Emails from June 2012

Are You Up All The Way?

Friday 6/9/2012

I have a question for you.

Yesterday someone sent me a link of Santana at Woodstock.  They wanted to discuss the drum solo, and the fact that drummer Michael Shrieve was using the traditional drumstick grip, despite playing in a loud environment.   (The traditional grip is when the drumstick in your left hand is held somewhat tightly between between your thumb and your first finger, while resting loosely between your ring finger and your giving-someone-the-finger finger.  Like this.)   In large crowd situations (like Woodstock, for example) there is a tendency to want to play as loud as possible, so many drummers use a matched grip (like Ringo Starr in this picture), which gives your left hand more swinging room to hit the snare drum louder.  Shrieve, though, was doing double-stroke rolls (where the stick bounces at it hits the drum head), and that is much easier to do with the traditional grip.

But that's not what really got my mind wondering as I watched the video.

Here is the youtube clip. Go to 1:17 in the video.  You'll notice that between each guitar lick, Carlos Santana reaches down with his right hand to make sure that his volume control is turned up all of the way. 

Now of course, he could be slightly fine-tuning his volume level between each lick.  But I don't think so.  It appears to me that he's double-checking that he's up all the way, doing it as an almost subconscious habit.

I'm basing this assumption on two things:  First of all, over the years I've seen a lot of players do this.  It's as if they worried that in the course of their playing, the general movement of the guitar inadvertently turned their volume knob down.    And secondly, though I've done thousands of gigs as a drummer, during the handful of times that I've played guitar on stage, I did worry that in the course of my playing, the general movement of the guitar inadvertently turned my volume knob down!   Those few times when I played guitar, I kept thinking, "Hey, shouldn't I be louder than this?"  (In my case, the answer is: NO!)

I haven't noticed this habit as much with guitarists these days.  But I remember that when I first started studying guitars, and the folks who played them, I would often see players instinctively reaching for their volume knobs. As if they just wanted to be sure.

So, my question to you, my guitar playing friends, is:  Am I wrong about this?  When you play in public, do you actually continually adjust your volume controls?   Or do you just check that you're at maximum?  Is re-confirming that you're up all the way just a habit that players pick up in the excitement of a loud on-stage performance?

See you soon,

PS:  I know there are musicians who actually do adjust their volume knobs.  B.B. King for example, will sometimes turn his guitar down when he's singing.   And Eric Clapton, also works his volume controls to add subtlety and dynamics to what he's playing.  My question above is for the loud rockin' soloists.

PPS:   Speaking of on stage performances, I would like to express my admiration for people who play guitar in bands with other guitarists.  Whenever I play the drums, no matter how loud the band gets, I can tell what I'm playing.  After all, if there are any drum sounds anywhere, that's me.  And I imagine it's the same for the bass player.  But those handful of times when I've tried to play guitar with other players, it was darn confusing!  With one or two other folks also on electric guitar, it's a lot harder than it seems to distinguish what you're playing.  I have great appreciation for musicians who are part of a multiple guitar band.  It's more difficult than it appears.

PPPS:  Getting back to the Woodstock video above, the guy on keyboards is Gregg Rolie.  You may know him from a band he formed a few years later, called Journey.

PPPPS:  Drummer Michael Shrieve, by the way, was only 20 years-old at Woodstock!

PPPPPS:  And that video is the edited version.  His actual drum solo was much longer.   Here's the nine-minute version of the song.


Reader Feedback

Friday 6/15/2012

Last week I mentioned Carlos Santana, and his tendency (at least in his younger years) to constantly "adjust" his guitar's volume control.   I asked you (my favorite guitar player) if you checked your volume control repeatedly while on stage.

Lots of folks responded.  Thanks!

A few Email Special readers said that they set their amp and guitar volumes to get a nice gritty or distorted sound, and then they back their volume off slightly.  This approach allows them to play rhythm during the vocals, and bring up the volume and distortion when needed for the soloing.

However, the majority of the responses I received were from players who admitted that they constantly check, just to see if they are "all the way up."   And most of them admitted that, as much as anything, it is just a habit. 

One guy put it this way, "When I'm in a crowd, every so often I slightly tap my pants pocket to make sure I still have my wallet.  Then I check another pocket to make sure I still have my cell phone.  Checking my volume control is just like that.  I want to make sure it's where it should be: on ten."

Another reader offered the reasonable explanation that at typical stage volume you soon develop ear fatigue. He says, "You start to lose upper mid range, like 1800hz to 3500hz, which is, of course, right where an electric guitar spends most of its time.  So, you start turning up even more, and hearing less, so you turn up some more."  In a situation like that you are not only fighting the increasing volume of your bandmates, you are also fighting your own ears.

A couple of folks said that they checked their volume controls regularly because they had to.  They said they actually did tend to inadvertently turn their guitars down while playing, so it was necessary to re-check their volume.  (These guys almost all played Strats.  And the volume knob on a Strat is in a spot where it could be accidentally moved.)  

With regard to Carlos, the opinions were mixed.  Most felt he was doing it as a habit.  But several people who have seen him live, said that he uses controlled feedback as part of his playing style.   

One reader noted that at the very end of the song, around the 5:40 mark, you can hear guitar feedback.  His supposition is that when all the way up, Carlos' single coil P-90 pickups would feed back, and so earlier in the song he was actually making sure he wasn't at maximum.   I just watched the song again.  (Here it is.)  While that is a valid theory, I'm not sure you could check that a volume control was on 8, while mid-lick. (And onstage at Woodstock.)  SG volume potentiometers aren't notched.  So, to check its position without looking, you'd have to turn the knob all the way up and then back it off.  He doesn't appear to be doing that.  Nor does he appear to be listening for feedback, and then turning the knob down.

Another theory proposed by a reader is that so many mind-altering substances were in use at Woodstock, that any sort of nervous habit could be possible.  Pittsburgh Guitars' own Scott R. Johnson was at Woodstock.  I'll ask him if mind-altering substances were in use there!

Anyway, thanks for all of the fun emails.  It's nice to hear from you.  Now, if you'd just turn up all the way, I could hear you better!

See you soon,

PS:  Meanwhile, I had been wondering about that odd shaped amp head that Santana used a Woodstock.  Although I didn't ask in last week's email, one reader read my mind and told me anyway!   According to Gallien-Kruger, Carlos was using one of the first Gallien-Kruger amps ever made.  Here's a link to their website.

PPS:  In last week's email, I mentioned how difficult it is for two guitarists to play on stage.  I said that from my (limited) experience, it's hard to tell what you're playing vs. what the other guy is playing.  A reader pointed out that the trick to multiple guitarists is to play different things, and leave room for the other player.  And excellent example is John Lennon and George Harrison.  They rarely played the same thing at the same time.   Here's a great video of a guy who analyzed the guitar parts in "I Saw Her Standing There."    The fabulous M.J. Stokes.




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