Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Recently, I came across a good deal at my favorite guitar shop, Guitar Syndicate, on an accessory that I have been wanting for a long time:  A looper.


Loopers are pedals that record you playing a track and play it back for you on either a loop or a single run through.  The one that I picked up was a used DigiTech JamMan, but you can also find ones by Boss, Line6, and most major brands of effects.

My Defense:

Now, those of you who know me know that I sway towards the acoustic and natural sound for my playing.  As a general rule, I don't like using pedals unless it is absolutely necessary.  In some cases, pedals take what might be a nice sound and make noise (but there are some awesome things pedals can do if you let them, I just don't spend the time or money on it).

That all being said, this is not what I would call an effects pedal by any means.  The sound you put into a looper is what comes out on the other side.

Use 1: Practicing

For practice, loopers are great for creating a backing track that you can hone your lead skills against.  For us rhythm players, it also gives us a chance to hear what our comping sounds like and evaluate how effective we are.  In addition, you can record an entire song you play through and listen back to how it sounds.

Use 2: Live Shows

Live, loopers can be a solo instrumentalists best friend.  A select few players out there have the chops (or even the ability to get the chops) to be able to simultaneously play both their rhythm and lead parts on the same guitar at the same time.  (We call these players gods and do our best not to be smited by them.)  However, for the rest of us, loopers can give us the opportunity to play leads and solos in a gig without needing to hire a backup band. 

This is because loopers have a handy feature of being able to record on the fly and play back instantly.  It takes practice to get good at it, but a well rehearsed player can do amazing things with these.  I've heard of one soloist laying in multiple layers of guitar to the tune "Hotel California" where by then end he has five different layers on the same loop going at the end of the song!

Now, you may think of the above as cheating, but believe me: I've seen it done and it in no way distracts from the show.  Good players are good players and this type of tool in their gig setup only promises an even better show for the audience.

Use 3: Composition

I don't do a lot of song writing (working on that one), but loopers can also help a lot with this.  What happens to me a lot is that I start playing or singing something that sounds awesome, then I have an instant memory wash where I can't remember it.  The JamMan that I picked up has a mic input which allows you to record your voice as well.  So, if I was recording when I played that little diddy I've worked on, I would be able to go back and add to it.  Not to mention, after I have chorded out I can go back and figure up melodies and bass lines later.


All in all, a looper can be a great tool for your set up.  They do require you have an amp and some way of getting the music into the looper (pickup on your instrument or a microphone), but aside from that small limitation, it can be your best friend.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Music Lesson 2: Tones, Semi-Tones, and the Major Scale

Now that we have a basic understanding of the Chromatic Scale, lets take a look at note relationships and the Major Scale.

Tones and Semi-Tones

As we move our way up the Chromatic Scale and back down we are moving in a specific order between the notes.  Now, every time you move from one note to another you are moving in what is called an Interval.  The term Interval is just a fancy name used to describe the relationship between two notes.  For this lesson, we are going to focus on two types of Intervals.

The most basic of these Intervals is called a Semi-Tone.  On our Chromatic Scale, we are moving one Semi-Tone at a time (or half step as we called it before) as we move up and down the scale.

Notice, as we discussed in the previous lesson, that as you move up or down the Chromatic Scale you are also moving one fret at a time (this applies to guitars, ukuleles, and any other fretted instruments* such as mandolin).

Now lets double the Semi-Tone.  When you add two halves, you get a whole, right?  (I hope you know this already...)  Well, when we do two half-steps, it becomes a whole step or one step. And when we do two Semi-Tones, we get a Tone.

As we move up or down the neck of our instrument(s), this means we are moving two frets each time.  So, let's try to move from C to C up the neck only in Tones.

Do you see what happened there?  In six steps we got to our next C.  Also, we ended up with a bunch of sharps (or flats depending on if you go up or down).  We haven't really discussed keys yet, but a general rule is that the key of C has no flats or sharps in it.  It's all natural!

The Major Scale

So, we need to make our way from C to C (up and then back again) while doing two things: not hitting any sharps or flats, and using each natural note in the scale.  When we do this, we get the following:

Now, let's compare this to the Chromatic Scale we learned in the previous lesson.

Notice how we skip all of the sharps/flats and move in a specific order.  Let's look at this in relation to Tones and Semi-Tones.

This formula of T, T, S, T, T, T, S is what we call the Major Scale Formula.  Moving in this manner is also called Diatonic.  For now, just think of Diatonic as meaning alphabetical.  Using this formula, you can now start on any note and find any scale!!!

Now, let's relate this to our fret boards.  Here is the C Major Scale on the ukulele and the guitar.

And here is the same scale with us jumping to different strings when we can.

One of the great things about fretted instruments is that you can move things around very easily from one note to another just by shifting to another fret.  With our Major Scale, we need only start at another spot and use the same pattern to generate new Major Scales.  In future lessons, I will show some of the many different scale patterns or fingerings that exist.  These will come in handy.  For now, try to find different ways of fingering different Major Scales up and down the neck.

Note:  For ukuleles, major scale patterns can be a little restrictive in regards to the different ways you can finger them.  This is because most ukuleles are tuned in reintrant tuning and your primary strings for the pattern will be limited to three strings (the C, E, and A strings).  If you are using linear tuning (also known as low G tuning), then it will be easier to come up with multiple Root to Root scale patterns since you now have four strings to work with.  I'll try to shed some light on this in the later lesson.


* Some exceptions of this include mountain dulcimer.  There are others in more exotic music styles that do not follow this rule.  However, in general, this is true for fretted instruments.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Music Lesson 1: Chormatic Scale

So, for lesson one I'm going to start out at the bottom of music theory: The Chromatic Scale.  This scale encompasses all the notes in one big shot, but at the same time illustrates a lot of the relationships between the notes.

It is important to understand that everything you learn in music builds off of what you learned before.  Sometimes things don't need a specific order, but most things do.  The further you get out of order, the harder a concept will be.

For this lesson, we are going to use the root and key of C.  Roots and keys will be described in much more detail in later lessons.  For now, just understand that the key of C is the easiest for us to work with.

The chromatic scale uses every note between the root note (in this case, C) and it's octave (or the next time that note comes up in the scale).  So if we start at C, we work this way:


This pattern is constant regardless of what root note you start with.  As we move from one note to another, each move is down by a half step.  The half step is the shortest distance between two notes*.  As an additional example, here is the chromatic scale for the Key of E (wheel use it later on the guitar):


As you can see, we are also only using sharps (#) as we go up the scale.  It is also acceptable to use flats (b) instead of sharps.  However, we typically use sharps when we ascend (go up) the scale and flats when we descend (go back down).  Here is the same scale (in C) going down with flats:


As you may notice, where there was a C# going up, we now have a Db.  That's because the sharp (#) makes the indicated note a half step higher and the flat (b) makes it a half step lower.  Since D comes after C, a Db is the same as a C#.

There is another thing to take note of with this scale.  Notice how the scale moves between E and F and also B and C.  Normally, on the scale, if move from one note to another, you would use a sharp (going up) or a flat (coming down) to go that half step between.  Well, there is not half step between E and F or B and C.

So, here is what you need to remember about this lesson:
  • Chromatic scales move one half step at a time from root to root (an octave).
  • When we move up, we sharpen the pitch so we use sharps (#).
  • When we move down, we flatten the pitch so we uses flats (b).
  • A Bb and an A# are the same pitch (as are other flat/sharp neighbors).

The practical side

Now we need to take this knowledge to the fretboard.  For ukuleles, we will use the C chromatic scale, for guitars we will use the E chromatic scale.

Notice as you work your way up and down the fretboard chromatically, you are also only moving one fret at a time.  This is because on fretted instruments (this includes the guitar) each fret represents one half step.

Now lets look at switching to a different strings instead of staying on one.

This is a good illustration of how tuning your ukulele or guitar to itself works.  As you can see, the notes blend themselves into the next string.

Finally, here are both fretboards laid out up to the twelfth fret with all of the notes.  Try to start at one note and work your way up and down the fretboard doing a full chromatic scale.

Now that you have a good understanding of the chromatic scale, we will move on to the next part of music which is tones and semitones.  We'll use this scale to do so, so make sure you know how it works before moving on.


* When I talk about music, I talk about western music (as opposed to Eastern or African or Tribal music).  In this case, there are some instances in other forms of music that use steps that we would call quarter or even smaller.  But for our purposes, we assume that a half step is the smallest.

Guitar and Ukulele Tuning

Tuning your instrument is one of the first skills you should master when learning how to play.  If you are lucky, you'll pick an instrument like piano that has to be tuned by a professional and therefore gets you off the hook of learning.  But, you probably aren't that lucky since you are here to learn.

I'm putting guitar and ukulele in the same lesson for one simple reason:  They share a lot in how you tune.  I say that for those who start on one instrument and then move to the other.  Many a guitarist has picked up a ukulele, felt completely baffled, and put it back down usually muttering some immature notion such as "those are cute toys."  (If you say that, I will unfriend you.)

Lets start with guitar.  Standard guitar tuning is E A D G B E (from low to high).  You can use an acronym to  remember the tuning if you would like.  I like the one "Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears".  Now, for tuning, we always want to start at the lowest note (fattest string) and work our way up. (This is because the bass supports the rest of the music.)  See below for more info on how to get that first note tuned.

Now, once you have that first note tuned, you can use the guitar to tune itself.  This is a very useful method for not only quick tuning between songs, but also for developing you ear to hear different tones.  First, count up five frets from the nut on the low E string and strum that note. This will be the note A that you should tune the next string to.  You can count up this way to get the notes for the next few strings too.  But, once you get to tuning the B string, you need to count up only four (not five) to do this.  For the last string, count up five from the not on B string.  Here's a diagram:


Ukulele is only a little different.  We can still use the same idea to tune it to itself, we are just going to use different pitches.  Now, at this point, it is important to point out something that usually throws a few people off.  The ukulele has several different options when tuning.  The standard tuning is what we call C6 tuning.  However, even the standard has two flavors: linear and re-entrant.

Linear tuning means that we tune all of the strings in order from low to high.

Re-entrant tuning means that we start with a higher string, then go down to a lower string and proceed up the scale. Five string banjo also uses this type of tuning.  This tuning also gives ukuleles the characteristic "My Dog Has Fleas" sound.

Whether lenear or Re-entrant, the order of notes is the same in C6 tuning (which we will refer to as standard tuning).  The notes are G C E A.  The G string is the one which we either tune low (linear) or high (re-entrant).

Since re-entrant is the most common tuning, I will show you how to do "self-tuning" in that style.  First, we want to tune our lowest string which will be not the G, but the C string (again, see below for tips on getting that note tuned).  Then, we count up 4 frets to get the note for the next string which is E.

Now we will regress to tuning the G string (which we skipped).  Count up 3 frets from the nut on the E string will give us the G we are looking for.  Once you have that in tune, count up the E string two more (a total of 5 from the nut) and you have your A for the A string.

Here is a diagram:


Seventy years ago, there weren't many options for tuning an instrument. You usually found a piano or other instrument that you could tune to.  If you were the typical upper middle class home, you'd just use the piano.  If you were in poverty, you did your best to tune it by ear.  Now-a-days, though, there are tons of options for tuning your instrument.
A Guitar Pitch Pipe

The first is still old school, but I highly recommend it for reasons of training your ears.  A pitch pipe as they are called can be bought for whatever instrument you are tuning or even a chromatic one with several pitches.  You simply blow on the desired pitch and tune the instrument by ear.  Most came with multiple pitches so you didn't have to tune the instrument against itself.  Aside from needing to tune by ear, the downside is that if the pitch pipe was out of tune, your instrument was out of tune.

There are also several websites that have "online" pitch pipes.  This can be a good option if you have speakers and often play in front of your monitor.

Snark Clip On Tuner
In our electronic age, the best method is the electronic tuner.  Twenty years ago, electronic tuners were still in their adolescence and relied on a poorly constructed microphones to pick up the sound your instrument made.  They progressed to plug in ones for electrified instruments, but those got expensive quick.  As digital electronics got better and better, the clip on tuners have hit the scene and changed the way we tune.

Clip on tuners can run from $10 up to $250 depending on who made them and if the come with any other functions or extras.  My experience is that a $20 or $30 tuner will last a lifetime if not abused and get you as in tune as you need. 

However, if you play an electrified instrument two options outside of the clip on are a tuner that you can plug in to the output cable or an on-board tuner.  The "in-line" tuners are great if you are already using effects petals.  It makes tuning pretty simple and can even help by "turning off" your instrument.  The on-board tuners are tuners added directly to your instruments on-board electronics.  They aren't available to every instrument, but are a wise upgrade if you are buying a new instrument from the factory.

So, that's all I have to say on tuning in this lesson.  As I mentioned before, mastering tuning is a critical step to mastering any instrument.  I highly recommend you learn not only how to use electronic gadgets, but also how to tune by ear.  The better you can recognize that you are in tune by ear, the easier it will be to know you are out of tune.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Banjolele Blues

I've been having some string trouble with my Goldtone Banjolele lately and I finally figured out what was wrong.  Let me give you a little background...

First off, ukulele strings do not come with the convenient little nubs, rings, beads, loops, etc at the end to make it easy to string.  They, like classical nylon guitar strings, are just strings at both ends.  This means that you usually have to tie the strings to the bridge or tailpiece and tie in such a way that the knots don't slip or break the string.  At first, I thought there was a disadvantage to my banjolele because I couldn't get the knots just right.

In fact, since I have owned the banjo (bought in April) I have gone through five sets of strings.  No, I don't play it that often.  What has been happening is I would open the case or come in the room after leaving it on a stand overnight and find one (or more) of the strings had popped at the knot.  Usually it would be the metal wound strings (I have a baritone with the wound D and G).  In fact, during a rehearsal for the musical "Flyer" that I was in this summer, a string popped and I found myself frantically retying it before the next piece started.

So, I got to the research.  There had to be a better way of tying these or something I was missing.  What I found made me a little excited.

The Goldtone banjoleles use a tailpiece that is not supposed to be tied.  That's right, it is what is known as a "no knot" tailpiece.  From what I can gather, this was a common tailpiece on '20s and '30s style banjos (especially Gibsons).

There is one small problem that I still have, though.  Elderly sent me the banjo with the strings knotted onto the tailpiece.  I'm assuming that this is a common thing for them.  There must have been some set up after Goldtone sent it to them, but either the manufacturer or Elderly installed the strings wrong.  Well, after trying to correct the mistake I can see why it was done.

(Now, let me pull back a second and say I like Elderly and Goldtone.  I will still be an Elderly customer and I would buy another Goldtone banjo/banjolele/guitar if I was shopping.)

The Goldtone version of the "no-knot" tailpiece has a big flaw:  The pegs are not far enough apart for the strings to fit in between them (see the pic above).  The good news: a replacement part is cheap.  Stewmac has them for about $10.  The downside is: they aren't in stock!

Luckily, my old friend ebay still likes to throw me a bone or two.  The new tailpiece not only allows me to properly install the strings, but it also allows me to adjust the tail piece's screw a little more accurately (I hear the closer it is to the head, the brighter the sound).

So, if you happen to purchase a Goldtone banjolele, take a look at that tailpiece.  If you are having trouble with strings snapping, a replacement may be the answer.