The Dying Breed... Working Solo Guitarists... How Technology has Slowly Killed the Troubador
I was 12 yrs old the 1st time I saw a Guitarist playing solo in a bar. Yes he was getting paid, & his drinks were for free. His Name was Bill Mueller. He later changed his name to Blue Miller (or Bill Miller) when he went to Nashville & became part of "The Gibson Miller Band", had about 20 min. of fame. I've lost touch on what he is doing, but what he DID do was inspire a 12 yr. old to want to play guitar. It looked so easy, I mean what a job? Playing music, singing, talking to people, drinking, having fun. Four sets a night 5 days a week.
He had a simple set up, but he had an ear for mixing his sound just right. Not that I was an expert on the proper way to set your guitar mic's or how to blend your vocals just right, but the more I learned, the more I respected him. I use him as an example, because he was part of a dying breed. He had good nights, bad nights, Great nights, & nights you could tell he was going thru the motions...mostly because the crowd was slim. He played at a Holiday Inn. This was the watering hole for the law firm my Mom worked at. My Sister & I would meet my Mom there after work, & I was the one trying to keep everyone to stay to listen to the Guitar Player.
Years went by & technology seemed to add a spice to the lonesome guitarist. Drum Machines, MIDI interfaces for adding anything the guitarist needed. Synth's, loop machines, computers programming that added almost the equal to a full band . This was the start of something that would kill the guitarist's livelihood. All these electronic add-ons took away the beauty of these men & woman. After all, you had to captivate an audience with just 2 main things...your voice, and your guitar. You also had to have a connection to the people. After all, how many times can you hear Margaritaville without the thought of wanting to push the reject button. Unless of course you had "that connection". That connection was normally started by the voice. Many in the audience thought that they could do the same thing, that they could get up there & sing too. Now again, most of these Troubadors had a simple set up. No FOH manager to make adjustments, no roadies to hand off different guitars for new songs. It was the purity of the voice ringing in an acoustically imperfect venue that drew people like lemmings to the table area to sit and listen. For a moment, their voices quelled all the problems of the day, and showed promise to what was ahead. Although technology intrigues me, it has been a fearful enemy to one of the pureist artforms that has spanned generations & allowed many a vocalist to shine. Take a few singers who have shown that the voice is more than just a melodic form of storytelling. Take Al Jarreau as an example of someone who apparently swallowed a full orchestra as a small child. He brings a whole natural bag of tricks to show an audience. Rumors was that he was a chromatic tuner when he was in school. He is pure, innovative, dynamic, ecclectic. His albums are great, but to see him do things live that you thought may be overdubs...it is an amazing site. More to the genre of which I was speaking, James Taylor is a perfect of a pure vocalist. When you hear that smooth way he holds a tune, you are given a sense that all is well in this crazy world of ours. There was a number of them years ago, Cat Stevens, Gorden Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Martina McBride, Sheryl Crow, just to name a few. Now a couple in that list may not have been "pure" vocalist's, but their signature voice was like a comfortable old friend.
One night we would walk into our favorite bar to hear our Guitarist/Singer...only to be told that the wave of the future was Karaoke! Instead of one person who COULD entertain a crowd for a full night, the crowd was able to be the entertainment. Take egos, add alchohol, music, stir, & the bar owner had a hit on his hands, & paid less & less as each year went by. I know this because I was a Karaoke host for 2 sperate stints. once in the late 80's/early 90's, then again 2003-2006. I always had the vocals, but not the guitar chops to be a performer like the ones who faded away. I was a Karaoke Host because I could sing 1st, then entertain the audience......Wait, that didn't really sound right! What I meant was that I tried to get & keep people involved during the night. I also had a good ear, great equipment, (Mackie), and an ability to make the mix the best for whoever was up singing. That could be where I got my Migranes starting Hmmmmm.
The next thing we saw local up & coming bands, singers, et al ; strewn across the fields... replaced by a sophisticated CD machine! What would they do? Well technology came to the aid of these people who had been replaced by the Karaoke medium, the recording industry was going thru an upheavel: Analog...Digital...ADAT,,,,SPDIF...Firewire....USB....DAW.....all these letters together meant something. Now anyone with a computer & a DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) could make their own recording, add the enhancements during the mixdown, and presto they had a professional "sounding" track to present to the record companies. There was such a glut of stuff coming in, that it took alot of time, so let's bring in another new medium to present their efforts; U-Tube, My Space, FaceBook, Even prestigise Institutions like Berklee College of Music has their own radio station! I contend that if their were none of these things out there, we would still have the Troubador out there. A producer/engineer does not have to work so hard during the mixdown when the product presented is almost flawless. Take CSN & sometimes Y & their abilities to make vocal masterpieces. Their self-titles album CSN shows clearly 3 vocalists working toward sheer brillience. Their Harmonies are not your typical 3rd's and or 5th's above or below the melodies, they paint beauty with their vocal chords. The next I would include would have to be The Indigo Girls; Amy Ray & Emily Sailor. These 2 woman have spent over 20 years to play their music, and not get sucked into the record company machine. Thankfully they chose to write, arrange, and play their own music in smaller venue's over many years. With some help from Michael Stipe(REM), they got some opening act gigs with REM and have played the college circut for many years, & have built up a loyal following. They now have their own production company named IG Productions. This is a huge reward for these ladies as they have worked so hard to make their sound unique.
Now we have technology available to us that would make Bob Dylan sound good. Pitch-Shifters, Harmony Makers, Tube Mic Pre's, amps with presets, vocal boxes with presets seperated by gender! This is the problem that I have. All you gotta do is plug one of these boxes (or more) into the vocal chain, and guess what? beautiful vocals for all to hear! The bad thing is that an artist has to use these crutches on stage to make themselves sound as good on the stage as they do on their tracks. Thank goodness you have pureists like CSN The Indigo Girls, The Eagles, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, again just a few samples. All these artists have been playing for 20 or more years, heck one of these groups wouldn't play together until Hell froze over so much for global warming).
In closing there is some technology that does not work to the end of making beautiful music. It is not true and real. I would no sooner use a pitch-corrector, or harmonizer to "enhance" my performance" If you noticed I did not attack the tools available to the engineer/producer who adds reverb, flanging, chorus, delay etc. A Qualified Producer/engineer knows how to work the effects to the advantage of the overall mix. There are many unqualified people out there that thinks more is better. You have to have the ear to know how to add or delete aspects of the individual tracks in order to make the song successful. There is no cookie-cutter approach to mixing tracks, each group of tracks requires blending.The most important thing is to try to keep the vocals pure. A true vocalist will have his instrument ready to record. He or she needs no enhancers before the mixing stage. The vocals must be as pure as that person 1st sitting with his/her guitar and belting out a song they learned because they wanted to take that time and create something beautiful, serene, & hopeful.
The end hasn't quite come with new artist's such as John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, James Blunt, Keb'Mo, who have shown that all is still possible with one guitar, one voice, one ability to captivate you with just their 2 instruments!
Until next time,
"Listen Til it Hz