Earlier, I presented a 7th chord arpeggio workout (see “Practice Journal: A7 Arpeggio Exercise“). Now, let’s use fragments of those patterns to construct a short solo. This is an étude, so don’t expect a profound musical statement.
Archive for March, 2011
Béla Bartók receives frequent mention in music history and appreciation classes, I presume because his music is an accessible entry point to the 20th century for casual listeners. Pianists are likely to have gotten to know him through Mikrokosmos. But for me, he is one of the great composers of string quartets. And I love string quartets.
As you watch this, ask yourself how many passages you might not have taken note of if you weren’t watching live performers. If there was ever an illustration of the importance of experiencing music visually, this is it. No artist should assume an untrained listener can discern specific points of interest in an arrangement. In a live performance, the audience’s attention is prompted with visual cues.
I believe Bartók’s music to be of particular interest to guitarists, especially those who are into metalcore and its various related subgenres, because of its “riff-like” nature.
I just got around to watching episode 701 of That Metal Show. Congrats the gang on a solid beginning to a new season, but I’ve got to make some corrections to this week’s Top 5.
For the uninitiated, “Top 5″ is a segment in which the hosts of TMS each assemble a top 5 list in a specific category, then after some debate, combine their best selections in a “definitive” list. This week’s category was Metal 101: Which albums would prove the best points of entry to the genre for a novice?
As usual, the gang seems to misunderstand the question. While several of their selections were on the mark, others were clearly chosen for their stature, not for being a gateway for metal virgins. Here is the list compiled by the hosts:
- Van Halen, Van Halen
- Metallica, Master of Puppets
- Black Sabbath, Paranoid
- AC/DC, Highway to Hell
- Motörhead, Ace of Spades
Let’s forget for a moment that it’s debatable whether Van Halen and AC/DC are heavy metal artists. I see one solid entry — Master of Puppets. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, while extremely historically significant, may not be suitable for newbies. If you want to get a kid to read, don’t try turning him on to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; hand him Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As for Ace of Spades, I am bewildered as to how it snuck its way onto the list.
What would my list look like? It would have to include a classic for all time — something that draws you into the culture at its height. But it also needs one or two newer albums, to snag listeners conditioned by modern production values (thus ruling out any Motörhead). We need to lean a bit more hardcore; Van Halen is mainstream enough that you won’t need to specifically recommend them to anyone who owns a radio. Then perhaps a more challenging album, giving the student a taste of how heavy things can get. Off the top of my head, here’s what I recommend:
- Metallica, Master of Puppets. Even if you disowned them in 1996, it is pretty much undeniable that Master of Puppets ranks among the greatest albums in the metal genre. Thrash is the dominant metal subgenre, and this is an exemplary thrash album, so MOP offers both a history lesson and a thrilling listening experience. Before all the controversy, here is the quintessential garage band at their peak, making music that exceeds whatever you’d have expected of these Bay Area punks.
- Pantera, Far Beyond Driven. This is a close call. Albums by Slayer, Lamb of God or Arch Enemy would be equally suitable. What they represent is Metal’s middleground: Thrash-based textures for the excited newcomer, but featuring lower-tuned guitars and death growls. Extreme acts like Nile and Meshuggah could be overwhelming for new listeners, but Pantera, Sepultura, and others in the groove or melodic death subgenres could bridge the gap.
- Dream Theater, Images and Words. Here’s one’s for the jazz snobs. As far as progressive bands go, I’m more of a Symphony X guy; but Dream Theater is what we listened to in the 90′s, when the world declared Metal dead.
- AC/DC, Back in Black. Okay, I said that AC/DC aren’t metal, but Back in Black’s crossover appeal is irresistible. The fact that they released such a strong product just after the death of Bon Scott demonstrates a resolve that metalheads can’t help but respect. I never encountered a metal fan that didn’t know this album from front to back, and I almost didn’t include it because everyone already has listened to it.
- All That Remains, The Fall of Ideals. Remember, this is a list for newbies, not a “greatest hits.” I’m not including this album because it’s one of the five greatest; I’m including it to lure the young listeners. All That Remains is another group with crossover appeal. Kids who enjoy the lighter side of metalcore will no doubt appreciate the angsty vocal style, but there’s some tight guitar and drum work on this album whose roots can easily be found in Iron Maiden.
If you aren’t a metal listener, let me know whether my selections are as enticing as I hoped. And if you are already an aficionado, tell me, what are your five gateway albums?
You can hardly find a more underrated figure in music. Alexander von Zemlinsky’s star was eclipsed by the more imposing presence of the Second Viennese School, who ironically owed their brilliance in part to his mentorship.
Newcomers to Zemlinsky may find his style well matched with that of Strauss and Mahler. Highly dramatic and progressive, pieces like Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) represent both a nod to the fading glory of High Romanticism and a preview of the next steps in the evolution of heavily motivic music, which would be carried to extreme ends by Schoenberg and Webern.
To me, much of today’s soundtrack music sounds close in style to Zemlinsky, particularly in feature-length animated films like The Brave Little Toaster and Ponyo. For this reason, his tone-poem, Die Seejungfrau, is a fine entry point to his oeuvre for the modern listener.
One of my undergrad music history professors shared this link on Facebook. Laugh while learning:
I hope that by now I have impressed upon you the importance of transcribing. I personally hold it in high enough regard that I spend a majority of practice time transcribing solos or Jazz heads. I’m not alone in this attitude: A friend of mine, saxophonist Jason Goldsmith, met with Ed Petersen. Mr. Petersen’s first question for Jason was, “How many solos have you transcribed?” And he didn’t just mean how many Jason figured out, he meant how many Jason could actually play right then, on the spot.
So how do you transcribe solos? The best answer to this question is simply, “Just start doing it, and then worry about how to do it better.” Seriously. You need to work your ear. Start now, and don’t assume that just because you got through a solo you’ve done it right. I still find mistakes in solos I’ve transcribed a while back. As with all practice routines, be your own worst critic. But there are some pieces of advice I can offer to ease your efforts:
- Pace Yourself. Start with something that sounds like it would be easy. Simple rhythms, a clean mix, and a short overall length are your first clues. Know your limitations, and work within them. Trust me, you’ll tend to overestimate your ability to play another guitarist’s solo, even if it’s relatively simple. All players have idiosyncracies in their playing, and when you’re learning someone else’s licks, you’re adjusting to his particular approach to the instrument. Something you can sing is a good candidate for your first attempt at transcription. If you can already mentally picture how some of the solo is played, that’s another good sign. If you try to tackle complicated material before you’re ready, not only are your chances of inaccuracy increased, but the time and effort you spend may discourage you from further transcription.
- Be Resourceful. There is plenty of technology available that can make your job easier. Free programs like Audacity (Windows), ReZound (Linux), and GarageBand (Mac) allow you to select a section of music and slow it to half-speed. If you’re willing to spend a little, I recommend Capo for the Mac. If the mix is muddy in the low-end, you can apply a filter to isolate the mid-range. If half-speed doesn’t help, maybe you can hear a few notes better if you slow the recording down without adjusting pitch. Wondering how best to finger a passage? Look for YouTube videos of the artist performing the solo.
- Remember What Instrument You’re Playing. If you’re transcribing a Dizzy Gillespie solo, you’ll probably run across ideas that work for the trumpet, but don’t lay well on a guitar fingerboard. That shouldn’t discourage you from trying to adapt. Great guitarists like Jim Hall and Frank Gambale have said they were inspired by saxophonists. I personally draw inspiration from pianists and banjo players. Sometimes a technique that works well on the source instrument has to be adapted. Does a saxophone scoop always translate as a guitar bend? Not necessarily. You may find that a slide is more appropriate, or a rake. What about a trumpet shake? Do you slide between the notes, or trill? Or, if you want to be unorthodox, could you get away with a whammy bar shake? These are all artistic decisions. Then there are more technical decisions. You’ll almost never translate a horn player’s tounging patterns directly into picking/slurring combinations. The key is to preserve the vibe of a passage, and not mess up the flow as it was originally intended, but at the same time adjust articulations so they’re comfortable on the guitar. Sometimes you may want to sacrifice comfort for sound. For example, if a lick sounds better when you perform awkward string skips than it does when you sweep or slur it, then go with the method that sounds best, as long as you’re not making unreasonable technical demands of yourself.
- Subdivide. The key to deciphering rhythms is subdivision. Count out the phrase you’re working on by the smallest note value in the phrase. So for example, if you’re working on a phrase whose smallest notes are sixteenths, try to feel the pulse in sixteenth notes. It may also help to feel the phrase in eighths; your perception of which sixteenth notes are accented may aid your error detection. When working with triplets, the first and third of a group are the easiest for your brain to detect, so focus on them first, then grab the middle one. The overall point here is to adjust your perception of the pulse from one phrase to the next, to help you focus. It’s like using Google Maps: sometimes you need to know the exact location of the Lake Street parking ramp entrance, sometimes you just need to know about how many miles it is to downtown Madison. Zoom in and out on those rhythms.
- Use Mental Tricks. You can take advantage of the way your brain processes musical sounds to get through tricky parts. For example, focusing only on the first and last notes of a run while subdividing the measure in eighths or sixteenths will help you nail down the exact starting and ending points. If you’re having difficulty figuring out an individual note within a phrase, try stopping the playback at exactly that note. The aural impression of the note in question will linger in your mind. If a flurry of notes seems to defy rhythmic analysis, could it just be a tuplet? Even if it isn’t, would you really fail in representing the passage accurately in print by using a tuplet? I notated the run at measures 74-75 of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” solo as tuplets, even though they might not be totally rhythmically accurate:
It would be maddening to try to get rhythms like these perfect, and any student learning from the transcriptions wouldn’t be counting phrases like those anyway; those type of phrases are mostly a matter of getting through the run as quickly as you can, and ending in the right spot. But don’t fall back on tuplets whenever a run is tricky. I’ve seen a student make that very mistake, by notating this phrase from the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You”…
If he sang the phrase to himself slowly, while subdividing by sixteenths, he could have easily avoided this error.
Another trick is to watch the peaks and valleys. Watch where the highest and lowest notes of a phrase land within the measure. That can help you get a handle on the rhythmic placement of all the notes in-between.
So get to work soon, and often. Your playing, and your understanding of music in general, will benefit greatly. Plus, you’ll save money on books and magazines, and not be as tempted to rely on the godawfully inaccurate tablature corrupting the Internet.
In my last post, I began discussing the value of transcription — namely, that the practice of transcribing conditions you to think fluently in the language of music. Today, I’d like to introduce the three methods by which we learn solos, in increasing order of effectiveness:
- Learning from Sheet Music or TAB. This places the work of transcription in the hands of someone else. Your task is to listen to the original work, read the music, and work up the performance. This approach is convenient because it requires the least work, but it is the least effective in developing your permanent skills. Knowing how to move your hands in a way that produces a piece of music is adequate for its mere reproduction; but if you could understand the reasoning behind the placement of every note, you possess real musical power, which could manifest itself in some remotely connected way later. A B.B. King lick I learned in 1986, though I may never play it verbatim again, is very likely to have seeded dozens of fresh ideas I currently use. If you must learn something for performance only, sheet music is a valid option; but don’t rely on it exclusively.
- Learning by Ear. Figuring out a solo by ear saves you money in sheet music, but adds time to your practice sessions. Longer sessions are less of a problem than they are a bonus. The more you play, the better you get. As you hash out each idea over and over again, making sure it matches the recording, you’re getting it “under your fingers” — you’re developing muscle memory that facilitates even faster learning in the future. So you’re working both your hands and your brain. What less would you settle for?
- Transcribing onto paper. Since you’re already learning how to play a solo, why not write it out? This does three very important things: First, it reinforces the solo in your memory. Second, it works your notation chops. If you want to work with other fine musicians, the ability to pass them accurate, legible scores is a major plus. Finally, it forces you to check your sense of rhythm. Playing a phrase is one thing, but can you explain how to count it? And what about “arhythmic” phrases? How are you going to handle them? This third approach to learning is not only best for you, but it can result in a collection of printed transcriptions that you can share with students and colleagues.
Think of each of the above approaches to learning as increasingly rewarding. You should almost always be working on level two or three. Each level becomes more challenging, but the very fact that you’re a musician means that you crave a mental challenge, right?
Next: Transcribing tips that have helped me.
As an undergraduate, I took a course titled “The Logic of Chess.” I was a relative newcomer to the game; I knew how to play, but wasn’t any good. One of my classmates, a USCF-rated player, was clearly taking the course for the pure love of the game, and perhaps for an easy math credit. He once asked me, “Do you want to improve your rating significantly in just a week?”
“Of course,” I answered.
“Then take a copy of Chess Life, find a transcription of a game between two Grandmasters, and memorize every move.”
That evening, I began applying his advice. Sure enough, my game improved within days. I might not have understood every move to its fullest, but by studying an annotated transcript of a game I felt one step closer to thinking like a grandmaster. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, say French, you might have learned that it doesn’t just pay to know French, you’ve got to think in French. When you bypass the translation routine in your head, your fluency improves dramatically. In Music, as in Chess and Language, to express yourself as a master you must learn to think like one. This is why we transcribe.
Transcription is the act of deciphering, note-for-note, what occurs in a piece of music. Most of the great musicians we admire transcribed music played by the greats before them. Sonny Rollins studied Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Van Halen studied Eric Clapton, Pat Metheny studied Wes Montgomery. For every great musician, there are a number of others that inspired him. Do not confuse inspiration with mere impression. If you admire an artist because he impresses you, that may be enough to motivate you to pick up the instrument and play in the first place, and that’s important; but your path to mastery is paved by periods of inspiration, during which you are actually inspired to study an artist’s work very closely. Many guitarists mistakenly cite artists that impress them as influences, when the list of artists that have actually inspired them is much shorter. When an artist inspires you, a fitting response is to transcribe some of his work.
Some guitarists will claim that learning other people’s solos will only make you sound like other people, and hinder you from developing your own unique style. If you believe that, you doom yourself to mediocrity. No one ever developed a unique style without first being familiar with other styles. The process of learning to be a musician involves first building a foundation of basic proficiency, then basing any personal innovation on that foundation.
The ability to listen to music and either transcribe it on paper or perform it enhances all other creative musical skills. If you can hear a phrase and play it back, you are better equipped to write or improvise original music. You possess an internal ear that ought to know how something sounds before it’s played. Whereas listeners first hear, then process, musicians process, then play. In other words, just as subtraction is merely addition with one sign reversed, transcription is performance reversed in time. It is an act of reverse engineering; in transcribing, you place yourself in the head of the original performer. You learn how a master thinks.
In my next post, I will describe the three methods for learning solos, and their inherent pros and cons.
Check out this debate from a 1986 episode of Crossfire. Today, I find it bewildering that rock music censorship was ever on the table.
George Lynch has one of the most unorthodox and immediately recognizable electric guitar styles in the history of the instrument, and Dokken’s Back for the Attack (Elektra, 1987) serves as a worthy showcase.
Pop Metal in the 1980′s is not remembered for its profound songwriting, but groups like Dokken, Ratt, and Extreme were somewhat able to salvage credibility with serious metal fans by prioritizing virtuosic guitar leads. Dokken were particularly hit-and-miss when it came to lyric writing, but the hookiness of their vocal melodies combined with the wildly expressive phrasing of Lynch’s solo lines compensated so effectively that you didn’t enjoy their music in spite of its weaknesses; you didn’t even notice the weaknesses. It is only now, years after the release of their classic first four albums, that their inherent cheesiness makes itself apparent — reflected in the harsh light of post 90′s cynicism.
Dokken’s most popular singles, “In My Dreams” and “Alone Again” appeared on albums released before Attack. Allmusic.com gives it three stars out of five, with a review stating that it “certainly isn’t Dokken’s greatest album, yet it remains a worthwhile listen.” But I maintain that this is their peak effort.
The opening track, “Kiss of Death,” strikes like a cobra. Here, Lynch shows that he has found his signature crunch. After three albums drenched in reverb, the production in Attack is more raw and aggressive. Dokken could not have selected a more appropriate album title.
This is a guitarist’s album from start to finish. Every solo is remarkable, even in the filler tracks. And those filler tracks are actually pretty good; they merely suffer from a common affliction in Dokken tunes — that of being quite well-written until the chorus. Thankfully, the banality of the lyrics in a Dokken chorus is often offset by its singability. I must admit feeling compelled to sing along at times.
Each of the three songs following the opening track — “Prisoner,” “Night by Night,” and “Standing in the Shadows” — may have been unremarkable without Lynch’s contribution; but with his solos they become thoroughly enjoyable. You need not search anywhere else for better examples of his frenetic wailing. “Prisoner,” by the way, contains a feature common in Dokken’s songs, and something that I always enjoyed hearing — the placement of a bridge after the solo.
As a hyper punk kid I didn’t pay much attention to the brooding penultimate track on side A, “Heaven Sent.” In hindsight, I believe this may be the finest on the album. It’s dynamic, relatively lyrically mature, and it showcases Lynch well — even if not as well as the previous two tracks.
We finish the side with an instrumental that would become a live staple. “Mr. Scary” is aptly named, given the goosebump-inducing nature of Lynch’s leads. Regrettably, this is also the most densely produced track on the album; much of the layering gets in the way of an otherwise nicely crafted piece.
Side B opens with the poppiest material on the album: “So Many Tears” and “Burning Like A Flame.” To me, the effect of placing one song that laments a love that must be abandoned back-to-back with a celebration of a relationship that has survived against all odds is slightly disorienting. “Burning Like a Flame,” the flagship single of the album, is a new sound for Dokken; its harmonic progressions — particularly in the pre-chorus — sound more like the Wilson sisters than Don and George.
Things get a bit serious during the next block of tunes, including “Lost Behind the Wall,” “Stop Fighting Love,” and “Cry of the Gypsy.” By now, it becomes apparent that as a lyricist, Don Dokken creates a character who is focused on consignment to tragic fate, and his frustration with former lovers. This is no surprise to loyal fans. As ever, Lynch provides ongoing musical commentary, heightening the sense of melancholy.
We close with the fun, sexually charged “Sleepless Nights.” Being the most lighthearted song on the album, it couldn’t be placed in a better position — providing much needed relief to an hour-long parade of misanthropy.
Yes, I said we closed the album. I know there is one more track, but as far as I’m concerned it does not belong. “Dream Warriors” ranks among Dokken’s weakest tunes, and seems to have been tacked arbitrarily on to the end solely because it was the theme song for a blockbuster film. When listening to the album, just skip the final track.