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Fiddlin’ Around

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Guitars hanging on a store wallEvery year at Christmas time I write about getting the Xmas Blues, or about sad, forgotten souls, or depressing songs about hookers during the holidays or melancholy loners or mean ex’s, or stupid songs about reindeer, or sentimental slop about sitting by a fire with a golden retriever drinking eggnog. Me drinking eggnog, not the dog. I dearly love bad Xmas songs—but I do realize that I might have overdone the whole weird Xmas thing in the past.

Well, this year I’m gonna get right to the materialistic point, and tell you guys what you should get us musicians for Christmas! Keep in mind we have all spent more of that sacred holiday in bars playing for you guys than we have eating turkey at your dinner table. Usually we don’t even get any leftovers! I don’t know why I’ve always gone to the dark side with the Xmas thing, ‘cause actually it’s quite a cheery and fun time of year to be here in Costa Rica. Most folks have a bunch of days off, so don’t think you’ll get much accomplished business wise—it’s Xmas! Happiness depends on whether you are paying your employees an aguinaldo or you are the one getting that extra month of pay at the end of the year.
I bet everybody knows or is related to at least one young and inexperienced aspiring guitarist who could use some help getting his musical ducks in a row. So get him a present from a music store this year, but be careful, because even new guitar players can be mighty opinionated about what they like. The array of options just to buy some strings is pretty intimidating—you got your nylon and your steel wound and your light gauge and your electric and your 12 string and a kzillion brands to choose from! Shoot, if you go to someplace like Guitar Center you’ll come out hours later all bleary eyed and still without a clue what to get young Santana. And you can’t assume that the strings you saw inside his instrument case are the ones he would actually prefer to use. Maybe he just liked the artwork on the package and they have been in his case since the last Grateful Dead tour!

There’re a few cool things in music stores that won’t cost a fortune, but which a musician might not bother to buy for himself. Like those cushioned and cold beer or drink holders that you can clamp onto the mic stand at just the right angle. Way better than watching him set his beer on top of his amp only to have to mop it up in a couple of songs! Get him those little pick holders that you stick on the side of a mic stand for when he drops his pick on the gross floor. ‘Cause he’s gonna drop it. For $40 or so you can buy a sturdy, practical guitar stand and you’ll never have to watch his guitar precariously leaning up against the bass rig, about to be crushed. Or watch it sliding down to the stage where it meets with that gross floor again. A notebook of staff paper is always a welcome gift—when someone is inspired they can just open the notebook and start writing, without drawing 5 perfect staff lines and being intimidated by the whole process. Love those lighted electronic books with the lyrics written out at a size that is actually readable. Especially nowadays when we all need freaking reading glasses…

Pick puncherEven buying someone a sampling of different picks is complicated. They could be plastic, or made out of bone, or from coconut shells, or celluloid, or mother of pearl. They could be heart shaped or triangular, or have little bumps to grip, or rubber or felt or talon shaped or pink or wooden or plaid. The coolest thing I’ve seen in ages looks like a stapler, and you slide an old credit card or piece of plastic into a slot and a sharp little guillotine cuts a perfect heart shaped pick, complete with smooth edges. What a great way to keep yourself in picks even when you are miles away from a music store, and to help in a very small way to clean up those mountains of plastic we routinely throw away. Don’t know what that thing is called but it is definitely cool and doesn’t cost much.
There’s lots of fun stuff to buy in music stores, but most musicians would love to have a really good set of headphones. Or a gig bag that actually had a working zipper and a handle that isn’t ripped. Or a stash of good 9 volt batteries—from this decade and in a water proof package. Or a brand new wonderful roll of good duct tape—not that cheesy stuff you buy here at the grocery store. Get a violinist some good rosin for their bow—that cheap crap looks fine but is basically worthless. Get the drummer a bunch of drum keys, ‘cause they always lose them. Maybe even an extra foot pedal, ‘cause they always break them. Horn players need valve oil. Sax players need extra reeds. We all need stuff to shake or beat on so it’s not just the drummer out there all alone. Piano players need clips or some kind of thing to keep their music from blowing all over. Singers need a metronome to practice with and bass players usually need a sense of humor. Everyone needs an electronic tuner!

strobe tunerIf someone plays an instrument that requires tuning, that just means they have to physically adjust something on their instrument to match an agreed upon pitch. A pitch is defined by the number of vibrations per second that is produced when you pluck or play a note. Some Classical guys are still arguing about what exact note to use, with some symphonies tuning A to 443 hz and others to a slightly lower or higher pitch. In this more modern era we are most likely to be using 440 A as our reference point. Especially in a band setting, where people are talking, or the juke box is still playing, or the bass player is off in his own world practicing a Jaco riff, it is almost impossible to tune accurately without help from an electronic tuner. The best thing about an in-line tuner is that when you are plugged into it, no one in the audience has to listen to you tuning. It is the professional and practical thing to do. They can be as cheap as 8 bucks, where it reads only what the sensor picks up, or as pricey as a $400 strobe tuner, which is almost scary in its precision. Shoot, do the audience and the band a favor and buy everyone medium priced in-line tuners with a few bells and whistles that no one will ever have to hear!

I have written about ukuleles before (April 2014) and frankly ukes make a great musical gift. They are small yet sturdy, they have a lovely tone, and non-painful nylon strings. They come in many colors and pitches, and around here start at a reasonable 30 bucks or so. There are lots of tutorials on the internet, so it is not an intimidating instrument for most folks. Shoot, get one for all your relatives!

They are flat out one of America’s finest rock and roll and rhythm and blues bands, with thousands of fans who call themselves ‘FISH HEADS’. I am so thrilled that Camile has agreed to play with us while he is in the country—it is going to be a magical super fun night—celebrating my birthday and making music with old friends! HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

In the old days it was not called The Holiday Season. The Christians called it Christmas and went to church, the Jews called it Hanukkah and went to the synagogue, and the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or, to the atheists, “Look out for the wall!”Dave Barry

The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn’t for any religious reasons, they just couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin. Jay Leno

Aren’t we forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? You know, the birth of Santa? Matt Groening


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