One Down On The Bucket List

I started playing guitar seriously when I was 13 years old. My older brother and sister were already playing by that time, so it just seemed natural that I would pick it up as well. I’ve never had a formal lesson, everything I’ve learned about how to play guitar, I’ve either figured out myself, or learned from playing with other musicians. This lack of formal training has been both a blessing and a curse. From the time I was able to play complete songs, I‘ve tried to come up with original songs, I hate to use the term “written” because, well, I’m a musical illiterate. About the best I can do is read chord diagrams. I remember one song I came up with when I was 17, I basically made up the chords! I mean they were real chords I just didn’t know the names of them like A7 or G# or whatever, I was just sort of trying different finger configurations and seeing what sounded good. It remains one of the best tunes I’ve ever done. That’s the blessing, I think that a lot of songwriters get trapped into a kind of formulaic method of writing songs, whereas I just play what sounds good to me. That can also be the curse, because sometimes my ideas just don’t make sense musically.

Over the years I’ve “written” dozens of songs, probably forgotten dozens more, because I’ve never had the ability to either write or record them. So, a few years back I decided I would buy myself a digital recorder. I purchased a Zoom 16 track recorder, it had the capability of burning tracks to a C.D., a drum machine, some very cool guitar effects, the ability to program a drum track beat by beat, among a lot of other features. The problem that I had with it though, was that the quality of the recordings wasn’t up to recording studio quality. It was fantastic for developing ideas, and I had a bunch of them stored on it. Then the hard drive crashed, and me, being a technological illiterate as well as a musical one, hadn’t done a back-up. I know, don’t tell me, I’ve already beat myself up about it more than anyone else possibly could. So, I went out and bought another Zoom recorder, this one came with software to mix and edit a song on my laptop, much like the “logic Pro” and “Pro Sounds” programs that are out there, plus you could easily download the projects to a USB stick. However, my fundamental lack of computer skills, as well as a general lack of knowledge about editing and mixing proved an insurmountable hurdle for me. I tried to make it work, but it became obvious that I would need to take some classes to be able to do what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do, what I’ve always wanted to find out, was to find out how my songs would sound if they were recorded professionally. The problem, the bands I played in, never made it to the point where someone offered to record us, and buying time at a legitimate recording studio was way too expensive. So my dream went on the proverbial “bucket list”.

Then one day, this was during the Tubbs fire I believe, when a lot of my neighbors and I were seriously considering evacuating, I noticed one of my them loading a bunch of guitars in his truck. A few days later I saw him outside as I was returning from a dog walk and struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was a professional musician, the guitarist for Maria Muldaur. We started talking about our collections. I am rather proud of mine, I have a couple of Taylor acoustics, a nice Stratocaster, a Fender bass, an Epiphone Les Paul, and my pride and joy, a Gibson Black Beauty Les Paul. It’s a reissue of the 1959 model from their Artworks division, 3 gold pickups, aged binding, mahogany body, just a sweet, sweet ax. Then Craig, my neighbor, told me about his, all 30 plus of them! Needless to say, I was floored, here I was thinking I was “Mister Guitar” in the neighborhood, and come to find out, that just wasn’t the case. We talked about music for a while and some of the stuff that we were working on and he told me that he records and publishes his own music at home. Wow, I thought, this guy is the real deal. He’s “the pro from Dover” whereas I’m just “the hack from Hackensack”. Still, we found that we did have a lot in common, mainly because we are about the same age, and we shared a love of quality tequila. But we also had very different experiences growing up, I had a sort of typical suburban California childhood, where Craig spent a lot of time in Mexico. I tried to make a living playing music, he actually did it. Over the next few months we would say hello to each in passing, exchanging pleasantries and what we were up to, kind of getting to know each other. Then came Covid. We both found ourselves unemployed. With all of the lockdowns there was no more live music, and my business had shrunk so much that the place where I worked for 38 years, had to be “re-imagined” and my position was no longer required, in other words, I was “aged” out. One day Craig shows up while I’m in my garage/studio playing my Taylor and remarked how frustrated he was at not being able to play live, so we started having a few jam sessions. Needless to say, I was very impressed by his knowledge and ability. He gave me a copy of one of his CD’s called “Turns To The blues”, that he recorded at his home. I gave it a listen, and as expected it was really good, not just strong songs and excellent musicianship, but it was also very well produced. That got me to thinking. With all the “govment cheese” being spread around, and now, with a lot of time on my hands, this would be a great opportunity to record some tunes. I approached him with the idea and my budget, and he thought that we should be able to put together a 5 song demo. Originally, I wanted to do 2 or 3 original tunes along with a couple of “bluesers” that I had been practicing. He suggested that I should do all original stuff, which at the time posed an issue. I had plenty of original ideas, but very few complete songs, songs with finished arrangements and lyrics. Then something remarkable happened. I started writing new songs! In the space of a couple of weeks I came up with 5 new original songs. Some of the things I’ve ever done. Still, they were just raw material, so to speak, just tunes I had come up with on my acoustic. But they had complete arrangements and most importantly decent lyrics. That has been something I’ve always struggled with. I started writing lyrics from my heart, from my experience and beliefs, and I astounded myself with the results, I even had some of my work published on a poetry site called “Hello Poetry.”

I started the recording process with a lot of fear and trepidation. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I knew it would have to be a painstaking process to get my ideas produced to a finished product, and seeing as how I had no experience in a recording studio, the learning curve would be extreme. I was not wrong! However, Craig did a great job at putting me at ease. I think his greatest skill might be patience, we did take after take after take. He never once showed any frustration over my struggles to get something right. He also listened to my ideas, I would have a thought of how I the song should go, and we would discuss it. Craig would offer his opinion from a songwriter perspective, versus my thoughts from my guitarist point of view. More often than not, I deferred to his advice and experience. Things like adding keyboards and how the percussion should be programmed, really made a difference in the progression of my songs from raw ideas to finished projects. Next came the vocals. Singing is my Achilles heel. I love to sing, I have a pretty good idea of how vocals should be phrased, and what the melodies should be. But my voice is another story altogether. I entertained the idea of asking him to sing the vocals, but he nixed that right away, and in the end I’m glad he did. These are my songs, so for better or worse I should be the one singing them. I know these days a lot of people use the editing software called Autotune to make sure the vocals are in tune with the song. We didn’t use that, we did take after take, after take, after take, to get my crappy voice as good as its ever sounded, and in the process, I discovered what my natural singing range is. I’ve always tried to sing in too high of a pitch, when I brought it down to the lower registers it came out far better. Craig than added vocal harmonies to the mix, and boy did that cover a multitude of sins. It also added a touch to the songs that really made them pop, especially on the reggae tune “Manipulating Liars”. One other thing he did was to get me to look at the tunes from a songwriter perspective, as opposed to my guitar player perspective, in which I always wanted to cut loose and shred. These songs weren’t really meant for that. His mantra was always “less is more”, and as always, he was spot on. During the recording of the basic songs, we would lay down a couple of acoustic guitar tracks, and then add a couple of electric guitar tracks. By the time the bass and keyboards were added in, there was no need to fill up space with a lead guitar, that would actually end up taking away from the tune. The result was some nice tasty riffs that added to the songs instead of overpowering them with “Mr Ego Lead guitarist” as I liked to call him. Craig went above and beyond by helping with my lead solo melodies, offering suggestions from his many years of experience so that they fit with the song. The “less is more” approach, simplified but also added to the overall cohesion of the song, so that the end result was so much better I ever imagined. Finally, we came to the mixdown. I play all the guitar and bass tracks, and sing the lead vocals. Craig added keyboards, (which I absolutely loved, especially the organ on “Take Me Back”), he did all the drum programming and harmony vocal production, in addition to being the engineer. As we played back the songs, I would say that we need some more drums here or there, the harmony vocals should stand out more on this part, stuff like that. He listened, did the necessary editing, we would listen again to see if it worked, and in the end, we came up with a finished product that I am extremely happy with.

This has been something that I’ve wanted to do for a looooooonnng time. Of the 5 songs on the demo, there is a kind of country song, “When The Sky is Falling”, a sort of folksy, protest tune called “Take Me Back.” A reggae song “Manipulating Liars” (my favorite), A slow blues number “Give It All I Got”, and a rocker entitled “Don’t Give Up” (I really wish I could get someone like Samy Hagar to sing that one, but, oh well). It’s also something that, even if I knew how to use recording and editing program, I couldn’t have achieved these results on my own. Anyone can purchase the software and equipment, hell you don’t even have to be able to actually play an instrument these days to be able to record a song. The difference is in the engineering and production. The take, after take, after take, to get it right, to get it perfect. To not settle for “well this sounds ok,” instead of achieving “wow this is freakin’ cool!”. That’s what a great producer/engineer does, that is what Craig did. I will always be indebted to him for helping me to realize this dream of mine. Like I said, he went above and beyond to help me make this dream a reality. He takes pride in his work, and it shows. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks of these songs, If other people like them, great. I gave up thinking that I was going to be a rock star a long time ago. If anyone else likes them, that’s just icing on the cake. I love ‘em, and in the end, that’s all that really matters. Thank you, Craig Caffall and CWR Productions, (that is the name of his studio), you are truly my “brotha from anotha mutha”!

Peace and Love, ROCK ON Y’ALL!

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