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 clich├ęs 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!