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The Fifth Course

Playing Electric in an Acoustic Setting

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[This past weekend, I was working in the studio (Blue Dragon Studio) with Señor Circus and kept a log. I wrote down a bunch of thoughts and will share them with you as I get them together. As a bit of a warm up –writing is a process as much as music is—I thought I would share my thoughts about playing electric in an “acoustic” setting.]

Studio work this past weekend was punctuated pleasantly by a pair of two set gigs. The first was on Friday evening at Billy Goats Tavern, the second was on Saturday afternoon at The Gallery. Both were in downtown Mount Shasta; in fact they were across the street from one another. Both were also small, and billed as acoustic gigs.

My normal practice in Señor Circus with regard to acoustic gigs is to leave the Vessel F5 at home. I take both the electrics, 4 string Mando(la)bird and 8 string mandocaster, run them through an effects pedal board and into a small amp (no greater than 15w). Of course, this is all conditional on the practice of using a PA at acoustic gigs. If we go without a PA, then I leave the electrics at home and bring the Gary Vessel F5 and an acoustic guitar.

This may seem counter-intuitive but it works for a several reasons.
1) Tim, AKA Señor, is playing his Taylor 810-CE and his Taylor GA3-12 guitars through a Fishman amp. So it looks like we’re acoustic no matter what I do because the front and center visual is Tim on his big acoustic guitars. In other words, we’re “acoustic” because Tim looks like he’s acoustic.
2) My electric mandolins are small and visually both unusual and interesting. I’m not playing a Les Paul or a Strat, which are visual clichés for “Electric.” So we have no “Look out this is going to be loud” visual cues in the band.
3) I keep the volume low, and indeed the rest of the band keeps the volume low too.

So Señor Circus gets away with being electric in an acoustic setting by being visually acoustic and aurally sensitive to expectations of acoustic gigs. But in the end this isn’t about pulling one over on the venue owner. It’s about being able to control tone and volume for a broad variety of musical styles.

Señor Circus is an extremely eclectic band. We do a lot of originals, and Tim writes from varied influences. He calls one of his songs (“Periwinkle Blue”) an “Hungarian Reggae” tune, it’s in G minor with a reggae beat. I recently looked him dead in the eye at 1am while trying to get a funk part down for a different song on the 8 string mandocaster, and said, “Do me a favor. Pick a style. One style. Please.” I was kidding and smiled immediately, of course. I love that we do eclectic material, but it doesn’t always come naturally.

[To Tim’s great credit, he is very willing to let me do almost anything on mandolin. If it works, we keep it. If it doesn’t I move over to guitar. And usually we come up with something that works. I play guitar on exactly 2 of Tim’s songs.]

Going electric allows me control the tone and volume better than if I were going acoustic. Here’s how.
1) The effects pedal board helps keep the volume down, believe it or not. I keep my Ampeg J12T’s volume knob set at about 2. Much lower than that and there isn’t enough juice in the system to get a decent tone. But if I remove the pedal board from the signal chain the volume goes up even though the threshold of decent tone to crumby tone stays in the same place on the volume knob’s dial.
2) At a low volume, the effects become more necessary. I need to use an overdrive pedal to get an overdriven sound from the Ampeg when it is set so low. The amp doesn’t have a Master and Channel volume set. It has one volume knob. Plus adding a little chorus and some flange are fun toys to play with, and appropriate for some of the tunes we do.
3) An F5 or any other acoustic mandolin would have one tone, and therefore a limited role to play. I’d be playing a LOT more guitar if all I had to offer with the mandolin was my beloved Vessel F5. Even if I switched back and forth between F hole and oval hole models, or flat tops and arch tops, I would have a more limited pallet than I do with the electric mandolins. Plus, I’d be switching back and forth between instruments a lot.
4) Finally, the Mando(la)bird, specifically, gives me the ability to provide a song with a lead tone that most people associate with electric guitars exclusively.
Try that on your July 9, 1923 Loar F5!

Electric mandolins work well in an acoustic setting. From Farmer’s Market to small dining room to art gallery, I have it covered. In fact, the art gallery owner was so happy with our work that he paid us, despite the gig’s “non-paying” status. It was a nice bonus and sincere appreciation of a job well done.

Coming soon, Studio Log and Experiences.

Daniel

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Updated Aug-10-2009 at 6:06pm by Daniel Nestlerode (Clarity)

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