Tuesday, 28 December 2010

New Year: Old Wisdom (part 2)

As the end of another year draws closer once more, I've found myself in a somewhat familiar annual position of organisation, planning, and making all my usual lists of goals for the year to come, reflecting on what I've learned, and continually returning to time tested wisdom which I tend to look to often when it comes to making plans. I mention this because it's only really time tested wisdom (together with experience) that can authoritatively guide the decision making process. Time tested wisdom is such a valuable resource when it comes to making plans that I don't make any plans without carefully considering it. I might set all my eccentric and fearless goals with uninhibited ambition, but the strategies and planning that I devise in order that I may reach these goals are always guided by a more reliable and dependable resource of wisdom.

I've tried to accumulate quite a bit of what I've learned into the following, but as it stands I would wish it to be considered unfinished. This is because I strongly believe that everything can be improved, and that while this is my own (current) thoughts, I believe that they ought to be considered from an individuals point of view, and then modified to include and incorporate thoughts and feelings from their own experience. This makes time tested wisdom more personal and relevant which is at the core of the Contemporary Guitar Performance Workshop philosophy:

Time and money are two things that we only get to spend once. With an unlimited supply of each, we could achieve anything with sufficient, focussed work. Without an unlimited supply of each, we must work smarter rather than harder, and remember that success is born of the level on which we think, not the level on which we work. We must act, and then we must watch and listen, thinking carefully about what we see and hear. We must continually assess the outcome of our actions and react and adapt to the results of our continual assessment. From here we empower ourselves to succeed. From here we are no longer guessing what may work. By ensuring that our decisions are guided by our experiences, we may remain focussed on targets, reassured that with each guided decision that we make, we are drawing closer to our desired outcome, aware of where we have been before, never to be condemned to repeat the same mistakes, for there is only one "true" mistake, and this is to fail to learn from a mistake.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Workload and Awareness

As ever, there are times when workload can have an impact on guitar playing and guitar practice, and the last few weeks have been a good example of that for me. Rehearsals and recording sessions have been the priority recently and at the end of these kind of days, the last thing anyone wants to do is sit down and actually 'practice'. It can also feel like it isn't necessary when playing a lot, but the actual impact that rehearsals have on playing is almost always 'reinforcement' of what you can already do. It is only on rare occasions that skills will be developed in these circumstances, and new ideas and concepts introduced to playing when undertaking heavy rehearsal and recording workloads.

What this brings me to is the importance of awareness as to how your playing is developing, or rather, how your playing is being shaped by your actions. There is actually nothing wrong with spending a period of time rehearsing and recording and it's often a necessary part of being a professional musician but to remain aware of where your playing is at, and where is it is going is imperative if you don't want to lose the skills you've worked hard to develop. For example, if you are aware that you have a lot of playing to do which will be using one technique exclusively for a period of time, it may well be worth developing a short, concise, but highly focused practice routine which exclusively explores other techniques and commits a period of time to reinforcing those, just so that you don't end up losing them to the commitment of time to only one thing. Similarly, if you are going to be playing a lot of single note soloing, devising a similar routine to explore rhythm playing techniques and chordal work would help balance out your playing. Reading notation is another skill area which can suffer if rehearsals and recordings are for a bands original material (where it will be rehearsed and recorded without the aid of notation), so it may be worth devising a practice routine to reinforce those, especially since this skill can be one of the most difficult to develop because in the practice of reading skills there is little in the way of immediate rewarding guitar sound!

In conclusion, remaining aware of how you are working with the guitar is affecting your skills and ability to play it is imperative if you are to guide your playing in the direction you want to take it. Look at what you are actually doing with the guitar and ask yourself how much that is affecting your playing and how much it is reinforcing certain skill areas, and more importantly, try to identify where you could improve this situation by devising short, concise, and focussed little practice routines to directly address this.

Monday, 6 September 2010

New Academic Year: Old Wisdom (part 1)

As we start the new academic year, a lot of people are having to re-acclimatize to a new head state. No more mornings of waking up at 10am, and back to work, and the old "routine".

Routine is very healthy for progress, and while it can take a while to get used to after a long break, it's absolutely one of the best things for practice. It needs to be guided by sound principles though, because the wrong kind of routine can actually be counter-productive. The way to ensure that the routine you're returning to is going to give you the results you want and the benefits of your work, it's good to have some kind of simple points of focus to maintain your work on the right course towards your objectives.

This is one of the sentences which I use a lot in the thinking skills project that I've been teaching in workshops, and one of the best ways in which routine should be guided:

"You live, the way you think"

Simple and straightforward, but then all the very best ideas often are. Think of this as you plan your routine, and you won't go far wrong.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Left Hand Dexterity and Control

This is the tab which accompanies the youtube video lessons called "Left Hand Dexterity and Control" in 2 parts. The 'Real' version (rather than this hand written one which was scanned into the computer) is going to be available soon with the new project update/revision.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Contemporary Guitar Performance Workshop Facebook Group

Since the whole of the internet seems to be in a slow process of being taken over a day at a time by facebook, I felt it only sensible to have the CGPW project represented there. I can hardly complain, since I'm on that site quite a bit. The CGPW facebook group can be found here:

Please join, and invite friends who you feel may be interested!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Free Bass Workshop

On 20th August I'm going to be doing a FREE bass guitar workshop/seminar.

Where I'm probably better known as a guitar player, I play (and teach) piano and bass/double bass in equal measure and after the guitar workshops that I've been doing I was recently asked if I would do this for bass guitar.

Anyone wanting any more details/directions etc it's in the Fuzzbox rehearsal studios building (Wigan) 01942 230888


Extracts from "An Evening with a Bass Guitar":

Monday, 2 August 2010

Seeking the Truth (part 2)

Yet again the debates on the music radar forum have given me sufficient cause to assemble my thoughts on another topic very much important to making progress when studying the guitar.

When it comes to making real and valuable progress when studying an instrument, an open mind is essential. I've been playing and teaching a long time but I didn't realise until relatively recently how much some people are very protective of their knowledge, and close-minded in both their playing, and their approach to learning. Where it may seem strange to some people, I actually make a point of taking lessons with pretty much anyone who I feel I can learn from and I've made enquiries with some people from the music radar forum (Sir Axeman, who declined, and fantastic blues/slide guitarist Lewy), and in time I'm hoping that at some point I will get around to taking a lesson with Clarky, Lewy, and Thing (other music radar forum contributors and great players in their own right) because these people do things and play the guitar from a different musical and cultural background from myself.

Where nothing more than my own blinkered view of the world is informing my playing, my potential to grow and develop as a player will forever be unnecessarily limited unless I explore the guitar with an open mind. My own playing is very much informed by what I've learned from others which is directly related to taking a very open-minded attitude to playing and learning. My approach to teaching is very similar, and if I have any students who take an interest in a style of playing or particular technique which I know some very good other local teachers specialize in, I'm sufficiently well networked with them to always have a referral option if people want to study with a through and through "purist", (similarly these teachers refer their own students to me if they feel that they want to explore the kind of things I do).

While I'm of the strong opinion that there is more about music that we don't know than we will ever learn, I'll find it difficult to accept that any one teacher will ever be able to offer anything more than what they have learned (which by it's very nature will be limited), and let's face it, who want's to limit themselves when it comes to learning how to play the guitar?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Reading Music Notation for Guitar (part 1)

Standard notation is the shared language of music for all instruments. Where it can sometimes appear complicated, the process of learning notation is not as difficult as some people assume. The principles of time signatures, key signatures, pulse, tempo, rhythm, and pitch are not at all difficult to understand if they are properly and clearly explained. Musical notation is a language, and like all languages it will take time to learn, understand, read, and write fluently. This is a commonly overlooked aspect of notation which people don’t always understand. In "the west", quick results and understanding are a measure of success. Notation cannot be learned in an afternoon. Time will need to be committed to its study in order that you may benefit from a strong understanding of it.

There are two factors, which make the process of learning to read music for the guitar a little more difficult than some other instruments, but again this should not present too many problems if this is properly and clearly explained:

  1. The guitar has an unusual range. This range doesn’t sit comfortably in any standard musical clef. The lowest note on the guitar would usually be written in the bass clef on a ledger line below the stave! The highest note (which is different for different instruments) can reach up to five octaves higher (usually about 4 ½ octaves higher). Taking this into consideration, music for the guitar is read exclusively in the treble clef and transposed 1 octave higher. This means that the notes that are played from notation, would actually sound one octave lower than they are written.
  1. Most of the notes on the fingerboard of a guitar can be found in 4, or even 5 different places because of the nature of stringed instruments. This makes learning to read notation, taking a holistic view of the instrument, as a point of departure particularly awkward because of the options available to you. Eventually this can become an advantage, and offer many interesting ideas concerning "phrasing" when interpreting notated music, or arranging music for a guitar which has been written for another instrument.

Learning to Read Notation

There are different schools of thought as to how music notation is best learned for the guitar. They have evolved through different pedagogical ideas, but have a tendency to be style-specific. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The culture of "classical" guitar (within which a strong reading ability is considered favourable) offers a range of successful methods of developing this skill (for this style) although I don’t consider practice at reading certain rhythms or phrasing (which are alien to the classical guitar style) to always be adequately covered using these programmes. Some styles of playing require the student of "guitar reading" to offer particular attention to a broader range of ideas than to just follow any one reading method or course. Here are four examples of different approaches to the study of the same subject:

  1. Single string method. This is a good, effective method of learning to read notes. It is based on the idea that you learn how to read the notes in the same way that the guitar has evolved over the years. Once there was an early incarnation of the guitar with only one string, so why not learn to play and read notation in the same way that the guitar has developed over the centuries? Disadvantages include the time it takes to reach the point where you can play chords. Chords make up a lot of guitar playing across a range of styles.
  1. Classical positional method. A tried and tested method within which all the notes on one position are learned before moving into the next. This works very well in covering the subject of note duplication but only really offers advantages to players who wish to remain "thoroughbred" classical guitarists. Using standard classical repertoire, more contemporary rhythms and phrases are not always offered sufficient practice without diversifying reading study. There is another school of thought which is very similar although the starting point here is the 5th position. This method is based on the principle that the fifth position contains notes covering the broadest readable range within the actual range of the instrument. There are only 5 notated notes below this position and (practically) only about another 10 above it. It is also the position closest to where many guitarists remain when sight reading (see "sight reading").
  1. Learning between 6 and 8 notes as they appear within different positions method. This is an attempt at a "happy medium" between the single string and classical positional method. Simple repertoire is played in different positions using only a small number of notes at a time before learning more. This method works well but again suffers from the time it takes to learn chords.
  1. Scale Position learning. Frequently, the wider applications of learning scales are lost when guitar players practice. Fingerboard familiarity when it comes to scale knowledge is very useful when it comes to reading, as it simplifies key signatures (using many sharps and flats). This is because the notation may be played "off the scale form" rather than for each note to be considered on its own merits (which many players do when first learning to read in different keys). I would however, suggest that too much reliance on shapes and patterns is not good, especially when reading because "accidentals" need to be accommodated as quickly as the piece is moving!

By far the best way to learn would be to combine the best, most effective and useful aspects of all of the methods you can find. There are no rules governing learning to read and no method requires that you stick to it for any given length of time for it to be successful. Any disadvantages of any given method can be quickly remedied by changing what you are doing. A well-balanced approach will offer the best results. You can always start with chords, since chords are the basis of a large amount of the playing within many different styles. Learning chords first using the simple letter notation for chord types would make sense before moving on to notation. Depending on the style, chords are usually the only aspect of notation which appear differently, either in standard notation or as letters and numbers. To some extent, learning to use chords will offer you an insight into some aspects of notation like pulse and rhythm before you learn the notes. Whatever you try, if it doesn’t seem to be working, change it. There are lots of options.

Guitar Tablature

Tablature is a musical notation language that is almost exclusively for the guitar (although it can be used to notate music for other fretted string instruments). Advantages that tablature offers include the clear presentation of where something is to be played on the fingerboard of the guitar. There are many options available as to where something may be played through note duplication and tablature can help to clarify some difficult or unusual chord shapes. Tablature can also assist with clarity where musical passages which are idiomatic for the guitar are notated, especially where the use of open strings or the use of multiple positions for playing the same note are concerned. While it is important to be aware of tablature and understand how to read it there are many reasons why it is significantly inferior to standard notation. Historically, there has been no instrument-specific language of music which has ever survived. In fairness, there are always exceptions to rules and tablature for guitar has enjoyed more success than any other instrument specific language recently. This is largely due to its adoption by contemporary guitar magazine culture as the musical language that is used extensively, although using tablature, there is often inadequate presentation of note values and rhythms. No other musicians (other than guitarists) can write it because no one else has any reason to learn it. Absolutely anyone can read it, but often they won’t be able to play anything that they don’t already know because of the frequent lack of accurate rhythmic information which is an essential part of notated music! Where in the initial stages of learning pieces of music or learning where notes can be found on the fingerboard of a guitar, tablature can be a useful learning tool; in the longer term I would suggest that the use of standard notation is significantly superior.


Dependent on how good you want to become at it, "Sight-Reading" is worth defining first. If you want to be able to play "any" music fluently from notation, then you need familiarity with the notes and note values as they appear in standard notation (together with key signatures and dynamic markings), and a thorough knowledge of the fingerboard on a guitar. Guitarists are actually notorious for being bad sight readers (even classical guitarists who have read notation from the outset of their playing). This is because the real core of "sight reading skills" as people understand them to be are developed in ensemble situations. The classical guitar isn’t in ensembles in the same way that orchestral instruments are, and bands which have guitars in them don’t often read notation, even in rehearsal situations.

There are numerous books which deal exclusively with sight reading but if you want to become a seriously proficient sight reader, (after learning the basics of notation, and familiarising yourself with the notes on the fingerboard of the guitar) in my experience the best method is to actually simulate this ensemble situation. You will need a metronome, quite a bit of patience and discipline, and some music. Take a piece (or a book), set the metronome going at a realistic speed (which, aside from keeping an accurate pulse, is actually serving to simulate the rest of an ensemble), start at the beginning and do not stop until you get to the end of the piece. Remember that you are simulating an ensemble situation. If you make a mistake in an orchestral rehearsal, you keep going no matter what, the conductor will not wait for you, and neither will the other orchestra members. If you engage in regular, disciplined and considered practice in this way (with a clearly defined objective) for just 10 to 15 minutes a day, in a short time your reading skills will have developed considerably.

Nik Harrison

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Emphasis as a Basis for Phrasing (part 2)

Some people have been asking for examples of this so I thought I would share one of my own pieces here which uses this very technique:

Silently Stealing Sleighbells

This piece is mostly triplet quavers (triplet eighth notes at 132bpm) which are played as a consistent rhythmic figure throughout two of the three sections which are the component parts of the arrangement for this piece.

Because each note has a different emphasis and in this performance particular attention was payed to the way each note relates to the one next to it, the piece has a melody which is shaped by emphasis rather than by rhythmic variation.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Seeking the Truth (part 1)

Before I even start, I'll contextualize this as 'my opinion only' to avoid too much of a backlash. I'm claiming no 'authority' here and only sharing my view on a topic which I've found myself discussing over the last few weeks.

One fundamental factor which determines how we formulate our ideas and gain strength in our convictions and beliefs is our perception of the concept of 'perceived authority'. This can sometimes have a dark and questionable role to play in the formation of opinions, and consequently 'recorded and referenced music theory'. I'm mentioning this because across a wealth of well respected textbooks on the subject of music theory, there are multiple contradictions. Which one is right? Which publication can claim 'authority'? Guitar magazines do this all the time, but how much is this appropriate?

I contribute quite a bit to Paul Clark's forum where I set up a good natured and well intentioned "Theory Challenge" thread which turned into a healthy ground for discussion and good natured debate on certain concepts and ideas. The 'tetrachord concept' was one such idea where 'misconception central' caused a whole load of problems. Most of the following blog entry is taken directly from my contribution to this debate, although since it was pertained to some ideas I had been working on for this blog, I thought it appropriate to share it here.

There are multiple interpretations of "tetrachords" which all have a measure of value (within a permanently evolving system of music theory), although I'm not convinced by some of them, and I think the dissection and subsequent re-labeling of a lot of theoretical concepts sometimes serve the purpose of doing no more than justifying certain 'contemporary' pieces by certain composers who, incidentally, were also influential and instrumental in the editing and devising of some contemporary music theory textbooks. This has led to some very shallow and tentative ideas which have been recorded, studied by some, then held up to be 'the truth' and widely referenced a little too often, where in actual 'truth' they have often been artificially devised to attempt to explain a musical idea which is a long way removed from the comfortable and well established tonal system.

Where do we get our 'truth' from? It's always the case that 'trusted sources' are often the best place to look for such a truth but unfortunately there is a lot of misplaced self-importance, ego, and thoroughly deplorable arrogance amongst some academics (especially those who consider themselves to be in a position to write textbooks on music theory) which has offered a wealth of contradictory suggestions, advice, labeling, and concepts which I would consider all to be highly questionable. Whilst I might be (in a sense) an academic (and to this end, making my own claims with no more or less 'authority' than others) I always try to teach (especially at a high level) that the truth comes from the careful, intelligent, and multiple referencing of as many publications as the student may lay their hands on to as exhaustive a conclusion as possible. Speak to as many learned people as possible for the benefit of their experience and view, and you will formulate an opinion of much greater value than to blindly trust and one source.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Emphasis as a Basis for Phrasing (part 1)

This is another blog which takes a step backwards from a previous idea rather than forwards. It’s another simple exercise (as with all the best exercises), which is very useful for developing better control over the way you sound. Control is one of the most under-used words when it comes to practice but it’s absolutely the most desirable thing to be able to do with your playing. Using a scale (or mode) over two octaves, try the following emphasis exercises:

Emphasis exercise 1:

Using a scale (or mode), play each note in sequence using equal note values. Use either all crotchets (quarter notes), or quavers (eighth notes) but play an accented note on every 3rd note in the scale as you ascend and descend over 2 octaves.

Emphasis exercise 2:

Using a scale (or mode), play each note in sequence using equal note values, play an accented note on every 4th note in the scale as you ascend and descend over 2 octaves.

Emphasis exercise 3:

In a 2-octave diatonic scale (inclusive of the tonic at both ends) there are 15 different notes.

Chose 3 random numbers between 1 and 15. Now using a scale (or mode), play each note in sequence using equal note values, play an accented note on each orf the 3 tones which correspond with the 3 numbers you have chosen. Accent the same 3 tones when descending.

These simple exercises develop a lot of control which is often missing from guitar players technical facility, especially where a lot of electric guitarists use compression (which limits the amount of dynamic control over your playing by design!). if you use a compressor pedal, make sure it’s switched off for this exercise (as with all other effects).

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Phrasing with Scales and Modes (part 1)

I've had no end of requests about modes since I first started the phrasing module.

Am I going to be covering modes/phrasing with modes?

While I've had some really good, supportive feedback about the first 2 videos, I probably didn't make it clear enough in the post "New Year, New Ideas" that the first 2 videos are supposed to serve as an example of what can be done with a scale. It happened to be a Bb major scale that I used in the example, but in truth it could have been any scale, any mode. Pentatonic, blues scales, even arpeggios can be practiced using this principle of breaking up the rhythm, and experimenting with different note values and rests between them but remaining within the restricted framework of completing the scale (or arpeggio) over however many octaves as you wish. It was meant to serve as an example of a principle rather than just as a major scale exercise.

If building familiarity with different scales and modes is necessary, then I would suggest that is done before attempting to explore different rhythms while playing them in their ascending and descending forms. Scale diagrams and information about what (and where) all the modes are can be found all over the internet. A quick google search will offer you all the information you will ever need, and some clear scale diagrams are well presented on a lot of good education websites.

Getting back to the phrasing module, there are two directions that I can go in from those first videos. The first is to explore different scales, modes, arpeggios, pentatonic and blues scale choices etc... and thoroughly go through a lot of different sounds and effects that these tonalities can bring. The other direction I could go in is to explore the dynamics of movement within a scale more thoroughly. Maybe changing direction once or twice over a 2 octave scale instead of always needing to complete it over 2 octaves before either ascending or descending once more. Maybe explore intervals? The list of options here is immense.

What I had planned to do next was to explore more 'melodic movement choices' rather than tonalities, although since I've been asked about this a lot, I'm probably going to explore both of these things.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Asking Better Questions (part 1)

I vividly rememeber a time at music college when the question "What is art?" set off the first academic year with the intention of generating some healthy discussion about it. Maybe it was also to challenge preconceived ideas or to expand thoughts that people may already have on the subject, but my recollection of this day was of a very defensive position that one lecturer took when I suggested that the question "What is art?" was actually quite limited, and that perhaps the topic may be better addressed by asking "Where is art?" "When is art?" "How is art?" and even "Why is art?". Judging by the reaction I got, I don't think these questions fit into that particular lecturers 'plan', and as I learned quickly, you can't go against 'the plan' in an established academic setting. To challenge 'the plan' is to challenge the institution itself, and they don't like that very much. For anyone else, outside an institutionalised educational setting who may wish to explore an idea and develop a deeper understanding of a topic beyond some elses 'plan', asking better questions is a very good way to achieve that.

What this brings me to is an important set of questions which can be asked of anything, and for the current focus on phrasing, "What is phrasing?" can generate some interesting answers, but how about "Where is phrasing?" "When is phrasing?" "How is phrasing?" or even "Why is phrasing?". Proper grammar might sometimes be difficult to fit with these questions, but what they pertain to is there, and exploring the answers to these 'better questions' can lead to some useful insights that in turn, can better inform what it is you're trying to do.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Phrasing Videos

I've had a couple of messages letting me know that the videos I embedded into the "New Year, New Ideas" post don't always seem to work.

I don't know how to fix this problem beyond posting the links to these videos on youtube which are here:

Sunday, 17 January 2010


The next blog I was going to post on here was going to be the next installment of the phrasing module that I've been working on and teaching this month although I've been working on the Contemporary Guitar Performance Workshop main course over this week, and I've been working through the closing section which contains some ideas which are very much consistent with what I've found myself sharing with my students when they've tried some of the exercises for developing their skills with phrasing.

From the closing section:

"Take each new piece of information, each new idea, each concept, and each person’s perspective, and use it as a starting point for your own exhaustive experimentation and explorations. If you take onboard other peoples ideas and consider them to be ends unto themselves then that's what you will confine them to be through perspective. Avoid putting things into this 'perspective prison', and try to recognise where other people do this. Some people protect their ideas, opinions, work, and attitudes by presenting it to the world in such a way that you can easily get the impression that there is no other way some things can be done (it’s a favourite amongst politicians). This is sometimes true when it comes to cold, hard facts, but not always. Keep your mind open, and what seems impossible can sometimes be exposed as just a good challenge, and not clear cut 'impossibility'."

Saturday, 2 January 2010

New Year, New Ideas...

Hello, and happy new year!

This year, I'm going to be focussing on quite a lot of phrasing in the modules that I'm teaching. There is so much information on scales, chords, picking etc with loads of exercises everywhere, that I thought that to focus on phrasing, and really look at it in depth would be offering some "value", rather than to re-print pages of scales and picking patterns so that people can develop the skills required to play super fast scale and arpeggio runs.

While I've called this blog entry "New Year, new ideas", I'm actually going to start with some old ideas from my youtube channel:

"Phrasing part 1"

"Phrasing part 2"

These video lessons, while in essence very simple, actually get to the very root of what "phrasing" really is and offer a good starting point. As a very general rule, (and as always there are exceptions), phrasing is a question of stepping outside the patterns which people seem to practice, but not in terms of notes, in terms of note values and rests. Patterns generate a measure of predictability, but breaking patterns generate a measure of interest. Music actually requires a measure of both of these things. If you think in terms of sentences and paragraphs, and never fear rests and leaving space, you will be "speaking with your instrument" rather than just rambling off a scale you may have learned. Spaces contextualise your note choices and give them a position in time which is essentially what phrasing is all about. "Note choices in context".

In the words of Buddy Guy: "Notes are just a way of getting from one silence to another."

More of my video lessons can be found online here