Entries in guitar (3)


Creativity: you don't grow out of it

Almost every one of us has had this experience at some level. Activities that used to fascinate and transfix you as a child eventually get pushed aside in favor of more practical and sensible activities. Maybe you loved building forts out of cardboard boxes, maybe you made up recipes using whatever you could find in the kitchen, maybe you wandered your backyard with a magnifying glass. In most of those cases, you look back and realize you don't do that as often as you used to.

It starts in grade school when you have to do your homework before you can play. Or you need to clean up the house first. Soon your parents and teachers don't have to say anything, it becomes ingrained in you. The process is gradual but highly effective; we learn to push all the responsible and "necessary" activities to the top of the list and barely notice as fort making, cartoon drawing and puppet shows get pushed farther and farther down the list. Eventually they're buried under so many other responsibilities that we forget them.

The problem with that eventuality (if my own experience is at all applicable to you) is that we don't really forget those things. They burn deep down, eating away from the inside while all the exterior forces scratch away from the outside. Despite the message that pummels us from the world around, "cut your hair, get a real job, stop wasting your time", the crazy, intense, youthful creativity that we start out with is still there and suppressing it hurts, literally.

For one, suppression is destructive because it makes us less effective in everything we do. Many of you know how much more difficult it is to teach your parents' generation about technology than it is to teach your kids. Just watch a 6 year old and a 60 year old, each with an iPad. The 6 year old will bang around, try things and learn from mistakes. They will ask you questions whenever something doesn't make sense ("Why does the picture keep flipping when I turn it?") but the minute you answer the question, they run with it (I constantly find my iPad with rotation lock active and I rarely, if ever, use it myself). Kids take these things very seriously (they want to learn as quickly as possible) and yet they approach everything with a wide open, playful sense that means they seldom get demoralized or frustrated.

The non-technical adults I interact with are quite different. Every challenge is a struggle, every quirk is a land mine. Even though adults have much more experience to draw on, seeing analogy in technology is much more difficult. Where kids revel in the newness, starting from complete lack of information and rapidly climbing the learning curve, adults get impatient. The first hurdle and they fall deep into the mud, sucking them down into mental gridlock. And, in my opinion, this is tied very closely to buried creativity.

You can't make creativity go away. If you do, you become less effective in so many ways. When you bury your creativity, you also bury your happiness, although this process is slow enough that you don't really notice until you are quite far down that road. It doesn't matter where your creativity naturally focuses. It's dangerous to bury it, assuming that more practical use of your hours will make up for it. Every one of us needs to find a balance: support yourself and your family without walling up your creativity behind brick and mortar. Your creativity is a fuel and a skill that facilitates everything you do. The more actively you exercise it, the more likely it will be available when you really need it.

For me, this means remembering that music, and specifically, guitar, drive me in a way that nothing else does. I am happy and energized when I give myself time to play my instrument. Listening to music isn't just a passive thing for me, it's enveloping and something I need to do regularly. Maybe it's cooking for you, or gardening or oil painting. Can you figure out how to restore the creative activities in your life? What is the key for you; what creative arena defines you?


Great guitarists - The never-ending story

In a recent article I talked about guitarists that impacted my early development, leading up to the grunge and nu-metal eras where lead playing was less of a focus. Fortunately for me, The 21st century has been a rebirthing period for lead guitar. There were two key discoveries that mark the beginning of the next generation of lead guitar for me.

I remember one night, getting gas at a little indie station on El Camino in Redwood City, probably summer/fall 2005. Don't even remember what station I was listening to; I have this odd memory it was actually a "modern rock" station rather than a classic rock or metal station. That was the moment I first heard Avenged Sevenfold (aka A7X), their "Bat Country" single just blew my mind. A7X manages to meld a lot of different styles into their predominantly metal songs. For me, there's a level of musicality in their songs that sets them apart. Synyster Gates brought me back again to my deep love of neoclassical, melodic lead guitar in the context of metal. He has a remarkable ear for note choice; his lead lines travel with confidence across the underlying harmonic motion. And there's nothing better than watching the right-handed Synyster and Zacky Vengeance, a lefty, on stage, blowing through harmony lead after harmony lead.

In 2007, I decided to attend Uli Jon Roth's Sky Academy guitar workshop in Hollywood. It was an exciting experience to be surrounded by guitarists that love Uli's playing, all of whom inspired me to continue improving on the instrument I love. I finished that trip with a couple of new and great friends (Errol and Carl, you know I'm talkin' 'bout you!) but there was another key element of that workshop. I'd known of Paul Gilbert by name for quite a few years, but for no good reason had never quite immersed myself in his playing. Paul changed that with his performances at the Sky Academy concerts that week. Oddly enough, it wasn't his amazing neoclassical chops, his sweep picking or his uptempo Racer X instrumentals. Nope, it was his Hendrix covers (here's Foxy Lady as an example). Paul showed up in a T-shirt and jeans, carried out a combo amp and proceeded to let loose a combination of blues licks, Hendrix-esque vocals and some true PG gymnastics, punctuated by his ever-present sense of humor. That did it, I was hooked. I now count Racer X among my most listened to bands and look forward to someday getting to see Paul play live again. If you ever get the chance, see him...

Thanks to Synyster Gates and Paul Gilbert I began to dig into my truest musical love, heavy melodic classically influenced music. This marked the beginning of another guitar chapter in my life, one revolving around regular practice and my renewed desire to develop new chops. In a way, it's also been a very hard period for me. I've actively tried to move beyond the instinctive legato approach that developed in my Joe Satriani/hair metal days. I've worked for years trying to redevelop my right hand, learn sweep picking (arpeggios and scales) and get my two hands synchronized in a way that was never an issue with legato playing.

In the midst of my sweep picking quest, I finally got sucked into the 7-string trend. Before I bought my first 7-string, though, I did a lot of research trying to find an instrument that was right for me. I've never been that comfortable playing Ibanez guitars, and have for many years made Tom Anderson guitars my main tool-of-the-trade. At the time, however, 7-strings were a special order item from Anderson, and I wasn't ready to take that plunge until I'd had some 7-string experience. Enter Jeff Loomis and Schecter. The Jeff Loomis signature guitar was the first maple neck 7-string, with a Floyd Rose tremolo that was laid out just right for me. I ended up ordering the Loomis signature from our local music store, Music Villa, and my love affair with 7-strings began. My fascination with Jeff's playing began the same way. I'd never been a big Nevermore fan, perhaps because there was a little too much thrash and death metal in their material for me, but Jeff's guitar playing cannot be ignored. As I researched guitars, I started watching videos of various models and quickly fell onto this clip of Jeff. Finally, Jeff's right hand explained everything. He plays amazingly fast and yet his right hand is very calm. His combination of alternate and sweep picking, and minimal up/down motion made me realize the secret. Only move as much as necessary, pick the right notes with the right choices of up- or downstroke. I doubt I'll ever master the process the way Jeff has but it's great to have his example to follow.

While researching EMG pickups, I also ran across Andy Wood and this video. Andy is another guy with a very "quiet" right hand. He's also amazing in multiple ways, having only taken up guitar in his teens and being a virtuoso in country, bluegrass and killer metal chops. If you haven't heard Andy or his band, Down From Up, you must do so!

And that brings me to today, as I sit watching Jeff Loomis's latest EMG video. I strive desperately to maintain a 1-hour practice routine focused on sweep picking of scales and arpeggios. I play my Jeff Loomis signature and my recent Tom Anderson 7-string whenever I can. And I thank the Internet for the discovery of Jeff Loomis and Andy Wood. The best thing about music is that it's always new; it can't sit still or stagnate because there are always new generations of musicians ready to take it in new directions. Who have you discovered lately that renews your excitement about music?


Shaken, Stirred & Almost Settled: My New Life In Bozeman, MT

I love Bozeman. My wife, Nancy, and I decide 3 years ago to pick up our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and move our family to Bozeman. We had tired of 13 mile commutes that took 45 minutes. We'd run out of patience with planning kids play dates months in advance. We wanted to be closer to the mountains, for the sake of skiing, hiking, backpacking and Nancy's photography. We were convinced even before we made the move that Bozeman would be an overall improvement for the family and that the kids and Nancy would make the most of our new home. I knew that one side of my life would be better, but...

By leaving the Bay Area, I was walking away from a songwriting partnership (with Steve Rosenthal) that had spanned decades. I was leaving all of the musicians I'd grown up with, the clubs, the music stores, my recording studio...everything musical I'd built up over the years in the Bay Area. To be totally transparent, I'd done some interesting recording projects in the last decade, but my songwriting partnership hadn't generate new material since the 1990s, and didn't show signs of picking up pace anytime soon. Those factors combined to make me hope that Bozeman would somehow be the change that I needed and would lead to a new chapter in my musical explorations.

Very soon after our arrival in Bozeman, I got some indications that my hopes would play out. While planning the relocation of my Redwood City studio to Bozeman, I met Billy Costigan of Poindexter's. Billy had attended P.I.T. (The Percussion Institute of Technology) in Hollywood only a couple years after I had gone to G.I.T. (Guitar...). My conversations with Billy over the first year or so in Bozeman led to the vision for The Music Tech Center, so in essence, Bozeman had spawned a new musical chapter.

And yet, the thing I want the most, to be writing, arranging and performing original music, well, it just hasn't happened yet. I live for heavy, melodic music and there really isn't much of that in Bozeman. Lots of country, bluegrass, Americana, even blues and jazz. But, thus far I'm aware of 3 or 4 heavy bands. My high school (Berkeley High, population roughly 3000) had more actively gigging metal bands than Bozeman does (city population around 30,000, county population around 100,000). Suffice it to say, heavy music isn't particularly big here.

So, I'm now left to wonder what really comes next. Do I somehow transform myself into an avid bluegrass guitarist? Do I admit the obvious, that I was somehow meant to be born in Finland and relocate to a country whose language I have no clue how to speak? Do I finally decide that the music "hobby" is over, sell all the gear and learn to play golf?

Some of those ideas are crazier than others but I don't think any of them really nail the solution. I am what I am. Heavy, melodic music is in my blood and has been ever since my first concert (KISS, the Oakland Coliseum, age 13). But I've also learned recently (while attending the only all-metal concert I've been to in Bozeman) that I can't turn back the clock. I'm not in my mid-twenties anymore and I can't pretend that I am. Whatever comes next for me musically has to begin where I am today. It has to reflect some unique combination of my years of classical guitar lessons, followed by jazz lessons, followed by the great realization that what I really loved was heavy, melodic rock. It has to reflect the fact that I'm now a happy and proud father of two great kids and that my wife and I have known each other for 24 years and been married for 19. The next chapter has to benefit from my ability to focus, and to complete projects that I start. In a perfect world, though, what comes next will involve other musicians, not just me.

Maybe the Bozeman band I'm looking for, the one that's ready to crank out a masterpiece if only they could find the right guitarist, maybe they're just around the next bend. Maybe the MTC gets the last infusion of funding it needs and takes off, surrounding me with inspired, creative people, day in/day out. Or maybe, it's all on my shoulders. Maybe I just need to start writing songs again and, when the time comes, put a budget together and pay to have the right players on the session. Maybe I just need to learn how to channel my musical drive directly and much more efficiently, and then use my inherent stubbornness and determination to create a finished work, or two, or three.

How have you found success where it appeared there was only failure?