Happy New Year, everyone. Here are some resolutions for guitarists (reblog for 2022)

Advice & Tips

Hi all and welcome to 2022! You may have noticed that things have been a little quiet on this blog for the last few months. This is for a number of reasons, but don’t panic – I’m fine, just incredibly busy! Expect more posts in this new year, as well as updates on exciting new projects I’ve been working on. In the meantime, here’s a slightly rejigged post on New Year’s resolutions from a few years back. I hope you enjoy it! Until next time...

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, this would usually mean that we have reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’. For over a decade (pre-pandemic), I ended the year with a NYE gig. However, for obvious reasons, things have been a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in the coming year:

Learn a new style

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing!

Mix things up

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

Widen your horizons

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

Get your music ‘out there’

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs and make sure you perform live yourself more often (when you can), especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ for longer than you might like, finding it hard to make the time to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

To finish off, allow me to wish you all the very best of health & happiness for the New Year! Let’s make 2022 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Tim xx

Reblog: Three things we can learn from Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

Advice & Tips

Legendary producer of The Beatles, Sir George Martin, passed away on this day, five years ago. The following day, I wrote this article on a now-defunct page. Reposting here to mark this sad anniversary:

Sir George Martin, most famous for acting as the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ albums, passed away yesterday, aged 90.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Already, reports and obituaries have been published, quoting Martin and highlighting his amazing achievements with and without The Beatles. Though Martin was a producer for over a decade before meeting them, it is undoubtedly his work with this music-changing band, the very Zeitgeist  of musical development in the nineteen-sixties and beyond, for which he will be best remembered and discussed for years to come.

There’s been plenty of debate on whether or not The Beatles succeeded artistically because of suggestions made by Martin, or if he was simply very effective in channelling their natural talent. In reality, it was probably a mix of the two. That in itself is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Though Martin now sadly has passed away, we can still learn something valuable from the work he left behind. Here are my three things which we can learn from the life and career of George Martin:

Have an open mind

I’ve mentioned this in several previous posts, but an open mind and a willing pair of ears is without a shadow of a doubt the most important tool for any artist. This is especially true for musicians and producers, and a sentiment to which Martin himself prescribed more than once, including in his own books.

It is well established in rock history canon that The Beatles were been turned down by several record companies prior to being signed by Martin to EMI. Think about this for a moment: every almost ‘industry expert’ had refused to take on another guitar band, believing them to be going out of fashion. Fair enough, it is called the music business for a reason. Money has to be made and trends will always be followed. This is as true today as it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, ‘following the money’ is a great way to be a follower, but you are default already a follower from the start, and not a leader.

The best leaders, artists, teachers, and indeed the best in any profession listen first. In seeing the potential that The Beatles had, Martin was able to continue listening to them throughout their eight years working together making hit after hit, and classic album after classic album. This is especially noticeable when at the point mid-sixties where the band stopped performing live altogether, becoming a studio band only. The resulting works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road, are unique in sounding very much of their time, but still fresh and exciting in 2016.

And it wasn’t just Martin doing all of the listening. The Beatles themselves were avid consumers of art and music. In being open to anything interesting, they brought elements of avant-garde, atonalism, looping, sampling and a whole world of musical styles to their music. By opening your ears, and combining the sounds you love, it is entirely possible to produce a new work, which speaks to the future while recognising that which has gone before.

Know your limits, and push them

Looping, you say? Sampling? In the nineteen-sixties?! It is worth noting that the vast majority of The Beatles’ recorded output was recorded on a four-track (or, at very best towards the seventies, eight-track) tape machine. This was state of the art back then, but lacking in the limitless options of the digital recording software in use everywhere. Leaving aside all the other technological innovations and improvisations Martin would conjure up to accommodate the visions of The Beatles in their songwriting, there is the question of the sheer number of instruments and sounds on some songs. The solution to squeezing so many different elements onto a four-track recorder? Multi-tracking.

Multi-tracking was first developed by guitarist Les Paul some decades before Martin made such effective use of the technique. Put simply, the process involves recording onto three of the available tracks, then ‘bouncing’ that mix onto the fourth track. The process can be repeated using tracks one and two, then bouncing to the third. Then it can (if needed) be taken even further by mixing tracks three & four onto one of the other tracks, meaning there are now three left to add on more parts (and here is where I start to go cross-eyed myself!).

The biggest issue with this method of recording is the physical degradation of the tape onto which the sound was being copied. By layering track upon track, the overall mix becomes more dense, and done incorrectly, can leave with a muddy sounding, uninspiring record. George Martin, however, seems to have been perfectly capable of getting clean, crisp recordings of individual mixes, which hold their brightness as they get ‘bounced’ and mixed into a deeper and more complicated arrangement. Even with Martin’s confident ‘know how’, there was still a limit to how many additions could me made. In these days of endless tracks and almost any possible sound available to laptops worldwide, I personally don’t see the same level of mechanical creativity. Sometimes working with what you have, pushing the limits, is better than having no limits at all…

Have a sense of humour

There’s a famous anecdote – which Martin was often fond of telling – detailing the first time The Beatles first met their producer (retold once more in the Washington Post’s obituary of George Martin today). After Martin had spoke at length about the recording process, he asked the Fab Four is there was anything they didn’t like. The response, from George Harrison, was “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start…”. From there, Martin knew that they would get along famously.

A sense of humour can not only ease any tensions rising in the studio, which can be high-pressure for some acts expected to produce hit after hit. It can also serve to bridge the gap between generations. In that respect, Martin must have impressed the Beatles from the start, having quite an extensive background in comedy and novelty recordings – some of which became unexpected hits – including John Lennon’s comedy heroes, The Goons. In quite a lot of interview footage from the early sixties, The Beatles were set apart from their questioners, an exclusive club with a shared sense of humour and in-jokes which created a barrier to those outside of the group. Martin, I believe, was very much inside their ‘circle of trust’, otherwise they would not have allowed him such authority in the studio. A shared sense of humour must have been a major in-road to gaining the trust of these young Liverpudlians.

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Final Thoughts

As a musician, producer and in some ways, mentor, Martin helped the Fab Four to realise the sounds they heard in their heads. His creative, yet critical thinking fuelled The Beatles’ insatiable appetite for art, and helped their music transcend to heights which otherwise may have remained untouched. Though I have spoken mostly about Martin’s work with the Fab Four, we should be no means overlook all of the other artists he worked with & film scores he wrote/arranged. Without Martin, popular music, and therefore the world we live in today, would be very different indeed…

R.I.P. Sir George Henry Martin (1926-2016).

Examples of using intervals in guitar playing, part 2: fourths and fifths

Advice & Tips

Welcome back to this overview of intervals in guitar playing! In part one, we looked at thirds, sixths and tenths. In this follow up article, we will be taking a brief look at fourths and fifths. Both of these intervals can be used more ambiguously, as they remain the same in the context of a major or minor chord (when sticking to notes in diatonic scale, at least – more on that later). Because of this fact, they can utilized in slightly different ways to the tones they sit alongside in common scales. Let’s take a look…

Fourths

Fretting the two highest strings together at the same fret creates this classic double stop, which can be heard all over rock’n’roll, but famously in the intro and solo for Chuck Berry’s Jonny B. Goode. Berry developed this style so he could recreate horn lines, as his live band was a smaller ensemble than many bands of the time (which would typically have more than one sax, trumpet, trombone, among other brass instruments). Every rock guitarist that followed has used phrases first made famous by Berry, from Angus Young to George Harrison. It is also a useful interval for slide guitar playing as it can be used over major and minor chords alike (you can see an example of me playing 4ths with a slide on this cover video of a well-known song).

In jazz, Wes Montgomery pioneered the use of stacked fourths, creating chord-based solos using 4th intervals on top of each other (for example, one chord would sound, low to high, as A, D, G, C), and the shape would move in line with the melody. George Benson kept up this tradition, but would also regularly employ diads (two notes played together) of 4ths in his lightning-fast solos.

Fifths

A fifth is an inversion of a fourth, and vice versa. Here, the strict definition can become blurred – think of the intro to the Deep Purple song Smoke On The Water and you’ll hear diads playing the entire riff in what sound like fourths (eg, the first pair of notes is a D, then a G on top). However, since the melody is following the G minor pentatonic scale (as the song is in the key of G minor), I’d argue that this riff is an inverted fifth (D being the perfect fifth of G), as the melody note is higher than the harmony note.

In rhythm guitar, a root and fifth creates the classic power chord heard in most varieties of rock music. Alternating the fifth with a sixth, and moving back and forth between the two, gives the famous (almost cliché) rocking riff used by artists from Chuck Berry to Status Quo and beyond.

Variations on ‘perfect’

The intervals we have discussed above – using the fourth and fifth notes in a diatonic scale, create what is known as perfect fourth / fifth. However, as with any note, we can raise or lower it’s pitch by a semitone for a new musical sound. Flat fourths & fifths are both referred to as diminished (and of course be found in diminished chords and scales). Raised ones are called augmented. As a fourth and fifth are only a tone apart, a diminished fifth is exactly the same thing as an augmented fourth – just in case you were confused!

Apart from being the famous Devil’s chord (famously used on the Black Sabbath song Black Sabbath), this interval often occurs in Blues-based music. The Pentatonic Blues Scale is based on intervals of R, b3, 4, #4, (or b5), and b7. Likewise, in dominant seventh chords (for example, C7), the natural interval between the chord’s major third (E) and flat seventh (Bb) is a diminished fifth/augmented fourth. Highlighting these notes over these chords creates a wonderful effect without having to overthink your playing too much!

Finally…

There are a few intervals we haven’t covered in these two articles. Off the top of my head, these would be seconds, sevenths, octaves and extended intervals used in jazz chords and arpeggios, such as ninths, elevenths and thirteenths. I plan to look at octave-based playing in a future article, because it is a staple of my own guitar heroes, such as the great Wes Montgomery. However, if you’d like me to look into some of the other intervals (such as sevenths, which is a really useful colour tone in jazz), do let me know!