Archive for February, 2014

I love traveling. It gives me time to get away from the pressures at work and do some writing for myself, which means I write about gear; or in this case, people and their gear…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife called me up at work and asked me if I’d like to go to see Styx play at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Having not been to a concert in a long time, and not ever having seen Styx live, plus having a the rare chance to go on a date with my wife, I of course agreed.

Styx performed most of their classics, with the exception of some Dennis DeYoung tunes. But personally, I didn’t miss them much because I was more into their rock-flavored, guitar-driven material and much less so their pop material, even though it was their pop stuff that drove much of their success. As such, I of course was endeared to the guitar playing of James Young and Tommy Shaw.

Before I go on, one thing that was cool in the show was that both JY and Tommy Shaw didn’t activate their effects themselves. They’d be playing along, then suddenly Tommy would cut into a lead, and voila! He’d have some boost/overdrive and delay. I was thinking to myself, Damn! That would be cool to have someone do that for me so I could just play and entertain! Of course, that requires a very high degree of coordination with your sound tech. I remember reading about this in an interview with Tommy Shaw years ago, but until I experienced it for myself, I didn’t realize how cool that would be. Anyway, I digress…

One thing I like to do when I see my favorite guitarists is keep track of the guitars they play. James Young was easy. He only plays Strats, and only the colors change and fretboards. And though I love his tone, there’s not much variety. 🙂 On the other hand, Tommy Shaw plays a few different guitars.

First up was a 1998 R9 Les Paul. Looked like a Tea Burst which endears me to him even more, since I have an R8 Tea Burst. As an aside, according to an article I read, Tommy doesn’t play vintage guitars because he says he’s rough on his axes, so he tends to play newer guitars. From what I could tell, his guitars were nice and shiny, so that may hold true.

The next Les Paul he played was definitely a Standard but in Silver Burst. Don’t know the exact make on that one, but it sure did sound nice.

Next was a Taylor solid body. It looked like a Les Paul from a distance, but on closer inspection, had only two knobs and a trem. Really nice-looking and nice sounding axe.

Tommy also sported a black ES-335 that he played in several songs. That actually surprised me because he got a real heavy sound with it. I was very impressed with this guitar because it hadn’t occurred to me that an ES-335 would sound good in a straight-ahead rock setting. But he played it on one of my favorite Styx tunes, “Crystal Ball.” The sustain that he was getting on that guitar was fabulous! Granted, having some delay applied certainly helped, but it was clear that he was getting a lot of sustain from the guitar itself.

He played a couple of Taylor acoustics as well, a 6-string and 12-string. To be honest, I thought his acoustic tone was horrid. But that’s been my experience whenever I see Taylors used on-stage, plugged in. At least for me, their electronics seem to produce way too much midrange, and they sound flat and lifeless to me. The 12-string sounded better and richer due to having twice as many strings, but the 6-string was a bit annoying to me. That could also be the sound system. Who knows? But I suspect it’s the guitar’s electronics. I’ve seen several acoustic players such as Michael Hedges, James Taylor, and even Joe Bonamassa that have great acoustic tone plugged in, so hearing Tommy Shaw with less than stellar acoustic tone was a bit disappointing.

But back to his electrics…

Tommy used his Les Pauls predominantly in the concert – though he also rocked the 335 quite a bit as well. No, he’s not the fastest player in the world, but he could make his guitars absolutely sing. It was classic Les Paul tone!

Here’s cell phone vid taken from the concert (it’s the finale) in Scottsdale back in January, so it’s fairly recent. Here, Tommy rocks the 335:

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Sometimes, Success Means Taking Risks

At last night’s gig, I walked away with lots of tips; probably one of the largest amounts I’ve made in tips that wasn’t in the holiday season. It actually shouldn’t have been that good since restaurant traffic, even for a Saturday night, wasn’t all that heavy. By about 7:30, while the restaurant was full, there was no wait, and that was unusual for a Saturday night. Normally, on “light” nights like this I take more regular breaks, but for some reason last night, I got in a groove and ended up playing a 2 hour and 45 minute first set. Most of the tunes I was playing were primarily vocal-centric, but last night, I added some instrumental parts to several of the songs with my looper and just improvised over the chord progressions. I’m not all that technically savvy, and probably only know a few modes at best, but I decided to take the risk, and just go for it.

I must’ve been doing something right because the response was immense, as I saw my tip jar filling up. That just spurred me on to keep experimenting and pushing outside my comfort zone with my playing. At one point, I even pulled a bit of a “George Benson” and scatted along with some phrases. That was something I’d never done in the thirteen years I’ve been playing at the restaurant. I was so inspired that I even did a song that I knew well, but had never performed (“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess), with a chord progression that really departed from the original, then put on the looper and scatted/improv’d over that.

Who knows? Maybe I got a bit of inspiration from the two elderly African American women who seemed so appreciative of what I was playing. For them, I pulled out an old, old Nat King Cole tune called “Nature Boy” that they recognized – it warmed my heart to see them smile then close their eyes in reminiscence, perhaps pulling them back to a time when they had more to look forward to and less to look back upon. When I see reactions like that, it eggs me on, and even with that song, which I played on the piano, I did some scales and runs that I had never done.

But the important thing to me when I looked back on the gig after I finished was that I made the choice to take the risk of looking like a total fool. In the process, I discovered that I had some latent skills tucked into my subconscious that only needed the permission to come out. The proof of the success of the evening was in my tip jar, which was packed and literally filled to the brim.

Of course, it’s important to be aware of the reaction – I really don’t know if I’d be able to pull this off with another crowd – but I could only know if something worked if I tried it out, or more precisely, took the risk. In this case, the risk came with some nice rewards.

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Since Michael passed away in 1997, the only video examples that I’ve been able to find have been single songs. But this afternoon as I was reminiscing about his music and the time in my life when I spent at least three nights a week at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, CA to watch Michael play, I came across this video, which is the last full-length concert video recorded two weeks prior to his death. I encourage you to watch this video in its entirety as like me, you’ll be mesmerized by his technique. And though the sound quality isn’t the best, you’ll be amazed by the tones he can produce from his acoustic guitar. Even after all these years, I can’t help but be in awe of the man.

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