Song Stories: “Thank You”

So a few weeks ago I released a record (or whatever they’re called nowadays) called After All(,) This

It was really nothing more than a little exercise in musical creativity and exploration, and it was deeply satisfying to me. What’s more, some of you actually paid money for it, and that was a great blessing to me as well.

One of the songs on that release is actually a cover of a song from the early 1990s by a guy named Dennis Jernigan. On the surface, it may have been an odd choice, but there’s a story and a connection to that song.

In 1995, my wife and I moved from Texas to Chicago, Illinois to begin what was the first of many little “adventures” that we’ve undergone. At that time, I was an electric guitarist in my mid-20s, with some miles behind me as a fairly focused musician from Texas. I played on 6th Street in Austin, in Deep Elllum in Dallas, and a few other places in the Lone Star State. What’s more, I was imbued with the notion that electric guitarists from Texas were a breed apart: our legacy included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (not to mention Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson).

I took this legacy seriously, and that combined with a strange gumbo of Duane Allman, the Edge, David Gilmour and even a little 1980s hair metal all produced an attitude that was all about making a statement and making an impact on whatever was going on around me musically.

(Occasionally I even had the chops to pull it off LOL.)

Though I’d grown up in the church, I’d done my share of wandering (and wondering), and by the time we made this move to Illinois, I’d already hit my first of a few (unfortunately it took more than one) “rock bottoms” in my life, and I was beginning to re-explore my faith. I grew up in a strictly “hymns” church, but during this time Shana and I started to encounter something called “Worship Music”, which was (supposedly) Jesus music set in “contemporary” arrangements.

The lyrics were spot on, obviously, and they touched the part of my life that longed for a deep, passionate connection to something or someONE higher.

However, the music was another story.

It was supposed to be “contemporary,” but I often sat wondering, “Contemporary for whom?”

Though the lyrics reached me, the recordings did not: the compressed, chorused, polite guitar sounds left me feeling empty.

When we arrived at Willow Creek Community Church, through an amazing set of circumstances and beautifully serendipitous conversations, I ended up volunteering with the music team there. All of a sudden, I’d gone from clubs in Texas—and an occasional church gig to 75 people—to playing before 5,000 at a pop, 10,000-15,000 total on a weekend. What’s more, the musicians there were mostly killer. Just amazing drummers (always my favorite) and bass players and keyboardists and singers, etc., etc.

(And they were filled with this amazing, joyous, celebratory love and passion as well.) 

And other guitar players too…

But not so many like me.

(NOTE: Sitting here, I know now how damaging it can be to my soul for me to ponder ways in which I am different from other people, but at the time, this seemed pretty real to me…)

  • They were established family men and women … Shana and I had been married for a few years, but were still a few years away from being able to have children (another story for another time).
  • They wore dockers and polo shirts … I had jeans and thrift store t-shirts (or that amazing relic of the 1990s: the gas station work shirt).
  • They played the aforementioned chorused and compressed Stratocasters through multi-effect units … I played a Les Paul through a handful of pedals attached by velcro to a piece of plywood.

In addition, I brought this southern, Allman Brothers approach to what they were doing…

And, sometimes, it just really seemed to work.

What was also fun and helpful was that I really didn’t know any of these records that they were covering. Instead, I played with instinct and improvisation. I listened to what they were doing in rehearsal, and then just started playing “what made sense”.

… And, for their part, they tolerated it.

(NOTE: Musicians and guitarists, if you want to do this, please… well… please be good. This approach is decidedly NOT recommended unless you’ve spent upwards of 4-5 hours a day of “deliberate practice on Wikipedia” for about 7-8 years.)

Anyway, “Thank You” was one of those early songs. I loved it’s simplicity; at its core was something essential and elemental to faith, and what’s more there was a soulfulness that I was able to find underneath the somewhat safe (and overly “white”) production. I remember being on that stage at Willow, tuned to “Drop D” and just hammering that low D against a wailing high slide. I remembered digging down deep, SOUL LEVEL DEEP and trying as hard as a human being could try to MAKE THE NOTES I PLAYED = THE EMOTIONS I FELT.

Looking back, it might have worked. It might have been a disaster. Truth is, it was probably somewhere in between.

There are other songs, and maybe they are for other times.

But that’s why I covered “Thank You.”

(OH: And it’s ALSO because… I’m thankful.)

For all that You’ve done I will thank You
For all that You’re going to do
For all that You’ve promised, and all that You are
Is all that has carried me through
Jesus, I thank You

And I thank You, thank You, Lord
And I thank You, thank You, Lord
Thank You for loving and setting me free
Thank You for giving Your life just for me
How I thank You, Jesus I thank You
Gratefully thank You
Thank You.

– “Thank You” by Dennis Jernigan (c) PraiseCharts

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A Somewhat Random Music Mantra

Over the past few days, I started thinking about the essentials of the way I approach music. It’s probably not complete, and it’s probably not the last time I’ll do something like that, but here ya go…

  • There is no such thing as “simple” music
  • If you think that a genre of music is “easy” you’ve already lost
  • The point is not to get great gear; the point is to make great art
  • There’s a fine line between “ambient” guitar playing and simply not knowing the music
  • Training your ear makes you dangerous
  • Learning music theory makes you lethal
  • A great amp makes an average guitar sound amazing
  • Rhythm guitar is a lost art; go rediscover it

Anything you’d add or take away? 

Mind “The Gap”

 

 

I got my first electric guitar, a Fender Musicmaster (with a silverfaced Fender Champ) around 1981 or 82, I think. For the next three or four years, spent 2 to 3 hours a day trying to learn songs off of a few key records that I had, including:

  • Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (The Who; horrible name—wait, an awesome name!)
  • Still Life (Rolling Stones live record)
  • For Those About to Rock (AC/DC)
  • Moving Pictures (Rush)
  • Under a Blood Red Sky (U2)

Let me try to paint a picture of this process for you. Because there was no iTunes or YouTube, all this woodshedding had to be done physically.

Prepare to play.

Drop the needle (or maybe, if you were lucky, hit play on the cassette player).

Listen, try to play along (God help you if they weren’t perfectly in tune).

Try to work out what you got wrong, and then listen again. And again. And again. And again.

I think one of the main differences, creatively speaking, between this era and the 60s-80s, is something I call, “The Gap.” Basically, “The Gap” is that mysterious place between what I heard coming out of the speakers and what my fingers produced. The gap used to be large, because technology and information didn’t exist for you to know exactly what Jimmy Page, or The Edge, or Alex Lifeson was playing.

So you had to make a creative decision for yourself.

And that creative decision, made inside “The Gap” would lead to new discoveries, new approaches, new thoughts about your instrument. 

The thing is, today “The Gap”, at least in the context of learning songs is almost nonexistent. You can dial up on YouTube, or a myriad of web pages, just about every single bit of information about a musician:

  • his or her gear
  • the gear they used on a particular track
  • video of how they played
  • the chord charts
  • inaccurate versions of the chord charts
  • their thought process

The list goes on and on and on.

“The Gap”—the place of mystery and creativity—has shrunk, at least for learning music. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared.

If you’re doing creative work: learning an instrument, writing, simply coming up with new ideas, you must find “The Gap” in your life. 

  • Where are you going beyond your boundaries?
  • Where do you have to make a “best guess” as to what to do next?
  • Where can you say, “I’ve gotten all the best information I could find, but I’m still uncertain about XX% of this process?”

Because that’s where your Gap is now. And that’s where you have to move to.

“MoFo.”

This is a bit of rant…

I was on my favorite gear discussion board today, when I noticed a few posts with similar titles: “Post your favorite U2/Praise and Worship Pedalboards”; “Favorite Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedals”; and so on…

<sigh>

Church, what have we become? Where has our creativity, our imagination, our artistry gone?

In 1998, “The dotted 8th” (let the musician understand) was a revelation. It was new, it was majestic and ambient, rhythmic and interesting, and could lay down tremendous beds of comforting sound around a band and worship leader.

That was 13 years ago now, folks. We were absorbed in the sound of U2 because, well, that sound was cresting and peaking. Now, the culture has moved on. U2 is still selling out stadiums, but Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons and The National are making exciting music now. Why won’t we embrace them as “temple musicians”? Why have we stopped growing?

Yes, U2 is an amazing, even anointed band. Yes, Coldplay is their scrappy sonic younger brother. But we’ve all missed the point, and by missing the point we’ve cheapened U2/Edge’s sonic tapestry as well as the creative element in worship music.

Because what we should really be interested in, musicians, is the way Edge thinks. Not how to rip off his delay tone.

He said once in an interview, “I’m interested in abusing technology.”

Where’s that attitude and approach in our efforts? Have we settled?

We pick and choose the safest parts — we love “Where the Streets Have No Name” (c’mon, I know it makes you cry; I’ll confess: me too!), but we shy away from “Mo Fo” sonically as well as lyrically (even though I’d say that the latter is about an overtly spiritual song as you could find, if you, um, cared to read the lyrics). Feed 3 or 4 fuzz pedals into a Whammy Pedal and hit “Go” … because that type of thinking is where all of this tapestry came from!

But we’d rather figure out how to find the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal”.

You know what the right “Praise and Worship Overdrive Pedal” is?

The one you can afford. The one you’re stepping on right now.

Because worship music is about incarnation. Which means it’s about God’s intersection with you. With your experiences, your gear, your creativity, with your imagination.

Worship guitarists out there — what are you afraid of? Ry Cooder once said, “Go where it’s dangerous and say, ‘Yes.'”

Go ahead. Step on the pedal; the one that’s “NSFW” (“Not Safe For Worship”). It will be okay (though I didn’t say it would be easy)… Edge would be proud.

And the church, in the long run, will be edified…

Because we still need imagination. Maybe now more than ever.

Welcome…

So Here I begin anew… 

Let’s begin with something simple, shall we? How about gear? 

I’ve been on a bit of a “binge” lately — playing music for a living (at least somewhat) has its perqs. I’ve been playing with mostly the same set of pedals for years now, only switching out the occasional overdrive or fuzz unit. 

Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve bought four new pedals (which is a lot for me). Not to get all metaphysical or anything, but I wonder if it’s somewhat related to needing some inspiration, seeking it through technology. Positioning myself for the next musical/artistic “season” that is coming.

So here’s what I bought:

  • I started with the Fulltone Supa-Trem. I love Fulltone pedals; they’re made well, are “specialized” and simple to operate. I was having some problems with the trem I was using (through my Modulation Modeler), and when I read that T-Bone Burnett used the Supa-Trem almost exclusively, I was sold. Got it on Ebay.
  • Then I moved to the BBE Mindbender. I don’t use chorus or flanging, but I am addicted to pitch vibrato, and this was the only viable option available. Set this thing up to “wiggle”, then add some delay, and you get some nice modulations and swirls that are more organic and earthy-sounding. 
  • I got curious one night on E-bay, and started looking at Xotic Pedals. I thought the AC Booster might be a cool option for overdrive sounds. Guess what: It is. I’ve only had the pedal for 2 days, but it is a nice boost/OD pedal that sounds really natural, while still having EQ options. I got this for a really good price off of eBay.
  • Lastly, I am waiting on the arrival of a Voodoo Labs Microvibe. I’ve been a sucker for vibe sounds for a while. There’s definitely a psychedelic rocker inside of me still, and the swirling of a Univibe just sounds so “chunky”. Again, I had my Modulation Modeler set up for a Univibe sound, but it just wasn’t that convincing. I’d owned one of these pedals in the past, and I know that they are reliable and good quality. Got a really good price. 

I think mostly these are to help me go into the future. I’m coming off of a LONG season of basically needing flexibility from my rig. Now I think I have the blessing of being able to be more choosy and particular about the music I play, so I’m assembling tools that reflect that. 

Alright, well, we are now officially in a relationship. I promise not to be so geeky in the future. Or rather, I will remain geeky, but hopefully my geekiness will touch more people in more ways… Cuz touching people is fun (when it’s not creepy).