Simple ideas that have helped me

Hello again! Jeeze- it has been about a year and a half since I last blogged. No good excuse, just a lack of enthusiasm to put fingers to keys.

 

I decided to write a list of all the things that have helped me to become a better musician, and hopefully some can help you as well. If any of you have other tips to add, please put them up in the comments.

Maybe I will not take as long to post another blog, but I’m not guaranteeing anything!

 

1. Practice.

2. Have a devoted practice space- all your necessary equipment should be ready to go with a flip of a switch, and it should be decorated in inspiring ways.

3. Always use a drum machine or metronome, at all tempos and feels.

4. Strive for great tone all the time.

5. Practice with your gigging equipment.

6. You can learn from everyone.

7. Practice regular self-analysis.

8. Be specific in what you want to achieve.

9. Focus on the simple: everything that I have “discovered” that changed my musical life has always been butt-stupid. I felt like I was the last person on earth to learn that specific thing.

10. Go outside- listen to birds.

11. Practice in the dark, or with your eyes closed.

12. Practice in the morning.

13. Listen to drummers, and become fluent on drumming on everything around you.

14. Listen to bassists.

15. Know your gear- explore all of its possibilities, not just its intended uses.

16. Often, the best way to get better is not necessarily to learn more, but to learn what you know better.

17. Believe that you can accomplish anything. Harder things just require more work.

18. Don’t be afraid to stop doing something if it isn’t working.

19. Listen to music with your ears, not your eyes.

20. Be mature and childish at the same time.

21. Achieve balance in all aspects of your life- but understand that balance is more like a pendulum.

22. Have other hobbies/passions.

23. Don’t be embarrassed of where you come from.

24. Less is More.

25. Be patient.

26. Be happy.

27. Have fun on the journey.

28. Write music.

29. Be an autodidact.

30. Always remember what it was that made you love music in the first place.

31. Be happy with what you have and can do.

32. Practice away from the instrument.

33. Record yourself often and listen to it.

34. Don’t think in stylistic labels.

35. Focus more on the picking hand than the fretting hand.

36. Listen to Willie Nelson.

37. Make a list of your favorite musicians and what it is you like about each of them.

38. Just when you think you have learned everything a song has to offer, more will appear.

 

 

Inspiration vs. intimidation

If you hear someone play and it inspires you, makes you want to play and learn, and makes you feel great- follow it. Go and learn how to do it, whether it is a lick, concept, song, or whatever.

 

If you hear a person play and it intimidates you because you can’t do that- it makes you feel small and worthless- ignore it. This can happen in two situations- 1.) the person is purposely trying to show off, or 2.) the person is just playing, not knowing they have that effect upon the listener(s). The first one is a sign of an immature individual (which can manifest in people of any age). This is bad musical vibes. Ignore that feeling and person. These people are most common in music stores, where they like to demonstrate all the complicated things they have been practicing lately to a captive audience.

In the case of the second, ignore those feelings as well and just listen. That person is different than you, and means no harm.

 

Always follow inspiration.

 

This is a short and sweet blog- my fingers either want to be on the guitar and not the computer, or I want to be outdoors and not sitting at the computer. Thus, I have not been very prolific in my blogging.

 

One other thing- listen to B.B. King.

I’m just saying.

Yeah, I’m a “teacher”!

Ahhh.. Once again I begin this blog with an apology. I find myself playing guitar very little these days, simply because the weather is so nice and spring is such an exciting time of the year. My guitar finds itself sitting in the stand most of the time. That brings up a topic that I plan on covering in a future blog: you don’t have to play guitar. But for now….

I have been thinking about some of my past students lately, especially since I posted a video on facebook of one of them playing on a late-night talk show. I posted it stating that he was a past student of mine, and I did that for two reasons: 1, because he was!, and 2, to stroke my own ego a bit. I wasn’t trying to somehow make the post about me; as in, “look how great a teacher I am! One of my old students is making it!” It was more about the fact that I was really excited for him. But, it does feel good knowing that someone you taught is doing well.

But, to be totally honest, I have a very hard time taking any credit at all for him as a guitar player, even though he took lessons from me for a few years. As any teacher knows, often times the most successful students (and success can be defined many different ways) are usually the worst students. In the case of this person I am talking about, and with every student I can think of that I have taught who has really found their own voice and blossomed, I recall some frustration on my part during the time he took lessons because of his lack of practicing what I assigned or recommended him to practice. It wasn’t a tension filled frustration, just sort of “Ok, work on this for next week”, and then next week comes and it was more often than not “Sorry man, but I didn’t work on that.” But, more importantly, he would then show me what he did work on, and I was always totally blown away. Our lesson would then consist of jamming on the stuff he worked on, and then I would give him an assignment, with the same results the next week. I was always searching for things to assign him, knowing that he probably wasn’t going to work on it.

This is why I hesitated to post the video of him and call him my old student: I don’t actually feel like I taught him anything! He did it all himself! I thought of calling him a friend of mine (which is what I consider him), but my ego won in this case.

That has been the case with so many of the students of mine that have turned into great musicians. I remember another guy who began taking lessons from me as a freshman in college. The first semester that I taught him we started at the very beginning: hand positions, chord shapes, etc. He left for home after that semester, and came back the following fall, and the first thing he said to with huge, wide-eyes of enthusiasm, was: ”Skot- this summer I discovered the blues!”. He then proceeded to show me the blues riffs and licks that he worked on that summer, and totally kick-ass. He didn’t resemble the guitar player that I saw before that summer at all! He must have woke up every morning and ate guitar for breakfast. Over the course of the next couple of years he advanced in huge leaps, and I don’t feel like I can take credit for any of it. I eventually played bass in a band with him, and totally enjoyed listening to him play the coolest stuff on every gig.

So why am I telling you all of this? If you are a teacher, realize that sometimes your job may consist of, instead of actually “teaching”, being a cheerleader, guide, and inspiration to those who come to you for lessons. We can’t force someone to follow the same path we choose to the same goals we have. But, hopefully, we can make their journey a bit easier.

For all of you students (which is every one of us), know that you are the one in control of how successful you are at learning this instrument. Play guitar as much as possible, learn the things that make you excited, and do the work yourself.

I don’t mean to imply that you should not listen to your teacher; on the contrary, they are (at least they should be) more experienced than you, and can provide a lot of help and guidance. But, if all you do is practice what they are giving you, you are more likely to sound like them instead of yourself. A good teacher should be aware of cultivating originality and get out of the way if necessary, helping where needed.

I know I’m not alone as a teacher, in being somewhat embarrassed to call some students “students”. In these relationships, the teacher is often the one who learns more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cheapest tuner you’ll ever use

I realize that I have been taking longer in between blog postings as of late. It is difficult for me to be indoors, typing on a computer, when the weather is getting so nice. As nice as it has become, it’s still a bit too cold to bring the computer out into the yard and type; so, instead it stays inside while I am outside.

 

One thing that I have been aware of with guitarists coming up in the last 15 years or so has been the lack of emphasis of tuning the guitar by ear. With the advanced nature of electronic tuners now-a-days, it would seem like this is an outdated skill to develop. But, the way I see it, it is yet another way to develop a deeper connection, awareness, and attention to details that may be getting rare in our age of advancing technology.

 

I was made aware of my own weakness in this area about 15 years ago. I was teaching at a guitar camp and we were having a jam session with the students and faculty. I got up to play and realized that I didn’t have my tuner with me. I kinda panicked, and frantically searched for one. Another instructor looked at me with confusion, and said “just tune it?!?” He then proceeded to pick up an out-of-tune student’s guitar and tuned it by listening to the open strings- not even using the 5th fret or harmonic method! I felt amazed and really small.

 

After that I made it a point at getting better at tuning by ear. It’s not that I couldn’t tune by ear; it’s just that I had become so dependent on the electronic tuner that I had absolutely no confidence in my ear.

 

I began by getting used to the sound of the adjacent open strings- most notably the fourths. I even devised a method for practicing this. The first thing I do every day when I pick up my guitar is to untune it entirely. I then try to find the right pitch for one of the strings- for some reason I always use the D string. I think of the opening notes of Sweet Home Alabama, which I have heard approximately one million times in my lifetime. Other good reference pitches are the low E of Enter Sandman, or Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap), or the open A shuffle of Keep Your Hands To Yourself. Any song will work that you are familiar with.

 

Once I tune the guitar to what I think is the right pitch, I then check either the E or A string with a tuning fork, and adjust it if necessary, (which it usually is, though I have gotten pretty good at getting close after all this time). I then tune the guitar to the “in tune” string, checking it again afterwards.

 

I find it much more accurate to tune to one reference note, instead of starting on the low E and then going to the next string, etc. This has the most accumulation of error: if the A isn’t quite in tune from the E, the D will also be out of tune, and each successive string getting worse. Instead, if I start with the D string, I use the fourths to tune the A and G. I will get the low E in tune with the A, but then compare it to an octave above it with an E played on the second fret of the D. I like to hear the compound 5th sound of the low E and B to tune the B, but I then press the B on the 3rd fret and check the octave with the D string. I get the high E intune by either using the 4th of the E and B together, the compound 5th of the A and high E, or the 2 octaves of both E’s. But, then again, I fine tune it with the 2nd fret of the D string. So, in the end, everything is referenced to the D string. Of course, this is my own method- you will probably have your own.

 

Working in a guitar store, one realizes just how little emphasis people put on tuning. Many people pick up a guitar to try, and either don’t touch the tuners, or make a poor attempt at fixing it. But that’s not as important as showing off their “guitar store chops”! This is also obvious on the many youtube videos that are meant to review a new piece of equipment. Out-of-tuneness will automatically make the best guitar, amp, or pedal sound terrible. The true mark of an experienced player is their awareness of whether they are in tune or not; and if not it drives them crazy.

 

By developing this skill, it also heightens your awareness of what you play. When you put time into tuning your guitar by ear, you then start to become aware of how everything should sound, and in turn become very adept at fixing it. Tele players that have a traditional 3-barrel bridge on their guitar usually become pretty good at this. The inability of these things to intonate accurately forces those players to find a compromise in the bridge adjustment (usually flat), and then the player bend those notes sharp as needed. On my tele, I have a compensated 3-barrel bridge that is supposed to intonate better, but it still isn’t perfect. As a matter of fact, very few guitars are totally in tune on most of the neck, and once you consider strings stretch unevenly almost immediately after you start to play on them, depending on the instrument to play in tune for you is pretty hopeless. It is up to you to tune it as you play as much as possible. As a matter of fact, in orchestral settings, most horns and woodwinds are constantly aware of their tuning as they play each note.

 

I always find it cool watching a professional guitarist playing a gig, and seeing them, mid-song, reach up and turn a tuning key.

 

I also think that by developing your awareness of the tuning of your instrument will also heighten your awareness of the other members of your band. By acutely listening to yoyr own tuning, you also become more “in tune” with what everyone else is playing.

 

Electronic tuners have been a blessing for our ears- they make it that much easier and quicker to tune a guitar. But, by depending on these things, I feel that some important skills are being lost. Of course, in a studio situation, a tuner can be invaluable. And, in a live setting, using a tuner to quickly get touch up an out of tune guitar is much preferable than forcing an audience to endure the tedious sound of someone trying to tune their instrument between every song.

 

It does seem that developing this skill isn’t just about tuning your guitar, but more importantly, tuning your ear.

 

 

Takin’ care of business

Here is another simple method that is helpful for conquering a challenging piece of music. You can do this with a lick, a solo, or even a whole song.

 

The main thing that stands in our way of successfully and smoothly playing a fast or difficult passage is generally not being familiar enough with the passage- we hesitate when we ask “what is the next note”. I usually use the analogy of our locker in high school. The first week of classes, when we got a new locker and combination, we would always have to focus on what the sequence of numbers were, initially referring to the sheet of paper that they were written on until they were memorized. And then, we had to still think about them. But a week or two later, after doing it numerous times a day, the sequence is ingrained, and we flew through them, even becoming so good that we could spin the dial around and catch it on the right numbers. We became very familiar with the process involved with opening the locker. If we tried to go too fast in the first week or so, we would more than likely make mistakes. But, if we just did it at a speed that we were capable of, it would get faster as we became more acquainted with it.

 

There isn’t any easy way to conquer a piece of challenging music except through time and effort. Though, there is an easy way of kinda half-assed conquering a challenging piece: don’t practice enough. This is real easy. And the results will show that. Most of the time, easy solutions don’t have the best results. But simple is very different than easy.

 

This is the method I use. The first step is to become familiar enough with it at a very relaxed and comfortable tempo. Let’s say for example that the piece you are working on has a tempo of around 150 bpm. Forget that number totally, and just worry about memorizing it, and being able to somewhat smoothly go through the entire passage. Once you can do that, find out, with a metronome, what that tempo is. Let’s say it is 80 bpm. Start that metronome and play the piece until you can successfully do it. Then, lower the speed by the smallest increment available. I usually go one beat slower at a time, eg. From 80 bpm to 79 bpm. It is a great investment to have a metronome that is able to be adjusted in these small increments. I would imagine that you could find free websites that do this, or even a drum machine. If all you have is a metronome that adjusts in larger increments, that will still work.

 

Play the piece once at this new tempo, and then move it down again in that small increment. Do this until your metronome doesn’t go any slower, your fingers hurt, you can’t take it anymore, you run out of time, or you wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend,kids/friends or pets are ready to kill you.

 

This can take time, especially if you are doing a whole song. If that is the case, break the song up into individual parts, such as the verse, chorus, etc., and work that way if possible. If it’s just a short lick, it might still take more than an hour.

 

The way people usually work on something challenging is to begin where they are able to play and then get faster. Often times, what happens is that they might achieve the goal tempo, but it ends up sounding and feeling like they are barely hanging on and very sloppy. This method creates much better results.

 

By working with this method, you develop a confidence in the piece. The end results are a very strong rhythm and groove, a greater understanding of the dynamics within the notes, and confidence in “what comes next”, along with how to use your fingers properly to execute it. Instead of just tab numbers, notes, or fret patterns, the piece becomes music. It is a very cool transformation that takes place as you do this exercise.

 

Most of the time, it is more difficult to play something slower than faster. Try playing a solo that you can already play at 30 bpm.

 

One important point in doing this is to play at these slower tempos and try to make it good. Imagine that the lick really goes that slow. Relax into these brutally slow speeds. Don’t do this exercise and fight it- really try to make these slow tempos groove.

 

Once you finish doing this method, give the piece a try at a faster tempo- you will most likely be amazed. If it still not up to the goal tempo, a good idea might be to do the same process, but this time getting faster, starting at the same beginning tempo. Of course, that might have to wait for another day, once your fingers heal, and you have the available time.

 

When I do work on increasing the tempo, I usually do it the same way until I get to a speed that begins to challenge me. I then stay there for a few repetitions, and then move it up again. I repeat this until I get to a speed that I just can’t do, let’s just say 155bpm. I stay there working at it for a while, and then move it back DOWN to 154 bpm. 154 was tough the first time I got there, but after the time spent at 155, that little bit of change feels like a breath of fresh air. I then stay there, or sometimes I continue to go slower a few clicks, and then try moving back up, essentially getting a running start at the previously unplayable 155.

 

Like I said earlier- this can be a long marathon of a practice session or sessions. But, the alternative is to continue playing the piece poorly, for a much longer time. This is a great way to take care of business and finally polish up that musical piece that has been kicking your butt for a while.

Getting inside a tune

For the longest time I had been unhappy with my jazz playing, and most small jazz group approaches in general. My own playing consisted of what I call defensive playing: trying my best to not do anything wrong. I would see all the “right” notes on the guitar, and I aimed for those. If I stayed away from the wrong notes, I was successful, and if it sounded good, then it was a bonus! And, I tired of hearing jazz groups doing the same old generic formula on gigs (including the groups I was playing in): play the head in a sterile sort of way, accompany in a sterile sort of way, attempt to tear it up on the solos, and then play the head again to finish the song.

 

I mentioned my defensive approach to playing. This is opposite of an offensive approach, which is basically you thinking “I can’t wait for people to hear this- it’s gonna blow them away!” That is what people want to hear- that excitement and enthusiasm. And that is what you should want to express- your own excitement and passion for what you are playing. I hear that in all the greats, from Eddie Van Halen and Jaco Pastorius to Mozart. I can’t imagine a young Eddie Van Halen sitting in his room playing guitar, and asking himself if what he plays is right. Instead, he had that Eddie smile, and just knew it was awesome- if it wasn’t, he was going to make it awesome.

 

To get out of that sterile approach to jazz, I changed my approach to learning tunes. What it consists of is simply spending more time learning each tune you are playing. It might even be s stretch to consider it a method. I think that most players learn the melody and chords to a tune as quick as possible, and then devote the majority of their practicing to soloing, but in a very generic sort of way that doesn’t necessarily relate to the actual song. Instead, work on making the tune your own- strive towards putting your own stamp on it.

 

Play-a-long CDs are incredibly valuable resources if you, like most people, don’t have a band available at you every beck and call. Jamey Aebersold is probably the most famous source of these (jazzbooks.com), but you can find many on youtube as well.

 

Another tool that I use in conjunction with play-a-longs is a “slow down” program that allows you to change the tempo of a song without altering the pitch. My favorite is called Transcribe! (seventhstring.com), but there are many to choose from. Most of these will also allow you to change the key along with tuning. Also, they make panning to either side very easy, which is valuable in eliminating the piano or bass on these recordings.

 

The main idea is, once you have the melody memorized, to really dig into it, trying any method you can think of to make it interesting. You might use open strings, harmonics, various articulations, or even effects and volume/tone controls. Or, none of these, and just internalize the melody as much as possible. The idea is to get control of the melody- don’t be limited to one way of playing it. Be able to manipulate it as you feel and have freedom in changing it when you feel like it. This will then translate into your soloing.

 

The same thing can be said about the chords- make them your unique interpretation of the song. Don’t just do the same generic comping- find your way of playing the groove for that song.

 

Inevitably, after playing the same melody straight for about 10 minutes, it will get very boring and feel like you are doing the same thing over and over, not really getting anywhere. You need to break through that boredom wall. Dig deeper into all of your tools that you have in your collection. Often times, I tread the waters of boredom until a happy accident occurs that opens up new ways of playing the melody. Play it in a different octave, try open strings, bends, tapping, volume swells- anything. Don’t be afraid to change the song to a different key, but be aware of the others in your band; certain keys might not be practical for different instruments. That said, comfort in all keys is a valuable skill.

 

I used to feel that working with play-a-longs was a very un-inspirational way of practicing, but after spending time using them this way, I find it gets more fun the longer I do it. I think the bland feeling I had earlier was a result of not really being aware of what the other instruments were doing. You can focus on the drums or the piano and get many rhythmic and melodic ideas. If you are only thinking of your own playing, often times weird syncopations and un-grooving things are happening that you don’t notice.

 

I have been talking about this in a jazz context, but of course this applies to any type of music of an improvisatory nature. If you are playing in a cover band, it might depend upon how much freedom your band allows with the songs. Some bands are impressively accurate with their reproduction of the recorded versions, but many have a more interpretive approach.

 

Once again, the methods I am talking about are very simple- in this case, basically spend more time on the melody and chords. The better you know these, the more it will translate into your soloing. Sometimes we make things way too difficult, and the results are lacking. Our response is to try harder and make them yet more difficult. For a long time I was looking for magic ways of getting better, assuming they hid inside of difficult methods. Instead, there isn’t a magic way to improve, except by putting in the time. I have learned much more from simple concepts than I ever did from complex ones.

 

This blog is directly related to my blog about playing the song. A song should be considered a topic of musical conversation. It is an opportunity for you to express what it means to you, your thoughts about it, and who you are. But, to do that, you need to really know the song. After doing this with a couple of tunes, you will start to see it getting easier to learn new ones.

Your main musical idea

This concept is another very simple one to add to your guitar playing that you can devote as much time as you want to it, varying from day to day. It consists of choosing a lick or melody that becomes something you spend some amount of time on every day- from as little as 5 minutes, to as much as you care to.

 

The main criteria for choosing your lick is that it should be easy and it should be something that you like. Don’t choose something that you can’t already play, and don’t choose something that you think may teach you a lot but you don’t actually like.

 

The lick I chose is a basic major 7th arpeggio type lick that I got from a Ted Greene book. I simply opened the book, played the first lick, liked it, and that was it. It’s not hard or complex. I say I like it, but it’s not something I ever care to use in a song- it’s really just an arpeggio; but for some reason, I like to play it and hear it.

 

What you do with it is up to you. It should be a source of curiosity that makes you dig into music to answer questions you have.

 

When I first began this activity, I would basically play the lick as a warm up, somewhat absentmindedly. But soon, I started to explore it. I first began to play it as perfectly as I could: making the rhythm as smooth and consistent as possible, and making each note as pure as I could. Then, it started to branch off into many other topics.

 

A lick or melody consists of a few basic things: melody, an underlying harmony, rhythm, key, and fretboard location/fingering. You can use your lick to explore any of these avenues. You can even put it into different styles; if it’s a country lick, try it out in a jazz tune, changing it up as needed.

 

By having one idea that you are very familiar with, it makes learning anything easier. For instance, if you are trying to improve your alternate picking, why learn a whole new melody or scale exercise, when you can play your lick that you already know, and simply create a picking exercise out of it that accomplishes what you need. This allows you to focus on what you want to accomplish, opposed to spending time learning the musical elements, and then eventually getting to work on what you originally intended.

 

Of course, if you need to learn the solo to Purple Haze, only playing this lick isn’t going to get you there, but it will help in many other ways.

 

When I first started to spend time with my lick and I realized how much it was teaching me, I thought to myself “If this simple lick has so much to show me, think of what a complicated thing can do!” I decided to switch to Charlie Parker’s “Conformation”. After about 5 minutes I realized that it wasn’t the same. The idea of using a simple melody or lick is that it isn’t difficult. Also, all complicated things can be reduced down to simple concepts, and 99% of the time the focus is on very simple things that everybody can understand with possibly an occasional complicated thing thrown in. This is much like when we speak- most of the words we use are basic ones (the, and, but, etc.), and complicated words are used only when necessary. It is usually easy to spot someone who is attempting to appear smarter than they actually are just from their needless use of big words.

 

This activity isn’t meant to imply that you only play your lick- you can play whatever you want, but you devote some time to your lick each day. Like I said, sometimes I play mine for 5 minutes, other days all I do is play my lick. It becomes a very familiar sound, and kind of like a friend.

 

Some suggestions for what to do with your lick:

Change harmony- if it’s a major lick, make it minor, or dominant.

Play it in different keys.

Change the rhythm.

Rearrange the notes, or add and/or subtract notes.

Play it in as many places on the neck that you can find.

Use open strings or harmonics.

Use it to learn the names of the notes on the fretboard.

Use it for various picking patters

Use it to build speed.

Play it on one string.

 

Don’t think that you actually have to do any of these suggestions- these are just some of the things that I have done. Most importantly, let your lick lead you. Music is all about blazing your own path, and the inspiration for that is your curiosity. My lick has taught me a lot, but if I list everything that I have worked on with it, it gets interpreted as a sort of overwhelming list of things that you might feel you have to learn. Don’t think that way. I have a few books by people such as Ted Greene and Mick Goodrick that are more like encyclopedias. They are incredible and awesome books that have so much information; a lifetime’s worth, actually. I have spent many hours working on them, but when I look back on it, I don’t think I have learned very much from those books. I can imagine that these guys decided to write those books because they were excited about the new concepts they devised or found and wanted to show them to people. I would see the books as a mass of info that I had to learn. I have done similar things in my own teaching, in which I find a new way of making sense of the fretboard that I find exciting, and it quickly grows into mammoth proportions when I finally cover all of the avenues. I think that everyone would benefit from this approach and I want to share it with my students. When I show it to them,all I see is either confusion, or that overwhelmed, hopeless look. The concept that I find exciting and makes me want to dig farther and farther into it, loses something when it is presented to a student. They see it as more stuff to learn. But, if that student could be inspired to dig into a concept themselves, discovering new ways of seeing music and the guitar- that’s where real progress is made. Basically, you want to “write your own book”.

 

This concept is similar to the idea presented in my earlier blog about simplification.

Don’t try to get better by adding more things to your collection of things that you “kind of“ know- instead, learn what you “kind of” know better.

 

By working on a lick like this, you become much closer to mastering it. This sort of approach then bleeds over into all of your other playing. If this lick helps you understand chords better, that becomes apparent in everything else you play.

 

Of course, this concept isn’t guaranteed to help you in every aspect of your playing, but it will help you in many ways. Every little bit counts.

 

There are no real rules here- only guidelines. If you choose a lick, and then a few days, or even a year later are unhappy with your choice, change it. Maybe you want to choose a chord progression instead of a lick. But the basic idea is to have one musical thing that you spend time playing every day and you get to know really well. If you find yourself saying “I need to improve my speed”, use your lick to create an exercise.

 

I once read about a Zen method of learning how to paint which involves painting the same plant every day for a year. That may sound like you would only become good at painting that one plant, but I don’t think so. I would expect that for the first few days or weeks it might be boring, but soon you would start digging deeper and finding new ways to paint that plant. Not only would you technique improve, but your ability to see objects would improve also. This lick is your plant that you explore daily.

Ear Game

Here is simple activity to do to develop your ear. Though it is simple, you can make it as difficult as you want. The basic idea is to depend on your ear to learn a song or piece of music, but using your memory instead of a recording.

 

I am always reminded of this “game” every Christmas. I love Christmas and every year I spend a lot of time playing Christmas carols.Since I only play them for a short period each year, I make a game out of it by relearning them by ear from memory. The melodies can be easy if you are an experienced player, but may be a bit of a challenge if you are a beginner. The trick is to not write them down as you figure them out- devote the melody to memory. An important part of doing this is that each day (or however often you do this) you end up having to relearn it, and each time gets progressively easier, until it is eventually memorized. Depending on your musical level, it might be obvious the way a melody fits into a key, and then your job becomes a bit easier. But if you don’t understand key/melody relationships, this is a good way to learn. When using simple melodies such as Christmas carols, or any other melody that you have heard your entire life (Happy Birthday, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star etc.) you can expect most of the notes to fall within a major scale or less frequently, a minor scale. I emphasize most because there are many times when what are called non-diatonic notes (notes that aren’t in the key) are found. For instance, the C major scale consists of the notes C D E F G A B C. A common non-diatonic note used is F#, but it will occur less often than the F.

 

The next step in this activity is to figure out the chords underneath the melody. You can do this “scientifically”- meaning, if you understand harmony, you can usually deduce what chord is played from the note(s) in the melody and the key. Actually, there will be multiple choices of what the chord could be, but usually only one will sound right. For instance, the melody note C could indicate most likely a C, Am or F chord. I usually try each of the possibilities, pick the one that sounds right, and then strum the chord progression while singing or whistling the melody. Again, do this from memory- don’t use a recording to help you out. With an understanding of chord/scale harmonic relationships, you will be able to narrow your choices down to obvious ones. For example, in the key of C, it would be rare (though not necessarily out of the question) to find a chord like Ab minor in a simple song like the ones I am talking about. Most of the chords in these simple tunes will be I IV or V chords, with an occasional vi or ii. Often, a II is used, such as in Rudolph.

 

The “unscientific” method is to just try out chords and listen for what sounds right. Again, with an understanding of keys, you will be able to avoid wasting time on unlikely choices.

 

With this activity, you can make it as difficult as you’d like. Christmas carols can be easy, like Rudolph, or more difficult, like The Christmas Song, or Christmas Time Is Here.

 

This is especially fun when you have children. They love Christmas songs, but you can also do it with their favorite TV show song; you obviously don’t have to limit yourself to Christmas tunes.

 

One way of increasing the learning potential of this activity is, once you have figured out the song’s chords and melody, to then transpose it to a different key. You can do this either just as an exercise, or to place it in a more singable key for you or someone else. This is valuable “real musician” power! Oh yeah- a capo doesn’t count here! This is a good way of becoming familiar with those less common keys and chords.

 

 

An important point of this activity is to not look at the written music until you have figured it out or put in much time and effort and you are at your wit’s end. By doing it this way you are getting the sounds lodged deep inside your head, and when you finally look at the music, it will make more sense and be a big “A-ha!” moment. This is different than using the written music as a starting point, in which the song then exists as a mental visual in the form of a bunch of dots or numbers. When you get the sounds in your head first, the moment you look at the music it is like a head-slap: “Oh, no kidding! Of course that’s it!” The meaning is then totally different.

 

This also applies to figuring out a complicated song or solo- work on it by ear first, and eventually look to the music for help (after putting in some serious sweat) of to see if what you have is the same as the published results. Sometimes you will be musically right, but the positions you arrived at are different than what original artist did. This is still a success, but try the other position. You might see why they chose to play it where they did.

 

One thing worth mentioning is that when you look online or in various books and magazines (for the chords especially) you will usually find a few variations. Some are going to be obviously wrong, some will match your results, and some will be different than what you came up with, but still sound good. The internet gives everyone the ability to publish their transcriptions, for better or worse. Some of the other good sounding variations are an example of reharmonization, or alternate harmonization. What this is, is that often times an artist will change some of the chords in order to create a different sort of sound for the song. Of course, the results can range from awesome to awful. But, it is good to keep your ears open when listening to these different versions, and admit if one sounds more right than what you came up with. Realize that with things like Christmas carols, so many versions of these songs have been released, that the one that you are thinking of may be very different than the one by Mariah Carey, which happens to be the version that you found while searching for that song’s music.

 

The chords and melodies, when learned with your ears, become sounds in your head, as opposed to labels or dots/numbers. A C chord going to an F chord has a unique sound that you remember, but if you only know that chord progression as “data”, you are of course missing one of the most important elements of music, which is obviously what it sounds like! You will also start to hear how things like the 3rd of a chord sounds different than the root when played over that chord. After doing this activity, you will eventually be able to identify those different sounds with your ear alone. In this day and age, every song’s written music, especially TAB, is available for free online, and all a person has do is a search to find it. Though easy, this isn’t necessarily the best way to become a better musician. Learning a song by ear develops your connection to that song in a way that learning from written music just doesn’t do.

 

This activity has something for players of all levels. Experienced people can work on more difficult tunes, and beginners can focus on learning the melody only, eventually working up to note names, key relationship, and the harmony. If you have never done this, be sure to pick tunes that are easy and you have heard your whole life. Regardless of how basic a song is, I always seem to learn something from this activity.

 

A final note: I have attempted to keep the theory elements of this discussion brief- if you don’t understand anything I have talked about, be sure to message me and I will try to explain it more thoroughly.

Awareness

Here is an interesting story that I came across in my non-musical studies. I am going to paraphrase the hell out of this because the original story is pretty long, and I am not sure about where to find it anymore, but the basic idea will come across. Also, you may ask yourself, “What the hell does this have to do with music?” but hopefully at the end, if I am successful, you will make the connection.

 

I once listened to an interview with a biologist studying the vocalizations of Diana Monkeys, a species of tree-dwelling primate that lives in Western Africa. The main predators of these monkeys are leopards from the ground, and a species of eagle from the air. The biologist recorded the sounds of a leopard and the sound of an eagle; then he would go out into the jungle, play each of the sounds, and record the alarms that the moneys gave off in response to the sounds of these threats. In the interview, he played the recordings of each of the monkey’s responding alarms. I would like to think with my musician ears, that I could hear a difference, but I shan’t be so bold; they all sounded pretty much the same. But, the biologist said that when these recordings were put through a spectrum analyzer, the differences were very obvious.

 

He would then go out into the jungle with a recording of the monkey’s alarms and play them loud enough to be broadcast to the monkeys in the area. The reactions consisted of the monkeys going high up in the trees in response to the leopard alarm, and going down to ground level in response to the eagle alarm. So, it was proven that the monkeys could distinguish between the type of alarm- it wasn’t just a “danger” call, but a specific danger.

 

The study continued on for many months, cataloguing hundreds of vocalizations made by these monkeys. The most interesting part of the story is that, towards the end of the study, the biologist was in the jungle doing some last minute data gathering, when he heard an alarm from the monkeys off in the distance. He realized that he could identify it as a leopard alarm. After all this time listening to the vocalizations, he became able to just barely understand some of the monkey’s language, and this is after only a few months. Then, he heard the alarm again, from a different group of monkeys a bit closer. He started back towards his jeep, and heard it again, closer yet. That’s when he realized that the leopard was stalking him, and not the monkeys. Due to this new-found ability, he was able to navigate away from the leopard and safely to his jeep, much in the same way the monkeys depend on those alarms to avoid predators.

 

Most original native populations on 4 of our 5 continents have/had this legendary, seemingly magical ability to be in tune with their environment. Native Americans were said to be able to hear white men coming from as far as 15 miles away, hours in advance of them actually appearing. This isn’t magic, but merely a survival technique that was developed out of necessity. They obviously didn’t hear the white man- they heard the various alarms of the animals as the white men crashed through the forest, oblivious to the racket they were making. The awareness of the sounds of the environment was necessary not only to avoid threats, like the example of the Diana monkeys, but also to enable those indigenous people to move through the habitat stealthily, such as on a hunt. If they could avoid causing the smaller animals such as birds and squirrels to alarm to their presence, then the deer would be unaware of the hunter; and it is obvious from spending time watching animals, that the deer are in tune with the various alarms made by all of the other forest animals. When you think of it this way, all of this seems very doable- us modern, “advanced” folk have lost the ability to perform these feats simply because our survival does not depend on those particular abilities- we don’t have to. We don’t spend the necessary time listening to and learning the wide array of animal vocalizations that are constantly happening in the forest. These natural abilities that we depended on and developed over many thousands of years have been replaced in the relative short span of a few hundred years with various technologies.

 

This awareness that indigenous people had wasn’t limited to just hearing, but includes all 5 of the senses. From smelling, tasting, and touch, they were very in tune with their environment. They could read the weather, understand the cycles of the seasons, live off of edible plants, and know what water was safe to drink. It’s strange to think that we have lost so many of these abilities that humans have depended on for thousands of years, to the point of most of us not being able to survive a few nights lost in the wilderness. These abilities weren’t chosen by those people, but were required to survive.

 

For most of us, survival isn’t that much of an issue. We can go through life without always having to look over our shoulder, hopefully avoiding becoming food for a cougar or grizzly. Instead of listening to bird and squirrel alarms, our listening is usually occupied with cell phones, ipods, and televisions, etc. But, the next time you take a walk in the woods, listen to the reactions of the birds, squirrels, and other animals, and see the uproar that you create that you probably haven’t noticed before. Just be aware.

 

Whew! So… how does this relate to music, you ask?

 

This is basically describing awareness (also called mindfulness) that has been refined to a high level. It is a great concept to incorporate into your life, which, because you are reading this, probably includes music. To be aware is to notice the little (and big) things, to live in the moment, to stop being on auto-pilot and lost in your thoughts as you do your everyday routines.

 

To be aware in music, the most important thing you can do is open your ears. This involves hearing everything going on in the music. Just like people that needed to be totally aware of their environment, the musician must be aware of everything that is happening in the music (although the consequences of not being aware aren’t quite as dramatic). Music can be narrowed down to include 3 of the 5 senses- sight, touch, and most importantly hearing. We don’t use taste (unless you are Rudy Sarzo), at least in the literal way; nor do we use smell- except when our playing stinks, or when we smell our amp frying. Sight is involved in the playing of our instrument, reading, and also visual communication amongst the musicians and/or the audience. Touch is used in finger and hand placement. Most obviously listening is the sense that we need to utilize most exclusively when playing music. Even when we use our eyes and touch, the ears are the final judge. Always trust them. If your mind says your fingers are doing everything right, but your ears tell you that it sounds wrong, which one should you believe? Of the 30+ years that I have been playing, the first 10 or so were spent using mostly my eyes to make music. I learned how to read music early on (rare for most guitarists), and I thought that that was more important than using my ears. At one point I realized (duh!!) the importance of my ears, and since then they have become one of the main tools I use and what I now tend to focus my practicing on. Old habits are hard to break, though, and at moments of stress, my panic induced reaction has sometimes been to revert to my eyes. I played a jazz gig not too long ago in which I was using a new guitar which I thought had the magical ability to always be in tune. I didn’t end up keeping it for very long because I couldn’t get a tone I liked and the controls were a bit awkward. This was one of the few gigs I actually used it on, and at one point I was doing a solo rendition of a song that had all of these thick jazz chords in it. It was sounding awful, but ignoring my ears, I attributed it to the frustrations I had been having with its tone. After playing the tune for about 45 grueling seconds, the piano player said “Man, you are having some tuning issues, huh?” That’s when I realized that I had been bumping the headstock of the guitar on the piano all night. My ears said it sounded wrong; my eyes said that my hands were doing everything correct, and this guitar is always in tune; and my brain listened to my eyes. Lesson learned: always trust your ears!

 

Even though when we listen to music, we are drawn to the spotlight instrument, try to hear what the supporting players are doing. When you listen to a solo or improvisation (recorded or live), instead of focusing on only the soloist, listen to the chords beneath the soloist as well as the solo and how their notes blend or clash with the harmony. Listen to what the whole band is doing: hear the groove of the bass, the drums, and the other instruments. Hear not only the underlying foundation, but also any interaction that is occurring- did the drummer react to something the soloist did? Or, did the pianist do something that caused the soloist to respond.

 

Understanding the function the other instruments involved is very valuable in your awareness of music. One way to develop an understanding of other instruments is to learn their parts- not necessarily to the level of performing them, but simply to get an idea of what they are doing. You might try to learn a bass part on your guitar. I have spent a lot of time trying to recreate drum parts from my favorite songs with a drum machine. Many times it can be difficult to hear certain parts, especially low frequency instruments such basses or kick drums. For me, it is like those 3D stereogram pictures, where you have to cross your eyes and move the image back and forth until all of a sudden the picture jumps out at you. The thing is, once you see it, you are always able to see it, if not immediately, much quicker than the initial try. Kick drums were always like that for me- I would put on headphones and it was as if I was searching my head trying to find it in the soundscape, sometimes listening to the whole song a dozen times. All of a sudden bam- there it is. After that I could always hear it in that song. Doing these things really helped my awareness and understanding of what those other instruments were doing, and in effect, helped me play better with them.

 

When you are one of the players, awareness is extremely important. When playing with others, the whole package is what is important- not just your role. Though it may take a little getting used to, listening to 2 or more other players along with yourself, that is what good and great musicians do. It actually becomes easier quicker than you would expect. In an improvisational context, it is all about communication; even if the music isn’t of an improvisatory nature, you still need to be aware of every other player. Orchestral players have the ability to hear their tuning, while listening to their whole section in an attempt at mixing as well as possible. It really is a whole organism, and that goes for a duo or a whole orchestra.

 

When you are soloing, the others are laying down a solid foundation for you to play on top of, and either reacting to you or pushing and prodding you in new directions. It’s a conversation, but you have the spotlight. You say something, and they respond with a musical “yeah!”, or “what do you mean?” or something like that. Your awareness is placed upon what you are playing, but also those people laying the foundation that supports you. Their input can be very inspiring. You need to be aware of all of these things that happen in an instant and react accordingly- even if the proper response is silence.

 

When you are the supporting accompanists, you are focused- on what the soloist is doing, and at the same time, what the others in the rhythm section are doing. Especially when you have played for a while with the same people, you develop a sort of ESP-like ability to predict the next move of your bandmates, and a type of unspoken communication.

 

To achieve this awareness, it is important to keep a clear head- no thinking. Thinking is what you do when you practice. When you are playing music, it is beyond thinking. The various musical choices that are available to you are made in a split second. Thinking takes too long. Thinking gets in the way of music making. Thinking is what made me trust my eyes instead of my ears.

 

I have always found it necessary to close my eyes when playing, so that I can focus on only hearing. It seems to me that our brains have the equivalent of an amount of RAM, and each sense uses up a certain amount. For me to grant my ears more RAM, I need to turn off my eyes. It has always been amazing to me how much better I play with my eyes closed. Open eyes make me think about fretboard patterns, what I look like, what those people in the audience are doing (in some of the bars I used to play in, it was always wanted to keep my eyes closed anyways!), and other non-musical things like that. Very distracting. The moment I close my eyes, everything disappears except for the music, and all of my musical ideas are more a product of my ears instead of my eyes (visual fretboard shapes). A good experiment is to close your eyes when you are eating: you will notice a drastic improvement in how your food tastes. Our eyes are our main sense; therefore, they tend to hog most of the RAM. By turning them off, our ears can more effectively utilize that RAM. Even though our eyes are helpful for playing the instrument, we don’t want to depend on them. If playing without looking at your hands sounds difficult, give it a try- you will most likely be amazed at how well you can do it. And, like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it. You can always sneak a peek when you need to.

 

One other sense that warrants mention is often called our sixth sense; some call it intuition, or simply a feeling. We all get feelings that influence our decisions, much like those stories of people who were supposed to get on a flight, but didn’t because it just didn’t feel right. They chose to listen to that feeling, and the plane crashed. Intuition also plays an important role in music. Many times we just know the right lick to play, or what the soloist is going to do and we are ready for them. And, most importantly, for music to be good, it has to feel good. As a matter of fact, intuition might be equally as important as our ears when it comes to playing music. You might think of our ears as the input of our brain, and the intuition as our processor. Many people believe that the decisions that we make based on our intuition is a result of processing all the information it receives through our various sense channels. Thinking is our attempt at consciously making sense of the info, instead of allowing our brain to do it by itself. Our brain probably knows better than we do. Most music I love can be analyzed and proven to be “good”, but most important is that is has that mysterious thing that makes it feel good. That cannot be explained. That feeling that we love about music is our intuition telling us that it is good- and too complicated for our conscious brain to understand; we just know that it’s good. So in the end, just get out of the brain’s way!

 

Awareness in music involves listening to the whole band, including your music, with a clear head. Don’t let thinking get in the way- there isn’t enough time. That’s reserved for practicing.

 

Don’t forget to play the song

The theme of this blog is to illustrate the importance of the song. What I mean by this, is often times players learn a song and then proceed to play the hell out of it, in the process forgetting or neglecting what the song is about. I thought of this recently when I heard another guitar teacher working on the Sonny Rollins song “St.Thomas” with a student. The student was using a youtube video of Barney Kessel in concert as a source of ideas. In the video, the song was played at light speed, and many musical gymnastics ensued. It inspired me to work on that song again- I hadn’t played it in about 6 years. When I listened to the original Sonny Rollins recording, I was reawakened to how happy and fun this song is. I realized that the Barney Kessel version left out the most important part- the overall feeling of the tune. There is a mood, an emotional element, that is present, and that is way more important than displaying how well you can navigate through the song’s changes. This happens a lot in jazz- the feeling of the song is forgotten, and the melody is played simply as a way of letting the audience know what the song is, getting through it as quickly as possible so that you can show off your musical brilliance during your solo.

 

Another example of a song in which the meaning is commonly left behind is the Miles Davis tune “So What”. This song is incredibly simple in its harmonic progression: 16 bars of Dm, 8 bars of Ebm, and 8 bars of Dm again. When you listen to the original on the album Kind Of Blue, there is a very unique mood to this tune that is as important as the chords and melody. But what usually happens is that musicians say “Hell yeah! This is easy- I can play the hell outta this!” -it gets played really fast and everyone tries to outdo each other. Virtually any resemblance to the Kind Of Blue version is completely gone. Interestingly enough, it is very common for musicians to be fooled by the long, desolate durations of the chord changes, and they tend to get lost in this song more than any other.

 

I’m sure to ruffle some feathers with this next example, but understand that both guitarists I site here are two of my all-time favorites and this is just an opinion. “Voodoo Chile” is a song that Jimi Hendrix wrote, and then years later Stevie Ray Vaughn came and beat the hell out of it. Stevie basically made it his own song, and it is awesome; but, as much as I like it, I like Hendrix’s more because it sounds like voodoo. It sounds scary. Hendix’s purpose (if I may be so bold to guess his purpose!) was to create this soundscape, to bring you to a different place. Stevie’s purpose, to me, seemed to be about jamming on a cool song. Again, they are both great, but I feel that the Hendrix version has an extra meaning that gives it a bit more depth that SRV lacked in his cover of the tune. The next time you get a chance, listen to the two versions with an ear towards the meaning.

 

A few years ago, I attended a bluegrass guitar clinic given by Josh Williams, and in it he emphasized the importance in bluegrass to base your solo on the melody of the song, not to draw attention to you and display your musical acrobatics and cleverness. It should be more like a theme and variations than a total departure. I left thinking about how this should be applicable to all styles of music.

 

If you are a blues player, on a gig you might have 10 songs that are shuffles in A. By making your solo relate to the actual song, instead of just a key and a groove, you will then allow each song to retain its unique characteristics and stand out from all those other tunes in the same key and groove. And, thinking beyond the solo, the rhythm parts played should also have a unique flavor, setting it apart from the other similar songs. To accomplish this selfless devotion to the song, your ego must be tied up and put in the corner, allowing the song to always have center stage.

 

I also read an interview with Les Paul in which he was expressing his frustration with musicians soloing without any relevance to the song. He related a story in which he was in a club watching some well-known and respected jazz artists, who would do the standard jazz equation: head, ripping solos, head again, ending. The solos tended to be so far away from the songs that he decided to conduct a little experiment. During the solos, he would go around the club asking the people what song was being played. The answer, more often than not, was “I don’t remember.” Even the pros are guilty of this.

 

And another thing to consider is that if you are having trouble coming up with an idea for a solo, you can never go wrong with the melody. Even if the melody has some very strange things going on, they work because they are the melody. A good example is the 3rd and 4th bar of “Take the A Train”, in which the melody consists of the b5 of the dominant II chord- a weird sound. When the listener has heard the melody, they remember that oddness and hear it as the song; it doesn’t sound weird anymore. It is one of the unique quirks that make the song different. And since it’s in the melody, it always makes sense when you use it to improvise. If anything, using bits and pieces of the melody will inspire other ideas, which, due to their connection to the melody, will always help the solo expand upon the song’s true meaning.

 

One would think that simple songs would be more often abused (such as the  St. Thomas example, which in the jazz world is fairly simple), but complex songs also get forgotten. This may well be due to the challenge of just making it through the song, and any emotional content is shoved aside. Many bebop songs, which rank as some of the most complicated music created, have these really great melodies, but when people solo, it has nothing to do with the song. Those melodies should be thought of as a goldmine for ideas.

 

Obviously, the original version of a song played by the composer(s) is the most pure source of the true meaning of a song. But, it is also interesting to hear others people’s interpretation when their version is an attempt to express the essence of the song. As a matter of fact, that is what you are doing when playing a song. Anytime you are improvising, it should be a musical conversation in which the topic is the song, with each soloist getting an opportunity to express what that topic means to them, while the others are providing a backdrop for them that is supportive. The topic I am referring to may well be a literal one, such as the lyrical content, but may also be a more abstract emotion, such as with instrumentals, that may have a different meaning for each performer and listener. Also, when the lyrics are not all that expressive or important to the song, there still exists and overall feeling that you can express.

A good example of playing the song is this one by Junior Brown. It is a western-swing style song. The lyrics are funny, and though they tell a story of sorts, listen to how Junior uses the melody in his solo- the lyric meaning isn’t the meaning, the melody is the meaning.

No matter what the song is, whether AC/DC or John Coltrane, your purpose should be to express the meaning of that song. If not what the composer intended, then what it means to you. This is a much deeper approach to music, sometimes more challenging, and always more fulfilling, than just playing scales and licks.