The Houston Snowpocalypse of 2021

The Farmer’s Almanac predicted the last Houston freeze of 2021 to be February 17. What it didn’t predict was that the freeze would begin the evening of February 14 and stick around until February 19.

We knew the freeze was coming well in advance, and Mary spent quite a few hours relocating plants into the house and covering those she couldn’t move. Thankfully plants were the only casualties at our house.

The amount of snow that arrived for President’s Day was surprising and kind of fun. I was the only optimist on my block who thought we might still have trash pick-up. I cleared the sidewalk and built a snowman. I’ve lived in Houston since 1995, and while I’ve seen it snow here maybe a dozen times, I’d never seen it snow like this. We bundled Finn up and let him experience it.

Our neighborhood continued to have power and water overnight Monday, but we filled several containers with drinking water and filled the bathtub for toilet flushing just in case.

Tuesday the power was gone. We have a gas fireplace, so we moved everything into the living room and set up a safe baby area to catch the heat yet keep Finn out of the fire. We also repurposed an old photography backdrop to shut off the rest of the house from the living room to trap more heat.

Tuesday night it was still 65 in the house when we went to bed, but it was 55 by morning. Mary slept in the baby pen with Finn to share body warmth, but 8-month-olds aren’t really appreciative of life-threatening situations, and he spent most of the night climbing on her.

Wednesday we had Finn in several layers of clothes, which he did not like at all, and he was very tired of being in the pen. We took turns sitting with him wrapped in a sleeping bag, but that became a struggle. Cellular phone service went bad. With T-Mobile I could get texts and phone calls, but photos wouldn’t download and using Facebook or surfing the internet was our of the question.

Mary transferred some of the refrigerator and freezer food to ice chests filled with snow, and we started cooking other things. Have you ever grilled croissants? I think if we’d had a pizza stone to keep the bottoms from turning black, they would have been perfect.

My parents in Montgomery had gotten power back earlier in the day, and it stayed on, so around 5 p.m. with the temp in our house possibly dropping into the 40s overnight, we decided to drain the pipes and risk the roads to get to their house.

Previous apocalyptical survival scenarios were much easier when there wasn’t an infant involved. Mary and I could have sat in sleeping bags reading books by candlelight for several more days, but babies have no chill.

Thankfully we made it to Montgomery where the power stayed on, and we finally got Finn to eat and sleep.

The power was back on at our house Thursday, so we began cleaning, but we were still under a water conversation order and boil notice due to all the water line breaks throughout the area.

I was very glad to finally see this guy melting away.

Mary’s five-year-old pepper plants that were taller than she is all perished along with an eggplant. Our orange trees may or may not make it.

Replacing plants is easy compared to the struggles of so many in Houston trying to do major plumbing and drywall repair right now, not to mention the fact that many people lost their lives.

Despite knowing the cold was coming, the self-regulated Texas power providers had no incentive to spend the money to winterize systems. We have the 737 Max of power in Texas, and the plane has finally crashed into the mountain.

As we sat in silence Tuesday, I pulled out the guitar and wrote this song in hopes of alleviating some of the anxiety in the house and making things feel a little warmer.

I’m glad the sun is back in Houston.

The guitar project that went wrong … then wronger

Back in the 90s when the distinction between music store and pawn shop was rather blurry, I acquired a second-hand silver sparkle Les Paul guitar that only said “Lady Luck” on the headstock and “Made in Korea” on the back of the neck.

This was a time when cheap guitars were really bad. Everyone and their brother had a beginner-level Squier or Jasmine that wouldn’t stay in tune and had the tone of a brick.

Lady Luck played well, but she had an extremely bass-heavy tone. It just never sounded good. Sometime in the early 2000s I actually tried to revive her by transplanting some nice Seymour Duncan pickups, but she still only sounded marginally better.

The silver guitar just hung on the wall for the past 15 years.

Since I’m now working from my home office at least eight hours a day, I’ve been trying to clear the clutter and make it a more pleasant, usable environment. That meant some of the guitars, amplifiers and camera gear had to go. I decided to clean up Lady Luck and put her up for sale.

I opened the back panel and squirted a little bit of contact cleaner into the crackling volume pots. The knobs got stiff. Then they froze. Then they unfroze … completely … and just kept spinning.

In the past few months I’ve cleaned the pots on an amplifier, a vintage clock radio, and another guitar. This has never happened before. I also couldn’t believe the same thing happened on both volume pots. I guess the corrosion was the only thing holding them together.

I had just rendered the guitar unplayable. Selling it was no longer an option.

The “hand wired” tone craze started a few years ago when Gibson started using pots connected to printed circuit boards in their guitars. That was actually good news for me because there were dozens upon dozens of pre-assembled pre-wired pots available to replace those PCBs that ranged from $30 with some questionable looking hardware up to $250 with vintage bumblebee capacitors.

Since Lady Luck isn’t a real Les Paul, I was worried the pot spacing wouldn’t quite be the same. I was wary of buying a pre-assembled kit. I decided to spend $50 and order an unassembled kit from Amplified Parts that included everything from the input plug to the switch. It also came with some really nice shielded wiring.

I immediately ran into a few issues. The pots and the output jack had larger diameters than the original hardware. I wasn’t excited about drilling out the holes and risking a chip in the paint, but I decided it was worth the risk.

Then I had to address the fact that the new knobs were also longer than the old knobs. I made a run to True Value for 3/8″ spacers. Unfortunately, they were out of 3/8″, so I had to pay double and buy a set of both 1/4″ and 1/8″. I ended up $20 into the project just for spacers!

The new selector switch was more of an issue. It was taller than the original switch, and it needed to be countersunk to reach through the body. Lady Luck is mostly plywood with an unknown top. The switch area was not that thick to begin with.

I finally decided that countersinking the new switch to make it fit wasn’t worth the risk of having the new switch rip through the front of the guitar. I had already replaced the switch in the 90s because the original had been snapped off when I bought it. It was clean and seemed fine. I mean, after all, a switch is a switch.

The instructions that came with the MOD kit were very clear, so it only took about an hour to put everything together. Of course, I still somehow managed to hook up the switch backwards. There were no strings on the guitar, so all I could do was plug it in and tap the pickups to see which one was active with each switch position.

I thought, it’s fine, I’ll just rotate the switch 180-degrees and let the wires wrap around. Wrong.

Assuming all was well, I got to the business of reassembling the other pieces of the guitar with the new stainless steel screws I’d picked up while I was True Value. I also decided to put the chrome pickup covers that originally came on the guitar onto the Seymour Duncan pickups. That entailed a little double-sided tape and some solder on the back, but it seemed easy enough.

The next morning I spent quite some time adjusting the truss rod, setting the bridge height, and adjusting the intonation to get the action just right. Then, the moment finally came. I plugged her in.

A very loud hum came through the amplifier.

I strummed a chord.

Nothing.

When I touched my fingers various places the hum would change tone or sometimes stop completely, but never did a single note come through the amplifier.

Did I wire something wrong? Is one of the new pieces bad? Did I ruin the pickups by putting covers on them?

This project had gone wrong when I destroyed the original volume pots. Now I was an additional $70 and 5+ hours into the project, and I had NOTHING.

I hung the guitar on the wall and walked away.

The next morning I got out the multimeter and started checking continuity. This was my first time using shielded cable with a metal sleeve. My first discovery was that I hadn’t peeled the shielding back far enough on the wire going to input jack, and it was touching the base of the prong, causing a short.

My next realization was that by spinning the selector switch 180 and letting the wires wrap around it, they were shorting to the sides of the selector switch.

I remedied this situation by rotating the switch back the correct direction and adding a little bit of electrical tape for insulation — just in case.

At this point, I was still getting a terrible hum, but I was also getting intermittent sound depending on what I touched.

I decided to yank the pots and see if I could get anything to work outside the guitar. Unfortunately during this maneuver I lost one of the $3 spacers into the body of the guitar forever.

After a few solder repairs, which included hooking the switch leads up correctly, I suddenly had sound. That was amazing news since it meant I didn’t destroy the expensive pickups when I put the covers on them.

I made another run to True Value to get another 1/8″ spacer.

I put everything back into the guitar.

The hum was back, and the sound was gone again.

The shielded cables were just touching too many things inside the guitar.

If I ever do this again, I will purchase shrink wrap or some sort of plastic sleeve to put over the metal braid. I didn’t have either of those things, so I started wrapping it in electrical tape. A few minutes later, the hum was completely gone, and the guitar was singing.

So after more than 20 years, this guitar finally plays the way it should. Now I can’t decide if I still want to sell it or if I should hold onto it a little longer.

And for any tech geeks out there who might be wondering, Lady Luck has a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan SH4 in the neck. 220k-ohm resistors tie into 470pF ceramic capacitors on the 500k-ohm volume pots, and .022mf 600v MOD capacitors run between the volume and tone pots.

Resurrecting my first guitar

Did you ever visit The Golden Pawn II?

It was located on Peoria Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Apparently the building is about to be torn down.

The Golden Pawn II: It was a pawn shop … and also golden.

When my granddad took me there in 1992, it was both my first time inside a pawn shop and my first time to experience the joyous overwhelming sensory overload generated by a wall of guitars and stacks of amplifiers.

I didn’t know anything about guitars. The Internet did not exist. I had been learning on an old classical guitar I found in my dad’s closet. My knowledge was limited to what I’d seen artists playing in music videos (which I wasn’t supposed to be watching) and one second-hand Guitar Player magazine a friend gave me at school because he didn’t like the songs in that issue.

My guitar selection method began with choosing black guitars that looked cool, but quickly shifted to black guitars that actually worked when plugged in. I finally landed on a black Arbor stratocaster knock-off that looked much like the guitar Bryan Adams played in the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves music video. While the style hadn’t been my first choice, I decided that it was “cool enough.”

Sidebar: It was actually moderately difficult to find this video. When I finally did, it turns out the Stratocaster was red, and it’s clearly not plugged into anything. Definitely not as cool as I remember. Also, fun fact, Mattel re-used the Return of the Jedi: Ewok Village playset in a different box as the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves forest hideout.

Amplifier selection wasn’t nearly as complicated. The deal was whichever working amplifier — with distortion — Granddad could get them to bundle with the guitar for $100. The man was a negotiator.

I played and played and played that Arbor Stratocaster and the little Peavey Rage amp for years. Eventually the amp died, and I upgraded to something bigger, but I always held on to that guitar.

The Arbor was gigged exactly two times for two songs.

My sophomore year of high school I played Creep by Stone Temple Pilots at the Bartlesville Mid-High Talent Show. My friend Chad sang the second part of the chorus with me. As far as I know, there is no photographic evidence of that performance.

Project Graduation (ProGrad) Talent Show Dinner at William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, March, 1996. (Thanks, Mom. Your decades of hoarding really paid off for this blog post.)

In 1996 I opened the senior talent show with The Joker by Steve Miller Band with my friend Steve Love playing the wolf-whistle lead guitar part. Then I played Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton to end the show — but not on the Arbor. The audience was really into The Joker. Unfortunately, it was my first time to encounter large-auditorium off-beat clapping, and I ended up having to stop for a moment in the middle of the song just to find the beat again. I thought Tears in Heaven went better, but feedback at school was, “You sang it too low.” Nevertheless, photos of my performance did appear in the school newspaper.

That was both the first and last time my music ever garnered any media attention.

The Arbor came to college with me, and many people took a turn on it during dorm jams and sing-arounds my freshman year. However, as time went on, it had more and more electrical issues. Eventually I was seduced by a brand new Epiphone Les Paul, and the Arbor was left in a case in the closet for years.

Having had success with the recent amplifier repair, I decided to see if I could work some magic on the Arbor.

At some point the tone pots had frozen up. Turning the tone knob equated to rotating the entire pot, which put strain on the wiring. Eventually one of the leads from a resistor had pulled loose, which was why the guitar had a terrible hum when it was plugged in and why it got put away in the first place.

As a kid I never realized the pick guard was just one big nicotine stain.

When I pulled the knobs, I realized just how much nicotine build-up was on the pick guard. I wasn’t aware of nicotine staining as a kid — no one in our family even smoked. However, I do remember always feeling like I could never really get the pick guard clean. Who knows what life this guitar had before my granddad and I came across it.

A few squirts of CRC cleaner got the pots working freely, and then it only took about 30 seconds to solder the broken lead back to the correct tab. I tightened the nuts on the pots to make sure they wouldn’t rotate again. I cleaned the 5-way switch, then put it back together.

The next issue was the bridge setup. Teenage me really didn’t have a concept of intonation. I had adjusted all the saddles to make a nice, neat straight line. As a beginner guitarist, I also had a tendency to miss the high E string when picking, so I remedied the situation by raising the high E above all the other strings — couldn’t miss it.

It’s not recommended to raise the high E above the rest of the strings, but if I had become famous, everyone would be doing it. The strings are finally level and intonated.

I adjusted the neck truss rod, leveled the bridge saddles, and put some new strings on it. Then, for possibly the first time in this guitar’s entire life, I intonated each string.

Playing her through an amplifier last night generated a brief time warp.

Fourteen-year-old me was home alone in his small-town Oklahoma bedroom, the amplifier pegged to ten, fumbling through the chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit before kicking the amp over and pretending to smash the guitar onto the mattress of his bed.

The action is nice and low. The tone comes through dirtier than it does on my American made Telecaster, but that’s what you’d expect from old, cheap electronics. It plays as well as any cheap guitar can.

Maybe someday Finn will think it looks “cool enough” to give it a try.

Repairing a 1964 Gibson Skylark GA 5T Tremolo Tube Amplifier

“Adopt a son,” was the tagline under the Instagram photo. A local music shop had a vintage Gibson amplifier listed for sale in remarkably good cosmetic shape — except for the logo.

1964 Gibson Crestline GA 5T Skylark Tremolo

I had a quick chat with Mary about the rising value of vintage instruments that veered into a promise to sell the large Line6 AX2-212 amplifier sitting in my study, and I was off to retrieve the Gibson.

The amplifier had the original speaker, the original leather handle, no tears in the tolex or cloth, and very minimal rust on the faceplate. Unfortunately, the amp didn’t play quite as good as it looked. We still brokered a deal, and I brought it home. That’s when I took the week long deep dive into vintage radio and amplifier repair.

Yes, we have gone way beyond banana bread.

The Death Cap

It wasn’t until 1969 that Underwriters Laboratories mandated three-prong plugs on appliances. Amplifiers from the 1950s and 1960s came with a two prong power cord, which could be plugged in either way. The lack of earth ground made those amplifiers susceptible to RF noise. To combat this, designers added a capacitor between the negative terminal of the power cable and the chassis ground of the amplifiers. It was well-known and accepted at the time that if a musician was touching the guitar strings and touched another reverse grounded object such as a microphone, he or she would receive a noticeable shock. The problem with having a capacitor coming from the cable to ground was that if it failed open, it would deliver the full 120 volts AC to the musician.

The “paper caps” and the “death cap” on the unmolested board.

While I wanted to keep the amplifier as original as possible, I decided removing the “death cap” and adding a three-prong power cable with ground to earth was the way to go. I also relocated the positive cable lead to run through the fuse before the switch for a little added protection of the amplifier internals.

Three strand power cable with earth ground installed.

120hz Hum

The most noticeable issue with the amplifier was a very loud hum coming through the speakers even with the volume turned to zero. A lower 60hz hum can be an indicator of poor shielding, but a 120hz hum is usually an indicator of bad filter capacitors.

From what I could tell, the amplifier internals had never been touched, so the circuit was sporting two paper-wrapped electrolytic capacitors — a Maximite and a Minimite. I didn’t have a way to test those capacitors, but it’s generally accepted that the lifespan for a paper-wrapped electrolytic capacitor is 6 – 10 years. Being 56 years old, it was a pretty solid bet that both of them needed to be replaced.

I replaced the Maximite with two modern 22mf 450volt capacitors, and the Minimite was swapped for one of the same. I flipped the amplifier back on, and the hum was gone.

A pair of 22mf 400Volt capacitors in place of the Maximite.

As a side note, if someone is selling you a tube amp and says, “It has a hum, but it still plays great,” walk away. You can’t play great battling that hum. You can’t record with that hum. You can’t perform with that hum. Also, it’s just a matter of time before the leaking capacitors fry the power transformer and cause more damage to the amplifier.

The Mysterious Disappearing Tremolo

This amplifier has a built-in tremolo circuit powered by the oscillations of a vacuum tube. When I purchased the amplifier, it wasn’t working at all. Later at home you could hear the oscillations in the 120hz hum, but it wasn’t evident in the actual guitar sound. Then I tapped on a few connections and spread some crowded wires apart, and the tremolo disappeared completely.

My online searches turned up conflicting diagrams, some indicating a 6EU7 tube and some indicating a 6C4. As I researched both, the 6C4 was noted for it’s oscillations, so I ordered one thinking I had the wrong tube. Turns out a 6C4 isn’t even the right size for the plug. I tried a new 6EU7, and the tremolo was back.

Matched Power Tubes

When I purchased the amplifier, the dates and makes of the tubes varied greatly. The schematic called for two 6AQ5 power tubes, but one was a much more recent 6005. Power tubes are supposed to be electrically matched, so that they have the same plate current and amplification characteristics. The performance of vacuum tubes can vary wildly, so matched tubes were allegedly manufactured at the same time and more rigorously tested to meet the same specifications. When I ordered replacements from Amplified Parts, they sent me a pair of matched new old stock 6AQ5 tubes that were manufactured together in France in 1963. It kind of blows my mind that there’s still parts for these amplifiers sitting in warehouses.

Does the amp sound better with the matched tubes? Maybe I’m just a auditory plebeian, but I can’t tell a difference.

With the three-strand cable, new filter capacitors and new tubes, the amp is playing well, and I imagine it should be able to handle another 50 years. However, if I get the chance to upgrade my testing equipment I’d like to take some measurement and see how far off the original values the other capacitors and various resistors have wandered.

I should also probably spend a little time working on my guitar skills, so they do justice to this amplifier.

The difference a dink makes

The wind was a steady 25 knots, gusting over 30, blowing straight off the shore of the small island behind which we were anchored. Both of our dogs, whom refuse to to soil our boat (at least while we’re there) hadn’t relieved themselves in more than 24 hours and looked absolutely miserable.

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I held tight to the standing rigging as I stood on the cabin top and looked over my small kayak trying to decide if I could even make any headway towards the island or if I’d be blown back past the boat and out into the middle of the bay if I attempted the trip to shore.

It wasn’t so much that I was worried about what would happen to me and two dogs in life jackets on a kayak — we’d just be carried ashore somewhere in San Leon. The problem was that if I couldn’t get back to the sailboat, Mary would be stranded there, unable to lift the anchor and leave.

That was the weekend we really began dinghy shopping.

But what type and size of a dinghy did we need and how would we power it?

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Luckily we had many boating friends also looking for dinghies, so we waited and learned from their experiences.

Our friends on the Tina Marie Too had a big double floor West Marine inflatable with a 20hp 4-stroke engine. It was comfortable. It planed up. It held a lot of people. It was way too big for our boat. We ruled out a fiberglass floor inflatable.

Our friends on Escondida had an 8′ slat floor inflatable with a 5 hp. It was small, light and could easily be lifted on and off the foredeck. It could also be rolled up and stowed in the cabin. It didn’t hold much, and it was very slow.

Our friends on Folie a Deux bought a Port-a-bote. It wasn’t too heavy, and it folded flat to tie against the lifelines. However, it was only rated for a 2.5 hp motor, and they got caught with a strong headwind in Matagorda Bay and couldn’t make any forward progress.

What we really thought we wanted was a Takacat. However, actual Takacat inflatables are quite expensive, so we started looking at the generic Saturn inflatable catamarans available. Our friends on Hippokampos got curious about them as well and bought one.

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Not tapering together at the bow makes for a very wide dinghy. In fact, we referred to it as the barge. It was sort of a strange ride because you could feel the flex in the middle when a wave raised one pontoon and then the other. They’ve been cruising with it for over a year now, and you can actually read their entire review of it here. While they had no major complaints, we realized there was no way we could put a boat that wide on our foredeck, and we weren’t sure we’d even have the space to inflate and deflate it anywhere on Gimme Shelter.

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We went back to thinking we would go with an 8′ slat floor roll-up with a 5hp Lehr propane engine. While small and slow, that seemed to be the best option for our 34′ sailboat. We also wouldn’t have to carry gasoline along with the diesel and propane we were already carrying. We started saving and kept waiting for the big sale at West Marine.

However, sometimes the right dinghy finds you.

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Our friends over at SVMimzy.com asked if we were interested in a 10′ AB rigid floor inflatable with a Mercury 9.9 hp 2-stroke. While it was about ten years old, it was in really nice shape. I just didn’t think we could lift it or that we’d have space for it on the boat. I was incredibly surprised when the boat only weighed around 100 pounds, and I could pick it up and move it around myself — and it just barely fit on our foredeck. I have to lift it up and bit to open and close the anchor locker, but it works.

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We’ve anchored out more times this year than in almost all of our past years of sailing combined thanks to being able to easily get the dogs back and forth to shore.

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Of course, it’s been useful for more than just carting dogs around. Mary and I have made runs up and down the ICW from Bolivar to Stingarees.

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We can finally explore islands and anchorages together instead of taking turns on the kayak.

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It’s also been great for carrying my photography equipment to shore. I’d never risk it on the kayak, but now I can get the camera, lenses and tripod all safely to shore to set up for great shots like this.

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While we’re getting by with raising and lowering the dinghy and motor using our halyards, the next question is to davit or not to davit.

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So how’s that music thing working out?

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You might remember that we had devised a plan to play music as a means to make money while cruising. The idea of sailing town to town and rocking the tiki bars to pay our way around the Caribbean was romantic and enticing.

So will it work?!!!

We’d been taking part in marina jams and playing songs with our friends at open mics on a weekly basis for a while, but the question remained, could we actually book a “gig.”

We got started in March with a St. Patrick’s Day show playing as a 4-piece band.

Then a small wedding followed soon after, which was an eye opener to how rough it is to play in 90+ degree heat and extremely high humidity. We played that one as a three-piece.

I managed to book a few solo acoustic shows, which isn’t really what I was looking for since Mary and I wanted to play together, but it was a good test to see how things went over when we stripped out the guitar solos and vocal harmonies provided by our friends.

Then we got invited to play a police fund raiser as a four-piece band, which was a fun experience.

Then we actually grew to a five-piece band for another show at our favorite bar before finishing off the year as a four-piece at a corporate Christmas party.

The gross income from our seven paying shows  in 2016 was $2050 (not counting about $200 in tips and $200 in bar tabs.) However, we had to pay out $750 to our other players. That puts us at about $1300 for the year.

So what did we learn?

Four hours is a long time: If you want to get paid in the Houston market, you have to play four-hour cover shows. When you’re playing by yourself with no instrumental solos or jamming, that is a lot of songs. I ran through more than 60 songs per night, and by the end of several shows I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for any song left to play. As we add more and more songs to the repertoire that won’t be as much of a problem, but working full time there is only so much time in the day to rehearse old songs and memorize new ones.

Equipment does make a difference: We started the year trying to mic the cajon with a Shure SM57. While it worked ok at the house when rehearsing, we could never get it loud enough at the bar without feedback. After a long debate, we finally spent the $239 to get a Shure Beta 91A that fits inside the cajon, and it solved all of our drum volume issues. This was a tough decision because the drum itself was only $175. It seemed absurb to invest more than the drum on a microphone for the drum, but in the end, it made a huge difference. I also retired my 20-year-old Shure SM58 vocal mic and replaced it with a $200 Sennheiser e945.

Good performances require rest: I currently have a wrist brace on my left arm. Practice makes perfect, but it turns out that too much practice makes for a pretty intense case of tendonitis. 12 hours a week seems to be my limit on guitar. Mary’s hands get quite swollen by the end of a show after slapping the cajon for hours. My voice also needs rest. Back in September I played four-hour shows two nights in a row, and my voice was already rough at the beginning of night two. By the end, it was really rough, which brings up the next thing I learned.

Not every performance is going to be good: Some nights nothing goes right. We’ve only had one show where things got really bad. It started ok. We had a nice group of friends come out to support us. The crowd was singing along. Unfortunately, I started losing my voice, and I ran out of songs. I thought I had a thick skin from my years in news and public relations, but getting a bad review and not being asked back to play a venue again really crushes the ego. There’s nothing to do except treat it as a learning experience and double down on the rehearsals, so that it doesn’t happen again.

We’re not going to make a living doing this: Yes, the dream is still to play live music as we cruise the Caribbean, but I have a hunch those bars pay even less than Houston bars. I think we were counting on competing against a smaller available talent pool in the islands, but that assumption may be wrong.

I’m not sure what our focus for 2017 will be. When we purchased our PA system we wanted something portable enough to fit in a dinghy to accomodate vocals, guitar and drums playing a restaurant or small bar. We’ve now got it maxed out with multiple vocalists, guitars, violin, bass, etc. While it’s a great portable rig, it’s not the right set up for a full band in large sports bars.

Hopefully we’ll get our foot in the door at some bars in Kemah closer to all of our marina friends.

Last but not least, we’ll be working on some new original music. Songwriting got put on the back burner while we crammed to learn enough cover songs to be able to fulfill our 2016 bookings. With that backlog of music under our belts, we’re ready to move forward with new songs in 2017.

If you have any song requests, please post them in the comments!

Shooting Stars at Lick Observatory

On the last day of my cousin Andrew’s wedding weekend he and his new wife Saara invited all of the friends and family out to Lick Observatory for a Sunday evening of desserts and star gazing.  The drive up to Lick was almost as exciting as the place itself.  We wandered over three windy mountain roads to get to the semi-secluded Mt Hamilton. The Observatories large domes make it a beautiful sight. The view from the top is breathtaking.

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Of course everyone wanted their picture taken in front of the sunset.

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After the wedding party had finished with all of their pictures, docents from the observatory treated us to an entertaining lecture on James Lick, the wealthy entrepreneur who funded the creation of the observatory back in 1888.  Lick was a colorful character who explored the world, buying and selling goods, and made his fortune in California real estate. As Lick aged he had a considerable amount of money to decide what to do with, and having no family, his two main ideas were to build a giant pyramid in downtown San Francisco in his own honor or to have a Statue of Liberty size statue made of himself in the harbor. Luckily the science community was able to convince him to instead fund this lovely observatory.

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One of the greatest treats of the evening was sitting in the room with the Great Lick Refractor.  This telescope is 57 feet long, and 4 feet wide.  When completed it was the largest in the world, and today is still the second. While honestly to me, the images were not that exciting, sitting in a room with that giant machine was.  Operated by a man spinning a ships wheel halfway up the telescope the telescope spins and so does the whole dome to match.  The men shout back and forth coordinates and directions to each other over the mechanical noise of everything moving. Meanwhile you walk your way up a metal ladder in the dark to a thin observation walkway, where you can see the whole thing taking place beneath you.

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Operating in the dark I think ads a bit of magic to all of it. They only use red lights like you’re inside a submarine or something. Also my mom and I decided that the thing sticking out of the side is obviously a laser.

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We were treated to a viewing of the Ring Nebula through the refractor, and then a nice close-up view of Saturn at the other end of the observatory looking through the 40-inch reflector. In addition to the big telescopes the docents also had some smaller but more modern telescopes set up outside. Many people took turns asking for specific constellations. Not knowing a lot about stars I asked some basic questions about our galaxy and really learned a lot from the people there helping.

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Fred was in heaven finally being somewhere without any light pollution, so that he could get photos of the Milky Way. I think he enjoyed taking those wide angle photos than seeing the stars close up through the telescopes.

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We wrapped up the evening with a sing-a-long inside the great dome. The acoustics were amazing. It gave me that perfect mix of warm feelings and an inspiration to continue to learn and better myself that always comes from time with my family. Love you guys!

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Looking for those bookings

As has been mentioned in previous blogs, one of our ideas to slow the burn on our savings while cruising is to play music along the way as a source of income. In preparation we’ve started playing shows in the Houston area to hone our skills, make sure we have the right equipment, and add a little bit of cash to the cruising kitty.

Last week I played a solo acoustic show at Little Woodrow’s in Katy, Texas. It was nice that our Gimme Shelter T-shirts had just arrived the night before.

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This was a very last minute booking, so I was lucky that with less than 24 hours notice I still had 10 friends and blog readers come out to see me.

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We’re currently trying to hard to book at least two shows per month for the rest of the year, hopefully some of which are in the Kemah area. As our schedule fills in, we’ll update the events calendar on our Facebook page.

Until then, here’s a new video of Mary and I covering Bubble Toes by Jack Johnson.

A little music for your weekend

We spent Thursday night hanging out with all of our musician friends at Jive Bar & Lounge Open Mic, and I shot a few videos this week. I’ll post some songs by Cerveza Road, Kristian Davis of Kollective Minds, and Jesse Avila of Poly Seude when we get back from the marina Sunday night after I have time to do some editing. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy our cover of The Weight with our friend Justin Guy on bass.

Guitar Comparison: Gibson Hummingbird versus Epiphone Hummingbird Artist

The Gibson Hummingbird has always been my dream guitar. It had that rock and roll pedigree, mellow mahogany tone, and just enough flamboyance to make it a legendary instrument. There’s just one catch, it’s really expensive.

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I fell in love with the Gibson back in my teens, and more than 20 years later, I finally have one (used, of course, I’m not crazy). However, needing another guitar for boating and camping, I was very curious as to the real differences between the Gibson and the very affordable Epiphone Hummingbird Artists. In fact, I found a blueburst B-stock Epiphone Hummingbird Artist for only $169.

Aside from the headstock you’d think the Epiphone would be a spitting image of the Gibson, but it’s definitely not. First off, their bodies, while both mahogany, are not quite the same size. The Gibson is slightly wider and deeper than the Epiphone with a more pronounced curve to the back.

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Both guitars have a 24.75″ scale neck, which is probably my favorite aspect of the guitar. It really helps me reach some of those chords with wide spreads. While the Gibson neck does feel more refined, when switching back and forth between the two guitars, you essentially feel like you’re playing the same instrument.

The Epiphone has a synthetic bone nut and a truss rod cover with three screws while the Gibson has a real bone nut and a truss rod cover with only two screws.

The rosewood bridges are similar, but once again, the Epiphone has a synthetic saddle while the Gibson has a real bone saddle. However, the Gibson still has cheap plastic pegs to hold in the strings. Being outside of the saddle, I know they don’t affect tone, but for the price, you’d think Gibson would spend $1 for real bone there as well.

There’s a HUGE difference in the tuners. My Hummingbird has sealed grover tuners, and the newer Gibson models have sealed Gotoh tuners. Epiphone doesn’t even mention the brand of their cheapo tuners in any of their collateral. They’re pretty terrible. I had some serious trouble keeping the Epiphone in tune for the first few weeks I owned it, although it has gotten better. With the Gibson, it’s usually in tune when I open the case, and it never goes out. With the Epiphone, I have to make sure and tune it before I start playing, and I might need to readjust it once or twice throughout the course of a three-hour jam. (This is about on par with every sub-$400 guitar I’ve ever owned.)

Of course, the real signature of a guitar is it’s tone, so I made a short video comparing the Gibson Hummingbird to the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro. Both guitars have Elixir Custom Light strings, and the audio was recorded on a Zoom H2n set to 4 channel mode. If you’re reading/watching this on a phone or laptop, you’ll probably have to plug in some headphones to really hear the difference.

So there you have it, a detailed look at the differences between a Gibson Hummingbird and an Epiphone Hummingbird Artist.