Long Term Review – Why the Martin DRS1 is my main gigging guitar

Have you ever been in the situation where your ears are telling you one thing while your preconceptions – or perhaps more accurately, prejudices – are sending you an entirely different message.

Let’s wind the clock back to a January day in 2014. I’m sitting in the acoustic guitar room of Andertons Music in Guildford, where I’m playing a Martin DRS1 for the first time.

And my ears are telling me that this is an instrument that I want to spend more time with. It’s not the loudest dreadnought I’ve ever played, but it has a warm , evenly balanced sound that responds well to strumming, flatpicking and – perhaps more surprisingly – my style of fingerpicking (see above). Admittedly the action doesn’t seem particularly low and the neck feel fatter and a bit more clubby than I’m used to, but crucially it is very comfortable to play. And as I sit noodling, watched by an assistant who senses a sale, I become more and more convinced that the sound and feel of this guitar suit me down to the ground.

Those Pesky Preconceptions

Then the preconceptions kick in, for this is not a conventional instrument. I have no problem with the solid Sapele back and sides but I have doubts about the stratabond neck. A fairly standard feature on Martin’s Mexican made instruments, such necks are constructed of thin strips of wood . In other words, its a kind of plywood. It is very rigid (in some ways ways a plus) but for someone used to solid mahogany necks on my acoustics, it looks extremely strange and unfamiliar. Frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to live with it. Added to that, the fingerboard is made from a synthetic material (Richlite) as is the bridge. The preconceptions prompt me to ask myself: “Is this a real guitar or a very expensive toy.

My ears win the day and I buy it.

Fast forward to the following week. I’m really not sure about the neck. The Richlite seems hard on my fingers. I think about taking it back to the shop and trying for a swap.

So what happened?

Three years on and its my main gigging guitar. Initially I took it out just occasionally to gigs and continued mainly use my Yamaha LD. Slowly but surely, however, it inveigled its way into my affections. More to the point, I began to regard as the most practical choice for live work.

For one thing it stays in tune supernaturally well. Despite tuners which on the face of it appear to be slightly flimsy, it turned out to be rock solid. I suspect the stiff neck helps (although the downside is probably less resonance), along with a well cut nut. The tuners themselves do the job. It takes a capo well, too.

I also find it easy to get a good plugged-in sound. The pickup system – Fishman – is very simple and the onboard preamp has just two controls (mounted in the soundhole) for tone and volume. But they work. I don’t know if there’s any science to this, but the warmth of acoustic sound seems to offset the natural brightness of the piezzo pickup when the guitar is amplified.

A Handsome Devil

Last but not  least. I think the DRSI is a handsome devil thanks to chestnut colour of the Sapele. Yes, it’s simple and there is – for example – no binding on the neck or body. But that stripped down look complements the rootsy music I tend to play.

What Don’t I Like?

I use if for recording, but if you don’t get the mic placement exactly right, it can be a bit boomy. And its natural boom tends to be exacerbated when the original recording is compressed during the mastering process. Get the placement right, however, and its fine.

I use the DRS1 for recording, but it’s not always the right tool. For live work, I’ve found it hard to beat.

Here’s what it sounds like on record.

Same old Same Old – Six Ways To Get Out Of A Songwriting Rut

Whether as instrumentalists, singers or songwriters, those of us who play music with any degree of seriousness tend to aspire to finding and developing a recognisable personal style.

And that’s a good thing. Over time our style – or our way of doing things – becomes our brand. It’s the thing that sets us apart.

But here’s the rub. While it’s good to have a recognisable style it’s certainly not good to become predictable. And sometimes, without knowing it, personal style morphs into sameness. From a songwriting point of view, that might mean falling back on certain chord voicings. Or we may find ourselves pulling out variations of the same melody over chord sequences that are always different and yet strangely familiar. Or to put it another way, we end up falling back on those musical tropes and habits that have served us well over the years. It’s a rut.

As a songwriter, I’ve always tried to break things up a bit. So if I’m writing a 10 song collection, I’ll employ different tempos, song structures, keys, and tunings, playing styles and subject matter. This is all conscious activity. Unconsciously, I might well be – for instance – using similar chord patterns but in different keys in two songs. As far as I’m concerned they sound as different as chalk and cheese, but record and play them back to back and the similarities emerge.

So how do you break away from the habits that have become vices. Here are five ways that work for me.

Learn and Play Some Cover Versions

One thing I have been guilty of is focusing solely on my own songs. After all, when I’m out gigging, 95% of what I play is original. So when I’m at home, I concentrate on writing new material or honing existing songs.

The problem is that it’s all too easy to base everything around a personal style – and musical knowledge – that you’re overly familiar with. Maybe also, you forget how to be a fan.

Playing covers reconnects you with the way other songwriters work. The chords they use. How they use melody above the chords. Their use of rhythm. I’m not talking about ripping off other writers. It’s more a case of letting them pull you out of your comfort zone.

Write on Different Instruments

Even changing from one apparently similar instrument to another can re-inspire you. For instance, when I returned to playing live after a ten year gap, the catalyst was the purchase of a parlour acoustic guitar. It asked to be played fingerstyle, and as I explored its musical possibilities, I started to write a whole new collection of songs, which eventually found their way onto the Secret Histories and Firecracker Day albums.

More radically, you might switch from acoustic to electric guitar as your main writing instrument. Or from guitar to piano. Alternatively to take your mind of chords and focus it on melody and beat, you could try building a song from a drum track.

Arrange Differently

The album I’m probably most proud of is Firecracker Day. It’s a stripped down, acoustic purist album featuring voice and fingerstyle guitar. It was designed to ( if such a thing is possible) showcase my guitar work, voice and story telling style. But here’s the thing. I loved the stripped down format but I knew that when I came to make another record, that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) do the same thing again.

So next time round, I jettisoned a lot of the fingerstyle solo playing and opted instead for layered guitars. Strummed at flat picked acoustics, overdubbed with electric lead lines. This had a double impact on my writing and recording. On one hand, it changed the feel of existing songs. Equally, though, it fed into my writing.

Play with a Band

I play a lot of solo gigs, but every so often I get a band together. And guess what, my writing changes. Once I get a feel for what the band can do, I start writing for that combination.

Get Outside Your Own Life

Most of us start off by writing from experience. Your sixteen and your girlfriend/boyfriend dumps you, so write a song. It’s heartfelt and your friends all like it. But unless you have a more interesting life than I do, writing from personal experience has its limits. So look at the world and people around you. There’s a whole world of stories out there. Stories that can inspire your next hit (if you’re luckier than I am).

Learn Your Craft

On the technical side, there are a huge amount of tools at your disposal. Listen to other writers to see how they structure their work in terms of verses, choruses, bridges, codas, internal rhymes. Equally – and this gets back to playing covers – there’s a whole range of musical styles, scales and chord substitutions that can take your writing forward.

More of this in another blog.

The Autobiographical Song – Just say no (or maybe yes)

Just for the record – in the interests of transparency – I have never done any of the following:

  • Lived in or in close proximity to a fishing port

  • Had a passionate and torrid affair with the wife of a fisherman

  • Seen that affair come to an end because of a tragedy at sea

I only point this all out because one of my songs – the Running Tide – features a character who has done or experienced all those things, and a few more besides. Indeed, in the space of a six minute song, he (the narrator) and his partner indulge in a fair amount of morally sub-optimal behaviour. And along the way he walks a road from a kind of innocence to experience.

Writing in Character

It was actually, a fun song to write. A proper story with characters, a beginning a middle and an end, plus a plot twist. If that sounds a bit heavy, people seem to like it. It’s my best performing song on Spotify and it gets requested a lot at gigs.

But it’s not autobiographical and very few of my songs are. Once, after a gig, a woman who asked me: “Do you put all your relationships into songs.” I probably smiled enigmatically/I wasn’t totally sure if I was flattered or vaguely unsettled by the fact that I might look like someone who has endured and survived several albums’ worth of doomed, tragic or tempestuous relationships. The truth is I write stories and the characters aren’t (usually) me.

Authenticity

So does that make them inauthentic. I hope not/ Maybe the autobiography slips in when I apply elements of my own experience to other people’s stories. In other words, the characters and situation are made up, but I wouldn’t be writing them if I couldn’t, at some level, empathise with the fictional people who I move around my songwriting chessboard. So there is a bit of me in there. Small incidents in my life are enlarged into the stuff of song.

This is a win/win situation, as I see it. I get to write about real feelings and emotions (and situations) but I render them in a fictional format. So – for the most part –  no one recognises themselves in any of my songs and consequently  nobody gets annoyed at having their story framed by somebody else’s narrative. At least that’s what I like to think.

That said, I’ve probably written two or three songs where real world situations – and more importantly real world people – find themselves centre stage. And  it does worry me. What if they Google me one day and find the song? What if they then recognize themselves within the song? What will they think? Will they be annoyed?  Should I take the song out of public view, just to be on the safe side?

Sad to say, I don’t think anyone has ever written a song about me and if that were ever happen, I don’t know what I’d make of it. On one level, I would probably be flattered that they bothered. But possibly also severely destabilised.  I remember reading that the real Suzanne from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name was extremely upset when she was identified as the subject of one of the world’s best selling (and best known) lyrics.

So I think that – by and large –  it’s wise  to stay away from stories that real life people can recognize as their own. And it’s probably even wiser to avoid naming  names . But sometimes as an artist/songwriter, you feel you have to tread the autobiographical /biographical road  – If only because you have a story  a story that needs to be told.  A case of handle with care.

Let me know what you think.

Check out my new album on spotify:  Love & Pride 

Or bandcamp: Love & Pride

Sequencing an Album In the Age of Streaming and Downloads

My new album
My new album

After several months of recording and mixing,  my new album - Love & Pride is available for download and streaming ahead of an official “physical” launch in May.

So at the moment it’s a digital only release and that in itself raises questions about the purpose of “albums” in the age of Spotify and Itunes.

You could argue that the very existence of the album – or the concept of the album –  is a product of a certain kind of music reproduction technology in the shape of the vinyl record spinning at 33 and 1/3 RPM  and giving you a comfortable 45 minutes of music. In other words 10 to 12 songs across two sides. It was that structure that gave the classic albums of the sixties, seventies and eighties their shape.  And the key to most of the great albums was a sequence of songs that took you on a journey from a killer opening track to memorable closer.

And there was probably an assumption that people would listen all the way through. The opener was hugely important.  but so were the songs in  the middle.  The closing track – like the last page of a novel – was also crucial.  It was the closer that created the lingering aftertaste.  It  might be an epic ( such as Jungleland bringing Born to Run to an end)an off-brand surprise (Train in Vain/London Calling )  or the best tune on the album (You Can’t Always Get What You Want/Let it Bleed). None of those songs were throwaways pushed to the end. They were crucial components.   My own favourite closers are  Slim Slow Slider (Astral Weeks/Van Morrison) and I Dream a Highway (Gillian Welch/Time, the Revelator).

(This is my Spotify playlist of closers)

But can you safely leave the best ( or one of the best tracks) until the end today?  To a degree you can. People still buy CDs and downloads and listen all the way through. But – and this is a big but – when someone downloads a new release on Itunes, it might only be one or two songs out of ten.  Meanwhile, if you look at new releases on Spotify, the popularity bars tend to show that it’s the first two or three tracks on an album that get listened to most.

So should we all make EPs instead. Or simply sequence all the best tracks first, leaving filler to the end.

I hope not. An album is a chance to tell a story about where you are musically and thematically at any given point in time. And the sequence matters.

On my new album – which I consider to be blues in mood but not genre)  there are tracks that come from a jazz blues and even soul route and others which tap into a folk vibe. Making it all work together depends on the sequence.

But we live in the modern world and the first four tracks ( the ones that get listened to most – are also in carefully sequenced. You adapt to the times, I guess.

Love and pride is now available for Download and Streaming from Spotify, Apple Music, Itunes, Bandcamp, Amazon, Google and others.

Check it out here.  (Spotify app)

On from bandcamp