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Lyrical Genius, Part II – Ben Folds

It’s a shame, but it seems to me that a lot of songwriters don’t really work as hard on their lyrics as they do their music. Granted, there are exceptions, but so much of – particularly popular – music is made up of utter dreck, lyrically speaking. (Of course, a lot of the music blows, too.)

Even most of the words that are well-written are pretty lacking; they don’t really mean anything.

So I present the second in a series on songwriters that I feel deserve mention for the profundity that they display in their lyrical output. Enjoy!


Ben Folds is considerably more well-known than my previous entry; he’s had several songs hit on the radio (“Brick” was a pretty major hit) so you’ve probably heard of him, even if you never heard of Kevin Gilbert. But perhaps in all the upbeat, rockin’ piano jammin’, you never noticed what an incredible storyteller he is? The aforementioned “Brick” is a very good example; a (fictional?) story about a couple of teenagers who go to the women’s clinic the day after Christmas is not actually a pro- or con- argument for abortion, it’s instead a powerful statement on loneliness, “status quo” relationships, and honesty, among other things. And it’s told in the context of a story so simply told – few words, but words well chosen – that one can hardly have trouble identifying with the “character” in the song.

It’s a skill that Ben has in spades. Another very good story told, from the “Ben Folds Five” album, is “Boxing.” It’s a story about a boxer who’s well past his prime, yet still boxing because it’s all he knows. It’s sung to his manager, Howard, and the most goosebump-raising line is at the tail end of each chorus:

Boxing’s been good to me Howard
But now I’m told, I’m growing old
The whole time you knew, in a couple of years I’d be through
Has boxing been good to you?

Damn, that gives me chills just typing it.

Then there’s the amazing “Fred Jones Part II” from “Rocking the Suburbs”:

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall
He’s cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes
Things that remind him: ‘Life has been good’
Twenty-five years
He’s worked at the paper
A man’s here to take him downstairs
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time
There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one is left here that knows his first name
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off; someone else can get on
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time

An incredible story, told incredibly simply. You relate, you understand – it’s an amazing skill, and one that I hope to develop in my own songwriting.

To steal Kevin Gilbert’s phrase: To be simple, yet profound.

I’ll close with lyrics from “The Luckiest” – an amazing (perhaps a little sappy) song that my wife and I made “our song” at our wedding and for always. It has the amazing distinction of this great moment: When we played it for my Mom (who we lost in April) the first words out of her mouth after she heard it for the first time were, “You know you have to play that at your wedding, right?” (This was before we were even engaged.) Amazing song, amazing lyrics: Note – I typed from memory, prose-style, so the line spacing may not be as Ben Folds originally wrote ’em.)

The Luckiest (from “Rockin’ the Suburbs”)

I don’t get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot.
Now I know: all the wrong turns and stumbles and falls
Brought me here.
And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it every day.
And I know that I am the luckiest.

What if I’d been born fifty years before you
In a house on a street where you lived?
Maybe I’d be outside as you passed on your bike…
Would I know?
And in a white sea of eyes, I’d see one pair
That I recognize
And I know that I am the luckiest.

I love you more than I can ever find a way to say to you.

Next door there’s an old man
Who lived to his nineties
And one day, passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for
A couple of days and passed away
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you
That I know we belong…
And I know, that I am the luckiest

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The ol’ Battle Axe

The bass shown in the photo to the right has been my main axe for almost 12 years now. It’s a pretty amazing instrument, with lots of unique features that make it the most gig-worthy and the best-sounding bass I’ve ever encountered.

My 6-string fretted GTB 356 Model was made by a US-based company called PBC that was located in Coopersburg, PA – they’re no longer in business, but the basses are still made by Dave Bunker in Washington State. When I decided that a 6-string bass was going to be a necessity for Second Story, writing partner Scott and I took a trip up to PBC’s factory store to check out their basses and manufacturing facility. (We had seen a couple of their basses and even talked to a rep at one of our local music stores.)

When we got there, they had a showroom full of basses – and LOTS of them were sixers. I picked up at least half a dozen while we were there, and they were quite nice; well-appointed, and very nicely finished (most, including my bass, have AAAA-grade flame-maple tops or better.) When I came across the bass I eventually bought, I knew instantly that it was the instrument I had to buy – it practically melted into my fingers. There are some instruments that you just KNOW were made for you, and this bass was one of them. While I was “cashing out” the bass, the guy also confided in me that the bass was originally built specifically for Allen Woody; but when he came to get it, a new model caught his eye and he took one of those instead.

All I know is: the bass is awesome.


  • Bookmatched AAAA figured Maple top
  • Patented Tension Free neck, 5 piece, Maple fretboard
  • EMG Dual Coil soapbars, EMG BTC Circuit, 18v (The bass came with the pickups; I upgraded it to the BTC preamp and the 18v system)
  • Individual “Through Body” Bridges in Gold plated solid machined Bell Brass (one for each string)

The Tension-free neck is the most interesting special feature on this bass. Rather than a traditional truss rod, the maple neck has a pair of channels routed through it; within these cavities lie two cold-rolled steel bars. All of the tension that the strings impart on the neck assembly are carried by the bars – not the wood. The manufacturers claim that this eliminates dead-spots, and allows for excellent adjustability and durability. All I can say is that the bass plays like buttah, and from the low B on the bottom string to the very highest notes up the C-string the bass has a balanced, even sound – octave to octave, string to string.

The other innovation is the high-mass bridge system; there’s actually a separate through-body bridge assembly – made of bell brass – for each string, which ties into the massive tone plate on the back surface of the bass. It makes for a bit of added weight, to be sure – this bass is no lightweight – but it creates the ability for amazing sustain; and since each string has its own bridge, multiple notes played simultaneously ring out and sustain just as well as single notes do. There’s just a tremendous amount of clarity and focus to the bass. It… just… sings.

Of course, visually the bass is striking – with its no-headstock design and very beautiful bookmatched top. And the headless design makes for some great ergonomic advantages as well. Firstly, the balance on this bass is amazing – where most six strings “neck-dive” because of the weight of all those tuners on the end of the neck, this bass just “hangs” in playing position with no effort. Also, not having a huge headstock makes the bass a lot more compact, which is valuable on the many crowded stages I’ve played on – I never accidentally whacked my singer in the head (though I thought about doing it on purpose more than a few times). And it makes for a smaller case, which is nice.

Clearly, I can talk a lot about this bass and go on forever. The maker is relatively unknown, but I’m a big fan and will hang onto this bass forever!

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Funk Fingers?

These are some of my favorite toys. Originally developed by Tony Levin and his bass tech, based on an idea that Peter Gabriel suggested – I believe the story went something like this: When they were rehearsing or recording one of Gabriel’s tunes, to get a percussive sound, Tony was whacking his bass with a spare drumstick. Peter said, “Why not attach the sticks to your fingers? The result was this:

For a brief time, Tony actually had a bunch of sets made, and sold them on his website. I was lucky enough to grab a few sets for myself when they were there, since he no longer produces them. As a result, he gives his permission to recreate them yourself for personal use – but mandates that you cannot mass produce or sell them for profit (I think he owns a patent for them). I’ve since seen original pairs of the ones he produced sell on eBay for over $100 (which is ridiculous since they should be easy enough to make for yourself.)

I actually got pretty good at using them; I performed with them regularly in live concerts and bar gigs with Second Story – as well as recorded two of the songs for the second album using them (“Dancing on the Hill” and “Abducted”). I hope to soon have some video available of them in action.

But they’re neat, very cool, and they never failed to get a reaction from the crowd when I started smacking my bass with them. And they can provide an ultra-percussive bass sound that just can’t be matched with the thumb alone.

Here’s a clip from the studio (pre-vocals) of “Dancing on the Hill,” which features me playing the Funk Fingers through a distorted amp.

And here’s a sound clip, from a live performance with Second Story

Ahhh… toys.

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The FrankenStrat (part II)

(continued from yesterday’s post)
The Electronics
So, now that I had the beginnings of a cool guitar, I needed to outfit it with some pickups. I knew that a red tortoiseshell pickguard would look super cool against the pale yellow body, so I ordered a loaded pickguard from Carvin. The pickups actually sound really good, with a vintage vibe but not a lot of noise. They’re three single coils, classic Strat-style. However, they also add a special “7-way” switch to allow you to add the neck pickup to any other pickup combination; so, in addition to the typical five-way switching of a standard Strat, you also can flip the switch to get the previously unattainable neck and bridge combination, as well as all three pickups simultaneously.

Another thing trashpicked at GVOX was an old Fishman Strat-style bridge with piezo elements mounted in the saddles. Each of the tiny wires for the piezos had been severed, presumably for testing with pitch-to-midi systems, so I had to carefully re-attach them and wire it up as best I could. Once I did that, I got an active blending preamplifier from Bartolini to blend the piezo-electric elements with the magnetic pickups. I moved the “7-way” switch on the pickguard and installed the blend knob inline with the other two pickup knobs (vol/tone), and drilled tiny holes in the pickguard to allow access to the gain micro-pots for each pickup channel.

So electronically, the FrankenStrat exceeds the capabilities of most other Strats; allowing for 7-way pickup selection, “acoustic-like” piezo pickups in the bridge, an active blending preamp… it’s pretty awesome sounding.

The Final Touches
All that was left were some final touches. I got a custom matching (well, almost) back plate cover made, put Grover locking tuning machines into it, and most recently, got a custom neck plate with a holographic laser-etched “Custom Shop” logo design on it. I sanded most of the finish off the back of the neck and protected it with Boiled Linseed Oil, which is one of my favorite techniques for a really comfortable and fast neck. Finally, I took it to a trusted guitar tech and had him fully set it up for action and intonation.

While I’m not a great guitarist (I’m far better on bass) this guitar is like “going home” for me. It’s a little heavy, thanks to the Squier body, but it balances really well on a strap or on my knee. Perhaps it’s the special time and effort I put into it, but it just feels like “my” guitar and no one else’s. I’ll never get rid of it. If you’ve never dabbled with putting a guitar together with parts, no matter where the source, I highly recommend it. It’s a very rewarding experience!

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