Practice with a Plan

Let’s face it, we all have times when we are short on practice time. Work, school, and social commitments cut into your time that could otherwise be spent improving your guitar abilities. We simply can’t abandon certain responsibilities, so it’s important that we make the most of the little time we do have. The most effective means to do this is to plan out exactly what is going to happen in your practice session.

How should a practice session be structured? There is an infinite amount of material you can practice. What is important is that we challenge ourselves continuously. In other words, we should be prioritizing that which we are not good at and to decrease the amount of time we spend reviewing what we are already good at. Many students can fall under the illusion that they are practicing by simply playing their favourite songs, which they are likely performing well already. Even worse, they’ll do it while watching TV and only be passively engaged with the material. This is not effective practicing, it’s simply maintenance of what you already know. Reviewing material has its place, but it should be less of a priority.

The first thing you should practice, perhaps after a short warm-up, is the most difficult challenge on the menu. Difficulty is subjective, so don’t pick a topic that is way beyond your reach. Simply do something that challenges you and keeps your mind engaged. Depending on the time constraint, you might not even get through the entirety of the topic at hand. That matters less if you consider that you will have opportunities in the future to revisit it. Repeat this process until you’ve mastered the topic, then move on to a new one. You may not be satisfied with the small progresses that are made in each session but over the long term you will be able to make far more progress than if you were to choose the easy stuff. The easy stuff is gratifying in the short term but will leave you feeling like you’ve wasted time when there is no progress over the long term.

I guarantee that if you can practice with this mindset, progress is certain and you’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish even with limited time!

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The Volume Knob

Here’s a little fact that you may not have known about the volume knob on your typical electric guitar: it actually changes the timbre of your guitar as you move it.

Without getting into the technical aspects, as a volume knob is turned down it will typically remove high frequencies along with lowering the overall volume. Don’t believe it? Try playing through a guitar amp with the volume knob at full blast, then turn the volume knob down and turn the amp volume up to compensate so it stays at the same volume. Notice the difference in tone? It can be subtle, but it’s there.

For the most part, this won’t cause any major problems. You just need to realize that if you’re going to adjust your instrument volume through the volume knob on the guitar, the tone can vary drastically depending on where it’s set and you must compensate for it.

There’s a psycho-acoustic phenomenon where sounds with a lot of higher frequencies are actually perceived as being “closer” to you. By reducing volume AND higher frequencies, you are actually pushing the guitar further back in the mix than if you were to only reduce volume. Try and use this to your advantage, by allowing some room for other high frequency instruments in your mix to come forward (especially vocals!) Another way to approach this concept is to start with the volume slightly lower and boost for solos. If your sound includes distortion, it will also affect the quality of distortion.

I mentioned earlier that there are some guitars that compensate for this effect that is a natural part of the volume knob: some volume knobs do the opposite and actually reduce lower frequencies as the volume is turned down. Personally, I prefer this sound much more since the guitar isn’t really a low frequency instrument, and the effect is far more subtle.

One other fact you may not have known about volume controls are that they can be either linear or logarithmic in the way they attenuate volume. Linear volume controls are more common but logarithmic volume controls perceptually increase/decrease volume in a smoother way to the human ear. Linear controls will have spots on the control where the amount of  volume (perceptually) changes suddenly.

The volume knob is one of the immediate controls at your disposal in a live setting, so understanding its full potential can unlock a lot doors for you. No need to reach over to that amp as much. Have fun!

Understanding Effects: Distortion

I notice a lot of guitar players tend to be, through no fault of their own, groping in the dark when it comes to using effects pedals. I find that a big problem is that manuals only delve into quick-and-easy type settings that doesn’t explain much about what is actually happening to the sound. I’m going to try and demystify some of this so that you can learn how to get the exact sound you are going for.

To begin the series, I’d like to talk about a fundamental guitar effect, that’s become so ubiquitous that it comes built in to most amplifiers: distortion.

We all know the sound – a screaming guitar solo or a thunderous riff are products of distortion that have become the hallmark of the rock guitar sound. So what is happening to the sound that causes this change? To put it simply, it does exactly what it’s named – it “distorts” the actual sound waves that are coming from you guitar. Imagine a sine wave with its nice flowing curves when it’s visualized. Distortion occurs when this signal is boosted past the limit of the maximum volume. The wave literally hits a ceiling, visually chopping off the top/bottom curve to produce a flat part in the wave. This is what we hear as distortion. Different types of distortion are available, but they are generally categorized as saturation/overdrive (mildly distorted) and distortion (greatly distorted sound). When these deformities in the sound waves happen, they also create harmonics/overtones that we perceive as adding a richness to the sound.

The controls that we have over this effect are generally: level/volume, and the amount of distortion (sometimes there’s a bit of EQ as well). It’s easy to hear the difference each of those controls make, but there are some traps that you will want to watch out for. Distortion is a dynamics based effect, meaning it affects our perception of volume. If you’re switching between a clean and distorted sound, it’s important that the volume level transitions smoothly. This is more difficult than it sounds, because if a distorted signal and a clean signal were to have the same amount of energy, the distorted sound will be perceived as being louder. Secondly, when you’re using heavily distorted guitars against the drums, there can be a lot of overlapping high frequencies between the cymbals (and crowd noise, if you’re in a venue) and guitar sound. You can avoid this by using and equalizer to get the guitar to sit in an less occupied part of the frequency spectrum. Many distortion stomp boxes will have a built in tone control to deal with this issue.

Overdrive is a type of distortion that is often associated with driving the power amp to distort. This is distinct from (heavy) distortion which is done in the pre-amp stage. Power amp distortion is generally described as a “crunch” tone. Historically, this is how all early forms of distortion were achieved, before amps came with the effect built-in. That means if you want a vintage blues/rock type of sound, you should go for this type of distortion by cranking that tube amp up.

Now for a few tips and tricks. When it comes to distortion, I want to emphasize that less is more. Even heavily distorted genres like metal can benefit from this mindset. Dynamic range is lost as more distortion is used and eventually you will end up with little difference between the loud and soft parts of your playing. If we were to take this idea (less is more) to the extreme, we get to the territory of saturation. This is a type of distortion that is most often associated with analogue gear that is powered by tubes. By using an almost imperceptible amount of distortion that retains most of the original sound, you’re able to add a subtle layer of overtones to the signal.

Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!

Pomodoro Technique for Practicing

The Pomodoro technique is a useful time management tool that can make your practice more focused and effective. This is a tool that has many applications and we will take a look at how we can use this technique to improve our music practice.

The concept is simple: work in short but focused bursts of uninterrupted productivity. The name pomodoro comes from the Italian word for tomato, because the inventor of the method used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

Traditionally, the pomodoro technique uses 25 minute intervals of work followed by a short break of three to five minutes, but there is no reason to be attached to these numbers. I’ve used the technique to practice in shorter intervals when the practice material took shorter to complete than that, or were particularly mentally demanding. I find the interval lengths should have an inverse relationship with the amount of energy and focus being used: IE shorter lengths with high intensity, longer lengths with low intensity. My breaks were generally around the 5 minute mark.

The full method goes a little bit beyond just breaking up work into chunks. The complete process goes like this:

  1. Plan out what the practice item is
  2. Set the timer
  3. Uninterrupted work until the timer goes off
  4. Record the completion of this interval
  5. If you’ve completed less than 4 intervals, take a short break (3-5 min is suggested)
  6. If you’ve completed 4 intervals, take a longer break and reset this count

We all have about a million things that we can improve on, so prioritization is going to be an important part of the planning stage. It’s fairly simple: practice the most difficult items first.

The greatest benefit to this method is the sense of achievement you will feel as you cross off completed tasks from your list. As a part of using this method you will also have a record of your tasks completed which adds to this feeling. It will motivate you to complete even more tasks!

Practicing in all 12 keys

Practicing in all 12 keys can be an overwhelming task for many beginner improviser, but is absolutely essential to internalizing and developing your own improvisational vocabulary. Luckily, the process can be fairly simple on the guitar because of the nature of the instrument.

Transposition on the guitar is just a few frets away. Simple in concept, right? Just move that lick and fingering and move everything by a certain number of frets to transpose to the key you want. Don’t let your guard down. A major hurdle that is overlooked is that it becomes visually disorienting. The fret markers that you use as reference points shift around. It’s easier than transposing on a keyboard, but there are still challenges. Don’t fall into the trap where you think you’d easily be able to transpose a lick on the fly.

If you are advanced in your understanding of theory, you’ll probably be trying to understand the relationship of the notes you’re playing to the harmony that it’s being played over. If you do this, then you have another layer of understanding to tackle. The physical aspect of transposition is easy, but the theoretical aspect will be challenging as any other instrument.

A great tool for transposing an idea through all 12 keys is the Circle of Fifths. This tool has been a source of many guitarists’ confusion. Without getting into the theoretical explanation of this tool, we’ll simply apply it to the order of keys we’ll play through. I recommend going in the counter-clockwise direction on the circle (in the direction of flat keys). IE: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, D, G. Start with a blues lick in A minor pentatonic? Next play in D minor, then G, etc.

When you’re first starting to do this, you will have to practice slowly to make sure all the mental processes are in check. Realistically, it might take an hour or more to get through this exercise. If you’re short on time, I recommend breaking these up into smaller chunks, like six keys at a time. Once the concept is solidified in your mind, you’ll be getting through licks in a matter of minutes, so hang in there!

Solkattu for Polyrhythms

Indian classical music (Hindustani & Karnatic) has a long tradition of rhythmic complexity that became popularized in the Western world through bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti (both lead by John McLaughlin). In this tradition, rhythms are often learned by vocalization (spoken syllables) and gestures (claps and tapping with fingers). This tradition is known as Solkattu.

Western European music’s distinction is found in it’s harmonic system, which is rooted in the understanding of the harmonic series. Many non-Western musical traditions do not have as sophisticated a system for harmony, but they frequently excel in rhythmic complexity. In the Western tradition, rhythms are approached by counting beats with numbers, and subdivisions in syllables. If we are to take 16th notes as an example: 1e+a, 2e+a. Triplets can be counted “one-trip-let” or “1+a”. While this is effective, it can become difficult to manage multiple layers of contrasting rhythms (polyrhythms) since the voice can only produce one sound at a time.

Even a basic understanding of Solkattu can benefit your rhythmic awareness.

Hand gestures are used to keep track of the meter: IE 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc. Let’s take 3/4 as an example. Beat one is played with a clap. Beat two is played by tapping the pinky on to the palm. Beat three is played by the ring finger, then the cycle repeats. You can keep adding beats until you run out of digits, making a total of 6 beats possible. More beats are possible by turning the palm around.

Over top of this, you can use vocalized syllables create a second layer of rhythms. For groupings of two, “ta-ka” is used. Three note groupings: “ta-ki-ta”. Four note groupings: “ta-ka-di-mi”. Five notes: “ta-ka-ta-ki-ta” and so on. Most rhythms will be easily handled with combinations of 2 or 4 note groupings. combines with 3 note groupings. For example, seven note groupings can be expressed as “ta-ka-di-mi-ta-ki-ta” or “ta-ki-ta-ta-ka-di-mi” depending on where the rhythmic emphasis is placed.

As an exercise, try this rhythm: Using hand gestures, tap a 3/4 time signature. In eighth notes, sing a 4 note grouping over it. When you do this correctly, the claps will fall on the emphasized syllables: “TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta, TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta”. There you go, you have a polyrhythm!

This is only scratching the surface of possibilities. I highly recommend exploring different combinations of time signatures and subdivisions to create your own unique rhythmic grooves! If you’re interested in some literature on this topic, check out this link.