Bass work

Fender Jass BassI have this bass – a 2014 Fender Jazz Road Worn, which I got in 2014. The road worn/relic basses get a bad rap because “it’s like buying jeans with holes in them already,” but they’re also the cheapest way to get a lacquer finish bass from Fender. That and the fact that they kiln-dry the wood before assembly means the wood is dense and low-moisture, which gives you a deeper sound and a lighter weight. Anyway, I like the bass. But I haven’t played it lately because the neck went all psycho on me, and it had a ton of action. From the side, it looked more like a bow and arrow. And I couldn’t fix it with truss rod adjustments. So much like my retirement planning and general health, I ignored it and hoped someday I’d have a chance to figure it all out, but not now.

So then this music repair shop opens up about a block or two from my house. They are called Wood Street Guitar Repair. I brought the bass in to get a verdict on if the neck was completely destroyed or not. That’s when I saw what instantly sold me on the place: they had a brand new Plek machine, straight from Germany. I was in like flint.

A Plek machine is crazy. Basically, you strap a guitar into this thing that looks like a phone booth-sized 3-D printer. It scans the entire neck and loads the scan into a computer, which can then determine what frets are out of whack. The computer can then futz with this virtual model and simulate exactly what can be done to fix things. Once the operator picks a set of adjustments, a robot arm with a 50,000-RPM cutting tool buzzes away and files down high frets and does whatever other minor cutting and deburring and polishing needs to be done.

This whole process used to be done by hand, by sight. Now it’s done within a thousandth of an inch by a machine. Here’s a good video on how Gibson uses Plek now. I got a Lakland bass a few years ago, and they Plek every instrument they sell. That Lakland (a Skyline 44-01) has one of the best necks I have ever played, and it is their cheapest budget model. It’s truly revolutionary stuff.

When I checked in the bass, they asked me all the questions on how I like to play, what strings I wanted to use, etc. They also popped the neck and checked the truss rod, and it was still adjusting, so that looked okay. Unfortunately, when they got into it a couple of weeks later, they could not get the neck close to level, even with the truss rod bottomed out. So they heat-pressed the neck first. Basically, they put the neck in some clamps and use heat blankets to heat up the wood and slightly melt the glue. The neck is held straight and then dries overnight. They did this, then ran it through the Plek, and hand-filed the fret edges, which were a little too sharp.

Anyway, the verdict is that the bass now plays like butter. Super-low action, and it feels great. No high spots, just an incredible feel to it. I now have two great basses for slightly different purposes. The Lakland has active soapbar pickups and a very “fast” neck, a good combination for more modern metal or prog-rock. The Fender has passive 60s-style Fender pickups and a slightly chunkier neck, which feels great for old seventies rock. The guys at Wood Street Guitar did a great job – if you’re in the Bay Area, check them out.


Fight club, family trees, newspapers, bass

Christ, it’s been a month since I updated. So much for the “blog more” thing. I started the new job, but first rule of fight club. Things have been much more sane, but the pessimist in me is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I still have these weird bureaucratic nightmares (usually when I take Benadryl, which is too much this allergy season) where I’m like endlessly trying to sort a giant spreadsheet or I have some problem where I ask person A what to do and they say “ask B” and B says “ask C” and C says “ask A or B” and repeat. This was much worse when this was my actual work environment for twelve hours. After I was free and clear from the last job, I thought about starting a thread about all of the stupid stuff that went down over the last ten years, and then I (coincidentally) got a boilerplate letter from their legal that they send to all former employees, reminding me of the employee agreement I signed in 2010 and how I can’t disclose trade secrets. So, next topic.

I’ve fallen down the genealogy k-hole again, which is largely John’s fault, but it’s also something I do every few years. It’s ironic because it is something that obsesses me, even though I pretty much don’t talk to most of my family anymore. I debated using Ancestry versus MyHeritage and heard the latter was better for European records, so I signed up and then found out that it isn’t. I found out some rudimentary things that were wrong, like incorrect years and an incorrect last name that was throwing off all previous attempts to go back more than three generations. So it’s interesting, but it’s gotten boring, and like I said, it’s not like I’m going to suddenly find long-lost seventh cousins fourteen times removed that I’m really interested in talking to.

The other thing I did which I am obsessed with but probably need to quit is I got a full-on subscription to Newspapers dot com. (They have a variety of tiers: useless, mostly useless, and expensive.) I know I’ve bitched constantly about the bait-and-switch with newspaper archives: you used to be able to hit everything on Google, and then in the media landscape consolidation/race-to-the-bottom, everything went paywall. Well, I didn’t know this, but if you get the full-blown Newspapers account, there is a ton of old information on there.

What’s problematic with my family research is that the Elkhart Truth (sic) does not participate in this program. But the South Bend Tribune does. When I grew up, the SBT was a “real” newspaper, and the Truth was sort of half-ass, but way more local information. Anyway, most obituaries and so on are covered there. My dad’s side of the family lived in Edwardsburg, which is covered well under the Herald-Palladium paper (and its four pre-merger papers) so there’s a lot there. The other side of the family is in Chicago, and the Tribune has an extensive archive, but that family has an extremely common last name, and apparently some genetic predisposition for not even knowing how to spell their own kids’ names, according to census papers I found. Anyway.

The family stuff – I won’t go into it, but I found a lot there. And then I started plugging in various dead malls, and holy shit.

I wrote this big thing about Pierre Moran Mall recently, and really had to scrape to find even the most basic dates. I plugged this into the search for the South Bend Tribune, and found a ton of stuff, including pictures, store open and close dates, articles about events at the mall, the expansion and enclosing of the mall, the failed attempt to turn the old Target into a Christian event hall… way too much to process.

I want to someday write an article on the Scottsdale Mall in South Bend like the one I wrote on PMM. I didn’t spend as much time there as a kid, but I spent a lot of time there in 1990-1991 when I went to IUSB. Anyway, I started searching, and the South Bend Tribune did an entire section on the grand opening of the mall, with an article per store, and in most cases an ad from the same store (probably why they did this, to gin up future ad sales) and of course a ton of pictures. When I mean every store, they even did a piece on the local pretzel stand in the mall.

On to Concord Mall: I found articles going back to years before the mall opened, when they planned on plowing up the farmland in Dunlap and putting some bridges across the Yellow River to get things started. They also did a similar send-up with plenty of articles about the stores moving from downtown to the new shopping center. It looked like the article about Wards was largely boilerplate – I think corporate sent the same copy to the paper for both the South Bend and Elkhart stores, which both opened the same year.

Other interesting things I found out: one is that the original plan for Concord was to include 200 apartments on the property. That would have been a fun little futuristic utopia, living and working in the same building, eating Karmelkorn for dinner every night, going on dates in the JC Penney.

Another weird one was there was a study and a plan done on building yet another mall in Goshen. That area was over-malled with four malls in the seventies already. Goshen was decimated by Concord going in, because almost all of their downtown shops fled, and that place was a ghost town for decades. Building a fifth mall in a city of maybe 15,000 back then was a real hail mary to try to keep shopping dollars in the city, and someone probably ran the numbers and decided it wasn’t worth giving the developer a fat tax break on it. So nothing happened, and then of course Wal-Mart came in and built two super-stores and completely finished off the downtown. (The good news is that it’s become somewhat hipster-gentrified, which is good to see, actually.)

The newspaper thing was a real problem, scraping up the serotonin and eating up my time. It was like when Google first came out and I spent weeks searching on everything I could think of, wasting way too much time reading dumb articles about abandoned military bases or ghost towns in Colorado or whatever I was into at that point. It is amazing, and totally hit the nostalgia nerve, and I should probably cancel my subscription soon. Luckily, there aren’t any Bloomington newspapers on there.

The Panera by my house closed. Like I think I ate there a week ago, and on Friday, it was completely stripped down, all the signs and lights and awnings gone. I’m currently in food jail, so that’s probably a good thing; I got into a bad habit of ordering from there every week or so. You can probably eat healthy there, but the bread part kills me. Anyway, it’s become this dumb inside joke/meme, and like all of my dumb inside joke/memes, I’m hopelessly sick of it, but the same three people that make the same dumb jokes on every single thing I post on Facebook won’t let it go. I really need to delete my Facebook.

No progress whatsoever on writing these days. After the overwhelming non-success of the last book, I think maybe I should buy the next PlayStation and just work on that for the next ten years, like I did from 2001-2010. Good thing I can’t actually find one. I’m trying to get back into playing bass again, so that’s good. I bought a Palmer Bass Pocket Amp which is a great piece of kit for practicing with headphones. Now I just need to get back up to speed on it.


Two for two

I’ve spent far too much time at Guitar Center in the last few days, and too much time at UPS in the last week or two. I’m in the middle of a long bass guitar arbitrage situation that will eventually end up dropping two (or three) basses and netting another two.

First was the massive pedalboard sell-off.  I use a Zoom B3 multi-effect for everything and love it, so the idea of having a pedalboard and a bunch of effects pedals was silly, and it sat in the closet for the most part. I listed everything on talkbass, and sold them off, one-by-one.

My goal was to part out my main bass, a Fender Jazz I built from parts, selling off the aftermarket bits and putting back on the stock parts, which I kept, until I eventually could dump the bone-stock version. I took off the hipshot detuner, and I also took out a set of EMG pickups that were in an old starter bass, and those went.  That’s about a dozen trips to the PO total, although I did chunk a few together.  The Jazz bass still has a high-mass bridge, very nice Nordstrand pickups, and an Audere preamp.  Those will go in a bit.

I then scored the pieces to my next Jazz bass build. A guy on talkbass sold me a Road Worn 50s-reissue Precision bass neck, in maple. And I scored a 60s-reissue Road Worn Jazz body in Fiesta Red on eBay.  Put together, they will make a very light, very vintage-looking bass with lots of fake mojo.  The Road Worn thing is sort of a gimmick; they relic off some of the paint, and age the hardware with some acid so it looks all rusty. It’s like buying pre-ripped jeans, which is sort of silly. But the secret of the Road Worn is that they use real nitro paint, like the old days, and not the super-thick, super-glossy stuff that doesn’t kill spotted owls or whatever. And they kiln-dry the wood longer, so it’s got the light weight and deep sound of an old bass.  And you get the shape and controls and contours of the old stuff.  So those parts are in the mail, and I may have pictures later in the week there.

On Friday, I rewired the Ibanez that gave up its EMG pickups, and brought it and my Schecter to Guitar Center for a trade-in.  This took forever.  They are nice enough there, but they’re always understaffed and overworked and doing nine things at once, so it’s a wait.

I didn’t feel much remorse about the Ibanez, even though it was my daily driver for about a year, and it’s a nice lightweight bass and looks decent enough.  The neck is thin and fast, but not perfect, with lots of fret sprout and some unevenness.  The Schecter I was more conflicted about.  It’s a very nice-looking bass, mahogany wood with a satin black finish. It’s well-balanced, a very smooth neck-through that feels great, and it looks awesome. It’s a 35″ scale, and has a great sounding B-string for a 5-stringer.  But it’s got a thin neck with narrow spacing, and I just couldn’t deal with it.  It wasn’t getting played. So, time to go.

I ended up swapping the two, and ordering a Warwick. They didn’t stock them, and it got back-ordered.  I really wanted one, but I didn’t want to wait a month (or two, or three) and was dead-set on either getting something in-store, or at least something GC had in-hand. So I went back the next day to cancel the order, and play everything in the store a second time, and maybe pick something out.

A general bulleted list of everything I argued about mentally while they were taking hours to do my paperwork:

  • I played a couple of the Epiphone Toby basses and their necks were surprisingly smooth for a $200 bass.  But they were $200 basses, so light they felt cheap.  And I didn’t need another dual single-coil bass, if I had a Jazz.  And that missing-puzzle-piece thing in the headstock is weird.
  • I tried a few higher-end Ibanez basses. They were okay, but the Ibanez SR/GSR line is plagued by the problem that all of the basses look and feel functionally identical, with slight increments in workmanship and electronics. A GSR-500 is not 2.5 times as good as a GSR-200. It’s like if Toyota built nothing but Corollas with more and more options as you paid more.
  • Squier basses are coming very close to Fender basses in quality. I played a Jaguar from each and they felt very close to the same. But a Jag is a Jazz with a weird body. I played a standard Precision, and it was a standard Precision. Sort of boring to me.
  • The SBMM SUB is a damn decent feeling $300 bass.  If they had one with a rosewood fingerboard, I probably would have done that.
  • The EBMM Stingray is a damn nice bass. (Explanation: Sterling by Music Man is a company that licenses the design of the Ernie Ball Music Man basses and makes them in Indonesia.) The EBMM version has a perfect neck, very fat and wide and a strange satin feel to it that’s just incredible.  The cheapest one was about $1400.  So, no.
  • Spent a lot of time on a Gibson EB-0.  I don’t like their stuff (I also played a Thunderbird, which, aside from having a book by the same name, I was not into) but this thing was sweet. It was all mahogany with a cherry satin finish, but weighed almost nothing. It had a really responsive, thumpy neck that I liked.  But, it was a short-scale 30″, had this dumb anniversary inlay at the 12th fret, and was a little above my price point.  I really hemmed and hawed over this one, though.
  • Played a couple of Yamahas and they were shit. Very fret-buzzy.  It could have been the setup. There are probably some nice Yamahas, but that’s like saying that I’m sure International Harvester could build a nice car.
  • I played a Jackson with a nice neck, but it had that swoopy inline headstock with a giant logo that looked as 1980s as Yngwie Malmsteen eating a McDLT.

I ended up doing a compromise on the EBMM/SBMM front. Sterling makes a RAY34 which is sort of the high end of the low end line, and has an active EQ and pickup voiced to be close to the old-school Stingrays. I found a used one in aqua blue with a rosewood fingerboard in a store in New Jersey, so that’s on its way out here.

So, down to just one bass in the house temporarily. Lots of UPS watching this week. Hope this long gear thread didn’t bore you too much.


First first bass

I keep mentioning that my first bass was one of the Cort headless basses with the Steinberger licensed tuners.  I’ve got a duplicate one sitting at the house now, and my old roommate has the original one.  But that actually wasn’t my first bass.  I have to start the story with how I first decided to play bass.

I had a friend named Jamie who was a 15-year-old guitar prodigy, one of those guys who spent all of his time locked in the basement learning Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen songs note-for-note.  I took a semester of piano in high school, and had a little Casio keyboard I screwed around with, but wanted to play something else, because strapping on a keytar and rocking out some Rick Wakeman solos didn’t exactly appeal to me.  I met Jamie because he was in a band with Ray and Larry, and after he quit or they fired him or whatever, I used to go over to his house in Granger, right by the UP mall, and just hang out, watch him belt away sweep-picked arpeggios on his Ibanez, and talk about Joe Satriani.  He said I should learn bass, and I thought about it, but didn’t jump on it, partly because I didn’t own a bass, and didn’t have any spare money, with all of the end-of-high-school expenses looming, like prom, college applications, SAT tests, and all of the other junk they nickel and dime you with at the end of your senior year.

I went to prom, and we originally planned on some day-after-prom trip to Great America, but ended up not going.  So the Sunday night after prom, with that extra money burning a hole in my pocket, I called up Jamie and told him I wanted to start lessons.  He told me to come over, and he’d charge me five bucks an hour, and I had to buy him smokes, since he wasn’t 18 yet.  I used the cheap bass he had at his house, and we did all of the basics: EADG, the major scale, breaking apart chords, and a basic bass line.  My alcoholic stepdad had an old acoustic at our house, so for the time being, I could practice on the lower four strings of that, but I needed to get my own bass.

Musical instruments are pretty cheap now – you can get a brand new Squier for a hundred bucks online, and the build quality of even the cheapest Chinese-made guitars are pretty decent, especially now that half of the stuff is done by robots or CNC machines.  But back then, a crap guitar cost a few hundred bucks, and none of the pawn shops in Elkhart had anything even playable.  (I’m sure people will disagree and say they had tons of 60s Fender Jazz basses sitting around in pawn shops for a hundred bucks a pop back in the 80s.  All I know is we did not in the middle of nowhere, Indiana.)  I always used to go to the couple of pawn shops downtown, but they would generally have maybe one or two basses, and they were typically beyond repair, things that were junk back in the early 70s and had now seen decades of abuse and neglect.

So I couldn’t find a used bass, and I certainly couldn’t afford to shell out for a new one.  But, I had a JC Penny charge card.  I’m not sure why; I probably filled out the application to get a free candy bar.  The Penny’s in the Concord Mall didn’t sell electronics, but they did have a catalog department.  So, I went there, and sight unseen, ordered the only bass they sold through mail-order.

Check out this catalog page.  This is from a 1982 catalog, but the 1989 offerings were pretty similar.  Most of their instruments were made by a company named Harmony, which back in the 60s made instruments that are coveted by a small group of fanatics over on eBay. But I think they went out of business and someone bought the name and started slapping it on low-end instruments made in China and sold through catalogs.  There are two basses shown on this page; I ordered the one on the right, the single-pickup design.

About my bass: I think it was called a Harmony Igniter.  It had the P-bass-shaped body, although mine was black, along with a very cheap pickguard, single pickup, bolt-on neck, and very low-end tuners that stayed in tune for about six minutes.  It showed up with mile-high action and the whole thing felt like plastic. It had a super lightweight plywood body and the neck felt okay, with a very glossy finish and razor-sharp fret edges.  The sound was very anemic, with weak electronics, and of course the factory strings were junk.  But, it was a bass, and I played the hell out of it, until I got the Cort about a month later.  I kept it as a backup, and also carefully removed the pickguard and painted it, a weird Eddie Van Halen meets Jackson Pollock abstract mess of splashed Testor’s paints that actually looked pretty cool on it.  If I was smart, I would have tore out the pickup and put in something hot, and at least changed the strings.

The bass is a distant memory to me; I have no pictures of it, no documents or instructions or old manuals, because it came with nothing.  I got a “real” bass about a month later, so I spent little time on this one.  It came to school with me, and I ended up trading it to a guy in my math class who was studying violin making and did a refret job on my Cort bass.  What actually lived on for much longer was the amp and case I bought from the catalog.  The case was cheap but had backpack straps, and I think Simms might still have it somewhere at his house.  The amp was a plastic piece of shit that had a clock-radio speaker and could run on C-cell batteries.  After it died, I tore out the “amp” part, a little circuit board the size of a business card, and used it basically as an overdrive pedal and headphone amp for years.

There’s also little to no Harmony information on the web, at least about the late 80s version.  There is a Harmony collector’s site, but it focuses on the 60s version.  There are a couple of people who have mentioned the name over at Talkbass, but I don’t know anybody who has one.  I’m very certain that nobody with a functional fireplace would hang onto one for long.  There is a part of me that almost wishes I could find another one in a dusty pawn shop or an eBay auction for $40, just for goofs, but I’ve wasted enough time and energy just hunting down that catalog page.

Anyway, there’s a brief look into a k-hole for you.  It’s sort of infuriating to me how a part of history from only 25 years ago is completely unsearchable on the web, but you could probably find a million more things about some event that happened in 1865.  That’s the weird thing about technology and the constant flow of information.  Items that were in paper records from over fifty years ago will live on for much longer than, say, TV commercials that were broadcast to millions in 1986.  Part of me thinks that at some point, some new technology is going to come out, like a low-power MRI that can scan the slightest iron content in print books and digitize entire libraries in ten seconds flat, and there will suddenly be a huge influx of data that was previously gone.  There is a part of me that hopes this never happens, because when it does, my writing will completely cease, and I’ll spend all of my time digging through the internet instead of actually writing.


State of the bass, January 2013 edition

I mentioned a while back that I started playing bass again.  Here’s an equipment update, since it seems like all I’ve been doing is amassing new stuff.

I previously wrote about my Cort bass.  It’s a Steinberger-licensed headless bass from the late 80s or early 90s, and it’s still here.  It looks okay in this picture, but that white finish looks a little yellowish, and the neck needs adjustment.  I am also not 100% with the tone, and wouldn’t mind ripping out the pickups and putting in a set of EMGs, but I have bigger fish to fry.  This one’s probably off to the shop for a setup though.

The next bass is the Ibanez, which is a GSR-190 4-string, made in 2007.  It’s been the main workhorse as of late, and I like it a lot.  It’s well-balanced, has decent tone, and a thin, fast neck, which I really appreciate.  One of the downsides compared to the Cort is that it goes out of tune every few days, just slightly.  With the Steinberger tuners, you could pretty much drop the Cort out of a plane at 40,000 feet and the tuning would still be dead on, but it also makes me wonder if I should someday swap out the tuners or something.

One change I did make: I had this coupon burning a hole in my pocket, so I ordered a set of EMG pickups, originally thinking I’d put them in the Cort, but then chickening out because there’s almost no space in its cavity for the battery and other junk, and I play the Ibanez daily.  The switch was incredibly easy; EMG now puts DIP-style connectors on all of their gear, like a PC motherboard, so you can completely wire a bass without any soldering.  The new pickups (the EMG X series) are incredibly punchy and very warm.  The best part is that they are completely silent.  My office is filled with noisy fluorescent lights and barely shielded WiFi and bluetooth and whatever else shooting energy through the air, and most musical instruments will pick up hissing and buzzing and Mexican radio stations and everything else, but the active EMG pickups are dead silent.

And then the new one.  Yesterday, I got a new Schecter Stiletto Studio 5. It’s a mahogany body finished in a see-through satin black finish, which is stunning, although hard to photograph.  From a distance, it looks like a stealth bomber’s paint, but up close, you can see through the wood grain underneath.  It’s a 35″ scale neck, which means it’s an inch longer than a standard bass, making the sound much more incredible.  (Think the difference between a tiny upright piano and a big concert grand.)  It’s a neck-through, for insane sustain, and it’s got passive EMG HZ pickups and an active 3-band EQ.

The one thing about this bass is that it is HEAVY.  I mean, it’s like if you carried around an M-16 all day and someone handed you an M-60 machine gun – it’s a substantial heft, but it feels really good.  I’ve got a wider strap, but I feel like I’ll need to double down on chiropractic care in the upcoming months.  It’s not horrible, but compared to the light Ibanez, it’s a big step up for me.

I’ve never played a five-string before, and this is a bit overwhelming to me. The neck isn’t substantially wider or thicker than my 4-string, but there are three things going on.  First, that extra inch of scale is fucking with me, and while I can cover the first four frets on a 34″ bass with a fret per finger, I need to change my technique here or something.  Second, I’m so used to the bottom string being the E, that I get lost and start doing shit on the wrong string.  Or even worse, my left hand is off by a string but my right one isn’t, or vice-versa.  And third, there’s all of this mental arithmetic of the different possibilities I can use to play the same notes.  It’s confusing, and will take a lot of time.

But – that low B string is absolutely sick.  Just the sound of it rattling away is awe-inspiring. I’m so used to the lowest sound a bass makes as that low E, and the B below it sounds like pure doom.  I went to Songsterr yesterday, and my first thought was to look up some Carcass songs, like off of Heartwork and Swansong, which are both albums that I think purists hate, but that over the years have really grown on me.  I started playing the song “Keep On Rotting in the Free World”, and the first time I hit the open B, I realized I made the right choice with this thing.

I was going to write more about effects, which are also rapidly multiplying here, but I think I need to go practice.  Actually, I need to do back stretches, then practice.


Bass, Cookies, Vomit

I am back from my trip to Reno.  I won $100 on a slot machine.  I bought a new bass.  I had a dream about cookies.  I saw a big lake.

OK, first, slot machines – I have a mixed opinion.  I know they require no skill or thought.  I go to Vegas with a bunch of people that have about three PhDs’ worth of math classes between them, and to say they’re involved poker players is like saying George S. Patton knows a bit about mechanized infantry.  They, of course, frown upon the one-armed bandit, as there’s no strategy and you can’t beat the odds.  But usually when I’m at the point when I’m in a casino, I’ve been awake for days and am completely brain dead, and pressing the “repeat bet” button over and over every five seconds is about the only strategy I can mentally afford.  If I’m lucky, I break even.  This time, I hit some mystical combination of symbols and wildcards that gave me something like $106.  I then quit, and moved to a video poker machine, where I turned $20 into $26 over a period of about 45 minutes, which isn’t stellar, but is much better than turning $20 into $0 in four seconds.

In my quest to do anything except write to force myself to eventually write, I bought a new bass guitar at a pawn shop in Reno.  It is an Ibanez and it’s red and has P/J pickups and an incredibly thin and fast neck.  The pawn shops in general were slim pickings, a bunch of beaten Chinese Fender clones and the occasional Squier for $20 below list price.  But in a place with a giant wall of assault rifles, I found this single bass hanging, and once I felt the low action, needed to buy it.  I talked them down $50 on the price, and then it was mine.  I’ve probably played it ten hours since I’ve been back, and I’m very happy with it.  I’m still obsessed with this game Rocksmith, and started buying all of the songs in iTunes, because I’m not well-stocked in Pixies and Black Keys albums.  (This game is very heavy in bands beginning with “The”, including -White Stripes, -Strokes, -xx, -Horrors, and probably ten others I forget.)

When in the hotel, I had this incredibly detailed dream involving baked cookies, and then woke up and there were no cookies.  S took this as a cue to bake a batch of cookies yesterday, and I’ve eaten so many of them, I think I’m going to puke.  They’re good, and that’s the problem.  I have to go to the dentist later today, and I think instead of brushing my teeth just prior to my cleaning, I will eat as many cookies as possible, so I know I’m getting my money’s worth.

Although I have not been writing, I’m on the verge of publishing John Sheppard’s next book, and someone just asked to use one of my pictures from Germany for a book cover.  Coincidentally, my last book used a picture from the same trip.  And I had a similar dream experience in Berlin, although it did not involve cookies.  We’d landed in Berlin after a hellish day of flights across Europe, and got to the hotel well after dark.  We set up camp in this Hyatt, and I went to bed with the drapes closed.  My dreams involved a massive suite of a hotel room, with a wall of glass overlooking a terrace that stood at the top of this massive and modern city, like a scene from a movie.  When I woke up, I pulled back the drapes, expecting this incredible cityscape, and found our room actually looked out at a concrete Daimler office building that was only a few feet away.  The rest of the Berlin trip was great, but that single post-dream moment was a huge letdown.

I mentioned a big lake.  It was Pyramid Lake, and I was going to start talking about it, but then did a wikipedia check, and it turns out that every fact I was told about the lake by one of S’s relatives was half wrong.  Like, I was told it was a freshwater lake, but it’s not.  And that it was the filming location of The Ten Commandments, but it was actually The Greatest Story Ever Told.  So, I guess I don’t have any stories to tell.  I took some pictures, but I’m finding I have far too many pictures of desert wasteland, probably as a result of owning 40 acres of it.

I am itching to get another book out, even though the next one is only half done.  Part of me wants to take a bunch of my choice photos, and put a bunch of my archived tweets on them in Helvetica, and release a hipster-esque book, but I know nobody would buy it.  Maybe I will anyway.


Back to bass

Me and my Carvin fretless bass, freshman dorm, 1990.

I have not been writing.  I’m sort of stuck between two places.  More on that in a bit.

I went into my usual writer’s block mantra of “I wish I did something other than write”, which motivated me to go to our storage locker and pull out my bass guitar and amp.  Before I put pen to paper, I used to play bass.  I sold my first bass when I left Bloomington, and in a strange act of serendipity, I saw a used bass exactly like my first one the week I left Seattle, and had to buy it.  I think I played it a total of five times before it went into storage forever, because I was too busy writing books and had all but forgotten how to play.

And I’ve dragged the thing across the country 19 times or whatever, and have not touched it since probably 1999.  But like I said, I had this urge to go buy a guitar or learn to paint or draw or do anything other than write, and I had this thing sitting in storage, so I brought it home, and thought if people who have strokes can re-teach themselves how to talk at the age of 80, I can re-teach myself how to play bass at 41.  Right?

I have this Cort headless bass. A cheap cousin to the Steinberger bass, it screams 1980s in a way big hair never could.  It’s got bad tone and a little fret buzz and the pickups need to be adjusted and I can’t get them right, because the E string is way louder than everything else.  But it’s still in once piece, and it works, and it was a number of Franklins cheaper than going to Guitar Center and buying a new one.

My original Cort was actually my second bass.  My first one I bought from the JC Penny catalog towards the end of my senior year of high school.  It was all plastic and China and stayed in tune for about seven minutes in a row, if you didn’t touch it.  My high school graduation present to myself was this Cort bass, which I saw used at a store in South Bend on a day I happened to have all of this graduation money in my pocket.  The electronics were stripped out of it, just the pickups and bare wires, no back cover and three holes where knobs were supposed to be.  I never really got the thing wired well, and always had problems with RF interference.  I got it refretted when I was a freshman in college, and traded that JC Penny bass for the fret job from a luthier student named Dorian.  (Never asked if he had brothers named Mixolydian, Locrian, etc.)

I’ve forgotten almost everything about music.  And my fingers are doing even worse.  I started trying to play scales and whatever little riffs I could remember, and my digits are nowhere near close to being in the right places.  Every other note is early or late or buzzing or uneven.  I wasn’t really sure how to proceed, so I started googling, and got information overload.

When I first learned to play the bass, it was 1989.  We did not have youtube.  I can now pull up instantly any number of instructional videos and pause and rewind and watch these guys explain and play and theorize and show off.  We had VHS back then, but that sucked.  I had a dub of a Stu Hamm instructional video, but one of my sisters recorded over it, and you couldn’t pause and rewind like you can now with DVDs.  I think our old VHS was one of those pieces of shit where hitting pause and then rewind took 19 seconds, and it made all of these clunking noises like a big block chevy running with no oil in the pan.  That’s all changed.

When I used to want some tab to learn new songs, I would have to walk to the music store (uphill, both ways) and get some shitty Mel Bay book that would have tab for “When The Saints Go Marching In” or whatever.  Now, there are a million web sites that have tab for days that you can download and print at home.  And there’s a site that plays the tab like a player piano, playing the guitar and drums so you can practice along with it.

The internet has also changed how you shop.  Nothing beats going to a guitar store and trying everything out, but when I was a kid, the music stores in Indiana were shit, and had the bare minimum of stock, all marked up to hell.  When I had to get strings for my headless bass — it takes strings with a ball on each end — I had to drive to Chicago, and pay something like $50 for them.  Now, Amazon, one click, done.  In and out for $25.  And ebay — jesus.  Put “Fender Jazz” into ebay and see where all of my time on the couch in front of the TV is going.

I can also plug my bass into my computer now, which is freaky.  It used to be you would save up a paycheck or two for one of these PortaStudios, which were really finicky about what kind of tapes you used and how often you cleaned them, and would lose quality after each generation of recording, and you still had to deal with a running tape and punching in at the right time and all of the hassles of analog.  Now, I fire up garage band, drop in some loops, and click to my non-linear heart’s content.  It’s very amazing.

Things are slowly coming back to me.  I’m obsessed with practice.  I’ve promised myself that for every hour I practice, I have a dollar to spend on a new bass.  I practiced five hours yesterday, and my left fingers are hamburger.  My technique has a long way to go, but I’m remembering theory, slowly.  It’s been a lot of fun.  It’s a lot more fun than banging my head against the wall because I can’t write.

About that, I guess I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I would talk about that.  But I’m out of time and this is a thousand words already, so maybe next time.





I am TV-free. For a month. I sold the piece of shit today, and now there’s a gaping hole in the stack of equipment and cables next to my computer. My “entertainment center” is a coffee table, on which the TV, a speaker, two VCRs, a tape deck, a receiver, a CD player, about a hundred CDs, and a dozen or so VHS tapes live. Now it’s minus the TV, since it would cost me about $50 to ship, and that’s all it’s worth. And I sold it for $75. I’m already going into withdrawl though – I got home from work, plopped down on the bed, stared at the blank spot on the way, and… yelled FUCK! I now need to do something creative with my evening, for a change. So this is how I used to write 4000 words a day…

I have yet another stupid nostalgia-trip story. I was at the mall Saturday, and went into the mall music store, which is usually a good place to look at a couple of bad guitars and then leave. But on consignment, they had a white Cort headless bass, with Steinberger tuners. About ten years ago, I bought my first bass, which was identical to this one, except my old one wasn’t wired – the knobs were missing, along with the jack, back panel, wiring harness, and foil shielding. I bought my old one for about $100 or $150 and rewired it, but it sounded like shit and had horrendous buzzing problems. I also painted it all up and put stickers on it. This one was in great shape – the fingerboard and frets were decent, the paint was original and new, and the electronics were pristine. I had to hear how it sounded stock, so I asked the guy to plug in, and a minute later I was going through a nice Hartke amp.

Some background on me and the bass: I started playing in the last semester of high school, towards the very end of the school year. I bought this Cort bass as a graduation present to myself, and took lessons all summer from Jamie Magera, a local guitar prodigy. In Bloomington, I took classes through school, met a lot of other musicians, and never got to the point of being really good, but I did play in a Calypso band in front of a sold-out IU Auditorium, so I did okay. After I got into computers, bass fell by the wayside. I tried to pick it up again in 96 with a Fender Precision fretless, but it felt alien, and I didn’t do too well. I’ve always since wished I could play something, but I never had the time. Every time I see a band live, I want to be the one on stage. I wish I could record a 4-track demo and trade it with people. And when I got that bass in my hands on Saturday, it felt natural again. Steinberger-based basses feel very strange – the body is small, the scale is short, there’s no tuning pegs or headstock on the end, and some people can’t stand them. But since it was my first bass, it felt RIGHT.

A minute later, I whipped out my Visa card and said, “I’ll take it.” I also picked up a 20 watt Hartke amp, which kicks some serious ass – ampmakers have really gotten their shit together in the last ten years. I hauled all of the gear home, unsure of how I’d even start playing or learning. At home, I ran through scales and the riffs that I knew, and things slowly got back to me. And on Sunday, I got a strap, tuner, and one of those “Metallica Riff-By-Riff” books. It might not be a good start, but I used to know more of their stuff, and it’s got my fingers moving again. I think this will be the perfect new hobby to pick up, especially after I move.

Michael Stutz was here all weekend, and we hung out on Thursday and Saturday. I’d write more, but I just ate some really greasy pizza, and I think I’m damaging this computer.