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Acoustic Guitar Blog
Updated: 2 hours 40 min ago

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

Straighten up and fly right!

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 12:18
  “Dad!” said my daughter one morning as she watched me play at the Daily Brew, “Why do you hunch over like that when you play?! That is really bad for you and it doesn’t look cool either!”
 
Joanna is a nurse and has never hesitated to let me know what she’s thinking, regardless of the subject (!) and in this case she had a valid point, at least from a health standpoint. She made this comment a couple years ago and now I wish I’d listened to her! My back has been giving me fits all winter, despite multiple trips to the chiropractor and downing ibuprofen by the bottle. I can no longer ignore my posture.
 
Over 50 years of guitar playing can certainly take its toll. I thank my lucky stars that arthritis has been only barely evident in my hands and fingers up to this point, although it runs in both sides of my family so the prospects are not good. But I suspect it is making itself evident in my back so some radical changes must be made.
 
Along with this, I have a couple older students who hunch over when they play and yesterday I spent the better part of a lesson just working on getting one of them to hold the guitar correctly and sit up straight. This sounds simple if you’re young and flexible; not so much with posture habits that have been learned over a long lifetime.
 
Obviously I’m talking about playing while sitting, although good posture habits should show while standing and playing too. I have a picture of myself standing and playing at a large outdoor concert back in the 1970s and a couple more from various later years and I never noticed my less than perfect posture. But looking at them now, I sure do.
 
The first and most important step is selecting the correct chair if you’re going to sit and play. I use standard wooden chairs in my studio (without arms of course) that measure just a shade under 18” from the floor to the front of the seat. They serve the purpose for most students and myself while teaching. The backs are straight but reasonably comfortable. At that height most players can comfortably place their feet flat on the floor, which may or may not be necessary to play with good posture. More on that in a minute.
 
My favorite seating is a couple of padded stools I used for a while. They are 22” from floor to seat, with lightly curved backs for extra support. The seats swivel, which makes it easy for the student to rotate to watch me and then look at the music on its stand. They also have cross bars that serve as foot rests if needed. But while most of my students liked them, a few wanted the old standard chairs so those stools now reside in the basement. But I think they will be coming back into the studio because they are comfortable, functional and encourage correct posture and playing position.
 
Quite a while back I tried some standard “bar stools” but at a height of 29” and no back they were not very comfortable for extended playing, even with cross bars for foot support.
 
When I play out I use a great little stool called the StagePlayer II. It has a padded seat, measures 24 ½” from seat to floor, collapses easily and is light to carry. It has a cross member for the feet that folds up or down, plus a wonderful feature of two padded braces that fold down to function as a guitar stand when it’s break time. I’ve gone through a couple of them over the last five years or so, which is why I don’t use it in the studio to teach: unfortunately, it is not super durable and over time the bolts tend to fail. I replace them as needed though, and retailing for about $50 it is very reasonably priced.
 
Then there are the debatable factors relating to posture and playing. Some players are absolutely adamant about keeping their feet flat on the floor when seated and playing. They do not like resting one or both feet on a cross member on a stool. I get that but my experience with many hundreds of students and pro players is that often there is a bad habit that they develop that pretty much requires feet planted flat. That is holding the guitar neck on a downward angle and resting the forearm on the thigh when fretting chords. Never, never should one do this! It restricts easy movement of the hand and fingers and encourages bad technique like the “baseball bat grip” on the neck.
 
So what’s the solution? If you can stand it, ALWAYS use a strap when playing, adjusted to the correct length while sitting and playing. The overwhelming majority of guitarists think that guitar straps are only for standing and playing and this is absolutely not the case. A correctly adjusted strap takes the weight of the instrument off your arms, allowing for holding the neck slightly on an upward angle. Now add in the use of a stool that forces your thigh downward slightly (foot on the floor, or on a cross member) and your forearm is free to move without your leg being in the way. Which leg holds the guitar is another discussion that I won’t get into now, except to say it’s worth experimenting with guitar body position and you may find things easier if you change up the way you normally hold your instrument.
 
Never, ever sit slouched on a couch while you play. Couches are nice for many things but playing the guitar is not one of them. Bad posture and poor technique are the inevitable result of playing while lounging on a cushy couch.
 
Finally, just why is it that we hunch over the guitar? To see what we’re doing with our hands of course! This conundrum is the worst of all as it relates to posture. Again based on decades of observing players of all levels I have to conclude there are three solutions to the issue of seeing what we’re playing, but two of them are bad. Hunching over – you will pay for this over time. Believe me! (as our president is fond of saying – ha!). Holding the guitar on a more flat plane to better see the fretboard….bad because you have to reach that much farther around the neck to arch your fingers correctly and not damp out adjacent strings. So that leaves only one solution, tough though it may be.
 
Learn to find the strings and frets as much by feel as by sight. Yes, you can see at least part of the neck without hunching over or craning your neck but the temptation to hunch over will always be there. But with perseverance and practice you WILL develop muscle memory regarding placement. If you have any doubt about this, consider the great guitarists Doc Watson and Jose Feliciano. They were never able to see the neck of the guitar and it didn’t keep them from mastering their instruments.
 
So sit up straight, keep the body of the guitar as flat against your body as possible. Your back will thank you. And just think how cool you’ll look!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
 
 

Categories: Acoustics

April 09th, 2017

Sun, 04/09/2017 - 13:45
The interests of trying to be more regular in my posting I thought I’d put up yet another installment of random thoughts, musical experiences, maybe a bit of whining, who knows?
 
I’ve noticed something recently that came about totally by accident. I’ve found I do best with learning new songs – even simple ones – if I listen to them a few times, then allow my brain to kind of digest what I’ve heard. After a few days or a week, when I do sit down to write them out I find that I’m a lot more accurate not only to the overall form and structure of the song but the subtleties also. This makes for a more accurate transcription and also allows me to structure the arrangement I will give to students in a way that best captures both the little things that make a song interesting and at the same time make it not too intimidating. Beats the heck out of quickly transcribing something for immediate use.
 
As I mentioned in a recent post, the majority of my students have been with me for a good long time. I feel that part of my job is to introduce them to new music or stuff that they most likely have not heard but I hope they’ll like. The balance between their overall interests, ability and factoring in how open they are to new material is a constant challenge. It is always gratifying to turn someone on to a type of music they have never heard or been interested in and having them find that hey, that kind of music isn’t so bad!
 
But getting back to my own experience, in some cases I am learning songs only for my own use. I recently came up with a fun little arrangement for solo guitar of the old Herbie Hancock nugget “Watermelon Man.” After listening to it again (after many years) and looking at some sheet music it was important to give it some time to worm its way into brain. Walking around the house or while driving I spent about a week or so humming the lead line to myself and at the same time coming up with a general idea of what was important and what I might not be able to accomplish with a single-guitar arrangement. Then it was time to sit down and get to it. The results were not half bad, if I do say so myself! It has a way to go but the foundation is definitely there. I even threw it out at my regular Daily Brew gig this morning and a few of the regulars thought it was kinda funky and cool. Yah!
 
As I was driving home I suddenly thought of my late uncle, lovingly referred to as Crazy Uncle Irv but just about everyone in the family. Irv was a superb trumpet player, teacher and conductor and a genuine character who usually could be found walking around in his beret while he hummed some song that was in his head. He was a member of the famous Fred Waring Orchestra until World War II intervened and he was drafted. He ended up serving his enlistment in a U.S. Army band in North Africa and later in France. There are many hilarious and amazing stories about Irv but one of my favorites was his account of him and his buddies literally throwing the actor Humphrey Bogart out a window in a bar in Paris when the drunken Bogart (apparently part of a USO tour) came in talking loudly and waving around a .45. But I digress….
 
I realized yet again that Irv was “digesting” whatever music was running through his wacky mind when he walked around gazing into the distance and humming. I get it now. Give yourself time to internalize a piece of music before rushing to try to play it. This is certainly not an earth-shaking revelation, I’m sure musicians have been doing it forever, but for me it is very instructive and important.
 
And speaking of the Daily Brew (sorry, here comes the whining part), why oh why do people think it’s perfectly OK to get right in the face of musician when he or she is playing and begin talking, asking questions to which they expect a response and generally disregarding the fact that the musician may need to concentrate on what’s he’s playing?!? I don’t want to seem disrespectful or unfriendly, but geez. OK, end of whining.
 
More random stuff. I caught a one-hour special on TV the other night about the making of the Beach Boys ground-breaking album, “Pet Sounds.” Wow, wow, wow. It included never before scenes of the recording of the album, present day interviews with Mike Love, Al Jadine, members of the amazing Wrecking Crew studio musicians who played on the album, producers and of course, the genius Brain Wilson himself. I gained even more respect for Brian and his musical vision after seeing this program; catch it if you can. Some people consider Pet Sounds to be the greatest pop album ever made and as much as I love Sgt. Pepper, it would be difficult to choose between the two for that designation if I had to.
 
When we were in Dallas a couple weeks ago we went with our son Matt to a store that had (new) vinyl albums and when I pointed out Pet Sounds he snatched it up. Matt has a small record player in his apartment and although we didn’t have time to listen to it together, I know he has since we left. Now if he could just hear it on a truly great stereo system. Pure musical bliss would ensue!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
 
 

Categories: Acoustics

Under the Covers

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 11:53
I am always intrigued by covers. No, not the kind that go over furniture or your bed. I do miss album covers although with the comeback of vinyl it’s nice to see them in some stores again. I’m really talking about an artist’s personal versions of well-known songs by others. Sometimes it works, sometimes the results are not so great but in most cases they are worth a listen.
 
I was reminded of the potential of covers recently when I started using a song that I thought was written by singer/songwriter Lucy Kaplansky called “More Than This.” She does it in a simple but gorgeous finger style that is more challenging than it appears to be on first listen. I gave it to a student recently and she said, that’s a cover of a Brian Ferry/Roxy Music techno-rock song from the early 1990s.  Well, this was news to me! I never cared much for that genre when it was popular, which is probably why it didn’t ring my musical bell. But sure enough, she sent me a link to the original video on YouTube and there it was. While the video is easy to watch (you’ll know what I mean if you look it up (!!)  ) I found myself turning down the sound after about 30 seconds. Lucy’s version is far better in my opinion, at least from a musical point of view. The lyrics are equally important. My opinion of 1990s techno remains unchanged.
 
You can never really tell how covers will strike you both in the short and long term. Take Dylan’s recent forays into the music of Frank Sinatra. Now, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this at first glance seems to be the most incongruous of musical combinations, especially judging by the reported quality or lack of in Dylan’s live performances in the last few years. But amazingly – it works. Dylan has made a career of breaking convention in all sorts of ways and what he has done is gotten to the core of those great jazz standards with sparse arrangements, superb production and total insight into the meaning of the lyrics. Although no would ever accuse Bob of having the vocal chops of perhaps the greatest pop singer of all time, he does a fantastic job of understanding that it was also phrasing that made Frank so great. Dylan imparts a sense of hard gained knowledge, experience, resignation and redemption to the lyrics with his singing. Give the new recordings a listen and check your expectations at the door. If you do that you are in for treat.
 
Sometimes it’s hard to pick a favorite version of a song. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is equally moving both by herself and the classic version by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They are entirely different from a musical perspective but both effect the listener deeply. The Beatles doing “Twist and Shout” is just as vital as Chuck Berry’s original. And getting back to Mr. Dylan, is “Blowin’ in the Wind” any less important or legitimate by Peter, Paul and Mary than the original by Dylan himself?
 
From the perspective of the guitarist or band trying to break into the local music scene, covers are vital. I’ve known a few musicians over the years who are steadfastly committed to playing only original music and while I admire their lofty goals – which are at least partly based in some notoriety for their music even if they don’t like to admit it – the fact is, those people put their music in front of an audience a lot less than those doing covers.
 
So how does a local performer handle the question of covers? Some try their best to replicate a cover as perfectly as possible. That’s fine and it can be quite gratifying on a personal level but the other side of that coin is that a player may be setting him or herself up for a fall. The closer one gets to the original, the more one will be compared to the original. Even small mistakes can be glaring. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want that kind of pressure!
 
Some players (not many, thankfully) will try to hide behind their musical deficiencies by saying something along the lines of: Well, that’s the way I like to play it! That’s MY version!
 
Is that being interpretive, or just lazy?
 
What’s that old saying – “You can fool some of the people some of the time….”
 
So, my considered opinion is that it is best to work out an arrangement of a song that includes all the required elements but then and only then, make it your own. Things like dynamics that may be different than the original (such as Lucy Kaplansky’s version of “More Than This”) or fooling with verse and chorus repeats, such as was done by the late great Eva Cassidy with her many covers.
 
Doing covers is fun and challenging, for sure. Make a song your own and don’t sweat it too much if you can’t sing like Frank Sinatra!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics

Sing! Sing! Sing!

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 07:38
Lots of travelling for me in the last couple of months and plenty of music heard. My buddy in Australia, guitarist and singer Tony suggested addressing the big issue of singing while playing and that kind of bookends nicely with some of the things I saw and heard in my travels. Also some observations closer to home and more recently.
 
On a Caribbean cruise back in late January I heard quite a few singers in various venues on board the ship. Most were quite good and a few were superb. In one of the lounges we caught a duo (man and woman) a few times who both sang and while they were not blessed with fantastic voices they sang in tune and their use of sophisticated backing tracks along with his guitar made for some very enjoyable music. The room was always packed and everyone had a great time.
 
At the motel where we stayed pre-cruise we happened to be there on karaoke night and as usual with those things the talent on display was quite variable, to be kind. But you know what? It didn’t matter. Everyone was having a grand time and there was no shortage of eager participants.
 
A couple weeks later we went down to Dallas to visit our son Matt who lives and works in that city. We spent a great evening down in the Deep Elum section of town where there are dozens of bars and restaurants featuring live music. My wife and I realized we were probably the oldest people on the street (!) but no matter. But as you might expect, the music was heavily tilted toward the younger age group. So screaming thrash rock and post punk was on full display, which I am way too old to understand or appreciate. OK, maybe I do understand. “It’s only rock and roll but I like it! I like it! I like it!” as some skinny old singer once sang.
 
We did hear a very good jazz group at brunch the next day in the same section of town that featured two women singers who were quite good, although I have a thing about too much vibrato from a woman singing jazz. But in any case, the small audience was appreciative and the jazz group clearly loved the music and the opportunity to perform.
 
So what’s the point here? Tony related how he came to singing gradually but now really enjoys it. Putting aside for a minute the conundrum of singing and playing at the same time that all beginning guitarists must go through (in a nutshell, one must be totally confident their playing is solid rhythmically and structurally before they can “forget” about their hands and just sing….) I believe the biggest hurdle singers have to cross is accepting their voices. I always warn my students who are beginning the singing/playing process to avoid listening to any recording of themselves. No matter how much one thinks they are aware of their voice, I promise you that you do NOT sound like what your ears and brain are telling you. That does not necessarily means your voice is bad….just different. Big problem #2 is the natural tendency to compare our own voices to the artist who recorded the song. No, most of us will never sound like that but remember: not only does that person have a level of quality that resulted in a recording contract but they also worked with recording engineers whose entire job is to make them sound good. Now more than ever, studio tricks make even mediocre singers sound good and good ones sound even better.
 
I absolutely believe that humans are genetically programed to enjoy music. And audiences are much more forgiving than you might imagine.
 
That belief is reinforced in me just about every time I play in front of someone. Although I was a voice major way back in music school I never had that great a voice and these days between neglect of my singing chops due to my concentration on instrumentals plus my advancing years I’m probably not even as good as I was back then. That doesn’t matter!
 
A few days ago I went down to Connecticut to visit my daughter and her husband and of course my precious, lovely granddaughter. As always, I brought my guitar. As I began playing and singing “You Are My Sunshine” little Clara instantly began bobbing her head and grinning. Absolutely the best audience I will ever have! And even though she is only eight months old, almost every time she looked at me for the rest of the weekend she smiled and began bobbing her head again.
 
Whether it’s a professional show singer on a cruise ship, a jazz singer in a bar, a fairly inebriated karaoke singer, a purple haired punk rocker or some old guy singing an old folk song to his granddaughter, singing forms a connection between people that we should celebrate. So do it. Just sing.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene

Categories: Acoustics