strumzilla

​A blog/journal about my life and the stuff I like. Popular subjects include music, guitars, gear, books, movies, video games, technology, humor.

Alex III

I got the ES-355 VOS in classic white on Friday and I've had a little bit of time to mess around with it. This is the guitar I really wanted, it's got the vibe I was going for and no major problems. There were initially some small buzzing issues, but it arrived tuned to Eb and tuning up to standard cleared up most of that. It plays great and is very acoustically resonant (not surprising given it's a semi-hollow body). I was happy to discover that the gold hardware is more faded in real life compared to its saturated look in the picture. I'm guessing they thought that was a selling point, but I prefer the faded look. 

I'm having a bit of a Rushenaissance with the new guitar. My AxeFx III has been pretty neglected since I got it a few months ago, largely due to the etflp class. I've started to get back into tweaking it with the intent of recreating some of these classic sounds. I had a set of tutorials for the AxeFx II that I never completed but now the same instructor (Cooper Carter) is releasing a new set for the Axe III. I plan on going through those once available, but I'm already starting to experiment and get the Axe III in running shape. 

Someone on the the FAS forum had posted a tutorial about getting the MFC 101 Foot Controller (designed for the AxeII, but also a fully capable MIDI controller) running with the AxeFX III so I was able to get some basic functionality including patch changes, scenes, individual FX on/off, and expression pedals. I've still got a bit of tweaking, but my first experiment is going to be trying to record a cover video of Xanadu. I've got some plans for kimono/wig silliness as well. I'm hoping I can at least play the bass part as well, although there are a few challenging runs in there that I don't have down just yet. 

I might also record a few snippets of the drum part, but make it a joke since I can't play the whole thing by any means, at least not yet. Some of those triplets are still a year or more away. 

NGD III

In an uncharacteristic chain of events for Sweetwater, the replacement had problems and I've ended up sending it back and asking for a refund. The guitar seemed in good shape externally when I received it but it had this really annoying buzz emanating from inside the hollow body. I tried to tighten all accessible hardware but nothing helped. It sounded like a small washer or screw on the inside that hadn't been tightened down enough and had come loose at some point. It was distractingly loud at certain frequencies. 

The only way I was going to get it fixed was to take it to a tech or ship it back to Sweetwater. I was fed up at this point because it had been two weeks since I originally paid for the guitar and this represented the second time I was going to have go to extra lengths just to get a playable instrument. It was sent back and arrived at Sweetwater yesterday. I'm waiting on the refund now. 

In the meantime I decided to go after a VOS ES-355 that was closer to what I wanted in the first place. These were no longer being made by Gibson, but I found one in great condition on Reverb.com being sold by a reputable brick and mortar dealer in New York. It's on the way and arriving tomorrow. I feel fairly confident that this will turn out well and this guitar is a lot closer to what I wanted all along. 

NGD not without problems, and putting Spring 2018 to bed (finally)...

In a strange turn of events, my original 335 is currently enroute back to Sweetwater, with a replacement to be sent next week. There were several issues when I received it - a strange rubbery sawdust like material was all over the inside of the case, there were several QC oversights with the guitar itself -  smudges, marks, and sloppy painting along edges. The main issues were all cosmetic, but it was a strange state in which to receive the guitar and indicated problems at both the Gibson Memphis factory as well as at Sweetwater. 

Sweetwater endeavored to correct the issues with a replacement, so now I'm just waiting for them to send the new one. They notified me of a couple small cosmetic issues, but nothing affecting playability or tone. These issues weren't a big deal for me, just the indication that the whole process had been rushed or incomplete with the original guitar. I'm not precious about an instrument's appearance. I don't go out of my way to break them in, but I don't get upset when dents, scratches, and other wear occurs. It's part of the natural playing process. However, I do expect a new guitar to look new when I first receive it. 

I finally got my grades for the Spring 2018 semester, an A in the guitar course and I managed to eek out an A minus in the ear training course. I think my final assignment encouraged him to curve my grade a bit, because I was expecting no better than a B given the work I never bothered correcting, even though he gave me the opportunity. I think the complexity of my final project convinced him that even though I sort of avoided his specific approach with solfege and conducting, I have still managed to develop my ear quite a bit. In the case of harmonic ear training it was beyond the scope of his course. He indicated it was more consistent with the final assignments in the 300 level harmonic ear training course. So, there's that. 

I do plan to continue on with my ear training, it's clearly integral to good musicianship and composition. But, I'll approach it at my own pace and prioritize according to my goals and needs. 

NGD...335 Style

I got Household 6 approval and worked out a deal for about 10% off from Sweetwater, so next week I'll be the proud owner of a Classic White ES-335. It's not precisely the Alex Lifeson guitar, but it's very close in spirit and actually more to my aesthetic preference all things considered. I'll break it in appropriately with some Alex flavored licks and excerpts. It should fill a nice niche that's been empty in my arsenal, a semi hollow body that will allow me to cover a wide array of tones. 

Feels good man...

Perhaps in another episode of premature fowl tabulation, I'm just sayin' that it feels good to get back into the regular swing of things where I can wake up each day and prioritize my schedule based on my personal wants and needs, especially in the area of musicianship. I haven't received feedback on either of my final assignments, but I'm relatively confident I should be good for this semester. I received my grade for my final sight singing test, and although I didn't smoke it by any means, I was satisfied with the 86 I received.

This should ensure no worse than a B in that course, and although it screws up my lifetime 4.0 with Berklee (as well as being my first B since 1996), I'm not sweating it because as said before, this course was fairly contrary to my current musical goals.  Full disclosure, I had been phoning it in on the solfege and conducting portion since about the third week. I was basically faking that portion just to receive credit for the course knowing that if I did ever put an effort into those skills it would be further down the road. There were many assignments where I had the opportunity to raise the grade if it was less than an A but I never cared enough to bother. 

Despite this, I am endeavoring to forge ahead with ear training and I intend to make it a regular part of my practice schedule. I definitely learned something during this course and I want to capitalize on that instead of letting it atrophy like I did after the first ear training course. The big difference is that I can go at my pace, and at least for the time being I won't have to focus on the solfege and conducting like before. 

In other news, it feels great to get back into a regular practice schedule. It's not only part of my development as a musician, it's been an integral part of my mental health and well being these many years and I was sorely missing it. A short term goal is to work on audition for the Berklee Online Guitar Program. I think I've settled on "The Spirit of Radio" for the electric piece and "Letter From Home" for the acoustic portion. We only have to submit one example but I thought I would perform each of these and then put it up for a vote on social media (assuming anyone would bother to listen & comment). 

Premature Chicken Countin'

I'm not going to break out the champagne just yet, but at this time I've finished my final sight singing test as of an hour or so ago. My week 11 assignment and week 10 resubmits were finished yesterday. I still have to do the final two part assignment for ear training as well as the final guitar sound assignment. The guitar assignments have been easy and the instructor has been cool, the diametric opposite of ear training. 

I haven't breathed my final sigh of relief yet because I'm still waiting for him to try and drop some grade/credit threatening accusation or low ball grade for the individual assignments remaining and even the whole semester. I think in the long run, this drama surrounding ear training will motivate me to continue my studies and having a good ear is definitely one of the most if not the most important aspects of musicianship. I just really hated the way this course tried to teach it. I don't disregard the value of solfege, sight reading and the like but it's been a big distraction and at this point wasted effort in my opinion. 

I feel like so much mental effort had to be allocated for remembering the solfege and attempting to look like I was conducting on the tests that it distracted from the actual learning process for ear training. I do plan on dedicating regular time to ear training going forward, and it's even possible I may revisit some sight reading in the future. It may actually be part of the advanced ear training in the EarMaster program I bought, but at least in this context I can approach it whatever speed I want and not based on the dictates of a theory pedant. 

In the home stretch

Today is the first day of an eleven day break from work that coincides with the end of the Spring 2018 semester. The biggest events are the sight singing and regular final projects for the ear training course. Unsurprisingly, I also have to resubmit the last assignment because professor nitpick had issues. Professor nitpick will always have issues. I'm hoping I can get through the upcoming assignments without resubmits. I don't care if the grades are lower, I'm just sick of this class at this point. I do plan on transitioning straight to more ear training through the earmaster program, but free of the solfege and conducting nonsense. 

I have been fairly strategic about course scheduling in the past and luckily for this semester, the guitar class wasn't particularly challenging. It's actually been a bit frustrating in the sense that I wanted to dedicate more time to that class but had to just keep up the bare minimum assignments since ear training monopolized so much of my time. I'm really looking forward to getting back to my regularly scheduled practice and composition schedules this summer. 

On to bigger and better things

As a sort of follow up to the last post, things are hopefully going to get better from here. We're in the final month of the spring semester and what's a been a particularly challenging ear training course. Mostly this is because a significant portion of the class is focused on sight reading, solfege, and conducting. Ear training as a skill is very valuable to me, and I've already improved quite a bit in this course. That being said, I have no intention to conduct or use solfege with any regularity in the future. For that matter, I don't anticipate sight reading to be particularly necessary in my future as well. 

Not that these aren't valuable skills, but I don't plan or hope to work in a scenario where I would need these with any regularity. I have no aspiration to be a session musician or work in a professional capacity where I have sheet music handed to me that I'm expected to be able to play on the spot. This is where I have a fundamental disconnect with the instructor and the course. He's very focused on those components as part of ear training. I understand how they're being used to reinforce the concept of intervals and getting these baked into your brain so they're second nature. 

What I also know is that this program isn't necessary to acquire these skills. The musicians and songwriters I most admire were rarely trained within any formal program, and many of them know very little theory at all. Again, I don't disregard the skills, I just know that for the music to which I aspire these skills aren't typically involved at all. Artists like Steven Wilson or Tommy Emmanuel have said on numerous occasions that they know very little theory and certainly don't think of it when they write. That isn't to say they don't apply theoretical concepts, it just proves that you don't have to know those specific components to create amazing music. 

Despite this, I have soaked up a bit of these skills along the way, but at least with conducting I'm still basically faking it just so I can pass the class. I know for sure that I've managed to write songs without thinking in these specific terms, although I do apply theoretical concepts to my works. This course has reinforced the value of ear training not only for my instrument but for singing as well. I plan to study more after this class, but I won't be pursuing programs that focus so heavily on those theoretical disciplines. I think I'll gradually soak up more sight reading because it does have some general value in learning new music as well as composition to a certain degree, but I'm not sure I will be forcing myself to get it down to instantaneous sight reading. My approach has been to use reading to learn a piece until it's memorized and usually just on the piano. I can read drum notation as well, but for guitar and bass I think tablature is superior if I really want to learn something quick. 

Drama on television or record is great, elsewhere not so much...

It's been a tumultuous couple of weeks at work and somewhat at school. At work we're hopefully near the end of a cycle that saw one of our doctors going off the rails. She was named an acting chief while they were looking to a hire a new permanent chief after the illness related departure of our former permanent chief.  To distill it down to a few sentences, let's just say she had a bit of a power trip and was butting heads and attacking several people in the clinic. 

We had been friends and supportive co-workers for many years but had a falling out a few months ago when we disagreed about implementation of the Gulf War illness policy. She's relatively new to government service and thought it was within her authority to implement the policy as she saw fit. It isn't, and she can't. But, in most cases we're willing to let individual providers rationalize their own opinions on cases as long as they understand they'll have to defend it if it's appealed or a complaint is filed. But in this case, and as part of her newly acquired (if temporary) authority, she decided the policy needed to change for the whole clinic and had directed our schedulers to change they way they scheduled these exams. 

This is where our big disagreement arose. She has this idea that if a claimed condition doesn't fit within a medical diagnostic criteria, then it's not valid. Something I've tried to explain to her for years is that our specific corner of government service is not strictly concerned with medical criteria. We work in disability claims and it's equal parts legal and even political. The entire philosophy of our claims is based on uncertainty. Our opinions typically include the statement "at least as likely as not", which basically says that if our determination of a claim is that it's fifty/fifty parts for and against the claim, then we grant the claim. 

Compared to what's happened between her and other people in the clinic, this has been pretty tame. Until she decided to go around me and accuse myself and our program analyst of inflating exams unnecessarily.  I have been a fee basis provider for over a year. This means that I am compensated by the exam. In the case of Gulf War exams, they tend to generate not only exams for conditions but also opinions for each condition. So, if a veteran claims four conditions, it results in eight total worksheets and I'm paid for each. The typical claim can generate from ten to twenty exams. Occasionally, that number can go significantly higher. 

I had an exam a month or so ago that was for around twenty claimed conditions but it also generated an equal number of direct opinions as well as fourteen or so Gulf War opinions. It ended up totaling fifty three worksheets. This is the highest number I've ever completed, and it's not typical by any stretch. A typical day for me is around twenty exams. I'm not sure if this is the exam which she questioned, but if not it was a similar one. I've had a few in the forties and many in the thirties. It should be noted that the FTE often don't reach these numbers in the course of a week, much less a day. 

My previous post history tells the story of the relative level of productivity among regular federal employees. Let's just say that they typically underachieve, at least compared to my levels. To make a long story short, she basically accused me and the program analyst of stealing money. Because she questioned the validity of the claims (going back to our fundamental disagreement of Gulf War), then she surmised that meant that any Gulf War related claims/opinions were invalid and shouldn't be billed. Like I said before, she doesn't have this authority. No one at our level has this authority. This is national policy and you're not allowed to take away from a regulation to suit your own needs. For what it's worth, my performance of these exams and opinions was directed before I was ever fee basis and had specific approval by the former chief (on more than one occasion), not to mention that the whole policy was directed by VBA personnel outside our clinic. It's a well established and approved policy that has been in place for a long time before she got here. 

All of this scenario is rather tame to what else she has been doing. To keep it short, let's just say she's accused others of outright fraud, abuse, and even having sex in the clinic. It's all bullshit and an attempt by her to discredit and destroy anyone who's crossed her path. I avoid psychoanalyzing in general, and also because I'm not qualified, but I think her specific pathology has something to do with growing up in an authoritarian regime which tends to encourage similar behaviors in those victimized or oppressed once they possess any power. She's demonstrated a feeling of superiority over others, including her own MD/DO peers. She has never understood that her authority as a doctor is strictly clinical. In the federal system, and in our country for that matter, we don't recognize social castes. Although we do have great inequalities in our country, we don't recognize our defer to people because they are part of a ruling class or aristocracy. She seems to think differently. Although some actions are still pending, it seems apparent they are going to remove her from the temporary position and her application for the permanent position would likely be dead in the water. Honestly, I hope she has enough personal shame to resign from the department if not the government as well. 

Although I know myself and our program analyst didn't do anything untoward or dishonest, it's still stressful to have those sorts of accusations hanging over you, because if they were true they would likely result in termination as well as a permanent black mark on our records. Mostly the stress derived from uncertainty to how far the accusation would go, and that the people passing judgement would be strangers who might be given incomplete and biased information. It appears that nothing will come of this for now, but it's still very troubling to face a sudden unexpected threat to your livelihood. As I have discussed with our program analyst, this was the ultimate betrayal and bridge burning offense from which a person will never come back. 

I'm (re)Macified...

Just about finished with the transition from WinPeaCe o' junk to iMac Pro. Two 2 TB SSDs to handle sample libraries and scratch disks with two 6 TB SATAs for archive and non performance sensitive storage. I finally managed to get all four monitors working and the external cd drive is ripping "Bad Music for Bad People" and "To Pimp a Butterfly" (no, I'm not abandoning rock, good music is good music) as I type. QOTSA reminded me of Bad Music, not sure why I didn't have that in my collection.  Now I can finally get back to some real, uninterrupted work. Not to worry, Ear Training for Live Performance is monopolizing all waking hours so new songs/videos for a few months at least.

I finally caved...

I just ordered my first new Mac since my 2013 MBP which was relegated to drum room duties a few years back. It had been chugging under the weight of multiple monitors and larger track counts for awhile.  Apple has creators wrapped around their fingers since they still imo provide the most stable and streamlined environment, especially for music and video. And they charge for that exclusivity. 

I’ve managed with a WinPC these last couple of years, enough to write all of the songs I’ve posted to date. It’s been a bumpy ride at times as I’ve had some major shutdowns and failures (all in the WinPC driver/software side) and recurring hiccups that regularly interrupt the creative process. It wasn't a new experience for me, as I've owned desktop PCs for over thirty years. I actually got my start on a TRS-80 Color computer, followed by an Apple IIe (which we never really knew how to use properly), an Amiga 500, and then finally a Gateway IBM 486.  I toiled under the pre plug n play environment for many years, so I'm not unaccustomed to making PCs work, I just grew really tired of it.

For me, the appeal of the Mac is that it just works. You turn it on and it's reliable like a television (pre smart tvs) or a refrigerator. You don't have to constantly struggle with driver updates, hardware conflicts, etc. I’ve had multiple Macs in the past, dating back to my first Mac Pro in 2007. With rare exception, they just perform. They don't unpredictably freeze up, crash, fail to boot, etc. like my WinPC still does on a recurring basis. When they die, they die horribly, but that’s typically after many years of steady service (and usually a few months after the AppleCare has run out). I'm willing to take the chance again just to have that Mac workflow environment, which is still my favorite by a long stretch.

So, with shaking hands (and spouse approval), I clicked the mouse and drained a considerable pile of ducats from the vault to order one of the new iMac Pros. I chose a mid tier option that I’m hoping will last at least four years and beyond. Mid tier in Apple terms is premium by any other company’s standard. By the time I feel compelled to upgrade again (inevitable in the computer world for the foreseeable future) we’ll hopefully have the house paid off and enjoy a bit more discretionary flexibility. Of course I paid for AppleCare this time so I'll be covered for any disasters at least for three years.  Depending on what's developed in that timeframe, I may still be happy with the its performance to keep going for a few more years beyond. 

It's not about having the fastest/newest computer, I've resisted Macs for many years now and went back to the desktop PC when they released those touchstrip MBP with very little incentive for the creative types. The iMac Pro is a step in the right direction and maybe the upcoming Mac Pros will be even more appealing, but I'm not willing to wait at least another year that could stretch to two based on how slowly they've trickled out updates to the pro level devices.  Having seen several reviews and demonstrations from creative professionals, I know the new iMac Pros are a content powerhouse and I look forward to just creating for a good long while. 

Concerts Attended*

I randomly decided to list the shows my friend Matt and I had attended over the years and then it just seemed natural to finish the job. This mainly satisfies my need to list/organize things, and it's a nice trip down memory lane as well. I've been pretty good about keeping ticket stubs over the years but there are a few omissions here and there. I have actually gone to the trouble to try and find ticket stubs on Ebay and I managed to get stubs for Journey (my first show), Van Halen on Diver Down, Ozzy on BATM (also saw him at the Texas Jam on that tour, for which I still had the stub), and Dio from Last in Line. Why these particular stubs were lost is a mystery as I have most of the shows I've ever seen.

I'm still trying to get several other stubs but the pickings are quite lean in that department. I actually bought ticket type paper and need to get around to recreating a few of the missing stubs. There have been a few shows I've attended on will call that they just don't give you a stub by policy or on occasion a ticket printer wasn't working. 

*reliving past shows is the gift that keeps on giving. 

IMG_0652.JPG
IMG_0653.JPG
IMG_0654.JPG
IMG_0655.JPG
IMG_0656.JPG
IMG_0657.JPG
IMG_0658.JPG
IMG_0659.JPG
IMG_0660.JPG
IMG_2606.jpg

A year of freedom

This week marks one year as a contractor (fee basis) in my previous job. Fewer workdays, better compensation, and I'm almost exempt from the typical workplace drama (almost). Job security is lower in context, but otherwise there's really no downside. Our mid-range plan is to pay off the house and then we'll reassess. We may stay where we are, we may still pursue that house in the country.

This last year has seen the completion of several original tunes and videos. It's been a great year of development in most creative aspects. I'm not over the moon about anything I've done so far, but I would at least call all my projects successful in achieving what I had in mind in the beginning, and even moreso as learning processes. I expect my highly d̶r̶e̶a̶d̶e̶d̶/̶i̶g̶n̶o̶r̶e̶d̶ coveted creative efforts will likely only increase.  Not that I need more interests, but I've taken up drawing as part of my overall pursuit of visual arts. I hope to combine music, video and illustration in various ways. 

Hell Bent for the Cliff (lyric video)

This turned out alright. I ended up starting over on the mix because I hadn't gain staged appropriately in the beginning. This version is where I quit working on it, not necessarily the definitive version but I'm okay with where it's at for now. 

Hell Bent for the Cliff

Verse
The sea is rising we're casting seeds in fallow fields
Demagogues delude then doublecross in backroom deals
Arbiters of virtue claiming false dominion
Sycophants spinning vacuous validation

Chorus
Can you feel it slipping away?
Fragile fibers start to fray
Hell bent for the cliff
Constitution in decay

Verse
Millions starving, they're making bombs from baby food jars
Exalting the grotesque, ignoring the stars
Fear, lies and hatred have stolen the narrative
Waging war on the weak instead of live and let live

Chorus
So you chose to live and let die?
Universal truths you deny
Deadly decorum
Matrimony moribund

Verse
Gatekeeper Gladys adorned in apparatus so fine
Bankers stealing our gold businessmen drinking our wine
Orange orangutan squats on the ivory throne
The beds are burning and we’re staring at our phones

Chorus
Can you feel it slipping away?
Brittle bonds twist and break
Hell bent for the cliff
Constitution in decay

Verse
Mother, Mother I think they're going to build a wall
Nations rise and one day nations fall
Bent backs unbroken will stand again
A final reckoning comes to us all

Chorus
Can’t you feel it slipping away?
Karma gets the final say
Hell bent for the cliff
Constitution in decay

Back at it

I returned to the untitled riff rocker after last week's diversion for "Christmas Armistice" (a profitable one).  I managed to put together a fairly acceptable framework for the song and I recorded rhythm tracks on both the Tele and Les Paul. Using my standard wet/dry (AxeFx/SPDIF DI) approach, at any given time there up to 12 rhythm tracks. All together it's a bunch of mush, so I started some basic editing. I used my new(ish) best friends for mixing Neutron 2 and Ozone 8. The track assistant is perfect for artist oriented "producers" like myself. It's quickly become my go to solution for at least the initial rough mix so I can just hear how the song is shaping up.

I will return to the old school approach to mixing (well, digitally at least. I'm not going to get a console and tape machine) here in the future, it's still what I'm currently majoring at Berklee and I don't want to get lazy about the real art of producing and mixing. That being said, I chose production at Berklee because at the time the only other option was music business. As I've stated before I plan to add Guitar for the dual major once I put together an audition. 

Back to the riff rocker, I wrote basic verse and chorus vocal melodies yesterday and I'm pretty happy with them. I think they work pretty well with the tune, and it almost felt like the tune was written around them instead of the reverse. Now I need to write the lyrics and then record the vocals. My old friend Mike (Paramedic, Bassist, Rush Fan) had offered to help on a future project, so I'm going to try and get him to record a bass line for the tune. We'll see how that goes. I'm sure he can up with something much better (and more bass centric) than I can. 

Christmas Armistice

Last week was a reasonably successful week from a songwriting standpoint. I had to write a song for my acoustic guitar class final, so I endeavored to write and record the song/video within that one week. I had noodled a simple counterpoint idea (my first) on the keys a few weeks before and thought that might be useful. 

I ended up using that as the chorus and in short order came up with a basic chord progression for the intro, verses and chorus. It's a really simple tune in that sense, basically in A minor with occasional non diatonic wanderings. I ended up also coming up with a harmony line for the chorus melody and that's definitely an area I intend to explore further. Lots of untapped potential in counterpoint and harmony. I'm taking a basic rhythm section arranging course next semester, but I'm planning on taking a counterpoint course in the future. 

Since recording the instrumental version of this tune, I was inspired to pen some lyrics and so now I plan on recording a version with vocals in the near future. This tune was a nice surprise because I actually had people talking about how the song made them feel, which is a first for me. That's really the point, though. Causing an emotional reaction with music is all I can really hope to achieve. Complex and impressive arrangements are fun and I'll pursue those tunes as well, but as a listener I'm always drawn to those songs that make me feel something. I have loved all the technical players I've seen live, but nothing has connected as strongly as a show like David Gilmour, Father John Misty, or Tommy Emmanuel (he straddles that line, but it's his simpler and more emotive tunes that mean the most). 

Christmas Armistice

And in the bitter cold, they laid their weapons on the frozen snow
All quiet on the western front
Foes laughed and sang, then prayed
For peace a toast was raised
A fragile truce they did construct

And in the bitter cold, they laid their weapons on the frozen snow
A respite from the wars to come
A fleeting bloodless day
Brittle bonds doomed to decay
To doubt and fear they would succumb...