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Quick Guitar Tip: Improvising for Beginners

First, let’s define what “improvisation” means:

We improvise when we make up music purely from our imaginations. It is the act of simply making it up as we go along. Comedians improvise jokes, actors improvise lines and engineers improvise solutions. Each of these instances has a slightly different meaning because the context is different, but basically improvising is the act of “winging it”. We improvise when we try to invent something on the spot without a plan.


“Pick up my guitar and play. Just like yesterday. ” – Pete Townsend


The Who Hamburg 1972

Many solos that we hear on records were improvised in the recording studio on the spot. This is something that to many non-musicians seems miraculous. Many guitarists will have a general idea what they want to record, but when the red light goes on they just start playing and see where it goes. After several takes they will listen back to each solo and decide which one they like the best. That one goes on the record, and the guitarist might then memorize it to play at live shows the same way each time. Or they may not.

Joe Perry

Joe Perry of Aerosmith takes pride in saying that he never plays the same solo twice. On the other end of the spectrum, Alex Lifeson of Rush nearly always plays the recorded version of a song and solo note for note during live performances.

It is really a wonderful thing isn’t it? We can pick up a guitar and start playing notes in a certain (or even an uncertain) rhythm and like magic, music fills the air.

Improvisation Tips for Beginners

1. Put on a favorite album or song (or just pick up your guitar).
2. Find just one note that sounds good.
3. Keep playing that note over and over until it stops sounding good.
4. Try a different note.
5. Play the new note over and over again until it stops sounding good.
6. Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5.

This might sound simplistic to the point of being ridiculous, but it is the essence of improvisation. There is a lot going on here. You are choosing a note, randomly at first, listening for its effect, staying on that note or not based on how it sounds, or how it makes you feel, and then choosing another note as you seek a new sound or feeling. If the note you pick doesn’t sound good simply pick another one that sounds better.

Did you notice I’d didn’t say to think about this or that scale? That is because not everybody knows the same scales. Some of you might not know any scales whatsoever. We are all at a different level if understanding and experience when it comes to knowledge of music theory.

This exercise teaches us how to begin listening with the ear of a soloist, it also begins to eliminate the fear we naturally have of playing horrible music. Start by saying to yourself “this might sound completely awful but I don’t care.”

If you do this often enough you will eventually learn to improvise, you simply cannot fail. There is absolutely no knowledge of music theory required and the music that you will play will be as authentic as it gets.

When you do this, all of your instinctual and primal knowledge of music and rhythm will come to the surface. What you may or may not know about scales, chords and intervals will only help you on the subconscious level, where it belongs.

It’s helpful to think of tones as colors, making strokes and dashes as a painter does, true to your source of light.

 

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Music, Across Time and Space

Image of Ancient Egyptian stringed instruments, including a lute. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Image of Ancient Egyptian stringed instruments, including a lute. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.” – Yo Yo Ma



A few years ago I attended a cello concerto by Yo Yo Ma at Powell Hall in Saint Louis, Missouri. At the time I was studying classical guitar pretty seriously and was doing a lot of thinking about how old the music was that I was studying. Hearing and seeing Yo Yo Ma play that night was inspirational because it brought home a very real sense of timelessness. His program that night was made up of music from many different time periods, cultures and styles, yet the way he presented them made it seem as though they could have all been composed by the same composer in the same year, from the same place. I realized that he had the ability to find the essential human quality in each of the pieces he played and communicate that somehow in the way he expressed each and every note. This is testament both to the great cellist that he is and to the timelessness of the music he had chosen. His music made the time honored walls of Powell Hall ring out in sympathetic vibration with centuries of composers, performers and conductors who had gone before him.

It made me realize that when we practice music we should try to find what it is about the piece we are practicing that speaks across the generations. What is the basic, primal human feeling or emotion that the composer is trying to communicate with the composition? This can be done whether the piece was written five hundred years ago or five years ago. The impulse to create is a basic human urge and has been with us since the dawn of time. Styles may come and go, but the reason we practice has been the same all along.

We all know music fans who won’t listen to or admit to liking music that is more than a few years old. For this type of fan, music is more akin to a fashion statement than a timeless art. That’s okay. Everyone has their own reasons for being drawn to music. Those who see music as something more than disposable pop culture have no problem embracing it for its own sake and not just for whatever the latest, popular take is on it’s cultural significance.

If you choose classic material that has stood the test of time over many generations, you can dedicate your entire life to a piece and never worry that it will go out of style. This is one of the many benefits of studying classical music. The music has stood the test of time and has found a way to reach out and touch generation after generation of listeners. The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia once said about Bach’s Chacconne that “one should never attempt to perform it before the age of fifty.” That was how much respect he had for the demanding nature of the piece and the value of working an entire lifetime to perfect music that you love.

One of the biggest obstacles to mastering a piece of music is to get bored with it before it is fully synthesized and memorized. Usually it is not that the music itself is boring. Something inspired you to want to play it in the first place right? Most likely there is a technical hurdle that is keeping you from fully realizing the piece. Often times that technical hurdle is really just a failure to understand what effect the composer was trying to communicate. Instead of giving up, ask yourself, “why did the composer include this or that type of passage in this particular spot? What is the feeling they are trying to evoke? Why is it important to the piece? If you can connect with the intention of the composer you stand a much better chance at solving whatever technical problem you may have. Examine the parts of the song where you continually get frustrated or stuck and ask this question. By overcoming one small problem, you can transform a piece from being a source of stress and fear into perhaps being your signature musical statement.

In practical terms this all means that you need not feel compelled to always be practicing new things. If you truly enjoy a piece, practice it as often as you like and know that it will become better with age. Resist the feeling to give up on it or pass over it because it has been played so many times before by so many other artists. There is a reason it has been done so often. Besides, it is much better to know a few things very well than many things poorly. Choosing time-tested music need not be limited to classical music. Enough time has gone by since the dawn of blues, jazz, rock and country music that there is now plenty of material to include in the “classic” category.

Imagine that before you die, you will get the opportunity to play one concert for the world on your way out. Ask yourself what songs would be on your list and never stop working to perfect them. Choose music that you love and that expresses all the fun and adventure that drew you to music in the first place – regardless of when or where it was composed. Be true to what inspires you musically. If you do this you can be sure that you will never tire of practicing those same old songs. You may have played a particular piece a million times but remember, much of your audience may be hearing it for the first time ever.

I have learned to embrace older forms of music by recognizing that music does not come from, or exist in, a specific time or a specific place. Music transcends not only time a space but it also transcends any particular individual’s thoughts or emotions. Like a great novel, poem or painting, music reaches out across generations and communicates things about the nature of the human heart mind and soul. Ancient music reveals the imagination as it was then, and modern interpretation brings it back to life for us in the here and now. In the hands of a true artist, a musical statement can be just as relevant now as it was then. It can last for eternity; or at least for as long as there are those who wish to listen and to care.


“To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations – such is a pleasure beyond compare.” -Kenko Yoshida


 

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First Novel is Available

dreamtanglecover

Kindle Version

OK. Here is the blog entry I meant to post earlier tonight.

This is just a quick note to let you know that I’ve just completed my first (short) novel. It’s a self-published ebook called Dream Tangle. It’s available at the Kindle and Nook eBook stores right now and will be at the Apple iBooks store in a week or so.

What’s it about? Well, here is the official blurb:


Dream Tangle

In a future where dreams are recorded as holograms and marketed like Hollywood movies, a deadly secret is exposed, and rebellious celebrity Angela Pavane must pursue hallucinogenic clues to save lives (including her own) from a mysterious, lethal poison. But she has stolen a core technology that her pursuers will kill to get back. Inspector Ray Lake and three of Angela’s friends find themselves in choppers, deserts, jungles, caves and city skies, seeking an antidote while evading a CEO/scientist and his murderous thugs.

“Dreams were once a place impenetrable to the camera eye. For a time, they were the last remnant of privacy, a dark corner reserved for our battered souls to hide. Into a world already infested with networked cameras, microphones, data tags and motion sensors, the once mysterious and sacred realm of the subconscious now lay exposed and bleeding, sacrificed on the altar of technology. “


The genre is a mix of science fiction, fantasy, crime/detective, action and thriller. It is set in the near future in the U.S. and Mexico and has some new technology at the center of it – notably the ability to record dreams. The main characters include a cellist/celebrity, a scientist/CEO) a retired detective, and a computer programmer along with his parents (a doctor and a green energy entrepreneur).

A first novel had to be somehow related to music (I can’t help it) so the main character, Angela, is a cellist. It gave me a chance to throw in some character traits that musicians could relate to, but the bulk of the story is not directly music related. It’s a quick read, about 150 pages, and kid friendly (apart from a few mild expletives). In other words, PG.

The goal was to tell a good old fashioned story with some twists, turns and surprises. I wanted it to move along quickly and have interesting characters in compelling situations. I’m a fan of snappy dialogue, action and intrigue in stories so, after the first chapter which introduces the publisher/scientist and the core technology, the dialogue and action get moving quickly.

I have been writing short stories, poems, and (starting) novels since high school, letting them mildew in faded notebooks on a bottom shelf. Before e-readers, tablets and self-publishing technologies, the prospect of getting “traditionally” published just seemed too daunting, uncertain and unachievable. This wasn’t made any easier by the fact that I worked at a major medical publishing company for several years, and discovered how authors really get their publishing contracts. Some traditions deserve to die.

Another reason for this post is that I haven’t got a single clue how to market a fiction ebook. (Wait, maybe that’s what publishers are for.) So I’m posting this with the hope that you might be interested enough to give it a try, or to let someone know about the book who you think might be interested. In addition, I’d love to hear from other writers about what strategies they have used to market a fiction ebook.

I’ll be back to writing music articles soon. Thanks for your time!

M.J

Here are the links to the Kindle and Nook versions.

dreamtanglecover

Kindle Version

Nook Version

Nook Version

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2013 in Admin, Writing

 

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Enter Stage Right – For Those About to Gig


“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson



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If you are reading this, it is likely that you play music at some level. Maybe you’re a solo performer, maybe you’re in a band, or used to be in a band, or maybe you are practicing hard and hope someday to perform for a live audience..

There are few things more satisfying than playing music for real, live listeners, or for some of us, more terrifying – at least at first. Who knows what motivates anyone to shed the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get a song to performance level; but It must serve some kind of evolutionary purpose. The drive to write or to master a piece of music can seem sometimes like an instinctual, primal expression of freedom, and at other times like a lifetime jail sentence, complete with recurring torture sessions.

But we do it anyway, millions of us, day after day, night after night seeking some kind of reward.

The intent of this post is to discuss the elements of guitar performance that aren’t always considered when you are focused purely on the music itself: the stuff around the edges, the afterthoughts and the stuff we always wish we would have thought about harder before taking the stage.

The Reason I Mention It

It’s funny how major decisions just kind of happen on their own sometimes without much real thought.

On a recent, lazy Sunday afternoon I was hanging around the house watching baseball. Out of the blue, I suddenly decided that it was time to get back into a band. It had been more than two years. It was great having weekends off, and having time to write my books, do the blog, teach guitar and do some other things, but it was just time to get out and play live again.

The crazy thing is that, the very next day, there came a phone call from the singer in an old band. He had never stopped gigging but things had changed, and he was was forming a new band. They needed a guitarist.

It was one of those coincidences that you swear, somehow was no coincidence. Call it synchronicity, serendipity, psychic causality, spooky action at a distance, whatever you call it, it felt right. I told myself I was ready, but was I?

In a day or two from getting the call we were off to the races. There were about forty cover songs to learn or, at least, relearn. The first gig was only a month away and lazy practice habits over the past three years of being mostly “gigless” had left me rusty and uncertain about performance details once taken for granted.

Lazy isn’t really the best word. I had been playing and teaching and writing all the while, but practicing takes on a whole new meaning when you know you’ve got to get up on stage in a few weeks time, in front of real people, and deliver the songs. Whether you are an experienced musician who has been in many bands or you are just starting out in your very first band, you may find you have to radically change the way you think about practice once you commit to performing a real gig. Once you say yes to a band, everything changes. The word “practice” seems a lot more like “work”, and you are suddenly a nervous kid again just starting out, and questioning all of your experience and abilities.


“You can’t hire someone to practice for you.” H. Jackson Brown, Jr.


When you are just playing for pure pleasure, you can spend your time, noodling around, learning fun riffs, parts of songs, running scales, practice sight reading, and not worrying too much about whether or not you are really nailing that fast part, memorizing the chord progression, or grasping the overall song structure. (Has anyone seen the bridge?)

When you are practicing to reach performance level, you are carrying a much heavier load. There are other people counting on you knowing your part perfectly: your band, for one, the audience for another. In this case, the band consists of four members: a lead singer: a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. If we count the the singer’s tambourine, we can call it a four piece.

Yikes.

Being the only guitarist in a classic rock cover band, and without a keyboard player poses some real challenges. There is no place to hide. You are the rhythm and lead guitar at once: not much room for error, sloppiness, or indecision in this band. Luckily, I’ve been in several previous bands with the same scarce lineup.

With these things in mind, I started to think about how to approach preparing and practicing. Now, with two gigs under our belts, I can look back and share some of the things I had to re-think through this time around. Hopefully it can be of help to you if you’re just starting out, auditioning, or thinking of starting a band of your own.


“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde


Here is a list of things I found myself paying the most attention to once I committed to the job in the band.

1. Solos (To copy or not to copy)

You have several options when it comes to the guitar solos, you can play the solo note for note, improvise your own solo, play parts of it note for note, or simply try to play something like the recording.

I have a thing about learning the exact guitar solo from the original recording. If you are in an original band this is not a factor (you’ve got to invent them) but if you are in a cover band it is a big decision.

Over the years, I have settled on an approach that seems to work pretty well. I always attempt to learn and play solos note for note. I see it as a challenge: as a way of proving to myself that I can copy the solo note for note. In other words, that I’m good enough to figure it out and nail it! If something is just too difficult to learn in time for a gig (or if it is simply too long and hard to memorize in time) I will improvise something else in the meantime while I continue to work on the recorded solo. Once I have it down, I will start playing it on the gigs.

If you choose to improvise your own solo, be sure to pay close attention to the chord progression and bass line that’s happening during the solo – not just what’s happening on the record, but what your other band members are actually playing. Many times, I have worked out a key-chord-scale strategy for the solo section using the recording only to discover that the band is not playing the exact chords behind the solo that are on the recording. When in doubt, just ask the other members to walk you through exactly what they are playing. This is just as critical when you are copying the recorded solo, so it’s best not to take anything for granted.

2. Chords Inside Out

Working out the chords to a song is by far the most important part of doing a cover song. Don’t take anyone’s word for what the chords should be. The tablature, chords and Youtube videos on the Internet are consistently wrong. Trust your own ears. If you are to the point that you are playing in a band, you are most likely accomplished enough to know when something sounds right or wrong. If there is any question about a chord always go with what your ears are telling you – even if you have the quote “official” sheet music to the song.

It is helpful to play through the song using nothing but chords, even when the actual part in the band is to play a lead line, a fill, or a riff instead. This enables you to get a feel for the overall structure of the song and if you ever forget a lead part, you can at least play the chords and not get totally lost! Knowing the chords from start to finish also comes in really handy if you ever have to do a purely acoustic version of the song because the power goes out !

It’s also a good idea to rehearse the chords to the song using several different voicings. When you can mix and match your voicings using open chords, barre chords, partial chords, inversions, triads and diads, you can really open up a song and take advantage of the different ways of expressing the same harmonic content. Maybe the best reason for this however is that you can keep things interesting for yourself – even in the simplest three chord song.


“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius


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3. Gear

Being in a band can cost a fortune. There are so many things to consider when it comes to gear. Are your guitars up to snuff? Do you have at least two dependable guitars of professional quality? What about cables, extra strings, capos, picks, guitar stands, gaffers tape, towels, tools, all that stuff. This is not meant to be a checklist, just a way of reminding you not to be caught off guard. Everybody’s list will be different- only you can really know what you need.

Make sure all your gear is up to the task of playing the gigs you will be doing. After committing to this new band I realized that since I was not in a rock band for three years, I had sold a couple electric guitars (times are tough all over) and now had to scramble to re-acquire some of the things I needed to play in the new band.

4. Planning Your Sounds and Effects

One thing that doesn’t receive much attention is the work involved in making sure you have your gear set up to do the kind of switching from song to song, part to part, and sound to sound. Practicing the music is only the first step. The next step is to make sure you have all the required sounds and effects dialed into your gear. In other words, can you go quickly and easily from that clean, chorus sound, to the crunchy rhythm part, to the sustained screaming solo sound and back? When you need to? Every time? Without missing a beat or flubbing a chord because your busy stomping on six different pedals?

The ability to get just the right sound for the part is an art in itself and takes just as much thought as the music does. Over the years, I have gone from keeping it simple (because that’s all I could afford) to having a million effects pedals, and then back to keeping it simple. As usual, simple wins again as far as I’m concerned. The trick for any guitarist in a classic rock cover band is to have three or four (or less) great sounds and stick with them.

Everyone has a different way of doing things. I have settled on the somewhat old school approach of using three preamp settings: clean, crunch, and lead. I loop a few effects and use them sparingly. Sometimes, if it is a song that uses all three sounds, I will use the lead channel for the whole song and just use the volume and tone controls on the guitar to gradually increase the volume and therefore the amount of gain and sustain.

Using the volume and tone controls on the guitar to achieve the desired tone is the way most of the early classic rock guitarist did it anyway. There wasn’t many effects pedals on the market in those days. I have found it only makes sense that if you are trying to accurately copy a part, the best way is to do it the way the original guitarist did it. Use the volume and tone controls on the guitar! Try it- you might just like it, and it will save you a lot of money and frustration.


“Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill


Whatever your chosen method, when it comes to effects, be sure to practice the sound switching too. If you’ve got to stomp on a pedal or two , twist a knob, or switch a pickup, it has to be at just the right time or you risk missing a note or a chord. Our first gig this summer was outdoors, and it was so hot, the switch on my wha-wha pedal kept sticking in the on position. It’s the kind that you need to literally stomp on to turn on and of (called a pedal switch). People must have thought I was going crazy if they saw me stomping on the thing the way I did. It must have looked like I was putting out a fire. I kinda was.

The point is, you don’t want the equipment getting in the way of your ability to play the music. Keep things simple and practice the sound and effects changes as if they were just as important as the notes – because they are!

5. Vocal Parts

Lucky for me, I don’t do much singing other than some backups. But just like the effects, you’ve got to practice even the simplest singing parts while playing the guitar part. It’s way too easy (and way too common) to practice your vocals in the car on the way to the gig, thinking you’ve got them down and then find out that it’s impossible to focus on the vocals while you’re playing that tricky guitar riff. Just sayin…


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6. Standing Up (Really)

To a non- guitarist, this one might seem crazy, but I know every single guitar player can relate. Be sure to rehearse all of your songs standing up! That is of course, if you intend to be standing during your performance. It’s amazing how strange it feels to play standing up after doing all your practicing sitting down. Some chords, runs and licks can become downright impossible if you have not practiced them standing up. Trust me. You don’t want this to take you by surprise.

The best thing you can do is to practice every song standing up, the second best thing to do is to practice while sitting down, but position your guitar at the exact same height and angle that it rests at when you are standing.

A guitarist I know (ahem) once had to ask for the keyboard players stool just to play the intro riff to “Long Cool Woman”. He hadn’t practiced it standing up – ever, before hitting the stage to find out that it mattered.

7. Setup and Teardown

Anything you can do to make the setting up and tearing down process easier will pay off big time in the stress avoidance department. My basic strategy is to have as few pieces as possible to carry on and off the stage. Even though you might have a million items, try to consolidate as much as possible into as few cases as possible. You don’t want to be going back and forth from the truck with a bunch of miscellaneous stuff falling out of your arms. You’re gonna be tired after a four hour gig. Save yourself time, trouble and trips by investing in some strong road cases and gig bags that minimize the back and forth. As a general rule, the more wheels, and the more stackable, the better.

There is so much more to think about when it comes to preparing yourself to play a live gig, but I have tried to focus on the most important things – in my experience anyway. The important thing is that you get out there and do it. Go make music. Do it your way. You’ll make mistakes. There will be good days and bad days. You might feel like quitting sometimes. Don’t worry. Just do the gigs, go home, practice, then go out and do it again. The rewards will surely come, and they will be indescribable.


“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi


I hope this post was useful, or at least interesting. Drop me a line if you have any further tips, tricks, suggestions or comments.

 

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Why Classical Guitar?


“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein



Guitaromanie

Guitaromanie


Mention “classical guitar” to many beginning guitarists and you will get a whole host of reactions, from “what’s that?” to “do you mean classic rock?” to “why would you want to play that on guitar?”.

Despite a brief resurgence in the 1960’s and 70’s, classical guitar remains obscure to most young guitar players. The primary reason for this obscurity is that in today’s pop and rock music, classical guitar is nearly non-existent. There are acoustic guitars galore of course, and plenty of fingerstyle guitar tracks, but the vast majority of these are performed on steel string guitars and are usually based in country or folk styles and rely on Travis picking patterns. Why is the instrument not used more widely? What’s not to love in the rich, warm tone of a well played classical guitar? You could easily replace every fancy piano ballad or intro with a classical guitar and not lose a bit of the warmth, excitement or emotional impact. Nothing against the piano of course…

From Under The Rock

It was a little different for those of us starting to learn guitar in the 1970’s. In those days there were a handful of progressive rock bands that embraced the instrument. Guitarists like Alex Lifeson (Rush), Steve Howe (Yes), and Steve Hackett (Genesis) recorded entire songs, intros, or instrumental passages with classical guitars. Hearing some of their records, I fell in love with the sound and set out to learn many of those pieces. In doing so, I accidentally opened myself up to an entire world of classical music, and I am forever grateful to these artists for their inspiration.


“All life’s pleasure consists of getting a little closer to perfection and expressing life’s mysterious thrill a little better.” Maurice Ravel



Andrés_Segovia_by_Hilda_Wiener_(1877-1940)

Andrés_Segovia by Hilda Wiener (1877-1940)


I soon discovered where these rock guitarists were getting their inspiration from. In the early 1960’s, there was a growing audience for exciting new guitarists who were expanding on Andre Segovia’s groundbreaking work years earlier. Players such as Christopher Parkening, Julian Bream, and John Williams were releasing great albums and packing concert halls. Digging into these records was a eureka experience and made me realize I was barely scratching the surface when it came to the potential of the instrument.

A short sampling of songs that featured the classical guitar in rock music would include the following:

Alex Lifeson, Rush, “The Trees”, “Broon’s Bane”, ” A Farewell to Kings”, “Rivendell”.

Steve Howe, Yes, “Mood for a Day”, “The Ancient.”

Steve Hacket, Genesis, “Horizons”, “Blood on the Rooftops.”

Mason Williams, “Classical Gas”.

Kerry Livgren, Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”.

Paul McCartney, The Beatles, “Blackbird”.

Eddie Van Halen, “Spanish Fly”.

These pieces opened up a whole new world for guitar players who wanted to move beyond the rock and blues roots that were inherent in the rock music phenomenon. If you are a fan of progressive rock, you could argue that by moving even further back into time, these artists pushed us even further into the future.


Steve Hackett

Steve Hackett


“When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” – Alexis de Tocqueville


Beyond “Classical”

Another reason for the lack of interest in classical guitar is the term itself: “classical”. The word turns off many students because it is full of connotations like “old, stuffy, difficult, strict, snobby and boring.” This is a larger problem for classical music in general, but when it comes to modern guitar players, the problem is compounded by the fact that the the word guitar usually conjures up ideas like “loud, proud, cool, and exciting.”

Just as classical music would benefit from being called something else, so too would the classical guitar. The term just doesn’t do justice to the vast amount of material and the wide range of styles that we refer to when we call something “classical.” To those who embrace it, the word means much more, ideas like: instrumental, artistic, refined, melodic, introspective, and precise come to mind. I suppose some would consider these words to be snobbish too. Oh well, what can you say, except “to each their own. “

I once wrote a blog post called “Why Music Needs a Blast from the Past” where I argued that we need new descriptors and that today’s pop and rock music could benefit by taking a look back to a time well before the birth of blues and jazz. Guitarists, and musicians in general can gain so much by exploring these more ancient roots, even if they think they don’t like classical music.

Christopher Parkening

Christopher Parkening

The Treasures that Await

The fact is that there is so much to gain from learning even the simplest classical guitar pieces.

1. You will learn to read music (the tradition is not with tablature here)
2. Explore fingerstyle techniques
3. Add standalone solo pieces to your repertoire
4. Experience the thrill of playing the rhythm, harmony and melody on a single instrument, much like a piano player.
5. Open yourself up new gigging possibilities

You will also begin to understand the rich terminology that is used to describe so many musical forms, tempos, moods and performance concepts (words like “andante, rondo, minuet, allegro, rubato, crescendo, decrecendo” etc…) Beyond the exotic sound of the words themselves, each of these words reveals a little bit more about what music meant to the composers.

2. You will know what it feels like to perform a piece of music in its entirety, not just the guitar part.

3. You will master parts of the fretboard, chords, scales and keys that you are not often exposed to in rock and pop.

4. You will obtain a new sense of discipline. Classical parts, by definition, are written down exactly and explicitly, unlike much of todays guitar tablature, everything you need to know about playing the part is written into the score, most notably the intricacies of rhythm notation.

5. You will begin looking at your guitar in a whole new way and open up limitless possibilities by combining what you already know with this new/old approach to the guitar.

5. Instead a potential repertoire from the 1950′s to the present, You will expand it to include music as far back as the 1500’s! Thanks to the pioneers in transcribing classical music for guitar, transcriptions are available for a great deal of the traditional music for instruments like the lute, piano, violin, and cello.


“Study the past, if you would divine the future.” – Confucius


diaz

Alrio Diaz

Tuning In

Many great artists have dedicated their lives to the classical guitar and have believed it to be the most beautiful and expressive instrument ever invented. Some are composers, some are players. There are names like the aforementioned Segovia, Tarregga, Sor, Gulianni, Pujol, Barrios, Williams, Bream, Boyd, Parkening. All these artists in one way or another greatly expanded the reach and enhanced the reputation of the guitar. A good first step of course would be to listen to a few of these artists, tune into what they have done, and see what happens to your concept of what the guitar is capable of.

Then of course, there are the millions of amateur and lesser known professional players like you and I who do it for the sheer joy of learning and playing the instrument. It is there, in those quiet nights of diligent practice and occasional exhilarating moments of accomplishment that the real value of their dedication to the instrument is known. If you play the instrument, you know what I mean. It wont even matter if there is an audience. If you don’t play the instrument yet, I hope that you will take it up soon and discover the feeling for yourself.

I was lucky enough to have studied with Ricardo Iznaola, who was fortunate enough to have studied with Alrio Diaz, who was in turn lucky enough to have studied with Andres Segovia. I don’t hold a candle to any of these great players of course, but one thing is for certain: they were able to pass down to me a sincere appreciation and respect for the instrument. This blog post is one small way I can attempt to pass on some of that enthusiasm and respect.

Here are some pieces I recommend exploring you if you are interested in getting started. They are not all beginner pieces by any means, but one of the things I discovered is that if you love a piece of music enough, just dig right in, you will find a way to get it done. It is the love for a piece that drives you forward and inspires you to keep going, at least it did for me. The other reason I recommend these particular pieces is that I have learned them so, trust me, I know you can too.

A short list of some great, somewhat easy, classical guitar pieces

Fransisco Tarrega- Caprichio Arabe
Fransisco Tarrega- Recuerdos De La Alhambra

J.S Bach – Minuet in G
J.S Bach – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
J.S. Bach – Bouree in E Minor
J.S Bach – Prelude to Lute Suite in D Major

Fernando Sor – Estudio 5 in B Minor
Fernando Sor – Estudio 6 in D Major

Anonymous – Romanze De Espana
Anonymous – Greensleeves

Fernando Carulli – Andante in A Minor

Ludwig Van Beethoven – Fur Elise

Scott Joplin – The Entertainer


Francisco Tarregga

Francisco Tarregga


Whatever you choose as a repertoire, some you will learn fairly well, others you will learn and forget, and still others you will work on for the rest of your life. That is the thing about this type of music: it challenges you to constantly refine and improve it and to always look for new ways of expressing it.

Of all the reasons to study classical guitar, the best reason is that you will be opening your heart and mind to centuries of amazing music. You will be reaching across time and space and into the mind of musicians who may have lived in a completely different world, but had the same passions, hopes, dreams, desires and fears as we do today.

It is one thing to listen to the music of our ancestors interpreted by other modern musicians on records, and another thing to accept the challenge of reinterpreting it for yourself, physically, on your instrument. The gift of our attention in the interpretation or in deep listening defines the essence of music. Studying music of another time and place completes a circuit of communication across the ages, and obliterates the illusion of time and space between a composer, performer and a listener.


“Music demands… from a listener…some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place… It demands as much effort on the listeners part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.” – Benjamin Britten


 

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Music and Mind Mapping


“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery



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The ‘Bounty’, Tall Ships Belfast 2009, near to Newtownabbey, Ireland. Photo by Ross. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.


For those brave, maybe crazy people we call explorers, the best part of the map is where it ends. They know the adventure truly begins where the map trails off into a blurry obscurity. For a musician who wants to advance, it’s really the same thing. But in order to know where the map ends, and where the adventure begins, you may want to have a map of some kind to start with.

We are all encouraged to set goals. You hear it from everyone, all the time. But, before setting lofty expectations isn’t it just as important to understand what kind of learners we are? Where have we succeeded in the past? What do we love to explore? What inspires us to ask the tough questions and to actually set out looking for some real answers?

It’s obvious that a teacher needs to be concerned how different individuals learn. It is less obvious, but just as important, that a student should study his or her own methods of learning. Where did this all this music stuff start? What has lead to what? How have I managed to accomplish these things? Where should I go from here?

Questions like these aren’t easily answered. At least not without a little introspection. You might hear a song and say to yourself “man I wish I could play like that,” or “how does someone write something so beautiful?” But you usually leave it right there and go on playing the same old chords, licks and lines that you feel comfortable with.

Mind Mapping with Reference Points

I have been experimenting recently with mind mapping as a way of deciding on a subject for my next book. When I set out to do this blog post, I hit on the idea of mapping out some musical concepts as a way of thinking about new subjects. This led somehow to the realization that everything we learn is built on the foundation of something else. We use these bits of knowledge or understanding as points of reference, like a sailor navigating by the stars and charting a course as he goes.

To a navigator, stars are reference points, reliable guides, confidence givers. They are welcome assurance that no matter where we wander we can find our way back.


NASA Public Domain Star Chart

NASA Public Domain Star Chart


To a musician reference points are simply things you have achieved: songs you have learned, concepts you have grasped, and techniques you have mastered. When you are just starting out, they may be as basic as a fingering for a new chord, a particular scale pattern, or a power chord riff. When you are more advanced, it may have more to do with theoretical concepts such as harmony, chord construction or composition.

Regardless of your proficiency or knowledge of music theory, you can use these reference points either as springboards to propel your playing to the next level, or as safe ports in a storm to fall back on when you need to just play some good music.


“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it. ” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Example of a Reference Point

As an example, I will use the concept of the pentatonic scale. I use this example, because for me, the pentatonic scale was the beginning of my understanding of several key musical concepts.

When I was just starting out, I was in a band with a drummer, a bassist, and two other guitar players. When it came to the three guitarists, each of us had strengths and weaknesses: one was a master at learning chords and fancy riffs by ear, one was an excellent rhythm player, and one of us was pretty good at coming up with improvised solos. I was the one that had the knack for the solos, so I got the job of lead guitar, at least in the sense that when a song called for an extended jam, I was usually the first to take a crack at it.

The reason for this was that I had learned the most basic form of the pentatonic scale and could improvise with it. It was my reference point. At that time, I think I knew exactly one and one half of the five pentatonic scale shapes. It’s amazing how much soloing you can get done with that much under your belt!

I eventually learned by experimentation that I could add certain notes to this scale and some would sound great at times, while others would sound horrible. I had no idea why, I just took my chances here and there and tried to avoid hitting those klunkers. It was no way to play lead guitar, I had to learn why notes worked sometimes and sometimes not.


“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast. ” – Leonardo da Vinci


The point in this story is that the pentatonic scale became my first reference point. It was where I shoved off on a musical expedition. It allowed me to ask questions and to venture out from the shallow waters of what I understood, into the deeper ocean of what I didn’t know. It was also like a safe harbor, or a star I could rely on to find my way back if I got lost.

There were other reference points too, we all have many of them; but in a sense everything we learn about music evolves from these first tentative steps we take into the unknown.

By piecing things together somewhat randomly and little by little, we begin to understand the larger picture. It works the same way for any subject of study, be it astronomy, engineering, archeology, architecture or map making.

Now for the practical part of this post. To understand where you are in your musical growth, it’s a good idea to make yourself a flow chart, or mind map, of your current progress, your inspirations, these are your reference points.

Making a Mind Map

1. Begin by listing the very first things you accomplished or understood musically. Put down a few things that inspired you originally, what you were initially good at or that you now feel you understand about music.

2. Examine for a while and look at how the items are related. Attach items to this that you feel resulted from that understanding or ability. Keep going and draw connecting lines to related ideas until you have a matrix of your musical understanding. Don’t worry if it is entirely accurate or not, this is just a tool to get you thinking about how your mind works and how to go about setting and achieving new goals for yourself.

3. Draw some new branches and add areas where you would like to improve your execution or understanding. Depending on your current level, you may be surprised at how complex and interesting this can become.


Sample Music Mind Map

Sample Music Mind Map


Above is an example of how I have begun a mind map. It is not even close to finished. I include it here as an example of how charting out your own musical growth in this way can open your eyes to so many important areas in your musical life such as:

1. How you learn things by association
2. What you have already accomplished
3. Where your strengths and weaknesses are
4. How small things can lead to bigger and better things
5. What you have yet to explore

You can see how thinking in this way is very natural. I think it is because building networks like this is how our mind actually works: nonlinear but logical, random but associative, coincidental and synchronistic.

The connections we make in our mind and the routes we take to true understanding are hardly ever, maybe never, like the ways lessons are laid out in books. It is best to understand this early on in the learning process and embrace the power of this randomness, because in that very chaos you will find a certain order.

The pattern reveals the shape of your mind’s network, your own personal and idiosyncratic method of learning, and may help you understand how you learn and become inspired. Hopefully, the process of reliving your adventure in learning will push you ever further into the unknown.

Each time you add a node to your network, your understanding and inspiration will increases a little bit. This is because each link strengthens the logic behind those formerly random connections you have made. After a while it may start to resemble a constellation of stars, a sprawling city or a computer logic diagram. Whatever it looks like, you can be sure it is your own.


“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck


 

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Winter’s Promise – Music for Christmas


“The whole problem can be stated by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’” -Aaron Copland


winterspromise2Big

Photo by M.J. Murphy



This post is partly in words, and partly in music because it is about my recent adventure in writing and recording a short instrumental Christmas piece. Download or Stream “Winter’s Promise”.

Instrumental music, that is, music without lyrics, is often said to have meaning, but as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and others have gone out of their way to point out, it really doesn’t, and can’t mean anything – at least in the same sense that a song, poem or novel can have a meaning. A composer can however suggest a literal meaning for their music by titling a piece with something that evokes a time, a place, a scene, an event, or emotion, but the music itself is, in the end, just notes and sounds. A title can hint at what the composer intends the music to be about, and sometimes, the power of suggestion will take over in the listeners mind.

Leonard Bernstein addressed this in an episode of his long running TV series Young People’s Concerts. The series ran from 1958 all the way to 1973. In one of his earliest shows, he played the opening theme from The William Tell Overture and then asked an audience of kids “now, what was that music about? The kids all yelled out “the Lone Ranger!”. Bernstein then went on to explain that the music was actually written long before the Lone Ranger show ever conceived. it was from an opera by an Italian composer named Rossini. The music had come to be associated with the Lone Ranger because it was used in the show, not because it was written with masked heroes of the American West in mind. So what happens when, a composer sets out to write a piece of instrumental music that is intended to mean something specific?



Even though most composers will admit that music doesn’t have a literal meaning, they often attempt to create specific imagery, emotions, atmospheres, and moods, and that’s at least pretty close to having what we call meaning isn’t it? Think of all the composers that write music for movie soundtracks. They are intentionally using sounds, textures and rhythms to evoke specific images and moods. Think about all that music written for special occasions: patriotic events, weddings, graduations, parades and holidays like, for example, the subject of this post, Christmas.

If you have ever tried to write a piece of music for Christmas, or for that matter a song for any holiday or special occasion, you may have discovered that it is harder than it seems. How exactly do you capture a sense of what the occasion means ? After all, we’ve just admitted that an instrumental piece of music cannot really be about anything since it has no words. The best you can do is try to capture the feeling or emotion in the holiday or event and attempt to put it into the music. So you consider the rhythm, the melody, the speed, intensity and dynamics of the piece and hope that when you’re done you’ve captured something that represents the essence of the occasion. But even still it will be a foggy kind of “aboutness”.


“Music is a language which the soul alone understands, but which the soul can never translate.” ~Arnold Bennett


So recently, when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a Christmas rock instrumental, I had to think about what exactly I needed to do to get that special sort of sound. There has always been something about Christmas music that I can’t put my finger on. How does a Christmas song always manage to sound “Christmassy”.

Christmas songs seem to be written both in major keys (such as Jingle Bells) and in minor keys (such as “We Three Kings”) just to name a couple. It makes sense that the happier, more upbeat songs are in major keys and the slower, more mysterious songs are in minor keys or modes. But this is just as true for any other type of song, so the tonality of the key or the mode doesn’t seem to be a determining factor all by itself. Likewise, christmas songs are composed in all variations of meter: 3/4, 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, cut time, it’s all over the map. Nothing magical about the choice of time signature. Maybe it’s in the instrumentation? I thought about that for a while. Nope. You could play a christmas song on a violin, a piano, or a kazoo and it would still sound like a Christmas song.

I soon realized this was one of those things that I wasn’t going to figure out scientifically. The only thing to do was to use a few general assumptions and just start playing something that felt Christmas-like.

Here are some of the guidelines I used. Keeping in mind the immortal words oh Greg Allman “There are as many ways to write songs as there are songs.” Since I was looking for a bright sounding major key tonality, I chose D major. Most christmas songs keep the chord progressions rather simple. A Christmas song after all should be easy to learn and to play. Most of the great ones have very simple melodies too. As usual, the melody is the hardest part, just because it is intended to be simple doesn’t mean the melody will be any easier, in fact, the simpler the intended melody, the harder it becomes to write.

The intro came fairly easy because I knew I wanted a chimey, bell like sound so I chose to just arpeggiate three simple chords. It consists of very simple A D and G triad arpeggios played high up on the guitar neck. To add some bottom end, texture and harmony, I used a D cello drone below the arpeggios. Since D is my key tone it sounded great below the G D and A triads.

I struggled with a thematic melody for what seemed an eternity until I decided to just improvise until something evolved. I’m not sure a good theme ever did evolve, but at least I ended up with something that worked harmonically over the chord progression.


“There are as many ways to write songs as there are songs.” – Greg Allman


Eventually, the improvisation seemed to be headed somewhere, so I decided to make the tune a series of short solos that built on each other. I ended up with the following sections.

A Intro with classical guitar solo
B Clean electric guitar solo
B Overdrive guitar solo
C Piano section
B Heaviest guitar solo
A Outro with classical guitar solo

So the resulting song structure is ABBCBCA.

Here are the instruments used in the recording:

Fender Stratocaster Guitar:Opening “Bell like Melody” and all guitar parts
Yamaha Classical, nylon string guitar: Intro guitar lick:
LTD 4 string bass guitar: Bass guitar parts
Yamaha Arius digital piano/synthesizer: Piano and strings Drums:
Apple GarageBand drum samples (played live and looped)

As a finishing touch, I added some strings by playing the Yamaha piano using the strings setting. I mostly stuck to the roots and since the chords change every measure it added a nice variety to the mix.

The only conclusion I came up with in this little experiment is that there is no really good way to formulate what a Christmas song should sound like. It’s an abstract thing and the best way is, as usual, to just play what you feel. In the end, I think this song does a good job summing up what Christmas feels like to me, even without any words, maybe, especially without any words.

 

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