<![CDATA[Searching For The Sound - Blog]]>Sun, 31 Jan 2016 16:47:11 -0500Weebly<![CDATA[Fare Thee Well]]>Wed, 08 Jul 2015 01:00:01 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/far-thee-well  The Grateful Dead have marked their 50th anniversary with 5 shows, two in Santa Clara and three in Chicago. Opinions of all things ‘dead’ and ‘deadhead’ abound on the internet now. My account of the Dead, as mentioned in other posts, started in 1980. At that time, I clearly recall some older fans looking at us ‘youngsters’ and commenting about how we couldn’t possibly be Grateful Dead fans. We (in their opinion) were much to young, we didn’t know of Dead history, we were only jumping on the bandwagon. I have seen and read a lot of this crap lately.  I heard for the first time “touch head”, a derogatory term describing someone who only learned of the Dead after hearing “Touch of Grey” on the radio. It seems a theme with some fans all over the years to categorize others in this way, as we were 35 years ago. When people were first saying this about me, in 1980, the Dead had been together for 15 years. In the overall scope of  Grateful Dead, I was on the bus much nearer the beginning than the end-but that doesn’t matter. What matters is liking the music. Kudos to all the ‘touch heads’ and to all the teenagers who saw the Dead for the first time on their “Fare Thee Well” shows. I hope you loved it. The Dead themselves have said it was never meant to be a private party!


  I watched the Saturday night show from the comfort of my basement. I streamed it to my computer, airplayed it to my tv, and bluetoothed it to my audio player. It seemed a light year away from the trading of bootleg cassettes, but I was just as thrilled Saturday night, as the first time I heard a tapers recording. I thought Saturdays show was absolutely outstanding! It was as though I could feel the vibe being delivered straight from Chicago. We went to see the Dead in the mid 2000’s, with Warren Haynes. The vibe then was dark and desperate. I felt let down after that show. In retrospect, had I known how great the music would be in Chicago this past Saturday, I would have tried to go. Thank goodness for the internet!


  As a huge Phish fan, I was stoked to hear Trey play with my old heroes. He delivered on every front. From the start of the show, Trey was pawing the stage like a quarter horse behind the gate. I am also a huge fan of the Allman Brothers and Warren Haynes, but I think Trey was a way better fit for “Fare Thee Well”. The riffs and solos were distinctly Trey, but they absolutely invoked the spirit of Jerry. I saw the Dead play about 25 times and they were better some times than others, they made mistakes. The raw emotion of the music always more than made up for a less than glossy performance for me. The show from Saturday was the same. It was not free from mistakes and miscues. Vocals at times were lousy at best. I doubt anyone cared. The pure joy of the music and the jams satisfied everyone from the Warlock fans to the touch heads!


  I really appreciated that the band came on with very little fanfare and simply played their music. That is the way I always remembered it too. At all of the Dead shows I have seen, other than his singing, I never heard Jerry say a single word.  Very few words from the rest of the band either. Never would you hear the clichéd “Well it’s really good to be back in Chicago again”. Thanks guys for again sparing us that crap. Watching the show on Saturday from my basement was a great reminder to me about how much fun, and how cool the vibe was at those shows. Seems hard to believe it was 35 years ago my love of their music began. Thanks as well for not turning these 5 shows into a drippy Jerry Garcia memorial. We all miss Jerry, but as time goes by, the shock and sadness of his early passing, for me, has given way to fond memories of the music and scene he created. I think Jerry would have been most impressed with what went down in Chicago.  His old friends and band mates, playing his songs and theirs,  with all of the passion still fiercely alive.

  Surely, that is the greatest tribute of all.

<![CDATA[Old Man Take A Look At Your Life]]>Fri, 24 Apr 2015 01:12:40 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/old-man-take-a-look-at-your-life"Old Man take a look at your life you’re a lot like you,
You need some cause to cling to your whole life through,
Any good cause is just fine as long as it seems new."



So… Neil Young is about to release a whole album dedicated to the evils of Monsanto. I think Monsanto is evil too, but really Neil? Is that what your faithful want to hear? You sure they wouldn’t rather you kept playing “Old Man”? Maybe they’re not sure when you begin a new song anymore. Or when you get behind a new cause. Anything trendy to bash is a chance for you to preach, eh Neil? Personally, I am sick and tired of your tirades. It seems what you really are after is notoriety. Kind of cheapens your causes a bit, doesn’t it? Years ago you sang of the “American Dream”, asking if things went wrong when you were young and strong. Did they Neil? Are you so wealthy and arrogant now you think that anything you touch becomes gold? Or has your wealth granted you the right to spout your opinions like an insightful prophet?

 We all know you don’t really mean it anymore, it’s just self serving TV evangelism, isn’t it Neil?  Are they going through your garbage like a pack of hounds? You are the preacher crying now Neil. Stick to cranking your amp and belting out your old tunes. Spend your golden years driving your bio-busses across your chosen land regaling your faithful with the songs of their day.

Leave the legitimate protesting to people who mean it.






<![CDATA[Turn That Crap Down!]]>Wed, 11 Mar 2015 00:32:12 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/turn-that-crap-down     I wonder if young people have forgotten what music is supposed to sound like. Has the notion of melody and counterpoint fallen away forever? I hear myself saying many of the same things I heard my own parents say about music.  My mother would say, “ Is this still the same song?” or “all I can hear is boom, boom, boom!”. I remember playing a track off of “Bear’s Choice”, a kind of crappy, best of Grateful Dead album. “Katie Mae” was an old blues song, belted out by Pigpen. I thought it was great. I played it for my dad and as he shook his head in disgust he said, “It sounds like he is either drunk or on drugs!”- Well ya, but what about the song? They just didn’t get it. The music wasn’t reaching them in the same way it was reaching me.

Jump ahead 30 years. Have you ever heard Lil Wayne play guitar? The only redeeming part of him playing guitar is his foul mouth is shut. Please tell me I’m not wrong thinking that a performer who constantly utters “Put your motherfucking hands in the air”, has little, if any artistic merit. What about Kanye West? He labels himself a creative genius. Really? I just watched him perform on the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special, while lying on the floor. He did manage to move his feet to the music the odd time, but creative genius? I think not.

When I hear this stuff on the radio, I wonder if it’s still the same song and all I can hear is boom, boom, boom.

I think that part of what young people like in pop music, is favoring a style that their seniors can’t stand. It is part of the rebellion of youth.

I have always found it curious that we all feel the pop music we favor is somehow more valid than pop music that came before, and much more valid than the pop music that follows. ( I don’t like that band any more, but their early stuff was great!)

My daughters always complained about the music I have listened to.  “Phish sounds really weird”. But as time goes by they seem more willing to try liking  other kinds of music, or older pop music anyway. Now they have been to two Phish shows. Yes! Score one for the old guy's music! I do like much of their music too. Bruno Mars is outstanding and John Mayer is a great guitar player. I might even go and see Ed Sheeran with them.

That still doesn’t explain Lil Wayne playing guitar.

<![CDATA[Sweet Emotion]]>Sun, 22 Feb 2015 16:43:22 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/sweet-emotionPicture

Emotions run high around a band. Even as adults. You might think the greasy kid stuff gets left behind after high school, but that hasn’t been the case in my experience. I wager every one of us who has played in a band over the years has some tale of woe connected to music.

 When we started out, there were four of us. At first it was a Saturday afternoon thing. I had just started my apprenticeship as a carpenter, another of us worked for the city, a self-employed computer programmer, and a student rounded out the ensemble. It seemed then we all had charted our paths, and were looking for something to elevate us above the everyday tasks. So Saturday afternoons often turned into late Saturday nights, and often into Sunday mornings too.

The goal at first wasn’t to play at bars, we really just were having fun. Soon enough though, we had learned a couple sets of material and were starting to think about playing out. This was still before 1990 and in our local area a band playing rock and roll was not common at all. Remember, the radio was still the main place we heard music, and  popular music of the day was referred to as the “new wave”.

 How great would a band playing old rock and roll be? “Pink Floyd” compared to “The Thompson Twins”? Are you kidding? This was sure to be a home-run and it was our idea alone! We would play live the older music everyone wanted to hear! The realization that we were accomplished enough to start playing scuzzy bars, lit a fire beneath us. Soon we had rented ourselves a jam space downtown. We spent many evenings there soaking up the vibes-and fumes- of the other bands that also rented space there. It was a fantastic, freewheeling time, but there was a slow train coming.

 How would we be able to play out with Pboy, our drummer? Pboy was our friend. It became clearer as time went by if we were to realize the glory of playing scuzzy bars, it wouldn’t be with Pboy. He just couldn’t keep up and something would have to be done. We all drew straws. I drew the short straw, and as agreed would be the one to start the conversation. Within minutes, Pboy had packed up his gear and moved out. It was an emotional time for all of us; we had just kicked our friend out of his band, dealt him out of the dream.

 The shock of it all wore off pretty quickly in retrospect.  Our new drummer did take our group to the next level. The high we felt from the music we could now make, more than made up for the low of betraying our friend. A dangerous precedent to set, to be sure. Everyone in a band feels this at some point and wonders if they might be the next one to get fired.  This would happen to us more than a few times over the years, people coming and going, usually with an emotional overload of some kind.

 After more than 20 years of playing scuzzy bars have things changed? For us the negative emotions have mostly leveled off. The glory wears off too at 2:30 am, loading gear during a snowstorm, sleeping away half of the next day, all for $57. We don’t play out at bars very often anymore. We (mostly) agree it is as much fun and way less work to just play for ourselves. The high now comes from socializing with each other, through the music. It seems an increasingly rare thing to have a group of like-minded people to play music with. I hope the good vibes prevail for a long time.



<![CDATA[Pedals- Part 1]]>Sun, 15 Feb 2015 01:31:02 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/pedals-part-1Picture
I go through phases of changing which effect pedals I like on my board. Every so often I get sick of them all and play straight into my amp for a while. Right now I am using my pedal board with just a few pedals. I have my Blackstone Appliance for some grit, my Lehle Sunday Driver for my clean preamp, and my Moog MF-101. This post is about the Moog and envelope filters in general.

The Moog MF-101 is a type of envelope filter device. There are many pedals of this type. Some other names for this same style of pedal are auto wah, dynamic filter and envelope follower. Popular brand names of this style include Q-Tron, Lovetone Meatball, and the Mutron lll, among others. I have always liked the quacky, round sound they make. Think Jerry Garcia, or Bootsy Collins.

Back in the day I had a Boss Dynamic Filter and have also owned a Proton, by Three Leaf Audio. My choice right now is the Moog.

All of these effects work roughly in the same manner. The effect has two parts. A filter and an envelope follower. The filter allows only  certain frequencies to pass through it.  This is similar to a wah pedal. The filter on a wah is controlled by pushing on the pedal. Depending on where the pedal is, only those frequencies can pass. The unique sound is caused by sweeping the range(pushing the pedal all the way and then moving it back). In dynamic filter pedals, it is the volume envelope that controls what frequencies can pass. As the volume swells, the filter opens wider. As the volume diminishes, the filter closes. Therefore, a note played loudly or sharply, causes the filter to open right up, whereas a note played softly only opens the filter a little. Most of these effects also have other adjustable parameters such as resonance and cut-off. These control in what frequency range the filter will be most articulate. This only represents my basic understanding of how these pedals work. Seek out your nearest Moog synth enthusiast for more details. A word of caution though- don't ask "what does this button on your synth do?"-unless time is on your side!

It takes some fooling with the controls until you have the pedal set to respond in a way you like. When you do have it set, you can “play” the filter in a way too. It reacts very organically to the nuances of your playing. The Moog MF-101 has a much wider range than many of the other pedals I have mentioned and most of its parameters can also be controlled externally by expression pedals. 

Because the Moog is not true bypass, I keep mine behind a loop switch. I am not keen on the way it colours the sound while it is not being used. I am using the expression pedal to control the cut off,  changing where the filter becomes active
. The result is a sound that can range from subtle to explosive. 

Check out this short clip of the Resisters during our disco jam. You can hear my Moog MF-101 in action. I am working the expression pedal and varying the volume through my picking, to cause the sweep as discussed above.

Stay Tuned for Pedals Part ll!

<![CDATA[Barstool Blues]]>Mon, 09 Feb 2015 02:39:09 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/barstool-bluesPicture
   I recently read an article about the role of a band in a bar. The article was written by a bar owner and called an “open letter to musicians”.  The author alleges that the sole job of the bar band is to sell booze. He is quite curt about it and repeatedly states that nothing other than selling booze matters. Here is a link to the full article:




   I realize that selling booze is why bars exist.  I also understand that the bands who attract big, thirsty crowds appeal the most to the bar owners. I take issue with the demeaning, tone of the article though. This bar owner, by his own description reminds me of a pimp or a pusher. If money is paramount, would he screw the bands given the chance? How about showing a little respect for the people who are helping earn your living?


   The owner of our local pub has hired us several times. In fact, I have played there on Halloween for over 20 years. He is a great supporter of the community, hosting jam nights and fundraisers for local charities. He regularly has young bands play and lets the not-of-age crowd in, knowing he won’t make any booze money off of them.

   When we play each year at Halloween, we strike a deal that is good for all involved. It is important to him we are happy. In return we draw a big crowd each year. When there is a band playing at the tavern, the place is usually full, regardless of what the band sounds like.


   Maybe the bar owner who wrote the above article needs to loosen up a bit and become more human. It might pay off in financial ways and in other ways too.

<![CDATA[What Would You Do If I Sang Out Of Tune?]]>Sun, 01 Feb 2015 15:32:27 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/what-would-you-do-if-i-sang-out-of-tunePicture
     I have always believed that intelligence is ¾ what you do with it.

Take your average dude.  Did okay in school, maybe went to college, maybe started working right away. Had a couple of real nice girlfriends. Saved up some money, bought a house – don’t worry Tom Petty/Bryan Adams- not stealing your material. I think someone judiciously applying average skills is smart.    I applaud anyone who works hard for what they want and I have disdain for anyone who does not. WHEW! I’m glad to finally have that off my back.

  I think the same is true of playing music. I value modest skills that are leveraged with ambition, as much or more than a high skill set that is snobby or exclusive. Or, I vote for the underdog.  A jam night at our local pub is a constant reminder of this to me.  A local fellow came often but had little involvement at first. Then one night he brought a guitar, a right handed guitar that he played left handed, and sang a few songs he had written.  With very limited singing and playing skills this guy really went for it. He belted out a song about Spiderman, followed by a song about Batman, his guitar becoming less tuned with every scrub of the strings, his voice wavering and shaky.He looked excited but did not seem nervous at all. I felt a lump in my throat for this guy. He was applying his moderate skills in an exceptional way. He kept at his craft and eventually had enough of his own material to play an entire set. He will never set the world on fire, but he kept at it and I think that’s really cool.

 How do I apply this line of thinking to myself? I try to apply my own moderate skills in an exceptional way. Certainly, I am not an amazing player, I can still be part of making great music within a great group. 

I try my best not to be too loud.  I try my best not to step on toes, musically or literally. I remind myself this is a group of people making music together, not a bunch of people playing solos at the same time. When I think someone else is making a mistake or missing something, I usually just keep quiet.  I really like playing music in my group! We all have worked hard on it over the years and have parlayed our abilities into something really good.

What would I do if YOU sang out of tune? Would I stand up and walk out on YOU?  Nope, not if you were giving it your all. I would stand up and cheer!

<![CDATA[Tone JunkieĀ ]]>Wed, 21 Jan 2015 03:02:58 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/tone-junkiePicture
   I bought a $100 guitar cable. Yup, it’s true.Twelve feet of high end glory.Could it possibly sound better than a $25 cable?  My quest for tone led me to this expensive cable. I had been doing quite a lot of reading about cables when I decided to give it a try. In a blind test developed, implemented, critiqued and observed by me alone, I found the results to be quite astonishing. I swear I can hear a marked difference between my high-end cable and a cheap cable. For my test I was playing my Custom Shop Tele, straight into my Traynor YCV 50B.  My fancy Lava cable delivered more high end sparkle with complex overtones of chocolate and a smoky finish. Oh no, wait! That’s the line I use on fine wine…

  What about tubes? Some claim a 12ax7 sounds as any other 12ax7 but try to convince the audiophile who has just spent a king’s ransom on a vintage Telefunken 12ax7. A few years ago I built a 5E3 clone amp from a kit. 5E3 was the famous Fender “Tweed Deluxe”. Think gritty Neil Young. The amp worked like a charm right off my bench with JJ tubes in it.  Within two weeks I had purchased and installed some vintage RCA blackplate 6v6’s and some Raytheon 12ax7’s. Clearly, the blaring, vintage power tube distortion was much “creamier” and the harmonics “sweeter” than before. 

   Although I have several guitars and amps, I only use one pedal board. I have a variety of pedals I move on  and off of the board depending on my mood. Right now, the board is like so: Lava cable into Lehle Sunday Driver, to the loop switch with matching $40, 8" patch cord, out of the switch into another $100 cable and to the amp. On the loop I have a tuner, a Blackstone Appliance and a Mooger Fooger MF101. All are powered by a Pedal Power supply. I keep the effects on the loop so the signal path to the amp is going only through the Lehle preamp, unless the loop is engaged.  True bypass, hot, high-end signal. Must make for a premium tone. Right?

  After reading an article about Jerry’s gear I searched Thomas Vinci Handmade  Strings. Right there on the Internet were “Jerry’s Favorite Strings”! And I only had to order three sets!  And what about speakers, upgraded pots, premium capacitors, cloth covered wire and the like? Do any of these embellishments make for better, more refined sound?

  Yes! They all do. In the end, all of the links in the signal chain contribute to the final sound.  I think a hot rod sports car  makes a good comparison.  An after market carburetor on its own would make little difference to the performance of the car. However, add high end exhaust, turbo charger, hopped up suspension and other aftermarket upgrades and potentially you can end up with a  custom, high performance sports car.

  I see my guitar rig in the same way. Put together a bunch of high end parts, keep tweaking how the parts interact with the whole and eventually you get something really good.  At least to me.

<![CDATA[The Moment Everything Changed]]>Mon, 12 Jan 2015 03:17:45 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/the-moment-everything-changedThe first time I saw a picture of Jerry Garcia, it was in a library book about rock music. He had crazy big hair and dark sunglasses. I was midway through ninth grade and it was 1980. "Grateful Dead" ?  I had never heard of them but they sounded heavy or evil, or both. None of my friends had really heard of them either. We had all heard of Van Halen and Cheap Trick, and were still quietly getting over being fans of the Bee Gees. This Jerry character did not really look like a heavy rocker and he certainly was not a disco dude ( things may have ended up different  had I seen the cover of  "Go to Heaven" first). I was curious. I had an older friend to whom I looked up, Chris S!, and he lent me a tape of the Dead, after I showed him the library book I had found. Chris was in 13th grade and was the youngest of three siblings. He knew about all things hippy. I slid the tape into my Walkman and turned the volume up, ready to hear something heavy. What I heard was some sort of weird country music that I figured my dad might have liked. It was "Working Man's Dead". Not love at first listen, what I did love was the idea of liking a band my peers had not heard of.  Little did I know this was the start of something that would become a formative part of my life.
When I found out the Grateful Dead were still together, and in fact still toured all the time, I soon made plans to go.
  It was not at my first show, or even my second show that I started to really get what was going on around me. I was a farm kid, and driving to Buffalo or Detroit midweek to see a rock show was a really big deal. It took me a few shows to get over the spectacle that unfolded around these outings. The third show took place about a year after that fateful day in the library.  The War Memorial theatre in Rochester, I think. A smaller venue, I would guess that less than 10,000 people would have filled the place. By now I was used to seeing all the beautiful people, the scene around Shakedown Street and the rampant drug use that was all around. This was the first show when I could really give my full attention to the music.  About 3 songs into the first set I could feel a vibe developing in the auditorium. I had read a lot about the Dead by now, but was still a bit skeptical of the esoteric claims of  audience and band "becoming one".  Suddenly the whole crowd lunged up and shouted, clapped, danced and freaked out in some sort of unscripted yet divine way. I felt it, and was part of it in the same time, in the same place, as every one else. I was giving something to the band and they were giving it right back. I knew right then, nothing could ever be the same again. It was a musical coming alive that has never left me. 
  I still miss Jerry.]]>
<![CDATA[That Sounds Great!]]>Sat, 03 Jan 2015 19:41:18 GMThttp://www.johndwoods.com/blog/that-sounds-greatPicture
  How many guitars does one amateur player  need? I have more than ten right now.It seems outlandish to have that many when I spend less and less time playing. Why are some people driven to be always searching for another piece of gear? I have at least eight amps right now as well. Some of the amps remain unplayed for months at a time and some of the guitars make it out of their cases less than once a year. Every once in a while I sell a piece from my collection but almost certainly start the search for a new piece right away.
  It turns out I really like collecting gear! Sure, I love to play music with my various groups-The Resisters especially- but my musical focus for the past number of years has been on the gear, no apology implied. What drives me to constantly search for new gear? The sounds! The tone!  I have often heard compliments about my great Tele tone, or how my '78 Deluxe Reverb rings like a bell.  I rarely hear comments about how great my solo was and even less frequently about my vocals... I am okay with that!
   All of my favourite players have unique, great tone. I still remember driving home from work when I turned on the radio in the middle of "Touch of Grey". It was the first time I had heard that track, but only took about two notes for me recognize Jerry's sound. As an aside, I could not believe the Grateful Dead had a new song on the radio! 
  Even if I have not played a certain guitar or amp for a while, I know what they all sound like. I relish the different sounds of my guitars and amps. My Tele is the other end of the tonal palette from my PRS,  my JCM 800 is nothing like my Gibson Skylark, but I cherish them all.
   And so the search for tone continues. Maybe a Gretsch and an AC30.  I don't have anything that sounds like that combo would!