Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Custom Daddy Mojo Rosetta

Once I went down the cigar box guitar rabbit hole a few years ago, I stumbled upon the 6-string biscuit cone cigar box guitar made by Daddy Mojo Instruments. Based in Montreal, Lenny makes a number of amazing instruments from more traditional cigar box guitars to art deco diner table-themed guitars. I've used the 6-string biscuit cigar box repeatedly, but just last week I received a custom-made Rosetta biscuit cone guitar. I've always been a fan of the old Gibson archtop guitars, so Daddy Mojo's Rosetta models immediately caught my eye. But Lenny created a whole new model, and I encouraged him to create what came to him as an artist - I felt like I would just request paint jobs and designs that I already had. What he went with turned out amazing, and the pick-up sounds like something between a Telecaster and a National, which I love. Lenny refers to the finish as creme brulee, but being from Wisconsin, it looks more smoked gouda to me. The disc pattern is similar to old Collegeian Nationals, or the phases of the Florida sun which never goes away.

Monday, March 12, 2018

"Down By The Seaside"

Acoustic Zep Set, late 1970s
When you grow up with 2 older brothers in the 1980s, you are going to hear a lot of Led Zeppelin. Regardless, Zep was always on the radio even when the Classic Rock station wasn't getting "THE LED OUT". Even those who don't listen to a lot of 1970s rock 'n roll are still going to hear a fair share of Led Zeppelin in their lifetime - Zep's music is still everywhere. That's probably why I only listen to them in spurts these days. There are some great bands that I just have to take an extended break from - even favorites like The Beatles and David Byrne have to stay on the shelf for periods so I can appreciate them on a future fresh listen. Led Zeppelin is in that category - I probably haven't heard "Stairway to Heaven" in over a decade.

One song I never tire of is Physical Graffiti's "Down By The Seaside". It was written by Robert Plant & Jimmy Page and recorded during the IV sessions, however, there wasn't enough room on the LP for it so it sat on the shelf for a few years. Some bands have such creative peaks that they can't fit everything on their next record due to the constraints of an LP side. Led Zeppelin released their first four albums over a 3 year period (1969-71), and aside from "Hey Hey What Can I Do?" as an exclusive B-side single, the popularity of the album format meant extra songs stayed on the shelf. When recording sessions for 1975's Physical Graffiti were so successful it meant the band would exceed the maximum run time for 2 sides of an LP, it afforded them the opportunity to include previous songs that hadn't made the cut to fill the second LP. "Down By The Seaside" was never performed live by Led Zeppelin, but it did make a bit of a comeback in the mid-1990s when it was rearranged with a more ethereal vibe by Robert Plant and Tori Amos for a Zeppelin tribute album.

It's easy to see why "Down By The Seaside" didn't make the cut for previous albums - on the surface it's fairly unremarkable except for the novelty of Robert Plant singing about "little fishes". Considering Zeppelin's penchant for hard blues rock and acoustic folk, "Seaside" might have fit better on Houses of the Holy alongside lighter songs like "The Ocean", "Over the Hills & Far Away", and "Dy'maker" - then again, it might have seemed redundant next to those tunes. John Paul Jones' breezy keyboards are what drew me to to the song. It's a deceptively tough vibe to get without those keys, which I tried to adapt to dobro. You never want "laid back" to become slow and muddy, and sometimes less is more difficult to pull of than more.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Acoustic Guitar-to-Bass Conversion Test Drive: "Into the Mystic" redux

After years of heavy gauge strings and high action on my 1985 Sovereign acoustic guitar, the guitar finally became unplayable. A luthier I took it to practically gave it last rights, so I spent the past year searching for a replacement. After flirting with low-end Martins and "high-end" used Sigmas, I found an 8 year-old Blueridge. It's pretty solid and sounds pirty, but after years of playing the old Sovereign, it will take some playing to get the newer wood of the Blueridge to have the same depth I'm used. But being able to play at the 2nd fret is awfully nice.

Sovereign Acoustic Bass | Blueridge Dread
Once the Blueridge arrived I wondered what to do with the Sovereign. For a while I kept it tuned to G, but the bridge is pretty wrecked - I didn't feel like wasting another set of guitar strings on it and further stressing it. While I was searching for a new guitar I did a brief stint in a great local acoustic band, and the bass player and friend, Bob, had converted an old acoustic guitar into a short-scale acoustic bass. I have always kind of wanted an acoustic bass - they are easier to mic than a bass amp, and the woody sound is a better fit alongside resonators and acoustics instruments. I was never going to spend any serious money on one anytime soon, yet here I was with a resonant acoustic body. After some quick research online I bought a 4-string trapeze tailpiece, some new tuners, a fresh saddle, and something I never thought I'd own - a drill. In about an hour I had a brand new acoustic bass. The tailpiece kept the stressed bridge safe from further damage, but the short-scale strings caused uneven tension and thus laid at an angle from nut to tailpiece. I thought I had installed the tailpiece incorrectly. But after a quick adjustment, the strings came into alignment (and better intonation at the frets). It's not perfect, but it should have a nice second life.

I decided to test it out on one of my favorite bass lines, "Into the Mystic". I was never happy with the first recording I did, which was a massive wall of sound captured by an inferior mic. This new take is pretty much the same arrangement as before, but slowed down and minus about 7 instruments.

Friday, January 26, 2018

"Plastic Jesus"

After a busy end to 2017, I finally got around to recording a new tune. Well, not only was 2017 busy, the high action on my acoustic guitar finally became unplayable after years of heavy gauge strings pulling on the neck. It's a shame, it had a nice woody, deep tone, which is why I am going to try to convert it to a short scale bass. After nearly a year of researching acoustics, I settled on a Blueridge, which has a great full sound. To test her out I decided to take a stab at "Plastic Jesus", a popular novelty song written in 1957. It is best known as the song Lucas Jackson sings after hearing of his mother's passing in Cool Hand Luke, but it has been covered by everyone from The Flaming Lips to Billy Idol to Widespread Panic. I was probably most inspired by The Wandering Endorphins' expanded acoustic version which is a lot of fun. I thought about adding bass and harmony vocals, but didn't want to overload a 90 second tune.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My First Dobro

circa 1995 (evidence: pastel couch)
At the age of 14 I got my first guitar, a cheap Yamaha electric and bad Peavy amp. Typical beginner equipment, easy to return if the kid gives up after a month. Well, 2 months later I had a Les Paul - just happened to see a cheap used one at the guitar store and my music-loving parents could see I was hooked.

Typically if a kid wants to go acoustic, they get a regular acoustic guitar. I got a Regal Dobro. I loved the sound of Duane Allman dobro's on "Little Martha" and "Please Be With Me" and Dickey Betts on "Pony Boy", so I just had to have one. I didn't have it for long, the cones started buzzing, which happens as seasons change. But I thought it was broken, so I returned it for a Marshall Amp. It would take 20 years before I replaced the dobro, and damn am I glad to have another one.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Altered Roots Band

Altered Roots Band at Funky Buddha Lounge
Last month I joined Altered Roots Band, founded by singer/songwriter/guitarist/foot-drummer Kenny Karr. After I finally got settled in south Florida, I decided it was time to stop picking songs on my own - I missed playing music with other musicians. Years of jamming on songs I didn't always know at Rocky Sullivan's Monday Jams back in Brooklyn prepped me for quickly picking up the material, especially Kenny's own excellent originals. The concept is "Americana Re-arranged", which naturally attracted me considering all of the acoustic re-arrangements I've been doing with this project.  However, I still get to plug in the PRS pretty often, so it's a really nice mix so far.

The band is rounded out by the excellent Bob Zimmerman (aka, The Mad Scientist) on bass and Emily Carter belting some fantastic lead and harmony vocals. UPDATE: Check out some highlights from an October show.

Monday, May 22, 2017

"Mountain Jam"

When I first started this acoustic project about 2 years ago, I scribbled down about 20 songs I might want to include. The Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" was on there towards the bottom, but I don't think I ever seriously thought I'd put together an acoustic version. But while noodling on Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun", which is prominently featured within the winding movements of "Mountain Jam", I figured why not take a stab at it the whole thing.

"Mountain Jam" was a showcase for the whole band, a lengthy instrumental that was born from The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead jamming together on a riff from Donovan's "There is a Mountain". For anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes "Mountain Jam" weaves through melodies from "Third Stone From the Sun" to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" to "What I Say". The version on Eat A Peach (33 minutes, originally split across 2 LP sides) gives everyone in the band a few minutes in the spot light: the melodic and funky drumming of Butch and Jaimoe and even a sweet and bouncy Berry Oakley bass solo. But it was different every night.

The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers jam at the Fillmore East
As the band's line ups changed and their song catalog grew, "Mountain Jam" would pop up in sets less and less. By the time the Allmans reunited briefly in 1979, "Mountain Jam" was played even less (a truncated version closes an epic 1979 Passaic NJ encore), which isn't surprising since long extended jams weren't exactly en vogue. But even when the band reunited again in 1989, "Mountain Jam" was mostly sidelined save for a tease in the middle of "Jessica". It wasn't until the Summer 2000 tour, the first without without guitarist Dickey Betts, that the band dusted it off so they could give Gregg Allman's voice a rest since Dickey's departure made him the sole singer. It remained in the rotation until the band called it quits in 2014, and was typically an epic set piece that could open and close the same show.

I drew on a few different "Mountain Jam" performances for my version. I needed a framework, so I picked the essential pieces from the band's 2004 In The Studio performance of Eat A Peach as a jumping off point. From there I had to figure out what I could perform and adapt. I wanted to add keys since Gregg Allman's hammond organ is such a presence, but it quickly became too busy. Plus I'm not a good enough keyboard player to justify that much bad piano playing. But I did throw in a few of those keyboard licks on the dobro solo. Same thing happened to the drum section. If I had more time, I might have been able to put together a something more interesting but there is a big gulf between being able to keep a beat and being able to put together a few bars of funky, interesting percussion solo. I initially intended the bass solo to be longer, but as I tried to figure out what to do there I realized I would have just been copying Berry Oakley's licks. So that got cut down considerably. The bass part is actually super simplified. Berry Oakley's bass playing on "Mountain Jam" is relatively busy, moving freely along side Dickey and Duane's guitar themes. I tried playing bass with a little more freedom but it just didn't fit (probably because he was an amazing bass player and I'm not), so I simplified the bass line to something less distracting.