In pursuit of vintage tone
I’ve been thinking about guitar tone recently, in connection with the research I’m engaged with about the English guitarist / songwriter Marc Bolan. I’m interested in particular in some of the electric guitar tones he recorded with in 1969 and 1970. This was the period when he acquired an electric guitar after an 18 month period when he was only playing acoustically. Sometime in the spring of 1969 he bought a Fender Stratocaster (one of his musical heroes was Hendrix) and a couple of effects pedals.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex single ‘King of the Rumbling Spires’ (July 1969) has him using the Strat with a Shatterbox fuzz unit. I recently acquired a clone of this unit and the tone is pretty much there. Bolan then used the Strat throughout the album Beard of Stars (released March 1970), preceded by the single taken from it ‘By the Light of a Magical Moon’ which has some wonderful fluid lead fills. Around this time he acquired a Gibson Les Paul which he was photographed with on the cover of the T Rex album recorded that June-July and released December 1970. The guitar tones on that album are superb, but very far from classic rock. I suspect he may have invested in a couple more pedals or was chaining them together.
Bolan is an example of a guitarist whose guitar tones cannot easily be replicated by modern pedals, simulation devices or multi-effects. You can buy units that emulate a variety of guitar tones but his are never there. This type of thing has led to an explosion of boutique vintage pedal clones for players seeling a 60s or 70s sound. These pedals can be very expensive, in contrast to the originals which would have been very cheap but now command high prices. I knew for years that one of the devices Bolan relied on was a Rangemaster Treble Booster. About 300 were made from 1966-1968. I was amazed to discover recently that Vintage Guitar magazine have the Rangemaster at no.1 on their ‘chart’ of most desirable vintage guitar effects and in 2011 they had a price estimate of several thousand dollars.
The pursuit of tone does interesting things to one’s ears – which get sensitized to various sound effects and frequencies. Over the past few months I’ve been able to clearly distinguish the famous early 70s mid-range boost effect used by Bolan and by Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. But it is important to keep perspective – for there are so many factors that were lined up to create a certain guitar tone during a specific recording session half a century ago that replicating it is almost impossible – though with a bit of technique, imagination and cash for those clone units, the results can sometimes be close enough.
I will describe the Bolan project in more detail another time; I hope it might turn into a book.
Sad to see the demise of International Record Review, a magazine of thoughtful and detailed reviews of classical releases, caused by the death of its owner. In the UK that means the reviewing will be provided by BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone.
The symphonies I listened to in March were: Brahms 2 and 3; Bruckner 4; Holmboe 1-9, 12 and 13; Kalinnikov 2; Nielsen 5; Prokoviev 1, 2 and 6; Rissager 2; Rubbra 8; Svendsen 2; Sumera 1-6; Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C; Tansman 7; Vaughan Williams 4 and 9; and Walton 2 on a new SACD.
‘Silver Springs’ and gilded touches
I’ve recently been listening to ‘Silver Springs’, a Fleetwood Mac ballad from their mid-70s era. It contains a good example of how displacing chord I into the middle of a sequence can create a strong feeling of momentum. This happens in the song’s final sequence, the effect strengthened by a first inversion and a rising bass line (Am-G/B-C-F-G). The chord progression keeps sailing past the key chord of C and spending two bars on G at the end of each phrase.
Written by Stevie Nicks it was part of the sessions for the album Rumours but was left off, apparently because there wasn’t enough room on the vinyl. The 2004 double-CD reissue of Rumours places the song as track 7, coming after ‘Songbird’ (which ended side 1 of the vinyl LP) and before ‘The Chain’. The second disc of bonus material includes a demo version. There is a slower, weightier live version included on The Dance (1997).
This set me thinking about tracks that should have been included on an album but were left off, either kept back or released as stand-alone singles. Possibly the most famous is the Beatles’ double A-side ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from early in 1967. These songs originated in a project to write a set of songs based on the Liverpool childhoods of John and Paul. This eventually changed into Sgt Pepper, but these two songs never made it to the album, instead being released months before (they were eventually collected on the Magical Mystery Tour album).
It shows that sometimes great songs get left off albums. Another one that’s come to my attention recently is David Bowie’s ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ which belongs with the Aladdin Sane songs (1973) but came out as a single. This is mentioned in a book by Clinton Heylin, All the Madmen, with the unwieldy but explanatory subtitle ‘Barrett, Bowie, Drake, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who and a journey to the dark side of British rock’. It’s an interesting read if you’re into any of those acts or that period (1968-73) of British rock. It does exhibit some of the underlying tensions that I often find in rock criticism – mostly connected with an unarticulated conflict about the value and status of the subject (litany of failure or litany of success?).
Another track that was left off an album was T.Rex’s ‘Ride A White Swan’. This was recorded during sessions for what became the album T.Rex (December 1970), known to its devotees as the ‘brown’ album because of the sleeve, the last made as a duo before T Rex expanded into a quartet and launched glam rock in 1971. ‘Swan’ preceded the album by several months and became a hit single. Universal have just released a ‘Deluxe’ edition of this album, and the one that preceded it Beard of Stars, with additional CDs of bonus material. The T.Rex album’s first disc includes ‘Swan’ and its B-side. I’ve not had a chance to listen to these properly yet. My first impression of the original album is that this is the best remaster to date, despite what sound like some rapid fades (possibly encouraged by high levels of tape-hiss and guitar effects noise on the sessions). For those who heard these records at an impressionable age these songs have lost none of their enchantment. It is just clearer how rare a commodity it is.
I’d be interested to hear from readers of this blog of any tracks they know and love which were left off albums, perhaps reunited on more recent CD releases and expanded editions. I’ll report back on these in a future blog.
Anyone who had a harp … guitar
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing American guitarist John Doan. John is one of the world’s leading exponents of the harp guitar. He’s been studying and playing it since the mid-1980s. We first met in the late 1990s when he was touring in the UK. The main focus of our talk was the signature harp guitar which John is involved with that will be available (for about $1500) in 2013. This is the first such affordable instrument – previously you would have to have one hand-made. Simply put, the harp guitar is a six-string guitar with an additional set of sub-bass strings and ‘super-trebles’ which extend the range of the guitar in both directions. If you search youtube for ‘john doan harp guitar’ you’ll be able to watch him play. It’s an impressive sound. It’s always great to talk to John because his thinking about the guitar is always subservient to his musical commitment (not always the case with guitarists). The short version of the interview will be available on guitarcoach, the download for the iPad. I hope to publish a longer version elsewhere.
I had a couple of concert experiences last weekend. I saw John Williams and John Etheridge play in the Sheldonian Theatre. A day or so later I saw the Led Zeppelin Celebration Day film on the big screen. Whatever one thinks of the band’s performance, this has to be one of the best ever shot rock concerts. If you like Zeppelin you have to see this.
I’ve recently been reading Pink Moon, a book of miscellaneous writings about Nick Drake which is enjoyable. If you don’t know Nick Drake’s music go and order Five Leaves Left or Bryter Later from somewhere. I’ve also read Leslie Ann-Jones’ new biography of Marc Bolan which, despite having some new information (especially through some new interviews) is poorly written and unsophisticated. It is also amazingly uninterested and uninformed about the actualities of Bolan’s music. I can’t see the point of writing biographies talking about musicians if you’re not going to talk about the music. There are more lines in the book about the 1966 World Cup Final or the JFK assassination or personal stuff than Beard of Stars! The book doesn’t even tell you what songs are on each release.
On the personal front, I think I have a green light now for the next songwriting book, although it seems it won’t appear until 2014. I’ve also written a number of acoustic guitar instrumentals which will go toward an album of such.
I’ve acquired a few more symphonies and enjoyed them very much. In addition to still investigating different recordings of Nielsen, I’ve been delighted to hear the Finnish composer Merikanto 3, along with George Lloyd 8, Riisager 1, Atterberg 6 in another recording, and Tubin 2 – one of those symphonies which is brash and noisy with a sublime pay-off at the end which makes it all worth it. There’s also a very pleasing disc of minor Vaughan Williams on Dutton Epoch called Early and Late Works.