Sunday, 6 February 2011

What can go wrong?

Ragdoll played a gig on Friday in Nuneaton.

It was an average of an hour's drive for each of us. Two or three of us had contacted the pub over the week and even that same day asking about arrival time etc... and we'd all been told a pretty typical schedule. Arrive at 7ish, set up, sound check before people arrive and go on at 9ish to finish for 11.

When we arrived I spoke to one of the barmaids who kindly took me upstairs to the venue's big stage. After a brief conversation with the promoter in charge we quickly realized that wasn't where we were playing. That was another show consisting of 4 bands playing at exactly the same time as us, in fact they started about 40 minutes earlier.

1. We wandered back downstairs and located the same barmaid who instructed us to just go ahead an unload, but we couldn't set up until the pool table had been moved, no problem. So we started to unload. We got about halfway through when the barmaid, at least it looked like the same barmaid, appeared.
"You're not setting up now." she snapped. Clearly we were still in the unloading process so we all bit our tongues. "It doesn't take 2 and a half hours to set up does it?"
"Well, it can. Our drummer isn't here anyway."
"We're not moving the pool table so you can't set up."
"You can't just leave all this stuff lying around, people need to get through here."
A little confused that she'd, not 5 minutes ago, instructed us to do this very thing I said. "Ok. So what exactly would you like us to do?"
"How long do you need to set up?"
"We need to set up and sound check, so it takes time. And our drummer isn't here yet."
"You're not sound checking yet are you?" Again I looked around at the scattered equipment.
"How long do you need to set up?"
"I don't know, an hour or so."
"An hour."
"Yeah I guess."
"You and you're on at 9?"
"You tell me."
"Ok if you're on at 9 then you can set up at 8." she stomped off.

This didn't exactly set a good mood. So we stopped unloading, we all had gone to some trouble to make sure we arrived by 7 and now we had to wait 40 minutes before we could even finish unloading. We murmured and slandered and considered just packing up and leaving. But there was money involved and we'd already driven all that way. Shortly after I got a call from the drummer saying that he'd been stuck in traffic for the last 30 minutes and he wasn't likely to be arriving before 8 anyway, great. We considered everything and decided that at some point the manager would appear and we could sort this all out. In my experience, these barmaids never have anything to do with the bands or anything else.
About 15 minutes later the manager appeared.
"Are you guys Ragdoll?"
"We are."
"On at nine?" he said looking a little puzzled.
"You going to set up?"
"We were told not to and our drummer isn't here anyway."
"Oh, well I'll get the pool table out of the way and we'll close this whole area off so people are trying to get through here."
Within 5 minutes our stage was clear. The barmaid walked in shortly after, huffed, and stomped out.

So that was the beginning of the night. It just got better from here on out.
2. The drummer arrived shortly after 8, in an understandably bad mood. We were running late so we set to getting the drums set up and found the first real hitch of the night. No bass drum pedal... He'd lent his kit to another drummer and had only got it back that afternoon and hadn't had time to check inventory. So we set up anyway and started trying to think of where we could get another one. We were more than 30 minutes from home and all the music stores nearby were closed. I tasked the guitarist with asking all of the bands from upstairs if we could borrow one of theirs. No luck.

3. The next hitch simply defies physics. People were largely ignoring the locked doors and our equipment so we set to taping the cables to the floor with the singers duct tape. Wouldn't you know it, the floor of that venue is the one thing in the universe that duct tape won't stick to, not even a little bit. I've never seen anything like it. I wasn't able to get all the duct tape off one of my cables because it had stuck to itself and the cable to well but we might as well been laying strips of paper on that floor.

4. We got everything set up but had noted that there was a game on each of the many screens around the pub. None of us follow sports and had no idea that it was Eng v Wales in Rugby that night. So every time we played a note we got a room full of angry looks. The manager appeared again and asked us if we could save the sound check for half time, which was about 15 minutes away. Not a problem because we were still on the hunt for a pedal anyway. Half time arrived and we got the sound check underway. We blasted through one song and checked all the levels tat we could and that was it, the venue was kind of a weird shape, so we hoped we got it right.

5. After the sound check a little old man appeared behind the singer. He very curtly beckoned her over and demanded that we keep it down... This put the singer in a stressed and bad mood. Was this the type of audience we were going to be deal with tonight... goodie.

Subtract 1. 9:00 baring in mind we had been told to be finished by 11 the game was still going. Good news, one of the patrons had posted a plea on Facebook and managed to locate a bass drum pedal. She disappeared to go collect it. Yay!

5. The bass pedal arrived as we went on. After a short delay we started our first song and discovered the immovable object of the night. It seems that if duct tape couldn't stick to the floor neither could a drum kit. It moved like it was on ice. We tried everything we could think of, normally we would have just duct taped it down some how but we couldn't. And you thought the non-sticking thing was just a minor annoyance. The final solution was setting heavy things in front of the bass drum and my continual kicking it back into the drummers reach whilst playing. Between songs we'd reset it.

6. The second song is when the guitarist's £65 guitar lead decided to stop working. After a number random guitar cut outs I provided him with a new but shorter lead. This created a new problem where as because he was used to having more room, he kept knocking the lead out of his guitar or pedalboard. It took him two or three songs to get and feel for his new motion range.

7. It was probably down to the moods or the stress but both the drummer and guitarist seemed to really be having a hard time holding on to things. Thankfully they'd both prepared for this and thankfully they'd both over prepared, so disruptions were pretty minimal musically. But it is very very frustrating mentally.

8. The night drew near its close, the end was in site. The audience had been surprisingly positive so we were just starting our second encore when the fates upped their game. 12 bars in to Whole Lotta Rosie the guitarist's D string broke. It picked a good song and a good time because that's a very mid range song and we hadn't done any of the solos yet, D is a pretty important string for that song. When it happened he stepped across stage to bring it to my attention. I just smiled at him, this was really going to test his metal. Thankfully it was our last song, so unless the fates moved quickly they had missed their chance.

It's been a really long time since we'd had many problems on stage. Every band has bad nights but this was something else. Visions of Spinal Tap's exploding drummer were going through my head by the end of the night.

I might be alone in this, I know my guitarist disagrees, but I think it was a great show. It was a shining example of Ragdoll's over all professionalism and ability. Even with all these things going on we played well and the audience loved us. We overcame each obstacle no matter how severe or inconvenient its timing. Sure playing mistakes were made but none of them were anything more severe than what we might experience on any other night.
It was a great show and I was charged by the end. We rock, and this proves it.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

On Headlining.

Headlining is a bit of a double edged sword. As headliners you get your name printed bigger and closer to the center. You get longer times to play and if there's money involved you tend to get the bigger share.

However if, like me you're in an original unsigned band then headlining is problematic, in that usually the entire audience disappears before you've even played a note.

We're just as guilty of this as anyone else, possibly more so. I can't remember the last time I stuck around more than a few minutes after our own set. I'm not much of a night out person so after a gig I'm usually very keen to get packed up and home.

The unwritten rules of headlining.

The first thing to know is that as headliners you're expected to have the biggest fan base. The promoters and venue ultimately want as many people there are possible and the supporting bands are trying to get themselves head by those people. So generally if you're playing in an area in which you're not likely to get much of a turn out, avoid headlining.

Headliner provides the equipment. I personally used to get really annoyed when I had to provide the bass rig for all the other bands, especially without notice. Mostly because I was always given some cockamamie story about how their bass rig had exploded only moments before they arrived at the venue and due to climate change they aren't able to secure a replacement, this type of excuse was  regularly from a 'touring' band as well. The reason it annoyed me is because bass rigs are big, heavy and cumbersome to equalize. And regardless of my providing it for up to three other bands, I've never once been offered any assistance in hauling it. Also because every bass player is fighting so many elements when achieving their desired sound it's frustrating when someone else steps in after you've got it all how you want it and messes it up.
On the flip side, there are a lot of good reasons for equipment sharing. The headliners equipment always goes through the most detailed sound check, their equipment is going to be set up first and will likely remain on stage for the whole night. Not a lot of local venues have very big stages and even if they do, one drum kit takes up half of it straight away. Add two or more bass rigs, guitar rigs and their associated cables, you'll struggle to find somewhere to stand. So it's just easier if there's just one drum kit and one bass rig if, just for the sake of space. Often the headliners are a little bit more established and thus have better gear. I've played on a number of different types of amplifiers from Trace Elliot or Ampeg to Ashdown and Laney. With my being in the market for a new rig, it's good to get a proper jam on them, see what's out there. I've also played on a lot of really terrible rigs too, helps to know what to avoid.
Guitarists are generally not requested to share their equipment, this is a delicate subject and is best avoided all together. Guitarists tend to have several effects and other things attached to their amplifiers in a particular way and since the guitar makes up for the majority of most bands' sound, it important that it be protected. There's also the risk that some inexperienced guitarist will blow their speakers or damage your tubes, it's easier than you might think.

So if you headline, expect to be providing your drum kit, bass rig, and possibly PA if the venue doesn't have one. One thing to note is that if you're not headlining, don't openly criticize the headliners' gear.

First to Sound check. This is good because it kind of means that everyone works on your schedule. I've been to countless gigs where the headliners turned up at the last possible moment, which is frustrating because no one can do anything until they've set up and sound checked. So if you're headlining and punctual you can ease the stress levels of the venue, the other bands and keep things on schedule, even leave more room at the end of the night, should you want to play a little longer than your allotted time.

Being first means that you get the longest and most thorough sound check, which in theory means you should have the best sound.

Biggest Promotion. Your names are the center point of all the posters and fliers. The headliner should have the bigger fan base already but it's good to have your name hung up all over town.

Networking. If you're so inclined you can use the fact that you're on last to speak to the members of the other bands and make some connections. I've met quite a few musicians from other bands with whom I've since done a few small projects and met other promoters etc. I'm not really the networking type, but my singer is. She's forever establishing new contacts.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

4, 5 or 6 String

I play a 6 string bass.
This puts me into a certain niche of bass players that are generally regarded as show-offs. This doesn't bother me particularly, I like to think that it gives people the impression that I'm better than I really am. However I'm asked about it so much that I thought I'd put down some thoughts on the matter.

I play an active Shine 6 String bass. I don't know what model it is but it's one of their first.

I get more comments on my string count that anything else. This bothers me a little bit but with my bass being somewhat unusual people spend more time doing the math than listening to me play. I get asked lots of questions about having 6 strings so I'm just going to go through them quickly in my '6 Stringed basses FAQ'.

Why a 6 String?
I've spent a lot of time playing with guitarists that use a variety of strange tunings either due to style or personal preference. Drop D is easy enough, half step down not so much, whole step down you start to hear slack in the strings, drop D half step down... and worst of all they would sometimes switch between them mid set. Back in the day I wound up putting 5 string gauge strings on my 4 string bass and tuning it to B E A D. So in an attempt to avoid this same frustration I thought I'd just buy a 5 string but when the shop offered me a 6 for the same price visions of me as Les Claypool flashed through my head. If I had it to do again I'd have bought the 5 string, even if it was turquoise. 6 is just too much, it's heavy, slow, hard to play and I barely use the high C.

What's the tuning?
low - B E A D G C - high. This is actually an unusual tuning for a 6 string bass. A lot of the time they'll be something like D E A D G B, but I like maximum range.

Is is more difficult to play?
Yes but I put a lot of that down to it being a cheap beginner bass, there's a lot of technology and design thought that goes into the higher end basses that really ease playing, lower action, thinner lighter neck etc... However even on a high end, somehow I still think that I would find the 6th string 1 too many, especially for slap.

Was it expensive?
No, in fact this is the cheapest bass I've ever owned. I picked it up brand new for £160ish. 

Do they make basses with more that 6 strings?
Yup. I've seen basses with as many as 13 strings. Look up Jean Baudin his has 11.

Do you find it hard switching back and forth between your 4 and 6 string basses.
Not really. The only thing hard about it is my four string has a blisteringly fast neck, so I tend to really rush things when I play it. It is a bit of an adjustment when you first start playing with an additional lower string because you tend to use your low string as a base, so suddenly you find you're trying to play everything 5 steps lower. With a little practice you soon get over that hurdle.

Thinking about getting more strings?
Make sure you have a practical reason for doing do. I wanted range, low range in particular.
Be prepared to get a fair amount of stick, especially from guitarists.
Be prepared to spend a lot more money. Sure you can get the basses cheap enough, I picked up mine for £150ish, it's the strings. a good set of 6 will set you back anywhere between £30 and £90. I've done a lot of looking and the absolute cheapest I've been able to find is £20 but they didn't last more than 2 shows.
Develop a strong back. The neck and truss rod needed to keep the tension for that many strings can be quite weighty, I know mine is, especially in the neck. So you'll either end up with a guitar that is very neck heavy, or if they've balanced it out with a weighty body, generally heavy.
Make sure you have a rig that can handle it. If you've not got something that can drive 40hz your low B can sound quite weak. I've got a 15 inch speaker with handles all my low end.

Ultimately it's all down to what you think you're going to need and what you think you can handle. You can get 4 to 6 string basses for as cheap as you like really, so once you decide how much you want to spend you need to consider what you can handle.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

More auditions.

Once again I find myself on the hunt for a new guitarist.

I've been down this road so many times and it's never more frustrating than when with guitarists. Never was their a choice of instrument that defined you less as a person than the 6 string electric guitar. With any other instrument ever made there is a stereo type except the guitar. I've auditioned hundreds of musicians and never had this much trouble.

Musicians in general are a conundrum. I've often likened us to homeless people. Even successful musicians have been known to dig through dumpsters looking for gear or play a gig for a half eaten sandwich. We steal stuff (cables mostly), we skip out on bill wherever we can, do anything for money. You might disagree with me on the money issue, I know I know it's about the music to you and money isn't anything, but answer this honestly. As soon as any amount of money, or other compensation for your time in introduced into the equation how much further are you suddenly willing to go. We're pitiful really.

Drummers for instance, there tend to be two types. Either the energetic but well balanced nicest guys in the world, if a little flakey. Or they're all out maniacs, starting fights, eating glass or jumping out of vehicles at high speeds. I've played with both types it's always an adventure. Both types tend to be very fidgety, always tapping or got something going on. I put it down to the playing of their instrument, how would you be if you spend 3 hours a night bashing things.

Audition wise drummers are easy to filter. They either have a kit or they don't, that pretty much tells me whether it's worth the time or not. See if a drummer has their own kit then they're at least serious enough about it to have gone to the trouble of purchasing one. I've shopped for drum kits before and believe me, it ain't easy. If they've gone to all that trouble AND are willing to cart it around then they can probably hold a decent beat.

Keyboardists are the nerds, the perfectionists. It's all theory and precision with them. They tend to be very organized educated people. I've not known many keyboardist but have always had problems with them critiquing my improvisational playing style.

Keyboardists are hard to audition because they always have so much gear. Any they don't use any of it either. You spend 30 minutes hauling in and setting £3500 worth of keyboards, stands, pedals and midi sequencers only for them to refuse to play a song telling you 'I can't play that, I have one of those but I left it at home.' There's also the fact the most keyboardists can play other instruments as well, often better than you can, and they've rarely shy about it.

Bassists are a different breed, we're usually the losers of the band (sorry fellow bassists but it's true). We're often wrecks of human beings, we're the geeks, the un-cool designed to be in the background, to blend in. We're only playing the bass out of necessity, we wanted to play something else. I've never met a true bassist, I don't even thing they exist. As any bass player if it was their first instrument choice and I'll be they say 'No I wanted to play guitar but...' 'we needed a bass.' 'I couldn't handle 6 strings.' etc etc. We're on the bass because we failed at what we wanted to do. Don't get me wrong I love the bass. Love it. It wasn't my first choice, in fact it wasn't my third, but I'll never turn back. Sure I still play guitar here and there and other instruments but none of them inspire me the way the bass does.

I can't comment on bassists because I've never auditioned any, but I've heard stories of greasy comb-overs and two fingers on one string playing. What I can tell you is that you should avoid a bassist that doesn't have his own car. If he doesn't have a car then at some point he's not going to have a home either. There's a joke that goes, 'What do you call a bassist who just broke up with his girlfriend? Homeless.' If they don't own their own car then they that joke applies.

But guitarists are undefinable because everyone plays the guitar, or wants to, and everyone who can play any sort of recognizable tune on the guitar seems to feel that they're of professional standard.

There's few telling signs with guitarists until they walk in through the door. It's frustrating because you never know what to expect. You've got several types.

Bedroom guitarists. These are largely the guitarists I have a problem with. These are the guys that have dabbled in bands, often with their friends in school, learned a few songs, played for a few birthday parties and call it gigging experience. One day they decide the want to join a band, despite not having picked up their guitar in 6 months and answer my ad.

Vintage guitarists. Often great players, but inflexible in every way. They will have one or two guitars that spends most of their time in pieces and the amp that time forgot. These guys consider themselves purists and detest modern guitar technology. What's troublesome about them is that they're A: Never quite happy about their sound or gear. B: Constantly picking out flaws in your sound or gear. They show up and educate you on what each piece of equipment does, where they got it and how much it was, then justify the noise or feedback as a small price to pay for that vintage sound.

Lead guitarists. These are the ones you hear about the most. Eccentric, egomaniacs that was nothing more than to be the best and everyone know it. This of course says nothing for their over all ability so more often than not is a burden when held against what kind of person they are.

So here I go. Off to audition the second in what I fear will be a long line.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Only as Strong...

I’ve often heard the saying, ‘Only as strong as the weakest member’ I’ve never taken much notice of this or similar phrases but recently I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. I’ve been working in teams and playing in bands pretty much my whole life and this phrase speaks a lot of truth.

Throughout my life I’ve always found myself on one side or the other of this phrase. Often in work I shoot straight to the strongest. I’m not sure how I do it, I just always have. In fast food I was only not made manager because I was under 18, in technical support I quickly became the Goto guy for the entire floor. Now I’m still in support and have been put solely in charge of an £850,000 training facility, even though I’m still only working an entry level position on a support desk.
But creatively I’ve always been the opposite, in school I was first chair saxophone and only really rivalled by one person. We weren’t ever in the same class so we never really got a chance to find out who was better. But aside from that, that’s it, towards my final years playing the sax it was becoming evident with the progress of my classmates that my days at number one were numbered. When I switched to bass guitar at 14, I suddenly found myself overshadowed by two other bassists, so much so that I became quite discouraged and quit the band. Afterwards I played in a couple of bands and ventured into other aspects of creativity, cartooning, comedy, writing, but I always found myself standing in another’s shadow. Or certainly feeling that way. It’s always bothered me on some level but as I said earlier I never really gave it much thought until now. I just always waited for that day when I would magically become great at something. Now here I am, I’ve given up the Sax, my cartooning has become nothing more than occasional doodling at work, my writing has succumb to a half finished novel and this blog, and my comedy never got past initial planning.
But then there’s bass. Thirteen years I’ve been playing it now, one more equates to half my life. I’ve been trying to think lately about where exactly I am with it, and where I want to go. I’ve stuck with it, which is really something for me. I still enjoy playing, even more so now than when I started. I like the sound, presence and flexibility of it, it’s a truly amazing instrument. Still, I wouldn’t consider myself a great bass player. I’m good but it’s still pretty rare I meet or see someone that I don’t instantly label as better than me, or at the same level. Some might say that I’m being to negative, I dunno... I’m not as good a player as I should be, any musician that you meet that’s been playing for as long as I have is usually pretty impressive, but I’m not. I can play a few really hard songs but I’m no Jimi (or Flea as bassists go).
I don’t worry too much about it as it’s mostly due to lack of practice and time. Bass has never been much more than a hobby to me, but sometimes I wonder what it could be, or could’ve maybe. Am I as good as I’ll ever get? What else can I do? I’ve tried lessons, learning to read music, different styles and techniques. Am I really any better now than I was when I started? Am I still the weakest in the band?