Do you have a question you bet others would want to know about too?
What kind of guitar do you play?
Until recently, my main flat top you have seen me use in concert was made by John Colvin in the early 90's. I've used it on several recordings:
Short Stories, Flatpick & Clawhammer, Promised Land, Rhyme Schemes, and most of
Top Drawer String Band, How Like The Holly, and Six Of One. It's a lovely guitar - it always delivers what I ask of it. Not
the fanciest looking guitar but a sonic jewel. I think of it as a "Shaker" guitar - simple and functional. My primary guitar before the Colvin makes an outing now and then: a 1968 Martin D 21 I've owned since high school - nicely balanced for a Martin D. You can hear that on Naked Truth. The D 21 is, of course, a dreadnaught shape and has a Brazilian rosewood body. The Colvin is similar to a Martin "M" size but differently braced and made of Koa wood with a Sitka spruce top. The neck was cloned from an old 1930's "OM" which I liked. I borrowed an excellent copy of that guitar - made by T.J. Thompson - to record
Just after 9/11/01 I bought a small Martin for airline travel and have wound up using it for most of my gigs and have recorded two albums with it -- 2002's Thumb Thump and 2004's Golden Willow Tree. It is a 00C15AE -- which means in "Martin-speak," a "00" size (grand concert or classical guitar shape) cutaway, all solid-wood mahogany (top as well) with rosewood fingerboard and bridge, "acoustic electric." That last designation means there is a pickup built in and that the body is thinner than normal. (The scale length, it is important to note is the dreadnaught-length 25~ inch rather than the traditional 00 length of 24~ inches.) Martin has offered their 00 AE line as a "rocker's" guitar, in that it is roughly the size of a telecaster, and plugs in and can hang low and be thrashed upon while maintaining an alt-rock slouch. Of course that's not me. But the small body is easy to play standing up. The all-mahogany model I have (15) is no longer in production, by the way. Martin currently makes an aluminum-top version with a whammy bar, and a solid spruce top with composite back.
I find that this guitar has a lovely acoustic tone. It is a bit quieter than a bigger guitar, but mikes very well, and I have used it in the recording studio with two mikes in stereo with great effect. We also add in a wee bit of the pickups just for some depth.
What pickups? Well, it came from the factory with a Fishman bridge pickup. It is a coaxial piezo that lies under the bridge saddle. It is not quite the same as Fishman's after market pickup. There is a 4-band Fishman EQ built in to the upper bout. I find this pickup to be inadequate by itself. It has the awful midrange "quack" of the piezo that in my mind I will always associate with 70's bar bands strumming Ovation guitars plugged into a Shure vocalmaster. For a while I tamed this beastly sound by dumping the midrange completely, the treble nearly completely, and keeping only the low and ultra-high bands of the EQ at zero. Then I would run the signal through a Baggs Gigpro where I could shape the sound a bit more. Then I would mix that with a mike in concert. Not bad, but I wasn't satisfied.
After a lot of research and checking out other people's gear, I decided to add a Fishman Rare Earth humbucking pickup in the soundhole. This pickup has a remarkably warm acoustic sound all by itself -- and with no quack. I wired it into the existing pickup so both could run off of the easily serviced nine-volt in the preamp. But the rare earth signal does not go through the preamp. I wired the two pickups into a stereo jack so that the humbucker gets the tip signal and piezo gets the ring. That way, if I use a mono cord, only the humbucker signal is used. With a stereo cord, I send the two signals through a Baggs Mixpro -- similar to the Gigpro, but blends two signals and preamps each. I use mostly the humbucker, but add in a little of the piezo (with mids & highs dumped from the preamp as above) for a warm bass sound. With these two working, I usually don't add in any microphone in live performance, unless the sound check tells me otherwise. That's the setup I have been using this past year (spring '03 - spring '04).
It is still a great acoustic guitar in an old-time jam, though!
What kind of banjos do you play?
What other instruments do you play?
What kind of strings do you use?
How about picks and fingernails?
Do you practice every day?
When did you start playing?
I actually was drawn to the idea of the french horn, because it looked cool. The school band director thought I was cut out for the trombone, because my arms were longer than most 4th graders. But we were a poor family, and my mom couldn't see the sense in renting a horn, when we owned good stringed instruments outright. So I started on the mandolin. My first tune was "The Old Rugged Cross" all played on the G string. Later, my brother taught me to play rhythm guitar behind his banjo, and I played his banjo when he wasn't looking.
I started playing in earnest about the time I started high school. That's when I started playing the guitar each and every day -- really getting into it. Years later I had a conversation with Doc Watson and he told me it was the same for him -- an early introduction to music, but making it a daily thing about the time of high school. Since Doc is a guitar hero of mine, that made me feel good.
I didn't start seriously playing the fiddle until I was 18 or 19 -- away at college. By then I was pretty skilled on the fretted instruments, and felt I could branch out a bit. It took a few years of noise before the fiddle started to sound convincing enough to play in public.
Do you give lessons?
There's no rule for me. I've written full blown melodies to which I've added words ("Holding To The Land" and "Honeysuckle Moon" are examples). I've also written complete lyrics to a strict meter and added a melody later ("Fiddle And The Bow"). And of course, I am often happy to write an instrumental or a poem. It doesn't always have to be a song.
But usually a song walks forward on two legs. A bit of music or a bit
of wordage might lead off, then the other catches up. While the words rest
the music advances; when the tune is more refined the lyrics catch up.
Most of my songs have come about this way. The first inkling can be either
a cerebral idea -- a message or topic -- or just a mood. Sometimes a
little musical phrase or a turn of words is the seed. How it grows -- or
if indeed it grows at all -- is always a mystery to me, even though the process
has become familiar.
This question is asked a lot, and I wish I had an answer. When I look back at a song I may have written some years ago, I often wonder where a line or phrase came from myself.
I seldom can write a decent song on assignment. People all the time share with me their "You oughta write a song about ..." ideas. They almost never appeal to me as a songwriter. Not that they couldn't be good songs, but it's just not how I work.
Most often, ideas incubate in me without me knowing about it. Sometimes its more of a feeling than an idea. Robert Frost once said something like "The emotion finds the idea and the idea finds the words." Writing a song is something like that, except that the music is another layer of pure emotion that can reinforce the mood of the words or ironically juxtapose.
Sometimes two ideas will merge from some grab bag in my head. I was once reading a book about lumberjacks written in the 1930's ("Holy Old Mackinaw') which had an interesting bit of word lore. The old logging camps in the Midwest were winter operations, and of course all the hauling was done by horses. And the horses were fed last summer's hay, which had to be hauled into the forest in bales, held together with haywire. So a camp was lousy with used haywire. Haywire (aka "bailing wire") was found to be handy to fix everything from an ax handle to the camp stove to a bedspring. A camp that was poorly run and under-funded was said to be "all haywire." From that came our modern day term for something gone kerflooey.
Well, I got to thinking that the modern day equivalent of haywire would have to be duct tape, and that someday the words "duct tape" might have an entirely different meaning than tape for ducts. About this time I got the notion to write a blues tune so I would have an original to jam on. On my drive home from the music store where I gave lessons to home (15 minute drive) I wrote "Duct Tape Blues." I wrote down the 5 verses I had made up in the car, and edited out two of them. The result has been my most requested song this past fourteen years. Would that all songs came so easily.
No. During some periods of my life I may be writing everyday for a stretch. At other times, not at all. I suppose that if I locked myself in a room for an hour every day with no coffee until I wrote three pages, I may have more to show for it. But I tend to go in spurts. I may have a two week stretch where clawhammer banjo is my only pastime, another week of ragtime guitar, another of mandolin, and a stretch of songwriting. I've just never been big on regimen.
No. I've never done well the times I've tried to use a tape recorder. I'm a pen and paper man. I have found that I work best with a cheap spiral bound notebook and a medium ball point. The medium ball point pen is thick and dark enough for me to see in dim light, which is often the case in late night sessions. I scribble and cross out and write in the margins. I like to see what I've deleted in case I want to restore a word or two later. I also only write on the right-hand pages -- I use the facing page for side excursions such as a list of synonyms or rhyme words or related notions that occur to me as I think about the song.
When the page becomes messy, I turn to a fresh sheet and re-write my lyric and continue the writing and editing process. I find that by constantly re-writing in long hand, I not only sharpen the lyric, but also memorize the thing. By the time I am done, I pretty much have re-written the song in long hand maybe a dozen times, and have it pretty much committed to memory as well.
I have a good memory for melody. I don't write the tune in manuscript form. I may underline the words where the beat occurs and mark in some chord changes if I think I might forget a brainstorm. But usually I am re-working the melody at the same time as the words, so I purposely don't want to set the tune in stone. If I mis-remember the melody the next day, it probably wasn't a very memorable tune anyway.
Spiral bound notebooks are cheap, durable, portable and will not erase themselves during a thunderstorm. And unlike floppy disks of ten years ago, their format is stable for a lifetime. I have a shelf full of them that I visit from time to time. Not every song gets finished, and the aborted songs are often full of good ideas that I can use in another context.
Once a song is done, I copy it onto my word processor. It makes nice pretty copies for recording sessions and so forth. I don't mind composing prose on a word processor -- in fact I prefer it. But poetry and song need my scribble, it seems.
I wrote songs when I was in high school, when I had been playing seriously for only a few years. Without exception, those songs stunk. In college my songs were either artsy and pretentious or muddled and self-centered. Lucky for me I had friends who were tolerant enough (or stoned enough) to listen. Lucky for them, I mostly sang good songs written by other people. Or traditional music. There wasn't much of a singer-songwriter scene in those days to encourage me. Looking back, I think that was probably a good thing.
Some bit of good sense surfaced in my early 20's, and I consciously put aside my songwriting (except for an occasional parody) for about ten years and just lived my life and played as much music as I could. Then I started writing tunes -- fiddle or banjo tunes mostly. And then the occasional country song. I got hooked on the process and started writing again. This time around I had more of an outward look. And now I had a better idea of what makes a good song. And people were listening!
I also found that I had some things to say, or at least I had an different angle on things as a more mature person. There's a fine line between expressing yourself for the sake of your art and expressing yourself for the sake of your ego. I definitely had some growing up to do before I could write a decent song.
There is no single formula for a good song. But a captivating lyric wedded to a memorable melody is a laudable goal. But even that is a rule to be broken sometimes.
Sometimes a melody can be so beautiful, or haunting, or hot & swinging, that a lyric need not be sensational -- it just needs to not be distracting. Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose" is a good example. It's a serviceable lyric, but don't try to make much sense of it. (In fact that song was first an instrumental until the publisher demanded lyrics for better sheet music sales. A night locked in a room with a fifth of whisky led to the lyrics, so the story goes.)
Vice versa, a fantastic lyric is sometimes served on a mediocre melodic bed with good results. I'm thinking of a few Bob Dylan songs here.
But when you have both lyrics and melody hitting on all the cylinders -- that's when magic happens. I think of some of the old show biz standards, like "Lulu's Back In Town" by Al Dubin and the great Harry Warren. The tune is simple but catchy, and is especially clever in it's first phrase, which repeats throughout the song. The lyric is everyday wordage -- it's a guy getting ready for a date. He's desperate to look his best. Why? Because "Lulu's back in town!" That's the refrain as well as the title. Never is a word wasted on describing Lulu, but by the end of the one and only chorus, you know she's the hottest date he's ever gonna have. No wasted words, no wasted melodic fanciness. (Plus the rhyme scheme is a clever, and deceptively tricky AAAB CCCB DDDB EEEB) But you hear this song once, I guarantee you will want to hear it again. And that, perhaps, is the truest test of greatness.
I'm thinking as well of the songs of Malvina Reynolds. Her lyrics often used childlike metaphors or at least a child's vocabulary to speak of very big topics. Take "God Bless The Grass" for instance. Where grass is truth and concrete is lies, the melody is a near perfect match for the metaphor. It's simple, yet moving and strong. The small bridge section of the song has a two-tone minor third repetition, much like a child's sing-song, that reflects patience and endurance, then it is released with a hopeful three tone ascension. Finally the refrain at the end is the title -- "God bless the grass" -- and the melody for that is a three tone descending minor scale that sets the perfect tone of dignity, truth and justice. It's an elegantly simple, and moving wedding of words and music.
Last example -- "The Shadow Of Your Smile." I know, I know. Martinis spilled at the Formica bar and bad lounge singers notwithstanding, this is a great song. It was written by a jazz trumpet player, Johnny Mandel as a movie theme (The Sandpiper). Words were commissioned later and written by Paul Francis Webster. The melody is definitely the stronger part. It's the near perfect picture of sadness, which is the point of the movie. At the end of nearly every short phrase there is a descending tone and at the end of the first long phrase a descending half tone, which is the most melancholy of sounds -- like a heavy sigh. This same "sigh" repeats about five more times. It's tricky to have so many descending tones without winding up in the basement. He starts most lines with a quick ascending arpeggio which makes this possible. Only at the end of the song -- the last four lines -- do the phrases end by ascending in a major chord feel. But here, each phrase itself is starting on a lower note than the one before. Again, a wistful feel with a downward motion.
The lyrics are more impressionistic than narrative, but evoke the same sadness and, at the end, a wistful remembrance of a lost love. Reportedly, the great Johnny Mercer (who did "wistful" really well with "Days of Wine & Roses" and "Moon River" ) wrote the first set of lyrics that were discarded by the movie producer in favor of the Webster lyric. Mercer later quipped about the other's lyric "It sort of sounded to me as if it were about a lady with a slight moustache.")
Again the proof is in repetition. I defy you to look out a rainy day's window and slowly hum "Shadow Of Your Smile" and not feel just a little bluer than you were before. Conversely, give it a moderate swing beat and you're ready to close dance with your lover. Yep, it's a very good song.
About "Touch A Name On The Wall" -- are you a veteran of Vietnam?
This is a question I'm asked constantly. I guess it is understandable, since the song is in first person. The answer is no. I'm not a vet and I am thankful that my best friend's name is not etched on the memorial in Washington. The fact that this song has come to mean so much to so many people is humbling to me as a songwriter. When the song is requested I nearly always honor the request if the setting is at all appropriate for me to sing it. I know it means a lot to people of a certain age. My age.
I'm not of the school of songwriters who only tells factual first hand accounts of my own life. I think there are other ways to speak truth. Often I will slip into first person to tell a tale in song, when I am in actuality creating another character named "I." It's not an attempt to fool anybody. It's just a way to be more effective.
"Touch A Name On The Wall" was a tough song to write. I knew I wanted to tell a vet's story. There were lots of big movies around at the time (1987) that were purporting to tell the real Vietnam story. I felt there was something left out. I spent months just sorting out my own feelings and looking for a central image to build my song on. I saw a picture of a person touching the wall, and I realized that touch was what was important -- it was the need to actually touch the name on the wall that made such an impact of the memorial. Once I had that image, I had my refrain, my chorus. The song was built upon that. I shed more than a few tears as I wrote the song, and that led me to believe I was on the right track.
But I didn't want to have just another anti-war diatribe. Nor did I want to write another "Green Beret" style anthem of glory. The truth is in the middle. I think I must have come pretty close to it. I've heard from people who were on both sides of the war issue -- decorated vets and jailed protesters alike who have taken my song into their lives.
My favorite story is of a vet who heard my song on the car radio. He pulled off the road, had a good cry and wrote to me for a cassette tape copy. Turns out he teaches a Vietnam studies course at university, and he has used the song in his classes. He wrote to me a few years ago that he headed a bunch of vets on a visiting tour of Vietnam. He took my tape along. While riding the "Reunification Train" between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the sound system was playing tapes of old Elvis records. He asked the Vietnamese conductor if he and the other passengers would like to hear a song about the war written by a an American. They put on my song -- the people liked it -- and he left it there with them. I don't know if they play it very often, but it goes to show you never know how a song will wind up when you are writing it down on paper.
You might want to check out these topics elsewhere at this site that concern performing:
From the workshop file: Performing A Song,
& Composing A Set List.
When did you start performing?
I sang a few songs in my church when I was a kid, but mostly I was just part of the congregation singing full-bore as we were encouraged to do. My first time singing and playing guitar in front of an audience would have been a two-song set in my high school "hootenanny" my senior year. 1971. (One of the songs I sang that night was Tom Paxton's "Rambling Boy" -- I forget the other.) Later that year I played for tips at a local "coffeehouse" in my hometown. I hitchhiked to Maine that summer and played a paying gig with my brother at an art gallery in Bar Harbor. That fall I started college and played a number of free concerts in the dorms. So 1971 -- thirty years ago from this writing -- was my inaugural year in "show biz" as it were.
Sure, sometimes. But not terribly so. I've been told I appear comfortable on stage. That's good, because I am striving for that. Confidence comes with experience, and I've been doing this long enough to believe I can walk on a stage and do it once more. Still, there is just a butterfly or two lurking deep down, especially in new situations or strange surroundings. Once the first tune is done though, I can usually relax and have some fun. Years ago Steve Goodman told me that the secret to entertaining is to have a good time on stage. People will have a good time if they see you having a good time. There's a lot of truth to that. And Steve Goodman was, for my money, about the best solo entertainer ever to sling a guitar.
Jethro Burns once told me that no matter how cool he thinks he is, he messes up his first tune -- so he starts with his second tune. I never heard Jethro miss a note.
I sure miss Jethro and Steve.
Actually, no. My worst performance fear is playing to a living room full of close relatives. I instantly revert to sullen teenage angst. I'm better in a crowd of strangers.
There is a point when a collection of people quit being a bunch of individuals and become a single "audience." That's the point when I can start to relax. Larger numbers don't scare me. I think the biggest audience I ever faced was about 20,000 at an outdoor concert opening for Joan Baez. The size of the crowd wasn't a bother -- just the fact that the sound system sucked and nobody in the crew cared because I was just an opening act. It's much more common for me to face a crowd of 100 to 500. As long as the number is appropriate to the hall, size doesn't really matter. If however the audience seems to be rattling around in a huge hall -- whether that is 20 people in a room that seats 100, or 500 in a room that seats 4000 -- then things can be a little uncomfortable sometimes. It's more difficult to create the audience.
A bunch of people sitting together isn't automatically an audience. They need a focus as a group. They need to come together as a single entity to become an audience. There are any number of ways to turn a bunch of strangers into an audience.
Opening acts are a time-honored method of creating an audience. "Warming up the room" is a phrase often used. Whether the opening act is loved or hated, by the time they leave the stage, this bunch of people have a shared common experience -- they have clapped, laughed (or hissed) for a period of time as a group. That is what is important. A folk club that has a regular crowd -- there you have an audience ready made. Likewise a return visit to an area where you have established a following. But when you are treading onto a cold stage facing a bunch of people who are not only strangers to you, but strangers to each other, the first task is to "create the audience." Having a good opening song, or joke is good. Nothing like the contagion of laughter to bond people together. Having a good emcee can be a lifesaver sometimes. A poor one can really be a drag.
Well, alcohol is a bad idea. You are just inviting trouble by dulling your senses. I've never found the old trick of imagining people in their underwear very helpful either.
I find it is good to remind yourself that most people are expecting that they will like you. They want to like you, if you just let them. If looking people in the eyes is un-nerving, try looking around at people's ears -- or shoulders. The verisimilitude from the audience's point of view is just fine. If there are stage lights in a darkened room, get used to opening your eyes wide and staring into the darkness.
Being prepared always helps -- fresh strings nicely tuned -- comfortable shoes -- a trip to the "john" before you hit the stage and a glass of water on stage help with fluid control.
Yes and no. I really abhor a memorized introduction. Yet I have clear in my mind the things I want to say, and sometimes I will repeat certain elements from show to show. But what I strive for is creating the introduction for a song on the spot. Just as when you tell a joke you know well, you might change the details a bit when telling it to your pastor as opposed to say, your drinking buddies. So will I tailor my comments to the moment. If a song needs a few words I will say them. Sometimes I will skip an intro if I have been talking too much -- or I may fluff out a shaggy dog, if I think the audience would like a little yarn spinning. Often I will relate something I find funny, ironic or sad that day. I like to think each performance is a unique experience.
I know some well-known entertainers -- some of them actually good entertainers -- who memorize a script, write a set list in stone, and take it on the road and never stray from the course. That attitude would drive me nuts! I may repeat a few songs from night to night on tour, or may tell a story or joke two nights in a row, but by and large, each night is a new creation. There is always something that will be only for that moment in time -- an off-the-cuff remark or topical observation. Sometimes it's a story or recollection.
The downside of this spontaneity is that often I will see a fan who will tell me "I'm still laughing about that line when I saw you last, when you said blah blah blah..." and will then utter a quote I have absolutely no recollection of making. That happens a lot these days.
Yeah -- don't do it. Unless you really have to. That's my advice to anybody thinking of a career in the arts. Having said that, I don't really have great pearls of wisdom to bestow. I don't know what I would do if I were a young man starting out in this business of music this year.
I do know that the first few years of my own career were the most brutal. That probably would still be true today. I remember many an early gig where I was expected to play for 4 or 5 hours to a bunch of rude people eating, drinking, smoking and talking -- and getting paid the grand sum of $25 dollars! I remember setting for myself the goal to have just one point in the evening when everybody in the room would shut up and turn and look at me. That was tough, but I did it. Next goal was to have and hold the attention of the room for two or three songs in a row. A whole set of people paying attention was a dream come true!
Now I am playing to people who actually come to hear me play. That seems so basic, yet is such a luxury compared to my early gigs. So much easier. I'm not sure I would have it in me to play those early bar gigs again.
My advice? My favorite show business advice I pass along to everybody who asks is a bit I heard George Burns say on a TV talk show, when he was asked about advice to youngsters starting out in the business:
"Never leave your wallet backstage."
© 2008 Joel Mabus