Part Five: The Walk

Ahhh, it’s time - I know I say rounding over the body is my personal crossover point when the wood actually looks like an instrument at that point. To me it’s now just a bass or guitar that isn’t finished yet instead of planks of wood that are “going to” be something. Now they ARE something! Well, after that and sanding and finishing, all the neck work and its sanding and finishing, here is the day it all REALLY becomes what it will be, and takes a walk that is only about 40 feet but is truly miles in this process of how an instrument comes to be around here.

Time to put the neck on and walk it over to assembly. As the instrument enters into the workshop in raw material form, it exits this work space as a neck and body as one. Neck pockets are routed undersized by a millimeter or so, and each neck is built to certain width specs for the heel (where it joins the body). So the neck is shaved to fit its pocket, touched up, and slipped into its pocket tightly. This is how the instrument leaves the green workshop. Held in my hands, being welcomed to the world, hopefully in some sort of intangible immeasurable energy way of space-in-the-atoms vibration inspiring all other instruments in process behind it to let go and work with the hands that help this transformation. At least, that’s what it feels like in here. The neck stays in because it fits, and we walk out onto the deck in the Texas sun born anew. I was not always a happy guy. I was not always a productive or effective guy. I was not always filled with hope and inspiration. But you surround yourself with the natural world and make your doings part of some constructive process, and there – if you’re lucky – you can tune into the perpetual springtime of things transforming and blooming… and make it yours. Find you in it and find it in you. I give these instruments life for a living now, but I’m living because they gave me life long ago.

We then approach the next little workshop, built right next to the green shop. But before we leave the green workshop, a little on its history and the main tools we used to come this far.

The workshop was sized and oriented to fit in between the trees with as few cut as possible. Parts of those cut were used inside it as posts to hold up the loft and legs to hold up the built-in benches along that side underneath the loft. The main work stations were built for their tasks – the routing bench, the neck area, a lower counter for the drill press, etc. The basic workshop itself was built in 2007 by an intentional community circle we helped form in our little rural town; there were all variety of people out here settling in as singles and couples, and we figured we could all use each others’ help. So that group came together (I have a book about it I hope to put out next year) and one of the work parties was 30 or so people showing up and building this shop. A shed roof was put up on braced posts, Jamie and I then built it to floor level, and soon after many wonderful hands I still think about helped it the rest of the way. Even during the 4 years of exploring just how big I wanted Birdsong to be in a shop down in the city, if a co-op thing could work (nnnnnope), this shop was refitted and in use. It is the greatest working environment I could dream up and fits us well at the level we’re happiest.

The main tools are a bandsaw, big and little drill presses, a DeWalt planer, a couple of angle grinders, a Bosch Colt plunge router with around 240 instruments under its belt, an ancient Black & Decker router from the old SD Curlee shop strictly set up for roundover, a table belt sander and vertical belt/spindle sander, small jointer, and occasionally a chainsaw. The rest are hand tools, jigs, fixtures, and accessories.

There are smaller parts we make for each instrument too – let’s talk about those. Every one has either a control plate for the front or a cavity cover for the back; wood is sliced and planed or bought thin and prepped, and a template is placed & traced; cut, edge dress & drill-out, then sanding & finishing follow. Most Birdsongs have a carved arrowhead truss rod cover that gets crafted, by me, for each one too. Since we use a zero fret in the fretboard, the nut is merely a string spacer and can be made of anything – so I prefer dense wood like ebony. This also ties in with classical instruments. You know… early on, when this was all a dream, I pictured spending time carving and shaping some little piece of ebony trim. That was the scene; a snapshot of the ideal, like someone who someday wants a sailboat would have a picture in their mind of a lake and the glimmer of the sun off the water. That would be me, working with the wood. Well, I get to do that with every one! Sometimes its rosewood, sometimes its bloodwood, but the Fusion (for example) gets wood pickup covers and trim pieces along side it, instruments without a pickup up against the neck end get a neck end trim piece to cover the end of the neck pocket routing (our Birdsong neck heels end square and bits are round, so you have to rout a little farther than the end). So there are always odd pieces and plates to be making, and we’ll talk more on that during assembly because these happen while the bass is coming together in the assembly shop. So it’s time for that… next week. It is a story of a building you don’t want to miss!

Next week: Partholes & elbows – it’s assembly time!!

Have a great weekend thanks so much for being with us.

Listening to: Fluid (early Seattle Sub-Pop band); Richie Havens, Grace of the Sun; Rage Against The Machine, Evil Empire; Fu Manchu, The Action Is Go; Brahms… and a little Cream on top.

Part 4: The Smooth & The Satin

Part four of a glimpse into how it happens… sanding and finishing, the smooth and the satin.

The final step of removing everything from the wood that doesn’t look like a guitar is to sand it smooth. Sanding is where some magic happens. Of helping hands we’ve had over the years, this is where most have contributed and I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am for all of them. I don’t sand the big parts. OK, I do when I have to… but that’s rare, because the body is one single four to five hour process that beats up the wrists and numbs the hands when I could be doing twenty other things and making huge progress at the work benches and I’ll gladly pay someone else who finds it a therapeutic and meditative process to do it before I pay myself for doing those twenty other things. For Captain Manyhands here, it’s like holding back the ocean to take a leak. So this is for the unsung heroes who have saved my time, hands, wrists, sanity, and enthusiasm – and have set me up for a nice satiny finish with their work for the past 20 years. You’d think it’s easy… until I send it back to you five times for spots you missed, cross-grain scratches, inconsistent curves, uneven lines, on and on and on. Not looking for perfection – but for a very high standard of handcraft, a deliberate and detailed look well on this professional side of “hand made” from the side of homemade plenty on both sides of this profession’s benches confuse it with. It’s not.

This was drilled into my brain by my friend Uncle Johnny, who let me use a corner of his backwoods workshop to build instruments once I got out here. More on him later, but he sanded some in the pre-company years before Birdsong went legit in 2004. It was then he trained Jamie, my then new wife… who is still without a doubt the greatest sander I have ever worked with. And I’ve fed work to local craftspeople who have been fantastic! I’ve also tried it with local craftspeople great at what they do but who – sanding bass guitar bodies, evidently - couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with instructions on the heel, thinking I was setting them up to take advantage of, that this was somehow an insurmountable task to get after, get right, and get done. No sir, my wife can do it in four hours and it’s perfect. I’ve seen it done in three. Your excuse for the past three days was what? So I’ve seen it all out here when it comes to sanding and I’ve had to go rescue bodies and have uncomfortable conversations. Most have been fantastic though, and of great help as needed, but their own work picks back up or they move on or their life situation changes; or for the folks that have been in-house with us it was school, career move or life decision time. Though I did have to reassign one guy because I’ve never SEEN another human being sweat like that, and that doesn’t work when you’re prepping something for finish. Believe me - there wasn’t enough bandana and sawdust in the world. I’ve seen some things, but I’ve still never seen anything like it. Seriously though, I really do thank them all wherever they are now and I made damn sure they knew how appreciated they were and still are. This could not have happened without their help.

The process? Take that body again. Start with rough grits and a random orbital hand held sander, working purely by hand in the crucial detail areas, being careful not to reshape the softer woods – merely refine, using your eyes the whole time and then closing them to feel with the hands just how smooth this curve is or the transition from that line is once it looks right. It’s got to feel right too. Johnny was the first place I heard the term ungraceful transition. “That’s (big meaty thumb tracing back and forth) kind of an ungraceful transition right there.” Proceeding, you work through finer grits the same way, until the entirely-by-hand fine layer, a damp towel wet-down to raise the last of the fibers, and the last layer of sanding. That’s how we do it – but regardless of exact procedure, when you walk into a guitar shop of whatever size looking to sign on and be a part of things, the first place they stick you is sanding. It very quickly weeds out those who are in love with the idea of building guitars from those who will actually sanctify as high craft the parts of it they do not love and get on with it, get after it, get it right, and get it done. The rest of it? You have to go through this room first to get there.

Once the body is sanded and either picked up, dropped off or handed over, it goes right back into the green shop where a handling/hanging stick is screwed into the neck pocket for use during the finishing process. I call it a neck stick. It seems like just a meaningless strip of wood, but there is no such thing as meaningless in my workshop. It is a temple. It is a place where tradition, where the work of my teachers, where the craft of my being, once alive wood, service to and through the music gifted to me, where all these paths have converged to fill the world with music and moments that bring beings together with good vibrations. You don’t have to see a guitar as anything more than a hammer, you don’t need to believe in dharma, you don’t even have to like what we do. But you do have to understand that this is what it is to me, and this is where it all goes down – right here. So while there is ball busting and levity and bad puns and practical jokes and fart humor, this is our stage – hallowed ground. There is no such thing as meaningless in here when it comes to the tools – which are talismans, the process – which is ceremony, or the results – which are sacred, which is us deliberately spending ourselves through disciplined craft into this tool of creation we have the privilege of manifesting. We weren’t gifted to cure disease or raise the dead or feed the hungry – this is as close as we get. So these sticks? There are a couple still in use from Birdsong’s first workshop… there is one of Uncle Johnny’s from when I showed him how to turn his wood art into guitars (while he was showing me how to turn my guitars into wood art)… and the rest? I made them from pieces of his workshop after he died. Not from in it, OF it. The most humble of hanging sticks in here are cut from the bones of my mentor’s workshop. Take a moment and think about that. You should hear the stories about the lives in and fingerprints on some of the tools in here… it’ll raise the hair on your arms. Meaningless is an abstract concept in a garden.

Finishing. We go for satin, and it gives us sometimes more and sometimes less. But it’s never going to look like it was dipped in plastic, if for no other reason than to me wood should not look like plastic. It was my friend Uncle Johnny again who showed me the finish he used on his woodcraft, itself a variation on LTV (linseed oil, turpentine, varnish) used in antique furniture restoration. Since that time, ours has been a variation on that. We use the same finish on the neck as the body, but fewer coats. Let’s look at the body… after blowing off and out any remaining sawdust, the first coat of hand rubbed oil goes on very quickly – I mean elbows flying or it’ll leave run stains in the wood – and that grain pops in a wonderful display of what is hidden in the natural world, how deep such beauty goes, how completely non-dependent on our being able to see it for it to be there this beauty is. That somehow our perception of something is its only validity. Horseshit. “This is when the wood comes back to life,” he told me… but more on him later. The initial coat holds within it a sermon of some kind on how sudden striking beauty is to be enjoyed, but enjoyed while still moving toward the goal – do not veer, do not be disturbed by it, do not abandon yourself to it. Keep composure and perspective on what you are doing here. I really want to rub it on sloooowly and watch every bit of figure deepen and become three dimensional in its refraction of the bare light… lose myself in it… but no, that will not bring us to the result we want. Its beauty is never lost on me – however quickly the moment must pass. Suddenly the oil is on it, it’s in it, wicking into the wood, and I rub until it’s warm. I do not use gloves. I want to feel this. And I want the wood to feel my skin. This is where I spend myself on my craft. This is an exchange, this is a working with, a dominion - not a domination. Those are not the same thing either.

After application and rub, it hangs in the rack. A short time later (much less if it’s 110 degrees than, say, 70) it gets un-hung and wiped of the excess finishing oil. I wipe it with T-shirts that we enjoy until they aren’t worn anymore. Most clothes with any life left get donated – but there is no shortage in the world of old T-shirts and, for ones that mean too much and maybe hold memories I can’t just let go of, here is our ceremony. They give their last in service to musical instruments that will outlive them, so spreading this joy out into the world as little drops within greater ripples of communion. After that ceremony, they are just rags; and in this, they are my teachers.

The finishing bench is a rebuilt workbench my long departed uncle Pat had in his basement back in Massachusetts - I remember it from childhood. I has long served since coming to me, being a repair bench in my first music shop and the original wiring bench in the first real Birdsong workshop. Depending on the piece of wood and the build, anywhere from two to ten coats will be rubbed in, wiped off, left overnight to cure, then buffed with super fine steel wool and blown off for the next coat. Once it looks and feels right, we have a hand rubbed oil finished neck and body. They are about to become one, and that one’s time in the green shop is complete. We take it from there – literally – next week for assembly.

Thanks so much for being on this journey with us! Have a great weekend. Make a moment.

Listening to: early acoustic RL Burnside, Count Basie, and a lady in a dream told me to listen to Brahms, so I’ve been feasting on Symphony No.4 in E minor.

Part 3: Shaping Necks, Making Dust, and Drilling Holes

Part three of how it happens. This isn’t “THE” only way and not the only way here either – but this is to give you a peek at some of what happens most of the time. There are many methods to get the tasks needed done and on to the next, and keep the instruments going from one bench to the next in the correct order.

So while our body has made the journey from inspiration (part 1) to plank and blank (part 2), our neck is still in the wood! In our world, the instrument is built around the neck. If you build one-offs then you DEFINITELY build around the neck. It tells you where everything else needs to be and how it all needs to line up to work together. The neck has three main things going on – its basic construction, the fingerboard, and the truss rod that goes in a channel under the fingerboard inside the neck. The rest is just cutting and shaping. Lots. That cutting and shaping can be done from a hand tool process without anything even plugged in all the way to a room sized state of the art factory CNC computer controlled machine bangin’ out 20 at a time. I like it in the middle – I think technology has its place and if it has its place in guitar building it should be in the areas of extreme precision – which technology is great at, almost like delegating a certain task to a member of the team who is the best at it – and also in sparing the craftsman some physically abusive grunt work. I have always had a lot of help with necks whenever possible – still do. Smaller and bigger CNC shops roughing out the basics and slotting to accuracy several zeros out, to other luthiers crafting them to 80%, to helpers in the shop. All necks, by the time they hit sanding, are to a set of proprietary specs I worked out at the beginning. The 31” scale, for example, is not an industry standard. You won’t find that on any bass but ones related to our workshop. The Birdsong bass neck won’t bolt onto anything else and work – what we do was designed around IT.

Our necks most of the time start as maple stock chosen for grain orientation. The template is actually of the profile of the neck – its side including heel and headstock angle. Most of our standard necks are 3 piece construction though others have happened – so the blank is glued from the maple strips, dimensioned, then we trace & cut – the cutting, the shaping, and even the sanding once its all together, happen in intermingled stages so it’s still flat here to do THIS, or rough shaped there to gauge THAT, do this other thing before you drill, get this perfect now to measure over here… it’s not complicated but there is a way to do it efficiently. Everything starts with the fretboard – that gets cut, slotted, trimmed. The neck blank gets the channel routed for the rod, in it goes, on goes the fingerboard, and you clamp the hell out of it. Work the heel, work the headstock, trim, trim some more, dress the end, dress the nut area, sand the slight curve (radius) into the board, carve, dress more, fret, trim, edge, carve, sand, detail, shape more, then it’s ready for final sanding. It’s a whole chapter in a book all by itself and one of those processes you learn by doing over and over again. It’s brutal on the hands and wrists. But a great neck doesn’t just happen, especially if you’re not doing copies.

That body meanwhile, over on the routing bench, has really become a bass body rather than a blank! A centerline is drawn on in pencil and templates for the various routs and cavities are lined up to this, and placed very precisely (we use millimeters in the shop because juggling fractions is just a stupid error waiting to happen) longitudinally. This way everything is in the right place! The templates help guide the hand router as its bit removes the wood where the pickups, neck, and controls & wiring will go. Like everything else, there are multiple ways to do this. I still do it the way I did my first – though I’m much better at it now – with a hand held plunge router and a bit with a bearing that runs up against the inside of the template cutouts on the last few passes. Also in the templates are locating pilot hole locations for the bridge. The basic templates are clear lexan, laser cut by the same small business that has burned the logos into our headstocks for years. Other templates are my original plywood templates still in use.

Once the body has its neck pocket and cavities routed, with other bits and chisels and rasps, the rounding over and any access carves are done. Then it’s time for drillout – pickup cavities through to the control cavity and other wire routes are drilled, the jack hole on instruments with the jack on the side (edge) is drilled through, neck screw locations are marked in the neck heel area (every one is a little different because by the time a body is cut and edged there is a little variation here) and the body leaves the routing bench and goes over to Uncle Johnny’s old drill press. Uncle Johnny wasn’t my uncle – that was what he was known as in town and he was a woodworking mentor of mine, showing me how to turn my guitars into wood art while I showed him how to turn his wood art into guitars. He’ll turn up later… but his drill press has drilled the neck screw pilot holes, countersunk for those eyelets, and drilled the string through holes on just about everything from the spring of 2007 on. Now we have a body that just needs contours before it is handed off for sanding (next week – sanding & finishing in part 4) – so the forearm and belly cuts are chiseled, rasped, filed, ground - some combo of these - into (or out of, more correctly) the wood. Are there more efficient ways of doing all of this? Good God yes. Of course! But there are Ferraris and there are Hondas. There are specialty shop crafted hot rods and there is basic assembly line transportation. There is craft beer and there is Bud Light.

And yeah, we DO do things a little differently. “Why don’t they do it this way” “What’s with that” “Why?” There’s a method to the madness of creation, of manifesting things into existence from the intangible inspiration; and there’s also madness to the method too, where there’s magic and alchemy and mysteries coming to dance a recipe beyond the best of its ingredients – let’s not forget here, a musical instrument is a talisman. You might not see it that way, it may be “only” the tool for notes to you, but that doesn’t define anything but your own relationship to it. These things were alive once, there’s something in there. Pieces for ceremony crafted from old bones… On the level of features and specs alone, though, a Birdsong is what a Birdsong is, and they have spoken for themselves in thousands of hands over about 20 years now.

We now have not just pieces, parts, lumber – but a bass guitar that’s just not together yet. Seems like semantics, but it’s more – we are now on the other side of this transformation. In the hands, it’s a neck that had the best of both worlds built into it and a completely bench-crafted body. Both need some serious sanding. But backing up for a moment – all those fancy body engravings and turquoise inlays, this is when they would get done. Unless something is really ragged after being worked, in which case it’ll get some initial sanding first, this is when I’d dive into all of that kind of work. Then, handed off to the hands of the unsung heroes of Birdsong past & present, into sanding they go!

And into the weekend… go I. Make it a good one!

Listening to: Bruce Springsteen autobiography audiobook, TAD, Dave Brubeck, count Basie, Bob Marley, and lots of The Pixies. If that isn’t variety, I don’t know what is! All out of the same twelve notes and all feeding my soul.

Part 2: Going Blank!

OK, so last week was the loooong post on inspiration – now we get to the perspiration! Once there is a design to build, it goes onto some plywood to be a template. Whether it will see model status or I just need one, most of the time it gets drawn here first to see it in real size and get the curves just right, to make sure it’s in proportion to itself and to the general size of the other models - because we know those work, fit where they need to and feel right. There’s no right or wrong curve, just what looks right to the designer’s eye – and my eye has a very specific thing it’s looking for when it comes to flowing lines. I’ll stand the template piece up against a shelf and walk by it for a month if I have to, stopping every now and then to erase and redraw an inch of that body until it says “Right, this is it.” There will be variation and it may even change again, but the first steps onward are toward “great,” not “good enough.”

I still use some original Birdsong templates, or revised ones from after subtle changes. Every now and then the hand craft nature of the way we do it means (for example) a horn might be slightly different by the time it’s done, the little variations in each step adding up, and sometimes you look and think “That’s the prettiest horn tip ever.” And you make a new template that has that one. I have literally stacks of body templates from my years of building, going back 22 years. I’ve probably actually only built maybe 50 models. On the SD Curlee side of things I have some original aluminum body templates from 1975 and a bunch of plywood from years and models that followed. I look at those as museum pieces; I look at the ones from my history like a book of pictures of times and trail heads. “Oh wow, that was ’97 and I was going to…” “Hey look, the guitar line I wanted to do in 2003!”

OK. So it starts with plywood. What wood will the body be? In my world the neck is almost always going to be maple (we’ll talk necks next week) with either maple or rosewood board. But the body? I can’t list all the woods that have been used or the reasons. Some are better to work than others, some end up contributing a little bit in a great way toward tonal desires, there’s weight to consider, and of course which visual flavor and how plain or wild the grain is. Other times a client may have fond memories under a cherry tree, or I might look at a piece and see some combination, a visual or sonic recipe to craft. The body wood has influence, but mostly by its characteristics – soft lightweight woods generally accent this and attenuate that, denser woods will bring out this other thing and behave differently in this frequency range. So it’s a seasoning in a big sonic soup. But in my experience, woods of similar density will bring similar performance ingredients – they don’t know what name they have been given. And I don’t even have to either, honestly. Occasionally I find what I call “Corner boards” where I shop, random stuff in dusty corners, and based on suitability I’ll just add it to the pile. If the wood guy doesn’t know, we call it hickory or maple and on the ticket it goes. Here it becomes (insert a few notes of low, ominous cello) “Mystery wood.” Once it’s figured out what wood or woods will make up the body, it’s time to prep the planks for cutting into blanks.

Standard woods we get in long planks at a little more than half body width, sometimes full body width for one-piece bodies. That’s getting more and more difficult to find. For builds I know will be multiple pieces with laminate stringers etc., I use different criteria for selecting the wood stock. I get in my ’74 Dodge pickup or ’83 Ford van and go to my source warehouses and pick out the big planks by hand. They still talk to me. Surprisingly, the folks there still do too! More exotic woods I order in and come on a big brown truck, and local Texas woods I saddle up and head off to rural mills in the hills or in search of a RWG – a Rural Wood Guy. These characters out in the Deep South woods, they’re stories for another time. But they know more about the woods they know than anyone you’ll ever meet.

For the basic 2-piece we’ll talk about to keep it simple, once the plank is back at the workshop I’ll do some order of cutting down and planning to body thickness. I’ll then lay out the halves using the body template of the model this wood will become. Once I’m happy with the grain orientation and how the center joint will look, it goes on in Sharpie and we commit to the cut. That’s big – some of this wood is not cheap. And the process is not for the faint of heart. To make a sculpture you can stand intimidated by how to make this thing look like a bird, or you can get carving and cut away – very carefully – everything that doesn’t look like one. It’s already in there; you have to free it. If this wood can’t stay a tree, then it’s been handed to me to WORK. So after measuring twice, on it goes in ink. “To the bandsaw, Robin!” The more rustic planks out of the mills and the wood hunters’ back yards… heck, sometimes their FRONT yards…well, sometimes I start those builds with a chainsaw.

So now, cut out of the plank are body halves. But they’re not cut to final shape yet – they’re cut so the wood’s side edge (what will be the center joint when the halves are brought together) is straight, and the outer curves of the body shape are cut with extra wood left on there for flat spots when possible, for clamps to go up against. Let’s back up a minute – when laying out bodies or body pieces to get out of a plank, you either go by grain or feature, where you use the best looking sections – or by maximum yield on a more plain, more straight grained piece, where you nestle the curves of the drawn halves into and up against each other to get as many sets (bodies) as possible out of the whole plank. That can be some tricky cutting too. Sometimes on the more rustic woods you’re just working around huge cracks or holes or bark to get what you CAN out of the structurally good sections. Sometimes you can cut around the pieces leaving blocky areas that clamps will grip nicely during glue-up, and sometimes there are other solutions. Cauls are wood pieces cut to fit against the curves of body shapes on one of their sides with the other left flat – again for the head of the clamp to grip. Sometimes the wood gives you two rectangular halves to glue into a blank, nice and simple. Ideally though, you are thinking a step or two ahead while you mark it to cut and don’t make the steps to follow more difficult to execute. You set yourself up for the shot. I can’t tell you how much all of this relates to life and business, and how much of both has been taught to me by the steps of building an instrument.

Then, the surfaces to be joined go across a jointer so they’re perfectly flat, smooth, and square, and the body halves are glued and clamped. Every woodgnome has their favorite clamps – for me they’re little red Besseys to keep the two glued halves’ edges from slipping out of surface alignment and long orange Jorgensens to clamp the halves together. I like to put the glued body blanks (now they’re blanks, not planks – the first stage of guitar body vs. the final stage of tree) in the Texas sun when possible for a few hours while the glue sets up. The next day, off come the clamps, any glue squeeze-out is shaved off the center where the halves are now one, and the bandsaw cut this time is to the line we traced on with the body template. Some time on the oscillating spindle sander to smooth those curves free of blade marks and bumps and that body goes over on the routing bench with the next few that are waiting for routing too.

I don’t like to waste wood – the leftovers from the blank-making process and body cutout can become center pieces or stripes (“stringers”) for future bodies, pieces of woodcraft, slices that become control cover plates and other trim pieces and covers for builds to come, boxes of cutoffs put aside for other craftspeople who use smaller pieces, or offerings that engage all the senses in their blaze of glory in an evening campfire. In the case of natural (untreated for insects) mesquite or pecan, you can cook over it. Or soak it and grill with it. The chips and sawdust woodshop sweepings go out on the paths or to friends who compost.

Next week we talk necks and routing into sanding. Stay tuned! And crank up The Cars… I mean I get it, I’m old enough for the singer of the cars to die. But I can NOT be old enough for the singer of The Cars to be 75! RIP Ric Ocasek, your music will crank out of my old 6x9s until it’s my turn on the shore. The rest of you, go DO something. Go make something happen! Go get started on an intimidating project – by the time you’re done you’ll know how to do it. It’s one thing to survive the weekend – you go LIVE some of it. Let the good times roll.

Listening to: Eddie Money, The Cars, Keith Richards Main Offender, Springsteen autobiography audiobook.

Part 1: Inspiration

Friday the 13th! What a great day… what a productive week! This week on the news page blog, running steady now for who-the-hell-remembers how long, we begin a series on how a Birdsong comes to be with a far out attempt to describe inspiration. Enjoy & have a great weekend!

Inspiration. Nothing happens without it. This is the first in a series of bits about how a Birdsong comes to be – specifically, because this is the Birdsong site and Birdsong has been most of my life for most of 20 years. There was the chapter before the company and after it; that’s a big line in my life, July 4th 2004. But the whole thing started in 2000, or 1997, or 1988, or 1982… well, I digress. Point is every happening happened because of some inspiration and all of those actions – and inspiratiiadded up to a path to follow. Being as I followed, it is also at this point a path we can look back on too. Not too much; I’m more of a “Be here now” kind of guy, because that’s where all the action is and where tomorrows are made. Birdsong’s beginnings and the path back from there are getting a bit hazy, but the creative process and its inspiration – and the inspiration FOR it – are ever present.

Inspiration. It can be a thought about a type of instrument’s form or function, a curve that catches the eye, a model name, a tonal quest; then you’re off. It turns to pen on paper, lines, notes, a concept. Here form always follows function – meaning no matter what the seed of sitting down and putting all of this together on paper was, eventually the eyes will look at that upper horn and re-draw it as necessary to cover the point in space where the upper strap button needs to be in relation to the neck so the thing will balance decently on a strap. And one looks at the leg area and makes sure it’s as far forward as possible without turning the cutaway and lower horn – cut away as much as possible for upper fret access – into something that looks like a dog’s dick. You can see how there are fundamentals to a functionally good shape; so when chatboard pundits pipe in “Ohhh my Gooooaaaad, it looks like a (insert other brand)!” No, the design they’re critiquing, the one they’re referencing, and all the others that are similar… that’s the family of what an instrument that will balance and sit well looks like, as designed by people who understand that sort of thing. It would be kind of like saying all pickup trucks look the same. Well, they have similarities yes – due to how they work. Due to the aspects that MAKE them good functioning pickup trucks! These are shared traits. But one tries to put a different spin on that family familiarity by doing it their way, with their subtly own points and curves. On a curvy bass, if the inspiration is a visual one, maybe it’s the fender opening sweep of an old Dodge or ’60 Starliner that stretches into the swoop of a ‘30s Hispano-Suiza in the curve of the leg cut. It’s like hearing a bass run from Justin Chancellor over a drum fill, hearing a few notes of it and going, “Heck, I could make a song out of that!” And you do, and by the time it’s all shaped in it’s not in note by note identifiable form anymore… but it’s in there. It’s in there deep, at some creative DNA level. Anyhow, that’s where I usually start if I am inspired to see new curves – with that curve and the essence of an automotive design influence.

Inspiration. The overall Birdsong inspiration was because I am a small guy and was never comfy with a bass strapped on. I started as a guitar player but the switch to bass was my ticket out of town, into the biz, and on to the ride of chasing the dream. Playing bass paid and was needed everywhere I went. But when you’re 5’3” the tools suck! “It’s a poor painter who blames his brushes.” Stick it. Go put on your father’s shoes and try to run a marathon and tell me all about it. What I wanted was a short scale bass that balanced and was comfortable ergonomically, was built for professionals, and sounded great. It seemed I could pick any two of those at best, with the remaining need so far out of whack it couldn’t be modded away to my satisfaction. I figured there were others in similar situations or of any physique that were tired of having ’72 Buicks strapped on and holding up the neck all night. After a bit and the first few rather crude but great sounding 6-string guitars were manifested off the workbench, a friend asked for a small bass that would be comfy for a guitar player to use when recording. I jumped at the chance to bring some of those ideas to life, and it worked! Inspiration, ideas, a concept, and the spark. Then it takes real form. These days it usually starts with a concept of use. I can put any shape around the basic Birdsong neck / structure / hardware and it will – so long as that point is here and this curve is there – hang great and be comfy. I’ve drawn a hundred versions of which you’ve seen maybe 25. I’m not searching for the basic working form, or a variation anymore. I’m looking at “What would the highest end Birdsong with all the carving & custom touches “form” like?” “What would the most basic essential characteristics of a Birdsong strip down into with no frills?” “What would the ultimate ‘Swiss Army knife’ for the studio have for pickups?” Those concepts are my doorway in now. But it all started with a need, with tools that didn’t fit or function their best. And the quest… to manifest!

Inspiration. It is followed by perspiration. Like a chef, you gather the ingredients and types of components of your end dish that will make it its best. Wood is chosen and worked, an instrument is put together, and that’s when you see what of your concept, your idea as a whole, worked – and what of it does not. Sometimes it just doesn’t work with how it touches the body in an area or one component is working against another, or that pickup could be back a hair to bring a little more of whatever out. Now your inspiration is to make this whole thing better. So it gets refined. Whether via want or need, they combine where good design gets factored in and the edgy reinventions of the wheel – goofing around too much with what already works great – gets perhaps sanded a bit or redrawn so it doesn’t now poke you in the sternum every time you sit down with it. Now the inspiration is “Don’t F it up with the new great ideas.” That goes for design, that goes for keeping going as a business too. For someone like me, I’m great at getting things started. I love refining designs. Starting over is way more comfortable than settling in where things are working just fine. If the song’s great stop adding stuff to it. If the mix is beautiful, quit turning the knobs. There are literally a dozen guitar companies I want to start, to quest for their little glory in their own niches, to feel that thrill again of the chase. But there is only only one me, and I am inspired for the first real chapter like this in my life, now that it’s strapped on and comfortable, now that great music is being made, now that the mix is just right, to keep THAT happening.

Inspiration. I realize it’s absolutely nutty to view the world and life in bass guitars, but from here in the bubble it makes total sense. That bill is two basses. This grandfather clock top would look great as a butt cut on a body. That old car is three Birdsongs. I look at every piece of furniture and wonder how many Cortobass bodies I could get out of it, or which bit of natural character deserves perfect placement with whatever else I can get out of it a secondary concern. Maximum yield vs. artistically placed? The judgment I apply to every flat board I see whether it’s already made into something else or not. I’m sizing up your door on the way in. You think I’m enjoying your pasta and beans, and I am, but I’m eyeing your grandmother’s dining room table. It deserves to sing too.

Inspiration. I dream body shapes. Hell, I’ve dreamed entire instruments – the Odyssey? That first fretless Odyssey was directly from a vision in dreamtime! Woods, grain orientation, plate shapes, body, pickup and location, no frets, the hardware… and I nailed it. That bass, as it is, wherever it is, literally came out of a dream. Sadhana shape? Dream/vision. It happens with sentences and song parts too – this is no different, the lines just form shapes instead of letters into words or moving notes, and the brain takes it from there. So anywhere from the practical feel in the hands all the way out to the far out, at any moment through any crack in the movie set, inspiration comes in. You call it what you will, I’ll call it what I will. But it’s real and I offer gratitudes to it because the manifestation of such things has literally changed my life. If you’re on the field and don’t fumble, you get more balls thrown to you. There are great mysteries out beyond the skin and surface and sometimes the wind from a wing feather tickles your perception. You look down and there is a feather. “Pick it up, monkey boy. Write the song. Your hands are here to make ripples not entirely your own.” Be a good tool and the flow finds YOU.

Inspiration. I’m inspired to share this with you because not everything, however mundane, starts with a dude in a tie in the marketing department. Those people have their place, and that concept may enter in as a seasoning here or there more or less, but art and craft as a source is not always the same tame strain that comes in down that assembly line somewhere. It’s everywhere. I used to tell my students stuck on the bank of the creative river, “The next sign you see, write down the letters in it that could be chords, in order. There’s your chord progression. If it doesn’t sound right to you, play it backwards…” Take it from there.

Next week? We take it to the plank and trim it to the blank.

P.S. Crank up some Eddie Money – he passed this morning.

“You are part of the soundtrack to my life. So long as I breathe, I'll be driving '70s machines with your tunes cranking. Condolences to the family and circle, and Godspeed sir.”

Awakenings

Those of you who are dealing with the hurricanebe safe and know you’re in our thoughts. Extended Birdsong family please check in and let us know how you are doing!

The first cool dawn in a while came to us deep down in Texas this week. Cool is a relative term – it wasn’t time to shake out the flannel shirts yet, just a little cool on the skin on the other side of the door from where you get used to it being for a few months when you’re here. Fall connects us with the passing of time, of life’s chapters, but within that its beauty. We don’t get a fall here – it cools a bit from broil and then one afternoon the colder wind moves in and the temperature goes down 20 or 30 degrees, or you wake up to a 50 degree morning and that’s where things stay, about ten on either side of that. We have our spells and sometimes it freezes for a couple of days but it’s a mild winter we have. After the survival test of summer I am always grateful for signs of cooler temperatures and an old fuzzy flannel shirt is a wonderful thing.

I do these little missives for Friday most of the time, so before we speak again we will cross over September 11th. The big 9/11. Last week’s thoughts were partly about knowing exactly where one was during an event that was bigger than anything you’d previously known. A tragedy that probably wasn’t even yours but was BIG and set a marker down on the path of your life when you heard about it. Every generation has theirs and everybody has their own markers for their heroes or celebrities or artists they followed until THAT moment left its mark in YOUR life. Of anyone who was alive and aware in the States, I imagine most of them have a 9/11 moment. Those on scene, only those who’ve experienced war scenes can imagine. And all those all over with direct losses of family or friends… that’s a horror. But we all felt the ripples. We all got our scrapbook stamped that day, another marker along the path. In our then much smaller town here in Texas there was one particular welder who had experienced war scene trauma and we knew could be a bit off and excitable. It was a quiet morning behind the counter of my little music shop, and in he comes. “We’re under attack! They just attacked New York City!” “Thank you for telling me – I’ll check it out. It’s probably going to be OK, man.”

I figured the man got triggered by a news report of something and went off. But no. I walked next door to the tile store and they were watching it on a TV set. “Oh. My. God.” I came back to the shop and immediately started calling everyone I knew. “You OK?” “Yeah, I’m OK. You OK?” We were nowhere near it, we just needed to connect with our connections and feel that and make sure we were OK in our own skin, you know? It was a difficult moment to be alone as the scope of the events unfolded and it pulled you off balance. For all the tragic effects on so many lives and the ways it scarred and changed the world as we knew it before, so many woke up that day and really awakened in the days and weeks that followed. They changed their lives. They patched up differences. They got healthy. They took time. They grew patient. They re-prioritized. They started new hobbies. They deepened. They let go of other fears holding them back. They decided damn it they WOULD open themselves up to love, to connection, to community, to coming together, to service. Neighbors’ differences became very small and a reaching out was a reaching out whoever the hand was being reached out by. So many lives changed in ways that then changed so many lives. This is the re-seeding of the forest after the fire, the rebirth after the flood. Springtime always comes. The dawn always follows the dark. There is, eventually, through often very painful processes and un-asked-for reshuffling of lives and situations, beauty that will grow from the ruins of even unspeakable tragedy. We can’t wish the tragedy away or even fix it; all we can do is nurture those seeds inside and around us as we walk along.

Our thoughts are with all those affected by 9/11. I, as only one, who can only change and guide one, dedicate any good to come from the work I do on that day in your honor and to serve those seeds and their gardens, and their seeds, and their gardens. I hope the generations to come of all walks can find their way past any unnecessary nuttiness of our various tribes and only carry the highest and best of our fathers forward, leaving their battles in the rubble with the innocents.

*****

For the rest of this year I’m going to be writing a bit about how a Birdsong comes to be. We’re going to start at the beginning – inspiration and design, and in the weeks to follow cover the materials and the craft of the steps involved. But without inspiration nothing happens… so tune in next Friday. And maybe feel inspired to create some beauty this coming week. You can’t change what has happened; you can only be a part of changing bits of it into beauty.

Listening to: Bruce Springsteen Born To Run autobiography audiobook, CDs 6 & 7; Bob Marley & The Wailers Rastaman Vibration deluxe 2CD; Glenn Spearman Blues For Falashah; Richard Betts Highway Call.

F August 27th

This past week marked the anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death. Not to compare the two, but it was – in my life – my first JFK experience. My mother talked about knowing exactly where she was when she heard about his assassination, and I didn’t have anything in life like that yet until I heard SRV had died. It was a pretty big thing to me at that time, and I do remember exactly where I was – back pumping gas back on the Cape in Massachusetts after my first short chapter trying to settle in Austin, TX. A customer came in a told me “Stevie Ray’s helicopter crashed.” I couldn’t believe it – I called the local rock radio station and they didn’t know anything yet. My friend Don (decades later to become “3D” here at Birdsong for a bit) walked up and I told him what was going on while I was on the phone with them… “Is it true?” “They don’t know.” But before long we knew. Stevie Ray Vaughan died on August 27, 1990. It was almost as if someone had let some air out of life for a few days. And please remember, this was a pre-9/11 world. We might touch on that for a moment next week.

In 1990 Jessi Combs would have been around 7, probably showing the little boys how to put back together the stuff they broke and stunt jumping her tricycle. Many of you have no idea who this absolute badass was, but on August 27th she died – foot to the floor, chasing a dream. At 400 miles an hour in a jet car. The racing world has its share of loss; it’s inherent in such risky pursuits. But there are a lot of them right now feeling shocked, having their SRV, their JFK moment. Feeling like someone let some air out of life. You hang around on this rock and you see the gamut – long, slow declines, sometimes even WILLING long slow declines, where dreams and goals and passion were long ago handed over… and then, over here on this other end of the spectrum, the proverbial “Blaze of Glory.” Running into fire. Moving in where most are running from. Pushing the human experience farther up, deeper down, and faster across. Moving millions with a message. It’s not easy to compare those who challenge that level of risk for sport or by default in travel to others who do it as their duty or service – but the point is this. Those snuffed out in extraordinary moments leave us with the greatest gift, to look at our own lives, realize time is on its own schedule, that our heroes are human and to make the damn list. Get up off of that couch and make something happen. It doesn’t have to be a land speed record or lives saved or the cover of Rolling Stone. We don’t all have those kinds of movies.

But we’ve got ours, and we’ve got now, and there’s something we can do to kick it up a notch. Hone your craft whatever it is you do and reach with it. Whoever you are, whatever your situation… make death take you down moving. On the way from a gig, foot to the floor in pursuit of your dream, writing that book, changing that person’s tire by the side of the road, or just walking to get healthy as ironic as that would be. Be heading toward something with some drive in you. Go write a song. Go SING a song. The world doesn’t need another America’s Got Talent winner – it needs us all to push up through the dirt in the garden and turn that light and that rain into something.

It’s the end of August, and what a busy month it has been here! The thought of a total break – that was gone in the first week. I’m feeling too good. I’m getting too much done. There’s too much to do and I love doing it. I know I love doing a little too much a little too much; I’m very grateful that part of me focused on building guitars. Into September we go!

Listening to: Lots of old Bill Evans solo albums and Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography audiobook (CDs 5 and 6).