Thursday 19 May 2011

Q&A: Basslines

"The system" told me this comment was posted on my last post, but when I looked for it, it was gone.  I thought it was a great comment so I decided to Q&A it!


Hello JAW

Just wondering, how often do you stay true to the original bass line of a song while creating fingerstyle arrangements. If things get too hard, is it alright to simplify it as in leave a few bass notes here and there from the original bassline?

The importance of bass has really got to me the past few days. Great article.



Hey Kris, great comment.  No straightforward answer though, it comes down to "as much as you can be bothered with" :)  The likes of Tommy Emmanuel or Adam Rafferty will aim for pure perfection.  Every subtle nuance of a song (including the bassline) will be carefully planned, highly polished and presented.  It's brilliant stuff, but if you're like me then life is too short for that - I'd like to have 50 good arrangement than 5 perfect arrangements.  Don't tell Adam or Tommy I said that though, the world needs people who strive for absolute perfection!  Fingerstyle arranging is all about time, with skill permitting.  Maybe after 50 "good" arrangements we are already starting to come up with close to perfect arrangements anyway?

Anyway, the bassline should represent as much as possible, and within reason, the original bassline, even more so where the bassline is a prominent feature of the song.  An overriding factor is melody.  Melody is more important than bass.  I reckon it's better to trade more accurate melody for simpler bass.

For instance, one of my current works in progress "Howzat" has a very distinct bassline in the verse.  I had to get that right, with the melody.  It makes the left hand a finger twister, but it's worth it.  The chorus bassline is not so distinct, it has a slight 70's disco feel to it, so I kept it prominent where the melody was not busy, but once the melody got busy I simplified it to, as you say, a few bass notes here and there.  It keeps things easier (back to life is short) and casual listeners will hear the bassline when the melody is quiet, and not notice when the bassline is simple because their attention is turned to the busy melody.

Now that's all when you are staying true to the original.  There is no rule saying you need to; stylising a song your own way could mean a completely different bassline - for example, there are plenty of alternating bassline fingerstyle covers of songs.  I tend to stick true to the original firstly because I think people want to hear that, and secondly because I haven't developed a distinct style of my own, it's all just generic "fingerstyle" :)

Bass is indeed important and should be treated (almost) as carefully as melody.  As I go my basslines are getting more complicated; it's an evolution.  You start with simple arrangements, get the hang of it, and each arrangement gets a bit better as you build on skills.  I'm starting to think my arrangements are actually getting pretty cool these days :)  I've mentioned before, and will mention again, but step 1 of fingerstyle is to learn arrangements from tabs to build initial skills, step 2 is to transcribe your favourite arrangements by others where no tabs exist (eg Naudo or Iggy) - changing them slightly to suit your style and what you are capable of doing - and finally step 3 is building on the previous steps to tackle your own arrangements.


Monday 16 May 2011

Cross training

It wasn't until I had worked on transcribing some of Naudos stuff I it started to dawn on me the number of different skills needed to be able to do what he achieves.  Probably the key skill is to be very well versed in music theory - be it learnt the hard way from schooling, or learnt "on the job", as you go, intuitively "music just makes sense" style.  Seeing as I have very little schooled or intuitive music theory (being the programmable guitar playing robot I am), the other skills that I started noticing I had a shortfall in was bass, and rhythm.

You ever played a bass guitar?  Picked it up, realised it is just the lower 4 strings from a 6 string guitar, figured "that's gotta be easy enough!" and then discovered you couldn't really do anything with it?  Yeah.  I've had a bass guitar for more than 10 years, I used it while I was writing original songs circa 2000.  I bought it when I realise a detuned 6 string does not sound as good as a bass guitar.  At the time my bass prowess was generally just 4 beats per bar of the root chord note.  Not very exciting.

I think the first thing you need to accept is that playing the bass guitar is quite different to playing a "normal" guitar.  Bass guitar players think differently, it's like they *feel* a beat.  I've started to just touch the surface of what is going on in bass playing - because in fingerstyle, you need to have some bass skills.  For example, playing the current root chord note 1/8th before the next chord note.  Or, while in chord, go down a fifth then back up again for a groovy "bah-da-dah" 1/8th before the 3rd beat in a bar.

Check out some bass guitar players.  Get some ideas!  Fingerstyle basslines won't probably be as cool as a soloist bass line, there is only so much you can do while playing a melody as well, but there are plenty of tips to be gleaned.

The other skill I've developed a little bit on the side is drumming.  Even just to learn and co-ordinate a basic rock beat can help your fingerstyle.  Especially for those of us who don't have a natural rhythm.  Not only are the drums good fun as well, but it is quick and easy as a beginner to get skills of basic drumming just from watching internet tutorials.

I reckon the skills you'd learn from lead guitaring are useful too, but I was never very good at lead guitar, nor did I enjoy it.  If learnt lead guitar from a music theory point of view - knowing how to improvise over chord progressions and that sort of stuff - very useful, that takes me back to the key skill I identified during my Naudo transcriptions; music theory.

But, if like me you just want to get some better bass and rhythm into your arrangements, do some bass guitar and drums cross training!


Tuesday 10 May 2011

Q&A: Alternating pick

I had an interesting email that I tried to best answer a few weeks back; it was out of my area of confidence - being specifically *not* about fingerstyle! - but I had a crack at it.  I thought it might be interesting to my fingerstyle mates here; and even better, some of my not *solely* fingerstyle mates might be able to offer up a better answer than I did! :)


Hi Jaw,

According to you, using a flat pick is not your forte :) but your experience should be able to assist me.

If I am going to learn alternate picking, should I not alternate pick all my notes/songs/scales etc ALWAYS anyway after that ? If alternate picking is so much more better/efficient why isnt it just the standard type of picking taught from the onset ? I clearly understand the benefits of alternating pick, but I am having a problem understanding why anyone would revert to "regular" picking if its inferior to alternate picking. So for example: Once I learn alternate picking and I am given 3 notes to play, I will simply alternate pick all over them, it will feel smoother/faster, why wouldn't I? What will I miss if I completely do away with "regular" picking ?

Sorry if it all sounds repetitive, its impossible to Google such a question and I'm just trying to make sure that I describe it well enough for you to understand my beginner dilemma!


Greg, you sound just like an engineer! The best way of thinking of course :)

But when we put down our technical physics based ways, and have a go at thinking about what we are trying to achieve - sound, groove, style - alternating picking shouldn't always be performed. For instance, say you were playing just four bassnotes in a bar and you wanted to accentuate the same thumping sound; you would downstroke each one the same.

And if you were playing offbeat, playing notes on the "and" (one and two and...) they will want to have that "and" sound you'll get from upstroke.

I'm not suggesting that on beat is always downstroke and off beat is up, although it's probably a good starting point to help you "feel" what the groove is doing. I'm talking from more a rhythm style than lead style, but the message is similar.

Shredding for instance would probably be non-stop alternating, you need the speed - but even then I'd suggest that occasional downstroke notes would line up on beat.

I think if you close your eyes and feel the music, and put the mechanics out of you mind, you'll know where to downstroke and upstroke. That's really easy for me to say however with a lifetime of guitar mechanics behind me that I *can* do with my eyes closed, but I could have come along a lot faster if I got more into what I can only describe as "groove", where the music is coming from "you", not through a series of optimised efficient programmed movements :)

Hope you find something in that ethereal vauge gut reaction from this 30-years-in-guitar-still-leaning, who hasn't held a flat pick for more than five years :)


Friday 6 May 2011

What's happening May 2011

I managed to get a good break over Easter, the whole week in between in fact. Even spent at least two nights in front of a campfire with another Floyd enthusiast; we worked through Dark Side of the Moon several times, him singing and me on guitar. It's a deviation from fingerstyle - where we do everything, unsupported - but while you are having a few whiskeys it's a good excuse for sloppy playing, and reverting to simple strum patterns not worrying about the melody so much. It's good not to be solo all the time.

Two days ago a song jumped into my head, and wouldn't get out. This happens a couple of times a year to me, and basically I can't get rid of it until I've arranged it (or at least arranged a bit of it. Yes, I have many incomplete arrangements :)) It is a classic 70's Aussie rock song by Sherbet, "Howzat". Unmistakable bass line and chorus. It mapped out really well into fingerstyle - and I was in luck, there was a great midi on the net when imported almost perfectly into powertab, I didn't need to do much work. And, unusually for me, it is a left hand finger twister! I've put in another good technique which hasn't featured in my arrangements for a while; where you hammer-on/pull off/slide the bass line while plucking a melody note. Your thumb sympathetically wants to pluck that bassnote while plucking the melody note, but don't.

I spent about an hour and a half last night quite engrossed in it, then realised I was abusing my left pinky. I had the good sense to stop at that stage. Yes, I've made it so I have to fret a bass F and a top string A at the same time - which I can do - but I shouldn't :)

More on that later; here is a little snippet of it, quite interesting, I would have recorded an audio bite (need to do that more often) but I couldn't play it up to my minimum standard yet!  *Update* about a day later I recorded a very scratchy demo, still got a lot of work to go but I'm not afraid to share the learning process, warts and all, with my mates :) Still not clever enough to insert as an embedded thing, so here is a link.

Now since switching to I've been running some polls. It's interesting stuff, and people have been voting. I've put a new one up; if anyone was interesting in some sort of fingerpicker statistic, let me know a good poll to run!

The first poll was "what song would you like JAW to do a lesson on" and the results from 165 votes were:
88 (53%) : Canon in D, definitely, even if it is hard
25 (15%) : Here Comes the Sun, new to fingerstyle I want to learn!
21 (12%) : Wish You Were Here, I love that song
13 (7%)  : Another One Bites the Dust, how do you bass slap!?
11 (6%)  : Anything, I just want to hear your crAZy Aussie accent!
7  (4%)  : Sunshine of Your Love, for some groove

No surprises there, it lines up with the viewing statistics on my youtube channel :)

The second poll was "what is your current fingerstyle guitar" and the results from 132 votes were:
59 (44%) : Classical  
27 (20%) : Big body steel string acoustic  
23 (17%) : Small body steel string acoustic  
18 (13%) : Nylon string crossover/hybrid  
2  (1%)  : Solid body electric  
2  (1%)  : 12 string  
1  (0%)  : Hollow body electric  
0  (0%)  : Other

That was more surprising, I thought classical wouldn't rate as high as that - I thought the steel string acoustics and even the hybrid would rate higher than classical. So I'm not sure if the classical players are coming here looking to get a bit pop/rockier - or the pop/rockier players are coming here ready to get more classical! :)