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Acoustic Guitar Blog
Updated: 5 hours 9 min ago

A Few Basic Truisms

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 09:50
Some basic truisms about playing the guitar, based on good and bad experiences teaching and performing for over 40 years:
 
There are almost unlimited ways to screw up a song! My dad, a superb musician who decided to take up guitar after he retired put that statement a bit more colorfully. And he wasn’t prone to cursing. I see it with my students on a regular basis. No matter how well you may know a song, no matter how many times you’ve played it, danger lurks. We can practice and practice and get it right almost all the time but don’t be surprised by those unexpected turns. My own feeling (based on plenty of screw-ups!) is that – assuming you know a song pretty well – the worst moments occur when I’m on “auto-pilot” and make the mistake of listening to myself play. “AW-right!” says the little man in my head. “Sounding good today, Gene!” Crash. And. Burn. Paying attention, thinking ahead, and most of all, not being rattled when something bad happens is the key. I readily admit this is never easy.
 
There will be times when you’re absolutely sure you play best in the first 10 minutes or so of a practice session but then things begin going downhill. This can be hugely frustrating. The reality is probably quite different than your perception. When we begin to play we often hear the best of our efforts and this is very satisfying, as it should be. But as our session moves along those little glitches become more and more annoying. With some people they can become downright debilitating, to the point that they put the guitar down and walk away in disgust and it may take days to recover. There are couple possible solutions here. First, no matter what, get through as much of a song as you can, warts and all. Then go back and focus on the section or individual changes that are problematic. After a few minutes of doing these, try to reassemble the song. Sure, those hard parts will still be hard but your perspective will probably change. Another solution is to just put the guitar down, go for a walk, read the newspaper or have an adult beverage if that’s appropriate. Clear the hard drive, in other words. Then pick it up and try it again. For what it’s worth, my students who progress the fastest often practice multiple times a day, if only for a few minutes each time.
 
You’re your own worst critic. Most recreational players have no intention of performing but if there is anyone within earshot it’s easy to assume they are listening intently and maybe being critical. I can assure you, in 99% of the cases no matter what your level of playing, no one is judging you. In fact, family and friends are your cheerleaders; they want you to succeed or at least be happy with your own playing. Listeners are way more forgiving of mistakes than you might realize. If you don’t believe me, go to a karaoke session some time. While you may hear some pretty amazing performances, you will surely hear some that belong in a person’s shower and nowhere else. But regardless, the listeners are enthusiastic and admire the performer’s courage.
 
But what bookends with this a bit is….
 
You can always tell when another guitar player is listening. The sideways glances or outright staring, usually with a blank expression. This can be disconcerting to say the least! It took me many years to not get rattled by this, I must admit. Finally, I figured out that all guitarists, regardless of their age, experience or musical tastes have some sort of innate need to demonstrate some level of coolness about other guitarists they don’t know personally. Why is this? I have no idea. Does it mean anything or matter? Not at all! That staring could have any number of underlying reasons. Some may be flattering; some may be ego-driven. I’ve had many instances when a guitarist stared at me for quite a long time, never clapped or even smiled at the end of multiple songs, but then came up (still without smiling????!) and said something to the effect of how much they enjoyed my playing and put a generous tip in the tip glass. A smile, a thank you very much and “glad you enjoyed it, hope to see you again!” are appropriate responses. On the other hand, I’ve seen guitarists I vaguely know show up at gigs and walk out with a smirk after a song or two. “Let it roll on by!” sings one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Shawn Mullins. It really and truly matters not what that person thinks. You’ve got the gig and he was just sitting there. That is all that truly matters.
 
Reserve judgement about performers, no matter what level they may be on. Here’s another case of Gene having to learn the hard way. In my younger days I routinely dismissed certain musicians based only upon my perception of their abilities, style of music, or even really silly things like their stage presence, equipment (!) or even their physical appearance. The result has been that I missed appreciating some very fine musicians. These days, even if I don’t particularly like a certain style of music I do my best to find value in it or at least try to figure out just why it or the people performing it are popular. Then I can make an informed decision as to whether or not to explore it further. And often, that’s just what happens and I think both my playing and my horizons have expanded.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
Categories: Acoustics

You've gotten to be a habit with me....

Thu, 06/29/2017 - 09:35
For the last few years the vast majority of people who contact me for lessons are adults who have either been playing for some time (without formal lessons) or those who played some in their younger days and have the time, interest and income to commit to regular lessons. I do have a few youngsters of course but the approach with them is entirely different than with the adults.
 
Right off the bat I try to have them deal with what can only be described as bad habits. This can be a daunting task for some; a recreational player who’s been doing things a certain way for years or even decades has to be able to trust me enough to abandon those bad habits, even though in the short term their playing may be more difficult than the way they do it now. I am careful to explain exactly why it is that those habits need to be abandoned. Most understand but there are always a few that resist. Part of my job is adjusting both their expectations and my own based on that openness, or lack of. It can be a delicate dance!
 
So here are a couple things I see fairly frequently. I’ve mentioned them in past posts but this issue is so important to play successfully and satisfactorily that it is worth revisiting them. Whether someone is considering lessons with me or elsewhere these things must be addressed if one is to progress on the guitar.
 
Left hand (or right hand, if you’re a lefty) position. I’m not speaking of finger position on the frets, that is something I’ll focus on in a minute. Basically, we’re talking about how the neck is gripped. And therein lies the problem: you’re not supposed to “grip” the neck! This is the single most common bad habit I see with self-taught players. I call it the Baseball Bat Grip. Making contact with a large portion of the inside of the hand behind the neck, which usually leads to pointing the thumb toward the head of the guitar. This is counter-productive on so many levels! First, it is almost impossible to correctly arch the fingers and use just the finger tips to fret individual strings. When employing the Baseball Bat Grip, fingers on top of the neck almost always end up touching an adjacent string and the result is a muffled, dead tone, or no sound at all. In advanced guitar playing there are actually times when you want this to happen but not in the beginning. The Baseball Bat Grip also severely restricts fast, fluid movement.
 
The correct formation of hand position behind the neck requires dropping the forearm and wrist, bending wrist, and keeping the tip of the thumb parallel to the 2nd (ring) finger. Avoid any contact with the inside of the hand against the back of the neck if at all possible. The thumb is the contact point, not the inside of the hand.
 
Of course, everyone’s hands are different and guitar necks vary widely in width, depth and string spacing so accomplishing this requires some experimentation. In my experience, this can be one of those things that an experienced recreational, self-taught player will resist the most. Whether they realize it or not, their brain is telling them: I can use my old grip and get a decent sound from at least a few chords and oh my god, it is so AWKWARD to drop my wrist and forearm, bend my wrist and avoid contact with the inside of my hand against the neck! My thumb is just not strong enough to do the job back there! But I’m quite merciless about this with those types. While I’ve become a bit more lax about other things in the last few years relating to general technique, this one is not open to negotiation! And while it may take a few weeks, when the student hears and sees the results in terms of clean, clear tone and accurate movement between chords they often wonder out loud how they could ever have played ANYTHING the old way!
 
Interestingly, it is usually men who have the most trouble adjusting to this concept. Maybe it’s because men are used to more manual labor than women where the strength in their hands is more important than strength with their fingers so they naturally want to utilize that strength. Maybe women are just more flexible. Or smarter. Oops!
 
What’s going on under and behind the neck is not as obvious as what’s happening on top but finger placement is ultimately what it’s all about when it comes to clean playing, assuming you’ve accomplished the above. The most obvious bad habits I see are not arching the fingers enough and not pressing down hard enough but there’s another one that is almost as common: setting up too far away from the fret. Self-taught players almost always set up fingers at points about half way between the fret that is dividing the string and the one behind the finger. This is a natural presumption based on chord diagrams that are found in books and in diagrams online that always seem to show the “dot” representing the fingers at the halfway point between the frets. But here’s the thing. The fret is “playing” the note or notes for us, dividing the string at a very specific point. On non-fretted string instruments such as the violin and cello, the finger itself is dividing the string. On the guitar the frets do that work. And because of the way a fret protrudes above the fingerboard, the closer the fingertip it to that fret, the firmer the contact will be with the fret. In other words, more of the string is coming in contact with the fret. When this happens the string cannot move on top of the fret when the string is played. Movement – which you cannot see but can certainly hear – results in buzzes or muffled notes. So setting up as close to the frets as possible is a key element in clear, clean tone.
 
Unfortunately, with some chords this is just not physically possible with all the fingers; first position A Major is an example. There are a few generally used finger “orders” in A major but I subscribe to using 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers. YMMV, as they say. This is one of those things that I’ve grown more liberal about in recent years; it’s OK to try different combinations if my way does not work for you. The reason I use the fingers I do on that chord is that is encourages concise movement to chords often found after A Major. But again, it’s OK to experiment with that one.
 
If it is not possible to get one or more fingers close to the frets in a chord remember that you must press down extra hard to make firm contact with the fret. And sometimes setting up one finger too far from the fret will affect good placement of all the others. The single most common problem I see in this regard is 1st position C Major. If the 1st finger is not absolutely tight to the fret (without overlapping it of course, which you never want to do with any fingers anywhere) there is no way you will be able to stretch out the 3rd finger to the fret that plays C on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, and the result is muddy sound. This is so common amongst self-taught players that I can almost count on having to correct it at the very first lesson.
 
Those are just a couple of the bad habits I see time and time again. The good news is that they are reversible with some focus and effort. The result of dealing with them is a pleasing sound no matter how simple a piece of music may be. There are others….. But that, I hope, is why people come to me for lessons!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Death knell for electrics?

Sat, 06/24/2017 - 12:48
A friend sent me a link to a fascinating story that was in the Washington Post last week entitled: The Death of the Electric Guitar. The gist of it is that the market for electric guitars has been tanking for quite some time with no end in sight. Some of the figures were eye-openers. Sales of electric guitars a decade ago where about 1.5 million. Today that figure is about 1 million, still a lot of guitars but the Big Boys in the game are suffering the most as inexpensive and in many cases, decent quality electrics flood the market from the Far East.
 
Some of the figures were downright scary. Guitar Center (and its sister company, Musician’s Friend) is – ready for this? – 1.6 BILLION dollars in debt. It has been common knowledge for a few years that GC was in trouble but I had no idea it was of such magnitude. And that debt has a trickle-down effect. Fender is $130 million in the red, due in no small part to GC not paying its invoices. According to an industry insider I know, it is a lose/lose situation. Fender cannot refuse to do business with GC, i.e., give them very favorable terms and keep sending guitars in spite of unpaid invoices, because if GC goes belly-up (which is a definite possibility, according to my friend) Fender will have no hope of recovering ANY of the money they are owed.
 
The situation is not much better with a couple of the other big on-line retailers, Sweetwater and American Musical Supply, again according to my friend, but they do not release their sales figures. But suffice to say, if those companies offer 12-month, no-interest payment plans for a huge array of electric guitars already selling at a discount something is definitely wrong.
 
So why is this happening? The conclusion of George Gruhn of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, who knows as much as anyone about trends in the guitar business is that for the younger players the “guitar god” phenomenon that drove young players to want to play back in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and even the 90s no longer exists. The Guitar Gods if yore are either old or dead. How many teen age guitarists worship at the altar of Clapton, Hendrix, Vai, or Van Halen? Fewer and fewer. This seems to be a very valid argument. Sure, there are a few younger players like Bonamassa and John Mayer are legitimate monster players but they just don’t seem to inspire the rabid worship that was heaped upon their forebears.
 
But I think that there are other, equally important factors. Now, understand that I still play electric guitar from time to time and I fully intend to do so at least part of the time in any future group I form or join. At the end of the day though I am an acoustic guitarist, first and foremost. What I’m getting to – and I know there are many who would disagree with this – is that shredding on a distorted, loud electric may be fun in someone’s basement, but does anyone except other shredders really want to hear that? And does it sound good by itself? Because without a bass player and drummer (at least) that style of playing is not exactly pleasant to the vast majority of people, both youngers ones raised on electronica and hip-hop and oldsters who went through their blow-my-eardrums-out phase long ago and don’t care to repeat it.
 
Another huge factor in the dire straights (no pun intended!) those big retailers find themselves in is quite ironic. There was a time when the quality of lesser brands was variable at best and it was essential to try out a guitar before it was purchased. Now, with consistent and predictable manufacturing, plus very liberal return policies, the only thing that separates the big boys from one another is price. So they watch each other very, very carefully and cut their margins to the bone. MAP policies help, to a degree, but even those are stretched and tweaked with regular “special” sales and extremely liberal terms. My guess, and this in only a guess, is that if GC or those other big companies are lucky, they make at best a 10% margin at the end of the day on most electric guitars they sell. Even the cheapies. Yes, the margins are a bit better on the high end stuff, but getting back to the original point of the story, how many high end guitars are they selling?
 
There is a basic rule of successful sales that says the less expensive the item sold, the bigger the margin. That rule has been bent to the breaking point and if things keep going the way they seem to be there will be some significant attrition in the music equipment world. You cannot be solvent on 10% margins with hundreds of millions – or billions – of dollars of debt.
 
Which gets me back to my own observations and experience. I am so, so glad that I focus my playing and teaching on acoustic guitar. The resurgence of interest in acoustic guitar in the last 20 years both by younger players and older ones returning to the instrument after abandoning it in their youth is very heartening. Players have discovered (or remembered) how easy it is to just sit down with an acoustic and…. Play. In their bedroom, on the front porch, at a beach somewhere. No amplifier needed. Even the simplest chord pattern sounds pleasing not just to the player but to anyone listening. And it’s no accident that many of the hardest of hardcore rockers do most of their writing with an acoustic guitar. It brings things back to their most basic level. No noise, no pedal board, no beast of an amp to lug, and even the least expensive acoustic sounds good on some level, compared to the most expensive Strat or Les Paul played when NOT plugged in. The music becomes the thing, not the machine.
 
So God Bless, GC, Musician’s Friend, Sweetwater, American Musical and the other big guys who pushed so many small local music stores out of business in the last decade. Karma is a bitch.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Random musings....

Sat, 06/03/2017 - 14:49
As is my habit from time to time in this space, today’s entry will be totally random. No apologies, just a fair warning!
 
I am always looking for new gear that will make my gigging and teaching experiences easier and I recently bought a cool little device that falls in that category. It is called the Quiklock music stand. Part of my quest with all new gear I buy is to make my set-up more condensed and easier to transport and set up. This thing helps. It is a music stand/holder that attaches horizontally to a mic stand. While not as spacious as a regular music stand it holds two lead sheets side-by-side on an arm that is adjustable both in the distance from the stand and angle of the back that holds the music. It attaches to the stand via a clamp. I’m not entirely convinced the clamp will hold up in the long term (that is a complaint in reviews of the thing) but for now it seems to hold just fine. I doubt I would trust it to hold something valuable like an IPad but it serves the purpose with printed music. There was a time in my gigging life that I scoffed at people who didn’t have ALL their music memorized and needed a music stand. Not anymore. Seems like many if not most single performers use them or an IPad holder these days. I do know enough to bring along clips to hold the music to the stand in case it’s windy. Anyway, I recommend this inexpensive little device if you don’t want to lug a full size music stand to your gigs.
 
My favorite song lately is a great one by Ry Cooder called “Tattler.” His recording features his fine guitar playing but also a full band so I had to adapt it somewhat for my own use and use with students. What a sweet and catchy tune! It has a bit of a Caribbean or New Orleans vibe too, which immediately attracted me. Check it out if you can. Ry Cooder is hugely respected in the singer/songwriter world although he doesn’t have the wide recognition of some. His work as a writer, player and producer is stellar. Also, it was Ry who brought the wonderful Buena Vista Social Club musicians of Cuba to the attention of the world. In some small way, I believe that his work with them may have contributed in some small way to the opening of relations with that country and more exposure to its rich musical heritage.
 
I recently bought the first electric guitar I’ve owned in a while, a semi-hollow body by a company called Prestige. I got a very fair deal on it locally; it is in perfect condition. There is a bit of mystery about this company. While their web site says they are based in Vancouver, Canada (there is no label in the guitar, but it is number 000113!), a person on the Acoustic Guitar Forum stated that it was in fact made in Korea at the same factory that makes Peerless Guitars and I believe this is the case as it is identical to one model they make. Peerless is producing some of the finest archtops made overseas and my hero, jazz guitarist Martin Taylor consulted with them to produce his signature model. They are rather expensive and fairly hard to get. My Prestige has many of the same features, and the fit and finish are top notch. It features two Seymour Duncan P-90’s and a super comfortable neck. The sound is just great, equally at home in both jazz and blues. It also came with high quality hardshell case, and being only a year old and hardly played it is in perfect condition and set up perfectly too. Best of all, it sounds terrific through my Carvin AG-300 (this was a big surprise!) so I don’t need to spring for another amp. With a beautiful tobacco sunburst finish, gold plated Grover tuners and bridge, and a very cool retro looking cream colored pickguard that matches the Seymour Duncans perfectly, it is a gorgeous thing to look at too. Only down side is that is has some serious weight due to the maple block inside but that is the trade off for the amazing sustain it has. Sooner or later, I will get some gigs that call for an electric, and I’ll be ready!
 
I had a great conversation with the person who sold me the guitar and this gets to my previous post about guitar teachers. It seems that his daughter took lessons – actually, just one lesson! – with a guy who lives not far away. This person is a former member of a very well known R&B group that broke up a while ago and he now lives in this area. While all reports are that he is a great guy, from what I was told his teaching style is a bit shaky at best. He basically did some playing and expected this poor young girl, a raw beginner, to then repeat what he played. Compounding the confusion was that he is left-handed, and she is not! His advice? Just look in the mirror! Yikes. Plus he demanded three months of payment in advance. Again, big respect for his playing and background but the reality is that a great player may not be a great teacher. The sad part is that he probably succeeded in turning off this youngster to ever playing the guitar. But the positive was that this inspired the guy who sold me the guitar to begin playing himself (after all, he had paid for three months of lessons….) and he seems to love playing without value judgements by himself or anyone else. Good for him!
 
Finally, as regular readers of this blog know, I have been playing regularly for about 5 years at a wonderful little café near my home called the Daily Brew. I play almost every Sunday from 10 till noon. When I started and until very recently it was all about challenging myself to carry the time with totally instrumental arrangements of blues, bossa nova, jazz and pop stuff. I can say the pay off is that my playing at this point in my life is better and more gratifying than it’s ever been. But recently I thought, what the heck, maybe I’ll start mixing in some vocals too. Understand that this was what I always did in the many groups I’ve played with over the years. So a couple of the locals were quite surprised to see a mic set up in front of me last weekend as they had never heard me in any of my previous musical endeavors. And you know what? In spite of dealing with the aftermath of a nasty cold and seasonal allergies it sounded…. Not awful. Or it seemed that way anyway. And it was fun! Looking forward to tomorrow morning, for sure!
 
Oh, and one more thing. As most of us know, this is the 50th anniversary of the release of what I feel is the great album of all time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. I listened to an interview with Sir George Martin’s son Giles yesterday on PBS radio and he went into great detail about the new box set and remixed Sgt. Pepper. It was absolutely fascinating. Contrasting the mono and stereo versions, alternative takes, and little tidbits about the behind the scene recording process back in 1967. I believe that interview may be available on You Tube or perhaps via PBS. Check it out and even if you can’t give that album a listen again. Pure genius.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Re: Expectations

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 08:56
It’s always interesting for me to get a new student who’s taken guitar lessons elsewhere. I have a print out that I give to every new student along with a document that outlines how my lessons are structured, lesson cancellation policy, payments, etc. That print out is what I call my “student profile.” I ask them to fill it out and return it at their second lesson as it helps me quickly assess their interests, experience, ability and most importantly, expectations. Then I can begin the lesson planning process for them, as each student is unique and I spend at least four or five hours every weekend planning individual lessons for the following week or two.
 
Those who have taken lessons before usually understand from the get-go that a commitment to practice is vital to advancing on the guitar. However, it has become apparent that some guitar teachers have a much more casual attitude about lesson planning. In some cases it’s obvious that they did no planning at all, based on the random things the student knows. Or perhaps that teacher subscribes to the square-peg-in-a-round-hole way of teaching, offering a totally linear and rigid course that doesn’t take into account what the student really wants to learn. This really bothers me. What it leads to is frustration for the student (which most likely is why they stopped their lessons) but from my standpoint it sometimes leads to unrealistic expectations. Sometimes I even have to say: If I had a magic wand I could wave over your head and turn you into a fabulous player, I would! But not before I waved it over my own head!
 
Interestingly, I often find that self-taught players more readily accept a direction-based course of study catered to their interests than those who have tried private lessons for a period of time. This may be because those with experience with another teacher are so used to a teaching method that differs from mine that they have a hard time accepting that I have different ideas about technique and focus than what they originally learned.
 
The “balance” is a huge part of my lesson planning. For a newer student with previous experience that means factoring interests and expectations with challenging them to the point that they see advancement as soon as possible. There are plenty of other things I must consider too of course like physical ability, how to present the material in a way that they can understand – something that varies widely; even “smart” people can be flummoxed by things like music theory – and even the quality of the guitar they are using. But a student who has previous experience with another teacher is with me instead because he or she hopes I can advance their playing faster or better than their previous teacher. I won’t deny that this is intimidating for me at times! But in a way, it feels good too because I like a challenge.
 
I’ve found over the years that it’s very important for me ask questions.
 
Are you playing for personal enjoyment only, or do you hope to perform?
 
Do you think you want to play with other people?
 
Are you willing to try to sing while you play? (This is a tough one – many people are fine with that but some are terrified at the prospect. I explain that the most timid singer or even someone who’s never done it outside their shower can always lock their bedroom door and try it! Value judgements are not allowed, ha!)
 
Do you listen to current music, older stuff, or some combination?
 
What I’ve found is that most people really haven’t considered those things all that much except in a very general way. But those elements of learning the guitar are VERY important. I don’t fault them for being that way. After all, playing the guitar is supposed to be fun and qualifying one’s expectations in terms of what is required can sound more like work than fun. That is another part of my “balance” that I mentioned earlier.
 
Years ago when I was in the retail world I had a boss who instructed me early on to NEVER diss the competition. It only makes YOU look petty and egotistical. It was a valuable lesson and I try to live by it, even when a new student shows up with random material given to him or her by a previous guitar teacher. Although I always want to know who their previous teacher was, I never ever bad-mouth that person. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that when this happens, it is vital to explain exactly why we will be doing things differently and how what I’m proposing will make them a better player.
 
As with most things in life, it comes down to keeping an open mind.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

There's a Fair in the Air!

Sun, 05/14/2017 - 13:06
Well, no sage words of wisdom today (!), no insider’s tips to make your playing better, no whining by Yours Truly on the state of the musical world, or the world in general for that matter! Just a shout-out to a great event we have here on Cape Cod every summer. I’m talking about the venerable Barnstable County Fair.
 
This is annual event has its roots all the way back in 1844. Locations of the fair have changed over the years and in spite of enduring financial hardship caused by such things as the polio scare of the 1950s and a hurricane that wiped out most of existing structures the fair is today a thriving event and both locals and visitors look forward to it each summer.
 
It is a classic county fair, with animal acts, some of which have been controversial in recent years, a midway, exhibits of local crafts, flowers and vegetables, a demolition derby (one of the most popular events!), horse shows and competitions, livestock judging, plenty of incredibly indulgent junk food, and much more. The admission charge is nominal and includes admission to all the exhibits (rides in the midway must be paid for of course). But my favorite aspect has always been the music.
 
Both nationally known acts and local bands are featured. Of course, this is NOT the Texas State Fair or the like, so you won’t see the hottest stars, but the musicians I’ve seen over the many years my family has been attending have often been quite remarkable. Sometimes they are nostalgia acts, or musicians past their prime in terms of general popularity – but that does not mean they are bad. Some memorable examples:
 
Country legend Tammy Wynette. I can’t recall the year but it was shortly before she passed away. Tammy put on a great show and you could tell she was sincerely appreciative of the audience’s loving reaction to her.
 
Country star Ricky Scaggs. Again, can’t recall the year but it was after his pop country star status had faded in the 1980s but he had yet to gain the status of bluegrass superstar that he enjoys today. Again, a classic country performer who knows how to put on a great show. His guitar and mandolin playing were absolutely amazing.
 
The Mama’s and Papa’s. Well, actually only Papa John was an original member but he brought along (unannounced) his friend Scott McKenzie of “If You’re Going to San Fransisco” fame to do Denny’s parts, and the two young women who took Michelle and Cass’s parts were great – the classic M&P harmonies were spot-on and they did all the hits. Papa John was hilarious in his banter with the audience. As a side note, this was when our kids were about ages 5 and 10, and my wife and I threatened to get up and start dancing to “California Dreaming,” which absolutely horrified them! What good is having kids if you can’t embarrass them?!
 
Poco.  Wow, what a show. Three of the four original members, great playing and singing by this seminal group that were in for forefront of the California country rock scene.
 
Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. A hilarious show and tons of fun. Yes, Peter is a bit “long of tooth” to be playing off his boyish grin and blonde bangs but he and his band knew what the fans wanted and expected. The best part was watching the a-bit-older-than-middle-aged women dancing away in front of the stage and trying to flirt with Peter, who flirted right back. The show culminated with The Big One: a fully 15 minute version of “I’m “En-er-y the Eighth, I Y’am!” with robust sing-along encouraged. Everyone left with grins on their faces. I’m smiling just thinking about it!
 
Two years ago was Three Dog Night. While I was not a huge fan of theirs back in the day, with three of the original members giving it their all (including a killer covers of “Shambala”, “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and of course the finale “Joy To The World”) it was a great show. With 21 Top 40 hits in the 60s and early 70s, they had plenty to play. In retrospect it is bittersweet because member Cory Wells, who did most of the lead vocals died a few months later. Glad we saw them when we did, they too truly loved and appreciated their long-time fans.
 
One year there was a touring Beatles tribute act who were quite amazing, with period correct instruments and of course plenty of banter. Their chops were first rate, and I am very picky when it comes to Beatles music!
 
There were a few others that I can’t recall at this moment. But why am I writing this now? The line-up for this years’ fair (July 17 – 23 at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds on Rt. 151 in Falmouth) includes BJ Thomas (I think I will pass on that as I do not need to hear “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” ever again, thank you very much, or “Hooked on a Feeling” for that matter!), the Cowsills (the Cowsills??? Ugh, hated them back then and I doubt they’d change my mind now). And….
 
Blood, Sweat and Tears!!  Yes, their line-up had changed over the years – no David Clayton Thomas for sure, but I am absolutely certain they will put on an outstanding show. I loved them back then and I still love their music today. In fact, they were the first really big deal band I ever saw live, at my (now) wife’s college in Pennsylvania. They were at their peak of popularity and because my wife was on the entertainment committee we had second row seats. Outstanding!! Also, bringing their (2nd and most popular) album home for the Christmas holidays and putting it on the turntable, my dad, hardcore jazzer and rock music hater, took great interest and declared, hey those guys are GOOD! They can play JAZZ! It was big moment in our relationship, to be honest. So I will always love BS&T and I can’t wait to hear them again.
 
The frosting on the cake is that we will have my niece and her two young children visiting and I know they will love the fair. And who knows, maybe my wife and I can bust some moves to “Spinning Wheel” and slow-dance to “You Made Me So Very Happy” and embarrass them too!
 
If you happen to be on Cape Cod this summer, check out the Barnstable County Fair!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Syncopation: Easy...or not?

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 11:18
I warn my students right off the bat, in their very first lesson that they will get very tired of me drilling into them what I feel is the most important musical concept of all, which is rhythm. Keeping the beat. If you don’t internalize and be constantly aware of the beat it matters little how many fancy chords you know or how many fancy licks you can play. Because it is the glue that holds a piece of music together, and it is the fundamental connection between the listener and the player.
 
Twice last week I had students – marginally experienced beginners – who were confronted with this fact. One was a young woman who had taught herself a few chords and she loves to sing (hooray for that!!) but she knew that she was essentially matching her single strums to the lyrics without any semblance of a beat. I see this frequently and those who do this know that something is lacking. It’s easy to define what that is and I give them exercises right away to get them counting beats and measures in preparation for the first big step, which is matching the lyrics to the rhythm, not the other way around. She’ll do fine.
 
The other case was more perplexing but I’ve dealt with it many times before. That student wanted to know exactly what is the difference between a syncopated beat and a “straight” beat?
 
To be totally honest, I wish I had a better explanation. When explaining rhythm I always use a “fractional” system. If one is reading music this is pretty straight-forward, i.e., the value of whole notes, half notes, quarter notes and so on. But as it relates to strumming, which is what the vast majority of my students want to do rather than just read single lines of printed notes I find myself defaulting to something that I used to hate from music teachers I had way-back-when: it needs to be felt as much as (or more than?) intellectualized. Arrggh! Just typing that gives me a headache!
 
Interestingly, if you do an internet search for an explanation of syncopation you won’t find any terribly clear information. The best most people can come up with is something along the lines of “accents on beats which are unexpected” (!!!). If your search includes You Tube videos, the person attempting to explain it often then plays something that is syncopated and yes, there it is, but again – what is it, REALLY?
 
The best explanation I can come up with is this. Let’s assume you’re in 4/4 time (although syncopation is certainly used in ¾, 2/4, even more exotic time signatures like 5/4 and 7/8). This means there are 4 beats per measure. Just count evenly and slowly: one, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. (that would be two measures of 4/4, with a quarter note on each beat if you’d like to think in terms of musical notation)
 
Now here’s the slightly tricky part. In most explanations I’ve seen it is suggested that “normal” accents come on beats 1 and 3; in syncopation the accents are on 2 and 4. Think of the piano playing “Maple Leaf Rag.” But I suggest counting a triplet for each of those four beats, like this: ONE, 2, 3, TWO, 2, 3, THREE, 2, 3, FOUR, 2, 3. Try saying this out loud to get the feel for the triplets on top of a four-beat measure. Just say what’s above evenly with no hesitation between the words/count.
 
Now……  REST on the “2” of each of those triplets:
ONE (rest) 3, TWO (rest), 3, THREE (rest), 3, FOUR (rest), 3
Again, say the above EVENLY, or better yet, tap your hand on your leg on the numbers but not on the rests.
 
Do you feel it? I hope so! But see what I mean? Breaking it down into actual mathematical fractions of the beat is tough to think about. Some people can do it, some have real trouble. And this, my friends, is why I often default to “feeling” syncopation rather than thinking about it.
 
But wait, there’s another thing you can do, which is LISTEN for syncopation. Virtually all blues employs syncopation, either in the back rhythm or in soloing. Listen to Eric Clapton’s version of “Before You Accuse Me” to hear strong syncopation. Many country songs use it. Listen to Hank William’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” for examples of syncopation in both 4/4 and ¾ time.
 
Back at the beginning I mentioned how adamant I am about my students conquering rhythmic concepts and applying them to their playing, regardless if the song is difficult or very basic. For some it comes easy, for others it is a real struggle. This is because they often have never had to actually THINK about the concept of keeping a steady beat. Whether they can verbalize it or not, most people assume rhythm is just something that “happens.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Like every other musical skill, it must be practiced and the player has to be focused on it both mentally and physically. Then, sooner or later, it does get easier. This is what I mean by internalizing rhythm. Or as I tell my students: If you count now, you won’t have to count later.
 
Want to test your internalization of this? Try taking a song, any song, and playing it both with a “straight” beat and then a syncopated beat. Sure, it might sound a bit funny but if you can do this you can be sure you’re on your way to conquering rhythm, the most basic musical skill of them all.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Substance or flash?

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 10:48
I recently watched a video on Facebook of a young Italian finger-style guitarist doing his version of what was supposed to be a Beatles tune but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out which one he was playing. Fingers flew all over the fretboard, punctuated by sly glances at the camera that all but said – Ha! How about that?!? There was no question that the guy has monster chops, in a purely physical way if nothing else. I guess I wish I could play that fast. I guess.
 
Over the years I’ve had a few students who could rip through pyrotechnic licks at will and they did at the drop of a hat. And if you want to see this tendency on full display, go down to your local Guitar Center any Saturday afternoon where the younger guitar heroes are trying out the latest Strat or Les Paul. Impressive? You bet! It takes a lot of effort and many hours of practice to play like that. I guess my question would be…. Why?
 
OK, I know the answer because a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I too wanted to be the fastest guitar player on the planet (or at least in my town!). That didn’t happen or course but look, when you reach the point that you have reasonable overall command of your guitar it’s natural to want to spice things up a bit. For a young guitarist – male, in most cases; girls and women know better than to fall into this trap – it’s all about what that young player is most impressed by, and that is often SPEED.
 
Is it wrong to go down that road? No, of course not. Except that the need-for-speed is often driven more by ego issues than truly wanting to be a better player. I think the real question should be: just who are you trying to impress? Your friends? Cool, they are your friends and if they are impressed with flashy solos they will tell you because, well, they’re your friends! Other guitar players? Hoo boy, that’s where is gets complicated and ego becomes the dominant force at work. In my experience it is rare to find another guitarist who will truly and sincerely react in a positive way to showy, flashy playing by someone they consider their contemporary. More often, they are thinking along the lines of, “I can play that better!” or “Is he doing that to make me feel worse about my own playing?”
 
An audience? Sorry to say, roughly 95% of most audiences on the local level, when listening to a player who is NOT famous, couldn’t give a rat’s @ss how fast or flashy you can play. And the 5% who do care will most likely be comparing your playing to someone who IS famous. But if you can sing well, they are yours. Hard, cold fact there, aspiring guitar heroes. Sorry.
 
So does speed and flash have any value at all? In the right hands it certainly does. What you will notice with those who do employ speed to their advantage is that they frame those fancy licks with stuff that is not flashy but RIGHT. This is done by using phrasing, rhythmic variation, being melodic and a host of other things that only come with experience. Most importantly, let the music breathe. Don’t try to fill every moment of time with sound. That will draw in the listener and when you finally do whip out that fancy riff, I guarantee it will sound all the more impressive. Listen to great players in blues, jazz and country and you will notice this right away.
 
“Don’t play it if you can’t sing it!” I love that credo, which has been used for a very long time by teachers introducing soloing to their students, especially in jazz and classical music. That mind-set has value for rockers too. Listen to the solo by Larry Carlton on the classic Steely Dan tune, “Bodhisattva.” It builds from a fairly simple theme and when Carlton does let loose it takes your breath away. If he had started out with the extended 32nd note part of the solo, would it have been as impressive or would the interest wane quickly? I’ll let you be the judge.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics