BY THOMAS CONNER
© Chicago Sun-Times
The fun part is watching the guys flinch. It's hard not to. Here they are in Ian Schneller's warehouse workshop, watching him beat their babies — in some cases, their very livelihoods — with a mallet. He lays them on his custom-built workbench and molests them with pliers and screwdrivers and, gulp, the occasional hammer.
"Don't worry, I'll use my soft hammer," he deadpans as he whacks the nut back into proper position on an angular, mid-'70s Gibson electric. The guitar's owner chews his lower lip and watches Schneller's hands with a live-wire mixture of concentration and concern. Three other guys wince with every whack. "It's like he's hammering my fingers," one of them mutters.
Tonight's class is the midpoint of the four-week "Guitar Setup and Maintenance" course, the initial offering of the Chicago School of Guitar Making. Other classes are now available — "Guitar Electronics," "Glue Technologies," "Tube Amp Building" — but Schneller's unusual (or, more accurately, rare) curriculum begins here, in a basic explanation of how guitars are made and maintained. This is where serious musicians get over watching a man take their guitars apart and put them back together. Then they learn to do it themselves.
Because as powerful an icon as the guitar is, especially the electric one, it is essentially a machine. It has moving, metallic parts, which must be cared for and eventually replaced if the machine is to continue to do its work, however aesthetic that work might be. Schneller — a sculptor first, then a rock 'n' roller (a founding member of the venerable, long-gone band Shrimp Boat), now a tinkerer-turned-teacher — tries to impart that practical knowledge to his students. "You have to know how to take care of your tools," he said in an interview later. "Any master craftsman and any truly successful artist knows that."
Schneller himself thinks bigger than that. He's more than a serviceman. He's a luthier, he'll tell you matter-of-factly — a maker of stringed instruments. He's put about 150 of them out into the world, from basic guitars to violins, from electric guitars shaped like Pac-Man to something called the Vibration Liberation Unit. His shop is littered with half-finished projects (a nearly 6-foot-tall wooden instrument shaped like a summer squash) to innovative and now popular specials (his virtually indestructible aluminum-body guitars and basses). He upholds what he calls "Chicago's rich history of guitar making."
That side of Schneller's enterprises is Specimen Products, a respected guitar-building business he started on the South Side in 1984. Now just west of Humboldt Park off Division Street, the Specimen shop is also the classroom for the Chicago School of Guitar Making. It's an outlet for his skills Schneller didn't exactly anticipate, but it's renewed his hope and improved his perspective on a lone man's contribution to art.
"The first time I was in here with a class and I heard the sound of eight little hammers working on frets — oh! I'm all about sound, you know, and that just blew me away," he said. "Chicago was once the guitar-making capital of the world. That's largely fallen by the wayside. It's all overseas now. And I know that as a solo maker I'm not going to impact that at all, but if I can teach what I know ..." His voice trails off, his eyes dart around the studio and he grins ever so slightly.
The rad scientist
In his blue lab coat, small spectacles and bush of peppery hair, Schneller looks every bit the mad scientist. His laboratory is nearly Frankensteinian. On his carefully cluttered workbench are oddly shaped feather dusters, bottles of eel oil, special-made outlets with voltage control, boxes of cough drops, countless tiny tools. The studio features several smaller benches for students, padded work stations that look like changing tables for infants.
Schneller teaches class at a large table near the door, next to his stereo system featuring two homemade speakers with big, arcing bell horns like old phonographs. Tonight he's flying through the lesson plan, talking tremolo vs. vibrato, sine waves, whammy bars, "under-the-saddle transducers" and a brief but fascinating tangent about making a microphone out of a tin can and some salt.
His technical lecture is liberally spiced with practical information — a student's question about string lubrication brings up the exceeding importance of a product called Big Ben's Nut Sauce (requisite chuckles follow in this all-male student body) — and occasional anecdotes. He gets unusually animated when he relates the tale of a woman who brought him "a holy grail guitar" last week, an arch-top Martin electric from a manufacturing run of less than a thousand. She bought it at a rummage sale for $75. It's worth about 10 grand.
Bigger sound, smaller machines
He tells the students most guitar technology peaked in the '50s and '60s.
"Since then," he said in our conversation later, "it's all been about market stimulation and miniaturization. Just like we went from vinyl records to cassettes to CDs to DAT tapes — computer technology hasn't changed as much as it's shrunk. It's the same machine doing the same thing, it's just doing it in a smaller space. And I'm willing to accept that the computer keypad isn't the only way humans can interface with technology. That's why I'm so drawn to stringed instruments."
Which are, remember, machines, just like computers. But in an era in which our instinct is to throw out and replace whatever breaks down, Schneller's studio — and now his school — is seeing increasing demand. Classes began last fall, and 130 students are currently enrolled, many of them on their third course. The schedule is booked through June, when he hopes to start teaching the big one, Guitar Building, and a waiting list is growing. Schneller said he can't write the curriculum fast enough.
"I'm getting people who are frustrated with the disposable nature of things," he said. "They buy things, they break and they bring them here. This class is called 'Setup and Maintenance.' It's about teaching how to keep things going. ... And I'm a sculptor first. Sculpture is more immortal than canvas. The things we make here, or the things we maintain here, they will continue to contribute to society and art long after I'm gone. That's the idea."
By Thomas Conner
© The Chicago Sun-Times
The fastidiousness of Donald Fagen is well-documented among his band's considerable contributions to rock 'n' roll. In the studio for Steely Dan records, six-hour sessions were common just to polish 12 bars of rhythm guitar. Noted session musicians would be brought in at great expense to play jazzlike guitar and sax solos — solos Fagen already had written and carefully notated for them. This control freakishness gave Steely Dan's hits and album tracks their celebrated (and sometimes derided) slickness and meticulous swing.
Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, however, Fagen — at 58 and on his first ever solo tour — showed signs of mellowing with age, of letting go of the little stuff. At least he made it look that way.
Midway through his less-than-two-hour set, he paused and slumped at his center-stage electric piano. "What do we do now?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question, but the lively audience was quick to answer by shouting requests. "Oh, right there, I heard it!" he said, then turned to his band and seemed to call the next tune ("Third World Man"). Donald Fagen appeared to — gasp! — take a request.
It may have been an act (though given the varied set lists I've seen from the tour thus far, probably not), but it was indicative of Fagen's feistiness while free of his longtime Steely Dan cohort Walter Becker. By himself, Fagen clearly wants to get his groove on. His solo albums (one per decade since 1982) have been driven by backbeats more prominent than on most Dan albums before the turn-of-the-century reunion.
This was clear Saturday night whenever the set veered from solo work — powered by metronomic drummer Keith Carlock's sparse kit and Freddie Washington's gurgling bass — to a handful of Dan album tracks, each of which opened up the full range of Fagen's nine-piece band. The Dan tunes breathed a bit more, the sound was fuller, richer, broader, and the ensemble sounded like an ensemble. That was the goal of Steely Dan, after all — to combine '50s R&B with the careful arrangement of Ellington's big bands. Fagen on his own, though, tends to shrug off the Ellingtonia and get down to basics.
That's not a criticism of his solo work, just a distinction — hopefully a helpful one, given that so many critics write about Fagen's solo outings as indistinguishable echoes of Steely Dan. Every time I've seen Steely Dan live, Fagen has slunk onto the stage, a sheepish member of a large band. Saturday night, though, he strutted onto the stage, plopped down at his keyboard and, raising a single finger high into the air, jabbed down the first notes of "Green Flower Street" like a call to order, or arms. The tight interplay of the rhythm section on that song set the tone for the evening. This was a groove-centric rock 'n' soul revue.
Most of Fagen's song selections were delightful surprises — "Teahouse on the Tracks," "Home at Last," "Goodbye Look," "FM," even a left-field cover of "Mis'ry and the Blues" from 1930s Oklahoma City-Chicago musician Charlie LaVere. The new CD, "Morph the Cat," was represented but not dwelled upon (just "Brite Nitegown," "Mary Shut the Garden Door" and "What I Do," featuring Chicago harmonica player Howard Levy). His encore was just one song — again, Fagen slumped and seemed unsure what to play. "I feel like just playing something fast," he said and launched the band into Chuck Berry's "Viva Viva Rock 'n' Roll" with a scorching solo from guitarist Jon Herington.
Therein, too, lies another sign of Fagen's relaxed grip. Of the two guitarists onstage Saturday night, Herington and Wayne Krantz, only the former seemed up to Fagen's previous finicky standards. Krantz's solos often went too far afield of the melody, even the countermelody, and filled the theater with a dizzying number of notes. His delivery seemed clumsy, too, as if his left fingers were bandaged. Herington, though he didn't get as many solos, was superb — clean, crisp, remarkably fluid and with a more rockin' tone that suited the somewhat restless spirit of the set. His playing was sharp enough to inspire hopes he'd romp into "Reelin' in the Years." Alas, no.
The show was so groove-tastic, though, that two attendees remarked after the show that they wished the tour was playing smaller venues — so they could have danced. Here's to Fagen's return next time in Uptown — the Aragon? the Green Mill?
at Chicago Theatre
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The black-clad, tattooed viking of a singer stomps around the stage with a microphone clenched against his spittle-spewing lips. Calling this guy a "singer," you realize, is generous — a job title not quite accurate to the duty he performs, which is more shrieking, roaring, growling and screaming. And whether you respect the catharsis of these "death metal" bands or shake your graying locks at these kids today, you ask the same question: How does that guy do that night after night and not completely shred his vocal chords?
One woman has the answer — a short, cheery red-headed PTA mom in suburban New York. Her name is Melissa Cross, but you can call her the Scream Queen.
"I am not your mother," she says by way of introduction on her new DVD "The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed," though she is parent to a 5-year-old boy. "He certainly knows how to scream," she added during a recent phone interview from her home. "He's imitating me all the time."
Cross, 48, is not a physician, but she's the Dr. Feelgood for the latest wave of hard-core bands tagged with such descriptors as "death metal," "death grunt," "grindcore" or "doom rock." She coaches these young men — they're almost always male, though she just picked up a girl from the band Arch Enemy — on how to communicate their passion without destroying their voices.
"They were getting hurt," she says of the bands she saw screaming their lungs out onstage, "and as the genre became more popular and these kids were getting picked up by major labels, I was suddenly the only voice teacher that tolerated them."
Those major labels sought to protect their investments, so they put Cross on speed-dial. She now has a client roster that looks like the soundtrack to the latest big-budget horror franchise, performers such as Andrew W.K. and former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, and bands such as Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Thursday, Killswitch Engage, the Agony Scene and Sick of It All.
Many of these singers give testimonials in "The Zen of Screaming" (now in stores from, appropriately, Loud Mouth). One confesses, "We're no Pavarottis."
Corey Taylor isn't, either. But his band, Slipknot, just won the Grammy for best metal performance. Taylor trained with Cross last year.
Learns to warm up
"It was such a revelation," he said of Cross' vocal techniques. "It's all about movement, warming up the muscles as well as the voice. A lot of times you go out onstage and you haven't done anything with your body, so even if you have a voice that night it just feels dead. Practicing all this stuff all together before I go out lets me hit the stage with everything, ready to go."
Taylor told of an earlier vocal injury, which he suffered after screaming too hard onstage. One of his vocal chords swelled; the injury looked more serious than it was, and for a time Taylor feared his meteoric rock career would end prematurely.
"I would just scream and get the craziest sound I could to vent the emotion. It was destroying my voice," he said. "I've lost a lot of range from doing that, actually. It kind of bums me out."
Cross led her own punk band while training in Shakespearean theater and opera at school in England; she even opened for Black Flag and X. But when she got back to the States, a friend began introducing her to many of the new hard-core bands he was producing as the styles emerged in the mid-'80s. By 1990, she was teaching classical voice full time.
But the rockers kept asking her questions about technique. She decided to turn her informal lessons into something bigger.
Word of mouth
"I had the education to deal with it, so I took them on. They ultimately became well-known — one called Overcast, one became Shadows Fall, another one went to All That Remains. I had Killswitch Engage back then. One client was from Hatebreed, and he never showed up to his lesson. But he told a bunch of people he was coming, and word got around."
Cross has the definition of a sunny disposition. Rosy cheeks, fair skin, and she has lots of tapestries and crafty things lying around. Into her cozy studio walk these hulking tattooed guys.
"Ironically, most of the kids are very soft-spoken and, I would say, repressed," she said. "That's why they do what they do. They're up there screaming because they have to. Their lives are so messed up, and they need the release. Most of them are very humble, polite and idealistic — not the monsters they play onstage."
They come to the Cross studio not so much for technical training but for behavior modification. The key, she said, is to teach them how to channel their emotion — which is the key in these genres — through different physical processes.
"There's always a light bulb moment," she said. "I see it every day. It's a change in the imagery, the ability to divorce the emotional aspect out of the throat. It's like an acting gig: You feel something, but you have the control not to let it permeate the muscles you need to do the work and make the sound. You dissociate somewhat. You feel anger and passion, but you don't make it feel like it sounds. So you can still be in the moment but utterly in control of your instrument."
The passion is what draws her to this music, anyway.
Enjoys passion, power
"I like any music that has integrity. I'm not exclusively a fan of this stuff. I like opera and Beethoven and the Bulgarian Women's Choir. What I really like is the honesty of a performance. This music is full of it. It's theatrical, Shakespearean. At Shakespeare plays they used to throw blood and guts from the stage. It's reality TV onstage. But it can only move you if the performers have what they need to perform — over and over and over. No artistic voice deserves to be silenced just because they felt things too strongly."
A second "Zen of Screaming" instructional video is already in the works. This first installment, oddly enough, contains little actual screaming; Cross promises the sequel will have more. After that, it's "The Zen of Speaking" — tips for "stock traders, aerobic leaders, tour guides, anyone who has to speak loudly for a living."
In the video "The Zen of Screaming: Vocal Instruction for a New Breed," voice coach Melissa Cross knows how to speak to her young rock 'n' roll audience. A sample of some of her vocal techniques, which probably aren't in the conservatory curriculum:
The Strapless Bra
In explaining how to expand the rib cage for maximum air supply while singing, Cross tells a female student about the "Strapless Bra" posture. "You know, if you have one on that's too big, and you have to expand your diaphragm to hold it on while you rush to the bathroom?" Strike that pose.
'Above the pencil'
Cross places an ordinary pencil between the teeth of her students, teaching them the difference between projecting the voice seemingly over it and under it. Over it is the goal, and the difference is clarion.
Or "the brown note," a colorful term for the flexing of a certain group of muscles also employed during, er, gastric evacuation. Is that diplomatic enough?
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.