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Rehearsing Whenever You Can

This is an important discussion, as we all know that today has become such a complex time in history that the very idea of setting aside ample time for rehearsing seems nearly impossible. I certainly know that this is true for me, as the joy of playing as well as rehearsing increasingly has to be something I deliberately must make time for!

In many cases, with my band for example, we often get together to “polish up” some of or songs, or simply to refresh ourselves when we are just about to do a gig. The problem with this “stealing away” to get some rehearsal time, is that it makes it really hard to learn and work out new material, resulting in us always drawing our songs from the same old well. This can get rather frustrating, and sometimes, I wonder if the crowds can feel it too.

I certainly know that one of the main reasons I love to teach privately is the playing time I end up putting in with my students. I would probably never have the discipline to play that amount of time each week anymore, and when I am teaching a very challenging student, I know that it becomes a REAL practice session for me, as I have to dig deeper and deeper for new material! Even some of my songs over the last few years that I have recorded, actually originated as something I happened upon while teaching someone very challenging, who “pushed the envelope”, and who tested me to the max. You just never know where the inspiration will come from, but put that guitar in your hands, and you’ll be sure to have some! So, please be sure to try to “make” the time for your own playing, as well as your band’s. It’ll be a huge satisfaction!

Posted: 12/8/2009 4:35:38 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Remaining a "Fan"!

Even though I have always played with and met lots of “famous” people and players, there always some that never fail to get me “awestruck” whenever I meet them! It’s so critical that we all retain this appreciation for great artists, not so much out of being “star-struck”, but really out of the need to remain humble, and to continue the love for music that got us all into this in the first place!

I know that for example, every time I have ever worked with John Sebastian, of “The Lovin’ Spoonful”, I never cease to be awestruck, because he and his band in the ‘60s were such a huge influence on me as a developing player, and I was at that formative time when I had truly become a “fan” first, who never even gave a thought to the fact that I may one day actually “meet” one of them!

This was also true when I went to and starting hanging out in Woodstock, NY, where there was such a wide choice of people to be “awestruck” by! I know I had that strong feeling when getting to meet Paul Butterfield, because he had always had a string of amazing guitar players, who all had a profound effect on me, especially the great Mike Bloomfield! It became an immediate goal to actually join his band, so I could become part of that lineage, but even though that never happened, I still had the opportunity to perform live, as well as record with him. That certainly made me very proud, and since that time, I have also never lost that certain, almost “na├»ve” aspect of how I see and treat other artists who I hold in very high regard. On the other hand, don’t forget…they are also just people, with their own problems, quirks, and even personality traits that may rally “burst that bubble” you have put them in!

Posted: 12/8/2009 4:27:52 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

The Guitar Must "Fit"!

I know searching for a guitar, especially when you know very little about them, can be a daunting task to say the least. I like to be a partner and helper with any student who is looking for a guitar for many obvious reasons, but maily because the guitar must truly “fit” that person. It may be too early in their own development for them to actually know what they would really be most comfortable with, so this is when one is most susceptible to fancy trappings, inlay, shiny finishes and most of all, bright colors!

I like to “size up” my new pupils, and see how big their hands are, their stature, their tenencies, and only then can I be able to make a good decision as to what they should be playing, and what would really suit them best of all.

I have actually gone through this process 3 times in the last three days for students and “would be “ students who I wanted to help, including one who showed up with a guitar that is totally too big for her. I mean, she can barely keep in on her person, this poor girl, and the guitar is really holding her back. Problem is, it’s a gift from her Dad, and she feels really attached to it. So, I told her things to do with it to make it “fight” her less, such as putting some extra-light strings on it, and getting the bridge lowered, but it still won’t take away the fact that the guitar is just way too huge for her.

It’s a shame for her, because she is so excited to play the guitar, I would never want to see her with an instrument that makes it literally impossible for her to play!

So you teachers and students out there…don’t make your guitar choices too hastily, and make sure someone who “really knows” is there to help you make a decision that is really right for you. A salesperson in the store should be doing that as his/her job, but the bottom line is that they want you to definitely buy something in their store, even if it’s not totally appropriate for you. So, beware!

Posted: 12/3/2009 3:02:05 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Opening Up the Beauty of Fingerstyle Guitar

When I take on new beginner students, or even pick up someone who has been playing for awhile, I always try to impress upon them the importance and significance of learning to fully “control” the guitar by using a fingerstyle approach. It’s true that the guitar can be well-controlled in a unique way by flat-picking alone, but there is nothing that can truly “control” the instrument fully in the incredible way that finger-picking can. It’s very easy for a player to “fall back” on always using a pick, as opposed to fingerstyle. This is because there is such a strong dedication to the fingerstyle approach that is needed to create a really good technique.

The great fingerstyle players that have been known for years are legion, and their approaches are as varied as music itself. If you follow Merle Travis, for example, the father of “Travis picking,” you’d be amazed to find out that he mostly used his thumb and only his index finger for his particular style. It is a shock, because when you simply listen to him, and don’t watch, it sounds like so much is going on that he HAD to be using more than just the thumb and forefinger!

If you get into most “folk” finger pickers, such as Paul Simon, Steve Goodman, Davy Graham and more, you’ll note that they almost all use a thumb and two-fingered approach. Classical players, Flamenco and modern fingerstylists are much more dedicated to the full “thumb and three-fingered” approach, and use this style almost totally exclusively. It’s also the way to control slide guitar playing to the max, as evidenced by the slide work of Sonny Landreth, Derek Trucks, Ry Cooder and even Yours Truly. This gives the most dampening possibilities, and as we know this is how we really can control the strings of the guitar, and isolate the given strings we need to sound.

The study of fingerstyle guitar is a vast and exciting world unto itself, and in recent years, has given birth to whole new ways of playing, especially in the use of new, altered tunings. It is, by far, the area of widest experimentation for the guitar. So, I recommend listening to and trying to learn as much fingerstyle as you possibly can. From Joe Pass to Michael Hedges, and from Merle Travis to Tommy Emmanuel, it’s all an incredibly diverse and exciting world of experimentation worth delving into and persuing!

Posted: 12/1/2009 3:20:09 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

More on Hearing Everything as Music!

When I talk about “hearing everything as music”, what I am really referring to is that everything IS music. All things have a tone, a pitch, a place that exists in space. A great visual artist understands this when he or she is creating for example, a painting or a sculpture; it’s relationship to space and time. The relationship of how something sits in that space is critical to its balance and its statement as a work of art or not. The same is so true of music. We know when a guitar solo works, or when it doesn’t. And why? Because of how it exists in its own time and space, and if it makes good musical sense, and if it “speaks”. There are so many factors that go into the equation, they can’t even be described, and in fact, some may simply be impossible to describe or even quantify!

The mysteries of what makes music are all around us…we just have to be able to “tune in” to them. It’s like having a “sixth sense”, but it is primarily a heightened awareness that rally makes us feel this music everywhere. It’s not uncommon, for example, to hear a sound that then triggers a song we can’t get out of our heads, or a new composition, which happens to me all the time! It can be as simple as a glass clanging in a certain way that will trigger a new song or melody in me.

How many times have you enjoyed creating rhythmic patterns based on the pattern of your car’s windshield wipers, for example? This is a PRIME example of how we take what we hear in everyday life, and how we can turn it into music. And it also shows how it doesn’t even have to be specific pitches or notes, but can also just be rhythms.

In the end, it is ALL composition that goes on all the time, and whether we are creating a new guitar solo, or just hearing an implied and inspiring melody in the sound of a stream, all those moments are moments when we, the listener, are also a composer! So, go out, take a walk, tune in to what is all around you, and start making music!

Posted: 11/25/2009 5:13:57 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Going for that Great Studio Sound!

I’ve learned an awful lot over the years of recording many solo albums as well as with other artists, and on other projects as well. It seems to really be a little more of a “learned” process than my more natural musical learning journey, because the sound situations with studios can vary so tremendously!

In my early recording days, there were a great many records I made in almost totally “live” setting, where you had all the musicians playing at the same time, in huge NY studios. Many of these building and rooms were either old Churches, such as Media Sound, and large former industrial spaces, that all gave a natural “bigness” to the overall sound. I discovered that the choice in where you record is really just as important as what you record!

There were far too many times when in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I ended up recording many of my projects in studios that were too small, and too “dry” in their sound. Now, of course we can always enhance that “dryness” with all kinds of echoes and reverbs, but the first, and natural sound that the room you are recording in has such a major effect on the “real” sound of the recording.

I recently did a great new cd with Levon Helm in his studio, called “Toolin’ Around Woodstock”, and the ambient sound that his huge barn added to the recording was simply something that just can’t be replicated with effects. The musicians mostly played all at the same time, and even though we were semi-isolated from each other, the drums were “open” to the room, and this gave us a very powerful “group” sound….a sound that could almost be considered like a “live” onstage sound, recorded with that same respect for the “overall” wash of tone and sonic blending!

So, in short, just always be aware of where you are recording, and especially of how well your instrument is really “translating” when you hear it in the control room, as opposed to what it sounded like out in the recording space itself. All of these experiences will really prove to “fine tune” your ear as you go along from one new recoding adventure to another…it certainly has for me!

Posted: 11/23/2009 9:12:02 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Learning to Hear Music in Everything!

I have always had, and continue to further develop, an incredible ear when it comes to not only relative pitch within music, but within the ability to hear literally EVERYTHING as music! This is something that amazingly enough, I can never “turn off”, as all things, to me in life, have a relative pitch to one another. For example, if I hear a radio playing a song, and someone drops a dish in the room, I can tell you exactly what the note of that dish falling was, due to its relationship to the song that is playing! Or, if I hear a plane going overhead, I can tell you the note it is, and also how it is changing, due to the “Doppler” effect!

As another crazy example, I was invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house the other day, and in the beginning, all 21 guests were eating soup out of the same bowls. As I kept hearing all the clinking of the spoons against the bowls, I noticed that every bowl was playing the exact same note! First, this was possible because the bowls were like upside-down hats, with all the liquid concentrated in the center which was touching the table. So therefore, the ring around the outside of the bowls were what was creating the tone I was hearing, and the bowls were not affected by the “glass of water” effect, which is when the pitch is directly affected by the amount of liquid in the glass.

Once I pointed it out, someone said, “this proves the are very high quality bowls!” (obviously mixing up the test we’ve seen for years where people listen to the “ring” of China for its quality with what I was referring to!) So I was then forced to answer, “not necessarily quality but uniformity!” I had to say this carefully, because the fact that we had 21 exact notes proved that these were highly mass-produced bowls that all must’ve come from the same injection-mold process! It was like being in the room with 21 tuning forks! Yet, after all that was said, I had to demonstrate to everyone how and why these were really notes that I was hearing, and not the “thuds” they thought they were!

I certainly hope I opened up a few ears that night, because hearing music in everything is a true characteristic of mine that I love to pass on to others, not only as a learning tool, but as yet another approach towards appreciating life and all its mysteries!

Posted: 11/20/2009 7:47:38 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Keeping "Peace" in Your Band!

We have, over the years, heard of way too many bands that end up breaking apart because of personal differences, even hugely popular and successful bands. Of course, the break-up of those kinds of bands are usually for other reasons than what breaks up your everyday bands, but in many instances, I bet it’s not THAT different!

For example, personality differences can always play a destructive part in the harmony of a group, whether successful or not, and it can fester and percolate for a long time before blowing up, and ruining everything. Musical differences, if you really think about it, should be the PRIMARY reason for band break-ups, and should really be the ONLY thing that can really matter that much, as to create deep enough rifts to cause such a break-up.

I believe that all bands need a musical leader; one who provides the primary directive needed, as well as the musical direction for the other band members to follow. Still, if you are in this position, you must be able to field all opinions, all ideas and all emotions from the other members, so as to come to decisions that are as “democratic” as possible. This keeps from hurting people’s feelings, and most of all, it makes the band feel much more “whole”, as everyone feels like they have an equal say in matters. I know that in my formative years, even being a “sideman” in many cases, I still felt that it was important to always contribute musical ideas as often as possible. There were certain times, where almost as a complete surprise to me, I was suddenly appointed “musical director”, and had to assume this new role overnight!

This happened with me on the Phoebe Snow tour, when they decided to make me musical director, at the very last minute before leaving on tour! It was a “handcuffing” role to lay on me so abruptly, and I would’ve chosen different band members if I had that kind of power and “say” early enough on in the process. As it was, I had to live with the band as it was, yet still try to make the most of a largely musically mediocre situation! It was tough, but was certainly something I learned a lot from! Just remember, above all, keep the peace!

Posted: 11/18/2009 10:29:19 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Are You Practicing or Playing?

I know it may at first sound like a strange question on my part, but I think it’s very important, when evaluating your own development, to think of whether you are “practicing” or “playing”. I know that when I was developing, I never ever considered what I was doing as “practicing”. Now, of course, I am a self-taught guitar player, who never had formal lessons, so I was never given “assignments”, or things I had to practice and have ready by the next week, for example. Instead, I had started a ritual for myself that holds true even today, in which every time I pick up the guitar, I am sure to try something new, and to teach myself a new lick, position, or even a song, or simply start writing. Whatever it is, it has to be fresh to me, and therefore, it is unquestionably “playing” that I do, as opposed to “practicing”.

You also have to keep in mind that so much of what I learned happened in professional situations, like onstage, or in the studio. This is why when I teach others, I always encourage them to seek out their own knowledge and path on the guitar, because I believe that in the end, we all really DO teach ourselves! I always have students who apologize to me that they didn’t “practice” all week…then I simply ask them, “yes, but did you play?” This is what means most to me as a teacher and a mentor, because I need to know whether or not the guitar has become something that the student really enjoys and loves, as opposed to just a burden.

It should never be a “burden” to play the guitar, it should always be a joy, and like me, you should feel right away like sharing your new-found knowledge with others. It only gives you more wisdom about what it is you’re playing to begin with. It also trains the ear better and better, so you can learn so much more easily by listening to other players, and by being able to play what you hear in your heart and in your head.

Now, there are those of you who will definitely benefit from more structure when it comes to learning and practicing, and even these days, when I want to learn a very “specific” piece of music, I understand that I actually need to put in some real, good old “practice” time to get a certain piece really “down”. But in the end, it still boils down to the real and joyous act of “playing” most of all! Keep it up, and it’ll always pay you back!

Posted: 11/16/2009 8:36:14 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink

Going to "Open Mic" Jam Nights

The whole need to be heard and to interact with other musicians is a fundamentally important step to take if you really ever expect to be “heard”, or to make further professional strides in your career. Over that last decade and a half, the “jam night”, or “open mic” night idea has really caught on as a whole new approach to getting your feet wet, but there are many hazards to look out for if you want to play this game!

I have seen friends and students who are INCREDIBLY talented end up feeling totally humiliated by these experiences, often because of running into other folks there who think they are running the show, or who love to use this format as a way to bolster their totally weak ego. It can really be a battlefield, as people are all fighting for attention, to be louder, to impress, but basically it’s really all lost on the “audience”, but can end up in some pretty nasty situations.

I can remember one time, when me and my band were booked for what we thought was a legitimate gig, only to find out that after we performed, the stage was besieged by tons of singers, harmonica players (oh no!) and guitarists who all somehow expected that my band was now going to be THEIR backup band, and that they were all going to jam with me! So, the next thing I know, there’s a female cop onstage, singing what else?……….”Mustang Sally”, of course, and way too many harmonica players for anybody’s good, plus a bunch of screeching guitars, all trying to play over each other. It can get to be like a bad verbal argument, and really no fun at all.

In fact, this can all be a real “turn off” that can have the uninitiated running for cover! But all is not lost…there can be some very great moments as well, and you must go to a lot of these “jams” sometimes, before one really “clicks” for you.

I know that when I was a kid in Woodstock, it was always better for me to jump onstage with a group of true professionals, all of whom were able to recognize my talent, and not feel in direct competition with me. So, look to find the right jams, and the right people, and just remember to never give up hope!

Posted: 11/13/2009 9:56:44 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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