Over the last few months the Straight has been checking in with Vancouver's top guitar players to find out how, as professional musicians, they've been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in October Scott Smith of Terminal Station explained how he was recording artists at his home studio and doing more teaching via Facebook; in November we learned how shredder par excellence Dave Martone has managed to help pay the bills through his role as a music-technology and guitar instructor at Douglas College.
The latest local six-string ace under inspection is Shaun Verreault, whose name you may recognize for his many years as singer-guitarist with Canadian blues-rockers Wide Mouth Mason, which has released eight albums (two of which went gold) and toured with the likes of AC/DC and ZZ Top. As Verreault explains on the line from his Yaletown home, he was mostly immune to pandemic-induced financial fallout because of his full-time day job.
"I'm counting myself extremely fortunate that, alongside my career as a writing and recording and touring musician, for the past five years I've also worked at an amazing local guitar-based business called Graph Tech Guitar Labs. We design and manufacture and provide pretty much every guitar brand you can think of with the nut and saddles that they use, and machine heads and bridges and piezo pickups and stuff.
"So I've been very grateful that--after releasing a record and then having all of the gigs go away for what's looking now like two festival seasons, not just one--I haven't had to worry about where my mortgage payments were gonna come from. It's interesting that along with breadmakers and Zoom, the guitar business has actually had a thriving last year. I think people, as they were at home wondering what they're gonna do after they've watched everything on Netflix, have really found themselves picking up their instruments again. People have rediscovered the joy--even if it's just in their bedrooms by themselves--of playing their guitars."
While the global pandemic may have resulted in increased sales of Strats and Les Pauls, it has basically obliterated anyone's ability to use those instruments in a concert setting. Verreault has used much of the time he would have spent on stage developing his "Tri-Slide" technique, which involves using three slides on his fretting hand while playing lap-steel guitar and dobro. He first tried the triple-slide approach about seven years ago.
"A friend of mine had given me a lap steel," he recalls, "but playing standard style with one bar in my hand, everything I did sounded like an out-of-tune version of something that somebody else could do better. It just was really befuddling, because it's a totally different set of muscles, and a totally different way of moving than playing bottleneck slide, which I had been doing for maybe 15 years at that point. It dawned on me that if I had more than one slide I could do more things, and it really sent me down a wormhole of experimentation and just making stuff up.
"It reminded me of when I was 10 and I first got an acoustic guitar. It hurt my fingers and it made me feel stupid and I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep doing it. And then I remember one day home with a fever I just stopped looking at it as extra homework that I had to do and looked at it like a toy, and brushed the strings and blew on 'em and smacked the guitar and heard the sound that it made. I really started looking at it as just a thing that I could do creative stuff on.
"And so doing that with the lap steel, I went, 'Well, what if I put a slide on my thumb and a slide on my ring finger and I pivot back and forth between those two and see what happens.' And once I started realizing that I could have one note slide in one direction while another note slid in the other direction--with maybe one in between that's staying the same--then it got really exciting for me."
And not just for him. It's amazing to see Verreault deploy three slides at once to explore new ways of creating music. He often posts short clips of himself on social media covering bits of songs he loves by the likes of guitar legends Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and Eric Johnson. The clips are rarely longer than two minutes.
"Part of the reason I've kept the videos so short," he explains, "is is that I know a lot of our fanbase is at the same point in their lives as I am, and you don't necessarily have an hour and a half to sit down and watch a thing in between homeschooling and working from home and home stuff. So I thought these easily digestible little bits of entertainment for people that I could offer could keep our connection there."
Hopefully it won't be too long before guitar freaks--and music fans in general--will be able to safely leave their homes and see concerts again. If the pandemic were declared over today, Verreault knows where he'd want to experience live music tonight.
"Oh man, I have floated back in my head many times to shows that I've either played or seen at the Commodore, and I cannot wait for the next one of those, whatever that can be. Whether it's been sitting in with my friends or the nights that the Masons have played there, or just going there as a concertgoer, I'm counting the minutes until that is a thing again."