Archive for Edward VAN HALEN

ShortRiffs — April 2017

Posted in Music Business, Players, ShortRiffs, This and That with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2017 by theguitarcave

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Welcome to the April issue of ShortRiffs! I hope everyone out there is doing well and getting his or her guitar thang on! I have a couple of items for this month, including the news of Allan Holdsworth’s passing. As always, thank you for your continued patronage!

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Allan Holdsworth Legendary British shred king and all-around influential modern guitar hero passed away at age 70. He came on the scene in the 70s, playing with bands like Soft Machine and Tony Williams Lifetime and from the beginning it was obvious that his unorthodox, self-taught style was in a league of its own. He cited John Coltrane as his main influence and I think you can hear (and see) that in the clip above, or pretty much any Holdsworth performance. He really came into his own in the 1980s and it didn’t hurt that big-time players like Edward Van Halen and Frank Zappa sang his praises. Edward cited Holdsworth as an influence on solos like Fair Warning‘s Push Comes to Shove. You can read more about the Van Halen/Holdsworth relationship here.

While Allan never achieved wide fame and fortune, he kept true to his ideals as an artist and was a major influence on many a guitarist over the years. His credo was always about live musical excellence as he said in 1987: My music is written with one goal in mind: to improvise. It’s like explaining a great story in words, but without words, much faster than you could with words. It’s like a direct line of instantaneous communication where you don’t have to wait for the end.” This awesome talent and commitment he had for the guitar life is definitely what prompted his fans to come up with 6X the amount needed for his Crowdfunded Funeral Campaign in just 3 days! Pretty sad we live in a world where a virtuoso of his caliber could be in such rough financial shape, but there it is. There are many great live videos on YouTube, as well as some instruction stuff and it’s worth checking out. RIP to a great guitarist and musician!

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I had an opportunity to peruse Bill Wyman’s book Rolling with the Stones recently. Not only was Bill the bass player for the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World for 30 years, he was also a meticulous diarist, so the book is jam-packed full of fun and interesting facts and anecdotes. Well worth the price if you have been thinking about picking it up! One item that really caught my eye as I leafed through it was this quote in reference to the Gimme Shelter movie.

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I have never seen this before (which is surprising) but it actually confirms quite a bit about what I wrote in the post on the movie a few years ago. Attributed to Albert Maysles, this quote is from March of 1970, 4 months after the notorious Altamont concert. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two well-known 60s counterculture movies: Easy Rider, a Peter Fonda-imagined scenario of “a modern Western, involving two bikers traveling around the country and eventually getting shot by hillbillies” and the Maysles reactive documentary of the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour. The obvious difference between the two is that an imagined scenario is not factual in the sense that most people define it, while the Rolling Stones tour of 1969 actually happened. So what was Maysles implying by this quote? Did the directors use the Easy Rider scenario as a framework for how the movie would handle the Altamont concert? Was this a commentary on the state of affairs of 1969 United States of America? Typical movie promotion?

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As I noted originally, it is important to realize that the Altamont concert that everyone got came about in part because of a dispute over film rights. The locale had to be moved at the last minute and that was partially the reason for how the Stones “found” America or why there was an “Easy Rider” angle in the first place. The Maysles quote equates the real violence, chaos and hippie bad vibes of Gimme Shelter with the scripted violence, chaos and bad vibes of Easy Rider, but a better-organized concert (that may or may not have included a film) might have gone off without a hitch and there would’ve been no tragedy to document and a different America to find. (If you are looking for a modern equivalent, look no further than the FYRE Festival). Gimme Shelter would have just been a concert movie with some backstage and studio moments with the band. Here is a quote from an excellent piece by film guru Godfrey Cheshire:

If the Maysles brothers are vulnerable to any charge, it’s that Gimme Shelter includes several scenes of Stones lawyer Melvin Belli (who had defended Jack Ruby for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) and various management types negotiating the site of the concert yet never mentions its own influence on the events it chronicles. — emphasis mine

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So why I bring this up again is that I think it’s important to view this whole thing as two things; the Altamont concert (1) and, Gimme Shelter, the movie (2). They are not the same thing even though they have been interpreted as such. A similar idea might be Alfred Korzybski‘s the map is not the territory idea. Over the course of the last almost 50 years the Alamont concert has become synonymous with the downfall of the Love Generation. I recently read two items online that alluded to this well-accepted Bye Bye American Pie idea. However, the intention of my original post was that 1) some of what we understand about Alamont from Gimme Shelter and other sources is wrong; 2) the movie did not explore any of the complicated relationships that existed in the Bay Area counterculture; and 3) the counterculture was well on its way to imploding long before the Stones left for the ’69 tour. The fact that people still give much more weight to the event as the problem and not a manifestation of something that was already collapsing speaks not only to the power of the film, but also to it’s inadequacy. There were crucial elements left out of the narrative which make it’s standing as some kind of explanation for what went wrong in the late 60s lacking because (as Cheshire says above) of what it neglects to mention. We also will never know what visuals were not spliced into the finished reel. I’m not trying to go all Grassy Knoll Zapruder Film on this topic but the fact is no one who draws these huge conclusions about what Altamont MEANS was in the first 50 rows or backstage at the concert. Those conclusions have been drawn from this movie or from other people’s conclusions or the commonly-accepted conclusions drawn from this movie. That it might have been the desire of the film makers to make a definitive piece of 60s cinema (maybe or maybe not) in the vein of Easy Rider is understandable; that is what artists do. The problem occurs when the audience and the culture accepts the art as reality, which it isn’t. Gimme Shelter sort of aspires to reality, and many people accept it as reality, but at the end of the day, it’s only a movie.

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Here’s something else from the writing angle that I stumbled on while surfing: rockcritics.com, a (obviously) rock critic website that happens to include many former writers from Guitar Player Magazine. Good stuff — all of it! Lots of great reading and many clickable links! As I was reading through Jas Obrecht‘s entry I see that he has a new book coming out called Talking Guitar and it looks splendiferous! I always like Jas’s writing and remember many of his interviews vividly. He was the first guy to sit down with Edward Van Halen on his first assignment (after Pat Travers blew him off!). But he has also interviewed many others over the years and he always asked the right kind of questions and understood what people like me (and many others) out there wanted to know. In his twenty-year Guitar Player career he always delivered, so I think this book will be great! When I went out and did my own interviewing for a few years I know I was heavily influenced by what I read in the pages of Guitar Player. I was always determined to find out the choicest guitar player nuggets my subject could provide because that is what I wanted to hear and I knew that is what the readers wanted to read. I feel I owe a bit of a debt to guys like Jas and the others because they really showed us how it is done and done well, and I try to maintain those standards even today with this blog project. There is some really entertaining and informative writing at the critics site so have a looksee!

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Finally, a musical appreciation of sorts. I recently found a cassette of The Cars first album I’ve had forever. Great stuff. Always loved it. Back in the 80s I worked at a store in Soho and Cars’ guitarist Elliot Easton lived on the same block. I used to see him walking around a lot. We never had any involved conversations, just nodded or said “hey”. He was always friendly and pleasant, which was a rare commodity in 1980s New York.

The Cars had lots of great songwriting, fine ensemble playing and vocals and plenty of compact brillanté guitar. (Here is a great retrospective from Elliot). Easton was and is one of rock’s preeminent lefty guitarists and he comes from what I think of as the George Harrison School (he even quotes licks from I Will on My Best Friend’s Girl); use the solos and guitar parts to create either a song within a song or cool little counterpoint melodies. Fine stuff too, always very inventive. Plus, he and Ric Ocasek had lots of really cool guitars — they even made Dean Guitars look smart and respectable!

The store I worked in was pretty hip and it attracted a lot of celebrities. One afternoon Ric Ocasek came in with his girlfriend/wife, Paulina Porizkova. He stood at the door looking very ill at ease while she shopped. It was a bit funny because he is really tall and looks like Ric Ocasek. There are a lot of celebrities who can blend in, women without the outfit and make-up especially. I used to walk by famous people in Soho all of the time without doing a double-take. But you couldn’t miss Ric. He looked like he really didn’t like being there, so I never bothered him, but he kind of looks like that all of the time. Maybe he really enjoyed the place. Whatever. For ten years he, Elliot and the rest of the band provided a great soundtrack to a generation of people and all of that music still holds up. It was simultaneously familiar and futuristic in a very New Wave way and I can count many great memories while The Cars music was playing on the radio. Good Times!

BreakTime

Posted in Education, Guitar Songs, Players, Playing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2016 by theguitarcave

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I hope people are enjoying the GuitarSong series. A fair amount of people seem to be reading these posts and I’m happy with how it’s going so far. The Edward Van Halen GuitarSong post was #5 and I’m pretty sure I will do another on Edward later. But first I have other entries planned: Holiday in Cambodia (East Bay Ray), Anji (Davy Graham, Paul Simon) and The Prophet Song (Brian May). Also, I’m also going to do an updated post on Night and Day as played by Django Reinhardt and others (including Stochelo and Jimmy Rosenberg) in the Gypsy Jazz style. As I’ve said before, Django’s 1953 version of Night and Day is what made me want to play jazz. It has oodles of 50s guitar cool, a great feel, great sound and the brilliant driving, rhythmic vibe of any of the GuitarSongs I have chosen so far. I played the first couple choruses in this post from 2011 HERE, but I play the song so much better now so I hope to provide video again. Should be fun! The post I did originally on Night and Day has gotten a lot of views lately and I also received an email asking me to expand on it, so I will.

But first, I’ll be taking a break, probably for the rest of the year. Everything is cool in my world, but there are some other things I have to focus on for a few months. So I’ll look forward to being back in 2017! I hope everything is cool in your world too. Take care, enjoy the Holiday Season, and keep playin’!

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.

Happy 65 Freddie Mercury!

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2011 by theguitarcave

Freddie Mercury would’ve been 65 yesterday. Dude was AMAZING and so was his band, Queen. They were one of a kind and one of the heaviest of 70s rock. Many of their songs were staples of FM radio and definitely part of my high school/college years. And hey…Brian May is a heckuva guitarist isn’t he? I remember being like 12 and seeing the video (the first music video ever) of Bohemian Rhapsody on The Midnight Special in the 1970s. That was friggin’ unbelievable at the time…supposedly when he heard it Brian Wilson was so scared he cried for 10 minutes. {If you watch the video again starting at about 5:15 Brian May is doing obvious tapped-hammer-ons. Interesting because he never made a big deal out of it. Brian and Eddie Van Halen did play together in the early 80s in the Starfleet Project} Freddie was an extraordinary writer and showman and had one of the best if not THE BEST voices ever heard in rock. Queen at Live Aid is easily some of the greatest 18 minutes in popular music history and even back then it was obvious they stole the show. Here is the first section…view the whole thing by following the You Tube chapters. Freddie leading the crowd in the call and response at the beginning of chapter 2 embodies what Tony Soprano called “BALLS”. Freddie is as comfortable and confident in front of literally (with the TV audience) millions of people as he would be in his living room.

I’ve always really liked early, prog-rock Queen and long-hair, black fingernails Freddie. This song is a real great showcase for the rest of the band too. I’m pretty sure Keep Yourself Alive was written by Brian and it’s a total show-off song, but also way cool!

Queen never sounded like anyone else and it was obvious from the beginning that all of the members had extraordinary talents. Freddie’s operatic rock god vocals, Brian with his homemade guitar, wall of Vox amps, and mega-chops, the brilliant drumming and high harmony vocals provided by Roger Taylor and quiet John Deacon holding it all together on bass, these guys could ROCK! Stone Cold Crazy was so heavy that Metallica covered it.

I also like some of Queen’s offbeat material. Many people in the USA, including some critics, didn’t get the humor that was involved in the writing and performances. I’m not sure why it was so hard to understand — Queen named two of their albums after Marx Brothers movies didn’t they? That probably should have been a clue that they didn’t take themselves very seriously. Jazz was a really funny record and for a time, back in the late 80s at the VITAL VAN loft, that record got frequent airplay, especially Bicycle Race with lots of air guitars and shouting along. The first hint of this smart, clever writing and tight musical arrangements appeared on Queen’s first real hit, Killer Queen. I still love this song too, especially all of the phasing and the triangle hit before the 2nd verse. Of course the guitar parts are great and was there ever as glamorous a rock singer as Freddie Mercury? I think not.

While all of this stuff is from a long time ago, that’s okay. Because if you were there while it was happening you know how super-duper cool and important it was and if you weren’t, that’s okay, because you probably wish you could’ve been. I never got into Queen’s dance music very much — Another Bites the Dust was so EVERYWHERE in 1980 that it was almost a pop-novelty song. Thanks to Weird Al Yankovic it did become a novelty hit when he turned it into Another One Rides the Bus. (I saw this performance on Tom Snyder’s show when it was first broadcast) It was funny at the time because a lot of people, especially in the USA, thought this was something Queen was doing as a one-off. They were a different kind of band in the 80s but that was alright because they were still able to bring the rock and a really great show. Some of their ballads were similar to Elton John…he wasn’t the most rockin’ guy, but he sure had a lot of great songs on the charts in the 1970s-1980s and, like Queen, was really stellar in concert. One of the benefits to being old now is that I (we) were able to live through some very special times. There will never be another Freddie Mercury and I can say that with 100% confidence. Some people are just one of a kind and to have seen them, rocked to them and enjoyed their artistic endeavors is part of what has made my life a blast.
Happy Belated Birthday Freddie!

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.