It’s not often that I break out of my comfort zone with guitar pedals. In fact, the only pedals I use right now, a Super Badass distortion pedal and a tuning pedal, were gifted to me by the lead guitarist in my band. Occasionally I’ll break out the stomp box that goes with my Fender Mustang amp, but when I can’t get the levels right, I get frustrated and give up.
Patience wasn’t a virtue in May 2017, either, when I heard about the magic of looper pedals and decided I needed to have one. After watching a sales guy demo a Ditto Looper pedal at the local music shop, I was sold. $250 later, it was mine.
But when I attempted to plug it into my amp and record a loop at home, things didn’t work. I watched a dozen YouTube tutorials, but I still couldn’t figure out how to start loops and stop them, let alone smoothly transition into a loop so I could solo over it. And so I put it back in a box and into my closet, where it stayed for a long, long time.
So what happened this past week that caused me to finally break out this baby, four years later? I’m not really sure. But I was by myself, listening to Samantha Fish playing “Bulletproof” and launch into a solo when I decided to plug in my Gibson SG. I went into a closet to grab a pic and there it was, right in front of me.
And I unboxed it.
Did I learn something a few years ago that gave me bravery? Or did the 3-month period of quarantine in Spring 2020 — when I forced myself to learn how to use a Scarlett 2i2 interface, Fender Event Passport PA, and other equipment — somehow embolden me with a new skillset and an open mind?
I’m not really sure. But I plugged in my 9V battery adapter, ran cables between the SG, pedal, and my Vox V05 mini amp, and bam! It worked. I just knew which buttons to press.
I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She had access to Kansas all along — she just needed the right encouragement and the right time to tap into it.
Happy jamming! And if you want to play solos, buy one of these gems.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.
It’s not every day you stumble upon a small-town, independent guitar store on a Main Street in America — especially these days, with so many online music outlets. But on Saturday, that’s exactly what happened, when my family decided to take a stroll through the picturesque town of Oneonta, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Cooperstown, N.Y., and stumbled upon Mountain Jam Guitars.
With no specific agenda except to window shop, we came upon the guitar hub almost by accident. I almost missed the nondescript silver sign, that marked the entrance to a guitar player’s candy store — stringed instruments of all shapes, sizes, and models, from the Gretsch G9201 Honeydipper Metal Resonators to cream-colored Fender Strats. Psychedelic pedals and ukuleles in rainbow hues filled out the space beautifully.
John, the owner and a self-proclaimed Deadhead, encouraged me to plug into a 30-watt Orange tube amp and test out one of his favorites: the D’Angelico Premier Series Grateful Dead Limited-Edition 50th Anniversary Semi-Hollow Electric Guitar in satin walnut, featuring Seymour Duncan humbuckers and artwork inspired by the Grateful Dead’s epic record American Beauty (the album that features beloved tracks “Sugar Magnolia” and “Ripple,” among others).
The tone was so beautiful that I forgot to check my tuning before launching into one of my originals, followed by an attempt at “Uncle John’s Band,” which I’d memorized all the lyrics to, but not the music.
My kids were getting antsy to go to the gaming store for Pokemon cards and trinkets, otherwise I would have stayed longer. But I bought a couple of packs of guitar pics and strings for the road.
I hope that Deadheads, guitar players and would-be musicians frequent these stores the next time they’re ready to invest in a new instrument, amp, or pedal. While I love online outlets like Sweetwater as much as anyone else, nothing can replicate the experience of plugging in and playing, soaking in the aura of a music shop, and engaging in a shopping experience that feels personalized and reflects the passion of its owner.
The the visit to Mountain Jam Guitars(145 Main Street, Oneonta, N.Y., 13820) made my trip to Oneonta, N.Y., a memorable one, and restored my faith in the small businesses that make small-town America so charming.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.
Women make up at least 50 percent of new guitar buyers, and are some of the most powerful strummers and soloists in bands all over the world. As a result, we’re seeing an influx of signature guitars designed by our favorite female guitarists in rock and other genres.
Here are five new ones unveiled in 2020 and 2021.
Orianthi Gibson SJ-200 Custom
Making its debut this May, rock guitar goddess Orianthi’s jaw-dropping stunner of an axe is #1 on my wish list. Features include a special neck modeled after a Gibson ES 345, a redesigned pickguard with Lotus Flowers (her name means “flower” in Greek, she says), as well as mother-of-pearl dot inlays in the neck. In this video, she calls it an “acoustic guitar for lead guitar players.” I call it a dream.
H.E.R. Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar Chrome Glow
On September 20, Fender unveiled the brand’s first-ever signature guitar by a black artist, and it’s pretty spectacular — the guitar features a mid-‘60s “C” shape maple neck, Vintage Noiseless™ pickups and an anodized aluminum pick guard.
We’ve been obsessed with Nita Strauss’ JIVA for some time — it’s light as a feather, perfect for metal solos, and super-durable. The JIVAJR sports many of the same features as the original (and all of the beauty) but at a much more affordable price point. The new model features a “quilted maple top with 3-ply binding on a meranti body bolted to a Wizard III maple neck with a 24-fret ebony fingerboard,” which features those cool ‘Beaten Path’ EKG-style inlays and luminescent side dot markers.
Yvette Youngis Ibanez’s second-ever female signature artist, which is fitting, since the Covet guitarist is a finger-tapping, musical sensation. The YY10 Signature Electric Guitar in Slime Green Sparkle — inspired by one of Young’s custom Ibanez Talmans — features a one-piece maple neck and maple fretboard, alder body and Seymour Duncan Five-Two neck pickups.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.
Do you remember the last rock-and-roll show where you were completely gripped by the intensity — the noise, the energy, and the catharsis — of the moment? The best bands deliver that experience consistently — but few deliver it with the same intimacy as NYC’s Thrilldriver.
Escape the Holiday Doldrums: Thrilldriver delivers your metal fix this Sunday (12/15/19) at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall, 8 p.m.
I’ll never forget my first Thrilldriver show at a packed dive bar in the Lower East Side, shortly after the band formed in 2015. The moment the five-piece launched into “Vicious” — a roaring arena-rock-style anthem loaded with Motley-Crue guitar riffs, thunderous rhythms, and Zoe “Pypes” Friedman’s soaring vocals — I was transported.
It was all grit and goodness, hair metal and reckless fury anchored down by a powerful rhythm section. And as I watched Zoe wield her goddess power like a pro, one thing became absolutely clear: I wanted more.
This weekend, Thrilldriver (whose members also include guitarists Tony Calabro and Michelangelo “Moxxxie” Quirinale, plus bassist Jamie “Fingerz” Garamella) returns to the spotlight for an intimate show in NYC at the second stage of the red-velvet-draped Rockwood Music Hall (Sunday, 8 p.m.). We caught up with Zoe and Michelangelo earlier this week to find out what’s in store.
Rockmommy: You’re based in New York. A city where musicians are disciplined but prone to distraction. How did you guys come together?
Michelangelo Moxxxie: Our guitarist/songwriter/producer Tony approached me about starting a hair metal band. We had known each other from teaching at New York City Guitar School. We both love all things rock and metal, so it seemed like a fun idea! While the initial concept was more tongue in cheek, once we got Zoe on board, it turned into a full-fledged band!
While each of us has our own influences, I think we all see Thrilldriver as a band that represents what we all love about great rock acts: Searing guitar playing, powerhouse vocals, and most importantly, great songs!
Zoe Pypes: I’d only ever performed in cover bands and (mostly) rock musicals, and while I fantasized about being a part of an original project, I had never written a song in my life and didn’t think it was something I could do. My initial audition was just for [guitarist] Tony, who had already written “Madeline.” I sang it for him in a tiny room at the Queens Guitar School. For the second stage I was asked to write lyrics and a vocal line over a demo and come sing it w/the full band. I was absolutely petrified, but my first stab at songwriting/co-writing, “Vicious,” has been a staple ever since! This band completely hijacked and rerouted my life away from theatre, but I always bring that world’s high stakes, drama and urgency to our songwriting and performance.
Rockmommy: Who are your favorite live performers and why?
MM: Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Ozzy (with any of his great guitar players), Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses. All these classic bands bring a certain “swagger” and larger than life persona to the stage. I also love super expressive guitar players such as Hendrix, Dave Gilmour, and Steve Lukather (Toto). Any type of sweet solo or riff will always pull me in haha.
ZP: This may mortify my bandmates, but I have three photographs of Steven Tyler on the wall at my piano where I warm up every day. He’s got this wild, frenetic energy I adore, and he doesn’t give a fuck. Not only is he still running around like a maniac, but he DELIVERS vocally to this day. If I could be Ursula the Sea Witch and steal anyone’s voice it would be Steven Tyler, Jack Black, or Dio’s.
There are also a few local artists that consistently inspire me with their live performances. Haley Bowery of The Manimals fills out her shows with drama, ritual, and community, which I really appreciate — each of her shows feels like a completely unique, cathartic experience. And the ladies of Mother Feather. They commit 100 percent to every second of every show, with so much attention to detail — using every inch of their bodies to communicate with their audiences, and using their platform to elevate and inspire their audiences.
Rockmommy: Can you describe the experience of playing music together — and/or the experience you hope to impart onto those who go to your live shows?
MM: I feel like we have such a great chemistry in this band, that our live performances sometimes feel nearly effortless (despite having to play some hard riffs and solos). Everyone goes out there and gives it 110% every show, so it’s easy to get pumped up every single time.
I hope that any of our audience members walk away feeling like they saw a true, raw, and powerful Rock n Roll show, played and sung by dedicated musicians who love to rock!
ZP: Currently a lot of my experience is wielding and harnessing energy. These songs and riffs amp me up so much and I love using my body in performance, but a lot of the vocal lines are challenging — sometimes I have to surrender to stillness and technique and focus in.
Something I think what separates us from a lot of bands and that I love is how much fun we’re having up there. When I’m busting my ass and one of the guys bangs out some insane solo it feels like a party i can’t believe I’ve been invited to.
My goal for the future is to focus more on the audience experience and what I want them to feel. I’ve been incredibly selfish so far and have just been hoping something sticks. Something for the next decade!
Rockmommy: The Sacha EP is brilliant — and features several of my favorite live Thrilldriver songs. What is the songwriting process like with you guys?
MM: Tony (Calabro) seems to the one the brings full-fleshed songs to the group (this was especially the case with the EP). I like to bring riffs and ideas that we can work on arranging into a full song. Zoe and Tony will work on the lyrics, and a few songs on our upcoming album are Zoe originals!
ZP: To this day, every time I introduce something to the group I’m nervous. Especially those on this upcoming record that I wrote from scratch. Tony came over to my apartment and I literally had to take a shot of whiskey at, like, noon to show even just him what I was working on. But Tony has this incredible ability to sift through all of our ideas and bring them together into a banger. A bridge for me here, a verse for Moxxxie there. But it is really a mix. Lyrically, most of the songs about love and rock n roll come from Tony. The songs about sex, drugs, fantasy, and people that suck come from me. Tony’s lyrics are always sincere and poetic and I tend to be more sarcastic and challenging.
Rockmommy: What kind of gear do you like and why?
MM: I like to use hot-rodded Fender Strats and Marshalls amps. No matter how polished and smooth the tone, the Fender Strat has a certain gritty sound that I love for all styles of playing, but especially rock n roll! I’ll usually throw in some kind of hot humbucker(s). In the case of my main Thrilldriver Strat, it’s a Suhr Aldrich. Also some of my favorite players (Hendrix, Gilmour, Clapton) used Strats.
The same goes for Marshalls. As a kid, I always lusted after the giant Marshalls stacks I saw in guitar magazines! So many of my favorite players used Marshalls, that I just always associated them with the sound of rock guitar! While I’m constantly trying other amps, there’s just this certain “Marshall roar” that I can’t seem to get away from. Plug into a cranked 100-watt head, strum a big fat open chord, and you’ll see what I mean haha.
For effects I use a Line 6 HX Effects. For years I was anti-digital and multifx, but they’ve come so far that I’d A/B’d the Line 6 unit with my favorite pedals, and couldn’t tell the difference! I also like the ability to save different settings and change around effects whenever I want.
Picks are Dunlop Ultex Sharps 1.14mm, and strings are D’Addario EXL110.
ZP: I couldn’t live without my JH Audio custom iems. They let the rest of the guys crank it up to 11 and I can still hear myself and do what I gotta do.
Rockmommy: You’ve been together for a few years. Has your music evolved or changed a bit with the second record?
MM: I feel like the EP is very “hair metal” in the best of ways haha. Now we’re more confident in our sound and identity, so I think that leads to branching out in terms of songwriting and guitar parts. Our second album exhibited a wider range of sounds, and I think our upcoming album is our biggest, most creative one yet!
ZP: I second that. God, I can’t wait to get this album out there. One, I feel like I’ve finally found my lyric “voice,” and the vocals in general have more style and point-of-view. And two, we’re starting to incorporate synth and more layers of production. To me, this album has more of an opinion and feels more specific and authentic to who we are as contemporary artists.
Rockmommy: Some of you are balancing a lot — bands, parenting, etc. — in addition to this band. What is your best advice on making it work? Please be specific, especially about the parenting stuff, which many of us are juggling!
MM: Coffee. Lots of coffee.
But seriously, I think that any discipline or passion in life it takes commitment and certain sacrifices. I watch my kids in the mornings and teach all afternoon into the evening. Sometimes this can be followed by a gig or rehearsal! That doesn’t leave a ton of time for practicing or writing, so I’ll try and pick up the guitar on any small breaks I have in between lessons. Or I just sacrifice a couple hours of sleep and practice with headphones after everyone in my apartment is in bed. Even though it can feel much harder these days, I think it’s really important that my kids see me doing something that I love and enjoy!
ZP: I don’t know how Jaime and Moxxxie do it. One second I think I’m busy as hell, thinking that there’s no way I’ll get it all done, and then I remember my two bandmates that have not one, but two children AND successful marriages. And then they show up to practice completely focused and seemingly serene. “Relationship goals” right there.
It is admittedly hard to get all 5 of us in a room at the same time with everyone’s schedules, which can be frustrating, but we tried something new last night which I loved — we came to practice with a super specific game plan and were able to really milk a lot out of just 2 hours. And surprisingly, having a super structured practice led to some creative developments and changes. I think that’s part of what makes it work for everyone who’s so busy. We don’t amble in late and dick around for 4 hours. We’re all respectful of each other’s precious time, do our homework, and work efficiently.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.
In 1999, when I was an intern at a Maryland boating magazine, I’d crank WHFS as I cruised East on I-50, from College Park to Annapolis, singing along to whatever was playing. It was on one of those treks that I heard Mary Prankster for the first time, singing the chorus of “Mercyf*ck.” I was immediately gripped by the compulsion to pull over, so I could hear each and every lyric.
Later that day, I snatched up her CD, Blue Skies Over Dundalk, listened 50 times, and realized that Mary Prankster was my girl. My True North. My kind of songwriter. To this day, Blue Skies Over Dundalk, in its 20-minute brilliance, goes down as one of the best rock n’ roll albums ever created. (Roulette Girl and Tell Your Friends are also in my top 10, in no particular order.)
In 2005, when Mary announced she would retire after years of playing sold-out shows across the mid-Atlantic, Charm City fans were shocked, sad and baffled. But the timing was right. Mary Prankster (whose real name is different) believed the MP moniker would ride into the sunset, but the woman behind the persona would move onto other, more grown-up ventures — most notably, voiceover work.
“I’m retiring the character,” she told me over coffee in the Village Voice offices in New York, where I worked after relocating to Brooklyn that fall. “I’m not retiring from creative life.”
Later that day, Mary Prankster emailed me a photo of herself dressed like the Virgin Mary cradling a melting guitar. It was sad, but fitting.
Fast forward to 2019. Fourteen years is a lot of time — to contemplate life, make mistakes, settle down and look back and wonder if you left a crucial part of yourself behind when you turned 30. Around three or four years ago, Mary started hearing songs in her head that needed to get out into the open, as she told The Washington Post.
The result: Thickly Settled, Mary Prankster’s first album in more than a decade, is as beautiful, rich and complex as a bottle of good Cabernet.
The 10-track record blends multiple genres — often in the same song — like vintage rockabilly or bluegrass, frequently filled out by horns. “Local Honey” is bathed in smooth, trippy guitars and my favorite, “Sugar in the Raw,” is chock full of sex-bombshell-worthy, distortion-guitar riffs. While there are no pithy punk tracks in the vein of “Mac & Cheese” or “Tits and Whiskey,” there are cheeky moments throughout — little reminders that while you can take the girl out of rock n’ roll, you can’t take the rock n’ roll out of the girl.
Rockmommy recently caught up with Mary Prankster, who is playing her annual Pranksgiving Shows at The Ottobar on Friday, Nov. 29, and The Birchmere on Saturday, November 30.
Rockmommy: Thickly Settled is brilliant — and surprising. When you originally “retired” MP in 2005, did you think you had another record in you?
Mary Prankster: Thank you! And no, I didn’t. By the time I “retired” I hadn’t heard any new songs in my head for a few years. I was exhausted, and I figured, “Well, this is it — I’ve had a good run.” I’m delighted and grateful the songs came back and overjoyed with how the new album came out.
Rockmommy: Was there a moment when you decided you needed to get the songs onto an album?
Mary Prankster: I was living in Central Pennsylvania for a bit — one of my favorite regions of the country — and had an unexpected amount of unscheduled time crop up. I took the opportunity to make some audio sketches in GarageBand of what I was hearing in my head. Just doing that helped equalize the pressure a little bit — being able to hear the songs from the outside in — and then it became a matter of figuring out if it’d be possible to record them properly.
Rockmommy: I know you wanted a diverse group of musicians who were flexible with this record. How did you find your current roster?
Mary Prankster: Enter Steve Wright, genius producer/engineer and my bestie from way back. For the past 20 years he’s been honing his skills at Wright Way Studios in Baltimore, recording every genre of music with some seriously talented folks.We did an EXTENSIVE amount of preproduction together — demos, reference tracks, written descriptions of how I heard the tunes — strategizing what we’d need to pull it off.
From that, he had an idea of the depth of skill and versatility the musicians needed to have. Steve also has a really good sense of the psychology that goes into a session — how different personalities/approaches will interact.
Making an album is a terrifyingly intimate thing. You’ve got these songs that come out of intense feelings and you’re focused on making them the fullest expression of themselves so you’re just submerged in emotion for hours on end.
Added to that was how incredibly vulnerable I felt recording my first studio album in over a decade and a half. Whoever was going to make this record with me also had to be — just as a person — kind.
So Steve went through his roster of twenty years worth of crackerjack musicians and personally selected the most skilled, most versatile, and most kind. And here we are.
Rockmommy: What’s it like making music now, as opposed to your 20s, when you were recording and touring nonstop?
Mary Prankster: The technology available now is miraculous. Being able to do multi-track demos with a laptop and a midi-controller and emailing them with song notes — that right there is amazing. So is pulling reference tracks for different sound approaches from the infinite music library that’s available online. After the initial sessions I had another guitar idea and Bryan and I were able to work out a solo over FaceTime. Remote mixing in real time with an ethernet cable and SourceConnect. We took advantage of all these different digital tools and it was invaluable in terms of time and cost.
Interestingly enough, the SPIRIT of the album — just the sheer joy in making it — reminded me of making Blue Skies Over Dundalk. When Steve and I made that one together, there were no preconceptions or expectations, we were just totally focused on the songs and getting them right and it was so much FUN. I felt very strongly then that if it was the only album I ever made — and there was no reason at the time to believe it wouldn’t be – that I wanted to make the absolute best album I could – hold nothing back and just go for it.
With Thickly Settled — again, there was no REASON to make it, aside from the overpowering desire to hear these songs out in the world, so we had the same kind of giddy joy of discovery and creation. There was a lightness and playfulness to the sessions — 16 hours would pass and the only way we knew it was time to call it a day was that we’d be physically trembling from exhaustion. It was glorious.
Rockmommy: OK, Thickly Settled. How’d you come up with that album title (which, from the perspective of a 40-ish rocker mom, feels so relevant).
Mary Prankster: In New England you’ll see road signs that read “THICKLY SETTLED” in residential neighborhoods — translated, it means “High Population Density — Drive With Caution.” Metaphorically, as a 44-year-old woman smack dab in the middle of midlife, I’m also “Thickly Settled.” By this age, you’re living your life (as opposed to preparing for it) and starting to see how some of your earlier plot lines have turned out.
Rockmommy: Any plans to tour again, besides the Baltimore-DC-NOVA shows every Thanksgiving?
Mary Prankster: None at the moment, though certainly open to it if there’s demand/it makes sense.
Rockmommy: Would you consider playing my 5-year-old’s birthday party? 😉
Mary Prankster: We can park the horn section by the bouncy house.
I’m a pretty wholesome mom, inside and out. Except when I write songs. When I sit down with my guitar at night and start strumming, the first lyrics that come to mind aren’t about dinosaurs and eating vegetables. I drift to another place — my mind drawn to more salacious topics, like sex and politics or even gay rights and gun ownership. I’ve been known to drop more F bombs than your average mom singer (is there an “average mom singer,” though?).
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with songs about dinosaurs — kindie-rock performers like Laurie Berkner write some killer dinosaur tunes. But it’s not the way I’m wired. For this reason, I use a stage name that’s separate from my real identity so my guitar students will have a harder time finding my music online.
Here’s the problem: Unlike my contemporaries who are famous, I don’t have the luxury of playing whatever gig at whatever venue I want whenever I want. While I believe moms should be proud to be themselves — whether they want to write about dinosaurs or sexual fantasies — club promoters and bar managers don’t aways see it that way. So unless I’m playing a dive bar or indie-rock show in Brooklyn, I feel pressured to alter my lyrics considerably. Sometimes, I’ll have to completely gut a song, lyrically — which inevitably leaves me feeling a little empty.
This happened at First Night Delaware about 15 years ago, with my D.C. band Grandma’s Mini. We were given $400 to play a New Year’s Eve gig for four hours, only to learn last minute that we would be playing four back-to-back sets in a library. Yes, a LIBRARY! Children would be coming to see us!! If you’ve ever heard Grandma’s Mini — whose most famous song, “Learn to Love Your Sh*t Job” was featured in the indie flick Washington Interns Gone Bad — you know that most of our songs aren’t meant for the ears of innocent children. So it was a mad, 20-minute scramble for me and Ann (my music partner) to come up with alternate lyrics.
Playing “not so innocent” music with my band Grandma’s Mini
While I don’t mind playing cute songs like “Baby Shark” or “Shiny” when I’m playing a library gig or for my sons’ preschool, I hate watering down content like this. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to turn down gigs altogether than change in the slightest, which can feel inauthentic. When money’s involved, the decision gets a little harder. Ann and I weren’t about to let go of $400 after we’d booked hotels and arrived on site.
There are other considerations too. I’m a super-busy mom who rocks — but also works. I barely have time to market my band, or any musical project I’m involved in. I can’t be picky. If I get asked to play at any event, it’s an honor.
On the other hand, life is short: People shouldn’t have to compromise who they are in their hearts. Cardi B doesn’t!
What would you do if you were in my shoes? Take the gigs that require a change in lyrical content, or just be grateful for what you get and adapt as needed?
Dressed in nice pants and a button-down shirt as he walks his kids to school, Mark Pires looks like your average working parent. But strip away the business frocks and hand him an acoustic guitar, and you realize Mark’s not so basic: In fact, he’s part of a rare breed of dads who can strum an axe like Dave Matthews. Listen a little longer, and he may start finger-picking a tune that will induce a state of musical bliss.
Mark Pires, creator of The GigBox, with his family in Fairfield, Conn.
But while learning to play guitar was easy for Mark, now a dad of 3, there was one glaring challenge that used to stymie him when he tried to start his solo gigging career: a drummer, or rather, a lack thereof.
While he’s a whiz with looper pedals and can make his guitar sound like practically any recognizable instrument, Mark spent much of his adult life dependent on drummers and percussionists to round out his rock n’ roll tunes, which tend to capture the mood of Matthews’ music, with clear Grateful Dead influences. And while anyone can play a song with just a guitar, having drums changes the entire vibe of a set, filling it out or making it more rock n’ roll. And a fuller sound can often make the difference when transitioning from the open mic scene to bigger stages and crowds.
But as Mark would tell you himself, everything happens for a reason. And one day in 2011, when his percussionist cancelled on Mark last minute to play a higher-profile gig, the idea of building a cajón tailored to the needs of a solo guitarist came to him in a vision.
Fast forward to 2019, and Mark’s patented invention for solo artists has gained an impressive following. The GigBox has received media attention that would make a public relations pro swoon — like broadcast segments on Fox News and News 12, plus lots of clips in community magazines and newspapers — and is a popular diversion at conferences like NAMM. It’s available at a handful of retail locations too, although the bulk of GigBoxes are ordered online (and made to order).
As expected, Mark can easily bang out tunes on The GigBox, using his heels to tap the sides of the hollow box in timed intervals to create high hat, snare, and bass drum beats.
Of course, for the rest of us who aren’t used to playing our own percussion during solo gigs, it’s a little trickier to get a rhythm going. I also had a size issue. I’m 5’2, and in sneakers my heels didn’t touch the ground when I started kicking the box and playing a basic chord progression. But fortunately for me — and others 5’4 and under — Mark has created a smaller, more petite version of his signature model — the GigBox Junior (as well as even smaller GigBoxes for mommy-and-me or daddy-and-me jams).
It’s a minor issue, because playing The GigBox is awesome. The first time I clicked the side of the box with my heel, I immediately wanted to start singing something new, rather than create a beat for an existing track. But if you want to play a classic tune, Mark offers tons of tutorials on The GigBox website.
In July, we caught up with Mark to chat about his journey to The GigBox, and how he balances his business with family and other responsibilities.
Rockmommy: So, how did you get your start as a musician?
Mark Pires: I didn’t even know I had a talent for music until I heard my friend playing ‘Warehouse’ [by Dave Matthews] and that’s the first time I realized it was possible to play someone else’s music. One of my best friends introduced me to Jethro Tull, the Grateful Dead, and then I and started listening to Pearl Jam, the Counting Crows, and other bands.
Six months into playing guitar, I got sick of playing Dave Matthews songs and started writing my own material. In college, I did a lot of theater — my first love was acting — and then when I started writing music, something clicked. Writing Songs that no one’s ever heard in the history of time, that’s unique!
I had a band in 2001 called The Reservoir— and in July 2001 won a big battle of the bands at Calf Pasture beach [in Norwalk, Connecticut] called IndieBob. We were promised two things. A college tour and distribution deal, and a recording session at Carriage House, a studio in Stamford.
So in July 2001 we recorded 11 songs in one day — 9 out of 11 songs were first takes — and then September 11th happened. So then, the record company that was giving us the distribution deal and tour went out of business. But they told us, ‘We just started a little company called CD Baby.’ We’ll give you a one-year membership for free [laughs]. We were supposed to get a college tour and a distribution deal — but instead we got a $35 membership to CD Baby.
Rockmommy: So what happened next?
Mark Pires: So in 2004, The Reservoir broke up. We got to a point where we just weren’t going. For a year and a half, we were just a power trio — me, a drummer and a bassist. We weren’t gathering steam, so after that I started my solo tour, which I’ve done until now. I was one of the first guys in the area to use a loop sampler, aBoomerang. It’s like a looper pedal. But the one I was using, compared to the ones today, was a million times harder. If I didn’t have my timing exact, the whole song was off. So I started the process where I went on the Mark Pires Solo Tour, and to fill out my sound, I had all these pedals in front of me… and I also had a guitar synthesizer, a Roland GR-33 to play trumpets, steel drums, whatever I wanted, on the guitar. I ran everything through a PA at whatever venue I’d play. So that was the way it went. The one piece I was missing was percussion.
Rockmommy: When did it first occur to you to create The GigBox ?
Mark Pires: My first son, Oliver was 2, it was 2011… and I was playing Georgetown Saloon [in Georgetown, Conn.] and another musician was backing me up — José Feliciano’sdrummer — with a cajón. I never would have thought of The GigBox if he didn’t call me up and said, ‘hey I can’t make it to the show, call someone else,’ and I thought, ‘hey, I need to build a cajón.’ But then I realized the cajón it isn’t built for [guitarists]. It sits underneath us, and I was confused. How do I kick it and play? And as soon as I realized how ridiculous that look, I saw the GigBox in my mind. I thought, ‘what about something that comes through your legs? What if it was wider in the back and more narrow in the front?’ The GigBox lets you sit and completely comfortable.
Rockmommy: So how did you have the skills to build this?
Mark Pires: In life, we don’t know why we’re good at some things and bad at others. Some of the things I’ve had a knack for include songwriting. I just feel things. I’d say the same thing with The GigBox. I could say I have some experience because my dad is a builder so I’m used to tools. When I’d come back from the road, I’d be working for my dad, and be around carpenters and construction workers. The first GigBoxes were built in my father’s garage.
Rockmommy: How would someone get started playing The GigBox?
Mark Pires: We have four different models you can choose from — the regular GigBox, the Mini, which is 12 inches tall, the Junior, which is 16 inches tall, and the percussion version is 10 inches wide instead of seven-and-a-half.
Rockmommy: What’s the Learning curve for The GigBox?
Mark Pires: It’s like playing the guitar. Learning the guitar is a learning curve — when I first started playing guitar, I was having a hard time, and my fingers were killing me. It took me a lot of time to get past that. The GigBox was just the same. The best way to explain learning The GigBox is say you have to try to do it slowly. You get a bass going with your heel [taps heel on left side of GigBox], and then you get going.
Rockmommy: You’re a busy guy. How do you balance being a dad, husband, and entrepreneur?
Mark Pires: My wife, Lara, is the greatest mom — she runs the GigBox business and its PR while taking care of the kids 24/7. This allows me to focus on both Real Estate — I’m a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway — and allows me to build GigBox orders and broadcast live for my Real Talk show every night. Having Lara’s support allows me to have a successful work/life balance. This is important because my work schedule is not normal. I work 358 days a year — I know this because I did the math, and calculated the number of hours I spend working. And I work every single day of the year, except for vacation. Now there are some busier days than others. I tend to work long hours every day, and at night, I eat, hang out with the kids, quickly shower… and do Real Talk, my talk show, where I talk and play some songs with The GigBox. The balance can be hard. It’s about discipline, it’s about consistency. It’s very difficult, because there are times when I get home and I just want to put my feet up. And you know, The GigBox can give you better life-work balance — because our focus is too much on work, not on the positivity of life. The GigBox is an energy builder, an energy soother. My kid can have a rough day and start kicking and playing and then he has a smile on his face.
Rockmommy: What lessons have you learned over the years?
Mark Pires: Twelve years ago, I had a record deal on the table with a subsidiary of Jive Records. And my wife and I were going to get married six months later. I brought it to the lawyer in Darien and he laughed, and said, ‘there’s nothing here for you — it’s like the deal Billy Joel signed, when he signed away ‘Piano Man’ and didn’t get a penny for it’ and we went back and forth and I said, ‘you know what? I’m going to get married. I’ll just hang up the guitar and get a real estate license.’ And thank God I did that. Because the first thing a record label will do is put a band around you. And if that happened, I never would have invented The GigBox. It’s nice to be 41 and know you made the right move at 30.
Use “Rockmommy” in the coupon code at checkout and get 10 percent off your next GigBox.
— Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.