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Mike Fitch

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  1. I've yet to meet a drummer whose eyes don't light up when the conversation turns to cymbals. A fine cymbal is a beautiful thing, a piece of art as well as a unique musical instrument. There is a huge sound spectrum in the world of ride cymbals and finding the one that speaks to you can be quite a journey. A definitive ride cymbal sound becomes a big part of a drummer's sonic signature. The ride gets quite a workout in most musical genres, accompanying soloists, creating dynamics, and adding color and movement to the overall sound. The typical ride cymbal ranges from 18"-22" in diameter, and comes in many different weights. The two most important characteristics to listen for when checking out a ride cymbal are stick definition (the ping or ride sound the cymbal makes when the bead of the stick strikes the cymbal, and the wash sound (the mix of overtones created by the cymbal's vibration). When playing a ride pattern on the cymbal, look for a crisp, distinct ping that's not harsh. The wash should be full and rich, without being too overbearing—be sure that no persistent undesired overtones are created. Play on the bell (the raised part of the cymbal in the middle)—it should produce a strong, clear bell tone. The type of music you play and your personal sound preferences loom large in cymbal selection. If you're playing high-volume rock or big band styles, you'll likely want a heavier cymbal that can cut through loud mixes, while applications such as a jazz combo or acoustic rock call for a lighter cymbal that blends easily. Play any prospective ride cymbal with various touches from loud to quiet to reveal different sonic characteristics. You may want to have extra, alternate rides for different gigs if you play many different styles. Many professional drummers prefer hand-hammered cast cymbals, each of which produces a unique sound that grows better with age, although some drummers like the clarity and consistency of cymbals that are cut out of sheet bronze. There are specialty rides available you might want to try, including cymbals with rivets added for a sizzle effect, and flat rides, which dispense with the bell for precise, ultra-clean definition. There are a number of cymbals listed as crash-ride, medium-weight cymbals made to cover both crash and ride functions convincingly—though experienced players often maintain that most good ride cymbals will also make a good crash. The key is to scope out a lot of different rides and see which one fits your individual playing style. Once you've found the ride of your dreams, the onus is on you to draw out the full range of sounds waiting to be unleashed from your new hunk of precious metal. Developing a set of 'big ears' is something that happens by playing with a live band night after night. While the gear and accessories you use can be a big help in playing dynamically, the most important thing is to listen closely to your fellow musicians and learn how to shape and react to the shifting volume of your band's musical expression. Those scowls from your singer will morph into smiles and the horn players will buy you drinks. Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.
  2. One of the best gear purchases I've made in ages. That's right. You heard me. You might ask yourself " What could be so great about a simple stick bag?" The answer is that this particular bag is big and versatile enough to serve as a drummer's mobile office, sheet music stash, and all-around supply center. What You Need To Know I'd been attached to my funky leather stick bag for years, but after trying out the Vic bag I've made this substantial, yet comfortably soft vinyl number my go-to bag for touring, recording, or practicing. Besides doing stick bag duty, this sleek black case has enough spare pockets and features to make it your nerve center on the road. It's simple to keep music practice notes, sheet music, set lists, and tablet in order with three large-sized outside pockets. There's also an extra inside pocket that's handy for holding your cel phone or music player, along with another inner pocket perfect for parts like drum keys, snare cord, ear plugs, etc. The Vic Firth Stick Bag is big enough to hold a vast range of sticks, mallets, and brushes. Backpack straps free up your hands when hauling your drums into the venue. For the busy drummer and percussionist who needs a sturdy, smart-looking stick and mallet bag with plenty of room for accessories and multiple pages of notes and scores, this stick bag is a god-send. Specs • 19"H x 23"W when open • 2 - 8-1/2" x 11" outer zippered pockets • 9" x 13" outer zippered pocket • 7-1/2" x 5-1/2" inner zippered pocket • 4-1/2" x 6-1/2" inner zippered pocket • 4 inner pockets for sticks, mallets, brushes, etc. • Backpack-style straps • 2 hanging hooks on elastic cord for securing to floor tom Resources Learn more about the Vic Firth Stick Bag at vicfirth.com Pricing and purchase info on the Vic Firth Stick Bag from musiciansfriend.com
  3. Steve Spalding enjoys a reputation of successfully working on fretted instruments since the 1980s, running a one-man shop from a relatively rural area on the west coast. Located in Ashland, Oregon, Steve works out of a small second-story shop full of various electric and acoustic instruments, each awaiting his undivided attention. He manages a steady flow of instruments that come through his door. On a recent crisp September morning Harmony Central dropped in on Steve to get his perspective on the world of guitar repair and modification. Harmony Central: What is your background, and how did you get into the musical instrument repair and modification business? Steve Spalding: I have been working with musicians in some capacity since I was 18, when I began repairing out of my bedroom(!) in high school. In the beginning, I was a pre-teen of the mid '70s in Southern California, with so many musical influences surrounding me—good times. I was soon captured by the allure of "rocking the nation" with a guitar newly in hand! I have always been a builder, tinkerer and somewhat artistic sort of guy, so it was a very early impulse that I wanted to build my own guitar. Specifically, as a new, die-hard "KISS ARMY" disciple, I longed for Ace Frehley's Sunburst Les Paul! It was around 1978, when I met the guy who was the real catalyst in my life for what I do now, and his name was John Spearman. John was a wacky, eclectic, highly talented dude that did repair from our local music shop. I became his sole apprentice, having a 3+year mentorship. I learned so much! John moved away in '81, and I began to take his place locally. Hence the "bedroom" shop arrangement until after high school. In 1983, I set up a tiny (closet-size) shop in a Medford music store. Repairing on the side, I also played onstage, and did live sound. I began developing faithful repair customers back then, one of which had a major impact on my career path—his name is Al Dinardi. He was (and still is) a dedicated guitar player who really pays attention to great gear, great tone, and he always appreciated my work. As it turned out, he was soon to become the co-founder and vice president of a little upstart called Musician's Friend in Medford, Oregon. In late '89 I was asked by Al and MF president Rob Eastman to open a large shop in their new flagship Medford, OR retail store. A handshake created a 15-year relationship, and amazing opportunities to hone and expose my craft in the industry! They gave me ample space to build my shop and I got it set up the way I wanted. That was such a game changer, just a great opportunity to have access to some bigger name artists who were involved with MF-sponsored sweepstakes, promotions, and other A&R stuff. I got to meet these folks and do work on their instruments. Along with repair, I also pursued building ground-up custom electrics, and was able to put some of my guitars in the "right" hands, which further helped to get the word out about my work. In '04, I chose to downsize, and optimize my workload to allow my very best work. I returned to Ashland, OR, to my present location. 2014 brings 33 rewarding years "under the hood" of countless guitars! HC: Who are some of the high-profile clients that you've had, and what kind of projects did you do for them? SS: It's been an interesting journey, and early on I contemplated an urban location for more pro-level exposure, client-wise. Again, thanks to the MF gig as well as our local summer concert series, the Britt Festival. These venues have been a great inroad to exposing myself to all levels of pro players. I'm a bit reluctant to drop names, and do want to consider the artists involved. That said, I reckon its fair to say I had an opportunity to do some work for Prince on a couple of his guitars back in the mid-'90s. I didn't ever meet him directly, the instruments were flown here to me. Here's a fun tidbit: Paisley Park bought seats for both guitars (in for real flight cases!) so they wouldn't be jostled around in the cargo bins. This pair was the iconic gold "symbol" guitar, and also a black one too. They both had similar "appendage" damage that needed to be addressed. It was honestly a bit of a pressure cooker, shall we say. A rite-of-passage type thing.... because they needed them back ASAP (36 hours!), and in a perfect world I would have wanted them longer and worked a little slower than I did. But everything ended up great. I was able to turn them around and get them back on time. Back to the question: a few guys I particularly like working with are Craig Chaquico, Paige Hamilton (founder of Helmet, who grew up in Medford), Scott Kelly (Neurosis) and Jeff Pevar. Generally speaking, I've been around long enough to have the privilege of meeting and working with many interesting artists along the way. HC: What kind of work do clients bring to you on a typical day? SS: In a shop such as mine, it's very typical to handle many different things. Take, for example, structural issues with acoustic instruments: there's such a plethora of issues that can occur. I see outright damage from a slip or fall, or an impact: airline/travel/shipping mishaps. And then there can be climate-related things like cracks from under-humidification, the list goes on and on. But I'd say consistently for all types of instruments, it's going to come back to the fingerboard, frets and set-up. A "set-up" generally refers to all function points that affect the playability of the guitar. There's far more to that than most people are aware of, and if it's done well, with a "global" sense of approaching an instrument, that's the basis of what I do. Launching outward from there, I will encounter and implement re-frets, new nuts, new saddles, tuner change outs, and so on. Beyond that, whether it's a broken peg head, a refinish job, or restoration of a vintage guitar, each job can have the the potential to be very unique. I've found one of the qualities that brings better success in guitar repair, is the ability to innovate on the fly: see a situation- wrap your mind around the logistics of each and every project, find what's the best option given many criteria for playability, for longevity, for cost effectiveness. Cost is often an issue that must be addressed - not everyone has the resources to do a no-expenses-spared repair. So, sometimes my creativity angle is: how do I fix something in a way that somebody can afford? Another dynamic: a vintage instrument often has notable value, and it's typically a better quality instrument. Sometimes you have to just say, "I'm sorry, I just can't cut corners on the correct repair for that guitar because it's gonna do more harm than good"- sometimes on several levels. Each project has its own criteria for the extemnt of recommended work, or to pause and say, "Your 1950-something Martin D-28 has dings and wear and tear, but it's a really honest, original vintage guitar with its factory finish and if you alter that finish you're severely risking the value of the guitar (not to mention the tone!!)." There's often a considerable amount of consultation involved with the approach to working on older, collectible guitars. Guitar tech Steve Spalding at work in his Ashland, Oregon shop HC: What kind of work do most guitars require to give them optimum playability? SS: As mentioned before, great setups are paramount. Each instrument will have strong points and limitations depending on the particulars of the guitar, but there's always a goal of reaching an optimal geometry. That's a relationship between relative neck straightness; neck "set"(refers to offset angle for best bridge height); fret trueness; nut height; saddle height; and also ancillary stuff. Issues like tuner function, making sure all frets are seated solidly, ends correctly "dressed", etc. It's an alchemy of these points - and it always comes back to the geometry of the guitar in relationship to the strings, and what a player is seeking to experience from that instrument. All factors are thrown into the ring, so-to-speak, and hopefully you come out with all these points addressed in such a way that the player is getting what they desire from the instrument. My job as a repair guy is to try to remove as many logistic obstacles as possible for an artist to express themselves. The most common quote a guitar repairman will hear from clients is "Action (string height above frets) as low as possible without frets buzzing." There are so many caveats to that statement regarding the instrument itself, as well as the interpretation of a particular set-up for a particular player. The human impact on the instrument is hugely variable - as variable as guitars are, the players are by far the biggest variable there is! If I don't really embrace that and have that in mind as part of the work being done, I'm missing an important aspect of a good set-up! It's all about what the artist wants, within reason. And sometimes people want what's not possible - I try to address players by saying: "I want to set your guitar up as best I can, and depending on your playing style, it has the potential to strongly determine the ultimate playability". Again, it's optimizing the instruments physical aspects, and aligning that with the understanding of what the player is looking for and how they're going to approach their instrument. HC: What are the most difficult parts of your job, and the most enjoyable? SS: Probably the most difficult would be (and anybody in most any business already knows the answer to this), there is the rare customer with a disposition that can be inflexible or their expectations are high enough (or unrealistic) that it's likely not possible to meet their needs. It's not at all common, but anybody that does work like this long enough is going to encounter this type of individual. That said, adverse situations I've seen tend to pertain more to amateurs than professionals. The pros often understand the limitations of the instrument and won't have the same degree of expectation. They're usually more clear that the best tone is not usually commensurate with the absolute lowest action (string height above the frets). Some good players actually want to "fight" that guitar a little bit, and it'll kind of push back at them. Established players, almost without exception, want a good pro set-up, but understand that it's up to them at a certain point to take the instrument and craft what they are conveying musically with that instrument. On the other end, the more enjoyable part of my work includes completing an extensive modification, or challenging repair. I really am stoked when I take an instrument that's had some pretty adverse circumstances bestowed upon it, and rectify the set-backs in a way that rejuvenates the tone and/or appearance. Creating the opportunity for the owner to re-connect with their guitar is one of the definite strong points for me. And last but not least, I thoroughly love connecting with many customers I meet! I can be a conversationalist, and as much as I enjoy conversations, sometimes I have to remind myself that, hey, I need to hunker down and get some work done - I'd say anytime you hand over an instrument and you've done your job well and it's been a difficult one, that's a high level of gratification for me. Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.
  4. Webster's defines 'dynamics' to mean, in the musical sense of the word, "variation and contrast in force or intensity." In the freelance drummer-for-hire world, the ability to play with dynamics opens up a lot of gigging opportunities, perhaps even more so than killer chops. Classical percussionists and show drummers usually rely on a written musical score for dynamic markings, and there may also be a conductor present to help direct changes in volume. But rock or jazz drummers who don't follow a score (which, if it exists, is often little more than a chord chart) must develop the ability to respond intuitively to the volume level that the music demands. Song Structure The ability to play with dynamics is helped by understanding the way a piece of music is structured. Most pop tunes alternate between verse and chorus. The verse section has lyrics that change as they accompany the music while the chorus usually uses the same words over and over in a repeating cadence or 'refrain'. Sometimes a bridge section connects the verse and chorus. The dynamic approach is generally to play quieter during the verse and then build the volume on the chorus. Common techniques for changing the dynamics and between the verse and chorus include: striking the head harder; switching from hi-hat to ride cymbal; changing from sidestick to snare; or switching from brushes or rods to sticks. Some tunes may be quiet for much of the song and then suddenly explode in intensity, as in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," with its massive gated tom fills. Of course, there are some instances in today's aggressive punk and metal styles where dynamics get kicked in like Pete Townshend's guitar amp. This relentless wall-of-sound approach has been around since '60s rockers such as Blue Cheer turned their amps up to 11, and persists now in many offshoots of metal and punk. This article is aimed more at the working club gig drummer who needs to adapt to a variety of musical styles - rock, blues, jazz, folk, reggae, Latin and more. These highly-varied genres demand a drummer who's capable of dipping into a vast trove of musical traditions and rhythmic feels as well as the ability to radically change volume at the drop of a guitar pick. If you're a drum set player hoping to work with many artists, it makes sense to learn hand percussion, congas, timbales, cajon etc. A box of percussion toys and the skill to play them authentically can grant you access to venues too small or too quiet for a full drum set. Gaining significant skill on instruments like congas, djembe, dumbek, pandeiro, cajon, etc., can only make you more employable - there are a lot of singer/songwriters, ensembles, and recording projects in need of a versatile percussionist. From a whisper to a roar For the drum set player it's vital to be able to modulate volume and energy. Work on single- and double-stroke rolls until you can play evenly and smoothly at any volume. The jazz great Elvin Jones was known for having a press roll so tight that it sounded like rushing water. Old school jazz drummers such as Roy Haynes and Joe Morello could play with intensity at a relatively low volume. To build more dynamic chops practice sticking rolls and rudiments across the full volume spectrum from ultra-quiet to FREAKING LOUD (don't forget your ear protection). Heads Up The subject of drumheads is vast, but for now we'll focus on how drumhead choice affects the volume and overall sound. Clear heads produce more volume and sustain than coated heads. Single-ply heads (the most common type) tend to have a boomy, ringing sound with lots of overtones, but shorter sustain. Single-plies are also more sensitive and respond well to a lighter touch. However single-ply heads usually won't last long under the assault of a hard rock drummer, and have a sound that is less controllable. Double-ply heads have a deeper tone with more sustain and stronger attack while offering a more controllable sound. Many drumheads incorporate some kind of dampening into the head design. For heads lacking any muffling, it may be added on later with products such as muffling sound rings or Moongels™, an improvement over the old-school technique of using duct tape. A kick drum's considerable volume and boom can be modified by sticking a pillow or foam against the head. There are also a multiplicity of choices in kick drum heads with built-in muffling. To summarize, rock, funk, and fusion players often prefer the durability and fat low end of double-ply heads, while players with a less aggressive attack tend to use single-plies. It's wise to try out different heads to find a sound that suits your playing style, and using either built-in or add-on muffling is an effective way to gain control of your volume. Also, the size of your drums and cymbals obviously effects the volume. Using a 26" kick drum and 20" crashes doesn't make sense in a small venue. Many players will have a second be-bop or compact kit with downsized shells and cymbals for more intimate gigs. Conclusion Developing a set of 'big ears' is something that happens by playing with a live band night after night. While the gear and accessories you use can be a big help in playing dynamically, the most important thing is to listen closely to your fellow musicians and learn how to shape and react to the shifting volume of your band's musical expression. Those scowls from your singer will morph into smiles and the horn players will buy you drinks. Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.
  5. The cajon has become an immensely popular instrument in recent years. From its beginnings decades ago with the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Peru, this box drum has found a home on modern stages and in recording studios. The instrument's new-found popularity is largely due to its versatility, with the ability to mimic everything from a Latin percussion set-up to a full drum kit. The cajon's small footprint is great for fitting onto tight stages. The box drum is great for drummers, players of other instruments, or amateurs or new musicians who want a beginning percussion instrument that's easy to play yet delivers an abundant palette of sounds. While in its simplest form it's a basic wood box, the cajon is evolving and mutating into some striking new variations. Let's take a little tour of some of the many new cajons on the scene. West coast-based percussionist and drummer Jimmy Branly kicks a burning cajon solo. The cajon's origin may be traced to Africa where its use spread, through the slave trade, to Latin America, especially Peru and Cuba. It may be that slaves used boxes and furniture as instruments to get around colonial bans on drums and music. Today the cajon's use has expanded from Afro-Peruvian, flamenco and rumba to include a vast range of modern musical genres. No-nonsense Cajon The cajon's basic construction follows the traditional design from Peru, a hardwood box with a sound hole on the back or side plus a thin front wood soundboard chosen for it's sonic qualities. In many cajons the front plate is held in place by a number of screws that may be loosened to provide increasing amounts of 'slap' when struck in the corners. The middle and top end of the front plate is usually played with flat palms, while striking the middle section with a cupped palm delivers a deep bass kick drum-like sound. The player's heel may be used like a kick pedal or pressed against the front to change the pitch. There is fairly staggering selection of cajons available these days, with a matching wide range of prices. While some cajons in the budget category sound quite good, there are also many inferior instruments flooding the market. The best way to make a selection would be to try a number of drums and find one with satisfying sound in your price range. Another option for those on a tight budget is to purchase one of the "build-your-own" kits on the market. Those looking for a cajon with more volume should consider a fiberglass instrument. These provide a bright, dynamic sound that won't get lost even in amplified settings. Still need more volume? Consider a cajon with built-in amplification (more on these later). Bells & Whistles Accessories like snare wires, bells, or jingles have been added to enhance the basic sound. Strings or wires give a snare drum-like sound that's very popular in flamenco music. Many models allow the snares and bells to be turned on or off with a button or lever. Some progressive percussionists use a customized kick pedal to play the cajon like a bass drum. If you are playing amplified music, you may want to mic your cajon by placing a microphone close to the rear sound port, and if you have the luxury of using 2 microphones, use the second mic on the front. This 2-mic setup captures both the low-end kick drum sound from the rear as well as your high slaps and other hand sounds from the front. There are also a number of cajons with built-in microphone systems now available to ensure you get heard, even in hard rock, hip-hop, and other high-volume styles. Pushing The Envelope Both the major drum manufacturers and smaller specialized enterprises have been taking adventuresome cajon design and construction to new heights. Some of these new instruments include the bongo cajon, emulating the high and low pitches of bongo drums, one of several multi-pitched cajons on the market. LP's Octo-Snare is a portable octagon-shaped drum with snares. Drum company Pearl has created lines of specialized cajons including; the Wedge Tri-Side (with two playing surfaces); Brush-Beat (with textured surface to optimize use of brushes); and Cube (switches to various configurations). German-based percussion company Meinl also offers an extensive cajon selection, featuring numerous wood and snare options as well as distinctive designs including the Subwoofer (with an extra sound port for enhanced low end) and Slap-Top (played on the top, conga-style). In addition, various accessories are available to spice up your cajon, including castanets, wood blocks, hand-worn shakers or rattles, brushes, and many more. There are several kick drum pedals made especially for use with the cajon, as well as kick port enhancements to increase the bass response. Many drummers also add other drum set components such as a high-hat or cymbals to their set-up. Ergonomics It is good to remember that playing a percussion instrument like the cajon is a physical as well as mental discipline, and that a few simple techniques will keep you from getting stressed out while playing. • Pay attention to your posture. Playing the cajon requires you to bend over at times to play the lower part of the drum. Keep relaxed and try to keep your head and neck aligned. • Don't hurt your hands! Even without amplification the cajon produces a lot of sound so go easy. If your hands are feeling pain, using band-aids and sports tape on your fingers will help protect your hands. Playing with drum or cajon brushes will also give your hands a needed break. • Wear ear protection. Your head is in close proximity to a lot of volume when playing percussion: it's worth it to protect your hearing for the long run with specialized ear plugs for musicians. Conclusion For drummers who want a smaller format instrument for playing lower volume gigs and small stages, the cajon is a winner. Percussionists looking for a large arsenal of dynamic sounds will find a place for a cajon in their toy box, especially those who are interested in Latin styles such as Spanish flamenco and South American traditional. Even hip-hop and drum-and-bass devotees are finding the cajon to be a little powerhouse of rhythmic expression. Regardless of your stylistic direction, this box of sounds will prove to be a valuable and enjoyable companion on your journey! Resources Shop the extensive selection of cajons at Musician's Friend Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.
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