Saturday, 26 December 2015

#TUNEICEF 2015 - a review

So as 2015 romps to a conclusion amidst a great disturbance in the Force, it's time to take a look back over this year's #TUNEICEF project.

The album itself is available here: and I have to say, it's our biggest and best yet! 21 tracks ranging from Aled Horler's orchestral metal insanity to Mollie Lee and Charlotte Bond's achingly gorgeous acoustic track, by way of Dave The Rock Band's ridiculously catchy pop/ rock offering and Billy Edwards more-Darkness-than-The-Darkness squealer, to name but a few! There are some terrific tunes on there so well done to everyone who's helped make this year's album a reality – particular thanks go to Matt Chubb, without whom it's safe to say neither the album nor the gig would have been possible.

So after months of frenzied writing, recording, mixing, Facebooking and hashtagging, we've got ourselves an album to be proud of! Next stop – the launch party. Thanks to The Beacon for hosting this one, and thanks once again to Matt for providing his PA, as well as Jon Bell for providing the use of his exquisitely lovely Les Paul and Marshall half stack to complement my humble little Laney combo!

So after a frenetic and confused set up, it was Billy Edwards who kicked off proceedings with “Hold On” - and it's a measure of how frenetic set up was that whilst introducing him my mind went blank and I completely forgot his name! Oh well, only been teaching him about four years... but he did a sterling job getting us all into the groove and laying down a scorcher of a solo – this young man goes from strength to strength, having helped out with 2014's Winterwonderland2014 project - – and 2013's Songs For Syria.

Dave The Rock Band were up next, with “Christmas #1” and our alter ego The Formidable Ale Society track “Sunshine”, before mellowing into an acoustic section with Beth Hartshorne, whose hypnotic folk-rock stylings impressed everyone (despite yours truly having forgotten his capo, when her first song was in Fm...) - a genuinely captivating performance from a very talented artist.

Jacob Waltens joined us next, taking a break from his Rockschool Grade 5 to provide a lovely version of “Little Wing” and drop jaws on “Sweet Child O' Mine” before Dave The Rock Band took the stage again, augmented by our guest keyboard player and Honorary Dave, Leigh Blount.

The stage was then set for The Bench That Rocked, containing my student Tom Ion and former students Billy Chamberlain and Luke Billingham – we first met these guys again in summer 2014, they impressed then and they are simply superb now. Check out their alter ego, Dawn Of Anubis, where they release their own material, you won't regret it. The boys did a sterling job, belting through their own material and a good few crowd pleasing classics (including another impressive version of Sweet Child O'Mine)! Lead guitarist Tom is preparing for his Rockschool Grade 5 and when he goes for it, frankly I'm not sure the examiners are going to know what's hit them!

Then it was over to Dave The Rock Band to close proceedings and by this point the audience were well and truly revved up! We hammered our way through our set list of ROCK classics – including yet another Sweet Child O' Mine featuring a guest vocalist from the audience , and let me tell you – as a guitar teacher, when you've just had two of your students get up and absolutely shred that song.. it's actually pretty nerve wracking! Still, we gave it our all, and I had the privilege of putting Jon's Les Paul/ Marshall rig through it's paces before we convinced the man himself to get up and strut his stuff, and Jon soared through a superb “Parisienne Walkways” before Dave close the evening with the double whammy of everyone favourite guilty 1980's pleasures - “The One And Only” and “Every Rose Has It's Thorn”. Apologies to all those who wanted more but we were dead on our feet by that point!

So to everyone who helped make this project possible, I offer my heartfelt thanks, wish you all a very Merry Christmas – and we'll see you in six months to kick off next years!

Monday, 9 November 2015


It's that time of year again! After 2013's Songs For Syria project and last year's Winter Wonderland album, we've been firing up Cubase and hitting social media to promote this year's TUNEICEF 2015 charity album.

So, if you're not familiar with the idea, let me give you the gist of it:

The basic idea is that each student writes a song, we record it here at the studio with bass and keyboard parts added by my bass and keyboard students, with drums and vocals added by guest artists where necessary. Along the way, students learn how to use all the theory and technique they've accumulated in a practical context – layering up guitar parts, composing solos, learning about arrangements, harmony and so forth – and then end up with an actual tangible accomplishment they can point to. It's also a good indicator of progress – listening to students tracks from the last two years and comparing them to this year's, it's great to hear how much they've improved.

Last year we expanded the idea to include local (and not so local) guest artists giving us a huge range of styles – probably the only album in history to feature a track with guest vocals from former Iron Maiden and Wolfsbane frontman Blaze Bayley alongside a track sung by a seven year old girl! Lots of great music, lots of talent on display – lots of work gone into it but lots of fun got out of it.

The album launched online courtesy of Bandcamp, with a night of live music with performances from students, guest artists and finished up with Dave The Rock Band's set of crowd pleasers, raising well over £100 for UNICEF – not a bad evening!

Special thanks must go to (among others):

My Dave The Rock Band comrade-in-arms, Matt Chubb for many, many great vocals, along with a huge amount of promotion and organisation work.

Elisabeth Barker-Carley from Dreaming In Colour Productions for organising the launch party

Tony Wadsworth and BBC Radio Leicester for having us on his show and helping plug the project, Steve Ward for some excellent drums, DaveThe Rock Band, Charlotte Bond for some great lyrics and vocal performances, The Bench That Rocked, Jonezy, Matt Humphries and each and every one of my students for creating something really special!

So what have we learned for this year?

Shorter name! “Winter Wonderland Charity Album” is all well and good, but on Twitter you're limited to 140 characters – that's half of them gone in the name!

Timeframe – this year, we've left plenty of time, tracks are already coming together with guest vocal and drum performances. I'm encouraging students where possible to experiment with other interests – there are several tracks where the same student has written the song, tracked up the guitars, the bass, and the keyboard parts.

Social media – This year we have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitteraccount and a hashtag #TUNEICEF... hopefully, between all these outlets and what elements of the conventional media we can harness (as well as the clout of UNICEF themselves) we can really generate some interest.
So, here's the deal – we don't need to crowdfund or get a Kickstarter or anything like that. We don't have overheads. 100% of the proceeds go to UNICEF – a charity that knows what it's doing, and sadly there are no shortage of crises around the world where this money can make a difference.

We don't need donations

We need you.

We need you to share the Facebook page, retweet the Tweets, tell people about this cool little project you've stumbled across online, and then when launch day comes (December 18th) bnrowse your way to our Bandcamp page and shell out £5 for what will be an album crammed with great tunes and unlike anything else you're likely to come across. One thing I've learned is how much raw musical talent these kids possess, and quite apart from the fundraising angle, I want to give them a chance to be heard.

Aren't you just a bit curious to hear this? #TUNEICEF

Friday, 16 October 2015

Why Music Lessons Matter

We live in dark times. The age of austerity is upon us, the eurozone is circling the drain and even the Chinese have discovered their economy can't keep growing forever. In the midst of all this economic doom and gloom, any cash strapped parent could be forgiven for looking at the idea of music lessons for their child as something of an unnecessary frivolity. Far better to spend their time and money on academic or vocational pursuits. Music lessons... well, they're just a bit of fun, aren't they?

So speaks conventional wisdom.

However, as with so many things, conventional wisdom is very, very, wide of the mark. There are a huge number of cognitive and developmental benefits associated with learning an instrument – and I'd make the case that the guitar, with its portability, relative cheapness, attractive image and history of improvisation rather than rigid adherence to classical strictures is about the best place it's possible to start.

First off, let's look at the academic benefits. Intelligence is a hard thing to define – let's not forget that Einstein was a completely average pupil at school – but at it's heart lies the capacity to understand a subject from first principles, and then extrapolate different outcomes from those principles. An understanding of software coding built from the ground up enables a software developer to come up with programs to cover any eventuality he or she can think of – someone trying to achieve the same result forcing together chunks of rote learned code isn't going to succeed. Music is a fantastic primer for these thought patterns, as there are only twelve notes so the building blocks are very simple. From the chromatic scale we get the major scale, from the major scale we build chord progressions which we can recognise and identify using the Nashville Number System and so on.

That ability to understand and extrapolate, those thought patterns which are so essential to problem solving, once mastered in one easy, enjoyable recreational field, can be very simply applied to others.  Extensive research done in this area has proved that children who learn to play a musical instrument do better in academics. Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb, in their research paper titled Music Training Causes Long-Term Enhancement Of Preschool Children's Spatial-Temporal Reasoning, speak about, “a research team exploring the link between music and intelligence reported that music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children's abstract reasoning skills, the skills necessary for learning math and science."

Hand in hand with these benefits go the additional ones of improving short term memory – a big part of a musician is learning to recognise, internalise and recreate patterns. This is an essential part of learning and understanding any discipline, from languages to physics. Maestro Eduardo Marturet, reiterates this point when he says, "Further research has shown that participation in music at an early age can help improve a child's learning ability and memory by stimulating different patterns of brain development." Music education is also linked to higher IQ levels and the physical development of certain parts of the brain.

Discipline, patience and focus are essential qualities for success in any field and these are all qualities which will be exercised and developed by learning a musical instrument. The discipline to apply yourself to a regular practice routine, the patience to keep working on a particular song or section or solo until it comes good, the focus needed to look at a part and work out where the problems are and how to solve them.. these qualities have a huge carryover into the real world. If you've got the discipline, patience and focus to keep plugging away at crafting the perfect solo for your band's new song, you're more than likely to have the discipline, patience and focus to root out the bad line of code or trace the engine problem or even just keep the burger under the grill for exactly the right amount of time to bring out the flavour. It's all about the attitude.

Let's also not forget that learning in itself is a skill. Learning an instrument is a multilayered process that involves looking at what you want to do, looking at what you're currently doing, evaluating the two and working out what problems are there and how they can be solved (I've encountered people who can't – or won't – do this, as I'm sure we all have). Applying this self-critical approach to everyday activities brings interesting results, especially for kids on the edge of adolescence when their perceptions of themselves and the world around them start to change rapidly. Learning how to learn, how to truly understand something, is a complete game changer for younger students.

This brings me onto another interesting psychological issue, particularly applicable to younger students who are in their early teens and starting to define themselves. If you have a skill, or even the beginnings of a skill, you have a tool with which to define yourself in a world which can seem uncertain and confusing. Without something to define yourself positively, it's natural that a child will tend to fall back on acting out and bad behaviour because they can only define themselves negatively – I'm not one of those nerds, I'm not one of those goths etc etc. Give him or her a skill, something that they can do, and their confidence rises, solving a whole lot of issues along the way. I've seen this happen myself – kids who've had behavioural issues calming down because they have something that is theirs they can focus their energy on. No longer is little Johnny only identifying himself as the class clown in the back row who gets detention each week, he's little Johnny who's an awesome guitar player. And as he keeps playing, keeps practicing, he gets more awesome. And he stops getting detentions because he's got better things to do.

It happens. Not 100% of the time, and not overnight, but it happens.

Finally, let's not forget the fact that music is a highly social activity – bands, school orchestras, singing groups etc. If your child is starting a new school or struggling find friends at their current one, being able to play an instrument instantly gives him or her a skill in common with which they can bond with other ids. Being in a band or orchestra also gives them the experience of being part of a group, all working towards the same goal, which is invaluable training for all manner of occupations.

Every kid has a hobby. Why not encourage one that has academic, social and behavioural benefits? That guitar, or keyboard, or even (God forbid) drum kit might seem expensive and noisy, but it may well be the smartest investment you ever make in your child's future.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Why Are Teachers Worth It?

 September, and a new school year brings a new raft of students picking up the guitar for the first time. Now, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old git – you young 'uns, don't know yer born, in my day electric guitars were powered by steam – let me just say this:

You've never had it so good.

The fact is, even a cheap Chinese Strat knock-off from Argos is at least going to a) work, b) stay roughly in tune for 15-30 minutes, c) not have an action so high it cuts your fingers to ribbons just trying to get a note out of the damn thing. If you've been smart and got your guitar from the local music shop, chances are you've got something even better. Precision computer controlled manufacturing techniques may lack the magic of a handcrafted Gibson, but they do at least ensure consistency and good quality control. The days of warped fretboards, actions so high you could park a bus under the strings and tuning less stable than a North Korean dictator are mercifully a thing (largely) of the past.

It's the same with amps – even the humblest practice amp carries an overdrive, probably a reverb unit and enough EQ that a halfway decent set of tones can be coaxed from it. Once again, if you've been smart and got your package from a music shop, they'll probably have sold you something made by Marshall, Line 6, Fender or Vox – these amps have incredible fucntionality, often including modelling software to emulate tones recorded on classic rock songs as well as modulation and delay effects and mp3 player inputs to allow you to jam along to your favourite tracks to your heart's content.

By comparison, my first amp (a “Piggy” - no, seriously, that was the brand name) had no distortion, no reverb, and sounded like an empty shoebox. The first decent sounding amp I got was a secondhand Sessionette 75, which sounded glorious when it could actually be coaxed into working. And jamming to mp3s? We used cassettes. Think about that. Oh, the nineties...

Anyway, the point of all this wistful nostalgia – when it comes to learning guitar, you the student have more options than ever. Books, magazines, CDs (yes, ok, we had them to), YouTube,, Guitar Pro.. there are no end of tabs to be downloaded off the internet. And much of it is free. So why, then, would you shell out your hard earned money for that most antiquated of devies – a teacher?

The answer is simple. A teacher – a good one, anyway – takes you through things from first principles, so that each step builds logically on what has gone before. Some questions that a student has cannot be answered immediately without ensuring that student has the bedrock of knowledge to understand the answer. An example – a student asked me if Sweet Child O' Mine was in G or D. Technically, it's in D Mixolydian – but telling him that would have done nothing except demonstrate that I know a big word. Before I can give him the answer to his question, there are many steps that need to be taken for that answer to make sense. He needs to understand what a mode is, what specifically `the Mixolydian mode is and that it is in fact the same as G major but seen from a different point. Without these “in between” steps, the answer makes no sense – it just demonstrates me teacher, me clever, you student, you foolish, which is absolutely not the point of a lesson in any way. If the student leaves frustrated and more in the dark than when he or she arrived, the teacher has failed.

The problem that the DIY student faces is that most articles he or she will encounter – be they in magazines, books, online etc – tend to assume a basic level of knowledge which is not always there, and trying to decipher and make sense of this information without a framework to understand it in is incredibly difficult and frustrating. It's akin to trying to learn a language just from a phrasebook. It's no wonder I have many students who come to me having learned solely from internet tabs, who have then plateaud out and are unable to make progress because they didn't understand what they were doing in the first place. That's when I have to break it all down and rebuild their understanding and technique so they can keep progressing and reach their goals.

I know these problems and I understand them all too well because I was exactly that student, teaching myself from the odd book and early issue of Total Guitar magazine – and arriving it music college with a patchwork, disconnected understanding of what I was doing. It took my guitar teacher (the mighty Brian Thomson, Leicester's Yoda of the guitar) pulling everything apart and going from the ground up for me to have my Eureka! Moments and realise ohhh, riiiiiiighhhtt.... that's how it all fits together.

And the great thing is, it's way more simple than you think it's going to be. Forget the silly jargon, the ridiculous overblown Greek and Italian words we've appropriated to make ourselves look clever, and let your teacher take you through from first principles, because when you understand the framework the darkness evaporates and it's all just so damn obvious.

So, teacher vs DIY – yes, a teacher is more expensive than a magazine. But a teacher – a good one - ensures understanding. And with that understanding, the student has the tools to go and achieve anything they want. The basic tenets of my program – and the Zero Point series of books – are ensuring that my students (regardless of style interest) have the chops and understanding to hear a song, identify the chord pattern and play it in any key, all over the fretboard, and improvise an appropriate solo or lead part. With this understanding, pretty much anything becomes attainable. A student doesn't come to me to learn a song. They come to me to learn how to learn any song for themselves.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

What I Learned From Learning Flight Of The Bumblebee

When Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his virtuosic, dizzying chromatic violin piece as an interlude to close the third act of his opera The Tale Of The Tsar Saltan in 1900, it's unlikely he anticpated the shred guitar movement or how iconic his piece would become as a benchmark of guitar technique.

The piece itself is a frenzied, frantic non-stop cascade of sixteenth notes (semiquavers), mostly only a semitone apart, and on the guitar at least the actual fingerings are not too tricky – the challenge lies in the stamina, the reflexes and the relentless, dizzying speed. Now, I've never considered myself to be a particularly fast guitarist, so working through this piece was a chance to try and polish a weaker side of my playing and it taught me a great deal about how we actually learn.

There's a long-held myth that humans only use 10% of the brain power, and that were we to be able to access the other 90% we'd develop psychic powers, telekinesis blah blah blah. Rubbish. We may only use 10% consciously – the “front line services”, if you want to use current buzzwords – but that “unused” 90%? That's taking care of all the incredible variety of processes that we simply take for granted. Imagine all the things that have to happen for you to blink:

Take the decision to blink

Consciously move your eyelids together by the correct amount to close them – not too little, not too much.

Take the decision to re-open your eyes.

Deliberately move your eyelids upwards, gauging how far to move them.

Now think about how many times a minute you blink. If you had to think, consciously, about each time you had to perform a simple “maintenance function” like a blink, you would simply have no capacity for coherent, rational thought. The fact that your body takes care of blinking, breathing, balancing (an act which uses 300 muscles alone) etc without you consciously being aware of any of it – that's the 90% at work.

Psychologists and neurologists divide our behaviours into two modes – the rational mode (that's our 10%) which weighs the various factors that might affect the outcome of a particular decision. This is the part you use when buying a car or (hopefully) voting. It's much more thorough, analytical approach – probably one we evolved in prehistoric times out on the savannah, trying to work out which way the antelope might run or whether that particular rock might have a sabre-tooth tiger behind it- but it takes a great deal longer. When you're learning to drive, this is the “thinking time” your instructor tells you about.

The second mode is the “intuitive” or instinctive mode – this is where all the learnt processes get stored, all the things that you “just do”. This is the snap decision – fight-or-flight, instant decision making when there simply isn't time to absorb all the facts and reflect on them. When the sabre-tooth tiger lunges, you “just run” or you just stab it with your spear, you don't debate.

So, what does all this evolutionary psychology have to do with guitar playing? Well, as I mentioned before, “Flight Of The Bumblebee” is all about speed. Sheer, relentless, blistering speed. So what we have to do is harness the intuitive aspect of the brain, because with this piece if you're thinking about what you're playing, you're not playing fast enough.

So – how to approach learning a dense, complex piece like this. Playing it top to tail whilst glued to the tablature is NOT going to work – that's involving the rational bit of the mind way too much. The best way I've found is to break it down into small chunks, roughly 4-8 bars long depending on the complexity of the pattern, and literally play this into your fingers until it's memorised. You need to be VERY careful here not to train mistakes into your fingers, as once the chunk is grouped, decoded and stored in the intuitive portion of your mind you're going to have a hell of a job digging it out and correcting it.

Once you've got your first chunk down and can play it successfully from memory (not necessarily fast – that will come), then try the next. Then add the two together, reinforcing what you've already know as you go. As the mental agility improves through not having to consciously think through what you're playing, the physical dexterity will follow, especially with metronome use to gradually speed your playing up (see my post Feel The Burn – A Need For Speed for more on this).

I first played this up to speed about a week ago, and it was an almost alarming experience in a way, because as I got to the end of it I suddenly realised I had absolutely no recollection of playing most of it. I'd been acting purely on instinct and intuition, performing the musical (and far less dangerous) equivalent of running full tilt along a tightrope. It's almost a form of hypnosis, putting you completely in the intuitive zone.

Learning this piece then, not only improved my speed and accuracy (and gave me a pretty cool party piece) – but it also taught me a great deal about how we learn and how we think, and how a musician can train him or herself to use the different “settings” of the brain to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you're struggling with a piece of music that seems utterly impossible, then try this approach. Remember, if it has been played, YOU can play it too – just given time and preparation.

Oh, and just so you know I'm not bluffing - check out the accompanying video:

Thursday, 9 July 2015

How To Pass Your Rockschool Exam - Grades 6-8

 Summertime, and the livin' is easy..

..but at Grade 6 and higher, the exams surely aren't.

And so to our second look at how to pass your Rockschool grade exam, this time focusing on grades 6, 7 and 8. At this level, things have got serious. Grades 3-5 count as GCSE level passes, but grades 6-8 are QCA (Quality Certification Alliance) accredited and can count towards your UCAS points total (assuming you're looking at something music-based – don't bet on it counting towards getting a place on a Civil Engineering course), so the pieces are challenging. Expect awkward time signatures, extended chords, technically demanding riffs and soloing... but if you've come this far, odds are you'll be able to handle it.

First step – make sure you've read my previous article on Rockschool exams because ALL OF IT still applies here -

Preparation? - check. Take nothing for granted when planning your journey. If necessary ring the venue themselves to enquire about parking facilities, equipment and so on. Take nothing for granted regarding the venue either, especially if it's a new one – I have a vivid recollection of turning up to do a day's examining in an exam room where the venue had provided all the musical equipment imaginable but no desk or chair. With the best of intentions, these places are usually run by musicians, and musicians are not always brilliant at thinking organisational and logistical problems through.

Technicals? - check. In fact, as you progress further along the grade structure, the technical exercises become a very important primer for the abilities you need. As discussed in my earlier article, don't just learn these parrot fashion. You won't get the lasting benefits that way. Sequence them, play them in thirds, fourths, fifths – make sure you practice them using the two bar on/ two bar off method. At grade 8 you're also dealing with some fairly... adventurous... tonalities. Of particular interest is the “altered” scale, also known as the Superlocrian mode ( R b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7 – Locrian, but even more so!) - during a recent lesson, I livened things up for a slightly frustrated student by getting him to harmonise it and write a song based off a I-V-vi-IV chord progression in the Superlocrian. It's important to remember these things are not dry academic exercises for the fingers but genuine musical resources.

Pieces? - check. These are obviously more difficult than anything encountered so far in the grade structure, but the progression is logical and incremental. At this level, more and more emphasis is placed on “stylistic awareness”, that is the authentic feel that a player has for the style he or she is playing in. Obviously if you're playing a funk piece you wouldn't want to be laying down heavy handed power chords, and conversely a metal solo is no place for your sensitive and sophisticated jazz/blues lines. A good trick here is to look at the songs the pieces are based on – for example, the old Grade 8 2006-2012 syllabus contained a classic rock track called Bonzo, which owed a healthy debt to Led Zeppelin's “Rock & Roll”. So if you want to play Bonzo really well and authentically, learn Rock & Roll too. The new syllabus gives a list of recommended listening to get the feel of the exam pieces – it's definitely worth your while checking them out.

The major difference with the exam format at this level is that the sight reading and improvisation/ interpretation part of the exam has been replaced by the Quick Study Piece. This is in some ways actually easier, as you get 15 minutes to study and learn a piece that really is none too demanding. The same approach is applicable here as is with the sight-reading: prioritise rhythm, then pitch (you'll have the tablature there), and then dynamics. You may be left with the backing track to practice to – it's well worth sticking the backing on and tracing the tablature along with it to get the feel for how the whole thing hangs together. Often, any unusual rhythmic phrasing will be cued with the drums and bass. Oh, and one sneaky trick - f you're feeling nervous about reading and want to stack the deck further in your favour, when you're offered the choice of style for your QSP, avoid rhythmically complex ones like funk and go for something more straightforward like rock or punk.

It's important to realise that at Grade 8 the player is supposed to be a complete package, with all the bases covered. It shouldn't be a problem to get the right tone from your amp or guitar. You shouldn't be struggling to remember scales or arpeggios. You shouldn't be playing the pieces with our nose buried in the tab book. The examiners are looking for a polished and confident performance, befitting an experienced and confident player. No examiner wants to fail a student, but equally Grade 8 is the top end of the scale and is supposed to be difficult. No examiner is going to devalue the exam by diluting the standards. Completing it represents a huge accomplishment, but it does require a lot of preparation. Don't expect to dive in and busk it, because you will fail, and deservedly so.

If you're feeling nervous and unsure whether you're ready, the odds are you probably aren't so delay the application to the next exam period and get some extra experience in playing the syllabus and also around it using the recommended listening as a guide. When the pieces feel and sound mature and confident, when you're playing the music not just the notes - that's the time to go for it. Do the homework – I particularly recommend the Companion Guides as “past papers” to help you prepare – and you will end up with an achievement you can be genuinely proud of.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The King Is Dead

(Yes, I did promise a guide to passing Rockschool Grade 6-8 exams... but then this happened. Back to normal next month)

 On May 15th the music world lost one of its true icons. The tuxedoed titan of the blues, Lucille's longtime and ever-faithful lover, the man whose elegance and humour was mirrored in his exquisite guitar playing – the one and only BB King is dead.

I'm not a particularly sentimental person, and I can't claim to suffer the grief that BB's family and friends must be suffering. But I must admit to shedding a tear for a truly great musician, and a truly inspirational man. So I think it's an appropriate tribute to examine BB's contributions and the musical legacy he left us with.

Born Riley B. King on September 16th, 1925 in Mississipi, BB was largely raised by his maternal grandmother after his mother left his father for another man when he was just four years old. His first exposure to music seems to have come singing in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael, and at age 12 he acquired his first guitar (accounts vary as to whether he purchased it himself or was given it by blues guitarist Bukka White – White's mother and King's grandmother who was raising him were cousins). There are also stories of a very young Riley King nailing a string to the wall of his shack, nailing the other end into the ground to create tension and playing the string with a bottle as a slide.

In 1941, while working on a plantation aged 16, young Riley heard the new “King Biscuit Show” on local radio – a show dedictated to blues guitarists, and it was at that moment that his ambition crystallised. He took his next step in 1943, leaving the town of Kilmichael to work as a tractor driver, and got his first break playing with the Famous St Johns Quartet on local radio station WGRM in Greenwood, Mississipi. During this time, BB travelled and played locally in many towns around the area, before taking his next big step in 1947 – hitchiking to the capital of Southern music Memphis, Tennessee to join his cousin Bukka White.

This would lead in time to a 1948 performance on blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson's radio show on KWEM, and eventually blossomed into King's own show on WDIA as a singer and disc jockey, gaining the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy" – soon enough “Blues Boy” became BB and the legend that we know was born!

It was during his time at WDIA that BB met T-bone Walker, one of the very first electric blues players and fell in love with the electric guitar, declaring “I knew I'd have to have [an electric guitar] myself. 'Had' to have one, short of stealing!"

BB was able to build on his success in radio to become a professional blues guitarist in 1949, working under contract to RPM records with his band, the BB King Review. Many of these early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who would go on to found Sun Records where many of the early recordings of rock & roll legends Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more.

RPM backed several tours across the USA in the early 1950's, and it was on one of these tours that the legend of Lucille was born.


Lucille has had many forms throughout her life – most recently in the shape of the drop-dead gorgeous Gibson 335- derived signature model introduced in 1982. But her origins are a good deal more humble.

During his touring days, BB and his band would play many bars and juke joints across the southern USA. During one show at Twist, Arkansas, a fight broke out and started a fire which quickly spread throughout the building. BB, his band and most of the crowd escaped, only for BB to realise that his beloved $30 acoustic guitar was still inside! So he did what any self-respecting guitar player would do – he dove straight back in to the blazing building to retrieve it.

Later he would find out that the two men who started the fight had been brawling over a woman named Lucille – and both had died in the fire. King named his guitar Lucille to remind himself never to do anything as crazy again as fight over a woman or run into a blazing building.

For anything other than his guitar, that is.

In 1980 Gibson launched the BB King Lucille model based on the Gibson ES-355 hollow body guitar, the main difference being the lack of f-holes, and in 1999 was briefly joined by a Little Lucille model based on their now discontinued Blueshawk model (this model has largely been airbrushed from history by Gibson).
King continued to record and perform during the 1950s. In 1956 his schedule including a record-breaking 342 shows, and still found time to form his own record label, Blues Boys Kingdom, based out of Beale Street, Memphis.

With the British Invasion of the 1960s, white blues artists such as Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield brought blues to a new audience, crossing the racial divide, and many of these players were quick to give credit to their influences. The “Three Kings” (B.B., Freddie and Albert – none related) were given a massive boost by this new exposure, and B.B was booked as the opening act for the Rolling Stones tour in 1969, and in 1970 won a Grammy award for what would become one of his signature songs, “The Thrill Is Gone”.

Throughout the 1980s King maintained a vigorous touring and recording schedule, playing 300 dates a year, and in 1988 his profile was raised yet again when he collaborated with stadium giants U2 on the track “When Loves Come To Town” from the Rattle & Hum album. U2 Singer Bono described this as a humbling experience - “I gave it my all with that opening howl, but when BB took over I just felt like a little girl..”, and in 2000 he and Eric Clapton recorded “Riding with the King” which would garner another Grammy as “Best Traditional Blues Album”

Despite age and health problems, B.B kept up his schedule into the new century, rounding off his long career of international touring with a performance at Glastonbury Festival in 2011 and an emotional concert filmed at the Albert Hall featuring Ronnie Wood and Slash, among others. I caught this on Sky Arts in 2013 and the reverence, affection and respect for the now 86 year old B.B was palpable, and I strongly recommend any fan of guitar playing to check it out.

B.B continued to perform regularly, mostly in the domestic USA, until October 2014 at the House Of Blues in Chicago when he was forced to pull the gig due to health issues. Sadly, this would be his last performance as his diabetes forced his health into terminal decline. He would go into hospice care in May 2015, and on May 15th, a series of small strokes caused by his diabetes took his life while he slept – and the world lost an icon. A man who took the blues from smoky, dirty deep South juke joints to playing in front of presidents and royalty, a true giant of a musician. The world is less for his passing.

BB's Style

BB King was the undisputed master of the right note in the right place. The late great Stevie Ray Vaughan once commented on a jam session - “..and he got up and played one note, and I died”. He was particularly noted for his instantly recognisable “butterfly” vibrato, achieved by pivoting his fingertip on the string while resting the knuckle joint against the neck of the guitar (for more discussion of vibrato techniques, see Zero Point Guitar).

He was also a master of elegantly blending minor and major pentatonics to great effect in “jump” blues tracks like “How Blue Can You Get?” - this effect is in large part due to his use of the “BB Box” pentatonic fingering. Those of you familiar with Progressive Guitar Training Vol. 1 will recognise this as the Trapezoid fingering – for example, in the key of A minor, this fingering places the root (A) under the first finger at the 10th fret B string, the b3 ( C ) under the third or little finger at the 13th fret. The 4th ( D ) and 5th (E) are easily accessible at the 10th and 12th frets on the top E string, and the b7 (G) sits within easy reach at the 12th fret G. A high root note (in this key, the A on the 17th fret top E string) is another B.B hallmark.

This fingering allows an easy switch to major pentatonic, as the 2nd (B) is easily accessed at the 12th fret under the third finger, allowing for a bend up to the major 3rd (C#), and the 5th can be bent up a tone to reach the 6th (F#). B. B was adept at blending the “colours” of these intervals to effortlessly achieve sophisticated, jazzy sounds while keeping his phrasing natural and unforced.

B.B also possessed a stunning command of dynamics – listening to his recordings, you hear his band go from a whisper to a roar and back, following the nuances of his voice, and this is mirrored in the guitar playing. Check out the intro to “The Thrill Is Gone” - the opening B note leaps out of the mix at you, while the pentatonic phrase that follows is played with the utmost delicacy. The intro to “Outside Help” is a masterclass in dynamics, the band swelling behind Lucille as the phrases build in intensity before falling back to almost nothing as the vocals enter.

Interestingly, minimal though it is, B.B's phrasing can be hard to pin down and duplicate. Certainly, “The Thrill Is Gone” many phrases are on the opposite side of the beat to what you would expect – most player will drop in a couple of pick-up notes on the off beat, leading in to the “big” note on the downbeat. B.B doesn't bother with that, coming straight in on the downbeat and playing less than you think... but somehow manages to make it work without ever sounding amateurish.

This partly stems from his background as a vocalist – indeed, to the non-guitar fraternity, B.B was a singer who played guitar. By his own admission, he never got a grip on playing chords, so would use single note lines as a counterpoint to his vocals. This meant he was more influenced by the phrasing used by singers more than by other guitar players (aside from anything else, in the 1940s and early 1950s, there was far less guitar music around to learn from – B.B and his contemporaries set the template that the subsequent generations would follow and build on). Indeed, B.B described his own style as being heavily vocal-influenced: When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”

B.B's Legacy

When the world lost BB King, we lost one of the music world's few remaining connections to the birth of electric blues. And it's safe to say, without the blues there would have been no rock & roll, no Rolling Stones, Hendrix or Cream... rock and pop music would sound very different today.

So much of the music we take for granted now has its roots in the sharecropper's huts where musicians like B.B, Freddie and Albert King, Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker and more grew up. The electric guitar is a comparatively young instrument, but it's effect on music has been out of all proportion to it's lifespan – and the musician's of B.B's generation are the last ones who were in at the beginning and defined its sounds and expressive qualities. As guitar players, we should realise that these musicians are our roots, and created so much of what we have now. Moments like this are times to reflect on what these men gave us, go back and revisit their old recordings from when music was new and changing and no-one knew what this incredible brand-new instrument could or couldn't do, and to learn from them. Sit down with your iPod and modelling amp and pick out a few of the King's greatest licks from his earliest recordings when it was all new. There is no better way to honour him.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

How to Pass Your Rockschool Exam - Grades 1-5

As spring becomes summer, we pass into the most popular time of the year for students to sit their grade exams. The two major accredited exam bodies in the UK are the Registry of Guitar Tutors and Rockschool (a subsidiary of the long established and highly reputable Trinity Music), and each have a slightly different approach and format for their exams. Over the next few months, I'm going to give you a guide to how to ensure the best results possible as someone who's been on both sides of the examiner's desk.

We'll start with Rockschool. From Grades 1 – 5, their exams funtion in a pretty similar way:

Technical exercises – these feature scales, arpeggios and so on.

Pieces – three chosen from a possible six in the grade book.

Aural (ear training) – this is divided into “Melodic Recall” and “Rhythmic Recall” sections, essentially hearing and reproducing a melody and a rhythm. At higher grades, the rhythmic recall also includes a harmonic element, ie recognising and reproducing chord sequences.

Sight reading / Improvisation and Interpretation – you have the option of choosing either one. Sight reading involves sight reading a passage of tab after 90 seconds of study, Improvisation and Interpretation means coming up with a rhythm and/or lead part based on a chord sheet after 30 seconds of study.

General Musicianship Questions – questions about music theory and instrumental knowledge.

Firstly, some general pointers:

Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail:

Before the exam:

Often, the logistical element is the hardest – simply finding your exam centre and getting there can be the most stressful part (this also goes for the examiners, by the way!). Prepare ahead of time – Google the venue, get a postcode, Googlemap a route (even if you have satnav, it's duty bound to seize up on you at an inopportune moment, or failing that it simply won't recognise the address.. I speak from bitter experience!). Driving? Check parking. It may be simpler and less stressful to get a train or bus. For example, one of the Leicester exam centres is located at Sheehans music shop, a short walk from Leicester train station but in the middle of town with VERY limited parking.

Aim to arrive 15-20 minutes beforehand. This will give you plenty of time to get lost, parked, whatever and still be on time, and time to sit, warm up and focus on slowing your breathing and metabolism after a possibly stressful journey. Clear your mind and limber up your fingers. To play your best, just be in the moment. All you're doing is playing three songs and some scales.

In the exam:

The examiner will ask you what order you would like to do things – pieces or technical exercises first. I recommend doing your technical exercises first.

Something I have seen all too often is students not knowing their technical stuff at all and just flubbing their way through it. I get it – scales and arpeggios are boring and unglamorous.

Tough. You want the grade? You learn the technicals.

To aid this part of the exam, I advise being imaginative in your practicing. Don't just plod up and down the scales. Sequence them. Play them in thirds, fourths, octaves. Use them to improvise. If you're putting in the time to learn these things, learn them – they'll stay with you far after you've done your exam.

Do this part right, and it's fifteen easy marks, setting yourself up nice and confidently for an excellent performance of the pieces. Bluff your way through it, and bang goes any chance of a distinction, you'll be fighting for a pass and your confidence will be in the dirt. Is that really what you put in all this effort for?

Moving onto the pieces themselves, these should be prepared to the point where you don't need to be reading them. No one ever gave their best performance while they were glued to the page. Listen to your pieces in the car, on the bus, while hoovering – really internalise them. There's a big difference between hearing a candidate play the music and one who is just playing the notes.

Aural – the most important thing here is play something. Playing nothing is going to get you zero marks, end of story. If you don't know, just have a guess. The scale and key of the notes are given, so hum the melody, hum the rhythm to yourself and just stick notes from the specified scale onto that rhythm. You're at least going to get points for following the shape and contour of the melody.

Sight reading – the enemy here is panic. 90 seconds, you say? Oh no!!

Relax. 90 seconds is a surprisingly long time. The panic is caused by information overload. We fight that by splitting the information down into three groups and prioritising them:

  1. Rhythm. Tap the rhythms out in one or two bar groups before putting it all together.
  2. Pitch. This is fairly straightforward as the notes are tabbed out for you. Having already figured out the rhythmic framework, it's easy to flesh out with the notes.
  3. Dynamics. Loud (f) and soft (p). hese are the icing on the cake. Nice if you can get them, not something to worry about if you can't,

General Musicianship Questions – nothing too scary here. Generally examiners will ask you which piece is your favourite and focus on elements like key, time signature, individiual notes and rhythms. Be prepared to answer any questions on the theoretical aspects of what was in the technical section too. If your teacher is worth his/ her salt, they'll have already gone over these with you. The last couple of questions are usually general instrument knowledge, so it's worth Googling or Wiki-ing a few prominent guitar or bass makes and models – Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Marshall and so on. This isn't usually too much of an issue for us guitar players, as we tend to be gearheads anyway...

...And that's it! Even at Grade 5, the whole thing is done and dusted in about half an hour. Don't overthink, don't obsess about things – check out the articles on dealing with nerves:

Check back next month for tips on how to deal with the higher grade exams.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Lively Up Yourself

Spring has sprung (BOING! Sorry – had to be done..) and as the sun starts to peek shyly from behind the clouds, guitar players of all shapes and sizes are yawning, stretching and gradually shaking themselves awake from their winter hibernation.

It's around this time of year that my younglings who started back in the autumn are now starting to get on top of the fundamentals of strumming chords, songs and so on, and as such this is the time when we start to try and hone the rhythmic sensibilities. And there's no better way of doing this than breaking out the Bob Marley CD's and tackling a bit of reggae.

Why reggae? Fair question – it's not an obvious style of music to throw at beginner guitar players. Simply put, for guitar players reggae is all about the “and” - the up- or off- beat. Learning to feel the off beat is a crucial skill, something that many guitar players bypass, because.. well, because reggae may not have any obvious connection to the type of music they want to play. If you're into rock, or metal, or blues... what does reggae have to do with any of that?

Simple. EVERYTHING uses the off beat – look at any rock rhythm part. How often do you hear something that is just solely on the downbeat? Pretty much all music uses rhythms that mix up the down and up beats, so being able to use the up beat is critical to mastering rhythm. A perfect example is the Kings Of Leon mega-hit, “Sex On Fire” - the verse rhythm part is all on the off beat. Switch it around and play it on the downbeat – as so many young bands are wont to do – and it just doesn't work. All the life and the energy is gone. AC/DC are another fantastic example of this – songs like “Highway To Hell” or “You Shook Me All Night Long” have great catchy rhythm parts that involve heavy use of the off beat. If you're going to play this sort of stuff and play it properly, spending some time focusing on just the off beat is essential.

I first realised this a few years ago with a student who was struggling to play Megadeth's classic “Symphony Of Destruction” - for those of you unfamiliar with the track, it's a relatively sparse rhythm part, but makes heavy use of (you guessed it) the off beat. This student could play the powerchords and riff without a problem, but could not get the timing. So I uttered the immortal line “trust me, I'm a guitar teacher” and off we went to learn “No Woman No Cry”. By the following week he was nailing the Megadeth riff, all timing problems solved.

So regardless of the style you want to play, it benefits all guitar players to immerse themselves in reggae for at least a little while – let's be honest, being a guitarist means playing rhythm at least 75% of the time, so it pays to be able to do it well. And to be honest, once you get into it, reggae is enormous fun to play- being able to sit in that off beat groove and feel the whole band “bounce” along is really quite addictive. So try it – this month, pick yourself a bunch of reggae classics and go for it. There's a huge amount to be learnt in terms of rhythm, chord voicings – all material that you can transfer across into what ever style you play.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

What Batman Taught Me About Playing Guitar

      Yes, I admit this does seem like the kind of title that suggests I'm writing this at 4am having downed three pints of coffee, but bear with me.
      So “The Dark Knight” was on over Christmas and after having “been meaning to watch that” since 2008, I finally saw it. I actually had the good fortune to visit Chicago in 2008 not long after they'd filmed the movie there, so it was extra fun picking out the bits of the city I recognised. Anyway, a bad habit of mine is IMDb'ing or Wikipedia-ing movies as I'm watching them, and I came across an interesting article on the martial arts training that Batman himself, played by Christian Bale, went through.
       Director Christopher Nolan specified that he wanted Batman to have a realistic and brutal fighting style, no showboating martial arts moves, so he settled on a technique called the Keysi Fighting Method. This is a simple but brutally effective method derived from streetfights amongst Spanish gypsys and has a great deal in common with the Israeli Krav Maga fighting method which is used by many special forces and law enforcement units. These methods eschew flourishes and showy martial arts sequences in favour of simple, quick, and brutal movements that come out of the body's natural reflexive movements. Bruce Lee took a similar approach, stating that it was better to have one or two moves that you could perfect and rely on than a whole host of techniques which clogged the mind and stop you reacting quickly.
        I think you can see where this is going.
      As a guitar teacher, I've had many students ask me to teach them complex techniques like multi finger tapping or sweep picking. My initial reaction always used to be no problem, let's get stuck into a raft of technical exercises – filling the fingers and mind with technical information. However, just learning technique like this, in a vacuum, is not effective in terms of making you a better guitar player.
      My reaction now is to ask the student why he or she wants to learn these techniques, what they are hoping to achieve musically with them. Many times, it's a better approach to look at the licks and phrases you already play naturally – following the body's natural reflexive moves – and look to see how you can develop these phrases, perhaps by adding new ideas like tapped or swept notes to pentatonic phrases that you already use instinctively rather than trying to shoehorn unwieldy arpeggio ideas into a playing style that doesn't suit it. This way, your style will grow organically to incorporate these ideas in a musical, rather than contrived way.

        It seemed to work for Bruce Wayne.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

How To Survive Valentine's Day/ Tips On Writing A Love Song

February has dawned, and with it that most artificial and Hallmark of holidays – Valentine's Day. Now, rather than get into a rant about how this day has been co-opted by greetings cards firms and marketing departments and turned into a stress-filled, chocolate covered rose-tinted nightmare, I thought I'd try and provide something useful and interesting for my readers (Hello, Dave. Hello, Keith.)

If you're reading my blog, chances are you're a guitar player or at the very least a musician of some sort. And if you're a musician, chances are you're probably skint.

So, what to do when Valentine's Day comes a-calling and you can't afford fancy restaurants or jewellery? Well, you justify all that expensive equipment you blew all your money on by writing your significant other a love song, of course!

Now, in an earlier blog post I tok a brief look at some of the common elements that make Christmas songs sound the way they do ( – so let's see if we can't examine one or two classic love songs to learn a trick or two.

Firstly, let's look at some rhythmic elements. Most love songs/ ballads tend to be slow and mellow in tempo, to induce a relaxed feeling in the listener and put them in a more receptive frame of mind. In terms of time signatures, good old 4/4 is of course the favourite, but don't overlook compound time signatures like 12/8 or 6/8 (think REM's classic “Everybody Hurts” - not exactly a love song, but a classic ballad nonetheless). There does seem to be something about the gently rocking triplet feel of these time signatures that we find soothing at a very fundamental level – perhaps recalling the motion of being rocked to sleep in a cradle as a baby.

Moving to look at harmony, most love songs revolve around standard diatonic progressions, particularly favouring the I, IV, V and vi chords. Think “You're Beautiful” by James Blunt, or “No One” by Alicia Keys – both standard I-V-vi-IV sequences, with the “thoughtful” nature of these sequences accentuated by a relaxed tempo and the use of a 1st inversion in the V chord to create a descending motion (C-G/B-Am). For a dramatic middle 8 or bridge, a common device is using a major III chord (think of the F# in the bridge of Everybody Hurts”) to create a sense of tension and often implying a key change. Many classic ballads (think “Parisienne Walkways” or “Still Got The Blues”) also use the cycle of fourths chord sequence.

In terms of melody, a great way to bring out the emotional centre of a chord is to target it's third with the melody. This accentuates the major or minor nature of the chord, and melodies that leap in thirds and fifths tend to be very pleasing to the ear. The old trick of jumping registers to really push the dramatic big chorus is very prevalent in this style of music - think of the huge note that starts the chorus of “I Will Always Love You”.

Dynamically, most love songs tend to follow the quiet verse/ big chorus template, but many continue to build throughout the song. It's also interesting to look at some of the textures and instruments that are favoured – guitar tones tend to be clean (Strat in between pickup positions, maybe a little chorus and delay) or often acoustic. Nylon strings are popular in this style, giving an air of sophistication (“I bring thees geetar all the way from Spain because I luff you so”).

Piano is a popular texture too, it's resonance and depth fitting this style perfectly – certainly balladeers such as Lionel Richie and modern day equivalents by musicians like Bruno Mars make much of the piano's full sound. Strings in pad form and as countermelodies, motifs and hooks are all hallmarks of the classic love songs too, building to an impassioned conclusion as the torured songwriter bares his/ her soul to the listener and leaving not a dry eye in the house.

So – out of cash this Valentine's? Boot up GarageBand and get cracking!

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year's Resolutions 2015

Happy New Year everyone! 2015 is upon us – as everyone who grewup with the “Back To The Future” franchise knows, this is the year we were promised flying cars and a hoverboard in every home. Instead we just have this rubbishy thing called the Internet, where we can read articles composed entirely of light that whine about how we don't have hoverboards and flying cars yet. And smartphones which allow us to access basically all of the combined knowledge of two thousand-odd years of human history in the palm of our hand, as well as letting us share really cute pictures of cats...
Anyway, new year means a chance to regroup and refocus on your musical goals for the year. Most people stumble and slow their progress because they get distracted and try and move in too many different, disparate directions at once. Result – they get nowhere, and they get frustrated. And with the frustration comes a decrease in motivation, and then we're into the vicious cycle of decreasing returns leading to decreasing effort.

So, let's take the opportunity afforded us by the new year to define three musical goals – no more, no less - to have fulfilled by the end of this year. For some of you, that will be grades – Rockschool's excellent syllabus has pivotal points at grades 3, 5 and 8, and preparing for these exams will improve your core skills no end.

For some, it could be mastering a new technique – slide guitar, hybrid picking, or those faithful shred standbys tapping and sweep picking. Perhaps your interests may lie more in the theoretical or compositional fields – understanding “jazz” extended chords, learning to read music, learning to work in odd time signatures. Frankly, after the exceptional level of compositional talent that everyone involved with the Winterwonderland2014 ( demonstrated, I'd like to see some of you writing your own solo albums this year!

One thing that I think everyone should include in this year's resolution list, though, is to simply sound better. To this end, try focusing in on the details of exactly how you play your regular chords, licks and phrases – fret and pick hand pressure, angles of grip (making sure you're not inadvertantly bending strings while playing chords, for example), muting from both hands to minimise string noise and of course focusing on an even, rhythmic and controlled vibrato. I've covered all of these aspects before in various blog posts, but these are the minutiae that often get overlooked in the quest for more speed, flashier licks and so on. Mastering these details – stripping your technique back to basics and really focusing on the fundamentals – can make you sound far smoother, cleaner and more fluid without having to spend anything at all!

To this end, let me give you an example of how I approach this in my own practice routine. Once a week I set an afternoon aside for band material, setting iTunes on Shuffle and seeing what comes up. I then make a point of playing the solo, or any “spotlight” guitar part, as slowly as possible. This challenges me to control each note for as long as possible, ekeing the maximum emotion and drama from each note and projecting it with as much passion as possible. It's a great way of getting back in touch with the musicality of the solo, rather than simply stringing together a bunch of licks and finger motions. Try it, you might surprise yourself!

Good luck, and happy 2015 to each one of you :-)