Archive for October, 2009

Listening Intentionally: A Higher Level of Music Study

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

What is your favorite song?  I’m sure by now you’ve listened to it a thousand hundred times.  You know every word by heart, every chord change like the back of your hand, and every drum beat and transition is etched into your brain with razor-like precision.  It may have even influenced a decision that you had to make in your life, expressed the exact feelings you were having when you first heard it, or (like many songs for me) helps pick you back up when you feel down.  I want to talk about how you can become a student of  the music that’s had a positive impact on your life, and use said knowledge to write your own awesome material.  Your own personal, self-taught music appreciation class if you will.

So what is “listening intentionally” and why should we do it in the first place?  Isn’t it just good enough to listen to music for its quintessential awesomeness?  Well, yeah it is, but we’re not normal.  We want more.  Listening intentionally means that you’re looking beyond what most people see, trying to understand the meaning behind the song, and the reason that you like it so much.  If you love a song, wouldn’t it make sense to write another song just like that one?  Okay, not exactly like it since that’s illegal, completely unoriginal, and just plain bourgeois.  But you can use the knowledge you gained from that song (and hopefully many others) to write something at the same awesomeness level, or awesomer.

Becoming a virtuoso musician entails doing some things that other people might find strange.  It means pushing the limits (that is, your own), and continually learning new things.  Most people don’t listen to the same song for a week straight, or practice that same song for hours on end.  Most people don’t ever set up their own personalized The Playlist, or build a prioritized list of songs they want to learn.  Not everyone sits down with a timer and practices vibrato for an hour.  Intentional listening is just another one of those “outside of the box” things you can do to really hone your skills and improve your ears.

Step L: Listen

Okay, enough soapboxing, lets see what it looks like to “Listen Intentionally”.  Let’s start out with your most favorite song (ever!), and listen to it for the next week straight.  A whole week.  Nothing else.  No cheating either.  You are now a disciplined individual.  You can do it.  Music from coffee shops, department stores, and elevators is acceptable since you can’t control them, but anything that’s under your power should repeat that song relentlessly.  Now some people might be thinking “If I listen to this song for a whole week, I’m going to hate it!”  To a certain extent this might be true, you probably won’t want to listen to it for a few months afterward; but honestly, if you can’t listen to a single song for a whole week straight, then maybe it’s not that great of a song in the first place.  Am I right, or am I right?  And, if this song really was forged in the fires or Mordor, I can assure you that you’ll be drawn back to it before too long.  My precioussssssss!!!

Step R: Research

When you start listening to your song, hop on the internet and do a few searches for the artist and song.  A good place to start is the artist’s official website, since they’ll have the most accurate lyrics and bio about the band.  If you don’t have the lyrics memorized yet, do it.  See if you can find the history of the band, and if possible, see if you can find some commentary about the song itself.  If the song is a popular one, you might be able to find some really specific facts about it.  When was it written?  Did the artist write the song him/herself, or is it a cover?  Ideally you want to find an interview or article where the artist talks specifically about the context and meaning behind the song.  This will give you better insight, and will ultimately lead to a higher appreciation of the song.

Step ILIBP: Intensively Listen Intentionally – Big Picture

After researching the song, begin the intensively listening intentional process.  Here are a few “big picture” things you want to pay attention to while listening:

  • How many instruments are there, and what are they?
  • What are the levels of the instruments?  Which are louder than the others?  Do any of them have a piercing quality, cutting through the other parts?
  • Which parts are rhythm, giving structure to the song, and which parts are melody?
  • Who is holding down the beat?  The drums usually do a good job of this, but that might not be the case in some songs.  I love Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment, and sometimes you can’t even tell what the heck Mike Portnoy (the drummer) is doing.
  • Pay special attention to who is NOT playing.  Silence is golden.  A well placed rest in a song will introduce contrast in a piece, accenting and building complexity in the places that DO have sound.
  • Which parts are complex, and which are simple?  Some of my favorite songs are just a singer playing solo with his guitar, but at the same time I’ll love a song that utilizes a full orchestra.
  • What is creating tension? When and what is releasing it?  Where is the climax?
  • Pay special attention to the opening and closing.  Does the song start high or low energy? Does it end with the same theme it starts with?

Step LSMV: The Live Show and Music Videos

Another dimension of music is the live show.  Since there isn’t an option for specialized recording equipment, backup vocals, full orchestras, or multiple takes, the live performance might feel “empty” when compared with the recording.  Groups with a higher budget will be able to include some of the other extraneous elements included in the recording, but not everyone has that luxury.  Although the sound quality might not be as good for live shows, another vital element comes into play: visuals.  Search on YouTube or the band’s website for live shows, and take note of the differences in sound, and the kind of stage presence they exude.  Watch the movies several times, taking note of each band member’s actions.  Notice if and when the members feed off each other.  Do they make eye contact often?  Do they talk to each other between songs?  Do they act like one amalgamated entity or are they engrossed in their own little world?

If you feel strange watching somebody like that, just accept the fact that you’re a creepy stalker, and famous people deal with creepers everyday.  You know they love it.

Music videos are yet another avenue that bands present themselves.  Unlike live shows, they have the opportunity to present refined visual and audio in the same package.  This is one of best ways for a band to present their image to the world, since it allows them to do it in a medium where they can cut out the errors.  Again, take notice of what’s being presented.

Step PP: Practice Profusely

If you haven’t started learning how to play the song, this is the time to do it.  For each instrument you know how to play, look up tabs, find the score, or figure out the parts yourself.  If it’s especially difficult, find the official score online or in a store and buy it.  I find that music videos are especially helpful when trying to figure out guitar parts because sometimes you just need to know the position on the neck before you can figure it out.  I’m writing another article on how to figure songs out, so I won’t go into great detail on this here, but the key point here is to examine the chord progression and understand the structure behind it.  This is key.  If you only have time to do one of these “steps”, do this one.  The chord progression defines the mood of the piece, and gives the driving force behind the song.  The most interesting and memorable melodies are built upon good chord progressions.

Step ILISP: Intensively Listening Intentionally – Small Picture

If you haven’t noticed yet, the order of these steps don’t really mean anything.  You don’t even have to do all of them, I’m not an LI dictator, but I’m just trying to fill your head with some ideas that could be helpful.

So moving on, you’ll now want to use those beautiful ears of yours to listen to each instrument specifically.  This can be deceptively easy since you’re listening to a finished product.  By now I’m sure you know what the raw sound “should” or “would” sound like with no tailoring.  Everybody knows what a real life, unrecorded, un”effected” acoustic guitar or grand piano sounds like.  So what you want to do is try to figure out the changes that were made, and follow the sound through the cables from beginning to end.  This can be extremely difficult for the inexperienced, and (if the artist is using some special kind of pedal or effector) it may be impossible.  But after you play your instrument for a while, and make a few experimentation trips to the local guitar store, you start to discover the kinds of sounds and effects that are typically used.

Do this listening exercise for each instrument, and look at what effects are being used.  Who is putting out a raw, undoctored sound?  Who is running their signal through a hundred million effector pedals?  Listen with open ears and an open mind.  The artist had an end result in mind, and used whatever s/he needed to get there.

Here’s an unofficial, and incomprehensive list of common effects you might try listening for.  A lot of these effects are mostly used for electric guitar, but you know how some people are.  They like to get … creative.  Search the web for samples of these effects if you aren’t familiar with them.

  • Reverb
  • Delay/Echo
  • Equalization
  • Compression
  • Distortion
  • Chorus
  • Flange
  • Wah-wah
  • Tremolo
  • Octavers and Pitch Shifters

Closing Words

Don’t stop at just one song.  Great quality and high quantity input begets great output.  I would know, I spent a year learning a second language.

Step NGUNS: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

One song for a whole week.  Straight!  You can do it!


Paradigm shift: Home Recording

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Are recording studios going out the window?  In a recent article by the LA Times, experts in the recording industry estimate “as many as half of the LA area’s commercial studios have closed or been sold to artists for private use.”  They are seeing a huge trend of people setting up studios at home, and completely skipping out of recording at a studio.  This trend (which most of us probably expected) is certainly going to have an effect on the amount and quality of music being put into the universe.  The art of recording is being taken from professionals and put into the hands of amateurs.   Is it a good thing?  Lets talk about it.

Home/Private Recording

On the home recording hand, we see more freedom put into the hands of the artist.  People are able to go into their own personal studio whenever they like, record for as long as they want, make mistakes and break equipment without having to deal with anyone at all.  A huge advantage of having the studio right at home means the freedom to record whenever a brilliant idea hits.  Some people do their best work at two in the morning, and come up with great stuff on the spur of the moment.  These kind of moments are often passionate and emotionally driven, which can be immediately captured (in spite of heat from the neighbors the next morning!).  It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate moments like those weeks or months after the fact.  I personally like the idea of home recording because you can record the *cough cough* good ideas like “I wanna love you tender,”  as well as the ones that are *actually* good.  As in almost any industry, you want to be able to fail cheap.  Recording at home lets you fail all the time, which will ultimately lead to success.  Understand?  Good.

Studio Recording

On the recording studio side of the fence we get: Quality!!! with a capital Q and three !!! exclamation points.  Recording studios will sometimes spend more than a million dollars on equipment (!), they are run by professionals who often have degrees from prestigious schools and love their work (!), and you have somebody to go on coffee or beer runs for you (!).  Depending on your situation and wants, recording in a studio might actually be cost beneficial, offering you the use of equipment that is far beyond your budget.  Recording drums is a particularly difficult thing to do for  those trying to rough it home studios.  There are many factors that come into play when doing drums – such as mic phase, the resonance of the room, size, tuning, expensive frequency-specific mics, and neighbors – which are problems that lead many people to the front doors of a professional studio.

Many recording studios offer services besides sound recording too.  I visited Side 3 Studios in Denver not too long ago, and (at the time) they offered a demo package which included (1) professional recording, mixing, and mastering of your best 3 songs, (2) HD video-recording of one of your live shows by professional videographers, mastering of that video, and (3) production of 100 DVDs ready for distribution to any venue you want to play.  To me this sounds like a sexy option compared to the fuzz and crackle you might get from a demo you make at home.

Final Thoughts

In light of the many factors that come into account when one desires a recording, I’ve come to a final (but subject to change) decision.  Let’s start with my current situation: I’m a vocal guitarist with a drummer, and we have written a few songs together.  We plan on finding a bassist, another guitar, another vocalist, and want to start gigging and writing songs as soon as possible.  Needless to say, we’re babies.  Even though we’re a small outfit, we feel a calling from God to write music, and will stop at nothing to fulfill that calling.   Owned equipment: a two channel preamp, a crap computer, and a crap PA with 20 year old speakers.  Can anyone say “humble beginning”?

So here’s my plan.  I want the freedom of recording at home, but the experience and professional quality of a studio, and don’t want to pay huge amounts of money either.  How can I get the best of both worlds and cut costs to a minimum?  First, I want to set up a small home studio.  One so small that you might call it a “mini” home studio.  No fancy equipment, bells or whistles, but simply the bare essentials needed for recording.  This probably means midrange or used equipment, free/open source recording software, and second rate mics and speakers.  The sound will most likely be crappy, and I won’t care because that’s not what I’m using it for.  The purpose of the home studio is to simply capture the moment, that special point of inspiration, and help me to remember it.   This moment can then be brought to a professional studio when the time is right, we can play the material, and have a platform where we can easily present what we want.  I feel it’s important to exhibit oneself professionally from the start, so I would like our first demo to be – from start to finish – professional.  Anything distributed to the public thereafter – albums, singles, demos – professionally recorded and mastered.  The price for professional recording might be steep for some (I mean most), which I understand completely (since I’m in the “most” category), but I feel that it’s worth it if you take your music seriously.

So what do you think?  Do you have any suggestions for me or others who are in a similar boat?  Have you been through this process before and have some advice for the rest of us?  If so, post a comment and share your ideas with the world.


How to Play Harmonics

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

One would think that playing a note on the piano or guitar or violin will give off that note, and only that note, right?  Well, thankfully/unfortunately it’s slightly more complex than that.  Something called “harmonics” comes into play, and since there are several terms associated with them (including various guitar techniques using the same name) it’s easy to get confused.  This article will explain what harmonics are first from a scientific standpoint, and then how to achieve those sacred, squealing “harmonic” techniques on the guitar.

Naturally Occurring Harmonics

Harmonics from a musically scientific standpoint are extra frequencies or overtones that occur naturally when playing an instrument.  For example, when you play an A on the piano (440Hz), other notes will resonate besides that A.  You’ll get the E (659.26Hz), the octave above A (880Hz), and (depending on the instrument) a whole boat load of other frequencies that are NOT A.  These frequencies occur naturally because of instrument shape and material, what the strings are made of, string tension, the finish on the instrument, the method and position of strumming or bowing or plucking, and any other random pieces of stuff you decide to attach to your instrument.  As you can see, there are a lot of factors that affect the harmonics coming from an instrument.  These things all add up to build the “sound” of an instrument that we’ve come to know and love.  This is also the reason a guitar doesn’t sound like a violin, or a cello like a piano.  Each instrument has its own unique flavor because of the combination of these overtones.

So naturally, when you go to buy an instrument, this is what you’re looking for.  You’re listening closely to the sounds coming from your fingers playing the instrument, and evaluating the overtones that the instrument is able to resonate.  Usually an instrument that doesn’t emit these extra harmonics well is one that we call “dull” or “dead” sounding.  Nobody wants to buy this kind of instrument (putting aside random artistic experiments).  On the other hand, an instrument that has a “rich” or “full” sound is one that gives off the overtones nicely.  This is the sign of good craftsmanship, and the reason people pay thousands for a good instrument.


That’s it for science.  From now on I’m gonna talk from a guitarist’s perspective, but many of these things can be applied to other stringed instruments as well.  Banjos, ukuleles, and mandolins are obvious, but you can technically do these tricks with anything that has a string (and I encourage such experimentation).  These are all names of guitar techniques, to be used sparingly, kind of like icing on a cake. But don’t worry one bit if you decide to make a cake solely out of frosting.  I’m sure somebody will eat it.

Natural Harmonics

When I was a new guitarist, I was really confused about natural harmonics.  Maybe I’m just slow (which I am), but I read an online lesson and didn’t get the technique at all.  If you’re in the same boat as I was, never fear.  It’s not too hard.  Also, don’t confuse the jargon “natural” harmonics with “naturally occurring” harmonics.  Naturally occurring harmonics come about naturally when you play an instrument, but playing “natural” harmonics is a technique.


Photo by: Mjchael

To play a “natural” harmonic, (as an example) simply place your finger on the 12th fret of any string, which is the exact middle of the string, and pluck. DO NOT press the string down to the fretboard, and make sure your finger is exactly over the 12th fret.  Try moving your fretting hand around a little if you can’t find the so called “hotspot”.  Playing the harmonic at the 12th fret sounds like the note at the 12th fret, but it isn’t.  It gives a note that is “pure” sounding, more like a music box than a guitar.  This means that there are fewer overtones, or extra naturally occurring harmonics, in the note.  A trained ear can hear the difference between a harmonic note and a regular note without even watching the performer.  Even the untrained ear can hear the difference I guess, but they probably wouldn’t know what the heck it was.  We can use this to our advantage because it sounds awesome.  Throwing in some harmonics into riffs and solos can really add the “spice” or “virtuoso” sound that you might be looking for.  More often than not, mastery of harmonics is the difference between

“Like, OMG! That guy is like, a pretty good guitarist and stuff, ya know?”



Now these harmonics can be played at several locations on the guitar, and will sound out different notes for each one.  You’ll find them on the 12th, 7th, 5th, 4th frets, and then sometimes on the 3rd fret.  The harmonics actually go to infinity (that is, WAY below the 3rd fret), but they are so quiet or hard to play that it’s not even worth trying.  And by that, I mean it’s worth trying; try to find out just how high you can get your guitar to play.  The picture above demonstrates the vibration of the string when you play a harmonic.  You can see the “nodes” where the string doesn’t vibrate, and this is the exact position you want to mute the string, right on those nodes.  Thanks to science the string will naturally vibrate just like you see in the picture, and gives us that “pure” tone harmonic.

Artificial Harmonics

-are harmonics played while fretting the guitar.  The three following techniques are “artificial” harmonics, but not “artificial” in the same way as “artificial” sweeteners.  No risk of getting cancer.

Pinch Harmonics (Pig Squeals!)

Mastery of pinch harmonics is the true sign of a virtuoso guitarist.  The use of natural harmonics can get ditsy girls to fall in love with you, but the mastery of pinch harmonics is a step above that.  You can get ditsy major label presidents to turn their heads.  Pinch harmonics offer us one of the most expressive techniques the guitar has, but it takes (literally) pinpoint accuracy of the plucking hand to execute.

So what are pinch harmonics?  To understand them, you must first understand natural harmonics.  What we’re going to try to do is get a natural harmonic, but with the strum hand instead of the fretting hand.  This is somewhat hard because we have to simultaneously pluck the string and mute it at the same time.  To do this you’re going to have to hold your pick a special way.   You want hold your pick in a normal fashion, but move your thumb grip closer to the tip.   The goal is to have the first digit of the tip of your thumb almost even with the tip of the pick.

To start out, I would definitely start doing this with an electric guitar using a ton of distortion.  The electric guitar and distortion amplifies the high overtones better than an acoustic.  It can be done on an acoustic, but it requires another level of experimenting/skill.  The first time you do this technique it will be like trying to punch granite.  I’m serious; it’s REALLY hard to do.  Just keep fiddling around and you’ll figure it out.

Choose a note in the middle of the guitar and fret it normally (maybe the 12th fret on the G string is good), for me it seems the easiest place for pinch harmonics.  Now, almost simultaneously, you’re going to do two things: (1) pluck the string with your pick at a harmonic (preferably an octave higher than the note you want to play), and (2) instantly after that, brush the flesh of your thumb across the string to evoke the natural harmonic.  Just after that, you’re going to have to (3) move your hand away so that the string can vibrate freely.

Like I said, if you can’t get it, just keep messing around until you hear the right sound.  If you have problems you might try gripping the pick differently, as the flesh of your thumb has to hit the string in just the right way.  It has to hit the string to evoke the harmonic, but it can’t mute the string completely.  Another thing you might try is moving your picking hand up and down the string.  You must hit the string in a place where there is a natural harmonic or it won’t work.  This is the main reason pinch harmonics are so difficult, because you have to place your picking hand in just the right place, the “sweet spot” as it were, to get that awesome squealing sound.  The sweet spot changes when your fretting hand moves up and down the neck too, so you have to learn to pick like a surgeon.

Tap Harmonics

By now I’m sure you’ve seen/heard/done regular finger tapping, as made famous by Eddie Van Halen.  While experimenting with finger tapping, he discovered that he could cause those ringingly beautiful harmonics from tapping on the fretboard with his right hand.  As an example, grab your guitar and tap on the 12th, 7th, or 5th fret quickly, and precisely on the metal fret (i.e. not behind), and you should get a harmonic.  The energy used to “tap” the guitar is what causes the string to vibrate, simultaneously muting the string to get a harmonic.  It will be exactly the same as if you played a natural harmonic, but you get the special effect of a “click” or “tap” at the beginning of every note.  As with other harmonics, you might have to do some fine tune adjusting to get the harmonic to ring, but once you figure it out it’s not too hard.

One of the great things about tap harmonics is the fact that you can coordinate your right and left hands (playing essentially the same notes but 12 frets apart) and play quick, intricate solo or lead parts.  The effect you’ll have can be pretty mind blowing.  Especially since it’s rarely done and has a very distinct style if you can pull it off well.  Man I love the guitar.  It’s just so dang versatile isn’t it?

Concluding Harmonics

As you can see, there are many ways to evoke harmonic flourishes.  Those presented here are the main ones, but there are many others as well.  I actually found some I’ve never heard of before while I was doing research for this article, and want to tell you about them.  Maybe I can do another article later titled “Harmonics: The Lesser”, and it can involve large Norse Gods from Sweden playing nothing but harmonics at 200 bpm using their big toes.  Hey, that sounds pretty sweet.

Anyway, if you’re really interested just do a search for “guitar harmonics” and you’ll probably find an article better than this one somewhere, and cheaper than my free site.  As in, they’ll pay you money to read it.  If you ever find one of those sites, tell me.

Oh, I wanted to leave you with a link too.  This one has all of the harmonic techniques I just talked about, and more.  Yeah!