Just Johnny arch 1st 2018
March 15th 2018
The subject of tuning down came up in conversation again recently when I was asked by a guitarist friend of no fixed key signature why I objected to it so much?
"It makes it easier for the singers," he explained, "and no-one can notice if it is just a semi-tone or a tone."
There are two reasons for tuning down. The first is simply to allow a song to be brought within the range of the singer. This is clear and obvious. A man might lower the key of a song originally covered by a lady and equally a lady might raise the key to suit her higher voice. A bass singer will not want to try a tenor range song and vice versa. Perhaps the original is covered by a particulary high voice such as Geddy Lee of Rush or Jon Anderson of Yes who both have counter-tenor voices. This is a rarer kind of voice and is really a ladies alto range so probably won't suit most men! These are good and sensible reasons to change the key.
The second reason is because the singer can't reach the upper notes....or thinks he can't. Now, tuning guitars down isn't really the same as changing key. The problem is many guitar based songs are in A and singing an A is beyond the limit of many men's ranges. Tuning down a tone gives the note G as the highest and this is more easily achievable. The problem now is the guitar parts are not always playable in G. They are specifically designed to suit the open strings of A. Therefore, tuning the strings down is the only course of action. This may lead to problems with the other band members - If there is a keyboard player he can use the transpose button but if it is an acoustic piano or mechanical organ then they will have to learn the new key. Brass players can't change tuning and string players would never tune down. Only guitarists!
"So what?" he said. "What's the problem?"
I asked if he had a particular favourite piece of guitar music he liked to play; something he'd worked hard at to learn and practiced it so that he mastered it? Did he feel good that he'd achieved this and did it advance his playing standard? Of course! There were several difficult jazz pieces he had spent hours on and some classical guitar works that he was beginning to play really play well. There were great blues and rock solo's which were a joy to perform as they displayed a mastery of his instrument and gave him satisfaction that his hard work had paid off.
"Now, consider we play all these favourites at half speed because the bass player isn't good enough to play it at the correct tempo. Or the drummer can't keep time and slows down. Not so satisfying, now! In fact, very quickly this would piss you off big time. You would stop playing these pieces as they are now so disdainful to you and the work you put in. You are having to compromise because you are playing with people who can't do it!"
So, this is the problem. I don't want to have to play tuned down. To me it is obvious when you do as there is a colour to these higher notes that gets lost in lower keys. The reason great singers sound like they do is because they are hitting these notes! There is a pleasure and satisfaction ringing out the upper ranges with strength and control. Singers understand this and work at it but far too many guys (and it is always guys) think that singing is just natural and you are born with it. Or not! They don't realise it is an instrument which requires work and excercise. The internet is full of voice coaches giving free lessons on how to achieve this. Just put the work in!
Now that I mention it, that's got to be the subject of another Just Johnny!
March 1st 2018
You know the old saying, "Buy cheap and you buy twice"?
I've learnt it once again, recently.
When I started Wingsbanned years ago I had a 1964 Hofner bass very like McCartney's but I really wanted the Rickenbacker bass from the same year which he had received it whilst in the Beatles but had only used it for recording, never live. However, when he began to tour again with Wings he brought it out, stripped of it's original Fireglo paint and with slightly thinned down body horns.
Rickenbacker offered this bass cosmetically altered to replicate Macca's. I got one as soon as I could. Of course, mine is a right handed bass with a lefty neck which mirrors his lefty bass with a righty neck!
All was fine in the world of Wingsbanned until 2 years ago when I made the shift to playing left handed. Now, all of a sudden my 2 main basses were out the window and replacements were needed. No problem for the Hofner and I purchased the closest model they make to Paul's. Sadly, Rickenbacker had long since ceased production of the Macca model and in fact had also slowed production of their left handed 4000 series for a while, leading to a shortage Worldwide. Added to that the cost was around £500 more for a lefty over a righty so that put me off!
Then, one evening at a gig with Large Portion, my rock band, guitarist Gary Davies showed me his borrowed Les Paul - Zakk Wylde model. "How much do you think it cost," he asked. I reckoned it was over two grand but he amazed me by quoting £150.
Because it was a cheap Chinese knock off.
I investigated and found these Chinese companies are cobbling together guitars in any style you ask for and can reproduce custom models at a fraction of the price. I immediately ordered a left handed Ric with a righty neck in a natural finish. The luthier used some pix of Macca's model as the template. For this, he wanted £200.
However, it sounded like shit! I had expected this and Gary had immediately changed his pick ups for Gibson ones which made it sound very aunthentic.
Sadly, Ric replacement pickups are very expensive so I took my Chinkybacker to a local music shop who re-wired them. This made almost no difference. Next, I took it to a luthier who had done work for me previously and he re-wound the main pick up giving it an extra 10% power. It still sounded like shit.
Finally, I bit the bullet and bought a Ric pick up for the nexk and a Seymour Duncan for the bridge. Another £200 was added to the value of this Fakenbacker. Sound wise it got better by about 50% and now was a useable bass.
Now, one year on I have decided it still sounds shitty and must be gotten rid of. We must buy the proper thing and flog this pile of poo.
Just remember, buy cheap and you sound like it!
May 15th 2017
I have been playing lefy bass since September 2015 and this is what I have found.
Bloody Paul McCartney. Nobody ever needs to play lefty guitar or bass!
It is strange that lefty guitars and basses are offered where no other instruments are made for left handed players. Don't say drums - that's just the way you position them! There are no lefty pianos, trumpets, violins, saxes, etc.
Initially, I thought the right hand on the fretboard would be stronger so switching over might not be so hard! Wingsbanned guitarist Gareth said that it's the picking hand that will cause problems and he was absolutely right. The left hand needs constant training and when playing, it's that hand I have to concentrate on. Also, I wondered if this meant I was now using the right hand side of my brain to control this new playing style. Then I realised that was just plain stupid!
To begin learning lefty bass I changed the strings over on a righty Hofner bass to get a feel for how easy or hard it would be. This is not ideal as the strings don't sit correctly in the bridge or the neck nut but it was a start and I didn't want to commit to spending a lot of money on a lefty bass if I didn't like it. Well, that's not the way to do it! You need to decide to just do it. Initially sitting down to a lefty bass after playing righty you quickly realise there is no connection between the two. I didn't even see which way was "up the scale". I had no point of reference and my right hand would not get anywhere near the position it would have be in to play consecutive notes up or down the scale. My left picking hand had no ability to pick up or down and string crossing was totally impossible. If you're thinking of trying it out to see if you like it then let me save you the hassle. It's impossible!
The trouble is I had over 40 years of playing experience and this was like starting again almost from scratch. However, I knew how to train my hands as I had taken lessons from a fab bass player called Joe Hubbard about 25 years ago and I still use the exercises he gave me to work on for dexterity. I started these and for 10 days made very little progress but I knew that it was just a matter of putting in the hours.
The righty had to go and I bought a cheap lefty Hofner which was immediately better. I told no-one about this project for the first few weeks and fortunately, I found myself working from home and not all that hard either, so I devoted long hours of every day to just playing lefty bass. I almost gave myself problems by overdoing it and ended up with very sore fingers from repetitive stress strain. I ran over Wingsbanned sets playing along to recordings of our concerts until it began to come together (no pun intended). Initially, I had estimated it would take 6 months to get to gig standard and so, my aim was AROTR in May 2016, some 8 months away. By December I revealed to the band what I was doing and they were incredibly supportive. I started bringing it to rehearsals for the Diamond club gig at the end of the month. It was ropey! I lacked the accuracy and strength to drive the band along and there is only one way to get that. Gigging!
So, I started the new year playing lefty in Large Portion, my rock band. At first, just 3 songs or so and then switching back to righty but increasing the length of time until I was doing the whole first half on lefty. The Diamond gig was the first Wingsbanned gig on lefty and that's how it has been ever since. Still putting in the hours every day, I worked on learning the Abbey Road album and mastered all but one song of the Wingsbanned repertoire. Day Tripper was the one which got shelved! AROTR was completed though there were a few dodgy moments unsurprisingly and by August I was using a proper German made Hofner and did 8 gigs at the Liverpool Beatles week where ace bassist Joe Kane welcomed me to the fraternity of righty players who had shifted over. He admitted he still found it hard though you'd never know it to hear him play. In America, Al Francis of the fabulous band, Studio Two said similar things and he IS left handed!
So, nobody needs to play left handed! Starting from scratch is the same left handed or right. Your dominant hand may have a little more flexibility but regardless, you need 'em both and putting in the hours is the only way to learning anything.
Bloody Paul McCartney.
February 24th 2017
If you want to be a McCartney in a tribute band then there are two notes you must be able to hit. Without these notes you will be a fake Macca or worse, a Ringo.
The first is A5. The natural tenor high note most chaps can get is G4. Well, this is one more! One tone more. Not much, I know but this one note is singly responsible for bands tuning down. It's the opening note of Hold Me Tight. It's the high note in My Love, Thank You Girl, A Hard Day's Night and many more. It's throughout Jet, Band On The Run, Rockshow, Helen Wheels and more. When Lennon sings this note, it is the top of his register.
Macca can scream this note and he can also caress it effortlessly. To be an authentic Macca you must learn this note. Make it your friend. It will help you and it will impress others.
The second note is C5. Now, this is a very different beast. Most men cannot hit this note. It separates the men from the boys. It is the highest recognized note in the tenor range that opera singers hit. This fellow turns up as the high note in Live And Let Die but it is also there in Band On The Run repeatedly, Monkberry Moon Delight, Admiral Halsey, Hello Goodbye, and Macca regularly hit it in Long Tall Sally, I'm Down or She's A Woman and others. Do not falsetto this note! This is a note that needs to met full on like a manly man or a gladiator squaring up to lion in a Roman Coliseum. This note is not your friend. Treat him with respect. If he was a movie he would be the Cruel C. Listen to Macca wrestle with him on So Glad To See You from Back To The Egg. Wonderful. This is why he sounds like he does.
Although Paul doesn't sing as well as he did these days he still hits those two notes at every concert. Try that yourself at 75.
February 10th 2015
Right now there are more Beatles Tribute Bands around than ever before. When we started Wingsbanned around 10 years ago there were quite a few but it has become a much more accepted and lucrative business in recent years.
Some Paul's actually learn to play bass left handed in order to be more visually realistic and wigs are almost essential to cover all the different era's from Beatle mania to the Apple rooftop gig. Very few also learn to play guitar left handed as that's a far harder job.
However (gripe coming), several band's do not play in the original keys. Many of them tune down a semi tone and this is for one reason only. Few can hit the notes McCartney still does night after night.
I had an argument with someone that playing left handed doesn't sound any different - no-one can actually hear any difference but if you don't play Beatles songs in the Beatles keys then you will hear it... or you bloody well should! There's a reason Macca sounds the way he did or does so I say do your vocal exercises or become a George.
April 8th 2013
The weather has been better recently and don't we all welcome it? Heat is good. Heat is lovely. It's good for the voice, it's good for the soul and helps everything. Except hair. It's bad for that. However, in Wingsbanned, we have more than half the band who are not bothered by that.
Shane Gould probably has hair but it's hidden so far inside his scalp thanks to overuse of the razor that the band is actually unaware of what colour it is. He could be a ginger and we wouldn't know it!! No trace of stubble exists on his marble head and this is clearly down to an intense fervent fear of follicles.
Lee Herbert has no hair that anyone has seen since his early twenties so being a "brother of the razor" is as much a part of him as his bottom. Yes, some might say it's a large part of him but I wouldn't as I'm not like that. Lee needs no hair to be the total professional he is today. Just volume.
Martin Fleming (23), fiery player from the "North", is not without hair but it's a losing battle. Marty still is a rocker at heart and therefore, a certain amount of hair is deemed desirable. A hair piece is not the way to go for this master of the strings and voice, especially if he can get away with a comb over.
Then there is laughing Ian Herbert - a guitarist and bassist who sings too! Ian has hair but seldom bothers with anything that resembles a style so I am not sure that counts. No worrying for him over little matters of whether the damp heat flattens one's back-combing. Claiming the colour to be 100% natural and grey free despite marriage and kids, he never explains the shift from rustic brown to 'mousey' and why should he? He paid for it.
Talking of fat boys, Johnny Heywood has hair. Not as much as he once had and it doesn't seem to do what it once did but it's still there, varying in quantity and colour which he claims to be Tittian. This would account for the colour changes which he maintains is due to the weather but seems to coincide more with a trip to Boots The Chemist. Rumoured to have been a ginger once, no-one, not even Johnny himself can be sure what it is now.
Similarly, guitarist Gareth Davies still has a full head of hair but he often covers it up with a variety a hats depending on his mood. Long or short, it's a constant worry to him that the heat will cause it to lose it's natural bounce and it's only right that a man his age should not have to worry about anything more serious. This is overcompensated by buying a death-metal black gothic guitar known as 'Norman' and playing rock solo's in inappropriate moments.
May 2nd 2013
I was reading a great article on the Rolling Stones recently and Keith Richards was waxing lyrically about song writing. He described it as just “plucking the songs out of the ether”. The songs were already written, he was merely a conduit through which they passed, to become part of the real world.
I’ve read this type of thing before and I have to tell you, it’s complete shite! If it were true, why do all the songs Keith chooses to pluck, all sound like a Keith song? Why doesn’t he pluck a few more of the caliber of Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar & other classic songs and less of the album filler tracks? Why doesn’t he take a few songs that don’t sound like Stones’ songs and offer them to other artists and make a killing there as a writer? If he is merely acting as an aerial, then I think he should tune it better.
People write what they know, for gawd's sake. Richards writes the songs he does (& he’s pretty bloody good at it) because he is using his knowledge and talent that he has acquired over the last 50 years. He won’t write a symphony because he doesn’t listen to nor study orchestral music nor chamber nor jazz music.
I haven’t just got it in for The Stones. I merely use them as an example of people’s misguided ideas of creativity. I read that Guiggsy, the old Oasis bass player, wrote his bass lines to suit the songs that Noel G. wrote, if Noel hadn’t already told him what to play. The trouble with that is that Guiggsy doesn’t have the talent of a top session player like Nathan East who can call on a wide variety of different styles and techniques to cover a huge variety of material and can literally write a bass line to suit any song. Therefore, Guiggsy, and us other lesser morals, merely write what we know and Oasis songs ended up with a Guiggsy style bass line no matter what the song was! If Miles Davis had hired Guiggsy to play jazz improvisation with his seminal 70’s fusion bands, then the bass lines would have been Oasis bass lines cos that’s all he knows!
Well, none of us are perfect, eh? I like Oasis and The Stones but let’s not kid ourselves there is a higher power going on in writing pop music. Not at least till you’ve heard my Ode To The Gods of Rock which I downloaded direct from Heaven, although I’m still taking all the royalties.
April 29th 2013
Further to the last posting regarding clichés in rock & roll I would also like to ask "where and when did it become necessary to prefix MR. to a musicians name when introducing them to an audience. On lead guitar, MR. Billy Weasleknob! Does anyone introduce their mates that way? How is putting MR. in front of his name a mark of importance? Why not say, on vocals - Colin Clitoris, Esquire? What if the musician also holds a doctorate or has a BA Hons? That would be insulting and not a little demeaning.
Clichés, pah! I'm fed up to the back teeth with them.
April 10th 2013
I have decided that the whole art of going to a rock concert has become so predictable and clichéd that I am going to suggest a radical change to our whole set. How many times does the singer in a band shout, "it's your turn to sing", before turning the mike on the crowd, as if it's actually going to pick up the individual voices in the audience? Why is it our turn to sing? If I have paid good money to see and hear a band then I expect them to bloody sing, not me. When I do feel like singing along with them, I'll bloody do it anyway, without the permission of the lead vocalist.
What about, "if you know the words then sing along." If I ever find myself saying that, I'll add, "...and if you don't know them - then shut-up because we have taken a long time to learn them properly and we don't want the song ruined by you amateurs."
Harsh words, maybe but it's time for a little mould breaking. I am going to suggest that when I start the predictable "are you feeling all right, tonight," nonsense, then everyone should respond, "no, sod off." I think that would hold a much higher mirth value and would probably be a more accurate gauge of the common man's true feelings. Also, what business is it of the lead singer, anyway? Are we being introduced to him/her individually? No, well then, mind your own business.
Right, must go cos my acoustic guitar needs new strings. Hope you're feeling alllll-righttttttttt!
March 28th 2013
Martin has started playing the piano in Silly Love Songs. He says it's because there is no need for a second guitar but I suspect it's really an attempt to steal the thunder from me. If he looks like getting too good then I may have to sabotage his performance by playing the bass a semi-tone out of tune. People seldom suspect the bass when something sounds a little flat so everyone will think it's just him being rubbish! Excellent plan.
March 25th 2013
The recent posting on Facebook about my learning or rather failure to learn to play bass left handed has opened a small can of worms regarding authenticity.
If you are portraying someone in a tribute band then you can either go the whole look-a-like and sound-a-like road or you can go the other way of simply playing the songs in your own style. Tribute bands tend to be the former and in Wingsbanned we do try and reproduce the original songs or perhaps the more recent McCartney live versions which we often prefer. Now, I haven't learnt to play left handed bass or guitar for two reasons. First, it would mean I would not be able to play my vintage Hofner bass, my McCartney Rickenbacker 4001s nor my 1963 Gibson J160E as they are all righty guitars. I would have to buy left handed versions and start from scratch learning to play. Come back in 5 years! Secondly, and this is the real point, it doesn't sound any different.
There are many who are unaware and don't care that Macca was a lefty but though I have seen criticism that Beatles tribute bands should have a left handed bassist I have noticed that no-one complains that most of them do not play in the original keys but in fact lower them to make it easier to sing. Well, excuse me but I would say the sound of the songs is rather more important than the direction the guitar neck is pointing in! Macca's high end vocals were an essential part of the Beatles and his own work and if you can't reproduce that then the essence of them/him is a bit diluted, don't ya think? Yes, it's bloody hard but I say if it's worth doing then it's worth over-doing.
June 3rd 2012
Just got back from the Abbey Road On The River Festival in Louisville, Kentucky and what a great time we had! We played 5 gigs in 5 days which sounds a lot but it's not really as each show only lasts between 45 minutes and an hour. Wingsbanned are used to 2 and a half hour sets so it should have been easy. Well, it was for our gallant troubadours but my observations regarding the vocal quality from other bands made me ponder how we use our vocal cords when singing rock music.
By the third or fourth day it was clear that several vocalists were struggling to hit notes they had been able to reach earlier in the week and they would have to push it which in turn led to more cord damage and poorer results. Was it the rock & roll debauched lifestyle that was causing this? By the last day, some guys were a pale shadow of themselves and as I recall it was exactly the same the year before for many performers.
There are several contributing factors to this loss of vocal quality. Funnily enough, alcohol isn't really one of them. Getting tanked up before a show is a no-no but that alone won't damage your voice in the short term. No liquid actually flows over your vocal cords anyway so can't help or hinder but what alcohol will do is dehydrate you and that's bad. You must keep your throat lubricated as the air must travel out and in this way and regular quenching is essential, especially in the incredible heat we were playing in. Temperatures were in the 30's and it was very humid so much dehydration was going on. However, warm and damp are naturally good conditions for vocal cords and should help not hinder.
I observed every singer regularly drinking from water bottles so that didn't seem be the problem. The amount of singing done daily was not excessive so there must be something more.
There are three main problems. Two are to do with technique and the other isn't anything to do with singing. Firstly though, we must look at technique. Number one cause of vocal loss is straining. This is usually either because the song is too high pitched but more often than not, it's because the singer sings too loudly! I call it "over-singing" and always happens when monitoring is not adequate and the singer thinks they can't hear her or himself. There is no excuse for this when the sound crew was the quality of the Abbey Road On The River sound men - it just means the singer didn't sort it out his monitoring at the start. If you sing flat out you'll be lucky to last half an hour. The Beatles learned how to project their voices whilst in Hamburg without destroying them and can be learned with a little vocal coaching and much practice. Lungs and air flow are the main ingredients but you need to practice regularly. That means singing every day so that when a gig comes along, it's not such a stretch for your voice box. The vocal cords are exactly like muscles and need exercising. You can build stamina and strengthen them which in turn will increase your range and power. I also use ear plugs which really helps and sometimes I only use one. It's the equivalent of sticking your finger in your ear and instant in-head monitoring becomes available. Maybe it's not for everyone and guys complain they want to hear the whole band with both ears but I guarantee I never strain when I use them. Then, after every loud gig, I try and sing quietly to myself to bring it all down again. Sort of the equivalent of warming down that athletes do.
That leads us to the second problem. Warming up. You must sing quietly as soon as you can every day and build it up over as long a time as you can. Never try and go straight to the high, loud stuff for there lies certain death - or hoarseness at the very least. Personally, I never sing scales though the benefit of using them is to exercise your vocal cords from low to high. I prefer to sing songs and that helps practice your interpretation and style. I've never heard anyone "perform" when they sing or play scales!
Finally, the third main problem is what happens when you stop singing. It's talking! At gigs the volume is high and people need to talk loudly to be heard. This is the kiss of death. Never, ever try to talk above a band. Never talk for any length of time in a car and keep telephone calls down to a minimum. Combine this with as much sleep as is realistic, keep yourself well hydrated and sing quieter and you will be laughing (and singing too).