Guitarist’s block… Is that a thing?

I have thought to myself on more than one occasion that my frustration as a Guitarist must be similar to what a writer would call writers block.

The hours that I have spent so frustrated with not seeing improvements in my skill, or speed,  that for days or even weeks, I’d just have no interest in playing. Then maybe I pick it up for a couple of moments, lose interest at playing the same old, same old and put the guitar back down again.

I think most musicians hate doing endless repetitive scales or arpeggios and yearn to be able to improvise like Miles Davis or Grant Green. Those same musicians most likely know the importance of these exercises in the grander scheme that is Music. It would be like writing your first book with a vocabulary of a five year old.

Conversely, i have heard from many guitarist friends of mine that the drive to play better and faster becomes almost an obsession. I myself have periods when I am not satisfied until I go through my drills and make no mistakes. And if I make a mistake, I just start over again.

I constantly think that I should be farther along in my development than I am, that maybe I should play in a Jazz band or push myself more. But, I just have to remind myself that I have many years of learning ahead of me, and when I am ready, I will do these things.

I also get constantly frustrated with what I call ‘Frankensteins Hand Syndrome’, where it sometimes feels like one (or both) of my hands feel like they have loose wiring between them and my brain. My brain seems to be very capable of learning fretboard patterns and chord shapes, but I sometimes feel let down by my fingerwork.

When guitarists block kicks in, it is tough to keep to a daily practice schedule. Everything becomes a chore, scales become lines on a blackboard, fingers feel sluggish, your brain just can’t be bothered. You know that if you don’t play for a while, it is going to be a pain in the butt to get back to where you are.

Luckily, the remedy for guitarists block is to get inspiration from something or someone in the form of a mentor. Inspiration can come in any form.

In the past, my mentors have included Django Reinhart, Buddy Guy, Grant Green, Thelonious Monk and most recently Paul Mehling of the Hot Club of San Francisco.

So, in the event that you find yourself in the grip of this horrible affliction, I would recommend copious amounts of trawling for inspiration. I found Youtube very effective, but live performances are best.

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More Jazz Quotes!

“It doesn’t matter all that much. It’s just that when you’re playing, Stephane, you’ve got both Chaput and me backing you, but when I’m soloing I’ve only got one guitar behind me!” – Django Reinhardt

“I’m beginning to understand myself. But it would have been great to be able to understand myself when I was 20 rather than when I was 82.” – Dave Brubeck

“I don’t like rap music at all. I don’t think it’s music. It’s just a beat and rapping.” – Nina Simone

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” – Charlie Parker

“Some people try to get very philosophical and cerebral about what they’re trying to say with jazz. You don’t need any prologues, you just play.” – Oscar Peterson

“Wrong is right.” – Thelonious Monk

“When I first came to New York everybody on the scene would treat me like I could play, but I couldn’t.” -Wynton Marsalis

“Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz.” – Louis Armstrong

Quotes courtesy of http://www.jazzquotations.com

More Jazz Quotes!!!

Here is a selection of my favourite quotes from Jazzquotations.com.

“Playing ‘Bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.” – Duke Ellington

“A great teacher is one who realizes that he himself is also a student and whose goal is not dictate the answers, but to stimulate his students creativity enough so that they go out and find the answers themselves.” – Herbie Hancock

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Thelonious Monk

“I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close order drill, or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.” – Billie Holiday

“You have to practice improvisation, let no one kid you about it!” – Art Tatum

I’d like to thank…

As a guitarist, when I think of my favourite Jazz musicians, I lean towards Django Rheinhart or Grant Green. But, when it comes to people who have influenced my playing directly (in person), I can credit a handful of very intimate performances for influencing my playing style.

The first recollection was in a Thai restaurant in London. I remember being in this tiny venue, on a warm, sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The performer was a lone Jazz Guitarist with an amp and a loop pedal.

The cafe was small, but full of people milling around talking. There was a birthday party in the back and people sitting enjoying great food, with the aroma of coffee and Thai spices swirling around.

Then, without any big opening, or announcement, the guitarist started to play a Jazz bass line on his hollow body electric guitar for what I can only assume must have been 12 bars and then simultaneously stamping on his pedal and starting to comp his own bass line for the next 12 bars, and again after he laid that down, he continued to add layers, and depth to his track.

The room remained pretty much the same, people milling about, food being served, customers talking and laughing. Everything was the same but me… I was hypnotised by this guy and what he was doing with his guitar. After about 10 minutes, I realised that I had not spoken to anybody for the whole time he was playing. It was so rich and melodic. I didn’t know that one person could produce such a polished sound from just one instrument.

That was way before I started to learn guitar, and before I really listened to Jazz.

It was an experience that changed my music tastes forever…

There have been a few other experiences which have had similar impacts, but I credit that one experience for guiding my path in the direction that I am on, and to this day, I still hold it as one of the best gigs of my life.

I am sure that I am not the only one with experiences like this. Please feel free to send me your stories and I shall put the best on my Contributions page.

To Bebop or not to Bebop? That is the question…

Inspired by http://www.opus28.co.uk/bebopperp.pdf

While surfing the internet this morning, I stumbled upon this piece and I remembered how and why I fell in love with Bebop.

Bebop is so much more than just a small movement from the 40’s, with a meagre following of die-hard supporters. According to the article above, it is “pretty much the “grammar” of modern jazz, and bebop “licks” are not so much clichés as essential elements of speech within the jazz language”.

I got hooked into Bebop from the moment I heard it in my favourite Coffee Shop. It was Charlie Parker I believe…

The first 30 seconds or so of the track started off and to a practical jazz virgin sounded pretty generic, jazz standard. Then… the bomb dropped! The next 3 minutes would change the course of my taste in music (yet again).

I remember sitting there mesmerised by the skill of the players, the way that they seemingly conjured up this melody from a collection of random notes. With ever member of the band saying their piece, with their own style and rhythm, in their own musical accent. As I have mentioned before, I love when I can feel the energy of the band, playing off each other, competing to try to out-do each other. It was as if I was sitting in the room with them, listening in on a jam session. I felt like I could almost reach out and touch them.

My favourite tracks from Jazz, to this day, still have the feel and the ambience of the Bebop movement.

Although it sometimes sounds random, or un-arranged, there are logical rules to this genre which were experimental and complex for the day. These were real musicians, who truly pushed the boundaries of what was possible with music.

Many of the musicians that came up through the “Bebop era”, like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian and Sonny Stitt,  took the Bebop blueprints and evolved them into a myriad of different types of Jazz. The free-form style of Miles Davis, was a logical evolutionary step from the equally rebellious Beboppers all those years before.

Whether you like it or not, I believe, it was the Bebop generation that made Jazz as we know it.

For those of you who are new readers of my blog, don’t miss the Hank Jones Interview from last month, or take a glance at more Jazz articles

 

The Blues is like an onion, donkey…

The allure of the Blues puzzled me since the first time I heard Muddy Waters‘ “Hoochie Coochie Man“, as a young man. I could not understand the words (I didn’t know what a Hoochie Coochie was, let alone a black cat bone!),  I didn’t get the off timed rhythm, the repetitive bass line or the squealing from the guitar. But for some reason this one moment influenced my taste in music, forever.

Since then, I have been trying to unlock some of the secrets that made this very simple, repetitive format of music, so influential on me and millions of others.

Very soon after, I decided to learn to play the guitar, all I wanted to do was play the blues.

In fact, all I did do was play the blues!

The first chords I learned were E7, A7 and B7. I totally bypassed the usual steps of guitar learning, and jumped into the blues with both feet. I was totally immersed in the Blues… All the music I listened to was Blues, all the songs I learned were Blues, I was researching all the old Bluesmen back to W.C.Handy. My CD collection consisted of Muddy Waters, BB King, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. All my friends thought I was crazy listening to this old music at such a young age, but I could not help it.

I am getting off the point a little, but I just wanted to highlight  the impact the blues had on me as a young man. To get back to topic, the mystery of the Blues was, I believe, what got me into it in the first place.

Some people, when they listen to the blues, feel sad, or down. I could not understand that at all!  It did the exact opposite to me, when I listened to it. The lyrics may be talking about, the singers wife leaving them, or their dog dying, but the music still made me happy. This was the contradiction which I just could not fathom for ages. After a while, of analysing and researching, the penny dropped. The song lyrics of a Blues song are very straight forward, but the magic of the blues is in the layers.

On the surface, the song seems to be a sad song about the singer being mistreated or their woman is taking all their money. But in reality, the singer is usually conveying a secret message to his listeners in such a way that his boss or manager can’t understand. This tradition of the blues started when black musicians felt that  they were getting taken for a ride by the owner of a club, but did not yet have the right to stand up for themselves because of the colour of their skin.

You can find these things all over the internet, translations and hidden meanings of old blues lyrics.

Then you have the next layer, the bass line.  The bass line of the Blues is usually a distinctive triplet rhythm which I always feel, invokes an image of the stereotypical boxcar train as it goes over a crossing. The driving bass and drums play a major part in the essence of a blues song, more than in any other genre of music.

In the old days of the single guitar Blues masters, the bass lines were played on the E and A strings, at the same time as the melody and rhythm was being played on the higher strings. When you consider that these players were essentially playing three different instrument parts and singing on top of that, even if you don’t like their music, you have to take your hat off to them for their technique.

The Lead Guitar in the Blues, is arguably the most expressive form of lead instrument, when it is in the hands of a true master. The flexibility of the format, and the improvised nature of the blues provides a perfect platform for self-expression. From a guitarists point of view, possibilities are endless. Over a simple Blues progression using 7th chords, you can potentially pick notes from the major scale, the minor scale, major and minor pentatonic scale, and use them all to try to phrase what you are trying to say.

But, the best thing about the listening to the Blues , for me, is that you can hear all the individual musicians as they play their parts. If you listen to a four or five piece band (like the Muddy Waters Band), you can almost feel them playing off against each other. The relationships between them become evident, you can listen to ten different recordings of the same people and each one will be different. Each of the musicians can have bad days, or if you are real lucky, they can all be on fire!

Also, when you listen to old recordings, you can hear the imperfections.  The “Bum Notes”, the ambient noise from a sub standard recording setup, rhythm changes done both by accident and on purpose. All these things add to the experience, not the other way.

If you have the pleasure of seeing a bona fide Blues band live, at the top of their game, the result is staggering. The energy and emotion that comes out from a small band with a simple three chord progression, that everybody has heard a million times, is unforgettable.

If you forget everything else in this article, try to remember that, even though the song may be a sad, slow blues, the feelings of the Bluesman on the stage are the feelings that come through to you, the listener. When a great Blues singer wants you to feel sad, he can plumb the depths of your soul, but usually, the love and joy that comes from playing something that you truly enjoy comes through, instead.

These layers of the Blues, can reveal many different secrets about what is trying to be conveyed. Much like a passage in a book, can have many different messages for those that can read between the lines.

Although I missed the golden age of the Blues, I realise that I am blessed to grow up in an age when information is at your fingertips. I may not have had the opportunity to love the music that I do, had it not for the resources at my disposal.

Gifted or stubborn?

If you play a musical instrument, you probably fall into one of two categories…Naturally gifted, or dedicated and stubborn.  And if you are very lucky, both.

There have been numerous, truly gifted musicians over the years, some of which seemingly endowed with an ability to see music a different way, or a to be able to pick up an instrument and play it. And some, who really study and become so technically proficient that it is staggers you.

Personally, I have always been attracted to musicians who seem to have a raw, or god given talent for music (or art for that matter).

Grant Green, has been one of my favourite jazz guitarists for a long time. He arrived on the Jazz circuits as a young man, and the professional musicians that he was jamming with said that the things that had taken years to study, he picked up in a matter of minutes of playing with them. Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, too, all seemingly gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see music differently and manipulate it in a different way to everybody else.

For the rest of us who have to study, practice, and work our fingers to the bone, I have a different kind of admiration. I personally started playing late in my life and while my brain is equipped to process music, and make sense of music theory, my hands have always been my handicap. The determination of somebody for whom music doesn’t come easy is a testament to my theme, they love music so much, that they study and study, and practice and practice.

It is frustrating, even infuriating at times. You constantly strive for perfection and very rarely achieve it. Let alone the hours spent going over scales over and over again. But it is always worth it in the end! If it were easy for everyone, there would be no value in it.

History celebrates the genius composers and super gifted musicians, as they well should.  But as most people who have tried to learn an instrument will tell you, the vast majority of working musicians have spent years of there lives learning their trade.

And that, deserves as much (if not more)  respect.

No junk, no soul?

I was reading an article on the link between music and drugs, and this question occurred to me……

What would the music scene be like if drugs were never invented?

Is it too hard to imagine a world where, people just go to a venue to listen to music and appreciate it with a clear head? Or, where musicians aren’t known  for their habits before their talent? Or where a genre of music isn’t defined by a drug that goes with it?

Just imagine if the creativity of the musicians of the past had come from their own brains, and not aided by LSD, Heroin or Cocaine etc.

As the article reminded me, the Jazz world in particular got taken to another level by drugs. Would jazz have moved and transformed itself into the art form that is today, if it weren’t for smoking of dope and taking of heroin, leading to the advent of Bebop and the more free Jazz elements? Would the style have moved on from the Jazz of the 40’s, which sometimes come across (to me) as a bit formulaic in structure?

Look at these old Jazz and Blues players who survived the excesses of the 60s and 70s, and I think about the friends they have lost to drugs and alcohol. Just imagine a world full of old jazz guys who didn’t get hooked on heroin or over-dose in a hotel room somewhere. The world would be overflowing with cool old guys (and women of course).

Without LSD and Marijuana, the Hippie generation would never have existed?  What would the disillusioned youth of the 60’s and 70’s have grabbed on to…. Going into the Army? Embracing religion? Alcoholism? Rioting?

There would have been no Jimi Hendrix as we know him, the man widely regarded one of the most influential guitarists of all time might never have picked up a guitar and a wah-wah pedal.

There would have been no Bob Marley…..No Rastas even.

Maybe, coffee shops would be the place to hear live music and get your fix of caffeine and other legal drugs.

If the world had of changed tack back in the sixties, there is no way of telling what music would have become today.

Personally, I like to think that the people who made the biggest musical contributions to the world would have done it with or without drugs. I believe that some people are born with such gifts, and have been since the beginnings of mankind.

Even without the psychedelic 70s, couldn’t you see a version of Jimi Hendrix with a guitar in hand, and still re-writing history in a different genre of music. Maybe Flamenco or Blues guitar….

Take a good look at the losses that have been made to the world of music, as a direct result of drug abuse.

Was it worth it?