Archive for the writings Category

RECORDING | Gentleman Echo – There Shall Be No Circles

Posted in recordings, writings with tags , , , , on October 10, 2017 by dukewisdom

Gentleman Echo – There Shall Be No Circles

First things first: Why the fuck would anyone want to listen to a self-indulgent vanity project featuring 50 minutes of me playing improvised guitar solos? Hell if I know. But if that sort of thing is up your alley, consider this a lucky circumstance.

The blueprint for this album sketched itself out while I was submersed in listening to saxophonist Colin Stetson, whose New History Warfare recordings combine a whitewater stream of adventurous improvisation with the percussive element of contact and other close microphones. His use of circular breathing and the manic attack on his instrument yields a unique texture. My original plan was to execute a set of improvs using 2-hand tapping techniques, each piece restricted to performance on one string of the guitar. The first completed segment (on the B string) was promptly lost in a hard drive failure (back your shit up fast, people). While that was a setback, I was already questioning whether I could actually sustain interest (my own or anyone’s) and keep from repeating myself over the course of a full album. So I switched gears.

What I wound up with is a combination of the original principle and some regulatory arrangement impositions used on previous Gentleman Echo releases. More on that below. These recordings are 96% first takes, but to be clear: I have made edits, added garnish, dabbed on mascara where I felt like it. I also left some blemishes. Here come the track-by-track details:

1. Colonist at the Transom 
[Drone note: B]
“Indeed, they have arrived. You’re being watched and I think you know it.” 

Though my performance concept shifted, I decided to stick with letting the pitch centers be dictated by the strings of a guitar in standard tuning. The pitch center of each track is underpinned by an electronically generated drone employed to perhaps put me in a state of mind the way a tamboura might provide atmosphere for a raga. Atop those I winged it. “Colonist” is a brooding little trip, and though it differs in obvious ways from Eddie Hazel’s Funkadelic freakout, it may be my own personal “Maggot Brain.” (Then again, it may not be.)

2. We Cursed the Day with Distended Tongues 
[Drone note: D]
“There’s no longer any need for self-censorship.” 

This is the most agitated (agitating?) track on the album, and the most in line with the original spirit of the project. I’ve never really been a big tapping guy, but I certainly appreciate those who’ve done something fascinating with the technique—Hackett, Zappa, Vai, Satriani, Buckethead, Rhoads and Van Halen come to mind. Yet when I listen to “Cursed,” I think more of something Billy Sheehan might play. That will work. Another side effect of this not being my normal bag is that I found the actual performance to be a definite physical workout. I wound up winded and sweaty when the take was done, like some junior varsity Colin Stetson. (You really should watch the guy play. It often appears he might pass out or disintegrate.) And speaking of Stetson again, his influence is present not only in the unceasing spew of notes, but also in the fact that you can occasionally hear my physical interaction with the instrument, the mic picking up my fretboard whacking. This track also features the additional intermittent sound element of cicadas recorded from my driveway. Oh, how they drone.

3. Man Amid Oscilloscopes 
[Drone note: E]
“There are many voltage changes to be analyzed, are there not?” 

“Man” combines two guitar tracks, one restricted to the low E and one to the high E (though rote motor moves may account for a note or three on other strings). Each take was created without reference or respect to the other. This idea has been used elsewhere in the Gentleman Echo catalog such as the track “Clandestine Umbrellas” (Research Arc) and the entirety of Islands Shouting Lies: Multiple tracks are pitted against each other to produce a false interaction that never happened in real time. If you’re familiar with the technique, you’ll recognize this fake blind jamming as what Zappa called xenochrony.

Happy (?) accident regarding the high E part: Owing to a sketchy cable or iffy jack or who knows what, I occasionally got some glitchy weirdness, mostly in the attacks of notes. In the back of my mind I knew I’d read that during the making of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis and/or Teo Macero decided to keep the unexpected result of a certain piece of gear misfiring [citation needed]. So, on the spot I decided to just go with it.

4. An Injured Shotgun Firing Ivory 
[Drone note: A]
“Even weapons feel the pain now.” 

Here’s another false duet with myself, but one that contains a kind-of-planned interaction between electric and acoustic guitars. At some point while recording the distorted guitar line I thought, hey, I should leave a couple of spaces for an acoustic. So that’s what I did. Instant interplay! Happy (?) accident related to that overdriven part: While recording, I was working a wah pedal with my right foot (the only true and proper way to do so) and switching a delay pedal on and off with my left. At some point in trying to click the delay off, I hit the switch too many times and sent it into some unknown mode I didn’t didn’t know how to stop. So, there’s that.

5. Murmansk 
[Drone note: G]
“At last, beneath the railway station.” 

Still there? “Murmansk” serves as a bookend to “Colonist,” another clean tone meditation on a single pitch. What scales do you hear?

Did I manage to sustain interest? Not sure. As I get a bit further away and more detached from the actual production of the music, I think this may ultimately serve as good mass of material for self-study. What are my own habits and cliches? What do I think is sorta bitchen and what do I hate? I waver between thinking that a) the music is something to dive fully into, staring at the phrases as they pass like comets on an infinite bed of velvet and b) that it’s something to put on while doing something in another room. I suppose both serve a purpose.

Gear used on this album: ’00s Michael Kelly Valor-Q with direct-mounted, zebra-coil Rockfield SCW humbuckers, 2006 Gibson Les Paul Studio, ’70s Opus XX acoustic, ’70s Fender Pro Reverb, ’00s Fender Hot Rod Deville 4×10

Performed and assembled by Troy Van Horn
Realized at The Prussian Film Commission

Thanks and acknowledgements to: Venus forever, Mas for Yeti macrolending, Gregg for POG passage, Rex Woodwind for design stewardship and dumpster chicken object, Remote Dave for disappearing percussion, Alberto and Dahveed from Giant Deer Bear, Duke Wisdom, Syd Faraday.

Coda: Walter Becker of Steely Dan died the weekend I was finishing this music. Though I wasn’t specifically thinking of him while making these recordings, I suppose his pristine clean tones on the likes “Hey Nineteen” and “Negative Girl” are always in my ear as a benchmark. Molly Hatchet’s Dave Hlubek also passed the same day. I can safely say his playing did not influence my performance–at least within the present project. At any rate, this album is dedicated to the two guitarists.

Want to listen? Download for free (or throw a man a couple bucks) at Bandcamp.

TRANSCRIPTION | “Friday Night (Is Killing Me)”

Posted in writings with tags , , , , , on December 4, 2016 by dukewisdom


Here’s a scrap I found floating around on the old laptop. It’s a transcription I made (at the request of a friend) of the song “Friday Night (Is Killing Me)” by Bash & Pop, a band formed by Tommy Stinson after the Replacements broke up (and who have reemerged in 2016). (Sorry for those hoping for tab of “Friday Night” by Vandenberg.)

Why bother dusting off this handwritten fragment? For starters, check out the amorphous EBEBAE tuning. Is it “open E11” or “open A sus2” or … what? Also, it reminds me to talk about learning songs by ear: We’re now probably in the best position ever to figure out how to play songs. In this instance I studied the studio recording and a live YouTube video. The combination of hearing a clean version and eyeballing what’s actually going on can be pretty illuminative (assuming they’re both being executed the same way). What’s more, we now often have access to loads of online transcriptions. As most of those are in no way vetted, it can be a risky proposition, but stitching together the best of several interpretations can be effective. And, of course, we no longer have to degrade our media and hardware by playing one second fragments of Zappa keyboard lines again and again (am I projecting?) since there are many software options for looping and slowing down audio. Use all of your resources, people!

Speaking of the accuracy of random online transcriptions, is the above 100% precise? Not sure. Why don’t you play along and decide for yourself?

WORMHOLE GUITAR | Binary Arpeggios

Posted in wormhole guitar, writings with tags , , on March 4, 2015 by dukewisdom
Example 1: Am | E

Example 1: Am | E

Example 2: Am | Ebm

Example 2: Am | Ebm

Example 3: Am | Bm

Example 3: Am | Bm

What about it?

A “binary arpeggio,” as I’m calling it, is a pattern created by interweaving the tones of two complimentary or opposing chords. The first note of the sequence belongs to the primary chord, the second note to the secondary chord, and so on. The concept is simple, but there are multiple ways to realize such frameworks. In Examples 1 and 2 the facing chords are represented by toggling between their root notes, then thirds and fifths. Example 3, on the other hand, shuffles the chord tones into a more complex root¹- fifth², root² – fifth³, third¹ – third² distribution. Note also that the chords which are paired may be diatonically related as in Example 1 (A minor) and Example 3 (F major) or harmonically at odds as in Example 2.

Why bother?

As with previous Wormhole Guitar material like Compound Arpeggios No. 1, the binary shapes provide unusual fingerings which makes them valuable as exercises. Run these patterns on loop to a metronome observing the picking notations and watch your technique develop. But of course the more important function of the concept is to spark creativity. Stuck in a writing rut? Do your new riffs sound like third-rate Jimmy Page? Try to intertwine some logically connected or wildly disparate chords and marvel at the unique sounds.

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. 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 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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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