Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - October 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Learn from Jackie Chan Learning from a Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 "Be like water" - Bruce Lee

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Snoopy Cadence

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

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

Probably Not Optimal

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

This is not how I recommend one play power chords:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Is Your Guitar Sound This Image?

 Pretty frightening, isn't it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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