As usual I’ve been watching some geeky stuff on the uTubez and, as always, one of the first videos that was recommended for me was something from That Pedal Show. This time it wasn’t a pedal thing, it was a video of Mick changing the saddles on his favourite Strat, Blue. As he was talking away to camera in an offhand way he spent several minutes philosophising about “taking out the middle person from his playing” and it resonated with me in a massive way.
Who is the middle person? Well, if you’ve not seen the video, Mick refers to the middle person as the person you become when you are not ‘just’ playing – so, that’s either rehearsing, practicing, teaching, or for me at times, assisting Brian and Jake with circuits. It’s easy to become a player that spends too much time listening, thinking about what you are doing and what you want to achieve, instead of just being the person in the middle of the event of playing music.
For me, the middle person is the perpetual show off, the professional tone chaser, the person thinking about his tax bill, booking the dog into the vets, what challenges the kids are going to present this week. Or, does this pedal work, does this pickup work, is my amp set up right, should the speaker cab be vertical or horizontal, why isn’t my wife dancing, why is the drummer so loud and everything else that flits through my mind when I’m playing.
When I play at home, the vast majority of playing I do is when the kids are working something out and I have to show them. Either that or I am playing the same riff over and over when setting the Leslie on the Terraform, or trying to be the player I was in the 90s. So, my playing is mainly the middle person. It’s not Jason the musician in 2019, expressing the sum of his (well in excess of) 30 years of playing. It’s Jason the guitar player who is achieving a separate goal from the one he intended to achieve when he first picked the guitar up. That goal was to make myself happy. To make myself smile. To express myself. To make other people smile. To simply enjoy the experience of making music with my friends.
Over the years I’ve played in lots of bands and in every one I had at least 2-3 moments during every gig where I could get lost and fully express myself as the musician I was at the time. Which, usually, means I walked away wishing I had done something different, been better, been more musical… you know what it’s like. There is always something.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m now an old git, or my ego plays a much smaller part in me being a musician, but I generally don’t give a crap what other people think of my playing. That may be because over the last few years I’ve become good friends with players who are literally some of the greatest players to ever walk the earth. I am under no illusion about my place in the world of music, I mean, I’m a good player, but you know, when you have sat down and jammed with players like Tom Quayle many many times, you know who you are.
Mick calls this moment in his playing life as being a “mid-life crisis”. For him it came to a head when sitting down with Ed O’Brien from Radiohead. As he is an artist for originality, someone who uses the guitar as a form of expression that only a few of us can ever truly achieve, it hit him massively hard. Due to this he has identified things in his life and they run parallel to things I’ve had in my life. Anyway, if you want to listen to what Mick has to say, the video is at the bottom of this ramble and I’ll get back to where I was going with this!
My middle person, I think, is generally compartmentalised these days. When I am playing for work, with the kids, or whatever, I am thinking about the stuff I need to think about that revolve around the mechanics of playing. Whether that be my technique, my tone or something else I’ve found I am completely and utterly disconnected from playing the guitar for the reasons the 7-year-old me first did it.
However, sometimes, when I am out with the band, that 7-year-old me surpasses the middle person and I am just playing, properly, without a care in the world. I know that I can only do this because I am comfortable with myself as a player, comfortable with the music I am playing and am 100% comfortable with the people I share a stage with. Because of this I can close my eyes and feel at one with my instrument. It stops being a PRS or a Tele, it just becomes an extension of myself. As long as I can stay in that state, I play at my very best. I take risks I never would at home, I play the runs I wouldn’t even think of, I find the chord inversions I never knew existed, purely because I am in it. Right in the middle. I can become in the middle instead of being outside being the middle person.
The middle person that Mick talks about was one that I knew existed, but also didn’t know existed. Having watched that video the concept of the middle person has come out and punched me clean in the face. It has given me some kind of revelation as to why I play differently at gigs than I do at home.
Here is the down side - I really need to find a way of letting ‘me’ out more when gigging, however - I know that I am lucky. I have great gear, I know I can play pretty good and I am lucky enough to play with outstanding musicians. I have the luxury of being ‘comfortable’ so I don’t have to think about that stuff. I know I am not about to be asked to play something that I have no chance of pulling off and I know that it’s unlikely my guitar is going to go out of tune just because I played it a bit bloody hard.
However, it has identified something in me that leaves me envious of Mick. A couple of weeks ago Lisa and I went up to TPS to pick some gear up and drop something off. As usual we had a cup of tea and a good chat (which lead to a conversation about how very English we were because we got into a lengthy discussion about how tea should be made which lead to Dan looking at us like we were insane) and during this chat Mick was talking about how, when he is gigging, he hates having to change stuff, patches and effects because it detracts from his playing. At the time I was saying that I don’t mind that because I spent so long as a FOH sound engineer, part of the deal for me (when gigging) is to have a produced/polished sound with various things happening at the right time. We don’t have a FOH engineer in the band I am in so I have to balance my levels for intros/outros/solos. I like to use modulation effects and I use many, many different delay patches, often within one song. So, even though I am using a fully programmable rig, I am always changing patches mid song and this detracts from my playing head space.
This was confirmed for me at the weekend when I was visiting an old friend of mine called Ray, who is a “strat into a deluxe and nothing in-between” type player who uses the volume control on his guitar (and the internal preamp on his Clapton Strat) to give a wide range of tones… when I see Ray playing, which I do often and have done for almost 30 years, I’m always slightly envious about this, but it’s just not me. I like to have different sounds and different textures. How can I bridge this gap?
I am left in a bit of a quandary. I want those moments in my gigs where I am at one with my guitar to get longer. I want them to be more of a standard than an exception, but how can I do that? I can’t have both. I can’t have the control of soundscapes and also get lost in what I am playing with my friends. How can I achieve that? Do I need a tech to do the patch changes? I can’t justify that for many reasons – mainly because we are just a crappy pub band but most importantly it would take away the freedom I enjoy of trying to catch the bass player out by playing stuff he’s not expecting, but I can’t do that without bringing in the correct patch for it. I need to find a way to change my playing so there’s less tap dancing and more playing.
My new Telecaster has an onboard preamp which enables me to increase the output of the guitar radically if I need to. So this could mean that I may not have to worry about as many patch changes, I don’t know… actually, I do. Knowing myself as I do, finding out what that preamp can do will open up a whole new world of potential of effects and tones I didn’t have before which will lead to more patches changes to manage them and utilise it properly. Maybe I just need to try to go out with a single dirt box. And a compressor. And a delay. Oh, can’t go out without a chorus or vibe… and then I’ll need to control it. Shit. I’m back to square one. Can I press hard reset and start again please?