Experimental Music

Aug 01, 2019
To the extent that I have a reputation for anything amongst my musician friends, it's for practicing as little as possible. What began as a matter of disposition in my twenties has become a practicality in my fifties, when time seems to be the scarcest resource of all. One summer at the National Guitar Workshop, I wandered into a bass clinic with Anthony Jackson. Aside from a pretty excellent story about how his mentor broke in new bass strings (too long to recount here; suffice to say it involved flatwounds, a great deal of patience and a not insignificant quantity of butter), his most memorable advice to the predominantly teen-aged crowd was: "Get your parents to buy you as much gear as possible! You won't have the money for it yourself when you get out of school." If I were to give my own advice now to any kid optimistic enough to pursue music professionally, I'd tell them: "Practice all you can, while you still have the time."

Not that I didn't do my share. But I was never a practice room rat, measuring my self-worth by the number of eight- to ten-hour days I could log in a row. Nor was that my m.o. in my early New York days. In fact, I was a sucky practicer all around until I figured out what I really wanted to do, and that didn't happen until I was twenty-three years old. That's when my friends Beverly and John dragged me down to the Village to see Nanci Griffith perform at the Bottom Line. I watched Fats Kaplin accompany her on pedal steel, dobro, fiddle and accordian and realized: "Oh. I gotta do that." Not the fiddle and accordian part, actually. Just the steel and dobro part. But that was enough. And not in a "Huh, that might be kind of cool," sort of way. In a "That is what I've always wanted to do more than anything in the world, I just never realized it until this moment" kind of way.

And so, two things happened. One, I got to start an instrument from scratch in my twenties (the dobro; it would take me two more years to get my hands on a steel), which let me observe the learning process from the inside out. And two, since my ambition to play was based on something so specific (get good enough at these two instruments to accompany rootsy songwriters like Nanci Griffith), I was able to practice in a very focused way. It didn't hurt that at the time there was exactly one good dobro book in existence (by Stacy Phillips) and just three essential bluegrass dobro players to reckon with (Josh Graves, Mike Auldridge, and some young phenom named Jerry Douglas). Fewer variables meant fewer choices, which in turn meant fewer opportunities to wander off-topic, at least in theory.

Because I considered myself a guitar player moonlighting on an exotic new instrument, I created a few boundaries around the process. I decided I would only spend half an hour a day on my new obsession, and I would use it to work through Stacy's book. Each week, I would jot down my "assignment" for the week in the margins of the book: an exercise I created to learn the fretboard in the the dobro's high-G tuning (GBDGBD, low to high), a couple of harmonized scales at a specific metronome setting, and a section of whatever arrangement I was currently learning from the book. If I felt like playing more after that, or trying to figure out something off of a record, cool, but I had to put my thirty minutes in first – ten minutes each on comprehension, chops and repertoire.

This inadvertently turned out to be a pretty good way to learn, so when I did finally score a 1970s single-neck push-pull Emmons (the same model Fats played and had recommended as "the funky Telecaster of steels"), I bought the Winnie Winston and Bill Keith book Pedal Steel Guitar, started making notes in the margins of that text and added a second half-hour to my practice regimen. Now I was practicing a whole hour a day – but broken up into and visualized as no more than a half-dozen ten-minute endeavors.

I can't remember how long this scheme lasted; I know it took about ten months to work through Stacy's book, though I skipped a few things along the way, and I probably kept going in a similar vein on both instruments for three or four years each. By then I was playing gigs and sessions, transcribing what I could, and making up exercises of my own to meet the more outré challenges I encountered along the way, like East Village rockabilly gigs, so my process probably got a lot less linear at that point.

The basic approach, however, stuck with me – the idea that you could narrow down what you wanted to do and, given a clear and focused enough text, teach yourself how to do it with a finite amount of daily effort. At one point, I spent a year applying this process to learning Photoshop and (it was a long time ago) Quark. The only gigs I got out of it involved designing record covers for myself, but it was a fun detour through another craft's point of view and a good excuse to buy album art coffee table books.

More recently, this is how I've been plowing through harmony, counterpoint and orchestration and, with far less consistent results, my mentioned-elsewhere pianistic efforts. Much of the time, work in hand trumps long-range self-improvement – acquiring new composing chops ostensibly improves my chances of making young capitalist creatives chant "we want Dave!" for their triumphant thirty seconds of greatness, but it's hard to stick to a schedule when those same creatives want the next AIF for review at a quarter to ASAP. Still, at least having a clearly defined practice scheme in place makes it easier to know how and where to get back on the horse after a short- or even long-term interruption.

The curious thing, though, is that except for learning the entire Richard Saslow book in high school (The Art of Ragtime Guitar) and some Stefan Grossman tabs out of the back of Guitar Player magazine, I don't really remember practicing fingerstyle guitar. At least, not in a way that felt like practicing. Yes, I skipped Intellectual History of 19th Century America to learn the Taj Mahal version of "Buckdancer's Choice," and worked out at least half the songs on the first Hot Tuna record when I should have been writing fugues for my Tonal Counterpoint class. And I sat around the music building with Steadman Hinckley playing slide guitar till one in the morning instead of getting anywhere with those Sor studies. But that wasn't practicing. That was just playing the guitar.

I think about this sometimes when I'm working out new teaching material. I take clarity and communication seriously, and yet my own progress often still consists of, say, picking up the guitar around the house and playing through "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" in F, just to see if it can be done. I suppose this is why I didn't completely enjoy making Youtube videos until I started talking about the oddball things I find myself doing when I'm just fooling around. They're just experiments, really, but when I do enough of them in a row, they sometimes start to sound like something. Other times, they just sound like the first five bars of that song I never quite learned off of Into The Purple Valley. Win a few, lose a few.

Some of the best moments early on were when someone deigned to sit down and just show me something. "Here, did you know about this?" That's how I learned the 12-bar blues form, my first diminished chord, and the outro to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." As a teacher, I feel like it's important to explain things in a linear way, to take a person from point A to point C in a way that (hopefully) makes those lightbulbs go on. But sometimes, I just want to say "Guess what? You can do this! Isn't that cool?"

Off the top of my head, I can't remember if next week's Youtube lesson is more of a linear or a "guess what?!" kind of thing. But while we're both waiting to find out, pick up your guitar and see if you can't come up with an experiment or two of your own.

More soon,