Friday, May 29, 2009

How To Make A Living As A Musician And Not Lose Your Soul

In this article I would like to touch upon the topic of playing music for a living and choosing between making one's career a purely commercial pursuit or approaching it from the perspective of an artistic one.

But let me first clarify a couple of things.

First off, I believe that most musicians fall into one of two categories. The rich and the poor.

(I'm joking).

The first kind, Type A, is the commercial musician whose primary career goal is to make money -- the more the merrier. They function efficiently and effectively in various commercial situations and musical genres and they go about procuring any kind of gig; the only criteria being the frequency and size of the paycheck.

Since their primary motive is to make a good living from music, the Type A musician will take on all manner of musical situations even if it means taking a gig that goes against the grain of their musical sensibilities. For the Type A musician, music exists less as an art and more as a craft. And of course, there is nothing wrong with this. They are there to play whatever music is put in front of them.

The second kind of musician, the Type B is more idealistic. Speak to one of these people and one is more likely to hear about their latest musical endeavours in performing, composing, recording or marketing their original music. Type B's are inclined to take on commercial projects that fit their speciality and genre of choice. Often, they do not function well in musical situations in which they feel that their artistic vision is compromised.

From my observation, only a small percentage of musicians, and guitar players in general, vacillate happily between these two extremes.

For those just deciding on a life in music, bear in mind the following:

Don't become a musician because you want to, but do it because you have to.

Once the young aspirant has decided that music is something that they absolutely have to do it, it is wise at this juncture to decide which of the two category types fits one's musical personality the best. Weeks or months of soul-searching is recommended.

If one reckons he/she is more of a Type A, one needs training in sightreading and ensemble playing and be able to play convincingly in various musical styles. A working knowledge of music arranging will also be a plus. Throw in a cheery disposition and the right contacts and one's career will be set to soar. The musical vision is in line with the soul and all is bliss.

For the Type B aspirants, a clear, unique musical vision coupled with a unique individual style and strong compositional/songwriting skills are the minimum entry requirements. The emphasis here is on unique artistry so musical clones need not apply.

Did I mention you have to be unique?

Top it all off with a strong, unwavering sense of self-belief and you will be all set. For some really hard work ahead. Unless you're fortunate enough to have created a sizeable audience for yourself at a reasonably young age, be prepared for some lean years. Again, since the musical vision is in line with the soul, it's all good.

For myself, I've always tried to balance the two. I realized a long time ago that one needs to do the Type A gigs on occasion to pay for the Type B endeavours. Although I think I am myself more inclined to the Type B musical personality, I watched how some of my early guitar heroes made great careers out of being hired-gun session players and who later branched out as artists in their own right. Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Mike Landau and Steve Lukather come to mind.

To the Type B's out there, therein may lie the secret to musical happiness as well as material well-being.

Do what you have to to pay the bills but do so without overly compromising. Choose commercial gigs that are more in line with your artistic sensibilities.

Above all, make time for your own music. Set aside a number of hours every week to write new material and then set aside time to rehearse it with like minded individuals. Take your music out once in a while and play it for an audience. Record some of it and make a CD so that you have something to show your grandchildren. And don't forget to get out there and sell that CD for as much as you can get for it.

A musical life not lived is a musical life lost.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

10 Things I Hate About the Fender Stratocaster

I've played Strats, or strat-style guitars for most of my career. And here are 10 things I hate about them:

  • The 25 1/2"scale length is too long. This translates to higher string tension and necessitates using strings no thicker than what you'd find in a .010 - .046" set. Unless you have hands like a gorilla. Or SRV.

  • A Strat goes wildly out of tune when you break a string, which means that it is usually wise to bring a spare guitar to gigs. If you're not in the habit of bringing a spare guitar, it helps to have a bass player that is capable of launching into a bass solo at the drop of a hat while you clamour to retrieve a new string from your guitar case.

  • A Strat also goes wildly out of tune if you get too enthusiastic with the tremelo bar. Hint -- they call it a 'synchronized tremelo', which certainly doesn't promise anything close to 'vibrato'.

  • The stock pickups are noisy and hum-inducing. Expect to spend another $200-$300 for a set of quieter pickups.

  • The Strat's two tone controls are wired to only the front and middle pickups. The rear pickup -- which is the most shrill of the three -- is not wired to any of the tone controls.

  • The pickup selector switch is situated too near the picking hand and gets knocked out of position easily.

  • The bolt-on neck on the Strat needs to be shimmed so that the neck is at a more comfortable playing angle relative to the body.

  • The bolt-on neck can shift in the neck pocket if bumped, causing either the 1st string or the 6th string to become misaligned and fall off the edge of the fingerboard.

  • If you choose a vintage model Strat, expect all of the above in addition to small, thin frets and an overly-radiused fingerboard.

  • Despite the imperfections you can't stop playing a Strat because it's always going to be the sexiest instrument in the world.
The complete home study jazz guitar course

Monday, May 25, 2009

How To Choose A Guitar That's Right For You

This article is not about whether you should buy a Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster.

Nor is it about buying a guitar that suits your budget, musical genre or penchant for a particular color. This article also has nothing to do with body-woods, fret size, neck shape, pickup configuration, or the age-old tonal debate of the tremelo versus a fixed bridge.

It goes slightly deeper than that.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1981 I decided it was time to get my first 'good' electric guitar. Heavily influenced by the jazz-rock guitarists of the day and given the limitations of my student budget, I decided on the Ibanez line of semi-hollowbody electrics. I even had a model in mind -- the Ibanez AS100. And preferably in a sunburst finish.

Accompanied by two of my guitar playing buddies, we made the bus journey to the guitar shop downtown. Needless to say I was excited.

At the guitar shop another teen, slightly older than I, was trying out a small-bodied sunburst Ibanez AS50. He was playing a few funky rhythmic ideas that I thought were pretty cool. A local professional drummer of some repute was standing nearby. After listening in for a few minutes he exclaimed, "This boy's got rhythm!" The kid put the guitar down when he was done and I asked the gentleman who ran the shop if I could have a go.

I picked it up, plugged it in and the first thing that struck me was how comfortable it felt in my hands. It had a low action, a really smooth, slinky feel and it sounded great. I proceeded to noodle on it, playing some rhythms and lines.

And I started to realise that I was playing some things that were beyond my level of development. To my ears, my playing sounded effortless and professional, bearing in mind that up to that point I had been playing for only 4 years . Even the man who ran the shop, who had seen me play in his store more times than he probably cared to remember, commented at my drastic improvement. My two buddies were staring at me, agog with disbelief.

The guitar was perfect except for one thing. It was not the AS100 model but a slightly cheaper lower-end model in the series. I put it down and asked if I could try out the AS100 which was also on display.

It was a gorgeous instument with a transparent red finish that showed the grain of the wood beautifully with a symmetrical pearl inlay design on the headstock. I plugged it in, tuned and started to play. And I sounded like my old self again.

Gone was that magic I had felt coursing through my hands just moments before on that other guitar. I rationalized that it was some sort of strange fluke. I was also sure that now that I had experienced that magical feeling, I could work toward experiencing it again and with some practice, make it a permanent feature in my playing.

And I put the money down on the AS100.

Don't get me wrong. The Ibanez AS100 I had purchased -- and still own -- is a fine instrument. But I can't help but wonder about the musical direction I would have taken because of the leaps and bounds I might have made in my playing, if I had gone for that 'magical' guitar all those years ago.

Since then, I've experienced this phenomena several times over the years -- that strange connection with an instrument for no apparent reason. About 20 years ago I played a beat-up early 70's Stratocaster that belonged to a rehearsal studio. It had ridiculously high action and rusty strings and was difficult to play, but it too had that magical vibe. It was then that I also realized that the physical setup of a guitar had nothing to do with this connection I was feeling with certain instruments.

In a 1983 Guitar Player magazine interview, Frank Zappa succinctly stated, "If you pick up a guitar and it seems to scream 'take me', then that is the guitar for you."

How true.

I never go guitar shopping anymore. Not deliberately. I prefer to let myself naturally discover instruments that I truly feel a connection with -- guitars that are so inspiring that I feel a sense of joy and freedom playing them. These instruments are few and far between.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar by Troy Stetina -- Book Review

Troy Stetina's Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar is one of those books that's been around for a long time and yet doesn't seem to lose momentum.

First published in 1990 and originally issued with a cassette tape(!) for the recorded musical examples, I've seen more illegally photocopied versions of this book than any other. Except maybe for the original The Real Book which was an underground publication and illegal to begin with. Having one's work copied so extensively is perhaps the greatest form of flattery, albeit backhanded.

This is a book about technique, with great emphasis on development of right hand picking and, more importantly, the synchronization of the left and right hand at the higher reaches of the metronome.

The great thing about Stetina's method is that it starts out with very basic but often overlooked fundamentals, progressing in difficulty in a logical, linear fashion. One can't help but notice from the outset that Stetina is somewhat of a 'technique scientist'. And nothing in the area of technique escapes his expert analysis.

Starting out with single-string technique development to lay the basic groundwork, he progresses to simple string-crossing exercises across two strings, cyclical patterns and sweep picking.

With this book, Stetina coined the terms 'inside' and 'outside' picking, 'transition time' and 'speed bursts'. By identifiying and extrapolating on these concepts he shows how they can be applied to isolate technical problems so that they can be fixed gradually over time. Much better than just running mindless scales if you ask me.

Highly recommended!

Dave Stryker's Jazz Guitar Improvisation Method

In this book, New York-based guitarist Dave Stryker breaks down the elements of jazz guitar improvisation into bite-sized pieces. And best of all, he delivers it from the perspective of a working musician who needs to employ these concepts quickly and easily on the bandstand.

In his opening chapter on the minor substitution approach, he discusses what he would play over dominant 7th chords. Thinking in terms of dorian as his primary minor scale of choice (as opposed to aeolian or the natural minor scale), he substitutes the dorian a 5th above the root of the dominant 7th he is playing over.

Thinking in terms of dorian minor as opposed to mixolydian, both of which contain exactly the same notes, give a slightly hipper tendency as one is no longer inclined to blatantly overstate the root note of the dominant.

For example, using the minor sub concept, D dorian would be played over a G7. We would be playing the notes D, E, F, G, A, B, C (D dorian). If we played G mixolydian over G7, which is the more conventional scale to use, we would be playing G, A, B, C, D, E, F. If you look closely they are exactly the same notes as D dorian but starting on the note G instead. Personally, I would also experiment with the natural minor scale (gotta watch that b6) and minor 7th arpeggios using this same concept.

Interestingly, Stryker peppers the book throughout with little nuggets of various substitution concepts, but he does so in fine print, so it pays to read every bit of text.

Stryker also gives the melodic minor, whole-tone and diminished scales a cursory glance.

Finally, he puts these ideas into practice with solos over Autumn Leaves, Well You Needn't, Song For My Father, All The Things You Are, Cherokee and Giant Steps as well as blues and rhythm changes, all of which are fully transcribed.

All notated examples in the book are recorded on the accompanying CD which makes going through the book as easy as reading and listening.

Highly recommended as a basic text for the player who is just starting to explore some of the more in-depth concepts of jazz improvisation.

The complete home study jazz guitar course

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Blues Lick Factory by Jesse Gress -- Book Review

Blues Lick Factory by Jesse Gress is an interesting book with a very novel concept. And as the title suggests, it is indeed a 'lick factory'.

Most books show you a series of seemingly unrelated licks in various keys, leaving the reader with the task of figuring out how to incorporate all those ideas into his/her playing.

Jesse Gress has obviously thought about this shortcoming and responded with a book that addresses this problem.

The first half of the book is dedicated to lick fragments at their micro-level. 3, 4, 5 and 6 note groupings are each given extensive coverage, each in their own chapter. It is then the reader's job to recombine these small note groupings in various ways to springboard into fresh new ideas.

Next, Gress illustrates many one-bar and two-bar blues licks -- again each given whole chapters -- that were created using combinations of the smaller note-groups.

Gress then shows us how to make these ideas sound more hip by targetting 'the blues target tones' in blues progressions. He then delves into fourteen 2-bar turnarounds that can be used as intros, turnarounds and endings. From my experience, one can't have too many turnarounds.

Gress sums up his book with three 12-bar solos and, for those climactic repeating licks, one-bar blues ostinatos.

So why learn licks? Why not just learn scales and be done with it? Put simply, the individual notes of a scale are like words. To convey more sophisticatedly we need to combine those words into sentences. And licks are akin to sentences in a language. To play idiomatically in a style we need a useable vocabulary of licks or ideas, or cliches if you will, that enable us to communicate in that particular style.

And Jesse Gress has provided us with a clever shortcut to enhancing our blues vocabulary. As a bonus, all notated examples are on the accompanying CD.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather Band - The Paris Concert DVD Review

In this DVD , Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather, two guitar masters from diametrically opposite ends of the LA studio session scene, share the billing in a live concert setting. Surely this is what guitar dreams are made of.

The first track, Jeff Beck's The Pump, is given the extended improv treatment. Lukather is in fine form and his tone is breathtaking. His mastery and control of feedback, nuanced by touches on the vibrato bar show a more recent Beck influence. The time he's spent hanging out with his friend Jeff definitely shows through.

Once the dust has settled, Carlton duly responds. Opting for a fat, mildly overdriven tone from his ES335 and Dumble amplifiers, we are reminded of all the things we love about Larry Carlton. He takes a lot of liberties, even quoting 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' before going into his trademark fusion lines.

The second cut, Blues Force, a Fourplay tune, is a hard swinging shuffle with the main melody played in twin-guitar harmony. Carlton switches to a vintage Les Paul Special for this tune. The Special was introduced as a lower end, no-frills Les Paul guitar in its day, with a simple slab body and P90 pickups. And Larry really makes it sing, proving once and for all that it is really all in the hands.

The next tune, It Was Only Yesterday is originally from Carlton's self-titled second album 'Larry Carlton'. Larry introduces this song with Johnny Smith-style chord voicings before launching into the tune as a chord-melody arrangement replete with counterpoint lines, harmonics and closed-chord voicings. Lukather enters and restates the melody with a vibe and feel that is totally vintage Carlton. Uncanny.

Next, Lukather launches into his trademark rendition of Red House, the famous Jimi Hendrix tune. This is the token vocal song on the DVD and I'm guessing it is one of Lukather's favorites since he sings it so often. His rather manic blues-inflected rock solo is followed by Carlton's elegantly understated blues lines. He sets up his solo so well you can cut the atmosphere with a knife. Truly a master at work. As Lukather says to the audience, "There's not many people that can play a guitar like that", one can't help but nod in agreement.

I'll leave you to check out the rest of the concert for yourself. Get this on DVD, the audio quality is superb.

Joe Bonamassa | Signature Sounds, Styles & Techniques DVD

Bonamassa opens this DVD with a free-form guitar solo that is very reminiscent of Eric Johnson with flurries of pentatonic licks cascading in position vertically up and down the fingerboard. Which I find strange. Most guitarists, given the opportunity to produce their own DVD, would strive at the outset to establish their own distinct musical identity.

But no matter. Perhaps it was more of a homage and stylistic tip of the hat to Eric Johnson, whom Bonamassa is obviously greatly influenced by.

In the first chapter of this dvd, Bonamassa proceeds to talk about the versatility of the Fender Stratocaster and begins by playing what he calls a Hendrix blues-rock style. Again we hear that unmistakeable Eric Johnson influence. I admire Bonamassa's playing, so this is just an observation on my part, as a fan of both Eric and Joe. And Jimi.

His explanation of the different pickup selection combinations available on the Fender Strat is one of the clearest and best I've seen as he explores the various timbres the instrument has to offer. He also demonstrates using the tone controls for even more colors and mentions how he wires the lead pickup on his Strat to a tone control where the lead pickup would ordinarily not be wired.  Really, a very valuable insider tip to get that Strat lead pickup under control, and something too few instructional videos talk about.

Joe goes on to very ably demonstrate his various techniques on a custom Gigliotti telecaster-style guitar with a brass top(!) and a Gibson Les Paul.  And Bonamassa's pro tip on stabilizing the Tele's bridge pickup to eliminate squealing feedback is priceless information to Tele players everywhere!

His sections on rhythm playing, soloing and slide guitar, while not being very explanatory as far as the notes he is hitting, are nevertheless good demonstrations of the many stylistic facets of his style. A beginner or novice would, however, be left in the dust with no clue. As with the other examples throughout this DVD, no written music or explanations are offered as to what is being played.

In the effects chapter of his DVD, Bonamassa talks about his pedalboard that includes a discontinued Korg G4 for a Leslie speaker effect and Boss DD3 delay, both of which are run through the effects loop of his Marshall amp.  A Carl Martin Hot Drive 'N Boost, Fulltone Octafuzz and Reverend Drivetrain II are the source of his overdriven tones while a Prescription Electronics Vibe Unit, TC Electronics Chorus, Flip Vintage Tremelo, Line6 DL4 Modeling Delay and Vox wah complete his tonal palette.

In the amp chapter Joe talks about the Budda and Marshall Jubilee amp heads that he switches between for different tones.  A plexiglass baffle surrounds his speaker cabinets enabling him to crank up his volume so he can drive his power tubes hard while not blowing out his audiences eardrums when playing in smaller clubs. Makes a lot of sense.

All in all this DVD provides a great overall view of the guitar style and musical personality of Joe Bonamassa. Like I mentioned, it is not an instructional DVD in its truest sense but one does get a sense of what hanging out with the man for an afternoon might be like.

The complete home study jazz guitar course

Mel Bay's Complete Book of Jazz Guitar Lines & Phrases by Sid Jacobs

This is a deep treatise that explores the topic of creating modern jazz guitar lines.

The book starts out harmlessly enough with a discussion by Jacobs regarding chord tones, half-step approaches, surround notes and simple chromaticsm. He follows this up with several chapters on jazz idioms where he illustrates various lines over ii-V progressions and V-I resolutions. He then explores bebop style phrases and maj7th lines as well as common jazz phrases.

He is very thoughtful in illustrating everything in the key of C, so that approach notes and other chromatic devices are immediately apparent.

If Jacobs had concluded the book here, it would already have been worth several times the price of admission.

Diving headlong into deeper territory he explores chromatic lines built from 4th intervals, and pentatonic scales and their relationship to 4ths. He then delves into several chapters on combining pentatonics and superimposing them over various harmonies to create 'inside and outside' sounds. The augmented, diminished and whole-tone symmetrical scales and their lines and harmonies are also given an in-depth look.

Sid Jacobs is a particularly underrated player in my opinion, given his sheer genius on the guitar. As an educator at the Musician's Institute (MI) in Los Angeles, even his MI colleague, renowned fusion guitarist Scott Henderson has copped a few lessons from Sid. Given his body of work as author of several books, and his career as a live performer, educator and clinician, Sid Jacobs is worthy of far greater recognition.

The complete home study jazz guitar course

Paul Gilbert's Intense Rock I and II DVD Set

 Never mind the slightly goofy cover, this is the shredder's bible that is guaranteed to take you from 40 to 200mph in 6 months.

Intense Rock was the first of Paul's REH videos (VHS format) that was released in 1988. Back then shred guitar had only been around for a few years and except for a few naturally dextrous individuals, it was still largely in the realm of 'how-the-hell-do-you-do-that' for most guitar mortals.

Within several months of the release of Intense Rock I, it seemed like everybody and their little brother had jumped onto the shred guitar bandwagon and had attained amazing technique. PG's video was the tipping point.

Intense Rock I is purely about geometrically mapping out the fingerboard into speed picking friendly shapes, learning them as small groups of 3 or 4 notes and then expanding them throughout the various octaves on different string groups. Also covered are legato patterns -- "let's say hello to the left hand" -- and string skipping ideas in lieu of sweep picking.

1991 saw the release of Intense Rock II where Paul discussed dynamics and phrasing alongside technical ideas that were mostly variations of what he had already talked about in the first video. He also clarified a few points on important topics he felt he had inadvertently left out previously such as using pick accents to develop better rhthmic control and accenting in various rhythmic groupings.

Fast forward to 2006 and Alfred Publishing has released both videos in one 2-hour long dvd. And even if you're not an aspiring shredder this dvd set will help your overall technique no matter what style you play, and perhaps even give a few insights to better fingerboard visualization.

Welcome to The Guitar Column

This is a place for all things guitar. All styles and all levels.

In the days, weeks, months and years to come The Guitar Column will be a resource for gear reviews, dvd and book reviews, online lessons, and the occasional guitar gossip, all from a professional musician's perspective.

We'll do our best to tell you where it's at so that you can save time and money while making the right choices, be it in choosing guitar gear, making that instructional dvd purchase or designing a practice schedule for yourself.

And we won't entirely forget our bass playing buddies either..

Welcome, check back often, and we hope you enjoy your stay!


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