Melody Is the Key

We’ve all heard that the key to improvising beautifully is to focus on melody, as opposed to riffs, scales, or theoretical constructs. No one disagrees with this, but very few of us actually practice it.

Heading into my lesson with jazz guitar wizard Bruce Forman, I knew that he would tell me his mantra: “Just play the melody.” But I didn’t understand what this meant until he said it to me face to face and guitar in hand in the backyard woodshed that serves as his musical base of operations.

I told Bruce that I had trouble keeping track of where I was in jazz standards while soloing. He correctly diagnosed that I kept in my mind’s eye a rolling scroll of the chord changes in my head that I would “read” while I played. “But all you need to do,” he told me, “is to follow the melody.”

And that’s when it clicked.

The idea of using the tune’s melody as the basis for improvisation can be taken in two (or possibly more) ways. The first interpretation, which I mentioned above, is to use the melody as a source of thematic ideas for creating a solo. But the second interpretation, which I had overlooked until now, and which is so much more important to me at this stage of my musical development, is that the melody is the most effective vehicle for remembering the song’s structure.

Chord charts on the other hand, in addition to being notoriously inaccurate, are far more difficult to remember than a tune. I bet you never got a chord chart stuck in your head…. but a tune? Forget about it! And assuming you are using a real chord chart while playing, do any of us actually believe that the chord chart actually tells you what the song should be doing? Don’t our ears (or musical imaginations) do a much better job of that?

To hear Bruce expand on this approach further, check out episode 99v of the Guitarwank podcast, hopefully it will make things click for you too!

Recording a Blues EP in India

The following events took place in late December of 2013 when I visited India with some friends I made while living in Nairobi. At that time, I worked at the UNHCR by day and led the house band in a local blues club by night. You can scroll to the bottom and press play to listen to the results of this adventure while you read.

Avneet and Arjun take me to an apartment building at the end of a dirt street somewhere in Chennai. Their friend Manik greets us and whisks us to an empty flat on the building’s top floor. I gather that we are hiding from his wife. The boys settle in a corner, on hard, low sofas. I retreat to an empty room and call my parents, letting them know that I am alive and that I love them.  When I return to the sitting room, it is filled with a bluish haze. Laughter—the sort that only old friends can share—echoes across the barren walls. I sit, listen, and drink. Stories drift back and forth as the bottles go round and round. They used to be business partners, apparently. I don’t know what Manik does now. I notice that when you tease Manik, a dark, barrel chested man, he has the habit of pulling in close, his fist raised, as if to deal a fatal blow, before crumbling into hysterics. I almost feel honored when one of my remarks prompts this reaction. At some point, somebody picks up food. Plastic containers of succulent butter chicken and cauliflower are swiftly emptied. It is some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. Eventually, the bottles are empty and we slide down the stairs and coast back into the street. I don’t know where Manik went, but presumably he had a thorough bath and went back to his family. Arjun, Avneet, and I squeeze into the back of an auto-rickshaw, and an intense debate ensues.

The next day is an important one. I have reserved a recording studio from 9 in the morning onwards. Chennai’s finest blues band, fronted by Arjun and Avneet’s brother Aum, has agreed to spend the whole day with me recording … something. There isn’t much of a plan. I have never met these people before, much less played with them, and I just have a few sketches of arrangements in a notebook. Avneet suggests the most rational course of action: home for everyone and an early start to the day. Arjun, on the other hand, is blabbering about going out to a club. I know that whatever decision we make in this instant will drastically change the outcome of the next day’s session. The weight of the moment settles upon us. I argue passionately, and somewhat incoherently, that we should go to the club and drink ourselves into oblivion. I babble about how true creativity can only originate from hardship, and that I need a challenge to overcome. I propose that we make a story to fit behind the recording session. If we go home, I argue, the recording will be nothing but an empty, emotionless shell.  Let’s fill it with experience of the debaucherous kind—it’s Christmas, after all. Avneet reluctantly agrees. Or rather, he decides it’s not worth his while to argue against two drunk and stubborn idiots.

My eyes flicker open and register pale grey forms spanning the room. Somewhere outside the sun must be shining. For an instant, my mind is an empty receptacle into which my ego pours its memories and experiences. I remember that I came to India, and that I’ve been staying in a small service apartment in a place called C.I.T colony. I am lying on the couch. My shoes are on. A vague sense of regret and embarrassment tugs at the devastated outskirts of my mind. Around me, the debris from the previous night’s insanity litters the room like the aftermath of a small battle. I am drunk, and Avneet is standing above me talking. Talking about the recording. Talking about the recording session we are an hour late for already. I spring off the couch and begin stuffing my pockets with my belongings, which are scattered everywhere.  

I notice Avneet staring at me in horror. Something is wrong with my mouth; it is prickly. I look into the mirror, and see that I’ve shattered my front teeth. I remember a fountain, and becoming a leopard and jumping around in it. I remember an impact, someone yelling out. No time to worry about that now. We scramble out of the apartment, grab an auto, and go to Avneet’s place a few kilometers to the south, on the other side of the river. There, we find Arjun wrecked upon his bed. He mumbles at us, helpless, before slumping back into darkness. We grab some of his guitars and return to the auto. It’s at least thirty minutes to the studio. Avneet’s phone is dead, so we don’t know where any of the musicians are. We can’t even tell them we’re coming. We don’t even know where the studio is located precisely.

I’ll need to pay cash for the recording session, so I instinctively check my wallet for my bank card, which, to my despair, is not there. I calmly announce the calamity to Avneet. There’s only one solution: we need to retrace out steps and find the card, which is hopefully with an honest bartender. But, seen the way we were acting the previous night, it is doubtful that we’ll be on the receiving end of any charitable intentions. I remember at one point looking for a place to pee in a bar’s stockroom. I would rather not go back to that bar. Avneet asks me for a light, and as I search my pockets for a matchbox, I extract my glasses, which somehow contain my bank card. A miracle. We arrive at the suspected location of the studio in high spirits, and alight from the auto.

We know the studio is one of half-dozen fifteen storey apartment blocks in front of us. We enter one of the blocks at random, where we stumble up and down stairwells and halls without finding anything. In desperation we begin knocking on people’s doors. No one has any idea what we’re talking about. They seem threatened. I realize that while rummaging around my pockets, I left my glassed in the auto. Luckily, I am wearing prescription shades, which enable me to see but give me a rather dodgy appearance. Back in the courtyard, a man directs us to the correct block. When we get to the studio, we find a confused sound engineer, and no musicians.

The sound engineer, Krishna, is obviously skeptical when he realizes his client for the day is a drunk toothless American with no band. I am equally skeptical when Krishna tells me that the studio is for tracking individual instruments only, and that it is not equipped to capture group performances. I am broken. I open my backpack, where I know I’ll find a bottle of Makers Mark I bought especially for this occasion. It is not there, and I despair further. Did we drink it last night? Krishna kindly offers to make me a coffee. Meanwhile, Avneet has reached the musicians, who are all on their way.  

We discuss our options. I categorically refuse to track instruments individually because I believe that blues recordings must be captured live, with all the musicians playing at the same time. The recording should include all the mistakes, the impromptu arrangement ideas, and spontaneous jamming that characterize the specific slice of spacetime occupied by the performance.  That slice will be much richer if it includes simultaneous and imperfect human contributions. Avneet proposes that we set up drums and guitar in the tracking room, then put the bass and the keyboards in the control room, plugging them directly into the console. Krishna is still skeptical: what about the vocals? A microphone squeezed next to my seat, in front of the drums. By the time we’ve set this up, the band arrives.

The musicians were from a band called Blues Conscience, of which Avneet’s brother Aum is the lead guitar player. But neither he nor their regular drummer were available that day. Siddartha was the keyboard player. His passion for music burned dangerously behind his laid back, almost scruffy appearance. He brought a Nord keyboard, so he meant business. Anek, tall and distinguished, played bass. Usually the frontman of his band, he had no issue taking on a supporting role. His bass playing effortlessly spanned from swampy to slick.  George, the drummer, was younger than I expected but the immensity of his chops and his dedication to groove were enough to dispel my doubts. Whatever doubts I may have had about the band must have been slight in comparison to their doubts about me. Hours late, half drunk, reeking, and broken, I had no credibility whatsoever. After a drink and a smoke, we squeezed into the studio. I grabbed a red Stratocaster clone manufactured sometime in the seventies or eighties by a company called Lotus. I plugged into a Fender Blues Deville amplifier and turned all the knobs to 12 o’clock.

We recorded six songs with no hiccups whatsoever. Krishna was not only professional and efficient, he was enthusiastic about the music. Sometimes studio personnel are highly impersonal, jaded, or even hostile. This couldn’t have been further from the truth with Krishna. We recorded for about six hours. We took a few breaks, had some brief discussions about arrangements, but I sought to avoid the creative discussions that can and usually bog down recording sessions. At first, George was disconcerted by the lack of direction. As a session player, he was used to having his work cut out for him. But here, he was given free reign, which was unusual for him. He kept saying he was unsure of what to play, and I just kept telling him to play whatever he felt. He loosened up, followed, and eventually started leading us into some nice grooves.

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is a traditional number attributed to Sonny Boy Williamson, but I followed the more contemporary Ten Years After arrangement, borrowing a groove from the Band of Gypsies first song from their New Year’s gig of 1970. Grab Your Shoes is a song inspired by one of my Portland friends, Brian. Upon leaving his apartment one night, he told me to grab my shoes and put them on my feet, which I thought was fantastic. I came up with the chords in my bungalow in Dadaab and wrote the lyrics in the terminal of the Jeddah airport. Hoochie Koochie Man, written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters, was the first blues song I ever felt comfortable singing. The usual Blues Consicence drummer joined us for this track, and we really meshed. I’m Gonna Make my Home is a Johnny Copeland tune that I like because it reminds me of the crazy days of driving across the country just to play a show or to see a friend. We recorded Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson, a tune that I usually introduce as being “severely adulterated” when I play it live. For this version, Avneet laid down some rhythm guitar and a new wave guitar solo that gives the song a fresh direction. With just a few minutes of recording left, I decided to record a traditional shuffle blues that we wrapped up in one take after briefly discussing how the song would end.

It was one of the best days of my life, but it came at a cost. I deliberately acted like an idiot the night before because I thought that if I acted like a rock star, I would sound like one the next day. My insecurities brought me close to the edge that night. Not only could my injuries have been far more serious, but I’m also sure that I was a toxic presence wherever I had been. Someone probably should have punched me in the face, but instead, reality did. The financial cost was significant. In total, I paid around 500 dollars to have my teeth fixed. I was too proud to lie to my insurance company to get compensation. One tooth was replaced in India in a neighborhood dentist’s office. The other tooth, which was only mildly chipped, turned black a week later and had to be replaced in Nairobi after a root canal treatment. On the bright side, as my brother remarked, I will always carry a part of Kenya and India with me.

What’s the Magic Behind Quilter Amps?

Thanks for stopping by my site. Check out the video below to hear my latest album, recorded live with my Quilter MicroPro running clean effects in an A/B set up with my Trainwreck Express clone. 

The secret is out about Quilter amplifiers. Guitarists seeking reliable tube tone in a compact and lightweight package have eagerly adopted this new line of amplifiers and flooded the market with used tube amps. I’m one of them. If you want to buy my Fender Blues Jr, send me a message. But something tells me you’ll end up buying a Quilter like everyone else. 

My goal isn’t to convince you that Quilters sound good–you can just read one of the dozens of reviews that praise their sound and performance. Instead, my goal is to explain how Quilter amps can sound as good as tube amps while being so tiny and weighing so little.

Buckle Up for a Long Read–Or Just Glance at the Next Paragraph 

Based on information gleaned from obscure forum boards, discussions with engineers, and Pat Quilter’s own patent applications and statements, I’ve written a detailed–yet accessible–explanation of Quilter’s amp design. But if you’re in a rush, here’s the short answer:

  • Lightweight switch mode power supply–Converts AC current from the power outlet into DC current for use in the amp’s circuit while saving lots of weight and space
  • Analog overdrive shaping circuit–The preamp features several components that replicate the harmonic overdrive, clipping distortion, tube sag, and bias shifting of the classic tube amps we all love (and hate because they are heavy and break all the time)
  • Lightweight and efficient class D power amp–The amp puts out 100w per channel at a fraction of the weight and energy loss of a traditional tube amp of comparable power
  • Speaker feedback system–A voltage feedback loop allows the overdrive shaping circuit and power amplifier to react to the speaker’s behavior, and enables the power amplifier to have a low speaker damping factor

My Quilter MicroPro Mach 2 combo was designed by Pat Quilter: a college dropout, renaissance man, and legendary audio equipment designer working out of Orange County, California. In the late 1960s, Quilter began building solid state bass and guitar amps, but his business soon fizzled out because–contrary to his expectations–tube technology remained the preferred choice of professional musicians.

Consequently, Quilter and his partners reoriented their business towards the design and production of power amplifiers. Over several decades, they built the highly successful QSC brand, whose products are found in most movie theaters and in many large concert venues across the world. Upon Quilter’s retirement form QSC in 2011, he decided to get back into the business of building guitar and bass amplifiers.

Most people who encounter Quilter’s amplifiers are amazed. These little amps punch far above their weight and size. My Quilter, for example, weighs 19 pounds and fits under the seat in front of me when I fly. Yet it is louder than a 50 pound, 40w tube amplifier. Furthermore, Quilter amps are reasonably priced, exceptionally reliable, and–according to whom you ask–they sound anywhere from decent to incredible.

Before We Begin–How Do Guitar Amplifiers Work?

When you pluck the strings of an electric guitar, their vibrations cause the wire coils in the pickups to generate a minuscule electric signal. The waveform of the electric signal is roughly equivalent to the physical waveform (or vibrations) of the strings. A guitar amplifier takes this weak electric signal, and boosts it to a power level that can drive a speaker.

amp-effect

Source : http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/audio/amp.html

Tube and classic solid state guitar amplifiers are either Class A, B, or AB. They function by running the electric current from the wall through a power supply, which bumps the current to levels that can drive the tubes (or transistors in a solid state amp). Along with a diverse cast of transformers, capacitors, resistors, and transformers, the tubes and transistors shape the current from the wall until it’s an amplified version of the signal coming from the guitar.

How Is a Quilter Different from Other Guitar Amps?

First of all, I want to address the most common misconceptions about Quilter amps. They are not digital modeling amps (such as Line 6 or Blackstar amps), but they do contain a few computer chips. Nor are they classic solid state amps, although they do contain transistors. Instead, Quilters contain a switching power supply, an analog overdrive and tone shaping circuit, and a Class D power amplifier. And no, D does not stand for Digital.

Instead of using a circuit of heavy and often unreliable electric components, a Class D amplifier does the following to amplify a guitar signal:

  • The guitar’s signal passes through a comparator
  • The comparator compares the guitar signal to an automatically generated, constant triangle wave signal
  • Whenever the guitar signal is instantaneously higher in level than the triangle wave, the comparator output goes positive. When the audio signal is instantaneously lower than the triangle wave, the comparator output is negative.
  • The resulting chain of binary pulses creates a square waveform signal, where the pulses are proportional in width to the audio signal’s instantaneous level.

comparator-output

Source: https://www.maximintegrated.com/en/app-notes/index.mvp/id/3977

  • The square waveform signal is fed into transistors that function as binary gates, switching at a rate of hundreds of kHz.
  • The output signal from the transistors is an amplified version of the square wavelength signal produced by the comparator
  • This signal passes through a filter that removes the high frequencies and sharp corners of the square waveform, reconstructing the sinusoidal shape of the original input signal

What Are the Advantages of Class D Amplifiers?

Class D amplifiers are light, compact, efficient, powerful, and generate very little heat. Tube and classic solid state circuits, on the other hand, are heavy, comparatively cumbersome, and very inefficient. In these older designs, current is always passing through components that are in partial conduction, thus generating resistance, or energy loss.

Most of the energy loss in classic amp designs occurs because of the need to keep the power tubes operating in their linear range. To function optimally, tubes need to be at a certain temperature–this is why you need to warm up a tube amp before you play it. Most of the power draw of tube amps goes towards keeping the tubes hot, as opposed to amplifying the guitar signal.

Class D amps function at around 90% efficiency, meaning that only about 10% of the energy put into them gets released as heat. Classic guitar amplifiers convert anywhere from 70% to 90% of the energy they draw from the wall into heat. To get rid of all this heat, these amps need a spacious lay out, heat sinks, or even fans. Class D amps don’t have this problem, so they can be much more compact. This is why Class D amplifiers power the speakers of your smartphone.

A Switching Power Supply Further Reduces Weight and Heat Loss

The role of the power supply is to turn the current from the wall into electric signals that are usable by the amp’s circuit. Different amp designs have different current requirements, but one thing most power supplies have in common is that they are big and heavy. The Quilter amplifiers sidesteps this problem.

Switchmode power supplies use transistors that switch at blindingly fast rates to turn wall current into an ultra high frequency AC signal. This ultra high frequency signal enables the use of a small and light power transformer. Traditional power supplies feed low frequency wall current into the power transformer, which must be rather large and heavy to avoid core saturation.

Another advantage of a switching power supply is that it can handle a wide range of current, voltages, and frequencies. Unlike amps with traditional, passive power supplies, the Quilter doesn’t need a transformer when you switch from 110v to 220v wall current. And when you play in a venue with a shaky electrical system, your amp remains unaffected by swings in current.

The use of switching power supplies is by no means a revolutionary–Walter Woods included switching power supplies in the bass amps he designed and built in the 1970s. Incidentally, he was also one of the first to incorporate a Class D power amp into an instrument amplifier design.

Quilter’s Preamp Circuit Emulates Tube Tone and Overdrive

Unlike a tube equipped Class A, B, or AB amplifier, a desirable tone is not an inherent byproduct of the Class D amplifier design. The Class D amp is merely an efficient way of amplifying an audio signal. For this reason, the Quilter needs to use a complex preamplification circuit to mimic the warm, responsive, and progressively overdriven sound that characterize tube amplifiers.

According to Pat Quilter’s patent application, his analog preamp circuit contains the following elements:

  • Even harmonic generator–Harmonics determine the tonal attributes of a sound. A perfect sine wave at 220Hz will sound like an A, but a very boring one. Adding harmonics to it–frequencies of 440Hz (2d harmonic/ 1st octave), 660Hz (3d harmonic/ perfect 5th), 880Hz (4th harmonic/ 2d octave), etc.–will give that A note unique tonal characteristics. A tube amplifier does this on its own, notably through signal clipping, a phenomenon that is explained in the next paragraph. The even harmonic generator adds even harmonics to the signal when the next stages in the circuit are close to the clipping point. This gives the Quilter a classic tube overdrive sound. 

harmonics

Source: http://www.electronics-tutorials.ws/amplifier/amp_4.html

  • Soft clipping cell–Clipping occurs when the increasing amplitude of an AC signal hits the voltage limit of the circuit. The top and bottom of the sine wave get clipped at both the negative and positive voltage limits, which in practical terms results in distortion, added harmonics, and sustain. There are two flavors of clipping: symmetrical (where the positive and negative values of the signal are clipped equally) or asymmetrical. Asymmetrical clipping adds both odd and even harmonics while symmetrical clipping adds only odd harmonics. In Quilter’s circuit, the even harmonics are supplied by the harmonic generator, so the soft clipping cell primarily produces odd harmonics (emphasizing the lower ones, because high odd-order harmonics produce a muddled sound). The soft clipping cell also ensures that the clipping of the signal has a gradual onset so that harmonics are present even when the amp is lightly overdriven.

symmetrically-clipped-signal

Source: http://blackstoneappliances.com/dist101.html

  • Sag controller–In a push/pull, or Class AB circuit, the amplifier draws more current from the power supply as the power output increases. This means that when a guitarist “cranks” the amp, the current passing through the rectifier tube increases, which in turn increases its resistance. The rectifier tube doesn’t just convert AC power into DC–it also provides voltage to the plates of the other tubes in the amp. As the rectifier tube’s resistance increases, the amount of voltage it sends to the other tubes’ plates decreases slightly. This slightly decreases the amp’s output (hence the term sag), which has a compressing effect on the output signal. Furthermore, the decreased voltage in the power tubes hastens the onset of clipping.

sag

Source: http://www.valvewizard.co.uk/smoothing.html

  • Zero crossing processor–The zero crossing processor emulates the effect of temporary bias shifting in an AB class amp’s power stage when the input signal is particularly strong. In practical terms, this has the effect of keeping the amp’s sound distorted for a few moments after the user “hits” the guitar hard. The zero-crossing processor also blanks out a portion of the signal that crosses zero value, which according to Quilter adds sizzle and richness to the distorted sound and allows rapidly played notes to be distinguished from one another. This phenomenon does not occur in all tube amps. Some amps designs, such as those by Howard Dumble, even seek to minimize this effect. While there is disagreement as to whether bias shifting and crossover distortion are desirable, there is no denying that these are inherent features (or drawbacks) of many popular tube amp designs.

The Quilter amp user can control these effects, but not directly. Instead, the amp has several presets that combine these effects into familiar amp tones. The overall level of these presets may be adjusted through the gain and boost controls. Before the preamp signal goes to the Class D power amplifier, it passes through a user-adjustable EQ stage and a potentiometer that determines master volume.

Other amplifier designers, notably Peavy and Roland, have used similar analog circuits to simulate tube overdrive. The difference is that Quilter’s design connects this analog circuit to a Class D amplifier that offers much more headroom than the solid state power amplifiers used by other manufacturers. The added headroom–or ability to handle stronger voltages–is central to the success of Quilter’s tube amp emulation, because tube amps create significant voltage spikes.

Quilter Amps Reproduce a Tube Amp’s Louse Coupling to the Speaker

The output signal of an amplifier drives the speaker. This AC signal passes through the speaker’s coil, which is housed in a magnetic cylinder. The signal causes the coil to generate a magnetic field. As the output signal changes, the magnetic field changes too, which causes the coil to move at different rates. The coil is attached to the speaker’s diaphragm, which pushes air in frequency with the signal from the amplifier’s output. The result is epic guitar sounds.

The speaker’s resistance to the amplifier’s output signal is called impedance, and its value depends on a host of fixed and variable factors, most notably the output signal’s frequency. marshall-mg10-speaker-impedance

Source: http://www.electrosmash.com/marshall-mg10

The speaker’s impedance generates an electrical current in the output circuit in which the amplifier itself acts as a resistance. Solid state amps have very low resistance (or impedance, as it is called in an AC circuit), so the speaker’s inertia gets dampened by the current that it generates. Since the speaker is not allowed to “ring,” it only reproduces the signals sent to it by the amplifier.

A tube amplifier, on the other hand, has a high impedance value because the current generated by the speaker must pass through the amp’s output transformers. This means that the current generated by the speaker loses its strength and does not dampen the inertia of the speaker cone. This low damping factor, which allows the speaker to move independently of the amp’s control, results in a low fidelity reproduction of the amp’s signal–which incidentally produces the familiar warmth and grit we appreciate from tube amps.

The Quilter’s feedback circuit routes current from the speaker back to both the power amplifier and the overdrive shaping circuit. The circuit is designed to accomplish four things:

  • It replicates the high impedance load that a tube amp presents to the current generated by the speaker
  • It allows the power amp to produce voltage spikes where the speaker’s impedance is high
  • It enables the overdrive shaping circuit to react to the speaker’s behavior, thus reproducing the tone of a tube amp pushing against speaker damping
  • The circuit’s speaker protection feature cuts the amplifier’s output when the speaker reaches its performance limits, thus avoiding irreparable damage

The Parts Are Greater Than the Whole

Most of the features discussed above have been used in earlier amp designs. But Pat Quilter may be the first amp designer to have combined them all into a single, funny looking package. As a result, he has come closer than anyone else to designing an amplifier that credibly emulates the tube sound. Let’s hope he doesn’t retire again before pushing the envelope even further.

For more info, read Pat Quilter’s patent: https://www.google.com/patents/US20130136278

Don’t Play Stuff that Sounds Bad

 

Many years ago, someone came up to me after my band finished its set and told me: “You sounded great on that last song!”

I was shocked, because I had just limped through the roughest part of the set.

The song in question was Peg by Steely Dan, a song that to this day I can barely play. I knew the chords, but they didn’t sound good to me when I played them. And I hated soloing over the song–I couldn’t make the guitar sing over the chord changes.

So why did this audience member compliment me for a song that I didn’t really play on?

(Of course, he could have been bullshitting, but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume that he was being sincere.)

I received the compliment because I played only what I knew would sound good. I didn’t muck up the mix or distract my band mates with flubbed notes or overbearing chords. Instead, I employed the fundamental principle of good guitar playing:

Never play anything that sounds bad.

Most guitarists would agree with this principle, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed, many of us do not put it into practice. It’s too bad, because not playing is so much easier than playing!

I try to avoid sweeping generalizations, but when it comes to live musical performance, it’s always better to not play anything rather than to play something that you’re not good at or that doesn’t fit the song.

You may feel stupid not doing anything on stage while your band mates rock out, but looking awkward and checking your ego is a small price to pay for not ruining a performance with substandard guitar work.

Choosing when to play and when to sit back isn’t just good for the overall sound of the band, it can also help to showcase your playing. If you wait for just the right moment to add to the song, people will notice and enjoy.

When it came to Peg, the only thing I could play that sounded good was “popcorn rhythm” on the verses. Everything else that I tried was outside of my technical abilities or stylistic preferences, so I just stuck with what I knew how to play. For those of you not hip to popcorn rhythm, check out this video by one of my heroes, Skunk Baxter:

 

 

 

How To Improve Your Phrasing

One of the most frequent questions my guitarist friends ask me is how they can improve their phrasing. In improvised music, phrasing refers to the musician’s ability to articulate his or her solo around melodic lines, or phrases. If you picture the solo as a story, the musical phrases are the sentences that convey the information necessary for the story to have meaning.

If the soloist lacks the ability to create tangible musical phrases, the solo will fail to arrest the listener’s attention. Instead of sounding like a compelling story, the solo will sound like incoherent babble. We call that noodling in the music business. Of course, there are some situations in which babble might be appropriate–for comedic or psychedelic effect, for example. Sometimes, the lack of phrasing is a legitimate form of phrasing.

Phrases are Intentional Musical Statements that Give Your Solos Meaning

The key is to use phrases to build the musical narrative you want to share with your audience. Phrases are defined as much by melodies as they are timbers (or the sonic quality of the notes you play). Sparse notes drenched in reverb might set a melancholic mood, twangy staccato notes may give a sense of urgency, while heavily distorted shredding will convey confidence and power.

There is a phrase for every musical situation, and there is no right way to go about creating and assembling phrases. You might play a melodic line, or riff, that you’ve memorized, then let your fingers explore the fret board at a frenetic rate, before settling into some bends that pull on your heart strings… The possibilities are endless.

Learning Melodies Gives You the Tools to Make Your Own Phrases

So how do you learn a skill that is inherently dependent on personal tastes and abilities? There are a number of ways, the most important (and boring) of which is learning melodic lines from other musicians that you enjoy. As painstaking as it may be, deciphering and memorizing melodies from your favorite songs is the single best way to improve your musical vocabulary.

Once you have some of these memorized melodies in your toolbox, you’ll be surprised at how often you can deploy them in different contexts. This leads me to another exercise for improving phrasing: repetition and alteration. If you have a cool lick that works in a given harmonic and rhythmic context, practice repeating it with slight tonal and rhythmic variations. When you make a mistake, repeat it and try to alter the rest of the remaining notes of the phrase to make it resolve to your liking.

Get Comfortable With the Unknown and Feed Off Randomness

Mistakes are important, as they frequently lead to new ideas–perhaps more frequently than consciously driven creation. Most of us, however, like to sound good when we play guitar and are thus averse to taking the kinds of risks that lead to mistakes. Worry not, there is an exercise for that.

When my friend and mentor Ben Shelton was teaching himself jazz guitar in high school, he used to lay on his bed at night with the lights off and play with his … guitar. Called the “random note game,” the exercise involves soloing over a familiar tune and routinely moving your fingers to an unknown spot on the neck. You’ll end up hitting some weird notes. Practice your ability to get back into known territory without using your eyes.

Improve Your Phrasing by Privileging Time over Pitch and Tone

Another method, which Ben Shelton also taught me, is called the single note solo. Play over a backing track, and use only one note to build a solo. I believe music exists in three dimensions: time, pitch, and timber. Most guitarists focus only on the latter two dimensions–hitting the right notes and achieving good tone. The single note solo forces the guitarist to focus exclusively on time, much to the relief of his or her band mates.

You should practice the one note solo until you are able to create a musical story with only one note. Teach yourself how to build tension and release by varying your rhythms. Let the note ring for a while and feel it’s power, then feel how the mood changes when you play dense clusters of notes. Once you can reliably create musical narratives with one note, add another one. Once your two note solo is decent, practice the three note solo, etc.

I’m convinced that not a single person I’ve taught this method to actually does it–otherwise, I would have noticed a quantum leap in their soloing abilities. The exercise is hard to accept, especially for guitarists who already have decent chops. But the truth is, you will never be a good soloist until you can take a ripping solo using one note.

Still not convinced? Check out Johnny Guitar Watson’s solo on Those Lonely, Lonely Nights, which starts at 1:25. But start listening a bit before the solo starts so you can appreciate the context.

Speaking of context… context is everything. Solos do not exist in a vacuum–they are anchored to the song (and to some extent, the time and place) in which they are played. Johnny Guitar Watson’s approach to the solo from Those Lonely, Lonely Nights may sound ridiculous in a different song. Or maybe you think it sounds ridiculous as it is. And that’s a fair assessment.

Our tastes as musicians are relatively unimportant, what’s more important is our ability to get audiences to listen to and appreciate our subjective emotions and ideas. The best way to get listeners’ attention and potentially gain their appreciation is to lay out our musical ideas in a series of cogent phrases that effectively tell our personal stories.