Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - 2016

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

How To Waste Your Existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, November 26, 2016

Mainlining Music

 I like music. A lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What is really happening is a feedback reward loop is created

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Uncanny Valley and Guitar

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

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

(ACME Depiction of Written Text)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Practicing Karen Carpenter Phrasing on Guitar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Syntax and Learning to Play Guitar

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

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

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

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

 An example is in the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Irony of Prince Being a Musician?

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

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

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

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

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

 Pop stars are no longer expected to be actual musicians.

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

 A novelty?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Band Rooms: You Are Where You Eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 19, 2016

Are You Doing Art, or Peeling Apples?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(video brought to my attention by Paige Patton)

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie: Scary Elegance as Art

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

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