Vomiting Makes You a Professional

I started to play guitar relatively late; I was a high school graduate before I ever picked up an electric guitar with the intention to actually play it, however poorly. Like most wannabe rock stars, I strummed clumsily on a cheap acoustic guitar on and off for several years inevitably putting it down in favor of the far easier pretend guitar, sometimes referred to as “air guitar” by lonely, socially awkward persons. Just a cursory glance at YouTube will bring forth an army of child virtuosity, each playing an instrument exceptionally but often with an air of bored detachment that brings to mind some forced pageant parent working furiously in the background. Give me the kid who posts terrible video of himself playing some equally terrible Korn song any day. That’s the kid that possesses the real potential to be an amateur professional.

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I sometimes like to argue that I am a professional musician. Or at least I might unequivocally state that playing music is my second job; simply because I have been paid to play music. I have never been paid very much to play music; although I typically get paid more to play boring cover songs than I get to play original tunes. I also do not get paid for every gig as I will happily play for free in most circumstances. I am an amateur professional; I have never asked for money to play a gig, but I will certainly take it when offered. Yes, getting paid in beer and/or whiskey still counts as payment.

There are many great musicians out there who are able to make a living through music. There are also many very talented musicians who are not able to make a living wage from music and are required to take another job to get by. There are also piles of musicians who think that they offer the value of entertainment to the world and bemoan their lack of “breaks”. I do not mean to belittle these folks with my claims of amateur professionalism. Also, let us agree that some of these would be non-amateur professional musicians are boring, unpleasant humans in skinny jeans propping up an inflated self-image.

If we remove payment for the service of entertainment from the equation, how else might one determine if that particular musician is amateur professional or amateur amateur? The particular behavior that raises my hackles is when the band that is not playing last does not start breaking down and vacating the stage the moment they are finished. When you wander around listening to your mom and uncle tell you how much your band rules while the next band is trying to setup…you are an amateur musician but professional asshole. Get your gear off the stage and mingle like Jon Bon Jovi later.

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When I was in college, I went to a gig at a bowling alley in Rutland, VT. The guitar player in the band was the buddy of a buddy. I did not know the guitar player or the band. As is often the case at these types of shows, the band was good and the night was fun. What my buddy found so impressive was that guitar player was drunk; he played the show; and at some point, vomited behind his amp but did not stop. He simply kept the rock coming. I did not know any of this at the time, but heard about it on the way home. My buddy called it the epitome of a professional guitar player. I might argue that playing sober is a touch more professional, but why quibble.

Last year, I played a gig with my cover band at a rather typical dive bar. Our singer has a killer voice and is really fun on stage. She is comfortable haranguing patrons who might be trying to sneak out the door unobserved and she is comfortable drinking Newcastle Brown Ale. At some point during the gig, she looked at me sort of crooked. While maintaining eye contact, she vomited up the big swig of beer she just drank. In my shock and awe, I screwed up my next part. She just went back to singing like the professional that she is.

Drummer as Frontman

Quick, think of a band where the drummer is the frontman. Go ahead, I will give you a few minutes to mull it over. Why are you still struggling? It was a trick question of course. It is simply not possible for a drummer to be a frontman for any band. Drummers are sitting down; kicking and hitting resonant membranes with their feet and sticks. A frontman is standing up; running around; playing guitar or bass or at least air guitar at the appropriate moments; performing go jumps and scissor kicks. And singing (shouting, growling, wailing, etc.) A drummer cannot be a frontman because a drummer is sitting down.

Yes, there are bands where the drummer is singing. There are bands where the drummer not only sings well, but he or she also plays the drums well. Some of these bands are cool and sound pretty great. There are even bands where the stage arrangement has the full drum kit right up front, as silly as that might be to picture in your non-drummer, normal person head. But even in these benefit-of-the-doubt scenarios, one simply cannot successfully defend the silly idea that the drummer is a frontman.

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Frontman and singer are not interchangeable words. They do not mean the same thing. Let’s start with the reasonable assumption that most bands have a singer. Not all of these bands have a front man. Depending on the context, a band with a singer but not a frontman is perfectly fine. However, if you have a drummer who is the singer, your band has no frontman, even when your drummer makes such nonsensical, outlandish claims to the contrary.

Avoiding the word “most”, I will state that many drummers harbor usually not-so-secret desires to be the frontman. I played with a drummer who was so eager for that frontman adulation that his very first question about any gig at a new venue was, “Is there a drum riser?” Sad indeed. This very same extremely skilled drummer would often play different beats and very different fills during our previously well-rehearsed live set so as to accentuate his mad skillz and stick twirls. Mostly stick twirls. Despite this self-described “sick stage presence, bro”, he was still just a drummer. Not a frontman.

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One day we were kicking around the idea of covering Baby Got Back by Sir Mix A lot. Not an outstanding song, but recognizable and could be fun by adding punk rock guitars to the whole deal. Our rapper did not think this was a good idea. Our drummer immediately jumped up and sort of rapped his way through the first verse. Not good; but respectable enthusiasm paired with terrible flow. At our next gig, I stopped the show and invited Mr. Drummer out front to deliver the Baby Got Back rap. While he fake protested that he could not possibly do it (while taking out his in-ears and stepping out from the drums), he came up to the mic. Our rapper supplied the beatbox and then…nothing. A drummer like a deer in headlights.

Not a frontman.

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We Made a Video

Right at this moment I am a member of four active bands. Upon reflection, I do not think that participating in this number of bands is odd or excessive. Each band is very different, and while I play guitar in all of these bands, my contribution is specific to each collective. From a time commitment perspective, it is all rather easy since as I often half-jokingly respond when questioned; I play music every day, so it may as well be with other people.

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The reality is that only two of the bands have a regular weekly rehearsal schedule. In the punk rock machine, the other three members all live in Munich, Germany resulting in playing, writing, recording, rehearsing, and gigging when we are all on the same continent, which is about four times a year. This seemingly untenable schedule works remarkably well. Doping the Void has been active since 2008 and we have become a tightly efficient, drama free, Underberg fueled noise brotherhood. Each member just sort of naturally does his part as dictated by the laws of intra-band evolution and punk rock tunes emerge.

My most active band is a Chicago based routinely rehearsing, continuously writing and regularly gigging entity known as an Asian film. This band started out with me on guitar and a bassist with whom I had been playing in a cover band. We quickly added a drummer. Then we added a guitarist who sometimes showed up and usually did not know how to play any of the songs. Then the bassist passively quit by providing excuses for not being able to play for months at a time. The drummer and I toyed with the idea of forging ahead as a two-piece. Then we tried Craig’s List. After a couple of attempts we ended up with a bass guy who played a lot of notes. Then the other guitar player moved away. Usual band gestation stuff.

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We did a few shows and it was fine. Nothing remarkable, but fun enough. For one gig, we decided to add a rapper to the mix for a few tunes and it was a revelation; at least for me. A true front man with gobs of energy and mad rhymin’ skillz. We dutifully rented a van and went out for a short run of shows as a rock band with a rapper grafted on to the front. The shows went decently well overall, but it became blue skies clear that one of the puzzle pieces was from a different board game. After returning, we deliberately became a three piece; back to me plus the drummer and a hip hop star. It only took two years to figure out that this line-up was the natural state of this band in this multiverse.

A few months ago, we shot a video for our song Wheaties. The concept is exactly what you see. We go bowling. Furries are at the alley. We drink with them. The drummer gets into a fight with a particularly large Furry. We run away. Classic stuff really since everyone knows that drummers are problematic. Despite the stereotypes that you may have seen on TV about Furries, they were all awesome and really fun to shoot this video with. People who dress up like animals to go bowling and have fun. How could one not see the good time to be had? They were way cooler than many musicians I have known.

I really want to play at a big Furry Convention. Now that would be a gig. FurFest; contact us!

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Try Not to be That Guy

A few years ago I was the drummer in a 90’s alterna-rock cover band. You know the drill; guitar based rock and pop songs played pretty close to the original. Just at a different tempo. And sloppier. Some cool and mercifully energetic songs mixed with many other songs that are not bad so much as dreadfully boring. If you go to sports bars in the suburbs of any American city on a Saturday night, you have heard some variant of this band.

We practiced and attempted to choose songs that we liked to compliment the songs that drunk, suburban former frat dudes wanted to yell “woo” to. We enjoyed playing together and definitely did not take the whole band thing too seriously. We were usually paid for our efforts and were always pleasantly surprised when we loaded out with money in hand after our bar tab was subtracted.

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One day, our suburban 90’s alterna-rock cover band was asked to play a private birthday party. Of course we said yes, because why the hell not? Playing shows is always more fun than not playing shows. This birthday party was in fact the big fiftieth party for an acquaintance who played in a cover band himself. His band played classic rock covers and material more well-traveled than our thing. They played close to the originals and were pretty serious about being a suburban cover band. So serious that they couldn’t possibly stoop to playing at their own member’s birthday party. Even though they were all there. Also, they had horn players. That means something; you decide if that something is good or bad.

We played a bunch of songs in our usual style. People seemed to dig it, as was usually the case. Birthday Boy definitely enjoyed it, but I am not sure if his bandmates shared that enthusiasm. All musicians judge other musicians. No matter one’s relative skill level. That is just the way it works, so let’s not pretend otherwise. We all have different reasons for why we play an instrument and those reasons influence how we view other players; particularly those individuals who have chosen to play the instrument we have chosen.

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Our band never had a “band leader”, mostly because it seems silly for a suburban cover band made up of adult persons to require such a role but also because no one in the band was “That Guy”. You know, the guy that wants to talk to you about your “stage clothes” when playing in the corner of a dank bar or wants to talk to you about your practice regimen before rehearsal. That Guy.

Birthday boy’s band definitely had That Guy. At some point during the party, it was decided that the serious suburban cover band would play some songs, which was cool with us as we could go have a beer and eat something porky. This decision made Birthday Boy happy since it was clear that he had wanted his band to play in the first place. That Guy was empty handed, so our guitar player graciously let him borrow a Les Paul.

The guitar strap was a bit long for That Guy, but instead of adjusting it to his liking himself, he asked our guitar player to come up and adjust it for him. So That Guy stood there like a gleaming monument to an anonymous rock star while our normal person guitar player adjusted the strap on his own guitar so that someone else could play it. Then during a song, just prior to the guitar solo, the other band members frantically called out for a chair in order for That Guy to put his leg up. To play the solo. Someone dutifully brought a chair up. And the leg was perched for soloing.

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Finally, That Guy broke a string and subsequently stood there staring at the now hideously deformed Les Paul. The band stopped. Our normal person guitar player offered to change the string; it would take but a moment. Nah. That Guy proclaimed the show over, took the guitar off, and strolled over to another part of the garage to chat with a fan. Birthday Boy was deflated. At least there was beer.

No matter my skills at guitar playing, at least I will never be That Guy. He sucks at being a person. And also guitar playing.

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Before I ever actually played guitar, I wanted a Kramer. This was back in the eighties, the time of NWOBHM; a time where Ozzy, Dio, and Black Sabbath became three different things and hair metal bands shared video play time with synth pop collectives. Pointy guitars were definitely a metal thing, but that was never my scene. The entire B.C. Rich line still seems as super ugly to me now as they did then. The “Superstrat” took the arguably boring and ubiquitous Fender guitar and made it modern. Well, eighties modern. You know; pastel colors and blocky vector graphics and The Last Starfighter. Modern.

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While Kramer did not invent the Superstrat, they were the guitar company associated with Eddie Van Halen’s famous “Frankenstrat” and played a large part in bringing this new airbrushed, humbucking, Floyd Rosed style to the young, sweaty, male masses. Eddie supposedly never actually played a Kramer, but that detail mattered very little.

My very first guitar was in fact a Kramer Striker. It was blue and had a non-locking trem which means that it was blue and would not stay in tune if you moved that bar even slightly. The G string was not intonated properly which means that even if I did not touch the bar, the guitar was never really in tune. Of course, I had no idea what intonation was. Tuning was relatively optional and sometimes I did not bother to tune for weeks because I would rather just get to the rocking.

What I remember most was that this Kramer guitar sounded undeniably awesome. This Kramer guitar sounded the way that George Lynch looked while squatting on a flatbed truck pretending to play a guitar made of skulls for the denizens of Hollywood; supremely badass. And in the same way that I eventually realized that George actually looked a little bit silly, I realized that this Kramer guitar sounded not awesome. Even if you replaced my clumsy playing and lackadaisical tuning methodology, this was not an instrument that made pleasing tones.

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I do not recall when this epiphany hit; I simply remember thinking, “well this sounds like bad playing and I am not sure why. I probably need a new guitar.” I never seriously thought that perhaps if I tuned more regularly and practiced more thoughtfully while rocking less fiercely, that I might enjoy this guitar and the thin, shrill sounds that it made more thoroughly. This particular Kramer guitar made the journey from sublime to mostly terrible with no stops in between.

My first actual guitar rarely pops into my head when I think of my “first” guitar. I generally now change the rules of recollection by referring to my first “good” guitar; a blueish/black Ibanez RG540R with a rosewood fingerboard and a locking trem that I purchased used from a store in Albany, NY in the summer of 1989. I still have this Ibanez, and I still play it. With the exception of a DiMarzio Fred bridge pick-up, it is all original; proudly bearing the dings and scars and buckle rash and corrosion that come with 25 plus years of playing. My first good guitar continues to sound genuinely good to me.

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I have bought and sold many guitars over the years, but I will never sell my first good guitar. This Ibanez guitar informs many of the preferences that continue to define what I consider to be a pleasing and cool looking guitar today. I prefer a generally “Strat” shape over a generally “Les Paul” shape. I prefer a thin neck and a flat, rosewood fretboard. Regular dot inlays seem somehow classy; no shark fins or diamonds for me. Nothing pointy.

What if I started on a Les Paul? Would I now prefer a super heavy guitar with a giant, round log of a neck? I certainly cannot imagine such nonsense. I think I will just head over to the Kiesel Guitars page and virtually build yet another version of my first good guitar.