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Stuck Inside a Cloud is a blog written by the Washington DC band, Roofwalkers. Here we post on band-related news and anything else that piques our interest.

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31 August 09

New Merle Travis release/reissue

One other thing I meant to mention…

A combo release was just put out of two sweet Merle Travis records—1950’s “Merle Travis Guitar,” and 1960’s “Walkin’ the Strings.”  Both these have been out of print for long stretches of time, and now can both be had together on one disc which includes a heap of bonus tracks.  The disc isn’t on itunes.  Nonetheless, it’s good news for those into classic era Merle Travis.

Both albums feature solo guitar—and “Walkin’ the Strings” has a bunch of tunes with Travis singing.  ”Merle Travis Guitar” is all electric guitar, while “Walkin’ the Strings” is all acoustic.  Both are pretty stunning and highly recommended.  

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Posted: 5:34 PM

Guitar tuning…yawn

I’ve been meaning to post a few more rambles dealing with guitar tuning after I did a little piece on guitar detuning.

Tuning a guitar properly can actually be a somewhat complicated thing.  And the more I’ve played music the more sensitive I feel my ear is to anything being slightly off key.

Many of us are of course familiar with a few means of tuning, electronic tuners being the most simple and accurate in a dark room.  There’s also the method of fretting at the fifth fret to get the tone for the adjacent string, and doing that for each string.

But sometimes these methods sill leave the guitar sounding a little off—an open E major chord might sound fine while an open G major chord sound off.  There are good reasons for this—and I’ll discuss it in another post—it all has to do with the impossibility of tuning stringed instruments perfectly to play in all keys—that’s what that whole “Well-Tempered Clavier” thing Bach composed addresses.  There are intriguingly historical and metaphysical implications of stringed-instrument tuning as well.  So yeah, I’ll write about that next time.

But for now, I’ll talk about a great way to temper the guitar’s tuning so that the little imperfections in pitch are spread evenly across the strings and all keys sound harmonious.

To start, tune the low E string with an electronic tuner.  Once in tune, fret a D on the 10th fret of the E string, and tune the open D string to this note.  Then fret a G on the D string at the 5th fret—tune the open G string to this.  Fret an A on the open G string, and tune the open A to this.  Now fret a B at the second fret on the A string, and tune the open B to this note.  Lastly, fret an E at the second fret on the D string, and tune the high open E to this.

If you follow this method, and of course have pretty good pitch in your head, your guitar will play pleasingly in all keys—an E major chord and a G major chord should both sound comfortably in tune.

Next post…ancient Greece, Pythagoras, lyres, and music for the fallen.

Tags: Adrian
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27 June 09

Goddamn!  These dudes are intense.  Sometimes I forget how friggin’ weird and out there some Appalachian music can be.

Tags: Adrian
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24 June 09

THIN LIZZY IS SO FRIGGIN’ COOL

After writing my last post about detuners, and mentioning among them Thin Lizzy, I am reminded once again of how effing cool they are.  They make me more proud of my Irish heritage—even though at best they were only 75% Irish (they had at least one American guitarist).

I dunno—these days I’m digging classic rock like I was back in junior high or something.  Maybe it’s because I drive around in a pickup truck listening to the classic rock radio all day (I actually do, for my work).  These days I’m psyched as hell to hear Rush, the Police, Steve Miller, Tom Petty, Heart, Foreigner…the list goes on.  I think I’m pretty burnt on how there’s a certain glorification of being underskilled in the indie world.  That’s fading somewhat as the years go on.  But it’s still there.

But yeah, that shit is classic for a reason—well written and performed music gets attention.  Writing a concise, engaging tune from start to finish is deceptively difficult.

Here I’ve linked in some top notch Thin Lizzy footage—one live clip of a tune called “Don’t Believe a Word.”

Adrian

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23 June 09

Getting the Lowdown

A few years ago Roofwalkers was asked to play a show and our bassist, Raj, was unable to make it.  The rest of us were into doing the show, and so decided to go ahead as a trio.

There are plenty of bands out there who are great at doing things on the fly—different players drift in and out, arrangements change every night, pyrotechnics displays come and go.

But for me, and our band, that doesn’t work.  Maybe we’re just not that pro.  But I’ve always found pleasure in getting things figured out for playing live, and then fine tuning as we go along.

In light of the fact that there would be no bass, I had an idea of how to cover some of the low end and missing volume.  I suggested to Ben that he and I detune our guitars a whole step.  My rationale was that we’d play louder and more reverbed-out, giving things a more druggy and heavy feel, without being weighty in a metal sense.

When we rehearsed the songs this way they seemed to take on a new character.  And the music seemed to fit better with Ben’s voice.

Men’s voices can often get lost when backed up by guitar—they can occupy the same frequency range and things get covered up.  (A cool visual reference of how instruments and their frequency ranges breakdown is the Carnegie Hall frequency chart).  Ben tends to be on the quiet side when he sings, so the lower pitch on our guitars seemed to open up more space for his voice, while lending a different tonality to the songs.

Since that one off show as a trio we kept playing with our instruments detuned a whole step.  Our bassist stays in standard tuning.

Lots of people play their guitars below standard pitch, including many who more commonly detune a half step.  Famous detuners have included Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Weezer, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater, and Aerosmith (for the uninformed/uninitiated, Aerosmith was actually cool at one point in the late 70s—check out the album “Rocks” if you haven’t).  And of course detuning is the standard in modern metal—some of those dudes tune down two whole steps!  Now that’s downright demonic.

I think what I’ve come to like most about the whole step down thing is that it’s allowed us to create our own distinct interplay of harmony between stringed instruments.  Since the bass is still tuned standard, at points the guitars are holding down more low end. And sometimes one of the guitars uses a capo, while the other does not, and thereby new chordal textures come about, sometimes stressing non-root notes more than the tonic notes.

We’ve been writing more songs of lately where Ben tunes his guitar to DADGAD—a tuning found in a lot of British folk music from the 60s, and plenty of Led Zeppelin songs.  With Ben playing in DADGAD and me down a whole step, we still share a common low reference point—that being D.  The DADGAD, being a modal tuning and not encouraging use of a major or minor third, is a cool bed to lay other ideas over.  I’m a big fan of keeping things in more modal terrain (i.e., no major or minor third) —this way you use major or minor thirds sparingly, and instead focus on other harmonies within a particular chord.  When you do use the major or minor third the contrast then becomes much more striking.  Our song “They Think They Own the Place” uses a lot of these ideas.

Adrian

Carnegie Hall Frequency Chart

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23 May 09

And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker, There you have something—the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little foot-steps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight, and then he sang ‘Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat.’ —John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

When I was in college in the 90s I read Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” over a summer break. Many of my favorite passages in the book are from the chapters where he talks about the lives of the migrants moving west. One particular passage that stuck with me was where Steinbeck talks about men playing guitars in the camps along the highways. He writes about players who could do more than strum a chord—and could instead produce “deep chords beating while the melody runs on the strings.”

When I read this, my guitar playing was in its early stages. I felt like I could make squawks and squeals, and play handfuls of chords, but I still didn’t feel like I could play the guitar as an instrument on its own. I was bored with what I knew, and bored with most of the rock music I’d been listening to as a teenager.

A few years later I read an article about a guitarist named Merle Travis. I’d heard the name, but knew next to nothing about him. Merle Travis was born into a coal mining family in Muhlenberg County Kentucky in 1917. Travis’ primary claim to fame was that he popularized and perfected a style of playing guitar in which he strummed alternating bass patterns on the low strings, while picking melodies on the top strings. Travis did this by using a thumb pick on his right hand to play the alternating bass, and the nail on his right index finger to play the melodies. In many ways the style is quite similar to how the right and left hands of a pianist interact. To the first-time listener it sounds like two people playing together.

Travis’ music is typically labeled as country, but in reality his style also draws heavily from blues, ragtime, and tin pan alley era jazz. Travis had a long career as an instrumentalist, as well as a songwriter—among his best known compositions is “Sixteen Tons,” which was made into a hit by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

After reading about Travis I decided I had to hear his playing. I bought up all the records I could find and was mesmerized by what I heard. With the help of some music books and hours of woodshedding, I set out to study his craft and in time learned the rudiments of his style. What I was interested in more than anything was to take elements of Travis’ playing, and incorporate them into my own technique and musical aesthetic. I didn’t want in ape Travis—I wanted to rip off his ideas and incorporate them into rock music. I wasn’t the first to mine his playing for new ideas—tt was Travis’s style, melded with traditional blues, which in many regards gave way to rockabilly—Scotty Moore, who played with Elvis in the early years, was certainly a Travis protoge.

I have yet to perfect Merle’s style, but I have made elements of his playing my own—I only use thumbpicks, and approach playing chords much in the same way. Here’s a clip of Merle Travis playing one his his best-known instrumental pieces, “Cannonball Rag.” Give a listen for yourself, and see what you think.

Adrian

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Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh
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