In which inspiration for an unlikely creative direction comes from an even more unlikely source…
This past Sunday, Metallica uploaded the 50-minute EPK for their 1998 album of covers, Garage, Inc., to YouTube. I spent some time watching it the next evening, and while the video is of some interest to fans of the band / the songs, something happened – as I watched the video – that I hadn’t been expecting: I became inspired to begin writing a new piece of music.
Of course, by the time this was happening, this inspiration came at a time of night when grabbing my guitar, in order to flesh out the structure and see where the muse took me, was absolutely not an option. This is par for the course with me… but when you live in an apartment with someone, and that person is sleeping and needs to be awake at around dawn, late night writing sessions with even an unplugged guitar are nothing less than disrespectful and rude.
So I sat here in my chair in the stillness and thought about the sound that was in my head. The picture that I had was of me playing an amplified hollow-body guitar, but the sound – as strange as this may seem – was like a vibraphone. “Bells” was the word I was thinking, but a vibraphone was the sound. Of course, my guitar doesn’t sound like bells or a vibraphone, and I don’t own any bells or a vibraphone. And right there, I had my first challenge in the can for future exploration.
As I spent the next twenty minutes or so thinking about these sounds and notes, I also started thinking about the process itself. I’ve often written the seeds of songs in my head and translated them to the guitar at some later point; in addition to what I wrote above about (often) being inspired late at night, I’ve also found inspiration in the car, at work, while out walking, and at other times where a guitar was either not handy or wholly impractical. This time, however, I was thinking beyond that. I was thinking that I may have found a way to break out of a creative rut, with respect to the type of music that I’ve created throughout my adult life. And that was exciting!
At this point, we’re way out of the boundaries of anything having to do with Metallica and their music; the event that was “watching the EPK” merely served to plant a seed of inspiration. I thought about the sounds that I was “hearing,” and where the notes could be played on the guitar, and filed that information away for future reference. But as I went to bed, I was thinking more about the process that excited me so: the idea that I could, in some way, deconstruct or distill what I know about putting a song together into more basic musical elements, with less rhythmic constraint (and by that, I mean common pop and rock rhythms), more melody, and a focus on exploring how series of notes sound when juxtaposed. I started thinking about what I have at my disposal instrumentally: the aforementioned hollow-body, a not-very-bright-sounding acoustic guitar, and an electric keyboard, along with various ways of providing percussion, if and when I decided to try to record it. I finally fell asleep with these ideas in my head.
The next morning, I spent a few minutes recalling and familiarizing myself with the snippet of music that I had found so inspiring the night before. It took me a few passages before I caught the vibe again, because while I had the simple melody down, the “song’s” key and the reference root notes escaped me momentarily. Once I had sorted it out, though, I abandoned the idea of playing the melody and root notes together for a moment and began to move up the fretboard, to the highest frets I could reach comfortably while playing the melody by itself… and I quickly decided that my best chance of finding the “bell” sound on that guitar was up in that area.
I didn’t spend too much time on it, however. After a few minutes, I had to put down the guitar and get to work on finishing the one pressing task that I had that day, which was to get my much-needed pre-Thanksgiving grocery trip out of the way before things got crazy at the store. Nonetheless, I turned off the radio in the car, concentrating instead on slow-cooking the ideas that were in my head, with plans to revisit them later in the day.
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Once the shopping was complete, vegetables cut, homemade soup on the simmer, and dishes washed, I got out the guitar, warmed up the tube amp, and set to work. It quickly became apparent that my little amp wasn’t going to produce the sound I was looking for, and an Electro Harmonix Mistress – while producing an interesting mood – wasn’t even close to the tone I wanted. So after messing around with root note ideas and working out a simple complete melody, I moved over to my old iMac, fired up Garageband, and decided to try recording direct to the hard drive.
I have an old Presonus (Firewire) preamp for this purpose, but I hadn’t used it in three or four years, so I plugged it in, tested some levels, and recorded a test track. I found that adding some reverb to the direct signal gave me a nice, if raw, effect, and then I copied it and applied an octave effect to the copy. (The reverb and octave shifter created something of a vibey, bell-like effect that served the idea I was going for, for the time being.) Then I recorded some bass lines, and the notes started to sound fairly nice together! Finally, I re-recorded both instruments** to a click track and saved the file.
**Note: I recorded the “bass line” with the same guitar that I used for the melody – since I don’t own a bass guitar, sadly – but I applied an octave shifter effect to make it sound like a bass… or, at least, to make it sound like a separate instrument.
The idea is now tangible. I now have a cornerstone for whatever this piece can become. I can listen back to it, rather than trying to recall it from memory, and add ideas as they come. And if I ever get to the place where I have a complete piece, I can record it right there and have a finished demo track to enjoy.
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The inspiration came from watching that Metallica EPK (for whatever reason), but the building blocks were already there within me. I’m still drawing from music and instruments I’ve heard before, and knowledge and skill that I already have, but I’m also learning and trying new things, including the idea that it is possible for me to approach songwriting from a new angle.
The song might not end up sounding like actual bells, or as deconstructed as it initially did in my head, but I’ve learned that going to a place of musical simplicity, and starting with some very basic ideas – rather than attempting to build on top of something more technical and in the same vein as what I’ve written before – can open new avenues of musical exploration and enjoyment.
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