Practice practice · 15 days ago

About 18 months ago I wrote something here about how I was trying to get better at playing guitar, and I was going to try post a video to youtube once a week with a new song snippet as a way of having some discipline. If you do recall that, you also know I didn’t do it (I think I managed one more after that post).

But the reason for not doing it was at least reasonable: I actually started taking lessons, and my teacher makes me practice daily, so the discipline sorted itself out, and saved you, dear reader, from lots of bad cover songs.

Instead you can watch some bad bits of me doing blues style improv from my last daily practice session, warts and all:

Now, I may not be giving Joe Bonamassa cause to question his career choices, but I look at this and am somewhat amazed how far I’ve managed to come in 18 months thanks to David, my guitar teacher. When I wrote that original post back in May I was just trying to copy bits of other songs, and here I am today able to throw down a 12 bar blues backing track and then ad-lib over it, even throwing in a bit of wah pedal, to my heart’s content (albeit in a slightly repetitive and formulaic way :).

Partly this is the direction David and I have been working towards – rather than learning to cover old songs or work towards grades I’ve just been trying to understand the building blocks for playing the blues. What is the grammar and vocabulary that makes up a song. I may not yet be writing more than basic sentences, but despite the fact that I feel occasionally learning a song might be more short term satisfying, it’s when I get time to do a little bit of ad-lib like above that it all pays off. Ask me to play a song and I’m hopeless, but give me a looper pedal and I can entertain myself for an age with things like this.

The closest I get to playing an actual song is things like this, where I’m riffing on the great Jeff Beck Group track Rock My Plimsoul (who turn were riffing off B.B. King’s Rock My Baby):

I’ve still a long way to go, of that I’ve no delusion – the open stages of Cambridge are in no danger of seeing me any time soon. But it’s nice to occasionally reflect that one has at least made some progress, even if I can’t play a tune on demand :)

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Ocean Waves · 36 days ago

I’ve been blogging a bunch about my brother’s band of late – mostly as there’s lot happening right now. After the success of their King Tut’s gig, they’ve just launched a kickstarter to get the song that was one of the starts of the set into a single:

If you like your rock music, go check this out and give them a nudge to help get the single out.

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IKARI at King Tut's · 40 days ago

I’m a very proud brother: my brother Tristan and his friends, known collectively as IKARI played their first gig at the famous King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow, and really knocked it out the park.

Tristan doing what he does by Michael Dales on 500px.com



They played a six song set as part of a four band line up at King Tut’s that evening. They executed their songs flawlessly, they sounded great, and the audience packed (by far the biggest audience of the evening). They even had the audience singing along loud to their single Ghosts and the as yet unreleased Ocean Waves.

A wee bit of metal by Michael Dales on 500px.com



I was also a wee bit proud for another reason: Tristan used the guitar I built for him on stage. That guitar, which was a labour of love for the better part of a year, has featured both in the single IKARI recorded and now their live set: I feel truly honoured that this thing I’ve made has been a part of IKARI’s story. In software we have the concept of shipping our products: I’d say this guitar has definitely shipped :)

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What have we wrought with updates? · 40 days ago

My computer usage has changed quite a bit over the last few years. Outside of work hours I now mostly use my iPad for casual computering, such as browsing, email, social media and so forth. My MacBook is reserved for heavier lifting, like bulk photography editing with Lightroom or Garageband loop creation.

This means, I now only open it up once or twice a week, or if I’ve been away on a trip, even less frequently. And coming back to it even after a couple of days is a fairly tedious and horrible experience.

And it’s all the fault of people like me (at least former me when I worked on apps).

It goes like this: I open up my computer, and immediately my password manager will need an update. Perhaps also my text editor. Or perhaps Little Snitch. I have to wade through a series of dialogs as usually at least one or two bits of software will be shouting “forget that task you wanted to do, I AM SO GREAT I HAVE NEW THINGS”, when all I want to do is some quick task. Oh, what’s that media editor app that’s cloud based, you’ve forgotten my login so I have to dig out my password again from my password manager (assuming it’s finished its update).

And so on and so forth. Mostly from apps that care about their user interface a lot, which is why I bought them in the first place.

Being a casual computer user is a fairly horrible user experience it turns out.

When I used this computer multiple times a day this didn’t bother me. Indeed, the periodic update was new and exciting. As indeed I felt when writing applications for people; I couldn’t wait to tell them about the awesome new things I’d just added for them! As developers our products are our things of which we’re rightly proud, and we’re eager to share. But we forget that our users aren’t like us a lot of the time. Oh, our echo chamber in twitter is just like us and reinforces the idea that we should be issuing an update every week or so. But outside of our social media bubble, things are more annoying.

It is made worse because I know things can be better. iOS updates my apps constantly without interrupting me. I just pick the device up and get on with my tasks. It’s painless and you forget it’s even happening unless you happen to review the updates list in the app store for some reason.

The alternative of not doing updates is terrible – mostly wearing my security hat for this. You really should keep your software up to date people.

But desktop app developers really do need to learn that your app isn’t actually the centre of your users world. Do update your app frequently, but give the user the option to just have them apply silently at some safe point. I know that’s hard, but solving hard problems is why your users give you money to make great products.

The obvious real time killer is when you turn on your computer and so many apps do this you spend half an hour writing a blog post about why they annoy you. What was it I was just about to do?

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IKARI Ghosts · 66 days ago

Super proud of my brother and his pals who together have formed the band IKARI, who have their debut single launch today, Ghosts.

You can snag it on iTunes and Spotify etc. They’ve done a superb job, a great professional production.

I’m also just a wee bit proud too that the guitar my brother is playing on the single and in the video is the one that I built for him: it’s amazing to have built something that enabled him in some small part to create this single.

If the single takes your fancy then IKARI are playing at King Tut’s in Glasgow on August 11th, go to their site to get tickets!

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Adventuring again · 68 days ago

When I switched from my old Buell Ulysses adventure bike to the Brammo electric sports bike, the idea was that we’d hire a bigger bike occasionally for going longer trips (the Buell having seen us round both Wales and Scotland, not to say countless runs around the Norfolk coast). But in practice we didn’t do that, and we didn’t just miss the epic trips, the Brammo, as fun as it is, doesn’t even allow us midrange trips without logs of logistics around charging. So in the end we only ever were going out around the local countryside on the Brammo.

Thus, somewhat accidentally, we’ve now ended up with a new KTM Superadventure S 1290 adventure bike, so that Laura and I can go touring and exploring again.

KTM SuperAdventure parked in the Norfolk rain

Similar to the Buell, the KTM stands out in having some amazing engineering aspects to it. The dash is just a single TFT display, similar to an iPad mini in size, that lets you control everything you need. It has switchable engine and suspension dampening modes, that let me instantly move between touring, sports, town, and off-road optimised configuration. This may sound superfluous, but in the rain being able to drop the power and smooth the throttle is wonderful on a bike that can also do the fully loaded two up touring without breaking a sweat. I can tell it whether I have a pillion and/or luggage and it’ll similarly adjust.

Having done a weekend tour around Norfolk to complete the run-in interval before the first service, we can happily attest it makes a great touring bike. The functional but not pretty aluminium boxes are particularly nice. Most side boxes are side loading, whereas these are top loading, which is much more convenient, and you can fit a helmet in two of the three boxes. We also have fitted bags for the two side boxes which makes rocking up to your day’s destination and unloading a breeze.

I can also attest, despite being somewhat large as bikes go, it does off road, and I took the heaviest and most expensive bike I’ve ever owned for my first go at green lane riding:

Me taking the KTM down some of the green lanes cutting between Cambridgeshire fields.

My friend Wil from work is an experienced green lane rider, often commuting into work along these lanes in his BMW 1200GSA which he makes look like a wee 125 given how effortlessly he flicks it around, and he took me along his usual route so I could try the KTM in its other natural habitat. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of effort – standing up to ride offroad is not something I’m practiced at, and I suspect my technique is all off. But it was great, and the bike was more than happy despite its size and weight – though I think I’ll save up for some crash bars before I do another such excursion :) But it did enjoy it, and have signed up to be a member of the Trail Rider Fellowship that promotes sensible and sustainable green lane usage by motorcyclists.

Another example of the KTM forging down a green lane.

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Custom Tele Build #2, or how to pick up something new and not get overwhelmed · 126 days ago

I put together a short video about my second guitar build (for those keeping count, I’m currently building 3 and 4). This guitar was a build for my brother, who currently is playing metalcore band Ikari, and wanted something that was atypically metal, so I made him a tele that sounds like something more grungy.

This guitar really took way longer than I expected, and was way more challenging that I had anticipated. Partly this is due to work getting in the way, but partly because I unintentionally broke my own rule of keeping things simple and only incrementally stepping out if my comfort zone. This is basically the rule that should prevent me trying to do too much and being overwhelmed in a project: each time (in this case, each guitar) stick with what you know but change just one thing to something new that you don’t know how to do.

With the first guitar, I mostly took existing bits and tweaked them to build a guitar that is to my tastes. So whilst I did have to do some woodwork, it was nothing too scary, and mostly it was within my comfort zone. And that worked: I still play that guitar most every day. For the second one I thought I’d try to increment in two ways (as a guitar has two major parts, why not do a small step on both?): I made the body from scratch, and I did the fretwork on the neck. Turns out, both of these were quite bigger challenges than I’d anticipated, so I should, in retrospect, have only done one. As such the project dragged on and on and risked never getting finished as it became more of a burden than a thing of fun.

But thankfully my second rule of that I apply to this sort of thing saved the project: I had a customer. Had I been making this guitar for just me, then I’d probably have just stalled and it would have languished. But to try and make sure I had a focus for the build, I started out by deciding I’d make one for my brother (who is a totally awesome guitarist), and I’d make it to his requirements. This meant that when the project seemed not fun, I still had a reason to drag myself into makespace and take yet another run at those darned annoying frets.

The guitar was originally meant to be finished for last christmas, and it’s only now in late May that I’m finally handing it over to my brother. I still am not happy with the guitar: I can see all the things I’d do differently, but there comes a time when you have to just ship it, take those lessons, and move on. I have impossibly high standards of what I’d like to achieve, but the only way to get there is keep trying, rather than just endlessly refining on thing. Making this video was actually quite cathartic; for the first time I actually just enjoyed playing it in the endless takes that didn’t make the video. Would I do things differently if I was building this guitar again? Of course. But actually, making the video enabled me to see actually I’d made something pretty cool, that if you asked me 12 and a bit months ago could I build, I’d have struggled to believe you.

Which is a good point to reflect: I set out to build my first guitar based on watching too many youtube videos on luthiers about 12 months ago, having not done any woodwork for 25 years. by having some simple rules in place to try and make sure the project didn’t stall, I’ve actually built two guitars, and I’m in the process of building two more. When people look at my guitars they mostly look at them and thing, “wow, I could never do that”, which is what I’d‘ve thought 13 months ago. I now mostly preach these two rules of personal project management to people: you can do it, you just need to set yourself up for success correctly by limiting scope and having a delivery target to hold yourself to to get through the bad times.

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Welcome to Nerdville · 211 days ago

As part of my adventures in amateur luthiery, part of understanding what to build is researching what’s gone before, so I’ve been brushing up on my knowledge of vintage guitars. Less that I want a vintage guitar (although I’d not say no to a Tele from my birth year, if you happen to have a 76 spare), more I want to see what’s gone before to inspire me on what to build next.

I find it somewhat fascinating how little guitar design has evolved in the last half century; the popular guitars of today are now knocking on 70 years old now: the Fender Telecaster was designed in 1949, the Gibson Les Paul, came out in 1952, and the Fender Stratocaster in 1954. But then I guess classical string instrument design hasn’t changed much either in the last few hundred years, at least in terms of superficials.

Anyway, as part of that I’ve amassed a set of links I thought I’d share incase anyone else was interested in having a look at guitar history.

Book-wise, I can recommend The History of the American Guitar by Tony Bacon, and for my particular go-to guitar Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster, also by Mr Bacon. Neither book is vastly deep, but both give you a good overview over how things have evolved over the last 100 years in terms of guitars, both in terms of sound and use, but also the trends in both taste and business that have driven them.

As ever, YouTube is a treasure trove of things. For a quick look at a lot of vintage guitars, then I can highly recommend the Guitar of the Day playlist from Norman’s Rare Guitars. Five days a week they produce a five minute video showcasing another rare guitar they have in stock, give you a little history, and play it through a clean amp so you can hear it too (“all the EQs at noon, just a little reverb…”).

For a longer dive into the world of a vintage guitar addict, this programme about the buying habits of blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa is well worth a watch:

A hat tip to Andy Field for pointing me at that video. If you actually play too, then I also enjoyed this interview with Bonamassa on how he gets his tone to be like that of the 60s blues starts like Cream, Jeff Beck, etc.

Finally, if you like fiddling with guitars, I can also recommend the Mod Garage column in Premier Guitar; they have loads of columns about how wiring evolved for old Teles etc., and some variations to make them suitable for modern ears.

If you have any recommendations for other sources, please let me know!

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Watching the planet · 277 days ago

I forget what depressing bit of news made me aware about how little I know about the global planet patterns beyond the obvious ones like the gulf stream, but it gave me an idea to try and find a way to make me more aware of the planet’s ebb and flow.

A little looking around the Internet later, I found this wonderful site, which gives an up to date animation of various metrics for the planet around the sea, air, particulates, and pollutants, which is simply called earth.

A picture of the earth website showing the wind patterns

Armed with this our wall mounted monitor in the kitchen now just slowly cycles through various of these maps, showing us the evolving global state of things like precipitation, ocean currents and wave heights, CO2 emissions, and dust particulates. Hopefully over time I’ll get a better understanding of how the planet behaves.

If you want to see why China’s efforts to green its economy are important, you can have a quick look at these maps of sulphur dioxide emissions and carbon monoxide emissions.

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Hideaway · 282 days ago

I was posting more regular guitar videos earlier in the year as I tried to improve, but then I started taking actual guitar lessons, so I stopped for two reasons: I had a motivator to practice (which was why I was doing them originally), and because for a while I became a much worse guitarist as my teacher tried to undo my bad habits and build me back up.

But, after four months or so of lessons, I’m really pleased with how I’m progressing, so I thought I’d share this little take on the intro to Hideaway, as originally performed by John Mayal and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Claptop (They were covering Freddie King, but it’s the Claptop version I’m covering here):

It’s only really the first 12 bars I’ve learned, but I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made over the last third of a year, particularly (as a friend already commented to me) my picking technique, which has come a long way.

Not having any bandmates, I’ve had to make do with filling in for them myself when practicing, and so I’ve gone the way of using a combination of computer generated drums and a looper pedal. The looper pedal just lets me record bits and play over them, probably best demonstrated by KT Tunstall when she does Black Horse and the Cherry Tree live, which I remember being amazed by when I first saw, and still a great performance today. The drums come from GarageBand on the Mac, which has a bunch of algorithmic drummers that can create backing drums for a wide range of play styles and beats. Put the drums together with a looper, you have a nice backing track.

The main joy though of learning guitar has been learning to go off the beaten track. I’m starting to learn not just to play songs, but why songs are the way they are: understanding the scales that make up a solo and the patterns than make up a blues rhythm, etc. Allowing me not to just try play songs I love, but just mess around and explore. It definitely is a liberating experience to use the looper to just lay down a rhythm and noodle over it for a while and see where your playing can take you.

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