Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Doctrine of Ethos' Full Length CD

Wow, so Chico's World hasn't been updated in a while.

For a while I was working on the Rock Conservatory website.  Eventually everything will be migrating there - but for the time being it's still super messy, so all articles will appear here first.

Also, Doctrine of Ethos released our debut full-length!  Actually, it's kinda been out for a while.  I just haven't gotten around to updating this site.  I have to go in manually and change all the links to point to the new itunes/Amazon links - so for now all those are broken.  But you can still pick up singles or the full album on iTunes and Amazon at these links.



Monday, April 29, 2013

Chico's Instrumental 3

This "Chico's Instrumental" feels quite different that the first two.  While 1 and 2 are seriously metal influenced, this one is more blues-rock and improvisatory.  There's a clear reason for that.  Guthrie Govan.

I tend to wear my influences on my sleeve.  "Chico's Instrumental 2" had quite the Steve Lukather vibe.  I get called out quickly on the John Petrucci influence on the "Doctrine of Ethos" EP.  I don't have a problem with this - I'm proud of my inspirations, and I look for them all over.  I'm a huge metal-head, but my music collection is like a record store gone mad.

My latest obsession has been Guthrie Govan.  If you haven't heard of him, go check out that link.  He's a genius.  A musical chameleon, he's clearly most at home improving over blues-rock, and it is that which inspired "Chico's Instrumental 3."  Every Chico's Instrumental thus far has been meticulously written out.  This time I left vast spaces to just "go for it" (like the entire B section).

The A section has a melody, which was the germ of the whole piece.  I sat down intentionally to write a melody in Dorian.  Then I had to come up with a chord progression to fit it!

The B section is all improved, with no clear melodic motive.  The harmony in this section is something I'd like to cover in a Theory of Ethos lesson soon.  Lately I've been working on improvising through chord progressions that change modes, and that's exactly what the B section does.  There are only two chords - Em9 and D#maj7#11.  Over the Em9 I play E Dorian, and over the D# chord I play D# Lydian.  I love trying to link the two together, and if you pick your lead notes just right each chord changes feels resolved - as if both are tonic, and landing on them feels like "home."  I tried to get that feeling here.  Hope you enjoy "Chico's Instrumental 3."

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

Monday, April 22, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed 9: Two Tapping Licks

"Chico's Instrumental 2" features two separate two handed tapping licks that I have been working on recently.  I'm going to spend the next two Doctrine of Woodshed segments discussing these licks.  First up is the four finger tapping lick that happens around 1:10 in the video.

Doing four finger tapping is a little different from the typical tapping a'la Eddie van Halen, especially moving between as many strings as this lick requires.  The biggest issues is muting.  With a lick all on one string, like the tapping lick in "Eruption," you can pretty easily mute any unwanted strings.  One of the most common ways is to position the index finger of your left hand such that it touches the strings on either side, preventing them from sounding when you flick your other fingers for pull-offs.

In the video for "Chico's Instrumental 2" I was essentially using a variation on this technique.  Every time I changed strings, I had to carefully position my index finger to mute the adjacent strings.  However, it took me several takes to get that lick right on the video, so I do not recommend this.  I have since changed my technique for this type of lick.

Now I lay my index finger of my left hand across all the strings and do the tapping with my middle and pinky fingers.  This eliminates the noise problem, but creates a new one.  Luckily, this one is easier to fix.

Your middle and pinky fingers will likely be a weaker fingers that are not as used to working together compared to your index and middle.  The simple solution is to practice doing exactly that.  Here is an etude I wrote to prepare you for the lick proper.

Once you can play this up to speed, then we have to take a look at the right hand.  Typical tapping licks involve one finger on the right hand.  But this lick requires two fingers, and thus some thought.  You could stash your pick in your palm or on a stand, freeing your index and middle fingers for the job.  But I don't like the idea of not having my pick at the ready.  It makes me feel like tapping licks must be separated form the rest of the solo, and I want to be able to immediately transition to and from tapping.

So I keep my pick between my thumb and index fingers and do the tapping with my middle and ringer fingers.  Again, these fingers won't be as used to doing this, so try playing the above etude with your right hand.

Then the only hurdle left is coordination between the hands.  You know the drill by now - break out a metronome, start slow and make sure the notes are even.  You you may find a tendency rush the notes on each string and then leave a gap to line up with the next beat.  Make sure every note is the same length.  I'll leave you with a video of me playing the lick now, using my current technique.

Next week we'll tackle the lick that follows it.  It's a fun lick that sounds a lot harder than it really is.

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

Friday, April 19, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Introduction to Ear Training

"I really liked using music theory because it gave names to a lot of things I already knew [...] and also introduced me to things I didn't know."
-Paul Gilbert

I'm a huge theory head.  We've talked about how theory doesn't matter in the end - it's description and tools.  What matters is the sound.  But what we haven't talked about is how to understand what we hear better.  Our ears need training.  So that's what we're going to do.

So many musicians - and guitarists may be the worst offenders - rely on their hands to make the sounds.  I'm much more interested in having my hands produce the sounds.  Before you write me off as splitting hairs, the important difference is in where the ideas on what to play comes from - and that is in your head.  If you are at the point as a guitarists where you can do cool things, but they are a surprise to you when they happen, then this lesson is especially for you.  This will get you one step closer to knowing what you're going to play before you play it, so you can do cool things all the time instead of just by accident.

When I say "ear training" I mean making you more sensitive to musical changes.  Your ear really doesn't "get stronger" - your brain gets better and processing what your ear picks up.  There's a ton of ways to go about improving your ear, but one of the best is singing.

Yes.  Singing.

I know, if you're reading this you're probably a guitar player.  Singing can help make you a better musician in so many ways, but the biggest reason it helps your ear training is that singing is a direct connection to your brain.  You think a pitch, you sing it - no middle man, no technique, no hands.  It doesn't matter how you sound - trust me, I'm a terrible singer - only that you sing correct pitches.

I could have you play some scales and sing along - which is great practice - but that's kind of boring.  Instead, let's play some music.

Here are two great exercises for improving your ear.  One - take your favorite song, and sing the melody.  Then pick up your instrument of choice and figure it out.  No using tab, and it has to be in the same key you sang it - doesn't matter if that's the key on the recording or not.  The point is to play back what you sang.

Once you can do that, then sing it again.  Really listen to yourself while you sing.  Listen to the way you approach notes.  How some are louder than others - some are longer than others - some have vibrato and others might not.  Then, in as much as your instrument is capable, recreate that when you play.  If you're on a piano, think about note length and volume (or "dynamics" in music-speak).  If you're on a guitar, you can also think about sliding into pitches and vibrato.  If you are on a wind instrument you can even think about articulation and warm, open tone vs bright, cold tone.

This is fantastic for your ear because it gets you thinking and listening in a musical way.  You are not just mechanically singing a scale or arpeggio (again, great exercises.  We might come back to something like that.  They're just boring).  Instead, you're focusing more on expressive elements of music right from the start.

The second exercise make something up and then play it back.  Start by making up a short melody and then imitate it on your instrument.  The goal is to be able to do this on the first try, without having to hunt around your instrument until you pick the right notes.

At first, that's not going to happen.  You'll sing something, try to play it and fail miserably.  This is perfectly acceptable.  Figure out that melody, and then try another one.  The more you practice this, the more you will find that it comes quicker and quicker each time.  You get better and translating the sound into physically playing the instrument.  What's happening is that you are making connections in your brain about how certain intervals feel on your instrument - without even knowing what they're called.  Then, when you learn the music theory names for those intervals, you'll simply be putting a name on what you already know.

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Chico's Instrumental 2

Here's the second instrumental I wrote just for you guys, the readers of Chico's World.

My main goal with this one was to showcase a couple two handed licks that I've been working on.  One involves four finger tapping, and the other has way more string changes than a typical tapping lick a'la Eddie van Halen.  In keeping with my goal of cranking out material quickly, there's definitely a few bugs, though.  The main one is that I'm not satisfied with the transitions.  The solo in the B section sounds like two different guitarists trading licks instead of a cohesive solo.  But I ultimately decided to just run with it - the goal was to showcase the tapping licks, and I did that.  

This one also showcases some of my more melodic playing.  There's a serious Steve Lukather influence going on at the beginning of the B section (starts around :39).  I wanted to create some contrast between shredding and soaring melodies.

I also wanted to do some soloing over odd time in this piece - though there's some trickery involved here.  The A section is "5/8 7/8 7/8 5/8 6/8 6/8".  But, all of that adds up to three measures of 12/8, which is how I thought about the solo.  So the astute among you will notice some push and pull between the guitar and the drums in the A section.  

I intend to take a few Doctrine of Woodshed lessons (my guitar lesson column here) and cover some of the more interesting licks from this solo.

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Boot Camp Part 5: Scale Fragments

This week in Doctrine of Woodshed we're diving deep into scale fragments.  We've touched on them before and used them in context of other lessons.  See: here, here, and here

This week, we're going to go through a scale fragment workout.  We'll cover left hand endurance, right and left hand coordination, fretboard knowledge and speed.  Scale fragments can become a vital part of your practice regimin, allowing you to improve several aspects of your playing.

So, what is a scale fragment?  Easy. Part of a scale.  Simple as that.  As a guitar player, I mean small parts of the boxes we typically use for scales.  We then loop them and play the fragment repeatedly.  Here are several different examples.

In the video, I'm playing them all with alternate picking.  This is an excellent way to work on coordination between your right and left hand.  At first, this may be a bigger challenge than you realize.  I picked the above examples because each one has a different picking pattern.  Avoiding consecutive downstrokes, "inside the string" picking, and odd-numbered note groupings can all make a scale fragment unexpectedly challenging.  Just follow our usual procedure - start ridiculously slow, pay attention to all the little details. Then, when you have it perfect, pick up the tempo in small increments.

But what if we didn't pick every note?  Well, that's a horse of a different color, and the beginnings of a gnarly exercise.  Play each one of the above examples again, but this time only pick the very first note.  After that, when you continue to loop the fragment, you sound each note with just your left hand.  Use a combination of hammer ons and pull offs (when staying on the same string) and left hand tapping (when moving to a new string).  Here are a few written out. You should be able to figure out the other examples.

This alone makes a great legato exercise.  Same as always - break out a metronome and start slow.  But what if we take it a step further?  Take one of the above examples, and see just how long you can loop it.  10 seconds? 20 seconds?  You may gain a new appreciation for just how long 1 minute is by trying to loop an exercise for a solid minute.  Don't forget the metronome!  No slowing down when you get tired - make sure you maintain a consistent tempo.

If you can handle that, what about doing each one for a minute - back to back!  Here's a video of me going through the first one to show you what I mean.  (Caution: listening to this can get a little tedious. Try playing along once you understand the process)

The above examples are intentionally different patterns.  But you can use similar fragments to work on your fretboard knowledge and practice scales.  Let's take a look at the A minor scale to see what I mean.  I'm using the pattern from fragment number 1, all on the E and A strings.

You could do something similar in one position as well, and on various string combinations.  You'll find that there are only 3 different patterns you'll ever come across in major scales and their modes.

This is something I'll come back to in a future lesson to talk about fretboard knowledge.  Being able to know exactly what note you are playing and how it relates to the key you are in is an invaluable skill that doesn't necessarily come intuitively to guitarists.  Once I finish the Boot Camp series, I'll take an in-depth look at how to improve knowledge of the fretboard.

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

Monday, April 1, 2013


A huge congratulation to Natalie Bennett, the lovely vocalist for both Tripod and Doctrine of Ethos.  Her wedding was beautiful.

While she's been off on her honeymoon, Joe and Corey and I have been hard at work writing new material for Doctrine.  We have several songs in the works, and we should be premiering a new song very soon!  Doctrine has also had a few potentially awesome offers recently.  Stay tuned for details.

Doctrine of Ethos's next performance will be in Fayetteville, NC at the Rock Shop.  If you're in the area come out and rock with us!

There's more guitar and theory lessons coming.  Also working on a new Chico's Instrumental, but some personal obligations may delay that for a week or so.

Chico's Instrumental is freely available on YouTube. Doctrine's self titled EP is available at all your favorite music stores.

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos    

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Scale Contstruction

"That's why we learn this 'theory' stuff.  It's kind of useless by itself, but as a way of describing sounds and identifying sounds it starts to become really helpful."  Guthrie Govan

Let's talk about rules and language.  There's a narrative that plays out in every beginning theory class everywhere.  Teacher starts talking about rules. Imaginative/Rebellious/Contrary student begins questioning the rules.  "Why can't I write perfect fifths? Beethoven/Debussy/Led Zepplin did!"

Here's what seems to be lost in the mix.  There are no rules in music theory.  Music theory is description.  "Do X, and Y will happen."  "The word for this thing is this word."  It doesn't mean you can't do Z. You can even call a major chord a "Slartibartfast" if you like.

It's like language in general.  You can say whatever you want to say, but if you say it in your own made up language, then no one will understand you.  All language does is give you a way to get the things in your head into the head of the fellow sitting next to you.

It all basically comes down to conventions.  Some people figured out ways of getting the sounds they wanted, and over the years we as musicians and theorists have agreed on conventional names for them. That's it.  And...think about it imaginative/rebellious/contrary students among you...this is a good thing for you.  1) It provides means of quickly accessing the sounds you have in your head.  If you want something to sound like a major chord, you don't have to go mucking about with trial and error until you find the notes you want - you just play the notes that you already know make up a major chord.  And here's the interesting one - 2) If you want to create new sounds, then you know which rules to break.

So let's start talking about some basic conventions, and along the way I'll make sure to mention ways you can bend "da rulz."

When musicians talk about scales, we compare everything to a major scale.  We talked about major scales in the first theory lesson on scales and modes.  If we number the notes in a major scale 1 through 8, we have what are called "scale degrees." (note the whole and half step intervals between each note. See Scales and Modes for a more in depth discussion of those.)

To "flat" a note is to lower it by one half step - to "sharp" a note is to raise it by one half step.  Raising and lowering certain notes will result in other scales.  For instance, the minor scale has a flat 3, flat 6 and flat 7 in relation to the major scale.

Now, there's nothing to stop you from calling the notes in the minor scale "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8," or "Q Z Duck Bowling Ball Tennis Shoes 42."  But this idea of relating scales to the major scale is conventional, and more than that, it's a useful way of thinking about new scale.  

For instance, let's take a look at a more exotic scale.  1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 8.  Without knowing what it's called, or even playing it, you can know quite a lot about it just by looking at those scale degrees.  

1) It's quite similar to the minor scale, only the 2 is flat instead of the 3.  
2) Whatever other weirdness a scale might have, if it has a 1, 3 and 5 left alone, those should be easy to latch onto with your ears and find familiar ground.  
3) If you look at the intervals between each note, you'll find that between b2 and 3 is neither a whole step nor a half step.  It is a step and a half, also known as a "minor third."  This is where the weirdness is going to be.  

The scale is called Phrygian Dominant.  Let's hear what it sounds like. 

"So what does that mean to me as a musician?" you might ask.  Good question.  Glad you asked.  Well, tons of things.  For one, it can open the door to experimentation.  Take a major scale - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 - flat a note here, sharp a note there.  Play the scale on your instrument and see if you like it.  

What else?  Well, why don't you try writing something in a weird scale.  Take phrygian dominant that we talked about today.  It has this weird "snake charmer," psuedo-middle-eastern vibe to it, especially if you highlight the Db-E interval.  For the guitar players, here's a scale box of C phyrgian dominant to experiment with.  

But, what if you didn't emphasize the weirdness about the scale?  What if you downplayed it, but still included the weird notes?  Then you might get something that sounds more familiar, but with a slightly different flavor.  You might end up with a heavy riff that no one even knows is in a bizarre scale.  

...You might end up with this:

Guthrie Govan puts it in another video that instead of an on/off switch to styles - as in, you are playing pentatonic blues.  Stop. Now you are playing shred - to instead treat them as a dimmer.  That there can be gradients to styles, and by introducing new notes or ideas and then emphasizing or emphasizing them you can blur the lines between things.  Brilliant.  

Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Woodshed Boot Camp Part 4: Right Hand Accuracy continued

Last week we discussed how to differentiate between three ways to divide a beat into thirds.  The triplet, the gallop, and the pop triplet.  If you need to review the difference between those, take another look at last week's lesson.

Right Hand Accuracy

This week we're going to put some melodic motion to those rhythms.  Introducing left hand movement creates two new snarls, one obvious and one not so obvious.  Having two things to focus on is more difficult than just chugging away on one note.  However, we're also going to encounter all kinds of less apparent problems dealing with moving from one string to the next.  None of it will be terribly difficult, but failing to identify the problem and overcome it could lead to bigger problems later in your development as a kick-ass guitarist.

In the first lesson of the Boot Camp series, I used a scale fragment in A minor.  Let's take another look at it (this time in A minor instead of the original E minor).

It is just a pattern of six notes, repeated over and over again.  If you've been practicing your triplets from last week, the first three notes should be a breeze.  Just add in the additional notes in your left hand.  Remember, if it doesn't come naturally to you, then take it annoyingly slow and work it with a metronome.

The trouble is going to come in when you go to play note 4 - the D on the A string.  Like I said the last time we looked at this fragment, make sure you are not using two consecutive downstrokes.  Stick to alternate picking.

Now that you have that under your fingers again, lets take our three rhythms and apply it to this exercise.  Here are the other two.

Take our usual practice to these three: start as slow as is necessary to play them perfect, and increase the tempo to a desired goal.  We'll set the goal at 120 BPM.

Once you have those three under your fingers, let's extend the exercise to a full minor scale.  There are several ways to play scales in one position - what guitarists often call "a box."  The way I play them is somewhat uncommon.  I started experimenting with a slight shift when moving to the B string a few years ago, and then fully applied it to my practice regime when I saw Rusty Cooley doing the same thing.  So here is my "box" for A minor in 5th position.

If we take this scale box and play our three rhythms over it, we have a much more interesting way to practice scales while simultaneously working on the accuracy of our right hand.  Here are all three versions written out.  In order to facilitate picking, you repeat both the highest and lowest pitches.

Much like with the scale fragment above, the problems are going to arrise when changing strings.  We've already seen what happens when the last note on one string is a downstroke - you are tempted to play the first note on the next string as a downstroke.  Make sure you maintain alternate picking to avoid problems later in the scale.

When we move from the A string to the D string, we encounter a new problem.  We discussed it in the briefly in the more advanced etude from the first Bootcamp lesson.  An upstroke followed by a downstroke on a higher string - sometimes called "inside the string picking," because it can feel like your pick is "trapped" between the strings.  In picking patterns like these, your range of motion is restricted and you must be more precise with your right hand.  So practice just that scale fragment until the picking feels more natural.  Same as always, start slow and build it up with a metronome.  Here is a good starting point - try playing along with this before using your own metronome. Make sure you are playing the indicated picking - it starts on an upstroke. That is vitally important.

These are two huge potential "gotchas" that you should be aware of any time you have a linear passage like a scale: avoiding consecutive downstrokes and inside the string picking.  They stem from the same problem, which is using an even numbered thing (up and downstrokes) to play an odd numbered thing (three-note-per-string scale boxes).  There are several alternative solutions to this: play pentatonic boxes that are two notes per string, use various picking patterns like economy picking, and many more.  However, I find all that to be counterproductive.  I want to play the most efficient fingerings with the most efficient picking, and that is three-note-per-string boxes with alternate picking.  In my opinion, and the opinion of a number of famous shredders, the problems with that combination are minimal compared to the advantages.

So break out the metronome, clean up your picking, and next week learn an exercise that can work on either your right or your left hand (say what? Stay tuned to find out).

BTW, have you seen Chico's Instrumental?  Check it out and let me know what you think and if you'd like to see more.

Chico's Instrumental is freely available on YouTube. Doctrine's self titled EP is available at all your favorite music stores.
Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

New Stuff!! Chico's Instrumental

Readers of Chico's World, I have something special today.

I've been writing instrumental guitar music for a long time now.  Some of it has been reworked into existing or upcoming Doctrine songs, but quite a bit of it doesn't fit into that medium.  Also, quite a bit of it sucks.  I write it mostly for my own sake.  (also, hearing yourself on tape will either break your soul or make you practice harder)

But I decided to sit down and write a piece of music especially for Chico's World.  I'm thinking about doing this more often.  It's a way for me to keep sharp on quite a few things - not just guitar, but recording, videography and editing.  Plus just churning out stuff is good for the creative juices (see: Jonathan Coulton, Thing-a-Week)

Let me know if you'd like to see more of this sort of thing.  I'll talk about it some after the video.

So there it is, in all it's hastily-edited glory.  This is simultaneously the most elaborate project I've done for Chico's World and the one I finished in the least time, so it's rife with minor blemishes.  I intentionally wanted to take a project from conception to blog in as little time as possible, so my apologies for the crappy editing and sub-par mixing.  It is somewhat intended.  If I do more of these, I expect I should get more proficient at the process.  

While I didn't write Chico's Instrumental (1? the first?) with any specific lesson in mind, it does cover a few things I've talked about.  Most noticeably, the rhythm guitar in the A section (I think of it as a chorus) chugs on the open E, alternating between straight 16ths and a gallop pattern, similar to what I talked about in the Right Hand Accuracy lesson.  It also makes heavy use of add 9 power chords discussed in the very first lesson here.

The last thing shown on camera is a variation on the left hand tapping I talked about in the lesson on the Revelation solo.  The passage could be played legato, but I elected to pick everything in this solo.  

So please, comment, subscribe to the YouTube channel, and let me know what you think of (?the first?) Chico's Instrumental!

Doctrine's EP is available on all your favorite digital music stores.
Doctrine of Ethos - EP - Doctrine of Ethos  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed - Speed Limits: Right Hand Accuracy

Welcome back to Doctrine of Woodshed.  We're still talking about Speed Limits, and up this week is Right Hand Accuracy.

Last week we talked about ways to improve your right hand speed, but as I've been saying all along, playing fast is as much about accuracy as it is about raw speed.  So now let's look at some ways to improve the accuracy in our right hand.

Once again, everything comes down to a metronome.  Well...not everything...but I'll get to that in a moment.

Start by focusing on being able to play steady alternate picking.  Pick a slow-ish tempo that you can comfortably play straight eighth notes.  If you've been following these lessons and practicing, this might be around 100 BPM for you.

Get warmed up by following our typical procedure for increasing speed.  Play a long series of eighth notes, and when you have those perfect slowly increase the tempo.  Let's shoot for 120 BPM.

Now that you are playing eighth notes at 120 BPM, lets make it a little more challenging - how about if you jump to eighth notes triplets at 120 BPM?  Take a listen to these two examples for the difference if you are unfamiliar with triplets.

Up until now in our series on Speed Limits, we've dealt exclusively with douple - that is, the beat divided into an even number.  This is triple - the beat divided into three.  Here is a common "gotcha" for your right hand.  Dividing a beat into three even notes creates triplets - but there are other ways to divide a beat into three which are uneven.  We're going to learn to differentiate between three of them.

The triplet

The "gallop*

And the so-called 'pop-triplet'

If you can get your right hand accustomed to playing these three patterns clearly, not only will you be familiar with three new rhythms, but your right hand will have a more developed sense of accuracy and you may find it easier to play more intricate rhythms in the future.

So, you ask, how do I learn these rhythms?  Good question, glad you asked.  And you already know the answer - start SLOW.

Start by playing a continuous loop of one rhythm at a time at 60 BPM for a length of time - say, one minute, with strict alternate picking.  First triplets. Then, when you have that down, stop, and try the gallop for one minute.  Likewise with the pop triplet.

Go through like this, increasing the tempo and then playing them all.  The goal is to bring them all up to as fast as you can comfortably play while still clearly the different rhythms.

Simple as that.  Next week, we're going take these rhythms and put melodic motion to them, which will create a whole new set of picking speed limits (spoiler: moving between strings is hard!).

Beauty and Fear: on Amanda Palmer's TED talk

I watched Amanda Palmer's TED talk tonight.  I haven't spoken since.  It takes a lot to make me speechless.

But there's something about an artist - I may not be able to talk, but neither can I stay silent.  So here I am.  Talking to you.

And after listening to her talk, that's more what I wish this blog could be.  More what I would like to make it.  You and me, talking.

I find it obvious and intuitive to break the "rules" of music.  I see no rules, only pathways that I may or may not take.  But society...I find it a good day when I'm aware of the rules of society at all, and a very good day when I don't break any.  But is that really who I am?

I haven't always been.  Many parts of my life have been defined by radicalism.  Now about as radical as I get is simply being a musician without a "real job."  I still want to play by the rules.  The rules that don't really want me to be who I am.

I don't want to ask for things.  I want to get hired, do my job, get paid, and end of transaction.  I just want "my job" to be a musician.  And maybe it doesn't work like that.  And maybe that's a good thing.

Because it means I get to ask.  To ask you.  Yea.  You.  Amanda says I should let you help me.  Alright then.  Here's a start.  I want you to follow this blog, and subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Then when you come to a show, I want you to talk to me.  Ask me for an autograph if you're so inclined.  Or about my gear.  Buy some merch.  Buy me a drink (please, after the show. I don't drink before I perform). But make sure we talk.  I'll freak out.  And it's ok.  I still want to talk to you.

And if you think I'm a self-entitled prick for asking for a handout...then I want you to come talk to me, too.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Speed Limits, or: Why You Should Care About Technique

Go to a martial arts or a self defense class during a discussion of grappling.  I can almost guarantee you that the idea of weak points in a grip will come up.  When escaping someone's grasp or grapple, you don't need to overpower them but simply apply pressure to the weakest point.  If you can break that, all the strength in the world cannot hold you.

I refer to the weak points in a musician's technique as "Speed Limits."  It is these deficiencies that keep us from playing faster.  Playing a passage clean requires all aspects of your technique to work together - which ever one is the weakest will define how fast you can play.

And let's be honest, who doesn't want to play fast, right?

We touched briefly on the idea last week, and this week I'm going to begin a series designed to focus on individual speed limits and improve them.

First up is right hand speed.

A quick side note: I'm going to be using symbols borrowed from orchestra music that have become common in guitar music to denote down picks and up picks.
Down Pick
Down Pick
Seriously?  This is not XKCD.  Not everything has alt text.
Up Pick

If you are unfamiliar with alternate picking, then that's a huge speed limit that you need to get rid of.  Think about it.  You have to move the pick down to play, and then up again to prepare it to pick down. Why wouldn't you pick a note while you're on the way back up?  It's an obvious way to double your picking speed.

Start by simply focusing on the mechanical idea of alternate picking.  Take a random note - let's say the A on the 5th fret of the low E string - down pick it, and then up pick it.  Simple, right?

Now do it in rhythm.  Slowly.  Remember the lesson from last week - always start as slow as necessary to play it perfectly.  Try playing along with this to get you started.

Once you have that down, then break out your metronome and apply the lesson from last week - when you can play it perfectly, bump the metronome up one click.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Come back when you can play 8th notes at 120 BPM.  Take your time, if this takes several hours or even several days that's perfectly fine.  Just make sure you are getting clean, well articulated notes played in rhythm.

For those of you that are already familiar with alternate picking (or if you just completed the assignment above), how do you go about increasing your speed with your right hand?  Good question.  Glad you asked.

It's going to come down to two things: the metronome idea we've been using, and a secret weapon I call "bursting."  It works like this:

Let's pick up where our new alternate-picking readers left off - the note A on the low E string, 5th fret, played in 8th notes at 120 BPM.  First, let's crank up the metronome a little more.  Take that exercise, and go through our now-familiar metronome routine until you can play it with 8th notes at 200 BPM.  Should still be pretty easy.

Now for the secret weapon.  With that tempo in your head, turn off the metronome.  Yes, you read that right - I actually said turn it off.  Start playing the exercise again - 8th notes at 200 - and after playing it for a few measures, briefly pick as fast as you can.  Remember to stay precise and clean - back off if you are getting sloppy.  After a short "burst," return to 200 BPM (or as close as you can) and continue to pick there for a while.

Alternate between these two - without stopping - for as long as you can.  I like to set up a stopwatch and go for 5 minutes at a time.  You may have to work up to that, but the goal is to tire your arm out without causing pain.  If you feel something in your arm similar to a "stitch in your side" when running, keep going - if you feel any other kind of pain, stop immediately.

Only do this exercise for a few minutes at each practice session - then go on to practicing other things (like a song you've been working on, or a less strenuous etude or exercise).  When you come back to it the next practice session, always start with the metronome and push the base speed up a few clicks.  Here's a video of me running through this exercise.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Theory of Ethos: Tablature - Boon or Bane

"A piano has 88 keys, and is capable of playing 88 notes.  In contrast, a 4 string bass has 96 different places you can play a note, but only 41 distinct pitches.  The piano is an instrument of range, but the bass is an instrument of choice."  Victor Wooten

It's Back to Basics time here at Chico's World, so Theory of Ethos is going to have a basic lesson, too.  We're going to take a look at tablature:  how to read it, what it can be used for, and how it can hurt us as guitarists.

If you have no clue how to read tab, this lesson will be a little tricky.  There are tons of tutorials on that, so go hit up one of those and come back when you finish.  Here's two:
One in video
And one in text

Tablature is a way of representing music in terms of the guitar fretboard as opposed to traditional music notation.  In traditional notation, the lines and spaces represent higher and lower pitches.  In tablature, the lines represent the strings of a guitar, and the numbers on it are frets.  It simplifies certain things for guitarists.  You can tell at a glance where to put your fingers.  This is a C triad, written in both notation and tablature.


If all you have is the notation, then you have to figure out where to put the notes on the fretboard.  With the tab, that bit is taken care of for you.  But the notation tells you things the tablature doesn't, like how long to hold the chord.  And neither one of them make it obvious that there are several other ways to play this chord.



(This last one requires two-hand tapping, but is quite useful in certain situations)

There are ways around some of this.  You can shoehorn rhythm notation onto tablature.  It's difficult to notate dotted rhythms or whole notes (since they don't have stems), but it can be done.  The problem is that you frequently see tab without rhythm notation and so it is common for guitarists to be completely oblivious to rhythm notation.  It is possible to simply read where to put your fingers on the tab, and listen to a recording for things like rhythm and articulation.  

But what about a piece for which there is no recording?  Or something you compose?  Or what if there is a recording but no tab exists?  Then it would be useful to read and write rhythms.  

But there's one thing that there is no getting around: The tab doesn't tell you that there are other ways to plays those notes.  Tab in fact implies that there isn't another way to play that.  "This is where you put your fingers.  That's all that matters."  But it isn't all that matters, is it?

In the early Black Sabbath days, Toni Iommi started downtuning his guitars due to an injury that made his fingertips sensitive to pain.  The slacker strings hurt less, but simultaneously changed the sound of the guitar.  He took advantage of this by sometimes playing riffs that sounded low in pitch way up on the higher frets of the guitar on the lowest strings.  This changed the tone of his guitar to a darker sound and is huge part of the "doom-y" feel of early Sabbath albums.

Different strings sound different.  It sounds obvious, but exploring the tonal differences in various places on the guitar neck isn't something most guitarists spend time thinking about.  More importantly as creative artists, playing in a different part of the neck may open up possibilites that were not otherwise available.  Let's look at that C chord again.


Played in this position, you have certain options.  Open strings lie very close to fretted notes, meaning you can incorporate them into melodic lines, like this bluegrass-inspired lick.

The version higher up on the neck would have a more difficult time with this lick, and in fact it is quite impossible to accurately reproduce it with the articulations.  But, there are some harmonic options that become available that are difficult lower on the neck.  Take this lush C(add#11) chord

Part of what gives this chord it's interesting sound is the dissonance between the third of the chord, E, and the added note, F#.  There's no way to voice this in first position so that the F# and E natural sound in the same octave, which is something you might never know if you depended on tab and didn't try to play the chord in a different place. 

But that's not to say that tab is all bad.  Part of how to play a song is in fact tied up with where you put your fingers.  The beauty of barre chords is that a certain exact fingering allows a chord to be movable. And there are only two ways to preserve for posterity (or you, when you forget before next rehearsal) exactly how you play a song:  One is to video record it.  The other is tab.  

When I was in college, my bass instructor hated tablature.  Just bringing it into his office was inviting criticism, if you weren't immediately thrown out.  But junior year, I decided to play a Bach prelude on bass - the one in C minor from book 1 of The Well Tempered Clavier.  Rather than play it as a duet, I decided I would learn both parts on bass.  It was quite a challenge, taking most of the school year to finish, and when I was done I decided that the exact place I put my fingers was as much a part of my arrangement as anything else.  So I transcribed it in tablature.  

My instructor balked at first, and then I explained it to him just like I did above: tablature is the best way to write down where you put your fingers.  He relented.  Senior year I did a Bach two part invention on bass - similar in concept to the prelude, but it proved much more difficult.  I never would have gotten through it without tabbing it out as I went along.  I still have those tabs.  And as far as me or my instructor can tell, I'm the only person in the world that can play that particular invention on bass, both parts simultaneously.  

So, is tab a boon or a bane to guitarists?  Here's the takeaway.  Tab can massively hinder your development as a musician, but only if you let it.  If you take it for what it is - a way of communicating to others fret positions - and be wary of what it isn't - a complete replacement for the need to read notation or rhythms - then it can be a great tool.  

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doctrine of Woodshed: Back to Basics

I've had a few requests lately for some less advanced lessons, so we're taking it back to basics in Doctrine of Woodshed to talk about chops.  Time for some Woodshed Boot Camp.

Speed on guitar is as much about control and precision as it is about sheer physical speed.  To develop speed is to develop accuracy.  So, how do we develop accuracy?  

It's all about playing SLOW.  Anyone who has ever taken lessons from me knows this is my go-to  solution for everything - slow it down.  If you can't play a passage, practice it slow.  In the same manner, if you are learning a new technique, the way to develop it is to work on it slow.  

Really slow. 

No, seriously.  S-l-o-w.  

Here's the idea - there is a bunch of stuff that goes into playing guitar.  Have you ever thought about it?  Where is your picking hand in relation to the length of the strings?  How about the angle of the guitar?  Or the angle of the pick - is the side closest the bridge or the neck pointing up?  Which parts of your hand/arm/wrist are moving and which ones are stationary? What about your.....

It's a lot to process.  You need all these things to be second nature.  You don't want to have to consciously think about them when you're shredding through a passage at full speed.  So we break things down so that we can think about them, make sure everything is working together properly, and increase the tempo in small increments.  

Seems boring, doesn't it?  Yea, maybe it is.  It's much more fun to just dive into a passage and start playing it.  "Hey, I can play it halfway decent at almost full speed!  This is fun.  All I have to do is keep plunking away like this a bunch of times and I'll be playing it full speed in no time!  Look at those egghead losers with their 'metronomes.' Pffft. I'm playing twice as fast as them!"

Yes, that is a seductive thought - one that most musicians have at one point or another.  But here's the thing - if you are playing it "halfway decent," then you're playing it "halfway indecent" - musicians call this "dirty."  It means you are making mistakes.  You may not even notice these mistakes, but the listener does.  You have no time to think about these mistakes when you are trying to "play fast." You think are you getting away with them. Worse, if you don't notice them because you are too busy focusing on speed, then how can you be expected to fix them?!  

That's why it is imperative to play slow.  I'm going to say it again.

Practice slow.

I cannot emphasize this enough.  

Let's take a look at two passages - one a simple exercise that just about any guitarist should be able to do, another a slightly more advanced etude - and go through how I would practice them.  Then we'll talk about some of the hidden problems that would be hard to notice if you jump in too fast.  

First, we'll take a simple scale fragment in E minor.  I used this type of passage quite a bit when first developing my shredding technique.  It is useful to practice it both picked and legato, but today we're just going to focus on picking.

The exercise is only two beats long, repeated ad naseum, with strick alternate picking. (As a side note, bass players could play something similar, focusing on alternating plucking fingers)

If you just jump into it, and try to play it full speed, I can almost guarantee you that you are going to make one specific mistake. When you change strings, you will use two successive downpicks.  Like this:

You'll be able to play the lick once, and wonder why you always have trouble when you go back to the beginning.  It will be because you are getting caught up in the picking pattern and trying to start the lick on an upstroke.  Playing the lick slowly will allow you to pay attention to this potential hangup and make sure you do it right.  Once you have the picking correct, speed is just an issue of cranking up the metronome.

But wait, how much do I change the metronome each time?  When do I change it?  How do I know? What do I start it on?  Good questions, glad you asked.

Remember when I said start slow?  I wasn't kidding.  60 BPM is my go-to starting place, but don't be afraid to start even slower than that.  Most metronomes go down to at least 40, and you should get familiar with what that feels like.  Try playing along to this:

Try to pay attention to every little detail.  Think "down, up, down, up, down, up" when you play.  Are you smooth and in time, or is there hesitation when you change strings?  Is each note sounding clearly? Do you feel rushed when you play it, like you are barely hanging on - or does it flow effortlessly?  Only when all of that is correct should you change the metronome.

How much, you ask?  As small an increment as your metronome will allow.  1 BPM, if possible -  many metronomes only go in increments of 3 or 5, and that's acceptable as well.  Then you ask yourself all those questions over again.  Play the exercise again and again at 41 BPM until it is perfect.  Then 42.  Then 43.  Don't skip over some.  Don't move on until it's perfect, every time.  The harsher you are on yourself at these low tempos, the easier it will be once we really start cooking.

It's also important to have a goal tempo in mind.  I first showed you this exercise at 120 BPM, so let's say that is our goal.  You don't necessarily have to stop there, but having something to shoot for is important to the practice process, because now you have quantifiable proof that you have accomplished something.  You couldn't play it at 120, and now you can.  You are better now than you were when you started practicing.  Achieving goals we set for ourself helps us remember that structured practice is more efficient than blind noodling at improving technique (though noodling definitely has it's place in the creative process - remember, today we're talking about chops, not creation).

Now let's look at a slightly more advanced etude.  We're going to take the exact same approach, and once again when we slow it down we're going to be on the lookout for potential "gotcha's."

When presented with a piece like this, you have to make a few decisions.  If it was on a record, you might endeavor to reproduce the recording - picking, slides, accents.  This time, all we have is sheet music.  So I'm gonna provide the rules, just like I would a student in lessons.

1) Alternate picking
2) No slides or hammer ons
3) Every time you repeat a measure, you have to use the same fingerings - but measure 1 and measure 2 can have different fingerings
4) Accent beats 1 and 3

There are a couple of different fingerings that work, but all involve a shift.  For our practice technique to work, we need figure out for sure which fingers are going to play which notes so that we can use the slow speed to develop muscle memory.  Here's the one I use:

Now for the picking.  The first string change is pretty easy - moving from the notes C to E.  You'll be tempted to do two downstrokes, but just make sure you play the E with an upstroke and it'll happen easy enough.

But the second - moving from the notes E to A - is a bit trickier.  An upstroke followed by a downstroke while moving up strings.  Some guitarists call it "inside the string picking," and it restricts your movement and can be a non-obvious cause of problems when playing fast passages.  When practicing the passage slowly, make sure you aren't cheating on the alternate picking.  This will likely be something I call a "speed limit" - that is, something you personally find difficult to play that restricts how fast you can play a passage.  You should only play the entire passage as fast as you can play all the "speed limits."

Since this is a slightly more advanced etude, I won't hold your hand.  Go through the remainder of the passage, figuring out anything that might be tricky for you (what fingering are you going to use going from measure 1 to measure 2?  Don't let there be any hesitation), and then once again, break out a metronome and start it at "annoyingly slow."  Play it perfect ten times, and then turn the metronome to "annoyingly slow +1 BPM."  You know the rest.

So, now that you know how to learn a fast passage, you can apply this to all sorts of music.  The only thing standing between you and the solo from "Stairway to Heaven," or "Eruption," or even "Through the Fire and Flames," is time, patience and a metronome.  Go on, then.  Shred it up.

And as an added bonus, the first person to send me a YouTube video of the "A minor Etude" played clean at 120BPM gets a signed copy of Doctrine's EP.  Becha' Can't Play This: