A long musical story about 4 1/2 almost perfect minutes

(the writing might be slightly inspired by three books I read recently: Gentlemen, we’re living on the edge, Red, and Home Ice)

As a musician I am not very complicated. I have somewhat high standards in regards to the people I play with, yes, but when it comes to myself I don’t think I suffer from lead guitarists disease or something similar. There will be days when I am not as prepared as I should be but I accept that in others as well. Having said that, and getting older, I am a big fan of playing it by ear, putting the overall sound over “but this is what he plays on the record”, winging it if I have to, and more and more, just having a good time. I have played in bands from very early on after I took up the guitar until I moved to Hamburg to study. While I even had my guitar with me in the US in 1998 it took until 2008 when a bunch of guys from my home town rejoined forces and started playing again, getting that rust off. We used to play every 6-8 weeks and even went for a whole year without rehearsal after our room got torn down and schedules didn’t match. And we were still missing a bass player. When we met again we basically had to start, had to relearn some of the arrangements but it wasn’t until another friend from old moved back to town when found a complete line-up. I moved to bass guitar for all but three songs and we finally had a full sonic spectrum. We cut some songs from BB-setlist (before bass), added some new ones and now, after about half a year with a steady flow of rehearsals we have something you might call a set. One hour-ish, depending on how fast we play and how much we talk.

With a full band we finally also had the time to tackle one of the songs that is brilliant but not easy, especially for the vocals. It is one of the tracks I still play guitar on and enjoy immensely. It has a boogie feeling to me, a knee bender if you ever saw Satriani perform Satch Boogie live you’ll understand. But it’s more of a shuffle too, great guitar riff, epic chorus. Our keyboarder wrote it and we used to play it in the mid-nineties. I was actually scheduled to play it on a recording but had to drop out because the date was a week after I had left for the US. I was a little bit heartbroken when I heard the song later (true story) – I was in great shape back then and I would have killed it.

Fast forward to 2012. We’re back at it and I am practicing. Not the 5 hours a day from when I was in school, but strategically and really practicing. While it is a groovy tune calling for a solo with feeling there is also a sixteenth triplets run that I play in unison with the keyboards. I practiced it slow. Real slow. Played around with the fingering, changed that about five times until it would sound not like shred but like a melody. Played it slowly w/o warm-up in the morning, after dinner with warmed-up fingers and a couple of times before I turned off the light. From a skills perspective I has them, I just need the practice. And I needed to play it great, no winging it this time.

When we rejoined last night I felt prepared. We rehearsed two new songs and all the work of the last six months paid off. We breezed through Huey Lewis’ Power of Love and took our time with Billy Jean, working on our own version. Afterwords came a couple of tunes we know by heart and which just groove. The fact that we didn’t have a mic for background vocals didn’t hurt the overall vibe too much which was good. At one point I said let’s play “the song” so I gave the bass guitar to my buddy, taking his guitar for a second. He plays an Ibanez (like I did years ago) but it hung too high, so I gave it back. He volunteered to make the strap longer and I tried it on, but I didn’t connect. Quite interesting. Tension was building up, happy tension, I didn’t want to take any chances. I wanted to give this my best shot. I wanted to milk the groove out of it. So I say thank you and that I feel quite comfortable with my block of wood (compared to his well set-up Ibanez with scalloped frets and ergonomic body, my Washburn N2 indeed looks somewhat like a brute). I don’t know much about the VOX amp they gave us this time, but what the hell, the sound is in the fingers.

So it begins. Short keyboard intro followed by the whole band playing the main riff. The high-hat and snare laying the beat, the bass drum the groove and a bass guitar pumping away. The verse builds slowly only to swell to full bloom, hinting at things to come. But not yet, first we play the main riff again. With a slight variation, the keyboarder and I looking at each other with knowing smiles. At that moment we love what we are doing. Verse again and into the chorus. After the chorus the run looms, then the solo. I feel like I’m in the zone. Bring it on, I can do it. But first the chorus. The guitar lays chords with restrained accents. The keyboard makes it epic, the vocals bring it home. We play the main riff again. No fear, no angst. We play the run. It flows. 8 sextuples. The keyboardist can play this in his sleep and I play it wide awake. Practice paid off. But I’m not done yet. I turn the final high note of the run into a bend and am high on adrenaline. I need to celebrate with just a couple of quick accents before I go down the fretboard and into some movements that kind of made sense when I practiced. Nothing fast or fancy, rather milking some bends and open string patterns. To open the second bar of “my” two bars I hit the G on the low E string with pick harmonics and bend it to the A – all the chunk you can have on an electric guitar. I make my way up the fretboard again looking for a final high bend and mess up the ending in a way because I want to keep on playing but haven’t told anybody. I don’t play the usual ending but stop the solo anyway, the adrenalin making way for a big smile. I catch some looks, thumbs up, all good.
We bring it home and I feel very happy.

As always with these things, there’s no recording. I explain the mess at the end of the solo and since we all had fun we decide to do it again, with a longer solo. And of course it doesn’t compare. I put pressure on myself to repeat and my fingers don’t connect to the strings as much as they should. The strings were cold during the first run, now the little residue that collected from playing bass for two hours settles on the guitar strings. Usually not a difference maker but I notice it and think about it. I also think about what I am going to two in the two extra solo bars. All this going on while we play the song. I’m in my head, not my soul and I feel like I am letting them down. They wanted to give me the chance to do it again, (you’re gonna come in with your guitar & you’re gonna play that nice, nice music you were telling me about) and it’s probably going to be fine, but not the magic from before, at least the magic I felt. So of course I mess up the end of the run and the solo is sort of ok but naturally I feel a bit down. The beauty is that I love playing this song so much that the minute and a half from the end of the solo to the end of the song lifts me up automatically. All I have to do is close my eyes, listen to the snare filling between the hi-hat, the bass guitar walking counterpoint to my funk in the verse, the vocals building up to the chorus, and the keyboard tying it all together.

Or maybe I just love making music with my friends so much.