Tuesday, 8 December 2009

One Note At A Time (part 2)

This exercise is another very simple procedure, but with far reaching implications and a great depth from which some very good things can happen to your guitar playing.

Rather than for me to explain it at length here, the exercise is well explained, with some really good, honest opinion on it on the following linked blog entry. I'm fortunate enough to have had someone take this lesson and comment on it first hand, so rather than to have me speak of this exercise's virtue, on this occassion I can actually post a link to another blog which not only e
xplains exactly what to do, but also offers some critical feedback on it:

From Sam M's Blog:

"I recently took a guitar lesson where the first exercise was to play 10 individual notes, and after playing each one, to rate it from 1-10. It took me a good 10 minutes to grasp what I was being asked to do - play 10 notes, one at a time, anyway you like; loud, soft, dull, bright, muted, with vibrato, maybe bend it, the list goes on... What this exercise pertains to is the translation of what you intend to play, and how close this is to the actual sounds you make when you do play. I found this to be enlightening and scary in equal measure - my average was 8/10. This doesn't sound too bad until you consider we're talking about single notes played one at a time. What this means is that the average note I play on the guitar is only 80% as good as it could be. Scary.

This might seem like a very pedantic and overly-analytical way to look at playing an instrument, but think about it a bit more and it makes sense. Everything else - double stops, chords, flashy solo runs - are made up of single notes. If each note isn't as good as it could be, it stands to reason that neither are any of the above - neither is the rest of your playing, in fact."

Expanded upon here:

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Perseverance or Reassessment? (part 1)

Within the lessons that I teach, I frequently observe the same kinds of things that students seem to do a lot when they’re trying out new licks or ideas. A lot of the time they will attempt the idea, get stuck at a particular part of it, and then try again only to repeat exactly the same mistake. Perseverance once more and determination will drive them to make another attempt, but yet again, the passage grinds to a halt at the same place. I still have similar experiences myself when I try out certain new things, although I take a very different approach to these situations now than I once did. At the point where a student has made the same mistake (or just ground to a halt) 3 or 4 times, I ask them to stop.

It is at this point that an awareness of one of the key components of practice needs to be recognized and responded to. Practice is essentially made of two key components. These are assimilation and reinforcement. Assimilation is the process of learning new ideas. Reinforcement is the process of maintaining and strengthening those ideas.

Taking this into consideration, at the point where a new lick has ground to a halt more than 3 or 4 times, the assimilation process has actually become a reinforcement process, and worse still, it’s actually become a practice of getting something wrong! The assimilation process had not sufficiently been completed before subsequent reinforcement should even be attempted.

At the point where an attempt is made to perform a lick and it’s ground to a halt (or a mistake has been made in the same place) 3 or 4 times in a row, stop. Stop playing and reassess. Reassess by thinking about why the idea is grinding to a halt or why the mistake is being made? Is it too fast? Is it too difficult for the time being and needs to be re-categorized as a longer-term goal? Is it too slow and actually boring to practice? Any of these (and plenty more) reasons could be influencing what is happening, but even if you stop and don’t pick up the guitar again until the next day, to persevere practicing getting something wrong could actually be worse in the long term.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

One Note At A Time (part 1)

One of the most misunderstood, but simultaneously one of the most long term beneficial exercises that I give to my students is a series of perspectives on playing only one note, and then stopping to think about it. These perspectives are most often misunderstood because the process of engaging in a exercise which has very little in the way of immediate "rewarding guitar noise" can seem a long way removed from the kind of guitar playing that they would often like to be able to perform. The exercises can be boring, frustrating, irritating, and at worst, actually discouraging from practice. I would argue, however, that they are absolutely worthy of every serious guitar student's attention.

Based on the principle that essentially all guitar playing (in any style and to any standard) is born of perseverance, the first "perspective" is a very simple question to ask oneself before practice, and then once again after a note (or a few notes) have been played. Where we can chose and direct what we persevere with, it's worth offering considerable conscious effort to carefully identify what may be worthy of our perseverance rather than to "sub-contract" that responsibility out to teachers, books and magazine articles. In the interests of making the best, most effective and economical use of practice time, asking the very simple (but far reaching and highly potent question): "How do I really want to sound?" may seem simplicity itself, but how far can an answer to this question go? To what extent is the potential answer "I want to sound like player X/Y/Z etc..." appropriate or in any way helpful? Why ask it? "What are the benefits of such extensive consideration?"

I would suggest that the more detail you can go into in answering this question, the better. The more players as reference points or influences you can list, the more resources you may draw upon to structure a method by which you can achieve your goals. The more descriptive the sounds and the more you can be as specific as possible in every aspect of "how you really want to sound", the better chance you have of sounding as close as it may be possible to that sound you have in your head. Answering this question as fully, and as accurate as possible will guide almost every decision you will make that will offer a considerable contribution to your playing. Choice of exercises, teachers, instrument, amp, pedals and other equipment (where appropriate), in fact almost every part of the activities you engage in, in order to become the guitar player that you want to become is influenced and guided by the answer (in all it's comprehensive detail) to this one simple question.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Stuck in a Rut? (part 1)

This month, it's back into the academic year, and a frequent complaint from some of my students has been that while they've done a lot of playing and practicing over the summer, they felt that they've been playing a lot of the same things, over and over. Not just with technical "reinforcement" exercises, but with improvisations and melodic ideas, with fingers always seeming to fall into the same places. Just over the last week, the exercise I've given these students to combat this problem/challenge has been very effective. As with all the most effective exercises, it's very simple:

Divide and hour up into 4 parts of 15 minutes each. For the first 15 minutes, improvise (preferably exploring some musical and creative phrasing, and using a variety of scales, arpeggio, and intervalic ideas) without using your 4th finger of the left hand (or right hand for left handed people). For the following 15 minutes, do not use your 3rd finger at all, just fingers 1,2 and 4. For the next 15 minutes, just use fingers 1,3, and 4, and for the final 15 minutes, just use fingers 2,3 and 4.

This is a variation on the "restriction as the basis for development" principle which I outlined in an earlier blog, where only the inner 4 strings are used to perform exercises. This time the exercise is designed to break up the patterns that fingers get so used to when practicing scales and other technical exercises across the fingerboard. It can be frustrating, but it's worthwhile because once this exercise has been completed, returning to all 4 fingers on the fingerboard opens up a wealth of potential!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Guitar Teaching (part 5) “What qualifies someone to teach?”

The topic of “What qualifies someone to teach?” permeates many conversations amongst guitar players and goes around in circles, particularly players who reach a certain standard and consider themselves to be in a new position where they are capable of offering ‘guitar lessons’.

I’m of the strong opinion that what qualifies someone to teach is not on paper, it is in their knowledge, and attitude to the job. Experience helps but at one time, everyone who has ever taught was inexperienced so I wouldn't suggest that this is always essential (contentious as this may sound). However, I will go so far as to suggest that there is no such thing as ‘amateur’ teaching. Where students are paying for lessons, whoever is giving those lessons should know their stuff, and be 100% committed for the duration of their lesson to giving them their best. If it's guitar, where the notes are on the fingerboard is part of a basic, fundamental body of knowledge that I strongly believe anyone who wants to teach guitar needs to know, as is a strong sense that they are taking on a role of a ‘teacher’ in order that they may assist in the development of a students playing. Paper qualifications are not completely irrelevant, and have a value, (although speaking of paperwork, I would suggest that if people are teaching young children, an enhanced CRB check, and sufficient public liability insurance are essential). If you're not ‘qualified’ (on paper), don’t think in terms of ‘teaching’. In my honest opinion, I don’t believe that to be the best approach unless you really know what you're doing. I would consider that taking an approach of ‘sharing’ what you know would be a better suggestion. ‘Sharing’ means that you will only ever be passing on the knowledge you have, and be able to relate it to the experience you had learning it yourself. If you're student asks you a question and you don't know the answer, "I don't know" will earn you more respect than anything you could make up on the spot to maintain the ‘teacher’ role (and it’s alarming how many people who offer guitar lessons seem to think that misdirecting a question or making something up as an answer is a good idea!) If you go into the situation confident that you are ‘sharing’ what you know, (remembering that can't share anything you don't know!) you will always be qualified to do what you do when it comes to ‘teaching’.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Guitar Teaching (part 4) "The Role of a Guitar Teacher"

Originally posted on http://vapourstation.blogware.com/ 19 Jan 2009

Again, my experiences and questions I've been asked recently have led me to assemble a generic answer, to which I can point people in the direction of, if I'm asked this in the future. What is the role of a guitar teacher?

Before moving onto the "role", firstly I would like to express what I feel a guitar teacher (who has adopted this title and role) is actually responsible for:

A guitar teacher is responsible for the quality of a students 'teaching'. Not the quality and rate of the students 'progress'.

Regarding the 'role' of a guitar teacher:

Essentially, a (guitar) teacher’s role is to offer information, guidance and encouragement. This is done by establishing where you already are with your playing, together with where you want your playing to be through assessment, and using that as a basis for structuring a logically progressive path towards where you want to go. This can be done in a number of different ways, both formally and informally, sometimes even consciously or subconsciously, but it's what most teachers do unless they are teaching you what they think you should know. This is a bit more like school or the more formal classical training that you can have on a musical instrument. Both approaches are valid and suit different people according to their outlook/ personality/ needs etc although I think it is a safe enough assumption that most electric guitar players are not likely to wish to surrender all decision making as to what material they cover and how their progress is structured to a classical style, formal training system. Irrespective of this, nobody ever gets any better in a lesson, or because they have lessons. People only get better when they practice but there can sometimes be a large void here in that many people don't actually know how to practice, what it is, how it works, and what it's for in extension of the very vague and general "to get better", or "to improve".

All the information you ever need about playing is on the internet. All the guidance and encouragement anyone may want isn't always necessary if people are sufficiently self-motivated. A lot of the time, if you are considering taking guitar lessons, you have to ask yourself what it is you actually want from a teacher. If you take guitar lessons but are concerned that your teacher isn't giving you what you want, it's worth properly establishing what it is that you wanted from them in the first place. Clearly establish what it is you wanted from them in your mind, and discuss it with them. It's the reason I ask the first questions (of all new students) so that this is formally established before we get on with the learning:

"What do you want to be able to do with the guitar that you can't do now?"
"How do you consider that I may be able to best help you to get there?"

The responses I get to these questions are predictably vague almost every time. It's always "to get better" or similar, so we move onto what "getting better" means to them and establish examples of "better playing" which is simultaneously establishing short, medium, and long term goals for the students (dependant on how complicated the "better" playing examples are). If you don't know where you want to go, how are you going to get there? No matter who is helping you (teaching you), it's just not going to happen.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Guitar Teaching (part 3) "Guitar Theory"

Originally posted on http://vapourstation.blogware.com/ Mon 12 Jan 2009

Frequently the Music Radar forum gives me plenty to think about when people ask music related questions, and a lot of the time, I’m asked similar things in lessons. One thing which surfaced recently was the idea of “Guitar theory”. I find this a bizarre subject to talk about because there really is no such thing. I often end up saying things like “try to avoid the whole idea that there is guitar theory”. There is the guitar, and there is theory. There is no “guitar theory”.

The guitar is an instrument you play music on. Theory is a system which serves to label, organise and explain notes, how they fit together and make sounds which are 'popular', how they look on the page when notated, and how they relate to each other with fancy names. A lot of the time these 2 things cross over because when you play notes on the guitar, theory has a name for them. The same is for scales and chords but ultimately, on the guitar they are noises and sounds. Theory is just a system of labelling.

If you want to know how this labelling system relates to the guitar, in contradiction to popular opinion, it doesn't. The guitar is an instrument which you use to create notes (either on their own or in combination) which you either like the sound of, or don't. Theory is a system of labels for these noises.

If you want to learn theory, it’s worth establishing a purpose first. Why? This way it's easier to find what resources you may draw upon to ensure that you learn exactly what it is you want to know, thus avoiding having to trawl through a whole load of theory which you're not actually interested in.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Guitar Teaching (part 2.2) “The ‘ownership’ of guitar related study material”

In extension of the idea that guitarists are very protective of what they know and what they can do, I thought it may be worth mentioning that a lot of the time guitar teachers forget that they don't actually 'own' a lot of the material that they teach. For a long time, I’ve believed that all the ideas I've got are just things that I've noticed and discovered on my own journey. They were always there and I can't really claim ownership of them.

The only thing that I could possible claim was really 'mine' is the way in which it's taught and the way in which it's presented, but even that is something that has always been there! I may have had the ideas and refined them over time but with music teaching, everything (in terms of information) is online and I think that's where it all belongs! It should be in the public domain! The more people are made aware of, the more everyone who claims to be any kind of 'teacher' is forced to raise their game and come up with new ideas and move music and the education of it into the future.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Guitar Resources (part 1)

I'm often asked about this. Within the mass of printed matter on the subject of guitar playing, which are the best books? This list is subject to change because new books are being produced all the time, but for now, this is my current list of suggestions for the best all-round guitar/ theory/ general musicianship books (or series):

Elementary Training for Musicians - Paul Hindemith
Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns - Nicolas Slonimski
The Advancing Guitarist - Mick Goodrick
For Guitar Players Only - Tommy Tedesco
Modern Method for Guitar (parts 1,2&3) - William Leavett
Music Reading for Guitar (The Complete Method) - David Oakes
Musicianship and Sight Reading for Guitarists - Oliver Hunt
Creative Guitar (parts 1&2) - Guthrie Govan
Modern Reading Text in 44 - Louis Bellson
Chord Chemistry - Ted Greene
Modern Chord Progressions - Ted Greene

Friday, 8 May 2009

Restriction as the basis of development

I was recently asked to be “task master” for the guitarist collective forum. http://www.guitarcollective.org.uk/forum/ This is a great forum where each month a contributor nominates a taskmaster to give each of the forum regulars a challenge in the form of a composition which must be completed within the parameters of a given framework. This could be anything from using a slide, a strange time signature, only one position on a guitar fingerboard etc… something to make a guitar player think about what they are doing, and really ‘craft’ a piece instead of getting stuck in ruts by relying on familiar shapes and patterns. These monthly tasks are very useful challenges because they force people to think and react creatively and find new ideas on the guitar which they may not have had without thinking beyond their own ideas.

The task I proposed for May 2009 is based on an exercise I give my students all the time:

“Compose a piece for solo guitar, in any style (but so that it stands on it's own without any backing track or other instruments filling out sonic space) which uses only the inner 4 strings. Strings 2,3,4, and 5 are the boundaries, no notes to be played on either string 6, or string 1.”

When I give my students this exercise, it’s not just for composing. I use this exercise for improvising, technical exercises, everything! Because every technique you would use is ‘gated in’ with a string either side of the one you are playing on, it can't help but to develop your playing. Spending long periods of practice time working on the outer strings (1st and 6th) can actually develop a lot of bad habits because of the technical laziness which it is possible to get away with playing on these strings. For example, there is all the room anyone would possibly need to execute a picked down-stroke on the first string, and similarly, there is all the room anyone would possibly need to execute a picked up-stroke on the sixth string. These techniques require a new level of refinement when played on any of the other strings so to my mind, it makes sense that the inner four strings (2,3,4, and 5) are the strings on which technical skills should be practiced for the most productive and refined results. In my experience, when you move back to using all six strings after doing this kind of practice for any length of time, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for your guitar playing.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Guitar Teaching (part 2.1) “Knowledge Is Power?”

Originally posted on http://vapourstation.blogware.com/ 03 Nov 2008

There is a bizarre culture amongst guitarists to be very protective of what they know, and can do. When I first started posting ideas in the online forums, there was certainly a culture of resistance to what I said, and a sense of ‘Who is this guy to tell me how to practice?’, and ‘What right does this person have to post links in here to his ideas and online blogs on guitar playing?’ I never understood this because whenever I’ve seen anyone answer questions online, or post ideas about practicing, I’ve always thought that was generous of them to share their thoughts and ideas, and I and read what they’ve had to say with sincere interest. I asked myself recently where this culture actually comes from and what purpose this may serve. Whenever I play at any of the trade shows and someone expresses an interest in what I’m doing, I’ll break everything that I’m playing down into smaller fragments, play slowly, and score (or tab) what I’m doing out for anyone. It seems to me that in a situation where everything anyone would ever need to know (in terms of resources) is available online, why would anyone be at all protective of what they know? I guess knowledge is still 'power', but it's certainly worth being aware that this is only the case for people who don’t actually know very much.

Maybe my attitude is based on the fact that I actually wanted to teach, and I didn’t start taking on students out of necessity to survive or as a bittersweet compromise because I didn’t ‘make it’ as a player (as some guitar players do). From the very early days of my own teaching I was actually approached, and asked to teach by the co-ordinator of the local music service. My first teaching job wasn’t a job I applied for; it was one I was offered while I was still at 6th form college. Since that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been asked to do every teaching job I have ever done, and I’ve now had over 300 students pass exams at every level on guitar, piano, and double bass (using different exam boards including ABRSM and ‘Rockschool’ (where students have wanted to do that).

All this leads me to strongly believe that if you’re looking for someone to teach you how to play the guitar, it would be a good idea to look for someone who actually wants to do the job. You’ll get more out of a teacher who wants to share their skills and knowledge with you than anyone who is doing the job because they haven’t had the breaks they wanted with their playing career. There are loads of guitar players offering lessons, but I seriously doubt that they all actually want to do it.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Natural Ability on Guitar?

I frequently hear people speak of some guitarists as being ‘naturals’. Where guitar playing is a skill, the guitar itself (in it's current form) is an instrument which has had its basic shape and form invented, and then it has gone through a process of evolution. A guitar is not a natural instrument like the voice. As such, how can you attribute anything regarding the skills people need to play a guitar to be in any way natural?

The nature of a skill is that it is learned. Where there are people who have an aptitude for learning certain things at different speeds from others, that isn’t the acquisition of the skill itself, that’s the speed at which the skill is acquired. The skills required to play the guitar are obtainable by anyone (of ‘normal’ physical and mental capability) because of the nature of what a skill is.

If anyone has concerns about whether or not it’s possible to obtain the skill of guitar playing, they are unfounded. If anyone has concerns about how fast these skills may be developed, this is simply a question of how much effort you need to make. After that it’s just a matter of discipline, determination and perseverance. How much of each of these three things that you will need is relative to how good you want to be.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Guitar Teaching (part 1) “The Question”

Originally posted on http://vapourstation.blogware.com/ 01 May 2008

I’ve been criticised quite a lot over the years for various opinions and ideas that I’ve expressed about music. This applies to other things too, but there’s been a lot of “music controversy” that I’ve generated. In hindsight, some of the ideas that I’ve shared have actually faced some very cruel and disproportionate ridicule. I don’t usually talk about a lot of these things anymore to avoid a similar experience but in a conversation yesterday, I engaged in a discussion about one of these frequently criticised “crazy ideas”. This was an old favourite, referred to by a friend as simply “The Question”. This was a question that I used to ask guitar tutors as a method by which I could immediately assess what kind of level they were working on. The question itself is a very simple “What note is behind the eighth fret of the second string?” The responses I got to this question in general were disturbing. The number of people who I’ve met over the years who don’t know this, had to work it out slowly, or dismissed the question as irrelevant (who were actually offering guitar lessons) has been incredible! I’ve heard every excuse possible why you “don’t need to know this” to teach but my response to all of them has always been, “What if one of your students asked you this question?”, “Would you tell your students that they don’t need to know where a note is on the fingerboard of the guitar?”, “How would you explain to a parent of a pupil that this information isn’t necessary?”, and “What kind of message is that sending the next generation of players?”.

I’ve considered this question again and offered it much thought based around asking myself: “Is this excessively harsh?” I’ll admit that where knowing every note on the fingerboard isn’t knowledge which some of these guitar tutors have had, their students will have undoubtedly learned some things, and be empowered with an ability to play to a certain degree, and achieved a certain level of understanding about the guitar and theoretical concepts. However, with this “question” I can’t help feeling that the quality of the knowledge and understanding that the tutor has is an essential element within the ability to effectively teach. Where I’ve thought about this a lot, I can’t avoid returning to an old maxim that effective teaching is ultimately reliant of the quality of knowledge that a teacher has. Taking this into consideration, if anyone wants to teach guitar I would suggest that they adequately prepare themselves to be able to answer this kind of question.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

"Finishing" the study of the guitar?

Back in 1990, I read an interview in a magazine with Frank Gambale. Where his playing isn’t always to my taste, I find some of the things I’ve heard him play to be absolutely stunning, and I admire what he has done for the guitar, producing a lot of informative videos and books. Where the approach to the guitar that he discussed in the interview was very good, making a lot of logical sense, Gambale introduced the idea that there was an ‘end’ to the study of the guitar. This was something I struggled to grasp at the time, and while I’ve recently been working on the latest revision of the Contemporary Guitar Performance Workshop course and handbook (for which this blog was set up), I was drawn to the exploration of this “end of study” concept once more.

Since 1990 I’ve explored many ideas with the guitar which have all led me to believe that the concept of an “end” to the study of the guitar is actually quite ridiculous. I kept the magazine article because where I found the interview with Gambale to be interesting and informative; I also found it to be quite dictatorial and limited. It made me think a lot about the topics which he had discussed and it’s not often that magazine interviews and articles hold my attention or make me think as much as this one did.

The implication that Gambale himself had “completed” his study of the guitar in accordance with his own system was not something I felt at all comfortable with, and nearly 20 years later it seems that my initial problems with grasping the conceptual “end” of the study of the guitar were not without merit. This is because while I’ve been revising and updating my own book over the last 10 years, the notes that I’ve taken and ideas that I’ve jotted down have been reflective of a permanent state of evolution that my work has been in. I’ve always been looking for better ways in which I could explain or present ideas and concepts to the point where this has been a seemingly endless task. For a long time, I’ve thought that the point at which the very top players have reached the full technical potential of a musical instrument is the point at which that instrument would enter its next phase of evolution. Where the resources for learning how to play the guitar will naturally always be behind the cutting edge of guitar playing there will always be room to adapt, develop, and evolve the approach to learning the instrument. The ‘end’ is not a reachable goal, it is an ideological target which nobody will ever hit although on this (rare) occasion, the priority isn’t hitting the target, the priority here is about the quality of the journey towards it, and what we may actually find on our way there.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

"Progression" from electric to acoustic guitar

I’ve lost count of how many ‘creative’ acoustic guitar players are out there these days, slapping their instruments while hitting harmonics in open tunings and then telling a tired tale of how they have evolved from metal guitarists into somehow “superior” acoustic players. I play guitar. Sometimes it’s acoustic, sometimes classical (nylon string), sometimes electric. To me, none of them are superior or inferior to the others. I’ve never understood the idea that one may ‘progress’ from one type of guitar to another? How can an entire type of guitar be ‘better’ than another?

Speaking of the differences between acoustic and electric guitars (because it comes up in conversation all the time between players), I frequently draw comparisons to the differences between black & white, and colour photographs. Do professional photographers “only take black & white photos”? Or “only colour”? Of course they don’t. A fine black & white photograph has a timeless and truly stunning quality. A colour photograph has qualities of its own. Is one of these types of photograph in any way superior or inferior to the other? Aside from recognising that colour photographs are an evolutionary step from black & white, they are different things and cannot be compared.

While ideology pertaining to terminal equality between the electric and acoustic guitar may be well argued, there are some hard and inescapable facts which need to be recognised:

If you play electric guitar and can bash out a few, well played chords in a decent band, you can fill a large arena. The ‘creative’ acoustic guitar players will only have limited success because what they do has limited appeal. What they do has limited appeal because the nature of the style is limited. The well respected pioneers of creative acoustic guitar playing (Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, and a couple of potentially contentious and debatable others) played, and in Preston Reed and Tommy Emmanuel’s case, still play small venues. Yes, it is possible to make a living, but nobody is ever going to fill more than a small venue with an audience for it.

So what is better, a gallery of black & white, or colour photographs? Or is that a question which even applies when there is room for both? Looking at the cold, hard facts again, (using this analogy and extending this further), how many new digital cameras could you sell if they only took black & white photographs next to a camera that could do it all?

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Ultimate Guitar Lesson (part 2)

Where there are blogs all over the internet which present very little beyond being an outlet for some people to have a bit of winge, with my own blog I wanted to avoid having it perceived in this way and instead tried to reflect my thoughts and ideas in a more positive, informative, and useful way. Upon reading the “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” article (originally posted on http://vapourstation.blogware.com/ but re-published here) I noticed that this article was drifting alarmingly close towards the type of “winge blogs” that I’ve been seeking to avoid. Also since posting the original “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” article, I’ve thought about it a lot and concluded that I had only truly reflected half of what I was really thinking with the original post.

Before I bought the magazine advertising “The Ultimate Guitar Lesson” on the front cover, it did occur to me (albeit briefly) that there may well be the ultimate guitar lesson inside. Where I may have had serious doubts which were later confirmed, nobody knows it all, and it was perfectly feasible that there really was some great insight about learning how to play the guitar within the pages that I had never seen before. Where this wasn’t the case, in order that I may offer some substance to the articles I post online, I gave quite a lot of thought to what an “Ultimate Guitar lesson” would actually look like, and asked myself the following questions:

“What could I have found inside which would have impressed me?”

“What would the real ‘Ultimate Guitar Lesson’ look like?

“What would it absolutely need to contain in order that its immense promise would be fulfilled?”

By asking these questions, I started to carefully devise and formulate what I would have wanted to see. Anyone who has been teaching for any length of time would like to think that they are good at it, so devising my own “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” seemed like a good idea (however futile, na├»ve, or ludicrous this may appear, especially after I had all but written off the idea as an impossibility). What I would learn about the guitar, teaching, and myself by trying to do this would be worthwhile whatever the outcome.

What would my own “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” contain?

That it would contain aspects of guitar playing which I consider (subjectively) to be important (as an unavoidable inevitability) had already rendered it less than adequate, so that principle became my starting point which led me to ask some more, and better quality questions. Would techniques, repertoire, scales, modes, chords, arpeggios and how they all fit together actually be included within an “Ultimate Guitar Lesson”? These things are component parts of playing, but not necessarily the components parts of the ‘ultimate’ means by which a guitarist would learn them together with how they may most effectively use them, so why would they be within the lesson? What would actually be needed is the highest quality of learning tools, and an ultimate ‘approach’ to learning the guitar. That led me to consider this:

Where I had previously considered that music and theory had been “done” within all the books, videos, online lessons and tutorials that are available now, and that no more explanations in extension of the explanations already available are actually needed, with my own guitar publication (the Contemporary Guitar Performance Workshop) it’s been in a seemingly permanent state of evolution for a long time. It’s up to it’s third full-scale revision, and I’ve been returning to old ideas and re-working the formats and graphics in order that they may have the highest standard of clarity, and be most effectively presented for over 10 years! I’ve always been looking for better ways to express concepts and ideas, but lost all objectivity and failed to notice that this very fact was proof positive that new books, videos, and teaching resources will always be needed, and always be welcome as music itself evolves.

Maybe the ultimate guitar lesson is to realise that the approach to the instrument, the repertoire and the techniques, together with the means by which all these things may be learned and brought together, is in a permanent state of healthy evolution. Through exploring this, and upon asking myself these questions, I concluded that the “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” (for me), is not in techniques or musical vocabulary and ideas as to how these things may be brought together. The “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” would be an open-minded approach to the instrument which allows all theory and musical vocabulary to be most efficiently learned, and influences to be absorbed, filtered, processed, and then accumulated and amalgamated into your playing.

So how is this done? The best I can offer as an answer to this question at this time is that it is achieved by playing, and then focussing all your attention to listening and assessing the outcome of your playing. Is the outcome consistent with what you want to hear? If not, why not and how may you improve it? What resources may you draw upon to assist you as you do this? The “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” would need to be the ultimate approach to learning how to play the guitar. On one level, it’s different for everyone because of the vast and diverse aspirations that students of the guitar have, and the different ways in which people most effectively learn. On another level, the principles which underpin the approach (by playing, properly listening and assessing your playing, and then acting in accordance with the results of your assessment, knowing what resources you may draw upon to help you do that) have stood the test of time, are reliable, dependable, and consequently they have an immeasurable valuable. With room for improvement as a matter of inescapable inevitability, for now that is what I would offer as my closest description of what the “Ultimate Guitar Lesson” may be.

The Ultimate Guitar Lesson (part 1)

This blog entry was originally posted on my http://vapourstation.blogware.com/ page. I’m re-producing it again here because this blog was set up to be more focussed on the topic of the guitar. Since I’ve written a post which follows on directly from this one, I felt that it would make sense to re-produce it here so that the second part follows on logically:

Because I undertake quite a lot of teaching work, I read a lot of the guitar magazines. This is in order to keep in touch with recent developments in terms of new bands, new music, and new players, as well as keeping up to date with new innovations and equipment. All of these magazines contain some form of technique section where transcriptions of songs are published, chords, scales, modes and their use is explained and demonstrated, or a particular guitarist’s playing style may be examined and explored.

Not too long ago I encountered the cover of a guitar magazine which advertised “The Ultimate Guitar Lesson”.

I usually buy this particular magazine, but this time I struggled to get beyond my immediate reaction to the fact that this magazine had actually gone so far as to have the arrogance and temerity to advertise “The Ultimate Guitar Lesson” across the front cover! I bought, and carefully read the magazine so that I may comment fairly on this matter, but what I found was that what was contained within the magazine fell a long way short of the claim which was made on the front cover. I question my own judgement all the time, and reassess my thoughts and opinions regularly, so naturally I questioned my reaction and wondered whether or not I was being excessively judgemental, but in this case I sincerely don’t think I overreacted. This is because to be offered “The Ultimate Guitar Lesson” demonstrates a deep and manipulative use of the position a magazine is assumed to have as far as the casual magazine buying guitar player is concerned. Guitar magazines actually set themselves up as their own, unregulated authority on the subject of guitar playing which in itself is fair enough so long as the contents of the magazine are quantified as opinion where necessary and appropriate, and what is offered is accurate, balanced and fair. In this case, a blatant lie was spread across the front cover in order to sell it!

If there were such a thing as an ultimate guitar lesson, it would successfully render every other guitar lesson obsolete. Within a guitar magazine, what the “ultimate guitar lesson” would offer you, if it were true, is a one-step solution to every technical and musical difficulty you may ever have in every style, on every kind of guitar! You would never need to take another lesson, or buy another magazine again. Every technique article in every previous edition of the magazine would be rendered obsolete. Every technique article ever to be published in the future would be rendered obsolete.

What’s the bottom line on all this?

Where guitar magazines are concerned, question what you are being told. What you are being told, is what you are being sold. Buy a magazine with your common sense and judgement and don’t always believe what is spread across the front cover. The cover of a magazine is always a well-constructed sales pitch for the magazines contents (which is fair enough if the contents can live up to the hype), never where the contents cannot back up what the sales pitch claims.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

What scales work over which chords?

When I'm teaching improvisation, one of the most commonly asked questions is “Which scales work over what chords?” I frequently answer this question by pointing out that it depends entirely on what you consider the 'working' to mean?

What is a scale ‘working’ over a chord anyway?

Where this may appear not to answer the question at all and be a thoroughly unhelpful digression into the philosophical implications of perception, it’s actually worth thinking about because the whole idea that certain ‘prescribed’ scales work over certain chords, chord types, or chord sequences is actually rendering music and improvisation a sterile by-product of a prescribed approach, and a institutionalised ‘system’.

Using jazz as an example, there are some people who hate this style of music for whom the whole idea of a scale “working” over a chord or chord sequence (as a player improvises) is as far removed from a good idea as can be! Some may consider a scale ‘working’ over a chord progression to be dull, boring, and most probably the least inspirational music they may be exposed to. While rightfully entitled to their opinion, to what extent is this scale ‘working’ for them? It isn’t, so does the scale ‘work’ with the chord or chord sequence? It depends who is listening, and in the space between the extremes in musical taste (someone who hates jazz, and a jazz lover) the question of whether or not, and if so the extent to which a scale may ‘work’ over a chord, has many, many manifestations of answer, none right nor wrong, none more or less accurate than the previous or last, and the reason the question “Which scales work over what chords?” is ultimately vague, subjective, and with no real definitive answer.

Clearly it’s a good thing to learn which scales work over certain chords in a conventional sense. This starting point is invaluable for the serious and committed student of improvisation, but as I frequently say to my students, the scales, modes, and arpeggios which are most commonly ‘prescribed’ to work over certain chords and sequences don’t actually serve to help you to sound good. They serve to help you avoid sounding bad (which is not the same thing). Who wants to sound good anyway? Doesn’t the aspiring guitarist want to sound ‘great’? Don’t they want to play with their own voice, unrestricted by any technical or musical constraints that may stand in the way of them truly expressing what they really mean? The idea that someone wants to sound ‘good’ seems like one step too close to mediocrity when compared with the actual level that a player may aspire to!

Still want to know which scales work over which chords? You can find all that information on the internet.

Wouldn’t you rather know how to be a great guitarist? To find that out, the only way is to think about what scales ‘working’ over chords means to you, and then asking some better, and more personal questions about it regarding how you really want to sound.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Guitar adventures


It's simple, seemingly the easiest instrument to begin to learn but one of the hardest to truly master. There is no other instrument which can boast so much many magazine publications, discussion, divided opinion on design, wood choices for construction, construction methods, performance, teaching, and appreciation. It's a six string monster that has ended many a potentially fine relationship, started and ended many heated debates, caused as much misery and disillusionment as it has generated and inspired hope, but never been surrendered by anyone who has been captivated by it.

Beyond it's simplicity, it's an immeasurably powerful musical instrument which is capable of far more than any one player has ever discovered. Whatever any player has ever achieved in terms of technical and musical accomplishment, the guitar has always had seemingly inexhaustable potential in reserve to inspire the next generation of explorers.

It's our six stringed common ground that I've set this blog up to discuss, and share my thoughts on. I also set this blog up to be the "official" online blog directly related to the 'Contemporary Guitar Performance Workshop' project, course, and handbook.