Tuesday, 27 December 2016

#TUNEICEF 2016 LIVE - Review

So Christmas has been and gone for another year, and with the taste of turkey, stuffing, and brandy butter still on the lips, it's time take a look back at this year's #TUNEICEF project. From French riviera-style acoustic instrumentals to absolutely BRUTAL heaviness from Loughborough's own hometown metal heroes The Relinquished.

As is our custom over the last couple of years, we scheduled the gig for the last Sunday before Christmas, and before we go any further may I say HUGE thank you to The Beacon for hosting TUNEICEF for free in 2015, 2016 and 2017! Credit to Sharon & Ian, we couldn't have done this without you – and neither could we have done it without the legendary members of Dave The Rock Band providing PA, drums, bass and vocals.

I kicked things off with a few tunes from my acoustic set – more than a little intimidating, if I'm honest, given that come kick off there were only a half dozen guys in the audience, none of whom knew the gig was happening and were totally focused on the football on TV behind me...

But I'm still here to tell the tale, so it can't have been all bad ;-)

I handed things over to the one and only Jonezy, who... oh look, you just have to see him. Rock and hip hop fused together with some phenomenally catchy riffs and an out and out ballsy energy that has to be seen to be believed! Suffice to say everybody had their hands in the air like they just didn't care by the end of his set – an awesome performer!

Next up, Dave took to the stage for a few Christmas favourites and were joined by two of my students – Billy Edwards and Tom Hetzel from Track 95. Billy has written tracks for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 iterations of our charity project, and Tom has added the basslines to several of the album tracks – still finding the time to ace his Grade 3 with a staggering 93%!

They were followed by The Relinquished, a band I must confess I'd never heard of until singer and songwriter Lewis Sawyer contacted me on Facebook and sent me a couple of YouTube links – now, I can't claim to be a huge metal fan, but quality is quality whatever the genre, and after what I'd heard these guys HAD to be on the album and in the show! Sure enough, they didn't disappoint – blisteringly loud, but they performed a tight, dynamic, energetic set. It's very easy to let that sort of music devolve into a wall of noise, and it's a testament to their musicianship that they kept everything clear and precise, delivering crushing riffs and blazing solos with total accuracy. AND they threw in some Dio – all around win!

Then it was time for our headliners, Dawn Of Anubis – also known as The Bench That Rocked, depending on whether they're performing original material or covers. I've known these guys for a while and was lucky enough to have Tom, Billy and Luke as students back as year 7 younglings at Castle Rock. Watching them now, the progress they've made is incredible, the band craft some superb songs packed with hooks and dynamics and harmony, and performed with energy, style and confidence. The boys are well and truly grown up!

I'd like to thank all our artists and everyone who came down, hope you all enjoyed the show as much as we did, and don't forget to head on over to https://tuneicef.bandcamp.com/releases to order your copy – all proceeds go to UNICEF and you're supporting top notch local artists.

And do yourself a favour – next weekend, instead of putting on X Factor and complaining there's nothing but crap in the charts, go and see one of these bands, or the hundreds like them, who flog up and down the country trying to find the few venues who support original music and the few people who are willing to go out and appreciate it. Each year I've run this project I've been genuinely astonished by the level of talent that's out there that doesn't get any exposure. If you don't want your listening ruled by Simon Cowell and Kiss FM, make yourself a resolution to go and see at least one band you've never heard of in 2017.

And for everyone involved in this year's TUNEICEF, I say thank you, Happy Christmas, and see you same time next year!

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


You'll have to forgive the lateness of this blog post, I've spent the last two weeks stockpiling tinned food and digging a bunker in the garden.

But in between preparations for the ascendance of the God-King Of The Oompa Loompas to leadership of the free world, TUNEICEF 2016 has been taking shape and gaining momentum. For those of you unfamiliar with what has become an annual tradition since 2013, my students and I have been writing and recording songs for an album of original music to be released digitally at Christmas with the proceeds going to UNICEF. Check out our Bandcamp page:

So far we've got acoustic pop from Phil Matthews (aka The Village), French-inspired instrumental from local composer Zoe Felton, guitar pop from those lovable scamps The Formidable Ale society, a cod-Satriani instrumental from yours truly and standout metal from One S0ul and The Relinquished.. and this is before student tracks are added!

Thanks again must go not just to students but also Matt Chubb, Wayne Cooper and Amanda Williams for contributing vocals as well as drum teacher and local legend Steve Ward for his drum tracks.

Interested in finding out more? Check out these links:

The Formidable Ale Society - http://www.theformidablealesociety.com/

If you fancy contributing a track or two, drop us a line at jmguitartuitionuk@yahoo.co.uk, the more the merrier! Meantime, you can help out by “liking” us at https://www.facebook.com/TUNEICEF/ and following us ( @TUNEICEF ) on Twitter – we've also got a hashtag (#TUNEICEF) even if we're not entirely sure what we should be doing with it... Likes, shares, retweets – it all helps, we're making this happen on a budget of literally nothing, so help spread the word and raise some money for a worthy cause while promoting local talent!

#TUNEICEF 2016 LIVE will be held on Sunday December 18th at The Beacon, Loughborough, so get on down and check out our contributing artists!

PS – don't forget to check out our previous efforts!

Friday, 14 October 2016

Excellence Is The New Black Pt. 2 - Theory

After astonishing Olympic and Paralympic successes in Rio, maybe – just maybe – it's going to start to become cool to be really really really stupidly good at something in this country. We've proved without a shadow of a doubt that when it comes to athletes, able bodied or otherwise, our best rank alongside the world's best – let's see if we can extend this spirit of excellence down to musicians, and in particular, guitarists.

Last month we discussed technique development – something which, when I got started in the mid 90s, was considered almost a dirty word. This month we're going to focus on another aspect that polarises opinion – theory.

Now, those who've studied with me and endured my rants on the subject will know this, but for everyone else I'm just going to blow apart the biggest myth surrounding music theory.

Theory is NOT difficult. Theory is, in fact, stupidly simple. There are, after all, only 12 notes in the chromatic scale, in the entire lexicon of music. That's IT. But looking at terms like Lydian Dominant, Superlocrian, m7b9#5, tritone substitution.. you'd be forgiven for thinking theory is an utterly impenetrable discipline.

It's not, of course. We just like to make ourselves look cleverer than we actually are. Why say “gets louder” when we can say “Crescendo”? Why say “chord played one note at a time” when we can say “arpeggio” and get passers by swooning at our phenomenal vocabulary?

We may wrap up different combinations of notes in fancy sounding Italian and Greek names (due in no small part to the influence of Pythagoras in the early development of the 12 – tone system we use now), but at it's heart music theory has evolved incredibly elegant solutions to the problem of creating and organising sounds into repeating and evocative patterns that can be performed by groups of musicians playing different instruments together. Theory exists so that when you play C,F and G, the bass and keyboard player can play the same C, F and G.

I'm not going to try and encompass the whole of music theory in one blog post. I've got to get up in the morning, for one thing. But I do want to make a couple of quite important points.

Firstly – learning the rules of music theory is not like learning the rules of a game or the school/ college/ workplace rules. It doesn't mean that if you play an F# note over a C minor chord the Theory Police will come and take your guitar away. It just means you'll get a fairly odd sound you can describe as a Cmadd#4. It's similar to the laws of physics – if you jump off the roof of a tall building, you'll fall to the ground and probably die. Not understanding that won't stop it happening, but understanding it will mean you probably won't jump off the roof in the first place. So a guitarist who doesn't want to “constrain my creativity with rules” and decides to eschew theory is probably going to be stuck playing the same 3 or 4 chords and pentatonic licks forever, because they'll be what he's used to and what “feels right”. The guitar player who does learn some theory, however, will probably have his curiosity piqued and will try and combine sounds he may never have previously connected and will progress, evolving his sound and improving his ability to express himself.

Secondly – theory is often very badly taught, in my experience. If you're going to understand what's going on, you need to get things in order.

The Chromatic Scale.

This is where it all begins. The chromatic scale is our alphabet – 12 notes, each separated by a semitone. When you get round to the 12th note, the sequence begins an octave higher – the octave being a note that is exactly twice the pitch of the original root note, allowing our brains to perceive it as a higher version of the original note. The semitone is taken as the basic smallest unit of musical difference because it's the smallest gap that can be consistently modelled from instrument to instrument. For example, we can achieve subtle microtonal differences with slight string bends, and so can a violinist – but good luck doing that on a piano or a tuba.

So with our basic lexicon sorted, let's proceed to the next step.

The Major Scale

The major scale is a very important scale in the sense that it's the one our ears and our brains are naturally tuned to. It makes us happy, on a visceral level it simply sounds right. And it's very simple to construct. Pick a note from the chromatic scale to serve as your root note (starting point) and then build as follows:

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

And job done. I recommend starting to familiarise yourself with this scale by playing it along one string (for the uninitiated, semitones are represented on the guitar by one fret, tones by two). For example, the E major scale can be found along the E string like so:

Root – open string, 2nd - 2nd fret, 3rd - 4th fret, 4th - 5th fret, 5th - 7th fret, 6th - 9th fret, 7th - 11th fret, Octave - 12th fret.

Next, try finding some simple melodies – for example, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” can be found using the pattern Root-Root- 5th - 5th - 6th -6th - 5th - 4th - 4th - 3rd -3rd -2nd -2nd – Root.

What's interesting is that this pattern of intervals holds true, giving you the same tune no matter where you start it from – whether it's from an A, E, B, F# or wherever root note, the tune will be the same. You can literally play the same tune with different notes, insane as that may initially sound!

So what does this tell us? Well, it tells us that the notes themselves aren't actually that important – it's the context that matters. The pattern of intervals, not the pitches.

Now, if we can do this with single note melodies, we can also do it with chord sequences. Many songs use predictable chord sequences which can be easy to recognise – and therefore easy to figure out. The 12 bar blues is one such example.

Welcome to the Nashville Number System.

Basically, the way this works is we build a chord from each note of the major scale and then assign it a number (in Roman numerals) based on what note of the scale it's built from. For example, the E major scale has the notes E (root) F# (2nd) G# (3rd) A (4th) B (5th) C# (6th) and D# (7th) .

This leads to the chord sequence E (I) F#m (ii) G#m (iii) A (IV) B (V) C#m (vi) D# dim (vii).

Notice as well that only the I, IV and V chords are major – the ii, iii and vi are minor and the vii is a positively evil sounding diminished chord. Why so?

Simply, the major scale hasn't got the right notes for the chords to all be major. An F#, for example has the A# note as its 3rd – that note isn't present in the E major scale, so A has to be substituted, making it a flattened 3rd and therefore a minor chord. For a D# chord, F## and A# need to be present for th 3rd and 5th – they're not, so F# and A have to be substituted, meaning flattened 3rd and 5th which creates the diminished sound.

Right here, in this article, we've covered probably 70% of the theory that you as a rock/ blues/ pop guitar player are ever going to need. Theory is nothing to be scared of, and investigating these sounds, combining them in different ways, can open up many new creative avenues to explore. Fear not the theory, for it is just big words for little things!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Excellence - The New Black?

 So, continuing on my theme of linking current events to guitar playing philosophy (no matter how tenuously!) - we're basking in the glow of frankly astonishing Olympic success while the Paralympic boys and girls are midway through repeating the feat, showing just how far it is possible to push the human body. Excellence and achievement is very much IN – and it's beautiful to see!

So what does this mean for us guitar players? Well, maybe it's a generational thing – I learned to play in the mid 90s when guitar playing was reacting against the perceived excesses of the 80s and the idea of “too much technique” was in fashion.. Guitar solos with “too many notes” were sneered at and a generation of guitar players were raised with the notion of “playing for the song”..

Which, to be fair, is not a bad idea. But it did swing a little too far- players like Noel Gallagher and John Squire did a fine job supporting the songs with carefully crafted melodic rhythm parts and guitar solos, but then pretty much anyone who could string two power chords together was lauded as the new “anti-hero”. Being good at your instrument was deemed “uncool” by the music press, and with it the idea of exploring the potential of the guitar, learning and understanding technique and theory became viewed as something to apologise for.

Happily, as with all fashions, they are fleeting and through the early Noughties we saw a resurgence in guitar virtuosity, particularly with the runaway success of unashamed hair metal renegades The Darkness making solos cool again, and players like Andy McKee and Newton Faulkner breathed new life into the acoustic guitar, building on the legacy of underground geniuses like Michael Hedges :

 With the internet giving exposure to bands an artists who might never have had a chance at being heard in the mainstream, we seem to be hitting a point where a player like Tosin Abasi is as widely known as Taylor Swift, and his talent and dedication to his craft can serve as an inspiration to another generation.

So the point of all this? There's room for both – if you just want to chug power chords or view the guitar simply as a tool for writing songs, fair play to you. But don't underestimate the player who's chosen to research his or her instrument a little deeper, in order to find alternate voicings for those chords, create riffs or textural parts to enhance those songs. And don't assume that just because they know their scales they're going to widdle tastelessly all over your prized musical creation – a truly good player understands the tools at their disposal and uses them according to the situation. Arpeggios, for example – you can use them to burn like Malmsteen: 

 or soar like Gilmour:

Technique, then isn't simply the pursuit of being able to play lots of notes really fast. It's about being able to size up the song and find exactly the right part to enhance it, whether it's a blistering face-melter solo or a subtle textural part composed of interesting alternative chord voicings – and then being able to play that part well. Consider, for example, “Sweet Child O' Mine” - and imagine it without the intro. Technique makes it possible to play that part, and you can't argue that the song would be poorer without it.

Next post, we'll be discussing how we can apply this approach to theory to help develop that most elusive of qualities – feel. Till then, keep pursuing excellence and be proud of it!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Rio 2016 - Going Brazilian!

It's Olympics time again, and this year the circus has moved from smoky London town to the rather more sunlit climes of Rio de Janeiro! And with it has been a wave of interest in all things Brazilian – so in the spirit of seeking tenuous links to guitar related topics, lets tackle something a little unusual and take a look at Brazilian guitar music.

Actually, we should start by checking out probably Brazil's biggest musical export – thrash metal band Sepultura. These guys have been going since 1984 and have been a huge influence on metal bands the world over, despite the founding members (brothers Max and Igor Cavalera) departing in 1996 and 2006, and are due to release their fourteenth album in October of this year. Their iconic 1996 album Roots combined the band's metal and thrash influences with elements of Brazilian folk music such as Bahia samba reggae, and was an immense success both critically and commercially – the Los Angeles Times review saying: “The mixture of the dense metal of Sepultura and the Brazilian music has an intoxiating effect”.

So what is this “Brazilian music”? The term encompasses a huge variety of styles, largely rhythmic and percussive in nature, but probably the best known forms are samba and bossa nova – the classic bossa song “The Girl From Ipanema” being used during the Rio 2016 opening ceremony – so let's start with those.


- for those familiar with semiquaver or 16th note rhythms, count “1 e & a 2 e (&) a”)

What we think of as the classic samba rhythm is predominantly a 2/4 rhythm, with the first beat on the “down” parts of the beat and the second beat on the “up” parts. Normally this rhythm will be played on guitar and other stringed instruments along with various percussion instruments. Like many popular rhythms, this has its roots in Africa and made its way to Brazil via the West African slave trade, but is popularly seen as a musical expression of the urban carnival culture of Rio.

Bossa Nova

 – count “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”

Bossa Nova literally means “new trend” in Portugese, and was developed in the 1950s from a fusion of jazz and samba rhythms. It is most commonly performed on a nylon string acoustic, accompanying vocals – an approach pioneered by legendary Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto, who would frequently lock himself in his bathroom for hours on end playing one chord over and over in the hope of finding new rhythmic inspiration.

Both these genres are commonly associated with sophisticated, jazzy sounding chord voicings – minor and major 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths are common in many Latin jazz standards, much more so than their triad equivalents, and a staple of many tunes is the 6/9 chord (R 3 5 6 9).

A great way to embrace these ideas and incorporate them into your everyday musical vocabulary is to experiment with adding them to regular ideas like the 12 bar blues, ii-V-I or I-V-vi-IV – try them bossa or samba style, extend the chords to 9ths and see what happens!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Gear Up!

 So summer is (allegedly) upon us – you can tell, the rain is that bit warmer – and with it, holiday season. So as across the land millions struggle with what to pack in their suitcase, that provides a good – if slightly tenuous - excuse to look at what a guitar player should be packing to a gig.

Whether you're loading up a van or squeezing everything in to a hatchback, the logistical element is something that we all have to deal with. My favourite observation is that you can always tell the rookies because they bring EVERYTHING – 100 watt head, two 4x12” cabs, rack of half a dozen guitars, wireless system, pedalboard... and are always looking for the newest shiniest gadget to add to their arsenals in the quest for sonic perfection - whereas the old hands like myself have long since figured out that the more stuff you bring, the more stuff you have to lug about at the end of the night when the adrenalin is wearing off and every case, amp and cabinet weighs double what it used to. So we're all about simplicity. Less setup time, less stuff to go wrong, less packdown time and home before the sun rises.

With this in mind, let me guide you through my gig rig.

Guitars – obviously, you need these! I use a heavily homebrewed USA Fender Strat as No. 1 and a 2005 Gibson Les Paul as my backup.I have a terrible record breaking strings, so I haven't quite hit the point of confidence to do a whole evening's sets with just one. That said, my workhorse has rarely let me down and coves a wide variety of sonic bases, featuring the Seymour Duncan Everything Axe humbucker-single-humbucker configuration, straplocks, Sperzel locking tuners, LSR roller nut and graphite string saddles. These last are particularly worth checking out – I've gone from breaking a string a gig to a string a year. I've also moved to using coated Elixir strings which keep their “new-string” responsiveness longer. The Les Paul I've kept as stock, apart from graphite saddles and straplocks.

Amp – Let me be clear on this... if you're playing pubs/ clubs/ anything short of the NEC you DON'T need a 100w Marshall stack. A decent valve combo with a good 12” speaker in the 30-50 watt range, on a riser (anything from a purpose built amp stand to a chair will do) to keep the sound aimed at the audience's ears instead of their knees will give you all the volume you need. For bigger gigs you'll either be mic'd or DI'd anyway – all you need is sufficient volume to be heard over the drums. More onstage volume, more feedback loops. Some purists may claim they need the depth of tone that a 4x12” gives, and yeah it is nice, but more often than not the acoustics of the room shape the sound far more than these subtleties. Plus, carrying the damn thing at 3am...

For those interested, I use a Laney TT50 – all valve, 50w, 1x12”, three channels and a secondary volume control for a lead boost. Although sadly no longer in production, it's done me since '08 and even survived the dog peeing in it. Can't ask for more than that.
FX – In this day and age of incredible modelling technology, I'm going to forswear the iconic pedals like the Ibanez Tubescreamer and boutique gear like Keeley compressors and recommend a multiFX unit. All that handwired gear may suit the Eric Johnsons of this world, but for us mere mortals who don't have roadies to cart and set their gear up, all that mucking about with batteries, PSUs and patch cables is far more trouble than it's worth. A decent multiFX – Digitech RP1000, pretty much any Line 6 gear, the Boss GT series - will provide 99% of the sound for 10% of the trouble. Make sure your unit has its own effects loop – we'll talk about that in a second.

There's another bonus – practically all multiFX units now have built in amp simulatirs, giving you a backup route direct into the PA if your amp goes down mid gig. You won't get that with a pedalboard (unless you buy ANOTHER PEDAL to do it.)

Cables – now here it is worth shelling out. Cheap cables are made with cheap components and poor shielding, and are far more prone to breaking, getting dirt in the connections resulting in disruption to your sound, and just general fun-sapping frustration. Save up for some good ones – I swear by Neutrik connectors as upgrades too.

You're obviously going to need an one cable from guitar to amp, but to get the most out of an FX package you're going to need to use the effects loop on the FX unit and the amp itself. Let's talk about the signal path.

Firstly, guitar to amp – you can either use a good 20 ft cable or a wireless system for this stage.

Second, the preamp side effects – these are things like compression, wah, overdive and distortions. These effects need to be placed before the preamp stage.

Third, the preamp – this is the part of the amplifier that shapes the sound. I tend to keep my EQ fairly flat, maybe with a little midrange drop out and bass boost to prevent the sound getting too “boxy” in a small pub or club. Your amp will most likely have three tone controls – treble, middle and bass. This is your “equalisation” or EQ stage – to set these “flat”, set all to halfway and then tweak to taste. Sounds too tinny? Wind back the reble. Sounds too flabby and muddy? Wind back the bass.

Fourth, the FX loop. What this means is that the signal comes out of the preamp and into the effects that need to sit after the preamp stage – modulation effects such as chorus, phaser and flanger need to go here, as do delays and reverbs. If you put delay on a distorted sound, you get an echo of a distorted sound. If you put distortion on a delayed sound, you end up with a godawful clanging sonic mush. Not recommended.

Fifth and finally, the power amp. This is the stage that adds volume and sends out to the speaker.

So connecting up, you want :

Guitar – cable or wireless – FX input

FX unit FX send – amp input

Amp FX send – FX unit FX return

FX unit output – amp FX return

This is known as the “4 cable method”. Now, as an old hand at this, I've learned that you actually want a single cable “mobile” so you can move around on stage, but the other three will be static, between FX unit and amp – so sto speed things up, I've gathered them into a “snake” using Maplin cable wraps to keep them together. Experience has taught me – many times – that leads can and will fail, particularly when they're difficult to get too, so my three-cable snake now has five cables for redundancy. I've left about 12-18 inches exposed either end of the snale to get around different amp layouts and replace or resolder cable tips when needed. This means you're unwarpping and plugging in one cable not three, making set up and pack down that little bit easier.

Last but most definitely not least – gaffer tape! You need this to tape down leads – one tip, where the lead curls round your wah or volume pedal, that's where you need to tape it down, otherwise you're going to wind up with it catching under your pedal, meaning you won't be able to turn it off – tape up set lists, tape the drummer's mittens to his hands so he won't lose them, tape up that hole in the band van's radiator pipe.. the uses are endless!

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Revisiting old memories...

 So this time twenty years ago you'd have found me with my headphones in – plugged into a walkman cassette player – lost in the world of kitchen sink melodramas conjured up by one Steven Patrick Morrissey with accompaniment exquisitely crafted by the guitar genius of Johnny Marr and the often overlooked but equally talented rhythm section duo of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. Yes, I was a huge, huge Smiths fan.

And you know what – looking back on it, it did me a world of good. By the time I went to music college, I was still a novice – barely advanced from Oasis and Nirvana and struggling to make the leap to Guns 'n' Roses, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. Not only did Morrissey's tragicomic genius lyrics strike a chord with the skinny teenage me, but Johnny Marr's guitar work and arrangements were a masterclass in ensemble playing. I learned so much about rhythm playing and accompaniment from replicating his guitar parts, and I thoroughly recommend any serious student of the guitar at least delve into some of his classics.

Lately I've been running through a couple of Smiths tunes with a student of mine and it's caused me to to revisit some of the music that hooked me all those years ago.

“Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now” - glorious shimmering major 7ths and chord fragments creating a beatiful dynamic, agile rhythm part and almost pianistic melodic solo. Check out the bassline for a smorgasbord of goodies, syncopation, walking bass and tenths.

“Girlfriend In A Coma” - simple enough chordally, but great for honing your ska/ reggae rhythm chops

“Ask” - Driving arpeggios with surprisingly tricky leaps in register

“What Difference Does It Make” - Outlining chords with arpeggios with string elements of melody and voice leading.

“How Soon Is Now” - incredible textures, synchronised tremolo effects and haunting slide guitar.. Incredibly difficult to reproduce even now – and this was recorded in 1985! Check out this link for some fascinating insights into the recording process: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_Soon_Is_Now%3F#Origin_and_recording

“This Charming Man” - THAT hook, almost African style, thirds bouncing across the fretboard with reckless abandon and some unusual chords in the bridge.

“Back To The Old House” - a great fingerstyle party piece with a lovely descending sequence in the bridge.

“That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore” - a masterpiece of melodic chord playing, using extensions to create melodic movement throughout the chord sequence and Johnny Marr somehow making an augmented chord work as part of an utterly anthemic chorus.

“Bigmouth Strikes Again” - pounding 16th note gallop, great for building that right hand stamina!

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” - an unutterably gorgeous tune, it will be played at my funeral.

We've only scratched the surface of the Smith's back catalogue, and I recommend the compilation “Louder Than Bombs” as a good start point along with the “Singles” collection. Although they only lasted from 1982 to 1987, the influence the Smiths have had on subsequent generations of artists is out of all proportion, and they should be on any guitar player's “must hear” list – so what are you waiting for? To Spotify with you!

Thursday, 12 May 2016

#Leicester2016 - and what did you learn?

OK, I'll admit it – a) I'm from Derby, and b) (possibly because of a) ) - I'm not really into football.

But everyone loves a good underdog story, and you have to love the fact that a team with a fraction of the budget of the Arsenals, Chelseas, and Manchester Uniteds have taken on the big buys and beat them fair and square. Certainly, a great many of my students have been nursing hangovers this week past..

So, what can us musos learn from this? Leicester's secret – as one of my drummer friends told me several times, in various states of inebriation – has been playing as a team. No showboating, no egos. No one member out to make a name for themselves.

Let's take a moment to think about how this applies to guitarists. A look through a list of the greatest session guitarists will reveal names like Steve Lukather, Steve Cropper, Nile Rodgers, Tim Pierce and Cornell Dupree – not all of them exactly household names, but all of them consistently working across years and sometimes decades. Check out their discographies and prepare to scrape your jaw off the floor.

So what do these guys have in common? What makes them so consistently employable?

Steve Cropper described his approach as “listening to what everyone else was playing. It didn't make sense to me to be stepping on a drum fill or a bass line or a horn line. I would stay out of the way of everyone else,. And then, when I'd find a hole, I'd jump in there and fill it”.

Nile Rodgers: “To me the more information you hear, the less funky it is. Less is more in my world.”

Tim Pierce (On the Goo Goo Dolls sessions): “Johnny (Reznik) plays all of the acpustics and quite a few electrics and then I come in to try to fill what's missing.”

Steve Lukather: “I don't think I'm the best guitar player, matter of fact, I'm very self deprecating. I don't think I'm that good at all”

Cornell Dupree (as described by Bernard Edwards): “We never stepped on each other's toes – it was like a polite conversation.”

Claudio Ranieri (Leicester's manager) - “We fight for each other on the pitch. We are 11 when we go on to the field and in all my career I don't think I have known a team as strong at being together.”

The message is pretty clear – any team enterprise, be it band or football team – you're a team. And a team is only as strong as it's weakest link. Don't be that link.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Feel The Groove – High Definition Rhythm Guitar

 Regular readers of this blog – both of you – along with my students, will know how much of a (for want of a better word) fascist I am about rhythm. I make no apologies for it – rhythm is what makes music music, what binds the notes together the notes and permeates everyaspect of music.

Basically, rhythm is The Force.

Learn it well, let it flow through you, turn off your guidance systems.. oh you know the drill.

But all this is just drivel without some solid reference points to back it up. If you're going to learn to “feel” rhythm, you have to start somewhere. Now this is an area where us grownups/ old gits have an advantage over you younglings – we've been around longer, we've had much more opportunity to absorb rhythm, to learn through osmosis even if we weren't trying to. Kids don't have that luxury. Kids have to concentrate and count.

So – where to begin. Start with simplicity itself, simply tapping your foot to the beat. Next up, using your pick hand (because after all, that's the one that does the most work channelling rhythm) start tapping out the rhythms on top.

First the semibreve (whole note) – once every four beats
Next, the minim (half note) – once every two beats
Third, the crotchet (quarter note) – once per beat
Then, the quaver (eighth note) – two evenly spaced taps per beat.
Once you've got those, try the triplet – three evenly spaced taps per beat. Think “one and a, two and a, three and a, four and a” - or if you're a fan of Family Guy “Giggity, Giggity, Giggity, Giggity”!

Now we get into the next level of rhythm – the semiquaver, or sixteenth note. This is a note that's worth a quarter of a beat, so we're going to need to space out four taps evenly within one beat. Think “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a, three-e-and-a, four-e-and-a”.

Once you've grasped these patterns, grab your guitar. Set up a semiquaver pattern muting the strings – you'll notice the distinctive “wakkachakka, wakkachakka” sound, just begging for a wah pedal and a chorus of backing singers belting out “Shaft!”.

Next up, we'll start getting used to some of these rhythmic ideas. Pick a chord – I've been using dominant 9ths with my students as they embody the distinctive sound of James Brown era funk, but any barre chord will do (open chords aren't a good idea here as you'll need to mute the strings completely).

We'll begin simply – put the chord on the downbeat, the 1,2,3,4 – release the pressure for the “e-and-a” and just hit the muted strings. Then when you're ready, move over to playing on the “e”, then the “and”, then the “a”. As you do, try and conjure up an image in your mind for each rhythm – for example, there's something about playing on the “a” that makes me think of swimmers doing the butterfly stroke, that chord sounding like a gasp of breath before diving back under water for the next stroke. Try it, you'll see what I mean!

When you get the hang of them, see if you can condense them down into two bars of each rhythm, played consecutively as an eight bar exercise. When you can do this consistently, you'll be well on the way to mastering what I like to think of as HD Rhythm Guitar – being able to recognise and reproduce more sophisticated syncopated rhythms by ear. And trust me, there is NO style of music where that ability is not an advantage!

So – until next month, go forth and get your grooves on!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Sod's Law

 We're all familiar with the principle of Murphy's Law/ Sod's Law – if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. And us musicians are in no way exempt from it's lugubrious dead hand. The broken string at the climactic bend of our spotlight solo, the amp catching fire just as you're kicking into the big finale, the compere's oversized clown shoe tripping and unplugging your amp so that you launch into your big intro with NOTHING... (yes, that last one really happened to me).

An amateur guitarist worries “What happens if X or Y goes wrong?” and ties himself in knots trying to plan ahead for every contingency.

A professional guitarist knows the whole thing is going to go to hell, almost immediately, but grits his teeth and gets on with things anyway.

There are a whole raft of tiny, low-level teething problems that can disrupt a performance – things that simply cannot be replicated in a rehearsal room or a lesson. I think the problem really lies in our expectations – when we see a band, live or on TV, all the background stuff (cables, DI boxes, mixing desks) is hidden away, out of sight. The result being that people think music just happens. But when you stop to think about it, there's some very complex logistical and technical processes going on. It's only natural for their to be some issues along the way.

You pick the string. The vibrations are sensed by the pickup (assuming you've selected the right one and not accidentaly turned your volume down for any reason) and turned into an electrica impulse.

This electrical impulse is transmitted through the lead – assuming your jack socket hasn't worked itself loose, assuming there are no bad connections in either the jack socket or the tip of the lead itself – through to the amplifier.

The amplifier then adjusts the signal, adding gain, editing frequencies and running through a reverb chamber – assuming there is no issue in the input of the amplifier or in any of the circuitry, assuming the valves (if applicable) are in working order and have not burst or degraded - and then sends the amplified signal to the speaker which vibrates to create the soundwaves (assuming there is no damage to the speaker (for instance if it's been accidentally smacked into a chair leg... or table corner.. ask me how I know)

For some players the chain ends there. For others there is a mic'd or DI'd amp – which necessitates another cable, a DI box or mic.. another link in the chain, another potential source of problems. There's also the possibility – probablility – that there's at least a couple of pedals and/or a multi-FX unit in the mix. That's patch cables, batteries, power supplies – patch cables can break, batteries lose charge, power supply units are notoriously bady designed and badly made, and vulnerable to issues in the venue power supply. I vividly remember a gig back in 2009 with my new Line 6 FloorPod XT (I think) where the damn thing would NOT stop buzzing – could I replicate the issue at home? Could I hell. As it turns out, the problem was the power supply at the pub we had been playing at. An earth loop issue in the pub's wiring was the problem. Without a ground lift function, there's nothing you can do but grin and bear it, and crank your noise suppressor...

Then there's the cable. You WILL wind it round your ankle. You WILL catch it on a mic stand. Unless you gaffa tape it down, it WILL get stuck under your wah pedal. Wireless? Batteries. Interference.

There are always going to be problems when you play live. There is no textbook of solutions. You just have to be on your mettle, able to respond an d improvise your way out of the situation. And for that, you need experience. Sometimes, that experience will by necessity be embarrassing – and I'll see whatever your story is, and raise you the one where I set my own hair on fire trying to do a Slash and smoke on stage – but there's no getting around it, it has to be done. You experience the problem, you find a solution. You can't short cut it, you can't skimp on the learning curve – but be aware, every story will eventually be something you can laugh about over a beer a few years down the line.

Take your lumps, learn your lessons, and enjoy the ride!

Monday, 15 February 2016

They Only Live Once

 It's been a brutal start to the new year for musicians. No sooner are we done paying our respects to the legend that was Motorhead's founder, frontman and bass player Lemmy – the man with the gravelliest voice in rock, who echoed that rasp with a Rickenbacker bass through hefty distortion and who legend had it was prescribed speed as otherwise his heart would give out – than we were hit with the news of icon David Bowie's demise. It may seem obvious now, given the subsequent news of his cancer and the lyrical references in his new album, but it caught most of us by surprise.

Although I can't claim to have been a particularly big Bowie fan, it's amazing how many of his songs are firmly embedded in the soundtrack of my life - “Heroes”, “Ashes To Ashes”, “Space Oddity”.. I have a particular fondness for the Ziggy Stardust era, as back in the nineties when I was just learning my way around the instrument I stumbled on a BBC documentary on the roots of rock music, which included an interview with great (and also sadly late) Mick Ronson, Bowie's guitar sideman through the Ziggy years, which included him demonstrating how to play the signature riff. I managed to pick it up from the TV and loved it – it's a great riff, big and chunky and satisfying to play, and the perfect level of difficulty for someone who's just taking their baby steps into bar chords and power chords.. I was so hooked I went straight off and bought the “Best Of.. 1969-1974” album and worked my way through pretty much every track on there. “Suffragette City”, “Rebel Rebel” and the sublime lead work on “Life On Mars”.. I thoroughly recommend that album to anyone looking to consolidate their technique and build a solid repertoire of songs, as there's some terrific guitar work on there (not to mention brilliant songwriting) but none of it is overly technical. Just right for the guitarist progressing into the“intermediate” phase.

No sooner had the dust settled on that, than the news broke about Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey – another one that hit home, as when I was first starting out and finding there was more to music than Nirvana and Oasis, my first stop was raiding my dad's record collection (we've all done it) which contained a fair old bit of Eagles (and Rolling Stones, but let's be honest, we all know Keith Richards will survive to the end of time). Couple that with the BBC broadcasting the “Hell Freezes Over” MTV Unplugged session and I was busily yumming down lashings of pentatonic country-rock goodness. Glenn Frey's playing was masterfully understated and was frequently overlooked in favour of his flashier counterparts Joe Walsh and Don Henley, but when he stepped out of his supporting role he would be every inch a match for them – and in a three-guitar band, it takes an awful lot of restraint to rein in the chops and allow each player space. The band I had at the time was a two guitar lineup, and we had yet to master the idea of leaving each other space – those moments when all of us would try and fill at once! The teenage me learnt a lot from Glenn Frey, even if I didn't necessarily realise it at the time.

So after a bruising month, and taking into account the loss of the great BB King – one of the very first guitar heroes – last year, I urge all of you to take the opportunity to see your heroes while you can! I never got to see BB live, and short of a second mortgage or a lottery win I'm unlikely to see the Stones (although as I mentioned, Keith Richards will bury us all). I missed the Smiths by a good decade or so, but did manage to catch a G3 incarnation back in 2004, a KISS “farewell” concert in 1996 and I'm starting to think about AC/ DC tickets... Our heroes only live once. Might as well make the most of them.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

New Year's Resolutions 2016 - YES WE CAN!

2016 is upon us, and I don't know about you, but I didn't see a single flying DeLorean all of last year.

Movies suck.

Anyway. I've written here before about New Year's Resolutions, and we all know that they usually amount to no more than three days of gymn membership before finding yourself blind drunk and face first in a kebab (just me? OK then..).

But it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, the whole New Year's Resolution idea could be approached a different way. Up to now, I've always approached the subject with my students by finding out what they would most want to be able to do on the guitar by the end of the year that they can't do yet. Once I know what direction a student wants to take, it's a much simpler task to break that journey down into a series of progressive steps to help them reach their destination.

However, now I'm thinking of a different approach, one to help remotivate students who feel that they've “plateaud out” and can't improve any more. An awful lot of the time we keep ourselves blinkered in our approaches to many things, ignorant of what Donal Rumsfeld notoriously described as the “unknown unknowns”. Think of all the genres of music you've heard or seen and thought, “not for me”, or more perniciously “I could never do THAT”.. You could be a classic rock player aspiring to the shred approach , or a blues player nervously hovering on the edges of jazz. You could be a “thumb and strum” acoustic player fascinated by the seemingly arcane intricacies of classical or percussive styles – all these styles can seem hugely intimidating and on the face of it, utterly impenetrable.

But they're not.

I'm a firm believer that there is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than identifying something you thought you would never be able to do, a challenge that you never thought you could meet – and doing it. Whether it's learning a language, writing a novel, running a marathon, learning to fly – or on a more modest guitar-based level, tackling a technique or style that you never thought you could – make 2016 the year you give it a shot. It may well prove easier than you think.