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.”