Intonation: A Nearly Four-Decade-Long Musical Conversation

Martin D-76

I’ve been enjoying a musical conversation that I’ve been having with my father that has spanned the better part of four decades  This conversation has assumed numerous directions, been carried with words and with music, and though it has been conveyed through countless instruments over a gamut of styles and genres, Bluegrass and the acoustic guitar have always been what I call ‘home’.  Over the course of this conversation with my father, I would have to say that it hasn’t been until about the last year or so that I could say I’ve really ‘gotten’ the meaning of it all–or am getting to the meaning of it all.  Perhaps this would be a good point to mention that my father died in April of 2010, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the conversation; in fact, in some ways things seem to ramped-up a bit.  I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it isn’t.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have been exposed to a great deal of live music–my father spent a good chunk of his free-time playing guitar in a couple of different bands that I remember.  He was a fantastic musician, and I would venture to refer to him more as a guitarist than a guitar player–it’s a subtle distinction and some use the descriptions interchangeably, but not me.  He could play a dozen different instruments proficiently enough to “play along” with a group, but I’m certain he felt most comfortable on the guitar.  There were guitars that came and went in our house–some with six strings, some with twelve (an eight string guitar may have even stayed with us for a short time)–but the one that stuck around until the bitter end was Dad’s Martin D-76.

That's Dad on the right with his D-76, then only a couple of years old.

Looked upon as something of a novelty, the Martin D-76 was a produced to commemorate the U.S. bicentennial, and it was a limited edition with only 1,976.  For the most part, the D-76 did not sell well primarily because of quality control issues that had plagued the preceding years.  The guitars had lost their sense of hand-built quality, and the D-76 was a limited edition that attempted to draw consumers back to the brand; unfortunately they didn’t sell out of them until 1978.  Fortunately, Dad got one, and fortunately they just happen to be good guitars.

As a kid, touching the guitar wasn’t exactly verboten, but it definitely wasn’t encouraged either, and let’s just say that I’m thankful that Dad never saw me doing my Pete Townsend-style windmill strumming technique on his Martin; I might not be writing this post today.

I started off on the ukulele, and played that for a while, but yearned to graduate to a tier-one instrument.  An uncle gave me a banjo and I played it for a time, but all I could muster were some basic techniques that, to this day, I have not moved beyond.  My dad always modestly said that he played guitar so that he could hang out with real musicians, and when a college roommate of mine brought a guitar to school with him, I jumped at the chance to learn, and the couple of chords that I did know bloomed into a laborious, self-directed study of the instrument.   By the next Christmas, I had my own guitar and was free to play as often as I liked.

Many of the ‘guitar-related’ behaviors I saw in my dad as I was growing-up that I never understood now began to make sense.  Tuning the guitar was always a fun thing to watch Dad do:  He would go to that far-off place–not a physical place, but a mental place–with his eyes down-cast, looking at nothing and hearing something that only he could hear.  He could feel that sweet spot between sharp and flat like no one else and if he were playing with someone even the slightest bit out of tune, he would search you out in a crowd to share a funny look, like an inside joke (at my house, whistling out of tune–so long as it was on purpose–was high comedy). I guess I caught the same bug; sometimes I take so long to tune-up that I don’t have enough time to play.

That's Dad on the right with 12-string guitar, complete with cigarette wedged into the peg head.

Despite the fact that he would always say his tuning was, “close enough for bluegrass”, he taught me that there should be some respect paid to and some care taken with the harmonic relationship between strings, and further, the relationship between the instruments.

Dad also taught me that, if you were going to play, you play like you mean it.  You didn’t have to play with him very much to hear him tell you to play it or sing it louder.  He played with a heavy right hand, and over the years, nearly dug a hole in the spruce top where his pick would come down just above the top E string, something that was thankfully left untouched when the guitar was sent back to Martin 10 or 15 years ago for a factory reset.

The arc of my own musical interests has run the gamut, but live, imperfect music has always been at the core, and though I ranged-off into electric territory, I always came back to the acoustic guitar, and really eventually back home to bluegrass.  Perhaps it was my own maturity level, but there was something restorative about bluegrass.  I could identify with ‘the old home place’, having moved away from it, and pining to get back to it one way or the other, in one form or another.

Martin D-76 Purfling

I watched him for years, studied his mannerisms, and saw how connected he was to this guitar and how capable he was with it.  That’s why it was so tough, 3 months after he’d been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, to see him toting this guitar through the airport on his last trip to Phoenix before he died.  Unless you’ve experienced it, I guess you don’t know how you’ll act, but I had been whistling past the graveyard for 3 months and in that moment, everything became quite real, and I knew instantly what that scene meant.  He told me that, “It was always your guitar anyway.”

Not feeling especially worthy of playing such an instrument and partially due to some degree of grief I’m sure, it took me a while before I felt completely comfortable with the idea that I was now the guitar’s steward.  After a couple of months, I had Bob Colosi make me a set of bridge pins, nut, and compensated saddle–all out of bone–to replace the original plastic ones that Martin put on the guitar and that my father so detested.  I then had the guys at Guitar Electronics (don’t let the name fool you) do the fitting, shaping and installation.  It wasn’t until I had added these touches and actually improved upon the original sound that I felt like the guitar was mine.  I even solved the difficult B string tuning problem with the compensated saddle which Dad probably wished he had done too.

It’s funny to me how I kind of chuckled at my dad for the amount of time he spent trying to get his guitar in-tune, and only later realized why.  With a fine instrument, the tones are so much more well-defined and you can hear that relationship between that the strings that I talked about earlier much more clearly.  Also with a fine instrument, the woods used in the guitar are much more superior conductors of sound vibration, so not only can you hear it, but you can feel it as well.  It is hard to convey this in words, but suffice it to say that I’ve played for nearly 20 years, and this was an epiphany for me.

That's Dad in the middle with his D-76. He'd be pissed if he knew I posted this one.

I found myself doing many of those things I observed my father doing over all of those years, and I found that things that I did not understand had begun to become clear.  Sometimes, it is as though we are playing the same guitar and I find myself chuckling over one of those old inside jokes–almost like I’m still carrying-on a conversation with my father, even since his death.

My daughter will have forgotten her grandfather–she was not yet 2 when he died–and my son was born 2 weeks after his death, so the one real tangible thing I can share with them about an extremely vital aspect of my father’s life is locked away in that guitar, and the only difficulty will be for me to coax it out for them to “see” for themselves.  I really do feel that I’m more of a steward than an owner of this guitar, and perhaps one day I can tell one of my kids that the guitar has always belonged to them anyway.

Now, if those kids would just keep it down so I could tune-up.

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The Brilliance of the Blues Brothers…

Cover of Briefcase Full of Blues

The other day I was driving and heard “Soul Man” by the Blues Brothers on the radio.  Now, I have heard this song, both the Blues Brothers version and Sam and Dave’s original, about a hundred times in my life, but for some reason this time it sparked a different feeling in me.  Idon’t know, maybe it’s middle age setting in.  Nah, can’t be that.  I still feel and act as though I’m 16.

Anyway, as I was listening to the song I hearkened back to the first time I saw and heard the Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live in 1978.  I was all of 11 years old at the time.  You may be asking, what the hell was an 11 year old doing up at midnight?  Well, my parents were only 29 and 30 years old at the time.  So you know, they were pretty cool in that regard.  But I digress.  Back to my first viewing of the Blues Brothers.  I remember my first reaction was laughter.  Seeing John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd’s spastic dance routine as the band whipped into “Soul Man” had me giggling, but the music was what hit me.

Now, I should preface this by saying that my parents were very much into rock ‘n roll music.  I grew up listening to the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Sly, Jimi, etc.  And my dad loved the old R&B, Stax Records, Motown stuff.  But like I said, I was 11 at the time.  My favorite bands were Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Devo, The Cars, you know more contemporary stuff at the time.  And I liked the Stones, Beatles, and Zep.  But it was the Blues Brothers that REALLY turned me on to rhythm and blues.

And THAT’S what I mean when I say THE BRILLIANCE of the blues brothers.  Because behind the comedic element of Belushi and Ackroyd was a deep, deep knowledge and appreciation of the music.  And sure Dan Ackroyd’s gyrations on the stage appealed to my 11 year old comedic sensibilities, but again, it was the music that really got me.  From the intro of  Otis Redding’s “ICan’t Turn You Loose” to Delbert Mclinton’s “B Movie Box Car Blues” and the goofy, Ackroyd rendition of “Rubber Biscuit”  Breifcase Full of Blues was and still is a high energy traipse through the history of 1950’s and 60’s rhythm and blues.

Much like the British invasion of the early to mid ’60’s introduced a new generation of music listeners to American blues, the Blues Brothers introduced my generation (Generation X) to the likes of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Junior Wells.  And the Blues Brother did authentically by employing the likes of Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Lou Marini, and Tom Scott, the VERY guys who appeared on these songs in their original incarnations.

So, in addition to my parents, I owe a debt of gratitude to Jake and Elwood Blues for opening my musical horizons.

If you’ve never heard the album in it’s entirety do yourself a favor.  Dedicate an hour or so of your life and just sit and listen to it.  And if you have heard it, listen to it again.  It’s a masterfully performed work of art.  And you’ll get some laughs as well.

Proving once again that we do more than just show you the best deals in the Phoenix real estate market; we show you how to get the most out of living in Arizona, and try to help you get the most out of what you are listening to.

Album Spotlight of the week: The Cars

cars-debut-album

When I was in 5th grade (1978) my parents bought an album (my parents bought lots of albums, which was cool because I got a lot of exposure to a lot of music at early age) that would forever stay with me. The album was “The Cars” debut album.  It was like nothing I had ever heard before.  I listened to that album almost everyday that summer.

“The Cars” is an album that, in my humble opinion, is WAAAAAY underrated.  I think most people remember The Cars from their “Hearbeat City” days unfortunately.  If you haven’t listened to their debut album in a while give another listen, I think you’ll gain a new found appreciation for it.

Like most great albums the greatness lies not in the radio friendly hits on the album, but the deep album tracks like “In Touch With Your World”, “All Mixed Up”, and “Don’t Cha Stop”.  No album before or since melded the hard rock, guitar oriented, anthem rock of Zeppelin and Boston with the New Wave sensibilities of Devo and The Talking Heads like the Cars debut album.

I listened to this album so much over the years that I wore down the vinyl grooves on the record. The needle used to just slide across certain songs.  In fact, I listened to the whole thing again, today. Twice! What struck me upon listening to it again after a long lay off was the heavy low end production.  This album ROCKS HARD!  Greg Robinson (drums) and Benjamin Orr (bass) laid down an incredible rythym track throughout the entire album.  And the crisp musicianship and precise timing amongst the members of the band is a blueprint in songwriting that any band should aspire to.

Ric Ocasek produced the album and shared vocals with Benjamin Orr (5 songs for Ocasek, 4 songs for Benjamin Orr).  Okasek did an exquisite job arranging and mixing the tracks on the entire album.  And the attention to detail rivals Jimmy Page in production technique.  From the phlange on Greg Robinson’s drum intro on “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” to the jingle bells (you’ll notice them now that I pointed them out) on “Moving in Stereo” to the Phil Spector-like wall of sound replication on “All Mixed Up”, Ocasek nailed each song.

This is an album that gets better and deeper upon each listening and leaves the listener wanting to flip the album (okay let the CD start over) over and play it again as soon as it’s over.

In summary, I wish I had written this album.