Lessons learned from lockdown

This year has seen the most use of the word ‘unprecedented’ that I have ever seen, and probably for good reason.

Do what you can now, and if you can’t do it now, plan for later

Getting started on something can often be hard. During lockdown, I’ve found myself exhausted after a full day of childcare, and in those few rare moments I had for me, working on a new composition seemed ridiculous.

Do what you can, in small steps. In fact…

Make a list

List what your daily tasks are, as well as goals for the medium term (i.e., the next few weeks) and long term (post-lockdown, or even post-COVID altogether). It will help you focus, and evaluate what is important.

List making sure was already an occasional habit of mine, mainly because I am aware of my own poor short-term memory. Going forward, I’ll be sticking to daily lists, as they seem to have made me more productive than when I worked from home in pre-pandemical times.

Speaking of lists…

Bring back the ‘weekly shop’

We must have gotten out of the habit of doing the ‘big shop’ only once a week. Lockdown forced us back into this habit, and although it somehow felt more expensive at first, it seems to be better value across the week, especially when it was harder to nip out on a whim for a treat. Give it a try, if you can, and see how it works for you.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Whether it’s FOMO (fear of missing out) or a kind of professional jealousy when another person seems to be working fine at home – you know, the one with all the recording gear in their spare room (or their parents) and no children.

Social media only shows you what people want you to see. Most of the time, it only shows what those people think everyone else wants or expects to see.

Some of it is real. Some of it is less than genuine. All of it is someone else, in a different set of circumstances (however slight that might appear).

Beware of fatigue

Some of my friends have been locked down at home by themselves, working from one room during day, then zoning out in front of the TV in the evening. They told me that even committing to an online quiz via Zoom felt like too much effort. Staring at a screen all day, even for leisure or socially distant socialising, is incredibly tiring. Give yourself time to reset, and do absolutely nothing. Just remember when you do…

Don’t be to hard on yourself

If the fatigue did’t get you, the guilt surely did – right?

This is connected to my earlier heading, Don’t compare yourself to others, but it’s worth looking at again from a slightly different angle.

We’re going through unprecedented times. No one in our lifetime has experienced this, on this scale, before. Survive. Look after yourself and those around you. Don’t feel guilty for doing less.

In fact, don’t feel guilty at all for how you are managing to get through a pandemic.

Do what you love, if you can (and if you can’t make a plan for doing it in the future)

You might have noticed that a few of my recent posts have been short Hailku form poems, or observations from walks with my family. I enjoy writing them. Since I can’t perform live at the moment, they give me some creative output while everything else is on hold.

If you have recently discovered a new passion, embrace it and enjoy it. Share it with the world. And if COVID19 is stopping you from doing what you love and enjoy (as it has for me with my love of playing guitar live), make another list; this time, make it a plan to get your passion up and running again soon, once all of this is – hopefully – a distant memory of an unpleasant time, now disappearing.

Best of luck, and let me know how you get on! Also, let me know what lessons you have learned from the last few months of lockdown by leaving a comment or getting in touch via my usual channels – I look forward to chatting to you!

Hareshaw Lin & coins in trees

At the weekend, we went up to Hareshaw Lin in Bellingham for a walk. It was lovely exploring this northwestern corner of Northumberland, following the short walk (less than two miles), along the ruins of a former iron foundry on the North River Tyne, to a waterfall (the Lin, in Old English). On our route, we noticed something unusual…

A tree stump (and fallen trunk, behind) with hundreds of coins inserted into the bark

Hundreds of coins inserted into the small slits of the bark of fallen trees. I noticed it in a few sidelong tree stumps, but it was most obvious on this large fallen tree and nearby stump (see above). I have no idea why this tradition started, but some of the coins look very well weathered, and I expect have been there for several years.

The waterfall itself was beautiful, a small oasis of it’s own within the woods (see below). Several younger people were diving into the pool at it’s base. Judging by how long it took them to resurface after diving, it must be quite deep in it’s centre, although there appears to be a lip of rocks around the pool’s circumference.

Hareshaw Lin – the word ‘Lin’ means ‘Waterfall’ in Old English

The foundry appears to have been washed away by a flood in the early years of the 20th century, and several more rocks swept downstream in a further flood in the 1960’s. The large stones which remain (many were taken to be used for local buildings) jut out the water to create numerous miniature weirs alongside our walking route. It’s a lovely spot, but was rather busy when we went, possibly because people see it as a good outdoor location in these socially distant times. Still, there are many worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon…

Poem: A political ghost flew, ruining my view

The wheat it rises fast by summer late

Honey yellow melting into rich gold

Yet now, streaking through the swaying barley

Comes ex-P.M. from Euro state of old

Fleeing worldly problems and past mistakes

With childish abandon and youth-lost glee

Surprised, then angry; next, aloud thinks I:

“Well, that’s stained this golden moment for me!”

Credit: news.ctgn.com

Somehow, this silly little poem (about former UK Prime Minister Theresa May running through one of the fields of wheat outside my home) felt best suited to the sonnet form (of somewhat loosely – see below).

For context, here is May’s past form, regarding running through fields of wheat.

Please don’t judge my efforts too harshly. It is my first attempt at writing in this form since secondary school (twenty years ago). I most definitely haven’t adhered to the ‘galloping’ rhythm of traditional Iambic Pentameter (5 pairs of syllables per lone, going weak-strong each time). This would have been a strict requirement for stage actors reciting these lines (usually as dialogue) in Elizabethan age plays, most famously those penned by William Shakespeare.

However, I’m not Shakespeare, Marlowe or any sonnet writer of any note, by any stretch – that much should be clear by now! I’m just a bored dad trying to get his youngest child (currently teething) to sleep by taking them out in the buggy for an evening walk…

I accidentally bought a guitar, and ended up with an unexpected bargain

I’ve noticed a few decent-looking guitars going for sale on eBay recently. In the past, I’ve picked up a few great instruments and amps, including the Strat which was my main touring guitar for a decade, as well as two Fender Mustang floor units, which I use for live work most of the time nowadays. However, buying something online, especially a musical instrument you haven’t played, or even held, can be a risky business. I therefore try to set an ‘absolute maximum’ price which I won’t go over. This is price is normally quite low, meaning I should be able to at least earn a small profit on any guitars I decide to move on – but it does mean I’m not usually the ‘winning bidder’ when interesting pieces catch my attention.

That is, until I saw this gem…

What is it?

This guitar is modeled on the Gibson non-reverse Firebird III, one of Gibson’s early forays into the offset market, only flipping the body to be a mirror image of the shape in the above picture, hence the term reverse. From 1965 to 1969, Gibson offered a non-reverse version, in a much more Jazzmaster style shape. The ‘III’ in the name is a reference to the guitar having three P90 pickups, unlike the two mini humbuckers on previous Firebird models. Because these non-reverse bodied, three pickup guitars were only available for around four years, they are considered highly collectible and even ones in poor condition go for thousands of pounds.

However, I knew from the price I paid for it alone that this guitar was not a real Gibson. Once it had been delivered, it was clear that the ‘Gibson’ logo on the headstock is actually a decal, added after the original purchase (although some of these copies were actually supplied with stickers such as this, or alternative truss rod covers that read ‘Gibson’, so perhaps it came with the instrument). An original Gibson of this style from the mid to late sixties would have looked slightly different, too – chrome hardware, black pickup covers and probably a Firebird decal somewhere on the pickguard. But I have to say, I quite like the gold hardware, and I’ve always preferred cream/aged white pickup covers, especially on retro-styled guitars such as these.

So who made it?

In my initial research, the Japanese manufacturer Tokai looked the most likely suspect. Tokai, along with Ibanez, were famous for their ‘lawsuit guitars’ in the seventies; the lawsuit occurred because they were making better Les Pauls than Gibson were (the 70s saw huge reductions in quality from both Gibson and Fender guitars, making the Japanese rip-offs much more appealing, and better value). Tokai have certainly released their own take on the Firebird design, but after a little more digging, I believe this model to be made by the almost completely unknown Gould brand; seemingly British-based, but put together in China, probably in the early 2000s.

Is it any good?

Heck, yes. It sounds amazing, and reinforces my belief that sometimes, one is merely paying extra money for the right name on the headstock. This guitar plays really well, hangs nicely on a strap and has a good vintage-feel neck (i.e., it’s thicker than many modern guitars). The guitar’s budget P90 pickups sound as good as any other I have played, and the unique control layout of three way switch (neckb/ neck & bridge / bridge), shared volume for neck & bridge pickup, plus a separate volume control for the middle P90, allows for seven different pickup configurations, all of which can be tweaked by how you decide to blend pickups together. The master tone control appears to taper smoothly as well – rare for what is clearly a budget guitar. P90s sit somewhere between humbuckers and single-coil pickups in terms of output and ‘beefiness’, and I certainly get a ‘Strat on steroids’ vibe from this guitar. I love the sound of this guitar played clean, through a Fender Deluxe or Twin Reverb style amp as well as a more retro-styled dirty sound – a Fender Bass man plus a vintage tremelo effect sounded wonderfully evocative…

Could this instrument become my main guitar for soul work, replacing my main all-rounder, my vintage-voiced blonde Stratocaster?

There was one slight fault. The frets don’t seem to be the best quality, and a few were coming away slightly, causing bends to choke at certain points on the neck. I noticed the same issue might be happening in a few other places, so I sent the guitar off to my tech guy for a partial refret, which thankfully didn’t cost too much. Upon it’s return, the notes all sing beautifully, especially with those P90s…

Three great sounding P90s, giving seven different pickup combinations – and just look at that gorgeous sunburst finish…

Pros and cons

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Amazing triple P90 sound
  • Gorgeous sunburst finish (and general retro styling)
  • A really classy twist on the classic Jazzmaster shape
  • Great copy of an otherwise unattainable guitar

Neutrals

  • Neck might be too chunky for some (but just right for me)

Cons

  • Needed a partial refret
  • Resale value won’t be that high if I decide to sell it on

All in all, I think I’ve grabbed a bargain! Especially from a random purchase on eBay. At least it’ll give me a new toy to play with while I wait for my new custom guitar to be completed (more on that later this year…)

Great Guitarists #9: Grant Green

Welcome back to the Great Guitarists series. We’re continuing along a jazz theme for now, with a sometimes underrated master of understated single line guitar soloing…

Grant Green

Green was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1935, and died in 1979, aged just 43. In his all-too-short career, he played on hundreds of records, including numerous solo titles – almost thirty cuts for Blue Note Records alone. Many of these were played as part of an organ trio (organ, guitar, drums) in a style known as Soul Jazz. This style was sometimes sniffed at by jazz purists, but has since gone on to be something of a cherished gem, and ripe pickings for sampling, especially in hip ho and acid jazz (Read Jorge Cervera’s defence of Grant Green and soul jazz here).

Although less well known than some of his contemporaries, such as Wes Montgomery, his friend George Benson and his main guitar influence Charlie Christian, Green nonetheless possessed a highly recognisable guitar sound, which can be heard in the playing of many guitarists today, myself included. Indeed, his mix of blues, soul and hard bop licks over a funky back beat has become the quintessential sound of upbeat jazz guitar playing.

Equipment and guitar sound

Green most famously used a Gibson ES-330, which is essentially the same shape as the brand’s better-known 335, but with P90 single coil pickups (not unlike an Epiphone Casino). Later on in his career, he played a Gibson L7, Epiphone Emperor and custom-made D’Aquisto guitars, all of which featured similar P90 style pickups. This type of pickup was one of the first kinds added to hollowbody guitars, and Green obviously enjoyed the full, clear sound they provided.

Interestingly, for a guitar player known for his fluid single line style, Green was known to roll the treble and bass entirely off on his amplifiers, to better emphasise the midrange for more bite and attack in his tone – try it with a P90 neck pickup, and see if you can recreate Green’s sound!

Essential listening

Idle Moments (1963) is a great place to start. It’s a slow, contemplative masterclass in cool jazz guitar,and one of my favourite jazz guitar records, along with Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell (more about that here).

There’s a couple of good options for live cuts, but the recently released collection Funk in France, From Paris to Antibes (1969-1970) (2018, Resonance) captures Green at his best. A few of the tracks see the trio lineup complimented by none other than the legendary Barney Kessel, which makes it essential listening for me!

It’s also worth seeking out some of Greenvs funkier efforts, such as… He also made an interesting album of Latin music (The Latin Bit from 1963, on Blue Note again), in which the main theme (the ‘heads’) were played in the usual samba or bossa nova style, but the solos are swung – give it a listen and make of it what you will!

As a sideman, he played on hundreds of recording sessions. Among my personal favourites are Herbie Hancock’s My Point Of View (1963, Blue Note) and Art Blakey’s Hold On I’m Coming (1966, Limelight). However, each record in Green’s expansive discography features great playing and lead lines that we guitarists would benefit from adding to our repertoire!

Just as Green (and countless other great jazz guitarists) did with Charlie Christian’s recordings, listen, learn, then find a way of making it your own…