Let’s go on a bender!

I don’t often get technical here when I’m talking guitars, so apologies if this article causes a little bit of head-scratching. However, I will try and explain some of the simple musical terms I use and there are some good sites on the net that you can consult if you want more comprehensive information.

As a young kid I was interested in the guitar quite early on and when the Shadows came on the scene I wouldn’t say that I immediately wanted a guitar, but it certainly started me becoming more curious about actually playing one.

I eventually got a guitar when I was about 10 which was frankly a guitar-shaped piece of crap, along with Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’ (a bold and frankly ludicrous title!), and I didn’t progress at all – it was all Greek to me.

However, I got a better guitar – a reasonable classical guitar – when I was 13 and got properly started on playing by a friend who showed me the basics.

One day, I asked him what the strange noise was that I’d heard on a Rolling Stones record (‘It’s All Over Now’, if I recall correctly) and he told me it was produced by bending a guitar string.

This was quite simply my guitar epiphany.

Once he showed me how to do it – not easy on a nylon-strung classical guitar – I was up and running and bending strings like a string-bending motherfucker.

Bending strings is one of the main techniques in blues, and hence rock (birthed as it is in the blues), guitar.

Generally speaking, like playing barre chords, it’s one of those major hurdles in learning to play that you think you’re never going to get over. As always, perseverance is the real key and so you just have to keep on plugging at it.

String bending is usually, but not always, used on the unwound strings because it’s easier and also being higher in pitch the notes tend to stand out more when bent. The most elementary way of bending a string is by gripping the neck  much as you would a baseball bat and then simultaneously pushing down through the fretboard and across the fretboard (usually upwards) with a finger. I find myself using the third finger most often and backed up with the first two fingers to make it easier. When you’ve developed fretting hand strength then bending becomes easier and you should be able to bend with different fingers in various different ways, depending on what you’re actually playing.

The lighter (smaller diameter) the string, the easier it is to bend and the less tense the string, the easier it is, too. Some guitarists detune a semi-tone or a tone which helps facilitate bending and most players who string bend and want wide bends will also favour a lighter string. The trade off is in tone when, in my experience, lighter and slacker strings give you a less full-bodied sound, although it really is horses for courses here. There are no rules!

I use D’Addario 10 gauge strings in standard tuning and with a pretty high action set up on the guitar (usually my US Tele) which some people find makes bending difficult, but really isn’t at all extreme. This combination, however, suits me just fine as it gives me easy bends with maximum tone for my style of playing. 

Where bending first came from no-one really knows, but it’s been suggested that the sound emulates slide guitar which is one of the blues guitar styles first documented.  WC Handy writes that he saw a guy using a bone as a guitar slide sometime around 1910 or so.

In blues there are a couple of really common bends that give the music much of its unique ‘flavour’.

The first is a bend raising the 4th note in the scale a semitone above to the flattened fifth. This note can be heard in context with the root note by singing the first three notes of ‘Mars’ from Holst’s ‘Planets Suite’. The first note is the root, the second the fifth and the third the flattened fifth. The flattened fifth isn’t a note you want to hang on to for too long as it actually clashes with other notes you might use in a blues, but if you move to it and away from it during the course of a blues melody or solo then it gives you a ‘bluesy’ sound.

The second note often bent is the minor third to the major third and also, interestingly, microtonal notes between the two. This only works in a major key blues and sounds wrong in a minor key blues. The ambivalence of this third note – the one that determines whether you’re in a major or a minor key – also gives you that ‘bluesy’ vibe.

Almost every blues (or rock) guitarist you can name bends notes. Some bend more than others, but very few don’t bend at all. There are many ways of bending notes and not just the two notes I’ve described above.

There are unison bends, double and triple bends and even pre-bends where you bend a string up to a desired pitch before plucking and then pluck release the bend.

As for how far you can bend a string, the only limitations are those set by the actual physical conditions – set up, string gauge, fretting hand strength, etc. It’s perfectly possible to bend an unwound third string up a fourth on a standard tuned guitar if you play in the middle of the string length where it’s at its slackest. 

I said above that guitarists usually bend notes up towards them and this is generally true as the unwound strings – especially the first and second – are close to the edge of the fretboard and you can push the strings off the neck. However, this isn’t a rule and you can push down – especially easy with an unwound third string – if you want and it may be necessary for certain licks. This downwards bending gives a slightly different sound – remarkably hard to define and best appreciated by listening to a player who habitually bends downwards – and it’s also a bit easier to bend the string – meaning that you can bend it to a higher pitch.

One of the best-known players to bend downwards and achieve these very wide bends was the late Albert King who played this way because he used a standard right handed guitar but played left handed. This meant that everything was ‘upside down’ and the more commonly-bent strings were nearest him. To bend a string he would push down and achieve his distinctive licks with overbends on such tracks as ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ and ‘Oh Pretty Woman’.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his unusual method of playing:

King was a left-handed "upside-down/backwards" guitarist. He was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down so the low E string was on the bottom. In later years he played a custom-made guitar that was basically left-handed, but had the strings reversed (as he was used to playing). He also used very unorthodox tunings (i.e., tuning as low as C to allow him to make sweeping string bends). Some believe that he was using open E minor tuning (C-B-E-G-B-E) or open F tuning (C-F-C-F-A-D). A "less is more" type blues player, he was known for his expressive "bending" of notes, a technique characteristic of blues guitarists.

All of this stuff about bending and upside down guitars leads me to conclude this article with a recommendation of a musician some people might not have heard of, but of whom I’m starting to get very fond indeed.

Like Albert King, Doyle Bramhall II plays guitar ‘upside down’. However, although his music is blues-based, Doyle’s original compositions operate within a much wider format. It’s bluesy, yes, but there’s also soul, rock and acoustic melodicism in there that produces a really fine brew. There aren’t very many wailing guitar histrionics and fast work outs at all, but there are plenty of intense and thoughtful songs, punctuated by some of the most original and soulful blues-based guitar stylings I’ve heard in quite a few years.

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Although he’s probably been seen by more people as a sidesman (to Eric Clapton, no less, to name the most famous he’s played with) he grew up in Texas and played around the region, eventually achieving a degree of fame with the Arc Angels – recently reformed – and a reputation as a killer player. However, it’s his solo releases that have me really excited, with 1999’s ‘Jellycream’ getting most play lately. What I particularly love are the intricate yet direct songs the guy writes and it’s a real treat to hear some original chord progressions for a change. His guitar playing is best described as ‘sinuous’ – muscular yet supple with enough twists and turns to hold the interest and also avoid the usual ‘I come from Texas and I play a Strat’ cliches. This guy is certainly no SRV clone!

Without wishing to blow my own trumpet (!) I think I have a pretty good ear and can usually pick up what I hear quite easily and emulate it on guitar. Doyle’s playing doesn’t seem to give up its secrets at all easily and I really like that in a player’s style and technique. If I hear a piece of guitar playing I really, really like then I usually get a guitar out and try and play it. In a strange way this often strips away some of the mystique the music may have had, but I then end up appreciating it on a different, more technical level. So far, Doyle’s preserved his mystique and I reckon his playing is going to intrigue me for the foreseeable future. Simply put, it’s unique.

So, please check Doyle out, but make sure you don’t confuse him with his father – Doyle Bramhall (no II!). The elder Bramhall is a fine drummer who’s released some good blues-based albums of his own, but they’re far more mainstream than his son’s releases.

Remember, you need the Doyle Bramhall with the ‘II’.

And happy bending!

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TV ad of the year?

Not normally a category worth mentioning, but check out the 1664 beer ad with Motorhead’s Lemmy performing a slowed down bluesy version of ‘Ace of Spades’.

Superb!

Here in strike-torn France…

…the local fuel situation (Mayenne – 53) doesn’t seem very hopeful. We went to Pouance (in the neighbouring departement)  today – a 20km round trip – to get some bits and pieces and we would have filled up at the Super U if they’d had any 95 unleaded but they only had diesel. We found the same situation at the Total garage next door.

We still have over three-quarters of a tank left, but with two more strike days announced (one for next week on the 28th) and the unions obviously heartily pissed off with the retirement legislation, as well as the broader grievances they have with Sarko, it’s anybody’s fucking guess when things are going to settle down here.

The interweb seems curiously short on information as to where you can still find petrol. Although some details are available on the ex–pat forums they’re very sketchy and seem to concentrate on where there isn’t any petrol, which is rather unhelpful.

Where we are – in the arse-end of nowhere – fuel’s important and it’s not as if I can see if there’s any fuel after a 2 minute walk, which is what I could do when we lived where we did in the UK.

That’s not a moan though – I wouldn’t want to be back in the UK. With Halloween coming up there was always the risk that your house or car would get an egging and, with Bonfire Night close behind, fireworks being let off at any hour of the day or night.

Luckily, neither occasions are celebrated here in France and even if they were, stuck out here in a hamlet in one of only 5 houses I don’t think much would be kicking off.

The strikes and industrial action are a nuisance, admittedly, but with careful use of the car we should be OK for a couple of weeks. We’re well stocked-up with wood, food, cat food, booze and other essentials and we can bake our own bread. The only thing we might run out of is cigarettes and the bar-tabac in the village is only a 10 minute walk away.

We’re quite snug here – Mrs Shark has a glass of sparkling wine, I have a beer, the cats are sacked out with us by a blazing log fire, there’s a pot of beef and dumpling stew on the go and the house is clean and tidy. Although there might be more exciting ways to spend a Saturday night – Miss Marple and then Wallender are on TV tonight – it’s a remarkably relaxed and stress-free one which suits us just fine.

Time to crack open another beer methinks.

A votre santé!

Some fine blues ear candy

I love blues music.

It’s what I grew up playing and listening to and if it’s played well it’s something I never get tired of hearing.

Given its basic structure – mainly based around three chords and the pentatonics scales – it amazes me how varied the music is and how it’s attracted devotees for nearly a century.

However, therein lies a double-edged sword – yes, it’s a simple musical form and there is a lot you can do with it in terms of introducing variations and twists but its simplicity also means that you can end up with an awful lot of boring and cliched shite as well. When it’s all 3 chord 12-bars with pentatonic scales then it’s a fucking pain to listen to.

Leaving the ‘old blues guys’ aside – Robert, Muddy, the Wolf, John Lee, BB, etc, etc – and even the 1960s blues revivalists, it’s the younger breed that I’m concerned with here; the keepers of the flame as it were.

What I don’t like are people like SRV – Stevie Ray Vaughn. To me he displays all the hallmarks of the white guy who plays in a highly derivative style (Jimi Hendrix and Albert King)  and in an almost exclusively 12-bar and pentatonic setting. Yes, he had a gorgeous tone but that’s all his music has to offer me.

So, Stevie Ray isn’t coming out to play today but some other cats are – eleven of ‘em in my brand-new, shiny-as-a-shiny-shit list of ‘11 modern blues tracks you might not have heard before but fucking well ought to check out’. They’re in no particular order – it’s not a chart – and guitars are well to the fore. By ‘modern’ I mean post about 1980 – the second blues boom of the 20th century as it were – and you won’t necessarily find all the artists filed under ‘Blues’. As far as I know, all the albums these tracks are from are currently available.

1) The Hollywood Fats Band – ‘Too Many Drivers’. No longer with us due to a smack OD, Fats was a fantastic guitarist who spiced up his simple style with some lovely jazzy bebop touches a la Tiny Grimes and very early BB King. This track is a straight 12 bar but the ensemble playing is superb with great harp fills riding over Fats’ rock-solid rhythm playing. Beautifully smutty lyrics here, with lines like ‘You got a fine carburettor’. The intro is a beautiful, descending, double-stopped, diminished chord variant that sounds tricky but is a doddle if you hybrid-pick like me. A doddle maybe, but it was new to me when I first heard it. Very highly recommended and available on a great double album of the complete sessions along with alternative takes.

2)  Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods – ‘Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down’. As far as I know, Mike was a Country session player in Nashville before he went blues. A good job too, as he kicks major fucking ass on this track. It starts off with him singing in unison with his own electric slide and then the whole band piles in after one verse of this. Accolades here for the drummer who powers the track along with a very muscular New Orleans style shuffle. No pyrotechnics from Mike’s soloing but he does enough and that’s almost always better than too much with blues. The whole album (‘Thicker Than Water’) is OK, but this track’s the real standout.

3) Junior Wells – ‘I’m Gonna Move to Kansas City’. Sheer coincidence at play here, as Junior gave Hollywood Fats (real name Michael Leonard Mann) his nickname. Junior had been around for a long time when the album containing this track came out. After a long term partnership with the great Buddy Guy, Wells went solo and eventually came out with an album which saw him paired up with several young guitarists, including Derek Trucks (if my memory serves me correctly) on this corking track. With Junior and the slide guitarist soloing over a very jazzy shuffle, the band hits a nice groove which is relaxed yet very propulsive. Junior’s not the best blues singer you’ll ever hear, but his harp playing is great and the standard of musicianship throughout ensures that the whole album’s very, very good indeed.

4) David Grissom – ‘What Passes for Love’. Wielding one of several beautiful PRS guitars and filtering his chops through a cranked Marshall to create a tone so thick you could carve chunks off it, Grissom’s one of my favourite players. Ex-sideman to Joe Ely, John Mellencamp and the Dixie Chicks, he’s also a fantastic blues player who’s Inventive in both his solo and rhythm playing as revealed on this track. which comes from an album he cut with his own band Storyville. Beautiful suspended chords, a chunky riff and a blinding and moody solo all combine in a song that isn’t a 12 bar but still oozes blues feeling. The album this comes from is ‘A Piece of Your Soul’ and is highly recommended – as are all of the Storyville albums. Check out a live version of this track on YouTube!

5) Michael Katon – ‘Put My Blues Back On’. Michael’s one of those jobbing players who gigs like a madman, releases a slew of great albums and yet never gets elevated to the first rank of players – which is a real shame as he’s very good. People like Kenny Wayne Shepherd have been flavour of the month whilst Katon has just been slogging away. I bet a lot of people will now say ‘Kenny who?’ whilst Michael keeps on packing ‘em in all over the US – I hope so anyway! Just a 3 chord 12-bar, this track is performed with such flair and sheer ballsiness that it transcends the form with some gutsy guitar and raucous vocals. I seem to have had MK in my collection forever but he still means bugger all in the UK. Check him out – he won’t disappoint. This is good time blues – real no frills stuff – and I love it. 

6) Chris Cain – ‘Blues for Curtis J’. I have 7 Cain albums and I can’t say that his body of work hangs together too well. There’s no question that he’s a dynamite player – he can do BB, Burrell and Coryell with consummate ease – but it’s a bit like listening to several players rather than just the one. Factor into the mix his really quite terrible voice and you might be asking why he’s in this list at all. Well, he’s simply an amazing guitarist who can underplay in a vaguely BB King style and then astound you with his jazzy flourishes. I like that in a player – he can play simply but he has the chops to cope with more complex material. This track is very jazzy indeed but still blues – it just has more added notes!

7) Left Lane Cruiser – ‘Set Me Down’. A strange band this – a guitarist/vocalist and a drummer keeping it very simple. If you like Seasick Steve then this album should be a revelation as LLC are way better than the grossly overrated Steve. It’s no-nonsense stuff but played with real heart and stripped down to one chord work outs driven along by some basic but very pungent slide playing and a drum kit which seems to include some strange items of percussion. The album this is from is called ‘Bring Yo Ass to the Table’ – which might convey the rather punky attitude that pervades the whole thing. Worth checking out if you want some rent party blues!

8) Chuck E Weiss – ‘Tony Did the Boogie-Woogie’. Taken from a real oddball album with a title to match – ‘Old Souls and Wolf Tickets’ – this track is pretty representative of the album, with its strange mix of Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Captain Beefheart and swing, all held together by Chuck’s unique voice and lyrics. It’s one of those mixtures that is so strange that you can’t see it working but when you hear it it does – against all the odds. Still the blues, but as far from the norm as it’s possible to get. That’s a good thing and what keeps the blues alive today. 

9) Jan Akkerman – ‘Blues Route ‘94’. The ex-Focus guitarist is still going strong and releasing albums showcasing almost any genre of guitar playing. This track comes from the excellent ‘Blues Hearts’ album and has Jan playing blues with some flashy jazzy touches and a nice crunchy tone over a very LA backing – think Steely Dan and you’re almost there! I admire people like Akkerman. Unlike many of his contemporaries he’s refused to rest on his laurels and stay safe by churning out what first made him famous. Like Jeff Beck he’s an experimenter which is why he’s as relevant today as he was 40 years ago. Unlike someone like Clapton for example. Also worth checking out on this album – ‘Milestones’ and ‘Red Pool House Blues’. 

10) Chris Duarte – ‘My Way Down’. I don’t dispute that Duarte owes a lot to SRV, but he tweaks the formula so effectively that this track – the first one on his debut album ‘Texas Sugar/Strat Magik – surpasses Vaughn. What’s more, Duarte has kept on refining his playing into what is very definitely his own style today. This track is a nice funky blues with some fine soloing after the initial vocals. However at about 2.20 in, Duarte plays a flurry of tension building chords, cranks up the volume and then launches into a blindingly dirty solo. This change of gear never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If you like SRV, check Duarte out. You may be pleasantly surprised!

11) Rainer Ptàcek – ‘Drive, Drive, Drive’. No longer with us – a natural death for a change – Rainer, as he was better known, was a consummate slide player equally at home with acoustic or electric guitar and blessed with a very melodic approach to the blues. Covering everything from Delta blues with layers of echoplexed guitar to ZZ Top blues raunch (he even cut an album with them!) Rainer was a true original and with his nerdy but effective vocals and skilful slide playing I reckon he’d be mega today. Still, there’s quite a lot of his stuff available and this track from ‘The Rainer Collection’ shows him in electric mode and taking plenty of liberties with the basic format. If you enjoy straight blues with a quirky but sensitive vibe and some hot slide playing then Rainer’s well worth checking out.

So, there you are; 11 tracks showing that the blues is alive and well and not just something that people like Eric Clapton wheel out for an airing every now and then.

Every single one of these tracks blows away anything bluesy that Clapton’s put out in the last 40 years.

And why 11 tracks?

Because it’s my fucking list – that’s why…

Getting wood with Graham Norton

Hoorah!

The wood we ordered arrived yesterday afternoon – and not a day too soon.

We had enough wood left for one night’s fire and then it would have been the Calor gas heater which isn’t too effective – especially with some one degree nights forecast.

You buy wood here in cordes and steres. Apparently a stere is a cubic metre of wood, and there are three steres to the corde. We ordered two cordes which now looks like this:

P1010365

Two hours earlier it was just a heap on the drive…

Firewood here is almost always oak or beech, although chestnut is also available. Personally, I couldn’t give a flying fuck if we got a lorry load of teak if it was cold and we needed a fire!

Whilst sitting waiting for the wood man I saw a trailer for the Graham Norton Show.

I have nothing whatsoever against anyone of any sexual orientation or gender bent – as long as nobody gets forced into anything they don’t want to do or to which they are mentally incapable of consenting – but Graham Norton really pisses me off. I know a few gay people very well and they don’t camp around or bitch like Norton, so why do some high profile gays seem unable to appear without exhibiting this stereotypical behaviour?

What Norton seems to be is a grotesque caricature – not a million miles away from the camp, bitchy, mincing homosexuals that Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick were portraying as Julian and Sandy in ‘Round the Horne’ in the 1960s.

The big difference is that Julian and Sandy were far more amusing and infinitely more subtle.

Does Norton piss gays off?

I’d like to know.

Che’s dead

Here in strike-torn France the whole situation seems rather bizarre.

Out here in the sticks we obviously don’t get any mobs of disaffected students torching cars but we are seeing a few signs of the strike action biting.

I managed to fill the car up last Friday and a good job too, as when we went shopping yesterday the filling station at the Pouance Super U supermarket (our nearest source of fuel and groceries) seemed to be closed when it’s usually open.

With rural areas here being large and empty, it’s a 10km drive to Pouance so merely driving there to see if there’s any petrol is a gamble with a 20km round trip – a few of those and you soon get through what’s in the tank. So, we’re keeping driving to a minimum which is why we went panic buying shopping yesterday.

We’re now pretty well stocked up for about a fortnight or so and bread (nearest baker’s is a 5km drive away) isn’t even a problem as we have plenty of flour and yeast for the breadmaker.

Watching France 24 – an English-speaking satellite TV channel – I’m struck by how many students and also just kids seem to be just pitching in during the rioting and just generally behaving badly.

The main problems here, however, lie with workers at the fuel depots, ports and refineries, as well as the lorry drivers and it’s quite a shock to see militant socialism manifesting itself here after living in the UK and watching it decline dramatically to almost zero.

All the protests and industrial action are aimed at Sarkozy and the current action in resisting the increase of the retirement age here from 60 to 62 just seems an excuse to test him and his government. No-one really seems to like him and I’ve just heard that 71% of the French people support the strike action.

My position?

Fuck it.

I can’t say that I’m too fussed about it. It’s not really my quarrel after all, although I do admit to feeling mildly annoyed when I watch protestors carrying banners with the image of Che Guevara.

Tell you what, live for a year in North Korea and come back feeling positive about socialism and I’ll buy a Che t-shirt…

Socialism doesn’t fucking work and Che Guevara is dead.

End of.

Gotcha!

Right…we’ve had the wasps, the hornets and the daddy longlegs…

Now we’ve discovered we have mice.

If I could, I’d have the most toxic mouse killer available salted all around the house but that’s not an option I’m happy with given that we have cats – two hulking great Maine Coon males called Django and Oscar.

Django* has caught a fair few mice while we’ve been here (along with numerous voles, moles, lizards, assorted birds – from sparrows to pigeons – and even a bat) but there’s limits to where even he can go in the house to catch them so last Friday we invested in a couple of mouse traps.

To start with, I baited one with some cheese (Seriously Strong cheddar) and placed it in one of the kitchen cupboards and we woke up the next morning to find this:

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That’s one dead motherfucker…

We were dead chuffed to say the least and our feelings of success swept aside any feelings of sentiment we might have had for the little fucker.

Subsequent attempts to slaughter mice have been unsuccessful, but I’m guessing they learn where the traps are left so tonight it’s going to be two traps and in different places.

I suppose it’s all part of rural life – not something we’ve had much experience of before moving here. To judge by the tubs of raticide and souricide you see in the shops here, rodent pests are quite common so we’re not alone.

*As for Oscar, he seems more interested in catching moths…