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The Gollihur Music Blog

Humidity/Time for Winter Maintenance... (reprint)

It's Winter here in New Jersey, the time when we retreat to the warmth of our homes and avoid sticking our noses outside until Spring grows closer.

If you have a carved instrument, I hope you've been keeping an eye on the humidity and temperature where it "lives." And while it it's rarely necessary to be concerned about moisture loss in a laminated instrument, it's not a bad idea to address it anyway, particularly if you use gut strings.

Take a look at my article, HUMIDITY: Do you need to humidify your Upright Bass? in the Upright Bass FAQs on our site, for details about humidification. You can read about ways to judge your need - and be sure that you keep your bass happy this winter.

And since you're stuck inside, getting cabin fever -- perhaps I can suggest an alternative to sitting on the couch watching the idiot box (and it has reached new lows in idiocy lately, hasn't it?). I tend to look over all my instruments and equipment and do any required, as well as preventive maintenance, so I can avoid mishaps on stage.

With instruments it's a matter of doing a thorough cleaning, removing the dust bunnies from the pegbox, checking to make sure strings are all healthy from pegbox to tailpiece. You can also examine every area for damage, cracks, scratches that need touching up, etc. (That's not much work with my own two basses, since they are pre-war and both very much look like they've been through a war; I very much doubt I could find any new scratches in amongst all the old ones.) Take a close look at your bridge -- to make sure it's in place and perfectly flat-footed on the top of your instrument -- and maybe renew the graphite at the top of the bridge (and nut) so those strings travel smoothly when being tuned.

The electronics side also needs some attention. If you don't have Electronic Contact Cleaner in your gig bag, it may be a good idea to pick some up and perform a little preventive maintenance; it not only helps to clean away existing corrosion or residue, but can also act as a protectant. Spray each of the jacks in your preamps, stomp boxes, speaker cabinets, and amplifiers (unplug first!) Check batteries in your gear and replace them if necessary. A tip -- stick a piece of masking tape on the back of preamps, electric upright bass battery covers, and stomp boxes with the date when you last replaced the batteries.

Physically checking each amp, cab, and cable is a good idea, looking them over for damage, loose screws, rattling grille covers, etc. Cables can get neglected, too, and they should be examined for cuts and should probably also be checked out for proper operation. I also tend to run through the contents of my gig bag, tossing out expired headache meds and unneeded duplicates, checking that I have duplicates of all the right stuff, my flashlight works, etc.

I hope that this gives you something to think about -- besides reality TV -- for these cold winter months. Don't forget to wear gloves to keep those fingertips warm!

--Bob


Musings On

We hear the term "muscle memory" (Wikipedia Article) when referring to learning finger positions on the glorious (and seemingly endless) fingerboard of the upright bass, or its more modest descendant, the fretless bass guitar. I've often tossed around that term, never really thinking about precisely what it meant, until it was brought into focus by a recent television program. Surprisingly, it wasn't a musically-oriented show - and it wasn't on PBS.

Actually, it was the poorly-named (but surprisingly informative) show "Dark Matters: Twisted But True" on the Science Channel. I think the producers chose the suggestive name and then hired John Noble, complete with creepy Fringe voice, to lure viewers who'd otherwise skip over "educational" programming. Because, let's be honest: calling it the "You're Going to Learn Something Interesting Show!" wouldn't bring much in the way of ratings.

This episode begins with the story of Nobel Prize nominee neurologist António Egas Moniz, who performed radical brain surgery on a patient with a serious seizure disorder. The operation (Spoiler Alert) is a partial success; his seizures cease, and while he can recall pre-surgery memories, he loses the ability to store new memories. In short, this leads to the conclusion that there are two distinctive long term memory types.

There's further, much more in-depth info at The Human Memory site, from which I'll be gently borrowing. Declarative, or explicit memory (knowing what) is that stuff we remember, like the names of people we met yesterday, and other things one might term "knowledge." Procedural, or unconscious muscle memory, is the "knowing how" memory that we hope blesses us (bass players) with accurate finger placement on the fingerboard. So in the case of a patient like Moniz's, while the patient's manual skill tests improve each day, he has to be reintroduced to his post-surgery doctors every day!

What's it all mean? Perhaps it explains why I can play the upright bass in tune but can't remember the name of the guitar player I met yesterday. While these musings may not have enhanced your procedural, practical bass playing memory, it is fun to discover that the phrase muscle memory actually has some science behind it.

--Bob


The Art of the Jam


Join in the fun of open mics, garage jams, sitting in, and more

Unless you're Michael Manring or another aspiring Bass Solo Artist, a key ingredient in improving your playing is to play with others... preferably with musicians that are better than you. Be confident -- you may be better than you think you are; prepare by jamming along with unfamiliar songs as well as the most common one. Finding -- and diving into -- Garage Jams, Open Mics and "Sitting In" opportunities can be a little daunting, at first. Mark, Chris, and I have collaborated on some thoughts to help you to get involved -- and be successful.

Finding other players willing to tolerate your learning curve can sometimes be tough, but it's worth the effort. Your local Craigslist ads and music store bulletin boards can be sources for posting Bass Player Available solicitations as well as finding Wanted signs. When writing or responding to these ads, be brief and to the point. It isn't necessary to post The History of Me As a Bass Player, just make your clear points and get out clean.

Jams (not one of my favorite words) come in various forms. It may be a group of friends (and potential new friends) blowing off steam soaked in beer, an informal collaboration of players who came to an open stage night, backing up open mic singer-songwriters, a semi-rehearsal where you're sitting in for the bass player who couldn't make it at the last minute, and more. All of these can be valuable, can add to your experience and repertoire, expand your skill set, and challenge and make you grow as a player, with the side benefit of exposing you to other musicians who may be impressed. Planting these seeds can yield band offers and gigs, as well as invites to other events.

Be open to other types of music. I'm not suggesting you wear your cowboy hat to a death metal jam, just don't make your focus too narrow. Playing country, classical, jazz, and rock has made me a better blues bass player, not to mention helped me to appreciate what's universally good and in common with all types of music.

Jams are Musical Conversations. Be gracious, don't be rude or controversial. It's not necessary to continually inform everyone that you're the smartest guy in the room.

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The Art of the Jam (continued)

Yes, it can sometimes be boring for the bass player, but don't fall asleep. Besides, here's your opportunity to contribute and grow as a player; play a variation on that repetitive pattern over the next twelve bars. Lay back a little, play some accents, engage the drummer (if he's the listening type) and get funky if appropriate. He's probably bored, too.

Know your role. We're the bass player - accept that our role is usually one of support. In most acoustic situations we're not only thumping low, we're the percussion section -- the glue that keeps all those guitar players tapping their foot to the rhythm we keep. Be solid and dependable, and play your part. If they happen to throw you a solo, that's the time for showing off.

Be tolerant and supportive. If it's an open mic and you're backing up the Unknown Sole Musician Playing Bad Originals and Poorly Executed Covers (Using Incorrect Chords), expect and be prepared to cover their butt. Many players have learned by playing alone, where a steady rhythm (and the apparently "unreasonable" requirement of a consistent number of beats in each measure) are not required. Listen for their interpretation of timing and aim for the beginning of each measure; don't try to be the Time Cop. If the venue regularly hosts these events, they know to have a member of their staff available to sweep up the dropped beats at the end of the performance (grin).

Know some songs, and bring some if appropriate. Be prepared to make suggestions, especially if you can do the lead vocal. Many impromptu "jams" end up being an annoying 2-hour long exercise in "blues in E." Boring for everyone, to be sure (except maybe that lead guitar player) but especially for the bassist. Have some charts in your bag complete with lyrics, if it's not too much trouble - oftentimes the "disorganized" jams can benefit from the gentle hand of "suggestive leadership."

If you don't know the song, don't do your imitation of a deer in the headlights. There comes a time in one's life when you have to truly fake it, and conquering the fear of being thrown into a situation fraught with The Unknown can be an excellent learning experience -- as well as a helluvalot of fun. Various flavors of Jam are out there, but in this case we're talking of those that involve players and songs you may not know; often we're the sole bass holding down the bottom end for the Too Many Guitars Orchestra. Most songs follow a predictable pattern, use The Force and fake it.

Lay out/back if you're unsure. While most originals will follow a familiar pattern of three or four chords, this is not always the case. Covers can also follow unfamiliar paths, especially if the player has substituted the chords within their own small knowledge base, or worse, gotten the chords from a tab site on the net. (BTW: It's not up to us to educate the room by playing the "proper" bass note loudly, or by rolling our eyes every time it goes by.) If you're floundering a bit for any of these reasons, there is a maxim I've observed for many years, as a musician and in life in general: If you're going to make a mistake, don't make it loud. Play confidently, but be prepared to musically mumble until you figure out the bridge.

Don't play too loud, don't dominate -- that's why guitars (or banjos) were invented. The key word is accompany, or support.

Two Basses is usually one too many. If another bass player shows up at an acoustic jam... What do you do? I can only tell you what I did in two specific instances. In the first, I reverted to high school tuba roles -- "You go high and I'll go low, and we'll switch when we get tired of playing those two strings." In the other instance I asked the other player to play my bass so I could hear how well the new Corelli strings I put on it projected. I honestly wanted to know, but in a pinch, it sure is a way to build alliance rather than a rivalry, and can introduce taking turns. On the other hand, most situations call for only one bass player at a time, so...

Don't be afraid to sit out a few songs and take turns. Be the "audience" and offer encouragement to all the other players (where appropriate). There will be other chances to play these sorts of jams, especially if you're gracious about sharing the bass chair (you'll be invited back!) so you don't have to be playing every minute of every song as if this were your last gig. Besides, it's a nice chance to grab a beverage, chill out, and watch someone else sweat over the changes for a while. But disappearing, or just appearing disinterested, while you're not the one with the bass in your hands, will come off as disrespectful and kind of rude.

Be social! Don't just show up, play, and leave. These sorts of gatherings can be an excellent networking opportunity - you can meet other musicians who may have other, money-making bands; if you make friends with some of them, it can be an avenue by which you'll start getting calls when their bassist is out of town, or double-booked, etc.

Even you were an amateur at one time. Playing with someone who's a bit "green" can be taxing and unrewarding, but exhibiting tolerance and adding structure can help them grow, as well as help you learn the useful skill of musical manipulation.

Are you enjoying yourself? It's taken me a long time to accept the fact that not every musical encounter, whether it's a performance, rehearsal, or jam, can be a fun time. My new rule of thumb is if I am enjoying 51% or more of the experience, it's a winner. Adopting the perspective of that attitude will open you to a lot more opportunities and enjoyment.

Be friendly - to everyone. The piano player might seem to you to have an attitude problem tonight, but unless he picks a fight with you, don't pick one with him. If you've been solid all night, he may remember that when another musical friend of his is looking for a bassist for a gig or session. Likewise, don't talk to others at the jam about his snotty behavior - circles of musicians are often tighter than they appear, and your comments will get back to him. It is a social event, after all.

Finally, think on your feet. This list of tips comes off like a set of "rules" - but as in life, in the jam sometimes rules differ depending on the situation. Just remember, above all: be flexible, be nice, and have fun - and the rest should just fall in line. Just keep on livin' the low life!

--Bob

PS: Another aspect of "The Jam" can be Sitting in. Chris lends some road experience with the following comments:

Whenever I'm in a new city I try to catch a jam session of some sort, be it bluegrass, jazz, old time music, blues, you name it. Being a bass player, at multi instrumentalist jam sessions; it's always a bit tougher for us to just jump up and go; after all, there's not enough room on the bandstand for two bass players, regardless of the musical style. Here are some "sitting in" pointers:
  • Some sessions will have a sign up sheet for musicians waiting to play, so look for one when you arrive. But many have nothing, even though it may be billed as an open jam.
  • Usually, getting up on stage is as easy as hunting down the bass player on a set break and just asking. Don't mind them being a bit grumpy about there being another bassist there; deep down they're usually happy, because for the first time that night they'll get to sit back and enjoy a beer. At an old time session on Asheville last year I asked the bass player if I could sit in for a couple tunes; she said nothing, handed me her bass, and walked away. I was up there for a full set! Bass players have a tendency to be nice people, especially to other bassists... we're a rare breed, so we need to stick together!
  • That being said, remember not to overstay your welcome. Always make some eye contact with the other bass player to make sure you're not stepping on his/her toes; some people will let you play five tunes, and some want their bass back after one. Don't be offended, other people want to play also.
  • When you're up there playing, (and for that matter, always!) remember your role; you're a bass player, not a trumpet, not a mandolin. Hold down that groove and don't look back.
  • Jam sessions are great places to get your feet wet with music you are unfamiliar with. If you have some confidence you'll be fine; 90% of the songs in this world are four chords, especially in the pop and roots realms. Listening is your best skill as a bass player, and the more you throw yourself into unfamiliar situations, the more acclimated your ear will become to hearing changes on the fly.
  • Be respectful of other players, do your best, play with confidence, but most importantly have fun; it's just music after all.


Learn How To Play Your Amp!! (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series we talked about basic amp controls and specific methods for learning their effects. In Part 2, we went over the all important topic of "Gain Staging," and discussed some of the tools relevant to that. This final article, Part 3 covers the additional features that amps and external preamps may have that affect your sound, including parametric EQ's, Notch Filters, and more.

As always, I encourage you to spend time with each one to analyze what they can do for you. The better we learn our amps, the more instinctive it will become to reach for the right knob to tweak when the need arises.

semi-parametric
          equalizer example; Genz Benz 9.2A (Semi-) Parametric Equalizer (EQ) is form of tone control, like the "Bass/Mid/Treble" knobs covered in Part 1, but it can be a much more precise tool than a conventional tone control or even a graphic equalizer. As illustrated in a piano image from part 1 of this series, an amplifier's regular Bass tone control, for example, affects a wide swath of notes, or frequencies. A Semi-Parametric Equalizer adds a knob (or multi-position switch) to choose the center frequency of the group of notes affected. You -- not the amp designers -- decide which notes are boosted or cut, as to better sculpt your tone.

parametric equalizer
          example; DTAR EquinoxA full Parametric Equalizer adds a third knob, which is used to adjust the bandwidth (sometimes called "Q"). This lets you choose how many notes on each side of that center frequency are affected by the control - from a big wide "scoop" to a small slice. As with other tone controls, I'd suggest learning what these do by listening -- but you can always reference actual bass note frequencies at our FAQ on FREQUENCIES: What are the frequencies of bass notes? I love these equalizers for the incredible flexibility they bring. They're great for correcting flaws, such as frequencies that are louder in some performance spaces, as well as more precisely enhancing midrange presence and detail without sounding like you're playing through a telephone.

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