Archive for October, 2016

GuitarSong #5

Posted in Education, Equipment, Guitar Songs, Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by theguitarcave

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The fifth installment of the GuitarSong series profiles Edward Van Halen playing his ass off on the very hot-rodded I’m the One from Van Halen 1; a defining milestone in guitar history if there ever was one. Half of the tunes on this disc would be a suitable choice for a GuitarSong, but I’m the One will do just fine. While Van Halen the player certainly deserves a lot of credit for this album, Van Halen the band: David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen have also earned all of the cred necessary to be deemed rock legends. They each brought an indispensable quality and talent to a group that has brought many a great rock moment to fans for the last 40 years.

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Van Halen (1) exploded onto the airwaves and into the arenas of the USA in the early days of 1978. Released in an era when many thought the guitar and rock music was dead and buried, or at least very passé, the kinetic nature of the band, powered mainly by Edward Van Halen’s incredible guitar, proved the cynics wrong and charged to number 19 on the Billboard Charts. The album has since been awarded RIAA diamond status (meaning it has sold more than 10 million copies). As I have previously written here, Edward, unlikable though he may be at times, can legitimately be called a guitar genius because: there was everything before… then there was this album… then everything was different. Have a listen to the above live version of I’m the One. If anything, he plays it better than he did in the studio and for most people, especially rock players, that would be flat-out impossible. The studio version is directly below.

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You can get Edward’s bio from these links. It’s a very interesting immigrant success story! A couple of things: a) Edward and his brother Alex are the sons of a swing era jazz musician from the Netherlands; a guy who never stopped playing but also never achieved any success until he guested on Van Halen’s Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now on the Diver Down album in 1982. The brothers were already playing music together before they were in high school. A whole lot of Van Halen’s first TWO discs were already written before the band was signed. The band worked their asses off to write, practice and gig and even as late as the 1984 album, material that had been in the set list during the club days (House of Pain) was reworked and released. Here is a GREAT YouTube upload of almost all of their early demos. Listening to this it’s easy to see (and hear) how the band was destined for greatness. So much great material and a top-flight guitarist who had already outgrown the LA clubs.

Another very important factor was Edward’s habit of building and destroying guitars in search of the sound and look that he wanted and the legendary Van Halen tone; the world-famous Brown Sound. This has been a topic of speculation and conversation since the late 70s and often the least helpful person in the discussion was Mr. Van Halen himself. He deliberately misled readers on his setup on at least a few occasions and he was obviously very protective of his “brand”. His explosive introduction to the rock guitar world led to everything about him and the band being copied almost immediately; from the look and sound, to the playing style (especially with regards to tapping) to the guitar with one pickup/one knob combination. The “Frankenstrat” that Edward created was the result of a lot of misses with guitar building, but it did the job and is now in The Smithsonian. Along the way there was pain, frustration and lawsuits, but that’s rock and roll. Edward was really ahead of the curve as far as “Branding” and the modern world though. Everything about the look, style and sound of what he did was completely self-created. It wasn’t completely new because very few things are, but he did put the whole package together in a rather spectacular way. (David Lee Roth probably deserves some credit as well because he recognized Edward’s talent very early on and was very instrumental in creating an image for the band and everyone in it.

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At the most basic level, what makes Eddie Edward is that he swings like a mofo. This article (which is very good) from the Van Halen News Desk suggests that Van Halen is playing some kind of wildly fun and exciting West Coast bebop on I’m the One, although not in a Jazz style per se. The kind of fluidity and bluesy phrasing along with the effortless integration of rhythm, riffing, soloing, and two-handed tapping throughout the song is dizzying. All of Eddie’s guitar moves: speedy scalar passages, two-handed tapping, (pinched) artificial harmonics, deep bending with fast vibrato and wide stretches on the left hand, are in this song and are part of the Eddie Van Halen technique.While it has long been known that Edward’s guitar hero was Eric Clapton and his closest predecessor in style was Jimmy Page (whose pull-offs on the solo for Heartbreaker inspired the tapping Edward would later perfect) I would guess that growing up listening to his dad practice swing music on the clarinet and saxophone was also very influential. That would explain the bebop-sans-jazz feel wouldn’t it? On the isolated guitar track for I’m the One, which you can find (HERE), Edward’s great right hand rhythmic swing and incredible blues feel is really apparent. It drives the whole song. I’m the One is a hi-octane boogie in the same vein as Hot For Teacher and the main riffs of both songs are great rock from the blues tradition. Edward really melds these riffs together very well and the fact that he can play them very clean at a ripping tempo is what makes the whole thing exciting. Slow this tune down and play it more laid back fashion and it could be a ZZ Top tune (a band VH used to cover). Anyone who has ever seen Van Halen live knows Edward is always tapping his foot — he has incredible timing and rhythm, which combined with a great right hand, are qualities you will find in any top-flight guitarist.

Finally, another thing I always liked about Edward was how he used effects; almost like a chef or line cook, sprinkling and seasoning here and there to spice up a dish. Mostly what one heard in the early days was the Phase 90, Flanger and/or Echoplex, but they would produce great effects in just the right places. Here is a Guitar World article on Van Halen and MXR. One interesting tidbit from the article (read the whole thing for detailed info on EVH and pedals):

Earlier this year (2015), in preparation for the 40th anniversary of MXR, its parent company, Dunlop Manufacturing, took a survey to learn how guitarists perceive the pedal maker. One of the questions asked was, “Which player do you associate the most with the MXR brand?” The respondents chose Eddie Van Halen more than 60 percent of the time. Notably, the runner-up received fewer than half as many mentions.

Here is probably the most succinct definition and exposé of the early VH sound. This is good too. If you’re looking to try to replicate, beware of anyone who over-complicates either of these two links. Really it all comes down to a Strat-style guitar body with a Gibson/Seymour Duncan PAF pickup, a Marshall Plexi and some MXR pedals. Oh…and you have to be able to play like him and most people can’t. Don’t ever underestimate how much one hands (and brain) affect the sound. They do. A lot!

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Here is Doug Steele’s series on I’m the One. I’ve recommended his video lessons before and he definitely does it right and gives you the breakdown you need to be able to get this song together.

Here is another lesson on I’m the One from Steve Townsend

Here is the Songsterr tab of I’m the One.

A fairly good illustration of the Van Halen pedal sound. I do not like another one that I won’t name and won’t link to suffice to say that they do a lot of videos on different players’ classic sounds and I don’t think any of them are very accurate.

Eddie Van Halen at The Smithsonian. Yes he is an institution. All Hail!

Always lots of good stuff at the Van Halen News Desk!

Edward certainly doesn’t always interview well and this Billboard article is no exception. I’m not sure why he has such a low opinion of Michael Anthony these days. That certainly wasn’t always true. There are some interesting factoids for guitar players in the interview though.

A somewhat funny hipster critic review of Van Halen 1. I’m linking to it because when you get right down to it, EVERYBODY has to admit this album completely rules!

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Hearing Van Halen 1; I’m the One, Running With the Devil, Feel Your Love Tonight and On Fire and then seeing the band live a bunch of times was a big influence on my life and musical career. I learned some of the tunes, played some of them (On Fire, You Really Got Me, Ice Cream Man) live in bands and musical projects over the years and even patterned my live sound after what I interpreted from the sound of this album and song. I used the Phase 90, Flanger, and though I had an Echoplex I used an analog delay pedal only because it was more reliable and easier to carry around. I still approach playing with this same gusto that I heard on this record and in some ways though Van Halen’s sound and abilities evolved over the years, there is a focus on some of these tunes, including I’m the One, that he never topped. It’s just a perfect rock rip from beginning to end. Edward Van Halen put great guitar to great songs and created an impressive body of music and in the process made the guitar an instrument people wanted to play again. Because he was so good at what he did, for a time in the 80s he completely personalized what a guitar player was. Though many years have transpired since then, with all of the attendant highs and lows that come with life, Edward can still play like a badass and I’m the One is still a great GuitarSong and a great example of virtuoso rock guitar.

GuitarSong #4

Posted in Education, Guitar Songs, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2016 by theguitarcave

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The fourth installment of the GuitarSong series profiles Soundgarden and their very trippy song Head Down from the 1994 Superunknown album. Their best selling disc, Superunknown followed the band’s breakout hit Badmotorfinger, was a success critically and commercially, and is still regarded as one of Grunge Rock’s defining records (along with Nevermind, Ten and Dirt)

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Way back in the 80s Soundgarden was formed in Seattle and came of age and ability around the same time as many other well-known bands from that legendary scene: Tad, Skin Yard, Green River, Mudhoney, Nirvana. Like the other Seattle rock denizens, Soundgarden was influenced by equal parts punk rock, rock, pop and metal-ish bands like Black Sabbath. In the early days they were very crude and their riffs were big and huge, but in 1991 Ben Shepherd joined the band on bass guitar and brought with him a whole new approach for writing and recording. Coincidentally, around the same time singer/guitarist Chris Cornell really started to come into his own as a songwriter and these two events completely redefined the Soundgarden sound. By the time Superunknown was recorded many of the rough edges had been polished, the songs were more sophisticated and the sounds much improved. In essence, amid all of the heaviness, they created a modern-day Revolver with plenty of melodic Beatle-esque moments, including this tune.

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While Kim Thayil, lead guitarist of Soundgarden, was responsible for some of the heaviest riffing from the early 90s, Chris Cornell is also no slouch as a guitarist and has written and played some of the best guitar the band has produced. One of the key ingredients that bassist Ben Shepherd brought to the band was an interest in open guitar tunings and the ability to write a good guitar song and though he wrote the music and lyrics to Head Down he plays bass on the song. So I would imagine it was very much a group effort to get Head Down together, with everyone, including drummer Matt Cameron, putting in a solid effort. As Chris Cornell was quoted as saying:

“Head Down” was a complete demo Ben had played for me, where he’s singing on it and it’s very similar to what ended up on the record. That was an amazing moment because it was one of those times when I felt like, “This must be what it was like to be in the Beatles,” where one of the band members just walks in and drops a song like that ­— it’s already done and you don’t have to do anything, and you already know it’s going to be one of the best songs on the album.

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First — tuning for the song is CGCGGE. This jangly, somewhat psychedelic, Zepplin-y tuning is also used on the great tune, Burden in My Hand from the Down on the Upside album. The great thing about this tuning is that it has a drone type sound on (what would normally be) the D through the high E strings, but the low (what would normally be) E and A strings function as the power sound of a dropped-D tuning. So you can have these very jingly-jangly, bluesy, psychedelic high riffs and melodies and combine that with a very heavy bottom riff all on the same tuning! Also the “dropped” nature of the top strings means those riffs can be played with one finger and given that the tuning is C based and the song is in the key of C, the open/12th fret dynamic applies (as it would if you were in concert tuning and playing in E).

As you can see from videos, Cornell begins the song with a clean sound and Thayil reinforces the riffs with a more overdriven guitar sound. Then they just build it up to POUND level it until the middle. Interestingly, tuning to C was/is a favorite technique of Stoner Rock bands (Kyuss, Monster Magnet, Acid King, High On Fire) because the riffs be so HEAVY and simultaneously it is a lot easier on the vocalist as it is two steps down from concert tuning. The other aspect is the de-tuned treble strings have a slurry/jangly sound that is pretty great; definitely not suited for everything, but on a tune like this, it works! After one of Soundgarden’s patented “big” riffs (minute 2:50) Thayil, Cornell and Shepherd all play counter melodies in the middle before returning to the main riff. The band wasn’t really known for this kind of dynamic jamming, but they look like they’re having fun and that’s one reason why I picked it as a GuitarSong. I’ve never played Head Down in a band situation, but I have played it myself and it’s a fun tune to play! It’s also a good beginner to intermediate style song and you can certainly take it a lot of places because the tuning and structure have that “openness” that allows for experimentation.

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Here is the midi-tab for Head Down.

Here‘s a list of the song’s YouTube play-a-longs.

Here‘s a cool interview with the band.

Here is the Unofficial Soundgarden Page. I used to visit back in the day and it’s still online. It is very informative and it has a guitar tab section that is pretty good.

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Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands from the 90s and I think Superunknown is one of the best albums of the past 25 years. There are certainly many tunes off of the disc that one could pick as a great guitar song because it’s full of great moments. As I said earlier, I think Head Down is a really good “learner” tune for those who don’t have the abililty yet to play some of the more difficult stuff and also it’s a song that can be played just as easily on acoustic or electric. It also gets one in shape to deal with open tunings, which as I have written about in the past, is a great way to expand your guitar abilities and also broaden your songwriting. Once you are comfortable in this tuning you can proceed directly to Burden in My Hand. Some of the other open tunings are easier (My Wave, The Day I Tried to Live) some are a bit more esoteric (4th of July, Like Suicide, Mailman). But once you are comfortable you can navigate easily and maybe even make up some of your own. That’s what they did!

GuitarSong #3

Posted in Education, Guitar Songs, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2016 by theguitarcave

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The third installment of the new GuitarSong series profiles Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers Band’s iconic and genre-defining instrumental Jessica from the 1973 album, Brothers and Sisters. This was the album where Dickey really stepped up to drive the ABB to new heights of success with this tune and the smash hit Rambling Man. But he had been a great guitarist and creative force in the band from the very beginning and, of course would continue on as a Brother until (almost) the official end of the band. The ABB were easily one of America’s best bands and the whole package: the playing, the tunes, the drink, the drugs and the highs and lows are so much a part of the story. They lived every song they ever created.

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The Allman Brothers Band were one of the most original and promising new bands to emerge from the late 1960s. A talented band of 7 road warriors they fused elements of blues, jazz, swing and rock and roll to create a whole new sound and style. Not only are they usually credited with inventing Southern Rock, they also (along with the Grateful Dead) were the prototype for every jam band that has existed since the early 1970s. The band was successful and flying high when tragedy brought down both Duane Allman and stellar bassist Berry Oakley in the space of a little over a year. By the end of 1972 the band was desperate to get back to work and prove that they could carry on in the face of this loss. The Brothers and Sisters album would be a commercial and critical triumph and would launch the band to fame and fortune. During the recording of this album Forrest Richard (Dickey) Betts, the second guitarist in the band, picked up the reins and became the new leader of the group. Duane was gone and Greg was not in great shape at the time. Dickie was not only a great picker, but he had also already contributed tunes that became early ABB standards: Revival, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Blue Sky, and Les Brers in A Minor. He wrote four of the seven songs from the album and in the process, expanded the sound and direction of the band.

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What made the Allman Brothers different is that they were not a straight ahead rock and roll band, nor were they strictly blues-based players. Duane had mentioned the influence of Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue was on the instrumental vision of his soloing and the band’s aesthetic. Dickey was a fan of country, western swing and jazz legend Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s love of diminished arpeggios seem to influence Betts’ composition “Elizabeth Reed” and Jessica was written as a bonafide homage to Django; a song that could be played with two fingers. The bouncy, jazzy A-major melody was also influenced by Betts’ young daughter, Jessica, who was crawling around the floor as Betts was trying to write the melody. There was some help from guitarist Les Dudek and other members of the band, including new keyboard player Chuck Leavell on banging a bridge and the rest of the structure of the song into shape and later this would be a bone of contention among the principals as far as songwriting credits go, but it is undeniable that the source and vision of this 7 and a half minute piece of goodness was Dickey Betts. His contributions to the Brothers and Sisters album cover all bases in hot guitar playing; blazing country rock (Ramblin’ Man), stinging slide guitar (Wasted Words), the soulful bluesy guitar (Come and Go Blues, Jelly, Jelly) rock and roll (Southbound) and delicate dobro (Pony Boy). Jessica, however, was the album’s centerpiece, not only in terms of execution, but also the sophistication of the construction, something Dickey related to … architecture!

The instrumentals are very studied,” says Betts. “It’s called architecture, and for a good reason. It’s much like somebody designing a building. It’s meticulously constructed, and every aspect has its place. Writing a good one is very fulfilling, because you’ve transcended language and spoken to someone with a melody. My instrumentals try to create some of the basic feelings of human interaction, like anger and joy and love.”

Dickey Betts

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The song has the structure of a jazz standard; after an intro kicked off by Les Dudek on acoustic guitar, the melody line is stated by Dickey with Chuck Leavell playing the top harmony line of a Fender Rhodes piano and Gregg Allman playing the bottom harmony on Hammond organ. After two “A” parts the song navigates to the harmonized bridge “B” and then back to the third “A” before the solos start. This is a common AABA jazz standard structure. The harmony chords are a simple A-D-G vamp style for the main theme and modulate to G for the bridge. The harmony is the same for the keyboard solo and then, after an ascending line modulate to the key of D for Dickey’s solo. The band returns to the bridge after the intense harmonized descending lines that end his solo and then does the theme again before the song ends. The feel of the song is bouncy and rollicking and the almost bagpipe nature of the guitar solo gives it an element of a pagan Celtic dance. Speaking of which, here’s a interview with Dickey where he talks about many things, including “the pipes”. It’s interesting how he believes that “you can trace country or American music back to the bagpipes” because there are is a lot of that sound in his playing, especially in country type songs like Ramblin’ Man and Jessica. Dickey’s clean, lyrical guitar with the easy vibrato and ringing against another string bending results in a sound that approximates the sound of pipes, or the reel of a violin when he’s playing those major hexatonic fiddle-type lines. Interesting viewpoint especially since the original inspiration for this song, Django Reinhardt, played for many years with the great violinist/fiddler Stephane Grappelli. Reinhardt and Grappelli were a huge influence on American Western Swing bands and Dickey is also a fan of that music.

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There are many links to lessons on how to play Jessica, including one with Dickey himself here. Also, here, here, here and here. For people who prefer to read tab, try songsterr. The tabs there seem pretty accurate and having a midi player track through all of the changes as they happen can help you work through the song accurately. If you’re a member I think you can slow down the tempo.

Here is a good primer of Dickey’s style complete with review of some of his pentatonic and hexatonic patterns courtesy of Guitar World.

Here is the video companion to the above Guitar World lesson with Andy Aledort.

Here’s a great primer on getting that Dickey guitar tone.

Here’s an interesting discussion with Dickey on his 1961 SG.

There are many great ABB concerts on YouTube, including this one from 1979. This was an interesting period for the band. I always like the late Dan Toler’s playing and he is here along with the legendary Bonnie Bramlett and a guest appearance by John Belushi. Dickey and the band are on fire at this show!

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Late last winter, on one of the first days that spring weather beckoned, I made my way to the local park. It was late morning and as I sat on a bench sipping a beverage in the 40 degree temps a guy on a bike with a huge boombox rolled up to an opposite bench. A couple minutes later the first strains of Jessica were heard and the volume was then cranked. The change that came over the park and everyone there was magical. The song has the power to turn any location into one of those groovy, warm and beautiful mega-festivals from so many years ago. I felt like I had ingested magic mushrooms and almost wished I had some at that moment. The song had turned me into one of the many sunbeams now glowing over neighborhood in the first days of Spring. Even though I have heard the song literally five hundred times I heard it for the first time again that day. That a forty year old rock song would have the power to put young, old, rich, poor, drunk and Sunday sober people into a instantaneous good mood is pretty amazing and a testament to the power of music and of an absolutely stellar guitar tune.