Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New Recording System Test Track: Tears in the Rain - Satriani

I have finally gotten to the point of beginning test recordings for a new demo CD with the Rider Nylon guitars and my new recording system - my manager has been bugging me for one since she heard me play the Rider in Vegas - and at long last I'm happy with the recorded sound I'm getting. If you count my early recording efforts with my old Gibson Chet Atkins CEC, I've been trying to get "the sound" with an electric nylon string guitar for nearly twenty years!

Then, back in '99 I got the first key to "the sound" which was the Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor. Problem was, I was still clinging to my steel string conditioning and so I was using a MESA/Boogie TriAxis preamp, which turned out to be totally inappropriate for nylon. After ditching the TriAxis, I went to using the slave outs on a MESA 20/20, but I didn't like the higher noise floor, and the Digidesign M-Box sounded harsh to me.

Well, the ultimate solution was to replace the M-Box with the fabulous Lexicon I-ONIX FW810s recording interface and ditch the MESA 20/20: Just the MPX-G2 direct into the FW810s - all Lexicon all the time!

So, here's the signal path: Blackbird Rider Nylon/RMC Polydrive > Lexicon MPX-G2 Guitar Effects Processor > Lexicon I-ONIX FW810s FireWire Recording Interface > MacBook Pro (7,200 RPM HDD) > GarageBand. Yes, GarageBand! Since all of the effects and EQ are in the MPX-G2 - a dedicated DSP chip and dedicated AD/DA converters will always sound superior to the algorithms in a plug-in - all I need is a bonehead-simple stereo digital recorder, not a multitrack production workstation (Though GarageBand can be that if you want it to). This will make recording my live shows by myself, as my own engineer a piece of cake.

Well, here's the first take of the first test with no edits:

Tears in the Rain - Joe Satrini

I'm blown away! The right side is too hot - the adjustments on the FW810s are more sensitive than I'd like - but the sound is what I've been striving for since 1991: Highs are bright and clear without being harsh, mids are full but not tubby, lows are rock solid and focused, reverb is huge but not in the way, and the only other effect is a little bit of dual detune chorus! Just wait until you hear the more complex programs that have phasing and flanging &c. They totally and completely rock.

I'm going to try the Speaker Simulator for the next test, but I'm betting I don't like it since I didn't like it last time I tested it... but you never know.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

MMM's Fifth Year "Blogversary"

Five years ago today - half a decade! - my little blog appeared amid the vastness of the blogosphere.

Lana thinks that's cool.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ultimate Classic Guitar Arrangements: Stairway to Heaven

Learning Stairway to Heaven was one of the first major goals I had when I started getting serious about the guitar back when I was a teenager. So, I've been playing it on and off for over thirty years now, and it has gone through countless versions leading up to this one. It is such an iconic piece, and this arrangement is so popular with my audiences, that I use this as the finale of my set. Also, of all the contemporary crowd pleaser pieces I play, this one is the one I have guitarists ask me for the most. Believe it or not, I never bothered to write it out until January of this year; It existed only in my head for decades!

I've heard a bazillion versions of this, of course, but they are either too simple, or they sacrifice the iconic main guitar parts by trying too hard to get the vocal melody in. Also, every one of them craps out when the rock section with the guitar solo starts. I decided to make this arrangement a guitar instrumental based around the original guitar parts, forgetting about the vocal melody, and also to get the final rock section with the guitar solo in. Basically, I made it into a rock guitar fantasy.

I did edit it for length, as at eight minutes plus is too much, and as I play it it comes in at about six. I wrote it in sections with repeats, but I vary the repeats in performance, so in practice it's through composed. Also, I vary the length of the guitar solo section depending on how I feel during any particular performance, so the arrangement only has a few of the licks I play the most often. Feel free to improvise as I do to make that section longer!

Here's the objective MIDI to M4A conversion of the score I made in iTunes using the RealFont Nylon Guitar soundfont.

Stairway to Heaven - Jimmy Page

Open a second tab or window to listen and follow the score.

The beginning is very faithful to the original, but the repeat starting in measure five has the bass line an octave lower. This is not as easy as it sounds or looks, but it does help turn the arrangement into more of a solo guitar composition. The cadential figure in four I have also fattened up in eight, which will lead to an even bigger version before the next section.

At the end of sixteen there is the first repeat, and as I said, I vary it with more hammer-ons, pull-offs and things like that, so use your imagination. The varied faux repeat starting at seventeen is the bridge to the next section, and in twenty is that fully developed cadential figure I mentioned earlier.

Now, for clarity's sake I wrote the arpeggios starting in twenty-one as naked eighths and sixteenths, but assume they are sustained notes. The M4A conversion sounds kind of weird here because the arpeggios are as written versus as I play them.

As you can see, measure twenty-eight is 5/4. This is something that just naturally crept into the arrangement over the years, and when I wrote it out I was actually surprised by it: "I play a measure of 5/4 there. Weird." I like it though, and since there's no band, there's no problem. lol.

There's the second repeat at the end of thirty-seven, and again, I vary it, so, "jam." At thirty-eight the next transitional bridge begins that leads to the final rock and guitar solo section.

The guitar solo starts at thirty-seven (those repeats save a ton of time!), and the first two licks are actually exactly what Page plays. Then, at fifty, is the solution I came up with for the rock section lick... which is brilliant, if I do say so myself. After each repeat of that is a lick.

I only wrote four licks out, but as I said, I'm jamming here, so I usually play at least six to eight of them. Once you have the solution for the jamming pattern, you can make up your own licks on it. Finally, at fifty-nine, the closing section begins and I wind the piece down. I said I didn't base the arrangement around the vocal melody, and that's true, but the last vocal line really does fit perfectly on the ax and makes a gorgeous conclusion, so there it is.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Guitar Competitions 2: Should Non-Competitors Practice Like Competitors?

I said in the previous post on this subject that the short answer is, "no." Well, there is slightly more to it than that, which I'll get to in a bit.


I've been interested in classical guitar since shortly after I began playing seriously as a teen - my discovery of the classic Christopher Parkening recordings was responsible for this - so in addition to the jazz and rock teachers I had, I also spent some time with local classical teachers. The problem was, what the classical guys told me to do made me hate the guitar, and worse yet, hate myself. In contrast to that, studying with the jazz and rock dudes was a blast. So, not surprisingly, I ended up going the steel string jazz and rock route, and I just amused myself with classical guitar on the side. While I'm grateful now that it worked out that way - no way I'd be the musician I am today, much less any kind of a composer, if I hadn't gone to Berklee - I finally realized that I'm just a solo classical kind of guy.

The tipping point came when I moved from rock and jazz writing to traditional composition. Once I started writing for solo classical guitar, my band days were soon behind me. Again though, during my master's and doctoral studies, what the traditional guitar teachers told me to do... well, it all pissed me off: Scales with i/m alternation, Giuliani studies, Sor studies, and Carcassi studies; I hate that garbage. All of it.

Coming up with better studies than those guys did - well, studies that were actual music and fun to play, versus the mind-numbing and spirit-crushing exercises they wrote - was easy for me, so I blew all that noise off in a heartbeat: If I won't perform it, I don't practice it. The sticking point was the scales with i/m alternation; supposedly the "foundation" of all good classical guitar technique. For me - and later I would discover those like me - practicing scales with i/m alternation was the foundation of nothing except for inspiration-erasing frustration.

Why? Because I could never make any progress by practicing them. I have no problem doing technical work on the guitar, so long as I can see results: Results are inspiring. I got no results whatsoever by practicing scales using i/m alternation. This was... disconcerting, to say the least.

Back at Berklee, I used to play scales with alternating plectrum technique for hours every day, and I got really fast. Not quite Al DiMeola fast - which was my goal - but way faster than I was ever able to achieve with i/m alternation, and fast enough to wipe out most other guys.

Why couldn't I do the same thing with i/m alternation? Genetics: I do not have the right kind of neuromuscular system to do i/m alternation quickly - which requires a high ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fiber - while getting the wrist involved with a plectrum evens things out considerably (But not completely, as an Al Dimeola versus John McLaughlin comparison reveals). Once I discovered this during one of my epic internet research excursions, it was if a huge burden had been lifted from me: It is no moral failure if you lack the physical potential to do i/m alternation quickly, it is simply the result of your lack of luck in the genetic draw. If you happen to have ancestry from the British Isles, there is a virtual zero percent chance that you have the proper genetics to do i/m like Pepe Romero or Paco DeLucia. If you are Italian, Spanish, or from the Balkans, there is no guarantee, but at least you have a chance. I explained briefly why this is in the previous post: The environmental pressures associated with very harsh climate upheavals in the northern latitudes removed the high basal metabolism/high fast twitch ratio/greater upper body strength genes from the pool. My ancestors who survived were clever in a resourceful kind of way, and could make do with far fewer calories. I only eat once or twice a day, for example, and I'm not exactly skinny.


So, if you discover that you are in the same genetic boat that I am and competing at the highest levels is not really possible, what do you do? Adapt or die. Most quit because of discouragement, which is a shame, because they might have had other musical talents. As for me, I can not not create music. Believe me, I've tried: It doesn't work. I dream of compositions. There is music playing in my head 24/7/365 and 366 in leap years. So, I concentrate on that: Accentuate your positives and reduce your negatives as much as possible. That really is the most you can ask of yourself.

Now, some people with a certain kind of temperament find the zen or tao of practicing scales with i/m alternation rewarding, even if they lack the genetics to do it efficiently, which is why I say you can't categorically say, "no" to the post title question. If you are not in that tiny minority, however, practicing scales with i/m alternation is a complete waste of time that amounts to nothing more than self-flagellation.

Here's a capture of the first part of my practice routine:

Each suite is 120 minutes of practice time, with the extra tap tech practice and isolated licks comprising a final thirty minutes. What's missing? No wretched blasted scales! I tell you in all truth, working out on my Bowflex does more for my playing than practicing scales does, so I don't waste my time on them.

A couple of times a year I'll break out the scales, but only for a few weeks, and then I use... p/i alternation. I can play almost as fast as I can with a plectrum using p/i - which is like plectrum tech but without the pick - so that's what I do. Yes, yes, a rest stroke with i/m sounds nice while p/i is relatively raspy, but seriously, WTF? Who the hell cares? If p/i is what you have to do to achieve any decent velocity, well then, do what you have to do.

The only other technical practice I do is slow play with a metronome, which is, like, a quintillion times better for your technique than playing scales.

There is no more over-rated practice suggestion among the competition-based teaching community than scales. For many of us, they are as close to a complete and utter waste of time as any time spent with a guitar can be.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Guitar Competitions 1: To Compete or Not to Compete?

That is the question.

While it is possible to answer that question in the negative from a purely philosophical position, it is not possible to respond positively to it in that way. IOW, if you have philosophical objections to competing, it is a simple matter to say, "I choose not to participate," but is is not possible to say, "I chose to participate" without measuring up to some very particular physical criteria that are out of your control, because they are genetically defined.

To begin with the obvious and overwhelming anecdotal evidence, who are the men you think of when you hear the word "virtuoso," especially when you filter that question through the prism of velocity? Niccolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, Pepe Romero, Kazuhito Yamashita, Andre Watts and Paco DeLucia spring immediately to my mind in the classical-related genera. Then, Al DiMeola, and Steve Vai are the first two names when I think of for contemporary steel string guys. Who is the only female to measure up to that level? Galina Vale.

What do they have in common? South European or Eastern European ancestry in most cases, and Asian and African ancestry in the cases of Yamashita and Watts. Galina Vale is Eastern European and is physically larger and stronger than most male classical guitarists (I love her!).

To put a point on it, who do you think of when you think of great players who don't quite measure up in the velocity department? John Williams, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, John McLaughlin... I could go on.

What do they have in common? Ancestry from the British Isles.

My last name is Pepper, which is about as British as you can get (Ever wonder where the idea for, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came from?).

So, here's the deal: If your ancestry is anything other than British/Scots-Irish, then there is a chance that you have the proper genes to be effective in guitar competitions. Northern Europe/Scandinavia is nearly as, "bad," but if you are from the British Isles, you can pretty much forget it. France is kind of an iffy proposition, but the Eastern Europeans, Italians, and Spaniards have it made.

Why is this? Well, the same genetics that make it possible to do things like i/m alternation very fast also give you a faster basal metabolism, and that faster basal metabolism was a hindrance to survival in the harsh climate of the ancient British Isles, so those genes disappeared from those populations.

Being a natural philosopher versus an academic exempts me from having to link to all of the studies I've read on this subject, but if you do some Google searches, you'll discover what I have: As you get closer to the equator, genetic diversity in human populations increases. Northern human populations faced so many environmental challenges, that, well, only the fittest survived, and those who were fit had low basal metabolisms, and relatively lower upper body strength.

Here's another way to look at it. When was the last time a British Islander held the world record for the 100 meter dash? It was before the modern age of integration in athletics: As soon as Africans were allowed to compete, it was all over; African human populations have the highest levels of genetic diversity on the planet. That's just the way that it is.

Now, there are some British-ancestry guys doing well in competitions, but I've heard them, and they absolutely do not have the capacity for strong bravura playing that, say, the dudes from Central America do. The fact that there are a few is simply because there are so many attracted to the pursuit (And who are in an economic position to be afforded the luxury).

Next post we'll look at whether people who don't compete - or can't effectively - should bother practicing like competitors do (Short answer is no).


I've been thinking about this because the GFA is just up the road in Austin this year, and I had been planning to go. Then I looked at the concert schedule.

After thinking about it for, oh, about a nanosecond, I thought, "I don't want to drive 140 miles round trip every day to see that crap."... and I'm a guitarist. The classical guitar world has a huge problem. They can't generate any enthusiasm for their concerts, because it's the same old boring performers playing the same old boring music on the same old boring acoustic guitars. There is nothing on that concert list that excites me in the least. I believe the whole competition mentality is largely to blame: You end up with cookie cutter performers who all sound the same. No diversity whatsoever from my perspective.

That's it! I should find a nice Asian girl!