NAMM 2019: Technology Is King, But Bonafide Talent Rules

This past January, the 39th NAMM, (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show was held in Anaheim, CA, drawing the Who’s Who of the music world. never misses a NAMM, making the pilgrimage to see the latest in musical equipment, technology and innovation. More and more though, advances in electronics, computers, apps and app-driven devices, are far surpassing the new innovations and technologies in traditional musical instruments like guitars, amps, keyboards and drums.

The exhibiting equipment manufacturers will gladly tell you, in finite detail, why their products are technologically superior, which would turn this article into one endless product review. So to get the real feel from the show floor, BAM sought out professional musicians and asked the question, “What has innovation and technology meant to your career?” The replies ranged from ten to hundreds of words, with a couple of the artists apologizing for getting too nerdy. No apology needed was our response, so here we go with a few thoughts from some very talented people we have spoken with recently.

Peter White – Jazz Guitarist, Composer, Vocalist

As a member of Al Stewart’s band for twenty years, British expatriate White co-wrote several of Stewart’s hits, including the Top Ten “Time Passages.” After helping to chart Basia’s debut album, “Time and Tide”, White went solo in 1990 and is a staple on Smooth Jazz radio. He can now be found performing throughout the world, often with the Guitars and Saxes Tour, with his friends Dave Koz, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum, Mindy Abair and many more famous jazz musicians.

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

When I started in 1975 the only way to record your own music was to go into a studio and pay a lot of money. The first recording studio I was ever in was Abbey Road with Al Stewart and it was very overwhelming. Now I record and edit everything at home on the computer, and can send an MP3 to someone on another continent and they can record a part, send it back and you never have to meet. On my “Here We Go” album I did this exact thing in a duet with David Sanborn where he recorded his part, sent it to me and I adapted my part to keep up with him. As far as guitars when recording, for me at least, nothing much has changed in the past forty years. I still sit down with an acoustic guitar and a microphone. As far as performing, I now have LED lights in the neck of my guitar so I can see the frets when playing in the dark. This is something you could not have done ten years ago.

Doyle Dykes – Country Fingerstyle Guitarist, Composer, Vocalist

Nashville resident Doyle Dykes is well-known as one of the premier Country fingerstyle guitarists. Having performed with the likes of Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Duane Eddy, Peter Frampton, John Fogerty, Vince Gill and an ongoing list of country musicians, Dykes has earned the respect of his contemporaries with descriptions such as “amazing”, “clever” and “magnificent.”

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

Mostly the playability and accuracy of guitars, specifically the precision of the necks and frets. I also find the pick-up companies know what has always sounded good and know to leave that alone. They then add-in technology to make the pick-ups get sounds that are new, so it ends-up being the best of both worlds.

Lee Oskar – Harmonica player, Composer

Virtuoso harmonica player Lee Oskar, along with Eric Burden, created the distinct sound of the rock-funk-soul-fusion group War with such songs as “Low Rider”, Why Can’t We Just Be Friends” and “Spill The Wine.” Oskar’s successful solo career includes designing and manufacturing his own line of harmonicas and teaching at harmonica seminars worldwide.

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

Well, I have to say in the short bit of life I have lived so far, technology has changed the types of communications and materials, but to me, music is always going to be music. For recording we used a razor blade to edit tape and now all that is done digitally. The important thing about technology is how it is applied. Technology can be easy to use but at the end of the day music has to have magic. If you use technology and the music doesn’t have magic, then you don’t have anything.

Kenny Aronoff – Drummer

Among drumming legends, Kenny Aronoff is near the top with credits on more that 30 Grammy-nominated recordings. The musicians Aronoff has played or recorded with is too lengthy to list but includes John Mellencamp, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Segar, Ray Charles, Vince Gill, Joe Cocker, B.B. King and Mick Jagger.

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

I am known as the acoustic guy, but in ’86 when with Mellencamp I used a sampling unit to bring the sounds from the record to enhance my acoustic drumming. It was a rough sound in the early days but that was the beginning of me using technology. Now, I always use a drum machine, especially when I do the Kennedy Center Honors, MusicCares or the Grammys where I am hired to be the drummer for thirty different artists. I tour now with John Fogerty and use a sixteen track mixer, same with when I went out with Styx and Goo Goo Dolls, so I have my own monitor mix. This is very important because the sound mixer is following the most important guy on stage, usually the singer. So with my tech guy I can control all my own mixes and sounds and not rely on someone else. Technology is a big part of my life.

Adrian Legg – Acoustic Guitarist, Composer

English-born Adrian Legg is a world renowned fingerstyle guitarist that plays hybrid/acoustic guitars of his own design. Legg received acknowledgement as the “Best Acoustic Guitar Player” four years running by the readers of Guitar Player Magazine, and is an accomplished electrical technician working with such companies as Marshall Amps, Ovation and Takamine Guitars. Legg now solo tours the world but also is known for being part of the G3 Tour with Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai.

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

The musical instrument industry, as described by the Financial Times twenty-nine years ago, had a very weak technical base and was subject entirely to fashion. The industry had very little innovation and was falling behind the musician’s talent. So I changed the guitar and my approach. I don’t differentiate between acoustic and electric because in reality, acoustic guitars were always electric when played through an amp. With the technology in pick-ups that are around today, you can get a combination of the harmonic content of an acoustic and the flexibility of an electric. The technology to build a guitar has not changed over time, only the skills have gotten better. As far as recording in a studio, I hate it, I have as little to do with it as possible, it is completely artificial. Now I do all my recording at home, but remember that the whole point of music is to play to and with people.

Marcus Eaton- Progressive Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter

Two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby says, Marcus is “one of the best young singer-songwriters in America – maybe even the world.” Marcus has toured with Crosby, and co-wrote songs and played on Crosby’s Croz album. Having opened for Bob Dylan and Dave Matthews, and performed extensively in Europe, Marcus has honed his composing and performing that can be heard on his soon-to-be-released seventh album.

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

Every aspect of music has been affected by technology. For me, I always thought how cool it would be to record something instantly and then play over the top of it. Then a few years later that technology emerged and I have been looping since looping was available in about 2001. I use the Pigtronix Infinity Looper. This gives me the ability to make a performance sound bigger than it is, or to even accompany yourself, to enhance the song with a rhythm track. It is really an amazing thing to be able to do. So that is one technology I appreciate, but secondly, all of our recordings are done at home now. This has been a revolution for me, because I had really long periods between my albums due to them being self-financed. That whole thing now is out the window. I can now sit in my bedroom and record guitar parts, trade tracks with people online, even people overseas. This has revolutionized how music is made and how people can collaborate. That technology has influenced the music industry on the whole as it is available to everyone. Because everyone has a laptop, everyone can make an album.

Felix Cavaleire – Keyboards, Composer, Vocalist

Keyboardist Felix Cavaleire, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Songwriter Hall Of Fame and the Grammy Hall Of Fame, came onto the scene in 1965 as the founder of the Young Rascals, later simplified to The Rascals. With four #1 hits, ten Top 20 singles and six Top 20 albums, Cavaleire is among the most recognized and accomplished artists to come from the earliest days of Rock & Roll.

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

Being a keyboard player I was very fortunate that the people who first started creating synthesizers approached me, way back a hundred years ago. So, I got started with innovation and technology because when you play piano which I started with, and are up against guitar players, you don’t stand a chance. The technology of organs and synthesizers were the first thing that came along to help us project our sound, then the innovation helped us create new sonic sounds. I love it. Now take us to today where I can get on a computer and with my fingers sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I love it. So what it has done is facilitated my and every one else’s ideas to come to life instantly. That is what I really enjoy about the modern technology.

Stevie Salas – Rock Guitarist, Composer, Vocalist

American “nitro fueled” rock guitarist Stevie Salas has worked with some of the greats. Touring and session work with the likes of Mick Jagger, George Clinton, Sass Jordan, Justin Timberlake, Buddy Miles and Rod Stewart were fit in with finding time to appear on Saturday Night Live, be the musical director on American Idol, receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native American Music Awards through his Apache heritage, and co-author his autobiography, “When We Were The Boys: Coming Of Age On Rod Stewart’s Out Of Order Tour.”

BAM: What has innovation and technology meant to your career?

It’s a double-edged sword. I have been in the music business my whole life and technology has enhanced some things but also destroyed some things, so the music wasn’t any better. I think you have to search for ways to not take music away from the roots, or the foundation, of something that was already fantastic. Is the CD sound quality better than vinyl? Is digital better than analog? I find I want to go back to the vinyl recording more because it gives me an emotional connection that I do not get with a digital recording. Take my custom line of guitars from Framus. We did a Vintage Modern concept where we took what was amazing about a classic ‘50’s Les Paul and found ways to innovate it with the ways we cut the woods to lighten the guitar. My sound comes from the thick and meaty wood part of the guitar, but then on the edges where you don’t really need it, we leaned it out. It becomes like the difference of looking at a 1970s Ferrari to those of today. The 1970s Ferrari was more aerodynamic, flowing like water, so in those ways innovation and technology can be really sexy.

The common thread from these musicians, and many others we spoke with, was the music is more important than the technology. The innovation and technology have made communicating faster and easier, and computers and apps have in some ways evened-out the industry when it comes to recording and distributing music. But talent rules.

The key thing when attending NAMM is to enjoy the experience and the people. As Felix Cavaleire said so succinctly – “I love it!”