[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!

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.







Teachers – in a class of their own

I recall doing an audition for a band a few years ago. The audition went pretty well I thought; all the players seemed happy with what I’d done.

Then the singer approached me and asked, ‘So, what do you do for a day job?’

‘I’m a guitar teacher,’ I replied.

She smirked at me and said, ‘Ahh… those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’

I hate that tired old saying, and I’ve heard it quite a few times over the years.

I said to her, ‘Well, there’s two extra categories that you didn’t mention. There are people who can do both, like me; and there are people who can’t do either, like you.’

Needless to say I didn’t get the gig.

My point is that teachers in all disciplines often seem to get a hard time. Many students assume that their science teacher is a failed research physicist; their drama teacher is a failed tv star; or their local guitar teacher is a failed rock god.

It is true that not everyone can teach, and this includes teachers. When it comes to guitar (my area of expertise), I’ve known some brilliant teachers and some hopeless ones. All have been excellent players. But the ability to effectively transfer thought processes from one mind to another doesn’t really have a lot to do with actual playing ability.

My best guitar teacher was Harry Alleman, an old chap with arthritis who couldn’t read music. He hardly ever said a word in lessons but he would quietly sit and play chords, rhythms, and songs. And I would sit and watch and copy his moves.

‘No. More like this,’ he’d say.  Or, ‘C# minor, 4th fret.’ Or whatever chord I was struggling with. I learned how to play from this gentle, wise old man and I treasure those memories.

On the other hand, the worst teacher I ever had was quite a famous player with a very impressive performance record. He talked incessantly during lessons and I didn’t understand a word of it. My questions were treated with disdain and I hardly touched the guitar during our sessions. I learned nothing from this man.

‘…those who can’t, teach’. The inherent message – that guitar teachers are failed performers – is insulting to all good teachers who may, or may not, have had a successful career in the music business.  My belief is that a good teacher should inspire a student to enjoy the instrument. That’s all – simply to enjoy playing the guitar. What comes as a result of that could be anything.

Conversely, a good student can inspire a teacher to enjoy the job. I remember a statement made by Steve Vai: ‘Teachers are the most important factor in the evolution of the human race.’ (Guitar World 1991)

A final thought. I’ve met guitar players over the years who proudly say, ‘Me? I’m self-taught, man!’ They then go on to talk about the tabs they read in magazines, the clips they absorb on YouTube, or the uncle ‘who used to be in a band’ who showed them some chords.

I believe that no one is completely self-taught. We may be self motivated, but our learning can come from many directions, including from those that have nothing to do with music. If we can keep our minds open, we can make everything a learning experience and enrich our lives tremendously.