Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Betcha thought I'd forgotten this!

As regular readers of his blog will know, for the last few years I've run a project each year involving my students along with local musicians and artists with the intent of producing an album's worth of original material to be released digitally at Christmas, with all the proceeds going to charity - specifically, UNICEF, as I figured as a well established charity they're a safe bet.. they'll know what they're doing and we won't accidentally end up funding ISIS or anything like that.

Being as this is the fifth year in a row I've done this, you'd think I'd be getting the hang of it now - and to be fair, the writing/ recording aspects of it have all gone fairly smoothly (shout out to Matt Chubb for help once again with vocals and lyrics where inspiration had otherwise failed us) and there's a wealth of good stuff on there. The album can be viewed here - https://tuneicef.bandcamp.com/releases - and is available for pre-order, and will be live on Friday 23rd. There's at least one more track to add, with the possibility of another coming in hot from some old friends of mine in Scotland, but here'a s rough guide:

1) Phil Matthews - The Secret Garden.

A charming slice of Kinks-esque folk-pop, this singer/ songwriter/ guitarist has been a stalwart collaborator over the last few years. Check him out here: http://artistecard.com/theVillage

2) Tom Matthews - Stupid Boy

90's grunge agro-pop from one of students! Very proud of him, he's done everything himself - music, lyrics, drums, vocals, keyboard, bass as well as the guitars and pitched in with the mixing, learning as we've gone through the journey. Some serious talent there.

3) The Ladykillers - What You Wish For

An old one of mine, spruced up and brought into the 21st century! Will get around to finishing them all off eventually...

4) Jonezy feat. Matt Chubb

Hi energy rap and hip hop from the inimitable Jonezy featuring our own Matt Chubb on vocals - if you've not seen Jonezy, you owe it to yourself to, he's a phenomenal live performer with a mastery of the ultra catchy hook! Check out the website here: http://jonezyuk.co.uk/

5) The Formidable Ale Society - A Star Is Born

We've all got the useless drunk halfwit friend somewhere in our background - in my case, he can write some tidy songs too! Put this EP together for him, some cracking guitar pop there. https://m.facebook.com/FormidableAleSociety/

6) David Cross - Wiggle Man

One of my students and now guitarist with Moar Beef, David came up with possibly the catchiest riff of the last decade and put together a hauntingly melodic slice of electronica around it.

7) Jess Hegg feat. Matt Chubb - Slide

Another student track, Jess wanted to do something with a cowboy feel, and the dirty detuned slide, delicate arpeggios and stinging pentatonics certainly created a cinematic backdrop for MAtt's typically epic vocals!

8) Craig Thomas - Divided Lines

Another student who seems to have the unconscious knack of creating instantly accessible hooks! Craig took care of all the music save the drums, as well as doing the lyrics, creating a haunting and catchy number around it.

9)  Dave The Rock Band - One Day Go Moon

Never ask a student to do something you won't do yourself! This is my track, more than a little inspired by the Cinderella's "Gypsy Road" for something BIG... and ROCK! http://www.thedave.co.uk/

10) One S0ul - Dark Embrace

Lewis Sawyer of the excellent Loughborough metal outfit The Relinquished with a superbly put together chunk of proper 'eavy metal!

11) Jacob Felton - Dust

A student track, blending acoustic guitar and hip hop drums to great effect.

12) Beth Hartshorne - Sails (Dublin, 1848)

Another student track -  an excellent player and singer/ songwriter in her own right, Beth brings a beautiful produced, atmospheric Celtic-inspired folk song. Check her work out here: https://soundcloud.com/beth-hartshorne

Thanks to all who came down to #TUNEICEF LIVE on Sunday, thanks to Sharon & Ian of The Beacon Inn in Loughborough for having us for the third year in succession - thanks also to Matt Chubb for providing the PA and stepping up to the mic to provide some classic Dave The Rock Band after my throat had pretty much given up hope!

Special thanks to all who performed - Beth, Various Artists (as you were for the day!), Lewis' new project Two People, the inimitable Jonezy and the Dave The Rock Band boys for a sterling performance.

So pop over to https://tuneicef.bandcamp.com/releases , order your copy, enjoy and we'll see you next year!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Chords - Another Way!

Again, not Holdsworth. But I do feel this one is somewhat Holdsworth-adjacent as recently, I've been covering advanced harmony with several different students - lots of big juicy extended chord voicings, deciphering the seemingly indecipherable jazz chords (Cmaj13#11b9, anyone?) and while fun and interesting in it's own right, this has led to some real finger-twisting chord shapes, along with the inevitable question -

"What's the point of these weird chords?"

Now, at this point I could go on a tirade about how knowledge and understanding is it's own reward, how a musician should constantly be striving to push his or her boundaries, how to express themselves with more subtle shades that evoke precisely the right emotion... and to be fair, that's my approach. But, it's not for everyone, and I can appreciate that - it's not my job to force my approach and way of thinking onto a student, it is my job to adapt my approach to theirs so that they can become a better version of themselves, not a clone of me. 

So, rant over, what does this mean in practice? Well, let's take the aforementioned Cmaj13#11b9. 

The major part tells us to expect R 3 5 7, the 13 to expect 9 11 and 13, the #11 to sharpen the 11 and the b5 to flatten the 5. This means we're dealing with R 3 5 7 b9 #11 13. 7 notes. With the best of intentions, there are (usually) only six strings on the guitar. So, we need to trim the fat.

Do we need the root? Yes (unless we have a handy bass player nearby)

Do we need the 3rd? Yes - it defines major or minor.

Do we need the 5? No, the 5 acts as a filler interval, the same through major, minor and dominant.

Do we need the 7? Yes - it defines major or dominant.

Do we need the b9? Yes, specified within the chord name. Normally we could omit this interval as the presence of higher extensions implies it.

Do we need the #11? Yes - again, specified within the chord name. Normally the presence of the 13 would imply it, however, allowing us to omit.

Do we need the 13? Yes, as the highest extension.

So that's trimmed us down to something that will at least fit on a guitar neck:

R 3  7 b9  #11 13
C E B Db F#  A

That said, it's still not exactly something you would consider wieldy. But who says you have to play all of the chord all of the time? Let's look inside this chord:

C E B - Cmaj7 (no 5)

E B Db - E6

B Db F# - Bsus2

Db F# A - F#m (2nd inversion)

F# A C - F# diminished

A C E - Am

Now these (admittedly some more than others) are all fairly usable triads, and played over a C bass (if you haven't got a bass player handy I suggest capo'ing at the third fret and letting the A string ring out  as a pedal tone) they will act together to imply this most monstrously lunatic of chords, and you may even find yourself stumbling across a useful riff or two in the process! 

(Disclaimer - JM Guitar Tuition is NOT responsible for the loss of whole evenings breaking down bizarre chords in search of your next killer hook...)

Friday, 20 October 2017

Happy Birthday!

So, really, this post is about a month late... I hope you can forgive me, internet.

2007 began for me on a cruise ship in the middle of the Carribean Sea, wearing an ill fitting tuxedo and playing a version of Celebration by Kool and The Gang that I could have sworn had lasted at least three lifetimes. At that point I was well into my fourth contract with pro showband Fifth Element and was getting a handle on the reality of what being a professional guitar player actually meant in the real world.

What it meant, largely, was disco. Lots and LOTS of disco.

Still, it beat working in a coal mine.

However, less than two months in our contract would end early due to a tragic loss on behalf of one of our members, and with no contracts waiting the band quickly disintegrated as everyone started grabbing whatever job they could in order to tide them over. In my case, I found myself back where I started - part time back at dear old Loughborough stalwart Just Music, and teaching lessons on the side as I had done since the late 90s. Meanwhile, I divided my time between hunting for a "real" job and trying to set up my own band to head back out to sea with.

Before too long, though, I found myself with a goodly number of guitar students, and courtesy of a good friend my first peripatetic teaching position.. and from there things spiralled. So I'd like to take a moment to think back over the last ten years, some of the good, the bad and the... improbable moments of this job.

The Good:

Finishing and publishing my Zero Point series of guitar, bass and keyboard books . This was a huge undertaking, over two years from start to finish, but seeing them in the hands of students and finally being able to hand on heart recommend a book which gives aspiring musicians everything they need and nothing they don't.

Bumping into some old students and discovering they've become a fantastic band - The Bench That Rocked!

Seeing one of my bass students get the highest Rockschool Grade 3 mark I've ever seen- 93%!

Watching a student grow from learning Smoke On The Water in 2009 to being able to play prog metal riffs I can't even comprehend in 2017!!

Songs for Syria 2013, which then morphed into the Winter Wonderland Charoty Album 2014, and subsequently  TUNEICEF from 2015 onwards.

A student in their 60's with wrist and finger issues, who's been told they'll never play chords... playing chords.

The Bad:

On a snowy day in late 2010, being unable to make into school on time because I couldn't get into my car through any other method than the boot.. which then closed on my legs and trapped me...

The student who couldn't, despite every method I could think of, distinguish a B from a C on the piano keyboard

The student who claimed they didn't really need lessons as they could play "Crazy Train" flawlessly and then proved over the course of the next painful 15 minutes that... no, they couldn't... worse was the fact that they couldn't accept this... I think they wound up as a contestant on X-Factor...

The Improbable:

An 11-year old student with Asperger's who's mum was late picking him up, decided that rather than wait he would try to walk home... Cue the police searching my house (and me missing dinner)!! Thankfully he was found 10 minutes afterward and showed up with an apologetic card next lesson...

But most importantly - Being able to make a living doing what I love, 24/7, for the last decade. Here's to many more, and I promise to keep trying to get better and better at it. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

In Deep With The Jazz Melodic Minor Scale

Still not Holdsworth. But consider this Holdsworth-adjacent, as it covers one of his favoured scales, the jazz melodic minor. This scale is a favourite of many jazz and fusion players, but as with so many things in music, it is fundamentally extremely simple. The jazz melodic minor is simply a major scale with a b3, as shown below:

R – tone – 2 – semitone – b3 – tone – 4 – tone – 5 – tone – 6 – tone – 7 – semitone – R

I've specified the jazz melodic minor as opposed to what is normally described as the melodic minor, as the classical definition of melodic minor specifies R 2 b3 4 5 6 7 when ascending, R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 when descending... now, when you've got your foot up on the monitor and you're going for it mid solo, that strikes me as the type of unnecessary complexity which in practice you can really do without.

As with every scale, the melodic minor has it's own modes. We'll use the key of A as our start point.

A jazz melodic minor:

A – B – C – D – E – F# - G#
R – 2 - b3 – 4 – 5 – 6 - 7

B Dorian b2 (aka Javanese or Phrygidorian)

B – C – D – E – F# - G# - A
R -b2- b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - b7

C Lydian Augmented (aka Lydian #5)

C – D – E – F# - G# - A – B
R – 2 – 3 - #4 - #5 - 6 – 7

D Lydian Dominant

D - E – F# - G# - A – B – C
R – 2 – 3 - #4 - 5 – 6 – b7

E Mixolydian b6 (aka Hindu or Myxaeolian)

E – F# - G# - A – B – C – D
R – 2 - 3 – 4 - 5 – b6 – b7

F# Locrian nat 2 (aka half-diminished or Aeolocrian)

F# - G# - A – B – C – D - E
R - 2 - b3 – 4 – b5 – b6 – b7

G# Superlocrian

G# - A – B – C – D – E – F#
R – b2 – b3 – b4 – b5 – b6 – b7

When you harmonise this scale, there's a whole world of fun to be had. At triad level we get these:

i chord – Am (A C E)

ii chord – Bm (B D F#)

III chord – C augmented (C E G#)

IV chord – D (D F# A)

V chord – E (E G# B)

vi chord – F# diminished (F# A C )

vii chord – G# diminished (G# B D)

Extending out to the level of sevenths, things get even more interesting:

i chord – Ammaj7 (A C E G#)

ii chord – Bm7 (B D F# A)

III chord – C maj7#5 (C E G# B)

IV chord – D7 (D F# A C)

V chord – E7 (E G# B D)

vi chord – F#m7b5 (F# A C E )

vii chord – G#mmaj7b5 (G# B D F#)

So a 12 bar would look like this:

// Am / % / % / % / D / % / Am / % / E / D / Am / E //

A melodic minor Stand By Me (I vi IV V) would go:

// Am / % / F# dim / % / D / E / Am / % //

Our old friend, the I-V-vi-IV becomes this twisted creature:

// Am / E / F#dim / D //

And you jazzers out there (we'll dial in some sevenths for you guys), the ii-V-I is now:
// Bm7 / E7 / Ammaj7 / % // - and that's a VERY tense and spooky chord to try and resolve to!

As I mentioned with the harmonic minor a few moths ago, mapping these scales using the six note box/ transition note method across three octaves gives some fantastic and accessible patterns to try, and reworking conventional chord sequences or pentatonic licks to include some of the jazzy sophistication of the melodic minor is a great way to expand your playing and push you to a new level. So don't be put off by the jargon, dive in and give it a try!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Feel It!

Yes, I know – but as it turns out, writing about Allan Holdsworth is no easier than learning to play his material... I will get there, I promise! But in the meantime, this is a subject close to most musician's hearts.

A few lessons ago I was sitting down with one of my students who's a very talented acoustic singer songwriter, and our assignment for the lesson was to take the key of G, harmonise it to the level of 9th chords, and work out voicings for them. Now, you might think that activity is a waste of time for a student who primarily strums and picks folk/rock type stuff which tops out at triad levels of complexity – it's going to have no direct impact on someone who is not a “muso” but predominantly a writer, and a younger (thinner, less grey, more attractive) me would probably have agreed with you. Teenage me would certainly have agreed with you. But fat old grey me has the wisdom of ages behind him.

A musician like this works on feel – that is playing something that instinctively resonates within them, something that they understand. Triad harmony is easy to get your head around – major happy, minor sad, sus4 and sus2 a bit ethereal, diminished CRAZED DEMON VILLAIN AXE MURDERER etc. If you understand them, you can use them effectively without having to think, it's as simple as an artist painting with primary colours.

But what artist do you know of who paints solely with primary colours?

So just as an artist will blend colours to create depth, highlights etc, we can blend our tonalities – major 7ths, for example, inject a sense of wistful melancholy into a major chord, whereas minor 7ths dilute the funereal nature of a minor chord without changing the underlying tonality too much. These are shades of grey, secondary colours. The 9th chords we looked at take things further, adding in additional layers of subtlety that can add an extra dimension to an accompaniment part. In time, by taking the time to listen to and get the feel of these chogrds and the 9th interval, I'm pretty certain these chords will wind up in my student's compositions, and they'll be there because she feels that they should be. Perhaps a C passage will become a Cadd9, or an Em bar will feature an F note weaving in and out – not because she sat down to write something with a m7b9 in it, but because she wanted the extra tension that b9 would bring.

By the way, check her out on Soundcloud – soundcloud.com/beth-hartshorne. You'll be glad you did.

This principle was rammed home to me again yesterday with a student trying to create a solo for their TUNEICEF track – we ran a few passes with G major pentatonic and got a few ideas, but it was obvious there was more to come. The style of the backing and the way my student was playing set me in mind of the anthemic solo played by Slash on “November Rain” - so we set about learning it. And as we learnt it, we kept the backing chords in mind and discovered that part of the reason it sounded so good, as well as the call/ response/ call/ conclusion patterns it revolved around, was because Slash was targeting the 3rd of each chord, which of course is the emotional centre of the chord – it's heart, if you will.

So what did we do? We looked at his chord sequence, plotted the 3rd of each chord and proceed to build a melody around those notes.

You could argue that we were cheating, that Slash played by feel alone, and you're probably right – he would have learned a great many solos by that point in his life, many of which will have riffed off the 3rd of each chord, and he will have absorbed that sound instinctively. My student, however, is 15, and has nothing like that wealth of experience behind him. So we dissect what makes the solo work, we reproduce it in another context, and we use it as a start point. Before too long, what he's doing consciously will become instinctive and his feel for soloing will have improved massively as a result.

I can apply this to myself, as I'm trying to learn Holdsworth's “Hall Of Mirrors” - all chords, and his approach to chords is as alien as his approach to everything else (to the point where I've found myself cheering on the rare occasion I see a chord voicing I can understand), but it's haunting and contains changes Holdsworth makes seem effortless that I would never have even thought of trying. But that's because I never tried to understand them, until now. Perhaps in time some of his unreal genius will rub off on me through it, and some of those bizarre but breathtaking changes will work themselves into my playing and writing.

So, to summarise:

When you play by feel, you play what you understand. So try and understand everything.

See you next month.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Getting Your Nerd On - The Benefits Of A Completist Approach

Yes, I know, I promised Allan Holdsworth this month, but it's just proving too big a topic! For now, content yourself with this...

As I mentioned at the start of the year, I set myself a few challenges. So far it's going pretty well, but every now and again I find myself stumbling across patterns – be they scale ideas, arpeggios or chord voicings – that are just so out there that I find myself thinking “when would I ever use this?”

And it's true, I'm unlikely to spend much time using the Phrygian Dominant or hammering out minmaj13b5 chords. The direct impact of these patterns on my playing is minimal. But then again, it's bound to be – I've been playing guitar for 23 years. The only stuff left to learn is the crazy out there stuff. So what's the point?

Well, the point is the indirect impact. Learning new things keeps me in touch with how to learn – and if you forget how to learn, you're not going to be terribly effective as a teacher. But it also means I find the odd curious pattern that just works. For example, the riff to the classic Killers track “Mr. Brightside” is an evil-to-finger sod of an arpeggio – it's not the kind of thing you just stumble across. It's the kind of thing you find when you're experimenting with add9 chord voicings and you find something that just clicks – that just sounds right. And then you develop it by changing the bass note and hey presto – a song!

As some of you know, last year I spent quite some time wrapping my hounds around Andy McKee's masterpiece “Drifting”. It took me a fair old while, and while I was trying to come to grips with a totally alien way of playing the guitar, I found myself wondering just how the hell does something like this get written??

And then a little later, I found myself voicing a D minor chord with the F note on the 1st fret low E, open A and D note on the 7th fret G, tapped with the right hand. And then I slid the tapped note up to the E and down to the C (9th and 5th frets on the G), while plucking the A with the right hand thumb... And then I started to understand how you might develop an idea like that into a piece like “Drifting”

So there really is an incentive to going absolutely nuts and bolts guitar nerd crazy with this sort of stuff – set yourself a task like finding absolutely every possible way to play a Cmaj7, for example, and be prepared to be amazed by some of the beautiful, haunting sounds you can coax from your guitar. Yes, you'll find a lot of junk, but you might just find something that kick starts your creativity in ways you would never have expected. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

Festival Time

The days are getting longer, the rain is getting warmer, and that can only mean one thing – summer is here! And what does summer mean (other than bipolar weather and crushing disappointment) music festivals.

As I write this, Download had just been and gone and it's now the turn if that legendary staple of British music – Glastonbury! Founded by local farmer Michael Eavis as the Pilton Festival in 1970, every year since then (with a few exceptions) the sleepy village of Pilton, Somerset plays host to roughly 175, 000 music fans. Just think about that for a moment. 175, 000 – that's the size of two or three towns. All crammed in to a single location – Worthy Farm.

I actually attended in 2000 and it was a remarkable experience – David Bowie, Travis and the Chemical Brothers (although I think I was elsewhere for them, watching – of all people – Rolf Harris.. wow, it really was a more innocent time). There were some quite remarkable performances by bands I'd never heard of before or since, and remarkable performances by bands I had, but most of all it was just fantastic to be up close to the big boys, watching them set up and adapt under pressures of time, no proper sound checks, just plug in and go – in other words, just like the rest of us have to do!

But although that experience has a special place in my heart, I consider my first Glastonbury to have been in 1995 – eight months after I'd picked up the guitar with the sole ambition of learning the riff to “Teen Spirit”, my eyes and ears were opened to a whole world of music I'd been deaf to. I pretty much spent the entire weekend in my room with guitar, practice amp and TV, jamming and learning and absorbing every little thing I could. As a beginner guitar player, I couldn't have asked for a better learning experience.

Next month – Allan Holdsworth tribute, I promise. It's just taking a bit longer than I thought – he was VERY clever... 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

In Deep With The Harmonic Minor Scale

So, back in January I laid out a practice schedule for the year that would include me investigating and studying a variety of new ideas to kick myself out of a rut, and included in that variety was the harmonic minor scale, something I've long been more or less familiar with but never really looked into. So in the spirit of self improvement, I'm presenting my findings...

First off, what is the harmonic minor scale? It's a seven note scale built from these intervals:

R – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 -7

We can view this as a natural minor scale with a natural 7th, and you can see the minor 3rd gap between the b6 and 7th gives it an eerie, “haunted house” vibe. Classical music makes heavy use of this scale – in fact, in many classical guitar syllabi, the harmonic minor is taught before the minor pentatonic (you crazy classical fools!). However, popular music tends to favour the natural minor, which is in itself a mode of the major scale.

(The difference between a scale and a mode? The modes of the major scale are all re-arrangements of the notes of the major scale, and as the strongest, most straightforward tonality, the major scale is defined as the parent scale. With the harmonic minor, there is no way to rearrange the major scale notes to form the intervals of the harmonic minor, and it is the strongest and most straightforward of it's tonalities.. the modes of the harmonic minor are wondrous and obscure!)

Let's look at the A Harmonic Minor scale (it's the simplest to wrap your head around):

R – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 -7
A - B - C - D – E – F – G#

Now, if we look at this modally, this is what we get:

A - B - C - D – E – F – G# - A Harmonic Minor

R – b2 – b3 – 4 – b5 – 6 - b7
B - C - D - E – F – G# – A - B Locrian #6

R – 2 – 3 – 4 – #5 – 6 -7
C - D - E - F – G# – A – B - C Ionian Augmented

R – 2 – b3 – #4 – 5 – 6 - b7
D - E - F - G# – A – B – C - D Dorian #4 (aka Romanian)

R – b2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – b6 -b7
E - F - G# - A – B – C – D - E Phrygian Dominant

R – #2 – 3 – #4 – 5 – 6 - b7
F - G# - A - B – C – D – E - F Lydian #2

R – b2 – b3 – b4 – b5 – b6 -bb7
G# - A - B - C – D – E – F - G# Ultralocrian

It's also worth taking a look at the results when you harmonise this scale:

i chord – A- C – E : Am

ii chord – B – D – F : B diminished
III chord – C – E – G# : C augmented

iv chord – D – F – A : D minor

V chord – E – G# - B : E

VI chord – F – A – C : F

vii chord – G# - B – D : G# diminished

This means that when you look at a simple 12 bar, you end up with :

// Am / % / % / % / % / Dm / % /
Am / % / E / Dm / Am / E //

I-V-vi-IV gets even more interesting: Am – E – Dm – F

Jazzers may be in for a shock – take a look at the ii-V-I.. Bdim – E – Am.

And then we can extend past triads to 7ths: 

i chord – A- C – E - G# : Ammaj7

ii chord – B – D – F - A : Bm7b5

III chord – C – E – G# - B : Cmaj7#5

iv chord – D – F – A - C: D m7

V chord – E – G# - B - D: E7

VI chord – F – A – C - E: Fmaj7

vii chord – G# - B – D - F : G# diminished7

Interestingly though, these chord sequences still have a (somewhat twisted) coherency and charm about them, and this is an excellent resource for players looking to write something new and different but not sure how to break out of a rut – tackling standard chord sequences in alternate tonalities is a great place to start.

Mapping out the modes using the three octave box/ transition technique covered in Progressive Guitar Training is a terrific exercise for both fingers and brain, and then there's improvisation... and once you've figured out how to be melodic with the Ultralocrian then... the sky is the limit!

Next month – a tribute to a lost legend, the incredible Allan Holdsworth. For those of you who aren't familiar, do yourselves a favour and YouTube him- and then see how long it takes you to pick your jaw off the floor!

Monday, 17 April 2017

Hail Hail Rock & Roll – A Tribute To Chuck Berry

It's always dangerous trying to make a case for such-and-such a musician being “the father of rock & roll” or similar- there's always some smart alec who will point out the trio of hitherto unknown musicians who really started the genre sometime back in the 12th century BC. That said, I think you'd have to work pretty hard to deny the undeniably great and now very sadly late Chuck Berry's influence on the development of rock & roll music.

My first exposure to Chuck was indirect, and I think a great many guitar players of... “a certain age” will join me in this – the 1985 classic “Back To The Future”, where Michael J Fox grabs a very fetching red Gibson ES 355 and invents rock & roll. 

To my 12 year old self, his version of “Johnny B Goode” was far and away the greatest thing I'd ever heard and that red Gibson was the epitome of cool – I was hooked. Of course, it didn't even occur to me that it was a cover of a real song, I thought it was written specially for the film!The innocence of youth...

As a tribute to Chuck and the incredible legacy he leaves us with, this month's post will be a potted history of the great man and a brief overview of his playing style.

Humble Beginnings

Born October 18th1926 in St Louis, Missouri to building contractor and Baptist church deacon Henry William Berry and public school principal Martha Bell – the fourth of six children – the young Charles Edward Berry began taking an interest in playing music during his early teenage years, taking inspiration from the blues legend T-Bone Walker in both guitar licks and showmanship (gifts which he would later pass on to one James Marshall Hendrix, but that's another story).

Chuck's school years at Sumner High School, St Louis, saw him develop a keen interest in music and give his first performance aged 15. In 1944 it also saw the first of several occasions when Chuck would fall foul of the law, robbing three Kansas City shops at gunpoint with a group of friends before stealing a car. He was convicted and sent to to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, but even there he was still able to continue his musical activities, forming a vocal group within the prison.

Chuck was released on his 21st birthday, and just over a year later married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs on October 28th 1948. During this period he worked a variety of jobs – janitor, car factory worker, even a spell training as beautician! By 1950 he was able to buy a "small three room brick cottage with a bath" on Whittier Street, which is now listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places, and on October 3rd of that year, the Themetta gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry.

After Darlin's birth, Chuck began looking for ways to use music to boost his income, and began working with a variety of local bands, including blues legend T-Bone Walker and took lessons from longtime friend Ira Harris. Both these artists would have a massive influence on Chuck's unmistakeable guitar style, and by 1953 Chuck had cemented a firm partnership with legendary blues pianist Johnnie Johnson which would go on to yield some of his biggest hits.Critical to their success as the combination of blues and R&B with country music, appealing to audiences across the racial divide.

Style Analysis

Chuck is famous for two aspects of his playing – first, the classic 5th-6th boogie rhythm pattern, copied by innumerable artists (not least Status Quo), this relies on a steady straight 8th rhythm, using a standard root-5th powerchord voicing and stretching two frets over to get the 6th with the little finger on the downbeats of beats 2 and 4. Although not part of a normal triad chord, the 6th provides a sweetness and a sense of movement that helps drive a rhythm part along, and it's presence on the downbeats of 2 and 4 echo the "backbeat" idea with the snare drum.

This, in common with many of Chuck's guitar ideas, was copped from boogie piano players and adapted to fit the then still very new electric guitar. You'll see a heavy piano influence in much of Chuck's playing, for the simple reason that there were very few guitar players and very little recorded music (compared to today) to learn from. His genius here was adapting vocabulary from other instruments to fit the nascent electric guitar.

The second aspect is his dynamic, ballsy lead style that prioritised attitude and energy over technique. Chuck frequently professed admiration for T-Bone Walker and jazz legend Charlie Christian (amongst others), and you can see some elements of their playing in his jazzier single note lines, but his lead style was primarily focused on raw energy.

Much of Chuck's technique relied on two note "doublestop" ideas, often drawing inspration from the blues and stride pianists of the day – a perfect example is the iconic lick that kicks off the "Johnny B Goode" guitar break. This makes absolute sense for a number of reasons – pianists could capture the sheer high energy fury of a rock and roll tune far better than the guitar vocabulary of the day could (because at this point there was no such thing as a rock guitarist, just blues and jazz players). Also, the guitar amps of the day were very clean affairs, designed to reproduce the sound of the guitar as clear and distortion free as possible. This was great for jazz and to a lesser extent blues players, but failed to convey the energy needed for rock and roll, so by using two string ideas, Chuck was able to create "natural" distortion, thickening the sound of his guitar breaks and ensring that none of the rhythm was lost when he took a solo (in the process, eliminating the need to hire a dedicated rhythm player and thus split the money more ways... always a onsideration for struggling musicians!). Check out Eric Clapton's take on Chuck Berry's playing here, from the 1986 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll: 

When you analyse a song like Johnny B Goode, it's important to realise that Chuck wasn
't really thinking in the same terms as we might, using scales and pentatonics. Lacking the massive musical educaion infrasructure that we now take for granted, Chuck took the eminently logical approach of visualising the root chord of the key he was playing over. For example, Johnny B Goode is a blues in Bb (legend has it, it was actually recorded in A and the tape sped up as a marketing ploy to make Chuck sound younger, but nevertheless it sounds in Bb) – so Chuck would visualise the outline of a Bb and Bbm barre chord (E Shape). Note the use of both major and minor – this is a key element of blues, like much of the blues vocabulary it would find itself sped up and used as the basis for rock and roll. Seen in this light, the Johnny B. Goode intro and guitar solo is an elegantly simple use of chord shapes and tones to create a hugely memorable, genuinely iconic rock & roll moment.

Other favourite Chuck Berry ideas that have become part of the accepted lexicon of rock & roll include doublestop bends – using a partial barre across two strings to get a dirty, gritty, guttural sound – unison bends and unusual chord ideas such as the augmented triads simulating car horns in “No Particular Place To Go”

It's hard to overstate Chuck Berry's contribution to rock & roll, and by extension, to the modern world of rock and metal, and the myriad offshoots of those two genres. His parting gift – an album dedicated to his wife, released this year and recorded at age 90 – is all the more inspirational for showing that he never, ever lost the drive to write, perform and create right to the very end.

RIP Charles Edward Berry – the world would sound very different had it not been for you.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Tuning By Ear - And Why You're Probably Doing It Wrong

It all starts with being in tune (and in time, but that's another article for another day). And yes, I'm aware that basically every mobile phone can also be a tuner, that clip on tuners are cheap and ubiquitous, that tuners are built in to every modelling amp and multi FX.. I'm just – old. Indulge me.

Anyway, if you've got any experience tuning by ear you're probably familiar with the “fifth fret” method – match the pitch of open higher string to the fifth fret note on the lower string (except for the G and B strings where you tune the B to the fourth fret of the G) – and the harmonic method, whereby you match the seventh fret harmonic on the higher string to the fifth fret harmonic on the lower one, excepting the G and B strings.

Both these methods are flawed, however, and for one simple reason. They tune in pairs, E to B, B to G and so on. This means that any slight flaws in tuning will be picked up and amplified as you go across the strings, meaning that by the time you're finished tuning the whole thing can be just out by enough to set your toes curling.

So, a better alternative? One that doesn't require batteries – we're being purist here. Well yes, and the idea is incredibly simple – tune everything from ONE single reference point. We can also cross reference to ensure good intonation (ensuring that the guitar is in tune all the way across the fretboard).

Start with the high (in pitch) E string. Get this one roughly right and we'll go from there. We usually find higher notes easier to hear, so it makes sense to start at the top.

To tune the B, match the 5th fret to the open E string and then cross reference using the 12th fret harmonic on the B matched to the 7th fret on the E.

For the G, match the 9th fret to the open E and cross reference with the 12th fret G harmonic with the 3rd fret E.

For the D, you want the 14th fret note matched to the open E and cross reference with the 5th fret D harmonic with 10th fret E.

For the A, pitch the 19th fret note against the open E and cross reference with the 5th fret harmonic on the A string against the 5th fret top E.

Lastly, for the low E, the simplest reference is to check the open string, 12th and 5th fret harmonics against the open top E.

The result? Perfect tuning with a side order of intonation accuracy too. Check the whole thing with an open G chord – it's instantly recognisable sweet melodic sound will reveal any inconsistencies, and the fact that the voicing covers all six strings means that there's nowhere for any sour notes to hide!

Learning to tune by ear will also help you to control your bends better, and highlight any technical errors (for example, a common mistake is a poor thumb grip causing strings to be pulled down towards the ground when the player plays a barre chord, causing the notes to be pulled ever-so-slightly sharp... just enough to put the listeners teeth on edge!

So, here's wishing you accurate intonation and perfect tuning until next month!

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Historical Perspective

So you're making progress. Got power chords and barre chords down, cracking on with major and minor pentatonic scales and starting to pick up speed and accuracy with sequencing ideas, maybe a few string bends here and there and nailing the legato approach through hammer ons and pull offs.

But here's the problem. All that stuff sounds brilliant in your bedroom and it's great fun watching your fingers wiggle around like crazy, but when it's time to get up and strut your stuff it just.. doesn't happen. There's a disconnect there.

This is where the incredible wealth of guitar music and guitar education can actually work against you. With so much... stuff.. on offer, it's really hard to work out what you should be learning, where you should go first. For example, I had a student a few years ago who had decided he was going to learn the classic Van Halen solo “Eruption” for a talent show.

In two months time.

Never having played guitar before.


What could possibly go wrong...

So, in this instance, unfortunately I had to talk him down. Short of downloading the skills straight into his brain, a la Matrix, there was no way that was going to happen. So, let's follow the path back through history.

Eddie Van Halen has stated many times in interviews that one of his biggest influences is Eric Clapton. In many ways, he sees himself as having taken Clapton's legacy and built on it, evolving the techniques employed by him and his contemporaries (in fact, EVH once said he first got inspired to develop his iconic tapping technique when he learnt the solo to Led Zeppelin's “Heartbreaker” and wanted to find a way to make Jimmy Page's cascading pentatonic licks move around the fretboard). Now, in turn, Clapton drew his influences from the first generation of blues guitar heroes – chief amongst them, one B.B. King.

Now, as regular readers of this blog will know, B.B is also one of my heroes, but his style is very much minimalist as far as technique goes. There are very few notes, but each one is perfect. Elegant, deft phrasing, with that instantly recognisable vibrato, but there are plenty of his solos that a rookie could get down with a couple of month's (disciplined and intensive) practice. And in doing so, learn an awful lot about taste, phrasing, timing and feel. And once you've got the King down, try out his brothers – Albert and Freddie. And then through to the 60's – Clapton, Page, Beck and Hendrix...each generation building on the shoulders of the last.

There's a parallel to be found here with martial arts. As the student works his way up by levels, he learns discipline to partner the techniques. So by the time he's learned how to punch through a man's chest, pull out his heart and show it to him before he dies (that is a real thing, right?), he'll have the discipline not to do it unless he really has no alternative. In the same way, a student who has followed the chronological development of guitar playing won't simply throw in sweep picking or tapped licks arbitrarily, they will evolve those techniques into their style organically, pulling them out when and only when the musical situation demands it.

So – the moral of the story? You want to play like Avenged Sevenfold (or whoever) – go find out who they listened to. Then find out who those guys listened to. Then – well, you get the gist. With all that you learn along the way, not only will you be better able to emulate your heroes - you'll be better able to create something of your own too.

Monday, 16 January 2017

2017 Resolutions!

So 2016 is over and done with, and beloved celebrities across the world can breathe a little easier. But a new year brings with it the tradition of new year's resolutions, so I'm going to lay mine on the table.

I'm a firm believer that if you're going to be able to teach, you have to ensure that you can do – and more than that, I believe you have to be willing to continuously learn. If you as a teacher have fallen out of step with the learning process, how are you possibly going to engage students and get them learning?

So with that in mind, I'm going to present to you my plan for 2017- this is what I'm going to be practicing and learning over the next twelve months. And pay close attention, students of mine, because there's a strong chance I'll be inflicting it all on you guys!

I've divided this regimen up into two parts – fundamentals (ie, scales, arpeggios etc) and study pieces – that is, tracks I'm planning to learn to a performance standard.

One tip – I change the key for my fundamental every week using the circle of 4ths, I highly recommend this to keep things fresh and master the fretboard in all areas and registers.

January – Major scale and modes. 3 octaves, played in 3rds, sequenced in 3s and 4s. Piece – Yngwie Malmsteen, “Blitzkrieg”

February – Arpeggios (triads). 3 octaves, played in 3rds, sequenced etc. Piece – Malmsteen continued.
March – Chords (triads and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece – Satriani, “Flying In A Blue Dream”

April – Pentatonics and modes (Dorian pentatonic – R b3 4 5 6). Piece TBC

May – Harmonic minor & modes. Piece TBC

June – Arpeggios – 7ths. Piece TBC

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

August – Pentatonics (Pentatonic no 4th add2 R 2 b3 5 b7). Piece TBC

September – Melodic minor and modes. Piece TBC

October – Arpeggios – 9ths. Piece TBC

November - Chords (9ths and inversions, closed and open voicings). Piece TBC

December – Pentatonics (Minor pentatonic b5 Rb3 b5 5 b7). Piece TBC.

So, what will all this give me? Who knows, but it's going to take me down some interesting paths.. maybe I'll find ideas I can use, maybe not.. but at least it'll keep me from getting stale!

Hopefully this will inspire you to break out from your comfort zone and use 2017 as the year when you make a real leap forward in your playing, whatever your level. Good luck!