Monday, October 20, 2014

Rocktober: Musical Alchemy

A Boy And His Guitar--"Interrupted Prayer For A Lost Friend"

And what would Rocktober be without a discussion of the act of still trying to rock?  And so the greatest musical joy of this particular Rocktober has been the arrival of a Bugera V22, a new amplifier to me, but an old-style amplifier in terms of its tube-driven sound and classic features.

The amp has a clean, clear sound, if that is what I want, but it can also get dirty like a panda, if that is the sound I'm after.  And anywhere in between.

As pleased as I am with this amp, this praise is neither an endorsement nor what I really want to write about.    Nope, today I'm jazzed about musical alchemy, the explicable blast of discovery and creativity that occurs when I plug one of my old guitars into that new amp and all that was old becomes new.

But it doesn't have to be an amp.  It could be a different guitar.  It could be the ukulele that you bought to take to Korea.  Or the harmonica that you pick up at your friend's house.  It could be Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place," where they all swapped instruments and came up with a "naive melody."  It could be the "vibe" Neil Young felt when he bought Hank Williams' Martin guitar.

Ask any musician and he or she will confirm, I am certain, the indisputable magic in the air around a player with a different instrument, an fresh effect, a better sound reproduction system, a new set of strings, a vintage purchase.  It can lead to a song, a riff, a combination of chords you've never tried together, a run or a reach you couldn't get to before.

Nor is this some kind of bogus, romantic superstition, at least not to me.  It has simply happened too many times.  When I received a dulcimer for Christmas while I was in college, messing around with it that day, before I knew chords or patterns or anything else, I got a pretty interesting, intricate song out of it.  Same thing when I first got a 12-string from my brother.

Same thing with this amp.  Since plugging it in a week ago, I have come up with three song structures different from anything I've come up with.  Songs I haven't played for years by other artists have come back to me strangely in different keys than I've played them in before.

And I am absolutely convinced that these would not have happened had I not plugged my old guitars into this new amp.

Take the fragment I've posted above.  While I would claim neither that it is genius nor that it is poised to change the direction of modern music, I do think that a listener would be hard pressed to miss the excitement and the joy in the playing that comes from the little lead run and from my discovery of a C#m-Cm-A chord progression that I've never put together before.

And the sound.  The sound of the guitar coming out of the amp is key to the alchemy, the bit of distortion, the subtle reverb, the sustain that allows notes to flow into and over each other.

Like any good alchemist, I'll be back in front of that black box, trying to get gold out of it, before nightfall.

(Producer's note: The ultimate in lo-fi, the track was recorded using the Voice Memos app on the iPhone 5s.  The impromptu title shows both a desire to give the piece some weight and the reality that an incoming phone call interrupts the recording on this app.  While I call it a prayer for a lost friend, my daughter says it sounds like the theme music to a mid-season replacement television show.)

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