We revisit White Zombie guitarist J. Yuenger's classic Guitar World column, "Astro Ink."
If you're expecting a typical instructional column from me, then prepare yourself for a shock. Since very little about being in a band actually involves playing the guitar, I therefore thought it was time for a columnist to address some real-world band issues rather than the usual "what Mixolydian mode goes over which chord best." Before anyone panics, let me add that I will conclude every one of my columns by quickly touching on a playing idea or two.
After almost every White Zombie show, there's some guitar geek like me-the type of guy who spends the entire show hanging out directly in front of the guitar player, trying to see what pedals he's using-who'll ask "How did you get into this band?" Well, to make a long story short...I started playing guitar because I thought bands were really cool and I wanted to be in one-not to become a "guitar hero." When I was young, I always liked groups who gave the impression of being a unique gang-like the Cramps and the Ramones, who looked like horror movie creatures that all came from the same planet. Once I decided I wanted to be in a band, I had to start completely from scratch 'cause there was no one to teach me how to do anything the right way. Even now, I don't profess to be an expert about it since every band works differently and I've learned pretty much everything I know the hard way. Still, maybe I can give you a head start on knowing what to expect from the day you start wanting to be in a band.
Like a lot of people, I found that I couldn't get anything going in my hometown so I decided to take the plunge and move to New York. As soon as I arrived I answered a bunch of "guitarist wanted" ads-but none of 'em came to anything. I suffered through a never-ending succession of failed encounters which repeatedly led me to give up, only to try again a week later.
After a year and a half of sheer frustration, my luck changed. One day, Rob Zombie was browsing in a comic book store, and the clerk asked him what was going on. Rob replied, "Our guitar player just quit, I gotta start thinking about getting a new one." The clerk said, "I know somebody..." and gave him the guitarist's number.
I was that "somebody" and I wound up joining White Zombie. At the time, they were already pretty well-established in New York and I was incredibly psyched to be in a real cool band, one that I'd often seen play and always admired. As soon as I met 'em they asked if I would quit my job to tour, and I said, "Of course." I was so happy that I would have cut off my right arm if they'd asked. I gave up my job-a real cushy one, I might add-without a second thought. Our first show on that tour was in Pittsburgh, where we played to five people. Things gradually got better, although that first show was pretty disheartening. Soon we went to Europe, which was amazing: we were well-fed and housed in hotels and played to good crowds every night. I started thinking, "Wow! This is really working." Then reality hit: the tour finished and I found myself standing in New York's JFK Airport, jobless, homeless and wondering what the hell I was going to do next.
I ended up moving to our basement rehearsal space in Brooklyn. The place was tiny and full of thumb-sized flying mutant roaches that would land on me while I slept-in the drum riser. Everything I owned was stored in boxes by my stack. I did this for months on end; I didn't really have a choice.
I finally managed to land a job on Manhattan's Lower East Side delivering pizza. I was riding around on this big cast-iron bicycle that had been around since the Forties. My deliveries took me to some interesting locales, including Avenue D (hell); during the course of the job I got to look down the barrel of a gun twice. It sucked! (Note: Getting and holding on to a job when you're in a band that's trying to make it is tough. I'll discuss this "do I eat or play in my band" dilemma in a later column.)
Lots of people believe that successful bands signed their contracts a few months after they formed and instantly began making millions of dollars. (Remember kids, when a record company gives you money, it's only a loan. They expect it back. More about the grim realities of the industry in future columns.) People don't realize that most bands have to endure five to 10 years of starving, sleeping in the back of a beat-up van in the middle of winter and carrying Ampeg 8x10" bass cabinets up and down wooden stairs in the snow at two in the morning before they get their first real paycheck.
Few are aware of just how much blood and sweat bands invest in their careers, and how much harder than a regular job their work is because there's no one there to tell you what to do and how to do it. There's no guaranteed paycheck at the end of every week, either; it's like being self-employed with no way of knowing whether or not you're doing the right thing. The only thing that keeps people going is blind faith. There are no guarantees of success, no matter how hard you work.
All of this sounds a bit grim, I know. But if you want to "go for it," if you want to be in a band, you should be aware of the grim side. Which isn't to say that it's the wrong thing to do. After all, you should at least try to be cool while you're young, right? Even when I was living in that basement in Brooklyn trying to scrounge together change for a cup of coffee and a packet of Ramen noodles, I never regretted leaving my hometown, where all my friends were still sitting on a couch, smoking dope, listening to records and going, "Maybe someday I'll form a band." I was proud and happy to be doing what I was doing-mutant roaches or no!
Next time we'll go back to the very beginning and talk about finding people to jam with. Now, let's get to the lesson part of the column, and do a little playing.
CREATING WEIRD CHORDS
People are always asking me about what I call "the chicken chord" in "Electric Head, Part 2" from Astro Creep 2000. The chord I'm referring to is shown in Figure 1 and it appears in the riff shown in Figure 2.
My philosophy on coming up with wacky chords is this: you can take your hand, put your fingers anywhere on the fretboard and the chord you make can be used for something, somewhere. That's what's so cool about the guitar.
The same thing goes for gear, too: you might have this really shitty guitar or amp lying around vegetating, but if you're making a record, there's probably a place on it where that one terrible sound will actually be cool! So try and hang on to all the gear you accumulate. Even the crappiest bit will come in handy one way or another-take my word for it.
When I mess around at home, I come up with all sorts of weird stuff, so I end up having a backlog of ideas and whacked-out chords. When the band gets together and something starts developing, I have a pool to draw from. I came up with the "chicken chord" when I was feeling around for weird chords the night before we wrote that part
I just inserted that chord to make the riff sound more ominous. Many of the cool riffs I've used have come about in a similar fashion. I can remember figuring out one day that instead of playing the "Hendrix chord" Figure 2, I could just play the bottom of an E chord Figure 3 and the top of a G chord Figure 4 together Figure 5, which is how I came up with the "Thunder Kiss" chorus riff Figure 6.
TAPE IT ALL
Apart from maintaining a backlog of weird ideas in your head, you should tape everything you do-always. A cheap Walkman with a mic is fine and, if you don't have a guitar around at the time, record yourself humming it. Unless you're the genius-type who remembers everything, you have to tape even your simplest ideas to remember them the next day.
Think how often you've sat in school, at work or in a car and thought of the most perfect riff in the world. And, because this riff was so incredibly simple and obvious, you knew you wouldn't ever forget it. Of course, by the time you got home, it had fallen out of your head. You felt sick because you knew you'd lost your "Immigrant Song" or "Satisfaction" forever. If only you'd had that cheap tape recorder handy...