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ARCHIVE | The TrueFire experience

Posted in archive with tags on October 13, 2014 by dukewisdom


Dusting off a video lesson: In late 2013 I was fortunate enough to find myself among the ten finalists for TrueFire’s “Next Top Guitar Instructor” competition. For those who don’t know, TrueFire is a massive interactive guitar instruction site featuring (and operated by) some very talented and respected figures in the world of guitar—and once in awhile the likes of yours truly. The competition involved several weeks of voting on video lessons submitted by the ten contestants. In the end, I got utterly destroyed, but that’s alright; it was a great experience and I got to interact with some fascinating musicians as well as have my playing and teaching exposed to a large audience.

Featured here, for posterity, is the video I presented as an audition for the competition, an esoteric little lesson that did the trick. (The contest videos themselves are still live on TrueFire’s YouTube channel. Make sure to read the user comments for insightful arguments on music theory topics, remarks about my hair and so on.)

And while you’re at it, click here to download the transcription of “Hybrid-picked legato triple stops.”

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ARCHIVE | Pop Zeus: The Compositional Conventions of Robert Pollard

Posted in archive, writings with tags , on August 2, 2013 by dukewisdom

This is another article that appeared on the long deceased Grace & Fury website. Robert Pollard, of course, is the driving force behind the iconic Guided By Voices, a band that rose from lo-fi indie rock obscurity to bonafide rock stardom – sort of. Though they had some decent exposure, they were always a little too weird and contrary to become widespread darlings of airplay or promotion.

Around the release of the album Isolation Drills some friends and I had a band called The Official Ironmen. We played all GbV and Pollard songs at a time when “tribute bands” and “tribute albums” weren’t quite as overwrought as they have become. Basically it was just a blast to play this great music, hang out, and drink beer. Though the songs were not difficult or outwardly complex, the guitar teacher in me, absorbing a body of work, observed recurring musical themes. What follows is a discussion of my observations.

Interesting (?) footnote: Once upon a time this article was linked to from the band’s official website, perhaps imbuing it with some sort of historic legitimacy.

***

Songwriters, like artists working in any field for an extended period of time and producing a large volume of work, walk a fine line between self repetition and assertion of personal style via recurring motifs or compositional elements. A great artist is one who is prolific yet constantly inventive. Guided By Voices’ captain and chief songwriter Robert Pollard is one such person. If Paul McCartney or Andy Partridge hasn’t already written a certain great melody, chances are Pollard has. And prolific? Someday we may need to have a scholarly cataloging of his works, ala Mozart’s Kochel: Pollard himself estimates that he may have written 5000 songs! While all of these may not be fully realized and arranged, you can bet that most of them contain at least one great hook.

While Bob Pollard is excessively productive and owns a gift for mercurial melody, an essay of the material he has written nevertheless points out certain traits which may be seen as cornerstones of his compositional method. The following examples will outline several of the more common conventions that Pollard constantly re-disguises as great new songs.

I. Open String Drones/Arpeggios
This is a staple in the GbV galaxy. Ringing notes within a pattern or riff create a certain continuity of sound and lend an often simple pattern complex tonal and theoretical implications. The main pattern from “Tractor Rape Chain” (Bee Thousand) illustrates this clearly. The superimposition of simple dyads over a droning A yield a sonically dense series of chords.

The progression could be labeled simply E/A – C#/A – D/A – B/A – A. However, technically the inference which can be made is Aadd9 – C#m6 – D – B7 – A, a much more complicated reading which belies the riff’s simplicity.
This arpeggiated pattern from “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) presents more of the same.

Here again, a rather self-explanatory sequence presents a progression which can be interpreted as Cadd9 – Fadd9 – Aadd11 – Dadd11 – G – Eb – F6 – G, the open strings providing added color to simple fifth shapes. A similar example of the open string arpeggio comes from “Wormhole” (Do the Collapse).

“Wormhole” also illustrates the use of dissonance and how in context (vis a vis the imminent resolution of the “unpleasing” notes) it does not sound incorrect. Further examples of this idea can be found in “Catfood on the Earwig” (Plantations of Pale Pink ep), “Cut-Out Witch” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) and numerous other places.

II. The bVI
Another common harmonic maneuver of Robert Pollard is the chord change of a bVI. While not extremely uncommon in popular music, this can be a rather jarring modulation but one which makes complete sense in its surroundings. Again here, the context — the following chord, the vocal melody atop the seemingly “out of key” chord — allows the progression to work logically. Examples of this type of change can be found in the following:

“Surgical Focus” (Do the Collapse): the verse progression of F – C – Bb – F – Db – Bb – F contains said movement (F – Db). The bVI chord is directly followed by the IV which resolves back to the tonic of F.

“Much Better Mr. Buckles” (Do the Collapse): again the verse pattern, G – Bm – G – Bm – C – Eb – G, eventually lands on the bVI (Eb) which in this case directly resolves to the I chord, G.

“Underground Initiations” (Hold on Hope ep): The pre-chorus includes a progression similar to “Surgical Focus” above where the bVI chord is followed by the more theoretically “stable” IV: E – C – A.

As with any type of writing, be it composition of melody, chord progression or even rhythm, often the factor which seems to be angular or flat out incorrect proves to be a great hook. We just can’t wait to hear that odd element one more time.

III. Jagged Rhythms
Of course rhythmic themes can be inescapably catchy components of a piece of music. For all its brilliant harmonic content, when most people think of Ravel’s “Bolero” they think of its famous rhythm (a “bolero” being a Spanish dance form). Or to go in a completely opposite direction, some contemporary dance music may as well be devoid of melody all together, as long as the beat keeps pounding.

Throughout his work, Pollard has presented some rhythmic hooks which are as effective as his melodic ones. The best of these riffs are syncopated — full of holes and hiccups. While not exceedingly difficult to play, they are quite memorable. This theme from the title track of Pollard’s Waved Out is almost heavy metal in its relentlessness.

The great new album Isolation Drills features an addictive rhythmic pattern on “The Brides Have Hit Glass.” This motif which drives the songs verses becomes even more effective when contrasted with the other sections of the song.

The rather sharp rhythmic texture plays interestingly against the characteristically smooth maj7 chords which occupy the beats.

“Do Something Real” (Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department) features another hard rocking riff as its backbone:

This is another case where the pattern isn’t a constant assault, but instead a very effective theme which when returned to between verses moves the song forward aggressively.

Recently Bob Pollard advised audience members to “remember the four P’s: Pop, Psychedelic, Punk and Prog.” Certainly in a recording career which began in 1987 he and GBV have embraced elements of all of the above. In interviews he has cited favorites from the Who to Wire to Genesis. No doubt this broad foundation and fascination with rock music in general has had an impact on the constant freshness of Pollard’s output. At times it seems that if you immersed yourself in the dozens of albums put out under various band configurations and aliases, Robert Pollard himself could teach you all there is to know about rock and roll. The above examples are the briefest of introductions to the work of a singular figure in pop music today. Enjoy these observations, and then go to the Library of Pollard and discover your own. And spread the word.

Coming soon: a Taoist reading of Robert Pollard’s lyrics.
(Just kidding)

All music examples above written by Robert Pollard.

ARCHIVE | Black Ops Guitar No. 5: Skeletons

Posted in archive, columns with tags , , on May 31, 2013 by dukewisdom

Black Ops Guitar was a column that appeared on Hardenedmagazine.com starting in 2009. It disappeared in a mysterious site crash. Or maybe the feds got to it.

Figure 1

Figure 1

skeletons_figure2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

What about it?

Whereas Black Ops Guitar Nos. 1 – 4 are expressly devoted to making your fingers move in unfamiliar ways—even at the sacrifice of melodic/musical value—B.O.G. No. 5: Skeletons aims mostly to flex the brain. What’s displayed here is not a physical exercise, per se, but a mental one, designed to make you examine familiar material in a new light. There aren’t even any microscopically detailed picking/fingering instructions, if you can believe that. As is often the case, this subject presupposes that you know and understand how the diatonic modes work and fit together on the neck.

The gist of the Skeletons concept is to create new scale shapes by placing arbitrary spatial restrictions on existing forms. Huh? Take a look at Figures 1 & 2. By capitalizing on the guitar neck’s inherent geometric nature, you can derive some unusual sounding patterns by playing only the scale notes in, for example, a three-fret radius. So, while the base Ionian fingering (1.1) spans four positions (II-V), playing only the notes on the third through fifth frets yields a “skeleton” of the original (1.2).  The same goes for the Dorian mode (2.1 resulting in the very boxy 2.2) and all the rest.

Technical note: These forms are only “skeletal” insofar as they are mutations of guitar-based fingerings. There is nothing melodically “outside”: All of the scale tones are represented, just not in the normal order. For instance, in the case of G major, you’ll notice that G, A, B, C, D, E, F# are all accounted for, just juggled.

Why bother?

One of the goals of the Black Ops series is to inspire new guitar habits. These are often in the form of new physical gestures that come from practicing uncommon patterns, but also manifest themselves in new ways of thinking about the guitar neck. Because they cause the scale tones to appear in a peculiar order, these “synthetic” fingerings have unexpected intervallic jumps—which is entirely the point. By building wider leaps into the source material of the fingerings, you’ll likely play phrases unlike anything you’ve previously conceived. Figure 3 is an example of a line improvised using this method. Not exactly typical rock and roll licks, right?

Use this approach when improvising, creating melodic themes or riffs. As with most of the ideas laid out in this series, the present concept is merely a catalyst: While taking this essentially visual approach to playing, be sure not to miss the sound of what you come up with. Internalize the atmosphere of these new, alien phrases and how they resonate against a chord progression. Then call on these boxy shapes to help, uhh, break out of a box.

 

ARCHIVE | Black Ops Guitar No. 4: Bizarpeggios 1

Posted in archive, columns, writings with tags , , on May 30, 2013 by dukewisdom

Black Ops Guitar was a column that appeared on Hardenedmagazine.com starting in 2009. It disappeared in a mysterious site crash. Or maybe the feds got to it.

Black Ops No. 4

Black Ops No. 4

What about it?

Only four little measures, you may be thinking. Right—four measures of eyebrow-raising, finger-contorting mayhem! Alright … that might be overstating it a bit. Bizarpeggios 1 is a logical extension of the previous Black Ops Guitar entry, Arpeggio Exchange 23. At first glance, it may appear that there isn’t anything logical about it—but bear with me. The piece at hand continues with the concept of fluid sweeping across six strings and, as such, the same performance tips will apply: 1. Pick with a smooth, continuous motion while maintaining a consistent pick angle for the ascending and descending sequences. 2. When fretting the notes, roll through the chord shapes with minimal movement, keeping your wrist dropped and thumb toward the middle of the neck.

Regarding those shapes: The succession of names may look more like chemical nomenclature than a chord progression. Without going too far into the vortex of music theory, as chords have more notes heaped upon them, their names can become increasingly ambiguous, sometimes to the point of confusion or uselessness. A three note chord has fewer naming permutations than one with five as with those here; these chords are simply given their least tedious names regardless of original conception (more on that later). One other point is that three of the four chords are inversions, which is to say some other note than the root or namesake is the lowest of the set; just because the chord implied in measure 1 starts with an A, does not necessarily mean that it’s most logically characterized by an A root.

Why bother?

As ever with Black Ops, the point is to teach your hand new gestures and your ear new possibilities. The fingerings here are rather awkward and the sonorities unusual. But practice the four measures for the next 15 minutes and, like learning a C chord for the first time (uh, you do know a C, don’t you?), the moves will become easier. More importantly, work on Bizarpeggios 1 for the next week and the shapes and sounds will become natural and internalized. To lift the shroud, this pocket etude is based around a D minor tonality; play the arpeggios over a D pedal tone and hear how they make musical sense. Then, once digested, apply them in everyday life and become approximately 2% more snazzy than the run-of-the-mill guitarist next door.

ARCHIVE | Black Ops Guitar No. 1: Cross Section

Posted in archive, columns, writings with tags , , on May 30, 2013 by dukewisdom

Black Ops Guitar was a column that appeared on Hardenedmagazine.com starting in 2009. It disappeared in a mysterious site crash. Or maybe the feds got to it.

Black Ops Guitar No. 1 - 2009

Black Ops Guitar No. 1 – 2009

 

What about it?

Cross Section is ugly. You shouldn’t listen to it. You should use it to drive away vermin or relatives. At any rate it’s still beneficial  for your hands. There are two key points of focus when working out this fragment. First, the fingers of your fretting hand should move smoothly through the formations as opposed to being locked down on some grotesque four-string shapes; each finger frets a note as it is picked and then moves on to its next assignment. This will ensure that single notes are being played, not sustained, ringing tones. It will also ingrain independence, strength and dexterity in finger gestures. Second, your picking motion should be even and fluid, the pick gliding across the plain of the strings in one movement. Attempting to pick each note with an individual motion will yield a choppy mess that goes entirely against the point. Watch those picking instructions closely, particularly on the descending section in measure four.

Why bother?

Independent fingers save lives. Independent fingers repair the economy. Yeah, ok—independent fingers are simply a big plus for your playing. The ability to move easily across the strings with both hands will boost speed and precision in any type of playing. This exercise is essentially one of sweep picking, but that doesn’t mean you have to aspire to being a “shredder.” Good technique is just good technique. Melodically, the thing is an atonal pile of junk, unusable in any diatonic context. And that’s alright—the idea is to dig into the method itself, practically divorcing yourself from the thought that this particular set of notes has any musical application.  
Black Ops Guitar is a nasty little series of exercises. Use them to your advantage, then deny they ever existed.

ARCHIVE | Grace & Fury #4: Take Five

Posted in archive, columns, writings with tags , on May 30, 2013 by dukewisdom

“Grace & Fury” was the name of my teaching studio from about 1994 through 2000. It was also the name of an online guitar magazine I operated. In late 2007 I resurrected the name for a column I was contributing to Heavy Frequency magazine. I had planned for a series of six articles, but before I could complete them the HF staff decided to cease operation (uhh … purely coincidental, I’m sure). For posterity and the sake of archiving I’ll repost them here.

Intro

Hello there. Ready for some jargon-infested musical minutiae, trifling details, and technical nitpicking? Then by all means, step right in! Ok, it won’t be all that bad. In reality, if you’ve been following Grace & Fury (or would like to jump back to Grace & Fury #1 and catch up) hopefully you are noticing that the attention to such details as are always presented is adding up to a different touch and approach to aspects of your playing. Alert! Incoming pomposity: the great Andres Segovia said, grandiosely, “It is always about discovering what, hidden, does not lie on the paper.” Huh? He was referring to the importance of the interpretation of a piece of music, the value of not just rotely playing notes, but making something great out of what is essentially a set of instructions. But the same could be applied to these exercises: to internalize the principles that repeatedly appear in these pieces – not to simply play the notes – is to grow as a musician. And that’s what we’re talking about.

Principles

I know what you’re thinking: what does a Paul Desmond jazz standard have to do with anything? We’re not talking about that Take Five. The “five” in question here refers to the pentatonic minor scale, that warhorse of a musical building block which has served so many a guitarist well. Whereas we’ve previously explored and exploited somewhat more melodically complicated fodder (fancy scales, weirdo arpeggios, if you’ll permit my theory talk) the workout here is based around, of course, five notes. Take Five is so far the shortest piece presented in this series in terms of number of measures, number of notes. The intervallic formula for this scale is root – minor 3rd – fourth – fifth – minor 7th; compared with previously used diatonic scales, pentatonic minor is sort of an exoskeleton. The holes in the scale (the missing 2nd and 6th) give it a less strict definition. This simplicity is part of its universal appeal.

Short and simple though this bit may be, the piece still covers some ground. The structure of Take Five is based around the concept of “pedal point.” This is a term borrowed from the pipe organ discipline where an organist may sustain a constant note by holding down a foot pedal – and I don’t mean a Crybaby wah-wah. This held note serves as an anchor of sorts, atop which various musical ideas unfold. In our example, the pedal tones (E ascending, A descending) function as pivots to which the other notes of the scale bounce back. You’ve likely heard such sequences many times; now to play one.

Fretting

While a pentatonic scale is certainly very simple to play, its use here is stretched to the extreme – literally and figuratively. While the pattern starts with the ring finger on the pedal point, before measure one is even out a subtle shift takes place with the index finger assuming that position. There are multiple points where consecutive notes on different strings (adjacent and non-adjacent) are fretted by the same finger. This is not to say that the fingertip actually jumps about. Instead, pressure must be rocked back and forth. Notes should not ring out; even in the case of measure two where the G and E notes are both played on the 12th fret by the index finger, the strings should not be held down as with a barre chord.

On the descending half of the exercise (measures three through six) the pinky serves as the pivot with the other fingers passing down through the scale. Generally, picking is the most difficult aspect of string skipping, but here the fingering gets demanding too, as the rocking gesture combines with some wide stretches, culminating in a seven fret, six string reach over the interval of a 20th.

Picking

Take Five is a strict alternate picking workout – down, up, down, up all the way. However, those downs and up (bi-polar picking?) cover up to six strings. I’m always preaching economy of motion, but a certain amount of movement is necessary to simply pick the low E followed by the high E. Try to keep the pick moving smoothly through the plane just above the strings. As mentioned previously, strings are, in reality, very small – there is no need to get bogged down by digging in deeply with the pick. Use only the very point of the plectrum to play the pedal points.

Conclusion

Should you throw this lick in the next time you’re jamming on Johnny B. Goode? I’m not sure that’s advisable. Again, it’s not the notes themselves, but the principles and gestures introduced to the brain and hands that are important. Spending some time with this (or any) exercise will give your fingers new habits that will spice up your playing and increase your vocabulary. And that, friends, is how you incorporate Segovia, Paul Desmond and pipe organs into one article on guitar playing.

Take 5 - 2008 Van Horn

Take 5 – 2008 Van Horn

ARCHIVE | Grace & Fury #3: Infinite Diminished Labyrinth

Posted in archive, columns, writings with tags , on May 30, 2013 by dukewisdom

“Grace & Fury” was the name of my teaching studio from about 1994 through 2000. It was also the name of an online guitar magazine I operated. In late 2007 I resurrected the name for a column I was contributing to Heavy Frequency magazine. I had planned for a series of six articles, but before I could complete them the HF staff decided to cease operation (uhh … purely coincidental, I’m sure). For posterity and the sake of archiving I’ll repost them here.

Intro

Welcome back to Grace and Fury – thanks for clicking in. In this edition we will continue to build on ideas from previous columns, incorporating such techniques as directional picking and string skipping. Whereas preceding musical examples derived digital difficulty through somewhat standard sounds, the ten measures below will twist the ear and the hands with the dissonant dementia of the diminished scale. This installment’s title may sound like a medieval torture chamber, but hopefully it won’t feel that way. It may sound a bit ugly – or maybe you’ll love it. In the end you’ll assimilate yet another new set of moves into your bag of tricks.

Principles

As mentioned, this piece exists entirely within the diminished scale. In prior articles, musical examples have been derived from seven note diatonic scales. See HF February 2008 for more. The diminished scale, on the other hand, is octatonic, containing eight notes per octave. While diatonic scales are made up of a combination of whole and half steps (a half step being a distance of one fret), the diminished scale has a symmetrical construction. Its formula is a repeating sequence of whole step – half step. In the included exercise the notes are, accordingly, A – B – C – D – Eb – F – F# – G#. In a sense, the diminished scale (like its white bread cousin the whole tone scale – six notes per octave a whole step at a time) is something of a “stunt scale.” It sounds slightly exotic and unusual. Also, owing to its symmetry, it can be moved three frets (the interval of a minor third) up or down and still be the same set of notes. It can be easy to get lost in the infinite diminished labyrinth. But once you understand how it fits together with other scales the applications themselves can be infinite.

By the way, now that the diminished scale has been described, it won’t actually be played in the accompanying piece. Why did I waste your time? That’s just how I get down. Actually, the patterns contained are derived from and based on the diminished scale. The basic building block of the Diminished Labyrinth is (note-to-note) root – minor third – flat fifth, or with respect to the scale, first note, third note, seventh note. This pattern repeats, moves and mutates around the noted three fret distance.

Fretting

This piece contains wide stretches and angular intervallic leaps. As such, the middle finger is never used (unless perhaps directed at the author). Stretches of three frets which would normally be assigned to the index and pinky fingers now often use an index-ring combination in context. As ever, keep the wrist dropped and thumb planted loosely at the middle of the back of the neck. While transitioning between positions make sure to keep fingers close to the fretboard, paying special attention to the vestigial middle finger. Even though it isn’t being used it should not be flailing about and wasting energy.

Picking

If you’ve been slaving away over previous entries such picking as directed here may be becoming second nature. Looking at just the series of down- and up-strokes may may be a baffling proposition. However, once the concept of directional picking (the economic and logical choice of stroke) is absorbed, the picking instructions won’t even be necessary. One pitfall of sweeping across adjacent strings with a single swipe, of course, is the tendency to become rhythmically lax. Make sure to pay special attention to keeping steady. Try to practice with a consistent source such as a metronome or grandfather clock. The metronome will be adjustable and portable, of course, so you might want to lean in that direction. Use compact picking motions for precision always and speed when necessary.

Conclusion

It was mentioned above that diminished patterns fit with diatonic patterns. Try superimposing the Labyrinth where you might normally use a minor scale. This example has several notes in common with the minor scale, notes which can be seen as points of departure and return. Even if you don’t necessarily grasp all of the theoretical hoopla, working in such patterns can lend an air of sophistication to your playing. For a completely mind boggling discourse on similar musical ideas hunt down a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.

Infinite Diminished Labyrinth - 2009 Van Horn

Infinite Diminished Labyrinth – 2009 Van Horn