Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A question of endurance?

A fella posted an interesting comment on one of my theory articles.

He saw the value in learning the stuff, but wondered who really had the endurance to do so.

I know how he feels! (Really!)

Theory, especially, can seem like trying to unravel Christmas lights after they've been in the attic all year. To know one thing, you've gotta know another, and pretty soon, you're wrapped in wire, jumping around hoping that the other half of the strand will finally light up. Frustration and boredom can quickly set in, along with murderous rage at anything else that you can vent your fury on. (And people think I'm always happy. Ha ha!)

Here's a few ideas:

1. Remember, if you're finding it hard, so is everyone else. Bingo, you've just found an edge in your field.

2. There's a zillion ways to learn something. It can, and should be fun. Now, it might not be a walk in the park with some ice cream kinda fun, but it can still be very rewarding. If your teacher is making it boring - talk to them, and if they don't shape up - quit! If your book is making it impossible, try another.

2b. This is not to say that you shouldn't be disciplined. No, sir! Just keep in mind that there's more than one way up the mountain.

3. Aim to lift what you can't. There I go again with my weightlifting parallels. But it's true. As Arnold would say "If you can curl 100 pound dumbbells, and then you go to 130 pounds, your biceps will get bigger." So don't practice what's easy! Practice to your weakness, and watch your skills improve.

4. Feel the burn. Hard can be really, really fun! If you're straining to understand a concept, just think how great you're gonna be when you get it. If a particular lick kicks your butt, keep practicing it until you can do it.

One more quote from Mr. Schwarzenegger to cheer us on our way.

"Is it not possible to do one more rep?"


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Friday, February 22, 2008

Consistency is next to Godliness

I've been in rehearsals all week with a new band. We've got a gig this weekend!

And I've learned a lot about my playing in the past week. Over the years, I have developed a certain set of values, for lack of a better word, that I strive to infuse in my playing. Here's a few of 'em that have hit me in the face this week (if only I could apply them!):

1. Clean
Play it right, and play it clean. Don't be lunchin' and playin' it sloppy. AND wear your deodorant.

2. In Beat
Stay in the pocket, no matter what. Know where the beat is, and play from there.

3. Toneful
Sound good. All the time.

4. Informed
Know your part. Know it 110%, so other musicians may rely on you if they lose their place.

5. Aware
Listen to the mix. Play accordingly. Are you too loud? Too soft? Adjust.

6. Consistent
Playing consistently is a noble goal, indeed. For me, the biggest roadblock to it is concentration. If my attention lapses, the song suffers. I might be having a good day chops-wise, but if I play brilliantly for a solo, and then drop out the verse, what good is it? Consistency gives bandmates a benchmark of where you are. And, ideally, if you're already smokin' part of the time, adding consistency to the mix makes you brilliant all of the time. How does one achieve consistency? Practice, and again, concentration. Have your mind in the song, not somewhere else. Be present.

Interestingly, the last sentence sums up the entire set of values. Being present will make you a better musician.

Hmmm...I should print these out, and actually follow my own advice!

For those of you in the DC area, I will be playing at the Greene Turtle in La Plata, MD, tomorrow night at 9:15 pm. You're invited to come out, and watch me apply the 7th value:

7. If you forget your part, play air guitar.

See ya then!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Save it

Hello, world!

Some of my US readers may have seen the news about the street racing accident in Accokeek. A crowd had gathered in the middle of the night to watch an illegal street race. Unfortunately, the crowd had gathered in the middle of the road. An unrelated car plowed into their midst, killing eight.

Flowers, teddy bears, and spray painted forensics work mark the spot.

It also happens to be on my way to band practice. It's a tragedy, and one that could have been prevented. Most often news stories aren't close to home, but this one is an exception. I've heard the cars racing before off in the distance.

I know that musicians oftentimes are motorheads, too. Jeff Beck said once that if he couldn't be a guitarist, he would be a mechanic. Billy Gibbions of ZZ Top fame has an extensive collection of cars, and the list goes on. Hey, even I love 'em! I've got a '96 Z-28 that's my pride 'n joy.

Folks can be competitive, and when it comes to guitarists, that factor certainly doubles!

So, not to sound like your grandmother, but I'd like to add another voice to the growing chorus. If you like to drive fast, save it for the track. That's what all the real racers say. I don't care if you've just put a race muffler on your Civic, or have spent the last week supercharging your '69 camaro. Don't race it on the street, bro. Take it to the track. Period. You can learn about racing, meet new folks, and you won't get busted by the cops. And most importantly, you'll live to brag to your friends about how you spanked the car next to you.

The second "save it."

The internet is a wonderful invention. Thanks to it, us musicians have access to cutting edge information, which is often free!

However, there's always a few odd folks lurking in the shadows, spurred on by the boldness of facelessness.

I am routinely astounded at some of the comments left on free articles, youtube videos, etc.
A fellow writer on just got slammed by a bunch of folks for writing an intelligent, advanced theory article on voice leading and analyzing chord progressions.

Now, hey, I read stuff sometimes that I don't agree with, or enjoy. I don't like "Hints from Heloise." Or at least I won't admit it. But, you know, like it or not, cedar hearts do discourage moths from eating your clothes. (And if you've never had a moth eat through one of your shirts, you have not experienced the profound rage at a faceless vandal who's smaller than your fingernail.) So if ya don't like it, move on, and read something else! The 'net is chock full of cool stuff. No need to waste your time, and energy, by getting all worked up and venomous.

Here's an idea for all of us. Next time we feel like grumbling about an article, either to ourselves, or friends, or in the comment box...Let's practice an arpeggio instead!

Not only will it make us better, but it's a great way to refocus our spite into evil viking sounds.
For me, I'll be sure to get a lot better, because I'm always grumbling!

Turn that crankiness into discipline, and that discipline into skill.

See you at the racetrack!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Levels of knowing

Good morning!

Levels of knowing. How well do you really know that song or idea? As I get ready for a last minute gig this weekend, I'm faced with several different levels, and limits of my playing.

- The "I have no clue!" level

- "I'm starting to get it, but I need to play along with the song" level. (Think of this as riding a bike with training wheels.)

- "I can sorta play it, but I need the band to keep time."

- "I can play it 'a Capella' and it sounds great."

- "I can teach it."

The last level could explain a curious statement. When I first applied for my teaching gig, one of my teachers told me it would help my playing out a lot. I was puzzled, as I couldn't see how teaching someone else would benefit my skills as a musician.

I quickly discovered that there was a ton of material that I knew about, and could play, but...I sure couldn't explain it! I attribute this to my knowledge being not as "deep" as I would have liked. Trying to explain modes one day to an unfortunate friend of mine left us both thoroughly puzzled. A student totally froze my circuits one day when they asked why a half diminished chord was called what it was called.

I knew this stuff to the point I could apply it, but not to the level where I could teach it.

Needless to say, I can now teach modes, half diminished seventh chords, and even a Hannah Montana song if the student wants to learn it.

Teaching has taught me much about levels of knowledge. So has playing live music.

So what's the point? There's two.

1. Jam with people. This might seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but it's really quite fun.
Start off with a buddy, and if you can, join a band. It will really help your playing. If nothing else, it will quickly show you where your limits are, and more importantly, what they are.

2. Teach a buddy. If you've got a friend who wants to know how you play that cool song on the guitar, show 'em! How about one that's confused about guitar tab? Sort it out for them! I certainly don't recommend running out to the local music store to teach if you're not ready, however. But helping your friends learn is a fabulous way to learn to organize your thoughts to provide a clear explanation, and to learn your limits so you can learn more.

Remember how I was talking about levels so long ago (at the beginning of this post?) I find that if you can play it and teach it, you've got it down.

Best of luck!

Finding a blues jam in your neighborhood is a really good thing to do. A blues jam is an impromptu band thrown together from the attendees, and an excellent place to hone musical skills. More on 'em later, but in the meantime, as my little brother would say "GIYF." (Google Is Your Friend!)

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

None of yo' beeswax...

The icicles are talking today.

The rain came yesterday, and left ice today. Ice has great tone. Especially when it drips into a puddle. It's a pure, cold, chilly sound. A reminder to breathe in, and gather the air.

But ice aside, let's talk business. It's important. And I'll make a bold assertation. It's fun. This might sound strange to all you fellow musicians. We're into music so we don't have to be stuck at a desk, right? Actually, I will venture to say that it's not only in our best interest to be savvy when it comes to matters material, but it's vital.

The world of successful people know how to communicate, access resources, and understand the situation. Being a good businessperson doesn't always mean wearing a suit and tie. It does mean being with it, alert, and willing to learn.

I'm really enjoying learning about the business of music. It's fascinating. You have a product: Your music (and entertainment.) You have a potential fan base: The whole world! You need to get it to them. How are you going to do that?

Just playing great tunes isn't enough. If you invent something brilliant, how can it be successful if people don't know about it?

And, of course, there's folks who will offer to do this for you. If they're legit, that's great. If they're not, watch out. If you develop a head for business, you'll be able to sort it out and make good calls.

It's a challenge, and a game. How are you going to get your music to the masses? Well, first you need to understand how the machine works. "All You Need to Know About The Music Business" is a nice book to aid in understanding it.

And understanding the world that the industry functions in is also important. Learn about business! I just registered as an Limited Liability Company (LLC.) Did you know that Maryland has a $300 filing fee for taxes every year. I did not. D'oh! (And I even read a book on LLCs!)

The science of Customer Service is a fascinating field, indeed. I'm always working on that with my teaching practice. It, of course, carries over to the playing side of my business, from dealing with club owners, right on down to the little kid that drops a dollar in the bucket when I'm doing street music. The guys at Gold's Gym amaze me by always greeting me by my name. I'm sure they have a computer to help 'em, but still...It makes a big impression.

Hey, is your gear insured? Mine is! Now, if it gets stolen, or somebody burns down my studio, I'm covered. (By the way, I had a great customer service experience with an agent named Ted Peters at Wells Fargo. Let me know if you want his number, and I'll email it to you.)

Jump in to the world of business. It's really, really fun. Really.

And when you don't think musicians ever look corporate, just remember these guys...

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Visual learning

Good morning, musicians!

Sometimes, as we journey along our musical paths, danger awaits us.
Perhaps we're learning a song, and a monster called Confusion ambushes us. For me,
this monster is always lurking around, and he's usually very white (got no groove!)
I was trying to learn a song the other day, and there he was, and sure enough, I just couldn't
find the beat!

I looked at tabs. I listened hard. To no avail. Then, I had the idea of watching it on
youtube. It helped a TON!

There's a bunch of videos of folks playing and teaching songs. Sometimes they're dead wrong.
And sometimes they'll help you make a quantum leap in your playing. It's certainly worth checking out. So next time you're stuck, try hopping on youtube and searching your song.

And while you're on there, check this out (I certainly have an odd sense of humor):

Have a great Monday!

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Don't wait!

And it's Thursday. This week sure has been flying!

Two stories caught my eye on the news today. There might be water on Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Surprising! The second - researchers think that quite possibly, over time, spouses actually get more annoying. Shocking! (They said if you find your spouse annoying now, the future is bleak.) Ha ha! Life sure is funny sometimes.

But on to things of six strings and trains of thought.

Don't wait to work on your tone!

I labored under a misconception for years. I mistakenly thought that I would concentrate on getting a great tone after "I could play good." Put in the context of a Chef, this statement quickly reveals it's absurdity.

"I'll make the dish taste good once I can chop the ingredients really fast."


Start working on your tone today. Not only does it live in your amp settings and stompboxes, but it's also an integral part of how you approach the guitar. Think about this: How do different piano players have different tone? It's their touch and feel.

We could break tone into two categories:

The expensive, and the cheap.

The first category is your amps, guitars, and effects.

Dialing in a good sound is a skill that should be practiced. One of my teachers and colleagues, Mr. Mike Stacey, opened my eyes to the magic of fiddling with gear. I had just finished trying out a few amps, and was complaining that they sounded too shrill with my humbucker equipped axe. Mike walks out with a telecaster, and gets the most beautiful, full sound out of the exact same amp. The difference? A bit of fiddling on Mike's part. Start dialing your sound today.

The second category, the cheap one, is a bit more subtle. It's how you actually play the notes. An interesting experiment to try is this: Using an amp set to a clean tone (preferably a tube amp), start playing one note very softly. Gradually increase the picking attack until the note gives up (doesn't get any louder.) You might notice that the note starts as a whisper, blooms around mid-intensity, and then starts to compress under heavy picking. Being aware of the effects of picking dynamics on tonal quality is a quantum leap, indeed. Playing in these zones adds another dimension to your sound. Want to make your lines sound warm and big? Play in that mid zone. How about biting and wailing, a la "Texas Flood?" Experiment with the heavy picking.

The bottom line? Start paying attention today. Your sound is your sound, no matter how fast or slow you play. Make sure it sounds good.

(And for you gearheads, check out the stuff at musician's friend! Some nice stuff, fo' sho'!)

Monday, February 4, 2008


"Live your life like a very hot fire - leave nothing but white ashes."

(Some cool Indian guru dude.)

Intensity - a focusing. Giving your all. Burning the house down completely.

I'm pleased to report the Guitar Club was a success! The DVD shown was that of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble at Austin City Limits. And that's where the intensity theme comes from.

Song after song, a blistering, howling guitar tone roaring from the amps, I half thought the projector screen was going to be indelibly etched with that legend's image. Stevie really gave his all in that show. Twenty years later, it still leaps to life and amazes.

Comparing living, or playing guitar, with fire, I see some striking similarities. A low, cool flame burns sooty, and incomplete. Meandering through it's fuel, it can't decide if it should be burning this or that. Acetylene, an industrial gas, behaves in this manner. It's sloppy, dim, and throws off whopping amounts of soot. Mustering up it's energies and focusing, however (combining with Oxygen, to be precise), that sooty flame becomes an intense blue-white jet that melts and cuts metal.

Interestingly, whenever I'm in a club or bar to play my music, I see a contrast in intensity between the customers and the athletes on TV. Obviously, they're both there for different reasons, but the soot in the bar chokes me. When it's my turn onstage, I try to burn the stage down completely.

And this can apply to practicing, too. Often, my practice sessions are burned very incompletely. I emerge, not much better, my inner musician looking like a chimney sweep. When I do focus and burn, however, it's great! Sure, it takes a lot of mental energy, but there's only white ash left. And that's cool....I mean hot!

So how do you jam? Note that intensity doesn't have anything to do with speed. A small welding flame can cut steel, and a raging bonfire will barely cook a marshmallow. It's how much you mean it. And if you're practicing anyway, why not fully mean it?

Focus. Cut steel. And burn the stage down!