Monday, November 12, 2007

Theoretically speaking...

Music is a very personal, subjective thing. However, as Victor Wooten would say, in practice there is a perfection. The important thing to remember about theory is it's ex post facto. It explains music, but it doesn't define it. Having said that... I personally think theory is the fastest way to get your head wrapped around what's going on in music. This will accelerate your learning process, if used right.

Music is a lot like a language, and if you want to communicate your ideas to people and to yourself, then you need to have some common ground. It's all about what you want to get out of playing the guitar. If you just want to learn a few songs that you like, and you happen to like relatively simple music (from a theory perspective), then not having an understanding of the underlying explanations probably isn't going to hamper your progress very much.

However, if you do learn theory, you'll find that you'll start thinking about the guitar in perhaps a rather different way. Rather than chancing upon patterns, you'll actively be seeking them out. This means that when you learn something you'll remember it better, you'll understand it better, and you'll be able to extrapolate from where you are much better.

Some people have an intuitive understanding of music and how it works, and they don't feel the need to articulate it to themselves or anybody else. I however, am unfortunately, not one of those people. For many years I just "played guitar" and didn't bother with the theory side of things. However, when I did start to get into theory, I saw my playing and understanding of music progress at an exponential rate, compared to when I was just fumbling around in the dark.

The best I advice I can give you is to think carefully about what you want to get out of playing the guitar. If you wish to learn to improvise, or learn "complicated" things, or just have a very broad appreciation of music, then learning theory is a good idea. Heck, even if you don't learning theory is a good idea. I'd personally say it's damn near essential, but lots of people would disagree with that statement (and others, I supposed, would concur).

If you're just playing for fun, then at the end of the day, it's best to decide for yourself whether you think it's worth investing the time and effort in learning theory. I can honestly say that while it may appear difficult at the start, in the same way that learning a language may be difficult, once you have the basics down, everything just sort of starts to come together. I don't think that *learning* theory is ever a bad thing. Letting theory completely dictate what you play... probably not such a great idea. But learning it? Never a bad thing. After all, knowledge is power.

Robert Miles - Paths

This is an awesome video for the Robert Miles track Paths, off the Organik album. I really dig the direction he's gone in since his debut with "Children", it's much more trip-hop and a lot less techno. The Organik album remains one of favourites.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do we have an accord?

First things first, I shall assume that virtually no prior knowledge exists. Let's start with intervals. In western music, we work with 12 tones. Some notes are what we call enharmonic meaning they sound them same on an even-tempered instrument (such as the piano/guitar).

A# / Bb
B / Cb
C /B#
C# / Db
D# / Eb
E / Fb
F / E#
F# / Gb
G# / Ab

The shortest distance between a note is a half-step. This may be represented by adjacent keys on a keyboard, or adjacent frets on a guitar. Let us examine these intervals using the key of C major. The notes contained in C major are as follows:

C D E F G A B (w w h w w w h)

The root note is C. The relationship between each note in the scale within 1 octave, and the root note, is as follows:

C - C = Unison
C - D = Major 2nd (1 step)
C - E = Major 3rd (2 steps)
C - F = Perfect 4th (2 1/2 steps)
C -G = Perfect 5th (3 1/2 steps)
C - A = Major 6th (4 1/2 steps)
C - B = Major 7th (5 1/2 steps)
C - C = Octave (6 steps)

If you lower a major interval by a 1/2 step, it becomes a minor interval. The reverse is true, thus if you raise a minor interval by a half step, it becomes a major interval. Let us rearrange the notes of C major, starting on A. This gives us the key of A minor.

A B C D E F G (w h w w w h w)

A - A = Unison
A - B = Major 2nd (1 step)
A - C = Minor 3rd (1 1/2 steps)
A - D = Perfect 4th (2 1/2 steps)
A - E = Perfect 5th (3 1/2 steps)
A - F = Minor 6th (4 steps)
A - G = Minor 5th (5 steps)
A - A = Octave (6 steps)

Thus, we see what defines the relationship between 2 notes is their distance from each other, and how rearranging the order of the notes gives us a different sound.

Let's now consider how this applies to chords. A chord is usually made up of 3 or more notes. These notes are usually stacked in thirds on top of a root note. These thirds may be either minor or major thirds. So, for a triad, the following configurations are possible

1 - 3 - #5 = Augmented
1 - 3 - 5 = Major
1 - b3 - 5 = Minor
1 - b3 - b5 = Diminished

Applying this with a root note of C, we would get

C E G# (C augmented)
C E G (C major)
C Eb G (C minor)
C Eb Gb (C diminished)

Let us take this further and apply it to 4 note chords

1 - 3 - #5 - octave = Augmented
1 - 3 - 5 - 7 = Major 7th
1 - 3 - 5 - b7 = Dominant 7
1 - b3 - 5 - 7 = Minor/Major 7th
1 - b3 - 5 - b7 = Minor 7th
1 - b3 - b5 - b7 = Minor 7th flat 5th / half-diminished
1 - b3 - b6 - bb7 = Diminished 7th

Of course, there are many other kinds of chords. One might construct chords by stacking in 4ths, or by adding colour tones such as 9ths/11ths/13ts (which are 2nd/4th/6th intervals an octave above the root), or just replacing the 3rd with a 4th or major second, creating suspended chords, as some examples. Experimenting is the key to success!

As for chord substitutions, here are some brief pointers:

For any diatonic chord, one may substitute a dominant chord with the same root note. We call these secondary dominants. They're extremely common in jazz and blues. Dominant chords create a dissonant sound that wants to be resolved, so be careful using these when you're going for a "smooth" sound!

For any dominant chord, we may substitute another dominant chord that is a tritone (flat 5th) away. This is because of the structure of a dominant chord. Let us use E7 as a example.

The notes of E7 are E G# B D

If we move up a tritone, we get Bb7, which has the notes Bb D F Ab

Notice that in E7, the G#/Ab is the major third and the D is the minor 7th. However, in Bb7, the G#/Ab is now the minor 7th, while the D is the major 3rd. Because it's the major 3rd and minor 7th that give the dominant chord it's tonality, we can use these chords interchangeably.

If you're wondering why this works, a tritone divides an octave exactly in half. The major 3rd and the minor 7th are also a tritone apart, thus, when we move up a tritone, these notes swap functions. A pretty nifty trick!

Lastly, we come to inversions. Let us consider the case of C major 7. By rearranging the notes, we have different inversions of the chord, and this is the gateway to substitutions. Next to the chord is a chord that may be substituted for it, along with how the notes that have been changed/added affect the CM7 chord

C E G B - CM7
E G B C - CM7/E -> Em7 - E G B D (D is 9)
G B C E - CM7/G -> G7 - G B D F (D is 9, F is 11)
B C E G - CM7/B -> Am7 - A C E G (A is 13)

To simplify, for any major chord, you might substitute a minor chord a major 3rd up or a major 6th up. The reverse is true. Play around with this and see what kind of sounds you like. As you've probably figured out by now, the possibilities are endless!

NB: I don't have "formal" music theory training so some terminology might deviate from the norm. Hopefully you find this useful though!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Practicing innovation

Try playing through scales in a cycle of 5ths/4ths in 1 position. For example, with the root on the low E, one would play the following

Key - Scale
C major - C Ionian
G major - C Lydian
D major - C Locrian
A major - C# Phrygian
E major - C# Aeolian
B major - C# Dorian
F# major - C# Mixolydian

That covers all the basic modes and makes you think about it as you go along. You should of course transpose this to different keys, start on different strings, and just basically do every permutation of it that you can think of.

When practicing scales, you can of course, do it in a multitude of ways. You could play straight up and down, or just create your own sequences. Try and come up with sequences that you've never played before because that forces you fingers to do something different so you actually develop the ability to play new ideas.

You can also take all these ideas and apply them to arpeggios. One thing I like to do is pick a key and play through all the arpeggios in the key. For example if you're playing in G major you'd have the following chords:
G major 7
A minor 7
B minor 7
C major 7
D dominant 7
E minor 7
F# minor 7 flat 5

You can play these arpeggios anywhere that you fancy, try and play them in as many different ways as you can. You should also add colour tones. One interesting thing to do is add the 2nd/9th interval. If you do this in A minor for example, you would have the following notes.


Compare this to the notes in A minor pentatonic


You'll notice that it's very similar to A minor pentatonic except rather than having the 4th interval, which is a perfect interval and doesn't sound major or minor, you now have a major 9th interval. If you were doing this over a iii chord, you'd use the flat 9 instead of the 9. This gives you an interesting sound that's somewhat like a pentatonic but more melodic, and it's a good way to break out of the whole pentatonic rut.

Another interesting idea is to take a 3 note per string scale, but instead of playing it straight through like you normally would, play the first two notes on each string and then bend the second note to the third note. This breaks out of that whole cliché 3 note per string sound, and also gives you lots of practice bending

You can also take any licks/songs that you already know and try and play them with a swing feel. This helps develop your timing and requires more control than just ripping through something with a straight time feel. One song I like to do this with is Mozart's Turkish Rondo.

You can also try playing any existing ideas with octaves. This doesn't work so well with shred style licks though

Basically to me it's all about doing things that you don't normally do, and the easiest way to do this is take stuff that you already do and turn it on its head.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

If you play in C#, you will be flat

If you want to find the right key, you need to have a basic understanding of key signatures. Here's a crash course:

We'll start with C major, because there are no sharps or flats in that key. The notes are (C D E F G A B). That gives us 7 notes to play around with. Let's see what chords we can construct from these notes;

C E G B - C Major 7 (I)
D F A C - D minor 7 (ii)
E G B D - E minor 7 (iii)
F A C E - F Major 7 (IV)
G B D F - G dominant 7 (V)
A C E G - A minor 7 (vii)
B D F A - B minor 7 b5 (viib5)

Thus, we see that in the key of C major we have 3 major chords (CM7, FM7, G7), 3 minor chords (Dm7, Em7, Am7) and one half diminished chord. This is important because it helps you identify common chord progressions. For example, if you had a ii V I progression in the key of C Major, it would be Dm, G, C. You could also have, as is common in blues, a I IV V I progression. In the key of C that would be C, F, G, C. Usually, the song will resolve back to the I chord. This may not always be major, it might be minor, if it was in a minor key. For simplicity, it's sensible to relate the minor key back to the major. So, if we had Bm7b5 E7 Am, we can relate that back to Am/C major. Note that the Em7 from the key of C is made into a dominant chord to create a better resolution to Am. You could just as easily apply this concept without the 7th interval. in which case you'd have major, minor, and diminished chords to play around with.

In terms of keys, the sharp keys move up in cycles of 5ths. Thus we have
C major - no sharps no flats
G major - F#
D major - F# C#
A major - F# C# G#
E major - F# C# G# D#
B major - F# C# G# D# A#
F# major - F# C# G# D# A# E#
C# major - F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

We've already got 7 sharps, so lets work with the flat keys now. These move in a cycle of 4ths
C major - no sharps no flats
F major - Bb
Bb major - Bb Eb
Eb major - Bb Eb Ab
Ab major - Bb Eb Ab Db
Db major - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb
Gb major - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb
Cb majore - Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb

Once again, we've run into 7 flats so we can stop. Right now you're probably thinking "There are 12 tones in the chromatic scale, why do we have 14 scales?!". That's because some of these are what we call "enharmonic". The following scales are enharmonic

B major - Cb major
F# major - Gb major

Thus we are left with 12 "unique" scales.

Now you might ask, how is this of any use? If you take any given song, and you identify the chords in the song (even if they are power chords!), you'll be able to identify what sharps/flats are being used. This will allow you to deduce what key you're in.

The more you practice, the better your ear will become. However, when you're first starting out it can be really hard to identify the chords. The first thing you need to do is identify the bass note, or the lowest note in the chord. Listening to the bass line is a good start. The useful thing about the bass line is if you work out what the bass notes are, you'll have some insight into what key a song is in fairly quickly.

For example, if the bass line goes B E A, then one might deduce that this might potentially be Bm7b5 E7 Am7, or Bm7 E7 AM7. This immediately narrows down your search to two possible keys, A minor or A major. Of course, sometimes you'll encounter inverted chords (i.e. chords with the 3rd or the 5th or the 7th in the bass) or substituted chords. That's where theory comes in handy!

Once you've identified the lowest note, try and pick apart the chord note by note. Eventually you'll be able to hear a chord and identify whether it's minor or major pretty quickly. To take it one step further, after you've done this enough you'll be able to identify common chord progressions at the drop of a hat as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Have you heard?

Jazz. You know you want it. I know I want it. How do we get it? The best advice I can give is this: Don't think purely in terms of scales. Scales are good to know, and they're really important, but that's not all there is to playing jazz (or any kind of music!)

Your first port of call should be understanding chord progressions and working your way through changes. If you really understand how to construct chords and how they relate to each other, everything starts to fall into place a lot quicker. If you're not already familiar with your basic 4-note chords, and all the embellishments, now would be the best time to get those basics down.

In terms of scales, if you understand the chords you're playing over you can get more creative. Here are some examples.

Let's say you encounter a CMaj7 chord. What can you play over that, scale wise? Let's look at the notes. C E G B. Root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, major 7th. The first and most obvious choice is to play a C Ionian scale over that (C D E F G A B). Depending on the context, you might experiment with a C Lydian (C D E F# G A B). If you lingered on the F#, you'd emphasise the #4 interval, which may or not be interesting and appropriate. You could also approach it think in terms of arpeggios. Again, the most obvious choice would be a CMaj7 arpeggio. But then, if you did an Em7 arpeggio (E G B D), you've got 3 notes of CMaj7 (E G B) but you've also got the D, which is a 9th. You might also try Am7 (A C E G). Again we see 3 notes from CMaj7 (C E G) but you also have the 6th, again, perhaps an interesting sound. At the moment we're sticking to diatonic stuff, a very "inside", comfortable sound. You can do all sorts of stuff and sound "outside" which can be very hip and cool as well, and we haven’t even looked at chromatic/approach tones, and tension and resolution!

The one thing that I find really differentiates jazz from say rock/shred is that you really want a cool motif, or melodic statement. If you play with enough conviction you could even make the whole band sound "wrong" and make yourself sound "right", although that's probably not what you're going for.

I found that the best way to learn jazz is to actually combine the theoretical with the practical. Sure you can have a bunch of scales that you might use, or a bunch of arpeggios, but it's always how it sounds in context that makes it sound good or bad. Take a bunch of jazz standards and play through the changes first, until you're familiar with how it sounds. The try experimenting with it, reharmonizing some chords. You might find some things that aren't just "take this scale and play it here" that you find sound really cool. Also, listen and cop ideas from great players. Pat Martino, for example, has a way of converting everything to minor, and then playing a minor type idea over the changes. Joe Pass likes to look at a chord and figure out what he can do with in the position he plays the chord in. The possibilities are limitless, and you can certainly take these ideas and make them your own and find your own sound.

To answer your question directly though, the Ionion, Dorian, Melodic minor, Mixolydian, Aeolian and harmonic minor are all very common scales you can use. Don't forget that you can substitute dominant chords for almost any chords. If this is a minor chord, typically you add a major third. If this is a major chord, typically you add a minor third. For example, if you were playing a iii chord, say Em7, you could make that E7. That would change from a Phyrigian scale (E F G A B C D) to what is called a Phyrigian major, or a double Phrygian (E F G# A B C D) which is the 5th mode of the harmonic minor.

The applications of these concepts are near limitless. That, I think, is the appeal of jazz. You can make it up as you go along, because there are an infinite number of combinations that you can choose from. There's a lot of theory that can be used to explain how all these concepts work and how to use them. As Victor Wooten would say, music is a language. You learn all the grammar and the rules, but when the time comes to play, you don't think "Subject verb object", you just shut up and play. Some people develop this understanding intuitively, particularly those who started at a very young age. For others, like myself, it's a long uphill battle of learning and analyzing. I must admit though, that's half the fun in itself!

PS: Almost everything I know about Jazz I've learnt, in some way, shape or form, from Rick Smith. He's a fantastic jazz guitarist who plays at Harry's Boat Quay almost every night. If you want to check out some great live jazz, just head down to Harry's and watch the band. You could probably have a few quick words with him inbetween sets if he's got some time, he's approachable and friendly!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Effecting change

As a sequel to the amp retrospective, I've decided to go through all the noteworthy multi-effect units that I've encountered over the years

These were the first two multi-effect units I ever owned. This was way back in the day, when Zoom still had a name for themselves. They were dirt cheap back then, pretty much the cheapest thing on the market. They were neither particularly tweakable nor did they sound very good, but I guess looking back, they were a decent introduction into the world of effects. They were sure as heck cheaper than buying a whole bunch of individual analog pedals, and they at least gave me an idea of what different effects sounded like. Although, with the stuff available on the market these days, I can't honestly say I'd recommend them to anybody anymore. Not that I really would have back then either...

These were my first real introduction to the realm of multi-effect units. Back then, Boss was pretty much THE name in multi-effect processors. I started out with a GT-3, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I quickly "upgraded" to a GT-5. These units were pretty darn flexible in the effects department. I can't say I cared very much for the direct output and "amp simulation" features, especially in light of the Pod series that stormed the scene shortly after I was playing around with these, but for everything else they were fantastic. Typical of Boss, they were built like a tank. Plus, they even had some fancy features that I still don't see as being common place on the market. What stood out the most for me was the intelligent pitch shifter/harmonizer. Pitch shifters are pretty standard fare these days but you could program the harmonizer for the exact intervals that you wished it to harmonize each note to. I expected nothing less from Boss, and to this day I'm still curious to see how a GT-8 sounds, having had a generally good experience with these units.

Ah the beloved VG-88. I really wish I didn't have to sell this one of. It truly was the most innovative and unique effects unit I've ever laid my hands on. Suffice to say, to get real mileage out of it you needed to use a hexaphonic VG compatible pickup with it. After doing my research I decided to go with the Graphtech GHOST piezo hexaphonic pickup system. I promptly ordered the parts and got a luthier to do the installation on my EBMM Luke. One thing I really hated about the whole setup was the 13-pin cable. The connectors on the the guitar were rather flimsy, and since I was playing out with this back then they took quite a beating on stage. After they crapped out on me twice, I lost faith in the reliability of the whole idea and sold off both the guitar and the VG-88. I suppose it was somewhat fortuitous because shortly after that the VG-99 was announced...

One thing most people don't know about the VG-88 is it doesn't actually work through pitch to MIDI conversion. It actually process each string separately, so rather than having a mono signal, you have six signals being processed in parallel. This allowed the VG-88 to do effects that conventional units could only dream of. Pitch shifting individual strings was possible, making alternate tunings at switch of a patch a reality. It also did guitar/pickup modelling, allowing you to make that hexaphonic signal sound like pretty much any guitar you could think of, and some you couldn't even imagine. I personally feel the guitar modelling left a lot to desire, but I don't think that's where the strength of the VG system really was. It's real magic, was in being able to make your guitar sound completely NOT like a guitar.. and that was something that intrigued me greatly.

Because there was no pitch to MIDI conversion involved that meant that all the problems of "tracking" that pitch to MIDI conversion presents were not applicable. There was none of that false triggering of notes or lag in the conversion nonsense. All conventional guitar techniques as well, like pick slides, could be used without causing a sonic fart. The VG system is something I've been keeping my eye on for quite some time. I just wish they'd update the 13-pin system, I'm sure in this day and age something like a Cat-5 cable could be used to send the necessary output from the guitar to the unit, much like the Variax or the Gibson HD.6X-Pro. Until that happens though I just don't see myself jumping back into the VG system again.

The GI-20 and the XV-2020 reprsent the alternative way to approach the hexaphonix pickup system. Unlike the VG-88, the GI-20 is actually a pitch to MIDI converter. That is, your guitar signal is converted into MIDI messages, and this is used to control and outboard synth unit, in this case, the XV-2020. Unlike the VG-88, you really need to clean up your technique to make these units work for you. Sloppy playing tends to drive the GI-20 a bit mad, which makes it far less useful unless you're say, John McLaughlin. Still, it's more or less the ultimate head turner to strum a chord and have everyone looking for the keyboard that's making the piano sound.

When I had my rack rig, it seemed to make sense to go rackmount all the way, and so after shopping around for a rackmount effects unit I went with the G-major. I didn't really feel like I needed the raw power and flexibility of it's big brother, the G-Force. And while the Rocktron stuff looked appealing, the G-major just seemed like the right blend of quality and price point. Plus, it was a T.C. Electronics unit. Unfortunately, the rotary dials on it were rather crap. They died on me twice, and the power supply decided to quite on me once too. Forum posts tended to reveal that these suffered from reliability issues, and when I decided to abandon the whole rack idea, I can't say I was too sorry to see this go. It did sound pretty good, to my ear at least, and it was pretty darn flexible for my purposes (can't imagine ever needing the flexibility of the G-Force or an Eventide), but this is one of those units which you really need two of. One to plug-and-pray, and the other to have in the repair shop.

I've managed to dig up a couple of clips I did with some of these units to give you an idea of the more... interesting things they were capable of.

VG-88 and PSA1 (EBMM Steve Lukather)

Ryu's Theme from Street Fighter II - This one has heaps of MIDI stuff as well so it's hard to tell what's what I guess :

Little samba piece

Roland GI-20 and XV-2020

Ethnic intro

Saturday, November 3, 2007

All geared up

Thought I'd do a little retrospective of all the amps/amp related gear I've owned over the years (as far as I can remember)...

My first guitar amp was a Ross RG30. I remember the day I got it.. it was a gift from my father, around the time I bought my Telecaster. My dad actually scoured the classified section of the newspapers to look for a second hand guitar amp. Turns out the person selling it was a down and out musician living in a rundown apartment in Geylang. My Dad and I went down to his place to have a look at the amp. I had absolutely no clue about amps, or guitars for that matter, back then (this was some 13 years ago). What I do remember was the guy who sold it to us.

He was living in a one bedroom apartment in Geylang, the seedy part (if you could call it that). I remember he said he was a professional musician. He had this guitar case, that was covered with stickers from all over the world. Let's just say even as a little kid I could see that that wasn't quite how I'd want to be living out the prime of my life. Later on my Dad said that he wanted me to go down and have a look at where this man was staying, and what he was doing with his life. I think he was trying to warn me about the perils of being a "musician". Over the years it's become clear to me that there's a difference between being a professional musician, and a "musician", but that experience was certainly an eye-opener for me at 13. Suffice to say, that little solid-state Ross amp wasn't all that impressive.

Once I grew tired of the Ross, and that didn't take long at all, I started reading up on affordable amps that I could upgrade to. It was around this time that I came to know of Tech21 NYC, who were renowned for their Sansamp products. I believe it was also around this time that they came out with their first amp, the Tech 21 Trademark 60. I still remember, the only dealer for Tech21 in Singapore at the time was Sinamex. I went down, and they had one in stock, so I gave it a bit of a test run and then started to think about how I could scrounge up enough cash to take one home.

It was a nice little amp, with a few neat touches. The chicken head knobs, the tweed grill, the tolex, and the foot switch. To the 16 year old kid I was back then, it sure felt godlike! I didn't think it sounded half bad either. To be honest, I was rather smitten. To this day I still think it's a neat little amp for the money.

Awhile after the whole solid state thing, something new hit the market. In a way I think of it as a product that's revolutionized the way people thought about amps and DIY recording, and continues to do so til this day. The first generation Line6 Pod was released. While everybody else was doing these foot controlled multi-effect units, Line6 released this red kidney bean shaped product, which downplayed the "effect" part of the equation and put amp modelling right at the forefront.

I remember heading down to City Music after school on several occasions to give that Pod a test run. I wasn't willing or able to buy it first hand though, but a school mate of mine was letting one go at a good price so I got in on some of that action. Was it awesome? No, not really. Was it worth the money? Hell yeah! The Pod introduced me to the world of digital modelling as we know it today. It was relatively versatile, didn't quite do anything fantastically but did a great many things in an acceptable fashion. I remember when the Pod 2.0 update came out. This was way before flashing your firmware at home was a common thing. I was too cheap to pay someone to install it for me so I ordered the EPROM chip online, cracked open the Pod and upgraded that sucker.

Eventually I got bitten by the whole rack-mount bug, and figured hey if I'm going to own a Pod I might as well get the Pod Pro. I was rather disappointed that essentially it was identical to the bean but for an S/PDIF and AES EBU digital output. Although it did come in a nice shiny metallic unit... and everyone knows that that's the whole point of racks. Lots of shiny metal and blinking lights! The Line 6 floorboard was plenty neat as well. It was the first time I'd seen a Cat 5 cable used to connect a MIDI controller to an effects unit, and I remember thinking that it was an ingenius idea. No hassle trying to figure out which pins phantom power was on, no problems with MID cables, no need to figure out how to map CC commands and all that jazz.... That was all to come later for me.

Eventually I decided to go from solid state and digital to tubes and digital. It was around this time that I scoured all of Singapore for a Mesa/Boogie dealer, only to discover... that there was none. I ended up having to order it in from the USA. After thinking about it for some time I decided to go with a 50/50 power amp and a 2x12 Recto cab (I'm pretty sure his had something to do with my then guitar tutor's Triaxis + 50/50 rig and my burgeoning interest in Dream Theater).

I still reckon that power amp and cab sounded pretty righteous, I eventually got the chance to play several gigs with it when I moved to Australia. It was loud. Really loud. Too loud. And now it's gone. Those two units were heavy though, and they definitely taught me something. If you're going to live on the third floor of a building that has no elevator, don't own 60KG of equipment.. it's just not a bright idea.

Eventually I became a bit of a tube head. It was about this time that I discovered a small boutique company, VHT amps. They seemed to have a good rep and I they were coming out with a new product, the VHT GP3. I'd been reading about these on forums for awhile, and they looked really interesting. Again, there was no dealer in Singapore, so I took a gamble and called up VHT in the states to see how much one of these would run me. Thus began the worst business transaction of my life, and if I knew then what I knew now I would never have let them get away with it. The sales rep on the phone told me that since there was no dealer in Singapore, I could get it at dealer price. Hearing this, and seeing that it was a substantial discount from retail, I quickly made all the arrangements, sold off the Pod Pro, wired them the money, and waited patiently for it to arrive. And waited patiently to arrive... and waited patiently to arrive.

And then... I was told, by Steve Fryette no less, that the amp was going to ring me more than double what I was told. After I had paid, in full, the price that was agreed upon. In retrospect, this was *clearly* a breach of contract. VHT wasn't making a loss on this product since they were selling it to me at what dealers paid for it. I, on the other hand, had put myself through great inconvenience to acquire it, inconvenience which I was willing to endure based on what was told to me by a sale representative (who, indisputably, had ostensible, if not actual authority and hence VHT would have been bound to honour the contract).

Long story short, being the naive child I was, I paid up, received a unit with a bent rack ear, and quietly played it for a couple of years before selling it off at a substantial loss. Sure, it did sound pretty good, didn't turn out to be the right amp or me but I won't dispute it sounded good. But since then I've decided I will never, as long as I live, own another VHT product. I refuse to do business with a company who's founder can't do something as simple as honour a simple business deal with a little kid halfway around the world who was legally in the right but too ignorant to do anything about it, even when wasn't in a position to make a loss out of the bargain.

While in Sydney, I picked up a little Marshall Studio 15. This little amp tube amp was *loud*. I remember one Sunday afternoon I was rocking out, and I had it cranked pretty high. So high in fact, that a neighbour from across the road turned up banging at my door. As it turns out, his wife had just come home from the hospital the day before after having given birth, and he was angrier than an elephant that just had it's testicles crushed by a medium sized boulder.

I think he was expecting some sort of altercation, but the situation was diffused rather quickly and he seemed fairly satisfied with the result. Besides, that was the last I ever saw of him. The shop I bought it from claimed that it was the actual amp used on an AC/DC recording back in the 70s but.. who's to say. Not that I really cared either way...

My love/hate relationship with Tech21 eventually led me to acquire a Sansamp PSA-1. For the longest time, I had coveted this unit, having been a fan of their amps and pedals. I eventually found one in Sydney at a good price and couldn't say no. I used it on and off for quite some time, but like all the other Sansamp products I'd owned, I eventually ended up selling it. It was versatile, and had a unique character, but perhaps it's character was just too unique for its own good.

The distorted tones could get pretty over the top but they always sounded a little bit too fuzzy to me, when I was really going for a more liquidy sort of tone. The cleans, I also always found a little lacking. It really couldn't do that JC-120 sort of pristine clean tone. Everything else sounded a little bit harsher than what I was going for, but it certainly had a charm about it despite all my complaints.

Eventually, I grew tired of having to lug all that equipment around and started looking at Line6 again since they'd just released the Pod XT series. I was particularly intrigued by the Pod XT series after reading up about how Line 6 had updated amp and cabinet simulations, and eventually acquired a Pod XT Pro. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of playing with all that tube stuff it was a crushing disappointment. Nothing sounded, good, nothing sounded right, and I got fed up with it and sold it off fairly quickly. Perhaps a little too quickly because for the last 2 years or so, I ended up playing through a Pod XT Live and loving it.

Ahh the Pod XT Live. It's got me singing praises about Line6 all over again. After they updated the cabinet simulations in the 3.0 patch I think it was, suddenly it was like someone breathed new life into the Pod XT series. I ended up using this as my main unit for the last 2 years or so, I think it was, and it was an absolute blast. The model packs were also worth the coin of the realm that I handed over for them. It's really a neat little unit, that pretty much does it all. Much like it's predecessors, it's not perfect. But it sure gives you damn good value for money.

It was versatile, it was portable, it was rugged, pretty much everything I needed at the time. And really, if someone comes up to me looking for an amp that portable, not too loud, versatile, and affordable, I personally couldn't recommend anything better than this. Hook it up to a decent pair of speakers, or a PA, and you're pretty much good to go.

I'll end off with a bunch of recordings that I have lying around for some of these amps, so you can hear for yourself what they sounded like. That speaks a lot louder than any of my words ever could, literally.

NB:These tracks were all recorded at different times over the span of years, so the recording quality and playing varies greatly between them

Pod XT Live (Chambered 6-string Soloway)
My Friend of Misery cover

Other recordings of the Pod XT Live can be heard in the Sand Theft Audio post

VHT GP3 + Mesa/Boogie 50/50 + Mesa/Boogie Recto 2x12 (Ibanez RG2027)
The Fangs In My Carrot

Here are some links if you want to find out more about any of these amps/companies

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sand Theft Audio

I was involved in the CSE Revue 2007 - Sand Theft Auto in September this year. It was an awesome learning experience for me, I got to play with some fantastic musicians in the stage band, and the show had me guffawing every night. I also had the chance to score a soundtrack for the first time. I've never done anything quite like that before, and so I did the only thing I knew how. I wrote the parts I could, I stole the parts I couldn't, and I just hoped that it didn't turn out shit. Anyway, here's the soundtrack, with some production notes.

PS: My recording/production skills suck so please ignore the occasional clipping. Also, big thanks to James Douglas who helped with the whole process! He did most of the drum parts and kept me in check to make sure I didn't go overboard with the cheese factor :D And a big thanks to Matt Heike, who played bass guitar on I'm Busier and Surfing rugs. All the synthesized parts were done with Reason 3.0. I used the solid body Soloway 7-string and a Pod XT Live for all guitar parts.

Welcome to Agrabah
Ah the title piece... we started work on this before we had even seen the script. I think we kind of knew that there was going to be this mad, intense rush at the end and we figured it was better to get a head start on this sort of thing. The staccato string parts are inspired by Therion's "The Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah". The melody seemed to flow after that. We really wanted to have a melodic theme to drive the song forward, rather than go with the whole jam/pop/rock oriented concept we had at first. There's a reference to Jaws and Flight of the Bumble Bee (Killer whales! Killer bees!) that are cued to the video. And the cheesy horn fanfare right at the end...

Running Bass
When James told me there was going to be a parkour chase scene, I instantly thought of Banlieu 13 and Tom Yum Goong, but after checking out the music from those movies I just felt that the whole electronic/techno thing didn't quite fit the vibe we were going for. Eventually I decided to rip off "Movimento" off the Gunslinger Girl soundtrack by Toshihiko Sahashi. I took the general vibe of the song and reworked it to fit the melody I'd written for the theme, and it seemed to work well with the footage we had.

The First Breakfast
This scene was particularly dialogue heavy, and for some reason I had Jame Horner's soundtrack for The House of Sand and Fog stuck in my head. I realized that droning, ethereal sound was precisely what I was looking for, and it all sort of came together in one evening.

I'm Busier
Ah, the market place fight scene... This was particularly difficult for me as I remember we kept getting different edits where the timing changed, and once we saw it with the sound effects, we knew that we had to rework the whole thing. This song is really a re-arrangement of "Mystery Planet" by The Bomboras. I found a way to weasel my secret surf fetish into the soundtrack after all! The little wah bit at the end had James and me crapping our pants when we did it, it's inspired by Bill Bailey's brilliant skit about the music of Starsky and Hutch. Oddly, the crowd didn't seem to pick up on that one...

Surfin' Rugs
The surf man returns! We got the final cut of this video at 2AM the night before opening night, so I had no choice but to pull an all-nighter to figure out how we were going to arrange it, and ended up having to do all the arranging and recording til about 1 in the afternoon. And then I got to go on stage sleep deprived! Hurray!

Since we were doing the whole GTA spoof, I figured a little Eminem might be in order. But once he's on the flying carpet, it was time for a little more of The Bomboras, this time with "Playa de los muertos". The timings for this scene changed a lot from our initial draft but fortunately a little rearrangement was all it took to make it gel again.

It segues into the Malguenas portion of Dick Dale's "Miserlou Twist", since we didn't want to reference Miserlou directly as it was used in Med revue. I prefer the Malaguenas portion anyway! Of course, there's that scene where George is riding the L-plate carpet, and I just knew we had to have a drastic change... We tried it with the intro from Girl From Ipanema and it was hilarious. It was also the musical cue that got the most laughs every night.

The ending was a bit of a problem for me as I didn't know quite how to finish it. The scene went into a sort of slow motion bit, and in the end I just did a bit of a free form improvised solo over it and tried to get it to fit the scene.

Incidentally, I have a hard tail guitar. All the tremelo bar effects on this track were done by mapping the Pod XT Live foot controller to the "bender" effect, set to go a half step down. Virtual whammy bar!

You've Got To Be Kidding Me...
This is probably the piece I was least happy with. I couldn't quite figure out how to pace the scene. It's also my pathetic attempt at trying to sound remotely like Hans Zimmer... and failing miserably. The percussion and guitar parts were heavily inspired by Chant off the Black Hawk Down soundtrack, but I knew there was just no way for me to get that massive sound. Incidentally, the guitar track is actually 20 tracks of guitar panned all over the place. Just for the heck of it.

You Can Have My Stuff
This is one of the few pieces that really wasn't inspired by anything in particular. I knew we were going to need something ambient and ethereal for the dream sequence, and while looking through my old recordings I found something I had written while fiddling around with the GK picking on my old Lukather. Because this scene was also rather dialogue heavy, I wanted to let this track ride in the background a bit more. There's very subtle development up until the part where Aliyah shows up, and then the cello melody comes in. I really liked that melody, I remember it just sort of kept flowing as I was writing it.

The Showdown
Another failed "I wish I was Hans Zimmer" moment. I had this vision of Molossus from Batman Begins being perfect for this scene. And it would have been, if I hadn't butchered it so badly in the process. We just didn't have the right samples to make the string parts work. They lack that fat punch and urgency that's prevalent in Zimmer's sound. Also, the choral voice that I used, in retrospect, just didn't quite do it for me. Despite all this, I'm still quite happy with this piece, there was much "conducting" back stage while we waited for the video to end.

Man I had so much fun doing CSE revue. I really regret not getting into the whole thing earlier, and I also regret that after I leave this year I won't be able to be involved next year. If you're in Sydney around September, drop by and check it out, I'm pretty sure the stage band is going to be awesome. Again. Maybe this time we'll have an 8-neck guitar. I guess we could call it the "He-X" guitar next year....

Dirka Shredastan!

Monday, October 29, 2007


Here's a little picking etude I've written that's based on Pachelbel's Canon in D.

Let's break it down:

Bars 1 - 8: Alternate picking + string skipping

The first 8 bars can be strictly alternate picked with no legato. It's an excellent way to get your string skipping chops together. You can also do this with legato, picking once on each string, but I personally prefer the articulation that strict alternate picking provides. There's no harm practicing it both ways though! Keep in mind the arpeggios you're playing, and don't forget that you can transpose them to any key. Use the chords as a guide.

Bars 9 - 16: Sweep picked arpeggios

This section is tackles sweep picked arpeggios, across different inversions. Note the picking guide above, but feel free to alter it to use whatever you feel comfortable with. Here's a breakdown of the patterns. The chords in parentheses refer to the root form that these arpeggios are derived from, as they would be played in the open position

Bar 9: D major, root in the bass (A major shape)
Bar 10: A major, root in the bass (C major shape)
Bar 11: B minor, 5th in the bass (D minor shape)
Bar 12: F# minor, root in the bass (A minor shape)
Bar 13: G major, root in the bass (C major shape)
Bar 14: D major, 3rd in the bass (A major shape)
Bar 15: G major, 5th in the bass (C major shape)
Bar 10: A major, root in the bass (C major shape)

Bars 17-24: Economy picked scalar runs

Here, we're just picking the mode that relates to the chord that's being played, and ripping through it with economy picking. You can mix it up and try it with strict alternate picking as well. A picking guide is provided for economy picking this passage. Here's a breakdown of the shapes

Bar 17: D Ionian
Bar 18: A Mixolydian
Bar 19: B Aeolian
Bar 20: F# Phrygian
Bar 21: G Lydian
Bar 22: D Ionian
Bar 23: G lydian
Bar 24: A Mixolydian with a little chromatic bit right at the end

It's best to practice with a metronome. Start at a sensible speed and work your way up, I find this to be a nice little warm up/chop building exercise, plus if you think about it as you play you'll learn a bunch of neat arpeggios on the way!

Download the sheet music for this post here

Alternatively, download the Sibelius scorch plug-in and use this version, which allows you to play back the piece and hear what it should sound like

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Go man, go!

I chanced upon a fantastic little story the other day. I guess you could call it the creationist theory of bass. It's written by Tony Levin, who's a fantastic bass player. Apparently it's an excerpt from Beyond the Bass Clef: The Life and Art of Bass Playing which I'll certainly be trying to get my hands on soon. Enjoy!

In the beginning there was a bass. It was a Fender, probably a Precision, but it could have been a Jazz - nobody knows. Anyway, it was very old ... definitely pre-C.B.S. And God looked down upon it and saw that it was good. He saw that it was very good in fact, and couldn't be improved on at all (though men would later try.) And so He let it be and He created a man to play the bass. And lo the man looked upon the bass, which was a beautiful 'sunburst' red, and he loved it. He played upon the open E string and the note rang through the earth and reverberated throughout the firmaments (thus reverb came to be.) And it was good

And God heard that it was good and He smiled at his handiwork. Then in the course of time, the man came to slap upon the bass. And lo it was funky. And God heard this funkiness and He said, "Go man, go." And it was good. And more time passed, and, having little else to do, the man came to practice upon the bass. And lo, the man came to have upon him a great set of chops. And he did play faster and faster until the notes rippled like a breeze through the heavens. And God heard this sound which sounded something like the wind, which He had created earlier. It also sounded something like the movement of furniture, which He hadn't even created yet, and He was not so pleased.

And He spoke to the man, saying "Don't do that!" Now the man heard the voice of God, but he was so excited about his new ability that he slapped upon the bass a blizzard of funky notes. And the heavens shook with the sound, and the Angels ran about in confusion. (Some of the Angels started to dance, but that's another story.) And God heard this - how could He miss it - and lo He became Bugged. And He spoke to the man, and He said, "Listen man, if I wanted Jimi Hendrix I would have created the guitar. Stick to the bass parts."

And the man heard the voice of God, and he knew not to mess with it. But now he had upon him a passion for playing fast and high. The man took the frets off of the bass which God had created. And the man did slide his fingers upon the fretless fingerboard and play melodies high upon the neck. And, in his excitement, the man did forget the commandment of the Lord, and he played a frenzy of high melodies and blindingly fast licks. And the heavens rocked with the assault and the earth shook, rattled and rolled. Now God's wrath was great. And His voice was thunder as He spoke to the man. And He said, "O.K. for you, pal. You have not heeded My word. Lo, I shall create an soprano saxophone and it shall play higher than you can even think of." "And from out of the chaos I shall bring forth the drums. And they shall play so many notes thine head shall ache, and I shall make you to always stand next to the drummer." "You think you're loud? I shall create a stack of Marshall guitar amps to make thine ears bleed. And I shall send down upon the earth other instruments, and lo, they shall all be able to play higher and faster than the bass."

"And for all the days of man, your curse shall be this; that all the other musicians shall look to you, the bass player, for the low notes. And if you play too high or fast all the other musicians shall say "Wow" but really they shall hate it. And they shall tell you you're ready for your solo career, and find other bass players for their bands. And for all your days if you want to play your fancy licks you shall have to sneak them in like a thief in the night." "And if you finally do get to play a solo, everyone shall leave the bandstand and go to the bar for a drink." And it was so.

Scales ala mode

1. What are modes?

A mode is an ordered series of musical intervals. There are 7 modes to be derived from the major scale, with each mode utilizing a different degree of the major scale as the key centre, while maintaining the notes.

2. If all the notes are the same, why do they sound different?

The distance of each note from the root changes, depending on which interval is functioning as the root. It is important not to think of a mode just as a collection of notes. What defines a mode is not just the note names, but how they sit in relation to the root note. For example, in the key of C major we may have the C Ionian and the A Aeolian.

C Ionion – C D E F G A B (root 2 3 4 5 6 7)
A Aeolian – A B C D E F G (root 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7)

From the example above, we can see that although all the notes are the same, in relation to the root note, the intervals change. For example, in C Ionian, the distance from C to E is a major 3rd. However, in A Aeolian, the distance from the A to the C is a minor 3rd. This means that the 3rd note of C Ionian and A Aeolian will have a different color against the root note.

3. What are the "static" and "dynamic" forms?

The static forms represent a shape that can be used to play the mode in one position i.e. being able to reach all the notes without having to move your hand from one position on the fret board. The dynamic form has a position shift on the top 2 strings.

The G major is a convenient key to practice the modes in. I would suggest starting on F# Locrian, in the 2nd position. When ascending (i.e. playing from low to high), use the dynamic form. When descending, use the static form. For example, you would play the dynamic form of F# Locrian, and descend on the static form of G Ionian. You would then play the dynamic form of G Ionian, and descend on the static form of A Dorian. Repeat this process until you are back on F# Locrian (at the 14th position, in this case)

The 7 modes are:
Ionian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (Fig 3 and 4)
Dorian - 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 (Fig 4 and 5)
Phrygian - 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (Fig 5 and 6)
Lydian - 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (Fig 6 and 7)
Mixolydian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 (Fig 7 and 8)
Locrian - 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 (Fig 1 and 2)

Remember to transpose these modes and practice them in every key. In later weeks I will discuss alternate ways of conceptualizing these modes with different "shapes", as well as how chords are derived from them. You can practice these scalar exercises using both strict alternate picking or economy picking. I have included a suggested picking pattern for economy picking Fig 1. You should extrapolate this concept to all the other patterns.

You can download the sheet music (with tabulature) here:
Page 1
Page 2

A much better way is to download the free Sibelius Scorch plug-in and access this page. It allows you to see the notation and tab as well as play back the file so you can hear what you should be playing.

Disclaimer: This is the first time I've ever used Sibelius (or any notation software!) so you can expect the quality of the sheet music provided to improve

Friday, October 26, 2007

Long necks, Big Bottoms

About 3 years ago, I came across a small boutique luthier who was beginning to make quite a name for himself. Thus began my great adventure...

Over the years I've owned or had the pleasure to play a great number of guitars. I was never much of a Gibson sort of guy, as my hands were never really into the whole 24.75" scale length. For awhile, I was pretty fixated on the idea of a PRS as I thought that the 25" scale was an interesting middle ground between the Fender and Gibson sort of sound, but after I tried a few I walked away unconvinced that they were for me, as great as they did sound and look. So, I've had a few 25.5" scale guitars pass through my hands over the years. My first electric guitar was one of these:

Fender Telecaster '62 Re-issue (Jap model)

It was a nice guitar and I got it at an unbelievable bargain. To this day I sort of regret selling it off when I did, at a point in time when I was smitten with the idea of a 7-string guitar. 'Til today, I still believe there's nothing *quite* like the snappy twang of a Telecaster. Sure, you can get close with some other gear, but nothing beats the real thing for *that* sound. I also loved the straightforward control layout, and the hardtail bridge. I believe I was mostly using .009 - .042 string gauge around this time.

At some point, my friend Ben and I came across a good deal on a Peavey Wolfgang standard, and we decided to split it. It was my first experience with a Floyd Rose tremolo, but it really wasn't the right guitar for me

I really don't remember much about this guitar other than what a pain in the ass a floyd rose can be...

Eventually I was bitten by the Ibanez bug, and was fixated on experimenting with new things. I dropped the coinage for an Ibanez RG2027X, which was one of those 7-string Ibanez guitars with the Lo-pro Edge tremolo that had the piezo pickup built into it. It was also my first Mahogany guitar :D Over the years I eventually had it fully scalloped by a luthier down in Thirroul, NSW, about 2 hours from where I was staying. Those were song long train rides... In many ways, this guitar foreshadowed what I would eventually be attracted to. It definitely had a neck profile that I was really digging. I remember swapping out the stock pickups for a DiMarzio Tonezone7 and Paf7. All in all it was actually a pretty nice guitar, but greater things were to come!
At some point, the piezo preamp just died on me and it was nigh impossible to get it fixed, which really annoyed me. Nobody I took it to seemed to know what to do with the preamp, and in the end I gave up entirely on getting it ever to work again. It was also the only guitar I've ever owned that was scalloped, and in some ways I miss the feel of a scalloped neck. It just made bending and vibrato so damned enjoyable! However, I do remember one pet peeve, and that was that the low-B never felt "right" on the 25 1/2" scale. I tried a thicker gauge to get the tension I liked but it felt like I was running my hands down a telephone wire. A lower gauge just proved too flabby and undefined for what I was going for. In the end, I was mostly playing this guitar with .010 - .059 gauge string sets.

Sometime in 2003 I think it was, I decided I wanted a 6-string to compliment the RG2027. I had toyed with the idea of getting an EBMM John Petrucci guitar, being the Dream Theater fan that I am, but in the end, I ended up getting something slightly different...

The EBMM Steve Lukather model started my love/hate relationship with EMG pickups. At the end of the day, they just sounded a little bit too "sterile" for what I was going for. It was a nice guitar though, and I eventually had it modded to put a Graphtech GHOST piezo/Roland GK system in the bridge and routed the body for the 13-pin output, and used it into a Roland VG-88. As much as I was having a blast experiment with all those quirky sounds, I hated the stupid Roland GK connection cable. It was cumbersome and not particularly well built, and after it crapped out on me twice I gave up. I was a little fanatical about string gauge at this time, and the guitar was strung with .012 - .056 strings, in standard tuning. I had quite the vice-like left-handed handshake for awhile...

And so, we finally come to the dynamic duo... as I said, about 3 years ago I came across a small boutique guitar builder who was beginning to make quite a name for himself. It was about this time that I was thinking it was time to get into some jazz, and I was prepared to sell off every piece of gear I owned for a fresh start. I had narrowed it down to a Gibson ES335 and a Pat Martino Custom, this despite my dislike for the 24.75" scale. And while I was asking around on some forums I frequented, someone pointed me in a direction that up til then I hadn't even considered.

And that was how I came to know Jim Soloway. He builds these guitars out in Portland, Oregon, and what I really loved about the whole concept was a 27" scale. I was a little worried about the scale at first, since I don't have particularly big hands, and I asked around a bit but at the end of the day I really went into the deal blind. I saw a great looking guitar, I heard some heavenly sound clips (which can sometimes lie...) and I was receiving completely impartial information from the man who designed it, and I just took the plunge and ordered one. Which basically set my bank account back to 0. And 3 years on I can't say I regret it one iota. The 27" scale makes it sound like no other guitar that I know of, and Jim's attention to detail is immaculate. I got it at a bargain price as well for what it is, as Jim had built a pair of these cut from the same piece of wood, with a Koa top, a black limba body, and Lollar Imperial pickups as a bit of an experiment, since most of his guitars are custom orders.

The first thing I remember about this guitar was that it sounded nothing like the sound clips, and I was rather disappointed. It was a nice guitar, but where was that magical sound that I had heard on the recordings? As it turns out, it was entirely user error... And that's when I first understood what "tone is in the fingers" meant. This guitar literally *taught* me to find the sound I was looking for, and made me think about playing and tone from a whole new paradigm. 3 years on, I'm still discovering wonderful things about music and tone through it. But it did have one small drawback for my purposes. It was a chambered guitar, and when playing out with my rock band, because of the chambers, it would always feedback at the volume levels and gain I was using it at, and also had a bit more of a "woody" characteristic than what I was looking for at the time. Of course, that's entirely my fault for using it in a somewhat inappropriate manner, but I devised a plan that would solve all my problems, and it materialized in this form:

A solid body 7-string with a 27" neck! This time it was a black limba body and a white limba(korina) top. Jim went out of his way to help me find some fantastic pickups for it, and got DiMarzio to make a custom wound 7-string Mo'Joe for the bridge as well as a 7-string Bluesbucker for the neck. The middle single coil is a Vintage Vibes single coil pickup. And all of them sound divine, especially with the 27" neck, which to me, overcomes the problem of a floppy low B while sounding unique and clear across all strings at the same time.

I honestly think that every guitarist needs to find at least 1 guitar that inspires them over the course of their musical journey. I was lucky to find not one, but two, a pair that compliment each other so well while managing to sound inspirational in their own right. A Swan certainly isn't for everyone, but if you're looking to try new things, open to the experience and not afraid to break away from tradition, you owe it to yourself to give one of these babies a solid test drive. Just remember that if you can't tear yourself away from it, you're going to have to buy one :p

You can visit Jim, and see, hear, and learn more about the Soloway Swans, at his website. My pathetic attempt at making his guitars sound good can be heard here.

It's good to be picky

"After years of practice, the young guitar player will eventually overcome kenetic disabilities and being to focus more and more upon what is being played as opposed to how it is played. In other words, the quality of the music is now the primary concern. With this in mind, the maturing guitarist will temporarily sedate his on-going urge to play lightning fast guitar licks and flashy feats of fingerboard gymnastics. Finally, the guitarist comes face to face with the nemesis of every budding musical artist, namely, improvising over chord changes." - Pat Martino

My own personal background is very much shred/extreme metal. I spent years honing my down picking rhythm chops (ala Metallica), my alternate picking rhythm chops (ala Slayer, Megadeth), my tremelo picking (ala surf), but at the end of the day I find that while it gives me speed and stamina, it doesn’t always give you absolute control when it comes to crossing string groups, and "inside" and "outside" picking. I tend to break down picking into the following basic skills:

1) Down picking rhythm chops
Here, every note is down picked. There's no alternate picking at all. You're going for a tight, even, aggressive sound. Think Master of Puppets, which to me is more or less the perfect exercise for this as you're down picking 8th notes at 220 bpm.. it's no pushover to make that sound tight!

2) Alternate picking rhythm chops on 1 string
Here's we're going for all out speed and aggression. Think Angel of Death/War Ensemble. The goal is to play clean and tight, and have the control to mute/stop playing when it's not needed.

3) Tremelo picking
Try playing Miserlou and it becomes instantly clear how hard it is to make it sound even, but more so to keep it tight and clean for such an extended period of time.

4) 3 note per string alternate picking
This is your typical 3 note per string scalar exercise. The challenge here is crossing strings. You typically play d-u-d on 1 string, then u-d-u on the next string. This is where the mechanical problem presents itself. There are two ways to cross strings.

Pick down on a lower string and up on a higher string. I call this "outside" picking, because you're picking on the "outside" of the two strings.

Pick up on a up on a higher string, and up on a lower string. I call this "inside" picking, because you're picking "between" 2 strings.

Each of these represents a different mechanical challenge to your hands, and you can craft little exercises that isolate this mechanical problem, and practice them to overcome it.

5) Sweep picking
I think of sweep picking as "raking" the pick up or down a set of strings, muting with your left hand as you go along. Typically this is used to play triad arpeggios, ala Malmsteen. Here, the mechanical problem presents itself in muting the strings as you go so they don't ring out and sound like a chord, but rather have even separation and definition, and sound like an arpeggio.

6) Economy picking
This is more of the Frank Gambale sort of thing.

If you play an odd number of notes, you can continue to move the pick in the same direction. For example, if you're playing an ascending 3-note per string scale, you'd play d-u-d, cross over to the higher string with a down string and continue the motion of d-u-d. So your picking hand would be doing:
d - u - d (cross string to higher string) d - u - d

This works in the opposite manner as well. If you are playing a descending scale, you start with u - d - u, so your picking hand would be doing:
u - d - u (cross to lower string) u - d- u

If you play an even number of notes, you will change the direction. If you are ascending, you will cross over to a lower string and descend. So your picking hand would be doing:
d - u - d - u (cross to lower string) u - d - u etc.

If you are descending, you will cross over to a higher string and then ascend. So your picking hand would be doing:
u - d - u - d (cross to higher string) d - u -d etc.

The best way to get your head wrapped around this is check out how Jimmy Bruno and Frank Gambale play, as this is central to their technique.

7) Strict alternate picking
This one speaks for itself. You never break the d-u pattern, even if you cross strings or skip strings.

8) String skipping
All the same consideration of (4), (6) and (7) apply here, except you throw in skipped strings. This requires practice on its own to overcome the mechanical challenge of not hitting stray notes as you cross strings.

Thus, we have deconstructed picking into discrete mechanical challenges. The goal is to combine them all, and be able to change on the fly. Practice them seperately until you're comfortable with each style of picking, and slowly put it together lick by lick. The best way to learn all these techniques quickly is to use a metronome. Don't pick long complicated exercises, but rather, pick an exercise that isolates each problem, and allows you to work on it. The more complicated the fretting hand parts are, the more difficult it will be for you focus on training your picking hand. As you feel yourself becoming more comfortable and confident with the different picking techniques, expand you exercises to combine both left/right hand co-ordination as well as switch up between all the different picking techniques. The metronome is your best friend, because it serves as both a benchmark for your progress, as well as keeping you playing at the threshold of your capability so you can push your boundaries.

Always remember to warm up and stretch. Playing fast on the guitar can be physically demanding, and if you're not careful, you can really hurt yourself! And remember... it's meant to be *fun*, so play things you enjoy, keep pushing your limits, and go for the gold. Michael Angelo sums it up best: No Boundaries.

PS: Don't forget rhythm, vibrato, expression, phrasing and tempo amidst all the technical jargon :p

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Everything that has a beginning, has a middle

I've been playing guitar on and off (mostly on) for the last 12 years. For the first 8 or so of those 12 years, I was a diehard metal/shred head. It was all riffs and licks and scales, and I hadn't the faintest clue what a ii V I was. About 3 years ago, I decided it was time to take my guitar playing a little more seriously, and made a concerted effort to learn some jazz... and fell flat on my arse. Hard. And that's when I realized a few things that were really, really, really important, and helped me along heaps

1) Know what intervals are and how they relate to chords and scales

The first gap in my knowledge was I didn't know offhand any intervals other than the root, 3rd and 5th. So I sat down with the major scale (G major, for example), and learnt what the intervals were. Then I extended that to all 7 modes, keeping in mind what the intervals were, what they sounded like, how they looked, and how each mode could be used to construct a chord using the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th interval of the mode. That's when I started to "listen" to the things I had only "heard" before, and things started to make sense.

2) Become intimately familiar with ways to play 7th chords, in different positions, across different strings, in all inversions

I had the good fortune of having some guidance from a fantastic jazz guitarist who plays out every night, in Singapore. He was kind enough to share with me his own learning experiences, and some of his own instructional material that he was compiling. Of these, what I felt was the most useful was the one that introduced me to playing chords in all inversions, across different string groups, in every position. I religiously studied that for awhile, until I was familiar with the basic 7th chords (M7, Dom7, m7, m7b5 (half diminished), full diminished). Playing this across different string groups, tackling them one at a time, and working my way through all the inversions, in about 6 months I had become able to pretty much play them on the fly as and when I needed to. The next step in the equation was to add all the colour tones (9s, 11s, etc) and extend this knowledge to altered chords. Knowing what chord tone was where in the shapes I was holding REALLY opened the gateway to understanding everything. After a time it stopped being a shape, and instead became a collection of notes, and once I understood how those notes were organized on the fretboard, altering a note here or there to produce the desired effect became cakewalk.

3) Get some basic understanding about chord progressions

My simplistic view of things is that everything can be broken down into its component parts. Looking at a chart for a jazz standard and trying to make sense of things 1 chord at a time was all good and proper, but that didn't really reveal the big picture to me. I needed a little more perspective, and that's when I started to learn a bit about chord progressions. If you've done 1 and 2 from above, by now you'd know the rudiments of scales, you'd know how they relate to chords, you'd know how to play those chords all over the place, and that makes it much easier to see how all those things are related to each other in the grand scheme of things. My own personal experience was that studying jazz standards was a great way to get your head wrapped around common progressions, as well as variations of them and reharmonization. And once you identify what key a certain portion is in, it's a good way to start thinking about what sort of arpeggios/scales/melodic ideas you can use over that. I'm still struggling with this, trying to find creative and musical ways to navigate through all the changes, or indeed, even within something as simple as a ii V I, but it does start to make sense after awhile

4) Play with people. Lots of people. Especially people who are better than you

I threw myself into the deep end and just started jamming with anyone who was willing to jam with me. Every time, it was an awesome learning experience, and it didn't matter whether they were guitarists or sax players or whatever. I soaked in whatever advice I could, and I tried to listen to what other people were playing as much, if not more, than I listened to myself.

5) Apply, apply apply!

This is really an ongoing phase but take steps 1 - 4 and just keep using them, and try and be conscious of it, at least in the beginning, until you have internalized it. It's a lot of information to process, and do it in bite sized chunks so that you can digest it all thoroughly. I really regret not having the fundamentals early in my formative playing years, because I had to unlearn alot of bad habits and resist the urge to fall back on comfortable clichés simply because I felt that I was good at them. Take all this knowledge, and apply it to anything and everything, whether it's jazz or otherwise, because really, there's no substitute for practice!

5.5) Listen, steal, analyse

Ear training really helped me out over the last couple of years. I used to rely heavily only tab, and my sight reading is pathetic at best (although I do try and work on it!) What really helped me in getting happy with the way my playing sounded was to listen to lots of music, find stuff I liked, figure out how to play it by ear, and then once I had copped a particular lick, phrase, or sound, figure out what I liked about it and how I could transpose it to different keys or apply it with different phrasing or note choices. I think this really helps you be inspired by all kinds of music, but at the end of the day, take all that inspiration and make it your own. It's cool to have a huge vocabulary of licks, but I think it's much more cool to have a huge pool of concepts that you can draw from.

That's sort of my little journey from then til now. Best of luck in your musical endeavours!