Saturday, January 17, 2009

Day three hundred and eighty ... If it's too loud ...

Volume is a powerful force.

It can excite.

It can embarrass. 

It can lead.

It can scatter.

It can represent strength.

It can break glass.

It can deafen the ears.

It can overtake a room.

It can provide reason to believe it is hiding something behind its power--something that belies its confidence.

It is a drug.

When I was younger, all I wanted was a full Marshall stack. That would be two giant, square cabinets stacked on top of each other, with four speakers in each, topped with a 100 watt head filled with brightly glowing vacuum tubes that would be capable of making the loudest sound imaginable under any circumstances. 

Thank god I never got one. And I didn't just not get one because they were ridiculously expensive and I didn't have the means of transporting it anywhere. I just didn't need it. I only wanted one because I saw my heros playing through one. Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads--all those heavies--they all had Marshall Stacks.

Instead, I got a series of amps that were medium sized--each one getting successively better appointed in both tone and flexibility. I have a few effect boxes that I sometimes use, depending on the gig, but the amp only needs to have a few basic requirements. And each one of these amps were packed with enough wattage to play almost any show. 

But learning that there are facets to one's talent that can dwarf the loudest machine created is not an easy lesson. Some people never learn it. 

There is a distinct pattern of behavior that I see many, if not all, guitarists go through.

First there is the acoustic--anything with strings. You can beat away on those strings and strum all the basic chords (damn that F and B-flat) and have a good old time. It's like jumping aboard your first tricycle. It's fun, harmless, and a good start to lead to bigger, better things. It's also the point when you realize that you control the sound that comes out of the body. It doesn't last long.

Then you beg for an electric guitar. If your parents are musicians, they know the basic requirements: you need a guitar and and amp. If, though, your parents know of guitar necessities only what they have seen on record sleeves or on the television, then they are in for a shock when you start to explain what kind of amp you want to go with your axe (of course it's nicknamed something dangerous--it's rock and roll). 

So, you get your beginner electric guitar, which will do for a time. You get your twenty or thirty watt amplifier with one speaker to go with it, and, for some strange reason, as you begin to learn to make music on it you have no concept of focusing the power it is capable of. You just play through it at as loud a volume as you can to drive the adults in the vicinity insane. You turn up and you clang and bang at it and you let the feedback bounce off the walls and drive your dogs wild with fits of barking. 

It's easy to ignore there are people screaming at you when you can't hear them. It's even easier with your hair in your face.

If it is in you to get better, you get better. As you get better you keep your eye on that giant amplifier in the music store--the one with four handles and a set of casters on it (and you can't figure out why anyone would want to sell something as sweet as that). You also want--nay, you need the cabinet to go with it so you can fill the room with your sound so everybody from the front row to the people outside having a smoke can hear you roar. You won't have to be seen for all to know you made it to the top of the mountain. No sirree. 

And if it is in you to purchase this monster then it will do through your twenties and into your early thirties. You go from club to club with soundman after soundman cringing when he sees you. You learn to try to assuage his fears--you know what you're doing. But he knows better. And as you flick the standby switch, and the bright blue beacon of light glows one shade brighter as the tubes fill with anxious energy, the soundman instinctively unzips his fanny pack and puts his earplugs in. He's no dummy. He was like you once. And if he's lucky he can still hear the important frequencies. He can probably hear more than you can, and you still have your hearing. But it's so hard to realize that from where you stand. It's nearly impossible. 

Then, your band gets frustrated because you have a tendency to be the loudest thing on stage. And there are others up there all doing their thing but you see to it that the attention is squarely focused on you. People come up and complain that your guitar tone hurts their ears. You act concerned on the outside, and pretend to turn down. Inside, though, you just wonder what their problem is. It's a good thing they don't make the volume knob very big. It's easy to fake a counterclockwise rotation when your hand is covering the numbers.

And you go through this period of pretending to know what you're doing. It should be obvious to anyone that you've got it going on. You have the right gear. You wear the right clothes. And you pose and cavort with a swagger reserved for a select few. 

And each time you load your car with your giant amp you get it more and more beat up. And each time you load your car with your giant amp you get more and more beat up. And your back starts to hurt every night after the show. It takes you longer to get set up. You forget important pieces of gear behind. You come to dread hauling the thing out to every gig. And you feel like you have to do it because your giant amp has become your identity. People expect to see it when they expect to see you

If you are lucky enough and/or talented enough to get to the point where you have people moving your gear for you from show to show, you may not outgrow this tendency for a long time. It may never happen. And the fact of the matter is it feels good to experience the sensation of your sound coming through a giant stack of speakers. Life, love, and all that can be experienced in this world can be boiled down to a series of vibrations. And an extreme amount of them at one time can be intoxicating. But I've seen all kinds of giant acts whose guitarist have one modest combo amplifier that sounds fantastic, with a proper microphone in front of it, and a soundman on the other end, sending it through a giant stack of speakers so everybody can hear, not just the front five rows.

But if this doesn't happen--if the roadies never show up--there comes a defining time when you leave your giant amp at home and, instead, borrow a friend's smaller one. You can't believe how well it worked when the gig's over. It takes you no time to pack it away in your car, and it leaves you room inside that you never had before.

And now you are left with a decision: you can risk your hearing and physical mobility by continuing to beat yourself up with the monster that you've saddled yourself with, or you can learn to adapt to a new way of performing and trust that those who put their faith in you in the beginning, when you were just full of raw talent and emotion, will continue to pay attention and follow you while you figure out a new way to play, and a new way to get better.

So you trade in your giant amplifier down at the music store and you invest in a nice, small, one or two speaker model. You walk out of the store with it in one hand and you put it in the trunk of your car. It fits easily. 

And this is how I learned that the sounds that are inside me--the voices that sing incognito phrases unbound by parlance--don't get their power from a series of vacuum tubes, transistors and electricity. 

Great power comes from confidence in the softest plucked string. Paramount impact results from pure, focused intent. The well-schooled student makes the instrument glad it was built.

And the volume has its place.

Volume is a powerful force.

And if one doesn't learn this in time, there's a good chance that those who do understand will get blamed for not speaking up loud enough.

And the cycle goes on.

Thanks for reading.



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