The Epically Long Road Back To Singing

Some things in life are just not clear or, probably more accurately, don’t make sense when you’re in the midst of them. Singing is one of those things for me. I sang as a kid and even had the lucky opportunity to sing leads in a couple musicals. While singing was something I enjoyed, it wasn’t the focus of my musical life and so, right around my early teens, I simply stopped singing. Maybe it was my increased focus on the guitar. Or that I added composition and recording to the list of things I was trying to learn. I guess having dropped singing makes some sense — there was, and is, only so much time in a day. For the next three or four decades, I just kept going along that path. Until one day a few years ago when, for some reason, singing became important again.

I think part of what happened came from my guitar teaching. I could see some students, particularly younger ones, responded incredibly well to my humming or singing a phrase they were trying to learn on the guitar. Singing seemed to remove the filter that the guitar was applying to the learning process. After hearing me sing a phrase, the student had an easier time internalizing the music. Another part of it was that I started writing more songs and it was simply easier to sing a vocal line or melody than to play it on an instrument. It just translated better.

So it started with teaching and songwriting, but I think there’s more to it than just that. I played in bands for most of my musical life with my focus always on the instrumental parts of the songs. How the guitar fit in texturally with the rest of the band. How I could play a better solo. Most of the tracks on my records have been instrumentals too, although I do have vocal tunes sung by some of my vocalist friends. The real change over the last while has been a shifting in how I respond to songs, with words seeming to have so much more importance to me. I can’t explain the change or rationalize it. I absolutely haven’t given up on instrumental music (in fact, I have a new guitar-based instrumental single coming out very soon!), but I am going to be adding more vocal tunes to my records and when I play live.

Partial Capo Versus Alternate Tuning

I have to admit, until maybe a few years ago, I had never played around with any kind of partial capo. I didn’t have a specific reason for not looking into how useful it would be for my own music, I just never felt drawn to it. In some ways, I was also not pulled towards alternate tunings, albeit for a different set of reasons. Two sides of the same coin? Maybe. Both a partial capo and alternate tunings change your relationship to the guitar and, until relatively recently, that wasn’t something I was super interested in. Probably that has a lot to do with my training on the guitar (read classical and jazz) and how I vastly prefer to know the fretboard as well as I can.

Now before I go on, if you’re reading this and new to the world of guitars and guitar accessories, what the heck is a partial capo anyways? Partial capos are a subset of capos. See, cleared that right up, eh? Now seriously, partial capos work just like any other kind of capo in that they clamp onto the neck of the guitar and raise the pitch of a string or strings. Where a partial capo differs from a standard capo is that a partial capo allows certain strings to not be clamped down. A partial capo allows some strings to have their pitch raised and others to perform and sound in their “normal” unaltered state. I use a SpiderCapo for the times I want to use a partial capo and it allows me to capo each of the six strings individually.

So why did I get interested in partial capos? For a lot of things artistic for me, I can’t truly point to a single reason. I’ve been moving towards incorporating folks elements in my music for quite some time and open tunings play a role in some of that music. And then a friend online suggested trying out a partial capo. Seemed like a good match — I could get some of the open tuning sound I wanted and still retain my knowledge of the fretboard.

The partial capo certainly has opened up new sounds and colours for me. It’s pushed me to think differently about the guitar and challenged some of my preconceptions. But it hasn’t become an all or nothing type of thing. I still play in standard tuning without any kind of capo most of the time. I still use an old “regular” capo as well. The partial capo has just increased the number of possibilities for me as a player and as a writer and I sure am happy I found it.

“To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker

I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.

For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.

I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.

Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.