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Guitar Tips, News, and Reviews

Read our most recent posts below or just click on a category of interest in the sidebar. You will find multiple entries on a variety of topics. Have fun!

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The Art of Practice

Practice makes perfect. While many have tried to improve that saying, such as “perfect practice makes perfect,” or “practice makes permanent,” the general intent is all the same: it takes work to do something great. However, musician Ash Raymond stated, “Every single aspect of playing is simple. Woven into a brilliant performance, they become altogether dazzling. But even the most stunning feats consist of simple movements in understandable combinations.”

I am often asked how much a student should practice. The answer has two parts, often in direction proportion to the other: quantity and quality. The time you spend with the guitar should have focused goals to achieve maximum results.

Here are seven keys to effective practicing:

1. Develop a routine. I suggest a brief warm-up regimen with a few exercises, next I like to practice new material, review old material, and then end with free time. In the last segment, you could revisit the inspiring new material, practice improvisation, sight-read, or study music theory.

2. Use good technique. Maintain good posture, use correct hand positions, play on the fingertips right next to the fret, and use economy of motion. Cultivate a good sound with a minimum of extraneous noises (buzzes, clicks, squeaks, etc.). Really listen to your playing and ask yourself quality control questions.

3. Balance your repertoire. Choose pieces that inspire and challenge you, but are still within your ability. These pieces of music will often go through four stages: Read (explore), Remember (memorize), Refine (Polish), and Review (maintain). Strive to keep pieces in all four categories for maximum interest and results.

4. Play with feeling. Every note you play has four unique qualities: Pitch, Duration, Volume, and Tone. The amount of variation you use in each of these areas determines your musical expression and interpretation.

5. Set goals. Create a plan, focus on specific elements to accomplish, and then take action. Work hard, but work smart.

6. Solve problems. When you observe a mistake, analyze the problem, and correct it by proper repetition. Break things down into smaller components, and practice separately. Repetition is the key to learning, but you must force yourself to slow down and do it right.

7. Be creative. Vary your routine some. Invent exercises, improvise, and have fun!

J.S. Bach said that playing a musical instrument is easy—all you have to do is play the right note at the right time. When it comes down to it, that is what technique is all about: accuracy (right note) and speed (right time). Everything else has to do with the artistic expression. That is the ultimate goal of making music.

Sketches of Newport Album Notes

During the summer of 2014 my wife and I took our first empty-nest trip to Newport, Rhode Island. After a lovely week touring elegant mansions, beautiful gardens, and exploring the magnificent coastline, I was inspired to write a suite for classical guitar based on my impressions of this historic New England town. My goal was also to create repertoire suitable for teaching guitar technique and musicianship to students of all levels. Finally, I wanted the pieces to be enjoyable to listeners, whether heard separately or all together as they appear here. After our trip, my wife surprised me with a beautiful original watercolor and ink birthday card of the lighthouse where we spent a wonderful afternoon. It is the perfect album cover for the recording inspired by and dedicated to my lovely wife, Sharee´.

The Sketches of Newport suite is almost geographical in nature. One can almost imagine venturing from the Cliff Walk into the mansion district, into the town, and ending finally back on the coastline at Castle Hill Lighthouse. Each piece, in my mind, evokes a strong impression of some aspect of Newport. Every evening during our stay at the quaint Victorian Ladies Inn we would reflect on the experiences of the day, looking forward to what lay in store on the next. Here is a bit of insight on each of the pieces:

Cliff Walk – This opening to the suite starts with a quote from the last movement, as Castle Hill Lighthouse is at the end of the Cliff Walk. However, the most striking view I recall of the Cliff Walk itself is from Rough Point. The walk forms a bridge at one point over tumultuous waves hitting the rocks below. Fog rolled in quickly, dramatically changing the weather. The rasgueados in this piece emulate the agitated sea, while the harmonics allude to the fog. The general upbeat nature of the piece reflects the beauty of a stroll on the Cliff Walk with impressive mansions on one side and the stunning coastline view on the other.

The next five tracks represent historic mansions of the Gilded-age along Bellevue Avenue that were restored and maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

The Elms – It was after touring this mansion that I got the idea to write this suite. This piece reflects the two different worlds of the mansion: the upstairs, with its elegant paintings and furniture; and the downstairs, where the staff would keep the mansion running. The major/minor tonality suggests these two coinciding worlds, and in one part, you can almost hear the servant descending stairs. The piece moves from minor to major in the last four measures, assuring that all appearances will be maintained.

Rosecliff – I wrote a waltz for this beautiful estate, as we spent extra time in the magnificent ballroom appreciating the artwork and marvelous view of the bay. We could almost imagine a late 19th-century ball taking place.

Chateau-sur-Mer – The Baroque-like ornamentation in this piece reflects the French chateau style of this intriguing manor.

Marble House – Pictured on the inside of the album jacket, this mansion is truly beautiful. However, there was a melancholy feel to the place, as the Vanderbilt couple that built it divorced three years after completion.

The Breakers – As this is most impressive of all the Newport mansions, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, I chose to pay homage with the most virtuosic piece on this recording. It represents the opulence of this architectural archetype of the era, as well as the rocky coastline on which it is situated.

Gardens – This piece reflects the beauty and ever changing aspects of all the lovely gardens of Newport. The piece has a walking feel, which is the best way to experience Newport.

Carriage House – Part of The Breakers estate, one can imagine the horse drawn carriage on its path to the main house. It makes use of an ostinato bass line in triple meter.

The Old Church – The hymn-like nature of this piece was actually inspired by two churches, Trinity Church (pictured on the album jacket), and St. Mary’s Church. The opening theme is reminiscent of a single voice or even a melody played from the church bells, before being joined by the congregation.

Street Lamps – Newport was the first American city to have gas street lamps. Imagining them in the past, from a distance you would see a serene glow; moving closer, you would see all the activity of the flame.

The Bookshop – The piece alludes to the nostalgic feel and smell of a library of fine books and pays homage to a special little shop in Newport. While purchasing some very old books as gifts, the proprietor of D. Kelley Fine Used Books generously gave us a first edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Hanging of the Crane. It is a poem about a couple who starts out in life, raises a family, and comes back to the simplicity of life as couple, just as my wife and I experienced. The book inspired a quick stop to Longfellow’s house in Boston after we left Newport.

Spanish Cafe – A great exercise for guitarists, this piece provides a taste of popular Spanish idiomatic themes so common on the instrument. Rather than representing one particular venue, it brings to mind the intimate background music heard at a number of the fine eating establishments in Newport.

Jazz Festival – As the recording starts to transition to other genres of music, this piece gives a nod to the famous Newport Jazz Festival.

The Harbor – With overtones of fingerstyle folk guitar, this piece starts with a muted alternating bass. When the early morning fog lifts (as the basses are unmuted), one can imagine a beautiful day with puffy white clouds in the sky, a gentle breeze, and sailboats in the distance. This piece requires the third string to be tuned up one half-step, a tuning that I have personally never seen.

Castle Hill Lighthouse – The Celtic flavor of this piece presents a nautical feel, capturing the movement of the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline by the use of the hemiola (a rhythmic pattern with a two against three feel). The piece also makes extensive use of the Mixolydian mode in two keys and utilizes the technique of tambora, or drumming on the strings.

Speed Techniques

When famous banjo player Earl Scruggs (Beverly Hillbillies theme song) was asked how to play fast, he replied, “Practice playing accurately, and the speed will come…Or it won’t.” There is certainly some element of truth to what he said. Everyone has his own speed threshold – a level beyond which he may never play.  However, I have found that most guitarists never come close to reaching their own speed barrier. But with the proper approach I have seen students maximize their own potential and play faster than they thought possible.

Playing fast is just one tool in the guitarist’s box. It should not be the end goal but rather a means to express musical ideas. To help develop this tool, I suggest working on a musical passage with these three ideas in mind:

Speed – Accuracy – Endurance

Ideally we would like to play with all three. However, at first, choose any two and concentrate on that goal.

Here is an exercise I included in the Parkening Method Book Two and have given to students for years to develop speed technique. It may be played on any string, and many variations are possible. It should be played continuously, although I write it here in four-note groups so you can see the patterns. Here are the frets:

5 8 7 5   4 7 5 4   7 10 8 7   5 8 7 5   8 12 10 8   7 10 8 7   5 8 7 5   4 7 5 4    5

Use alternate picking (down-up with a pick or index-middle fingerstyle). Assign one finger per fret. For example, 5875 would be fingers 1431, and 4754 would be 1421. Keep the 1st finger on the string for the whole exercise and use economy of motion.

Here is how to practice the exercise using the above approach:

A) Play the whole passage (Endurance) with Accuracy and gradually increase the Speed.

B) Play a short passage with as much Speed as possible with Accuracy, and gradually increase the distance (Endurance). I start with one group and always end on the first note of the next group (58754); then do two groups (587547547), etc.

C) Play the whole passage (Endurance) with as much Speed as possible and try to increase the synchronization (Accuracy). This third approach should be used sparingly, as you don’t want to practice bad habits. However, it’s good to experience what it feels like play the whole thing fast without worrying so much about the details. Sometimes by doing so, both hands start to synchronize and it all comes together without much effort.

Use of a metronome will help monitor your progress. I have seen this process quickly achieve great results in students time and again. Try it and see!

Creating Cool Chords

Cool chords. How do we learn them? From a teacher, book, or the Internet? Yes to all. However, one of the most intriguing ways to find new chords is to create them yourself. While the theory can come later, it’s exciting to discover new chords and sounds by pure experimentation. I remember the first time this happened for me as a kid. I was playing a basic D chord and decided to add my 4th finger on the first string, third fret. I thought I had discovered the greatest sound in the world and even wrote a song with it (so did Tom Petty, but his was actually good). I now know this as Dsus4 and found it also goes great with Dsus2, with the first string open. What’s great is that these sounds are so basic and easily found with a little trail and error.

A few years ago, Grammy-winning guitar legend Eric Johnson gave a workshop at our Studio. He was asked how he finds the unique chords that he his so known for. He responded by giving the following example of cool chord creation: He started with a basic E chord. He then removed the 3rd finger from the 4th string and added the 4th finger on the 4th fret, 4th string, calling the chord E2, or Eadd9. He then replaced that finger with the 3rd finger and moved the 4th finger to the 4th fret, 2nd string and called it Emaj9. Finally, he moved his 2nd finger from the 2nd fret, 5th string to the 4th fret and called it Emaj13. On each variation, he was narrating his thought process as, “I wonder how this would sound?” or, “What would happen if…” It was just a series of experiments with chord colors. And again, the names of the chords didn’t matter at this point. It’s all about finding sonic shapes that please the ear.

For some other ideas on exploring new chords, try taking a chord shape you already know and move it up the fretboard or to a different set of strings. The juxtaposition with the open strings can create some phenomenal sounds. Also try familiar shapes in altered tunings for a similar effect. Combining (overlapping) two chords that you already know will create a brand new chord also. One example is an Am with an F bass note (Fmaj7). Another is a power chord starting from another power chord (sus2 sound, think Police and Dave Matthews).

Harmony has two basic aspects. If you look at a chord vertically, as we have been doing, you are referring to the formula of a chord. It is the color of the chord, how it’s spelled and how it’s played. If you look at a chord horizontally, you are referring to the function of the chord. That is how the chord is used and its relationship to others in chord progressions. For example, a C7 is spelled 1-3-5-b7 (formula), and it is the V7 (dominant seventh) chord in the key of F (function). Once you have found cool chord voicings and colors, you can create new chord progressions by linking it all together. Music theory, which is all related to the basic major scale, may then be studied to open the door to many more unique chords and chord progressions.