The world of mountaineering is a tough one. The first proper climbing lesson I ever had was twenty years ago in Yosemite, and looking up at the imposing bulk of El Capitain from the tiny rock face that I was learning to negotiate - which was less than ten metres off the ground compared to El Cap's 900 m - I realised that my strongest response was "bugger that" and decided there and then that climbing was not going to be my sort of thing. All the same, I've remained fascinated by the sport, convinced that most participants either have no sense of personal danger or are completely mad. When Ueli Steck burst on the scene, I had a sneaking suspicion that both theories applied to him. The first thing I heard about him doing was speed soloing the north face of The Eiger - one of the deadliest climbs in the world - and doing it in the quite frankly ludicrous time of 2 hours and 47 minutes. The video also introduced me to the music of Ben Cooper, but that's a story for another day.
From then on, I followed his career with disbelief, more than anything else. His mountaineering skills were uncanny. He smashed record after record, and seeing video of him climbing The Nose on El Capitain in four hours and forty minutes and then going back the next day and doing it in four hours and twenty was both exhilarating and somehow unreal. Let's be clear here: his abilities go so far beyond the average climber that you may as well describe them as superpowers. Ueli pushed himself further and further, climbing faster and faster and became a superstar as a result. His nickname, "The Swiss Machine," was a testament to his reputation as a superlative climber. In 2012 he reached the summit of Mount Everest without using supplementary oxygen. He stood on the roof of the world, and he got there under his own steam.
But climbing is a risky sport, and if you make a mistake when you're on the mountain, the price you pay can be very high indeed. Given how hard he pushed himself, the news that Ueli died on Everest yesterday wasn't completely unexpected, but it's still a tragedy. Nevertheless, he died doing the thing that he loved, and he leaves behind a sport that he changed forever.
The blog has been taking a back seat lately. This is primarily as a result of me focusing heavily on my professional activities, which - as they have done for the last thirty years or so - involve learning and development. Since starting in my present job last July, I've been heavily engaged in helping other people to acquire new skills and knowledge so that they could develop their careers, and it turns out that in doing so, I've moved my own career forwards as well. The result of this is that I've now been made practice head for learning and innovation where I work. Yes, I've been promoted. I have a new job title. And I have a posse.
What this means is that as well as carrying out the training analysis and instructional design work that I've specialised in for the last three decades, I'm also looking at personal development from a complementary, strategic perspective. What skills are people going to need in the future? How might people acquire the new knowledge that they need quickly and efficiently? How can companies ensure that their employees not only want to come to work, but also that they are interested in improving the business and increasing its value?
Unpacking the issues behind those questions is going to be interesting, I think. Finding answers to them is going to be a fascinating and rewarding experience. I'm looking forwards to seeing where the journey takes me.
As for this week, I'm taking tomorrow off and making a long weekend of things. I'm looking forwards to having a lie-in and catch up on sleep.
And yes, guitar playing will be involved. The two videos I posted on the blog this month have racked up nearly a thousand views between them over on YouTube, so I'm planning to make another video which will investigate the Ocean Machine pedal in more depth. People obviously want to know more about it, so I've been putting together a list of things to explain. When it's done, I'll post it here.
I said on the blog a while back that I was done writing obituaries for people here, because I was doing them so regularly that it was really becoming depressing. But I couldn't let what happened at the weekend pass unremarked, so here we are again.
If you're a guitar player and you've known me for more than five minutes you'll know how highly I rate the talents of Allan Holdsworth. He's been a hero of mine for decades. Finding out on Sunday that he had passed away unexpectedly came as a shock. I'm still trying to process the news.
The first record with him on it that I can remember hearing was Bruford's 1979 album One of a Kind. To say it was groundbreaking is massively understating things. Allan's playing, together with that of bassist Jeff Berlin, completely floored me. Melodically, Allan has always forged his own path and his soloing on this album sounded utterly unlike anything I'd ever heard before. He was working with scales I didn't know existed, let alone had names. It was like hearing guitar from a different planet, perhaps even a different dimension. It can be too much, if you're not prepared for it - my bass-playing brother really didn't understand what I was raving about - but when you get where that melodic approach is taking you, it leads you into musical territories that had never been explored before. I religiously bought everything I could find that had his playing on it and every new discovery was a delight. When I started playing electric guitar myself, I'd track down every interview with him in guitar magazines in an effort to figure out how he achieved what he did, but it was all to no avail. I bought his music, when it was published as "Reaching for the Uncommon Chord" back in the 1980s and while I occasionally managed a chord that sounded mildly convincing, most of it was - still is - beyond me. I told myself that I was failing because I didn't have the prodigious reach on the fretboard that he did (just look at that photograph on the front cover), but deep down I knew I was kidding myself. I was never going to come close enough to count myself on the same planet, musically speaking.
I got to see him play live several times over the years. And at every gig, I'd spot famous guitar players in the audience. Like me, they had come to hear a master of their craft produce something effortless and exquisite. I backed the crowdfunded "Tales from the Vault" album recently and was delighted to hear a new track from him. Then another - and, joy of joys, another - as well as remixes of some of his best work from the past. And at one memorable gig a few years ago, I got to meet the man, shake his hand, and attempt the impossible task of trying to convey in a few seconds just how much his music has meant to me over the years.
When I read his band mate Gary Husband's emotional tribute to Allan on Facebook this morning, it was clear that he had a lot of personal problems. Since then my sadness at Allan's death has been mixed with anger that someone as gifted as he was should have to struggle to make ends meet, let alone find a major label willing to fund new material from him. The music business is on its last legs; the fact that it now prioritises musicians who win talent competitions without performing a single note of their own work, or reality TV stars who can't hold a tune over prodigies who never stopped paying their dues feels particularly, grotesquely wrong today. Meanwhile, I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that the greatest guitarist I have ever heard will play no more. And that hurts.
It's Maundy Thursday, and I've been working at home today. I really didn't fancy trying to make my way home on one of the busiest days of the year for traffic. Motoring organisations are warning that trips will take three times as long as usual, which would have meant me spending a mind-numbing six hours or more sitting in the car today. Um, no thanks.
I always feel I work more efficiently when I work from home. Studies carried out by the University of California at Irvine show that it takes us, on average, 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track following an interruption at work. But the same team have also shown that people change the way they work when they're interrupted; you may be surprised to learn that they complete tasks faster than when they're left undisturbed. The price they pay is that they end up with a higher workload, feeling more stress, more time pressure, and higher levels of frustration. As Gloria Mark explains in the Fast Company article, when she wants to ensure that her time is productive, she stays at home.
I totally agree. I've already done all the things I needed to do today, and I'm feeling nicely chilled out and ready for a long weekend.
My plans for the upcoming long weekend largely involve staying here and playing guitar. I was rather chuffed to discover just now that the two videos I posted on YouTube of me playing through my new Ocean Machine pedal have racked up 392 views between them in less than a week. I posted the first one in my last blog entry - this is the second one:
Last week's plan has come to fruition and I am now the proud owner of a Mooer Ocean Machine pedal, which I picked up from Intersound Guitars on Thursday. I've been playing with it quite a bit since then and it's now fully integrated into my current setup. Adding two digital delays and a reverb into existing patches on the Zoom opens them up and adds space to sounds that ranges from subtle to immense. Here, have a listen:
Those controls might look intimidating, but they're actually very simple: the box is split into thirds crosswise, so there are four dials to control the main parameters of each effect at the top, a global settings controller and three rotary mode selectors to set the type of effect used by each of the three sections in the middle, and footswitches for the effects at the bottom.
The first half-dozen presets (you get 24, and they're all editable) give you a sound that's very reminiscent of Devin's setup, which is hardly surprising given that the unit's purpose is to do exactly that. After that, things start to get weird. The delay settings start to have names that don't immediately indicate what they do: while I think I know what I'll get from something labelled "tape" I couldn't begin to imagine what "crystal" or "rainbow" is going to sound like (they're... twinkly.) I'll no doubt end up changing some of these settings to something else that's more suited to my own style of playing - patch 3B has already been switched out for something more in-your-face. Watch reviews of the unit and you'll see that they often stop at patch 3A; there's a reason for that...
I'm really pleased with the unit, though. When I first heard about it last year I knew I wanted one, and now that I've got it plugged into my signal chain I'm pleased to say my initial reaction was the right one. Be sure to listen out for it in my recordings from now on!
I've been playing one of my Telecasters a lot recently. It's in open C tuning, which I find really inspiring (and again, that's thanks to Devin, who uses it on the majority of his tracks). Last week I wanted to put together a tribute track to Chuck Berry so I laid down a simple boogie in Ableton and found a nice motif to use for the choruses - but for the life of me I couldn't figure out where it needed to go next. The lead was supposed to capture a little bit of Berry's style but my playing just couldn't come close. Maybe that says all that needs to be said about Mr Berry's talent. Perhaps I'll come back to it when my playing's improved, but for the moment, it's up on Soundcloud just as it is.
Now I'm off to play some more with the Ocean Machine - let's see where that leads...
I'm still getting used to being back on BST. This morning I was awake at quarter past seven and three hours later I'm up, dressed, I've had breakfast, and I've even finished off the ironing. Normally at this time I'd just be surfacing from sleep. No doubt my routine will gradually drift back to normal over the next few weeks, but for the moment I'm making the most of things. I guess this early start also means I've recovered from the trek home on Friday evening, which took me over three hours after there was a smash on the M4 and I used the A4 instead. It was nice to see Silbury Hill in the sunshine, but I'd have preferred to start my weekend a little earlier than half past seven.
I've even achieved something on the computer this morning, too - I have finally figured out how to set up Netbeans so that its interface scales to a 4K monitor and text appears large enough to read without the need for me to give myself eyestrain. Perversely (hey, it's Netbeans) this involved setting the -J-Dsun.java2d.dpiaware parameter in the program's conf file to false from its default value of true. Whoever said programmers were methodical and logical?
It's been a week of tweaking software interfaces here. I've decided to get back in to 3D modelling after a 20-year hiatus, so I installed Blender 3D on this machine. Blender is dpi aware, so making the interface legible in 4K was a simple matter of tweaking a slider in the preferences dialog until I liked what I saw. Now all I have to do is remember the techniques I learned two decades ago and start modelling stuff again...
I may be rather quiet on here in the next few weeks. Chatting to Steve at Intersound Guitars on Friday, he told me that the Mooer rep had just let him know that the Devin Townsend-designed Ocean Machine pedal that I've been salivating over for the last three months is on its way to the shop, with an ETA of Wednesday or Thursday. I can't wait to hear what that sounds like through my setup.
I also need to start work on turning the back room into a proper music workspace. It's been a month since I made the decision to do so, and I've done nothing practical about it at all so far. Which is why last night I found myself online looking at the latest in 24-channel mixers...