Learning to Ignore Logic

Back in April 2019, I was touring the guitar shops of Manchester. I played a lot of guitars in those visits. One guitar which left an impression early on was a Gibson SGM.

Gibson SGM ad photo

I’d never played an SG, until recently. I was surprised how light it was. This particular SG had a weird automatic electronic tuning system, called Min-eTune, which works by picking up string vibrations through the headstock, and adjusting special machine heads fitted with servo-motors. It was all a bit futuristic, and, frankly, a bit off-putting.

Min-eTune on the Gibson SGM

On top of that, being an “M” variant of the SG (effectively, an SG Junior + Min-eTune), a lot of corners had been cut to bring down price. There was no binding or pick-guard. There was no lacquer. The logo was screen-printed, and the inlays were plastic. The red stain job looked cheap. And the fretboard rosewood was weird and grainy. It just felt a little bit home-made. What’s more, one of the tuning buttons was missing, and two others were cracked. I gave it a good play, had a nice chat with the shop guy, and cautiously returned it to its place in the window. It seemed a lot of money for something with so many negatives.

Melody 12-string acoustic guitar
My old Melody 12-string acoustic. Sadly, no more.

Six months later, I returned to Fab Music guitar shop in Stockport in search of a 12-string acoustic guitar to replace the damaged one I’d sadly had to bin. After trying the one on offer, I asked about the SG. Sure enough, it was still there, being avoided in the window. The shop guy told me he’d given the frets a polish and offered me another play. So, not wanting to be rude, I gladly obliged. It was then that I realised I really liked this guitar, warts and all. So, half an hour later, I walked out of the shop with a 2014 Gibson SGM with shiny frets.

Happy chap with a 2014 Gibson SGM

The guitar was really well set up. The nut was cut perfectly. I had to reverse the Tune-o-matic bridge, because it had been put on backwards. I bought a bag of used eTune machine heads off eBay, and managed to get 6 good ones with what I had. I tried to give the fretboard a makeover with lemon oil, but it was still weird when I’d finished with it. Finally, I bought a matching truss-rod wrench, and dropped the action 10 thousands of an inch, to just-about-perfect.

The Gibson SGM (2014)

The more I play the SG, the more I like it. It might even be my favourite at the moment. It’s a very different animal to the Strat: humbuckers instead of single coils, a mahogany body instead of alder, a 12″ fretboard radius instead of 7.25″, 24 frets instead of 21, a hard tail instead of a tremolo, and of course a 24.75″ scale instead of 25.5″. So, I can justify having both, using the “horses for courses” excuse! Sometimes it helps to be delusional, and ignore logic.


Staircase Theory

I still remember what it was like to learn guitar in my teens, back in the late 70s. It was bloody hard work. I recently read that Fender had done some research, and worked out that 45% of their guitars were sold to beginners, and that 90% of those beginners gave up within a year.

That’s pretty shocking news to me, but understandable. Even now I’m playing again, it often feels like learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain. But it was always this way, and I’m sure it always will be. But, it’s not all bad news…

Keith's first guitar, a spanish-style acoustic

Back in the 70s, I would spend hours with a guitar, trying desperately to persuade my fingers to do what was shown in my library books about songs and chords. They would tangle and fall over each other, miss the frets, snag the strings and usually arrive late. It was very frustrating.

After a few months of banging my head against a wall, I found that things had suddenly become easier overnight. My hands obeyed my commands. It was like I’d been given a new body, better at playing the guitar. But, a few weeks later, it was back to climbing the mountain, and I forgot all about that strange day when everything got easier. Until…

Keith playing the Kasuga at home

…another few months later, it happened again. This wasn’t just a one-off thing. It appeared that learning guitar was more like climbing a big staircase than a mountain. I would struggle for weeks to absorb new techniques and songs. Then, after a protracted period of struggle, it would all fall into place very quickly.

There must be a very good reason for this phenomenon, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Maybe it’s something to do with muscle memory. It certainly still happens to me, 40 years after starting. And this time around, the gains were greater: the stuff I learned when I was young was still there, and just needed a bit of exercise. I was back to where I was when I stopped playing (comparatively) very quickly.

So, now I’m back on the horse, I’m also back to climbing the big staircase. That first step was a easy one. I wonder what the next one will bring.

Music in Sheds

Can You Sing?

A year on, and Stockport Music in Sheds is still lacking a regular singer. A few people have had a stab at it, but no one claims to be any good at it. Besides, it’s difficult to sing and play an instrument at the same time. It can be a bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly.

Cloudburst 1982, Stage invasion

I’ve toyed with the idea of singing, on and off. It’s not like I haven’t done it before. Back in my Cloudburst days, I used to sing backing vocals. Backing vocals is easy. You generally can’t be heard above the main singer anyway.

I’ve only ever sung lead vocal twice: once when Cloudburst performed Hawkwind’s Spirit of the Age. [And if you’ve heard the song, you’ll know that it’s more of a monologue.] Not only did I sing lead, I played the keyboard at the same time. Well, I say “played” — I’d actually programmed the keyboard to arpeggio, all I had to do was hold down two chords. It sounded pretty awful.

Cloudburst, Christmas 1982: Spirit of the Age

The next time I braved the mic was 20 years later, when I was recording a song for The Moles’ Worm Pizza project. I’d reinterpreted We Are the Moles by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, and it needed a vocal. As there was no one else to sing, I had to do it myself. I attacked the task with the attitude that I was going to sing in the style of Peter Murphy or David Bowie. I sounded nothing like them, but it was a passable vocal. Job done.

The thing is: it’s probably fair to say that most people can sing — a bit. We’ve all sung in the shower, in church, at the match, at a gig, etc. But that’s usually because no one can hear you. And, let’s face it, when was the last time someone complimented your lovely singing voice?

It’s true that some people can’t sing for toffee. In my experience, a small number of unfortunate souls are tone deaf, and the sound coming from their mouths is not what was intended, at least some of the time. I don’t know why this happens, but it’s a terrible curse. I like to think that they excel in some other respect, to compensate.

Hovis Malone singing

But, the main barrier to singing, at least in my case, is embarrassment. How do singers do it? I guess I have the same problem with public speaking too. I can do it, but I hate it. Once I get started, I can talk to a room full of people, after an initial rush of fear and adrenaline, and several hours of anxiety. I’d just rather not. It’s less stressful!

So when Munsif, Rick, Lee, Richard and James sang at Music in Sheds, I was full of respect. No one laughed, and it helped the flow of music tremendously. It didn’t look scary at all.

So, if you fancy having a bash at singing with Music in Sheds. Please, let me know!