Saturday, 2 November 2019

POLYPHIA: Tim Henson, Scott Lepage Guitar Masterclass (7 Learning Points, 5 Bonuses) | Sapphire Ng

This post will cover 7 learning points and 5 bonus points I’ve learned from Tim Henson and Scott Lepage’s (Polyphia) masterclass held in Singapore on Oct 25th 2019. 

Here is the video version of this post (refer to time stamps below the video for specific segments): 

Tim Henson and Scott Lepage (Polyphia) Guitar Masterclass: 7 Learning Points & 5 Bonus Points 

01:15 #1: Get Creative With Song Arrangement 
03:36 #2: Be Open To Inspiration And Influences
04:51 #3: Be Open To Expanding Your Skill Set
05:50 #4: Chord Melody Is Relevant In Rock 
07:38 #5: Very Simple Chord Progressions Can Be The Foundation To Musical Masterpieces 
08:21 #6: Professionals Make Mistakes Too
09:33 #7: Don’t Be Afraid To Go The Crowdfunding Route 

10:06 Bonus #1: Easiest Polyphia Song To Learn 
10:44 Bonus #2: What Makes A Melody Good 
11:03 Bonus #3: What They Think Of TABs
11:55 Bonus #4: A Useful Tip To Practice Sweep Picking 
13:42 Bonus #5: An Observation Of Their Backing Tracks At The Clinic

This clinic was organized by in partnership with Ibanez and Swee Lee Music. 

Polyphia is said to be a primarily instrumental progressive rock band, according to Wikipedia.  

Watching Polyphia live was a very inspiring experience. It was especially mindblowing to get to witness and hear firsthand their mastery and incredible technical precision on the guitar. Their officially recorded and released music I’ve been listening to on Spotify sounds amazing; their live performance however was truly on a whole other level, I daresay it offered an experience a hundred times better. 

The clinic followed an educational format which served the audience greatly. After each song was performed, Tim and Scott will discuss an interesting detail about the song, be it composition technique, musical inspiration, or any funny stories. 

For the following tunes by Polyphia that will be mentioned, it will be great to check them out on Spotify or YouTube. 

Learning Point #1: Get Creative With Song Arrangement 

Be creative with song arrangement, and don’t be restricted or boxed-in by traditional song form. 

Have you heard of a song having a pre-chorus, a chorus and then a post-chorus? Great for you if you have. I personally have not, and heard this concept for the first time at this clinic. 

Polyphia’s song “Champagne” was said to be “all about the chorus, it is hook after hook after hook, which leads to the song being catchy all the time”. This is certainly a mind-blowing concept to me, despite the fact that I’ve most probably been learning and playing smooth jazz or contemporary jazz tunes that could or would have similar song structure. I haven’t been paying extra attention to composition or arrangement of these tunes; I mostly dedicated my attention to mastering my guitar playing of them. Similarly, though I’ve been following and listening to Polyphia, I haven’t reached the stage of conceptualizing or putting into words the concept of their song form or arrangement. 

Whilst a song made up entirely of choruses and hooks might not necessarily work in every genre; it surely fits like a glove for such rock tunes, with external genre influences, fronted by lead guitars. 

Polyphia’s song “Champagne” also shows that a brilliant rock lead guitar tune can be inspired by and written on top of a vocal tune. This vocal tune can be any other tune, a tune you love or enjoy, and of any genre, pop, or hip hop, with dominant guitar roles or not. 

After performing the tune once, Tim and Scott explained that “Champagne” is written on top of a vocal tune. They then asked the audience to pay attention to how the lines seem to gel with the vocal tune as they performed “Champagne” again.  

I think that despite my limited knowledge of sound acoustics, I am probably seated at a seat at the venue that probably enjoys decent sound. I was seated at a spot precisely central to the stage, a few rows in from the first row; I got the seat with the best view, if not the best sound, as I arrived at the venue around 3.5 hours before the clinic was scheduled to start, and when Tim and Scott was having their soundcheck. 

Because of the sound system, the relative loudness of the 2 guitars, or other factors, I could barely hear the vocal tune in question after both guitarists started playing shortly after the vocal tune was played. The program of the clinic therefore seemed like “Champagne” was just performed twice. 

The finale song performed by Tim and Scott that evening also showed that a metronome tick can be added into the final released version of a song if that is what you want as an artist, and is in line with your creative vision. 

In summary, be inspired by any tune u love and enjoy. And that subjectivity reigns supreme in music; there are no rules, and anything goes.

Learning Point #2: Be Open To Inspiration And Influences

Be open to inspiration and influences outside of your genre, and at anytime or in any situation.

Tim shared a story. He was in the middle of a hair appointment when inspiration struck, and he cut short the appointment to go home to record his ideas. Inspiration can happen anywhere, and if you’re unable to record your ideas down in a notebook or phone, or to sing a melody or riff into your phone or some sort of recording device, be open to the idea of leaving your appointment halfway to honor your creativity. 

Even if that means you had to contend with weird stares from people who might wonder what happened to your hair for example; even then, chances are your mind would be bubbling with ideas and creativity, such that the opinion of others wouldn’t matter, as the way it should be anyway. 

We are in this life to create. You never know, something big and good can come out of it, even if it inspired just 1 other person. 

Such decisions in the short term might not be the most rational or make the most sense, but its results could serve to be the most rewarding in time to come. 

Be open to sources of inspiration as a musician and composer. 

Polyphia’s song “The Worst” was said to be inspired by Jimi Hendrix, and to be very pentatonic. “Goose” was said to be EDM (Electronic Dance Music)-inspired at first, from which the band tried to implement hiphop into the tune. 

With reference to some of their songs, particularly those they performed at the clinic (they performed a few tunes selected from their album “The Most Hated”), they reveal the inspiration behind the tunes being them attempting to “implement our style to hip hop, or to implement hip hop to our style”.

Tim also specifically referenced the American rapper Kanye West as being a musical influence when it comes to composing. 

Learning Point #3: Be Open To Expanding Your Skill Set

Scott shared a personal anecdote. Early on in Scott’s guitar playing journey, he said he ran scales ascending and descending until he could play them really fast. He then started to wonder where to proceed from there. He then started to look more into writing music. 

The idea therefore is that if you mostly focus on playing, consider working on writing or composing. Maybe consider working on music production skills if you don’t already do, or if you’re feeling stuck in a rut. 

Essentially, it would be to work on any other skill that you don’t usually work on in order to expand your skill set and to grow as a musician. Chances are your expanded skill set will make you more marketable as a music artist. 

If not, the process of simply learning and growing will enrich your life and make you better as a human being! Life is a constant learning process, and learning is to be enjoyed, not avoided. 

Learning Point #4: Chord Melody Is Relevant In Rock 

Chord melody is relevant beyond jazz, and could form a creative basis for composition in rock music. Tim and Scott do use chord melody to compose. 

Chord melody means playing both chords and melody at the same time. According to Tim, it is “root notes and chords outlining what you’re playing and then playing a top melody with that”.

Chord melody is most commonly associated with jazz guitar. 

As I was researching for this video and post, I googled “chord melody” just to see for myself. Excluding an ad at the top, 6 out of the 7 search results that came up on the first page of Google search results referenced “jazz”, “jazz guitar”, “jazz standards”, or “jazz guitar lessons” in their article titles, website names, or song titles. 

I personally was introduced to chord melody in the jazz setting as well when I was studying music in Berklee College of Music and International College of Music. I had guitar teachers who played jazz chord melody, and I listened to the jazz guitarist Joe Pass who had a swing jazz solo guitar album, the entirety of the album of which was based on chord melody. Chord melody is indeed an extremely difficult technique to play and to master. 

Considering chord melody’s association with jazz, and my prior conceptions of the technique of chord melody, I was very pleasantly surprised when Tim and Scott mentioned that chord melody formed the basis of composition of several of their tunes. In their own words, the tune “Saucy” is “made out of chord melody”, and “Goose” is “very chord melody heavy”. 

To accompany their explanations, Tim and Scott would occasionally demonstrate the riffs, licks or technique again, which certainly helps. On the other hand, watching them perform the relevant tunes live and getting to see for example, where Tim’s fingers land on the fretboard, it became really obvious that certain techniques are being used. In the case of chord melody, you can clearly see that Tim was playing chords immediately followed by licks. 

Learning Point #5: Very Simple Chord Progressions Can Be The Foundation To Musical Masterpieces 

The simplest chord progressions can lay the foundation to incredible musical masterpieces. Polyphia’s tune “Euphoria” for example is just 3 chords repeated throughout the entire song. 

Some might perceive Polyphia’s tunes to be rather complicated. In reality, alot of their tunes sound way more complicated than they actually are. 

As Tim and Scott said, they typically “flex” on simple chord progressions, adding notes and licks to the tunes, making the tunes sound deceptively complicated. “40 oz” in particular had alot of “notes” added to it; this tune has alot of arpeggio lines and features the technique of sweep picking. 

They emphasized however to “add notes extra tastefully to certain spots”; overkilling is neither creative nor effective. 

Learning Point #6: Professionals Make Mistakes Too

Making mistakes is absolutely normal; professional musicians or guitarists make mistakes too. 

I noticed that Tim made a few mistakes combined during the guitar masterclass and the soundcheck, which was around 3.5 hours before the masterclass was scheduled to start; Tim plays the lead. 

I was very glad to hear the mistakes, even though the mistakes were very rare. 

It might seem counter-intuitive, but the mistakes had a reassuring presence, particularly to aspiring guitarists like me. Firstly, they tell me that Tim and Scott are indeed humans, as odd as this might sound. 

More importantly, the mistakes seem to indicate that Tim and Scott’s level of guitar playing is attainable; not necessarily easy, but attainable, if you put in the required amount of work. 

The mistakes suggest that it’s a constant work-in-progress when it comes to working on your guitar playing skills; it is a journey, not a destination. That the goal ultimately would be to strive for constant improvement and growth, and not for robotic perfection. 

On the other hand, considering how exceptionally and technically demanding their songs are and the number of tunes they performed, it was certainly very impressive that only a few mistakes were apparent to me. We musicians all understand however, that the “actual” mistakes made often would differ from that which an audience notices, even if the audience were trained musicians. 

Learning Point #7: Don’t Be Afraid To Go The Crowdfunding Route 

The crowdfunding route is an available option should you assess it to be the right strategy for you, at that juncture in your career and in all of your circumstances. Fear should not be a reason not to attempt crowdfunding if it is the strategic choice to further your career, or to launch your project. 

Be sure to conduct comprehensive research, understand the implications of starting such a campaign, and invest effort into crafting an effective campaign if this is the right step for you. 

Polyphia themselves successfully used Indiegogo to fund their first full length studio album, and amazingly achieved 207% of their goal. Google “Polyphia Indiegogo” and you can easily access their campaign page, and if it interests you, to study the way they carried out the campaign to such success, or even to bookmark it for future reference. 

I personally found it really inspiring to go onto their campaign page, and to soak in the ingenuity of their strategy. I’m definitely bearing in mind that this can be a feasible option for me should I reach that stage in my guitar career. 

Bonus Point #1: Easiest Polyphia Song To Learn 

For guitarists, rock guitarists, or fans of Polyphia who are keen on covering Polyphia’s music, Tim and Scott recommend “Euphoria” as the easiest song to start on to get into covering their tunes. “Euphoria” is said to be fun and melody-based. 

I am currently learning “Euphoria”, am polishing up my playing of the tune, and am 30 seconds away from finishing learning the entire tune. I will possibly be back with a video discussing the process of learning the song and anything particularly interesting or worth noting when it comes to learning the tune, so that hopefully other guitarists can have an idea too, or can benefit from my process. 

On the other hand, Tim and Scott actually first joked that we, the audience, should cover all of their songs, when an audience member asked for a recommendation of one of their tunes to cover. 

Bonus Point #2: What Makes A Melody Good 

Catchiness is what makes a melody good, according to Scott. 

He thinks that especially good melodies are those that you absolutely hate, but utterly unable to get it out of your head; the kind of melody that announces itself uninvited in your head when you least want or expect it to. And all because the melody is catchy and unforgettable. 

Bonus Point #3: What They Think Of TABs

As a side note, Polyphia does offer its own TABs for sale. In line with the spirit of encouraging sales of their TABs, and no one can ever fault them for doing so, during the clinic Scott emphasized the level of detail and accuracy of their TABs, which they say are lacking in TABs of their music offered by others online. 

When it comes to the use of TABs, they encourage the ability to learn tunes by ear; this is after all the most fundamental skill of a musician. Scott mentioned that he himself started to hone his ability to learn tunes by ear when he started playing the guitar but realized that the TABs he tried to learn from were absolutely inaccurate. 

For me personally, the lead guitar jazz and rock tunes I’ve been learning in these past 2 months are not available in TAB format; they are not the most popular “classics” or solos. In any case, learning these tunes by ear is the most fun part of learning them!

Tim and Scott think that TABs allow a “quick reward to playing”, and is good for convenience, and for when there is a time crunch. 

They reveal that they do refer to TABs of their own music. Certainly it’s justified in that context, since they composed those tunes in the first place, and TABs certainly do offer a quick refresh if they had to perform their own tunes. 

Bonus Point #4: A Useful Tip To Practice Sweep Picking

I personally, and I believe possibly many guitarists, at some point in their guitar playing journey or career, would have struggled from this “problem” of sometimes missing out on what is the most obvious, and what might seem like common sense ways to help us have more effective guitar practice sessions. This can be due to habits formed from the moment we picked up the guitar, our comfort zones when it comes to playing and practising the guitar, and what and how we’ve practised up till this point.  

While seemingly common sense, Tim and Scott gave a fundamental tip to practicing sweep picking that could potentially transform the way you practice the technique. 

Practice sweep picking to arpeggios of a chord progression you like or enjoy. 

Your personal enjoyment of the chord progression you practice your sweep picking arpeggios to will make it tremendously easier to progress, and even to potentially excel at sweep picking, if you persist at it long enough. 

Tim’s lead guitar part for their tune “40oz” was a prime example of sweep picking in action running arpeggio lines ascending and descending. It was absolutely breathtaking for me to watch live and to hear for myself the cleanliness of Tim’s sweep picking of all the arpeggios. 

For those of you who play guitar who have practised sweep picking or use it in your guitar playing will know how challenging it is to sweep pick arpeggios cleanly! 

There are no shortcuts to getting good at sweep picking. Tim and Scott advised us to just practice and to just do it. Practising the technique to arpeggios of a chord progression you enjoy just might make the road to mastery less painful, painstaking and laborious.

Bonus Point #5: An Observation Of Their Backing Tracks At The Clinic

Tim and Scott’s backing tracks over which they performed their tunes at the clinic continue on even after their performance of the tunes end. This was funny to me. Especially because the tunes performed have been officially released by the band; their backing tracks weren’t trimmed to the exact length or arrangement of their officially released music. 

Surely, their use of such backing tracks would be rather useful in their day-to-day composing and practising. To have backing tracks that go on for say 10 minutes or for any other desired duration, you can experiment with composing licks and tunes over the track, practice sections of songs over and over, and even practice the same song multiple times to that one track! 

These are my 7 learning points and 5 bonus points I’ve learned from this clinic.  

If you enjoyed this blogpost or video, you would enjoy a similar post and video where I share with you 5 key takeaways from a guitar clinic with Marty Friedman. Link to the post:

What are your current goals for your guitar playing? 

Is it to be able to master a specific technique, to improve at an improvisational method, to play tunes you love, to compose your own music, to improve your knowledge of music theory, or something else? 

I would love to hear from you! 


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Monday, 28 October 2019

Marty Friedman Guitar Performance Clinic: 5 Key Takeaways + Bonus (Sept 29th 2019, KL)

I will cover 5 key takeaways and a bonus point I’ve learned from Marty Friedman’s Guitar Performance Clinic held on Sept 29th in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

Here is the video version of this post (refer to time stamps below the video for specific segments): 

Marty Friedman Guitar Performance Clinic: 5 Key Takeaways

00:57 #1: Work 5 Times Harder Than You Already Do
05:28 #2: It’s All About Luck 
07:26 #3: Use Key Changes When Composing
08:11 #4: Write/Release Music You Love
09:20 #5: Don’t Discourage Yourself By Playing Tunes Too Difficult For Your Level
10:26 Bonus Point 

This clinic was organized by in partnership with Swee Lee Music and Jackson Guitars. Marty Friedman gave an incredible performance of several of his songs, such as Devil Take Tomorrow, and Undertow. 

Marty Friedman is well known for having played lead guitar for the heavy metal band Megadeth. He has played alongside the amazing guitarist Jason Becker in Cacophony as well. Friedman’s music is incredible inspiration for rock/metal guitarists, so do check him out on Spotify. 

The first key takeaway is to work 5 times harder than you already do. He mentioned this as part of his answer to my question. The audience had the opportunity to do a Q&A session with Marty. I asked him for advice on mastering a repertoire or setlist in order to perform it live. 

I mentioned that I recently started the journey of building a repertoire in order to start gigging locally in my hometown, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On average, I’ve spent 3 days learning a song from scratch by ear, and I would then use the fourth day to video my playing of the tune from beginning to end as a way to consolidate my learning of the entire song. I repeated this process to learn a few new songs consecutively. 

I mentioned to Friedman that as I returned to the first song after learning say, 3 new songs in a row, I absolutely had a hard time playing the entire song through from beginning to end. I forgot sections, I don’t recall entire solos, I couldn’t remember the arrangements; basically my memory “failed” me. So I asked Friedman for advice on mastering a repertoire, citing his incredible 2007 concert in Japan (I watched it on YouTube the night before the clinic) where he played around 17 to 18 songs, in which every song is technically demanding and where he was the lead guitarist, and played solos, melodies, riffs, everything. 

Friedman first responded by saying that his compositions are his “babies”. Nothing could ever beat his mastery of his own tunes - he composed them, worked with them, recorded them, performed them; it is an absolutely different relationship with cover songs. He emphasized that enjoying a cover tune would help with remembering that tune you’re learning. 

On the other hand, Friedman also suggested a visual strategy to help with song retention. He mentioned that you could write down something the likes of, for example, in the context of a tune, that the intro might be “groovy”, the verse might be “resemblant of (this or that artist)”, the chorus is “vocal-like”, bridge is “(some style/other distinguishing feature)”, and so on. He then said to look at your notes while listening to the tune such that you associated a visual image with segments of the tune, and that eventually it will become internalized and you wouldn’t need the visual aid anymore. 

Following Friedman’s workshop, and it has been almost a month, I haven’t tried this method for songs I continued to learn or have learned. I felt I would rather practice the tunes more such that I could internalize everything in my muscle memory and mind without adding another element and dimension into the song learning process. So far, more practice of the same tune beyond the 3-4 days of first learning the tune has helped tremendously with retention of the structure and licks of the tune. However, certainly everyone’s approach to learning tunes are different and personal to themselves. I should definitely give Friedman’s method a go if and when I feel like I needed to experiment with another way that could help with mentally retaining tunes I’ve learned. 

Friedman followed by adding the advice that however much I’m currently practising the guitar, I should put in 5 times more work. Instinctively, my mind multiplied my then average number of hours of guitar practice a day, namely 4 hours/day, with 5, to give 20 hours a day of guitar practice. Most would agree that is unrealistic, but we get the point. Since that guitar clinic, I’ve been trying to increase my daily guitar practice hours. 

Now, slightly less than a month later, I’ve come to further realize the wisdom of Friedman’s advice. I noticed distinctively that in trying to put into action 5 times more effort and work into the same tune does yield positive results. As the saying goes, Rome isn’t built in a day. Investing more effort into the same tune without hastily moving onto the next has merits. This also communicates the importance of patience and dedication. 

A little anecdote Friedman shared during the clinic also has relevance to this point. He mentioned that prior to this clinic in Kuala Lumpur, he had a session 2 days ago in Japan. For which he spent a whole day working on just a 6-second, or 3-bars segment in a song to get it exactly the way he wanted it to be. He continued by sharing that the team was very impressed with his playing at the session thereafter, indicating humorously that others didn’t know his “doubts” of his guitar playing ability when he was trying hard previously just to nail that segment of the tune in question. 

On the other hand, it was rather humbling when Friedman actually shared that he is “in the same boat” as me when it comes to memory retention of songs/licks. He mentioned that occasionally when he had to learn licks, jazz or otherwise, I presume as a sessionist, he said he had problems remembering them too. He joked, “Why did the (musician/guitarist) even write that lick?”

As to the second key takeaway, Friedman said that it’s all about luck when it comes to making it as a professional guitarist or musician. I asked him if you needed to put in 100% of yourself, your effort, and your time into music in order to succeed as a musician. Friedman sparked this question of mine when he mentioned earlier in the clinic that when he was younger, he was contemplating either pursuing music or professional football. I asked the question because I love dance as well, and have danced longer than I’ve played guitar, and cannot imagine not dancing. 

Friedman responded by saying that one could be the world’s most talented musician, but he/she might not earn a dime; or one can be exceptionally talentless but earn a fortune in the music industry. That was when he emphasized the importance of luck in succeeding in the music industry. 

Friedman surely has a point, but I considered that reality might not be as simple as just luck it seems. I felt that apart from luck, other factors such as the uniqueness of an artist and his/her talents, the ability of the artist to capture the hearts and attention of audiences, or marketing could make a difference as well. But certainly luck could play a part in whether the artist meets the right people who could launch his/her career. 

The third key takeaway is to incorporate key changes into composition. Friedman said that a composition technique he uses is to put very simple melodies together in different keys. For example, for his tune “Devil Take Tomorrow”, the intro is in the key of F# major, and which then moves into the key of Eb major when the band comes in; it is an interval of a minor third, or 3 semitones. Friedman also mentioned that he uses simple chords for his songs, for example, major, minor, and minor 7 chords. 

The fourth key takeaway is to write, record and release music that you love and believe in. And “if you’re lucky, other people might like it too”. 

I understand that this advice seems rather contrary to today’s pop music mechanism or even the way businesses generally operate. Music labels, for example, are businesses themselves, and more often than not in the business of maximizing profits, which can be shown by the commercialization of artists and their music. Corporate companies similarly often make decisions based on product/service popularity, sales statistics, customer response to a certain product or service, essentially producing/providing what sells best. 

However, Friedman’s advice is surely poignant and almost common sensical when applied to the context of a musician/performer/guitarist. It is only when you love and believe in your music that you can convey sincerity, rawness and genuine emotions in the material that is produced and marketed to the public, and which in general seems to be what the public seeks in an entertainer or creative artist, in a world where profits come first. 

The final and fifth key takeaway is to play songs that correspond to your guitar skill level, especially when you’re first starting out on the guitar. An audience member asked Friedman for advice in this respect. This audience member was just starting to learn to play the guitar, and mentioned that he could feel discouraged if he tried to play songs that are too difficult. Friedman mentioned that when he was a beginner, if he tried to play tunes that are too difficult, such as tunes by the band “Yes”, he could possibly have given up on guitar too. So even guitar legends like Friedman aren’t immune to such humanly emotional downs. 

The lesson thus is to respect where you are in your guitar playing journey, to learn to enjoy the process, and surely to play tunes that you can manage at your skill level such that you don’t feel discouraged and give up on the guitar altogether. 

Friedman made an additional interesting point during the clinic. He thinks that Malaysian music is similar to Okinawan music. Okinawan music is the music of the Okinawa Islands of southwestern Japan. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Friedman if he could play some Malaysian music. The audience member hummed/sang 5 notes and Friedman immediately picked it up and played extended licks first beginning with that 5 notes. The audience gave a round of applause. It was very impressive. 

Friedman also mentioned that he leans more towards Japanese music, as he considers Japanese music to be more melodious or melodic as compared to American vocal pop which appears to emphasize more on skill level. It is definitely interesting to relate this comment to some of his compositions. 

These are the 5 key takeaways and bonus points I’ve learned from attending Marty Friedman’s guitar performance clinic. Thank you for reading and for your attention. 

Do comment on which takeaway or learning point is your favorite or which struck you the most, and why?