The Music That Keeps It Going

Something's new in inventory today! Happy Friday... we need to talk music and life.

Most of the time there’s music playing while the wood is worked into instruments. For probably ten years I’ve been noting in or under the Friday news page updates what we’ve been listening to and it’s all over the place. Some music is great to have on for whatever the hands are doing because it’s a perfect soundtrack to life, like Miles Davis Kind Of Blue. It transcends context – if you’re breathing, it’s good. Or classical guitar music like Segovia or John Williams Spanish Guitar Music – this is perfect workshop working-the-wood-to music. Other stuff is better for certain moments. For a long time my standby when I just need one more little blast of git-er-done flowing has been Zen Guerilla Trance States In Tongues. But I’m not going to carve a scroll to that; that’s way more long Grateful Dead jam or Delta Blues. Jack Owens. Mississippi Fred McDowell. 

Last week I hit a peak of a segue I don’t think has equal in the world outside of what used to happen on free-form overnight college radio or some of the sets I spun on my late slot on pirate station KIND back in 2000. The previous day I finished up the to-do list to Pavarotti – always good for adding an epic, taking the victory kind of vibe in the air. But that day? THAT day?? Motorhead Ace Of Spades > Aretha Franklin singing Gospel > Frank Zappa. There ya go. 

If that isn’t a triangle of opposites I don’t know what is. But context is everything; I was working a bigger batch than I usually do together and on the home stretch routing & rounding over, and I’d gone beyond what Pavarotti could inspire. So in went Motorhead. Then Aretha sang spirituals to gather the sawdust to after working on basses being made from Wimberley flood of 2015 cypress. It’s sacred wood to me and I’m going to offer some back to the river once I have made everything beautiful I can from the plank I got. After that it was a stack of basses to drill out on ol’ Uncle Johnny’s drill press... neck mounting holes & washer countersink, string through body holes, and ferrule countersinks around back. What can I say, Frank Zappa is fantastic music to drill holes in things to.

It would be impossible to write about the music listened to in the shop without mentioning and mourning the passing of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell this week. It is difficult to know what the reality is for someone deciding this was his best option, though that doesn’t stop today’s keypad pundits from pontificating on it just like they do everything else, in remedial third grade grammar and with all the tact of a turd in a punchbowl. I don’t need an answer, it’s none of my business. I’m just sad he’s gone. I’m sad for his family, friends, bandmates, and millions of fans. He was a middle aged man and, no matter how well things are or how you arrive there, that can come with some realizations and challenges that are difficult to describe and can weigh heavy.

Whatever he knew that others did not, whatever he carried as his own, however he arrived to where the music and love and promise of the sunrise would no longer carry him through, I thank the soul we knew from whatever distance as Chris Cornell for having spent himself on the amazing legacy of voice and song and philanthropy that must now sing in his stead as ripples outward. Please – whoever you are - if you’re down, talk to someone. And not to a bunch of  borderline sociopaths in a public message board; get someone sensible on the phone! Connect. Heck, call ME. And if you’re an artist and thus perpetually hovering halfway there to begin with, go find a way to pour it into your medium and release it to the world. Your therapeutic release is probably somebody’s medicine… and that helps it feel really really good to be alive, and that might just carry you so much farther than you ever thought was possible, to somewhere you can be and be OK. 

Much love & music to you all,

Listening to: Soundgarden Superunknown; Adam and The Ants Kings Of The Wild Frontier; Tom Verlaine Warm and Cool; Tom Waits Bone Machine; Johnny Cash American Recordings.

What Comes Through...

(Slippin' one in here on a Thursday for you...)

Terroir is a French word, or at least it sounds French because I’m just making this up as I go and my mouth simply won’t curve around the last syllable adequately. “Terr-wah. Teaggghhrrr-eeeuuaaauuhhh…” I just can’t do it. But it’s a beautiful word meaning that of the surrounding terrain and its climate which somehow ends up identifiably within wine of a certain region. The trained palate can name and even identify these subtle nuances; the rest of us just taste that wine A is different from wine B and accept that this might be part of why among other things like the blending, purity and process. Well… most of the rest of us. Some with no taste, gulping it on ice with a splash of fruit juice with their hot dogs and yellow table mustard will be spouting “Meh, it’s all the same, that’s all just a myth.” No, they’ve simply left no room for it to be in their world. To be tasted in that stew it’s got to be black or white or it doesn’t even exist; you’re not going to smell the centerpiece at the baked bean dinner. In truth though, terroir exists, sommoliers exist, and subtle nuances can bring so much.

Though I never lick a piece of wood to identify it and think, “Mmmm earthy, licorice, coffee grounds, a hint of old attic newspaper…” I DO listen to the first notes of an instrument as it first sings in here and say “Yeah man, that wood with these pickups always does that dance they do, needs a hair more bridge pickup to balance, there’s the snap in the upper mids that fingerboard wood brings, I can feel that E in my belly – this whole thing’s alive again.” I live in a world of subtle nuances; work in a bunch of those in little layers and suddenly there’s tangible difference – an evident betterness, if you will. Now there’s a name for a psychedelic band… The Evident Betterness. But seriously, you stack the subtleties and tiny improvements and single digit performance enhancements and they all add up. If one of those stackings carries a bit from the surroundings and area where the magic of manifestation is happening, there’s your terroir. And an instrument swings when it has character, so one could truly say “I got your terroir right here pal, swingin.” That would be rather crass, however, so we shall refrain.

We’re way out in rural Texas. Not quite as way out as it was twenty five years ago with folks breeding like locusts and everybody wanting a piece of no man’s land, but still more wild west than not. And for a half-Italian suburban kid from Boston who first arrived out here not knowing one end of a tool from the other and with no real plan but to live off of music, this area has been very good to me. Sometimes that meant there was a thriving songwriter scene, other times it meant it fed my soul with the natural rustic beauty of land I could plant myself in like a seed to regerminate. Still other times it meant the place didn’t kill me. I have been down here more of my life than I have not, and its ways have worked themselves into me in layers as it all happened. It’s in everything I do; certainly in everything that comes out of the workshop.

On a Birdsong, the top of the headstock is the top of the Alamo. The logo is a feather symbolizing freedom and connection to the land; there’s one inked on my right arm. We are one. The carved arrowhead truss rod cover speaks to the depth of spirit one finds in formerly unformally settled spots – the previous caretakers of this little patch of planet. Some instruments – the D’AQUILAs and some Texas Lap Steels – have a pearl star on them. This is the Lone Star and the pearl is a tip of the hat to the pearl snap shirts the old timers around here used to wear. Texas woods are some of my favorite to build with – some are so local we go right to the rural mill or to some guy’s chainsaw milled stack that’s been drying in his yard for ten years. Some of these builds even start with a chainsaw of my own! 

Mesquite, spalted pecan, cypress, escarpment cherry; these have been used as main woods for entire bodies and like all woods in the build impart their particular resonance and tonal gifts… but even more than that, their story. This place’s history. The generations of beings who have used this particular tree as home, food, shelter, and shade have all left their mark – and as in us some you see and some you don’t. But you can tell by character what was coddled in controlled safety and what had to do some growing in the wild. It’s in there; it’s in their way. It’s part of what they became and it’s in the song they sing.    

Sing it to the world,

Listening to: Luciano Pavarotti The Best, disc 1; Augustus Pablo East Of The River Nile; Brazilica Lounge, one of these great box sets of themed groovy music I used to be able to pick up at Hastings before they went bye-bye; and a compilation of Brewer Phillips stuff, he was the rhythm guitarist in the Houserockers backing up Hound Dog Taylor. You’re talking Chicago-style blues but well done way on the raw side. Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace; Frank Zappa Road Tapes, live in Finland 1973, disc 1. Quite a variety, I know! I'm a very lucky man.
 

Magic Moments

Watching episodes of Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways (absolutely fantastic) and a new Nextflix Joe Cocker documentary (really good, even the uncomfortable bits about his blurry 1970s – hey, that’s the life of a medium-been-spent at times) made me think about some top-of-the-top music moments. There are so many but here are some that really moved me.

Joe Cocker at Woodstock. Covering the Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends in the sunshine of a dawning new day, you may never see another more possessed by the music or pour more of what’s in him out. I saw the film as a kid and I’ve seen a lot of music since. But I’ve never seen another man leave it all on the stage like that. On my list of moments to visit in a time machine, this is up there on it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POaaw_x7gvQ

Stevie Ray Vaughan Little Wing. A live studio performance from years previous released about a year after his death in 1990 on the album The Sky Is Crying. An instrumental rendition of a Jimi Hendrix song so beautiful the first time I heard it on the radio, a minute and a half in I had to pull off the road. I remember I was driving a 1972 Buick Riviera. I turned the car off, and just let it wash over me like some kind of river, like a cleansing from Greater Hands. Now not so much, at least just below the surface, but at that time in my life it took quite a lot to get an emotional reaction out of me. I still feel it every time I hear this.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An4uDegHB8s

Pearl Jam honors The Who. Probably my favorite Who song, as performed by a band many not paying attention (or not interested) would think were themselves long past their prime. Good God; couldn’t BE more wrong. They absolutely owned this, and this by the way is how you TAKE a stage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAeKLnbj2I8

Led Zeppelin Kashmir from the 2007 reunion. A sloppy live band finally nails it to the wall... as elderly men. I was totally unprepared for how good most of this Celebration Day reunion show is; their genius and albums and legacy are undeniable, fan or not. But live? Meh. Even when they were Rock Gods. It’s hard to play any of it right & tight sober, let alone in the shape these conquistadors were in during the 1970s. 40 years later? Are you kidding me? This is completely amazing and you can hear, underneath the roar of the band, the crowd reaction when Plant hits those notes. A stunner. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD-MdiUm1_Y

Sonny Rollins G Man.  Simply one of the most incredible jazz performances I’ve ever seen. Or many of the jazz aficionados I’ve known have seen. Or some really heavy cats in classrooms using this as part of their teaching have seen. Or the guys in his band… or anyone I’ve ever showed it to… you get the picture. If I ever get anywhere where anything even like this ever happens and it’s happening and I’m there and I just fall over dead as dirt don’t you even shed a tear for me, but for everyone else who wasn’t there, or was there and had to leave afterwards and try to return to a normal life. I saw Sonny a few years back, a bent and ancient shuffling form framed in frizzy white hair and holding some shiny heavy brass...

We were halfway through the first piece before we realized he wasn’t even coming through the PA; we thought it was just a sub par mix and the soundman would eventually move the Sonny fader up about three notches. No. The clip-on pickup on his horn wasn’t working at all! Lungs ordained and honed and sheer will filled that theatre in that moment, and where most others would have cut the number short, he wouldn’t stop playing. He kept going like this, bar after bar after bar of serious blowing. You don’t stop the prayer for a pebble in your sock. You don’t sacrifice the magic of the moment to the problem. It was amazing to see the force coming out of this man through his horn. And he played just as hard once it was fixed. Respect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=od0xQbq69nA

There’ll be more in a future blog. For now I hope these bring something to your world.

For me in this chapter of life, the magic moments in the workshop are the best. I had a great conversation the other day with a long time client about how things get done in the shop and what some of my favorite parts of the process are. I do have a few! 

I love scrolls. Some of the most enjoyable workshop sessions for me are when I put on some long jamming music and my late friend Johnny’s ragged old red work apron and grab the chisels. Then, with either my favorite little shop hammer or former helper Jake’s (hand made from zebrawood), and a pencil, start drawing and carving a scroll into the extra wood we leave up there when cutting out a body destined for one. Sometimes builds with scrolls take a bit longer because I have to hold back the whole world in here to do it. The “I could spend all day on this one thing or rout this entire stack of other bodies” balance every gnome works with in their own shop in their own way. Sometimes I can pull away from the other benches to make it happen and other times I need to leave a bit more of a trail of sawdust and assembly behind me, so they wait. I’ve had a run on scrolled orders recently so there’s always been one or two waiting for me and inside I wait for them too. 

Most of what I do with my hands here in the woods I truly love. The parts of the process I don’t, or that I feel make a better instrument when done a different way, hand picked others take care of those. This is how I’m still doing it 20 years in (13 as “Birdsong the company”) and why the instruments are of a certain standard. That doesn’t just happen. Oh it might now and then or if you’re putting out ten a year. But consistently and of enough to be a viable self-supporting enterprise? That’s a few sets of hands each doing what they’re best at. I’ve been lucky to have some great assistance over the years, and I’m blessed to be able to do so much of it out here as a craftsman in a magic workshop in the woods, helping the music happen. Thanks for being with us!

Listening to: Hearts of Space broadcasts; Sonny Rollins Volume Two; Slip Into The Night, a Phish Mix for Groovin’ (Curt Lyon on YouTube); and Live From St. Louis, An Evening Of Jesuit Jazz by Fr. Frank Coco.
 

Old & New Friends

A fun week! Among many happenings, two stand out. The first lap steel of the year sang its first, and an old friend dropped in for a visit. Time is a twisting oddity to ponder when an old young friend is in town and comes by and you realize he’s older now by years than you were when he knew you. Alan was a kid that was a fixture in my old music shop in Melrose, MA, my old hometown I had returned to and opened the shop where I built my first guitars & basses. Not literally; he wasn’t a display case or record bin, he just hung around so much I hired him. My first helper! This was late ‘90s. It was great to see him again as a man, married with a great wife, two kids, career, and all that. He last knew me when I sold the shop in 2000 and headed off back to rural Texas, following the music thread off into another unknown chapter, this one probably involving building instruments too... but I had no idea when I pointed the hood down the highway. I just knew it was time and I felt called and my agreement with life on that side of the hill was to move on that when it happened. This time it was destiny. Never underestimate the long term effects of just showing up and doing what’s next. Here we are.

And here emerging from the workshop is the Texas Lap Steel Co. serial #17 01, a "Wimberley" model crafted from cypress from along the Blanco river. The Blanco tragically flooded in 2015 and this is the first complete instrument out of one big plank of this special wood I was able to get a hold of. I can’t fix what happened or the scars seen and unseen in our little town, but I CAN take a representative piece of these hundreds-of-years-old trees that used to line and shade the river, bring it back to life, and help it sing. This model was named for the town because its curves reminded me of the rivers that wind through it and, most of the time, are nothing but beautiful. The Wingfeather workshop builds a small number of our unique lap steel guitars per year – this one is shortly heading out for its home but I have a few in various stages that aren’t spoken for. Check out the “Other instruments” here.

Just got this from Sebastian in Chile, rocking his 10-year-old Birdsong Sadhana bass. If you want to be rocked back to the stone age (or vice-versa) check THIS out... it's got more balls than a truckload of elephants! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FGfE4nwjzw&feature=share 

If you’re not tuned in
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Everybody have a great weekend! 

Listening to: Mississippi Fred McDowell You Gotta Move; Boston Don't Look Back; Sonny Rollins Vol. 2.   

Exciting Times


Finishing up this batch of wilder custom orders now leaving the nest has been great fun – laminates, stringers, hand carved scrolls, exotic woods, an ancient looking finish… very artistic, a real blessing to have the opportunity to work such craft into being. Like I always say, and this goes for clients of ANYTHING from the Wingfeather workshop, “Thanks so much for your patience with the process.”  There’s a doubleneck that’ll be into assembly this month, a quartet of Wimberley flood cypress builds into routing and shaping, some Shortbass action, and not one but TWO “Artists” – the really really fancy builds – getting under way shortly. Really feeling in here like this is the golden age of Birdsong. It has always been fun and meaningful but now moreso than ever.  

This is a bubble. This is fantasy land. Not that there aren’t challenges or sudden zigs and zags necessary to avoid life’s sometimes Wile E. Coyotean pianos falling from the sky, but on the whole things could have gone completely off the rails at any point. Here I am feeling unconnected to time despite its ticking; unattached to it, like “Meh, I’ve got too much good work to do to get all wrapped up in a few gray hairs or celestial impermanence”, carving out instruments as if it was my life’s entire reason. It’s what it all added up to... what this seed is going to do in the garden he was given. Here’s some carving & shaping on the truss rod cover for Sadhana #64, leaving the nest Monday. Just a wee peek into the workshop. There’ll be more. 

Had a great visit with my friends up at Thin The Herd Guitars earlier in the week, a hop skip & a jump up ol’ Interstate 35, my former home itself twenty some-odd years ago. These are guys doing some exciting things in a whole other area of the guitar world and it looks like I’ll be doing some design work for them. Normally this sort of thing is quietly done, but this is a bit different. More info as it happens… meanwhile you might see me in some clips at their shop playing some of their guitars. They have some real winners, and they’re doing what they do right. My world became high end hand craft but I love guitars & basses, I love original takes on tradition, I love small independent companies setting out to do something great against the odds, and I love value. Value is VERY different than price alone; however many zeros are on it or not, an instrument should possess qualities (and quality) and integrity behind it that carry far beyond being merely “worth it” – a great value gives more to the owner than they bargained for. Birdsong does that in our price range, and TTH is absolutely swinging for the lights in theirs. I dig it.
www.thintheherdguitars.com

More fun with these cats to come. And more fun in general! Maybe with YOU too? Give a call and maybe we can dream something up! 'Til next time, play nice & make moments.

Listening to: Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell; Ted Nugent Free For All; a Journey show from ’81 in Japan; and I’ve been on a bit of a Paul Desmond jag lately. 
 

The Next Four

I’ve been mentioning here and on the Facebook posts about this being a year full of custom orders. Some of you have had off-the-menu requests and mostly I’ve been saying “Yeah, why not? There’s so much custom work on the books it looks like that kind of year!” Some years are mostly sticking to the basics, hangin’ with the menu, keeping it simple and straightforward. There’s a beauty to that too, but that might be next year. It’s certainly not this one! What a blast I’m having. To show you what I’m talking about, here are four instruments hanging right next to each other in final assembly… literally just the next four happening here.

Custom guitar. Yes, the shop turns out a very small number of Birdsong branded guitars a year. Our roots are in the early 6-string builds that began the path and the company, and my own beginnings are as a guitar player. This is a custom order with a one-off mahogany & ebony body and two DiMarzio humbuckers. This one will first sing next week after a long journey from the plank.

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Hy5 #082. From our line of short scale 5-string basses, here’s one with more of a “J” pickup location from our Corto2 bass, black hardware, and a really cool spalted maple top & headstock. We don’t do a whole lot of tops, so when we do we like it to be something you don’t see every day. This bass is actually AVAILABLE in inventory, and I could have it ready over the weekend to go out Monday. If you don’t follow the Birdsong Guitars Facebook page, you missed out on a HUGE sale price offer on it, but if it’s yours call and we’ll talk. 

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Talisman. For T.D. Towers of the band Edensong, a signature ancient looking mystical piece called the Talisman. By the time you’re reading this the bass will be on its journey to prog-rock Valhalla with him (VERY likely to be seen again!) and the model will have been slipped into the menu on the BIRDSONG page. It’s not “THE” new model for 2017 – that’s coming on July 4th. This just sorta happened along the way, like life and love and… well, like Birdsong! See what a creative year it is? This absolutely hits the Wal / Tool thing and a bunch more subtle but vintage rockin’ tones. That neck pickup where it sits in our 31” scale? To die for. Stay tuned…

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Special order Sadhana. Given artistic freedom on this one, it took some time and leaned way more elegant than my initial thoughts. It came to be in layers as it came to me in stages – “OK, now that it’s THIS, what is best as a next feature?” Sadhana #064 has a 9-piece body of walnut, maple & wenge shaped with a large roundover to the edge and a hand carved scroll on the upper horn. There is nothing substantial that’s black on the instrument – a very different touch when done because there’s usually a pickup or plate on any of them you see that are – so it’s only earth tones of browns and maple trimmed out with cream & gold. Much like in playing where a perfectly placed space can carry more weight than any note, in instrument cosmetics leaving out something that’s usually seen can be striking. This could be one of my favorites so far. 

This doesn’t even get into the 2/3rds built Ric-infused Sadhana I’m still searching for specific parts for, the doubleneck that’ll be in sanding as soon as I finish carving the scroll horn, or the two – not one but TWO – full-on, no-expense-spared, wild Artist basses I’m in the wood gathering stage of. Or the rest! So you pretty much know where I’ll be this year! I hope wherever the muse leads you is as fulfilling, challenging, and soul-stirring as it feels in the little workshop in the woods right now. I thank my clients for the patience to be waiting for a wilder custom build (or to be back in line behind them) while they become. 

As an aside, it was great that Journey made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and this – this is how you approach another whose fate set your destiny. Arnel, current Journey singer without whom that band would have died because even the Steve Perry of the 1990s couldn’t hit those notes live anymore – and Steve Perry, long gone from the band, long gone from the public eye, both class acts. But this is how you approach a past that became your future; a seat you earned but that was inherited; one whose three-pointers made the team you jumped into to continue. No matter how great, hard working, or successful a person is… you'll owe somebody this. Peace be with both of them and their Journeys.   

Play nice,

Listening to: John Coltrane Coltrane Plays The Blues; Mississippi Fred McDowell You Gotta Move; a live early Pat Benatar show – what a band; Doug Raney Back in New York. That’s just got to be one of the best jazz guitar tones and albums ever.

Have a safe & happy Easter.

“Happy Easter Ben!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” 

A Space In Time

Snapshot: It’s 5 AM on the button, dark outside but fluorescent in workshop 2 where assembly happens. A temple in my life, this little building - and this morning’s sadhana (real meaning of the word) actually a cross between a Cortobass and and a Skyrider – a custom awaiting its voice. The pickups are in and Derek & The Dominos Live at The Fillmore fills the air with feelgood, sonic waves dancing with the incense, as I wire volume and tone pots. This is where the instrument comes to life. The wood comes back with that first handrub of oil, but now it will speak. And with a little more attention – a few adjustments, some TLC – sing.

I have been handed the keys to this perpetual dawn service of manifesting tools with voices to soon become yours, part of your service, your way of the inner music coming out. In songs of wood and wire I give form to the stirrings of the muse. 

In a couple of hours, after a round of wiring on the Custom and a Hy5 5-string, some copper lining of another 5s control cavity and a bit of typing on this to be posted tomorrow which you now read, the green shop – “Wingfeather Workshop” proper and another sacred space, will itself come to life for the day and fill the air with its own song. Whirring small machines a-spin and cutting, and the sound of sandpaper or rasp in shaping blending as percussion into the music providing the beat.

The heartbeat of life in there this morning will probably be jazz, most likely New York guitar jazz. It might morph into some long Grateful Dead soundscapes or over into classical guitar like Segovia. That’s the basic vibe in there. Delta blues like RL Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Jack Owens is really good guitar building music too. I have my list of “nexts” and I am alive again this morning, gifted one more lap around the light, one more round on the beads of the tasks of another day itself one more prayer-by-action in a string of its own. I don’t need coffee; it would only put me back to sleep anyway. The steps to this door are all I need. When they no longer bring me to life then the calling has been completed.

I don’t make product, I craft talismans. To you it might be only the tool portion or some recipe of function, handcraft and mojo – I don’t know. I can’t really know that, that’s for you. I only know what it’s like in here surrounded by the coming-to-be of these all around me and – somehow, through some twist of fate – through me. Bringing things to life day after day does something to the soul and consumes the rest as its fuel. Whatever a Birdsong bass or Texas Lap Steel or anything else that flies this nest is to you, I am happy it serves you in that way. I am fulfilled that what is spent of me, of the hands that help me, of the ripples of our mentors and the echoes of theirs within them, help the highest in you come out to dance in the moment and be shared with the others.

It’s gradually getting lighter through the trees, familiar shapes and shadows returning in a blue glow with spreading orange in one spot. Good morning sunshine, sorry I just couldn’t wait. 

If you’ll excuse me now, there is an instrument – a tool of creation – who has been waiting for this moment since the instant it ceased to be tree, and the universe has decreed me to be the one to show it some love, bring it to life, and put it in good hands.

Listening to: John Coltrane Coltrane Plays The Blues; Back In New York by Doug Raney: Derek & The Dominos Live at The Fillmore; RL Burnside Too Bad Jim