Q: I am a guitarist currently studying at Paul McCartney's Institute of Performing Arts in Liverpool, and at the moment I am compiling research on what it takes to be successful as a guitarist in the Music Industry. I am hoping to put together a business plan for my time after university, and I regard you as a very successful guitarist so hoped you could perhaps take a moment to give any advice? I am a big fan of your work and playing style, but of course I understand if you are busy, it is not a problem at all. All the best, Richard B.
A: Hello Richard, Thanks for your intriguing question. It's a challenge to give advice in such a broad way, but I will give you some brief thoughts. Do what you love. Do what you are naturally good at doing. If you can manage to get paid for those two things, you will likely feel successful. I know that's not "guitar" oriented advice, but after many years it seems to be what works for people. I'd also stress that relationships are what success is founded on. It's wise to prepare oneself musically, of course, but successful musicians are usually good at "people skills" as well as music skills.
Q: I've been a big fan of yours since I saw the Chroma video several years ago. I also love the Complete Rhyming Dictionary and your work with Bob Berg and Jim Beard. What I love the most about your playing is the fact that you don't toss out a bunch of notes to dazzle people. I think that is one of the toughest things for a musician to learn. I know it has been for me (I'm still working on it!) How did you come to possess this skill? You must just be a natural good listener. Carl C.
A: I think what you're referring to in your question is the whole idea of taste in music. I have always found that the players I enjoy most are the ones who are the most naturally lyrical, who always seem as if they're "singing" through their instrument. Though I am as awestruck as anyone when I hear a player with extraordinary technique, I rarely enjoy the music that results unless it also sounds "sung" or "felt" by the player in a genuine, natural and spontaneous way. Greater and lesser music can can be made with or without dazzling technique; there doesn't seem to be any consistent correlation between dazzling technique and quality music. For myself, though I am never satisfied with my technical skill, I have felt that I get closer to a more natural self-expression as time goes on, mostly as a result of a better perspective on things, an improved ability to listen well, and a mental attitude more than a physical skill, though music-making certainly makes technical demands on me. Mostly, I think, for me it's about trusting my own musical instincts, tastes, and desires, rather than getting hung up with what others do, or what I think they might expect.
Q: First, I have to say the recent Steely Dan gig I saw in the UK was superb. A big part of that was due to your very creative and tasteful playing. Great work, and what a great band! Previous Steely guitarists have tended to either completely reinvent a solo, or go for a more or less note-for-note copy of the originals. I thought your approach worked really well - distilling out the "essence" of the original solos, taking that as a reference and then feeling free to expand and add to that, and come up with fresh ideas. That way, you're still reminded of some of the classic original solos, but there's a nice balance of new and old ideas. Was this approach your own idea, or did Donald and Walter make suggestions? Also, I guess there were fairly detailed charts for the songs. Do these specify particular chord voicings at some points? The voicings are so key to Steely Dan's music, I was wondering how much freedom you had for this. Were you playing written voicings for some parts of songs, or did you try different ideas during rehearsal and work out what worked best with Donald and Walter?
A: I'm happy to hear you put my intentions into words so eloquently when you say "distilling out the "essence" of the original solos, and then feeling free to expand and add to that." That sounds exactly like what I was trying to do. The most daunting task was to find the right balance, (often different for each song), between getting the spirit of the original across and playing in a way where I felt and sounded natural, genuine, free, and comfortable. This was easier on some tunes than others, naturally, because the originals were played by so many different players. (It would be unlikely for any one person to be equally comfortable playing all the songs if he were trying to get some of that original "essence" to come through.) In all the months of playing with Steely Dan, I think only once did I get anything close to a specific direction as to what to play. In general, I was completely free to play the gig the way I thought it should be played. Walter and I did get together early on before the band rehearsals to figure out who would play what parts, etc., but there was never a discussion about solo approach, sound, or anything like that. The charts for the tunes were only chord charts with changes and occasionally voicings (for keyboard, never for guitar), but I always treated the records as the starting point for deciding what parts and voicings would work best, and then varied those parts as necessary or appropriate, or when asked by Donald or Walter to try something else if it seemed to them that the overall sound required something different.
Q: As a musician, how did you mentally prepare yourself to be able to play an entire set of some of the most critically acclaimed guitar parts in pop music history? Did you study transcripts or just listen to the originals? I felt that you achieved a nice blend of the original signature lines but also infused the set with your own feel as well. Any input on your mental state of mind as you prepped for the tour? Dan B.
A: Well, I'm afraid my answers about preparing myself are going to be pretty much the same as anyone else who finds himself in a similar position! The same way you get to Carnegie Hall! Practice! For me to be comfortable on any job I really have to know the music well. It's only then that I feel I can listen to everyone else and really play as a part of the ensemble in a spontaneous, fresh way. I'm a pretty quick study after many years of playing, but I ended up putting in a lot of time deciding what to play, learning all of the music (not just the guitar parts), and playing the stuff and looking for ways to improve it all the way through the tour. I also found that I'm not comfortable unless I have confidence in the equipment I'm using (and thanks to Skip Gildersleeve, the guitar tech, I was as confident as I think it was possible to be). This meant that I often had the neck off the Telecaster to adjust the truss rod, and I was often messing with the gear to make sure things were right. I also need to be confident that my hands and my head are working right, so before each show I got into the habit of spending 20 to 30 minutes by myself casually warming up on each of the two (different) guitars I used on the gig. I found this not only got my coordination working, but also helped to focus my mind on the job.
Q: I was wondering how you go about deciding what guitar to play for each song in the set? I thought about this as I watched you guys play at the Sony studio for the Steely Dan concert. I was surprised to see that you used a Tele in Josie (I am going by memory here), as I always thought that particular guitar part was done with a clean sounding Strat. Do other band members help you decide what guitar to use, or is it up to your taste and musical ear/experience to make that decision? The reason I ask, is that I struggle with my two main Stratocasters when trying to decide which to use for the particular song set that is given to me. One is clear like a bell, and the other like the Texas Special (lots of mids, good for blues, certain kinds of rock, etc). And to make it all the more complicated, I plan one day to purchase a Gibson ES-335, 336 or something similar, such as a Guild Starfire IV (haven't played one of those yet) because of the different sound, which I also enjoy. Any thoughts? Thanks a lot for taking the time to respond. Sincerely, Daddyo
A: I guess first of all, I chose which guitars I was comfortable playing that I thought would be appropriate for SD and for me. I brought a couple of other guitars to the first rehearsals, but the only two that I found myself reaching for again and again were the 335 and the Tele. They seemed to give me both a range of sounds (including two classic sounds, the Gibson with Humbuckers and the Fender with its single coils), and guitar tones that would complement Walter's sounds, which all were coming from Sadowsky Strat-style guitars. The two other most common guitars I might have chosen, I guess, would have been a Strat and a Les Paul, but I don't own a Les Paul at the moment, and I have never enjoyed playing Strats (though I have one, and love the sounds one can get from them). I also have a couple of Sadowsky guitars that are Tele-shaped, but are set up like Strats with a tremolo arm and three pickups (including a humbucking option in front and back), and though they sound great and are fantastic to play, I felt that they wouldn't offer as simple an answer to the question of complementing Walter's sound, so I stayed with the Tele and the 335 which sounded quite different from the first. As far as deciding which guitar to play on which songs, I did try to use the records as a starting point, but usually only in a general way, not ever trying to copy the sound exactly, but rather making some sort of assessment about the spirit of the track, and the overall attitude, something I could then take and try to make my own. I think even expert guitarists and producers could easily guess wrong about what guitar was used to create a recorded sound on many records, and I think tone is such a function of the player's head and hands, that it would be a great waste of my time to get hung up with attempts to imitate recorded sounds. In my experience, I can rarely identify which guitar I was playing on a recording once enough time has gone by so I don't recall the particular circumstances of a session, but I can always tell that it's me. I think I'd often be able to guess the amp type before the guitar, too. There are so many variables in recording, that I decided to find a few solid sounds I could comfortably work with on the live gigs, and stick with them. Basically, I tried to find a happy balance between honoring what I loved about the spirit of the recordings (and occasionally the notes, too), and playing in a way that felt natural to me and offered me room to express my personality freely. Thanks for the interest and the good questions.
Q: So Jon, what's your favorite Steely Dan track? Chris D. A: Favorite SD track? There are so many for me - off the top of my head the ones that spring to mind are: Babylon Sisters; Third World Man; Aja; Deacon Blues; Gaucho; Glamour Profession; Home at Last; Negative Girl; Hey Nineteen. After looking over the list, close seconds are: Chain Lightning; Dirty Work; Night By Night; Pretzel Logic; Rikki...; Black Friday; Bad Sneakers; Dr. Wu; Any World...; The Caves of Altamira; Don't Take Me Alive; Green Earrings; The Royal Scam; Black Cow; My Rival; Time Out Of Mind; Almost Gothic; Gaslighting Abbie; Here At The Western World; FM.
Q: I have seen Steely Dan with many different guitarists over the years, but your performance at Shoreline in Mountain View, CA was really inspiring. There are very few who have "fit" the sound as well as you did, while maintaining some originality of your own. It is obvious that you put considerable time into preparation. Are there any "real world" charts available for Steely Dan songs? The ones I see online and in books are full of errors and often don't give the correct voicings. If you have anything available that you might be able to email me, I would appreciate it - this is just for my own learning. Also, what kind of rig do you use to get that awesome creamy tone? I was in the lawn at the show and could not make out the name on your primary stage rig. I think what I was looking at began with a "G", but that is about all I could make out. I assume it was some sort of custom hand-built tube amp, but am not sure. Regardless, the sound of your 335 through that rig was really exceptional. I wish that I could have been closer to the stage to pick up more of the direct sound, but your FOH guy did a great job anyway. Take care, and best regards from Northern California, Chuck K.
A: The amp is made by Guytron. Check out http://guytron.com/ for more info. Unfortunately, I don't know of any available SD charts. The records are my sources for all of the details. We have basic chord charts with an occasional voicing written out, and I sometimes make charts for myself when I'm learning a tune. I try to get away from using any charts at all on the gig, though, because I feel more confident and comfortable that way, and I feel I listen to everyone else better when I'm not lost in the written music. I always recommend listening to the records for figuring out the right voicings, etc., though I know from experience how challenging that can be sometimes.
Q: I liked the mp3 of "Rolling with the Punches". Very poppy and commercial (in the best sense of the word). Did you use your Guytron for the recording? Regards, Norm G.
A: I did use the Guytron on all of the recording, and on "Been There" I also used a Fender Deluxe for one of the guitar tracks.
Q: Let me thank you for the two fantastic shows I saw this year in Irvine, CA and in Raleigh, NC (that one was the best). I guess my only question is which album did you hear that made you want to play guitar or were you simply born with a guitar in your hand? John B.
A: I'd have to say it was the Beatles that made me want to play guitar, even though it was a construction paper, Elmers' glue imitation John Lennon Rickenbacker guitar that I first strummed to shreds while jumping up and down on my parents' furniture! I began with some piano lessons, then some saxophone, and years later decided to play guitar seriously,when my interest in music where the guitar was so prominent increased. (I heard Cream, Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin!)
Here are some questions and answers having to do with music and guitar study and practice which address some common topics:
Q: I saw you last night with Steely Dan and it was one of the best shows of my life. The band and music was incredible and so was your tasteful playing. Thank you for that, I really enjoyed it. My question is about your practicing habits. When you started to become a serious musician, what were your practice sessions like? What did you work on?
A. When I decided it was time to really study the guitar, I was fortunate to find a great teacher named Harry Leahey. He was an accomplished jazz guitarist, the best sight-reader I'd ever seen, and knew the guitar and its possibilities better than anyone I'd ever met. I followed his lesson plan, which was vast. He had me doing all sorts of scales; arpeggios; chord inversions; chords played through scales; chord-melody arrangements of songs; jazz-style lines played in every possible position starting with every possible finger; picking exercises; left hand finger exercises; sight-reading practice in both treble and bass clefs; and music for solo violin and/or guitar played with a pick. At the same time, I was taking classical guitar lessons (I never got very far with them) and studying music at college, taking many theory and composition courses, studying ear training and solfege, and getting exposed to all sorts of music in the classical tradition, including a lot of modern 20th century stuff. Though I was only a beginning jazz player at the time, I was beginning to work in that field, so I was also learning lots of jazz tunes, transcribing lots of jazz solos I liked by all sorts of players, including saxophone, trumpet, piano, vibes, and guitar players.
This was a busy time, as you can imagine, and I was putting in long days. I worked with Harry for a couple of years at least, and then decided to go to a former teacher of his, Dennis Sandole, a well-known teacher of jazz players in Philadelphia. Dennis also had a wide teaching plan, but there was one way it was radically different from Harry's. When I had been going to Harry, there was so much material to cover each week that I barely had time to familiarize myself with the stuff, and never was able to acquire any real technical facility on any of the material. And though it was an amazing growth period for my brain, and I learned so much about what was possible on the guitar, it was not a great growth period for my playing from a standpoint of technique. Dennis's lesson plan, on the other hand, was a monthly cycle where each week there would be unique material, so each week there was a lot less stuff to master. Dennis expected students to put in at least four hours a day on that week's lesson material only, and he claimed he could tell if you hadn't done your time! I discovered there that the key to technical facility was lots of repetitive practice, always playing at a tempo you can control, and paying attention to efficiency of technique. For me that turned out to be the 'missing link' of my training, and though I still don't consider myself a very highly accomplished technician, that period brought about a big change in my playing.
Q: Should I study jazz? What players should I listen to?
A: I spent a lot of time studying jazz, and I feel I benefited greatly from it. I don't think I would have been able to play the Steely Dan gig without the training I had.
I can't really recommend that you do or don't study jazz, since only you know whether it is of any interest to you. I always find it's best to just try to do what you love and do what is natural to you. If you can always do those two things, you will probably take the quickest route to being the best you can be. Of course for many of us, making a living comes into play, and that can influence one's priorities.
I also don't like to recommend players, since I truly believe that you should be studying and listening to the players who move you the most right now. Your tastes will probably change as you develop, and you'll want to study other players and other music as you change. There's no great benefit that I can see from taking someone else's opinion about this. There's no harm in listening to people that others recommend, of course, but it's more important for you to learn to develop a discriminating ear for what you like. That's the only way, and probably the best way, to develop your own musical personality, in my experience.
Q: I know you studied with Harry Leahey and Dennis Sandole. Would you talk about your right hand picking technique?
A: I was never able to fully embrace Dennis's idea of the straight wrist approach, though while I went to him, I tried to use it strictly. I have come to feel that for a certain kind of precise, efficient, and even-toned playing (and with pick guitar for me that's usually in a jazz vein) there is one critical thing about the right hand/arm technique: the hand should be "free floating," that is, not anchored anywhere near the bridge, so that the movement from string to string comes primarily from the elbow, not from a change in the angle of the wrist. This allows you to access any string (and allows large string skips) without having to move the wrist much. I do find, however, that I adjust the wrist a little to ensure that the pick strikes the string as parallel to it as possible, which allows the shortest up and down repetitive picking stroke, and improves the consistency of the sound, which is crisper when the pick strikes from an exactly parallel position.
However, since I rarely find myself playing jazz in that pure form I aspired to play it 30 years ago, I find I've almost completely abandoned any fussiness or strictness about right hand technique! (Left hand, too, for that matter, since I'm bending a lot of strings, which requires the thumb up on top of the neck as an anchor to do well.) Sometimes the parallel pick attack is too sharp or clean sounding, and I'll vary the angle on purpose for a "messier" sound. And sometimes I'll mute the strings at the bridge, which, of course, can't be done without anchoring the wrist. And I find that in order to get certain sounds from the guitar I have to do some different things with the right hand - like if I want to get a particularly twangy sound I have to strike the strings very close to the bridge, for example, which means the elbow anchors in a different spot, or not at all, depending on the size of the guitar. So I certainly vary the approach for expressive purposes. Also, the extra heavy picks I use to use worked well for a jazz sound and technique, but I found them very difficult to use when playing any rhythm guitar strumming type part - that technique requires a lot of "give' in the pick (and a very loose, flexible wrist) to feel comfortable and to sound relaxed, and since it's a considerable pat of my gigging repertoire as a sideman, I got tired of switching picks for different styles and settled on a medium thickness and learned to live with it. If I find myself on a gig where it's all jazz tunes all night, I'll switch to a heavier pick, but it does mess with my touch a bit, so I try to get by mostly with the medium. There is something "fat" sounding about an electric jazz guitar played with a very heavy pick, but I dislike the "click" noise that always seems to go with it - though you don't hear it as much in a band setting with the guitar amplified. As I play more I find that I've tried to make my particular approach work in different styles, and I approach any gig a little less like a purist than I used to. I guess it's an attempt to be practical and a desire to make things simple, more than anything.