Toys. It’s been some time since I thought of this word. Or needed to. My kids are long grown and on their own. I don’t think of myself as needing toys anymore. Sure, I have my diversions like anyone else. But toys? Turns out, I still like them, especially if I can make music with ‘em!
I recently heard a young acoustic guitarist from the Amherst, MA band Mafanti who were opening up for Ras Moon & Monsoon – the band in which I play bass. He had a Martin D-18 guitar plugged into a pretty complicated, wired-up rig with multiple brightly colored foot-pedals, their various dials and blinking lights inviting him to create myriad sonic colors implemented by the tap of a foot. While I typically ignore all that sound-effect junk (I find it is often used to cover up lack of technique and overall bad musicianship), I was intrigued by this young guy’s tonal palette. Not only was he a wonderfully adroit guitarist, he wrote and sang many of the band’s songs, each textured and enhanced by various combinations of his electronic toys. Not a one of them detracted from his playing.
I especially liked the way he could get his Martin acoustic to sound like a bass on the lower strings as he propelled the band forward in a variety of Afro-pop world-grooves. How was he doing this? I had to find out, so during the band’s break, I asked him “Where do you keep the bass?” He gladly showed me the small, brown Boss SuperOctave pedal. Just plug in, tweak the knobs, and Voila! – your guitar is a bass! Very cool.
I found a used SuperOctave on-line for $80 and tried it out. What fun! Especially on my 6-string banjo. I now kick in the SuperOctave and the ragtime numbers all of a sudden have a tuba player! Pop it on for the calypso and reggae stuff, and that banjo sounds almost like a complete Rasta rhythm section! I’ve been fooling around with it for about a month now and have taken it out on gigs with me and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached by mystified audience members wondering where the bass player was. Stayed home, I guess.
Last weekend I saw Australian CGP (Certified Guitar Player) Tommy Emmanuel in a solo show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, NY. He had three Australian-made Maton guitars plugged into a unit about the size of a breadbox (remember what one of those is?). And that, folks, is all this fellow needed! He introduced his two hands as “his band members” and launched into a smokin’ Chet Atkins tune (Chet was his hero), right-hand thumb laying down the bass, right-hand fingers dancing the rhythm and providing melody while his left hand flew around the neck pointing the way in and around almost three hours’ worth of astounding, astonishing music.
Now I’ve seen guitar players of all stripes. We all have, but you just know when you're in the presence of pure, unadulterated genius. And that night in Troy, genius prevailed. Mr. Emanuel has an amazing and eclectic repertoire from folk, jazz, rock, worldbeat, swing, country . . . you name it. Together with his awesome technique, gracious stage-presence and wry humor, he gave everyone a night to remember. Still, I was intrigued by what he kept in that “breadbox”, because there within, I believed, was magic!
Later that night when I got home, I had to make two choices: Should I toss my guitars into the woodstove (because there was simply no use hoping that I could in any way play like Tommy!) or, keep practicing my butt off . . . even harder! I decided to go with the latter, but before I opened my guitar case, I decided to go on-line and find Tommy’s website. I wanted to know more about that sound, his magic sound. And lo, there was a description (and a photo!) of exactly what he kept in that “breadbox”. It was quite simple really: his guitar’s pre-amp and an Alesis digital sound processor! Two “toys-of-the-trade”.
You can’t believe how much this pleased me (and I’ve been told I’m not that easy to please!). I already own a great pre-amp (a Tech 21 SansAmp Acoustic DI), but hidden in amongst my years’ of accumulating musical detritus was . . . an old Alesis NanoVerb sound processor! Not exactly the same as Tommy’s, but it would do. It had many of the sounds he used that night: reverbs, choruses and the best part, digital delay! Now I could attempt to try some of his magic for my own.
I hooked up each of these small, electronic toys to my Fishman SoloAmp and “lit the fuse”. It’s been a bit over a week now, and several new, exciting sonic pathways have blasted open for me. Old tunes have renewed life. Brand new tunes are gestating. Different playing techniques are making themselves manifest. And I’m having a blast! Despite all this, I don’t think Tommy Emanuel has anything to worry about. Yet.
PS: Just before she left on her 4-month world tour, Miss Mary gave me her old Boss RC-20XL Loop Station. Another new toy! Can‘t wait to see what happens with this thing. Most shocking to me about all of this is: What is happening to the Analog Man?