Updated: Oct 17, 2018
When I was very young (2 years old I think) my parents bought me a ukulele. For some reason my mother was enamored with the Hawaiian guitar, otherwise known as a lap steel. She didn't play but could play piano by ear in 2 or 3 keys. She tuned my ukulele in an open major chord and, commensurate with the Hawaiian guitar, taught me to play it in my lap using a butter knife handle as a slide. I learned folk songs (I remember "Riding Down the Canyon" to this day), songs from church and songs from records.
I quickly abandoned the "lap guitar" approach and started holding it like a guitar. There was a guy at church who played guitar and I mimicked him. He and his wife would perform special songs in the service every once in a while. I also watched TV whenever we went to my paternal grandparent's house. TV was a big deal when I was a kid. My grandfather was an engineer at the local RCA plant in Bloomington, Indiana and they had a TV before anybody else I knew. They watched the Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan shows. I saw the Beatles movie, "Help!" and "Hard Day's Night" on the TV there. I also remember a family reunion on my mother's side where one of my maternal grandfather's brothers played a guitar and sang...you guessed it..."Riding Down the Canyon." Turns out he was part of a (mostly) family band called, "The Hoosier Stringbusters." I was told they cut a wax-disc recording in the forties.
In the mid-sixties I had a little battery-powered transistor radio and I was figuring out the music I was hearing on the radio. The Animals, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Monkees, Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel - all of it on my ukulele tuned to a major chord. I played and sang, mimicking what I was hearing.
We lived in a very small town south of Bloomington - Bedford, Indiana. There was nothing of note there other than limestone quarries. I spent my childhood there until a few months before my 11th birthday when we moved to Kansas City in 1966. Kansas City considerably broadened my musical horizons very quickly.
So when at age 11 I obtained my first guitar - a $24.95 Recco from Music Land (a real finger-bleed guitar) - I could immediately play some things because I already had a concept of the fretboard thanks to my ukulele experience.
Included with the guitar was a Mel Bay chord book. It had all the 1st-position cowboy chords. I taught myself the chords in that book - I could hear them in the songs I was hearing on the radio.
At this point I was playing and singing for family and friends, neighborhood kids and so on. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or a cousin, anyone who was interested and played something; even if it was an upside-down trash can for a drum.
When I hit puberty my voice changed and I lost control of it - I was no longer comfortable singing. Everything was different!
At about the same time I obtained my first electric guitar and started figuring out how to be a hotshot lead guitarist.
By age 15 I was in a real band that played gigs...and stuff. At some point during this time I realized that a monstrous guitar player who didn't sing would lose the gig to the mediocre guitar player who sang. So, as a survival technique, I started singing again. Plus, chicks dig the singer!
One of the groups that I played with during this period was an acoustic-guitar-centric trio that was modeled on Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buffalo Springfield, John Sebastian, Seals and Crofts etc. I considered myself to be the weakest vocalist in the group but it reinforced the idea that guitar players were a dime a dozen - both the other guys played guitar; if I wanted to play in a real band I HAD to be able to sing. So I did, although I was intimidated and uncomfortable when I had to do it. The Inhibition Barrier that I've written about elsewhere was in play.
By about 1974 - because of the sheer quantity of gigs I had played - I was more comfortable with singing, though not entirely comfortable - plus I was writing a lot of songs and needed an outlet. There was a thriving coffeehouse scene at the time and I did a lot of gigs, both solo and with another person or two, doing acoustic guitar oriented singer-songwriter material; mostly original music. I was definitely not Mr. Sparkly Entertainment Guy; I didn't do a lot of banter, I didn't tell many jokes or stories. I just got up and played my songs - take it or leave it.
By the late '70's I was back into working cover bands - 6 nights a week in clubs. I sang - but was never the lead singer.
In the mid '80's, mainly out of necessity, I started singing lead and started trying to be a little more entertaining - bantering with the crowd, soliciting requests, telling jokes - being my sardonic self.
In 1986 I took a six-week course of private voice lessons from the voice guru in town at the time - that helped me quite a bit (one of the things that happened was she broke down whatever was left of my Inhibition Barrier). A listener probably wouldn't be able to tell much difference between before and after but I could tell quite a bit of difference. The improvements were mostly technique-oriented and gave me more confidence in my singing. As a singer, confidence is HUGE! More confidence = less inhibition.
At the same time, my jazz skills had evolved to the point where I was getting gigs as a solo jazz guitarist. This was almost always background music - accompaniment to fine dining, art shows, wine-tastings and so on - and almost never required any singing or entertainment schtick. I was very happy with these kinds of gigs. I could sit in the corner and immerse myself in what I really loved - playing the guitar - and not be distracted by having to sing and be entertaining. Plus those kinds of gigs generally payed well!
I still did the acoustic singer/songwriter-type shows whenever they popped up, but I didn't really enjoy them; in fact, I usually dreaded them even though I took them. It was play and sing a 3-and-a-half--minute song, and then another, and then another, one after the other for 3 or 4 hours, banter a little bit, tell a few jokes, flirt with the ladies - and the most that could be hoped for was to drink enough to get a pleasant buzz going but not enough to impair the fine motor control...and get paid. If I hooked up with an entertaining frontman/singer that was the best. He took the brunt of being the show; he made me more entertaining and I made him sound better.
Sometime around 2000 one of those entertaining frontman/singers put an acoustic trio together (Valentine & the Ticklers) that is still working regularly today. The basic unit is myself, a sax player and the frontman/singer who played enough guitar that I was able to take solos on a lot of the songs.
The early period of that group caused an integration in my playing of the singer/songwriter song-oriented approach and the solo jazz guitar arranging/improv approach. I began to incorporate bass lines, walking and otherwise, into the typical songs we were doing. I was spontaneously coming up with arrangements - bass lines, chord extensions, alterations and substitutions, and other jazz-like vocabulary applied to a singer/songwriter-type presentation.
The frontman/singer was comfortable with my spontaneous onstage experimentation - he flew by the seat of his pants as an entertainer as well; we have the same improvisational attitude towards what we do - and he was very generous about sharing the singing duties and I found myself singing lead on 6 or 8 tunes a night - sometimes more. I also was regularly exposed to his comedy, quick wit, and entertainment techniques which have supplied a treasure trove of material to steal!
Then solo gigs started spinning off from the trio gigs. I was now better equipped to do those, although without the 2nd guitar I couldn't solo much and so was again reduced to singing and playing dozens of 3-and-a-half-minute songs, although I felt I had upped my game as far as the entertainment was concerned. Not as good as guys who're really good at it but good enough to get by. I still lean more on my song selection choices, my playing and the music than my entertaining skills.
Then in the mid-2000's I bought my first looper - a Boss RC-20XL Loop Station. It lasted a long time - I have no complaints about its durability but several years ago it crapped out on a gig I was playing in St Augustine, Fla. I replaced it with a Digitech JamMan. The JamMan has a different kind of foot switch that is more accurate time-wise. On the Boss I had to train myself to hit the button a split-second before I thought I should; no adjustment like that is required for the JamMan. It's very rare that I have a timing glitch at the beginning/end of the loop because of that.
Anyway, I didn't have much of a model for what I was about to do. This was long before Ed Sheeran and the like. I'd seen Phil Keaggy use a looper live and I liked what I heard but I wasn't that interested in building up multiple loops with percussion parts created by beating on the guitar - there are guys around now that do amazing stuff along those lines (Phil Keaggy is one of them) but I don't have the drumming skills to pull it off.
What I didn't like about what I was seeing and hearing at the time was that the "songs" consisted of loops that were 2 or 4 bars long - it was repetitious and, while sometimes interesting from a rhythmic perspective, very uninteresting from a harmonic perspective. You can't get very harmonically complex with just a repeating 4-bar phrase. And I'm ALL about harmonic depth. I LOVE complex chords and interesting chord progressions.
I was more influenced by Frippertronics. In the late '70's - early '80's I had experimented with creating actual, physical tape loops with 4-track reel-to-reel tapes, razor blades and scotch tape. Me and my buddies would make 4-track tape loops that ran the length of the house and jam to them. I listened to and studied Robert Fripp's stuff along these lines a lot. I still have a file cabinet drawer full of 4-track reel-to-reel recordings of loops I did - and no easy way to listen to them now.
When I bought my first digital delay in the mid-eighties it had a max delay time of 15 seconds. I would create 15-second loops, beds or random ambiance to which I could jam. I even have a gig tape of a jazz trio I had at the time playing live in a club with one of those 15-second loops incorporated into the tune - a la Frippertronics. I also remember programming bass lines into a Minimoog and jamming to those.
Also, from the 70's through the 90's I accumulated a ton of recording experience - all the tricks and techniques of multi-track recording was a skill-set that was about to be applied in an unforeseen manner.
All that was the real background for what I wanted to do.
My concept was to loop the accompaniment guitar part to the section of the song I wanted to solo over - on the fly - while I was singing. Then I hit the play button to solo. Solo as much or as little as I want, hit the button to turn off the loop and finish the song. The loop is erased as soon as the song is over. Nothing is saved; nothing is preprogrammed.
Many times I loop the entire song - like a jazz standard or a song with an AABA song form. I can then solo over the two A sections and come back in singing on the bridge - or I can solo over the whole form and bring the vocal back in whenever and wherever I feel like it. The spontaneity, improvisation and challenge that I thrive on is preserved; plus it provides the rhythm guitarist that I've always wanted to accompany my solos - me!
In my opinion, the guys who use multiple preprogrammed loops, drum machines and so on cross the line into Karaoke. They're locked into arrangements and have very little room for improvisation. Yeah, they sound like a whole band but, again, hello? Karaoke!
There are several potential pitfalls to my approach:
You've got to step on the button at exactly the right time. If you don't, there's a timing glitch at the end/beginning of the loop. All of a sudden, what shoes I wore became very important!
Maintaining a steady tempo while recording is super-important. Obvious, but not so easy to do. There is no click-track or metronome. For instance, if you speed up during the course of recording the loop when you hit the playback button there will be a sudden decrease in tempo that's very jarring. The longer the loop, the more potential there is for inconsistent tempo - and I use some pretty long loops! Though this issue rears it's ugly head every once in a while, it turns out I had better time than I thought - I was pleasantly surprised overall.
You generally have one chance to get the loop right. Any mistakes get recorded and looped.
Any of these errors have to be compensated for when soloing - there are no 2nd takes!
Many of the techniques I learned over the years in the recording studio came in very handy. For instance, getting in and out of the loop seamlessly. I use the old "punch-in" technique. When "fixing" a track in the studio, the engineer would start the playback several bars before the mistake. I would just play along to the track and the engineer would punch the record button right before the mistake and then punch out right after. I do the same thing when getting out of the loop - I play along in unison to the loop for a bar or 2 and then when I hit the stop button you can't tell that the loop has stopped. Seamless.
Another aspect of my recording experience that came into play was my time-keeping. I think the thousands of hours playing to click tracks and drum machines in the studio has helped make my time such as it is. Consistently performing with really killer drummers for decades hasn't hurt either. Many times when playing solo I imagine I'm playing with a drummer - that only I can hear!
Another applied lesson of studio experience is the ability to shift into a very relaxed but highly concentrated focus - there's one chance to play it right; any nervousness or second-guessing increases the odds of self-sabotage. And at the same time I'm usually singing, so there's multi-tasking going on. This is what I call, "R-Mode" and I've written about it extensively in another blog series. This relaxed but concentrated focus is very important to successfully using the looper.
Anyway, after a few weeks of gigs figuring out the looper and encountering and resolving the various issues, the fun factor for the solo gigs shot dramatically up! I found myself really enjoying and excited about playing solo. Plus I was using the looper on the acoustic trio gigs with the frontman/singer/guitar player and the saxophonist. Then I started using it on duo acoustic gigs with drummers and percussionists, bass players etc. The guys who do the best with the looper are usually guys with a lot of recording studio experience.
About half the gigs I play now are solo acoustic. I love doing them. And it's all because of the looper.
Most of the time I create a single loop to solo over. Sometimes I'll create a couple of loops for more texture. On a few tunes I'll stack up multiple parts - sometimes as many as 6 or 8 loops all going simultaneously. However, most of the time, I keep it simple.
I'm accessing decades of experience and multiple skill sets; the singing skills, my guitar skills, the recording studio skills, the jazz arranging and soloing vocabulary, the lessons I've learned about entertaining, reading the room, the lack of inhibition and on and on -
All the way back to that little kid singing and playing for the sheer joy of it.
Loop-Dee-Loop: What goes around comes around.
Here are some examples
The Man Who Sold the World: This is how I typically use the looper. I looped the first verse/chorus. Then I play a second rhythm part to the loop while singing the 2nd verse/chorus. Solo over the original loop and back in with the 2nd rhythm part over the loop for the last verse/chorus.
Norwegian Wood: Duo with Phil Brenner on sax. Notice the jazz waltz feel with the walking bass lines in the bridge. I created the loop during the sax solo and erased it as soon as the rhythm guitar comes back in after the guitar solo.
The coda of Hotel California. Trio with Forrest Stuart on bass and Kevin Johnson on drums. This was the first time this combination of players had played together. I work with Kevin a lot but Kevin and Forrest met for the first time on this gig. This was also my first attempt at stacking multiple loops in a band situation. No rehearsal - I just called the tune and cued them on the coda. There's one place where the time got a little raggedy but Kevin pulled it back in.
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