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 https://www.facebook.com/covernote.liveband/ - 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.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Wrapping Up 2018

The dust has settled on Christmas, and as I write this straining to see the laptop screen over a belly filled to bursting with turkey, chocolate and Bailey's, it's time to say goodbye to 2018 with a look back at a very busy year..

First off, mega thank yous to everyone involved with and who supported this years' TUNEICEF effort – Phil Matthews, Beth Hartshorne, Guilty Pleasures and Dave The Rock Band, along with 13 year old whizkid Daniel Pook who showed us that the future of guitar is in very safe hands, as well of course all my students who worked so hard writing and recording their tracks, and not forgetting Ian and Sharon for letting us use The Beacon again, and of course Matt Chubb for not just contributing his peerless vocals but lending us his PA – without which the whole thing would not have been possible!

So time to look back over a busy year – I posted my planned practice/ recording schedule in January, and have stuck to it as faithfully as possible, covering a variety of themes – chords, arpeggios, pentatonic and diatonic scales and have delved into some weird and wonderful tonalities – the diminished, whole tone, Kumoi and Hirajoshi scales have come under the spotlight, along with inversions and arpeggios stretching all the way to 13th chords – next year, I'll start altering them (sharpening 5ths, flattening 9ths etc)... that should get spicy.

In terms of repertoire, the big piece has been Paul Gilbert's take on Bach's Prelude & Fugue No. 5 in D Major:

This was a BIG undertaking – without any discernable repetitive structure, this was a case of learn two bars, practice, learn the next two bars, practice, add together, practice... rinse and repeat, for eight months or so. This really stretched my cognitive, let alone technical facility about as far as anything has – so alongside it, I ran the blues classic “Hideaway”, as well as some Satriani and the beautiful SRV ballad “Lenny” as almost light relief. But, I DID manage it!

So next year – Paganini. Caprice No. 24. Oh yes, I'm coming for you.... just as soon as I finish digesting the hundredweight of mince pies I've consumed over the last few days....

In the meantime, what have you been working on this year? And any specific goals for 2019?

And let me leave you with the TUNEICEF album itself – remember, all proceeds straight to UNICEF themselves, so treat yourself!

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Useful Stuff No One Tells You #1 - Backing Vocals

Howdy. As some of you know, I usually try and theme my posts in some way to relate in some way to what's currently going on in the world at large.

This is not one of those posts. In fact, this cropped into my head pretty much fully formed the other day when out with the dog and wondering just what the hell I was going to write about this month, and is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of articles on skills I've had to acquire over the course of my career as a professional musician and teacher - but specifically, skills no one warned me I would need.

The biggest and most glaring of these is singing. Now, an awful lot of people make the assumption that if you can play in instrument, you can automatically sing, too - at least to a halfway presentable standard. After all, music is music, right?

Nuh-uh. Step forward Slash, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Angus Young....... and, um, me. For some people, music is something they love to create and play despite the fact that the most natural, instinctive instrument of all, the one that we are all born with is just a bit on the wonky side. Or in my case, almost entirely defective - I started with almost no range, ability to project, pitch or sustain a note. Some people are born natural singers - I was born with the natural ability to clear a room. Seriously, I have demos from the mid 90s on cassette that are under lock and key because they could be used as blackmail.

Now, this is not a post on how to turn yourself into a great singer - because although I'm a hell of a lot better now, I am not and will never be one - but it is about how to get yourself started as a pretty useful backing vocalist. We often have misconceptions about backing singers, that they're just "singing along" with the lead vocal, but there's a bit more too it than that. Truth is, well arranged vocal harmonies can really lift a band or an arrangement head and shoulders above the competition.

There are plenty of great tutorial books, videos and YouTube channels on vocal technique and I'm not going to delve into that stuff here - breathing exercises, projection, vocal resonance and so on are best explained by proper vocal coaches. What we're going to look at here is the additional theoretical understanding needed to generate the harmonies that can lift a chorus and make it soar.

The first thing to understand are the basic principles of harmony. I'm going to skip through with just the bare bones today for the purposes of time, but we'll start with the chromatic scale (all 12 notes, each one a semitone apart):

A - A#/Bb - B - C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F - F#/Gb - G - G#/Ab

Now, as comprehensive as that is, it sounds godawful. Too many notes, too close together. So the next step is the major scale:

Root - tone - 2nd - tone - 3rd - semitone - 4th - tone - 5th - tone - 6th - tone - 7th - semitone - Root

   A                 B                 C#                      D               E                 F#              G#

In Western music, harmony comes from stacking notes separated by 3rd intervals on each other:

A -   4 semitone/ 2 tone (major 3rd) - C# - 3 semitone (minor 3rd) - E

So in this example, if A was the melody note being sung by the lead singer, one backing singer might hit the C# above it, one the E above that (although if the lead singer is female and the backing singers are male, it's probably more feasible to move both the harmony notes down by an octave).

So now you've worked out what you should be singing, the next trick is learning how to actually do it. Pitching a backing vocal, for the uninitiated, can be infuriatingly difficult. The best thing to do, to begin with, is to play your note and then sing it. When you can do that, play the chord and sing your note over it, and when you can mange that, play the melody note and sing your harmony against it. You can also familiarise yourself with the various intervals by playing your chord and singing the root, 3rd and 5th notes separately, this will help train your ear. Be patient - time and practice will get you there.

Hopefully that's got some of you started working on your vocals - backing vocals are an incredibly useful and marketable skill for any musician to have, so get to practising and see you next time!