Playing What You Don’t Know

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Advancing as a guitar player is never seen as a slow and steady climb. It is more like a series of steps with pretty long spaces in between. While it might seem like you don’t get better for weeks or months at a time, one breakthrough can lead to months of inspiration. Those are the times I look forward to, and probably the reason I do this whole guitar thing. Modern ‘guitar culture’ sends us an endless stream of messages about what guitar to use, what to wear, how to look, what to listen to, and debate endlessly about gear. In the end, it is the player that has to push through all of that and not just reinforce what we already know, but be brave enough to venture into something we don’t. This article will help us along that journey, but only if we take the leap.

HOW DO YA LEARN?

OK, Far Beyond the Sun, from the top!

Far Beyond the Sun, from the top!

Traditionally, music was learned through direct connection: a master musician taught a student. Lessons got a little harder each week, and the student practiced hard and get better at a slow, steady pace. Traditional classical instruments are still taught in this manner, as well as some jazz programs at higher levels. However, modern electric (and much acoustic) guitar playing isn’t taught like this. Every guitar teacher has his/own method, and electric guitar is still so young compared to those older classical instruments, that it really hasn’t had time to establish a method that works for everyone. Besides, lessons aren’t for everyone. Not everyone wants or needs lessons, and with the internet, you can learn a lot on your own. Even reading guitar magazines helps so much these days, as you can learn many different styles, complete with sound clips all without leaving your home. All it takes is being self-motivated enough to sit down in learn them.

THE GUITAR PLAYER’S GUIDE TO INERTIA

McCartney doesn't seem to have this problem, so why do I?

McCartney doesn’t seem to have this problem, so why do I?

Newton’s First Law says that a body at rest wants to stay at rest. When applied to guitar playing, and learning new things, our natural inclination is to do nothing. That is easy! You already have a pool of knowledge, so it is time to draw from it! Problem with this is that if you write songs, at some point your 22nd song will sound a lot like your 3rd. Yes, bands and musicians have made careers out of recycling ideas over and over (put on your schoolboy uniform and think hard), but these days, the more you know, the better equipped you are to Tell Your Own Story.

CARRY ON AND MOTIVATE

3d-printed guitars are certainly outside the box.

3d-printed guitars are certainly outside the box.

The problem arises when we pickup up our guitars and immediately start playing what we know. Of course I do! It rocks! My hands know exactly where to go! Everybody thinks I am so cool because of my rockin’ licks! 

But this is the problem. If we always stay in our comfort zone, we never want to leave. Soon 20 years go by, and we are still the same player as we were 20 years ago. Same solos, same intros we play, same cool showpiece we practiced like crazy…20 years ago. If we want to be better players, we might want to start doing something now that stimulates creativity. The idea is that if we take ourselves outside of what is comfortable, we realize what we know is inadequate. And, if we don’t see a teacher who should regularly do this, we have to do it ourselves.

SHAKE IT UP, BABY!

New musical situations are challenging, but fun. Yeah, we feel like we are in 2nd grade when playing over an unfamiliar chord progression, or might not quite have our tone perfect for playing classic metal, but you will get there, and acquire more tools in the process. Here are a few ideas:

  • Play in unfamiliar keys. Blues in F, or metal in Eb (without retuning)
  • Retune your guitar to something different, or play in standard tuning if you always downtune.
  • Use the neck pickup and your tone control
  • Use the clean channel.
  • Set up your effects in a random order
  • Get a looping pedal and practice improvising over unfamiliar chords.
  • Try a different pickup than you would normally choose.
  • Listen to different music and find something you like in it
  • Write using a capo. Record parts on that song without using a capo.
  • Learn very basic keyboards- it will change how you view the guitar
  • Avoid riffs or power chords in the next song you write
  • Use conventional gear in an unconventional way
  • If you’ve heard it before, don’t do it
  • Take your influences and discard them
  • If you play something horrible, do it over and over
  • Learn the basics of scales and chords they are used over
  • If you are terrible at tapping, write a song using only tapping
  • Use a different guitar than you are ‘supposed to’ for the style you play
  • try to write a pop song, or a song for a commercial
  • No repeating patterns!
  • One thing, repeated. Precisely and quickly!
  • Pick up a slide. Play metal.
  • Play solos with nothing but chords
  • If your hands automatically do something when you pick up the guitar, don’t do that one thing. Ever. Again.

While not everything on the list is possible at once, it does give you an idea of what I’m thinking. If we are unhappy with what we play, we have to decide not to play that way anymore. Find things you like in other players, and then meld them with your own approach- you might find that someone will listen to you one day with the same sense of wonder. But only if we break out of the patterns that we have always relied on. Music should constantly evolve, and so should our playing. If we don’t constantly poke a stick into our own backs, no one else will.


Generative Music Apps

I love Brian Eno’s concept of Generative Music. Music that repeats, but never the same way. In other words, we set it in motion and it randomly generates. It usually focuses on a few keys, but it is something I can listen to hours. It is kind of like looping, but the patterns never repeat exactly. Several loopers playing a piece together might be closer to the concept, but doesn’t describe it exactly. Eno encourages musicians to use these music generators in their own compositions either on record or on stage, and I certainly intend to.

I love all 3 of the apps he offers, and I recommend them all. They are perfect for falling asleep (they include a sleep timer- yay!), or just on in the background when you read or work.

Bloom
This is so hard for me to describe, so I will repeat some of the description from their website:

“Part instrument, part composition and part artwork, Bloom’s innovative controls allow anyone to create elaborate patterns and unique melodies by simply tapping the screen. A generative music player takes over when Bloom is left idle, creating an infinite selection of compositions and their accompanying visualizations.”

Trope
This is my favorite, because it is like artwork as well as a music generator. You draw on the screen, it makes music from your shapes, and it never repeats. From the website:

“Darker in tone, Trope immerses users in endlessly evolving soundscapes created by tracing abstract shapes onto the screen, varying the tone with each movement.”

Air

This is essentially some sort of ambient piano and voice music generator, although I tend to mix out the voice sometimes- it is limited to just a few notes. This is an interactive app as well that allows you to conduct the music, in a way. This would probably sound really awesome with multiple players playing at once, but it works well on its own, too:

“Air features four ‘Conduct’ modes, which let the user control the composition by tapping different areas on the display, and three ‘Listen’ modes, which provide a choice of arrangement. For those fortunate enough to have access to multiple iPhones and speakers, an option has been provided to spread the composition over several players.”

Scape

Scape is really my favorite one here. It learns, and reveals more of itself as you use it. You place geometric shapes on the screen, and twist them around. The more you play with it, the more shapes are available to use, and the more sounds you get. Each Scape plays for a time, them stops, but you can make playlists of your favorite Scapes. Beautiful stuff here.

Read more about Brian Eno’s generative music apps here.