Monday, December 26, 2011

In Defense Of The Fender Stratocaster......

Conventional rock and roll wisdom says that a Strat is not a "rock" guitar. It is a "funk" guitar, it is a "soul" guitar, it is a "blues" guitar. But for Rockabilly? No, that's a Gretsch. For Punk Rock? No, that's a Les Paul Junior. For Metal? No, that's something pointy with too many frets. For Country? No, that's a Telecaster.

As for me, it took me a long time to come around to the ways of Strat-love. I even refused to let a great guitarist join my old band on the grounds that he played a Strat. I hated them with a passion. I was wrong, people.

Why do us "rocker" types hate Strats so much? I believe the reason is threefold:

REASON NUMERO UNO- "The terrible, awful people who have famously played Strats." It all starts with a very overrated man named Eric Clapton. He was great in his early years, when he played Les Pauls, SGs, Teles, 335s, etc. But as soon as he fell under the spell of the Stratocaster, it was all over. He not only came to epitomize the Strat player, he came to epitomize watered down, shitty white blues music. Terrible crimes he committed against his blues/rock roots, all the while clutching a black Strat in his puffy hands and making a queasy expression that most people thought meant he was a kindly British rock star having a good old time.Of course, that grimace of puke to come really signifies a deep, horrible self knowledge. This knowledge comes after you have sold out your high minded ideals for a steady and massively huge paycheck and a couple rolls in the hay with George Harrison's wife. This often comes with the realization that your playing has become trite, obvious and boring. Because this brings you millions of dollars, you will not seek to change this. But forever will you suffer the guilt and shame.


(LEFT: The great Buddy Holly.) So who, besides Clapton, ruined the Strat for us all? Well, a man named Stevie Ray Vaughan really made the Strat the horridly common instrument it is today. Stevie was actually a really great guitarist who played with soul and grit and real blues feeling. He sold all those qualities to a major label in order to be more like his hero Eric Clapton, then he cacked it in a helicopter, thereby leaving us a couple listenable records, along with some dreck. At least he spared us the further crimes against rock and roll he was most likely about to commit with his trademark beat up 60s Strat. I'd like to think he would have eventually wised up and gone underground, becoming a fixture on the chitlin circuit and shunning the garish MTV spotlight. I'm a fan, sadly, and that's a fan's wishful thinking. Other Strat-ruiners: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (now busy ruining the LP Junior for us all), U2's constipated martini bar waiter "The Edge", and lots, lots more, including frog faced frat boy John Mayer and retarded Allman Brother Johnny Lang.

REASON NUMERO DOS that we hate the Strat: "It's too common." Yes, the Strat is the highest selling guitar of all time, and the most copied. More guitars resemble a Strat than any other guitar shape. Almost every guitar maker, large and small, have Strat like guitars. Even Gibson, who recently bought the Charvel company (who were very famous in the 80s for making really gaudy modernized Strat copies, which led to the coining of the term "Superstrat"). Only the Les Paul guitar shape is as close to being as recognizable and constantly copied.

(Left: The great Dave Alvin and his well worn 60s Strat.)
REASON NUMERO TRES: "They sound so thin and wimpy." The Stratocaster, like the Telecaster before it, was developed with single coil pickups, the latest in technology in 1954 when it was designed. These pickups are capable of a wide variety of sounds, but they do favor the cutting, thin, high end treble side of tone. This guitar was developed for playing early country music and western swing, like the Telecaster, as these were Leo Fender's favorite musics. Compared to slightly later technology developed by Gibson and Grestch in the form of "humbucking" pickups, they are also kind of buzzy and noisy when plugged into a cranked amp. Humbucking pickups eliminate the buzz, but also eliminate the high, keening wail of an original Strat bridge pickup.

I will now address each of those concerns, proving once and for all that the Stratocaster is the ultimate rock and roll guitar.

1) Famous Strat players: Yes, hacks like Eric Clapton are associated with the Strat. Guess who else played one? Buddy Holly was the first well known Strat player. Buddy revolutionized pop music in the mid fifties, wrote his own songs, dressed sharp, and was rarely seen without his trademark mid fifties sunburst Strat. In fact, he owned several, and outside of acoustics, was never seen playing a Gibson.

ROCKABILLY AND SURF MUSIC: Other rockabilly players besides the great Buddy Holly, favored strats. Ronnie Dawson, of "Action Packed" and "Rockin Bones" fame, always played one. So did Johnny Meeks from Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps. As did Roland Janes, who played on Sun Records sessions by Jerry Lee, Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Rich and more. Sonny Burgess and James Burton have been seen with Strats, as well. Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Jimmie Vaughan (yes, Stevies' bro) have been seen playing nothing but Strats for their blues/country/RnB based musics in modern times. As for the Surf? The Ventures, the Shadows, The Trashmen, Dick Dale. These giants of reverb and tremolo all played Strats. The hollow twang of surf music would not have existed without the Stratocaster. Even the Beatles played Strats on several cuts on "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver". Here are the Shadows with Cliff Richard defining 60s Brit Pop. Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin had the first Strat in Britain and his guitar heroics on said bright red Strat began the UK's enduring love affair with the electric guitar.

(At left, the Shadows rock out on matching Strats.)
Another Strat hero was Jimi Hendrix. Probably the most famous guitarist of all time, and the most famous Strat player. He sold more Strats than all the guitar salesmen on the planet, just by making it his instrument of choice. He liked Strats because Buddy Guy and Ike Turner did. That's right, Ike Turner. Perhaps one of the earliest bad ass guitar heroes, Ike stuck pretty close to his Strat collection for the entirety of his career. He beat his women and he beat his guitars, but both seemed to do alright for themselves afterward.

(Check the pic on the right to see Ike and Tina and their 1950s Strat.) Brother Wayne Kramer from Michigan Proto Punks the MC5 played a Strat quite often in his heyday (and today), as did his counterpart Ron Asheton from the amazing Stooges. Yep, that's a Stratocaster being flogged on such ballsy rock epics as "Kick Out The Jams", "Down On The Street" and "TV Eye".

That's Ron Asheton looking superemely cool with his late 50s Strat. But surely a Strat is no good for Punk music, one says? Hmm. How about Bob Andrews from Generation X, who used one more often than not? How about Robert Quine from Richard Hell and the Voidoids, who rarely played anything but a Strat? What about the brilliant Ruts guitarist Paul Fox? He was a Strat player.

Here's Bob from Gen X reminding you that punks played Strats in 1977.
What about heavy metal? Surely the shrill, quacking Strat sound couldn't keep up with the balls out punch of a metal riff? I'm not sure my favorite metal guitar player, the human riff factory that is Fast Eddie Clarke of Motorhead and Fastway, would agree. See below.

Sticking up for Strats in metal would also be... Richie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen,Eddie Van Halen, and ...oh, just every guitarist in Iron Maiden, plus Steve Harris, who plays a Fender Precision. That's the Bass version of the Strat, for those keeping score at home. Witness:

I think I've just about wiped away that image from your mind, right? The one where you picture Eric Clapton's unfortunate weasel face grimacing in bowel-constricted agony as he plays another one of his cliche ridden, ham fingered solos while the world's most boring audiences cheer him on listlessly? Just take another look if you need to, while the rest of us move on to...

COUNTRY MUSIC. Although the Strat is now widely associated with blues and blues rock, and the Telecaster is universally known as "the country guitar, the Strat itself was originally designed for country players, by country players and one particular country fan by the name of Leo Fender. Here's the one man who, besides Mr Fender, contributed most to the perfect functionality and design of the Stratocaster.

That's Bill Carson, who played amazingly hot guitar licks for country music legend Hank Thompson's band, the Brazos Valley Boys, in "Country Music California" in the early 1950s. For those of you who don't know, Cali was once second only to Tennessee as the leading state providing country music to the hungry masses, back when the hungry masses had taste. That was a long time ago. Bill here was also a close friend of Leo Fender, and that Strat he's holding there is one of the first few ever made. Lep gave Bill a strat to test out onstage, and Bill's carefully worded opinion on the instrument contains many of the ideas we now associate with every Stratocaster. He was key in developing the instrument's wide variety of sounds and it's curvaceous and comfortable body shape.

Now that you've realized that just as many Strat players have rocked the ballsy riffs as Les Paul players, let's move on to reason number two: "The Strat is just too common".

Well, that one is true. Many guitarists like to consider themselves different, and will thusly play weird or obscure or highly customized guitars to stand out from the pack, who mostly play the two most popular guitars, the Strat (in its many variations) and the Les Paul (which also exists in many variations).

I used to think this as well. Then I played a Les Paul, and I played a Strat. They may be common, but there's a reason: They have not been beatn in design or functionality yet. Nor have they been beaten in beauty or tone or versatility. You see alot of Rockabilly guitarists playing Gretsches, but not many (if any) metal players. The Strat, however, is comfortable on metal stages, rockabilly stages, punk stages, country stages...just about any form of music. It really is a case of Guitar Darwinism. The best guitars will win. Strats and Les Pauls really are the best. And they have been since the early 1950s when they were designed. What other 1950s technology do we still use today? So yes, the Strat is common. Because it's the best.

Now we come to reason number three: "The Strat is too thin and wimpy sounding." Hmm. Perhaps the following clip, made with a stock late 60s Strat, with no pickup modifications at all, will make you question that widely held opinion?

And then there's the best thing about the Strat: it's ability to be easily modified. Strats are the ultimate DIY "hot rodding" platform. You can do anything you want with a Strat, because Leo Fender designed it to be that way. He wanted a guitar you could take apart, easily service, easily modify and personalize. And in designing this, he designed the ultimate guitar. The most comfortable to play, the guitar possessing the widest variety of sounds, the best looking guitar.

One of the many ways players have modified the Strat concerns it's "wimpy" or "thin" bridge pickup tone. Just as an aside, the bridge pickup on a Strat can indeed sometimes be thin and glassy. However, if a player just switches the pickup selector to the neck and middle pickups, one discovers a huge, thick, overwhelmingly grungy and dirty tone, with a cranked amp. If this is still not loud and aggressive enough for you, many players, such as fast Eddie Clarke, Eddie VH, Billie Joe from Green Day, some of the Iron Maiden guys, etc etc have opted to switch their Strat's single coil brisge pickup out for a double coil humbucker. This will fatten up that razor sharp, blade thin Strat sound, giving you the best of both worlds in one guitar (Gibson and Fender tones). Some Strat players say this is sacrilege and spoils both the original look and sound of the guitar, but I say have at it. Strats are for personalizing and playing. They were part of one man's search for the perfect multi function proletariat guitar back in the 1950s, and like the 1950s hot rod cars they were built to resemble, they exist for the driver/player to modify, customize and personalize. See the guitar below, which would be suitable for pretty much any kind of music the world has to offer.

In short, the Strat is both the world's most popular and most undervalued instrument. It looks great, sounds great and feels great. If you need other sounds, the Strat can take on new personalities with just some simple modifications. There's very little a Strat cannot do, and just about nothing a Strat hasn't done, from Rockabilly to grunge to pop to punk to RnB to soul to metal. Where there is guitar noise, there is likely a Strat. Don't hate, celebrate.

To the right is my newest guitar, a Lake Placid Blue 60s style Strat. I'm going to do some mods to it that I will talk about in later Blogs, I'm sure. Hope you enjoyed my Strat rant, and hope it changed your mind a little bit about the perfect versatility of a Stratocaster. And let's remember, it's not what guitar you play, but what you play on that guitar, that counts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What This Year Has Done To Us All: The Best Records of 2011.

Howdy cowpokes. So this has been one crazy year, eh? Eh? Political turmoil, economic despair, personal upheaval, this year had the whole plate of nachos with the guacamole and everything.

As for me, I moved back to Michigan (Ann Arbor/Ypsi) from Boston and that is going to have to be a whole other blog, because I have alot to say about that. Huge changes for me. As always, music mattered. It's the one constant in my life, and if you're reading this, maybe yours, too. I don't "have" religion, so I need a belief system. I betchya by golly wow that music is that system o' belief. And unlike Christianity, you can dance to it.

Here are my picks for the best ten albums I heard this year. I like alot of genres. I follow alot of different scenes and movements. I can tell you that while everything good is wholly underground these days, there are alot of great songs being written and alot of great music being made. I consider myself a Rock And Roll fan. And to me that encompasses Rockabilly, Blues, Soul, Metal, Country, Punk, Garage...anything fun and soulful, anything that sounds good loud. Anything with guitars, that is, as you will not find me listening to rap or techno or most modern pop music. Let us not dawdle any longer in the lobby of awesomeness. Let's walk right in the main entrance, shall we?

10) Wanda Jackson-The Party Ain't Over
Hometown hero Jack White did quite a number on Loretta Lynn's career a few years back, making her "relevant" again with a modern sounding album of country/rockabilly nuggets that went down smooth and nutritious, like a hot bean burrito on a winter's day. Pretty much the same deal with my fave female rockabilly singer, the one and only Wanda Jackson. In her mid 70s, Wanda is still full of life and rock'n'roll kicks, with a mega dose of country soul slathered on top. I've seen her live a few times in the last couple of years and she has always been a good time. Elvis thought so, too, back in the 50s when the two briefly dated. Jack White's energy and inventiveness is a present force on this record, but he doesn't step all over the main instrument here which is Wanda's growling hellkitten of a voice. She hasn't lost a single iota of firepower and man, I likes me some of that. It's a fun album, and if you like rockabilly and country sounds, you should own it.

9)Burzum- "Fallen"
You know, I almost put Amon Amarth's "Surtur Rising" on here instead. Because although this new Burzum release is a better album and way more interesting, Amon Amarth are sort of less challenging politically. An album made by mead swilling viking metalheads is sort of easier to wrap one's head around than an album made by a known racist and convicted murderer. These are the times we live in , folks. I probably don't have to tell you that Varg Vikernes, who is Burzum and plays every instrument on all Burzum records (for the most part), was convicted of burning churches in his home country of Norway as well as killing his former bandmate and modern Black Metal mastermind Euronymous back in the 90s. His politics have always leaned heavily to the right. Having said that, his music is often compelling and bordering on genius. This is Burzums' second release since Varg's release from prison (the Norwgian criminal system is, uh, very lenient), and while it is typically dense and challenging, it's much less so than any other Burzum album, and there are even moments of, dare I say it? Commercialization. Apparently this album was very influenced by the early recordings of the Cure, and despite being a metal album, this is obvious right away. There is a very attractive melancholy beauty here, despite the harshness of Varg's vocals and the tinny screech of his guitars. This album is perfect for walking or driving around on a quiet, overcast day, much like alot of 80s British Goth Rock. Don't get me wrong, it's still metal. The guitars are loud and staccato and the vocals are growled and screeched. But it's still kind of, well...pretty. Varg has even toned down his vaugely right wing lyrics for this album, in fact you'd be hard pressed to find one right wing statement. Whether this is a result of a rethinking of policy or just an attempt to sell more records, I don't know. I'm going to say I doubt it's a rethinking of policy. Either way, this is definitely Burzum's best album, and while I disagree with Varg's politics completely, I really, really like this album. If you can get past Varg's past, you'll probably dig it too.

8)Mayer Hawthorne- "How Do You Do"
Another Ann Arbor/Detroit homeboy, Mayer is sort of the smooth, Motown style equivalent to Boston's rowdy faux-Stax style soul shouter Eli "Paperboy" Reed. Reed gets into serious gutbucket territory ala southern 60s soul sounds, while Mayer sticks to smooth, shimmering, Motown style sophistication. This is a great album, not just because Snoop Dogg guests on it and does not rap but actually SINGS. It's a great album because Mayer is a true soul disciple and plays it close to home with a much needed modern day recycling of those classic all but forgotten 60s Motown sounds. People say he's a poser, but the proof is in the soul pudding. And this album, while never making you forget how great Motown was, is some pretty tasty soul pudding.

7)Graveyard- Hisingen Blues
Long hair, western shirts, bellbottoms, stoned-slack facial expressions, vintage guitars, and some of the most depressive, angry, sullen, haunted lyrics this side of the first Black Sabbath album? Sign me right the fuck up, Graveyard from Sweden! This record writhes and punches like the best 60s stoner rock/metal, but it does so with such an undercurrent of misery and paranoia that it actually out-glooms alot of the more obviously gloomy stuff from back then, and adds a thoroughly modern punky urgency to boot. And lest I forget, the songwriting is flawless. If you wish Soundgarden had brains, you'll like this album. If you wish Black Sabbath had better breath, you'll dig this swingin' platter. If you wish Pentagram had bothered to write songs while getting stoned before the recording session, this is the album for you.

6)Chris Isaak- Beyond The Sun
I've been a fan of Chris Isaak's gloomy sullen rockabilly-pop for years now. I've seen him live twice and actually met the man himself randomly wandering around Boston one summer day. Nice fella. Chris has always been an obvious rockabilly/country nut (I mean, look at his hair, man), and this double album of covers recorded at the famed Sun Studios in Memphis finally puts proof to that well known assumption. Covers of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, etc etc are all given a modern sheen that amps up the game a bit. The world famous Sun Records slapback echo/delay is served in heaping helpings here, and Chris' amazing voice warmly glides through the songs in a natural way that few modern rockabilly singers could manage. The one slightly less shining moment is the Chris Isaak original that, while not a terrible song, does not sit well with the classic, timeless greatness of the covers. Ignore that, and you have one stomping, greasy hellfire of a party album. Simply sublime.

5)In Solitude- The World. The Flesh. The Devil.
Sweden's In Solitude bring me back to my pimply adolescent metal head days, both looking and sounding like the coolest NWOBHM band that never happened. A great occult/black metal/punk image, really solid, catchy ass songwriting and a huge King Diamond influence really seal the deal for me. I love, love, love this record. See my earlier piece on the band in my post "You Too Can Have The Stamina Of The Cavemen".

4)The Smoking Popes- This Is Only A Test
I've loved these Chicago pop punk legends ever since they opened for Morrissey on his 1993 "Your Arsenal" tour. The big hype then was that the Popes sounded like Morrissey singing for the Ramones, and that's still somewhat true, but as they've evolved as a band, they've become more sophisticated musically. The big criticism of their recent records is that they've started sounding like all the emo-pop-punk bands that they influenced. Not sure if that's true, because I don't listen to that kind of garbage juice. I do know that alot of bands like Dashboard Confessional or whoever have turned a love for the Popes' melancholy love lorn pop punk into a maudlin mock rock mope fest. But that's not the Popes' fault. This record could have been a huge joke, as it's...yes... a "concept" record, sung from the perspective of a high school kid. Yeah, that IS sort of lame, and it would have fallen flat without the glorious pop songwriting of the Caterer clan (three fourths of this band are related to each other by blood). The songs are GREAT, especially the exuberant "Punk Band", the story of a youngster finally finding some joy in the world as the singer of a high school punk band going on tour in a van. Uh, it's way better than it sounds.

3)Beady Eye- Different Gear, Still Speeding
I'm a huge Oasis fan and I don't care who knows it. The very British loud guitar pop of the Gallagher Bros will always have a special place in my blackened, stinking heart valves. They updated the British Invasion sounds of the 60s and became sort of a 90s version of the Who or Small Faces. NOT, as they'd prefer, a 90s version of the Beatles, but pretty good job nonetheless. This is Oasis' first album without their main songwriter, the elder Gallagher brother Noel. Noel is solely responsible for not only virtually every classic Oasis tune, but virtually every shitty Oasis tune as well. So the big question was could the lads pull it off without their songwriter? Answer is...pretty much. These songs sound very much like a punkier, faster Oasis. Liam Gallagher's snotty Johnny Rotten meets Johnny Lennon voice does tend to grate after awhile, without the warmer tones of his brother's voice to balance it out. Still, extremely derivative but awesome songs like "The Roller" and "Beatles And Stones" are loud, fun, and catchy as hell, with a really great vintage guitar buzz throughout. It's no "Definitely Maybe", but this album is definitely not the pile of shite some people hoped it would be.

2)Michael Monroe-Sensory Overdrive
As a sensitive, tiny, small town metal head I gravitated towards the glam-flash and rockin' power pop'n'roll tunes of mighty Finnish band Hanoi Rocks. They were my favorite band for years and years, and I wore out the grooves on every album they ever made several times. When I started listening to Hanoi, I realized that Motley Crue and Ratt probably weren't as great as I initially thought, and started on the road to learning about punk rock and classic rebel rock'n'roll. I have Hanoi to thank for alot of the music I got into. They changed my life and opened up new worlds to me. They were a truly great, great band. The post-Hanoi bands and projects of many of it's members were not always so great. Andy McCoy in particular kind of became a terminal let down. Michael Monroe, the singer who unfortunately inspired both Vince Neil and Axl Rose, fared better. Most of Mike's albums and projects throughout the years, with the exception of the truly horrible Jerusalem Slim, have ranged from the pretty good to the truly great. His last perfect album was under the band moniker Demolition 23, way back in the 90s. Until now. Drafting the songwriting talents of Ginger Wildheart (of the Wildhearts, another highly influential but largely unsung band)was the first brilliant move on Monroe's part. Getting two fifths of the revamped New York Dolls in the band was the second (including Mike's old Hanoi Rocks bassist the effervescent Sami Yaffa, now in the modern version of the reformed Dolls). The live shows of this line up are already legendary, and the album is close to perfect. A roaring riff monster of a hard rock record,this thing channels the Stooges, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, The Wildhearts, Dead Boys,and the UK Subs in only the finest ways. It is high voltage riff-punk of the highest order. The one song that lets up the pummel-age is the country-rock tinged "Gone Baby Gone" which, while not a bad song at all, sort of unwittingly rips off the Eagles rather than paying tribute to Gram Parsons,as any country rock tune should. The lyrical content of alot of these songs seems to deal with being an older rocker in a young hipster's world. Drug problems, aging, bad relationships,dead heroes, survival. It's pretty life affirming for an old rocker like me and likely an education for any young wannabe glam-punksters out there. An amazing return to form and a great rock album this is. "Chart the course we're on, flog that dying swan, aim that poison dart towards the center of your heart", indeed.

1)JD McPherson- "Signs And Signifiers"
I had no idea at all who this guy was six months ago, and now his new record is numero uno on my year end hit parade. JD is an Oklahoma born and based rockabilly cat best known for his previous band the Starkweather Boys. He hooked up with Chicago based rockabilly bassist Jimmy Sutton, who happened to own and run his own retro rockin' label, Hi Style Records. Add a few permutations of fate, some other rock'n'roll hoodoo and various jump blues calamities, and you have this album. It is a rocking, moody, fearsome, jumpin', jivin' and wailin' monster. The first thing that jumps out at you is this kid's voice, which sounds like it's coming out of a 300 pound black guy from the '40s, not a little white rockabilly geek. The second is the songwriting, which apes and reinvigorates 40s and 50s jump blues in a similar way to the way Eli Reed apes and reinvigorates 60s soul. You can sort of tell it's not the real thing if you have a trained ear, but even then, it really could be the good, old righteous stuff. Songs like the title track and " A Gentle Awakening" take JD's music out of the retro ghetto into something much more modern and relevant, while still retaining the vintage tone and feel. This guy would make an awesome duet partner for PJ Harvey, and I'd love to hear him tackle a Nick Cave song. Like pretty much all modern rockabilly cats, he cites punk rock as an early formative influence, as well as some English post punk. You can't hear this in his music, but you can feel it. I can't do justice to how great this record is in words, but maybe this'll help....

There you have my picks for the best of this past year. Anything else I need to check out?