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.