New Wave Music-Making

One of the things I really love about being a musician in the 2000s (and beYOOOOOOOOND!!!) is being able to learn from people that I would never have been able to even meet. Back in the 80s, when guitar heroes were GODS!, everyone wanted to learn Eruption, Welcome to the Jungle, One, or any of the other Hair Metal of the Month #1 video songs. Everyone was learning arpeggio sweeps and multi-fingered, two-handed hammer-ons.

Your humble narrator, on the other hand, was inspired by technical players like Steve Morse and Alex Lifeson, as well as Andy McCoy from Hanoi Rocks. They could wipe the field up without such pyrotechnics, on sheer playing ability alone.

Fast forward 30 or so years, and we have YouTube videos and mobile apps that can teach us anything about any instrument. I tried a few of them and they’re okay. Sure, I learned the basics of sweep picking (finally), but I still can’t sweep pick. Mostly because I don’t really want to. The point is, a YouTube video or phone app is only useful if you spend time NOT engaged with the video or app, practicing in the real world.

I’ve found that while videos and apps are cool, the lessons haven’t changed since the old days of Mel Bay books, which were actually printed on paper. There’s not much difference between learning Clair de Lune and Every Rose Has Its Thorn except the actual notes. Spending hours with the new knowledge after you learn it is still as important as it ever was. Watching Steve Morse describe his strict alternate-picking practice routines allowed me to take my playing to another level, after I spent about a gazillion hours practicing on my own. To show my appreciation, I even made my own alternate-picking practice video (which you can watch here) in the hopes that I can help inspire at least one other person to practice, practice, practice.

Still More Silly Tips


I’ve come up with some of these tips through my own practice, or through learning from some of the amazing musicians I have met and worked with over the years. They should help anyone who is learning any instrument, although a few of these work better on certain instruments. Music is a language of creative expression, so these tips have helped me develop the vocabulary and grammar I need to express myself creatively on any instrument I choose to play. In fact, I think following these tips has allowed me to learn as well as I have any time I’ve picked up a new instrument.

9. Transcribe what you are practicing.
Use any notation that works for you, even one that you make up as you go along. This helps you focus on each note that you are learning. As you transcribe each note, you’re forced to analyze it, as well as its relationship with other notes played before it, after it, and simultaneously with it. When you go back to playing the part, you’ve already practiced it in your head at a slower pace and have mentally worked out any potential trouble spots.

10. Ask yourself before you practice, “Why am I practicing?”
By answering this question, it sets up your brain to focus on a specific thing to practice on. Ask this of yourself each time you sit down to practice. Sometimes your answer will be “to work on my left/right hand coordination”, sometimes it will be “because I have the recital coming up and just have to get through all these pieces as many times as I can before then!!” Whatever the reason, it’s rarely productive to practice without a purpose. In my experience, the times I’ve practiced “just because” have usually left me feeling like I didn’t practice at all, or worse, made me feel like what I did play, I played worse than usual.

11. Record yourself.
Even after 35 years of playing, I still hear timing issues that I thought I nailed when I listen back to recordings of my practices. Playing along with backing tracks or full songs lets you focus more on the notes and frees up some attention from keeping in time, but it’s hard to analyze your own performance while your concentration is on your playing. Recording your practice lets you hear your playing objectively, and you end up able to identify trouble spots more easily. Sometimes you’ll hear that funky rhythm part you thought was right in the pocket speed up by 10bpm by the time you get to the end of the 4th measure. Other times you learn you were actually playing a few dotted 16th notes instead of 8th notes. And passing notes work unless you choose the wrong one.

12. Practice in complete darkness.
I once met someone who told me when they began to play guitar, their father shut them into a windowless room with the lights out and told them they weren’t allowed to leave until they could play a song right. While this may seem a little extreme ( and kinda creepy!), the guitarist pointed out that they learned to play without constantly looking at where their fingers were on the fretboard. Being able to play without always staring at your hands is a valuable skill to have, as it can be very helpful to occasionally look at other things like, oh… maybe sheet music or the audience…?

Stay tuned for more great tips!

Next Four Tips For Practicing


Here are a few more tips for practicing. I’ve used all of these, plus the first four from my last post. I believe that if you are going to play an instrument, take it seriously. I don’t mean that there isn’t room for casual players who want to play at a party or sitting around a campfire at the beach and strum some chords on an acoustic guitar. What I mean is, if you pick up an instrument and start playing it at a party and you can’t play, you’re wasting everyone’s time and undervaluing the instrument. With that in mind, I’ll start out with this tip…

5. Make a game out of practice.
Practicing is hard work. At least, if you want to get better, it should be. But you are a musician because it’s fun! So while practicing is serious business, you can make great strides if you can make a game out of it. You can pick a difficult part and see how many times you can play it without stopping. Or, take a familiar part and see how fast you can play it. Learning scales? Play the notes in letter order but on different strings so that you aren’t playing them in direct ascending or descending order (like, on a guitar: A on the 6th string, 5th fret; B on the 3rd string, 4th fret; C on the 5th string, 3rd fret, etc.) Or learn a new part from one song and then choose another song that relates in some way to the first song and play a part from that song. Then see how many song parts you can string together like this.

6. Practice backwards.
Take a phrase, passage, or even a whole song that you know by heart and learn to play it backwards. This helps you look at something familiar from a new perspective and inspire you to create something you might never have thought of. Jimi Hendrix recorded the guitar solo of Are You Experienced backwards while the tape was recording backwards and came up with an amazing effect that nobody had ever heard on the radio before when they were both played forward again, together.

7. Change your venue.
Everyone has a favorite place to practice. The right room, the right time of day, the right gear, the right lack of people bothering you, whatever makes it just right for you. Sometimes we get too comfortable though. Try moving to a different spot and make do with it. If you’re a pianist, take a keyboard onto the back porch and play through its built-in speakers. Electric bass players, borrow a small guitar practice amp and go to the park. Flautists, jump in the car and play. Every time I have picked up my guitar and played in a place that I wasn’t used to, it forced me to focus on what I was doing so I could tune out everything around me, made me really aware of the quality of the sound my instrument was producing, and, if there were other people around, get over the uncomfortability factor of people possibly hearing my imperfect practice playing. Which brings me to…

8. Play to an audience.
I play because I like to create. Music is created in a moment and then is forever gone. I have literally spent years playing music that only I have heard if you add up all the hours. But I have also spent a lot of time playing in front of people. Performing for an audience gets you better in several ways. First, it gets you over that “It’s not good enough!” mental hurdle. News flash! It’ll never be good enough. Second, in order to prepare, you get inspired to REALLY practice. Sometimes this translates into more hours and sometimes it means just focusing on getting the most out of the time you do spend. The big thing is to make sure you are ready to be as least embarrassing as possible. But the third way it gets you better is that it forces you to learn to trust your abilities and just play the music. You have practiced the songs, you’ve practiced the mechanics of playing. When you play in front of an audience, you run through each piece once, with the next one right after. You don’t have time to stop for mistakes, you don’t slow down for parts you are unsure of and you have to keep going when you look up and become acutely aware all of a sudden that a bunch of people are staring at you. Playing in front of people makes you good because it makes you realize: This is for real.

Keep practicing, and find ways to always keep it fresh!! More tips next time!

First Four Tips For Practicing

  I have read a few posts with tips for making practicing and playing better for you. Here are a few of my own and some which were inspired by those I’ve read.

1. Practice when you can focus on it.
This means, set up your practice time in such a way that once you start you can focus on what it is you aim to accomplish. Sometimes the aim is to play your most challenging piece perfectly, sometimes it is just to take a break from the world outside. Whatever it is, make the goal of that practice session to focus on practicing.

2. Practice in the right mood.
One of music’s strengths is to convey emotion. Look at how it is used in movies to enhance how you are supposed to feel about what is happening on screen. Any time Yakkety Sax is played, people can’t help but imagine life being sped up at a comical rate, turning any situation hilarious. Practice to specifically convey a certain mood. Play Chopin’s funeral march at an upbeat tempo. Play any 80’s pop song like it should be incidental music for The Walking Dead. The important thing is to focus on the mood and aim to create something which conveys that mood.

3. Praise yourself in addition to your criticism.
Creative people have a real problem: That inner voice inside their head. It’s the thing which drives us to not settle to produce something that doesn’t live up to what we envision in our mind’s eye. Quite often, all we see are the things that our creation fails to deliver because of one, two or ten little things that we know we could have done better. By focusing on those little things, we can improve what we have created and get it closer and closer to our vision, but this usually means we miss the million and one things we have done perfectly. Unless you have just finished your first practice with an instrument you’ve never picked up before, I can guarantee that if you look objectively at it you’ll find more things you accomplished than you failed at. By looking for and acknowledging your accomplishments, you’ll begin to reprogram your inner voice and give yourself the confidence to practice with more strength and authority.

4. Practice intentionally.
I read an article about a study which found that when musicians learn a new piece of music, those who concentrated on accuracy at the expense of speed fared better than those who kept their speed up and worked to develop better accuracy. Allowing yourself to slow down when needed lets you make sure that what you are playing is correct. Top musicians will often say they set their metronome at a low speed and run through a piece until they can play it at that speed some arbitrary number of times (mostly five times, from what I’ve seen). Once they can play it through without error, they’ll bump up the metronome and play until they can repeat it x number of times without error, and so on until they are playing it at the correct speed. When I was just starting out, friends would comment they thought I sounded better, and that was always after I would learn new songs using this method. By practicing intentionally, you make sure you are in the mindset that you are playing correctly, rather than “just fast”. Concert pianists and violinists will practice new pieces this way, so by saying you’re going to focus instead on “making it through” the song at the normal speed, you’re doing yourself and the music a disservice.

Join me next time for more tips, and keep practicing!

Saturday Night Church


There is nothing like being in the presence of musicians who spend their entire life training for perfection, performing at their very best. Hours of their days have been spent meticulously training their hands and ears for moments just like this one.

They all give a final tune before playing, synchronized with a primary note, aligning towards a common goal of creating the most beautiful and harmonious experience. Music that has never before existed is created in that instant, over and over again, and is lost forever. One moment, the air is still; the next, vibrating strings, and air moving through valves and across reeds creates soundwaves which fill the room and reverberate through the acoustically designed space to dissipate—never to exist again. Only those who are present will hear them and will leave with only memories of the experience.

Even recording those soundwaves will not capture them. It only makes a reproduction of the vibrations that will from that moment forward be experienced only on their own merit. Once recorded, the experience is no different than any other recording by musicians who have long since passed or was played with samples from a midi file.

Each soundwave that dissipates and is replaced by another, and another, is created to be experienced in that moment. I always feel blessed to be present through the experience.

No Wraparound Strings For Me!


It’s been going around guitar circles that for stop-type tailpieces, you should lower the tailpiece all the way down and then insert the strings into the front and wrap them over the tailpiece and across the bridge, rather than threading them straight through from the back side. The theory is it reduces the break angle over the bridge and lowers the tension of the strings. This makes them easier to bend and having the tailpiece sitting tight against the body increases sustain.

I wanted to try out this trick so when I had a reason to remove and restring one of the strings on my Gretsch, I thought it was the perfect opportunity! Unfortunately, as you can see, I think this gives a little too much break angle change!!

Zero string break angle! Not Good!
Zero string break angle! Not Good!

If You Can Envision It, You Can Achieve It


Mindful playing and practicing on the guitar
Mindful playing
Lately, I have been focusing on practicing. I have been attending various concerts, recitals and the orchestra with my best friend, and my passion for making music has been elevated to new heights. 

I’m not talking about the practicing you do where you run through the songs you know because you just like playing. I’m referring to paying serious attention to sharpening existing skills and developing new ones through concentrated effort. I’m referring to the kind of practicing that requires the determined intention of breaking through previous musical barriers, both in technical ability and emotional expression. I’ve practiced this way at times in the past (and have made great improvements that people have commented on), just not with this conscious intention. 

By concentrating on playing each note with precision, making sure to play only as fast as I can while nailing every note with the correct finger and pick direction, I’ve noticed that all of my playing has improved, including songs that are nothing but strummed chords. As close as I can tell, it’s because I now see that regardless of whether playing on an orchestral level is or is not attainable, there’s no reason to approach making music as though it isn’t. Watching a pianist who has not even graduated his masters program play what is considered to be one of the hardest pieces in the world to play shows it is attainable and he would not have achieved it if he had gone into it thinking it was unattainable. 

They say if you can envision it, you can achieve it. I intend to prove them right.

Nevermind Coming to See Us Play

In late 1991, my band got a small — yet decent — gig with two other local bands. We were excited to play a show which promised to have a good turnout with a lot of energy. 

Unfortunately, we found out the day of the show that our friends may not show up. It was due to another show just a few blocks away that featured an unknown band on tour to support a record they just released that none of us had ever heard of. In fact, none of our friends showed up that night.
This is a pic of me playing a different show on a different night at that OTHER club, which was known at the time as J.C.Dobbs. I’d played shows before and after that night on the Dobbs stage and, although it may look small and grungy, the walls were lined with signed photos of a veritable history of great music makers who went on to bigger and better audiences.

Oh, and that unheard-of band who stole our friends for an evening? On tour to promote their new album Nevermind, it was a small trio from Seattle called Nirvana.