Thursday, December 8, 2016

Great Gift Giving For Bass Players

We all have bass players in our lives that we love dearly and want to keep happy.  Bass players are great, reliable, humble people.  Let's face it - we need the stability that bass players bring not only to music, but to life.  Therefore, we must spare no expense in keeping them happy.  Here are some gift ideas for bass players that suit all budgets.  Show your favorite bass player how much they mean to you - and if  you don't know any bassists, I'm happy to be the recipient of anything from this list you want to share with me.

1.  The Holy Trinity: The Fender Jazz Bass, Precision Bass, & The Rickenbacker 4003
There are so many great basses out there; and it's a myth that you have to spend a ton of money for a great bass, particularly if you're just starting out.  That said, it can be hard to figure out what to purchase for your bassist companion, so why not just go for the best?  There is a high probability that a disproportionate amount of the songs you love were recorded on a Fender Precision Bass, a Fender Jazz Bass, or a Rickenbacker 4003 (or a variation of the 4003).  Think about how much those songs mean to you, then think of how blown away your beloved bassist will be when you give them one, or better still, ALL THREE of the greatest basses of all time!
Pro tip:  While all Rickenbackers are still made in America, not all Fenders are.  Buy 'murican!  On the Fender basses, skip the bells and whistles and buy the "standard" models.  If it's good enough for James Jamerson and Jaco Pastorius, it's good enough for you.  If purchasing the 4003, keep it classic:  buy the JetGlo (that's black to most folks) finish.  It's instantly recognizable to anyone who pays attention to music.

2.  Simple Insurance:  Dunlop Strap Locks
I've experienced the heartbreak of watching my 1977 Musicman Sting Ray slip out of my strap, fly away from me in slow motion, and break in two on the stage after executing a totally rad jump during a performance.  Two expert repairs later, the Sting Ray sings on, thank heavens.  You can be damn sure after that day I never purchased another bass without putting strap locks on them.  There are lots of great options for strap locks; I like the looks, simplicity and ease of installation of the Dunlop strap locks in nickel.
Pro tip:  Make sure you know what color the hardware is on the bass for which your purchasing the locks.  You'll want to match the color of the strap locks to the hardware on the bass.
Dunlop Straplok Original Strap Retainer System:  $10

3.  Tone Factor:  Pirastro Obligato Double Bass Strings, Rotosound Nexus Strings, And LaBella Old School Flats
Let's start with the Pirastro Obligatos.  It's hard for me to tell you how great these sounded on my upright bass; I think my head would have blown apart if my upright was of higher quality.  That would've really brought out the greatness of these strings.  I loved the the volume, the warmth, the sustain, the pleasant "thump" of the initial attack of the notes when playing pizzicato, and the nice "mwah" sound when sliding into another note. (The first note of this tune is a great example of what I mean when I say "mwah" sound.)   Like most metal strings for upright, these aren't great for rockabilly slapping (but these are), but you won't miss it so much when they make your playing sound so refined.  Rotosound strings are legendary among bas players.  I've only ever used a couple of sets for my electrics, but I found them to be loud, lively, and tight as hell.  For those who like to wrestle with their bass, the size and string tension on Rotosounds  are perfect.  Couple that with the coating on the Nexus line of strings, and you have a vibrant string that will sound great even when that great enemy of string tone (sweaty hands) shows up to ruin the sound.  Finally, if you're looking for a mellow, warm, old school soul sound, try out the LaBella Old School Flats.  If you've never strung your bass with flat wounds, I highly recommend it, especially if your bass has passive electronics.  They are comfortable and it will change the direction of your bass playing - the pocket will become more important than a clever riff.
Pro Tip:  Before buying strings for the beloved bass player on your shopping list, make sure you know the scale of their bass as well as what kind of string tension they like to play with.  If all else fails, ask them what's currently on the bass.  Look it up online and you'll know both scale and gauge (gauge = string tension) you should be shopping for.
Pirastro Obligato Double Bass Strings:  $227
Rotosound Nexus Electric Bass Strings:  $32 
LaBella Old School Flats:  $35

4.  Bass Porn:  A Subscription To Bass Player Magazine
There was a time when I would've told you subscribing to "Bass Player" magazine was a terrible idea. Looking at all the gear in there would create in me the same unfulfilled desire that gives young men blue balls.  What's the point, right?  I can't afford any of that stuff.  But the truth is, there is a lot of great stuff in there besides gear - transcriptions, interviews with bassists of all genres, stories of legendary recordings and players - there's a lot to digest besides the latest gear.  And even though the cover boys (almost never cover girls) seem to be a rotation of only Jaco Pastorius,  Geddy Lee, Flea, Chris Squire and John Patitucci there's a surprising amount of diversity in the players covered inside.  They won me over the minute I saw Mike Watt profiled.  Plus, the subscription often allows subscribers access to online content not available to anyone else. Bonus!
Pro tip:  Double check your address info before subscribing to ensure the magazine goes to the right place. 
Bass Player Magazine Subscription:  $19/year 

5.  In Tune:  The Fishman FT-2 Clip On Tuner
There are many fantastic clip on tuners on the market.  Clip on tuners are nice because unlike other types of tuners, you don't have to use a patch cord to connect, play into a silly onboard mic, or try to suss out what an analog tuner's needle is trying to tell you.  The Fishman FT-2 is small and easy to use, and it's low profile make it easy to stow away or hide.  But don't let me catch you gigging with that thing clipped to your headstock.   
Pro tip:  Whatever tuner  you buy for the bassist in your life, make sure it is a chromatic tuner.  This allows the tuner to be used for non-standard tunings.
Fishman FT-2 Clip On Tuner :  $20

6.  Take The Edge Off:  Glenfiddich 12 Year Single Malt Scotch, Weed
Going to a gig or into the studio with players you respect can be a pretty nerve racking experience:  you don't want to let your bandmates down.  While intoxication before either a gig or studio session is never a good idea, taking the edge off is.  Free up bassist you love with some Glenfiddich 12 year to sip on. Glenfiddich is an amazing bargain considering the price and the taste.  If the $33 price tag gives you sticker shock, you've clearly never priced out single malt scotches before.  Plus, Glenfiddich can easily be purchased at most supermarkets.  As for weed, well, you can't beat Mother Nature when it comes to highs.  Consult a trusted friend/dispensary on this.  Try to score weed that is a nice counterpoint to your bassist friend's personality.  If he's hyper, get something that will mellow him.  If he's pretty chill, get something that will make him focus/be more aware.
Pro tip:  This gift is not suggested for those who struggle with addiction.  For rill.
Glenfiddich 12 Year Single Malt Scotch:  $33
Marijuana:  (prices and participation vary, see dealer for details)

7.  That's Entertainment:  "Rising Low" DVD
When Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule bassist Allen Woody passed away, friend and Phish bassist Mike Gordon gathered all of Woody's favorite bassists to record an album with the remaining members of Gov't Mule.  "Rising Low" documents this adventure.  The diversity of bassists gathered for this project is a tribute to Woody's love of music generally and bass specifically.  Chris Squire, John Entwhistle, Mike Watt, Jack Bruce, Les Claypool, Meshell Ndgeocello and many, many more gifted players and all around engaging personalities make appearances in this movie.  It is an absolutely entertaining movie that your bassist will watch over and over again.
Pro tip:  This movie is a who's who of the bass world.  Watch it with your favorite bassist and you'll you'll leave with a pretty good handle of some of the best bassists around.
"Rising Low" DVD/download:  $17

8.  Poor Man's Upright:  The Bogdon Bass
The Bogdon Bass is the bass world's answer to the rise in popularity of the cigar box guitar.  You can purchase the kit and build a serviceable 3-string upright bass that will sound decent and look awesome when you're busking on a sunny Saturday at the farmer's market.  If it gets trashed, just strip the parts off the box, find a new box, and build a new one!
Pro tip:  Don't want to pay for a kit?  Use these instructions to build your own bass from scratch.
Bogdon Box Bass:  $119

9.  Dialing Up Some Bass:  "Bass Tab White Pages"
Surely there will be something in the "Bass Tab White Pages" that your bassist friend wants to learn.  It's in standard notation, and free of the interpretive guesswork usually involved with deciphering music tabs found online.
Pro tip:  Don't say I never gave you anything.
Bass Tab White Pages:  $23

10.  Practice Makes Perfect:  The Cafe Walter HA-1A Headphone Practice Amplifier
I use a Korg Pandora's Box to practice when I'm learning songs by ear, or if I don't want to disturb anyone by playing through an amp.  It works, but the wide array of settings means I spend more time trying to dial in my sound that actually playing.  The Cafe Walter HA-1A Headphone Practice Amplifier gets rid of all distractions.  It has a volume knob for the bass, a volume knob for the mp3 player/device and an input for headphones - that's it.  When I was looking to purchase one for myself for vacation, not only I could I not find anything bad being said about this amplifier, I couldn't find a device with a comparable performance and price point.  It is touted as a vital tool for sharpening your technique.
Pro tip:  The dude that makes these - I think his name is Walter - informed me that the HA-1A is out of production, but stay tuned:  the next iteration of this practice amp will be coming out soon.  Until then, check eBay and other second hand sources.
The Cafe Walter HA-1A Headphone Practice Amplifier:  (stay tuned)

I have many other great gift ideas for bassists, so stay tuned:  If I have the time, I'll post a sequel to this post.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Tryna Make Sense Out Of A Wire Song

The first time I heard Wire was on a mix tape my brother had made.  It was the live version of "12XU" which, in my mind, is one of the strongest live songs ever recorded.  (I can't find the specific version to which I'm referring, but the studio version is also great.)  Wire is great for many reasons - that's a different blog entry for a different time - but as a general rule, I can't make heads or tails of their lyrics.  Granted, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but what the hell do the following lines mean?
Maybe the meaning of the words is irrelevant, kind of like any given Cocteau Twins song.  I'm not sure with Wire - something seems too put together about their lyrics.  They seem to serve a purpose though I have no clue what it might be.  Generally, I'm happy to ignore lyrics anyway if the rest of the song is hitting me just right.  But something compels me to try and figure out Wire lyrics, at least from time to time.  

My first - and most adventurous - attempt happened around my freshman year of high school.  I had forgotten all about this until about three summers ago.  I was snooping around in the attic of our cottage in Michigan when I found, hidden in a drawer of a dresser up there, some sheets of folded up legal paper.  They were slightly crispy with age, and it looked like they had been singed by a flame.  I opened it up, and there it was:  a story I had written years ago.  As I read what I had written, it all rushed back to me what I was trying to do: I thought it would be fun to try and make sense of "A Serious Of Snakes".  Again - there was this thought that there was something quite deliberate in those words which seemed so randomly selected.  I treated it like a riddle.  I wanted to incorporate as much as I could, creating the story by searching and slaving over each line of the lyrics, trying to extract some sort of meaning.  

The story I came up with is pretty twisted for a high school freshman.  It's something like this:  it's World War II in a parallel universe.  On a rainy night, a couple (named Mary and Joseph) who are performers in a travelling circus meet with a mysterious man to arrange to sell their child to him.  They're desperate for money and cannot have a child in their lives at this moment. They are tired and resentful, and they abuse their infant.

The mysterious man, it turns out, is a gifted American scientist of German heritage (volksdeutchse) who heeds Hitler's call to return to Germany to assist in the war effort. Deciding that the child would be a good candidate for his research, he proceeds to experiment on the child, using surgeries, electric shock, and relentless physical training. The child is not allowed to attend school, though he learns to read and write at a very basic level.  The goal is to create a super soldier, adept at killing in large numbers and unable to feel remorse or regret.

He is sent to war for the Nazis in his early teens. The child proves to be a relentless killer, following orders without fail.  In battle after battle, he leaves a trail of corpses and smoking, ruined machinery.  But the attempts to shock  out emotion and memory are incomplete.  During a debriefing after a mission, the boy super soldier tells his handler he has something personal he wants to take care of.  The handler/scientist agrees to let the boy indulge in his hatred, and they boy finds Mary and Joseph (who are still travelling with the circus) and kills them slowly with his bare hands.  Unknown to the boy, another boy witnesses the carnage from a boxcar on the circus train.  The boy hiding in the box car is an avid journaller who spends time creating puzzles and codes.  Stunned and scared by what he sees, he begins to compose a letter asking for help (from who, I don't know because I hadn't figured out that detail yet) in a code of his devising.

. . . and in classic Matt Zink fashion, that's all the further I got on the story.  I never made it any further.  It's pretty dark for sure, but it also reflects (for better or worse) that I was an overly serious child with interests in things like true crime stories, history, and comics.  Let's face it: for most adolescent boys steeped in comic and crime lore, dystopian, alternate history stories are easy to write. (I actually still have one or two other "dystopian future" stories from my junior high days.)  I remember seeing the 1984 adaptation of, uh, "1984" and I thought it was brilliant.  I'm sure that influenced the story pretty heavily as well.  I must admit it was fun to indulge my darker nature in this story - it seems like one of the healthier ways to explore such feelings.  I don't think there's any permanent damage, I'll put it that way.

At this point I know what you're thinking:  how the hell did he get that story from those lyrics?  Well, you take a crack at 'em and let's see what you come up with.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Musical Guests Of "Fridays", [UPDATED]

For some reason, I found myself this morning trying to remember the sketch comedy show "Fridays".  This was ABC's attempt to steal Saturday Night Live's thunder (SNL was on NBC).  Turns out, I don't remember it too well - I turned to Google to refresh my memory.  In retrospect, "Fridays" boasted some serious comedy muscle, including Rich Hall, Larry David and Michael Richards.  I remember the show being pretty funny, but I don't remember any actual sketches (and I don't want to shatter that impression by looking for sketches online for some reason).  [UPDATE:  Here's one dude's take.  Sounds like a decent show.]  But man - take a look at the musical guests they've had.  Granted, I'm a little biased since I really started to pay attention to music long about 1980, but I think their selections show a nice balance of mainstream acts and edgier acts like the Clash and Devo.  Below are some of the better performances, but there's tons more online should you wish to find them.  Enjoy the beautiful imperfections of actual live TV, folks.  Enjoy lots of 80s awesomeness (satin jackets, yo) as well.

The Jam performing "Private Hell".  For my money, they're probably the best live band there was (though I never actually got to see them live).

The Stray Cats doing "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rock This Town".

The Pretenders doing "Message of Love".  Note that they are ever so slightly out of tune.  They ain't lip syncing this stuff, folks.

The David Grisman Quintet doing "Dawg's Bull":

The Blasters playing "Maria, Maria" and "American Music".  This looks to be ripped from a VHS tape, so the quality is really bad.  But this was too cool to not include - LA punk was at it's height when the Blasters broke off into the fledgling rockabilly/Americana scene.  So to me, this feels almost like an important historical document.

The Clash doing "London Calling" and "Train In Vain" - listen to how primed the crowd is!

And probably one of my favorite performances anywhere online - Devo.  Seriously - Google them.  I think they were on Fridays more than once.  They're all worth a look.  But I'll include "Uncontrollable Urge" below.  Freaking great energy - definitely another band I wish I would've got to see live.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

First Dance: Karl And Holly, Jim and Kim

I had a blast celebrating my 14th wedding anniversary with my wife!  Why not continue the celebration of love?  Let's continue looking at the first dances of my family and friends.

Karl and Holly were into the Avett Brothers at the time they married, so they selected "Living of Love" for their first dance.

Besides liking the banjo part and the chord progression, Karl likes the redemptive tone of the song - about how after a shit relationship, you can still find love.  That that is the love that gets you through other shit you're bound to encounter.

Jim and Kim first danced to Frank Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight":

Jim writes that a different version of the song appeared in a "Star Trek:  Deep Space 9" episode.  In the context of the episode, both of them found it very moving.  The song resonated with Jim and Kim and it more or less became "their song".   Although they might select Wilco's "Far Far Away" if they had it to do all over again, Jim still feels the same way he felt the first time he hears "The Way You Look Tonight".  When he sees his son, looking so "cute and adorable and perfect" he thinks of this song, as when he sees Kim.  It overwhelms him with affection.

Kim and Jim don't listen to the song on a regular basis, but it does occasionally crop up on their Christmas playing lists.  Nothing like swing and/or jazz for the Christmas season - I get that for sure.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

First Dance: Susan And Arron, Margie And Drew

With my anniversary coming up, my thoughts have turned to love.  Let's all go back to day one; let's look at the songs that sent your marriages off.  Let's look at your first dances.
My sister Susan's first dance with her new husband Arron was "L-O-V-E" by Nat "King" Cole.

They selected the song because they wanted to show off their ballroom dancing skills; but if they had to do it all over again, they wouldn't select this song again (though she's not sure what she would choose).   She writes quite simply and powerfully:
"Life and growth involve eternal transformations.  That's the beauty of life.  These eternal transformations also affect our relationships."
 No truer words have been emailed.

My friends Margie and Drew danced to "Near You" by Boz Scaggs.

Margie and Drew lived together in Maui before they were married, and they listened to this CD a lot. "Near You" had particular resonance; but it was also not "interminably slow and sappy".  The newlyweds were happy to be moving around, not just swaying in each other's embrace.  (Not that that's anything wrong with that LOLz.)

When Margie hears "Near You" today, she feels "happiness, love, warm and gooey" all at once, and she'd not select a different song if given a chance.  She also shared a great story related to the song that is too good to not share:
"The embarrassing story that goes with it is that I had inscribed on the inside of Drew's wedding band, "Just to be Near You." I thought that having a line from our song would be the perfect thing.  Unfortunately, if you listen to the song, you will realize that that line is never actually spoken in it. Drew was very sweet and tactful when he brought that to my attention.  So now that heartfelt inscription has a whole other layer of ridiculousness to it, which I think is an ongoing theme in our happy marriage. It's also signified by the Gurgling Cod water pitcher our friends gave us as a wedding gift. It's beautiful and functional and makes a ridiculous gurgling sound when you use it, which they suggested could remind us to keep a sense of humor as we go through life together.  Great advice." 
This is one of the things I love about Margie - she's honest to a fault.  She didn't have to share that tidbit, but she did and it's a great story!  Anyway, Margie says that they listen to the song now and again, mostly when their in the kitchen making dinner.  They don't overplay it, so she and Drew still love the song (and each other).

A little off the topic of first dances, she also threw this in the email:
"Incidentally, and not that you asked, but the other great advice we got that day was (1) to be each other's pit crew, and (2) to live everywhere we live like we'll live there forever - don't be hesitant to put down roots and get involved right away. Of course we haven't moved from the first place we did it, but it still served us well when we came to Bloomington."
It seems to be working for Margie and Drew, so it's definitely worth sharing.

First Dance: Joan and Terry

With my anniversary coming up, my thoughts have turned to love.  Let's all go back to day one; let's look at the songs that sent your marriages off.  Let's look at your first dances.
My sister Joan and her husband Terry's first dance was "Hero" by David Crosby with Phil Collins:

Terry wrote to me about it.  He thinks the song was more his choice than Joan's; and that it still "tugs at his heart".  He also remembers being swept up in the moment of that first dance, but Joan maybe not as much.  Joan is not crazy about being the center of attention, so she waved other dancers to the floor perhaps a bit sooner than her new husband would've liked - someone cut in to dance with Joan before the moment could come to it's natural completion.  If he had the opportunity to do it all over again and select a different song for the first dance, Terry wouldn't change anything.  He says that a lot of great tunes have come out since they got married, but rightly points out "that was the music we listened to when our relationship developed.  You just can't change that."

Terry also mentioned another anecdote related to wedding music.  He writes:
I remember meeting with the DJ before the wedding and giving him the music we wanted to listen to during the reception.  I specifically requested "Try And Love Again" and "Pretty Maids All In A Row" by the Eagles off their "Hotel California" album.  What we got was "Hotel California"* which is an iconic classic, but hardly a wedding song.  I was having too much fun to let it ruin my day, but it still nags me to this day.
I feel you, dog.  But at least it wasn't "Best of My Love".  Don't get me wrong:  that's probably my favorite Eagles song.  But a song about trying - and failing - at love is the audio equivalent to that foreboding wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter".

*-In searching for the studio version of that tune on You Tube, I was mostly running into videos that had been taken down for copyright or some shit.  So I linked to the great version used in "The Big Lebowski".  

First Dance

My 14th wedding anniversary is bearing down on me.  When August 31st rolls around, whatever is going on in my life at the time, I tend to feel humbled and grateful at the life that Mary Beth and I have made together so far.  This life - this family - we've eked out together is the one thing that I am proudest of in this world.  It is a life that is never stagnant, it is always changing.  But when our wedding anniversary comes around, so too does "The Fourteenth of February".  Some biological clock inside me puts the song in my head with more frequency in August; and the song takes me to the roots of our love in a very urgent, very vivid way. And just like the first time I heard "The Fourteenth Of February", I stop what I'm doing and feel peace.

Speaking only for myself, part of the appeal of having "The Fourteenth Of February" as a first dance is that it is a waltz.  Besides having a weakness for many songs in 3/4 time (as "Fourteenth" is), I thought I could fake a waltz on the dance floor with all my friends and family watching.  (Turns out I can't.)  So there was, I admit, a practical reason for selecting that song as our first dance.  But ultimately, the emotional rush I get from the tune is a big reason I love that song to this day.

I found myself wondering if others I know still feel something when they think of their first dance together.  I reached out to some friends and family, and the next few entries will highlight their responses.  I bet you'll enjoy reading them as much as I do.

Below, you can hear the man himself reading the lyrics of "The Fourteenth Of February" as well as providing some context for the song itself.  Dig it.

And just because I love the song so damn much, enjoy it also in its demo form - not as good as the final product, but it's always fun to hear the glimmers of greatness in demos: