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 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 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 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.