Saturday, February 25, 2012

Notes and Passages - Communication and New Places

Hand written by the master - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

As guitarists, it is all too easy to overlook the wonders of the fundamentals of music.  When you stop to think that the sound waves emitted from vibrating strings can communicate emotion and alter a listener's feelings or mood, the mystery of the what transpires behind the curtain of audible sound in intriguing indeed.

Consider the note.  Notes are the atoms of music - the building blocks of all melody and harmony, bound together by time, distinguished by color/timber, with radioactive half-lives of varying durations (e.g. half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.), and set apart by the deep void of space (silence).

In physics there are two primary fields of study - the macro and the micro.  The macro is the universe - the cosmos - and its mind boggling infinite boundaries, history, future, quasars, and black holes.  The micro is the subatomic - the neutrons, electrons, protons, quarks, strings, and so forth which interact in mind boggling mechanics to form matter.

In music there is also the macro and the micro.  The macro is the genre, the history, the culture, and the evolution of music.  The micro are the sub-song components such as notes, silence/rests, chords, timing, texture, feel, melodies, harmonies and passages.  Today I'm looking at two of the micro components of music - notes and passages.


At its most basic and fundamental level, what is a note?  While a note may have pitch, timbre/color, intensity/volume, and duration, the primary definition of a note is that it is a brief message.  Yes, every note ever played is a brief message.  Some of these notes are meaningless drivel, such as a mindless reminder on a Posted Note at work that tells you someone's phone number.  Other notes will cherished and saved for a lifetime - such as notes from loved ones which hold great meaning.

Note #1 = Trash

(click on image to enlarge)

Note #2 = Treasure

So try this.  Sit in a dark room and play one solitary note and LISTEN as it fades away.  What message is in that note?  Is it a work phone number that is destined to be thrown away the next time you clean your desk, or is it a note to your lover expressing a short - but heartfelt - expression of feelings that they will keep forever?

The content of the note is determined by the one who writes it.  Is it trash or treasure?  As you sit in the dark playing one solitary note after another - and listening to them fade into the darkness - what is the content of these notes?  What do they say?  More importantly, what are you saying in that note?

Give this thought and practice and in due time your music will carry a depth of meaning far greater than its current content.  Having the vision, the target, the awareness that your guitar is both pen and paper for the notes you are writing is the first step towards creating music with meaning.  If your music is SAYING SOMETHING you will find a greater appreciation of it from your listeners.


The Golden Staircase During The Alaska Gold Rush In The Last Years Of The 19th Century
(click on image to enlarge)

Now give thought to a passage.  What is a passage?  A passage is something that takes you from one place to the next place.  There are hidden passages, underground passages, mountain passages, jungle passages, etc.  Doorways, trails, tunnels, and tracks that transport you to new destinations.

In music a passage is usually thought of as a brief phrase of music with a beginning and an end.  But it is too easy to undervalue this important component of musical communication and relegate it to mere musical Lincoln Logs used to build a larger structure.

I want you to imagine this event.  You are playing guitar in a club, a bar, a church, a concert, a park, wherever, and people are LISTENING to you play.  It comes time for you to solo.  One approach is to throw out a bunch of licks and scales which have mostly academic and gymnastic origins behind them - impressive displays of technique, skill, and ability.  The better approach is to play a PASSAGE - a sentence, a statement - then take a breath and punctuate that passage with a period, a coma, a question mark, a quotation mark, or an exclamation mark.  Imagine your audience before and after that passage.  You've said something on your guitar which has taken them from the place they were before the passage began, to a new place - perhaps a familiar spot or one they've never been to before.

Think of breaking your playing up into phrases - each one worth hearing.  Play a phrase,  "I'm taking you here!  I'm taking you there!"  Play a phrase, "I'm pouring out my heart here - can you hear it?"  You might be slapping your listeners in the face, or caressing them with healing medicine.  You might be venting your pain, or sharing your joy.  But you are taking them with you on a passage to a new place.

People listen to music because they want to be taken away - and the farther away you can take them, the more they will want to listen to you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don't Ask Me How Little You Should Learn - Learn All That You Can

Dr. Harvey Floyd

A long long time ago one of the many things I studied in universities was theology.  Now understand that I was not your typical theology student.  My background was playing guitar in bars, working construction (carpenter/framer and backhoe/dump truck operator) with a bunch of rough characters, working in casinos in Lake Tahoe, and a stint working on attack avionics for the F-16 fighter jet.  At some point along the way I found myself with a full ride scholarship to a decent school and used that to earn a degree in theology.

Now the study of theology requires a bit of thought and work.  We had to learn to read ancient Greek, and had mounds of books to read, papers to write, grappling with 19th century German theologians, history, philosophy, archeology, etc., etc., etc., which in retrospect didn't have a whole lot to do with God (but that's another conversation).

One of my hardest, most difficult, and favorite professors was Dr. Harvey Floyd.  He was an old school professor who was quite eccentric, brilliant in his knowledge, inspiring in his teaching style, and his extremely high standards required the acquisition of massive amounts of information.  He was simultaneously feared and loved by his students.

One vivid memory which sticks with me - and which applies to guitar (yes, this is a guitar blog) is Dr. Floyd's response to one of my questions.  I had over 80 pages of notes to study for one of his tests.  I went to his office - a small cozy room with bookshelves covering every inch of wall - and asked him what I should focus on in my preparation for the test.  After all, I had over 80 pages of notes.

After hearing my request for him to direct me to the "important" information in my studies, he took a long dramatic look at the ceiling, breathed a long sigh, looked at me and said, "Don't ask me how little you should learn - learn all that you can."

At the time I was not amused at his answer, however as I look back on my time in school, it was one of the more profound things a professor ever told me.


Now when it comes to music and the guitar, there is much more to learn than one person can assimilate in one lifetime.  There is an unending river of songs flowing on this planet, there is a vast pool of knowledge of music theory, there is a significant and long journey of applying that knowledge of music theory to the fretboard of the guitar, there are different styles and approaches to playing - each one of which can take years to master, there is the understanding of people and how to touch them with music, there is the music "business",  there is understanding of the mechanical aspects and design of guitars, amplifiers, and effects, as well as the ins and outs of live sound and recording.

Faced with an insurmountable mountain of information, its easy to get intimidated, limit yourself, and shut down the learning machine - or advance at a snail's pace.  Yet, all of the areas I've listed above - and probably several which I overlooked - are important for today's guitarist to grasp and master.  Does every great guitarist know everything about everything?  No.  Do you have to know everything about everything to be a great guitarist?  No.  BUT, faced with a finite life span and the desire to leave your mark on the world which says, "I was here" there is no doubt that the attitude and strategy with which we approach this mountain of information will have a great bearing on our stature as musicians.

If I could go back in time and sit down with my 15 year old self, this is what I tell him about guitar playing.

  • The more songs you learn, the easier it will be to learn songs.  Learn songs!  At least one song per week.  The more you memorize, the more easily you can memorize.
  • Learn to sight read!  Kids in 8th grade marching band can read music, so it must not be that hard.  Just do it - its gonna pay off.
  • Jam - Jam all the time whenever and with whoever you can.  There is no substitute for playing live with other musicians.  Try to play with musicians better than yourself - that's how you are going to get better.
  • Learn something new about music theory every day.  It may seem daunting, but it isn't.  There is no one aspect of music theory which is difficult to grasp.  Its merely a thousand simple things.  Learn one simple thing each day and before you know it, you will surprise yourself at how much you know.
  • Take something that is "hard" to play on the guitar and practice it until it is as easy as making an open Em chord.  If you practice enough, the most difficult passage ever written will be as easy to play as a simple chord.
  • Believe and expect that its going to be easy - not hard.  If you think it will be hard, it will be hard.  If you think, "this will be easy - I just have to figure it out", then it will be easy.  Attitude attitude attitude!
  • Find teachers who are GREAT players to show you proper playing technique.  If it feels awkward to use great technique, practice it until it doesn't feel awkward anymore.
  • Think thru your musical curriculum.  You can't learn everything at once.  Determine what you should tackle when and how.  Have a strategy for mastering your instrument.
  • The bottom line is that I want you to learn one hundred times more than I did when I was growing up  and learning guitar.  LEARN ALL THAT YOU CAN!

So if I could sit down with myself today - or with you - I would say much of the same things I've listed above.  As I spoke of in my previous blog, TIME TRAVELING WITH YOUR GUITAR, time is going to pass whether you are developing as a musician or not.  Why not meet the future with some new knowledge under your belt?

Now obviously you want to take some time to develop a strategic road map to your learning, and not just begin devouring information in a random fashion.  But wherever you are in your musical journey, it's probably time to kick it into gear, take it up a notch, and believe that it won't be hard to learn - it's just a vast amount of very simple concepts that have to be assimilated one at a time.

Don't limit yourself.  You can do this. 

The Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz didn't really need a brain.  What he needed was confidence - and a different perspective on learning.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Take A Seat In The Control Room - From Now On YOU Are A Producer!

Let me ask you a VERY important question.  You are a guitarist, but DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC LIKE A MUSIC PRODUCER LISTENS TO MUSIC?

Too many guitarists listen to music as a guitarist vs. listening to music as a music producer.

I've had the opportunity to work with a few Grammy award winning producers on recording sessions.  I've observed two major characteristics which are common among these guys.  First, they are EASY to work with - they make you feel good about your contributions and they maintain a relaxed atmosphere.  Second, they have an INCREDIBLE set of ears.  It is this second characteristic - the ability to listen - that I want to discuss today.

Here are some common signs that may indicate you are listening as a guitarist:

  • You think its important that your guitar be out front in the mix at all times
  • You think you must be playing thru the entire song - never sitting out for a verse or passage
  • You think you must play something "impressive" and shy away from simple parts
  • You primarily listen to and focus on your guitar and don't pay a lot of attention to what the other instruments and vocalists are doing
  • You are playing licks and fills in the song at the same time another band member is doing the same thing, or you are walking on top of the vocalist while they sing

Here are some ways you can listen like a producer:

  • Listen to the sound of the ENTIRE BAND - not just your instrument
  • Seek out parts that compliment the sound of the band. This may mean playing very minimally (e.g. a small upstroke chord on the "and" of the 4th beat and nothing more) or not playing at all during an entire verse. 
  • Listen to the vocalist and play parts which compliment their singing.  Don't walk on top of the vocals with too many fills - instead find holes which are asking to be filled, but also listen for SPACE that should be left unfilled.
  • Pay atttention - focus - on what the bass, drums, keys, horns, other guitars, etc. are doing.  Find a groove that fits with their parts.  Again, listen to the whole of the band - not just your guitar.
  • Just like the tone of your voice can convey more meaning than the actual words you speak, the tone of your guitar will convey more meaning and message than the notes you may choose to play.  HEAR what tone will best compliment the song, what effects to use, etc.
  • Focus on the DYNAMICS of the songs - where should they be down low and chilled vs. up and intense.
  • Either thru spontaneous eye contact and/or body language, or pre-arranged agreement, have only one instrument providing fills (e.g the piano does the fills on the first verse, the guitar does fills on the chorus, etc.).  You don't want to step on each others toes by both doing fills at the same time.

I can guarantee that the more you listen like a producer and the less you listen like a guitarist, the more invitations you will receive to play with other musicians.  It's way too easy to overplay and attempt the make the guitar the focus of attention vs. playing parts that make the band sound incredible.

Take time to listen to your favorite bands and listen to what the guitar is NOT doing.  Pay attention to the places where you don't hear the guitar, or the guitar is doing almost nothing.  Study the DYNAMICS (the ebb and flow of volume/intensity) in your favorite songs. Dynamics keeps the audience engaged.  If you maintain the same energy level thoughtout your songs without exploring the variations which exist in between subdued and intense, the audience will soon tune you out.

You will find as you spend more and more energy in LISTENING like a great producer listens, you will find more and more ideas coming to mind to improve the sound of your band.  You will be seen more as a leader than the guy with the loudest amp who they all wish would turn down the volume a bit.

It's fun.  It's part of maturing as a musican.  And, your bandmates will love you for it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exercising vs. Playing

The world of music and music education abounds with exercises.  Scales, arpeggios, sight singing, ear training, chord voicing, etc., etc., etc.  Take a hungry music student and show him or her this musical gymnasium and they may wander in there amazed at all the incredible work out apparatuses - and get totally side tracked as to the end goal of exercising.  Its possible to make mastering each workout station the end, rather than seeing them as a means to the end.

Think of a professional NFL football player.  During team practices, they lift weights as part of their training.  They lift a lot of weights.  This makes them stronger - and consequently improves their performance in when they are in the game.  But during the game, they don't take barbells onto the field and bench press 300 pounds.  That would be a ridiculous show of strength that would ultimately have a negative impact on the game.  While they were displaying their strength with the weights, their opponents would be running down the field unhindered, scoring points, and making the weight lifting show off look like a fool.

The end goal of weight lifting is to PLAY a better game.  The exercise of lifting weights is a means to an end - not the end.  A team that didn't spend time conditioning their strength in the gym would probably loose every game.  Yet, it is the experience of time spent PLAYING THE GAME that really trains an athlete's mind on how to respond instantly and instinctively to ever changing situations.  Who would you pick to be on your team, the guy who has spent the last five years in the gym, or the guy who has spend the last 5 years PLAYING football.

Apply this same principle to the guitar.  Its sometimes too easy to stay in the "gym" working out on scales, patterns, and so forth.  We see ourselves lifting more and more weights, able to do more reps faster, and think we are really making progress.  Meanwhile, our peers are outside the gym and they are PLAYING.  Would you rather have a guy in your band who spent the last 5 years playing scales, or the guy who spent the last 5 years learning tunes and playing songs.

Set your vision strongly - the end goal is to CREATE MUSIC and PLAY SONGS that TOUCH PEOPLE.  Guess what?  In order to mature in your ability to do so, you must spend time CREATING MUSIC, PLAYING SONGS, and TOUCHING PEOPLE. 

Don't get me wrong.  Time spent working out in the musical gym is key to maturing as a musician.  However, don't take your dumb bells onto the field when you PLAY!  Leave them in the gym.

I spend a LOT of time working out.  I play around 400 scale/arpeggio fingerings each day in a 45 minute exercise (which I've documented in my book Play Skillfully).  I know more scales than the average player.  BUT, when I play a gig I almost NEVER consciously think about those scales. I tend to turn my brain off and play from the heart.  What I've seen happen over the years is that when I'm playing from my heart, from emotion, from my spirit, that more and more of the knowledge gained from all that time working scales and arpeggios just sort of finds its way into my subconscious and IS THERE without having to think about it.

Being able to discern whether the sound coming out of your guitar is a mental exercise vs. a creation of MUSIC is one of the most important abilities a guitarist can cultivate.  Its the difference between devouring food and taking the time to TASTE the food and enjoy it.  Its the difference between hearing and LISTENING.  Its the difference between mere talking and engaging in conversation.  Its the difference between reciting a rote prayer and genuinely talking with God.

So yes, do your musical exercises - as a means to an end.  But be sure your focus, your end goal, is playing the game!


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why Be Normal?

You only get to live one time - once - that's it.  When you are 90 years old and looking back, will you wish you had played it safe, towed the line, conformed to everyone else, and marched in step with the rest of humanity?  Or will you look back and be thankful you lived life as YOU, venturing into unexplored regions, following your instinct, enjoying your individualism, setting the new standard vs. following one, making history vs. studying history, etc.?

Albert Einstein said, "He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice."

Lets focus this train of thought towards the creation of music.  Ask yourself how much of what you practice, play, and strive for is a target which has been set by others, a road map laid out by culture that directs you into proper and acceptable musical destinations?  Ask yourself how much of what you practice, play, and strive for is an adventure, a quest, and exploration of the lost continent of creativity just waiting to be discovered by some adventurer crazy enough to leave the confines of safety and venture out into unknown regions?

Its tricky - trickier than you think.  From a thousand feet up many non-conformists have their  uniforms and lifestyles dictated by the culture of "non-conformity" to which they are drawn.  The same holds true in music.  The first punk rock band was touching something new.  The one thousandth punk rock band was "non-conforming" to a pattern which had been well established by a culture and in doing so was actually conforming to a mold which dictated sound, looks, and lifestyle.

Yes, we must all learn the language spoken by our people in order to communicate.  But it is what we say with that language that differentiates us from parrots.  Yes, we must learn the notes and chords and such to create music, but it's what we do with those notes and chords which separates the typists from the authors.

I want to encourage you to look at the true musical DNA that is within you and follow the trail that will lead to the ultimate fulfillment of that music maturing into an awesome and unique addition to the sounds that compete for ears on this planet.  You can dress like a punk rocker and sound like a punk rocker and be just as much a conformist as the corporate accountant wearing a three piece suit.  Dare to be really different, for in that path lies your life and your music.  There is a lot of music history waiting to be made.  Someone is going to do it different - come up with a new style of guitar playing, or even a new genre of music.  Is it you?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

Click on photo to enlarge

The photo above was taken in Hamburg in 1936, during the celebrations for the launch of a ship. In the crowed, one person refuses to raise his arm to give the Nazi salute. The man was August Landmesser. He had already been in trouble with the authorities, having been sentenced to two years hard labour for marrying a Jewish woman.  We know little else about August Landmesser.