Master of none

One of the challenges I faced while making this album was to learn how to play some instruments. I’ve played the guitar since the age of seven, and over the years I’ve dabbled with many different instruments: Blues Harmonica, Flute, Recorder (I’m the proud owner of a tenor recorder), Sax, Violin, some Percussion and  Bass. My first solo musical configuration (1985) was a 4 tracks tape recorder, a Drum machine, a Guitar and a Bass (a nasty, unplayable instrument, which soon fell prey of woodworm: at night I could hear the animal chomping).

studio

For this album (which took almost 8 years to make, also for this reason) I set myself a few ambitious goals. Learn how to decently play the Ukulele, the Cabasa and the Bass. By “play decently” I mean execute a part throughout (which requires technique and stamina), but more importantly understand the “language” of the instrument, the way it’s used in various musical styles. It was easy for the Bass: I’ve been listening to Bass players since forever, I have my favorites, I know the language. The Uke required a lot of listening: it’s played like a guitar, but musically it behaves in a totally different way (unless you’re a Hipster), it can be sad and lonely but also strummy and percussive. The Cabasa is THE shit: I have two, both LP Afuche (this is relevant, because they invented the instrument: Latin Percussion was an important part of the Newyorican wave). You can do a number of interesting things with a Cabasa: replicate the high part of a Drum beat (hats and/or snare), underline a Hi hat part, making it groove more, or even use two Cabasas as Air Drumsticks, to create interesting stereo percussion patterns. The Cabasa is not a simple instrument, being quite subtle, but it’s very rewarding – and if properly recorded, it sits in the mix like heaven. But the best thing I did was to learn how to play Bass. As I said, I know Bass. I have written countless basslines on sequencers, samplers and computers; many of those lines I still love, even some very old ones. But to play it is a different ballpark.

I work in an unusual way. I usually have an idea, on Guitar or Bass. I turn on my recorder (not a computer, a DTR) and play it to a metronome. Then I add other parts, a sort of skeleton of the tune, and copy everything into Logic, where I create the final structure, often with loops. Then I add samples, Drum machine parts, rhythmic delays, etc. Once I have a structure, I copy the computer parts in the recorder, and re-record all the instrument tracks, often playing them throughout. This is where the fun is. Because I know exactly what’s happening, how parts are supposed to sound, which sonic spaces they’re going to fill, yet I am actually doing it in real time, with my hands. Being a computer musician, this is a very rare experience for me. To actually fill that space with your fingers is priceless, especially with the Bass.

To train myself in the muscular aspect of the Bass, I usually play along records: that’s how I learned how to play the Guitar. While practicing a very simple but highly effective J. J. Cale bassline, I inadvertently produced a little version of Any Way The Wind Blows, off his 1974 Okie album. The original is a miracle: it sounds like it’s been recorded in an answering machine, yet its groove is impeccable, and I love the rap-like flow of the lyrics. I play Tambourine, the little uptempo Guitar and Bass, everything else is programmed or loops. The whole thing is quite different from the original, despite still being very similar.

 

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