My First Guitar

 

 

So my grammar school alumni Facebook group posted the following question: “What did you want to be when you were at school and what are you now?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. I wanted to be a musician. Specifically a guitar player. I don’t know what it was, but I was drawn to the guitar as soon as I can remember. My mom tells me that when I was very little, I would pick up any object that vaguely resembled a guitar (broom, snow shovel), and pretend to play it.

I have a picture of myself as a very young kid, maybe four, holding a plastic toy guitar and wearing one of my mom’s wigs. I have no memory of this, but here it is in full faded color. It’s hard to argue with that kind of evidence.

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I didn’t get my first guitar until I was in seventh grade. My oldest sister had been playing for years, and I was insanely jealous. I used to sneak into her room, when she wasn’t home, to noodle around on it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but just holding it was magical.

I was a terrible student and was constantly failing most of my subjects. My parents wanted me to focus on schoolwork and not be distracted by things like guitars, so they wouldn’t get me one.

But that turned out to be a blessing. That’s where drive comes in. If you have a passion for something, you find a way. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, that way just presents itself out of nowhere.

One day, I was walking with my buddy Steve, when we passed by a church rummage sale. There, on one of the tables, was a guitar. It was dusty and missing strings, but I didn’t care. To me, it was a glorious thing.

“How much for the guitar?” I tried to act casual.

“Five dollars”, the lady replied.

I guess my face must have fallen. I didn’t have anywhere near five dollars. She smiled at me and kind of looked around conspiratorially. “Come back after 3:00”, she told me.

At 3:05 I showed up. The guitar was gone.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Ah, you’re back!” the lady said. She reached under the table and pulled out the guitar. Apparently she’d hidden it after I left. “It’s yours, use it in good health.”

Back home, I looked over the guitar more closely. Not only was it missing strings, it was missing three of the six tuners. It had a big crack running down the side. It was made of plywood. Other than that, it was fantastic! And, best of all, it was MINE!

About a mile from home was a music store. It was a mom and pop operation that sold used instruments. I used to go there just to drool over the guitars. Now I had one of my own. I carried it up to the store and showed it to the owner to see if he had the parts I needed. He did! I bought three old tuners and he gave me used strings. I was in business.

That afternoon, I installed the tuners and put on the strings. I put duct tape over the crack on the side. Now all I had to do was figure out how to play it.

I’m lucky. Music comes very easily to me. My sisters all got piano lessons. After they’d practice, I’d come downstairs and figure out what they were playing. I couldn’t read music and I didn’t get lessons. It’s just something I’ve always been able to do, like being double-jointed.

I sat at the piano with my guitar and kind of figured out where the notes were and how to play some chords. I still remember the first song I taught myself; “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”.

I played that guitar nonstop. I didn’t even have picks. I used the caps of Bic pens, until my dad noticed. He came home the next day with a handful of pics he’d bought at a music store in the city. That meant a lot.

So that’s the story of my first guitar. I’ve since had, and continue to have, many others, but, of course, that old beat up guitar still stands out in my memory.

Six Seconds

It was a simple enough request at first; write some music to be used as an intro to a client’s YouTube videos.

First things first. Like any commissioned work, it’s important to understand what the client wants. Typically, most clients don’t know what they want, and that’s OK. It’s my job as composer to extrapolate what they want from the vague descriptions they give me. In this case, the client was an organizing company with a high-end clientele. That was all I had to go on. A quick visit to their website gave me some idea of what their image was.

I began thinking in abstract terms, not musical ones. The words that came to mind were, “neat”, “tidy” and (obviously) “organized”. With that, I started to think about instrumentation that might communicate those concepts; glockenspiel, vibraphone, castanets and acoustic upright bass. Easy enough, right?

Here’s where things got funny. In any given piece of music, there’s an intro, that kind of sets the tone for the piece, a middle, which is the main melody and an “outro” (ending) which generally sums up the whole thing. Sometimes there’s a “bridge” which is a part towards the middle with that usually has an entirely different melody. Then there’s the arrangement, how the instruments fit together and where they come in. Often the intro is one or two instruments and then more are added, until they all come together at some point in the work. That’s all fine and dandy for a piece that’s a few minutes long.

This client needed six seconds.

Once I sat down at the keyboard to write, it became abundantly clear that this would be no mean feat. I mean, the melody was simple enough- just a perky little phrase. But how do you build your instrumentation? How do you convey your client’s concepts in such a short amount of time?

Eight notes, that’s how. The first four notes were just short single notes on the glockenspiel (accentuated by the castanets), followed by three longer notes with the rest of the instruments. The final statement was one high note on the vibraphone. Here’s what it sounded like.

The next day I got an email from the client: “That sounded great!  It is a bit mellow, and jazzy but I liked the notes!”

Well, that’s encouraging, and helpful. Now I had an idea of what the client didn’t want; something mellow and jazzy. This gave me the opportunity to ask, “Does that mean that you’re looking for something more aggressive, upbeat? Rock, orchestral?”

The client replied, “Yes, perhaps a bit more upbeat and can I hear it as rock and orchestral and perhaps as just acoustical guitar?”

Rock and  orchestral. In six seconds. Something told me it was time to try another route:

“Let’s try a different approach to narrowing down your idea. When I put together the piece I sent you, I wasn’t thinking melody or instrumentation so much as I was thinking “neat” and “tidy”, “organized”. Do you have any other keywords that have nothing to do with music?”

The client replied with a list:
clean
un-fussy
sophisticated
rich
creative
energetic (but not “perky'”)

“Not Perky”, was my second clue regarding what the client didn’t like about the first piece; the melody was too cutesy. “Energetic”, coupled with the earlier comment about wanting something “Rock”, told me that there needed to be drums, not just light percussion. “Clean” told me that this should comprise acoustic instruments, as electric ones can often be thought of as less pure, somehow. “Un-fussy” meant that there should only be simple chords in the piece, not the Major 7th I’d resolved to in the first one. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with “Rich” and “Creative”, but they did give me a vague idea about texture.

Back at the keyboard, I worked up another short melody that was a little less, in the clients words, “perky”. The intro is piano and bass, followed by drums, acoustic guitar chords and Hammond organ. Here’s what I came up with.

The next day, I got this email from the client: “I like it! I think we have a winner.”

Well alright, that was pretty simple. I was feeling pleased with myself. Until I got another email from the client:

“Okay, everyone likes the first one you did better!  It is “cleaner” and simpler and that is what appealed to them. More of a signature tune that you can recognize.  Someone did say it was a bit slow.  Is the second one a bit faster?  I personally like that the second one is more of a guitar sound and less like a bell.  Can you do number 2 with a pure guitar or piano sound but with no drums in the background?”

Back to the keyboard. At least this time I didn’t have to come up with a melody, just a new arrangement. Fortunately, I had been working entirely in samples (sounds stored in the computer, that can be played on a keyboard, as opposed to recording the actual instruments). That afforded me the ability to simply plug in new instruments in place of what was already there. I could mute the drums, bass and organ and have an acoustic guitar play the melody line. Same with the piano. I gave the client two more versions of each piece, along with this note:

“I’ve attached a few versions of each piece. There really isn’t much of a difference in tempo between the two pieces, but in the second one the drums give it a little more energy. The first one “ritards” at the end, meaning it slows down for effect. Remember that any tempo changes will effect the length of the music and we’re looking at 6 seconds here.

A couple of days later, I heard from the client:

“And we have a clear winner!  Solo A #1 with the clean piano is everyone’s favorite!”

So what’s the point behind this story? Simply this. Yes, it is a mere six seconds of music, but it took 18 emails over the course of 13 days and 6 versions to come up with a final product that the client was happy with. When I’m contacted to compose, and I give the client a quote, they often will say something like, “But it’s only a minute long…”.

It’s never just a minute long.

By the way, what was the final piece? It was this…

Hot Rod Pacer

I’m not sure where to begin this post. Maybe I should start with my Dad. He was a recording engineer for Columbia Records from the ’60s through the 90s. During that time, he amassed a tremendous amount of stuff from them. Whatever they were rotating out or throwing out, my Dad would bring home. When he retired, he and my Mom moved down to North Carolina and he took all that stuff with him. It took up four storage units. After he died, I began to go through all this stuff, but it was a huge job and I found it overwhelming.

Dad's Storage

The storage units were pretty overwhelming.

That’s where Fred Gillen Jr. comes in. Fred is a singer/songwriter who’s pretty well known in these parts. He also runs his own studio, Woody’s House. My wife suggested that I approach Fred about making a trip down to North Carolina with me to help sort through this stuff. Between his knowledge of studio gear and the fact that he didn’t have any kind of emotional attachment to the stuff, he seemed to be the perfect choice. She figured that I could entice him with the promise of some cool old analog gear. There was one slight problem; Fred and I had crossed paths a few times in the local music scene and had even done a couple of gigs together, but we really didn’t know each other that well. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about taking a 14 hour drive to N.C. and then staying in the same room with me at my Mom’s place. Anyway, Fred and I met for lunch and he went for it.

Fred's Control Room

Fred Gillen Jr. in the control room of Woody’s House

You can learn a lot about someone when you’re in a van with them for 14 hours. We talked about music, growing up, former girlfriends and gigs we’d played. All kinds of stuff. We got down there sometime after midnight and got to work the next morning. The rooms were packed floor to ceiling and were dusty and moldy. It took nearly three days to really go through it and decide what to take and what to toss.

By the second night, we were exhausted. I plopped myself down in front of the TV. My Mom had so many remotes that I couldn’t figure out how to change the channel. It was stuck on some kind of drag racing show (“Pinks All Out”). Fred sat in the next chair and we watched as Karrie Anne Beebe, the only woman in the competition, took everyone out. While driving a hot rodded AMC Pacer. We were pretty impressed.

On the ride back to New York, Fred and I got to talking about high school. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, so meeting girls was a little difficult. Fred said, “Yeah? Well I spent my youth chasing after pretty redneck girls.” That was all I needed. I reached behind the seat and pulled out Fred’s little guitar and got his notebook from his backpack (Fred was driving). Over the next couple of hours, we wrote our first song, “Pretty Redneck Girls”. Inspired by Karrie Anne Beebe, it tells the story of trying to catch three separate girls in their souped up cars. The last one, the girl in the Pacer, blows past him and then picks him up at the next light.

When we got back to New York, Fred and I got together to see if we could write another song. It turned out that we could, so we wrote a bunch of ’em. Pretty soon we had an album’s worth of songs. Now we needed a name. We tossed around a bunch of stuff until we finally came up with the very thing that inspired us in the first place; “Hot Rod Pacer”.

At first, Fred and I performed as a duo. Our first gig was opening up for Tom Chapin. Our second gig was opening for the legendary Merle Haggard.

Fred and me opening up for Merle Haggard at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY.

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The full band, from left; Debbie Tuzman (bass, vocals), Fred Gillen Jr. (guitars, vocals, songwriter), Jim Keyes (guitar, vocals, songwriter) and Jason Hess (drums).

The duo was cool, but we found ourselves wanting more. That’s when we hooked up with drummer Jason Hess and bassist Debbie Tuzman. We got together, played a few times and the full band was born. Over the course of a few months, we hunkered down in Woody’s Place and recorded our first CD (“Hot Rod Pacer”). You can get it on iTunes or CD Baby or come to one of our gigs if we come to your town! In the meantime, have a listen to the song Fred and I wrote on our trip back from N.C., “Pretty Redneck Girls”.

Earth Day; It took God seven days to make the world. Took man 20 centuries to tear it down.

Every Easter, for a few years, my kayak friends and I would go out for what we called “The Heathen Paddle”. For us , this marked the first paddle of Spring, in which we could see the first buds of rebirth and renewal. We would leave from Yonkers, NY, head down the Hudson  River to Spuyten Dyvil, down the Harlem River to the Bronx Kill which would shoot us out to the East River. We’d get out at Little Brother Island, across from Rikers Island. From there, we would head up the Bronx River and get out at Hunts Point, where we had cars waiting for us. While this was ostensibly to view nature, mostly we came across trash. This increased every year. After our last paddle, I wrote this song, “Twenty Centuries”. I hope it speaks to you.

20 Centuries

 

Yonkers Load In

Putting in at Yonkers

 

 

 

 

Gwen & Jim

Paddling in the Bronx Kill

Swim Like A Catfish

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Waaaay back  in the Digital Dark Ages, there was a short-lived medium called the MiniDisc. It looked just like a floppy disc except that it was, um, mini. It held 74 minutes of audio and that seemed pretty dang cool at the time. So for about a year or two, I carried my cute little MiniDisc recorder in my pocket. Along with discs. Batteries. Oh, yeah, and a big honkin’ stereo mic.

IMG_0142Still, you have to understand how cool this was at the time. Before, if I wanted to record a performance, I had to lug around some kind of cassette recorder and the resulting quality was less than pleasant. The MiniDisc produced much quieter, cleaner recordings.

cassette-recorder

I bring this up because today, as I was excavating the studio, I came across my old MiniDisc and a bunch of the discs that I had recorded on to. I popped one into the machine and was pleasantly surprised by the sound. More importantly, by what was on it. In the early 2000s, I spent quite some time as a teaching artist. I would go into schools and museums and write songs with kids. I loved it, especially the little kids. The process was simple; we’d pick a subject (usually what they were studying), talk about how it made them feel, and then come up with some rhyming pairs. With little kids, it was less about the rhymes and more about making sure that they got to use their own words. After the lyrics were complete, the melody would sort of reveal itself.

This song, “Swim Like A Catfish” was written by 1st graders at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY. about ten years ago. I totally forgot about this song and I’m thrilled to have found it again. I hope you enjoy it.

“Dickens’ Christmas Carol” at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow

Once again, I find myself back at the the pipe organ in the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. This time Jonathan Kruk and I will be performing “Dickens’ Christmas Carol”. For this event, not only will I be playing the pipe organ, I’ll also be playing the harp, fiddle, chimes and chains (for sound effects). Before each show, I lead the audience in Christmas Carols. It’s a lot of fun!

For tickets and times, visit www.HudsonValley.org

Spying On Santa

I wrote this song a few years back when I was invited to submit a song to a collection called “Not Just Another Holiday CD”. At that time, it was just the two verses. Since then, I’ve added a chorus and given it a big band treatment. Enjoy!

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Santa’s Reindeer Ranch

I have a busy practice teaching guitar and piano during the week. When we get off topic, I  say “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” to bring us back. I used that phrase while teaching “Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer” to a kid. He looked at me and said, “I thought we were at the North Pole!”

That’s when I got the idea for this song. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas![wpvideo 9TFIzVIm]

Organ Mania

8/21/12

The majestic pipe organ at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. From here you can see both pipe chests. I’m cleverly hidden behind the smaller one and in front of the larger one.

Sure it’s mid August, but I’m already looking ahead to October when Jonathan Kruk and I will be performing Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. While Jonathan will be out front captivating audiences, I will be upstairs in the choir loft with my back turned to him. I’m not being rude; I’m playing the organ.

Two years ago when Jonathan and I first met to discuss the show, our original plan had been for him to do his performance while I played “spooky organ music” between shows. Over time however, we began to progress from a storytelling performance to a real theater piece, complete with an original organ score.

Here I’m intently listening to Jonathan for music cues. The first year, I used the accordion for very quiet parts.

And what an organ it is! No, it’s not original (the Old Dutch Church never had a pipe organ). It was built by the Noack Organ Company with the look and stop design of a 17th century organ and dedicated in 1998. This is one serious instrument. And it’s a blast to play.

So how does one prepare to play so much music on such an incredible instrument? This question bothered me a lot after our first run of “Legend”. My original thought was to find a home organ that I could practice on. For a long time home organs were very popular, but in the 1980’s that popularity dropped. I got a used Yamaha organ for under $100.00 and got to work. What a let-down it was having gone from the mighty pipe organ to this! It wasn’t long before I exceeded the capabilities of the instrument. I needed something that had the same number of keys and pedals that the Noack organ had. That’s when I found the Hammond.

The first organ I got for practicing the score. This little Yamaha also had very funky “auto play” functions. They were a lot of fun, but not especially useful.

Any rock or blues fan has heard a Hammond organ. From Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” to Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” the Hammond B-3has made an indelible mark on popular music. What few people know is that Hammond also made a line of home/church organs and I was lucky enough to find one.

Here the Hammond A-100 was marketed as an instrument for the home. I have the mahogany one.

Now this is just silly. Who’s gonna lug a 400lb organ out to the patio?

My Hammond A-100 was made in 1959. It fits just inside a double closet in my studio. While not nearly as powerful as a pipe organ, it’s a lot of fun to play. It has two 61-key keyboards (which are called “manuals” in the organ world) and 25 pedals. What do the pedals do? They play bass notes. When playing an organ, you are using your feet and your hands. It keeps you busy.

These are the 16′ pipes for the organ. They’re played with the pedals. You can really shake the building with these big guys.

So now I’m spending a lot of time at my Hammond organ. In the video below, I’m practicing “Welcome to Sleepy Hollow”, the opening music I composed for the show. And yes, I’m in a closet. Even though my neighbors may be creeped out by the music coming from upstairs, you can be sure that I’ll be ready when “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” runs this October. For tickets and information visit www.HudsonValley.org

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Picture of Ann

This is the cassette I found in a box of old tapes.

It’s amazing how finding one small thing can make you realize so much about your life, past and present. For me, the small thing was a cassette tape. Remember those? It was in a shoe box with twenty or thirty others. No, it wasn’t a mixed tape that someone made for me. It wasn’t an oral history of a long dead relative. It was me. Twenty years ago.

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I made a go at being a singer/songwriter. My goal was to make some demos, get a record deal and then, well, I hadn’t really thought much farther ahead than that. Making a demo was much harder then than it is now. In those days, the idea of recording onto computers was as alien as, oh I don’t know, carrying a tiny telephone in your pocket that also takes pictures and plays music.

Back when I was young-I still have that guitar!

By 1992 or so, I had managed to attract a small following by playing places such as The Towne Crier Cafe and The Turning Point. I’d gotten some airplay and interviews on WFUV and WFDU, two local college stations.

My Dad was a staff engineer at Columbia records and decided to help me out by making a demo with “my band”. My band consisted of a trio of older guys who liked my songs and decided to pitch in as well. Here’s a tip for younger musicians: play with older musicians any chance you get. They’ve heard it all, they’ve played it all and you’re probably not showing them anything new. You’ll learn a lot and your songs will sound better because of their musicianship. I was really too immature to appreciate this.

Here's another press photo from 1989. There wasn't a lot of traffic.

Anyway, one Saturday my dad, the band and I gathered in a high school gymnasium in Connecticut to make a demo. We recorded the band and me live to two track DAT (remember those?!). There were no overdubs, no punch-ins, no nonsense. We just played and Dad pressed record.

Twenty years later, I’m scrambling to find a cassette player that works. OK. Got one. It was out in the garage. I patch it into my mixing board, press play and bring up the faders. Holy crap. The instruments sound great. The playing is tight. The mix is clean, nothing is hidden. They were all pros, my Dad and the guys.

But then there’s me. Not a pro. Not then. That’s clear. I’m the weakest thing on this recording. I mean, the guitar playing is pretty good (I’m the acoustic guitar on the right) but my voice seems to have a pretty tenuous relationship with pitch and isn’t particularly expressive. If I was a record exec and heard that voice, I would’ve passed also.

So why did they do it? Why did my Dad and these guys go out of their way to help me out? What I remember them saying is that they liked the songs, which brings me to, well, the song. I wrote “Picture Of Ann” about a girl named, not surprisingly, Ann.

Short story: I liked her. I asked her out. She stood me up. A few times. Why would I let someone do that? Well, if I had a picture of Ann, I’m sure you’d understand.

Ann is now a mom with two kids, one of whom has been my assistant at one of the historic sites where I perform. Ann has an entirely different memory of the events that inspired her song. Doesn’t matter now.

I think this old tape may have stretched a bit. It seems a little slower than I remember. I hope you enjoy the song. You can listen here:

Picture Of Ann (1991)