Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Special Project 11


For quite some time, what time I had available for practice in the traditional tuning was limited to preparation for students, learning material for Undercover Blues Band, and this very specific work with scales.

Student prep largely involved learning songs about 5 minutes before I had to teach them. Maybe the night before. Maybe in the middle of the lesson.

Undercover Blues Band work was really just a whole lot of fun, involving a great deal of “research” (ie listening to every version of every song I have ever loved) in order to determine if it was something that worked for me, my style and my voice, and then bringing it into rehearsal to present to the band. We would then work it until either we found our groove and that unique UBB arrangement, or we recognized that it wasn’t working and moved on to something else. I work with two of the most generous musicians on the planet. Learning lyrics was probably the closest thing to “labor” for me in this process. To this day I struggle with “Wang Dang Doodle”.

Here is a little benefit of my research, free to anyone for whom this sort of thing is interesting: Howlin Wolf never sang the words “wang dang doodle”. He always said “wang wang doodle.”

One aspect of the Guitar Craft approach involves working as comprehensively as we are able. For instance, the 24 variations of the “First Primary” are designed to explore every possible combination of the four fingers of the left hand. As with any well conceived exercise, it both reveals areas of weakness and provides the means and method for addressing them.

As far as applying this particular aspect of my Guitar Craft experience to rediscovering the fretboard of the traditional tuning, the work with pentatonic major and minor scales was more fruitful than I had anticipated. It began, as I mentioned, with a very straightforward exercise regimen to shore up the weaker forms until I was equally comfortable within each, and could move from one to the other with ease. I did the initial work in C, but once competent with that I moved to a “key of the day” format, giving me a way to continually readdress the difficulties in a slightly new light. It was a lovely balanced exercise. It was uncomplicated enough that it could function as a callisthenic exercise, which was good for my hands regardless of tuning. And because the organization of the exercise required only minimal attention, that left me free to observe; how are the forms related and connected?, what chord forms are contained within the scale form?, how are my hands behaving? Really useful stuff. And because it was not particularly time consuming or effort-heavy, it was easy to incorporate into my daily practice routine, allowing the continuity of daily practice without causing disruption to the other, more demanding, practice that Tuning the Air required of me.

Things got interesting when I applied the exercise of modulation through the Circle of Fifths to these forms. This, again, was an application of a practice I put my Guitar Craft students through. But when I applied it to pentatonic scales, I found a couple of things I had not anticipated; things that I had truly never noticed before in any tuning.

[NB. Non-musicians: prepare for mind numbing and eye glazing.]

First, the ground: Cycling major scales through the Circle of Fifths.

Beginning with a major scale, if you lower the seventh degree one half step, you modulate into the key one fifth below the original key. Thus, beginning with C Major, if you replace the B with a Bb, you have modulated to F Major. Lower the seventh degree of the resulting scale one half step, and the cycle continues. If you are doing this on the guitar, you will find your hand moving methodically down the neck toward the nut until you run out of fretboard.

Reversing this, if you raise the fourth degree of a major scale one half step, you modulate into the key one fifth above the original key. So, beginning with C Major, if you replace the F with an F#, you have modulated to G Major. Raise the fourth of the resulting scale one half step and the cycle continues. And on the guitar your hand will move up the neck until it falls into the sound hole or bangs into a pickup.

All of this is simply true, Harmony 101, regardless of the instrument or tuning. On a guitar in the Guitar Craft tuning, using the tetrachords that a tuning in fifths suggests, it is an incredibly graphic and enlightening look at the elegance of musical organization. On a guitar in the traditional tuning, it’s not quite so obvious, but nevertheless it is all there to be discovered, and once seen equally remarkable.

So far, no new news for me.

But I was using pentatonic major scales.

Newsflash: pentatonic major scales have neither a seventh nor a fourth. So if I want to modulate to the key a fifth below or above, with no seventh or fourth to alter, what actually happens?

What happens is that in order to modulate to the key a fifth below, the third of the original scale is replaced by the note one half step above it; this is the fourth of the original key, but the root of the new one. Thus, beginning with C Major Pentatonic – C-D-E-G-A – when I replace the E with an F, I will have modulated to the key of F Major Pentatonic – C-D-F-G-A. [Okay, I’m going to stop spelling out “pentatonic” now]. To continue to the key of Bb, replace the A with a Bb. And so on.

Surprise! I’m modulating down in fifths, but my hand is moving UP the neck.

In order to modulate up in fifths, replace the root of the original scale with the note one half step below it; this is the seventh of the original key, but the third of the new one. Moving from C Maj – C-D-E-G-A – to G Maj, replace the C with a B and voila – B-D-E-G-A. And so on.

The hand is migrating down the neck as the modulations move up in fifths.

That, by itself, was good for several weeks of delight in my daily practice. I would begin on the lowest possible scale on the neck – G major in open position – and cycle “down” through the Circle of Fifths as my hands migrated up the neck until I ran out of fretboard. Then I’d reverse the process – “up” through the Circle as hands move down the neck. The biggest problem was getting myself to stop, and move on to other things that needed practicing, like ALL of the Tuning the Air repertoire which suffered any time I skipped a day.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Special Project 10


So, from largely anecdotal experience, it seemed pretty clear that whatever real growth and insights had come my way during 15 years of NST-only guitar work were not tuning-specific. Only the details. The inner connection to music is obviously neutral. The inner work and the connection with myself is certainly neutral.

I set out to discover how to apply what I had learned about how to practice, what insights I had gained through the mechanics/technique side of Guitar Craft, and that methodical Guitar Craft approach in general, to work in the traditional tuning, and this required a certain capacity for discernment. I had a little experience with this when, around 1990, I had redirected much of my music focus to the electric guitar, for The Buttons and Desperate Measures. These were still instruments in the Guitar Craft tuning, but the move to electric required some reapplication of the principles to the outer realities of a slightly different instrument. The electric guitar doesn’t give you the same support for the right arm, for instance, so how to have that same ease in an arm that is free floating? Electric guitar, particularly at volume, requires a level of string muting in the left hand that is not so critical on the acoustic guitar.

So I knew that principles are universal while application is particular.

I also knew that every time I picked up a guitar in the traditional tuning, a whole barrage of familiar habits and automatisms was unleashed.

With Tuning the Air still my primary musical work, I didn’t have a lot of time to invest in this (oh for those glory days at Red Lion House, where practicing guitar for 8-12 hours a day was an actual possibility). The first thing I did was to apply some of that comprehensive Guitar Craft approach to what I had seen through the Joe Pass insight regarding the relationship between chords and scales.

Scales are a very efficient way to practice. Plus, they have the additional virtue of being something I actually enjoy practicing. They work the fingers in a meaningful way, and they outline the harmonic layout of the fretboard. It was clear that in this tuning I had some deeply engrained comfort zones, capable of surviving 15 years of neglect, punctuated by too many black holes. In good old Guitar Craft spirit, I began by making myself completely familiar with C Major, everywhere on the guitar neck. I used the 5 primary shapes of the pentatonic scale. It didn’t take long for me to notice which fingerings were old friends and which I had successfully avoided. I took my time to practice the weaker fingerings and reintegrate them into their sequence on the neck until I felt comfortable to move freely over the entire fretboard. As my hands developed their own internal understanding of the relationship of the forms, my head and ear worked to gain command of the identity of the intervals within the scales, and their relationship to the 5 primary chord shapes.

The use of the pentatonic scale as the skeleton for understanding harmony on the fretboard is really something that made itself clear for me working with the Guitar Craft tuning, but as I re-translated it back to the traditional tuning, “ah ha” moments came almost every day, as the gaps in my prior understanding began to disappear.

If one has a good grasp of the pentatonic scales, all of the diatonic modes are right there, save Locrian (which is a special case no matter what approach you take). Turning a major pentatonic scale into Ionian, Mixolydian or Lydian is simply a matter of filling in the minor 3rd gaps with the right note. You don’t lose the organization of the neck; you simply fill out the harmony. In the same way, the minor pentatonic scale can be filled in to create Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian.

One great benefit of this approach, which I have learned through the teaching process, is that we can easily learn the particular qualities of each mode in its own right, and completely avoid the red herring (and, frankly, dead end) of learning modes with respect to their relative major.

Plus, there is something organic about the pentatonic scale that seems to transcend culture and geography. Everywhere you go, there it is.

Just ask Bobby McFerrin:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Special Project 09

Back in 1997, at a time when I was living in NYC and still making pretty fair money, I had picked up this Stratocaster on a whim, for no other reason than to have an electric guitar in the traditional tuning. I didn’t have any explicit plans, but I did have the strong sense that if there came a time when it would be possible for me to play some music primarily for my own general health, happiness and well-being, it would be in a blues band. When I visited Seattle in September 1997, one of the things I did was to check out clubs that featured blues. And not long after moving here in December of 1997, I even organized a couple of exploratory jam sessions. But the Guitar Craft/Guitar Circle energy was cooking, and that was clearly where my work was. Strat in case and case in closet.

In the summer of 2009, the Strat had been back “out of the closet” for some time for my teaching work. Tuning the Air was about 2/3 of the way through its 7-year run, although we didn’t know that at the time since it was an open ended project that I think most of us kind of figured was going to go on forever. We were taking the summer off, so I had time to practice more generally, and look at new material we were considering for the next season. And as is usual in the summer, my teaching schedule lightened considerably (euphemism for “went into the crapper”). Not sure how Bill, Igor and I got on the subject, but I mentioned that I had been revisiting my love for electric blues and we set up a session, which immediately turned into a “something”. There was a there there, as we say. One of the other teachers at the Issaquah studio was planning the annual September weekend party he hosts at his place out in Duvall. These festivities include live bands, and we were invited to play. Nothing like an upcoming gig to focus rehearsals. It also focuses personal practice.

Personal practice was the link for me between the ongoing work I had, at that point, been doing for 25 years in Guitar Craft, and the considerably less focused work I had been doing for a couple of years with the traditional tuning.

There is a metaphor that I often use when working with students who are experienced, but feel a bit stuck. I’m enough of an old fart at this point that many of them have probably heard it several times, and inwardly roll their eyes with an “oh brother, here he goes again”, when I begin to launch into it. But here it is:
When I first moved to New York I did not know the city well. I lived waaaaay uptown, on the west side near the George Washington Bridge. My key to the city was the subway map.

I was making ends meet by working as a temp, so almost every day I went to a new location for work. I would look at the map, find the nearest subway stop to my location, plot out the subway route, and off I would go. I’d drop into a hole in Washington Heights, sit quietly for 20 minutes or so, and then I would emerge from a very similar hole in an entirely different place. Kind of like a slow motion analog Star Trek transporter.

After a while I came to know the area around certain subway stops very well, so for a long time Manhattan was a series of islands for me. Over time I got to know the city better, and I began regularly having the experience of walking in one of my “comfort zones”, turning a corner, and finding myself in another. I had no idea that the two were adjacent to one another, or even nearby. Eventually I was able to comprehend the overall organization of the city as I connected all the little neighborhoods I visited.
This is very much what I am working with when I take on a self-taught guitarist (and guitar is the most notoriously self-taught of any instrument I know). People tend to learn what they need to know in order to do the thing they want to do. We develop comfort zones in our playing and understanding. And honestly, why not? It works fine. If all they need to know is one shape of a minor pentatonic scale in order to play the music they want to play, what good is a Lydian b7 scale to them? Or reading? Or lots of inversions of upper structure triads? Or efficient technique? Or good practice habits? They don’t need it. That is, right up until they do. Then they come looking for me.

The first thing I do with this student is to identify what they already know, because quite often it is more than they realize. But as it was for me and my little Manhattan comfort zones, they can’t see yet how their islands of knowledge are connected. So… if I can provide them with one good “aha” moment, which is more or less the equivalent of walking them around the corner to see that another familiar neighborhood was there all along, then we are on our way. Connecting the dots, putting the material into a coherent structure, identifying and filling in the gaps.

Undercover Blues Band went into performance preparation. Musically, I’m pretty sure it would not be possible for me to be happier with what was happening in our rehearsals. It is a trio that is fearless, with sufficient skill to take risks. We each have many years of Guitar Craft experience, and so we share an understanding of our place within the creative process. We have known one another for a long time, so there is all the trust we need to follow when one of us has a creative insight. And we have the collective depth of experience to get ourselves out of trouble and back on track when we do go shooting off the cliff. But it was very clear to me where my personal comfort zones were on the guitar and how much I was relying on them, and my feeling was that this was music that deserved more from me.

Guitar Craft is a comprehensive approach. For instance, we don’t just practice the finger combinations required to play the handful of licks we use all the time; we practice every possible finger combination with the aim of developing an equal capacity in each. So I set out to apply this to my OST playing; connecting the dots, putting the material into a coherent structure, and identifying and filling in the gaps in my own playing.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Special Project 08

Where was I?

So, of necessity, I was reacquainting myself with the traditional guitar tuning after a decade and a half of complete abstinence. I was not practicing it in any serious sense, other than small bits of research on songs that students want to learn. However, I was spending at least a couple of hours a day thinking on my feet in OST. Engaging in this process, I had noticed that muscle memory is powerful – my hands very quickly find old pathways and are happy to follow them, whether that is really where I want to go or not. I also noticed that even though I never had a great understanding of the OST fretboard in the first place – or so I recognize in retrospect; in it’s place I had memorized and well-practiced shapes and patterns – I was able to see this organization much more clearly now. And I had noticed that my ear was much improved.

It is during this period that I was also reminded of how much I love playing Blues. Not that I ever quite forgot. I have long maintained that everything I play is essentially Blues, regardless of the external genre. It has always been home for me. It’s not in the details, it’s in the groove. When I had a break in my schedule and wanted to fill it with something more profitable than going out for another cup of coffee, I didn’t practice scales or exercises, I remembered and relearned my old Blues repertoire.

Early on in my work with the Guitar Craft tuning I looked closely, as I think most of us did, at how to translate the stuff I played in the old tuning into the new. It is tough, for any number of reasons. A few people are remarkably adept playing OST “sounding” stuff in NST [that’s right Bert Lams and Tom McCarthy, I’m talking about YOU! And hey, Robert managed to perform a lot of old Crimson material in the Guitar Craft tuning, so we know it can be done] but for most of us the tuning tended to more readily lend itself to new music and new ways of arranging music for an ensemble of guitarists, that take advantage of the qualities of the tuning rather than circumvent them. I have a swampy blues thing that I do in NST, and Robert once suggested that I work that into a Guitar Craft piece, and I honestly tried. But try as I might, and I regard this as entirely my own failing, everything that came from it sounded to me like a parody or caricature, albeit a well-meaning one, of the Blues, and that was not something I was comfortable with. In the end, I think the bass lines to Intergalactic Boogie Express or Bicycling to Afghanistan have more authentic blues spirit in them than an NST transliteration of a Muddy-Waters-come-Johnny-Winter lick.

Another thing that happened during that period came completely out of left field. I had several boxes of analog tape stored in my spare room, including everything from 10-inch reels of multi-track projects I had done in my home studio between 1978 and 1985 and the source recordings for (scream) from 1994-96, to cassette tapes of demos I had made over the years and live bootleg recordings of bands I had played with going back to 1971. Magnetic tape has a shelf life, and most of these were well over their expiration date. So I pulled out the old machines and began a long project of transferring this material to a digital form.

Buried there among those tapes was something I had completely forgotten I had. Sometime around 1978-80 I had taken part in a Joe Pass seminar. And, I had brought my little cassette deck with me and recorded it. It was a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon in a room at a rec center; perhaps 2 dozen of us listening to Joe talk about and demonstrate his approach to the guitar. Great stuff that I had almost no capacity to understand or assimilate at the time, but it was fun. The line that I remembered him saying at one point was, “if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it,” which he then demonstrated to my amazement.

Transferring recordings is done in real-time. You don’t have to listen, other than to check in to make sure everything is running properly, but I did listen to a lot of the stuff, and I definitely listened to the Joe Pass seminar. And there, waiting for me, was a key that I had been missing. It had gone over my head in 197-whatever, but circa 2008 it made total sense, and explained for me what I was seeing on the OST fretboard.

It wasn’t something I could actually put to use in anything but a limited way, but it gave me something I could practice. Practicing in the old standard tuning… what a concept.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In response to a couple observations from my friends Rob and Tom:
Rob and Tom:

To be clear, tuning is, or should be, transparent of course. No audience cares, unless you are playing to total guitar geeks, and even then you could argue that it's a pointless distraction. And it is also unequivocally true that any style and any genre can be authentically addressed in NST, without compromise. The trueness of the music is a measure of the player's relationship to it, not the details of the instrument.

But, different tunings have different qualities and different capacities, and that is something that the player needs to work with.

Pure rock and roll can certainly be played on an NST guitar (I hope my own output bears this out). But if you want to play Chuck Berry's Carol lick, it is going to require some pretty severe technical gymnastics. So if playing roots rock and roll is your thing, in NST your job is probably going to be to capture the authentic spirit of Chuck, rather than reproduce his guitar parts. (I might argue that that is your job no matter what tuning you choose, but we wander into philosophy)

Jazz lends itself particularly well to NST. But if you are partial to chords in close-voiced tone clusters, it's going to take 2 guitarists playing interleaved voicings to accomplish it. You can do completely authentic finger picking celtic tunes in any tuning you like, but Black Mountain Side in anything but DADGAG is going to be a tough row to hoe. On the other hand, if you are Igor Abuladze anything is possible.

So, there are choices to be made at every stage. At a certain point I came to the conclusion that, for myself, the new tuning was for new music. Rock 'n' Roll and the Blues is in me, and there is no chance in hell it's not going to come out in some way, no matter what I'm playing, but there are some wheels I didn't feel I wanted to put energy into reinventing.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Special Project 07

And just like that, boom, the equinox. Summer weather, gone. Hello autumn. After an incredibly dry and warm summer, rain is now in the mix and there is touch of chill in the air. As soon as September arrived, my student load increased. For the record, that’s a good thing; a borderline desperately necessary thing. Kids who took it easy for the summer are back into the weekly routine. Vacation time is over, and adults are back into their work routine. A few brand new students as well, which is a welcome and much needed surprise. The Seattle Circle Guitar School is being incorporated into the Friday schedule for grades 2-8 at a local public school. And the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists project for next May looms on the horizon.

In short, I’m suddenly busy. And in terms of this writing project, finding time requires more of an effort. I notice that I am in danger of losing my train of thought.



During the first years I was teaching at the studio in Issaquah I was, in a certain sense, suddenly re-immersed in OST. But I was not seriously engaged with it. I just did the minimum necessary to stay one lesson ahead of my students. For the legion of kids working through Mel Bay or Hal Leonard books, this amounted to exactly nothing. No matter how wretched my reading was (is), it was still better than theirs. The rest was personality, cheer-leading, and occasional teacherly sternness with regard to practice habits. Older kids tend to want to learn their favorite hits. 99% of that could be dealt with in real-time, in the lesson; plug in the mp3 player or slide in the cd, and figure it out*. Occasionally I would have to do a little research outside of the lesson, but it was minimal.

Adult students also wanted to learn songs, and the process was more or less the same. For a large number of adults, lessons seem to be a kind of necessary weekly opportunity to just get together with someone and play for 30 minutes or an hour. It’s a recognition, albeit often a subconscious one, that the way you learn to play music is to play music, and that means playing with others. Most of the adults I work with have jobs and families and grown-up obligations, and so going out to find a gang of pals to get together to jam just gets more and more difficult. I am the next best thing.

So, I do a lot of jamming with adults in guitar lessons, all the time keeping an eye out for opportunities to bring what we are doing into something that we can observe, quantify, and learn; could be technical/mechanical, could be music theory, could be fretboard knowledge, could be ear training. Any time I can stop, and lead into some useful information with “take a look at what you just did there…”, that becomes an opening, and often sufficient incentive for them to take something home and practice it. And if the usefulness of something as non-sexy as learning and practicing scales can be demonstrated, bonus!

One thing you learn from “jamming” is your limitations. The licks and tricks that my hands somehow remembered from years back were more than sufficient to impress a student, but for me as a player and a listener the experience of hearing myself play exactly what I always play in a given situation was becoming disheartening. So for the first time since early 1986 (I remember the recording sessions very clearly, because I knew that I was discharging my final OST obligation, and that afterward I would play only in the Guitar Craft tuning) I sat down and actually practiced in the old standard tuning.


*For the record, I really enjoy this process. Well, perhaps “enjoy” is not the right word. “Value” might be more accurate. It keeps me on my toes; challenges me. Guitar lessons are always on the verge of becoming rote and mechanical, and anything that puts me a little off balance serves to keep the experience creative and real. At first I felt uncomfortable that I looked like a bit of an uncool old fart for not only not knowing the songs kids wanted to learn, but seriously having never even heard of the bands they were asking about. But pretty quickly I figured out that my ability to listen to something and reproduce it amounts to a kind of showmanship. After a while, an argument can be made with the student that the real skill is not in playing the song, it is the ability to figure it out for themselves that they really need to learn.

When I first moved to NYC, I signed up with a number of Temp agencies, and I enjoyed temping, on a certain level, for similar reasons. No two days quite alike. Every assignment involved going in and very quickly determining what is what, who is who, and doing it well enough that the next time they need someone they ask for you by name.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Special Project 06


The level of effort Tuning the Air required is pretty easy to muster in short endeavors. But for a project that was of no determined duration, it was really, really tough. We tried to ease this by “breaking up the band” at the end of every season; everyone had honored the commitment they made, and that was that. We were free to move on. Those who wished then came together and committed to the next season, and we began again. It was a useful fiction, and only mildly successful. What Tuning the Air needed to realize its potential was going to take years, whether we could see that or not.

I would never be so bold as to imagine I know what any individual’s personal reasons were for joining, staying or leaving the Tuning the Air company. What can be safely said in general is that Tuning the Air asked a lot of everyone who contributed, and we all had to do pretty difficult calculations when considering our own participation. If my own experience at all reflects what others were working with, it could be said that where ever the line between staying and leaving lies, we lived perpetually within inches of it.

The run of Tuning the Air, from early 2005 through the end of 2011, coincided with a significant shift in the demographics of my teaching practice. From my arrival in Seattle in late 1997 through the Level 3 course in Atlanta in 2003 an influx of guitarists with a specific interest in Guitar Craft had been the core of my work. By 2005 that had waned. The guitarists in that first wave were maturing, and they needed to find ways to apply and assimilate what they had learned in order to move forward. That is to say, they needed Tuning the Air, not more guided circles or weekly individual lessons. For me, this meant working more and more with guitarists with no GC interest. 

In the summer of 2005, about half-way through the first season of Tuning the Air, I began teaching a couple days a week at a little music store/studio in the outskirts of Seattle. Mixed blessing, this. On the purely practical side, it helped to stem the relentless and borderline desperate negative cash flow I was struggling with. But only just; the economy of that system is based on trading the bother of finding and scheduling students for a little more than half of the money you would have earned. It gave me small but reliable income in my otherwise hand-to-mouth personal financial situation, which afforded me a little freedom to continue saying “yes” to the show, while working to expand my private teaching practice. The more far-reaching value of the experience for me, though, was that it very quickly honed my teaching chops. I got to work within a purely traditional music teaching structure, learning a great deal about what people who are shopping for a guitar teacher are looking for and expecting; meanwhile I was able to very explicitly explore what of my Guitar Craft experience was translatable and transferrable. And, it gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of school-aged kids, which really is a very specialized skill that was completely new to me. So is working with the parents of school-aged kids. I stayed there for almost 5 years; 2 days, and later 1 day a week. When I let it go, I was very happy to be out of that “system”, but I had gained a lot.

The other thing that came from this experience was the re-acquaintance with the “old standard tuning” that I spoke of in "Prologue 2”, and the points of seeing regarding what had changed within me during the years of Guitar Craft Only. And it was through this work that I began to see some things about my own aspirations that I had not anticipated.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Special Project 05

Tuning the Air – Background

It will be interesting to see what the long-term repercussions of Tuning the Air are. Realistically, though, we don’t always get that luxury. Things unfold in larger time-frames and wider scopes than we do. Teaching has that quality as well; you set things in motion as best you can, and if the student is reasonably diligent you get to witness a certain level of progress, but you rarely get to see where it will ultimately lead. For myself, I often find that things that I noticed, or were pointed out to me, 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, that seemed unremarkable at the time, suddenly come back with a force of significance. I can only assume that for some of my students this will also be true. Some small and ignorable observation that I make now could spring back as a life-changing epiphany in 20 years, or it could just be nothing. Either way, I’ll never know.

Tuning the Air had a certain inevitability about it. The infusion of Guitar Craft-related energy into Seattle beginning in the mid-90s was going to manifest itself in some way. Actually, in a number of ways. There was a very evident critical mass. In the smaller local circles that preceded it, there had always been a need to consolidate; to get everyone on board in order to generate enough energy to make anything happen. All or nothing. Not so here. In Seattle it was possible for an array of projects and creative insights to play themselves out. I could be all-in on endeavors that spoke to me, available and involved as needed with those that I did not feel so strongly about, or generally supportive toward the ones that I had nothing to contribute to. Even when good will was stretched or failed, it was okay. There was enough to go around.

Tuning the Air was a massive undertaking, in terms of commitment and time. Seven years. 30-40 shows per year, performed weekly in two 15-20 show blocks or “seasons”. Each performance involving about 6 hours of work from arrival for staging, lighting and sound setup to departure after striking the set. Two rehearsals per week. And then there was the personal practice. In between “seasons” there was precious little break before we set to work putting together the new material for the next one. For people with jobs, careers, school, spouses, children, mortgages, and lives outside of the show – which is to say, all of us – this was a very lot to ask.

That not everyone remained with the company for the entire seven year run is not in the least surprising. What is remarkable is how many people did. I would never have predicted that. At the final performance on December 15, 2011, seven of the nine guitarists, plus the lighting artist, the designated audient, and our in-the-house “ears”, had all been part of the team that presented the very first performance on April 11, 2005. And the audience was heavily stocked with former air tuners.

I documented, through a dedicated journal, the day-to-day Tuning the Air process from August 2009 through to its closing in December 2011. Just skimming it will give a taste of what these people agreed to take on, without much in the way of rest. After many years of "work in the circle", the show was, in my estimation, the most fully realized exploration of the potential of performance in this format. The team’s performance within the context of the second Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists was one that I will always be proud to be able to say I was a part of.

Some historical data, for those interested. When I look back on it, I am amazed (and also a little exhausted):

Monday, September 9, 2013

Special Project 04

Juggling Tunings

The Guitar Craft tuning appeared in a moment of inspiration, a point of seeing, a creative leap. When Robert describes how it “flew by”, he is describing a moment that is familiar to anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to find themselves in the creative now. In that moment, he was alert enough to notice. To be awake in those moments when the source of all creativity makes itself known to us, is from my perspective the primary aim. To have the skills to do something with it, well of course that is nice, too.

In the early days, I was more or less convinced that the rationale for the Guitar Craft Tuning was that it served to throw experienced guitarists off of their game. It worked. Boy oh boy did it work. The first courses were only open to “plectrum guitarists of at least three years experience, fluent in the English language and above 18 years of age.” So you had to already play guitar, and with a pick. Most of us were more experienced than that minimum, and the tuning came as quite a shock. For me, feeling stuck as I was, it was a great relief. It was a chance to start over, this time with intelligence and clarity replacing the haphazard and accidental nature of my first experience.

How many people get that opportunity in life? How many people get that opportunity twice?

Before long I came to see that the tuning is much more than the shock value it sometimes provides. As shocks go, it’s a good one. And players with OST experience still suffer. But people began arriving already knowing a bit about the tuning, perhaps having experimented with it. And even more than that, the “experience” prerequisite fell away, and people who had never played guitar became more and more common. So now, there is a large pool of guitarists out there who have never played anything BUT the Guitar Craft tuning. That’s pretty interesting.

When I moved to Seattle, I was toting among other things the Stratocaster I had purchased on a whim a year or so earlier, but I was really still not doing anything with the traditional tuning. I would pick up the guitar and let my hands run through blues licks that were so much a part of my pre-GC playing, just for fun. The occasional OST student. I had a notion to start a blues band, as a kind of diversion, but it never quite came together. In Seattle in 1998 there was a huge amount of Guitar Craft energy and activity, and I had my hands very full.

It was really another 6 years before I began to address the old tuning in any kind of serious way. Guitar Craft students, alone, were not getting it done in terms of paying my rent (and my escalating health insurance bills. Don’t get me started; I was never sick, I was just aging), and so I began to actively seek non-GC students. For the most part, for these lessons I relied on:
  • Muscle memory. Never underestimate the power; for good or ill.
  • The new clarity with respect to seeing the fretboard, regardless of tuning, that I referred to in Prologue 2. I also noticed that my ability to read music in the old tuning, which was never much to begin with, was much improved, even though in Guitar Craft there is virtually no reading. Fascinating.
  • The understanding of technique that I had acquired through my work in Guitar Craft, easily transferrable to any tuning.
  • A generally good ear, noticeably sharpened through the work in Guitar Craft.
I still didn’t practice in the old tuning. The Guitar Circle work and Tuning the Air dominated my “serious” guitar playing, and demanded constant attention and a great deal of practice. Some OST lessons required a bit of prep in terms of learning tunes that students wanted me to teach them, but that was about it. That has never been difficult for me. The manager of a little studio I taught at for a couple of years, during the “job interview”, asked me if I knew all of the popular songs kids were listening to. Being fatally honest, I said “no”, but quickly assured him that with a recording I could figure anything out on the fly. He took me at my word, thankfully. Okay, if you want to learn a Meshugga tune, or some shredding sweep picking solo, I’m probably going to point you to a more appropriate teacher, but that is rare.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Special Project 03

Guitar Craft is not a Tuning

Principles are universal. Application is particular.

If you come to me for guitar lessons, you get Guitar Craft. Or, more accurately, you get me. And with that comes whatever, in 29 years, I have internalized from Guitar Craft and assimilated into my own understanding. With people who come specifically for Guitar Craft, either at courses, or in Guitar Circle-related local events, or in private lessons, we can be very upfront about all aspects of what that means. There is a body of extant work, writings, recordings, and websites that can all be accessed with ease, as well as players with a certain visibility who have a GC background to look to. So while the reality of that work can be something of a shock, the ideas behind everything from the most basic principles of body mechanics to the seemingly arcane notions of the “Guitarist Inside” are all out there and available, and people who sign up for that have a notion that they are letting themselves in for something different from what they have experienced elsewhere.

But GC students only accounts for a small part of my practice. Most people I work with have never heard of Guitar Craft. They are not looking for a life path, and they are certainly not interested in adopting a brand new tuning that no one they know or might play with uses.

The beauty of this situation is that it serves as an extremely efficient bullshit filter for me. I used to get in trouble from calling Crafty Guitarists out when I felt they were using Guitar-Craft-isms rather than thinking for themselves. Truth be told, I am not immune. I’ve mellowed a bit in my advancing years; I think. But with my OST students, it is not an option. We have no shared jargon to fall back on in place of thinking. Well, we do, but it is the vulgate. If I need to share something I have learned in Guitar Craft, I need to use my own words. Unless I can express what I see with complete authority, coming directly from my own experience, it is just so much yammering, and my typical student has a low yammering threshold. They just want to play this chord/lick/song better. However, when I can speak from within my own authority, there is an opening. What I have learned from Guitar Craft becomes available to someone who has no idea, and may never have any idea, that there is even such a thing as Guitar Craft.

And there is the key. If Guitar Craft were a tuning, nothing I have gained in Guitar Craft would be of use to any of these other students. But Guitar Craft is not a tuning. The tuning is a tool. Within the work of the Guitar Circle, it is a point of agreement; it is part of our mode of work. But it is not, itself, Guitar Craft. Guitar Craft works on and through the musician, not the tool. If the principles are authentic, they can be applied to all things.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Special Project 02

Prologue 2

If I’m not careful, there could be more prologue than logue. Will strive for brevity, although it goes against my nature.

Guitar Craft had just walked in.

Reading Robert’s most recent, and likely final, draft of “The Guitar Circle”, I can rest assured that the comprehensive picture of Guitar Craft will be addressed, for those who care, in due course. Not my concern here. For now it is sufficient to say that Guitar Craft addresses the whole musician, from our greatest creative potential to the most elemental matters of technique and mechanics.

What IS specifically relevant to this special project is the latter. Three things that Guitar Craft addressed for me right from the beginning were exactly the things that I had intuited my need for: the rudimental mechanics of technique, an approach to understanding harmony on the fretboard, and how to practice. Whatever lofty creative aspirations I did and do harbor, this was what I needed in March 1985. And what I have established for myself since that time is a practice that has continued to evolve with my understanding, and served me for more than 28 years.

After testing the waters and discharging some obligations, which took about a year, I took the decision to work only with the Guitar Craft tuning. When making a commitment of this sort, it is probably better to be definite about the period of time, but I was not so clear headed. I vacillated between “forever and ever” and “for now”, whatever that means. What I settled into was “for the foreseeable future, but as if it were forever.” Basically, it was clear to me that I would never develop any real proficiency in this new tuning if I always had an “out”; a psychological and emotional, and practical, safety net. So for 12 years, if I wanted to play something, I had to find a way to play it on an instrument tuned in fifths. No exceptions.

In 1997, things were changing fast. I was preparing to leave NYC behind, and heading to parts unknown, which eventually became “Seattle”. Part of the plan was to let go of the corporate jobs I had been doing to keep myself afloat in Manhattan, and to earn my way strictly through music, primarily teaching. Before I left NY I literally threw all of my suits and ties away (actually, dropped them in the donation box of a church thrift store in Chincoteague, Virginia).

As much as I love working with Guitar Craft students, the reality was that this plan would necessarily involve taking on students who were not inclined to jump into a new tuning. At about that moment my friend Roy told me he was heading out to a music store in suburban New Jersey to look at Fender guitars they had on sale. I joined him, and while I was there a sunburst Lone Star Stratocaster jumped into my lap and wouldn’t leave. I kept the guitar around as something to noodle on from time to time for fun, and to have for those students who preferred the traditional tuning. All of my creative musical work was still in Guitar Circles, using the Guitar Craft tuning.

But teaching in O(ld) S(tandard) T(uning) required me to do some homework in OST. Matters of basic mechanics are indifferent to tuning, but it was my responsibility to get myself back up to speed on the OST fretboard. The most striking thing I noticed through this process was that despite more than a decade of never putting my hand on an instrument tuned in this way, I could instantly see the organization on the fretboard. I wasn’t “remembering” the NST fretboard. At no time prior to walking away from it had I seen it in this way, or with this detail, or understood it with this depth of clarity. My realization was that while I thought I was learning a new tuning during those years, what I was actually doing was learning how to see and hear; to be able to recognize musical patterns and relationships independent of the tuning.

So I worked with the “old” tuning as much as my teaching obligations required, and then a bit more, for fun, for me. And since the blues is my bedrock, it was going to come out. Pretty much everything I play, regardless of the tuning, has the blues in it, but here it was again in a very simple and pure form.

With the completion of Tuning the Air in December 2011, I began to work seriously in this tuning again, because there was some music I really wanted to play.

Special Project 01

Prologue 1

I had my very first guitar lesson sometime in September 1974. I was 21 years old and had been playing guitar for about 8 years, but I was self-taught. That is to say, I learned how to play guitar from an idiot. September 1974 was my first semester at Berklee, and guitar lessons were part of the deal.

The thing about guitar lessons at Berklee: they don’t actually teach you to play guitar. They more or less assume that you can play guitar, that you know how to practice, and that following their syllabus for guitar will guide you to greater marketable skills.

The program is geared toward becoming a more proficient professional musician, and perhaps that is as it should be.

I was not particular sharp in my awareness at the time. I was cruising through life on auto-pilot vaguely doing stuff that seemed like it would help me get better. I really had very little conscious awareness of what I needed, but I did have some pretty good intuitions in that regard, which I applied in my typically scattershot and haphazard way. I remember specifically asking my assigned guitar teacher how to hold a pick, and I remember him looking at me with a “what the hell are you talking about? You just hold it” expression on his face. In my second year I signed myself up for classical guitar lessons as well as the regular ones, in the hope that this would address some of my questions about mechanics and what I thought should be rudimentary technique, but mostly I ended up slogging through etudes guided by a very nice fellow who either really had no clue what the issue was, or was too busy with too many students to actually address what he saw. Or maybe I was just too much of a dunderhead to hear or accept the advice I was asking for.

Not ragging on Berklee. Their beauty and genius, at least in the mid-seventies, was that anyone willing to work and apply themselves was welcome. That was me, and I loved the experience, and got things out of it that continue to nourish me today.

But they couldn’t teach me to play the guitar. And I was not sufficiently autonomous in my seeing and reasoning to know exactly what I needed. I just knew I needed something.

Flash forward 10-ish years. I’ve been applying myself as best I can. All recorded evidence suggests there has been improvement in my playing. But nothing has happened to improve my technique, or to address the things that were holding me back. I am keenly aware that I have hit a wall.

In walks Guitar Craft.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Plagiarizing The Blues

The other day I was listening to the remastered Disraeli Gears that I bought on iTunes, and I noticed that “Outside Woman Blues” had Eric Clapton listed as the composer. I’m inclined to give Eric the benefit of the doubt on this one, and write it off as an iTunes error, or perhaps the Gracenote database. For one thing, it would be out of character. Clapton has always gone out of his way when it comes to giving credit to his artistic forebears.

But also, on the vinyl copy I bought in 1967 or 68 when it came out, the song was credited to a guy named Arthur Reynolds. The reason I remember this rather obscure fact is that in those pre-internet days this gave me a world of trouble. It was my practice at the time (still is, in fact) to go back and learn as much as possible about the people who wrote the songs I liked, and influenced the musicians I admired. Almost all of the early blues artists that I now love the most came to my attention in this way. I could never find any records by, or even references to an Arthur Reynolds, and it was only some years later that I learned that this was an error on the album credits, and that the actual composer was a guy named Blind Joe Reynolds. At least that’s who I think wrote it, as of right now. I have a recording from 1929 of him playing it. I can thank Eric Clapton for introducing me to Blind Joe Reynolds, and Skip James, and Robert Johnson.

Jimmy Page, of course, takes a slightly different approach. I love Jimmy very genuinely, but it is love with a twitchy asterisk. I wish it were otherwise. I’d like to be able to love Led Zeppelin unconditionally, but sadly I can’t. I don’t actually have as bad an opinion of this pattern in his business practice as people I know, but some of it is so egregious it just breaks my heart. But I digress.

Giving credit where credit is due when you are performing blues tunes can be really tough. I’ve kind of given up saying who wrote a lot of the tunes I play, and instead refer to the artist that I learned it from. Anyone who has ever made an earnest attempt to properly credit the songs they are covering will tell you that the harder you look, the more confusing it gets.

The truth is that the musicians who originated this music nicked one another’s work all the time, and with impunity. My under-educated suspicion is that it was a world populated by musicians who just wanted to play, and were always looking for good material. When they heard a good lick or lyric, they’d grab it and then go write a song around it. Not really avarice, just a hunger for quality material. Was that plagiarism? I can’t really say. Did Robert Johnson really write all that stuff, or was he an extremely gifted aggregator of the material that was floating around in the common culture of the road houses and brothels that served as “the circuit”? What about Willie Dixon? It’s not really a question; just something I think about from time to time. I’m happy to leave it to people who actually enjoy scholarship to figure that stuff out.

For the earliest guys, there really was no monetary incentive to steal credit for a song. Stealing a song, yes. The better the material you played, the more paying gigs you got. But stealing credit? They weren’t getting paid for their compositions. I don’t think anyone was selling sheet music for these songs, so there was no publishing royalty. Maybe I’m wrong about that. If they were of a sufficient stature to get recorded, it was the record producers and record company owners stealing their royalties, not other musicians. I was listening to a Big Mama Thornton album that I borrowed from the library a while back, and noticed that almost every song on the album credited Don Robey as one of the composers. Don Robey was a well-known thug who owned Peacock Records, and didn’t write shit. But that’s where the money was, and getting paid was Don Robey’s business model.

In Undercover Blues Band, we do a song called “Two Trains Running”. I learned it, or at least the lyrics, from the second Butterfield Blues Band album, "East-West". The composer credited on that album is “Davis”, whoever that is. Outside of that record, there really is no such song. It’s basically Muddy Waters’ “Still a Fool” played with an up-tempo Chicago jump groove, and a couple of verses traded out for verses from other Muddy Waters tunes. The arrangement we use for the song is similar to “Still a Fool”, with the particulars lifted from a song on the first Johnny Winter album called “Tribute to Muddy”, which includes many of these lyrics, plus a whole bunch more from other Muddy tunes, played with a mighty, mighty swamp groove. According to the album credits, “Tribute to Muddy” was written by Johnny Winter. Okay, you can claim you wrote someone else's song if you preface the title with "Tribute to"? Both the Winter and Butterfield versions include the familiar “I wish I was a catfish” verse. But that verse is not in "Still a Fool". It is actually the first verse of “Rolling Stone” by Muddy Waters. Oh, wait, it’s the first verse of “Catfish Blues” by John Lee Hooker. Yeah, but that verse about “she’s long and she’s tall and she weeps like a willow tree”, that’s from “Still a Fool”, right? Or is it Hooker’s “Weeping Willow Boogie”?

So basically, if I want to do the honorable thing and credit the composer of this song, I’m screwed. I’m not qualified to say with any authority who wrote it; Hooker? Waters? Some guy named Davis? Butterfield? Johnny Winter? Somebody less well known that they all stole from? I give up.

But one thing I know for damn certain (Jimmy!): I didn’t write it.

New blog, background photo

This is the background image I am using for my reactivated blog. It features a couple of the things in my life that make me happiest. Of course there is Melvin; purr-box extraordinaire. And in this photo he is sleeping on top of my 1965 blackface Fender Super Reverb. From time to time I walk over to this amp, turn it on, plug in the Strat, strum an "E" chord, shut it down, unplug, and walk away smiling. Melvin is indifferent to the glorious sound that comes from the amp, but he is very happy that a pair of 6L6's and a handful 12AX7's make it the warmest spot in the house.

The beast on The Beast

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ralph Davis (1948-2013)

On July 31, 2013, my old friend, Ralph Davis, passed away in his sleep. Ralph was an incredibly gifted pianist, and above all a quality human being. Throughout the 70s we played together in a number of combos. I went to Berklee to study jazz, but most of what I actually know I learned from Ralph. After not seeing him for over 30 years, we managed to reconnect when I was visiting DC for Thanksgiving, 2011. 3/4 of the old band got together to play, and it was a joy. When I was visiting again over the Christmas 2012 holiday, we managed to get everyone together for an afternoon of music. It was like we never left.

I'm heartbroken that he is gone. But I am so very glad we managed to find one another again first.

Some music:

 (feel free to ignore the over-enthusiastic young guitarist)


Now THIS is an obit. Including stuff I had no idea about.

Ralph was born in Brooklyn, New York and spent his early years in Carlisle, Pennsylvania before moving to Washington, DC in his teens. His father Bertram Davis was a university professor and instilled a love of learning in Ralph that never left him. His mother Ruth Benedict was a talented singer and musician and Ralph inherited her love of music.

Ralph graduated from Andover Academy in the early 1960's and continued his education at Columbia University in New York City where he graduated with a degree in Russian Literature. Later he completed a Masters Degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Clinical Hypnotherapy from American Holistic University.

Ralph's talents and interests were varied and eclectic. He was a gifted and innovative jazz musician and an accomplished professional piano player. He attended the Eastman School of Music to further his improvisational skills and became a sought after performer in DC during the 1970's.

Ralph spoke eight languages, was a brilliant writer and editor, and authored eight books on computer programming. He loved to travel, drink good coffee, hike in the Shenandoah Mountains, and recently climbed Buck Mountain in Lake George, New York. An avid reader, Ralph loved contemporary and classical fiction, history, and spiritual reading of all kinds.

Professionally, Ralph accompanied the chorus and led the hand chimes at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and played for musicals at the Riverside Theatre. In addition, he spent much of his life as a computer programmer, and in recent years had also become a hypnotherapist, an energy tapping practitioner, and a mantra master. He thought deeply about life and offered wise counsel to his many clients, friends, and associates. Ralph was a kind and gentle man with a strong loving heart and a deep compassion for all living beings.