Guitar Talk #11: Improvisation is a Lot Like Surfing

Guitar Talk #11: Improvisation is a Lot Like Surfing

To me, improvisation is a lot like surfing, not that I CAN surf, but at least I could safely assume that it would require major concentration. That wouldn’t mean tensing your body up, though.

You should be alert and ready, yet flexible to go with the flow and have fun. If you plan ahead too much you’d sound stiff and same all the time.

On the other hand, if you’re too loose, you’d miss the musical clues and the waves would wipe you out.

Not to say that it would never happen, but coming up with unique and magical notes every time you play is not an everyday occurrence, not even when you have hours and hours to sit down and dissect a tune, let alone while being in the moment and improvising. It’s about gathering a strong arsenal of ideas first by practicing a lot, then setting the one that you think is the most appropriate at a certain musical moment and leaving the door open for surprises at the same time.

Take care.

Guitar Talk #10: Is Jazz Massage Music?

Any real musician would have an idea more or less what jazz is about. At least they would know that there are shades to jazz music.
It’s not just one thing or the other.

It’s not very easy to know what people who are just average listeners think about it and how they see it, though.
An ordinary listener who is not really into jazz would imagine something quite soft, relaxing. That may be the result of the choices
most jazz radio stations often make, which is also understandable because they stay on air by selling ads and they would surely like
to pull as many listeners as possible instead of alienating masses by rough experimental tunes.

Even some jazz fans happen to prefer one genre to other so it’s impossible for a, say, pop listener to embrace all types of jazz.

I remember reading an interview with Al Di Meola whereby he protested that he doesn’t have to write relaxing tunes just to meet the expectancy of masses. Something in the lines of “I’m making jazz, not massage music”.

I also remember an incident from my life where the café I worked for decided to class up the joint by playing jazz music.
However, the management people were not really jazz enthusiasts per se. They didn’t have a clue what CDs to buy so they asked
the music store clerk who was the best jazz musician ever. The answer was Miles Davis. So, they bought a 15 cd Miles Davis box set.
They installed a system that kept on playing the CDs one after another whole day long. Some of the albums like
Kind of Blue” were perfect but most of them were full of intense performances, some of them live, which had nothing to do with a peaceful café concept where a customer sips his/her coffee and enjoys a conversation with friends.
Some of the songs were as heavy as heavy metal in a way.

When I pointed out that maybe “Bitches Brew” wasn’t quite the album that went with double espresso latte the first sentence that I heard started with

But the clerk said…

I said no, no, no. I put my own “Afterglow” cd on by Sarah McLachlan and let the customers catch their breath.

If you are the owner of such a place, I think it is okay to play any sort of jazz in a jazz café or a jazz bar… but ONLY if you
let people know beforehand what they are to expect should they choose to hang out at your place. Because otherwise they are most
likely to be expecting that good ol’ “massage music”.

Take care.

Guitar Talk #09: Isolated Live Tracks

I don't know if it's just me but lately I happen to come across a lot of those “hear popstar in her isolated vocal track” click bait type of “news”(!)

I think it’s not fair to the musicians and performers to expect a record like quality in their live tracks, especially if they put on a show that requires energy, you know, jumping dancing running around and all that.

Sometimes foldback monitors may not work properly; a bad job at mixing, acoustics of the venue may prevent artists to hear themselves as they should. Zillion obstacles like that may prevent even an experienced artist to perform poorly from time to time.

Moreover, an isolated track would never truly represent the overall sound of a band as an ensemble. For example, you might take, say, a guitar track #5 of a legendary album and it may sound weak, ahead of the beat, behind the beat, etc. But it would have a purpose in the recording, it would add muscle, spice to the lead track.

Often times, a little imperfection makes wonders, creates unforeseeable richness in a tune. Whereas if you were to listen to each one of those tracks by themselves they wouldn’t be all that impressive. This is especially true in albums that were cut live, where 5-6 musicians may not necessarily on their best day and be playing perfectly but yet if they catch the right groove together, that is more special than playing “perfectly” individually and yet sound like nothing but a boring clock.

I think musicians would know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, take care.

Guitar Talk #08 Muscle Memory May Be Deceiving

Muscle memory is a great tool for a guitar player. You can practice a song or a solo slowly with a metronome, bit by bit, get it under your fingers speed it up and it’s there. Sometimes you don’t have to even think about what you’re playing, in what position you’re playing it etc.

Unfortunately, that’s not always a good thing, especially if you’re playing a piece that has many repetitions but also a lot of changes at the same time.


Your fingers would naturally would want to go to “B” every time you play an “A” and if you let them do it you’d be messing up in the 2nd row where “A” is followed by "C" not “B”.

So, your focus is almost as important as your muscle memory. Then again, if you’re too focused then you have the risk of sounding too timid and rigid. Stage fright may do that to you when all the strangers and your buddies seem to be watching you and waiting for that bum note, or at least when that’s what YOU think they’re doing.

Being relaxed enough to let your muscle memory do its thing, and make your fingers glide on the neck while satying focused enough to put the brakes on the automatic pilot when there is a turbulence on the way, comes from putting yourself into that situation and discovering how YOUR mind deals with it under pressure, not from just listening how others handle it.

Having said that knowing that every musician goes through similar difficulties makes it seem less unbeatable and gives hope for those who don’t have enough experience yet.

Take care.

Guitar Talk # 07: Coffee and Guitar

Years and years ago in a Galaxy far away… I used to work at a café. I liked coffee but I wasn’t that big of a fan to be honest. But then, smelling that freshly brewed “magic juice” every single morning did something to me and I found myself infatuated beyond belief.

Maybe I am exaggerating a bit but you get the point. Too much of everything can be harmful but I’ve never felt anything bad as long as I’ve kept it at a cup or two a day.

Playing guitar is a physical thing, though. Sometimes you are just too mellow, too sleepy, especially in the morning you just can’t get your body happening. That’s where coffee comes in for many people.

I practice guitar in the morning, before leaving home, for about an hour. I’m also into intermittent fasting, meaning I eat my first meal of the day at around 11 p.m. So, what that means is I don’t eat breakfast, just drink a cup of black coffee. It’s become a nice ritual. Coffee wakes me up and guitar playing gets me energized and inspired, especially if my fingers are in good shape and I come up with cool motifs and melodies.

I also play in the evenings. If I happen to have had more than 2 cups of coffee during the day and I’m drinking my 3rd one while I’m playing, my fingers get somewhat fidgety and stiff at the same time; very difficult to control. It’s a cumbersome situation sometimes, because I may have had an idea in my head during the day when I didn’t have my guitar with me and now I do have it but I just can’t transfer the idea through my fingers.

Coffee is cool, though.
Take care.

Guitar Talk # 06: Being Open for New Ideas

I try not to pigeonhole my playing in just one style. I try to be open for new ideas and analyzing fractions of different forms that I may benefit from.

If a person is a jazz player and checks out techniques from a heavy metal guitarist it doesn’t mean that now he/she is suddenly going to start playing heavy metal. But he/she may find bits in that style that could be implemented into a jazz tune and add some unexpected flavors. It could work exactly the other way, also.

It’s like making food. Imagine a small town where there are three types of people:

Onion lovers.
Tomato lovers.
Lemon lovers.

They all have their own shop to buy their favorite ingredient before lunch time.

Onion lovers go to Onion Mart, only to buy Onion.
Tomato lovers go to Tomato Mart, only to buy Tomato.
Lemon lovers go to Lemon Mart, only to buy… you guessed it: Lemon.

Let’s say that you are that person who loves lemon. One day you decide to make a tomato soup; just for a change. You use your scoop to stir it. You don’t suddenly change shops and become a tomato customer but you like it somewhat.

Next time you’re making your lemon soup, something interesting happens. You use the same scoop that still has some of that tomato flavor and your soup tastes different, richer almost.

Your next-door neighbor discovers the secret of your soup and he tries the same thing but unlike you, who had stirred the tomato soup for 4 minutes, he stirs it for 6 minutes, 2 minutes longer. You both started with the same idea but since you applied it in your own way your soups don’t taste the same. The neighbor across the street adds ginger to the mix, and so on…

Try and be open for new ideas, in music and in life. See where it takes you.
Take care.

Guitar Talk # 05: Audience Too Loud?

When you’re performing alone at a gig without any band to back you up, you can use the silence to your advantage. Just like a painter painting his/her painting, start with light touches; in other words, use your pick softly. That way, you will have a better control of the dynamics in your performance. To add a little tension to his/her light background, all a painter has to do is use a little darker shade. But if he/she had started with the darkest of the darkest tone it would take crazy intensity to add any shade on top of that. Same goes for the music. If you start very heavy, where are you to go from there? You will have to wrist match with your guitar throughout the rest of your performance. All you’ll get from that would be a few broken strings and an annoying noise. If you’re playing heavy metal music you can get away with that to a point but even a heavy metal song has its dynamics; all the good ones do, anyway.

It’s a common occurrence to play at a gig and face a crowd who is not there only to listen to music. Some might be there to see friends, meet new people, etc. Don’t take it personally.

If you communicate with them well through your music, generally, people tend to get quieter when you bring it down a bit. But even if they don’t, it doesn’t mean you have to fight for their attention by strumming harder. They’ll simply start talking louder as well. You can’t win that battle. Sure, if you have a loud PA system, seemingly, it might help get you heard but it would be too challenging for the listeners to enjoy or tolerate.

Take it easy and play at a level and an intensity that you’re comfortable with at all times.

Guitar Talk # 04: Russell Malone’s Triple Play

Russell Malone is one of my favorite guitarists of all time. I discovered him through earlier Diana Krall albums and Benny Green’s “Bluebird “album (2004). But he also worked with legends like Jimmy Smith, Ron Carter, Marsalis brothers.

His first trio recording was “Triple Play” album (2010). In the booklet of the CD, he says he stayed away from recording as a trio for some time because he hadn’t felt ready yet. That, to me, has been such an inspiring bit. He is an experienced, brilliant musician yet he didn’t just go into the studio and come up with something. He waited for the right moment, out of respect to what he does. Such humbleness from a musician at his level is wonderful.

On the other hand, though, if that’s the standard to be recognized and it sets the boundaries, what chance do the rest of us, who have never worked with the likes of Ron Carter, have in a musical universe, for crying out loud? 

Just kidding.
Do what you love, give it your best shot. What else is there?

Guitar Talk # 03 Can Playing Guitar Make You Rich?

Let’s get this straight. You’re not going to get rich playing guitar or being a musician. If that’s what you’re after starting to learn an instrument or getting into any form of art, forget it. Especially today, it is way more difficult to make money out of music, even for the biggest names in music business, than it was a few decades ago.

Aren’t there any musicians who make good money out of music, then?

That’s not what I’m saying, though. Yes, probably there are plenty of them but it would take something else than just being a good musician. They would’ve ended up where they are today, financially, even if they were doing something completely different anyway.

What you'd really get from being involved in music is not money and wealth, it's musical satisfaction; a sense of achievement; a focus that becomes a therapy; appreciation of effort; respect for others who had put in the hard work. In other words, things you couldn’t afford with money.

However, there are social benefits to being a musician. It’s a natural ice breaker of some sort and an automatic social value creator. People tend to trust you more. They feel like they can come over and talk to you without being afraid. Sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not. But if you’re a young person who wants to meet new people but you’re too shy, it can be a perfect gateway for you.

Ultimately if you feel the love towards music, nothing else would be a main factor in your pursuit anyway; perhaps just icing on the cake.

Personally, music has given me, almost, nothing, financially but it did open some doors I never even knew existed before and led me where I am today. Hmmm… interesting.

Guitar Talk #02: My Picking Style

There was a time fingerpicking was as alien to me as driving still is. That’s right, sadly I’m not even kidding. I used a pick to play the lead and strum the chords. This lasted about 20 years. Then came a point where I wanted to hear certain harmonies. Playing rhythm with a pick is great for percussive comping and all that but I had a sound in mind which was more piano like. Actually, that’s the reason why I bought a classical guitar although I’ve never been a classical music player, if one doesn’t count a few pieces that I had learned and played around to impressed people; shame on me.

For some reason it never occurred to me then to hold on to my pick and add remaining left-hand fingers to the porridge. What I did was bite the pick while I lead the bass with my thumb and used my index, middle and ring fingers for the treble parts. “But what about your pinky?” you might ask, rightfully. Well… I ignored it… for years. I’ve only used 4 note voicings forever and now I think it’s a bit too late and too much of a hustle to go back and re-wire my left hand. It’s not impossible but personally, after reaching a certain point, and not very easily, mind you, I find it a bit uninspiring to go back and start from the beginning. However, if I was a beginner I would keep the pick between my thumb and index finger while I used the rest for the harmonizing. That would bring a very smooth transition between soloing and comping.

What I do however is use my left-hand index finger as a pick by supporting it with my thumb which allows me to simulate a pick picking motion. Down side of that is that upstrokes have yet to keep up with the downstrokes in velocity department because of the natural curve of a fingernail. I’m coping well though because there are times I watch an old video of mine and I can’t quite tell whether I’m holding a pick or not. So, I must be doing something right.

Guitar Talk #01: Why Guitar?

Let’s face it, guitar is a very challenging instrument. You can play lead melodies and chords with it. Yes, a piano can also provide you the same possibility but you don’t have to get so physical with it; not to mention that every pitch is located at only one point on a keyboard whereas on a guitar there are six strings (or more) and way too many frets to conquer which may be overwhelming at times. Drums may be physically challenging but a drummer doesn’t have to memorize chords and scales to go with them, etc. In other words, guitar is a different monster all together.

A beginner cannot create decent sounds as soon as he/she grabs a guitar. One needs to stand the test of time before reaching a certain level that doesn’t drive your fellow bystanders crazy. I’m not even including theory to that, not yet anyway, because there are some legendary guitar players in history who knew nothing about theory but their lack of knowledge was more than compensated by their ears and technique.

All this difficulty makes the targets reached along the journey taste sweeter I suppose. Because those who are not passionate about guitar would get bored quit it before they get to that certain point but for those who keep soldiering on there’s simply no return. Would any of them complain about the burns and the blisters on fingertips and other “by products”? Absolutely not.

Having said all that, one doesn’t have to become a guitar player to enjoy guitar music either. I for one know many people who appreciate guitar albums but have never even held one in their entire life. They’re quite happy where they’re at.