For the past six years, David's weekly essay has covered everything from learning and practicing to essential listening and the creative process. Sign up now to get letters like the ones below in your inbox every Friday:
Disco Medley (01.27.23)
I did not land in Brooklyn with any kind of plan, really. That is, I had a plan, but it didn't survive my first week in New York. Three months earlier, as I was graduating from college with a degree in music, I had gotten plenty of advice, all of which proved inconsequential. The arranger my professor had suggested I study with turned out not to be available, and I proved to be hopelessly unqualified for the society-band agency my private teacher had once worked for. Upon being told I was a guitarist and could play standards, the agent on the line immediately asked, "What about the rock thing?" Turns out, the guitarist in a working 1980s wedding band was basically a stuntman who could handle everything that happened after the cocktail hour. Trumpeters and such might tootle their way through "Satin Doll" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" for a genteel dining experience, but would soon enough find themselves relegated to the horn section while the previously inept-seeming, mulleted guy struggling to make the changes on an inappropriate-looking Les Paul suddenly roared to life, singing and wailing his tuxedo'd way through "Mustang Sally," "Knock On Wood" and the rest of the R&B workload.
Possessing neither a mullet nor a Les Paul, and being both temperamently and physically incapable of singing in a way that did Wilson Pickett any kind of justice whatsoever, I slunk off the phone to begin working on Plan B. In the long run, of course, not playing in a wedding band turned out to be All For The Best in any number of ways. As I got out into the music world one way and another, I became friends and colleagues with plenty of New York musicians who did play weddings, and they all loathed the work to a remarkable degree, except for my friend Arti, who looked forward to the disco medley on every gig because it was the bass player's most challenging moment in the entire evening.
I now see this debacle as an early step in discovering that you can't be good at everything, or at least, if you want to get good at certain things because they pay well, you have to make a conscious choice about it. I could certainly have pivoted and made an effort; my friend Ed had actually done exactly that a few years earlier, after his band had, in classic fashion, imploded on the eve of their record deal. Ed went and found someone to teach him how to play weddings; since Ed already had the Rock Thing down, he simply worked backwards, learning standards and jazz voicings and all the stuff that would let him blend into the earlier part of the evening without blowing his cover.
The whole time I was stumbling around in New York, trying to figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, I played fingerstyle guitar for fun, and essentially for myself. It was a blowoff thing I did without really thinking it was worth much, because it wasn't rock or jazz, the two things people around me seemed to take seriously and treat as stratified practices with winners (touring bands with record deals, horn players with Michael Brecker-esque levels of technique) and losers (everyone else). I didn't even really know anyone else who cared about fingerstyle guitar, which should have told me two things: 1. Any fluency I might possess in this department was actually kind of rarefied, and therefor, under the right circumstances, perhaps more valuable than I suspected, and 2. Fingerstyle was appealing to me precisely because it was not what everyone else around me was interested in.
Of course, there were great fingerstyle guitarists all over the place at the time, I just didn't know any of them personally. And like anything else, once you get inside that world, your special, distinguishing thing is just that thing that everyone knows and cares about; your own knowledge and abilities lose some of the distinction they had back out there in the larger world. The tradeoff, of course, is you no longer feel like such a freak – people get your reference points, they see what you're trying to do, and you finally feel like you have a more accurate way to consider your own efforts and progress.
In his poetry manual The Ode Less Traveled, actor Stephen Fry argues that learning the nomenclature – what words like "spondee," "anapest" and "pentameter" actually refer to and mean – is every bit as essential to the would-be poet as it is for a mechanic to be able to identify the dipstick and the drive train by name, or for a soccer (sorry, football) player to understand the offsides rule. Every field has its inside cant, and even more, within the subdivisions of a given field the uses for the same material may differ.
Case in point: consider the difference between the ways a rocker, a jazz guitarist and a fingerpicker think about a chord like E7. You can't get more essential than E7 when it comes to guitar, and yet the way you voice that chord, and the way you use it, changes radically just among those three styles. In today's Youtube lesson, I show four different ways to play E7 and how using them in call-and-response phrases can improve your playing immediately, making even familiar licks sound better right away. You can find the lesson at the link below:
The Four Chords You Need To Sound Better Right Away
Obviously, this whole story would have been different in the internet age. When I'm telling people about my online master class, the Fingerstyle Five, I rarely lead with the fact that we have a community forum, but I think for the members who participate in it, it's one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. When I was first learning repertoire classics like "Anji" or the pieces in Richard Saslow's The Art of Ragtime Guitar, I had almost no one to compare notes with, discuss the tricky parts with, or receive encouragement from. Working on technique, repertoire and improvisation is a lot easier when the answer to your questions is just a forum post or a live stream away. If you think a little more camaraderie and a little less isolation could help your playing too, I encourage you to check out the Fingerstyle Five membership at the link below:
A Pretty Hirsute Affair (01.13.23)
The family canine is a pretty hirsute affair, particularly this time of year, when there's no pressing need to keep her trimmed. She doesn't shed, but she more than makes up for that with her penchant for rolling in dry grass at the park, a habit which has her wearing home more than her fair share of twigs, leaves and other organic detritus, all of which she succeeds in transferring to any domestic surface she inhabits for more than ten seconds.
Like any self-respecting cartoon dad, I opposed the dog notion on strictly logistical grounds: I would, I knew, wind up walking her the most, and so, incidentally, scooping up the majority of the even less appealing organic detritus a dog creates all on its own. And yet, I have come to totally groove on my gig as chief dog-walker. Among other things, dogs are cool with doing the same things over and over, and in fact look forward to it. This is a good fit, as I am the kind of human who will happily wear a trench in the ground by walking, year after year, to my favorite half-dozen spots in the neighborhood, completely oblivious to any new eatery that might waste its time hanging out a shingle within a half-mile radius of my home.
So, repetition – I'm a fan. And yet as improvisors, whether fluent or fledgling, we can be profoundly skittish about repeating ourselves. "I need more licks!" is the general mood, when in fact there is plenty more mileage to be gotten out of whatever licks we already know. In today's Youtube lesson, I explain how to create compelling eight-bar call-and-response solos from just a few small pentatonic ideas. Check it out at the link below:
The Pentatonic Secret: Use Repetition To Create More Interesting Solos
Tomorrow's Soloing From Scratch workshop will provide you with the exercises, licks, practice tools and tab to help you build your right hand coordination, grow your vocabulary of licks and start improvising. It also comes with a two-week trial of the Fingerstyle Five membership. You can learn more and sign up at the link below:
Soloing From Scratch, Volume 2: Alternating Thumb Blues In Drop D
Saturday, January 14, 10:30am Central
Don't Be Like Beethoven (12.16.23)
When Joe Pass was busy making his "Virtusoso" records for Norman Granz' Pablo label – solo guitar performances of tunes from the Great American Songbook – he explained that when he was a kid, his parents would drag him into the kitchen, or wherever they were hanging out with their friends, and say "play something!" And he couldn't just play what he was practicing, they would want to hear a song. And he was there by himself. So – hey, presto – a chord/melody genius is born, as young Joseph Passalaqua figured out how to give the people – in this case, his parents – what they want.
It's really no different if you play blues. At some point, someone's going to say, "hey man, you play guitar – come on, let's hear something!" And if you're there by yourself, and you don't sing, or can't remember the words, or only know how to play licks over the chords, you're kind of out of luck. As Mike Bloomfield once said of the people who would come to his solo acoustic shows and shout out "Super Session!" from the back of the crowd, "What am I gonna do, play the solos?" Or, as the great fingerstyle jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini once mused, "Beethoven...he didn't play any tunes, did he?"
It's good to know some tunes. And when it comes to fingerstyle blues, it's particularly good to know some eight-bar blues. They tend to have pretty distinctive chord progressions, and even more distinctive melodies, and they make a great change-up from the twelve-bar form. Bottom line, you'll still be playing blues, but you'll sound a whole lot less noodley, especially if you pick the right ones. The right tunes can also help you bridge the gap from blues to other genres: swing and jazz musicians tend to know songs like "St. James Infirmary" and "Trouble In Mind," country, bluegrass and Western Swing musicians will likely know "Trouble In Mind" and "Sitting On Top Of The World," and blues-rockers and gospel musicians alike should be familiar with "Nobody's Fault But Mine," which is definitely a Venn diagram worth thinking about.
If you don't have a few eight-bar blues in your repertoire, I propose you make that one of your missions for 2023. In today's Youtube lesson, I demonstrate five essential tunes, including the ones listed above, and suggest some additional reasons to spend some time with them. You can find the lesson at the link below:
The Five Eight Bar Blues Tunes You Should Learn In 2023
Functional Music (09.02.22)
In the Nate Chinen interview I mentioned last week, Third Story podcast host Leo Sidran observed that while Chinen's book, Playing Changes, focuses on innovators, musicians working to do new things with jazz at the start of the 21st century, there are still countless people out there somewhere every night, playing jazz as "functional" music – within the idiom, as it were: you can go out, if you're lucky enough to live near the right kind of venue, and hear a bebop quartet or quintet use improvisational tools perfected in the middle of the last century to play and improvise on standard tunes written between roughly 1925 and 1955, the same way you can go out and hear a string quartet play the kind of music Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven perfected between around 1780 and 1810.
Functional because unless you're hearing a well-known musician in the same kind of venue that presents string quartets and the symphony, you're probably hearing the music halfway in the background. (To paraphrase guitarist Adam Levy, if your name even goes on a chalkboard outside the bar the night of your gig, they usually spell it "Live Jazz Tonight.") And this doesn't just happen with jazz. But it's not like there's anything wrong with functional music. Miles Davis even said he found it more comfortable playing nightclubs than concerts, or in a place where people were talking, drinking and otherwise not a hundred percent focused on the music. Which points up that of course this all exists along a continuum. Plenty of people who went to see Miles at the Plugged Nickel because Miles Davis was playing were probably bugged by the people who thought they'd come to see Miles Davis but discovered about six abstract minutes into "No Blues" that they'd really come to drink old fashioneds and sharpen their verbal skills with the nearest and most appealing member of the waitstaff to the accompaniment of Miles Davis – "Live Jazz Tonight," indeed.
But thinking about functional vs. new music has got me wondering if maybe this is part of what makes talking about and learning blues so tricky. Because there is this tension in the blues world between what I would roughly call "playing it like you're supposed to" and "playing it like you want to." In the "Playing it like you're supposed to" camp are people who treat the great records of the idiom – the prewar Delta blues recordings or the 1950s Chess recordings, to name two – like scores. You don't change the notes of a Haydn string quartet, and you don't change the notes of a Blind Blake record. You play it the way it was written, or in the case of Blind Blake, the way it was recorded. Likewise, if you play in a blues band, you defer to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter as far as what songs to play and how to play them.
This is not limited to blues, of course; it goes on in all kind of American roots music, from bluegrass to western swing to the music of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. And I'm not entirely opposed to this approach; for one thing, it's how you learn in the absence of any written scores, conservatory system or centuries-long trail of pedagogy. Plus, it's satisfying, and fun, to successfully recreate music you love. Not to mention enjoyable for an audience – having grown up decades after the swing era, I found it thrilling to go out in the 1980s and hear that music played by people as gifted as Scott Hamilton and Chris Flory, five feet away and live as you please.
I'll also be the first to admit, I love me some functional music. It's great hearing people play the snot out of some bebop, or deliver a set of honky-tonk with skilled enthusiasm. But it does ultimately beg the observation that what you're hearing is on some level a recreation of something that once was new. Of course, everyone brings themselves into whatever music they play, and aside from the sheer training and ability it takes to play these musics, anybody playing on a high level must be, by definition, doing something personal with it. And I will also admit that if I go to hear "a blues band," I'd probably rather hear them play shuffles, slow blues, maybe a rhumba or two and a Junior Wells groove, than a mashup of Albert King licks and a hiphop groove.
Or would I? I've heard my share of shuffles and slow blues, and while there is something absolutely, timelessly great about it when done well – not unlike a string quartet – maybe I would rather hear something that is at least looking for something new. I know I feel this way about the prewar blues canon. And while I've never put it to myself in these terms before, I think I realized a long time ago that while it's deeply enjoyable to play blues as functional music, it's not where I've chosen to hang my hat artistically. I'd rather use the raw materials of the blues idiom to write my own songs and work out the relevant grooves and improvisation ideas to make them go, than get up and play as much like Son House as I can manage. As the old response to the heckler's request goes, "No, why should I? Son House doesn't play any of my songs."
This is obviously a terrible attitude to take if you want to actually get gigs. Most opportunities to play live call for functional music: bar gigs or other situations involving satisfying customers, helping the venue sell drinks, and actually getting paid at the end of the night. All of which is sensible and righteous and part of the job. Unless it isn't. If the point is to earn your keep as a working performer, functional music is the gig. If the point is to make your own art, you figure out how to pay the bills some other way. Again – all this exists on a continuum. Some people get to where they can make art music that a lot of people want to come hear. A lot of people find an alternative hustle – in academia, in the studio, in a completely unrelated profession – in order to play the way they want. And some people play functional music when necessary and art music when they can, strolling back and forth along that continuum for some or all of their life as a musician.
Saxophonist Lucky Thompson ultimately wound up opting out of music altogether, but early in his recording career he made a trio record guitar geeks might find particularly worth checking out: 1956's Tricotism, with Skeeter Best on guitar and Oscar Pettiford on bass. I'm going to guess that Best, who also appears on Ray Charles and Milt Jackson's Soul Brothers, was the namesake of Kenny Burrell's 1950s Blue Note recording "Blues For Skeeter," but that's neither here nor there. Tricotism is one of those opportunities to hear Freddie Green-inspired rhythm guitar in relative isolation, plus it affords the pleasure of hearing Thompson's gorgeous tenor playing in a particularly up-close-and-personal setting. The balance of the reissue includes a quartet/quintet session from the same year with an equally stellar crew on hand, including Hank Jones on piano for three tracks. You can find it all on the Playlist page of my web site:
Lucky Thompson, Tricotism
A Righteous Pair Of Black Boots (05.17.22)
The kid down the street from us is really into music, so when I go out on the back porch in the summer, I sometimes hear him practicing drums, or guitar, and on occasion his friends are there too, literally playing in the garage. He's really good, and a quick study, so when his birthday rolled around this year I swung by Austin Vintage Guitars ("by the giant neon Telecaster") and picked him up an OCD overdrive pedal. He was suitably pleased, and so was I, as it turned out that particular stompbox, unbeknownst to me, had been on his wish list for a while. I'd thought about getting him a wah-wah, just for maximum parental annoyance, but we love his folks, and besides, a good overdrive pedal is like a righteous pair of black boots – both make everything you already own cooler, while a wah-wah is more like a pair of bellbottoms – perfect for creating that certain vibe, but not a vibe you want to create all that often, if ever.
In the process of choosing this gift, I wound up digging through some of my own gear, and remembered I own not one but two old Tube Screamers. One of them has the big black rectangular button on top, which made it an obviously cheapo reissue of the coveted original back when I acquired it. A quick look on Reverb.com, however, reveals that this makes it worth about four times what I thought it was. And upon plugging it in – wow. It does not suck, not in the least. In fact, it sounds better the my other one I own, which is supposed to look and sound more like the original version but in fact does not sound as vibey to me, at least on a first new listen.
Really, I don't think of myself as much of a gear guy, more of a gear accumulator: the black-button tube screamer came into my possession when a friend bartered me some gear for a recording session; it was in the pouch of the gig back holding the Schecter telecaster he was handing off to me and he just included it in a fit of generosity. or possibly from a need to de-clutter. I used it for a while, then I didn't, much like the Schecter itself. And yet I take a palpable pleasure in having more instruments – and pedals – on hand than I really need. Mostly they're different tools for different jobs, rather than, say, thirteen Les Pauls or a dozen Strats, and I like to think each one does a particular thing, or is the backup for that particular thing, which as a working musician, is not that ridiculous a proposition. I do like trying new things, but generally once I've found what I like, I'm kind of done in that department, unless a new option just kind of falls in my lap or it really feels like an upgrade is in order, which does eventually happen now and then.
I did look long and hard before finding the Martin I play, and I get asked about that guitar a lot, so in today's video I explain how I found it and why I chose it, along with a few thoughts about whether gear matters and what the point of a good guitar is. You can find it here:
Ask Me If I Care What Kind Of Spruce It Is