Archive for the ‘Guitar’ category

The Perennial Music of the Grateful Dead

June 21, 2015

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

— “Box of Rain”

The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.

The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.

Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record.  It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.

I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits.  But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.

grateful dead aoxomoxoaBut now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed.  I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions.  Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere.  Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.

I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.  I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.

I’m coming to revise that opinion now.  Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.

But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium.  There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped

You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.

But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel.  The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.

Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new.  Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered.  Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.

Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s.  He sees this as “creatively formative.”

Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it.  Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox.  “Sugar Magnolia….”

The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me.  The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.”  I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.

But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now.  Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.

I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.

Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.

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The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On

February 11, 2015

I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
— Steve Miller, Jet Airliner

At this point on my guitar learning adventure (as previously chronicled in such posts as The Impatience of Learning Guitar and Manchild with Guitar), I’m trying to challenge myself to play in more difficult territory and perhaps be able to claim to have some intermediate skills eventually, rather than to be just a beginner.

I’m still taking lessons from the same rock guitarist and music producer I’ve gone to for several years.  They are funny kind of lessons, but they have evolved over time and suit me.  I bring in a piece I want to learn how to play.  One time it was a simplified, if still complicated, Bach tune, another time a very fast (for me) blues-rock number.

I’m not quite sure what Eddy thinks when I bring along something like these to learn, at the edge of what I’m able to do.  He very patiently goes through each piece with me as we work on phrasing and technique.  As a working musician and quite a good teacher for a young guy, he’s a master at simplifying, if only temporarily, until I get up to speed on difficult passages.   I tend to throw my hands up in dismay at my effrontery in even thinking I can play them.  But we work through that, and with more practice than I like to say, I make progress.

Because Eddy loves to work with music, even my efforts, he’s taken to recording them in his home studio.  I think he likes to record me because I’m not going anywhere in particular with what I’m doing, and there are no expectations or demands or requirements on him for the finished results.  We just get to play around.

I now have a half-dozen or more recordings of my renditions.  They sound pretty good after he’s done splicing and editing them meticulously together.  They’re fun to have and to show off to any friends or family whom I can impose upon….  And I get to learn a little about music production, although half the time I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.

All Along the Watchtower

My latest project is to learn to play All Along the Watchtower, that wonderful version of a Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.  I think that’s my favorite Hendrix tune.  So I gathered together a bunch of instructional videos off of YouTube, got some sheet music together and backing tracks, and presented it to Eddy as what I wanted to do next.  I have to hand it to him, he didn’t blink, and started putting the backing tracks and the original song into ProTools to work on.

I want to do it like a Ventures tune, an instrumental version including the voice parts, which you don’t find done so much.  Although I had started trying to learn the opening rhythm section and the first intro solo, it was a bit of a shambles.  It’s another example of me ruing my ambitiousness.  So we’re going through the song step-by-step.  We’re up to the second solo and it’s starting to sound not too bad.

Hendrix was a monster player, as every guitarist realizes.  He played like there was absolutely no barrier between his musical will and his hands and fingers expressing that will on the guitar. And he must have had incredibly strong hands to bend the strings like crazy as he does.  Eddy has got me cheating on some of the more extreme bending, but it still sounds good.  And there’s one very fast passage so far — I’m working hard to get it into my fingers so I don’t have to think about it, and just do it.

There are many great solos in this song, and even if I’m not able in the end to play any of it very well (although I hope for better than that!), I’m still learning a lot by pushing at the boundaries of my ability in this way.  Even if I feel like a schmuck when I flounder, as I often do….

Useful Guitar Learning Resources on the Web

In my guitar journey, in addition to the useful sites mentioned in previous posts such as the great Robert Renman’s two — Dolphin Street and Master Guitar Academy — I have found some very good additional sites.  Almost all of these sites have a free lesson component and then offer lessons or material to buy.  The proportion of free on the ones I’ll note here is quite high.

The kind of free instructive material is also important — some of the most commercial sites just offer fragments to entice you rather than anything useful.  I think the better sites like Renman’s are actually very smart marketing — I’ve learned a lot from his free stuff and I’ve gone on to buy several lessons I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in.  I know the detail and care he puts into them.

1) Fundamental Changes — Lots of lessons “In the Style of ….” (Dave Gilmour, B.B. King, Keith Richards, etc.) which are good for picking up new licks, and also many videos on theory and technique (Harmonics on Guitar, Chromatic Notes in Solos, etc.).

2) Fret Jam — Very clear and well taught videos (and written material) on many aspects of guitar musical theory, in particular.  For instance, one recent free lesson is on “Suspended Guitar Chords — How and When to Play Them.”  Another recent article is “The Best Guitar Chord Software & Chord Tools On the Web” which will lead you to a number of other good and informative sites.

3) Fachords — Although it also has free video lessons, the most interesting part of this site I find are the free online Guitar Apps .  These include a scales finder, a chord finder, fretboard trainer, speed trainer, interactive scales harmonization, and more.

There is just so much good guitar instructional material on the web.  I am guilty of buying more books, having more links and downloading more videos than I will probably ever go through in the detail they deserve.  I just wish it was all available when I was a kid, when I made my first unsuccessful stabs at learning the instrument.

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The Impatience of Learning Guitar

August 16, 2013

As I continue to struggle, and to enjoy, learning to play guitar, I’ve come to understand better those stories of teenage boys practicing five or six hours every day for months and years who later turned into an Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or Robbie Robertson.

Besides all the emotional sides of that kind of commitment, of determination, of loneliness, of raging to master one thing that couldn’t be taken away or denigrated, of fulfilling some kind of inner calling, there is the matter of how much damn time it takes to play anything decent on the instrument.

Where’s that inner fire?

In my sixties, I don’t have anything like that inner fire, or probably even the modicum of talent needed to sustain it, but I still want to improve what I am able to do.  I’m sort of at the cusp of a beginner and lower intermediate player.  I do get deeply unsatisfied about my fumblings, and it pushes me to practice more.

There have been some recent books and other writings about learning guitar.  I’m thinking most specifically about Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.  I mention the book because it looks like it would be well worth investigating, but I just haven’t got around to it.  I should have read it before writing this!

But one of the author Gary Marcus’s points that I did pick up from reading a review, and agree with completely, is the importance of patience.  Younger learners seem to just have more of it than us older types.

Patience, patience, patience, as one practices a piece yet one more time.

For a change from the usual blues or rock tunes and exercises that I usually work on, I found an “easy guitar” version of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

moko back front web I should explain that as a boy, I loved versions of classical music set to a rock beat.  A classic for me is Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble and the Stingers.

There’s also that Moe Koffman album Back to Bach, which horrifies purists, or even regular music fans, with its often disco-like take on some of the classics which appealed to me greatly in my younger years.  And there have been many more – from Emerson, Lake and Palmer to At Vance.

So I got out my trusty ChordPulse software and put together a backing track in 3/4 time with a kind of soft swing style beat, since the Bach music provided the chords to input.  Then I began to try to learn “Bach Joy” on the electric guitar.

The first stage

The first stage for me in learning any piece is a combination of figuring out what fingering is going to work as I slowly puzzle my way through, and trying to get the notes to combine, however haphazardly, into a semblance of the tune at hand.  But I need to have a sense of what the darn thing sounds like….

Some of the typical blues or rock tunes I work on, I have videos and mp3 backing tracks, so a lot of this initial stage is often already well-presented for me.  However, with this, I had to listen to various versions online to get a sense of what the melody should sound like in detail, and then see if the tab on the page let me get anywhere close.  (I’m not using the backing track yet, that would be too much, and confusing, information for me at this stage.)

I divided the music into sections or long phrases that seemed to make sense, and went through each methodically.  I have considerable dexterity in my hands, but little in my ears in seems because it took endless repetition, checking against what versions I could, to start to get something recognizable.

Then on to the next section and the next, slowly, slowly.  A lot of patience is definitely required, but if you can hold on long enough and work at it, you can finally detect some slow facility and improvement in whatever piece one works on.

But then I tried to incorporate the backing track.  The problem was I couldn’t tell at first by ear where I was supposed to be in the music, where the correlation was between note and chord.  So I would play too fast, or too slow, with awful cacophony, and never end up in the right place.

But by sheer repetition I started to hear the chord changes, and where I should be with which note on the guitar.

So then in the next phase, I started to string together all the sections I had learned without the pauses between them, with the backing beat to pace me.   Slowly, slowly again, the seams started to blend, and there began to be moments when my fingers played without me directing too much.

And now finally, after a couple of months, I can play, almost, the whole thing at a decent speed accompanied by the backing track.  But I always screw up one or two phrases on each play through.  So more practice.

Addicted to practice

My music teacher, who luckily happens to be a person of great patience, has taken to recording me in his home studio, partly because he likes to play around with all his fancy equipment, and because it encourages students like me to play better.  But it adds another layer of demand in a play-through, and there are always a few glaring mistakes.  But no matter, he edits the takes and we finally get something that I can show off to my friends and family.

But I continue to work on “Bach Joy” and I’m making fewer and fewer mistakes.  I’ve become, to a certain extent, addicted to practicing.  That urge to try just once more to improve is part of the long patience needed to see any development.  But then, I’m probably just slow….

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Some further notes:

I wanted to provide some praise for ChordPulse, mentioned above, as a straight-forward way to make useful backing tracks on the PC, especially for us solo guitarists.  It has some limitations in the styles and rhythms available, but it covers almost all the bases.  The program’s author also provides some free programs at his website, a metronome program and a four-chord song application among them.  Well worth checking out….

I’ve also written a couple of other posts here on my adventures learning guitar:

Aging Guitar Enthusiast

Manchild with Guitar

The Aging Guitarist’s Current Favored Resources

May 30, 2012

I went to my friend’s house one day, and he had an electric guitar he had just bought with a tiny little amp. I turned the volume up to 10 and I hit one chord, and I said, I’m in love.
Ace Frehley

The guitar is a much more efficient machine than a computer.  More responsive.
Colin Greenwood

I learned to play the guitar because I thought it was a good way to get girls… and now at my shows the first three rows are always nothing but middle aged guys, staring at my hands.
— Ed Gerhard

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I could be one of those mentioned in the last quote — hoping to peer into the secret of better guitar playing.  And I may be slightly beyond middle-aged (whatever that is exactly), so Ed might be even more dismayed.

As chronicled in a couple of posts (Aging Guitar Enthusiast and Manchild with Guitar) from about three years ago, I took up the electric guitar in my late 50s after giving up on it as a young lad.

It continues to be one of the enthusiasms of my life.  I take weekly lessons with a working rock guitarist, I’ve bought too many books, and I download videos and try out lessons online.  I don’t practice as much as I should, though, since work, relationships, and other distractions and duties have their own imperatives.  But I do try to sit down with the guitar every day for awhile, even if it is just to practice scales or licks I’ve learned.

I’m moved from a pretty rank beginner, who could just barely recall the open chords of his youth, to a beginner maybe starting to edge into intermediate territory, after a few years of working at basic blues and rock skills.  I’m still pretty awful though, most of the time.  I admire my guitar teacher for his patience.

Although I do take lessons, I still think of myself as largely self-taught.  I bring something I’m working on to Eddy, who is at least a good generation and a half younger than I am, but who still appreciates older rock, and he shows me the right way to do it.  Or else, if I have no good ideas, he’ll point out something he thinks I should improve on, and we’ll work on that.  If you have a chance to find a teacher of such flexibility, I think that is the way to go.

I’d like to pass on, to anyone in roughly the same boat (and there’s a lot of us I think), some of the good resources I’ve come across, from books and online sites.

Some of my favorite guitar books

Because I can’t sing very well, my ambition is to play a repertoire of rocking instrumentals — but song-based instrumentals where my playing can take the place of the voice.  The majority of available tablature material (the guitar-specific rendering of musical notation for ease of play) has the rhythm guitar parts and riffs in support of the voice.  But I want to play the melody line too.

I have sat down and rendered the melody notes into tab for myself, and figured out how I might integrate it with the rhythm guitar, but it can take a lot of time….

Fortunately I have found some guitar books that have relatively simple arrangements of melody and rhythm.  There’s a series of “Easy Guitar Tab” published by Hal Leonard based on the decades of rock that offer a lot of memorable songs to work on.  I’ve got 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s Rock in this series and I’ve been working on songs from “Runaway” to “Born to Be Wild” to “One Headlight.”

But with one guitar, and given that the arrangements are somewhat simplified, the sound can be thin and uninspiring.  So I create my own backing tracks with a program called ChordPulse which I recommend wholeheartedly.  It’s amazingly versatile and easy to use: just set out the chords and the style you want, and you can have drums, bass and piano grooving behind you. There may be similar but more complicated, and expensive, programs from Band in the Box to Guitar Pro that can do something similar, but for me ChordPulse’s largely intuitive interface produces surprisingly good-sounding tracks.  The program is up to Version 2.2 and is still undergoing active improvement.  It’s definitely worth the money.

One book on technique and theory I keep coming back to is Fretboard Knowledge for the Contemporary Guitarist by Vivian Clement.  This 2003 publication provides, for instance, an innovative alternative method to learning the pentatonic “boxes” up and down the guitar neck.  I have learned those darn boxes, so I’m finding it a little difficult to move from them to this other method, but the opportunity to get free from the standard patterns one tends to fall into is what draws me to this book.  There’s also lots of good material on the related blues scales, on modes and on understanding arpeggios.  Another book in that same series I got a lot out of — it improved my understanding of the fretboard significantly — is Theory for the Contemporary Guitarist by Guy Capuzzo.

My music teacher has emphasized that I really need to get better with rhythm guitar before becoming a lead-guitar god, so I’ve bought a book or two on that, one being: Rhythm Guitar Essentials published by String Letter Publishing.  There’s a lot of good material here by different teachers, some of which is quite difficult for me… but it makes clear how necessary practice is, and a lot of it.  It comes with a CD with examples and backing tracks.

One of my problems with music is that my interests tend to out-run my available time and talent:  I’m interested in finger-picking, slide guitar (and thus alternate tunings) and blues harmonica.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to all that, but I might (I’ve got a little bit of the fingerpicking underway already)!

Amazing fingerpicking solo song site

In my fantasy about an eventual repertoire to wow my friends and family, I imagine ending the set with a finger-picked version of the Beatle’s “A Day in the Life,” if you can believe such a thing. There’s a surprisingly moving solo version at the Lick By Neck website, somewhere in the collections of “Solo Pop Guitar Lessons.”

Each song there is its own software where you can follow the fingering, and pause and repeat as you will.  Most of the songs are not terribly complicated.  A lot of good stuff, from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum) to “Do It Again” (Steely Dan) to “One of Us” (Joan Osborne) and much, much more.  Some are a bit more jazz-inflected than I’m partial to, but best of all, they are free.

Beware the online guitar lesson sign-up

If you’ve spent much time online looking at guitar sites, you’ll have come across many that promise you amazing guitar prowess within 48 hours if you only buy their revolutionary guitar learning system or sign up for online lessons with them.

There are a number of sites, and online guitar teachers, that offer free lessons as a marketing tool if you will part with your email address.  I’ve done that a number of times.  Typically you will get a number of sometimes useful, sometimes not, video lessons from their back catalog.  The tendency is that before too long the free lessons dwindle away, and your email becomes inundated with offers for their incredible five DVD guitar mastery system for only a few hundred dollars.  (That’s why I use Gishpuppy to submit email addresses to this kind of site. Gishpuppy provides disposable front-end email addresses.)

I shouldn’t be unduly critical though — I guess they have to make a living too.  I have gotten some good lessons this way.  And some of these online teachers are much better than others.

Good lesson sites

The best of this type that I’ve found is Robert Renman at Dolphinstreet.com.  He provides many free video lessons on the site, often with tab and Guitar Pro attachments.  He does offer the free lessons if you sign up, but he sends you one every week like clockwork for a year, and they are always clear, concise and instructive.  (His video lessons can also be found on YouTube.)  I like his manner: sincere, calm and clearly dedicated to showing people how to play, beyond the purely commercial.  He does have paid lessons and DVDs available for purchase (and I have bought some of his blues lessons), and he does ask people to donate.

Another good site, but much more commercial in tone is freeguitarvideos.com. They have quite a few free video lessons on the site, with a variety of teachers and styles, but the lessons are more clearly intended as marketing for the paid versions.  My favorite teacher on the site is Jody Worrell, who has a clear, avuncular presentation.  I have bought several lessons from this site as well.  I especially liked an Allman Brothers style solo taught by Worrell.

But that’s all the online purchasing of lessons that I’ve done.  It would be easy to get carried away with it like I have with books, and I’m trying to restrain my enthusiasm.

There’s several more non-lesson oriented guitar sites that I’ve found interesting and useful.

For the blues specifically, there’s 12bar Blues Guitar, a German site (although with English).  It has some great tools to explore scales, chords and modes.  There are also a series of tutorials, and even a backing track generator that renders bare bones blues tracks to play against.

There’s guitar.ch, a recent discovery  which has quite a selection of licks, riffs and other material to practice, with good reference material on scales, modes and chords.  It’s not obvious right away how much there is for free on this site, because of the front and centre display of the for-sale material, but it’s there including many good free tabbed songs.

Wholenote Online Guitar offers another backing track generator they call the Groove Builder, as well as ear training, interval training, and fretboard knowledge tests, along with the typical chord and scale info.  They have a whole library of useful, accessible lessons.

I mention TrueGuitarist.com, despite the mush mouth and relatively poor video by the main presenter, because of the site’s many good lessons, with an emphasis on understanding basic theory.

There are a lot of useful tips about guitar playing on the blog Not Playing Guitar — the writer’s point being that if you’re reading his blog, you’re not practicing….  As an example there’s one on blues soloing which had some good advice.

So I go on practicing… by the time I’m 70 I hope to be merely competent in the blues/rock realm of the guitar.  And by 80, who knows!

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Notes on images, from top down.

1) Lots of great songs in here, especially if you’re of a certain age…. from the Amazon Books website.

2) The guitar boat as found on The Horse’s Mouth blog.

3) Innovative use of guitar gear, from Recycled Crafts.

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Great Underrated and Obscure Rock Albums

June 5, 2011

Although I still have a working turntable, a Kenwood that dates back to the early 1970s, I don’t get around to playing my old LPs much. It’s tough to play those old 12-inch vinyls in the car, although it amuses me to think of such a player. Some of my favorites I’ve replaced with CDs when I could find them.

There was a time when I would put an LP on the turntable, carefully angle the speakers in the left and right corners of the room, turn up the volume, lay down on the carpet and immerse.  I don’t do that very often anymore.

But all that music is still with me — it shaped my times and my sense of who I am and what’s important.  I’m going to go through a few of the greats in my collection and give them some honor.

Derek & the Dominos

Derek and DomAt the top of the list is Derek & the Dominos In Concert recorded in 1970 and released in 1973. This is Eric Clapton at the height of his powers, accompanied by Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, who had all played with Clapton before in Delaney, Bonnie & Friends. There is no “Layla” on this double-disked live album, I’m happy to report, just because that song for me has been played to death, and, more unhappily, no Duane Allman.

But what there is, is some of the finest rock guitar you will ever hear. Clapton’s playing is passionate, even raging, and endlessly inventive. This is not some meandering rock jam noodling, but fire and brimstone with relentless work by Carl Radle on bass and Jim Gordon on drums.

Highlights include “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad” and “Got to Get Better in a Little While.”

Derek FillmoreThis album doesn’t seem to be available on CD, but what is more easily found is Live at the Fillmore which was taken from the same live sessions and includes six of the same cuts as on the In Concert album.

There is an especially tragic story associated with the band’s drummer Jim Gordon, who played with everybody from the Everly Brothers to Harry Nilsson to Steely Dan. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia after murdering his mother in the 1980s. He is apparently still incarcerated.

Manassas

ManassasAnother underrated classic is Stephen Stills’ Manassas album, from 1972. Although this was viewed as a Stephen Stills’ vehicle, the band Manassas also included Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, the famed steel guitar player Al Perkins and drummer Dallas Taylor who played on Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Deja Vu album.

In its original form on two LPs, each side was named and the songs thereon arrayed as a kind of suite. The sides were called “The Raven”, “The Wilderness”, “Consider” and “Rock & Roll is Here to Stay.”

Some of my favorite tunes are “Johnny’s Garden,” “It Doesn’t Matter” and the wonderful jam track “The Treasure (Take One).”

Manassas PiecesThis is rock, country, folk and latin music all rolled up in one. Unfortunately, the band did not survive for long. It broke up after a second album, Down the Road, said to be not very good, but which I’ve never heard.

But recently there’s been a compilation of some of Manassas’ material left in the studio, called Pieces which shows, as some have commented, what could have been the basis for a much better second album than the one they turned out. I got this the other day, and it reminds me how much this band meant to me.

Joe Walsh

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Joe Walsh’s The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get, but it has been a friend in good times and bad.

This was Walsh’s (with his band Barnstorm in the background) commercial breakthrough album in 1973 on the strength of “Rocky Mountain Way.”  Walsh shares the vocals and songwriting with drummer Joe Vitale, bassist Kenny Passarelli, and keyboardist Rocke Grace.

Walsh,-Joe-The-Smoker-You-Drink-The-Player-You-GetSome commentators have described the production and engineering of this album as impeccable, and it is a fine sounding piece of work on vinyl.

But it’s the songs of course that make it, and each one I find tremendously evocative.  But “Meadows” and “Bookends” really stand out. There is something so thoughtful about this album.  It’s up there with the best rock music coming out of this continent.

I’m out here in the meadow
Part of an old stone wall
Stand here because he said so
Waitin’ around to fall

It also illustrates to me what has been lost with the current regime of iTunes and mp3s. Although there is no obvious link between all the songs, they hang together as a single cohesive entity that most of the young whippersnappers these days won’t realize they’re missing given the current state of music (pardon me while I work on my old-fogie routine…. ).

Dave Davies

Dave Davies, of course, was lead guitarist, and singer along with his brother Ray of the great British band, the Kinks.

But in 1980 he went solo with the album Dave Davies (AFL1-3603), with the arresting image of a bar code (just then starting to appear everywhere) instead of a head on the cover. The album title alluded to its own catalogue code.

Davies AFL1-3603The music inside rocks. Just listen to “Nothing Left to Lose”: “Well if we’re all so clever and technology rules / Why is it we’re so scared / I’ve got a rockin’ psychosis / And my juke box’s blown a fuse.”

“Imagination’s Real” is a great rollicking song as well. I’m listening to it now, and it makes me want to stand up and move around.

There have been rumours for years of the Kinks getting back together, but they are all in their sixties, and there have been deaths and illness among band members. Dave Davies suffered a stroke in 2003 that took away his ability to play guitar, but he has apparently recovered. Ray Davies continues to perform.

Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers

One of the last LPs I ever bought was Genuine HouseRocking Music, a posthumous collection of Hound Dog Taylor’s I found in a remaindered sale many years ago. I had never heard of him before, showing my lack of true musical education, but his ecstatically laughing face on the cover led me true. I wish I’d come across some of his other albums such as Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers or Natural Boogie released on Alligator Records.

hounddogHound Dog was one strange dude, but a happy one, at least when he was playing his blues rock. Check out this video of him at an Ann Arbor music festival probably in the 1970s (he died in 1975). The video is poor quality but the spirit is there. (Here’s another from the same time, and yet another showing a TV presentable version….)

He was famous for having six fingers on his left hand.

Here’s an excerpt from the liner notes for the album (another feature of LPs sadly missing from the smaller format CDs) by Bruce Iglauer, the House Rocker manager:

taylor6“They were quite a sight on the bandstand. Hound Dog, perched on his folding chair, stomping both feet to keep time, grinning his millions-of-teeth grin, pausing between songs only long enough to light up a Pall Mall and to tell a totally incomprehensible joke (which he’d interrupt halfway through, cackling with laughter and burying his face in his hands), before tearing into another no-holds-barred boogie.”

His long-time bandmates were also characters. They all argued fiercely offstage and were prone to pulling knives and even guns on each other.

Hound Dog liked to say, Iglauer reports, that “When I die, they’ll say, ‘he couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!’ ”

The John Hall Band

Moving to the more obscure, I’d like to mention the John Hall Band’s 1981 release All of the Above. This is probably more radio-friendly rock-pop than some of what I like, but the lyrics, the harmonies and the feeling made this one I played a lot.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist John Hall got his start with the soft-rock band Orleans (with which I’m unfamiliar, although I recall their songs, “Still the One” and “Dance with Me”). He and his wife wrote the song “Half Moon” which Janis Joplin recorded.

TheJohnHallBand1981The John Hall Band’s only hit apparently was “Crazy (Keep On Falling)” which is on this album. But I actually like “Can’t Stand to See You Go” more and especially “Earth Out Tonight”, the latter sung from the viewpoint of someone returning from the moon to see the girl he hopes still cares.

He performed (along with many others) at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration in 2009.

John Hall became a U.S. Congressman in New York from 2006 until defeated in the 2010 election; he has been active in environmental and drug policy reform.

Instructions

Moving from the obscure to the enigmatic, the Canadian band Instructions produced one self-named album in 1980 and then promptly disappeared.

InstructionsFor years I didn’t know who the band was… thinking Instructions was an album by the Fleshtones, a band I know little about, but who apparently make very different music than what’s on here. On the back of this LP it says “the fleshtones would like to express their gratitude to the many machines which made this project possible…” However, it seems that they were playing off the machine-flesh dichotomy rather than referring to the name of the band.

The little I know of the band Instructions comes from “drprogensteinphp” on YouTube. Take a look and listen at the two mixes from the album that he’s put up: Instructions – The Factory / OK / Cleek / Wicked Heart (Vinyl) and Instructions – So You Learn From Computers / Suburban Dream / Don’t Say Love / Naked Deer (Vinyl) .

He says the band was “a short lived Canadian New Wave/Progressive Rock band” and that they “came across sounding a bit like an Ultravox/Devo/Cars hybrid.” He also mentions that Canadian guitarist Domenic Troiano, who played with the James Gang and Guess Who, performed on the album.

I find the music to be quirky and catchy, with lines like “so you learn from computers… it must be time to go” and “where did you get your new tie… it looks real… I think I’ll burn it.” It’s interesting stuff culturally from 30+ years on, and expresses a viewpoint shared by the Dave Davies album: we are losing our humanity and our imagination as the technocracy develops…

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Aging Guitar Enthusiast

August 3, 2009

As noted in the recent post Manchild with Guitar, I’ve taken up the guitar again after about 45 years. I’m now pleased to report that I know more about what I’m doing with it than I did when I was 13 going on Eric Clapton.

I am really benefiting from the wealth of guitar instructional material now available, in book-form, on DVDs, CDs and on the web. I’m also taking lessons, which is something I couldn’t afford when a youngster.

But the work I put in as a lanky teenager of sad disposition has also really helped my current learning curve a lot. All the common open chords came back quickly, and the changes one to another. I knew one pentatonic box, without knowing what to do with it. But now after learning the other four up the fretboard, I’m thankful for the little bit of a base my younger self bequeathed me.

I’ve found that I’m not quite as tone-deaf as I assumed, and that helps as I now learn to jam along with blues tracks in different keys using one useful book-CD combination I’ve come across. I still haven’t recovered the little bit of fingerpicking skill I managed back then, but I’ll be coming back to that too eventually.

Although I was a pretty bad and limited guitar player back then, and remain so largely today, I now see avenues of practice and enthusiasm where I can improve more than I thought possible.

At 58, where do I want to go with playing a guitar? Firstly, I want to pick up my electric guitar, plug it into the amp, turn it up loud and begin to rock. Secondly, and more to the point, I want to learn to improvise, playing lead over a chord structure. My fantasy is to get to the level where I could play a small set for my family and friends, and they’d be duly impressed… (and not feeling, oh my god, he wants to play the guitar for us again)… don’t know if I’ll ever get there.

2453212659 e7b993cef3I’m interested in playing solo instrumental electric guitar, since unless I can talk my wife into banging out a few piano chords with me, I anticipate playing by myself almost all the time. Although I could relearn my halting way with reading regular musical notation, I find guitar tab so much more natural to pick up, although lacking in time information. I can’t motivate myself to learn note sightreading, given the relative shortness of my time.

But I want to play the song, the melody, with such other rhythm and lead accents as may fit in. Most popular tab music, though, disappointingly omits the part sung by the voice. It’s as though playing the guitar as a rock/pop instrument amounts to rhythmic background with occasional lead fills. That’s not what I’m interested in. I want to play the whole thing (or at least a simulation of it).

I’ve read this same lament on one website or another, where somebody asked a group of electric guitarists if anybody could play a song. The group was quite accomplished with either good rhythmic chops or lead skills, but nobody could produce a whole song on their own.

So I anticipate eventually arranging, in some sense, my own instrumental versions of songs I like. This is not so farfetched with some of the software available today. I’ve also become quite interested in the whole chord melody style, although it’s often jazz-oriented and at its technical extremes out of my league or interest. But the idea of using alternate chords, or adding additional chords, to spice up a song has whetted my interest, and does not necessarily require fingerpicking.

For the benefit of anybody else in roughly the same guitar position as I am, here’s a list of some of the learning aids, websites and blogs I’ve come across:

Books

My technical and theory sourcebook for the moment, and which I can really recommend, is The Everything Rock & Blues Guitar Book, by Marc Schonbrun. This is clearly and logically laid out, and the diagrams are plentiful and well-done. It comes with a CD which is a marvelous aid with most guitar books these days. This book has taken me through all five forms or boxes of the pentatonic scales, and discussed the additional note that makes them blues scales. I’m now working on learning the major and minor scales from this book.

(One wonderful feature of the guitar as an instrument is how moveable along the fretboard in the same position such aspects as the pentatonic, major and minor scales can be.)

3330422477 2237f07a6f oAnother book, which I’ve only gone through a little bit although it promises to be good, is Blues Guitar for Dummies by Jon Chappell. I really dislike the attitude implicit in the series’ name, that they have to insult the reader, but nevertheless, the Dummies books are often quite good.

Chappell has a related book called Rock Guitar for Dummies which also looks to have potentially useful info for a tyro such as me.

My other favorite book of the moment is Blues Jam Trax for Guitar by Ralph Agresta. Jam Trax are a series of similar books. These are slim volumes, but include an important CD. The CD has professional backing tracks in different keys and moods, and this blues one is a lot of fun for learning how to jam with the pentatonic/blues scales. Dial up the fuzz and sustain on the amp, and I’m enjoying the noise I make.

The pieces repeat long enough for me to putter around learning the different positions on the neck for whichever key they’re playing, and allows me to move up and down with all five “boxes.” The book includes the diagrams for the pentatonic scales, although they’ve condensed them into four slightly extended ones.

I’ve got some other books I’ve bought waiting in the wings… There’s Total Rock Guitar by Troy Stetina, which promises more detailed study of lead guitar.

I’ve got Chord-Tone Soloing: A Guitarist’s Guide to Melodic Improvising in Any Style by Barrett Taliarino, which comes highly recommended. It appears approachable by one of my skills.

There’s Fingerboard Theory for Guitar by Mike Christiansen and Guitar Fretboard Workbook: A Complete System for Understanding the Fretboard , again by Barrett Tagliarino. I’ve started the Christiansen book, trying to learn scales and basic theory.

One I want to work on soon, since I seem to be in a blues phase, is Blues By the Bar by Chris Hunt which goes into some detail about blues improvisation.

For music-to-play books, I’ve been working out of The Ventures — Pipeline: 25 Surfin’ Hits for Solo Guitar, transcribed by Dan Libertino. I’m getting a good grip on Walk Don’t Run and the Ventures version of Del Shannon’s Runaway, and I’ll probably continue on to learn Bulldog, Beethoven Five-Oh and Telstar. Eventually, though, I have to move on from the 1960s… I’ve got my eye on a great tab version of Steely Dan’s Reeling in the Years. And I’d really love to learn how to play something of Joe Walsh’s, either Rocky Mountain Way or Meadow .

The other music book I’ve learned songs out of is From Liverpool to Abbey Road, by Ron Manus and LC Harnsberger, which has beginner and up tab arrangements of Beatles songs which aren’t too simplistic.

Guitar blogs

I’ve come across some guitar blogs you may enjoy.

Guitar Boomers is subtitled: “Tips and tricks for aging wannabe rockers who need to make up for lost time.” Yeah! VintageP began the guitar at age 50, and seems to be going strong. He’s pretty serious about his equipment. He has some good advice in posts like “Rock ‘N’ Roll is My Golf” and “Aging Rockers: You’re Not Alone.”

teisco leftieIf you find the guitar beautiful, as I do, a great blog is Guitarz. The writer loves to investigate and display old and odd guitars. For instance, there’s a post on a Teiscos Leftie, from 1964. And one on the Roberts Roto-Neck Guitar, which has two fingerboards on one neck…

A Guitar Teacher’s Lesson Notebook has, among other things, what looks like a useful lesson on beginning fingerpicking.

The Mad Stratter has posts of interest for more than just Stratocaster players.

Guitar Tips typically offers free “mini-lessons” as inducements to buy lessons, CDs and DVDs but there’s some good info there.

The blogs Guitar Hunter and My Life With Guitar may also be of interest.

Actually, there’s quite a large guitar blog scene. You can access many from this post on The Guitar Blog Collective!

Web-based lessons and tutorials

There are some greatly instructive web sites with free lessons, tutorials and articles. One such find is Guitar Noise. There are lessons, for instance, on solo arrangements for Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done and the Who’s Behind Blue Eyes.

Another is iBreatheMusic with lessons and tutorials on Melodic Minor Modes, New Ways to Use Pentatonic Scales, Slash Chords and more.

There’s WholeNote: The On-Line Guitar Community, which has 2853 published guitar lessons on its site… although many are quite short, that should hold most of us for awhile.

Playing the guitar, I’ve found, is addictive. I might get tired practicing some song or phrase after awhile. Bah, humbug, I think, this guitar stuff is getting old… I put it down. And not 10 minutes later something is calling me back to throw that strap over my shoulder and start pluggin’ away again.

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Notes on images:

The unlikely guitar at the top is from this Flickr site…

The Bigfoot guitar looks like fun, from the haha.nu site.

And the guitar at the bottom is the Teiscos left-handed model mentioned on the Guitarz blog .

Manchild With Guitar

June 18, 2009

The human body is an amazing thing. As I become one with my new guitar, under the skin of the fingertips on my left hand small pads of calluses have formed. They are a sign not only of a new adaptation to an instrument I haven’t picked up in over forty years, but they link me back in time to a young teenager struggling without instruction or even much talent in a log cabin in northern British Columbia.

Back then, I talked my mother into buying a cheap acoustic guitar out of Sears or Eaton’s one winter. I laboured over that guitar long hours, with the strings set so high above the frets that the calluses must have grown twice as high as they are now in the bruising effort to get a clear sound.

I managed to get some sheet music and an instruction book or two. I got bored quickly with Michael Row Your Boat Ashore and The Streets of Laredo in the doong-ching-doong-ching,  or doong-ching-ching style of the bass root note first and then the rest of the chord in 4/4 or in waltz time.

P1020163Most of the music for guitar was chords with the notes reserved for piano or voice. I wanted to play the melodies, so I coded all the notes to the guitar fretboard, like 6-1 or 5-3 (guitar string – fret) in my own version of tab notation. By doing that, even though I could never sight-read notes all that quickly, I  slowly managed to read music through sheer repetition.

I bought a variety of Beatles sheet music at the all purpose music/electronics store in Smithers, BC. I think one was Ob-la-di, Ob-la-dah. Then Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. And Mason Williams’ Classical Gas. Even given my lack of technical skills (although I learned how to play arpeggios a little) I transcribed the complex chords and notes of Classical Gas into my system, and managed to eke out a version that at least I could recognize. (By the way, there’s a series of video lessons on how to play Classical Gas the right way by Mike Herbert on YouTube…)

But then I came across a couple of Ventures instructional records which had diagrams on how to play Walk Don’t Run, Pipeline, Apache and Tequila with the tracks on the record demonstrating simplified versions. This was incredible! I was a rocker, sort of, all of a sudden… (I’ve chronicled some of this before.) Although even then, the Ventures were becoming passé, as we moved more into the era of the Beatles, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones.

(But take a listen to the band in this video from 1989 playing Sleepwalker with the amazing Jeff Baxter on slide guitar.  Baxter played with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers in the 1970s and still works as a musician although he has a second career going as an expert on missile defense, of all things. )

That brings us to today. For my birthday recently, my wife bought me an electric guitar and I splurged on a Fender amplifier called a G-Dec. The G-Dec is like many amplifiers in one, with controls to simulate an incredible array of effects. There’s a built-in drum and bass machine. You can set the key it plays in. There’s a tuner which assists my tin ear immensely.

P1020164The guitar itself is a lovely instrument. I just like to look at it. It’s a Speyer, which was the house brand of guitars custom built for a local store called Prussin Music. I’m told they were built in the same factory in China that builds Washburn guitars.

The Speyers have been discontinued. The store decided to go with the more typical lines of, for instance, Squier guitars from Fender that simulate Telecasters and Stratocasters. Their own line was put on sale, and I think I got a great guitar out of it. The body is smallish and hollow with a thick top and a couple of cutouts. The action on the neck is great and the sound seems really good.

I’ve rounded up some wonderful instruction books and my wife donated a couple months or so of guitar lessons. I’m starting off in a much more advantageous learning position than that lad blowing on his fingers on a cold evening by a kerosene lamp.

Of course, I’ve picked up a book of music from the Ventures: The Ventures: Pipeline, 25 Surf/Rock Hits Arranged for Solo Guitar. I’m working on Walk Don’t Run right now, in a somewhat more complex version than I learned as a kid. Still sounds cool though.

P1020165There’s a great version they did of Runaway, the Del Shannon hit, in there too that I’m going to learn next, and maybe a few more after that. Then it’ll be time to move on from the Ventures to other music.

It was sad, though, to learn this week of the passing of Bob Bogle, one of the original pair of bricklayers who started the Ventures 50 years ago. All these years the group has been going strong, especially in Japan where they are revered. There have been occasional personnel changes. The long-time drummer Mel Taylor died in 1996, for instance, and his duties were taken over by his son Leon.

picasso blue guitarTrying to learn Walk Don’t Run and playing around with some of their other songs, I’m understanding how the jet-propelled drumming was a huge part of their sound.

My wife tells me the guitar looks right on me, and it makes me feel good to play again and to struggle with the learning of it. I rub the tips of my fingers and think of a long time ago.

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For two other posts on learning (again) to play guitar see Aging Guitar Enthusiast and, most recently, the Aging Guitarist’s Current Favored Resources.

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Notes on images, from the top:

1) My new guitar and amp. I don’t even have to play it… I just like how it sits around.

2) Close-up of the Speyer. I’ve tried to find some kind of guitar it resembles, but no luck so far. The body is really rather small, although the neck is full size.

3) Walk Don’t Run sheet music…

4) Picasso’s Blue Guitar. I’m not really feeling this blue.