Saturday, January 27, 2007

Musical Moments

When I was in high school, a friend described me as "the type of person who listens to guitar solos". I didn't realize some (most?) people don't.

I don't really hear lyrics when I listen to music. I'm aware of the words being sung, of course, but I rarely have any emotional response to them, other than the way they're being sung. For example, I only have a vague notion of what Joe Strummer or Sly Stone sing, but I love how they sing it.

I'm not into lyrics or "story songs", but I dig other aspects of music: a groovy bass line, a soulful vocalist, tight harmonies, unusual instrumentation, exceptional tone, original technique, surprising syncopation, or maybe an incredibly poignant note in a solo -- one that fits the context of the song perfectly! In short, I'm more inspired by the delivery of the message than the message itself.

Also, rather than entire songs, there are specific moments in certain songs that always excite me; always send multiple chills down my spine. So instead of favorite songs, I have favorite "musical moments". Here are a few...
  • "Machine Gun" -- Jimi Hendrix -- It's difficult for me to describe my relationship to this song. So much power from three people. Amazing vocals, both Jimi and Buddy. Forceful, soulful drumming. It's the tone of the guitar I love the most, of course. It's angry. At (3:11) singer and guitar are one. At (4:00) the player finally relents to the guitar's obvious desire and lets it scream. One angry, long sustained scream to introduce a solo. Not overplaying. Just one fantastic note. Gives me chills every time.
  • "Gimme Shelter" -- The Rolling Stones -- The intro always blows me away; dark and gently descending, culminating in that note at (0:50) Richards holds on the verge of feeding back with beautiful vibrato, one of those notes on a hollow-body that resonates to the point of shaking furniture if left unchecked.
  • "Hey" -- Pixies -- I love how he sings "If you go, I will surely die" at (0:36). I also love the guitars throughout, both the bass/rhythm interplay and the lead. The chorus is beautifully unusual, the word "chained" alternately and unapologetically broken. The entire second verse is a masterpiece, "Said the man to the lady... the sound that the mother makes when the baby breaks". I even like the lyrics on that one, but loved the way he sings that last line long before I realized what he was saying! ;-)
  • "There There" -- Radiohead -- These guys are like musical crack. And this song is exceptionally potent. One of my favorite bike-riding tunes. I always get chills when the background vocals come in at (2:01). I have no idea what they're singing.
  • "My Funny Valentine" -- Miles Davis -- When he flattens that note at (1:06) , he turns the whole song much darker and mysterious.
  • "Georgia on My Mind" -- Jerry Reed -- A study in timing. Both the intro and the outro are amazing, especially the harmonics at the very end. I love when he says "Yeah" at (2:21), himself seemingly amazed at what his own fingers are doing. He indeed has amazing fingers, but not all of his recordings reflect this. Fortunately, every track on "Explores Guitar Country", beginning with this one, does. Did I mention how amazing he is? ;-)
  • "Advance Romance" -- Frank Zappa -- Ok, I admit the opening lyric to this song initially hooked me. How can you not pay attention to a song that opens with "No more credit at the liquor store"? Wow! Love the drumming and slide guitar on this one, too.
  • "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- Queen -- Everyone loves this song, and for good reason. And what's the image in your head at (4:08)? The "Pacer scene" in the movie, Wayne's World, right? :-)
  • "I'll Take You There" -- Staple Singers (1:15) The solo begins with the piano trills and ends with the forever-familiar bass breakdown, the rim shots, kick drum accents and Mavis' vamping throughout. Love that groove.
  • "Statesboro Blues" -- Allman Brothers Band -- For my money, Duane achieved perfection on this recording. His slide has such a vocal quality, as if it's translating Greg's lyrics for all the guitars in the audience.
  • "Reelin' in the Years" -- Steely Dan -- Most people have no clue who Elliot Randall is. He's known mainly for one thing: he's the guitarist on this song. It was recorded in one take. The lick he plays around (4:02) in the outro is one of my all-time favorites in all of guitar-lick-dom.
Those are but a few of many. What are yours?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Learning (to hear) an Instrument

I'm a pretty good guitar player. Been playing since I was maybe 12 or so, and I'm self-taught, which is why it took me so long to get any good. A great teacher can make you better faster.

But there aren't a lot of great teachers. If you really want to learn an instrument, you're going to have to teach yourself, and to do that you need to do two things:
  • Tap your foot
  • Listen
Always tap your foot when you play anything. Always, always, always. If not your foot, some other limb or digit. You must develop your rhythm. Timing is everything. Beginning musicians neglect rhythm/meter/tempo. They're too focused on pitch/melody/harmony. The tune means nothing without the rhythm. Don't tell me you can play something unless I can dance to it and/or accompany you, and your sense of rhythm is what enables me to do that. Tap your foot when you practice, always.

The Internet has produced two great tools for budding instrumentalists: tablature and YouTube. But without a good ear, they're dangerous, because quite frankly, most tablature available on the Internet is wrong and most YouTube performers suck. There are, of course, plenty of valuable exceptions, but even bad tablature and sucky performers can teach you something...

I'm not telling you anything new, of course. You already know the tabs/videos are wrong, because they don't sound quite right. Recognizing this is a big step! Unfortunately, your mind can trick you into thinking what you're playing is correct. If you practice it enough, you'll begin to think it's right, simply because through practice you've become better at playing it, even though it's not exactly what the artist you're trying to emulate is playing.

You would know this if you simply listened or -- even better -- played along with the song you're trying to learn. (which also improves your rhythm)

As your ear develops, you'll start to hear subtleties you missed before. There are many ways to play an F# chord on the guitar, for example. Any chord played around the 1st fret will have a completely different tonal quality around the 7th fret, even though both are the same chord. An open string sounds much different than a fretted one, even if it's the same note.

When I first started playing, I became very frustrated trying to play rock/blues solos, until I discovered string bending. My ear was telling me Hendrix was playing an E. I could hear the note, and I could play it: 1st string, 12th fret. Same note, exactly. But his sounded so much better than mine. Why? He was fretting the 1st string at the 10th fret (D), and then bending it up to the pitch it would be at the 12th fret (E). Or he'd bend the 2nd string from the 15th fret (D) up to (E), simultaneously playing the (E) at the 12th fret on the 1st string. Same note I was playing, but sounded WAY cooler.

Always trust your ear. I can remember struggling to "pick out" George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun". When I thought I had a reasonable approximation -- though I knew it was wrong -- I went looking for some tab and experienced a huge "Doh! moment" when I discovered he was using a capo! That made it MUCH easier!

But even more important, because I had tried to play the song myself first BY EAR, and then by tab, the subtle effects a capo can have on a guitar's tone creeped into my subconscious. Over time, it became easier for me to recognize when a guitarist is using a capo, or bending a string, or pulling-off, or hammering-on, etc... without having to watch a video or read tablature.

I could hear it, and eventually, I could play it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Charter DNS sucks

For the most part, I've been happy with my Charter cable service, with two glaring exceptions:
  • They won't provide the NFL Network
  • Their DNS servers are unreliable, often down, and slow when they're up
I can't do much about the first issue -- other than relocate -- because the cable industry is rife with un-American anti-competition policies, but I stumbled across a VERY EASY, i.e. lazy, solution to the second: install a "caching forwarding nameserver". The performance improvement is ridiculous.

It so happens that Debian's default configuration of DNS (bind9) is to behave just that way: cache-ily and foward-ily. I realize there are other lighter-weight solutions, e.g. nscd, dnsmasq, or pdnsd, but it was just so bone-stupid-simple to install Debian on a spare PC (or VM, of course) and check the "DNS Server" option on the installation's package selection screen. And what better use for the $33 PC I just bought off ebay, right? Incidentally, the shipping cost was only 15 cents less than the bid price, which technically makes it a $65.85 PC, but hey, whenever server TCO is less than $100, I'm happy.

Of course, I now must configure the other computers in my home network to use my new nameserver. For my Ubuntu laptop, I edit /etc/dhcp3/dhclient.conf, and add (uncomment) this line:

prepend domain-name-servers THE_IP_ADDRESS

Of course, you'll substitute THE_IP_ADDRESS with the real IP address of your $65.85 PC. This results in THE_IP_ADDRESS of my nameserver showing up ahead of Charter's nameservers in /etc/resolv.conf when the laptop obtains its DHCP address at boot. Alternatively, I could use my $65.85 PC as my DHCP server so that no per-client config is necessary at all. If only I wasn't so lazy...

Did I mention how ridiculously fast "the Internet" seems now? All the perceived slowness was due to Charter's name servers, which suck, btw. I mentioned that, right?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Maxtor OneTouch, HFS+ to ext3

I bought a Maxtor OneTouch 300GB external USB/Firewire drive a couple of years ago, mostly to save my iMovie experiments on my wife's Mac, but also to serve as a general backup device for my other Linux boxen. Because I had no box other than the Mac with a firewire port, I hooked it up there and -- due to the normal fear and ignorance computer manufacturers have come to expect from their users -- I ran the supplied installation CD.

That turned out to be a mistake.

The Mac formatted the file system on the drive as HFS+, of course. This was fine, as long as the drive was connected to the Mac. But when I plugged it into a Linux box, it was none-too-happy with HFS+ and would only mount the thing read-only.

So today, I finally got around to reformatting the drive as ext3. This turned out to be way easier than I thought it would. Actually, the hardest part was finding places to temporarily store the files that were on there during the reformatting. Once that was done, I simply plugged the thing into my Ubuntu Edgy laptop, fired up gparted, deleted the old partitions -- for some reason, there were three of them -- and then I created a single ext3 partition.

Using, I assume, some combination of "udev/hotplug/hal/gnome" magic, Ubuntu recognized the drive when I power-cycled it and automounted it (/dev/sdb) to /media/usbdisk. Not liking that name, I realized gparted hadn't prompted me for a volume label, so I then umounted it and ran:

$ e2label /dev/sdb1 maxtor

I guess I'm in the right group to allow me to do that. Yanking and reinserting the USB cable now caused the ghosts in the machine to mount the drive at /media/maxtor. Perfect!

But alas, I couldn't write to it. :-(

$ sudo chmod 777 /media/maxtor

There, all better. Now I'm off to move all my files back to it, and hook it up to a "real" file server. In doing so, I'll no longer benefit from all the udev automounting hocus pocus, because I'm pretty sure that's a gnome-ish feature. If I'm not logged into gnome, nothing shows up in /media when I connect the drive, though /var/log/messages does show the device being detected as /dev/sdb. I'm pretty sure I'll need to put something like the following in /etc/fstab:

LABEL=maxtor /mnt/maxtor auto defaults 0 0

I'll let you know if that doesn't work out.

Monday, January 08, 2007

My New Meizu

My wife bought me a MiniPlayer for Christmas, a portable media player made by Meizu, a Chinese manufacturer. I love the darn thing.

My wife has owned two iPods, an original and a Nano. I hate the darn things. I think they're unreliable and flaky. Oh, and overpriced.

But I have a large music library, and my new job has a long commute, plenty enough time to listen to some cool, geeky podcasts. She asked if I wanted one for Christmas. I said sure, but only if it works with Linux and plays ogg files. So she found the Meizu, which does that and much more, including videos, which I wasn't expecting. So far, I've been very impressed. There are plenty of reviews on the web, and YouTube has some demonstration videos.

If you're looking for a great DAP for Linux, I heartily recommend it. Amarok works well with it, and you can use mencoder to format your videos to play on it. It ships with the Windows-only VirtualDub, but the following mencoder incantation has worked great for me. SRC is the filename to be converted, and TGT is the name of the output file, sans extension.

CMD="mencoder $SRC \
-quiet \
-vc ffmpeg12,mpeg12, \
-ofps 20 \
-vf scale=320:240:0:0:0.00:0.75,expand=320:240,rotate=1 \
-ovc xvid \
-xvidencopts profile=dxnhtntsc:cartoon:zones=0,w,1.0:bitrate=384:pass=1 \
-oac mp3lame \
-lameopts cbr:br=128 \
-info name=$TGT \
-o $TGT.avi"

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Beauty and the Bike

It's the middle of January, and I just returned from a lovely bike ride on the Alpharetta Big Creek Greenway. There was a slight chill, but 'twas really downright balmy for January. A few clouds, but mostly bright and blue. Definitely could drive with the windows down.

I don't get outside often enough. My job keeps me indoors, and frankly I don't mind all that much, but when I get the chance to ride my bike on a good-weather day, I like to take it. And I usually like to drag parts of my family along, too.

I couldn't persuade any of them to go today, but I really wasn't trying that hard. I wanted to bring my new Meizu MiniPlayer with me, and that's a solitary endeavor, right? You can't very well listen to the DAP on a ride with other folks, especially family.

For me, few things are more enjoyable than riding a bike on a beautiful, i.e. cool but sunny, day listening to great tunes on a portable music player. DAP's avoid the Doppler effect. The music stays right with you as you try to move away from it. Plenty of songs sound great on a bike, but today I embraced the 70's. Steve Miller, ELO, Parliament, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, and the Staples Singers, among others.

In particular, Al Green and Mavis Staples made me so happy on the bike trail that I guess I was smiling a lot, because I received smiles from plenty of other folks on the trail, too, all of whom I thought I recognized, none of whom I actually did.

Is it any wonder Prince tried to revive Mavis Staples' career?

I love the Alpharetta bike trail. There's a creek -- a Big one, apparently -- that runs alongside it. In the summer, snakes are plentiful. It's always exciting to see one, and we always see at least one on any given trip. Most of the six-mile trail is paved but there's a certain swamp-like section comprised of twisty, wooden slats that are fun to navigate. The trail runs behind Northpoint Mall, various Alpharetta business parks and the usual McMansion subdivisions.

I have a touch of the flu on this day, so even though the entire ride was mostly perfect, the snot would tend to build up periodically. Finding an unpopulated stretch and snorting it out provided enormous relief and the occasional burst of energy that puts my butt in the air, my weight forward, the handlebars seemingly touching the ground with each pump of the pedal, finally reaching the pinnacle of one of the many bridges over that winding creek, and leaning back on the seat, straightening the spine, the wind on my face, coasting down with hands on hips while Al Green sings of Love and Happiness...

Life is beautiful.