Thursday, August 14, 2014

A talk about songwriting as buildmyguitar proceeds!

                    Okay, I could just leap right into showing you how Bruce Roper did this, but I would rather describe what we talked about on Thursday during our weekly visit (delayed by vacation and family visits). This is the top of the guitar Bruce is building for me. No one else will have one that looks like this because he built it himself, engraved it himself and finished the inlay himself. I don't know what to even call it, a star, a spark, a shape, but I am in love with it. It's so full of spirit, sitting right there on the top of the guitar. It will have one strip of copper, fitted just perfectly, across the top to set off the stylized "M" Bruce cut into the headstock. That will suggest the letter "C".

                    He cut the shape up on top with a bandsaw and finished sanding it Thursday. He cut the inlay two weeks ago and filled it with epoxy and dental enamel and then sanded it flat. It has a great, natural look to it that just pulled me in. I am a hopeless sap for this kind of thing because it shows up as a simple, clean addition to the instrument.

                   But the real question today is "What do you think of 'Don't Think Twice'," Bob Dylan's big folk scene introductory song from back in the 1960s? I have played it the way Dylan plays it. I have played it the way everyone else plays it and I have come to hate it for reasons that don't have anything to do with the song. It's how people approach the song. The damn thing is a heart break from start to finish and brilliant in its soulful simplicity. "It ain't no used to sit and wonder why, babe, if you don't know by now." How much more desperate can you get? It's full of leaving and longing and loss. The only person I have heard play it in years who really touched me was Dennis Cahill, who rewrote it with a minor key introduction and very sparse accompaniment, then sang it in not much more than a whisper. It was a minimalist's way of saying, "Listen to these words."

                That made it work for me.

Drilling holes for tuners. Bruce lines them up
with a wax pencil, punctures the surface so the
drill will be square. The holes are bigger on the
top than on the bottom, so they must be drilled
with two different bits.

                 Bruce loves that song and because he has been writing fine music for 30 years, give or take a decade, and sending it out through "Sons of the Never Wrong," the band he plays with, I had to have second thoughts about it. We talked about this while he was drilling the holes for the tuners that will go into my guitar. A lot of people, he said, start out thinking about song writing in terms of where the horn section will go, who will play the break, what kind of percussion will fit and so on. But that's wrong because what is always most important is what the song says.

                 Go on iTunes and get some of the Sons stuff to see what he means. The music is great, of course, but the words are so strong they take the front place. Sure, when Sue Demel sings, "I'll Fly Away," her droning guitar in the beginning draws you right in, but what keeps you there is her voice and the band's rendition of music done many times before, but not nearly as well. It's all about how the words are presented. Over some delicious but very cheap burgers for lunch Bruce told me that was one of the things he appreciated the most about the departed Robin Williams, his use of language was subtle and always emphasized the array of meanings attached to all the words.

               Not the kind of thing you would expect from a luthier, is it?

               That's why this process has been so fascinating for me. The luthier part is what is right in front of you with Bruce. The music part is deep, well tested and very sophisticated. There are no wasted conversations about music with Bruce, even down to the economics. The only way you can make money, he suggests, is to sell CDs from the stage during performances. That means A. You need to be good enough to perform. B. You need to have some good CDs and C. You need some gigs to sell them at by presenting your music well and making people want to take it with them.

               Maybe you will somehow get a song on TV! Maybe on the radio! Maybe the music gods will come down and give you the very last record contract with an advance that anyone will ever get. Don't count on that. Count on the fact that music is best when the objective is delight, enjoyment, sharing with your friends. Make it about passion and not profit and then you have a hope. You can't take that to the bank, but you can't trust banks anymore anyhow, so why not just enjoy it? I noted to Bruce that no one was paying when Doc Watson sat on Clarence Ashley's porch to play old time stuff so many years ago, but they both clearly delighted in it.

The headstock ready for the tuners. Note the different sizes in
the holes. The chrome nuts will go into the holes first from
the top, then the tuning pegs will come up from the back.

              That was the point at which I decided the first song I will record on this guitar is "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," by Bob Dylan. I know that sounds arrogant, but I finally understand what that song actually means when all the hoo-hah and fancy stuff is stripped away. I think I will build it around something classical, but I am not certain yet. Just like this new guitar, it will take some dedicated work to get it ready.

The little copper bonnet that will sit across the top of my
guitar. Bruce is thinking about what kind of nails he wants
to use to hold it in place. 

                  Bruce finished the day with some focused sanding on the neck and some fret dressing (you use a file and your fingers to take down high points on the side. Very important.) Then he took a little can of gun oil, the finish he has used on the body of the guitar, too, and put a layer on the neck. That will be polished up with fine steel wool before another coat goes on.

                Here's how we left it.

              Bruce will let that dry up. Put the tuners back in and then move next week to setting the neck and finishing up. I'll be going back to the classroom at Roosevelt, too, so my other life has slipped onto the scene, which is fine because, well, we all need other lives.

              Pretty soon we will see how this turns out. Stay tuned, please.