Monday, November 19, 2012


there may be more than one entry following soon. i have done a lot of finding lately. i cannot say that I was really looking for something; it was rather that i happened to walk into some truly inspirational stuff. (or maybe i was just able to draw inspiration from the things that i happened to come across.)

the first i want to share with you is the writings of arnold schoenberg. most people know him as the 'inventor' of serial music (composing by using the twelve tone row), and either worship or detest him because of that. by chance i found a little book he wrote that turns out to be a classic work on harmony  (the title is Structural functions of harmony). it turns out schoenberg had a deep understanding of classical music and the way in which harmony works in there. he is also able to connect this insight to the human nature and the world around us (for that see his other writings).

the reason i share this with you is that reading this little book completely transformed my way of looking at my approach to harmony, and how it is taught in a lot of jazz theory books.

the difference is maybe best shown by a simple example. let me quote the first sentence of the book: "A triad standing alone is entirely indefinite in its harmonic meaning;". the insight is that the triad gets its harmonic meaning by the chords that precede or follow it. This simple but profound insight is in a way completely absent in a lot of guitar theory books. they communicate a similar idea by specifying the chord names that result of combining a major or minor triad with each of the 12 possible bass notes.
for me the main difference in perspective is that schoenberg statement is about sequence, whereas most approaches to harmony and so-called linear playing are vertical, static, in specifying possibilities for each individual chord. even if the guitar books deal with such sequences (like the inevitable II-V-I cadence) they usually break it up in three parts.

for schoenberg, the fact that it is the sequence which defines the meaning of a triad (or chord) leads into a thorough exploration of tonality. this is his main quest (eventually leading to serialism): what defines tonality, and is there a music possible that lacks tonality? if the answer to that question is yes, it must consist of harmonic sequences that fail to specify precisely the harmonic meaning of the chords that constitute it. serialism is one of the possible method to arrive at such atonal music.

now of course the challenge is to play this on an eight string and make it jump....

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

improving by not practicing

due to various reasons, in the past i have not touched the guitar for quite some time (think years rather than months). now that i have started again, i am learning that this period of not practicing (and performing) has been immensely productive for my playing.

first of all, as i started again, i found that very quickly i could do things i had been practicing years before, and which i expected to take a long time to build up again. apparently, my body remembers much more that i am consciously aware of. this has been a great relief, because it made me lose the idea that i needed to practice a lot each day in order to 'keep up my chops'.

i was very surprised by this, and this was great in another way: i was actively and eagerly listening what came out of my hands. and this is an ability that makes a big difference: rather than trying to direct my playing with my thinking, there is a constant loop between my fingers and my ears, with my brain taking the backseat.

so i can advise everyone to try this exercise (which may not be so simple, if you are atttached to your practicing routines or the habit of playing while watching tv): put away your guitar for a couple of weeks. success guaranteed!!

(for the slightly less daring people: take my words as a comfort that whenever you are not able to play, this is not something to lament, but rather to cheerfully welcome).

Friday, September 10, 2010

how it all started

here are some pictures of my eightstring in various stages of being built. many thanks to mar, who took the pictures at VOX HUMANA, the guitar shop where i walked in years ago with the idea to have my guitar built.

i liked their quality work, as well as the fact that they didn't immediately jump in when i proposed to build an eight string fanned fret instrument. it took me some convincing that this could work, and this helped us to really consider all of the complexities involved. below you see the 'final cut' for the frets. when i saw this, i knew it would eventually work out.

below you see a second big step: the heart of the instrument, with an extension so i could actually take it home and see if the measurements were working out for me. i can tell you this was a great experience, a simultaneous sense of being liberated as well as intimidated. it wasn't easy to bring it back, but it wasn't quite finished yet....

it took henny and rene some time to finish it (parallel to their many other projects), but it was really worth the wait. of course many visits, cups of coffee, and talks were involved along the way......

you can see the finished instrument in the august post entitled 'white belt'.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

including the universe

i try to learn from whatever source possible. as far as books are concerned, i have a soft spot for authors that seek to be as complete as possible. more often than not, it turns out this is impossible. but i like very much to see people try...

my particular favorites are george van eps' three volumes (!) of HARMONIC MECHANISMS FOR GUITAR and the three books (!) that constitute the MOTHERLODE, a complete library for chords put in a specific format by mick goodrick.

i intend to come back to these more often because they contain so much that its totally impossible to fathom you could incorporate everything into your playing. for now, i will give you my general description of harmonic mechanisms. i have not run into any other source that is so well suited to help you master the eightstring.

george van eps

the three volumes start out simple, with scales of triads in all keys. you might think this involves a lot of repetition, but this would be a mistake. van eps adds different fingerings for each key. the reason for this is that his aim is to provide you with exercises that eventually enable you to improvise chord melody pieces with walking basslines. over the rest of the three volumes, you find a multitude of exercises that bring you closer to this goal. my experience is that whenever i pick up one of his ideas and include in my practicing for a week, i immediately feel more free in my solo improvising. that's a big return on investment if you ask me.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

adding the third note

as i am getting back into playing songs, i am relearning the art of playing improvised solo pieces. as before, it is surprising to notice how much is created by simply playing a song's bassline and melody. even without changing notes, you can improvise through timing, dynamics and changing rhythm (try playing all the 4/4 songs you know as 3/4.......). to hear the way in which the two lines together capture the essence of a piece, learn this transcription of the jazz standard FOOTPRINTS.

in order to move beyond the interplay of two lines, it's not necessary to start thinking in terms of playing chords. just add a third note to the melody and bass. you can add these now and then; there is no need to fill everything up. also, a note can remain static even if bass or melody move.

in your choice of these notes you can really start to develop your signature sound. for some, adding a third or sixth below the melody sounds best, while for others, seconds and sevenths do the trick (think john scofield). fourths and fifths add another flavour to the song.  that's why i did not add anything to the bassline and melody of footprints - this is the area where you make your own choices.

of course, mixing intervals is where true playing (in the sense of forgetting the rules and enjoying the game) starts, and where you actually start playing a third line. but during practicing, its good to stay some time with only one or two intervals in order to get to know their sound as well as the associated fingerings.

Monday, August 23, 2010

no comment

for the past week i have been listening to live in tokyo from BRAD MEHLDAU - i am not going to try to describe or analyse this music; just passing on a touch of the sublime 

Friday, August 20, 2010

white belt

as many players have done before, i named the guitar i play. it's called WHITE BELT. in my defense, i can only say that i have owned several other guitars before, and this is the first one where i felt i couldn't resist.

i won't dive into (male) psychology (i wonder if there are any female players naming their instruments....), i just want to share these pictures and tell you about a great little book that was the inspiration for this name.

 ZEN GUITAR is written by philip toshio sudo, and it contains short chapters on practicing and playing the guitar, drawing on zen philosophy. a central idea is to play from beginner's mind, not hampered by any expectations that come from previous learning and experiences. this doesn't mean that you shouldn't practice, but rather that you practice in such a way that what you learn enables you better to express yourself. if the black belt is a symbol for mastering techniques, the white belt stands for this beginner's mind. this guitar in a way helps me to get there because it asks me to look at familiar things in a new way.