Occasional Musical Thoughts and Guitar Meanderings

  • My newest teaching/communications project is a concert/interview DVD that came out in March on Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop’s “Guitar Artistry” series. The concert footage was shot in Michigan recently, to it I’ve added newly filmed 15 interview segments, one after each concert piece, commenting on my musical development, the particular song that is to follow, and various influences, techniques, and equipment that are crucial to my music and my compositions and arrangements. It’s called “Morning Thunder,” (Vestapol 13126) after the crowd favorite that I include in the concert portion of the DVD. Check out the Recordings page for links to some of the places where you can easily find the new DVD.
  • One of the most frequent questions at my workshops concerns the best way to learn music theory. Most folks begin to read about it a little bit, and then realize that their reading is doing little more than putting them to sleep ahead of schedule. A decent grasp of music theory is crucial to developing good musicianship, but few folks have the time to commit to a series of classes which will drill them in intervals and chord identification, teach them to sight sing and to take dictation, and get comfortable identifying rhythms. Then there’s counterpoint, identification chord inversions, getting familiar with altered chords beyond major, minor, diminished and half diminished….
  • I took two years of theory plus some more with jazz emphasis at a college level, and it was one of the smartest musical decisions that I ever made, but as I said above, who has the time?
  • These days, fortunately, there are several great alternatives. One is a music education concern called Ars Nova, which distributes some great ear training and music theory software, in both Mac and PC versions. They both do all of the explaining and drilling that you get in class on the topics listed above, grade and correct your efforts, and allow you to jump from topic to topic or level to level as needed. Great stuff! There’s also someexcellent shareware coming from LenMus, which you can find here.  Now there can be no excuses for remaining in the dark about this important and necessary musical element.
  • The 12-string has always been a major focus for me, as you can see on my Homespun DVD/Video “Techniques for Contemporary 12-String Guitar.” Here are a few topics for you 12-string explorers to consider, and give a few tips in the process.
  • First, you have to decide what your goal is- are you simply looking for a chimey complement to your 6-string accompaniments, or are you looking for a new and different instrumental voice? If you’re strumming, accompanying vocals, and staying on the intermediate side, you will probably want to keep your light gauge set of strings, stay close to standard tuning, and generally enjoy that rich, chorused sound that is the 12-string’s hallmark for those applications.
  • My suggestions have more use for the instrumental explorers that fall into the latter category. The first topic is string gauge. My belief is that the 12-string comes alive with a low tuning and fat strings, and that the technical opportunities that are provided when you approach the guitar that way are what truly sets the 12-string apart. I have always used big strings tuned down one whole step. The gauges, low to high are as follows: .036/.058; .024/.046; .012/.036; .010/.025; .017/.017; .013/.013. Tuned down, the tension on the guitar is about the same as the light-gauge player in standard tuning would find on his instrument, but the sound is from another planet entirely- fat, big, bassy and almost baritone in quality.
  • The second topic is the raft of potential opportunities for your right thumb. Octave strings are what make the difference between 6 and 12, and they lie under your right thumb in a manner which allows your thumb to be a melody player if it can learn to play the octave string only. Banjo players have this skill of integrating the thumb into melodic rolls, and now you will want to cultivate that same technique. The video goes into lots of detail on how this is done, but essentially what you will want to explore is the ability to take your thumb away from its customary bass role and add it to your fingers as part of a unified melodic approach. A light touch which catches only the octave string and not its bass buddy, and some new rolls and exercises to use as you learn the new ligdhter touch, will get you where you want to go. Fat and low strings and the unchained thumb are the keys to a great instrumental 12-string approach.
  • Here’s a great 6-string tuning to explore and keep you all busy. This tuning du jour is EBEGAD, found in two songs from The Chris Proctor Collection, Hot Spot and Tap Room, and also on my new tune which you will find on the recently-released Windham Hill project Sounds of Wood and Steel 3, called “Ozymandias.” Peter Finger turned me on to this tuning, which he uses extensively in three or four keys. It’s always cool to find tunings that stimulate you without committing you to one particular key. E minor and D are my favorite keys so far, but there’s lots more exploration to be done with that tuning. Just keep an eye on your D strings, which must be pretty fresh or gauged smaller to handle the increased tension of going up to E. Safety glasses are recommended.
  • Another tuning that has surfaced for me recently, and which I used for the arrangement of “Nights in White Satin” is called Orkney tuning, and runs from low to high, CGDGCD. It plays well in C, in G, and in G minor, and other related keys as well are possible, (Bb, E minor, and A minor). It has the same notion as does DADGAD, of avoiding the third of the chord, and thereby making the obvious choice of keys less obvious, by removing the one note that shouts out tonality. Steve Baughmann uses this tuning for a lot of Celtic work, and so does Dylan Schorer. Hope you like it!