Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin

The Acoustic Guitar

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Tony James Shevlin continues his story of the recording of Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.

The acoustic guitar is a wonderful instrument.  Like the piano,  it is all-encompassing;  in the right hands it provides bass,  rhythm and melody.  However,  the acoustic guitar is much more easily transported than the piano,  and can be taken and used anywhere  (check out Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield playing one on the International Space Station – can you imagine NASA’s response if he’d asked to take a Steinway Grand?).

For me,  the acoustic guitar has always been a tool to present songs,  a backing for my voice,  really,  so while I admire and am in awe of the likes of Eric Roach and Tommy Emmanuel,  I am drawn to singer-songwriters who use the instrument to great effect to showcase their songs,  in particular,  the likes of Paul Simon and James Taylor,  and of course,  early Bob Dylan.  John Lennon playing his Gibson J-160E acoustic also had a profound effect on me.  I remember going to the cinema as a small boy and seeing the movie of A Hard Day’s Night and wished I could own one. Unfortunately,  that was way out of my price range.

I have to come clean and say that my reasons for taking up the guitar were not entirely musical.  On the bus on my way home from school,  aged 14,  I was trying to look both cool and nonchalant to some girls who were fellow passengers.  The bus stopped at a zebra crossing to let a quite nerdy-looking kid cross the road.  He was carrying a guitar.  “Look,”  one of them said,  “he’s got a guitar.”  The girls all looked at him,  admiringly.  “Cool!” said one.  That was enough for me,  and I nagged my parents until they agreed to buy me my first guitar as a combined 14th birthday and Christmas present.

My first guitar was a Barnes and Mullins Clasico Spanish guitar from a music shop in Ipswich called Harpers (next to the Wimpy Bar and opposite Woolworth’s – all three shops are gone);  it cost £7.  That was a lot of money back then!

However,  it wasn’t long before the likes of Marc Bolan and Mick Ronson lured me over to the electric guitar;  even my accruing fascination with David Bowie and his 12-string acoustic couldn’t stop me purchasing a Japanese copy of a Gibson SG.

And it stayed that way for over 15 years.  Electric Fenders and Gibson came and went.  It wasn’t until 1990 that I had occasion to take up the acoustic again as my primary instrument.  My recording deal with CBS in the US had gone sour,  the band I was in had split,  and I was now a solo artist doing support slots in many of London’s venues.  One was at the famous Marquee Club supporting Australian platinum award-winning artist Jenny Morris.  Added to which,  it was Anzac Day – when Aussies and Kiwis commemorate their involvement in WWII.  The venue manager told me:  “this place is going to be crammed with Antipodeans.”  I looked at the battered Kimbara acoustic I had been using;  clearly it wasn’t going to cut it.  I wandered down to Denmark St, home to the myriad of musical instrument shops.  In one I played a Takemine electric-acoustic – and fell in love.  I knew that they cost about a £1,000.  I asked the guy behind the counter how much it was.  “£550”  he said,  clearly making a mistake.  Keeping my best poker-face on,  I asked if he could write that down for me on a piece of headed notepaper.  This he did.  I ran out of the shop and went across the street to another shop with a big sign in the window, saying – we’ll beat any price in Denmark St.  I threw the headed notepaper down and said  “beat that!”  After a few moments of disbelief,  they agreed that they would;  they would knock £25 off and throw in a gig bag.  “Could you write that down for me, please – on headed note paper?”  They did.  Eventually,  after several crossings of Denmark St,  I walked back to the Marquee with a brand new Takemine electric-acoustic in a hard case for £525.  Its first outing was a fantastic gig in front of what seemed like every Aussie and Kiwi in London – and they know how to enjoy themselves.  Jenny Morris was very encouraging and her management allowed me to take two encores.  I still have the Tak’ and it’s been all over the world with me (including to Australia).  It has given birth to many of my songs,  and has been my main instrument in providing for my family.  And it still sounds great.  Technology may have moved on but venue sound engineers still remark on the quality of the guitar’s sound through a PA.

I have a second acoustic guitar;  a Yamaha Folk guitar bought second-hand for £50 as a cheap – throw it in the back of the car,  take it to the beach,  don’t worry if it gets damaged,  little run-around.  Only now,  I’ve had that so long,  too,  that I’d be mortified if anything happened to it.

When it came to recording Songs From the Last Chance Saloon,  these two were my mainstays.   The Tak’ is very evenly balanced in frequency,  whereas the Yamaha has a deeper woody resonance.  The two really complement each other.

Both were recorded acoustically with two microphones – one over the sound-hole and one at the base of the neck.  The acoustic guitar is central to the whole recording so we took a while getting the sound,  trying out different mics and positions but it was worth the effort.

For Faith in Myself,  Heart and the High Moral Ground and Nobody I used both guitars playing in the same neck position.

Paradise South Ealing has both guitars on it;  the Yamaha playing open chords in  ‘A’;  the Takemine with a capo at the second fret playing in the key of  ‘G’.

Crying for 15 Years has the Takemine using open chords and the Yamaha with a capo on the 7th fret playing in ‘G’ (except for the last chorus in F# where the Takemine is capo’d at the 2nd fret playing in ‘E’ and the Yamaha capo’d at the 4th fret playing in ‘D’).

Crazy didn’t require any tracking;  the earthy tones of the Yamaha was all that was needed,  although I did add some Takemine,  playing little riffs up the neck on the choruses.

Run Until we Drop was a mixture of the Takemine and Ian the engineer’s Levin 12-string acoustic.  The Levin was in a dropped tuning and didn’t like being capo’d so I had to learn the song in a new key.  It was worth spending time on,  and the result has a very full West Coast sound in the vein of  The Eagles or Tom Petty.

I Wish you Well is a solo take of the Takemine.  I particularly wanted that song to be just one voice and one guitar.

Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay is also a single take of the Takemine but I knew I would be doubling up the part on an electric guitar.

Although I planned to have Cut Me as a solo voice and piano I recorded an acoustic guitar as a back-up just in case the piano version didn’t work out.

When it came to mixing the album,  any solo acoustic is right in the centre,  along with the lead vocal.  Where there is double-tracking,  they are panned left and right but only slightly – I wanted to retain that feeling of this being very much a singer-songwriter’s album.  If you strip away all the other instruments underneath you will find one man and his guitar.

While I love the energy and drive of the electric guitar,  it is the honesty and the integrity of the acoustic guitar that most calls to me,  and when coupled with a song that tells a truth of humanity,  it has the power to change a human heart.

I am forever grateful that the bus stopped to let that nerdy kid cross the street.

Oh Mr Bass Man

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Back from his sojourn in Nashville, Tennessee, Tony continues his story of recording the album Songs from the Last Chance Saloon.

Bass players are often seen as the poor relations of guitar players. There is this notion that bassists settled for four strings when six proved too much. It is quite wrong.

A good bass player is vital to the success of a band. He/she is the link between the rhythm and melodic content of a band; the glue between the drums and the guitars. The bass is part-rhythmic, part-melodic.

For the last 20 years I have made my living as a bass player. I kind of fell in to it, though, in that I worked with an excellent bass player who, unfortunately, was monumentally unreliable. So I not so much learned to play the bass but learned to play the bass parts to the songs in our set. After the first gig where I was called upon to demonstrate my new skill, our drummer, who was renowned for his brusque manner, commented: “I forgot that it was you playing bass.” I took that as a compliment and decided to investigate the art of bass playing further. I joined a Country band and when I felt competent in what is required from the bassist in that genre, I moved on to blues, and then to rock. Being able to play bass and sing lead vocal brought in a lot of gigs working in a guitar, bass and drums trio. It’s hard work – there’s no room for passengers, but as well as being musically rewarding it’s financially a plus, too.

Being a singer, I am naturally drawn towards bass players who double up as vocalists. Paul McCartney never seemed to feature in “Best Bassists” polls so beloved of the NME and Melody Maker. Being a Beatle seemed to overshadow his ability on four strings; he is a tremendous player, particularly when contributing to the other Beatle’s songs (Lennon’s Come Together, Harrison’s Taxman). I love Sting’s bass playing in the Police – the economy of notes used on tracks like Walking on the Moon and the verses in Roxanne. And Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott made bass playing sexy!

I was lucky enough to have Bruce Thomas, bass player with Elvis Costello and the Attractions play on an album of mine. It was a great learning experience, hearing him develop the basic lines of our demo recordings into the wonderful melodic versions on the final album. His use of harmonious passing notes was a master class which has stayed with me.

Whilst working as a music journalist, I was asked to interview one of my favourite bass players, the great Jack Bruce at his home in Suffolk. He was a genial host. As he told stories of his life, he would mention his friends: “So me and Jimi are in this pub…” I would interrupt: Sorry, Jimi? “Hendrix,” he said nonchalantly. Or, “I was hanging out at John’s house, and…” Sorry, John who? “Oh, sorry, – Lennon.” Oh, right, says I. I marvelled that his buddies – Eric, Mick, Pete and Paul were Clapton, Jagger, Townsend and McCartney.

As I was leaving Bruce Towers we walked past his music room; there on the wall was a Gibson EBO bass – the one he played on Cream Live at the Albert Hall. I stared at it. “Is that what I think it is? I asked. “Yes” he said, adding “would you like to play it?”

I heard myself saying yes. Moments later I’m sitting there with Jack Bruce’s legendary bass, and with the legendary Jack Bruce watching me. The man who wrote the song which contains arguably the most famous riff in rock music – Sunshine of Your Love – is waiting for me to play the bass on which he wrote that riff. He is watching me. Waiting. There is silence as I try to think of something to play. And the only notes I can hear in my head are the ones that make up Sunshine of Your Love. I am panicking. I search around my brain but I’ve got nothing. So I play the riff to Sunshine of Your Love. The amiable Bruce smiles at me, sympathetically but with just a hint of pity showing through. “I think I might know that one,” he says.

Other favourites include Roy Estrada of Little Feat, Andy Fraser of Free, Bernard Edwards from Chic, and Ronnie Lane from the Faces. I’m also a huge fan of the faceless session bassists who played on so many hit records of the sixties and seventies – David Hood (of Muscle Shoals) James Jamerson (of Motown’s Funk Brothers) and Carol Kaye (of the LA-based Wrecking Crew).

Unfortunately, in my role as a bass teacher at a music college, I have noticed that the most influential bass player of recent times is Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He is a marvellous musician, and I say ‘unfortunately’ because the only aspect of his style that my students seem to have taken notice of is his slap technique. And that’s all they want to do. And they think it’s funky. It is not.

I sit them down and play them Papa was a Rolling Stone by the Temptations. I tell them that producer Norman Whitfield had the bass player on that track (there is some dispute over whether it was James Jamerson or Bob Babbitt) repeat the same bass figure – just the one – all the way through the track because that was what the song needed. And that is funky!

So when it came time to record the bass parts for the new album Songs from the Last Chance Saloon, despite having the phone numbers of many great players whom I could have called upon – players whom I admire and am in awe of – I decided to play on the tracks myself. I knew what the songs needed, I knew what I wanted. It was important to me that the bass shouldn’t stand out or detract from the central idea of a song, a voice and a guitar.

I dusted down my old Fender Jazz bass which I rarely use when playing live anymore (it’s just too damn heavy for long gigs). It has a lovely warm round tone to it. This was put through a 15 year-old Ashdown 150 Amplifier Head and a Hartke 1 x 15 Cab. Any top end needed we took from the Direct Injection (D.I.) into the desk.

The bass parts were recorded in two evening session; four one night and four the next.

I played them in the order the drums were recorded which meant I was faced with Faith in Myself, Paradise South Ealing, Crazy and Crying for 15 Years on the first night.

Although I hadn’t played in a band with Tim the drummer for 18 years, it didn’t take long for me to lock into the groove he had set up on Faith in Myself. I kept my lines simple with a few variations on a central riff. This was also the first of four songs where the low E string was tuned a whole tone lower to the note of D. The song’s verses are in the key of E minor so this meant that I could play the open string (D) and ‘hammer on’ (to E) for a very effective riff. The choruses are in the key of D and for these I played a more melodic, flowing line. I had rehearsed extensively so I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t nailed it on the first take. Thankfully, I did.

Paradise South Ealing took a little longer. I was after a Ronnie Lane feel, a seemingly chaotic but effortlessly flowing line, reminiscent of his work with the Faces. My first attempts seemed too polite and rigid; I needed to play more open notes and vary where I placed them, sometimes ahead of the beat, sometimes behind. Once I found the right riffs I was able to relax and I found the groove (I’m sure Ronnie always recorded in a fairly, er, relaxed state of mind).

The bass line to Crazy could not be any more simplistic. It’s what bassists refer to as “first and fifths” where you mainly play the root note of the key (in this case G) and the fifth chord note (D) alternately. I knew I would be adding a tuba to the bass part in the solo section so it was essential that this part was very easy to follow. Once again, my E string was dropped a tone so I was able to employ a low D on the fifth chord. It almost rumbles! It took me a couple of run-throughs to acclimatise myself to the lazy ‘swing’ feel Tim had so successfully attained. If it had taken me any longer, I would have had to hang up my bass in shame!

The final track of the night was Crying for 15 Years. This required another swing feel. The downbeat is accentuated, with passing harmony notes to add a bit of colour. The song changes key twice from its initial key of D to E and finally to F#; the last change meant a change of positioning which I kept forgetting. Fortunately, it followed an a cappella section which meant there was an easy place to drop into the recording with a good run-up.

The following evening’s session started with Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay. I had recorded this song many years ago as part of a band. The bass player in that band had come up with an amazing line, almost reggae-like that was played across the beat. It was quite stunning but even back then, I knew it wasn’t quite right (or, perhaps, with me being something of a traditionalist, it wasn’t what I really wanted). Often when writing, I hear in my head an artist whom I admire, performing the song. In this case, I heard the wonderful JJ Cale. The rhythm section to a track like this requires economy; what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Tim had agreed with me and had set up a very simple brushes played on snare drum groove; all that was required to complement this was a basic County-Blues line which I was happy to supply. It was great fun to play and makes the track bounce along.

The bass part for Heart and the High Moral Ground is my favourite on the album, probably because it’s the most intricate part, with variations each time it occurs, taking into account the dynamics of each verse. I was after the kind of nuance and subtlety Davey Faragher brings to the table when working with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt, where you don’t really notice the bass line but if you took it away, some of the emotional heart of the song would disappear.

There was a very obvious line to play on Run Until we Drop; the challenge was to find something that was original without drawing attention to itself. I tried to imagine what Bruce Thomas would have played and, to that effect, there are lots of harmonious passing notes. I like to think the ex-Attraction would enjoy my homage to his wonderful style.

The bass line to Nobody is the one line I can’t take credit for and is the one that caused me the most worry. It was taken from an old recording on which bass wizard Spy Austin (Desmond Dekker, George Clinton, Style Council) worked his magic. It contains a beautiful flowing riff which, even when I play the song solo on acoustic guitar, I still hum in my head. Spy is such an exceptional musician that I was worried that I would not be able to do his line justice. After a couple of run-throughs, even though I played it exactly as he had, it didn’t sound comfortable; it didn’t sound right. It didn’t have the same feel. And that was the problem; instead of playing the line in my own way, I was coming out with this second-rate version of Spy. I took a break for a cup of tea and a Jaffa Cake or two (these became a session staple) and thought about how Tony James Shevlin should play it. I took the original line as a basis and adapted to suit my own style. This immediately felt more welcoming, and once I relaxed, I started adding notes until I had a line that, while indebted to the original, felt appropriate, was in keeping with the style of the album, and rocked along like a good ‘un.

I doubt if anyone will listen to Songs from the Last Chance Saloon and say: “Great bass playing!” but that was never my goal; the bass is there to enhance the drums, support the guitars, and help the whole ensemble hang together, and listening back to the album as a whole, I think it does just that.

In my career as a bassist, I have always tried to stay true to the Ten Bass Commandments (on occasions, I have struggled with the fourth)

1. Thou shalt not f**k up the groove. F**k up the notes if thou must, but
not the groove.

2. Thou shalt not lust after thy guitar player’s part. He keepeth the fun,
thou keepeth the groove.

3. Be thou not swayed by a drummer with crappy time, for thou art the
keeper of the beat.

4. Be thou not led into temptation before the gig. After is cool.

5. Thou pusheth thy luck with five strings, six is a mortal sin, for thou
hast no business in the upper register.

6. “Thou shalt not thump with thy thumb, nor honk with a pick when thy
fingers are the way of truth.

7. Thou shalt not fear whole notes, for they can be the way and the
light.

8. Thou shalt leave the fancy s**t to thy bandmates, so they might wrestle
with their own bad taste.

9. Thou shalt change thy strings at least once per decade, whether they
need it or not.

10. Thou shalt tune thy bass before each and every gig, even though it was
in tune when last thou put it away.

Amen to that!

Next time: Six strings down

Letter From America 3

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Letter From America #3 – Final thoughts from Nashville

Everything seems to happen slowly here.  It’s as if there is time,  and then there’s Tennessee time.  It might be something to do with the heat;  it slows you down.  Or at least, walking slowly conserves your energy.  I have yet to see someone here running for a bus.  Or it might be that you get used to having to wait a full fifteen minutes for a slow-moving train to cross your path,  and there’s nothing you can do about it.  This opportunity to fully consider things is evident in much of the songwriting that I’ve come across in the last two weeks.  No observation is rushed,  no word is wasted.  The songs are as matured as the local bourbon.

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Letter From America 2

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Letter from America #2 –

Every city has a rhythm.  New York and London are frenetic;  Paris and Rome,  less so.  Moscow’s is taut.  I was having trouble finding Nashville’s rhythm.  I think it could be that the city has been invaded this weekend by fans of women’s basketball from the states of Indiana,  Maryland,  Connecticut and New York,  whose teams were playing for the NCAA title and with them they bought a little of the feel of their own cities.  In all the bars there was good-natured banter between the fans that would put our football fans to shame.

I have opted to stay in a hostel and not a hotel.  The downtown hotels are very expensive.  The Nashville Downtown Hostel is a third of the price.  I must come clean here – I couldn’t bear the Read More

Letter From America 1

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The flight from London to Detroit was eight hours long.  Eight long hours.  I was sat next to Jim from Detroit.  I suppose it was something of a cliche that he worked in the automotive industry.  Well,  he was from the Motor City.  We found common ground talking about Southern Rock  –  he had seen Lynyrd Skynyrd when he was 16.

In Detroit,  I had to go through immigration and Homeland Security.  There was a scary moment when the official said my visa had the wrong number on it.  I held my breath while he tapped away at Read More

Recording Blog 2

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Tim Amblin

Tony continues his story of the recording of his new album, Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.

Let There be Drums!

There are many, many drummer jokes. I have told some of them myself; sometimes, when I should have kept them to myself. I was once interviewing the legendary guitar amplifier designer, Jim Marshall, and I asked him how as an electronics expert he connected with the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix when finding out what they wanted from his creations. “I’m a musician, too,” he said, proudly, “I’m a drummer.” I smiled and said: “A drummer? You mean someone who hangs out with musicians?” The boffin’s face did not crack a smile and I could feel my face getting warmer than the valves in one of his 400 watt heads turned up to 11. The interview went downhill from there. Read More

Recording Blog 1

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Tony reveals the whys and wherefores of his new album, Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.

takemine

In a way, the making of this album came about because of my decision to go to Nashville. “I want to go to Nashville,” I told my wife. “Just go!” she said.

Well, I couldn’t just turn up in Nashville without something to show people what it is I do (or get any gigs, for that matter) so I decided to make an album.

This blog will be the story of that album.

I’m going to write about my song choices, my studio choice,  and the reasons why I’ll be using certain musicians. And I’m going to give an honest account of how the sessions went.

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