acronym CARPE: Compose, arrange, record, practice, explore and experiment. Here’s how it works for me:

Compose: The writing process happens in stages. The right-brain stuff is hard to describe; after all, how can I tell you what a good musical idea is or how to get one? Some aspects are more accessible- you have to save/record your ideas, you have to listen to them later and reflect, and it helps to write something down along with each idea to trigger your creative mind and take you back to the space that you occupied when the idea first came. I use a tape diary of numbered ideas which corresponds with a written diary in which I talk about where I was, the tuning, the date, and other random thoughts. There’s no better road listening, by the way, than my old musical diary tapes. It’s a great use of otherwise dead or unproductive time in the car to revisit my old ideas, and gives me good creative stimulus.

When an idea has grabbed me by the throat demanding to be pursued beyond the first stage, I go to a second cassette, which I call the work tape. I’ll label it with the idea’s original number and a name if that has happened to come along, and begin recording the different parts, narrating the ways in which I see them being put together and so on. I won’t try actual writing out parts yet, except for passages that I want to be extra careful to remember in an exact form, or tablature for difficult sections to which I may have figured out cool fingering solutions that I don’t want to lose. Writing kicks me out of the right brain into the left, and at this stage I want to stay where I am. This second tape may run on for 5 to 30 minutes, as I improvise, try different combinations, and generally lose myself in the process.

At this point I’m closing in on the final product. Moving sections around, practicing and polishing may take a while, but the creative heavy lifting has largely been done. Introducing my new offspring into the repertoire will happen over time in performance.

Arrange: I usually seek to do something different from a straight “cover” of a piece as I arrange it, so this process shares some aspects of composition, as I try on different approaches with a work tape as above and try different tunings and keys to see what will give me the feeling I seek. Sheet music is handy for transposing from the original if you don’t have a great ear or if the piece has complicated melodies, chords or other musical features that you want to capture exactly. You may choose to tab out some hard passages earlier in the game, to make sure you remember how you did something if a month elapses between your efforts.

Record: Pretty self-explanatory. Finished pieces get made into recordings, and need plenty of attention prior to the recording process so that I’ll be pleased with the result. The practice regimen that I described in Wood and Steel in fall and winter of ’00 and ’01 is focused on the pieces I’ll be recording, and is ratcheted up a couple of notches to reflect the anal nature of the listening that I do as I record. This topic is worthy of its own column, but suffice it to say that recording your music will focus your attention better than any other strategy of which I’m aware. That fact alone makes it a great practice tool, even if you have no intention of releasing the finished product for general consumption.

Practice: Feel free to revisit the same two articles for more than 2000 words about this topic.

Explore and Experiment: I include both musical and equipment issues here. I might noodle around in some new tunings, with no more goal than to see what keys work, what chord voicings intrigue me, or what techniques suggest themselves. I might sit down at the keyboard and try things in ways that I can’t on guitar- chords that aren’t guitar-friendly or ideas that I might want to hear in a different setting.

I spend lots of time on my guitars and gear, micro-adjusting actions, trying different strings or gauges, evaluating pickups, trying different effects and reverbs on different songs, trying different EQ settings, and generally fine-tuning my performance approach. My amplification gear is always set up for these explorations. Everyone who sees me live is judging me as an amplified performer, and so keeping some focus on my gear is essential.

Gotta go. Anyone out there who knows how to replace a Toro sprinkler valve?