Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald -

Monday, July 30, 2018

D'Addario NYXL Strings

 This is only obliquely a "review", more of a drive-by set of impressions, so caveat emptor.

 I've had a set of their NYXL .009's on my work guitar for about 2 months. My initial impressions were that they felt more typical of their cheaper XLs, nothing too different from a string tension or textural feel. I very quickly forgot there was anything "different" about them at all, to the point I haven't really thought about it until their intonation started getting weird about a week ago.

 Sound wise they were about like their cheaper XLs as well.  I believe my take was that perhaps D'Addario went more for an angle of trying to make a string that was basically undetectable as being different from their normal XLs, where as with the Ernie Balls they did have an atypical tension and surface sensation.

 Like the Ernie Ball Paradigm "long life" strings, when they start to go bad they do it differently than "normal" strings.  When the Ernie Balls go bad it seems like it's almost amazingly fast.  I come to work one day (teaching guitar if the reader doesn't already know...) and suddenly they won't stay in tune, won't intonate, and are not pitch stable.

 The D'Addarios seems to have started going bad a week or so ago, but in a much more normal, slower fashion.  However, in a weird way - it's almost like maybe they're "bad" at different lengths of the string, or something has gone wrong at a certain point that makes certain notes more out than others?  A very strange behavior - part of the string has lost it's properties but not another, perhaps?  Deceiving, because you think it's in the ballpark with the octave of one note, but half of the notes are out.

 They seem to have kept their sound the whole time.  Very tricky - the intonation starting to go slightly bad combined with the sound staying more or less "fairly fresh" means I think I've been fighting them for over a week, spot-retuning constantly.  Yes, now that I think about it - I have spent a lot of time tuning over the past week or 2.  I almost forgot to mention, a did break the high E maybe 2 weeks ago.


 The Ernie Balls last a bit longer.  They also seem to be more pitch stable than "normal" strings, which is a bonus as far as I'm concerned.  On the other hand, they feel a little bit more taut (which makes me think "are they really something odd like a half-size heavier?).  When they go bad, they really go bad, out of the blue.

 The D'Addarios are more "normal" in all respects, but at first glance seem to not last as long.  That normalcy in feel/tension might be a bigger plus for someone over the Paradigms. 

 The Ernie Balls are $15 on Amazon, seem to last a fair bit longer, and seem to be more pitch stable (more so than normal) versus the D'Addarios at $17 on Amazon.   The pitch stability would make me choose the Paradigms on that alone, but they're also cheaper and last longer.  I think Ernie Ball wins this round, unless D'Addario can drop the price to maybe $10-12?  I know they don't want to hear that.....  


 The thought just occurred to me that long ago I tried the Optima gold strings, who advertised a similar spiel: longer life, but not with the specific claims these brands do.  My take on them was that they did last a little bit longer - just a little bit, and they did seem to intonate better but were also noticeably stiffer, particularly on the wound strings.  Much more than the Ernie Balls. They were only about 25% more expensive IIRC, but I didn't think they lasted that much longer and the stiffness was bothersome.

 The reason I bring this up is that now I'm wondering if they didn't use a different specific alloy, or a different quality control, perhaps similar to what Ernie Ball is using?  I believe Optima was just pushing the gold coating as being more corrosion resistant and durable, but not the metal alloy itself?  The metallurgy of the Ernie Balls seems very remarkable, I was very surprised by them, but perhaps the D'Addarios lasting longer-than-normal combined with a more typical feel is just as remarkable?

 In both cases I'm profoundly surprised by just how much longer both strings seem to last/sound good/intonate relative to their cheaper versions. I was expecting something of an experience more like what I had with the Optimas long ago.  I have NYXLs on another guitar at home, and will put a second set on my work guitar today, but unless one of those surprise me with their durability I'll probably end up being an Ernie Ball user after staying with D'Addario for a very long time.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Fragility of Initial Conditions


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear - From Frank Herbert's Dune Book Series

© 1965 and 1984 Frank Herbert

Initiate Guitar Student Litany

"I haven't played a note before in my life".
"I played around with it when I was younger but never learned anything"
"I had an uncle that showed me some chords when I was little, but I forgot them"
"I don't really know anything"
"I don't know if I can play or not"
"I don't have rhythm, I may be wasting my time"
"I bet you never taught someone as old as me"
"I know a few chords but that's all"
"I tried to learn but I couldn't"
"I can't move my fingers fast enough"
"I don't think I'm strong enough"
"I don't have any patience so I don't know if I can learn"
"I had this laying around since Christmas but I haven't tried it"
"I had this all of my life, it was my father's guitar in college but I haven't picked it up until now"
"I don't think I'm very musical"
"I don't have any idea what I'm doing"
"I know how to play this chord but that's all"
"I don't know how to tune it or anything"
"I bought this years ago but never tried playing it"
"I tried piano when I was a kid but gave it up"
"I have small fingers, I don't know if I can play"
"I tried years ago but put it down"
"I played clarinet in school but never anything else"
"I played recorder but that doesn't count"
"I don't know if I'll be any good or not"

 For starters - pun intended - I'll be the judge of all of the above, and more along those lines that I've heard. Buried in most of these responses I've heard to the question "have you played an instrument before?" is of course self-doubt.  The problem is, YOU don't know, literally.  You WON'T know, at least for a few weeks at a minimum, maybe even for a year or more.  Because...

 If you've not really played the instrument, or an instrument before, you're a "beginner".  Before you learn to write you have to learn to hold the pencil, use the eraser, form the letters.  You can't make a judgement call on how good of a novelist you'll be if you literally can't read or write yet. 

 You'll be a beginner for probably longer than you want to be (of course), and unlike every other guitar teacher on the planet I'm not going to say otherwise.  Except, if you TRY to do things "right" you WILL get better.  You can't help but to get better. 

 You'll be a rote beginner until you pass a certain threshold where you gain some control over each finger, and can allow that to turn into muscle memory.  That takes more time than most people in reality want to take, it's very frustrating for MOST people initially. 

 It's something everyone passes through.  The initial, nascent phase of playing is a period where despite what I'll tell you in lessons that you're on track, you'll think and feel it's not working. 

 At which point I have to say as the expert in the room, "you don't have any experience in which to make that call".  

1) Learning to play an instrument, for real, is something that requires more concentration than 99% of the people I encounter have ever had to do, continuously before.

2) Learning to play an instrument requires integration of many different human elements, mental and physical, on a scale you've never had to do before.

 Which is why everyone should try to learn to play an instrument!  It fully engages your mind, and might help you learn a skill that actually can be applied to other life experiences.  Concentration, focus, kinesthetic awareness, mind management. But at first, you don't know if you're "getting it" or not!  The first phase is very steep if done properly, but always pays off.  Any shortcuts will be a hindrance maybe forever.  The first phase is intimidating only because of the fear of failure. 

 I wish I could take Frank Herbert's fictional "Litany Against Fear" in it's totality, I fear a lot.  From having watched thousands of people learn to play something I know they thought they "probably" couldn't do I've lost a lot of fear relative to basically anything involving a learning process.  

 But you don't know if you can "play the guitar" until you try, and try for real.  Know that some people are completely, literally shocked by what has to be learned/accomplished; people that are professionals in other fields.  It doesn't mean they can't do it, it means their life experience has not given them the ability to contrast the process with anything they've done before.  In some cases, even after this "first phase" I'm referencing is past, or long, past, the vastness of what playing an instrument, becoming a musician incorporates can suddenly intimidate some people.  In this situation appreciating the cultural significance of the undertaking, and acquiring that sense of proportion I've alluded to can be an immensely satisfying thing.  Be a fully realized human!

 It's a challenge, but almost everyone that is a "beginner" that comes to me tends to say the same thing, and has the same doubts and reticence about TRYING.  There is no reason for that!  You won't know until AFTER you have tried.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Infinite Monkeys, A.I., Chaos and Music

 I was into computer programming for fun as a kid.  I think there are a lot of programming parallels that explains human thinking/psychology very well, regardless if it's the underlying process or not.

 Computers are all about acting on data in some form.  That's all humans are as well.  We are constantly parallel processing, re-writing hash tables, trying to make a new cyclic redundancy check that encompasses All We Have Experienced.

 We are constantly making linked lists to other humans, whose own hash tables are constantly being updated and rearranged. 

 We are never fully updated and sorted.  Unless we have reach satori, or some lofty Buddhist ideal of non-think: stasis.  It's the run-time impetus to SORT SORT SORT SORT that makes us human. 

 At the same time our algorithm is self-writing and evolving.  Like computers we have limits to our processing power.  It's my personal pet theory that whenever we encounter chaotic systems the math of what we perceive creates a buffer-over run situation, a literal "memory leak".

I'm not going to try to explain chaotic math.  The James Gleick book is kind of necessary for that I believe.  I will say that chaotic systems are often ascribed as being "random", but in reality are near-random.  The math that governs what a flame looks like, ocean waves, cloud formation are examples of this: they're not purely random, you can recognize these things for what they are.  They are chaotic, but definable systems.

 Note that as humans we find these chaotic systems "attractive".  It's my belief these things create something of a "loop" to us.  We attempt to sort the information we are perceiving, which we've labeled in a top level array marked "waterfall" maybe, but we run out of address space to place Everything We Are Trying To Sort.

 As humans we like the resulting sensation of this.  This is our Prime Function: finding stuff to sort.  Maybe God wants us to sort the universe, otherwise there is no point to it being perceived?  When presented with the possibility of perceiving almost at the limit of our awareness, we're in our optimized programming.  We're trying to sort information.

 But we can't when staring at a camp fire or surf at the beach.  Being "hypnotized" by not having enough memory space, and not enough address space.  The trick here being the system having a difference between chaos and what we think as "just noise".

 The creation of music by humans is an inherently chaotic process.  We can't perceive everything that has been done, whether it has or has not. It doesn't matter if the Infinite Monkeys has already recorded it all, we can't take that in.

 What happens with what is left over, unsorted data that should go in the "bit bucket" gets rearranged, and provides what is really an illusion - that we're "creating" something - by starting a new hash table based on that bit bucket left over noise getting blended into actual data.  We "see", or imagine we can "hear" a way to sort near-chaotic scale data - the history of our experience of music - without the cognition that it's already been "sorted" by other people.  The noise introduced by the error of not being able to fully perceive a chaotic system allows us to continue the enjoyment of our Prime Programming: sorting.

 So whether "all music has been written" or not doesn't matter, because as a human you have to make your own hash table and sort YOUR data set.  Whether you produce a new data set that another human perceives as being almost chaotic, that creates that illusion (mystery), is the question.  A question answered less likely in my opinion by taking wrote, "traditionally" procedural methods.

 Likewise a.i. won't produce "new" music we perceive as being human.  The bounding functions will never be like a human - without the a.i. becoming human.  In turn there will always be a strangeness combined with a familiarity, stuck in the Uncanny Valley.  Copying music a human sort algorithm has produced is not the same process that the human used.  The bounding functions have to be identical, and they inherently can't be without the a.i. becoming human.

 Which isn't beyond the realm of technological possibility on day. Maybe.  Regardless, I think we'd have other sociological concerns regarding a.i. before a.i. comes up with a new "Beatles", "Bach" or some such.

 This log blathering was induced by the following... I just replied to a student's comment to another blog, and it went something like this:

Like pi or a room full of monkeys with typewriters eventually every possible expression will arise .You indicated in my first lesson this was the case with music (not counting the infinite sound effect combos with pedals etc). If so what musical tale is left to tell without leaving the human domain? Maybe we're already there and machines will define their own sonic preferences .

I have a problem with the Infinite Typewriting Monkeys conjecture because it only gives a hypothetical excuse to say "all combinations are possible". Which is always the case regardless of what causes the combinations to be instantiated. The multiverse perspective applied to music (or any art, writing) ignores the aspects that the combinations don't matter without:
1) an "audience" to perceive that there are actually nth combinations having been created;
2) humans are walking sorting algorithms.

The monkeys get through writing everything, Shakespeare, Pink Floyd, Frank Lloyd Wright and Renoir, but it doesn't "exist" until it's perceived. The human subjectivity sorting through that is no different than a human sorting it's present-historical data set.

It's the inherent limits of human perception that makes the sorting algorithm the creative part, combined with embracing the near-random aspects of chaos math. An A.I. will not have limits that are the result of organic evolution in the Newtonian world as we experience it. It will not make new music that befuddles our sorting process, except in the sense of making it so diffuse we can't specify it's origin. Having a whisp of an "origin" prevents music from being noise to us, there has to be context.

I've heard some a.i. music that is very creepy, that one can generalize as being the product of some sort of sorting process of human composers, but without human Newtonian-biological experience it has no context. I think the creepiness is not from a musically relevant source, but that there IS a quasi-biological neural-sim process that has made it that puts it into the Uncanny Valley.

I don't see a.i. created music coming out of the Uncanny Valley without them being human at that point...

... but we're still humans, and the way "music" is presented is still pretty unlimited sans corporate social influence. You do a sort on your musical experience and make a polyglot-collage that tweaks another human's cognition; a mutual-shared intellectual hallucination, "almost cognitive dissonance". That's "art".

Relative to my blog post, if one assumes there is (was) a General Knowledge Base of Pop Music then given what I wrote above, certain combinations triggers the Herd's Sort Algorithm and *should* put certain reoccurring data into a top-level hash table array. The process of hashing combined with ... "human mantissa over run", the human attempt to grasp patterns in the Lorentz-space of a chaotic system is pleasant. Uhm.. Ok, I'm making myself say "wow" looking at that, hahaha...

but I'm serious.

 I know, that sounds like a great example of Stereotypical Spendashery and Garbleflexiveness with "$5 words".  Hopefully it was entertaining if you got this far... <g>


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Do You Own Anything In Music?

 Everyone is presently bent on trying to define in legal terms what means what in relation to who owns what and what defines the part that makes the what someone's what and not derivative of the other what somebody else made.

 I'm not concerned with that; I am but a peasant.

 But in my book (literally: Experiencing Guitar -Chip-McDonald-ebook/dp/B0714P93RS  I present the notion of "owning" chords.

What a crazy notion, are you crazy Chip?

 I don't mean legally, literally owning a chord of course.  What I mean is that what drives me insane about "life in the 21st century" we've passed into discarding common sense in favor of the Abject Official Description of a Concept.

 In actuality (I know I say that too much), we've gone a step into that even further: we don't just require an Official Designation About Everything, it would seem that society today thereafter bases it's valuation on that.  This is (as far as I'm concerned) extremely important, and a watershed moment in Human Non-Development.

 Nobody is willing to come out and say "yeah, it sounds like the Marvin Gaye song and I think he probably knew that and maybe even leaned on that".  Well, except for me!  Everyone else, it would seem, is completely bent on figuring out the "logical, legal" description of why it's NOT like the Marvin Gaye song.

 I'm here to say that IT IS OBVIOUSLY LIKE THE MARVIN GAYE SONG.  As a human with reasonable cognition,  I don't require something to fulfill scientific method or legal jargon in order to present my position.

  I can explain my position in technical detail, but that shouldn't be the point.  As a human with a brain, I don't exist based on procedural algorithmic decision making.  As humans we don't have to do that consciously - that's what we do naturally: think in the abstract.  I've written a lot about the psychology of flitting back and forth between the conscious approach to making art, and the sub-conscious, that is why we are different than the lower animals.

 Unlike in politics, where everything is vague and emotionally driven (which is maybe how one should pursue art?) it seems like with the Sheeran/Gaye debate who owns what is the only thing that matters?

 Instead of what you think matters to you.  

 To me it's the Marvin Gaye song.  When I have taught that song to students, the first time I heard it, I thought "this is "Let's Get it On".  I've presented it as such to students by playing the progression (which is actually inverted...) and asking "does this sound like another song to you?" at which point many, even younger than me (the song pre-dates "my era" as well) will say it does at least, and some can name the song.  All agree that yes, "it's the same song!". 

 In this nascent part of the 21st century, the record of recorded music (uhg) is so vast that as a song/music writer you're mostly likely "ripping off" someone with a chord progression.  The real questions are:

1) is it a song that is so high profile "most" of your audience will realize it?

 2) do you realize it?

 I'm now talking about "relative to my personal philosophy", which is mine alone.  I possess and own it, it's not the hoi polloi's, the mass media's or anyone else.

 To me:

 Jimi Hendrix owns the mid-guitar neck voiced E 6/9 chord when played with a generalized funk rhythm.  When I hear "Been Caught Stealing" by Jane's Addiction I can't help but to think "Purple Haze chord".  When Corgan does it on the Smashing Pumpkin's song "I Am One" I'm thinking "Purple Haze chord" (and I guarantee he does, too...).  And there are a number of other examples where that chord is used with a staccato, "funk" rhythm, SRV and others.

 Hendrix "owns" it because as far as I'm concerned, he made it the most high profile FIRST.   In MY knowledge base, that's what gets ticked over: if you play that particular chord with a funk rhythm, I'm going to think "Jimi Hendrix".

 I don't care about it's antecedents.  I'm quite well verse in music at this juncture, having analyzed music daily as my job for over 30 years.  In my experience, Jimi Hendrix "owns" that chord.  You can try to write a song with it, in a funky manner, and claim it's YOUR creation, but I'm still going to think "Jimi Hendrix".  Sorry.  I don't care about legal descriptions, what somebody at Berklee thinks, or the status quo on YouTube.  It's Hendrix.  I will stay away from it in my creative process for that very reason. 

  There are other examples in Pop Song Culture.  As far as I'm concerned ascending arpeggiated Add 9 chords belong to Andy Summers/Sting/the Police.  When I heard "Satellite" by Dave Matthews the first thing I thought was "he likes the Police".  Does he?  I would bet he does, but regardless to me the effect of playing an arpeggiated add 9 as a melodic figure is "Andy Summers", he owns it. 

 There is a difference in this example, though.  I like the Dave Matthews song!  Because - there is a creative additional element to it.  In the DMB song the rhythmic grouping is different, the progression is different.  In my way of thinking it's been influenced by the Police.  It's not for all intents and purposes the same thing. 

 And that's the important bit.  All that humans create are built on the what another human did.  In my way of thinking, Sheeran hanging different words with a different melody on top of "the Marvin Gaye progression" isn't a lot of added value.  In the Dave Matthews song the progression is different, the rhythm is different, the melody is different, the cadence of the melody, the time signature, on and on: it's not the same thing.

 Today people seem to need to be told, instead of thinking for themselves "that is or isn't the same".   That's a peculiar aspect of Life in the 21st Century I don't get.  People tend to not have much of an opinion beyond what is expected of them these days, but you're standing on my lawn.

 Puff Daddy, or P Diddy, or whatever he calls himself now, won a Grammy for talking a sentence over the top of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir".  This apparently had the approval of Jimmy Page, who no doubt made a ton of money off of it.  The thing that's sad is that when that happened, you could read and hear about so many people describing the "genius" of Sean Combs - with no mention of Zeppelin. 

 The year that happened I even had a few people want to learn "that Puff Daddy song".  Which was a wake up call, I was very much in a state of cognitive dissonance that year as I encountered people that seemingly thought that the recording of the original song was somehow either a remix, or something Puff Daddy created and then this guy Jimmy Page was in the video.  Ok.  Great.

 Zeppelin owns the song, Page gets to "own" the oblique riff, John Bonham that rhythmic approach of playing over the bar line, etc. etc.. 

 That is my opinion.  I could write a dissertation supporting my thoughts, but I won't. 

 The crux of the Marvin Gaye/Sheeran dispute is this: does brilliance deserve "eternal" credit?  Are there not certain moments in artistic history where there is one human that actually deserves the credit for something?  In the 21st Century the PC thing to say is that everyone is equally talented, so of course, no one human should get credit for coming up with something Really Great. A philosophical position espoused by people who are Generally Mediocre or Talentless. 

 In my opinion the real travesty of this whole thing is that hardly anybody knows who the Funk Brothers are, or how Motown recordings came to be relative to the musicians involved.  It's Gaye's song, but the brilliant representation of it has a lot to do with how it was played.

 That aside, prior to the 21st century things were more clear cut. Pop music has always tended to be derivative on some level, but there was a line in the sand.  People understood that the Monkees were meant to be a teenybopper rip off of the Beatles; it didn't have to be explained or denied by lawyers or a professor at Berklee.  Ironically there was in the end probably more novelty in the Monkees relative to the Beatles than 2/3rds of the pop music today relative to present contemporaries.  The bar has been lowered.

People have lowered expectations and standards today, and weight other things - media savvy, hair cuts, subtle references to the Pop Sound Du Jour (witness the "Millenial Whoop") (look it up on YouTube if you don't know what I'm referencing).  It's kind of more about "is the artist I'm listening to presently tied in some manner to something else that is also happening in pop culture at the moment?", rather than how the music makes you feel.  Does it sound sufficiently "now"? It's kind of more about a competition to make something that clicks certain intangible switches of conformity. 

 But that's in my opinion.  Your mileage may vary.  What's your opinion?  Is it actually YOUR opinion, or do you need a chart and polling data to figure it out?  By the way, you're still standing on my lawn.  



Thursday, July 5, 2018

Ed Sheeran vs. Marvin Gaye: Why Everyone Is Wrong.

 Personally, the thing that bugs me about the Sheeran song is that in my head the chorus turns into "I Want it That Way" by the Back Street Boys - uhg.  But here's is one thing that everyone is getting wrong about the Marvin Gaye / Ed Sheeran controversy, with an addendum about chords:

 When Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" was written, nobody in the room could be blamed for it possibly sounding like an Ed Sheeran song.

 A fundamental difference in my opinion.  Nobody from Ed Sheeran to his producer, his engineer, or anybody in his management or at his record label didn't know it sounded like the Gaye song.  They also certainly can't claim to have never heard it or be familiar with it.  If the song was a demo, something he just knocked out that would be one thing.  I fear that greatly to the extent it's stifling, "is this something else?".  But for Sheeran, that song had to be vetted by a lot of people that absolutely, positively know better.  "Oh gee guys, wait.. did you notice it sounded like "Let's Get it On"?  Bob?  No? Fred?  Oopsie!".  

 No. I'd even go as far as to speculate that maybe, possibly, it was a deliberate thing.  I don't know, maybe not.  But the reader should know that if he/she thinks songs are written to deliberately remind you of other hit songs - in many cases, very cleverly these days multiple hit songs - you're naive.  If your business is to sell music, that is an obvious and easy strategy.  Pop music has always relied heavily on past influences, whether it was made in the 90s, 80s, or even 1780s.  One can make arguments that Bach lifted things from Vivaldi, and in many cases classical composers have merely said "..on a Them By (Composer)".  That's fine - because in reality, humans have to do that at some level.

 So I find it a bit disingenuous, or at least a bit off putting, when someone wants to throw away what is obviously a likeness as if it doesn't matter or count.  Yes it does - what makes it have a likeness to the original song is part of the reason why the original song was a hit!

 But let me address another aspect.  A lot of people are now citing the "chord progressions can't be copyrighted" angle. The problem with is the progression itself isn't the song.  It's how the progression is played.

 3 chords can't belong to anybody.  Songwriting is the art of arranging musical components into a recognizable form.  In that respect I think it's a bit simplistic to fall back on this idea that anything you do that is harmonic somehow doesn't matter, that it's only melody.

 That's wrong.  Because.... A static chord is not the same as a progression.  A progression is harmonized melody.  Furthermore, if you arpeggiate a chord - you have a melody.

 Am G is just two chords.  Can't be copyrighted, right?

 What if you arpeggiate the Am with 1/8th notes and change to the G on beat 4?  

 I think you decided to make this the basis of "your" song - since it's just chords, can't be copyrighted - you'd still find Eddie Van Halen's lawyers at your door step.

 To the non-musically trained lay person, if you take just the bass notes from "Let's Get It On" and ask some random people "what song is this?" you would get the right answer.

 An assortment of chords alone is not a "song".  The way you arrange them definitely is!

 I claim that the rudimentary essence of "Let's Get It On" are the bass notes combined with the rhythm.  It is a MELODY ITSELF.  

 The notes to them are harmonies.  It doesn't matter that Gaye or Sheeran is singing the notes, or that they're decoupled from the rhythmic figure of the bass line: everything is harmony unless it's monophonic!



What Sheeran sings is a melody, what Gaye sings is a melody.  That doesn't mean that what the bass player plays isn't a melody.  The rote prescription that "chords can't be copyrighted" is effectively a useless statement, because chords are never unadorned, un-arranged or embelished.  

 1) what a "musical scholar" at Berklee thinks is immaterial.  Music is not written for him; it's written for people that are presumed to be uneducated in music. 

2) being able to define elements out of context, like in most things, logically should not be used as evidence of anything.  

3) Unless the music in question is MONOPHONIC, everything has to be taken into CONTEXT.

4) the chronology matters.  

 As far as I'm concerned, a single chord - if played with a certain rhythm - should be able to be copyrighted. My next blog post will explain my reasoning on that.




Monday, June 25, 2018

Radio Songs and My "Van Halen - No Chaff" Spotify List?

 It occurred to me yesterday I wanted to hear "some Van Halen". 

 Which probably doesn't surprise the reader.  The thing is, whenever I want to hear something, yes - I'm very particular about it.  Also probably not a surprise?

 In my revitalized "Embracing My Inner Ron Swanson" get--off-my-lawn era of life, I've finally realized incarnately

 I generally don't like songs "made for the radio". 


  Sigh. It's the 21st century, so I'll have to expand on that: I don't have any aversion to pop music, or songs that have become radio hits.  What I don't like are songs that sound like there was a hint of "let's keep this poppy, radio friendly!".  I admit this may be confirmation bias.  I don't care, it molds what I listen to and in turn makes me "me".  (See previous blog postings on said concept).  Music is and should be subjective, unlike cold, harsh reality.

 I used to not like Dave Matthews Band because of the over exposure to the song "What Would You Say".  I didn't like his voice on it, but mostly I didn't like how it conformed to a Perfectly Crafted Pop Song.  It was very light and fluffy, played off the character of his voice very heavily as the hook (on the break).  Which is fine, but it struck me as being too conscious of it's own... poppy-ness ("That Poppy" has infiltrated my brain, amazing).  

 Need I say that based on the above I don't like the song "Jump"?  No, I can't stand it's C major happy-for-no-reason pop-logic.  It's a great song, fantastic keyboard hook.  I don't like it.  Sorry.

 But less than that, there are songs in the Van Halen pantheon that I've never really cared for, and it's for that reason - for whatever reason they strike me as being "self-aware" of their pop character.  Yesterday I made this list, fast and easy, with little need for consideration.  It's mostly the result of that thinking.

 So for Van Halen I - not my favorite VH album - there is no "Ain't Talking 'bout Love".  Or "Running With the Devil".  Definitely not "You Really Got Me", "Ice Cream Man" , "Feel Your Love Tonight".  I don't hate those songs, and they're fun now and then *to play*, but I don't need to listen to them.

 "Jamies Cryin'" is left off.  Sentimentally I might want to include it - maybe the first song I showed someone how to play, after I had been playing guitar for all of 5 minutes (yeah, no kidding).  No "Eruption": I've heard it/played it too many times.  BUT - when it comes to "Eddie Van Halen solo lead guitar spot" what first comes to mind is the intro to the song "Fools" on Women and Children First.  I remember that from well before I played guitar as being ultra-aggressive and exciting, and I still think it's his coolest example of "Van Halen" playing.  It's just very pure ripping - not shredding, but ripping.  There's a difference.

Yeah, so just 3 songs: "On Fire", "Atomic Punk", and "I'm the One".

 Van Halen II is different, I wore it out much more than I.  For that matter, I'm much more familiar with a bootleg of their "last performance at the Pasadena Civic" when they had just got signed, when it comes to songs from their first album.  It was super raw and swaggering, again very exciting - more than the recorded versions.  And you can hear Eddie's amps dying, making crackling noises, all sorts of cool artifacts of his sound.

 I don't have "Dance the Night Away" on there, or "Beautiful Girls".  I do, however, have "You're No Good" because it has a sort of sleepy, spooky slowed down character to it that is peculiar for a "pop song".  It's like they messed up picking a tempo, a draggy pop song.  Which is an interesting concept, a potential genre?

 The rest made it to my list.  Over all in my opinion this record is where Eddie congealed into "Eddie Van Halen" proper.  Percussive ostinato oblique riffs combined with funky articulation.  Interject novel bits - the octave tapping intro to "Women in Love",  the open string faux flamenco trickery of "Spanish Fly", the drama of the pre-dive bombed chord intro to "D.O.A.".   The crazy contrary motion intro of "Light up the Sky".   On and on, just tons of interesting and novel parts.  Plus the expected "exciting riff festival".

Women and Children First is always over looked.  It some ways it's my favorite VH record, the most played before I started playing guitar.

 I love how this record sounds.  The high end is ultra smooth.  Alex' drums are just... barely... loud enough, so the cymbal sizzle isn't over bearing.  The side effect of that is that the guitar (and keyboard) parts JUMP OUT, REALLY LOUD.  It's like it's just guitar + Roth.  I wish the remastered version wasn't as compressed.  Like everything these days.  Oh well.

 The guitar just sits there in what sounds like a documentation of a Very Very Loud Guitar in a Pretty Big but Nice Sounding Room.  NIGEL TUFNEL VOICE: ON:  What more do you need for rock and roll?  You don't.

 I liked the tom-beat nature of some of the songs, I'm not sure why bands and drummers don't make use of that as a concept more.  It's very odd to me that every band, every band - adheres to the notion that "the drums have to feature either the hi hat or the ride cymbal".  Really?  Why?

 The riffs on this records are simpler, almost basic, but great.  The low tuning is really effective.  I don't like the double stop melody-solo on "Everbody Wants Some", but the riff is great so it's worth it.  The reverb on this record is the best.  Alex' toms are perfect "Alex Van Halen" sounding on this record.  There is ACTUAL LOW END HARMONICS ON THE TOMS.  What a concept.

 "Loss of Control" is one of my favorite VH songs.  They could have just done Z.Z. Top boogie-swing songs and I would have been fine with that.  In fact, I need to make another VH list of just those songs. But "Loss of Control" is sublime - the low tuning ostinato riff with a perfect VH amp sound, just one string, so great in the pick attack sound.

 The open string boogie riff was the prototype for "Hot For Teacher"... and a bazillion VH rip-off songs that Shall Not Be Named but Are Out There. I like it more than "Hot For Teacher" because it pushes the beat so much, and really does sound almost out of control.  Which is great.  The weird flange bit at the end is great as well.

"Tora Tora" as an intro for the above is great, the weird backwards intro.... but also the ultra heavy Sabbath like intro is curious, because Metallica swiped that verbatim on the Black album and nobody noticed?

 His amp/guitar sound is the most bare and upfront on this record.  I know why people reference other records because of the riffs, versus the simplicity on here - but for Simple and Grand Marshall Dimed this is it IMO. "Unchained" is par excellante, but it's a hair lower in the mix - unfortunately, and Alex' "ride the crash cymbals wash" dilutes the guitar sound IMO.  I'd like to take the crash cymbals off of Fair Warning.  "SSHHHSHHSSSSSSSHSHHSSHHSSH"... it's like a truck inner tube deflating through an Eventide Harmonizer chorus setting.

 Hmm.  Fair Warning is the debut of the Eventide playing a part int he Van Halen sound, one way or another. Hmm.

Fair Warning

 I remember buying this record at Camelot Records in Augusta Mall when it was on the bottom floor in the space that eventually became a Radio Shack (r.i.p.).  The album graphics were peculiar and "big". Alex Van Halen's artistic direction is an unsung thing.

 Let me see... Yes, in keeping with this being my favorite VH album, everything made it.  "So This is Love" is almost too poppy.  Except.. the soloing is great.  And the little "plink plink" -behind-the-nut string noise as the ending is great.

 "Sinner's Swing" - again, boogie was their forte.  But the little "tap the pick on the unwound strings" as a hook is brilliant.  Eddie using noises that people didn't associate with a guitar and part in a riff was genius.  Ripping solo of course.  "Push Comes to Shove" is a peculiar soul-funk meets rock "thing", with a Holdsworthy fusion solo.  The off-time bits behind the solo are great, lots of detail in the parts, the way the meter flows from one part to the next.  This is the kind of thing I would have wanted from a "Eddie Van Halen Solo" record.  Oh well.


 A very bright and thinner sounding recording.  More compressed.

"Drop Dead Legs" a departure sound wise for him - a cranked Fender Princeton?  A cool sound, and I like the room ambience.  Interesting chord progression/arpeggio, but the structure of the song is curious and the way the melody strings the arpeggios together is very slick IMO.  It also has a lot variety in the rhythm of the arpeggios and their sequencing, and the "interjected" call and response detail is great.  The coda is one of this coolest vamps again IMO - "Eddie Van Halen solo" music?  One of my favorite VH songs.

 "Girl Gone Bad" - great and novel intro, as he is wont to do.  Big swing vibe, and the bursts of ascending runs into the "second intro" again is very different sounding.  It's like this song, and "Drop Dead Legs" had some sort of big-band era influence (from his childhood hearing his dad's music?).  The chording is very stacatto-grouped akin to 30's pop music.  Great bridge, another Holdsworth influenced solo.  Killer ending, Alex' fills are brilliant and creative, the weird tom fill  as an ending is great - a unique end.

 "House of Pain" - very different sounding with the natural minor > raised vi riff, and the altered half-steppy riffing.  Then the completely different major sounding solo section with the fusion-esque change.. interesting, then comes out on a Z.Z Top-esque blues theme...  Love the non-linear structure, you don't know it's going to go in these directions. 

 Didn't care for the rest.  "Top Jimmy" starts out neat, but then... It's too "happy for no reason", I don't care for parallel 6th licks.  Overtly pop chorus, but the solo section is cool - minus the solo.  "Panama" is great, I'm just burned out on it - on the line pop-music wise, but.. yeah.  "Hot For Teacher" - same deal.  Their pop music zenith?  Brilliant parts, their Ultimate Boogie Swing Song.  But it's a situation where it's going to be "Jump", "Panama" or "Hot For Teacher" when some horrid Pop Culture Show references Van Halen, and the thing that makes that happen makes me not want to hear those songs in particular. 

 He lost me on 5150.  The Trans-Trem "Get Up" is cool, but the Eventide Harmonizer sound and Alex' Simmons drums, combined with a super squashed mix makes it annoying to listen to.  "5150" is a cool arpeggio sequence... but the song is kind of light and fluffy, in a "we've got to balance the aggression of "Get Up" with this light and fluffy stuff".

 Which again could be confirmation bias on my part - but there you go.  YMMV and should.





Monday, June 18, 2018

Sloppiness Pt. 2: Claude Monet and Lead Guitar

1) What is the threshold of acceptability for your audience?

(this is actually a very accurate meta visual example of what this article is about...)

 (the above picture I took using a pinhole lens I made, deliberately making my modern technology digital camera to yields results that look soft and "sloppy" - like an Impressionist painting.  It is of an artist making a copy of a Monet painting titled "The Stroll: Woman with a Parasol (Madame Monet and Her Son)".  Why?  1) Because the painting was already made, I couldn't make it. 2) You're not allowed to use take pictures of certain pictures at museums. 3) ... which doesn't matter, because it doesn't take any particular skill or mindset to take a "perfect" picture of a painting! 4) The pinhole lens has an element of mystery to it because of it's imperfection and inherent chaotic light scattering.  In a staid setting such as a museum, this makes for a more interesting picture to occur in my opinion.  How many pinhole pictures of the inside of a museum have you seen....?)

  .............This may seem self-explanatory, but it's not.

 Your "audience" might be a record producer or engineer.  In which case, they are going to be listening more closely than The Random Person On the Street.

 Your audience may be people in a music store: it shouldn't be, but having worked in music stores most of my life I can say that this is a reality for some people.  The interesting thing here is that there is a profound disconnect between what the Budding Guitar Store Rock Star thinks is "ok" and what the Experienced and Jaded Music Store Employee thinks.

 Another audience might be, as in my case, a guitar student sitting point blank in front of you.  Which is a curious thing, because everything is on the table in this giant question mark of a case.

 Then there is the "traditional" sense of the word.  In a big arena, "sloppiness" is almost relative given the over-amplified whorl of distortion and volume that is a live show.  In this scenario the audience is going to be ultra forgiving, simply because - they can't really make out much detail in a lot of cases, unless it is "that soft part in the song".

 As venues get smaller the stakes go up, actually.  Because a more and more significant portion of the audience is likely to be hearing your amplifier directly off the stage, or as the capability of the p.a. system to the size of the room becomes greater and greater.  So there is trade off here, depending on the p.a. and the sound of the room.  But...

 At this stage (pun intended) there is a Default State of Acceptable: you have to presume your audience is going to have a pretty good chance of hearing at least as much detail as they would hear on a recording.  The thing to note here is that in general, this is NOT "perfect technique"; it's a mature and pragmatic technique.  A practical one.  This is somewhat my position for myself (as I think of it).

 Then there is the Solo Acoustic Performance In a Small and Intimate Setting.  This is difficult.  This is where "approaching perfect technique" comes in, because everything can be heard usually to a more detailed degree than on a recording.

 This is the realm that "singer songwriters" and solo performers work at, which is actually a much higher level of "getting to perfect" than is necessary for the Rock Musician.   In turn these people are stronger on fundamentals and consistency, because there is no forgiving in this situation.  Combined with 21st century expectation of perfection, this is a high-stress place to be, which is why I choose not to do such things anymore. 

 I used to regularly play gigs at bookstores that used to be part of a large national chain.  These gigs were always weird, because invariably I would find myself playing with what is obvious other guitar players literally at arms length in front of me, staring at my fingers with their arms crossed.  These Musical Buzzards were waiting for their chance to prey on the remains of Any Morsel of a Mistake, and I knew it.

 So instead of thinking about music, I was thinking about string squeaks.  I was thinking about That Really Tough Stretch Coming Up.  That Suddenly Super Quick Legato Part After This Chord.  Execution.

 Which means I could have played easier music (and maybe I should have?).  Or practice even more, which was not a wise utilization of my time given the diminishing returns of what said gig paid!

There are angles around some of the pitfalls.  Some Famously Skilled Acoustic Wizards have acoustic guitars set up with crazy low action, resulting in guitars that when unamplified do not sound very good.  You can also use compression (audio electronic effect), and weird guitar amplifier-like equalization to approach an electric guitar-like feel, but at that point one has to ask are you deluding yourself or the audience?  Hats off to the singer-songwriter guys that just use electric guitars, negating this downside as well as side stepping the "trying to make an acoustic guitar loud/amplified and still sound like an acoustic guitar" battle.

Using a lone microphone, not a pickup, in front of an acoustic guitar is very revealing and challenging.  When you watch footage of James Taylor or Neil Young playing solo in the early 70's, they're not playing hyper-technical licks BUT - they're playing point blank in front of a microphone, not an "acoustic guitar" with a pickup system through a processor/p.a..  That is something of an anachronistic skill set in the 21st century.

 At the bottom of the barrel is the "Fool My Friends" skill set.  In this scenario as long as you almost hit enough notes that whatever it is you're playing is recognizable - you've accomplished something.  And I'm not ragging that - it *is* an accomplishment.  It's something the Friend that is Your Audience can't do, and something you couldn't do at one time.  You can have fun in the garage band, and it's a stepping stone to the next level as long as one understands that concept. 

 The question is, do you let yourself stay there?

2) What is optimal in order to be artistic?

  Jimi Hendrix wasn't perfect.  He didn't strive to be.  He strove for balancing on that Live Audience Acceptability Standard versus going out on a limb improvising.  In my opinion, that is what you want. You want art you've never heard before, right?

 On the other end you've got the Technical Metal Guy who is looking at it as a sport, as is the audience.  Can he play hyper-technical and note-dense music flawlessly, all the way to the end?  GO!!!

 That's... interesting somewhat, but not artistic in itself.  It also runs counter to making art.  This is the realm of what I was talking about previously: the guy that is listening as if another guitar player is sitting in front of him.  Which has nothing to do with Making Art but impressing someone.

 Even within that idiom there is a scale of slop.  Some people think Yngwie Malmsteen is sloppy, others think he's "perfect". Does Yngwie care?  No.

 But this is a very hard road to travel, because we're already at the end of it where there is a sign marked "THE LIMIT OF HUMAN KINESTHETIC ABILITY".   Diminishing returns.  Bands like Rush and Yes set a high bar int he 70s, along with fusion acts like Return to Forever, Weather Report, Al DiMeola, Allan Holdsworth, and the king of complicated music, Frank Zappa.

 In reality, humans are not going to exceed what Zappa did with a group of people when it comes to playing Complicated Music.  It's been done.  Note density, tempo, duration can be made into hurdles, but that's all they are.

 Life is too short to spend worrying about What the Other Guitar Players Think.  I'm OCD so I worry about that - but I shouldn't.  I'm not playing music for musicians, even if a lot of them are. Having said that, the following caveat should be heeded:


3) What is best for a given practice routine? 

  This is where not being sloppy actually counts the most.  There are things you should practice at a certain minimum tempo, even at the expense of sloppiness, but in general striving for perfection when practicing will pay off.

 Which brings me to this point: the reason I'm writing this is in the hope that a student or students will note the gravitas of this.  I've said it a thousand times: playing fast is the easiest thing to accomplish on guitar.  It's just a matter of making yourself practice PERFECTLY.

 The trick is understanding what that means, and most people don't really embrace the idea that it's quite literal.  Not only that, but it's then multiplied by the perfect, optimal rate against duration.  At that juncture it's just repetition and training, patience in waiting.  If you're doing this properly, you can't help but to get faster.

 Which goes back to my point about the guy sitting in his bedroom in the 80's.  If you put a microscope on your playing, and do it enough - you get better.  It's very simple.  Patience.

 The flip side is that I encounter, about once a year, the Random Student That Has An Unrealistic Idea About Where Their Skill Set Should Be.  This person gets stilted by trying to make perfect something that takes more time than they allow, at the expense of not taking time to work on other things.  This is the "horse with blinders" brute force approach, that seems to make sense to some people.  Perfect practice has to include the calculus of the bulk of what needs to get done, not just one hay bale in the corner of the painting!

 Which is where I come in as musical "coach".  People in general are all over the place with their notions of expectations and sloppiness, and how that impacts what they play.  For most it's an inefficient perspective and combination.

 Knowing and understanding the above concepts will help a guitar student meter out their efforts, hopefully.  I can't impart to the Technical Metal Student that having a sort of Kurt Cobain level of coarseness applied to technique is not going to work, or to the guy that just wants to play punk music that obsessing about the angle of their pick in degrees while not working on playing barre chords is also wasting their time.  There are things one should consider "sloppy" from the outset and other things that are not as much of an issue, depending on where someone is in their development.

 In conclusion: "sloppiness" is relative, but something one should consider as a concept that one accepts as a philosophy, depending on your "audience".  There is no reason to expect your technical high-gain metal chops to translate to a steel string acoustic.  There is no reason to try to bother with legato lead guitar technique if you're not interested in that, either.  These are specialty skills that have different expectations for "cleanliness" in execution, and there is no reason to impose non-logical restrictions when 98% of your audience won't hear it.

 For the 2% that do, they're probably of a mental state that is non-congruent with reality, making and appreciating art.  Claude Monet was trained as an artist of the "baroque" school of portraiture and technique. In his early paintings you can see him still clinging to that (literal) school of thought, but with hints of rebelliousness.  It shows that he did have a legitimate baroque technique; but this is post van Rijn and Vermeer.

 Monet took what I think may be the biggest authoritative creative step in history, along with a group of peers in the Impressionist movement.  He started making paintings that were deliberately, intentionally disregarding notions of "sloppiness" of technique.  That is not the same as saying he did not have technique, or that there was no technique present!

 That is not the same as saying he did not have technique, or that there was no technique being used in the presentation. 

He gambled on his audience understanding, literally, the big picture.  Not the gatekeepers of the art schools, or the pundits.

 It took a long time, but obviously people have come around to appreciate his art. Music has, since the late 60s, been mired in a weird corporate-imposed state of limbo somewhat like what existed in Monet's life, a pre-determined set of "rules" that defined "art".  When people ask me "do you play classical guitar? Do you play jazz?" my first thought is literally "Andres Segovia already happened.  Joe Pass already happened".  I'm not practicing to simultaneously have perfect classical technique, or perfect jazz technique.  That has been done, and one human isn't going to do it all as perfectly as one human has done these specific idioms already!

 I do not adjust my "output stream" of acceptability based on the idiom.  I do not care to play Bach as perfectly as Segovia and will not waste my life bothering.  I do not care to play modern jazz as Joe Pass did. Paul Gilbert as the cleanest, precise metal guy.  Holdsworth the most legato.  Stevie Ray Vaughn as the most lurid blues player. They have already happened!

 I am all about hybrid vigor.

 I want something new, in some respect.  We have to move forward.  Monet couldn't be Rembrandt and Monet at the same time.  A 21st century artist does not have multiple life times to become the perfect Impressionist, Surrealist, Classical, Baroque, Picasso, Pissaro, Van Gogh etc..  They have already happened. If you look at that list, Picasso could never have happened if he'd worried about Vermeer's standards of execution.  Also note that Pollack, Kadinsky is not on that list; anti-technique as an approach is outside of what I am discussing.  There are actually people that play instruments deliberately untuned, deliberately out of time with no sense of meter.  There is a movement in Japan for "noise music".  You don't have to have technique at all if you want to make sound.  It might even being artistic; but again.... that's not within the purview of what I'm writing about.

 For some the challenge of being "perfect" might be appealing. For others, the acceptance of "being sloppy" may actually be a hindrance and misguided.  It may be perfectly fine to pursue one of the above, or multiples - I'm not saying that wrong, but I AM saying you want to be aware of the concept of differing approaches to sloppiness vs. perfection.  Where do you sit on that scale?



Friday, June 15, 2018

Sloppiness Pt. 1: For Whom Do You Play, and Pig Skateboards?

 On the planet right now, there are a gazillion different guitar players.  They all feel they slot into a mythical and intangible scale of "sloppy vs. not sloppy".


Part of my quiver


  A lot of people don't evaluate their outcome goals to meter that.  Worse, I think that the 80's wrecked a lot of people's sensibility regarding the concept and turned it into a overly simplistic, all encompassing unobtanium throne of "Perfect Technique".

 I'm going to digress (because it's easy), to an even earlier time of the mid-70s and tell a story about skateboards.  Then, I'll try to tie that into a useful analogy for guitar playing.  I call this "stunt blogging":

 In the early 70s skateboards were very skinny.  They were undeveloped engineering and design-wise, still mired in a limbo zone of being mostly a "toy".  Then, in the mid -70's skateboarding exploded and suddenly there were companies whose sole purpose was to make not only just skateboards, but skateboard parts.

 One company was Dogtown Skates.  Previously there had been a few companies making skateboards, but the shape and size of the skateboards was never really explored (except in length).  Somewhere along the line, the guys that rode their skateboard decks start noticing them getting bigger and bigger, and suddenly it became apparent that a wider board is more stable.  Boards reached beyond being 6-7" wide.  By the 80s people started using boards averaging 10" wide, or more.

 Since then, things have settled down into the typical popsicle stick board seen today, 7.5"-8.5" wide.  But wider than the early 70s, and some still prefer wider today.

At Dogtown, there was a guy in charge of cutting out the planks of wood for the new decks.  This was pre-CNC milling, computer controlled manufacturing.  What he was doing was taking and old deck, and using it as a template to cut out new boards.  Then for the next run, he'd take one of the new boards... and use it as a template for the even newer run of boards.

 Every time he made a new run of boards, he was gradually making them wider.

 For someone who doesn't have a real artistic mind set, the obvious answer to "what is an acceptable amount of sloppiness?" is "obviously" none at all.  The 80s saw the dawn of people staying at home in their bedrooms practicing for many hours a day with their amplifier probably no further than a few feet from their ear.

 The new urge to play faster and more technical led to countless people sitting in front of their amp - in a sonic-microscopic fashion, playing their favorite technically challenging guitar parts from recordings. 

 The thing is, the people they were copying didn't record in that fashion, with their ear up on their speaker.  They heard it blended in professionally by the recording engineer, or maybe out in the studio room with the rest of the band: a less than optimal way to hear what they were doing.  Unless they deliberately soloed their tracks, to polish what they were doing.

 But that was in a *studio* setting.  When that generation and prior was learning guitar, they were listening to more primitive recordings on more primitive playback gear.  They may or may not have been able to make out most of the detail of what their favorite Chuck Berry lick was.  Which was a good thing: this allowed for mutation and hybrids.

 Practice amps were not that great, nor were guitars for beginners prior to the 80s.  So the process of sitting in the bedroom to copy what one's Favorite Guitar Hero did was a more coarse experience, also not tempered by the social pressures of having to have extraordinary technical skill.

 So what was happening in the 80's was akin to the skateboard deck getting bigger and bigger by default. 

 People were transcribing guitar solos with more accuracy and precision than in some cases the original guitar part was played.

 Not only that, but since in most cases the guitar solo on the record represented the guitarist at his "best, peak performance", the practice of replicating that performance over and over and over in the bedroom meant that the Bedroom Guy's skill set was elevated over the original. 

Was art getting better by that process?

 Most would say "no".  Most became intimidated by the anti-punk philosophy of being not just pragmatically skilled, but highly skilled. Then it became trendy to say "no", and that begat the "alternative music" rebellion in the late 80s/early 90s. I think that was a harsh and moronic herd-mentality reflex, to the countless technically adept guitar players that came out of the 80s  unburdened by an artistic sense. But something else just as bad came out of it:

 The moronic, Dunning-Kruger notion of Attaining "Perfect Technique".

 It became kind of tres-cool to say things like "oh yeah, Hendrix... he was sloppy" in the 90s.  I would hear this from both metal guitar players, and technical blues Stevie Ray Vaughn aficionados.  Which was doubly stupid for the SRV fan to say, given Vaughn wouldn't have existed without being a Hendrix fan.

 That attitude matured into what is now a finely shaded and graded scale of "how perfect is your technique?" by a lot of players.  Finely shaded, because what constitutes "perfect" is different depending on who you ask, and actual reality.

 Here's reality: there is "sloppy", and there is "making mistakes". The question is: what is a pragmatic approach to being a a fallible, imperfect human?

 There are 3 concepts that should be recognized in this context, in order to have a practical, pragmatic and useful philosophical attitude on this subject... (outlined in Part 2):



Monday, May 28, 2018

Speakers Are As Important as Your Amp or Guitar!

"What kind of amp should I buy?"

 I get asked this a lot.   And I beg out of the question because of the complexity involved in answering it properly.  I'm never asked "what kind of speakers should I buy?" As far as I'm concerned, this is more important than anything else!

 It's fairly easy to put amps into the Basic Food Groups: Fender, Marshall, Vox, solid state. What's harder to do, with less experience, is to understand how different models of speakers affect that selection.   

 Those amps have certain characteristics that one can learn to hear, and guitarists in general tend to be aware of these characteristics.  Speakers are a different story.

 If a guitar player has spent their life as a person that has always used combo amps, they're accustomed to hearing "the amp" as a whole as including  whatever speaker came with the cabinet.  This would tend to be, going out on a limb, more Fender amp players because of the fact that it's fairly rare to encounter a Fender amp as a separate head.  Even when that happens, the player is typically going to have it plugged into the accompanying cabinet the amp came with.

 Marshall players are typically not combo users.  As such there is always the question of what speakers is in one's cabinet, what does it sound like plugged into a buddy's cabinet, the oddball 1x12 with the speaker-in jack, the 2x12 that fits in the car instead of the 4x12, or maybe even what does the bass player's SVT 8x10 cabinet sound like with the Marshall going into it?

 So one tends to hear hard rock/metal players talk about speakers fairly often.  At some point all experienced players start evaluating their speaker preferences, including the Vox aficionado.  I'm writing this to suggest that the reader - if you don't already know what speakers you like, their different characteristics - should educate yourself on the subject before you spend $$$$$ on gear that you are not evaluating properly.   You may buy your Holy Grail favorite amp, only to discard it for something else because you're hearing it through the wrong speaker!

 I'm not going to get into detail about the differences; you can Google that, and there are ample videos where you can HEAR the difference.  Having said that, one should look up one's favorite players and note what speaker they prefer, and use that as a starting point. 

 Effectively speaking you need to learn about the following.  Note that a speaker magnet makes a big difference - alnico versus ceramic versus neodymium, and their relative size.  The cone and dustcap design matters as well.

Celestion (brand)

 "Greenback" style
"Vintage" series
Alnico Blue and Silver
"Generic" Celestions (65,75, 80 watt, etc.)


C12 series
P series (alnico)

EV (ElectroVoice)

EVM series


E and D 120 series

 Note that the company Eminence makes effective clones of all of the above, as do a few other  brands.  You still want to think in terms of the above, though.

 So first, note what your favorite players use (Google!).  Then, rummage on YouTube across the bazillion demos and comparisons of the above speakers.  Try to see if you can think of some common characteristics you hear: dark (less treble), bright, bass-heavy, thin.  Do you hear the pick attack more with one speaker or the other?  Does one sound more percussive?  Does one sound "clearer", or "muddier"?

 Not only should you know this before going out and buying amp after amp and hoping something magically works out, it also increases your listening experience to music: you're educating your sonic sensibilities to these differences.  I can point out these things in a lesson, but unfortunately not "here" in writing.  If you're motivated enough, this is one thing you can learn off of YouTube somewhat.  It's not to say that playing through these speakers isn't it's own thing, because it is - as well as playing through these speakers at actual volume!
 But you'll be much closer and have a better idea of what you like and don't like.  It might save you $$$$$ as well...





Sunday, May 20, 2018

Habitual Choice and Guitar Playing

 So I'm listening to Jude Gold's _No Guitar Is Safe_ podcast last week, and he's interviewing Zakk Wylde.

 Takeaway #1:

I'm not a big Zakk fan.  I am, however, a big Randy Rhoads fan.  But that's not why I was listening.  I was listening because even at my advanced age I still try to absorb everything I can. I listen with the hopeful expectation of gleaning some little morsel of something I didn't know before, a bit of wisdom, anything. 

 One of the cool things about Gold's podcast is that you get to hear the interviewer au naturel, playing along with Gold.  What the guitarist he's interviewing has to play through varies, and that in itself is interesting, as well as how they've apparently decided to set their sound as recorded in a less than perfect, less than pristine-studio condition.

 I digress.  The takeaway is that I listen and read everything when I'm not playing.  You should, too.

 Takeaway #2:

 While listening to said podcast, you hear Zakk fiddling around with various songs in a casual context.  Whenever he plays a chord for more than a beat - he puts vibrato on it.  It's obviously a nervous habit, and the basis of his ultra-aggressive vibrato. 

 The takeaway is that his habits are what makes him "Zakk Wylde".  Habits can be a good thing, and a necessary thing in the case of style.  You only acquire habits through practice; and what you practice is unique to you, and should be unique to you. 

 There are bad habits relative to technique, but that's not the same thing as a habit in choice.  
 The percentage of habitual choice relative to the generic is style. 

 You have to play.  A lot.  You have to play something you really like, a lot.  You have to do this to the point that it's automatic, a reflex.  When you think you might be doing it too much - that's maybe enough.

 When you improvise it has to be deliberate in the moment.  Not well before, and by "deliberate" not the byproduct of a conscious thought that requires math.

 If you don't have your entire life to devote to music, you have a choice: make a study of it, make it academic.  A worthy pursuit, if you're going to continue to listen to music the rest of your life, you should at least know something about how it works, right?

 Another choice is to embrace the habits of the value of specific things you love in music.  As an example for some it might just be the classic "Chuck Berry double stop lick".  In which case you should wear it out.  Don't worry about anything else for "a while", weeks, maybe months.  Be able to do it in all permutations, double time, backwards, off beat, accellerandos, pulling back, alternate picked, strummed, all of it.

 To the point where no matter the situation you're in, you can take that musical phrase and really and truly use it.  

 You have to make it a habit.  Style is the result of habits.  You must play enough, long enough with intent, to form habits if you want the musical "food" to produce the semblance of style.  Reading this, watching a video, reading a book on technique, buying a new pick or guitar won't make style happen.  Concentrated effort on a very specific thing is required for a habit to form.  Even if you only have one stylistic habit, it's the building block for a style.  You may as well start now...


Monday, April 16, 2018

"What Amp Should I Buy?" 2018

 That question is always loaded, because the answer can vary in so many ways depending on who is asking.

 Instead, here are some things that are on the forefront of my mind as "good gear that presents a unique value for some reason".  I don't own most of it, and I don't intend on buying it, but for the reader it might be of use.

Suhr SL68: if someone asks about what Marshall to get, this is actually the first thing I think of.  It's built right, the right components, the right component values.

... but then, I also think about the new 20 watt Marshall Origin.  It's less than $700, sounds like a plexi, has a couple of bonus features that are well thought out.  And it's less than $700.  Enough power for any situation short of an arena.  Less than $700.

 Egnater 15 watt Tweaker.  Still the most useful all around tube amp, plexi/Fender/AC30 tone stack/path, less than $500. For most probably the best choice if one isn't sure what one likes or wants.

 Boss 50 watt Katana: yes, a gazillion people have already written about this.  I had not heard one until last week, and I was impressed.  These will eventually be what I use at my office for lessons.  They've got it dialed in perfectly. While the tone control response is non-traditional behaving, and somewhat compressed, in reality that's more useful in most situations than what the "real" version does.  All the effects you'd ever need.  $210, 50 watts, plenty loud for, again, any situation.  And it doesn't weight anything, I think it's actually levitating, so for a "toss in the car" kind of gig it should rule.  I hate, hate liking something that has received such overwhelming mainstream acclaim, but it's deserved.

 Yamaha THR-10: the Almost Katana.  I have one of these because it's more portable than the Katana and because it's stereo, more conducive to being used as a portable writing/recording situation.  I believe Yamaha's circuit emulation is pretty spot on, the downside of the amp being the tone controls are very exaggerated sounding and can get you into trouble too easily.  The bizarre thing is the lack of a speaker output jack; if I could easily plug it into a 1x12 cab these would be what I'd use for guitar lessons. The little speakers means it sounds "thin"; but the recorded-via-USB sound is very good.  But the important thing (that Boss gets right with the Katana as well) is that the touch-sensitivity/feel is "realistic cranked amp".  It can be tonally manipulated by touch, something most modelling amps can't do.  It's accomplished here because they're "modelling" the circuit path instead of just doing a "snapshot" impulse response.  I believe that's also why the Boss works as well, because it's Roland's COSM analog-circuit emulation.

 Used Blackstar HT-1R: this is what I've been using for guitar lessons, does Fender/Marshall with the turn of a knob.  A positive thing about it is that they do the Apple product thing in that they don't give you much choice to allow you to get into trouble: just a tone control.  It has a 1 watt tube push-pull output that through a 4x12 sounds very, very authentically plexi.  The reverb sounds very good in it as well. I paid $89 for mine on a Guitar Center "Daily Special" deal; if these sold for $100 new I would recommend these to any new student automatically.  It can do any style of music from country to the metuhls.

 Fender Deville: a cheap way to get Tweed Fender sounds.  Not quite perfect, printed circuit board, weighs a lot.  But a lot cheaper than a reissue.  But not as authentic (but I prefer them; I wish I hadn't gotten rid of my 4x10 because it was killing my back getting it in the car as my clean amp).

Fender Deluxe R.I.: most common all around amp.  The Hot Rod versions are good.  For some this would be the last amp they'd have to buy.  Another amp I wish I still had one of laying around if I were rich.

 Where are the boutique amps?  "Boutique" amps are effectively just better built versions of various Marshall/Fender circuits.  A person taking advice on amps shouldn't be spending money in this category!  As far as I'm concerned, the Suhr Sl68 IS a boutique amp, but it's not *that* much more than a reissue, and I can definitely say - having owned maybe a dozen vintage Marshalls - that it's the thing to get.  I could maybe say Matchless would be the thing to get for an AC30 enthusiast, or the U-2 Edge/church gig guitarist, but in reality it's actually *better* than a real AC30 and in turn sounds clearer/brighter.  Fenders - there are so many variants that it is it's own minefield of decisions.

 Get a Boss Katana if you don't know.  Otherwise - dive in!  It's an interesting field, learning what your favorite guitar player actually uses, on what recordings, and figuring out if that's what YOU want.  It's a learning process of discovery about YOU, your preferences and what YOU want to hear.  Be warned it's a very deep thing people spend their lives studying, researching, and exploring.  It can quickly become a blackhole of info, that in reality the Average Listener can't consciously discern a difference between.  BUT, if YOU can hear it you'll play better and have more fun.  That's what it's about, right?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Omakase and Guitar Lessons

 Often people have predetermined ideas of what a "guitar lesson" is or should be.  For good or bad, right or wrong, that's just how it is.  Which is fine, because in reality there isn't a set way, and I think that's a good thing.  You should try different guitar teachers until you find one that makes sense to you, or seems helpful.

Stairway to Heaven?

 In the world of sushi, there is a concept known as "omakase".  Simplified it means "entrust the chef's choice". 

 I don't teach from a book, or even a particular plan or angle after the initial 4-6 week "basic training" period.  Everyone has different objectives, different expectations, different goals - or lack thereof.
  I've been teaching guitar all my life.  Early in my life I tinkered with programming, got as far as Assembly language and conceded my mathematical acumen wasn't adequate without a lot of updating.  My artistic skill was always sky high, but my drawing skills petered out around age 12 and again, needed updating I wasn't willing to bother with.  I last thought I would do photography - but like programming (and now recording music), "everybody does that". 

 My path was an individual one.  I quit college ( a foregone inevitability since age 15), haven't looked back.  Music is what I do, and have done for decades. The way to learning effectively isn't the lowest common denominator, procedurally obvious "book learning", quizzes-based semester school system method.  Private lessons affords you the opportunity to streamline the process in many different, and better ways. 

 I have a friend that is a sushi chef (Ito san, are you out there...?) that introduced me to sushi based not on my ignorance of the subject, but his experience.  I don't particularly recall what he made for me, but here I am many years later a sushi fiend; I've even read books about it, and of course the movie _Jiro Dreams of Sushi_ should be on everyone's bucket list IMO.

 The concept of omakase is that you sit there, and the chef decides what he prepares for you.  Perhaps with a little inquiry as to your tastes; but also there is the aspect of what fish and ingredients are available, their quality and freshness.  Maybe you think you want one thing; but maybe he knows there is something you might like better because of the aforementioned reasons.  Or maybe he specializes in a particular thing, or maybe there is a specialty you're unaware of. 

 Personally I'm not into that, I'm too much of a control freak and OCD - I know exactly what I want and don't like gambling.  But for some, it's a very worthy idea, and educational. There is a side benefit, in that often it means you're going to get more for your money.

 See where I'm going with this....?

 There are things that are fun to play on guitar because of the kinesthetic experience. There are things that are educational in subtle ways, that are not evident until you're into the process.  There are connections to different types and genres of music that are not immediately apparent.  There are things to be learned from just about anything; and I also claim that you don't even have to like "guitar music" to like playing guitar.  I like bowling, but I don't want to watch someone bowl.

 So if you're not sure, you may want to ask me or your guitar teacher for suggestions.  It may not seem appealing at first, and it may lead to a dead end, BUT - I've been doing this for a lonnnnng time and really, that's what you're paying me for!  Playing music is always, always a deeper thing than most people imagine, there are many paths.

 If you're a beginner, I do believe there is what I call a "basic training" period of things everyone simply has to know in order to make the process go smoothly, and to snowball into a steady learning curve.  But after that, maybe try "omakase". 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Check Out Norman's Guitars "Guitar of the Day" / Mark Agnesi

 Norman's is a vintage guitar/instrument store in California that has been around for as long as I can remember.  His store caters to high end collectors and artists - lots of them - and is as they say "the real deal".  

 Why I'm suggesting a student watch these videos is for a couple of reasons:

 1 - you get to see and hear about rare guitars that have acquired value through providence, and in some cases fame.  From a "learn what is what about guitars" this is a good resource.
 It's one thing to see endless listings of vintage-y gear, an old guitar hanging on a wall with a big price tag.  It's another when they come with some history presented alongside.

2 - the store manager that does the videos, Mark Agnesi, is a great salesman in the "old school music store" sense.  As a salesman he is a double threat.  He knows the history of guitars in great detail, but most importantly he's got the patois down for the description of the individual guitars he shows you.  He knows the salient points, and he is good at telling you in a manner that conveys the gravitas of the instrument.

 His other threat is important, something of an art that I think was once relatively common in the larger pre-Guitar Center Apocalypse era.  That is, he knows how to demonstrate an instrument!

 What I mean by that is that in the videos he plugs into a vintage tube amp, and doesn't proceed to shred Pantera licks in front of you on a Gibson L5. He plays what the particular instrument is good at, and perhaps something in a historical context - and he's a good player. 

 Having worked in a lot of music stores, I can say I know for a fact that Guitar Center's main reason for being on the precipice is for not respecting and hiring Experienced People.  It used to be you only worked at a music store because you knew what you were talking about; that was necessary for SELLING gear!
 That turned into hiring whoever, people that didn't really know what they were talking about but would work for minimum wage.  In turn, almost all information given out at music stores became fraught with both misinformation, and contrarian opinion that wasn't relevant to the customer.  I know this because I witnessed it time and again in stores I worked at, and other stores during this "interim" era as Guitar Center extended their tendrils.

 At this point I can say you probably shouldn't ask for advice from a GC employee, if they even bother to communicate with you.  I have friends and know people that work at the Odd Guitar Center that know what they're talking about. but it's not like the (... are you stepping on my lawn...?) Old Days.  Yes, I miss that era when I started out, and yes - it was better.  It was actual capitalism based on knowledge and skill.  What a concept.

 There was a time in the late 80's/early 90's where one could say guitars almost sold themselves - but that is no longer the case.  The music retail industry has been taken over by accountants and people with marketing degrees, and employees with scant real knowledge, and is - surprise - in a down turn.  I would suggest that this may also be what has happened in the auto industry, and the consumer electronics field.  Sure, people buy a lot of junk from Best Buy, but people used to spend more on nicer things.  Now it's expected that people get rid of their $450 IPhone to buy the $1,000 IPhone, mindlessly. 

 I suggest spending that on music gear instead of a phone - but with Guitar Center employees sitting on stools staring at their IPhone instead of playing a guitar or helping you, that's probably not going to happen.  Sheeple gotta sheep I suppose?

 So check out Norman's Guitar of the Day, you will probably learn something and get GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) in the process: