strumzilla

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

Filtering by Tag: Covers

Failures - the greatest teacher

A collaboration with another guitarist fell through recently. I think that ultimately the issue was one of communication. The other guitarist had suggested we work on a song together. Having not really collaborated with anyone, I was eager for a chance to see what it could bring. I suggested a cover song by a band that featured two guitarists in dual lead type roles so that we would both have a sort of chance to shine. Now, full disclosure, this other guitarist is advanced beyond my current abilities. He’s posted covers of Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Yngwie and many other great guitarists. I had no illusions going in that I was going to need to raise my game.

I suggested something by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy or some equivalent band, assuming the hard rock or metal genres would be more to his liking. He suggested “Bloodstone” by Judas Priest, I’m sure in large part because there are multi tracks available and we could use the original vocals and other parts as needed. So, we’ve been working on this project for a couple of months now. I’ve done all of the heavy lifting when it comes to the mix, and the video editing as well.

He had waited until I recorded drums before starting on his parts, since drums are typically always going to be the foundation. I finally recorded drums about a month ago and we’ve been slowly adding bass, rhythm and he had finished all his parts to include the entire solo. His parts sound great, he clearly has honed his cover game.

I had been a bit lazy in listening to the original track, as I've never really cared about getting a cover exactly note for note. Some may say that’s a cop out, and they may be partially right, but I know for certain that I just don’t care about trying to mimic someone else’s song to the nth degree. That being said, I do see the value in learning the most difficult parts, just to raise your playing to a level you apparently aspire if you like a song well enough to cover it.

So, as I started to record my parts, he quickly noted some problems. I was playing a rhythm part differently than him, and he wanted our parts to match up. I think he’s ultimately correct in this case, it probably does sound better for the rhythm parts to lock step. So, I fixed that in fairly short order as it was a simple oversight. But, it does start to illustrate where small fractures were forming.

Without ever discussing it specifically, I gather he assumed we were going for a faithful rendition of the original. Now, as I said before, that’s really not my thing. I honestly don’t get it, you’re never going to sound as good as the original and what would be the point? I get it as an academic sort of exercise, because you can learn a lot about the player, the recording and songwriting process in general. But, when I’m recording a cover I try to stay close, but I don’t sweat small variations.

I had been making regular comments and suggestions about how I would record my parts and I had stated early on that I wanted to divide the solos up, so that we both would have our chance to wail a bit. This song is like many Judas Priest songs in that both Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing have solos. The Glenn Tipton is the initial solo and it’s a pretty laid back and easy part. It’s followed by K.K. Downing, and his solo is “The Solo” of the song. It was my intention all along that we would divide both sections so we both would have part of the Tipton and K.K. bits.

The K.K. solo wails from the onset, and there are two fairly distinct parts to it. The first part is a single position sort of classic rock riffy bendy part and then there’s slight pause and a fast descending triplet bit. I’ve been working on the whole thing, but I knew I was going to take longer for the second half. I had said a few times that I thought I would divide it up that way, with him getting the bulk of K.K.’s solo including the descending bit and some other bits after before there’s this pedal ascending section we could play in unison.

Like always, I have to divide my time among many disciplines - guitar, keys, drums, bass, vocals, video editing, visual effects, cinematography, model building, etc. I don’t choose to spread my focus in so many directions, it’s just about following my muse. So, it had taken me awhile to finally get where I thought I had a passable version of the solo.

Another note is that I had been using tablature that although perhaps wasn’t note for note accurate, it was pretty close to the original. The original track is very noisy, and there are definitely parts in there where it’s a true challenge to hear what K.K. is playing. All that to say I wasn’t sweating getting it exactly “right”. I don’t see the point.

Well, I recorded my solos yesterday and frankly I thought my part of K.K.’s solo was my best playing on the song so far. I don’t mean it was the best playing on the song in general, I just know myself and I was happy with my take. I was a bit surprised when I very quickly got negative feedback from the other guitarist. I didn’t save the conversation but it was essentially “I don’t like it.” Now, in fairness that may be just be unbridled truth. I gather he wants to get it note for note and in that metric, it’s definitely going to fall short.

What I didn’t hear was what specifically he didn’t like about it. Tone, bends/intonation, rhythm, clarity, vibe, all of the above? He suggested I take the Tipton bits, he play the KK bits, and then we play the last pedal bit in unison. If we were in a JP cover band and we played other songs where I would get “The Solo”, the scenario would be different.

I think the fundamental problem here is that we both see ourselves as lead guitarists. I’m not trying to argue I’m of his caliber, at least not yet. My idea with dividing the tracks up was so that we both would get a moment to share the lead but I was still deferring more than half to him, and it’s the more challenging/impressive part of the solo.

Without saying it, I’m getting the feeling he’s always seen his role as the main lead guitarist and I was the rhythm guitarist who might chip in with a simple line or two. There’s nothing sinister about him feeling that way, it’s just not how I see myself. If he had suggested I work on the part some more and made specific mention of what he felt was falling short on my part I would have likely listened and made an attempt to get closer to his expectation. I still don’t see the point, but I was trying to be a team player.

All that to say, I felt the tone of our whole collaboration went demonstrably south when he criticized my part, suggested he play the whole thing without giving me an out to fix whatever the problem was. I didn’t ask for that, and maybe he would have been receptive if I had, but I feel like I’m right in assuming he wants the lead and has all along.

Which is totally cool. I get it. I’m cut from the same cloth. So, after all this very considerable rambling, I realize this project was probably doomed to failure from the start and I’m just as complicit. I’ve known that I likely would never want to be in a band with another lead guitarist. I know there are many great bands who have successfully achieved this relationship, but a big part of my assumed band role is going to be as a songwriter and I’m not likely to want to turn over guitar roles to another player. I have no problem with another instrument doing their own thing, but I want my own space dictated by me, not someone else.

I thought we could find a happy medium where we would both get a chance to shine, but I feel like he wants to be the Lead Guitarist in any scenario. I’ve learned that I will not likely function well in collaboration with other guitarists, at least if they see themselves as lead guitarists with an equal editorial say.

The only negative thing to come out of this is I think it’s probably put a strain on our friendship and that’s too bad. The blame is probably on me. If I feel like someone is being disingenuous (note, feel, not know) about something I just lose trust and it puts up a wall. Ultimately this is just a cover video, it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. But, I start to wonder at all the positive comments made in the past and how genuine they were and how genuine any in the future would be. I felt like I finally got the real opinions about my playing, and unfortunately they were distinctly different from all others before.

As always, failures are the greatest teacher. I have learned that I really need to work more on my playing, both for playing entire takes at a level adequate for recording audio and/or video and that I’m not at a level as a soloist that I want to be. I’ve also learned that before going into a project with anyone I need to ensure that roles are strictly spelled out. I doubt I’ll do a similar project anytime in the future. If I want someone to play on a track, I’ll likely finish all the other parts first and then let them know exactly what I need. I’m not saying I’ll never collaborate with another lead guitarist, but I’ll make sure I go in with eyes wide open next time.

Back to music centric posting...

I finally posted my Life On Mars cover video (version 3.5) to youtube and shared it on facebook. I decided to just post it as is in the weekend before I resumed my studies at Berklee. I knew I wouldn't have the luxury of time once classes got rolling. At the time I had a few run throughs of the mix, but planned on re-visiting the audio mix at the end of the semester. That's still the plan as of now. I've already learned a lot in the past few weeks so I'm confident I can obtain a much better result at that point. 

I'm not happy with the musical performances, but they do represent what I was able to create given a short window of time. I performed most of the parts on individual days (I think I performed both the drums and bass on the same day?) and then worked on the audio mix and video edits on subsequent days. My approach for videos has been to keep performing entire takes until I get one that is acceptable and stopping there. I'll have to figure out tactics for punch in type approaches for video. Recording myself performing the music on video/audio is a complicated process and that's when I'm capturing complete live takes. If I were to attempt to capture punch ins like I can do with audio, that would add just another layer of complexity that I'm not really ready to take on for a cover video. I might consider this for my own music in the future, but then I would likely not try to present the performance as a continuous unedited take. 

The response was generally positive from some close friends. I think the ones who actually took the time to comment were doing out of friendship as much as their actual enjoyment of the performance. I still appreciated it though, my overall ego is fairly bullet proof but my artist ego is a delicate flower at times. The musicians and musicophiles from whom I was hoping for feedback gave it the standard facebook "like" but didn't comment. I'm assuming that's their diplomatic way of telling me I need to keep working on my craft. And I appreciate that. My ears are good enough to know my version isn't going to make it on any top 100 Bowie Covers lists, for that matter it wouldn't make it on a top 100 Life On Mars covers list. But it's a work in progress and this represents a moment in time. A few short years ago I wouldn't have been capable of putting together, and I would have been lacking in the confidence to share it with anyone. 

Sniffwhistles and snarkbottoms...

Don't ask, it just seemed appropriate. We're in the latter half of May, so just checking in. Not a lot new to report. I've taken this semester and intend to take next semester off from Berklee. A combination of feeling like I was falling behind on some areas I wanted to explore (in musicianship and writing in general), combined with a feeling that one of the courses I was taking still needed some work (Music Compo & Theory) sparked the decision. I've got enough eligibility remaining in my GI Bill (9 years) that I can afford to slow the pace a bit. I've grown a lot by taking up drums, bass, and vocals but I've made a decision to at least try and dive deeper into guitar and keys, which I consider my most important instruments. I'm trying to work more on fundamentals, theory, and improvisation, especially on the guitar. 

I've also started separating practice and composition, so that I try to focus on each on alternating days. I've also accepted that some days I just don't have the mental and/or physical energy to make any progress. I just give it a pass when those days happen.  I've made some decent progress with this new approach (considering I hadn't really written anything since the compo class). I've got one song that's almost fully written, and several that I've made progress on.  I've been trying to compose structures and rough arrangements when I have time at work, as I can essentially accomplish this on my laptop alone. I'm also slowly learning how to incorporate some of my theoretical knowledge in helping me structure these songs. I tend to get inspiration in a random fashion, sometimes as a melody, sometimes as a rhythm. It doesn't tend to come theoretically intact (although rules are totally made to be broken, they can help), unless it's a really simple tune in C. I'm trying to hone those skills so I can naturally fit something in a major or minor key without having to look it up. I'll learn more about this is future compo classes, but thus far we were writing to film cues and not necessarily in the way I would write a song for myself. 

I also started recording my cover of "Life On Mars" by David Bowie. I've been working on the piano part for years now. Rick Wakeman's playing is often deceptively simple sounding but ends up being a technical challenge when you try to reproduce it close to his version. It reminds me of Tommy Emmanuel's guitar parts in a sense. They both play songs & parts that are ostensibly fairly easy sounding as a listener, but they both have such manual dexterity and facility on their respective instruments so that "easy" sounding chords and fingerings are anything but. The biggest challenge for me was that I had been playing "Life On Mars" as just a solo piano piece without any reference point, and this meant I was playing it too fast for vocals to keep up. I had to start playing it with the song so that I would pause long enough for the vocals to fit. 

And when I say cover, I'm making a video of myself covering all the parts. The most important lesson I've learned in recording a video, is that you really need to ensure you can play the part without significant (noticeable) mistakes, because it's a huge pain in the ass to try and fix mistakes after the fact. This is true for audio, but exponentially worse with video. I performed a couple takes and got one that I was okay with, if not over the moon. I think I'll probably re-record the piano once I've recorded all the other parts. My biggest complaint with my performance is that I was following/reacting to the recording and this makes it sound a bit robotic and flat. "Life On Mars" is a good object lesson in recording a full band cover version because it has a variety of tempos and the various parts don't all come in at once. 

The drum track is pretty simple, especially for any capable recording or touring drummer. That being said, my recently intermittent practice schedule combined with my intermittent within intermittent practicing of the drum part meant my first attempt was pretty awful. It was mainly the kick drum parts, as there is this repeating lead in beat that's on the and of 4 (I think) and it's offset from an open hi-hat to the extent that I feel like I have to rock back and forth. I think I need to get a drum stool that raises higher because there are times when I think my knee angle is a bit too acute (I think it's typically around 100 degrees flexion, and 80-90 would probably be a bit more mechanically advantageous). I have started practicing drums daily since then with an emphasis on that song and it's improved quite a bit. I feel like I might give it another go this weekend. After all that, I think the bass, guitar, and maybe the vocals won't be too difficult. There are a couple of high parts "Sailors, fighting in the dance hall" for one, that I'll probably need to make several passes at. My normal approach would be to record multiple passes of each line, but I'm not sure how well that will work with recording a video. I'm more likely to try singing it straight through several times and picking the best single take.  I'll likely gain some more knowledge on the recording of vocals since this will be one of my first times trying to layer vocals as well as adding harmonies. The other nice aspect is that this will also be an object lesson both in song recording, but especially in combining multiple recordings into one music video. 

On the homefront the biggest events have been a hailstorm in March that will result in us replacing a big portion of the roof and several windows. With a 2% deductible, that means we're going to be out about $10K of our own cash. We were lucky that we inherited that amount from my mother's 401K when she passed. And when it rains it pours (no pun intended), because our previously reliable (not counting bulbs) front projector seems to be dying on us. The picture dimmed considerably and when I replaced the bulb it didn't make any difference. We made the choice just to replace it, and ended up choosing a JVC that can display 4K, although it's not a native 4K to the unit. It basically upscales/doubles the image faster than the eye can see, so it will accept 4K signals and it will make 1080p signals appear to be 4K. True 4K projectors are still prohibitively expensive, so we're hoping to get at least five years out of this one (the previous one almost made it that long), and by then 4K prices should have dropped to more reasonable levels. 

At the end of March we traveled to Toronto to see David Gilmour at Air Canada Center and then to Chicago a few days later where I flew solo for his show at the United Center. He exceeded all my expectations. My only complaint is that the time flew by so fast and the next thing I knew the show was over. I really hope he films a show or two from this tour, perhaps the planned shows from Pompeii this summer. His most recent album is probably his best, and his set list was probably more than half Pink Floyd tunes. He played Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Time, arguably my top two choices to see live so everything else was icing on the cake.