Introducing: "Li'l Marty"
A cheap little guitar recently reminded me of an essential truth about music. It's a three-quarter sized "travel" guitar called a Little Martin. Made by the C. F. Martin company at their Mexican plant, it's designed to fit into overhead luggage compartments and to be good enough, but not so good that you'd worry about dinging it at a campfire sing-along or having it stolen from a hotel room.
I was preparing for a house concert at the time, to be held at our home. I wanted to preview a batch of new songs for an upcoming album I'm calling, Back to the Wood. The album will feature all acoustic instruments, which made the idea of a house concert especially appealing. Just my friend Mike and me, playing some tunes on acoustic guitars as my family and friends drank wine and enjoyed one another's company. What could be simpler?
Only, once you fill a house with people you've got problems. Apart from the seating and the sight lines and the supply of food and drink, people soak up sonic space pretty quickly. This deadens the room and makes it hard to hear. So we decided we needed a small sound system. This meant choosing acoustic instruments with built-in electronics that could be plugged in to a board. And then it meant microphones, so that the vocals and the instruments would sound like they were all coming from the same place.
Soon enough, it went from a fireside gathering to a high-tech show. It seemed necessary, but something was getting lost along the way. There would be a lot of cable coiled at our feet when the day came, drawing attention to the quality of the sound rather than to the power of the songs themselves.
Mike and I began rehearsing, playing through the sound system so it would feel natural and so things would go smoothly on the day. But on my own,
I practised on L'il Marty, focusing on the songs rather than on the sound. The guitar's not loud, and the action up the fretboard can make my fingers hurt. But with nothing between the song and the room, it became my way of staying grounded in the music, not the gear.
The concert went well. People enjoyed themselves. I raised some cash for the project and inspired some interest in the album, which will come out later this year. But I also learned a lesson. You never want to get too far from the source of the music. It's what flows through the songs that matters, not what runs through the cables.