Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - 2018

Friday, November 2, 2018

The WHEN Not the WHERE - a Sentinel For Dunning Kruger: the Stairway To Heaven Bridge!

There are lots of videos on Youtube about the "infamous" Stairway To Heaven Bridge.

 The way I've always explained it is that it is trickery to get the audience from one tempo to another.

 A fact that I haven't seen anyone point out?  Did they notice?  I'm not sure.  Because it seems instead they're very, very hyper focused on explaining why it's much more complicated than you think it is. Completely ignoring the Big Thing Going On, the tempo change.

 The reason I'm motivated to write this is because a couple videos just tell you point blank "you're perceiving it wrong".

 Which is effectively the same thing as saying that Led Zeppelin made a mistake!  Everyone that likes the song and that part of the song - you don't even know what you're hearing!  Wait!  You might not like it, or like it better, once you hear X YouTube expert's explanation of how it really is!  You're counting it wrong, the pulse is not what you think it is!

 Here's my expert opinion, for free like their explanation:

  The Dsus4 "fanfare" part comes in a touch late.  Deliberately.  The first time around is 88 bpm in 4/4, deceptively DROPS A BEAT before switching to the C.  It picks up tempo to about 92 bpm.  The C then deceptively goes an EXTRA 16th (perceived by the audience as effectively a "short beat") before going back to the Dsus4 fanfare (now at 92 bpm) which again drops a beat back to C - which this time continues at a faster 96 bpm, and Bonham puts the snare on the & of 2 - which is congruent with where Page put accents on the C, but then gives you beat 4 on the snare; at this point the AUDIENCE has been shifted to the 98 bpm speed.

 Also note the drums go away on the C chord: you can decide to count that however you wish based on the pulse of the strumming (including one guy that wants it to effectively be perceived as reggae...); but it's how the guy walking down the street who knows nothing about time signatures perceives it that actually (pun intended) "counts"!  That Invisible Listener's Foot is where the pulse is. 

But feel free to hear it as reggae, or some sort of odd West African poly rhythm if that's your fancy.  In reality, NOBODY who isn't a musician COUNTS when listening to music.  Nor do most good rock musicians unless something is really amiss.


 "Deliberately".  I've seen a video where someone insists it's a mistake.  Most all ignore that there are ebbs and flows timing wise - which is the essence of John Bonham's feel. There are people who will insist music that isn't perfectly gridded - perfectly on beat - is therefore "wrong".  This is an edict invented by people who don't want to make a judgement call on the reality that some music pushes the beat, some drags the beat, sometimes a mix.  Or least it was until the computer recording era came along.

 "Deceptively".  It is an artistic decision to make this part feel like something happened different,  and was abrupt.  They want to disturb the AUDIENCES inner metronome.  The effect of the sensation of being abrupt, something happened "early" is what is wanted.

 This is why I say it's not a time signature change!  If you're perceiving a different time signature then you KNOW there is going to be a missing or added beat.  The fanfare is 2 measures in the song, the first of which went (deceptively ) as expected for 4 beats, the second time dropping beat is NOT "dood, a measure of 5/4".  It's NOT a big measure of 7 (the rhythmic pattern REPEATS TWICE).

 It's very simple: they DROP A BEAT.  There is a difference: in an odd time you expect a beat to go away or return. You know it's an "odd time signature" - that's the point.  I would guess that people accustomed to the odd time of the Zeppelin songs "Black Dog", "Four Sticks" and "The Ocean" want this to conform to that creative notion.  It's not, it is deliberate musical deception!  And "in ye olde days" music as an art form wasn't that coarse; it would have been crass to have Yet Another Odd Time Signature with The Drummer Playing Across the Bar/Backwards/Poly/Syncopated.

 Because they've thrown the AUDIENCE off kilter they can sneak the tempo up a bit.  Which I claim was the point. 

 When they return to the fanfare - at the faster tempo - the audience now expects it to be short.  Of course!  So then they make the following C continue where the audience would also expect it to go the same extra beat as before - a surprise.  It also lets the guitar get away with accenting that cues the end tempo of about 98-99 bpm, and Bonham puts the drum-stamp of approval on beat 4 - but only after one last bit of deception with the snare hitting the & of 2:

in rock music the snare "always" accents 2 and 4.  The AUDIENCE is expected to perceive the & of 2 as a new beat 2 - or was it beat 4?  That ambiguity is the final step, closed by him hitting the snare on 4 afterwards.  BUT, because the & of 2 is after beat 2, a shorter length of time between the "traditional" 2 and 4 has occurred: the listener is pushed "forward", "faster". 

 It would seem "a lot" of people want "the tempo change" to happen at that moment.

 This is a very curious thing to me.  Even as a child I heard this section of the song pushing the tempo faster (as other sections do as well).  Yet, effectively all of these videos have one problem in common: they want the tempo to remain steady from before the fanfare section through to the guitar solo!

 Which means, they all want to do some crazy math to reconcile both beats being dropped and added, as well as the slightly late start, and the "early"-ish, 16th-ish change back to the fanfare the second rep, and the accelerondo at the intro to the guitar solo.

 Some guys want to count all the way across all sections, as if nothing repeats.
 Some want to add the fanfare reps into one measure of 9 beats.
 Some want the pulse to be 16ths on the C chord parts to account for the 16th coming back to the fanfare.
 Some want the listener to perceive it as syncopation to an invisible pseudo-clave pulse.
 Some have zanier ideas about it.

 Here's my beef: they all ignore what really should be the most important concept to the notion of "music theory": the only thing that matters is



 The mythical imaginary listener may not be able to use musical terms to explain their perception, but that doesn't mean they don't perceive.

 Music is not science!  It is SUBJECTIVE.  It is the most absurd thing in the world to tell an audience "no, you're not perceiving it right".  That's like insisting cerulean blue in a painting of a sky is ACTUALLY green, "you're just not perceiving it right".  The only thing that matters is perception of the audience.  One can count odd times over anything and insist that's what one is perceiving, but it doesn't matter.

 I will invoke Reverse Speculative Musical Anthropology and suggest that Page/John Paul Jones had 3 separate "songs" and decided to stick them together as an opus.  They had a problem: the 3 parts were different speeds.  They had to connect them together.

 They did that in the "bridge" section very cleverly.  So cleverly that the Scientists of Music do not agree on what is actually happening.  My addition to this pointless affair (because in reality, do you like it or not?) is that you can't remove the AUDIENCE PERCEPTION from the explanation.  Call it "Chip's Audience Perception Rule".


.. is the only absolute in "music theory".  When you count odd time signatures it does funny things sometimes to your perception.  Fundamental "sensations" of downbeat, up and offbeat get messed around.  It's confusing.  Sometimes the artist WANTS that confused impression (these days.. a lot want that apparently).  A blurry sensation of where the downbeat is seems the goal of a lot of prog bands, despite one of the important antecedents Rush making odd times groove being the dictate.  And certainly the king of grooving odd time signatures - Soundgarden - wasn't about making you feel dizzy about the downbeat.  They were all about it.

 Zeppelin didn't want you to feel confused about the downbeat on these parts of the song.  They wanted you to feel unsure about WHEN it was happening, not WHERE!

 For the first time listener to Stairway, they're simply perceiving a beat going away, a 16th being added - and in the process being tricked about the tempo.  Here's another thing: this is my opinion.  Not really an explanation, because - the way you perceive it is reality.  I'm sure there are people that won't, or can't hear it as a tempo change with beats added/subtracted (which is the problem...).  But in my OPINION the above is what is going on in reality.

$.10, thanks drive through.




Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Secret Music Retail Disaster Looms: Peak Guitar?

 After examining many videos of the literally hundreds of guitar factories in China, and seeing thousands of guitars stacked in each, I wonder "where do they all go...?"

My '82 Japanese made Squier Strat bought used in the 80s.  "Entry level" in 1982, now "vintage-quality". 

 Obviously somewhere, the world is a big place.  There are countless "developing country" export markets.  But I'm going to limit this discussion to "here" in the U.S..

 I've referenced "peak guitar" previously, but not in this context. Solid body guitars have been built routinely en masse since the mid-1930s.  I don't have production numbers, but let's say the "modern era" began with the Stratocaster in 1954. 

 There has never been a "guitar shortage" relative to demand.  So consider that demand was met every year since 1954.  Almost 65 years of consumer demand met. That doesn't mean it was 1:1, and exact number built relative to demand, obviously there would be an overrun every year, but let's ignore that.

 Another way of looking at that is that since the population has drastically shot up, and demand for guitars has been more or less a constant thing,

 Relative to 1954 64X consumer demand has been built (at least).  In other words, there are at least 64x as many guitars floating around today than in 1954.

 Yes, I know: all guitars don't make it to retirement behind a glass case in some Yakuza's mansion in Japan one day like a '58 'burst Les Paul.  But I would argue that the surplus not sold greatly outweighs those given to have been "broken", or "lost" somehow to the aether.  In general, there is a t LEAST 64 times as many guitars in the universe today than demand wanted in 1954.

Population in the U.S. in 1954 was about 150 million.  Today it's estimated to be between 350-400 million.  A bit more than 2-3x as much, let's say 3x.  Then, let's say that half of the guitars sold in the U.S. have evaporated into thin air somehow, leaving a 32 year production run versus 1954.

 In this imaginary context let's equate 400 million people today to then, 3X as many.  3 1954's to one 2018.  You still have over 25 years at least of guitars sold beyond human demand today.  These days a million guitars or so a year are sold in the U.S. alone.  But let's say it's half that, not as many sold in the 60's as now.

 That would yield at least 10 million guitars in a category of  "still exists, was wanted by somebody as "consumer demand" at some point".  That's obviously not all the guitars built or sold in the U.S..  Just a very conservative number of  "how many viable guitars are there in the wild, in the personal possession of someone in the U.S.".  I'd say it's much higher, but let's say it's 10 million.  What does that number mean?  It's not exact, it's not even clear what it entails aside from the claim that at any given time floating about I'd say there are at least than many guitars "in circulation".  At least.  I think it's something of a buffer figure: for the 1.5 million sold every year in the U.S., there was probably something like 10 million to be had, easily, used I'm guessing.

 I don't know how many used guitars are sold on Craig's List, Ebay or  But I'll step out on a limb and say that there must be at least .... 30-40 million viable guitars around in the U.S., if not more.  I'm going to say 50 million.

 I'd like to think that means around 15% of the population plays guitar.  I think it could be higher than that.  I think for the past 10 years we've seen the guitar replace the piano as "the instrument every child has to learn as part of being a well rounded individual, learning a musical instrument".  Cheaper and more portable than a piano, a certainly more relevant these days and motivating.  But it wouldn't be every single child in the U.S.?  On the other hand, the amount of people aging that do play guitar I would claim is increasing year by year for the same reason.  Gen-X and younger, we were the transition era from piano to guitar as the Instrument our Parents Wanted Us To Be Able To Play.

 What am I getting at with all of this?

 Solid body electric guitars in general, don't vanish.  All of the above aside, there is 50+ years of electric guitars around somewhere.  They *accumulate*.  And while the "nice" ones accumulate value, most don't.

 And with 50 years worth of guitars - millions - my question is, "how many more guitars are there in the U.S. relative to consumer demand?".  I think a whopping amount more.  Go on Craig's List, plenty of nice guitars being sold.  Unfortunately, everybody seems to want almost what they paid for their instrument ....

 ... The gist being this:

 At some point it will be Common Consumer Awareness that "guitars are everywhere!".  In reality one should get around half new value for used gear; this will become self evident at some point, and the used guitar prices will reflect this. What is presently maybe a 10:1 margin will grow. 

 In other words, it will become Common Knowledge that you can get a Perfectly Good Electric Guitar for half price, relatively easily, used. As it stands now, just about everybody knows somebody with an unused guitar in a corner of someone's house, somewhere.  At some juncture it will be just "the thing", Prices for cheap guitars used will be even less than half - at some point worthless as people realize....

 guitars are everywhere.

 What does that mean for guitar retail.....?


 China is building guitars faster than I can type this sentence.  At some point "soon" low-end guitar sales will fall flat, because of the above phenomenon.  China is speeding the demise by pushing this inevitability closer, flooding the market with hyper-cheap and quite decent guitars.  At some point in the future (presuming there is one...) - maybe 3-5 years from now, music retail will have to reckon with what will be seen as a "sudden loss of demand for guitars".  It will be dramatically, and ignorantly touted as something along the lines of  "guitar losing popularity?" when in reality it will just mean we've met Peak Guitar and the concurrently present population will just be finding guitars to start on in other places.

 In reality it could be a boon; more people will try guitar because "guitars are just laying around everywhere".  More people may end up being life-long players, and in turn buying better gear as they progress.

 ... but it's going to be hyper-annoying to read/hear people talking about guitar retail tanking, and hard for the remaining brick-and-mortar stores.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Entertainment Psychology and Practice

I don't use or recommend a book in the context of teaching guitar.

Because ultimately the trick to learning guitar is maximizing what is entertaining about it to you.

In the late 80's during the height of the hair-band metal technical guitar playing era, I could actually prescribe a pretty exact regimen for about a 1/3rd of my students.  They would follow it, and the following week be considerably better at what that regimen addressed.

 They were very, very motivated.  As in, I haven't seen that motivation since then; "people today" (who are standing on my lawn...) can't emulate that motivation, because it was the only time in recent music history where instrumental technique was high prized and actually commercialized.

 Back in that time on MTV - which for all intents and purposes was the entertainment equivalent of the internet for most people in that era - there was a few years where the dominant thing you saw on MTV at any one point in time was guitar-centric rock.  Not only that, but there would be a guitar solo featured heavily in the middle of the video: the guitar player was the star.  Literally.

 Women can't practice to look "as good as" Taylor Swift, men can try to workout to get that Arnold Swarzenegger physique, but it's not going to be the same.

 Guitar solos, on the other hand, was something you can work at and eventually mimic effectively "exactly".  You COULD be the same as the "star" on MTV.  You could walk around knowing you were special, able to do something that was put on a pedestal and respected on a global scale that made you unique.

 That did wonders for my business.  I started teaching in that era, and for many years I never faced the problem of having to figure out how to keep a student motivated.  I completely took it for granted.  I could do what the Famous Guitar Players Did, I could help the student do the same, it was very straightforward and focused.  Just about every student I had played in bands, and that continued for at least a decade into the 90's.

 Then it went away, although the desire to be in a Rock Band remained a pretty good motivating factor.  About half of my students would be in gigging bands, and some went on to making records and touring the planet.

 That went away as the record industry died in the 2000's.  So what remains now is a curious, diffuse mixture of wanting personal growth, a little bit of a rush of doing something special, and maybe a dash of rock stardom swagger thrown in.  But it's rather abstract and non-specific.  Nothing like "I want to get in a band and pull off guitar solos like the guy in (Insert Favorite Band Here)".

  In the year 2018 everyone has different motivations, different musical preferences, different schedules, different expectations, and an overall jadeness to the process of music.  Does "fun" mean a step above the Guitar Hero video game experience?  Is "fun" playing along with a song, or is "fun" being able to execute a single, stand alone piece of music?  Is "fun" having a professional skill set?  Is "fun" learning about how to make music from scratch and record it, or to be able to analyze it by ear?

 Everyone is a unique case these days, and it's super tricky for me as a teacher to prescribe a routine.  In the 80's it was purely a matter of mechanics.  These days it's a matter of trying to get the mechanical side of technique to move along linearly to expectation - which is tricky when the balance of "fun" and "tedium" is a ratio that's different for everybody.

 I insist that ultimately learning skills within the context of goals set by music recordings ultimately is the best way to go about things.  Nobody today is going to "practice" the mechanics of something for very long at all (particularly relative to the 80's) - but being able to get it out of the way while playing to music is easier.

 It's also informative from a rhythmic standpoint.  Doing something properly along with a recording that addresses a particular aspect of one's ability is really the only way to learn the "invisible" aspect of timing.  Learning the mechanics apart from matching it timing wise to the Real Thing is pointless!

 So the Trick is balancing the "practice" routine with what is at least marginally entertaining to you.  Which gets back to "what music do you really like?  Specifically?" and "what do you REALLY want to be able to do on the guitar?".  I'm not Vulcan, I can't read minds, you have to help me out on those questions!  Sometimes I can help the student out on it from a musicology standpoint, but learning to be honest with yourself is a good thing.  Do you *really* want to learn how to play The Currently Popular Song or do you actually like The Almost Unknown Song by One's Favorite but Unpopular Artist?  You'll learn much more within the framework of "what can be learned from that song?" because the entertainment factor will keep you motivated.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Open Letter to Roland Incorporated: Your Fatal Flaw

Dear Roland,

 You make, and have made, some really great products.

 The D-50 keyboard, the VS-880, pioneering guitar synthesis with the 303/707, and now through Boss the Katana amp line.

 I write this because I'm vexed.  I bought a Katana because for the price it seemed like a clever bit of kit for my guitar lesson business.  Very versatile, sounds pretty good, and it may even work as a throw-and-go amp with 50 watts and the 12" speaker.

 It has a fatal problem.  A problem that has plagued every Roland device in history.  So much so that there are a few of us professional musicians that KNOW this and avoid your products because of it.


This would be ok - on a floor pedal in 1988.

It can sort of be summed up as follows.

 Roland digital products generally have a lot of capability but with a less than adequate display interface and operation implementation.

 I'll avoid going into too much detail, anecdotes about the VS-880 "snatch mode", or the endless products where you get to "scroll" through a little led display. 

 I kinda get the feeling that there must be a "legacy Roland SDK" that is used to write all software.  The Katana has echoes of things that I saw in products from 20 years ago.  The anti-intuitive patch numbering, buttons that do double duty to "swap" functions to a different set of presets, and other things.  The big problem is that you decided to forego midi and require a bespoke footswitch to access more than 4 presets. 

 I can only get 2 presets at once, unless I go through the ordeal of pressing-holding etc..  In the Ancient Times before the Yamaha SPX-90 came out that was ok.  It's not in the year 2018.

 The double-duty knobs that switch function at 12 o'clock is a horrible idea.  That you can't get at both features at once makes it doubly worse.  A micro-tiny tap tempo button.  Not even an indicator led for which model is selected - it's like not only did you decide to go "retro" with an early-80's level of technology, you also decided to skimp on the hyper-expensive led (which cost you what - $.01?).  Peavey, Line6, various Chinese companies find it cheap enough to put display logic onboard for an LCD in entry-level beginner practice amps that cost even less than the Katana - there is no reason for this.

 So, one is never really sure what is going on with the Katana, even when plugged into the dodgy editing software with a computer.  The USER EXPERIENCE is diffuse and unpleasant.  To make matters even worse, I wasn't surprised to find the Katana manual looks like Every Roland Manual From the Dawn of Time: stereotypically dry and unhelpful.

 Line 6 is your competitor now, not necessarily because of a great sounding product, but because there has been some rudimentary thought put into the End User Experience, even down to the way the manuals are written.  It would be worthwhile to study and emulated them in that aspect.

 The Katana created a big splash based on price and capability, but I'm guessing that shine is becoming lack-luster as people realize in the day to day use it's just as frustrating as Any Other Roland Product.  I kind of expected the Katana to break that mold, I expected it at this point.  I was wrong, it's another clunky to use Roland product.

 So now I'm thinking of selling it, because while in theory it should be a great amp for guitar lessons, I'm basically just using it on one channel with one sound 99% of the time.  No, I'm not going to buy the footswitch that costs almost as much as the amp.  No, I don't feel like trying to switch it from a computer.  You haven't bothered with an IPad app - that might have sufficed, but no.

 I imagine the Roland Process is something like finding a New Capable Chip, throwing engineers at it to get the nth capability out of it, and then putting it in a box.  There is more to it than that IMO.  I'd imagine the perennial seller of Boss pedals keeps the money coming in, maybe I'm wrong, but it's a shame you can't couple capability with usability after all of these many years.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Influences Out of the Blue?

 I discovered something curious last year.  As a dilettante drummer I've taught myself many of my favorite drummers parts at different times in my life for my own edification.  I want to know how things work, and the process of learning always has knock-on effects in other fields, in ways that are never predictable.

 I remember after going through my nascent period of learning guitar, going through the wringer of all sorts of complicated guitar challenges, I one day put on a Pink Floyd record for the first time while holding a guitar, and discovering yes, I knew how to play just about everything spontaneously.  I had been listening to Pink Floyd most of my life to that point, and it was no surprise that I could play all the parts almost instantly and of course intuitively knew them. 

  When I'm listening to music I'm not trying to focus on any instrument per se.  But kinesthetically I have muscle memory for my limbs to play drums.  The drum beat corresponds to the limbs that would be used to play the drum beat.

 Guitar parts, yes, I know how to play whatever it is I'm hearing.  Drums I can't naturally reproduce on a super technical level, hence the learning bit mentioned above.  If I hear something that I'm not sure about how it's reproduced sticking and feet-wise on drums, I might be compelled to break it down and figure that out.  I might not be able to execute it at full speed, but that's not the point: I want to know how it works.

 I was/am also a super big ELO fan.  I realized last year that I already know all of Bev Bevan's drum parts from their record _Out of the Blue_.  I could probably scratch by in an ELO tribute band if given a week or so practice.  I know all of the fills and breaks, accents.  It's imprinted. 

 I've written about "mainlining" music before.  I love the _Out of the Blue_ record, I think it's perfect.  I've listened to it over and over for weeks when I was a little kid; I subconsciously absorbed the drum parts even before I could technically play drums. 

 It dawned on me not only did I know all of Bev Bevan's fills, but that my preferences drumming wise are very influenced by him.  He has a fairly pervasive 16th note swing, and a spartant post-Bonham, post-Ringo drum fill style.  This rhythmic sense translates to guitar: it's my right hand.  My rhythmic influences that affect how I play guitar are not just guitar players - but drummers as well.

 So two takeaways:

1) You can be influenced by things outside of guitar, whether you know it or not.

2) "Mainlining" your favorite music is educational.  It's necessary as far as I'm concerned: listening to the same song 10 times in row allows you to listen into it with much more awareness of detail than you'll ever have hearing it once one day, then maybe a week later, a month after that.

If you've never really listened to anything intently before - it's not going to flow out later.  If you've only listened to one thing intently - that WILL flow out, and it will be limited and one dimensional.  People look to music theory to circumvent this, but the reality is that you are what you eat. 

So listen to your favorite music, over and over and over and over until you're not sure if you're tired of it.  Listen some more.  Come back to it.  You're empty otherwise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I'm Using Paradigm Strings (for now...)

  I think I'm settling into Paradigms as my new norm.

 The D'Addario NYXL's seem to last a fair length, may have their own pluses and minuses - but cost more.

 I'm making this post because I still have sets of  "normal" D'Addario XL to use, and put a set back on  my work guitar after the NYXLs gave up. 

 An interesting experience, what used to be the norm I'd forgotten about: I found myself back into the old routine of fiddling with the tuning as the intonation immediately starts drifting a few days later.  A week later I already know "yeah, going to have to retune to play in this register for this song", "yeah, touch up the B and E for this part", etc.. 

 Not to mention the feeling of oxidation I'd learned to discount, and the slight tension difference, the floppy-ness as the strings get "old". 

 So I'm on the Paradigm wagon for now. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Do You Have a Monotheistic Guitar Rig?

 "Hero worship" is a good thing for guitar playing.  It makes a person strive to achieve something that is already deemed remarkable.  In extreme sports, one might risk great personal injury to acquire Tony Hawk's skill set, or certainly Travis Pastrana.  Relatively little bloodshed is required to try to accomplish what one's favorite Guitar Hero does.

 Ironically, a lot of people do something funny compared to becoming an X-Games hero.  Buying the motorcycle Pastrana has isn't going to help much in becoming "Travis Pastrana, Wild Man of Extreme Sports".   Guitar gear on the other hand, is out there for everyone and can go far to at least fulfilling the sound side of the equation.

 Guitar players do one of 2 things: they either try to buy the most superlative examples of what Their Hero uses gear wise - the Most Accurate Vintage Strat SRV used, the Most Accurate 808 Tube Screamer, the Most Accurate this or that.

 For a lot of those people that is fun in itself, it's a collecting hobby.  Which is fine, but not practical.

 Other guys will buy one piece of the puzzle, and use a bunch of junk for the rest and muse about why it doesn't sound the same.  Well of course it doesn't sound the same, Hendrix used a Fuzz Face but he didn't use a humbucker, a hollow body guitar and a Mesa Boogie.

 The question, though: is your guitar rig "monotheistic"?  

  I can look at someone's guitar rig and tell you what genre of music they play, and probably who their favorite guitar player is.  Can I do that with your rig?


  I haven't seen anyone talk about this, but it's true.  Your pedal board shouts out what you honestly like.

 I know if you've an SRV devotee, that's the easy to spot.  The dual Tube Screamer set up?  You've been to Bonaroo a few times, haven't you?  Fuzz Face, wah pedal... we all know who that is.  Variaced Marshall with the script-logo Phase 90, Floyd Rose guitar?  3 delay pedals and a Vox amp?  Chandler Tube Driver, T.C. Chorus, "Echoplex" delay, maybe a clean/dirty switched amp setup?  Strat, Big Muff, reverb and delay?   I know who you like.

 I know this, because I've had everything basically at this point, and I've worked in music stores most of my life.  I definitely don't recommend that, by the way, but - I've seen what everyone buys and uses.

 I'm not monotheistic, luckily.  I don't have to try not to be.  I don't have a single main "guy": David Gilmour?  Hendrix?  Or Brian May, or Jeff Beck, or Allan Holdsworth?  Jimmy Page?  I've probably been as influenced by the record _Frampton Comes Alive_ as anything, or Jeff Lynne of ELO.  Some of my favorite guitar solos are by people that are not "guitar heroes", and actually people whose names I hardly know because they weren't the "marquee" people.  Which leads to the next blog, but not just yet...

 In the 70's, as mentioned in the previous blog, there wasn't the 21st century effort of "finding the best Stevie Ray Vaughn Tube Screamer".  It was merely "this is the distortion pedal/overdrive that I use".  There weren't as many choices, but the choices available tended to be more iconic (as they are now copied either verbatim, or with "more precision").  Angus Young used a Schaeffer-Vega wireless system and as it turns out, the preamp circuit in that was his sound.  He didn't decide to one day use that, it turned out to be serendipity (again).

 Probably the use of Marshalls being a common point is the closest thing Back in the Day to being a nod to "precision", trying to get Hendrix' sound.  Les Pauls for sustain.  But people were not buying $800 Tube Screamers, or $500 "vintage" humbuckers to get "that" Duane Allman sound.  It's not that they didn't care, it's that they were looking at their own personal forest and not the trees.

 People today are trying to make a forest, one tree at a time, instead of letting it grow wild.

 I'm leaning towards low-output PAF style humbuckers in the bridge because of my affection for Van Halen's percussive distorted sound, but probably also because of Jeff Lynne and Peter Frampton's sound.  "Vintage" single coils for the neck because of Hendrix and David Gilmour, but also Jeff Beck.  A Burns in the middle because of Brian May.  Strat bridge for the sound of the rolled saddles - but I wish a Floyd could have that.  Maple necks because the attack is more "poppy" and drastic, manipulatable.  The body is a chunk of wood, I don't mind a Strat but I prefer the Warmoth Soloist shape for comfort.

 I prefer a Fender Bassman-ish to Blackface Twin-ish amp.  Which is funny, because I've owned vintage plexis most of my life - and it seemed reflexively logical: Van Halen, Hendrix.  But what about my love of Gilmour and Jeff Beck?  Brian May?  I prefer a hybrid in reality, a Fender circuit path.

 Always had my faithful Marshall cabinets with Greenbacks.  I dallied with a compact Peavey 412 with Scorpions in it for awhile; and in reality, they sound a lot like Greenbacks.  I may even prefer them, but... at the moment I know I always was missing the snappy attack of Alnico speakers.  I've not tried the  Eric Johnson Eminence speaker that is effectively a Greenback with an alnico magnet, but I'm guessing that's probably my ticket. Kudos to Derek Trucks, who used to use a car stereo speaker made by Pyle, of all things!
 I'm using a hybrid "Landgraff" style distortion (when I use distortion) but mostly a custom Baxandall eq pedal for overdrive.  The only tube amp I have now is a VHT Princeton clone.  I consider my Boogie Formula pre on the blackface/clean channel mostly my "amp", and it's kinda like a Fender Deville/Bassman with Twin characteristics.

 Now and then I like a Univibe - which is both a Hendrix and Gilmour influence.

 I do not have a reverb pedal, although I kind of need one.  I have a DL4 delay, but use it mostly for looping at work.  If I had a regular gig I would simply use my cheapo laptop as my delay and reverb with VSTs that do that job 1,000x better than any pedal.  Any day now I'm expecting other guitar players to realize this and start using their laptops in their effects loop.

 I could identify the origins of these items from a 3rd person point of view, and it's obvious where the influences come from; but it's not just a single source.  I could get by with just about any basic tube amp probably, but these are the things I've figure out I like, and what comes out is what comes out.  Hopefully this makes for a good mean that isn't just frozen pizza pretending to be a multi-course dinner.

 If you ONLY, exclusively listen to just ONE single guitar player, all the time, forever - sure, I think it makes sense to just go ahead and copy their rig.  Otherwise, look to the 70's for inspiration: a polyglot is more interesting, right?




Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Guitar Playing in the 21st Century: Precision Ruins Art

 Right off the top I'm going to (have to) write "no, I'm not saying it's good to be sloppy" or some other 211st century reflexively simplistic thing to say.  As usual I'm trying to present a new/different perspective, successfully or otherwise.

Part of my rig for years.  I sold the head because I wouldn't buy it at the price I sold it for, and I'm not really sure that the world needs Yet Another Plexi Marshall Guitar player.  I still have an old Marshall chassis that I will turn into a "hybrid something or another" amp one day as per this article....

 I've been pondering the 70's, which I find myself doing often because it seems to be the "anti-21st century" in some respects.  People acknowledge the greatness that happened in music in the late 60's/70's, but without much elaboration.

 The process of making music in all respects was much, much less precise in the 70's.

 The recording process was technologically more primitive.   Every aspect of it was an effort to battle a technology imperfection that was "trying" to wreck the process, either by distortion or frequency response problems. 

 The procedures were primitive - copy and paste did not exist, one had to take a chance using a razor blade to literally cut the tape and move the physical pieces around, then use MORE tape to put them together.

 The mixing process, the balancing of the sound at the end, was not quite automated, and often involved members of the band, sometimes the janitor/intern at the studio to assist with their 2 hands to set levels on the fly as the multitrack recording was played back for the mixdown.

"That's one thing, but this is a "guitar" oriented blog, Chip"

 O.k, I know.....

 Guitar technology was primitive.  I'm going to say something controversial: the bottom end Ibanez today is made better than Fender strats were in the 50's and 60's.  Leo Fender wasn't out to make the best guitar, he wanted to make a PROFITABLE guitar CHEAPLY.  Necks warped, frets weren't perfect, string action was higher, pickups were randomly wound, setups were random.

 Vintage Marshalls are known for having different "personalities".  Because again, they weren't trying to make a perfect amp, but a profitable one.  The SL68 "Marshall plexi" John Suhr makes is miles beyond in quality what the original was.  Amps back then were always blowing up, and unlike today there wasn't an Invisible Onus to divide yourself into one of the "camps" - Marshall, Fender, Vox.  The Beatles used Vox because they couldn't get what they wanted - Fender amps.  B.B. King, whose tone nobody criticizes, used a solid state LAB amp.  Brian May of Queen is known for using Vox amps, but a lot of his parts is a tiny little solid state amp cobbled together by the bass player John Deacon from a discarded car stereo.  On and on.

 Speakers are the same situation.  Quality, outside of EV and JBL, was sketchy.  People were (as they do now to a great extent) using whatever they could find/afford.  A hodge podge of choices.

 If you look through guitar magazines of the day (of which I have read all of them almost, year by year), you see ads for a much more diverse array of gear.  Most interestingly (to me) was that the ads were not overly self-conscious about selling to one single narrow genre.  It was tools.

 The Result:

 Not only did almost every guitar player have a fairly unique sound (whether by plan or by happenstance), sometimes for every song there was a different guitar sound.

 Today we try to approach things clinically, and I'm super guilty of it: refine the sound to it's "best" example in all respects, because after all - in the 21st century we CAN try to do that!

 That is poor 21st century reflexive thinking on my part, and everyone else IMO.   I get aggravated when someone makes a pat retort to a conflict that is superficially "the OBVIOUS correct approach/solution" - and that is what OBVIOUSLY trying to get the BEST guitar sound is as a pursuit. Art is not that simplistic.  One should strive for a unique combination, which is something I've had to backtrack on in the past few years.  On the other hand - I now have the experience to pick and choose properly as opposed to randomly (trying to be positive here...).

 What I like is a hodge-podge of gear, and my quiver has started to reflect that over the past half decade.  My gear has always reflected a push and pull (pun) of amps, guitars, pedals and effects that were meant to go in a direction of a particular player I like - but not a SINGLE particular player.  That leads me to my next blog post topic:


Sunday, August 19, 2018

What Pick to Pick?

"What pick should I use?" is maybe a Top-10 question I get.  Which kind of has an easy answer:

Raise of hands: who has seen one of their own guitar picks under an electron microscope...?
 (special thanks to student Dave Burke for the electron microscopy!)

 What does that mean?  I presume the person I'm talking to is going to either be looking at the plethora of plectrums (sorry) at the must store.  In which case (sorry again, geez...) I'm sure there will be the ubiquitous Fender medium celluloid pick.

 I may sometimes suggest someone get a thin pick.  From a string collision standpoint, a thinner pick causes the picking hand/arm the least amount of disturbance and resistance, which makes it easier to maintain a steady rhythm.

 There is a lot more to picks than that, though.


 Basically picks are made either of a cellulosic plastic, which is what most people initially think that a guitar pick is - the Fender style pick material.

 The most popular at this time though, is Tortex.  Tortex is a plastic that once had a trade name called "Zytel" if I'm not mistaken (could be).  This is commonly associate now with the Jim Dunlop brand, and are color-coordinated based on their thicknesses.

 Nylon plastic I believe was popular in the 60's and 70's.  There was a brand called Herco that from my Speculative Anthropology (tm) research was the popular brand at the time.  The Herco style had an embossed sand-paper like texture where one holds the pick.

 The remainder are something of a grab bag of outliers.  There was a time when actual tortoise shell was a thing to use as pick material; the Ultex plastic material is meant to replicate that.  Delrin is a thermoset plastic that has some strange properties that would seem to make it a good pick material, but in my experience they wear at really strange rates, and seem to be a bit "dead" response wise.  There are also horrid cheap plastic picks that you don't want to use, you'll be able to figure that out fairly easily. Hard acrylic/ translucent picks have the down sides of celluloid and break sooner, and usually have "flash" on the edges that feels extra-resistant to smooth rhyhm. There are also steel and copper picks, and the curiosity of the Big Felt Pick that it would seem nobody is absolutely 100% sure about.

A thick human hair is about the width of the scale shown at the bottom.  One would think a bomb went off on the pick; does that mean I have "explosive" picking...?  Hah...


 I'm going to start with the felt picks.  You'll see these at every music store, yet at every music store I've worked at nobody can really give you a straight answer of what they're for.  Typically you'll get one of 2 answers: they're for ukuleles, or for bass.

 You want a soft sound on ukes.  But back in the the nascent days of the electric bass guitar, the notion of accepting the difference in sound from an upright double bass was not embraced.  The felt pick I believe was originally meant to NOT sound like a pick, but more like fingers.

 Which they do in a way.  The problem is that they immediately start shedding felt and make a mess.  For guitar it's a nice soft sound, but in both cases: I've never, ever encountered anyone using a felt pick. I've only seen someone buying one because I think they're not sure if they should have one or not.  In the studio they can be useful if someone plays bass with a pick but is having problems playing softly, without making a lot of...

PICK ATTACK NOISE an integral part of guitar sound.

 The standard celluloid/Fender plastic pick almost instantly gets a microscopically jagged edge that creates a raspy high frequency attack sound.

 The angle one puts on the pick can demphasize that, or enhance it.  For certain types of blues playing, exaggerating it adds an more brilliant and cutting initial sound associated with certain guitar players.

 From a playing stand point I hate them with a passion - they're almost getting worse and worse, more and more jagged, raspier and raspier.  They're effectively snagging on the string.  It's something that takes up a little bit of processing power that I don't want there.  But for some, it's part of "their" sound.

 The biggest downside is that THEY BREAK.  They'll split on the tip when you least expect.  You can use a "heavy", but they will still break.  So, snaggy feel, raspy sound, and they break.  BUT...

 ... they're the only pick that makes a proper pick-slide sound - and it's got to be a "medium" or "light" pick.  So, if you want to do those Tom Scholz Boston long pick slides you have to use one of these.  Because a nylon won't really do it, and a Tortex definitely sounds different and less satisfying.

The Tortex material iss great.  They last an order of magnitude longer than a celluloid pick.  Not only that, but as they wear down they basically sound the same, except as the tip gets more blunted you get a more pronounced attack.  They don't break.  They're superior in all ways, except one - they sound silly doing pick slides.

  Nylon picks are kind of halfway between the Tortex and celluloid.  When new they have the least pick attack noise, very smooth feel on the strings.  As they wear in they get a little bit raspy, a little bit less smooth - but nothing like a celluloid pick.

 They have an additional property of being a little bit softer, which for the thinner varieties means some people actually bend them in their grip.  The super thin Tortex picks will do this as well, but with the nylon it facilitates changing the angle of attack which alters the sound - Tortex has a very wide window of "normal sound", it's hard to make them sound excessively raspy even for effect.

 Nylon picks will break, but it's like guitar strings - you don't need to expect it.

Metal of course lasts the longest.  The problem is that the thinner ones cannot sound soft, and all of them have a specific "tinkly" attack sound that some like, some hate.  The biggest downside is that they quite rapidly destroy the wound strings; and you'll get string shavings all over your guitar and into your pickups, and that can be a big problem.  If you have a string endorsement and a roadie to change them constantly, it's maybe not as big of a problem?  Also know that the copper picks will stain your fingers green, and you're probably absorbing a considerable amount of it.

 Delrin, and the outlier plastics - they're a mish-mash of disadvantages over the above.  The Ultex material has a specifically raspy quality that I presume is what tortoise shell sounds like (I've never used one, thankfully that stopped being a thing in the 70's).  It's kind of like Tortex with the snaggy/rasp of celluloid, but a specific high frequency rasp that is a bit more forgiving than celluloid.  If one likes that scratchy pick attack sound, but doesn't want to bother with learning to manipulate it this would be the pick to get.  It's more forgiving, lasts 10x longer than celluloid.

STONE - pretty self explanatory.  Thicker, scratchier, destroys strings, makes strumming feel weird and playing smoothly a more random event.


 The tip determines the sound.  The stereotypical shape is "neutral" sounding.  You can also get pointier tips, which translates less energy into the string, or blunter (pre-worn out?).  Some people will use the side, the "hip" of the pick either for the sound, or because it seems faster (because of the shallower angle of attack).

 There are also all sorts of goofy things, picks with multiple tips, fanned tips, the oddball Dunlop brand "shark" picks that, again, people can't really explain the why of, and the new trend of really odd thicker-at-the-tip picks that some Obscure Metal guys prefer.

 There was also in the 80's a very strange pick, whose name I don't recall, that was nylon but had a diamond-shaped knob on the tip.  It's purpose was to force you to be hyper-careful, otherwise the pick would snag, literally get hooked up on the string.  It worked if you were patient enough to use it - but redundant if you can make yourself practice picking that carefully in the first place!

  Coins: 2 very famous guys are known for using coins.  Brian May of Queen, the British sixpence.  Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. top, a Mexican peso.  Gibbons stopped using a peso a long time ago I believe, but Brian May used one his entire career.  The serrated edge of some picks make a very exaggerated rasp on the attack (listen to any Queen guitar solo for the characteristic squeak), while the round shape has a very specific loose feel.  You can try using a quarter, but remember it's metal: you'll quickly destroy your wound strings.  Gibbons and May are imbued with the magical Endless Supply of Guitar Strings as well as The Guy That Automatically Just Changes the Strings When Needed on Your Guitars.  Imagine that....

 Size.  There is the "regular" traditional Fender/Herco shape.  There is the smaller "Dunlop Jazz II/III" size, usually with a pointy tip.  There is the Oddball 3 Sided Triangle that is awful but apparently popular as "bass picks" in the 70's; maybe for cavemen players that would break celluloid picks so fast they preferred having the convenience of "3 picks in one" over the completely anti-ergonomic shape, and weird string feel?  There are some picks with thicker areas where you hold them, holes in the middle.

It's interesting how the edge has these "gigantic" clumps of abraded material.  I'd guess this is what goes away with the "carpet smoothing trick"?  (Again, thanks to Dave Burke for the electron microscopy!  It's great knowing visually what something *feels* like, and it's interesting how it matches how I imagined it!)

 I presently use a medium-ish nylon regular sized pick, which I get in bulk from China.  I prefer something like an .88mm (medium-ish) Tortex in the "jumbo jazz" size/shape (which means a pointy tip but regular size).  The "jazz", pointy tip makes a thicker pick sound like a thinner pick - less attack - if you can control it, and raspier like a celluloid pick if you rotate it slightly.  If you grip tighter it makes the attack more pronounced, which is good when you play "fast" for note definition - if you want that.  I'd prefer a pointy tip in nylon if there was such a thing, and cheap.  I use the nylon picks as a compromise, because they're relatively cheap: when they start getting worn down I'm not in a mind set of  "I can still use this pick, I can't waste".  I ditch them before they get to the "might split" phase.

 I propose a pick with a Tortex jazz-tip encased in celluloid.  As the celluloid rapidly wears away the Tortex pick is "unveiled"; but if you wanted the "scritchy" celluloid sound you'd still have it by digging the pick in deeper or rotating onto what was still there of the celluloid.  It wouldn't break and would still be usable even as the celluloid wore away.  I'm not sure if celluloid plastic can be bonded to Zytel, though... hmm, I need to email a friend in N.C. that is a plastics engineer?

 There are always fingers, and for some reason today I'm getting more people that want to insist on using just their fingers.  Which makes sense if you're going to EXCLUSIVELY play nylon string guitars and classical music.  Otherwise - you've got to use a pick!

I spotted a virion instantly in this image; my germ radar is well tuned, but I guess not enough hand sanitizer that day..?

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.