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Thursday, June 26, 2003  

Now’s as Good as Any to Start Drinking

I took on a project for myself last night, one I sort of stumbled into. I became an amateur music transcriber. Emphasis on amateur.

Here’s the thing: the band is playing a gig in a few weeks. Specifically, it’s a 60th birthday party. So we’re transforming into a swing band for the night. Even though we don’t have a horn section. Well, we do have half of one, in the sense that the Who had a guy who played the French horn. Herr Magnet and I could switch back to our old high school band instruments, but then we’d only have two horns, a guitar, and drums. Besides, if Herr Magnet is as rusty on the trumpet as I am on the saxophone, we’d have half of a very bad horn section. So we’re sticking to our standard line-up. That leaves Herr Magnet and Kraftmatik in the unenviable position of having to transpose jazzy horn parts into jazzy guitar parts, and I can’t begin to tell you how pleased I am that that falls into the category of Not My Problem.

I’ve got my hands full with the bit that’s not Not My Problem, thanks. Most songs from both swing eras contain a bass lines already, so all I have to do is figure them out. It would be an advantage if I had the kind of bass they typically used, i.e. the kind you stand next to. It would also help if I knew how to play it. But I don’t have that kind of time or money, so everyone’s just going to have to be satisfied with the one I strap on. And yes, I wrote that sentence just to get cheap Google hits. Don’t judge me.

Some of the songs are turning out to be harder to learn than I expected. I figured everything would be built around walking bass lines and twelve-bar blues and other stuff that’s second nature to a rock musician like myself. Not always the case, as it turns out. For instance, some of these numbers meander off into lengthy jazz odysseys that I could maybe learn properly if I a) only had to learn one of them, b) had a couple more weeks, and c) wasn’t using those brain cells to store more important stuff like Spinal Tap references. Rock music tends to be eminently fakeable; when you know a song’s root chords and a couple of scales, you have enough information to quickly reproduce the bass lines of nine out of ten songs with a degree of accuracy that’s quite convincing to the casual listener. Especially if the bassist in question is as musically lazy. That’s probably true of swing music as well, to a point, provided one has years of background in that milieu. That musical vocabulary, if you will. Which I don’t.

So for most of the songs I’m sticking to root notes with maybe a walking bass phrase dropped in here and there, and that should get me by. But there’s one song that has me almost completely stymied. Not coincidentally, it’s the one from which I borrowed a line for the title of this entry. It’s got a great bass line and I want to do it justice, which is hard enough on the verses given its unfamiliar (to me) variation on the walking bass scale, but then the prechorus goes all weird melodically. And I can sort of figure out how it does that, and I can sort of get it to circle around back to where it’s supposed to be on the chorus, but not both at the same time. And all of the tablature files I’ve found on the Internet are the same one, and it’s one that doesn’t work because the person who put it “together” is apparently a rock musician who doesn’t have any more of a clue than I do. So I’m basically on my own, which still wouldn’t be an issue except that when I try to learn it by ear, it goes so fast that even if I stumble on the right order of notes by accident, there’s no way I’m going to be able to remember what I did. I can play a great deal faster than I can think, you see.

So there I was last night, creating My Very First Tab File. I don’t know how it’s generally done, but I know I did it wrong. For instance, I started from scratch using Times New Roman, not sparing the three seconds it would have taken me to realize that the Internet is swarming with blank Tab file templates in the proper Courier font, just sitting out there waiting for me to cut and paste and plug my notes in. I did it sitting in my computer chair with my bass in my lap, plucking notes and phrases while alt-tabbing back and forth between the Word document I was creating and a digital version of the song on Media Player (by the way, I bought and paid for two different versions of this song on two different CDs, so step off my fair-using ass, RIAA), playing the song, one bar at a time, over and over until my computer refused to do it any more. I’m serious; the player just quit working, even though my sound card was perfectly fine on every other application. Maybe it was just as disgusted as I was that after over an hour, I’d only managed to transcribe about thirty seconds of music, one note at a time.

And then I thought back to that scene late in Amadeus, where F. Murray Abraham is scribbling down an entire score by hand, from dictation, in musical notation, without an instrument anywhere in the room to help him make sure he’s getting it right, while a socially and emotionally stunted jerkwad-savant is dying of syphillis two feet away from him, and he calls himself mediocre. And I thought, what the hell does that make me?

No wonder they invented Rock & Roll. Swing is too much work.

posted by M. Giant 3:29 PM 0 comments


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