Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald -

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Music is a LANGUAGE; theory is SCIENCE!

 Music is a language, theory is science. Seems very simple to me, but in reality the misuse of syntax has put a pox on becoming a musician historically.  I'm a heretic, but I can explain myself.

 In my experience as a guitar teacher most people consider "music theory" to be something like a set of rules.  Alternatively, a set of instructions.

 This is partially true, but ONLY within one context:

 To become a classical music composer in the historical style of Bach.

  More specifically, I'd say it's an obtuse scripting language that yields "classical music" when a data set is applied. Another way of putting is, your whim is the data set and if you follow the ascribed rules and instructions, the output will be classical music. Which is fine, if you live in the 1700's, perhaps in Austria.  Some people virtually do, and have a wardrobe of frilly shirts to show for it.

 Sorry to digress into Viking metal.

 People I teach view the intellectual side of learning music to be something they can digest in a month or two, maybe even a few weeks.

 Would they think the same about learning Spanish?  Chinese?

 You're learning labels for subjective human musical experience. 

 Grammar doesn't inform you as to what to say.  It doesn't tell you how to describe what a flower looks like.  You have to have something to say.  Theoretically you don't need to know it, but you'll be limited in communicating.

 You don't have to follow grammar (obviously in the 21st century...).  Grammar allows you to communicate in a traditionally acceptable format.  When you decide to break from grammar, you tend to fall into idiomatic styles.

 You also are subject to being inadvertently comical.
  Music as a language is no different.  Music "grammar", when ignored means chances are you'll end up playing in an idiomatic style, and you'll also possibly risk being a cliche.

 Ignore it and you mind end up whimsically playing circus music passages, out of tune, or out of key.  Comical.

 Learning music as a language..... 

is a more appropriate description of what a person does when deciding to pick up an instrument than "reading the instruction manual" or "going over the rules".  I know a lot of people view it as something akin to math.  I also can hear a lot of people doing it as a math process.

   There are grammar, vocabulary, and literature aspects to it. 

How you form a sentence (melody).  What style of phrasing (vocabulary).  What stylistic antecedents you draw from (literature).

   You can watch a video that tells you that "dogs don't drive cars" in order to not know that "Bob the Labrador drove his Tesla to Kroger" is probably not a sensible sentence.  It's not a practical way of learning how to communicate, unless you want to be deliberately comical.  Yet, this is how many/most people think or expects the process of making music to work.  "Thou shalt not play parallel 5ths" is an adage in classical music, yet you'd be hard pressed to write a rock and roll song treating that as a rule or instruction.  

 Instead you use your "literary" experience, what you have listened to and love, as a filter for what you create.  Non-metaphysically you're using your subconscious awareness, the parallel processing ability of a human mind, to effectively handle the math behind the scenes.  That doesn't mean the process isn't super technical, maybe the most technical process humans do; but it is empirical observation that each human makes through experience being utilized that creates good music, not algorithms. 
 That an algorithm can make a result that sounds like music, does not consequently mean that is how all music or arbitrarily good music is made.  Human subjectivity trounces that approach, despite being abstruse and indeterminate.
 Learn music as a language, not a science.  This is maybe the most important difference among musicians in my opinion.  This should not be construed as simply some homily like "play from your soul, man" or some such; it is a very self-introspective awareness of how one does the process.

..... Learn music as a language, not a science.




Saturday, October 7, 2017

Ernie Ball Paradigm Strings - Will They Last?

 I'm trying a second set of the new Ernie Ball Paradigm strings, 9-42/Super Slinky.

Can't wait to hear someone refer to these as "Par-uh-dig-em"

 These are going on my main "at home" guitar, a Floyd bridge equipped Warmoth kit guitar with stainless 6100 frets.

 My first set I put on my main guitar at work/guitar lessons, and the B popped while tuning up.  Not a good sign, but that was about a month ago and I've been impressed by how not "old" they are by this time.

 Usually for me 3 weeks in I've got to change strings.  Intonation has gone beyond spotty (more than +/- 4 cents on the the treble strings), and tonally they're going to be dead and pitch unstable.

 The pitch unstable bit is what I'm hopeful about with these new strings.  It's not so much  that they don't sound dull, but they are still very pitch stable, the note doesn't do something wonky, there is no out of tune vibrato effect.

 They don't feel coated, and perhaps may sound less peaky in the treble than "normal" strings but that's welcome as well.  I'm not sure what they're doing, if it's some sort of bi-layer graphene fermion Kool-Aid coating, or a super-magical ancient Nihongo samurai sword ally, but I'm going to try to quench my need to know and just get on with things.

 My home guitar shares duties with my custom Suhr, so it doesn't get as much physical use as my work guitar, but what I'm interested in seeing is if they can stay on the guitar 60+ days and not get corroded/pitch sketchy.

 So I'll try to remember to revisit my blog 90 days from now -  December 16th-ish?  And try to give an assessment/review then. I'm feeling pretty good about them, but we'll see.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Precipice Vertigo Accomodation and Music

   I hate analogies except when I'm pondering them. Sorry.

 There may be a French word for the concept I'm about to present, I don't know.  When a person takes on a new challenge, in some cases before the person makes the decision to "jump" they may find themselves in a moment of cognitive dissonance.  They're mentally confronting for the first time embracing the scale of what they're about to do.

 What's interesting to me about this is how radically different humans treat circumstances that are similar, what they seem to tell themselves, and how they prepare.  In the case of music, there are ample "precipices" one can encounter.  The decision to try to learn a new genre; the decision to learn all of the music of a particular artist; the decision to learn a new technique; the decision to join a band; the decision to learn a new instrument, etc.

 I have been producing a student's solo project for the past few months.  For him, it was one of those precipice moments to take on the idea to do such a thing initially; as a learning experience I think it's been very potent, as his ability to approach making a song as become much more facile and efficient. 

 Now it's time for him to start thinking about the final product, and the idea of mixing down the work.  So he goes,

 "What is mixing?"

 He's on the precipice of deciding to do the mixing himself, or "another option".  He's not sure what's over the edge of the cliff, but he's peering over it to assess. 

 Which is wise, given the time he's invested so far.  On the other hand, weighing what there is to learn has to be taken in as well. 

 I'm contrasting that with another student.  The other student wants to eventually become a "singer-songwriter/performer" guitar player in a Certain Large Music Town. 

 This student's gung-ho attitude serves him well, he is charging into battle.  I'm not sure if he realizes the sheer scale of the battle he's joining.  The skill set required is greater than I believe he sees at the moment, so his approach is going to be fraught with moments of frustration when obstacles become evident.  Obstacles that were always there and visible, but inseen for the moment.

 The question is, does he maintain his course at each one of these obstacles, or does the gung-ho attitude dissipate?

 Does the first student look over the cliff, and decide "nope"?

What I've learned myself, is that in both instances I have to let them both "free wheel".  Which is to say, coast under their own momentum into whatever it is.


 People are people.

 I've learned that  there isn't a one-size-fits-all way of "teaching" or "learning".  There are some general categories (as posited above), but you can't force a strategy on someone when it's conceptually against the grain of who they are. 

 It just doesn't work.

 It makes me mad, because I know now, fully, just how corrupted and wrong the U.S. education system is, and how much the world could be better with just a little bit of optimizing.  Many problems in our society are the result of people that were "misfit" for the public education system, not of their own fault.  It's both wasteful and inefficient that this goes on.

 I think most people would agree with me on the following anecdotes:

 We all know someone from grade school that had no problem studying 24/7 and made perfect grades.

 We all know someone that didn't have to study at all, that still got by (... ahem..).

 We all know someone that was smart, but out of control in a classroom.

 We all know someone that wasn't particularly smart, but did seemingly quite well.

 We all know someone was too busy trying to get other's attention to do well. 

 We all know someone who wasn't particularly smart, except they could game the system.
 ... and so on.

  Within each of the above frameworks, these archetypes stand out because of the forced process of the "30 person per 6 classes period" generic system.  It's only optimal for one of the above students, obviously.  From my experience, that would be literally one person out of 1,000. 
Everyone else is a misfit to some degree. Meaning, the reader of this.  In a perfect work there would be schools tailored to each mindset; or a more flexible system from the outset.

 From a music standpoint, I try to teach within the mindset of the student.  I can't go about things with the first student above as the second.  I don't expect it to work that way, because it simply doesn't. 

  The flip side to this (I write about this in my book to a degree) is that people should know, as a human being, the "how" of how they themselves learn.  I've seen big mismatches, and it's to their detriment.  This is a concept I wish I had learned when I was a child, because from my point of view I wasted a lot of  time "not learning" when I could have been learning.  It wasn't my fault because I was bored, but because the process itself had zero to do with the way I learn.

 If for no other reason than to discover this principle I'd suggest "take guitar lessons" until you understand what I'm writing about.  I think it could probably be life changing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Famous Record by an Ultra Famous Band (Remix): Observations

 (This is the expurgated version.  I was hoping I would like the rest of the remix of this Famous Album as much as I liked the sound of the first song I heard, so I though "hey, I can write a positive observational run down of this".  Unfortunately it turned out not as positive as I had hoped, so it's now up to You, Intangible Reader, to figure out what group and album I'm referencing. 

  Which record it is should be pretty easy to identify, despite renaming said persons involved. )

 I'm going to listen to the Martin Brundle remix version of Famous Album (Special Edition) for the first time as I write this.

 SONG 1: "Eponymous"

 Immediately I notice the "Famous Album's harmonic coloration" as I think of it missing, just on the crowd noises on the intro.

 That's pretty profound right there.  One of my earliest memories is of playing _Psychedelic Cool Key Changing Progression Song_ on a 45 found on the floor of the garage, on an ancient record player also in said garage. It's a curious memory, because my parents did not listen to pop music of the time (they were somewhat throwbacks, caught in between being Boomers and the Greatest Generation).  I was probably around 4 or 5 (yes, I was very precocious) and it would have been exactly that many years since the record was made.

 What I remember, even now from then, was the narrow bandwidth.  How "small" and specifically distant all of the sounds were.  The crackly, primitive record itself added to this effect.  Combined with the music itself, it yielded something I perceived at the time as "spooky", actually.  I don't think ghosts should have full bandwidth voices.

 The "smallness" of the sounds I've always equated to that album, and in a sense "that era of the Ultra Famous Music Group".  I attribute that effect to bouncing 4 track recordings, that wasn't done on this project.  As holy as tape saturation has been elevated to these days, I think this is going to be a flag for NOT having tape saturation/harmonic distortion.

SORRY FOR THE DETOUR.... back to our regularly scheduled program.

SONG 1 "Eponymous"

 Woah, drastic bass guitar extension!  Almost comes off like modern metal guitar effect.

 Much more clarity!  I would say that the "spooky, mysterious" coloration is completely gone.  I prefer that, but at the same time I would same that specific effect is part of the record's history.  I'll have to (and will) mull over that later.

 (Having to back it up a few times... very interesting!!!!)

 I like Brundle's conservative eq decisions.  The staccatto guitar is much nicer sounding, not just over the top ice-picky.  Nice toms, much more depth and weight.

 Hmm... vocal compression yields "this is a modern "transparent" compressor" vibe, almost too slick and controlled.  Sounds like maybe eq compression. But very well done.

 Chorus sounds like more "transparent" compression but now on the mix bus, low end shuts down in favor of level. Mid/side going on I believe. Hmm.  I do like the how loud the guitars are.

 If feels like bass is being left out of the right channel, save below maybe 98hz?  Interesting and bold.

SONG 2 "Locating Assistance from My Compatriots"

  Ah, now the bass is in the center>right channel.

 Interesting tom attack.  Mix bus compression has a nice rhythmically slow release time.  I wish it'd had a bit less ratio.  Overall - in all of the new crazy "remastered" releases I wish they'd use digital dynamic range for LESS compression.  They never do, though.  I know this is not the same thing, but, I would like to have heard the front end of the snare more, and the vocals a bit less clamped.  Regardless, it's nicely done, it's not "crushed" like a lot of "modern" recordings are.

 Interesting, I do miss "small" tape distortion harmonic color on the "do you need anybody" part.  The BV's need to be distant sounding to invoke the "this is the mind asking the question" effect.  Sorry, I know that seems crazy, I'm an artist, not a scientician.

 Also occurs to me it's drier, from less hard compression?  Tape distortion on reverb is now a concept to me because of this.  "That" sound is "old, 60's" to me.  It also makes reverb an effect, instead of a "natural part" of the sound.  $.10.  Yeah, I want to hear more reverb tail on the BVs.  And I'm also missing the tape distortion sound on the reverb, but it still sounds nice.

 Hmm.  Timing.  "....anyboDY......" - the reverb tail is part of the rhythm IMO.  Whether it was compression serendipity or not I don't know.

SONG 3: "Psychedelic Cool Key Changing Progression Song"

I don't like the speed of the panning on the Lowrey organ. It's distracting and fast, I'd prefer languid, less drastic, and a polyrhythm 4 against 3 timing.  "Chip, you're too critical!".  I know.  Sorry.

 Groucho's vocal needs flange or Leslie IMO.

Fascinating!  I think I can hear the sound of the vocal booth, or the gobos.  That early reflection sound was buried previously, much more low mid now again, bounced-generation loss did curious things. This is the kind of thing I'd hoped to be able to hear!

  Philosophy.  The new mix is much more "this is a rock band" than "this is a piece of art" IMO.  This is maybe my personal history with the song coming to bear on the subject, but the essence of this song is mystery, psychedelia - NOT normal experience.  It sounds great, but it doesn't sound like I'd want it.  $.10.  The chorus like this, as a contrast to a more effected/colored verse would probably have been my choice.

 I really miss the generation-loss reverb sound on the bent-note guitar hook on the verses.  It really yields the psychological impression of "far away".  Seems too dry.  

 Hmm.  Compression made Son of Horse Carriage's bass notes sustain into the & of the quarters, now it doesn't quite make it.  That's annoying. Compression attack clamping on the chorus; I would have preferred the 1/8th notes to poke out more.  Mix bus clamping as well, but not too much.

 Sounds great, but not the effect I'd want for the song.

SONG 4: "Abstracted Object's Improvement Over Nominal"

 Wow, bold guitar level.

 Bass clamped but loud. Interesting, almost over eq'ed narrowly right before "get no worse".  A bit too much, distracting, I'd want less level + wider q.

 Vocal doubling effect a bit thin.

 I love that so far the guitar parts really jump out, and are very transparent.  I also love that the lack of coloration is really drastic - some other weird coloration hasn't been substituted, which is what a lot of people do for "vintage, retro" effect.

 I like the lack of distortion on the vocal during the choruses.

SONG 5: "Repairing the Unwanted Absence of Substantiality" 

 AH, interesting.  Son of Horse Carriage's vocal has a bit of the "Famous Album coloration" on it.  Thinking about it, it's very drastic on the original.  Brundle, or someone, must have noticed it missing - as I have in places above.  This was their line in the sand.  I wish that where I noticed it missing it had been treated like his vocal here.  Or maybe it had been bounced this way on the original and they had no choice?

 Ironically the guitar hooks on the verse don't jump out as much, particularly given the intro.  Hmm.

 Hah, you can hear Flicka's pedal squeak now and then.

Loud BVs.  Sparser blend?  I like the mastering eq.

SONG 6: "Female's Nascent Departure Imminent"

 The clean/uncolored sound should work good on this.

 Yeah, it does.

  Missing the colored-reverb on the response parts of the call/response, again for the above artistic reasons; the voices are supposed to be memory, distant, not "here".  To restrained reverb.

 Lead vocal eq sounds almost perfect IMO. Delicate high end.  I want less compression, but oh well.

SONG 7: "Existence Is Conducive for the Wind Bearing Person's Wellness" 

 Most LCR mix so far?  Kinda clamped down 2 mix.  The "oompah-tuba" bass should poke out more.

 The trippy middle needs to sound more surreal IMO.  Hah, the piano sounds very harmonically colored.

  Again, a very nice "band performance" mix, but not as "psychedelic-carnival".  It sounds great, it's a great mix, but it's not philosophically integrated IMO.

SONG 8: "Inside Objective Pronoun While Lacking Possession" 

 Sounds great on the beginning.  Panning.

 Tabla sounds great.  I'd like more finger noise/slower compression attack.

 Hmm. Is this compression going to tape?  It sounds more dialed into to Harrison, as if the others had these parameters but were being hit too hard.

 Indian instruments sound great.  In fact, it's amazing they got this S/N to tape back then, I wonder if plug-in noise reduction was used on this?

SONG 9: "Future Subjectivity of Existence During Second Half of Life" 

 Again, the sparse band/ensemble arrangement is favored.

 I'm also again missing the coloration on the BVs.  Also maybe some bass length elongation by compression.

 While I'm thinking about it this is also the inspiration for Queen's _Seaside Rendevous_,  if it hasn't been thought of previously.

SONG 10: "Visibly or Metaphorically Attractive Italian Monikered Indicator Reader"

 Hmm. Missing compression/forward vocal.  Little white bOOK seems different?

 Slap on BV seems too subdued.

 Distortion on hats still, curious.

 Mix eq making shakers high end collide with hats?  Crunchy high end.  I would have liked some more bass guitar definition on the end bit.

SONG 11: "Better Than Nominal Post-Night Time of Day"

 So far on the beginning the most "integrated" mix.  Still missing slower release on the vocal, which was sort of off time on the original but made the end of lines jump out in a "Famous Album's" way I think.

 Highs colliding on the lead guitar; more clarity on the guitar means less low treble bring it forward.  It still sounds "small", but with less character.

 My dog still finds it entertaining.

 SONG 12: "Eponymous Redux"

 You can really hear the churn on the shaker. Drums farther back.

 Lack of the original compression makes the overall presentation less raucous.  On the other hand all of the bass parts are upfront.  Audience sounds farther back.

SONG 13: "A Singular Selection of Solar Illuminated Hours For Abstracted Person"

 One of my favorite songs, one of the best written IMO.

 Fade in different? Guitar too far back, compression release not bringing in the guitar after each vocal line. Bass notes short, and the compression has changed the emphasis on notes; "I just had to laugh", bass seems a little alone. 2 mix release seems way too slow, the bass was ducked massively on  "had", doesn't return.  Makes me think my memory of the (perfect) bass line is that the fader was rode to keep the high notes,

... hmm.

"out in a car", bass level really drops.  Now, I think the *RMS* level isn't fluctuating as much, or rather there is frequency dependent/crossover compression killing the bass.  "Crowd of people" it drops down..

 I find this highly distracting and not in keeping with the nature of the song.

 Yeah, the guitar gets really thin.

 I like the vocal eq again.  But I haven't noticed it much, because the bass guitar keeps going up and down.


  The count is farther back.  Orchestra blend seems different, horns forward?

 Son of Horse Carriage section: the original compression swung with the music.  Huh.

 Groucho's "ahhs".. volume clamped through mids.

 Well, I'm going to stop there, (wow, bass goes away, piano, bass... ) (build up is already full volume before the half way point?).  Nice C major piano ending, that's better.. LONGER, that's superb, love the fade, that almost makes up for things!

 I'd like the end on a separate track.

 Thing is, that was a hard thing to do: one of the top 10 all time classic recordings.  I didn't hate it like I thought I would (save maybe Song 13).  The clarity is wonderful.  I wish I could have been more positive, in fact now I'm thinking I need to re-title this and remove names.  Ahrgh.


 My thinking now is that serendipity, the Matrix, or whatever, intervened on the original mix.  The overly aggressive compression on the original, the more brash equalization in the low treble, and the distortion all fit the "wild carnival" vibe.  Both of the original mixes sounded more aggressive in approach, whereas this version sounds very refined.  "Refined" is maybe not the way I would have described "Famous Album".

 It's very well done, but with a different philosophy.  Because I actually found the tape distortion coloration annoying on the original, I do prefer listening to this version; but it's not definitive.

 While I know all of that sounds negative, it's in that context. I think Brundle's approach would be fantastic for the records _Manual Radially Loaded Hangun_ and _Vulcanized Intangible Essence of Person's Id_.  I would love that to happen.

 Conversely, I think a less reverent, aggressive approach would suit remixing it again.  The first person(s) that come to mind are Trent Reznor and Flood.

  I like the idea of remixing classics like this, it's fabulously interesting and revealing - in the early 2000's on an online forum I tossed this notion across the plate of a pair of Grammy Award winning audio engineers (this was before Napster/MP3s) but it was suggested to me that "that will never happen!". 

  I think this is going to happen again, it's a great way to get more mileage out of classic catalogs.  I hate all of the "digitally remastered" editions that really mean "we compressed it more and added a lot of high end, and maybe some distortion to boot".  In that sense Brundle is to be commended.  He didn't "crush it" as is the trend today.

   In fact, I would say in some respects what I didn't care for is the result of being too conservative with compression as a creative tool out of fear for getting labeled a Tool of the Volume Wars.  Some things I wanted to hear pump, while others escape the ADSR of "overly careful" compression.  Very tasteful eq overall, but again at the same time maybe some things I wanted to hear poke out some in certain bands.

 The biggest let down is that the production distracted me from noticing the musical revealing bits.  I noticed you could hear lead ins, different little nuance either buried in the mix or deliberately hidden on the original, but I was distracted by the "carefulness".

  Sorry for being overly critical.  If it had been _Manual Radially Loaded Handgun_ I probably would have loved this approach!  Ahrghh...

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Roasting Isn't Just For Peanuts

 I'm sold.

 I recently put together yet another kit guitar, this time based on a Warmoth roasted 1 piece maple neck.

 I wasn't expecting much of a difference; the difference gained was actually more drastic than I expected, and in a way I didn't expect. As one can see in the picture, it has a slightly burned appearance relative to normal maple:

Warmoth one piece roasted maple neck, stainless frets

 Even more curious was it had a smell!  Not overtly offensive, but it was almost humorous how there was a "hint of char" present while opening the box. It was almost alarming, because during one's entire life you are used to associating that smell with "something bad has happened". The scent is gone now, a few weeks later.  I could see Warmoth deciding to try to eliminate that one day, but I'd suggest they don't because it lends a certain charm to the experience of knowing "this has been prepared in a certain manner".

 I'm having a bite right now because at my office right now, that guitar is still sustaining.  It's almost weird how long chords sustain on it, it almost behaves like a perfect compressor releasing.  It seems like what I expect from a vintage Les Paul (back when such a thing was around), very even attack and decay on each string.  With the bonus of still having a Strat tonal balance, in my case with a vintage style bridge/bent steel saddles.

 This is what a great "vintage", old guitar does.  I've never been super impressed with the vintage guitar craze, having played only a few vintage Strats that have impressed me.  When they have, though, it's been in this manner.  You can feel the neck resonate, and it doesn't seem to be dampening vibration but enhancing in a self-resonate manner.  The taper of the decay of the vibration in the neck is lengthier than "normal".

 This sensation, combined with the crazy sustain, makes me want to roast all of the necks on all of the guitars I have, as well as the bodies.  I'm not sure if I'm joking or not, time will tell.

 Bottom line is, you don't get a different sound per se, but more sound as it decays.  The anti-banjo dead-guitar effect, which I like immensely.  YMMV.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Guitar Isn't Dead, the Music Manufacturers Goofed

 I had an epiphany on the now tired fake-news Washington Post "Electric Guitar is Dead" a moment ago.  An angle I don't think anyone has thought of or noticed. 

 Music manufacturers have goofed up.

 "Music retail", like most things in 'Murica, is a bit of a capitalistic lie.  Entrepreneurs don't get to actually compete on a level playing field; the "field" has always been mini-monopolies.

 Even before the Guitar Center holocaust music retail was based on protected dealer regions.  In order for a store to carry a line of instruments, they had to "get" the dealership by buying an enormous quantity, or agreeing to do so, provided no other store "in the area" had not already captured it.

 This favored the manufacturers of course, they wanted it this way.  The funny thing is that while it probably seemed safe to them, they had guaranteed orders every year, it also meant dealers were not incentivized to sell mass quantities.  There were pluses and minuses to this scheme. 

 During music retail's idealized peak, you had a number of healthy music stores in most 3rd tier cities.   The larger stores could discount more in general, the smaller stores could dare to cut prices more.  This provided the illusion that "capitalism" was going on, while big manufacturers were selling micro-monopolies. 

 Which was fine, at least there was an industry, people were employed, products made and sold.

 Then the retail holocaust happened.

 I was amazed the FTC didn't step in and stop it.  By the time I had convinced the owner of the music store I worked at that internet retail was the future, it was probably already too late.  Big manufacturers had already made their agreements with Guitar Center/Musician's Friend; you couldn't advertise prices online, you couldn't sell outside your region.

 But GC/MF could.

 I instantly knew what the end game of this was going to be, and surely I wasn't the only one.  Here we are, decades later, and local music stores try to hang on in the face of the Empire. 


 As I mentioned above, you had healthy music retail in 3rd tier cities.  Not struggling to survive 2nd tier retail, but established, employing a good amount, 'Murican dream independent stores. 

 Now, while I'm sure most people in the music manufacturing industry would say "well, of course all of that is gone now because of Guitar Center sucking out their business - the gross sales are the same", I think they're missing a very big element.

 I would liken 2nd tier music retail now to the way 3rd tier stores operated in the 80's, 90's.  They can sort of afford to carry a few lines, a bargain-one brand for everything (Peavey or Behringer).  For the healthier stores, they can maybe carry a "boutique" line, partially; Mesa Boogie or maybe DW, the minimum order. Which they'll now sit on for more than one sales cycle.

 Here's the relevance: back then, in a 3rd tier city, a person could travel 30 minutes to the 2nd tier city, and probably have access to being able to try out effectively "everything".

  Music manufacturers didn't have the Mart of Wal GC/MF outlet to sell the bulk of their production.  They had to spread it around to all of the different stores. 

  So there is a new problem.  This just occurred to me, because a student of mine asked me about a new amp that has come out recently that has an extreme amount of hype.  I told him I haven't tried it so I don't really know first hand what it sounded like.

I had attempted to try it at a Guitar Center in D.C..  They not only didn't have it, the floor model of another amp I tried out along similar lines was missing the power cable.  The employees didn't know or care where it was; in turn the GC appears to be going out of business.

 In my own town upon putting my local zip code in the "Find a Dealer" field on a number of music manufacturer's web sites, my suspicions are confirmed that in order to try said amp out one will probably have to take a day to drive to a 1st tier city.  Same goes for the other 2 or 3 competitor's products. 

 In the case of my student, he's even less motivated than I am to research first hand said product.  Effectively it's invisible.  Yes, there are dozens of YouTube review videos, and he can of course order said product from Guitar Center.

 But he's not, he's hanging onto his money.  Any chance of a sales pitch, in person excitement, hands-on sales experience is gone.  Because, the Faustian bargain has made it so.  The music manufacturing industry has decided to throw away 2nd and 3rd tier brick and mortar markets. 

 Sure, it still sort of exists.  But not likely it used to.  They've injected an entropy into the whole business of "music" with this scheme - which isn't helped by the "music is free!" MP3 phenomenon. 

 I get that manufacturers are not going to rebel against the Evil Empire.  It's really the government's fault for not stepping in when it was happening as a regulatory agency.  It's done. My point is that the dilution of the sales environment doesn't not automatically get taken up by online sales; and the resulting loss of in person sales in these 2nd and 3rd tier regions means you risk de-enervating the whole thing.  It could be that in the long run, just as music production has shown it doesn't need large studios anymore, it may not need large manufacturers anymore.

 It's a lot easier to sell something to someone when they're holding it in their hands. 


Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Comment to a Tim Pierce/Pete Thorn Video

 I found myself ranting a bit in a comment to a Tim Pierce / Pete Thorn YouTube video ("Tim and Pete's Guitar Show, highly recommended) on the now old subject of the highly successful Washington Post's fake news click bait campaign against guitar.  It went something like this....:

 I've been teaching guitar for... decades now, and last year was my best year by far.

1) Population continues to increase.

2) Availability of potential exposure to great music is better than ever.

3) "Rock music" has crested the "dad music" wave and is now in a *new* realm; NOT CYCLICAL, but a new era that perhaps could be compared to the progression of indo-European classical music from the beginnings of polyphony - a span of over 10 centuries.

4) Sorry retailers, electric guitars don't evaporate but get re-sold, inherited and given away.

5) Purveyors of academic institutionalized rubric called "marketing execs" and "business professionals" wrecked the romanticism and mystery of music and music retail in the 90's by their Dunning-Kruger afflicted influence. Music retail was a crazy, beautiful thing until then, laid waste by GC/MF/internet. This may change, hopefully, back to a more grungy, mysterious and hidden, rambunctious and bohemian expanse.

6) Millenials tend towards being very accepting of their fate. The cliche of rebellious youth no longer exists. The impetus to do music has changed. We are just now exiting a period of creative flailing based on the baseness of people thinking extremes - who can be faster, slower, more detuned, more evil, more fey, most retro, most post modern, etc.. This was a Gen-X reflex to existential anxiety coupled to requiring everything to be "a career decision". Jimi Hendrix wasn't thinking about "career decisions".

7) The 60's were the American Artistic Renaissance. Appreciation for detail, subtlety in art was never higher. That has been lost post-Cold War. In turn learning to appreciate art/music is a new thing for people in the 21st century. Some people in their 30's-40's may be experiencing a realization of music akin to what "most" kids in their pre-teens felt in the 70's. Which could potentially put us 10-15 years away from things "re-normalizing".

8) Commercialization of music is also cresting a wave. Where there was a time when that meant trying to advertise what was good as well as possible, it moved towards the notion that advertising alone was all that was needed, to now where in my opinion what is left of the "industry" is going through autonomic motions. Some see reality through the false perspective of Apple Music sales. Others through Spotify plays, still others through aggregated plays, Youtube hits, a diffuse numerical representation of what they think consumers are thinking. Instead of looking around, talking to people, investigating first hand and MAKING A DECISION WITHOUT STATISTICS.

(I stopped at this point and posted here - it was about to become my previous blog post on said subject!)

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Fake News: Reports of Electric Guitar's Death 

Greatly Exaggerated! 

My "vintage" 1982 Japanese Strat

 A "story" that is making the rounds in industry podcasts, blogs, videocasts is that "guitar is dying" or some variation therein.


 This can be traced to a story found in the Washington Post, that purports "The death of the electric guitar" (and guitar in general it would seem), based on a couple of anecdotes.

 From the outset I'd like the reader to know that for me, a person who has been teaching guitar 5 days a week for more than 30 years, last year and this year have been the best years I've had - ever.  From my viewpoint, playing guitar has transitioned into the activity that has supplanted the tradition of learning piano as a way of expanding a person's intellectual horizons.  We are now in the era where a considerable portion of parents may play guitar themselves, and see the benefit of their child learning, where previously the process revolved around piano.

 This is very relevant.  The WaPo article uses the position of guitar sales as a harbinger for the "death of electric guitar", which is completely misleading: the "story" is maybe - maybe - a bubble bursting in the sales of guitars.  Which is a wholly different thing.

1) Guitars don't evaporate!

 Ironically, the author had written another story previously wherein he described the process of discovering and liking an old guitar that an uncle had. 

 The WaPo article cites George Gruhn (of Gruhn Guitar's fame, vintage guitar dealer in Nashville) lamenting sales figures being down (while production being up).  The problem with this is ignoring a basic premise:

 Guitars are not a consumable.

 They don't go away.  The sales figures across a year doesn't tell you anything at all about how many guitar there are in circulation with the general public.

 The figure I want to see is, "what is the total amount of electric guitars that has been sold since 1957, versus the population?".   Because in reality, a lot of people today (and in the recent past) start out not on a new guitar, but a hand-me-down. Of which there is an ever increasing supply.

 2) Entry level guitars can now be "intermediate" guitars.

 In the past 5 years, the basic, beginner $150 guitar has risen in quality to a level that in all honesty, I could easily get by with at a gig.  Tuners work good, action/playability is good, craftsmanship is pretty good, sound is ok. 75% pro acceptable.

 That wasn't the case previously.  It probably wasn't until the late 80's that a $150 became "passable" as even being playable.  Bad frets, wood, machining, construction, tuners that didn't work.

 Japan got their act together, and basically blitzed the under $500 guitar market.  Fender and Gibson dropped the ball.  Their fault.

 Now we have "Fender" guitars made outside the country, hyper cheaply, and with good quality.

 The point to this is that starting with the Japanese era in the late 80's, a Large Proverbial Tonnage of Pretty Good Guitars was sold at a low cost.  As a point of fact, one of my personal favorite guitars is a "Fender Strat" made in the Fujigen Gakki factory in Japan in 1982. It was a $150 guitar back then, and I bought it from a student in the 90's for about the same.  It was made of the same, or equal quality as what Fender was making with their "American" guitars at the time, a great value.

 Quite Decent Cheap Guitars are now supplanting what was previously a period in the first year or so of a novice guitar player's life where there was a necessity to step up to a better instrument.   That is no longer the case in general in my experience.

3) Value added past a certain point is subjective.

 As mentioned previously, American manufacturers were slow to respond to Japanese imports.  By the time they tried to respond, they had also decided to try to create the illusion that their branding held a certain cachet beyond what they had traditionally made: the basic Fender Stratocaster, or the Gibson Les Paul.

 Both instruments were considered the "fine, professional choices" one made as a mature musician.

 The problem is that as Japan became more competitive, both Fender and Gibson reacted by raising their prices, relying on their traditional perception of the only "nice" or "valuable" instruments. The question should be raised that, do the parts on the $1,000 Stratocaster cost $850 more than the $150 Squier (budget line) Strat?  Is Gibson unable to make a Les Paul model for no less than $2,000 more than their budget line Epiphone $450 Les Paul guitar?  Both examples are effectively, mechanically and electrically, the same guitar.  Much more than just a doubling of price, meanwhile Japan/Ibanez makes guitars in the $500 price range every bit as well made as the premium Fender or Gibson instrument.  Where is the added price coming from?
 In some cases artisan crafting, in their Custom Shop models.  You can put a value on that as you wish, but it's a subjective thing.  You can wish everyone that grows tired of their $150 guitar is going to spend well past the $1,000 mark for their next guitar, but that's not reality.

 In effect, sales are down for the "traditional" models by the "traditional" brands.  As far as I know fine guitar builders like John Suhr and Tom Anderson still have waiting lists?  Maybe the world doesn't need a $5,000 Jeff Gordon model Les Paul, or an Uber Vintage Reliced Strat that looks like it was left in the woods for a few years, after being dragged behind an F-150, the proverbial pre-worn/torn/ jeans of guitar?  How many different Les Paul and Stratocaster models do we really need?

4) Guitar heroes are plentiful today.

 Gruhn laments that "nobody is playing guitar because of John Mayer".  As a guitar teacher I can say quite plaintively, "you're wrong, George". Furthermore there are plenty of "guitar heroes" that motivate people to play now, it's just that Gruhn may not know who they are, or as is the case I suspect - guys like Tosin Abasi don't play or care about vintage guitars and in turn are not on his radar.

 While at the same time, I'd also have Mr. Gruhn know that he's also missing the boat on the reality that for all intents and purposes, Classic Rock is still very popular and potent for even the youngest new guitar player.  Kids today are as likely to be into Queen as they are Justin Bieber.  The landscape has changed, it's flatter and the road goes both ways; the "old music" that was great still is great, and is recognized as such.

  That a person can't buy a real-deal Strat like Jimi had, or a Les Paul like the other Jimmy used without a spending a car down payment, runs counter to Fender/Gibson's own retail environment.  They're helping stagnate interest in their business in the middle of the process.   $1,000 for a Fender Champ amplifier, a model that home-brew DIY people make as one offs for less than $500?  So much for the Clapton fan getting that Layla sound.

 5) Brands have no clue how to market to women.

 Yes, Taylor Swift has sold a bazillion guitars, in spite of the industry ignoring the demographic buying them.  Lucky for the industry she is so popular, because they had ample chances before to take advantage of the popularity of acts like Jewel, Tracy Chapman, and even Joni Mitchell.

 My business is about 1/3rd female now, yet I don't see that reflected in magazine advertising or sales presentation.  I know somewhere there are Genuine Marketing Execs with Pieces of Expensive Paper in a Frame to prove they know what they're doing. who would say otherwise, but .... nope, you're doing it wrong.

In conclusion...

 We may have reached Peak Guitar output.  The convenience of buying a new, quality instrument cheaply isn't going to go away, but it's the manufacturer's own fault to have pushed vintage guitars as being such a viable thing. A guitar from the 70's and 80's, even the 90's is now an "old" guitar, but most likely just as playable as any "vintage" instrument. Unlike classic cars, they're easy to maintain and store, and cheap.

 The guitar retail bubble may be bursting, but not because of electric guitar popularity. If I'm not mistaken _Guitar Hero_ (the bain of my existence for a while...) was a very big seller not too long ago.  It didn't rely on "new music", despite drones of stats showing the "death of rock music".  It didn't rely on a turntable interface, either.  By most accounts, it shouldn't have been popular at all.

 Or how about the popularity of the Beatles, does anyone doubt their present iconic status?  They don't sound like EDM or whatever is touted as the Biggest Selling Music according to download stats or some other arbitrary notion.  Yet somehow, they're still there, and I'm still asked to show people how to play their music 50 years later.

 Fake news comes in many forms.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Blank Page is Magic

"How can I make music without knowing where the chord tones are?"

I've opened the editor here to start writing without a plan.

 The moment I typed the title to this post, I realized an angle.

 When you pick up an instrument, you either have a preconceived reason to do so or not.  You either know what you're going to play - either something you've already learned, or you intend to execute an idea.

 Or you don't. You just pick it up and see what happens.

 Some people have a mental block about "ok, I'm holding a guitar, what now?".   Or more specifically, after having "learned" a tonal pattern, they face a blank page.

 Good 'ol chaos math intervenes.  I never really understood the value of chaos theory until a few years ago, because it would seem the people that make best use of it do so willy nilly by default.  Blithely unaware that they are indeed constantly rolling the dice in a myriad of ways they don't perceive.

 Meanwhile I've come to the conclusion that the Universe - quite literally - for human experience/interaction has to maintain a chaotic balance. 

 I'm OCD.  I know it, friends know it, but they may not know the manner in which it manifests itself.  It's not being a "control freak"; it's not consciously allowing the Random and Non-linear to have a toe hold on you.  My perspective has always been "well, of course I know that's impossible, a form of perfectionism, but at the same time it makes complete sense to try to eliminate it when possible".

 The Universe/Matrix/God/Whatever doesn't like that.  Because chaos reigns over "this".  Without it we're a step-wise procedural formula.  I have been wrecking the equation most of my life.

 Ironically I never have done that with guitar.  I do not mind not having a "plan" when playing guitar.  It's part of the fun, I've always allowed creativity to run free.  It's very easy to me.  You can't get hurt, it doesn't cost anything. 

 It's also magic.

 Hidden variables in the equation getting multiplied by other hidden variables.  Which rapidly expands into many more options than my pathetic human mind can't consciously grasp in an instant.  The subconscious takes over. 

 As a satisfyingly clever zen reference, when I started this post the only thing I had in mind was "blank page. Let me see what happens".  That was the title.  Until two paragraphs above - and I added "is magic" to it. 

 Had I not started writing I would not have gotten to this title, and it's ensuing point. 

 About... 1 in 3-4 people I teach do not need any prodding to start using concepts I show them in guitar lessons.  They jump on it and start trying things.

 1 of those 4 or so will face the Blank Page and freeze.  Some people will refuse to try at all, "I can't improvise!", "I don't know what to do?", "how do I know if it's right?"

 "Use the Force."

 Just start.  Because your subconscious will pick up the ball and notice New and Novel (to you) Variables you didn't realize were there UNTIL you gave it the (in computer programming nomenclature) seed value to start with.  If you play a "bad" note, big deal - better in the guitar lesson than in front of an audience, right?  It's part of my job to hear bad notes, right?

 But if I hear no notes at all, I can't help.

 Yes, some people play based entirely on what I would call "procedural math".  A preset, where there is no blank page. 

 Some people also make "paintings" by matching colors to numbers, hoping what they do looks like the horse on the box.  I don't call that "painting" myself, but for entertainment there is nothing wrong with it.  Probably unlikely to ever become a real painter going that route, but a lot of people have fun doing it that way. 

 Which is fine, but magic will never, ever happen with that process.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Experiencing Guitar - a Book by Chip McDonald

Self promotion time (a first...): I've written a book.

 No, it's not a "How To" book, or a "1,001 Ways to Play Fast" book.

 It's mostly about the process of learning and instrument.  The more esoteric, philosophical aspects of it.   I often get questions in the last minute of a guitar lesson that may seem to be a "throwaway" question, but strikes at the heart of a deep point or subject pertaining to learning how to play an instrument.  This book attempts to coalesce some of these questions and answers into written form.

 So while it's not meant to teach you how to play guitar, it could be thought of as a how to learn to play guitar book.  The way people approach learning is as varied as one can imagine, and at the same time there are some elements that are something of a prerequisite I believe that some people miss, or don't see the importance of. 

 In turn it's both a primer and a companion.  Things to know in order to learn how to play an instrument, but at the same time perhaps learn any complex process.

 A massive $2.99 expenditure for hopefully some things that "most" professional musicians learn along the way, or absorb sub-consciously after many years of playing! 


Click here - Experiencing Guitar - Chip McDonald 

Thursday, May 11, 2017


 The NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) is the music retail industry's trade show.  It's where all of the manufacturers gather to show their products and conduct business with all of the music stores.

  Each manufacturer has a demonstration person that does their part in showing what the manufacturer's product is capable of, or what it's meant to do.  As part of that, they learn idiomatic phrases/examples to show at the drop of a hat to accomplish this.

 While one might play an excerpt from a particular song that said device does particularly well, it's really morphed into a situation that is sort of (and this is not meant in a derogatory way) "Glorified Music Store Jammer".

 It's almost it's own art form: a series of phrases strung together not to make a musical statement as part of a song, but to effectively show off, literally.  The NAMM show lick exists in it's own continuum of not quite a piece of music, but not just noodling.

 Basically it's what I call a "preset".  It's kind of like a painter showing you the corner of a painting where there is a hay bale he's painted, or a chef handing you a tapas plate to try something.  Or maybe the air brush artist painting names on t-shirts at the mall.  It's not really showing you what the painter does or is about, or what the chef is preparing for the main course. 

 It's a musical snack.  Musical hors d'oeuvres.  

 At the music store, you hear random people effectively doing the musical equivalent of spraying aerosolized fake cheese sometimes on $3,500 reissue vintage steaks.  Or, you may hear an expertly prepared aged artisanal gouda and smoked salmon morsel laid out on a $150 Ibanez someone is using to check out a $200 pedal looper.

 At the NAMM show, you're offered different varieties of tapas dishes.  Claptonian blues ala carte, Robben Ford du jour, Gilbertian fries, Brent Mason gourmet hot dogs on toothpicks.  

 It doesn't really tell you anything about the player aside from how professional and willing to practice he is.  It may indicate they're particularly clever in what they put together, and how it's presented, particularly relative to the product.  A nice product demo is in itself an art form.

 Is it a form of music?  Is it a genre?  Is it an art form?

I don't know.  There are guys that are particularly good at "demoing" (I have served in this possibly dubious function at different music stores over the years), but it's not like anyone wants to hear a "song" called "Phrases in the idiomatic styles of Eric Johnson and David Gilmour for the Chandler Tube Driver". 

 Or maybe they do....?

 In my opinion Youtube has transmogrified music to mainstreaming this premise: appetizer music presentation as art form.  Which is an interesting idea: the form is the phrase itself.  Do you need to eat "breakfast", "lunch", "dinner"?  Do you need "intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, solo"?

 I don't know, I can see a need for all, as well as hybrids.  But I'm here to say that we are now in the NAMM Show Lick Era ofYoutube.










Thursday, March 9, 2017

Jeff Beck and J79 Exhaust Actuators

 You can't be exactly someone else.  Literally, figuratively or musically.

 Music is beguiling and deceptive.  People get into it usually because they're more inspired by it than anything else.  It holds a multitude of prospects.  Then reality seeps in, and it becomes obvious that like anything else, it takes skill and talent in varying proportions.  Effort.  Focus.

 Which is why everyone should learn to play an instrument.  Nothing else requires these things so resolutely without apology.

 As a teacher what I see is that inspiration waxing and waning constantly, unnecessarily so.  Unnecessary because there is an unending supply of things to be inspired by in music.

 The problem at hand: allowing inspiration to be subjugated by converting it to "accomplishing".  You can be inspired by something or someone, without having to do exactly what it is.  Maybe you don't have to do anything at all; this is perhaps the default for a larger portion of the population, since people in general seem content to never learn an instrument, or a craft?  Inspiration alone is it's own reward.  It's just about all you need.

 Modern Life - bombardment of endless information, without collation, destroys inspiration.  My theory is that part of being inspired falls into another personal theory of mine, that chaotic behavior is captivating because it exceeds our computational ability as humans. We can see just enough to see we don't see it all. Inspiration is derived from witnessing someone do something that at the outset may have seemed impossible: musically or otherwise.  You want to collate, organize what you have before you.  You can't if it's just a flood. You have to start the process of reduction from a flood to mere chaos. 

 From the non-tangible perspective, a piece of music inspires in that it is a creation where one knows there would be a void if it did not exist.  It's not just another item. In turn, the potential for other such presently unknown voids is contemplated.  Possibility arises, the nature of which again exceeds human comprehension.  Maybe there is more  like "this"?

 A person endeavors to embrace the root of that inspiration.  Upon finding out playing an instrument requires some effort, their inspiration is tempered.  It risks becoming mutilated by the thought of never being able to get on top of the entire thing, whether it's a musical concept, phrase, musician, or whatever provides the inspiration. 

 Which is a mistake.  It's non-logical thinking.  It's a side effect of bad human programming.  You were never going to accomplish conquering the Musical Inspiration.  It's anti-Zen. 

 The beauty of music is that it is the pursuit that molds the outcome.  You never reach the end.  What you do along the way is "you".  The inspiration leads you on.  You don't let advanced musicianship intimidate you, because that is just the tool.  You're trying to learn to use a tool someone else has "built", not to rebuild the tool itself.  You're not trying to conquer the gestalt of the musician.  You're just trying to gain an understanding of that which inspires you.  Because if you can do that, you can maintain inspiration going forward to other things, and that is what is called "growth".  That's all being a human is about.

 As an example, myself: I like watching videos of professionals repairing things.  A favorite is a channel by AgentJayZ on YouTube, who is a "gas turbine technician".  He works on jet engines, "neat things" IMO.  I don't watch it because I want to work on jet engines - no thank you, at least not in this life - but because it's inspiring to discover all of the thought processes that have gone into designing jet engines. 

 I don't watch it thinking "man, there is too much here to know!  I can't learn all of this!"  I don't care about that, I'm intellectually selfish: I want the interesting bits!   I can't work on a jet engine.  But after watching 100+ of his videos I can identify variable stator vanes, bypass air ducts, oil routing on a J79 engine.  Inspiration allowed that, it's very powerful.  I wasn't thinking "if I watch this I can be a jet engine designer!".  It was just interesting, and I know more now than I did before.

 I hear "never" a lot in lessons.  Usually after finding out what is involved in doing exactly what a Musical Hero did.  "I'll never be able to play as fast as Eddie VanHalen!" - well, maybe not.  Probably not.  But Eddie VanHalen is more than just his speed.  He's a human that has put his own time in allowing being inspired towards leading him somewhere.  It led to becoming famous as "Eddie VanHalen", not "Jimmy Page II" or "Z.Z. Top Again, but Faster". 

 I've watched jet engines being torn down and reassembled in various stages. Not that basic knowledge isn't a prerequisite; you should know what a torque wrench is, just as on guitar you should know what a bar chord is.  I can't repair an Orenda Type 14 jet engine, but the next time I visit the Udvar-Hazy/Smithsonian museum I can appreciate the jet engines I'm looking at that much more. 

 You don't try to learn a Hendrix solo because you're going to be Jimi Hendrix.  You learn it so that when you hear someone else play something influenced by him (visiting the museum), you can identify what you're hearing (examining the fuel routing on a Jumo 004 engine at said museum, a pull start system???). 

 In turn hopefully you get inspired.  You learn something!  Most importantly, you continue the process.  It's self replenishing.  It's not a chore, it's fun. 

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.