I Can Do Anything With Anything
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
This is the story of an incident in my early days of playing that taught me a valuable lesson about performing, confidence and the secondary relevance of nice gear, and how that lesson has been reinforced over my years of gigging.
Don't misunderstand; nice gear is good - I would be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. The fact that I really appreciate having nice gear now is due in part to the fact that I haven't always had nice gear.
Anyway, the first and most significant incident wherein I learned this lesson occurred at a Battle of the Bands sometime in the Spring of 1971.
We were a bunch of high school kids that had a band and were playing at school dances, parties, special events, coffeehouses and whatnot; wherever we could get a gig.
Gear-wise we were ok, individually. I had a Kustom 100 amp and a Burns Bison guitar. The amp was pretty good; the guitar was very functional but fairly cheap. (I sold that guitar to a student in 1982 and have regretted it ever since.) Our rhythm guitarist had a Sears Silvertone amp and a Fender Bronco guitar. The bass player played a Hofner bass - the kind Paul McCartney used. I think his amp was a Vox - it was twice the size of the guitar amps which were 2-12" combos. I can't remember the drummer's gear.
Our BIG weakness was the PA.
Our PA system consisted of a power amp with a couple of mic input jacks and two speakers that were still in the cardboard boxes they were shipped in. We had no PA cabinets and no mixer. Every gig we would wire up the speakers to the amp by hand and prop them up in their cardboard boxes. Many times we would take a break so we could solder a loose connection. The amp had a circuit breaker that would pop out when the amp got too hot, which was always in the middle of a song. We had a guy whose job it was to sit by the amp and when the circuit breaker blew he would punch it back in. This would allow us to finish the song and then we would take a break and let the amp cool down. I can’t believe we never blew that amp up.
Anyway, we walked into this gymnasium on the more upscale side of town, wheeling in our gear and our sorry-ass excuse of a PA, to be confronted by 3 or 4 other bands, rich kids by my estimation, with the latest gear. I saw Gibson Les Paul guitars, Fender Twin amps, and Kustom PA columns as tall as I was. It was the kind of gear I fantasized about when looking through catalogs. Imagine black, roll-pleated PA columns 5 or 6 feet tall, all new and shiny, next to our little speakers-in-cardboard-boxes. I wanted to just turn around and walk back out. Our lead singer insisted we follow through; “We’re here, we might as well play.” I was intimidated and had no hope.
If my memory serves me, we did “Goin’ Up the Country” by Canned Heat, “Blue Suede Shoes” (the John Lennon version from the “Live Peace in Toronto” album), and “Purple Haze”.
And, more significantly to me, one of the other guitar players came up to me and asked me if I gave lessons.
That whole episode taught me a valuable lesson – it’s about the musician and the music, not the gear. NEVER be intimidated by lack of gear, sub-par gear, or raggedy old gear. The musician is the most important element to the thing. The music is in the hands and the heart, not the gear. Since then I've learned it's about drink sales, not the music. Having a cute lead singer also helps.
Fast-forward a decade. All through the eighties I was playing top-40 dance music; 80's rock, Michael Jackson, Prince, the Police - whatever was popular. I was a poor, self-employed musician struggling to raise a family, and owned one single electric guitar, a Gibson 175.
It's a fine guitar and actually has some collectibility (it's early '70s) but it is NOT "appropriate" for the pop music of the eighties - that would be a Strat.
My booking agent/manager at the time critiqued me, "You'll never look like Michael Jackson's guitar player with that guitar."
I said, "Book me higher-paying gigs and I could afford to buy a Strat."
He said, "I can't get more money for you unless you look the part." In other words, I had to have a Strat first.
I was hanging out at a music store one day and a complete stranger came up to me and said, "Dude! You are the ONLY guy I've ever seen play Van Halen on a 175!"
I did it because that was all I had. Any problems had to do with visuals and image, that is, people's preconceptions about what I should look like, not what it actually sounded like. I made it sound rocked-out, and most people couldn't tell the difference if they weren't looking. I worked 6 nights a week or more using an instrument that was not generally associated with the kind of music I was playing.
I've written another blog on this subject called, Versatility? Clothes!
Sometime in the late nineties or early 2000's I was playing an acoustic gig. We had a frontman/lead singer, myself singing and playing an acoustic guitar, and a percussionist. It was a typical, low-key, sensitive singer-songwriter type format - think MTV's "Unplugged."
Some drunk asshat comes up and yells, "Play Purple Haze!"
I think to myself, "Can't you see what we're doing here? Have you no concept that Purple Haze is electric? Distortion and feedback and all that? Do you see an electric guitar anywhere onstage? Drum set? Hmm? Drunk idiot!"
Without batting an eye the lead singer volunteered me, "Sure!" (Why is it always the lead singer? Because unorthodox boundaries and supreme self-confidence come with that territory.)
So now the pressure was on; I was going to have to play and sing Purple Haze with an acoustic guitar - thanks, Mr. Frontman!
I just waded in and did the best I could.
I surprised myself! It was a resounding success! Not only did it go over with the crowd but it wound up being different and interesting musically and sonically. Purple Haze with acoustic guitar and congas.
That's when I realized I can do anything with anything!
My self-imposed boundaries were limiting my creativity. The preconceptions about what kind of music HAS to be done with what kind of gear have gone out the window. Thanks Mr. Drunk Idiot! And thanks, Mr. Frontman!
That lesson has stood me in good stead over the years.
One time I was on a solo acoustic gig, opened up my gig bag and was confronted by an electric guitar - I had picked up the wrong bag. After a few seconds of panic during which I considered the logistics of calling my wife or son to bring me my acoustic (a one-hour round trip which meant I would start late, not to mention the inconvenience to them) I thought,
"Wait a minute, I can do anything with anything!"
I plugged the electric guitar straight into the PA and played the 4-hour gig. I altered the song list and some of the arrangements. There were some things I could do with the electric that I wouldn't think of to do on the acoustic and there were things I did on acoustic that wouldn't work well on an electric so I had to adjust things on the fly - it was stimulating, fun and unusual (to me) and nobody in the crowd or management knew any different.
There is a famous story about Charlie Parker in Toronto for a concert, pawning his saxophone to buy heroin. At gig-time he has no instrument. Someone comes up with a plastic saxophone, a Grafton, not much more than a toy, for him to use. He plays the concert with a plastic saxophone and it was amazing! We know this because it happened to be recorded; Jazz at Massey Hall.
I don't endorse pawning your instrument or using heroin.
But I do endorse this; embrace being knocked out of your comfort zone.
You just might discover you can do anything with anything!
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