the joy of kaoss

I have to admit, of all of the few unusual instruments I have run across, the Ibanez RG Series Kaoss model guitar is one of the best in so many ways.  It’s simply fun to play, and what you can do with one electric guitar that interfaces with one set of 100 (yes, that is One HUNDRED) kaossilator effects to give you one of the most tactile and hands on guitar to synth “instant treatments” experiences since Brian Eno ‘treated’ Phil Manzanera‘s guitar on stage with Roxy Music back in the early 1970s.  No longer do you need to run your guitar through a very large and very expensive VCS3 synthesiser, but you can do the ‘treatments” by yourself, as you play – and the sounds you can get out of it are simply amazing if you just work at it….

What more could I ask for?  What more could any guitarist who also happens to be a Kaossilator Pad player, who also is a synthesist – ask for?  This is the inexpensive way into a Kaoss-pad-controlled-by-a-guitar or rather, by-a-guitarist – you.

Before I try to describe the experience of playing this unique instrument, I should probably approach the negatives – of which there are one or two – depending on your viewpoint.  The guitar is deliberately built down to a price, it’s possibly, the cheapest Kaoss guitar on the market – and that is possible the way Ibanez and Korg wanted it – who knows?  So some of the features you might expect in an expensive electric guitar simply aren’t really here in this guitar.  Like super low super easy action.  Not here – you have to work to play this guitar.  I am going to need to take it in, and see what can be done about the action – which is less than ideal.  I end up thrashing the fingers on my left hand every time I play it – but I am determined, so I don’t let something as unimportant as somewhat high action bother me – I just play anyway, and ignore it.

One alleviating factor or solution I have found, is to go to an extra light gauge of string.  This DOES help a little bit, when the guitar you are playing has action that is too high – for me, it seems to help on the higher strings, but no so much on the lower strings.  It was strange – I hadn’t tried an .009 on my high E since I was about 13!  But I find it helpful to switch from, in my case, Regular Slinky, to, Super Slinky – with a .009 top rather than the .010.

The other thing that I really miss, is a whammy bar.  I think that alongside the awesome distortion circuit built into the guitar, that a whammy bar would have been just the ticket – switch on that fuzz and start yourself a crazy whammy solo….but not this time.   So – two negatives; it’s hard to play, and, no whammy fun – but I can easily forgive both – there are actions I can take, I can get the guitar set up, I can put lighter strings on it, I can even get the neck fretted or shaved – I mean, there is room to improve the action, that is for sure – but it needs investment, and a good luthier too.

Getting over the whammy is easier, for one thing, you have 101 on board sounds to replace it with, the first being, the very usable on board distortion circuit which I really like, it isn’t the most amazing distortion box in the world, but, it gives you plenty of sustain when you want a sudden kick-ass solo – and so easy to switch it in!

So that is the 101st effect, I would say, and then what you have is 100 more on the kaoss pad, to make up for that missing whammy.  For example – may I suggest, voice 16, “vinyl break” – that gives you the ultimate dive bomb, and you can have it at any speed imaginable – very quick indeed, or, very very slow…taking a high note down to a low note that my 12 inch guitar speakers have trouble delivering it’s so lowl!

Or really, instead of thinking of it as 101 effects – the built-in distortion plus 100 Kaoss sounds, you could actually look at it as 201 sounds – the built-in distortion is 1, then you have 100 kaoss sounds with clean guitar, and, 100 kaoss sounds with heavy distortion – and some of these Korg sound respond very well to clean or distortion, and, behave differently depending on what is chosen.

So now that I have got through the tricky stuff, I can go on about how much fun it is to actually PLAY this guitar – and, you have to understand, the kaoss pad that is built into it, is not like the kaoss pad “synths” (like the little hand held pink synth kaoss pad I started out playing a few years back) you buy to play on stage – it is instead, an “effects” kaoss pad, a “Mini-Kaoss pad” – and it’s been made into part of the guitar’s circuitry – it has actually been embedded into the guitar’s DNA – being at the end of the guitar’s audio output.

I think that learning how to play this guitar effectively is something that has to be learned over time, and each time I pick up the Kaoss guitar, I learn a little bit more about what is best in terms of technique – and a lot of the sounds aren’t totally suited to using them like a normal effect, they actually seem to work the best as sudden events in between notes, or, at the end of phrases.

Vinyl Break, good old number 16, is suitable for either, and I had a blast just suddenly DROPPING a note, a millisecond after playing it, down a few octaves, and the real beautiful of the Kaoss pad becomes apparent in the amount of control you have over the timing of that event, of that note drop – if you do it at the “top” of the pad (i.e. the edge nearest the strings, rather than the edge near the edge of the guitar’s body) the drop is incredibly fast, and you are at that low, low tone so fast you can hardly believe it.

If you drop it in the centre of the pad, it drops substantially more slowly, but still at a pretty good speed, and you can learn to “time” these smoother, more elegant drop curves to suit your musical taste…it becomes quite an art, can I make this note drop really smoothly down to it’s lowest tone and then still hit the next note in my solo or improv at the “right” moment, and most times, I can.  It’s a huge amount of fun, trying to control the duration of a note drop event, and get it to work in a really musical way.

Finally, if you choose to drop at the bottom of the pad, well then you are going to get the longest drop of all, possibly a bit too slow to be very musical, but just as useful – and everywhere in between, you get all the different speeds. So to put it into phonographic terms, it can be like dropping from 78 to 16 rpm in a millisecond, or from 78 to 16 rpm in a second, or maybe take five seconds to get there – or, you can stop the process anywhere along the way, so maybe you might just go from 78 rpm down to only 33 1/3rd rpm, instead of all the way down to 16 – it’s entirely up to you.

The pad is physically pretty tiny, and you have to learn to use it … sort of… “in between” your notes, or, at the end of a series of notes – it CAN be used while you are playing, but that is hard – it’s possible, with some of the more standard sounds, like a jet flanger or a nice phaser, you can hold a finger on the pad while you are strumming or picking, but – it’s a difficult act of co-ordination, and really, you would be a lot better of concentrating on playing your notes properly, and using your stomp box flangers or phaser, and they very probably will sound better – and, they stay on, too, until you shut them off, whereas, the pad stops working as SOON as your finger or fingers lift off of it – and that makes it tricky to use as a “regular” effect (whatever THAT means lol).

However, the real strength of the Kaoss guitar, isn’t the more “standard” effects, but the ones that work well when used in between notes and in between phrases, like my best friend the vinyl break, but also, the large selection of various loopers are truly useful and give you some remarkable effects if used well.  It’s tricky, but, it’s do-able.

There are different ways to approach it, and I keep trying new things, or picking one of the 100 voices I am not as familiar with, and trying to see what I can do with it over a longer period of time – high pass filter, low pass filter, mid filters, you name it, it’s all there, there is even a decimator, which is an amazing patch – I absolutely love the decimator, it’s a brilliant sounding effect.  Most of the effects sound really good, but some of them are hard to use in the sort of “momentary” way you need to use this guitar to it’s best effect (no pun intended).

One trick I have found helpful, in making sure I co-ordinate playing a note or chord, and then, immediately applying the pad (before the more or chord fades away so much that the pad then does NOTHING to it – very embarrassing!) is by likening the pad to a whammy bar in your brain – a whammy bar used, of course, in the more usual way, where, at the end of a phrase or chord, you use it – well, the Kaoss pad works best that way.

Just as with the whammy, of course, you CAN whammy WHILE you are playing – but it is more difficult to do, and the results might not always be consistent.  So if you tell yourself to use it in the same times you might use your whammy -and if you are fortunate, it will work well – although there is no guarantee.  And that’s where you can have surprising and dismaying failures – let’s say you’ve worked out a part where, you stop playing and then do a move on the pad, a really dramatic move like a drop or a pitch shift of some kind, and you do it say, for four bars in a row, once each bar….and on the fourth one, you are a tiny bit too late on the pad – and out comes….silence.

That can be embarrassing, and even disappointing, because maybe that fourth amazing Kaoss swoop – should have been the most flamboyant and remarkable of the four in a row – but instead, you play three good ones, and the fourth one – just isn’t meant to happen.

So you lose an entire perfect take, because you timed your Kaoss sound off by nanoseconds – and that resulted not in an error, but instead, in a fail – a silence when your audience would clearly be expecting some kind of fantastical Kaossilator effect – and that is annoying!  I have lost solos and takes because of one failed or less than spectacular Kaoss swoop.

The remedy for that, of course – is more practice, and, of course, the more you practice, the less likely these time-based mishaps will haunt your kaoss playing.  No one said this would be easy – but sometimes, it is pretty easy to make the pad sound good, on other occasions, not so much so – but if you work at it, you can play some truly extraordinary and more importantly, utterly unique chord patterns, notes, guitar solos and sound effects – I mean, with 100 sounds to choose from, you have an enormous palette of high quality Korg effects with which to modify your beautifully clean or very distorted Ibanez guitar – and that to me, is a winning combination.

Beatle George – the influence of a leg end

I grew up in the Beatle Era. The Beatles invaded America when I was four, five years old. One of my earliest memories is of, standing on the lawn of the family home at 6728 Mineral Drive, in what is now San Carlos, California and hearing the sparkling guitars and soaring vocal harmonies of a new Beatles track called “Nowhere Man”. I’ve never been able to forget that moment, because from then on, the Beatles were “my band”.

I wanted to be George Harrison; I wanted a guitar for my ninth birthday, and, I got one. But I didn’t end up learning to play one properly until a bit later, when I was 12, 13 years old, and there were all these amazing new groups and albums like “Led Zeppelin II” or “No Time” by “The Guess Who”, so much amazing music to explore…

But I never ever got over my initial love for the music of the Beatles,and it really was, for me, the sound of the guitars that reeled me in, that caught my ears and my attention…in particular, the sound of George Harrison, who played a really magical role that was called “lead guitar”. The guy who had to be serious, had to play the most difficult parts live.  For several years, I only had albums by The Beatles…I mean, you don’t really need anything else, do you?
I wanted to be that guy, I really did want to be George – and later on, as George grew as a songwriter, turning out amazing tunes like his trio of songs from the “revolver” album:

Taxman

Love You To

I Want To Tell You

…surely, three of the most amazing “pop songs” ever written or recorded, sheer Harrison genius – nobody saw it coming, we all figured, Lennon and McCartney, those are the two guys to watch in this band, those are the writers….well, yes, but really, all four of the Beatles were the writers, and even Ringo wrote some great tunes…but for me, it’s always been all about George, those odd B-sides like the astonishing “Old Brown Shoe” or the seriously beautiful “The Inner Light”…where do songs that unique, that incredible, COME from?

The imagination of one man, Beatle George. The mind that brought us the wit of “Piggies” and the warning of “Savoy Truffle” but then there was his lead guitar playing too, not just on his own songs, but on many of those Lennon andMcCartney songs, too. A new kind of lead guitar, razor sharp fuzz tones, detuned guitars (think of the lead solo in “Fixing A Hole” from Sgt. Pepper) when you heard it, you knew it was George. A simply brilliant guitar tone, and a beautiful, concise style.

As the years progressed, George got into playing slide guitar, and very very quickly, developed a trademark slide guitar “tone” (think of the slide guitars on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” from the “Imagine” album) some of George’s finest slide work…you should hear the out takes from that session, too, on the Lennon box set…amazing slide guitar. But the special tone George got for his slide parts, which really only reached full maturity by the time of his second solo studio album, “Living In The Material World”, which, by the way, is an amazing collection of truly beautiful songs…you owe it to yourself to hear this record if you haven’t done so, so far…its quietly brilliant.

George was always economical with his guitar playing, he never over played, and it was that economy, which at first, was an enforced economy, it was Beatle-driven, here’s your eight bars George, go for it – so George learned to play well in a very small piece of allotted “solo” time. As time progressed, George did play some nice, longer solos, but that economy was always present, he always reigned himself in and never got boring or predictable.

You never knew what you were going to get with George, and his own songs were a mystery even to the other Beatles, who would bemusedly play on, say, 102 takes of a song like “Not Guilty” without complaint, as George continued the search for that elusive ‘perfect take’, and if it took 102 takes then that’s what it takes.

In some cases, no Beatles version was considered “good enough”, so we simply waited, and eventually we did get to hear the properly recorded version of the song “All Things Must Pass” – on a George Harrison record, not on a Beatles album. The same held true for “Not Guilty” where we had to wait even longer for George’s “perfected” version – again, on a George Harrison album, not on a Beatles album.
If you happened to own or know where to borrow the right Beatle bootlegs, then you might have at least heard the Beatles’ versions of “All Things Must Pass” and “Not Guilty” but most people had to wait until George put out the definitive editions of those songs.

 

I never minded waiting, although I do remember being very impatient to get George’s first solo album, the three LP “All Things Must Pass” and I first heard it in Uganda, in the home of some Peace Corp workers who had the brand new pre-recorded cassette version of the album, so that was very exciting, and then I got to hear it in Amsterdam, too, in a massive record store, complete with 60s erotic posters (“wow” was all I could say) – where I had to motion to the bored Dutch girl to turn the record over again, please…five times, because I didn’t know a single word of Dutch.

I finally purchased my own copy, in the Netherlands, and took it back to the USA with me, where I played it endlessly. The only record that excited me more than ATMP was the forthcoming “Concert For Bangladesh” which was another one I just couldn’t wait for, the idea was fantastic, half the Beatles plus Clapton and even the reclusive Bob Dylan…here were another six sides of amazing music, but amazingly, over time, it is Side One that stands the test of time the best, with Ravi Shankar on sitar, and the amazing Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakah on tabla…their piece of Bangladeshi folk music, “Bangla Dhun” just absolutely blows me away. These performers are at the top of their skill level, and are playing with speed, accuracy, and sheer musical joy….its amazing to see it in the film version, it truly is the best part of the concert!

That performance opened up my fourteen year old eyes to the sheer beauty of Indian melody and music, and I followed the careers of Shankar and Khan until the present day. Each the master of their instrument, I had George Harrison to thank for bringing that music into my life. And years later, that led me to a house concert at Ravi Shankar’s house in Encinitas, California, where I sat on the floor and listened to Ravi’s daughter play with the remarkable Bikram Ghosh on tabla…a remarkable “house concert” that I will never forget.

I was lucky enough too, to see Ravi and Anoushka performing live in more standard music venues, too and their music has always blessed my ears with its beauty.

So the influence of George Harrison changed me as a person, so much, that I went from being a fan of pop and rock, to being one who also loves the sarod, and loves listening to the master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, play the sarod. Sure, it started on TV, watching the famous Ed Sullivan show where the Beatles performed, and seeing how serious George was, playing his lead guitar lines so carefully and so perfectly, and taking his concise eight bar solo so carefully, too…

Then it was the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” watching George playing his intensely cool guitar parts on film, trying to analyse what he was playing, on something like “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” trying to understand what he was doing with his guitar parts and then, that mad solo…amazing stuff. All the while, singing his harmony vocal parts as if they were easy, as if the guitar part was easy, he made it look easy!

And then there was that tender rendition of “And I Love Her” the first great Beatle love song, and that was my first exposure to nylon string classical guitar, and George worked it out and played the lead parts beautifully in that tune…really simple, yes, but really effective and quite beautiful when you are a young George-guitarist-wannabe like I was…I thought that performance was incredible, and really beautiful…and a lot of that is down to how George handles the nylon guitar part.

That inspired me directly, seeing George play on TV and in films, and hearing him on record, too, on vinyl, was a true inspiration for a budding teenage guitarist such as myself. But later,by presenting the music of Ravi Shankar and friends to the Western world, that opened me up to an entire new universe of music. Thousands of years old oral traditions, of the sitar and the ragas, or rags, that Shankar learned from his teacher, that stretched.back in time, an amazing musical heritage and proud tradition…brought to me by Beatle George.

He really was The Quiet Renaissance Man of the Beatles, later, he brought an entire Indian orchestra into the studio to record “Within You Without You” in 1967…and in 1974, at the Los Angeles Forum, I saw a different Indian orchestra perform, led by Ravi Shankar, the opening act for the first of just two solo tours undertaken by George, live in 1974, playing brilliantly but with a hoarse voice…and again, in less stressful times, 1991 in Japan with his old friend Eric Clapton.

I feel so privileged that I got to see George play, and his guitar playing was awesome, including some of that amazing slide (in the first song, no less) and it was a night I’ve never forgotten. In fact, over time, I managed to see three of the four Beatles perform live…so I am very fortunate indeed. Only Lennon eluded me, but three out of four is not bad at all. At that 1974 Forum gig, George even played his specially modified version of Lennon’s “In My Life” and that was really cool.

George Harrison, the guitarist, was a huge inspiration to me as a kid, and I absolutely took up the guitar because of him, and the rest of the Beatles too. When I was a kid growing up, the Beatles were our heroes, and they raised the bar so high, that soon they became the benchmark to judge new groups by: “they’re OK, but they are not as good as the Beatles” – I don’t know how many times I said that about groups, or if a group was good, you’d say they were “almost as good as the Beatles”…it was the benchmark by which all other groups were measured, for years after the Beatles themselves broke up…we still judged new bends against their music….

Sure, in time, as I grew older, there came guitarists with more technical skill than George, but most of those players, probably looked up to the Beatles in the same way I did. OK, George was no Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, but, George did write “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Taxman” and “If I Needed Someone” and “The Inner Light” and “My Sweet Lord” and “Within You Without You” and “Here Comes The Sun” and…

I could go on, but you get it, I’m sure. George didn’t need to play like the proggers, because the proggers built their music on the back of the Beatles and atop the pop music from the end of the 60s, and George’s guitar playing was what it needed to be to realise those songs.

And that includes the whole of “All Things Must Pass” including the remarkable “Apple Jam” where we do get a hint of George’s guitar prowess, holding his own even against Clapton, and sounding amazing across the entire Beatles catalogue, from the very beginning, and on through his 1970 masterpiece, “All Things Must Pass” as well and also on  “Living In The Material World” – and occasionally on his later records.

Some of his best guitar work can be found on his 1971 solo album, “Living In The Material World” – especially “that slide” sound; but it cropped up whenever it was needed…on Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”, on the 74 and 91 tours…not to mention his standard soloing, on “Apple Jam”, on “Something”, where he famously asked to record the solo along with the live strings overdub, to get a more “live” feel for the solo – and of course, that was the take – the keeper. And what a beauty it is, too.

There are so many specific examples of great Harrison guitars, that I could just keep listing them, but instead, you should just listen…and you will hear them. I certainly did.

What I would give to be able to write a song like “The inner Life”. Or “Something”.  Or maybe one that is half as good :-).

Yes, I’d settle for that, thanks.

We miss you, George.