Friday, July 17, 2015

The Fire Within

There is a fire inside of you.  You may not realize it, but it is there.  The fact that you are breathing and reading this right now is evidence that you have something in you that is making you be alive.

This element of life, this fire, comes out in the music we play.  However, the extent to which this fire is released is based upon how its burning inside of you.  A musician's life is not an easy life and when you pick up your guitar you have some decisions to make.  Are you going to let all the challenges of life, all the hard times, all the disappointments, all the waiting, all the bad news from all over the world choke that flame inside of you out until it's just a smoldering wick?

Or, are you going to let ALL your feelings come out thru your music?  All the good times as well as the bad.  Let it all out thru your instrument and break thru that dam and let it flow.  Living water.

The music doesn't have to be "fiery", but if you let that fire inside you roar while you play guitar, there will be a significant increase in the feeling, vibe, emotion, and spirit of the music you play.  Whether it is slow and peaceful, or fast and wild, or anywhere in between, the fire of passion that you infuse into your playing will differentiate you from many musicians who are simply moving their fingers around on a guitar while using only academic knowledge to decide what and how to play.

Awhile back I played a gig at which the actor Jim Caviezel (The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Passion Of The Christ, et. al.) was the keynote speaker to a crowd of about 2,000.  I was back stage when he came up to speak.  There in the dark as he stood right beside me and was waiting to go on, he was focused - so intensely focused that I thought, "if I tap this guy on the shoulder, he will turn around a knock my head off."  He was breathing heavily - as if he was an Olympic swimmer filling his lungs with oxygen while standing on the starting block prior to a race.  Then he dropped - with his body straight as a board as he fell - onto the concrete floor in his $1,000 tux and did 20 of the fastest pushups you've ever seen anyone do.  Then he jumped up and walked on stage.  With all that buildup, I was expecting him to launch into the crowd like a screaming revival tent preacher, but he delivered his words in a calm and cool delivery.  But he owned that talk and carried an authority and credibility that does not come with superficial memorization of a script (or in our case, a song).  He had undoubtedly been fanning the flames of the fire inside him prior to walking on that stage.

When I was about 17 years old I lived in the Dallas, TX area and knew how to sneak backstage at a venue called The Palladium.  I went to a Tom Waits concert with my buddy and I showed him how we could get backstage.  We went thru my hidden portal to the inner sanctum of my music heroes and about 30 feet away from us there he was - Tom Waits himself - sitting in a four legged wooden chair, rocking back and forth with only the back two legs on the ground, hunched over and smoking a cigarette.  He saw us and stopped rocking.  There was no one there but us three.  He stood up, walked slowly over to us, got his face about 8 inches from my face, looked me over, and slowly blew cigarette smoke in my face.  My response?  "How ya doing?"  Tom replied in his gravely voice, "Feel like crap.  Haven't slept in 3 days."  Then he turned around and went back to his chair and started rocking again looking at the floor (BTW, that was my favorite artist encounter thus far).

Tom Waits did an absolutely incredible show that night.  It was basically his Nighthawks At The Diner double album and he took us all into another world of the down and out.  In retrospect, I know what he was doing backstage while rocking in that chair.  He was stoking the fire inside him.  Like Jim Caviezel, Tom Waits was not intense, but he carried something special - an authority, a message, a gift, that does not come thru mere memorization of songs, but instead delivered his songs with a fire that burns in the marrow of your bones.

You can have chops out the ying yang, but it you don't have the most important ingredient - the secret sauce of Fire - your music may not have a deep impact on those who hear it.   Try it and see.

Not long ago I'd had a string of setbacks in various aspects of my life.  I sat alone in my house one night and picked up my guitar and a FIRE burned inside of me when I played.  The music coming out of me was very different that night - very alive.

I had not even realized the fire had died down to a pile of smoldering embers until the Wind blew upon it and made the flames roar again.  Over a long period of time I had not realized the fire was gone - until I experienced it's revival that night.  Your soul can devolve into zombie-land if you're not careful and before you know it, you've become a shell of who you really are.  But once you see, hear, and feel that power of that Fire burning within you again, and the filling of a great space which had become dry and empty, you are hooked my friends - never again content to burn out.

Tom Waits

Saturday, April 13, 2013


A trap which many guitarists have fallen into is the belief that in order to be "good" they must be able to play and sound like other guitarists.

While to a certain extent this is true in that we should be able to play in tune, in time, and know our way around our instruments, the mindset that tells us we must emulate what others have done before us is one that will ultimately limit our creative presence in the world of music.

Allow me to give an extreme example.

Elvis Presley carried something unique.  His DNA was packaged in a way that would make him one of the most popular entertainers in the 20th century.  Today there are many Elvis impersonators who look very much like Elvis, move very much like Elvis, and can sometimes sound very much like Elvis - but they are not Elvis.  In fact, the obvious attempt to mirror someone else puts these impersonators down towards the bottom of the musical food chain.  Is anyone ever going to study these impersonators?  Probably not.

Now apply that to guitar playing.

Wow - he sounds just like Wes Montgomery, or Mark Knopfler, or Chet Atkins, or.....

It IS a great method of learning and growth to figure out how those guitarists who went before us did what they did.   I've transcribed a LOT of guitar solos in my day - and it has been extremely valuable in my path to becoming a better musician.  However, being able to play it just like Chet or Wes is merely an educational experience - one that will help you to graduate from the school of six strings and get a real job.

If you studied the great orators of history and limited your speaking to their quotes ONLY, you would soon be considered a novelty and not taken seriously - even though you were quoting some of the most powerful words in the history of mankind.  On the other hand, if you allowed those deep meaningful quotes to really open your eyes to the truths behind the quotes, you would find yourself seeing things in a new light and creating your own original expressions of insight which would be of much greater depth and quality than those you could have produced prior to your mediation on the words of the masters.


It is much too easy to devalue what we can do on guitar because WE CAN DO IT.  I used to think, "Well, if I can play it, it must not be that good.  I have to be able to play like [insert amazing guitarist here] before my music will really be appreciated."

It is when our eyes are open to the fact that [insert amazing guitarist here] probably can't play exactly like you, AND that what YOU carry is unique and VALUABLE to the world of music, that we really begin to take off and fly.

For you see confidence - not arrogance - makes all the difference.  When you BELIEVE that what you are carrying musically has value, the value of what you carry increases.  Its almost as if you were selling a car and you could get whatever price you put on the car.  Is your car a piece of junk worth $20 or a priceless collectors item?

You and I will never sound the same on guitar.  Even if we learn all the same songs, the same licks, have the same gear, know the same theory - we'll still be different from one another.  That's not only OK, it's an awesome truth which should set us free to create music with a greater sense of our value and decreased sense of comparing ourselves to one another.

So you be you, and I'll be me.

P.S. A friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with Pat Metheny which touches on this topic.  I highly recommend reading the interview as it includes a great deal of insight into the evolution of music.  

Here is the link --> Pat Metheny Interview


Sunday, January 27, 2013

The End Creates The Means

As we travel our paths thru life as musicians it is important to keep the North Star and various stellar constellations  in our vision to guide us along the way.  As we navigate this constantly changing musical landscape, it is too easy for us guitarists to get lost along the way - sidetracked into valuing the "means" more than the "ends".

Obviously, we need to take some time to reflect on what the "ends" are.  What is it we are trying to accomplish as musicians?

Some examples of the "ends" that great musicians have in their vision would be....


What message is it that you are carrying?  We all have one - but perhaps you have never given yourself time to meditate on what your message is.  What is it that you carry?  Hope?  Love?  Peace?  Faith?  Change?  Comfort?  Escape?  Truth?

If our focus is merely on creating sounds void of a message, chances are the music we create will ultimately be thrown in the heap of shallow and forgotten tunes - regardless of how momentarily impressive it may be at the outset.

If our thoughts are only on TRANSMITTING and we neglect to consider the RECEIVING ears of the listeners, we may be only adding to the noise that fills this planet rather than creating MUSIC that really impacts those who have ears to hear.

Even if your music is instrumental - with no lyrics - you are conveying a message to your listeners.  What we value inside of us comes out through our playing.  It is inevitable that the people we are is being revealed and transmitted via the music we make.

All great musicians have a message to deliver.    Weaving this message, this value, this belief into music is what ultimately impacts the circle of listeners which are tuned into your sound.  What is the message you carry?  You have one, whether you know it or not.  Taking time to identify what it is you carry will be a great navigational tool which will keep you from wandering in the wilderness for 40 years trying to reach a promised land that is mere days away. 

Having a solid grounding in knowing what you carry will ultimately guide you thru everything else.


Let's face it.  This world is a tough place to live.  We get bombarded with bad news 24x7.  If we live long enough we experience loss, disappointment, or heartbreak on a personal level.  No one is immune - and this world never takes a break in trying to make life hard.

But then there is music.  That place of incredible escape from life's challenges.  An oasis in the desert.  A meeting place with fellow pilgrims to identify with one another on common ground, find some encouragement and hope - tears and laughter - and at the very least enjoy a moment of escape from the pressures and pitfalls of life.

This may mean playing a concert to thousands, spreading your music around the world thru various media, or sitting in a humble home, porch, or street corner, just playing to bring this light to yourself and perhaps a very small group of listeners.

The size of the audience does not matter.  What does matter is what are you doing with that guitar in your hands.


There are many many "means" that can and should be used to achieve the "ends" discussed above.  A few of them would be...

Musical Chops:  How good can you get around on your instrument?  Can you play well?  Can your hands play what you are hearing in your heart?

Musical Gear:  How good is your guitar?  Your amps, pedals, etc?  Do you have the tools needed to create the sounds you hear inside your head?

Musical Academics:  Do you know music theory?  Do you know the music business?  Do you know the technology used to create music?  Do you have an extensive repertoire?

Musical Connections:  Who are your fellow musicians?  Who can help you create live sound and recordings?  Who can help you get our there and play?

These are all well and good.  However, if your focus is only on the "means" you may find yourself years from now perplexed as to how you could have walked so very far, and yet never reached a destination.


For you see, you can have a great abundance of all the "means" and yet never really create a valuable musical experience.  If all you have are great chops, great gear, great head knowledge, and great connections, then you may be  perplexed as to why it seems the your musical path is sterile and void of meaningful experiences.

Why is it that some minstrels out there who have greatly impacted the world seem to have done so with minimal chops, humble gear, academic ignorance, and seemingly accidental exposure to the folks who can make things happen?

What sets them apart from the thousands of musicians who are diligently practicing and honing their craft?

It is the "ends" that they carry in the core of their being which ultimately helps to navigate a path to relevance in this world.

Having the "end" fixed firmly in your heart will be a compass to help you decide which fork in the road to take, what supplies you need for the journey, and who to travel with.

If all you have are "means," it is unlikely you will find the "end."  But if you are traveling towards the "end" you were created to reach, you will find the selection of the "means" coming naturally to you.

Where is your map leading you?

Click on image for larger view

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Light And Darkness


(click on photo to enlarge)

My little brother who is a film maker is currently on a round-the-world trip filming in some remote places (Nepal, India, etc.).  In one of the homes he visited in southeast Asia the picture above hung on the wall.  In his e-mail to me he explained, "This photo was taken the day the Khmer Rouge swept to power. This is a Free Cambodian soldier with his weapon & what mattered most him.  Most likely he died in the next 12hrs when there was a massacre of 20,000.  It was taken in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 17, 1975.  The photographer said bullets were flying as this photo was snapped."

This photo struck me hard.  Light and darkness to the nth degree captured in one picture.  While tempted to pontificate on the depth and power of this photograph, I feel it is best to let the picture speak to you, rather than me muddying the message.

Never forget your music is a light in a dark world. Never underestimate its value - or its power.


Note: my brother is working with Arrowhead Films.  You can follow them on FaceBook HERE


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Clarence

"Find out what it is you do that people like, and do more of that."  Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown


It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  I'd been a fan of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown since my early teenage years and I when I heard he was playing a show at Whiskey River on Greenville Ave. in Dallas, I just had to be there.

If you don't know about Clarence's contribution to the world of music, you can read about him HERE, see/hear him play HERE, and listen to an interview with him HERE.

Me and a buddy went to the show.  It was a decent sized venue, but there were only about 10 folks in the crowd.  Nonetheless, as his band played the theme to Peter Gunn out came Clarence carrying himself as though he was in a crowded coliseum. In spite of the small audience, he played a GREAT show that night - several sets of pushing a lot of energy out of his guitar, fiddle, and vocals and into his trademark blend of Cajun, jazz, blues, and R&B music.  Here was a guy who would win a Grammy in the next couple years, playing to a near empty room with all of his heart.

At one point in the show after completing a song, he looked at the handful of folks in the crowd and said emphatically, "I won't play another tune until I sell five records!!" as he pointed to a box of LPs there on the stage.  I went up and handed him the money and he handed me the record. I guess at least four other folks did the same as the show then continued.

During one of his breaks I asked him to autograph my record as he walked past our table.  He sat down and signed it.  I was in my late teens or early twenties at the time and said to him, "Clarence, I'm a guitar player.  Do you have any advice for me?"  He sat back and looked me in the eye and said, "Find out what it is you do that people like, and do more of that."  He went on and kindly elaborated on that concept, but it was that first sentence that was burned into my soul - a profoundly simple concept that would be a North Star for my musical journey.

I've never forgotten that statement from a man who - although not a household name - was truly a unique pioneer in the music world. 

As guitarists, it is much too easy to get spread thin attempting to master so many styles, songs, sounds, etc. - to succumb to peer pressure to play certain things certain ways.   But each of us carry something in our musical DNA which is unique - and which connects with listeners in a way that no other musician can.

As you play your music, keep your antenna up to note what licks, styles, approaches, songs, techniques, etc. result in the most positive reaction with your listeners.  Your musical bag of goodies may contain gold, silver, and precious gems, as well as wood, hay, and stubble.  Sort it out.  What is that you have that you should focus on?  What is it that you do that people like?

Now I'm not suggesting you sell-out and compromise the musical message you carry inside of you merely to please a crowd.  But as you deliver what you carry, pay attention to the most effective and powerful ways to make an impact on those who are listening.

Such a simple concept for life in general, yet so easy to overlook.

Rest in peace Clarence.  I'm glad I met you.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Practice With Your Mind - Perform With Your Heart

In the process of learning to communicate via music, there are two primary activities which must be experienced.  These two activities can be called many different things:  Receiving and Transmitting - Input and Output - Learning and Doing - Hearing and Saying - Seeing and Painting - Planning and Building - Cooking and Tasting - Practicing and Performing.


The first activity - Practicing (a.k.a. Receiving, Input, Learning, Hearing, Seeing, Planning, and Cooking) primarily involves the mind.

This is the process in which you learn your instrument - how to play the notes, the chords, the arpeggios, the scales, the modes, etc.  This is also the place where you learn music theory and more importantly songs.

This is where we develop memorization, understanding, muscle memory, technique, and the ear.  This is a place of the classroom, the teacher, and the lab/experimentation in whatever forms those occur for you.  This is where you learn the rules - and how to break them.  Time spent here allows you to get around on your guitar and play the sounds you are hearing inside of you.

The goal of practicing is to engraft all of the above into your subconscious - to spend so much time engaging the mind, the hands, and the ear in music that it becomes second nature - like talking, walking, or driving a car (all of which were awkward when first attempted, but now come to us without thought).

When I studied jazz and classical guitar at the NTSU (now called the University of North Texas), the only excuse the faculty would take for not being able to play a piece of music perfectly was that we had not practiced it enough.


The second activity we engage in as guitarists is Performing (a.k.a. Transmitting - Output - Doing - Saying - Painting - Building - Tasting) which primarily involves the heart.

This is the place where you are an artist, a creator, a communicator, a changer of the environment.  The bringer of the feast of sound to ears which have been fed a diet of junk food and are craving a musical feast of a home cooked meal.

As musicians, we bring an experience to our listeners that is unique - we take them to a place that other sounds can never take them.  But to do so, we have to play from the heart.  As guitarists it is too easy for us to fall into the "Hey, watch this!" redneck approach to showing off flashy licks and technique, using only our hands and minds - while the heart is left unengaged and the music we make is subsequently sterile and void of any lasting value.

When I practice, my mind is fully engaged.  I'm focusing on the fret board, music theory, technique, memorization, arranging,  etc. But when I perform, I tend to turn off my mind and play from the heart - using only those musical ideas which come easily to me because they have been engrafted into my subconscious during practice. 


Playing with the heart is very simple.  Try this and you will see how much difference it makes in your music.

  • Take a favorite slow lick that is easy to play 
  • Play it like you normally would
  • Now, play it again.  But this time put your heart into it - your feelings.  Muster up all your frustrations, your joy, your confidence and hope, your love, and your desire to change this world.  Pour it all out thru your guitar.  Put your stomach, your legs, and most importantly your heart into it.  Let it your guitar become the outlet for all those things you are feeling deep inside.
You should be able to tell a difference - a huge difference - in what is coming out of your guitar when you engage your heart.  Once you've played with your heart, you will never be satisfied by merely using your mind and hands.

On my pedal board I have four things written to remind me to do this.

  • Listen
  • Feel It
  • Emotion
  • Less Is More
Whitney Houston's sax player, Kirk Whalum, explained it to me this way.  If its not easy - if you can't do it in your sleep - then its probably not ready to bring out of the oven yet.  Make sure you have plenty of headroom in your chops - that you are not pushing into a zone where its not natural and driven primarily by your heart and spirit.


    Often we think what is missing in our music is gear.  If I only had a better guitar, amp, effects, etc. our sound would go up to the next level, when all the time the one component which will have the greatest impact on our music is right there waiting to be added to the signal chain - its the heart.

    Use your heart and see what happens.

    Saturday, February 25, 2012

    Notes and Passages - Communication and New Places

    Hand written by the master - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    As guitarists, it is all too easy to overlook the wonders of the fundamentals of music.  When you stop to think that the sound waves emitted from vibrating strings can communicate emotion and alter a listener's feelings or mood, the mystery of the what transpires behind the curtain of audible sound in intriguing indeed.

    Consider the note.  Notes are the atoms of music - the building blocks of all melody and harmony, bound together by time, distinguished by color/timber, with radioactive half-lives of varying durations (e.g. half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.), and set apart by the deep void of space (silence).

    In physics there are two primary fields of study - the macro and the micro.  The macro is the universe - the cosmos - and its mind boggling infinite boundaries, history, future, quasars, and black holes.  The micro is the subatomic - the neutrons, electrons, protons, quarks, strings, and so forth which interact in mind boggling mechanics to form matter.

    In music there is also the macro and the micro.  The macro is the genre, the history, the culture, and the evolution of music.  The micro are the sub-song components such as notes, silence/rests, chords, timing, texture, feel, melodies, harmonies and passages.  Today I'm looking at two of the micro components of music - notes and passages.


    At its most basic and fundamental level, what is a note?  While a note may have pitch, timbre/color, intensity/volume, and duration, the primary definition of a note is that it is a brief message.  Yes, every note ever played is a brief message.  Some of these notes are meaningless drivel, such as a mindless reminder on a Posted Note at work that tells you someone's phone number.  Other notes will cherished and saved for a lifetime - such as notes from loved ones which hold great meaning.

    Note #1 = Trash

    (click on image to enlarge)

    Note #2 = Treasure

    So try this.  Sit in a dark room and play one solitary note and LISTEN as it fades away.  What message is in that note?  Is it a work phone number that is destined to be thrown away the next time you clean your desk, or is it a note to your lover expressing a short - but heartfelt - expression of feelings that they will keep forever?

    The content of the note is determined by the one who writes it.  Is it trash or treasure?  As you sit in the dark playing one solitary note after another - and listening to them fade into the darkness - what is the content of these notes?  What do they say?  More importantly, what are you saying in that note?

    Give this thought and practice and in due time your music will carry a depth of meaning far greater than its current content.  Having the vision, the target, the awareness that your guitar is both pen and paper for the notes you are writing is the first step towards creating music with meaning.  If your music is SAYING SOMETHING you will find a greater appreciation of it from your listeners.


    The Golden Staircase During The Alaska Gold Rush In The Last Years Of The 19th Century
    (click on image to enlarge)

    Now give thought to a passage.  What is a passage?  A passage is something that takes you from one place to the next place.  There are hidden passages, underground passages, mountain passages, jungle passages, etc.  Doorways, trails, tunnels, and tracks that transport you to new destinations.

    In music a passage is usually thought of as a brief phrase of music with a beginning and an end.  But it is too easy to undervalue this important component of musical communication and relegate it to mere musical Lincoln Logs used to build a larger structure.

    I want you to imagine this event.  You are playing guitar in a club, a bar, a church, a concert, a park, wherever, and people are LISTENING to you play.  It comes time for you to solo.  One approach is to throw out a bunch of licks and scales which have mostly academic and gymnastic origins behind them - impressive displays of technique, skill, and ability.  The better approach is to play a PASSAGE - a sentence, a statement - then take a breath and punctuate that passage with a period, a coma, a question mark, a quotation mark, or an exclamation mark.  Imagine your audience before and after that passage.  You've said something on your guitar which has taken them from the place they were before the passage began, to a new place - perhaps a familiar spot or one they've never been to before.

    Think of breaking your playing up into phrases - each one worth hearing.  Play a phrase,  "I'm taking you here!  I'm taking you there!"  Play a phrase, "I'm pouring out my heart here - can you hear it?"  You might be slapping your listeners in the face, or caressing them with healing medicine.  You might be venting your pain, or sharing your joy.  But you are taking them with you on a passage to a new place.

    People listen to music because they want to be taken away - and the farther away you can take them, the more they will want to listen to you.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012

    Don't Ask Me How Little You Should Learn - Learn All That You Can

    Dr. Harvey Floyd

    A long long time ago one of the many things I studied in universities was theology.  Now understand that I was not your typical theology student.  My background was playing guitar in bars, working construction (carpenter/framer and backhoe/dump truck operator) with a bunch of rough characters, working in casinos in Lake Tahoe, and a stint working on attack avionics for the F-16 fighter jet.  At some point along the way I found myself with a full ride scholarship to a decent school and used that to earn a degree in theology.

    Now the study of theology requires a bit of thought and work.  We had to learn to read ancient Greek, and had mounds of books to read, papers to write, grappling with 19th century German theologians, history, philosophy, archeology, etc., etc., etc., which in retrospect didn't have a whole lot to do with God (but that's another conversation).

    One of my hardest, most difficult, and favorite professors was Dr. Harvey Floyd.  He was an old school professor who was quite eccentric, brilliant in his knowledge, inspiring in his teaching style, and his extremely high standards required the acquisition of massive amounts of information.  He was simultaneously feared and loved by his students.

    One vivid memory which sticks with me - and which applies to guitar (yes, this is a guitar blog) is Dr. Floyd's response to one of my questions.  I had over 80 pages of notes to study for one of his tests.  I went to his office - a small cozy room with bookshelves covering every inch of wall - and asked him what I should focus on in my preparation for the test.  After all, I had over 80 pages of notes.

    After hearing my request for him to direct me to the "important" information in my studies, he took a long dramatic look at the ceiling, breathed a long sigh, looked at me and said, "Don't ask me how little you should learn - learn all that you can."

    At the time I was not amused at his answer, however as I look back on my time in school, it was one of the more profound things a professor ever told me.


    Now when it comes to music and the guitar, there is much more to learn than one person can assimilate in one lifetime.  There is an unending river of songs flowing on this planet, there is a vast pool of knowledge of music theory, there is a significant and long journey of applying that knowledge of music theory to the fretboard of the guitar, there are different styles and approaches to playing - each one of which can take years to master, there is the understanding of people and how to touch them with music, there is the music "business",  there is understanding of the mechanical aspects and design of guitars, amplifiers, and effects, as well as the ins and outs of live sound and recording.

    Faced with an insurmountable mountain of information, its easy to get intimidated, limit yourself, and shut down the learning machine - or advance at a snail's pace.  Yet, all of the areas I've listed above - and probably several which I overlooked - are important for today's guitarist to grasp and master.  Does every great guitarist know everything about everything?  No.  Do you have to know everything about everything to be a great guitarist?  No.  BUT, faced with a finite life span and the desire to leave your mark on the world which says, "I was here" there is no doubt that the attitude and strategy with which we approach this mountain of information will have a great bearing on our stature as musicians.

    If I could go back in time and sit down with my 15 year old self, this is what I tell him about guitar playing.

    • The more songs you learn, the easier it will be to learn songs.  Learn songs!  At least one song per week.  The more you memorize, the more easily you can memorize.
    • Learn to sight read!  Kids in 8th grade marching band can read music, so it must not be that hard.  Just do it - its gonna pay off.
    • Jam - Jam all the time whenever and with whoever you can.  There is no substitute for playing live with other musicians.  Try to play with musicians better than yourself - that's how you are going to get better.
    • Learn something new about music theory every day.  It may seem daunting, but it isn't.  There is no one aspect of music theory which is difficult to grasp.  Its merely a thousand simple things.  Learn one simple thing each day and before you know it, you will surprise yourself at how much you know.
    • Take something that is "hard" to play on the guitar and practice it until it is as easy as making an open Em chord.  If you practice enough, the most difficult passage ever written will be as easy to play as a simple chord.
    • Believe and expect that its going to be easy - not hard.  If you think it will be hard, it will be hard.  If you think, "this will be easy - I just have to figure it out", then it will be easy.  Attitude attitude attitude!
    • Find teachers who are GREAT players to show you proper playing technique.  If it feels awkward to use great technique, practice it until it doesn't feel awkward anymore.
    • Think thru your musical curriculum.  You can't learn everything at once.  Determine what you should tackle when and how.  Have a strategy for mastering your instrument.
    • The bottom line is that I want you to learn one hundred times more than I did when I was growing up  and learning guitar.  LEARN ALL THAT YOU CAN!

    So if I could sit down with myself today - or with you - I would say much of the same things I've listed above.  As I spoke of in my previous blog, TIME TRAVELING WITH YOUR GUITAR, time is going to pass whether you are developing as a musician or not.  Why not meet the future with some new knowledge under your belt?

    Now obviously you want to take some time to develop a strategic road map to your learning, and not just begin devouring information in a random fashion.  But wherever you are in your musical journey, it's probably time to kick it into gear, take it up a notch, and believe that it won't be hard to learn - it's just a vast amount of very simple concepts that have to be assimilated one at a time.

    Don't limit yourself.  You can do this. 

    The Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz didn't really need a brain.  What he needed was confidence - and a different perspective on learning.

    Monday, February 20, 2012

    Take A Seat In The Control Room - From Now On YOU Are A Producer!

    Let me ask you a VERY important question.  You are a guitarist, but DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC LIKE A MUSIC PRODUCER LISTENS TO MUSIC?

    Too many guitarists listen to music as a guitarist vs. listening to music as a music producer.

    I've had the opportunity to work with a few Grammy award winning producers on recording sessions.  I've observed two major characteristics which are common among these guys.  First, they are EASY to work with - they make you feel good about your contributions and they maintain a relaxed atmosphere.  Second, they have an INCREDIBLE set of ears.  It is this second characteristic - the ability to listen - that I want to discuss today.

    Here are some common signs that may indicate you are listening as a guitarist:

    • You think its important that your guitar be out front in the mix at all times
    • You think you must be playing thru the entire song - never sitting out for a verse or passage
    • You think you must play something "impressive" and shy away from simple parts
    • You primarily listen to and focus on your guitar and don't pay a lot of attention to what the other instruments and vocalists are doing
    • You are playing licks and fills in the song at the same time another band member is doing the same thing, or you are walking on top of the vocalist while they sing

    Here are some ways you can listen like a producer:

    • Listen to the sound of the ENTIRE BAND - not just your instrument
    • Seek out parts that compliment the sound of the band. This may mean playing very minimally (e.g. a small upstroke chord on the "and" of the 4th beat and nothing more) or not playing at all during an entire verse. 
    • Listen to the vocalist and play parts which compliment their singing.  Don't walk on top of the vocals with too many fills - instead find holes which are asking to be filled, but also listen for SPACE that should be left unfilled.
    • Pay atttention - focus - on what the bass, drums, keys, horns, other guitars, etc. are doing.  Find a groove that fits with their parts.  Again, listen to the whole of the band - not just your guitar.
    • Just like the tone of your voice can convey more meaning than the actual words you speak, the tone of your guitar will convey more meaning and message than the notes you may choose to play.  HEAR what tone will best compliment the song, what effects to use, etc.
    • Focus on the DYNAMICS of the songs - where should they be down low and chilled vs. up and intense.
    • Either thru spontaneous eye contact and/or body language, or pre-arranged agreement, have only one instrument providing fills (e.g the piano does the fills on the first verse, the guitar does fills on the chorus, etc.).  You don't want to step on each others toes by both doing fills at the same time.

    I can guarantee that the more you listen like a producer and the less you listen like a guitarist, the more invitations you will receive to play with other musicians.  It's way too easy to overplay and attempt the make the guitar the focus of attention vs. playing parts that make the band sound incredible.

    Take time to listen to your favorite bands and listen to what the guitar is NOT doing.  Pay attention to the places where you don't hear the guitar, or the guitar is doing almost nothing.  Study the DYNAMICS (the ebb and flow of volume/intensity) in your favorite songs. Dynamics keeps the audience engaged.  If you maintain the same energy level thoughtout your songs without exploring the variations which exist in between subdued and intense, the audience will soon tune you out.

    You will find as you spend more and more energy in LISTENING like a great producer listens, you will find more and more ideas coming to mind to improve the sound of your band.  You will be seen more as a leader than the guy with the loudest amp who they all wish would turn down the volume a bit.

    It's fun.  It's part of maturing as a musican.  And, your bandmates will love you for it.

    Sunday, February 19, 2012

    Exercising vs. Playing

    The world of music and music education abounds with exercises.  Scales, arpeggios, sight singing, ear training, chord voicing, etc., etc., etc.  Take a hungry music student and show him or her this musical gymnasium and they may wander in there amazed at all the incredible work out apparatuses - and get totally side tracked as to the end goal of exercising.  Its possible to make mastering each workout station the end, rather than seeing them as a means to the end.

    Think of a professional NFL football player.  During team practices, they lift weights as part of their training.  They lift a lot of weights.  This makes them stronger - and consequently improves their performance in when they are in the game.  But during the game, they don't take barbells onto the field and bench press 300 pounds.  That would be a ridiculous show of strength that would ultimately have a negative impact on the game.  While they were displaying their strength with the weights, their opponents would be running down the field unhindered, scoring points, and making the weight lifting show off look like a fool.

    The end goal of weight lifting is to PLAY a better game.  The exercise of lifting weights is a means to an end - not the end.  A team that didn't spend time conditioning their strength in the gym would probably loose every game.  Yet, it is the experience of time spent PLAYING THE GAME that really trains an athlete's mind on how to respond instantly and instinctively to ever changing situations.  Who would you pick to be on your team, the guy who has spent the last five years in the gym, or the guy who has spend the last 5 years PLAYING football.

    Apply this same principle to the guitar.  Its sometimes too easy to stay in the "gym" working out on scales, patterns, and so forth.  We see ourselves lifting more and more weights, able to do more reps faster, and think we are really making progress.  Meanwhile, our peers are outside the gym and they are PLAYING.  Would you rather have a guy in your band who spent the last 5 years playing scales, or the guy who spent the last 5 years learning tunes and playing songs.

    Set your vision strongly - the end goal is to CREATE MUSIC and PLAY SONGS that TOUCH PEOPLE.  Guess what?  In order to mature in your ability to do so, you must spend time CREATING MUSIC, PLAYING SONGS, and TOUCHING PEOPLE. 

    Don't get me wrong.  Time spent working out in the musical gym is key to maturing as a musician.  However, don't take your dumb bells onto the field when you PLAY!  Leave them in the gym.

    I spend a LOT of time working out.  I play around 400 scale/arpeggio fingerings each day in a 45 minute exercise (which I've documented in my book Play Skillfully).  I know more scales than the average player.  BUT, when I play a gig I almost NEVER consciously think about those scales. I tend to turn my brain off and play from the heart.  What I've seen happen over the years is that when I'm playing from my heart, from emotion, from my spirit, that more and more of the knowledge gained from all that time working scales and arpeggios just sort of finds its way into my subconscious and IS THERE without having to think about it.

    Being able to discern whether the sound coming out of your guitar is a mental exercise vs. a creation of MUSIC is one of the most important abilities a guitarist can cultivate.  Its the difference between devouring food and taking the time to TASTE the food and enjoy it.  Its the difference between hearing and LISTENING.  Its the difference between mere talking and engaging in conversation.  Its the difference between reciting a rote prayer and genuinely talking with God.

    So yes, do your musical exercises - as a means to an end.  But be sure your focus, your end goal, is playing the game!


    Wednesday, February 15, 2012

    Why Be Normal?

    You only get to live one time - once - that's it.  When you are 90 years old and looking back, will you wish you had played it safe, towed the line, conformed to everyone else, and marched in step with the rest of humanity?  Or will you look back and be thankful you lived life as YOU, venturing into unexplored regions, following your instinct, enjoying your individualism, setting the new standard vs. following one, making history vs. studying history, etc.?

    Albert Einstein said, "He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice."

    Lets focus this train of thought towards the creation of music.  Ask yourself how much of what you practice, play, and strive for is a target which has been set by others, a road map laid out by culture that directs you into proper and acceptable musical destinations?  Ask yourself how much of what you practice, play, and strive for is an adventure, a quest, and exploration of the lost continent of creativity just waiting to be discovered by some adventurer crazy enough to leave the confines of safety and venture out into unknown regions?

    Its tricky - trickier than you think.  From a thousand feet up many non-conformists have their  uniforms and lifestyles dictated by the culture of "non-conformity" to which they are drawn.  The same holds true in music.  The first punk rock band was touching something new.  The one thousandth punk rock band was "non-conforming" to a pattern which had been well established by a culture and in doing so was actually conforming to a mold which dictated sound, looks, and lifestyle.

    Yes, we must all learn the language spoken by our people in order to communicate.  But it is what we say with that language that differentiates us from parrots.  Yes, we must learn the notes and chords and such to create music, but it's what we do with those notes and chords which separates the typists from the authors.

    I want to encourage you to look at the true musical DNA that is within you and follow the trail that will lead to the ultimate fulfillment of that music maturing into an awesome and unique addition to the sounds that compete for ears on this planet.  You can dress like a punk rocker and sound like a punk rocker and be just as much a conformist as the corporate accountant wearing a three piece suit.  Dare to be really different, for in that path lies your life and your music.  There is a lot of music history waiting to be made.  Someone is going to do it different - come up with a new style of guitar playing, or even a new genre of music.  Is it you?

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same, 

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet, knowing how way leads to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
    I took the one less traveled by.
    And that has made all the difference.
    Robert Frost

    Click on photo to enlarge

    The photo above was taken in Hamburg in 1936, during the celebrations for the launch of a ship. In the crowed, one person refuses to raise his arm to give the Nazi salute. The man was August Landmesser. He had already been in trouble with the authorities, having been sentenced to two years hard labour for marrying a Jewish woman.  We know little else about August Landmesser.

    Sunday, January 22, 2012

    If You Want To Experience Things You Never Experienced Before, You Have To Do Something You've Never Done Before

    You pick up your guitar.  Ho-hum.  You play the same chords, the same songs, the same licks that you always do.  Inspiration has run away like a dog chasing a rabbit into the woods - and even though you call as loudly as you can, that dog ain't coming back any time soon.  Boredom has moved into your musical house, laying around and eating all the snacks, watching movies you despise, leaving dirty dishes laying around, and subsequently keeping your friends from dropping by.  You try to look into the musical future, and all you see is the past - the same old cycle repeating itself like watching Star Trek III:  The Search For Spock a hundred more times.

    How do you break the hopeless repeated reincarnation of yesterday's Blah into today's Bland Boring Humdrum?  How do you restore your music from being a catalyst for the zombie apocalypse to being ALIVE and filled with inspiration, meaning, and vision?  How do you find a spark of inspiration to ignite a revolution against the status quo?


    If you find yourself lying in a rut, you have three options.
    1. Lie there and sigh
    2. Lie and your back and wiggle with all your might
    3. Stand up, climb out of the rut, and move on
    The first two options above leave you in the rut.  The third option gets you out.  

    The first option is resignation - you've given up and they may as well throw dirt on you and write your musical epitaph.  

    The second option is the definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results each time.  Your playing the same songs, the same licks, the same chords, over and over and over and over, ad infinitum, using the same technique, the same emotions, the same mental approach  - and wondering why you aren't moving on to higher ground.

    The third option may seem overly simplistic or mysteriously impossible.  It is neither.  The third option involves something the 21st century is attempting to make obsolete - VISION.  Yes my friend, you must SEE.  You must force your mind to swim in the rivers of reason, imagination, passion, and Spirit - for when those four rivers merge, you find yourself riding the wild currents of CREATIVE INSPIRATION.

    There are four horses pulling your chariot of music.  One is analytical, one is mechanical, one is emotional, and one is spiritual.  When you combine these four elements, you find yourself riding a wave that carries you farther that you could ever swim on your own.

    Analytics is the mental process of learning music - what notes sound like, how they work together, music theory, and so forth.

    Mechanics is the physical discipline to create sound on your instrument.  Using your hands for the creation of notes, chords, melodies and such.

    Emotion is the passion you feel - the fire inside you that drives your intensity for music in whatever form meshes with your musical DNA.

    Spirit is the source of true inspiration.  Looking beyond the horizon of creativity and seeing the Creator.  When you realize God likes your music, put that gift inside you, and is president of your fan club, everything changes. 

    The first two components above - Analytics and Mechanics - can be learned from a teacher.

    The third component above - Emotion - comes from YOU.

    The fourth component above - Spirit - comes from God.

    So ask yourself this.  Do you have a teacher who can show you new things in the realms of analytics and mechanics?  If not, find one.  If you can't find someone to teach you in person, books, DVDs, internet videos abound with material which will show you the way.

    Do you have a message, a sound, a song that has to be birthed into this world?  If not, look at this world and see what must be changed through your music.  Channel your hopes, frustrations, vision and passion into your music with the power of emotion.  Even if your vision is to sit on the back porch and serenade your cat, that vision is worth pursuing.

    Do you experience a spiritual connection with God when you play?  I'm not talking about strumming hymns in church on Sunday.  I'm talking about TRUE creativity - the likes of which the world has never seen before.  That totally unique sound that ONLY YOU carry.  This is the music you love, the music you connect with.  The style is not important, the source is.  Its as simple as asking God to release the gift inside you, and then receiving it.

    So if you are lying there in a rut, chances are you have not engaged a teacher to take you to new places of analytically understanding the concepts of music or the physical discipline and training required to mechanically  play your instrument.  Or you have allowed the fire inside of you to burn out - the emotions that fuel your vision have been turned off and need to be reactivated.  Or, you may have leaned theory, mastered physically playing your instrument, and have a fire in your soul for music, but you have never simply added the most important component of all - the creativity of the spirit which transcends your own best efforts.

    Do you want to experience music like you've never experienced it before?  You may need to do something you've never done before.  Its often surprising how much change can come from a very little amount of new insight.

    Friday, December 30, 2011

    The Front Porch vs. The Man

    So you open the door to the world's music room and before your eyes is a vast and endless hall which stretches out into eternity.  For every song that has ever been created, there is a painting on the wall.  Some paintings carry lyrics within them - others carry only musical instrumental images from which every viewer sees their own unique lyric.  Every painting has the artist's signature in the bottom right corner.

    Many - but not all - of the largest paintings have signatures stamped in the bottom corner bearing the mark of the musical factories and sweat shops of the last 60 years.  Paintings which were created under the bull whip of men with their gaze fixed upon money, profit, and fame - who stifled and manipulated the artists who found themselves with "the man's" bit in their mouths and harnessed to his wagon as he whipped them on up the mountain of money.  Faster, harder, faster, tours, three cities a day....faster, harder, faster, harder.  They funded your album, so now they own your soul.  They hung a carrot made of fortune and fame on a stick in front of the team pulling their wagon.  Hipsters, insiders, and outright thugs who couldn't sing or play a note, crafting the course of popular music in back room meetings to which the Spirit of creativity was not invited.  The masses who unfortunately had never seen a painting by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Monet, Dali, or Picasso, hailed many of these works of motel art as the works of genius.

    However, as you walk down this endless hall, you are overwhelmed by the vast and unending display of small and obscure paintings - paintings which carry an entirely different vibe.  These paintings convey true messages of life, of emotion, of pain, of joy, of struggle, of victory, of hope, of faith, of trials, of humor, of sadness, of love.  You read the signatures of these paintings and find names the world never knew, or which have been forgotten.  Many of these paintings have only been seen by a handful of people.  You have to search out these paintings out as they are not displayed in the "art" galleries of the world's popular media, but rather are found in the obscure and hidden reaches where the Spirit of creativity seems to thrive.  Small jazz clubs in NYC, front porches in Appalachia, tiny villages in Sudan, the pubs of Ireland, street corners in Argentina, kitchen tables in the Mississippi Delta,  rock & roll bars in Dallas, the isolated practice rooms of the conservatories, the drums and voices of a church deep in the bush of Uganda, the projects of the inner cities, and the humble homes of the poets and minstrels all over the world.  These paintings were painted by PEOPLE who were ALIVE, who faced CHALLENGES, who lived in a CULTURE, which had a MESSAGE, which HAD to be SPOKEN as it was BURNING in their SOULS.

    As you walk down this endless hall of music, you find yourself passing over the large - sometimes gigantic - motel art paintings, and being drawn to the true works of ART which are most often very small - even tiny - paintings.  You realize at last that in the world of music, SIZE DOESN'T MATTER, and you find yourself FREE to create songs which carry the message of your life, your culture, your soul and Spirit.

    Sunday, December 4, 2011

    Its called MUSIC THEORY, not MUSIC FACT because its never been proven

    Looking back over the last four decades of my study of music and the guitar, I can see the mixture of academics and art.

    On the academic side, I had to learn technique, how to play chords, how to play melodies, how to see the chords nested inside of scales, how to understand how notes "outside" of the scale worked, and a truck load of other rules and principles of music.  There is a vast mountain of knowledge appropriately called "Music Theory" which you can study for years and years and years.

    On the artistic side, I had to develop the ability to recognize when the music coming out of my hands  was MUSIC, not some exercise of purely mental origins.  There is a magic and mystery in the creation of music.  You can play around with a scale or mode or melody for years, and suddenly a micro-tweak of the timing of certain notes or voicings pops that sound into the world of ART vs. ACADEMIC.  Honing your hearing to recognize those moments of ARTISTIC CREATION is the most important thing you can do as a musician.

    In my experience, I found the following to be true.  When I am focused on the OUTPUT of my playing (e.g. play this lick over that chord, play a certain chord in a certain song a certain way, etc.), I tend to be living in the ANALYTICAL side of music.  However, when I am focused on LISTENING and EXPERIENCING the music coming out of me - when I turn off my mind and allow my heart and ears to drive the car - then I tend to be living in the ARTISTIC side of music, and that is where the magic happens.

    If you study music history, you will find an evolution of sound which runs converse to the devolution of languages.  While languages tend to SIMPLIFY over the millennium (e.g. ancient Greeks had over 400 forms of the verb, "Stop"), music has trended in the opposite direction with more complex harmonic structures being introduced over the centuries, greater tension, greater intensity, and greater communication.  The amount of music theory a serious student of music has to master today is a vastly larger body of information than that which his predecessor had to master a thousand years ago.

    NOTE:  A significant amount of popular music of the last few decades may be an anomaly to this trend, as much of it has been simplified by the corporate drive to turn music into a BUSINESS vs. an ART FORM.  The discovery that great sums of money can be made from music driven solely by profit has opened Pandora's music box which has resulted in lowering the world's standards of music appreciation. 

    Not all musicians are created equal.  In fact, everyone of them is unique and different and has a individual voice to add to the world of music.  Some outstanding musicians know very little music theory, some musicians who know vast amounts of theory end up creating very little great music, while others may embody vast knowledge AND creativity.  There is no formula.

    The acquisition of the knowledge of music theory is not detrimental to the creation of ART, as long as the carrier of that theory does not allow the theory to become his master and dictator of right and wrong. We must always remember that it is called MUSIC THEORY, not MUSIC FACT - it has NEVER BEEN PROVEN!

    We must allow ourselves to get outside the box and experiment with harmonies that are "wrong" according to music theory, but "right" according to our ears.  Our ears are the ultimate litmus test of right and wrong when it comes to music - not the academic rules set down in the universities and schools of music.

    A pristine example of this is the bridge section of Stevie Wonder's song, Living For The City....

    (click on the score below to see a larger image)

    While Stevie Wonder obviously knew a great amount of music theory, this work of genius was not the result of analytical thinking driven by the brain.  It obviously had it roots in the artistic realm of the ears.  Yes, he had to KNOW how to make half-dininished chords and how to change meter.  Yes, it can be dissected and analyzed, but no comparable work of music will result from that.  Mr. Wonder obviously went outside the box of music theory and into the realm of wonder to find this melody and harmonize the descending bass line (G, F, E, Eb, Db, Cb, Bb, Ab, G) and unmistakable melody.  I can assure you that no music theory formula will generate the chord progression used in this piece of music.

    So while music theory is valuable - extremely valuable - don't allow it to become your North Star in your journey thru the realm of music.  Dare to deviate from the well worn paths and experiment with ideas that are "wrong" according to theory.  You may well find some hidden treasures out there beyond the walls of the fortress of music theory.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011

    Using The Theory Of Relativity To Increase Efficiency In Improvisation

    Albert Einstein was right.  Time is relative.  It speeds up or slows down depending on how fast one thing is moving relative to something else.  When you are a beginner on guitar, the space in between 16th notes played 8 notes per second seems mighty small.  Yet as you spend time on your instrument, that space in between the notes grows larger, even though according to the clock the rate at which the notes are being played has not changed in the months/years since you began playing.

    This principle works in reverse as well.  Lets use the "Rhythm Changes" found in several jazz standards as an example.

    Here's an example of the chords which could be used when playing "Rhythm Changes in the key of Bb:

    (click on chord chart to see larger image)

    Now these changes are sometimes played very fast.  And the first time you are exposed to changes flying by at a quick tempo, its easy to get confused about what chord is going by at any given time, and what your options are for playing over that chord.  Time seems cramped with little space left for thought and creativity.

    So give this a try.  Instead of practicing your improvisation over these changes at a fast (e.g. 144 BPM), try setting the metronome to 70 or even 60 BPM.  Now try improvising over these changes at that SLOW tempo - but think of things you would/could play if the tempo was cranked up and flying.

    If you need to slow it down even further, there's no problem with that.  Just get it down to a speed where you can think and approach the chord changes at a MENTALLY RELAXED place.  Not rushed.  Not confused.  Nice and slow and EASY.

    At this slow tempo, as you are cognizant of each chord going by (Bb....Gm7...Cm7...F7...etc.) you'll find more soloing ideas coming to mind for each of those chords such as where to go on the fretboard, what licks that can be used and tied together, and where you should take a breath and play NOTHING to  create space.

    If you're playing swing 8th notes across these changes, what 8 notes work well over the Bb?  Then thinking melodically, what 8 notes lay across the Gm7?  Then the Cm7, then the F7, and so on throughout the song.

    You will also find the chord changes being burned into your mind as you do this - which is one of the three different software applications which should be running simultaneously inside you as you improvise.
    1. Knowledge of what is chord is going by at any given moment in the song while you are soloing.  It is very helpful to have the original melody of the song going thru your head as well - this will help you to craft a solo which really fits the song.
    2. Awareness of what you can play over that chord (e.g. licks, arpeggios, approach tones, etc.)
    3. Creativity, taste, emotion, etc. which breathes life into the dry dust of music theory
    You will find that taking it SLOW and practicing improvisation over a song in SLOW MOTION like this will expand the amount of time you have to think when the song is played up to speed.  The ideas you came up with in your slow motion mode will start to creep into your playing when you are jamming up at normal tempos.  And THAT is where you realize value of hanging out on the slow end of time.

    Yes, although this principle of time in music is more analogy than physics, Einstein would be cheering you on  when it comes to flying at warp speed thru complex systems.

    Friday, November 18, 2011

    Time Traveling With Your Guitar

    So we look at where we are on our instruments, then we look at where we'd like to be.  The gulf between our current position and the that which we'd like to attain may seem impossible to cross.  How in the world do the players we admire get to such an incredible skill level?  While it may come easier to some, the story of the tortoise and the hare plays out in the realm of music.  Perseverance is ultimately more important than being the  child prodigy who got off to a fast start.

    However, having a strategy of how you are going to travel into the future with your guitar is key.  What is your destination?  Have you defined it, or are you merely wandering around the musical planet like a hobo - traveling to wherever the train you've jumped is heading.

    Let me share a couple examples from my own journey.

    Several years ago it dawned on me that my vibrato was very weak.  I talked to a violinist who had magnificent vibrato and asked her how she developed it.  Her answer, "I practice vibrato about 15 minutes each day".  Then I read an interview with guitarist Andy Latimer of the group Camel who happens to have one of the nicest vibratos I've heard yet.  When asked about it, his reply was, "I spend time wiggling my finger back and forth".  Doh!  The light bulb went off.  So you have to PRACTICE vibrato to get a good vibrato.

    I realized it would probably take a year or so to make significant advancement with my vibrato - BUT, I also realized a year was going to pass whether I was working on my vibrato or not.  Why not enter the future 12 months from now with a stronger vibrato?  So for the next year, if I was watching a movie at home, I'd have my Strat in my lap.  I'd mute the strings with my picking hand so as to not make any noise, and with my fretting hand I'd do the following:

    • With my 1st finger of the 1st fret of the 6th string, I'd slowly move my finger back and forth - bending the string slightly both away from the 5th string and then alternative towards the 5th string.
    • Then staying on the 6th string, I'd do the same with my 2nd finger on the 2nd fret, then my 3rd finger on the 3rd fret, then my 4th finger on the 4th fret.
    • Then I'd shift my first finger to the 5th fret of the 6th string and repeat the process above.
    • I'd keep shifting until I got the highest fret on the 6th string, then I'd repeat the process on the 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings.
    • At the end of this exercise, I had worked out all four fingers and covered every fret on each string.
    Guess what?  Twelve months came and went and at the end of it, my vibrato had improved significantly.

    I've got several other stories of similar approaches to improving my playing.  What is it you're going after?  Is it speed?  Is it knowledge of the fretboard?  Is it sight reading?  Is it tone?  Is it taste?  Whatever it is will take some time - BUT time keeps marching on whether you are working on improving your playing or not!

    Now there is a huge difference between working hard vs. working smart.  Define your destination.  Then search out those players who have already arrived there and find out how they did it.  Don't reinvent the wheel.

    The important thing is to begin your trek with a map in hand.  You need to know where you want to go so that you don't wander aimlessly.  It may seem like a long way to travel to reach your musical destination, but you've got to get started and keep walking.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with a good swift kick in the pants.  Don't despise small beginnings - everyone else who is better than you was once at the same level you are now.

    "Are you reelin' in the years, just stowing away the time?"  Time is an asset that I value more than money or possessions.  It can be spent, it can be redeemed, but time can never be replaced.  How are you using the time you've been given?  We can't stop the clock - we can only ride it.  Where is it taking you?

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    The Quest For Tone

    We guitarists are notorious for spending vast amounts of time, effort, and money in our quest for that elusive Holy Grail of perfect tone.  An entire industry exists solely to supply the tools for our insatiable appetite for angelic overtones, crisp mids, sparkling highs, and thundering lows.

    While I am not immune from the Siren's call of the local music store, I want to propose a foundational idea that may have eluded some of us on our tone quest.

    Can you hear the tone you want in your head, when you are nowhere near a guitar?

    What I mean is this.  If you can't imagine/hear the tone you want in your mind before you go twisting knobs, trying different strings, replacing speakers, swapping out pickups, etc., then the chances of you finding "that" sound are pretty slim.  You may stumble upon tones you like, but you will have a difficult time finding your "voice" on the guitar if you can't define what it sounds like in your mind.

    Try this experiment with an unplugged acoustic guitar.  Get it in your hands and play on it for a few minutes.  It may sound good, it may sound cheap and bad.  Doesn't matter.  Next, close your eyes and imagine/pretend that guitar is the best sounding acoustic in the world - one that creates "the" tone you hear in your mind as your perfect sound.  Now play that guitar, eyes closed, imagining that awesome tone is there.

    You may not actually achieve tone Nirvana this way, but you should see a marked improvement in the sound you are getting out of that guitar.  Why? Because you were carrying that sound inside you, and what you carry inside comes out thru your hands and playing.

    The same principle holds true for an electric rig.  Have you ever had another player take a turn on your rig and get a tone out of it that you couldn't get?  That's because he/she was carrying a different tone inside of them, and that affected their playing technique - their hands.

    So before you run out and buy that $4,000 amp to try to improve your tone, try envisioning "the" tone you want to create in your mind.  If you own that tone inside of you, it will guide not only your hands as you are playing, but also the knobs you are twisting on the amps and effects pedals you currently own.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    The Four States Of Guitar Playing

    I've found there are four states in which we guitarists find ourselves when holding a guitar in our hands.  These modes of existence in which we spend our time with our instruments compliment each other - and are each necessary for the others to progress.

    State #1 - Practicing

    Practicing is the time we spend focused on learning new material, engrafting good technique into our muscle memory, working on tone, exploring improvisation, etc.  Practice is most efficient when done focused on perfection rather than on speed.

    State #2 - Writing/Arranging

    All guitar players compose music.  Granted it may be as simple as "composing" how you are going to strum a G chord, but you decide that, you create that feel.

    Its good practice (no pun intended) to document your musical creations.   If you're starting with very simple ideas, that fine.  But document them somehow.  You don't have to read/write standard music notation to do this.  Scribble it down in whatever code works for you, record it (you don't need a full blown studio - I've used voice mail to record ideas), and KEEP it where you can go back and give it the "day after" test to see how it sounds awhile after (sometimes your opinions of your creation change when hearing it the next day).

    State #3 - Test Pilot

    OK, hopefully by now you know I'm a big proponent of practicing in slow motion.  However, there are times when you have to be a test pilot on the guitar.  See how fast you can go before you crash!  Sometimes after practicing an hour at 80 BPM, I'll crank the metronome up to 132 or 152 BPM and just go for it.  Nothing better than breaking the sound barrier and living to tell about it!

    State #4 - Performing

    Performing is the END which justifies the MEANS.  You didn't pick up the guitar with the hopes of sitting in your room practicing scales for hours upon hours.  You're a guitarist because you want to lay down some great music before you check out of planet Earth.  When I'm playing a gig, I'm riding on the time I've spent practicing, writing/arranging, and being a test pilot.  BUT, my mind is relaxed and free.  I'm keeping my playing in a zone that is easy.  Saxophonist Kirk Whalum explains it this way.  If you have a '74 Chevy Vega and a 2011 Ferrari both going 70 m.p.h., one of them has more HEADROOM, is less strained, can jump up to 90 m.p.h. easily if needed.  Don't play at the top end of your capability - leave some head room so your engine doesn't red line and blow up. 

    I tend to turn off my brain and play from feeling and emotion when performing.  Whatever has made its way into my arsenal of guitar tools from practicing, writing/arranging, and flying the X-15 will come out easy and will be riding on the winds of musical creation vs. mere guitar exercises.