Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Thumb Independence...huh?

Thumb independence; it is your key to "modern solo instrumental fingerstyle".

Okay, so you aren't into flatpicks, good for you :)  You have a fairly solid background in Classical style, even better!  You need to learn and master the following riff, an arrangement by Tommy Emmanuel from the Beatles song "Day Tripper".  Use right hand index and middle fingers on the top two strings, the thumb does all the bass line work.  If you don't yet have thumb independence then it will take you many hours over a few days to master - how can two bars be so hard? - you are about to make your brain work in a different way.  If you master it, then you don't need to read the rest of this blog, you will _understand_ thumb independence.

Look; just the same as there is not really such a thing as muscle memory there is also not _really_ such a thing as thumb independence.  All you are doing is expanding your rhythm from a very basic one to more of a more complex polyrhythm style.

Normally as a classical player your thumb might play the first note in the bar and your fingers will then arpeggio or pattern pluck the rest of the bar, repeating for the next bar in a different chord.  Maybe there will be a second bass note, but essentially it is all on a regular beat.  It is when you thumb a bass note on an off beat you are performing "thumb independence".

Okay, I admit, true thumb independence _may_ exist.  As in, your thumb is doing something completely separate to your fingers.  An example would be playing the melody to Baa Baa Black Sheep with your fingers on the treble strings while thumbing the bassline of Peter Gunn at the same time.  Well no, that isn't really thumb independence you could train yourself to line up beats.  But if you played it through once; and then played it a second time but played the bassline *slower* than the melody - in fact you could play either the bassline or the treble at any speed relative to each other, chop and change sections out at will, then hallelujah, true thumb independence does exist and I will eat this blog.

Meantime, "thumb independence" will completely revolutionalise what you play and how you play, you just won't understand until you understand...understand?  This "thumb independence" I talk of is a learned polyrhythm; for example once you have mastered the above riff you now have a tool in your kit where you can strike an off beat bass note in a very specific situation.  Continue to learn more songs of that style and the more learned thumb independence patterns you will achieve.

Also - don't just consider thumb independence to be about the thumb, indeed the thumb might be playing a totally on beat pattern, your fingers may be playing the off beat!  Thumb independence simply means that what is happening on your fingers and thumb doesn't line up on a "normal"  beat.

My continuing strategy for achieving thumb independence is to very slowly bash into my brain a particularly tricky pattern, playing at ultra-slow tempo or even no-tempo, and force my fingers to learn the muscle memory required to perform the pattern.  Over time it will sink in and yet another thumb independence pattern is available in my toolkit.  It is very forced, difficult and almost unnatural; your thumb will tend to want to pick up on "normal" beats - indeed, it will fight with you.  Win the fight; and transform your sound from a very primitive western style rhythm to a creative and interesting polyrhythm!


Thursday, 12 November 2009

What's happening October 2009

October turned out to be a busy month, and an un-busy month at the same time.  I had my busking permit, valid for a month, and I played three times in the Murray Street mall before I decided my guitar/amp combo just wasn't working out.  My battery amp was showing up problems - I reckon it needs a preamp between the effects pedal and the car audio amp, the sound was progressively getting boomier and "fuzzy" in the middle probably due to impedance mismatch.  The guitar was also showing up problems, the bass response was quite poor.

It was a really useful experience though; firstly it proved to me that I do in fact like playing to an audience, and that I have the ability to "muddle my way through" the songs I know (yep, there were plenty of errors, but you just play through).  The "stress test" on using my equipment in a gig scenario showed fundamental problems which I'm on my way to rectifying.

On the home made solar powered battery amp, even after all these years of effort, I decided to scrap it and just buy one from a manufacturer.  5 or 6 years ago when I started this project, you couldn't buy a battery amp, nobody was making them.  Today you can walk into a music store and test out several all made by different manufacturers, different price ranges, different features - and most cost less than my home made one and sounded better!

On the guitar side, I pulled off the saddle and made a new bone one.  Which made the pickup balance worse!  After trying several different things I decided to give the guitar to some experts and let the professionals fix it.  3 weeks later and it came back much better, but it still wasn't "perfect".  After the last year or so of experimenting with sound I know what I expect from a guitar pickup and amp, and now I want what I expect ;)  So I'm still working on it - after seeing what the professionals did and thinking about the physics of the situation I reckon I'm on the right track...

At the moment I'm selling one house and buying another, the big move in around 2 weeks.  I think a combination of that stress, and poor diet - my fingernails have gone weak, over the month I smashed up my thumbnail and middle finger on separate occasions, which for someone who plays on nails is really, really, really annoying.  So in between the guitar being in the shop and having short nails there wasn't much guitar playing the tail end of the month. (If I crack a nail, I will cut and file it down to the crack, and then cut and file all the others to the same level.  The only thing worse than cracking a nail is having the other fingers with long nails and one with a short nail!)

I think I've mentioned it but I have been jamming with a fantastic drummer on a Sat morning while our kids are in music classes.  I play my fingerstyle and he drums along to it.  He's got a real ear for the drums, once he's heard a song on the radio he pretty much knows the "feel" of the drumming in that song, so when I pull out a song he hasn't even heard for 10 years his drumming still sounds just like the original song!  He's more of an rocker-from-way-back than me; the stuff I play is a bit quieter than what he's used to, but he puts up with me.

Unfortunately with the house move, there is only two jam sessions left!  I'm very disappointed, it is the guitaring highlight of the week.  It has shown me that solo performances might be well and good, but when you are working with someone else it can be even better.  The chic who teaches our kids has had a listen to us before; in fact she is a singer, last week she came in while we were doing some pink floyd and it turns out she loves Dark Side of the Moon.  I cast out a challenge to her - brush up on "Great Gig in the Sky" and sing it for us next week...tomorrow!  A very challenging vocal solo, I'm looking forward to seeing how she goes.  I will record the session on the iphone, if it comes out alright I'll put some mp3s somewhere.

Finally, while we are on the subject, I have been putting a bit more effort into my Dark Side of the Moon project.  Once or twice a week I play Breathe-Time-Breathe Reprise-Great Gig in the Sky back to back, ie side A of the album minus "On the Run" which I don't even know if you could come up with anything on guitar.  Breathe & Breathe Reprise I have been playing for a few years now so they are done and dusted, in fact I've tarted up the bassline a bit so it sounds great.  Time I have a good resolve for the intro (not the alarm clocks though!) with some bongo drum playing on the body.  I haven't bothered with the solo yet; at the moment I've cut my DSotM project back to "just the basics", as the years go by I'll add to it - for now I think it is better to get stuff finished to a certain level rather than aim for 100% and never actually get there.  Great Gig in the Sky on the other hand needs to have a solo, it is the essence of the song, at the moment I am half improvising but I have the groundwork laid so sometime soon I will complete a near-enough rendition of the vocal solo and call it done.

In the meantime, when I've got the guitar pickup balanced and my nails have grown back somewhat, I think I'll record a video of DSotM side A for YouTube.  It will be rough and a bit unfinished, but I haven't posted anything for 3 months and my fan base is dropping! ;)


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Pull that guitar in tight!

Yesterday I was talking to a mate who is learning the guitar, and I remembered to remind him to pull that axe in tight.  It's something that you don't hear enough about often enough.  In fact I think I spent the first 20 years playing without being told specifically; fortunately I was already doing it unbeknownst to me, so when I was told it made total sense.

Let me drill it into you for a moment, I consider it fundamental, and after this little read you can go away with an exercise to try and be informed up ready to pass on to other guitarists! ;) why do you think it is the big burly fella struggle to grip out a bar chord for more than 30 seconds, and the little seven year old girl play them all day?  It because most of the pressure you need to adequately fret a note should *not* come from your hand, it should come from your arm and shoulder.

Look at that wimpy little thumb muscle in front of you.  Now look at that rippling biscep.  Which one would you rather you were using to apply pressure?

Basically if you were to fret notes only using the clamping force of your hand, you won't have much playing stamina.  If you pull the guitar in tight your left arm is the pulling force - your fingers are just forming the chord pattern - and your right arm is counterbalancing your left.

Not too sure what I'm talking about? Okay, here is the exercise. Form up a chord, whatever you want.  Now, take your thumb off the back of the neck.  What you'll find you need to do is what you should be doing - that is, pulling the guitar in and exerting all the fretting pressure with your arm.  You should be able to fret without buzz, in fact play any tune you know, without touching the neck with your left thumb.

Of course the thumb is important to guide, help with dexterity/fine motor skills/accuracy, offer a bit of structural support/grip/pressure and occassionally fret a bass note - but it isn't where the majority of the force comes from.  Playing a song without your thumb gives you an idea of where you should be applying pressure from, it's a bit of an eye opener if you've never tried it.

Good luck, and hopefully armed with this knowledge you will be able to play all day without getting fatigue in your thumb and fingers (if not at least pressure lines in your chest because you pressed the guitar so firmly into it!)


Monday, 5 October 2009

What's happening October 2009

...maybe one person who reads this may have seen me - I was busking at the Murray Street Mall, Perth Western Australia, Murray Street train station end, between about 12:15 and 13:00 WST 6 October 2009.  An interesting and positive experience.  A few quick notes, in no particular order:

  • A kind little old lady smiled and dropped a $2 coin in as she passed by, midway through my first song.  Thank you - for the first coin I ever got from busking!;

  • Lugging around a guitar and a heavy battery powered amp is not much fun, not to mention you feel a bit wierd doing so;

  • Had the jitters for a while, playing was mediocre but solid enough, no terminal song stops but more dropped notes and even a few dropped phrases than I'd normally do;

  • Was unable to get a sound I was happy with - the concrete pavers caused boominess in the bass and a weak treble.  It sounded _okay_ from where I was sitting, but a colleague of mine who stopped by told me the treble dropped quickly as you moved away, which is no good, the melody is in the treble.  This time I was more concerned with the "public performance" side of things, next time I'll try to improve the sound;

  • The overall noise level in Murray Street Mall is higher than I expected.  I was pushing the boundaries of what I can achieve with the amp before getting feedback, volume wise.  There is plenty of oomphf left in the amp, the trick is to get it without feedback. Overall I think the volume was adequate so I'm not concerned, besides I have a feedback buster I can fit, I just don't really like using it;

  • One guy recognised me from youtube and had a quick chat - g'day mate, thanks for letting me know (he loves my "Wish You Were Here", he just missed me playing it);

  • Couple of guys hung around on the sidelines listening in for several songs; I'm used to that now, whenever I play in public I get that.  I figure they are all guitarists interested in how I play, they don't want to get too close, but they want to know what's going on.  If you are one of those sorts of guys - tell me what the story is!;

  • A mummy and a little girl "go on, pop the money into the hat" - very sweet; my kids are all yawn ho-hum about guitar playing they see it all the time, but some kids would have never seen someone playing a guitar close up, so that's great!;

  • After about 45 mins of playing the sun was on my head and I was only supposed to play for 30 mins before moving on (shhh) so I packed up; I wanted to play about another 5 or 6 songs, next time.  Grand total was $19.55.  Nearly paid for my busking pass in one hit ($23/month).

I'll do it again maybe later this week or next week, but long term I don't think it is for me - I'm fairly sure I'm a cafe/restaurant player.  I've got until 1st November on my busking pass, I'll get a few more in yet!


Sunday, 20 September 2009

Trip to the Luthiers

My trip to the luthier proved very beneficial, but not for the reason I went there.

Some background: I was quite sure that my new(ish) nylon string guitar had bad intonation. You could tune for open fret, but when you played a note it always sounded sharp. The harmonic didn't seem to match the 12th fret. I've always thought I had pretty bad pitch detection, so I lived with it, but increasingly it became more annoying, especially when I played from a capo. So, I lined up a local luthier to have a look at it.

The luthier is Paul Sheridan, who makes about 10 guitars a year, mostly for overseas buyers. Fantastic guitars, lets come back to that in a moment.

He slings my guitar up on his bench, and immediately begins checking - with ruler and magnifying glass to verify the frets are correctly spaced, and then with a tuner to check frequencies. I was suprised that he wasn't using a stroboscopic tuner, "Yeah I've always meant to buy one, and I've been through about four of these (Korg analogue needle variant) so I could have paid for one by now." Basically, the guitar was pretty good up to the 12th, it starts getting a little bit messy after there.

"If you've got a really good ear you'll hear it, but otherwise it's pretty good."

What? I've always thought my ear was really bad. "If you've been playing for a long while, your ear will improve, you might start to be able to hear the discrepancies." One thing I mentioned was that I do tend to pull on the strings when fretting, which he noticed while I was playing some stuff later on.  "You should watch that". Basically "no fault found", operator error ;)

While I was there I got him to show me some of his guitars. He builds them all out of Australian woods, and has moved to a "lattice brace" on the sound board, basically a grid pattern instead of the traditional fanned bracing. When I played his personal guitar, immediately it has so much sound and body, it was just beautiful. While he continued to work I must have spent 3/4 of an hour just playing it and enjoying it. He didn't seem to mind, we talked about the sounds (describing different sound qualities is as hard as describing the different tastes of red wine) - and talked about all sorts of other things.

Turns out he doesn't play the guitar much - but is starting to get back into it. He also seemed at a bit of a life-juncture; wasn't getting as much joy as he used to from his work. I had to remind him once or twice during our conversation "You're living the dream!"

He was intrigued with my playing style; well at least I thought he was, maybe he was just being polite ;) We talked about arranging fingerstyle songs, and the classical guitarists he builds guitars for, talked about guitars, and life in general.

He pulled out another guitar, one that he had built with a traditional fan braced soundboard.  I played it for a while then apologised profusely "I like this one better!"  I am a bit of a boring taditionalist, but what is comes down to is what sound you want.  I like a crisp brightness over mellow warmth.  Pauls lattice style gives that warmth - and huge volume and projection - whereas my little Japanese styled guitar is crisp and bright with low volume and projection, but the pickups and amplification make up for it, which is what I wanted to achieve.

I've come to realise that in the nylon guitar scene there seems to be two types, Japanese style and European style.  I know this is a gross over generalisation, but at a very simple level when you play a guitar it is either full of warmth and body (European style) or crisp and bright (Japanese style) or neither (look for another guitar ;))  Volume, projection, ease of play all come into it, but on purely a sound point of view there are the two basic characteristics, and you can't have both, they are opposite types of sounds.

So I wasted about two hours of Paul's time playing his wonderful guitars and talking his ear off (I love to talk about guitars and playing them, hence the reason this blog exists).  I came away with a bit of new clarity about what I should be expecting from a guitar, and the realisation that the "problems" with my guitar were actually problems with me.  Thanks Paul.

Even better was him walking me through the construciton of his guitars - all his milling and machining gear, how he forms each part, his use of carbon fibre (?!), his special humidity controlled room for drying and seasoning; basically all the hands on side of guitars.  Fantastic!  I must build myself a guitar or two at some stage in my life ;)

...and probably the biggest tip I got from Paul, when I asked him how I will know when I find the right guitar for me - "It's like falling in love with a woman, you'll just know."


Monday, 7 September 2009

What's happening September 2009

Another quiet month on the guitar front, I'm leading a hectic life at the moment aside from family and work we have just bought a new house and a now frantically preparing our existing house to sell.  It's amazing how much stuff you can accrue over 15 years, and how easy it is to "let things go" on house maintenance. The sad thing is - and it's a common occurence - after painting and repairing and fixing, our existing house hasn't looked this good in years! ;)

A good mate of mine convinced me to write up my solar guitar amp story, which took a while but was a good thing to do.  I had so much to say about it that I'm sure I've missed bits; and I waffled on for so long that it probably started to become disjointed, at least now it's documented and maybe I'll revisit it again one day to tweak it up.

What I found during my waffle was that I had made a lot of concepts up from a sound engineering design point of view.  And I wondered why I had to make stuff up; why I wasn't just levering of other peoples good work.  Perhaps I wasn't looking in the right places for information, or perhaps the average guitarist who wants his guitar amplified doesn't think about sound reproduction physics, that he just plays on different setups until he finds something he likes, and buys it.  I'm sure there are some people out there who are well versed in sound amplification, I just haven't heard from them yet.

In a way I'm the same as the guitarist looking for a sound they like; except that I have been designing amplification to try to achieve the sound I like.  The first step is to firstly hear the sound you like so you know what you are aiming for - but to then try to translate that into reality, well, that's hard.  Anyway, I won't waffle here as well - go read my article here:

On actually playing the guitar - the other night I stole an hour from my family and hid in the shed playing.  Normally I play the pieces I know to keep them fresh, and change them a bit, but this time I tried something different, to play the whole of Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish.  I have played all the songs on there in one form or another over the years, some I have fingerstyled already, others I'm halfway through.  I enjoyed it, and actually did quite well.  Still a long way to go, but part of that long way is keeping enthusiasm.

Why DSotM?  Probably because I am a pink floyd fan from way back, athough I don't listen to them anymore - a long story other pink floyd fans will not want to hear - but importantly because it is a concept album, melody/riff themes are linked and reproduced, every song is recognisable to the public, it is the longest charted album of all time, and every song is fingerstylable.

As I played through I found myself thinking about different ways to play the stuff I already know - different as in technically more complex (and challenging) but more true to the album.  I'm not so much trying to improvise a fingerstyle version DSotM, I want it to be a faithful, accurate translation.  Of course in doing so there is a lot of creativity required so it is still all me, but as a fan I know when I want to hear something I get more enjoyment in hearing how the subtleties of piece are captured and translated in fingerstyle rather than how the arranger added his own improvisations.

Maybe it's just me.

For now however it's back to preparing the house.  My DSotM arrangements have been going for years, and will be for many more, the enthusiasm is still there and the mental process continues, but it's not the right time just now for full imersion.


Monday, 10 August 2009

What's happening August 2009

For those who may not have noticed, I put a a video of "Another One Bites the Dust" on youtube.  Another Naudo copy, but like all of my Naudo copies, modified to suit me ;)  It's good to have a few rockier pieces in my set, I've come to notice that all of my stuff is quieter...which suits the nylon sting (it's not really a rockers guitar), but it suprises people when I make it bark, which is good fun.

Speaking of people, I *finally* did a gig last Saturday night.  It was a favour for my cousin, she had helped organise a school function at a winery and knew I liked to play.  Was a crowd of somewhere about 50-70, mostly indoors in a long rectagular room that had concrete floor, concrete walls...the acoustics were not nice.  It wasn't a big room, so I found that people were talking louder and louder to hear each other over each other, and me.  Generally no-one was actively listening, I was background, but I was catching some peoples attention and getting a few claps which was nice.

When I realised the bulk of the people who were actively listening were outside, I relocated out there where it was quieter and the acoustics were great - basically a courtyard with lots of vines growing around the place to absorb reflections.  It was easy to dial in a great sound.  By this time I had a glass of red wine in me and I had already played for an hour so I was well and truely warmed up, I was playing really well.  Since I only have about 75mins worth of stuff I was repeating things, but nobody had heard them earlier so no dramas.  One guy, who also loved pink floyd, was so impressed with some of my floyd renditions he bought me a bottle of red wine!  Excellent!

Now you are probably wondering what my setup is.  Okay, for those following you may recall my passion for battery powered amps, and I had been building version 3.  I finished it about two months back, really pleased.  It is based on car audio gear as the speaker/amplification engine, built into a custom made light weight ribbed 3mm marine ply box that also serves as the seat.  The sound straight from the guitar through the car audio gear was a bit plain, so I first added a reverb pedal, and then later added a 7 band EQ pedal because the way I play tends to have powerful midrange, and the midrange EQ built into the guitar doesn't have bands specific enough to take it out.

So to dial in a sound, firstly I start with flat EQ on the guitar going through a Behringer reverb pedal.  I always use  the "modulate" setting, and wind up the level/tone/delay according to the room size I'm in.  If I am outside then I'll wind up the reverb more, but inside the rooms normally offer a bit of "natural" reverb so I wind it back in.  I don't use much reverb, just enough that you can only _just_ hear it; I think the acoustic sound needs the warmth of reverb but it should not dominate. 

From the reverb pedal I go into the 7 band EQ.  I normally sweep out the midrange and accentuate the highs and a bit of extra bass.  The car amp and speakers are built for bass (think of the doof doof drivers) so it doesn't need much extra bass.  The car amp and speakers actually has a very flat response across the frequency curve which is great.  The enclosure is fairly linear, I think there are some minor resonances, I might need to stuff some more foam into it.

So I can do a basic 3 band EQ tweak on the guitar (normally leave flat) into the reverb, then do a post 7 band EQ tweak, then into the amp.  I've found I can pretty much get a good sound with this setup.

I'll have more to say about the amp and the sound and playing at gigs in the next few months; I'm still looking for a cafe to play during lunch times, haven't had much response so far (talked to two), but I'm not pushing it.  I'm probably about to move office again so I wouldn't want to hook up a regular gig only to find that I no longer work near it!

Suffice to say that yep, I got out there, I was a little nervous at first but I got into it really quick and thoroughly enjoyed it - looking forward to the next ;)


Tuesday, 16 June 2009

So you want to play the guitar...

"I'd love to be able to play the guitar like you, where do I start?"  Well, about 30 years ago.  And I'm still a long way from being satisfied.  Grrr & humphf.

There is no doubt the kids pick up new things faster than us grown ups, including the guitar, but it's not a lost cause.  To adult newbie guitarists looking for advice on how to play the guitar I say "learn how to sing."  Huh?

It's about engaging an audience.  People like to hear what they already know.  Okay, this precludes any new material from ever entering the greater collective, but let's leave that out of the equation for now ;)

If you can play a three chord song and sing in tune, you'll get an audience.  Even if you keep that audience to your mate, your dog, or the bedpost, you'll get an audience.  If you can play the theme riff to "smoke on the water", you won't get an audience, in fact, you might get a smack on the back of the head, and you'll deserve it...

If you can sing, then playing & singing a 3 chord song is about as hard as learning the theme riff to "smoke on the water."  I don't need to remind you which I consider more valuable.

So, get a guitar, learn how to strum some chords, once you know three chords, you now have at your disposal approximately 1 million songs you can play...learn how to sing a few!

Most importantly, learn how to play the whole song, from go to whoa.  And play it from go to whoa everytime you play it.  The scourge of the guitar world is half-song playing guitarists ;)


Sunday, 7 June 2009

What's happening June 2009

I found myself at home, the three kids in bed, the missus out for several hours - food in my belly, kitchen cleaned guesses for what happened next ;)

Now for the past month or so I've been putting any "spare" time into finishing the solar guitar amp.  It is basically finished, just some paint and trim and other non-essential, but essential items to go.  Recapping the project - 12VDC battery, recharged by a solar panel on the side, using car stereo speakers and amplifier, in a lightweight but sturdy box that also acts as a seat.

So interesting notes since I last mentioned it:

* my 5W solar panel that I've had for 5+ years has definately lost some oomphf.  It used to be able to kick out about 400mA, now only about 300mA.  Not a problem though, just a shame - the continuous power use during operation is about 600mA at an acceptable backyard volume, peaking to maybe 1.5A.  So for every hour that I play, it needs to get full sun for about 2 hours.

* I decided to keep it simple with the solar regulator this time - a Schottkey diode to stop the battery discharging at night (Schottkey diode has about a 300mV forward volt drop, as compared to a normal diode 700mV drop) - and 5W 15V zener diode to cap the battery voltage to prevent overcharging.

* I was running just a Behringer reverb pedal to "open up" the sound a little, and tweaking the EQ on the guitar.  I ran into two problems - the output voltage on the reverb pedal was a bit low for the car amp and I couldn't get a good mid balance on the guitar EQ.  I've always had a problem with the mid frequencies, it's the way I play the guitar.  The mids are always overpowering, but very notchy - it's like when I hit the G string I strike it twice as hard as any other.  The solution - I put a Behringer 7 band graphic EQ after the reverb pedal.  This boosted the signal into the car amp, and allowed me to better balance out the frequency response.  Worked well!  The Behringer effects pedals are pretty good, they appeal to the electronic engineer in me.  They are digital based effects rather than analogue, which means they are cheap (the real work is done in software an mass produced bit of hardware) and you don't have to compromise the effect due to hardware, just write good software!

But, I always...the kids were in bed, the missus out and I didn't have anything to do on the amp...not to mention I had already played my repetoire recently; so I took to thinking about some arrangements.

First up I had sitting in the back of my mind Ben Lacy's cover of "Let's Dance".  Absolutely brilliant; I've always been a bit of a Bowie fan.  I didn't have much reference material, 2 youtube videos that weren't close up and pretty poor quality, and another youtube video of someone who played the main riff, but he was flatpicking it.  After about an hour I had worked out some of the basics of it, but was dissapointed that I wasn't getting very far very fast.  I decided it would take a lot of time to transcribe, and that time is not something I have in abundant qualities.

Next I switched to Naudo's "Stand By Me" which I had already transcribed some of.  I played it back, watched some more; but again, it just wasn't coming to me, so I stopped.

So I went right back to my 20 year project - a solo instrumental fingerstyle cover of "Dark Side of the Moon", which I'm a few songs done already.  I'm tweaking up Brain Damage and Eclipse; when I did them say 10 years ago, I was still a bit "classical" in my playing and the melody wasn't on top like it should be.  I've got a new approach now which is better, I played it through a couple of times, got a bit bored of it, so thought about tackling a new one: "Time".

I'd already worked out that I would drum the intro similar to how I do "Come Together", and that was working out quite well.  There is more than enough detail on the web about the song, looking at tabs helped out with the chords and notes, didn't even need to listen to the song.  The verse is F#m, A, E.  I started playing it in my style, and it was so easy, and sounded great!  Slipped in the Sus4 where needed, some basic lead frills, again so easy!  Even the chorus Dmaj, Amaj, through in a C# bass, Bm just worked straight out of the box.  I love it when it is easy! ;)

I noodled it for about 30 mins before thinking about the solos - they are very distinctive, and are *definately* required as part of the arrangement.  Hmm, that's where it got hard.

About then the missus came home and I stopped.  I'm a little bit excited with "Time" however, which is a great way to be when you are looking for arranging something new and different!


Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Arranging: concepts

Arranging pop and rock songs for solo instrumental fingerstyle is not as difficult as you would think, and it can really help you develop your skills.  Here is a brief strategy that I use:

Choose a song.  Sounds like the easy part, but not always the case.  Some songs are crying out to be fingerstyled.  Listen to the song; see if you can pick out a good simple repeatable beat/bassline, a simple melody, and nothing complex in between.  Some songs may have a very distinctive riff that wouldn't fit with the melody, and leaving out the riff would just not be right.  The songs that I have arranged aren't necessarily songs that I particularly like, but they are ones that I noticed would suit the style.

Now, why invent the wheel?  A well known pop/rock song will have been tabbed out several times over, do an internet search for "<song> tab" and you are bound to find the chords, words, tabs, somebody who has nutted out the solo.  Muck around with any tabs you find to see how accurate they are.  Another good source of info is midi files, believe it or not.  You can open up a midi file in most tabbing software, and it will show you the tab.  I quite often use this for getting the melody for the voice.  You'll have to fiddle around with midis; they are usually made up of several channels, often the song will wander in and out of channels depending on what the author was trying to achieve.

I will typically work on the bassline to start with, get something that is easy to play but is in line with the song.  You really want the bassline to use as many open strings as possible - E, A, D - because if you are racing around a melody up high, you won't be fretting low F's.  Try changing the key of the song to fit more into what the guitar is set up for.  You can also try a non-standard tuning; I've used Drop D a few times for songs that spend a lot of time needing D.

If the song has a distinct bassline/beat then try to match it.  If it doesn't, then just playing the root bass note in the chord on the beat is an easy out.  But try to mix it up a bit, through in double striking a note, or on the 3.5th beat in a 4 beat bar hit that bars root bass note and then hit the bass note for the next bar.  Listen to Naudos basslines, they are great.  Mine are simpler; what you need to achieve is filling up the bottom end frequencies.

Next tackle the melody.  Start basic; just pluck a single note lining up with what the singer is singing.  The bass might be important, but the melody is critical - your audience uses the melody to lock in and follow the song.  The melody causes the words of the song to pop into their heads and gives them that enjoyment you get when you hear an instrumental version of a song you know.  Get the melody as spot on as you can.

Fill the melody out where you need to, double or triple notes plucked at the same time to accentuate parts of the song that need it.  This is where playing a nylon string comes in handy; it is easier to vary the volume, sound, timbre of each note than on a steel string.  You want to make sure the melody is loud, remember, it is what the listener is focussing on.

Invert your chords where you need to, to ensure you get the "coverage" that you need for the bass and the melody.  For example, if you wanted to play a first string 5th fret high A, then rather than fretting up an open A X02220, go for a root 6 A 577655.  You've still got access to the bass A note (on 6th string), but there is that high A you need.

Add some mid, but don't let it drive the song.  Certainly don't let it overpower the melody.  I've been using a lot of little strums, say on the 3rd beat mimicking a snare drum.  Traditionally fingerstylers would arpeggio fill in a mid; I still use that a lot to break the song up, but it feels olde school to me.  The little flicking/stab, across 2 or three strings in the chord adds a "modern" and percussive feel, less "classical".  Don't be afraid to sound out your melody in that mid flick - you can't flick and pluck at the same time.  (Okay you can, but that technique is too advanced for me ;)

Now that you have built up a song, don't be too repetitive.  Make little changes to keep it different and lively between each verse.  You'll find that most songs are the same thing over and over, it is the words that makes it, but since we aren't using words, we've got to do something different to mix it up.  Play one verse an octave up...or an octave down.  Cut out a verse altogether if it is sounding too repetitive.  Include any solo or bridge that the song has, even if it is just as much work doing an 8 bar bridge as doing the rest of the song.  If there seems to be nothing you can do to make it more interesting, then cut it down to half a song and medley it up back to back with another song by the same band.

Write it all up in a tab editor as you go, primarily so that you don't forget the good ideas you've had.  In an editor like powertab, you can play back the tab.  I find this very useful to "test" ideas, for instance a tricky bass line/melody resolve that I'm having a hard time trying to play.  Type it in how you think you want it to be, play it back and tweak it until you think it sounds good, then learn it!

Experiment, try some percussive body tapping, but don't let it "segregate" the song; as in, tapping should be part of the sound, not one sound-then that sound-then this sound.  It will come out stuttery.  Apply that rule to the entire song, the whole thing should be fairly continuous, not suddenly a few notes plucked then massive strumming and repeat.  Of course sometimes this is needed for the song, but as a whole, the song should be reasonably smooth.

Well I hope I have give you some good ideas and inspiration for turning that classic old rock song you loved as a kid into a cool new instrumental solo fingerstyle cover; record a video and post it on youtube and send me a link!


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

I played for John Lennon! ;) anyway, last Saturday when I took my daughter to keyboard lessons at the local music store, while waiting for her lesson to finish (where I spend the time playing various guitars on the shelf), I got to play for John Lennon, and not only that, he said I was pretty good ;)

Okay, so it wasn't really John Lennon but the John Lennon look-a-like/tribute band musician Marcus Cahill, who happens to live in the area and was running the store at the time.  I had a brief chat to him about what he does, and why he was working in a music store.  No suprises - he gets good gigs overseas, and makes reasonable money, but here in sleepy Perth Western Australia there isn't much demand for his talents.  I got the impression that doing some work in a music store was not about trying to make ends meet, but rather to give him something to do during the day!

There's a couple of interesting tidbits to derive from that.  That it is possible to carve a living from being a not-specifically-world-famous musician.  That if you are prepared to continuously travel the world you could probably be fulltime run off your feet performing.  But if you just want to live in a suburb, in a city - even if you have enough money to live on - there isn't enough work to keep your hands busy so you may as well have a second job.

I don't have aspirations to be a working musician, I quite like my day job (okay, maybe not everyday, but on a whole, my day job brings me a sense of satisfaction.)  It is good however to see that for those who do want to be a working musician that it is possible to achieve, but maybe have a backup plan just in case you don't make it - or you *do* make it and just want to live in a suburb, in a city and live a "normal" life :)


Thursday, 7 May 2009

Play plugged in

I did some more work on my home made battery powered amp last night, and did some test plays.  Apart from a resonant frequency rattle in it (will fix another night) it was quite faithfully reproducing the guitar signal, resonably flat frequency response, good power output - but you know, I immediately felt dissapointed.  After playing a few songs, playing with the reverb effects and the EQ on the guitar, I came to a conclusion that I have known for a long time but finally admitted to myself:  I'm not good at playing plugged in.

About 99% of my time I play unplugged.  Over, say, the past 30 years, my fingers and ears have learnt what I need to do to get the unplugged sound I want.  How hard to pluck the bass, where to position relative to the soundhole for a tone, that sort of thing.  Sure it varies from guitar to guitar but very quickly you can adjust your playing to suit the sound you are chasing.

I've always wanted, or hoped, that if you had a good guitar with a good pickup then the plugged in amplified sound would be exactly what your ears are hearing, just louder.  Well it's not, and you know, I don't think it could ever be.  Maybe if you had an external microphone with the same frequency response as your ear, located near your ear, piped into an amplifier that was completely faithful to the signal (ie flat frequency response), maybe then it would sound the same, but amplified.

Last night I decided I should stop fighting, and start learning.  Given that the amp you are using has a mostly flat frequency response, so not boomy in the bass, or too much gain in the middle - well even if it is - you should be able to compensate firstly with some signal processing and secondly with your playing.

What I found first was that with my reverb effects at any setting, on or off, I couldn't get the sound I wanted to hear.  Secondly, playing with the graphic equaliser on the guitar (bass, treble and adjustable frequency midrange) I couldn't get the sound that I wanted either.

Frustrated I played some different songs, suddenly I played a song on a setting that didn't sound so bad.  I started varying my playing to enhance the sound further - playing very delicately, where normally I am quite forceful and rough.  I found a sound I was happy with.  Smiling, I moved to another song and you know what, couldn't stand the sound again.  Experimented with different playing, still no good.  Tweaked the EQ, tweaked the a bit better.

I came to the conclusion that I don't know my instrument when plugged in; everytime I have recorded a song I always edit afterwards in software to compensate back to the sound I want.  I need to learn how to get a live sound from the guitar frequency response adjustments, with reverb settings (I love having a little bit of reverb) but importantly my playing style.

See, the electric guys don't have this problem, they are always plugged in, and invariably going through some effects.  The sound is what they learn from the word go.  Us acoustic guys don't get that inbuilt training.

I haven't spent enough of my guitar life playing plugged in.  It is time I remedied that.


Thursday, 23 April 2009

What's happening April 2009

I haven't put in much guitar playing recently, again it's all work work work, family commitments and a two week holiday in my country retreat (okay, I've got a guitar there, but I don't play it much).  Generally it's a bit of a low spot in my life for guitar playing, which is a shame but reality, guitar playing is just a hobby.  As I've always said "working sure takes a big chunk out of your day".

I'm practising "Head over Feet" every now and then when I get a guitar in my hands; it's finished and memorised, but I struggle to play the solo cleanly.  I've really created something difficult for myself there, how very Bohemian of me ;)

I'm still building my battery powered amp, and it is nearly finished.  I've actually played through it and it's not bad.  Coming off a battery it is absolutely noise-free, I found it a bit boomy in the bass, I was hoping for a very flat frequency response.  I specifically built it "funny shaped" to try to address resonant frequency issues, but I've built it light weight with thin walled material so that is probably where resonances are coming from.  However, it didn't have a back panel on it at the time, I plan on making it an infinite baffle enclosure and stuff it with wadding so that should flatten things out.  Already though, it is looking to be a good amp.  Very powerful as well, and yet, not very hungry on the juice.  I was measuring a peak of about 1.5Amps (at 12VDC) for a very acceptable loudness in my shed, ie, I couldn't hear the sound of the guitar in my hands, only the amplified sound.  On the 7.2Ahr battery that means the battery will last much longer than I could play for!

I'm going to have to confess something here however, I'm in a mode of denial, escapism and fear.  I've wanted to start playing publically for well over a year now, and I'm sure that I am good enough for it.  But fear has caused me to be constantly finding excuses.  At first it was because I couldn't get a good sound out of my guitar.  So I bought a new guitar.  Then it was that I couldn't get a good plugged in sound, so I shopped around for amps, and found quite a few that were nice.  Then I said "but it has to be battery powered for the street", which none were.  Since I had previously built battery powered amps in the past, I took to making my own.  And I have dragged it on and on and on.  It is very close to finished, there is no reason why it couldn't be operational next week.  But see, that means that I have to start performing ;)

Once I am performing, I know I am going to love it.  That is a double edged sword, because I will want to do it more, and practise more, and all that other stuff which takes away from my family and work.  That scares me a bit as well.

But fear is not a good reason to not do something, and a bit of self control to avoid getting obsessed is good for the soul. day, soon, okay? ;)

Talent versus Persistence

It has become apparent to me, and it might even be true - no matter how much you practise and try, you cannot make up for a lack of talent.  You can come close, but you'll never achieve what you weren't born with.  Before we all hang our guitars on the wall to gather dust, or start flaming me for outrageously negative statements, let me explain:

First of all, you don't believe me?  If it weren't the case, then all you need to do is keep practising and you could be a Tommy Emmanuel/Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods/any leader of their skill.  Take Sungha Jung, he's what, 13?  I have probably played the guitar for at least twice as many hours as he has in his life - probably a lot more - yet he is superior player to me.

There is that edge, something different happening in the brain, in talented people.  Something that isn't learnt, it just is - like being born with the genetics to be two metres tall rather than one metre fifty.  But unlike being tall, or short, which is something obvious we can see (and we're happy there is nothing we can do about it), we can't see what is happening inside a brain, and whatsmore we can get pretty close to what those talented people are why can't we push on a little further to achieve the same?

Fortunately talent isn't everything; I won't try to put a number against it, but I'm sure that an un-talented person (such as myself) who has put in a lifetime of persistence is going to do better than a talented person who hasn't.  The hard slog will pay off in the end, thank goodness - otherwise nobody would bother - but watch out, when those with talent start putting the hard slog in too, well, it's lucky we have day jobs, and we're primarily playing the guitar for our personal enjoyment ;)


Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Why Naudo is Best

Those who have followed my work will probably realise that Naudo is my guitar hero.  I study, analyse, transcribe, re-arrange his work and spew it out myself, never to his level, but enough to satisfy me.  I've emailed with him a few times, and with Juan his friend and cameraman, and of course sent him some money to further his incredible talent.

Okay, so out of all the fantastic guitarists out there, why does Naudo click with me? Well, more importantly, why did he click with so many people he became #1 most subscribed musician in Brazil on youtube before he was ousted "for copyright infringements"?  Sure he is an amazing guitarist, with an incredible repertoire and he seems like such a nice gentle fellow - but let's dig a bit deeper.

Us humans are creatures of habit, and music is no exception.  When we were young - and probably not so young - we would hear a song on the radio that we simply loved, and listened to it over and over and over until is was pretty much permanently burnt into our brains.  There would probably be a hundred songs in your brain right now just like that , and thanks to our socialistic tendencies I bet what is in your brain overlaps with what's in other peoples brains; ie, popular songs.  For starters, that's what Naudo plays - popular songs, and there will be one he plays that you love.  Click number 1.

When you hear your favourite songs performed by someone else - specifically *sung* by someone else - you immediately begin comparing.  Singing is such a personal thing, and such an infinitely variable thing, that the singer either needs to be singing it identically to the original, or in a way that really, really appeals to you to win you over.  How many times have you heard a professional band redo a song you love "and it's just not as good as the original"?  Well Naudo doesn't suffer from that problem, he doesn't sing, but he plays the melody of the song clearly enough that you know exactly what you are listening to, in fact you can't help but sing the words in your head as he plays it.  And when you sing in your head, it is the voice of the original artist.  Click number 2.

Then there is the gobsmack factor.  Yep, plenty of guitarists have this and what gobsmacks you might not gobsmack someone else, but generally, when you see someone playing something complex on the guitar smooth and fluently, you tend to go "wow, that's pretty good" and be drawn into click number 3.

Bringing all this together, Naudo arranges these popular songs you love in a complex & stylised manner, injecting a bit of humour (love the 'whit-whews' and snippets midway through from songs such as jingle bells) but most importantly he captures the essence of the song into his arrangement.  It is as true to the song, in his style, as it can possibly be.  Click game over.

I've played the guitar for many years, playing what I want to hear.  But now I want to play not just what I want to hear, but what others want to hear as well.  Naudo is my guide, as a solo fingerstyle guitarist, how to achieve that.

Here is an example of one of Naudos arrangements I've transcribed, in video lesson format:

Sunday, 22 February 2009

What's happening February 2009

Day job, day job and more day job.  But on the guitar front, Space Oddity is done and ready to be recorded, but I haven't tabbed it out.  Must tab first, people like the tab.  I've always said that anything you read on the internet should have something you can take away with you, for my guitar videos that'd be the tab.

In other news I created a great resolve for the harmonica solo in Head Over Feet, in fact I played it to my missus and said "what do you think of the harmonica resolve?" she immediately said "that's great" with a straight face. I looked at her, first with a puzzled expression, then I pissed myself laughing.  She's not a big fan of the guitar (20 years of listening to someone practise will do that to you).  Ah, you had to be there.

Okay, I've started on Naudo's Stand By Me.  It will be fairly easy in fact.  But you'll need a lot of thumb independence skill, and a really steady right hand.  Punters won't be able to play it, but people who will be able to play it will be able to play it, but they won't need the tab.  Well...that made no sense at all.  Basically what I am trying to say is that 200 people per day will download the tab, and 1 person per month will actually be able to play it ;)  Not to matter, it's a bit like buying gym equipment - the act of purchase/getting something made you feel better, even if in the long run you get no return on your investment whatsoever.  An attempt to buy a good physique/acquire guitar skills.  It doesn't work like that ;)

See you next month.


Wednesday, 14 January 2009

What's happening January 2009

Well, not much is happening.  I went to "my country retreat" over the holidays and even though I have a steel string and a nylon string there, I only played once in 2 weeks, and even then nothing new, just a refresher on all my standard stuff.

So as it stands, I'm still working on getting "Mad World" up to playable; noodling with "Head over Feet" to make sure it plays well; I'm still also noodling with "Space Oddity" which is coming along nicely.

I recently got in touch with a guy who had been playing with some of my Pink Floyd stuff and does Pink Floyd stuff of his own.  I've been working on a guitar arrangement of "Great Gig in the Sky" for a long time now, it's coming along nicely but it is not high priority and it would be years before I finished it.  I sent him a copy and a quick vid of my playing it and discussing what I'm doing with it, he seems keen to run with it.

I may have mentioned before that I have a long long term ambition to do a fingerstyle arrangement of the whole of "Dark Side of the Moon".  He likes the sound of that and may put his hand to assisting - which means something might come out within a decade!