Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ultimate Classic Guitar Arrangements: A Day at the Beach

Almost exactly twenty years ago, a student showed up for a lesson with Joe Satriani's CD Flying in a Blue Dream and changed my direction with the classic guitar forever. On that CD was a little 2:03 two-hand tap piece called, A Day at the Beach (New Rays from an Ancient Sun). I was completely mesmerized by the thing, so I got the official transcription of it that Carl Culpepper did - which I still think is humorous, by the way: Culpepper/Pepper... OK, maybe you had to be there. Anyway...

The problem with the piece for the classic nylon string - besides two-hand tap being, like, really really hard on nylon - is that the piece doesn't fit within the 19 frets as Satch played it. Well, he plays it in A major, and the lowest note he hammers with the left hand is G-natural at the third fret, so I just moved the whole enchilada down a whole step to G major so the lowest note tapped is F-natural at the first fret. That was really the only change I had to make, but there was another problem, which is just "me": Carl put the sixteenth note figures within the bar lines, making the first left hand hammer-on be on the downbeat. I simply can't hear or feel it that way: for me, the first right hand tap is the downbeat, and the two preceding left hand hammer-ons are pickup notes. Seriously, I can't even play it with a metronome the way the official version is written. It's similar to a visual confusion phenomenon I sometimes encounter: If I'm looking at a 2D picture of, say, the surface of the moon, for instance, I'll sometimes get confused and see the craters as convex instead of concave. I had this happen to me last week, in fact, as I was examining a brand new map of Mercury that has been made. On some of the images, nothing could get me to see the craters right. I wonder if there is a word for that phenomenon?... but I digress.

As it sits in G major, the highest tap happens at the eighteenth fret, which is just shy of totally ridiculous - I guess that would make the 19th fret beyond the pale - so I also refused to go up there with a sixth at one point, but I do "go there" with a fourth at another. And then there were two measures I thought I had a more musical solution for, so I changed the pattern in the right hand there. So, there really aren't very many changes to the actual music.

Now for the real hard part. Music like this is always presented in the form of music + tablature (Or only TAB, I guess), which makes it really obvious what's going on. To render it in only standard notation, which is all snobby classical guys won't turn their noses up at, required me to come up with a completely new way of indicating the positions for the left and right hand. I kept as much familiar stuff as possible so as not to get confusing, but I simply had to create a way to indicate where the taps happen out of whole cloth. The solution I came up with is intuitive and logical, I think.

Since bold Roman numerals are used to basically keep track of where your left hand finger number 1 is, I just used bold Arabic numbers in the same font, except one size smaller, to indicate at what fret the taps happen. Since this piece is based on a completely unbroken ostinato hammer/tap pattern, it actually worked out quite well, IMO.

Here's the MIDI to MPEG4 version I made in iTunes, and it sounds pretty weird without being able to hear the difference between the taps and the hammers, but you'll at least be able to follow the score and get an idea with it (If you open two browser windows or tabs).

A Day at the Beach - Joe Satriani

And here's the score:

First thing: What the left hand does are hammer-ons (Or, pull-offs, but there aren't any of those in this piece) and what the right hand does are taps. This needs to be kept straight, or confusion ensues. So, this entire piece is hammer, hammer, tap/repeat for the entire time, and everything is a sixteenth note except for the eighth on the last beat of every measure. For this reason, I just have the H, H, T pattern above the top system, and thats the only time you'll see it.

Secondly, you'll see the Arabic numerals above each T: These are almost always on the same fret, but there are a few instances where you have to angle the fingers to get m one fret lower than i. In those cases, the lowest fret gets the numeral.

The left hand fingerings are indicated in the traditional way, and I also use traditional i/m indications for the fingers that are tapping (i/m are all that is required for this piece). Since the right hand is only i/m for the entire piece, except for one measure where i alone is used, I put those indications only at the beginning of each page and in the one measure that is different. Then, since the left hand is so repetitive, those numbers only appear when something changes. Personally, I think this makes reading, memorizing, and practicing just a ton easier, and the scores look clean too.

I have used the Roman numerals to keep track of finger number 1 of the left hand, as is traditional, but I do have a slightly different logic for how I apply them, though it doesn't make a rat's patoot of difference in this piece: Roman numeral position indicators only get a continuation line if they apply beyond a bar line, otherwise they stand alone. So, I apply the same logic to them as accidentals get: Bar lines cancel them, unless another indicator changes them first. This makes most scores look MUCH cleaner.

So there you have it. Now for the rest:

For the right hand position indicators, they get continuation lines only if the same fret is tapped at more than once in succession, as you can see on the top system here. Otherwise they too stand alone, as is the case on the second system.

By the way, notice how the right and left hand position indicators appear above the first note that they apply to, and the continuation lines start above the next note they apply to, and end above the last note they apply to, when they are needed. many scores look junky and chaotic because no consistent logic is applied to these kinds of things. As usual, you can take consistency too far though: I'f you are worried about placement at the pixel level, for example, you're going to waste half of your life just setting up scores! I'm just not that retentive. For me, the score simply has to look, "cool."

I was also able to shorten this score compared to the original by putting in some internal repeats, a D.C., and making the whole second section a Coda.

I set this up with just one measure per system because Encore will only let you reformat down to two per system after the initial setup - I have no idea why - so if I did this again, I might reformat to two measures per. I just didn't know what I was going to do vis-a-vis the fingering indications when I entered the notation, so it is the way it is.

At the end of the top system is the D.S. and on the bottom system is where only the i is used to tap briefly.

I also "felt" the ending slightly differently, as you can see. Joe actually ends it on what would be the third sixteenth of the third beat by my notation, but I just like this better.

So, there you have it. If you decide to take up tap technique on the nylon string, be prepared for a long term commitment. I play two tap tech pieces in my set, this one and Eddie Van Halen's Spanish Fly, which will be the subject of a later post in this series. I play both of those five to seven times EACH every time I pick up the guitar to practice, which is more than any other pieces in my repertoire, by far. In order to get the taps to ring with lower tension, lower density, and lighter weight ratio nylon strings, you have to develop and maintain callouses on the tips of your right hand i and m fingers. This just takes the investment of a lot of sweat equity, especially with a standard classical guitar action, and if you don't tune down the guitar, like Eddie did. I don't detune, but I do use a "Flamenco-ish" action, which helps loads. Tap would be nearly impossible on some of the concert classical guitars out there, because their actions are just ridiculously high.

This will probably be my last post of the year and of the decade, so Happy New Year, everybody.

I have discovered a pluperfect redhead.

Mmmmmmm, YUMMY!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Representing Rhythmic Irrationalities in Standard Notation

Anyone who performs contemporary guitar music created by pop, rock, and jazz guys has to deal with this, as a lot of it is quasi-improvisatory and was never written out by the performer, but instead the sheet music and tablature is created by a transcriber. In these pieces, meters can change often as beats are added or dropped by the performer, and tuplet groupings can get quite plastic in single line sections or guitar solos. Just as mathematics has irrational numbers, then, music has irrational rhythms. In fact, standard notation never really represents the music perfectly, because performers always take rhythmic and tempo liberties to express the music as they perform. Improvisatory soloists are notorious for floating in and out of lock with the beat, and while that is a large part of the compelling nature of their creativity, representing that in standard notation can be a real, actual nightmare. Seriously, I've had dreams about the piece I'm going to use as an example today.

The problem is, you can take accuracy in transcription too far, and if you do, the rhythmic complexity of the resulting transcription looks so daunting that many players will be scared off by the sheer difficulty of reading the rhythms. If you take this into account, then some simplifications are a good thing, as it makes learning the pieces easier: The irrational details of the "feel" can be added later. The devil is in striking a proper balance, and that's what has driven me nearly batty about this piece, Desert Song by Eric johnson from his first album, Tones.

Since a large part of the point in transcribing my entire repertoire into Encore is so that I'll be able to practice along with the MIDI files instead of just a metronome, I had to get close without making it impossible for me to follow. The resulting MIDI file is pretty darned amazing, if I do say so myself, and I converted it to an m4a AAC file in iTunes for you. If you open two windows or tabs in your browser, you can listen and follow the music.

Desert Song - Eric johnson

NOTE: Some artifacts in the form of ghost notes crept in during the MIDI to MPEG conversion process. This often happens with really complex MIDI files.

Here's the score, which is just the notation without any fingerings (I'm not to that point yet).

The first decision I had to make was whether or not to notate the flams that Eric plays leading into a lot of the measures, and since it is only a sixteenth note pickup in the bass, I decided to go ahead and put them in. Since I first learned this from an ASCII TAB I found online, and since I'm a composer myself, I did change a few details of the figuration just because I wanted it to go differently in certain places. Those changes are all pretty minor though. He also plays a lot of quarter note triplets, and those are pretty difficult for some to rationalize, but the file just didn't sound anything like right without them, so I put those in too. It's the figures after the triplets that look 'hard" however, but they sound perfectly natural that way. Ack. I am missing a 32nd there though: The E should also have a double dot in measure 10. See what I mean? LOL! The "legit" way to represent these rhythms is with a lot of ties and repeated notes, but I really hate the way that looks, so I do them the way I want to see them since this is for my own personal use. I've dealt with jazzy music so long that I don't need my hand held, know what I mean?

One of the coolest things Eric does with the figuration in this piece are the series of three times five eighths ending with a quarter to fill up two measures of four, like you see in measures 19-20 and 21-22. That is just so hip, and one of the things that makes this piece so unique.

The first time through the "A" section is really pretty straight ahead by my standards, but the varied repeat starting at 38 gets weird fast. He drops a beat at the end of "A" as you can see, and then immediately adds it back: A measure of 3 plus a measure of five is two measures of four. The first of several single line licks then follows in 39, and it's pretty easily represented by 8th triplets with the 16th/dotted 8th at the end, but not perfectly. Guitar articulations just can't be perfectly replicated in a MIDI file. Eric smoothly locks back up with the beat in 40 though, complete with a lead-in flam.

My nightmares began at the end of measure 46. The 5:3 quintuplets were pretty easy to suss out, but the following 7:3 septuplets took a few days of intermittent experimentation to uncover. It's really a common legato technique lick that just goes down an octave every beat, but wow, figuring out how to notate it and make the resulting MIDI file sound right without any tempo changes was a beeotch. Notice that I have two measures of 4/4 represented as 9/8 plus 7/8! It was the only way to get it to sound right.

At 49 Eric locks back up again, and the last lick on the page is another simple 8th triplet deal.

No real big deals on this page, but the two triplets in 69 is sorta/kinda weird with the tie, but that's what sounded closest, so there it is. I still haven't figured out the best way to do 70: It's an over-simplification for sure, but the notes are there and the rhythm is approximated.

Here's the little Flamenco section, and I tried all sorts of ways to segue between the two, and finally gave up and started over, complete with a 1/4 pickup measure. The licks are what Eric plays for 72-77, but the licks starting in 78 are mine: His were just too freaking hard, so I replaced them with some legato tech licks that maintain the Flamenco phrygian flavor. Remember, Eric plays with a pick between his thumb and index finger, and picks the rest of the figuration with m, a, and c. So, it's easy for him to transition into these quick licks. I just can't match that kind of speed with i/m alternation, so I have to "cheat" with legato tech... a lot. LOL!

Starting in 82 I also removed the Flamenco strums, since I don't know how to do those, and that section sounds ridiculous in MIDI because it depends on harmonics to get it's charm on.

The figurations in 84-85 and 88-89 are what Eric plays, but I again ditched the Flamenco strums in 86-87.

And so there you have it. I have no idea how the "official" transcription of this looks, because the Tones guitar transcription book has been out of print for quite a while. I'd be curious to see it, though, as this is one of the most difficult transcriptions I've ever done. All I had to go by was that old ASCII TAB transcription and the recording.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Preview: Ultimate Classical Guitar Arrangements

I have finally finished entering the notation for all of the pieces in my set, and I have the fingerings done for my originals and the standard repertoire pieces, but I still have to do the fingerings for the contemporary arrangements. Some of the MIDI files that I'm getting out of my Encore notation program are coming out really well, so I thought I'd give readers a preview... er, or a "pre-hear" as it were.

My favorite of the "100% mine" arrangements is without a doubt my "Jethro Tull-ization" of the Bach Bourree in E minor. Ian Anderson only did the A section for his version on the Aqualung album - a record I was addicted to for a time in high school - so I decided to do the same treatment to the B section. It came out marvelously, and I play it in D minor with a drop-D tuning, which is the same key as the Tull version. These are all MIDI to AAC (MP4 MPEG audio) versions I did in iTunes using the RealFont 2.1 Nylon Guitar 1 sound font, so the link will open Quicktime or whatever you have as the default for streaming audio in your browser.

Bouree - Jethro Tull

Then, since I have played Classical Gas on and off for over twenty years, I have several different transcriptions of it, and have created a "kitchen sink" version that has all of my favorite ideas from about a half dozen arrangements I've heard. It starts out with the simple ideas and then gets progressively more virtuosic.

Classical Gas - Mason Williams

Next up is my brand, spanking new arrangement of Mood for a Day. I was also a big Yes fan in my youth, so I had learned bits and pieces of this, but never the whole enchilada. The Flamenco sections sound ridiculous in MIDI without the strums articulated, but the rest of it came out very well. Me being the consummate contrapuntist, I did fix one of Mr. Howe's parallel perfect fifths, and I must say the that fix sounds better than the original.

Mood for a Day - Steve Howe

Finally, the finale of my set is an arrangement of Stairway to Heaven that has been developing in my head for over thirty years since it was the very first song I ever learned to play "all the way through" back when I was a teen. Believe it, or not, I had never written this out before today. I've actually had guitarists beg me to write this out for them, but the time just wasn't right until now.

Stairway to Heaven - Jimmy Page

It was nice to get this finished... on my birthday!

"Happy Birthday Hucbald!"

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Transcription Milestone 2: Originals and Classical Pieces Done

Posting will continue to be infrequent as I complete the monumental task of transcribing my entire set into Encore, plus it's the Christmas season, so I'm distracted by such things as making peanut brittle with my mom (Mmmmm!). That's what we did today - for the second time this week - and I know everybody says this, but mom's peanut brittle is the best in the world. The recipe is about 100 years old, and you have to get it to 290 degrees so it comes out light, super-crunchy, and the peanuts are deeply browned. Nothing like it, I swear... um, this is a music blog. Alrighty then.

I have now completed two versions - urtext notation only, and right/left hand fingerings - for all of my originals plus all of the standard repertoire classical pieces in my set. That's 112 Encore files in that folder now, and yes, I'm backing it up to every computer and external storage device I have at every step.

Now I'm getting to the, "fun part" as I start in on all of the contemporary crowd pleaser arrangements I play. This will also be the most labor intensive, as some of those arrangements exist only in my head, and ALL of them have evolved since I originally learned them. Not only that, but the sources are scattered all over the place in anthologies, compilations, PDF files, and even a Guitar Pro file (I had to get Guitar Pro 5 just to be able to open that file again!).

This really is the best idea I've ever come up with to improve my playing and memorization, since I am inscribing in granite every little detail about the technical execution of each piece, and I am now using visual reenforcement of my memory when I practice, which makes all the difference in the world now that my set is at about 70 pieces.

While I was at it, I decided to go ahead and enter all of the pieces on my to-do list as well, and so I'll be able to learn new pieces faster and better now to boot. part of me wishes I had gotten this idea a couple of years ago, but another part realizes that I just wasn't ready to do it until now: I didn't have all of the pieces together, I hadn't made all of the mental conceptualization connections... and I hadn't reached the proper frustration level either. LOL!

Speaking of getting all of the material together, after five years of searching, I have at last found the final contemporary crowd pleaser piece so that I have at least one of them in every suite in my set from A minor to A major (Progressing through the cycle of thirds, A minor, C major, E minor, G major, &c.): Theme from M*A*S*H/Suicide is Painless. There are a gazillion versions of it in A minor for solo guitar, but the original Movie and TV themes - there's the film version with lyrics, plus a couple of instrumental versions from the TV show - are all in B minor, which is a very rare key for popular music. After searching for five years, trust me on this.

Well, I was looking at YouTube videos last week, and found a guy who had done a pretty good version in B minor, and he even sells the transcription.

So, I bought it. Of course, I'll just end up using this as a point of departure, but truly, I won't have to change much because it's so excellently done. Just a couple of places where he strums the chord hits I'll probably arpeggiate and I'll probably lengthen it as well. Isn't it cool how it ends up going to the highest note on the classical guitar - the 19th fret B - at the climax? There are so many guitar abominations on YouTube that it's nice to come across cool stuff.

Here's the next piece on my to-do list when this transcription project is over - I fraking love this! - the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

I got this transcription too - note: it's in handwritten TAB, so you'll have to "transcribe the transcription" if you get it - as I like to put humor into my set, and this piece just tickles the heck out of me.

And now for another segue: Guys who sell their transcriptions like the two above have given me the idea to do something similar, since I will have a TON of them when this project is over with, but the charitable, wizened old musician in me wants to do it a bit differently, because I know just how ridiculous money problems are for musicians. The idea of trying to make money off of musicians who can't afford it rubs me the wrong way, to be honest, and I like to take the "cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it shall return to you" approach with my teaching. That is almost the entire point of MMM!

So, here's what I've come up with: I'm going to do an epic series of posts next year called, "Ultimate Guitar Arrangements." I have the blog template field set to 700 pixels in width, so poor student musicians will just be able to drag and drop the JPG files of the music notation to their desktops, complete with all fingering indications, position markers, expressions, &c. I expect 99.9% of readers to do this, because musicians are poor... and people suck. LOL! I kid, I kid. I'm also going to post MIDI to M4A (AAC) files of each piece, so you'll be able to save those to put in your iPod or iTunes, or whatever. If, however, you want a PDF and a MIDI file to practice along with, or import into whatever notation program you use - or both - you can hit the DONATE button and send me a meager $1.50 US per piece with a note telling me which piece or pieces you want, and I'll email them to you, since PDF and MIDI files are manageably small. If, for some reason, you just want only the PDF or only the MIDI, just send $1.00 US. That might seem ridiculously cheap, but I want to make being honest easy. That way, when karma catches up to the deadbeats who could easily afford it, they won't have any excuses. ;^)

To get an idea of the level of detail I'm putting into these, here's a very familiar piece to classical guitarists, Bach's Sarabande in A Minor from the 3rd Lute Suite.

This is the second of three versions, so it has the right and left hand fingerings, but not the position indicators. You'll notice that I change meters, because I write out all of the fermatas: Computers can't interpret fermatas, so I write them out. Same with ornamentation; I want them written out exactly as I perform them, because I'm going to be practicing along with these MIDI files. You'll also note that I indicate virtually every right and left hand fingering. It may not make all that much difference in a little one-page miniature like this, but in more complex pieces where there is a lot of movement and rhythmic vitality, I want to be able to very slowly - in non-real time, if need be - work on the fingering choreography with the greatest detail possible. See why I'm calling these ultimate guitar arrangements? I don't think anyone has ever done a project like this before, and I certainly don't expect that anyone else would ever do something like this unless, like me, they did it for their own personal edification.

I've also developed a fingering indication philosophy by doing this project, which I'll talk more about in a later post. But now, I'm going to watch some new DVD's I got from Amazon tonight... and eat peanut brittle.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Encore Transcription Milestone: All of My Pieces Entered w/Fingerings

As I mentioned in the previous post, I'm entering every piece in my set into Encore so I'll have Encore files, MIDI files, and MIDI to M4A files of every piece in my set. That way, I'll be able to practice along with MIDI files versus just a metronome while reading the music. This will greatly facilitate memorization as well as precision execution of the music.

Well, I've chosen the path of least resistance: First I transcribed all of the preludes in my set, because I had old PDF's of those, and every suite in my set begins with one of my Figuration Preludes (That was 13 pieces, right there), and then I did all of my Axial Studies, since the second piece in most of the suites are Axial Studies (That's another 18 pieces), then the rest of my miscellaneous pieces (Another 12 pieces), so I've completed Urtext and Fingering versions of 43 pieces (86 files total). Whew!

Next, I'm going to transcribe all of the standard repertoire classical pieces I play - Urtext and fingered versions - and then I'll do the contemporary pieces, both versions, as well. After all of the pieces are entered, I'll go back and create a third version of each with the string and position indications, and finally I'll add the performance indications and expressions. So eventually, there will be four versions of each, for a total of over 250 Encore files!

I haven't been so absorbed by a project since I finished composing my first guitar sonata at the end of 2007.

Encore 5 renders absolutely gorgeous PDF files:

This is a 700 pixel wide maximum resolution JPG screen cap I did. For the original PDF, look here. If you have a wide screen monitor like my 23" Cinema HD Display, you can fill the screen up with your browser and the resolution will still be perfect. That's pretty amazing. Encore 4 was not WYSIWYG, so what you ended up with was a bit of a guestimation, but Encore 5 is WYSIWYG, so what I see in the application window is exactly how the PDF turns out. Infinitely superior.

As I do each version, I'm tweaking things like measure widths and note placement, so for the third and fourth versions, I'll tweak the fingering indication placements. This is a great way to work, as each version gets better, and the final ought to be close enough to perfect for even me.

I believe I'll relax with some beers and watch DVD's tonight... which reminds me, Terminator: Salvation, The Director's Cut is available now. I'm ordering it!

It's been a while since we had a redhead.