Posts Tagged ‘guitar life’

I have to admit that I have a guilty pleasure: I love SPAM; no, not the e-mail kind, but the kind that comes in a can; the SPAM most folks who’ve never had it shun with disgust and disdain. Actually, who gives a flying f$%k about what they think? They don’t know what they’re missing. I call my love of spam a guilty pleasure, not because of the people who don’t like it, but because of health reasons, I’m not really supposed to be eating it. But once or twice a year, I get a hankering for it, and I have a couple of slices.

Who knows what actually goes into SPAM? I’m sure there’s a nutrition expert out there who can answer that, but for millions the world over, including myself, SPAM has been literally a part of their lives. Introduced in 1937 by the Hormel company, SPAM gained its original notoriety as a meat staple for US Troops fighting in World War II. It is probably from that where we get the terms “mystery meat” and the general hating of SPAM in America.

I don’t necessarily blame the troops for complaining about it. If SPAM is the only meat I’d get day in and day out, I’d probably hate it after awhile. But for many civilians at the time – especially in the Pacific Islands – SPAM became a staple that has been carried forward through the years even up to today. Ask any Filipino or Hawaiian how they cook with  SPAM, and they’ll give you tons of ways they use it in their cooking. Notice I didn’t say, ask “if” they eat it… Hey! In Hawaii you can go to Macdonald’s and get Two-eggs-two-scoop-rice-and-spam! Tell me that it’s not part of their culture!

However, there are always haters who have snide and vicious things to say about it, and many of those same folks I’ve been around who call it disgusting have never even tried it! I think that irks me the most. I really have a hard time with people who have diarrhea of the mouth about something of which they have little or knowledge. Yet in many cases, these same people speak with a certain authority and conviction that compel others to take them at their word.

I see it all the time on the many and various guitar- and music-related forums to which I belong. There’s always someone who speaks as if they know something about some gear or subject, but have little to no experience with it. They come on real strong in the threads in which they participate, and thus are able to convince the hapless who haven’t had the benefit of doing their own research that something is true or not.

In one particular forum, Dumble amp discussions are rife with folks who appear to know a thing or two about the amps. But what I’ve discovered is that a lot of them have never even played or heard one in person and that their only experience with a Dumble amp is through an amp manufactured by one of the Dumble clone builders out there. Not to say that those amps don’t sound killer, but no matter how close a builder followed one of the various blueprints circulating around the ‘Net, that amp ain’t a Dumble. People may argue that those clones have similar response and dynamics to an actual Dumble, but I’ll say it again: They are NOT a Dumble.

Personally, I’ve seen, heard, and briefly played a Dumble in person. But despite that experience, I still don’t feel that my minuscule experience warrants knowing that amp and completely understand what makes it so special. What I do know, is that there is definitely a vibe going on with it, but for me to actually articulate that “vibe” is difficult. So the best I can do is say that based upon my experience, it’s not the actual sound that the amp makes (to me, the one I heard and played sounds like a vintage Fender Twin), it’s the dynamics and sensitivity of the amp that make it so special. I’ve played amps that have a similar response, like my Aracom PLX18BB, but that amp is in an entirely different ballpark, being much more of a classic rock crunch box, so the two really aren’t comparable.

In any case, that’s as far as I’ll go with sharing what I know about that amp. I know it has a “vibe” but my actual knowledge of its overall performance isn’t enough to warrant any kind of expertise on the amp. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there are folks with even less experience with a Dumble than I have that participate in threads and spout off all sorts of seemingly “knowledgeable” rubbish.

So what’s the point to all this? Forums are great places to get information, but make sure you put on your bullshit filter because there’s A LOT of it out there! And just like with SPAM, if someone’s a hater of a particular thing, make sure they actually have experience with what they’re talking about; in other words, they need to justify their hate…

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…of Aracom Amplifiers. Let me tell you why:

  • Jeff is super-smart, and makes incredible devices like the PRX150-Pro.
  • Jeff’s amps are to die for. If you’re looking for anyone who “gets” the Marshall vibe, it’s Jeff. I have three of his amps, and am waiting for his upcoming JTM-45. I’ve played the prototype, which has period-correct components, down to original mustard caps, and that amp just oozes vintage Marshall goodness.
  • Jeff is a gear freak like myself; but not just any gear. He’s nutso for vintage Les Pauls and Les Paul Jr.’s – he has many.

And the last point is the problem: Because of Jeff, I’ve gotten totally hooked on Les Pauls and Les Paul-style guitars! Take, for instance, this guitar below:

Jeff dropped off this guitar at my house yesterday for me to evaluate. It’s a gorgeous, relicked ’59 Les Paul replica that has been meticulously copied by a master luthier, using old wood and proper hardware. Even the glue used is the same as the original, and the lacquer finish is not a plasticized lacquer – it’s the real deal. It doesn’t have original PAF’s, but the pickups have been wound to original output specs. The guitar’s original owner sourced the wood from a distributor specializing in high-end furniture and guitar wood, had a master luthier shape it, then sent the guitar to RS Guitar Works for finishing, and they confirmed their work with a certificate (apparently, they’re one of the best in the business for doing conversions and replica finishing). The net result? According to Jeff, this is about as close as you can get to the real deal without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars (the “cheapest” one I’ve ever seen was a slightly modded one for $275,000).

After playing with it for a couple of hours yesterday, I’m now REALLY hooked! I personally don’t know what a real ’59 sounds like, but I’ve done some research on what to expect with respect to response, dynamics, and tone. Mind you, I’m not a cork-sniffer, but all I know is that this puppy sustains for days, and the wonderful bloom that ensues from holding a note due to the resonance of the tone woods is ever-present. As for the tone, it’s absolutely gorgeous! Heavy on the upper-mids without being biting, with inspiring cleans and smooth drive.

The neck has also been “pleked” so it’s an absolute dream to play! I didn’t have to spend much time at all familiarizing myself with it. No wonder ’59’s are so highly sought-after! These were special guitars, and this replica captures everything I was expecting to feel and hear!

Circling back to why I wish I never met Jeff Aragaki, that guy gets me gassing for gear! ALL THE DAMN TIME!!! As I mentioned above, I’m hooked on vintage and vintage-style Les Paul’s because of him!

As if Jeff’s Les Paul obsession is bad enough, as I said, Jeff’s amps are to die for! He is so talented! I haven’t played an Aracom amp that I haven’t absolutely loved. And being that I get to try out all his new designs, all I can say is that this dude knows his stuff about amplifier technology and electronics! His amps rock!

With respect to his electronics genius, just look at the PRX15-Pro attenuator. Jeff has employed technology that NO ONE has employed. Other manufacturers may brag about their products and how they may have spent years working on their designs. I won’t take that away from them, but they just modified existing designs. Jeff discovered a completely different way to attenuate, and it’s no small wonder that players like Joe Satriani and Doug Doppler love this device!

Actually, I’m very glad I’ve befriended Jeff. He’s also just an all-around great guy. He’s incredibly humble and self-effacing, and his warmth and friendliness just draw you in. I guess I have to chalk up my GAS to lack of self-control. But with a friend like Jeff, it’s hard to control it. 🙂

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…for your guitar playing actually has nothing to do with technique or scales or chords. It’s simply – live a healthy life. As I’ve gotten to middle age, I’ve started to have episodes of different ailments; reaping the fruits of ignoring my health. The latest incident was a recent case of diverticulitis, which is both painful and physically debilitating. But as a result of having this, I’ve been forced to completely change my lifestyle, and it has been great. Because of the condition, I’ve been forced to lay off the booze, eat less red meat, eat tons of veggies and fruits, and exercise regularly.

The net result is that even though I’m still on the mend, I’ve felt better physically than I have in years, and have also been sleeping much more soundly, which is also a good thing.

For many people, that healthy lifestyle is a no-brainer. But for others like myself who live the double-life of working stiff during the day and musician at night, it’s easy to go the fast and simple route as far as health is concerned; that is, not really paying attention, and being too busy to work out and eat right. All I can say to that is even if you’ve been lucky with avoiding health pitfalls thus far, start living healthy now! Don’t wait!

With music being such an integral part of my life, not being able to play would be devastating. So even though I had turned a new leaf last year with my health, it obviously wasn’t enough. I’ve learned my lesson.

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I got inspired to write this entry from none other than Neil Young yet again. Back in July, I wrote another post about how much I love Neil Young’s playing. It’s raw, it’s untrained, and it’s absolutely in your face. It’s not very good playing at that, but for some reason, it’s incredibly appealing to me – and I’m not the only one who thinks this! That article was inspired by an interview he gave and the commentary he made about his playing. Then, lo and behold, I read an old interview recently that really got me thinking about expression versus technique. Here’s an excerpt of what he said (courtesy of Guitar Player mag):

“First of all, it doesn’t matter if you can play a scale. It doesn’t matter if your technique is good. If you have feelings you want to get out through music, that’s what matters. If you have the ability to express yourself, and you feel good when you do it, then that’s why you do it. The technical side of it is a complete boring drag, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, I can’t play fast. I don’t even know scales… …I appreciate these guys who play great. I’m impressed by metal bands with their scale guys. I mean, Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen are genius guitar players. They’re unbelievable musicians of the highest caliber. But I can’t relate to it. One note is enough…”

While I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Young about technique, I do get the gist of what he’s saying: It’s YOUR musical expression and feeling good about it that’s important; no matter what speed that is or the technique(s) you use to express yourself.

Personally, I believe in being serious about learning new techniques and honing what limited skills I have only for the sake of opening up different ways to express myself. But that’s kind of the rub. How far do I take technique? Sooner or later I have to apply it; hence, the title of this article. Make no mistake, technique is important, but the music you make from that technique is even more so.

As eternal students of the guitar, it is so easy to fall into a rut with “how” to play as we discover our instrument – hell, I’ve been exploring for many years, and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities – but as musicians, I will submit that once you’re playing, “how” is irrelevant, and that “what” you’re playing is far more important.

For instance, I recently saw a video of the guy who broke the Guinness world record for guitar speed by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” at 320 beats per second. The student in me appreciated the work and focus that went into being able to play that fast; I could never play that fast, that clean. But the musician in me said, “So what? It ain’t music at that speed.” You can watch the video here. Granted, the technique that went into being able to play that piece that fast is absolutely incredible! But at that speed, the guitar sounds like a Formula 1 race car revving its engine as the player ascended and descended the neck of his guitar! From a musical standpoint, it made no sense whatsoever.

That’s why what Neil Young said resonates with me as a musician. I personally don’t think technique is a complete boring drag, but when I’m playing, what I’m playing is far more important than how I’m playing it.

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I purchased Chuck D’Aloia’s “Blues with Brains” series. After a month, I still haven’t moved past Volume 1, but that’s only because I’m going slowly and methodically with the process. Besides, the one thing that I found is that Chuck throws A LOT of stuff at you in a very short period of time, and I’m one of those types of learners that has to let information soak in before I can move on.

There aren’t any step-by-step lessons in this series. It’s very free-form, which I find is totally cool. But as I mentioned above, there are several places where Chuck throws in lots of material in a short span of time, so I’ve found myself going back and forth and listening and practicing for a couple of days before moving on. This is a real change of approach for me because I’ve operated by this little saying for quite awhile: “If patience were a virtue, I’d be a slut.” 🙂 But this time ’round, I made a conscious decision to not move on until I could execute on what the teacher was talking about proficiently.

What about the fruits of my labor? Well… I know I’ve used this clip before, but it’s a good example of applying what I’ve learned:

Excuse the obvious mistakes, the song’s not really in a finished state (can’t decide what guitar/amp combo I want to use). But here’s what I’ve learned so far that I’ve applied to this song:

  • I now pay lots of attention to the current chord being played and playing notes that “fit.” I used to be a real pattern player – especially the minor pentatonic – but I’m learning to break free of those patterns.
  • I’ve lately put a lot of emphasis on learning various triad shapes up and down the neck. This not only helps with getting the proper fingering at a particular place, but it also helps in coloring.
  • I’m also learning to let my solos breathe. One thing that I haven’t heard Chuck mention yet – though he’ll probably share it – is taking some time to let my idea sink in, then playing to build on it. Yeah, that song is somewhat composed, but it came about through playing over the rhythm track underneath. The themes you hear are ideas that I came up with while just playing around!

Regarding that last point, that is probably the salient point that I’m getting out of the lessons thus far, and that is taking an idea, then developing it and building upon it. It’s incredibly freeing!


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I’ve been on this blues thing lately with my music; not going all out with the blues, but definitely having a huge blues influence on the music I write. But one thing that I was sure of was that I didn’t want to just learn blues licks – the same licks practically everyone plays. I suppose you could say I want to play with a blues style, and I’ve been searching far and wide to learn the blues. In my search to learn the blues, I’ve come across several instructional series and video tutorials, but many focus on playing blues licks, without really getting into learning or more importantly, acquiring a vocabulary to express the blues. Technique I can learn, but really what I want to acquire is an intellectual “sense” for what works in a particular phrase, if you catch my drift, then learn technique as a secondary thing.

I know, a bit confusing, and I’m having a hard time articulating what I’m after, so I supposed the best way to explain it is that I want to intellectualize my playing, then practice the hell out of what I learn. The only problem with this approach is that once I’ve mentioned that to teachers or others, they jump right into modal theory. Sure, that’s really useful, but in many ways, it’s also really abstract. Enter Chuck D’Aloia, who has come up with a wonderful series called “Blues with Brains.”

Blues with Brains is a two volume set. I’ve only gotten through half of the first volume so far, but what I’ve learned in just this short amount of time has really made me leap light years ahead in how I approach doing solos. I’ve always played by feel, and have fallen back a lot on the minor blues scale – mainly because it’s easy. But after I wrote my last song, I realized that while it sounds pretty good, and I have some interesting ideas, there was part of me that knew I could do so much more with it.

And by pure chance, I happened to read a thread on a popular guitar forum where this dude was demonstrating his new MIM Strat. His technique was absolutely flawless, and his presentation and tone were simply to die for! So I clicked on one of the links in his signature, and came to this site: Chuck D’Aloia Music. I read through the explanation, and saw that he also did Skype lessons, so I immediately contacted him about taking his lessons. In my email I explained about how I felt I could do more with my music and attached my latest song. He replied back several days later with exactly what I was thinking that ideas and tone were good, BUT rather than jump into lessons, I’d get a lot more out of his Blues With Brains series. It would be stuff that I could learn at my leisure, and once I digested the material, then we could explore the Skype lessons.

How cool was that? Rather than taking the higher money route, he just pushed his video series. So I downloaded both volumes for $40. When I got home that evening, I launched the first volume, and within the FIRST FIVE MINUTES, Chuck had effectively changed the way I looked at playing solos! That’s all it took! Obviously, I’ve had to apply and practice those concepts as I don’t have the fingering down completely, but the mere fact that I was able to attain a sense of what to do in a relatively short amount of time was just amazing to me!

Chuck’s approach is simple. He plays over a chord progression first. Then he takes apart the progression, and discusses and demonstrates what is possible to do at that particular point. The cool thing is that he also intersperses modal theory into the explanation, but doesn’t make the central to the discussion. It’s like, “Here are the notes you can play, and here’s what you can do with these notes…” It’s a very straight-forward approach, and while I realize I have a lot of practicing to do, I’ve gotten more out of the 40 minutes I’ve spent so far in these lessons than I have poring over books of scales and modes. The most important thing that I’ve gotten out of these lessons is that Chuck doesn’t teach licks. What he teaches is possibilities. He leaves it up to the student to express themselves! That is EXACTLY what I have been after all these years!

Without a doubt, I’m a total believer in Chuck’s series! If you want to learn the blues, and not just blues licks, and you want to really understand what you’re playing, you owe it to yourself to get this series. You will not be disappointed in the slightest!

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Steve Ray Vaughn
Ahhh… the venerable SRV in a classic guitarists pose. I used to think that was just something rock stars did for publicity shots, and that the poses were contrived. But then as I’ve delved more and more deeply into improvisation, I’ve realized it’s not contrived at all. That kind of pose or expression is all part of what can be called “gettin’ in the zone.” The Zen masters call the “the zone” the state of satori, where thought and action are one; where your consciousness is at a height where whatever enters your mind you do. From the perspective of playing guitar, the awareness of what your body is actually doing is lost. Your focus is entirely on expressing the music you’re playing.

For instance, have you ever been playing one day and just get into the groove of a song, close your eyes, and just let your fingers do the talking? You’re completely aware of the song, but that’s pretty much all you’re aware of; and when you play, it’s pure expression. I had recently had this experience. I was playing on top of a simple chord progression in D, and the song came to a part where I had a rather long lead break. A few years ago, I would’ve been terrified to do play such a long solo, but I’ve really started to get comfortable with my playing to handle something like this. Luckily for me, it was not a fast song. 🙂 But in any case, after the first few bars, I got into this groove where I didn’t worry about technique nor worry about how I was playing a phrase. I just played. It was pure expression.

After the gig, a few people came up to me and said that when I was playing, I had this look of pure rapture on my face. I replied, “Really? I thought I was just playing. Gawd, I hope I didn’t look like a poser weenie…” One of the folks was a guitarist and told me that it was genuine. He said, “Dude, you were in your own world.” I just chuckled because I was totally unaware of my posture or body language. I was completely focused on playing. I was really in the zone.

I think a lot of my latest inspiration is that I now have gear that gives me the tone that I’ve been after for awhile, and while I realize that 90% of your tone comes from your hands, having gear that facilitates your playing just adds to your inspiration. For me, I’m playing what I believe to be the absolutely perfect amp in my Aracom VRX22. The cleans are absolutely spectacular on any guitar I play with it, and that clean channel is the most pedal-friendly channel I’ve ever played. The drive channel on that just sings and sustains beautifully. I know, I know… I rave about this amp a lot, but I’ve searched high and low for an amp like this, and now that I’ve found it, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!

I’d be interested in hearing your “in the zone” experiences. Feel free to share ’em!

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