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.




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.