Archive for July, 2011

welcome to showbiz…Now Get To Work!

Posted in Music Business with tags , , , , , , , on July 28, 2011 by theguitarcave

I‘ve had many gigs in the creative field over the years and while many were not directly related to music and guitar playing they helped make me what I am today. All of the work was educational and most of it was a whole lot of fun. In the future I’ll write about many experiences that were ALL ABOUT GUITAR PLAYING, so if you are looking for guitar articles this would be one to skip. However, I do think it is important for any musician to try and pay attention to the BIG PICTURE in all things, as well as follow Spinal Tap keyboard player Viv Savage’s philosophy for life — HAVE A GOOD TIME, ALL THE TIME.

Do You Know How Astronauts Poop?

Well do you? Have you ever thought about this? It’s not like I have some special attachment to POOP, but it is an interesting question considering that evacuation of waste is much harder in space. I’ve asked people about SPACEPOOP and they either didn’t know or didn’t want to talk about it. I’ve been interested in space exploration for a long time, saw a few of the moon landings (or did I?) on TV back in the day, have been to the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, read a lot of science fiction and built a lunar module model when I was a kid. But the other night while I was starting to write this post it occurred to me that I had forgotten how number ones and twos are done in zero gravity. Luckily, NatGeo on the Interwebs has the answer! You might think this is a trivial thing, but let’s face it, there would be no one in space if this problem hadn’t been worked out. While everyone remembers or has seen film or pics of the astronauts jumping around and planting flags on the moon, most people don’t give much thought to the people who worked out the SPACE BATHROOM solution. It’s actually a pretty convoluted operation compared to what we do on earth isn’t it? Probably not a good idea to hold it until the very last minute or drink a lot of beer in space. Could you imagine going through all of that drunk?

Let’s apply this same line of thinking to, I dunno, New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Have you ever watched or visited New Year’s Eve in Times Square and wondered how all that confetti ends up flying around? Well, wonder no more! I was one of a group of friends who dumped confetti on crowd below one NEW YEAR’S EVE back in the early 90s. It was pretty awesome — easiest gig I ever had. It did take awhile to get paid, but hey, THAT’S SHOWBIZ! You want to talk about a total stealth operation! We congregated at this secret bunker location in Times Square T-minus 6 hours before BD (ball drop). Our leader, a dude from Los Angeles named DERF (that’s Fred spelled backwards), was pretty taciturn and low-key — not at all what I’d expected from a guy assisting with the biggest party New York has every year. I’m not using his real name, but it was similar to DERF and when he took the time to explain the whole backwards nomenclature thing I was thinking, “that’s not very original is it? You’re from LA, why not just use a new name like ALGORYTHM, OTHO, SEASIDE LOUNGE CHAIR, or something like that?” I guess was he going for comedy or maybe using the whole I reversed my name thing as an icebreaker, but found himself looking at a room full of people who were giving him a BLANK STARE. After learning the correct way to empty a box of confetti (tipping, shaking, dumping was not allowed), we split into groups and made our way to strategically positioned locations high above Times Square. There were already loads of revelers and hundreds of cops all over the place and we had to get a special police escort to the building. CONFETTI GUYS COMING THROUGH! STEP BACK PLEASE!. It was totally like being one of the Super Friends

High above Gotham ConfettiMan waits for Midnight!
When midnight comes he rips open boxes of confetti and throws it on the party people below. WHEEEEEEEEE!

My friend/bandmate Jim Fournaidis and I were part of a group stationed on top of a hotel, which was nice because we were able go inside, get warm and annoy people. Some of the other groups had to stand or sit outside for 5+ hours and it was pretty frigid. We had a nice meal and a few drinks and were whiling away the hours until lift-off talking with the ladies from the group in the hotel gym. But then Hotel Management thought we were having a little too much fun, so we had to go back up to the roof and it was cold, but no biggie. The noise level up there was unbelievable; nonstop waves of guttural moaning that at times sounded barely human, plus all of the various noisemakers everyone was tooting. It’s amazing that people keep this level of energy and noise going for 4-5 hours beforehand. Alcohol is certainly a factor, but there are other people for whom this is a kind of Quest or something and they really get it into it. I forget how many stories up we were, but we had a bird’s eye view and saw everything including fights, arrests and the whole range of human emotions. It occurred to me that there is something very sexual about the New Year’s Eve event. Freud would totally look at NYC NYE, stroke his beard and say “ze party is not always ze party”. When midnight came and all of us launched the confetti, it was a massive rush and pretty impressive and amazing, I gotta say. See, like the SPACEPOOP, there was a ton of planning beforehand, all of the details were worked out and this is what this post is trying to illustrate — how the thinking, preparation and work behind an event, concert or production enables the MAGIC to happen in a truly spectacular way. Also, before reading this, while I’m sure you’ve probably at least seen the whole shebang on television, you never gave much thought (spacepoop!) to how this happens and who does it. It’s a silly operation for sure — none of us cured a major disease or saved any kittens, and the actual work took a little over a minute. But it was a very important minute for all of those people in Times Square, some of whom traveled thousands of miles to be there and for Dick Clark and all of the people watching New Year’s Eve Countdown on television at home. A large amount of confetti flying around was and always is an integral part of the show and the beginning of a NEW YEAR. When our group had tossed all our confetti we stood there and took in the moment. Because of our elevation and a mild wind, the confetti didn’t just do a straight drop to the ground but was floating and blowing over the crowd below like a huge blizzard. It looked really cool! Our group hugged and wished each other HAPPY NEW YEAR and then we started getting out of there. We all had parties to go to and even though we were rushing, by the time we got back down to the pandemonium on the street, the Sanitation Department had already begun sweeping up.

Years before the New Year’s gig, very soon after I moved to NYC, I was an extra in the opera, AIDA. I was a spear-carrier for one act and although opera and theater were never really my thing, the chance was there, it paid and I was new to NYC, so I figured why not? This was really the beginning of my career in Arts and Entertainment and what impressed me the most was the size, scope and intricate workings of the support people who enabled the production to function smoothly. True, it was a pretty heady rush to be standing onstage at The Metropolitan Opera looking into the Lincoln Center audience dressed as an Egyptian soldier, and the tallest one at that. While all of the drama was really taking place between a couple of singers, as with the confetti in the last story, the fact that I and 30 other dudes were standing there added to the AMBIANCE of what was happening, and someone had figured out how many spear-carriers were needed, the costumes we would wear, the correct mix of body paint that would make us look all Egyptian and buff. So even though the role I played as a performer was cool, seeing how the MAGIC was a coordinated team effort really impressed me. The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in NYC is BIG BUSINESS baby. These cats aren’t playing around and all of the people who come to see these productions pay for, and expect A SHOW. This takes a whole lot of smart work and follow-through. If that isn’t happening, you might end up with STONEHENGE! Just the sheer logistics of making sure everyone is onstage and off at the right time takes a few people. I had never seen or heard the opera, I didn’t know what I was doing and as with movie productions, extras come and go as they are available. Someone WHO KNOWS when and how everything is supposed to happen must take charge. The funniest part of the evening occurred while all of us spear-carriers were waiting in the wings to go on. We had been led up to the edge of the stage to wait for our big entrance and were standing there when Aida, the female lead (or Primma Donna if you’re into the whole 18th century thing), a very attractive woman showing some really bodacious cleavage, finished her very beautiful aria and shuffled quickly offstage hissing…“GIVE ME THE F*CKING KOOL-AID!” and there was an middle-aged mousy woman there whose job involved having a Dixie cup of cherry Kool-Aid and a lit cigarette waiting. The Kool-Aid lady also was calmed Aida down, “You’re doin’ well tonight, uh-huh, just take it easy…”, kind of like the trainers who are in a boxer’s corner between rounds. Even though I was about to walk onstage I saw this and thought two things. First, I had expected the singer to sound more like “oh, darling, do give Dollie some juicy as that last high C constricted my poor tonsily wonsilies” in a Julia Child kind of voice. Give me the F*cking Koolaid is not what I thought OPERA was all about. Second thought: WOW WHAT A COOL JOB! Little did I know that within a few years, I would be performing similar functions for rock and rollers, but Kool-Aid would not be the beverage of choice and there wouldn’t be as much cleavage, but hey, ya can’t have everything. My spear-carrier went on, looked very soldierly, and then got back out when we were supposed to without a hitch and it was pretty cool. As I said, the whole OPERA scene wasn’t for me but I was pretty jazzed when I left Lincoln Center because I hadn’t even been in the city 2 weeks. After my bit that night I went out to eat with a few people and when I got home, even though it was late, I called my mother and said “I was onstage at the Metropolitan Opera tonight.” When I talked about it at the next family gathering she asked “You were really there? I thought I had dreamed that.”

Shortly after the opera stint I began working for a party planner as a driver, stage-builder, lighting guy and all-around action figure. I was introduced to the crew through a couple of people I was playing music with and this was typical of almost all of the gigs I had. Musicians, artists, writers, actors all do work of this nature for the experience, money, fun and flexible hours. There is a whole lot of money in New York City for parties and partying and it is a very integral part of some very major business functions. Over the 3 years I was involved with this company, we set up very expensive weddings, had major corporate accounts with clients like The City of New York and American Express, decorated Donald Trump’s Christmas tree, and I drove all over the country, sometimes with Kitty Kelly (a drag queen) in tow, throwing parties for L’Oréal. Kitty was the set and stage boss and was pretty friggin’ amazing at setting up and lighting sets that were sometimes as involved as those one might find at a Broadway show. S/he and many others associated with the company had been in Show Business their whole lives and all of us rock and roll band guys liked working with Kitty because we learned a lot and s/he was funny as all get-out, drunk or sober. Never one to mince words, she had a whole lot in common with our Rock and Roll! attitude, even though she preferred musicals and Irving Berlin. Besides the stage sets and lighting there were linens, props, flora and fauna, and accessory stuff we would integrate into one big synchronized color+sound+light design. What we needed for a gig would completely pack at least one 36 ft. rental truck (often 2-3) and when we traveled far from home it had to fit in one truck that I would drive and whatever else we needed was provided by local vendors.

L’Oréal had costumes made for some of their products and beauty products for women can sometimes be sexually suggestive, especially if they are large enough for someone to wear as a costume (think…LIPSTICK TUBE). Ironically, or not, some of the women hired to wear these costumes for an event were exotic dancers or strippers. Since the favored party spot at the time was West Palm Beach, FLA, this meant driving through the southern states with a very nervous Kitty Kelly and a truck full of really outrageous and/or elegant looking stuff. One of the funnier moments on our travels occurred one year at the Florida border, where the State Police do truck inspections to make sure no one is smuggling in anything that will hurt their agriculture and because they like messing with people. The cop was a typical Southern hard-ass with mirrored sunglasses, toothpick, and the swagger and appearance of someone who spent 25 years in the Marine Corps. Our exchange went something like this:

(looks me over) SON, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON MY HIGHWAY?

Taking a bunch of stuff down to West Palm Beach for a party.

(looking me over) A PARTY? (looking at truck)

Uh-huh.

OPEN THIS!

He raps on the door and I jump up on the tailgate and open it. The truck is packed to the back — a huge collection of stuff, but a 4 foot lipstick tube and eyeliner brush, buckets of glitter, fake palm trees and plastic stars that we are going to hang on the staging are stand out. The Cop moves in for a closer look, then begins turning red in the face and neck. His opinion of me has just dropped 300%.

WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?

Well that’s glitter, that’s an eyeliner brush, the stuff in the-

ARE YOU TRYING TO BE FUNNY WITH ME? WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM AND WHY ARE YOU ON MY HIGHWAY?
(getting up in my face)

(I start laughing)…. This is all party stuff for L’Oréal, ya know, the women’s cosmetic company? …The party’s probably going to be real entertaining. I’ve never seen a lipstick tube dance, but I hear that’s what it will be doing…But the palm trees are fake though. So…no worries. Really.

The cop looks the stuff over again, looks at me, looks at the truck and shakes his head with disgust.

CLOSE THIS UP AND GET THE HELL OUT OF MY CHECKPOINT!

In the city (NYC) the crew would take well-known locations like Roseland Ballroom and transform them into a luxurious, color and sound coordinated environment so the well-to-do could have a rip-it-up kind of party. As I said, there is a whole lot of money in New York City for partying and it was really funny to spend two days setting these events up with the total cost in the neighborhood of several hundred grand and then have to keep the attendees from walking out with the table-centerpieces at the end of the night. It took quite a bit of skill to wrestle expensive vases away from blue-haired dowdies who were wearing enough jewelry to pay my rent for 5 years. They held on tight and it was tug-tug-tug, but seeing as most of them weighed under a hundred pounds I couldn’t tug too hard or they would go flying into the scenery. One time I had to take 3 vases away from the same lady. She was drunk and kept going back to get another vase each time I took one out of her hands. When I say Roseland, maybe you’re thinking “oh that’s such a glorious place with a long history”, or maybe you’re thinking something like, “Hey I saw Rob Zombie and Monster Magnet there in 1998 (I did). Either way, on a rainy Friday morning when we were loading in to begin setting up an event, Roseland was a passed-out 75 year old lady of the night who smelled of unwashed feet and stale booze and had a countenance that approximated 16 blocks of bad road in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. But, by HIT TIME Roseland was TRANSFORMED into a glamorous and very elegant Society Hostess ready to party, thanks to great planning and lots of hard work and creative genius performed by the crew, including yours truly. The boss was really great when it came to planning these things out. It was a definite combination of science meets art and he wasn’t afraid to get up on an 8 ft. stepladder balanced on top of two folding chairs to hang streamers from a chandelier. When I think of how many chances we all took do set-up in those days, it’s pretty incredible. Usually things went pretty smoothly and even though some clients were incredibly demanding, they were happy with the final result. Things didn’t ALWAYS work out though. We got a contract to decorate a new bar with a “sports” theme, and because the place was in Brooklyn Heights and they’d hired a professional decorator it was assumed that they wanted the usual artistic touch. So the boss put together this classic kind of Sports Lodge look (Preppy 1950s) and we picked up a whole ton of props, including an 12 ft kayak that was so old it had it looked like something Teddy Roosevelt would’ve paddled (does one paddle a kayak?). Long story short: The sports bar was “mobbed up”, they thought all of the props looked like crap and were looking for a much more MANLY theme then what the boss had intended. So they threw us out… about ten seconds after I sawed the kayak in half in order for it to fit down the narrow staircase that led to the bar. The boss came running out onto the sidewalk yelling “Don’t cut the kayak” and there I was with the saw in my hand and pieces of a kayak. This caused Kitty and some of the other crew people to guffaw loudly, which the boss didn’t appreciate very much, especially since he had just heard he “didn’t know d*ck about sports bars” from Joey Gallstones. So he told me to RETURN the kayak to the prop house, which was, of course, a complete waste of time. Kitty was along and although we had a whole lot of helpful suggestions — “How about this…you could rent it out as 2 canoes! Brilliant!” the guy just kept repeating “YOU CUT IT IN HALF!” with barely-restrained exasperation. The kayak was retired to our storage and eventually thrown out without ever being used.

All of this background work really opened my eyes to the FOREST that is PRODUCTION. Musicians usually focus on the TREES, because we are often a small part of the whole production and need to do our part well and not worry about other things that are going on. While I was doing all of this work I was playing in bands all over the NY metro area and so were half the people on the crew, so there was a lot of OVERLAP between gigs. Being involved in the process of productions onstage or on-location was a very good learning experience and is certainly something I would recommend to anyone with a desire to do so. Not only was this a great help to my music career, but I also think it made me a very excellent production manager in the publishing business for almost 10 years. Having a feel and and eye for integrating many distinct and sometimes contrary elements together is a skill that is worth learning and one that can be applied to many situations in one’s life. While television shows and the internet can give you a feel for how it works, there is something cool about being a part of a crew or company making it all happen. As cynical as everyone on any of these crews could be sometimes, we really did some amazing stuff and as EVERYBODY knows, people with a lot of bread are not easy to impress. Sometimes, especially with the weddings, we were not only paid, but thrown a bunch of cash as a tip. Depending on the role one plays on the crew, the work can be very physically demanding, high-pressure and take place during very weird hours or require long hours of set-up without a break. Kitty and I and another guy who was doing stage work with us once worked 36 hours straight for a half-million dollar wedding at the Plaza Hotel. Not only did we build a very involved stage, but we also had to hang almost 50 glittered foam core designs from the ceiling. It is certainly very easy to burn out after a few years, but there are people who stick with it forever. The crew often becomes like a family with all of the fun, good times and drama that entails. In a place like New York City where, especially back then, there were so many characters and various NY cultures interacting with all of our productions, it could sometimes be a non-stop laff-fest. After three years though, it was time to move on and within 6 months of leaving the decorating company I was writing for Guitar World and working for VITAL VAN and both of these gigs were much more music-related. It was very helpful to have already had the background I did though and there were many times when I was thankful for the experience I had gained in the first few years. If nothing else, it has resulted in a post that has gone from Spacepoop to Roseland Ballroom, with New Year’s Eve, The Metropolitan Opera, L’Oréal and Dinosaurs in between… Wait, I didn’t tell you about the Dinosaurs we set up in Central Park? Stay tuned!

Django Reinhardt — Night and Day 1953

Posted in Education, Movies, Playing with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2011 by theguitarcave

As promised in my last post on Larry Coryell and the Jazz Minor, here is how I hear that playing strategy in Django’s 1953 version of Night and Day. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I LOVE Django’s playing on this song and believe it completely epitomizes what great jazz and great guitar playing should sound like.

If you’re unfamiliar with this song, find a chart and follow along! As I said in the previous post, while Django did this version in the key of Eb, he also did a couple versions in the key of D and this is the key I’m playing in. In the first video I give chord demonstrations of how many Gypsy Jazz artists play it (kind of). The basic progression is Em7b5 A7 D. You can choose either of the first two examples of voices. Or you can re-harmonize it like the third example I provide, Stochelo Rosenberg / The Rosenberg Trio and their version with Stephane Grappelli that is on the Caravan album. Stochelo plays the Em7b5 as a Gmin9, the A7 as an A7b9b13 and the D as a D major. He also does that line cliché that leads into an E9/B A7b5b913/Bb D6/9 F07. Then it returns to a normal 2-5-1 in D (Em7 A7 Dmaj). That all sounds complicated but it isn’t really. The E9/B is a regular E9 chord with the B on the low E string fingered and you slide down a half step for the next chord. The other chords are typical jazz chords. Then I play the Jazz Minor scale as Larry Coryell was playing it in his lesson and then I play a couple of licks from Django’s take on Night and Day. I think there is a lot of similarity there.

The Mouse Amp

I’m using my Gretsch Anniversary Junior plugged through a Mouse Amp. The picture is showing two views of the Mouse. I believe the amp is from the late 70s and it was a DEAD MOUSE until a couple of years ago. I thought it was toast, but the guy who sets up my guitars put in a new battery and cleaned it up and it was good as new. The battery can be charged for up to 4 hours so I can play outside, at the pool, on the beach, or busk on the street. It doesn’t have the hi-fidelity of the Schertler David or the Fender Champ I have, which I’ll use in some upcoming videos, but it’s certainly really easy to set up and go. The Gretsch is pretty awesome too. I’ve done quite a few gigs with it and I’m really happy with how it sounds playing this music. A Gibson L-5 it is not, but I can get close to Django’s amplified tone with a little tweaking, especially through the David. I really like that combo.

The last video is Django’s intro and entire first chorus. Notice…how jazzy cool he is…The phrasing on some parts is just beautiful and very lyrical and he gets so much out of a couple of notes. Of course it really swings and the whole solo is great. I’ve worked out the rest of it and have also worked out Stochelo’s version, which is also really great! As you can tell from the videos it was really noisy here today…and hot. This will probably be the last playing-video until summer is over. Also, I’ve been informed by YOUTUBE that making videos like this warrants a flag over copyright by Warner Chappell. It seems there is a built-in system on YOUTUBE that can detect the recorded material and though I didn’t get a notice about my Swinging with Django video or Oiseaux des Iles, they have been flagged as well. Warner-Chappell doesn’t know about this, but at any time they can take action and the videos will be deleted, there will be a stronger warning or whatever. It’s not my intention to infringe on anyone’s rights. This is supposed to be educational and had I been able to watch some of the videos that I’ve made when I was learning to play Django’s music, I certainly would have. But the whole question of what constitutes FAIR USE is RILLY, RILLY, COMPLICATED and though I’m going to leave what I’ve done up for now, I will probably be investigating new playing/broadcasting avenues for the future.

Larry Coryell — Jazz Minor (Altered Scale) Lesson

Posted in Education, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , on July 25, 2011 by theguitarcave

A pretty cool lesson on what Larry Coryell calls the Jazz Minor Scale, also known as the Altered scale. You can hear jazz players use the concepts involved with this scale all the time and it makes for some really nice improvisation options over dominant seven chords. The song that really got me into jazz, and the first one I was playing the chords and melody well enough to enjoy playing, was Django Reinhardt’s 1953 (electric) version of Night and Day. I LOVE this version of the song and quote some of the licks on a regular basis. In his first chorus Django uses Altered Scale licks against the Fm7b5 – Bb7 (2-5 in the key of Eb) and this, combined with the awesome tone of his amplified Selmer gives the song a very sophisticated, MODERN jazz sound. I usually play Night and Day in the key of D as do a lot of other Gypsy Jazzers and it is the key Django and the Hot Club of France recorded his first pass at the song in 1938. Comparing the two versions is a good measure of how far Django progressed over the course of his career. He always had great musical sense, timing, and phrasing abilities, but in my opinion the later version is miles better yet is still obviously Django. Recorded only two months before he died, I think it is another example of a recording that obviously disproves the argument that he lost his edge after WW II.

Larry Coryell has been a guitar virtuoso since the 1960s and has played with many heavies throughout the years including (to once again bring this back to Gypsy Jazz): Stephane Grappelli on the 1979 album Young Django and modern Gypsy Jazz/Jazz powerhouse Bireli Lagrene on the 1997 Spaces Revisited. He also did an album with Emily Remler that I think is fantastic and have in my great discs column on the RIGHT >>>>>. I don’t have nearly enough of the stuff he has done and hope to be able to get more in my collection sometime in the near future. In these two videos he goes over various concepts and uses for the Altered Scale and illustrates the more salient points with the jazz standard Stella by Starlight as an example. Stella isn’t an easy tune unless you are already a pretty adept player, so I think it’s important to focus on the scales and chords he shows in the beginning and the simple licks he demonstrates at the end to really get the sound of this stuff in your head. Obviously these scales and chords for every key are all over the neck so just getting that ingrained will take a little bit of time. Usually if I see a lesson like this I will pull out the bits I can do and then return to it later to pick up on the more advanced stuff. Larry says “take your time”, and in my recent post on how our brains learn music, research, that’s right, SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH has shown that a focused, step by step approach is much better in the long run than trying to learn it all in one go. Having said that — if you have been playing Gypsy Jazz you will notice (Larry covers this in the 2nd video) that while this scale can be described or thought of as a major scale with a minor third, or similar to a harmonic minor scale, or a major-minor scale, it can also, with the addition of a seventh before the root, be seen as a combination of the diminished and a whole tone scale. Of course these are two very commonly-used scales and arpeggios in Gypsy Jazz, so if you have been working with them, you will probably have an easier time integrating the Altered scale into your playing. In a future post I will show some of the licks in Django’s Night and Day just because they are topical and fun to play.

This is Your Brain… on GUITAR

Posted in Education, Playing with tags , , , , , , , on July 14, 2011 by theguitarcave

Many people think that great guitar improvisers are born with magical powers that allow them to zip all through a song at a fast tempo without making a mistake. To a degree, this is true; some people are more adept at “hearing” music and have a natural facility for executing a performance that leaves the audience enthralled and screaming for more. But science is casting a new light on why some people have these abilities and how YOU TOO may be able to harness whatever natural qualities exist within you to improve your playing. As with anything and everything in life, HOW ONE LEARNS is extremely important and directly connected to HOW ONE DOES. I know what you’re thinking — “Well duh!”…but stick with me for a minute because while this might seem obvious, how it works internally, sometimes on a microscopic level, is pretty amazing. One of the fellas I’ve been playing with for the past few years is a psychiatrist and he laid this paper on me, What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research, written by Molly Gebrian. I don’t have much of a background in the science of the mind or biology/psychology in general, but I’d like to give an overview of what I have gotten out of reading this paper. What’s interesting is that I think you will find by the end of the post that even guitar powerhouses of the past understood the concepts presented even if they had no idea WHY or HOW. If you are a guitarist, knowing this WHY or HOW might make the difference when you approach practicing, rehearsing, writing or performance in the future.

You can download the paper at the above link or just follow along here as I pull out the parts that really made an impression on me. Since I have been using what I’ve learned from this paper in the study of Gypsy Jazz, I will be drawing correlations between the two, but you can apply these methods to any style of music. The concepts presented deal mostly with string and piano players, and the author is an accomplished musician (viola). All of these quotes come directly from the paper.

“Two very important areas for learning and executing motor skills are the primary motor cortex and the cerebellum. The primary motor cortex is activated whenever you move voluntarily, whether it’s a skilled action like playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, or a not-so-skilled action like dragging yourself out of bed in the morning. The cerebellum is important for coordinating actions and it also serves as an error detector. As you learn a new piece of music or a new playing technique (such as circular breathing), the synapses in these two brain areas change. In the motor cortex, the synapses that relay the information on how to play something correctly get strengthened, while those that send erroneous or irrelevant messages get weakened….The brain accomplishes this through changing the number of receptors on the receiving neuron and/or the amount of neurotransmitter released by the sending neuron. The more receptors or neurotransmitter, the more likely the next neuron will get the message and pass it on, or vice versa.”

Every Gypsy Jazz instructor or instruction manual stresses the importance of learning new material slowly. It is important to fully digest what you are trying to do because you will never be able to play correctly if your knowledge is rushed or superficial. If you LEARN WRONG you will PLAY WRONG. Whether you are learning technical stuff or not it pays to try to be as focused as possible on the mechanics of what you are doing. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am the biggest violator of this rule so don’t think I’m lecturing. I have to force myself to chill out all the time! Given my background, which was for a long time, ROCK, punk-rock, and metal-esque riffing stuff, it is understandable why I might not be a very deliberate and patient player. Some people are just naturally very methodical too, but I think it’s possible for anyone to make these adjustments and s l o w d o w n because it will do your learning phase a whole bunch of good!

“So what all of this means is that every time you practice or learn something new, you’re actually changing your brain…In brain terms, you have to strengthen one group of synapses while also weakening another, rather than just strengthening a message.”

Initially, the brain changes are so small they happen on a microscopic level and if you aren’t doing something right it is easy to correct any mistakes. As time and practice continues however, the synapses involved are made stronger, new synapses are created and groups of neurons, which are called neuronal ensembles become synchronized and streamlined in their behavior. While there is “noise” and mistakes at first, with time and practice the neuronal ensembles become more adept at working together and the result is similar to all of the instruments of the orchestra performing in harmony.

“…some neuroscientists think musicians are an ideal population to find out what happens when you practice a motor task repeatedly for years and years. One of the most obvious changes is that, especially in string players and keyboard players, the portion of the motor cortex devoted to the fingers is much bigger. At the same time, the neurons in this cortical network are much more efficient. These two things happen because, presumably, over time, lots and lots of neurons get connected by synapses that wouldn’t normally be connected, and the neuronal ensembles that result from these new connections get much better at what they do because they get to practice everyday. A musician’s brain is so efficient at things like scales and other simple patterns that are automatic to us that entire brain areas don’t get engaged in a musician’s brain that are very active in a non-musician or amateur’s brain.”

String and keyboard players have a much larger portion of the cortex area of their brains devoted to the fingers than people who don’t play these instruments. A good player is capable of performing finely coordinated movements without activating other areas of the brain like the pre-motor cortex and the supplementary motor area. This is impossible for a non-musician who tries to execute similar movements. Can you begin to see why a great guitarist is capable of playing some really impressive stuff while making it look so easy? This person is using much less of their BRAIN…to do so much more! When ZE ZOMBIES attack, accomplished guitar players will be the first people they go after! Run! Hide!

“The other amazing thing that happens in musicians’ brains as new synapses form is that our motor cortex gets connected to our auditory cortex. Think about how strange that is. For most people, what they hear doesn’t cause them to have automatic associations with movement, and moving certainly doesn’t cause them to hear things in their heads.”

WHOA! WAY COOL! When a musician listens to a piece of music they know and play well, not only does their auditory cortex light up on a brain scan, but the area of the motor cortex devoted to finger movement does too, and not only does this area light up as a whole, but the individual fingers light up in the order and timing necessary to play the piece. Consequently, if someone asks you, pro guitar-person, to air-guitar a song you know well, your auditory cortex is going to light up as you execute the movements necessary to play the song, even if you don’t have a guitar in your hand or make any actual sounds. That’s pretty amazing don’t you think? I think this is why many guitar teachers advise players striving for better improvisation to “SING” their parts. Because the motor cortex is connected to the auditory cortex you must KNOW what you want to HEAR so the auditory cortex can send an endless amount of messages to your fingers on what to play.

“Matthew Walker and his colleagues here in Boston have done a number of experiments on motor learning during sleep (Walker, et al, 2002, 2003, 2005). Their basic experimental paradigm involves three groups of people. The first group gets taught a finger tapping task (4-1-2-3-4 where 4 is the pinky finger and 1 is the index finger) at 10am, which they then practice and are tested on multiple times throughout the day. The second group gets taught and practices the same task at 10am, but they don’t get tested on it again until 10pm. Then, they are sent home to sleep and tested the next morning at 10am. The final group is trained on the task at 10pm and has their first retest at 10am the next morning. What they found is astonishing. The first group gets gradually better throughout the day at a rate that you can predict. The second group shows the same linear increase during the day, but when you test them the next morning, there is a huge jump in their performance (measured by faster sequence execution without loss of accuracy). The same goes for the group that was trained at 10pm and then retested for the first time the next day – they got much better overnight, even though all they were doing was sleeping! (Everyone was instructed not to practice when they went home.) Even more surprising, there is absolutely no relationship between how much better a person got during daytime practicing and how much better they got after sleeping.”

They researchers believe that our sleep time is when the brain is actually PROCESSING the new information learned or practiced during the day. There are theories that some learning is dependent on practice (which we all need to do) and other learning is dependent on sleep and they function independent of each other. You can’t learn just by sleeping (if only huh?), but if you are, say learning a new fast and tricky passage, it makes more sense to get it so you can play it CORRECTLY at a nice slow tempo, and then leave it until the next day and progress that way. Using this “steps” kind of process you should be able to pick up speed faster over time than if you try to get it all immediately.

“Sleep is divided into two broad types: REM sleep and non-REM sleep (or NREM sleep)… During what is called Stage 2 NREM sleep, however, electrical brain events occur that are called sleep spindles. During a sleep spindle, there is a huge burst of electrical activity in a population of neurons that causes massive amounts of calcium to enter those cells. Calcium is what causes all the changes discussed earlier, from strengthening and weakening synapses, to making new synapses, to synchronizing the firing of neuronal ensembles. Sleep spindles reach peak intensity late in the night and have been shown to increase following motor learning during the day. The study by Matthew Walker and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School also found that the percentage of improvement after sleeping strongly correlated with the amount of time the person spent in Stage 2 NREM sleep in the final quarter of the night, precisely when sleep spindle activity is at its peak.”

I’ve made it a habit to pick up the guitar and run through some new things right before bed and even after I put the guitar down, I briefly go over what I’ve just played in my mind as I try to drift off. Obviously I can’t do this every night and neither can most people, but if you are unhappy with your abilities or stuck at a plateau that you can’t move beyond, try to incorporate some of these ideas and see if they make a difference. I think it is important to focus on ONE THING; a lick, a passage, or technique, instead of trying to cram a lot of ideas at once, especially if you want to make a leap forward. Sometimes a very simple thing, like starting descending runs with an upstroke instead of a downstroke, or learning a new arpeggio or scale application can lead to big changes in many areas of your playing.

Finally — mental practice. Have you ever heard the legends of how some of those really boss jazz players like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane were able to practice mentally, without a horn, moving their fingers correctly and hearing the notes and sound in their head?

“Another surprising finding is how much you can accomplish by practicing mentally. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) did a study in which they looked at the effects of mental practicing, resulting in very exciting conclusions. In their study, they had two groups of people (all non-musicians) learn to play a five-note scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do or C-D-E-F-G-F-E-D-C) on the piano in 16th notes at quarter note equals 60 (or four notes per second). Both groups practiced for two hours a day for five days (a total of 10 hours), but one group was only allowed to practice mentally. They were not even allowed to move their fingers. Everyday at the end of the practice session, everyone was tested to see how well they could play the scale. This is the only time the mental practice group got to actually play the keyboard. As easy as this would be for any trained musician, regardless of instrument, it is quite difficult for people with no musical training. At the end of the first day of practicing, both groups had a very hard time playing steadily and they would often play their fingers in the wrong order. After having practiced for five days, however, the group that got to practice on the piano everyday could play the scale perfectly. After five days, the group that only practiced mentally could play it at the same level as the physical practice group achieved after three days. The mental practice group was then allowed to practice at the keyboard for two hours, after which they could play it perfectly!”

Not only did the group that physically practiced piano for two hours play this scale perfectly but both groups had their cortex measured daily, and as you can probably guess, all participants had growth in the size of the motor cortex region devoted to the fingers, even if they were in the group that was only THINKING about playing. Pretty far out isn’t it? This is something that might be useful if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have an instrument, or have perhaps sustained some kind of injury that prevents you from playing for period of time. In addition, the combination of mental practice and physical practice can make you a really boss player. Ever read the story of Edward Van Halen sitting in the closet humming ideas into a walkman because he didn’t want to wake his wife? Supposedly the awesome Girl Gone Bad from the 1984 album started that way. Or how about Jimi Hendrix once musing… that sometimes daydreaming could produce the most intense music, but if he reached for his guitar and tried to duplicate it right away, it just ruined the moment? I wonder if some of these “dreams” or “ideas” don’t show up as music at some point without players even trying to recreate the ideas verbatim. Considering all of this new scientific info, could it be that our brain isn’t making as much of a distinction between our thinking and our playing as we do? Have you ever played or written something and wondered, where did THAT come from?

While most of this might not seem like a HUGE revelation, it should make you appreciate just how great a machine the brain is and how you as the controller of your brain, can adjust it in order to be a better musician. I was never a very technical player before my introduction to Gypsy Jazz, even though I was capable of playing some fairly intricate rock stuff. But I quickly learned that if you are going to have a really good technique, you must have a lot of patience and focus and bring as many of your mental resources to the task as possible. If you’ve read this and are interested in improving your technique or maybe getting out of a rut, see if you can try to bring your brain into the mix instead of just letting your fingers go to their familiar moves and positions. Learn something new and really learn it so well you can wake up in the morning and play it. Own your brain and you will own your music. If you leave everything up to the fingers, or old habits, you will always be using a small fraction of the resources at your disposal. Also, keep in mind that this does not mean FEEL and EMOTIONS go out the window. Django Reinhardt, Edward Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Pass, Jennifer Batten and many others have had complete technical command of their instruments and were/are very feel-oriented players. While there have long been discussions in guitar circles of one versus the other, in actuality, the better your technique, the better the possibility you will be able to translate your emotions into sophisticated playing. How can you use YOUR brain to move forward with your approach to GUITARING?

** All quotes from:
What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research. Molly Gebrian.

Chris Spedding

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2011 by theguitarcave

Chris Spedding with his Gibson Flying V

Chris Spedding — an absolutely stellar guitar player, and all-around cool guy.
I met Chris soon after meeting another awesome gent, Spedding contemporary, Mick Ronson, who I interviewed for Guitar World Magazine. I was introduced to Chris after I started working for VITAL VAN, the premier musician cartage and van moving service in NYC back in the late-80s and early 90s. My Spedding and Vital Van stories could’ve been combined into one really long novella of a post because they are so intimately intertwined, but that isn’t really suitable for the blog format, especially for people who don’t like to scroll, and Chris DEFINITELY rates his own entry. Like Mick Ronson he is a total Guitar Hero and the two of them are not only archetypal British guitar slingers and producers, they also have some very interesting similarities in style. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, check out Chris with long-time pal, Robert Gordon live on the Conan O’Brien Show.

Vital Van functioned as roadies for Robert Gordon’s band so I had the chance to watch Chris play up close and personal many times and we also had many conversations about Guitars, Guitarists, and Guitaring. There were some long drives back from gigs in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and while the rest of the band was recovering from rocking out, Chris was happy to sit in the front seat of the van and talk music and guitars so I would stay alert and on the road (the traveling back to the city was usually 2am-to-whenever). So, as you can imagine, I was able to hear a lot about what he thought about guitar playing! Chris has a very compact, tasteful, lyrical style and he related at one point that someone he admired was George Harrison, because George’s solos usually functioned as a story within the story of Beatles’ songs. While George was certainly a major purveyor of this style of playing, he didn’t invent the concept and all you have to do to see how this evolved from the Jazz/Blues/Swing era to Rockabilly and Rock and Roll is read my post on The World is Waiting For the Sunrise. Like George, Chris is ALL OVER that hybrid of jazz/blues found in rockabilly and rhythm & blues music and playing with Robert Gordon has given him the chance to work this style for a long time. He has an arsenal of neat little tricks that he pulls out from time to time (see the next video), and unlike a lot of guitar heroes he doesn’t make the execution of tricky things a big production. They are just cool little technical moments that add to the atmosphere of the song. It has been years since I was involved with these guys, but I think Chris’s guitar stylings and Robert’s rockabilly boogie baritone have only gotten better with age. Both of their respective careers traversed much of the same landscape as the 70s and 80s punks, and I’m glad they have managed to age with the confidence and grace that is a characteristic of any of the great music icons. If you want to hear some great Rockabilly and Rock n’ Roll, they are the Real Deal.

Chris also hung out with the Vital Van crew from time to time — a real down-to-earth cat with a great sense of humor, and an avid reader. I remember him working his way through Gore Vidal’s Burr. The Vital scene was chock full of guitar players, and all of us picked up many a helpful hint just from being in Chris’s orbit. He also left his guitars lying around and at least 3 of us cut songs on our own recordings using a Chris Spedding guitar. He had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird that I used on a song I did for a demo that included the awesome WORKDOGS rhythm section. At one point Chris mentioned that he thought that the Mickey Baker jazz books were a great way of learning how to read and play the kind of stuff he was able to work into his music. I’ve seen Chris start a set with a chord-melody medley of Christmas carols, totally cold (no warm-up backstage), and just kill. As a matter of fact I NEVER saw him warm-up for all the gigs I worked and he was always able to walk onstage, plug in and rock!

As a session player, Chris has been a very important person on some very great albums. It always knocked me out that he was one of the guitarists on the original Jesus Christ Superstar recording. Some of the other music legends he was involved with include Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson, Roxy Music, John Cale, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and Elton John. When I interviewed Leslie West in 1990 I mentioned that I had been working with Chris and Leslie had fond memories of his band, Mountain, touring with an early Spedding band, The Sharks, in the 70s. Chris later confirmed this and said that not only did the two bands share the tour, but also would get together at the end of some of the shows to have a big jam. Would’ve been great to see Chris and Leslie together on stage for a song or two don’t you think? Chris also produced some of the first Sex Pistols recordings, and for a long time it was rumored that it was him, not Steve Jones, actually playing on those recordings. I was successful in pitching a Chris Spedding article to Guitar World, (I wish I could find it, but I can’t). and before the interview my editor asked me to bring up the Sex Pistols rumor. I said “yea I’ll totally ask him” even though I already had, and knew the answer, I thought there would be a better chance for the article to get published by stalling. (I had already been handed a couple of rejections). As it turns out, not only did Chris not play on the songs, but his mixes weren’t used and you can read about it from the man himself HERE. Chris did have a whole lot to do with Steve Jones getting THAT guitar sound, which I’ve always thought was pretty flippin’ pro for a 1976 punk band and is probably the reason many people thought it was actually Chris playing. It’s the Spedding sound! If you read the list of credits on his Website, it’s obvious he is a player and producer who is home in many different settings and this is another parallel with Mick Ronson. Both Chris and Mick can be classified not only as superior players, but also as tasteful producers and idea guys for making music — Dudes with Multi-Vision! Here is Chris with Roxy Music from early in the last decade. After the rockabilly, you might think… What’s he gonna do on this song?…and then he plays emotionally and tastefully as he always does.

Chris was a long-time user of Gibson guitars and Fender amps…There are a lot of details on his guitar choices on his Website. He was telling me one night that he found it very easy to work with Les Paul Juniors because he only ever needed or used 1 pick-up (bridge position). On most guitars, he explained, it is impossible to get the sound he wanted on both the bridge and neck positions simultaneously, so it was just easier to get the good sound on the bridge position and use the tone knob or hand muting to produce a neck position sound on the bridge pick-up. As with all guitar players, I’m sure his thoughts on equipment constantly change through the years — at some point he started using a Gretsch, which suits his style perfectly, especially for the rockabilly stuff. He’s always had the slap-back echo sound working for him too and that is one of the two types of guitar echo I favor, especially the way he uses it. When we were working for him he used the Memory Man Deluxe and he would sometimes use a second Fender amp facing him from the front as a guitar monitor. One of my favorite gigs we ever worked was a Chris Spedding-fronted power trio gig in Boston, that included bassist extraordinaire Tony Garnier, long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band. I forget who played drums that night, but after the sound check, Chris, Tony, the drummer, Chicken John and I went and had Thai food and then we returned to the club and the band played something like this…

Of course the crowd dug it immensely just like they still do! It’s great that both Chris and Robert are enjoying a measure of success, because they are two of the very best at what they do. If you have a chance to see them, by all means go!! Hopefully, through the power of the internet, recordings and live performances there are younger players out there who will explore all of the possibilities of studying Chris’s style and will integrate some of it as I and others were able to do so many years ago. It is a way of approaching guitar that can definitely broaden the sonic palette and musical horizon of any player.

**Special thanks to Chicken John Rinaldi for providing the pic of Chris with the prototype Flying V. Chicken has been the proud owner of this guitar for many years. If you enjoyed this article or enjoy reading about Chris make sure you check out the VITAL VAN article when it is up (soon). Lots more on Chris, Robert Gordon, and NYC, including Spedding produces Letch Patrol!