Yes, it’s been a looooong time since I last posted here! OK, here we go.
Back in my years as editor of On The Water magazine I had a firmly held belief: all writing that came across my desk had to feel like the writer had a valid reason to write.
Over those years I saw an ever-increasing number of stories that were blatant product pitches, something that is prevalent in so many magazine stories these days, sad to say. With a change of publishers at the magazine a different attitude was increasingly evident. The original publisher was a fourth-generation newspaper man and while he was tough on me from time to time I did learn a few things from him, one of which was that the advertising department should sell ad space based on the quality of the content, not on promises of favorable stories about products. Unfortunately, the new publisher (who I liked and still do on a personal basis) came from an advertising background and the pressure I felt from him and the advertising department for favorable product placement in editorial content was one of the major reasons I resigned from my position.
OK, I’m a dinosaur I guess. All readers of magazines about activities such as fishing, golf, tennis, and yes, guitars and guitar playing want to know about the equipment that the writer uses to be successful, especially when the story is about a famous expert in one of those avocations. Where I drew the line was when the writer (with a bit of a pass to a sponsored professional) made a blanket statement that the products they use are the “best.” It was perfectly fine to say what he or she – the writer – used and found success with something, but making a blanket statement that such-and-such a fishing rod or reel or lure was the best was disingenuous at the very least and downright dishonest at worst. My feeling was and still is the reader is smart and sees right through that kind of statement. Yet magazines and websites allow this kind of stuff, more and more.
I made a few enemies among so-called “outdoor writers” by calling them out on this and demanding a re-write if the article had any hope of being published. Some of them still hate me to this very day. Probably because they could no longer get free rods and reels on the promise their stories would be published!
So what does this all have to do with guitars and playing? Over the last couple of years I’ve read many articles in well-known guitar magazines and on websites that go totally overboard in their praise of the latest/greatest guitars, electronic devices and amplifiers, strings, capos and just about every other piece of equipment they hope guitarists want to learn about. A very notable and highly recommended exception to this is the wonderful magazine Fretboard Journal. This high gloss, beautiful and classy publication has an obvious dedication to the best writing and in-depth stories, many quite long by today’s magazine standards about all things related to fretted instruments. I look forward to every issue and have learned much from each and every one.
For my part, with this blog I want to convey as much useful information as I can about guitars and related equipment, along with playing tips and the occasional long-winded story. I thank my small but loyal group of readers for indulging me in this! Fact is, there are a dizzying number of choices for the guitar buyer these days. I do my best to stay up on current trends, taking everything I read and hear with a large grain of salt and playing as many guitars as I can to form my opinions. And opinions they are! I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about acoustic guitars, but I do know a good one when I play or hear it. I absolutely promise that if I say something about any guitar or piece of equipment I do it only to help someone in their search for the right one. If that results in someone not making a mistake by being drawn in by slick marketing, I’ve done what I’ve set out to do.
Case in point: I have a relatively new student who by all accounts is an expert custom cabinet maker. He is an advanced beginner playing-wise and as enthusiastic as any budding guitarist I’ve ever taught but knew he needed a better guitar. He announced a few weeks ago that he had begun making a guitar (!). Now understand this. He had zero experience building guitars, and most amazingly, was using what he referred to as scrap lumber that had been lying around his shop.
To be honest, I didn’t have very high expectations but tried to encourage him as much as possible and answer as many of his questions as I could about wood, what constitutes a good guitar, a few small tricks that I know custom guitar makers use and basically everything I could think of to help him along. He read up on guitar making voraciously and also consulted with my friend Fran Ledoux of Bay Fretted Instruments, a local guitar tech of the highest caliber who is an authorized warranty repairman for Martin, Gibson, Taylor and Fender.
From the reports given to me by his wife who is also a student, Scott dove into the construction of his guitar with a vengeance, to say the least. He constructed his own jigs, made and remade various components and was never quite satisfied with the result (which I think is the true mark of a real craftsman!). Last week he showed up for his lesson with the guitar, modeled after a Martin dreadnought and the results were absolutely stunning. Constructed of solid red birch back and sides, with a solid Sitka spruce top, fine wood binding and herringbone trim it is just beautiful. But best of all, it plays like a dream and sounds just fantastic. If it sounds this good now I can only imagine how it will sound in a few months and years when it “opens up.” I’ve played guitar costing well over $1000 that didn’t sound as good or play as easily as Scott’s self-described prototype.
His plan is to make four guitars including this one for his children and a grandchild and then produce more to sell. I think his future in guitar building is very, very bright. When you combine superb craftsmanship with enthusiasm and a questioning mind that thirsts for knowledge the results can only be good. I am going to try to make an appointment for Scott and I to meet up with my friend Steve Conner, a world-renowned maker of classical guitars who lives nearby. Knowing Steve to be equally enthusiastic about all things related to the making of guitars I am sure Scott will learn much from him. It’s experiences like this that make me love playing and teaching guitar.
More blog entries soon. Promise! Thanks for reading.
Peace & good music,
As winter finally closes in on Olde Cape Cod and I have suspended my lessons due to ongoing concerns about the covid-19 pandemic I’ve tried to really focus on my playing and developing ideas both musically and intellectually. While I sincerely dislike winter for lots of reasons – and this year more than ever – what I’ve found is a new sense of freedom in my playing. I’ve written a few melodies that are simple but satisfying and that is partly because of a wonderful Christmas present I received from my son Matt.
It is a book by musician Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco called, “How to Write One Song.” I am devouring it, slowly. Reading and re-reading lines and paragraphs. Leaving Post-It notes every few pages where I’ve found another nugget of truth. Can you tell I love this book? Here’s what the description says on Amazon Prime:
“There are few creative acts more mysterious and magical than writing a song. But what if the goal wasn't so mysterious and was actually achievable for anyone who wants to experience more magic and creativity in their life? That's something that anyone will be inspired to do after reading Jeff Tweedy's How to Write One Song.”
I could not describe the book any better. It is filled with tips and techniques used in his songwriting, most very simple and surprisingly obvious. But it also goes into a very personal retrospective of how Jeff navigates his daily songwriting routine, the importance of subverting ego and expectations, freeing your mind to be creative. He is dead certain that ALL OF US can write songs and makes his case in a very strong and clear manner. He is part cheerleader, part apologist and starkly honest about his own struggles. But I am probably making this small, delightful book sound to “heavy.” It is anything but that! Even if you’ve never even considered writing songs I cannot urge you enough: buy this book! Read it slowly. Stop every few pages and digest what Jeff’s just said. Then, perhaps do what I’m going to do. When I finish it (soon) I will go back and start it again, this time taking notes. And then I think I’ll be ready to find the lyrics I know are lurking somewhere in my brain for those melodies I’ve recently written. Can’t wait to begin!!
In a couple weeks Kathy and I will be heading for Florida and staying in Sarasota and then Key West for a total of two months. I cannot wait to escape the New England winter, which this year is becoming more normal than the last few, i.e., dark, gray, snowy, icy, generally depressing. One of my decisions that I’ve been kind of agonizing over is which guitar to take along. Now, this is a good problem to have but that doesn’t make it any easier. This will be our fourth drive to Florida but staying as long as we are, and considering all the fun things to do that we will partake in, packing my small Subaru Crosstrek will be an exercise in mathematical precision. It’s looking that way, anyway! The quest is to bring along everything we need (and nothing we don’t) and still be able to see out of the back of the car.
So – guitars. My choices are: my Martin D-35 Seth Avett, my Martin M-36, or my Eastman 422ce. All have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of size, sound and play-ablity, although none of those disadvantages are even remotely serious. Any of those guitars would keep me happy. So it really comes down to space and I think in the end the M-36 will win; it is a thinner-bodied model and will be in a padded gig bag so it should fit (standing up) just fine behind the driver’s seat. But I also intend to bring along one of my small but terrific sounding Bose S1 Pro amps and a briefcase with connecting cords, spare strings, capos, tuner, etc. and also a folding mic stand. Why the extra stuff? Because maybe – just maybe – I will be able to sit in with one of my musician friends in Key West or elsewhere and I want to be prepared. Plus, I am hoping to do a couple of my live sessions on my Cape Cod Acoustics Facebook page while I’m down there. So the great 3-D jigsaw puzzle of packing the car will commence soon. If you do Facebook, please “like” my CCA page and you will receive notices of when my live sessions will take place.
But getting back to today and recent days and weeks since I suspended lessons and what I’ve accomplished. As much as I love teaching it has been kind of liberating to not have to worry about weekly lesson planning, learning new songs expressly for the purpose of teaching them and worrying about my students on both a musical and personal level. Again: I love teaching, I really do! And I will certainly resume lessons as soon as we return from Florida. But as with anything, sometimes an extended respite can be a very good thing. For the last couple of years for example I stopped lessons two or three weeks before we left and devoted a good amount of that time to searching out and learning new songs for my students for when I returned. This proved to be a good strategy. I found some great songs and the pressure was off to a certain degree regarding lesson planning. I’m thinking that I will have time to do that while I’m in Florida and if I’m lucky, I will hear some songs at the bars and restaurants we visit that are worth adding to my bag of tricks.
Perhaps the best part about my extended vacation from teaching is that I’ve had time to polish up some of my songs. What I mean is, there are more than a few tunes I play and have been playing for a long time that inevitably include some little annoyances that I keep reminding myself need to be fixed….but I never seem to get around to it so inevitably they happen again the next time I play that song. So I’ve been locating those things and making a conscious effort to fix them. In many cases, I’ve been pleased with the results. Now the trick will be to remember those adjustments when it counts, when I’m back playing in front of people. But I know there’s a simple solution to that: practice, practice and more practice.
I may or may not check in here before we leave but if I don’t you can be sure I’ll post more when I get to Florida. I’ll try not to gloat, promise!
Stay safe, be well, take care, and stay sane.
Peace & good music,
A divergence today after a long hiatus from my blog. I’m doing it now because I feel good. Really good. The best I’ve felt in years, at least from a mental standpoint. I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my soul. I woke up this morning with a smile on my face. Why? You know why. The country I love with all my heart has returned to the right path. That path is long and fraught with peril but it is the right path.
I readily admit that I am cynical at times. Who wouldn’t be after the last four years? But a strange, new feelings now envelope me. Hope. And faith. Faith in the new president to let his deep religious beliefs and extraordinary life experiences guide him. Faith that he knows and understands regular Americans and most importantly, the American ideal. Faith that honesty and truth will be his guiding forces. And hope that people of all political persuasions will give him a fair chance. He made it clear in his inaugural address that he knows full well that some will never agree with him but also was quick to say that at its core, that is what democracy is all about.
His tasks – our tasks – are harder than anyone could have imagined four years ago. But after hearing the amazing Amanda Gorman I must repeat what I’ve been saying to anyone who would listen for those last awful four years: our hope lies with the young. They must take charge, and I think many of them are ready. Our time, baby boomers, has passed. Dylan said it almost 60 years ago: “Your old road is rapidly agin’ So please get out of the new one is you can’t lend a hand.”
I choked up many times while watching the inauguration. Amanda’s recitation made me do that again and again. Watching President Biden and Vice President Harris’s families react made me choke up. Lada Gaga’s performance of the national anthem brought a big lump to my throat. Jlo, not so much….I think the lady needed to remember that the event was not about HER. And Garth Brooks deserves credit for taking on Amazing Grace acapella, not an easy task for anyone.
But mostly I choked up during President Biden’s speech. Not so much because of what he said, although the message and his delivery of it were awe-inspiring. I choked up because I imagined what my parents would have thought. My dad was a keen and astute observer and scholar of history and with his background in journalism he always took a somewhat detached view of all politicians, even though he was a dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt Democrat. But I know he would have been outraged at what we have lived through for the last four years, and continue to live through. I can almost see the smile that would have been on his face as he realized the America his generation fought and died for defeating the Nazis in World War II has once again emerged from a very dark hour, scarred but victorious and with renewed commitment to the ideals of our founding fathers and the Constitution. And thinking of my wife’s father who survived four years of unimaginable horror in a Japanese prisoner of war camp after surviving the Bataan Death March. What would he have thought of the last four years, and how would he have reacted to seeing the reemergence of the real America? That my friends is why I choked up, again and again.
I also choked up thinking of my children and grandchildren. Part of the searing pain in my gut for the last four years was based in the fear of what their world might become. As much as I put my faith in the younger generation, would they be equal to the task of reclaiming the American ideal? It didn’t seem so at times. The blows to their future seemed unrelenting. But now I see real possibilities. Will they be able to take advantage of them no matter how very difficult it will be? In my heart of hearts, I believe they will. They must.
I have dear friends who I know did not vote for Joe Biden. I’m not quite sure what I will say to them the next time we’re together. I pray that they aren’t harboring hate in their hearts as some on the other side will continue to do. However, I’ve made a vow that I won’t lecture them or gloat. Those things serve no purpose and will do nothing to change their minds. What I’ll do is what I’ve done for the last four years: do my best to stay calm, listen to them and push back any ego-based reactions, and hope that as time passes they will become just a little bit more open. There’s nothing else I can do, really. But I do promise to listen and if I do choose to explain myself, hope that they will listen, too. Isn’t that at the core of what President Biden was talking about?
In over eleven years of doing this blog I have never done a post that had nothing to do with playing the guitar; this is the first. I appreciate you for indulging me and hope you’ll read my blog again. I promise to get back to guitar and music related subjects the next time. What you’ve just read comes from my heart. Thank you.
Peace & good music,
Over the years I’ve picked up quite a few little tricks and tweaks from other guitarists and discovered a few of my own. None of these are revolutionary, but I use all of them and they have made the guitar owning and playing experience much more enjoyable. Here are a few:
When changing a string, put a slight bend in the new string as close to the ball end as possible. This makes the ball end securely seat itself on the interior bridge plate, which of course is vital if the string is to transmit its vibration to the top of the instrument. Without that bend, it’s possible for the ball to press up on the bridge pin rather sit tight against the bridge plate, which in the most annoying cases can suddenly turn that bridge pin into a projectile as it pops out when you’re tuning up. And believe me, because I’ve been there, finding that escaped bridge pin can be a major challenge in a cluttered space like my studio!
Also on the subject of string changes, do your best to avoid even the slightest bend elsewhere in that new string when you remove it from its package. A bend between the nut and the saddle has a negative impact on the tone of the string because that bend is a slight impendence to the string vibrating evenly. It’s a real bummer when you are expecting to enjoy the crisp, clear sound of a new string only to have it sound not much better than the old one you just removed.
And do change the strings as often as you can afford. It is the most basic and inexpensive way to keep your guitar sounding as good as it possibly can. When you do get around to changing strings, don’t take all the old ones off at once (except for very occasional cleaning and polishing the fretboard). Instead, replace them one at a time. That way pretty consistent and constant pressure is maintained on the guitar. Your guitar is used to that pressure and if you suddenly remove and then reapply about 200 pounds of pressure (the approximate amount generated by steel strings) some nasty things can happen, the worst of which is accelerating the need for a full neck reset, something just about every acoustic guitar will need sooner or later. Be sure to tune each sting up to pitch as you go, too. You will have to do a fair amount of retuning the first few times you play but these days the steel strings that are sold by all manufacturers are very good at settling in and staying in tune quite quickly, thank goodness. Nylon strings however are a tuning nightmare for the first couple of weeks they are on because of the stretchy nature of nylon.
Try to get into a short warm-up routine and stick to it. Some players have a particular song they like to play right off the bat, some do scale work. I find scales pretty boring – although I certainly recognize the legitimacy of practicing them – so if I’m going to use a flat pick I pick out simple melodies such as Ashoken Farewell and The Ashgrove to get the fingers moving. This is as good for my ear as it is for my fingers. Being able to predict what the next note will sound like is an essential skill for any single note passage or in improvising. Playing familiar melodies forces that skill.
Make a point to play in different areas of your home. I have no explanation of why this works, but it does: hearing your guitar in a variety of places makes you play for a longer amount of time, which is always good! My studio is where I do most of my playing, probably 90% of the time, but I’m always amazed how different my guitars sound in rooms of different sizes and with varying amounts of reflective surfaces. There are many stories of famous guitarists playing in their bathrooms, for example. Some have even done some basic recording in those spaces, just because that space sometimes yields tonality that is very desirable. And there’s already a good, armless seat for you to sit on in there when you play!
This next one is a bit more serious but very important. Take a bunch of close-up detailed pictures of your guitar. I hope you’ll never need those pictures for this purpose, but if your guitar is stolen or damaged you will have proof of its existence should you need to file a police report or insurance claim. Be sure to write down the serial number too, which can be found inside your guitar either on a paper label or stamped into the neck block. It’s a good idea to forward the pictures and the serial number to your spouse or a relative, too, in case you are not able to access them for some reason. Plus, doing that will give you a back-up of that information.
A bit less serious but equally important. Think long and hard about what your personal policy is about letting others play your guitar, even going so far as having a little speech memorized if you are nervous about others handling and playing your prized instrument. It is really, really embarrassing to be confronted by someone asking, “hey, can I try your guitar?” if you don’t want anyone else handling it…. but you also don’t want to make things too awkward. I usually try to make a joke about it along the lines of: Sure, if your last name is Clapton! This usually gets the message across. If you’re fine with others playing your guitar, especially good friends or relatives, that’s fine. But I’ve had a couple incidents in days past when someone proceeded to beat on my expensive guitar when I handed it over. Suffice to say, I won’t ever let that happen again!
From time to time, record your playing. Today’s smart phones all have a “voice memos” app that can record at least part of what you’ve been practicing. You’ll often hear things like unwanted rhythmic variations that you’ve overlooked. But don’t be too hard on yourself. The recording quality will be satisfactory, at best, and very few of us really sound the way we think we do while we’re playing or singing. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just different.
Lastly for this post I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and happy new year. Goodbye, 2020. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?!? This has been the most trying year most of us have ever endured. But I truly, sincerely believe that better days are coming soon. Stay well, stay safe, stay sane.
Peace & good music,
With the tentative forecast of 12 – 18” of snow coming in a classic New England nor’easter next week I thought I’d post some random stuff. Because (if the breathless news anchors, TV weather people and reporters are right) I may be without power for a while. Best to jot down these things that have been running around in my head lately, plus some news from my world.
Yesterday was my last live performance at the Daily Brew for what is likely to be a long time. With the new state restrictions came the edict: No live music in restaurants. Ugh. I guess it makes sense on some level but I defy anyone to prove that even one case of Covid-19 can be linked to a musician playing in a restaurant. I know in the grand scheme of things this is no big deal. After all, I have my health as does the rest of my family and for that I am very, very grateful. I’m hoping that my age plus a documented “heart incident” about 15 years ago will get me toward the front of the line for one of the vaccines. In discussing the new rule with Joni, the manager at the Daily Brew at the conclusion of my gig yesterday she said they are fearing a closing of restaurants in the near future or at the very least, curbside delivery of orders only. So she has a lot more to worry about than me, even though it will hit me pretty hard in the monthly bottom line. But Joni was quick to say that the moment the no-music restriction is lifted I will be back doing my weekly gig. I am still teaching at the Brew, upstairs where no customers are allowed right now, after closing time. And for that I am also very grateful.
I’m going to start doing my live sessions from my studio via my Cape Cod Acoustics Facebook page as I did all last Spring. Not nearly as much fun as playing at the Brew but at least it will keep me learning new songs and practicing. I had fits with getting good sound for my live sessions, both in my studio and at the Brew but at least in my studio I have more control of the sound and there won’t be any background noise of people talking and the smoothie blender doing its thing. If you haven’t “friended” my CCA Facebook page yet, please do so you’ll get a reminder every time I go live. I’m hoping that at least some of my listener/watchers will chip in a couple dollars via my Venmo account. If you have yet to use Venmo I recommend it highly. It’s free to download the program and a great way to pay someone or a business. My Venmo account is:
An email I always look forward to comes from classical guitarist and teacher Allen Matthews. His writing is always interesting and he often has some great tips for all guitarists, not just those who play classical guitar style. His website is www.classicalguitarshed.com and I recommend it highly. You can request getting on his email list for those weekly emails, too. I had a wonderful little back and forth with Allen when I asked him if he minded if I quoted him in this space and he kindly said yes, which is why I wanted to pay it forward.
In a recent newsletter entitled “Duke Ellington on Choosing the Right Music to Play,” Allen quotes Ellington: "The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” This is fantastic advice and it took me a long time to come to the same conclusion. As I think I’ve mentioned here before, in my dreams I am a great jazz guitar player. But alas, after struggling with that style for a couple decades I realized that was just never going to happen. So for the last 15 or so years I’ve been working very hard on styles I do know I can play pretty well for my students’ sake but also my own. I think in a macro sense the underlying message of Allen’s letter was that with our limited time on this earth it is much more gratifying to see real progress in a style you know well rather than beating your head against the wall trying to conquer something stylistically that takes away from your gratification in playing the guitar.
But….I’m not saying you should only play the easy stuff, regardless of the style. We must all challenge ourselves if we hope to progress. I still dive into jazz stuff from time to time, especially after hearing my idol, Martin Taylor make it sound so emotional, effortless and exciting. My jazz chops have improved but I know pretty quickly when a piece is beyond me and probably never will sound as good as I hoped it would. I let go of those kinds of songs pretty quickly. Maybe if I had a friend who was a great jazzer to play with I would begin to see more rapid progress. Maybe not. But I’ve gotten past the idea that simpler kinds of music cannot be as gratifying as playing a Charlie Parker tune note-for-note. The upshot of all this is that I’m more pleased with my playing now than ever before, most of the time anyway!
I’m sure you saw the news of Bob Dylan selling the performance and publishing rights to his huge catalog for a reported $300 million+. Good for him! I’m assuming he put in a provision that allows him to still perform his songs. Dylan has always been very savvy about the business side of music. But the funniest quote I read by people reacting to the news went something like this: Man, are they going to be disappointed when they find out he can’t sing! (ha!)
Many famous musicians were not so savvy in the early days of pop and rock music. John Fogerty is the most blatant example of that. His entire Creedence Clearwater catalog was purchased by someone back in the 1980s (without his knowledge or approval) and for about 20 years he was not allowed to play ANY of the songs he wrote for the band. He eventually regained control of his catalog. But some were not so lucky. Sly Stone had signed away all his rights at the peak of the Family Stone’s popularity and I read a very sad story recently about him living in an old beat up van that a friend of his allowed him to park in his driveway.
I hope you and your family are holding up as the pandemic rages. I just read online that the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine will be headed out for delivery to hospitals today, but for most of us it will a while before we have access to it. Some people are very nervous about taking the vaccine due to its possible side effects. I get that, but it won’t stop me from getting the shot (or shots) as soon as I possibly can. The nut cases who won’t get it because they think it’s a government mind-control plot can refuse it if they want; I’m guessing most of that group don’t wear masks either because they don’t want their “rights” trampled on. Fine. If some of them get the virus and go to the great Trump Rally in the Sky that just means I may move up in the line to get the vaccine!
Wishing you and yours a happy, peaceful and safe holiday season.
Peace & good music,
I haven’t thrown out a random thoughts kind of blog post in a while so I thought I’d give that a go. Random is a pretty good way of describing the world we live in these days, I think. Instead of solid plans for the future and a well-defined road that leads us there we are all about reacting now, doing the best we can to deal with day to day issues that we could not even imagine a year ago. Sometimes we are successful, sometimes not so much. One thing is for sure though: most of us have a much clearer idea of what is really important in our lives, much more so than we did that short year ago…. that seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
I am very grateful that my core group of students has remained with me from the start of the pandemic. They made one of those decisions I’m talking about: deciding what was really important in their lives and guitar playing seems to be one of those important things. I am grateful not only because the modest income my teaching generates would certainly be missed if I suddenly had no more students but also because it keeps me on my toes. Just about all my students are at the very least at the intermediate level (although I’d love to have a few beginners) and some are well beyond that and I consider them advanced guitarists. Searching out new material for them is a constant challenge because I have to consider many things such as their general interests and taste in music; making things challenging so they see some progress – but not too challenging, which leads to frustration; physical limitations (I have some older students who just can’t move their hands like they used to); and in some cases, even the quality of the instruments that are being used.
But this is all good! I’ve learned many new songs and discovered artists I might not have by doing my research. Sometimes I even discover songs by well-known artists that have been around for a while. Case in point: Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’ll Tag Along.” I just discovered that one while watching a recent documentary about him and that tune was playing at the end when the credits were rolling. I was never a huge Lightfoot fan but this is a really nice song and just the type and level I seek for some of my better students. How did I miss that one 40+ years ago? It took me about three hours to figure out most of the little embellishments Lightfoot uses, chart out the song and write out detailed explanations of everything but it was worth it.
I’ve now completed a month of giving lessons upstairs at my home-away-from-home, the Daily Brew Café where I’ve been performing just about every weekend for the last 11 years. The owner did me a huge favor by offering this space for my lessons after the café has closed for the day. I was seriously afraid I was going to have to suspend all lessons for the winter because I could no longer keep the doors and windows open in my studio, as per Covid protocols. The upstairs area at the Brew is not being used by customers and is quite large so my students feel safe there, as do I. I still thoroughly sanitize the area before, between and after lessons but the extra effort is worth it. So lessons will continue in that space for the foreseeable future. Of course, nothing is truly foreseeable these days……
A guitar that I used to own has returned to the fold, an Eastman AC422CE. I sold it to a former student about a year or so ago after using it as my primary gigging guitar for a couple years. I contacted him recently and asked if he had any interest in selling it (he also has a Martin 000-18, which he loves) and he was kind enough to offer it back to me at a very attractive price. I jumped on it because I could remember how great it sounded when amplified and also thinking it would make a nice stable mate for my three Martins, all of which are great but with entirely different voices. I used my Martin M-36 for the first half of my Daily Brew gig yesterday morning and the second half with that Eastman. Oh my goodness, that Eastman sounded fantastic and played like a dream, just as I remembered. I did recall however that the sound was a bit muffled when played acoustically and my guess is that is the result of a nut that needs replacing. That I will do in the very near future. In the last couple of years, Eastman has gained a very large following based on their superb fit and finish, high quality materials, great sound and fairly reasonable price for a totally hand-made guitar. I feel strongly that they are the equal or even better than some American-made guitars costing two to three times as much or more. Check them out if you’re in the market for a very fine guitar but have a case of sticker shock from looking at the current prices of Martin, Gibson and Taylor instruments.
Meanwhile, back at the Daily Brew I trotted out a set of holiday tunes yesterday and will keep mixing them in with my regular tunes all month. Most people love “songs of the season” and some even sing along, kids especially when I break into “Rudolph” and “Jingle Bells.” This year, more than ever, I think people are looking forward to the joy of Christmas with so few things to be joyous about. Music of the season is a big part of that and I really enjoy bringing a few smiles to a few faces when I play those tunes. I tend to lean on carols more than pop-type Christmas songs, probably because they were such an integral part of my childhood while being very involved with the local Episcopal church. I’m especially proud of the arrangement I worked out for “Oh, Holy Night.” If you want to hear those songs and others, check out my Cape Cod Acoustics Facebook page on Sunday mornings from 10 until 11 or so for my live session.
I wish everyone a happy and peaceful holiday season. I am feeling a genuine sense of hope for the first time in a long while, with a number of viable vaccines coming soon and the departure of the worst president in American history. My wonderful, precious granddaughters, daughter and her husband and my son whom we have not seen in person in a year will be here for Christmas and that fills me with more joy than I can express.
As always, I will sign off for now with this: Stay safe, stay well, stay sane.
And let music lift you up.
Peace & good music,
Right now I have a couple students who have been with me for a few years and are well into the advanced level of guitar playing. I really look forward to them coming for their lessons as I get to let loose for a while and have some fun, plus witnessing the joy they get from playing is both gratifying and inspirational. I do have to admit that lesson planning for them is often a challenge – I want them to keep them moving forward but not at the expense of giving them something that is just too difficult. Another bonus for me is searching out and discovering new artists and songs that I might not know about otherwise.
What sometimes comes up is the question of the relative merits of learning a song exactly as the original artist did it. How much value does that have, really?
There was a time many years ago that I was obsessed with learning a song “right,” which at the time I took to mean as accurately as possible with every subtle nuance the original artist used, even things that did not show up in sheet music. I do think that working on songs that way had value at that point in the evolution of my playing. All those little tricks certain guitarists used could be incorporated into other things I was playing, especially traditional songs that were naturally open to interpretation. I know for sure that my ear improved by working out exact replication of songs.
Back in those days (and I suspect the same is true now with some players) I totally judged local bands and musicians by their ability to reproduce perfect covers of songs. There was a trio I used to hear back in the 1970s – guitar/guitar/bass or guitar/keys/bass, with superb vocals from all three players – who absolutely nailed covers of songs of that time like the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” and Orleans’ “Still the One.” After that trio dissolved I briefly played with one of the guitar players, who was a thoroughly miserable person but that’s another story (!), but I continued to have huge admiration for their talent, and not a little jealousy too! But about that time I also started to listening to a LOT of jazz, guitarists of course, but other instrumentalists too. Slowly but surely, I began to realize something.
Some of the most interesting and exciting music I was hearing moved far, far away from the original recordings. This of course is the essence of jazz and I think I knew that even then but I didn’t really appreciate the creative process involved. I dove into learning as much as I could about jazz and practiced a lot. Alas, it became apparent that if I was ever going to be the great jazzer that I longed to be it would require a level of commitment to that style that I was not able or perhaps not willing to give. I got to the point I could find my way through basic jazz arrangements and improvisation but I eventually accepted my limitations and moved back toward music I knew I could play pretty well.
This was also a period of time when I’d taken an extended hiatus from teaching. Because of that, without realizing it, I became less obsessed with perfect imitations of songs I was learning. I found that I really enjoyed figuring out what was essential to a song and including that but also leaving room for my own stuff (altered chords, different lead lines, new arrangements) while still staying true to the spirit of what the writer created.
Which brings me to today. The balance I have to find for my students is giving them a satisfactory version of a song and still have it “make-able” in terms of their abilities. For the last few years quite a few new students have come to me with a reasonable level of experience but wanting more, usually the result of finding songs online that they liked but “just didn’t sound right.” More often than not their interpretation of sounding right meant it being as close to the original version as possible. What they hardly ever realize is that (in my experience after lots of research) probably 90% of the lyric/chord postings on various websites are at best incomplete and at worst, outright wrong. Of course that version of the song is not going to sound much like the original! The way many music websites are structured, anyone can post an arrangement of a song. So the start point, i.e., the level of ability of the person posting it is all-important. A passionate recreational player who posts these basic sketches of songs may be helping out fellow recreational players who have little or no knowledge of song structure or music theory and my guess is that for many players, that’s just fine. Many novice players really just want to be able to get through a song they like and have it sound approximately right.
But what about the advancing player who hears more than the basic changes and recognizes that certain writers commonly use musical mechanisms in many of their songs that give them a recognizable style and sound? That’s where I come in.
Now, what I’m about to say may sound a bit arrogant but it’s a fact: At this point in my playing and the development of my ear, plus a solid understanding of music theory as it relates to popular music, I can figure out just about anything I hear. A bold claim, I know, but after playing guitar for better than 50 years I have reached that point. Yes, some things still are a huge challenge, such as chord inversions I hear when the player is in some obscure open tuning. I don’t waste my time on those…maybe I should…. But my focus needs to be on what my students want and finding the easiest and most practical way for them to accomplish that. Open tunings are fun and some sound pretty cool, but do they have long-term practical use for the average recreational player? I think not.
So getting back to the relative merits of perfect replication. Is it vital? I’ll say no, but with a qualification. A recreational player has to realize that the song they want to learn may include elements that are impossible to replicate with just one guitar. Also, that flashy guitar part may have taken days or weeks for the artist to get just right in the recording studio even though that artist makes it sound oh so natural and fluid in the end product.
Occasionally I’ll have an intermediate level student who has convinced themselves that anything less than playing a song exactly as the original artist did it is some kind of failure or perhaps not being true to the song itself as the artist intended the song to be. I do my best to make them realize this is just not the case at all. Adding some of the nuances beyond the simple chord structure or basic strumming can be totally gratifying in and of itself. Capturing the essence with those nuances is much more important – and ultimately, satisfying – than beating yourself up trying to sound exactly like the original artist. It’s called being creative!
Peace & good music,
Along with my family and my music, my biggest passions in life include fishing. When non-fishermen roll their eyes when I tell them of getting up at 3 a.m. to catch the tide at the perfect time (pre-dawn, just as the sky begins to barely show a hint of daylight) and ask why I would torture myself like that, I have a stock reply: Fishing is the only thing I do in my life where I am totally focused yet totally relaxed.
Just last week I experienced that mind set yet again. The action was outstanding, five very nice striped bass caught and released at my special secret spot. Trying to explain to non-fishermen why I release almost every fish I catch is another thing that’s all but impossible; I’ve pretty much given up on trying. But when I’m fishing my mind wanders to music every time and it did that morning. So here are some analogies between the fishing experience and making music (or listening to it). Some may seem like a bit of a stretch – no pun intended regarding guitar strings and fishing line – but I’ve thought them through pretty thoroughly. So no snickering allowed! ;~)
Patience and hope. When fishing I have experienced the benefits of being patient more times than I can possibly count. That morning was a prime example. All the conditions were wrong; tide, wind, falling water temperatures, no baitfish (prey) in sight. But I decided to hang in even though my first half-hour of casting yielded nothing except an occasional clump of seaweed. My patience was rewarded with five striped bass, the largest of which weighed about twelve pounds, not a trophy by any means but a very respectable fish, and the others were almost as big. All fishermen feel hope with every cast they make because….you never know….
When playing the guitar, especially when I’m learning a new, challenging piece, I know that focused practice WILL give good results, although just how much practice is never known when I first dive in. Being patient and taking the long view is vital to success, as frustrating and difficult as that may be. And from a guitar teacher’s perspective, being patient with a student who doesn’t practice – usually a young one who craves immediate satisfaction and positive results – is a skill I’ve worked on for decades. I’m pretty good at that most of the time. An obvious lack of practice does set me off mentally from time to time but I try keep my mouth shut and let the student know I am not making value judgements about them as a person. The trick is to make him or her realize the value of practice.
Hope is something I try to nurture in every student. Fear of failure is the enemy of hope so I never nitpick about elements of a piece that are giving a beginner trouble. I always tell them that the “little stuff” can be dealt with many ways; there are many paths to the final destination. Instead, I applaud and point out what they are doing correctly and try to help them build on those things. That way, hope of success never dies.
To succeed at fishing you must be willing to keep an open mind. Changing a lure, varying a retrieve, studying your surroundings, i.e., trying to predict where a fish might have the best chance of finding its dinner will up your score. Doing the same thing over and over with no hook ups rarely is productive. You could make the argument that repetition is an element of patience but in my experience if I fall into repetitive casting and retrieving with no love the fault is not with the fish, it’s on me.
One of the very first things I drill into all my students is that pure, mindless repetition alone will probably not make a piece of music sound better. On the contrary, it can be very detrimental to learning: there is a very real possibility of doing nothing more than practice your mistakes. That’s where keeping an open mind comes into the process. You can’t solve a problem until you locate it. There are so many elements to playing a song to perfection and many times just one of those elements ignored or done incorrectly shuts down the satisfaction gauge. All I’m really saying is: take a mental step back. Examine all the elements of playing and not just the hand that’s doing the work on the neck. If your mind is open to making small but vital adjustments (wrist position, arching of fingers, staying close to frets, posture) you will succeed, sooner or later. This probably sounds obvious but many, many times I’ve seen students accept something technique-wise that sounds reasonably decent on a particular chord in a particular song, only to find that when they must deal with that technique issue in another song when it doesn’t work at all. This is why I stress productive practice (being analytical about all the elements) rather than repeating something again and again with no appreciable improvement.
Sadly, in the beginning anyway, that kind of focus usually leads to some degree of frustration. I was reminded of this on my recent fishing trip to Wyoming. I was fly-fishing and even before I stepped into a certain trout stream that I KNOW holds seemingly unlimited numbers of brook trout I had to deal with tying on a fly with leader material that wasn’t much thicker than a human hair. Was I frustrated? You bet! My old eyes just ain’t what they used to be. But in spite of taking about three minutes just to tie on that fly I knew it was the right thing to do: the right fly with the right knot – tied correctly, using line that the trout were unlikely to see and get spooked by. About a half dozen brookies later I was glad I had hassled my way through something that an expert makes look easy. Guitar playing is just like that. Half-done chord changes, inconsistent rhythm and general sloppiness are the mark of an impatient guitarist.
A big part of the pleasure of fishing is reflecting upon your successes. In places near my home where I frequently fish, every trip to such places brings me back to an instance that was special. That rock over there – remember laying that big striper on it to take a picture? The youngster who walked down that beach with a fishing rod and wanted to know just about everything there was to know about striper fishing, and I told him way more than he probably could remember. I’m smiling now just thinking about it.
And many times when I pick up my guitar I reflect upon places I’ve been with it, friends I’ve made via music over the years, songs that always bring me back to a time and place that was oh so special, although I might not have known it at the time. Feelings and thoughts like these have inspired songwriters and composer forever.
I hope you have something in your life – maybe fishing? – that helps you learn and appreciate the essence of playing the guitar.
Peace & good music,
About twenty-five years ago my Uncle Irv passed away. He was a superb musician, a trumpet player with the Fred Waring Orchestra before WWII, teacher, band director and a real character. At his memorial service his minister said something that has stuck with all these years. He said that shortly before Irv died, when he knew he didn’t have much time left, Irv said: Last night I heard God’s music. I didn’t have any idea what that meant at the time but I’m beginning to understand.
I just returned from another visit to one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, Medicine Bow National Forest and the Snowy Mountain Range in southern Wyoming. It was my third visit to this lesser known part of Wyoming and although I’m getting to know it pretty well it never ceases to amaze me. At an observation area in the pass between the highest peaks at over 10,000 feet elevation you can see a landscape that is unchanged since people first settled there. Way to the south the tops of the northern Rockies in Colorado over a hundred miles away stand in silence. In front of you the sheer face of Medicine Bow Peak and farther away, Sugarloaf Peak stand in stark beauty. Below them are lakes and pine trees and rock formations that tweak the imagination. So what does all this have to do with music?
I brought a guitar along this time because I missed having one so much last year on my trip about this time. With the certainty that I’d have no problem finding overhead bin space on my flights to and from Denver due to the airlines having way fewer passengers these days I stuck my Martin M-36 in a good quality gig bag, selected a few important accessories like extra strings, a capo, tuner, picks and other stuff in a bag and stuck those in there too. Sure enough, the gate attendants and the flight attendants didn’t bat an eye when I boarded; on the flight out they even asked me if I’d like to stash it in their small coat closet. I was so very glad to have that guitar along.
When I arrived at my first place to stay, the wonderful Copperline Lodge in Saratoga, Wyoming I notice a guitar hanging on the wall as I was checking in. The lady who took my information said, oh yes, that’s the owner Dan’s guitar and anyone is welcome to play it. Shortly after that I met Dan Pont, and we struck up an immediate connection when he learned I was a guitarist. We vowed to do some playing together, which we did a couple of times. Now this may sound very strange, but just sitting around playing with another guitarist and swapping songs is something I rarely get a chance to do these days. There are many reasons for this, most of them my own fault. For some reason, over the years playing guitar purely for the joy it brings never seems to make it into my daily agenda with teaching, figuring out songs for my students and playing gigs (my long-time weekly gig at the Daily Brew Café is an exception in terms of pure fun….it is!) taking up my musical mind. While I have recreational guitarist friends around here we never seem to be able to get together for some reason. So those evenings of playing with Dan at the Copperline were something of a revelation, a rediscovery of an essential part of why I started playing guitar in the first place: to make a connection with another person. And that is something that’s truly spiritual.
As I stood on the edge of a lake high up in the Snowies, the only sound was my fly line dancing through the air as I cast. Most days up there it’s very windy but on a couple days I experienced totally calm conditions – and utter and complete silence. With almost no people anywhere near me with their attendant noise and even the birds silent the air (what there was of it at 9000+ feet!) seemed to press against my eardrums. In my every-day life back here at home there is truly never a moment, day or night, when somewhere in the distance or closer by there are sounds. You get used to that of course but your brain can’t help but commit to listening to them on some level. But up there in those mountains I felt my brain become free. And that, my friends, is truly a spiritual experience.
As I allowed myself to become one with the silence a strange and wonderful thing began to happen. Somewhere from deep inside I began hearing music. Not anything I could recognize, just pure musical sounds, sometimes single notes from an unknown instrument, sometimes many musical sounds melding together. It was so all-encompassing I found that I had to remind myself to breathe. And even the sound of my breath seemed intrusive to what I was hearing. I stopped casting my fly rod and just stood there on the edge of that lake, with the mountains rising above me. It was glorious and transcendent.
More than once this happened over the course of my twelve days in Wyoming. It happened along a tiny creek in the pine trees. It happened when I stopped by the side of a long, long gravel road with the prairie stretching out for miles and miles in every direction.
Although organized religion was a big part of my youth as I grew older I rejected its structure and rules. Over many, many years I came to form my own very private feelings about the nature of spirituality and I never share them with anyone, even those I love because they are mine and mine alone. Over my time on this particular trip to Wyoming those feelings were confirmed. The joy of making music with a new friend, the complete silence that allowed complete vulnerability, and the certainty that those feelings of spirituality were not a delusion will sustain me in these troubled times in which we live.
So now I can say with more surety than ever that I am beginning to know what Uncle Irv was talking about when he said he heard God’s music. I heard a tiny bit of it. I hope I hear more.
Peace & good music,