Lessons


This page is about lessons—those that I give, and those that I have received. Every musician learns his or her own lessons. I hope what I have learned will give you some insights.

Of course, I have been paid to perform a few zillion times over the years, but teaching guitar is what I do for my living. If you are interested in taking private lessons with me, e-mail me back (please include phone numbers) at steelstringer@gmail.com and I will respond ASAP. I can also teach mandolin, ukulele, bass guitar and basic banjo. I can instruct in most any style of guitar, save flamenco and classical. I have other friends that are excellent players and teachers, and if I think you would be better served by their approach or area of expertise, I will not hesitate to tell you so.

ON IMPROVISATION

One of the most common requests I get from students is to teach them how to improvise.

Here’s some of my basic thinking about this topic.

First of all, improvisation requires a particular attitude, or mindset. I believe that the true improviser has to be fearless. That doesn’t mean that one can play with no rules. There are parameters that must be observed, regardless of the setting for any improvisation. If a player has no idea about these parameters, that fearlessness becomes recklessness, and the music will crash and burn.

I get a great number of students who take this approach to improvisation: they begin by buying one of the hundreds of books out there—something like “10,987 scales for all purposes” or something like that—and proceed to learn their scales, one by one.

Here’s my suggestion. If you want to learn how to improvise, you need only one scale to begin with—and that is the pentatonic. Of course, you will eventually need to know much more than the pentatonic, but what is essential when learning how to improvise is not how many scales you know, but what you do with the ones (one) that you do know.  

I use an analogy regularly when I instruct on this subject: think of a scale as a vocabulary for a new language you are learning to speak. After you have required enough basic vocabulary, what happens with it? Do you:

A. spill out your entire vocabulary every time you have a rudimentary conversation in that language?, or:

B. you use just a few words, and create sentences.

The best advice I have ever heard about improvisation came from Herb Ellis. He was the guitarist in the great Oscar Peterson trios of the 1950s. Herb was the first jazz guitarist I listened to. As the years have gone by, I have heard many players with richer ideas and better technique, but in my book, no one ever will swing like him—his playing is so full of life, and it has an irrepressible joy that is unique.

I used to notice that when Herb played, he would move his mouth—but wasn’t really singing--as he improvised. I could never figure out what he was doing, until in the late 1970s, when I watched him conduct a class for a roomful of young guitarists. Someone asked him about his choice of scales and modes, etc. “Do you use the augminished Hungarian? The Neopolitan mode? With the raised 9 th and the drunk 5 th?”

I can’t remember the exact question, or his exact words in reponse, but essentially, he simply said this:

Play like you are singing.”

It suddenly clicked. When I was watching Herb move his mouth while he was playing, he was “singing” through his guitar. Here’s a very simple way to determine if your improvising is getting anywhere. Sing—or at least, imagine yourself singing—what you have just played. Go back to my analogy. Are you running your mouth, or are you making sentences? If we go with that a bit further, substitute the words “a scale” for “the words” you have learned to speak in the new language. Now, are you merely running up and down the scale, or are you creating phrases? If you are doing the former, you aren’t really doing anything except playing notes in a scale. If you are doing the latter, then you are creating musical “sentences”—in other words-- singing. That is the first step—and the most important—to becoming an improviser.

More thoughts on this topic will be coming soon.

ARTIST OR ENTERTAINER?

 

The bulk of my students are beginners, but on occasion, I will have a student that is clearly heading in the direction of being a professional. I have a great deal to say to anyone that is contemplating music as profession.

The core lesson that I have learned at this juncture goes like this:

You will most likely make your living by getting paid by, and performing for, people that are not musicians.

Consider two performers.

The first one has a performing approach that features plenty of participation for audience members. There is ample opportunity for clapping in time, as well as singing along. The performer welcomes requests from the audience, and usually honors those requests. The instrumental portion of the performance (which is much smaller than the vocals) features a medley of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on banjo, "Orange Blossom Special" on the fiddle, and "Malaguena" on the guitar, all played, of course, at breakneck speed.

The second performer, who has memorized all of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker's solos, can take any jazz standard and play it in any key. As well, this musician seems to have the gift of never repeating any improvisational ideas--after ten choruses, there seems to be no let-up of amazingly rich (harmonically and melodically) single-note and chordal improvisations.

This performer doesn't interact very much with the audience, except to announce the names of the songs, and to acknowledge applause.

Which one is going to get more work? I think you know the answer.

The first one is an entertainer. The second is an artist.

Of course, it isn't always this simple. I believe--truly-- that you can be both an artist and an entertainer. The great John Hartford comes to mind immediately. In the jazz world, certainly Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller fit this same bill. In the cases of all these musicians, they had a way with the audience, as well as being greatly admired by fellow musicians. Consider Nat King Cole and George Benson, who both were known primarily as great instrumentalists in the early parts of their careers. What made them both hugely popular was their singing abilities. It's not hard to understand why. To put is simply, good singing is much more universally appreciated by most people than is great playing.

Here's where I caution my students.  Yes, you might learn how to play solos by great players. It might take you hours and hours of work doing so, and you should be greatly admired for your dedication and your skill. But do not expect everyone to be so appreciative. You are learning to speak a language that a minority understands, and unless those individuals comprise the bulk of your audience (which might happen if you are in a music school, or at a music workshop), then do not expect to be truly appreciated for your skills. Instead, you will be evaluated for how much you connect. In a nutshell, this means that your audience has to find your performance an "entertaining" one. The most cynical musicians that I know (I would include myself in this list) are the ones that understand that no one really appreciates what "the good stuff" is. You simply have to play to the audience...or you won't be able to work as a performer very much!

Here's how I approach this. These are my guidelines (regardless of musical style) for being both a good musician, and a good performer:

1. Talk to your audience. Let them know that you are glad they are there. If you show them respect, they will probably return the favor.

2. Give and take. This means you give them a little entertainment, and in return for your acknowledgment of their wants, they will acknowledge your needs--so give them some of your art--your own "good stuff", and they might listen. If it's a good night, you can have one entertainment for six or seven pieces of art. Not a bad trade-off, IMHO.

3. Don't kick the dead horse. If it's a bad gig in terms of getting anyone to really listen to you, then do the best you can. If the audience wants only a one-way street (ie. playing to their level) then you decide: do it their way, or have one hell of a miserable time.

4. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If you have a bad gig, don't blame yourself...and do not blame the audience.They are not there to live up to your expectations.If you expect complete rapt attention at all times, play to an audience of peers, students, or a mirror.

5. Take it all on the same plane. If you receive thunderous applause, you'll feel appreciated. If you are completely ignored, you'll feel like a worthless reject. Here's where I come down: it's all only part of a larger picture. Don't let the great gigs make your head swell, and the bad ones make you want to slash your wrists, because the most important thing is to keep on playing, regardless of the amount of respect you are getting. You are the one who determines whether or not you will always keep moving forward.

 

 

BE YOURSELF!

All musicians take lessons. When I hear someone say they are "self-taught", they aren't really saying that they did it all on their own. It might not be what is thought of as "formal" lessons (ie. one-on-one with a teacher), but they learned something from someone. In my case, I took a few lessons when I was in my teens and early twenties. From that point on, it was lots of time listening to records, and playing with other musicians. That might make me "self taught" in some ways, but believe me--I wasn't. I took many, many lessons.

The musicians that served as my inspiration became my yardstick. When I was learning about jazz, it was Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Pat Martino. I also became enamored with flatpicking. At first I wanted to be Doc Watson, then Norman Blake. I was infatuated with fingerpicking as well. There was Leo Kottke and John Fahey in one part of me, and Chet Atkins and Merle Travis in another. If that wasn't enough, I fell in love with the sound of slide guitar, and wanted to be like Ry Cooder, Lowell George, or David Lindley.

I've been in jam sessions with musicians (among them are many good friends) that have ten times my skills. I had the unenviable task of following Mark O'Connor in a flatpicking contest. I've seen performances (Oscar Peterson, for example) that made me feel like I had run into a brick wall at eighty miles per hour.

All of these musicians influenced me in one way or another, and I wanted to be just like them.

But there was one problem. I wasn't any of them.

The hardest part of becoming who you are is to accept it all--your strengths and your weaknesses.  By understanding all of this, you will have a much smoother road to travel.

I have many friends who will say something like this (after seeing a great guitarist perform):

"I'm going to hang it up! I'll never be that good!"

Here's where I come down on this. Why would seeing a great guitarist's performance make you want to "hang it up"? If it's because you won't be as impressive as this player, that's for a good reason: you can't be anyone but yourself!

Don't misunderstand: I think that getting a good kick in your fanny (or a head-leveling) can do great things for you. If it makes you want to get better, than that is a good thing. But don't beat yourself up. Remember--when you are playing your guitar, it's the sound of your soul. Good musicians play who they are.

I'll leave you with this thought. It's what I say when people ask me what kind of music I play:

I do what I do, and I try to do it the best I can.

gear: it's not what matters the most

I remember meeting Freddie Green--the greatest rhythm guitarist in the history of jazz , who spent his whole career playing an unamplified archtop in the Count Basie big band (and never took a solo!). Jim Hall once said that if we pruned the jazz guitar tree of all the branches, FG would have been the only one left...he was the the trunk.

 

It was circa 1976. This young fellow walked up to FG. As I was standing and talking to this legendary musician, this young fan--obviously being the gear hound that he was-- asked him every technical question he could about his string choice. How thick were they? What were the gauges? Flatwound or roundwound? FG looked at him and said the following:

" I play the old kind". That was it.

It really struck me at that moment that it simply didn't matter. He could have played a Telecaster with Ernie Ball Super Slinky Strings..and he still would have sounded like FG.

On my last recording, I did one track ("The Banks") where I used a $120 Rogue laminate top D for two highstring tracks. The rhythm guitar? It was a mid-1930s Martin D-28 Herringbone, worth probably about one-half of a house's mortgage. It mattered not, because they were both an integral part of the track's texture and sound.

This might sound pretty odd coming from a guy who obviously knows his gear--I love instruments--that is pretty obvious. But at the end of the day, it's not the guitar--it's the player's fingers, head and heart that matter the most.

I heard a great story about Ted Nugent (who, I confess, I do not hold in very high regard) when he was sharing the bill with Eddie Van Halen. He was listening to EVH doing a soundcheck, just tearing it up, and was completely enamored with his sound. He asked EVH--after he was done--if he could try out his guitar and amplifier. EVH said yes. Ted Nugent picked it up, started playing....and guess what?

Yup, you guessed it: He still sounded like Ted Nugent.

Want to be more of an "entertainer" and not sell your soul? Read this piece of practical advice. (11-22-12)

These are some more thoughts about the whole issue of making the "entertainer" co-exist with the "artist".

Let's start with the scenario that you are playing in a performing duo. Musician number one sings, plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and mandolin. Musician number two sings, plays acoustic guitar, and banjo. (If you don't play in a duo like this one, no matter. My suggestions will apply to any scenario--even a solo performer. You will see.)

If this duo examines ALL the performing possibilities, this is what they can do:

1. #1 sings (a capella)

2. #2 sings (a capella)

3. a capella duet: #1 lead; #2 harmony

4. a capella duet: #2 lead; #1 harmony

5. #1 solo: sings and plays acoustic guitar

6. #1 solo: sings and plays mandolin

7. #1 solo: sings and plays electric guitar

8. #1 plays solo piece on acoustic guitar

9. #1 plays solo piece on mandolin

10. #1 plays solo piece on electric guitar

11. #2 solo: sings and plays acoustic guitar

12. #2 solo: sings and plays banjo

13. #2 plays solo piece on guitar

14. #2 plays solo piece on banjo

15+16. (first duo: #1 lead vocal, #2 harmony, two acoustic guitars; second duo #2 lead vocal, #1 harmony, two acoustic guitars)

17+18. as above,but electric guitar and acoustic guitar

19+20. as above, but mandolin and acoustic guitar

21+22. as above, but banjo and acoustic guitar

23+24. as above, but banjo and mandolin

24+25 as above, but banjo and electric guitar

Think i'm done? Not quite...if we take all of the preceding possible performing configurations (both singers taking turns on lead vocals), then add in the options of A/in the duo modes, doing a song where only one sings, not the other....and....B/in the duo modes, doing a song where there is only one instrument playing....well, you get the idea....

So, if you are a solo guitarist that doesn't sing? Instead of having various instrumental and vocal combinations, you do have these options:

1. tempo (fast)

2.tempo (medium)

3.tempo (slow)

4. style #1 (say, bossa)

5. style #2 (classical)

6. dropped D tuning

7. standard tuning

8. employ the capo

...get the idea?

Reason being that this ups the "entertainer" in your performance? It's pretty simple. Put yourself in the audience. If you are watching a solo guitar player that does the same thing over and over and over (sings and plays guitar. maybe two or three tempos), it gets pretty boring pretty fast. If you can make your audience wonder what you're going to do next, then you are engaging their eyes and eyes. You are making them follow your moves. You are doing it your way, but you are entertaining them.

 

the most important quality in musicianship? (7-15-13)

This one will be short and simple.

I have travelled a long way in my thinking about music. Like most musicians, when I began learning to play, I became enamored with technique. Quite simply, that means acquiring skills. It can be fretting hand skills, picking hand skills, or any combination thereof.

The other main thing that most musicians work on in their beginning years is simply acquiring knowledge, ie.,how music works--the nuts and bolts of the craft.

I have written a small body of original pieces for guitar or mandolin, but that is not my main calling card. I am quite certain that most fellow musicians simply know me as a guitar player. What that means is this: if I have any measure of name recognition, it's for the way I play, not for anything I write. As such, my insights in this short piece reflect what I have learned as a player.

To cut to the chase, I believe that THE most important quality for a player to acquire is not technique. It is personality. Technique is merely acquiring the means to say what you want to say. The level of that technique is commensurate with the requirements of the music: playing "The Goldberg Variations" requires much more technique than learning to play "Blitzkrieg Bop", but it doesn't mean that one kind of music is better than another. It simply means that--in each case--there is a body of technique required to render the music with authenticity. It means that you have the skills you need to communicate in the musical language of your choosing.

What is much more difficult to acquire, because it simply can not be taught, is personality.  Learning to sound like no one but yourself has to come from some place deep inside. It's like a road map that you have to make up as you go along. When you find your destination, you had no idea it was even there until you slowly made it happen.

How do you start thinking about crafting your own personaility? Like I said: It simply cannot be taught. It can be studied, however. It is a mysterious thing, but I can give you a good starting point.

this is a clip of BB KIng on Ralph Gleason's "Jazz Casual", circa 1968. Simply watch it, and play close attention to his guitar playing:

(cut and paste these clips if they don't play after being clicked on.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgTWSEfGwEU

now, watch this clip.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Bf2oZVe3FY

What do you remember from the first clip? I am guessing that you can sing back some of the phrases that BB plays, because he is playing short, simple melodic phrases. He is saying something on the guitar--and he is speaking as an individual. His guitar playing has personality.

And what do you remember about the second clip?  Outside of great technique and speed, is there anything else that will stick with you?

Get the point?

 
Copyright Danny Gotham.com 2011