Thursday, May 20, 2021

Slide Guitar: A Guided Musical Tour

Son House - blues legend
For brevity, we'll do a VERY condensed origin & history of slide guitar, and then a short list of a handful of "modern era" (1955 to now) popular songs featuring slide guitar.

If you find you really enjoy the sound of various slide guitars, I strongly suggest a deep dive into styles and eras touched on below!

Its sometime post 1800 and European sailors have been visiting the Hawaiian Islands for a couple of decades. At some point, they bring ashore an instrument very much like the modern guitar (which was first made in 1850, but there were a variety of similar instruments - some called "guitar" and others bearing different names).

For reasons unknown, the islanders dislike the standard tunings of the 5-string and 6-string instruments, and re-tune them to open chords (they called it "slack-key", as they tuned strings down to achieve this, and we now refer to this as "open chord" tuning). At some point, someone laid a piece of metal across the strings to play it....sliding the metal across the strings. One story is that it was a man named Joseph Kekuku and that he picked up an old rusted bolt and on a whim, applied it to the strings of his "Spanish" guitar. Whatever the truth, the "steel guitar" is officially born.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

This beautiful song was written by the always stellar Carole King and her then songwriting partner & husband Gerry Goffin (for context, if my history is correct, King wrote the music while Goffin & King shared lyric duties for this song).

It was first recorded & released by The Shirelles in 1960 and went to #1 on the charts (despite being banned from many radio stations for being too sexually suggestive), and was subsequently recorded by Brenda Lee, Ben E, King, Dusty Springfield, Cher, The Four Seasons, & more through the 60s (and many more in later decades, from Roberta Flack to Amy Winehouse), and Carole King included a slower version on her ground-breaking album "Tapestry" in 1971 with backup vocals supplied by none other than James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.

The song has since landed on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" as well as taking the #3 slot on their "100 Greatest Girl Songs" list.

Let's dive into this classic.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: Exploring Sam Cooke's Classic "You Send Me"

Here in our 4th piece in the series, we'll look at Sam Cooke's timeless classic, "You Send Me", which was written by Sam (though credited to Sam's brother) in 1955 and recorded & released it 2 years later as Cooke's debut single. The song met with massive commercial & critical success (it was #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts) and has since been listed on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list as well as the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs That Shaped Rock-n-Roll" list.

You can also read my tribute to Sam Cooke.

Let's dive in.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

MoneyChords Lesson: "Moonlight Sonata"

This lesson was written roughly 2005 and published at MoneyChords. Enjoy!

Zen Guitar #3: "The Sound Of...."

(ed note: this is the third of three lessons in the series)

The Sound of....

Level: Advanced

David M. McLean
(a brief word to advanced players)

Sounds can come from your hands, your guitar, your amp or strings or FX boxes or alien devices. All of these are legitimate, of course, but today we are going to focus on something a little different. Today, work on mimicking what would traditionally be thought of as non-musical sounds.

Imitate the sound of...

a jackhammer
a car horn
an elephant
a mouse
a mouse click
a vitamin cap being unscrewed
a siren
the wind
feet running in the sand
a randomly dialing radio

I would encourage you to share your discoveries with us, as many might be surprised not only at what you accomplish, but how different it is from what they accomplish with this exercise. I would also encourage you to try this exercise using both an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar. Have fun!


"What you are is what you have been; what you will become is what you do now." - Gautama (the Buddha)

Zen Guitar #2: "One with the Music"

(ed note: this is second of three lessons in the series)

One With the Music

Level: Advanced

David M. McLean
(a brief word to advanced players)

Here is a very short lesson with which my students have had remarkable success.

Sing what you play.

Yep, simple lesson...and one you should actually do rather than just read. Start with a simple C major scale played in the open position...then progress, playing the same scale in various positions, then expanding to 2 octaves in various positions, and so on.

Next, sing a few simple melodies as you play them. Slowly begin embellishing the melody with your voice and follow it with the guitar. Next, embellish with the guitar and follow it with your voice. Do this every day for several weeks until you become comfortable with it.

Now for the hard part: Record an unusual chord progression over an odd time - something you are just not at all used to doing or hearing. Don't play, just hear melodic options in your head. Then go through it again, this time playing (and singing) your improvised (perhaps "discovered": is a better word?) melody. Now stop singing, but continue to play (but hear your voice in your head) and try to freely improvise over your odd tune. After you do this for a few minutes, add your voice back in and see what happens to your playing. It may be wise to capture all of this with your recorder. You might even want to up-load the music onto a music site (or your own web-site) and invite all of us to listen.

"What you are is what you have been; what you will become is what you do now." - Gautama (the Buddha)

Zen Guitar #1: "Come What May"

(ed note: this piece is one of three re-prints of lessons by David McLean written for Zen Guitar in the early 2000s - the other two are also available here at Skinny Devil Magazine)

Come What May

Level: Advanced

David M. McLean

(a brief word to advanced players)

A funny thing happened on the way.....

So there you are - you've studied all your scales and memorized two thousand chords and digested theoretical texts and practiced your arpeggios and done 2-hand exercises until your fingers bled; you've mastered compositional techniques and studied masters from Bach to Yngwie; you've logged countless hours of recording time and played clubs & coffee houses...yet you still feel something is missing.

This is something I now recognize as a common problem, after teaching and recording and performing for years. Students and peers alike have told me that they can't seem to find their own style, their own voice with the guitar. Here's some of what I've told them over the years.

1) Slow down. You've worked hard to develop all that dazzling technique, but playing notes faster than an Uzi discharges rounds isn't the only way to play. Today, don't play any scales or arpeggios - just work on playing slowly. Techniques to focus on? Bends and vibrato. These are the core of much expression, so use them like a fantastic singer uses their voice.

2) Stop talking. I once told a group of students that to find their voice on guitar, they have to make it their primary mode of expression for at least a few days. That job is usually handled by your voice when you speak to friends, parents, kids, bosses, teachers, and the like. So I actually wrote several of them a note to take to school (these were all high-school aged kids) and the principle & teachers honored it - they let them go a whole week without speaking.

2.5) Start talking. Not talking isn't enough, though. Now you have to replace your human voice with your guitar. Don't ask how, just do it. That's right, try to carry on a conversation with people by using your guitar instead of your mouth. It's a very enlightening experience, even if you only do it for a few hours at a time.

3) Try something new. Yeah, sounds silly, I know. But how often do you pick up the guitar and play the same lick or scale or chord sequence? Today, try something completely different. If you're a rock-n-roller, try playing a pop/jazz standard; if your a jazz player, try to sound like a country guitarist; if you're a classical player, try a walking bass line mimicking the timbre, not just the notes.

4) Listen to something you HATE. If there is any music you absolutely despise, go buy it and listen to it NOW. Or better yet, turn on the radio and listen to a collection of it. Find something in it that you can appreciate, then listen some more. Try to listen to it for hours today...or even all week. I once assigned this to a percussion class and they came back in with sudden respect for rap and country musics a week later, and played & explained what they found.

That should be enough to keep you busy for a month. I hope you find value in at least one of these exercises. If so, then make a ritual of returning to it this time next year.

"What you are is what you have been; what you will become is what you do now." - Gautama (the Buddha)

Monday, March 15, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: The Shifting Foundation of "Surfer Girl"

In our 3rd installment of the series, let's look at the Beach Boys classic "Surfer Girl" from 1963.

Written by Brian Wilson (who co-founded the band and was originally played bass & keys in addition to lead & backing vocals) in 1961 when he was only 19 years old, he claims it was the first song he ever wrote! This is an amazing fact, as we'll soon see.

So lets look at the the chord progressions and how it interacts with the melody and the lyrics.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Sonic Sorcery: A Peak at Prosody

"Prosody" has many meanings, depending on what context one is examining (linguistics, music, poetry & versification, etc), but in music, its primary meaning is in fusing the music and lyrics.

This can mean several things (like simply making sure the rhythmic meter of the music matches the rhythmic meter of the music, or matching happy lyrics with up-beat, major key music and sad lyrics with slower, minor key music), but our focus today is on tracking music and lyrics together. Put another way, the music matches the lyrical content (or the lyrical content matching the music). This is also sometimes referred to as "word painting".

For example, when a Sly Stone sings "Gonna take you HIGH-ER" and the pitch rolls up on the last word....or when Garth Brooks sings "I've got friends in LOW places" and drops the pitch on the word "low".....or when Bruno Mars sings "Stop - wait a minute" and the entire band stops playing.....or, for a more subtle example of "stop", when Diana Ross songs "Stop - in the name of love" and the melody stops dead after the word.....or when a vocalist sings "Going down - down, down, down, down, down" in the old Don Nix blues standard "Going Down" (covered by Freddie King, Jeff Beck, Beth Hart, Joe Satriani, Gary Clark Jr, and others, each "down" drops further in pitch, taking the ear lower and lower.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Most Influential Guitarists of All Time

I typically dislike such lists. Strongly. They're always informative of the writer's personal tastes, which is fine, but too often presented as some sort of factual list based on objective standards. That is simply not the case.

So I've opted for a mildly different approach and tried to find peak moments across both historical & stylistic lines by which to choose guitarists as not so much an announcement of my personal aesthetic, but as an educational tool. Many an incredible and influential player didn't make it onto this particular list (names like Cobain & Satriani, Django & Wes, Gambale & Clapton, Emmanuel & Vai, and more are sure to figure largely in the critiques), but I had to narrow this down to a manageable list and so choices had to be made. Some of these players also taught - no small point in being influential during one's time as well as across time. somewhat chronological order, a Baker's Dozen of best: