DO YOU GIVE LESSONS?
Yes. It seems there are people who want to learn my way of playing and it’s rapidly gaining momentum. I have now two full days of teaching intermediate and advanced students. The internet is awash with guitar tutorials, some better quality than others. I advise it is really important not to fall into the homogenised ways of playing. If you take lessons from me you will learn my methods, but more importantly you will also be encouraged to mould these techniques into your own unique direction. You can mail me for more details or book a consultation for a lesson.
I have often been asked why I have never produced a book or a video series. I have considered both in the past and in fact there is my ‘Up Close Guitar Technique Series’ on YouTube. This is free of course and showcases the results of diligent practice. The playing in the ‘Up Close series’ is not meant to be musical – I save that for my compositions! The clue is in the title – it is all about technique – daily drills to train your muscle memory so it becomes second nature. The guitar book market is yesterday’s news. My belief is you will get more out of one lesson with me than you will from the myriad of vanity project books out there. As far as any recorded series goes, again they have their limitations and are often used as vehicles to promote the player rather than focusing on what the client specifically needs to know. In short, don’t waste your money on expensive subscriptions or on one size fits all demos. There is no secret to unlock other than your own personal best and the key to that is experienced guidance and focused practice. Book an online consultation with me and we can take it from there.
HOW DO YOU SET ABOUT COMPOSING A PIECE?
Sometimes when I compose I will tune the guitar to different tunings – I know many but I would say in the past I have used 5 open and alternate tunings regularly that feature in my recorded music. By using open or alternate tunings you are unfamiliar with,everything you think you know, everything you have learnt in standard has gone. You are left with a blank sheet, your imagination and your technique. Normally when I have a new piece of music it comes to me in its entirety. It is complete and rarely do I want it to change but how to get it from my head to paper and into a way it can be shared with others recording with me is of paramount importance. The guitar is the perfect interface between mind, spirit and body and can be tuned to unique tunings with relative ease. If I use standard I find the music in my head can quickly become distracted, can set players to default logic potentially causing an overuse of well known techniques and phrases. In order to avoid this habit my default is transported instead to unknown musical terrain. Not only does this bring fresh perspective, but it keeps me truer to the music I am hearing, whilst presenting new and exciting technical challenges.
Arranging what is written back to standard tuning becomes the next challenge. However difficult those challenges, they must be met in order to communicate the particular musical vision with whoever is playing with you. Open tunings also suggest ways of then embellishing the notes which standard tuning may not. Sometimes I don’t pick up a guitar at all to get the music out of my head. With perfect relative pitch you can notate straight to manuscript which is something I would recommend any musician to learn. It is great if you don’t have an instrument to hand for those inspirational moments….However, you might have a lot of scraps of paper lying around, so humming it into your phone is probably preferable these days! I prefer to concentrate on what might be termed the instinctive side of my musical brain and let the music be realised through these alternative pathways. It is like trying to explain a dream, they never sound logical or simple in a normal setting and indeed why should they?!
I have tried to explain how composing and the process of it works for me but it may well be different for you and no one method is more correct than another. Again Bruce Lee is a great example of this in that he believed “No style as style, no way as way” meaning not being confined by rules that constrict you or curb your development. This is not to say you shouldn’t know the rudiments of music, but when you have those, feel free to break the rules and put it back together again your own way.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PICKING TECHNIQUE?
My picking technique is a Hybrid of Sarod. I only use the wrist and circular forearm movements for maximum efficiency. There is no strain on the elbow or the upper arm. The only time you will see the elbow move slightly is to accommodate crossing the strings. It is this high level of relaxation in the wrist and forearm that allows lengthy and difficult passages to be played with accuracy and speed if necessary. Any tension in the arm would negate the ability to achieve what I do and moreover it would be highly uncomfortable to sustain.
I believe with dedication and practice, this relaxed technique applying economy of motion, is achievable for most advanced players. Iit is not, as some have put it, that I am ‘an alien’ or in some way ‘anatomically different’ I have just dedicated 1000s of hours to developing what I do! I have read extensively about techniques similar to my own and many other techniques and indeed I have tried others over the years, but Hybrid Sarod is my way that has developed over 40 years through trial and error and extreme attention to detail. I can assure you how I describe and demonstrate my technique is an accurate analysis of exactly what I am doing. Should you read elsewhere anything to the contrary you should disregard it for the dubious conjecture it is.
WHAT GENRE OF MUSIC DO YOU MOST PREFER PLAYING?
All of them! Why choose? If you have the techniques and the facility nothing should stop you playing whatever you want, however you want, fusing genres and enjoying the diversity. I know many have tried to label me a shredder and yes, as shredding is defined, that is just one of the things I sometimes do, but I would advocate exploring all genres, techniques and listening to music from different eras and cultures to broaden your understanding, tastes and influences. I would also recommend getting to know musicians far beyond the guitar community and keeping it positive and focused on what you do at all times. There’s a whole world out there and the west by far does not necessarily produce the most interesting or the most accomplished musicians. In fact it sadly often elevates mediocrity. Much of enjoying your craft is in maintaining an honesty about what you do. Do it because you love it and not for what it may bring you. With the state of the music industry today that would be my best advice to young players-‘likes’ on social media do not define or validate you. Play what pleases your ear and you will find your audience.
HOW DO YOU PICK ACCURATELY AT SUCH HIGH SPEEDS?
It’s achieved through a number of factors. Mostly through literally thousands and thousands of repetitions of exercises I made for myself. When I started out there was very little by way of tuitional material in the areas I wanted to learn about. Decades ago I noticed my hand assumed a certain position when I executed complicated passages. This is when I started to think about right hand analysis and why complicated passages seemed to be made easier when I held my then pick (a 2mm Dunlop) at a certain angle. I could find nothing about it and in a bid to explain this to myself I called it Angle Picking. This later came to be known in the wider consciousness as slant picking. Later in my career I went on tour and was given a pick that had been used by John McLaughlin. I noticed the pick was worn significantly on either side and realised that he too must be holding the pick at an angle (though he plays differently to me).
I studied the way a normal flat pick sounded hitting the string using the edge as opposed to using the flat surface. The tone of the flat surface was clearer and more bell like than that created using the edge of the pick. This is when I started to file the 2mm pick to make it parallel to the string when I held my hand at an angle. The result was that the newly introduced angle created the same sound as if I was playing with the flat side of the pick BUT it was more comfortable especially playing an up stroke – this being the one against gravity. As a result I did not feel I was tugging on the string and the beginning of greater efficiency began to reveal itself.
With the newly discovered playing surface on the pick I began to experiment with different thicknesses of self fashioned picks to allow a greater roll off the string. It’s common knowledge a thin pick used back at the saddle will produce a brighter thinner sound but it’s also where the string tension is maximised. By striking the string back at the saddle there’s next to no movement from the string but how to compensate for the thinner tone? This is how the Phat Bhoy Pick was born (originally by gluing plecs together and literally fashioning them in various ways to experiment with tone and how it might enhance comfort and efficiency).
After I had created the ideal pick for alternate picking, I set about writing myself a series of exercises starting on any given string on a down stroke and repeating the exercise starting on an up stroke. The exercises started simple (3 notes per string) and got progressively more complicated until I was pushing myself beyond any boundaries I had ever encountered before. It became a daily competition with myself, mind over matter and muscle to allow the muscle memory to become so natural that it just happened as was needed. This is just part of how I play now.
WHAT GEAR ARE YOU USING CURRENTLY?
I was lucky enough to be able to purchase a Suhr. I had it customised by taking off the bottom horn and reshaping to my specifications. I changed the pickups on the Suhr for two DiMarzio EJ Custom humbuckers and an area 67 in the centre and fitted a low pro Floyd Rose pro. I prefer 008 D’Addario strings but each guitar is setup differently and with different gauges; they all do different jobs. However, I have been having fun with the new Kemper profiler, Ax8 Fractal and Orange Acoustic preamp in the new set up – these I am taking on tour. My constant companion and workhorse is always the Yamaha 1221. For more on all my gear, see my regular blog posts. Just to clear up a point, some players ask ‘Is that a midi pickup on your Yamaha?’ implying it assists with some kind of manipulation of the sound. The answer is, yes and no – it is a midi pick up but it is NOT used as a midi pickup ever. It’s not set up that way. It operates purely as a digital modelling passive pickup and has done for decades! There will always be the haters and doubters who will try to explain away or denigrate exemplary musicianship – instead of just practicing harder themselves! What’s next for me gear wise? Who knows?! I have a studio full of it and am enjoying my own luthiery skills.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN YOUR PREFERRED SET UP ON YOUR GUITARS?
By this I presume you mean on my electrics, the acoustics are set up fairly conventionally. Regarding the likes of the Suhr and the Yamaha Pacifica 1221M, a friend of mine jokes about how I have “below the frets action”! I have also horrified people by chopping the bottom horn off the Pacifica and more recently from the Suhr…though this was a professional job and the guitar looks just as good now as it did pre surgery. The reason for this preference is it allows me greater access for wider stretches on the lower strings right at the top of the neck.
I prefer (but don’t need) a low action on my electric guitars because I feel it provides the path of least resistance (a philosophy Bruce Lee would advocate – the way my guitar is now set up is the most natural for me!). Thinking about it logically the less distance between the string and the fret means less effort, less time = greater stamina when you are playing long and/or difficult pieces of music. Whilst discovering the path of least resistance I started to think about my left hand. By having the finger hovering over the note it’s about to play, speed and accuracy is automatically assisted, the low action is part of facilitating this technique.
When the action is so low on my electric guitars the other strings have a tendency to ring out. This can be compensated by using right and left hand muting techniques. I can use these but I personally prefer to use the rags, they’ve become a bit of a trade mark but I have yet to find an endorsement for them! It’s down to preference I always recommend doing what feels natural for you and ignoring anyone who thinks they have a blue print for everyone.
WHO ARE YOUR INFLUENCES?
How long have you got?! I am not going to name names as there are so many from all countries and cultures. What I will say is that I blame watching too many cartoons as a child and being enraptured by the expressive and exciting music created by Carl Stalling and Milt Franklin for characters such as Wile E Coyote. The cartoons needed no dialogue in that the music told the story and made the characters even more amusing. Back then it was a one or two take affair for the musicians recording this stuff, you had to be top of your game to pull it off. I suppose I just wanted to see if this could be done on guitar as that is all I had available to me at the time (I banished the old accordion to the attic!).
The humour of these early influences is most recently evident in parts of my e.p The Grand Design. In fact in the first section of my last single Well of Heads I have tried to create a picture of the institutionalised chaos of Wall Street as stocks and shares are sold in a seemingly frenzied environment oblivious to the real world effect this has on the common people. The sound in the first section imagined to be that of feet hurrying along sidewalks and the monotony of making money as well as musically hinting at the groove that is beyond the urban cartoon.
The guitar can sound however you want it to and it doesn’t have to dripping in effects to create the sonic environment you want either. Although we are all inevitably influenced consciously or otherwise by everything we come into contact with, I would reiterate, it’s important to focus on and nurture what comes to you most naturally. The rest is how you dress it up and that has a lot to do with how many tools you have in your box…