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 With the advanced nature of electronic tuners now-a-days, it would seem like this is an outdated skill to develop.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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

The Secret To a Great Solo

The idea for this blog entry comes from a video I saw of Wynton Marsalis (probably my favorite musician of all time) giving a speech. In it, Wynton related a story in which he asked the great jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan: “What is the secret to a great solo?”

After some thought, Gerry responded, : “I don’t know the secret to a great solo; but I do know the secret to a bad solo: right before you play a solo, tell yourself ‘I’m going to play a great solo’ ”.

I find that hilarious and yet totally true. Instead of just applying to solos, this could be said of a song, a whole gig, an audition, or a recording session. It could also apply to many non-musical activities, such as sports, or even dating.

The idea is to approach any situation, as Taoists say, like an uncarved block: no expectations, staying simple, and not trying to impress anyone. You should approach a solo with an open mind, and only intending to play the music. Any attempt to kick-ass or impress usually results in the opposite. Whenever I fall victim to trying too hard, it feels like I am trying to shove 1000 lbs. of awesomeness through a pin-hole; it all gets squashed into an unattractive amorphous blob.

It seems like the most magical things happen spontaneously. I notice this most often when it comes to humor: the funniest things I’ve said have not been planned- they just come out. Because what I said was so effective, I remember it so I can say it again some other time. But, usually what happens is I try to force it, and it is always falls flat. I may get some laughs, but it feels artificial compared to the time it happened spontaneously.

The best musical moments are also totally unplanned and almost feel like a gift. You’re not expecting it, but all of a sudden something happens, the perfect lick comes out of your fingers, and it’s incredible- where it came from, nobody knows. And, trying to do it again is a total disaster. When an awesome musical moment happens, let it go. If it is supposed to happen again it will, but it is not for you to decide. I don’t mean to avoid playing that lick, just let it come out on its own.

To allow things like this to occur, it is best to get out of the way. Trying is interference- an open, clear mind is the most unobstructed conduit for good things to travel on. This isn’t always easy, especially when the event is perceived as important.

Dating is another example: you finally score a date with that person you think is so incredibly perfect, and you really want it to work, but instead you become a complete idiot and ruin the whole evening. For some unfathomable reason, you get another chance. You look to your friends for help, telling them about the crippling nerves that this person brings out in you, and their response is always “Just be yourself.” In this situation, being yourself can be the most difficult thing. Of course, being ourselves is what we should be best at, way more so than being somebody else.

In music, this most commonly happens in situations such as auditions, an important gig in which industry big-wigs are attending, or in the studio: anything in which we might feel the need to impress someone. All of these situations tend to bring out the worst in our playing due to trying too hard. Instead, just focus on playing the music, allowing for unexpected things, but not forcing them. Keep your ears open, listening not only to yourself, but the whole band. Almost hear it as an outsider, a member of the audience.

Be aware.

Just be yourself.