Michael Brown faces his fear and goes it alone in front of an oblivious audience…
I’ve never been able to just pick up a microphone and sing. It’s a level of confidence that has eluded me, and no amount of singing lessons or live performances with numerous bands has changed that. So to play an open mic night, alone and unaccompanied, has long been my idea of fear itself, yet here I was, onstage, poised to open my mouth.
Despite my ill-advised attempt, open mic is alive and well, even though 2011 saw pop albums outsell rock records for the first time in seven years. In fact, with the new Live Music Bill receiving Royal Assent and Open Mic UK competition reaching 10,000 participants per year, open mic nights look set to only grow in popularity.
If I was to truly label myself a musician and a journalist, I had to investigate this phenomenon. However, in order to minimise my nervousness and avoid offending too many eardrums, I also had to play an incredibly cunning game. As I entered The North Star pub, the unlucky recipient of my acoustic set, I quietly observed the situation. My surroundings were elegantly decorated, spacious and unnervingly well lit: hardly suitable for an onstage emotional disembowelling.
To get the insider info, I sought out Anthony Lee Wickham, the evening’s organiser and performer in his own right, and struck up a conversation. When asked about the evening’s popularity, Anthony informed me that, while Christmas had been incredibly busy, things had been fairly quiet this year. Apparently, however, the night did tend to pick up at 10 o’clock. Would I like to wait for a larger audience? “Oh,” I replied, casually. “I’m sure I’ll be finished before then.”
Considering the intense nerves I was experiencing, I wondered why Anthony thought performers and audiences still flocked to open mic nights. “It’s the heartbeat of any musical scene,” he said. “If anyone wants to join a band or get gigs, it’s a great networking system.”
I didn’t want to join a band. I already play guitar in a trio and, following some heated debates, no longer provide vocal accompaniment. This history, combined with weeks of apprehension, undoubtedly contributed to my feelings of pure, unadulterated fear.
Fortunately, I had formulated a game plan. Anthony would go on first to warm up the stage, and I would follow in the enviable second place slot. Unfortunately, my organiser friend turned out to be pretty bloody impressive, his feelgood medley of Bill Withers’s Lovely Day into Estelle’s American Boy providing a level of entertainment my 90s acoustic dirges could never hope to match.
Still, Anthony had left the stage: this was my moment. Grabbing my battered acoustic guitar, I clambered onto the platform and tuned up. While the stage was in the centre of the pub, its position was such that none of the surrounding tables faced the performer. Combine this with the apparently endlessly engaging conversations being held around me and I was feeling pretty confident. Confident that if I made a mistake, nobody would notice and, if they did, they simply wouldn’t care.
Sitting in that chair, time seemed to stand still, although I’m not entirely sure whether anybody was watching during this period as I spent most of it with eyes tightly shut behind glasses. My set consisted of one original and three covers, all of which I’d practised religiously, much to my housemates’ annoyance. Yet, despite my hard work, a number of things went wrong. So, in reflecting on my experience, I have devised three open mic tips, compiled from memories of the evening and a recording made in a fit of masochistic archival madness.
1. Introduce yourself
I kept very quiet during my set, only apologising for playing depressing material and awkwardly blurting out “thank you” before anyone was even aware I’d finished a song. In all the excitement I forgot to mention my name, which I feel would have endeared me to the audience and resulted in a wider appreciation of my music. Maybe. Instead, I received a rally of support from Anthony as I stumbled offstage. “Give it up for Michael; that was his first open mic!” he whooped. Cue another round of muted applause.
2. Don’t forget the first line of your opening song
Although I found learning lyrics one of the more difficult aspects of the open mic process, I felt confident that, having chosen songs with repetitive or simple rhymes, the words would leap into my head just before I opened my mouth. This did not happen. The opening vocal of Alice in Chains’s Nutshell may be an elongated “ooh”, yes, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what came next. In hindsight, I don’t think singing “mah-boom-pa-ta-LIES” made for a good first impression.
3. Alcohol helps with nerves… but not with vocals
I’ve never been one to sing the praises of alcohol in any shape or form, merely viewing it as a way of facilitating otherwise awkward conversation. However, when it came to getting up onstage and singing in public, I think a couple of pints helped tremendously, but may have also contributed to my oft-flattened vocals.
An audible record of my own composition, CTO, recorded right in the heart of the action (i.e. in amongst the highly conversational audience)
Once my set had been forgotten, I attempted to glean some perspectives from other open mic warriors. “It’s a performance opportunity really,” said middle-aged ukulele whiz Nick Canham. “You only get better if you keep performing, and this is the perfect way to do that.” Meanwhile, a young man who called himself “The Skunk-Boy Project” had this to share. “It’s great to play a set where you don’t feel much pressure,” he explained. “I love playing whether people are listening or not.”
Maybe after facing my fear, I too could relate to this sentiment. Certainly, there was a post-set buzz, but this was more likely due to immense relief rather than self-satisfaction. Would I do it again? Perhaps. The vocal barrier has been broken and that feeling of relief was not unpleasant. But, for now, I think I love playing more when nobody’s listening: the indifference is truly liberating.
Although my blog posts are few and far between (usually during a rare lull in writing/university/band activities), it suddenly struck me that I’d never done a full-length piece on an affliction which affects the majority of guitarists: Gear Acquisition Syndrome, often shortened to G.A.S. The term, or so the legend goes, was originally coined by Walter Becker of Steely Dan in a 1996 article for Guitar Player magazine. His original definition described an insatiable need to acquire more and more guitars, all of which sound essentially the same but feature marginal technical alterations so as to render them desirable, hence the original acronym Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Over the years the virus has spread and now affects all manner of instrumentalists, as well as the possession of all possible aspects of gear.
Aside from the financial strife induced by the condition, the least desirable characteristic of G.A.S. is the lack of actual playing, songwriting and practice which occurs as a result of trying out so much new gear. And with the renaissance of the YouTube gear demo, bolstered by the likes of ProGuitarShop, the temptation to purchase and subsequently test a new product with your own rig can often be far too much to bear. Of course, whatever ends up being acquired is often quickly sold on as it doesn’t quite “gel” with any number of factors (guitar, pedals, amp, playing style, colour scheme etc.). This leads to a constant desire to achieve that “perfect” rig, a state of acceptance where you, as a player, are happy with your sound and what it says about you.
ProGuitarShop: dangerous for your bank balance and time-keeping abilities.
G.A.S. affects people in different ways. Personally, I reached a stage where I was satisfied with my guitar and amp some time ago, although this is more likely due to my notoriously cheap-skateish nature rather than a divine sense of contentment. No, my vice lies with effects pedals, as anyone who’s seen my pedalboard will testify. I don’t even buy anything particularly expensive; there are some absolute bargains scattered across my collection. However, to obtain these great deals, as well as research what makes the pedals themselves any good, I have spent countless hours scouring the ‘net, whether that be Google, eBay or the Harmony Central Effects Forum, the latter of which providing the biggest G.A.S. injection of all (no sniggering at the back please).
In addition to the somewhat localised nature of my G.A.S., it tends to strike only at particular times. Boredom is an obvious catalyst, as is listening to new bands and wanting to, ahem, “borrow” a few of their aural tricks. However, if I want, and I mean really want something, I will somehow manage to incorporate that particular sound into a new song, before I even have said sound in my arsenal. The tone I’ve conjured in my head will be so indispensable to the composition that I simply won’t be able to play the next gig without it, or so I tell myself. This has resulted in audience members commenting that they can’t take their eyes off my feet as I tap-dance my way through myriad different noises. My response is that the actual guitar playing doesn’t bother me so much any more; my main worry onstage is coordinating my feet so as not to fall over when switching pedals on and off.
My pedalboard: great sounds, but a logistical nightmare to navigate.
Still, considering the relative cheapness of my addiction, I don’t have that much to complain about; I’m not blowing my cash on vintage Les Pauls every month, partly because I’m a poor student and partly because I’m more of a Strat man myself. And, true, some aspects of my ‘board have stayed fairly constant over the years (despite buying a number of potential “replacements” which subsequently failed to stand up to their predecessors). But still, there exists that sense of utter frustration when you buy one thing to replace another thing only to discover that there was really nothing wrong with the original thing. By all means, I can simply sell the new pedal (in this case) and keep the old one but that means more time spent on eBay, more lost parcels courtesy of the Royal Mail and, ultimately, less playing time.
It’s for these very reasons that I admire players like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello; now there’s a man who has steadfastly, perhaps even stubbornly, stuck to his gear-based guns and kept the same amp and almost the same pedal setup for nigh-on twenty years. Then again, I’ve hardly been complimentary of Morello’s actual songwriting in the last ten of those twenty years (see, for example, my review of third solo album World Wide Rebel Songs) so perhaps keeping his rig the same has limited his creativity in the process. Hmm.
Tom Morello: keeping it simple.
Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for that kind of approach and I believe that all G.A.S. sufferers could learn a little from Morello’s anti-consumerist philosophy. After all, undisputed guitar god Joe Satriani, despite a gargantuan range of signature products, has famously said that “tone is in the fingers, effects just do the colo[u]ring”; nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the closing video clip below, where Satriani plays 80s classic ‘Surfing with the Alien’ through a guitar, pedal and amp combo that couldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred pounds, yet sounds almost indistinguishable from his thousand dollar rig. And if that doesn’t make G.A.S. sufferers shut down the computer and pick up the guitar, I don’t know what will.
Danelectro’s Cool Cat range has been a pleasant surprise for anyone who has tried any of their funky-looking but great-sounding boxes. Although a number of pedals (Transparent Overdrive, Drive and Fuzz) now have second incarnations, partly due to rumours of boutique-“inspired” circuits, much of the original lineup is still going strong and with good reason. Indeed, the Cool Cat Chorus is Danelectro’s fourth mass-produced chorus pedal and, some would argue, their best, thanks to the many advantages the company’s latest format brings with it as standard.
On The Surface
If any stompbox stylistics will split opinions, it’s Danelectro’s and the Cool Cat series is not one to buck the brand’s unique, but ultimately bizarre, trend. Where other companies are happy to settle with a non-descript rectangular box, Dano have gone one “better” and created some kind of half-car, half-animal-paw hybrid with a kerazy logo. On the plus side, this will liven up any pedalboard lacking in character but whether such a flamboyant personality is wanted is another matter entirely.
Still, to concentrate on appearance is to ignore all the fantastic features Danelectro have, ahem, crammed into this crazy cat. True bypass, metal enclosures and jacks, as well as a blinding blue LED come as standard in the Cool Cat series and the Cool Cat Chorus is no exception. Four controls for mix, EQ, speed and depth make this the most versatile cheap chorus on the market, particularly when compared to its closest true-bypassed competitor, Electro-Harmonix’s Small Clone. Unfortunately, the sheer number of knobs also brings with it a number of extra problems; top-side controls may prevent inadvertent setting changes mid-stomp but they also make turning the damn things much harder than on a regular stompbox, particularly with regard to the stacked mix/EQ controls. Fortunately, power preferences are the simple Boss 9V kind, ensuring that the Cool Cat Chorus isn’t quite the most finicky feline on your board.
It’s only upon hearing a Cool Cat that you realise exactly why they’ve been such a success; close your eyes and you’d believe that you were listening to a far more expensive pedal. Indeed, not only does the Cool Cat excel in its basic chorus tones, but the range of sounds available make it worth much, much more than its unassuming asking price.
All controls set to 12 o’clock provide a rich, deep sound and, with a couple of tweaks, dependent on your guitar and amp setup, it’s perfect for adding a touch of shimmer to an exotic chord progression. The EQ and depth knobs are particularly effective for avoiding the sometimes seasick, but always overused, 80s chorus effect, making this cat an ideal candidate for the clean grunge and metal tones popularised by the likes of Nirvana and Metallica in the early 90s. If, however, the 80s are still your proverbial thing, a touch of distortion and a few open chords can help to capture some of that perm-addled magic.
One of the pedal’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to make full use of the mix control, thanks to the effective depth knob. Indeed, true vibrato sounds can be obtained by simply cranking the mix and gradually adjusting the depth to your liking. This can capably reproduce the wobbly sounds heard on Blur’s early work but carries with it a slight alteration of your guitar’s tone which the EQ can’t quite offset. Still, this is to be expected when tonal control is assigned entirely to the pedal, without any of the guitar’s original signal.
Another area in which the Cool Cat succeeds is emulating leslie/rotary speaker tones. A common request for chorus pedals, this sound is best achieved through faster speed and lower depth settings and can add an element of fragility or a psychedelic vibe, depending on your playing style. Considering how highly praised my old Arion SCH-1 is for this very task, I was impressed at how well the Cool Cat held up and, in the case of its enhanced control, superseded the old plastic relic.
Interaction with other pedals is an important area for stompboxes, particularly when it comes to modulation and gain, but, once again, the Cool Cat doesn’t disappoint. The pedal responds well to picking dynamics and there were no detectable clipping issues with high output humbucker signals. Indeed, I had great fun placing the Cool Cat after a high gain fuzz and, combined with a digital delay, was able to emulate a number of square wave synth tones surprisingly convincingly.
Despite a somewhat overzealous exterior design, the Cool Cat Chorus offers a remarkable feature set at an incredibly impressive price point. While it certainly holds up to pedals double, and even triple, the cost, it does have a number of unique quirks that might dissuade potential buyers. For one, it’s not the quietest chorus when used with gain but still considerably more so than Electro-Harmonix’s offerings. Additionally, the stock chorus sound is more of a square wave than a triangle and, as such, its undulating movements may be interpreted as somewhat “sharp”. However, to ask for a wave shape feature on an already overcrowded control panel would be ludicrous, especially considering the troubles already experienced on this front. However, any drawbacks pale into insignificance upon hearing the lush chorus tones this pedal is capable of and, at such a cheap price, there’s no reason not to give this cat a loving home.
Winter NAMM 2011 had a whole host of stompbox highlights, including Strymon’s latest mind-bending venture with the Timeline as well as some welcome additions to Malekko’s diminutive (in size only) Omicron line. However, the announcement that has me most excited comes in the form of TC Electronic’s TonePrint series: five new digital stompboxes (plus two analog drives), each with a generous number of modes, true bypass plus stereo ins and outs. On paper these are already impressive specs, especially for the price (around £100-120) but the clever folks at TC have one more trick up their already considerably lengthy sleeve: the TonePrint itself.
TonePrint is, essentially, an additional preset for each pedal which can be downloaded from the TC Electronic website. Each of the five pedals in the TonePrint series offer USB connectivity and, as a result, users have the ability to alter the default sounds hidden within the unit. Like all other presets, TonePrints can be tweaked by utilising the pedal’s individual controls but the base sound is entirely new depending on what has been downloaded to the unit.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this innovation however lies with who created the TonePrints. TC have managed to convince a number of pro guitarists to contribute their own settings, including the likes of muscular death-shred merchant John Petrucci, Doug Aldrich (you know, from Whitesnake) and Bumblefoot (“Guns N’ Roses”). While I’m sure there are thousands of people desperate to experience Bumblefoot’s “evil chorus”, this still doesn’t explain why I’m so excited for the TonePrint series. In fact, my real reason for writing this article is not because of what TonePrint will bring to the pedal arena but what it might stop.
Signature pedals: with an oversaturated signature guitar market, evil heads of marketing lured previously virtuous guitarists into giving their name to a product that people, quite simply, step on. Digitech grabbed Brian May, Eric Clapton and, erm, Dan Donegan while Dunlop have been churning out endless variations on the Cry Baby with Kirk Hammett, Slash and Jerry Cantrell models among the company’s most recent innovations. Even the dead aren’t safe from this insatiable cash-grab as both companies snapped Jimi Hendrix up for a couple of much-needed psychedelic treadle-based units.
Fortunately, should TC’s TonePrint format gain momentum, there’s a real chance that signature pedals could finally be resigned to the wastepaper bins of Digitech’s heads of department, where they belong. We could be spared from the tedious fanfare that surrounds the release of one more digital modelling pedal that the namesake artists would never touch (see Zoom’s artist series). No more would Zakk Wylde be able to promote his tepid approach to “brutal” riffs with yet another signature wah/overdrive/chorus (delete as appropriate). With TonePrint as the default configuration, artists could share the sounds they want to share and we, as guitarists, could make use of the sounds we want to hear. It’s a heart-warming thought and, for that at the very least, I thank TC Electronic (although not for their decision to leave tap tempo off the Flashback Delay). Here’s to forward-thinking and progression!
Then again, I hear that MXR also unveiled another game-changing product at NAMM.