When I was thinner of form and thicker of hair, my bandmates and I paid our dues in a minor-league circuit of fraternity basements, crab shacks, and university ballrooms. Years later I would impress a director of graduate school admissions with a romantic-sounding line about the privilege of seeing our country from the window of an Econoline passenger van. What I neglected to mention to her was how my feet were stuck to the floor from the hardened leakage of fast food sauce packets, several of us always nursed mild-grade sinus infections, and all of us earned a fraction of what we would have as baristas or waiters.
Living the Dream
I vividly remember arriving one afternoon shortly before a set to find an outdoor collegiate courtyard in total disarray. No stage had been set up. The sound engineer, smoking a cigarette and awaiting anything resembling instruction or guidance, had simply dumped a pile of speakers and microphones on the grassy quadrangle. A handful of overweight young men in backwards baseball caps wandered about aimlessly, paused to looked around, drank from cans of cheap beer, and repeated their cycle like test-pattern civilians from some poorly programmed version of Grand Theft Auto: State U.
Because I’d drawn the shortest straw as the least hungover, it was my turn to perform reconnaissance. I emerged from the van to find the drummer from another band on the bill sitting on what was once an elegant stone wall bordering the “venue.” With his practice pad out, he gave a nod of acknowledgement without breaking stride on his paradiddles. A smile formed as I approached, his shoulders shaking as he giggled at my obvious dismay.
“This place, man,” I said. “What on earth is going on here?”
“I know, right?” he replied. And as he paused his warm-up to motion towards the trustafarians making drunken lazy eights in our midst, he delivered the most devastatingly memorable line I ever heard during my musical career of long duration and limited treasure.
“I mean, just look at these people. They’re just as dumb as we are.”
Compression Concession I often think of that line when I recall my tone and gear pursuits over the years, and how the opinions of rock stars, other players, and even magazine reviews have lead me astray. I remember my ridiculous Jeff Beck kick as a teenager. I stopped using a pick cold turkey, which introduced me to a measure of expressive capability at the expense of everything I’d spent years developing beforehand. Other details from my obsession yielded introductions that I’m still grateful for: single-coil pickups, floating Strat bridges, and the classic ProCo Rat. In one interview, Beck spoke dismissively about using compression, and in my fealty, I swore it off as well. No setup I’d construct for years would have a compressor. In fact, I never even tried one when I worked in guitar shops and was expected to recommend them.
Years later, after I’d reverted to using a pick, I’d struggle through chicken-pickin’ lines and fast, country-style runs with pull-offs and open strings. While I knew fellow players and friends who sounded like modern-day Roy Clarks through clean amps, the best description for my sonic outcome would be “Rocky Balboa trying to chop meat with his fists.” It vexed me, considering how smooth my overdriven lines would sound after a similar amount of practice. Finally, I did what someone smarter than me would do and asked a particularly good-sounding friend for advice. His expression when he found out I wouldn’t use a compressor was similar to mine when I discovered that Jessica Simpson didn’t like to brush her teeth.
If Ty Tabor Jumped Off a Bridge … A similar thing happened regarding the use of reverb. I’d read how Ty Tabor of King’s X, another hero of mine, didn’t like reverb. He thought it took away from the immediacy of his playing, so for years, like my hero, I wouldn’t use reverb. Imagine the awkward sounds that occurred when I was asked to play the opening lines of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” for an audition. With a single-coil guitar—set for a floating trem, but without reverb—I might as well have been playing “Tiny Bubbles.”The point of sharing my personal tone disasters (beyond your entertainment while you waste time reading this at your laptop, or on the toilet, or both) is that you should only accept advice up to a point—even my advice. We all can, have been, and will be wrong at times. Those smooth-sounding pickups that your hero uses may sound like mush through your favorite amp. That overdrive pedal everyone told you to buy won’t do justice to your picking dynamics. The supposed be-all, end-all of delay pedals will have the producer yelling F-bombs at you while you struggle to edit presets between takes. Don’t be married to anything you hear from anyone else, even your heroes, unless it works best for your music and your enjoyment. After all, they’re just as dumb as we are.