The Frayed Ends of My Fingertips
And the crowd went wild... A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was playing guitar in a charity gig for the Cure Autism Now Foundation. Well, the gig was this past Saturday night at Hogue Barmichaels down in Newport Beach. Officially called Metal Jam 2004, it featured a semi-organized jam session involving musicians in the metal tribute scene and fans/acquaintances/interlopers. While there wasn't a category for "musicologists," I nonetheless felt welcome. A great night which raised a bit over $2000 (triple the amount raised at last year's inaugural Metal Jam).
I signed up to play on KISS' "Detroit Rock City," a song I've been playing for years, and Megadeth's "Holy Wars," a song which I knew very well but had never learned. "Holy Wars" is a classic example of late-80s thrash metal, featuring a lengthy and fairly involved modular structure, and is really fast to boot. I signed up to play it primarily because the drummer and bass player in Creeping Death (the Metallica tribute band) were also signed up to play, and I thought it would be really fun to jam with those excellent musicians. So, I signed up for Guitar 2(R), meaning the rhythm guitarist who kind of hangs out in the corner and holds down the rhythm parts under the flashy and virtuosic soloist/lead guitarist. I got right to work working up the rhythm guitar parts to an excellent level of proficiency. However, soon my guitar partner on "Holy Wars" (Mr. Guitar 1(L)) mentioned on the Metal Jam discussion board that he would be "attempting" the Dave Mustaine solo. Mustaine's solo is the longest of the three solos on that song, but I took that announcement to imply that I now had to learn the two shorter solos. Ok, except they're played by Marty Friedman, one of those hyper-virtuoso metal guitarists from the 80s and 90s. Yikes! Keep in mind that I rarely play anything soloistic -- never bothered to work up any technique. Yikes, indeed.
Ok, so I look at the first solo, determined to give it my best effort. Yikes. Sweeping picking for the first two measures of the solo! Sweep picking is perhaps the virtuosic metal solo technique, and one which I'd never even thought about attempting. It's basically a way to play arpeggios up and down the neck really really really fast like. When people describe metal solos as "weedlie weedlie weedlie" they're basically talking about sweep picking. Ok, type "sweep picking technique" into Google and take a quick lesson. Then, spend the next two weeks practicing the opening two measures of the first solo. I was also working on the second Friedman solo at the same time, though that one is slightly easier since it's got a more "broken up" character. Soon after embarking on this regimen of practice, practice, practice the fingertips of my left hand began to go through the tedious callous-building process. Usually there'll be a blister for a couple of days before the skin hardens. However, because of the sweep picking and string bends I was practicing the callous process took longer -- I was using my fingers in ways they'd never been used and I was shredding layers of skin like crazy.
Anyway, skip to Saturday, 4/3, and the unofficial rehearsal party for the jam participants. Here was one of the big moments I'd been practicing for. Well, it turned out that Mr Guitar 1 (L) wouldn't be playing the Mustaine solo. He tells me "I'm really a drummer and I've always loved 'Holy Wars,' but I realized there's no way I'd be able to learn the Mustaine solo." Um... Ooookay... So I've spent the last three weeks literally transfiguring my fingers in order to make sure I was as prepared as you and now you're casually unprepared? "So, what are we going to do about the Mustaine solo," I ask? No real answer. Because the rehearsal was fairly unofficial it went very slowly and we didn't get to "Holy Wars" until about 11:45. By that time Mr. Guitar 1 (L) had actually gone home! Fortunately, one of the guitarists in Hangar 18 (the Megadeth tribute band, who play "Holy Wars" and get paid for it) was still around. So Michael came up and played. However, in Hangar 18 he plays the Friedman solos, not the Mustaine solo! I told him not to worry about it and just play something shred-like during the Mustaine solo because I wanted to run through the Friedman solos with a live band. We were pretty good for five guys who'd never played together, but I was really disappointed that Mr. Guitar 1 (L) had flaked (he's a really nice guy though). Driving home I figured, well, I guess I better work up the Mustaine solo as best I could so that we don't look lame at the show.
I actually took about three days off from practicing to let my fingers heal a bit before getting ready for the show. I got the bad news about the LMU job at that time, so was really bummed and not in the mood to play. The Mustaine solo, as it turns out, isn't hard. It's basically "play really fast figuration and scales in E for 32 measures." There's none of the harmonic and melodic nuance heard in the Friedman solos -- it's really a very different aesthetic. And in any event, I figured if I just got the overall contour down, and hit some of the high points (like the chromatic climb and high bend at the end) that'd be good enough.
So, enter Saturday, 4/10. The big day and the culmination of weeks of frenzied practice. I decided to change my guitar strings to avoid the breaking the high E during the show (that would be bad!). But, oh no! My guitar is on its last legs and the important frets have oxidized to the point where all the bends I'd been doing for weeks had actually shaved them down to point where they wouldn't actually make any sound when I did the bend! I spent two hours fiddling with the action (the height of the string above the neck) and even called Guitar Center and Sam Ash to see if they had a 24-fret guitar in stock. I figured in a pinch I'd just go buy a $200 guitar and return it the next day. Unfortunately, Guitar Center never called me back and Sam Ash was out of stock! Hmm. Wait, there'll be a million guitarists at the jam, and surely at least one of them will have a 24-fret guitar, and they're cool people, so they'll surely let me use their axe for "Holy Wars." Yea, James from Creeping Death will probably bring his 24-fret Kirk Hammett super duper special, and wouldn't it be great to play on that $2000 guitar? Sure enough, James happily loaned me his guitar!
So the performance at the jam went great. I ended up playing EVERYTHING: all the solos, all the little lead fills, the fast cadenza that links the two halves of the song, as well as the rhythm guitar riffs. Ironically, Mr Guitar 1 (L) and I had unofficially switched roles. I played reasonably well during the solos but it's almost impossible to sound truly bad when you're playing a $2000 guitar! The singer even gestured toward me a couple of times during the song in a props-giving way, compliments which I gladly accepted. Even the guys in Hangar 18 complimented me on the job I'd done. Basically, it was the first time I'd earned any sort of recognition on stage. Nice feeling, certainly!
With the huge weight of Marty Friedman and Dave Mustaine off my shoulders, "Detroit Rock City" was simply a blast. We followed a particularly unfortunate performance of a Dokken song (they got lost, their guitars were out of tune, etc.) and once we got plugged in we just looked at each other and started with all the confidence you could imagine. It was great!
In the end, it was an awesome experience. I felt rewarded for all the effort I'd put into it and was elated that I no longer had to think about "Holy Wars" for a while. And, it was also a huge pick-me-up given the LMU result. Can't wait until next year!
Listen to "Holy Wars " (6 MB QT) -- I learned and played every guitar note you hear
Listen to "Detroit Rock City " (3 MB QT) -- I started off the lead guitar section
Posted: Tuesday - April 13, 2004 at 01:18 PM