Thursday, December 23, 2010

Constant Inspiration

My idol Frank Zappa on a 1977 cover - is there anything more to say really!

I wanted to take a moment to give a shout out to one of my greatest resources of regular inspiration. In my part of the globe, there are many guitar-based publications, but none hold the caliber of U.S. based Guitar Player magazine.

For almost 30 years, I have been purchasing and reading this magazine - many of those years as a subscriber. Over those years, Guitar Player wasn't always my first choice. I had been drawn to other, more specific, song teaching-based publications like the now defunct 'Guitar for the Practicing Musician'.  Its content included many more pages dedicated to transcriptions (written out TAB's) of some of my favourite songs (whose value, over time, has proven somewhat limited). Translation: I still regularly read decades-old issues of Guitar Player while the others gather dust.

With age and maturity, I began to discover that the real value of Guitar Player, and likely the reason it has not disappeared, lies in its content. In those early years, simply put, I failed to understand the truly cerebral nature of playing. Learning the exact notes of a certain piece of music is valuable, certainly. But learning WHY the artist chose those notes and his/her approach in general, is timeless.

There are plenty of licks and lines tabbed and scored within their pages (along with a ton of quality teaching content and columns). Because Guitar Player devotes most of its energies to famous player interviews, new artist profiles and gear round-ups, it adds regular inspiration to my listening and enhances my tone (while keeping me aware of gear trends). All on a regular monthly interval!

The key to all this is simple - BUY IT & READ IT! Cover to cover. Seriously, do it. Read all the articles and every interview, especially if you dont' know the player. Then jump on You-Tube and have a listen to the players featured. It's a great way to expose yourself to some new musicians and their sounds. My collection has grown exponentially through this method. It has kept me plugged-in to the ever-changing music scene out there, exposing me to the great, lesser-known players I would likely have never found otherwise.

Over time, I have come to learn that Michael Molenda (editor-in-chief) and his staff, do a great job of digging up content worthy of its valuable real estate. These guys are all players - you can tell. Do they make mistakes? Sure they do. Do they have to devote space to advertisers? Of course. It's a business. But overall, this is the most trust-worthy mag in my neck of the woods. Plus, I was in it once! A sincere honor for me, but not why I am praising it here.

The message here is: wherever you live, find a magazine that clicks with you and subscribe to it. Take the time and read it all. The regular immersion in the guitar community is worth its weight in gold. So do yourself and your playing a favor and click here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

1,2,3,4's ... is it just me?

Copyright All rights reserved by Spencer Starnes

We've all been taught 'em.

For years I just did these without questioning them... kind of an eat your vegetables type thing. But in the past several years I have begun to question everything - and it has helped my playing immensely to do so. I think we should question the logic of non-musical drills on a musical instrument. Sure they are cultural to the guitar, sure many advanced players endorse them, we have all been shown them. But dont they seem kind of ... dumb? Or as one forum poster put it "akin to those "fret-hand exerciser" devices that provide spring-loaded resistance training for your fingers"

This you could make a legit argument for:


But this?


My issue is that 1,2,3,4's are not a chromatic scales, as many call it - there are notes missing:

1 (F) 2 (F#) 3 (G) 4 (G#)
1 (A#) 2 (B) 3 (C) 4 (C#)
1 (D#) etc......

No A or D notes here. This scale has odd whole tone leaps every 5th note.

The discussion isn't one of doing or not doing drills - it is one of "why" are we doing certain exercises. What gains are in 1,2,3,4's that are NOT found in licks and scales? After a bit of time you should be able to easily, mindlessly run a major scale - it uses all fingers? Many solos and etudes have the same advantages .... wouldn't you be better served to memorize and etude and use that as a warm-up?

From Wikipedia
Practicing: a method of learning by repetition

So I ask what exactly are you 'learning' from the second example? What you ARE learning is to 'play without thought'. You are also learning 'pattern type thinking'. You are also learning a phrase you WON'T use in actual performance ... These are ALL very bad things IMO.

To be 100% clear - for a raw beginner who knows nothing and has a hard time remembering these are great. Their simplicity to remember is the only tangible advantage I can identify. But to a player with a scale or etude memorized I dont see the advantage over those forms.

Why are you being such a wanker about a stupid exercise?
I know, I know, it seems odd for me to get all up in arms about a simple exercise. But I am, as of yet, to hear a compelling reason why these are so good they warrant regular use. Other than "awesome player X said to do them". To not bore you too much with my personal details, but it is kind of important to understand my stance, so let me say this.

These days looking back, I divide my years spent playing in 2 phases:
  • The years before I learned to listen
  • The years after

The first part was 20+ years. I fixated on technique and drills etc. Did pretty well - lots of live experience etc. But in the last 7-8 years something has clicked. All of a sudden, I stopped mindlessly playing and started to treat each note with respect (as if I would run out). I haven't slowed down, or use less notes per se... just really listen deeper. I started scrutinizing EVERY SINGLE NOTE - even during drills. I NEVER play anything anymore that doesn't have time, tempo or key - NEVER. Music first, all else a distant second. This has been like an epiphany to me.

My playing and understanding has gone way beyond those early years. I get more calls for projects, more compliments, despite the fact that I 'play' LESS actual hours. I am faster RPM too shockingly.

I always remember, years ago when I was a Steve Morse disciple. He said (paraphrasing) "Someone should be able to walk into the room, at any time you are practicing and feel the groove and hear music" - this single statement did almost NOTHING for me when I first heard it. But now, when I read it it speaks to my core. If I had have understood this - really understood this - I think I would be further ahead. His advice sounded so simple ... too simple. It was almost a throw away. I was so busy listening for him to say mode this and scale/chord that.

This 'epiphany' is right at the core of my mindset these days. I am not saying I am right or this is for everyone, but it is worthy of discussion before you blindly blast through them or teach others to do so I think. I am of the opinion that people should never forget we are playing a musical instrument. So keeping everything musical is of the highest importance.

I guess my core message with this post is to question everything. Especially, question pattern-type thinking. On a guitar, it is so easy to learn by memorizing patterns. Quite easily that mind-set can become entrenched in your routine - and it's a killer to undo.

You want to practice these abominations? You HAVE to do them? Fine, write a song that uses them! Then practice that song. Stop memorizing shapes and start truly playing using notes. I believe you will be a much better player for doing so.

Should this be my last post prior to Christmas, let me take this chance to wish you all the happiest holiday season! Take the time to enjoy the things that ultimately matter most - your family and loved ones. The guitar will be right there waiting for us all ... unlike the turkey!

Maybe, just maybe, if i was a good boy. Santa will have tucked that Moog Ring Mod pedal, or the Wampler Pinnacle Distortion snugly under my tree this year. .... Santa are you listening .... Santa?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Great Backing Tracks

Copyright All rights reserved by Daniel Y. Go

The fine folks at Line6 have been so kind as to create some professional backing tracks and offer them for free on their website. The tracks feature performances by musical giants such as Carmine Appice, Tony Franklin, James Santiago, and Simon Philips.

You will need to create an account, but then you can download them at will. There are some other great resources there as well so explore and enjoy!
Here is the link

This site is fantastic: click here

Friday, December 10, 2010

Creativity - you were born with it

To my friends over at the Lesson Loft, I apologize, this will be a duplicate post. During a thread, the discussion of ones 'lack of creativity' arose. The following was my response. I thought it had some merit for others to maybe think about, so I wanted to add it here.

Here goes: When I was in college studying art the prof presented some factual info about children and their playing habits. Since I have had my own children, that lesson rings truer than ever - I never forgot it. Here is the crux of it: People ARE BORN creative. Life and institution teaches them NOT TO BE. The whole concept of 'right and wrong' and 'facts', completely undermines a child's imagination.

Creating an imaginary friend is something many kids do. Once upon a time, you looked to the sky and saw animals or other wondrous shapes and creatures. Perhaps you wondered what clouds taste like, or if you could bounce on them. Today, those same clouds are just tasteless water, suspended in the atmosphere, waiting to return one day as rain. Education, peers, life experiences slowly push the creativity out of you. If you relate to any of this, it further supports the premise that you were BORN WITH IT.

I think some personality types are promoted to stay with it. As a child, I was always a good artist. I could draw at a level higher than most of the other kids. So my teachers and peers promoted me to do this more. It made me cool and it separated me from the herd. My creativity became not silly - but artistic. I could pull the same BS as some other kids, but because I was deemed one of the "art" kids, I was allowed to roam with it. I could grow my hair long or wear whatever I wanted and it was cool on some level. People LOOOVE putting others in boxes. I was in the art box therefore left to let my imagination continue.

Now I am not saying genetics have zero to do with it - they do. What I am saying, is that whatever your level, you are far more creative than you think. You just haven't likely allowed yourself, or should I say your ego or your peers have not allowed you to truly let go and play like a child. It is hard as an adult to get this back - but I believe you can.

Seriously try this, take a canvas (or paper) and some paint, get your hands in it and start chucking it around. Learn to play again - not the guitar but with your mind. Create imaginary landscapes, write stories about things not real, use the wrong colours - paint the sky purple, the wrong words. There is no harm in any of this! But somehow we are uncomfortable with the idea of doing so. If reading this gives you a pang of discomfort that is EGO - validating, judging. This 'I cant it is wrong' feeling is anti-music. It is the death of your dreams of playing well. Exorcise this crap from your being.

Then take these 'I can try anything' approaches to your playing and I think you will be surprised what you have within.The next time you learn a box pattern or some chord form ... pull out the old canvas and chuck it around a bit!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chords in the Major scale - seeing the forest in all the trees

Today I want to cover a topic, that seems so obvious once you see it, that you may wonder why you never saw it before. I suspect every advanced player knows this, but perhaps showing it this way, will help in some way open a new door.

A question I hear all the time is "How do I know what chords go with what key?" On the surface, having this concept mastered, seems like an advanced theory topic ... but is it really? The question is: Can you answer this question for yourself, using simple observation? The answer is - yes! So let's get down to the real reason why chords can be grouped so predictably.

The major scale pattern
Most Western music is based around the major scale. Of course there are other scale harmonies that can be used (melodic minor, harmonic minor etc). But for the sake of simplicity this discussion will center around the major scale. Apply these same principles to any scale to explore its harmony. I recently did an entry on building box patterns that you should read if you are new to this concept (or just need a refresher) it can be found by clicking here.

Assuming that you have read that, and know how to build a major scale; lets look at the first pattern of the major scale (also known as Ionian mode). Take a look at these forms, and join me on the other side!

As you can see just by looking there are familiar chord shapes that can be found (highlighted in red) simply by clustering together. OR it can be said that each note has a natural strong connection with other notes of the scale. It is these connections that define the sounds of the chords. Translation: the chords are simply children of the scale. (The shapes I selected above are the ones I thought most people would easily recognize, so understand that there are other ways, perhaps better way of building these chords.) It was huge for me, the day I realized that a G chord wasn't ONLY played as the first position chord I learned long ago. That chord, or any chord, is just a collection of notes. Those notes found in any order, in any place on the neck, are all equally G chords.

Chord Order
To expand on this, there are certain observations that can be extrapolated. If you look at the type of chord off of each note you will see a pattern of:

I Chord - Major
II Chord - minor
III Chord - minor
IV Chord - Major
V Chord - Major (This is actually commonly a V7 chord)
VI Chord - minor
VII Chord - dim (I have shown the min7b5 as the seventh chord as it is the one I prefer. Classical formal theory calls for a diminished chord, but a half diminished or also named m7b5, will work as well. It is actually equally common in my travels.)

So we can then say that in any major key the chords within will follow this set order:

Major, minor, minor, Major, Major (7), minor, diminished (m7b5)

So for other keys simply: 
- pick note (key) of choice
- apply the major scale formula (as outline in my previous post click here)
- apply the above chord order

Cool! But what comes next?
The best part is; by looking at how the chord is surrounded by the scale tones, you now have the ability to add extension notes to the chords (7's, 9's, 13's). Basically, number the scale: 1 being the root note the next note is 2, then 3 etc. So you want an add9 chord? No problem! Take a chord, count up 9 notes in the scale and 'add' it to the chord you are altering. You can add any note from the scale to any of the chords and explore new sounds without leaving the key - remaining diatonic (a fancy word for 'of the key')

Another easy way to find common chord shapes, is to select every other note of the scale. This stacking of 3rds process is the building block for creating the chords and the rules generated above. But dont stop at the fifth, extend them out to 7ths, 9ths whatever you like. Extra credit: You are also simultaneously assembling arpeggios for all you lead players. Need a Maj6 arp? Get the paper out and get busy!

So pick away and explore as many new voicings as you can. Apply the same ideas to other patterns of the major scale (Dorian, Phrygian - you know the names). I think you will be surprised by all the new chording ideas you will find. The point of all this is: the information is there for you. Locked inside scales you already know. You just need to apply some observation skills to extract it.

Having some time to practice wouldn't hurt either!