Monday, August 27, 2012

Favorite Lead Guitarists

A friend asked me last week by text: Who is your favorite lead guitarist? I still haven't exactly given him an answer, but I was reminded today of this awesome clip of John Scofield doing "Georgia on My Mind". For me, Sco is the master of combining a traditional jazz sound with a gritty attitude that is pure blues and funk. Listen to some of those "off" notes that pop in and out of the scalar runs. I would love to be able to play like this.

Leave a comment: who's your favorite lead guitar player?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prod. by Tree

Photo source: 
As some readers of the blog know, I've been interested recently in making beats. I've been putting together a few tracks based on samples I've picked through on my iTunes library. I've cut up a few yelps from Ray Charles and Aretha, guitar riffs from Can, and did two tracks based on reworkings of the Emotions' "Blind Alley" and Beyonce's "Love on Top".

Putting together flips of samples made me think back to a book I skimmed through once called Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop by Joseph G. Schloss. I remember it being rather academic, almost an ethnography or oral history of various DJs and their techniques. One part that stood out to me was the idea that sampling is as musical an act as the creation of the original samples themselves. In other words, it's not just a creative form of cannibalism; it is actually music.

Of course, the idea that sampling is music is not new. This we've known for a while. But some examples given by Schloss and the artists he interviewed were fascinating in their musical detail. Early DJs working with old jazz records told of how the number of beats of a phrase they used in a loop could change the entire musical direction of the song. A piano chord progression could be entirely altered if, say, the first bar was repeated twice, the second and third bars were played once each, and the fourth bar was omitted entirely. The song might have a whole new flavor.

Oliver Wang at Soul Sides goes deep into this idea of musical creation when he writes of the various reiterations of the "Blind Alley" by the Emotions. This is definitely worth a read if you have a minute. I tried to do some musical revamping myself with my flip, which takes a major key piano phrase from the beginning of the song and starts the downbeat with a minor chord.

Now, listening to Tree's mixtape Sunday School today has gotten me thinking more about samples-- this time, how the feel of the original music changes based on the sheer amount of it that gets sampled. I have two examples. Listen first if you'd like. I wonder if we notice the same things.

1) "Die" (Tree) / "I'd Rather Go Blind" (Etta James)

How quickly can you spot the hook? If it takes a while, that's because the main sample from the song is not Etta James' vocal line from the chorus, but simply a fragment of the "yeah yeah" backups. You do hear Etta singing that famous line pretty quick into the track, but then it gets cut up: "Baby baby ba-- / I'd rather be bli--". The fact that he gives us just a taste, not to mention the way he layers those "baby" lines on top of one other makes this a hypnotic piece of production.

2) "Amy" (Tree) /  "Tears Dry on their Own" (Amy Winehouse)

Unlike with his Etta flip, Tree starts this one with a very recognizable line from "Tears Dry on their Own". He then chops it up so that it has a lot of forward momentum on top of a super straight-eight beat. Seriously, listen to this song again. The "superman" "stupid men" line comes in around 1:12. The difference is incredible. In the case of the original, "superman" those words serve as a punchline and a transition. With the way Tree used it, they carry the whole song.

If you like what you've read here, go ahead and check out this Fader interview with Tree about his production style.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pyramids at Lollapalooza

Got the chance to see Frank Ocean's set at Lollapalooza last weekend and was definitely impressed most of all by his variety. He came out and did two songs accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, including an excellent cover of Sade's "By Your Side". His live band kicked in for most of the middle of the set. With them, he hit "Thinkin Bout You" and "Novacane" and then some of his best stuff from Nostalgia, ultra and Channel Orange. The highlight for me was "Pyramids"; I hadn't imagined that a nine-minute track that changes tempo in the middle could have kept the crowd grooving for the whole time, but it did the trick.