Other people show pictures of their kids. I go on about my three ‘workhorse’ gigging guitars…
Summer has ended, and with it wedding season. The number of gigs I’ve been playing each week is now returning to a level more compatible with two other jobs and a master’s degree. Now I have time to take stock and update you on my two new working guitars…
My previous Strat, one of the new Fender Made in Mexico Standards, featured coil-tapping on both the neck & bridge pickups. In my current function band, I found myself playing it almost exclusively in the single-coil setting. After years of having a humbucker in the bridge position, I finally fell in love with the classic single-coil Strat sound. As it turned out, the Mexican Strat’s neck didn’t feel quite right for me – a trifle too thick, certainly compared to the thinner, vintage feel of my favourite blue Strat (see ‘Gear Talk’ 1 & 2). At the same time, I’d read several reviews singing the praises of the top-end Squier models. It seemed that Squier were no longer solely the savvy choice for the beginner.
I’d been looking for two guitars which sound and feel similar enough to each other to make mid-gig changes much smoother. The weight and shape/feel of the neck needed to feel close to identical, while the sound had to match up as best as it could. I had also been hoping to use more budget-concious instruments – if the build quality was up to it – in order to retire my favourite blue Strat from regular function gigs. On paper, the squires seemed ideal, so I took the plunge and bought two varying models on a retro theme…
Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster
The rave reviews on the deluxe, Classic Vibe and new Vintage Modified lines claimed that many guitarists might well be fooled in a blindfold test with some of Fender’s classic guitars. Likewise, build quality and parts were considered by some to surpass the recent Mexican standards. With this in mind, I purchased a brand new Squier Vintage Modified Strat, finished in a quote lovely custard yellow colour they call Vintage Blonde.
The Vintage Modified range aims to replicate a vintage guitar that’s been retro-fitted with player upgrades. Here, that means Duncan-designed pickups, a better bridge than the entry-level Squiers, a thin, tinted neck and vintage style tuners for better stability. The pickups appear to be a slightly aged off-White, adding to the retro vibe. Best of all (in my opinion), it has the large headstock that Fender started using in the last sixties/early seventies, which is the most obvious nod to the past.
I really like the sound of this guitar. And that’s not compared to Squier’s Affinity range, but the Mexican standards. The basswood body is lighter, but it doesn’t have an obvious effect on either the sound or sustain if this guitar, even compared to my Blue Mexican. Likewise the feel, not to mention the incredible playability, of this guitar far exceed its humble price tag. This has become my main axe for function work. All I needed now was a similar beast to partner it with…
Classic Vibe Simon Neil Stratocaster
I’m going to come clean here and admit I’d never heard of Simon Neil. While I had heard of his band, Biffy Clyro, I couldn’t name or even recognise a single song of theirs, nor could I adequately describe their style. However, friends more clued up on this sort of thing than I am informed me they have a mix of street cred with a younger audience and play interesting, heavy rock music. The specs on this guitar imply that Mr Neil has good, and indeed similar, taste in guitars to me. While I wouldn’t normally buy a signature model (other than a Les Paul, naturally), seeing this guitar going for £200 second hand was too good an opportunity to pass up. Heck, if I didn’t like it, I could always sell it on.
This (now discontinued) guitar is essentially a budget-friendly version of the Fender Simon Neil signature model. Based on a ’62 Strat in gorgeous Fiesta Red, it certainly looks the part. The Mark Knophler/early Hank Marvin vibe in the aesthetic was enough to override any boggling doubts about the subtle Biffy Clyro logo on the headstock. The rosewood fingerboard is slightly lighter than expected, but sounds as warm and dark as you’d expect. As with the Vintage Modufied guitar, the bridge and tuners are an upgrade from those axes at the lower end of the Squier range, and the overall build quality feels like another great job from their Chinese factory. The pickups are a custom mix of Alcino 3 and 5 magnets, which offer up a delightful blend of early and late 60’s Strat tones in one guitar. Very nice!
Having played this guitar for a couple of weeks now, I feel it’s here to stay. I’m currently setting it up so it’s gig-ready, as the action on the two guitars wasn’t quite matching up. There is a slight difference in the sound, particularly when overdriven, but it’s close enough to be complimentary. Other than that, and the obvious differences in finish, these guitars feel the same in my hands and under my fingers, which is exactly what I was looking for.
Finally, even though I never thought I’d say this, I encourage you to give Squier (and indeed other budget models) a go before spending all your money on the top-end guitar brands. Now, more than ever, you may well find the difference is that you’re paying extra for the name. All in, these two new guitars cost less than one New Mexican standard, and for what I need as a working musician, they do the job exceedingly well. Join us, and you too can live the two Squier dream onstage!
Been a while since my last post (several life-changing events recently – all positive!) but thought I’d post a new video from Switch.
For those new to my blog, Switch are my main function band at the moment. I’ve been their guitar player since the beginning of 2015, and we’ve performed at all manner of function & event in that time.
This medley was recorded last winter, but only recently uploaded by the band. It features three funk & soul songs, all of which are staples of the wedding/function band scene:
- Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder)
- Never Too Much (Luther Vandross)
- Ain’t Nobody (Chaka Khan)
This medley showcases Switch’s full six-piece lineup of female vocals, bass, drums, keys, guitars & male backing vox (me), plus alto sax & female backing vox.
For my part in this recording, the guitar used was my Fender Modern Player Stratocaster (short scale model), DI’d direct into the studio desk. Recording took place at Nemix Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I must admit that I don’t know which ‘re-amp’ patches were used for my guitar tones, other than I requested a Fender Blackface/Deluxe style amp for the clean sound. Sorry there isn’t any more detail….
As always, let me know what you think. In case the video above does not play, you can access it on YouTube here.
This is a short video from TED Talk on how to practice more effectively. It includes some useful tips & really interesting information based on what we know about the brain & how we learn tasks.
This ties-in with my previous blogs on rehearsal & my own (admittedly rather limited) research on music and the human brain [see previous posts]. Let me know what you think!
If the above video doesn’t work, here’s a link so you can access the short TED Talk video on YouTube.
R.I.P. Charles Edward Anderson, AKA ‘Chuck’ Berry (1926-2017).
To say that Chuck’s guitar playing was an influence on mine would be to do him quite a large injustice – he influenced everyone!
Building on the foundations of the early blues and jazz single-line players (such as T-Bone Walker, for one), and making great use of double-stops (two notes played at once throughout a phrase) to emulate the horn sections of larger bands, Chuck Berry created rock’n’roll as well know it today.
I could have picked any number of Berry’s songs to share here, but opted for ‘You Never Can Tell’. Best known from it’s inclusion in Pulp Fiction, I sang this tune with Switch as a first dance request for one of our wedding gigs last year. Great fun & a guaranteed floor-filler whenever we’ve played it since…
The live version by Berry & band in the video above below features some pretty cool soloing by the big man (not featured on the original 45rpm recording). Enjoy! x
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!
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
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!
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.