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Bad Guitar “Body English”

 

When you are playing songs on guitar (or any instrument), you know you are in the moment when you put your whole self into it. Everything is really clicking.

 

Moments like that are really awesome.

 

But, there are also times when putting our whole self into it can be detrimental to our playing.

 

Let me explain:

 

Many times we suffer from what I like to call Poor Guitar “Body English”.

 

And it can really hinder our playing and prevent any reasonable progress in our playing. It can be one of the main reasons our songs don’t always sound good, or a lead line just isn’t right, or that those chords don’t sound clear.

 

I do see it more with beginner players (which is normal) but I also see it with many who took on bad habits learning on their own or via the internet.

 

So what is Bad Guitar “Body English”?

 

While much importance is put on how we place our fingers on the strings to form chords or melody lines, it can often be missed regarding how the rest of our body is positioned while we play. And that matters. Poor posture, moving our arms, shoulders, and elbows in unnecessary ways don’t help those fingers do what they need to do.

 

Think of it this way: if you ever see a theater production you know that the focus is on the actors. But, without the behind the scenes production crews (lights, sound, makeup, etc.), the show falls flat on it’s face – regardless of how good the actors are.

 

Playing an instrument is the same way. Think of your fingers as the “actors” and the rest of your body as the supporting cast.

 

The two main culprits are how we position our left wrist and thumb. However, I am going to save that for a near-future Tuesday Tip. There is a lot to discuss there. For this tip, I want to help you look at how your Guitar Body English is and, to see if it is good or could use some improvement.

 

Rock Star Drift

 

This is the one where as you play, your left arm starts drifting, thus pulling the guitar neck further and further from your body. I see this a lot. Now, if you want to do your best hair band rock move, by all means, go ahead and make that move! But that is all for effect. You can’t really play well looking like that. When you drift your arm further and further away, it becomes harder and harder to play that those tough chords or melodies. You don’t give your fingers (or your thumb and wrist for that matter) any chance to play correctly. What you really want to do is make sure you keep that arm back in a relaxed, comfortable position. The key word is to “relax”.

 

Shoulder Drop

 


Here is another common problem I see. This oftentimes happens when we are trying real hard to play a song or work on something real difficult. There is this natural tendency to want to “put our shoulder into it”. Thus, the shoulder tends to drop. Relax! Yes, relax your shoulder! You don’t really need it much to play your guitar. It will make your playing life so much better!

 

Elbow Swing

 

Sometimes, while trying to get that barre chord to sound right (or any chord, really), the left elbow sometimes wants to compensate and twist and turn. If you catch yourself doing it, stop! Relax your elbow! It shouldn’t swing out or in. In fact, one simple test for not swinging inward is to imagine sticking a pillow between the elbow and torso. It should easily fit there. If not, change it.

Bad Elbow In:

 

Bad Elbow Out:

 

Correct Elbow Position:

 

Sit Up!

 


Yes, just like your mom might have said: “sit up straight and stop slouching!” While you don’t have to sit up straight like a board, if you end up slouching on the couch too much while playing or practicing, you will either simply play bad, or pick up some really bad habits that will ultimately hinder your progress. So, sit up! Or, simply stand up, that works too. Your fingers (and your mom) will appreciate it!

 

You Look Marvelous!

No Guitar Body English:

If you aren’t sure, look in a mirror while playing. Sometimes it can be hard to really see how you look with the guitar. Often you will see some of that Poor Guitar Body English show up and you can adjust to correct it.

If this is something that has been a challenge for you, I hope this tip will help you in your playing!

Rock on until the next time!

Put Musical Poetry into Your Soloing


Music is poetry, poetry is music. The two go hand in hand in my view. They really are one in the same. Take limericks for example. How about this one:

 

Hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock;
the clock struck one
and down he run;
hickory dickory dock

 

Or this one which spawned many dirty versions (lol). However, here is the original that was really quite tame (and clean):

 

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket

 

Say them out loud. It does have that natural, sing-song, feel to it, right? There are a number of poems of various styles that do that very thing. So it should be no surprise that music follows the same type of patterns. And more specifically for the purposes of this discussion, soloing on guitar.

All of you songwriters get this. I’m sure there is much you can educate me on! Tying together the rhythm and meaning of the lyric to song is a work of art. I do wonder, however, how many lead guitar players really get it?

 

Every Solo Tells a Story Don’t It?

 

The greatest guitar solos can tell magnificent “stories”. What’s interesting about them is that they most often can be subject to interpretation by the listener. Why? Well, there are literally no words to limit your interpretation of the song. Regarding songs that you sing to, that’s a different story. There are plenty of popular songs from my past that carry specific meaning to me that have nothing to do with the lyrical content. For me, it was the music itself that conveyed a certain meaning. For example, there are some songs that remind me of the time I was dating my wife. They were of a very happy time. Literally, the words to some of the songs have nothing to do with what was going on at the time. But, the music did! Neon Tree’s Sleeping With a Friend is one such song. Now, the lyrical content really didn’t have much to do with the relationship at the time (no, really, it didn’t!) but the mood of the song felt happy and “up” to me. At the time, I was just coming out of dealing with the down times of a separation and divorce. This song was popular when my life was changing for the better. And yeah, part of the song was true: the relationship with a friend was growing into something much bigger. 

For instrumental, and more specifically for this post, guitar solos, the responses and feelings are much the same as I described above. Think of some the great solos, especially pieces that are literally played as an instrumental for entire song. My goodness, there are so many! Some of my favorites are songs like Santana’s Europa, Joe Satriani’s Always With Me, Always With You, The Allman Brothers’ Jessica, and George Benson’s Breezin‘. No words, but can you hear and feel what is being played? I sure do. If you don’t like these, find your own and really listen to those songs. There is a communication that goes beyond words. I also believe, that each person can listen to the same song and each have their own interpretation of what that song means to them – oftentimes different from what the original artist intended!

Then there are the solos that are only part of songs. My goodness, there are also so many! What is interesting about these is how well they work within the song. They feel a part of it and not separate. Some will simply replay the melody that is sung. Most others will feel like they continue what is being sung. There are many, many, many like that. I have no space here to list them all. Go ahead and google greatest guitar solos of all time and you will get lists galore! 

In Gibson.com‘s introduction to their Top 50 list they said this: “What makes for a great guitar solo? Is it mind-melting precision or bone-chilling soul? Is it the way it can leave you slack-jawed, wondering, “How did he do that?” Or is it something that you can sing from memory, a melodic passage that weaves itself into the DNA of the song? Or are the greatest solos ever played the ones that somehow manage to do all of the above?” 

To me, it is “all of the above”.

 

Phrasing

 

I often tell my students who are interested in soloing (and are of course familiar with scales!) that when they create their own compositions, they should consider the “story” they want to tell. The results can be endless! The simplest, and most basic, way to talk about this is to go back to the poetry example and break a solo down into phrases, similar to stanzas in a poem. While I could give endless examples from all styles, let me use the beginning of Santana’s Europa to demonstrate what I mean. The opening verse can be broken down into 4, distinct phrases in much the same way that vocalist would sing a popular verse: find a melody and repeat it and try put in variations to it each time you go through a line. In Europa, each of the 4 lines starts with basically the same first 6-8 notes, then follows up with something different. In the next verse, it is done pretty much the same way but embellished even further. And then it goes from there. 

Blues licks are awesome at this kind of thing. It is primarily why I start off my solo players with the blues. The licks can be technically simple, yet allow for so much feeling that is unique to the style of music. It’s a great way to develop into a competent player: especially in the rock world. There are countless examples from some outstanding players. Here is a song from one of my favorite blues players: check out B.B. King’s opening, and subsequent guitar solo, to The Thrill is Gone. Not only does he put his heart and soul into it, but hear how he creates a theme on the guitar throughout the song. So simple, yet so awesome!

 

Jamming

 

One quick word on jamming: DO IT! Jamming is fun. The spontaneity is a blast. There might be no need to find a melody but simply express yourself where you are at in the moment. There is tremendous freedom in all of that. It is poetic art all it’s own. Not to mention, some of the best ideas for songs, melodies, solos, have come from simply jamming. Want some examples? Find live recordings from some of the great jam bands to start. I personally like the Allman Brothers as my favorite jam band but others like the Grateful Dead and Phish were/are known for that at all their live shows, it really was/is their identity. How about the Dead and Allmans in a 26 minute jam at Fillmore East in 1970? lol Or this 15 minute jam of Jessica by the Allman Brothers.

I once recall being at a party years ago that was almost entirely attended by musicians of all abilities and genres. They had a drum kit, bass amp, a couple guitar amps, and a keyboard set up for anyone who wanted to play. At one point I joined in a jam that literally lasted about an hour as I recall – I kid you not! We mostly rambled around G (major, minor, various modes, etc.), and hit all kinds of styles from rock to blues to jazz. During the jam, some would pass the baton to another person as it was going. Some brass guys even joined in then left. We literally never missed a beat! I think it was the bassist and I that sat in the whole time. Seriously, it was so much fun. And yeah, I was wiped out afterwards!

 

Find Your Voice

 

This is by no means a complete discussion! Entire books are written about this very thing. And I am by no means an expert. It is simply what I have learned over the years. You might have better insights into this topic. I would love to hear from you! As a musician, I am always learning and wanting to grow. What I simply want to encourage all you artists out there is to continually seek and develop your own voice. Make your mark in the world no matter how big or small it might be.

If you want to learn more or are in my neighborhood, you can book some lessons here or just contact me via email: tonysrockguitar@gmail.com

 

That Fearful Request: “Play something…”

It’s a beautiful fall night. You are with a group of friends and/or family sitting around the bonfire. Life is good. Then someone grabs some guitar from somewhere and puts it in your hand and says “play a song!”. I must know a thousand songs, maybe more. But for some reason, when someone just hands me a guitar and says “play something”, I sometimes go blank. And then in the span of a few seconds, my mind has this kind of “conversation”:

 

“Play something? What do I play? What do they like? Let’s see, blues, yeah, blues that’s it. Play anything in 1-4-5 and you are good. But wait, that’s boring, right? They want something they know. But what? Beatles, yeah, Beatles is always a crowd pleaser. But what Beatles song? Wait, they have songs? What song do I play? The mind goes blank. For crying out loud, this is ridiculous.” And the beat goes on… 

 

I know there are many of you musicians reading this asking me what the big deal is. You could call out something instantly by just accessing that card catalog in the library of your brain, withdrawing that information, and then BAM, it’s instant entertainment! I would like to tell you that I so admire what you can do. Don’t ever take it for granted. However, there are those like me that really do know countless songs but for some reason can easily draw a blank for a moment and not know ONE song to play. Can anyone relate? So I have learned and developed some habits to help with that.

 

Practice and Repetition

 

“Wherever you hope to travel on your musical journey, practice is the only route to getting there.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 3

 

This one should be the most obvious to any musician out there. If you don’t practice, you can’t be good. If you don’t practice, learning songs can be quite difficult. If this is something that you don’t regularly do, especially as a beginner, work on it now! 

After you have gone through the basics (stuff like learning scales, chords, strumming patterns, etc.), one of the most fun ways of practicing is by learning and playing songs you like. And then play them over and over. Repetition is the best thing for memorizing anything, and that goes for songs too.

 

Gig Frequently

 

“Each gig should be unique.
You’re always treading that line between keeping yourself
fresh and giving people something they want to hear.”
– Brian May

 

Playing in bar bands, most of the time it is really a necessity to have songs memorized. At least in most of those bands. I play in a local Rush tribute band Animation and memorization is, for all practical purposes, required. Watch any Rush concert (most any rock/blues/country band), and you will see most musicians are playing and performing – not staring down some chart or sheet music (although Geddy now has a teleprompter). And Rush music gets complicated! Getting the songs memorized is where the practice and repetition comes into play. So, depending on the band you are in, you will have added those songs to your repertoire. For me, I can play most any Rush song on call. But if I’m at some random get-together, I’ll go with something most everyone would probably know (Tom Sawyer, Spirit of Radio, Closer to the Heart). If you are playing some kind of greatest hits band (classic rock, current top 40, etc.), that’s even better! It stands to reason that as you play those songs more and more, a few of them will be retained in the old noggin’. And as the years go by, and you expand your palette, hopefully you are adding to your personal library a wider variety of different songs and genres. So get out of your room and jam!

 

Pick at least 10 “Go To” songs

If the band isn’t your thing, or if you want to “streamline” your recall a little more, pick some “go to” songs that you can pull out of the hat right away. If you practice enough, and learn enough songs, over time you will find a few that you seem to always gravitate to. For many of us, they are probably simple: you know the song already, they have a good melody, and are instantly recognizable. For me, one of my favorites that I like to go to is The Eagles “Take It Easy“. Simple chord structure, easy strums, with catchy melodies that anyone would know. Pretty much any Beatles tune is a win. For some reason I like to go to Day Tripper. I just love the intro guitar riff. And along those lines, another favorite of mine is Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin. I probably have another 20-30 more. I think you get the idea: find some songs that you relate to (and maybe a couple you don’t) that are relatively simple, are recognizable, and people can sing along to. Also, make sure it is something that you can play on your own, preferably on an acoustic guitar. Why acoustic? Because 8 times out of ten, that is what will be put in your hand to “play something”. Of course, if you also are an electric player, have a few of those on hand too! Honestly, you really don’t need to have a lot in your memory banks. Impressing your friends and relatives with just 4 or 5 songs can really make for a fun time!

 

Handy Smart Charts

Having charts and/or sheet music handy is also another possibility. It can be a bit cumbersome and silly carrying sheets of paper around with you all the time. But, there’s good news! We have our trusty smartphones and tablets to save the day! I have actually done this a few times where I have a number of chord charts stored as .pdfs on my iBooks or Kindle apps. There are a number of other great apps out there you can use. Just shop around iTunes or Google Play and try them out. You can use whatever resource works for you regarding getting the charts, sheet music, or tabs then convert or download into the app of your choice. Then, if you are called upon to play something, voila! you open the app and play your song! I actually have used some of these for last minute gigs or jams with musicians (as well as a few of those “campfire” scenarios).

 

I-IV-V-vi

 

“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth 
The minor fall and the major lift.”

— Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

 

The Axis of Awesome came out with this awesome video a number of years back called simply 4 Chords. So funny, yet so true! It is amazing how many popular songs follow the same tried and true formula of playing the same four chords, or at least the same order. If you already have acquainted yourself with the basics of music theory, you would know that there are 7 primary triad chords in each major scale (a triad is a three note chord, you would know most of them as major and minor chords). Many pop songs use the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth chords in whatever major key you are in. The sixth chord is always a minor (it often uses the small Numeral vi). The other three chords are major and are written in the larger Roman numerals. If you can get familiar with the chords, it can be easy to recall many pop songs in all sorts of genres (rock, pop, country to name a few). Heck, just play four chords like Axis of Awesome does (in the order that they play them in, the video uses D-A-Bm-G, live they use E, B, C#m, A) and see what songs people sing them to! That is entertainment in itself!

 

Teach Guitar

 

If you teach guitar, or any instrument, you will find that you will ultimately need to work on a song with a particular student. Often, it is something that will go on for some time depending on the student’s skill level and the nature of the song. That in itself is the repetition you need to learn a song. I can’t tell you how many songs I have added to my list over the years of teaching. I also end up learning about new artists and many of the songs they do. So while this shouldn’t be a reason you teach, it is definitely an awesome side benefit!

 

If you want to learn more or are in my neighborhood, you can book some lessons here or just contact me via email: tonysrockguitar@gmail.com

 

How to Put Some “Nature” Into Your Music

I have many Guitar Player magazines that date back to the early eighties. I read them a lot back then. Interestingly I don’t read as much now. I really should get back into it, there really is a lot of good stuff in that publication! I also learned a lot. Some of the contributing articles from so many of the guitar greats were my favorite reads! For example, I still use some of the warmup techniques that I read from an article by Paul Gilbert WAY back in the eighties! I’ll have to share that one some day soon! Also, Rik Emmett had a fantastic Back to Basics series where I still use many of his thoughts and ideas with many of my students today. But there was one article (1988) that had a big impact on me. Actually, it wasn’t really one of those monthly articles but rather an interview with Vernon Reid from the band, Living Colour.

 

80’s Overplay

Whenever I listen to recordings of me back at that time, especially in the early/mid eighties, I often times cringe! My playing in those days was all about playing fast and getting through as many notes as I possibly could, within the number of measures allotted, in the solo part of a song. It was kind of typical of the time though: the rising tide of the hair bands was entering the scene full force! I felt at that time that I needed to prove something (how many can relate?). I wanted to be the big star and impress everyone, not just the girls! So, I taught myself many of the scales (pentatonic, major, minor) by either reading music books or simply listening to a record over and over again to grab an impressive solo (how many remember going back and forth with the turntable needle trying to get that guitar part right?). And then I would sit in my room and practice them over and over and over… I was actually quite proficient at it. The problem was that it didn’t have a lot of soul to it. Hence, the reason I cringe when I listen to some of those old recordings now. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I could find a flux capacitor and reach back into time to tell that 20-something kid to SLOW DOWN!

 

Middle of the Road on Speed

One of my “classics” was when I was in a band back in 1984 called Slipp Kidd (and no, we didn’t play any Who music. Yeah, real creative..). The song was Middle of the Road by the Pretenders. Take a listen if you never heard it. Check out the solos in particular. I can listen to it now and really appreciate the coolness of how he played it. Great sound and really fit the vibe of the song. But the “me” back in 1984 would have none of it! Oh no, it was lame and didn’t have any pizazz! So I was going to “improve” on it and really show ’em how it’s done! I proceeded to play the solo part with fast scales, dive bombs, guitar tricks, you name it. Now, if we were going to do a heavy metal remake of the song, that’s one thing. But we weren’t doing that. We were simply a cover band rocking the song out at a club called Haywires in the Chicago suburb of Burbank (long gone, I think it’s a grocery store now or something). Wanna hear it? Oh yeah, I have the recording! It was made from someone’s tape player in the back of the room. Give it some grace though, EVERYONE in this band did get much better over the years! My guitar solo was really, well, over played to say the least! Listen with care: Middle of the Road – Slipp Kidd.

 

Slowing Down in the Moment

A few years later I ended up doing a number of recordings with a friend who really could write great jingles. We would get together with a few other musicians and just create music that was catchy. There were a lot of overnight sessions where we would record all of this material on his 4 track. I’m not sure exactly where he ended up but it wouldn’t surprise me if he wrote some jingles you have heard. I can’t find the recordings now, but I can say what it did for me was to work within the song. I really got more into the melody and playing the guitar parts with feeling. I was creating music. It was a true eye opener. I loved listening to some of those songs we did. And, in bands that followed, I could hear a distinct change in how I played. One of my favorites was this original song from 1988 called Falling. It is definitely dated in it’s sound but I was real happy with how my playing got into the moment of the song (can you also hear my Alex Lifeson, Rush influence in the music?). (Gotta love the mullet in the video!)

 

Get Out in the Real World

Don’t get me wrong, I still was playing fast and continuing to discover some great guitar riffs. What I did learn (and still learning to this day) was to find the right place to play fast, if and when it is needed. So around that time in 1988 I came across that Vernon Reid interview in Guitar Player. I wish I could find the entire interview, it was such a great read. There was one part of that interview that always stuck with me. I think he was asked some technical question regarding practicing and scales, I’m not sure. His answer was interesting: There are so many players out there that feel it is necessary to sit in their rooms for hours on end learning and practicing scales and trying to figure out all the latest and greatest guitar tricks. Look, those things are important. But they are all just notes within a greater part of the story. In order to make music: stuff that people can relate to, can get emotionally involved with, can truly appreciate, and be a well rounded, true musician, you need to put that guitar down and get the heck out of the room! Get out in the world: hang out with friend, go for a hike or a walk, hike a mountain (ok, that’s my thing), play with your kids, SEE and EXPERIENCE the world you live in! It is from there where your true music will come from and will simply make you a better player. Otherwise you are no different than a robot, you’re just playing the notes with no meaning behind them.

 

Find Your Artist Within

It’s something I try to instill in my students and even fellow musicians. I am still sometimes guilty of overplaying and getting out of the feel of the music. But, at least I am aware of that shortcoming and continue to find ways to play better. Live and experience the world around you. The riffs will come. In fact, they will at times be better than you ever thought possible. Until the next time, rock on!

If you want to learn more or are in my neighborhood, you can book some lessons here or just contact me via email: tonysrockguitar@gmail.com