Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ross Hill - Calgary luthier

I recently took in my 1951 Nicola Alagia bass for some work on the fingerboard. I bought this bass from PJ Tan in Edmonton, someone who I've written about before.

I took the bass to Aeolian Strings as I heard that Ross Hill was working there. Ross is a Calgary luthier who I had heard great things about from both jazz players and members of the CPO.

I have been looking for a luthier in Calgary for some time. There are very few places that will take a double bass. There's the principal of the CPO, Charles Garret, who does great work but only relatively minor repairs (e.g., bridges, seams). Then there's VA Hill Strings which was once the namesake of Ross Hill. (Due to a divorce, he's no longer involved with VA Hill Strings. 'Nuff said.) I took in an older bass once and a visiting luthier did a great job done. A second time (with my 1920's King laminate bass), I received a phone call to tell me that the bass wasn't worth the cost of repairs ($600). I had them do the work, the regular luthier did a lousy job, Vicky Hill and the luthier treated me like a chump (rolling their eyes at me as I spoke), and I sold the bass for $2,400. In short, I don't recommend VA Hill Strings for anything. I've had other experiences there while looking at bows and have heard stories that just made me laugh. My general impression is that they are not as informed/experienced as they present or believe themselves to be.

Moving on, I was excited about taking my bass to Ross Hill. From my perspective he's been a bit of a spectre: someone you hear about but never see.

After he looked at my bass, he recommended a new fingerboard. I admit, the fingerboard was getting thin, I just didn't think it needed the whole thing replaced. I opted to have the work done, plus fixing a seam, adjusting and installing some adjusters in the bridge. We talked over the phone about what I wanted, but never got together to talk about different possible shapes for the fingerboard.

I've had the bass back now for a couple of weeks. Simply but: the work is excellent! The bass is a joy to play; its fast; it feels so natural. I'm amazed at how great the bass plays. Its like a new instrument. He even managed to do some work to the soundpost and bridge to even out the tone across the strings. Its deep "Italian oily sound" is better than ever. Incredible!

My strongest recommendation of Ross Hill. He can be reached through Aeolian Strings (403.244.5593).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jazz 50 Years Ago

Here's the article. 'Nuff said. Will we ever have such a landmark year for music in any genre?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Practicing Your Songwriting

I recently had an article appear in the Serve the Song blog (a blog I read pretty regularly and find very useful). Here's the article:

Like anything, songwriting improves as one practices one’s craft. Practicing songwriting can often be a daunting task not only because it seems odd as a concept (What is the difference between practicing songwriting and being creative by actually engaging in the process of songwriting?) but also because it requires admitting that your own songwriting needs improvement.

Many times, once we write something we have a hard time letting it go, admitting that it needs complete rewriting or that may just not be that good to want a live performance or recording. Many years ago, I read somewhere that Charlotte Cafferty (then guitarist of the Go-Go’s) wrote hundreds of songs that never saw life beyond her notebook. She viewed these is not good enough for live performance and use them as examples to learn and practice what worked and what didn’t work.

Personally, for every 10 songs or so I write, one makes it in front of a band; and for every five that I bring to the band, one makes it to a live performance or recording. While this may suggest that I’m extremely prolific or just plain suck at writing, I take a different view: In a sense, all those bad songs I write are practice for the good songs I write.

In any event, admitting that a song you have written requires rewriting/retooling/rejecting can be difficult. Sometimes when I’m just not in the mood to rework my own material, I turn to the work of others. My approach is this: How many times has a song you don’t particularly like gotten stuck in your head? It happens to me all the time. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and one of my kids’ favorite songs is stuck in my head. Sometimes I (inadvertently) hear a song by an artist I don’t like, only to have the song repeat over and over again in my head throughout the day. There must be something about these songs that makes them “stick.” So, I use these songs as material to practice my songwriting. Literally, I take these songs and start rewriting them, taking them apart to figure out what makes them tick and why they are so catchy. At the same time, I’m honing my own skills with melody, harmony and rhythm.

Deconstructing a Hit

When practicing songwriting, it’s useful to think about what it is that makes these songs (perhaps regrettably) so memorable. Is it the melody? Is it the artist’s phrasing? Is it the rhythm or chord progression? As such, rewriting an existing song can serve several important purposes:
  1. By dissecting and rewriting an existing song you can learn a great deal about what makes its melody catchy or its rhythm addictive. I often take an existing song and try to change one aspect (e.g., melody rhythm progression) while keeping everything else constant. This allows me to see how, say, the artist phrasing works within a melodic or harmonic structure.Sometimes I keep the melody and try to change the chords or rhythm in order to understand how a seemingly catchy melody can be supercharged by the right rhythm and harmony to create a monster you can’t get out of your head. Through this, you learn what works and what doesn’t for more general songwriting.
  2. This type of work also gives you an opportunity to step outside of your genre. Maybe you can take that goofy Carrie Underwood song about cheating and turn it into a mambo? Maybe you can really stretch out an do what these guys did, converting a Brittany Spears song into a fugue. By stepping out of your genre and writing something really different, you open yourself up to new ways of conceptualizing a song. You hear new rhythms and phrases that may spark ideas for your own original material.
  3. Finally, by working from an existing song you are not only learning from an example of a “successful” song, but you’re also practicing your own craft. In re-writings say a Beyonce song or something from the soundtrack to bear in the Big Blue House, it’s impossible for you not to interject your own ideas and style. As such, your songwriting, arranging, and your toolkit of songwriting tricks and ideas can only get better.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Calgary Stampede in Review

So the Calgary Stampede is over. For the city of Calgary it meant a boost in tourism revenue (despite the economic and weather conditions). For me, it meant 18 gigs in 10 days. Last year I did 22, the year before 26. From my perspective, there was a real downturn in the number (and lavishness) of the corporate parties. That said, it was fun (most of it) and I earned a good sum money in a short period of time.

I thought it would be fun to talk a bit about some of the things I saw/experienced during my Stampede gigs and mention a bit about keeping your hands healthy during extended gigs. I also included a bit of simple bass playing math.

First, some highlights:
  1. Playing Flames Central as an opening act for Colin James (who I'm not familiar with).
  2. Opening for Fred Eaglesmith (who I am familiar with).
  3. Seeing a 30-foot tall image of myself on the jumbo-tron at Flames Central.
  4. Playing on the roof of a diner.
  5. A wet t-shirt contest for charity.
  6. A nervous burlesque dancer throwing up backstage.
  7. Running through downtown between gigs while carrying an upright bass.
  8. Hearing the "That's a mighty big violin" joke approximately 48 times. (Yes, I counted.)
  9. Explaining to several "sound-men" the difference between mixing as a DJ and mixing live music.
  10. Surviving.
With respect to the latter, Stampede usually takes a huge toll on my sleep and my fingers. Regarding my sleep patterns, I had more than a few nights that I played until 2am and had to be at a pancake breakfast for my next gig at 6 or 7 am.

As for my fingers, the average gig I play is three 45-minute sets. That's a lot of slapping on a double bass. For those not familiar with slapping on an upright bass, its like performing a Bartok slap very quickly and repeatedly. Some people use gut strings or weed whackers. My bass had steel strings (Spirocores) on it during Stampede.

Now some simple math:
13 songs per set at 3 minutes each, average tempo of 160 = 3,120 times per set that my fingers pull up a string.
And that's only if I'm playing I-V's the whole night (i.e., two notes per measure). If I'm walking (which I do about half the time) the better estimate is 4,680 plucks per night. (I just shocked myself figuring this out.) And this isn't even counting the slaps on the string/fingerboard.On the three-set night that means about 14,040 times my fingers pluck a string. Over the whole of Stampede, 252,720 times. Crazy. Oh well my fingers survived.

I've written before (here and here) about the need to take care of your hands. To the right is a picture of my fingers at the start of Stampede. At the bottom of the post is a photo of my hands near the end of Stampede. Overall, I did a pretty good job taking care of them: each night I used some lotion (Burt's Bees is my preferred) and put a band-aid on any cuts. This kept my hands from drying out too much , thereby helping them stay in shape for the next gig. I only had a couple of nights that I was really bothered by some pain and no major cuts or blisters, which is more than I can say for some of my compadre bassists during Stampede. At one gig where many of us were hanging out, some guys/girls had a bit of show and tell regarding their blisters. Regardless, that's the cost (along with the sleepless nights, running between gigs, and listening to DJ's swell a room with feedback while trying to figure out how to set up stage monitors) many of us pay during the Calgary Stampede. Now its time to start training for next year. Yee Haw.