August 1, 2004

Jewel’s Band in a Box

“When I’m writing or playing solo acoustic, the guitar is my band, and how I use it is critically important to getting my songs across,” says million-selling contempo-folkie Jewel, who underscores her impassioned melodies with her signature Taylor JKSM Grand Auditorium. “This will sound pretty weird, but I’m the only person who can play guitar for myself. The way I attack the guitar matches the way I attack my syllables, and my muted, strummy/fingerpick technique is all about supporting the notes I’m singing. Everything I play is designed to complement or add a counterpoint line to whatever I’m doing melodically—which means I also slow down and speed up a lot when I’m playing.”

Jewel’s idiosyncratic approach to the guitar—which also incorporates more than 30 different tunings—is critical to her songwriting, but she also allows less-calculated devices such as innocence and surprise to guide her process. “I don’t know if my writing is driven by inspiration or ignorance,” she remarks. “I’m not an educated guitar player. I don’t know what chords or scales I’m playing, but that frees me to approach my songs from a purely creative standpoint where the so-called rules don’t apply. For example, I’ve been messing around with tunings since I taught myself the guitar, but there’s no ‘official’ process. I’ll start with an open chord that’s kind of dissonant, and then I’ll goof around with the tuning pegs until I stumble across an open strum I like. I just try to find some music.”

While Jewel—who performs solo and with a band on her latest DVD release, Live at Humphrey’s by the Bay [Eagle Vision]—will try almost anything to bring the themes of her songs into clear focus, she won’t enhance a particular mood with effects. Everything she writes and plays is from heart to fingers to strings. “I’m not a fan of signal processing, because I don’t like it when cleverness takes away from sincerity or emotion,” she says. “What I do is really honest and kind of gut wrenching, and effects just get in the way.”

—Michael Molenda

The Bears’ Collective Prowl

Democracy and spontaneity drive the Bears’ adventurous pop approach. Featuring guitarists Adrian Belew and Rob Fetters, drummer Chris Arduser, and bassist Bob Nyswonger, the Cincinnati-based act just released the electrifying Live at Club Cafe DVD [available exclusively at], and is in the midst of working on a new CD. With all four members involved in thriving solo careers—
and Belew doing double-duty in King Crimson—time is of the essence when it comes to crafting tunes for the band.

“Everyone comes to my home studio for extended weekends, and we really use the idea of synergy,” explains Belew. “We’ll listen to each others’ demos, or pass the guitar around and play songs to one another. We quickly choose songs, work them up, and usually record them right on the spot. This lets us capture a high level of excitement.”

During the initial parsing phase, songs with breathing room are a lot more likely to get the nod. “Sometimes, it’s better to present a song bare bones, with just acoustic guitar or piano and voice,” says Fetters. “I think it backfires when someone has over-recorded their idea. Sometimes, our reaction is, ‘It’s perfect. You can put that on your solo record.’ We’re looking for ideas that grab our imagination and make us say ‘Yeah, we can take this one and move ahead with it as a group.’”

“That’s what makes it a successful band,” confirms Belew. “You let other people take the germ of an idea you have and filter it through their own way of doing things. We add our own interpretations, and, inevitably, it comes out sounding like the Bears.”

Maintaining a positive attitude is also key. “If you don’t watch it, you can be really toxic to someone else’s idea,” says Fetters. “For instance, I might be in a cynical frame of mind and hear an innocent love song. My reaction when I’m having a bad day could really put the kibosh on something that’s very beautiful and powerful. So, restraint of pen and tongue can be a good thing.”

Even for these seasoned pros, writer’s block occasionally rears its ugly head. But a couple of tried-and-true methods usually provide relief. “One thing that always works is using a different tuning,” says Fetters. “Suddenly, everything you know how to play is thrown out the window. Things either don’t sound right or they sound really right. Also, picking up an instrument I’m an idiot on—like a keyboard—can help. I get a lot of ideas messing around on other instruments and then converting them to guitar.”

—Anil Prasad,  

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