Saturday, November 19, 2011

Using The Theory Of Relativity To Increase Efficiency In Improvisation

Albert Einstein was right.  Time is relative.  It speeds up or slows down depending on how fast one thing is moving relative to something else.  When you are a beginner on guitar, the space in between 16th notes played 8 notes per second seems mighty small.  Yet as you spend time on your instrument, that space in between the notes grows larger, even though according to the clock the rate at which the notes are being played has not changed in the months/years since you began playing.

This principle works in reverse as well.  Lets use the "Rhythm Changes" found in several jazz standards as an example.

Here's an example of the chords which could be used when playing "Rhythm Changes in the key of Bb:

(click on chord chart to see larger image)

Now these changes are sometimes played very fast.  And the first time you are exposed to changes flying by at a quick tempo, its easy to get confused about what chord is going by at any given time, and what your options are for playing over that chord.  Time seems cramped with little space left for thought and creativity.

So give this a try.  Instead of practicing your improvisation over these changes at a fast (e.g. 144 BPM), try setting the metronome to 70 or even 60 BPM.  Now try improvising over these changes at that SLOW tempo - but think of things you would/could play if the tempo was cranked up and flying.

If you need to slow it down even further, there's no problem with that.  Just get it down to a speed where you can think and approach the chord changes at a MENTALLY RELAXED place.  Not rushed.  Not confused.  Nice and slow and EASY.

At this slow tempo, as you are cognizant of each chord going by (Bb....Gm7...Cm7...F7...etc.) you'll find more soloing ideas coming to mind for each of those chords such as where to go on the fretboard, what licks that can be used and tied together, and where you should take a breath and play NOTHING to  create space.

If you're playing swing 8th notes across these changes, what 8 notes work well over the Bb?  Then thinking melodically, what 8 notes lay across the Gm7?  Then the Cm7, then the F7, and so on throughout the song.

You will also find the chord changes being burned into your mind as you do this - which is one of the three different software applications which should be running simultaneously inside you as you improvise.
  1. Knowledge of what is chord is going by at any given moment in the song while you are soloing.  It is very helpful to have the original melody of the song going thru your head as well - this will help you to craft a solo which really fits the song.
  2. Awareness of what you can play over that chord (e.g. licks, arpeggios, approach tones, etc.)
  3. Creativity, taste, emotion, etc. which breathes life into the dry dust of music theory
You will find that taking it SLOW and practicing improvisation over a song in SLOW MOTION like this will expand the amount of time you have to think when the song is played up to speed.  The ideas you came up with in your slow motion mode will start to creep into your playing when you are jamming up at normal tempos.  And THAT is where you realize value of hanging out on the slow end of time.

Yes, although this principle of time in music is more analogy than physics, Einstein would be cheering you on  when it comes to flying at warp speed thru complex systems.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Time Traveling With Your Guitar

So we look at where we are on our instruments, then we look at where we'd like to be.  The gulf between our current position and the that which we'd like to attain may seem impossible to cross.  How in the world do the players we admire get to such an incredible skill level?  While it may come easier to some, the story of the tortoise and the hare plays out in the realm of music.  Perseverance is ultimately more important than being the  child prodigy who got off to a fast start.

However, having a strategy of how you are going to travel into the future with your guitar is key.  What is your destination?  Have you defined it, or are you merely wandering around the musical planet like a hobo - traveling to wherever the train you've jumped is heading.

Let me share a couple examples from my own journey.

Several years ago it dawned on me that my vibrato was very weak.  I talked to a violinist who had magnificent vibrato and asked her how she developed it.  Her answer, "I practice vibrato about 15 minutes each day".  Then I read an interview with guitarist Andy Latimer of the group Camel who happens to have one of the nicest vibratos I've heard yet.  When asked about it, his reply was, "I spend time wiggling my finger back and forth".  Doh!  The light bulb went off.  So you have to PRACTICE vibrato to get a good vibrato.

I realized it would probably take a year or so to make significant advancement with my vibrato - BUT, I also realized a year was going to pass whether I was working on my vibrato or not.  Why not enter the future 12 months from now with a stronger vibrato?  So for the next year, if I was watching a movie at home, I'd have my Strat in my lap.  I'd mute the strings with my picking hand so as to not make any noise, and with my fretting hand I'd do the following:

  • With my 1st finger of the 1st fret of the 6th string, I'd slowly move my finger back and forth - bending the string slightly both away from the 5th string and then alternative towards the 5th string.
  • Then staying on the 6th string, I'd do the same with my 2nd finger on the 2nd fret, then my 3rd finger on the 3rd fret, then my 4th finger on the 4th fret.
  • Then I'd shift my first finger to the 5th fret of the 6th string and repeat the process above.
  • I'd keep shifting until I got the highest fret on the 6th string, then I'd repeat the process on the 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings.
  • At the end of this exercise, I had worked out all four fingers and covered every fret on each string.
Guess what?  Twelve months came and went and at the end of it, my vibrato had improved significantly.

I have several other stories of similar approaches to improving my playing.  What is it you're going after?  Is it speed?  Is it knowledge of the fretboard?  Is it sight reading?  Is it tone?  Is it taste?  Whatever it is will take some time - BUT time keeps marching on whether you are working on improving your playing or not!

Now there is a huge difference between working hard vs. working smart.  Define your destination.  Then search out those players who have already arrived there and find out how they did it.  Don't reinvent the wheel.

The important thing is to begin your trek with a map in hand.  You need to know where you want to go so that you don't wander aimlessly.  It may seem like a long way to travel to reach your musical destination, but you've got to get started and keep walking.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with a good swift kick in the pants.  Don't despise small beginnings - everyone else who is better than you was once at the same level you are now.

"Are you reelin' in the years, just stowing away the time?"  Time is an asset that I value more than money or possessions.  It can be spent, it can be redeemed, but time can never be replaced.  How are you using the time you've been given?  We can't stop the clock - we can only ride it.  Where is it taking you?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Quest For Tone

We guitarists are notorious for spending vast amounts of time, effort, and money in our quest for that elusive Holy Grail of perfect tone.  An entire industry exists solely to supply the tools for our insatiable appetite for angelic overtones, crisp mids, sparkling highs, and thundering lows.

While I am not immune from the Siren's call of the local music store, I want to propose a foundational idea that may have eluded some of us on our tone quest.

Can you hear the tone you want in your head, when you are nowhere near a guitar?

What I mean is this.  If you can't imagine/hear the tone you want in your mind before you go twisting knobs, trying different strings, replacing speakers, swapping out pickups, etc., then the chances of you finding "that" sound are pretty slim.  You may stumble upon tones you like, but you will have a difficult time finding your "voice" on the guitar if you can't define what it sounds like in your mind.

Try this experiment with an unplugged acoustic guitar.  Get it in your hands and play on it for a few minutes.  It may sound good, it may sound cheap and bad.  Doesn't matter.  Next, close your eyes and imagine/pretend that guitar is the best sounding acoustic in the world - one that creates "the" tone you hear in your mind as your perfect sound.  Now play that guitar, eyes closed, imagining that awesome tone is there.

You may not actually achieve tone Nirvana this way, but you should see a marked improvement in the sound you are getting out of that guitar.  Why? Because you were carrying that sound inside you, and what you carry inside comes out thru your hands and playing.

The same principle holds true for an electric rig.  Have you ever had another player take a turn on your rig and get a tone out of it that you couldn't get?  That's because he/she was carrying a different tone inside of them, and that affected their playing technique - their hands.

So before you run out and buy that $4,000 amp to try to improve your tone, try envisioning "the" tone you want to create in your mind.  If you own that tone inside of you, it will guide not only your hands as you are playing, but also the knobs you are twisting on the amps and effects pedals you currently own.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Four States Of Guitar Playing

I've found there are four states in which we guitarists find ourselves when holding a guitar in our hands.  These modes of existence in which we spend our time with our instruments compliment each other - and are each necessary for the others to progress.

State #1 - Practicing

Practicing is the time we spend focused on learning new material, engrafting good technique into our muscle memory, working on tone, exploring improvisation, etc.  Practice is most efficient when done focused on perfection rather than on speed.

State #2 - Writing/Arranging

All guitar players compose music.  Granted it may be as simple as "composing" how you are going to strum a G chord, but you decide that, you create that feel.

Its good practice (no pun intended) to document your musical creations.   If you're starting with very simple ideas, that fine.  But document them somehow.  You don't have to read/write standard music notation to do this.  Scribble it down in whatever code works for you, record it (you don't need a full blown studio - I've used voice mail to record ideas), and KEEP it where you can go back and give it the "day after" test to see how it sounds awhile after (sometimes your opinions of your creation change when hearing it the next day).

State #3 - Test Pilot

OK, hopefully by now you know I'm a big proponent of practicing in slow motion.  However, there are times when you have to be a test pilot on the guitar.  See how fast you can go before you crash!  Sometimes after practicing an hour at 80 BPM, I'll crank the metronome up to 132 or 152 BPM and just go for it.  Nothing better than breaking the sound barrier and living to tell about it!

State #4 - Performing

Performing is the END which justifies the MEANS.  You didn't pick up the guitar with the hopes of sitting in your room practicing scales for hours upon hours.  You're a guitarist because you want to lay down some great music before you check out of planet Earth.  When I'm playing a gig, I'm riding on the time I've spent practicing, writing/arranging, and being a test pilot.  BUT, my mind is relaxed and free.  I'm keeping my playing in a zone that is easy.  Saxophonist Kirk Whalum explains it this way.  If you have a '74 Chevy Vega and a 2011 Ferrari both going 70 m.p.h., one of them has more HEADROOM, is less strained, can jump up to 90 m.p.h. easily if needed.  Don't play at the top end of your capability - leave some head room so your engine doesn't red line and blow up. 

I tend to turn off my brain and play from feeling and emotion when performing.  Whatever has made its way into my arsenal of guitar tools from practicing, writing/arranging, and flying the X-15 will come out easy and will be riding on the winds of musical creation vs. mere guitar exercises. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

The slower I practice, the faster I get...

I spent many years as a young man with the metronome cranked up to 152 BPM playing 4 notes per click. I was the fastest guy on the block, but my playing really wasn't that good - it was just fast.  AND my arms, hands, and fingers were tense.

Fast forward a few decades, and speed is no longer the prime objective.  Playing tasty is what I'm going after these days.  Yet, I do want to be able to put the pedal down and pass a few cars when I need to - and its nice to have the horse power under the hood when needed.

So I discovered something a few years ago that I wish I'd known when I was a teenage speed freak.  The slower and more relaxed you are when you practice, the faster you can play.

For example, if you are playing along with a metronome set to 120BPM, try slowing it down to 80 BPM or even 75 BPM.  It will feel like you are playing in slow motion.  But try it for 60 minutes.  Make sure you hands - and entire body - are TOTALLY relaxed!  (This is important).  Use minimal downward pressure on your fretting hand - let it GLIDE over the notes you are playing.

After an hour, turn that metronome back up to 120 BPM and see how EASY it is to play fast - how relaxed your hands feel.  If you do this once, you will be hooked.