Monday, 25 January 2010

Right Hand...more than likely part 1...

One of my 3 readers, Rich, inspired me to write about the right hand.  It's a good call, because as far as the left hand goes, there isn't a lot of difference between a fingerpicker and a wailing one-note-at-a-time lead guitar shredder, but the difference between right hands is chalk compared with the proverbial cheese.  Each fingerpicker will have his own take on the right hand, I'll try to stay open minded, but I only have one opinion, my own ;)

First up, you need to have accuracy.  I was nearly going to say stability there, but accuracy doesn't have to come from stability everytime .  Somewhere in our brains there is a 3D spacial awareness of self, and we have to tap deeply into that for all forms of guitaring.  There are a couple of shortcuts - for example you can stare at your right hand.  You can put your pinky on the soundboard.  You can rest fingers on strings not in use.  You can just have your arm resting on the guitar.

Each of these things creates a relative hand-to-string position and your brain can calculate the offset of what it is requested to do next.  For example, consider a flat picker, he's just downstroked the G string, his next move is an upstroke is the B string. His brain controls the amount of movement, learned from experience, to perform the task. Do it enough and you'll never miss.  It's only a short move afterall!  It is possible to move to any string next - but the further away the more risk of an error.

If you are just fixing your relative position by your arm, you brian doesn't have a lot of reference feedback to go by - it's a long, error potential causing distance from where your arm rests on the guitar to where your hand is.  If your pinky is on the soundboard your reference is much shorter and there is less error.  For me I find resting pinky down as an anchor is awkward and detracts from playing, but that won't be the case for everyone.  Pinky anchor at your own leisure.

We all look at our right hand from time to time, the visual cue is valuable position feedback for the brain.  Playing staring at the right hand will also detract from playing, it's as if there is only a certain amount of CPU cycles available in your brain, and once you start using your eyes you have stolen a lot of CPU cycles that you could spend doing other more useful things, like looking and making contact with your audience ;)  But a quick glance at the right hand to fix a reference point, especially when you are about to launch into a flurry of activity, is beneficial.

Three treble strings - three fingers; a thumb to move around the three bass stings.  Sounds pretty sensible!  And if you are playing a Travis picking style song, well, the right hand is basically dead still, the correct finger at the correct time moves to pluck the correct string, the thumb, which is a bit more manouverable than the fingers, can fairly easily jump between one or two strings plucking.  If it is a repeating pattern, well that's even easier!

I'm not a big fan of Travis picking, it is a bit formuliac.  It has its place, but you wouldn't want to play every song Travis picking style.

Same can be said for classical.  Picking out a p-i-m-a-m-i (that's thumb-index-middle-annular(ring)-etc) is fairly standard fair for classical.  Nice, use it all the time.  Easy to play because your fingers are right there, relative positioning is almost a given.  Can get repetitive if used excessively.

Let's look at Naudo.  Throw the book out the window, he is playing every string with any finger and he's not just plucking, he's downstroke flicking, part strumming, holding his fingernail like a pick and lead-guiaring, he's slapping and whacking!

Well go and get your book back, a lot of this is based on the "normal" styles, but if comes down to accuracy, and how to get it.  And that is helped by minimising reference errors.

Stability to start with will minimise reference errors.  I use a classical style postion to get stability; that is, you have your wrist basically locked, your fingers pluck mostly from the second knuckle and your thumb is nearly stiff moving from the joint at your hand.  A wise fella once told me if you think you are playing from your fingers you are probably playing from your hand, if you are playing from your hand you are probably playing from your wrist, wrist-elbow, elbow-shoulder.  I'm still not quite sure what he meant, but I've taken away that if I essentially lock my hand and wrist in a fixed position then I'm probably playing from my fingers like I should be :)

My wrist is at quite a high angle, it doesn't need to be, I just find that is the most comfortable.  If it doesn't hurt and it makes it easy to play, go with it.

So with a good stable right hand position, relative positioning of your fingers is less prone to errors.  Playing top E and bottom E is always going to be easy, you have a wide margin for error, "start out wide and feel your way in". 

What I see Naudo doing is keeping movement to a minimum.  A heavy handed follow through on a single string leaves your fingers out there somewhere and can blow your reference to the next string, whereas a short effective stroke leaves you exactly where you know you are.

Classical players talk about rest stroke and free stroke.  Rest stroke means that as you play a string, your finger follows through and comes to rest on the string next to the original string.  This is of course a good method of keeping a reference, because rather than your hand floating you are physically touching a string, "reseting" in your brain the reference position (because you know which string you are resting on).  This is very similar to pinky anchor or resting your not-in-use fingers on known strings.

I've gone off rest stroke over the years, it is all free stroke for me these days.  I don't like the sound of rest stroke it is always heavily accentuated; I can get that if I need it from a hearty free stroke pluck.

But now let's throw in some flicking/strumming Naudo style in between songs - if that doesn't mess up your reference then a well grounded player you are ("Strumming" is moving more from the wrist or arm, "flicking" is just from the fingers, ie wrist more or less locked.) I've taught myself to flick chord pieces with all three fingers, kinda like a little chip or flick across the chord fragment I'm after.  At first I played them fairly wide, strum style with wrist movement, but it creates the risk of reference loss.  Most of the time after you have strummed a chord fragment the next note is a pluck in the melody, and by gee, you want to pluck the right note!

Looking at Naudo he adds flicks with only his second or third finger keeping his index finger ready at a target string, and the movement contains no wrist.  It is minimalist, and reduces the risk of a missed note pluck.  You extremely rarely see him miss a note; his stability and reference is rock solid so his accuracy is almost 100%.

The other trick he employs to further reduce risk is making sure the whole chord is formed.  If you miss a note and hit something out of chord someone is going to notice.  But if you miss a note, but the note you hit is in chord, it won't sound quite right but it won't sound wrong, if you know what I mean.

And there we come to probably the most critical point of all - what do you do when you make the mistake and pluck the wrong string?  The brain has to quickly re-reference and get back on track.  Hopefully the sound of the one wrong note is enough of a clue to the brain to say "I'm up a string too high" or "I'm down a string too low" and get your hand to take the corrective action. Alternatives include breaking out into a wide chord strum to fill your way through the bar and then pickup in the right place at the start of the next bar; or having a second attempt - many times in a melody if the note comes an off-beat late it could be construed as just adding a bit of lib.  Of course a second attempt means breaking out of the picking pattern you are in; is it possible?  I find these days the answer is a resounding yes; it is possible, just maybe, that I am heading toward true thumb independance...

Sorry my 3 readers, this has been a real brain dump, devoid of structure!  There is so much to say about the right hand that I'd need to spend the time just planning a table of contents of what I have to say about it.  But since this is a place of venting, ranting and rambling, that's all you are going to get for now :)  I'm sure one of my three readers, you know who you are, will pipe up and steer this in a particular direction.  This is a time that a forum would be useful!

For example, I didn't even mention fingernails...(but I have done in the past).  Oh to bring all these things together in a coherent manner! ;)

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

What's happening January 2010

It's been a while since I've What's Happening'ed, I think I mentioned before that I am moving house; well, I've moved house. It has, and will continue to keep me busy for quite some time. But not so busy that I don't have a little bit of time for guitar :)

I recently did an arrangement of "Sunshine of Your Love", it came together pretty quick and not too bad. It's quite groovy to play, check it out on youtube. I say it's "quick and dirty" because that is all that I have time for - there are no embelishments - there is no solo, no bridge or break, it is just the guts of the verse and the chorus and that is it. I figure that I don't have time for all the fruit, and it is better to finish something to a point, than to never finish something at all. Maybe one day when I have ample time on my hands I will revist these things, and give them the proper embelishments they deserve.

Doing that song was an inspiration from seeing another guitarist play it on youtube (jazzguts), and that I had once attempted it without success. These days my arrangements are becoming a bit more formulaic, which is good and bad - good because it is easy, good because I'm starting to have a more distinct style, good because I'm enjoying myself...nup, can't think of anything bad! :)

Last Friday I had a bunch of mates over, and after a few amber muscle relaxants I invariably pull the guitar out and play some tunes. An old mate of mine, whenever this occurs, _always_ says " all you play is old stuff no-one can sing to, you should play some Def Leppard." Okay, so he's a Def Leppard 80's diehard, I've never held that against him, I can't talk I'm a 70's Pink Floyd tragic.

To be honest, many years ago I learnt the Def Leppard song "Hysteria". However it was a long time ago and it was a "normal learning of a song by a guitarist". This means you learn the main riffs, the solo, and maybe some chords - but it isn't an arrangement, it doesn't hold itself together, it's just pieces of a song you can play. One could almost say it is a waste of effort except that you need to do these things when you are young to get the years of playing that sort of stuff behind you.

So last night, I googled a tab for the song to re-aquainted myself with the chords and riffs and set about arranging it, to spite my mate th enext time he pipes up ;)

Straight up I recognised it's going to sound best in Drop D tuning, being very D-centric. The main riff is the hook into that song, but by itself just doesn't fill up the guitar - a song needs to be completely balanced throughout; you can't play a riff, then strum, then go back to the riff, it just sounds stilted; there is no fluidity and continuity. So I threw in a very basic bassline, just the chord root note 4 beats a bar to beef it up. It will be enough, considering I'm going to be playing the melody on top of the riff as well.

As with most things, the song is in chords, but the main verse/theme chords aren't a normal chord, Dropped D tuning helped a bit and playing it in the non-open position helped a bit as well. Once I had that sorted the melody basically played itself, all the melody notes were right there somewhere nearby. I was pleased :)

But now here's the rub - my missus was in the room at the time (and tolerating me playing the same thing over and over and over again) so I asked for some feedback.

I had isolated two ways of playing it, one was very classical/thumb independence, the first thing I nutted out, basically all the notes required, plucked individually. The second was in the style that is starting to become more of a signature in my arrangements; rather than just plucking out notes I flick downstroke across partial pieces of chords on the on-beat. To me it adds a nice percussive direction, rather than a bass-bass-bass-bass it is more like bass-snare-bass-snare; but at the same time it has the notes required. To me it adds a huge dimension to the sound of the arrangement, creates so many more subtleties to just the primary fundamental frequency of the note you are playing - and performing it is starting to come quite natural to me.

"I like the first one. The second sounds wishy-washing."

Arghh! How can you say that! It's the direction I'm heading, and you don't like it! (It's not the first time when asked she's always picked the non-JAW style version).

"It sounds like you are turning it into a country folk song or something. The first one accentuates the main feel and emotion of the song."

Now I'm just hurting ;)

So, here is the two versions of the signature riff. Unfortunately flicking the strings doesn't tab out well, I've gone with 045xxx meaning a light downstroke flick with your three fingers, basically each finger on each string, giving a slightly percussive sound but still striking the right note/chord in the riff:
Drop D tuning


So, to the 3 people who will read this blog entry, which one appeals more to you? :)

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Tabs...are they good for you?

Tabs are like a bag of lollies. No, wait, tabs are like a bowl of rice. You couldn't live solely on bags of lollies, but you could live on bowls of rice - but a diet of rice alone is not a great diet.

But like lollies, tabs are fast, easy, instant gratification; they pep you up, make you happy and give you quick energy...but there is no real nutrition. Life doesn't have to be all about nutrition though does it? Can't we just enjoy ourselves from time to time?

The beginner guitarist is at a critical stage; I wouldn't like to put a number on it, but out of all the people who have said to me "I'd like to be able to play the guitar" and then I've shown them a few things, and push them in the right direction, lent them a guitar - so far zero have continued to pursue it. And no, I don't think it is me ;)

Playing guitar is a bit of a glamourous looking pursuit, to see a guitarist "rockin' out" looks like the most fun you could have standing up...but it represents *a lot* of practise, frustration and sweat to achieve that. So in the early days it is either immediate results - or a heck of a lot of persistence - that keeps the interest going. You need those immediate results to get past the initial hurdle.

That's where tabs come in. They are easy to learn (search wikipedia for "tablature", it's a good primer) - and tabs give you immediate results. The first thing a guitarist needs is be shown how to play the riff to "Smoke on the Water" or something really easy that they can suceed with and inspires them. Learn three chords and then be able play about a million songs. Hook them in with the easy stuff, then show them how to find tabs.

But tabs shouldn't last forever. Learning by ear, working things out by yourself, being able to sight read from music score, learning scales by rote, music theory, composing your own music - these sorts of things will round you out as a guitarist and musician.

Once you have the guitar bug for life, tabs in fact will start to feel tedious. I still refer to tabs as a reference or a starting point; however I now dislike rote learning a song from a tab. You are wondering why I generally tab out all my arrangements then aren't you? Quick answers: it's a tool for me to nut out and write down what I'm thinking during the arrangement process which often takes weeks of small increments - in fact sometimes I type stuff into powertab to see what it sounds like, before attempting to play it! - often I forget stuff if I haven't played it for a while but a quick glance at the tab gets me back on track - I like to share my stuff with the world and have people enjoy it, and then play it back to me with their own changes and twists that I never considered!

So yes, tabs are good for you, but everything in moderation - do something too much and it will stop being good for you. It's true of much in life.


Thursday, 17 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!


Friday, 13 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! ;)