Tag Archives: guitar

Sharpening the Axe

19 Mar

In Stephen Covey’s list of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he talks about “sharpening the saw” – which is his euphemism for actively learning.  He recommends continually putting yourself through education, training, reading books, listening to tapes, etc.  And while one most certainly could say that he included this one just to make sure his devotees had continued motivation to buy his stuff, nonetheless, I strongly believe that continual learning one of the keys to lifelong happiness as well as continued mental health and sharpness.

Which brings me to my topic – “Sharpening the Axe” – of late, I started taking guitar lessons again as part of my rededicated devotion and focus on playing my guitar (hence the “axe” reference) and music in 2014 that I shared in my post around the New Year.  Since the start of the year, musically anyway, I have …

– Rebuilt and reorganized my home-grown guitar songbook into something far more organized and scaleable.  I also printed 15 copies of it, with one designated as a gift for my pal Professor Troutstream, who is also getting his strum on again.

– Created a much more musically-inclined space for myself in our newly-remodeled basement, with all my guitar gear there, space to sit and play both by myself and with others, and also playing along with music on the surround sound stereo system down there.

– Bought one of my “dream guitars” – a candy-apple red Fender Stratocaster.  Now I’d love to say it’s an American Custom Shop Stratocaster that cost $2500 or more – nope, a Standard, built in Mexico. (For those that care about this stuff, maple neck, 50’s style headstock, three single coil standard pickups with a hot bridge pickup.) And red stratocasters have been played by my guitar idol/icons for ages – guys like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Looks perfect and plays like an absolute dream.  Best value in guitars around – great action, sound, sustain, etc.  Not sure why I waited so long to get this.  But I love it.  Here’s Pete with his:

pete_red_stratocaster

And me with mine as I was unpacking it from the shipment box:

stew_strat

 

– And, in the last four weeks, I started back up with guitar lessons.

Over my lifetime, I’ve probably had 40 or so guitar lessons – I took guitar classes back in Jr. High from Mr. Elliott at Central  JH in Newton, IA – I think that was 7th and 8th grade.  Mr. Elliott taught me the basics but he also taught me to love the instrument and for that, I’m lifelong grateful to him.  After that, I took a handful of lessons here and there from various local folks, both officially and unofficially, and also my bandmates taught me stuff while I put down the rhythm with my bass guitar – amazing what you can learn just by watching.

About 15 years ago, when I picked guitar back up, I immediately started with lessons and quickly found that even though I was coming off a nearly 20-year hiatus from playing, that I was close to a better teacher than the teacher.  I gave that up, dabbled around in guitar books and such and online bits and pieces, then went through two more guitar teachers trying to find the right match.  One guy is a really accomplished Jazz teacher and well, he teaches Jazz guitar, which isn’t what I wanted, and another guy just really didn’t feel like much of a match.  A bigger issue is that I was struggling with articulating what I really wanted from this.

Finally, after thinking about it a lot, I figured it out – the handful of things I really wanted to learn were:

– finger style right hand picking on an acoustic guitar
– jazz and blues form rhythm guitar chord work and additional voicings and forms for chord work

But most important:

– how to solo as a blues and rock guitarist.

THAT, my friends is my holy grail.  I knew the basics – I had learned improvisation as a bass player back in high school at the hand of Mr. Omanson at Newton High Sschool.  It’s all just scales.  I even more or less knew several of the scales – minor and major pentatonics, minor and major straight scales, mixolydian scales, etc.  But I didn’t know how they translated to actually making a guitar solo sound good and sound coherent. Little things like root notes, bends, riffs, transitions from one pattern to the next, pattern extensions, etc.

I found a teacher near me by searching online, and read his website. Accomplished Blues and Rock player.  Good.  You Tube videos of his playing, great! Flexible schedules? Now we’re getting somewhere!  “I’ll teach you what you want to learn”.  Winner winner chicken dinner, ladies and gents!  I sent him an email describing my situation and he emailed right back – he thinks he could help – and the first lesson is free as he wanted to see if we had a match.

Well, happy to report we have a match. I learned more in that first 45 minute free session than I learned from all the guitar teachers I had since picking this back up.  I just had my third lesson last night and already he had me playing a solo over him playing along to a blues “jam track”.  DAMN!  Now this is progress!  I feel so energized by the learning, I’m having such a blast playing.  I play at least an hour a day as much as I can, and for the first time, I can hear the music in these scales. Blues songs are running on my mental iPod on a continuous 24 hour loop.

You know you’re primed for the learning experience when you can’t learn it fast enough.  That’s me right now.

Coming back to the central point and theme of the post here though – you’re never too old to pick up something and learn it.  Whether you’re just starting as a rank beginner, or you’re doing as I’m doing and going from a medium level to a more advanced level of knowledge or skill, there is no substitute for learning and for getting the learning from a competent educator or other source.  Your mind expands with every bit you learn.

Think about it.  What do you want to learn? Go learn it.

As you were,

Stew

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Meet the New Year … same as the old year!

2 Jan

Ah, the ritual greeting of the New Year.  The calendar turns. You have to get used to writing a new date on checks (although who the hell writes many checks anymore what with e-banking).  Celebrations are had – champagne popped, fireworks shot off, Auld Lang Syne is sung, etc.  New laws are announced.  And people make New Year’s Resolutions.  That are promptly forgotten. 

I put on my Facebook wall yesterday that I’m not much for New Year’s Resolutions.  My feeling is if you’re going to commit to something, commit to it.  Why do you need a big milestone to do so?  That said, I made a rough list of things I want to do more and less of … that’s here:

– more guitar playing and singing. Perhaps some lessons too!
– more time spent on reading, less time on social media (yes, I said that.)
– more investment in learning to cook more inventively and more healthy cooking
– more eating healthy meals, less crap. Dabble in vegetarian/vegan meals.
– more talking and joking about bacon. Per above, less eating it.
– more exercise, less sloth. 
– more time spent with friends I don’t see often
– more time spent with family I don’t see often
– less worrying, more positive planning, less stress, more action
– NO big DIY home improvement projects (three were enough for 2014 – sheesh!) instead, finish all the little details on things that I’ve been wanting to finish.

And as I hopped on the train this morning, I thought to myself … and more writing in my blog.

As you know, my muse has been sparse to visit me this past year. I think after the challenges of 2012 I had with health and all, and then my focus in spring of 2013 of making a career change – something that found me but nonetheless took a ton of energy and more than 5 months to close the deal, I was sort of out of topics.  I hope that changes this year.  I’m going to make much more use of the features of WordPress to be able to post interesting content – photos, quotations, reposting of other blogs and more.  I’ll post more about food and cooking, and of course will use my observational capabilities to your enjoyment.  There’s quite a few folks on my train still to introduce you to, plus I’m commuting by bus from the train station to the office right now and that’s a bit of it’s own trip.  So, more “railroaded” posts to come.  I’ll also be traveling a ton for biz, so that’s a good ripe topic to mine as well.

A quick bit of observation for you this morning – it started snowing in Chicago the day before yesterday and it hasn’t let up yet.   That’s 36 hours of straight snowfall, and it might go all the way to 48 hours what with this lake effect thing that has kicked in and is just POURING snow from the sky.  That observation on its own isn’t remarkable.  We live in Chicago. Snow is what happens here in the winter and the lake effect is part of it.

But what is remarkable, always, is how Chicago just sucks it up and deals with it. Living in Iowa growing up, it snowed there too of course – and pretty much the streets were covered with packed ice and snow from mid-December through mid-February.  Highways would often be “tracked” versus clear, and well, that’s how it was.  They weren’t very effective in making it go away.  Here in Chicago on the other hand, fates of Mayoral careers (hello, Michael Bilandic, it’s Jane Byrne calling!) have hung in the balance.  It snows here, and by G-d the city just keeps on going.  Plows are rolling by constantly and a dried ocean of salt is poured on the streets to keep them from icing up.  Usually, within 4-6 hours of the end of a snow storm, the streets are completely clear of snow and ice from curb to curb.  The expressways generally only get wet and slushy during a snow – only when it’s really cold and therefore, the salt isn’t working well, do they get badly snow packed.  It takes an immense blizzard to stop this city.

And it just gets more beautiful with a layer of snow.  I can’t wait to be downtown today and look out at the city from my office windows.

So … Happy New Year, my dear readers.  Have a great day.  Here in Chicago, we’re having a snow day, but it’s not a Snow Day. 

You say you want a resolution …

1 Jan

So, New Year’s resolutions are something that we all know are just promises that we attempt to make to ourselves but ultimately wind up being lies. I’m sure there’s a real stat out there, but I’d put it at 90% or more that those that make resolutions don’t follow through on them more than a few weeks.

I was no different – every year I’d say “this is the year I lose 30 lbs.”, “this is the year I get more fit”, “this is the year I’ll start running again”, etc. We all know how all that went. Then in 2012, well, life intervened. My heart made the choice for me – I HAVE to make the physical changes and reduce my cardiac risks or .. well, let’s not talk alternatives as they are not pleasant. My career is in good order and progressing, financially, I could always be doing better, but we’re doing OK and that’s plenty good. So, what’s to “resolve”? (And don’t get me started on the word “resolve” … as it has so many possible meanings.

Clearly, I’m committed to exercise and eating better. The results are starting to become present, and well, that’s motivation enough to stay on the effort. That and the whole “dirt nap” thing. So that’s no “New Years resolution”. I am always, ALWAYS focused on trying to have fun, trying to do more with my family, keeping my priorities straight, etc. That motivation comes from far more than just one thing – although I will quote a plaque that my Grandma Mildred had hanging in her kitchen: “Don’t hurry, don’t worry, and don’t forget to smell the flowers.” Good words on those little plaques in Grandma’s kitchen.

And clearly, I don’t take myself too seriously. Anyone who buys a decommissioned ambulance and drives it around just for laughs, well, enough said.

So, what to do? Instead of resolutions about behavior, let’s make a list of accomplishments:

Here’s a simple list of things I want to accomplish in 2013. All of these are designed to make me happier. Not that I’m unhappy – quite the contrary – but we could all use a bit more happiness, right?

  • Learn to play “finger style” on my guitar. I was taught this in 8th grade, but that one-hour lesson didn’t seem to catch. I’ll spend more time and learn this.
  • Learn to play blues lead guitar solos on my guitar. I’ve just never spent enough time learning scale patterns and notes on the acoustic guitar fretboard. Time to get on that and learn it once and for all.
  • Finish replacing the woodwork in my house – right now half my house has 3″ stained baseboards and the rest has 5″white ones. Just gotta make the time. But once it’s done I’ll be very pleased with myself.
  • Brew more beer. Simple. And this one starts this weekend, I think. Let’s set the goal at 4 batches in 2013. I only brewed two in 2012 and those were two weeks apart. Weak.
  • Spend more time with people that make me happy. Trust me, this one is critical. Hard to put an accomplishment metric on it, but I’ll know when I’ve done it by the lower readings on “BS Meter” and the higher readings on my “Happy Meter”.
  • Go back to reading my paper magazines. I’m subscribed to about six magazines and I spend too much time with my iPad and don’t read them. Time to get back to something I enjoy.
  • Learn to cook at least six good Vegan/Vegetarian dishes. I cannot see myself ever becoming a vegan or vegetarian, but certainly eating more plant-based meals will add some range to my eating and I’ll enjoy the cooking challenge.
  • Ironically, in the opposite vein, read more books, a habit enabled by my iPad and the Kindle app. Easy enough to read on the train and eBooks don’t weigh anything.
  • Plant some trees in my yard. This is going to get very important later this spring – we have an Ash tree that’s owned by the city in our front yard. Buffalo Grove is killing every ash tree in town to combat Emerald Ash Borer. So … plant a few of my own. And not ashes.

I think that’s enough to lay out there. I’m sure other goals will come up. And of course, I have my professional goals that my company tracks.

So that’s the game. Keep exercising and eating better, take my meds, reduce my cardiac risk. Then focus on the things above that will help me be a happier guy.

Have a great 2013, y’all.

As you were,

Stew

Pickin’ and Grinnin’ – Guitar Work

15 May

Shortly after I hit “Publish” on my last post, I realized I missed a key topic for our Sweet Home Alabama trip – playing guitar and singing with Chris “Coach”. Coach is a very talented self-taught guitarist and vocalist – he plays in a few iterations of various kinds – solo, with another guitarist, and then as guitarist for a local band in the Rainsville/Scottboro, AL area called The Big Band which plays at places like Margarita’s, Geno’s Live, etc. Chris and I found an instant chemistry when we went met for the first time in Cancun last year – and it was primarily over music. We got to talking and of course, since both of us play and sing, this was one of the first introductory topics that we covered. Later in that first afternoon, we were all sitting around the pool singing boozy renditions of old tunes we all know (the most memorable being “Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Doctor Hook) and a friendship was cemented.

Once we set our schedule to go to Alabama for our vacation the first week in May, we were already planning how we’d play together – I’d bring a guitar or two down with me, there was the possibility of me sitting in on one of his gigs, or we’d just sit and strum together and entertain our friends. The one thing we didn’t count on was me getting a nasty cold and upper respiratory infection and completely losing my voice – had not only no range other than a cracking croak (sounding somewhat like a frog going through puberty), but also didn’t have any breath capacity behind it. For a guy who loves to play and sing, this was torture, as it was one of the biggest things I was looking forward to on this trip – both playing and singing with Coach and also singing Karaoke at Brian’s karaoke night our first night in Rainsville.

Nonetheless, we made a go of it anyway – the Saturday night we were there, we got a big fire roaring in the firepit (after having obtained some properly dry wood), and then hauled out the guitars for a good strum – we played at least two hours outside, then the party moved indoors and Chris and I stayed up for another full hour playing some more. While I couldn’t sing much above a bare whisper, the hands were working fine, and I really enjoyed the play time.

The point of this post really isn’t to talk about that, but to talk about the joy of making music with others. Every person who has musical ability and either plays an instrument or sings knows what I mean – it is entirely one thing to sing and play solo, and that does have enormous enjoyment, but to make music with others – whether informally getting together and playing, or formally in some sort of organized group, band, choir, etc., is where there truly is a wonderful thing that happens. I liken music to team sports a bit. As a baseball player, you can go to the cages and hit against the machines all you want, but there is no better thrill than cranking a fastball off an imposing pitcher, dropping the bat and running hard for first base. So goes music.

My love of playing music, I’m sure (and my mom can probably fill in details more than me) dates long before I actually picked up a guitar or trombone. That said, my actual music education began, like it does for most, in 6th grade when I started playing trombone – then you move into 7th grade band and suddenly, you understand why, what you’re doing works. Even though that 7th grade band is awful and out of key, suddenly you hear how those notes you’ve been playing fit with all the other notes the others play and the result becomes music. In 7th grade, my guitar obsession truly began – although I had been dabbling with it for about a year at that point, with my sister receiving an acoustic guitar as a gift about then. I decided to learn bass guitar when I found out that the music for bass guitar generally mirrors that for trombone – learn the bass clef, learn how a tune goes and all you’re doing is moving your hands in a different way, versus blowing through a horn. That made learning bass very easy for me. I also truly learned guitar at that point by taking lessons through the school (Mr. Chas Elliot, thank you!), and then also from taking a handful of random lessons from some local guitarists (see my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame post for more on that). About spring of 7th grade, I was approached by another guy a year older than me who asked if I’d be interested in playing bass in the band that he and three other guys were starting up – I did, and the rest is history. Even though our repertoire was limited to just a few songs, man, we were making music! The first songs we could play were just Smoke on the Water (are there any young bands that don’t start with that? Ironically, now that I’m older, I’ve found that that song is actually quite complex, versus rudimentary.) and a variation on a I-IV-V fast blues riff that we somehow morphed into Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry. Nonetheless, I still remember that first practice in a garage and how amazingly fun it was to make some rock and roll.

Through school, I also started playing bass guitar in Jazz band – and was in the “A” Jazz band throughout high school – we had a scorching rhythm section, anchored by my pal and drummer for my rock band, Jay (the Eyeguy) – still to this day, our Jazz shows when we were on the contest tour senior year are some of my best memories.  The joy of performance never, ever gets old.

Fast forward to being an adult – I picked up guitar again about 12 years ago, mostly out of a desire to have a hobby again that was less frustrating and far less expensive than golf. I found that years of music love had actually honed my abilities a bit, and after some refresher lessons – after a few lessons with a guy that specialized in beginning guitar players, I discovered that I was a better player than my teacher – I was off and playing again. Instead of being focused on bass guitar though, I bought an electric guitar and an amp. Shortly after, Robin, after figuring out that this wasn’t a passing fancy, bought me my pride and joy guitar – an Ovation round-back six string guitar. (I’m playing it in the shot above). These are unique because instead of a big wooden box, the back of the Ovation is a parabolic shaped plastic bowl with a spruce top affixed. They are generally all acoustic-electric guitars with built-in pickups, tuners etc. When they were introduced in the 1970s, they were considered very forward-looking guitar technology. Back when I was in high school, I badly wanted an Ovation acoustic guitar, and in fact, had saved enough to buy one – but, for whatever reason – popular idea, wanting to follow along with my friend Phil, etc., I spent the $300 or so I had squirrelled away on a bicycle – and well, I did ride that thing all over the state of Iowa and get in much better physical shape. But … I didn’t get the guitar of my dreams. Shortly before my birthday that year, Robin and I went to a Melissa Etheridge show at Chicago’s House of Blues and somehow found our way very close to the front. Melissa was playing a gorgeous Ovation with a round center sound hole (some ovations have small sound holes near the upper arch of the guitar) and a sunburst finish. I pointed it out to her and said “see that guitar? That’s the guitar I’ve always wanted.” Well, my birthday was a few weeks later, and by G-d, my lovely wife had done it – she had gone to Sam Ash Music, had picked out an Ovation (albeit from their “amateur” series versus the nearly-$5,000 pro series) that looked, and more importantly SOUNDED exactly like Ms. Etheridge’s guitar. I was in heaven.  I’ve since added the matching 12-string guitar to my collection as well.

Well, my interest from there took off – I started putting together large songbooks of the music I wanted to play, with lyrics and chords, I started “eating up” as much music as I could, and played for my friends who were a wonderful, if a bit boozy, audience to my sing-alongs. But, the missing link was playing along with others. On the great fun side, I inspired a dear friend, GASHM’s wife “1.1” to take up guitar on her own – and we had a lot of fun for awhile there. That said, her desired style of play is a lot different than mine – she was learning the instrument much as one would learn a piano – and well, I’m a strummer and singer (and a picker and a grinner and a lover and a sinner … ) – so we sort of stopped playing together. After suffering through a lot of neck and shoulder issues, she hasn’t played in quite a while. There are others that I play along with, however – “Zohan” – who is quite a good “strummer/singer” guitarist in my own vein, with a predilection to Creedence Clearwater Revival music – he and I play together ever few months, and we have a lot of fun doing it. He and I need to get a bit more focused on this –we could actually put together a set and perform if we both put our minds to it. Same with my friend Steve, who plays at a similar level as me, and has very similar musical interests. My brothers –in-law, Jon and Micah, are both solid players in their own right – with Micah just having picked it up in the last few years. Micah and I manage to get together for a strum fairly often and each time it offers a great brain break and mental stretching.

Interestingly, though where I’ve gotten the most “play along” satisfaction is when I get the treat of sitting in with someone who is clearly better than me – and there are a few of those folks in my life. First, my next door neighbor and spiritual “rudder”, RavMarc – who is a very accomplished folk singer and guitarist – his music tastes are more folk than my acoustic rock tastes, although we do find ways to collaborate. And then there’s two guys who are both better than me, and have perfectly matching tastes – my old work pal Rick, and now, Coach. Unfortunately, both live out of town. Rick and I were colleagues at another company for about 8 years and we discovered our mutual “playalong” compatibility when he was visiting me for a business trip. After that, we both schlepped our guitars to the Dominican Republic for a company fun trip and entertained not only our work colleagues, but pretty big crowds of folks at the resort as well. And, he invited me to sit in once at his standing gig at a bar in New York City, which was completely enjoyable for me. Probably less so for the folks in the audience. I hope we get to repeat our session sometime again. And now, most recently, Coach – Coach clearly knows his stuff both as a guitarist and as a singer and we discovered that our music styles are completely compatible. It was great to be able to play along with him, providing depth and texture with my rhythm guitar work while he was able to rip away at solos and also focus on his vocals. Hopefully in Alabama, that was first of more than few times where we can jam along together. I’m hoping we can both bring our “cheap beater” guitars to Mexico with us later this summer and repeat the jam up by the pool.

So, where does this arc lead us? Well, again, like sports, music is best made, at least in my view, in a team setting. You compliment each other’s strengths, compensate for each other’s weakness and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. There’s no more fun, at least for this amateur musician, than to be part of a bigger sound, making music that others enjoy and sing along to. And, like sports, you find that one of the best ways to raise your game is to play with others that are of higher skill than you – it forces you to raise your stakes and learn more to be able to play along.

As you were,

Stew

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