Canadian Musician

THE SIX STRING SHED

Hal Rodriguez

Interview with Paul Gilbert

May 26th, 2016

I had the honour of interviewing preeminent shredder and musical chameleon, Paul Gilbert, on his new album, I Can Destroy, which is slated for release on May 27th. In this interview, he talks about composing, improvising, and going back to the blues. Thanks to Paul, Amanda Cagan, and Andrew King for making this interview possible! Visit Paul’s website and purchase I Can Destroy on iTunes.

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I Can Destroy opens up with “Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal”, which features Freddie Nelson and Tony Spinner harmonizing with you on vocals and guitar. What made you decide to form a band with two other great singers and guitarists for this album?

Well, I thought if I really want to get people to use their turn signals, I need a good team (laughs). Actually, I knew I was going to work with producer Kevin Shirley for this album, who likes to track live and do minimal or zero overdubs. So I really felt it was my job to put together a band that was going to sound like a finished record with just one performance. Instead of having overdubs, I just had real human beings playing with me live. They do sing really well, so if there’s a high bridge, Tony would sing that part and both of them would help out with harmonies enormously. Also, it was inspiring for my songwriting because I knew I had the ability to do harmonies on vocals and guitar. So that made me write more melodically.

What can you teach us about writing harmonies?

I was fortunate enough to have a couple of years of music theory in high school and I went to GIT for a year. It was helpful to learn a little about diatonic harmony. When you do harmonies, usually you harmonize in diatonic thirds. But sometimes, if the main melody is playing the 5th of the scale, the third up is the 7th. Over a minor chord, the 7th is not a bad note, but a lot of the time in that case, you want to harmonize with the high octave instead. It’s just a difference in feel. It’s the difference between creating a minor chord and a minor 7th chord. They both work on paper, but they have a slightly different emotion to them.

Over a major chord, it’s an even bigger thing, because a major 7th is a very specific sound that you might not use in rock. So thirds are usually the answer to harmonizing, but they’re not always the answer. Sometimes, using the 4th is the answer. The other exception is when you harmonize a melody without thirds at all, but by singing or playing something that builds a chord, and then the melody happens on top of that without the harmonies moving. Sometimes, movement can be too distracting. So there are two ways to go: harmonies that move and ones that don’t move.

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The track, “Gonna Make You Love Me”, is a real feel good seventies rock tune with a I-IV-V blues chord progression. How do you take classic chord progressions and make them interesting?

One of the first things that comes to mind is if you take a chord and you make it last longer or shorter than the listener expects. For example, in “Revolution” by The Beatles, which is also I-IV-V, the first chord changes to the next chord at an unexpected beat and it wakes up the listener. It poses a question to the listener and then the band resolves it. The same thing happens in “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. They stay on that C# chord for a long time and build up a lot of tension. That might seem like such a simple thing to do to stay on one chord, but they’re masters of playing with the expectations of the listener. When they finally do change chords, a release happens that’s extremely powerful. So how long you stay on a chord or using a pause can be amazing tools for making standard chord progressions cool.

I notice your songs in I Can Destroy often modulate to different keys. How would you teach someone to use modulation to keep their songwriting fresh?

A lot of it you get intuitively. You learn your cowboy chords and barre chords and a lot of it is just like any language. You don’t necessarily need to know music theory in order to do it. I don’t think The Beatles were talking thirds and fifths, but they knew a lot of songs. The same thing goes for me. Whenever I learned a new chord or even scale note in a song, I try be aware of the key centre and just ask, “How does this relate to the key centre?” Then, when I write a song in a different key, I can use that same trick.

For example, one chord that blew my mind was the first chord in The Beach Boys’ song “When I Grow Up to be a Man” (plays a Gb9 (#11) chord). I never bothered to learn what that chord was called. I just know how to find it, and I can look at it and know the intervals. The thing that was important to me to learn was how it related to the root chord, which was Ab. So the relationship was that chord was a whole step down from the key center. Then I’d ask myself if the root was major or minor, and in this case, it was Ab major. So now I know, whenever I’m in a major key, I can go down a whole step, play that chord, and it just might work. So when I’m doing a song in D major, I can play that chord (plays a Cb9 (#11) chord). I do actually use that chord on one of the songs on this album.

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The track “Adventure and Trouble” is a good example of how you often switch grooves in your songs.

It’s something I do to prevent a song from getting sleepy. The one song where I did that most purposely on in I Can Destroy is “Love We Had”. The chorus is slow and I thought that listeners might fast forward to the next song. So in a way, I fast forwarded for them by making the verse faster, more like BTO’s “Let It Ride”. After doing that, I started hearing tempo changes in other songs where I never heard them before, like in Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me”. Actually, a band that did that all the time was Black Sabbath. They had a lot of really slow heavy parts and realized people would fall asleep if they kept it slow. They had to pick up the tempo somewhere in the song. Those guys were masters of tempo changes.

How does someone push themselves to become a better composer?

For me, you have to choose your battles. You pick the styles you’re interested in and you really tear them apart. I’ve learned so many songs from the styles I love. It might even have been detrimental to my career, because in a way, it’s made me so varied. If I only had stayed in metal, I’d probably have been more successful. But I love complex pop music so much, I learned so many Todd Rundgren, Elton John, The Carpenters, and Neil Sedaka songs. That’s what was on the radio when I was a kid.

One day, I heard “Martha My Dear” by The Beatles on the radio and it made me angry. I love that song, but if the song never existed and the idea for the song came to me in my head, it would be useless because it’s a piano song and I can’t play the piano. I would lose the song and that’s tragic. So I thought, “I’ve got to figure out a guitar version for the song”, and I did. So a lot of what I do is actually take songs that were written on other instruments, mostly piano, and try to get at least a map of it on guitar, so I don’t lose any songs.

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You do a blues jam at the end of “I’m Not the One Who Wants to Be with You” and you cry out, “I just want the blues forever”. Then the next track is called, “Blues Just Saving My Life”. What transpired in recent years that got you to delve deeply into the blues?

I just wanted to be able to play what I heard in my head, and that was a humbling experience (laughs). I thought the blues would be a simple way to start since it’s just a I-IV-V basic blues progression. My usual solution as a shredder was to play the Mixolydian mode really fast over each chord. It worked in a way, but I tried to challenge myself to do the opposite. If I could only have two notes to play, what two would I pick over each chord as a melodic improviser? That crippled me both from a playing standpoint and an inner “melodic generator” standpoint. Playing only two notes per chord is a really hard assignment because it becomes monotonous really quickly. I was so bad at it, that it made me sort of angry, but I liked the sound and I wanted to pursue it.

That opened up the idea of emphasis. As a shredder, you don’t have to think about emphasizing notes too much. You just find the right scale and you’re just sort of playing all the notes so quickly that none of them is emphasized. But the slower you go, the more emphasis matters. I started to realize that it’s almost like having a box of crayons. You don’t always have to use each crayon equally. For a certain drawing you might need more green or purple. It took me three and a half decades to figure that out, but ever since I’ve been working on it, it’s been a joy to use the right colours (laughs).

It’s such a test for knowing your intervals.

In the end, when you’re really playing, hopefully you forget about all that stuff. Sometimes, intuitively, I come up with stuff that’s better or more advanced than I would from my music theory knowledge. For example, last night I was tearing apart one of my own songs called, “Enemies in Jail”. In the middle of it, I play a line over a minor chord that I came up with by humming. It has notes in it like the natural 6th that I would normally not play or emphasize over a minor chord. So I spent two hours last night messing around with how to take that and connect it to other things. I know the names of the intervals of that line in my head, but it’s going to get to the point where I don’t have to think about the intervals anymore. It just flows out because it’s a sound and I know what it feels like.

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Did working on your blues playing lead you to discover certain blues records too?

What I listened to a lot was my own compilation of blues/jazz clarinet and saxophone players from the late fifties and early sixties. There’s a clarinet player named Jimmy Hamilton and a sax player named Johnny Hodges. I don’t really know anything about jazz, but I went to Wikipedia, got a big list of names, and went to YouTube and found my favourites. As soon as I heard Johnny Hodges, I knew this was the guy. I just love the way he bends notes. He’s a bender. His phrasing is so beautiful, and that’s what I wanted to learn. For fast stuff, listen to Artie Shaw. His arpeggios sound like sweep picking, except they’re so much more wicked, clean, fast, and effortless. If you want to get some arpeggios, check out some old Artie Shaw recordings. He just rips!

Do you sit down and try to pick up licks from their solos?

Some of it I will. It’s humbling. Guitar and clarinet are different instruments, and you get what you can from it. It can inspire fingerings you wouldn’t have thought of, but in the end, he’s really pushing the limits of his own instrument. Somethings I can do, and it absolutely improves me as a musician, but I can’t do everything.

Does it take a lot for you to maintain your chops or is it just natural at this point?

My first thought is that I don’t really care about it (laughs). It’s sort of a horrible thing to say, but the thing I do care about maintaining are my calluses for bending and vibrato. If I feel my calluses getting soft, I panic. I feel like the world is coming to an end if I don’t have hard calluses because that to me is such an important part of how I express myself on the instrument. When I play fast stuff, eventually, I have to hit that last note and I have to make it speak. I don’t want it to sound “wanky”. I want it to sound beautiful and I don’t want to fear the bend. If you’ve got soft calluses, you’ll hesitate to go for it, and I never want to have that hesitation. I want to put my full force on that bend and not fear it because it’s going to hurt. But no matter how your calluses are, playing a sweaty gig will eat right through them. Callus maintenance to me is number one.

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For the faster stuff, where I really need to have control of smaller motions, there are exercises I’ll do for that, but they’re not as interesting to me. They were really interesting to me when I was younger, because it was stuff I had never done before. A crazy metaphor I thought of the other day is vibrato and bending are like wearing clothes and all the other stuff is leaving the house and going somewhere. You can go to a fancy restaurant and it’s a wonderful experience, but if you’ve forgotten your clothes, it sort of ruins it. So having calluses is like putting on clothes. After that’s together, I can leave the house and do whatever I need to do.

Is it just a matter of playing a few hours a day?

It’s just playing a lot and playing with some force. That can be hard to summon on your own. The kind of force I’ll play with when I’m playing with someone else, is going to be stronger than when I’m playing with myself. I’m used to it as I’ve been playing with other people since I was 11 years old. But for a lot of players that spend all their time playing in their bedroom, it can be shocking when they turn their amp up to drum set volume and have to get used to controlling distortion and feedback while locking with a drummer. It’s the difference between swimming in a swimming pool and swimming in the ocean. When those waves hit you, it’s a whole different story.

Were the solos on I Can Destroy mostly improvised?

Yeah. The only one I really had to plan out was the one in the bonus track for Japan. It’s a funny tune, because there are a lot of modulations. It was beyond me to improvise. The changes were too rough, so for that one I had to work out a little bit. The only other thing I worked out was the very first solo in “Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal”. I just wanted something I could rely on, so I didn’t have to get scared. I wanted the first solo to rip and not have to think that fast in the key of F#. But everything else was pretty much as it happened.

I interviewed your friend and guitarist Andy Timmons recently, and he said he jams with the iReal Book app for an hour before turning on his computer. What kind of work do you do to keep your improvisational chops up these days?

Oh man. I’m jealous. I’m jealous of Andy for working on those jazz tunes as they’re really sophisticated. I work a lot with I-IV-V. In a way, I’m trying to get my boogie shuffle together. I do “Slippin’ and Sliddin'” by Little Richard and improvise over that going along with the changes. That’s a quick one and it’s swinging. It’s challenging because there’s not much time to breathe. I just have fun with that or I slow it down a little bit.

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There are little mental tricks you can do that are helpful. One of the biggest ones is to repeat a note before you go to the next one. When you do that, you start bringing other elements of expression to your playing like short and long. That sounds simple on paper, but from having done so much teaching, playing the same note short and then long is one of the most challenging things for any guitar player to do. That’s because everyone spends so much time doing everything the same. When we practice scales, we play all the notes with the same length. It sounds simple, but to jumble note lengths and make it feel right can really open up new doors.

The other thing of course, is loud and soft. Which again, sounds really simple on paper, but if I want to create a swing groove, I wouldn’t play all the notes at the same volume. If I did, the music would get really stiff. Playing swing develops that and you can certainly carry that technique over to things that aren’t swinging.

In general, I don’t know if I would even call it work. Most of my work is teaching at my online school but when I get a second to spare, I’ll just sit back and play my boogie blues, try to nail the changes, do some good short and long, some good loud and soft, and I’m happy.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.

CMW 2016 Concert Review: Dead Obies

May 9th, 2016

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Experimental hip hop group, Dead Obies, performed their raw brand of rap music at the Great Hall last week during CMW. The group of five MCs and one DJ, delivered a refreshing, hard hitting live sound that had more in common with hardcore and punk than most hip hop artists. Hailing from Quebec, the members, Jo RCA, Yes McCan, Snail Kid, 20some, O.G. Bear, and VNCE, amped up the audience with their tireless energy and anthemic chants on tunes like “Where They @” and “Everyday”. For more on Dead Obies, visit DeadObies.Com and check out CMW.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.

CMW 2016 Concert Review: Stacey Kaniuk

May 6th, 2016

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R&B/Pop artist, Stacey Kaniuk, performed at CMW’s “Women in Music” showcase last night at the Supermarket playing an original set of Motown tinged tunes. The effervescent singer demonstrated her deft vocals on her catchy, feel good tunes like, “Heartbeat”, and the attitude laced, “Ain’t Nobody Fallin’ in Love”. On her slow ballad, “Not Quite Lovers”, the Toronto based singer and pianist impassionedly balanced bold, soaring vocals with nuance and depth. For more on Stacey Kaniuk, visit her on Facebook, and check out CMW for more Iive music!

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.

CMW 2016 Concert Review: Misteur Valaire

May 5th, 2016

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Quebec’s own electro-pop band, Misteur Valaire, kept audiences dancing last night at the Burdock, as part of Indica Record‘s CMW showcase. The five piece group delivered a vibrant sound of upbeat rhythms and hard to shake hooks, mixing modern electronic music with the energy and musicianship of a classic funk band. The talented members often switched between keyboards, horns, percussion, and guitar, and featured both charismatic hip hop and R&B vocals to create a varied and engaging set from start to finish. For more on the band, visit Valaire.Mu and check out more live music at CMW!

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.

Interview with Andy Timmons

April 28th, 2016

I had the pleasure of speaking with one of rock’s most dynamic and melodically exciting virtuosos, Andy Timmons, after his recent tour with fellow guitar heavyweights, Uli Jon Roth and Jennifer Batten. In this interview, he talks about practicing, his upcoming albums, and more. Thanks to Andy and Andrew King for making this interview possible! For more on Andy Timmons, visit AndyTimmons.com. (Photos by Hal Rodriguez)

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You mentioned once in an interview with Paul Gilbert that you’re happiest when you’re learning music. What new things have you been working on these days?

In general, it’s just increasing whatever harmonic and melodic knowledge I can acquire. Even technique. There’s this great video series by Troy Grady called “Cracking the Code” and he’s really been able to analyze a lot of great players’ techniques. Actually, Eric Johnson and Yngwie Malmsteen are very similar in how they negotiate difficult passages with economy type picking ideas. I do a lot of these things naturally myself, but not on that level, and to have Troy explain it was really eye opening for me. So I’m working on some technical things, which can never hurt. I think the more ability you have on the instrument, the more ability you have to express what you’re hearing.

I’ve also been getting back into playing jazz over the past several years. Working on jazz consistently just helps everything. It helps your melodic ear because you have to navigate chord changes. That has always informed the way I play, even when playing rock music. I’m hearing things in a much more chord centric way, rather than key centric, where I’m just ripping a bunch of scales because I know they work in that key. That’s not a bad thing, and I love that sound, but I’m much more interested in what chord is happening at any given moment or with what note I play, whether it’s a chord tone or non chord tone, and what tension or release it will achieve at that moment. I have this great app called the iReal Book, and I can dial up any jazz standard and dictate the key, feel, and tempo. My best days are when I sit there and play with it for an hour before I do anything else, like looking at emails. The best thing is, don’t turn on the computer first. Just get your playing going and tune in to the instrument. So just doing that on a consistent basis has helped me so much.

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Also, finding some solos to transcribe. Guys like Mike Stern will do that everyday. I’ve never been that diligent of a transcriber, but for me, the most important part of it is lots of listening. I’ve been really enamoured with Chet Baker over the last couple of years, who’s a jazz trumpet player. For me, he’s the most poignant and in the moment jazz musician I’ve ever heard. I also love Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny, but Chet just really connects with me. But I don’t feel now that I have to necessarily pick apart and learn every phrase from every solo. I want to assimilate the feel and specific lines: I’ll isolate the moments that really make me feel something and I’ll figure out what it is about that note choice and the exact placement of those notes. The players I’ve been drawn to over the years, like Steve Lukather and Larry Carlton, have such a command of their time that they can specifically place those notes at just the right moment. It’s a natural thing, but you can only have that control when you’re so confident with where the time is.

I always kind of use Stevie Ray Vaughan as a reference because I don’t think he was jotting down every Albert King lick. He had it in his head and played along with the record enough, and then took it to his own level. You hear the Albert King influence, but you also hear how he collected his favourite things that meant something to him. We’re all kind of collectors. It’s all about editing. I started with Ace Frehley, then I went to Steve Lukather, Mike Stern, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Eric Johnson. It’s up to you to pick the bits that mean something to you, and over time it becomes your own thing and you start to apply things with your own feel, hopefully.

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I’ve realized that nothing can replace you actually going down that path and figuring it out for yourself. You can look at someone’s transcription, which I’m guilty of and have done, but if you earn it with your own ears, the music internalizes completely differently, and it means more. I am concerned about the newer generation of players getting too much too easily from the internet. You can achieve things quicker, but what’s the level of depth and how does it help you create your own music? Are you remembering lick 37, or are you hearing those notes? And is there a connection between your inner ear and your guitar? Music is an aural experience. I’m a firm believer that you have to make the effort to learn it by ear yourself first, and then get the help of the transcription or video when you need it. That’s the delicate balance as we improve our playing: how you achieve it can make a huge difference. Those bits that you learned on your own internalize differently because you learned them with your ears, not your eyes.

How would you describe your upcoming album in terms of your evolution?

With my previous albums, Resolution and Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt Pepper, we pared the performances down to just one guitar. It was a challenge and I had to reinvent how I was playing those songs, but some of it came naturally because of my jazz experience of trying to voice melodies with chords. With a distorted guitar tone, you can’t get away with as much colour as a clean jazz setting, but you learn how to support the melody with a bare minimum of other notes and get it to sound right without the backing harmony. That was a great path for me to take.

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But now working on the new record, my producer and engineer, Mike Daane and I thought it might be nice to have a little extra something. On some tracks, we felt like we could hear another guitar or a distorted wurlitzer keyboard. So now we’ve taken the “hand cuffs” off a little bit and feel liberated. The music still works as a trio, but production wise, we’re having some fun and experimenting a little more. We have a couple more things to do, then we’re ready to mix as we have 10 songs that we’re really happy with. We don’t have a title for the record yet, but it’s going to come out late summer and then we’re going to get back out to play live in September or October.

I’m also going to make a bossa nova record with a buddy of mine, Sydnei Carvalho, who’s a great fusion player but also plays traditional bossa nova. He just happens to know Roberto Menescal, who was one of the originators of that style and he’s going to produce it. So I’m thrilled to have Roberto, a guy who showed Antonio Carlos Jobim certain voicings on the guitar, not just really dig my playing, but offer to produce this record of Sydnei and I playing. I love that music and we’re going to make a record later this year.

One of the hallmarks of your playing is your use of dynamics. Do you remember how you became conscious of it and realized it was something important to develop?

I really wish I had an exact answer, but it’s really just the players I gravitated towards. A lot of it is the jazz thing. When you hear Charlie Parker play a line, there’s a shape to the line. That influenced how I eventually started to hear my own lines. That type of player made me interested because every note was a word, had a different emphasis, and said something. For me, it all happened naturally overtime just emulating guys like Carlton and Metheny, who had a much more sensitive approach to music. Some of it is sonic driven too. If your gain is so saturated, you’re not going to hear a lot of dynamics. It’s important to me that the higher lead gain tones still have enough articulation and detail that you can achieve giving a note the right emphasis at the right time. That’s where the emotion comes to the fore and you can get more meaning out of the lines.

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Could you describe how you developed your ability to arrange chord melodies or your compositional skills?

You’re going to hear a similar answer here as a lot of it evolved naturally. I absorbed The Beatles as much as a human being possibly could. Their music was my security blanket. I was always listening to them, not realizing it was teaching me about melody, joy, energy, and music, which that band had so much of. They had great songs and Ringo had a great feel. He swung those tunes and no other drummer in the sixties could have made those songs sound that great. All that was certainly my foundation, but it wasn’t a conscious attempt. And then yeah, I learned chord melodies of jazz standards like “Misty”. That was another lesson: here’s the melody to “Misty” and you start adding the changes under it.

Arranging The Beatles’ songs in Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt Pepper was interesting because the melodies are so great, you don’t need a lot underneath it. I know the songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band inside and out and I didn’t have to reference the record. I played it in my head basically, so that’s how I did all those songs on that album. I did it from memory. In “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”, the keyboard intro works so well on guitar and when you hear John Lennon’s original take on the song, the melody is mostly one note. There wasn’t much variation, but the key was the moving root in the bass. After you get those two, you don’t need anything else. But then, I would start figuring out ways of getting the other strings to ring with the melody to flesh out the harmony. Like in the phrase “marmalade skies”, I’ve got the E string ringing with the melody. I did all the arrangements without really thinking of a band so much as just sitting down and playing the songs for my own enjoyment. So I’d have to flesh out passing phrases on my own, and sometimes it’s just two notes ringing together. For “Lucy”, I beefed up the chorus a bit by adding the root and fifth. So there was a lot of care put into it and literally a couple of years toying around before I got the confidence to record those songs.

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And you had to make sure you found voicings that were in tune.

Oh, dear. That was a huge thing. There were a lot of string choices to make, so I had to audition a lot of different ways of playing. For example, the melody in “Lucy” doesn’t sound bad on the D and G strings, but I found I just like playing it with the open A string ringing. But then sometimes, where my ear led me choice wise was the worst possible intonation issue. So I had to figure out ways of cheating the tuning along the way and just improving the tuning of the guitar in general. I had Sperzel tuners for awhile, but then I changed to Gotoh locking tuners because the tuning ratio was 16:1 as opposed to 12:1, and that made a huge difference. I learned to intonate my own guitar, which I hadn’t really been that great at doing before.

Then I realized that for every key, you might need to alter the tuning of certain strings just to make it sweeter depending on how you’re voicing things. I do a lot of things with wide intervals. For example, there’s a new song on my upcoming album where in my voicings, the B string always sounds sharp to me for whatever reason. So I detuned it a little bit. If you just watch your tuner, it’s definitely lying to you. It’s close, but you got to use your ear to sweeten the chords and the key you’re actually playing in. I’ve tried other tuning helpers like the Buzz Feiten and True Temperament systems. They do fix some problems, but not all of them, and some things don’t sound natural to me. When you hear Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani, these dudes are in tune. These guys have figured so much out technically and physically. Eric can hear if a fret is not placed properly. You know, the guitar is definitely not a perfect instrument. That’s definitely one of the challenges and when you add distortion, it amplifies the harmonic impurities and you can really get into trouble.

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The care and attention to detail you’ve put in really shows in your music, both on record and live.

Thank you, I appreciate that very much. I’m enjoying the journey. There were years where I don’t feel I was as productive in that direction, but things are lining up now in a certain way. I feel great, emotionally and physically, and it’s become really fun again. If you focus on one thing your whole life, which a lot of musicians do, you’re not always going to have that energy you had when you were 12 in your bedroom playing along to records. It’s kind of hard to maintain that consistent level of interest. I’m just very blessed I’ve come full circle. I’ve always enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong. There were years where I was always playing, but I wasn’t really practicing or learning, and I did enjoy it, but life takes over. Once life starts happening, there’s so many things you have to take care of that have nothing to do with the instrument. Even if it’s all music related like booking tours, it’s time consuming and you can get out of the habit of dedicating that special time to the guitar. That’s what happened to me. I was still growing in some ways, but now that I’m back on it, I start to see improvement. That’s the encouragement in itself. After a few months of doing it, I’m starting to notice the difference and it’s exciting.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.

Interview with Billy Sheehan

October 15th, 2015

I had the honour of interviewing electric bass titan, Billy Sheehan, who is currently on tour with The Winery Dogs promoting their latest record, Hot Streak, which entered Billboard’s Top Albums Chart at #16. In this interview, Billy talks about songwriting, practicing, and burning your ships down. Thanks to Billy, Amanda Cagan, and Andrew King for making this interview possible! For more on The Winery Dogs, visit TheWineryDogs.com and purchase Hot Streak on iTunes.

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You’ve said that every time you sit down to practice, you discover something new on the bass. What new bass techniques did you use on Hot Streak?

The riff that starts “Spiral” was a new thing for me. It’s kind of a flamenco technique that I had been working on where I finger pluck across 4 strings and drop the root notes on the E and A string to create a melodic motif. I just started playing it and Mike started playing a beat, and the next thing you know, we had a piece of music built out of it.

Most of our music writing process falls together pretty quickly because each of us in the band has made dozens of records under every condition imaginable. For someone who’s never done it before, it’s a daunting task, but when you get down to the 25th or 30th record, you kind of get an idea of how it works, especially writing. Writing for me is not really hard labour. I’ve done a couple of Rock N Roll Fantasy Camps where I’m the counsellor and I have to show the campers how to perform, and possibly write and record a song. It’s interesting to see them brighten up when they see how methodical and easy it can be to write a piece of music. Whether it’s good or not is another story, of course. So, that’s why you write a lot. When I do a solo record, I write maybe 50 or 60 pieces of music. Eventually, 30 move on from there, another 20 get recorded, and then only 12 get mixed.

Which songwriters did you learn the most from?

Well, the great songwriters in popular music are The Beatles, I believe. For me, it was The Beatles that turned things around and as I got older, I started listening to Joni Mitchell. Most of the music I grew up with in the ’70s was pretty well put together according to basic “Songwriting 101”, if you will. There are some rules to writing that you can ignore, follow, or reinvent. It’s art, so you can do what you please, but if you follow some basic rules, you can come up with some pretty great stuff. For example, you want a recurring theme, or you want to hear the title of the song in the first 40 seconds of the song. A lot of Beatles songs would start out with them singing the title of the song. What a great way to make a hit record because people would hear it and instantly know what song it was. Fortunately, I grew up in that time period where people were really doing their homework and doing proper writing.

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So, you dissected their songs and learned from their chord progressions.

Yeah, and in my early band, Talas, we performed so much of that stuff live. A band I played a lot of songs from was Three Dog Night and they just played songs from other writers. One of those songs was a Beatles song called “It’s For You” and Three Dog Night’s version of it was pretty interesting. It’s great to see what a band can do with a cover, then you can understand the potential of what you can do for your own songs, such as the variations you can do on arrangements, beat, or time. There are a million variables that you have control over, which is a good thing.

Do you find that learning covers also helps when you’re stuck in a rut with writing a song?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad I played in bar bands playing covers for well over a decade. In my iTunes, I have recordings of Ronnie Dio singing covers. In the early days, everyone did it because it was the best way to learn how to put things together. I read that an author, it might have been Hunter S. Thompson, took a famous novel and hand copied the entire novel just so he could get the feel of what it would be like to write that kind of a book. It’s a very, very common thing in art to copy the masters. A lot of people now want to write an original song right off the bat. I would say to them, “Before you do that, learn some great songs. Listen to some great songwriters.” Because a lot of songs I hear now are written by people that don’t have that kind of experience, and for me, the songs don’t really have the kind of depth that I believe they should have to really reach people. So, being in a copy band is not a bad thing. Learning songs by other writers is always a good thing.

If someone wanted to learn your style of writing and playing bass, what songs of yours should they study?

I would say just give them Talas’ Sink Your Teeth Into That record. It was the first record where I really displayed what it is I do and so it’s a good beginning spot. Then the Eat ‘Em and Smile (David Lee Roth) and Lean Into It (Mr. Big) albums as well. They were both extremely successful records and I think there’s some good songs on both of them, so you can hear what I do in the context of a song, which is essential. Some guys will just extract the solo from one of my DVDs and post it on YouTube and people might get the wrong impression that soloing is what I do all night long every night. But it’s only for one spot in the set so I can give the singer a rest. So, I would recommend getting records of mine that were successful and learn the songs.

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I tell young players, “Go find your favourite records and learn the whole thing.” I used to do that myself. The first two records I learned in their entirety by ear were the first Santana record and Jethro Tull’s Stand Up. I would sit down and play through the whole record, playing all the bass parts. Then once I got tired of those, I learned some of the solos and some of the keyboard parts. When I finally started playing live, we needed about 40 songs to do a night in a club and we also switched up the songs once in awhile. So, at any given time, any one of us in the band could pull 60 or 80 songs out of the hat and perform them, which was a really good basic vocabulary to have. Lately, I’ve been trying to write down a list of every song I’ve ever performed live and it’s a daunting task to figure it all out.

What are you learning by ear these days during the Winery Dogs tour?

The music of Art Tatum, who was an incredible pianist from the ’30s and ’40s. He is mind numbingly awesome and his playing is beyond human ability. He just rips across the piano with a big smile on his face. I’m not so much a “jazz guy”, but I do like a lot of jazz, and Art Tatum is my current go-to-guy for that style. I’m trying to listen to him to get a feel for what he’s doing and try to somehow adapt his blistering, perfect explosion of notes into something I can actually use on bass. So, that’s the mountain I’m currently climbing.

As you’re figuring his playing out, are you analyzing it in terms of, “that looks like this scale and that might work over this chord”?

I’m not sure what the process actually is because it’s hard for me to step outside of myself and take a look. This is why I love doing clinics. I’m not a teacher, but I like showing people things, and they force me to step outside of myself and explain what I’m doing. Actually, I learn more from the clinics than any attendee ever because of that. Basically, you have to find an entrance point into a piece of music that is within your playing ability. Then, move beyond it and see if you can expand it. For example, there’s a viola solo in one of the Brandenburg concertos that I knew a little bit of for years and I finally sat down and said, “I’m going to learn the whole thing”. And I did, but man, it was tough. It’s just mechanically tough to be able to pull off the violist’s notes on bass because that instrument is tuned in fifths.

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How did you develop your soloing abilities?

Well, I remember we played the Free song, “Mr. Big”, in Talas. There’s a spot in the middle where the bass player goes off and does a solo and one night I told the band to just stop playing during that spot and I would just keep going. This was around ’72. I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix doing the Star Spangled Banner solo from the Woodstock record, and I was thinking of doing something along those lines. Plus, I learned a lot of little bass pieces by ear: I would sit down and learn some lines from the Brandenburg concertos, Bach’s well tempered clavier pieces, some cello solos, or an Oscar Peterson piece. Then when the drummer and guitar player stopped playing, I would have some musical pieces to play on the bass. I remember the first night we did it, it was a funny transition, but people started asking for it, “Are you going to do that solo thing again?” Then, it kept growing until it became a feature of the show. Plus, we played the same clubs all the time, so I always tried to come up with new things to keep the solos fresh. That gave me a big vocabulary of moves I could do at any given time.

Could you describe what you practice to prepare for a Winery Dogs gig?

Absolutely. I’ll fret the 2nd or 3rd fret on the E string, which is an F# or G, and play quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes for a long time until there’s a solid groove to what my hands are doing. Then, I tighten up on my criticism of what I’m doing: I make sure that every note is the same length and the accents are on the right spot. Then, I’ll move back and forth between the E and A string playing a simple two fret pattern. I was doing that in my hotel room last night. I opened up the hotel room window, moved the chair over by the window, watched the stars, and did that exercise for an hour. I do that to improve my muscle memory, to get the tiny, little nuanced moves firing as accurately as possible.

So, watching me warm up or practice is supremely boring, because I’m just basically working on mechanics, or over the skeleton of what will later, hopefully become music. I try to build a machine into my hands that will be able to do anything on the fretboard. Once that machine is built, I forget all about the machine and just concentrate on actual music. In doing so, I’m never held back by any inability of my hands to do anything.

It’s just the approach that works for me and this way has a couple of advantages. If I can’t come up with any musical ideas for example, I just go back and start working on more mechanics. Eventually, my hands get up to speed and I find at that point, I have all kinds of new musical ideas as opposed to drawing a blank. I tell a lot of players, “If you’re bored with your playing, just get to work. Don’t play, let’s work. Let’s get your hands in better shape. Make sure you can do every move you need to do and that your fingers are plucking the notes exactly right. Work on groove, start swinging everything, and start boogie-ing everything. Start doing stuff in 3/4 or 5/4 time.” Then, whenever you revisit the real reason for all of it, which is music, you have a lot more to your vocabulary.

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What new things did you learn about singing from Richie Kotzen in The Winery Dogs?

Well, Richie and I both go to the same vocal coach, Ron Anderson in Los Angeles, who coaches everybody from Björk to Janet Jackson. Ron is a genius at being able to look at you and somehow know what’s going on inside of you. As you get older, your range is supposed to decrease, but my range has increased by a step and a half, sometimes two, and Ron was a big reason for that. Richie does soulful vocal moves that I don’t necessarily do. It’s not always within my capabilities. But I try because I have to harmonize with him a lot and I have a few little moves now as a result. I’m not quite up to Richie’s speed as he’s got a great voice; he always has since I first met him. Being around a great singer is always a good thing. You’ll pick up something from them one way or the other and I’ve been fortunate to be around some good ones.

You’ve said that in Mr. Big, you used to just practice with the drummer, Pat Torpey, to make sure the drums and bass were locking. In The Winery Dogs, do you and Mike Portnoy also practice together without Richie?

Yeah. Bass and drums are really the foundation and the drummer is the most important guy in the band. You really need to fine tune what you’re doing to the drums. For me personally, I just like to go over every song with a drummer in a room before I go out on a tour or do a record. I do it just to make sure I know what the drummer is doing and to get a feel for what he’s going to do instinctively. I know when he gets to this part, he’s going to make this move, so I’ll anticipate that and we get an ESP connection happening where we’ll both play the exact same thing at the same time without having planned it. That’s some of my favourite moments of performing live and Mike and I do that a lot. Also, you can actually get away with playing more notes when you’re locked into the drums. Great bassists like James Jamerson and Paul McCartney played all over the neck, but because they had great time, it all worked. But if you get busy on bass without breathing in and out in sync with the drummer, you’ll probably fall on your face.

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You have such a long career and continue to be part of great bands and put out successful records. Was there ever a time in the early days where you had any doubts about “making it” in the music business and how did you overcome them?

I don’t think I really had any doubts. Again, it’s like what I discovered before: whenever I’m out of musical inspiration, I go back to building up mechanics. That philosophy also worked its way into the rest of my life, where if things weren’t going right in one area, I got to work on something else. I left high school in my senior year and never actually did any jobs outside of music. I forget who it was, but some old general, would take his men on a ship when they would go and attack. When the ship got to the land, the soldiers would get off and the general would burn the ship. The idea was that he gave his soldiers no other choice but to win because they couldn’t turn back.

In a way, I felt like that guy a lot because when I got to my late twenties, I didn’t have much of anything. But in my mind, I had burned the ship so there was no going back. It was either make it or die in the attempt (laughs). It got desperate a couple of times, but I never backed off. Sometimes, I felt like Talas was like the Buffalo Bills of bands because we would just almost get signed. We showcased for Clive Davis and John Kalodner from Geffen, but they never signed us. I’d always get so close just to see it fall apart, so it was a frustrating thing. But you have to stick to it long enough, be smart, self-critical, and self-disciplined. It’s important to take responsibility when it doesn’t happen and don’t blame anyone else. Rather than cry in my beer, I got back to work. I kept trying another angle, another approach, and eventually it paid off.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. For Skype lessons and transcription services, he can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @halwit, on youtube.com/halromusic, and at guitartreats.blogspot.ca

Interview with Marty Friedman

September 17th, 2015

I had the pleasure of interviewing heavy metal guitar hero, Marty Friedman, for the second time last night before his concert in Toronto. The concert was part of his highly anticipated North American tour promoting his latest album, Inferno on Prosthetic Records. Thanks to Marty, Hiroshi, Kelly Walsh, and Andrew King for making this interview possible! For more on Marty and his tour, visit MartyFriedman.com and purchase Inferno on iTunes. (Photos by Hal Rodriguez)

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The last time you spoke with me for an interview, you mentioned how arrangement was your secret weapon and how you’d use certain production “tricks” like making the tempo of a certain section faster than the rest of the song. Could you talk more about your arranging and other “tricks” you used on Inferno?

That’s a good, important question. This is why I don’t like being lumped in with shredders. I rarely if ever listen to shred music and when I hear that music, it sounds like the guitarist couldn’t care less about what’s backing him up. The guitarist has amazing chops, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a second thought given to arrangement, melody, waves of emotion, and power. The music is just showing how rad they are on guitar. I despise that with every fibre of my being, although I admire a lot of these players’ abilities.

Arrangement is a secret weapon, and hopefully you’ll see it in my live shows too, that I utilize the arrangement of the songs to get excitement and feeling. If you come off saying, “I like the song” and “I had a great time at the show”, that’s great. If you come off saying, “he’s got great chops”, then I failed, because I had great chops when I was 16 years old. It’s all about listening to the music and going, “I want to hear that again”, and I rarely feel that way about instrumental guitar music. Of course I feel that way all the time about pop, rock, metal, and dance music, and what do those have? Great arrangements, great melodies, great songs! Sometimes the chorus is bumped up 2 or 3 bpm to give you that subliminal excitement. There’s a billion tricks and I’m doing everything in the world of non-instrumental music in instrumental music.

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I notice you employ a lot of contrast. Sometimes there’s a section of really fast, syncopated guitar riffing that suddenly drops to half time with a singing lead guitar melody and an intricate chord progression. What other things could someone do to create contrast and interest?

Do something that people don’t expect, but do it in a good way. For example, the song “Resin”, the second track on Inferno, ends in a crescendo of beautiful, horrible white noise. Then it drops down to one nicely played acoustic guitar. Doing that sounds way cooler than just presenting the listener with a nice acoustic guitar part by itself or white noise by itself. By putting them together, you get the best of both. That type of contrast is constantly happening in my music.

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What advice would you give to a guitarist that wants to improve as an arranger and producer?

Get into a band and just soak it up. If you’re really serious, start analyzing the things you really like. Ask yourself, “Why do I listen to this and get goosebumps?” Well, figure out all the guitar parts first, then all the bass parts. Now, ask yourself, “What’s the drummer doing? Why does it feel so good at this point?” Why does it feel so good right before the chorus in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? It’s because the drummer is doing the smartest “money” fill before the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but people are so wrapped up in this Neal Peart thing at age 16 that they forget no one in the studio pays you to play like that.

Listen to the radio – that stuff’s exciting and the mainstream people are loving it. It’s not a mistake. Of course, when you’re a young musician, you’re impressed with chops and it’s fun to learn that stuff, but in the real world, that stuff rarely raises its head. If you want to make a career out of making music at any level, you’ve got to analyze things that make a lot of people happy and especially, what makes you happy.

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You’re also known for writing beautiful ballads with cool chord progressions. Could you give us a little lesson on how you keep the chord progressions for your exotic melodies interesting or how you break out of keys?

I don’t really have a method for that, unfortunately. I usually always have a melody, and I know when I hear it, how to make it sing. I’ll put the most basic, obvious chord progression behind it and do the first set of demos with it. Then, I’ll get a bit more adventurous, but it’s nothing that you can’t find in a Beach Boys song. It’s just basic chords with maybe, two substitutions up, but it’s not Allan Holdsworth. For example, in my ballad, “Undertow”, there could be a Whitney Houston chord progression in there. There are many separate chord progressions, but it’s Beach Boys-ish. If you learn every Beach Boys song, you’ve learned enough about chord progressions to do any kind of beautiful music. You really don’t need to know anymore. So you start with your basic chords, which are the first ones you try your melody with, and then you do a couple of substitutions. Then you do one more set of substitutions, and that’s about where I am. If you do anymore, it’s too jazzy.

What do you do when you get stuck in a rut while writing a solo or a song in the studio?

I rarely get stuck with a solo and if a song’s not kicking my ass, I just throw it away. I’ve thrown away 90% of everything I’ve ever written. It’s like making concentrated orange juice – you need to throw out a thousand oranges to get one decent drink. I mean, I’ve done a lot of crappy shit that I’ve thrown away (laughs). I guess the longer you play music, the more you know whether you’re on to something or not. A lot of young kids work really hard on a song and when it’s finally done, they don’t throw it away because they’ve worked so hard on it. They say, “The solo’s impossible and I finally nailed it. There’s no way I’m throwing this away”. But the song sucks. I’ve had millions of things that I’ve worked really hard on, but if the song still sucked, I got rid of it. However, once you’ve been playing for a long time and you start getting goosebumps at the demo stage of a song, you know you’re on to something. But young kids just go, “We’ve been working on this for months. This is gonna be it.” That’s the wrong judgement. And don’t listen to other musicians who say your song is cool. Musicians will blow sunshine up your ass forever, because they see the chops. It looks cool to see someone shredding, but don’t look at it. Listen to it, and then you decide.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. For Skype lessons and transcription services, he can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @halwit, on youtube.com/halromusic, and at guitartreats.blogspot.ca

Concert Review: Al Di Meola at Nathan Phillips Square

June 26th, 2015

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Legendary guitarist/composer, Al Di Meola, brought his highly anticipated “Elegant Gypsy” tour to the TD Jazz Fest Mainstage last night at Nathan Phillips Square. Di Meola and his world class band played a lengthy set of original compositions from his classic 70’s and 80’s albums, including the influential “Elegant Gypsy” record, which showcased his signature fusion of virtuosic electric guitar with Afro-Cuban rhythms, Flamenco, and Argentine Tango. Fan favourite tunes, like “Señor Mouse”, “Flight Over Rio”, and “Race with Devil”, elicited rapturous responses and standing ovations from the audience throughout the show.

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Despite being called a nostalgic tour, their live performances of these songs sounded fresh, exciting, and forward thinking. Di Meola’s compositions are rich in intricacy and colour: they shift from dark and dramatic movements featuring explosive, lightning quick electric guitar lines, to playful and syncopated passages and exotic melodies. Al’s band of Gumbi Ortiz (percussion), Philippe Saisse (keys and marimba), Joel Taylor (drums), and Arman Sabal Lecco (bass) provided hypnotic, invigorating, and unyielding rhythms that kept the crowd engaged. Di Meola also played a few tunes from his new album, “Elysium”, proving that his work has evolved with even more sophistication over the years.

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A highlight of the show was Al’s acoustic set, where he performed mostly solo and had stirring musical exchanges with his long-time bandmate, Ortiz. On his classical guitar, Al displayed his peerless mastery of polyrhythms, while playing enchanting chord melodies that struck an air of romance. Much to the delight of the audience, this unplugged set included “Spain” by Chick Corea and a bold reworking of The Beatles’ “Blackbird”. For more on Al Di Meola, his latest album “Elysium”, and his “Elegant Gypsy” tour, visit AlDiMeola.Com. (Photos by Hal Rodriguez)

Hal Rodriguez is a Toronto based musician, published writer, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. For Skype lessons and transcription services, he can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @halwit, on youtube.com/halromusic, and at guitartreats.blogspot.ca

Concert Review: Mike Stern Trio at The Horseshoe Tavern

June 24th, 2015

TD Jazz Fest 2015 Mike Stern Kim Thompson at Horseshoe TavernJazz Fusion’s long-standing guitar hero, Mike Stern, returned to Toronto last night with bass wizard, Janek Gwizdala, and esteemed drummer, Kim Thompson on the fifth night of the TD Jazz Festival. The trio delivered a sensational performance at The Horseshoe Tavern playing a set of originals ranging from funky tunes, like “Coupe De Ville”, that showcased their virtuosity to delicate ballads like, “You Never Know”, that enamored the crowd.

TD Jazz Fest 2015 Janek Gwizdala at Horseshoe TavernStern’s compositions were a captivating mix of head bopping vamps, dexterous bebop lines, and world music tinged melodies. Ever the dynamic improviser, he often built his rousing solos from whisper quiet chromatic passages to screaming, overdriven blues climaxes. Threatening to steal the show, was premier bass virtuoso, Gwizdala. The L. A. based musician’s thunderous tone, infallible groove, and wondrous ability to improvise ethereal chord melodies and dazzling phrases left the audience stunned.

TD Jazz Fest 2015 Kim Thompson at The Horseshoe TavernDrummer Kim Thompson also delivered burning solos on her kit, often switching seamlessly from intricate swing rhythms to wall shaking hard rock beats with tireless ferocity at breakneck speeds. For more on these musicians visit, MikeStern.org, JanekGwizdala.com, and KimThompson.net, and visit TD Jazz Festival. (Photos by Hal Rodriguez)

Hal Rodriguez is a Toronto based musician, published writer, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. For Skype lessons and transcription services, he can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @halwit, on youtube.com/halromusic, and at guitartreats.blogspot.ca

Swing Guitar Comping Part 2

June 22nd, 2015

Here’s my transcription of Herb Ellis comping the last 4 choruses of a blues. As in Part 1, there’s plenty of simple, but cool chord voicings and substitution ideas here to learn. A couple of my favourite moments are when Herb uses both the #9 and b9 in bar 72 and when he replaces the Bb7 with minor chords in bars 79 and 80. Notice how inserting these chords creates more chromatic movement and interest. I’ve found that even learning just a few of these moves has changed the way I play rhythm and makes comping over a blues just as fun and inspiring as soloing.

 
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Hal Rodriguez is a Toronto based musician, published writer, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. For Skype lessons and transcription services, he can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @halwit, on youtube.com/halromusic, and at guitartreats.blogspot.ca

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