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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A new song and a progress report on the music front

By Ted Slowik

I don't write songs very often. In fact, I just completed my first new song of 2014, and here it is September already, the final third of the year.

I've been writing songs for more than 30 years, and I have finished fewer than 100, for an average of about three per year. The past two years were very productive. Since switching from bass to guitar in 2011, I wrote nine songs in 2012 and eight in 2013.

My approach to songwriting has changed a lot over the years. I used to think a song was like a child, and that writing lyrics and composing music involved an intense process like giving birth. Nonsense! More recently I've developed a very deliberate approach to songwriting that starts out by attempting to answer the question, "Why does the world need another song?"

Because the truth is, the world is filled with songs and a new song has to serve some purpose. Lately, I've been thinking of my songs like one would think of a wardrobe. Sometimes, all your clothes are too old or don't fit right and you just need something new for an occasion. That's a good reason to write a new song, when you're performing your material and you realize you need a number that's not too fast or too slow or in a different key or tuning or tempo or in some way makes it different and a good fit with your other original material.

As I've been learning guitar from Kev Wright of The Righteous Hillbillies, I'm discovering I want songs that have a little more space for instrumental interludes. I used to be strictly a rhythm-and-vocals guy. The songs on my debut studio CD "Comfort Zone" are like that. There's a small solo where Pat Otto plays mandolin on "Red Rover" but otherwise no real jams.

Now that I know my way around the fretboard a little I want to play music! So I need songs that have room for solos. I wouldn't say I had writer's block for the better part of 2014. Rather, I've just been focused on improving my musicianship and hadn't given much thought to writing.

But, as the idea for the new tune came to me, I figured it would be good to write about the experience of surviving a near-fatal heart attack like the one I had in February. The new song is called "No Tomorrow," and I think it's about redemption and realizing our time here is short and we should make the most of it.

Though the theme may draw from personal experience, it's a fictional tale, told in third person. There are four characters, each has a different verse. There's an absent father, a half-assed brother, a lousy husband and a prodigal son. Some think the subject matter is deep or dark but I think it's an upbeat tale of salvation.

You can read the lyrics to the song on my website, which I hardly ever mention on here but should more often. You can hear an audio demo of "No Tomorrow" on my SoundCloud channel. And you can watch an early video demo of the tune on my YouTube channel.

The guitar lessons are going great! Though I've been almost exclusively playing acoustic the past three years, I'm playing electric more and more recently. I've had a beauty of a Gibson 335S Explorer since I bought it from Hound Dog in 1988. Recently I bought a Fender Blues Junior amp. And, just this past week, I bought my first effects pedals, distortion and delay.

I still use the Boss loop pedal for both acoustic and electric. It's a great practice tool, and effective performance device, too. You can record a rhythm track and have that play back while you play a lead guitar solo over it. It's fine for what I'm doing now, which is learning scales and licks and tones and levels and all those things. Eventually though, I hope to play as an accompanist to other musicians.

I have no immediate plans to do any additional studio recording at this point, nor do I expect to dramatically increase the number performances I do any time soon (I average about one per month). I still regularly do Wednesday night acoustic open mic at Tribes Alehouse Mokena, hosted by John Condron.

I'm happy with the progress I'm making as a musician but realize I still have a ways to go. A while back I read the Robert Gordon biography, "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters." In the book we learn that one of Muddy's sons, Big Bill Morganfield, discovered music later in life and spent six years in the woodshed learning guitar.

I've spent three years learning guitar so far, so I figure I'm about halfway there.
P.S., please like the music page at Facebook.com/TedSlowikMusic and follow me on Twitter @tedslowik!