This continues a new category of posts: Guest columns where friends and readers share how technology is reshaping their hobby – fishing, basket weaving, rugby – whatever.
This time it is Devan Sabaratnam from Darwin in Australia, who by day develops web services for many of today’s leading ERP products, and jams at night. I knew he had good taste when he commented on Dire Straits in on of my posts. Little did I know he could just about have played for them!
“Almost every youngster dreams of being a rock and roll star, and I must admit I was fortunate to play guitar in several bands from my high school days back in the early eighties up until I turned 30, got married and settled down, thus effectively ending my days of playing rock and blues riffs in smoky bars and clubs.
As it turns out now, our eldest son who is 9 (in the photo), is showing the same passion for being a rock guitarist, and this has allowed me to relive my past vicariously through him (every aging guitarists dream really!).
In this process, I have been had to re-outfit him with gear (no way is he going to play my precious guitars - at least not until he is as good as Eddie Van Halen). But in the process of scouring the local shops and the web for equipment, I have been astounded by the technological changes that have taken place in this industry over the past 20 or so years. Let me explain.
1. Cable Nightmare
THEN: I used to dread unpacking my gig bag before every show, as I would be confronted with a mass of cables and leads looking like Medusa's hair after a particular bad night on the town. Not to mention that my effective range from my amp would be limited to whichever of the longest leads I had managed to untangle that evening. Also, I used to get tired of tripping up the lead singer and pulling everyone else's mike stands over as I duck walked across the stage.
NOW: Wireless transmitters mean that the guitarist can meander right into the audience and prance around the stage like a right prat in utter safety. I wish the associated battery pack would be a bit lighter though.
THEN: Between just about every song, I would unplug my guitar from the main rig and end up hunched over my tiny tuning device to prevent my guitar from sounding like a discordant banshee. This used to severely restrict my time that I could have spent getting free drinks from the band's groupies.
NOW: The latest guitars from major manufacturers now tune themselves! I came across these recently whilst jamming at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and they certainly saved time, although I think the jury is still out on the real practicalities of such systems.
You can even tune your guitar using your iPhone these days!
3. Learning Chops
THEN: In order to learn a particular riff or solo, you had to wear out your cassette tape playing the sequence over and over again and try to figure out what position on the neck and the correct fingering sequence - most of the time you would be way off until some other, more experienced colleague actually showed you the 'proper' way after a particular embarrassing performance.
NOW: You can go to YouTube or any other number of web video sites and type in the name of the song or guitarist, and you will get a plethora of instructional videos showing you how to play from several camera angles, including slowed down, note for note analysis. In addition, you can also download tablature or sheet music for just about any song ever written and released.
THEN: If you wanted to have a casual jam session, you would have to contact all the other band members, ascertain if they were not too lazy/sleepy/drunk/stoned to get together to make music, then load all your heavy gear into the car and head to the designated garage, set up, play, argue, play, then tear it all down again.
NOW: The latest line of amplifiers now have built in jam track loops, complete with drums and rhythm backings, so you can select the type of music you want (from Friday night grunge metal to Sunday afternoon cabaret jazz), and simply play over the top. The digital drummer ALWAYS keeps in time, and you are never subject to his fits and tantrums (sorry Ricky!).
5. It's All About Tone
THEN: You would work three jobs to save enough money to buy the same type of guitar and amplifier as your hero(Not Guitar Hero, though – the household has a no-TV and no-game console policy while the kids are young) You would scour through guitar magazines with a magnifying glass to see if you could see the positions of the various knobs on their rig. You would buy and throw out several distortion pedals because they didn't have quite enough fuzz for your liking.
NOW: You can buy ONE effects pedal that duplicates all the tone and nuances of your favorite rock star. With the press of a footswitch, you can sound exactly like Hendrix did on 'Foxy Lady'. Another press, and you can sound just like Brian May from Queen.
You can also get software that runs on your PC, on which you can build a sound to emulate virtually any brand of amp on the market today.
THEN: I would drool over TASCAM catalogues showing their multi track mixing consoles and huge 8 inch tape to tape reels. The floor space required for the recording equipment took up a whole room in it's own right. We did go into a studio once and put down a few tracks, but it was a week long exercise in frustration (see (3) above) to get everyone there at the same time and the cost was quite high.
NOW: You can purchase a device no bigger than your laptop which allows you to mix multiple tracks directly onto your iPod, from the comfort of your own bedroom.
Yes, the new technology is great, and my son is getting right into it, but for me, I will always be happy with my 30 year old guitars (I have 9, and have held on to every one purchased since I started playing, except for #1). I play them all through my 20 year old Mesa Boogie valve amplifier, and I will keep on playing Chuck Berry blues licks and reminiscing about the 'old days' long after the sun sets.”