Connecting Songwriters Throughout Northeast Ohio
“Drunk in a Metal Shop”
Ken Moody-Arndt, President
|Bill Morrissey was an unquestioned master of the story song. His work serves as an example of what a powerful story-telling tool a well-wrought song can be. “Barstow”—from which I lifted the title for this piece—focuses on one night in the life of a little family of hoboes. They are gathered around a half-filled jug of wine one of them has found—information as to exactly where it was found is, mercifully, absent. They circle a fire situated in the outskirts—in more ways than one—of…you got it, Barstow, a city out west somewhere. They are outside, on the down ’n’ out side of town, so close to the freight yard that they can hear its screeches, clanks, and screams, which sound like…“a drunk in a metal shop”—Mr. Morrissey was not only a master of the story song, but a master of the image that won’t leave you alone.|
His songs tell stories that cover a lifetime, a life in which everything slips through cold fingers, “like trying to hold water, like trying to hold sand” culminating in having to put down a beloved pet “…with a borrowed .22.”
His songs tell stories about a seaside town… “Just Before we Lost the War,” or about a “Small Town on the River,” a mill town that was thriving in the days before textile manufacture departed overseas, when men came “from the Naval base, looking for a drink and a pretty face,” through the war, when the “…factory girls worked double shifts,” to a time, not too far in our past, when, in the one mill still standing, the pay checks come from a different name. A bartender, a World War II vet, tells the singer “man-to-man—this town died forty years ago, son, get out while you can!”
"His songs tell stories that cover a lifetime, a life in which everything slips through cold fingers..."
|There is nothing like a song for conveying, not only information, but emotion, through the interplay of voice, melody, and chord progression, for compressing evenings, years, or eras of time into one potent three-to-five minute capsule out of which can explode an entire lifetime’s worth of meaning. A storyteller in the more conventional sense, Flannery O’Connor, once said “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Bill Morrissey’s life produced many story songs about life. His work is readily available on YouTube, on the streaming services if you use them, or through more conventional music retail outlets. Give a listen…then, when you get done asking the inevitable question why do I even bother?, search your own life. What information lies within you—information born from experience, that can be encapsulated in a story song? Bring one to our next meeting!|
Bill Morrissey’s own life ended in 2011. He was alone, in a Georgia motel room after a gig on the last leg of a southern tour. That is a poignant story in itself. Here is a clip of him performing another of his songs, “Birches,” a couple of years before his untimely death. It tells a story which takes place over the course of a couple of hours in an evening in the life of a married couple who have grown pleasantly used to each other. In his spoken intro, he brags that the song lacks, not only a bridge, but a chorus! I will leave you to decide whether it still works. I hope to see you all in October!
NO SEPTEMBER MEETING!
Join Us For Our Next General Meeting
October 7th at 6:45 PM
LOCATION TO BE ANNOUNCED
See next month's Bridge for details.
An Axe For All Seasons: The Line 6 Variax
Skunk Made Me Do It
My interest in modeling guitars goes back to a video from NAMM 2012 showing the legendary guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter demonstrating the newly released Roland VG 5. Roland partnered with Fender to take a a Stratocaster and fuse it with Roland guitar modeling technology. Here’s the clip:
|Yeah, it was cool to hear a sitar coming out of a Strat but when Baxter switched to the jazz guitar setting and said, “I can hear the wood!” I was hooked.|
I got one from Sweetwater and it was all as advertised. The acoustic guitar sound was great. The Telecaster, Stratocaster and Les Paul modeling were also great. The 12 string sound on both electric and acoustic were really good too. The jazz guitar sounds that you hear Baxter do on the video sound good to me as well.
There were some limitations. I couldn’t re-create the 5 string open G sound of Keith Richards. I didn’t think the nylon guitar sound was as convincing as the others. The only available tunings were the factory settings.
I started following the field of guitar modeling (not to be confused with MIDI guitars which use MIDI synthesizers to create many different instruments, not just guitars). The other player in the field was Line 6 with its Variax range of modeling guitars. Way too pricey when I first started watching. But over the years the Variax technology matured and improved—along with the price. When the James Tyler designed Variax JTV-69 with humbucker-single-single configuration went on sale a couple of years ago, I picked one up.
An embarrassment of riches, I know. But I can at least speak to how these two ways of executing the modeling guitar concept compare to each other.
First the bad news—the Roland/Fender G5 has been discontinued. I think Roland decided that since they pioneered the MIDI guitar, why re-invent the wheel?
Still the comparison is instructive: I’d say overall the Fender/Roland has better sound on the acoustic and the 4 main electric models (Tele, Strat, Les Paul and jazz).
By comparison, the Line 6 Variax gives you more flexibility and I find the sounds good enough for what I do and certainly good enough for just about any performance setting. The key to the flexibility is the Variax Workbench HD software (free). You can select different guitar body and pickup models as well as create your own tunings. This is what allowed me to recreate the 5 string open G tuning used by Keith Richards.
Have a look at this overview:
|The video reviews the Variax Standard which came out after I purchased my Variax. This is good news if you’re in the market for a modeling guitar because these are attractively priced at $900 at Sweetwater (consider the price of owning the many guitars it models). Let me give you some highlights.|
Ease of locating models and tunings. Things were not always so straightforward in the past. Both the Variax Standard and my JT Variax have dedicated knobs for tunings and guitar models (in the case of the JT Variax, the tunings control is a dial up near the neck). In addition to these controls, the Variax Standard also has the usual volume and tone knobs.
The 5 position switch (such as found on a Strat) adds another layer of control. When working with Strat, Tele or Les Paul modeling, this switch acts as a pickup selector in the same way you find on Strats.
In other model selections settings, the five position switch acts as both a model selector and pickup selector. For example, when you turn the model knob to select the Chime model, you are getting guitar tones modeled on Rickenbacker guitars. In position 1, 3 and 5, the five position switch acts as a pick up selector for a Rickenbacker 6 string. Positions 2 and 4 of the five position switch act as pickup selectors for a Rickenbacker 12 string.
In the Acoustic and Reso settings (where you don’t need pickup selection), the five position switch acts as a model selector within the Acoustic and Reso model knob settings.
Acoustic: the five position switch accesses three 6 string models and two 12 string models.
Reso: here’s where it gets fun! In addition to a couple of Dobro settings, the five position switch also hooks you up with a sitar and a banjo setting. You can then apply the tunings knob to your sitar, for example. Baritone tuning on a sitar, anyone? Open G?
Take a look at the factory default alternate tunings you can access just by turning a knob:
• Drop D
• ½ Down
• Drop Db
• 1 Down
• Open D
• Blues G (DGDGBD)
• Reso G (GBDGBD)
• Open A
Think about this: you can apply any of those tunings to any of the guitar models!
For details on all the models and tunings, you can check out the Variax Standard manual:
For example, I recreated the Keith Richards 6 string open G tuning by turning off the volume on the low E string in Blues G tuning set on the knob. My JT Variax also includes 2 custom location on the knob which I haven’t used yet.
Another practical application is when a song is pitched too high for your voice. For example, I like to use G voicings when I sing “Blue” by Lucinda Williams. But it’s just too high for me. So I switch to Baritone and capo up a couple and I’m fine! Also, the Baritone gives a nice dark texture to a dark song.
Although I think the acoustic modeling sounds on the Roland are better, the acoustic sounds on the Variax are growing on me. I really like being able to switch back between acoustic and electric so easily. You can really experiment on the fly with different guitar sounds as you’re writing a song.
A note of batteries: the Variax uses a rechargeable battery unique to Line 6. If you go into a gig with a freshly charged battery, you’ll be fine. Nonetheless, I invested in an extra battery that I can put in the charger that comes with the guitar so that I always have a fresh back up.
I keep an acoustic for those times when I just want to pull out a guitar and play without monkeying around with amps and such (but beware the slippery slope: modeling guitars are the gateway drug to modeling amps!). And yes, no matter how good the modeling, the Variax acoustic sound is still coming through an amp instead of through the air. Then again, to my ear, when I play my acoustic through headphones for recording, I can’t tell the difference between it and my Variax playing through the same system. I find the tradeoff in versatility in both performing and composition is well worth the price of a Variax. Not to mention I can’t afford a stable of guitars. Not to mention playing a Variax is just damn fun!!
An Alternante Approach
|The main thing that brings us together as a group is probably the desire to improve our own grasp of the craft of songwriting. Sure, chatting with friends, sharing tips on where to play and hearing what our fellow members are doing is important, but the bottom line is we are trying to get better at writing songs. To that end, over the years we have gathered in various venues, shared coffee and snacks and listened to what is by now thousands of songs. We have critiqued, suggested, rewritten and honed the words and the melody that we so carefully created. |
And over those years we have faced challenges. Work gets in the way. Inspiration is lacking. That last song was so good it's hard to imagine that there will be anything else of that stature. We face a blank piece of paper or a glowing compute screen and nothing comes to us.
A while back, Ken Moody-Arndt and I took a two day workshop with Jonatha Brooke and it proved to be very helpful. One of her hints - the one that Ken took to heart when he wrote"Original Hippie" which he presented at one of our meetings - was that trying new and different tunings might be the spark that is needed to inspire a new song or two.
|While we are all familiar with Drop D, Ms. Brooke told a story of traveling by air with her guitar. As you are supposed to do before turning an instrument over to the ground crew, she detuned the guitar. On her arrival she unpacked the guitar and found herself intrigued by the"tuning" the guitar had achieved as if by magic. After some experimentation she worked out a tune and the lyrics and created a song just by being open to the possibility that the guitar could guide the process. |
Recently, Sweetwater ran an article that suggested experimenting with alternate tunings. Maybe this month you can check that out and do a little experimenting on your own. If you do - and if you're happy with it (or even if you're not) - it might be fun to bring your experiment to the next meeting and see how it goes over. After all, that's what we're here for.
Internet Find of the Month
Our Next Meeting
|Our next meeting will be held on October 7th at a currently undisclosed location. See next month's Bridge for details If you are presenting a song please bring 30 copies for distribution to the other attendees. Copies will be returned to you at the end of the meeting. You do not need to be a member to attend a meeting or bring us a song.|
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