Category Archives: Thoughts On Things Musical

A place for my ramblings about my life as a musician, playing and teaching guitar and some of the helpful lessons that can’t be learned from a book.

Cowboy Constellations!

Time to use your imagination!

When I use a star map to seek out constellations in the night sky I often wonder what drugs might the ancient Greeks have been on, for them to be able to see a star formation such as this one…

The Constellation “Aries”

…and then imagine it to represent a lovely ram, such as this:

Aries Hallucination

However, such hallucinatory flights of fancy eventually became go-to memory aids for such important tasks as navigation and predicting the change of seasons.

Much like the early astronomers, we guitarists also mentally “connect the dots” of chords, scales and arpeggios, often thinking of them as memorable “shapes”. It’s a big part of how we store and recall information we’ve acquired. We discuss scale “patterns”, chord “forms”, speak of harmonic intervals and even represent sounds as capricious black birds that play upon the five horizontal wires of the music staff.

Birds On A Wire, Musical Digital Artwork, Works of Bart, San Rafael California

The imaginative process is of course different for every player, but as a veteran guitar instructor I can easily spot a student who isn’t really seeing the “big picture”, due to what usually has to do with a simple oversight on their part. With this post I hope to shed some starlight 😉 on how I “see” chords when I look down upon my fretboard.

This common (yet understandable) error made by beginning guitarists has to do with the personal mental image or concept that they have created in their mind for each of the various “forms” of the simple open position “Cowboy Chords” (here I’m referring to the Major chords E, A, D, G, C, and the Minor chords Em, Am and Dm).

Chord Grid for Fadd9

Most players build their chord vocabulary by studying “grids” (such as the one pictured above, for Fadd9) to learn exactly where their fingers should be placed on the different strings. We memorize these “fingerings”, adding more and more of them to our trick bag as we progress. However, if a player’s concept of the chord includes only the locations for each of his/her fingers, it can lead to confusion for them when they advance into playing chords higher up the fretboard.

One must form a mental picture that includes ALL of the notes within the chord.

For example, if you look at this chord grid, depicting the fingering of an E Major chord:

Chord Grid for E Major

and see only this…

You might, like those ancient Greeks, be led to connect the dots and imagine a constellation that looks something like this:

If that’s the case, then there are clouds in your sky. This chord includes THREE OPEN STRINGS as part of its form – and each of these is sounding its own musical pitch that must included in your mental “picture” of the chord. I see an E Major chord more like this, and try to encourage students to adopt this visualization:

The Constellation E Major

Notice that MY concept of the chord has expanded to include those three other “stars”. The bottom star is one that should definitely not be omitted, as it is the root note of the chord!

Now, to see if you understand this ancient ol’ mind, I give you all of the COWBOY CONSTELLATIONS. See if you can figure out which chords they represent. If you can, then you’re on the right track.

Or maybe I’m as wacko as those ancient Greeks! 🙂

If you enjoyed this little mental workout, please share it with others. I won’t mind that one bit.

Let that be a lesson to you.  😉

© 2017 Matthew Woodward

Great Gifts For Guitar Players!

Don’t know what to pick for that picker? Well, here’s a list of…

Great Gifts for Guitar Players!

Under $10.00

strings
string winders
picks
blank manuscript paper
guitar magazines
guitar polish
blank CD-Rs or DVDs
lottery tickets
9-volt batteries
a set of precision screwdrivers
wire cutters
a hamburger AND fries, maybe a soft drink too
cool posters
CASH!
a couple of Red Stripes on the beach in Ocho Rios…

Under $30.00

a nice guitar slide
portable USB storage drives
funky fabric guitar straps
patch cables and short jumpers
microphone cables
CASH!
a subscription to their favourite guitar magazine
guitar tablature books featuring their favourite musicians
music CDs
music theory texts
music stands
music stand lights
guitar stands
more lottery tickets
a cab from Montego Bay airport to Negril beach…

Under $50.00

funky leather guitar straps
soft “gig bag” cases
“how-to” and coffee table style guitar books
Shubb or Kyser capos
cheap electronic tuners
fancy patch cables
AC adapters
microphone stands
bulk pack CD-Rs or DVDs
CASH!
instructional videos & DVDs
CD/DVD racks
a case of 24 Moosehead Light(!)
cabfare from Montego Bay to Port Antonio…(maybe)

Under $100.00

a gig in a local club
CASH!
cheap effects pedals
a guitar set-up and inspection from a local shop
better electronic tuners
CD box-sets by their favourite artists
hard-shell guitar cases
portable CD/MP3 players
new preamp tubes for their amplifier
very small practice amps
concert tickets
3 days of groceries (maybe)
headphones
a daytrip to the Bob Marley Museum…

$200.00

10 Lesson Gift Certificate for Lessons With Matthew Woodward(!)

Under $300.00

new tubes for a full-size amplifier
replacement guitar pickups
a pickup installed into their acoustic guitar
better effects pedals
good quality microphones
better small amps
entry-level acoustic guitars
rehearsal space at Roswell Rehearsal Studios
CASH!
portable CD/MP3 players
CD/DVD burners
real fast hard drives
good computer sound cards
entry-level digital recording software
USB recording interfaces
a week’s worth of groceries
accommodations in an inexpensive guest house in Port Antonio for a week…

$300.00 to $999.99

better quality, semi-pro acoustic/electric guitars
flight cases
promo shoot with a good photographer
good amps
portable multi-track recorders for the songwriters out there
CASH!
good stereo systems
good recording computer interfaces
multi-effects units
nice drum software
better yet – a half-decent set of drums
pro-level digital recording software
recording studio time
return airfare to Jamaica…

$1000.00 to $?????.??

real nice acoustic/electric guitars
real nice “boutique” tube amplifiers
great home recording equipment
real nice cars & trucks
many beers
rehab (No…no, no!)
awesome drums
a fully-equipped, state-of-the-art recording studio
a cool van for their band to tour around in
an extremely fast computer
good management and a publicist
a hit record
CASH!
a scenic piece of beach-front property and a nice little house in Jamaica…

HAPPY SHOPPING!!!!

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others using the social media links below. I won’t mind one bit. I only ask that you respect my personally-created, copyrighted material by mentioning where you got it from. 🙂

Your comments, corrections or suggestions for future posts are also ALWAYS most welcome.

 © 2014 Matthew Woodward

Lead Guitar Philosophy 101

What we generally refer to as “lead” guitar, or soloing, is when a guitarist builds melodies using single notes played one at a time in succession, rather than using chords. Whether or not the player is aware of it, the source of these notes will be a scale comprised of the batch of notes that the player feels is most suitable to the chord progression they are playing “over”, according to their own personal taste as to what sounds “right”.

It’s useful to think of how different people speak in order to understand the choices players make in various situations. Each note one plays can be thought of as a single word. Words can be used to build sentences (melodies), sentences to build paragraphs (entire solos), and so on. What a player chooses to say in any given musical situation will usually reflect their familiarity with that situation, their previous experience with other similar situations, or their complete lack of understanding of what is going on musically.

Each musical style has its own dialect, and some words, although they can be found in the dictionary, may be inappropriate for a particular style. Playing jazz licks in a hard rock tune might sound awkward, even if those jazz licks make sense in another song where that level of sophistication is called for. That said, it’s still fine to “mash-up” differing genres, as long as some thought has gone into how to go about it. Finding the right words to say at the right time is the goal of every lead guitarist.

The melodic choices that a player makes will reflect their level of experience and education, in other words, their musical vocabulary. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a lead player must have an extensive vocabulary in order to be considered good, if they play what they do know well. There are no clear-cut rules as to how to craft a “good” solo. Extremely sloppy solos have been considered legendary, despite their flaws, due to the feeling and emotion that went into the performance. Many well thought-out and technically mind-boggling solos have proven to be just plain boring!

Many players improvise their solos, allowing the notes to flow from their fingers in a stream-of-consciousness sort of fashion. They never play the same thing twice. Others are uncomfortable doing this, and prefer to carefully compose the melody of a solo beforehand. Either approach can work for the soloist as they try to create an interesting musical interlude that both supports and enhances the song. And THAT’S an important thing to always consider – does that great solo you just played actually improve the song?

Many things are involved in the production of the final sounds we hear within a solo, and the mood they are meant to create. One can “speak” with a clean tone, or with a distorted voice. Studio “session players” are often musical chameleons, carrying an arsenal of different guitars, amps and effects in the hope of providing a producer with whatever sounds they may be after. There is almost an infinite number of guitar and amp choices available to modern electric players, even before considering electronic processors such as effects pedals. Finding your sound – the combination that speaks to you is extremely important. You want to be inspired to play.

A trap that many guitarists fall into has to do with the physical layout of the notes we play on the fretboard. Since every scale can be found in some form of recognizable fingering pattern, players will often wander up and down through a pattern (or “box” as they are sometimes called) without really having an idea of what they want to say – they let the pattern they are playing in shape the music they make. It’s rather like forming a sentence by picking words at random from a dictionary.

We have all known people that talk and talk endlessly, never seeming to make a point – they ramble on. Other folks are able to sum up complicated ideas with a few simple, memorable words. They only speak when they have something worth saying. A player’s personality is often indicated by the manner in which they take a solo. Groups of musicians can also be thought of as being engaged in conversation – sometimes everyone is talking loudly all at once, sometimes folks respectfully listen, quietly support or add constructively to what the others have to say.

Good lead players try to form distinct, stand-alone melodies, and they choose their notes with care. The best lead players give their listeners something accessible, often singable, and definitely memorable. People leave the show humming the solos they played.

Aim for that.

Remember: Just because you can yodel doesn’t mean you should always be yodeling.

Let that be a lesson to you.  ;)

© 2014 Matthew Woodward

Practice, Rehearsal and Performance Are Three Different Things, Pt. III

PERFORMANCE

This is the main event – the “gig” at which the musician or group plays its repertoire before a live audience. Be it a campfire sing-along or a full-scale concert event, the quality of that performance will reflect the amount of time the musicians have spent practicing separately and rehearsing together.

There is nothing that compares to the experience musicians gain on stage, and when performers “click” with their audience the concert experience can be magical.

Despite hours and hours of musical preparation, performing for an audience also requires energy, stamina and above all professionalism. This means being ready for the missed cues and mistakes that always happen and knowing how to deal with them in a way that the audience (hopefully) won’t notice. As a performer, you will encounter many things beyond your control such as broken strings, equipment breakdowns,
bad connecting cables, personal illness, family and relationship problems, deaf soundpersons, drunken fans, shyster managers, insane club owners…how you react to situations is important. As the saying goes, “the show must go on”. The real “troupers” find the focus and inner strength they need to rise above whatever external issues might affect their performance.

Electric players should strive to get the best sound they can at a comfortable level, using the venue’s sound system to boost their signal. If you’re not “in the mix”, what the crowd hears will suffer. You will also annoy your bandmates, especially those who are trying to sing on pitch. For most audiences the vocal performance is the single most important feature of any song. Your chosen stage volume should never be such that it will drown out the singer(s). One of the best compliments a musician can give to another musician is to say that he or she “has big ears”, meaning that they listen to all of what’s being played and react to the others in the group. If you can’t hear the other members of your group, you’re too loud.

Working from a set list that everyone agrees upon is very important. Try to create little “segues”, transitional musical links that connect one song to the next, to avoid dead air between your tunes. A segue can be quite elaborate, involving key changes or modulations, but can also be as simple as having your drummer immediately kick into the beat of your next song. Keep your show moving along.

Be aware of which person in the group should be the focal point of the audience at any given time. If it is their time to solo, play to them, support them, encourage them. Audiences notice these things. Follow spotlights are wonderful tools in this respect and can be used to help guide your audience to look exactly at what you want them to.

Some of the best groups of musicians that I’ve worked with recorded live shows and listened to them immediately after the performance, while everyone was winding down from the adrenaline rush and memories of what transpired were still fresh. We’d listen to what we did, evaluate our performance, giving each other credit where due and respectful, constructive criticism when requested or necessary. This always helped make our next show better.

I’ve always believed that the people on stage should be better-dressed than their audience, or at least as well as, no matter what style of music they are playing. Jeans and a t-shirt are okay for Bruce Springsteen, but he’s already made it to the top with a blue collar image.Give some thought to your appearance and the impression you will make on the audience. Without adopting uniforms, your group might decide to wear only certain colours or patterns. For example, you can wear whatever you want, as long as it’s black and/or blue. This idea allows everyone freedom to dress as they like,  but a more unified visual results which makes the group or band look more “together” and professional. It may sound “old school”, but it’s worth saying: DRESS FOR SUCCESS.

One last thought, perhaps most important of all…don’t forget to get paid.

Let that be a lesson to you. ;)

© 2014 Matthew Woodward

Practice, Rehearsal and Performance Are Three Different Things, Pt. II

REHEARSAL

This is where the practice pays off and the fun begins. Here a group of musicians meet and actually play their music together. The chosen songs are played and ideally, everyone tries to make what they do as individuals contribute to an overall group sound.

Listening to one another – not only to the musical parts each person plays, but to the creative ideas and constructive suggestions they contribute – is the key to having a productive rehearsal. Rehearsals are usually best conducted at low volumes (even for death metal bands) so that players can talk to one another without having to shout over blaring amps or crashing cymbals. High volumes contribute to fatigue and irritability, and really aren’t necessary at rehearsal. You know what you sound like loud – save it for the stage.

At rehearsal players figure out how to present a song to the best of their collective abilities. They work on a song either in its entirety, or in smaller sections, to decide upon how it should be arranged. A player may need to go over their solo section a few times to hear how their ideas fit with what everyone else is doing, perhaps make a few changes. Time might be spent on honing the harmony vocals for the chorus of the song. Groups working on original compositions will often “jam” on their rough ideas for hours, following their inspirations and hoping to strike gold. At rehearsal an entire song is usually played many times all the way through. Often groups will record their rehearsals for later evaluation.

Decisions are also made upon the order in which songs are to be performed live before an audience, with careful consideration given to such aspects as keys, tempos and mood. If the group of musicians is putting on a full-scale concert production, “dress rehearsals” may also be held, at which all sound and lighting cues are worked out with their technicians in a simulation of the actual planned concert. After all this the music is (hopefully) ready for public performance.

Let that be a lesson to you. ;)

© 2014 Matthew Woodward

Practice, Rehearsal and Performance Are Three Different Things, Pt. I

PRACTICE

This refers to the hours we spend alone with our instrument, working with and attempting to master the technical aspects of what we do. In reference to the need for isolation, players call this personal quality time “woodshedding” or simply “shedding”.  It includes the hours we spend reading about music theory, trying to make sense of it all. Listening to players we hope to emulate, and trying to “lift” (learn by ear) their ideas from recordings also falls into this category. If you study with a good instructor they will point out your problem areas that need attention and give you advice on how to remedy them. Listen carefully and put their suggestions into PRACTICE.

Practice involves learning new scales and chords, and pushing the envelope to find ways to keep your playing experience fresh. It means broadening your palette by learning songs in styles other than your usual repertoire. If you’re a hard rock player, learn some funk, R&B, country or jazz standards. Try to keep an open mind. Challenge is good and keeps you and your playing from falling into a rut.

Over the years many students have asked me about how often and for how long they should practice. It’s always been a tough one to answer, because I’ve never had to force myself to be with my guitars. When I was young I was absolutely driven to play and spent hours trying to figure out the songs I thought were “hip”. The question had more to do with how to get the guitar OUT of my hands so as to make me do other more mundane things like school work!

My own personal relationship with my instrument is like that with an old and true friend. Sometimes we drift apart, but when we get back together we pick up the thread from where we left off. The time apart often does our friendship good. Today, with over thirty years of playing under my belt, I tend to practice on more of a “when I need to” basis. When I have a gig coming up, or if the fancy strikes me to learn some cool jazz riff, or some interesting tuning, an idea for a song – well…sometimes I don’t come up for air for days. If you are realistic and honest with yourself about your skills and technique you will know what needs to be done to improve.

Rather than playing the entire song, a practicing musician will focus on the aspects of that song that they find difficult to play. This might mean going over the G to C chord change in a country song a million times until it’s down, or jamming in the Dorian mode over a pre-recorded play-along track for hours until they’re comfortable with using that scale to improvise.

Practice prepares a musician for rehearsal.

Let that be a lesson to you. 😉

If you liked it, please feel free to share my post with others.

© 2014 Matthew Woodward