Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald -

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kinesthetic Serendipity and Comfy Songs?

 I had to explain what the word "serendipity" meant to a student yesterday,

 in order to explain the context of a concept I was trying to get across. I told her "serendipity is the favorable result of a process that was not deliberately intended".  I don't really care if that is a proper definition or not, but that's what I'm using for this particular post!

 I posit that what I'm going to call "kinesthetic serendipity" is how a lot of guitar-based songs have originated.  

 Certain chords are learned first by most people.  The reasons are abstruse.  Sometimes it is for purely educational reasons, sometimes because a favorite song requires it.  Generally these chords tend to be of the first 3 fret, open chord variety.

 This brings up a classic chicken/egg question: did the chord voicing come first, or the songs?

 The open chord forms are usually learned first, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post.  They're most widely known.  They're also "friendly" to the mechanics of the human hand/fingers.  They are, for lack of a better word, "comfy" versus some more advanced voicings.

 In turn, for a lot of "song writers", when a guitar is picked up habit tends towards the person semi-randomly grabbing one of these chords.

 Because of the aforementioned ease, comfort, the following chord may be chosen not consciously for it's actual sound, but rather because it merely feels "comfortable" to do so.

 On the guitar, permutations of open G, C and D chords are hyper-popular.  Not necessarily because of the conscious choice, but the subconscious: someone strung these chords together because the 3 chords felt comfortable for them to play.

 As it turns out, those 3 chords musically make a lot of sense when played together.

 So, there are songs that I would consider to not just be "easy" to play, but comfortable.  Not only that, but there is an entire category of musicians I would suggest base their whole process around how "comfortable" parts are to play.

 At this point I would like to point out that "easy" and "comfortable" are not synonymous in this context!

 Some guitar players may come to a point where they consider something "comfortable" feeling to play that a beginner would find very difficult.  But, having attained a certain level of skill, the same process happens where musical ideas are brought together because they are comfortable to play.

 I put Eddie VanHalen in this category.  Most VanHalen parts require a lot of skill to execute, but if you have the skill they fall under the fingers very easily.  More specifically, the parts flow together kinesthetically (generally), which again leads me to say:

 Kinesthetic serendipity led to the music.

 The muse guides most pop music, but from a detached, "editor" standpoint.  Most often people are choosing to experiment with what they know and can physically play.

 Conversely, I do not put Eric Johnson in that category.  Eric's music often has parts that are awkward to execute relative to the rest.  What leads him to those parts are more tangibly esoteric I believe.  He demands his fingers to do something he's imagining, regardless of whether it's kinesthetically "comfortable" to do so.

 On the far end of this scale I would maybe place Allan Holdsworth, whose music occasionally has parts that fall under the fingers readily, but more often than not require peculiar and awkward fingerings.  In his case, it's my reverse-music engineering thought that he's deliberately avoiding the "kinesthetically easy" things on the artistic ground that it's going to be inherently likely to be more common sounding.

"Cardinal!  Bring me... the SOFT CUSHIONS!

 Which I agree with in part, but the flip side to that is that it doesn't mean it's going to be good sounding just because it's not "common".  His music in turn is an acquired taste for some it would seem; the result is an assortment of very atypical voicings and combinations.

 I'll also suggest the notion that there is the active role of humans choosing "comfortable" combinations of things to play, but also that the instrument itself is biased towards it.  At least in a Euro-western centric sense. There is a rhyme and reason to why the guitar is tuned as it is, how the position markers are set, and the scale length.  As a system, it is biased towards being musical.
 Which is why oddball tunings run counter to that unless one embraces the corner they put you in.  My point, though, is that there is something to be said for balancing that commonality that Holdsworth maybe rebels against, and the basic G-C-D song.  Sometimes, where your fingers go, can be a reflection of muscle memory that has been acquired by having learned music you like. 

 Developing habits relative to what you like is more important to song writing, in my opinion, than becoming diluted with ideas or concepts that you do not have any interest in.



Wednesday, December 28, 2016

How To Waste Your Existence

I recently saw a post on a Popular Internet Forum where a guy is apparently seemingly obsessed with reproducing one of Steve Vai's recorded guitar sounds.

 The guy has gone about things pretty intently.  I have done such things, to an even more fabulously OCD extreme, but with many other Sounds I Think are Significant. 

 One difference to this guy is that he is simultaneously trying to emulate the following:

  •  Steve Vai's playing;
  •  Steve Vai's sound coming out of his amp;
  •  Steve Vai's studio/recorded sound.
  He has some very subtle timing differences with the playing aspect.  Subtle, but huge in the sense that it is what makes Vai "Vai".  Huge also in that it is an order of magnitude greater in rhythmic scale of awareness to accomplish. 

 Also huge is a subtle differentiation on timing onset for vibrato, phrasing and finger pressure tonal effects. 

 Those two things alone are something worth chasing, and then trying to discard once made habitual.  The problem is, he's diluting his effort by also trying to get the technical side of his sound going at the same time.
This is effectively what I'd classify as "Reverse Engineering Speculative Sonic Anthropology".  Something I'll save for another blog post, but suffice to say another worthy pursuit IF one prizes the audio engineering aspect enough. 

 It is impossible to perfectly replicate all of the variables.  I've tried.  I'm insane enough to do null tests if the reader knows what that means.  A complete waste of time.  Very sonically educational; but a waste of time.

 In this case I think it's a classic examining the bark on the tree instead of seeing the forest.  Which I'm a complete expert of, and have suffered greatly because of the OCD tendency towards this.  I wish I could go back in time and make myself read "this", but I can't.  Instead I can say with a Yul Brenner Retro Westworld glean, "don't do what I did".

 It's educational, but not necessarily practical.  Seldom are audio engineers jacks of all trades, they tend to specialize in their thing and that's it.  You like it or you don't.  The Lesson of YouTube isn't to suck down all of the raw data, but to see that There Are Things That Exceed Human Capacity.  Know that and don't waste time on it.  This is a lesson I have only learned in the past few years; trying to work on this principle is a chore now because of it.  When in reality it should be the easiest!

 Easiest because chances are, you automatically have a sense of taste and predilections.  You should ramp those up in the hope of having a unique hybrid, discard the rest, and not worry about it.  Very much easier said than done for me, but probably a lot easier for the reader. 

 I've had times where a student has professed a love for a certain niche in music.  My suggestion is to go OCD on that, and hope it evolves and mutates into something unique.  The value of that is immeasurable; that is what being a human is all about.  

 I've gone to the End of the Road many times and then kept going into the field until I found Another Road.  I should have just hung out there and see if anything else came down the road. That is my advice to this guy.  My advice to the guitar student reading this is to GO DOWN A ROAD.  This is something missing in today's society for various reasons.  Motivation to PURSUE something intriguing.  Not to discard the intrigue.  Maybe the most important thing in playing music!



Saturday, November 26, 2016

Mainlining Music

 I like music. A lot.

 As a kid I used to make cassettes of a part of the same song looped over and over, just because I loved hearing it that much.

 I continued to do that as a guitar player.  Unlike drugs, there are no detrimental side effects.  Except one.

  Boredom is brain chemistry telling you "you've sucked the good out of this, time to move on".  It's part of the learning process if you can recognize it as boredom of something that was previously stimulating.  It doesn't mean it will always be boring, you'll likely return with a new mindset at a later time - but a more educated one.

 On paper if presented with the following criteria as something I'd find fascinating and visceral, I would bet against it:

 Wind chimes on intro(this alone would make me put my money elsewhere)
 Initial theme based on b5.
 Repetitive 16th note arpeggio throughout.
 Keyboard sampled string sound.
 Simple 2 bar block-chord structure.
 Additional Roland synth string sound.

 I'll leave it to the reader to discern what that was. When I first started writing this post I had been listening to it looped for over half an hour.  Just that first 1 minute 23 seconds.

 What do I gain from this? Aside from the pleasure of just listening to something I like, there are things that are not readily apparent. Mostly in the careful arrangement that has just enough subtle detail to keep it from merely being "just" the formula I outline above.  While it's essentially what I outlined, the beauty of it is in the nature of the dynamics, and the slight variations.  It could easily be banal, but it's not.  That in itself is a big trick.  The balance, the ratio of the sublime to the obvious, basic premise.

 What is really happening is a feedback reward loop is created

 I like that bit of music; I listen to it repeatedly for the above aspects.  By doing it over and over there is an almost Pavlovian response in that if I head some that might be similar to the above formula, *I want the same detail/ratio/subtlety present to get the same reward satisfaction*.  It's training to impart these aspects on what you do.  It's positive reinforcement of predilection.

I've done this all of my life, even before I played guitar.  It was easier in a sense as a kid.  Records were expensive, and you were careful with what you bought.  You really liked what you bought, and you listened to it a lot.  You didn't jump about like you can today with Google Music or Spotify.

 5th grade was "Out of the Blue" by ELO.  8th grade was _The Wall_ by Pink Floyd.  Every day.  Had it ringing through my head at school.  At different years in my life I've "mainlined" Jeff Buckley's _Grace_.  Or a John Coltrane Live in Europe bootleg.  2014 was Bach's Well Tempered Clavier played by Glen Gould (first version, book 1).

 I remember when I first started doing this.  I was 4 years old (?) when the Carpenter's "A Song for You" came out. My parents took me to Sky City department store on Wrightsboro road, they had just put up the poster for it since the week before. "A Song for You" was in rotation on the radio.  I would sit in front of my parent's stereo and listen to that 8 track over and over and over until they told me I couldn't anymore.  Later I had no problem in piano lessons at 5 playing "Close to You" by ear because I'd already listened to it a million times. 

 Cassettes were great because they allowed me to loop just the songs I wanted to hear.  Over and over.  Later just sections of a song as I learned guitar.  Then just small snippets of songs.

 I've played to loops of just a part of a guitar solo, or vocal lines. Sucking the marrow from the music.  Just recently I've probably played a section of a run from an Al DiMeola song maybe... a few hundred times, because I want to absorb the curve of his accellerando/decellerando in the run.  I don't like Latin music enough to listen to it enough to absorb that one aspect, but by doing this I get to concentrate *what I like about it*. 

 This is effectively musical gluttony.  I am guilty.  I am a product of doing this!  I think the beauty of this, and why everyone should do it - is that what I create musically is the result of *exactly what I like*. Which is going to be a specifically unique array of things relative to other people!

 In my opinion this is what being a human is about.  Being a unique creature is something not afforded to apes or dolphins.  You shouldn't squander your attention to music, after all it is you.   


Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Uncanny Valley and Guitar

  "Uncanny Valley" is a term I'm swiping from the computer generated visual effects industry.  It's a term that describes the property of animated anthropomorphic/human depictions in that, as the animation technology goes from being "cartoony" to "perfectly realistic", it first looks stranger and stranger.  You know you are looking at something fake but you're not sure why it's fake. But, you know the attempt to fool you visually is underway.

 When people decide to pick up an instrument for the first time, what unfolds psychologically is something along the following graph:

(ACME Depiction of Written Text)

 This is an aggregate of a "Typical Beginner Student" general outlook.  There is a Heisenberg factor here of course, since once a student starts lessons they are theoretically following my instruction.  However, I present this as a way of perhaps enlightening the novice to being wary of a not-necessarily inevitable point of view that can be deleterious.

 These sort of "landmarks" are places I have found myself having to almost play the role of psychologist, in attempting to mentally nudge someone to move beyond the mire of their present thought process.  These places are traps.  In fact, I could argue that these places are about the only thing that prevents anyone from advancing to whatever musical goal they aspire to.

 More on that later, but for now - the Uncanny Valley:

 The closer one gets to achieving Actual Mastery over a particular phrase, mechanical movement, or conceptual control, the more likely one will be satisfied before the optimum result.

 The student practices, goes about their way in whatever fashion, and arrives at a "place" where they feel not only are they "getting it", but they're moving further ahead, into a "mastered" zone.

 I've watched this happened right before me.  For some people, they do the musical equivalent of passing out before the peak of the summit.  They just stop trying any further.  They're fine with having seen the top of Mount Nitaka.

 Others will vacillate with pushing that last meter.  Time to take a break.  The nausea sets in.

 Or tunnel vision happens, temporal distortion: that last meter suddenly seems infinitely far away, continued effort seems fruitless.

 Now and then I get the the person that (in mountain biker parlance) bonks.  They front loaded their effort too much.  It seemed to gain them an advantage, at the expense of running out of steam.  Lots of initial practice and vigor thrown at it, no reserve left over.  Pacing.

 That zone, the Uncanny Valley, can ensnare effectively anybody.  Knowing it's going to happen, knowing that one is "there", perhaps can help one to see it through.  The last 10% of effort is hard, but a lot easier if you know it's the last 10%.  Stopping, giving up, tricking oneself over that 10% is a shame - you get all the way to that place, and that last 10% is where "professional" exists.  You don't go on  to something else, take a break, or come back to it later.  It's the most tedious part of it, but also the most straightforward.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Practicing Karen Carpenter Phrasing on Guitar?

New Series: "What Do You Practice, Chip?"

 People are always asking me "yeah, but what do YOU practice?" - as if there is some Secret Guitar Kata that, if I were only to tell them, everything would be easy and wonderful.

 Which isn't the case, and in addition to that I always seem flummoxed, because I instantly have a flood of mental incongruities I momentarily think I can reconcile into a coherent sentence.  I can't, because it's either a diffused, abstracted thing I'm practicing or something so extremely mundane that to convey it would seem to be condescending.

 Usually it's something extremely specific.  Part of what I teach is how to learn to practice effectively, instinctually.  Or something in between, or combinations.  Things that don't easily translate into a pat, single soundbite-sentence.

 So along those lines I'm going to try to periodically post some of the things that people may find interesting that I practice.  For instance, a few days ago....

 I wanted to know what Karen Carpenter was doing with her vibrato on the first line to the song "Goodbye To Love".  By that I mean, I want to get a similar effect.

 What is going on is that she uses a lot of resonance on the words "I'll say", into the word "goodbye", which then trails off into vibrato.  More specifically, once she says "bye" she begins her vibrato, which begins with the crossing point being flat, 3 beats later on pitch.  As that is occurring it goes from having a wider bandwidth - more low mid resonance, slight top end harmonic with a dominant 2K-ish peak that gets wider in Q as the end of "bye" approaches, then settles into a thinner timbre, as the vibrato narrows as well.

 Also note in my crude diagram she's releasing her pitch bend faster than the attack.

 "Chip, you're crazy".  Maybe so, but it's a nice effect.  I practiced this slowly with a whole step bend, and it only works on guitar based on the nature of the sound and gain you use, and the pickup selection.  I did this for about half an hour, until it became a reflex.

 Then I stopped.  It may or may not show up in my technique later.  I'll probably revisit this "shortly", but there is a fine line between "reflex" and "habit"; I want that to be available if I imagine that effect is appropriate in my mind in the "midst of battle", but I don't want it all over everything. I also don't want it to be "the Karen Carpenter lick".  I want it to blend and coagulate with everything else I've learned.

 Should a student try to practice that?  I don't know, does that line strike you as an important melody/phrasing?  I'm a huge Karen Carpenter fan; if you're not, it won't serve much purpose.  On the other hand, one should become aware of what moves one musically and why it's effective in my opinion....


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Syntax and Learning to Play Guitar

 I'm here to proclaim a revolutionary new approach to playing guitar!

 A student of mine came up with it, it's brilliant: the "Barry Jackson Tennis Ball and Rubberband Method".  I was introduced to this by Barry in person, "geez Chip... Can't I just squeeze some tennis balls and strap some rubber bands to my fingers instead of doing all this hard stuff?"

 I don't suggest the reader pursue this route.  I managed to talk Barry out of it, but it was difficult.

I tend to use what some call "big words".  I just do, I'm not trying to contemplate how to use said Big Words, I'm trying to elucidate an expression of meaning with a nuance that is more specific.  I would like to think I do the same when playing guitar.

 An example is in the following:

A shortcut is a way to get to your destination faster than the "established" way.

A trick is something a magician does to make you think something has happened that has not.

 People are looking for shortcuts all the time.  Effectively there are not any.  On guitar and in music in general, it's just that the routes to one's destination are varied and subjectively better or worse than others.

 The problem I see is in syntactically ignoring the context.  A shortcut actually, literally gets you to your destination.  As destination I must point out, one has to know exists and where it is before one even starts their journey, in order to make it as direct as possible. 

 A trick makes you think you have done something, when you have not.  As it turns out, I think there are a few tricks that can help you learn music and the guitar, but they're just that - tricks. 

 I can tell someone "go down that trail and turn right at the fork that you can't see from here".  Maybe you're not too sure about those directions.  Maybe you don't know about the legitimacy of turning right, or maybe you read on the Internet you should turn left, or that there is a turn in the trail before you get to the fork where you can cut through the woods and save half a mile on your trip.

 That's a mess, you might still make it to your destination but it's not exactly a wise or optimal methodology.

 Instead, I can show you a trick: stand on this box, and you can see the fork I'm talking about, and how it leads to the Magical Coffee Shop in the Valley You Can't See Yet. 

 You'll happily traipse off down the trail with no hesitation, knowing you know where to go.  The trick showed you where you were going and how to get there, but it didn't get you there.

 Meanwhile you walk past the sounds of people walking around in the woods, the guy who said his name was "Frost" that argued with you that you should go left at the fork instead of right.  It was tiring walking to the coffee shop but you got there in time to relax outside while you watched all the energy depleted, decaffeinated people stumble about around you on the hills making up the valley.  Most will give up and turn back.  Some will fall down the side of the hill and arrive without money and with broken bones.  Others will be devoured by the Gravy Train Bear, or forever lost in the shallow trench.

 Taking guitar lessons is something of a trick, but not a shortcut.  There are no shortcuts.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Irony of Prince Being a Musician?

 It would seem the number one comment I noticed after Prince's death is something along the lines of the following:

 ".... yeah, and he could really play guitar, and other instruments!".

Recently the video of Nick Jonas of Jonas Brother's teeny bopper fame failing at trying to play a basic solo at a concert made the rounds.  He's obviously marginal as a guitar player, and it's not like the Jonas Brothers - or hardly any other pop act these days - create "their" own music.

 There he was, though, trying to do something he obviously couldn't in front of a crowd of people.

 The precedent was sort of set when Madonna tried to play through some bar chords on a song on a tv show.  The unspoken premise being in "reality", everyone is in on the secret:

 Pop stars are no longer expected to be actual musicians.

 "Wow, look at Madonna!  She's playing guitar!!!".

 A novelty?

 As a kid in the late 70's I HATED, DEPLORED seeing people lip sync.  Not only that, but my parents most of the time would not accept the notion, or "people in general".  

 We've passed through that to being cynical, to be accepting.  We've gone farther, into a weird fractured land where some people still believe in what they see, while others just don't care anymore.  People pay $$$$ to go see pop acts (emphasis on "act") either partially, or fully aware that they're going to see people miming to prerecorded music.

 "Chip, in the future, people will pay lots of money to knowingly watch people pretend to be pompous about pretending to perform music they didn't create".   Ok, sure.

 Prince started at the end of the pre-computer assisted music era.  People had no choice to be musicians in order to make music.  People took pride in it.  Now Justin Bieber is lauded for trying to play guitar, as if he's somehow going into uncharted territory, and risking his health and safety for doing so. 

 Not to denigrate Prince at all, but... you know, the idea of a pop musician not only being able to play an instrument, but multiple instruments, and to write their own music shouldn't be an outlier phenomenon.  It didn't use to be.  That it has become that in the 21st century is a sad reflection on what culture has been reduced to.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Band Rooms: You Are Where You Eat

 The following was the result of contemplating something I saw recently, a video of the Smashing Pumpkin's performing for a VIP crowd. 

 I think there is something to be said for having an interesting place to create music.

 Thinking back, the most creative bands I've been in seem to also have been associated with where the practice room was.  It's character.

 An 18th century church makes for more interesting acoustics than an 6"x10" tin shed.  The difference in acoustics affects things in ways I'm pretty sure basically nobody really contemplates.

 In a room with a long decay time, with an impressively colorful and complex set of reflections, one might be less prone to playing fast tempos.  Because beyond a certain speed, the decay time of the room, and it's amount, blurs the evidence of one beat being distinctive from another.  It turns to mush.

 Conversely, sustaining notes on melodic/harmonic instruments are enhanced.  There is maybe more impetus to let a phrase be based on half notes, or whole notes, instead of busy 16ths.  There may be more moments of stacatto rests, where the room itself fills in the space between notes.

 In a small, or acoustically dead space, all musical ideas are presented in the same sterile environment.  The increase in clarity makes density a more musical option.  It also makes awareness of other musician's contributions more evident and distinct, which likewise changes the band dynamic.

 The way it looks is important as well.  Mundane surroundings yields mundane results.  There is something to be said for the practice space that is filled with the common detritus of the "rock band", cables strewn everywhere, bad asian rugs, a defaced Metallica poster.  One can't confuse the environment for an Office Space.  You're not there to write TPS reports.

 Bright florescent lights in a Default Generic Conference Room: the mere fact that there is nothing to distract you from being completely aware that you are in exactly that is counter-creative in my opinion. As evidence of this theory, I present the following examples.  I posit that because the environment is so incongruent with The Rawk Muziq, it not just makes the sound smaller but the vibe contracted as well.  In turn, if one had wanted to create said music, that disconnect would work against it arriving at it's final form.

 In the aforementioned Pumpkin's footage, they play a loud rawk and roll song in what could be a room at a Hampton Inn, Anywhere USA:

 It's disconcerting.  I've done gigs in such places, and it's always a strange vibe.  The music doesn't fit the room.  There is a little bit of thought given to decor I think with those ceiling sconces, but the rest is pretty much exactly what you think it is.  "TONIGHT: MULTILAYER MARKETING MANIA SEMINAR and SMASHING PUMPKINS".

 I know why he has to do that, but it's still weird.  One would never have thought of seeing such dichotomous (?) imagery in the Glory Days of Hair Metal, or the Carefully Managed Image-neering of the 90's and Naughts.  But there you have it: YouTube reducing a veritable velociraptor of a band to the rat wallowing around in the fish tank at the zoo, pun intended.

 Being OCD, I browsed through the other examples, to clarify what the boundaries of Rawk Environment were.  There is this one that maybe comes in second place:

 A little bit more moody.  There are the "basement dreams of stardom" halogen track lighting, and this time a wall sconce against a bit of Hyatt Approved Cherry.  Kooky late 70's Hotel Carpet yields a little bit of non-linear to the occasion I think.

 Dramatic color can save the oppressively stentorian, when combined with a high ceiling:

 This one is a little bit better, there is at least rock and roll iconography displayed to momentarily distract and remind, ala the Common Rock Band Room.  Also, there is the more subdued lighting, more elaborate color, and also the Perpetual Chaotic Cable Topography one expects in the Common Rock Band Room:

This one is a curiosity.  Dare I say it, it invokes a certain "basement band room" vibe, but with notable twists.  Dimensioned, portraitured lighting that despite being florescent, has been placed in a non-conformal fashion.  Unusual room design.  Odd floor plan.  Bonus points for the reflective mylar HVAC insulation.  There is also an actual curtain, navy blue, and spotted is the requisite Persian rug:

Here we have a trickier exposition, in that it violates the number 1 rule of post-MTV rock iconography: the brick wall.  However, note that the brick wall is not just a "Home Depot Contractor" wall, but uses a specifically unique architectural brick, arrayed in the more haughty column fashion.  Also note the evidence of slightly decrepit floor, base of the wall, reconditioned water heater, retrofitted but proudly industrial electrical.  This is a wall that is a survivor, therefore it is rock and roll, and in turn this is a potentially good place for rock and roll music:

 Next up we have the "ingredients found at the Hyatt, but more rock and roll".  Fairly conservative color scheme, cherry/mahogany moulding,  but with a more raucous architectural poise.  Dramatic lighting, dramatic recessed and high ceiling.  An interesting room.  But what makes it work is DIM LIGHTING (as noted by the videographer...):

 This one is interesting, because it shows how having a crowd up close can defeat the Moderately Bland surroundings.  For the more popular band, having a crowd at the practice room yields a certain dynamic that is conducive to The Rawk and Roll:

Now we're getting somewhere!  This next video enters into the realm of "looks like a cool practice room, dude" territory.  In turn, the vibe begins to match the music.  Is it too dim in here?  This is the threshold one seeks for the Creative Potential Band Practice Room:

Behold!  The "Primitive Early Gig" look,  which can also be the Cool Band Room doing double duty:

 This isn't to suggest having a vibey practice room will make a mediocre and untalented group of musicians suddenly artistically valid (that is definitely not the case), but given the options one should encourage the almost strophic acceptance of the staid artistic environment.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Are You Doing Art, or Peeling Apples?

 In the video below, the common denominator in all of these examples is muscle memory. Humans can do amazing, unbelievable things with repetition. A lot of technical guitar playing is not unlike the skills demonstrated in this video.

  These people did not just mess around a few minutes and suddenly gain these abilities. Does anyone doubt that in all of these examples, the results came about by sheer, mind-numbing repetition? And that there was a time when all of them did these same movements at a very, very slow pace?

 It seems I'm having to spend more time with students now emphasizing the fact that they will have to put time in at a very slow rate, and properly.  I can help with the "properly" aspect, but practicing at a slow rate, with discipline, is on the student.   

 I also find some people expect that what I show them will somehow be perfectly executable by the end of the 30 minute guitar lesson.  What can be done in the less is to get the timing right, movements right, comprehension of what's going on, but mostly what is beyond that would be magic.

  I'll write it again: playing fast is really the easiest thing about playing an instrument. If you have the patience to approach it in this simple, mundane fashion you can definitely do any specific movement on guitar quickly.  There are some inherent physical differences between people when it comes to reflexes, and basic quickness, but overall it comes down to repetitive practice.

  But then conversely - just because you can do something that is physically remarkable doesn't mean it has anymore artistic value than the guy peeling the apple at breakneck speed. It's a neat thing, but you've got to use it outside your comfort zone and take a chance, otherwise ... 

..... you're just peeling an apple.

(video brought to my attention by Paige Patton)

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie: Scary Elegance as Art

(note: this may not seem to be typical "guitar lesson content", but actually it is....)  

I saw - saw - David Bowie for the first time as a co-headliner with Nine Inch Nails. 
It was a very clever show, one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve seen. As his set progressed, Trent Reznor came onstage to sing with Bowie. Then another song, but one of Bowie’s band would leave, then one of Reznor’s would come onstage.
This progressed until it was Nine Inch Nails, but with Bowie singing Reznor’s songs. Bowie bows out, and it’s just Nine Inch Nails. 
Very clever, completely dispenses with standard operating procedure at a concert. Executed flawlessly, in a very naturally evolving way. That his music could flow so seamlessly into Reznor’s is a testament to his oeuvre. Bowie’s music spanning my entire lifetime, through a “set” that documented how he stayed on top of trends, and set trends, all the way up to the Modern Era. 
What I remember most from the experience is how captivating a presence he was in reality. Everyone knows of his theatrical delivery, combined with kinesthetic/dance motifs. Veritably Madonna before Madonna, always changing his “look and feel” in brilliant and novel ways. 
But live, a few feet in front of you, it’s different. There is an X factor at play. Things come across that a camera does not resolutely pickup, that lens distortion and depth of field conspire to obscure. 
He did a cross section of his characters that night, Thin White to Ziggy. His facial musculature as he sang, it’s composure, for each song was different. The timing of how his brow fell on a sentence, the tension in the cheek muscles. His posture made his clothes fall in a very particular way, and depending on the character, it might be perfectly still, or unsteady. Very subtle movements you can’t see on television. 
The net effect was two things. One, “this person is completely committed to this character”. Not evidenced by a coarse stage acting of the raising of the eyebrows, but in the gravitas of the tension - or lack of - in the facial muscle movements. On the movie screen, you get a hint of this on a tight closeup with a narrow lens with some star actors.  Though as part of that you don’t see the poise of the person. It’s not the same effect. 
When it’s in front of you, it’s extremely compelling; like an exotic animal, it’s art. This guy stalked around the stage as different personas for an hour, for each song, illustrated a different “animal”, a blend of effects he physically created. This was educational for me, because you read anecdotes from people talking about the “physical presence” of a famous or historical person, and you think it’s hyperbole - it’s not. Some people on the planet have what I might call an “extroverted kinesthetic high I.Q.”, and awareness of what their physicality is conveying in conjunction with being able to manipulate it for effect. When people talk about Bill Clinton’s “personal charisma”, or Elvis’ “charm” - as if it’s something you don’t know, they’re saying it because they realize perhaps it really is something you don’t know. 
Just like having a high musical I.Q., or verbal intelligence, I think this can be a phenomena that is a top-percentile bracket that one just does not commonly experience. In turn, being aware of such a thing could be completely off your radar. 
In this sense I think seeing Bowie live is actually something akin to seeing history in front of you: a rare, unique individual. I can imagine how someone with this subtle control of personal affect could become famous in other ways, for better or worse. He used it to maximal effect for art. 
Two (yes, I remember I wrote “two things”) - that character-induced effort to control facial musculature was having an impact on his vocal delivery. 
It sounds silly, but when you talk with a smile on your face you sound different, even if you think you are being neutral in your delivery, than if you frown. With Bowie, jutting out the angle of his chin, holding it there, or holding a sideways frown - while singing imparted a subtlety to the sound of the delivery. It yielded the conviction required to sell the character. It imbued color and character. Something that is mostly lacking in 21st century vocal delivery, with it’s perfectly-mediocre, staid execution. 
I’m not the biggest Bowie fan, apart from a handful of songs I like greatly. I thought his show would be interesting, but I did not expect captivating. Something akin to enjoying watching Nicholson flip out, or Walken simply be “Walken”, except in 3D in front of you; but with much more potency than is conveyed through secondary media.
It makes me wonder what it’s like to see someone like a De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, 6 feet in front of you in real life portraying a character. Is it a similar potency, that while diluted through a lens still comes across? A thought I would not have pondered prior to seeing - literally - David Bowie.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Exponential Math * Chaos = Creativity

 This occurred to me a few weeks ago.  You *can* formalize the process of creativity!

 Music is a series of events quantified by time, and multiple pitches.  We have 12 notes to choose from, but in multiple registers, and in multiple combinations.  Which can overlap in that many more combinations, and on different rhythmic increments, groupings and beats.

 Additionally there is what comes before, and after a said instance.  How fast or slow the series occurs, and how it relates to the underlying pulse of the music.

 Numerically, that is an incomprehensible number of combinations.  Music theory attempts to qualify these moments in generalized terms, in order to bring a sense of form to the perception of "music".   But it cannot possible quantify exactly the value of each iteration.  An ordinate system of trans-human complexity would be required, and it would be meaningless to us as mere humans - like looking at GPS numbers and knowing a location is a rock on the side of Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina somewhere.  It is scaled beyond what is pragmatic.


 In the process of creating music one wrestles with the bounds of what is going on with that complexity. Combinations of choices that are compounded by other choices, until the creator has to decide to either stop where a greater comprehension fails, or to trudge on into the chaotic unknown.

 At that point there is experimentation, trying things that one doesn't consciously know where it leads.  Chaos.

 Blending that manipulation of awareness of the edge of the possible mathematical combinations, is where new things emerge.  Understanding this premise is important, because everyone tends to fall somewhere on a scale between trying to full understand every aspect, and throwing caution to the wind and hoping things work out.

 Different musical artists lie on that scale in different places, and there is no right or wrong, of course.  Being unaware that this is going on, and being "out of place" within that scale is where problems occur.  Being in the right place results in productivity, the wrong aggravation or perhaps "artistically conflicted" results.

 But it's all letting about math that leads to beyond-human-comprehension and trying to steer the resulting chaos into some sort of order that is "creating".

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Misha Mansoor on the Reality of Superlatives

 In this interview Misha Mansoor of band Periphery discusses the notion of "what is the best (guitar)", and how it doesn't make sense to get into that mindset.

 I'm always asked "who is the best, what is the best", etc..  Same answer: there is no "best", only what you like.   Learning not only what you like, but why you like it is part of the experience of the lost art of music appreciation. 

 What I like about Mansoor's answer is that he references the precept that it takes time, and it's something each person has to do as individuals as part of the process.  Even if I though I knew what/who was "the best", me simply telling you the answer wouldn't give you any knew information.  In fact, it would do the reverse: it would make you try to evaluate what you do relative to what is in your experience an abstraction.

 I might be able to elaborate on my answer very specifically.  But at some juncture there would be a breakdown between my explanation and your comprehension.   Because of one of two things: either I would use a reference or term that you previously were not aware of, or if it stayed within your sphere of comprehension, there would have to be something I weight more heavily than you.  Because otherwise, you would have already come to the same conclusion!

 Hence, as a music teacher I can help someone gain the mental tools to more concisely grasp the above abstraction, but it's not as easy as just giving one answer.   As Mansoor alludes, because music is such a vast and tenuous thing, seeking precise, empirical parameters is a fallacy.

 You can have complete and strong beliefs regarding what/who you like in something that is art, but that is not the same as knowing what/who is "the best".   It's art, not basketball.

 At 38:08:

Monday, November 2, 2015

It Looks Easy - Expectation Bias and You

  Something of a role-reversal has occurred just recently I've observed.

"Historically", the Fancy Technical Lick the guitar hero du jour would execute would be considered something of an unreachable, ephemeral level of ability.   This person would be revered for his or her accomplishment.

 However, in the YouTube age, one gets to see basically anything taken apart (perhaps in dubious fashion) and presented as mere mathematical pieces, to be assembled at home by the viewer like a piece of musical Ikea furniture.

Mistake #1:  "If that guy I've never heard of on YouTube can do it, obviously anyone can do it".

 If anyone has had the same background and practice habits as said Anonymous Average Musician, maybe.  If a person cannot presently knows they cannot play or fully comprehend something they are seeing someone else do - then they can't make that call.

 "Here's a video of Some Guy at a playground basketball court, almost dunking from the free throw line.   Oh, he shows the steps involved.  If Some Guy can do what Michael Jordan can do, then so can I!".


 But not after just watching a video, taking the right number of steps in the right shoes, lifting your arm at the right time.  Maybe the goal was a foot or so lower.  Maybe the free throw line was a little closer.  Maybe the guy is taller than you.

 If your goal is to be a good basketball player, watching one video and running and jumping at the free throw line is a complete waste of your time.

 Yet, this is exactly effectively what I see a lot of people wanting to be a good guitar player doing these days.

 Mistake #2: "I've been doing this for almost 2 weeks!  I should be able to play this phrase/section/song by now!"

 Again - if you can't, and you think you should be able to - does that make sense?  Can you evaluate the veracity of your conclusion?

 YouTube gives the impression one can shortcut the learning process.  It's really more like short circuiting it, by making a connection that doesn't make sense.  As it turns out, the planet is huge, enormous, there are a gazillion good guitar players living on it.   When a person plays something in front of you who isn't a Big Time Music Star, that doesn't mean either what they're playing is easier than you think it is/was.   It means you're getting a preview.  It's like people speculating on what the story line of the new Star Wars movie is going to be by seeing the poster or the trailer.  You can do that, and you might end up getting one or two things sort of right.  But you are not going to be able to claim you know what the movie is about without sitting in the theater the whole time like everyone else. There isn't a Cliff Notes version. 

 It takes time, a lot of time.  Time to consolidate hundreds of things at a non-specific point later in time.  How you progress through that consolidation determines how long it takes, but chances are there are many things to bring together you can't perceive.  Minute things about technique, and how you hear things.

 I once encountered a guy that claimed he knew how to play a VanHalen song, and proceeded to show me.  Inexplicably, he began to play a mangled version of "La Cucaracha".   I said "ok, hey, how about playing that VanHalen song?" at which point he said that was it, "Come On Baby Finish What You Started".  After some musical forensic detective work, I deduced how he came to this notion that what he was playing was the VanHalen song.  Someone had shown him a part of it wrong.  He tried to fill in the rest, and proceeded to practice something that was so far removed from the actual song I couldn't recognize it.

 Along the way he picked up some bad habits, and his sense of timing was skewed after effectively practicing what he was perceiving improperly to begin with.  He not only wasted his time jumping into something improperly, he basically made himself worse as a musician!

 I'm not saying everyone is likely to do that, but the warning is that if you do what is effectively a shortcut, what you're short cutting is going to inevitably bring you down.  There are things that you can watch visibly get better in a few days, but most aspects of playing takes multiple weeks and months to see improvement, and some can evolve over years (like vibrato).  Don't be a Luke Skywalker, you must have patience.

 Seriously, patience.  I am often told, every week, "you have a lot of patience to teach!" which I do, but also consider that if that is the case - maybe that has something to do with why I have the resources and capacity to be the guitar teacher?  A large portion of what I do is trying to convey the gravitas of what I ask a student to practice.  You will definitely get better if you have the patience to practice properly - it's almost impossible not to! 

Mistake #3: "Look at those 4 year old kids playing guitar perfectly!  Guitar is easy!"

 No.  Those are North Korean kids who have been trained to mime playing to a recording perfectly by rehearsing all day long, the same thing, every day of their short lives. Hopefully you can do as well if you decided to do that for a year or two, 10 hours a day, for a bowl of porridge. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Learn from Jackie Chan Learning from a Kid

 I just saw this video today, quite candidly remarkable in my opinion.  It is Jackie Chan learning a Shaolin staff form from a kid. 

 I wish all of my guitar students would watch this with the following things in mind:

1) Chan is beyond a doubt a martial arts expert.  He's put in his 10,000 hours, and no doubt had a good portion of natural ability to begin with.  Yet, at 61 he's not above continuing to add to his knowledge base.   He is not looking at his skill set as having a defined ending, based on age, expertise, how famous he is, how wealthy he is. 

2)  Despite being "Jackie Chan", he is not trying to impose any preconceptions to the learning process.   He accepts the kid's admonishing. 

3) In turn, though, consider that the kid is demonstrably a complete expert in this form, and his poise reflects this.  Chan is attempting to learn not just the movements, but the attitude in execution.  This may or may not be obvious - another thing to consider.

4) Chan's approach is measured.  Meaning, he is attempting to glean what he can when he can.  The kid understands this, and is making choices in what to correct Chan on.  Despite his age, the kid is effectively educating.  This is an aspect of personalized teaching that passive books, Youtube, DVDs, etc., cannot accomplish.  You can't learn what Chan is learning by watching this, you will likely be making mistakes and missing fundamental aspects that only that kid could notice in person.

5) Note that Chan does not get upset when he makes a mistake, nor when he misses something.  It is just "there", he accepts the modification, and continues.   So often I am "told" by students "see, I can't do this" or "I keep messing up!" or other such exclamations that belie an misalignment of ego or understanding of process.

 Today's western society is built upon the premise that you "learn" inside classrooms from the generic tutelage of one person doling out information meant to be appropriate for the Median Denominator.  I won't address what I consider failings of that, but will say that it is somewhat of a societal intellectual laziness to not be in a state of wanting to learn all the time.  Not just in a formalized classroom setting. 

6) Chan recognizes the purity of the source.  He recognizes refinement.  He is not trying to mimic this refinement, it would not be logical - that takes time.  So while the kid may only be 10 years old, maybe he's practiced this form for years already, everyday.  It's  silly to expect such refinement instantaneously, even for someone such as Chan.  However, realizing this means understanding what needs to be done in order to start the pursuit of the refinement.  Note the kid's deft footing, assured execution; Chan is capable of this, but is not trying to do that in this moment.  It would be counterproductive, silly - and would not respect the effort the kid has put into this. 

7) Note the ease of which both disengage from the learning mode.  They both have spent time concentrating in what I will brazenly call a zen-like manner, maximizing efficiency, and can switch it on and off (demonstrated by the casual nature of the fist pumping at the end).  That is not for effect, that is two experienced people having learned the advantages of working towards this state of learning.

8) The most important thing is to note how headlong Chan goes into the process.  Obviously gifted from a proprioception standpoint, he does not hesitate to attempt to do the more complicated combinations that he was unlikely to get on the first attempt.  Hesitating would disturb the rhythm of the process.  That is not to say he wantonly tries things, but that he is not letting the fear of not being able to do something wreck the process.  This is a difficult thing, made easier for Jackie Chan because he IS Jackie Chan, in the sense that he is already very respected and does not fear his ego being affected.  In order to have become Jackie Chan he had to not let his ego bury him before he had a chance to acquire skills that garnered the respect. 

 Learning to play an instrument is like learning a new language, literally, combined with something kinesthetically akin to a martial art, with a dose of computer programming logic.  And that is just to acquire the skills needed to use all of that in the subjective pursuit of art, or entertainment.  It is not like cramming for a history test in homeroom, or learning to divide fractions.  It can be, but that does not mean that is the optimal path in my opinion.  You have to soak in it, want to learn as much as possible, and be open to learning whenever possible. 

 "Be like water" - Bruce Lee

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Snoopy Cadence

Hidden within a Greenday song, one can find IV-V with the appropriate scampering rhythm:

...this is the part in the Greenday song where Linus shreds.

Probably Not Optimal

 Some people will insist they are double jointed, when they are not.  It can be a hindrance if one doesn't realize they are, and are not directed to take the appropriate precautions. 
 A few days ago a student accidentally tried to do the following while trying to play a G power chord.  She does know how to do it properly, but at a faster tempo upon playing a repeat in a hurry, her pinky and 3rd finger did something almost instantly I can't do.  

This is not how I recommend one play power chords:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Is Your Guitar Sound This Image?

 Pretty frightening, isn't it?

I'm often asked "what amp should I get?", "how do I get What's-His-Face's sound?", etc.

Which momentarily paralyzes me with the Old-Gregian mental intonation of "MAKE AN ASSESSMENT".  Because, I have to on the spot temper my explanation based on what I think the person I'm speaking to knows about both terminology and literal experience with sound.

Both of those things are very limiting factors.  With the visual arts, one doesn't presume it naturally easy to explain - in a sentence or two - what makes a great painting "great".

"All you need to get that Monet poppy-field effect is the application of Le Bete Personne brand alizarin crimson!".  Kind of like saying "go buy This Special Pedal and plug it in, you'd done!".   It's not that simple, and it's not that simple to communicate why it's not that simple.

 So, I'm going to pursue the metaphorical comparison of "What is Wrong With That Image?" as a stand-in for "guitar sound".

 For starters, let's say you've got a really fantastically great basic sound.  By that I mean, like with the above painting, someone can go into a room, and "there it is!" - greatness.

 With the Mona Lisa, it is said you can admire it from different locations in the room, and her eyes appear to follow you.  That's a neat thing, it also seems to manage to somehow translate through pictures as well.  Which is a bit of super-genius geometry trickery by Leo, but let's say you've magically got the equivalent guitar sound coming out of your amp.

 Fine, but of course not everyone can have the Mona Lisa hanging on their wall.  They can, however, have a rendition of it, a photograph. Just as 99.9% of every guitar sound ends up translated through the audio equivalent in the form of "a recording".

 The photographer has to decide on the perfect angle to point his camera at said painting.  One might say this is akin to a microphone.  If the angle is altered relative to the subject, distortion results.

 More fundamental is the quality of said camera.  The greatness of the painting will have a chance of being portrayed better to the end viewer if the camera lens is of an appropriate quality.  Which isn't to say just anything that is good or expensive will work.  The best wide angle lens isn't going to work great, nor is a Red video camera.  Or the most expensive microphone.

 A hidden variable here is the lighting.  The ambient light affects what is being captured by the lens.  The ambient sound of a room affects what is being captured by the mic.  Both can immediately impose their quality on the subject at hand.  Cheap light has a "look and feel" just as parallel sheet rock garage walls.  Capturing both along with the subject affects the end result.

 Then there is how said capture makes it to the "medium".  The above picture was taken with my camera phone of my computer monitor.   A digitization of a digitization.  Did you guitar signal go through a digital pedal at some point?  It doesn't matter how good your camera or microphone preamp is, that property is imposed.  "But it looks like the Mona Lisa!" most will say.  Mostly.

 The camera/mic preamp captures it to a medium, these days digital.  In both cases, maybe a lossy one in the end.  Information will be thrown away.  Before that happens, look at the above picture:
it's obviously a picture of a digital source, since you can see the mouse pointer.   A more pressing problem is the curious composition of said picture, it's crooked and unbalanced with extra negative space and information.  The portion of the image taken up by the actual painting is smaller than what is being added by the process of translating the image.

 The end sound of a recording of a guitar amp usually isn't a documentary-representation of the sound, but the guitarist has likely gone through various effects, which add non-correlated information in the form of delay or maybe reverb.  If you are evaluating the image, maybe it's not the negative space you like so much?  Maybe you don't need the delay pedal, maybe you need to make the "painting" as good as possible first?  Then, get the "balance" the same as the image you're referencing, not the wacked-out rendition pictured above?

 The camera and microphone doesn't care if you get the balance wrong.  Or the composition, the wrong angle.  But once captured, there are plenty of fun things one can do to "improve" the original image.

 The above travesty has been "improved" by the liberal application of "filters", color "correction" and "equalization".  Furthermore, "glow" has been added - a subjective modification of Mr. DaVinci's creative muse.

 When you hear a guitar recording, in addition to the capturing of the sound of the amp in the room, the recording engineer has likely added things, made adjustments.  Whether this agrees with the original is subjective.  Regardless, it affects what the end user sees/hears.

 Then there is the vintage trend, which is to say the use of old things to impart character.  The above image has the questionably cool film border surrounding it, thereby "improving" the conveyance of Mr. DaVinci's work.  Likewise, many guitar sounds are similarly "improved" by being distorted by old gear that adds harmonic information and dynamic character that wasn't there originally.

 "How do I get that guitar sound?": I have to consider does the person saying this see/hear past the above manipulation?  Maybe a person actually likes the above picture because Lisa looks like an alien, and that's what is really liked despite the original painting being fantastic.  Or the added glow.  Maybe the punk anti-Golden Rule geometrical composition?  Possibly, maybe another portrait could be substituted and the vintage film border conveys The Feels the viewer likes.

 So, do I tell them "paint the Mona Lisa first"?  Maybe the "Mona Lisa" is a vintage Marshall plexi and a '58 LesPaul through Celestion greenbacks? They only have one part.  Maybe they paint the Mona Lisa successfully.

 They go out and buy said setup, but then record it with their phone's microphone, or they add the "glow" filter in the form of smashing the recording with a brickwall limiter.  Maybe they decide to "improve" the sound by equalizing it in some haphazard fashion.  They record it in their garage, stuck in a corner, with the microphone pointed sideways 5 feet away, and "it doesn't sound like Dimebag's sound!".  In the end, they're not happy, because it doesn't sound like the recording.

 To get the audience/end use to get the best effect of "Mona Lisa" you not only have to HAVE the Mona Lisa in the first place, you also have to not mess up any part of the process in between.  If one sees a nice print of the Mona Lisa, they're not actually seeing it in a literal sense.  They're seeing it lit under near perfect conditions, probably through a multi-thousand dollar camera, to a very high resolution medium, reduced under calibrated conditions by someone experienced in making judgement calls about how to best render a reduction of said source medium to the end user's medium (the print itself).

 Buying the same amp/guitar setup is not enough.  It's also about the speakers, the room sound, the microphone, the mic preamp, the mixing board eq, the person doing the engineering.

 In this sense, amp modelling is relatively successful in the respect that just as you can't portray the exact likeness of the DaVinci painting in a reproduction, it's pretty easy/cheap to yield a conventionally-acceptable rendition.  It doesn't mean your phone's camera shot at the Louvre is literally the Mona Lisa, but these days it's a pretty good representation (provided you don't decide to go Instagram filter crazy).  Guitar amp modelling software doesn't do a good job of creating the source sound IMO, but when it comes to a quick and easy rendition - it's pretty good.

 But if you're trying to get there from the start, you've got to be able to paint the Mona Lisa in the first place.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I Can Actually Recommend This to Beginners.....

A student yesterday came in with this:

 It's a tiny little Fender-branded clip on tuner that apparently comes with Fender Squier acoustic packs.

 I am loathe to recommend tuners, because a) one should learn how to tune by ear at some juncture and b) most "electronic" tuners are massively fidgety to use for someone not familiar with the process.

 I have tentatively recommended in the past an app called "G Strings" by a Russian programmer I had some input on, that worked well but again, for the beginner is a big tricky to use.  Also the Peterson IOS/IPhone app is probably the most accurate/best I've encountered, but again - not for the beginner.

 The problem with these devices and programs is that in reality, they're too good.

 The brilliance of this little tuner is that it's pretty eager to "announce" you're at least close to being in tune.  It lights up an obvious green in that case.  The user must still understand they have to make sure it is displaying the correct note for the string they are tuning, and the meter shows low/high relative to the target note.

 But that's about all.  The problem with the Snark clip on tuners is that they may be a little more accurate, they're so flightly at the note for the most part you have to be relatively experienced to use it properly.  In addition, they flash different colors for flat, sharp, and it has (as most tuners do) a large display for the reference pitch (440), and other miscellaneous things on the display that isn't necessary for the beginner.

 The problem with the flashing of different colors is, when a beginner is in the process of tuning, their attention is focus in such a way that flashing lights are not interpreted as conveying anything other than specific information.

 This tuner does nothing aside from showing you're flat or sharp - and when you're "in tune" it does "something", it flashes green.

 Unlike every other tuner, it's not too picky about whether you are perfectly in tune.  It is quite literally a well-chosen "good enough".  This is good, because the beginner does not end up chasing their tail trying to finesse a perhaps less-than-great tuning gear for minutes at a time, and possibly getting confused in the process.

It just lights up when you're "good enough".   With this tuner a first time 2nd guitar lesson student managed to get her guitar in tune with  this in less than 2 minutes.  I'd say this is about twice as fast as normal with other electronic tuners, and I'd also say the result was better and less stressful.

One button to turn it on and off, a meter that shows you if you're flat or sharp, and the note you are trying to tune.  That's all.  I presume these are being sold separately at Fender dealers, a beginner should look for them.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Led Zeppelin Ripped off Claude Monet, and Renoir Ripped Off Spirit!

Are these the same...?

Led Zeppelin - "Stairway to Heaven" oil, 1870
Spirit - "Taurus" oil, 1868

 I USED TO TEND TO THINK in absolutes when I was younger, a sad, stereotypical thing to do.  It seemed like a possible concept when applied to art, or rather, it seemed like the American thing to do: something MUST excel over something else!


 Of course not.

 That idea shouldn't be confused with perfectionism, or OCD personality traits I may have.  It's really just the inculcation of seeking to categorize "the best" as a culture, without question.  It's something that pervades American culture, and not obvious until exposed to other culture's viewpoints. 

 "Led Zeppelin ripped off Taurus by Spirit!".   Well, maybe, sort of. 

 The recent Guns and Roses case regarding musical thievery of an Australian band, and the big payout to the Marvin Gaye estate over the Pharell/Thicke circumstance, seems to have people slavering over potential new sources of "income".  I would like to point out a difference with the Zeppelin case, despite the legal result.

 In this situation, you have two bands fronted by two prolific guitar players.  Coming from a time when they were influenced by another set of prolific guitar players.  One of which is a guy named John Renbourn.

 One can find antecedents to both songs in Renbourn's recordings; delicate oblique harmony arpeggios that sometimes use voice leading to modulate.  In the case of Stairway, the addition of flute is something of  giveaway to this, in my opinion. 

 So you have a musical theme - a chord progression - "depicted" with arpeggios at a certain tempo. 

However, you also have two really different arrangements.  Page's arrangement has a pattern of ascending, then all descending, with a reoccurring accented beat.  Additionally, there are chords added beyond the Spirit rendition, an a connecting melody. 

 This discounts the entirety of the rest of the song.  In this singular portion, it is my position that Page's depiction of said chord progression has more implicit detail that is substantially unique, added value.  As such, there are distinct ways of playing the components of the progression in such a way that it is immediately identifiable.  The Spirit song much less so - it is somewhat more ambiguous and staid.  The similarity is not in the execution or arrangement, as much as it is "a similar arpeggiated chord progression".

 As it is fairly well known in musician circles that the blues idiom, and for the most part traditional country music, is all based on the same chord progression, nobody makes an argument about similarities between two blues songs on just the progression alone, or even when combined with the same tempo, the same rhythm and even the same blend of chord extension.  It's usually the domain of the nature of the melody, or even one titular aspect that lends a song a different character than another.

 In the above two paintings, there is a common theme.  "A woman with a parasol".  On paper, similar, and if one were to make a primitive drawing of both, one could cite how one is maybe copying the other. 

But, like the blues, a great theme is not owned by either the first person who decided to use it, or who did it the best.

 In the Guns and Roses example (and the Tom Petty case), there was more involved than just the progression, there was a *confluence* of aspects relating to the whole.  The G&R song not only used the same progression/tempo, but the same arrangement, the same drum break, melody over the top.

 The Zeppelin case is different.  There is a great theme present, the descending oblique  inverted chord-modulation idea, but in Page's case there are added facets not present in the Spirit example.  Monet's Parasol is on a hill, the woman (his wife) occupies about a 1/3rd of the painting, is standing, the parasol is green, the child standing with the woman.

 All of these elements are different in Renoir's Parasol.  But look - there is a woman with a parasol, and a child!  It doesn't matter, that's just the basic elements, everything else is different. 

 If Renoir's had been standing on a hill, wind blowing, child in hand at her side, green parasol - that would be different.  This is what occurred in my opinion with the Petty case, and the G&R case.  With the Pharell situation, maybe it's more like he painted a coarse outline of a woman with an umbrella standing on a hill with some grass, and a child, and copied Monet's color palette (very closely...) and used a bunch of loose brush strokes (in a completely unoriginal way, as opposed to Renoir's unique style).  

A progression is not the same as the whole.  There are more chords in Stairway than a blues song, and as such maybe makes it seem like the line between "chord progression" and "melody" is blurrier.  The gestalt of the two songs are made up of different elements, beyond just the progression. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

University of London using Confuse-a-Cat (tm Python, Monty) algorithms to quantify a subjective popular art - MUSIC

Attention, University of London: your conclusion,

"Those who wish to make claims about how and when popular music changed can no longer appeal to anecdote, connoisseurship and theory unadorned by data. Similarly, recent work has shown that it is possible to identify discrete stylistic changes in the history of Western classical music by clustering on motifs extracted from a corpus of written scores"

.... is a non-sequiter mush-brain *opinion* that ignores the data set uses progressively iterated information (making your process void, you don't/can't subtract out this aspect), and it's generalizations are not weighted relative to each other. It contains subjectively erroneous quantification ("loud" drums = drum machines, which becomes an *aural* aspect of the late 80's, while equating disco to m7 chords, ignoring the role of the drum machine in disco, and then lumping disco into the same category as funk?).

It does show *something*, just not what you claim. The core premise is absurd: using algorithms to try to show something that is wholly based on subjective tastes, that also incorporates derivative iteration? Next up, statistics to show why Monet wasn't a big deal and Thomas Kinkade is the most important artist in history....

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Good Design and the Line6 DL-4 Delay Pedal

This isn't meant to be a sales pitch for the DL-4 (I have no affiliation with Line6), and it isn't meant to be a treatise on the transparency of the pedal or lack thereof, or the uber-quality of it's models.

 What I am going to blather about for a bit, is in the nice "rightness" of the gestalt of this pedal.

 It's not my favorite pedal, and it's not what I think is THE BEST PEDAL OF ALL TIME.  I do think as a whole it is maybe the most complete design success I can think of in a pedal.

 In this day and age of tiny pedals being the trend, the series of pedals the DL-4 comes from are of the "Honkin' Huge" proportion category.  I have no problem with that in the case of the DL-4, because effectively you have 4 separate foot switches in a space narrower than the equivalent in the Boss stomp box footprint, and only a little longer.  So as far as I'm concerned, the footprint is utilized well enough.  

 In that footprint, though, I think the space is utilized basically as good as it's going to get.  If one is of the "I don't use rack effects" philosophy, then one is in turn willing to accept compromise, and the pedal is exemplary in this manner.  Do you need more than 3 separate delay presets?  A short delay, a long, and a longer/very wet/wild card?  Tap tempo makes that as flexible as you should want IMO.   So the form factor is great, not a too-large size for more switches than is pragmatic, not so small you wish you had just one more choice.

 In this respect, I get the impression that Line6's choice to use this form factor across the entire line was maybe influenced by that basic premise...?

 The robustness of the metal housing is nice.  Might be heavier than absolutely needed, but being in the "no worry about structural integrity" category is as it should be.  What was Ibanez thinking when they made those plastic-housing pedals?  

 The housing is nice, because it places the switches at  nice height, not some bizarre crazy high altitude, and not at some weird angle.  A sufficient distance from each other.   As it should be, and the knobs are recessed, so they don't get crushed or moved when activating the switches.   As it should be.  

 The knobs are a nice size in that they're not so small you have to "measure" your turning torque to miniscule amounts.  They're basic black, with simple and clearly marked indications of where they're pointed, visible while standing over the pedal.  As it should be.  The pots have a nice feel, slightly damped giving a sense of a nicer build quality - but also just slightly more "sticky" than most,  If you accidentally touch an adjacent knob it's not going to automatically get knocked 10%+ out of adjustment.  Which is a subtle touch, because it means when you're in a hurry (like before a song starts...) you can be confident about reaching down and making a quick adjustment without fear of the "I'd better not try that because if I bump the other button I'm screwed" situation.  Again, the distance between the knobs are a nice amount.  They could have crammed on more knobs/pots, but then - the knobs would be smaller, more cramped, less live-gig situation friendly.

 Ubiquitous basic red led indicators for each button.  That's fine, but also nice to have.  Companies that put multiple buttons on their boxes with no indicators - I hate that.  "I think it's switched off...(oops, it wasn't)".  

 Now I'm going to call out Roland as a company.   Roland traditionally has put an enormous amount of functionality in their devices, but for some reason never implements the potential capability with any kind of real-world awareness, or with a seeming afterthought.  The venerable VS-880 digital multitracker comes to mind, with an extraordinary amount of functions and features - bizarrely controlled by a tiny LCD display, and haphazardly strewn and labeled buttons, conjoined with non-intuitive functions accessed with arcane combinations of steps.  This seems par for the course for Roland, their drum modules, rack mounted effects devices, keyboards, and where they cross into Boss' more elaborate pedal line.  For some reason the Boss DD20 Gigadelay comes to mind...

 Line6 took a refreshing approach in not to trying to "double up" the functions of knobs.  You have your basic model choice set on the first knob on the left (the function and signal flow knob-wise goes from left to right - AS IT SHOULD BE - that's how you're reading this, right?).  All the other knobs provide functions specific to the model selected, nothing more.

 I think they invented something in the "morphing" function range of a knob, in that instead of having to press a switch for something different to happen, the decision has been made to have that happen at a certain point on the knob.

 This can be a catastrophe.  A lot of new pedals try to do this and fail miserably in my opinion (the Eventide TimeFactor comes to mind).   This is where the pedal shines again: the designers made all of the right decisions as to the variability of the functions of each knob.  The mature decision to just have a pair of knobs - "tweek" and "tweez" - to handle the variability of the idiomatic features of each model is brilliant.

 The choices show that there was input from people that actually play guitar.  What do you want in a ping-pong delay?  Delay difference and stereo spread.  Tube echo - distortion, wow and flutter of course.  Multi-head, sweep delay - each of the models make bold decisions on what you need to adjust, and they're the right decisions.  I'm glad they didn't cram an extra knob on it just to have a tone control on every model, or to have a modulation function on all models.  That "let's anticipate the lowest-common denominator choice", or rather "it seems like it should have this knob, maybe?" approach not being present is again - as it should be.

 The quality of the models I could say could be improved - maybe.  But being delay, I would say that it doesn't matter in a guitar amp setting - in general you are blending the delay signal in at less than a 20% level, and by default the nature of it is typically bandwidth limited anyhow.  The flipside is that I think the character of the idiomatic aspects of the what each model intends to be is captured very well.   Is it an absolute perfect Echoplex simulation?  Maybe not, but then how many Echoplexes sound exactly the same, and how practical would it be for you to substitute the DL-4 with a real one, or Fuller's version, and then do the same with at least 2 other "authentic" delays you would be replicating with the DL-4?   In my opinion as a time-domain solution the pragmatism of the DL-4 can't be beat.

 It's not transparent.  Not an issue with a parallel loop.   Don't have a parallel loop?  Then your set up is most likely of a different philosophy than one that is being asked to do more than one thing perfectly.  I'm not Joe Perry or the Edge, I can't afford to just buy a discrete signal chain for every sound I might want.

 The choice to set it to true bypass or not via a boot-up procedure is a nice addition, but something of a non-sequiter decision to make, for the above mentioned philosophical reasons.  The requirement for that to be in the pedal is an obvious thing, and their choice to implement it this way is again an intelligent compromise.

 I only have one quibble, which is specific to me and what I do.  I wish it did a 4+ discretely modulated multitap for volume swells.  If it did this it would without a doubt be "my favorite pedal".  As such I still require the arcane and obfuscated, now antiquated Yamaha Magic Stomp II; a Big Honkin' Pedal that I really use for just one thing.  I can't even program it without USB and a computer capable of Windows 98 compatibility.  Great.  

 From a grab-and-go standpoint, it is of what I call "second order importance".   I don't have to use it to do a gig, but if I'm going to have something other than an amp with gain, that is the next thing I grab.  Beyond that there is the Magic Stomp, Univibe, various gain pedals, whatever.... but in one pedal the DL-4 offers more creative, *pragmatic* potential than anything else in one box.