Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Guitar God Agonistes


With two exceptions (playing "I'll Fly Away" with a group outside the Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis, after I admired the Johnson resonator guitar one guy was playing and he handed it over; singing "Foggy Dew" at an Irish jam at Satchel's, at the invitation of Chris Maden) I haven't played out in decades -- and even back then that was generally as stand-in rhythm guitarist on simple songs ("Gloria," "Empty Heart," "Hey Bo Diddley") at drunken bar gigs with a band I followed around back in the '80s (that was a lot of fun; in one instance most of the band was replaced for a couple of songs and I suddenly realized that I was onstage jamming with two members of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils). For years now I've been thinking about doing some solo stuff at open mic nights and so forth, and the last couple of months I've started getting serious about it. Some things I'm figuring out:

Playing solo is very different from playing with a band: I've been a marginally competent rhythm guitarist since shortly after I started playing oh, 35 years or so ago. Aside from the bare basics, about all I've ever gotten around to learning is how to put a few bass licks/runs around those chords, for transitions.

If it's just going to be me on a bar stool with my guitar and voice, I've got to develop some additional fill skills to keep it interesting.  There's no rhythm section. There's no lead guitarist to enliven the spaces between vocal parts.

One way to address that need would be to add an instrument -- probably harmonica. I've seen "one man band" guys with pretty elaborate rigs, e.g. a kick drum and a programmable keyboard and so forth. But I suspect I'll have plenty to do just juggling guitar and voice without adding more elements to keep track of and keep in rhythm.

So I've been making some moves toward learning new licks, "banjo rolls" and stuff (I got a cheap Groupon for video lessons from Dangerous Guitar, which are proving quite useful). For the first time in years, I feel like I'm becoming a better guitarist. But I've got a ways to go in terms of incorporating some lead elements into the rhythm guitar scenario so that it's not just drone strumming between vocal parts.

I'm constantly drawn to my roots: I was brought up on country music. By the time I was in my teens I had pulled the usual rebellion stuff and got into everything from garage to punk to 60s/70s blues-influenced rock, and I still love all that stuff. But I first learned to play country and country gospel (I think the first song I played in public was Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light"), and it's what I'm most comfortable playing. In trying to work up a 20-minute open mic set, I keep coming back to country standards. I'll probably include at least two of these three: "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams, "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" by Lefty Frizzell and "Cup of Loneliness" by George Jones. I'll want to drop at least one thing that makes people go "Huh? That's a definite change of direction!" into the mix; I've been practicing a version of Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You." And I'm working something of my own, in eight-bar blues format.

I've gotta get a new guitar: My Epiphone PR-100 dreadnought acoustic has been a great instrument, but it's getting along in years (12 or 13, I think) and ever since the move to Florida (when it spent a week in a U-Haul tote traveling across multiple climate bands) there's something just a little sour going on up above the 8th fret or so. I can't detect any visible warping in the neck, but something ain't right. That $10 garage sale electric Stratocaster clone I bought a few weeks ago is, well, a $10 garage sale guitar.  Among other problems, it doesn't want to stay in tune for very long.

I'm wanting to move away from a full dreadnought acoustic and into a cutaway acoustic-electric, a hollowbody "arch top" electric, or a resonator guitar. The last two are a little rich for my blood, as I'm trying to keep it in the sub-$200 range. Rogue makes a $200 resonator guitar, but after a previous experience with their instruments I don't think I want to risk it. The only hollowbody electric I've found really satisfactory (and then some!) is a Gretsch I played awhile back at Guitar Center. But even on sale it's close to $900.

So I'm guessing that unless I find an incredible deal on something used (I'll be looking at local shops, Craigslist, etc.) I'm headed back to Epiphone -- the PR4-E -- and I have no problem with that. They're a Gibson subsidiary and they make a good instrument. Ten years or more ago, I paid $150 for an acoustic Epiphone dreadnought with gig bag, tuner, etc. $200 seems reasonable for an acoustic-electric with gig bag and amp. But I'll have to go down to a local store and actually play one first. Some things I'll buy sight unseen, but guitars aren't one of those things.

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