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!

Lessons learned from lockdown

Advice & Tips

This year has seen the most use of the word ‘unprecedented’ that I have ever seen, and probably for good reason.

Do what you can now, and if you can’t do it now, plan for later

Getting started on something can often be hard. During lockdown, I’ve found myself exhausted after a full day of childcare, and in those few rare moments I had for me, working on a new composition seemed ridiculous.

Do what you can, in small steps. In fact…

Make a list

List what your daily tasks are, as well as goals for the medium term (i.e., the next few weeks) and long term (post-lockdown, or even post-COVID altogether). It will help you focus, and evaluate what is important.

List making sure was already an occasional habit of mine, mainly because I am aware of my own poor short-term memory. Going forward, I’ll be sticking to daily lists, as they seem to have made me more productive than when I worked from home in pre-pandemical times.

Speaking of lists…

Bring back the ‘weekly shop’

We must have gotten out of the habit of doing the ‘big shop’ only once a week. Lockdown forced us back into this habit, and although it somehow felt more expensive at first, it seems to be better value across the week, especially when it was harder to nip out on a whim for a treat. Give it a try, if you can, and see how it works for you.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Whether it’s FOMO (fear of missing out) or a kind of professional jealousy when another person seems to be working fine at home – you know, the one with all the recording gear in their spare room (or their parents) and no children.

Social media only shows you what people want you to see. Most of the time, it only shows what those people think everyone else wants or expects to see.

Some of it is real. Some of it is less than genuine. All of it is someone else, in a different set of circumstances (however slight that might appear).

Beware of fatigue

Some of my friends have been locked down at home by themselves, working from one room during day, then zoning out in front of the TV in the evening. They told me that even committing to an online quiz via Zoom felt like too much effort. Staring at a screen all day, even for leisure or socially distant socialising, is incredibly tiring. Give yourself time to reset, and do absolutely nothing. Just remember when you do…

Don’t be to hard on yourself

If the fatigue did’t get you, the guilt surely did – right?

This is connected to my earlier heading, Don’t compare yourself to others, but it’s worth looking at again from a slightly different angle.

We’re going through unprecedented times. No one in our lifetime has experienced this, on this scale, before. Survive. Look after yourself and those around you. Don’t feel guilty for doing less.

In fact, don’t feel guilty at all for how you are managing to get through a pandemic.

Do what you love, if you can (and if you can’t make a plan for doing it in the future)

You might have noticed that a few of my recent posts have been short Hailku form poems, or observations from walks with my family. I enjoy writing them. Since I can’t perform live at the moment, they give me some creative output while everything else is on hold.

If you have recently discovered a new passion, embrace it and enjoy it. Share it with the world. And if COVID19 is stopping you from doing what you love and enjoy (as it has for me with my love of playing guitar live), make another list; this time, make it a plan to get your passion up and running again soon, once all of this is – hopefully – a distant memory of an unpleasant time, now disappearing.

Best of luck, and let me know how you get on! Also, let me know what lessons you have learned from the last few months of lockdown by leaving a comment or getting in touch via my usual channels – I look forward to chatting to you!