Wednesday, December 19, 2012

First Light - Track By Track

1990's promo pic
UPDATED, Feb. 2017:
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of my first CD, First Light, I'm going to go track by track with my recollections about the songs, the gear and the people that made this project a reality.

Track 1: You Ain't Right - This song features the album's core rhythm section of Angelo Cammarata on bass and Carl Hupp on drums. The three of us had a group together in the mid 1990's called XYZ, and had the rare good fortune to get a regular gig in which we were given carte blanche to play all our favorite instrumental rock and jazz fusion covers.

Ben, Carl and Angelo in the studio, 1996.
 And so we did, cranking out everything from Joe Satriani to Weather Report, with plenty of Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson and much more like that. (A video tape of us from 1994 has recently surfaced, hope to share some clips with you soon.) "You Ain't Right" was written based on a riff from Angelo that I developed into a completed song, did a demo version at home, and brought it back to the guys to learn and expand on. I was excited about the collaborative process, but we only got a couple songs done this way before Angelo and Carl got sidetracked by other personal and professional commitments. I had to continue developing the rest of the music on my own and with other musicians. But happily, the guys were able to still be part of the project, playing on this and several other songs on the CD.

"You Ain't Right," CD clip:

Later on, I played on a track from Carl's solo CD, Hyper Statue. To check it out click here.

Track 2: Three Wishes - Three Wishes is a completely different story. This track is a fairly faithful re-creation of one of my earliest recordings from the 1980's, back in the day when I had first got my home studio equipment and started making demos in the tiny living room of my first apartment.

Excerpt from home demo, 1987:

For the version on First Light, I called Barre Lankford, the bass player in my first band Spectrum and a good friend since high school, to play bass. Frank Young was recommended to me to do some drum tracks. Both guys were wonderful because they were able to remain true to the content of the original demo while adding tons of personal style and flair. The guitar parts are great examples of the crisp clear tones of my 1974 Fender Stratocaster.

Here's a clip from the final CD version with Frank and Barre:

Track 3: Chickenfish - This song goes back to the line-up of the first track. Written with XYZ in mind, it started with another Angelo bass riff. I joined that up with a melody from another very old demo of mine, and it evolved from there.

Excerpt from "Streets of the City," home demo 1985:

I was feeling a lot of creative freedom, which included being willing to deconstruct my old songs and integrate some of the ideas with new ones. It was exciting, and the finished track has a feeling I really like, a mingling of relaxed sophistication and playfulness.

Clip from "Chickenfish," final version from the CD, with Carl and Angelo:

I played my 1996 PRS Custom (practically brand new at the time) on this one, for that super thick lead tone, and whammy bar goofiness.

Hectic Red 1990's promo pic
Track 4: The Shadow - this was another song I had fully developed in home demo form in the 1980's. For the album, this one seemed perfectly suited to Hectic Red, the group I had already been with for ten years at that point (and is still going strong today!). Our keyboard player, John Suchy, also did all the recording and mixing for the entire album at his studio, Such Sound. The huge influence of Steve Morse on me is easily detectible by anyone who knows his style.

"The Shadow," CD clip with Such, Rich and Danny from Hectic Red:

Track 5: Horizons - the only cover tune in the project, came from an old album by Genesis. It was a lovely Steve Hackett solo piece that had been in my repertoire for years already. I had developed an idea for a multi-track arrangement, but the final result went far beyond my expectations. Besides layering multiple electrics, 12-string, steel string and nylon string guitars, I also asked Barre to add a bass part to it. He came up with some ideas on a fretless bass that were just stunningly beautiful; we were blown away.

"Horizons," CD clip with Barre:

Track 6: Hour Of The Wolf - This song was in an unfinished state until near the start of recording. I wanted to take this one in a slightly jazzier direction, and adding piano and percussion to the mix really helped to give it the right vibe. Brian Comotto played the keys and Hoppy Hopkins added the percussion. Another fine drummer, Brett Hayes, played on this track, and Angelo was on bass.

"Hour Of The Wolf," CD clip with Angelo, Brett, Hoppy and Brian:

Brian, Brett, Angelo, me
Track 7: Countdown - A very similar situation to Hour of the Wolf. I had an incomplete demo I had never been able to finish. But I got a ton of inspiration and motivation from how well the recording sessions were going, and I came up with what I needed to flesh out the song. Brett and Angelo again provided a superb rhythm section. The whole song was very much inspired by Joe Satriani, but I worked hard at investing the middle solo with my personal style and passion.

Early demo from 1987 with basic parts worked out:

Final CD version, new parts added:

Track 8: Nightmare on Church Street - This track was another one I had fully developed at home in the late 1980's, long before this album was conceived. I basically did it as an experiment in multi-track guitar overdubbing, which was a challenge back in the day when recordings were made onto physical pieces of tape. I had my Tascam Porta Two cassette recorder, a drum machine, a bass and a few other items like reverb and EQ. I went to work piling on the guitar tracks. I also was working with the timed echo concept to create the very mechanical sounding guitar parts that percolate through the song. I used super distorted tones, super clean tones. It was everything I could think of. Underlying it all, I had a very simple bass line and a repetitive drum machine part, just trying to keep out of the way of the mushrooming population of guitars going crazy.

When it came time to record it for the album, I did the bass myself because it was so simple. But Frank Young came in to do the drums for the song, and this was another case in which the part the musician came up with dramatically improved the song. And as I recall, he did it all in one take on the second try.

1987 demo excerpt:

clip from final CD version with Frank on drums:

Track 9: Last Best Hope - Now back again to collaborating with Carl and Angelo. Both guys took solos on this song, and really put all their skills and their hearts into it. You can really hear the intensity and emotion we all were expressing.

"Last Best Hope," CD clip:

Track 10: First Light - a solo acoustic instrumental in an alternate guitar tuning I had recently discovered: C G D G A D, or "C-Gad" as I like to call it. I have always pursued many aspects of guitar, because I simply love the diversity of sounds and expressive possibilities offered by different styles. Playing quiet finger-style on a steel string acoustic is a unique timbre, related yet very different from classical finger-style on a nylon string, as in Horizons. The unusual tuning further helped me drop into a very meditative, even spiritual zone. It took a while to get this track done, because I wanted the phrasing and articulation to be just right.

"First Light," CD clip:

In order to get going with this CD project, I had to get over the fact that several of the songs I planned to do were not finished. There is a saying: "leap and the net will appear." For a very long time, I just couldn't believe it, and so I remained stuck in a very frustrated state of wanting to do something, but not being able to get over a writer's block that was nothing more than useless insecurities and self-criticism. Thank goodness I finally found the courage to take the leap into the unknown. Once I committed to going forward, I found myself meeting and interacting with new musicians, all wonderfully talented, enthusiastic and creative people. They helped me find the inspiration to develop and finish those old unfinished songs, and their performances took the songs to new heights I never would have imagined possible. This was one of the greatest joys of making this CD.

Another stumbling block was the worry that my songs sounded too much like the artists I was influenced by. I was paralyzed by the fear that I was not original at all, but merely a good imitator. Again, I had to overcome what were really irrational fears and baseless self-doubt. Once I got the nerve to let go of worrying about it and allow my influences to show, I started to notice that actually, I did have a style and sound of my own after all. Well, what do you know...

Pick up a copy of First Light, or download MP3s on iTunes and from CD Baby.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Road to First Light

UPDATED, Feb. 2017:
Twenty years ago I created and released my first CD project, First Light. Following that, I formed a new three piece group which eventually created a followup CD, One Mind. Doing those albums was possibly the most challenging yet satisfying work I have ever done. I think after all these years, it's time for a retrospective. How did those CDs come about? Who were the players? What were my inspirations and influences? All this and more...

It all started in 1985 with a Tascam Porta-Two 4-track cassette recorder. Remember cassettes? Remember anything not digital? Hey, it was the 80's. We still had to do it the old fashioned way. It was good enough for the Beatles (we'd tell ourselves).

Once I had acquired the Tascam, plus a drum machine (a Yamaha RX-15, the best I could afford), and a cheap electric bass, I was in business. I was excited about making demos and creating my own music.

Just recently, I dug out and unpacked boxes and boxes of those old cassettes from the late 80's-early 90's and started listening. I can hear now that I was having a lot of fun, but lacked direction. On the one hand, I was writing instrumental rock pieces in the style of the guitar gods I worshiped, like Steve Morse, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Allan Holdsworth, and many others. The songs were not complete but I figured I would finish them at some point. Several songs that ended up on First Light were started during this time and still exist in demo form. Here's an early version of The Shadow:

On the other hand there were numerous tracks that were clearly intended to have vocals, but almost none of them did. Evidently I wanted very much to write sophisticated pop music. Listening back today, some of those tracks sound like I was trying to do Mr. Mister as if interpreted by Steve Morse. For example:

But the songs never got lyrics, and the instrumentals never got completed. I like to say that life got in the way, but I was simply experiencing a big fat creative block, and didn't know why. It took a lot of soul searching and self-analysis to finally shake loose from layers of self-doubt and self-criticism, insecurity and lots of other mental/emotional baggage. Almost ten years passed before I finally realized what should have been blindingly obvious - that what I really wanted to do was make an all-instrumental album. I simply woke up to the reality that I could do it and I should do it right away. OK!

At that point in the mid-1990's, I was lucky enough to be in a group, XYZ, that was providing me a chance to play my favorite instrumental rock and jazz-fusion covers. We had a regular Thursday night gig at the Ritz in Baltimore for a long time, and we were pretty tight. Angelo Cammarata on bass and Carl Hupp on drums were (and still are) first rate musicians, and we were having a ball. We had started writing, and I anticipated this group would become the vehicle to fulfill my ambition to do a CD. But it was not to be. Angelo and Carl got sidetracked by other personal and professional commitments, and things fell apart. The signs were all pointing to the fact that if I wanted to do a CD, I would simply have to take the leadership role and do it as a solo project. Once I saw that was how it must be, I pushed forward and things started to fall into place.

Enter John Suchy and Such Sound studio. Such and I had already been playing together in Hectic Red. That band was (and still is) very fun and musically satisfying, but I wanted to go in a different direction. Nevertheless, Such was definitely the guy to record my stuff. He had already been in business with his studio for several years and was doing great work recording, mixing and producing for many local artists. We got along really well, and he was incredibly generous about letting me into the studio whenever I had time.

I realized that as a leader, I could ask whoever I wanted to play on the songs. So Carl and Angelo from XYZ could play on some songs; the Hectic Red guys could play on some, and from there I let the door open to meet and work with some other incredible players. It turned into an all-star project, and on top of that, Such was willing and patient as I indulged myself with sometimes massive amounts of overdubbing, as I attempted to recreate the multiple layers and textures I had come up with through endless tinkering in my home studio. We put in many months of intensive work.

And in 1997, ten years after originally coming up with at least half the songs, I finally released First Light.

Continue to the next post: "First Light - Track by Track," which talks about the songwriting, the musicians, the guitars - and everything else that went into making an album at the dawn of the digital age.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hendrix at 70

Yes, that's what the cover of a recent issue of Guitar Player magazine said - Jimi would be 70 this year. My first reaction was, "why did they have to remind me that it's been that long?" Then I got over it and read the article. Here's a link to the online version:

They made a point of getting appreciations and anecdotes from people like Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Mike Kenneally, Reeves Gabrels, Nels Cline, Phil Keaggy and many others - a diverse assemblage of brilliant guitar players who are known to be highly talented, adventurous and individualistic - in other words, musicians that have some things in common with Hendrix. Yet they all consider him one of their greatest influences and inspirations. Why? Why is he still relevant today? Read on as I put in my two cents worth.

Jimi's imagination was always going full blast. He was one of that rare breed of artist who was naturally creative and highly motivated to constantly push forward into unknown and innovative directions. This applied to the way he played guitar, the songs he wrote, the sounds he created, and the equipment he used.

I have read that his wild imagination may have been his personal way of dealing with a lot of painful and hard circumstances in his childhood. He was known to love science fiction, and his lyrics often have fantasy and sci-fi elements to them. That all makes sense to me. What I like is that his music conveyed the sense that it was fun to be imaginative, fun to be intensely creative, fun to rock out and go wild. There is a joy and enthusiasm in his music that needs no words to be understood. This is a valuable lesson for anybody in the arts.

Jimi was evidently fearless in his willingness to try new and different things, to explore the unknown. I think that is directly related to how much joy it gave him, but it also shows strength of character, inner confidence and trust in his own intuition. I think it sends the message that if you love what you do and it brings you joy, it strengthens your resolve to plunge onward into the unavoidable uncertainty you experience on the path to manifesting a creative vision. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.

There's an abundance of eloquent tributes to Hendrix, and there's a reason for that. Hendrix was a powerful, innovative talented musician; combining flash, finesse, groove, soul, wit and spaciness into a new thing totally his own. His work has withstood the test of time and his influence looms large over each new generation. If he was alive today, he'd still be kicking our ass.

Here's one of my favorites - Hendrix live, with a totally crushing version of Johnny B. Goode:

Your thoughts and questions are are always welcome. Please leave a comment below. You can comment anonymously as a guest, but if you take a moment to register, you'll be able to exchange comments with Ben or others, and be notified when people respond to your comment.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Can You Dig It?

"You are so great, I absolutely love what you do. I've been really paying close attention to your performance, and I really have a great appreciation for your talents....."

What musician wouldn't  enjoy hearing such a compliment? It's so good for the ego, and always nice to find out that someone is paying attention when often it seems like nobody is even listening. And yet...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hectic Red at 25

Can it really be? Has it really been that long? Well, yes: from 1987 to now is indeed 25 years. And thus it is true - Hectic Red, one of the finest classic rock bands ever to hit the stages of Maryland's music scene, has been together 25 years, with no personnel changes, just the same four guys the whole time - Dan Grim, Rich Filbert, John Suchy and me. I won't bother to attempt a comprehensive chronicle of how it all began, who we are, what we've accomplished - you can get all that on our website, For now, after having delivered one of the best shows of our career at the Recher Theatre on Oct. 13, I am content to simply offer personal thoughts and reflections. Click "read more" and away we go.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Best Crazy Month Ever

June was a busy month. Yes, crazy busy. But I ask you, how lucky can you get, to be playing so many different kinds of music, with such great musicians, and actually get paid for it? I am very fortunate indeed. And busy is a relative term. I am friends with some great local musicians whose gig schedules make me look like a slacker. So I am dedicating this blog post to Dave DeMarco, Bryan Ewald, Dale Coleman, Ellis Woodward and all the rest of the fantastic musicians around here who work very hard to bring you great music every single month. And so without further adieu, click "read more" to see how my month went down.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Telesma - Action in Inaction

When trying to describe Telesma, you quickly find yourself coming up with so many different qualities that one can scarcely imagine all of them applying to the same group. Yet after hearing them you have to concede that yes, they are indeed a tribal-techno-psychedelic-trans-cultural rock band. And their new album Action In Inaction perfectly captures the magic of a band whose music is spiritually uplifting, emotionally moving, intellectually stimulating, infectiously rhythmic and hard rocking - all at once.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Playing For The Kids...Again!

I was delighted to be asked, for the third year in a row, to play a series of classical shows for kids at various branches of the Enoch Pratt Library system in Baltimore. There is an over-arching fairy tale theme for all the events, and the kids, mostly ages 3 to 6, are encouraged to wear costumes. The library staff plans various activities, story time and snacks. Sometimes the music is the center of attention, other times it's just in the background, but I always feel good about being there.

May 2012 Gig Schedule-Newsletter

April was a great month! I had such a great time playing for the Enoch Pratt library kids events again this year, click here to read my blog post on that. Let's plunge forward into the May schedule which has some great shows, and I'm including a sneak preview of the June schedule, because there are some genuinely special events coming up that you will not want to miss! Click "read more" to, um, read more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guitar Adventurers

Just wanted to share some music by some great guitar players who are sailing off into the uncharted realms that lie between the frets. I never get over the thrill of discovering players like these, so full of creativity, commitment, talent and exuberance, in such a diverse range of styles.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

W.A. Mathieu

The Musical Life The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music
I first discovered the work of W.A. Mathieu over 15 years ago, when I came across an audio version of The Listening Book at a local library. Mathieu is an American pianist and musical scholar, trained in jazz, classical, Indian and African music. He also has the gift of explaining deep musical concepts in a way that anyone can understand; his mission is to show that music is an essential part of life itself. Those two cassettes I got at the library that day were life changing because they made tangible what I had always felt but never could quite express: that music is everywhere, in everything. The more you get that, the deeper your personal connection to music can be; this can lead to creative and even spiritual awakening. And yet it's as easy as walking down the street.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Temperament, Equal and Otherwise

If you are studying music, sooner or later you arrive at the question of what "in tune" really means and how it is determined. Especially if you play a fretted instrument like guitar, you start thinking about the notes between the frets, the bent notes, and you wonder, where are they in our musical system? The answer is nowhere. Suddenly a rabbit hole opens up and you are dropped into a new universe of musical concepts. Things you thought you understood, like, you know, notes and chords, are suddenly revealed as incredibly deep subjects. You are obliged to look deeper into the meaning of intervals, overtones and harmonics, and discover their relationship to the history of tuning. You discover Pythagorean tuning, just intonation, mean-tone temperament, microtonalism, the harmonic series, resonance and more. You start listening to sitar music. You finally come to realize what you've known intuitively all along; our whole modern system of equal temperament is wholly inadequate to really describe music. How could this have happened??

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

March 2012 Newsletter-Schedule

February 2012 marked the loss of the most beloved of gig-mobiles, our 1994 Toyota Camry station wagon. It was the fault of a clueless teenager, not looking where he was going, who pulled out in front of me as I was driving to a gig, forcing a collision. It did minor damage to his rear bumper, but thoroughly smashed my front end.

And of course due to the age of the car, the insurance company wasted no time in declaring it a total loss, and offering a pathetic pittance in compensation. Fortunately I was not injured, and even managed to get my gear into another vehicle and actually made it to the gig. I was probably not at my best, but I do have one simple rule I try to follow in life: show up.
But wait, there's more. Click "read more" to, you know, like, read more - about the really the weird part.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Zen Guitar - Phil Sudo

Zen GuitarIf asked to recommend one book to musicians, I would offer, without thinking, Zen Guitar by Phil Sudo. It is by far the most inspirational, motivational, practical and concise philosophy of music-making I have ever seen.

Phil Sudo was a writer and guitarist of mixed American and Japanese heritage. He sought to find a way to "blend the wisdom of west and east into a universal philosophy of life." To do that, he decided to write a book that merged his love of rock guitar with his devotion to the philosophy of Zen. The result was a masterpiece.

Ichigo Ichie

I originally wrote this in June 2008 , but it hasn't been available on the internet for some time now so I thought I'd re-post. It's a look back at one fairly intense weekend of gigs, and some thoughts and reflections about the relationship between performer and audience. It also connects with my appreciation of the book "Zen Guitar" and its author Phil Sudo. I have written about that in another blog post, click here to read it. And now, into the archives...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

February 2012 Newsletter - Gig Schedule

I bet a lot of you are like me when it comes to music - you like to rock, but you also look for opportunities to hear a variety of musicians and styles.  If so, then my February schedule is going to knock your socks off with the diversity of styles and musical talent I am lucky enough to be a part of this month.
Thanks to all who continue to support my musical endeavors. Music is my calling in life, and it would still be if I wasn't making a cent off it, but this month's schedule really brings it all home that I am indeed one lucky guy. Enjoy the shows! Full details after the jump.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Is Cookie Monster Still Here?

Why are metal bands still doing cookie monster vocals? Why do people still like it? Why do I care?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Master Class: Desert Rose

I have been helping a couple of my students learn "Desert Rose," a song by Eric Johnson, one of the most talented and unique guitarists in the history of rock guitar. The guitar solo in the middle of the song is a veritable master-class in advanced lead guitar techniques. It is a perfect example of how Eric can take a fairly normal chord progression and produce a virtuoso lead guitar solo over it, adding layers upon layers of complex ideas at blazing speeds with perfect accuracy.You can spend hours analyzing the content of this solo and if you are an advancing guitarist it would be well worth it. Every phrase is rich with sophisticated musical concepts and techniques that are guaranteed to improve your fretboard knowledge and make you think differently about how to play a solo.

But you must not forget that for Eric Johnson, tone is everything. I have seen him play live many times, attended a masterclass with him, and seen his instructional videos, and it is obvious that getting the right tone is essential for him to effectively communicate his musical ideas. You cannot separate the notes he played from the sound of those notes, their tone and timbre, because that is how he is thinking about it when he plays it.
Eric has had a reputation throughout his career for being excruciatingly attentive to the smallest details about the sound of his guitar. This includes the choice of amp, guitar and effects of course, but for him it gets down to such things as the type of batteries in the effects units, the length of the connecting cables, the relative position of the effects to each other...seriously, not kidding. But Eric is just as attentive to how the tone really originates from the hands contacting the strings - how hard he presses, how hard he strums, using a plastic pick or plucking with bare fingers (or both), the type of pick: shape size and thickness, what part of the string to hit and how hard...and on and on.
Watch this video of Eric in the studio demonstrating his equipment and observe - he doesn't mention most of the things I just described but he is subconsciously considering all of them at all times.

This really may be going too far, and I certainly wouldn't expect everyone to be this way. But listen to Eric's best album, "Ah Via Musicom," which includes Desert Rose and the classic Cliffs of Dover. He may have been obsessed with his tone, but it resulted in this, an absolute masterpiece of guitar work.

Go back to the first solo in Desert Rose, and just marvel at the amazing quality of his guitar tone - big and powerful, but with a lightness and spaciousness that is completely unique and unquestionably beautiful. Play the clip below, it should jump right to the solo.


Without doubt, Eric has paid his dues, practicing and developing his skills and knowledge to be able to create music on that level. But all that knowledge and skill just gives him the freedom to focus on what he cares about the most - pure music, distilled down to its essence - tone.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's Wishes

Happy New Year to everybody! Year's end is typically a time to have a look back and a look forward, but I think you also have to look at right now, and do so with gratitude. I am the lucky husband of a wonderful wife, grandfather to two amazing grandkids, and part of a terrific extended family. I am steadily employed as a guitar player and teacher, and I get to hang with some of the most talented, professional and just plain coolest people in the music business.

January 2012 Gig Schedule

December featured the return of Hectic Red after a hiatus of several months, and it was great to be back! The band rocked the Barn for a fabulous crowd
of folks who are both fans and good friends. The Red is back in January for a show at Surf City. In addition, I've got a bunch of other fun gigs  lined up for January 2012, including: solo acoustic shows at some of my favorite local venues, and a duo with Brian Comotto, who is one fantastic singer, pianist and guitar player. Details below.