Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On practicing...

Me: Have you practiced this week?
Six year old student: "No, I've been so busy."

Ahh, the dreaded subject of practicing.

Here's the definition by the Rock 'n Roll dictionary:

prac·tice /ˈpræktɪs/ , verb, -ticed, -tic·ing.
1. form of medieval torture, esp. by scales
habit; custom: It is the practice for musicians to be idolized.
repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency: Practice makes perfect.
4. the preferred method of killing music students.

So, we see it's a rather mixed bag. Sure, we're glad that people buy into the practice of idolizing us rock stars, or even beginning guitar players, but we're not sure about this "death by harmonic minor scale" bit.

How should you practice, and how often?

The short answer: It's different for everyone. (Read: I don't know.)

And now for the long answer.

I've been searching for the "silver bullet" that will assure me fame, fortune, and a really nice signature guitar. I'm guessing it has something to do with the perfect practice routine. However, while I haven't found that bullet, I have found grains of silver, from all over, and here they are.

Josh Urban's self contradicting guidelines for practicing

1. It should be joyful.

2. It should be productive.

3. And therefore, you should practice to your weakness.

4. It should be focused. 20-30 minutes on a single subject seems to work well.

5. It should be daily, if at all possible.

6. It should involve a metronome.

A few further thoughts...

How long to practice? That depends on your schedule, dedication, and mental endurance!
And just like everything else, there's quite a spectrum of application in the guitar world.

Steve Vai has a reputation for sometimes practicing 10 hours a day, while Eddie Van Halen has been quoted as saying "I never practice, I just play."

What's my philosophy?

Borrowing heavily from the musical values of my guitar mentor, Joe Palchak, I split my practice routine into 30 minute sections. The first half hour I might work on picking, the second, legato technique, and so on. Again, a daily routine is preferred.

I strive to make an important distinction between practicing and jamming.
I want to do both, but not at the same time. For me, there's nothing as boring as hearing someone practice while they're supposed to be rockin' out, and doing the opposite is, for me, counterproductive. Again, this is just what works for me. Eddie can rock out for his practice
routine, and he's playing the Verizon Center, so....Figure out what works for you, and do it.

The bit about the metronome. Vital. Do it. If you don't have one, buy one. It's about the same price as a lesson, and well, way more worth it. (As much as I hate to say it!) If you can't get to the music store anytime soon, you can use the website for a free "clicker."

Regardless of your playing style, you need to develop a solid sense of time. No exceptions.
Plus, a metronome is a great way to set goals, especially with speed building exercises. It's your speedometer, and you want to know how fast you can go, and what to aim for.

And, it's important to have fun while you're doing this! (For example, I need to tweak my routine a bit, because, frankly, I'm getting burned out.) Sure, you'll need to work on semi-boring material sometimes, but that can be fun in it's own way. Sort of like lifting weights. Someday, you could become the governor of California if you do good enough! And that's fun.

A great way to tell if you're involved and focused on your practice routine is if you lose track of time. This is when the quantum leaps occur, and when people get it. If you look up, and it's an hour later, or even fifteen minutes more towards tomorrow, good job.

Lastly, stay excited about music. This sounds strange, but as you learn, it can be possible to become jaded. Don't. Listen to the songs that got you into guitar. Listen to cutting edge stuff that there's no way you could play. Go to a concert. Love it. Immerse yourself in a world of music, and don't forget to sing along.



Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A beautiful space

Lessons are always waiting to smack you in the face when you least expect it.

After several hours of baking in the sun like a raisin, playing my guitar on the streets of Alexandria, VA, I was curious to see what the crowd of people were so intently gathered around across the way...Guitar on my back, I strode over to the shade, and joined the curious onlookers.

It was Jamey! Jamey Turner is awesome. He plays the harmonica. The glass one, that is. This dude is baaad! (that's good, by the way.) He's got this table with all different wine glasses strapped to it. The glasses are filled with water, and when he runs his hand along the edge of the glass, it rings. (I'm sure y'all have done this before while washing dishes.) The big ones ring with a lower pitch, and the smaller ones emit a higher tone. He's got 'em set up so he can play any song he wants to on the table of glasses.

Since they're tuned with the amount of water in the glass, and water evaporates, the musician has to be on his toes in regards to the tuning.

Jamey has one of the best ears I've ever seen. He'll start to play a piece, and stop, say "oops, this glass is giving me a slightly flat E," fill it with some more water until it's correct, and then proceed. One time, I saw him get ready to play a piece by J.S. Bach. He needed to tune a glass to an F#. Just as he was about to, a nearby Steamboat let off a tremendous whistle. "Ah, perfect!" he exclaimed. Apparently, the steamboat was letting off an F#.

I saw Jamey when I was a little kid. I thought it was the coolest thing, and I went home and tried the glasses myself. Needless to say, it's a lot harder than it looks!

So anyway, there I am, watching him excitedly tell the crowd about the instrument. A girl asked him to play "Fur Elise". "I don't know that one, but I'll play you this one.." He launches into the fourth movement from Beethoven's 9th symphony, "Ode to Joy."

Wow. From these wine glasses there came a sound so pure, so beautiful...But it wasn't just the glasses. It was as if something was flowing through Jamey. Music is the word I'm looking for.
It came through his arms, through his hands, out from the glasses, and to the footsore tourists.

It created a space of beauty, of peace, and spoke as only music can. There was no Jamey while he was playing the piece. Just music. When the piece was finished, he returned, smiled, and told us some more about what he was doing.

As a young musician, I'm constantly trying to prove my worth with my guitar, and I'm always around people who do the same. Both young, and not so young. It's exhausting. It's a battle of six strings attached to a piece of overpriced wood. And every time I go on youtube, I lose. There's always a child prodigy on there, ripping it up, like the ten year old playing "Eruption."
(Thanks for that link, Connor!)
And it's never a beautiful space that these battles take place in. (This, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the use of distortion, so sit down, old people and jazz snobs. You haven't found conclusive proof to ban overdrive pedals. For that sound can be pure, in it's own way, just as a wolf howling is as haunting as a nightingale singing.)
No, on this battlefield, the air is stifling with competition, and pointlessness. Even the winners
lose, just as in war.

But when I saw Jamey play, and Jamey disappear, and Jamey become a conduit for this beautiful thing called "Music," and in turn, create a space that was a fleeting respite from the onslaught of violence and anger of the world...I saw him create a beautiful space. There was no musician to prove his point. (And if anyone could prove a point, Jamey could, as he's such a high level musician. But he didn't bother...He just played!)

It was cool.

And while my teachers had been telling me this following bit for a while, it really made sense watching Jamey. They said..."Use technique not for technique's sake, but to free your hands so they can play whatever your heart wants them to play."

I'll leave you with a quote from Victor Wooten's book, "The Music Lesson."

"Aw, yeah! Michael says yous is real good, yous just don't know it yet. Yous just gotta
stop playing de bass, and starts playing music."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Cool #9 - Creating your own style, and having the guts to do so

Think about this - if everyone did what everyone said was "cool," we'd still be wearing knee socks, powdered wigs, and be playing the latest J.S. Bach tune.

Society has heroes, and has much as it frowns upon deviants from it's strict guidelines, every hero is different, dazzling, spectacular, and was, at one time, not cool.

It seems that some guys in funny clothes always make the guidelines, by the way.

Was it cool for Copernicus to dare to suggest that the Earth actually moved around the Sun, instead of the other way around? His model of a Heliocentric solar system caused big waves, and was definitely not "cool." This time, it was the church guys in funny clothes that said it wasn't cool.

Now we know that ol' Copperhead was right. (But we still dress like those church guys at the rennisance fair, but I think we can all agree that it's not cool anymore.)

Take the band Kiss. OK, now, those guys have guts to get up on stage dressed like antennas for nuclear radiation. But they did it, and they carried it off with authority. You might not be a Kiss fan, but hey, you're heard about then, and they probably have more money then you ever will.

But can you imagine getting dressed up like Gene Simmons, and say...oh... going to the grocery store? How much guts that would take?
(I have a story about dressing up similar to Elton John, and going to the grocery store, but I was young, and after discovering the traction problems of high heels, and earning my Dad a halo for taking me out in public, I dropped the whole cross dressing thing. But folks, I was three years old at the time.)

It can be so hard to break away from the tribe, and to say "this is what I'm doing, because it's me, and because I think it's cool!"

I know, because I've tried. I've succeeded, and failed. I've dressed very crazy sometimes, and acted even crazier. Other times, I've sat in the corner, and done my best to fit in.

On a recent trip through the mountains, and it's accompanying tiny towns, I had an interesting thought. Wondering what it would be like to move to one of these villages with one stoplight, I figured that I'd never be accepted by the close-knit community that's been there for generations. Or if I was, all I would need to do to insure my exclusion would be to slip up one time, and walk down the street singing an Ozzy Osbourne song at the top of my lungs.

Everyone would think I was crazy (which I am,) and gossip about me like there was no tomorrow.

It struck me as so ironic, this hypothetical community, set in such beautiful, wild scenery, bound in mental straitjackets, because they would be afraid of what their neighbor would say.

It would be all in their head. Wow. How stifling. All 500 of 'em frozen in place.

Then, of course, the question that comes knocking at the door is...Does this happen to me, in my life?

As musicians, we learn the styles of the greats. Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan. If they did something outlandish, we consider it cool, because it's accepted.

But if WE try to use chromatic passing tones in our own way, sometimes we want to jump off the bandstand, and jump off a cliff! Imagine if you did two handed tapping, and Van Halen had never existed? Would you be bothered if people looked at you funny?

I think it's important to recognize when we're trapped by our view of society's mind. Remember, there will always be little chattering birds of people that will hate what you do. There's people that hate Hendrix. But did that stop him?

All we need to do to exit this trap is to...Recognize it, and not buy into it. Simple. But
it takes courage.

This also applies to life as well. I've been in so many situations where the cool thing to do is to drink, or get high. But that wasn't me, so I didn't. I've worn shoes six sizes too big, and when I did it with conviction, it went over great. When I didn't present it with courage, that's when it was stupid. Or take street music. Folks love hearing it, and are scared to death of doing it themselves. So when I pass it off with gusto, it soars. But if I snap into the timid, meek, "oh, I'm so terrible" mindset, people pick up on that. And guess what- nobody wants to listen to that!

We have a strong, if misguided, instinct to stay in the heard. If we break out with difference, the cows can moo pretty loud sometimes.

But for me, I want to be known for my statements, and my style - not my exemplary citizenship.

And I can't make my own style if I take the safe road, and don't make waves. I, for one, don't plan on just tipping the boat.

I'm gonna rock it.

How 'bout you?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Playing without walls

Walls. Fences. Lines. Do not cross. Things we learn as we navigate through the world.

To quote Metallica:

New blood joins this earth
And quickly he's subdued
Through constant pained disgrace
The young boy learns their rules

With time, the child draws in
This whipping boy done wrong
Deprived of all his thoughts
The young man struggles on and on, he's known
A vow unto his own
That never from this day
His will they'll take away"

But here's a strange thing - my heroes don't have these walls of self protection. They've been through the same stuff that we all have, yet they are so centered, so at peace with themselves, that they honestly don't care what the world throws at 'em. They realize that while a wall can block pain, it can also block everything else!

And they have the courage to apply this.

What the heck am I talking about? I was lucky enough to get to watch Mr. Doyle Dykes perform at Hot Licks Guitar Shop last Thursday. Granted, Hot Licks is a much smaller stage than some of the places he's used to playing, but in some ways, a guitar shop is the scariest venue for a musician. It's filled with other guitar players! And they're all sitting there, waiting for you to mess up.

Doyle didn't care about that. He DID care about giving us a great show, and playing his best. In Waldorf. Now that's pretty impressive.

With the quiet demeanor and charm of a country gentleman, he proceeded to rip it up, and then try to get a sing along going. No walls. He was just playing, and I don't think he was trying to prove anything. And that's refreshing to watch.
When asked about the direction that he wanted to go with this music, instead of a technical answer regarding theory or tone, he said "I want to express heart stuff." And then he did.

And since he was brave enough, with no wall, his message was conveyed perfectly in his playing.

Victor Wooten gave a clinic at the Prince Frederick Library one time. He sat there for three hours, playing incredibly beautiful music, chatting, and sharing his insights on music. At one point, he calmly said "I don't really care what you think of me, good or bad. I just play, and I'm OK with that."

Playing without walls.

I saw the Dalai Lama speak in DC one Fourth of July. There was a royal looking stage set up, with rows and rows of Buddhist monks sitting in front of it, with security, a big sound system, and even a huge TV so everyone could see what was going on.

So he walks onto the stage, fiddles with his clip on microphone, and says in a piping voice with a Tibetan accent..."Quite hot, isn't it?"

It was so odd - this spiritual giant, the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism, commenting on the weather.

No walls!

It takes a lot of guts, and a lot of bravery, to play music without walls. Or to live without walls.

But the results are oftentimes breathtaking. Some of the purest, soul-wrenching sounds I've heard are from
musicians who aren't in a shell, and don't have that wall defending them. They aren't afraid, and it shows.

I'm going to be dismantling some of those walls that I've put up. What about you guys?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Zen books, new article, and turbocharging your amp

Happy Wednesday!

You wanna know where I get all these crazy music philosophy ideas? Well, granted, I think of a lot of 'em, but I've also managed to get my hands on some really nifty books. I love 'em, and you might, too. (Then again, you might not.) But here's some of my favorite books that have shaped the way I view and play music.

Zen Guitar - Philip Toshio Sudo

A thought provoking way to examine the world of music. If you dig Zen philosophy, you'll like this book.

Effortless Mastery - Kenny Werner

I like this book a lot. It offers a refreshingly alternative view on the mystique of the masters, and invites the reader to discover the master musician within. Mr. Werner is a wise man, and I think highly of his book.

The Music Lesson - Victor L. Wooten

Victor Wooten, besides being a top notch musician, and a super nice guy, has a lot of insights to share in this book. Vaguely reminescent of a Carlos Castenada or Dan Millman book, it's out there, but I love it. In this particular piece of literature, Mr. Wooten describes his studies with a most unusual teacher of music, and of life. One of my favorite things about Victor and his music is his fearlessness of incorporating "deep stuff" with bob-your-head funky soul music.

And for those of you that have heard me talk about the "Two through Ten" principle, this is where it comes from.

Available from:

Enjoy your reading!


Hey! Check out my new article on the art of listening!


Turbocharging your Amp - Ideas to wreak sonic mayhem on your audience,
or your neighbors

My ideas of music are always changing. . I'm into blues, jazz, and funk, mostly. And this is mostly to the chagrin of my Heavy Metal students. However, I still have that nasty leaden streak in me - that evil twin that enjoys churning out lethal doses of rip-your-face off heavy metal mayhem. (My upper lip is almost in the shape of a pretzel as I'm writing this, I'm so into it and ANGRY sounding!)

And when in one of these states of mind, the last thing I want to hear is "less is more" or "oh, I just want a hint of tube distortion." My "logic" is - when I'm in a heavy metal mindset - less is less, more is more, and that gain control had better go to 15!

The last thing I would look to for distortion domination would be...An overdrive pedal!

I used to think these quaint boxes of mild distortion were reserved for the legions of old fogies that enjoyed hearing guitars "sing" instead of guitars that revolted, broke chains, and bludgeoned people to death (sonically, that is.)

And when I had my long hair, I was more into bludgeoning than singing (sonically, that is!)

However, I've stumbled across something that can help you in your quest to conquer the world and send Jack Johnson and his breathy acoustic guitar pop cronies straight to a fiery...picnic. (sonically, that is!)

It's an overdrive pedal.

Yep. You've got it.

When used properly, an overdrive pedal can "turbocharge" an already overdriven amplifier.

I employ several pedals for this purpose, an Ibanez TS9 Reissue Tubescreamer overdrive among them. The way cool sickly green box kicks my distorted amp into further overdrive. Since the signal coming into the amp is "hotter" (higher level, and distorted anyway), it will cause even MORE distortion than your amp is providing. Since it smacks the "front end" (preamp stage) of your amplifier with a
much hotter signal, a cool sound is the result. Of course, when you introduce another variable in your signal chain, you'll want to fiddle with the amp distortion, pedal distortion, volume, etc. Fiddle, my friend, fiddle!

I also notice that using an overdrive in this way gives me a fuller sound. However, don't take my word for it - be sure you try before you buy.

For your information, I also use a Jekyll and Hyde Ultimate Overdrive by Visual Sound. I like it better than the Ibanez TS9.

And a last thought - try backing the gain DOWN, and turning the amp UP. If you're using a tube amp, you'll get power tube distortion. (As opposed to preamp distortion.) More on this later, but put simply, it'll sound great.

Rock on!