Thursday, June 14, 2018

Are you expressing your soul or just generating content?

I'm a member of a Facebook group for Young people pursuing careers in the Entertainment field as Professionals.  I'll leave it to you to guess the name of the group. (I was invited to join by a friend who is not much younger than me, so clearly the criteria for membership are pretty loose.)

An actual post on the page really caught my attention:

"hello a singer/songwriter looking for a collab partner, someone who can write the music while i handle lyrics and melodies..with the goal of creating catalogues for publishers..if anybodys interested or has any advice for getting started lemme know thanks"

Setting aside the lazy typing and spelling (these kids today, whatta they know about grammar!), I was struck by the "mission statement" of sorts: "...the goal of creating catalogues for publishers...."

What a lofty aspiration, eh? Never mind "writing great songs" or "writing songs that say something worth hearing and contribute to people's happiness and spiritual well-being" or even "creating hits that make a bunch of money." No, let's fill publishers' (plural) inventories of songs. I just have to say "Oy!" (And I'm not even Jewish! Or Australian!)

I understand he's trying to impress with his use of industry terminology. For those not "in the know," a "catalogue" (or as is the preferred American spelling, "catalog") is a collection of songs to which a writer or publisher has (or shares) the rights. It implies a commercial intent for the use of the songs (or, as is much more often the case in the pro songwriting game, the lack of use). And if you ask many of my pro songwriter acquaintances, the term "commercial" is pretty optimistic as well. It's the emphasis in his post that rankled me. A catalog should be a byproduct of songwriting, not the goal.

I'm still Pollyannaish enough to believe there is still a reason for any songwriter to create new songs that can be valued by whatever audience may hear them, whether it's for the joy of the exercise or to create that mega-hit that helps define or even redefine our culture and our perspective on life, or anything in between.

But as for the music industry, the fact is, if there's anything most publishers don't need, it's more copyrights to fill out their product lines; those coffers are generally filled to overflowing, with more flowing in every day. Managing them must be something like that last scene in Indiana Jones (or its source, Citizen Kane) with the giant warehouse full of forgotten stuff, with the lone worker wheeling yet another treasure to put on the pile. "There's another song for the catalog. That's lunch, boys!"

If your GOAL in songwriting is merely (or even mainly) to create commodities, you might need to take a step back and pause to reflect on why you were given the gift or ability to portray the human condition in melody, rhythm and words. Everyone who is honest will admit that the thought of writing a hit song that is loved by the world and that pays for a house or even a retirement is a sweet dream. But since that fantasy is less likely to be realized than it has been in decades (though not impossible), maybe it's best to refocus on making music that is worthwhile for you and a listener or two. And being thankful for the privilege. We don't have to forget about the dream; we just need to keep it from distracting us from why we are here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The 2017 Bob Bennett Tennessee Yoyo Tour

In baseball, they have Fantasy Camp, where fans can spend time on the field (and off, I assume) with their heroes of the sport…all for a fee, of course.  It makes a thoughtful gift for the guy who spouts statistics and rosters and opinions on strategy long after it’s clear he’s not headed for a career in the majors or even the minors, though he’s always up for a local pickup game if he’s not too tired after work. Sometimes all it takes to fend off a looming midlife crisis is a satisfying seventh-inning stretch with your new pals in the dugout.

The music business doesn’t really have an equivalent to Fantasy Camp, as far as I know, though I’ve often thought it would be a great way to supplement the incomes of established artists competing with this week’s YouTube sensation, or further exploit an established entertainment brand like the Grand Ole Opry (are you listening, Pete Fisher?).  But I feel like I came pretty close to the experience recently.

When I found out that Bob Bennett, a notable figure in contemporary Christian music (dubbed a “CCM legend” by some) and a musical hero of mine, was coming to Nashville for a rare visit from his home state of California, I approached him with the idea of sticking around a couple of extra days and allowing me to add a date or two to his performing schedule.  I offered to cover a modest minimum and provide travel and lodging.  I didn’t expect to make money off the deal; the prospect of spending quality (and quantity) time with Bob, whose work I had admired for decades, would be worth the cost (and considering I’d taken a hard look at participating in a trip to the U.K. he will be leading later in the year, opting for this instead was actually a money-saving decision). Whether due to a cosmic confluence of purpose, divine intervention, or simply a lapse of judgment on his part, he decided to take a step of faith and agree to the plan.

After formulating, considering, pursuing and eliminating options, in cooperation with several others, especially college buddy Norris in Tullahoma and with Bob himself, we settled on a plan to include a trip to Tullahoma on Saturday for an intimate “house concert” kind of gathering, a Sunday morning worship service with Calvary Chapel Nashville, pastored by a friend of Bob’s, and another trip southward to play a specially-scheduled early dinner show at Puckett’s restaurant in Chattanooga on Sunday evening.  A map would reveal that the routing was not exactly ideal; kind of a yoyo pattern, actually (maybe we could have added Atlanta to Monday as a logical next step if Bob hadn’t already bought his plane ticket home for that day).  But the distances were manageable, the roads were good, and traffic was not a headache, so it was OK.
Our adventure began when I picked Bob up at the Franklin home of Paul Aldrich, who had hosted the concert with Bruce Carroll and ScottWesley Brown the night before. 

Instead of forcing Bob to endure the miles crammed into my economically-conscious Pontiac Vibe, I had rented a car for the weekend. The Nissan Altima was nice, but if I had this part to over again, I would have upsized even more than that. There’s really no such thing as too much space when you’re traveling long distances with other people. I didn’t mind and he didn’t complain, though, and we made it there and back without vehicular incident. It did come with a USB port so he could recharge his phone and play DJ to share some favorite songs and to help navigate (so not only did the Lord have his eyes on us, so did Big Brother).
Bob recoils in amazement as the vendor
spins a fascinating story behind the guitar he built,
as Norris and daughter Mackenzie look on.
We headed for our destination of Tullahoma, about an hour and a half to the southeast. I wanted to include a visit to the Celtic Cup, a terrific coffeehouse owned by Chris and Denise Smith. I started playing the occasional gig there shortly after they opened, most years including a special holiday show with friends Chris dubbed the “Mark Kelly Hall Christmas Ensemble.” I just hope that name didn’t keep anyone away due to the notion we might be wearing matching sweaters (not a chance). There was a Scottish festival going on, so the place was packed. We met up with Norris and Robert, who were (also in the spirit of musical fantasy camp) playing promoters and hosts. 

After some quality time at the Cup, at Norris’ daughter’s suggestion we grabbed a bite at Taco Bell, where Bob shared that he had eaten at the very first Taco Bell in California. Then we moved on to the venue, First Christian Church, where Bob did an intimate set for a small but attentive group of fans new and old. 

Photo by Mackenzie Carden
After the concert, we somehow we ended up at another Mexican place. This may have been a little like taking a Chinese visitor to the Golden Dynasty Buffet, but the food was great (and plentiful) so no complaints were heard above the sighs of satisfaction from everyone in the group. Then it was back to Nashville.

The next day, I met up with Bob at the building where Calvary Chapel Nashville meets. Bob had played for the worship service that morning. We hit the interstate for Chattanooga to play the second gig I had arranged. Puckett’s Chattanooga is the furthest extension of the group of restaurants that began in Leiper’s Fork then expanded to Franklin, Nashville, Columbia and Murfreesboro. The usual music schedule there is 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, which would not have worked for Bob’s crowd (or mine).  But since the restaurant is located right next to the Tennessee Aquarium, the dinner hour is reliably busy, so I had persuaded them to let me do an early show as I had in the past a couple of times. The booker told me they are trying to keep a local emphasis regarding the music, as opposed to touring artists, so he would be only be open to having Bob if someone like, say, myself, would play as well. No arm-twisting was needed there! So I had managed to insert myself into the show with a totally legitimate justification. Beautiful. 

To increase the local connection even further, and enhance the quality of the show as well, I also had recruited Tim Starnes to play. He is without a doubt one of the best, if not THE best, sidemen in town. I’m not fond of the terms “sideman” or “utility player” anyway, given the talent it requires, and in his case they seem especially inadequate. He just gets it. 

On the way in, I pointed out the baseball stadium where the Lookouts play and how close it was to the venue, in it might “inspire” any particular song choices for Bob; he got a laugh out of that. We found a parking spot on the street right next to the restaurant; as a Southern Baptist, this is close enough to a miracle for me.

As we moved our stuff in and began to set up, Tim arrived and did the same. I was so gratified to see Bob and Tim getting on like a house on fire, chatting on stage as I ran around greeting a few expected guests. I was glad my parents’ friends Charles and Sue had talked my dad into coming (though I assume it didn’t take much convincing). With the people who were there to see me or Bob or Tim or any combination of the three of us, we had a good mix of intentional audience members and those who were about to be (I trust) pleasantly surprised. 

The audience was responsive and attentive, though there was a fairly constant sound of light chatter for us to sing over. Sometimes this can really throw off your game on stage, especially for the story songs or those songs with lyrics that dig deep (“don’t you people know you should be hanging on my every word?!!”). I didn’t find it too distracting, though, and I didn’t get the impression Bob did, either. 

I had mentioned to him that, since he had likely become accustomed to the laser focus and presumably sympathetic mindset of a church audience, this gig might be an adjustment for him (kind of a “duh” moment on my part). He reminded me that he was very familiar with this kind of setting, even though it had been awhile since it had been the norm for him. I think all Christian performers should try to keep a hand in singing for the audience that is casually interested at best from time to time. It can be tough on the ego; but a bit of mild humiliation can be good for the soul, and reminds a performer how important it is to “earn the right to be heard” (to quote Bill Black of Smoky Mtn. Resort Ministries). I’ve seen one or two CCM folks fail to make a connection with a general audience. One artist who has no problem with that is Ashley Cleveland; she is as unpretentious and vulnerable as they come, and brings everyone along no matter what she’s singing or saying. That, and undeniable talent and skill, seem to be the key to giving any artistic presentation universal appeal.

Needless to say, Bob displayed enough musical and lyrical skill to earn respect, and was sensitive but bold with the songs he chose and how he introduced them, so there’s no question as to why he continues to sustain the admiration of old fans like me and gain new ones as well. I was happy he did “The Kings of Summer Street,” one of my favorite songs about boyhood, co-written with Don Henry, who also wrote the achingly beautiful country hit “Where’ve You Been?” He did a fantastic medley that I believe I’ve seen him do before; “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith, leading into one of his own songs, “Defiant Lamb.” 

I had a blast singing along on “Angels Around Your Bed” (move over, David Wilcox!) and of course, “A Song About Baseball.” I shared with the crowd (and got a little verklempt doing it) that I remembered singing along with Bob’s songs while I washed the family dishes, and this was MUCH better. And he joked that after the show he’d be going to my home to wash my dishes…full circle. 

My voice was not nearly at 100%, given that I’d been hit with allergies and cough, etc., the week before and were still a factor. I was barking like a seal to the point where the circus seemed like a viable career option. But I did make it through without that dreaded jarring interruption of lyrics with a cough. And Bob and Tim joined in wherever possible. Gave Bob a laugh with my “Sugar, Sugar”/“Yummy, Yummy”/“Mony, Mony” medley. And we really got into “Best of My Love” by Eagles (no “the”). I like doing that one ever since I figured out a comfortable strumming pattern and how to get around doing the high notes.

Dana Harding and Bob Bennett.
A coupla shady characters.
We did a little over an hour and a half and naturally, I could have gone longer; I think we all could have. Sometimes “always leave ‘em wanting more” applies to the players as well as the audience. After the show, we (mainly Bob) said our hellos and thank yous (all sincere) and then we gathered with a few of our folks to enjoy a great meal (“hey, Bob, how’s your steak?”) before hitting the highway back to Nashville. On the one hand, Bob is just like any other guy, traveling, contacting family, reading texts, rejoicing over the birth of his new grandchild, working his phone (and getting frustrated with a persistent plug problem). But it was still funny to hear him say even little things like “thanks so much” in that voice that has become so familiar over the years via his recordings and concerts, and realize, hey, that guy’s right here, talking to me!

Of all the great things about the Puckett’s show in particular and the weekend overall, I think my favorite was just seeing Bob clearly enjoying himself. You never want to be responsible for making someone miserable in public (as I did to my mom once at a cancer walk, through no fault of mine, really; she realized after she started playing that she couldn’t hear her keyboard in the monitors and was very flustered, so no one got to hear just how good she was). That much less someone you a) don’t know very well, really and b) hold in very high regard personally, professionally and artistically. On that point, other than a minor bump or missed turn along the way, I think the whole weekend was a success; he said himself he was going home happy. 

Getting the chance to present Bob’s talent to people was a pleasure. Getting to perform with him on stage was, I have to say, a dream come true. And, despite the fact that I have almost no pictures or video to prove it happened (Do you? Send them!), I promise it was no fantasy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Don't Let Them Steal Your Shampoo, and Other Advice on Starting College

I had the pleasure of seeing the talented daughter of some friends of mine in one of her last local performances before going away to college to be a theater major. Conversations with her apprehensive mom (and a couple of episodes of the '80s sitcom "A Different World" the night before) got me thinking what I might say to the girl in this milestone moment. I'm sharing it here in hopes it would be useful to any other young dreamers on their way out the door.

A wise man told me before I started college that, at first, I might think I was the only one like me in the whole place, but, eventually, I would find my tribe (not his word, but it's what he meant) and realize I wasn't alone after all. I found this to be true. Here are some other tidbits I would offer:

  • Be yourself. Until you achieve that, be as many selves as you have to be before you find out who you are.
  • Pursue your craft, your education, and your dreams. Let the boys pursue you (and remember, an immediate "no" is always the kindest and best answer if you know that's what it's going to be; it won't kill him to hear it, and it'll save time for both of you that you can use to STUDY).
  • You will meet some dark and twisted souls (and not just in the theater department). Learn from them, but don't let them steal your joy. Or your shampoo.
  • Don't just spit back at your professors what you think they want to hear. Have an opinion, and let them convince you of its accuracy or inaccuracy. They're there to serve you, not the other way around.
  • Question a grade (respectfully) when it seems unfair. Instructors don't always get it right the first time. It goes both ways like that.
  • Call your mother even when you don't absolutely have to. She'll appreciate it, and it'll make it less obvious when you DO have to call to ask for money. Try randomizing the time and day to make it seem spontaneous.
  • After about two weeks, you'll start to imagine you've seen a familiar face across the quad or the cafeteria, and you'll think it's someone from home,  even if you're sure no one you know is on campus. You are not crazy. This is a trick of the mind that seeks the familiar in the strange, and it means you need to call your mother again, even if it isn't on your randomized schedule.
  • The Baptist campus ministry (then Baptist Student Union) was the best thing about my college experience. Look it up, and if your campus has one, give it a try. Or two. (You don't have to be Baptist to enjoy participating in their activities, though it probably helps.)
  • Be friends with people who applaud your talent AND with those who couldn't care less about it but do care about you, so you'll know you are supported regardless of how well you "perform."
  • College is not just about classes and grades, but without some effort in those areas, you'll be sent back home to live with your parents again. Trust me, it's even harder the second time around. If this isn't motivation enough to study, you shouldn't have left home in the first place.
  • Get used to hearing unsolicited advice from strangers (like this). It makes up a large percentage of a performer's conversations with audience members, no matter how accomplished or competent the performer is, and it makes the strangers feel they're a part of something your college experience will be.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jim Halpert as a ninth-grader?

Flipping through my junior high school yearbook, I discovered I apparently went to school with Jim Halpert from "The Office." He didn't quite have "the look" down...but it was coming along. Just like that mustache.

NOTE: This kid's actual name was Kenneth Daniel, and the school was Trewhitt Junior High School, Cleveland, Tennessee, 1978-79. He probably already knows he's famous, but if you see him, you might tell him, just to make sure. And I realize the actor's name is not actually Jim Halpert; that was just for laughs.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

An incomplete collection of thoughts on idolatry

[Edited in response to some helpful comments—MKH]

I recently joined a Facebook group whose topic is "Jesus Music 1969-1989." Lots of nostalgic posts and pics to reminisce about the Christian music of that period and its impact on our lives.

Some people in this group (like many fans of other genres) are very interested in having their favorite albums from years past. They are willing to pay a little (sometimes a lot) more than the average person in order to get these albums, because they like the music, and because it reminds them of good times and revives their spirits. They post pictures of said albums in gleeful celebration. I get all that—it’s fun.

I did find one post that, even though it was clearly tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, it got me thinking about an issue I've considered over the years. A member declared jokingly that the classic album his wife had recently given to him as a gift would remain sealed "until Christ comes back and says I got a great player in the sky for that."

Ah, sounds like one of those obsessive-compulsive collector types, I thought. There seem to be several in the group, just going by some of their posts. My response was (and is): what's the point of having an album if not to listen to it from time to time, or at least have the ability to do so? Isn't it about the music? Especially if you believe the music conveys a message that everyone needs to hear. Aren't you preventing a potential life-changing experience for someone when when you keep the record (literally) under wraps? How would the artist you hold in such high regard feel about that? It seems to be a little like getting a dog and putting it in a kennel somewhere, just to say you're a dog owner. In other words, just a little crazy. And probably no fun for the dog. Or to use the words of a comic whose identity I can't remember: "That's not a hobby; that's a symptom."

Clearly, as he assured me later in a very patient and measured way, he was kidding. He understands we're not taking anything with us when we go. He said he already has the music in a listenable form and was glad to have the unsealed album for his collection because he was planning to display it because he admires the cover art. His collection is available for listening, not locked away in an underground bunker. I mean, if his wife is OK with it, that's a good sign, right?

But as for the others out there (not just in the group)...I can't help but imagine that on some subconscious level they interpret those passages in Revelation about the seven seals to be depicting Jesus opening His favorite albums from His infinite album vault so He can enjoy them at last in a dust-free environment, in heavenly stereo sound. The noble, never-ending quest for the elusive Holy Grail of vinyl. The neatly-labeled series of issues, all in orderly rows and columns. Perfection. What? Play it? And risk scratching it? Are you nuts?

So the question I have is this: how is this affinity for a physical object (an album) that supersedes the purpose of it (to convey the music) not a form of idolatry? Hard to imagine it isn't. Which (as a wise commenter observed), is to say it would be for me. I don't approach this as Moses fresh off the mountain spotting the golden calf; I'm someone with some experience in obsession and idolatry of my own. (To paraphrase Twain, we're all idolaters, just with different objects). So, not judging, just making some observations and posing the question for consideration.

For some, it's seems especially unlikely that something that carries a religious message would actually come between us and God; others know all too well how these things (church, rituals, etc.) can be the most insidious idols of all, because they make us think our focus is on Him when it's actually on something WE control. And that's what idolatry—and collecting—is all about: control. Filling that void within us with something of our choosing—something we can polish, admire, find security in having the WHOLE set, and post pictures of on Facebook (or Instagram, if that's the preference).

I understand the market assigns value to certain things, and in the record market, the condition of the album is of utmost importance. It's an "investment." Sometimes one that pays real money in the real world. But I would also say that any collector's market is based on, and also feeds, the idolatrous inclinations of collectors. A practical economist might say that value is an illusion until a sale takes if your goal is to HAVE and not use or eventually sell, you never see the proceeds. If your worldly wealth is in things that can't be used, only owned, then until or unless their potential value is traded for things that have actual value (food, clothing, travel, entertainment, etc.), you are destitute (ask the dude with 1,000 Beanie Babies in storage). For some people the only way to free themselves of this burden of false treasure is to give it away, thereby losing their delusion of self-sufficiency. A parable about a rich man and the eye of a needle comes to mind.

Collecting can be a harmless, enjoyable hobby, and even a useful coping mechanism. Sometimes it just gets weird. I once visited the home of a mature couple in Oregon, and as we sat at the kitchen table, we were surrounded by Barbie dolls, mostly in boxes, on shelves that took up a great deal of wall space all over the house. They were not there to be easily accessed by any little girl that might want to take one down and play—that would no doubt be verboten (I don't think many little girls visited, anyway). This is the kind of thing that gets a cute "my, isn't that interesting" feature story in the media. I found it to be creepy and sad.

A few years ago, an acquaintance who clearly has the obsessive-compulsive type of personality (great with numbers, and with a heart of gold, but not a good communicator at all), told me he had several thousand Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars in storage. I was a little taken aback, but it kinda made sense, knowing him. I had a box of cars when I was a kid. I played with them. At some point I gave them to my nephew. He played with them. They're all gone now, and though I'd get a kick out of it if I somehow ran across one, I don't miss them at all...because they fulfilled their purpose as TOYS.

One especially sad tale is that of a veterinarian in Chattanooga. Her collection of dragon figures filled one building (having moved her office next door) and then five temporary trailers she put up next to her practice. She basically had created a dragon museum. That was probably pretty cool. However, she died young due to pulmonary fibrosis, brought on by the effect of living with 40 or 50 birds she kept in her house with poor ventilation. Her penchant for collecting killed her. And her dragon collection had to be split up and sold off to deal with the debts she left behind. Not such a cute story. (Details here).

I'm not saying nothing should be preserved or kept, or displayed in number, even in a Christian home. Some things fulfill their purpose that way, as decoration and reminders of times past (pictures, sculptures, souvenirs, album covers, etc.). (That said, I do wonder if one friend's massive collection of Precious Moments statuettes that fills her apartment isn't just a bit much. No judging here, though!). It's when we place the value on HAVING the thing over ENJOYING the thing itself that I believe we get into trouble.

As a final illustration (a blog with homework!), I would refer the reader to those two great films, "Citizen Kane" (especially the ending) and "Toy Story 2." In both, the message is clear: there is a point where the acquisition of things distorts their purpose AND ours, and it does not lead to happiness. I think that is one reason that, when Jesus called his disciples to follow Him, the understanding was that they leave everything behind.

So, let's enjoy our hobbies, and remember: buyer beware...especially if you already have 100 just like it at home.

Your thoughts and rebuttals welcome.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Would-be burglars beware

So you have a guard dog, do ya? Pit bull, maybe? Well, I guess I'd be more impressed if I weren't greeted every night by the sight of the LION that keeps vigil over my apartment building. Day and night, hot or cold, rain or snow, this faithful sentinel is on duty. And clever, too; dig how's he's disguised himself as a common garden hose.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

There's just something women like about a pickup man

Happy to report that I have completed installing a new pickup system in my guitar with no injuries to myself OR the guitar (other than one tiny imperceptible 1cm scratch by the end jack where no one ever looks but me anyway). And it works!

I'm not a handyman by any means; as a result, I don't jump into projects without careful consideration. It also means I don't always have the right tool for the job. But I'm not totally inept, either, and I like to do the occasional project just to remind myself of that. Saving money is a nice benefit, as well. As necessity is the mother of invention, I did a little improvising. It wasn't always pretty, and I was glad not to have witnesses, but it's the result that counts.

It all started at the birthday writers round I hosted in admission of my 50th birthday. I went first to make sure everything was working properly...and it wasn't. My amp (our sound system) was issuing some terrible sounds, like a mix of hard static and extreme white noise, when I hit the louder volumes. We checked cords, bypassed the mixer, etc., and determined (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the amp was freaking out. It's been around a while, like me, so that kind of made sense. So we replaced the amp with one Gary Talley happened to have with him and I limped offstage in defeat (since it was time to move on through the performing roster). I tried to shake it off (I could've used Taylor Swift's video) but of course given my obsessive nature, I was not completely successful. I suspect everyone had a better time than me. Oh, well, there's always next year (Lord willing).

Started looking at sound systems, and happened to plug in to my cheapo little amp I sometimes use as a monitor, and got the same effect: distortion only on the low E string (the thick one). Whoa...same problem, same guitar, two different amps? After testing on my little mixer with headphones and on yet another amp, I realized it wasn't the amp after all; the problem was with my guitar pickup. An Equis Silver system, no longer made by Washburn. Good news/bad news, indeed.

I took it to Nashville Used Music where the tech could not bring himself to get involved, given the multiple possible sources of the problem and the likelihood of not being able to find and fix it. No man savors the thought of failure. Not SUCH bad news, really, given that I live in a guitar-rich town, and had considered maybe it was time to get a new one (i.e., good used one), make a new start and put this ugly episode behind me. So I went guitar-shopping/browsing, and searched the internet for pickup solutions. Maybe one with a microphone to get that acoustic sound? Opinions are divided on that. Saw a couple of good affordable guitars...and also some that cost more than three times what I paid (uh, am paying) for my car. ("Thirty thousand, huh? Does this come with a case?"). The latter were at famous (and friendly) Gruhn's Guitars. They have a nifty room containing a chair, an amp, and three guitars in which multiple pickup systems are installed, with the end jack (the hole where the cable plugs in) for each labeled, so you can compare them.

Naturally, after careful consideration of the alternatives and the price of each, I went with the cheapest option: order a used pickup system online and install it myself or pay someone to do it. Found a good one on (referred via a message board thread, maybe on the Washburn site?) made by Alvarez. It had the basic qualities I liked about my old one: easy exterior placement, volume knob (not a slider), EQ and Presence controls. And as a bonus, an on-board tuner. Nifty. And less than $50 including shipping.

Both parts of the new system that attach to the outside wall of the guitar (preamp and end jack with battery) were smaller than the existing holes occupied by the former parts, but I could see that it could very well install into the old brackets, with some careful cutting. Explained this to two or three guitar shop folks but they seemed skeptical toward my vision. The aforementioned tech at Nashville Used Music had just gone on vacation (to avoid me? I hope not, but it worked out well for both of us). I got a quote from another pro who wanted to create new brackets out of rosewood that would fill the old holes and look nice. It was a very fair quote given what he proposed, but a couple hundred bucks could've put me halfway to a decent replacement. Plus, I wanted to try it myself.

After viewing a few "how-to" videos (thanks, Youtube!), I launched into it by taking out the old preamp and tearing out the innards to leave just the plastic external brackets. I don't have a small enough screwdriver for the job, so I used the little hard-rubber screwdriver bit holder from my drill set (still in near-mint condition, btw) as a handle, with the one bit in it, to turn the screws manually. This gave me better control than the drill would have allowed. (I became less careful as I proceeded). I glued a paper template on it, then I cut (and sawed, and filed, using the less-than-ideal tools on hand) a hole for the new preamp. Messy but effective. The old piezo pickup (a thin little stick that hides under the saddle, changes vibrations to electrical pulses and sends them via a little wire inside the guitar to the preamp) had a plug that pretty much matched the new one. I thought I'd leave it in place, so as not to disturb the setup of the strings, etc.. I checked the new preamp by connecting it all up, putting in a battery, and playing it through an amp. Yep, it worked all right. I colored over what was left of the old silver markings on the bracket with a black Sharpie.

Next step was making the hole for the new end jack and battery unit in the old hard plastic bracket; fortunately the old system had both a 1/4" plug and an RCA plug (the latter of which never worked for me), so it was bigger than the usual deal. Not having a tool to cut hard plastic, I borrowed the idea from one of the videos to use a drill to perforate the cut line and a box knife to do the rest. First, though, I taped the bracket securely to a box in lieu of a clamp (since I don't have the latter) and also taped over the cut areas and drew the cut line on it. Then I drilled the screw holes to match those in the new piece. Once the large hole was made, I used the tiny file on my fingernail clippers (the only file on hand) to enlarge it further. This took a long time, especially, I kept having to exchange drill bits for screwdriver bits. But I'm a single guy, it was a Saturday at this point, so no problem there.

Once I put the new end jack unit in the old, newly-modified bracket, I still had to cut a notch in the existing hole in the end of the guitar to get it all in. I marked the area to be cut, and not having a jig saw, and because the area included part of a bracing element, I thought maybe I should take it to a pro. Or at least someone who has access to a jig and knows how to use it. But, after some thought, I figured I'd give the old box-cutter a go at it. It was only a small chip off the bracing, and even if it would leave a small structural "gap," that would be covered by the bracket. So more cutting and chipping and filing ensued. Inefficient, yes, but again...single, Saturday, etc.

I hooked up the system and plugged it in for another amp test. Here's where I made an interesting discovery: I still got the distorted sound on the bass string. So the problem was probably with the piezo pickup alone the whole time. Oh, well, it's been fun, anyway; the new system didn't cost much more than a new pickup, and now I have an on-board tuner.

So I replaced the old piezo pickup with the new one. This was a matter of loosening all the strings (with a piece of tape to hold them all together), unhooking them from the bridge, pulling out the saddle, pulling out the old piezo, and dropping the new one in (after carefully and with some trepidation filing the slot to accommodate the wider new pickup), then restringing and testing. Beautiful. Except now my action was too low and strings buzzed midway up the neck. The new piezo is flatter than the old one, so the saddle sits lower in the slot. I recalled that the old one had a filler piece, apparently for that purpose. So, we take the string ends out again, take out the saddle (it falls out, actually, which is not ideal), and pop the filler in over the pickup, then replace everything...and realize the filler was UNDER the pickup, not on top. Strings back out (fortunately not having been tightened up yet), saddle out, and that piezo is NOT coming out again in one piece. So, hey, let's hope it won't make a difference; it's all vibrations traveling through pieces of solid stuff anyway. So back on everything goes, with restored action that is low but not buzzy, and I'm happy again.

Somewhere in the amp testing phase, I noticed there was a light knocking noise whenever I moved the guitar. It turned out to be the wire that connects the piezo to the preamp. It's sensitive to any rubbing or striking against the inside of the guitar. So I rather clumsily taped a long section of it to the nearest bracing piece inside, and that stopped the noise. At least until the tape gives out, but that'll be a minor thing.

Next challenge: making the pre-drilled screw holes in the new piece fit the holes I'd drilled in the old bracket. They weren't far off, so a combination of reaming the holes bigger with the drill, and yet more filing of the cutout area, did the trick. Of course I went too far with one hole and now the screw slipped through. I half-filled it with a tiny bit of rolled-up tape and flat tape covering the hole, and went in fresh. This held the screw well enough, though it may need more attention (or super glue) later.

Awesome! We're done! I can clean up all the various tools (and things used as tools) in my living room. Exceeeeeeept...the new preamp juts out just a wee bit more than the old one (having been made to be put on the upper bout and having been put on the lower), and it's a tight squeeze in my fake-fur-lined case. So I retrieve the box cutter, cut a patch out and glue that next to the bare patch to push the wall of the guitar away from that side. Then I glue a patch of thin foam padding to fill the area to add some protection to the unit.

NOW I'm done.

It was just that simple! If you want to hear the results, check my schedule to see where I'll be performing next.