Zen and the art of guitar practice

I promised several Blogs ago to write about Guitar Practice.

My Practice Schedule (PS) is my ‘Daily Prayers’.  I do it 4 days a week – Monday to Thursday, and time willing, sometimes on Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday.  It takes about 5 hours to get through the whole thing.  The PS I do is very highly structured and ritualised, and covers everything I use when performing and teaching.  Because I’ve been doing a PS for many years, it has grown with my development as a musician, and to go through it is sometimes like looking back through a diary.  Also, because it is highly structured, I find that often my mind wanders into other areas while my hands and subconscious go about their business of maintenance. This is my Zen. Here’s what a typical day with my PS looks like:

10 am.  Turn gear on, get coffee, light incense.  Warm ups.  The so-called ‘Spider Exercise’, using semi-tone shifts (4 frets).  How do my hands feel today?  If it’s Monday, a bit slow.  Not to worry; by Wednesday, they’ll be better.  I move on to the same drill using Tone shifts.  Much harder, covering 7 frets.  Then on to a few minutes on muted string inside and outside picking drills. 4 fret chromatic drills on all strings from 2 fret to 12, and back.  These are all picked with alternate outside picking.  I used to pick everything, but about 10 years ago I found that I didn’t like the ‘metal-ish’ vibe this gave, so I switched to Legato.  I still do this drill with Alt picking though, just to keep the Right Hand (RH) in shape.  I wonder how my students will be today?  I enjoy teaching very much.

Graham & Clyde - Copy
My mate Graham and I talking Blues

10.30 am.  On to Legato drills.  4 fret drills going 1234, 4321, 1432, 4123, 2314, 4231, plus some variations, all at 2 fret. These are then expanded to frets 2 456, and 234 6.  Got to get those stretches with the pinky and the middle fingers going.  Nice day outside.  Coco the cat has just shown up and is now asleep at my feet.  Diminished intervals, 4 note per string drills.  Fret-wise, these go 1 34 6, but I start at fret 7 (B) because I practice these over an E7b9.  This shape expands to Major and Melodic Minor. I can smell the roses from my wife’s garden mixing with the incense.  Beautiful.  I love being able to see the garden through the window.  Magpies sometimes come into my studio (the garage where I’m set up), and help themselves to the cat food.  Two little sun birds sometimes fly in, and check the windows and walls for bugs.

11 am.  My variations on Melodic Minor.  A tricky fingering, but I love it.  As with all I do, I practice this through all keys.  On to one of my favorite Major scale variations – sequenced scales as 12 4, from all intervals.  It’s been a big year.  In earlier blogs I mentioned the people at the Retirement Village where Mum was.  The lady I named Sue passed on shortly after I wrote about her.  She was a lovely lady.  Then the master guitarist Allan Holdsworth passed on, too.  You may remember I said that that all the major Guitar Magazines would be honouring him when this happened, after ignoring him for many years? Well, that didn’t happen.  A few pages here and there, but nothing truly honouring his significance.  There were 2 magazines that had Hendrix covers and big articles.  Go figure.  I’d have liked to have had a chat with Allan.  In all the interviews I read over the years, no one asked him the big questions.

11.30 am.  My first time loss. Seriously, I can’t remember the last half hour, but my hands tell me I’ve gone through the 12 4 shifts in all keys in Major and Melodic Minor.  Now to my string skipping drills.  These take a lot of time.  The intervals are 1 6, and 1 9, kind of, through all intervals and keys of Major and Melodic Minor.  Sometimes I find a new sequence and fingering for these, and I check it out, but often it just goes to the ‘for further investigation’ file.  Everything is Vibrations.  The frequency of sound can be multiplied until it becomes light.  Just as notes harmonise, so too do the colours of the spectrum.  Should I try experimenting with the current idea of tuning to  A = 437?  It’s said to be more in line with the ‘natural’ frequency.  Fractals and the Golden Ratio – now there’s something to ponder!

12 noon.  The Bach piece.  Bach’s First Prelude in E Major.  I’ve been working on this piece for many years, but I’m still not happy with how I play it (and I hope I never will be).  A beautiful piece, stunning in its logic and structure.  One day I’ll include it in my live set, but now it marks one of my breaks in the PS.  Time to give our 2 beautiful dogs their lunchtime bone, grab a sandwich, and check out the back garden.  The dogs and the cats recognise the Bach piece as ‘our’ lunch break!

12.15 pm.  Sweep Picking.  3 string, 4 string, 5 string, and 6 string forms through all diatonic Triads and 1357 extensions, plus altered dominants through Minor 3 shifts, plus runs, extended breakdowns, and party tricks.  I moved here in 2010 to care for Mum after Dad died, and Mum passed on in June this year.  What a time that was: To have held the hand of a loved one as they die is one of the most life-changing events one can go through.  I’m glad I was able to be there for Dad, and my wife and I were able to be there for Mum.  You never look at your own life the same again.  There are so many things that we feel are important, but then you realise that at the end, love is all that matters.  It also makes you realise that at some point, you will die.  How does one prepare for that?  What has your life meant?  I wonder where I’ll be in 5 years time?

1 pm.  Another time shift.  My hands tell me I’ve finished with the Sweeps, and Major, Minor, Dominant, Minor b5, and Altered Dominant Arpeggios. Time for Scales! 7 Major scales in all keys, using extended fingering.  I stopped practicing the conventional forms years ago, although I still think, use, and teach them.  4 Variations on Altered Dominant scales, 2 Diminished scales, and Whole Tone.  7 Melodic Minor, then Altered Dominant and Diminished sequences and extensions through all keys.  Various sequences, patterns, and string skipping drills go in here, too. I also stopped practicing Harmonic Minor forms many years ago, although I still use it sometimes.  It started sounding too ‘heavy metal’ to my ears, although it is a lovely scale.  The scale part of my PS is where I have major ‘time loss’.  Sometimes the entire section is done while I am ‘away’.  I managed to reform my old band INDABA for some gigs here in August.  We hadn’t played together since 2005.  I really never thought I’d play with those wonderful guys again (Brad Wenham on Bass, Scott Dean on Drums).  It was an experience that sadly can only be appreciated in hindsight.  I hope we can do it again.  We had one rehearsal, and the first chords of our first tune (All Rivers Long for the Sea), nearly brought us all to tears.  I should practice our set more often.  One never knows!

2 pm.  Usually I start teaching around 3 or 4, so now I start watching the clock. I put on a favorite CD and loop a section of it, and practice improvising and applications.  My CD player can loop, change tempos, and change keys, so I make sure I keep things interesting.  Here is where I also work on solos for my own tunes. Fridays tend to be my special day.  If I practice at all, I’ll sometimes do a shorter PS, then work on specific things that need special attention, or composing and/or recording.  I hate trying to record anything ‘cold’, so I still must warm up for an hour at least before the buttons go red.

My PS hours fly when I move into the Zen zone.  I’ve given my body something to do while I think – eternal thinking, it never ceases. Just the other day the Prometheus Scale snaked through my sub conscious and after a couple of hours of analysis (while my hands did their thing) I found it had chased its tail back to familiar territory but with a new perspective. Joy! Trepidation! Fun! Learning!

Whether these enlightening Zen moments last for a mere second, a few hours, or ten years, it doesn’t matter, it’s still the same principle. This is my understanding of the nature of Zen and it works for me!

In hindsight my Zen decade of healing began in 2010 when I left Brisbane and came to Yeppoon – I was exhausted spiritually and physically. I came up to care for Mum and retreat to the sea and renew. 2017 saw Mum pass away.  2018 will be the year I and my wonderful wife Janet return to the South East Queensland area to start the next chapter of our oh-so-interesting lives! We’ve sold the house here, and have bought a lovely old Queenslander in Gympie – my work here is done, and my batteries are fully charged!  We will be living close enough to Brisbane to commute when necessary, and far enough away to be out of the high-density/high-intensity city living that we both abhor.

I’m going to miss Yeppoon in some ways.  I had a lot of time to think here, and made some lovely friends socially and with my students.  I am looking forward to being back in a playing environment, and catching up with some of the old crew.

Dh’fhaodadh do strings-còmhnaidh a bhith ann le fonn ur cridhe

(Gaelic – May your strings always be in tune with your heart).



“Today’s special is…. chips!”

My wife and I like to dine out now and then at the local eateries. There are lots of them in our seaside town and the menus vary quite a bit. Chips/fries are an ubiquitous component of most of these meals, whether we ask for them (never!) or not.

If we go out for an evening meal, the chips are still there. Order a cheap $10 burger and you’ll get chips with it. Order a $40 steak and you’ll get chips with it. I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell the difference between a $10 chip and a $40 chip. Chips are now the world champions in the Formula One of the fast food industry. Most people don’t notice that they are on their plate, taking up at least one third of the meal. We notice big time if we order a meal anywhere and there are no chips – thankyou Chef!

At these clubs and restaurants I notice something else. Children will eat the chips and then say ‘I’m, full’. So many times I watch a hearty meal served to kids (fish, steak, whatever) with salad and chips, and see the plate taken back at the end with most of the meal still on it, except the chips. We see this everywhere – at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Watch – even with adults- you’ll rarely see a plate go back with chips still on it. Salad, heck yes!

For the last week or so, I’ve been watching a woman die. Let’s call her Sue. Sue is in the same Aged Care Facility that my mother is in. She has a very sharp mind, a beautiful and quick sense of humour and is a joy to have a chat with. She, like a few of the other beautiful ladies in the Home, has taken my mother under her wing and has been her friend for the last few years. My mother has advanced dementia and can’t talk or feed herself. My wife goes up to the home and hand-feeds Mum several times a week.

Sue took a bad turn a couple of weeks ago. She is now on her way to passing and is at peace in her room watching and waiting as the world moves on around her. She’ll probably last another couple of days in this world. I don’t know how long my mother will last. One of the ladies there in the Home (let’s call her Meg) had her 103rd birthday last week, so who knows? Meg can still crack a joke, have a laugh and is reasonably mobile. When she has really enjoyed a meal, I’ve heard Meg ask, “So whom do I thank?”

After visiting the Home a few times a week for the last few years, my wife and I have come to know and love these lovely people who live and work there. After a while you don’t see them as old people – just people living along their paths: Sue – soon to pass; Meg – hanging on with her quiet eloquent dignity; Sam and Dave – the two gentlemen residents of the cottage, living for their next smoke, book, or bottle of Worcestershire sauce; Mary – with her stuffed pet pig; the other ladies – husbandless, floating like ghosts-to-be in the common room; and Birdie – the resident caged cockatiel.

The carers in this Home are wonderful. They take their job seriously, with quiet love and compassion. One committed suicide several months ago, aged 24.

I watched my father die in 2010. One of his last statements to me was, “It’s a bugger gettin’ old.” His regret for missed opportunities was heartbreakingly obvious.

I’ve grown to enjoy visiting these people at the Aged Care Home where my mother is. I am still learning from her, and Dad. Life is more than just chips. Sure, go for the quick unquestioned filler, and send the other stuff back untried – but at your own peril.

As one gets older you find yourself thinking, “Damn! I wish I’d tried that!” I envy the fact that, for many of these old folk at the Home with Mum, chips weren’t on their life menu. They smacked their lips on more stimulating flavours of deeper meaning – dirt, love, pain, joy, responsibility, perseverance, and tears of laughter and grief.

And so, as we look at our plates and ponder the bounty of life given to us freely, do we devour the CHIPS and send the other stuff back? I wonder too, when it comes to the end for each of us – will we ask the question: “Whom do I thank?”

[insert band name here]

One of the fun parts of being in a band (they used to be called groups) was deciding on a band name. Some of the names I noticed overseas included The Dead Cuts, The Missing Cats, My Girl the River, Cubic Jazz, The Goat Roper Rodeo Band, and 24 Fighting Camels.

Looking back, some of the more notable bands that I’ve been involved with here in Australia include The Zoiks!, Snatch, Darling O’Shea, Le Brat; and a friend was in one called Love Mum And The Urgent Ringmes. Two other clever ones are The Well Hungarians, and Show Us Shiraz.

A dear old friend of mine in Sydney was having a ‘name change meeting’ with his band one night. The hours dragged on, the pizza had gone, the mood was becoming emotional and no decision was in sight. Someone said, ‘Why don’t we just leave it as it is?’ Yep, new name – As It Is.


One of the things I’ve noticed over the years (gee I seem to say that alot!), is how band names have lost the ‘The’. In the 60s many band names started with ‘The’…. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds etc. Then the ‘The’ became uncool. The Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin for example. Imagine, if you will, how some of the current bands would look with ‘The’ as a name prefix: The Peripheries, The Animals as Leaders, ‘The Radio Heads. Let’s go back even further: The Cold Chisels, The Midnight Oils, The Aerosmiths, The Deep Purples. I recall a band called The The. They would become The The Thes.

Band name-changing parties were a highly anticipated event. They were usually organised as an ‘important band meeting’ but were structured around pizzas, beer, and much like reality shows nowadays – alliances. The alliances usually went like this:

  1. If the singer was female – then singer / lead guitarist
  2. If the singer was female and attached – then singer / partner – if the partner was a band member then that was a really strong alliance. If the partner was an ‘outsider’ then she had a real battle on her hands to get votes
  3. Male singer / guitarist / keyboard player – a particularly strong alliance especially if one or more of the players were long-standing members of the group
  4. The two weakest alliances were always new member / loneliest member; and drummer / bass player… unless one of them owned a van!

The evening would start well enough with everyone (or most) agreeing that yes, or maybe, the name of the band had to be changed. Alternatives would then be presented by the various alliances. With no previous agreement being made regarding majority votes, or any of that sensible stuff, the only obvious way of making a name change (or not, or maybe) was through unanimous decision.

The next stage of the evening would see the various alliances ridiculing any name suggestions made by their opponents, while robustly claiming that their own idea was the best. Subtle alterations or alternatives would be suggested but all would be shouted down. As the evening wore on, and the pizzas began to take effect, the band name suggestions would become more and more nonsensical, eventually reaching the point where even the uttering of (THE) WORLD’S GREATEST BAND NAME would pass by unnoticed.

The evening would end with one or all of the following voting outcomes:

  1. The female singer / partner split up
  2. The female signer / guitarist quit and form a new band with the new / old name – big problem.
  3. Male singer / guitarist / keyboard player all quit and form a new band with the new / old band name. The problem here (as with the first scenario) is if the band is doing originals, who’s writing the songs?
  4. The newest members leave –  no real problem here.
  5. The bass player / drummer quit – no real problem here (apart from that van!)
  6. The band splits!

For the last 18 years my band, with various line ups and truly gifted and talented musicians, has been called INDABA. After a unanimous decision last weekend, this band is now called The Thundamentalists… and there wasn’t a pizza in sight!

A man walks into a bar…

Do you know how many live music gigs there are in London every week? Over 16,000!

We recently returned from a two month trip to the UK. When we travel we rarely have a finely tuned itinerary, preferring to hire a car and just head in the general direction of somewhere. We did however spend ‘planned’ time in London (we saw YES in concert at the Royal Albert Hall) and Edinburgh, the most beguiling of cities. But our go-with-the-flow style of travel also got us to Glasgow, Derry, Sligo and Dublin. Fascinating places that were always able to present something unexpected.

In all locales across the UK I noticed something that aroused my nostalgia for the good ol’ days. Everywhere we went we saw people walking down streets, getting off buses, catching trains carrying guitars or other musical instruments. Not just one or two people, but lots of them, at anytime of the day. Male, female, young, old, diverse ethnicities: all these people were going some place, not just meandering about but going to gigs or rehearsals, or coming from them. It made me realise how important music still was to these people. It was still something to do, or to talk about, and to follow. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Ireland. The Irish cherish their music (traditional and modern) the way that Australians cherish their football.

Jamming at Tricky McGarrigle’s Pub in Sligo, Ireland

I saw Irish bands play a folk tune, then a Thin Lizzy tune, then let loose with Whiskey in the Jar, followed by a Rory Gallagher tune. And the packed audiences in these little pubs and back-street haunts were loving every bit of it! It was an honour and privilege to be able to perform with some of these passionate musicians while we travelled around. It also made me realise how complacent Australia has become about its own music scene.

Music isn’t just music. It isn’t just mathematical noise. It is very much like the true ‘talking in tongues’. It’s a way of communicating across cultures, beliefs and indeed languages. I like to think that I could walk into a bar anywhere in the world and pick up a guitar and make friends. I think most musicians could do the same, simply because music (and art) communicates on a deeper more fundamental frequency.

Back in Edinburgh… narrow cobbled streets of the Old City channelled us through the Grassmarket and Cow Gate, along Whiskey Row, past the dingy, gated exteriors of the underground vaults plastered with gig posters… under ivy-covered, old brick arches and up stone steps branching off the Royal Mile adorned with more gig posters… leading us to live performances at the Jazz Bar and all kinds of places. Hundreds of them – mostly current. Posters of colour, imagination, with wondrous names. Scraps of paper that made you think ‘Wow! I want to check that out!’



It was obvious that musicians in the UK hadn’t become totally reliant on the Internet. They carried the fiercest of pride in their craft. They were still operating on the streets and out and about every night, not at home with feet up watching a flat screen.

I find it sad that we sometimes forget the magic of sharing music with total strangers, whether we are performing or listening.  Music can be confronting. There are positive and negative emotions and we need to be able to express them. However all emotions are valid. This is why art is so important. Through art we can express safely things that we can’t or aren’t allowed to, in words alone.

Music still tears down the borders, defies discrimination, it’s a cross cultural handshake, and egalitarian welcome mat wherever you find yourself in the world.

S.O.S – Save Our Solos!

Many species of life are threatened nowadays and in danger of extinction. Some reasons for this sad state include lack of habitat, diminishing food sources, trophy hunting, loss of compatible mates, and loss of relevance.

One species not yet critically endangered, but nonetheless threatened, is the Lead Guitarist. As recently as 30 years ago this species was abundant and flourishing across the planet in amazingly diverse environments. Previously strictly nocturnal, they are now sighted congregating in the warmth of the early afternoon around another endangered resource – music instrument shops. If spotted, I’ve been advised that it’s best not to feed them, as this discourages them from seeking their natural food – other lead guitarists, rhythm guitarists, singers, horn players, and piano accordionists.

So what happened? What caused the demise of this once proud and prolific species? I think there are several reasons, but the accusing finger should be pointed first at the species itself.

In the 60s and 70s, Blues/Rock was the major sound of guitar solos. Even if the genre of music was far removed from Blues/Rock, the guitar solo had to be Blues/Rock (the template here was set by Clapton and Hendrix). The thing with Blues/Rock is, although it is very emotive, it is not technically difficult to replicate. After a year or two of practice, many guitarists can play a Blues/Rock solo; and the theory is not too difficult to understand either. To invoke an emotive response was the requirement.

But then the 80s came along. Almost overnight, lead guitarists were expected to be virtuosos. ‘Speed’ became the buzz-word: crazy scales, SPEED, arpeggios, SPEED, sweep picking, SPEED! A side-effect was that virtuosity was also demanded from the other players in the band. And like lions in the wild, Lead Guitarists loath competition and will kill their progeny.

sos-save-our-solosThe movement started in the late 70s – early 80s and was called, at the time, ‘Punk’. No virtuosity needed, and no guitar solos allowed. Lead Guitarists were no longer the gods of Popular Music and found themselves grazing within the newly-marginalised sanctuaries of Classic Rock, Blues, Heavy Metal, and the cruellest of them all – Progressive Rock. Lead Guitarists migrated from gods to nerds.

The basic tenet of evolution theory is survival of the fittest. Those who are best able to reproduce and survive, prosper. The problem with Lead Guitarists is that they evolved in one direction, while Popular Music evolved in another. The result is that we now have a population of guitarists with astounding technical skills, but music genres that no longer need or require these talents.

One of the sure signs that a species is in decline is when you notice that there is no offspring. Where are our young Lead Guitarists? And where are the guitar solos? Through our own arrogance (as Lead Guitarists) we have become victims of hubris. Through our own arrogance we allowed our way of life as Lead Guitarists to become a competitive sport, rather than an artistic expression or emotion. And our competition was each other. As we were ‘shooting it out’ on stage with no thought whatsoever to song context, we became less and less relevant to pop music. When was the last time you heard a guitar solo on a new pop tune?

Of course there are solutions to this problem. The obvious one is, if you are a guitar teacher, teach improvisation and composition. I like to play a hypothetical game with my students: if we are looking at some current pop tune with no solo, after learning the chords/rhythm I say, ‘Ok, you’re onstage playing this song with the band. Taylor or Justin’s mic stops working. Everyone in the band looks at you and shouts ‘Quick! Do a guitar solo!’ What would you do?’

Another solution for guitar teachers is to teach melodies, as well as solos. I was watching a pub band recently and their entire third set was Surf and Rock instrumentals from the 50s and 60s. I’d forgotten how melodic some of those tunes were, and how huge those hits were at the time. I think the last true guitar instrumental hit I can remember was Joe Satriani’s melodic tune Always With You, Always Without You back in the 80s.

Who decided that instrumental music had no place in mainstream media? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the timing for this was around the same time that guitar solos became a display of speed rather than melodic invention. It is far easier to be the fastest lead guitarist on the planet than it is to compose a nice melody that works.

I hope in 10 years time somewhere in a lonely nightclub in the wilds of central Soho, there’ll be at least one Lead Guitarist performing Apache (The Shadows)!


Fear in Focus

If you look back through time at the great innovators in rock guitar playing, you’ll often find that the innovation came from them exploring genres that were not their base. The most obvious one is the injection of old Blues into Pop music.  This seems quite normal now, but in the late 50s – early 60s it was radical. Berry, Hendrix, Clapton, Zeppelin, the Stones, and others borrowed liberally from a languishing style and made Pop music into something new.

Then there was the whole Jazz/Rock interaction of the 60s and 70s: Jeff Beck, Howe, Holdsworth, McLaughlin, Di Meola etc. For a while there, the only thing separating Jazz from Rock was how much distortion the guitarist was using.

And let’s not forget the Neoclassical movement of the 80s and 90s, where the Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, and all the other Bach-n-Rollers showed us how Bach and Paganini were really the first Heavy Metal-ers! Remember the guitar duel at the end of the movie ‘Crossroads’? Steve Vai is in his late 50s now and still going strong.


The transfusion of styles is a two-way street. Many Blues’ purists started listening to rock music in the 60s, and it can be argued, the careers of BB King, Muddy Waters etc would not have been what they became had not Eric Clapton constantly mentioned Robert Johnson as his major influence.

George Harrison introduced the world to Ravi Shankar in the 70s, and in so doing, opened the minds of Western musicians to the wonders of Indian classical music. I found my love of Bach through listening to the Dutch Prog/Fusion band Focus in the late 70s. Yngwie made it cool to buy classical records. Pat Metheny, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci have made it cool to study Jazz at Berklee.

Were all these players consciously pioneers, bravely searching for new musical fields to reap? I don’t think so, but I do think they and the many players like them, were very curious by nature and willing to embrace change.

I like to introduce my students to music that is outside their comfort zone. If someone says they hate or have no interest in, say classical guitar, then I encourage them to learn an easy classical piece. In every case (and there have been very many), I’ve found that the student really enjoys the process; an old fear is put to rest and a new appreciation of a different style is roused.

I used to hate Bluegrass music – ‘hick music’ I called it. Boy, did I change my mind once I looked at it seriously – diabolically difficult! I love it now (and it’s still difficult). I try to get my classical students to learn some Bluegrass and vice versa. The same goes for Jazz and anything else.

The common thread I’ve noticed is that the things we dislike or are scared of in music (and life) are often those things we understand the least. To understand these things better, usually requires us changing in some way and that can be scary.

The fear of the unknown is really just the fear of changing ourselves. The more we understand something, the more choices and options we give ourselves to deal with it. Also, with better understanding comes appreciation, enjoyment, and perhaps even innovation.

‘Today I learned something new!’ What a great way to end a day.




Things that go ‘doof-doof’ in the night!

What scares you the most? For me, it’s the ‘unknown’. Any new situation that I find myself in, I get the jitters bigtime. The more warning I have about the impending experience, the more nervous I get. Some people relish the unknown – ‘Bring it on!’ they say. These people are very lucky and blessed. Many others like me, hide our fears from the world and from ourselves; the same is true for how we view our musicianship.

To illustrate this point, here are some real guitar teacher/student interactions that I’ve experienced over the years:

Scenario 1 

Student:  Hi. I want to learn to play like Kirk Hammer, in Metalicca. Can you teach me that stuff?

Teacher: Oh, you mean Kirk Hammett. Yeah, he’s a good player. Are you a beginner or have you been playing a while?

Student: Yeah man, I’ve been playing for two years now! I know all the chords and scales and stuff!

Teacher: Great! So you know, like, C and Am, and some bar chords, and a major scale?

Student: Ohh man (shaking of head). I don’t want to know the names or any of that theory stuff. I just wanna play. I know that scale, you know, the penta-thing.

Teacher: That’s fine, but you will have to eventually learn some names and some technical stuff. Kirk Hammett is a really schooled player. And learning how to do something you can’t do already is actually what ‘learning’ means, don’t you think?

Student: Cool, yeah! (silence) Hey, I just remembered – there’s a guy down the road who can play ‘One’ by Metalicca. Sounds just like ’em! I might go and see him and get back to you man!

(Student never heard of again!)things-that-go-doof-doof-in-the-night

Scenario 2

Student: Hi. I’d like to learn more about what those modern Jazz / Blues players are doing. You know, guys like Carlton, Robben Ford, Pat Metheny, Steve Morse, and John McLaughlin.

Teacher: Hah! (snicker) Come on! What do you want to look at that out-to-lunch sh** for?

Scenario 3

Student: Hi. I want to get better at playing the guitar. I’m in a bit of a rut.

Teacher: Hey, we’ve all been there. What sort of stuff are you into?

Student: Oh, bits of everything. I like Pop and Bluesy stuff. I hate Jazz and Classical.

Teacher: Why do you hate Jazz and Classical?

Student: Because I can’t play ’em!

Scenario 1 –  I’m the guitar teacher. Scenario 2 – yep I’m the guitar student. Scenario 3 – hey, don’t we all say we hate what we secretly wish we could do, but can’t.













What’s inside your box?

Recently we cleared out our storage shed. Boxes and boxes of boxes; some belonged in the past, some in the present, some in the future. When I was unpacking them I couldn’t help but think of those Russian Matryoshka dolls – where inside one doll is another, then another, then… you know the ones. It occurred to me that we all live in boxes within boxes.

It was amazing how much redundant junk I’d been storing for years. It was a pleasant surprise to discover terrific things that I’d forgotten I had, once I’d thrown out the junk. There was so much more space for fresh things and I found I could consolidate boxes.

The size of your box depends on what you’ve got shoved in it. The less junk you have in it the more usable space there is. It’s a bit like that with our musical creativity – every now and then we need to trash some of our old ways of thinking in order to make space for some fresh stuff.

In my last blog I spoke about how it would be great if we could be more creative with our music, both in our playing and in our listening by thinking ‘outside the box’, as the saying goes.

But is this actually misguided? I think confinement is a state of mind. Perhaps we should be utilising better the space that’s in our box.  Or maybe we should be exploring our box and finding the hidden corners, or how high the walls are. Can we come and go between our boxes? It might be simpler just to make some more space in the box we’re in rather than moving out: do some house cleaning; open those windows!

BOXWhich brings me to the whole point of this blog (Yes! I hear you). How do we as teachers nurture creativity in our students while the arts’ industries (particularly the music industry) reward conventionality?

The first step is to let students know that in Art, there is convention and there is unconvention / experimentation; both can exist in the same box. Simply being aware of the two and understanding which one your student is instinctively drawn to, may be a starting point.

Creativity can enhance convention, and convention can channel creativity. One can be the vehicle, the other the driver. The danger is in not knowing which one is which, while the joy is in being able to make the best of both and go places.

There are many engaging activities that can help exercise the creative muscles for students, teachers and professionals. Here’s some of my favourites (grab your instrument of choice):

  1. What does ‘happy’ sound like?  How about ‘sad’? Angry? Can you make ‘angry’ move to ‘happy’?
  2. Think of something interesting that happened in your day. Imagine that as a movie, then imagine what music soundtrack would best suit that experience. Play it.
  3. Count to 7. See the numbers in your mind, and give them colours and sounds. Can you now count with colours? Sounds?
  4. Think of your mobile phone number. Use the numbers as musical intervals. Can you compose a tune around your phone number?

For the more technically minded –

  1. Compose a simple melody using one key/scale – e.g. G Major. Now harmonise that melody using chords from a different key/scale, e.g. Bb Major. Use these chords for a new song.
  2. Convention is that the I VI IV V chord progression is the most common in Popular music. In the key of C Major, this is C Am F G. This is the formula I alluded to in my previous post. Have you experimented with the permutations of this formula? There are 28! Can you find them? Remember, there are 7 chords in a Major key – use them all.
  3. You have been given the job of composing a 1 minute film sound track: a cowboy rides off on his horse to shoot the bad dude who killed his wife. In the scene it is evening with storm clouds and lightning flashing over the desert. Would you write your piece around what the audience is seeing/hearing (galloping horse, storm, dramatic scenery)? Or about what the cowboy is feeling (grief, sadness, loss, revenge)? One piece would be clichéd and very 60s; one would be very now and ‘arty’. Which is which?

Notice that these exercises encourage you to look at something conventional in an unconventional way. I hope that they might help you better think inside your box more effectively. The distance and shape of your horizons is your choice; just as the size and shape of your confinement is your choice.







Happy Birthday Mr Holdsworth

According to Nicolas Slonimsky (author of the seminal Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, 1947), there are 479,001,600 possible ways of configuring the 12 note chromatic scale. This doesn’t include reversals, rhythmic variations or repetitions. I think the well of music creation is far from dry!

When I played in cover bands in the 80s (bands that played other people’s hits, past and present), there were many nights where I would look at the list of maybe 30 songs and see essentially the same formula – over and over – with only the key, the melody, tempo and lyrics changing.  The window dressing changed but the view was always the same.

What is astounding, is that in 2016 so little has changed. When I listen to contemporary music, often I can’t tell when in the last fifty years, the piece was written. I hear the same half-dozen formulas. What disturbs me greatly is the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ approach to song production, where bits and pieces of old and new material are stitched together, usually with a ubiquitious rap, and sold as the ‘next big thing’.

The recording industry, from around 1960-2000, made a lot of money for not many people. As an industry manufacturing and marketing a product, it became reliant on the usual factors essential for survival which included competition, fast replication and minimal risk taking. The reason for the homogeneity of pop music now, is partly to do with this. Risk taking is not advisable; nor is creativity, because, heck! We might have to change our thinking!

I’m hoping that now, with the demise of the power of recording companies, artists will again experiment, take risks, and create. In the last few years we’ve seen the stirrings of this in mainstream genres such as Metal and Country.

One genre that has essentially escaped the confines of the bland pop template is Jazz. Jazz is less visual, more aural, and you don’t have to be good-looking, or young, or in-the-news to be a jazz muso. You do however, have to be pretty good on your instrument.

Contrary to the pop music demographic, the modern jazz audience demands, embraces, and rewards experimentation. They listen more than watch, and they abhor predictability. I consider Jazz to be like a ‘research and development’ department – what’s being worked on here will be pop music in ten years time. Just ask Quincy Jones.

Blog 3Next week is Allan Holdsworth’s birthday. He will be 70. Happy birthday, Mr Holdsworth. For those who don’t know of Holdsworth, he is considered by many (including myself) to be the greatest living exponent of improvised electric guitar. The other person often mentioned with Holdsworth is the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Coincidentally, both studied the Slonimsky book I mentioned at the start of this blog.

Holdsworth, like Coltrane, has taken experimentation and innovation to the edge. It’s difficult now to even say that he’s a jazz musician. His improvisations have no point of reference to guitar playing – you won’t hear Clapton, Joe Pass, or any of the Greats. His chords and progressions are unique. Referring to my last blog (You can’t tell the time…), analysis of Holdsworth’s material is pointless, but listening to it is sublime. He plays the guitar with exquisite naivety, as if he has never heard another guitarist in his life, and yet improvises profound lines of linear beauty.

Holdsworth is on the record as saying it’s been a hard road. He has paid for existing outside the box: he tours rarely and sells very little product. Apart from the guitar-playing community, he is unknown. Within that community he is spoken of with awe. Sadly, it will probably take his passing for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

If you haven’t yet heard Holdsworth, then please listen to two entry-level Holdsworth pieces. Both are on YouTube: Joshua – Allan Holdsworth and A Kinder Eye – Level 42 with Allan Holdsworth. Both solos are exceptionally lyrical.

It is difficult to promote creativity because, paradoxically, creativity in mainstream music comes with constraints. The major product of experimentation is unfortunately, failure. These days, we are taught that failure travels with you and it has a big stick. The easiest way to avoid it is to stay in ‘that lane’ and leave true creativity to those foolish few who venture into the unknown.

So, how do we motivate people to think outside the box, even while the music business is enticing them into it? Watch this space.





You can’t tell the time from inside a clock

There is a silent film starring the late Charlie Chaplin. He is working as a clock repairer in a jewellery store. A chap brings in a clock that isn’t working. Charlie examines it with his magnifying eyepiece for a while, puts the clock to his ear, checks it again, places it on his workbench. He then proceeds to dismantle the clock using a hammer, a can opener and screwdriver until all he has left is a heap of cogs, springs and broken glass littering the bench. The scene ends with Charlie putting the bits into the owner’s hat, handing it back and shaking his head sadly, as if to say, ‘Sorry mate. I can’t fix it.’

For many years, various guitar magazines have been placing transcriptions of interesting guitar solos and rhythm parts in their pages. One of the first and most treasured that I remember was Guitar Player magazine’s transcription of Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’. Another was Larry Carlton’s ‘Room 335’. Both are beautiful pieces of fine guitar playing. Gee, in the early 80’s in Sydney, if you couldn’t play either of those two pieces you could not get a look in for a serious job as a guitarist.

I, and the other 300 guitarists who lived in my suburb in Sydney, could play fairly large chunks of these solos pretty well. We even bought the gear – I was a ‘Larry Carlton’ guy with a Gibson 335 and Mesa Boogie amp – but something was missing. We could play this stuff; why then weren’t we as good as these players? The transcriptions in the magazines were incredibly detailed: every pick-scrape, whammy-bar dive, tap, and bend was explained; as were the scales and the chords. So why was the magic missing when we played these pieces?

Then I realised something very important – you can’t tell the time from inside a clock. DSC_0977Analysing something to death, pulling something apart until you can see every cell of it, is not the reverse process of creating it. No transcription can tell you what the creator was thinking, or what life journey they went through to arrive at that particular selection of notes. That is for them to know and for others to ponder. Beauty disappears the closer you get to it.

I think we have to exercise self-awareness when learning other artists’ works. It’s not that I think analysis in itself is a bad thing to do, but that we need to keep in mind exactly what we think we are accomplishing. We may wind up being able to play the piece as the original artist did, but may also end up fooling ourselves about our own ability to understand the creator and the work.

When I was studying the transcription of ‘Room 335’ (the Larry Carlton piece) in my motel room in the Territory outback back in 1982, one of my favourite bits turned out to be an ascending C Major scale. I thought, ‘Hang on. Even I know that! What the…?’

Some of my students have said in the past, ‘Yeah, I got the music and I’ve mastered that solo.’ My response is usually something like, ‘Firstly, well done! However, you might be able to play it but can you think it?’ And secondly, ‘You can never truly master someone else’s work.’ Sometimes too, we can miss the point that beauty also lives in those things of our own making.

This brings me to ask: are we losing the ability to create because our access to analysis is too convenient nowadays? Are we in danger of forgetting what ‘beauty’ is because we see it as a collection of bits?

I’m trying to keep the sense of wonder alive in my life (musical and otherwise). I’ve found most things are best experienced in their most profoundly beautiful state if you simply stand in wonder, at a distance, and don’t ask how, why, and how much.

You can’t tell the time from inside a clock.