Get More Mileage from your Licks

When people begin to learn improvisation, they often do so by learning “licks”. Licks are musical phrases that have been transcribed from other players and is a great way to develop an improvisational vocabulary. If you’ve learned several licks already, you might begin to wonder how many licks you should learn as a goal. The truth is you should be constantly learning new licks. Then you might wonder how to keep these ideas all organized and accessible in your brain at a moment’s notice. Then you realize that it’s nearly impossible to keep more than a few licks in your mind at a time.

A large musical vocabulary can be useful, but what is more important is how we can modify and develop a singular idea to create hundreds of variations. Take a simple arpeggio for example. How many ways can you play a major triad? First we can play around with the order of notes and come up with 6 different possibilities. Now, what if we took one of those versions and modulate it diatonically? Now we have 7 possibilities with that one idea. Combined with 6 possible orders of notes, we now have 42 possible ideas generated.

That was one simple example taken through two processes and ended with 42 possibilities. This gets exponentially greater as we use different processes and combinations of processes. We can alter an idea by rhythmically lengthening or shortening, inverting the intervals, parallel transposition, diatonic transpositions, etc.

So if you’re at a point where you’re sick of learning more licks, try to apply this thought process to what you are playing. If you can’t do it in a real time performance, try writing out your examples before playing them. You may soon be breathing new life into old ideas and getting even more mileage from them!

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The Five Scales to Conquer Jazz

Did you know that as complex and exotic jazz improvisation and scales seem to be, the majority of jazz vocabulary is derived from only five scales?

They are:

  • The major scale
  • The harmonic minor scale
  • Melodic minor scale
  • whole-tone scale
  • diminished scale

That isn’t to say that learning to use them well is easy, but I hope this can dispel any misconceptions about jazz improvisation requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of different scales.

So how can you get so much musical material from just five scales? Well consider that each of these scales have modes. The major, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales will each have seven modes and seven chords that can be derived from them. The whole tone scale only has one mode and the diminished scale only has two modes because of their symmetrical structure. Therefore they are often used in a parallel fashion.

What’s important is not how many scales you know, but how thoroughly you understand and utilize each of them. If you can do that with just these five scales, you’re well on your way to becoming a jazz musician!

How to Rehearse a Band

Rehearsals are obviously important to any performance, but if you’ve had a few by now you’ll realize that it can be difficult to be productive during a rehearsal. It’s easy to lose track of time, chatting away and treating it more like a hang-out than an effort to be prepared for the next gig. You might realize by the end of a rehearsal that your band hasn’t accomplished much, leaving you worried and having to book more rehearsals. Learning how to rehearse a band sometimes means you have to step up to the plate and be the taskmaster that leads the band.

Rehearse like you’re on Stage

A big mistake that a band makes when rehearsing is to not play as if you’re on stage. This might seem pretty obvious, but think about how a typical rehearsal might be different from being on stage: You don’t have an audience, you can start and stop at any point without consequence, you have plenty of space (hopefully) to move around, you don’t have to work with a sound technician, you can take as long as you want between songs, etc. None of the pressure and constraints of a public performance are usually present. You must take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere of a rehearsal to work out any kinks in a performance, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the end goal is to have a tight performance on stage. If you’re wrapping up a rehearsal without ever playing a song from start to finish without stopping, you’re going to be in trouble. Aim to recreate as many aspects of your live performance setting as possible, including stageplots, amp positioning, performing without eye contact, etc.

Show up Prepared

Nothing sucks the wind out of a rehearsal’s sails like showing up without doing your homework. Learning your parts is something you do on your own time, because you shouldn’t waste other people’s time while you try to catch up. Rehearsals are a group effort and should be more concerned with how tight the whole group is playing. Pull your weight, and don’t let your team down.

Don’t Start at the Top

So you’re ready to tackle the first song of rehearsal and all goes well until you hit that one spot where it falls apart. You discuss what needs to be worked on with your band mates before tackling it again, from the beginning of the song. Hold it! You were doing just fine up until that point, so why bother repeating all of that? It’s a huge waste of time. You will likely make the same mistake because your mind will be distracted with everything else you have to play correctly up to that point. What you should do is to begin from the section of music that needs work, or even zoom into the specific measures/bars. Once corrections are made, then play the entire section/song.

Have a Plan

A typical plan for a rehearsal will include the list of songs that will be practiced and what needs to be improved from the last rehearsal. You will also need to consider time constraints; for the whole session and individual musicians who may need to leave sooner. Be open to adjust the plan as you may discover new problems in rehearsal, but don’t lose sight of the overall game plan.

Appoint a Director

When a band doesn’t have a leader it can behave like an animal with too many heads, trying to go in many directions at once and accounting for everyone’s opinions. Time is wasted as a result. In most professional settings, you will have a musical director that guides the rehearsal in order to have an effective one. If you’re in a “democratic” band where everyone is an equal, the musical director should be the one who has the best set of ears. They need to have the skills to identify exactly what needs to improve, and the language to communicate that to the respective musicians. See if your band can unanimously agree on someone to take on this role. This role becomes less important if your whole band is made up of experienced musicians, as it’ll be easier to agree on issues.

Be Kind

There’s something to be said about the type of directors that resemble the one in Whiplash. There are many out there who exercise a tyrannical rule and use fear and intimidation as a way of getting what they want. This might work in some settings, but is generally a bad way of going about being a director. You’re more likely to breed contempt and resentment which ultimately leads to a bad reputation. In a band, you’re a team all working towards a goal. You’re much more likely to get cooperation if you avoid behaviours that blame or shame your musicians. There will be times when you need to call out unprofessional behaviour, but as a rule, be kind. This is even more important when you’re in a “democratic” type band.

That’s it. I hope your next rehearsal is a great success!

 

My Cure for G.A.S.

GAS is an acronym that stands for Gear Aquisition Syndrome. It’s a colloquialism that describes a guitarist/musician’s tendency to endlessly desire and acquire more gear. While most people use the term to comically describe their own obsessions with gear and their quest for the “perfect sound”, there is a serious down-side to this mindset that a specific piece of gear is the be-all of good sound.

I’ve been through many phases of lusting over the latest high-tech gear to improve my sound but I seemed to have calmed down in the recent years. I attribute this to the fact that after learning some audio-engineering concepts, I have a better understanding of what a piece of equipment does and how to use it to its fullest potential.

Technique over Tools

When you are constantly acquiring new tools , it’s a natural outcome to have less time to learn how to use each piece of equipment properly. Taken to the extreme, you can end up with a room full of gear that’s only seen a few weeks of use before being stored away. People will eventually get rid of their stash of gear only to repeat the cycle all over again.

What you need to do is purchase gear with a specific goal in mind, and learn how to use it until you begin to get the results you want out of it. For example, a guitarist may become obsessed with a certain model amp because their favorite musician uses it. They get the amp and plug in, only to find that they’re still missing the mark. This is because they don’t have the same experience and techniques as the artist they are trying to emulate. If you don’t get the results you’re after, don’t blame the gear. Blame your lack of skills.

You should be trying to learn everything about whatever piece of gear you’re using. What does it do? Who has used it? When and where should it be used? How does it work? These are all the questions you should be asking yourself. If you try and answer each of the questions in depth, you will be spending more time being concerned with maximizing your equipment instead of thinking what new piece of gear might fix your problem.

By understanding how to use each piece of equipment better, you will also be able to apply the same concepts to gear that you unfamiliar with. The different categories of tools, such as EQ, compression, chorus, flanger, etc. operate on the same principle and brands only slightly differ in character. I recommend, for guitarists, to study equalization as a starting point. It is by far the most useful concept to understand. Equalizers are ubiquitous in the audio world and all operate on the same principles. If you can master equalization, you will be able to get a decent sound out of almost any amplifier!

If you take the time to really understand your gear, I can guarantee you will find greater satisfaction with what you have! Who knows, maybe your golden sound is waiting somewhere in your closet to be rediscovered?

Do You Actually KNOW the Song?

Some of you may think you know a song when you can:

  • Play your part (IE guitar line if you’re a guitarist, bassline if you’re a bassists)
  • Play from start to finish without a mistake
  • Play along with the original recording

…but the truth is you can do all of the above and still not KNOW a song.

What does it mean to know a song, completely?

In my opinion, you can’t know a song until you dig into what makes the song tick. A large portion of it is going to involve applying music theory concepts. Some of the things you should look into are:

  • Song structure (repetition and sections)
  • Lyrical theme and structure
  • melody (even if it’s sung by a voice, you should learn it on your instrument)
  • harmony (functional analysis)
  • bassline and chord inversions
  • rhythms
  • the scales or modes being used

Let’s take the song Autumn Leaves for example. By looking at the lyrics, we can understand that the song is about falling autumn leaves reminding us of a love one who has passed. This can guide us through the emotional content of the song and how we might express this emotion with our instruments.

The song form is a common AABC form. This reveals to us that there is a repeated A section at the beginning, with the B and C sections creating contrast. Knowing how the sections are structured can help us memorize large piece of music with less effort.

The rhythm, melody, harmony, and bass are the core musical elements of a song and all of these should be studied on ANY instrument. Yes even bass players should be learning the melody and chords. Drummers too. You can further micro-analyze these elements to identify motifs and smaller structures at play. In Autumn Leaves, there is a very clear four-note melodic motif that opens the song, and is moved in a downward direction. The harmony is based on a circle of fifths movement within the key. In the C section, there are chords that move at a faster harmonic rhythm than the rest of the chords (IE 2 beats per chord vs. a full bar). There is a chromatic bass line in this section as well.

Some songs are quite simple and only stay in one key, but others may modulate. Instead of seeing the song as one continuous progression of chords, identify the different tonal centers that are being used. Autumn Leaves starts in a major key and quickly moves to its relative minor key.

The song is generally played with notes from the major/minor scale of the given key, but at the end of the first A section, the melody is using notes from the melodic minor scale. The presence of a V7b9 chord in the minor key hints at a harmonic minor scale as well.

Why should we study these things? Because while you may be playing someone else’s song, it’s important to put your own identity into it. You cannot do this convincingly without knowing the inner workings of a song. Quite often, the underlying structure will inspire new ideas of how they can be manipulated to create a unique interpretation of any song. Apart from that your musical memory will improve greatly as you discover patterns and structures on the micro and macro level, finding connections between musical elements that first appeared disparate. Finally, it can also inform you on how a great song is written.

Have fun!

Understanding Effects: Chorus

Chorus is aptly named so as it attempts to emulate the effect you would hear in a vocal choir, or any other setting where two instruments are playing a part in unison. The only caveat here is that the effect typically works in the pitch domain. Some definitions of chorus will include differences in the time domain (IE delay around 30ms) but chorus guitar pedals typically don’t work in that way.

To understand this effect, we need to understand beat frequencies. Beat frequencies occur as a third “note” when two pitches which are slightly out-of-tune are played against each other. For example, a note is played at 60hz and another note is played at 61hz. The resulting beat frequency will be at 1hz or one cycle per second. This is perceived as a wavy-ness in the sound. This creates the unique choral effect we associate with vocal choirs. For the purposes of guitar, we only experience one more “voice” as opposed to multiple doubling voices in a vocal choir (e.g. 4 tenor singers). The guitar’s signal is processed to modulate in pitch at a specified rate and amount and then mixed back in with the original signal.

Mix/Level

If you’ve read my other articles on effects, you might realize by now that a common theme is that less is more. It’s not a rule so much as a guideline to keep you out of trouble. You can get away with a little more when it comes to the chorus effect but it will start to give it a surreal and metallic quality if you mix in too much of the processed signal.

Depth

This parameter controls the amount that the original pitch is modulated in pitch. In other words, think about it like you’re controlling how out-of-tune two voices are to each other.

Rate/Speed

This controls the rate at which the pitch (set by the depth parameter) modulates at. In other words, you can think of it like being able to control the speed of a vibrato by a vocalist in a choir. Typically, depth and speed will have an inverse relationship: the more depth you use the less the speed will be needed to have an audible difference.

Get Creative

Some interesting things can happen when we use extreme settings with this effect. The most notable user of extreme chorus settings is John Scofield. He attempts to recreate the warbling sound of a rotary (Leslie) speaker that is typically used by electric organ players. This involves a high rate/speed setting and a mid to high level of depth. Another cool use is to set the mix so that it is 100% wet, so you only hear the affected signal and none of the original guitar sound. This reminds me of the sound of tape warping where the speed of the tape reel affects the pitch of the music. The possibilities are endless!

You Ears aren’t on Your Knees

This is going to be another quick tip for amp positioning.

Do you keep amplifiers on the floor while performing? If you answered yes, you’re not going to be projecting the sound in the best way, to yourself and the audience.

Think about it for a moment – the amplifiers are way down there, and your ears are way up on your head. Why would you point the amplifier in a direction other than where your (and the audience’s) ears are? Loudspeakers project sound in a very directional way. That means that the more you shift from being directly in front of the speaker, the greater the change in perceived tone. Try this experiment: Have an amplifier at head level, about two feet away from your face. Listen to some music in that position, then shift over by a foot to the left or right and notice the change in sound. Pretty noticeable, right?

The truth is in most situations, it’s near impossible to line up everyone’s ears to be directly in line with your amplifier speaker. You should, however, aim it in the general direction of your ears (and your audience’s) by tilting the amp or by getting it off the floor onto something closer to ear-level. A side benefit to doing this is that an amp will be decoupled from the floor which can help avoid low frequency resonances if you’re on a hollow stage.

This tip isn’t to say that this is the definitively CORRECT way of positioning an amp on stage. In some situations, you may only want the acoustic sound on stage. You would put the amp, therefore, in front of you to avoid hearing it. If a stage floor is elevated to the audience’s ear level, then placing it on the floor might be the best option. The goal is to figure out the optimal amp position for your given situation.

I hope this helps to get a better sound on your next gig!