Saturday, 8 February 2014

[Cheat Codes] Guitar Practice Techniques & Concepts 101: 1-Hr Lesson

Hello all, here we meet again ! 
Now I'm back with more knowledge to share with you guys and I hope the content would be useful to you. 

Sharing is loving, so in this post I will cover the learning points and many revelations I had with yet another great guitar lesson with my favorite teacher Az hahaha ! Well I love how the lessons are always brimming with tons of information, my only concern is when would I be able to fully internalize the content till it is second nature.

The reason why I said that is because today's lesson had concepts that actually were reiterated from past lessons, but somehow it didn't sink in to the abyss of my subconscious mind such that when I encounter similar problems, I still didn't have the natural response of instinctively "knowing" the right thing to do to solve the problem.

So today shall be the day I tell myself once more to please commit to memory this SUPER handy framework, of the stages of learning/practicing guitar or rather music in general:
1. Raw Material
2. Exercise/Etude
3. Prototype Lines/Licks
4. Jamming

Raw material refers to scales/arpeggios played dryly, oftentimes in ascending/descending order, and in guitarist's terms means learning the 'positions'.

Exercise/Etude refers to practicing any sequences in a fixed technical pattern, for example by choosing a certain interval and then playing the notes according to the scale/arpeggio at hand.

Prototype Lines/Licks would be to create melodic lines out of the scale/arpeggio and it could include or blend ideas from exercises/etudes.

Jamming would really be applying the lines in a real setting either playing with a band or backing track.

I will go on to illustrate more on this framework by sharing the problems I've encountered when practicing guitar and thus hopefully will show you why I regard this framework as important.

But let me first start off with something really humorous, or at least I think so. Actually I don't know whether it ought to be a laughing or crying matter because in a way, it is so true and I went through many of the stages myself, on the other hand, I found it freakingly hilarious when Az was stating it in a way that made me think "Wow, that sounds like me and many other people around me hahahahah !"

Alright, I shall go straight to the point now :D
The point is that many guitarists, one time or another in their guitar-playing lives, get stucked in 1 of the 4 stages. 

So chances are the guys who claim that scales and arpeggios are boring are stuck at the Raw Material stage. And guess what, once upon a time I was a proud member of that group of guitarists stuck at that stage. I didn't see much beyond the basic technical shape/position and thus couldn't be bothered with practicing scales/arpeggios because I didn't know their applications.

And Az made me realize too that my current blues improvisation is stuck at the Jamming stage. I remembered just a couple of days ago I was wondering what to do to bring my improvisation to the next level for simple blues chord changes and now I found out the problem area. 

So as hilarious as it is, chances are the "Jammers" have limited creative ideas/lines to play around with because they skipped the Licks and Etude stage (and sometimes the Raw Material stage too) and went straight into the passion of just jamming. And I am absolutely guilty of this and sometimes I even wondered why my lines always sounded similar one way or another without much variation.

And to top it off, I think just half a year ago or a couple of months ago, I was accumulating chord changes licks anticipating the day I would start learning them and even discovered an online platform that automatically generates jazz licks once you have keyed in the desired chord progression. I knew they existed and yet they didn't present themselves in the forefront of my mind when I actually needed them a few days ago hahaha ! How ironic.

Well I guess chances are you guys have heard of the Lick Player guy, the guy who plays only transcribed licks during jamming/live sessions. Now I am in no way here trying to belittle anyone and I regard it as a very great achievement for someone to be able to play licks during live sessions EXACTLY as they are learnt. 

But the point here is that Az points out that these are the players who are stuck at the "Prototype Lines/Licks" stage and without expanding into the Jamming stage coupled with a foundation in Etudes, he won't be playing spontaneous lines anytime soon.

Now for the Exercise/Etude people, they are the ones who play fixed technical patterns during solos and improvisations. And technically speaking, soloing in the metal genre is intensely based on the Exercise/Etude stage whereby the lines indeed are made out of very organized and consistent patterns.

I have to confess too that my latest recording of "Mr Saxobeat" (which I have not yet released onto Youtube, but will be soon along with my music video :D) has fast running lines inside that are strictly Exercise/Etude-based. Oops haha, now I know better and so be rest assured for my next recording I will apply what I learnt today :P

And this brings me to the next point: I am totally amazed today when I am shown that an Etude line can be immediately transformed to a Prototype Lick the moment 2 factors are applied:
1. Rhythmic pattern
2. Phrasing
   (+ Dynamics)

My teacher even showed me how that a simple C major scale when played dryly really would be deemed by many as "boring", but the moment you add a rhythmic pattern to the notes, add some phrasing with legato or hammer-ons, and thus with some dynamic-variation, it indeed transformed into something really freakingly melodious !
(Note that the order of notes played for the C major scale remained constant: in ascending order.)

It really opened my eyes because it made me realize all the Etudes I have been practicing can be transformed just by adding simple procedures to it, but of course tastefully and musically. But it changed the way I look at DRY exercises. I would say it is a particularly significant revelation for me as I would shamelessly admit to all of you that I am someone who actively avoids boring/dry stuff.

Today is yet again another great opportunity for me to remind myself how important it is to master the "4-note fragment" concept by our very dear Az. I have committed to it some time ago but laid it off (yet again !).

How profound it is that by selecting any 4-notes from any scale/arpeggio, one can base an entire solo just on that 4-notes. Again, it reminds us how often many guitarists neglect the power of the "simple" and often resort to many many notes when all it needs is just to master a mere FOUR (!) notes to give an awesome solo performance.

Well I have to put in extra work for my sequencing and licks, as when I raised my concern that I wasn't able to apply my practiced licks into live improvising, Az simply pointed out that it's because I haven't practiced it enough, because if 2 weeks of practicing that ONE lick ain't enough for it to come out naturally in solos, then 3 weeks should do the magic, or 1 month or longer - whatever it takes for you to INTERNALIZE that ONE damn lick/sequence hahahah !! 
[You hear that love-hate relationship I have with those licks/sequences ? Haha]

Now onto something real real cool: Az was saying that many guitarists, even professionals play with relatively (or rather overly) hard touch for their left-fretting hand. And I press my strings really hard too, but apparently it ain't a wise thing to do because 
1. It kills the sustain
2. It compromises the tone

The idea is to not have a left-hand that is full of tension as a result of the hard touch. 
As exercise we can practice:
Firstly, pick a muted note.
2ndly, play a buzzing note, and then by increasing finger pressure ever so lightly, until
3rd, you get a clear note.

It is harder to get a buzzing note for electric guitars that have lower actions as compared to acoustic guitars that have higher actions.

What is so cool right now is that you, as a guitarist is asked to play a "buzzing" note, how fun is that ? Hahaha !

Now onto some cool phrasing concepts. So somewhere in the lesson, my teacher was saying something like this - "Pick Hammer Pick Pick Hammer Pick Pick Hammer Pick Pick Hammer..."

For the non-guitarists, you guys would think what the hell was that ? Hahah ! 

So what Az did was apply the "Pick Hammer" phrasing in sequence onto an ordinary scale and as astounded as I am, the entire scale transformed. If I didn't remember wrongly, it is said that this "Pick Hammer..." idea is a John Scofield thing.

An an exercise, we can take any other ordinary phrase whereby all notes are picked and then change it up a little by applying the specific fixed phrasing sequence to the notes. This gave me more ideas too and I guess we could do stuff like "Pick Slide, Pick Pick Slide, Pick Pick Slide..." or even "Slide Hammer Pick, Hammer Slide Pick, Slide Hammer Pick, ..." or anything as wild as the imagination can go and see how it transforms a normal phrase into a phrasing fiesta !

And since John Scofield is mentioned, I guess we can't leave Chick Corea out of the picture can we ? So how is this awesome musician related to anything we are discussing today ?

This has got to do with the interval patterns discussed during the lesson. So there is the Line Direction and Interval Direction, and which I believe is best explained visually by example:

The example above is based on the Dorian mode in the key of A. As you can see, there are 4 types of Line/Interval Direction combinations: Up Up, Up Down, Down Down and Down Up.

When my teacher was illustrating each pattern, I actually found "Down Up" to sound much more unique and cool compared to the other 3 patterns. One thing is because patterns such as the "Up Up" is definitely one of the most practiced patterns by music students and thus more commonly heard and thus less unusual.

When I went "Wow this sounds cool", Az said that this "Down Up" pattern (the 4th line of the TAB) is actually kind of a Chick Corea thing, alright so that explains why it has "that" sound to it haha.

I have to confess too that oftentimes I stop right after the "Up Up" and "Down Down" patterns thus only benefiting from half of the exercises and thus possibilities, so for you guitarists out there what you can gain from this is to be aware of how many possibilities there are. I know that as many of us practice, sometimes we get lost in our little worlds and forget to add certain things into our practice routines but all it takes is a little reminder *smiles*

Another reminder (to myself and everyone else out there), Recording your improvisation is an important step in your practice routine. Through recording yourself, you will find out what works and what doesn't, and thus keep expanding on the nice-sounding ideas and eliminate the less-nice-sounding ones.
(Though told to record my own improv for quite some time now, I never seem to come close to recording myself improvising :P - alright Sapphire, now is the time you should finally remember).

Since I've been away from chordal rhythmic playing, ear training and sight-reading as well for a considerable amount of time now, I realized I have a lot to work on in those areas. Besides I've got homework from my class too :P

Anyways, to conclude I think I would note down another learning point. So Az and I were on the topic of sight-reading and I'm wondering how would it be for the Berklee audition. Since I studied in a music school, the obvious thing to do is really to just ask around and get MIXED answers in return hahaha, often times vague. But still the instinct is to ask people and not search online.

Well I was a bit surprised when Az said just Google it, because I expected audition material to be somewhat secret but there it is, it is on the Berklee website lol.
So the point is to never say never and always be resourceful, and I simply love the message as it ties in with what I believe in all this while, which is that - Everything Is Possible. Quite literally so.

I'm so glad to say that I'm having a mini holiday for the next 3 days yippie yay, to give my mind a vacation, do some modeling (after such a long time) and most importantly, to come back refreshed and ready for more hardwork.

Hope you benefited tremendously from this post, and see you guys again !

Take care and Love ya,
Sapphire Ng <3 <3 <3

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