So who is this guy, anyway?
A fair question.
Here, fascinating though life in general can be, I’ll stick to the musical bits, while allowing for a random item or two that might prove useful. Anyone interested in a professional history and presence can visit here, and my personal “blogsite” is here, with things like family stories and such.
I associate some of my best early childhood memories with my mother playing the piano. I was often playing elsewhere in the house, but even through doors the sound carried, and provided a memorable backdrop to much of the Lego-ing of my youth! On into the school years, it was normal to arrive back at home to the sounds of Mom either playing for herself, or giving lessons. All in all, it was a very comforting association–one that I can still recall forty years later, vividly.
I ascribe my love of minor keys and dramatic arrangements to Mom. She insists, years later, that I have carried it farther than she can take any real credit for, and maybe she’s right about that, but she still laid the fundamentals out for me to grab onto, and I’m sticking to that story! Mom also is the one I remember and associate with musical things in general; it was because of her that the family got to experience symphonic performances, musicals, ballet, chorale, etc.
And I must credit her in the most absolute sense for not pushing me, in any way, to learn piano, or even music in general. It is almost certainly true that I could have got a much earlier start with competency, music reading, etc., if I’d studied under her, or under someone else. It’s tempting, after all, if Mom is a teacher, to feel as if one should have availed himself of the opportunity. But here’s the thing. I know how important music is to me now, and I understand that all that came before has directly led me to this place–and I cannot imagine being happier about where I’m at now. Would I have pushed back or resisted an early attempt to get me involved? Who knows? But she didn’t, and so I got to develop the playing interest entirely on my own. And, although it started “late” in life, it’s taken off…juust a bit. 🙂 So, in hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing!
During those early years, as well, I recall a few other musical memories: 8-track tapes in the car, Sesame Street musical shorts, John Denver and the Muppets, Gordon Lightfoot. In general, there was a lot of music around, but my interest in it hadn’t yet taken the palpable turn toward active listening that would happen during the ’80s.
There was a change in the way I listened to music that started some time in the very late ’70s. I started making name associations regularly, began to notice little stylistic characteristics that stuck out at me, and in general started truly paying attention to things that “hit me in the hindbrain”. I started becoming partial to certain radio stations over others, and even developed a few favorites. As a competitive swimmer, music became an increasingly personal part of preparation and relaxation.
It started to steamroll. Through middle school, I became aware that the things I was listening to were often very different than what was popular at the time, and I can recall specifically being picked on for listening to Genesis and Alan Parsons, when Van Halen and Def Leppard, and above all the New Wave, were what was ‘in’. It obviously didn’t matter enough to me to change what I listened to, as I kept going, acquiring and cataloguing more and more music and paying more and more attention to it. With the things that really resonated with me, I even started to apply my own sort of personal analysis, and finally, the preferences became strong enough that I started orchestrating playlists, and making what are now called “mixtapes”. But whereas the usual connotation of the mixtape is that it is intended for delivery to unrequited love interests, mine were just for me. This was a personal quest, not a social one.
The path of my listening development through high school can be tracked pretty linearly. I had first heard Genesis when the eponymous ’83 album came out, and in general liked it (we bought the record); what foreshadowed things to come was that by far my favorite piece from the album was the “Home By The Sea” sequence; it reached inside me in a way nothing else did. In a very similar way, I also noticed the Alan Parsons Project only shortly thereafter; we had bought the ’83 record Ammonia Avenue, and it was the instrumental “Pipeline” that stuck out as something…to pursue.
Reading up a bit–at that time, such research had to be done at the record store, or with the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock at the library…such quaint notions now, looking back from the Age of the Internet!–I gleaned bits of band histories, and decided deliberately to pursue these two discographies in their entirety, the only questions being the logistics of what order to proceed in. This fed the burgeoning monster, and only made it more voracious; the more my horizons expanded, the more it became obvious that this kind of music, for me at least, was “more interesting” to listen to, especially going backwards into the 1970s, than what was saturating the radio airwaves at the time. I started to get very picky in my radio consumption, and increasingly simply listened to the recordings I’d bought personally.
Things developed fast. Learning that Alan Parsons had been the engineer on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon record, which everyone seemed to know about, I started in on Floyd too, and quickly became a huge fan. Going backward with Genesis was amazing to me, especially the period between 1972’s Foxtrot and the end of the Steve Hackett era as captured on the 1977 Seconds Out double live release. (The thunderous double-drummer setup for Seconds Out simply captivated me–and I didn’t even realize, at the time, the significance of Chester Thompson’s being a former Zappa drummer.) Hungering for more and wanting to expand the palette a bit, I started to notice that people who liked this sort of thing also talked about Rush, and Yes, and decided to try those. Ping! Rush was simply an immediate interest; Yes was like a revelation, with Chris Squire’s totally in-your-face basslines and Bill Bruford’s amazingly inventive drumming style that I latched onto so immediately. Even now, I am still floored to go back and listen to how titanic a record Close to the Edge was.
In general, for what I was looking for, this music had it all. Complex arrangements and song suites to hold the interest. Long, album-side pieces to pique the interest. Virtuosic playing to define the styles and shape the heroes. And enough personnel changes, history, and “associated acts” to keep expanding the universe.
Toward the end of high school, I made the decision to switch over entirely to the CD format, converting everything I had at the time, and giving up radio entirely. What need had I for that? I was in hog-heaven as it was.
So then in late ’88 I went off to Stanford, and along with the help of a buddy there, my musical world simply detonated. Pretty much every extra dollar I earned went into new music, and with a few key suggestions from Brent, it seemed like I discovered…well, nearly everything. Above all there was King Crimson, and both the musical and written genius of Robert Fripp; and there was Coltrane, so completely worth the effort required to penetrate through the obtuse into the sublime.
But there was so much else as well. There was the startling realization of what players like Michael Hedges were capable of doing live. There was the tour through jazz fusion, from the transitional recordings of Miles Davis, on through the ’70s to Brand X and the Jaco Pastorius edition of Weather Report and the rise of Pat Metheny in the ’80s. There were jazz guitar gods such as McLaughlin and Holdsworth, Wes Montgomery, Di Meola and De Lucía. There were straight jazzers like Monk and Mingus, Bird and Ornette, and there were the odd meters of Dave Brubeck. There was India, Shakti, and the two Shankars. There was Dvořák to go with the Russian composers. In the rock canon, there was Zeppelin, Supertramp, Police, Queen, Marillion, SRV and Hendrix, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, the Allman Brothers, Dire Straits…and many others too numerous to mention.
The pattern continued after college, and took the next significant turn with the arrival in my life of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in ’94. Whole new genres opened up with that: bluegrass, newgrass, and several related acoustic musics like gypsy, klezmer, and Celtic. I devoured them voraciously (a wonder I didn’t go broke!), and they fit surprisingly well alongside the long-standing canon favorites.
I had carried things just about as far as I could possibly carry them, without actually trying to be a player as well as a listener. Which, as it turned out, proved quite handy in light of what happened next…
A lot of things changed when what I now call “Previous Life” came to a close. I visited Alaska for the first time. I met my wife. And somewhere in there, the thought occurred to me–a thought that, inexplicably, had simply never occurred to me before–that I could actually try to make music, rather than just listening to it.
Up until that time, I think I simply viewed what Robert Fripp calls “the act of music” as something that was too important to try and participate in myself. Somehow it seemed almost hubristic, arrogant. After all, people train their whole lives to do that, right? It didn’t help that of course here I was, enraptured by a portion of the musical spectrum that can only be called “complex” with a fair amount of understatement.
But there it was, and once the thought was there, it nagged insistently. Conditions were good. Absent the assumptions and constraints of Previous Life, there really was no good reason not to give it a try. And having read, by this time, a great deal of Fripp’s writings and commentary about a number of things, I certainly had the idea of Guitar Craft on the brain already.
By myself, I didn’t really know where to begin, or how to proceed. At the time I was on the road for business a lot, and the logistics of lessons seemed a bit daunting. And then there was this: how likely would it be that I could find instructors, locally, that would gear things toward my tastes? (In hindsight, actually, this may have been far less a problem than I was presuming. The things you learn!) Then a couple of things happened in quick succession. First, I was at least a bit surprised to find that there was a Guitar Craft circle operating in Colorado. How about that! Then, just a couple weeks later, I went to a California Guitar Trio show, and discovered that Guitar Circle Colorado (GCCO) was running the merchandise booth…
So, tentatively–I was very unsure of myself–I got contact info and a schedule of meetings. I went to the next circle meeting with an instrument, but figured I’d just observe, rather than waste people’s time, and perhaps see what might be possible after that.
And I got my first real lesson in what sort of people Guitar Craft attracts. Not only did they go out of their way to make me feel at home, but they insisted that I participate; not just with some of the mechanics and exercises, but even with the ensemble improvisation practice called “circulation”, wherein the group creates a melody one note at a time, each player passing a note to the next player, on around the circle and through again. Dang! Not just “taking a solo”, but effectively full group improv from the first day!
You might imagine, given my reticence about putting myself out there because I felt music was somehow “too important” to begin from nothing, you might imagine just how forcefully this sort of welcoming, inclusive vibe hit me. And they invited me back!
I got hooked immediately.
One might argue that I would have developed the core fundamentals of playing with or without GCCO, simply because my own enthusiasm would have made it inevitable–and maybe there is even something to that. But I consider it to be unequivocally true that I would never have developed so fast and so well without the environment and people of GCCO. Adding significantly to that, here I was learning within the context of the weird music that I loved!
I also had another level of appreciation for Guitar Craft, as a designer, instructor, and course developer in my professional life. I have written many technical courses for software developers, and taught even more written by others; I like to think that I have an appreciation for both the art and the act of making education effective and efficient through the deliberate and intentional use of strategy, organization, curriculum design, instructional design, and excellence in teaching…and the closer I got to observing Guitar Craft’s methods, structure of development, courses, repertoire, and teaching aesthetic, the more blown away I was. For what my point of view and experience was (and is) worth, it’s hard to imagine a better way to operate–and let’s just say I am not often accused of lacking an imagination. 🙂
So, in the end, between its own excellence and my various enthusiasms, I think it’s entirely fair to say that Guitar Craft taught me how to play music, period, and much more besides. With GCCO, I quickly–very quickly, considering I started from pretty much nothing–acquired basic mechanics, musical fundamentals, and an appreciation for listening, silence, and intention. And I loved it that the repertoire was available almost immediately; there is a wide range of challenge and difficulty both across and within pieces, which seems to be on purpose. Think of it this way: there is always a place to begin, and there is always room to grow.
The personal discipline is incented perfectly; at every step of the way in a guitar circle, you are playing with others, are dependent upon others, and are responsible to others. Consequently, camaraderie develops right alongside the technical skills, as does both the willingness and ability to listen. And of course the beauty of hearing yourself playing a lovely and musical repertoire is an incentive unto itself!
Somewhere along the way in all this, I realized I had completely shed my apprehension about music being “too important” to fancy myself participating in. Actually it was beyond that; the apprehension was being actively replaced by an increasing desire to gush about and share this with others. The realization, both mentally and physically, that this is actually available to anyone, might have overwhelmed me, but for all the personal development that was occupying my attention as well! 🙂
While with GCCO, I participated in Guitar Craft courses of various types: residential, at-a-distance, in-house weekends with visiting instructors; every type revealed its own magical bits, but they were all uniformly outstanding and hugely beneficial to a developing student. GCCO circled as regularly as our disparate schedules and geographic separation would allow; we even managed a few gigs here and there, which was both manifestly humbling and motivating at the same time.
During this time, I was on the road a lot for business, and there is much to be said for using otherwise wasted time in airports and hotels for personal practice. In the beginning, I lugged the Guitar Craft signature instrument (a super-shallow Ovation) with me, but that quickly got to be a pain; I wanted something that would be unquestionable as a carry-on. For a relatively short time I carried the mandolin, which worked well both because I loved newgrass so much, and also because the fretboard theory I was learning at the time translated directly to the mandolin, which–like the Guitar Craft standard tuning–is tuned in ascending fifths. Really it worked well, but the big limitation of the mandolin was that I couldn’t honorably work on GCCO repertoire with it, and so I acquired a SoloEtte travel guitar. At the time, SoloEtte offered a composite-neck, acoustic steel-string instrument, and I had mine modified to re-bend the lower bout so that it gave me an Ovation-like cutaway for access to the highest register (which Guitar Craft repertoire uses quite a bit).
That instrument probably kept me sane, throughout my craziest road-warrioring years. It was great to be able to plug into the headphones and play, in an airport, at whatever volume I cared to play at, without bothering anyone else. And on the flip side, it was great to be able to play “acoustically”, with as light a touch as I wanted, in a quiet hotel room, with the same instrument. I did both…a lot. I learned, or at least approached, a good deal of Guitar Craft repertoire with it, and even wrote my first intentional music with it.
Practical music theory came quickly during this time, both because I had an enthusiasm for it, and because of a couple of key resources hit me at the right time. One of these was a “triads exercise” I picked up from Hideyo Moriya of the California Guitar Trio, which demonstrates the core idea behind my current approach to chord construction; and another was a written document from California Crafty Ray Peck, in which he illustrated for me the idea of the “infinite fretboard”, which for me held the key epiphany for visualizing patterns on the fingerboard. As well, it was during this time that Jethro Burns‘ ideas about using three-string chords on the mandolin really got through to me, and my repertoire study started to expand more deliberately into newgrass, looking at tunes by Sam Bush and David Grisman, and methods by Burns and Mike Marshall.
Shortly after GCCO recorded Held Together With Holes in 2007, one third of the “GCCO-North” trio moved away to Chicago, and, at least partly as a way to deal with Nathan’s absence, Dave Cialone and I started going to local microtonal ace Neil Haverstick to improve our understanding of chord theory. It was an excellent use of our time: not only did he cement a whole lot of things that I had learned on my own, but he added a great deal of new ideas, connections, and practices that I still lean on today. It’s probably at least a bit of his influence that helped me to approach the fretless guitar, and to tackle all these different tunings without fear. (And strictly speaking, I still haven’t even “gone microtonal”…yet.)
So what happened after all that? Here’s what: after seven years together, my wife and I each found out about the other that we had long harbored a desire to live in Alaska–and once we finished being flabbergasted about that (“Wait, I’ve known you how long and I didn’t know that?”), it was less than a year before we were living in the Matanuska valley and our first daughter was born.
I wouldn’t change living here for the world. But I will say this: what I miss the most about life in Colorado is, without question, Dave, Nathan, and playing with GCCO.
Watch the changes
The move to Alaska, as one might imagine, was eventful and formative, especially coinciding as it did with fatherhood and family. Suffice it to say that the non-musical details are far too many to recount here, but all the challenges and the rapid changes definitely shaped my musical life.
One enormous change was in my improvising. My first daughter, from about six months to a year old, used to love to sit and play next to me while I played the mandolin–so long as what I was doing held her interest. I couldn’t just “be a geek” and discover things at the pace of self-wankery; if I wanted to continue to play, I had to entertain this girl–and so I learned how to do that. It was interesting to see how, “suddenly” (i.e., at the pace of necessity), I started developing the ability to phrase…vary my rhythms…voice-lead more effectively…play through different scales…in general to respond, to really play to her. A lot came in a short time.
And apparently it showed. Not long after we arrived in Homer, I ran into a bass player who shared enough of my aesthetic that we were able to perform as a duo at a few open-mic events, with him on bass and me on mandolin. On one such occasion, my wife noted specifically that the piece we played that stuck out at her as the most confident-sounding, was in fact the one piece we made up completely on the spot. Definitely an observation worth noting!
Unfortunately, he moved away to Portland not long thereafter, and between the vicissitudes of moves, jobs lost and gained and operating at odd hours, and of course family life with young kids, I developed the habit of taking what musicking time I could, at the times I could. Usually, this wound up being late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, which often implied that I was exhausted and not fully lucid myself. Nonetheless, it was what I had, and I took it.
There were the occasional spurts, though, within that pattern. At one point, Cathy and Sabre went Outside so that great-granddaughter could meet great-grandparents, and I was on my own for two weeks while working; it was during that period that I built the fretless acoustic guitar and banjo from Musicmaker’s kits. Man, did I learn a lot from those projects, and I even wound up with instruments I still like to play…
Somewhere in there, I started taking on students as well, most often beginning or intermediate mandolin. I quickly grew to further appreciate my approach to chord construction, which seemed to be particularly useful, and all the different angles from which I had approached music theory. So often success hinges on being able to figure out which angle is going to work with which student!
MH’s new world of fingerstyle
Shortly after we arrived in Homer, I started to listen to Pandora internet radio as background music while working. In trying to build a suitable “work” station of instrumental music, I became re-acquainted with Michael Hedges…and quickly discovered that boy oh boy, the people he influenced had long been busy creating a whole genre of simply eye-popping stuff. The more I chased threads, the more into it I got…and at some point I realized I needed to learn fingerstyle playing.
To the conspicuous delight of aspiring students, many of these newer “violent acoustic” artists have made their name by getting viral exposure on YouTube with performance videos, meticulously shot so that you can see what their hands are doing. (Consider this clip of Andy McKee playing his breakout tune “Drifting”: at this writing, that clip has been viewed just shy of fifty five million times.) Many also sell their scores, as well; so, between a performance video and the carefully notated score, the material can be quite a bit more easily approachable than one might guess. And so I have studied scores now from Erik Mongrain, Antoine Dufour, and Andy McKee, and man, is that an eye-opening education! In some cases it’s not so much that I want to be able to play a given tune precisely as a cover (although many of the tunes are definitely worth that), as it is that I want to gain insight into what these guys are doing, so that I might tap into their idea-mills myself. This is especially true of what is called “extended technique”, which moves beyond traditional guitar mechanics and incorporates things like instrument body percussion, deliberate string noise, one- and two-handed tapping, and other things you’re not supposed to do to an instrument. There is a seemingly infinite variety of tiny, little “you clever bastard” motions that accomplish something useful. Studying this music also reveals much of the utility and possibilities of alternate tunings and partial capos.
Fingerstyle technique in general fascinated me from the beginning. Coming as I did from an origin of plectrum playing, the universe of possibles seems daunting, especially for someone who loves music in odd time signatures. As just one example, consider a random 7-note, 7/8 ostinato, played over four strings. For the plectrum guitarist, there is the choice of how to transport between the strings (alternate picking? sweep picking? accent picking?), but ultimately the pick either goes down, or up. For the fingerstyle player, the considerations explode: which of the four fingers should play which strings? Whichever finger it is, should it be a downstroke or upstroke? Does the thumb need to be reserved for bass? How much fingernail and how much flesh on each note? It can get intimidating, but somehow, for me at least, it’s like being a kid in a candy store.
As I progress, I find myself more and more applying principles, ideas, and appropriated exercises from Guitar Craft to my personal study of fingerstyle technique. What’s gratifying is that going through the permutations the way I do nearly always results in my fingers learning more independence on their own. This is very useful for being able to play solo improv, in particular: when I stumble on a really nifty phrase, it helps to not have to stop and teach the fingers what to do!
And somehow, it seems fitting that I should take an explicitly Crafty approach to a new problem. Thus far at least, it’s been conspicuously helpful, and my own experience seems to be validating the core principles all over again.
Moving beyond tunings
It is still a bit amusing somehow that for me, the EADGBE guitar tuning is and probably always will be an alternate tuning. I never learned on standard tuning like nearly everyone else; I started immediately on the Guitar Craft standard tuning, CGDAEG, and so never really could use the available universe of resources, books, tablature, etc., that was centric to standard tuning. For the most part that never really seemed like a limitation; in fact I always considered it an advantage that in order to learn my chords I had to construct them from scratch. “Teach a man to fish,” if you will: out of that came a personal method that I have now applied to a number of other tunings, with great satisfaction.
Between the re-discovery of Michael Hedges and the latest incarnation of that “violent acoustic” genre, an awareness of the use of alternate tunings among fingerstyle players in general (and of course Crafties in particular), and my cultivated comfort with theory and scale/chord construction, at some point I started experimenting with different tunings…and it just kinda steamrolled. As of this writing, I seem to have worked with somewhat over a dozen now, including three well-known general purpose tunings (standard, Guitar Craft standard, and DADGAD), a couple of open tunings, a number of composition-specific tunings, and finally a few experiments of my own. It seems I have become interested in discovering (if for no purpose other than my own) an idealized general purpose tuning that will permit me to do the greatest number of the things I want to do. (Those who know me will roll their eyes at this and say, “Well, duh, that figures…”)
It’s impossible, of course; I’m fully aware of that. But I still like the idea; it’s great fun for the mind, and some surprising things seem to come out of the experiments. At this writing, for example, what is most intriguing me is the notion of what would seem an unusual tuning for nylon-string guitar: G2-D2-A2-E3-G#3-C#4. Huh? What on earth does that have that a player would find interesting? Well:
- Strings 1-2-3 are standard tuning intervals, comprising a minor triad with root on top and minor third in bass. The standard tuning’s closely voiced chords are available here. (Note, as well, that partial capoing strings 1-2 at the first fret yields open pitches of GDAEAD; including the third string yields GDAFAD.)
- Strings 6-5-4 represent the fourth, the root, and the fifth scale degree of a key. In D, for example, the fifth string is root D, the sixth string is G a fourth up, and the fourth string is A a fifth up. This can be very convenient for bass notes if one is improvising on the top three strings, for alterations of 4th and 5th scale degrees, and for simple barres. Being pitched “4-1-5” musically, this also permits true “piano chord” options in the bass register.
- There is a three-string group in ascending fifths available, for more broadly spaced chords, and scale shapes that cover an octave in just two strings.
- For chord shapes, there are actually four strings with fifth intervals; the sixth string being pitched higher rather than lower simply changes the chord’s internal voicing.
- Harmonic nodes get interesting, both before and after considering partial capoing. This is of particular interest to me, who loves both harmonics and nasty intervals.
- As a practical matter, string gauges of this tuning are reasonably close to standard string sets; one could get away with a standard set of heavies, or more ideally take a standard set plus an additional “fifth string”, and wind up with slightly lighter tension on all but the instrument’s fourth string. (This gauging problem is more of an issue with nylon strings than with steel; trying to pitch nylon strings below D2, and conversely, above E4, can be a challenge.)
Perhaps this illustrates the ideas that go through my head these days.
Finally, there is the option, within any tuning, of partial capoing: setting capos on one or more strings, but not all six, and not necessarily all at the same fret. This practice has two useful effects: one, it sets open string pitches without affecting how you would play “up the neck”, which can be convenient for a variety of reasons; two, it re-sets the harmonic nodes from one string to another, which can be either an impossible landscape to keep track of, or a nearly limitless landscape to take advantage of…depending on your point of view. (I first got turned on to the idea of partial capos by Antoine Dufour, and hope to continue mining them for possibilities for a long time.)
Well, that’s the short story. (No, really.)
So now what?
Also a fair question. In short, with all the above as prelude, at this point in my own development, I am feeling an increasing desire to give back; and so I would now like to turn my energies more deliberately to outreach and to teaching–where again by “teaching”, I prefer “facilitating and coaching a properly self-directed student”.
I know, it’s quite a setup for such a short punchline, but that’s where I’ve been and that’s where I’m at. If you’ve gotten this far, you have proven yourself to be a bit of a glutton for written punishment already; hopefully the flip side of that is that, having got here, it all makes sense.
If it inspires you too, consider meeting with me!