Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

A Gig Ready Rig For Less Than Five Hundred Quid – Can It Be Done?

One of my students is about to make the leap from “bedroom” guitarist to gigging musician. The only problem is that his gear isn’t really up to the task. He’s playing a Squier Bullet Strat, plugged into a 15W Line 6 Spider amp. In this week’s lesson he asked me what equipment I would recommend he invest in. His budget is £500 for a guitar, amp and all the necessary pedals. He’s playing in a pop/rock covers band doing material by the likes of Oasis, The 1975, Kings Of Leon, The Kinks and Green Day, so he needs a good range of clean & moderately overdriven sounds with all the usual chorus, delay & reverb effects at his disposal.

Can you actually buy an entire rig, including all the necessary pedals, capable of handling semi-pro gigs, for this kind of money? Well, let’s find out…

Firstly we’ll look at the guitar. Having cut his teeth on an S-type instrument, it would seem natural to go with something that feels familiar. Obviously, with a total budget of only £500, for the whole set up, getting something with the word “Fender” written on the headstock just isn’t an option. How about a step up the Squier ladder then?

Well, the next logical step from the Bullet Strat would be the Affinity Strat. Trouble is, these aren’t really that much better than what he already has. A good guitar in the Squier range would be the Squier Standard Stratocaster… it sports decent hardware, including a set of three alnico magnet single coil pickups. This is something to watch out for, by the way: Alnico magnets are generally more desirable than their cheaper ceramic equivalents due to their warmer, sweeter sound. Ceramic magnet pickups tend to sound harsh & brittle by comparison. One of the conundrums of Fender’s pricing structure is the fact that £240 will buy you a Squier Standard Strat with alnico units, but pay £507 for a “genuine” Fender Standard Stratocaster (what used to be called the “Made In Mexico” model), and you get the inferior ceramic pickups… just goes to show that you DON’T always get what you pay for.

squier-std-strat

The Squier Standard Stratocaster

Anyway… £240 will buy you a great little S-type guitar with decent pickups and a pretty good fit & finish. Let’s have a look at the amp side of the equation…

If you’re going to be playing pub gigs where nothing is mic’d up, you’re going to be relying on your amp’s output to do all the heavy lifting in terms of volume. A high end valve amp of 30W or so would fit the bill (the venerable Vox AC30 springs to mind). But the thing is whilst a valve amp of this output would do the job, the cost would be prohibitive and as the old saying goes “valve watts ARE louder”. Or put another way, for whatever reason, a solid state amp never seems to be as loud as it’s valve counterpart for the same stated output. As many a gigging guitarist will attest, a 30W solid state (transistor) combo is unlikely to be heard over the top of an enthusiastic rock drummer at gig volumes. I’d say you’d need 50W at the very least if you’re looking at gigging a solid state amp.

Given that the guy in question already uses a Line 6 amp, and is happy with the sounds he gets, it would make sense to look at something a little more powerful from the Spider range. As luck would have it, there is a 60W version of the amp he already uses. It also has all of the effects he’d need already built in, so no need for pedals, patch leads & a power supply to drive them all. There is a catch though… the price.

A 60W Line 6 Spider amp costs £280. And that’s WITHOUT the floor controller needed to switch sounds (essential for live work). The cheapest such unit would be the FVB2 which costs about another £30. This unit will only allow you to switch between four different sounds on the amp, but still, that should be enough:

  • A clean sound with a bit of chorus, reverb & delay for general accompaniment.
  • A crunchy mild overdrive sound with a bit of delay for power chords & bluesy lead work.
  • A big fat lead sound for those “rock god” moments.
  • That “special” sound with unusual effects like octave shift, trippy delays or auto-wah that you only need for one song. Every band has one of these songs in their set… unless you’re U2 where EVERY song fits this description.
line-6-spider-v-60

The Line 6 Spider V60

Still, we’re over budget, though, so we’re going to need to re-visit the guitar side of the rig to see if there’s any money to be saved.

I have recently become a convert to Harley Benton guitars, owning an excellent LP-style instrument by them, and a dreadnought style acoustic. Both of these guitars were ridiculously low in price & are proper, full-on, excellent, pro-standard instruments. Let’s have a look at their S-type guitars then…

We’re in luck: according to Thomann’s website, you can buy a Harley Benton ST-62 MN SB Vintage Series S-type guitar for £100 (I told you they were great value, didn’t I?) It has a basswood body (perfectly fine – many boutique guitar builders favour this timber for it’s balanced tonal characteristics); a Canadian maple neck & (drum roll, please…) Wilkinson ALNICO MAGNET pickups! Even if you have to factor in the price of a set-up, that still gives you a stonking good guitar for around £150-£160. If my experience with Harley Benton guitars is anything to go by though, it’ll be pretty much perfectly set-up out of the box, anyway.

hb-s-type

Harley Benton S-type

I think we’re about there… we have the guitar; we have the amp; we have the effects (built into the amp) and we have the foot controller. Let’s have a look at what we’ve spent:

Harley Benton ST-62 MN SB Vintage Series:

Line 6 Spider V60:

Line 6 FBV2 Foot Controller:

5.6m Whirlwind Guitar Cable:

Total:

£100-07

£281-00

£29-00

£22.99

 

£433-06

There’s even enough in the budget for a gig bag (if he didn’t already have one) or a bit of a set-up for the guitar (if it needs one). And there you have it… a giggable rig for less than £500.

Until next time…

Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

The Power Of Polyrhythms

Often, when the topic of “lead guitar” trickery is raised, what follows is a discussion on how to add exotic jazzy licks into a solo or how to play blindingly fast licks with the minimum of effort. But one aspect of playing a great solo is usually overlooked – that of timing. What I’m going to show you today is a great little method of making an otherwise mundane repetitive lick sound a little more interesting, and all you have to be able to do is count… no scary technique!

Let’s begin by defining what a polyrhythm is. It’s easiest to describe it by looking at a lick with just three notes. Something like this for example:

groups-of-3

You could play this repetitively, once per beat which would sound like this:

 

Whilst this sounds OK, it does get a little bit boring after a few repeats. Simply by messing with the timing, it can sound that little bit more interesting. How you could do this would be by grouping this repeating cycle of three notes into groups of four. Instead of going:

EDB EDB EDB EDB

It would now go:

EDBE DBED BEDB

You can see that it’s still the same notes in the same order, but we’re now playing four notes per beat rather than three.

And here is the TAB:

3against4

And this is how it would sound:

 

You can do the same thing, in reverse, if you start with a four note lick… like this, for example:

groups-of-4

Played with four notes per beat, it sounds like this:

 

But, once again,we can rearrange the timing so that instead of going:

EDBA# EDBA# EDBA# EDBA#

It would be grouped into bunches of three notes per beat, like this:

EDB A#ED BA#E DBA#

Once again, here is the TAB:

4against3

And here is how it would sound:

 

These are examples of the kind of polyrhythms found everywhere in popular music. With a little bit of practice you can make use of them too. Here’s a couple of handy hints for counting groups of notes:

  • If you want to know what four notes per beat sounds like, just say “PepsiCola” on each beat & that will give you the correct rhythm to fit your notes into.
  • If you want to hear three notes per beat, say the word “Evenly” on each metronome click or beat, and that will give you the sound of three notes per beat (or a “triplet” as it is known).

I hope you found this useful & until next time…

 

Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

 

Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Creating An Entire Solo From Just One Lick

Many guitarists get to the point where they’ve got a couple of scale patterns under their belt and/or learned a solo or two from TABs. The problem they’re then faced with is how to turn this knowledge into an ability to come up with a solo for themselves. This is what this lesson aims to help with.

One solo I use to introduce students to the world of pentatonic soloing is Noel Gallagher’s lead break from Oasis’ “Live Forever”. If you listen to the track, you’ll hear this lick at around 2:15…

001

Click HERE to hear this lick.

The scale being used here is the G major or E minor pentatonic, meaning that this lick will work in any situation where a G or Em chord is the focus of the chord progression you’re soloing over. Now, let’s use this simple phrase as the basis for building an entire solo.

So, where do we start? Well, timing is an important element in an effective solo and a good rule of thumb is to avoid playing the first note of your solo on beat 1 of bar 1 of your solo. It tends to work better if you begin either slightly before the start of the bar or slightly after. Take a listen to this example – to begin with I play the lick starting exactly on beat 1 of the 1st bar. I then play it again, but this time I start on beat 4 of the bar before & finally, I play exactly the same phrase beginning on the “and” of the 1st beat of the bar. Essentially, you’ve got the lick on beat 1, then a bit early, then a bit late. I think you’ll agree that the second two examples sound somehow “stronger” than the first one. Click HERE to listen.

OK, so let’s use the lick which begins on the “4” of the previous bar as our starting point. This (as you’ve heard) will sound pretty good. What next? Well why not repeat the lick? Using repetition like this will help to give your solo a sense of continuity. Click HERE to hear me play the same lick twice. Notice how, on the second time, I still play the first note of the lick on beat 4 of the bar… we’re going to keep that the same throughout the solo.

So that’s the first couple of phrases in place, what next? A trick I often use is to take a lick and play it backwards – it totally changes the sounds & feel of a lick. Click HERE to listen to the lick we’ve been using, played backwards, and here is the TAB.

002

Now, listen to the original lick, played twice, followed by the reversed lick, also played twice. Click HERE.

So far, so good – you’ve got an 8 bar solo out of one simple lick. But is there anything else we can do to make it sound a little more interesting? Well, as it happens… there is! All of these licks can be moved down 12 frets to the open string position (simply subtract 12 from all of the TAB numbers). You can ALWAYS do this… move a lick up or down 12 frets and it will stay the same – just a lower octave version of itself. Click HERE to hear me play the four licks (original + repeat followed by reversed lick + repeat) the same as I did in the last example. The only difference here is that I’m going to alternate between the open string position & the 12th fret. I think you’ll agree that this sounds particularly effective. Don’t worry if some of those open position bends are a little tricky – as you’ll hear on the next example, you can easily turn a 2 fret bend into a 2 fret slide… in fact that little bit of variation adds an extra texture to the solo.

Right… what else can we do? Well, let’s move away from our original lick a little bit by moving it onto a different pair of strings. In case you aren’t aware, the scale pattern we’re playing from is this one (notes used in lick shown in GREEN)

004

How about we move the lick from the 3rd & 4th strings onto the 2nd & 3rd strings – you can see from the diagram where the notes would be. That would make the original lick look something like this…

003

We can now do all the same tricks with this version of the lick that we did with the original one… reversing it, and moving it down to the open position. Click HERE to listen to a solo using these new ideas in addition to the previous ones.

This provides you with a great set or resources to conjure up a solo. For the purposes of keeping it easy to follow, I kept the licks pretty recognisable here, but you’re not restricted to that in the real world… why not take the end of one lick and graft it onto the beginning of another? Then you’ll have another lick that you can flip backwards and get even more mileage out of… the possibilities are endless! Couple this with the ability to move to other pentatonic patterns around the neck (get those shapes learned!) and a bit of note targeting & you will NEVER run out of licks to play. Click HERE to listen to a final example of me adding in all kinds of variations on what we’ve discussed here. All the licks have their origins in that initial Noel Gallagher phrase we began with… as promised at the start… an entire solo from just one lick!

Until next time…

Have fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

My Writing Process

When it comes to writing music, I will occasionally stumble across an idea when I’m just noodling away on the guitar. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. What normally happens is that I begin with an overall feeling or emotion I want to convey & go from there.

Knowing that minor chords sound sad & major chords sound happy is a good starting point, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can find more colours for the palate. Here’s what I mean…

Supposing I want a minor chord “sad” feeling for a piece: well I know that the aeolian mode will be good for expressing a sense of sorrow or loss; the phrygian mode is a good starting point for something a little darker; the harmonic minor scale adds an exotic touch to proceedings – there are all kinds of options for refining exactly what kind of minor/sad mood you want to create & the same is true for conjuring up something with a major chord/happy mood. Take a listen to the examples below to hear what I mean.

If the subject of modes is a closed book to you, then you can find an introduction to it HERE. All modes & scales have their own inherent moods. Here is a list of those that I use most often when writing with a description of how they sound to me:

Aeolian Mode – sad/angry (with a faster tempo)

 

Dorian Mode – still sad, due to the minor chord at it’s heart. But perhaps a little “sweeter” sounding than the aeolian. Good for jazz & blues riffs.

 

Phrygian Mode – Very “dark sounding”. The flat 9th in this mode creates real tension. Everything you can do with the aeolian mode is true of this one, but it just sounds a bit more intense.

 

The Harmonic Minor Scale – essentially just an aeolian mode with a raised 7th note. It somehow sounds a bit “eastern” & exotic.

 

The Neapolitan Minor Scale – basically a combination of the phrygian mode with the harmonic minor. Even more “snake charmer” sounding than the harmonic minor scale.

 

The Ionian Mode – sweet and melodic and easy on the ear. Easy to write beautiful music with this one. Perfect for conjuring up images of happy warm summer days.

 

The Lydian Mode – like the ionian, but that raised 4th note adds a touch of dissonance. It’s a happy scale, but with a slight edge to it.

 

The Mixolydian Mode – Because it’s based around the notes of a 7th chord, this is ideal for writing anything bluesy.

 

The Phrygian Dominant Mode – This is what you get if you take a harmonic minor scale and focus on it’s 5th note. A great scale for adding a touch of faux-flamenco to a piece. Sometimes also known as the “Spanish Phrygian” scale for this very reason.

 

The Lydian Dominant Mode – basically, a mixolydian mode (which sounds bluesy) with a raised 4th note (like the lydian mode). This adds that unsettling “madness” to it which is perfect for adding a touch of insanity to a blues riff. Best example of this mode in action is the Simpsons theme tune.

 

What’s even better is that you can mix these modes & scales in the same piece of music to combine their effects. Want to write a sad, dark sounding tune with a chorus which dispels this feeling like the sun coming out from behind a cloud? Easy… write your verse in the aeolian or phrygian modes, then go to the ionian mode for the chorus.

The relative sound of each mode is also something to take into account – for example, if you go from the ionian mode into the mixolydian, then the mixolydian will sound somehow “darker” by comparison. However, go to the mixolydian mode from (say) the phrygian or harmonic minor, it will sound comparatively brighter and more “up-beat”. Like an artist choosing colours, the effect of a colour (in this case, a mode or scale) can be influenced immensely  by what it is placed next to.

There are other scales & modes that I haven’t mentioned here and they all have their own unique flavours… the whole tone scale; the diminished scale; the enigmatic scale etc etc. However, the ones I have listed are my favourites and represent my choices most of the time.

Once I have the scale/mode chosen I’ll then write a chord progression around it, where all the chords are made up from the notes found in that scale or mode. Then it’s a case of strumming that chord progression into any kind of recorder (I normally use Audacity). Once I have that, I can begin to experiment with melodies.

For me, the best way of doing this is to play about with a software synth in a DAW, where I can drag & drop notes around until I have a melody that speaks to me. I have a few staples that I like to use when coming up with phrasing ideas for the melody, and one such stand-by is known as the “clave rhythm”- just make the main notes in your melody land on the 1 of the bar, the “and” of beat 2, then on the “4”. I find it helps to begin a melody on the “4” of the previous bar as a lead in. Also, now and then, it helps to one or more of these prominent notes, just to allow the melody some space to breathe. See below:

clave

And here are three quite different ideas based on this rhythm… a melodic ballad based on the ionian mode, a chunky rock riff using a mixture of the aeolian mode & harmonic minor scale, and finally a mid-tempo melody based on the dorian mode. As you can hear, this same rhythmic idea can be made to sound quite different depending upon the context in which it is being used.

 

This is just a starting point though. Sometimes I’ll take a melody & play it backwards or shift it along by half a beat, or chop it up an put it back together in a different order. The point is that it provides a start from which the tune can then evolve.

I know that this all sounds a bit methodical & some people believe that such practices have no place in a creative sphere like music. There are those who believe that any form of artistic expression should not involve any kind of thought process – it should all come from an unfathomable place, somewhere deep inside where the soul (if you believe in such a concept) resides. However, I consider myself to be a craftsman & I take a pride in being able to craft a piece of music from scratch whether I’m feeling inspired or not. Also, once you become fluent in all of this, it isn’t something you truly think about that much… in the same way as when you are fluent in a language, you’re not thinking about spelling & grammar as you speak… you just unconsciously apply the techniques you know in order to express yourself. Well it’s the same with music (or any artisan craft for that matter).

Occasionally, I will get a fully conceived piece in my head and then it’s just a case of nailing it down on the guitar – finding the notes & chords that I heard in my head. But this is far from the norm for me. And I really value being able to come up with something out of nowhere, just by working at it. Once I’ve got a basic “skeleton” for a tune (crafted in the manner described), I often find that it’s THEN that the inspiration will come & I’ll start flowing with ideas for how to develop the tune. Ideas that simply wouldn’t have been there if I’d sat down with a guitar and waited for the muse to call.

As I said… this is what works for me – feel free to do it your own way. Until next time…

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Smart Phones

A break from the music stuff this time with some observations on the world of technology…

There was a story on the news recently which reported that 66% of people in the UK now own a smart phone. This is an increase from 39% back in 2012. A statistic like this would have us all believe that the Android, iPhone, Blackberry or Windows mobile phone is now an essential part of everyday life… or is it?

My situation is that it makes sense for me to be on a contract with my mobile. The inclusive minutes & texts save me money compared to if I were on pay-as-you-go. However, I do not need a smart phone, and I can’t believe I’m that unusual in this respect. Never the less, walk into any mobile phone shop and try getting a “basic” phone – one which is primarily built for calls & SMS messages – on a pay monthly contract, and you’ll see the problem. This kind of phone just isn’t readily available any more.

How many more people are out there, like me, who don’t need the extra functionality of a smart phone but are forced into owning one because that’s all that’s easily available? Think for a moment if this were the case with any other electrical appliance… say, coffee makers.

Despite being an Englishman to my core, I have no real love for our national drink, tea. Coffee is my favoured beverage & my requirements in a coffee maker are very simple… I just need strong, black filter coffee. I have no need for a machine which can produce cappuccino, frappaccino, mocha, triple-shot skinny Americano or flat white (whatever that is). But if I could only buy a coffee maker which did all this additional stuff, I would be part of the statistics which “prove” we were all becoming addicted to these metropolitan poseur brews. If I’m going to be that trendy, I might as well buy some skinny jeans, start wearing Brylcreem, stop wearing socks & grow a Grizzly Adams beard whilst I’m at it.

And this is how it is with the near ubiquitous smart phone. The lack of an alternative forces many of us into owning a phone which doubles up as a laptop, a telly, a stereo & a Kindle. I don’t need my phone to do any of these things on the grounds that I already own a laptop, a telly, a stereo & a Kindle.

Ah…” I hear you say “But you can’t take your laptop with you when you go out, can you? What about your email?”

Well… that’s true. But in my life, (and I suspect many other people’s), there is no email that is so urgent that it can’t wait until I get back from walking the dog or visiting the supermarket. OK, I work from home & can check my email pretty much any time I want and I realise that this doesn’t apply to everyone. But the point remains, does it really enrich your life to have your phone constantly bonging away to say that Argos have a sale on, or that eBay & Amazon have recommendations for you? How many of the emails which interrupt what you’re doing every day, as they land in your pocket, really need immediate attention?

And if it is an important email – presumably something formal which requires a response, how easy is it to type this kind of correspondence on a keyboard the size of a Rizla packet, often with sunlight obliterating your view of the screen? You see my point? Time & again, I would end up giving up on typing with my thumbs as I walked down the street, preferring instead to wait until I got home when I could compose my message on a “real” computer.

As for being able to watch “content” (as we’re supposed to call television programmes these days) when I’m not sat in front of my telly… Well, I have to tell you that most of the time when I am sat in front of the old gogglebox, I don’t even want to watch it then. Literally hundreds of channels of nothing but repeats, airhead-infested reality TV, the latest cop show/teenage vampires/Tolkien-esque fantasy “box set” we’re all supposed to be in raptures over & a plethora of cooking shows. I’d rather read a book or put some music on to be honest. So I don’t feel impoverished by having to leave the telly behind when I leave the house.

Social media? I don’t use it any more. I used to be all over Facebook & Twitter. At the time, I bought into the idea that it was a great way to drum up new custom. It wasn’t. I even got expert mentoring in using social media for marketing purposes under a government scheme set up to help sole traders like me. So it wasn’t as if I was blundering around making a hash of it – I was doing it right, and the results demonstrated this: I was getting likes, shares & followers. But in over a year of plugging away at it, it didn’t generate a single new paying customer. Not so much as an extra brass farthing in the till… nowt! Added to this was the fact that I just didn’t enjoy it – logging in was just another tiresome admin task to be carried out several times a day. Time I could have been spending with my guitar. Time & effort expended for zero gain. I closed all my accounts.

Then we come to the reliability issue – a mobile phone’s primary task is to be a reliable phone connection, right? Well my various smart phones had other ideas. Apart from the issue of a battery which would go flat if it wasn’t charged twice a day, they thought they were penny-arcade machines.

Here’s what I mean… again & again, after hours of silence, I would get a text message telling me I had numerous new voicemails. Even when I could see 5 bars of a full signal, whatever phone I had at the time would routinely dump calls into voicemail. Why? Often because it was busy performing updates to pre-installed apps that I didn’t use and was not allowed to remove. These were invariably games… “Angry Bejewelled Bubble Pet Candy Witch Farm Birds Saga” and the like. These updated versions of Space Invaders & Asteroids were apparently more important to my phone than letting me know that customers were trying to get in touch to book lessons with me. I actually lost work due to this!

Nowadays my SIM card resides in a reconditioned, second hand, Nokia talk & text phone, bought for pennies on eBay. When I finally gave up on my last smart phone in favour of this “dumb” phone, people looked at me as if I’d traded in an iPod for a wind-up gramophone. But I have a battery life measured in days (not hours), I never miss a call due to my phone being too busy to actually be a telephone, and direct sunlight doesn’t stop me being able to see the keypad I’m trying to dial on. Nor does my phone insist on “correcting” my text messages – Samsung used to think I live in a town called “Reducer” as opposed to “Redcar”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a gadget something which is supposed to make life easier?

And there you have it… my reasons for not being one of the 66% of the population who “need” a smart phone. Or maybe it’s “the 66% who own one because the bloke in the phone shop convinced them they needed one, because that’s all they sell.”

As Mark Twain once said “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

Until next time, have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist