Adventures in Gorgeous Guitars and the Bottom End

One of the gifts of the new year is that I am realizing a long-held goal of learning to play the bass. I have always thought of myself as a born bass player – laid-back maker of the low end harmonies. I sang the lowest alto part in choirs and choruses for decades. Having spent the past few years playing percussion alongside Christopher Thurston, master bass man, my ear is primed for doing this now. Back in 2009, I bought a Kala U-Bass (a bass ukelele) and it has been sitting in its case ever since. So I pulled it out, made myself a diagram of the neck, and started figuring out familiar bass lines (Mission Impossible, Fever, various Motown, etc.) I am spending several hours a day playing and learning my way around the instrument.

Last Sunday, Lisa Means and Martha Dyer came over to play and record guitar improvisations. Lisa brought four of her guitars, which we looked at and listened to, eventually focusing in on two: Goddess and Yellow Moon. Both of these guitars were hand built by Joe Young, a Canadian Luthier. Here are his descriptions of them:

This is the first in a series of ‘Goddess’ builds. This visually stunning OM guitar is crafted from Pomelle Sapele, a beautiful, iridescent, lustrous wood that delivers a rounded, gorgeous and balanced tone. The colours in her back, sides, headstock and rosette, range from pink to light brown, to red and then to gold. Her Honduran mahogany neck and her striped ebony fretboard and bridge hold perfect tension through the strings; her Sitka spruce top, as sound as a bell . The image of The Goddess is etched into the centre of her back and is found deep within her body as you peer into the sound hole. This Goddess image symbolizes, at least to me, the connection we have with Earth. Roots deep into the earth, their form portrayed as a vessel for life, hair sensing the winds of change, and their arms reaching into the ether, the heavens and beyond. Of course, this image has the characteristics of a tree, the true beginning of wood’s song. The ancient Sanskrit word ‘OM’ which suggests the phrase ‘that which is sounded out loudly’; the sound often vibrated at the end of mindful, spiritual practice, seemed the only appropriate choice for the guitar’s size. Sound and Spirit connects music and soul, creating an opportunity to hear and feel your music just as you want it to be.

Yellow Moon:

This organic guitar is formed with a musical accordance of West Coast woods. Its back, sides, neck and fretboard are yew; the wood named by the Druids for its representation of rebirth and transformation. This instrument is earthy, woody and sacred. It has the clear, fundamental sounds of a bell and vibrates with a bright, sharp tone. At the 13th fret, the yew and yellow cedar neck meets the body; thirteen representing integrity and the female magic of the moon. The bird’s eye yellow cedar burl rosette, tail wedge and big leaf maple bindings unite this delicious instrument. The bridge is carved from the soft roundness of a yellow cedar burl, a wood known to promote peaceful thoughts. Ultimately, the sound is perfectly attuned to its origins: the forest, the ocean, and the sky.

Lisa gives loving care and attention to these instruments. She delights in them and is sensitive to their changing needs and moods.

Yellow Moon from Joe Young's Website

Yellow Moon from Joe Young’s Website

Martha brought some percussion instruments: small cymbals, a toy xylophone, tingshas she had picked up while traveling in Thailand. Martha is an expert percussionist who plays spoons with local bluegrass favorites The Blue-Tailed Skinks. She is equally as skilled at bringing out harmonics on the guitar. The three of us played for several hours in the free improv/deep listening style that I encourage and enjoy.

Two Zoom H2n microphones were placed in the Sun(Ra) Room. One located above us and at the edge of the corner cut out in the room. Experimentation has revealed that this spot picks up a really good mix of the instruments. The other Zoom was placed low, and directly in front of the three of us in a semi-circle. The mics are preset with a low cut filter, auto gain and compression/limiter.  Both were set to surround sound with the five interior mics wide open. This gives me four pairs of stereo tracks to work with when compiling and mixing.

I plan to build a soundscape of all string instruments using clips of Lisa playing her guitars. The cohorts and I will play all strings as well. Perhaps some day we will create a Nested Soundscape in Baldwin Auditorium. That would be so cool!!

In the meantime, here is a moment that happened while Martha, Lisa and I were playing last week. I did not make any extra cuts and pastes in this excerpt. It evolved just as you hear it. Martha on percussion, Lisa playing Yellow Moon and me on the bass. I call this Time Out of the Blue.


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