On “It is what it is”

I had a moment to catch up on some things this weekend, and returned a call from a friend of mine at CalArts.  We had a very nice conversation catching up and discussing Higher Education funding, trends, pedagogy and the like and she was kind enough to tell me this:

“You know, in a conversation we had once – you gave me some advice and told me that, ‘it is what it is’.  I thought about that a lot – and about how you’ve brought it up a number of times in our conversations – and it’s something I find myself coming back to as a mantra when I’m facing something difficult.”

She had asked me about where that mindset came from, and I’m sure it’s rooted in growing up in a working class small town in upstate New York.  Compared to many people around me I had it relatively easy.  My parents both worked hard – my dad taught middle school and my mom worked in a factory – and they owned the house we lived in. (A note: Despite a lot of nonsense talk generated in the media earlier in the year, as people living on an educator’s salary, we did not live high on the hog.  We burned wood for fuel (that we cut stacked and dried on our own), did all our own repairs and (for a while) raised animals for food. The two-story house I grew up in with a garage and a 2 story workshop on a 1/2 acre of land sold for well under 40k if that tells you anything about the economics of the region.)

Other people I knew had it really hard.  Farmers (and often their children) who worked from dawn to dusk with spouses working additional odd jobs just to make ends meet.   We had “valley runners” – a term of no endearment reserved for families who would relocate multiple times a year to stay one step ahead of the law.  I’d always see the kids in my classes; they’d show up for a couple of months and then be gone to the next county.  When I’d see them months, or years later, they had always changed for the worse.  They picked up a number of skills they needed to survive when you’re always on the run  (typically manipulation, but sometimes cons or petty theft), that were depressing enough for an adult to have to rely on to get by – much less a child.

Mainly though, I knew a lot of good people who worked hard and were often presented with really difficult situations.  And the response to those situations was to work through it.  I can’t count the number of times that I heard variations of, “No use crying about it – let’s get to work.”

For those of you who resonate with this sentiment, and have never read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, it might be worth a moment of your time.  One point Aurelius’ (and other Stoics like Epictetus) bring up repeatedly is the value of seeing things for what they are.  That often means removing the emotional issues associated with the matters at hand and trying to deal with them objectively. (Albert Ellis made an entire career out of this method of inquiry with his REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) approach).

.

Getting emotional about certain things (particularly difficult things) only adds to their difficultly.

.

In my world view, some things are simply facts andviewing those things as such makes it easier to see them for what they are.

.

For example:

2+2=4.

How do you feel about that? (or do you feel anything?)

It’s difficult to get emotionally invested in it because it’s merely a fact.

.

Now here’s the idea applied: where a student might hear, “You’re going to have to put a lot of time in to getting those sweep arpeggios down the way you want.” I hear “2+2=4”.  There’s no emotional involvement  and so there’s less to get tripped up on.

There are a million reasons to procrastinate, and generally only one or two to get something done.  If you’re facing something really daunting there’s a several part process I can share to help make it manageable.

.

Getting it done

.

  1. Know why you need to do what you’re doing. As Viktor Frankl once said, “He who has a why can bear almost any how”.
  2. Deal with problems individually.  Many problems are multi-tiered so break them down into individual components to make them easier to manage.
  3. See the problem for what it is.  Gain a scope of what it is you are trying to do and prioritize what has to happen to complete it.  (For example: If you’re trying to get better at sight-reading – you’re going to have to work on it a lot over a longer period of time.  If you’re trying to get two bars of a solo down – it will probably be a much shorter over-all time investment).
  4. Have milestones and a deadline.  Know what you’re going to complete by when.
  5. Prioritize and address what you can.  Don’t get hung up on big steps here, this stage is all about the specifics of each step (i.e. the grunt work).
  6. Reassess and return.  As milestones are reached verify your progress and start again.

.

I remember reading a David Lee Roth interview where he was talking about how having a drive was the only thing that was going to get you through endless vocal practicing in your bedroom.

There’s nothing glamorous in the work that goes into doing anything well, but it’s necessary to acquire the skills needed to do those things.

.

In other words, it is what it is.

.

Thanks for reading.

-SC

“When You Come To A Fork In The Road Take It”

A number of the motivational posts I’ve posted  here center around a few key concepts:

.

  • Having a clear vision of what you want to do (goals)
  • Aligning perception with reality (having an honest assessment of what needs to happen to reach those goals)
  • Daily work on those goals
  • Limiting distractions, and obstacles in the way

.

The reason I come back to these posts to the extent that I do (and why I address it with myself as much as I can), is because it’s incredibly important to make the most of your time and enjoy it because time is all you’ve got.  All the talent, skill, strength, brains or money in the world won’t stop you from dying eventually.  Since all those things (talent, skill, strength, brains and money ) are acquired over time, in the end all you have is your time and how you’ve used it.

.

Life is short and the only thing of value.  Don’t waste it away.

.

We live in the most technologically advanced era the world the world has ever seen, but despite (and/or because of) that technology we also live increasingly isolated existences.   As a society, we often equate texting with talking and surfing the web to connecting with someone (or something).

.

All we’re really doing is staring at a TV with an infinite number of channels and typing.

.  

There’s only limited interaction and a one way transmission of data.   It’s  addicting, comfortable and seductive and brings about the complacency and relaxation everyone looks for at one time or another.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t relax, but I am saying that being sedentary in anything you do carries it’s own inertia (physical and psychological).  The more you turn off your brain, the more likely you are to turn off your brain – even when you don’t want to.

.

My father’s grandfather worked coal for the railroad every day of his teenage and adult life.  It was long hours of backbreaking labor and by all accounts, he was an incredibly powerful man.  When he retired, he decided that he was going to retire from everything.  He sat in his favorite chair and went from someone who was active and engaged to someone with very minimal physical exertion and no real goals for the future other than not working.  He died a couple of years later. I can’t prove that they’re related, by in my mind they are.  By my dad’s account, he basically just decided to stopped living.

.

“When You Come To A Fork In The Road  – Take It”

.

And this brings me back to meaningful living and navigating the overwhelming number of options available to us.   Indecision is a natural byproduct of being overwhelmed.  While I’m all for making an informed decision before taking action, if you spend too much time informing yourself, you won’t have any inertia to carry out what you initially wanted to do. The unexamined life may not be worth living – but the over-examined isn’t either.

.

In any battle with indecision, at a certain point you have to punt.  If you get overwhelmed with options, pick one and run with it until you have to switch to another.  If you have a good grasp of what it is that you want to do, you’ll make changes in direction as you require to get back on track.

.

It’s less important what thing you do first as long as you do something.

.

Thanks for reading.

.

-SC

Circumnavigating The Wall You Just Hit

It’s easy to get so caught up in the how, or the technical process of what you’re doing, that you forget the why

.

Every once in a while someone will send me a You Tube clip of some wunderkind playing a million notes and I often think, “Wow it’s impressive to spend so much time getting that down.   I wonder how they’re going to use that when they’re playing Brown Eyed Girl at the local bar?”  The answer, of course, is that they’re not going to play that or maybe even any song.  The point of the video generally isn’t to develop something interesting in a larger musical context (like a song) but instead to promote their efforts by performing something technically difficult to get people impressed.

.

I don’t fault players for this, they’re simply trying to make a connection and that’s the point of music in general.  Sometimes that means playing a million notes and sometimes that happens in the silences of the music you’re playing.   It’s an easy path to go down because making a connection is really hard. In addition to a lot of work, it requires experience, sincerity and no small amount of guts to leave yourself exposed.  In contrast, sitting down with a metronome and getting a lick up to a quick tempo is substantially easier and the result is quantifiable.  Even if people aren’t impressed, you’ll know that you got it up to speed and take some comfort in advancing your technical ability.

.

But the flash of something fast will fade quickly, and what’s left is the content of what’s being said and the sincerity behind it.
.

I like video game licks in certain contexts, but they’re probably not going to work on a ballad very well (even if it is a fusion track 😉 ).  If you’re saying a lot of words without much meaning it’s not going to have a lot of impact.

.

I’ve had gigs where everything involving making a connection turns off on the stage and while it’s not a defining moment in human history, for someone who’s being used to being connected to music it’s a pretty awful feeling.  I’d even argue that this was the case for 90% of the gigs I’ve played in LA.  There can be any number of reasons for this.  There might be technical issues that completely pull you out of your mindset.  The audience might not be there to make a connection.  Things may not be jelling with the band.  But most importantly,  it may be your disconnect, and it’s the most important, because it’s the only performance factor that you really have control over.

.

Those of you familiar with the Aesop’s fable regarding the fox and the lion will probably remember the final adage, “Familiarity Breeds Contempt “.  You can put so much time into the same thing on guitar that it loses all musical meaning.  The bad news is it’s probably not going to gain additional meaning on the bandstand.  In all likelihood you’re going to disconnect from it further.

.

The more you work with specific things the easier it is to auto pilot your way through them, and the less likely you’ll be able to connect with it.  Taking that a step further, it’s going to be hard to connect to audiences if you’re disconnected from your own playing.   It’s more common than you might think, and a lot of musicians go through small (or large) periods where they “weren’t feeling it”.  They hit a wall.

.

By it’s nature, any wall is usually made of pretty hard material so meeting it head on and trying going through it is not the best approach.  I can tell you from personal experience that taking the approach of saying, “suck it up” isn’t going to get your groove back.  Playing through it is exactly what you probably shouldn’t be doing because it’s just going to distance you further from the actual music when you play.  It’s like when a relationship is on the rocks and you’re convinced that spending more time together will make it better when the time you spend now is stinted and awkward.  The better approach in both cases is to step back and get some perspective…to go over the wall if you will…

.

One man’s recommendation for dealing with the wall

.

If you’re facing this right now, here are some strategies that may help.

.

  • Acknowledge that you’ve hit a wall.  You can’t fix something you don’t recognize as a problem.
  • Once you acknowledge that you’ve hit a wall, realize that while it might be big and imposing, it’s still only a wall.
  • If the wall you’ve hit is from playing in general, take a break from playing for a couple of days.  Spend that time trying to connect with friends or family.  What you do isn’t really as important as the fact that you’re engaged and connected while you do it.
  • Learn some new songs.  Learn things that are very non guitaristic like vocal melodies or horn lines.  Take those ideas and write something new with them.
  • Go back and listen to music that inspired you.  Try to find out what it was that inspired you about the music.  Don’t over think or over analyze it, just try to connect with it.
  • Get out of your comfort zone.  Listen to music from other cultures.  Read a book by an unfamiliar (but recommended author).  Play with different musicians.  Take a short trip somewhere you’ve never been with a friend and see some new surroundings.  When I was in Phoenix, I checked out the Musical Instrument Museum and had my head turned around in a dozen different directions both by the instruments and the multimedia presentations of field recordings.  I left that place with a lot of new musical ideas buzzing around my head.
  • Practice playing in front of other people.  Learn a new song and play it at an open mic.  Make notes of when you’re connecting and when other people are connecting and make mental notes of how they’re doing it.
  • When you come back to practicing, take a measured breath before you begin playing.  Mark the fact that you’re about to start something to get into the zone.
  • Try being mindful of what you’re practicing.  Set limits on time and only practice one thing as long as you can be engaged in practicing it.
  • When you play a solo – try only playing what you can sing.

 .

There are a lot of other things you can try, but the real goal here is to get re-engaged and bring that to your playing.  As corny as it may sound, playing is an expression of who you are and where you’ve been.  If you don’t have anything to say in your playing, it may be time to live a little more so you’ll have a story to tell next time you sit down…For me, it was about realizing what was wrong, taking ownership of that and moving past it to get back to making music instead of just sound again.

  .

Good luck to you and thanks for reading!

-SC

.

 

Getting Through The Gig – Negotiating A Chord Chart Part 1

In the previous surviving the gig post, I talked about some memorization skills that can help get through gigs that require learning a lot of tunes.  In this series of posts, I want to focus on how to get through gigs that may have unfamiliar chord changes.

In this post, I’m going to be discussing how to interpret chord symbols and then developing some short cuts for how to generate chord voicings on the bandstand as it were.  If you are already familiar with how to read chord voicings – you may want to skim this and just go to part 2.

There will be a lot of detail over these posts for how I’m doing what I’m doing, but once you get the concept under your belt.  It should be something you can do on the fly if need be.

As an example, I’ll be look at part of a chart Rough Hewn touch/stick/Warr guitarist Chris Lavender sent to me, called 232

(232 © Chris Lavender 2011 used with permission)

.

First Step – Know what notes the chord symbols are asking for.

It’s not that hard to figure out chords if you know what the symbols mean.  Here are some general shortcuts for chord types beyond triads.  There are only 3 basic categories that we’ll look at: Major, Minor and Dominant:

.

Major

(Sometimes designated by “major”, “maj” or a triangle)

Any type of major chord always has a major triad (Root, 3rd and 5th) plus a major 7th in the full chord voicing unless it states otherwise.  If a chart has any type of C Major chord variation (C Major 7, C Major 9 or C Major 13)  –  the voicing has a C, E, G and B.

Note:

When removing notes from any voicing the 5th is usually the first to go (unless it’s altered like #5, or b5).

The initial short cut is: any major type chord starts with (1,3, 7) or (C, E, B) in the key of C.


Minor

(Sometimes designated by “minor”, “min”. or “-” )

Any type of minor chord always has a minor triad (Root, b3rd and 5th) plus a b7th in the full chord voicing unless it states otherwise.  If a chart has any type of C Major chord variation (C minor 7, C minor 9, C minor 11 or C minor 13)  –  the voicing has a C, Eb, G and Bb.

Note:

When removing notes from any voicing the 5th is usually the first to go (unless it’s altered like #5, or b5).

The initial short cut is: any minor type chord starts with (1,b3, b7) or (C, bE, bB) in the key of C.


Dominant

(Sometimes designated by “dominant”, “dom”. or no designation

i.e. “C7”, “C9” or “C13” refers to a dominant chord unless otherwise stated)

Any type of dominant chord always has a major triad (Root, 3rd and 5th) plus a b7th in the full chord voicing unless it states otherwise.  If a chart has any type of C dominant chord variation (C 7, C 9, C 11 or C 13)  –  the voicing has a C, E, G and Bb.

Note:

When removing notes from any voicing the 5th is usually the first to go (unless it’s altered like #5, or b5).

The initial short cut is: any dominant type chord starts with (1,3, b7) or (C, E, Bb) in the key of C.


Beyond this, you just need to add in additional pitches based on what the voicing indicates.

Here’s a chart that relates all of the potential chord tones that you might see to a scale degree for quick reference.

Putting the chart to use:

The first chord in the 232 chart is a C major 9 #11.  As a reminder – any extended C major chord will have C, E, G, B in the full voicing.  Since it’s a C major 9, a 9th – which in the chart above is a D – will have to be added.    The #11 means an F# will get added to the voicing as well.  This brings the full voicing to (C, E, G, B, D, and F#).

Again, the only time you would probably play a full voicing is for a solo guitar or perhaps a duet performance.  In the next post, I’ll discuss how to extract what you need to get through the chart.

.

Second Step – Know some chords

When I went to Berklee, I was advised that I should learn at least 2 chord voicings for any chords that could be put on a chart in front of me.  These stock voicings are typically low E or A string rooted (as it helps with visualization) and are the default voicings that you would use if you were sight-reading a chart.  These typically include triads, Major /Minor / Dominant chord 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th chords.

While this is, generally, useful advice, I should state for the record that while I did the initial memorization required for school proficiencies – I quickly forgot the majority of voicings I wasn’t using all the time. Learning every inversion of every possible 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th chord on multiple string sets will take YEARS.  For some people, it’s the best method, but it never worked that well for me.

.

Once I understood how chords worked, I never bothered to memorize many specific voicings above a 9th chord because I found some shortcuts to get the sounds I needed.


Note:

This is not to say that you should be lazy.If you follow through on the suggestions that I have – you should plan on learning triads and 7th chords at a very deep level (i.e. you should have the goal of being able to play any triad or 7th chord in any inversion in any position).

(more on how to do that in a future post)


I hope this helps!  In the next post – I’ll simplify the 232 chart with some harmonic shortcuts.

While digesting this – I’d recommend you take some time to work on your chord inversions.  If you’re unfamiliar with them you may want to check out the D major inversions I’ve posted below, and adapt this process to minor triads (just flat the third – F# and make it F in the examples below), and 7th chords (major, dominant and minor).

.

(The following is adapted from another post (Recycling Chords Part II: Triad Transformation).

.

Thanks for reading!!

 

-SC

.

Note:  D major is used in the following examples instead of C major because the original post dealt with transforming triads.  Each note of a 1st position D major chord can be lowered to another note on the fingerboard, without using open strings.  In other words, each chord is a moveable voicing on the fingerboard. The following should be adapted to C major and other keys as necessary.

.

The first step to adapting voicings is to make sure you can visualize triads both horizontally and vertically across the fingerboard.

.

Horizontal (i.e. positional) Visualization

Here’s a series of  D major chord inversions in the 2nd position.

Helpful Tip

As you play through these voicings pay particular attention to which chord tone each finger is on (i.e. for the first D Major chord voicing – the first finger is on the 5th of the chord (A), the third finger is on the root (D) and the second finger is on the 3rd (F#). More on this later.

Here are the D major inversions in the 5th position

and in the 10th position.

Vertical Visualization

.

Note:

the important thing with both the horizontal and vertical voicings is knowing where each chord tone is located in the voicing.

.

One way to practice this is to play through the chords and stop at random points and ask, “where is the root?” “where is the 3rd?”  “where is the 5th ?”  This has to be full internalized to be able to realize the goal of instant chord tone identification.


Recycling Chords Part II: Triad Transformation

In the previous recycling chords lesson, I looked at ways to reinterpret chords. Another way to create different sounds is to take something as basic (and familiar) as a triad and alter tones to create more complex chords.

Note: this process isn’t designed to replace the need to learn multiple chord voicings but instead to supplement it.

.

Starting with the Flats

For example, take a C major triad (C, E, G) and flat the 3rd, and it becomes a C minor triad.

This idea also can be applied to the root of the chord.

If the note C is flatted a ½ step (1 fret), the new note is B.  This creates a C major 7th chord with no root.

Likewise, if the note C is flatted a 1 step (2 frets), the new note is Bb. This creates a C7 chord with no root.

.

Moving to sharps

To add a 9th to the chord quality, raise the root  a ½ step for a flat 9 (b9) (or a step for a natural 9).

.

This is a good place to make a couple of notes:

.

First: the voicings presented here are used to demonstrate the process, but I like some of them better in other registers.  For example, here is the C add 9 voicing on the top 3 strings.

Second:  one reason to explore voicings without roots is that, in an ensemble setting, the bassist often holds down the root of the chord.  If you need the root –  it’s easy enough to just add it in.  Here is the same chord with a root:

The chord tone transformation chart


The following is a map of alterations to show how chord tones can be modified to create other sounds.

.

Taking the approach above, some general rules can be applied to a major triad.

.

The root of the chord can be lowered to the 7 or raised to the 9.


.

The third of the chord can be lowered to the 9 or raised to the 11.

.

The fifth of the chord can be lowered to the 11 or raised to the 13.

 .

In this manner, a triad can be altered into almost any other functional chord.


Here’s an exercise that utilizes a D major triad to illustrate this idea:

.

Note:  D major is used instead of C major because each note of a 1st position D major chord can be lowered to another note on the fingerboard, without using open strings.  In other words, each chord is a moveable voicing on the fingerboard.

.

The first step of this exercise is to make sure you can visualize triads both horizontally and vertically across the fingerboard.

 .

Horizontal (i.e. positional) visualization

Here’s a series of  D major chord inversions in the 2nd position.

Here are the D major inversions in the 5th position

and in the 10th position.

If these voicings are unknown to you, start by familiarizing yourself with them before continuing to the rest of the lesson.

.

Vertical visualization

Note: the important thing with both the horizontal and vertical voicings is knowing where each chord tone is located in the voicing.

One way to practice this is to play through the chords and stop at random points and ask, “where is the root?” “where is the 3rd?”  “where is the 5th ?”  This has to be full internalized to be able to intelligently transform the chords, with the goal being instant chord tone identification.


As with the horizontal voicings, if these voicings are unknown to you, start by familiarizing yourself with them before continuing to the rest of the lesson.

.

Triad Transformation Exercise

Now that the preliminary steps have been taken, let’s begin the process.

First, here are a few chord formulas we’ll need:

Major: Root, 3rd, 5th – D, F#, A

Major 7th: Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th –  D, F#, A, C#

Dominant 7th: Root, 3rd, 5th and  flat 7th –  D, F#, A, C

Minor: Root, flat 3rd, 5th –  D, F, A, C

Major 7 flat 5: Root, flat 3rd, flat 5th and flat 7th-  D, F, Ab, C

Now, let’s go through the exercise as individual steps to explain the process.

.

Step 1:  Take a Major chord (in this case D)

Step 2: Make it a D Major 7 chord

[by flatting the root a 1/2 step (1 fret)]

Step 3: Make the chord a D dominant 7 (D7) chord

[by flatting the root 1 step (2 frets)]

Step 4: Make the chord a d minor 7 chord

[by flatting the 3rd of the D7 a 1/2 step (1 fret)]

Step 5: Make the chord a d minor 7b5 chord

[by flatting the 5th of the Dminor7 a 1/2 step (1 fret)]

You get the idea.  Transform the chord into every possible voicing and repeat with every other inversion.

.

When less is more – A case for smaller voicings

When I started out playing, if a song called for a C major chord, I’d play something like this:

While there’s nothing wrong with six note voicings, context is everything.  It took a while to realize that when playing in larger groups, smaller voicings sometimes helped propel the song and allowed for better voice leading.

For example: here’s the same C Major chord but with just 3 notes.

And here is the voicing in a I-iv-V7 (C-F-G7) progression with smooth voice leading.

If you’re playing solo guitar – this isn’t going to fill a lot of space sonically but it works well in an ensemble, and it’s easy to play.  A win-win.

I hope this helps!  In a future lesson I’ll go further into this concept and use it to create 9th, 11th and 13th chords.  In the meantime, you’re free to download and distribute any of the lessons here but I maintain the copyright on the material.

I’m always looking for feedback on what people find useful and what they don’t, so if you have any questions or comments, feel free to e-mail me at guitar.blueprint@gmail.com .

Warming Up: Finger Exercises, The 3 T’s And The Necessity Of Mistakes

Pedagogical Errors Were Made

One of the first lessons that guitar students are taught is the 1 note per fret 1-2-3-4 chromatic alternate picking exercise.  While this is typically presented  as an initial exercise to gain coordination – it has a very limited long run value.  As a static exercise, it  should be discarded from your regimen immediately because

.

you play what you practice

If you want to play semi-chromatic ideas at high speeds moving in 4ths – this is a great exercise to use.  But it’s a boring sound, a boring exercise and doesn’t translate well into everyday performance.

“But Scott”, you might posit, “it’s just  a warm up exercise.  It isn’t something to play at a gig.”  Then it’s a further waste of time as

.

everything you play should be something that translates to live performance

.

The Physicality Of Practicing or How To Lose A Gig

Here is a gig nightmare story that illustrates the point of proper technique versus strength.  Since the embarrassment here is all mine, all of the names will be on the record for my moment of shame.  Years ago when I was working at Sandy’s Music, one of my co-workers “Skinny Mike” Feudale wanted to see if I could play a gig with his rockabilly/psychobilly band – The Speed Devils. Mike is a great songwriter and the songs on the Speed Devil’s cd were really strong and lot of fun to play.  The Speed Devils had a gig come up in NY and needed a lead guitarist to sub in.  If it worked out – it could be a regular gig – but there were some rules.

.

1.  I had to look the part – fortunately the drummer Judd had a vintage bowling shirt I could squeeze into

2.  I had to play a vintage amplifier.  Fortunately I had just gotten my vintage Gibson amp back from Tom at AzTech electronics (truly an amazing amp guy) – which sounded and looked great.

3.  I had to play the Speed Devils guitar.  This was a hollow body that Mike had fixed up and completely vibed out (full flames and dice for volume knobs) with heavy gauge strings and high action to push the volume a little more.

We rehearsed the set once or twice and then went to the gig a couple of days later.

On the way from Boston to NY, I didn’t have time to warm up so I was doing some finger exercises to limber up my hands.  I was experimenting with a lot of grip master type things to strengthen my hands and try to fix my pinky (which was really quiet with hammer ons).  We got to the club and  I found out that there was no mike for my amp.  The only thing going through the PA was the vocals.

This is the point of the story that I should mention that while everything was fine when we had rehearsed at low volumes; my 15 watt amplifier could not compete with the rest of the band in a club setting.  As I was inaudible I started strumming louder, and with the live adrenaline kicking it, I started fretting harder as well.   Between the heavier string gauge, the higher action, the underpowered amp and the over-tensed playing- I blew my hands out by the second tune.

My hands were so shot that chording was difficult and soloing was all but impossible.  I limped through the rest of the performance – but nothing came out the way it was supposed to.  Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig – a sound decision by the band – but I was really angry with myself because I had unknowingly sabotaged myself before I even got there and had I taken a different approach – I would have been able to play the show much better and not let the band (and myself) down.

.

The Physicality Of Practicing (slight return)

Playing an instrument is a physical endeavour.  You can push your muscles too hard and hurt yourself badly playing the same things over and over. (Trust me – performance related injuries are not fun).

Having said that, this isn’t weightlifting.  You don’t need muscular hands capable of cracking walnuts to play guitar well – you need hands that can move  fingers quickly and independently –  a fast twitch muscle versus a slow twitch muscle. This leads to a little secret that students generally don’t get exposed to in rock guitar lessons

.

hammer on volume comes from the speed the fingers strike the string not the force

In terms of volume, the most problematic finger is typically the pinky.  One habit that I had to fix (and that I continue to see in a number of players) was the improper attack of the fret hand pinky on the strings. (In case you’re wondering about proper form, I’ve reposted some of the information from the Glass Noodles arpeggio post below).

.

Here’s a good way to visualize the fret hand finger motion you’re looking for:

Put the palms of your hands on a table.  Now without lifting the palms up, tap your fingertips one at a time on the table starting from the pinky and ending on the index.  You’ll notice that the fingers stay curved and that the large knuckle of each finger is responsible for the tapping.  This motion is what you’re looking for in this process.  Notice that you don’t need to hit the fingertips very hard against the table to get a crisp attack.

The concept of building up your hands like biceps – is just ridiculous.  The goal of guitar performance is to keep your hands relaxed so you don’t blow them out in a gig or on a session.

.

How I warm up now

When I warm up now – I play scales and arpeggios, switching between chord voicings of tunes I’m working on and improvising around various patterns at low tempos and paying strict attention to

.

The 3 T’s in Performance: Timing, Tone Production and Tension

(remember these – this awareness could save you untold time and pain later!)

.

In general –  you just want to make sure that all of your fingers have had a little blood flowing in them before you begin to play for any length of time.  I do this with a timer for 5 minutes (more or less depending on how my hands feel).

External warm up devices are kind of goofy to me.  Have you ever seen a runner go into a gym and max themselves out on a legpress before they went for a long run?  Do you really think that putting mechanized unfocused tension on a finger is going to make it play a musical passage more efficiently?

.

The necessity of making mistakes

Along with the forthcoming GuitArchitecture books, I have also put substantial time into  a general book of guitar technique.  In addition to discussing specifics of practice and performance methodology – I also took the 1-2-3-4 exercise and broke it down into every possible positional variation as a way to develop technique.  The book is currently 256 pages.  The majority of which are the 864 individual graphics that had to be created and placed in the text.

Midway through this process I started to question the mistake of basing any technical study on such an exercise – or the concept of musical exercises in general.  (Again the point isn’t to have svelte waistline or huge muscles – the point is to be able to play melodic and harmonic ideas more readily.)

I came to the conclusion that if the 1-2-3-4 example could be approached as a way to develop a systematic approach to generating both melodic ideas and melodic variation it could also benefit readers as a technical study as well.

.

Mistakes are teachable moments

It’s easy to see a mistake as something to learn from in a practice room session but harder to see it at a gig. If I walked away from the Speed Devils show and just said, “That gig sucked – so I must suck as a guitarist” I would have missed a great opportunity to see there was something very wrong in what I was doing. The gig taught me in addition to making sure that I had proper preparation and the right tools for the job that tension does not equal volume – and that lesson has been more beneficial to me than any lesson I could pay for.

.

I hope this is helpful to you!

Thanks for reading.

-SC

Testing Your Vocabulary Or Practicing Part VI

In the last post on practicing, I focused a great deal on the importance of listening in general and I’d like to focus and frame that importance a little more this time.

.

Before I move on, you may want to read my previous posts on practicing.  If you have missed those posts, you can find them here: part 1part 2part 3 , part 4 and part 5.

.

It’s important to realize that scales, arpeggios or any other kind of melodic or harmonic device is only a tool in the service of making music – and is not music in and of itself.

.

One way to get to making music with these devices is to learn other people’s music and phrasing, either by transcribing or learning by ear.

As a guitar teacher, I occasionally to run into students who are resistant to this idea as they only want to learn “their music”.

.

Learning other people’s music is learning your music because it’s part of a process in developing your voice.

The point of music is to communicate and to communicate with people you must have something to say.  This is done not only with vocabulary, but with a familiarity of language that comes from constant exposure and interaction.

.

When you learn other people’s music, or licks or chord progressions you learn vocabulary.  You learn phrases that work their way into your being and begin to form your aesthetic.  When you talk about “your writing style” for something you’re writing – do you make up all of the words you are going to use?  In reality, you use words that you’ve used before.  You use phrases that you’ve seen other people use that have now become part of “your writing style”.

.

If you’ve ever been around a child that’s learning to verbalize their thoughts – you’ve heard a lot of sounds coming out that are not recognizable as words (much less sentences).  It can be a real struggle to determine what it is that the child is attempting to do (or perhaps wants).  If you were to isolate that child at a certain point of development and refuse to interact verbally, the child would eventually develop his or her own language – but it would be completely inaccessible to you.  You would be unable to communicate verbally with the child and have to do things visually to convey ideas.

I’ve heard some singer/songwriter music that was done with this mindset.  The lyrics represent things that are so personal that it is impossible to gain any meaning from them without an intimate knowledge of the person.  Harmonically (because the performers use sounds that “are theirs” and nothing more),  the approach is severely limited and the chord progressions tend to all sound the same.  If you’ve ever had this experience you may find that you tend to tune out after a song or two as I do.

.

Learning vocabulary

When learning vocabulary, there are several steps (this is a profoundly oversimplified list):

  1. Exposure (or more likely multiple exposures) to a word (usually in a context)
  2. Use of the word
  3. Integration of the word into conversation/writing etc.

.

This means that there is a lot of word use to get to the point of integration.  In musical terms, you may have to shed a lick or phrase a lot not only from a technical standpoint (use of the phrase), but also to have it be “available” when you’re improvising (integration).  And this is a real test of your vocabulary.

.

You might think you have something down – but no matter how much you shed something,

if you can’t access it when you’re improvising – it’s not fully integrated into your playing.

.

It’s important to realize that integrating vocabulary is a conscious decision.  It isn’t passive at all.  Just because I hear a sound – doesn’t mean I know what it is or how to react to it. This is the real difference between hearing and listening.

.

Hearing is biological, listening is mental.

You can get a lot from working with transcription software (like transcribe) and using it as a phrase trainer (i.e. taking an advanced technical or shred lick and slowing it down to such a slow speed that it becomes playable).

.

Don’t be afraid of working on complex solos or phrases!

.

All you have to do is:

slow it down and

break it into small components that you can play and

try to increase the speed a little every day.

.

In this way you’re actually getting more complex patterns under your fingers and gaining some refined ideas to draw upon.  By working in this manner, you can develop phrases so that you have something that you can use at a variety of tempos. Having ideas that work in a number of contexts  makes it easier to integrate into your playing..

If this is an area of interest, you may also want to read this post on music as language.  You can also find some posts that may help with practice/motivation stating with one on focus here, a thought on music theory in performance here, or the importance of deadlines here.

.

I hope this helps!  Thanks for dropping by!

-SC

.

If you like this post you may also like:

.

PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

.

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

.

FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?

.

Practice what you play or Practicing Part V

I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about how to practice and have only touched upon what to practice in a very limited sense.  If you have missed my other posts on practicing you can find them here: part 1part 2part 3 and part 4.

.

What to practice

Without being too obvious, you should practice what you’re going to play.

If I was a shred metal player – I’d learn a ton of shred metal tunes.  I’d work on scales and arpeggios a lot and investigate all sorts of lead techniques (tapping, pinch harmonics etc.).  I’d work on learning the solos to those tunes and then start trying to work on my own solos.  I might watch a bunch of instructional videos to try to get ideas as well.

If I was into Jazz, I’d be practicing specific standards.  I’d work on coming up with a bunch of ways to comp chords and practice soloing over the changes.  I’d listen to other renditions of the tunes and borrow (read: steal) any ideas I liked.

If your goal is to play exactly like Stevie Ray Vaughan – learning your melodic minor modes won’t help you directly with your goal, and being motivated to work on them will be difficult if you can’t tie it into your goals.

.

The #1 thing you should be practicing

Now, I’m going to advise you on the #1 thing you should be integrating into your practice regimen that you probably aren’t actively doing now – more than scales, chords or anything else I can think of for the moment.  And it’s a commonality with all of the examples above.

.

You should practice listening.

Not just hearing – really listening.

.

You should practice listening with the purpose of ultimately working on developing your musical vocabulary.

.

Listening, interacting and speaking are three pillars of any conversation and they should be important for you to consider in your playing as well.  If you can’t hear what’s going on – you’re not going to be able to say anything that’s poignant.

Without going into religion, I believe fundamentally that silence is a sacred thing.  I believe that if you are interrupting silence with sound  – you’d better have something to say.

So how do you practice listening?

.

Transcribe – or learn things aurally

There are a lot of internet sites that break down transcription methods better than I can do in the context of this post – but it’s important to note initially that you will probably not be that accurate.  Don’t worry about perfection.  Spend your energy learning phrases and understanding the context that they exist in (i.e. what chords to play them over).

When I first started playing guitar in bands and I had to learn songs for the bands I was playing in, the first thing I learned was the bass line – as it was easy for me to hear and gave me an idea of which “power chords” I’d have to play as well.  If you find a tune you like you should try to learn all the parts on guitar.  The bass lines, the vocal lines, the keyboard or other instrumental parts… You’ll start coming up with things that you might now have ever stumbled across on your own.  If you want to try to notate it – you will get even more out of it – but the important thing is to see how it all works together.

.

Sing it if you want to own it

Sing what you play.  Play a phrase and sing it back.

Play what you sing.  Sing a phrase and play it back.

When you sing something you internalize it.  Internalized things become a part of you.  When you play a melody try to sing it as well.  Listen to other people sing it and try to match the inflections.

(ah if only I thought of the above 2 myself – but they were taken from W.A. Mathieu’s excellent, The Listening Book. If you don’t know this book – I highly recommend it!)

.

Play with musicians that are better than you.

If you play with really good musicians – they’re listening.  We tend to copy other people’s behavior.  So if a room full of people are listening, we might be more inclined to listen as well.

.

Really listen to the world around you.

Try this for a moment.  Close your eyes and take a deep breath.  When you’re done exhaling –  focus for a couple of seconds on what you hear.  Doing this now I just heard – My refrigerator running.  The cat lightly snoring.  Cars passing in the distance.  Several neighbors mumbling down the hall.  The bathroom sink dripping.  The ac unit for the building turn off.  My heartbeat.  A car pulling into the garage.  When I imagine my heart beat as a bass drum being hit I can fall into a groove.  The fridge acts as a drone.  Now I hear a bird -it sounds like horn stabs.  The cars rumble like bass pitches.  My typing accelerates to accompany the sounds going on.  For an instant it’s a cool piece.  Then it vanishes as my perception goes back to what I’m doing.  Before I thought about it –  all I was aware of was the fridge.  Once I really listened I could hear a number of cool things going on.

.

When you really listen as a musician – you can start to get past the point of focusing on, “wait is that an A major or an A minor chord?” – and get into how what everyone is doing fits together.  You can start to get past the technique of performance and work towards making music.

Making music is a noble goal and it’s a goal that’s rooted in listening.   If you’re really listening all of those other things (scales, chords, etc) are going to come into play anyway and as you develop your vocabulary –  you develop your voice.

If you are known as someone who listens well and has something to say – there will always be people who seek you out.   In music.  In life.

.

Practice deeply.

Until next time.

-SC

.

If you like this post you may also like:

.

PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

.

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

.

FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?

.

Definitions and Documents Or Practicing Part IV

I was originally planning on updating this post with pictures of hand postures and address left and right hand muting techniques – but given that I have sunburned skin peeling off of 20% of my body – I’m going to hold off on photos for now.

Instead, I’d like to take a moment and actually address defining practicing as a means of understanding what is being addressed by practicing and then examine how documenting the process can assist with it.

For those of you who are just coming to this post you may want to also read the previous posts on practicing.  Here’s a link to part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Definition

By defining practicing it’s easier to understand what practicing is supposed to do.  Here is a partial definition from Meriam Webster.

“Main Entry: 1prac·tice

Variant(s): also prac·tise \ˈprak-təs\

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): prac·ticed also prac·tisedprac·tic·ing also prac·tis·ing

Etymology: Middle English practisen, from Middle French practiser, from Medieval Latin practizare,alteration of practicare, from practica practice, noun, from Late Latin practice, from Greek praktikē, from feminine of praktikos

Date: 14th century

transitive verb1 a : carry outapply <practice what you preach> b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually<practice politeness> c : to be professionally engaged in <practice medicine >
2 a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient <practice the act> b : to train by repeated exercises <practice pupils in penmanship>”

The definitions presented in the 2nd part of this definition help – but don’t really explain how to train or what practicing is supposed to achieve.  So I’m going to supply one of my own.

Practice:  The proper focused repetition of an idea through an incrementally difficult environment for the purpose of achieving a musical goal.

By tearing apart this definition some elements of practicing can be exposed that you might not have thought about before.

proper:  meaning the right way; consistently

focused:  Practice requires concentration because it requires attention to detail.

repetition:  repetition leads to familiarity (and familiarity breeds contempt so be careful here!)

incrementally difficult environment:  To practice something means that you are pushing your abilities to do something.  In music, one implication of this is to practice with a time keeping device (metronome, drum machine, drummer, recording, etc.) – but this could be any kind of parameter that actually pushes you.

for the purpose of achieving a musical goal:  Practice is goal oriented.  If you are not trying to achieve anything then you are not practicing.

With a clearer understanding of what is meant by practicing – we can go on to how to maximize the use of your practicing time.

1.  Set clear, well-defined goals (short AND long-term) and work towards those goals.

2.  Since practice requires concentration, put yourself in an environment that facilitates concentration such as a relatively quiet, well lit and well ventilated room as free of distraction as possible.

3.  While concentration is required for repetition, excessive repetition undermines concentration.  Many people use set periods of time to practice something.  This can be a good policy if it is done in moderation.  Bill Leavitt (the founder of the guitar department at Berklee)  suggested that students should practice reading for 15 minutes of every hour of practice – because 4 sessions of 15 concentrated minutes of practice get you a lot further than one hour of unfocused practice.  A timer (like an oven timer) can be a great assistance here.

For some people, concentration will be a learned activity.  If you are not used to focusing on something with intensity, then even trying to work 10 minutes on something may be problematic.

If you are having problems with this area – try starting with smaller intervals of time like 5 minutes with one short phrase and then move on to the next item on your agenda. Practicing in this manner will help you develop your capacity for focus as well.

.

There are several different thoughts about achieving goals, for me personally – it’s important to get many ideas into muscle memory slowly and develop them all at the same time rather than developing only one idea fully after another. You, however,  should plan on experimenting and find what approaches work for you

By setting a timer and not worrying about how long you are practicing, (in whatever methodology you use) you can spend more energy on the actual performance.

.

Documentation

One approach to consider is seen in how athletes train.  After all, playing guitar is a physical process that requires performance of well-trained activity.  This is very similar to a swimmer who has to be able to perform at a high level at a signal (like a whistle blowing).  One thing athletes do is WRITE IT DOWN.  Runners for example often keep a journal of performance times to see if they’re improving.  Writing things down in a journal doesn’t have to be complex or difficult.  I used to keep a notepad in my guitar case, and then write things down.  But now it’s easier to customize a practice log or journal and utilize that either in print or electronically.

.

I have linked two sample documents below.  Please feel free to download and use or edit at will.

PRACTICE LOG (PDF)

Weekly Practice Log (Word)

.

What needs to be written down:

Here’s a sample entry:

Week of What is being Practiced? Time Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Notes
6/8/10 A Major Pentatonic sweep (sextuplets) 10 mins 100bpm             Watch Pinky tension!!

.

The goal is to write just enough to keep track of what you’re doing.  Feel free to add or drop items.  

.

If you’re going to start really putting the hours into practicing, I would recommend that you give yourself enough material to do no more than an hour or two at one sitting. 

.

Do multiple sittings a day if you want. (Personally – I can’t really focus very well after an hour or so consistently.  So if I can I do an hour in the afternoon and then another hour later).  

.

It also depends on what I need to practice.  If it’s a difficult piece I need to pull together – I might have to do 4-5 sessions like this a day.  The point is to find what works for you and stick with it.

.

I’m calling it a practice log or a journal – but really it’s a type of map –

by keeping a journal you can see where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.

.

It’s a good idea to periodically go through some old journals to just kind of get a fix for where you’re at.

Keeping a practice journal can be a drag and a chore if you want to view it that way, but it can be hugely beneficial in seeing what it is you are actually getting done.  If you make it a part of the practice ritual it will just be something you do.

For example, the first thing an experienced player will do before they play anything on a guitar is to see if it’s in tune.  If you get used to just picking up the journal when you pick up a guitar to practice – it will become 2nd nature.

Now that you’re writing it down – here are some things to address while you’re practicing:

.

Practice accurately.

You have to play slowly and accurately before you can play quickly and accurately.

.

Pay attention!

Can you make out all of the notes?  Are you really nailing the rhythm?  Are there any open strings ringing or unwanted notes?  Are you practicing the same way that you’re going to play?  Is the guitar in the same position when you practice as when you play in front of an audience?

[*Special Note: Paying attention requires concentration which is why you can’t really practice while you’re watching TV.  You can play or warm up in front of a TV – you just can’t focus on the TV and the guitar at the same time.  If you can’t pay attention to something try moving on.  If you can’t move on, then stop and come back to it.  You will get much more done this way that by just mindlessly running fingering patterns*]

.

Always use a metronome, recording or time keeping device when practicing.

.

Isolate problem areas.

If you are learning a piece, there are often several areas that need more attention that the rest of the piece.  Isolate those areas (however small they may be) and develop them. When you have gotten more comfortable with the problematic areas –  begin to practice sections before and after the area.  Treat the problem area as a center and keep moving out from the center as necessary.

.

Do it right the first time.

Paying attention allows you to make sure that you’re practicing correctly.  Practice correctly – play correctly.  Inherent in this idea is that you’re practicing at a tempo you’re comfortable enough that you can tell if you’re playing it correctly.

.

Don’t go overboard.

Some people go from not practicing at all to trying to practice the entire day.  Music is built off of experience, growth and endurance – none of which comes quickly.  Moderation is a good thing.  Occasionally think of the long term, and use the marathoner’s strategy of pacing yourself.

.

Persevere.

Establish a regimen and stick as close to it as you can. If you make practicing enjoyable – you’ll eventually start to look forward to it.  It’s okay to stop and take breaks from practicing as a regimen, just don’t forget to start up again.

.

Don’t forget to play.

The whole point of practicing is to gain elements to utilize in playing music.  Play whenever possible, desired and/or required.  After all this is supposed to be enjoyable.

.

All of this advice works off of the idea that you have specific goals in mind when practicing.  My suggestions for what to practice will be the subject of a later post.

.

I hope this helps!

.

-SC

.

If you like this post you may also like:

.

PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

.

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

.

FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?.

.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”

If you want to be a great guitarist you should try to develop and nurture passion for other art or music that has nothing to do with guitar and adapt or assimilate those things in your playing.

.

Story Time

.

Please allow me to share a story with you.  This is a true story, but the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Once upon a time, there was a doe-eyed child trapped in a 17 year old body who left his small town of 2,000 people and went to a big city to study guitar.  The institution of learning he went to study guitar at was a very big place with several thousand musicians.  At the absolute minimum it was completely overwhelming for him as an experience.  He went to the school knowing his ass was going to get kicked – but not knowing that saying his ass would get kicked would be more like telling the parachuter mid jump when his/her chute wouldn’t open he/she might break a bone from the fall when they “bounced” (yes “bounced” is the technical term for this occurrence and yes, it happens often enough that a term needed to be developed).

.

It kind of broke him.

.

In addition to the culture shock of being in a city, rather than a place he described as “Deliverence with snow”, he found the school had a real focus on Jazz and anything non-Jazz was looked upon with complete derision.  He was bombarded with fellow students and faculty telling him the music he liked – the music that was a part of his soul –  was trash and he was wasting his time with it because Jazz was the only music that mattered.  So he did what anyone from a small working class town would do, he became a walking middle finger to anything Jazz because he thought that it was the only way he could defend his identity.  The moment that door was shut was the moment his undergrad experience was doomed.

.

Now to be fair, the blame for this was 50-50.  He had no understanding of Jazz as a style.  

Where he grew up in upstate NY, Classic Rock radio and top 40 was the staple and those were his primary means of musical exploration.  But the problem was the curriculum was based around an academic buy-in for Jazz pedagogy, so if you knew nothing about it stylistically – there was no easy way in.  It was just simply rammed down your throat and you either swallowed or spat it out.

In his lesson – a weekly 1/2 hour slot – he and his teacher went over a series of proficiency requirements that were necessary to pass the final exam.  The student asked questions about why he needed this material and how he could utilize the material in the rock and metal music he was playing –  but he was just told these were tools he needed to play Jazz.  And given what we’ve said about his (now visceral) reaction to Jazz you can imagine how well this was received.

.

His second semester he found another teacher and this teacher was more understanding about what he was trying to do and who shared a lot of his interests.  The two of them started delving into Japanese modes and other concepts and he actually got excited about what he was doing.   The student asked his new teacher if they could just keep going in this direction instead of focusing on rote memorizations of reharmonized chord-solo renditions of tunes that he didn’t need solo renditions.  The teacher said to talk with the chair of the department and get his approval.

.

The chair of the department was newly appointed, had a lot of work to do and was not happy with the prospect of meeting with this student.  The student explained he had a very specific direction that he wanted to go in his playing, that this direction didn’t coincide with the narrow parameters of the proficiencies and then asked the chair if there was any way that he could be accommodated.  The chair informed him that wasn’t what they did at the school.  The purpose of the school (according to the chair) was to have students master that particular school’s style and then when the student got out he or she would have the rest of their carer to develop their own style.

.

The student said that while he realized he was only a student – the logic of the argument evaded him.  Actually, in the interest of honest reporting and to exclude any pretense of articulation what he said was,

.

“Look I know I don’t know anything – but that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  There’s only 12 notes – that’s the substance.  Everything else is style.  What is the point of having 800 people all walking out of here and all sounding exactly the same?  Isn’t my style the only thing that’s going to make me different from every other guitarist out there?”

.

The student was then told that was the way it was and he could either take it or leave it.  

The student thanked the chair for his time, walked over to another office and submitted a change of major form.

.

Music is a language.  If you learn it as a language – immersing yourself in it, learning vocabulary, speaking it to others as often as possible – you will gain fluidity in it.

.

I want to discus vocabulary for a moment and then discuss the issue of style.  One way to think of licks is as musical vocabulary.  As a musician, you learn a bunch of licks so you can communicate with other musicians.  It’s similar to going on any trip or travel.  You might not speak a foreign language – but you should at least learn how to say a few words or phrases to try to get you by.

.

If you only learn licks from one source –

it will be difficult to not sound like that source.

.

If I go to a show and see a guitar player I can tell you usually in a song or two who he’s listened to.  If it’s only guitar players I probably won’t make it to song #3.  Going back to the language analogy, if you grow up in New Jersey and everyone you know and speak with is from New Jersey – you’re going to have to work hard to get a Texas accent sounding authentic, much less an Irish or Spanish one.  Do you have to learn other accents?  No.  No one is forcing you to do so but it’s important to realize that…

.

all of your experiences influence how you communicate with other people.

.

Hence the Wittgenstein quote in the article.  For those of you who remember Orwell’s “1984” – there was the idea of newspeak,  the language that kept getting smaller each year for the purposes of eradicating thoughtcrime.  The less you experience in the world, the less you are able to express.  This is why 13 year old children writing love songs do not have the lyrical content to truly plumb the depths of the soul, even though they are often supremely confident that they do.

.

If your experiences influence how you speak with other people then it stands to reason they can effect how you play with other people.  If, for example, four guys in a room have only listed to, played and learned “Smoke on the water” – they’re not going to write “Giant Steps” on their own any time soon.  They’re going to play “Smoke on the water” and if they do write something new, it will probably have a lot of similarities to “Smoke on the water”.  (Traveler’s advisory – do not party with these guys.)

.

Adaptation and the hidden agenda

.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t learn other people’s licks.  It’s vital that you dobecause you have to develop vocabulary, but I highly recommend you vary your sources.  If you play guitar, try learning music played on other stringed instruments like violin, or from non-string performances like vocal lines.  My rhythm playing is rhythmically informed by things like drum rudiments, flamenco foot work and rhythmic phonetics.  My single line playing is rooted in rock, but there’s various Hindustani, Balkan, Arabic and Koto references that are specific to things I do.

.

Almost every gig I’ve ever played I got because I put energy into learning things that weren’t guitaristic and adapting them.  You’ll never confuse my guitar with a Kayagum – but if I play a note with a sharp bend and crazy vibrato it doesn’t sound like a guitar lick either.  It crosses a boundary and becomes something new.  And here is the hidden agenda.

.

When it becomes new, it becomes yours and things that are yours have extra value.

.

In addition to this, try cultivating artistic influences from things that are not guitar related.  

The painter Francis Bacon probably influenced me at least as much as Hendrix and his works are a model for me in expressing motion and fluidity through art.  I’m passionate about books and films and I try to adapt anything worthwhile in those experiences into my playing.

.

Acquiring tastes

.

A funny thing happened to that student after he got out of school.  He started playing with a lot of other players who had opened their minds instead of closing them and those people hipped him to a lot of music – including Ornette Coleman and Ornette was making some of the most wonderful music he had ever heard.  The student found that when it wasn’t being force fed to him as the only viable form of musical expression that there were a lot of great artists and great music being made in the genre and years later (with a little maturity and perspective behind him) he became a fan and started adopting a number of ideas and approaches from the style into his playing.

.

The important thing is to find things that you are passionate about and explore, adapt and/or assimilate them to the fullest level you can.

.

The limits of your musical language are the limits of your style.

.

As always thanks for reading!

-SC