Flying with Guitars 

As I look forward to touring in Europe with Elizabeth Shepherd later this month, I also have to plan for a few discount airlines where I'm doubtful of geting my guitar on board in its gig bag the way I do in Canada with Air Canada (I hear lots of complaints about Air Canada, but they have my loyalty over Westjet here simply because their website says that guitars in soft cases are allowed as long as they fit in the overhead, and since then I've had no issues other than once or twice having to direct the staff to their own website. WestJet on the other hand made me gate check it, actually coming and taking it out of the overhead above my seat where it was happily surrounded by purses and backpacks because it was a full flight and someone boarding later than me's suitcase couldn't get on the plane. Hmmm, suitcase vs guitar....). For the record, I've yet to fly a plane, even the tiny one I took to Nashville, where I couldn't fit my guitar in the overhead (another reason I'm a solid body guitar guy).

Last year I bought a new Godin guitar for the express purpose of unscrewing its neck (inspired by my friend Marc van Vugt). Grant at the Twelfth Fret in Toronto shaved the inside of the very snug neck joint just to make it a little easier to take out, but basically I put a capo on at the 2nd fret (so that I don't have to change the strings), unscrewed the neck (buying a very small screwdriver that is allowed in carry on luggage), wrapped it to the body with bubble wrap, and stuffed it in a small backpack surrounded by sweaters. It worked out very well, as security didn't seem to mind (without the strings maybe the neck would be seen as a weapon on its own, but since it was all wrapped together and attached by strings it didn't raise any issues) and it was great to walk on like anybody else. The guitar always played great, but it did mean putting it delicately under a seat instead of the overhead as there's little protection. Indeed, I did get a few minor dings in the neck over the course of a few flights so I'm re-examining the backpack and looking for some other light material to put around the neck. But the trade off of course is having to assemble the guitar and hoping the action and intonation are the same. I also have to sacrifice some packing space to bring a thin gig bag along and I don't get to play the Ernie Ball Reflex that I normally use, unless I decide to take its neck off.

Learning solos 

I attended the jazz workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1991, and the amazing saxophonist Bunky Green was one of the faculty that year.  Bunky suggested that we take a song or an album that we liked, and learn every solo on it (he wanted us to go so far as to know what the drummer was doing on his cymbals).  I took his advice when I was traveling around Europe and working on a cruise ship, only bringing a couple of cassettes (Walkman days!) with me so that I would have to get really familiar with the albums I chose.  I didn't quite transcribe or learn to play every solo, but I think I could sing every solo.   I've certainly transcribed quite a few solos over the years, and am glad to see some of them on the list of essential solos JazzTimes just put out at https://jazztimes.com/features/40-essential-solos/

If memory serves, the handful of cassettes I listened to over and over included these albums:

Hank Mobley:  Soul Station

Lester Young w. Oscar Peterson:  The President Plays

Dave Holland:  Extensions

Kenny Wheeler:  Music for Large and Small Ensembles

Miles Davis: Live at the Blackhawk

Billie Holiday: The Silver Collection (which featured selections from the last small group recordings she did with Ben Webster, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Barney Kessel.

Concert December 9th! 

The VOCA Chorus of Toronto invited me to perform with them and to do an arrangement.  Really happy with the way my arrangement of Bruce Cockburn's "Waiting For a Miracle" is sounding, hope you'll come here its debut and me alongside a wonderful choir under the direction of Jenny Crober.   Here's the link for tickets:

Tickets now available!  https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/the-great-canadian-choirbook-tickets-38312305136

April 8-10 - The Songs of Bruce Cockburn w. Elizabeth Shepherd 

I'm really looking forward to doing 3 shows with Elizabeth Shepherd, revisiting some of my Creation Dream: Songs of Bruce Cockburn repertoire (but different, and with vocals). We'll be joined by my big bro Roberto Occhipinti and Davide Direnzo. April 8th at the Jazz Room in Waterloo, April 9th at The Rex Jazz Bar in Toronto, and April 10th we'll do a Jazz FM Live to Air in a very special show with Bernie Finkelsteinjoining us to share stories of the birth of Canada's music industry and his decades managing Bruce Cockburn. Here's a little video of Elizabeth and I at soundcheck in Hamilton back in February:  https://youtu.be/LsLpJYMwHIM

Lots of Fun With Guitar Effects! 

Tonight I had a lot of fun at Long & McQuade Markham demonstrating the sounds I use and my approach to guitar effects to a really nice group full of thoughtful questions.

I gave them some info in a handout.  Here it is:
 

From the time I started playing the guitar at age 13, I was intrigued with the sounds that guitarists like Jimi Hendrix,  Jeff Beck, Adrian Belew, Andy Summers, Prince, Bill Frisell, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Edge, and John Scofield (among many, many others) created, and I started using guitar pedals as soon as I could afford them, although I was lucky to have older brothers who leant me theirs.  I’ve owned a lot of different pedals over the years, but at a certain point I realized that all of my guitar heroes generally sound like themselves even if they plug straight into an amp, and that’s what I aspire to.  Such a realization means that ultimately we can only chase so many pedals, it’s better to put your effort into your hands first, and if something is working for you and allowing you to express yourself, there’s no rush to move on to the latest and greatest effects.  And if you tour, you quickly run up against airline baggage allowances, how much weight you personally want to lug around besides your guitar, and what you find reliable in different situtations.  Personally, I’m mainly using effects in three ways:  

1. in the service of the foundation of a song (e.g. a wah wah pedal for the basic pattern to a funk song or an overdrive pedal for a rock rhythm guitar part).  Check out my group The Triodes Chunked 

2. to create some kind of soundscape or texture behind something else (e.g. a singer or instrumental solo)  

3. to be expressive or create variety in my soloing (i.e. becoming the singer in that moment). 

Michael Occhipinti & Shine On:  The Unvierse of John Lennon or my album Muorica have a lot of the last two. 

I’ve done musical theatre and played in bands where each song had to have the same presets every single show, but generally I’ve built my career and approach to effects around avoiding that approach.  I love improvising with effects, so even in a situation where a singer expects me to create atmosphere behind them, I try to be creative and not just duplicate what I do on that song every time.  In my solos, I love to surprise the band (and myself in a sense) by soloing with a sound completely different than the night before.  I’ll still basically go back to the same arsenal of sounds that I think allow me to be expressive, but put them in new places or use them in slightly different ways.  It keeps the music fresh, but it also tends to keep my improvising fresh.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that imposing a condition or limitation (e.g. solo with a particular sound) stimulates creativity. 

Some things I think everyone should hear if they are curious about guitar sounds: 

Backwards Guitar:  The Beatles:  I’m Only Sleeping.  John Lennon loved it when the Beatles stumbled across the sound of recording tape played backwards.  For this song George Harrison worked out a solo over the song played backwards so that when it was flipped around, the song wouldbe normal but the guitar would be backwards.  Jimi Hendrix also did a lot of backwards guitar soloing in the studio.  Guitarist Bill Frisell made great use of his Electro Harmonix delay that could record and play a lick backwards, and his recordings made me want a backwards delay too. I regularly have a backwards delay quietly in the backround when I’m soloing for some ambiece that is less specific than a normal repeating delay. 

Wah Wah:  Eric Clapton (White Room) and Jimi Hendrix (Voodoo Child) were the first people I heard use a wah wah, but my favourite use of it is in funk and r&b.  The classic examples are the theme from Shaft, played by Charles “Skip” Pitts on the recording by Isaac Hayes.  Wah Wah Watson on Papa Was a Rolling Stone, as well as Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” (and a hundred other hits). 

I found a nice little video on the Wah Wah here:  https://youtu.be/vtoac9zRibM 

Fuzz:  I don’t fuzz as much as overdruve, but Gibson’s Maestro (originally marted to let you sound like a horn or cello) changed everything with Keith Richards’ part on Satisfaction.  I have an old Vox Tonebender but it’s a bit unruly so I have to pick my moments (as did the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and Brian May).  I think my favourite fuzz is generally the Fuzz Face found in the Jimi Hendrix catalogue,   There’s a nice 4 minute documentary here https://youtu.be/V8vYxxBh9WI 

Overdrive:  The first overdrive pedal I had was the Boss one, but I got rid of it when I bought an Ibanex tubescreamer.  I have no idea why I got rid of it (since they are considered by many the gold standard of overdrive units) but I’ve subsequently used a variety including the Sparkle Drive that I used for while until I switched to the TC Electronics MOJO that I use now.  It has my initials in it, and rhymes with my old big band NOJO - and it sounds good too.  Every guitarist I know uses overdrive, but probably the ones that got my attention because of their overdrive tones are Stevie Ray Vaughan (he used the Ibanez tube screamer) and Jeff Beck (he’s used a Klon Centaur for a while.  They are collector’s items, but there are lots of imitations out there). 

Delay:  No discussion of delay should happen without acknowledging the inventive genius of Les Paul.  Check out his 1951 recording How High The Moon to here his tape echo (where the record and playback heads are used to create a delay)and lots of other tape echo/delay history here:  http://www.voodooguitar.net/2016/11/reelin-thru-years-history-of-tape-echo.html (trivia note:  Bing Crosby gave Les Paul a tape machine brought back from Germany after World War 2 and funded the creation of the Ampex company). 

I was really intrigued with tape echo machines when I saw Jimmy Page use one in the movie The Song Remains The Same, but it was hearing Andy Summers use his Echoplex on “Walking On The Moon” that really made me want to get my first delay pedal (my brother Peter leant me his Boss Analog Delay until I bought my first Boss digital delay.  I never did own a tape echo, but the Line 6 Green box did a nice imitation). When I heard the early U2 records, I REALLY started to use a lot of delay (for the record, The Edge used a Electro Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe on the early U2 records).  Other delay users I was influenced by include David Gilmour, Charlie Burchill (Simple Minds), David Torn, and Radiohead. 

  

Chorus:  I don’t really use a lot chorus, mostly because I used one starting in the 80s and to me it just triggers too many 80s cliches!  But it’s been a big part of some great songs (Andy Summers remains my favourite user of the chorus pedal).  And I’ve used more extreme chorus sounds to sound a little whacky now and then, as John Scofield sometimes does.  Here’s a top ten list:  http://www.sourceaudio.net/blog/post/the-top-10-greatest-chorus-effect-recordings-of-all-time 

  

Other Pedals.  One of the first pedals I had alongside overdrive was an MXR phaser.  It’s not a sound I really use anymore, as is the case with Flangers, but I do love a couple of other pedals/sounds I love and use a lot: 

Reverb:  Probably the most important sounds I use right now are in the Eventide Space Reverb, which is a great sounding pedal.  I use it almost continuously with an expression pedal, bringing in longer reverb or reverb volume as part of my playing.   And along with delay, reverb is how I create the mysterious atmospherics behind singers or soloists where the audience doesn’t exactly know what the sound is until they realize there’s only a guitarist on stage and no synths. 

Ring Modulator.  I didn’t think it was a pedal I’d use much until I heard Jeff Beck kick it in just for brief moments in a solo in a really intriguing way.  I will do some of that too, stating a phrase and then repeating it with ring mod, but I also have used it more and more to imitate a talking drum.  I love playing the drums (I’m not great, but I love it) and I love the idea of soloing like a drummer, so I more often use the ring modulator that way. 

Leslie Rotary Speaker:  A lot of people come up and ask me about my organ sound sometimes.  That’s the Leslie effect, and the Beatles were the first to use it for something other than organ (specifically John Lennon’s voice on Tomorrow Never Knows), and I loved hearing it on later George Harrison guitar parts or on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Cold Shot. 

Pitch Shifter/Octaver:  Jimi Hendrix was the first person I heard use the octaver pedal (the Octavio which Jim Dunlop made a copy pedal of), and Jimi Page used the MXR Blue Fuzz/Octave on “Fool In The Rain” 

but became intrigued with more sophisticated digital harmonizers in the 90s.  Tom Morello really made the Whammy Pedal popular, and I will use a pitch shifter for octaves or to sweep like the whammy pedal does. 

Tremolo Pedal:  I had an old Fender Deluxe where the tremolo (or vibrato) was taken out, so I had to use a pedal.  But I love the sound of tremolo and people like Bruce Cockburn or Marc Ribot use it in a way that I love. 

MY GEAR:  I tend to be pretty faithful to one or two guitars at a time, and these days they are both Ernie Ball Music Man guitars, and funnily enough both are discontinued!  I spend most of my time playing the Reflex model (it has evolved into the Game Changer with an entirely different pickup structure), but I also frequently use an Albert Lee model with 3 MM90 (P90 style) pickups (the guitar is now only made with either Strat style single coil pickups or two humbuckers).  Both of them are set up with Ernie Ball strings (11’s or the purple set).   My main acoustic guitar is a wonderful Taylor 422 steel string. 

My amp is made in Toronto by my friend Peter Medvick's Funk Farm.  All of his amps are one of a kind in some way, tailored to the musicians who request them (which is why mine is called the MO Twin 25).  Mine is an all-tube stereo head with 2 25-watt channels, and I run it with two 12" cabinets that Peter built. 

Prior to that, and on the road, I request two matching Fender tube amps (typically Vintage style Deluxes). 

For effects I'm most reliant on my Eventide Space reverb, TC Electronics MOJO overdrive, and Line 6's HD 500 (which I bought to replace the green, blue, and purple Line 6 boxes I used to lug around (I also got rid of my Evantide Delay as I didn’t find it “live” friendly, though the sounds are great), along with a few other pedals).  I don't really like the Line 6 distortions or reverbs, and I don't use the amp modelling part of the unit at all.  I sometimes use a volume pedal, but generally I find I'm more expressive using the volume knob on the guitar (thanks to Jeff Beck). 

I've shared some excerpts from different albums that are examples of different sounds I use on the gear page

Artists as Activists 

Singer/pianist Elizabeth Shepherd and I have been working together for the last seven years in a variety of ways.  She's part of my Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon group, and I have been on several tours with her in support of her fantastic last record The Signal.  Last year we began doing some duo shows of all Bruce Cockburn songs, some joined by Bruce's manager and Canadian music business pioneer Bernie Finkelstein, who added his stories from his autobiography to the performances.  Revisiting the Cockburn songbook has been great fun for me, as I did a lot of Bruce's music instrumentally when I was supporting my album Creation Dream:  The Songs of Bruce Cockburn (released 2000).

Elizabeth, John Lennon, and Bruce Cockburn are artists I admire musically but also because of their commitment to social justice, and they are brave enough to express what they feel in their lyrics.  On her album The Signal, there's a song called What's Happening? that Elizabeth wrote in response to certain Quebec politicians trying to make an issue out of veiled Muslim women, even though Muslims represent a tiny minority in Quebec, and women who wear the veil are a small minority within that minority.  It was a way for some politicians to crassly promote themselves as nationalists at the expense of a minority and luckily those people did not form the government. However, given the tragic shooting at a mosque in Quebec City last week, where 6 men were killed by someone who is said to hold racist, nationalist views (and a Trump admirer to boot), the song seems especially pertinent.  We'll be playing that song and others in Hamilton for a concert with the theme Artists as Activists.
Hope you'll join us if you can, and keep your eye on the Upcoming Shows page as there are other dates with Elizabeth too.  

http://thepearlcompany.ca/?m=20170217

Hugh's Room is Postponed! 

Hey my musical friends, I'm really, really sorry to say that the Nov. 16th Hugh's Room for the Yorkville Songbook show is CANCELLED/POSTPONED to a future date!  Really sorry to report this just after I've been promoting it - keep you posted on the next step!

Getting ready for a busy month! 

November is a busy, busy month full of interesting music!  As I write this, I'm getting ready to play 3 shows with my great friends from the Netherlands, Ineke Vandoorn (voice) and Marc Van Vugt (guitar).  They write very creative, melodic music and have shows in Toronto at the Rex Nov. 10th, at the Jazz Room in Waterloo on Sunday the 13th, and at the Four Seasons Centre (Canadian Opera Company) for a free concert on Tuesday the 15th at noon.  

On Nov. 19th my Sicilian Project hits the road with the wonderful Italian singer Pilar.  We're out west Nov. 19-29, then in Toronto on Dec. 1 for Pilar's double bill with Laila Biali, and then we're in Montreal, Kingston, Simcoe, and Port Perry.

I love playing great music with creative musicians, and this month is going to be a highlight of 2016 for me.  Hope you'll come out and see us!

thoughts on CBC's Q and Radio in general. 

Well, Tom Powers has been announced as the new voice of CBC's q. He's an excellent radio person so I'm not surprised, but if they are true to their press release (“We are refocusing and reinvesting in Q to ensure it continues to evolve and deliver what our audience wants from CBC Radio’s flagship music, arts and cultural program” Susan Marjetti) then here's what this audience member wants:  

Make the show sound as interesting as the cultural world they cover in film and literature and food. Literature gets both Lawrence Hill and Margaret Atwood, film gets an obscure documentary film maker and Quentin Tarrantino, food gets people like Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain, but the music side of the show too often focusses on what's fashionable (in a usually narrowly defined Indie 88 kind of way) instead of what deserves to reach audiences east and west because it's substantial or ambitious. It's not that they shouldn't discuss the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, but it's nice that they discuss Joseph Boyden and the books that end up on Canada Reads more often. 

Musically, I'd like CBC to celebrate great musicians and composers to the degree it celebrates great authors, and to let Canadians across the country actually discover the sounds of the country we live in. So many of us are making interesting music that doesn't always want to fit cleanly into a box. So much of the great music I go out and hear my colleagues make isn't on the radio. So Q, there's the challenge.