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‘The Guitar Circle’ by Robert Fripp

I’m not in the habit of giving book reviews, but this book had a strong effect on me, and, as a result, I felt compelled to write about it.

The Guitar Circle by Robert Fripp

The Crimson King

I’ve been a long time admirer of King Crimson, and, by inference, of Robert Fripp. The man is clearly a legend. And, like Mark E Smith, he is infamous for creating a certain band atmosphere by means of benign dictatorship. Indeed, one of the bands I’m in, Crimson Creatures, was partly named as an homage to the also Dorset-related band.

But, I’m no fanboy. I’d never paid much attention to Fripp’s extra-curricular activities, apart from his musical collaborations with Brian Eno, David Bowie, and Van Der Graaf Generator. I have also, like many others, been subjected to his video shorts with Toyah. So, although I was aware of Guitar Circle, I knew very little about it. Any book about the craft of playing guitar written by a god-like guitar genius has got to be good, right?

I’m usually very thorough when I read a book. I start at the beginning, read all the extra bits, and never skip anything, no matter how boring — I might miss something. The introduction seemed very rich in hippy phrases. You know the sort. Like (and I’m paraphrasing here) you cannot just receive the music, you must first clear you mind, become at one with the universe, and you will become receptive to the music.

I Talk to the Wind

This sort of thing went on for quite some time. I kept putting the book down, as it was quite hard going. But, I was bound to get to the meat and potatoes soon enough, right?

After a sizeable chunk, I started doing the unthinkable and I jumped forward a few pages to see for how long the zen philosophy continued. Several jumps later, I was at the end. I made the momentous decision to put the book down, and put it away. I was defeated. It must be said that I rarely never finish a book I’ve started, and this book was not cheap.

I’d only recommend this book if you are a King Crimson collector, or think that crystals provide positive energy.

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Crimson Creatures

Since moving to sleepy Dorset, I had been on the look-out for local musicians for collaboration. I placed adverts on a couple of websites, and made a few contacts, but nothing much happened. Then, one day, I was contacted by a friendly and verbose keyboardist/composer, asking me if I was interested in joining a start-up Prog band, based in Poole.

Crimson Creatures

I was a huge Progressive Rock fan in my youth. And I still very much enjoy listening to the likes of Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator. But it never crossed my mind to join a Prog band. I always thought that much-maligned genre was very much in the past, being superseded by the likes of Radiohead, Deerhoof and Field Music many years ago. Besides, I never really got into the Neo-Prog bands which popped up in the 80s and 90s.

But the keyboard wizard was very enthusiastic and persuasive, and after a long telephone conversation, he sent me demos of the songs he’d been working on with his bandmate and one-man music factory (on bass and vocals). The demos were slightly scary in their length and execution. There was extensive use of falsetto, banks of retro synthesizers, and they seemed to go on forever. But there was a lot of potential clearly visible amongst the chaos.

We agreed that I should take a few songs and see if I could beat them into a more manageable form. So, three finished songs later, we met up and rehearsed them. It was clear that we worked well as a unit. It was very refreshing to play with musicians with similar aims and abilities, and things went surprisingly smoothly. I found myself invited to join — And Then There Were Three (sorry). Five months later, we had a 3-track EP and an album of original material in the can, and we’d named ourselves Crimson Creatures.

We are releasing the songs on Crimson Creatures’ Bandcamp and streaming platforms, in 2-weekly intervals. We’ve acquired some PA gear and have started regular rehearsals. We are also looking for a progressive drummer who isn’t scared of a 7/4 time signature. Eventually, we hope to be playing live, assuming there are still people who like a bit of Prog in their Rock.

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Introducing… Lowly Man

Ever since I started recording again, I’ve had one eye open for potential collaborators. I can write music, it’s just that coming up with ideas is a very slow and random process for me. The solo Long Division album took 3 years, start to finish.

It had always been easier to compose with a collaborator. Cloudburst and Back to the Grind were good examples of this. I have several albums’ worth of original demos from the 80s. We would bring scraps of music to recording sessions, bounce ideas and suggestions around, and have something resembling a song later that day.

Andy Bell was an occasional observer at Cloudburst rehearsals. He was a keen guitarist and songwriter, and went to the same school as us. We reconnected a few years ago, through the wonder of social media, and shared a few beers at Darrener reunions. This year, he sent me a recording of one of his old acoustic guitar compositions, and said, “see what you can do with this.”

I think he was expecting me to noodle over the top with an electric guitar. What actually happened was that I beat-mapped and pitch-shifted the recording, and dropped it into a DAW. A couple of days later, I’d added drum sampler, bass sampler, electric 12-string, Strat and SG tracks.

It was as much an exercise in recording, production and mixing as it was in composition. The bones were already there, I just had to put flesh on them. But it was fast, and we were pleased with the result. I think we both knew that we would be doing more.

So, a few weeks later, I was sent another short acoustic piece. This time, we were more ambitious, and it started to morph into a full-length track. I was delighted when Andy announced he was going to attempt to sing on it, despite being very much a guitarist first. Andy named it Lowly Man.

I had produced my first complete song since Worm Pizza in 2003. I suggested we changed Andy Bell & Keith Nuttall to something a bit shorter. My wife suggested a hybrid, made from our names, like K/andy. So we agreed on K(andyb)all. Two songs later, we went for something a little less K-Pop, and something a little more fitting. We chose the title of our first song, Lowly Man.

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Lockdown Learnings

I’m aware that I have been very quiet on this blog since the arrival of Coronavirus in the UK. It’s not directly a result of the virus or the lockdown. I’ve been working on a few things. Call it a period of incubation…

Yours truly in quarantine

Music Outside Sheds

When it became clear that the British government was unable to do the right thing, many national and Greater Manchester institutions took matters into their own hands and self-imposed lockdown. Music in Sheds was no different. Our last Heaton Moor session was on 11th March, and we are on hiatus until the Coronavirus situation permits us to restart.

Half Gauges

I tried half gauges last year. As I was brushing up on my rusty guitar playing, I went through 9s, 9.5s and settled on 10s. 10s were strong enough to resist my iron grip, which was causing some of my chords to play out of tune.

I put 10s on my SG too. Having a shorter scale, the strings are a bit easier to bend. I liked this so much, I recently decided to revisit the gauges on my Strat, and lowered the plain strings’ gauges a half step. Who knew! It’s worth reviewing your gauges occasionally, especially if you’re still learning. (And, let’s face it, when do we ever stop?)

Wireless Wanderings

Under pressure to suggest a reasonably-priced birthday present, I thought, “what does a guitarist not really need, but would like?” I looked into Wireless, and found that it was neither complicated or expensive. So, a couple of weeks later, I was prancing around the house, seeing how far I could go before the sound stopped. (Not that far, it turns out.)

Nonetheless, the freedom you get from a wireless guitar is a minor revelation. I’m not sure I could go back to cables now — although no doubt I will have to at some stage, when I forget to recharge the batteries. (A charge doesn’t last that long, it turns out.)

Helix

My love affair with Boss effects ended in March. Despite a multitude of options at my fingertips, the ME-80 just wasn’t providing the sounds I wanted as easily as I’d have liked. It was time to move on.

Helix LT

I took the plunge, bought a Line 6 Helix amp/effect modeller from PMT in Salford, and stuck the Boss on Reverb. It worked out to be a smart move. The Helix both sounds amazing and is straightforward to use (once you get the hang of it). It’s not so much a multi-effects pedal as a floor DAW with footswitches.

The amp modelling is very impressive. I quickly created 8 presets with popular amps and a Swiss army knife array of standard effects pedals. 60s sound? Switch to Vox AC30. Hard rock? Fire up a Marshall stack. West Coast flower power? Where’s my Fender Twin? Much cheaper (and lighter) than 83 valve amps!

Reverb.com

Since I’ve got back on the guitar-playing horse, I’ve become aware of a website called Reverb.com. It’s like eBay for music gear. I’ve bought a couple of things off it, but the disposal of my Boss effects box seemed like a good opportunity to try it as a seller. Besides, my last few experiences with eBay had been increasingly unrewarding.

Reverb doesn’t do auctions. You work out a reasonable price for your gear and add a bit of haggle room on top, slap on a description and a few photos, and wait. Within a couple of weeks, I had one guy taking the piss, and one reasonable offer. Very civilised. Reverb doesn’t take 10% like eBay either. It takes a more reasonable 3.5% 5%.

Orion and Live

I stopped recording around 15 years ago. At the time, I was using Synapse Audio Orion and Ableton Live on Windows XP, with an M-Audio sound card. Recently, I’d started to entertain the possibility of writing and recording again. But what would I use?

Orion DAW

I opted not to reinvent the wheel, and dug out my old backups. An hour later, I was running all my old software on Windows 10 with my old sound card. I even restored my old samples, VST instruments, VST effects and song files. It all worked perfectly, with the added bonus that my computer had seen a couple of major hardware upgrades in the interim. All I need now is musical inspiration.

Adam Audio

The last time I recorded on a computer, I ran a couple of long cables to my hi-fi, which was used throughout the whole writing, mixing, and mastering process. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this course of action, but it worked fairly well for me at the time. The only minor problem I found was that my final mix was a little muddy and bass-heavy.

This time around, the stereo is at the other end of the house to the computer — not exactly ideal for monitoring! So the credit card came out again, and Andertons Music supplied me with a couple of Adam Audio nearfield monitors (hilariously sold as single speakers). Wow! They are certainly a step up from the £5 Asda PC speakers I was using.

If you are tempted to splash out on some nearfield monitors, whatever you do, please buy stands too. These are often supplied with monitor pairs as bundles. Do it.

Home Studio

I have this tendency to get carried away with projects. This time, the room over the garage was the casualty. My music gear was taking over different parts of the house, so it seemed sensible to consolidate my work stuff with the studio and music gear, in one room.

the new studio

After a bit of sweat and toil, and a few unpleasant surprises underneath well-established furniture, my new office/studio/rehearsal space was assembled. All it needs now is a cheap carpet to absorb the echoes.

Strap length

I’ll end this meandering monologue with an epiphany I experienced this weekend… Last year I swapped a few guitar straps around. As I did this, it occurred to me that I never really understood what determined the correct length for a guitar strap. A trip to the font of all knowledge (YouTube) gave several alternative philosophies, including:

  • The guitar should hide your groin
  • The guitar should be the same body height standing as when you are seated
  • Your fretting hand’s thumb should end up on the back of the neck

In my past life as a guitarist, I always liked to have the guitar high up, John Lennon style. These new suggestions all had their merits, but none seemed particularly definitive.

When I was playing rhythm guitar at the weekend, strapping on the SG, I noticed that it was higher than I was comfortable with, and I was fluffing the low notes in barre chords. Then the penny dropped: my barre finger was at the wrong angle. I dropped the guitar height a few inches, kept the neck up, and my barre chords were fixed.

Not so much groin as belly button, in my case.