Saturday, December 29, 2012

Jan Seiden & the Rhythm Grooves: Live performance clips from Steel City Coffee House show

Click here for the YouTube playlist.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to perform with NAMMY-nominated ethnic flutist, Jan Seiden in an ambitious project melding various flute from around the world with guitar and a wide array of percussion instruments. We only had 3 practices to get the material together. I chipped-in a few of my originals, but most of the compositions were Jan's.

Backing us up on percussion were Nelson Rios (Santana, Gloria Estefan & the Miami Sound Machine) and Butch Armstrong (the Stylistics). The clips were filmed at Steel City Coffee House in Phoenixville, PA. 

You can check out Jan and her music at

Friday, December 28, 2012

VIDEO POSTED: Watch Me Butcher ... "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse

Wow, it's been over a year since I posted my last Watch Me Butcher ... cover video. For those unfamiliar, Watch Me Butcher ... is a tongue-in-cheek series of mostly-cliched cover videos where I do silly vocal harmonies and point out all the mistakes I make. It started as a way for me to get familiar with Audacity and iMovie '09 but turned out to be moderately successful in its own right. 

In the lengthy YouTube descriptions, I take the role of a bitter, excessively self-deprecating musician and also provide tabs and lyrics for those who want to learn the songs. The original intent was to only cover easy songs that only required a few chords. Without further ado, here's the video.

The style was inspired by the way my good friend, Carl Pfanstiehl covers the song. I just put shameless vocal harmonies behind it in a way I'll never get to perform live. And for you gear heads:

Guitar: Martin GPCPA4
Pickup: K&K Mini Pure
Preamp: Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre
Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
Mic: M-Audio Nova

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Free stuff! (And some website changes)

It's been a long time coming, but I've been making some improvements on my website (

You can now watch my videos in neatly organized playlists without the clunky links on the side. I've also simplified and updated my discography. (This is where the free stuff is!)

The photo page was getting unruly. It still exists, but I thought I'd integrate the photos with my blog to make for a more organic and personal experience.

Yes! I'm offering lessons online now! On top of that, I'll be posting tutorials and helpful videos so you always have a resource to help you improve on your musicianship. 

This part has probably seen the most significant change. In addition to the merch, I've also embedded an Amazon store where you can purchase items I recommend at no additional cost to you! However, by going through my site, a portion of the proceeds will go toward funding my music! I'll be expanding the store to include a wider variety of items (including my music once the new EPs are available for sale), so keep checking back.

Guitar Maintenance: Cleaning & Restringing

I can't believe how long I went without properly restringing my guitar. My strings broke all the time, the guitar never stayed in tune, and taking the strings off was a chore. These tutorials are a fantastic way to care for your guitar. The first one guides you through cleaning and maintaining the body while the second focuses on the actual restringing and action adjustment. 

Cleaning your acoustic guitar
String multitool
Turtle Wax: Express Shine (or guitar polish)
Lint-free cloth (or polishing cloth)
Masking tape
Steel Wool #0000
Boiled Linseed Oil (or fretboard cleaner)
Paper towel
Wrench for headstock tuner nuts

Restringing your acoustic guitar

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pictures: Film Screening, Pittsburgh, Boston

Our (The Way Home') song Inventing the Game got placed in a film by Dennis Hurley called Once Again. Here we are preparing to perform a few acoustic numbers at the Philadelphia premiere! (Photo: Nick Hughes)
There was a piano in the back room of Hambone's in Pittsburgh where we got to play alongside Hero Jr and the Hawkeyes. I felt obliged to noodle around on it. (Photo: Nick Hughes)

Here we are in Boston performing at the Digital Bear Entertainment  Christmas party!(Photo: Malik Williams)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Pictures: Wilmo Rock Circus 2012 @ The World Cafe Live at the Queen

We were honored to be among the performers selected at the Wilmo Rock Circus. It was an awesome opportunity for musicians and their fans to be exposed to an incredible variety of local rock bands. The photos were taken by our friends at Glimdropper.

Pictures: Boulder Coffee @ Rochester, NY

In mid-November, we traveled up to Rochester, NY and later Ithaca, NY. The photos below are from our acoustic performance at Boulder Coffee compliments of Shamus Clancey from  our long time friends, the Saturn Return.

Pictures: Harrisburg, PA

Right before Halloween, we swung by Harrisburg, PA and played to a packed audience at the Stage on Herr. Emily Yanek opened for us with a stunning solo performance. The photos were taken by Nick Hughes and our friend Julia Hatmaker.

Pictures: The Way Home promo shots

Earlier this fall, my rock band The Way Home did a photo shoot in James and Dan's home town of Rochester, NY. The photos were taken by Dave and Caitlin Drago and edited by our drummer, Nick Hughes.

New video! "Tadpoles & Ice Cream"

It's just like me to wait until the end of the world to record and upload some of those new tunes I've been claiming to have. Well, wait no further! After countless attempts to get my new music recorded, I finally found a setup and configuration that is a marked improvement from previous efforts. Let me know what you think!

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2012 when I was on a beach vacation with some friends. A hurricane hit as we entered the town of Salvo, NC. By the time we reached the beach home, our driveway had ankle-deep water. The next morning, we walked out to find hundreds of tadpoles covering our cars, an unexpected sight indeed! It rained throughout the vacation, and we made frequent trips to the local ice cream shop. This piece is dedicated to ridiculous yet fun time I had with those friends.

"Tadpoles & Ice Cream" is also one of a small handful of new tunes that utilize multiple capos as well as live de-capoing and re-capoing. I wanted to write something that was sweet, melodic, and percussive at the same time. I love how smoothly the music transitions between standard style and over-the-neck style fretwork as well as the two-handed playing. It's always a lot of fun to play!

For you gear heads, this also marks the video debut of my new guitar, a Martin GPCPA4 equipped with a K&K MiniPure pickup, Gold Grover 502 locking tuners, and a John Pearse armrest. I'll be writing about the guitar in a separate blog post some time next year. More info about what I used is posted at the bottom.

Until next time, be well!

Henry "Sheltered Turtle"

Gear List:
Guitar: Martin GPCPA4 (John Pearse armrest & Grover 502 tuners)
Strings: D'Addario EJ-17
Pickup: K&K Pure Mini
Preamp: Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre

Camera: Panasonic DMC-ZS3
Video Program: Adobe Premiere CS6
DAW: Garageband
Mic: M-Audio Nova
Interface: M-Audio Mobile Pre USB

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How did we react to Newtown, and what does it say about our culture?

I've been living with a heavy heart since hearing news of the Newtown, CT shooting. Never could we expect that a fellow American, a fellow human being, could take an instrument designed specifically for mass killing and use it in the place where we send our children to be enriched and educated. Those immediately affected by this tragedy are going through unimaginable pain. And this event was truly unimaginable; I've been having a difficult time wrapping my mind around it, but that's okay, because there is no way I can reason the events to a point where I can say, "Yeah, that makes sense now."

Immediately following the shooting, the media took on its expected frenzy. Social networks also lit-up with conversation, opinions, and demands for a call to action. In it all, I felt a lot of passion and anger coming from people and not enough empathy and sympathy. The children, parents, and staff are most likely going to suffer from PTSD unless they get professional counseling. Even then, it's a long road to recovery, but the sooner the healing begins, the less profound the adverse effects will be. Instead of discussing the importance of mental well-being in the victims, reporters fought to get interviews with them. Honestly, aside from unsuccessfully sating our morbid curiosity, what are we to gain from hearing the words of someone who is still trying to deal with tragedy?

Next, I feel that despite all the arguments about policy, I've maintained that the most important policy is family. How many of us embraced our loved ones, and told them how much we love them? That should come long before a hopeless, anger-filled rant about how we need to make change. After that, we should write letters to the families and friends who are the immediate victims of loss expressing our love and support and NOT use them as tools to push a political agenda. These families no longer have the luxury of normalcy in their lives. While no amount of support can fill the void of a murdered child, we can stand proud as a nation of people who open their hearts to damaged families and let them know that they don't have to go through this alone.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Found $26! What should I do with it?

While answering a phone call outside of The Nines in Ithaca, NY, I saw some cash on the sidewalk. I looked around and didn't see anyone looking for it so I picked it up. When I counted the cash later, it came out to $26, a pretty darn good find! Like anyone else, I thought about what I could do with the money. Perhaps put it towards paying for that new piece of music gear I've been wanting, or maybe putting it towards the band gas money. Then I was hit with guilt.

The $26 clearly wasn't mine to begin with. Someone lost that money. Hopefully, it's not cash they desperately needed. As much as I would've liked some extra spending money (you know, starving musician and all), I knew it could be better served going to others who needed it more. 

I'm always weary about throwing money to charity just to feel good about myself. The amount of corruption and misguided funding in charity organizations is disheartening. However, I also know that unless I do what I can to live a virtuous life, I cannot expect others to do the same. Here, I was given donation via circumstance. I could blow it on upgrades for my guitar, a nice dinner, a gift for a friend, (obviously, I choose giant, death laser) or I can instead use that money toward helping a public university pay for campus activities, aiding a local, family-owned charity to providing basic living goods for families struck by disasters, or giving to a nearby no-kill animal shelter so they can continue operations.

Ever since I was little, I told myself that once I can afford to, I would donate to worthy causes. I recently realized that "once I can afford to" is the trapping. As a self-centered being, there's always something I want to buy. The only way for someone like me to feel like I have money to give away is to do what I've been doing to save for retirement: reserve a portion of my paychecks for a designated purpose.

This month has been a difficult one for me financially, and I technically can't afford to be donating, but I'm fortunate enough to have a job that I love and family and friends who enrich my life. I'm in mostly good health (though I could certainly exercise more and cut back on the sweets), have a roof over my head, and eat well. I can't reasonably ask for much more than that. 

The checks are going out today to my chosen recipients. $26 and then some.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Is technology changing the way children are learning?

I was talking to a music teacher friend of mine who was flustered by how long it took for many of her students to do things like memorize the notes on the open strings of a violin (there are four). The answer was often times on the page in front of them, and all it really should've taken was a quick glance at the page, some mental processing, and then providing the answer. Some of my other music teacher friends were bewildered by how some of their transfer students couldn't read sheet music without first writing out all the letters.

This all got me wondering about how technology affects the way children learn. In the Google generation, we don't really have to commit too many things to long-term memory since we have these pocket-sized devices where we can access a world's worth of information. How often do you hear people say, "Could you remind me to ____ by text/Email/Facebook?" I'm guilty of doing this, but conceptually, it's a really strange thing to do socially. The implication is I don't have the mental faculty to take it upon myself to commit this to memory or write it down. I'm going to ask YOU to remember to remind me about something you're expecting me to remember to address.

Don't think it's a big deal? Maybe it isn't. But I'm a little perturbed that I used to have all of my friends' numbers memorized. Since getting a cell phone, I can count the numbers I have memorized on two hands. It's a frightening to think about how dependent we all are on these devices.

But getting back to music and learning, it's pretty amazing how quickly my students can type paragraphs with their thumbs, yet some can't remember where middle C on a piano is. The piano is a heck of a lot more ergonomically and intuitively designed than QWERTY, but I wonder if we as teachers are failing to accommodate for the new ways that kids' brains are wired to learn.

Case in point, I have a young student (about 8 years old) with some mild learning differences. It's been a struggle to get him to focus on learning the layout of the piano and learn based off hand position and finger numbers (really basic stuff). I'm lucky if I can hold his attention for more than 2 minutes at the piano. However, the moment I introduced a computer and GarageBand, he had absolutely no difficulty concentrating and focusing for the 45 minute lesson. He was focused, creative, and inquisitive, a completely different student!

While I still feel that it's my obligation as a music educator to make him familiar with reading and playing piano, I also think that it's just as important to tailor his lessons to his particular strengths of learning. As much as I hate to admit it, a lot of popular music is written by people who program music rather than compose it in a traditional sense. However, doing so requires many of the same skills that go into becoming a good musician. If he can learn those core elements and have those with him the rest of this life, that will be a heck a lot more rewarding as a teacher than having a student who gives up on piano lessons because they're boring and irrelevant.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Vet school

An article posted by the Atlantic a while ago talked about the struggles veterans confront when re-assimilating to civilian life with particular focus on the isolation many go through when entering college. Author Alex Horton quotes them as perhaps the "least visible minority"on campuses. Veteran Kyle Lund explains, "The kid to your left is hung over, the girl to your right is there because her parents made her go, and the guy in front of you is there to get a high paying job ... When I'm in training, the guy to my left, right, and front are there for a common goal, and we're all facing hardships together."

On my semester back at school earlier this year, I had one of the most striking and rewarding performances of my career. I was awake, restless, and stressed. The day had passed, and I had been working well past a responsible bed time. Needing a break, I grabbed my guitar and went to the common room. I was confident no one would be there. I sat on the musty dorm sofa, opened my guitar case (I always love that satisfying click of the latch), and practiced some new compositions I'd been working on.

A disheveled student walked into the kitchen and started making some food while I played. After he presumably finished making the food, he walked over and asked, "Mind if I eat and listen?" I told him that I was just practicing, and that it would get repetitive, but he said he didn't mind. When I took my first tuning break, he said he enjoyed my music and offered some of the food he'd cooked. I didn't have much of an apetite and politely refused. He sat there for over an hour just soaking in the music.

Sometime during that hour, I found out that he was a veteran. He'd been deployed to Afghanistan and had fought on the front lines. Over the course of our miniature conversations, he'd opened up about the bombings, a life of constantly being on edge, and how strange it was being at school again after all he had been through. He also expressed his gratitude for the USO for bringing musicians and entertainers citing how the performers were always a highlight, always appreciated, and always a great respite and relief from daily stresses.

This young, twenty-something year old reminded me that music isn't just relaxation and entertainment. People thrive on positive communities, and few things can bring people together as quickly and deeply as music. Often, I worry that my pursuit of music is this terrible, delusional, narcissistic exercise to feed an insatiable, lonely, insecure ego. Then a lone student in a college common room listens to music with undivided attention and in doing so, shows that what I do has value beyond my ability to control. Heh, and as egotistical as that sounds, it's actually humbling. 

On that note, thank you to the men and women in the military that volunteer to put their lives on the line. Veterans live a life I can only begin to imagine and seldom get the love, support, and understanding they so desperately need and deserve. 

Jealousy in my life

OK. I'll admit it. There's a musician friend of whom I'm jealous. I'm not talking simple, "Wow! I wish I could play like that!" but a terrible emotional pang that skews and twists my perceptions. No juicy name-dropping here because his/her identity is irrelevant. What's on my mind is the nature of this complex and ugly beast we call "Jealousy." 

At its core, I think jealousy stems from insecurity. It's not about the person of whom one's envious rather what that person embodies that is unfulfilled in the jealous person's life. The musician is great at his/her craft, successful, and an absolutely delightful human being. I have absolutely no reason to bear resentment. However, when I see a performance of said musician, I yearn to be in a similar place in life, to have done things differently to be there, and to be as wonderful of a person.

This evening, I came to terms with my feelings but decided to do something about it. While I can't change the way I naturally react to the world around me, I can take steps to address the core of what's bothering me. I don't work hard enough at my craft. I practice several hours a day but certainly don't practice in the most efficient ways. I can be more pro-active in setting and achieving short and long term goals to get to where I want to be. Basically, I can give life my all and leave myself no room for excuses and regrets. 

And as far as my becoming a better person, the best I can do is to make life as pleasant for the people around me as possible and hope that my actions bring them happiness and fulfillment.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Failing a difficult student

I'm blessed with an awesome brother whose wisdom and judgement I trust. A little while ago, I had talked to him about a student who was a difficult nut to crack: every activity I tried to make music lessons creative, multifaceted, and relevant only seemed to dig the student (henceforth referred to as "Putney" as a tribute to a college professor who had to put-up with my own frustrating antics as a student) deeper into frustration and boredom. 

By day two of lessons with Putney, I knew I had a student was, as cliche as it sounds, talented but unmotivated. I also recognized that I needed to completely change my approach. Some of my teacher friends deduced that Putney was a lost cause, that I should do what I can and just take the money until the parents eventually gave-up. However, something about that didn't satisfy me, and it wasn't until I talked to my brother that the reason became clear.

Through our conversation, I came to realize that students like Putney are exactly the type of students that need the full attention of teachers. I feel that the greatest failing of the education system comes from teachers dismissing difficult students too quickly and defaulting the path of least resistance. To paraphrase my brother, "Sometimes, people who are more mature than their age feel demeaned to be treated like children. Treat [Putney] with integrity and respect for the intelligence you say you recognize within," (although my brother's true words didn't sound like a stale fortune cookie on steroids). Lessons with Putney continue to be difficult, but by increasing the challenge in spite of increased resistance and treating Putney with mature dignity has put us on a path to progress rather than prolonged resistance. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

DJs vs live music

OK. I'm guilty of bashing DJs. Venues tend to pay them more than live bands (I'm talking about your standard fare bar/club), and on the surface, it seems that all DJs do is play other people's music through a fancy speaker system. Easy work, right? Heck of a lot easier than spending a bunch of time learning an instrument, memorizing lyrics, and coming up with an engaging act, no?

Well, from a venue's standpoint, DJs are prone to make far fewer mistakes than a live band (oh, but man does it hurt when a DJ makes a mistake). They can take requests more reliably than the average cover band, play to the vibe of the room, and have finger on the pulse of the current hits. 

But perhaps I'm being unfair to DJs and what it takes to be a good DJ. A good DJ has to have an ear not dissimilar from an arranger or musical director needs to have. This includes the ability to find rhythms, time signatures, key signatures, etc., that mesh well together. Timing is everything. Do you "keep the party going" or do you tactfully use silence to build suspense and anticipation? 

Ultimately, bands can learn a lot from how DJs construct musical performances. Yes, the average DJ does not "compose" any music, but neither does a cover band. People love hearing familiar songs, but DJs and cover bands can also slip-in some of their own, perhaps lesser-known musical preferences. It helps keep the industry going and allow the music of past and present to stay in people's minds. 

What's your take? What's your position on DJs vs live bands?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Music venues, profit margins, and the worth of musicians

Last week, I wrote a post in response to the degrading relationship between musicians and venues (read it here). 

While it's one thing to complain about the way things are, it's another matter entirely to try and devise solutions. This could easily segue into a rant about politics, but that's a discussion for another time.

Let's face it. Both venues and musicians want to make money. The common model for original acts has the venue making money from food and drink sales and the musicians making money from tip, CD/merch sales, and/or the cover charge. At its core, the model is not terribly unlike way large headlining acts work, only on a smaller scale. The venue provides a place to play, the act provides the fans, and money is made. 

Venues have to:
... pay the rent and bills
... buy the food and drinks to sell
... pay the employees
... buy and maintain the lighting, PA system, and any house instruments

All of that's pretty expensive and, like most businesses, completely dependent on how many people patronize your spot. As a venue, you want live music to attract more customers and keep them there longer.

Musicians want:
... to play in front of a decently-sized, appreciative audience
... turn patrons into dedicated fans
... be compensated for their efforts

It's on that last bit where things get hairy. Sometimes, musicians are content performing for free food and drinks. Often, those tend to be weekend warrior musicians who have a career and see music as a hobby. But who doesn't mind making some money? Let's try looking at it another way.

Let's say, hypothetically, that you as a venue were going to pay musicians minimum wage (what Chris Rock refers to as, "I'd pay you less, but it's against the law"). You hire a four-piece band for four hours of music. The minimum wage in my state at the time of writing is $7.25/hr. Multiply that by 4 people and you get $29/hr for the band. Multiply that by the four hours you want them and you come-up with a $116 total. Ah, but when you pay your employees, the clock starts ticking once they begin providing services (I'm thinking food prep and cleanup for a restaurant/bar). Let's add another hour for set-up and break-down because you decided that band can bring their own PA, amps, and drums. The total is $142 to pay a 4-piece cover band at minimum wage for four hours of music.

As a restaurant, you'd have to sell fourteen $10 dishes (and some change) or nearly thirty $5 drinks to just to pay the band (again at minimum wage), and that's not taking taxes or your own expenses to make the food/drinks into account.

So then there's the question: what's live music worth? What's it worth to the venue? What's it worth to the musicians? What's it worth to the people who listen to it? There's a lot of doom and gloom about the abysmal state of the music industry. We hear terms like "fall of the record labels," "flooded market," and the constant tearing down of the Justin Biebers that emerge. 

My generation is a product of the self-esteem movement. We grew up being told that we're all inherently special and unique (a logical fallacy) and deserve nothing but good things. However, does that mean that all musicians deserve to be able to make a full-time living? Of course not. The default answer is, "The good ones should be able to." Well, who are the good ones? 

Take a look at any prestigious music conservatory. Those are full of some of the most refined, highly trained, highly skilled musicians, yet, the classical music world has its struggles. Walk into a local open mic (here's a great resource to find one near you) and you're likely to see a mix of incredible, homebrew talent and people who just do it for fun. Each generation manages to find their stars. Those stars will make a lot of money. They might not be the best in their instrument or songwriting or live performance, but they are the best at capturing popular attention. 

This is all a round-about discussion to explore the idea of what musicians are worth financially. The easy answer can be boiled down to simple supply and demand. The more demand for a musician, the more that musician is worth. For a growing, independent artist, the main career move is finding out how to create a demand for his or her music. To a venue, a musician is only worth what he or she can draw. A crappy band that can bring out 100 people is a heck of a lot more valuable for a business than a really good band that has no fans. 

With the constant media blitz, it sometimes feels insurmountable to break through the clutter and get people's attention. People can carry days worth of music in their pocket and taylor what they listen to at a whim. Anyone who is Facebook friends with a musician probably gets show invites that he/she has trained himself/herself to immediately ignore.

So, one more time, what are musicians worth? Ask their fans. Ask the people that hire them. Musicians can't hide behind the current state of the industry for being unable to reach people. Every artist is a product of the times in which they are living. Venues, do your research to attract good, interesting musicians. Be straight with your expectations. If you find the entertainment to be valuable, pay for it. Just the same, musicians, do your research about venues and be realistic with your expectations and needs. If your local venues simply aren't doing it for you, innovate and find/create your own! (It's certainly something we should have done in the events described in last week's post.)

Next week: DJs versus live music.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Music venues in today's music scene

The Solo Musician Network of the Philadelphia and Delaware Valley (here's their Facebook page) posted this snarky response that mirrors disgruntled sentiments shared by many independent musicians:

Every performing artist has faced a situation like this. Venues love to use words like "exposure" and "networking" as if it's something they can guarantee in lieu of any tangible compensation. Just recently, I played at a venue (that will remain unnamed) that was run as if they decided to tack-on music in the hopes of making a profit. 

Tell me if this seems like a familiar situation: It was a restaurant with good food and a decently sized bar. My band, the Way Home, were coming from out of town and were tasked with the responsibility for filling out the bill, bringing four mics and stands, providing the entire back line (drums, bass amp, etc), and, of course, drawing a good-sized crowd. Thankfully, we'd be compensated with free food and drinks. No, wait ... we weren't. What a deal, right? Because we had a show the next night in the relative area, we foolishly accepted. 

As the opening act was finishing up, we were happy with the crowd that had filled the venue. We then realized, to our horror, that no one was taking cover from the door! When we brought this to the attention to the venue, they responded, "Oh, I thought you guys were going to handle that." As one of my astute bandmates pointed out, that's an incredibly flawed assumption, especially from a legal standpoint. If you're a business owner, do you really want a non-employee, someone whose income is based on how many people he/she admits, to be the gatekeeper for a 21+ venue? Is that really a risk worth taking?

But I digress. This is a symptom of the crumbling relationship between musicians and venues. As a musician, it's easy to point the finger in frustration and make everyone else out to be the bad guy, but the fact of the matter is that venues are hurting too. I feel that venues are shooting themselves in the foot if they're relying on bands, most of whom have little to no draw, as their primary source for patrons. Both parties have habits of trying to exploit each other for whatever they're worth. Venues want bands with big draws (big draws = more $$$). Bands want to play at venues with a big draw in hopes of finding new fans. If both places are constantly taking, neither benefit.

Now I'm not one to be able to speak intelligently about running a music venue, but I would think that running a successful venue is not terribly dissimilar to running a successful band. Both need to reach out to press, media, blogs, etc., to get "exposure" and good reviews. Both need to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Ultimately, both need to have good, compelling content and have a clear idea about their expectations. 

What I would love to see is an open dialog between venues and musicians. Both have needs and concerns about which the other side might not be fully aware. So I ask venues, what do you wish musicians knew about your side of the business? Musicians: what do you wish venues realized about the services you provide?

Next week, I'll be writing a post that explores profit margins between musicians and venues. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Meet Ashley, the Mail Order Companion! (Takamine EG523SC Review)

Well, it's been a long time coming. I've been desiring a stage-worthy second jumbo guitar to accompany me on stage so I don't have to retune as many times during my sets and eventually settled on this beauty.

Photo: Jemarc A.

While the photo above doesn't portray my joy, I was as giddy as a playing puppy. But enough about my excitement. I'm here to provide answers to the questions I had before I bought it. Yes! I committed the sin of buying a guitar without playing it first! Did it pay-off?

Standing at attention.


Acoustic sound is important to me. The best pickups can't fix mediocre tone. Those familiar with my music know I play a lot of percussive fingerstyle. I like big, crisp sound. For a guitar in this price range, it sounds pretty decent. It's no sound canon, but it's no slouch either and can easily be heard outdoors amidst ambient foot traffic noise. I wouldn't mind more brilliance to the sound, but I've already put many hours of love into the strings this week, so it's probably about time to change them.

For drumming, the Takamine EG523SC has as tight-sounding body. The natural gloss finish is great for getting scratchy sounds. Overall, the body feels pretty sturdy. Bass drum hits aren't terribly boomy but sound alright. The preamp is placed at one of my favorite drumming spots, so that plus the cutaway is forcing me to find some new ways to approach guitar drumming.

The tuners definitely leave much to be desired. Even with the strings properly stretched and the guitar set to a temperature-neutral room, the stock devices don't hold the guitar in tune. Tuners will probably be my first upgrade for this guitar. The action is a tad on the low side for my preferences, but the truss rod adjusted smoothly and easily. I still have a bit more tweaking to do to dial it to my preference. [Note: I have since installed new tuners (Grover 106s), and I'm much happier with the on board tuner and the guitar's ability to hold its notes, even in alternate tunings.]

I'd also like to note that this guitar was my first time ever encountering a subtle, ringing sound that Antoine Dufour cites as the reason he keeps a handkerchief tied to the headstock of his guitar. I just might have to join him in his method to mute this phenomenon!

Ashley's lovely backside.


This is a field where I'm not much of an expert. I can say that the tuner isn't all too accurate, but it's a nice function to have nevertheless. It's chromatic and gets in the ballpark. Then again, maybe new tuning mechanisms will help. [As noted above, they did. A lot.] The EQ works nicely and provides a variety of tones. The pickup system sounds fairly natural, but it doesn't pick-up on body vibrations as much as I'd like. I plan on installing some trusty K&K's in the near future and running a setup similar to the Shadow systems Epiphone and Gibson uses. [I have the K&K's but am going to need tools I don't have at the moment to install them. Because of the way the guitar is built and wired, the instructions aren't terribly useful and necessitate some MacGyver-ing.]

That said, the pickup and preamp provide good dynamic range without being too punchy. The knobs work well, and everything is located in a convenient place. The 9V battery slot works like a dream, especially compared to the messy K&K Ultra Pure system I installed on my Alvarez AJ60S. For conventional guitar playing, this is a pretty convenient stage setup. If you like doing a lot of tinkering with electronics, the Takamine system has a bit of an unconventional build requiring some creativity when adjustments.


I'm used to playing on jumbos, but people have remarked that this is a very big feeling guitar. I was hoping that the bass frequencies would be more boomy than they are, but I'm hoping that it'll improve as the guitar gets played more and broken-in over time. I didn't notice it when I took the pictures, but the top nut is poorly designed. The grooves for the strings are uniform in size such that the larger strings sit on top of the gap instead of inside them. I'll probably have to sand them later so the fit is better.

On a lot of reviews, people complained that the action was high. However, I think it's more a matter of adjusting the truss rod so the neck is properly aligned (there are plenty of videos that detail how to do this, but if you're not comfortable doing it, have a professional set it). Ashley showed up with a crooked neck but was much more playable after going chiropractor on her, even with the 13-56 gauge strings I use.

It's nice to have a guitar that doesn't need end pins to secure the strings; I'm clumsy and tend to drop/lose things easily. However, restringing is a little cumbersome since the tips of the strings tend to get caught in the grain of the wood. It's not a big deal, but I would imagine that it could be frustrating in the dark, back stage of a venue if you don't have a screwdriver or pen to help guide the string along. 

Later, I'll upload some sample recordings of the pure acoustic sound and the plugged-in sound. That won't be for at least another week or so. I've logged many hours of play and even got some performing in with this Takamine EG523SC, and I'm really digging it as a workhorse guitar, especially after getting good tuning mechanisms and my preferred string gauges installed. I still like the sound of my cheaper Alvarez AJ-60S more, but seeing how it's currently out of commission due to a broken pickup, this will do just fine, especially once I install the second set of pickups. The finish is thin, so clumsy blokes like myself be aware: the guitar will dent easily!

The Breakdown
+ Pickups sound nice. Chromatic tuner, 3-band EQ, volume, notch filter (used to fight feedback), and EQ signal cancel.
+ Battery and string replacement a breeze.
+ Strumming sounds great: full and vibrant for a guitar in this price range.
+ Cutaway provides comfortable, easy access to the top frets. 
+ Good workhorse guitar.

- Stock tuning mechanisms are terrible.
- The battery cover will buzz, especially on those big, beefy chords.
- Not as much clarity for fingerpicking.
- Pickups don't project body hits very well.
- Top nut needs carving to fit the strings properly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

RIP Mile High Skates. It's the end of an era!

Mile High Skates has gone out of business. I lament.

In 2004, I saw my first longboard skateboard an knew right away that I wanted one. I convinced my parents to buy me my first longboard instead of a bike when I went off to college. I got a beautiful, 47" Sector 9 bamboo pintail with Exkate Torsion trucks, 70mm Kryptonics, and no-name bearings (the board was stolen from me a few years ago, and I still miss it). When it arrived, I rode it so much that the grip tape had a foot-sized bald spot on my third day of ownership. Not long after that, I broke the trucks and had my first experience with longboard skate-related customer service.

Exkate sent me replacements for free, but the process took a while. In the meantime, I borrowed a friend's girlfriend's trucks. As I rode more, I became increasingly interested in the gear I rode and spent a slightly unhealthy amount of time participating at the Silverfish Longboarding forums. There, among many helpful skaters from around the world, I came across Mile High Mark and his online store, Mile High Skates.

At the time, online vendors of longboard skateboards were few and far between, but Mark stood as a unique model from which many other stores would follow in the years to come. All of the gear he carried was solid gear. He offered them at reasonable prices and, above all, made customer service a priority. He'd patiently answer any questions a buyer might have, give his recommendations, and include plenty of cool, free goodies with purchases. For example, he went out of his way to include a non-skate-related sticker that was funny and relatable to my personality. After establishing myself as a gearhead, he even asked me for advice on a particular setup. For me, it was like Mark Twain asking me for writing advice: he probably didn't need it, but it was thrilling that he asked. 

Now granted, I spent a lot of money at Mark's store which never hurts in the customer service department, but he actively participated on the online conversation, sponsored skate events before they were profitable, and really contributed to the helpful, open vibe that I felt characterized the longboard skateboard scene. 

I write this partially as a eulogy of sorts but more so as a huge, celebratory "Thank you!" to Mark for the countless hours of skate-induced joy I've had over the years. To this day, I continue to ride gear I bought at your store and thank that it made certain setup options available that I wouldn't have had otherwise. 

Loose trucks save lives and are best for sliding my friend. Enjoy some pie.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On Indie Creative Arts

Something cultural icon, Kevin Smith (of Clerks and Dogma fame) said got me thinking about what it means to be "indie" today. Technology has made so many production tools in the creative arts accessible to the average consumer. One no longer needs the backing of mutli-million dollar studios and companies to actualize artistic vision. Of course, those kinds of resources are nice, but they are not a necessity. 

Just as with Indie film makers have a sometimes antagonistic sentiment toward Hollywood, a lot of independent musicians like to bash the big record musical acts, the popular acts with a huge, industrial, money-making machine backing them. I don't think that it's really fair to say that top bill acts are somehow less genuine or legitimate than the struggling indie musician. As Smith said (assuming I understood him correctly), Hollywood runs on an ethos of mass appeal. Just the same, Billboard-topping acts are, whether we like it or not, a reflection of music that appeals to a wide spectrum of people. Granted, this is a topic that can take-up an book's worth of back-and-forth points and counterpoints, but I'm willing to risk overgeneralizing so I can ramble through some thoughts about independent musicians.

Something that indie artists offer fans that big label artists do not is direct access to the creators and creative process. From my experience, the average indie act is willing to stick around after a show and chat with audience members, something that would prove a logistical nightmare for the likes of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. Smith returned to his indie roots with the release of his film Red State. The film was done on a relatively small budget (though perhaps not small enough by indie film standards?). He promoted the movie through his own avenues, and after screenings, he stuck around to answer questions from audience members.

For people who are interested in process over product, the independent arts scene is rife with endlessly fascinating stories and ideas. Before one can really complain that the "true musicians" (as if there is such a thing) don't get the recognition they deserve, one must patronize the independent arts scene: see an indie flick instead of going to watch the Avengers, check out the local music scene instead of paying a premium for the Rolling Stones, visit an underground arts gallery instead of a going to MoMA for the hundredth time. 

That said, I'm not in favor of supporting independent artists who feel that they're somehow entitled to a certain amount of attention simply because they feel that have more to offer than what's already popular/culturally legitimized. Creativity rears its head in many ways, and art that truly makes us think, feel, and/or perceive differently in a meaningful and valuable way is the primary kind of independent art that stands a chance of some kind of posterity. That kind of audience response is something that comes with an understanding of the target niche/demographic and the stick-to-it-ive-ness that have characterized artists who are remembered.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Where/how the most recent music videos were recorded.

Here's what you didn't see in the videos April Sakura, Polisar Porch, and Lexington Park. Yup! It all took place in this claustrophobic practice room in St. Mary's City, MD. The USB interface was getting a stereomix of microphone/direct input. It all went through Audacity (I know, I'll get real audio editing software eventually) and iMovie (yes, I drank the Mac Kool-Aid). 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Which has the better view?

Here's the view from my room here in Southern Maryland ...

And here's the view from the library.

Guess where I spend most of my time. : )

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nam @ NAMM 2012 (Part 3)

Things have been busy, so I've been putting-off posting these pictures for a while.

Pictured below is me with one of my biggest influences, Thomas Leeb. I happened upon him during one of my many visits to the Lowden Guitar booth (more on Lowden later). He gave a short but sweet performance and was very approachable and friendly!

We chatted for a bit, he listened to some of my playing and gave some compliments (I'm reminded of that scene from Wayne's World when Wayne and Garth meet Alice Cooper ... who was also at the NAMM show), and even let me play his signature model guitar!

NAMM was full of other surprises like bumping into Stevie Wonder ... three times! Other greats like Eric Johnson, Andy McKee, Sheila E, Horatio "El Negro" Sanchez, and countless others were there.

I also got to try out some wacky gadgets like the Infinite Response VAX77 keyboard which is a folding keyboard.

One of my most fun jams occurred at the Vintage Vibe booth where another keyboardist and I jammed on a bunch of jazz standards and accumulated a pretty good crowd. These were a lot of fun!

Ah, and of course, I can't end this post without mentioning the wonderful people at Lowden Guitars. This was hands-down my favorite booth at the Winter 2012 NAMM Show. I visited them every day because I simply could not get enough of George Lowden's guitars! The sound and feel are sublime. On the right, you can see two of their prototype fan fret models *drool*. They also had a gorgeous African Blackwood guitar that was a truly impressive sound canon. George's family was delightful and very patient in answering my questions and letting me play these dreamy guitars. One day, I hope to own a Lowden!

Overall, my time at the NAMM show was great. I regret not taking more pictures, but there was so much to do! I can't wait to go again and really make the most of my time there!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Nam @ NAMM 2012 (Part 2)

It's impossible to really convey all the music-related goodies on display at the NAMM show. If I stopped to take a picture of everything that looked interesting, I never would have made my way around the convention center. It took me a while to "get" the layout, but by Day 3, I had a pretty good idea of where everything was. 

There was so much going on all the time, so many incredible musicians strutting their stuff. It ultimately made it difficult for any given stand to, er, stand out. Unfortunately, that also made many of the acoustic instruments difficult to listen to when I tried them out. Sometimes, a stand would have featured performer who would have the benefit of being amplified, but for the everyday attendee, a given instrument was seldom given its due auditory due.

Of course, it wasn't all pick-up-and-play items. There were plenty of things on display that were not for any mortal to touch. Then again, I got to play on a $15k guitar which is pretty darn cool. More on that in a later post.

Aaaaannnnndddddd shiny ...

In the next part, I'll post some pictures of some very cool people I got to meet!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nam @ NAMM 2012 (Part 1)

As promised, I'm finally getting around to posting my experience and thoughts on my very first NAMM show! First, I need to thank my friends Nelson (link) and Jan (link) for bringing me along and showing me the ropes. Also, a huge thanks to my friends at Tycoon Percussion (link) for sponsoring me!

My trip began with a 2 hour drive from Southern Maryland to Washington DC. (Just a few days prior, I had made the move from Philly down to SoMD!) The TSA people were actually quite funny and good-humored at Dulles. From DC, I went to Chicago, had a surprise layover in Kansas City, and eventually wound-up in LA where I met-up with Nelson and Jan. 

We were all famished and slurped down some delicious, local Mexican food then made our way to Anaheim and made preparations for the days ahead. This was what my walk looked like every morning:

The poor Southern Californians were suffering through a cold front with highs in the mid 60s. My Philly friends told me they got snow dumped on them right after I left. This picture was from Day 1. In the coming days, the sidewalk would be filled with musicians. Just to rub it in, here's a shot from the balcony of the convention center:

Unfortunately, I didn't take too many pictures as I was overwhelmed with the orgy of musical goodness happening around me. Over the course of the convention, I rubbed shoulders with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Alice Cooper, Eric Johnson, Andy McKee, and Thomas Leeb (more on that later). In addition to every music-related product you could think of, they had some things you probably didn't know existed like a cube that worked as a versatile percussion instrument, a stick that played both bass parts and percussion, and a full drum set you could play with your feet:

More pictures on the way in Part 2!