Category Archives: Random Musings

I’m Still Here

On Sunday February 13, my mother passed away after a six-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 67. Needless to say I’ve been distracted from this project and haven’t had the time to practice like I want. However, I’m still committed to the project and have been slowly making progress on Wanted Dead or Alive.

The notes of the solo are not difficult, but it is just loaded with pinch harmonics (“squealies”) and I’m just starting to be able to learn how to generate them consistently. This one may take me a while, but the learning process will be worth it.

I’m going to try to post more often and maybe record a “progress report” so you can see how it’s coming along. Thanks for sticking with me. More to come…

The Perfect Christmas Present

My wife and I generally don’t do big Christmas gifts for each other. We think of Christmas as mostly for the kids and would rather spend our money on them than on each other. We always manage to come up with something small and meaningful to exchange on Christmas morning, but rarely are they the kind of “oh wow!” presents that my wife gave me this year.

To me the perfect gift has three elements. First, it needs to be a surprise. My wife has a wish list on Amazon and generally I get her something from her list, which ensures that she’ll like it, but it kind of removes the sense of unexpectedness. The gift she got me this year was very much a surprise — I knew it had something to do with my solos project because she asked me for a list of the songs and albums six weeks ago, but I had no idea what she was going to do with that information.

Second, the gift needs to require effort. Most gifts require merely traveling to a store, or more likely in these times, to a web site. A little wrapping and you’re done. The best gifts are those that are hand-made, need significant work to assemble, or require trips to multiple stores. Angie’s gift to me this year involved all three. That doesn’t even include the effort it took to keep the whole thing hidden from me — using her parent’s credit card, having things delivered to friends’ houses.

Finally, the gift needs to be meaningful. When people talk about getting bad gifts, often they mean that the present didn’t have any meaning. The giver didn’t choose something that reflected the recipient’s personality — a favorite color, hobby or style. The gift that my wife gave me had meaning on multiple levels. First it related to my project that is a central focus for me right now. It also drew upon my love for vinyl records, specifically the large beautiful cover art. And it involved the very albums that are my favorites for the very reasons I chose them for this project.

The perfect gift that Angie gave me was framed album art for all of the solos that I’m doing for this project. She went out and bought some used albums, and found high-resolution artwork for those that she couldn’t find and had them printed. Twenty-four framed albums in all (not 25 because two of the songs are from the same album). It was an amazing surprise that took a lot of effort and was extremely thoughtful. I can’t express how that makes me feel.

Speed Work and the Metronome

After a week and a half of daily practice, I have this solo down… except… for… one… freaking… part! If you view the song here, the part I’m pulling my hair out about is at 2:22. It’s a fast-moving downward run that I just can’t play cleanly. I know all the notes, but I can’t move my fingers fast enough with enough precision to play it … not yet anyway.

So, I’ve broken out the metronome for the first time in this project. It’s not a real metronome — my iPad app AmpKit+ has a built-in one that works great. The song runs at about 195 bpm, so I started practicing that run at 120 bpm. I could do it pretty easily at 120, so I moved up to 130 and then 140, upping the tempo each time I was able to play it cleanly 5 times through at that speed. I’m now working at 180 bpm. I think a couple more days practice and I should be able to do 195 — at least I’m hoping.

This kind of problem was one that I was anticipating and actually looking forward to overcoming. Some of the solos that are still to come have incredibly fast parts, and I’ll need to have good learning techniques in place, and a heightened dexterity to be able to play them. It is the first time, though, that I’ve run up against a real wall, where I’ve learned every other part of the solo to performance quality, but can’t quite get one part. I’m sure it won’t be the last.

There’s a word in the guitar world for super-fast finger work. It’s called shredding, and certain guitarists have based their entire careers on it. It’s pretty amazing if a little one dimensional. Check out this guy to see what I’m talking about.

Where You Been?

Just a quick post to let you know what I’ve been up to. I’ll try not to go more than a week between posts again.

Since my last progress report, I’ve been practicing as much as I can, but some days I’ve missed practice due to a work deadline. I also had to borrow a guitar (thanks George) since I broke one of the machine heads on my Gibson. I’ve ordered replacement Grovers, but they haven’t come in yet.

I’m pretty much ready to record “More Than a Feeling” but I want to wait until I get the new machine head installed before recording it. So look for that in a couple of days. Thanks for hanging in there and following along.

AmpKit: My New Best Friend

This project just got a whole lot easier.

I have always been a huge iPhone fan, and I’ve had an iPad for a few months now, so I’m always looking for new useful apps. I found one last week that is an utterly indispensable tool for guitarists. It’s made learning and recording these solos much, much easier.

The program is called AmpKit and it’s made by AgilePartners, the developers who created Guitar Toolkit, which I’ve had for a couple of years. It’s an amp and effects simulator that models real-world amplifiers, effects pedals, speaker cabinets and microphones, giving you a wide range of latitude in creating different guitar sounds, from simple and clean to raunchy and hard. I’ve only been playing with it for a short time, but it’s already made a huge difference in how I approach my practice.

In addition to the amp simulation, it has full recording capabilities, and I can upload audio files as backing tracks that I can play over. When I record a track, I can tweak the amp settings as much as I want after I’ve recorded it (it keeps the dry guitar signal). When I have the recording exactly how I want it, I can pull the file off via a web browser or upload it to SoundCloud. Then I can mix it in Audacity with the backing track (which synchronizes perfectly) and drop the mixed audio into iMovie to get a much better sound than I’d been getting with my camera’s crappy mic.

You can see the results on my last performance of Take It on the Run.

I purchased the AmpKit LiNK adapter ($29.99 from Amazon) that allows me to plug my guitar directly into my iPad and connect a headphone or external amplifier to monitor the output. I like to stand my iPad up in the dock connector and use the dock’s audio out to run to my amp or headphones. It’s a sweet setup that makes me much more efficient while practicing and recording.

They are supposedly coming out with a universal app that’s built for iPad in addition to the iPhone, and I can’t wait to see how they use the additional screen real-estate. The iPhone version looks a bit pixellated and cramped on the iPad. I hope they also consider adding the ability to share set-ups between users and moving pedals and amps between different installations of the program (ie, on my iPhone).

Note: There are two versions of the program, the free version (AmpKit) and the paid version (AmpKit+ for $19.99) — they are exactly the same except that the paid version is bundled with a good collection of amps and pedals, while the free version has only a couple. Both allow in-app purchases to add to your collection. Note that if you purchase an amp or effect in the free version it does not transfer over to AmpKit+. (I was able to get a refund from Apple, but it’s still kind of a hassle).

Talent vs. Skill: Can You Learn to Be a Virtuoso?

I’ve always been fascinated by people who seem to have an innate talent for music. I always wonder, when I watch these virtuosos, how much of their ability comes from being “born that way” and how much is from intense study and practice? The question for me is if you don’t have a lot of innate talent for an instrument, will enough practice still get you to virtuoso ability?

Here’s an honest to goodness virtuoso in action:

If you visit the guitarist’s site, he began practicing in his early teens, studied guitar “obsessively” in high school, and was mentored by guitar masters. It seems, then, that hard work, dedication, passion, and a lot of practice were the keys to his becoming a bona fide virtuoso. However, there are some clues in the biography that point to natural talent being an important contributor, such as references to his “uncommonly dextrous fingers” and his “keen sense of rhythm”. These sound more like inborn traits that can’t be learned.

My sense is that natural ability has three main effects on the road to being a virtuoso. First, it gives you a boost — a head start that makes learning things a bit easier and breakthroughs more frequent. It makes you more likely to be noticed by teachers and given better instruction (you see this in sports all the time). Second, natural talent — in part because of this boost — fuels passion for a skill. The better you are naturally at an instrument, the more likely you are to want to practice, and to maintain your interest and passion for the many years it takes to become a master. Finally, a specific lack of natural talent can provide a ceiling to your excellence. If you are not naturally dextrous, you can only improve your ability so much.  You can work extra hard and sometimes overcome an inherent weakness, but given the same passion and practice time as someone with natural ability, you will not be able to match their skill.

I take comfort in that fact, for some strange reason. I don’t think I have any specific natural talent for guitar, or at least what I do have is not exceptional in the world of great guitar players, so I won’t be disappointed if I never become Ingwe Malmstein or Stevie Ray Vaughn. I don’t yet know where my ceiling is, and I’m really enjoying the road to finding out. I hope that I will surprise myself and excel beyond my fairly optimistic goals. it gives me great joy when I do something on the guitar that I thought I was incapable of. I don’t need to be a virtuoso to be a great guitar player, and I’m comfortable with that.

I’ll still always be fascinated by guitar gods, so I’ll close with this little gem, from my favorite rock guitarist, John Petrucci of Dream Theater.

A Diversion: The Allure of Vinyl

While I go through the daily grind of repetition to try to make this solo performance-quality, I thought I’d write a bit about my recent rediscovery of the joy of vinyl albums. I dug up my old box of records recently, pulling it down from a shelf in the garage and putting it in my small practice area. I bought a Crosley turntable with speakers so I could listen to them as inspiration for my project. Many of the albums feature the solos I’m trying to learn.

There have been countless arguments about the sound quality of analog vinyl records vs. the pristine digital sound of online music or CDs. The truth is, it doesn’t matter which one ekes out a victory among the audiophiles. Vinyl wins because of the experience. The tactile, visual and auditory experience that only a record can provide.

Apple made an attempt to resurrect the experience with their iTunes “LP Format” for digital downloads–certain albums have artwork, photography, video and animation to enhance the experience–and I applaud them for it. At the bare minimum they’ve brought album art back to music, and that’s a huge victory. But listening to a record is so much more than looking at a picture while you listen to the music. There’s a heft and size to an album. It’s big and beautiful. A lot of them have fold-out insides with big paintings and photos. Lyrics or liner notes are printed on the sleeve. Physically placing it on the turntable and moving the needle to the proper spot takes time and effort. There’s even a meaty smell to a well-used album that exists nowhere else.

For reasons I can’t describe, this makes the music sound better. I listened to the whole first side of AC/DC’s Back in Black the other night and it brought back so many good memories. Holding the liner notes while the songs played is a rare treat that I hope others will explore. If you haven’t listened to a good record in a while, maybe it’s time to dig out and dust off those old albums and remember what it really feels like to experience music. And if you never have experienced the allure of vinyl, what are you waiting for?

Breakthrough Moments

I have never spent much time learning someone else’s work. I played cover songs in Second Glance before, but in all those cases I made it a point not to try to sound too much like the original. I “made it my own” as they say, and thus I only had to approximate the original. I’m not ashamed of that. In that situation, I think it was the right thing to do — we weren’t a cover band, so we wanted to bring our own sound to the songs.

But with this project, the point is to learn the solos as the original guitarist played them, and it’s definitely challenging. Tonight I had a breakthrough moment with this first solo. It’s that moment where you not only know the notes the guitarist is playing, but the intent behind the notes. You suddenly understand the way they are supposed to be played. It’s that moment where it all makes sense and you understand what Brian May was thinking when he crafted the solo.

I don’t want to oversell the moment. It wasn’t a life-changing epiphany, but it was enough of a genuine breakthrough that I wanted to write about it. I’m only at the foot of this tall mountain that I’ve set myself up to climb, and each encouraging step makes it seem worthwhile.

As far as learning the solo for We Will Rock You, it’s still pretty sloppy, and I’m only half-way through the hard part, but I “got it” tonight in a way that I hadn’t been able to the last few times. I had forgotten how much joy there was in working on something until it clicks. I’m glad I’m rediscovering that.