Email Specials from October 2011

Friday 10/7/2011 ~ The Wonderful World of Youtube!

The ol' guitar store has been a bit hectic lately, so I'm late getting started on the Halloween Show, "Night Of The Singing Dead, #19" ... But, hey, there are still twenty more days! That's plenty of time to write a show, build some sets, find the costumes, rehearse the band, and organize the singers! (Oh, and make some pies!) (I was thinking of having a pie-fight this year...)

My plan last night was to write up a list of some of the new acts we'll be doing this year, decide which of their songs to do, and then spend some time working on the Email Special.

The first name on my show list was Gladys Horton. Gladys sang lead for The Mavelettes on the classic Motown song, "Please Mr. Postman," and she passed away this year. So we'll be doing her song in our show.

Last night The Beatles' version of the tune was stuck in my mind (here it is), and I wanted to listen to The Marvelettes. Since the quickest way to look up songs is Youtube, I fired up the `tube, and typed in "Mr Postman."

Here are The Marvelettes from 1961 (that's Marvin Gaye on drums, by the way). After the tune ended I noticed a link that said "The Marvelettes - Please Mr. Postman - Instrumental." It turned out to be the original recording minus the lead vocals! It was wonderful. Sparse and clean... with a fabulous feel. Here's the lead-vocal-less track.

Hearing separate tracks like that reminded me of Hollywood, California in 1985. I was out there with my band, The Flashcats, and I met a cool Hollywood guy named Art Fein. He had a local TV Show named Art Fein's Poker Party. Art had worked with producer Phil Spector, and once when I was at Art's house he gave me a cassette of the isolated background vocals from The Ronette's hit song, "Be My Baby." It was super cool. You could even hear Sonny Bono's slightly out-of-tune voice in with the girl singers. (Sonny was working as Phil Spector's assistant at the time and occasionally contributed background vocals.)

Having access to something like that in those days was rare. (Some "bootleg" recordings existed... I already had a dozen Beatle LPs... But bootleg records were generally alternate takes or live recordings; they never had isolated band or vocal tracks.) I felt honored to have this cassette of "insider" information! At the time Art told me to keep it to myself, but now that twenty-six years have passed and Phil is in jail, I guess it's OK to mention it.

After finding the backing tracks to "Mr Postman" last night, I thought I'd search Youtube for the "Be My Baby" backup vocal track. Sure enough, there it was. "Be My Baby." Apparently Youtube has just about everything!!

And looking for that turned up a bunch of other interesting recordings... lots of isolated vocal tracks and band tracks by acts like The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, and more.

I even found the vocal track to "My Girl" by The Temptations. What a sweet voice David Ruffin had. Hearing that recording made me sentimental for a variety of reasons. First of all, I've liked the song since it was originally released. Secondly, I've played it in bands hundreds of times in smoky bars and weddings. (Actually, in those days the weddings were probably smoky, too!) And it also made me sentimental for an era when they didn't have the ability to digitally correct bad vocals; back when the recording represented what actually came out of your mouth. Singers had to be able to sing. When you hear The Temptations isolated vocal tracks, you can't help but think, "Yeah, those guys deserved to be stars."

Here's the vocal track to "My Girl."

It was a blast listening to these tracks! Here are The Supremes vocals from "Come See About Me"!

After listening to song after song on Youtube last night, I never did get the Halloween Show organized... and there was no time to write the Email Special. Next week I'll start earlier!

Meanwhile, here's some other interesting stuff from Youtube:

The super funky band track to Edwin Starr's 25 Miles.

More Supremes vocals: "Baby Love"

Getting back to "Be My Baby," here is the band track: "Be My Baby."

Another Phil Spector produced band track: "Da Do Ron Ron."

Another Motown backing track: "Dancing In The Street." I love the guitar part!

And, " My Guy"

If I had heard this thirty-two years ago my band would have done a more accurate version of the song: the band track and backing vocals to "Ain't Too Proud To Beg."

And this was fun:
Edwin Starr's isolated vocal with assorted vocal noises ("Ow!") compared to David Lee Roth's isolated vocal with assorted noises. It makes me wonder if Van Halen covered "25 Miles" in their early days!


See you soon,


PS: My Youtube search for isolated vocal tracks also led to modern day recordings. I thought I'd do a comparison between The Temptations' vocals and new auto-tuned rap vocals... but all of the contemporary songs had swear words, or worse. Since the Email Special is family-rated, I didn't include any of those links.

PPS: Thanks to everyone who entered our recent songwriting contest! I had all of the store employees listen to all of the songs, and then through a very complicated voting system, we ended up deadlocked. So, we put the top few in the shell of an old Martin guitar, and with blindfolds on (and in Sam's case, handcuffs) we drew a winner. His name is John B. (no relation to our Johnny B., the new guy). We'll have more info and pictures next week. Thanks again!

PPPS: Customer of the week: Ian Williams of Battles stopped in to visit this week. He and his band have traveled all over the world, and he's happy to say that he is still using the same Gibson Les Paul and Ampeg amp that he bought at Pittsburgh Guitars in 1993!! Yea!!
Wikipedia site: Battles
Their site: Battles


Friday 10/14/2011 ~ The Human Brain is Spectacular


Remember back three-and-a-half years ago? No? Great!


Three things happened this week and at first I didn't think they were connected...

1) A friend of mine sent me a CD called the The Best Of The Animals.

2) I watched my young nephew learn how to count (he's up to "nine").

3) Tim stopped by the store to play a new Italia Electric Sitar. I requested every 1968 sitar song I could think of: "Games People Play" by Joe South, "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers, "Cry Like A Baby" by The Box Tops, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder, and more. He played them all. It was great.

Part The First:

The Animals were a 1964 British Invasion band. They had several hits from 1964 through 1966. (Eventually everyone quit and the lead singer, Eric Burdon, went out on his own. He had a few more hits, and he's still around.) As I was driving home, and reaching to play my friend's CD in the car, I thought, "Well... the guitarist, Hilton Valentine, never did any solos, so there won't be a lot of flashy guitar playing on here... and I cringe every time I hear Eric Burdon's vocals on his later solo hit "Sky Pilot" (one of the flattest vocal tracks ever on a hit record, and so bad that it makes me almost not like his earlier stuff retroactively). So, I thought, do I even want to play this CD?"

But I played it anyway...

During the first song, "House of The Rising Sun," I said to myself "Hey! I played this song in my first band!" (I played drums; my brother John played guitar.) Then I remembered that "House of The Rising Sun" was the first song I ever played in 6/8 time. And it was the song that taught me the 1-2-and-3-4-5-6 cymbal beat.

(Brief Counting Explanation: Imagine that the beat of the song goes 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6, etc... thus the 6/8 time signature. Well, there could be beats in-between those beats. And describing the in-between beats, in drum lingo, you would call these in-between beats: "and." In other words: 1-and-2-and-3-and-4, etc.) If you listen to the cymbal pattern that the drummer John Steele is playing, there's an extra hit between 2 and 3. He's playing 1-2-and-3-4-5-6. In this song, it's the same beat pattern the guitarist is playing. Here's a video of "House Of The Rising Sun." (Since this is a 1964 recording, the drums are mixed pretty low... but you can actually see the drummer playing the pattern in the video.) Well, THIS song is where I learned how to do that.

The next song on the Animals CD is called "I'm Crying," which is in typical 4/4 time. But the drummer plays another interesting beat. Instead of hitting the snare on the normal 2 and 4, every other time around he hits his tom-tom on the "and-4". (Brief Counting Explanation #2: Imagine that the beat goes: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4, etc. Usually a drummer hits the bass drum on 1 and 3, and the snare drum on 2 and 4.) Click here: "I'm Crying" and listen to the tom-tom on "and-4." He's doing this:

1(bass drum)
2(snare drum)
3(bass drum)
4(snare drum)
1(bass drum)
2(snare drum)
3(bass drum)
"and-4" (tom-tom)

THAT'S where I learned how to do that!!

THEN a couple of more songs into the CD was "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place." On this song the drummer plays a dramatic single hit on the cymbal on the "1" for the first three measures, and then switches, and skips the "1," only playing "2-3-4." Here it is. THAT'S where I learned how to add dynamics and color to the intro of the song.

So, within a few minutes of listening to this CD I heard THREE songs that were instrumental in developing my young drumming skills. By learning these three songs as a kid, I greatly increased my drumming vocabulary.

Part Duo:

A day later I watched my young nephew count. He's one or two or something... you know, at that pointing-and-learning-how-to-talk age. He's remarkable to watch. The human brain is spectacular.

When I saw him, I tried to remember being that young myself, which I can't. But while I don't recall learning how to talk, I do remember learning how to spell. And I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "Wow, I know how to spell 50 words! But, gee, there must be a thousand words... How is my mother ever going to teach me ALL of them?"

Well, it turns out there are more than a thousand words, but I didn't have to learn them all individually. I eventually realized that after you learn the first few hundred you start to get a sense of how a word is spelled based on how it sounds. Your brain searches your memory for how other words that sound like that are spelled... and you can start to formulate spelling options based on previous experience.

(Of course, in the English language, with words like "there," "their," and "they're," is a bit tricky... But as I said, the brain is pretty spectacular.)

Part (7 + 5)/4:

Then last Saturday, our good friend and regular customer, Tim H., stopped by and played our Italia electric sitar. I could tell that a few of the songs I requested were ones that he'd played before, and were firmly etched in his memory banks. But some of the other tunes were melodies that he had heard before, but never played.

It was fascinating to ask for a song, watch his eyes glance to the ceiling as he recalled the melody in his head, and then watch his fingers connect with his mind and find the appropriate notes on the fingerboard. A few seconds later, he was playing the song!


1 + 2 + 3:

Last night I realized how these events are connected. Just as we learn to speak by mimicking our parents (the way my nephew does), we learn to play music by mimicking hit songs (the way I learned to play drums). And after our vocabulary (musical or otherwise) reaches a certain level, we can start drawing on our previous experience to do things that we've never done before (like spelling a new word, or, as Tim demonstrated, playing a song we've never played before). Yep, the human brain is pretty cool.

So, my advice: read a lot, learn a lot of new words, and learn to play a lot of cover songs. It'll be good for you!

See you soon,


PS: Oddly there was a FOURTH song on the Animals CD that had an effect on me as a youth. They did a cover of a Sam Cook song called "Bring It On Home To Me," and it's a nice example of how to build dynamics in a song. The first verse is just the vocals, piano and bass. Then they bring in the band... then they add an organ that answers the vocals... and eventually they add a harmony line. It's nice the way it builds. I thought it was powerful when I first heard it, and I still like songs that "build." Here is "Bring It On Home To Me."

PPS: Hey, I just noticed that the cymbal pattern in "Bring It On Home To Me" is the same as "House Of The Rising Sun"!

PPPS: I've never considered myself a big Animals fan, but it's interesting how much I learned from playing their songs. When my brother John & I started our first band, we played songs by acts like The Animals and the Rolling Stones because they were musically and vocally simplistic (i.e easy for beginners)... unlike the far more challenging songs written by our favorite band, The Beatles.

PPPPS: Speaking of how spectacular the brain is:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh?

PPPPPS: Last week's song writing contest winner: John B. And here is the song he wrote: "In The Middle Of The Night."
Thanks to everyone who entered. So many songs were so good that I'm sorry we only had one amp to give away. But keep up the writing! I'll be sending everyone who entered a coupon for a free set of strings.

PPPPPPS: Friday & Saturday! October 28 & 29!!
"Night Of The Singing Dead #19"!!!
Tickets here at the store, or online!


Thursday 10/27/2011 ~ Dennis Ritchie and Seth Lover


I've been obsessed with Dennis Ritchie this week.

Even though every article I read about him makes my brain hurt.

On October 5th, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs passed away, and understandably the world mourned. A mere one week later, on October 12th, Dennis Ritchie also passed away, but we barely noticed. And that's because 99.9% of Americans have never heard of Dennis Ritchie.

But just because someone is unknown to us doesn't mean they haven't made invaluable contributions to our lives.

Today there are more computers in America than there are people. And operating in the background of all of those computers, as well as behind the scenes in your iPhone, Android or BlackBerry, is computer software. In the early 1970s, Dennis Ritchie developed the C programming language, and from that, the UNIX operating system. And these software tools led to, well, everything.

I really have no idea how computers work, but I admire that fact that Dennis Ritchie helped change our lives. Here's a link to Ritchie's story from Wired Magazine.

Thinking about an unsung hero from the computer world made me ponder unsung heroes in the guitar world. (The world where I do understand how things work!) And the first one who comes to mind is Seth Lover.

As you have no doubt read in previous Email Specials, electric guitar pickups were first used in the 1930s. But at the time most guitar manufacturers were still experimenting with pickups, and treading lightly into this new field. Most "electric guitars" were Hawaiian-style lap steels.

In the early 1940s, guitar manufacturing was suspended, as factories switched to making supplies for World War II. But when the war ended, and guitar making resumed, the times were changing! In the exciting post-World War II manufacturing boom, electric guitars came to the forefront. It became clear that the future of the guitar industry would be tied to electric instruments.

Gibson's first post-war pickup was the new P-90. Here are pictures of the P-90, with the many types of covers Gibson used. It is a great sounding pickup. But like all single coil pickups, it is affected by nearby electrical fields.

Some quick, quasi-science: To put it in simplest terms, a pickup is a coil of wire attached to a magnet. To give it its shape, the coil of wire is wrapped around a piece of plastic called a "bobbin." And small metal rods called "pole-pieces" are suspended through the bobbin to the magnet. These metal rods touch the magnet, become magnetized themselves, and create a magnetic field within the coil.

The problem with this design is that nearby transformers (like those powering fluorescent lights) cause a hum within the pickup.

In 1952 Gibson hired a new engineer, Seth Lover, to improve the sound of their P-90 pickup. Seth first experimented with larger pole-pieces and different magnets. That approach improved the sound, but didn't eliminate the hum. So, in 1954 he decided to design a totally new, hum-less pickup. He crafted two smaller bobbins and wired them together, reversing the winding and magnetic polarity of one of the coils. The result was that the hum from one coil was canceled by the hum from the second coil.

He called his new two-coil pickup a "humbucking" pickup. Seth also designed a plastic pickup supporting ring, and a protective metal cover. (The cover not only protected the coils, it also provided additional shielding from outside interference.)

And since the day Gibson introduced it to the world, this style of pickup has been the standard of the industry. Here are pictures of the humbucking pickup with, and without, the metal cover.

Seth was not the first person to place reversed coils near each other in order to reduce hum. The electrical theory was known for decades. And he was not the first person to experiment with changing polarity to reduce hum in electric guitar pickups. But he was the person to design the humbucking pickup as we now know it; the model adapted by the nearly the entire musical industry.

Most players don't know his name, but the majority of the humbucking pickups in the world today are modeled after Seth Lover's 1954 design.


In the later part of his life Seth Lover became close friends with pickup manufacturer, Seymour Duncan. This week's Email Special is an extra 10% off any Seymour Duncan pickup in stock. Humbucks or single coils!


See you soon,


PS: Interesting note #1: The P-90 bobbin is rather wide. Since it was impractical to place two of those side by side, Seth designed a thinner bobbin. Interestingly, his new bobbin was very similar to the ones already used by Leo Fender in his Telecaster and Stratocaster single coil pickups.

PPS: Interesting note #2: When Leo Fender wanted to upgrade the Stratocaster, he introduced the new top-of-the-line Fender Jazzmaster. Interestingly, the Jazzmaster pickup bobbins are wide, much like the Gibson P-90 pickups.

PPPS: Interesting note #3: It was Seth who coined the term "humbucking" pickup. He said it "bucked" the hum. No one has ever explained how he chose that name, rather than something more self-explanatory, like "hum-canceling." But I have a theory. Names chosen for new products are often influenced by current pop-culture. Leo Fender chose the name "Telecaster" because that newfangled invention, the Televison, was becoming increasingly popular. In the early 1960s, the Gibson amps, the Mercury, Apollo and Titan were named after rockets. Meanwhile, the big pop-culture fad in the mid-1950s was: Cowboys! Roy Rogers, The Cisco Kid, Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Annie Oakley, The Lone Ranger, and more! I think that Seth Lover chose the word "bucking" because of the nation's fascination with cowboys and the wild west. A "bucking bronco" is a term used for a wild horse. It's just my guess. If it turns out to be true, you heard it here first!

PPPPS: Interesting note #4: Although Seth Lover invented the double-coil humbucking pickup in 1954 and applied for a patent on June 22, 1955, Gibson didn't actually market the pickup until 1957. And since the patent wasn't official yet, they placed a small "Patent Applied For" decal on the bottom of the pickup. On July 29, 1959, the patent was approved, but Gibson continued to use the "Patent Applied For" decals until mid-1962. (I guess they had a lot of decals they wanted to use up!) Today, these early humbucking pickups are highly sought after. They even have their own nickname: "P.A.F." (short for the "Patent Applied For").

PPPPPS: Hey, here's another name you might not know: Ray Butts! Right around the time that Seth Lover was developing a dual coil pickup for Gibson, Ray Butts designed one for Gretsch. The Gretsch version was called the "Filter-Tron" because it "filtered out the hum." Gretsch introduced their Filter-Tron pickup in 1957, the same year that Gibson introduced the Humbucking pickup. But Ray Butts used smaller, thinner bobbins in his pickup, and the resulting sound is not as loud and rich as Seth Lover's Humbuck.

PPPPPPS: Butts claims to have invented his double-coil pickup in 1954, the same year as Seth Lover. However, Butts didn't apply for his patent until January 1957, eighteen months after Lover's application.

PPPPPPPS: Hey, drop what you're doing and come to the Rex Theater for "Night Of The Singing Dead, #19." This Friday, October 28th and Saturday, October 29th. See the latest recently deceased celebrities, singing, playing and maybe throwing pies!! Semi-professional showbiz at it's best!!!! (I'm heading over now, to start building the set!)

PPPPPPPPS: Customer of the week: Tyler Ramsey



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