journey through the past – gear evolution – getting my gear together

so as a teenager, I was very, very fortunate, to have been born into the time I was, when prog rock was king and instrumental prowess was respected. to have met and worked with so many excellent musicians, to have learned from some brilliant players – and friends – jim whitaker, joe norwood, rick corierre, and my best friend and the most amazing keyboard player I’ve ever known, the late, great, amazing ted holding – may he rest in peace. to have the time to jam, learn, share to our heart’s content – and just play. all the time! what a luxury – I was very, very fortunate.

and then…life happened.  I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to describe what happened next, and it’s not simple or easy – but basically, while I’d worked an assortment of jobs starting when I was 15, when I was 20, I reached the point where I really needed to work full time – so by accident, I got myself hired on at a place where a friend of mine, jon pickerd (aka pfingsten), worked.

little did I realise then, that this would occupy the next 11 – 12 years of my life, that I would very quickly rise up through the ranks from general dogsbody to running the parts department to eventually becoming the service co-ordinator and second in command of the entire business. nor did I really realise the impact of having a full time job, what a negative impact that would have on music – well, at least an impact on how much time was available to play music.

the first thing I needed to do, was sort out my equipment. I’d bought a beautiful ibanez destroyer guitar (near exact copy of a gibson explorer) from my friend joe norwood (an amazing blues and slide guitarist) with, strangely, a customised pickguard made by none other than my friend and former band mate, mitch chavira, who often was the bass player in the same band that joe norwood and ted holding were in (joe was ted’s brother in law, and they were in many, many bands together during this time) – mitch was at the time, working for a plastics or manufacturing house, and joe had him make a special custom pickguard for the guitar, which looks much nicer than the strange, stock white pickguard that ibanez put onto the guitar originally.

I also changed the pickups, a couple of times – ending up with d’marzio pafs (patent applied for humbuckers) – which are still on the guitar today, some 34 years later 🙂

since I was now working, and had a little bit of money, I slowly started to put together some decent guitar equipment for the first time ever.  during the teenage years, I had never really owned an amp, well, for a brief period I did own a fender super eeverb, but other than that, I’d never needed one, I would usually play through ted’s carvin bass head, into one of ted’s homemade speaker cabinets.  effects were limited too, although at various times I owned a tattered second hand, but proper, arbiter red fuzz face (the same one hendrix used – of course) and the thomas organ version of the vox wah (so, a direct copy of the one hendrix used – of course) – but other than that, the only other “effect” I owned was my reel to reel tape deck with it’s “delay” switch – that I used as a guitar delay! – in the ted rick & dave (& jennings) jam sessions.

so slowly, I built up some reasonable gear.  quite quickly, I realised (partially from a lot of very, very good advice from joe norwood, who by this time was working at a series of various guitar shops – and he would let me trade gear up, it was great having a “pal” in the guitar store, I can tell you) that I didn’t really want or need a “guitar amp” – what I wanted was a clean power amp and stereo speakers.  so I bought some really good quality 12 inch celestion speakers, and two cabinets, and joe installed them for me – so I had my 2 1X12 celestion cabinets, and eventually, I was using an A/B single rack space power amp with them. (of course, fast forward to now, 2012, and I am feeling like I missed out – I want guitar amps – a fender, a marshall, a boogie, a roland jc-20…the list goes on.  when I win the lottery, I shall have at least one of each of these!).

that way, I would use devices, whether that was a preamp (I tried many, including the boogie preamp – the silver one, whose name escapes me) or multi-effects units (I had variously, a digitech dsp-128, robert fripp’s old roland gp-16 as well) until I eventually, much later, ended up with a digitech tsr-24S – a 24-bit reverb and multi-effects unit! imagine that – which was the state of the art at the time.

as time went on, I began to get delays capable of more and more delay time.  after having the dd-2 for many years, with it’s one second of delay, I set my sights on a digitech 8 second delay – at that time, that was the longest time available in a decently priced device (although I found it to be very, very expensive at the time – I think perhaps $240.00? or thereabouts) – but I eventually did get it (thanks again to joe norwood), so to suddenly go from 1 to 8 seconds of delay – wow.  and, you could even loop with it, using the special footswitches.  heaven!

now, this description of dave’s gear isn’t really following a strict timeline, nor do I have any idea what devices I got when…I just know, that a long, long series of experiments, changes, always trying different configurations, eventually I ended up with…whatever I ended up with!  I have broken the time into roughly 9-10 year “chunks” so I can have a point of reference, but after a while, it all becomes a big blur of pedals, racks and controllers 🙂

so ten, fifteen years of trying out different gear, different ideas, until I got a sound I was happy with – stereo, always, although that was mainly for my own listening pleasure – I see no point in having auto-panners, choruses, flangers, phasers, or reverbs if you can’t hear them in true stereo – no point at all.  playing guitar in stereo was rare back then – most players still used the “guitar plugged into fender or marshall or whatever” model that had been the standard for so long – but joe norwood was one of the first to have a stereo rig (with not a guitar amp in sight), and I immediately followed suit – and, joe – thank you!

I never looked back. it really was a case of searching for the right gear for the right sound, and over the long haul, as my playing evolved from regular rock guitarist into ambient loop guitarist, the gear slowly mutated with me – so I ended up, in my 30s, with – finally – some half decent equipment.  about time!

I didn’t have a lot of money, so there were a lot of things I would have liked to have tried, but never did – particularly effects, effects with mysterious and wonderful names, like “electric mistress” or “doctor q” or “memory man” – but over the period of the   “second period of gear evolution”, which I am placing very roughly at 1979 – 1988 (so, age 21 to age 30, approximately), I owned mostly boss stomp boxes at first, starting with things like the ce-2 (my first chorus, ever) and then the bf-2 (my first flanger, ever) – and at that time, in my early to mid 20s, these were like technological marvels compared to what had been available in the 70s when I was a teenager – I can remember being so, so thrilled, particularly, with the bf-2, that I plugged a microphone into it and sang bill nelson’s “uhf” into it, using the resonance control to make my voice sound like bill does on his vocal (note: I just found the tape of this, and while it doesn’t really sound like bill’s uhf…it sounds very wickedly cool – I loved that song, and now, my bf-2 could make me sound just like bill! astonishing technology.

I felt no compunctions about recording vocals through a stompbox – I didn’t know any better – and it sounded good to me!  so I just…did it. now, I probably wouldn’t do that – I would add the flanger after recording the vocal, of course, during post-processing, having recorded it “dry”.  but sometimes, not knowing that you “don’t do that” – was a great way to learn, and I achieved some remarkable sonic highs using these most primitive stompboxes to effect and treat tracks and even whole songs.

following these now-primitive modulation devices, after the chorus and the flanger, came the heavy-hitters – delays.  I went through so many delays – again, started with the most basic one, the dm-2, which did well under a second of delay – but still, a stomp box that was quality for it’s time, and eminently usable – I recorded not just my guitar, but also vocals with it…and then, a couple years later, I was thrilled when the dd-2 came out, because it boasted one full second of delay – and loop – unimaginable!  that was really impressive, and I actually had both pedals in my rig for a long, long time.

then there was the distortion side.  I tried many fuzz boxes and overdrives, and I used, variously, the boss hm2, the heavy metal pedal, and another one whose model number escapes me – maybe a dm-2…I think at one point, I may have had as many as eight boss pedals (why not?) hooked up in a long, long line – I also had a vibrato pedal, a vb-2 (of course!) and I am really not quite sure what else.  always a wah of some kind, usually, a clone of the cry baby – nothing fancy.

I did also at one point fairly early on, maybe even during the “first period of gear evolution” from 1971 – 1978 (so, from age 13 to 20, approximately), a mu-tron wah-volume, which was a very modern device, it was pretty cool.  I have no idea what happened to it! I do remember using at one very good live recording session with my friend rick corierre (of “ted, rick and dave” fame), a friend from junior high school who was an excellent drummer – we did several takes of the jimi hendrix song “drifting” which I then took home and overdubbed vocals on – such a beautiful, beautiful song.

mostly, though, I was into boss pedals, the small stomp boxes – they were relatively cheap, very durable, small, portable (although I can remember spending so many hours messing with making them powerable – making sure each power lead was exactly the required length – I almost never use batteries in effects) because back then, you could only really buy an adapter, you didn’t have products like the voodoo labs power supplies that they have now.  so many an hour was spent soldering connectors onto zip cable, and making customised extension plug strips full of adapters for pedals.

if you currently had eight pedals in your pedalboard – then you had extension strips with eight individual power supplies, each with a custom length cable to minimise hum and noise.  a nightmare to build and keep running, but I got pretty good at it in the end.

speaking of pedalboards – well, I will need to create a special edition of the blog that deals with pedalboards, because right up until 2005, when I stopped, I spent a huge amount of time, designing, re-designing, building, and re-building pedalboards.  I learned, and learned, and learned some more – what works, what doesn’t, and so on.  and slowly – the boards got better and better, the sound got better and better, and I made progress. I tended to photograph each one, so hopefully I can create a “stafford pedalboards through the ages” photo page on the audio companion page.

some of the first ones were horrible!  very primitive, I really struggled to make them work, but as I went on, eventually, I hit on a very simple but effective method of making them…in brief, a thin rectangle of plywood, spray painted black (several coats, so it would stay black as long as possible – they got beat up pretty quickly) – double-sided tape – multiple power leads from a single supply – short, custom length cables – and that was that.

so when I think of this decade, I think of slowly improving gear (and consequently, slowly evolving and improving sounds…) and a lot of hard work, designing pedalboards to handle whatever the latest technology was…routing considerations…cables, cables, cables, I used to make all my own cables so there would not be one inch of unneccesary cable in any of my boards – so that was hours of work in itself, and I became quite adept at making cables.

as time went on, better power supply options appeared, better routing options – better switching options – so it would be, ok, first, we have this a/b switch, so there can be two paths within one pedalboard – genius!  maybe one for the distortions and the modulators, and one for the reverb – or some other mixtures – like having two pedalboards on one, that you could switch back and forth between.  and then, a couple years later, another miracle product – the a/b/c switch – wow, three paths, really useful.  and for the rack mounted effects, special 3-switch digitech prorietary switches (I had two of them on my board, with 3 switches each) so I could control my rack devices from the floor…heaven.

of course, it wouldn’t be until the “third period of gear evolution” roughly 1989 – 1998 (from age 31 to 40, approximately) that we had things like dedicated MIDI pedals, when we then got complete control of rack devices, but, whatever the method, I was always the king of the pedalboard, because I wanted the flexibility of sound, and it was critical that both hands were free…

journey through the past – on the way to 21 and beyond

in trying to mentally catalogue all the bands I was in and projects I worked on during this time, it continually amazes me because I think I am done listing them, that I have listed them all, and then yet another comes to mind – of course, on the web site, I do mention “slipstream” * – a covers band I was in when I was about 20 or 21 (so, 1978 -1979) but, also in my early 20s, I was in a band with my friend michael dawson, a bassist who also plays many, many other instruments – he excels at bass, flute, sax, piano – we had met in a record store a long time ago now, both being very much into prog, so we formed this band – and it was a bit different from most of the bands i’d been in, because I picked some of the material – we played roxy music; “love is the drug” and talking heads; “psycho killer” – it was a trio, bass, guitar and drums, and is yet one more example of a band that I was in, for some period of time – and then maybe the drummer would quit, so I would move onto the next band or project…

*slipstream mark I lineup:

mike packard – guitar / lead vocals

elen maisen – lead vocals

dave stafford – lead guitar, keyboards, lead & harmony vocals

pat garrett – bass

lee walters – drums

(notes: later on, after the first year, we had a third guitarist briefly, but only for a few months – John, I believe – but the above lineup was the core group – also, elen couldn’t always rehearse and perform with us due to other commitments so she is on some recordings, and not on others).

we are hopeful that some live and studio tracks from slipstream will eventually appear on the “pureambient blog audio companion” web page which has been set up, but doesn’t yet have any audio content – we are working on that as we speak…

the dave stafford “cassette restoration project” is of course, bringing to light many, many interesting archival recordings, so once some basic cleanup is done with the digital captures from the cassettes, we will start posting samples of the music that we are speaking about here in the “journey through the past” series on the audio companion page.

I mentally consider that this “learning period” really ended when I was 20 or 21, because that was the time in my life where I had to “get serious” and get a regular day job, and of course the moment you do that, you lose a lot of time that was previously available to you to work on music.  i’d had jobs before, part time, full time, from when I was about 16 – 17 onwards, but once I was 20, I started serious work at a “real” company – and that led to not being able to practice, rehearse or perform nearly as much as I had in the prolific seven year period from 1973 – 1979.  which then, and still, now, I find very frustrating.
i still played in bands whenever I could, it just meant late nights during the week and then still having to get up and go to the day job, but luckily, when you are in your 20s, you still have enough energy to both work full time and play in a band.  or at least, sometimes I did.  so another set of bands went by, I was in a sort of hard rock band, two guitars, bass and drums, and we played a lot of material that was a bit strange for me – the who, ufo, cheap trick, things I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to or play – but that was a fun band, and we did a few good gigs in the beach area – it was based near the beach, although I have no recollection of who was in the band or what we were called!  no idea.

i also think the band with michael dawson, again, name unknown, was during this period of the early 20s…i was probably already working steadily when we met at the record store, and it was some time later that we actually started to play in a group, so I was maybe 22, 23 when we did that project.  I don’t think we ever recorded, and, similarly to pyramid, I don’t think we played any gigs (well, pyramid played gigs, but not their real, prog repertoire) and the band with michael had no repertoire except quasi-prog or things like the talking heads, so we never played any gigs at all!  but whether the band gigged or not, whether the band ever recorded or not – I learned something from each experience.  in some cases, I even ended up fronting the band – and one instance of that would be olympus, the prog band I was in.

this band was formed by an english guitarist and writer who played nylon string guitar – he had a bass player and drummer, and they brought me in to play guitar and keyboards.  but very quickly we realised that I had probably the best voice in the band, the writer/leader couldn’t really sing his own songs, so I asked him if he minded if I sang them.  he agreed (reluctantly, I think) so I would sing these songs, his lyrics, but making up my own melodies to suit whatever chord progression he had for each piece.  we had just two or three long songs that we really struggled to learn, and our drummer had a curious sense of time that made life difficult sometimes.  I remember doing a great live jam of “black magic woman” that was excellent – in fact, there were two guitarists, as well as the nylon guitar, bass and drums, so it was a good, full sound.  I did find myself in the curious position of fronting a very prog sounding band, so I adopted a singing style that was like my own weird cross between peter hammill and fish – with a california twang no doubt added in unavoidably.

i loved it.  I sang the songs with venom, I played keyboards, I played guitar solos using my new digitech dsp128, a great little unit, and we had a blast.  we worked really hard (somewhere, I have some rehearsals recorded) on our original music – and then one day, the singer just melted down.  he didn’t like the arrangements.  he didn’t like what i’d done to “his” songs, he didn’t like the way I sang them (only because he couldn’t) – he basically wanted to get rid of me, get rid of the drummer, and go back to his core three piece of nylon guitar, electric guitar and bass.  so he did.

again, as the “journey through the past” series unfolds, we hope to uncover the recordings of “olympus” and possibly present some of them on the “audio companion” page as the series continues over the new few months.

i was a little bit pissed off about the breakup of olympus in particular, because i’d invested a lot of time and sweat into this band – and then we just break up, without…you guessed it, yes, once again….ever playing a single gig.  the story of my life it would seem!  I was quite unlucky with bands, but, part of that has to be down to the essential unreliability of many musicians – (uh, no offence to anyone living or dead) let’s face it…musicians are not always the most reliable people 🙂

a few of the bands I was in lasted a year or so, slipstream managed maybe two if you count all the different versions – so at least some of the effort, the long rehearsals, lugging guitars and amps and drums about for years on end, paid off – well, not in financial terms, but in sheer enjoyment – even the worst moments, being in a cover band playing a song that you despise, for example (let’s say, an eagles or a fleetwood mac song) – can be vindicated when you get to play a song you love (let’s say, an allman brothers or a steely dan song) – and then, it’s all worthwhile – for that ten minutes or whatever it is, while you get to play the music that you love…

(for a moment, back on stage again, eyes closed, playing the guitar solos from “in memory of elizabeth reed”…)

special announcement – the pureambient blog “audio companion”

hello, this is a special announcement to formally introduce both the pureambient.com “cassette audio restoration” programme, as well as to introduce the brand new dave stafford / pureambient audio companion.

there are no audio files on the audio companion just yet, as we are just beginning to pull them off of the cassettes and catalogue them, but we’ve set up the structure of the page, and there are already some notes, photographs, and so on – we are very excited about the “audio companion” (please use the link to your right on the blog side bar to access this feature of the blog) as this will be a place where we can upload historic audio clips, recently digitised from cassettes, which will be real time examples of the projects, bands and performances dave has been describing in the “journey through the past” series of posts about the early days of his music.

at first, we will be “catching up” a bit, we’ll be presenting some of the very earliest examples of dave stafford music, as described in previous blog posts in the “journey through the past” series, and then as things proceed, we will gradually move through the various bands and cover bands that dave was in, on up into the late 80s and the beginnings of the dozey lumps and bindlestiff.  you’ll hear the struggle to learn the instrument, you’ll hear dues being paid in the form of “having to” perform songs that are not to one’s personal taste, and you’ll hear triumph when rock, prog rock and experimental music are the order of the day, evolving over time into looping, ambient and a host of other very personal musical forms.

the “cassette audio restoration” programme will also lead up to and incorporate the creation of the planned “lost” 1994 bindlestiff album, “longest”, so we are excited that we are moving towards the beginning of that ongoing virtual release – a large number of rehearsal tapes were made that year, with a lot of good music on them, none of which has ever been captured or heard since – so that’s another very exciting aspect of the “audio companion”.

of course, the official releases are all available on the pureambient store at any time, and, you can hear free audio samples of many of the same tracks on the various discography pages for each artist, but it’s our hope that by adding in another stream of rougher, “audio verite” performances captured via the medium of the cassette, that it will increase the musical richness of the standard catalogue through alternate takes, live versions, prototypes, sketches, covers of other artists, even comedy – there is absolutely going to be something for everyone both in the written word of the ongoing “journey through the past series”, but at the same time, in the songs, ideas, and realistic view of an artists’ life – the good, the bad, the ugly and the ridiculous – all presented in the finest digital sound available for free streaming or download on the  brand new “audio companion” page.

additionally, all of the tracks will receive a basic cleanup – boosting levels, removing hiss and hum, but some of the material may be presented in both it’s raw form, and in enhanced form – there is the opportunity to do something unusual here, and I could easily see myself adding new parts, or vocal harmonies, or new solos, to material I, or one of my groups, recorded back in the distant past.  it should be a lot of fun – please come along for the ride !!!

see you there…on a journey through the past

journey through the past – late teen years

it is with great fondness that I remember my teenage years, from 13 – 20, almost always in a band, and if not in a band, recording with ted or others, or hanging around with whatever band ted was in at the moment (he was always in great demand because he could both sing and play really, really well – whereas I was more into prog, so no one wanted a proggy lead guitarist for their band…which was fine with me).  occasionally, I might get up on stage with ted’s band of the moment, to play, perhaps, “fire” by jimi hendrix or something more banal, like whatever foreigner or other pop drivel they were forced to play – but, it did occasionally get me back onto a stage with an audience – always good to keep your hand in!

we really did have a fantastic time, yet, at the same time, we learned our trade, we learned to play our instruments properly, instead of just in a cursory way as it was at first – I made the first leap from age 13 – 15 – at 13, I was barely competent with chords, much less lead;  at 15, I could already play lead and had learned huge chunks of albums by hendrix, cream, zeppelin and anything you put in front of me – so by 15, I had some gained some competence as a lead guitarist.

then the next growth period would have been from 15 – 17, where I was in bands still, but at the same time, learning more about rock, blues, and the beginnings of prog, too.  the final big push would have been from 18 – 20, where prog came in full on, and I started learning king crimson on guitar and van der graaf generator on piano and vocal – a decidedly and radically different experience and repertoire from the beatles and ccr that we favoured back when I was 13.  in 5 short years, I had gone from learning the two note solo in “born on a bayou” to memorising the fripp solo from “easy money” live on usa, or the riff from crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic part ii”.

but, it was also, perhaps, the most remarkable five years music had known, and I was lucky enough to be there during those years – call it 1973 – 1978 very roughly speaking.

it was during 1976-1978 too, that I worked with pyramid, a band that actually dared to learn and play prog.  that was mike the drummer, mike the guitarist, and myself. although for performance purposes I was often relegated to the bass role, in rehearsal, it was always two guitars and drums, and I loved the repertoire we had – this was the band that could play all of nektar’s “remember the future” album – two 20 minute-long pieces – an entire album!  our repertoire was varied and amazing, everything from the incredibly difficult and complex “ten years gone” by led zeppelin, to “red” by king crimson (me on bass for that, although sometimes, guitar), we played a mix of rock and prog that was a blast to learn and perform.  and as far as I recall, the only gigs we played, we never played that repertoire, but instead, learned a whole new rock repertoire with weird things like “shakin’ all over”, or robin trower, “day of the eagle” and so on, for our real gigs.  so the amazing prog repertoire, that we worked on for probably a year, never was recorded, never was performed – we just played it. a real shame, because since that time, I was only in one other prog band – that lasted about five months and then collapsed.

it is amazing to me to look back now at this quite brief period, and realise just how many different bands I was in at different times, how many songs I must have learned and forgotten and relearned and forgot once again – cream’s “politician” or led zeppelin “the rover” or “one more red nightmare” by king crimson – none easy to learn, but I was so fortunate, because I do have the “ear for music”, I could usually work out any tricky riffs or problematic chord sequences that my fellow musicians might struggle with.  so we learned songs – played songs – forgot songs – learned songs for one-off gigs, and instantly forgot them again – or worse still, walked into a 3 hour gig with 20 minutes of prepared material

that’s when you learn to improvise, to stretch each song out to 20 minutes so you have enough material – to make songs up on the spot, whatever it takes to get through that commitment.  it was both frightening and challenging at the same time.  luckily, a lot of the music of the time was eminently suited to both being learned quickly and extended to any length – so a song like “southern man” by neil young – easy to learn, but, you can solo forever on those three chords, as long as you might want or need.  so that was one song that I could always bring to the table when a looming gig threatened to expose just how little real repertoire the band of the moment might have had.  very helpful to have all those songs in reserve, to be pulled out when needed.

riff-based songs are useful here too, because if need be, you could just show the band the riff on the spot, start playing it, and they would “pick it up” and just follow your lead.  that’s a fun way to learn a song – just start playing it, even when you know the band doesn’t know it – cruel, but fair – and, to their credit, most bands responded really well, and some great jams came out of that learning style too.

I even tried my hand at putting together a power trio, but it was difficult especially to find good, reliable bass players.  I did briefly, at age 20, have a little trio going – including my drummer pal rick corriere, who I’d known since junior high school – seven long years ago at that point – we played things like jimi hendrix’s “third stone from the sun” which was a great piece to improvise on.  but it never went anywhere, so I would just move onto the next jam, band or work on my own on my own piano and guitar skills.  I began too, to play the piano a lot, and a lifelong interest in the songs of peter hammill began – first due to exposure to the music of his band “van der graaf generator” but later also, his solo albums, where his thoughtful lyrics and absolutely unique voice really resonated with me personally – so I learned many, many of his songs, and I spent a few years learning, playing and singing both van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, on the piano mostly.  somewhere, I have a piano and drum version of “still life” that I played with zappa alumni drummer tom freeman in 1990, at the “luxury yacht” session (bryan had disappeared briefly to attend to something, so I dove into the track, and tom instantly fell in with me – remarkable! – one take) – I took the raw recording of piano and drums away, and sang a vocal over it – I am hoping to find that recording and perhaps eventually release it – as well as a number of other early self-recorded versions of hammill songs.

…two of which I have just located on the dozey lumps live tape I just copied to digital, so I am starting my small collection of previously unreleased covers of peter hammill songs.

and if I find only a few…well, I may just have to re-learn some of them and play them in the here and now with my beautiful eighty-eights 🙂

journey through the past – mid-teen years – a strange diversion

journey through the past – mid-teen years  it was also during this time, around age 16, that I got involved with christian bands (quite unlikely in itself for someone heavily into led zeppelin, jimi hendrix, cream, and zz top) – but, nevertheless, I was in two of them that I can remember, one, an early one formed again by mike lewis, and then the second one, “soul benefit” when I was probably 16 going on 17 – and both of these did gig quite a bit, playing covers of larry norman, as well as several original christian songs penned by none other than the redoubtable and very flexible mike lewis. I was sort of like the token hippie in the band, the one guy who had long hair, and would still rather play “smoke on the water” than play lead guitar for his pal mike – but I did it because it was work, it was audiences, it was recognition – and occasionally, maybe, it was a tiny bit of money, too – what a concept, gigs that paid. but it was known to happen.

this phase of christian rock lasted for less than two years, off and on, and, again, two good bands with good players, particularly soul benefit, because when I started I was 16 and the bass player and drummer were “older” – 17 or 18 – so it was good to get the experience of playing with a more mature, and better than many, rhythm section. oddly enough again, I did run into the bass player from this band just a few years ago – not long before I moved from california to scotland – mitch chavira, who I learned had ended up owning a carpet company – we had a couple of good chats about these days. but, thinking back now to those formative times – I really had a great musical education, and the secular bands I was in listened to and played the music of the recent past and of the present – beatles, cream, hendrix as well as the music of the moment, zz top, van morrison, neil young (we couldn’t play zappa, it was far too complicated, and you could not learn it by ear easily) – I remember teaching jim how to play the riff from black sabbath’s “paranoid”, we played allman brothers, anything that we fancied – always music with a lot of lead guitars :-).

it was pretty amazing living in a house full of guitarists, guitars, guitar amps, and records – that was pretty much all we had! at age 16, I started spending a lot more time over at my pal ted’s house, and I really think that despite a great grounding and a lot of early experience in bands and learning songs and riffs and techniques from age 13 to 15, it was really during the years 16 – 20 (so, 1974 to 1978) that it all really started to come together. ted and I loved to play music, and we were best friends, so generally, every evening, we would work in his studio – which was a giant bedroom in his parent’s house, downstairs – and the funny thing about it was, the entrance was the window – I can remember carrying guitars and amps and effects in and out of that window continuously, for years – otherwise, you would have had to go upstairs, through the whole house, back downstairs, through the garage to get to the room – so it was just easier to use the window!

and it was a great place to play: a big, big room, and ted, as well as being a pianist, was also into pa systems, and building speaker cabinets, and he had weird and wonderful technology like “power amps” and exotic things like that, so we always had the best speakers and amplification and mixing boards to play through – all mostly unknown luxuries to me at that age.  later, we would stage elaborate  jam sessions at night (some of which, I still have on tape) with either one or two drummers, so we really had a great time in “ted’s studio”. the jamming group was called “trd” (for ted, rick and dave) or occasionally, “trdj” (for ted, rick, dave and jennings) when we had the second drummer. we would just jam, and tape the whole thing, and hope to get good bits.

we would spend hours just setting the studio up, ted was absolutely meticulous about sound and sound quality for our recordings of improvs, so we would carefully set up and mike up both drum sets. on some occasions, I played my guitar through my reel to reel deck so I could use it’s delay – I couldn’t afford effects pedals, so I used my tape deck as a primitive analog delay – that was fantastic! ted by this time had expanded his keyboard ability to take in both hammond organ and a primitive string synthesizer, the arp omni – and he was good. at the same time, music itself was changing radically – progressive rock had arrived – and ted and I shared a love of bands like genesis, elp and so on.

earlier on, when we were younger, we had recorded things like “no reply” by the beatles, or “questions 67 and 68” by chicago – but now, we were playing something that sounded more like prog, with extended organ and guitar solos atop our crazy dual drum section. I can remember learning and playing fragments of strange selections like the intro to “lilywhite lilith” by genesis – although we couldn’t quite manage the actual song! this was a time too, when I was learning a lot from ted, about the piano. he would learn things like the amazing arpeggio that powers the elp classic “take a pebble” – and I would get him to teach it to me. now that is something that I could admire, but not learn – while ted had the chops – he’d had lessons where I really didn’t – and he had an ear as well, so he could learn and figure out quite complex piano parts that I could not…so when he did, I would then get him to teach me how it went. there are still songs and bits that I play today, that ted taught me – that I could never have figured out using my ear.

pieces like “anyway” by genesis (again, from “the lamb lies down on broadway”, which was just out in 1974) or parts of “the lamia” – we both really loved “the lamb”, or the aforementioned elp part – anything he learned, I would ask him to teach me – which he patiently and very kindly  – did. so my ability to play the piano absolutely leapfrogged ahead of my ability on guitar for a while, because I was learning from one of the best – ted holding. and ted could sing – a remarkable talent, and he invariably ended up being the lead singer of any band he had anything to do with – he had the voice. but his ability as a keyboardist was often overlooked because the attention would be on the singing – which was great, but I saw him as an incredibly talented pianist, and I wanted to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. what this meant was, that by the time I was say 18, I could play pieces on the keyboard that most people would only dream of being able to play – which was cheating, because ted had done the hard work of figuring out those difficult pieces – and then I just copied them from him. but that helped me so, so much, and from that point on, I actually was a force to be reckoned with on the piano – because with my ear, I could also improvise, adapt, alter and improve any piece I learned.

I later put this to good use in 1978 when I was in the band “slipstream” as lead guitarist and keyboardist – I could quickly learn pieces on the piano, so I learned steely dan’s “barrytown” and we played that – but at the same time, since I could improvise, I could play the keyboard with equal alacrity on “superstition” or “in memory of elizabeth reed” – a song where I had the double duty of playing the organ part and the lead guitar part, and both the organ solo and the lead solo – no mean feat for a 20 year old self taught guitarist/pianist. i could and probably will write a lot more about those formative years, particularly the years at ted’s place, where I learned so, so much, both on piano but also as a guitarist, and where also, we had a blast playing music all the time, day and night. I can remember too, ted’s dad, who sat upstairs with the tv blasting every night (because we were so loud, and directly below his feet!) who would shout down in his unique voice…”ted…telephone!”. preceeded of course, by stamping on the floor to get our attention below 🙂

ted’s parents were separated at some point during all this, but they were both wonderful and wonderfully patient with all the racket coming from that downstairs room. but I suppose it was good for them, because if we were down there playing or recording, well, then we weren’t out getting in trouble! so it was all good. we did go out, but not for trouble – one of ted and my favourite things to do was to go to julio’s, a mexican restaurant in san diego that stayed open late, we would play for three or four hours, listen back to the tapes, and then at about midnight say “julio’s”? and we’d be away – which is where I learned to love chilli rellenos and we would drink and eat far too much good food, and stay at julio’s until 2 am – talking about music, what else? – and then eventually make our way home…

journey through the past – early years continued

[…continued from the previous edition]

 

while I still lived in uganda with my family (from 1967 – 1971) we would sometimes take the train or drive across uganda, then across all of kenya (crossing the absolutely spectacular rift valley, I might add) to the seaside town of mombasa, on the indian ocean.  we stayed at a resort called coraldene, well, not quite a resort, but you had a small dwelling with a grass roof, a restaurant on a big open patio overlooking the beach and that amazing sea, and, the best part (besides the ocean itself, the coral reef, the tide pools, the surf, the sun, the sand…and the most beautiful beach in the universe) for an aspiring guitarist of 11 years of age – a live band.

this was the first live band I had ever seen, and I don’t remember much about them, except they were kenyans (since we were in kenya, that made sense) and of course, I befriended the lead guitarist, bombarding him with questions, and learning whatever I could – it’s odd, from this distance in time and space, the strange details you remember – I don’t remember the name of the band or the guitarist, but strangely, I remember the brand of all of their amps: teisco.  now, I’d been reading fender and gretsch and gibson catalogues for a couple years already, so I’d seen amps before in pictures, but never in person.  it was a wonderful feeling, standing up there inches away from the band, hearing them playing, watching the guitarist play his lead parts (I can close my eyes and still see this happening) – this was all on a large, outdoor patio, and after the band quit, there was limbo with fire (more entertainment directed at the white tourist I am afraid) but I was far more entranced with the band than anyone was…

that early exposure to live music really set me on fire, I really, really wanted an electric guitar – which I did get within the next year or so, and I really wanted to make that sound – that lead guitar sound that I’d heard george harrison make, and I was now hearing this unknown african rock band make their own sound, through what were doubtless super cheap imported from britain guitar amps, and no name electric guitars – but, it sounded great to my ears.  the only song I remember that they played, again, so strange what you remember, was their cover of “yellow river” by lou christie, which of course came out sounding more like “della reeba” when sung by a kenyan who was almost certainly pronouncing the words phonetically rather than actually knowing or understanding what those words meant – singing by rote as it were, by ear.

later, as we travelled to and from africa (we had a 3 month break back in california at the two year mid-point of our four year stay in uganda) the family went on a 4-day cruise in the mediterranean sea and again, there was a live band on board, and in this case, I befriended the drummer, who loved nothing more than to stroll around the decks at night playing his acoustic guitar – which he very kindly let me play – I taught him the rather unusual major/minor/major/minor chord sequence to bob dylan’s “lay lady lay” (which was a radio hit at the time) which he really enjoyed. that places that memory in probably late 1969, a world away in time now…

 

so at age 11 – 13, I was beginning to collaborate with other musicians, even if only on a very, very small scale – but, once we returned to california, those collaborations would expand and grow and I would end up playing in a very large number of bands between the ages of 13 and 21 – so many bands that I actually cannot put a number on it, but that was the time to be playing, when you are young and full of energy – so, play I did.

journey through the past – early years

(continuing from previous post…)

when I was 13, we returned home to san diego from our four year stint in uganda, so I arrived, electric guitar in hand, ready to conquer the world with my four chords and my ability to learn by ear.

it was not long before an ambitious bass player named mike lewis, from the junior high school I went to, included me in the line up of a band he was trying to form, which also included a young pianist with long blonde hair and an incredible talent, who later became my best friend, ted holding – a skinny drummer named mike brooks – and that was the first band I was ever in.  all four of us were at the tender age of 13, but we all loved music and loved to play music, so we tackled and learned the songs of the day – neil young, elton john, the beatles – even though I really could not play lead guitar, since I had a guitar and was willing – I became the lead guitarist.  I don’t know if this band had a name, I certainly can’t recall if it did, but it was just the first of several bands I was in – sometimes at the same time – because it seemed like everyone wanted to be in a band, and I ended up not long after, in a completely different band, one with three guitarists and no bass player (there is a photo of this group on the web site, on my artist page) – so 1971 was a pivotal year – finally putting all my self-taught guitar skills to actual work, learning just how hard it is to be in a band, but really enjoying the process – learning lots of songs, actually learning how to play a little bit of lead guitar (oh how I struggled with that at first…chords were one thing…but lead – impossible!) and generally having a fantastic time.

i can remember, in that first band, practicing at mike lewis’ house, ted at the piano with his face completely hidden by his hair, seeming to be shy but not really shy at all – in fact, he actually had a better voice than our leader, mike, who fancied himself the band’s star – bass player, guitarist and lead singer – but ted was extraordinarily talented, and his piano playing blew me away.  I began picking his brain, asking him to teach me things he played – and that process went on for the next seven or eight years.  I learned an enormous amount about the piano from ted, I really did.  I recall too, sitting with mike lewis with our acoustic guitars, because we would have sessions without the full band to learn songs to take to the band – I can remember we played neil young’s “the needle and the damage done” and we also did a lovely duet of the beatles “julia” with it’s revolving vocal…we had a blast!  mike had more than his fair share of enthusiasm which more than made up for any shortcomings he might have had as a vocalist or bass player – he could inspire and propel any band, and he formed many bands – and I was in a lot of bands with him, for about four or five years running.  strangely, many years later, I ran into mike again, who was by then, an inspector who came to the company I was working at to inspect some parts we were manufacturing for his company!  we had lunch – it was very odd to see him after so, so long – same old mike 🙂

sadly, I was not to ever have a reunion with my best and dearest friend ted, I found out recently, that he passed away quite suddenly a few years back, which saddened me greatly, as we were very close friends for many, many years, and we made a lot of great music together. and as a musician, I learned more from ted than almost any other fellow musician – in fact, the only person I learned more from (because I was fully an adult then) was robert fripp – but that again is yet another story for yet another time.

between the ages of 13 and 15, was a time of huge growth for me as a person and as a musician.  my hair grew long and I would not cut it (the style of the day, and the proud badge of a “rock musician”) and I very quickly graduated from the music of creedence, to much, much heavier music – starting with led zeppelin, who were a huge influence on me, and I can remember as I bought each zeppelin album, I would sit and play each one over and over and over, and see what I could imitate or learn.  after several months of this, I found I could play large chunks of “led zeppelin i” with a fair degree of accuracy.  occasionally, I would get to play those songs live – I can remember one instance having the opportunity, at a late night jam session, to play “communication breakdown” with one of my favourite bassists – he sang and played bass, and I got to play guitar and try to play that amazing solo.  I am sure my version was nothing as good as jimmy’s, but, it was pure joy to play zeppelin songs – with abandon.

i can remember another jam session where I was one of two guitarists and we did “little wing” by jimi hendrix, and that was like a dream come true too – I love playing hendrix, so to be able to do so with a band (instead of on my own, in my room, in rehearsal) was another cause for celebration.  I did an ok job, although being very young, of course there were all these “older” guitarists (like, 17, 18, 19 years old) that could blow me away with a feather, but I just kept going, and gradually, I acheived a modicum of ability.

at 15, I left home and moved in to a house with three other guitarists – and all we did was play guitar – sometimes all four of us at once!  I learned a lot living at that house, with another good friend of mine, jim whittaker.  jim had been my neighbour earlier on, when I was about 17 (and he was a bit older, maybe 21) and we’d played guitar together for a few years at that point – so I moved in with jim and his pals, don and darrel – and we proceeded to have the time of our lives.  there were three big dogs in the house, one of which was mine, so it was always a fun house – and we had a “guitar room” – and that was were it all happened.

so we would sit at night in the living room, and listen to the music of the day.  the two records that really knocked me out at this point in time were “tres hombres” by zz top and “apostrophe” by frank zappa.  we could not believe how good these players were, and “tres hombres” in particular got a lot of airplay.  I would say, none of us could play anything from either of those albums – so we weren’t that good yet.  we played what we were capable of – but I will tell you, it was a great place to hang out, because each of us brought something to the table – jim would teach me songs or riffs he had learned, I would teach him songs or riffs I had learned, and all four of us would play at whatever skill level we were at.

the guitar I had at this time was a fender jaguar, which became very fashionable later on, but it was a great little guitar and I really loved it.  I never, ever owned an amp (couldn’t afford one) so was always borrowing someone else’s amp (usually, jim’s, he was generous to a fault and I really owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his kindness and his unswerving friendship – he looked out for me like a little brother).  he had a few amps, so I would use one of his.  I do remember at one point I actually did own an amp, a fender super reverb, but I think it blew up or something – not sure, so I always seemed to be without my own amplification…

meanwhile, hanging out at ted’s place later on, I would always play through bass amps or whatever was lying about – I didn’t really buy my own amps, because I was often broke – until I was about 20 and needed to have one so I could play in the covers bands I was in then.

 

~ to be continued ! ~