Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Dynamics - The Missing Piece

So you're watching your fingers fly all around the fretboard, hammering and pulling and trilling and bending like there's no tomorrow.. but something's missing. Something intangible, something hard to define. You know it's there but you can't quite put your finger on it...

Go back and read that first paragraph again. First, read it with a flat monotonous voice, like a text-to-speech machine. All the words are there but it's dreary as hell to listen to and a great deal of the meaning is lost, simply because it's much more difficult for the brain to process the information when every syllable of every word is given equal weight. It's harder to group sentences and phrases and therefore harder to establish meaning and empathy.

Now read it again, this time in the manner of Alan Rickman playing a villain:

“Something..... intangible... something – hard to define

Which one has the most impact? Well, every listener is different, but for the vast majority.. well, put it this way, there's a reason Alan Rickman made it big.

Now, let's consider how we can apply this lesson to guitar playing. Any piece of music, a melody, a solo, a chord sequence – they all tell a story. That story should not be told in a monotone. Consider the story you're trying to tell – the ascending sequence pattern, should that build in volume, climaxing with a soaring bend picked hard and given all the vibrato you can give it? How about that delicate introductory phrase, shouldn't you try and pick lightly, give yourself somewhere to go?

A great example of this is the classic B.B. King track, “Need Your Love So Bad”. The famous versions of this are (ironically) covers by Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, and a cover 30 years later by the late great Gary Moore. Listen to both – although the notes are the same, Peter Green's delicate articulation expresses a vulnerability.. as if his notes have turned up to the party and said quietly “Does anyone mind if I sit here? I won't be any trouble..” . By contrast, Gary Moore's much more confident articulation strides up next to the prettiest girl in the room and says “Get yer coat love, you've pulled”.

The notes themselves are the same. On a tablature page, they would be displayed identically. And yet, the difference when you hear it is huge.

Standard music notation provides some hints, with phrases graded in f (forte – loud), p (piano – queiet), multiples thereof, and mp (mezzo piano – medium quiet) and mf (mezzo forte – medium loud), as well as indications for crescendo (get louder) and diminuendo (get quieter). Studying classical guitar gave me an unparalleled insight into these aspects if reading music, but the component that is absolutely essential is the ear – listening critically to what you're doing and asking yourself, does it match my intent?

So for this month, consider the difference that dynamics can makes and practice your phrases as a whisper, a shout, and everything in between – you'll be amazed the difference this can make!

Friday, 16 March 2018

Your Friendly Local Music Store

Let's be honest, we're always looking for a bargain when we're out shopping. And this is especially true when we're put shopping for musical instruments. There seems to be some primal impulse preprogrammed into us that because music is fun, it should somehow be free...

Anyway, the cutthroat business of capitalism is nowhere more apparent than in the music retail business, with online stores, Ebay outlets, Amazon etc all getting in on the act. With all this, it can be hard for a local bricks and mortar outfit to compete – especially given that many smaller businesses tend to be run by people who are musicians first and businessmen a distant fifth.

They can be awkward to get too – especially given parking restrictions in towns and cities. They can rarely match the prices of the online only sellers (because business rates, running costs, employees salaries). They may not have the product you're looking for. They can and will (occasionally) mess stuff up.

And yet...

I've lost count of the number of times I've had students come to me with instruments bought unseen online with bent necks, appallingly unplayable actions, intonation out of whack past the fifth fret. I even made the mistake myself in my early days, buying a secondhand guitar from the Free Ads section of the papers (the 90s...) with a Floyd Rose tremolo system, which for those of you not au fait with this piece of design is a complicated and technical design 100% NOT for beginner guitarists like I was.

The problem is, with any specialist purchase, it's essential to know what questions to ask. If you don't know about guitars, why would you ask about “action”, “intonation” - you would just assume it works, the same as if you were buying a laptop. But guitars aren't like that. They are dynamic systems, working in balance, with a lot that can go wrong if they've been poorly made.

This is where your Friendly Local Music Shop steps in. These guys are musos through and through, experienced and well versed in what to look for. They don't stock crap, because all that generates is dissatisfied customers who know where to come if they have an axe to grind. So right away, that's one level of protection.

Secondly (and this is a big one), you try an instrument, you like it – you walk out of the shop with that same instrument. That is a BIG plus – not one like it, not one similar but in a different finish, you walk out with that very instrument. That is a big, big deal, even in these days of CNC computer controlled mass production.

Lastly – when you need that last minute pick/ battery/ set of strings/ reed/ replacement part... where are you going to go? Who you gonna call? The internet, where it takes three or four days to get something out to you, and even then it may be the wrong thing (because they made a mistake, or you made a mistake, didn't quite know the term for what you wanted...).. Without your support, these places will fold. And they won't be there when you need them. Something to thing about.

By the way, our FLMS is Just Music, located on 42 Leicester Road, telephone number 01509 234 881. You're welcome.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

No Fear

How does Bob Marley like his doughnuts? With jammin'.

Right, having thus established the baseline for this month's post, things can only improve...

I've been pushing improvisation as big deal with by late-beginner early-intermediate students a lot so far this year, and there's a strong reason why. Thinking back to the early stages of my journey as a guitarist, it really was at first a case of following the tab (bought from a guitar magazine – no internets back in the 90's) and trying to get it to sound vaguely like the song. If I didn't know the song, it was a case of searching for it on cassette (and for those of you young enough to think cassettes are retro-cool, I was there and they were NOT, awful things) or just guessing. At this stage I wasn't really a musician because I had no understanding of what I was doing, I was just following what the book or magazine said.

However, curiosity would periodically get the better of me, and I would take a chord sequence and try putting them in a different order, take a riff I 'd learned (or thought I'd learned) and change the rhythm, fiddle with the chords and find suspensions (not that I knew what they were at that point) – change things around a little to come up with something that was at least partly original.

Motivated by the fact that I found stuff I liked the sound of, I started noticing patterns in the tabs I was trying to pick out – things like the faithful minor pentatonic, and how it would move around the fretboard to match the key of the song (not that I really understood what that was at this point). And I started to try learning the solos – the first one I really got stuck into was “Live Forever” by Oasis, Noel Gallagher's soaring major pentatonic phrases seemed enticingly close but frustratingly out of reach. So I would try and play his solo, and I'd fail. So I'd make a rough stab at making one up using similar notes (which I would later come to realise was the G major pentatonic, although at that point I hadn't really grasped how E minor and G major pentatonic were the same thing seen from different angles).

Here's the thing though – by making up my own solo, I started getting better. MUCH better. Jamming along to first Oasis and Nirvana, then discovering the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin the Eagles Hendrix, Guns 'n' Roses – I began to get a feel for how to use the simple minor and major pentatonic patterns. I discovered the three-frets-back hack (and subsequently had it confirmed by a guitar magazine article). I discovered that even if I couldn't match a Slash solo note for note (and I couldn't), I could still fill the space with something that sounded OK. I developed an intuitive feel for rhythm. I got good enough, in fact, to be accepted for the Access To Music course within 18 months of getting started – and from there, things would never be the same again.

But what got me started? Jamming along. Making mistakes and gradually figuring out ways not to make them again. Taking the riffs and licks of my heroes and bastardising them to match my ability level. What is heartbreaking and frustrating for me as a teacher now is to see students who can't or won't make the leap to just playing, who forget that the process of an instrument is a learning curve- which by definition involves making mistakes because those mistakes themselves are an essential part of the learning process.

So if you're sitting there listening to a song and thinking “I'd love to be able to play that”, then just try – there are only twelve notes, pick a start note that sounds about right and slap a pentatonic pattern across it. You may have to tweak some notes, avoid some others, but it gets you started and that's what's so crucial.

So till next month, good luck and happy jamming!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

2018 Resolutions!

Season's greetings one and all, hope you all had a fantastic couple of weeks break from the real world, lying on the sofa eating and drinking anything and everything that came within range - certainly that's my action plan for the festive season.

So, now we've made it through a whole year of Trump without World War 3 breaking out it's time to start thinking ahead for 2018 and a whole new set of New Year's resolutions. Regular readers of this blog may recall this time last year I laid out a practice plan to cover the whole of 2017 - and staying true to my word, I stuck to it.

The plan covered four key areas - pentatonic scales, diatonic scales, chords and arpeggios - and whilst I'm not sure my technique and fretboard knowledge has been revolutionised, it's been fun making new connections and mapping out new patterns. I've even followed through on my "find something you think you could ever play and learn it" idea - I certainly never thought I'd be able to play anything by the otherworldly talent of Allan Holdsworth, but there we go.

So for 2018? Let's try this:

January – Major scale and modes. 3 octaves, played in 3rds, sequenced in 3s and 4s. Pieces - Freddie King "Hideaway", Bach 

February – Arpeggios (triads). 3 octaves, played in 3rds, sequenced etc. Piece – Bach continued, Satriani, “Summer Song”

March – Chords (triads and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece – TBC

April – Minor Pentatonic & Modes. Piece TBC

May – Half step /Whole step diminished scale. Piece TBC

June – Arpeggios – 11ths. Piece TBC

July – Chords (11ths and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece TBC

August – Pentatonics (Kumoi R b2 4 5 b6). Piece TBC

September – Whole Tone scale. Piece TBC

October – Arpeggios – 13ths. Piece TBC

November - Chords (13ths and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece TBC

December – Pentatonics (Hirajoshi R 2 b3 5 6). Piece TBC.

So as you can see, this plan contains a nice mix of the regular core skills - triads, major scale, minor pentatonic - with a good chunk of yummy new things to try out. As a firm believer in the maxim that "if you want to teach, you have to do", this plan should help keep me fresh and find a whole host of new and interesting treats to give to/ inflict upon (delete as appropriate) my students!