Last week we looked at how the local music scene went from the acoustic sounds of the old days here, when the pioneers had guitars and banjos they plucked, and the Civil War soldiers camping here had sing-alongs to pass the time, to the invention and development of microphones and speakers that amplified the sound electrically so that music itself and how we heard it was changed.
Radio came along and the movies started talking. The live music that had been played along with the silent movies by a piano player or an organist gave way to prerecorded orchestral music on the soundtrack. It was the end of a livelihood almost overnight. And as microphones in the recording and radio studios got better, the sounds of the big bands and the big city symphonies saw a heyday.
The growth of the record industry and the reduction in size of phonographs and their drop in costs were boons to the house party. I can remember seeing old 8mm home movies of my parents and their friends taking turns in front of a small turntable they had giving the new dance craze, The Twist, a try. The film was silent but the laughs and twisting were so animated that you could practically hear the fun. On the other hand, no matter how much the electric/electronics affect the instruments and singers, I can attest from personal experience that I don't think there will ever be an invention that can improve my (non) dancing skills.
The electric guitar is the prime example of how instruments went electric. As bands got bigger in the 1920s and '30s it became apparent to the guitar players that they were about to be overwhelmed by the big, brassy horn lines. They started experimenting with electrifying their instruments and amplifying them so they could be heard. Jazz guitarists were another group of players that looked to electricity to help them out.
These early attempts had some success, but it was really in the '40s and '50s that the modern electric guitar was developed. Les Paul was an early experimenter with electric guitars. A great example of his electric playing can be heard on the song "How High the Moon."
The innovation was in building a solid body guitar so the electric pickups, the little devices that "picked up" the vibrations of the strings and transferred them to electric signals, didn't get reverb from the hollow body of the acoustic type of guitars. With the introduction of the mass-produced Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul guitars, music took its next step forward.
Another instrument that was a breakthrough was in the keyboard department. Pianos and organs had been around for years. But with the onset of electronics, what looked like a piano was not. It was played the same way, but the sounds were strictly created by electronics.
There were two roads taken by the synthesizer musicians. One road was to emulate existing instruments, so that an electronic keyboard could sound like a row of strings or a horn line. The other road was to come up with uniquely electronic sounds. Soon the electronic buffs were coming up with sounds that had never been heard before, born solely in the circuits and transistors hooked to the wiring. Ray Charles was an early proponent of the electric piano in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer were creating music that sounded like it was being performed by 100 players instead of three.
In the 1960s there continued to be inventions in how the sounds of the electric guitar could be manipulated electronically. Next time you see a live band, look at the guitarists' feet and you'll probably see a collection of stomp-boxes, controls for the sound of the guitar sitting on the floor and operated by stepping on them with the foot. These sound-changers added electronically the reverb, wah-wah, twang and fuzz sounds we associate with rock music. I can remember the cover bands during high school dances here and being amazed when the obviously local-based rockers were able to duplicate the exact same sounds as the biggest bands we heard on the radio.
Sounding like the Hollywood big boys
My first experience with live electric music was from a garage band at my next-door neighbors. On sunny Saturdays they would set up on the back porch and practice. I heard our neighbor the keyboard player pick out the notes of the spooky-fun theme song from "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," the Don Knotts haunted house comedy that scared me to death when I saw it at the Wink. I couldn't believe that the local boys could sound just like the Hollywood big boys.
My first experience with really loud amplified music was at my first school dance in eighth grade in the City Park Junior High gym. The music was all the top 40 hits and it was so loud when I came out of there my ears were ringing. There is a whole thing that louder is better. I think the bands play loud to generate excitement, but also just because they can. If you get stuck in front of giant speakers at a rock concert you're better off to just go ahead and call that 1-800 number for a free hearing consultation.
In high school we usually had live bands playing instead of a disc jockey. The bands were of varying ability but the four-member, electrified combo modeled on the Beatles lineup had replaced the dance band or big band of dance parties from decades before. The band members could duplicate the hit songs pretty good, and they always cavorted like they were the real deal rock stars. The music was plenty loud, even on the slow songs. For the groups of that size, they were their own roadies and as we exited the school when the house lights came on at the end of the night the glamor of a live rock performance disappeared as the band members started carrying heavy crates to the van.
In the '80s I occasionally went to some of the "lounge" venues at the local hotels that seemed to be the main spot for live music then. I knew a few guys that had bands and would go check them out when they were playing. The venue would be a fairly low-ceilinged room with a lot of dance floor space and bad lighting. There might be a low stage, but they never looked very safe. But the music was loud and sounded surprisingly like the hit songs being covered. The energy and enthusiasm of the bands carried through because they were "professional" musicians, being paid for a gig, and that went a long way for their excitement.
Any basement whiz kid can produce a hit record
The electronics have continued to evolve, and now there are digital drums and keyboards where prerecorded sounds can be loaded in to their hard drives. This means as you play the keyboard it might not even be making musical notes. You've probably heard dogs barking out "Jingle Bells" or perhaps bird tweets and squawks that make a tune. This is done by putting a bark to each key and then playing just like you would a piano piece. Clever, ain't it? Or you can take a single bark and put it into the keyboard and the hardware will play it back at the assigned note. You can use that one bark and have it come out as a B flat or a high C.
These days any sound can be sampled, or manipulated, or created. And with home computers able to handle the mechanics of recording and mixing music at an affordable price, then any basement whiz kid has the possibility of producing their own hit record. If a single musician has the tune in his head he can get it out now without a band or a recording engineer.
Of course, the ease of recording music now means there's a lot of bad music out there as well, but that's OK, the cream will rise. The deejay can now do a live performance and basically just play back what he's recorded rather than the records of popular hitmakers. Some of these deejays have become stars themselves, and their live shows, although the music is prerecorded, are sellouts.
Whether electric or acoustic, there's just something exciting about live music. Whether it's a pickup bluegrass jam session with some pals sitting around picking and grinning or a hot new band with everything amped up and the volume knobs turned to 11, the anything-can-happen nature of a live performance can't be duplicated by a recording. This summer make it a point to seek out a live performance somewhere. You won't be disappointed.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.