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A Busy Compatriot in Rock and Roll 

One-time band-mate and friend, Ross Metcalfe is cranking out some good music.  Splitting his time between two bands, Harlan County Kings and 12 Gauge Sunrise, he has recently released a new full length album with each project. 

Ross shares his lead vocal and guitar duties with Rosalie Wampler on the Harlan County Kings release, Majestic Hotel.  Joe Manfre rounds out the trio and they are joined by a few others that contributed to the studio recording.  While straddling a lot of territory stylistically as you would expect from a group with co-lead vocalists, they manage to stick closely to the just plug it in the amp and go for it brand of rock that the group is known for. 

Harlan County Kings have been at it for a while; long enough to outlast some of the venues that they have appeared at over the years in their hometown of Baltimore.  That longevity is apparent in the songwriting and performances on Majestic Hotel.  Ross’ roots and punk rock inspired vocals coupled with Rosalie’s classic rock anthem meets singer songwriter stylings balance the band’s overall power-pop/Americana feel.  A well-produced recording and a fun ride from start to finish. 

12-Gauge Sunrise’s self-titled release is a driving, upbeat collection that doesn’t let its foot off of the gas.  Throughout its 10 songs Ross Metcalfe and Alexei Yukna sling guitar riffs that recall garage rock with a twist of clarity and polish that is refreshing.  These riffs are punctuated by some lively teamwork in the rhythm section provided by Joe Manfre on drums and Greg Poseno on bass, the latter's tongue-in-cheek walking bass is perfect on “Hammer.” 

The album’s production and mixing let the instrumentalists shine leaving plenty of room for Ross’ vocals.  The songwriting is full of clever hooks and ear candy topped off with memorable verses and phrases about life, love, and…naturally, grand theft auto.  Not one track of filler is to be found on this rocker.


Beethoven and the Tyranny of Perfection  

I play the opening movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata opus 31 no. 3 with a lot of rubato.  The piece is marked allegro, and though the multiple ritardandos liberally sprinkled throughout are more dramatic when following the original tempo, the fluctuations in time that were written in the score gave me the idea to make more drastic adjustments.  I have listened to Alfred Bredel’s recording of this piece from the 1990’s nearly a hundred times, so when I tried to play the movement without adhering to the allegro push that I was so used to hearing, it felt a little odd…but it still made sense. 

The piece really works with a more relaxed tempo and seems to change the meaning from a classical context, where an emphasis on playing in time is written into the music, to a more personal experience.  The relentless march of the allegro was composed with pensive moments integral to the piece, and I expanded on them.   I avoided formulating regular locations for the stretching of time or predetermine how much rubato is to be applied when it does occur.  In other words, I try to allow it to be an impulse of improvisation. 

It occurred to me that if I was having such a good time doing this, why haven’t other piano players thought of this first?  I’m sure some have.  The question that follows that assumption is: why hasn’t anyone recorded such interpretations?  Here’s where everyone is invited to write in and inform me of all the times that Beethoven classics “reimagined” have been recorded and released, but I just don’t know of their existence.  Typically, at this point I would search the internet for any such recordings I may come across, but in this case, I’ll place that burden on the reader. 

I have heard many versions of Beethoven’s music in contexts and instrumentations other than those originally intended.  I know rock musicians in particular enjoy taking classical and baroque music and placing a distorted spin on the familiar melodies.  I’m not thinking of these types of contextual alterations of the classics.  I’m thinking of a dramatic interpretive alteration that retains the intent and even instrumentation, but frees the performer from the expectations these legendary pieces impose. 

The inspiration for my rubato interpretation came from the opening chord.  The thirds are stacked so far beyond the classical triad that it feels anachronistic in this  opus.  On top of the fact that the chord is so top heavy for the time period, it appears in an inversion.  This makes it even more smoky in a classical context.  It sounds like jazz.  The sustained chords are surrounded by rests and then followed by a quarter note pulse leading to another sustained harmony.  This further suits my rubato interpretation.  The piece takes on a slightly improvised feel when the series of unaccompanied eighth notes set up the very classical sounding secondary theme.  The return of the scalar figure in an augmented form sets up the return of the secondary theme with further embellishments.  This type of development sounds improvised in the classical context, and this sense of implied freedom carries through in my interpretation.  I use it to reinforce my argument when I stretch time without concern for giving any back, as the saying goes, while I enjoy my improvised interpretation that Beethoven helped me to realize at the keyboard. 

I can imagine a small audience gathered around the piano listening to the premier performance of this piece two hundred years ago.   In that time, the methods of composition and the stylistic framework would have made this piece sound very fluid and improvised.  There is a moment in the recapitulation of the second theme where a leap in the left hand threatens to halt the timing of sixteenth notes urgently pressing forward.  I have heard performers, including Brendel, leave a little space there to give the spot some breath.  The effect seems intentionally written into the score.  The performer pushes the time to accommodate the leap in the left hand.  This style of playing was becoming more commonplace at the time opus 31 was written and is taken even further by other composers during the romantic period.  For the fictional audience I’ve imagined who are listening to the piece for the first time, it might feel like the performer is spontaneously creating the music.   

Imposing a rubato feel throughout certainly changes the suspense of these moments, but it also creates opportunities for other surprises.  During the small development section that appears in the coda, I usually maintain an even tempo.  This section features a cascading sequence of chords that avoids the resolution we expect from its earlier appearance in the exposition.  The relentless trills and staccato bass notes are more powerful when played as written.  This dramatic effect is enhanced after so much music has appeared in a free context. 

We are conditioned to have different expectations for different styles of music today.  We expect classical music to be prepared.  With the exception of a cadenza or a curtain call, there is little toleration for improvisation.  Jazz, on the other hand, is understood to be an improvised art form.  Audiences patiently await the conclusion of the head to hear the soloists take over.  Even if that solo is prepared beforehand, it is accepted as improv.  There are many reasons for this difference, but the primary one is the tradition of the performance practice of the two styles, and, ironically, the most restrictive practices that have come to confine classical music were adopted during the jazz age.   

The modern performer of classical music is encouraged to impose some personality on the performance, but tampering with elements of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics is typically limited.  Conductors are often criticized for the choice of tempo as well.  Many feel that the music is sacred as it stands.  The most revered classical music is thought to have been created either by geniuses, or, at the very least, really bright individuals who suffered to compose and had a powerful and compelling artistic expression that is still worth hearing many years later.  I share some of that reverence for the classics and the masters that created them.  That’s one of the reasons I play the Beethoven sonatas in the first place.  It’s for this reason that I also suggest that not every piece should be manipulated to the extent that I have experimented with for opus 31 no.3

The 3rd movement of opus 27 no. 2 (The Moonlight) is one of those instances.  To impose a rubato here would destroy the entire concept.  The insistence of the unrelenting presto is the source of most of the drama in the piece.  Without it, the intense pull of the dominant chords would be smeared, the sections would loose their meaning, and the piece would dissolve into a series of scales, trills, and arpeggios.  On the another hand, there is plenty of room to stretch in many of the other piano sonatas. 

There is a sense of perfection that I think most performers strive to attain.  I think it’s the main reason I haven’t come across a reimagining of Beethoven sonatas on the piano.  They are viewed to be a perfect creation by many and meant to be reproduced as such, even if there are already dozens of similar extant recordings.  With each new recording, the level of perfection and artistry can be compared with past recordings.  It’s an enjoyable pursuit, so I’m not speaking ill of the practice. 

All of the recordings are based on a written score.  It is that which provides the homogeneity that can allow for the comparison of artistic styles in a performance.  It would be interesting if similar music passed through the oral tradition.  Rock and blues music have a strong oral tradition, though I feel that rock is not thought of as such now that so much of it has become available in written form in specialty publications as well as on the internet.   

Much of the rock music by other artists that I have performed over the past twenty five years was learned by ear.  The obvious source for much of the music was the original recordings, but some songs were shared by other musicians in the practice room without a recording, which is the definition of an oral tradition.  I would often go to clubs and listen to performances of pieces and learn them from just a few hearings alone.  Some of the performances contained mistakes that the musician serving as my model was unaware of.  Those mistakes became part of my version.   

I learned a few errant chord progressions this way, but mainly, it was the lyrics that became distorted.  I can think of a couple of pieces I performed for ten years or more without realizing that I had the words wrong.  So much of the music in the rock catalog has lyric content that is intentionally absurd or nonsensical that I wouldn’t put much thought into a line that didn’t add up.  As I became aware of a few of these errors, I decided to ignore the discrepancy.  No one had noticed as far as I could tell, and I had become quite comfortable with my new incorrect version. 

Every year or so, I would encounter one of my misinterpreted tunes on the radio or internet.  Sometimes, I would make adjustments, other times, I would leave the music unchanged.  I would joke to others about this dilemma saying that the artists that penned the tunes were not paying me to perform the music accurately.  For a few of the pieces, I would alternate the correct version and my version at different performances.  All of these minor discrepancies began to accumulate in my set list, and I began to wonder how important it was to accurately reproduce popular music, especially considering that when I performed the music, it was not in a listening environment.  The function was to provide a beat for dancing or a background for socializing. 

Perfect reproductions of popular music aren’t expected as much as in the past.  The tastes of the audiences coupled with the fact that the changes to the songs occurred accidentally and with a seriousness of intent that was not meant to create a parody or otherwise trivialize the work made the errors ok.  Innovation can be a good thing in music, and it is possible that this mistake caused by the oral tradition is part of the larger tradition that goes into generating new styles and understandings about music.  Still, the question remained: Is it necessary to go back and learn the correct lyrics for the covers I perform? 

One answer can be found in the great deal of personal history that went into the reasons I play the songs the way that I do.  Years spent at performances smoky bars hanging on every note of a guitar solo that was being played, trying to copy the licks and learn the songs, studying the rhythms and vocal delivery of the performers I encountered.  It influenced not only stylistic aspects of my music, but also the songs I chose to cover that would be the vehicles for my own expression.  I also learned how to work a room and call the right songs for a given time during a performance as well as for a particular occasion.  I learned a few wrong chords and some wrong lyrics along the way, but I wouldn’t want the tyranny of perfection to change a single note.

18 things musicians do that can help you improve your performance…at anything. PART TWO 


9. KNOW WHEN YOU’RE COLD.  Don’t judge your performance until you have warmed up.  You are nowhere near your best until this happens.  Avoid critical assessment in the first 15 to 30 minutes of playing.  Sometimes, a warm-up routine that is suitable for your instrument and style can be helpful.  Long sustained notes of various dynamic levels are good for wind players, as they have to warm up an instrument up as well.  Scales and arpeggios that require some stretching while playing are good.  Warm up your mind.  Allow your thoughts to settle into what you are doing, especially if you have just been in traffic on the way to rehearsal.

10. GIVE YOUR CHOPS A BREAK.  Instead of playing, try to visualize the music on your instrument.  Close your eyes and watch the instrument play the notes.  Do the same with the printed score if you are playing from sheet music.  This technique has the added benefit of offering relief from the occasional bout of insomnia when done at bedtime.  As you visualize, don’t skip details.  If you can’t visualize all of the notes, you probably need more time studying before performing.  Can you hear the entire piece in your head?  Try to hear each and every note from start to finish without interruption.  This will test your memorization of the music and strengthen your ability to concentrate on the performance.  Any weak points in memory or execution will become apparent. 

11. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.  Make time for the things that keep you happy and healthy.  Allow your mind to reflect not only on music, but all other aspects of daily life.  Take a walk, or spend a few minutes daydreaming over a cup of tea.  Get plenty of rest.  Stay well hydrated.  Eat what’s good for you.  Enjoy the company of a friend or fellow musician.  Spend some time with a good book, but not TV, unless that’s really your thing.  Your mind is still processing all of the hard work from your practice session in the background as you rest and focus on other things, so, technically, doing this is also part of a good practice regimen.   

12. TIMING IS EVERYTHING.  Keep it honest: use a metronome.  Practicing without one allows for the possibility of cheats in the performance.  Do you unknowingly slow down for the harder parts?  Sometimes, ironically, we speed up during difficult passages and create even more mistakes!  Be aware of the timing of the whole piece, even the easier parts.  I refer to a metronome after I’ve been working with a piece for a while, but you can use one throughout the process as well.  As the proper tempo is practiced, the groove should reveal itself.  It is a powerful force that will carry you like the unrelenting waves of the ocean, but it is easily spooked, and will certainly vanish if you disregard the timing of the piece. 

13. MAKE TIME.  Don’t skimp.  30-60 minutes a day or every other day is not unreasonable when learning a new skill, especially one that takes your playing to the next level.  Be careful to avoid practicing for big chunks of time sporadically.  While this is better than nothing, it will leave you short of your goals if you are working on something that involves a lot of memorization and unfamiliar techniques.  A routine is best, such as every day after breakfast, or a specific time in the evening.  If the requirements of a piece exceed your routine, or it is difficult for you to establish one, schedule time for yourself in a day planner.  Treat it just like any other appointment that you can’t miss.  Tracking your rehearsals with a calendar will also provide written proof of your accomplishment, which will provide additional motivation while giving you a good sense of how much time is required to study a piece of similar difficulty in the future. 

14. KNOW THAT PRACTICE IS CUMULATIVE.  The work you put in to learn a skill for a new song will be established when it occurs in future studies.  Even if it becomes a little rusty before it is needed again, the time required to get it back will be shorter than learning it from scratch.  This is obvious to a beginner who might learn a new note in one piece and is prepared for it when it arrives more frequently as etudes advance.  A string player might encounter an arpeggio with a unique turn or fingering that will be approached with confidence in the future.  Composers treat each session of writing as a valuable experience even if a new work is discarded: the next one will be crafted with that experience in mind.  Consider each new technique that is developed for a particular piece to also be preparation for music you haven’t even thought of performing yet.  From this mindset, each moment spent in the practice room is an investment in your lifetime of playing in addition to reaching more immediate goals.  

15. PREPARE TO PERFORM.  The ultimate goal of most rehearsal is usually a performance of some kind.  Regardless of whether that performance will be for a teacher, an audience, or even just yourself, preparing for that performance is a valuable part of the rehearsal process.   When you are beginning to feel that you have a new piece of music down, see if you can play it all the way through and be satisfied with the results.  Once you are, make a video of yourself and watch the performance critically.  The red light on the video recorder has a way of bringing potential pitfalls out of hiding.  Work out any problem areas you may encounter.  Once you’ve done that, perform the piece for an audience of one, such as a family member or friend.  The act of playing music for for someone may reveal issues that the camera’s red light missed.  Head back to the rehearsal room work on those areas.  Finally, play the piece for someone who is not a family member or close friend in a setting that is not your house or studio.  Try to get two or three people in your audience if possible.  The comfort and familiarity of your private rehearsal space can sometimes give you false feedback about your performance.  Beyond these steps, you could go one more step and try a larger audience and less comfortable surroundings such as an open mic or performer’s workshop.  Ideally, your test audiences should give you their full attention throughout the performance, so be sure to ask for it in advance, but don’t ask for feedback.  In this exercise, the performance critique will come from you.  If you absolutely cannot resist asking for a critique, be sure the question is something very specific such as, “Did that fast passage of notes sound like it flowed into the next part?  Here, I’ll play it again for you.”  Never ask, “What did you think?”  Most audience members feel put on the spot when asked this question, so try to avoid it.  For the purposes detailed here, we really just require a few moments of time and nothing else.  

16. REST.  Let it breath for a couple of days.  Burn out often creates a forest and trees situation where you get so caught up in working on specifics that more general performance issues get lost.  The ultimate goal is to play music, and at the end of all of the time spent in the rehearsal studio, that’s what it should sound like you are doing.  Taking a short break from a piece also allows for free “practice” where your mind can process the advances you have made and work out any problems in the background.  When you return to the piece, you will be able to tackle challenges with a better understanding than you might have had without the break.  Periods of rest can be applied within rehearsals as well.  If a passage has really got you bogged down, take a moment and stretch, or get a glass of water.  Sometimes, a short break will reset your perspective allowing you to use your time more effectively. 

17. LISTEN.  Keep your thoughts and ears focused on the end result: the sound coming out of the instrument.  Difficult passages of music can take brain power away from listening as you make the necessary calculations to mechanically recreate the music.  Practice these areas with this in mind so that they can be performed as evenly as the others with your complete attention to the sounds you are making.  The easier moments in a piece can also lead to lapses in attentive listening, as we mistakenly take advantage of the reduced demands on brainpower to think about a hard part coming up or, at these moments, simply just loose focus.  Follow all of the details of the less demanding passages with the same focus and enthusiasm that you would have for a difficult passage.  Be vigilant during rehearsals to remove any bad habits that interfere with hearing every note that is played.     

18.  HAVE FUN.  Don’t lose sight of why you play music in the first place.  Make every moment that you are playing an opportunity to express yourself through the art you create and enjoy yourself as you celebrate your talent and hard work.

18 things musicians do that can help you improve your performance…at anything. PART ONE 

Does practice make perfect?  It depends on how you practice, of course.  Musicians learn quickly that homework is a requirement to play an instrument.  Most sign up willingly.  It can be very rewarding to watch as your technical ability on an instrument improves and usually happens most noticeably in the first few years of study.  This feeling of achievement is one of the reasons music is an important part of elementary education.  It’s also fun to play with the band.   

As the easy studies become easier and more challenging pieces are attempted, it becomes apparent that a few minutes of practice here and there will not be enough.  More time playing is needed.  In this frame of mind, practice equals time.  You might say something like, “I practiced for an hour yesterday,” or, “I played that song so many times, my fingers are sore.”  In all this time spent playing for the sake of improving, it is important to look at what is actually occurring during that time.   

There is a difference between practicing and playing.  Playing is the act of performing a piece of music to the best of your current ability for enjoyment and artistic expression.  It’s the best reason to study music in the first place.  Practice, on the other hand, is a process intended to improve one’s ability on an instrument.  In order to do this effectively, goals should come before time.  Time is still very important, but a session of focused, goal-oriented study can often outweigh hours of playing and hoping. 

The following practicing strategies have helped me whenever I am faced with new piece or challenging passage to play.  I have used each of these techniques at one time or another while preparing my latest recording of guitar music, Platforms.   

Being a musician often means wearing more than a few different hats and learning new skills, so I often find myself using these techniques elsewhere.  At first, many of the items on this list appear to be music-specific, but with a little imagination, they can apply to almost any new endeavor and applied as needed.

1. DON’T GET BORED.  Good practice involves identifying trouble spots and improving them through repetitive playing.  The problem with doing this is that boredom can become an issue.  At a certain point, the mind may start to wander: motions are being made, but the value of that rehearsal time is diminishing. Good practice involves staying focused, and a good way to do this is to set clear goals and track the progress as you perform.  Set a goal for the number of times you would like to rehearse a section.  Two dozen?  Thirty? Fifty five?  For passages of just a few notes, I have used 96 as my goal if it involves a new technique.  The goal kept me focused.  I would actually stop, pick up my pen, and put a check mark on the score at the end of each pass.  Before doing this, be sure the technical details are worked out.  You don’t want to waste time and add confusion by studying a section incorrectly for any amount of time.  And always listen to your body to be sure that the repetition isn’t causing injury.  If you don’t want to stop and note each time a trouble spot has been played, you could use time as your goal.  Still, with this method, I find it helpful to keep a mental note of the number of times a section was played during the proposed amount of time.  The key is to focus on the measured goal and nothing else.  Your concern should be completing the rehearsal structure you have set up.  Don’t worry about the actual goal just yet, which is to play the difficult section perfectly within the piece.  This method makes practice feel more like a task than a chore.  

2. ISOLATE, THEN REINCORPORATE.  If a section of music is problematic, don’t allow it to remain to be the bumpy part of the song that you hope will improve through repeated performance of the entire piece.  Work on that part specifically.  Once that part has been worked out,  begin to add some of the notes leading into and away from the isolated area as you practice.  When you are looking at one section, it’s all you’re thinking of, so you need to reincorporate the surrounding notes as well before returning to the entire piece.  Doing this will test how well you have prepared the section because your mind is going into it cold after thinking of other notes first.  Additionally, make sure that the parts that lead in and out of the difficult passage come just as easily. 

3. CREATE ELEMENTS.  If you’re having trouble with just a few notes in a piece, identify the element at the heart of the issue and recreate it in another context.  A guitarist, for example, might encounter a unique challenge picking a series of notes.  The picking pattern can be isolated as a unique element and reinterpreted over different notes that fall on the same strings.  It could be as simple as moving the notes of the fretted hand up the neck a half step for each run through.  Piano players can sometimes benefit from isolating melodic elements and playing them in other keys.  Once you have mastered an element, you could use the idea as a study piece.  A woodwind player could take a series of intervals, for example, and transpose them throughout the instrument.  Reinterpret the idea in as many ways as you care to imagine. 

Intervals and rhythms don’t necessarily have to be maintained to benefit from working with elements.  Sometimes, changing one pitch a half step or adding another note to the rhythm can reveal a lot about an element that proves helpful in the ultimate performance of the piece as well as in the cumulative process of understanding a particular instrument. 

When putting an element in a different context, think of yourself as a composer.  You are writing a new piece of music centered around the idea.  You can begin to think of your element as a motive or fragment of a theme and build a song around it. This type composition is generally referred to as an etude, but it can also lead to some wonderful pieces of music. 

4. SLOW DOWN.  If a passage is not working out at the required tempo, don’t keep practicing at that tempo hoping to get it right.  This doesn’t work.  There is a term for when a few repeated efforts haphazzardly get desired results: luck.  You don’t want to play the lottery with a performance.  When you slow down, you have time to learn the steps needed to make the performance successful.  You are actually learning a new skill when this happens.  Slowing down allows you to think about the fine details and commit them to your new skill set.  Once you’ve done this, you can do the opposite in the next tip. 

5. AIM HIGH.  If your goal is to run a 100 meter race, practice running 150.  With 150 as your extreme, you will easily be operating at full steam when you make it to 100.  Once a section has been conquered by slowing down, take it a little faster that it should be.  Doing this will also reveal any weaknesses that might remain. 

6. DO NOT PRACTICE MISTAKES.  Play difficult passages slowly enough so that the motions are accurate.  As you build speed and encounter mistakes, back off a little.  This is similar to slowing down for a section to be rehearsed, but the emphasis here is to never play a part incorrectly while continually playing through a piece.  Slow down for the difficult portion and return to the proper tempo after the trouble spot. 

7. KEEP IT LOOSE.  Don’t tense up.  Think about your whole body and practice everything for the way you will eventually perform the entire piece.  Anxieties that build as a challenging section approaches won't always be apparent in the parts of the body that manipulate the instrument.  Keep those parts relaxed, but remember that your whole body is involved in the process of playing music.  Be aware of how it is doing.  Sometimes shoulders will get tense.  Your posture could decline while focusing on the music.  Check your breathing, especially if you’re not a wind player.  Be sure you are getting enough air.  Once stiffness sets in, it has a way of spreading and clamping down over an entire performance, so monitor the rest of your muscles as you go. 

8. DON’T FRET A STEP BACK.  Expect to lose a little ground the next day.  Each practice session will yield results, but the start of each session isn’t always going to be as good as the end of the last one.  Memorizing complex passages and techniques requires time to become second nature.  It is at the heart of why practice is so important.  We cannot truly master anything during one session of rehearsal or study.  Prepare yourself for this by knowing that even though a section was worked on diligently for an hour that it will need review several more times.  Do not put the pressure of disappointment on your development, and realize that each day’s growth will require touch up in future sessions.


The Pursuit Of Artistic Expression In Rock And Roll 

Rock and Roll, like most styles of music, has debatable origins, but it is safe to say that it has been around as a popular music for over sixty years.  A quick scan through local radio stations reveals that it's not yet ready for retirement. The genre has gone through several transformations since starting out, and perhaps will continue to evolve and stick around a bit longer. Rock and Roll was a welcome alternative to the acceptable forms of popular music in the early 1950s. The language was simple: harmonically, usually no more than a few chords; rhythmically, a danceable four-four time without much syncopation; lyrically, meanings that were only veiled when it came to taboo subjects. So if Rock and Roll is the language of rebellion, is there room for artistic expression that exceeds the simple, yet powerful intent of the music, and can the genre support a refinement that it rebelled against in the first place? 

Musicians that seek to play Rock music that has more artistic aims than originally intended must also transform the aesthetics of the genre. The raw elements must be refined because as they are, they limit this approach. The instrumental technique and lyrical intent must be refined to achieve meanings not possible with the raw elements. Other genres have been faced with this problem. Country artists merged the harmonic complexity of jazz and the rhythmic variety from swing music to create a new style within their genre. 

Rock and Roll musicians began to realize similar possibilities as artists began to yearn for the ability to create serious music in a genre that was not intended to support such designs. Besides the social and political pulls that affect music from any period, there were two other elements that supported this evolution: technology and one-upmanship. 

Rock musicians are always on the lookout for some new way of expressing themselves through adding unique elements to their music and there is never a shortage of creative spirit to provide new tools and toys to meet that demand. The list is probably most impressive in the realm of the guitar and guitar accessories. 

Outboard effects helped enhance the sought after overdriven sound. Modulation effects such as the Wah Wah gave the guitar new expression. Time delay effects such as the Echoplex went beyond reverb to add another dimension of sustain to the instrument. Changes to the instrument itself followed. High gain pickups were essential to increasing the sustain of the instrument that paved the way for the modern performance practice. 

The vibrato arm (often mislabeled tremolo) that was simply a novelty in most early Rock and Roll had been refined from affecting the strings with a mild change of pitch to the floating tremolo which could drastically alter the tension on the strings higher or lower and allowed for the “dive bomb” effect popular in guitar music from the 1980s and 90’s. 

Higher gain guitar systems also allowed the playing style to evolve. The sustain and compression of high gain setups allowed legato lines to be reproduced almost as clearly as picked or strummed notes. For example, where an acoustic player is required to pick each note in a series of several notes for the line to be heard, electric players have the option to pick the first note on each string and hammer-on or pull-off to the next note as in a trill. This was even taken the point where simply fretting a note and pulling off gave the string enough energy to be heard clearly without picking. Players could now use the picking hand to hammer-on, or “tap” a fretted note. This two handed tapping technique was exploited by players in the late 1970 (most notable Eddie Van Halen) and is still popular today. 

The other instruments of Rock and Roll have similarly been transformed by technology. Pianists no are longer limited by the obvious logistics the large instrument creates, or whether the one available at a performance would be of a certain quality (or in tune) thanks to the digital age. Sampling technology and portable keyboards made the instrument easier to set up than an average guitar rig, and it was always in tune. Rock musicians often turned to the organ or electronic keyboards before synths and digital pianos were available, but now the acoustic palate is only limited by what presets are available in the memory banks. 

Similar advances have been made in bass guitar and drum technology, studio recording, and live sound reinforcement. All of these changes have created new possibilities while transforming the genre. 

The other element that has contributed to the evolution of Rock and Roll is simply a matter of trying to outdo the last generation or even just the latest release by another artist. This has been happening in many other styles throughout history as well, so it’s not surprising to find it in this highly individual genre.  It is often this drive that causes a certain style of playing or sound to be in vogue and another passé. It has also driven Rock musicians (mainly guitarists and drummers) to strive to be the fastest and most technically developed player. These efforts are periodically undone when other players come into the spotlight that change the aesthetics of the genre to stress other areas of music and move technical ability to the background.  A recent example of this is the “Grunge” movement which supplanted virtuoso Rock styles and Hair Metal. 

Even in the relatively early days of Rock, the technological advancements and the quest for new forms of expression led to high volume instrumentation that spawned a new harmonic vocabulary. Guitarists began using the power chord. This device was both a convenience and a necessity. The chord removed the third scale degree form the root-third-fifth composition of the conventional major/minor chords. Removing this note made the chord easier to play and reinforced the ambiguity between major and minor tonalities that was inherited from the blues. The necessity lies in the overdriven sounds created when amplifiers were driven to distortion. The overtones created by the third in a chord when distorting the electric guitar clash with the other harmonics of the chord, especially when played in the tenor and bass ranges of the instrument. Though this new vocabulary seemed simpler, it generated a more powerful sound (especially when the root is doubled in the bass) than more complex harmonies. The new possibilities of this simplified harmony made heavy metal music possible. Early groups in this genre relied heavily on power chords combined with unison single note lines. These elements were combined in a cyclical theme that would usually repeat every four or eight measures and constituted the "riff," which is the melodic part of a song that serves as the hook. This method of simplification of materials actually created more possibilities. 

Along with expanding the genre’s capabilities through technology, players also wanted a deeper musical expression than Rock and Roll is capable of. The most recognizable adaptation is the expansion of the form beyond the three minute Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Solo-Chorus formula. Some Rock artists went so far as to recreate large classical works as well as composing original music that was on that scale. Often, in these large arrangements, the melodic instrument, mainly guitar or keyboard, would play a larger role than simply being spotlighted during the solo of a three minute tune. This approach led to a renewed popularity of the Rock Instrumental. This style of playing has more in common with classical music and strayed from the pure Rock form.  This sub-genre of Progressive Rock retained some of the core elements such as instrumentation and playing style, but the refinements came at the expense of the overall stylistic carefree youthful vigor that Rock and Roll was based on. 

Broadening the scope of the possibilities inherent in Rock and Roll has led to some memorable achievements in composition and instrumental technique. Pop Rock artists have become more sophisticated in how they reflect the culture of their time and Progressive Rock groups continue to stress the importance of precision in performance that is similar to the tradition found in other art music. There seems to be a countless number of sub-genres of Rock music and each one has its own unique take on the aesthetics that define it.  At the core are the elements that define Rock and Roll, but the more complexity that is added, the further it gets from the original. It often comes down to complexity versus raw expression through simplicity, each being an important stylistic element and often found in combinations of varying proportions.  Through all of the transformation Rock has gone through, it would appear to be difficult at this point to match the spark that set the whole thing in motion in the first place.  But this is not a such a bad thing: it’s good to know that Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly will always be relevant.

No Pigeon Holes Please 

All songs are a manifestation of a unique feeling.  Not simply a feeling that we have quantified and given a heading in a list of human emotions, but an entirely independent emotional expression.  That same expression may be interpreted differently by the same listener at different times and differently by multiple listeners for sure.  I describe music as emotion because its depths cannot be fully expressed with words.  That is what makes it art.  It exists as a type of energy.  The effect and interpretation of this energy is subjective to the frame of mind of the observer. 

Music is generally consumed this way: as an emotion laden entity in the form of energy processed by an emotion laden listener who considers it within the context of previous experience, but it is can also be considered to be independent of such judgements.  So, when I look at it in this way, music is really what you make of it.  For now, I’m going to place all of this aside and sum up why I like the various forms of music I enjoy: 

I think of each piece of music I hear as a 
unique entity expressing it’s unique emotional  
DNA unlike any other piece.  I enjoy it for what it is.  

I’ll take it from any style or genre.  I followed listening to Gordon Stout’s Two Mexican Dances for marimba with AC/DC’s, For Those About To Rock, We Salute You

Both are brilliant stylistic expressions of their genre, and this is an important part of the DNA.  The classic anthem from the Australian rock group included the power-pop drum mix, overdriven guitar with unison bass, high pitched vocals that can only be half understood during the verses, and…canons!  The marimba piece, modern classical in its approach, blends contemporary harmony with a touch of avant-garde in a perpetual motion format.  Notes cascade around a tonic, rhythmically pushing and pulling at the performer’s request. 

These two styles are about as far apart as you can get musically, but I like them both for what they are.  I enjoy them because they are compelling, though the rock song is best when the premier audition occurs during one’s teenage years, while the solo marimba is best enjoyed after having acquired a taste for instrumental and classical performances.  I like them both equally, and I’m not sure I have a favorite genre of music for this reason:  

I refuse to be one thing.   

I specialize in instrumental acoustic guitar, but that could mean any number of genres.  And it does for me when I play.  Rock, jazz, finger style, even classical elements find their way into my performances.  The music I perform refuses to be one thing.

Big Numbers and a Bloody Thumb 

Guitar maintenance and repair can be intimidating at first.  I can remember when even the process of changing strings felt like something to approach with caution.  I would only change one at a time so I could use the remaining strings as an example of how to wind the new one properly.  Now I just rip them all off when replacing the entire set.  My first attempts at adjusting the action, or string height, were also approached with apprehension.  Each eighth of a turn of the truss rod was documented so I could return it to its original position if it became unplayable.  Over time, though, I have learned that it is an art that involves a little trial and error.   

I picked up another acoustic guitar to replace my old workhorse that I use for most of my rock and roll shows.  It had flaws that required attention, though, and once again, I would have to leave my guitar maintenance comfort zone.  I think most guitarists are as cautious as I am when it comes to attempting advanced repair to their instruments, especially when experience and specialized knowledge are required for a task.  After all, no one wants to look foolish, become embarrassed by failure, or, through ignorance and inexperience, ruin an otherwise perfectly good guitar. 

These feelings of doubt often protect guitars from undergoing irreparable harm, but experience has to start somewhere, whether it’s for guitar maintenance or any other endeavor.  After all, the truss rods of life also require attention.  Pushing through uncertainty and doubt will usually reap more rewards than inaction, even if the result is considered a failure.  Short of taking stupid risks with you or your guitar’s wellbeing, action takes you past the doubt that keeps you from being the happiest, most successful guitarist you can be.  The need for action was the challenge that was before me. 

The frets on my new instrument were not properly leveled and finished.  This is a process that involves removing metal with a file.  I was apprehensive because if you file away to much there is no going back.  Usually, these repairs are left to experienced luthiers, but I wanted to try this myself.  I had talked to experts, read up on the subject, and watched hours of you tube videos featuring luthiers of a wide range of ability and experience profess how it should be done.  The only thing left was to give it a try, but I was still uncertain about the mysterious and consequential process I was learning about.  The push I needed was when I realized that my inaction was the only thing holding me back.  That, and a bloody thumb. 

I had searched for this guitar for months.  I was in need of one that wasn’t so expensive that I would be terribly upset if it were damaged or stolen at a performance.  I refer to this type of guitar as a “beater,” but it still has to sound great and be playable.  It needed to have a thin body that could deliver a punchy sound with a lot of low end at higher volumes.  This style is also more suited to a level of amplification that would drive most full size acoustic guitars into feedback.  A “beater” also needs to have attitude.  It should be a little edgy, especially when delivering single note lines.  

This new guitar had all of these ingredients.  The more I was sure that this was an instrument I would want to play for years to come, the more my apprehension about making the necessary repairs grew.  My apprehension turned into procrastination as I used it for a couple of shows, but the unfinished frets that hung over the fretboard reminded me with each position change that I couldn’t delay the repairs much longer.  I used it for one more show.  During the first set, the frets had finally started to cut into my hand.  I was in need of a bandage to finish the night.  A bloody thumb was the final push I needed.  It was time to take action. 

My first venture into the mysterious world of fret finishing was about to begin…right after a trip to Home Depot.  Surprisingly, they had everything I would need.  There are some specialty tools that luthiers use that you will not find at a hardware store, but I was able to make do without them.  The most important among these is a file that shapes the frets after they are leveled, but some improvisation with a standard file delivered the results this tool would have provided.  I used a small microphone stand as a level to compare the fret heights and an old television remote that seemed destined to become my perfectly straight sanding block. 

After removing the strings, the first step of the fret dressing process is to tape off the wood of the fret board with regular masking tape leaving only the frets exposed.  This is a fairly easy step, but is also a little time consuming.  I got to thinking about the stakes during this procedure.  This guitar was only a $400 instrument.  When compared to an average professional guitar, it is much less than half priced.  Additionally, I have other really nice guitars that would hold me over should I have to replace it.  What was more at stake for me would be admitting failure and the possibility of sending this guitar to the trash heap of shame.  Actually, the alternative of another gig with a saber toothed fret board would be a worse fate, so I forgot my doubt and started to think instead about my old “beater” that this one was intended to replace. 

The retiring workhorse had been my main performing instrument for over 19 years.  I use other instruments depending on the performance and style of music, but this was my go to axe for most of my acoustic rock shows.  I estimate that I used this one for 100 shows each year. At each of these shows, I would perform at least 50 songs.  The average rock song has 4 chords.  Each chord is played perhaps 35 times in the course of the song.   For each of those occurrences the chord is strummed a minimum of 4 times in most cases. 

Let me get my calculator… 

Performances                                         1900 

Songs performed                                      X  50 

Total                                                   =  95,000     

                            (yes, I repeated some tunes) 

Chords per song                                       X  4 

Total chords                                       =   380,000 

Occurrence of each chord in a song        X  35 

Total occurrence                                =  13,300,000 

4 strums per occurrence                           X  4 

Total                                                   =   53,200,000 

53 million strums.  That’s only counting down strokes.  Let say that at least half the time, a chord is strummed on the upbeat (usually it’s more).  I’m being conservative in this estimation: 

                            53,200,000 + (53,200,000 / 2) = 79,800,000 

Keep in mind, I’m not counting easily three times this number for rehearsal and just strumming some songs at the end of a long day. 

More than half the songs I play contain single note passages like arpeggiated chords, riffs, and solos.  Keeping the numbers conservative once again, I estimate that these passages contain 300 notes per song. 

Single notes per song                             300 

Occurring in half the songs per show      X 25 

                                                           =  7,500 

Single notes per show                            7,500 

Total shows                                             X 1,900 

Total                                                    =  14,250,000 

Combine the total single note number (14,250,000) with the chord number (79,800,000) and there were 94,050,000 unique musical events that this old guitar and I shared.  

          …94 million.   

If this new guitar and I are going to be spending this much time together, it’s worth taking a chance to make it as playable as possible.  Here goes.   

Using a small file, I removed the sharp edges at the ends of the frets that had caused most of the trouble.  Then, with my trusty television remote securing progressively different grades of sandpaper, I began the process of sanding the frets level after marking the frets with a sharpie to see where material was being removed.  There were a few gasps as I realized just how much material can be removed with a few strokes of sandpaper, but after a long process of checking the fret height and moving through the different grades of sandpaper, I got them to where they needed to be.  I shaped the frets and polished them with some wire wool.  It was done.   

I sanded down the saddle before reinstalling it to further improve the playability and then replaced the strings.  I set the truss rod to lower the action, then I played a few chords.  It was remarkable!  The guitar felt like it cost 4 times more than I paid for it. 

I had been putting this off for weeks due to fear of the unknown.  That’s not how I go about most things.  As with a lot of things in life, mistakes will be made, but the greater mistake is often to avoid the things that will help you grow.  There are a few file marks on some frets that a professional luthier wouldn’t have left, but it is done, and done remarkably well.  I took on the challenge and didn’t just drop it off at the shop to be done for me.  I will call the experts when it’s time to replace a clutch in a 1985 Chevy S-10, but this was something I felt I wanted to conquer.  I’m glad I did.  By the standards of a lot of well finished instruments I have played over the years, this guitar is easily in their league.  By the measure of overcoming doubt and procrastination, it’s was a home run.  It’s time to go play another show.



As musicians, we devote a lot of practice to the pieces we perform.  Hours tucked away from civilization trying to arrange an assortment of notes into a memorable performance.  There are many aspects of a successful performance, and many of those start in the practice room.  The key for most of us after working out the finer details is repetition.  Once the correct method of playing a piece has been achieved, we play it again and again.  We try to make the execution second nature.  It’s a universal maxim for performers: you practice it correctly so much that you can’t play it wrong.  There is no reliable short cut to this that I am aware of, but there is a way to improve the learning process that brings us to the final stages of practicing more reliably, and that is to… 

…pick a note. 

Which note?  Any note.  It is best, though, to choose one that would be considered background or part of the supporting cast in a piece of music.  Beyond that, any note will do.  Pick one.  Even what would seem to be the most insignificant note in a piece of music is a potential star, but it needs an advocate.  Pick that one note and make it the goal of the entire phrase.  It may not be as loud, low, long, short, or high as others, but for it to be able to fulfill its life in the texture that it is to be born, it must be cared for.  It must be nurtured for its entire life and allowed to grow to its full potential.  To do this, it requires your attention. 

What does this mean?  It is a state of mind, not a performance suggestion, and it is only meant to be attempted in the practice room, not on the stage.  Studying a piece from this point of view can deepen your understanding of every note involved as well as improve phrasing, rhythm, and overall technical execution.  In addition to these benefits, the music becomes easier to memorize.  Take a scalar passage as an example.  Usually the performer considers the outline of the phrase.  What is the high and low point as well as the tonality, or key?  After this has been determined, the phrase can be performed almost on autopilot.  This is a common approach since most musicians work on playing scales extensively in their training, but it doesn’t always lead to the best performance.   

We mistakenly rely on another experience while 
glossing over the meaning to be found in the present.

Another example would be to consider a note found within an inner voice.  Often, our attention is drawn to the outermost parts of a texture, such as the melody or bass line.  Inner voices are easily ignored once they are satisfactorily performed, but when we study these details further and elevate the status of background notes in our mind while practicing, we understand the piece more completely.   

No longer is the goal simply a successful execution 
of notes from point A to B, but a deeper understanding 
of the piece at any point in the music. 

The trick to this type of practice is to single out one of those seemingly insignificant notes and imagine it is the star of the piece.  Don’t water it down by including others with it.  Be selective.  It could be the fifth note of a two-octave scalar passage, or the seventh scale degree of a block chord.  After the note has been chosen, don’t worry much about where it came from or where it is going, but do anticipate it.  Focus on it.  That is the key.  Think: here it comes, here it is, there it goes.  The other important element to this technique is to be sure to play it the way it is intended without any additional emphasis.   

You are only emphasizing the note in your mind.   

As you play the passage with this new awareness, you will find surrounding notes take on greater meaning and the phrasing is more deliberate for the entire section.  The timing and articulation are more precise and your memorization of the section is more complete. 

Be sure to give this liberated note time to grow.  Avoid the temptation to drift focus away from it while it is the subject of your study.  It needs your attention.  You are its only champion.  The melody, bass, and other big name notes of the piece won’t nurture it the way you will.  Spend some time with it.  Move on from it only after you feel that it has fully developed in your awareness.  Repeat the process with another note.  You can select your next superstar note at random if you like, but I tend to look for areas where the technical aspects of a piece could be improved.  Most of the time, it is the overlooked, seemingly less important note that is the reason a passage remains troubling to execute. 

Not all notes are born the same.  We can see this most clearly in the manuscripts of some of the great masters.  Beethoven would often leave scalar passages illegible or even empty to be filled in by the publisher.  Mozart would leave piano parts unwritten…in piano concertos!  Did they undervalue certain notes?  Perhaps.  But they were writing in a style so well understood that they felt their intentions were going to be properly expressed even with a few details left out.  I often write from a “big picture” perspective, then go back and fill in, so I can relate.  It is often in the filling in that most of my time is consumed.  Maybe those guys were just in a hurry. 

Undervalued as they may seem, background notes are important.  If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there in the first place.  Sometimes it seems they are used to fulfill rhythmic and harmonic requirements on the way to a larger goal.  If that is their intended role at birth, then we tend to see it as such.  What if we looked at it differently, though?   

A new approach to these supporting notes can reveal a 
greater understanding of the bigger picture that surrounds them. 

This exercise shouldn’t be used for each and every supporting note in a piece, but with a select few of your choosing.  The notes surrounding the focus of your study are given new context, so they are inadvertently finding their status elevated and receiving more attention than usual.  I have practiced pieces where I only chose to focus on one note.  For others pieces, I have benefited from this exercise by cycling through a third of the notes in a particular passage.  For me, each situation is different.   

I try to give my performances an honest 
self-assessment to guide my practice strategy. 

This type of focused practice gives life to the notes that were once overlooked.  We can see the way they are able to stretch out their arms and embrace the texture they are a part of.  How they seem to balance themselves on one foot and smile over to the next nearby note.  That note winks back as it juggles its role in the harmony.  Suddenly, all are aware of each other.  All work together and all are free.  These notes become aware that they are being treated as the most important part of the piece and respond by revealing why they are there in the first place.  When the stars do finally take over, their light is brighter, the rhythms are more clearly understood, and the phrasings become more melodic.  In a way, the little notes are the stars after all.


I recently read Sing Me Back Home by Dana Jennings. The book details the role of county music (authentic country music – think Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash) in post-war rural U.S. up to the mid 1970’s. By painting a picture of the poor in that time period from first-hand experience, Jennings points out the parallels in the music and lyrics and illustrates why that music was relevant to so many at the time and is still important to this day with those that have come from that era and circumstance. 

The point is clear that this music meant something to Jennings and those he knew because listeners identified with it and it was authentic. Lyrics about cheating, being busted, doing time, or just getting by when things aren’t going your way were familiar. The delivery, instrumentation, and arrangements often reflected the subject better than the lyrics. People who were still using an outhouse in the 1960’s could relate to this music. 

This measure of a music’s worth seems to get lost at times in the art/business/manufacture of music. While music is definitely a reflection of the artist that created it, the measure of how it relates to others is a very important component. Think about it: if an artist is a member of a society, the art created will reflect existence in that society (sometimes in recognition and approval, sometimes indifferent, and sometimes protest). The artist will embrace the possibilities and the result is often a reflection of the times. 

There are many instances where it seems that a music was formed in such a state of detachment in striving for a unique voice that the music is, while original, difficult for anyone else to relate to in that time. Who does that serve? How can music like that be considered authentic? To be clear, I’m not referring to an audience’s reaction to Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata in 1818 or Eddie Van Halen's Eruption to those in 1978. While these both were shocking in their depth and exploration, they were rooted in a heritage that made these pieces culturally relevant. That made them relatable. That made them great works of art. That made them successful. What I’m referring to is the instances where manufactured elements drive the creative process. That leads me to the greatest hero of all composers: Arnold Schoenberg. 

Schoenberg struggled with how to compose music after tonality had been dismantled by the Romantic trends occurring in classical music. At first, he was handling things quite well. Transfigured Night and even the less accessible String Quartet No.2 are compelling pieces I enjoy listening to, but he longed for tonality. Trends in art music were evolving beyond this conventional ordering of tones that had been guiding composers for some time, and it appears that he was unable or unwilling to use this structure for new compositions. His output illustrates that the freedom provided by atonality was not a favorable alternative. His solution was to invent his own method of ordering pitches where all tones had the same importance…12-tone music. The result was that the composer was enslaved by his own invention and there are likely volumes of great music that were never written due to this self-imposed struggle. 

It could be argued that this struggle to find order in music was a reflection of the chaos that was around him as World War One was about to unfold, but I wonder how those around him related to the music. Did they share a similar quest and identify with the elements of 12-tone music? Accounts I have come across show an overwhelming rejection of this approach by audiences. Why is that? Is it because his works in this style were just bad? If it was only his composition and not the musical solution in question, then why has the 12-tone music fallen so far out of favor within the 100 or so years of its inception? It is rather unfortunate that Schoenberg influenced so many others to work in this method given the results and the relevance. I am only thankful that his student, Alban Berg, composed his opera, Wozzeck, as a primarily atonal work. 

So why is Schoenberg the hero? He demonstrates by his example that creating music in a test tube is doomed. While there may be a few unique and memorable pieces, the majority will fail by falling outside the collective experience. On the other hand, he does illustrate by his example that trying something new and seeing the results is not altogether a bad thing: If you are unhappy with the results, there is still the lesson learned. He did eventually abandon the 12-tone method in his later works. This might have happened as well after realizing that most 12-tone music sounds like the bumper music in the original Star Trek TV series (had he lived to see that). 

Most great musicians, songwriters, and composers spend hours in solace working out ideas, finding an original voice and style of expression, honing their craft without distractions. The truly great ones also keep an ear to the rail to see what else is happening to be better able to share what they see with the rest of us. We cannot help but reflect the times and place in which we live.

Can I Get By With This Many Notes? 

There are only about 46 unique pitches on most modern electric guitars, depending on the manufacturer.  The range for steel string guitars is less, and fewer even exist on the modern classical instrument.  That amount is roughly half of the 88 tones found on the piano.  I guess it’s up to guitar players to make each note count twice as much.  We usually do.  The nature of the instrument allows for some tricks and effects that just aren’t possible on other instruments.  For example, guitarists can rapidly pick one note (a technique referred to as tremolo picking) while providing counterpoint.  Eddie Van Halen’s intro to his song, Little Guitars, and the Francisco Tarrega warhorse for classical guitar, Recuerdos be la Alhambra, come to mind.  The ability to bend notes and include percussion effects is also unique to stringed instruments and is exploited to the fullest on the guitar.  (These, of course, are only a couple of examples of what makes the guitar unique.  In all fairness, though, the piano has its own definitive peculiarities, as do other instruments.) 

    It’s not how many notes you play, it’s what you do with them that counts. 

Given it’s limited range, it is impressive that many stylists often chose to further limit the notes used, but they do this with great effect.  B.B. King would stay within an octave or so and stick to the pentatonic scale while delivering a compelling solo that suited the style.  (Again, I’m limiting the illustrations here.) 

I realized that a few of my compositions for my upcoming release, Platforms, use almost the entire range of the acoustic guitar.  When I compare it to some of my other music that uses less of the instrument, I don’t really notice a lot of difference in the overall experience.  When a piano player involves the extreme ranges of the keyboard, it is a noticeable change and often is chosen precisely for dramatic punctuation.  The lows are rumbling and become muffled when clustered.  The highs are dashing and bold, even during pianissimo passages.  The change is very apparent. 

These extremes of pitch provide some extra ear candy when a piano is around, while the guitar has staked its claim in the heart of the usable audible spectrum and is content to leave it at that.  It’s usually enough for me anyway. 

Crowds and Sammy 

In my last post, The Time Of Our Lives, I referenced one of the songs that helped establish Sammy Hagar as a solo artist: I Can’t Drive 55.  He had already released a few popular songs by the time this tune was released and was also known for working with the band Montrose.  He would go on to become a household name after joining the group Van Halen and singing on the biggest album of their career, 5150.   
Performing music can take a lot out of you.  It can energize you as well.  It really depends on the day.  When I finish a set and have one or two more to do before the night is out, there are times that I want to have a minute to myself to regroup.  Other times, I want to have people around.  Sometimes I am fine with either option.  Regardless of how I feel, I always try to meet the people that came to see me or just happened to be there.  I’ve heard it stressed as a marketing tactic to make yourself available to those that are at your show.  I never really needed that advice, though.  Wouldn’t you want to at the very least say “hi” to the folks who are there for you? 
Most musicians start out following the examples of those that inspired them to play in the first place.  These role models were usually big stars.  They would hit the stage from out of nowhere and got out as soon as the last note was played.  I remember fellow musicians that would behave this way.  Their inner circle was tight.  They wouldn’t spend time with the audience members that were cheering them on.  They would pretend that they weren’t all going to see each other at work the next day.  I’m not judging them.  They were playing the part.  I even followed along with some of my band mates that would do this early on in my performing career.  We would hide in the “green room” during breaks and send out for refreshments.  What no one thought of is that the reason mega stars behave like that is they would be consumed by a mob if they didn’t.  We weren’t mega stars.  I figured this out pretty quick and started to get to know the folks that made it a priority to come out to whatever venue my rock band was playing on a Saturday night.  We had a following, and over 20 years later, I still remember many of those that wouldn’t miss a show.   
A few months ago, I postponed the second set of a performance because I was in the audience talking with someone who was digging my solo acoustic music.  He said his opinion was based on years of experience in the music business. I needed to get back on stage, but I bought him a beer instead.  The stories of a retired A. and R. guy who worked with several record labels could delay the show another minute or two.  He was telling me about all the time he spent with Sammy Hagar helping him with his music career.  That was fun. 

The Time Of Our Lives 

I remember the first few days of the sixth grade.  School started and interrupted a summer filled with sunny days playing with friends and building tree houses.  Evenings with campfires and re-runs of favorite television programs followed by staying up as late as I could get away with were halted.  This happened every year as school commenced in the fall, but this time felt a little different.  It felt like the world was asking if I was ready to stop being a kid and get on with becoming a teenager or young adult.  The world was asking me this as I was staring at the clock in science class.  At that moment, as I was begging the clock to tick over to 11:05 and put a stop to this madness so we could go to lunch, my answer was a resounding, “No!”  Not just yet anyway.   

Naturally, I was anxious to do all the things that being older made possible.  Things like driving a car, having a few dollars to spend as I like, freedom, being able to make my own decisions.  I wanted all of this, but I knew that a healthy dose of responsibility came with it all.  I was bargaining for a few more weeks, or months even, of the good old days. 
I spent a lot of time that summer feeding my addiction to Doo-wop music.  It was all I listened to.  The Cadillac’s Speedo, Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl, The Marcel’s Blue Moon, The Platter’s Great Pretender, The Coaster’s Charlie Brown, The Dell Viking’s Come Go With Me, The Monotone’s Book of Love.  These songs were on a constant rotation in my cassette player  until the “Oldies” radio station picked up the national feed in the evening to continue providing a steady supply of classic 1950’s music for me to enjoy. 
When these groups sang, you could see red and white 1957 Chevys and black and chrome Chrysler Imperials with the speaker boxes hanging on the windows at the drive in movies.  It was such a brief moment in the history of American music, but these artists captured the essence of the era in a way that is rarely done successfully.  When listening to the music, you can hear the fashions, fears, attitudes, hairstyles, values, challenges, lifestyles, and stylings of technology and art that existed.  The zeitgeist…but I wanted to spell it out.  It wasn't localized.  There was a sense of the spirit of the time and that it existed, for the most part, over the entire world if not only in the United States.  It’s a rare feat for music.  It hadn’t occurred since the big band music of the 1940’s.  These popular music forms were actually serving as a diary of the times.  Both were short-lived.  The singer-songwriter material from the 1970’s came close to repeating this achievement, but after Doo-wop, it really didn't happen again until the pop-rock music of the 80’s. 
80’s music had a hangover of sentimentality inherited from the 70’s.  It was trying to shake it in the same way that doo-wop hung on to the nostalgic themes in the music of the 50’s.  The 1980’s added energy and was working to ease up on the emotion.  This shift continued until it reached the ultimate expression of care-free energy with the hard rock groups that spent as much time on their hair as on their songwriting.  Hair metal had arrived. 
This was the state of music when I began playing guitar.  I had survived 6th grade science class and moved on to high school.  That old bargain had been accepted with a caveat.  I would move on from the carefree days of childhood as long as I could grow my hair long and play guitar.  I found some like minded friends and we began playing music together.  We knew that the prevailing popular music was fun, but also wanted a little more depth.  We expressed this through our originals, and by covering music by some of the edgier rock groups.  The songs had to have some meaning, even a bit of a dark side that wasn’t in the mainstream at the time.   
The music we played was an expression of the joy of playing in a rock band.  Of course, we sometimes vented any angst we might have, but that was secondary.  We also had guilty pleasures.  The occasional carefree rock tune made it on the playlist.  A lot of the 80’s metal was high energy riff rock, which meant it was fun for everyone to play.  The guitar and bass parts involved more than simply strumming chords.  There were unique passages even during the verses.  The singers got to strut and some of the poses they would strike were necessary to hit the high notes.  The drummer was required to beat on the set for the entire song.  Drummers love that.  Then there were the guitar solos.  It’s always fun to put hours of practice to good use.  What’s not to love here?  Even the most melancholy members of the band could be persuaded to have a good time while cranking out “I Can’t Drive 55.”

The Keychain and the Execution 

My 21 year old Marlboro keychain was retired today.  The brass medallion that has come to my aid as a flathead screwdriver many times is tarnished, but in good shape, but the leather and stitching has finally given out.  It is the last relic of my formerly smoke filled days that are now behind me.  The keychain has now gone the way of my brass Zippo lighter and all of the other smoking accouterments I parted with years ago.  None of these items have any special meaning to me now, but I remember when I contemplated quitting how I was concerned that I would miss using the Zippo.  It was old school.  Everyone else used Bic lighters or matches.  A Zippo spoke to that  throwback-era part of my being.  There was a ritual when you lit up with one of those old flint and wick contraptions.  It was almost ceremonial. 
I feel like ceremony has given way to execution, planning to action, thoughtful reflection to experience through repeated attempts.  It’s not such a bad thing when put into practice, as long as you are not going to try something like a motorcycle jump over a dozen cars without working out the math first.  It can work to your advantage.  You get more done even factoring the time spent on mistakes along the way, depending on the task.   
I started applying this methodology to composing music.  Instead of waiting for inspiration, I would just write.  I usually end up using the first thing I put down.  The less I thought about it and just did it, the more I wrote.  I scrap less ideas than I did waiting for inspiration.  I used to think that to write music, you had to labor for some time in deep thought putting ideas together and looking for inspiration.  I thought that was how it was done.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of my personality and where I am in my life, but that just doesn’t work for me anymore.  Work quick.  Try things.  The more I did this, the more comfortable I was becoming with the process.  I was able to capture what I was trying to express more quickly and any doubts about whether I was being to hasty in my work were vanishing.  The results were better. 
My lingering insecurities with my new process for composing music didn’t completely vanish until I read a business book called Fail Fast, Fail Often.  As you can judge from the title, it is based on this idea of trying ideas instead of over-thinking them.  It was interesting and inspiring to have this concept reiterated by someone else even if the intent was to apply the ideas to product development and entrepreneurship.  It inspired me to double down on action over reflection.  I sometimes think that when I’m mulling things over, I’m really just procrastinating while I tell myself I’m working.  With this book and my experiences, I no longer had any doubt that I was on the right path.  Even with detailed work like editing and arranging music, the idea of action first was the way to go.  Over-analyzing and over-planning were just procrastination dropping by to say hello.  The hesitation is often responsible for poor decisions in the end. 
I think most artists wait to be inspired before committing to a new work.  I look for inspiration wherever I can: and new book, another work of art, a snapshot of daily life.  The most abundant source I have encountered for inspiration, though, is action.  It pays off like no other source.