Archive for July, 2007

A Great Quote…

On the recommendation of a friend, I checked out this great guitarist named Andy McKee. After I watched a couple of his videos, I wanted to find out more about him. So I went to his official web site, and at the bottom of his bio was a quote that I just had to share.

Most of all, I hope my music communicates something to the listener. I don’t want to just play music with a lot of skill. I hope listening to my music is an emotional experience!

Man, talk about getting it! In any case, here’s the video I saw:

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After reading my friend Ig’s latest entry, “Innovation: Coated or plain guitar strings,” I thought about funny things I’ve heard myself and other guitarists say in the past, or things that a guitarist should never say in mixed company. Here’s the list:

10. My G-string keeps coming loose…
9. You shoulda seen his axe cut through the crowd…
8. I’ve got a small f-hole…
7. Looks like I have to give that head a good lube job…
6. That guy’s got great licks…
5. That G-string gets gross with grime pretty quickly…
4. I rub it down with a towel after I’m done playing with it…
3. Yeah, he really jerks that thing around…
2. He lowers his G-string to C…
1. When I don’t have anyone to play with, I play with myself…

Most of these are real… bonus points if you can guess which ones aren’t. 🙂

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I have been a youth minister and occasional inspirational speaker for several years. A few years ago, I did a series of talks and workshops based upon Q.U.E.S.T., an acronym that I came up with to help people focus in their learning processes. This morning on the way to work, it dawned on me that I could easily apply it to learning guitar, and that I have been unwittingly using the QUEST process the past few years to become a better guitarist/musician. So here’s QUEST in a nutshell.


First, life is a process and to go through life, whether you buy into it or not, you are the central figure in the process of your life. Many people spend their entire lives letting outside influences rule the direction they take, instead of taking the reins and taking charge of their destinies. QUEST is a way to focus on your process. The very word lends itself to seeking out and discovering; something no one can do for you. But unlike the quests of old, there’s no prize, and really there’s no end, as this QUEST is a continuous process itself. So let’s go over the QUEST process:

Q – Question
The first step to growth – of any kind – is to question the foundations of your beliefs. This doesn’t equate to doubt; rather, it pertains more to examining where you’re at, what you’re doing, then posing questions like: Am I doing enough? Have I considered other directions? With respect to playing guitar, a lot of times we become fixed on certain styles or methods of playing. By questioning the things on which we are fixed, we open ourselves to new and different possibilities.
U – Understand
This really means “understand yourself.” Another “U” word that could be used in its place is “Uncover.” Growth demands an innate understanding of what our motivations are. Especially with musicianship, learning or doing something “just because” is not good enough. If you want to get better, you need to uncover and understand your motivations to become better; in other words, understand yourself.
E – Explore
This is really the active phase of the QUEST process, where you actively seek out possibilities and break new ground. It’s also the funnest part of the process because you come across all sorts of new things or new ways of playing. While the other steps in the process are much more subtle and cerebral in nature, this step is where you actually experiment with the things you discover. It’s the really exciting part of the process.
S – Surrender
I can’t stress enough of the importance of surrendering. Surrendering simply means to not get in your own way. During any growth process, it’s inevitable that our old, established patterns of thinking come creaping up, and can possibly sabotage the growth we’ve recently experienced. Surrendering to your growth process maintains your open state of mind. As an example, I recently wanted to understand what appeals to my older kids’ love of hard-core rock. So I sat down at their computer, opened up iTunes and started listening. Being a musician whose foundation in music has been built on a more melodic approach, I found that my instinctive negativity towards this style of music kept surfacing while I listened. So I had to check myself and essentially surrender to what I was listening, so I could give myself a chance to “get it.” The net result is that I learned alot about that style of music: Super-fast guitar licks, trip-hammer-double-bass-drums; in other words, high-powered energy. I still don’t like the music, but I now understand the appeal.
T – Trust
Sometimes, change is very subtle, so you have to trust in your process of learning; trust that your going in a direction that will ultimately improve your abilities down the line. Like surrender, this another checks and balances step that’s important in the process because by trusting, you won’t give up your quest to become better.

I realize that this isn’t a specific technique to become a better player. It’s more background. But to me, it’s important background. Personally, if I had not gone through this process, I wouldn’t have evolved as a musician. I literally spent 30 years playing nothing but acoustic guitar, and I’d gone about as far as I could go. Then a few years ago, I “pulled the rug from under” myself and incorporated electric guitar into my playing. I still play acoustic guitar – and a lot of it, I might say – but I now have a much broader musical canvas with which to work – and learn.

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5735-13-photo.jpgLike many guitarists, I have fantasies of playing guitar with a big name, like Sting for instance. I also have dreams of having technique like Hendrix, Satch, SRV, Eric Johnson, or Vai. But the reality is that I’ll probably never achieve their level of technique. So short of that, the best I can do is learn as much technique as possible, but incorporate that technique into my overall sound.

Notice the word “my” in the sentence above. That’s something that I stress to a lot of young guitarists, especially my own son. In a recent conversation, where we were discussing chords and intervals, I stopped and said, “Son, while it’s important to learn all this music and guitar theory, remember that your ultimate goal is to create your own sound. You say you want to play as fast as Henry Li or Yngwie Malmstein. That’s great – but just remember one thing: Learn the technique to play as fast as those guys, but make the sound your own. If you want to be a more than just a ‘good’ guitarist, you’ll want to sound like yourself, and not like somebody else.” The glazed expression the he returned prompted me to say, “I know you don’t get what I’m saying right now, but give it a few years, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

I can’t stress enough how important getting your own sound is. And I’ll say this: For some, like myself, it has taken a lifetime to achieve, and I’m still tweaking my sound! But keep at it, and eventually you’ll get to a space where your sound is distinctly you.

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A few months ago, I was in a rush to get to a gig. I didn’t keep good track of time running errands beforehand, and had to make a mad dash home to pick up my gear. Once home, I frantically loaded up my mini-SUV with my gear, took a quick “make-sure-everything’s-there” look, hopped into the driver’s seat, and sped off.

Now, as many gigging musicians know, rushing to a gig is a recipe for disaster: You’re stressed when you get to the venue; that stress in turn makes you rush even more once you get there; and when you’re rushing, you tend to forget things. That gets you even more pissed, and the net result is that nothing goes very smoothly.

Such was the case on that fateful day of rushing to my gig. In the corybantic state I was in while loading my car, I had overlooked loading something that is central to my setup: My gear bag where I carry all my pedals, cords, extra picks and my tuner. While unloading my vehicle, I didn’t even notice that it was missing. I felt rushed, yes, but I also felt confident that I had all my stuff, and could just set up, go through sound check, and be ready to perform. It was when I went to set up my gear that I suddenly realized my gear bag was not present. Talk about being pissed! I had to leave the building to regain my composure.

Once I calmed down, I went back inside, gave a small chuckle of futility, and asked my band members to help me out. Luckily we always have extras of stuff, so I borrowed a couple of cables, plugged in my amp and guitars, then went outside to lock up my car. As I was closing the tailgate, I looked inside the cargo area of my mini-SUV, and lo and behold, sat two of my pedals: my trusty Boss Chorus, and my TS-808 Tube Screamer. I had taken them out to jam with a friend the night before, and laziness kept me from putting the pedals plus my power snake back into my gear bag! All was not lost. I was still missing three pedals, but hey! Two are better than nothing.

With glee, I returned to my setup and inserted the pedals into my signal chain, and we got ready for sound check. I was a little dubious about how things would sound without my full array of pedals, especially my BBE Sonic Stomp that really helps contour the lows in my amp, but once my amp warmed up, I couldn’t believe the clarity of sound that was coming through my amp! I was in absolute heaven! Granted, I had to tweak the EQ a bit, but I was beside myself with how good my amp sounded. So what started out as a potential gig-breaker, turned into a blessing in disguise.

Now, I only play with the chorus and tube screamer in my signal chain, though I may add a tube reverb in the near future to get different reverb effects in addition to the stock spring reverb in my amp. But I’m in no rush (excuse the pun). In any case, I’ve learned a couple of valuable lessons:

  1. Always give yourself a lot of time to prepare for a gig.
  2. More is not necessarily better with respect to effects. This is a point I need to discuss a bit…

With respect to item 2, I bought all my effects when my amp was new. While I loved the way it sounded out of the box, I felt that it had some rough edges, so I smoothed them out by adding pedals to my signal chain to compensate. But after playing with this amp for over a year now, I think the reason it sounds so good without the pedals is because the speaker cone is broken in from frequent use. So a third lesson can be gleaned from all this: Spend the time to break in your amp. Depending upon how much you play, this could take weeks, or it could take months.

A final lesson I’ve learned is this: So much of your tone comes from your fingers – how you articulate the strings on the fretboard. Trust your fingers!

For me, I probably could’ve removed half of my pedals months ago, but didn’t know any better. Now I do. At this point, my tone has really evolved to a place where I’m absolutely happy, and that just drives me to get even better as a guitarist.

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After a few years of listening to my boys blast their death metal, new punk and “alternative” rock, I’ve finally hit a breaking point. I just can’t stand that shit! Kudos to those artists who’ve been able to get recording contracts, but I’m sorry, it’s just not for me; especially that vomit screaming bullshit that somehow passes for singing. I first heard that type of voicing when I was riding in a friend’s car. He was always into pretty heavy stuff, but this was way over the top, all growl, no melody, filled with tons of low-end power chords. And now, that style of “singing” has moved into the more mainstream metal areas. I’m not sure I call it an evolution.

Call me old-fashioned or old-skool, but I need a much more melodic approach to music. Don’t get me wrong, I like metal, but I’ll qualify that with I like metal where the musicians have a very definite, discernible level of skill – especially in the guitar department. They don’t necessarily have to be fast, but they really have to feel what they’re playing. In a lot of the music I’ve heard my kids play, I can’t tell one guitarist from another – they all play the same fuckin’ licks! On the other hand, take a pretty high-powered, heavy, thrash metal band like Metallica, and just listen to Kirk Hammett play. The guy’s technique is incredible! Or let’s get even heavier with Pantera. Phil Anselmo may growl a lot, but there is a recognizable melody in what he sings. As far as guitar playing is concerned, does “Dimebag” Darrell ring a bell?

Perhaps I’d be a bit more tolerant of my kids’ music if I could detect a uniqueness in their bands’ musicality, but I can’t. As I said before, it’s as if they all play the same licks. But even though I admire these bands for getting recording contracts, it’s amazing that at least to the younger set, this shit passes for music. So maybe as a seasoned musician who can play more than power chords, plus a trained vocalist, I should learn how to vomit scream and play two chord songs. I just might get a recording contract – NOT!

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My friend, Ig over at Ig Blog posed a small challenge to list 8 random things about myself after I posted a comment on his 8 random things. So here goes…

  1. I like to perform a lot of different styles of music, and it has been said that my best style is traditional, operatic-style music. While I can sing operatically, I really don’t like opera all that much. I learned how to sing it primarily because I wanted to learn proper singing technique, but I have no desire to pursue that as a primary musical style. I perform a few opera songs at my weekly restaurant gig only because the audience expects it now and then. My real musical love is and always has been rock and roll.
  2. One thing that I want to do before I’m 55 is go to a Formula One race; but not just any F1 race. I want to attend the Monaco Gran Prix. My dream is to get a room on the Casino turn and watch from my balcony; or, if I have the scratch, rent a big yacht and watch from the bay.
  3. At work, I use a PC, but my go-to home machine is now a Mac. For those who’ve known me for years, they know that I was a PC user for a long time, and scoffed at the Mac. But OSX completely changed my opinion. I’m still a newbie, and am still in transition to moving to it (all my development software is on the PC), but the more I discover about the Mac, the more I love it!
  4. Here some things I love to do (besides writing and playing music): Fish, cook (esp. barbeque), read, blog, write code, work in startups (I’ll get lucky sometime…).
  5. I’m a deeply spiritual man. That said, while I don’t necessarily need a religion to live my spiritual life, I’m a practicing Catholic who’s very devoted to sharing the Word of God with others through song.
  6. This’ll probably piss some people off, but I believe the US government needs to loosen the immigration laws for our Mexican neighbors. Ever see the movie, “A Day Without Mexicans?”
  7. OJ Simpson was GUILTY!!!
  8. I love playing video games (PC and PSP).

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Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I got introduced to fusion by one of my childhood friends. One  of the most memorable fusion artist was Jean-Luc Ponty, the famed jazz violinist. I bought all his albums at the time, and would play them one after the other for hours, studying the phrasing, which was unlike anything I had ever heard up to that point. But being a guitar player, I was especially interested in Jean-Luc Ponty’s guitarist, Joaquin Lievano who, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated guitarists of our time, and an unsung innovator of the guitar. Most notably, Joaquin’s speed picking technique paved the way for countless glam-rock guitarists. But not only that, his complex, but musical phrasing up and down the fretboard were like nothing I’ve seen before – and very seldom have I seen anyone since who possesses this. Actually, only Eric Johnson comes to mind. That’s how incredible this guy is!

Here’s a video of him playing. Mind you, the song starts out pretty slow, with him not doing much of anything. But about 2/3 through the song, you’ll start seeing him totally rip it up – and the most amazing thing is that he’s completely clean!

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My “Guitar” Journey

This entry was inspired by my regular reading of IG’s Blog here at WordPress. In his latest entry he interviewed a guitar teacher, and mentioned the words, “guitar journey.” That got me to thinking about where my own musical journey has led me in relation to the guitar. After several minutes staring off into space, I had a huge realization about where I’m at guitar-wise.

I’m no guitar virtuoso, but I can do a lot of things with the guitar. It’s my primary tool for expressing myself musically; and that’s the gist of my guitar playing ability. I know it’s a bit confusing, but let me give you background. I’m the type of person that won’t waste any energy on things that don’t have any context to me or my life. I normally don’t try things out just for the sake of trying things out. Sounds a bit limiting, I know, but it’s not. I’m involved in a lot of different things – my very large family being the primary object of my attention – so I don’t have a lot time to “waste.” From that perspective, I’m fairly careful about the things I devote time to. So what does that have to do with guitar playing?

Well, I guess it means that unless there’s a context; that is, I have a reason to play and become better, I probably wouldn’t play guitar at all. To me, becoming better at guitar just to acquire technique isn’t any reason to become better. On the other hand, learning new techniques to help me express myself more effective musically is all the prompting I need. Luckily, from a musical standpoint, I’m always listening to different genres of music to incorporate styles and sounds into my music writing. As the guitar is my instrument of choice to express my musical ideas, I’ve been forced to improve and evolve my technique as my experience and knowledge broadened over the years.

Granted, the rate of improvement can be a bit slow when taken over a long span of time, but when I take a different direction musically, it forces me to adapt my playing. For instance, for a long time most of my music was written for the acoustic guitar, with fairly straight-forward tempos and chord changes. A few years ago, I started writing more sophisticated pieces that demanded a more “electric” sound, so I bought an amp and an electric guitar, and had to essentially retrain myself to play the electric. Before that, I never paid too much attention to modular forms and such, but playing electric guitar almost forces you to learn how to play up and down the neck. Add to the fact that I then started a band, and I had to learn how to comp on the fly.

But if I didn’t have the driving force of exploring musical ideas, I probably wouldn’t play guitar at all. I know, it’s weird. My 13 year old son is fixated on learning how to shred, but I’m always puzzled as to why. When I ask, he just replies, “Because I want to be able to play real fast.” I’m okay with that, but it’s just not for me…

So with respect to my “guitar journey,” my guitar playing evolves in direct correlation to where I’m at musically. In the last couple of years, I’ve written music in a bunch of different genres, so my guitar playing ability has really expanded. Before that, it was nothing special. I’ll probably top out in the next year or so, stay there for a couple of years, then find some new sounds that I want to be able to write and play. Then it’s off to the races. 🙂

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