Flynn Amps and the value of enthusiasmK is for Knopfler, MarkM is for Modes

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I like to do a lot of things in my life. I like to do a lot of things that involve my hands. Things like fixing the car, gardening, camping, sport and so on. Now, I can hear you thinking “what on earth is he on about” but bear with me. Doing things with your hands can leave them in a state of disrepair. It could be something as bad as a broken or sliced finger, all the way down to just hardening the skin and leaving you with less dexterity than you had.

I used to do all these things with reckless abandon, but the longer I spend as a full time guitar player and teacher the more nervous about my hands I get. I do have them insured but I really don’t think that money would help me much if I ended up unable to play the guitar. I’ve stopped playing sports that need my hands, and I am very aware of them when I’m fixing things and thinking about a garden in my future.

It’s all part of what you have to put to one side to devote yourself to something as time hungry and consuming as learning a musical instrument to a professional degree.

And do you know what?

I wouldn’t change it.

/h


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So at the gig we did at the start of this month my long suffering and hard-working amp finally decided enough was enough and gave up. I haven’t been that gutted about anything for a while, because although it was only that the tubes were old and perhaps a loose connection, it still felt horrible that something I love that much had gone wrong.

After doing a bit of research I found a few amp repair shops in Glasgow and emailed them. The quickest to get back to me where Flynn Amps, who are located round the back of CC Music in the west end. I am always a bit nervous trusting other people with my gear but after talking to the guys for a few minutes I was totally satisfied that they were experts and above that, that they really cared and where interested in what I had and what I wanted.

I knew that I wanted to change the valves in the amp when the time came to replace them,the EL34’s that are stock in my Uberschall can sometimes sound a little too modern. 6L6’s come highly recommend by many people if you want to move a little further away from sounding like a Mesa, toward a more classic, Orange tone.

I discussed this with the guys, and while not totally convinced I should change the tubes (their argument, a valid one, is that hand made amps have already got the best valve they can possibly have in them, though all that testing) I stuck to my plan and they came through for me. There is nothing better than talking about gear with someone who also cares and will respect your opinion while holding their own.

The value of enthusiasts in this case is that you know that your gear will be treated as if it was their own. People who care that much love the amps and guitars they handle as what they are, which is not only tools but personal items that the people who own them have a very real bond with.

Having played the newly re-tubed amp last night at a gig and before that in the afternoon at a practice I can report that it sounds better than ever, the 6L6’s have given it even more bite to it’s roar, if that was possible! I am more happy than I really should be that my amp is back up and running and I highly recommend Flynn to anyone who needs anything fixed. Go check them out!

/thanks


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If you book five guitar lessons with me between now and January the 31st I’ll give you two of them for free! Drop me a line and let me know if you’re interested. Lots of people say they are going to learn a new skill in the new year. This’ll help with the costs!

/harry


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M is for Modes
January 2, 2014

Ah modes. The guitarists obsession. Don’t ask me why but it seems that more than any other class of slightly obsessed musician if you get a guitar player started on modes then you’d best be settled in for a long lecture. But it’s one thing once you understand them, it’s quite another to explain it to someone. I’ve spent more time teaching modes than I really should because there’s so many ways of looking at, playing and understanding them. Still, I’m going to try and do it in one blog post!

Modes are scales created by playing the notes of an existing scale starting from a note other than the original keynote. The most common ones played on the guitar are the ones formed from the major scale as follows;

  • The Dorian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its second degree
  • The Phrygian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its third degree
  • The Lydian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its fourth degree
  • The Mixolydian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its fifth degree
  • The Aeolian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its sixth degree
  • The Locrian mode uses the notes of the major scale starting from its seventh degree

Even though the major scale (also known in this context as the Ionian mode) and its modal variants have the same notes, because they do not simply start form the same keynote they do not share the same tonality or ‘feel’. For example the major scale has a major third interval (distance) from its root to its third nor and a major seventh interval from its root to its seventh note while Locrian has a minor third and a minor seventh meaning it is a form of minor scale.

This is another way of remembering and playing shapes for the modes, Aeolian is simply what we would refer to as natural minor, the minor scale that most people would recognise. Ionian is our standard major scale and the modes can be thought of in relation to those two, Dorian is a minor scale with a major sixth interval as the sixth note, Phrygian is a minor scale with a flattened second, Lydian is major with a sharp fourth, Mixolydian is a major scale with a flat seventh and Locrian is a minor scale with both a flattened second interval and a flattened fifth.

Using modes is almost easy once you understand them! Two main approaches to using modes are normally taken the first being that the modes are treated as key centres in thier own right with a group of chords to accompany each modal scale. For example D Dorian could be used in a D Dorian minor key centre containing any of the following chords: Dm, Em, F, G, Am and C. Advanced players sometimes use modal scales as chord scales. Using a different scale over each chord. For example using the Dorian scale again it fits of the minor chord built on the second degree of the major scale (Dm in the key of C).

I hope that gives you a little insight into modes, although if it helps you understand why guitar players are so fixated on them, let me know, because after 20 years I’ve still got no idea!

/harry


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Few things to talk about and this is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the techniques and skills I teach and encourage people to explore. Lets begin;

Slurs

Slurring is a term that is used to describe both hammering notes on and pulling off. Hammering consists of not plucking the string again, rather you firmly and quickly ‘hammer’ your fretting finger down onto the desired note hopefully with enough accuracy and clarity to achieve the correct note. Pulling off is more or less the same thing in reverse. After plucking your choice of fretted note you pull your fretting finger downwards and across the string effectively plucking it with your fretting hand to sound the lower note. Using slurs can make playing both faster and smoother.

Slides

Sliding between notes is a distinctive and highly effective musical technique that is ideally suited to the guitar. You can slide quickly from a few frets away into your target note and it doesn’t matter too much where you start from so long as you do not linger on the starting note. Alternatively you can play and hold a lower note before sliding to a higher note in that scale (or vice versa) aloowed as many of the intervening notes to sound as you like.

Vibrato

Vibrato is the practice of repeated varying the pitch of a note very slightly by moving the fretting hand finger and/or wrist. You can get the effect by waggling the tip of your fretting finger up and down. The wrist is more likely to come into play when you are using the first finger. This technique is a very personal one and many famous players can be recognised by the way their vibrato sounds, adding character to their lead parts and solos.

String Bends

You can change the pitch of the note without altering fret or string choice by playing a note and then pushing the the string upwards while letting the note ring. String bending is very common and is a fantastically expressive way of adding emotion and feeling to guitar lines. It’s common to use the third finger to bend a note and add the second and first as support behind the fretting finger. There are many different kinds of bends to try, including but not limited to the choke bend, the hold bend and the double bend. Bending is also a situation where bringing the thumb over the top of the fingerboard can help and not hinder.

Until next time, happy playing!

/harry


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K is for Knopfler, Mark
October 2, 2013

I really liked the basic bio of Robert Johnson that I did last week so here is another one! I thought I knew a bit about Mark already but I didn’t know he was born in Glasgow so that makes this even more topical!

Knopfler was a late bloomer who worked as a journalist and a teacher, before forming Dire Straits in 1977. Two years later, the band, including his younger brother David, scored their first hit, ‘Sultans of Swing’. He made his debut into the world on 12 August 1949. Knopfler was born in Glasgow, Scotland to an English mother and Hungarian-Jewish father. At the age of seven years, Knopfler moved to Northumberland with his family where he attended Gosforth Grammar School with his younger brother David.

From a young age, he started playing the guitar and listened to Elvis Presley and BB King for inspiration. He formed and joined bands at school before pursuing a journalism career from 1970. In 1973, he moved to London where he joined the band Brewers Droop and became a lecturer at Loughton College in Essex where he stayed for three years. By the mid 1970s he had formed the band Café Racers. His brother joined him in London and the pair moved in with John Illsley, who Knopfler asked to join Café Racer, which became Dire Straits.

Though Dire Straits began as a group with a permanent line-up, it evolved into a title for Knopfler with varying personnel. An apolitical alternative to punk in the radical late 1970s and early 1980s, his restrained, thoughtful songs were characterised by mournful guitar and world-weary vocals. The band’s third album, ‘Making Movies’, was his most personal, featuring what has become his best-loved song, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, about a failed love affair. For the most part, Knopfler kept the deepest part of himself out of his song writing, creating fictional characters and narratives.

That’s enough for now I think. I’ll have to try and do something more related to playing for “L”.

/harry


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J is for Johnson, Robert
September 27, 2013

Robert Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues performers of all time. His hits include “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which has become a blues standard. Part of his mythology is a story of how he gained his musical talents by making a bargain with the devil. This story has been reused and retold many times as a part of rock mythology.  Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. As a singer and guitarist, Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues artists ever, but this recognition came to him largely after his death.

During his brief career, Johnson travelled around, playing wherever he could. The acclaim for Johnson’s work is based on the 29 songs that he wrote and recorded in Dallas and San Antonio from 1936 to 1937. These include “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which has become a blues standard. His songs have been recorded by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Johnson came to the attention of many musicians and won over new fans with a reissue of his work in the 1960s. Another retrospective collection of his recordings released in the 1990s sold millions of copies.

But much of Johnson’s life is shrouded in mystery. Part of the lasting mythology around him is a story of how he gained his musical talents by making a bargain with the devil: Son House, a famed blues musician and a contemporary of Johnson, claimed after Johnson achieved fame that the musician had previously been a decent harmonica player, but a terrible guitarist—that is, until Johnson disappeared for a few weeks in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Legend has it that Johnson took his guitar to the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61, where he made a deal with the devil, who retuned his guitar in exchange for his soul.

Strangely enough, Johnson returned with an impressive technique and, eventually, gained renown as a master of the blues. While his reported “deal with the devil” may be unlikely, it is true that Johnson died at an early age. Only 27, Johnson died on August 16, 1938, as the suspected victim of a deliberate poisoning or perhaps congenital syphilis.  Several movies and documentaries have tried to shed light on this enigmatic blues legend, including Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? (1997) and Hellhounds on my Trail (2000).

/harry


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I is for improvisation
September 8, 2013

Hello everyone.

Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to ‘I’.  I think that improvisation is perhaps the most scary thing for most beginners. I have very few students who pick it up right away and the vast majority struggle to play things without at least some kind of boundaries to think about. With that in mind I generally start people off with a couple of very basic scale shapes. Starting off with the pentatonic and moving on to major and perhaps minor too if they’re using the first two usefully.

I also find that chucking people in a little bit can help. I like to set a couple of rules for each jam session during a lesson and I follow the idea of the power of three for these rules. People like choice but not too much choice, and things like “only use the higher three strings” or “try and stick to three note phrases ” helps to stop the budding Hendrix from becoming overwhelmed with the sheer amount of choice the guitar offers.

Once the student is comfortable with these basic ideas, we introduce techniques such as bending and slurs into proceedings. While these may not be unknown to the player, as they may have featured in songs that they have already learnt, it’s one thing to know there’s a slide coming up and put it in the song and quite another to plan for one in your own solo on top of note choice and rhythm and then execute it.

Speaking of rhythm, it’s often said that the notes you don’t play are just as important as the ones you do, if not more so! I try to get my pupils to think in terms of speech. I find the best, most memorable solos sound like someone singing. Albeit someone singing very fast sometimes! Many of my students don’t have the confidence to sing out solos as practice but 99% of them have no trouble talking to me so I ask them to think of how they phrased the last question they asked and put notes to it. I find this is a speedily effective way of introducing thinking about rhythm as well as pitch.

For more advanced students there’s a whole raft of things out there such as tapping, sweep and economy picking and theory such as modes and arpeggios that can be applied to solos. Picking which is a favourite and working on it is the trick, trying to master everything at once is almost always going to lead to being a jack of all trades and not fully understanding any of them. One of my preferred avenues here is to take the humble pentatonic and work at it being not just a one or two box scale but extending it all over the finger board in as many keys as possible. Soon changes people’s views of it, I can tell you!

Any ideas for “J”?

/harry


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H is for Harmonics
August 26, 2013

Harmonics are musical notes created by making certain overtones louder or quieter on a guitar string. Most commonly this is done by lightly placing a finger on a string at a nodal point of one of the overtones at the moment when the string is driven. If you haven’t got the time to read an depth article on physics then basically a node can be thought of as the ends of the string. When we change the location of the ends by fretting the string and artificially shortening it for a time, the node moves and the pitch we hear changes.

Damping the string at a given point kills off all the overtones that have a node near the damped point. Leaving the remaining overtone with the lowest pitch to dominate the sound. Other harmonic techniques include pinching the string with the picking hand, tapping with the same hand and the use of feedback and tools such as an Ebow to vibrate certain portions of the string and their attendant overtones.

Learning to play harmonics can be difficult. Those with smaller fingers (young kids) can struggle to get the hang of pressing down to fret notes. Then when you tell them to touch the string more lightly, getting the hang of this new feeling can be a struggle. There can be many uses of pinched harmonics in rock music so there reaches a time where this can be more of a focus. The angle of the thumb has to change significantly for this technique and it is a difficult one to master. Not least because for each fret and each string the best position to pinch with the picking hand changes.

No substitute for practice!

/harry


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G is for game music
August 22, 2013

One of the many challenges I fact as a guitar teacher in our age of modern music consumption methods is trying to get kids to listen to music as an activity on its own let alone listen to music with guitars in it. It isn’t that there isn’t the music out there and in fact it is even easier to get your ears on it than ever before. But the simple fact of the matter is that putting on a CD or heaven forfend an LP and just listening to it really is a thing of the past. Music is something that goes in films, in games and on the TV, something to be clicked on and listened to while you watch the video.

One of the best weapons in this battle for me is computer game music. Once you get to a certain stage of your life playing the guitar (and I am generalising here) you tend to be the same sort of person who enjoy video games. A lot of the teenagers I teach spend more time playing on the house Xbox (other gaming consoles are available) than actually practising the guitar. There was a time in my life where I did too!

If you can get the two to combine you’re halfway there. Role Playing games, and especially the ones set in a classic fantasy location are the best. A lot of them make use of, if not guitars, then plucked stringed instruments of one kind and another to produce both themes and ambient background music. If you can turn up to a lesson with something that reminds your student of the time they defeated a large and hungry dragon, they’re likely to have fun playing the music.

And if they have fun, I’ve done my job right

H is next. I’ll do my best not to just write a post about myself…. No promises though.

/harry