Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - Penance For Suburban Band Practice and a Lowered Bar

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Penance For Suburban Band Practice and a Lowered Bar

 The kid next door is trying to put a band together:

The Literal Shed in Which Rock Music Is Trying To Happen....

 I can hear them in their shed next door, a sub-sonic thump that's fighting my "Brad Mehldau - No Chaff" Spotify playlist I'm listening to at my desk.  The room I'm in is at the back of my house, adjacent to the shed in the backyard of the neighbor's house.

 I can't complain.  


 Well... he or one of his buddies threw a Miller Lite can over the fence apparently last week, they'd better not do that again.  

When I first started playing guitar at 15, I found myself jamming with every drummer and bass player I could find, to little avail at first.  I was extremely precocious and admittedly didn't suffer the less than adequate, or anyone less than actually completely motivated by art in music. 

 See, at first there are 2 basic categories:

  • the nascent musician that really wants to play music and accomplish something
  • the person that just wants an excuse to hang out.  

Actually, a musician can get very far under that second category just by being in the right place and sticking with it, but that type tends to annoy me.  I have wasted much time with stealthed versions of this type, I advise the reader not to do the same.

 Regardless, while I was running through the local musician offerings, one by one, we made a large audible racket in many a suburban locale.  In the 80's everyone wanted to be in a band, there wasn't really a shortage of drummers and bass players, despite the guitar player ratio being about 30:1.  I found myself jamming in every residential neighborhood in Augusta Georgia, near Augusta, and some non-residential areas in and out of town. One time I found myself  in the middle of a literal corn field, in a shack that some guys had built out of pallets and ran extension cords to from somewhere beyond the field I couldn't even see.  Their friends would crawl up on the outside and look in, ala _Mad Max Thunderdome_.... 

 That was the first year I played guitar.  I had been telling people I'd only been playing guitar for a year, which was a mistake as I found out later. You can't get with experienced musicians that way.

 Many inadvertent audiences were made in many adjacent houses.  It's worth noting that in the rich neighborhoods the houses are much farther apart and better insulated.  In poor neighborhoods, the walls have no insulation and often are mere feet away from a neighbor.  This creates interesting life lessons in diplomacy.

 At the end of that first year of playing I found myself invited to watch a band practice by an upper classman at my high school, the drum major in the music program.  He played drums in a band with some older guys that actually had some experience, and of course I was probably expected to be Another Audience Member hanging out at band practice.

 I was invited to jam with them on guitar during one of their breaks, and unfortunately for the guitar player I was in the band soon thereafter.  I was fortunate, because I found myself playing with guys that not only could play entire songs, but actually had some musical panache and experience.


 A lot of people heard us in the neighborhood.  I was using the drummer's Fender Bassman at practice; later we'd end up rehearsing in my parent's garage and I'd managed to get a 120 watt Peavey Hertage tube amp from a paper route.  Then a 50 watt Marshall JMP 2x12 tube amp combo I'd run in stereo with the Peavey.

 Our bass player used a variety of amps, a Yamaha bass amp in conjunction with sometimes a tube guitar head of some sort, in a biamp setup, with a pair of 2x15 cabinets, one of which had JBLs.   A very, very potent setup.  Sometimes there were other bass players.  Pictures fell off the wall in my parent's living room.  My parents being accommodating in my pursuit of music I will be forever grateful for.

  Sometimes the police would show up.  Generally it ended up with them hanging out and listening, which is a good sign.  We usually didn't practice later than 10 or so, which in reality is Not So Bad. Particularly these days not a big deal, but back then it was Very Rebellious, but ...

 But back to These Days:

 The guys next door do their thing one night on the weekends. Sometimes Saturday night, sometimes Sunday night.   I don't know them, and I wouldn't tell them this, but...

.... that's not enough.

  I was lucky.  In the above mentioned band I was the youngest, still in school, but we still practiced at least twice a week.  Often times more, sometimes 4 times a week.  We were maintaining about 40+ songs, the standard metal/rock club fare at the time, but also some left-field technical-instrumental things.  I was lucky.  In theory once you're Good Enough you can get by with what the guys next door are doing, rehearsing once a week or less.  You're just going through the motions, you should already know the songs, then go to the gig.

 But when you're starting out, being able to play with a group multiple times during a week is educational in a way I can't deliver as a guitar teacher.  Playing with other musicians is not the same skill set as playing to the recording - which is also completely necessary, of course.  Learning to listen to the other members of the band is critical, and something that people don't do anymore . It's now a matter of the guys that stick it out long enough that they CAN play in a band, that they finally get with other musicians, and they cobble through things by default.

 That's not the same thing as putting your time in with other musicians.

 The guys I played with initially were really into music for music's sake, and we had no problem playing the same songs over and over because it was FUN.  When you play the same song with a band 20 times it's a very different thing afterwards than just scratching through and going "that's good, we've got it, see you at the gig".  You learn to own it.

 It's a shame that Darn Kids Today don't use their time getting experience playing music with live humans when they still have the time.  It's invaluable.  I never had a problem playing with other people, since I'd been doing it literally since day one routinely every week; and I was "extremely precocious".  But that lack of human playing experience is completely evident in most novice musicians I hear today, and even a lot of so-called "experienced" musicians.  Guys and gals that have chops and are "professional" - but only when everything is a certain way with the rest of the band.

 Yes, I'm complaining in that respect, but I'm hoping someone reading this will take it to heart: playing music in a band is fun.  There is a reason I just got a text from one of my first students - who I taught all the way back from when I was 16 - of pictures of his band playing a recent gig in N.C..  There's a reason most guys that played 30 years ago are still going at it. 
 At least the guys next door are actually playing as a band, it seems These Days it's a rarity.  Outside of playing at church, I don't have any students at the moment that play in a band, but I have a few that, if it were 20 years ago, they'd have already been in multiple bands by now.  30 years ago I would have immaturely laughed at the guys next door; now I'm thinking

"geez, that's a relief to hear someone starting out TRYING to play MUSIC with other HUMANS".

 It's really very pathetic it's come to this.  Something went wrong in the mid 2000's, and the impetus to form bands and play music in front of an audience evaporated, only leaving the praise bands and some die hards on the periphery that find themselves with a fair amount of gigs with the dearth of bands present now.

 I don't find the drummer's kick drum particularly annoying because of the above, despite being able to tell he's probably got his pedal tension wrong.  It's really almost not noticeable in the house (all of those nattering nay-bobs that called the police on my bands were probably just old-school stick in the mud anti-rock music pro-Establishment conservative knobs), and they don't actually play a lot, actually.  I'm afraid it's a Fun Hang Out situation for them, and they'll probably get bored with it in a few months like the half pipe skateboard ramp that ended up rotting on the other side of the fence.

 Which is sad, and sad for me, because I look at both hopefully - "maybe kids, other people are going to get back into playing music in bands?", but I know it's far removed from the Good 'Ol Days.  The tendency is to look at the guys in Greta Van Fleet and go "yeah, but... hey, they're playing together as a band!"; like that somehow is enough these days.  A novelty: humans playing rock music as a group.  For fun.

 And it IS FUN.  1,000 x more fun than a video game, and more rewarding.  How that notion has been sucked out of the thought process of society is scary.

 (....just walked outside to listen to what they were doing...)

Earlier it was _Back in _Black.  The guitar player sounded like he was having tuning problems, tried to tune, stopped... he was tuning as I walked back outside.  Sounds like they're  now trying to do some Neil Young.   The drummer is in the throes of what I call "kinestheticlly-hyper shuffle beat syndrome"; an affliction that attacks novice drummers, sometimes for many years.  Yes, you can sort of play a shuffle over just about anything, but, uhmm.... yeah.

 Well, they're still at it.   It doesn't bother me, I hope nobody calls the cops on them.  Maybe one of them will want to take it seriously, and maybe go "hey, maybe we should get together more often and practice more...?".   But if not, at least they can tell friends, 

 "I'm IN A BAND...".




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