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Jim's "Guitar Tips"
Tips, hints, and some past experiences.
#12 Guitar Tip: Take the time to really learn what’s going on. (3/08)
Joke…How do you get a guitar player to turn down?
Answer…Put a chart in front of him.
#11 Guitar Tip: Do you know what a tetrachord is? (9/07)
Simply speaking; it’s half of a scale. In a C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) the lower tetrachord is C-D-E-F and the upper tetrachord is G-A-B-C.
The upper and lower tetrachords are separated by a whole step. In case you don’t know; a half step means one fret and a whole step means two frets. What does all this technical stuff mean to guitar players? The answer lies within a lesson I call “Guitar Playing for Dummies”.
First thing; forget about all this tetrachord stuff. Next; crank up your CD player and get your guitar on. Start by playing on one string over a song that you don’t know the key. As the song plays; find two adjacent notes that both sound good and “in key” with the tune. In other words find one note that sounds good and see if the next fret over or under sounds good. If you find it…great, if not, keep searching.
Once you find and can hear the two notes working you are in a spot within half of the scale where you can either move up at least 2 whole steps from the higher note or move down at least 2 whole steps from the lower note. I say “at least” because half the time you can move 3 whole steps above and half the time you can move 3 whole steps below. For example; lets say you’ve found the 2 adjacent notes that sound good, go up and play the 2 whole step apart notes…they sound good right? At this point you’ve got a 50% chance of getting the next note right.
If the next whole step note works on the up side of the half step point, it won’t work on the lower side, and vice versa. If the 3 whole steps work under the half step point then only 2 whole steps will work over it. If you want guaranteed good notes, only move 2 whole step notes above and below the half step point. This works anywhere on the guitar in any major or minor key.
You don’t need to think about the names of the notes you are playing or what key you are in. What about modes? You don’t need to think about them! This system is for playing by ear. You may actually be playing in G Phrygian or Dorian or locrian or whatever… but who cares??? Every major and natural minor scale has 2 “half step points” within it, once you hear it you can feel your way through any key without actually knowing the scale or mode you’re in. If you feel the need to analyze it…be my guest, but it won’t make you sound better.
If you try for the next whole step, you will hit F# which is a clunker. This all seems elementary when you are looking at the scale on paper, but for a guitarist it’s different. Many guitarists don’t know the names of the notes they are playing so this should be a helpful aid for them. Another good thing to do is practice playing your solo on one string. It may help you visualize the tetrachords on the guitar neck.
Once you’re comfortable using one string, try incorporating other strings using the same technique of finding half step intervals that work. The end result will have you playing melodic (diatonic) melody without actually knowing what you are doing. Doing this in conjunction with practicing your scales will help you master the fingerboard.
…shoot me an email with your phone # and I’ll try to help.
#10 Guitar Tip: Don’t Overplay! (7/07)
I received a very nice compliment from a fellow musician who said to me…”Man you really play the song!” "Playing the song” means playing what fits best with the melody and rhythm of the tune. Many guitarists play for themselves and treat music like it's a sport. It's not about being the fastest or blowing people away, it's about making music.
Playing fast is cool, if it is done the right way. Always playing fast and loud is boring. I think it's best to break up your playing by varying your speed, dynamics and tone.
Funny thing about dynamics…99% of musicians say how important they are…5% actually put them to good use. We musicians all like to hear ourselves so we refuse to be the first one to turn down. This is what happens…band leader says “guys it's getting a little too loud up here so I think we should turn down a little…everyone else says OK and agrees to turn down… but no one does…each member figures the others should turn down so he doesn't have to. The result is no one turns down and we are back to loud mush. Music is much more dramatic if the dynamics vary. If you play at full throttle all of the time your audience will be impressed at first but will quickly become bored with you.
Compose your solo!
Sometimes when you come right out of the box with all guns blazing, you run out of energy before your solo is finished. I prefer to approach a solo slowly and melodically…start off quiet and build to a loud climax and suddenly drop the volume to a point where you can hear a pin drop. If you can pull it off, it's beautiful…the problem is you are at the mercy of your fellow musicians…if they are not listening and not following you, the “hear a pin drop dynamics” are blasted over. It's also important for you as an accompanist to back off when another person is soloing or there are vocals that need to be heard. Vocals and solos need sufficient head room in order to sound good, so give your fellow band mates the space that they need.
Your tone? …vary it! Clean-gritty-driving. If you change it up, it's more interesting. Try rolling off your tone knob on your neck pickup and crank up the overdrive…you'll be in Clapton SWABLR land! Try backing off your volume and pick with your fingers…you will then hear the real tone of your guitar.
... there is more than one way to vary it. Of course you can turn your volume knob up or down on your guitar/amp, but it’s more important and musical that you learn to vary your level with your attack on the strings.
We guitarists all like to play with overdrive. Why? Because it's a cushion that helps fill in the gaps between notes. When I listen to what I think is a great guitar solo, there really isn't that much overdrive on the guitar, not nearly as much as you might tend to use. My advice is learn to sound good without it; then add a little drive to spice it up.
#9 Guitar Tip (6/07)
I saw Tommy Emmanuel play last night at BB Kings. After seeing him play, now I’m trying to decide which of my guitars to burn first. I’ve been told that the acoustic guitars might make good kindling before throwing in the solid bodies. This guy is fantastic...
#8 Guitar Tip Rock Tune (Know your bands.) 5/07
When I was around 20 years old I got my first call to play a wedding. The gig was with some older guys who had been playing together for years. The leader “Frank”, played sax and sang. Well, I should say he owned a sax and a microphone.
Right from the beginning Frank treated me very rudely. I unfortunately did not know a lot of the old wedding band standards that these guys played so I had to do my best to fake it. I remember the keyboard player asking Frank to play a certain song. Frank glanced towards me and loudly replied to the keyboard player, “What for? He don’t know it." After a while Frank yelled back to me, “Rock Tune!" I said. "What??" He repeated, “ROCK TUNE!” I was puzzled.
The drummer then leaned over to me and said, ”Play 'Long Train Runnin' man!" So the light went on in my head I started, din-din-din, din-din-don, din-din-din. As the band followed along with me, Frank got up and not knowing the song, he started dancing and singing the words “Rock Tune-yeah Rock Tune" through the whole song. Try and fit that into "Long Train Runnin'” and you can imagine how it sounded.
After thirty years I can still see Frank dancing like a fool and singing "Rock Tune-yeah". I got through my first wedding, got paid, and said goodbye to the band as Frank pocketed the entire (band) tip that he received from the bride’s father. Thanks for the memory Frank!
#7 Guitar Tip: Use Your Metronome 4/07
An important quality needed to be a great musician is the ability to play with solid time. Rhythm is at the core of all music, and it’s what separates good musicians from the not so good ones.
As a guitar player you should take pride in your rhythmic ability and make sure it’s as solid as a rock. One way to develop solid time is by practicing with a metronome. You can pick one up at your local music store for about $25.00. Get an electronic one, which are 100% accurate. Don’t get a wind up model because the time always fluctuates. If you don’t have the cash, use on line metronomes…go to Google, type in “metronome” and you’ll have a free metronome.
You can practice in a number of ways but let’s start simple. Set the tempo to 80 beats per minute and play one note on every click that you hear. As you play the notes, tap your foot with each click of the metronome. Once you’re solid with one note per beat, try two notes per beat, then three notes and finally four notes per beat. Make sure that your foot tapping stays with the pulse of the metronome.
Practicing these rhythms is a good starting point. The next step is to apply this concept to playing scales. Take a major scale and play each note the same way you played the single note in the first exercise. Doing this is much harder so you might have to slow the tempo down in order to play the triplets and the sixteenth notes accurately. The triplets will probably seem unnatural to play at first. If you are using alternate picking you’ll find your pick sometimes on an upstroke on a downbeat, which feels awkward. Work through this and nail down triplet playing, because the three feel is the pulse of blues music.
You should also practice your favorite riffs with a metronome. Riffs are nothing more than a few notes played in rhythm, and the rhythm is what catches your ear and makes you sound good. Loop your riffs over and over until you feel the right starting point. The rhythmic starting point of a riff dictates how it will fit into a groove. Remember that most songs have a four beat sequence that repeats over and over throughout. Your riffs have to start at the right spot within the four beat loop in order to feel and sound right. Practicing with a metronome will not only help solidify your rhythm but it will also help in developing speed. Once you’re solid at 80 beats per minute, crank up the tempo and repeat the exercises.
#6 Guitar Tip: A Most Important Gift (2/07)
The most important skill a guitarist should have is the ability to hear chord changes and play over them. The best way to develop your ear is to figure songs out on your own. I spent thousands of hours figuring songs out by ear. The more songs you figure out the better your ear gets.
As a beginner you should:
Again, the more songs you figure out the better your ear gets.
#5 Guitar Tip: Blues Jam (1/07)
Ever been to an open mic/blues jam? It can be a good opportunity to get out and play. On the plus side you might have fun and make some musical connections that can get you gigs. On the negative side you might not have fun.
One time I was at a blues jam during the winter. I waited for my turn to play and got up with my cold guitar…just as the drummer was counting the tune off, the hot air heat came blasting down on me. My guitar instantly went horribly out of tune and I couldn’t play. The other guys were looking at me with that look that says “Come on man let’s see your stuff.” I tried but failed miserably.
Another time at a jam I was put together with a young guitarist, a bassist, drummer and singer. We started with a slow blues and when solo time came, the other guitarist, like a machine gun started bombarding me with speed metal licks. He was out to get me and was playing at me as if it were a duel! I felt it appropriate to fight back at my combatant with... a one-note solo.
I don’t know if he got my point or not.
#4 Guitar Tip: How do you strum? 12/06
With all the guitar books out there you would think that one of them would mention “strumming technique”. Strumming is something that guitarists develop naturally by playing a lot, but for a beginner it can be difficult.
The best way to think about it is, “never stop the motion of your arm”. Most songs we play are in 4/4 time, which means there are four beats to a measure. But if you can’t read music you might not know what a measure is, so think of it as four rotating beats that loop over and over throughout the song. i.e.: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc. If you count out loud the numbers 1, 2, 3 & 4 represent down beats. As you count you should tap your foot simultaneously with the numbers.
It’s important to tap your foot because it helps establish what I call your “body clock”. If your foot is tapping accurately in time with the song, you can’t play out of time. This is not as easy as it sounds so start slow and worry about accuracy and not speed. After you get your foot tapping with 1-2-3-4, then it’s time to strum. As you tap your foot, strum down on any chord. Practice an easy song using this technique. Don’t get fancy. Keep it simple. After you’ve practiced and you’re feeling comfortable with down beat strumming, it’s time to incorporate the up beats.
Up beats are the parts of the beats that you don’t hear. They are between the down beats. Most people think of the up beats as the “and”. So now count (one and), (two and), (three and), (four and). If you are tapping your foot, the up beat (and) is when your foot is up, and the down is when it hits the floor.
Whenever there is a downbeat, strum down. Whenever there is an up beat strum up. You need to drill this into your brain by practicing this for hours. The next step is incorporating “strums” and “miss-strums”.
Keep the rhythm by moving your arm up and down in time with the music and either strum the strings or don’t strum the strings. If you are not strumming simply lift your pick slightly away from the strings and swing past. By keeping your arm moving the rhythm will be steady and not fall apart.
As a beginner, you hear a rhythm and try to duplicate it, your brain thinks it knows what to do, but it really doesn’t. It will try to tell your arm to use the “stop and go” method to create rhythms. Stop and go doesn’t work, it sounds choppy and causes the rhythm to fall apart. By keeping your arm swinging up and down in time, you can’t hit a bad strum even if you strike the strings by accident.
There are hundreds of rhythmic combinations you can make up with this technique. Try strumming (1) (2-and) (3-and) (4-and)… or in other words; (down) (down/up) (down/up) (down/up). After you feel confident strumming down and up beats, double the speed of your arm.
Now the beat is divided into four parts. (1-A–and-A), (2-A-and-A), (3-A-and-A), (4-A-and-A) Remember…Always strum down on the down beat! With the beat now divided into four you can create even more rhythms using the “strum-miss strum” method. These rhythms are more advanced and sound more interesting. Keep on practicing until you don’t have to count numbers and you can relax and feel the music.
Hang in there…it might take a couple of hundred hours.
#3 Guitar Tip: Do you want to play slide? 10/06
The first thing you need is the right set up on your guitar. If you play with ultra light strings like 8’s or 9’s, you are going to struggle trying to get a decent sound. You should set up your guitar with thicker strings that will offer some resistance and not buzz. The thicker the better, I use 11’s.
Set up your action as high as you can stand for less buzz. Most guys hate playing my guitars because the action is so high. In my opinion; high action = good tone, low action = wimpy tone. There is a tradeoff though; with high action it’s harder to play fast.
Next is your slide, I use a Coricidin bottle but you can use whatever you like. I like the Coricidin because of the tone that is created within the closed end bottle. It’s hard to describe unless you hear it along side an open ended slide. Besides, Duane used a Coricidin.
Before you start learning licks, learn how to play chords with slide. Many slide riffs are done by sliding in and out of chord tones. In standard tuning there is a major (G) chord on the open 2nd,3rd &4th strings and a minor (Em) chord on the open 1st,2nd & 3rd strings.
Take a simple country/folk song and play slide chords throughout. Simply transpose the appropriate major and minor chords across the neck. Line the slide up straight over the frets. Do not let the slide go crooked; it will sound out of tune. It’s important to do this first so that you can learn the locations of the chords across the fingerboard.
The next big trick with slide is right hand technique. If you use a pick, you are going to struggle so it’s best to fingerpick. I use my whole right hand and fingers to block out every string from sounding. When I want to play a single string I pick only the string that needs to be sounded and block out all of the others with the rest of my hand and fingers.
Each player has his own way of blocking so you should figure out what works best for you. If you can get down chords and blocking you will already sound good.
#2 Guitar Tip: No Harmonicas! 9/06
About 10 years ago, I was playing at a bar in Oakland, NJ. About half way through the night I see this guy holding a harmonica, walking up to the band.
The band I was playing with always enforced the "No Harmonica Player Rule." This is why:
1- Guy gets hold of a harmonica
2- Guy starts blowing in and out.
3- Guy realizes that all notes sound in tune. (Providing he has the right key harp.)
4- Guy thinks he has a natural gift for music. (Little does he know that a chimpanzee will sound just as good providing it plays with the correct harp.)
5- Guy decides that it's time for him to gig so he shows up at your gig and wants to play the blues.
6- Guy comes up to you on your break and tells you how great he is and that you should let him play. He may even have a friend with him saying, "Yeah man he's really good!"
7- If you let him play there is a 99% chance that he will be an embarrassment for the band and that is the reason for the "No Harmonica Player Rule".
Back to the story...
So guy comes up to me and says, "Hey man I wanna do Stormy Monday. Do you guys know it?"
I say, "No man, we don't do Stormy Monday."
He's says, "Aw come on man, you're a blues band. You gotta do Stormy Monday AND I feel like singin and playin some harp."
I say, "No man we don't even know Stormy Monday."
He says, "I'll give ya 50 bucks!"
I say, "What key?"
#1 Guitar Tip: Get In A Band! 8/06
Over the years, people have asked me; "What is the most important thing a guitarist can do to improve his playing?" My answer...Get in a band!!! Don't wait! And if you think you are not good enough, you are wrong!
It's really difficult to develop as a musician if all you do is sit in your bedroom and jam alone. Music is about feeling and being a good guitarist requires the ability to interact with other musicians. Besides that... it's fun...isn't that why you play music?