Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - 2020

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Covid-19, Guitar and Television Interviews?

  It's been interesting how, out of the blue, the pandemic has changed so many things.

 Guitar sales hit a record this year, while Guitar Center (finally)(after a BILLION $ IN DEBT) goes into bankruptcy.  

 There has been a lot of talk about the state of guitar in the U.S., it's popularity or lack of popularity.  At first this was driven by sales figures being low last year, or assertions about what "popular" music has guitar (or doesn't).  Quasi-valid statistical perspectives.

 I'm quite tired of mediating everything on stats.  It's not perfect, and it's often distorting by initial conditions or cherry picked parameters.  There was a time when humans made these things called "decisions" based on something called "intuition".   It's what makes us better (for the moment) than a.i. machine learning software; our subconscious processing power still vastly exceeds the best of what is available in computer hardware.

 From my Vastly Exceeding Computer Hardware anecdotal extrapolation perspective I noticed a phenomenon that pretty routinely happened:

 Guitar as an at home tv interview backdrop.

 I can't remember the first one I noticed this happening on.  I wish I'd taken screen shots, because I know there have been some curiously notable people (Dr. Fauci I think?) and some suitably interesting choices (Taylors, Suhrs, etc.).   

 Based on this phenomenon of people seemingly wanting you to know they play guitar (I recall one interview with a doctor where a guitar neck seemed poised precariously almost on a doctor .... for "some reason"), I would suggest guitar is as popular as ever.  

 It is also apparently serving a couple of purposes.  Obviously providing character support for people's identity: people are proud of being a guitar player.   It also implies people are looking at the time at home as an excuse to finally learn to play the guitar.  

 Which I of course think is a great idea....

  As I've said many times, "if you're going to listen to music the rest of your life you may as well learn something about how to play and create it".  It's enlivening to see so many having a guitar seemingly playing a role in their lives, and not just passive non-player characters in life!

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Dawn of DAW Collage Metal

  A student recently turned me on to an artist named Richard Henshall.

 Interesting music.  The first song I head has some guitar sounds that sound "dropped in" on a DAW - "digital audio workstation". 

 Digital sampling first entered the toolbox of musicians in the 80's.  With the Fairlight and Synclavier workstations, later the Akai 9000 drum machine, a musician could bounce a finger on a key/button and playback the sound of an entire orchestra playing a chord for an instant.

 This became known as an "orchestra hit".  Different examples of this style are scattered through music of the 80's, with many examples of voices recorded and made to stu-stu-stu-tter-ter-ter with the bounce of a finger.

 Then later, Pantera happened.  Suddenly noise gates were in fashion, to make choppy stacato rhythms that much tighter. Much metal has been made that is descendant of this style. 

 Like most things in the 21st century, this has to be taken to the extreme.  My first thought is that Periphery took the "overtly rhythmically complicated arrangement" theme and ran with it, alongside the math rock djent bands that seemed to be trying to backwards engineer Morse code.

 Meanwhile "Prog Metal" happened and odd time complexity became That Much More Cool.  Perhaps spurned by Tool, overt compound polyrhythms became a prerequisite instead of the Showcase Bit. 

Concurrent to this the "dance/house music" EDM scene went through a metal-like fractioning of genres, and in turn had created many niche sub-genres based on rhythmic density and style.  I would suggest the producer Photek to be the progenitor of much of this; parts chopped up in DAWs and made to loop back in rhythmically peculiar ways.  A distinctly unnatural sound, created with technology.

 Polyphia seems to be leading the charge today, I'd also suggest maybe Chon.  Rhythmically sliced up "incomplete" parts that feature moments of dissonance, contrasted against partial melody, sometimes unresolved, sometimes "ironically" resolved.  But thematically, a few different parts "glued" together to form a whole.

 A collage.

 The thing about visual collages is that they usually range from being clever ways of yielding a whole image from distinctly individual parts, or almost a whole image, or just an abstract collection of disparate bits and pieces.   It can have a fractal quality; "wow, a giant Mona Lisa made of multicolored tiny images of the Mona Lisa!", "that's a car made of pictures of horses!".   Or sometimes it can just be a hodge-podge of almost recognizable bits, a cutup image of a rockstar glued to a piece of burlap inside a shoebox.  

.... sometimes it's just garbage glued together and called "art".  

 I'm pointing this out because this genre is almost an exact analog to the visual.  Collage as a form is very, very forgivable.  That is because it's my theory "art" requires presenting chaos in an organized fashion. "Organizing" garbage on a piece of canvas presents chaos that can disguise itself as being almost "art" because of that.  So it's a very easy door to open artistically; how far in one goes is the question, and how.

 Note another parallel: a whole lot of effort can be put into the detail of doing a collage.  A LOT of effort.  I'd ask "how many famous collages are there in history?".  I'd almost count some of what Andy Warhol did maybe, but in the case of "DAW Collage Metal" nobody is doing big swaths; Pantera maybe did, the Andy Warhol of the genre? (I think that was a joke?).  But my takeaway from this is the vibe I got as an art major: there are a lot of art students putting things together with other things in a semi-organized fashion, and then putting a frame around it and hanging it on the wall.

  Which is fine if that is truly what you want to do and like.  It's not for me; I'd rather keep working at the skillset as a whole to present just a painting - maybe the equivalent of a pop song.  Listening to Richard Henshall, I hear moments that hint at parts of a larger whole that I'd like more.  At about 6:30 minutes into a song called "Lunar Room" despite the busy metal drumming and loud production, it strikes me as being "Cold Play".  It's like a collage of bits and pieces, where the artist decided to make a nice little drawing of a house down in the corner, surrounding with a lot of "stuff".  

 It's interesting, it's literally like examing a collage hanging on a wall.  I'm an old dude: I still like the "Boomers", Monet and Renoir, Hendrix and Gilmour.  

 Hmm.  1:00 into "Limbo" by Henshall I'm hearing a guitar part that is... another Cold Play/U2 guitar dotted line?  I applaud his effort, and like some collages I will look at it briefly.  The thing that makes me sad in the 21st century is that I wonder if this is a reflex against the seeming impossibility to make a valid statement with less density?  The reason I'll only look at it briefly is that the emotions it creates are fleeting, and not as potent as the components.  I would prefer to listen to Cold Play; or for Loud Existential Bombast Beethoven's Eroica symphony.  For that prog-rock vibe Brand-X or Rush; for the Big Metal Production Devin Townsend.   I want to pig out and mainline the vibe.  

 If I was mountain biking in a pre-injured body 20 year old sense, this would make music that might fit listening to while zooming through certain trails; but it wouldn't be a synchronous experience (a separate project I want to do: music to go along with riding particular mountain bike trails...). 

 Collage metal.






Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Chinese Effects Pedal Buffet Is Now Closed

Get 'em While They Last.....

The days of buying cheap Chinese clone pedals I think are about over.

I used to recommend a $35 two-switch loop pedal to students, sold under a number of "brand names", that is now going for around $75 or more.  

 I'm sure there will be a while before the glut of Tubscreamer copies disappear, but the prices are going back up to the $60-70+ mark.  It briefly became easier to get some of these drop shipped via Amazon instead of having to order straight from China by Aliexpress.  How long you'll still be able to get things shipped from Aliexpress I don't know, but I see the prices creeping up on there.  

 Whether if you order something at this time (May 2020) you'll actually get it I don't know.  Some things I know they ship out of warehouses in the States, but some of the more obscure items I don't know.  

 If you've never owned the "standard" pedals - fuzz, diode distortion pedal, analog chorus, treble boost, one should consider the Chinese pedals as a way of learning what these things sound like, how they "feel" under your fingers. Particularly fuzz pedals, of which there are a gazillion varieties and flavors. 


The Arc of Labeling Compulsion and Genres of the 2000's

 There was a time, back in the pleistocene epoch, when you went to a "record store" to PURCHASE recordings in the form of vinyl plastic records.

 In such places, there would be bins of records.  They would be organized thusly:


 That was it.

 For example, the Star Wars soundtrack wasn't found under "soundtracks".  It was in the "CLASSICAL" section.  Electronic music like Kraftwerk wasn't in "EDM/DANCE" or "ELECTRONIC" or some such, it was not jazz, it was not classical or country music - so it was in "ROCK".

 (Browsing through Spotify nomenclature...) 

James Taylor wasn't "FAMILY FOLK MUSIC" (???).  Rush wasn't "PROGRESSIVE METAL".  The Clash wasn't "BRITISH PUNK".  Black Sabbath wasn't "DOOM METAL".  

 The effective thinking was "if it's not country music, it's rock music".  

Likewise, pop radio stations in the 70's played music that sometimes would be found in the "COUNTRY" bins, sometimes "ROCK" - occasionally even "JAZZ" and "CLASSICAL".  

 Because it was about MUSIC.  Not an exercise in how well something fits a description.  Musicians made music that was labeled after the fact - because it was presumed it would simply fall into one of those categories. 

 It's my belief that's why pop music defied categorization in the 70's.  

 In the 2000's we had Peak Genre Categorization.  I found myself having conversations with students about what bands were "emo" (an invented by the record industry label for promotion) - with zero consensus between different students.  Metal students were obsessed with focusing on specic sub-genres: Northern Swedish Death Metal, West Coast Screamo, Emo-Screamo, whether pig squeals were acceptable but not cookie monster growls, whether there could be a chorus in a song, whether there could be melody, whether there could be one or two guitar players... on and on.

 In the year 2020, nobody purchases music anymore, you subscribe.  But the damage is done; everyone is fitting a niche.  It's ingrained that music has to not exceed parameters.  So now there are a series of about a dozen default categories, more granular than the 70's.  They are fenced off, once shouldn't dare cross.  It's codifed, it's the law.   

 It's amusing though, that some hybridization is accepted in each "genre" by no acknowledgment that it's occurred.  "Country" music today shares more in common with hair band metal from the 80's and hip hop drum beats than "country music" pre-2000 (I'd go further and say "Post Garth Brooks Era").  European dance music almost always has sampled metal guitar pads, but you'd never see a guitar player on stage with a dj.  Metal bands will have choruses that share identical chord progressions with the lightest elevator-friendly pop music.  

 Superficially it would seem that these hybrids run counter to my premise, but they're very specific hybridizations; new breeds that bear genetic semblance to wolves but are distinctly poodles, huskies, dachshunds.  Mutts are frowned upon in general.

 As a musician/guitar player, it presents a rigid reality.  If you really only prefer one specific hybrid, it works out.  If you like more than one style, then it's cognitive dissonance.  I've seen it happening to others, and myself: do you fence off what you create and do, or allow it to try to create a new "acceptable" hybrid?  This buried context has been stifling, and squashes a lot of interest in doing music for people today.  Which is bad - I've seen people face this without being aware of it, knowing that what they want to do is not *exactly* one of the Acceptable Forms, and instead of deciding to either stay within boundaries or strike out against them, the feeling is "failure".   People just stop.

 Being aware of this view of reality is something the Modern Musician has to know and embrace  because it streamlines the process, while preventing impractical flights of whimsy.  

Monday, March 23, 2020

Lessons Learned?

 Everyone wanted me to switch lessons over to online/video last week, as expected due to the COVID19 SARS-COV2 quarantine.

  I admit I had to hurriedly adapt.  I wasn't set up to do it initially and hadn't discussed what app people prefer, and it turns out there isn't a de facto standard video app.  Presently I'm trying to stay on top of about 5 different apps across my students.

 BUT, that's not what the title is about.  I've resisted doing "online lessons" for years and years, I've had many students move away and request it. The problem is that what I think makes me useful as a teacher is having a more or less instantaneous response to a number of things I see and hear.

 My process on paper is very complicated I suppose, but effectively it's to immediately address things that are being done wrong or ineffectively and offer a solution.  The latency of video prevents that, as well as something I've felt was integral: having the student play along with me leading, in that I can quickly alter the tempo and timing to both lead and allow the student to be able to keep up.

 That's out with doing it online.  

 The flip side is that I have to have a more macro view.  I have to verbalize more where previously I would demonstrate by playing along with the student, providing accompaniment.  Because of this from my perspective I'm compromising, because I can't micro-manage every detail!

 The "macro view" means that instead, I'm having to focus on getting the One Main Thing accomplished.  I've always maintained that if you need copious notes to remember what you need to do at home from a guitar lesson that there was probably too much done in the lesson.  Now it's not really an option in this video format; in which case I've noticed people have become more (from my point of view) "procedural".  One part requires something to be done that leads to the next part; I can't provide accompaniment that matches the tempo the student is at to help this along because of the latency.

 So now it's more cut and dry.  The essence has to be acquired before the next part, so to speak.  Because the only options are to hear the student play it alone, or with the recording full speed.  The mechanical problems that prohibit playing it with the recording full speed have to be fixed, and I have to describe how to do it verbally.

 Although, sometimes the camera allows a closeup of finger angles that is a unique, new aspect. 

These 2 things alter the dynamic.  I can't let a student gloss through something mechanically to try to get the Big Picture of playing a song in focus. I can't try to lead a student verbally as they play along with me, because the timing latency makes that impossible.

 On the whole, though, it may make the work-load task more straightforward to the student.  The lesson seems to go faster and more direct, and while less is addressed it's a little more obvious what must be done (seems like that's the new mantra in this post-COVID19 era...).  What is missing was probably a bit abstract to the student (timing issues, finger placement at speed) but in its place more specificity about what is vital.

 Hopefully, the positive comments are forthright and keep coming!

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Fluency is "Kind of a" Good Thing

 Knowledge and understanding are two different things.

 Something one will encounter a lot - a whole lot - around guitar players, when something musical is explained are the words

 "Kind of a".

"You know, it's kind of a Bm thing with an open string pull off"
"It's kind of an Eddie thing, with a hammer on a bar chord"
"It's kind of a old blues thing when you bend before going into the chord"

   The reader might expect me to disparage "kind of a" but I'm not.  In fact, I would suggest it's an important landmark to get to in one's "musical journey" as the oligarchs might have said on the show _Undercover Boss_ (everything is a "journey", right?).

 That statement is a verbal macro of the following:

 "I have learned something and know how to mechanically execute it well enough that I can experiment with it or modify it based on my internalized sense of taste".

 "Knowledge" is having learned the notes, chords and mechanical basis of a phrase.  

 "Understanding" is being able to wield that in a way that goes beyond the original idea.  

 The original blues musicians didn't have a lot of "knowledge".  They may have barely known the names of notes, maybe some chords.  However, they fully understood what they played, how it worked.  It's what allowed them to expand on it and turn it into the basis of most of what people reading this listen to.

 It's important one doesn't try to expand one's knowledge base beyond comprehension.  People are very hung up on the idea of "learning" a lot of information without putting it to use.

 To attain understanding requires application of at least 100 fold the amount of time the memorization took.

 Memorizing vocabulary words isn't "learning a language".  Even after having learned some words if you don't have practice using them you don't have any fluency. You're not really able to communicate; in particular, you're not able to communicate abstract ideas. 

 Music is a language in my opinion.  A different type of language from verbal speech, but still communicating in a sense. 

 What a lot of people are doing as intermediate guitar players is memorizing a lick, a phrase, a root note to root note scale passage.  This is almost exactly akin in my opinion to learning a few vocabulary words, and a phrase or two.

 "Donde esta el bano" is a very useful phrase to know.  Maybe a good place to start with Spanish.  Everyone knows "si", "por favor".  Getting "fancy" might be to try to string together "yes, where is the bathroom, please?".

 You can keep learning vocabulary words, but it's going to turn to a muddle.  It's going to diminish the ability to recall simple, basic words as they become a smaller portion of the whole. 

 A more practical approach might be to simply "learn" some basic words, and try to use them when possible.  For a spoken language that's hard, you've got to find someone else that speaks fluently in order to practice.

 A guitar is always there.  You can try things without fear of embarrassment, or for anyone else to participate.  But like with language, you have to try to apply what you've learned.

 In this analogy, you need to learn "basic words" - basic phrases/licks, and then try to actually use them in different contexts.

 It's better to learn one lick and then try to USE it as much as possible, so that you can UNDERSTAND it: do it to the point that you KNOW you've absorbed it, and are confident with being able to use it at different tempos, in different areas of the neck.  You want to know it to the point that you can get into the phrase and out of it to something else without hanging up.

 Ultimately that is "playing", and a part of the process of becoming a better musician.  Being able to USE what you're learning, not just knowing the labeling.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Having to Use Up My Supply of "Normal" Strings?

 I've been going back to my string reserves, which is to say D'Addario EXLs that I bought a large quantity of on sale at a "crazy" price. 

 While I've decided that Ernie Ball Paradigms are the way to go, I'm not throwing away perfectly good strings.  So I've used the D'Addarios for the past few weeks.

 I miss the Paradigms.  Here's what's different (from the reverse perspective):

1) I'm back to having to fiddle with the tuning a lot.

2) they get duller and duller immediately.

3) the intonation crosses the "can't play in tune" threshold within days.

 This isn't something new, I've dealt with this most of my life.  What is new is having forgotten about the above having used the Paradigms for awhile. 

 The Paradigms aren't perfect.  They're a bit stiffer (almost thought "gee, maybe they're labeling a set of .010s as .009s?), and pricey.  But they sound pretty much the same for the life of the string until the very end, as does the intonation.  Then both suddenly go bad.  So suddenly it's startling, within a few hours they will either stop playing in tune, not stay in tune, or snap.  It's really quite strange.  I've been in the middle of a lesson and I have to pick up my spare guitar, because my main guitar won't hold tune for more than a minute.  Very strange.

 Not as strange as not understanding the metallurgy that makes such a startling difference.  It's not like they're carbon nano-tubes or quantum Boson matrix strands, it's got to be a metallurgy process but it seems unreasonable to think it would make such a big difference.  I'm aware of alloys that can be startlingly different based on adding just a 1% difference, but in such a daily, practical demonstration it still seems almost impossible.  I'm not an endorser, I don't get a price break on them - I pay what the reader pays.  But it's a great thing that in the 21st century there are strings that stay intonated much longer than "normal" strings.  It's the way it should be! 

 But I've got a few boxes left of the D'Addarios.  Which are aggravating, I can even see on the tuner they're not as pitch stable almost immediately, and having to change them so often is a big drag.  I'm not disparaging the D'Addarios; I've used all the string brands and use the EXls for the sole reason they were the most consistently reliable.  They haven't changed, but they're not as good as the Ernie Ball Paradigms. 

Maybe EB will drop the price on the Paradigms in the meantime.  Or D'Addario will answer by making their "normal" Xl strings last nearly as long without the high price?