Saturday, July 22, 2006

the chromatic versus diatonic debate: a guitar player's view

coming from a guitar background as i do there is nothing quite so mind numbing as listening to someone banging on about the superiority of diatonics over chromatics. or vice versa*. with us twangers there are differences, yes, but even the most partisan strummer and twiddler can accept the diversity within the genre of instruments referred to as guitars.

from classics to strats, dobros to archtops, national steels to country jumbos, macaferris to ovations (a lot of people do think of an ovation as a guitar actually) and 335s to les pauls, they might have a name in common but they have massively different characteristics. thank heavens. and can be used for different things.

i see the diatonic versus chromatic debate in the same way. they are different. vive la difference. they have different strengths. you can do different things on them and i for one really enjoy listening to them both.

i think that any conflict that exists does so primarily in the ear of the beholder. maybe not even there. maybe just in the closed mind-set. in my opinion it just ain't the instruments. its what people do with them that counts. and that is down to the breadth of each player's personal horizon.

for example i really enjoy the blues and r&b and am the first to recognise the impact of this genre on 20th and possibly 21st century music. and yes it can be - but i hope we would all agree isn't always - great music to listen to and to play .... BUT we do need to recognise that if the talent that made this magic from a combination of thin air, dust and bad whiskey had been focussing on how music was made nearly a century earlier, in other words on how music SHOULD be played .... the blues just would not have happened. full stop.

the musicians who made the blues were innovators who could pull a riff out of a piece of wire nailed to a shed door. so while all respect is due to the music it wouldn't hurt if the idea of development started creeping into some blues disciples' headphones. rather than spending valuable playing time, not to mention the money, trying to replicate little big willy frogmorton's distinctive harp tone which he originally achieved on an instrument of hand carved whalebone and buffalo hide with his head six inches under the mud on the south bank of the snake-lash river in catfish creek, mississippi at 3:47 pm on friday 13th june 1922, i suggest maybe we could look to the future.

so why don't we stop bitching about how wrong the other guy/girl is. and by default pumping our own approach up. lets honour the guys who made the stuff, rather than slavishly copying them and get on and make some music. while we've still got the breath to blow. and suck of course.

* having said that its often not as ennui inducing as listening to them actually play. in my experience those who choose to exercise their intellect on such trivia tend towards the extra tedious in their musicality also. whether they play with a slide or not.

© Patrick Ellis 2005

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

from the top

the deal was, the devil got my soul. in return i could play the blues. in the event the bastard short changed me. but thats what you got to expect if you negotiate with a supernatural entity who, in most Western religions, is the central embodiment of evil.

i should have known. he's caught me over a capuccino before now. just by hanging onto that fistful of pound coins when my attention was elsewhere he smilingly transformed an expensive cup of milky coffee into an exorbitantly expensive cup of milky coffee. but way back then i still trusted the hornèd old reptile.

these days i like to think i can see him coming. so it was something of a disappointment when, on my way TO the pub one summer evening, he slipped a near lethal manhole cover under my shoe and i hit the deck with a substantial bump.

i tore some stuff in my foot. worse than that tho, and infinitely more sneaky, as i landed the scaly sod caught me one in the neck. ever since i have been ... ahem ... bedevilled with multiple nerve problems in
my right arm.

in that instant my guitar playing was stuffed. not to mention the mandolin. my passion, and a significant part of my income, were removed. just like that. although i suppose in his diabolical way he was keeping his side of the bargain. from that point on my experience of the blues intensified significantly. now i really had something to play about.

despite his smart little moves mephisto the great dis-illusionist had missed a trick. as luck would have it my dalliance with stringed instruments had been a second act. the first love of my musical life had been that fundamental tool of the groove, the trumpet of the blues angels, a 7/6d hohner super vamper.

i can
still see my first harp. several lengthwise windings of tape bandage keeping it on the right side of mortality long after the cover plate tacks had snuck through the pearly gates into tack heaven.

did that bandage stick! it stuck to everything. especially when moistened with enthusiastic teenage saliva and thrust uncased into a jacket pocket. a dirt and fluff magnet beyond compare.

oh god, talk about filthy. but not then, to me. to me it was beautiful. and in tune despite having the reeds roughly jabbed with a matchstick if they ever got stuck. which from time to time they unaccountably did. who knows what they were made of but they couldn't half soak up a bashing. and that was before playing the little demon.

to get slightly more technical, i am talking diatonic here.
you know what i'm saying brothers and sisters ... the little one without the knob on its side. the harmonica that is mostly used for the blues. because ... it sounds great. in fact that high wail is so good that a lot of audiences just love to hear the thing regardless of the skill with which it is being tooted. trust me. i can bear witness. probably even done it myself.

over the years i had kept my hand, or more accurately, lips in. when i wasn't playing guitar anybody who didn't tell me to shut up or bugger off or both could expect to find me a-honking, a-tooting and a-wailing along side them at the slightest opportunity.

after the fall i realised that if i was going to keep on making music it was going to be on harmonica. and this would mean raising my game above the morass of hound dog howlers who, having paid their £20 or so, reckon they're as good as charlie musselwhite or rod piazza any day of the week and don't understand why they aren't fronting the blues band. now!

i felt i needed to be able to offer something different. so i decided i'd learn to play the chromatic. i bought one from an acknowledged dealer. it was crap. what to do?

buy another. (this time a hering special 48. a name dripping derring-do nautical machismo, and hopefully appropriate for the charts with which i was trying to navigate a scarey new ocean of dots and lines into the deep end of which i found myself plunging.) and get help.

i made enquiries and eventually beat a path to the door of the shadowy national harmonica league. i went straight to the top. and spoke to the chairman.

"is that roger trobridge? i'm looking for a chromatic teacher."

silence ... then an extended intake of breath.

"there's not many of them about

anxiety's chill talons scrabbled for a grip on my vertebrae. somewhere out in the ether i sensed a rustle of leathery wings as old nick did his best to divert me from the path of righteous endeavour. all three of us knew there was a lot riding on this one.

a pause ... "where do you live?"


"oh," said roger. "one of the best teachers in the country lives in porthcawl." (for the uninitiated porthcawl, apart from being welsh rhyming slang for 'an insignificant amount' is twenty miles down the coast from swansea.)

and that, gentle reader, is how i met gerry ezard.

more to follow ...

© patrick ellis july 2006

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

the stumble

tuesday, 27th june 2006. following kevin the drummer's explanation that i should come in after a count of two (which is NOT how it kicks off on the practice cd) i launch for a second time into my debut performance at swansea jazzland. nerves now uncomfortably ajangle, here we go again. misty take two.

the b flat is strongish, the g isn't bad. then cometh the d. where the band pick it up on e maj7 and all harmonic hell breaks loose. i am overpowered by a swirling miasma of tones whose fist grabs my timorous harmonica sound by the throat and pummels it like a sardine in a tsunami. for the second time in two minutes i recognise the sensation of being, embarrassingly, comprehensively and irrefutably stuffed. my bottle evaporates big time. i grab my coat. i have fortuitously left the pork pie hat at home. intent on leaving my troubles on the doorstep on the way out, i walk.

only to have my exit blocked by the expansive mc who encourages me to finish what i've started. by now i'm so shook up i can't even say my name. but i do what the big man asks. and stumble weakly through the tune, accompanied only by the keyboard player. miraculously i get to the end of the first chorus. now for the next bit.

during rehearsal i had decided on a strategy of once through the
head (the tune) and improvise (er actually in my case, jam it) to the end. so i now find myself at the point where, in my plan, the exciting part starts. however i am so shell shocked and we are playing so slowly that i don't have the tempo to take off. so i do a few garbled phrases, fake it for another chorus and signal the keyboard to finish. which he promptly does giving me the opportunity to limp out on the d that had been sucked to a watery grave a few minutes earlier.

i am grateful to the compassion of the audience who give me a rousing round of applause. i thank them more sincerely than i have thanked any group of people i have played in front of. ever.

i return to my seat to find the comradeship of my fellow jazzers a little cooler than when i left. but not to worry, there'll be plenty of time to re-arrange that particular dynamic. the big mc comes over and asks me if i've got another number. which i don't have. and certainly wouldn't be playing now if i did. he then explains that the night is for those who want to learn to play jazz, not experienced players, and invites me back. and i will be. in a month.

'all that pain,' you may ask, 'why?'

best i can do in reponse is 'who can say?'

what is surprising is that i am back close to where i was at fourteen years old.
apparently by chance here i am walking the streets of swansea in a lived-in bomber jacket with a harmonica in my packet. do we ever grow up? i suppose some of us do. but i'll leave that to those who think its important.

i've done loads since then of course. trained for a career. found myself knee deep in local government clones. got married. worst fortnight of my life. went to college. got a couple of degrees. so now i'm educated, drank and drank and drank. met the purple bunnies. but i'm better now. lived in various parts of blighty. learned to play guitar, and
to a lesser extent, mandolin.

i've won and lost more than a bevy of girlfriends. performed in loadsa crummy bars with loadsa bands. some crummy, some not. i've played rock and roll, country (& western), blues, rhythm and blues, and folk. i've been part of seven-piece bands, six- five- and four-piece bands, trios and duos.
i've written songs. i've worked solo. in which capacity i have been known to out-number the audience.

i've played in uk and several other parts of europe. i've done tv, live radio, worked as a session man, played clubs, pubs and festivals. i've
busked on street corners. and now, four decades down the line in the world beyond 1984 and 2001, the wheel seems to have turned full circle. so .... back in abertawe with my eyes on the heavens .... lets hear it one more time.

more to come.

© patrick ellis june 2006