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.


Looping Devices I Use

Many loopers available allow you to switch between loops, so you can make an entire song over pre-recorded verse/chorus patterns.

This isn’t the way I use loops though. While this idea might be fine for a 1 man band situation, or rehearsing ideas, it is the live manipulation of the loop which starts the creative process for me.

Record some sound, add more to it, slice it up into pieces while playing live over the loop, fade and repeat.

I need loopers at least capable of fading the loops with a foot pedal. Sadly, many manufacturers of looping devices just see looping as an afterthought for many devices. That, or, they focus on the ‘backing track’ idea, where you are jamming over static loops.

I need a little more control than that. Ideally, you can have a ‘feedback’ control on any looper. This allows the original loop to fade slowly while new material is played over it. The whole loop morphs into something new as we listen- which is a lot more interesting than listening to static loops.

The Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro is a really, really advanced looper.

I use an Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro for this, which was the king of commercially available loopers, even before the current crop of looping pedals came out. The Echoplex allows you to record, reverse, slow down, sync, fade, multiply and split loops like nothing else currently out there. It is really an instrument in itself. I use this for all performances that are exclusively looping, since the manipulation of the recorded sound can be as subtle or as jarring as I want. The huge fault of the Echoplex is that it isn’t stereo…so for stereo use, you need 2.

For other looping shows, I sometimes use a Line6 DL4. This green delay pedal is a fantasic basic looper, which allows expression pedal control over the loop volume, so I can fade the loops manually while playing live material overtop. I have owned the Line6 M13 as well, which duplicates the functionality of the DL4 and adds a bunch of effects as well. Since another project I am in uses in ear monitors though, I had to sell my M13 for a Line6 POD HD500 which includes all the effects of the M13 with added amp modeling.

Sadly, they didn’t add any kind of expression pedal control to the HD500’s looper volume (even though it was in the DL4 and M13) so  I can’t recommend it as a live looping device for the looping musician. This continues to be a source of frustration, but I have been told it will be addressed in a firmware update. We’ll see. (EDIT: It never was, despite promises. I don’t buy any of Line6’s higher-end effects any more). 

I have owned a Boss RC-2, which is great for working out ideas, but doesn’t work for me as a live looping device because there is no way to fade the loop using your feet. It lacks a lot of control I need out of a looper. 

The Boomerang III allows control over the loop, and is stereo.

I am also using a Boomerang III as well. It has its own quirks, and I am still getting the hang of it. Copying a loop live (unrounded multiply in EDP-speak) is possible, but you don’t hear the results immediately. It is stereo, and allows 3 unsynced loops to play at once, so for now, it is a cool alternative to owning a second Echoplex. Some of the functions are convoluted (it should use the loop buttons to go right into overdub and erase), and requires some odd compromises. The Boomerang is unlikely to have any further software updates, and currently the company is up for sale.

I’d love the idea of a stereo Echoplex, but right now, it isn’t going to happen. Evoloop is currently vaporware, and the Looperlative LP1 is undergoing a redesign. The Looperlative might also be priced out of the range of most musicians at this point, as it is a 1 person operation.  

Below is a simple acoustic guitar loop from several years ago, with the Line6 DL4.


Generative Music Apps

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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.

Scape

Using Scape, you drag shapes onto the screen. Their shape and position changes the generated sound. Over time, more shapes reveal themselves, so you can use them in your Scapes. I love this idea, and Scape allows you to save Scapes, or share them. Each Scape plays for a finite amount of time (about 20 minutes), so it is perfect for falling asleep.

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.”

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


SoLocalPasco Podcast

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SoLocalPasco is a podcast in the Pasco County area focusing on the arts, culture, politics, and general news in the area. When print and broadcast media fails us, things like podcasts and Twitter take over. Greg Smithwick does an amazing job covering our area, and he understands how to ask the good questions. Here is an appearance on his show recorded last week, and airing today. Listen to Another Season of Heartbreak in this video.

You can also listen to the whole interview here, which includes the song Love Grande as well. This song is available on Julie’s 3rd CD, Follow the Muse.


The Journey of Learning

Embarking on a lifetime with music isn’t for everyone. It takes discipline. It means realizing you will never be satisfied where you are, and more concerned with where you aren’t. It means making time for practice and creativity in our busy lives.

And it is a lot of fun.

Guitar players have it easy. It isn’t like the stereotypical piano lessons, with the stern teacher hitting your wrists with rulers if the hand position isn’t perfect. Modern guitar playing has no real methodology. For every ‘correct’ way of doing things, you can find 100 guitarists who not only have achieved some sort of success, but play very very well despite the fact that the way they play is ‘wrong’.

So, what is right?

Well, to me, what is right is based on the effort it takes to accomplish. I teach about economy, or, not working too hard. Guitar playing isn’t about strength, it is about dexterity. It is about moving only the amount you need to accomplish a task and no more. It is about recognizing where we hold tension in our bodies. And it is about the willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

That last one, that is sometimes the hardest. We don’t like not knowing. Especially as adults, we don’t like feeling that we don’t know things.

That last point is a big one. Certain personalities are more suited to learning than others. Since guitar lessons (at least with me) are not always about playing a piece you have practiced, we have to be ok with making mistakes and learning from them.

No guitarist steps on stage or records without preparation. It is unfair to compare ourselves with what we hear or see. So, we practice. We make mistakes, and some terrible noises along the way. We get up, dust ourselves off, and one day realize that we make less mistakes than we did before. So things get better.

Keep that head down, take a baby step. Don’t keep wishing we are at the top of the mountain because we saw some rock-guy-flavor-of-the day who seems to be there (he isn’t). Funny thing, no matter how many years we put into it, we only realize that there is just so much more to learn. And we have to be OK with that, and even embrace it.

This kind of person makes the best students who will carry music and creativity with them forever.


It is the Parents that Make Children Better Students

It still amazes me about some parents who bring their children to lessons, that they haven’t fostered any type of appreciation for music themselves much less with their children. The children of these types of parents do not even know what a guitar sounds like, much less what it is capable of, or the rich history of guitar-based music. These are the hardest students to teach because they are not even quite sure why they are there. It is really the parents’ job to foster an appreciation for music throughout the child’s life, so the child really wants to be there. This can simply be having music on in the house or car a lot, to taking the child to see concerts and other performances, to regularly singing songs to or with your child.  In truth, all of it is important, and a child is more likely to work hard on something that they enjoy doing with their parent.
It is a great thing for a parent to be involved in as well, either sitting in lessons to understand what I teach, or to learn alongside their child. Then they have something they can do together.

Supportive, interactive and music-loving parents make the best environment for learning.


Some Looping Devices I Use

Many loopers available allow you to switch between loops, so you can make an entire song over pre-recorded verse/chorus patterns.

This isn’t the way I use loops though. While this idea might be fine for a 1 man band situation, or rehearsing ideas, it is the live manipulation of the loop which starts the creative process for me.

Record some sound, add more to it, slice it up into pieces while playing live over the loop, fade and repeat.

I need loopers at least capable of fading the loops with a foot pedal. Sadly, many manufacturers of looping devices just see looping as an afterthought for many devices. That, or, they focus on the ‘backing track’ idea, where you are jamming over static loops.

I need a little more control than that. Ideally, you can have a ‘feedback’ control on any looper. This allows the original loop to fade slowly while new material is played over it. The whole loop morphs into something new as we listen- which is a lot more interesting than listening to static loops.

I use an Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro for this, which was the king of commercially available loopers, even before the current crop of looping pedals came out. The Echoplex allows you to record, reverse, slow down, sync, fade, multiply and split loops like nothing else currently out there. It is really an instrument in itself. I use this for all performances that are exclusively looping, since the manipulation of the recorded sound can be as subtle or as jarring as I want. The huge fault of the Echoplex is that it isn’t stereo…so for stereo use, you need 2.

For other looping shows, I sometimes use a Line6 DL4. This green delay pedal is a fantasic basic looper, which allows expression pedal control over the loop volume, so I can fade the loops manually while playing live material overtop. I have owned the Line6 M13 as well, which duplicates the functionality of the DL4 and adds a bunch of effects as well. Since another project I am in uses in ear monitors though, I had to sell my M13 for a Line6 POD HD500 which includes all the effects of the M13 with added amp modeling.I still own an M9, which I really like.

Sadly, they didn’t add any kind of expression pedal control to the HD500’s looper volume (even though it was in the DL4 and M13) so  I can’t recommend it as a live looping device for the looping musician. This continues to be a source of frustration, but I have been told it will be addressed in a firmware update. We’ll see.

EDIT: They never added it, and didn’t add it in their new Helix. Instead, I bought a Fractal AX8.

I also own a Boss RC2, which is great for working out ideas, but doesn’t work for me as a live looping device because there is no way to fade the loop using your feet.

Gradually I hope to move to using a computer-based system, using the VST Mobius, which is a very powerful looper. My initial experiments with Mobius were very positive, as it is like having 8 stereo Echoplex Pros.

Below is a simple acoustic guitar loop, with the Line6 DL4.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CT7M2y_THbI&


It is the Sound That Matters…

So many guitarists work on technique these days, and I am no exception. I mean, the mechanics of playing- flying up and down the fretboard at faster and faster speeds. It is a young (mostly male) thing, no different than the runner trying to be the fastest or the weightlifter going with a few more pounds.
However, concentrating all of your practice time on just getting faster misses the point. Not every song is fast (that gets boring), and it ignores the tone of the notes created.
The tone is the thing for me. There are some seriously fast players out there, known and unknown. After listening to many of the mp3s and seeing tons of videos, I realized that most of them ignore the obvious: is this a sound that anyone would want to hear?
Believe me, I love making irritating noises as much as any other musician. But a guitarist who just makes irritating noises probably won’t work much, and drawing from such a shallow sonic pool, will repeat him/herself quickly.
Tone is subjective, but identifying when a musician ignores it is not. Everyone has bad days/bad gigs…with unfamiliar gear or some gear that is acting up. But if a musician is consistent in their lack of attention to tone, it shows.
Now, I know not everyone can afford the latest boutique amps and overdrives (either can I: I am a musician after all). But it starts with a guitar and an amp. If you can’t get a clean sound to be fretted cleanly, all the distortion in the world won’t cover it up. The process starts with one single note, and then two.

Gear selection is a big subject: most people buy what their heroes have, in hopes it can help them sound just like their heroes. This works as we are learning, but the failure is to not break off of that course and find our own sounds.

Now is one of the most exciting times to be a guitarist: we have multieffects, programmable amps, and guitars that stay in tune without us doing anything. Problem is that most guitarists buy these and have no idea what they do. The idea of reading a manual is an impossible task, and understanding just one parameter (like setting the ‘sustain’ on a compressor- we want a lot, right?) sends the technophobic guitarist reeling and dismissing the good ol’ amp and cable approach. Nothing wrong with that, since lots of guitarists do fine that way. But arriving there because you can’t or won’t read the manual of the expensive device just bought is sort of..silly.

So the tone search is a lifetime one, for the guitarist. It isn’t like we never get there, but we constantly evolve. And it is fun. The goal is to sing to others in our own voice, because we have something to say. And what our own voice sounds like makes them want to listen. Hopefully.