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February 29, 2008

Thursday Night Open Mic, Nelson Arms Pub

Last night I dragged myself down to the Nelson Arms pub in Merton, South London. I wanted to check out their regular Thursday night open mic session.

I'm not going to lie to you, the standard of musicianship was not as high as it is at the Spice of Life in Soho. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. The atmosphere was definitely more informal and inviting, though there was a hint of cliquishness as most of the performers seemed to be regulars. Something tells me that if you stand up and put yourself out there then you'd get accepted, though. The thought of performing at the Spice of Life terrifies me. I can imagine playing at the Nelson.

The format of the open mic is pretty random. The host is a singer-songwriter who presents his material up until 9pm at which point lesser mortals are allowed on stage. There's no limit on how many songs you can do and no apparent limitation on the type of instrument that you can... and cover songs aren't frowned upon! Score! One of the guys bashed out a workmanly acoustic version of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf". Five open chords (if you count 'F' as open)... job done. Nothing wrong with that. Hey, maybe I'll give it the 'Fillmore' treatment if I can trick Tim into contributing his rather convincing Simon Le Bon impression.

Lots of acoustic guitar. Some electric. Bongos and harmonica supplied by the peanut gallery. One girl, who had a fantastic voice but who sadly had to sing over the noise of the punters, was accompanied by a MacBook, plugged straight into the PA system!

It even looked like in a pinch you could use the MCs own equipment. Brave man!

I have to admit that I cut out just after 10pm as I was crashing... This week hasn't been a good one for sleep! I also have to admit that when I did get home I decided to have a nightcap, go online and check email.

Email led to googling Duran Duran chords...
Chords led to strumming...
Strumming led to queuing up backing tracks...
Which led to a late night acoustic blues jam!

I stopped playing when my fingers hurt so much I couldn't fret another note. It was LATE! How late? Well, suffice to say that the alarm clock made it to my shit list this morning. If we ever win the lottery (which we plan to this week) I'm going to go out, buy a baseball bat and smash that sucker into a million pieces.

Tomorrow is the next WAES Guitar Improvers class. I'm not ready for it. Not even close. I figured out the chord inversion progression we were given as an exercise but haven't practiced it. My version of "Taylor" is still basically a crap rendition of the intro/outro but with no middle. And I'm not going to have much time to play tonight.

I've really started feeling like I'm ready to get going, ready to record stuff... ready to jam with other people, get creative. When I'm strumming on the acoustic my eyes keep wandering to the Les Paul's case. I so want to play Red, but I promised I wouldn't until the end of the acoustic course.

I'm thinking that when the time comes to cut some demos I should basically do the singer-songwriter thing, knock up some acoustic toons then add electric (and possibly harminica) fills. Blackie's actually easier to record than Red, anyway. The volume level required to get a good sound is significantly lower. Red just wants to ROCK OUT all the time!

Your time will come, Red. Your time will come...

When Tim's off on his residential course next weekend I'll stock the fridge with beer, print off a copy of the somewhat magical Circle of Fifths and get to composing.

Notes to self...

"Hungry Like The Wolf" chords:
E - D (Verse)
C - G- F (Chorus)

Lyric idea:
If I don't bend
I know you'll break me
You hate me too much to leave
I love you too much to stay

February 26, 2008

Taylor Intro... Work In Progress

I've had a few people ask if I can post demos of my playing. I've been working on the acoustic course stuff during most of my free time, so the short answer is... NO! For now, though, here's where I've got to with the intro from Jack Johnson's "Taylor".

I have 3 days before I have to perform my rough version live in front of class to show my 'progress', then another two weeks before I get to do the whole song! Nooooo!!!!

I have most of the right notes in there and can play it slowly okay, but my timing 'at speed' is still all over the place, which I guess means that I've not grooved all the basic licks right yet.

February 25, 2008

Pete Doherty

Note to self: make sure every post from now on has something about Pete Doherty in it. Pete Doherty isn't exactly an important person in my life. In fact, Pete Doherty has nothing whatsoever to do with The Fillmore Five Project (unless he's on the hunt for a new guitarist to collaborate with or indeed if he just wants to pop round for a coffee when he's in the neighbourhood again - your people can talk to my people - we'll make it happen). However, in my last post I mentioned Pete Doherty and amazingly, just the inclusion of those two magic words...


Made my hit-counter go through the roof.

So, from now on, expect to hear a LOT more about Pete Doherty...

Pete Doherty...


Not To Be Picky, But...

This weekend I really struggled with "Taylor". I've been learning to play it without a pick, but on Saturday I decided that maybe I should use one after all. Changing horses mid-race was not a good idea! Forward one step, back two. As of Sunday night I've reverted to playing it with my fingers, but it means I've made no progress. As mentioned before, I have to show "Teach" how far I've got with it this Saturday. Given that I'm not going to get to practice as much as I'd like to this week, I'm up against it.

On Sunday night I re-watched the Classic Albums series "Disraeli Gears" episode. Once again I was struck by how often Eric Clapton admitted that they basically took other people's songs and re-did them, Cream style. Case and point was "Strange Brew" which was simply a reworking of a traditional blues "Lawdy Mama", which the band had already covered on a previous recording. Back in the day I would have thought that this was cheating, but frankly, if you can take a tune and make it your own then hey, go for it. After all, look at the famous intro lick from "Layla", often attributed to Duane Allman. Well, that lick was a direct copy of Albert King's "As the Years Go Passing By", only speeded up to change it from blues to rock. Same notes played in a different style and tempo equals different song.

This time round I took time to watch the bonus features on the DVD. They were mostly solo performances by each band member. Actually very cool and I can see myself transcribing a couple of Eric's performances and learning them myself. I jammed along to Jack Bruce's piano version of "We're Not Right". Turns out Jack and I would make a good duo. I don't recall hitting a single bum note, even though I've never tried playing along to it before.

In other news, two vaguely music related web thingys I came across recently are "Pandora Radio" and "Stumble Upon". Pandora is a neat take on internet radio, in that you can 'make' your own channels. All you have to do input a song or an artist that you like and Pandora creates a 'station' of songs in a similar style. Right now the stations I've created include the following 5 channels:

You Am I Radio
Placebo Radio
Rebirth Brass Band Radio
Freemasons Radio
Eddie Bo Radio

There are quite a few more in my list, but I'm not sure I'm ready to admit to all of them!!!!

Stumble is something entirely different. It's a collection of websites that other people have tagged as being 'cool'. While not specifically music related, you can search for pages about guitars, the blues etc. Had lots of fun looking at their tattoo pages. Some pretty neat stuff and definitely inspiration for my next 'inking'... which'll be a big one!

Lastly for the weekend, I'm 99% sure I spotted Pete Doherty of The Libertines/Babyshambles (and every single tabloid in the UK) fame in our hood on Sunday. If it wasn't him then it was someone doing a damn good impression. Trademark hat, very pale, stumbling, blank yet bemused look on his face.

I'll admit that to date I've actively avoided listening to any of his music as I don't have time for people who are famous simply for being (in)famous. Having seen the boy in the flesh, though, I felt compelled to listen to some samples on iTunes. I was surprised to find that his stuff didn't sound half bad! Perhaps a little derivative, but given what I just wrote about Cream...

London's great if you enjoy celeb spotting. You can barely go 10 feet without tripping over one! In the past year we've run into everyone from Danny DeVito (Taxi) and wife Rea Pearlman (Cheers) to Matt Lucas (Little Britain)... Michael Barrymore... some of the Derek Trucks Band... okay, so that was outside their last London gig, so perhaps that doesn't count... they had to be there...

"Taylor" notwithstanding, I'm actually feeling really positive and upbeat about my guitar playing right now. I genuinely feel like I should be in a band now. NOW! I listen to a lot of stuff that's out there and I know deep down that I really could 'do that'. I'm bound to fall flat on my face from time to time, but so f**king what, eh? Live and learn. My first 's**t or get off the pot' deadline is coming up soon, where I have to find some way to 'get out there'. I actually feel confident that I'm not going to make a complete a**e of myself for once! Mastering an instrument always has highs and low points, but you just have to keep on going and put some faith in the future.

What put me in such an optimistic mood? Bizarrely it was from re-reading Duane Allman's self-penned epitaph:

"I love being alive and I will be the best man I possibly can. I will take love wherever I find it and offer it to everyone who will take it - seek knowledge from those wiser - and teach those who wish to learn from me" (source: "Skydog: The Duane Allman Story" By Randy Poe)

I often feel like I was born into the wrong time. Duane's epitaph may sound very 70's hippy-chick, but it feels so much like 'me'. I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into this world a few short days after the fires of Woodstock died down in August 1969, the same year that the Allman Brothers Band recorded their first studio album. Music and life have changed so much since those days, morphing from something real, grounded in the now, into a disposable commercial product, bought and paid for on credit. Perhaps I need to add another bullet point onto the Fillmore Five Project Action Plan:

5) Change The World.

February 23, 2008

Mixed Drinks And Mosquitoes...

A package arrived this morning from a good friend of ours, Greg. Greg's someone we used to run with when we lived in Houston, Texas. We weren't expecting anything. We opened it hurredly. The box was full of beads. Mardi Gras beads.

Tim and I are travellers, or at least we try to be when time and money are on our side. The anticipation of an upcoming trip is often what keeps us going, day to day, through our working lives.

Being based in London we're afforded the fantastic opportunity to easily experience the myriad sights and cultures throughout Europe and beyond. We just got back from Amsterdam a few weeks ago and we have a trip planned over Easter which will take us from Budapest, through Vienna to Prague. We're throwing around ideas as to what to do in September. The short list covers three continents... four if you include a long-haul flight to Hong Kong.

And yet... and yet...

There are places that have a special hold over our hearts. Places that are hard to leave behind. Without reservation, New Orleans is the Queen of those places. The box full of Mardi Gras beads brought back to me a longing I'd buried deep.

Before the storm, before Katrina, we had settled upon the Crescent City as where we would try to retire, where we would take each other's ashes when we were finally separated by death. We would grow old disgracefully together, becoming just another pair of 'characters' that roamed the streets of the Quarter at dusk.

Even now, if I close my eyes I catch a sense of the Old Girl. I can taste her humid air, hear the mosquitoes' hum. I imagine myself sat on our front porch, picking out a wistful blues, home-made red beans and rice simmering in the kitchen.

But now, the memory of her sits like a stone in my heart. We've not been back since our wedding there, half a year before the waters came. All our news of her is second hand, from friends, from relations. We made the conscious, rational decision to wait five long years before returning. Three years have passed. Two more to go.

In the weeks following Katrina a dark cloud sat upon us. One wistful fantasy about our future lives felt like it had been forcibly wrenched from us. The only thing I could do to try and make things seem better was to write a song about her.

She has weathered
All the hard times
Always dancing
Always proud

Dug her heels and
Stood defiant
Though some folks would
Tear her down

Scared that I lost her
In the storm of yesterday
Her heart may be scattered
But she'll come home some day

Streetlights flicker
In the Quarter
And the stores start
Closing down

But Bourbon Street just
Keeps on swinging
Keeps on playing
That Cajun sound

Scared that I lost her
In the storm of yesterday
Her people may be scattered
But they'll all come home some day

When street cars get to rolling
That’s the turning
Of the tide
The waters came but
Now they’re gone
And it's time
For that second line

Boy, don't be scared now
'Cause that storm was yesterday
Her people are stronger
And the Old Girl's here to stay

Boy, don't be scared now
'Cause the Old Girl's here to stay

February 21, 2008

Thinking Outside The Box

What's the difference between music and music theory? You'd think that there wouldn't be that much, would you? The more one learns about music, though, the more one realises that music theory is merely a framework for understanding the big picture, not the big picture itself.

Learning about music is, in many ways, like seeking enlightenment. Music theory shows you the first steps in your journey. It shows you the footsteps of those who have gone before you and says "follow the path".

To begin with you have guidance from people who 'know' about music. As you progress, though, the beautifully paved path gives way to an unsurfaced road, which in time becomes so indistinct that you have the choice of not only going forward, but also sideways. Eventually the land beneath your feet starts falling away and you approach a cliff. To truly embrace the intricacies of music you have no choice but to leap into the void.

Heavy. Very heavy!

Where music is ultimately analogue, theory, for the most part, is digital. You're taught keys, scales, chords, box positions. These are the building blocks of the path. Music theory teaches you reasons why a certain scale works over a certain chord or chord progression. It's a nice, clean jigsaw where all the pieces fit together.

But you've learned the scales, and you've learned the chord progressions. You've moved past the rudimentary I-IV-V, incorporating a ii-V change. You're starting to see the road widen. You're feeling the gravel between your toes (should have worn shoes, shouldn't you?)

All this time you're aware that in the distance you can see the great players. They don't appear to be on the path anymore. They float above it, hovering 6 feet off the ground...

How did they get there? The musical geniuses followed the path for as long as they could stand its constraints, glimpsed the void and dove in.

The other day I came across a video lesson on "how to play like B.B. King". I was struck by a comment the demonstrator made. He basically said that you should start with a minor pentatonic, but then add 'colour notes'. Looking at the enhanced minor pentatonic he furrowed his brow and confessed that he had no clue how to describe the scale or why the passing notes worked in the blues context!

Now, being something of a geek, I immediately (well, not immediately, an Excel spreadsheet was involved) realised that B.B.'s scale could be described as a minor blues scale (a minor pentatonic with the additional flat 5 blue note) combined with a common or garden major pentatonic. I say "could be" as it's just one of many ways to describe the hybrid scale.

Here's the blues scale in G with the enhanced scale shown underneath. As explained, the enhanced scale is comprised of the G minor pentatonic scale (white notes) with blue notes (coloured blue) and the G major pentatonic (green notes):

So, we have B.B. King's style sorted, right? Hear a blues? Play the minor blues scale and add in the occasional note from the major pentatonic. Easy!

Erm, that's not exactly the way it works! Try soloing using the enhanced scale and you'll soon realise that while there's a flavour of Mr King's mojo in there, it's not really capturing the whole thing.

So, you've thought outside your pentatonic box to get an enhanced scale which has some major tonality to it and some blue notes. To actually play like B.B. you have to jump back into the box... the B.B. box!

Take a look at the next picture, which shows 3 positions for the B.B. box.

Notice the horseshoe of primary notes (black/red) present in each picture? That's home base, the B.B. box. The faded notes are now your colour notes. Wail on the primary notes and add in the others as and when it feels right. Throw in full bends, half-step bends, slides and Mr K's trademark vibrato and pretty soon you'll find yourself ridin' with the King!

So have we just thrown away one musical theory and replaced it with another? In some ways, yes! Pretty soon you realise, though, that for every theoretical door you kick open, two more are waiting behind.

February 19, 2008

Day 50...

Action plan review time. Let's see how I'm doing...

1) Get Good
You know what, I actually feel like I'm doing okay on Action Plan Bullet Point Number 1. I've been really focussed during practice sessions and I feeling really plugged into the guitar right now. That's obviously more true for Blackie, the Ovation. I've been concentrating on the acoustic for the past few weeks because of the WAES course I'm on. I pull Red (the Les Paul) out from time to time, but I try not to practice too much on it as Teacher-Man says NO! I think the emphasis on the acoustic will pay dividends in the long run as my technique and tone are really improving. It's much easier to go from acoustic to electric rather than the other way around.

2) Record Demos
I have yet to start on Number 2, but my original plan was to work on 1 through to the end of February, so I'm not too bothered.

According to my schedule I have the weekend of the 8th March all to myself as Tim's on a residential course from Friday through Sunday. Probably a good opportunity to work on some tracks. I have a few ideas for songs but I need time to 'woodshed' them, record rough backing tracks and so on. Note to self: collect delivery food flyers and fill refrigerator with beer!

Hey, and I'm not doing too badly learning "Taylor" so I can always record a version of that! Just need to get Tim to stand still long enough to do the vocals, unless I can find someone off the internet to collaborate with.

3) Look The Part
Look, I've not invested in a make-over, but hey, as long as I have my Merrell shoes, baggies and a fistful of hair gel I figure I can fake it...

Okay, maybe I do need to work on this more... I know one thing for sure, I'm NOT going to start back-combing my hair like the guy in the Southwark Tavern the other night. That look was so retro it was WAY ahead of its time.

4) Get Out There
I started off the year going along to a lot of open mic stuff. Didn't network much, but hey, at least I was going. Recently I've not had the time, BUT I have been going to the Guitar Improvers class, which has to count for something. It'd be neat to try to keep in touch with the other WAES students. None of them seem like freaks (at least not from my perspective!) I'm going to push for a continuation course to be run, but something tells me that there may not be sufficient interest.

Tim and I are supposed to be meeting up with an ex-work colleague of his who had his own band but who's now playing second guitar for someone else. He says he's keen to start playing drums again and seemed to be suggesting that I join in the fun. We'll see what comes of that. At least it'd be good to see him and his new band play, hang out with them etc. The only challenge is that his preferred style of music is a world apart from mine, so we may well start off headed in opposite directions.

I still have to set up MySpace pages etc, too, so that I can get some proper internet presence going to link to on 'band finder' websites. Nothing fancy, just songs, a few photos etc.

February 18, 2008

The Triads Are Coming!!!

And Monday comes around again... not functioning too well this morning. I don't think there's enough blood in my alcohol system!

I'm going to break format somewhat for this entry and talk about 'real life' a bit more than usual. Those of a squeamish nature may wish to look away now...

Ach, c'mon, it's not that bad, is it?

As I rode the train to work this morning I started thinking about the weekend. It struck me that a 'normal' weekend for me could possibly come across as anything but normal to others. That's London for you. It affords you the opportunity to really 'live' as opposed to merely exist.

The irony is that no matter how much money we earn we'll never come close to the high-rollers you see portrayed in glossy magazines. To hit all the high notes in London you need to have some serious cash.

Rewind to Saturday morning. Cold but bright. Only three of us turned up to the guitar class in Pimlico.

The two areas that were covered which I need to work on are:

1) Three note per string major scales. Mostly used by shredders, but useful to spend some time on if only to stretch myself, literally. I need to practice using my first, second and pinky fingers to fret with. My habit is to use my first, third and pinky, but that leads to poor hand positioning, the pinky laying too flat.

2) Chord inversions. I already knew what they were, but I'd never used them in anger. Turns out they're a useful tool for composing. Teach says that Coldplay redefined 'the sound' of popular music by using inversions, and that's why everyone sounds like them now. I'm not entirely certain that this is a good thing! He also said that U2 used them a lot. To quote Teach, "The Edge knew what he was doing".

The idea behind the exercise we've been given is to focus on the three high strings, start off on one inversion (or use the 'root' triad) then find the (geographically) closest root note for the next chord in a progression and fit an inversion around it.

That makes no sense, does it? Here's an example, to illustrate what I mean.

Let's say you're in the key of C major. The root triad is made up of the first, third and fifth notes from the C major scale, which are C, E and G. If I've lost you already then you'd best go back to Music 101. It's down the hall...

So, the root triad is C-E-G. The first inversion would be to start on the E, meaning that the C is no longer the lowest tone in the chord, and your triad would be E-G-C. Likewise, the second inversion would be G-C-E.

On the fingerboard, these triads look like this:

Study the picture closely. For the root triad, you should be able to see that the shape looks a bit like a barred A chord. Likewise, the first inversion bears a striking similarity to an E and the second inversion looks remarkable like a D (or if you screw your eyes up, a C). Coincidence? I think not!

Okay, so let's say you start off playing the first inversion of your C chord, which is the one to the right of the root triad. Strum it by barring the C and G with your index finger and use your middle finger to fret the E.

Great, so what? Let's say, just for shits and giggles, that in our chord progression we're going to change from a C to an F. An F major chord is made up from the root triad of F-A-C. The first and second inversions are therefore A-C-F and C-F-A respectively.

Drawing those out onto the fingerboard, you get:

Since we're already around the 8th fret, the closest F is on the G-string. Hence, you might want to think about using the root triad to get your F sound. If it had been on the E, then the first inversion could have been a good choice. If it was on the B, perhaps number two would have been the way to go.

In this instance, if we choose play the root triad then we can keep barring with the index finger and just shift the middle and ring fingers to fret the F and A. Easy.

And that's the point. It's all about trying to be as economical as possible with finger movement.

At the end of this week's class, Teach announced that although end-of-term isn't for four weeks, in just two weeks time he wants us to show him how far we've got with learning our songs. Eek! Right now I can play half the intro at half speed. I still have a ways to go.

After class I hit the gym. Legs. Ouch! Got cornered in the locker room by one of the resident personal trainers. Not really a problem except that the other week I was told that he "has a thing about me". He engaged me in light and fluffy conversation, asking whether I'd had a nice Valentine's Day. He didn't seem particularly thrilled to hear that I'd had a lovely dinner... with my husband.

Despite my legs hurting like crazy I managed to sprint out of the gym and all the way to the bus stop, guitar case in hand.

Home. Shower. Change of clothes.

Tim got out of his class around 4pm and we headed into town together to buy some art. Last weekend we'd seen some pieces by an artist called Kuldeep Malhi that we wanted. We first saw his work a couple of years back when he was exhibiting a range of wall-hangings entitled "Polydactyl". They were pretty much textural 'paintings' formed by a number of aligned pottery fingers. We bought a number of his "Blush" range, which are kind of amorphous shiny pink blobs that appear to grow out of the wall. Looking at them definitely makes you think of gentlemen's unmentionables, which it appears was the point the artist was trying to get across.

Quoting from the Malhi's website:

"Blush was a direct influence from early Indian sculpture especially the Eleventh Century temples of central India, their sculptures and carvings which display explicit erotic imagery are astoundingly beautiful, they charm and seduce. They are bold yet sensitive, fantastic yet poetic, demonstrating the intimate relationship between sculpture and architecture; sensations and qualities that are reflected in the work of Kuldeep Malhi."

We're actually considering commissioning a piece from him when we've finished the structural work on our loft. No time soon, then...

Saturday night was going to be 'stay home and watch a movie night'. That didn't last long. By 4am we'd managed to spend the best part of £200 on vodka based drinks at a local club, danced our tits off, caught up with some friends and quite possibly offended one of our neighbours. Quoting as best as I can (things were a little fuzzy by that stage), he came up to me and, quite out of the blue and in a matter-of-fact tone asked if I'd like a... (!!!!!!!!)


I glibly replied that I'd love one... just not from him! It was meant to be funny, but it could have come across as hateful. I guess he may think I'm available as I usually only see him at the bus stop in the mornings or when I'm out on my own, shooting pool at a local bar. I dunno. All a bit weird. I wouldn't be surprised if my retort pissed him off, though. Oops. That'll be an interesting meeting, when I see him again...

Sunday morning never happened. Coffee and breakfast came along at around 1pm.

We left the loft around 2:30pm and hopped a bus to Covent Garden. We had an appointment for a massage booked for half past four, but wanted to get there early, imbibe more caffeine and chill out. Did the coffee-house thing. Latte, muffins, newspapers.

I spent most of the time listening to the background music, which was all acoustic and vocals. I came to the realisation that sometimes being a musician kills your enjoyment of listening to other people's music as you subconsciously deconstruct songs into chord progressions, 16th note strumming patterns and so on. Sometimes you miss out on the beauty of the forest because you're too busy counting trees. I also came to the conclusion that unless you have a good vocalist, you're not going to get anywhere as a band.

Whilst nursing my coffee (and the merest hint of a hangover) I came across an article in the Sunday Times about visiting Budapest. Bizarre coincidence as I'm in the process of scheduling a trip there over Easter. I'd been trying to decide which of the Turkish bath's we should visit. The article confirmed to me that the Rudas Baths are the way to go. Sorted!

Massage. First one I've had. Swedish. Nice girl giving it, but next time I'll ask for a bloke. She just didn't have the strength to squeeze out all my stress! After we were done she recommended we didn't eat for a few hours and that we stay away from alcohol, which was our cue to head straight to the Southwark Tavern for dinner and a couple of bottles of wine!

The Southwark Tavern is close enough to our flat that we consider it a local. It's right next to Borough (food) Market, which is a favourite haunt of ours at the weekend. Even though we've been to the Tavern several times we'd never been downstairs. On Sunday we discovered that they have a really cool, cavernous basement area (which used to be a debtors prison, allegedly) with central tables surrounded by intimate booths. Top tip: don't even think about using the stalls in the mens room. You're likely to find yourself ankle deep. They have serious plumbing issues!

At some time during 'bottle number two' Tim decided that the time had come for him to voice his opinion about my transformation into a Rock God. I should point out that Tim still doesn't know about The Project. He just thinks I'm going through a weird obsessive phase!

His pearls of wisdom included: "You don't think you're an extrovert, but you really are, you just won't admit it to yourself. You love it when people look at you!" He concurred that I look too 'normal' at the moment to be a rocker. Looking me up and down he decided that my best chance would be to go for the "Henry Rollins" look by beefing up and covering myself in tattoos.

Okeydokey then...

February 15, 2008


I started learning "Taylor" by Jack Johnson in earnest last night. I spent about an hour on it before Valentine's Day dinner beckoned. My approach was to split the intro into bite-size chunks and practice each chunk independently before even attempting to put the whole thing together.

"Taylor" is a prime example of a song that's impossible to play at speed whilst 'thinking' about what your fingers are doing. Instead, you have to teach your fingers what they're supposed to do through repetition and then just let them do their own thing.

It's kind of like learning to type. To start with you have to think about where every key that you need to hit is. After a while, though, your fingers remember patterns and locations all by themselves. There are actually two levels of (sub) consciousness going on. On one level, you start to type what you're thinking, your fingers doing their own thing. On a whole other level, when you come to put in stuff like user names and passwords, because you're so used to that exact pattern, you can enter the keystrokes at high speed. The former would be what's going on when you're improvising. The latter would be the equivalent of learning licks. There is, of course, a crossover when your mental lick-library gets so huge that the line between improvising and riffing becomes blurred.

Back to the song! I'm definitely not there yet, but the patterns in the intro are starting to make a lot more sense. What I have to do is to stop thinking in terms of what notes to play, but instead focus on how they're played. There are a lot of hammer-ons of open strings where you don't actually pick the string first. In theory that simplifies things as far as the right hand goes, but my right hand is so used to working with the left, as opposed to ignoring it, that I tend to pick when I shouldn't, which slows things down. Maybe I should just sit on my right hand and try to play the intro just using the left.

I haven't spent much time on central part of the song yet, but it's just 4 chords and a relatively simple strumming pattern. I may actually take the opportunity to change the way the song's played to put my own stamp on it and make it more interesting as I won't be attempting to sing over it and I don’t have a drummer to help create the right rhythm.

I have 4 weeks to get it down. That sounds like a long time, but I'm not confident that I'm going to make it, yet. I just listened to the original version again and it sounds nothing like what I've been playing. As with most stuff by JJ, the songs are deceptively simple. The key to getting the right sound is to make sure you nail the rhythm, which is no mean feat.

Guitar class again, tomorrow. Last one before the half-term break. No firm networking plans. I just plan on going along and seeing what happens!

February 11, 2008

Stormy Monday Blues

It's Monday. Ugh!

The weekend was a real mixed bag of highs and lows. This blog entry may reflect that somewhat. I'll try to stick to guitar stuff as much as possible, but not exclusively. What sucks is that 'real life' is so incredibly stressful at this time that its influence seeps into everything.

I had my second Guitar Improvers class on Saturday morning at Westminster Adult Education Services. I arrived 15 minutes early, much to my surprise. My brain arrived about half an hour late. My stomach never made it out of bed. I was hung over. Do you ever have those nights, where you're not going to drink but you have to go to a dinner party and you're not even through the door before a cocktail has been shoved in your fist. Next thing you know it's 5 hours later and you're finishing off the last of the brandy because no-one else wants it?

Hung over, but happy. Bloody gorgeous morning. A beautiful Spring day in February. For once climate change was working for the UK.

Covered a lot of ground in class, but the two things that I'll be taking away and working on this week are:

A second extended pentatonic run. The first picture is the one that everyone knows, using the G minor pentatonic in the example... the thing that I need to focus on is changing position at the best time, which is usually by sliding with the index finger as shown

The second run has its first root in the 4th box position on the 5th string.

Again, I need to make sure I focus on the best moment to shift position during practice.

The other thing I'll be working on is both playing chords and also noodling around them to add interest to songs.

I think I've settled on Jack Johnson's "Taylor" as the song I'll learn for the end of term. "Teach" wanted to know whether I'll be singing it as well as playing. I said no. No, no, no, no... NO!!!

"Teach" had to cut out early this week, so I coerced one of my co-learners into going for a coffee after class. He's obviously the best of the other players and it turned out that he plays piano, does sequencing etc in addition to learning guitar. It was very cool to swap musical perspectives with someone who knew what they were talking about... at least as much as I do!

At around 1pm I dropped Blackie back home and headed into town. Ran some errands, grabbed a latte from Cafe Nero on Old Compton Street and parked myself on a bench in Soho Square with a copy of February's "Acoustic Guitar" magazine. As I sat there, basking in the glorious sunshine I made a pact with myself that over the summer months I'll bring the guitar with me on such trips and jam. Looking around I saw that a couple of other folk had already had the same idea, which gave me heart.

Saturday night was a low spot. No details offered. Relationship stuff. The sun rose on another beautiful spring-like morning and Sunday was a brand new, better day.

Sunday didn't really start until lunch, which was a full roast dinner at the local pub, washed down with a couple of pints of Stella. I hadn't eaten since lunchtime on Saturday and even the small amount of alcohol in the beer laid me out. I'd planned on taking Blackie into the churchyard next to the loft to practice under the trees. Instead I wound up flat out on the couch, watching the "Classic Albums" DVDs that I bought recently, occasionally jamming along. All the shows were okay, but the stand out for me was probably Cream's "Disraeli Gears", which was a bit of a Ginger Baker love-fest, but included interviews with Eric Clapton in which he talked about how he'd taken inspiration from old blues songs, straightened out the shuffle rhythms and then just played them loud.

The show that was probably the most disappointing was the one about U2's "The Joshua Tree". I'm not a U2 fan, but I respect the impact they had. I just couldn't get my head around how simple some of the stuff they played was. I mean, The Edge was showing how one rhythm track was just him strumming an open D chord then lifting his finger off the high E making a kind of A sus chord (I think). Repeat ad nauseam. Hit song! I mean, it made that bing-bong-bing-bong "Chasing Cars" song by Snow Patrol look complicated!


(that's an envious growl, by the way, not a dismissive one!)

As I rode the train to work this morning I couldn't help but think back on the events of the weekend. As I did, the following idea for a lyric popped into my head. Thought I'd better write it down before I forgot it.

How many times
Will we reach the end
Turn around
Look back again
Down the path
We came along
Smile inside
And carry on

You know, sometimes you listen to a song and it hits you right where you're at and you get this overwhelming feeling of emotional resonance, like the artist is singing directly at you, about your life. I get that all the time, but it has never happened to me in reverse before. I've never been feeling a certain way and been hit by lyrical inspiration. Okay, so we're not talking great art here, but it's a start...

February 8, 2008

The Ten Percenter

I realised today that 10% of 2008 has already passed. In fact, it passed a couple of days ago. There was no fanfare, no fireworks... just another day at the office.

Do I feel 10% of the way towards being a Rock God? Not so much, but I have made some progress. I've done some networking, which may not lead to anything right now, but at least I've overcome my fear of talking to people about music and about wanting to be in a band. I've had some affirmation from the teacher on my guitar course. He said I'm good enough to play with other people. I'm also on the course (next installment tomorrow) which means I'm progressing both in terms of practice and in terms of jamming with people.

The date that's scaring the crap out of me at the moment is the 15th March. That's the last day of term at Westminster Adult Education Services. After that I'm on my own. After that I take a leap of faith into the void. I need to find people to play with and that means growing some balls and risking looking like a loser if they totally outclass me.

By then I need to:

1) Be confident in my own playing
2) Look the part/have presence

Number 1 will simply have to happen. I'll have to work on number 2. Some guitarists can pull off the 'stand still and play' routine. Look at Derek Trucks. He barely moves onstage apart from his hands, which are a blur, rarely smiles, usually plays with his eyes closed. He looks like he's channelling Buddha.

I can't get away with that. Right now when I play I tend to either stand still, in which case I look bored, or I rock backwards and forwards on one foot... in which case I look like a complete moron (apologies to those morons who ROCK... I don't mean YOU!)

I mean, I can play and I can dance. I need to combine the two... though not like Pete Townshend... he scares me!

February 5, 2008

A Farewell To Aaaams... terdam!

Said goodbye to Amsterdam once more last night. Waved farewell to "Sitting Men" by Tom Claassen at Schipol Airport and headed back north to the UK.

No guitar over the weekend, obviously. A fair amount of music, though, mostly the car-crash Dutch disco-meets-oompah bar mixes. Spent some time on Sunday at a dance event called "Rapido" at Paradiso, just off the Leidseplein. Very cool venue... an old church renovated into a "Temple of Music". Last time we were there was for "Steelin' & Slidin'" with the Derek Trucks Band, Sonny Landreth et all. "Rapido" was definitely not the same scene!

Amsterdam's one of those cities that I'd like to visit for a month. Arrive with nothing but my guitar and a change of clothes, rent an apartment and just hang until the money runs out. To me, Amsterdam is Europe's take on New Orleans and a good example of how geography influences the spirit of a place. I can only imagine the kind of music I would create there, though. New Orleans is about jazz, blues, swing, zydeco... Amsterdam's vibe can be dark and moody, more East meets West. A true melting pot. I'm seeing carnatic music reimagined through psychadelics. Music to describe the darkest corners of one's soul.

Ach, we've only been back in London for a few short hours, but already I'm feeling the sirens' call. Just need to finish the design for my next tattoo and I'll be back. I promise...

Oh, and on the subject of New Orleans... Happy Mardi Gras everyone!