Dirty Fingernails

One of the things I’ve used Song-A-Day for is to experiment with producing styles of music that I like but haven’t tried before. These are often things that I wouldn’t do on my own outside of the challenge, like a country song, but since I’m getting to check off another day, it provides that experiment with a purpose. Even if it sucks, it’s still my track for today.

Dirty Fingernails is a dirty blues-oriented rock piece. And I may as well own up to this right now, it’s a pretty blatant rip of a song from the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which I recently watched. I don’t feel quite as dirty about it as I did with my James Brown / The Heavy rip on Splat Rat,1My cover song from 2018. because blues and blues-rock have been using the same riffs for decades. It’s about the moment.

  1. Dirty Fingernails Ray Toler 4:57

This is also a “jam” piece similar to No Molesté last year. I’ve been doing more of these recently as a way to get my improvisation and soloing skills in better shape. Part of that is (re)learning scales and keys, but another part is just developing some of the motor skills and muscle memory. For many years now, my hands automatically fall into certain chord patterns every time I play, which leads to a compositional rut.

Another thing I’ve been doing this year is intentionally working in keys other than C. I’ve found that my voice does best for the types of melodies I write somewhere in the Eb to Gb range, so I’ve been starting there more often. It also helps to be at least in E for anything that will have a guitar in it. While seven-string guitars and five- or six-string basses are much more common these days, I certainly don’t have any of those, and I tend not to retune to things like drop-D or lower very often.

The scene from the movie in which my inspiration song appears takes place in a sex club, and features the band on-screen. Even before I got visual confirmation, though, I could tell that the bass being used wasn’t your typical rock band, type, but an upright double-bass being routed through an amp. With all of my new orchestral samples waiting for me, this was an attractive experiment.

Perhaps my biggest challenge, other than coming up with the guitar licks and taming some of the sonics, was coming up with a bass line that wasn’t from the movie. I did reasonably well here, though if you heard the two tracks back to back, they’re not all that different. If this were a court case, I’m clearly not playing the same part, even if the overall result is almost identical.

Be Positive

I realize that I’m being overly critical about my mimicry and shouldn’t be. This is how all artists learn. We all emulate the things we like. So what’s good about this piece? First off, I think I nailed the spirit of my inspiration piece. Second, the guitar part came out much better than I was expecting it to.

Here’s my dirty little secret for this year’s Song-A-Day: I haven’t played a guitar all month, despite it being a key instrument in both Destroy the Enemy and Dead Man Running.2And now Dirty Fingernails. Funny that all my guitar tracks this year start with D. All of the guitar parts you hear have come from either AAS Strum G-2 or the Spitfire Ambient Guitars sample library. Both approaches have their pros and cons, and it’s been educational to figure out when to use what.

Strum GS-2 is an interesting beast. It’s software that uses physical modeling to simulate a guitar. There are no samples at all, just a heck of a lot of math. It also forces chords into correct voicing that a guitar would actually play, as opposed to what a keyboardist would. It has multiple modes, one of which simulates different strumming patterns. Is the hand moving down or up? Are there additional notes being picked after the strum? The major problem with Strum is that the sound of it is not quite right. It’s very close, and in the hands of an expert (or with a ton of detailed MIDI programming) can sound quite authentic.

My way of dealing with Strum’s limitation is similar to what I did back in the early days when I wasn’t quite as confident in my voice: drown it in effects. While this may not be the best approach, it has been quite educational. I’ve learned a lot about how compression, EQ, and distortion can work together to make a really convincing sound, especially on two-note chords or short bits of dissonance.

But sometimes, it’s just not enough, and I turn to samples. In this case, the tone is absolutely correct, because it’s a recording of an actual guitar. The challenge with samples is to play them correctly, because they’re not going to fix the voicing issues. Additionally, the recording is the recording. If you need it to be slightly different, the options are a bit more limited. As an example, bending a sampled note normally doesn’t sound very good unless it’s really subtle.

Strum handles bends just fine, and even defaults to only bending the top string or two in a chord, which is what a live player would often do. It’s very difficult to bend an entire chord up unless you have monster hands or very, very, very light strings (downward bends are easy, though, as long as you have a whammy bar).

So in this track, Strum is handling the lead guitar part, and Ambient Guitars the short plucks. I didn’t get the effects quite right on the latter – there’s a bit too much reverb/sustain – but it was close enough for my purposes and time frame. The drums are from Superior Drummer 3, but I ran those through an overdriven amp simulation to give them some crunch to match the rest of the band.

This is a small group, on a small stage, in a small club. They’re probably getting paid in beer tickets. They’re probably going to play another song almost identical to this one next. And the crowd will keep drinking and smoking and dancing and… whatever else happens in a club like this.


Instruments & Samples

Spitfire Solo Strings, Strum GS-2, Ambient Guitars, Superior Drummer 3


Nembrini Audio PSA1000 Jr, Valhalla Delay, Decapitator, Pro-C 2

Mixing & Mastering

Gullfoss, Pro-L 2

Source Image Credit: Marc Cooper (Public Domain)


  • 1
    My cover song from 2018.
  • 2
    And now Dirty Fingernails. Funny that all my guitar tracks this year start with D.

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