Writing for Expelling the Hellhounds

Recently, I pulled a song called “Energy Explodes” out and started reworking it.  State of Balance, my prog-alterna-metal-punk-fusion band, played it live a couple times.  The song was solid, but something wasn’t working.  I got out the test tubes and Bunsen burner and Wile E. Coyote (me) went back to the lab.  I started re-imagining the bridge with a new Slay-Fighter-ish riff.  Then, devised a drum track that was earthquaking and inspired the prehistoric drums of the ancients and a badass ending drum fill.  I cackled when I played it back.

The key element missing from this soon-to-be-preeminent guitar recording was a totally bitchin’ solo.  With a Tempo of 185 bpm, it could be really “meh” or scary shredding.  After two days of improvising thru the changes(Gmaj- Dmaj- Amaj- Cmaj), playing along to my rhythm tracks…I bid an abrupt farewell to the licks I knew from before and swam out past the breakers to play with the sharks.  On the 3rd day, I was really stretching.  My “Yoga for guitar” sessions must be paying off.  Balancing the mind and body, using my eardrum, cochlea and inner ear bones to blend the reality of my world to the fantasy of my temporal lobe.  Steve Vai calls this “Ultra Zone”.  My brain was creating molten alloy to be fused into something that I hadn’t the technique or ability to play yet.  Chuck Berry, Slash and Marty Friedman are having a rumble with Vai, Becker and Petrucci.  Miles Davis stopped by to laugh at them all.  You gotta keep your head on a swivel, ya know!

Let your mind play until you come up with interesting ideas you really love.  The above words are just a few images I used to describe what I let happen.  Yes. You must allow yourself to breath creativity.  Open firmly closed and locks doors.  Be vulnerable to things you’ve never experienced before.  How can we be truly open with others if we do not first own ourselves to the highest degree?  Confidence and belief in the playful process of imagination takes time to develop.

Written between Oct 24 and Nov 3, the solo may be revised yet again after I hear the results played back thru the speakers.  My goal is to grow each time I create music that I’ve never done or that I may have never heard before.  Use the creative process to come up with something that intrigues your heart, mind, body and soul.  The Archeology expedition begins anew with each song.

Get out your pen, before it’s gone…

Mile marker 59
Verse 1
I turn my gaze to the east at half past ten,
last night’s talk revealed to me you like to pretend. 

my hands rise to my hair
feel the grip on my head.
I thought if you hurt me again that I might be dead but ill survive…
Reflective walks in the warm sunshine
Forgetting my worries, ignoring the signs
I’d take this dead end road but I don’t have time
This just may be the end of the line
At mile marker 59
Verse 2
The cool morning air blows across my face
The look in his eye at you was more than a trace 

There was no evidence to find,
your silence fills my mind,
many miles of road to stretch and my heart to drive cuz I’m alive.
Reflective walks in the warm sunshine
Forgetting my worries, ignoring the signs
I’d take this dead end road but I don’t have time
This just may be the end of the line
At mile marker 59
If I said stop what you do?
Obviously, I don’t mean as much to you.
And now I walk cuz I know it’s true
Still can’t believe you put he and I in the same room
Verse 3
Beside my footsteps I see you in South Dakota,
I want back Sunday night in Welcome, Minnesota,
When I fulfilled your loves desire
Every embrace emblazed with fire
We tried to build a stable place for fun to thrive, and I arrived
Reflective walks in the warm sunshine
Forgetting my worries, ignoring the signs
I’d take this dead end road but I don’t have time
This just may be the end of the line
Guess that we have run out of goodbyes
At Mile Marker 59

Me—last week

Writing songs is life for me. There’s a mode my mind gets into where even the most mundane details turn into inspiration for making music from scratch. This has happened to me for as long as I can remember. The words somehow just fall out, and rhyme.  And if they don’t, I’ll pull out the thesaurus or rhyming dictionary and as soon as I see the right rhyming word, a full line completes itself. I can’t explain it, it just is. I studied poetry and lyrics because I loved to read it. The wordplay, the emotion, the passionate expression. I didn’t decide, “wow, I’ve got to study poetry if I’m going to get good here.” The songs came first without my permission. It’s 4am and my mind says, “LOOK WHAT I DID WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING!!!!” Or I’m walking to the store and something just strikes.  I did make conscious efforts to refine it as time went on, but it never seemed like work, it just made sense and fulfilled me in a way that other activities can’t touch.

Most of the song usually happens before I even sit with a guitar, but once the mood translates into fingers, sometimes I finish a song in about 20 minutes. It can take a few weeks of editing the lyrics/melodies/riffs/chords into what I really want by describing the initial images with more graphic detail. I want the listeners to be immersed in the colors and sights I see, but experience them from their perspective. I try to hide things a little bit and be a little cryptic while still getting across the main point.

Something I’m running into lately:  the music I write is not what I generally like or am currently listening to. Country songs have been happening a lot lately, and I’m not a country guy generally.  There are certain country artists that I really dig. Then, I’ll write some super extreme metal thing….*shrugs* I’ll take it. I love music in many forms and it reflects my life from somewhere deeper than I can control. I let my hands be the facilitator of my soul.  I feel a shift into that mindset that I spoke of, and grab my pen, or my nearest word processing unit and get down to the business of translating my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and spirit into words and music.

It’s been a source of consolation, growth, happiness and frustration since before I even picked up a guitar.  I think it’s why my mom got me lessons in the first place.  She could see something was going on with me before I could even name it.   Imitating Adrian Vandenburg doing windmills in Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” video must have been a cry for help.  I could have been an air guitar champion, but no, Mom had to get me guitar lessons instead.  🙂  She also encouraged me to do more journaling when I was about 17.  She saw that I had a lot of emotion to express and had to get it out somehow.  I have spiral notebooks dating back to senior year in high school and scraps of paper that I dredged out of my notebooks from freshman year.

I often write my best stuff when I’ve gone thru something really painful. I’ve also been in really awesome moods and written some stuff I am extremely proud of.  I’ll write songs about political subjects, love, hate, personal injustice, empowerment, sadness or whatever.  I choose to not limit myself to one style or type of song that I will write.  I think that takes a lot of courage.  Seems like most people only write what they know, but I often find myself writing things that I have no idea where they’re coming from.  It’s a blessing and a curse.  How can I get all this stuff recorded and released?  It costs so much money.  Right now, I’m in the predicament where I have several awesome projects going and I can’t stop writing for any one of them…then these outside the box singer/songwriter/country/americana/acoustic things that just happen.  It’s a good “problem” to have.

The mind of an artist: often disorganized and has a lot of free association that doesn’t connect in any logical manner.  It’s creativity at it’s purest level.  You’re in a conversation with me and next thing you know I’m interrupted by some crazy idea.  I think my guitar students see this more than anyone.  🙂  There’s a frickin’ guitar in my hands, it’s bound to happen.

There are several songwriters in my family.  I don’t think we ever talked about process of songwriting.  It’s a very personal process that you really must experience in yourself.  Don’t question it.  Get out your ideas first.  Write down what you’re hearing/thinking/feeling.  Make a basic recording on some simple device like a voice recorder or your cellphone before you forget the melody.  The process of creation happens internally, via the imagination.  The ignition for ideas is spontaneous, so keep something handy to write down ideas at all times.  I had to have journals laying around or stuck in my backpack.  But, a napkin or old receipt will suffice if you can’t find anything else.  Get it down.  Now.  You’ll never regret it.  Even if you look back and think it sucks, at least you got down your creative idea.

Judgement:  leave judgement behind.  Accept your ideas in the moment.  Most of the time, they won’t be useful at the moment you write them.  I have things I discovered from journal entries dated 10 years ago.  it didn’t work when I read through it 5 years ago, but it struck me now.  *shrugs* Again, I don’t care, as long as it meets the needs of the song idea.  Not every song will be a radio hit.  You may never write one.  But if you follow your heart, it means something to you.  That’s all that counts.  Industry comes way after inspiration.  Sometimes it comes first, but rarely.

I hope you enjoy this entry.  Any questions or comments?  Please ask on FB or in the comments section of the blog.  If you have a subject you’d like me to write about, please lemme know.

Technique and Feel.

Have you ever had someone question your technique? You played the show of your life, all the solos and riffs came out great and yet some guy in the crowd says, “Bro, you gotta use your pinky more.” or “Man, you’d be able to do more if you wore your guitar higher.” Well, all those “pro-tips” that everyone hears could be helpful if there weren’t a million and one exceptions to those technique rules. Do what works for you individually. Focus on how you feel in your mind/body. Does it hurt my hands/back/shoulders when I play? Technique can definitely affect feel/emotional content. And to get the proper emotion, sometimes, you must sacrifice textbook technique, which in most cases, will not cause bodily damage if done with creating great music in mind. Sometimes, you have to use absolute perfect textbook technique to pull of the idea/lick/riff.

First, let’s discuss technique. I’ve taken lessons from some of the best guitarists on this here planet Earth. I have such a great respect for each of them. Some are more known than others but who they are isn’t as important as what they taught. They all said that having a basic understanding of solid guitar technique is important. In the beginning, I learned to wear my guitar really high and play with my thumb behind the neck, using all four fingers and do bending and vibrato with each finger as well. Alternate picking was firmly taught as an absolute technique not to be deviated from in most cases. Sweep picking? Yes. Economy picking? No. My playing while technically sound wasn’t very exciting. I played some cool melodies and got a lot of positive feedback, but there was a lot missing.

As time went on, I went to Portland State University to learn jazz and started teaching about 20-30 guitar students per week. In school, technique was heavily enforced and in my lessons, I took those things very seriously. But, as I taught Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix, Don Felder, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Marty Friedman, Kirk Hammett and other rock, blues and metal greats, I realized that there were many viable and valuable technical variations that are extremely useful. If I didn’t use those techniques and used only strict alternate picking, the licks just didn’t sound right. Even if you’re doing hammer-ons/pull-offs in the right place but following where up/down strokes would be, certain licks sound stiff and certainly didn’t sound bluesy, jazzy or even come close to rocking. Once I started letting my guard down and opening my mind to these new ideas, my playing started sounding miles better.

Some of my fave guitarists with unorthodox techniques: Marty Friedman, Pat Metheny, and Wes Montgomery. Each player has a very unique approach to the guitar and I studied them intensely. I had to morph my technique to theirs to get the sounds they were getting. Mimicing their style physically and sonically was very important to my development. It pushed me beyond what my initial personal style was giving me. I watched countless hours of videos and live concerts to see how they were attacking the instrument differently than I would or other great players. I did this with ALL my fave guitarists. No stone unturned in the seeking of another method to beat the living crap out of my guitar.

After learning countless songs, riffs, chord progressions and solos and playing them with my metronome (shameless teaching method plug), this gave me a very well-built foundation for constructing my own songs, solos and letting go of conventional technique when necessary. It allows me the flexibility to change the way I attack any musical idea. Even when I was taking private lessons, I would watch my guitar teachers so closely and asked tons of questions. I either came with a list in my mind or was inspired to ask spontaneously in the lessons. If they played something cool, “hey do that again.” “what was that weird thing you just did?” “That was awesome, can you show me that?” Luckily they all did. They know I’ll never sound like them in a million years. I might get close, but why would I want to? If you compare me back-to-back with Slash when I’m playing in Appetite for Deception, it’s reaaaaaally close but not identical. My fingers can never duplicate Slash’s fingers, or Marty’s fingers, or Wes’s fingers. It’s fun to do the best I can with mimicry, but I would never say I can get it exact.

No matter what I play, I’m very intentional about the technique I use. I work out the choreography for a lick very meticulously with tempo, meter, feel, dynamics, style and context all in mind. Is it supposed to sound aggressive and thrashing, or is it supposed to sound gentle and smooth? Is it fast and shredding or is it slow and swinging? Whatever the case may be, make sure that you sound EXACTLY how YOU want it to sound and feel. If it’s supposed to sound kind of sloppy artistically….do it. Picasso didn’t make his blue period paintings by not trying something new. And some things are simply happy accidents that come from screw-ups. Why should we as musicians be restricted to playing everything with exactly precise picking and rhythm? Most times, accuracy works best but there are times when we must throw caution to the wind to make great art. Whether it’s pop music or classical music, risks to move things forward must be taken at times.

Some techniques to explore. Alternate picking, economy picking, sweep picking, Fretboard Tapping, Slurring (hammer-ons/pull-offs), Palm-muting, artificial harmonics and others can drastically change the soundscape of your riffs/chords and solos. Learn the songs that you love, from simple in the beginning, to difficult as time goes on.

Another factor that affects technique is the length of your strap. I wear my guitar at varying strap lengths for the particular gig I’m playing. Sometimes you have to wear it slightly higher depending on what you’re playing. But mostly, I wear it low. I like low. It feels comfortable and looks better. Ironically, when I played with strict, “correct” technique and a high strap, I get a lot of hand pain. Not necessarily connected but interesting.

Feel, to me, is how you play a note in time and the emotional content of the lick or riff. The main way to develop this I’ve found is, besides copying people’s phrasing, is extensive live and studio playing and watching how you respond to your own playing and how the audience responds. The real result of your playing is an emotional response (or lack thereof) from your audience. You can develop it at home and you must do that homework. But,the real test is this: can you stay in the moment and emote on your guitar in the pressure situation? At first, this is a huge challenge. How the hell do I emote on a guitar? It’s more than the sum of it’s parts (dynamics, picking, fretting, timing, phrasing, yada). I believe you have to get out of your own way, know your music so well that there is nothing left to do but express emotion. The licks and riffs need to be unconscious, because if you’re nervous, that’s the exact emotion you’re going to express with your axe.

One of my teachers taught me to practice until I’m not nervous anymore, then I’ll know that I can do anything. So, I did. The way people perceived me was so different, because I had made some truly frame-breaking change. I watched in real time the results change from “nice job dude” to “holy f#$king crap, you’re so amazing.” A once insecure, nervous kid had now taken it to a level where I didn’t need to think anymore. Nerves vanished. The sound came into my head, and my fingers did what my heart and mind told them to do. The audience was perceiving my confidence, my calm, my ease in just playing whatever I wanted to play without inhibition. I was literally feeling my way around the neck in an emotional and sonic way. I am not unique in this. AND, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to maintain. Remember last blog? My talent is perseverance.

I think most people can learn to play with great feeling and great technique. It all depends on your aptitude for the instrument, your commitment to practicing and your attitude about how you approach learning. The “great feeling” part depends on how vulnerable you can be to express yourself fully. It takes courage to show sorrow or joy or ecstasy or anger and revel in those emotions in front of a large audience…hell even a small audience can give you quite a head trip if you’re not prepared for it. The challenge is great. How far are you willing to go to connect with your bandmates or the audience? Do you stop at technique, or do you let your soul shine? Can you show your deepest intentions that you can’t explain with words? Are you willing to risk being laughed at when you express humor in your playing? Confident enough to know that people just got the joke and they’re not laughing at you? Will your technique hold up when the stage is cold because it’s a huge room and people haven’t shown up yet?

There are times when I step off the stage and I can barely hold it together. I let down the walls so far, I need about an hour or 2 to regroup and get back to normal functioning. Totally overwhelmed. I left it ALL on that stage and everything went right. But, talking to people or putting gear away takes concerted effort, until I return to earth. I guess it’s the technique of showing one’s true self. Stripping back the veneer and living on the edge.

These ideas span the experience of life, not just music. Music is a reflection of life and it can affect life as well. There is a time and purpose for everything. Technical precision is very important. Feeling your emotions and expressing them is also important. Balancing those aspects in your life can be extremely difficult. Balancing them in the intangible, abstract of music can be even more so. It can be done. Diligence, determination, perseverance and a willingness to accept and understand one’s self are all imperative to whatever it is you’re doing.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to drop questions and comments.