Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Parable Of My Mate Phil

This is a true story. The names may or may not have been changed to protect the innocent, and the definitely guilty.

I'd like to begin this with a confession. I, James Martin, professional guitar teacher, Licentiate of the London College of Music, guitarist of almost 25 years standing – am a complete and utter pedant. A pedagogical fascist.

And I make no apologies for that. The reason – Phil. Old mate of mine, lovely chap, but when it came to guitar playing he had the gift of setting your teeth on edge. You see, although Phil had several years experience on me, he clearly hadn't been paying particularly close attention to what he was doing. For example, his grip when doing barre chords was skewed to the point where every single string was being bent about a quarter tone out of tune, resulting in a major chord being morphed into the kind of sound used in North Korean concentration camps to break the spirits of their inmates.

Now, this is a big deal. As a musician, you are only as good as how you sound. For us guitar players, whos technique foundations are built on shapes, this is an extra specially big deal, as you can have the shape but not the sound ifyou're not careful about your technique. And if you don't have the sound, you don't have anything.

A wise man (named Justin Sandercoe, but that's for another day) proclaimed the truth that “practice doesn't make perfect – it makes permanent”. And he was dead right. So for 35 years , Phil has been practicing himself steadily worse. Day by day by day.

So, what can we do to avoid the Phate of Phil? LISTEN. Listen to your chords, play them as arpeggios. Listen to your bends, make sure they're in tune. Listen to your drum machine or metronome. Ifi it doesn't sound good, then STOP doing it, look at what you're doing and chnge it

Friday, 12 April 2019

“Everything, All The Time” - Or, Bad Practice Habits and How To Get Out Of Them.

Time. Contrary to the Rolling Stones' classic song, in the real world it's never on your side. Or certainly never seems to be- there's always something demanding your attention. Certainly, it's a rare lesson that doesn't begin with a student apologising because they've not had much time to practoce – pressures of work, education, family etc. all combine to make it difficult to find half an hour a day to put in to playing guitar at all, let alone practicing and concentrating on new stuff.

I have actually done a video and article on “pitstop practicing”  - short but intense bursts where you focus in n just one thing, whether that's a new lick, a chord change that's been giving you trouble or whatever – but this month I want to focus on something that more experienced players often fall foul of.

As your skills improve, and you're able to do more things, that of course means you have more stuff you need to practice to simply maintain those skills, let alone learn any new ones. So a practice session can seem like a mountain to climb, working through all the stuff you know before you can start on something new- a perfect example of this was a student of mine a few years ago, who was struggling to combine his Grade 5 with the demands of a regularly gigging band. Although he was diligently setting a couple of hours a day aside for practice, he would play through the band's entire set before trying anything new. Every time, This meant that over ¾ of his practice session was running over the same things, keeping them fresh – or so his thinking was. To be fair, I can completely understand where he was coming from, as when I joined my first semi pro band back in (gasp) the 90s, I thought and did exactly the same thing.

Problem is, by the time you come to try anything new, your concentration is shot, and if you've been playing for over an hour you probably want a bit of a break – cup of tea, check your emails – and that further eats into the tiny bit of time you've left yourself for learning anything new. So this way, things very quickly become stale. Add to this the pressure of an exam and it's quite natural to start thinking “Sod it, I'm going to play something I want to play, not something I'm supposed to play”. Of course, the problem for me as a teacher is I'm trying to get this student through their Grade 5, as that's what they've told me their goal for the year is. It doesn't take a genius to see how this can potentially lead to friction, despite the student in question being talented, diligent and hard working. And of course at that point, the whole thing is going to nose dive.

However, as I have made virtually every mistake it is possible to make on my journey learning the guitar- although I'm sure there's a few out there I'm yet to discover – I recognised where he was coming from, and we sat down to talk about practice habits and came up with a plan. If you have an hour a day, five days a week (because you're off gigging at weekends) as an example, and you're trying to balance a set and a grade exam, try this approach:

5 minutes – technical exercises from grade book. 1-2 scales, 1-2 arpeggios, 1-2 chords, style study. Rotate the scales/ arpeggios/ chords – eg Monday, major scale & major pentatonic, Tuesday natural minor scale and minor pentatonic.

5 minutes – sight reading/ improv & interpretation/ melodic recall/ harmonic recall/ general musicianship. Pick a different one each day.

20 minutes – grade repertoire. MAXIMUM two tracks – play through, look for mistakes. Spend a minute on each mistake, then play through the track again. Rotate so that every track is played over the week.

Remaining 30 minutes – band repertoire. A good trick here is to put all the songs into an iTunes (or equivalent – I've now switched to Music Bee) playlist, hit shuffle, and see what it throws at you. But, here's a twist – if the song has a solo, or a particularly noticeable guitar part (for instance, the Sweet Child O'Mine intro), before you play along with the whole song, play that part on your own as slowly as you possibly can. Yes, you read that right – the challenge is to really control the notes, the string noise, the vibrato. Take everything out of the instinctive 90% of your brain and back into the conscious 10% so you can look for bad habits and work your way out of them.

Result? You're spending less time but achieving a great deal more progress than simply being stuck in a rut and thinking that you've got to practice everything you know every time you pick up the guitar for a practice session. Practice therefore becomes much less of a slog and much more enjoyable – with the result that you do more of it and engage with it a lot more, leading to more progress!

So that's this month's thought, hope it helps some of you out there who feel a little overwhelmed or frustrated. Drop a comment to let me know your thoughts, and happy practicing!

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A Little Knowledge....

..Can be a MASSIVE time saver.

This month's post originated in a dep gig some time back in 2014, when I was asked to stand in with my old friends in - but you know me, I like to mull things over.

One of the songs I'd been asked to learn was the Will.I.Am track “Happy”, and I've got to admit, I struggled a bit at first – I found the first chord, Cm, without an issue, but just couldn't find what followed it. Certainly, none of the diatonic chords I tried fitted the bill and I found myself at a loss – so I did what I normally do in these circumstances, and ditch the guitar in favour of the keyboard.


Well, actually, here me out. Now, as guitar players, we tend to be quite lazy with chords. Talk to most guitarists about triads and inversions, even quite experienced ones, and you're most likely to be met with a blank stare and a “huh”? Whereas keyboard players will learn these things in the first couple of months. This is for a couple of reasons: on guitar, we think in terms of shapes- “play a D shape on these frets here”- and this largely boils down to the fact that it's a lot trickier to see which note is which on a fretboard as opposed to a keyboard. There's also the slightly embarrassing “90/10” issue – for most guitarists (and yes, I am equally guilty of this), we will spend 90% of our playing time playing rhythm and 10% playing lead... however when it comes to practicing, we spend 90% of our time on lead ideas, and 10% practicing rhythm. Chords and inversions simply aren't as fun and satisfying to practice as blitzing sweep arpeggio runs, tapping, or wailing blues solos.

But **** me, they aren't half useful.

Five minutes later, I had the chord sequence – Cm, G, Bb F. G – the missing chord was a G. Not a change you'd gravitate to on guitar, but an easy one to make sense of on the keyboard. All you have to do is look at the connecting notes between the chords:

Cm – C, Eb, G. Invert it so that the C is at the top: Eb, G , C

G – G, B, D. Invert so that the B is at the top: D, G, B. Notice that the top note (the melody note) has dropped by a semitone. Also note that both chords share a common note – G.

Bb – Bb, D, F. Invert so that Bb is at the top: D, F, Bb. Notice that the top note (the melody note) has dropped by a semitone again. Also note that both chords share a common note – D

F – F, A, C. Invert so that Bb is at the top: D, F, Bb. Notice that the top note (the melody note) has dropped by a semitone again. Also note that both chords share a common note – F

When you see this on a keyboard, it's easy to figure out how this sequence came together. And when you know the sequence, it's easy to figure out a part based on triad voicings and feeling out what everyone else in the band – bass, keyboards, second guitar, brass section is doing.

Moral of the story – different instruments inspire different approaches to composition. This is a positive – you couldn't write “Bohemian Rhapsody” on guitar, but equally you couldn't realistically write “Tie Your Mother Down” on keyboard. So next time you're struggling to break out of a compositional rut, or trying to fathom the chord sequence from hell, step back and try a different approach. A decent keyboard can be had on eBay for £50 or so, and it's well worth the investment. And it's the same 12 notes, whether you're picking, strumming, blowing or pressing them....

Sunday, 17 February 2019


No, it's ok, I haven't had a stroke. This month I thought I'd share a handy little tip which is brilliantly simple for getting you out of a rut, particularly if you're hitting that plateau (which we all hit at some point or another) where you just find yourself playing the same thing every time you solo.

Let's say you're primarily a blues rock pentatonic based player. Alot of people's first instinct is to go and learn some exotic sounding scales, and while this is never exactly bad for you, the simple fact is there really isn't much call for the Phrygian Dominant over the rock & roll 12 bars most of us bang out at the local open mic night. So while learning exotic scales can be fun, it can also be very tricky to integrate them into your “everyday” pentatonic playing (I'll be doing some more posts on this over the next few months, so stay tuned).

Maybe some new techniques? Tapping is often something that I get asked about, and again, it's a fun, cool-sounding technique, looks flash, but the same problem applies – just how are you going to take that jaw droppng tapped septuplet Steve Vai lick you've been working on for the last two months and apply it to “Route 66”? Again, I'll come back to ways to integrate different techniques too over the next few months, but the simple fact is it's going to sound weird in that context. Like taking a cheese sandwich and adding blackcurrent jam – neither is bad in it's own right, but they don't exactly gel together.

So it can be diffiicult to know where to go to get off this plateau. Typically though, as musicians we strive for the most difficult, demanding solution to a problem and completely ignore the one that has been right under our noses the whole time.


From Wikipedia:

A musical line which is the reverse of a previously or simultaneously stated line is said to be its retrograde or cancrizans ("walking backward", medieval Latin, from cancer, crab). An exact retrograde includes both the pitches and rhythms in reverse. An even more exact retrograde reverses the physical contour of the notes themselves, though this is possible only in electronic music. Some composers choose to subject just the pitches of a musical line to retrograde, or just the rhythms. In twelve-tone music, reversal of the pitch classesalone—regardless of the melodic contour created by their registral placementis regarded as a retrograde.

So basically, taking something you already know and playing it backwards (yeah, title making more sense now?)

This has been used as a compositional aid for composers working in classical music for centuries, and will have been used many times by songwriters in the pop/rock field, but somehow we never seem to use it when improvising. Here's an example – a stock E minor pentatonic blues/ rock lick we've all used a billion times:

We all know that, we all know how to make it fit – so what happens when we flip it around?


Now try practicing it in context – 2 bars on/ 2 bars off is perfect for this.

NB - for those unfamiliar with this exercise, it's incredibly useful and because I nicked the idea from a drum teacher friend of mine, incredibly simple too:

1 – tap foot to beat, using metronome or drum machine if available

2 – play 2 bars of appropriate chord backing – so for this lick, 2 bars of chugging E5 power chord, or funking things up with an E7#9.. your choice

3 – this is the clever bit: without breaking rhythm, keep tapping your foot and improvise for 2 bars. In this instance you're aiming to develop ideas based off our new backwards blues lick, but you can adapt this exercise to anything.

All of a sudden – brand new lick. Except that you already intuitively understand it, as it's the same scale, and has the same rhythmic properties, so it will very quickly start working it's way into your vocabulary. Try it with every lick you can, you will be amazed by the results, and all of a sudden you'll feel yourself improving again.

Till next time, happy jamming and nuf evah!

Friday, 11 January 2019

New Year's Resolutions 2019

Feels like I've only just got the hang of putting “18” at the end of dates, and here we are again – new year, new practice plan! Why? Well, because I want to keep getting better of course – why else?

This is also a pretty significant year for me – come November, I'll have been playing guitar 25 years (seriously, I am that old) and I wanted to mark that anniversary with a challenge for myself. As I mentioned, my big challenge for last year was the Bach Toccata & Fugue in D minor, and I'm happy to admit that drove me to the edge of my technical and cognitive abilities.. but I did it! Eventually, anyway...
So I'm marking this year by taking up a piece that was transcribed in the first guitar magazine I ever got, Guitar For The Practicing Musician March 1995 – featuring transcriptions of (among others) Nirvana's version of “The Man Who Sold The World” from their Unplugged album (my reason for buying it) alongside tab for a song called “Bad Horsie” by a chap called Steve Vai.

Now, it's important to realise quite how stupid I was at that age, and I had yet to comprehend the concept that one song could be more difficult than another one, let alone comprehend the quantum leap in technique and understanding needed to tackle that track – I sat down with the tab and was woefully confused.... two years later, convinced of my own abilities, I decided to have another crack and was once again massively out of my depth. So I reckon it's about time I ticked this box and got this one in the can. I did “For The Love Of God” - I can do this... I hope..

Meanwhile, there's a schedule to keep to! So my plan, as always balancing, diatonic and pentatonic scales, arpeggios and chords along with new pieces to learn – here's 2019 mapped out:

January – Major scale and modes. 3 octaves, played in 3rds, sequenced in 3s and 4s. Pieces – Eric Johnson “SRV”, Paganini Caprice #24

February – Arpeggios (triads). 3 octaves, played in 3rds, sequenced etc.

March – Chords (triads and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece – TBC

April – Minor Pentatonic & Modes. Piece TBC

May – Byzanine Scale R b2 3 4 5 b6 7

June – Arpeggios – 7b5s. Piece TBC

July – Chords (7b5s and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece TBC

August – Pentatonics (Lydian R 3 #4 5 7). Piece TBC

September – Oriental Scale R b2 3 4 b5 6 b7. Piece TBC

October – Arpeggios – 7#5s. Piece TBC

November - Chords (7#5s and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece TBC

December – Pentatonics (Mixolydian R 2 3 5 b7). Piece TBC.