Tuesday, 31 January 2012

KooKoo House Lives! (and so do I by the way...)

Lazarus returns just before a year of silence! Anyhoo, laid down the geetars on this project some time ago but the album is finally mixed, mastered and available to listen to:

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bittersweet Symphony

Hey all, I finished this track some time ago but it is an excellent example of using the harmonic minor scale for composition. It's called 1066 as having spent much time on the East Sussex coast, I felt it evoked the medieval drama of this fateful year for human and celestial events.

The whole track is based around A harmonic minor (or rather A flat as I always tune down a semitone) which is almost identical to the natural minor / aeolian mode apart from a raised 7th, which has a surprisingly dramatic effect on the overall tonality. This gives the scale an exotic flavour and almost an eastern sound in some ways. If you've be paying attention to the previous posts on modes you might be able to work out that one of the equivalent modes is E Phrygian dominant. This mode really builds on the eastern theme and sounds very much evocative of that part of the world.

I've also chucked in a bonus bit of solo guitar from another track I recorded with Cuckoo House called Blind Mr. Rosemary and am just trying to sniff out a copy of the finished tune for your listening pleasure.

There is a scale-chart below for reference and hopefully it is fairly self-explanatory. Realistically the most useful positions are the third pattern for harmonic minor starting on the root note or the first pattern for phrygian dominant starting on the root note.

Tablature for the various parts to follow.... enjoy!

1066 by Max Shuter

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Stompbox Voodoo

Hi there, been off the radar again for a while as I have been busy moving home and finally securing my first music-related job. Cue another slice of shameless self promotion:

I'll be back real soon with some proper content, got a couple of new tracks to share and dissect with you, with some tasty guitar parts to check out so stay tuned...


Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Raising The Barre

Photo Credit: Paul Kanterman / http://livemusicblog.com

Woah, it sure has been a while! I'm now back in the U.K. after having no joy with employment opportunities in Australia so will be posting regularly again.

Today I'm talking about ways and means to take basic chord progressions / song parts and develop them, adding flavour and variation by incorporating open strings into 'standard' chord shapes. This can largely be achieved by using familiar barre chords whether they be major, minor, minor sevenths, etc and simply lifting the barre so you are just fretting the root note with your forefinger tip.

A popular example of this would be using E major barre chords that allow the open high E and B strings to ring out. This is provides a droning effect that is complimentary to most positions of the chord, as the E and B are the root and fifth so they are harmonious with both the major and minor scales. Jerry Cantrell (pictured above) uses this to great effect in a number of Alice in Chains songs: 'Rooster', 'No Excuses' and 'Heaven Beside You' to name a few. It is also possible to use an E Minor shape in the same way, but the most practical way to fret the root note is by hooking your thumb over the top of the neck, as it is virtually impossible to fret both the root note and minor third with your forefinger while allowing the top two strings to ring out.

I wrote a song called 'The Life I Know' based around this same idea, except applied to minor 7th, major 7th and regular 7th chords using the what you might call the 'A' shapes. In this instance the G and high E strings were left ringing out, with fretted notes on the B string in between them. Again this resonated harmoniously as the song is in E minor and the open strings are the root and minor third (G). I then applied a finger style technique to add more variation and noticed that my little finger wasn't doing much so brought this in to play to add a little melody to the progression. The tablature and video below should explain this more clearly.

There is also a brief acoustic guitar solo, which I have also tabbed and demonstrated, as this is a good exercise for melodic ideas in E minor.

Thanks for reading, that's all for now...

The Life I Know by Max Shuter

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Less Is More & The Iwato Scale

Now we have covered all the modes, I though it might be useful to look at using one of them in a more practical setting. You can obviously fumble around and find what works best for you, but as a pointer you may want to look at comparing the similarites and differences between the five 'other' modes when compared to the major or natural/relative minor scales (i.e. Ionian and Aeolian modes).

I have just finished composing a track called Hexagram 47, inspired by the book 'The Man in the High Castle' by one of my favourite authors; Philip K Dick. The I-Ching features heavily in this novel as the influence of Japanese spirituality establishes itself with many of the main characters. Hexagram 47 of the I-Ching translates as Confinement, Exhaustion or Oppression and is symbolized by a tree walled-in on all sides. However, this imagery carries an upside, meaning that a tree restricted from outward growth will develop deeper roots, and therefore be strengthened by the limitations imposed on it rather than weakened. It is an ancient version of cliches such as 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' or 'Every cloud has a silver lining' and basically saying it is better for a persons constitution to face an obstacle and prevail than to have a clear path all the time, indeed such obstacles should be seen as an opportunity for self-development when encountered. Anyway, enough of the pseudo-philosophical rambling and on with the music.

I attempt to explore these ideas musically by playing various lead instruments and melodies against a rigid and fairly repetitive backbone of beats / samples. There is a fair amount of melodic content in this track, including slide guitar, acoustic guitar, sawtooth synth lead, Bladerunner-esqe FM synth pads and reverb-drenched piano, but we will focus on one of the main melodic themes that permeate this piece of music.

The track is built around two samples of traditional Japanese instruments; one being the Shakuhachi or bamboo flute and the other being the Koto. The Koto is a 13-string zither, and is often tuned using the Japanese Iwato Scale, which is an exotic pentatonic scale, composed of 5 tones and is essentially a reduced version of the very dissonant Locrian mode (already discussed here).

As mentioned in that post, the Locrian mode shares several common notes with the minor scale and the Iwato scale effectively removes 2 of these common notes leaving the root, flat second, fourth, flat fifth and minor seventh, thereby emphasising the dark and dissonant quality of these intervals. Most people will be familiar with the normal major and minor pentatonic scales, which spread the notes / intervals out fairly evenly to reduce dissonance and consequently have a harmonious effect. The Iwato scale does the opposite and alternates between very close and distant intervals which adds a great deal of tension and menace to the overall sound. If one was to play the minor third and sixth of the Locrian mode, it would dilute this dissonance to some extent by adding a sad but none the less harmonious quality. By sticking to the five tones of the Iwato scale one can really bring out the evil sound of this mode!

The fretboard charts below illustrate the two most useful positions for this scale, based on the root and fourth starting points. This fingering involves a bit of a stretch but keeps the layout nicely balanced and symmetrical with two notes per string, and also encourages unusual phrasing as a result. Although there are five notes to choose from, the layout and dissonant nature of the flat second / fifth will mean that these other positions are unlikely to sound great unless you really love discord. I have neglected to transcribe the main guitar / koto melodies as they are simply descending runs of these two positions and should be fairly easy to work out, especially with the accompanying video.

Once you are comfortable with the Iwato scale you may like to try applying this reductionist approach to other modes or scales (Mixolydian, Phrygian, etc) to accentuate their individual mood and flavour, while reserving common notes for transitioning between tonalities.

I hope you enjoy the track and that this gives you some fresh ideas for your own playing and compositions, cheers for now...

Hexagram 47 by Max Shuter

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Quick, Shameless Plug & Aussie Update

Hi folks, I have been settling into the Queensland lifestyle for about 3 weeks now, and have been enjoying plenty of sunshine, swimming in the ocean, good food and plenty of wine, etc.

Back in the U.K. the project I was working on for most of 2009 is on the brink of bearing fruit and has been christained "Cuckoo House"! There are some pre-mastered tracks available on myspace so click on the image below if you're interested in having a listen:

I'm currently stripped-down to an acoustic guitar and my laptop but still have a hard drive full of my own bits and pieces which I am constructing new tunes with. I am finishing off a couple of guitar-laden beat-scapes in logic / renoise which I will post shortly and give some detailed breakdown on the workflow and musical ideas therein. Oh, and I have finally got my hands on a decent little camcorder so will be able to post more videos with playing / production examples.

Thanks for reading and hope this post finds you well wherever you are...

Monday, 22 March 2010

Bender Bending Rodriguez

One of the most essential but often overlooked / undervalued skills in a guitarist's arsenal is the subtle art of string-bending. Obviously the guitar is a fretted instrument and as such the guitarist does not have to worry about intonation and super-precise finger placement as a violinist or cellist would. However, as helpful as it is to have frets on an instrument, it does somewhat compartmentalise the musical canvas into distinct boxes. It is important to be able to glide between these boundaries to express emotion with smooth, lyrical articulations and the primary technique for achieving this on the electric guitar is string bends.

Due to the absence of frets on a violin / cello, it often takes years for the aspiring player to achieve good intonation (pitch accuracy). Similarly, many guitarists can play quite competently with the frets in place to correct such inaccuracies, but often rush past the idea of string-bending, without ever properly understanding the basic purpose of the technique.

When bending a string, one should have in mind a point of origin, a destination and possibly a couple of places to see along the way. What I am trying to say is you should aim for a specific starting note and finishing note, or if these are the same then some specific other notes in between. Bending is all about controlling string tension using the strength of your fretting fingers, combined with the angle / position of the wrist, to change the pitch of the fretted note. As such it is usually preferable to use several fingers together to improve strength and control, so you often see guitarists bending with their ring-finger, while using the preceding fingers clasped together to reinforce their grip. Sometimes necessity will dictate bending with the index-finger or even fore-finger but it is generally best for both comfort and control to keep this to a minimum.

For an example, we will look at a note in the middle of the neck (as this is where string tension is lowest and so easiest to bend). We will use the D note on the 15th fret of the B-string, with the intention of bending it up 1 whole step / tone to sound at the E note 2 frets above it. It is often helpful to play the target note to train your ears, so fret the note on the 12th fret of the high E string before bending up to this note. We will now try 4 common types of bend, as notated below:

Bend: the most basic technique is to pick the starting note and bend up to the target note, in this case from D up one step to E.

Bend & Release: As above but following the bend up to the target note, one relaxes the tension in the fretting fingers to allow the pitch to smoothly return to the starting note / normal fretted pitch.

Pre-bend & Release: One cannot 'bend a note down' as such, but this is the closest technique to achieving that effect. One simply bends up to the target note before picking the string and then releases tension smoothly back down to the fretted pitch after picking the pre-bent string.

Unison Bend: This is a classic technique, where one frets the target note on the string above, while bending the starting note up to meet the same pitch. Pick both strings at the same time and allow both notes to ring out as the two pitches combine to create a wailing, natural chorus effect. This is a great technique to practice generally as you can use the higher fretted note to guide the bended note to the exact pitch you are aiming for.

The speed of each bend, i.e. how fast one pushes up from the original to the target note, is a matter of taste depending on the pace and mood of the music you are playing over. Obviously you are not limited to bending up by one whole step, you can bend half a step, 2 steps or any interval your fingers can muster without breaking a string! Also, you will often hear notes bent by intervals less than a semi-tone, particularly in blues guitar playing. Such bends are normally 1/4 or 1/8 of a step, so do not have a 'target note' as such. These type of bends are based purely on feel with the intent of adding a lingering, mournful quality to a sustained note. Practice makes perfect as they say, and there is no quick-way to perfect this so put on some of your favourite tracks on your mp3 / CD player and try bending notes accurately to the music.

Right, got that nailed? Okay, so the sister technique of bending is Vibrato, which is used to to add accentuation to particular notes in a musical phrase, thereby allowing them to stand out and adding expression to the melody as a whole. Again, if we look to a non-fretted string instrument like the violin or cello, we can see such players subtley shaking their fingers along the length of the finger-board, as subtle variations in their finger position produce rapid tiny fluctuations in pitch - which is basically what vibrato is. The same hand movement by a guitarist will yield little of audible effect due to the frets providing stable pitch, however the same basic technique as a 'bend & release' above can be applied repeatedly with greater speed and subtler movement to achieve vibrato. The bending element of vibrato is very subtle, so if it is being done correctly and at speed then any change in pitch should be negligible. In terms of movement - it's all in the wrist! The fingers are just to hold the note firm while the wrist rotates rapidly back and forth between about 2 and 1 o'clock.

Many younger players will have developed an obsession with picking speed and various other competitve techniques devoted to being able to play faster then the next guy. While it is useful to be able to play at speed, you will generally find amongst more mature players (who have been there, done that) the ability to bend notes and apply vibrato accurately, tastefully and soulfully will be the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd. Think David Gilmour, Billy Gibbons, Jerry Cantrell, Brian May, etc.

To wrap up today, I have tabbed out a short intro solo from an original track I recently played on for my friend Pete called 'Echo'. There's nothing too fancy, it's just an F# Natural Minor theme with the odd Harmonic minor note thrown in for colour - oh, and one cheeky little tap harmonic. It does however use a healthy portion of string-bending and vibrato so see how you get on. I will post a video shortly to illustrate the general idea.

Cheers for now...

Echo Intro Solo by Max Shuter