Sunday, 14 December 2014

Winter Wonderland 2014 - Review

Well, we did it. Eighteen tracks, spanning pretty much every genre of music from blues to orchestral to BanjoCore Operatic Metal ™ (yes, that is a real thing – well, it is now, anyway), topped off with a storming show at The Shed on Friday 12th featuring a mightily impressive range of young talent.

First things first, I'd like to thank and congratulate everyone involved – the standard this year really has been phenomenal, and we've had contributions from some fantastic guest artists:

Dave The Rock Band ( – Because Of You (Matt Chubb/ James Martin)

Oisin George – Robot Love Story

Richard Clift & Matt Chubb – Get The Better Of You

The Bench That Rocked ( – Not For You (Billy

Chamberlain/ Luke “Harold” Billingham)

Ben Hooper & Wayne Cooper – Christmas For Everyone

Boo & Abi Littlewood – Christmas Song

Mr Meaner ( – All For You

Ghostshift featuring Blaze Bayley ( – Short Days Ago

Molly Lee & Charlotte Bond – Run Away With Me

A Short Dark Stranger ( ) - I'm A Fool (For Fancying You)

Jonezy feat. Alexandru ( – Journey Together

Matt Humphries – Watch Me Burn

Ollie Blount & Leah Govier – Blue Christmas

Aled Horler – Guiding Star

Tracks & Field – Done

Ellie Marlow & Charlotte Bond – Straight From Your Heart

Tom Matthews – Flawless

Billy Edwards & Amanda Williams – Crazy Lies

Artwork donated by Annemarie Hughes –

The album is now available to buy on Bandcamp:

On top of that, I'd also like to extend special thanks to Elisabeth Barker-Carley for organising the show and securing us a venue, and to the vocal legend (and tireless behind-the-scenes-promoter) that is Matt Chubb, without whom this would absolutely not have been possible.

Already we've managed to raise over £130 for UNICEF which is a terrific start for this project – so everyone who's been involved with this project should be feeling extremely proud of themselves.

As for the show itself, The Bench That Rocked dropped many a jaw in the audience – the boys have come a long, long way since the days of “Smoke On The Water” along one string and it was great to see them having matured into terrific musicians. Jonezy provided a typically energetic set, getting the crowd to their feet – it takes a hell of a lot of guts to do what he does. Matt Humphries was sensational and inspirational in equal doses – one voice, one guitar, one loop pedal and a huge dose of talent.

Dave The Rock Band then took our place as house band, and first up was Wayne Cooper singer “Christmas for Everyone” - the music for this was written at the end of last year, just missing the cut for 2013's “Songs For Syria” project, but Ben Hooper had knocked together a great song with some superb playing and Wayne provided excellent melody line, lyrics and vocal performance. Next up, Tom Matthews (12) who had written both music and lyrics for his song “Flawless” with Matt putting in a superb vocal. Ellie Marlow (14) followed with her sultry blues tune “Straight From Your Heart, well and truly conquering her nerves to pull off a gutsy and assured performance on keyboards. Finally, Billy Edwards (12) did a storming job with his rock number “Crazy Lies”, laying down his guitar solo like an absolute pro – fantastic!

All that remained was to see the evening out with Dave The Rock Band laying down the grooves to take us through til the end of a very successful evening.

So what can we take away from this? Well, I've already stated my goal – 1000 copies, £5000 for UNICEF. Maybe we'll hit it, maybe we won't – we've all done everything we can to produce something genuinely good and to promote it too. But what we can say without doubt is that the next generation of real, raw talent is not to be found on X-Factor or The Voice. It's right here, at the end of your street or playing in your local pub. Go out and find it, and get inspired.

Oh, and happy Christmas everyone – here's to 2015!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

UNICEF - Winter Wonderland 2014

Those of you who follow this blog (Hi Dave, hi Keith) might remember that this time last year I was busily engaged in putting together an EP of original music with the idea of raising money for Syrian refugees –

Well, we managed it, and once again many thanks to all those involved. Didn't manage to knock Simon Cowell's latest chew toy off the Number 1 spot, but we still finished the job and got everyone's tracks released on iTunes -

So, this year, it's bigger and better. Everyone has either written a song or contributed to some one else's – we've got everything from guitar pop to blues, orchestral metal to a synthesiser based Robot Love Opera along with the most badass fusion of metal, banjo and opera that you ever did hear (no, I'm not exaggerating).

I've also chosen a bigger and better-known charity – UNICEF, who are recognised worldwide as the leading organisation for children in over 190 countries. So there's a nice symmetry- kids as young as 11 or 12 writing songs to help kids of a similar age in war-torn Syria or Ebola-hit Sierra Leone, and in the process gaining skills, experience and confidence.

We've also got more established local musicians (myself included) donating tracks, a very good artist fiend of mine has donated us a cover – all on a budget of literally £0. So with no overheads, all the money goes straight to UNICEF.

Now, of course all the good intentions in the world will count for nothing unless we can get this stuff out there. Mainstream local media outlets have so far ignored this story, so we're going to have to do it ourselves. You don't need to send money, you don't need to do anything apart from tell people. We've got a Facebook page at, so go “like” us and share with absolutely everyone you can – we also have a Twitter hashtag #winterwonderland2014.

The album will be around about the £5 mark when it comes out and really does showcase a huge range of local talent, so if you were going to shell out for whatever X-factor winner releases, do yourself a favour and buy this too (or instead...).

The goal we've set is to sell a thousand copies – a thousand copies at £5 each means £5000 for UNICEF. That's an awful lot of Ebola treatments. That's an awful lot of clean water treatments. That's lives saved. AND you get a pretty damn good album for your trouble. Check out the link for a free track from Dave The Rock Band:

So I implore absolutely everybody who reads this – spread the word. We can make a difference.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Short But Sweet - Pitstop Practicing

OK, so last time I waxed lyrical about the importance of committing oneself to a regular and structured practice session – and make no mistake, that is the best way to ensure progress on the instrument (any instrument). But we live in a hectic, chaotic 24/7 world where there's always something competing for our attention, and that can mean that a structured practice routine is simply impossible to adhere to. That in turn becomes a demotivational force, as the student feels himself slipping further and further behind schedule. Inevitably the temptation grows to simply jack the whole the thing in.

So, what's the alternative? Well, I always stress the idea of little and often in practice sessions. 10-15 minutes each day will prove a whole lot more valuable than trying to crank in a three-hour marathon at the weekend.

A lot of players get intimidated by the idea of having to get the guitar out, tune it, set up the amp and practice rig- when you're pushed for time, all this seems like something of a mountain to climb. So the answer is to have the guitar always there, always ready, always to hand. Don't pakc it away in it's case, keep it out on a stand in the living room, in the dining room. Don't worry about setting up a practice rig, just play acoustically (a neat trick is to press the headstock against a large piece of wooden furniture like a coffee table or book case – the extra mass of wood serves as a makeshift amplifier). Use the metronome in your head, or any of the excellent guitar apps available for your phone. Don't make playing the guitar an occasion you have to get ready for, make it something you do naturally.

What to practice? Well, you can make progress in just two or three minutes if you focus on the trouble spots. Rhythm and timing is always something that any guitar player can work on – a great (and simple) exercise is to simply play muted strings to pick up the rhythm and improve your sense of pulse. This translates to a much more solid foundation for anything else you want to play.

Let's also not forget simple mechanics – usually the co-ordination between fingers 3 and 4 is the weakest, so a simple finger pair exercise is a useful thing to warm up and practice a weak spot. Learning a song? Struggling with a specific chord change? Focus on just that change. Set yourself a stopwatch and hammer that one chord change until your fingers accept it and it's no longer a problem. Brief, focused bursts on problem areas can bring real results quickly.

Want to keep motivated? Go back and try old material that you used to struggle with. It's a great feeling tackling a song that's proved out of reach in the past and being able to grab it by the scruff of the neck.

So, even if you can't commit to a regular and scheduled practice routine, if trying to commit is causing you stress and sapping your enjoyment... then this is the alternative. Dive in, grab a couple of minutes of focused, “burst” practice when you can over the day, and you will find you make improvement. Don't let the guitar become another chore – let's face it, life throws us all plenty of them. Guitar is what we reward ourselves with when they're all done.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

If You're Going To Do It, Do It Right

September is upon us, and with it a new school year. This is the time of year when a new clutch of fresh-faced students show up at my teaching room door, all eager and full of vim and vigour. And these first few weeks of the academic year are when a seasoned teacher can usually see who's going to make it, who's going to be a real stand-out player, and sadly, who's going to fall by the wayside.

See, playing guitar is not a skill that only a select elite few can attain. Anyone, and I genuinely do mean anyone, can do it, as long as they've got roughly the right number of ears and limbs (I speak as someone with unilateral Grade 3 microtia, a condition which means I only have one fully functioning ear). The late great blues legend Jeff Healey was blind but overcame his handicap by playing the guitar flat on his lap.

Thing is though, it's not easy. Especially in the early stages. There's a lot of frustration involved in trying to force your fingers into all manner of unnatural contortions, and chord shapes that just refuse to find their way into your fingers. So it can be a hard road, and you can often feel like you're not making progress. But be patient. Be disciplined. A Jedi's strength flows from the Force.

Sorry, got carried away there.

So what does this actually mean in practice? Well, my first blog mentioned the importance of focus when practicing - – but commitment to a regular practice routine is also a must. For the early days 15 minutes is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to set aside for one or even two sessions per day (for more information on structured practice sessions, check out my book Zero Point Guitar), but it's essential to make the commitment to practice every day. Twenty-one days in and it'll be a habit that's hard to break, and that's when you'll find yourself making real progress.

Anyone can do it. But not everyone will do it. If you're just starting out this year, make the commitment to be one of the ones who will. It's worth it, I promise.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Wannabees - and why we need them!

We've all done it. Looked at the big names up on stage and thought of how it must feel to have the satisfaction of playing your songs to thousands of adoring fans. Meanwhile friends and relatives tell you to give it up, get a real job, get your head out of the clouds (or variations on that theme), and frankly – it's not hard to see why. The truth is that there are tens of thousands of original bands – some dire, some decent, some absolutely brilliant – and nearly all of them you will never hear from again. Despite all the time they spend on social media advertising and plugging gigs, despite sending out demos to local radio, these guys will trek for hours to gigs to play to... well, usually the dozen or so people they brought with them. And the rest of the population sits plugged into “X-Factor” and bemoaning how there's no decent music these days.

I've been off the original circuit for years now but I remember it well as a hard road, and the only thing that keeps you going in the face of total apathy is a passion for the music you create (and a lot of caffeine, especially when you're gigging a hundred miles away on a week night). This weekend I was dropped back into it again as Dave The Rock Band played a couple of cover sets as a favour to our friendly neighbourhood venue owner to open for a some new punk and metal bands (Versus Ursus, Kid Klumsy and Death To Indie if you're interested). Being a hundred million years old now, punk and nu-metal isn't really my thing anymore, but the guys were very pleasant, very professional – no tantrums, everyone co-operated sharing amps and bits of drumkit, everyone ran to time wothout any problems – and when it came to showtme they absolutely gave it their all, even to an audience that barely scraped double figures.

Frankly, it would have been very easy for them to simply go through the motions, treating the whole thing as a rehearsal before hitting the bar. It would have been just as easy for them to write the evening off and just get blitzed before even taking the stage, because who cares if you do a good show and there's no one there to see it? Especially for Death To Indie, who had traveled three and a half hours to get to the gig only to find that the only new faces belong to the bar staff and the other bands. Clearly, each of those guys took the decision that we've come all this way, we may as well put on the absolute best show we can – and proceeded to hurl themselves around the venue as if it was Wembley Arena.

The moral of this story? Nearly every original band will fail to make the big time. That's the sad truth. But there are a great many phenomenal bands out there who are easily the equal of the big names, and they do it not to fulfil record contracts but because they believe in what they do so passionately that each week they schlep from one end of the country to another in ancient Transit vans for poorly paid (usually unpaid), often poorly attended gigs simply for the privelige of playing their music. So turn off X-Factor, get out there and give these guys the support they deserve because without people like this creating original music there will be no original music.

Parting note – two of the best musical experiences I've ever had have been pub gigs with original bands. The first in a dingy pub in a Leeds backstreet watching a band called Four Day Hombre who were just incredible – the songs, the sound, the harmonies, they had everything absolutely perfect. I'd rate that as one of, if not the best gigs I've ever been to, famous names included. The second came in another backstreet pub in Leeds, playing with my own band – having got set up and soundchecked in the function room upstairs, we realised that literally no one had shown up to see us. Still, we figured – we're here, let's just go for it and see what happens. After all, set up and pack down is the hard bit, it's the playing that's the fun part. So off we went. Midway through the first song, a girl appeared in the doorway, nodding away, and told us to “stay there”.
Well, that was pretty much what we had in mind anyway.

Over the course of the next half hour, she ferried pretty much the entire population of the pub upstairs to come and watch us, and a disaster turned into an epic, voice-wrecking evening where we wore ourselves out playing everything we knew at least twice, eventually falling off stage exhausted and bathed in sweat to a room full of applause. So sometimes it comes good.

So, do yourself a favour. Go and see at least one band this month that you haven't already heard of and don't personally know the members. Just go and see what's out there. These guys put so much into what they do, all they want in return is a chance to be heard. Give them that chance and get inspired.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Just Say Yes!

 The afternoon sun beat down on me as I squinted at the set list of soul, pop and Motown standards and I frantically tried to connect the title to any sort of tune to remember how the next song actually started. Before I knew it, the drummer was giving his count-in, and off we went. Wonderful thing, memory, it seems to kick in almost automatically in the nick of time to save you from certain doom.

Such is the life of a humble depping guitarist – flying by the seat of your pants, last minute cram sessions, tweaking your rhythm parts as you go to fit the band's arrangements (which they may or may not have remembered to tell you about) – it's tense, it's challenging... but it's also a hell of a lot of fun, and something I would recommend to any musician.

Why? Surely it's a waste of time, learning all those songs for just one gig?

Woah. Back up there, pilgrim. We're musicians. It's never a waste of time learning a song. Besides which, anyone with a half decent ear and a grasp of the Nashville Number System (see Zero Point Guitar link for more on this) can pick out most of the pop/soul/Motown standards which form the bedrock of many corporate/ wedding cover band repertoires without too much trouble. I, IV, V, vi and the occasional splodge of bIII and bVII – and if you really can't find a particular change, just lay out. Most of these songs aren't particularly guitar-centric anyway, so a couple of bars of muted strings letting the bass, keyboards and/or brass section carry the load isn't going to spoil things.

Your rhythm chops will thank you as well – making a rhythm part work in a situation like this is a long way removed from strumming big barre chords in a steady quaver rhythm. Being able to fit your parts into the whole of the music requires a sensitivity to what's going on around you – where the keyboards are, what the brass is up to, the register of the bass line and vocal melody. A good rhythm player chooses their voicings to complement the whole. A solid knowledge of triads and inversions is utterly invaluable here – even if it's not the kind of skill that will wow an audience with a fleet-fingered rendition of “Eruption”, playing rhythm well is an art form in itself, albeit an underrated and overlooked one for many guitar players (dep story – one of the hardest gigs I ever did was filling in for a local rock 'n' roll band, as basically every song was a 12 bar in A. To play two sets of that stuff and keep each song sounding different really stretches your imagination!)

And let's not forget the value of actual gigging experience itself. Any working musician will tell you that it's only when you get to the gig that the real problems start – how do you deal with an amp that worked fine at home or in rehearsal but now is buzzing, squawking and farting like a cockerel after a vindaloo? How do you arrange your gear so your lead doesn't get wound round a mic stand or trapped under your wah pedal? How do you tune your ear into a band's sound that may have been beautifully balanced in a purpose built rehearsal room but now in the confines of the Dog & Duck is just a featureless wall of noise? Experience, that's how.

So how do we overcome the perennial Catch-22 situation – how do you get experience when no one will take you on because you don't already have experience?

Well, you can always just lie. Sometimes it works (according to various musician's autobiographies). In the real world, though, it doesn't work, and serves to blacken your reputation for the future (“Oh, you don't want so-and-so. He's full of sh*t, can't play.”). One great way to break in and get yourself known, however is the open mic night. These have been gaining in popularity in the last few years since the economic downturn as pubs try and entice audiences in without having to pay for a band. True, you're mostly playing to other (frequently drunk) musicians, but it can be a valuable low-pressure introduction to the world of live performance. For myself, I've played with the “house band” for a couple of local open mic/jam nights for the last few years, and found it very rewarding – thinking on your feet, adjusting chord voicings, key, rhythm etc to what the singer is doing, responding to the arrangements that frequently exist in the singer's head and nowhere else, “reading” your fellow musicians – all this contributes to that “sixth sense” that many experienced players seem to have.

It can also be a path to new and unusual challenges that push your playing in different ways. One of my most terrifying but also rewarding dep experiences happened years ago when working at the local music shop. The head of the local amateur dramatic society came in looking for a guitarist and banjo player to cover for their regular guy performing George Gershwin's “Anything Goes”, and me being me I jumped at the chance, thinking “How hard can it be?”

Very, as it turned out. I was presented with a CD and a score of music vast in size and terrifying in complexity, told band rehearsal would be in two weeks, dress rehearsal with the cast the day after that, and then we'd be performing straight through the week. I spent the first night with the score struggling to keep my bowels in check before starting to realise that a great many of the insane chord changes that peppered Gershwin's music contained a great many similar notes – for example, D7 contains D-F#-A-C (R-3-5-b7), F#dim7 contains F#-A-C-D (R-b3-b5-bb7). Therefore, no need to play anything different as the bass player will be looking after the root note (D and F#) anyway – Eureka! My sanity was saved, and I made it through the gig without suffering a nervous breakdown or being lynched by my fellow orchestra members. And I've never lost the deeper understanding of harmony that making those connections between chords gave me.

So, to sum up – the great things about open mics and dep gigs are experience, exposure, confidence, practical application of theory and licks learnt in the practice room, a few quid in your pocket at the end of the night (sometimes) and more than anything a hell of a lot of fun to be had. So the next time you're asked to an impromptu jam or to cover last minute for a friend – just say yes. You'd be surprised what it can lead to.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Anatomy Of A Show

Flaming June is upon us, and as we dive into summer I've been privileged enough to kick things off with involvement in a show organised by a good friend of mine in support of the British Heart Foundation. This show was an extraordinary undertaking, and I'm very pleased that it went off so well. Although I was only involved in a supporting capacity, watching the sheer amount of work that went into organising it – everything from venue hire to instrument changes – got me thinking about the staggering variety of skills that are represented in a show like this, completely aside from the musical aspects of learning and performing the repertoire.

First off, deciding on and securing a venue, and setting a date. Even this basic element is riddled with complexity – the more people involved, the trickier it is to ensure everyone's availability and make sure the venue is at least relatively accessible for everyone. So the date has to be picked and settled on months in advance, and everyone involved needs to take this as a solid commitment. Ditto location – and with large amounts of equipment to be hauled around, parking and accessibility are considerations. It is astonishing how many venues decide they're going to book a band, and then fail to provide anywhere for them to park and expect them to lug everything up a single rickety fire escape. Not really a great option when you're dealing with 4x12” speaker cabs, 88 key digital pianos and so on.

Next – sound reinforcement. This is something that the audience usually takes for granted, but is a real art in itself. Speakers have to be sited properly so that the audience doesn't get left with frequency dead spots, and so everything is clear and audible. For a show involving 4-5 guitar players, keyboards, drums and bass as well as 3-4 different singers, there are a great many sounds to balance – careful EQ-ing has to take place to ensure the instruments don't tread on each others' toes. If the sound is badly mixed, by someone who doesn't understand how different frequency soundwaves behave, the result will be a deafening, muddied mush for the audience. Careful soundchecking and and able sound engineer is a must (and of course, must be available for the selected date and venue- more headache for the organiser). Thorough soundcheck for a show like this can take two hours – and let's not forget that the acoustic properties of the room will change hugely from being empty to full of audience. All this has to be compensate for during soundcheck.

Sound reinforcement doesn't just take place out front either. Good monitoring is essential for the musicians to be able to hear each other and play together. Different musicians will need different mixes and the same rules of EQ apply. Sometimes In Ear Monitoring (IEM) headset systems allow the musicians their own independent mix, but some find the lack of on-stage sound disconcerting and prefer the old style “wedges” - speakers blasting monitor feeds back onto the stage. Poor placing and control of the wedges will result in feedback loops and a very unpleasant experience for audiences and players alike.

Many shows also involve a strong visual element, and this has to be synchronised with the music. Video screens have to be placed, any props made ready, projection angles checked to ensure that there are no distracting shadows or blockages when the videos are projected. Musical and visual cues have to be set and agreed upon with both performers and engineers. The video part of this show was essential to the overall effect and very, very effective – well done to all involved!

Come the big day itself and everyone needs to know their entrance and exit cues, their routes on and off stage, and behind the scenes a bewildering array of guitars sit, tuned and set up for different songs. My friend Chris, the man behind this show, had the daunting task of not only performing in every song in the show with a variety of different instruments, but also acting as a master of ceremonies, keeping the audience's attention and interacting with them. So it's down to the faithful roadie to ensure the right guitar is brought out for the right song, tuned and with the wireless transmitter is plugged in to make sure there's no unpleasant “thump” amplified through 20,000 watts of PA! All small details, but all crucial to the overall effect.

All in all, last week's show represented the culmination of months of hard work behind the scenes by everyone involved – none more so than Chris, the organiser – and what was visible on stage represented really only the tip of the iceberg. So thank you to everyone who made it all happen, and never forget the guys behind the scenes without whom none of the fun stuff would be possible!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Open Strings Pt. 2

So, as promised in last month's post, some exercises to help overcome “open string blindness” and incorporate this incredibly simple yet powerful tool into your playing.

One of the real cornerstones of the guitar is it's reliance on movable shapes, be they chords, scales, arpeggios etc. By combining movable shapes with open strings, we can easily create very interesting harmonies. Let's start with a simple C chord – shifting the entire chord up by two frets results in a D chord(D – F#- A), but removing the barre and letting the E and G strings ring open we add a 2nd and 4th to the basic R-3-5 harmony. It's still essentially major but with an added depth and colour. By finding a basic R-3-5 pattern that these open E and G notes will harmonise with, it's very easy to transform basic rhythm parts into something really quite special.

For example, moving the C up 5 semitones would normally give us a straight F chord, but letting the E and G ring out now adds a 2nd (the G) and a 7th (the E) creating a major 9th chord (R-3-5-7-9). Moving the chord shape up a tone to G, the G will now be doubling the root note and the E functioning as a 6th, creating a major 6th chord (R-3-5-6). The E shape is another good candidate – play an E-shape A barre chord at the 5th fret, arch your fingers to let the E and B strings ring out and you get a gorgeous Aadd9 (R-3-5-9) as the B string functions as the 9th, the open E doubling the 5th. Experiment and see what you can find!

Moving to lead patterns, the obvious candidate for experimentation is E minor pentatonic – as the observant of you have probably already noted, the guitar is effectively tuned to E minor pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D = E minor pentatonic, E, A, D, G, B, E = open string notes). A simple exercise to get you started – sequence the old favourite box pattern 1 at the twelfth fret, but this time replace the twelfth fret notes with open strings. It takes a little effort to get the tone even, but the pay off is well worth it, the quirky octave-jumping effect is very ear-catching!

Open string pedal notes are also a great way of connecting arpeggios. The AC/DC classic “Thunderstruck” intro revolves around two arpeggios, B (B root, D# 3rd, F# 5th) and E minor (E root, G minor 3rd and B 5th). Both contain the B note and Angus Young uses this common tone to connect up the two arpeggios, producing a root position (Root,3rd ,5th) B and a second inversion (5th, root, 3rd) E minor. Look for other ways to develop this idea – for example, B is the 3rd of a G chord or the minor 3rd of a G# minor chord, try experimenting with these arpeggios, or moving them onto different strings.

This post has really just scratched the surface of what's possible with the use of open string notes and a little creativity. Open strings are one of the most unique and natural guitar sounds available, so don't shy away from using these simple but powerful ideas in your playing!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Open String Blindness - Pt. 1

Open String Blindness

That's lucky, it's still April... so, in between gorging on chocolate eggs, I've been reflecting a little on a malaise that seems to afflict many intermediate and advancing guitar players – open string blindness. When we begin our journey with the guitar, the first things we learn are all open string based – open chords, open position scale patterns and melodies, open string blues riffs – but as we begin to progress up the fretboard and master moveable chord and scale patterns, it's almost like we lose the ability to use open strings in our rhythm and lead playing. This is a great shame, as many of the all time classic rock riffs are built around open string patterns. Think of AC/DC's “Back In Black” or Stevie Ray Vaughan's “Scuttle Buttin'” as perfect examples of open string lead or rhythm playing that creates something truly thunderous.

So, what's the problem?

Primarily, it's a simple physical problem of hand synchronisation. As we begin to uncover the secrets of sequencing basic scales such as the minor pentatonic or blues scale, it becomes progressively easier to build speed with the metronome, and one of the main reasons is that both hands are doing something at the same time – both fret hand and picking hand are synchronised and moving to the same metronome pulse. When we start using legato techniques (hammer-ons and pull-offs), the fret hand's relationship to the pulse becomes even more important and so therefore does physically referencing the pulse with a movement.

When we add open strings into the mix, however, that synchronisation goes out of the window. Try a basic E minor pentatonic scale, in open position, sequenced in groups of three or four. Most intermediate players will find this much more challenging than a fretted box position – not only the issue of hand synchronisation, but the simple fact that the open strings lack the tension of their fretted counterparts makes it very easy for the pick hand to get “lost”. Add hammer-ons and pull-offs into the mix and things get even more confusing!
This is a shame, because open strings can impart a fantastic rootsy “twang” to your playing, and also the higher string tension and lower action down by the nut of the guitar make fast legato runs easy and clear – a couple of great examples of this are Steve Vai's “Jiboom” and Brad Paisley's “The Nervous Breakdown”.

The solution? The same as always – focused practice. Program these movements into your hands and have them learn to feel their way around the open strings instinctively.

The payoff can be very impressive – try mapping the E minor pentatonic scale (E, G, A, B, D) along the top E string. Hammering on from, or pulling off to the open E root from any of these notes straight away gives a completely different slant on this familiar scale. Next, try developing the idea – map out the notes along the B string and play them against the ringing open E. This is a great way of creating a fuller sound for solos, especially useful when playing in a trio.

Next time: Some exercises to start seamlessly incorporating open strings into your rhythm and lead playing. Chord voicings, scale/arpeggio ideas and more!

In the meantime, look at the licks and rhythm parts you currently play. Any time you're playing a fretted note that is the equivalent of an open string, try adjusting the part to incorporate the open note instead of the fretted one. This simple idea can freshen up your playing no end!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Training vs Teaching

Blimey, March already? At this rate I'm going to have to get everyone started on their Christmas compositions before long..

Now, in my last post I mentioned the aspect of training your fingers in the same way that an athlete trains their muscles, and I'd like to try and expand on that a little this month and talk about the difference as I see it between teaching and training.

Teaching is all about introducing the student to new concepts, and helping them to understand those concepts by connecting them to information the student already knows. Whether that be a new chord shape, or a theory idea or a scale pattern – teaching is all about imparting that information to the conscious, rational part of the brain, ensuring that the rationale behind the new idea is understood and makes sense.

Training, on the other hand, is all about finessing those movements via repetition and attention to form, until the student is able to call upon these responses instinctively. Using the same athletics parallel we looked at last month, this is similar to a training session in the gym – you may not necessarily learn any new exercises you didn't know before, but by repetition and attention to the detail of what you're doing, you're able to make incremental improvements simply by gradual progressive steps. For example, playing the same scale sequence, but 1-2 bpm quicker, or with a slightly more defined dynamic difference between piano and forte, or just playing the same notes with increased clarity as the pick and fret hands learn better how to mute out unwanted string noise.

Many psychologists view the brain on two levels – system 1, the rational conscious part of our brain that considers things logically and in depth, and system 2, which is the intuitive “subconscious” part of the mind. Both parts are necessary – can you imagine, for example, all the decisions that have to be taken in order to take a breath, or blink an eye? Without the intuitive system 2 which lets us “just do it”, we'd never be able to cope.
Teaching places the information we need in system 1. But without the training aspect, the understanding and the movements we need will never make it into the instinctive system 2 part which allows us to immediately call upon the licks, phrases, scale patterns that we need to improvise in the heat of the moment. Training groups these ideas together into system 2 which allows us to call on them much more quickly, without consciously thinking (often referred to as “muscle memory”).

There are many everyday examples of this duality in action – driving, for example. The processes all have to be learned painstakingly at first, but with experience and practice – training – they become grouped together in the instinctive realm of system 2. An example I use with my students – I have no idea how to to my shoelaces. I just tie them. If I stop to think about it – can't do it. For the first time in a good long while, one of my schools started requiring their peripatetic teachers to wear a tie. I haven't worn a tie in many, many years.. the movements were there, buried deep in system 2, but in order to access them I had to focus my conscious mind on something else completely and do it without thinking about it – effectively taking my own brain by surprise!

Of course, this makes it extremely important that at the first stages of training your fingers to accept new movements, chord shapes etc., you have to pay very close attention to training the right thing into your fingers. Otherwise all you practice is playing badly, and all you will get better at is playing badly. So 10-15 minutes spent focusing intently on your playing can have far greater impact than four hours splitting concentration between guitar and computer, guitar and TV, guitar and Xbox...   

Friday, 7 February 2014

Feel The Burn - A Need For Speed!

As some of you are aware, this year I'm studying for my LLCM diploma in teaching, and as part of the written element of the course, applicants are required to analyse the styles of three prominent electric guitarists. I've chosen Zakk Wylde amongst others, as he's long been a hero of mine due to his brutal, take-no-prisoners playing style – no fancy tapping or sweeping, no poncy exotic scales, just minor pentatonic, furious alternate picking and vibrato performed with the kind of ferocity that could choke a tiger.

Now Zakk's other big passion in life is weightlifting, and it occurs to me as I researched a little deeper that the the one can influence the other. Lifters take a variety of approaches to reach peak strength just as guitar players do to reach and improve peak speed and accuracy. Lifting coaches (yes, I've read up on this) talk about three types of strength – maximum strength, endurance strength and explosive strength, and we can relate this to speed when playing guitar (for convenience's sake, when I talk about speed, I include accuracy as a given – speed without accuracy is just noise, lots of wrong notes played fast is worth far less than one single right note played slowly).

So - Maximum strength for lifters = maximum speed for guitar players.

This can be developed by focusing on two separate paths. Explosive or burst speed and endurance speed. Let's use the spider exercise as a simple example. Suppose your maximum “safe” speed – i.e. with no wrong notes, no notes fluffed and hands perfectly synchronised – is sixteenth notes at 120bpm. If 120 bpm is the fastest you can do it, it will stay the fastest you can do it until you've learned to think and play more quickly. Sitting on 120bpm for multiple repetitions will build solid endurance technique, helping you to get better playing the exercise at that speed – no amount of repetition alone will help you get quicker. For that, we'll need to push the boundaries.

Play the exercise for thirty seconds or so continuously at your maximum safe speed. Then crank the tempo up by 5-10 bpm and just for a few repetitions play absolutely flat out, keeping the speedup even if you fluff some of the notes. This is explosive or burst speed.Then, before exhaustion or cramps set in, return the metronome, this time to 121bpm – just 1 bpm higher than your original safe endurance speed. Having trained your fingers briefly to push past their natural maximum, it's now easier to play at this new maximum speed.

This type of practicing builds speed very quickly – for example, play the same exercise every day for a week, and theoretically you will gain an extra 7bpm maximum speed. Within a month you could be looking at a gain of 30bpm! In practice, gains will likely be smaller as the faster you get, the more difficult it becomes to add speed (the law of diminishing returns), but it is a great way of significantly improving your maximum speed and accuracy. Practice using small scale fragments and patterns to begin with before branching out into longer ideas, and always remember to respect your fingers - “no pain, no gain” does NOT work with guitar playing!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

New Year's Resolutions!

Right, it's been 2014 for a little while now, and as I've been quizzing all my students on their musical goals for the new year, I think it's only fair that I share some of my own. After all, if you're not willing to learn, you've got no business trying to teach... and I like to try and lead by example.

First resolution - FLCM (Fellow of the London College of Music). This is the highest level (Level 6 - Master's degree standard) issued by the Registry Of Guitar Tutors. As some of you know, I passed the Level 5 Licentiate exam last year, that one being Bachelor's degree standard. It took alot of work and alot of preparation, but the result was well worth it - so any of you guys going in for grades, know that I've been there too and I know exactly how you feel! I can certainly say that exam day last year was one of the most stressful and nerve-wracking I can remember.

So now I'm devoting half my practice time to the repertoire for this exam, and there are some real finger twisters here.. still, if it's difficult, that means you're learning something (See? I don't just use these phrases on my students... I'm just as tough on myself ;-) ). Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Yngwie, Satch, Megadeath, Paul Gilbert... 2014 is going to be LOUD.

Second resolution - technical development. I think we've all as guitar players been guilty of being unfocused in our playing, trying to go in a variety of directions all at once and getting nowhere. So what I've tried to do this year is get organised and separate technical development into a small group of four areas - pentatonic scales, diatonic seven-note scales, arpeggios and chord voicings. I'm spending a month on each area, changing key each week using the cycle of 5ths (for those unfamiliar with the idea, it means moving up a fifth each time, so for example from C to G, G to D, D to A and so on).

This approach has yielded some strong results - by focusing purely on one area, you are forced to "squeeze as much juice" from each idea as possible.

Pentatonics - octave micro-fingerings, allowing greater fluency across the fretboard horizontally and 3 octave sequenced runs diaginally across the neck

Diatonics - six note micro fingerings and sequenced patterns in 3s, 4s and 6s, also moving laterally in two string groups.

Arpeggios - Sweeping, tapping along single string, string skipping and string skip/tap combined (Nuno Bettencourt style)

Chord voicings - triads and dominant chords reduced down to triads superimposed onto each other - inversions and open voicings

I hope this gives you some idea about how best to organise your practice time for best results - here's to making real gains in 2014!