The Best Twenty Nine Bucks

I was twelve. I know because I had a paper route and twelve was the bottom end of that gig. One block north of me a classic neighborhood 60’s garage band practiced. “The Cobras”. We’d sit on our bikes in the driveway across the street. The teenagers, including way too many cute girls, got the prime spot on the driveway in front of the band. “Down in the Boondocks”, just like the record. The keyboard player had a Wurlitzer 112. The tan/mauve colored one with the white and gold splatter paint. The Wurlitzer had tremolo through the nasty on-board speakers. WAAAaaahhhWAAAaaaahhhAHH…Whoa! I fell in love with that piano. They had one just like it at Larsen’s, the music store in the open air mall. I’d go close the glass door to the room it was in, along with the Vox Jaguar organ. And dream loud and large until somebody told me my mom was calling.

My parents bought me the Jaguar and a Vox Essex bass amp. The Essex was the one with a concrete slab in the bottom to keep it from wandering off stage from bass vibration. But no stereo tremolo. I bought myself a Wurlitzer EP200 when I was twenty. With stereo tremolo. Back then it was pretty easy for me to find a relaxed state of consciousness as well as some free time, and stereo trem was the way I spent a lot of it. Something about the spacey undulation of sound. Tone combined with movement. A kind of audio dance. When you grow up with one speaker in the center of the dash, one organ amp, one bass amp and then discover you have two ears and can fill them yourself? Epiphany.

Then? A Fender Rhodes 88 with a Satellite system. Are you kidding me? Stereo tremolo designed by God with speakers spread out across the back room of Driver’s Music. They’d see me coming and lock the door. I owned a Hohner Pianet a few years later, the one with suction cup action. You can see it sitting under the two Micro Moogs in my Gravatar. I ran it through a Mu-Tron Pedal Flanger, an EH Freq Analyzer and a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase. The end result, if the red lights were on for all of them, was quite often musically useless. But talk about some awesome stereo tremolo.


A long time ago, when my daughter was three or four, the Wyndham owned the Hotel Galvez and it felt like part of the set from The Great Gatsby. The big party wing off the lobby was still an Art Deco bar with tall windows, wispy curtains and the whole place felt like romance. The pool and steam room were still out front surrounded by lush landscaping. The restaurant was all polished brass rails and starched tablecloths and offered “a fine Gulf Coast dining experience.” The chef even took the time to come ask my wife how she liked the lobster and gave away free, melt in your mouth desert samples while he was at it. And a small, spacey black man I came to admire greatly over the next twenty-five years named Joe Sewell played piano in the restaurant/lobby.

Joe was a melody piano bar man, not a singer or sing-a-long guy, and when he saw our daughter fidgeting while we waited for dinner he launched into a twenty-five minute Disney medley that sent her right off on a musical magic carpet ride. I’m not rich or flashy, but I am a piano player, of a sort. I got up, put a twenty in Joe’s tip jar, told him “Thanks,” and complimented him. His style was simple, melodic. None of the unnecessary arpeggios and jazz pyrotechnics to prove to anyone listening he went to music school too long or was better than his gig. He stated the chord, played the melody. Just the song. Joe could play Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and not stride out the left hand. At all. But it worked, because you could hum the melody with him, eat, admonish your kid to do the same, and chill. His interpretations became a component of the light sea breeze that blew through the lobby like an audible Wyeth watercolor.

“I could sit on my left hand and just play the part you can whistle,” Joe said. “Folks need to remember how their dinner was, how maybe a song they liked was part of it, what their memories will be. Not what kind of piano player I was. I’m here to play music for makin’ good memories. Least, that’s the way I see what I do.” I still consider that to be one of the best pieces of indirect advice I ever got. And easily the best twenty bucks I ever spent.


I have this electric piano app from IK Multimedia, iLectric. It was on sale one weekend for $9.99, with an extra library thrown in. I am not a fan of sampled anything. In fact, I am a full blown snob about AI and real-time physical modelling (Backstory) as opposed to sampling. But simple, as Joe said, is always a wise choice. The app gives me the same lack of control(s) the pianos themselves offered. That is to say little or none. And at a fraction, and I mean a small fraction, of the original cost of just one piano. Now I get pretty pictures of many electric pianos on my iPad, along with audio Polaroids of their sounds. Even the horrid suction cup reed sucking of my Hohner Pianet. ALL with a Stereo Trem knob. I got over myself and my anti-sampled rant when I heard the app. An electro-mechanical piano is what it is. Reeds or tines vibrate, the amp modulates (in stereo!), no frills. But the sound of those pianos straight, chorused, flanged, auto-wahed and stereo tremoloed pushed thousands of songs, sold gazillions of records, and got me through everything from avant garde Prog and Fusion to Blues, R&B, Jacuzzi Jazz, pop ballad shlock and a hundred and fifty strings easy listening elevator music. And more than one shit gig backing an Elvis impersonator or an ex Miss Oklahoma with a bleached out mustache.

As a safeguard against being caught without stereo trem I asked for, and received a Christmas past from my son-in-law, an ElectroHarmonix Pulsar. Stereo trem to go. On anything that makes noise.

Simple and Stereo Tremolo are two things I’ll believe in forever. Twenty-nine bucks. With a dash of major sevenths and some free time? Gone, baby, gone. I wish every twenty-nine dollar hole in my pocket had been as good to me as Joe Sewell. And Stereo Tremolo.

Published by

Phil Huston

10 thoughts on “The Best Twenty Nine Bucks”

      1. No apology necessary. Joe was from Galveston, and his local nickname was “Sea Wall.” As in, “Hey, man, Ol’ Mr. Seawall was in here the other day askin’ about you.”


    1. It should be noted here that there is a lot of Joe Sewell in Jackson. Joe is the one who erased the shame from being a simple melody man. It should also be said that when I was the North American Product Manager for the first real-time physically modelled AI piano I had a long list of heavyweight endorsers…Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Vaughn, Myron McKinley, Bono…Joe Sewell…The piano is often thought of as a percussive instrument, but when played just right it can sound a lot like whistling…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. > His interpretations became a component of the light sea breeze that blew through the lobby like an audible Wyeth watercolor.

    This is a bit different for you. There toward the end you reverted but the whole first 3/4’s was like a different writer. I get that it was (basically) reminiscent. Still, the pace, sentence structure, spare language all made it pleasurably readable.

    And that sentence about your mentor/player, gold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, in one part you have a dreamy pre-teen, followed by a stoner pest followed by piano in an early 1900’s hotel. Word choice and language. So it worked. And tremolo is not to be ignored, as it was part of the point. Sound, and motion. Working language to your design is “vocabulary.” How dull (and obnoxious) would a violin be with no vibrato, rubato, one consistent bowing envelope, one volume. The tools of phrasing are universal across creative platforms.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. RE: the “tremolo”, have to take your word. I pretty much have no specific understanding, but can interpret from the word itself and your use of it as to what it means. (Tremble, oscillation, deep vibrations — I’m guessin’ but that’s what it appears to mean.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Any sort of modulation. Pitch, volume, timbre, envelope. Write the same way. avoid stagnant dynamics ot things that read at volume X and stay there. Monotony is avoidable. I hope.

        Liked by 1 person

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