Friday, September 28, 2007

In search of the Fourth Dimension

The fourth dimension. Oooh! Neat!

Einstein showed us that there are, in fact, four dimensions. The conventional three spatial ones, and time as the fourth. (They're still looking for the fourth spatial dimension, by the way.)

If I open a brand new teaching studio, I can give you directions by saying "It's on the corner of 7th and V, and it's on the tenth floor."

That's three dimensions. Left, right, up. Where's the fourth? "I'll meet you at my studio, which is on the corner of 7th and V, at 3:00 pm." Bingo. Time.

And the beautiful thing about being a musician is that we can uncover hidden dimensions in our playing. Sure, maybe not the sought after fourth spatial dimension, and we probably won't be finding gravity waves. However, just like the researchers who dare to tackle such mind boggling puzzles in theoretical physics, we too can uncover new worlds of mystery, meaning, and wonder.

Such a dimension that warrants examination is the same as Einstein's fourth dimension.


I often observe aspiring rockers looking for new sounds, riffs, and melodic ideas when they hit the wall of writer's block.

The first place folks usually go is on the note dimension. However, while there are literally thousands of melodies, chords, and combinations, in the end, there's only twelve tones in the system of western music.

The next stop is tone. Adding crazy effects, or maybe going the route of old school tube amp, the seeker adds another dimension to their music. We might call this the second dimension.
Now we're the simpsons! D'oh!

While these classifications are strictly the figments of my convoluted imagination, let's call Style the third dimension of music. Country guys play different than Jazz cats, and that's good, because variety is the spice of life.

At the end of the day, tired, dusty from trudging around a vintage electronics shop for those NOS tubes for your tone, ears ringing for the thundering sounds of The Celtic Boys play Metallica (for your stylistic influences), and your brain thoroughly saturated with scales, modes, and the concept of diminished arpeggios, we might sit dejectedly on top of our amp, and ask...

"OK, so what else can I do to make my lines sound different?"

Remember the fourth dimension. Time!

Instead of starting that solo on the "1", as in 1 2 3 4, try starting on the "And" of 1. Notice how this shakes things up a bit? Next, experiment with starting on the sixteenth note right after any of the downbeats. See if you can hit the "E of 3." Wow. Groovy.

If you really want a challenge, try this over a beat with a sixteenth-note swing feel.

This works for riffs, too! If you sound like a robot from a practice book, try playing chords five times, or three times, but not four times. Change the placement a bit.

Beginning phrases on different beats adds a sense of syncopation to your music, and will also help you tremendously with your aptitude of rhythm. While it's not physically harder to do this, I find it mentally difficult. We're so used to playing a certain way, and on certain beats. The funny part is, we didn't even know it.

But we do now.

Welcome to the fourth dimension!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Are you not entertained??

All the world's a stage.

Us musicians need to take this statement seriously.

We're entertainers. And if we're on stage, we need to BE entertaining!
Folks want to laugh, be amazed, dazzled, and inspired. The vast majority of the population is too scared to step up into the limelight, and rock.

Like any other skill, the knack for entertainment can, and should, be practiced.
And daily life is the perfect place to do so. Actually, for guys like me, I can't help it.

A story for ya.

The local minor league baseball stadium is very creative in their audience participation. They always have something cool going on, be it the successful attempt to set the Guinness World Record for the most people sitting on whoopee cushions, to the "Tribute to Toilet Paper" night they have a few weeks ago.

Being the holiday weekend, and the fact that great seats can be had for cheap, my family and I decided to go out to the game.

And I hatched a plot to get on the Jumbotron.

Eternally grateful to the inventor of that salvation on a roll, I wanted to show my appreciation of Toilet Paper, AND up my game of dressing up totally weird.
Bowie, MD: A small child cowered behind his father as a strange apparition emerged from near the hot dog stand at Prince George's Stadium. Looking on in terror, he realized that this must be the ghoul that clogs the toilets in dark and scary bathrooms, and steals the plungers. THIS must be the monster that uses all the soap, and leaves none for folks who need it! Breathing a sigh of relief that the mummy took no notice of him, he watched while the strange creature waddled past, unraveling slightly, and hollering in a muffled fashion...

Go Baysox! Flush 'em away!

I ended up on the Jumbotron. Twice.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Sound better in ten minutes!

OK, this is just partly false advertising...

We all want to sound better now, and it usually boils down to us buying that latest wiz-bang
gizmo, or a new instructional miracle book, and then doing nothing about it.

But hey, you really can sound better in ten minutes!

It's been staring you in the face all along.

Your signal chain.

(No, wearing traffic lights as a belt is not the new punk fashion. However, my hair will soon be bright enough to use as a traffic flow director...)

Check out the components that you use to make sound.

Starting with your guitar, the gauge of strings, the type of pick. They all make a difference.
You can get worlds of different sounds from just the tone and volume controls on the instrument. Changing gauges of strings will alter the feel and sound.(be careful, talk to someone before you do this so you don't mess up your setup.)

Next, check out your cable! Generally speaking, the shorter, the better. Sure, mobility may be sacrificed, but that's a pretty low level of electricity that has to flow through it. The result? The longer the cable, the more the signal will degrade. Especially with a wireless unit.

I once had a rig with sixty feet of cable, PLUS a cheap wireless unit. It sure sounded different that a ten foot cable plugged right into my amp! (I actually kinda liked the sound...)

Try fiddling with your effects next. Instead of cranking the distortion pedal, try using both it and the amp distortion to create a different sound.

Perhaps leave your wah - wah pedal half open for a crazy sound!

The batteries powering the pedals make a difference, too. Some folks prefer them over power supplies.

And then your amp is next....Experiment with volume. Do your speakers break up slightly? That's a big part of some guys' sound, and other dudes hate it.

The point is - Get yourself a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and start to geek out over your signal chain. While your sound is ultimately in your fingers and brain, it sure doesn't hurt to have a decent sound to start with.

Don't wait 'till you're on tour with Van Halen. Start today!

By the way, this book is a great help! I highly recommend it.
It's different that a "buy this pedal, sound like Eddie" book. While it doesn't
specifically go over metal and hard rock sounds, it's great for understanding how components in your rig work together to achieve a certain sound.

Rock on!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rip 'em off!

"Borrow with taste" is what Fred Coury of Cinderella said...

Yes sir, that's good advice!

A wealth of sonic treasure and brilliant ideas are within the reach of most musicians, but few seem to see it.

Where is this bank of fresh material, grooving grooves, and incandescent tone?

Outside of your genre.

If we listen to the same style all of the time, especially if it's the style we play, we shouldn't be surprised if all we can write are licks of a similar style. We might run out of new ideas. A common misconception is that we've got writer's block. We do, in a way, but there's an easy fix.

Adding a new style to our daily listening can vastly improve our creativity. Infusing elements of new genres into "our style" might be thought of robbing distant lands to bring goodies back home.

When R&B licks start showing up in our rock playing, we might have Hendrix. Classical in a metal format is extraordinarily well done. Just ask Randy Rhoads or Yngwie Malmsteen.

Think Jazz never shreds and burns like rock? Then you haven't heard Scott Henderson, Wayne Krantz, or Mike Stern!

These are some of the guys that have combined elements of vastly different genres to yield a unique sonic stew.

Why not try this yourself?

Here's some suggested starting places:

Do a YouTube search on:

Charlie Parker
Charlie Hunter
T-Bone Walker
Albert King
Latin Jazz
Victor Wooten
Jason Becker

And remember this: What you listen to, you end up playing. Wanna get some old blues in your playing? Listen to Robert Johnson. Are you a metalhead looking for some spooky sounds, but you can't drop tune any lower? Check out some classical tunes - some of 'em are pretty scary. It's almost that simple! You are what you eat, and you play what you hear.

Have fun!

Friday, September 21, 2007

There is no God - When it's not good to listen to the experts

I hope the subject line caught your attention!

Now, let me explain...

I suffer from a peculiur type of disease called "Indecisive-itis," and it seems like a lot of other guitarists have the same problem.

The symptoms of this ailment? Always trying to seek the best way to do something.

Ah, this doesn't sound like a problem, right? But it is! We go through our careers always doubting that what we're doing right now is the best possible way of doing it. Take practicing, for example. Steve Vai says we should practice ten hours a day. So we might devote ourselves to this, until we read the next article in the magazine...With Eddie Van Halen saying he never practices, he just plays. Ok, so then we just play!

And then there's the new ad on the Internet claiming to boost your chops with this magic tonic, so we try that....and so on, and so fourth.

In short, we drive ourselves crazy by constantly questioning ourselves in a bad way.

Questions are great, and essential for progress. But, it's important to believe in ourselves as well.

I believe that we all have a guitar teacher inside of us. He or she is the best possible teacher we will ever have - if we listen to her. Instructors can serve the wonderful purpose of showing you this inner teacher.

Here's the fine line to walk: Believing in yourself, while learning from everyone.

Which brings me to the subject of my blog..."There is no God." (No, this isn't a statement on the existence or non-existence of the powers that be...) It means - Listen to Mr. Vai, and Mr Hendrix, and listen to yourself.

Walk the line, and balance. Listening to other people to an extreme degree could be just as harmful as not listening at all.

So what do you think?

Rock on!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Playin' the blues - Pain and the musicial expression

Life just hurts sometimes.

Thank goodness for the guitar.

Here's what I've found....

We all are faced with a certain amount of pain. Some, we make up, and some we certainly don't.

Just as our problems are unique, and at the same time, universal, so to are our ways of dealing with them.

We can try to bury 'em, numb 'em, ignore 'em, or deal with those feelings.

I've found that the latter is the way that works best for me. Enter music, and in case you were looking for it, the point to this post.

Playing your blues not only will make you feel better, but it will give your music meaning. We strive so hard for artistic validity, trying hip chord substitutions, exotic scales, blazing technique, and endless gear combinations...Only to discover that the very thing that will make our musical voice unique is to be 100% genuine us. Something we've had all along!

Sitting down, and chillin' out for a second, we can begin to feel just how sad, happy, angry, or apathetic we are right now. Then, if we pick up our guitar, and start to play "with feeling," as Jimi Hendrix would say, something cool might just happen.

When I do this, (and when it works), my playing gets a voice of it's own. When I concentrate on meaning what I say, or in this case, what I play, the notes become meaningful.

And to me, when notes ain't meaningful, they're just babble, drivel, stupid small talk.

And by meaningful, they don't have to be sad! No sir...They can be different emotions, just as long as they're expressing something.

This concept takes care of a lot of questions.

- It provides us with a way to be artistically unique.

- In turn, it provides us with a great way to express some of that bottled-up pain inside.
And I've never seen someone who can bury their feelings forever - without it tearin' 'em up.
So why not rip your guitar up instead?

- It answers questions regarding soloing. While this exercise is not limited to improvising,
we can use it to great effect in this field. And lot of folks ask me "what scale should I use?"
While there's a wonderful world of scale application, at the end of the day we want to use the
scale to express our feeling, not the other way 'round!

- If you play what you feel, you'll never overplay! If the critics say you're using too many notes,
tell 'em you'd be glad to stop, but those voices in your head are hard to convince. ;)

Best of luck playing your blues. I'm sure you'll be surprised at how authentic you sound.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


"When a Navajo woman weaves a basket, she leaves a hole in it to let the spirit out."

The XM radio on, I was cruising noisily home last night...Over the rumble of the beautiful music of Flowmaster (the mufflers), I was relaxin' to some tunes.

Bam, there the lesson was, waiting for me. It usually ends up annoying me, and then explaining itself. Not unlike how I myself teach.

Since I never, ever, want to be a critic, I won't refer to the names or genres of musicians that taught me this lesson.

These guys I was listening to were very talented. Burning, soaring, toneful. The entire band was cookin', better than I'll ever be in that genre. There's a few of these talented guys, and they're also related.

When I listen to them, I hear technical perfection, stellar listening skills, amazing tone, experience, and dedication to the art form. I do notice something that's missing. Imperfection.

I didn't realize how important it was until last night. Leaving a hole in the music, just as the Indian woman leaves a hole in the basket to let the spirit out, is a hallmark of my favorite musicians.

When I listen to the imperfect glory of these guys or girls, I lean in to listen, and get thrown back by the magnitude of soul that emanates from the recordings.

If we examine the "basket case" again, we can see a few noteworthy points. (By the way, it could be a blanket that the crafts person left the hole in. The reference has escaped me.)

The Old Blues Guys

Why do we still like these cats? The modern age is full of better slide guitarists, talented
singers, it's fair share of injustice, and recorders that blow away the old technology, AND fit in your back pocket.

While everyone has their different reasons, to me, these guys had a big, gaping hole in their music. Plunking, wailing, and beating away on their guitars and harmonicas, these dudes got their feelings across with three chords. So genuine, and so real, the hole in their music was of a dimension to let enough soul out to save the entire stadium watching Joel Osteen and the Dentist's Pride. (If that guy decides to race motorcycles, I bet Johnson and Johnson Mint Waxed Floss will sponsor him.)

Eddie Van Halen

For a hundred bucks, you can go see this guy play the stadium circuit this fall. He's one of my favorites. I've got shoes, basketball hoops, and suits painted like his guitar. Every time I turn around, he's on the cover of the latest guitar mag, grinning 'cause he knows his replica guitar sells for about the price of a new mustang.

Is he the fastest guy around? No. Check out guys like Yngwie Malmsteen, Rusty Cooley, or Michael Angelo Batio for faster stuff.

How about guitar tricks? Two words. Stanley Jordan.

Perhaps he was blessed with better frontmen? How about Zakk Wylde playing behind OZZY?
(Last time I checked, Diamond Dave hasn't bitten any bats.)

So what's this guy's dealio? Again, this is just my take, but I think Eddie has a certain authenticity to his playing. He sounds real. There's a person on the other side of that record. He rocks the house, yet he's still believable. There's a hole in his playing that lets the soul out.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Talk about holes! The one in Stevie's music is so in your face, his soul roars through with it's signature subtlety, delicacy, and smooth sounds commonly found in a jet engine.

Stevie isn't the chops dog of the 80's (although he could burn). Nor is he known for his hip chord voicings, or harmonic innovation.

But man, he could play. And when I watch him, all I hear is soul. Less a guitarist, or even a musician, and more this strange, powerful force that pounds on the door of your spirit in the middle of the night, and barks "open."

John Coltrane

Johnny sure knew that saxophone. If you haven't heard this formidable jazz musician, do yourself a favor, and go buy one of his Cd's.

A contemporary of Miles Davis, and an important contributor to bebop, Coltrane pushed the harmonic boundary of jazz, especially with his tune "Giant Steps." A "shredder" and innovator, John could play fast, and slow. And he could make you cry.

There is a warmth to his playing that draws me in. I'm hearing a person, not a machine. Granted, a brilliant and practiced musician...But still a person.


Robert Johnson, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Coltrane. There's a dinner party for ya! We see that we have shredders, bluesmen, singers, and jazz cats. So this "brilliance in imperfection" idea is not the latest jab at glam rockers, or a snub to the jazzy among us.

I see this pattern, and resulting lesson, as a teaching of authenticity. They're expressing
a voice of themselves, not the voice of a scale book, or a lesson on music history. It's organic and alive, even if the musician has passed on to jam with Jimi Hendrix.

This realness is the difference between a walmart basket, and the one that's handmade by the old mountain man.

When true mastery is attained, the instrument, and the person, dissolve, and the music remains. If the musician concentrates too much on the instrument, and forgets to express with their hard earned skill, we hear a great athlete of the discipline, and the soul can be lost.


Hey, guess what! This doesn't have to take years. On the flip side, it could take forever. Just as some people have their head on straight by the time they're fifteen, and some folks will die worried, alone, and afraid, so to is it with the mastery of music.

So what are you gonna do?

"There's a fine line between genius and stupidity. The difference is stupidity has it's limits."
- Albert Einstein

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

You'll never be as good as Hendrix

Hey you. You'll never be as awesome as Hendrix, funny as Robin Williams, or even as good as me.

If you're not too insulted, read on.

Am I suggesting that you quit? Heck no!

Here's your thought for the week.

You'll never be as me,
but I'll never be as good as you.


This thought was first brought to my attention by my guitar teacher, Joe. He hit me up with the first part, and I was about to hit him...or cry...

But then, it made sense! We all are born with a different look, style, voice, and taste in sandwiches. (I personally like Panera Bread's mushroom and cheese offering.)
And just as we can't be another person, another person can't be us.

This applies to music, and of course, our lives.

We can play Hendrix licks all day, maybe even better than the man himself. But given the choice, who would people rather see? You, or 'Fro Man himself?

Look at it this way. Have you ever been in the company of a friend who incessantly quotes
movies, books, or tv shows? What do you want to do? I always feel bad. I feel bad, that is,
that it's not the good ol' days, and I can't smack the person, or at least serve 'em a knuckle sandwich.

(Of course, I've been guilty lately of this annoying behavior of not being able to say anything for myself.)

Why is this so dang annoying? And what the heck does it have to do with the electric guitar?

I can't be anyone else but me. I could do the best impression of Eddie Murphy, complete with really good make up, but I'll still be a crazy white guy pretending to be a movie star.

And the same goes if I play SRV songs all day note for note. It will still sound like someone imitating Stevie, not the Real Deal.

The flip side of the guitar pick is - Stevie wouldn't be able to play just like me!

It's important to realize that we all have a unique voice, and to develop that.
Some folks work on it consciously by expounding on their idiosyncrasies (practicing their quirks), others just let it come. The choice is yours.

But your voice is there, just as your speaking voice is different from everyone Else's.
A point you might want to remember: Simply speak. You probably don't exaggerate your conversation, and yet you still sound like yourself. Keep this in mind during your quest for style.

Now, with my advanced psychic ability, I can sense a question from my audience. "Should I learn the licks of the greats, or will that muffle my own voice?"

My thoughts would be...Should an English Major ever read Shakespeare, or the "I have a Dream" speech?

Just promise me you won't greet me with "How art thou?"

Or else...

Rock on, unique voices!