BillyRadd Music

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Small Package, Big Deal

The Little Axe

I just couldn't resist.

I've gotten so used to carrying around my little Kala U Bass (a diminutive but powerful bass guitar built on a baritone ukulele body) that I was prompted by the gods of music to go ahead and purchase a concert-sized uke to add to my growing arsenal of euphonious implements. The UPS driver brought it to my door today and, just as I had hoped, I'm not disappointed.

Another well-built instrument from the folks at Kala Brand Music, this KA-CG mahogany uke fits my need for a quality, practical learning tool without having to mortgage the house to get it.  It looks like a miniature classical acoustic guitar, has great tone, and is light as a peacock feather (and darn near as pretty). With its sparkling gloss finish, traditional white binding, and chrome die-cast tuners it radiates a touch of class that is well-matched to the cool vintage tweed hard case (complete with an attached Uke Crazy medallion) that I bought to go with it, also from Kala.

After excitedly removing the concert uke from its shipping container, I first looked for scratches or flaws in workmanship. Finding none, I proceeded to tune it (to G C E A for soprano, concert, and tenor ululeles -anyone out there remember "my dog has fleas"?), and took a quick look at the documentation that came with it. The first song I strummed out from the simple printed music lesson in the box was the old classic, Home on the Range. What better way to break in my newest musical tool/toy than with this unofficial anthem of the AmericanWest.


Next. I'll have to try one of the songs from the AC/DC for Ukulele song book. Dirty Deeds Done Cheap, oh yeah! Look out, Angus Young! I wonder how I would look in an English School Boy outfit?

Well, if playing a ukulele is good enough for Roy Smeck, George Harrison, and more recently, Ed Vedder, it's more than likely good enough for Billy Radd, eh? No worries, mates.

Can't wait to jam a few choice chords with my ukulele-crazy rehearsal buddies, Neil Lawrence and Will Corbet.

We'll have to see what's up next for Asheville's newest light-weight trio.  Matching aloha shirts anyone?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Synergy of Sound and Picture

A little over a year ago, while my wife and I were living in the small central Utah burg of Ephraim, I decided to hang my proverbial butt out the window and enter a local juried art show at the Central Utah Art Center, narrative blogs about which you will find here and here.

Of course, making an ambient video about natural scenery which locals can access easily themselves within a few hours drive may be akin to preaching to the choir.  So, while my video's involvement in the art show did not produce any tangible rewards for me as the creator of the video, it did provide me with some insight into human nature.

I found that, by observing those who stopped to observe my HD video of scenes of Pleasant Creek slowly flowing through a desert wilderness, I noticed a kind of double take effect.  First, it appeared to appeal mostly to the very young and very old among the attendees, with the middle-aged only giving the large HD screen a passing glance.  My only logical conclusion to this phenom must be, unscientific as it is, that those of us in the middle years of our lives cannot concentrate our minds long enough for the few moments it takes to let the "willing suspension of disbelief" take over and focus our attention on images and sounds that have a calming effect on our psyche.

And please, keep in mind that this is merely a personal observation and not a criticism of humanity as a whole.  It's just the way it is.

I remember the feeling of being middle-aged myself.  That feeling of constantly living either before or after the moment of reality I was in (the now, the present).  Work, children, politics, taxes, health concerns, bills to pay all flooded my waking and sleeping moments in a never-ending torrent of sights and sounds, real or imagined, that kept me uptight, moving, planning upcoming moves or obsessing about past inadequacies. Most of my waking time was spent "in the moment" alright, but that moment was pretty stressful.

Jeez, I'm glad I'm past all that now.  But, back to my point.

The very young or very old can isolate their attention long enough to forget worrying about their past and future and "meditate" or experience the now of reality, which philosophers and even scientists generally agree is really all that there is.

So, my personal quest is to give peace to others through the use of the trick I've learned over my career to create a visual and aural "scene" that can become part of a viewers personal reality in the moment of experiencing it, if only they will take the time to give it a try.

So, as one of my heros, sci-fi writer Rod Serling used to say at the open of each episode his TV show, "imagine if you will . . ."  Please, check out one or both of the videos that I have posted at the bottom of this page.

Click on the video to expand the page to full screen, choose to let it load up at the 720 HD resolution, turn up the volume on your computer to a moderately high volume, and look at the screen, no, stare at the screen.  Let a hint of a smile cross your lips.  Then, breathe deeply and regularly.  Try to relax and concentrate on the scenes of water, rocks and plants.  Listen to the water sounds and the minimal musical score (on the Zion River program).

Give it a few minutes and see if your heart rate and breathing rate don't diminish.

Then, forward this blogpost to a friend.  It may give them a few moments of peace, even if they are middle aged.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Color of Sound

Vibration is omnipresent.

And, every thing is always in motion.

Ask any scientist, artist, or kid on the street.

Their answer is the question.

Colors can be seen, heard, and felt.

All one must do is look, listen, and feel.

As humans, we are equipped to soak it up as sensory meaning.

Or, broadcast it as light waves, the motion of air,

or the on-offing vibrations of the fabric of everything.

Poets have been saying it for eons.

Musicians sing its praises in mantras of hope and love.

Sculptors reveal it from stone and clay.

The dance has no beginning nor end.

The humming sum of it is free for us to use at will,

but, many waste it without a conscious thought.

It emits beauty-in-motion,

and cannot be created or destroyed,

only used.

It is always everywhere forever.

-Bill Raddatz, Asheville

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Notes From The Production Side

Anita with Anita's Diabetes Menus DVD

Working Class
While working closely with Anita (who also happens to be my wife of almost 38 years) does have its perks, our continuing investment of time and sweat equity in producing her cooking show together is an interesting exercise in diplomacy and tact, although I must admit that I'm still learning these skills.  Since I have years of experience in NOT telling her what to do in our day-to-day interactions, but have also logged an equal time period spent professionally directing on-camera talent, I realize that Anita must be cutting me massive amounts of slack during the challenges of shooting her show since my directions to her tend to be rather direct and to the point (which most likely could be construed by others as downright curt).

So, luckily for me, Anita, the performing artist, exemplifies forgiveness and professionalism, and it shows on the screen.

Music to Our Ears
Editing has begun on the second Anita's Diabetes Menus cooking show series of DVDs. And, like the first disc of five programs, I personally produced all the theme and background music myself.

I'm finding that composing and recording the music for the programs is one more appealing aspect of creating these shows.  Using GarageBand on my iMac is a hoot and gives me all the recording and editing tools I need to create multitrack tunes that can be adapted for Anita's series.  But, the best part is that we actually own the rights to all the music I make.  No needle-drop or license fees for us.  Nuh-uh. 

However, in the last year or so we have made a substantial investment in musical instruments, microphones and other recording gear needed to build a professional quality recording kit.  But, having creative control and ownership seems worth the expense.  Plus, it just feels right.

I can only hope that our accountant allows us to take deductions for my guitars, bass guitars, midi keyboard, claves, canjo, bowed psaltery, amplifiers and assorted other stuff used to make the tunes for our DVD series.

Our Artistic Bottom Line
Working on Anita's show also makes us respect and admire the work done by other media artists everywhere.  Original ideas flow from the heart and hands (and sometimes feet), and while many times they are not truly appreciated for their many hours of labor, musicians, actors, and other pro artists in all creative pursuits can usually sleep at night with the knowledge that they can get up the next day and personally invent something from nothing. Sometimes other people will even pay for it.

Most of the working artists that I have come in contact with during my career that eek out a living creating original, high-quality art/product don't do it for the money, per se. Neither do they do it because they hope to be famous.  Most do it because they want to give to others what they have to give, which is called talent.  It's the particular trick they do that makes them an individual, a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, and truth teller: an artist.  

I believe we need more artists in the world.

Can I get any thoughtful comments on this final observation?

Monday, August 8, 2011

In the Shadow of the Master

Bolokada Conde, Djembe Master

Last weekend drum aficionados from the Asheville area were treated to a great concert at Jubilee sponsored by Skinny Beats Drum Shop and Gallery. The performance featured notable West African djembe player Bolokada Conde, Chikomo Marimba, and Billy Zanski with his Skinny Beats Drum Crew (also featuring Billy's multi-talented musical partner, Linda Go). Attending with my wife, Anita, I was privileged to videotape the Friday night performance (a still image from the show is above) and experience first hand the power and beauty of this percussive feast. Besides the quintessential drum of the Malinke people of the Sankaran region of Guinea, West Africa, the djembe, the show also featured doundouns, krin, balafon, various small to large marimbas, and assorted other percussion instruments.

But, for this sound fest, no amplification was needed.

The most striking aspect to me personally of the experience of recording the concert was the vibrations produced by many large drums flowing right through my body with an almost electric intensity. Since I was wearing headphones which limited the intensity of the sound of the music to my ears, I was better able to sense the vibration effect as a tactile sensation rather that an aural one, especially in the center of my chest. I must say, it felt pretty good.

The rest of the audience of probably 100 or so fans could hardly hold their seats. At the end of the second song, Billy Zanski asked the crowd to go ahead and dance, or he'd have to come out to the audience and make them. That was all the invitation they needed to hear and they poured out of their chairs to wriggle, jump, and bop to the wildly energetic but tightly synchronized world beats.

And, of course, Bolokada put on a great exhibition of his rhythmic talents. As a world-renouned djembe player, he's got the "chops" AND his authentic Guinea, West African tribal costume to prove it. Bolokada Conde is known worldwide as one of the most exciting and dynamic djembefolas (a master of the djembe drum). While on tour with Les Percussions de Guinea, Bolokada and Billy Zanski became friends. The following year Billy traveled to Guinea to study with Bolokada, and has worked closely with Bolokada ever since.  Billy tries to bring Bolokada to Asheville once a year, and I hope he continues this tradition for many more years.

As an added bonus, Skinny Beats Drum Shop and Gallery also hosted djembe lessons with Bolokada last weekend.  Anita and I both attended a class last Sunday and were able to spend an hour with the drum master and a class of about 20 djembe students.  It was an enjoyable but too short hour that left all in attendance smiling broadly.

Some of Bolokada's CDs and DVDs can be found by clicking the link.  Check them out.  He's the real thing.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Don't Miss Neileeo

My good friend and musical coconspirator, Neil Laurence, will be busking (playing for tips on the street) from July 29 - 31, 2011 at the Belle Chere Festival here in Asheville, NC.  Neil, who recently goes by the name Neileeo, is a singer-songwriter who's thoughtful lyrics and happy melodies entertain audiences of all ages with his personal message of peace and spirituality.  As a former beach comber on both coasts, Neil's compositions profess an idylic "life on the beach" which most people can smilingly identify with.  Sporting a signature straw hat and his toe-tapping menu of diverse musical styles (like blues, rock, surf, country, folk, and fantasy), his broad experience as a live entertainer gives him a empathetic connection with any audience that can only be described as a mutual love fest.

As a seasoned one-man band, the multitalented Neileeo really rocks the street with his ukulele, harmonica and clear, articulate voice.  The man can whistle up a storm, too.

If you happen to pass by Neileeo on an Asheville street during Belle Chere, or any other time for that matter, give him a listen.  Pay particular attention to his original lyrics.  He'll make you smile and fill your head with good, happy thoughts.  Being a personal friend, I know that spreading joy through music is his only goal and a conscious mission.

As part of his audience, you might also want to drop a bit of cash into his tip bucket to return the favor.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Name Game

Nibiru? Let the Fireworks Begin!

I was looking for a name for a new recording I finished mixing with GarageBand today.  I started by searching the internet (one method I frequently use for brainstorming when I don't have a clue) for an appropriate appellation for this rather rambling creation that is more improvisation than inspiration.

First, I started my search with exotic names for the Space Shuttle, since just this morning it disengaged from the International Space Station for its final descent into the pages of Space History.  I couldn't find a suitable name since words describing this first space plane were too literal for my taste, like Endeavor or Atlantis (already overused).

Then I thought, hey, our Native American brothers and sisters have really cool names for some of their deities.  But, after a quick search of a few sites, none of the ones I found really rang the bell for me.  But, I found a link on one site that did called The Church of Critical  This site is a weird mix of bad graphic design and eclectic non-religious ramblings, but it does quote the late Frank Herbert, the author of the science fiction classic novel, Dune, and noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, one of my personal heros, so I figured that it couldn't be all bad.

Hidden in the interesting clutter of linked pages to subjects like The Missing Link Enigma, the Actual Origins of Homo Sapiens, and Why the Prophets were part of our Evolution, not Creation, was a page about the Planet X Dilemma which, since 1982, has convinced some astronomers (not astrologers) that a tenth planet orbiting our sun "this way comes".

Well, I've never heard of that so I thought I'd delve deeper into this new (for me, at least) astronomical mystery.

It seems that the Sumerians, people of an ancient civilization that existed in Mesopotamia between about 3,000 and 1800 BC, invented monarchy, political states, and a system of social regulation and conflict resolution that we call law today.  They also predicted the existence of Planet X that they called Nibiru whose orbit passes by Earth every 2,000 years or so.

As stated on the Church of Critical Thinking web site, 

"This means that PlanetX / Nibiru is visible every 2000 (2,160) years during its orbital pass. ( Sumerian and Mayan text both state that Nibiru is clearly visible by day as well as night )

The sumerians told us that Nibiru wreaks havoc with the earth's axis every second orbital pass. (Every 4000 years or so). Basically, Earth's axis precessed from a right tilt forward and probably 180 to the left in around 10 or 20 hours due to the gravational (sic) "jolt" that takes place."

So, in the end, I'm calling my new tune Nibiru in honor of a probably fictional, mythical Planet X that the author of  the Church of Critical Thinking web site calculates will pass by earth causing a disastrous catastrophic tilting of the earth's axis in the year . . . 2012?  Yes, that's correct.  It just so happens that this date matches with that predicted by the now famous Mayan Calendar (and the recent hit movie, 2012).

Maybe someone will make a new movie called Nibiru and use my music for their theme song (hint, hint).  But, on second thought, there's barely enough time to produce this new major motion picture about the Sumerians' prediction of Planet X leaving little time for me to spend the millions of dollars I would glean from royalties.


Anyway, check out my new song, Nibiru - WHILE THERE IS STILL TIME!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Enter the Canjo

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Anita and I traveled about an hour from Asheville to the 22nd annual Summertime Arts and Crafts Show presented by Mountain Artisans at the Ramsey Center on the beautiful Western Carolina University campus at Cullowhee, North Carolina, which I mention in my previous post.  When we first arrived at the show, we were greeted by what sounded like banjo picking music.  Upon investigation, we found the mountain music was emanating from a booth hosted by Alice and Henry Hoover, a very nice couple from Allardt, Tennessee.

Alice was alone "manning" the booth and it was her that was playing the simple tune on what appeared to be a stick with an empty Spam can attached and one banjo string running the length.  

But, as we found out, this is no ordinary stick.  

I was intrigued by the design simplicity of this rudimentary instrument and the quality of the rather loud banjo sound it produced. During our short initial conversation with Alice, she related that her husband, Henry, had worked on the Polaris ballistic missile program, was quite smart, AND a very good father.

We decided to wander the rest of the craft show for a while and told Alice that we would return on our way out.

When we returned a few hours later packing some nice goodies from the craft show, we found that Henry Hoover had joined Alice in their Canjo booth.  And, of course, Henry was also playing away on another Spam-can-sporting stick.  

I asked Henry for some details about his invention, which he proudly and happily related. 

I believe he told me that he only uses one of four different hardwoods to make each canjo and explained the reason and specific resonant qualities of each. This man is actually some kind of Spam-ish luthier, I realized. After a few fascinating minutes, I asked Henry which one of the many canjo models displayed he thought was the best for me and he choose a beautiful oak canjo that, as you can see from the picture above, has a nice reddish color.

As I mentioned, this is no ordinary stick with a banjo string attached.  It is a perfectly fretted musical instrument made with pride by no less than a rocket scientist.  As far as I could tell, each canjo is a hand-crafted original based on a very functional but economical design, and finished with linseed oil.  The single banjo string, attached to a tuning machine up at the head end of the neck, is tuned to the key of D, but Henry told me that you can tune it to any key you want.  Versatile, too, eh?

I've already used my Canjo for a simple track in the new theme song for Anita's Diabetes Menus DVD Number Two that Anita and I are currently producing.  I am so happy to have met Alice and Henry Hoover and to be one of the newest proud owners of a Hoover Canjo.

Henry and Alice Hoover a-pickin' and a-grinnin'
To get your very own Hoover Canjo, contact Alice and Henry at

or 913-879-9955 or 931-397-9596

Or Henry Hoover
     P.O. Box 94
     Allardt, TN  38504

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pass the Psaltery, Please

It's my first handmade instrument purchase and truly a thing of beauty.

This particular beautifully crafted bowed psaltery was built by skilled craftsman Dave Lucas who, with his wife Paulette, are the resident instrument makers at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park near Birmingham, Alabama, where they can be found on many weekends from March through November demonstrating and selling their instruments. Visitors are welcome anytime in their craft cabin to view their instruments and sit a spell while listening to live demonstrations of the bowed psaltery. 

I met Dave and Paulette last weekend while they were demonstrating their psalteries at the 22nd annual Summertime Arts and Crafts Show presented by Mountain Artisans at the Ramsey Center on the beautiful Western Carolina University campus at Cullowhee, North Carolina, located about one hour southwest of Asheville.

According to their website, the psaltery is a musical instrument with origins dating back at least 4000 years.  It is recorded in the Bible in both the Book of Psalms and the Book of Daniel.  The psaltery is played by holding the instrument in the bend of your arm and pulling a bow across the individual strings.

Dave started making bowed psalteries several years ago after Paulette bought one and fell in love with the instrument.  He has now made over 5000 with a special collector’s psaltery made each time he reaches a thousandth mark. The bowed psalteries that Dave makes are either 24 note double back or a 36 note standard back “tenor”. They are fully chromatic stringed instruments and extremely easy to learn to play.
Paulette gave me a personal lesson when I made my purchase at the craft show. She has also written three instructional music books that come with the purchase of each psaltery so that anyone, regardless of their musical background, is able to play it right away.

Dave makes all of his psalteries by hand from scratch.  Made from various hard woods such as walnut, birch, oak, cherry, maple and mahogany, each psaltery is unique with no two exactly alike. Dave’s psalteries can be easily identified by the individualism that he gives each psaltery from decorative scrollwork applied above or around the sound holes to floral and nature designs hand painted by Paulette.

I'm looking forward to learning to play this bit of hand crafted history and plan to use it soon in recording the new theme song for Anita's Diabetes Menus DVDs that I am producing with my wife, Anita.

Paulette and Dave Lucas with their psalteries

Monday, June 20, 2011

OK Go 180/365 = FUN!

OK Go!
Ok, I will.
This is my first album review, and it may be my last.  The reasons I’m writing it are two fold.  First, I might not even know about the digitally hip American rock group OK Go except that my youngest daughter, Samantha, is employed by their record label, Paracadute, and has been for about a year.  They even gave her a credit on this, their latest album, 180/365.  Nice.
Second, I think their music is really cool which, as a seasoned citizen, I need to explain a bit later since OK Go appeals mostly to those of a much more recent vintage. 
Plus, one more reason I think OK Go is way cool is that they produce great music videos that stand alone as exemplary of the entire genre of music videos (we’ll call this the Reason I Like OK GO 2a, since it’s not a great point except that I had seen their video popularly named the Rube Goldberg Machine Version for their song This Too Shall Pass released in January 2010. The YouTube video was forwarded to me by a good friend who knew that I had worked as a special effects Director of Photography for a video production company for some years because he thought it was FUN.  It was and is).
Each OK Go video is creatively unique and worth watching even with the sound turned all the way off, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  My point is that the video stands alone as Pop Art, Op Art or Mop Head Art, whatever. Art.
Anyhoo, I think OK Go’s new album 180/365, 15 cuts recorded live at venues all across the US, deserves a critical listen even for someone as gray and tarnished as myself because it is very FUN.  That’s it and that’s all.  Why do I think that?  Because I know FUN when I hear it.
As a rockin’ and rollin’ child of the 60’s so-called British Pop Invasion I was aurally inundated by twanggy vibes from slap-happy groups like The Who, The Kinks, Manfred Mann, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, The Beatles, The Stones, and yes, even the sour-faced Yardbirds. Just their names were FUN. Like most of my generation, I didn’t consciously realize what hit me.  Peace and Love, Flower Power, End the War, yeah, yeah, yeah, groovy and FUN!  This OK Go album reminds me of all that.
So, in my mind, Ok Go’s 180/365 equals just plain FUN - funny, soulful but irreverent, musically simple but original, entertainingly toe tapping, funky and trippy, driving but sensitive, now and then, here and there, and the voice of the future with the smell of the past.  I just regret that I wasn’t living in Asheville when they played here at the Orange Peel last November. I might even have gotten the award for being the oldest member in their audience (or a back-stage pass, even better).
This very live newest release makes me think a thought that I haven't thunk for many years - I wish I was them.  I just simply like to listen to it.  Cowbell in a little ditty called WTF?  I ask you, what could be more FUN?  More cowbell?  Maybe.
So, OK. Go get the album 180/365 and have some FUN.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Woman on a Mission

Autumn, Asheville's Guitar Mama

Autumn has a great story on her web site about the evolution of her music store, The Guitar Mama, on legendary Haywood Road in West Asheville.
It all began when, as a thirteen year old-to-be she asked for a guitar for her birthday - more particularly, an electric guitar with an amp.  Autumn’s mom took her to a music store, and it changed her life forever.  After her first guitar lesson she went home and almost immediately took all the screws, springs, strings and other shiny bits off the instrument.  Her second guitar lesson was putting the thing back together.
Two years later Autumn was offered a job at the same music store, Tempo Music Center, and worked there for nearly a decade.  During that time she apprenticed for nine months under David Simmons of Simmons Guitars, to learn the skill of a luthier (building and repairing stringed musical instruments).  
At age 18, Autumn started her own business, and five years later went to work for Simmons Guitars full-time building high-end electric basses for two years.  
Then, a bit over a year ago, she opened her own retail sales and repair shop in West Asheville, The Guitar Mama.
The Guitar Mama is not a luxurious place to visit, but if you play guitar it certainly has a rustic rocker charm all its own.  Autumn, usually working hard at something stringed in the back room, hustles out to greet any customer upon entering with a typically friendly but curious, “What you got?”
In my particular case, my last visit was to bring her my little old Fender Duo Sonic short scale guitar that I bought for $60 in Hollywood when I was a college student there in the early 1970s.
“What can you do for this neglected gem?” I chided her, knowing of her interest in breathing life back into abused stringed instruments.
She grabbed the guitar from me and began to play the old strings with great energy, testing for weaknesses, playability and strengths underlying its dirty uncared-for exterior appearance.
“The strings haven’t been changed since I bought it in 1971,” I admitted with a nervous laugh.  This is like a visit to the dentist with popcorn remnants between your teeth, I thought.  Maybe I should have cleaned it up a bit before I brought it in.
It’s not in too bad a shape,” Autumn said, not glancing up from her continuing scrutiny. 
“These are pretty cool little guitars,” she added generously.  
Let’s face it.  This woman probably sees around a hundred guitars a month go through her shop and she said my particular model is pretty cool.  Does that make me pretty cool, too, since I own it?  Er, no.  She didn’t say that.
“How about if I change the strings, set it up for you, clean the volume and tone pots, and clean up and polish the fret board?” she offered.  I hadn’t even noticed that the rosewood fretboard was pretty soiled from years of potato chip-oil-infused fingers attempting chords from about the 12th fret up the neck to the nut.
“That would be way cool,” I managed to blurt out in a feeble attempt at musicians’ lingo.
“I’ll have it ready to pick up on Friday (two days!) and it will be fifteen dollars,” Autumn said with a practiced clip as she returned the little Fender to its gig bag and efficiently made out a work order, a copy of which she handed to me.
“Well, thanks,” said I. “But that doesn’t include the strings, right,” I offered.
“Strings included,” she said over her shoulder as she scurried away to her back work room with my unkempt little baby.
“Wow,” was all I could manage to say.  Fifteen dollars including strings.  Does Autumn run some kind of guitar charity, I wondered?
There was another fellow in the store at the time.  He was a guy about my age and I don’t know if he works there or was a customer just browsing the store. But, as I headed for the front door past him, he said, “Don’t bother trying to give her a tip, either.  She won’t take it.”
This afternoon I stopped by The Guitar Mama to pick up my Duo Sonic.  Autumn was working away, as usual, stringing an acoustic vintage guitar.
“Got your guitar finished,” she said with a smile.  “You might be interested to know that the Fender electronics in this Duo Sonic are from 1964 so it was probably manufactured in 1964 or 65." I was a junior in high school in 1964!
“That’ll be ten dollars”, she added.
“Ten dollars?  I thought you told me fifteen,” I responded with surprise.
“It wasn’t as bad off as I thought, so just ten dollars,” she said.
Guitar Mama?  No, no, no.  Guitar Saint, or Guitar Goddess or Guitar . . . , what?
I’ve never run into anyone else like Autumn, especially in a guitar store.
You’d better check her out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Djembe Fever

A Handmade Piece of Africa

First, a bit of background is in order.

A typical modern handmade djembe in an individual work of art crafted in West Africa from the wood of the Lenge tree due to its acoustic and spiritual qualities among the Malinke people, whose traditional philosophy states that nyama (spiritual energy) is present in all things, whether living or dead, but many other types of hard wood may be used, depending upon those available to the drum makers. Some West African hardwoods used for musician-quality djembes carved in Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire include djalla, dougi/dimba, khari/hare/gueni, and acajou.

The djembe's drum head, located on one end only (the large end), is traditionally made of the shaved skin of a goat, but cow hide or antelope skin is sometimes substituted.

Prior to the twentieth century, the skin was commonly attached with animal sinew or intestine, or by stretching a cut strip of rawhide. But, today many synthetic materials have replaced the original organic materials traditionally used to make djembes. The good news is that many modern incarnations of the drum still retain the sound and esthetic qualities displayed in the original models.

Anita bought her djembe, made in Côte d'Ivoire, a few weeks ago and she has graciously allowed me to practice on it as well. We also purchased one of our drum teacher Billy Zanski's practice DVDs to work out with since it really helps us to get into the groove of the West African rhythms while reviewing the correct techniques.

One of the things I always notice after a few moments of banging away on the djembes, whether Anita's personal model or the ones that Billy Zanski of Skinny Beats Drums lets us use for lessons at his shop, is the smell of the goat skin drum head. It has a definite kind of "gamey" smell that took a bit of getting used to over three weeks of classes and practice.

But now, I have to admit that I kinda like that goat skin smell since I relate it to learning a new instrument (new to me , that is). It is said that each djembe contains three spirits: the spirit of the tree it was carved from, the spirit of the animal from which the drum head is made, and the spirit of the instrument maker. The djembe that Anita bought (a colorful detail of which is pictured above) has the maker's initials B.T. MS. along with the date it was made clearly painted on the inside of the drum at the base.

I like that a lot, too.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Kon Tiki Retro Bop

As we lumbered down the stairway to the level ground below the Wedge Brewing Company in the River Arts District of Asheville, I began to hear a familiar lilting tune, and one that brought back many happy memories from my idylic youth:  Quiet Village by Martin Denny.  My wife, Anita, myself and our friend, songsmith Neil Laurence were about to sample the mellifluous delights from the group called Kon Tiki, a local quartet  made up of Lin Llewellyn, songbird on uke, Lora Pendleton on string bass, singing, monkey and birdcalls, Russ Wilson handling percussion, tenor guitar and singing, and, the Man of a Thousand Songs, Hank Bones on guitar, steel guitar, cornet, marimba, and crooning.

The weather in Asheville has been unusually hot and humid for this time of year but Kon Tiki's happy melodies washed over the sweating but appreciative audience like a cool, offshore breeze. Seemingly unaffected by all the heat, the smiling members of Kon Tiki meted out lighthearted tune after sunny song that would make anyone "forget your troubles, c'mom get happy".

Fun.  That's the best way to describe the experience of their toe-tapping play list of old favs and original lighthearted material.  One Meatball, Sweet Leilani, On a Coconut Island, South Sea Island Magic, and Rum and Coke are just a few of the classic tunes in Kon Tiki's exotic bag of musical tricks.  Just like their myspace page says, it's like an evening on the Beach at Waikiki.

With influences like Martin Denny, Harry Owens, Ray Kinny, Johnny Pineapple, Sal Hoopli, King Benny Nawahi, the Andrews Sisters, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Hoagy Carmichael, what's not to like?

I've heard that Kon Tiki performs live at Wedge Brewing Company every Wednesday evening and, with no cover charge, just great homegrown Asheville beer, the very live entrainment provided is certainly a musical bargain.

But, you might want to feed Tiki head on the floor in front of the band with some well-deserved cash offerings from time to time to show your appreciation AND keep the Tiki head's curse off of you.

Go, and see Kon Tiki for yourself, if you know what's good for you, that is.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Our New Drum Circle of Friends

Anita Gayle and djembe master, Billy Zanski

Billy Zanski, owner and manager of Skinny Beats Drum Shop and Gallery in downtown Asheville, is a man on a mission.

"Of course I want everyone to play drums," he says with all the authority of martial arts sensei.  "That's why I run this store and sell drums".  But, there's much more to it than that.  Billy has been playing and building drums for 12 years, hand-picks the West African djembes for sale in his shop with the eye (and ear) of a master, and is skilled at skinning djembes as well as identifying the great sounding ones.

Plus, Billy is a specialist in drum-side manner and the often neglected art of customer satisfaction by personally guiding beginning drummers through the maze of the various options of styles, colors, sounds, wood selection, goat skins, and rope so one may intelligently choose exactly the right djembe for their own personal tastes and abilities..

As they say on TV, but wait, there's more!

Billy teaches two beginning drum classes a week for beginners that will have even the most clumsy, tone-deaf drummer wannabe banging away on the skins in time with the music before they know what hit them.  I can attest to this fact personally since my wife and I attended last Sunday afternoon's hour-long class.  The class size was small, we could attend without bringing our own drums (Billy provides you with a djembe right off the shop's showroom floor while attending a class if you don't bring one with you), and the atmosphere was friendly, easy going and fun.

But, one more fact must not be overlooked which kinda completes this "drum circle" picture.  Billy stresses the spiritual and health benefits derived by the practice of drumming by emphasizing the healing ability within music as the goal of playing the djembe.  Since I have recently re-discovered the many benefits of incorporating the study of music into my daily life, I am very open to this idea.

As I like to say, you usually get a lot more back from something you invest your time into.  I'm feeling like practicing the drumming technique of playing a djembe with Billy Zanski is such a valuable investment.

If you're in the Asheville area, check him out.  If you are already studying some other instrument, like I am, learning to keep a steady beat is an invaluable skill to develop.  Besides, it's a lot of fun.

And so, the beat goes on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A New U-Bass Is Born

It doesn't take a genius to figure out when something just flat works.

I believe that's the case with the new solid body U-Bass from Kala Ukuleles.  It's the next step in the evolution of the diminutive little bass with the pudgy urethane strings and big sound, but with a price tag of $1,200 it might be a while before I get my hot little hands on one.

What a great new musical invention!

I've owned four electric bass guitars in my life; a Framus short scale when I was in high school, a beautiful Gibson Ripper that I bought in the middle '70s, a Fender active P bass I bought last summer, and my little Kala U-Bass which I bought a few months ago.  They all had different advantages, features and tonal qualities, but the little U-bass sounds the most like an upright or double bass AND is the easiest to play.  I'd love to play one of the new solid models of U-bass but I'm afraid I'll have to wait until they possibly become available at a local music store here in Asheville, which may take some time.

The other remote possibility would be that I could buy one at the $1,200 introductory price.  So, I'll just have to wait until they get cheaper (which doesn't usually happen with quality built musical instruments), or until they become known as a novelty, in which case the value may go up as well.

Anyway, in their current manifestation, the solid body U-Bass comes in four cool colors, freted or fretless, and in 4 or 5-string models.  I prefer the natural colored finish since it looks like what a Hobbit bass player might jam with on the vales and in the taverns of Middle Earth.  Rustic and small.

The new Kala solid body U-Bass is currently made and assembled in Petaluma, California, which may explain their premium price tag.  But, my hollow body spruce-top U-Bass, which I believe is manufactured in China like seemingly most everything else affordable, seems to be built very well so I have no complaints and only good things to say about my little baritone uke with the fat strings.

If you play bass at all, I'd check out both models.  They are a real hoot to play and everyone loves their low, broad tone.  And, they weigh about as much as your lunch box.

Check out Hutch Huchinson, an experienced session player and bassest for Bonnie Raitt.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mad About Mildred

It all went down last summer, but it seems like just yesterday.

One of my wonderful daughters sent me a BluRay DVD of a concert given in Madison Square Garden with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. And, what a rockin' show it turned out to be.  During one wonderful tune, Steve picked up a jet black Telecaster and, of course, showed us all how to play the thing while singing in his soulful voice.  Another great performance by one of my favs.  

But, what really caught my eye (and ear) was his Black Telecaster.

That's when the latest obsession took over my mind like a gnawing desire.  I had to have that guitar.

I immediately went to the Fender web site and found that Steve's Black Tele was most likely a one-of-a-kind custom guitar, possibly even commissioned personally by or for him.  The foolish idea even flashed across my mind to try contacting him directly.  But, alas, Steve had quit corresponding with me a few years ago (sarcasm) and any Telecaster he owned would probably be out of my price range by a factor of 10 (truth).

But, undaunted, I found one that was a pretty close match on the Fender site and within my price range, a Classic Series 72 Telecaster with Rosewood fretboard, one Super-Coil Telecaster bridge pick, one Fender Wide Range humbucking neck pickup, and vintage-style bridge and tuners.

I went to my favorite online supplier, Musicians Friend, and found a great deal on a used one in mint condition. With a few clicks of my mouse, my credit card info and address, it was on its way to my hot little hands.

When my friend, the local UPS delivery driver padded up my driveway holding a large conspicuous box labeled Fender over his head, I tried to hide my anticipation.  It felt like Christmas and I was 5 years old waiting for Santa again.

"Hey, Boss (he calls me Boss). You gotta stop ordering this heavy stuff, " he joked.

"Er, no," I replied happily as I took the box from him.

"Didn't think so," he quipped over his shoulder as he hussled back to his big brown box on wheels.

I quickly opened the box, withdrew the Tele already nestled in its "free" gig bag and admired its classic lines.  She is one heavy black beauty, but she rings like a bell, this Telecaster.

Later that same day I was talking on the phone to my "brutha from the same mutha" who lives in California and shares my love for good old rock 'n roll.

"You should give it a name, like BB King's guitar, " he said, which, by the way, is a custom-built black Gibson ES-335 made just for BB.

"What does he call his guitar?  Is it Mildred?", he asked innocently.

I couldn't stop laughing for a few minutes, but the name stuck.

Lucille is already taken.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Keepin' the Sideburns

Tryin' to stay alive and keep my sideburns, too.

Those of us who were living in what we then called the "civilized world" during the early 1970s might remember a song performed by the Great Leon Russell (co-written with Marc Benno) about the trials of stepping lightly through life while maintaining a personal sense of purpose - Tryin' To Stay Alive, Copyright 1971 Skyhill Publishing Company, Inc.  You can hear this song by finding a copy of the old CD entitled Asylum Choir, or if you download it from Amazon, iTunes, or get thee to this YouTube link and scan into this "video" to about 2:27 where Leon begins his honkytonk intro to this happy little ditty.

I have thought of the opening lyric many times over the years and it continues to be a personal mantra as I grow as white-haired as Leon himself always was, as far as I know.

Tryin' to stay alive and keep my sideburns, too. 

Can I get an Amen?

So, here I find myself and my good wife Anita living in a beautiful place called Asheville, with its wonderful, diverse population, working on Anita's TV cooking show, sitting on our balcony overlooking a hardwood forest, birds singing in every direction, writing a bass riff as an assignment for my bass teacher, Kevin.  I'm staying alive AND keeping my sideburns, too, although it is getting a bit hard to see them as they are so light and white.

But, Mates, that ain't no Margarita sitting on the table before me and Mela Kani, me trusty Ubass. It's Gatorade, now simply known as G, if you hadn't heard.  Somewhere, I've picked up a good dose of a nasty stomach virus.  I can't eat, or sleep much, or go anywhere for fear of spreading this plague.

But, I'm staying alive and keeping my sideburns, too.

What could be better?  (Except maybe a nice steak, baked potato and green salad with blue cheese dressing).  

But, I've got enough of everything else, don't I? 

I sure look happy.  Cool hat, too, eh?

Photo Credit: Anita Gayle

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Replacing the Weakest Link

The Next Piece of the Puzzle

First, let me say that I have already owned my fair share of professional microphones over the years, mostly for use as location mics in my film business.  Shotguns, wireless lavalieres, condensers and dynamic, from makers like Sony, Shure, Sennheiser, ElectroVoice and even a cheapie Logitec desktop model with a pretty green light on it that cost all of $18.  And, ever since I have used GarageBand on my assorted Macs I have tried to get by with using these sturdy "sound acquisition tools" to record music in less-than-perfect studio conditions that I was able to "kluge" together in the various offices, kitchens, and rec rooms in homes where my wife and I have cohabited with blankets on the floor and hung around the room waiting to roll audio between trucks and ATVs storming up and down our neighborhood's roads, with lawnmowers, dogs barking, etc.

Well, enough already.

I finally went into Musician's Workshop music store here in Asheville a few days ago and bought a real studio mic made for recording the human voice AND musical instruments: a Samson C01U USB Studio Condenser Microphone.  It was only about $150 with the optional SP01 Spider Shock Mount.  It sounds great with a flat frequency response of 50 Hz - 20KHz, a cardioid pickup pattern, and includes a desktop mic stand, mic clip, USB cable and carry pouch.  Unbelievably it appears to be made mostly out of metal.  You remember metal don't you?  That really hard, sturdy stuff most quality functional things used to be made of.  

Conveniently, when using a Mac with GarageBand, the C01U is truly plug-n-play.  If you still are in the Neanderthal world of computer audio recording using a PC, you will have to load some extra drivers and other software stuff from the Samson Cakewalk Sonar LE disc included in the box.

Note:  Just a bit of sage advise from Uncle Billy here.  If you are into any kind of media production, or anything else for that matter, get smart and get a Mac.  If you already have one, you know what I mean.  If you don't, go ahead and continue living in the dark DOS past.  Us Mac users will wave bye-bye as we continue to fly away from you into the bright Mac-Future.

My friend, singer-songwriter Neil Laurence and I used the C01U mic today with GarageBand to record a demo for Neil and it performed just as advertised producing a great vocal from Neil here in the privacy of my basement studio.  (I looked for BasementBand audio recording software but it doesn't exist as yet).

Of course, now I have no excuse and must keep working on writing, performing, recording and producing music for fun and, maybe someday, even profit.

Oh, one more thing of passing interest.  I have examined the mic from stem to stern but I don't see an engraving or decal that states that it is made in China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Japan or Germany.  Could it be manufactured in the Good Old US of A?  The included instruction manual has the Samson Technologies Corp address in Syosset, New York.  Is this possible?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Finding the Groove

Aligning with The Vibe

I just discovered the great contemporary bassist, four-time Grammy Award winner, and artistic guru, Victor Wooten, last summer after I bought my Fender Deluxe Active Precision Bass Special.

Searching around a great book store in Salt Lake City called Golden Braid Books I found Wooten's book called The Music Lesson.  After my self-styled 40 years hiatus from bass playing, just from reading the liner notes, I thought it might start me off on the right foot in taking up the instrument again.
And, oh brother, was I correct.
"Victa's" book is all about finding and sticking to "the groove".  Written as a novel in the mode of a Carlos Castaneda mind expanding epic journey, The Music Lesson chronicles the story of a young bass player desperately in need of improving his skills who awakens one morning to find a strange man in his house who becomes his personal music teacher.
The Music Lesson not only relates one lesson but many, and is not merely for bass players, but for any musician playing any instrument, including vocalists. 
Most musicians approach music mostly from the perspective of notes, melody, timing, and chords.  But, in the The Music Lesson, Wooten points out that music theory is but one element of music and not the most important one. He points out that how we learn and teach music is very different than how we learn a spoken language (like English). When we first learn English, we are not instructed to first learn all the letters of the alphabet, then, put them together to form words.  Instead as children, we just speak, we listen to others speaking and do as they do while, at first, making mistakes without correction. It is only after that we learn to speak a language that we are able to learn the letters, make words, and thus improve on our language skills.
Wooten’s thesis is that we need to approach learning music in the same way.  Instead of learning all the notes first, then understanding chords, we need to be free in the beginning to practice the language of music and make mistakes. 
Wooten’s Book also admonishes musicians to “never lose the groove in order to find a note!” This invaluable lesson alone is worth the price of the book and makes all the difference between becoming a musical artist or merely a player of notes.
The The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor Wooten demonstrates an appealing, Zen-like approach to making music and is a “must read” for any aspiring musician. It’s available in both novel and audiobook format.

Check out a short video sample of "Victa" finding his groove at the bottom of this blog page.
Picture Credit:  Anita Gayle