2015

Facebook is the reason I haven’t been blogging much here. I think I should change that, because even though I look back at some of my angrier screeds and cringe, this is still the one and only space where I control everything. I don’t have to hope that my friends see it in their feed, you know? It’s here if you want it.

Anyway, 2015 is coming to a close and as always, I’m taking stock.

April was my one-year anniversary at Ubisoft, and it’s been an amazingly good fit. I still really like working there; I just need to do it a bit less, because as the year went on, I worked 10- and 11-hour days (not in a crunch time) with alarming frequency.

We finally got a house. Originally, Kat and I were hoping to go to Disney World for our 20th anniversary, but we thought more practically about that expenditure and realized we should get serious about owning our own place at last. Staying in my own four walls has been the best vacation ever (and we’re still surrounded by Disney stuff). We apparently had a lot of good house karma built up, because we found a place relatively quickly, had our offer accepted quickly, and got some key renovations done quickly too. It’s always a hassle and there were a lot of steps, but I feel very grateful that it went as smoothly as it did.

I didn’t get the next Palette-Swap Ninja project out this year, which I had hoped to do. Still working on that. It’s hard.

Mostly I want to take naps over the holiday. Hope your naps are happy too, if you celebrate naps.

The Tangerine Dream: Refinishing the Retronix R-800

I got a great deal on one of the first Retronix R-800s — the Korean-made models of J. Backlund‘s designs — thanks to Kickstarter. Fantastic look, very comfortable neck and body contours, trem bridge with coil-tapped humbuckers — extremely well built and designed for flexibility. The company even threw in a hardshell case as a surprise to backers, custom-fitted to the unusual shape.

The only thing that bugged me about it was the color. The Cobalt Blue turned out to be a lot darker than the prototype photo suggested — “blurple” at best, and to my eye, almost black unless sunlight was shining directly on it. I was really bummed, to the point where I considered selling it, but then realized maybe I should just have it refinished. And so…

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Jethro Tull, Metallica, and the 1989 Grammys: The Last Word

Someone recently brought up Jethro Tull’s win over Metalllica at the 31st Annual Grammy Awards as a way to discredit Grammys. I think there are many more valid reasons to discredit the Grammy Awards. But the reality of the Jethro Tull Grammy win is not quite as cut and dried as “Metallica lost to them so that’s dumb.” And yes, I say this as a biased fan of the band, but I was a budding music journalist in 1989, so I was watching this very closely. Since it has become a musical history punchline, I feel the need to set the record straight. Whether you like Metallica, Jethro Tull, both, or neither, stay awhile and listen…
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Farewell Activision & LA, hello Ubisoft & SF

I’ve got a new gig! In early April, I will start at Ubisoft as Community Developer for Studio SF, the team behind Rocksmith & Rocksmith 2014.

This is awesome for several reasons. First of all, anybody who knows me knows I define myself with the words “guitars” and “gaming.” I think Rocksmith 2014 is brilliant, it’s a perfect personal fit, and I’m thrilled I get to work with the dev team. Since Los Angeles and I never got along, I can’t wait to get back to the Bay Area; I’ve missed my friends, real sourdough bread, and weather. My friends who work at Ubisoft speak highly of it, and I’m a sucker for a good pun in Latin.

I leave Activision very proud of what I was able to start with One of Swords and I’m extremely grateful for the unusual amount of trust Activision placed in me for the last four years. I’m thrilled that 1oS will continue, particularly [REDACTED DUE TO NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT]. But if you’ll allow a quick look back, here’s two One of Swords features of which I am particularly proud:

Interview: Pitfall! creator David Crane
David Crane is a key reason I am a gamer today. The chance to talk to him on Pitfall!’s 30th anniversary was a personal thrill — he was one of my boyhood heroes.

The Secret Skylanders You’ve Never Seen
This look at handmade prototypes was one of the times I really felt like I got to share inside access. It’s a story that would not have happened through another outlet.

After 215 episodes, the One of Swords Podcast has come to an end, but Kat and I plan to launch a new podcast soon. Follow @DanAndKatTalk on Twitter and we’ll post details when we have something to share. UPDATE: We’re live.

That’s it. Thanks for all the support. I’m coming home.

My trip to Norman’s Rare Guitars

I’ve wanted to go to Norman’s Rare Guitars for a long time — mostly because Nigel Tufnel wears their shirt in This Is Spinal Tap.

“We’ve got armadillos in our trousers.”

Norman’s is also where they got/rented/borrowed all the guitars for Nigel’s guitar room scenes — including the infamous Fender Bass VI that “can’t be played…never.” After talking about going there “someday” for a long time, Kat finally kidnapped me and took me there as a surprise. I didn’t expect to buy anything but the shirt, but in the words of Marty DiBergi, “I got more — a lot more.”  Continue reading

So You Want to Buy an Electric Guitar…

I’ve been approached by several friends this year who want to buy a guitar, and I know the arrival of Rocksmith 2014 has something to do with it. I am happy and proud to be The Guitar Whisperer for them, but I realized that my advice has slowly grown over a series of emails to the point where I felt it was worth posting publicly. My goal is to tell you what you need to know to make a buying decision that’s right for you without slipping into too much jargon or cork-sniffery. So with that in mind…  Continue reading

YouTube and the path of Zen Guitar, part 2

A few months ago I talked about Tina S., the YouTube guitarist who, while technically proficient, never smiled, never seemed to connect with the music she was playing, and how different that was from my own experience, particularly following the path of Zen Guitar.

Today a friend pointed me to 21-year-old Marta Altesa, a London bassist who has not only impeccable taste in gear but proves herself to be the emotional opposite of Tina S. Watch her body language as she crushes “Master Blaster”:

The little smiles, the head nods, the way her whole body bounces to the beat– she’s no less technically proficient than Tina, but she feels everything. She starts out serious in her video of “Get on the Floor,” but can’t make it 15 seconds before breaking into a grin.

Even on the hardest parts, she’s clearly concentrating, but she loves the challenge. It’s evident. And while “Forget Me Nots” has a bit more “guitar face” in it than her other videos, her lock on the groove and connection to the joy of playing music is not only real but undeniable:

This is what is to play music. This is why any of us do it, why we work and learn and fail and try. It’s to have what Marta has in these videos.

It inspires me to see her so inspired.

YouTube and the path of Zen Guitar

I am a mediocre guitarist at best. My technique is downright terrible. The nicest complement I ever received was from a friend who was very technically skilled, who told me that when I played, he could tell just how much I loved it.

So it’s with some concern that I watch the Tina S. videos.  Tina is a teenaged guitarist making waves with her cover of Van Halen’s “Eruption” on YouTube this week. It’s quite impressive:  Continue reading

Advice for guitarists

  • Learn to play a song. Doesn’t have to be tricky, doesn’t have to be long — but everybody can play riffs and call themselves a guitarist. Playing songs is what makes you a musician.  
  • Learn to play a song your parents know and would like to hear. They will be proud of you. 
  • Learn to tune without an electronic tuner. Armed with one reference note and harmonics, most strummers will never need anything else ever again. 
  • How you get that one reference note: Buy multiple A440 tuning forks. They are cheap. Keep one in your guitar case, one on your desk/home music area, and if you carry a bag with you every day, keep one there too. 
  • Skill and talent mean more than your gear — but don’t buy crap. If it’s cheap, there’s almost always a reason, and that reason often becomes an excuse for not playing. If you do not enjoy interacting with your instrument — it’s not comfortable, it doesn’t stay in tune, it doesn’t reflect who you are — you will not play it. Save more, spend more, buy quality, and get what you really want. Your playing will benefit. 
  • Don’t end your practice on a bad experience. If you are trying to learn something and you are sucking, end your session with something you are good at playing. Don’t walk away angry or frustrated or you won’t want to come back.