Sunday, October 18, 2009

Searching for the Holy Grail

After reading DR's recent post to the comments for a previous article I did some thinking. Here I am gearing up after a ten year hiatus. My life is somewhat balanced compared to the old days when I was playing the couch circuit. That means I've had a few bucks to spend on equipment instead of just barely enough for food and gas to get me to the next town. Although for some folks this lifestyle of mine might be uncomfortably close to the poverty line, for me it's been Fat City. (If you ever took refuge from the rain under a railroad bridge in the middle of the night then you'll forever be grateful for a warm dry place to sleep and a hot soapy shower in the morning. Everything else is extra!)

I have a buddy Ray Doyle from Dublin, Ireland who is a wonderful musician and an old and trusted friend. During the past year Ray has endured many long distance phone hours listening patiently to me telling him about my various trials and tribulations with recently acquired recording and stage gear. During this time Ray has released a great solo CD and a music video. That's on top of touring all over the world as the spotlight performer in Wylie Gustafson's band.

Every time we talk Ray asks me two things. "How much practice time are you putting in?" and "Have you written anything new?" If my conscience wore a cowboy hat and boots it would look like Ray Doyle. Something like this:

Well, I guess Ray has gotten through to me because this weekend I took a different approach to my musical chores. Instead of fiddling around with the latest gear trying for the perfect sound, I pulled out my trusty 1963 Gibson LG-1 (with it's 25 year old Sunrise pickup) and plugged in to my Fishman SoloAmp. Then I pulled out my recently neglected SM-57 for duty as a vocal mic and plugged that in to the other channel.

For two days I made myself play bar sets. I worked on arrangements. I transposed songs into different keys and much to my surprise found that I could hit those previously unreachable high notes. (Thank you Brett Manning! Those vocal exercises on your CD's really do work if you practice them assiduously.) I played very fast. I played very slow. I played till my fingers hurt and then kept on playing.

Now here I am on Sunday night thinking about what I've learned in the past two days. I can only speak for myself but I'm guessing that it's safe to say that most of us singer/songwriters who've been at it a while have all the equipment we need. Yet we continue to try everything new that hits the market. We are always thinking that if we upgrade our gear we will sound better and get more gigs and better gigs. At this point in time I find myself thinking that the best gear is the tried and true workhorse equipment that we already own. And the best way for us to upgrade is to push ourselves creatively.

Art doesn't happen when we stay secure within our comfort zone. When I push myself and take creative risks some very interesting things start to happen. An old folk song suddenly takes on different shades of meaning and becomes exciting all over again. Sometimes before you can play a song well you have to play it badly. When you make mistakes, just make sure that they are interesting mistakes. An interesting mistake can take you places you'll never find if you play it safe and stick to the cliches that you've already mastered.

I never meant for this blog to focus on gear. I've meant all along for it to be about music. It's important to have a few good tools and some extra guitar strings. It's even more important to have good material and to perform it the best you can. So today I'm thinking that it's time for me to eBay a few things and get back to the basics.

Before I call it a day here, I want to recommend an instruction DVD called Doc's Guitar. I just received my copy last week. It's a gem! If you're looking to "upgrade" this may be the answer. There is so much good stuff in this one set of guitar lessons that it will keep you busy for months... or even years.

Here's some vintage video footage showing Doc Watson at his fingerpickin' best to whet your appetite a little bit:

Well, that's about it for now. Keep on pickin' and grinnin' folks. Until next time...

Yer pal,
Al Acuff