Tuesday, June 13, 2006

On Influences

Is art influenced by life - or is life influenced by art? Better yet, are they both the same thing? Artists often over the centuries thought about this very fact. Is art a reflection of life -or is it a distortion of life? As a musician, when we meet one another - who do you listen to - is often a question we ask. Most of the time we look for something or someone we know - so that we may exhange ideas - or even see whether we have a common opinion in music. Musician often react warmly when they find someone who knows a particular artist they love and adore - the more obscure ones particularly being a novelty.

I'm the same. When I find someone who has listened - and had a similar response to Ben Monder for instance - I go completely bonkers. It's more of rarity to find another Monder-head in Kuala Lumpur - at least so far - but he is quite the hip thing to be into in Berklee as of late. I initially discovered his playing via his recordings with The Maria Schneider Orchestra many years ago. From the first time I heard "El Viento" off Maria's 1996 "Coming About" album I was completely entranced with Ben Monder's style and playing. He had a beautiful sound and his guitar spoke to me.

Funnily enough, one of the first times I had such an experience was when I was first exposed to Kurt Cobain's guitar playing in Nirvana. It was the extreme opposite of course. Ben has a very polished and emotional sound - Kurt on the other hand was pure angst and rawness. Sometimes people put down Kurt as a guitar player but to me - until this day - he is one of the greatest influences I have had as a musician. In fact, if it weren't for Nirvana, I wouldn't have started playing guitar.

When I first picked up the guitar, I was completely clueless. All I knew was that I wanted to learn it and that the sound of the guitar was magical. Therefore, when my grandmother agreed to buy me my first guitar - I was probably the happiest kid in the universe. I still remember my grandmother giving to me that money - it was around 60-80 Ringgit (approximately 15-20USD in today's exchange rate) - and there I went with a few friends to a local departmental store. Yup, it wasn't even a guitar store. We found a blue sunburst kapok - a cheap Chinese-made guitar that everyone who played guitar typically started with - and I was sold. Me and my friends brought home the guitar and then my first problem came into play. I didn't know how to tune the guitar. In fact, for the first day - I left the guitar with a friend so that he could tune it for me. (Now that I think about it - he probably had a blast "seasoning it in" before I started on it.)

The next day though, I got back the guitar and still there I was trying to figure out what to do. I had no idea whatsoever. My other memories of my early learning experiences include my dad buying me guitar magazines - one was a "Guitar World" issue with Metallica on the cover (somewhere around 1996) with an "Enter Sandman" transcription and some other ones included early issues of "Guitar One" and "How To Play Guitar-Rock". I basically started off trying to understand terms like "G#5", power chords, palm muting, alternate picking, open string licks and minor pentatonic - among other things. I was fresh into my kapok and this was all Greek to me. The one thing that kept pushing me to continue to read all the articles - even though I didn't understand a thing was an advice my dad gave me. He said,"If you're going to learn something, make sure you go all the way."

In many ways, this was the sail that kept my metaphorical ship - of guitar playing and learning going. A few years prior to that, I was a complete computer geek. I had tons of computer magazines with all those old DOS, spreadsheets, word processing and OS utilities floppy discs and 3.5 diskettes (and eventually CDs) with them. I remember trying to figure out what was special about Windows 3.0 and how one day I dreamt about owning something with a Graphical Interface rather than just a A> prompt based DOS interface. Windows 3.0 was a dream. A 286 or 386 computer was the reality then.

My point is, my dad always encouraged me to go all the way. He supported all my endevours (which meant a lot of cash out of his pocket) whether it was my love for comic collecting, my craze for toys, my geeky computer side and console gaming (this meant the Atari, NES, Sega Genesis, Super Famicom and Super Nintendo period of gaming - oh what glorious years those were!) Through his continuous support (and my mom's logical rationalizations and talks with me) I eventually learned quite a fair bit on my own - and then later with several teachers at a local guitar shop. Motivation to learn was a big thing for me and they - both my parents and my grandmother - were instrumental in teaching me about going for what I wanted out in life.

In the end, here I am - after playing for 10 years plus, still crazy over the guitar and all it's mysteries. I do get stuck at times - frustrated even - but their support - and the inspiration from all the great people I've met and listened to - keep me going.
Sometimes, musical influences mean a lot more than just the list of virtuosic players than awe us. Influences can come from unexpected places - sometimes from the people around you - sometimes from a really rocking album. Nowadays, I try to keep an open mind (as well as open ears) as I begin to see that Ben Monder, Kurt Cobain, my grandmother, my parents and Kapok guitars may have something in common after all.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother who passed away earlier this year while I was back in Boston. She remains an inspiration to me. I love you grandma.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Developing a personal relationship with sound

In playing the guitar we learn all sorts of things - scales, chords, cool voicings, theory, chops, tone etc. - but probably the most important aspect is our personal relationship to all these elements. A mode that sounds mysterious to one person may be bland to another; a chord that sounds hip to one may be just too "jazz" for someone else. I remember four guitarists mentioning this aspect of guitar playing - which is having your own take on things - Joe Satriani in his Berklee workshop, Steve Vai on his website, Philip Toshio Sudo in Zen Guitar and recently Bryan Baker - an amazing guitarist who just graduated from Berklee.

My personal encounters with this element have reminded me - over time - of the importance of just having your own label on things. If I find a pretty chord voicing, that's what I call it. It's my pretty Cmaj7 voicing or it's my ugly dissonant tone row. The point is not that the element - or sound - be something new, but rather be labeled by yourself to how the sound affects you on an emotional or gut response. It doesn't really relate to the music theory aspect but to the side of you before you became a fully-fledged-theory-analyst-chord-dissecting-dude.

Over time, anyone who does this - consciously or not - will have developed a personal vocabulary of sound - and hopefully be more on the way to being a musician with a personal identifiable sound. Someone with their own voice.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Demanding Aspects of Jazz Guitar

Playing guitar is a challenge. There are so many things that boggle my mind about it. Here are just some that come to mind:

1. Playing fast
Everyone wants to play fast whether they admit it or not. For those who this skill comes naturally, blessed are they. For those who can't, we want too!

2. Playing complicated, sophisticated note choices
When playing a blues scale in somewhat stepwise motion doesn't do it anymore, one explores the other notes.

3. Comping tastefully
Being able to comp in response to what the soloist or melody is doing. Being another line that voiceleads and moves beautifully (or uglily-depending on the music) rather than being random.

4. Tone
When will we have enough gear? When will we have enough chops to play a beautiful sound?

Sometimes it's good to ask questions so that we can reflect on them over time. At times, questions are more important than the answers themselves.

On the learning process Part 2

The way I see it, we learn via our senses. It's logical but I think to really take note of how we, as individuals learn may be the key to optimal learning. For me, I'm a very visual person so I tend to remember finger shapes a lot. I also learned a lot over the years by watching a lot of people play. At times, I may not have much understanding of what is happening on a technical level (especially during my formative years) but still the whole experience of watching is very essential.

Another way of looking at it:

Our senses:

1. Visual: our eyes
2. Auditory : our ears
3. Touch: our hands, fingers, body, skin
4. Smell: our nose
5. Taste: our tongue, tastebuds

Of course, the first three are the senses that we use directly in learning the guitar. The extent of how much we rely on the senses are of course individual and vary with each person. For me, I am most optimal learning visually. I learn better when I see the chart, I learn better when I see someone doing it.

Some people learn better by listening to something being played. For me, it took a longer time to develop my ears. My listening skills have improved over the years but I still find it important for me to realise what is most natural for me and use it to my advantage. In many ways, learning about music is much about about learning about oneself-especially when you look at the experience from different angles. Drop me a line if any of these ideas help you! Let me know what you think.

Till then, play on!

On the learning process

I've been reflecting on my playing recently and been looking at the aspects of my playing that have been improving and the other aspects that have somewhat neglected. The more I think about it, the more I seem to see that there are some ways of approaching the practice session-especially when it involves improvisational practice.

1. Isolating one element
This can be practicing one chord, one mode or scale, one arpregio fingering etc. Anything really, but this involves practicing it to the point of utter fluency and comfort so that the idea can be played as close to being flawness.

2. Connecting ideas
This can be using ideas from (1) and making them flow linearly and voiceled properly. In this regard, one may be practicing a chord progression (two to four bars), or one major chord change (C-7 to Db7-just an example!)

3. Locating ideas around the neck.
This is figuring out (1) and/or (2) in different areas of the neck.

The most important aspect of all this is to be able to PHYSICALLY EXECUTE the idea. TECHNICAL FLUENCY is the aim. In the process, one may be training the ear, the eyes as well. (Looking at the fretboard, looking at the notes etc.) My main problem for the most part is connecting melodic ideas smoothly throughout a solo. Melodic continuity- i.e. Soloing coherence is my main concern (along with the groove!).

The metronome is truly of utmost importance and I get it more and more why Mick Goodrick stresses that aspect so much.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Melodic Minor Part 3: Triad over bass realisations

Continuing analysis from the previous post, we'll start off with triads off the 5th of the chord.

Gmin/C - Cmin7(9) no 3rd
Adim/D - D7(b9) no 3rd, Dmin7(b9) modal voicing
Bdim/Eb - EbMaj7(#5)9 no 3rd
Cmin/F - F7(9) no 3rd
Dmin/G - G7(9) no 3rd
Ebaug/A - A-7(b5) no 3rd
F/B - Altered-dominant type hybrid voicing, B7(b5,b9) no 3rd

Looking at this list, basically there are 5 kinds of resultant hybrid chords (hybrid chords are triad over bass without 3rds)

1. Minor Triad on 5th/Root - occurs on 1st,4th and 5th degrees of the scale
2. Major Triad on b5/Root - occurs on 7th degree
3. Dim Triad on #5/Root - occurs on b3rd degree
4. Dim Triad on 5/Root - occurs on 2nd degree
4. Aug Triad on b5/Root - occurs on 6th degree

Also worth noting is that the first type in the list has two realisations in the chord scale which is as a min7(9) chord with no 3rd or as a dom7(9) chord with no 3rd.

Another thing worth highlighting is how Adim/D which occurs on the D Dorian(b2) mode is a possible dominant b9 voicing, though it may be alternately be used in the diatonic modal context of the scale as a modal dorian(b2) chord.

Some possible exercises to explore these chords may be to:

1. play them diatonically in all keys (or in many keys)
2. Create chord progessions using them, or plug them into tunes
3. Use them as chords for comping in tunes one already knows.

In the next post, I will explore the triads over the 7th/b7th degrees of the melodic minor scale.

Till then, play on!