Thursday, July 22, 2010

Serenading the pavement

Hey hey!

I hope y'all have been staying cool! I haven't. I hate this weather. I also hate people who complain, but I will break my (non-existent) positive rule today, and say I'd like to complain about this. Being in business, and dealing with other businesses, if something isn't right, you pick up the phone and yell at somebody about it. "You call these guitar picks?!" But the weatherman is just like an umpire after the call at home plate is made, and yelling doesn't do any good. Phooey.

So, I'll give it up, and talk about something productive! The summertime is a great time to get outside and play some street music!

I've been meaning to myself, but the CD project (almost done!) is top priority right now. I've learned a lot playing on the street, technically called busking.

Now, of course, check with your local laws to make sure that it's allowed in your city, but most likely it is. I play in Alexandria, VA, and other than a noise ordinance, they say "have at it!"
It's fun, challenging, and a neat way to pick up a few extra bucks. It's also a nice contrast to have an endless audience as opposed to a stationary one.

Here's what ya need to get started:

- An acoustic guitar (or electric with a loop station - or an electric/acoustic Ukulele! I've seen it! It's AWESOME!)

- A bowl for the money! I used a guitar case once, and some rich boater dropped a dollar in the case and said, sincerely actually, "good luck with everything, buddy." Grrr! Of course, that's not the first time people have thought I was homeless...There was the bum on the subway asking for donations, and then he said to me "Hey, we should get YOU some donations!" OK, it was a bad hair day.

- Several songs. You don't need a bunch to get started - just a few, 'cause you'll end up repeating them, as the crowd always changes.

Find your "pitch" (area to play), while being respectful of any veteran buskers, and get ready to rock!

Curtis Blues, my street music mentor, has taught me there's two main types of customers:

- The walk by traffic, throwing a dollar your way as you jam.

- The show traffic, where a large crowd gathers, and you put on an impromptu gig for 'em. (Make sure you can get 'em to pay - people love to slink away at the outskirts.)

You'll also get the folks who will just stop and ask for a song. These are great, BECAUSE they can be the start of what buskers call "an edge." People tend to be skittish, and won't stop unless other people are already stopped and listening. So, if you can get a few people watching you, the more cautious will stop and listen.

There are many, many aspects of street performance, and I don't have a clue about most of them. I've shared what I know, and hopefully it will be of use to you in your quest. It's quite a learning experience, and a great way to sharpen stage skills.

So, throw your fear in the garbage, put on some brightly colored shoes, and hit the streets! It's way fun.

Rock on!

- Josh

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How many colorful people?

Hey hey!

Whew, it is HOT on the east coast. And, strangely, my car must have been feeling the burn, too, because it decided it needed a new water pump. Hey, I can understand the hydration thing!
So, since my mom's a saint, she loaned me her car for a few days while I'm fixing mine. (My mechanical skills, while present, aren't exactly high ranking in the 'speed' department.)

And it seems that whenever I borrow mom's car, there's a great mix cd in the player with System of a Down and Rammstien. Ha! Seriously! This is actually because my younger brother also uses her car, BUT she gets a kick out of the music, and really likes the System stuff. (She's unsure about the Rammstien, because nobody is exactly sure what it's saying, and nobody wants to know, and mom's a very kind and harmony type of person.) (And by the way, please don't feel obligated to tell me what those guys are singing about. I prefer the bliss of ignorance. I assure you, I am a happy guy!)

So, anyway, I was driving to my teaching studio today, and I was listening to this one track. It starts out with a simple little keyboard riff, and then the chaos starts. But it's a typical German chaos - a focused, brutal, precision sonic attack. It rocks! It's actually easy to play on guitar, and I started to ponder the question "why does one riff over and over sound so darn cool?"

All of a sudden, my ear caught a subtle keyboard line in the background. The humidity so omnipresent these past few days must have acted a catalyst to the flashback that the song triggered, because, BAM, there I was...

It was years ago, and I was a camp counselor/terrorist trainer at a high school environmental leadership camp. We were out to save the world! (Some of the attendees are still keeping up the good work. I'm immensely proud of them.) My hair was super long, and super humidified, sort of like a cat that went through the washing machine. Yngwie Malmsteen lived at the top of my music charts, and if it wasn't fast, it wasn't good. If I had listened to the mosquitoes droning outside the main lodge that summer's evening, I would have thought their wings sluggish.

There was a guy there also named Josh, from New Jersey, and boy, was this guy from New Jersey, in the best sense of the word. Cool, with it, and he knew what was up. He was also a big rap fan, and he was trying to convince a younger version of myself that I could give up my diehard metalhead ways occasionally to enjoy the spitted word. I was a hard sell, but the other Josh had some interesting points. We were all standing around in the lodge, trying to look cool for the hippie chicks, and talking about music. The girls promptly ignored us. But we didn't realize it, so we kept talking.

"Look man, listen for the chord change in the back." All of a sudden, I heard what he was talking about. Behind the rhymes and the synthesized hi-hats, I heard a canvas of sound, subtly coloring the soundscape. And then it changed, and so did the picture. It was cool - and really slick! A far cry from the "LOOK AT MEEEE" mentality of the 80's music I was so obsessed with...

"DU! DU HAST!" the stereo growled, and snap, I was back in the blazing Tuesday afternoon, the rap and the enviro girls and my epic mullet all evaporating in the sun.

But Josh's New Jersey accent seemed to linger for a moment in the car, saying "See? See? That chord change is why rap is so catchy, know what I'm sayin', bro? See? Chord change there...Chord change there...See?"

And it seems to me that the subtle use of the keyboard lines is one (of the many) thing(s) that make those Rammstein tunes so darn cool, and keeps those riffs so fresh and face melting.

But it's in the subtlety that the genius is to be found. If the guy who tracked the 'boards was intent on his mix being out in the front, it would have been lost. The different parts being played were actually somewhat busy, but faded almost to the edge of imperception.

It struck me that, when faced with an arrangement choice, it's almost like planning a party. We can have weird Uncle Bill over, but that means that we probably shouldn't have weird Uncle Sam over either. (Where DOES he get off wearing hats like that?) Maybe we can balance it out with the cousins who are pretty standard.

Each part in our music is like a colorful, or not colorful, guest. How are these guests gonna work together, while keeping the party going, yet keeping the roof on? How many are there gonna be? Generally, the more there are, the quieter they should talk.

Be an event planner!

Scratch that, be a musician.

But you might try not scoffing at your ma the next time she's trying to figure out the guest list!

Rock on!

- Josh