Friday, October 22, 2010

John Towell: What Are You Doing?

For those asking / wondering what I’ve been up to, I took a response I was writing to a friend and decided to blog it.

Actually I'm more active than when I was working. I’m trying to do many different things in a normal day. Our house in Elburn needed work to be finished before winter, so it hasn’t been a constraint-free time. Beth is happy with her new job and that makes me happy. Our new pup Donatello (Donnie) is a joy and he loves his big yard. The Frost family has moved to nearby St. Charles which has been a wonderful surprise. Except for the fact that we don’t see the Thompson’s as often, we’re very happy here. So, here’s what I’ve been doing.

At the beginning of the year I started playing slide guitar and have since bought two resonators, one a National (NRP 'B' 14). I've been trying to learn how to sing and have been unsuccessful at finding a local voice coach. I've been singing some songs and have joined the choir at church. I've been working with the exercises in "Singing For Dummies" and already have much better control. I love my HearFones and recommend them to anyone wanting to improve their singing. But it's intimidating trying to play the most complex of all musical instruments, the human voice.

I'm doing a gig at church in November with a guitar (Tracey McFadden) and mandolin player (Brian Joose). We're doing "Two Soldiers" which is a traditional song from the civil war era and recorded by Garcia and Grisman, and also Emmy Lou Harris and Julie Miller. In January I’m playing backup with Tracey McFadden for his daughter Kristin who is a terrific singer. She’s singing Iris Dement’s “Let The Mystery Be” in church.

I've been working on a blues (Muddy Waters) song called "I Feel Like Going Home" and a Leo Kottke piece called "Vaseline Machine Gun." I loved this song for many years and found a 4-part tutorial on YouTube by a young adult - the Internet is fabulous! I've also been working on an old Blind Willie Johnson (Texas) tune called "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" (ala Catfish Keith), and a Blind Blake tune called "Chump Man Blues." I've loved that song since I heard David Bromberg sing it. It's a difficult song for me because I actually have to use my fingers on my left hand to play it ... heh.

The three big adjustments I've had to make was adapting to finger picks, open-G tuning and damping strings with my right hand. After playing classical style it was difficult for me to play off of the side of my thumb instead of the end. I still battle my right hand wanting to assume a more classical position. I've been practicing damping with the palm of my right hand and this has helped me achieve a greater comfort level with finger picks. I've also experimented with all kinds of different types of finger picks and slides too. I've settled on the Acousta-Glide slide. It's a metal slide and the heavyness of the slide has driven me to using larger gauge strings.

Open-G tuning or primitive tuning is interesting. There are some tutorials on YouTube about open-G tuning. I found myself teaching musicians about open-G tuning and showing them that this is how Keith Richards creates so many of the classic
Rolling Stones' sounds. It's surprising to me how many accomplished musicians have no knowledge of playing in different tunings. I loved the story about Keith Richards playing through most of the 70's with only five strings on his guitar. The sixth, or lowest string was missing. This is because in open-G the fifth string is a 'G' and the base note for the chords. Since Keith was never playing the sixth string, he just didn't have one.

Note that I'm playing a round neck resonator and not a flat neck (dobro) and haven't seriously ventured into bluegrass yet. But the electrician whose been working at my house is a fiddle player and has been encouraging me to go to the jam sessions of the Northern Illinois Bluegrass Association, so I might start working on a few of the classics. I don't have any dobro-like licks and never really liked dobro in combination with bluegrass anyway. I'd just be playing finger-picking style with a few twists like open-G tuning and a few slides here and there (I sometimes wear the slide on my pinky thus freeing my other three fingers). But then maybe not the open-G tuning ... I don't know - we'll see ...

I've been experimenting with open-D-like tuning as well, and can do one of my old Steve Stills' favorites,"4 +20" reasonably well. I also learned how to play that from a YouTube tutorial and it's easy in DADDAD tuning. Blind Willie Johnson's "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" is in an open-D tuning which is 'DAF#DAD' (1st=>6th). The base rhythm is played alternating the 4th and 6th D's and keeping them damped. The melody is played on the 1st and 2nd strings with the slide. It took me weeks to be able to play the melody-slides independently from the damped base rhythm. It was somewhat refreshing to realize that my nervous system can still learn something requiring a radically different and new hand coordination.

Other songs I find myself working on now and then are: Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and "Famous Blue Raincoat;" Dierks Bentley's "What Was I Thinking;" Jimmy Buffet's "Why Don't We Get Drunk;" Jim Morrison's "Crystal Ship;" Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" (still working on the guitar solos on the resonator); "Big Boss Man" recorded by Jimmy Reed; Kris Kristofferson's "Here Comes That Rainbow Again" (recorded by Leo Kottke); Don McClean's "Vincent;" "Mad World" recorded by Tears For Fears; and "Tell Me Why" which Beth and I sing in harmony now and then.

I have left the software programming out of my head to open other doors of my existence. I had noticed over the last ten years that the only time I was playing my guitar was when I was at the cabin in Colorado. But then I'd come home and start teaching again and wouldn't feel like playing until the escape to the mountains the following year. So, I just wondered what would happen if I just stayed with the "guitar playing" mode for awhile and that's what I'm doing. It's been interesting to not have the background processing working in my head which is always there when I'm working programming problems. I'm lucky that at 63 I can still work my hands pretty hard and not suffer from arthritis. I'm keeping myself in decent shape and am working on the house at least several hours a day. I started writing about the adventures of Xavier Thornton this past summer and need to find the time to keep that project going since I think about it quite often. I consider writing some songs now and then but it doesn't stick with me that much. I did write “The Plastic Water Bottle Blues” for Kady McFadden in celebration of Earth Day 2010 but that was for fun. (I should go back and redo this with better technique, better singing, and better resonator.) I have a hunch that after further developing my slide guitar skills, other avenues / forms of creativity will be available - we'll see - stay tuned.

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