Tag Archives: Fender Stratocaster

Never Any Clapton, Part 1 – Dying Days by the Screaming Trees

Hi there. I haven’t done a series on guitar solos for a long old while, so here it is, back for 2019.

Let’s start with a big one.

Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Screaming Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, recorded an album’s worth of material with Don Fleming, but the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot and started again with George Drakoulias. Not only that, they were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and relations were often fractious. Even more troublingly, singer Mark Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Kurt Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were merely the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But Dust was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period for Lanegan, and it shows. At times, as on opener Halo of Ashes, he sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive (“I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave”). At others, as on the grandiose Dying Days, he takes stock of what he’s experienced, what he and his community has lost (“I walk the ghost town that used to be my city”), and vows to celebrate it and carry on, to celebrate it by carrying on. Containing an acoustic intro, gospel-style choir vocals on the choruses, Benmont Tench’s churchy organ and electric piano and loads of fat distorted guitars, Dying Days was a stadium-sized farewell to a whole era.

To play a guitar solo suitable for such an anthemic musical setting and such conflicting emotions – and to hit the right notes about loss and brotherhood – the band called in fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.

A devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, McCready has a style that relies heavily on bluesy pentatonic licks, played in this case on a Stratocaster with a big tone (moderate gain, tube amp turned up loud and, I’d guess, Vaughan-style heavy strings). When you break down his Dying Days solo, it’s pretty standard blues-rock stuff: an ear-grabbing bent double stop to start things off (played with a noticeably strong vibrato, and picked and repicked six times over the course of two whole bars), a few pentatonic licks up and down across the neck, and finally a big squealing bend on the high E string to finish off as drummer Barrett Martin plays a triplet fill to send the song back into the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but McCready plays it with absolute conviction and commitment.

Dying Days, like Dust generally, got great reviews from the critics, but pretty much went nowhere commercially. Seattle’s moment has passed even as the Trees were recording its epitaph. Guitar-heavy neo-classic rock with psych, blues, gospel and country influences was not what the kids wanted in 1996. Yet Dying Days makes little sense as a song known only to a handful of devotees; it’s too big for it, too widescreen. It’s Let It Be crossed with Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower – something at once apocalyptic and comforting, highly personal yet universal and elemental.

It’s to Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s credit that he handed this one over to McCready. Connor definitely had his moments as a lead player (he liked his wah-wah pedal, and used it well), but really he was a songwriter, and he couldn’t have brought to it what McCready could. A special song deserves a special solo. Through some kind of alchemy that happens only rarely, when simple phrases and melodies achieve an emotional potency that’s out of reach to most musicians most of the time, Mike McCready pulled that solo out of himself.

Dust

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Long Way Down – Mary Lorson & Saint Low

Once again, I’m a little too busy with freelance work this week to put the time I’d like into the blog. Here’s a repost from around 18 months ago about a song I was listening to and enjoying earlier this week.

Distorted guitars tend to take up a lot of sonic real estate. They’re not often a great fit for songwriters whose lyrics tend towards the complicated and the wry. They haven’t been a great fit for Mary Lorson’s music since the first couple of records she made as part of Madder Rose. Since MR’s third album – the dreadfully titled Tragic Magic – when they were replaced as the main component of her arrangements by programmed beats, they’ve been almost entirely absent from her subsequent work (encompassing three records with Saint Low, one with Billy Coté, another one with Coté that was credited to the Piano Creeps, and one with the Soubrettes). The prepostorous “New Velvet Underground” tag that had been slapped on Madder Rose by certain rock critics didn’t last past Tragic Magic, and by the time Saint Low were making records in the first half of the 2000s, few were paying attention (although Lorson did manage to place songs in episodes of The Sopranos, Felicity, Alias and Skins, which may not have won her many new fans but had definite financial upsides).

This was a shame, as Lorson sounds much more at ease as a songwriter on, say, Tricks for Dawn from 2002 than she ever did with the churning guitars and drums of Madder Rose’s first couple of albums. Tricks for Dawn is low-key, jazzy and spare. Instruments are given space in the arrangements, and miked from a distance. The drums on Anything can Happen sound like they’ve been miked from the other side of the room. The hum from Coté’s Stratocaster is plainly audible whenever he stops playing for a bar or two. My own tastes run towards the dry and the close, but to everything there is a season, and this is an inviting sound, the appropriate sound, running against the grain in an era where ‘less is more’ is not a maxim that record-makers pay much heed to, a situation that hasn’t reversed in the 13 years since Tricks for Dawn‘s release.

Tricks for Dawn is not a classic record – there are a few too many songs that arrive, dwell in front of you and then depart without really going anywhere, and Lorson’s lyrics can occasionally irritate. There’s an archness to the likes of Morningless Dreamer and Friends, I Have Been Drinking (present in their titles too) that I find grating. Lorson’s songs remain obscure enough that pinning down subject and deciding whether they deserve the condescension they’re shown is often impossible .

That tone is perhaps only noticeable because of the comparative open-heartedness of the record’s finest songs. Lorson in a 2011 interview picked Anything can Happen as one of her best three songs she’s ever written, and she’s not wrong, but Long Way Down is its equal. It’s surely not a coincidence that these are the songs on which Lorson seems to have most let down her guard. When she and the guesting Evan Dando harmonise on the lines “Hold on tight to me, baby/Cos it’s such a long way down”, it’s perhaps the most magical moment on the album. Long Way Down’s two guitar solos – the second, clean solo presumably by Coté and the distorted first one by either Lorson or Dando (who is credited with “disortion and Vox organ”, providing the best clue, perhaps, as to the player) – provide, in the way of the best instrumental solos, the song’s emotional peaks and make you wish Lorson had been as unabashedly straight-talking all the way through the record rather than hiding behind internal rhymes and polysyllables. In these precious minutes, responding to the raised stakes, the chamber-pop backing of string section and horns rises above the merely pretty and becomes properly beautiful.

Mary Lorson b&w
Mary Lorson

*Potential listeners to this record should be aware that the horns and some of the guitar parts are noticeably sharp of the piano that provides the bedrock of most of the arrangements. You’ll need to be able to put up with this to get much enjoyment from this album.

Tune-o-matic bridges on Gibsons & Epiphones

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about this evening. Beware – guitar geekery is to follow.

A couple of months back, after spending a while wondering whether it might be nice to have a hollow-body electric guitar in my armoury, motive met with opportunity. I was informed that I’d been entitled to a bunch of annual leave I didn’t know about, and that the company was willing to give me a lump-sum equivalent to the number of days off I hadn’t taken in 2013. So a week or so after that, I took myself of to Macari’s on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime, played a natural-finish Epiphone Casino they had hanging up on the wall and decided on the spot to buy it. It sounded great and was really comfortable to play and I could hear in my head how it would blend with my other electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster (yeah, whatever – you may not think they’re cool, but I do. Mine’s finished in a dark blue stain, the grain of the wood clearly visible. It looks bitchin’).

I got the Casino home, played it a lot, recorded some parts with it and was generally really happy. It felt like great value at £449. However, I soon started to notice a rattling coming from the tune-o-matic bridge, particularly noticeable on the D and G strings. It took a while to pin down the culprit, but I eventually realised that it was a thin retaining wire at the front of the bridge that sits over the threads of the saddle screws (for those of you unfamiliar with Casinos and similar hollow-bodies with tailpieces rather than stopbars, the bridge is properly fitted with these adjustment screws at the front to prevent the strings from snagging on them behind the bridge due to the back angle created as the string passes into the tailpiece). This is a fundamental design flaw in that style of bridge. It wasn’t the end of the world but it was annoying enough that I took it back to Macari’s and asked whether they had any suggestions for a fix.

They directed me to Andy Gibson, a repairer based in the basement of their other shop on Denmark Street. He suggested that as any attempted fix would be a bodge, the best thing to do would be to upgrade to a Schaller or a Gotoh unit, which I was happy with — I figured £30 or £40 for a better bridge that didn’t buzz or rattle was a reasonable expenditure when it would also likely give me more sustain, cause fewer string breakages and have more widely adjustable saddles for finer tweaks to the intonation. In the event, while waiting for the one he ordered to come in, Andy found a TonePros unit in his workshop that he reckoned would fit, so as of this evening I have a brand-new AVR tune-o-matic on my Casino, the buzz is gone, the bridge is locked to the posts (a nice little feature, that) and if anything the guitar sounds better than before.

I’m a happy little chappie.

But here’s the thing. Both Andy and the guys from Macari’s mentioned that fitting one of these bridges (Schaller, TonePros and Gotohs) is a popular mod that a lot of guitarists make, not only to Epiphones but to Gibsons as well. Now, that’s staggering to me. Epiphones are made to a tight price point so spending a little more after the fact to improve certain parts of the hardware is a good investment, no question. Having said that, I think a lot of guitarists would be happy if they put the prices up a little on their more expensive models and included better hardware on them as standard – after all, they’re buying thousands of bridges at bulk trade discounts, so the extra cost to them of using a better bridge (or tuners, or whatever) would actually be very minimal.

This is not some sort of cheap slam on Far Eastern manufacturing, by the way. A lot of lazy, ill-informed, unconsidered and frankly pretty racist nonsense is spouted on that subject. Epiphone guitars are made to specifications laid down by the people at Epiphone headquarters (in Nashville, Tennessee, since you ask) and any deficiencies in manufacturing are all directly attributable to the company’s US management, who are responsible for overseeing the process (however closely they choose) and awarding the contracts. And anyone who thinks Western production is automatically superior needs to read up about Detroit or British Leyland in the 1970s.

But while we’re on the subject of Western manufacturing, here’s another thing. Andy showed me the bridge off a newish Gibson Les Paul Custom he happened to have in his workshop right now. It appeared very similar to the one off my Epiphone, with noticeably less mass than the TonePros unit now on my guitar. It felt flimsy and surprisingly cheap. Andy had attempted to refile the grooves in the saddle once before but the owner was still breaking strings every gig he played and just wanted rid of it. The going rate in the UK for a new, US-made, LP Custom like this is £2999, by the way. Three. Grand.

If the use of such substandard hardware is standard practice for Gibson now, that’s really poor. If it’s a one-off rogue bit of ‘recycling’ by one enterprising member of staff, it’s hardly reassuring, as it doesn’t say much for their QC process. What the hell, Gibson? Show your customers a bit of respect.

The joy of a new guitar; or, I love my Epiphone Casino

I’ve mentioned before that I love recording electric guitar, building up layers of stuff, blending complementary tones. A big part of what makes it so satisfying when you’re happy with your work is how complex a process it is.

Recording one electric guitar rig means assembling a complicated system. When you plug an guitar into a pedal or two and into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier and thence to some sort of recording device (analogue or digital), you’ll be working with preamp and master gain controls on the pedals and the front face of the amp, the tone controls on the amp, equalisers on the mic pre, trims, faders, pads — the variables are endless (and remember, gain is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal). To get one good sound, with one guitar and one amp, is a substantial job of work. To get two or three… that’s a big endeavour.

And more and more, musicians will likely be trying to figure all of this stuff out for themselves. Demo studios exist in fewer and fewer numbers, and if you can’t find anyone local to you whom you trust to record you well, you may be better served by trying to record yourself. That’s why I started; the engineer my band had worked with for a couple of years went into post-production, and no one else in the area was as good as him.

Right now, I’m a pig in shit with this stuff. I recently bought a new guitar, an Epiphone Casino, as a present to myself after I completed the first year in my new job (I still call it my ‘new job’ despite have started nearly 13 months ago). That means I’m working out how it works with the two amps I have with me in my flat in London (a Vox AC15 and a big-ass Peavey half stack, a 120-watt single-channel all-valve behemoth, which I had intended to sell but find it difficult to part with), how it sits in a mix alongside my Strat, what it sounds like with pedals… This all takes time, and it’ll be some months before I’m really on top of it, but it’s a load of fun. So many new possibilities open up to you with a new instrument, and this is one I feel immediately at home with. I’d played Epiphone semis before (mainly Sheratons, possibly a Dot too), but fell quite hard for this Casino when I tried it in Macari’s. The decision to buy it was more or less instant. It has a more open, resonant acoustic-type tone played clean than I had been expecting (probably because it’s all hollow, while Sheratons have a solid centre block), but the thing can also kick like a mule; at higher gain structures, it gets into SG-like territory if you dial in the preamp right, and that’s a tone I can do business with.

Of course, like any guitar geek I’ve been on the net looking into who else has played Casinos. The Beatles — that is, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and most famously John Lennon – are the most obvious, but the list is long and distinguished, with a few favourite players and singer-songwriters among them. Which is nice; it’s cool having your gear choices validated and seeing what company you’re in. I’m looking forward to the day when the tone is so ingrained in me that I can identify a Casino in a dense mix merely from the sound (I’m a pretty reliable Strat spotter). Right now, though, I’m still exploring all the possibilities that this guitar offers, and it’s really inspiring.

Casino small

The Casino, in my flat

Summer Breeze – The Isley Brothers

I’m going to begin this with a statistic that I find genuinely incredible: the Isley Brothers scored Billboard Top 40 singles with new material in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. In that time they’d been an R&B party band, a Motown production-line group, folky protesters, funky balladeers, psychedelic Hendrix disciples, New Jack Swingers, even hookmen for gangsta rappers.

In the 1970s, they became one of the biggest groups in the world. The original trio of Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudy Isley had long been backed up by guitarist Ernie Isley, bassist Marvin Isley and their cousin Chris Jasper on keyboards but the younger kids were now asked to join the band for real and they put out an album called 3+3 to commemorate the formalising of this established collaboration. It was an immediate smash. For a few years prior, they had been working in rock and roll as much as soul music, reinterpreting white rock songs and hippie protest songs with a gospel fervour. Appropriately so, as they were the originators and popularisers of both Shout and Twist and Shout, so they already held a key position in the history of rock and roll music. But 3+3’s funk was based on songs by Carole King, the Doobie Brothers, even James Taylor. Not to mention Seals & Crofts, authors and original performers of Summer Breeze. It really doesn’t get any whiter than that. The Isleys’ success was to cross over from the R&B world to mainstream pop radio, which you can only do by broadening your fanbase. The Isley’s did it as well as anyone ever has, and few groups have been so beloved of both black and white audiences.

The album’s secret weapon (if anything so prominent could be described as secret), was Ernie Isley’s Fender Stratocaster. The band were fortunate to have in midst possibly the heaviest guitarist in R&B at the time, both in tone and in style (Eddie Hazel being the other contender). Ernie was a friend of Jimi Hendrix and owed Jimi a huge musical debt; Hendrix had played with the Isleys when Ernie was still a child and the influence he had on the kid was soul deep. The 1970s was the era of guitar hero (exhibit A: one of the ways Chris Blackwell decided to sell Bob Marley and Wailers to a rock audience was by adding guitar solos when they re-recorded their Jamaican material), but Ernie Isley cut through the high-speed babble of slurred sextuplets by virtue of an instantly recognisable tone – fat, sustained, compressed, loud – as well as a sensual, fluid approach to lead playing. He also played the drums on the Isleys’ records, and had an endearing way of speeding up pretty much all their records. His contributions made an Isleys record identifiable before Ronald even opened his mouth. Their records were organic – homemade, almost – in an era of increasingly slick productions and the group chose their material with a sure touch. A well-compiled Isleys best-of is an essential purchase.

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