Music that made me (part one): Early years

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” – Victor Hugo. 

Humans are a musical species. Throughout our history we have created such beautiful sounds which are simultaneously abstract and intimate. You could say we are the music we listen to. If that’s true, then that first music we absorb as children must play a large part in informing our futures, a least to some extent. If nothing else, it helps form your musical tastes for the future! 

As I sit here typing this, ‘Deacon Blues’ by Steely Dan ha started playing on the radio. I’m instantly transported back to a younger version of myself, still as moved by this song as I was the first time it fell upon my ears. (if you don’t know it, here’s a live version you can enjoy by clicking here).

As musicians & composers, we should be both mindful & appreciative of this. With that in mind, here is my very own early music

Using that term, I’m excluding nursery rhymes and songs from school. I was also planning to leaving aside hymns & church music. But the more I thought about it, the less it made sense to do so. This was a huge part of my formative years. To ignore the music of my church and community growing up would mean I was only presenting to you half of the music that made the man sat here typing this right now.

I was raised by a family of regular churchgoers in a close Catholic community in the north of England. Music was a large part of our times attending Mass or in Church-related events, and without a doubt my favourite ingredient of the Christiam experience.

Folk & Celtic Music

My community had a strong Celtic connection, with regular social events, often ceilidhs featuring additional Northumbrian dancing. If you’re unfamiliar with these traditional Irish & Scottish dances, here’s a classic, the Gay Gordons (Yes, that was a part of my childhood!)

There were also more reflective songs, performed by certain members of the parish. These included several traditional Irish songs, such as ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Molly Malone’.

My interest in folk music stems directly from hearing so much of it as a child. As a professional guitar player, I’m often called upon to play these tunes. Here is my own version of ‘Danny Boy’ (called  Londonderry Air here) from my Vimeo site.

…and here’s the traditional Notthumbrian tune Waters Of Tyne

Hymns

While there was no one particular hymn that stood out, I quickly discovered which melodies, chord sequences, and – crucially – their relation to each other, I preferred to listen to and sing along with. Some, especially Christmas Carols, managed to embody powerful music with a soft sweetness many classical composers have struggled to attain. Obvious (non-Christmassy) examples include ‘Abide With Me’ and of course, Jerusalem.

‘Jerusalem’ gets bonus points for being thought of as such a patriotic ode to England here in the UK. This is despite the fact that the words are taken from William Blake’s thoroughly sarcastic prom, mocking the mediaeval belief that Jesus visited these lands as a teenager with Joseph of Arimathea. However, the music by Sir Hubert Parry is sublime. In particular, the downwards harmonic movement towards the end of the second line in both verses never fails to raise goosebumps on my arms!

Finally…

This is just one part of my life, but the music here still stirs memories of growing up, and the sense of community spirit we had. My father is still a regular at my old church, and like me, his favourite part of the experience is the music – the singing together, and belonging.

But that’s not the whole story…

Coming up next: the other side of my early years. Specifically, the albums I first heard as a child. Until then, stay happy and keep making music xx

New Year’s resolutions for guitar players

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, many of us have recently reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’.

Like many bands who find most of their work comes from weddings & function work, 2016 ended for me with a NYE gig. In January, things start to feel a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in 2017:

  • Learn a new style.

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing! 

  • Mix things up.

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

  • Widen your horizons.

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month of 2017. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

  • Get your music ‘out there’.

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs, gig more yourself, especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ (in my case playing in a covers band), and finding it hard to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

Best of luck and wishing you all a very happy new year! Let’s make 2017 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Tim xx

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Don’t forget I’m here to help if you need it! xx

New community music centre now open in Cumbria

Some of you may know I am involved with a few community music therapy projects in the north-west of England. Now think it’s time you met ‘me gaffer’, and had a wee peek at the new £2million centre which has recently opened its doors in Penrith, Cumbria.

Annie, Michael & the whole team at Sunbeams Music Trust have been working tirelessly for several years, and not just in fundraising for their brand new centre. Sunbeams Music Trust now provides community music across the region. Their ‘Music for Life’ & ‘Music for Dignity’ projects reach children and adults in schools, day centres, care homes & much more, bringing music (and improved wellbeing) to so many people who need & enjoy it. But there is always more work to be done and more communities & people to reach out to. This new centre will go some way to meeting that obvious need.

Featuring a large performance room, state-of-the-art digital recording studio and small music & therapy rooms, the new centre comes well equipped to meet the needs of the charity. A well-equipped kitchen & boardroom means they can also raise much needed revenue through conferencing & hosting events. The recording studio is also directly linked up to the performance hall, meaning the centre can also serve as a commercial studio capable of recording anything up & including a small orchestra!

Guitars laid out in ‘Lily’s Room’, at the Sunbeams Centre, Cumbria.

My only contribution to the new centre so far has been laying out the guitars on the floor (as above, however the remnants of which can also be briefly glimpsed in the video, via the link below). However, I hope to start leading a few of the projects there from 2017 and truth be told, I can’t wait! The new centre is, in a word, AWESOME!

Sunbeams runs entirely on donations & charity funding. If you haven’t yet chosen a charity to donate to for Christmas, or raise money for throughout 2017, please give Sunbeams some serious consideration.

Fundraiding information can be found on Sunbeam’s donation page.

Thanks, guys! xx

…And here’s the recent feature on the new Sunbeams Centre, courtesy of ITV News.

Special offer on guitar lessons (Newcastle)

Thinking of learning guitar? Or know someone who is? Here’s the ideal Christmas present for the guitar student in your life (and, crucially, are based in the North East of England)…

***SPECIAL OFFER FOR NEW STUDENTS***
I’m offering discounted rates for all new students who book lessons between the 1st of December and the 15th of January.

Whether you’re a complete beginner, or an experienced player looking for a short run of courses to focus on one specialist technique. Either way, all styles & all levels of player catered for in electric, acoustic & classical guitars. Ukulele lessons also available, also for all levels & styles.

***BLOCK BOOK TEN 1/2 HOUR LESSONS FOR ONLY £90.00***

(45 minute & one hour slots available too)

Message me on my Facebook page for details & to discuss.

Seven Nation Army (cover)

My previous blog mentioned a recent recording date with function band Switch. We recorded about three or four tracks for the band’s website, two of which we filmed videos for.

The first video, for ‘Mercy’, you can watch here.

Our cover of ‘Seven Nation Army’ was the second video we recorded that day. As you can tell from the video, we had a bit of fun with this one. It still has quite a few nice shots of my Gold Epiphone Les Paul though…

Guitar wise, this is the LP from the video, using the neck pickup, coil-tapped. The slide is solid brass & it’s going through one of the studio’s Marshall amps (not the Orange stack you see in the video, though that does sound pretty cool).

Thanks to Loft Music Studios for the recording & production of the track, Nemix Studios for the video location and Artifact Media for shooting it! 

Enjoy!

A song for Black Friday: Mercy (cover)

Is it Black Friday? Have mercy…

Tenuous enough of s link for you? Good.

Earlier this year I hit the studio with function band Switch, and this cover of ‘Mercy’ (made famous by Duffy) was one of the tracks we recorded.

The guitar I used was the same one you can see in the video: Fender Modern Player Stratocaster going through one of the in-house Marshall combos at the Loft Studios.

Thanks to Loft Studios, Newcastle upon Tyne, for the recording session & production. Also many thanks to Nemix studios (also Newcastle), which was our location for the video, and to Artifact Media for the film production!

Enjoy!

Gear Talk (2)

It’s been almost two years since the last post running through all of my gear (which you can read here), and a lot has changed since then! Time for an update…

What’s the same?

First off, my blue/purple Strat is still my main weapon of choice (pictured, below).

My main Strat, with modded pickups. Seen here with my fave stomp boxes.

Known as the Standard Stratocaster HSS, this Mexican made beauty has been with me for sixteen years now. A few years ago, I upgraded the pickups to:

  • Fender Vintage Noiseless (neck)
  • Seymour Duncan Cool Rails (middle)
  • Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker (bridge)

I love the combination of these pickups, not to mention their individual tones. I’m buying a new ‘fat Strat’ soon (expect a review to follow) and should I find the standard pickups somewhat lacking in quality, I’ll be replacing them with the same choices mentioned above.

What else has remained the same?

My acoustics – the Taylor 314ce, Admira classical and Tanglewood electro acoustic – are the same as before. My ukulele is a standard concert model by Kauai.

Most of my pedals have remained the same but here’s a quick rundown of my main stompboxes:

  • Joyo Vintage Overdrive (highly recommended!)
  • HotOne Boost
  • Boss OD3 (overdrive) & DS1 (distortion)
  • Marshall Bluesbreaker overdrive
  • Snarling Dogs Wah
  • Joyo Digital Delay

I have a pedal board to house all of these. However, I often simply take two or three pedals out to a gig without the board. This changes from gig to gig, but looking back through the pics on my Twitter account, I find the Joyo Vintage OD (a top quality tubescreamer clone for a fraction of the price) usually makes an appearance.

So what’s new?

ELECTRICS

My current second Strat is a Chinese made Modern Player Stratocaster. Interestingly, it is short scale (24 inches instead of the usual 25.5). Apart from being a feet shorter on the neck (only twenty) you barely notice when playing, though the body is a little smaller. In terms of sound, the pickups on this are classic Strat and I love the Guild humbucker in the bridge – the chrome looks really cool against the scratch plate (see pic below, sun best guitar on the left)!

Modern Player short scale Strat, sunburst (left); Mexican HSS Strat, midnight blue (right); Fender Stage 100 solid state amp (rear).

Finally, I also own an Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO. The main difference between this and the standard Epi LP is that both the top quality pickups are coil-tapped. They’re also uncovered, which looks very funky against the gold finish (see pic, below).

Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO, gold with those beautiful uncovered ‘zebra’ humbuckers.

When I bought this guitar, I thought I’d be using it with bands in the heavier end of the rock spectrum. However, I’ve found myself using it more & more for blues & jazz gigs. It was my main guitar for my blues workshops at the Sage Gateshead this summer, and provided those early blues times perfectly.

AMPS

I’ve finally bowed to the inevitable and invested in a digital amp. I’m glad I waited, because evidently Fender did too. The first wave of modelling amps were full of lags & bugs. By waiting, Fender’s first foray into the genre ensured they got it right first time. Even then, they were minor bugs, quickly improved in the line of amps released when I started looking – and now I’m a very happy owner of a Mustang III version 2 (pictured below).

Fender Mustang III v.2 digital amp, pictured here with my gold Epi LP.

This has every amp option you can think of, as well as every effect you’ll ever need. I prefer to keep my overdrive stompboxes, which frees up the amp to add modulation effects (such as phaser or their wonderful chorus choices). There’s room for a hundred saved channels, which is more than I need but useful to have. Also, their pitch-shift effect allows me to down tune the entire guitar without the need to, well, actually down tune the guitar! Very cool!

What else?

Well… I’ve just today ordered a Fender HSH Strat, so expect a review when that arrives. I’m also quite keen to look at a few more pedals from Joyo. Watch this space.

Until next time…