Ninja Gigs – the power of Social Media

March 28, 2011

I don’t get to live music as often as I’d like – it’s one of the issues about working with volunteers; they’re mostly available at evenings and weekends so I have to be, too.

So I was disappointed to find that one gig I could have made, Mitch Benn at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club in Manchester, was sold out. Oh, well, that’ll teach me to book earlier next time.

For those who don’t know much (or even anything) about Mitch he is one of those rare individuals who can combine comedy with music – and topical comedy at that. You can find out more, as well as watching some videos and listening to his podcast on his own website

Being a fan, I follow Mitch on Twitter (@MitchBenn) I spotted a series of tweets from him on Saturday afternoon:

“Getting a lot of tweets from Manchester twoops sad that tonight at the Frog & Bucket is sold out- here’s the thing…”

“Most of the punters in the F&B tonight will just be out for a night out and not particularly interested in me. That’s fair enough, but…”

“… it saddens me that those of you who ARE interested in me might miss out, so listen up: I don’t have much on before about 9.30pm…”

“… if you can round up enough of you and find a room, I’ll do a ninja-gig this evening. Start collaborating, use hashtag #ninjamitch

Those of us who really like Mitch’s brand of musical comedy, but had been unable to get tickets, went into “Twitter overdrive”. For a while it looked Like Mitch was going to play a front room in Bolton (it was a little far away from his 21:30 gig, though) then I managed to source a room in Eccles (but no bar and no PA) then, at just after 5pm the Kings Arms in Salford joined the party and the ninja gig was on.

You can see more pics on Cat Ashton’s photoblog and also hear a little more about how all this started – it’s she whom we who managed to go have to thank 🙂

Sean Fisher managed to video Mitch’s most recent release and, if you watch it you’ll see a fat slaphead scouser about 40 seconds in 🙂   You can see it here

Obviously I got there in plenty of time – time to get a prime seat and, happily for me, to welcome Mitch as he arrived. I offered to get him a drink (my life is defined by famous people for whom I’ve bought drinks – current running total is 0) but he just wanted a pint of tap water!

The room started to fill up and the gig was on!

It was a great evening – I doubt that the folk in the Frog and Bucket had as good an experience. And it was a ninja gig (no idea where that name came from – but Mitch used it) so not everything would go smoothly. Indeed, half way through he had to stop and answer his phone – just in case it was the Frog & Bucket asking where he was!

But it also reminded me that, as well as responding to international events (such as the Tsunami in japan or the conflict in Libya) Social media can also be used for local events and interests.

As Mitch himself tweeted afterwards:

“I’m still agog at how the net in general and twitter in particular lets you organise things INSTANTLY in ways that simply weren’t possible…. I had the first hint of an idea for a #ninjamitch gig at 3.35pm; by 5.10 I had a venue & an audience. Mental.”

But it was also a reminder that sometimes, if you go the extra mile for people and are prepared to put yourself out a bit, then rewards can come. I doubt that Mitch made much money on the gig (he passed a pot around and sold a few CDs) but he’s certainly gained some new fans – and validated those of us who’ve been following him for a while.

What a top bloke.


Yew’ll Never Walk Alone – but Olive Would

March 23, 2011

You know my guitar? The one that’s being built for my 50th?

Remember how everything was sorted and I had decided on the woods?

I’d even decided on the soundboard inscription (Dave gets a quote, translates it into Gaelic and inscribes it on the inside of the soundboard – it can’t be seen; but you know it’s there). I’d decided on “You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Well, Dave White ( contacted me yesterday to let me know that the Tasmanian Olive Wood had arrived – along with a really nice set of English Yew – what did I think?

Well, I can’t make up my mind. this is what a guitar with yew back and sides can look like:

Yeah, I know, gorgeous, isn’t it? And Yew has such a ‘religious’ history – being planted in many church yards to ward of evil spirits.

It was also used to make English Longbows and is, I am told, the wood of choice for wands and ‘anti-vampire’ stakes.

It is a fairly rare wood to use in guitar making as the Yew tree doesn’t grow straight and, to get a piece that’s big enough for a guitar means that the tree from which it came must have been hundreds of years old – and most of them were cut down to make Longbows. I am reliably informed that it’s not a particularly easy wood to work with, either.

And there’s something quite edgy about playing a guitar that’s poisonous…

So, what do I do? Tasmanian Olive Wood (which, by the way, isn’t really Olive Wood – but when we sent our criminals over there, they just named it olive wood because that’s what it reminded them of most) or English Yew?

Below are the two samples – Olive wood on the left and Yew on the right. What do you think?

Olive Wood

English Yew

4,6,8 ..

March 21, 2011

The numbers above relate to the strings on my primary instruments. My ukuleles have 4, my guitars have 6 and the mandolins have 8.

There are a couple of numbers missing – my banjo has 5 strings (but is in such shocking condition that it doesn’t get played very much at all) and I don’t own a 12 string guitar (although, some day …)

But they don’t get lower than 4, right?

Wrong. The Russian Balalaika has only 3 strings – and so does the latest addition to my stable of musical instruments – a Cigar Box Guitar. Why is it called a ‘cigar box’ guitar? Well, ermmm, it’s made out of a cigar box.

I was visiting the guitar show in Haslingden, Lancashire last Sunday with Sara (she came along for the ride, really) and, whilst there were some lovely instruments on display, there was also a great deal of rubbish. The thing is, a lot of the ‘rubbish’ was trying to pass itself off as genuine craftsmanship (anybody else ever have a K guitar from the catalogue?). From the corner of the room came this incredible sound – really bluesy. I wandered over to see this ageing hippy type playing, quite literally, rubbish. A 3 string guitar made out of an old cigar box. He’d just added a pick up and a neck and he was off. It sounded fantastic.

Now, I’m not a blues player – and I’ve never been the sort to plug a guitar in to anything – acoustic all the way, that’s me. But this was different. This was just fun and recycling and music all rolled into one. we had a bit of cash on us so …

It (I can’t bring myself to refer to the instrument as ‘she’ yet) is made from a box of Montecristo cigars from Havana (sadly empty). The cigars cost £303.00. The guitar didn’t. It has a Mahogany neck and the fretboard is from reclaimed English Oak with a gunstock oil finish (25.5″ scale length). The only ‘new’ bits on it are the nickel silver frets, the machineheads, the bone nut and the pickup – even the volume and tone controls are old bottle tops.

It looks a little forlorn next to my other instruments – but I know who I’d back if it came to a fight 🙂

The seller (‘chicken bone’ John) had a number of instruments on sale, from 1 string Diddley Bows to 6 string guitars. You can see some of his instruments (and buy them!) on his website

Like I said, I’m no blues player and this instrument is brand new to me but, to give you an idea of what it can sound like, I slaughtered a well-known tune.

THIS is what a well played CBG can sound like (played by Chickenbone John himself)

Nearly 50

March 16, 2011

And I’m beginning to feel my age. I’ve realised that, as soon as I hit the benchmark in July I’ll be too old to become a professional in any sport – even darts – and that depressed me a little bit. So I needed cheering up somehow.

I am aware that 50 is a big deal for many people and I have decided to be one of them. So how could I mark my passage into early middle age (I know, I’m kidding myself, but that’s what I do)?

People who know me reasonably well are aware that, outside of my family, I have 3 great loves: Liverpool FC, chronographs and playing music.

I was extremely disappointed when the football club I have supported my whole life turned down my offer to purchase them in favour of a £330,000,000 bid from New England Sports Ventures although, on reflection I can see that the club needed the additional £329,999,999 that their offer entailed and, as both offers were in cash, I’m at peace with the rebuttal.

As for watches, well, I have 4 lovely timepieces and, at the end of the day, a watch is just a watch and tells the time and getting another one would just mean the other 4 spending more time in a drawer.

So, I focussed on what opportunities music might provide me for a memorable present off my family. You can see elsewhere that I have a range of lovely acoustic instruments including 2 guitars, a couple of mandolins, 3 ukuleles and an old and decrepit banjo (which refuses to stay in tune as it has friction pegs). My 2 guitars (Naomi – a 1978 Guild D40SB) and Suki (a 2006 Jimmy Moon 0003) have very different sounds. They are made from different woods (Sitka Spruce/Mahogany and Adirondack Spruce/Indian Rosewood respectively) and are kept in different tunings (EADGBE for Naomi and DGDGBD for Suki). Different guitars, and different tunings, for different styles. But I’ve always wanted to learn to play more in DADGAD tuning and open D (DADF#AD) and it’s a real pain to have to constantly retune your guitar, as well as putting strain on the neck, tuners and strings. So, could another guitar be added to the stable?

In a recent post I shared my thoughts on trust using the example of an English luthier called Dave White who built a guitar that normally sells for £2100 and happily sent it on a roadtrip around the British Isles to spend time with a number of different guitarists (including me) who would play it and review it. I loved the guitar, it had many of the qualities I like in a handbuilt instrument and, when tuned to open D , got very near to the sound I was looking for in a Celtic guitar and I was sad when I had to pass it on to the next guitarist on the trip. And I appreciated Dave’s trust in sending it to someone he didn’t know, who would be objective. However, there was no way I could afford that sort of money on another guitar again so was looking for cheaper (much cheaper) alternatives! They wouldn’t be the same as a handbuilt, personalised instrument but needs must.

I was amazed, and delighted, when Dave emailed me completely out of the blue and said that, to thank me for taking part in the road trip I should get in touch with him as he was sure that “we could sort something out”. I wasn’t so convinced but I got in touch and, yesterday, tagged on to a meeting I had in High Wycombe, to cut a long story short I had the genuine pleasure of visiting de Faiote (pronounced du fweesher!) guitar HQ to meet with Dave to look at options for my 50th birthday present guitar.
I know I should have taken loads of photos and stuff but I didn’t – I was too busy nurdling and talking specs with Dave – this is a really big decision for me and one which Dave helped enormously with sound, honest advice and opinion.

My original intention was to go for the Lughnasa as I wanted access to the dusty end but, on trying it out, we both agreed that it wasn’t just as bass-y as I was looking for. The Samhain was close (Dave had both the Traveller and his own Cedar/Maple to play) but Dave suggested I try the Treebeard (a baritone guitar) which, capoed on the 2nd fret, gave me an idea of what a Sir Bill would sound like.

I was totally blown away – it’s massive (not unlike me) with the grunty bass, bright, ringing trebles and seemingly infinite sustain which was a feature of all Dave’s guitars. We agreed that a cutaway would be needed to give me the access I wanted and I also plumped for multiscale (as much because it looks different as anything else – I am a man of hidden shallows!)

we talked neck profile and nut width, strings and tunings (and Dave gave me a quick lesson in DADGAD which I also found extremely helpful).

so, here’s the spec:

Scale Length: 630-660mm multi-scale
Top: Western Red Cedar
Back/Sides: Australian Native Olive (tbc)
Cutaway: Venetian
Headstock: Solid, tbc veneer front and rear of headstock. Leo Zodiac sign wooden inlay on headstock front.
Lower bout width: 400mm
Upper bout width: 300mm
Waist width: 230mm
Maximum rim depth: 118mm
Soundhole/Rosette 108mm diameter soundhole. Wood rosette with black/pear/black inner and outer purflings.
Soundport: Side soundport on bass side upper bout.
Neck: Bolt on flamed Maple/Sycamore with adjustable truss rod and twin carbon fibre rods. Scarfe joined headstock and stacked heel with twelve frets clear of the body.
Tuners: Gold Gotoh with wooden buttons.
Nut/width: Bone, 46mm
Saddle/String spacing Split Bone, 60mm
Bridge: Rio Rosewood slotted with ebony five degree taper unslotted bridge-pins. Rio Rosewood bridge plate.
Fingerboard: Ebony bound with the same binding as body or ebony, black/pear/black side purfling, 20” radius, white side dot markers. 19 frets, Medium Japanese.
Binding: Flamed Australian Blackwood or Curly Eucalyptus with bpb side and top/back purflings. End graft – centre strip of the same wood as the headstock veneer flanked by bindings with mitred black/pear/black side purflings.
Finish: Hand rubbed pre-catalysed lacquer. Tru-oil on the neck.
String gauges: 0.012”, 0.016”, 0.024”, 0.032”, 0.042”, 0.054”
Strap buttons: On neck heel and in centre of end graft.
Case: Hiscox Pro II hardcase

Dave explained that the Brazilian Rosewood bridge means I can’t tour the continent with it 

Once again, it’s in different woods to my current instruments so will sound completely different. The Red Western Cedar of the soundboard will give it a warm, muddy tone which will be countered slightly by the Tasmanian Olive Wood back and sides. On completion it will be only the third guitar in the world using this combination of woods.

I’ve added a couple of options like multiscale fretting and a venetian cutaway which would, in the normal way of things add £350 to the base price of £2100. But when Dave said he was sure we could “sort something out” he wasn’t blowing air – he meant it and my brand new, handmade, unique and personalised guitar will be coming to me at a price that Dave, my wife and I can live with – and Mr Visa doesn’t even get a look in.

Dave is also going to inlay a personalised glyph in wood on the front of the headstock – part of HIS birthday present to me!

so, here’s what it looks like (although not in my chosen woods and without the multiscale fretboard. I’m also dispensing with the armrest)

and here’s a look at what the back and sides should look like (although not in my chosen shape)

It will take Dave about 3 months in total to build the guitar (apart from anything else, the Olive Wood is still en-route from Australia!) and then it’ll need a few weeks to breathe and settle before being passed over to me in time for my birthday.

Dave has said that he will chronicle the build on the De Faoite Stringed Instruments website so, if anyone wants to watch a guitar being built … that’s the place to watch.

Excited? you bet I am!