A Note From A Show

It was back in Boston.

I had walked into a small club called TT the bear’s (which I had played on many occasions before) to see my friend’s band play, and one of the opening bands was an early incarnation of The Willard Grant Conspiracy.

When I see bands on SNL and there are 10 people on stage individually playing nothing  and it cumulatively sounds like 3 competent musicians are playing it drives me nuts.  In this case, there were six or eight people on stage (all playing acoustic instruments …some acoustic guitars, a violin, mandolin, bass, and Robert Fisher’s vocals) and it sounded enormous.  They devoured the air in the room and for 40 minutes or so –  we were collectively sucked into a black hole and left staring in mute wonder at this immense vortex we were in and then we were spit back out into the reality of a small club with sticky floors.

There wasn’t a II V I or an altered chord in sight. The time signatures were common.  Nothing faster than an 1/8th note was played.  It was a number of musicians playing the same rhythms (and playing off of that rhythm) to create a specific immersive sound.  Everything was in service to the vocal and the song.

It gets easy to get caught up in what this person is doing or what that person is doing online, but it’s the moments that move you that stay with you forever.  I can tell you to go check out their Flying Low cd, but the communal moment I had with Willard Grant and a few other people in that small room is what stays with me as I listen to “House Is Not a Home” as I type this.  My experience in listening to those songs will always be tied to that moment.

Here’s the biggest secret I can tell you about musical performance.

The single biggest factor pulling off any performance for a live audience is conviction.

If you have it, you can sit on an avoid note and everyone will nod their heads, if you don’t have it you can hit every note with MIDI-like precision and elicit yawns in response.

All the shedding you do is really to get the material under your fingers so you can play it with conviction when you perform.  Some people tap into that with a minimal amount of musical skill and training.  Some people train their whole lives and never find it.  When you speak with authority, people listen to what you have to say (you do have the musical vocabulary and skill to help sustain what’s happening yes? – I’d argue that people who perform with real conviction find natural rhythm, dynamics and other elements intuitively in many cases – the so called “musical” considerations fall into line with the force of the message being delivered.)  Now that audience might ignore it if it doesn’t continue to move or reach them, but it at least gets their ear.

It get’s easy to get caught up in the technique or the application of what we do and loose the forest looking for the tree.

Guitarists serve the guitar but musicians serve the song.  Sometimes that’s Willard Grant, sometimes that’s seeing a video of Yngwie killing it with Alcatrazz on a live show in Japan. Sometimes that’s the song you’re playing and sometimes it’s the song of your heart, but whichever one you’re playing – play it like you’re opening that vortex and bring people in.

I hope this helps in some way and as always, thanks for reading!


PS – if you’re happen to be in Gloversville,NY on Saturday come check out my clinic at the Gloversville library at noon.  (tinyurl.com/gloversvilleguitar)

I’ll have my guitar…and some books…and notes.  Beaucoup notes at that!

Keeping Your Ego Out Of The Song’s Way

Hey everyone.

A quick update before the post.  Just as an FYI – the podcast isn’t dead but with a number of recent time crunches and an unstable recording environment for a while recording opportunities have been non-existant.  There will definitely be more (less apologetic)  posts in the future.

Glenn Branca Ensemble at Berlin Atonal (Photo taken from Berlin Atonal FB page)

Glenn Branca Ensemble at Berlin Atonal (Photo taken from Berlin Atonal FB page)

Meantime back at the ranch –  I just got home from some shows in the UK and Germany and doing any type of touring always makes me a little introspective and makes me think back to this post that was originally posted on guitArchitecture.  It’s interesting playing shows with someone like Glenn Branca because you’re surrendering to the composer’s vision and doing your best to execute it.  It’s a mind set “classical” players live in constantly but it can be a strange one for an improvising artist.

Letting the song sing

One of my more esoteric laptop guitar gigs with Mark Trayle and Ulrich Krieger is up on SoundCloud.

My rig is essentially the same as before:

Guitar (8 string Omen) –> Duet Break out box–>Duet–>Laptop (w. usb Line 6 shortboard)–>AU LAB (w. SooperLooper and PODFarm)–>18 Watt atomic amp.  My favorite tech comment came from Mark, “Wow I just realized that your entire rig is on the lectern.  That’s pretty cool…”

Gigs like this are a little strange for me as multi-layered looping, manipulating and mixing typically involves a lot more editing than actual playing, but a big part of a situation like this involves keeping your ego out of the music’s way and making sure that you serve the song.

The Obligatory Experiential Example

Once I saw a gig at the House of Blues with Shawn Lane, Jonas Hellborg and Apartment Q258.  I was really excited to see the show and the first set was a  cool improv.  I was blown away at the hairpin turns that Hellborg and Q258 were taking, but at the 40 minute point or so – it looked like it was going to wrap up, and I guess Shawn hadn’t played enough – because he pulled out a 15-20 minute guitar solo.  While I love Shawn’s playing, I was looking at my watch by the six minute point.  It was so over the top that I left before the set was done.  It was just too much, had nothing to do with the spirit of the piece and just had too much to do with him showing us how well he could play.

About a year later I saw one of the strangest lineups I could remember:  Buckethead (with bass, drums and DJ) and Lane/Hellborg/Q258 opening for The Jazz Mandolin Project.  Initially, my thought was, “oh no not this again” but this time Lane was playing tunes.  The group played 3-4 tunes with open sections.  Everyone was playing in service to the song and there aren’t three people on the planet that could have played that set that night better than they did.  Jazz mandolin project got crushed but to be fair, I felt bad for any band that had to go on after Buckethead and Lane that night.

Which kind of musician are you?

Essentially there are two types of musicians that I’ve met in my travels:

  • there are people who play instruments to play music
  • and then there are those who play music to play their instruments.

As a related example, please allow me to explain…

Why Some Academic Jazz bugs me…

When I went to Berklee, there was an overarching theme that ran through many of the jazz recitals I saw:

  • Get through the head as quickly as possible
  • breathe a sigh of relief that that’s done because now the “real” music can happen (solos)

If you hate the head so much, why even play it?  Why not eliminate the song form entirely?

It’s because people are taught that the real music comes from their melodic/harmonic voice rather than emphasizing that it’s their voice in service to a context, be that a song form, a dialog with other players, or a specific audience/performance situation.

It’s a big part of why I never played jazz.  When studying it, I quickly realized that I just didn’t dig a lot of the real book tunes.  What I dug were specific players and those players always play the song and not the instrument – be it Ornette, or Monk or Bill Frisell.   It’s the combination of the players and the material that got to me.  I’m much more open about jazz now but that concept of the tune as a necessary evil is abhorrent to me.

For the players out there, on gigs like the one I posted, there are plenty of moments where I have to resist the urge to overplay and what follows are several techniques I use in that service, but for non players I use some of these approaches  in conversation as well.

1.  Pause and take a breath.  After that breath, do I still need to play/say what I want to play/say?  If the urgency is still there – then I play it.  90% of the time it probably isn’t.

2.  Play only when I exhale.  Sometimes I’ll talk or sing while I’m playing as well.  Sometimes that has nothing to do with the notes coming out of my guitar – but it’s about an interactive conversation.  And I want to make sure that everyone else speaks as well.

3.  Overplay and then regret it later.

Here’s another way to think about it.  You can work out consistently and build up huge muscles but you only need the muscles of a baby to pet a cat and if you handle a cat with the same force that you lift weights, you’ll probably kill it.

Just because you can play a million notes doesn’t mean that a million notes are going to work in every situation, but if you have the ability to play a million notes in your pocket you can pull it out when you need to.

In other words, your strength may not help you in petting a cat – but it may be the thing that keeps you alive when a book case falls on you.  Context may not everything but it’s a whole lot of something to consider.

Playing with good people is 1/2 the battle

Fortunately, Mark and Ulrich are such incredible musicians that it set the tone for the performance.  I knew that whatever they did would be great and that all I had to do was help mark the path and stay out-of-the-way when necessary.  I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to play with people like Vinny Golia who are at such a stunning level that it’s going to bring me up a little just by sheer gravitational talent pull (and more likely to get my performance up by kicking my ass into gear to get with the program.)

The laptop/looping things I do are really different from many of the other contexts I play in but I enjoy them immensely and hopefully other people will as well.  Here’s hoping we see some official collins/krieger/trayle recordings in the future.

Thanks for reading!


ps – If you like this post, you may like the kindle ebooks I have for sale on Amazon.