Saturday, July 19, 2014

Being Humbled by My Own Equipment

I know, the picture is flipped...
A very humbling moment today...  I had been having some troubles with my new Loar LH-200 (Cindy).  The "B" string had horrible intonation.  As a result, most chords that had a "D" fingered on that string sounded horrible.  I was making do, but I really was worried that the honeymoon had wore off and that I was going to be trying to get rid of this thing...

Then, I put it up on the bench for a different issue altogether (added a strap button; no big whoop). On the bench in the light, I noticed something looked wrong about the "B" and high "E" strings.  After putting the calipers to it, I figured out I had swapped those two in the last (first) restring... a month ago.

I went a month with this issue and never once thought that I had done something wrong.  Now it all makes sense, but I was really getting unhappy with playing the guitar.  Boy am I embarrassed!

It just goes to show you that no matter how much experience we have, we still make really obvious mistakes and it might take a completely different perspective to understand what went wrong.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Brown Out, Light Bulb Comes On

Music accomplishments seem to come from nowhere.  Tonight (Tuesday night) I was sitting at my church waiting for the ukulele jam I host to start.  I was early, no one was around, and a brownout hits the church.  Dark, holding my uke, Mary (Kala Tenor), in the basement and I can't see.  After a minute of fumbling my way towards the light, I end up sitting on the steps in front of a door waiting a few minutes for the lights to decide to come back on.

Screw it, I'm here by myself, let's do something weird to practice.  I start playing "Exactly Like You", one of my favorite tunes, and working out a solo.  I've long noticed how I can sub in notes not in the regular key (I play ELY in C major) to create some cool tension in the solo.  However, some of the talk about modal improvisation was really lost on me.  I'd taken a couple workshops and woodshedded modes for hours, but I just never got it to click.

The lights came on...  About that time, I decided to play a solo over the A section using all seven of the modes of C one at a time.  This is going to sound abstract if you aren't familiar with the modal system, so here is a quick overview:

Modes are just the major scale starting in different places:

C Major/Ionian C D E F G A B
D Dorian D E F G A B C
Phrygian E F G A B C D
F Lydian F G A B C D E
G Mixolydian G A B C D E F
A Aeolian A B C D E F G
B Locrian B C D E F G A

You can also keep them all with the relative same starting note (they'll just be in a different major key):

C Major/Ionian C D E F G A B
C Dorian C D Eb F G A Bb
Phrygian C Db Eb F G Ab Bb
C Lydian C D E F# G A B
C Mixolydian C D E F G A Bb
C Aeolian C D Eb F G Ab Bb
C Locrian C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb

That is the theory anyway, I have trouble thinking all of that nonsense, though when I play.  I learned long ago to think about it instead in terms of the numbers.  Basically, 1 is major, 2 is dorian, 3 is Phrygian, etc.  That and look at it on the fretboard in a certain way.  Let me show you what I mean:

If you are really paying attention, you will notice that there are only five different shapes/fingerings here.  That is the part of the point, you can go a long way only using those five shapes for soloing.

Now, back to the light coming on...

I played "ELY" while using each of these shapes (one at a time).  So, I only used notes from these shapes.  Some sounded great, others sounded good occasionally, some I just couldn't make it sound good.  But, the effect was tremendous to me.  Each of the different modes had it's own flavor and each left me feeling a different way about the mood of the tune (even when that wasn't the most pleasant sound throughout).

A next step for me was trying to play different shapes over different chords, but still thinking about it being a mode of C.

For instance, the A section of "ELY" is:

| C / / / | C / / /  | D7 / / /  | D7 / / /  | G7 / / /  | G7 / / / | C / / /  | C / / / |

(You could add a turn around at the end if you wanted...)

Over the C major chords, I played either a major/ionian shape or a dorian.  Over the D7 I played lydian and over the G7 I played mixolydian.  This is by no means a set in stone approach, but it gave me a new way of toying with the solos I was developing.

In swing, solos have to hint or reflect the melody.  If we get to far off of that, the listeners (and in many cases, the dancers) get lost and we don't want to loose them.  The idea I'm playing with above is a little departed from the basic melody, but when you look at the melody of "ELY", you find that in many points along the tune it follows much of the same ideas.  In fact, I kept finding myself resolving to melody notes as I worked through my newly crafted solos.

Now, I want to fast forward to around 8:00 as we were doing our jam.  My ukulele group is light on soloists.  Most of the players are strummers and they like to sing along if they know the words.  (And let me be absolutely clear that there is nothing wrong with that.)  So, I am often the one who gets called to take a solo when it comes around.  And when we played the great Hank Williams tune "You're Cheatin' Heart", I was chompin' at the bit to get my solo in.

It was rough at first as I started straight in on the new idea and didn't let the melody in.  Once I did, I started jumping off for just little fills on long holds.  Before I knew it, I was in and out of modes quick, using all of my fretboard, and generally playing one of the funnest solos I've improvised in a long time.  All in the key of A (which I hadn't tackled yet; remember "ELY" is in C)!

So here is the conclusion: Melodies are the hardy soup base for solos.  But the spices and hardy stuff comes from knowing how to use those scales.  So, practice both and do things that seem weird at first.  It will eventually turn on the light.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Public Displays of Music

A friend sent me this pic and I'm just a little scared that it looks a little like me (but I don't wear baseball caps in public anymore).  I don't want to be political about guns, so I'm changing the topic quick...

You should play in public more often.  I don't care the venue, but grab your acoustic (or electric if you want) instrument and go to a public space and play.  In fact, don't even busk, just play.

By the way, busking means playing publicly for money. Think of the guy a the local shopping plaza who brought his guitar and opens his case to accept money and tips.  Panhandling is asking for money without any performance (aside from the made up story about your car breaking down and needing to get uptown to go to court). There is a lot of feud between cities and musicians about the difference between busking and panhandling.  I've been on the wrong side of that a time or two.  Personally, I believe all city laws limiting the scope of acoustic busking inhibit my constitutional rights to free speech and freedom to assemble.  But, again, I'm not trying to get too political here.

Why should you play in public?  Because you need the experience of feeling like every eye is on you while you play music.  It can be a rush, but it is usually intimidating.  It is much better to get this out of the way in an informal situation than to be forced into confronting it first time on a paying gig.

Secondly, the world needs more good music. I understand that many of us are not confident in our abilities and that there are probably some "musicians" who wouldn't qualify for the adjective "good".  But still, most musicians are pretty good.  If you can play an hours worth of a set without stopping, then go for it.

Lastly, you just need to be outside more.  Being outside does a lot for your mood and health.  We are just now figuring this out in modern medicine, but we are designed to live outside.  Aside form that, music is great medicine too.

So, go have a public display of music.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Your Own Style

At a certain point, you go from trying to learn to play a genre to learning to play tunes. Really, this is the true way of it. If you want to play Wes Montgomery, start playing his tunes. If you want to be Bob Wills, learn Bob Wills' music.

But style is everything. These players that came before you who defined a genre or sub genre have their own influences, but ultimately at one point stopped covering their heros and started playing like themselves. This is where so many get lost. Either they jump too  late onto their own style or they never do it at all. 

Almost never do we jump too early onto our own style. Because we are constantly influence by our surroundings, developing our own way of speaking through our music is never something we can start too early on.

To use the bandwagon analogy again, if you get on the wagon early, you are still on the wagon. Too late, you've missed.

Conclusion: Stop covering. Play tunes they way you play them. Add all your experience and influences up and give the sum over to your instrument.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The 13 People you meet in the Community Musical's Pit Orchestra:

This is a response to a Facebook post I saw about this blog:

As you may know, I work every year in the pit orchestra at my local community theater (notice where I put the 'r' there; that's the way it's spelled!).  Enjoy.

1. Director (who isn't in charge of music): She would like to have a say in the 90 cuts that litter the rehearsal room floor, but the "Music" Director just doesn't need another dance number to prepare for.

2. The Pianist: She's the one who goes to every audition, rehearsal, and staging. She also has played more notes by the end of the show than many of the actors will ever sing.

3. The Veteran: This person has played in every single production since the theater group started. His/Her notes are likely still etched on the music from the first run of Oliver.

4. The New Family: This is the young couple with possibly one on the way that swear up and down both of them will still participate when the baby comes... We'll see...

5. The Bass Player: He's a high schooler who's mother knows the director and the director was desperate. He can read music, but prefers it if some just tells him what key and style to play.

6. The Handle Bar: He is either a trombone player or a tuba player. Somehow, out of every bit of improbability, he looks good. Like the star of a cigarette commercial from the '80s good.

7. Mr./Mrs. Infinite Wisdom: Sometimes this is the same as the Handle Bar. No matter what is happening in the music or in politics of the musical, they have an overly wise and insightful comment that makes everyone stop and think...awkwardly.

8. The I-Play-Everything: This person usually is a woodwind player. They play flute, clarinet, some clarinet no one has heard of, and anything else they can lug into the pit.

9. The Guitar Player: They never played a single bit of jazz music before the picked up the guitar part for "Anything Goes". Also, they think they set the tempo. Silly guitarists...

10. The Percussionist: This is not the trap set player. They bring as a minimum three large timpani, at least one xylophone, and four bags stuffed full of noisemakers.

11. The Setup/Teardown Guy: This person, regardless of any personal life, comes two hours early, setups up everyone's chair and stand (somehow correctly), lays out the cables for mic'ing and stand lights, and then after the show stays two more hours to make sure everything is put back correctly. We love this person. We pick up their check at the after party.

12. The High Schooler: She (and it always is a she) is the flute player (and it always is a flute player) who came because she wanted the extra line on her college application. Now, she might be looking at how much her flute will go for on craigslist.

13. The Tuba Player: He plays the bass book. Even though there is a bass player. He is also why almost every song has that om-pa feeling.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lent Writing Challenge 1 of 40

So, in addition to multiple other personal things I'm doing for Lent this year, I've also decided to challenge myself in song writing.  I've never really done much song writing before. But, I've always wanted to.  In order to jump start myself a bit, I'm going to do 40 songs, 1 a day, through Lent.  Since today is Ash Wednesday, I've started early.  Take a listen:

Copyright 2014 by Danny Fowler

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Guitar vs. Ukulele: Personal Reflection

A week ago I spent Wednesday through Sunday at my first national music event: The Folk Alliance International Winter Music Camp and Conference.  I can't tell you how much of a blast I had.  Not only did I learn a ton, but I felt like a very respected member of the teaching staff for the camp.  Tons of friendships and contacts were made, and a new step in my career was made.

Over the last week since then I have had two out of three gigs and tons of time trying to absorb the many notes that I took that week and made since.  I've already logged something close to thirty (that's 30) hours this week in music between playing, practicing, and writing.  In all of this, I have also been reflecting a lot.

In particular, I've been reflecting on my time spent on guitar vs. my time spent on ukulele.

Honestly, I love both instruments, but as a musician I am constantly forced to do two things very well:  Play my instrument and create an image.

I can play both guitar and ukulele well, but ukulele comes much more naturally to me.  It seems like everything from rhythm to melodies lay out in a much more logical way.  Which is crazy, I know, given how similar the instruments are.

As for image... Well, let me just say that one of my favorite gigs, Headrush, talks more about my ukulele music than about my guitar.  Even my mom likes my ukulele more than my guitar.

I don't want you to get the idea that I'm giving up guitar for ukulele.  Far from it.  My work at my church alone will keep me playing guitar quite a bit every week.  Add in the musicals I do and the fact that I just really like playing jazz guitar, and I'll be keeping up with it.

But, as my forte performance instrument... I've decided to finish the Koolaide and go full on with ukulele.  I'll be focusing more time on that instrument and working more and more on the arrangements for my gigs.  I'll also be doing some recording and notation which I will share with my blog here.  The end goal: Building my brand as a ukulele player.