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Standard Time (it's hyperfine) on a Vega E30D

This month I take another stab at writing and performing an instrumental, this time building up a rock, soul, jazz, blues thingamajig using a looper, a ride cymbal, both of my guitar amplifiers, and my 1963 Vega E30D with its Bigsby vibrato.

About the song

I love just about every variation on the jazz, funk, soul, rhythm, and blues theme you can think of, but since I was old enough to crawl, Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions has pretty much defined cool for me. Each element of that song and their performance is perfect. The simple repetitive bass line of Donald “Duck” Dunn, introduced and then doubled on Steve Cropper’s Telecaster. Booker T’s Hammond organ, and its soulful minor chordal riff and solo. All percolating over the rock steady, crisp, simple, swinging drum work of Al Jackson. By the time Cropper finally takes his turn providing a guitar solo, a masterpiece of economy and creativity, by the way, all I want is to find a woman in Ray Ban shades and a little black dress, with a gin martini and trouble in mind. The song, released in 1962 and hardly the first of this type, is one of the most famous examples of a 1, 4, 5 rhythm and blues, and is my template this month for how to build a simple, swinging, jazz inflected R&B song. Because I hope to arrange this song to play with friends from work, and because we refer to our band when it infrequently convenes as The Bureau of Standards, this song is of course titled Standard Time (it’s hyperfine) in honor of the basis of measurement, the hyperfine transition frequency of the Cesium atom! Obvious, right? And you knew that was the NIST F-1 fountain clock pictured above? Of course you did!

There was certainly something in the water in the late 50’s and the early 60’s, and I find it amazing how much this period influences and permeates my soul. Clifford Brown died tragically in 1956 leaving a legacy of recordings that illuminate how beautiful and melodic bop can be in the hands of a genius soloist, Miles Davis released Kind of Blue in 1959 which steered Bop away from its over preoccupation with complexity, restored its foundational Blues, and set the stage for the further cross pollination of rock-n-roll with jazz. Outside of music, Sputnik streaked across the skies in 1957, NASA was founded in 1958, and the Cesium time standard and the International System of Units were launched in 1960. My parents met in a small town in Iowa and I was born in 1961. Green Onions came out in 1962, my Vega E30D was put together from a Harmony body in 1963 in an attempt to create a transitional guitar that could handle jazz and rock, Kenny Burrell released Midnight Blue in 1963, Fender released the Showman amplifier in 1962 so that Dick Dale could play Misirilu cleanly and LOUDLY and so that my own Showman would be assembled in 1965, all the while NASA proceeded to build bigger, better rockets, Walter Cronkite read the news, and the US successfully landed on the moon in 1969. I sometimes feel like it’s all been downhill since!

The process of composing the song itself began with the melody you hear me trying to play as the video performance begins. This melody is a mutt, combining elements of Charlie Christian’s Flying Home (I mistakenly refer to it as Fly Away Home during the tutorial), Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue, and Miles Davis’s So What (which I mistakenly refer to as All Blues). I’ve been developing my ability to use the guitar as a melodic instrument. Playing it like a horn. This is quite a departure for me, since my usual M.O. is to focus on chords to accompany a vocal. The melody I’m calling Standard Time grew out of noodling around one day trying to remember how to play the melody of Flying Home, and in the process exploring variations on this theme, and daydreaming about jump swing call and response horn lines. Despite my deliberate attempt to create a melody from these musings that I can play with ease, I still flub it here. Sigh.

While working out my melody, I came up with a bass line I could program on my looper. It was fun to discover that I could play the melody over a simple 1, 4, 5 chord progression and that it could easily swing along over a minor walking bass figure patterned on the one used in Green Onions. From these key elements, I progressed to work out other melodic variations to play, and arranged the song by repeating each of my melodic ideas twice before moving to the next. I allowed myself two repeats of improvisation in the land of distortion (pulling out my old Legend amplifier), before returning to rehearsed, clean melodies. The final 12 bar melody was inspired by Richie Powell’s piano solo on Jordu, as recorded by the Clifford Brown and Max Roach quintet. Last, but not least, I include some warbly harmonic chimes, giving a sense of an old school pendulum clock in the looper and in the live mix at the end to remind us that this song is about cool folks keeping Standard Time using an atomic twist! Are you hep to dat?

Oh yeah...In an effort to make the overall song swing a little more, we added one final loop when I got to the studio. Doug had a ride cymbal and a nice microphone that he could plug into the looper input jack. We set up all the gear you see plus the cymbal and microphone, set the loop going, and I played the ride cymbal lightly with a brush along to the backing track, eventually tapping the looper to record the live cymbal as part of the looped accompaniment. Everything then played back through my Fender Showman while I performed the live lead guitar parts. I used an Electroharmonix Switchblade foot pedal to choose whether my lead was played along with the loop through the Fender, or instead, bypassed the loop and the Fender (which continued to chug along on the accompaniment) to be amplified by the Legend. Doug microphoned both amps to record the combined results.

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