Beatles vs Stones

  Beatles_vs_stones_blue Beatles_vs_stones_red

My favorite public radio podcasters, Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot from WBEZ's Sound Opinions, have teamed up to write a book to settle once and for all the epic debate: which is better The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?  Sound Opinions has dissected and analyzed the careers and music of both bands to weigh in on their strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings.  The book is written in an informal conversational style, much like the Sound Opinions show itself.  You may not change your opinion on this highly personal debate, but you'll at least gather more evidence to support your cause and you may also develop an insight into what has made both of these bands such legends in the industry.  The book also has a ton of rare photos that illustrate both bands at the heights of their careers, touring and in the studio.

As for me, I'm of two different minds.  I think The Beatles helped transform the pop music industry into something much more meaningful and lasting.  But I still love the all-out raunch & roll guitar focus of mid '70s Stones albums. 

For music fans, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a great book and no doubt will be a great gift this holiday season.   (Even more cool, the  book cover changes images from red to blue depending on the angle at which you view it!)


Is Musical Talent Overrated?

Talent_is_overrated

My wife and I have a long-running disagreement on the nature of musical talent.  I don't believe in innate abilities --and I obviously don't have any --whereas she believes that some people are just born with a musical gift. 

I've written previously about the stages of learning as described in the book "Mastery: The Keys to Success." These stages can apply to sports, music, business or almost any endeavor.   I believe that "brute force" practice and determination can make up for lack of innate talent in lots of different areas, whether training for a marathon or learning to play guitar.  

More recently, I've been reading Geoff Colvin's terrrific book "Talent Is Overrated" which reaffirms my views.  The book explores the myth of innate talent and how experts really develop their abilities. 

Early in the book, Colvin describes a UK study of 257 music school students that sets the stage:

The results were clear.  The telltale signs of precocious musical ability in the top-performing groups --the evidence of talent that we all know exists --simply weren't there.  On the contrary, judged by early signs of special talent, all the groups were highly similar...
Still, the students obviously differed dramatically in their musical accomplishments, and even if extensive interviewing turned up no evidence of particular talent, weren't the differing levels of achievement in themselves evident of talent?  What else could it be?  As it happens, the study produced an answer to that question.  One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.  
Specifically, the researchers studied the results of those nationally administered grade-level exams.  You would expect, of course, that the students who went on to win places at the music school --and this was a school whose graduates regularly win national competitions and go on to professional music careers --would reach any give grade level more quickly and easily than the students who ended up being less accomplished.  Thats the very meaning of being musically talented.  
But it didn't happen.  On the contrary: The researchers calculated the average hours of practice needed by the most elite group of students to reach each grade level, and they calculated the average hours needed by each of the other groups.  There were no statistically significant differences.  For students who ended up going to the elite music school as well as for students who just played for fun, it took an averaged of twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5, for example,  The music school students reached grade levels at earlier ages than other students for the simple reason that they practiced more each day.  

Colvin goes on to describe the notion of "deliberate practice," the way in which people learn new skills through concentration and focus.   It is an approach of learning to learn, that is applicable to music, sports, business or creative endeavors.  In my experience, until you have the right approach to learning, you're just dancing in the dark.  

Deliberate practice is quite different from the usual mind-numbing playing of scales or familiar songs that you may think of as practice.  It also explains why some people never seem to get better despite years of playing the same thing over and over again.  You really have to push yourself to learn new things and practice not with your fingers, but with your mind.  These ideas are applicable to individuals and to businesses.  You can read a longer excerpt of Colvin's book at Fortune magazine.  

There are also links below to guitar DVD courses from Metal Method and Learn & Master which I consider to be quite good at helping with the deliberate practice that is essential to developing your skills.

What do you think?  Can brute force match innate talent?  Let me know...

Update: Some of these links were not working previously


Surf City with Jan & Dean & Bob


Surf_city

I just finished reading Bob Greene's 2008 book "When We Get to Surf City." It's a rock and roll travelogue featuring a middle aged writer from the midwest who manages to tour with surf guitar legends Jan & Dean for 15 summers in the mid 90's and early 2000s. 

Having lived in Chicago for a few years, I have read a lot of Bob Greene's folksy tales of Americana.  His writing style can get a bit prescious after a while and so most people either love him or hate him.  The book's subtitle is a good hint at Greene's style: "A journey through America in pursuit of Rock & Roll, friendship and dreams."  So if you can get through that opening salvo along with Greene's occasionally heavy handed prose, it's a nice, light read.  Particularly if you're a fan of Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Kingsmen, Dick Dale or other early Rock & Roll acts who cross paths with Greene over the summers.

The book is a bit more compelling if you know the backstory of Jan & Dean.  They were two of the rising stars in the late 50's with California good looks and hit songs like "Surf City" (co-written with Brian Wilson), "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," and the ominously prescient "Deadman's Curve."  At the height of their popularity, Jan Berry suffered a near-fatal car accident putting an end to the Hollywood story.  And yet 30 years later, Jan & Dean were still out touring, with Berry re-learning the words nightly to the songs he had written years earlier.  

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Green gives you breezy snapshots of countless gigs at countless county fairs, beach boardwalks and insurance company sales conventions peppered with stops at burger joints and bars across the country.  I sometimes wish there was a bit more depth on the relationship between Jan & Dean, but overall it still works. (The cartoon is from BlogJam, not the book.)

But I still can't help but wonder: how the heck did Bob Greene end up playing guitar and singing with Jan & Dean in front of 60,000 people opening for the Beach Boys?   I guess dreams can come true. 


Time Won't Let Me

Time_wont

I read Bill Scheft's book Time Won't Let Me recently and thought this book does a great job capturing the energy of '60s garage rock in a present-day setting.  It's a story of a Boston-area garage band that reunites some 30 years later.  Or or at least tries to.  The personality quirks and passions that caused them to disintegrate the first time around are still there and it makes for a great story as things unfold.

Scheft is a one time writer for Dave Letterman with great passion for rock and roll.  Or at least what it used to be in the 60s when everyone who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was putting together a band.  Best of all, he does it with with humor and wordplay at every turn. It's guaranteed to put a smile on your face.  

The inspiration for the book came from Scheft's brother, who really was in a 1960's garage band called The Rising Storm that did reunite and is touring Europe this June.  The title is taken from a hit single from the Outsiders. 


Blues You Can Use

Blues_you_can_use

I recently picked up the Hal-Leonard book "Blues You Can Use" based on recommendations on Amazon.  Heaven knows I've bought my share of guitar books over the years, and it's been rare that I've felt like I got my money's worth.  I've never found a guitar book that has matched my skills and interests.  Sadly, I don't think I'm alone in this predicament.  The majority of music books are either aimed at rank beginners (starting with "Go Tell Aunt Rhody") or they are so complicated that unless you're already an advanced player it's hard to get anything out of them.  So I have a dozen different guitar instruction books sitting on my shelf gathering dust.

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John Ganape's "Blues You Can Use" is not that kind of book.  It's one that's aimed squarely at the intermediate player who wants to learn blues guitar.  It's 96 pages and includes a CD with audio files of all of the lessons, many at both slow and full tempo.  Unlike a lot of music books, these songs sound like something you'd want to play!  Even the first lesson ("Texas Rock") has a Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe to it that sounds incredibly cool. 

I found these songs not only fun to play but they inspire you to practice and learn more.  The blues encompasses a broad range of genres and the book serves as a good introduction to basic shuffle blues, swing blues, Delta blues and hard rock blues.  Songs are in styles reminiscent of artists like BB King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Freddy King, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and others.

Ganapes covers the basics of 12 bar blues, blues shuffle patterns, major and minor Pentatonic patterns, blues scales, 7th and 9th chords and so on.  He spreads out the information across the lessons so you feel motivated to learn and apply the theory and not get bogged down. 

There are 22 lessons in the book and the author suggests that most students spend about a week on each one.  I moved through the early lessons at a faster clip, but the they definitely become more challenging as you progress.  And no doubt some of these lessons will require several weeks to master.  So far I'm just over a quarter of the way through the book and I am enjoying things enough to not only stick with the book, but I occasionally go back to practice earlier lessons. 

My only criticism is that while the book includes a CD of backing tracks, the guitar part is in both left and right audio channels.  If you want to play along to backing tracks without the guitar, you need  to buy a separate CD from the author's web site for $12.95.  Given that the book is only $20, it's still a good deal.   

Ganapes has also created several follow-up books including the more advanced More Blues You Can Use and Blues Licks You Can Use.  I plan on checking those out once I get through the rest of the book.  If you're an intermediate player, already familiar with basic chords and ready to learn the blues in a structured fashion, I fully recommend this book.


Guitar Mastery

Mastery_book_2 

A while back I read an article on Robert Renman's terrific Dolphinstreet guitar web site called "Play Like a Pro in No Time."  I know Robert's no BS artist; he's a serious guitar player, a web developer and a dedicated marathon runner.  He's a guy who's serious about his craft.  So naturally, there is no short cut to learning guitar; it takes hard work and discipline.  Robert mentioned a book called "Mastery: The Keys to Success & Long Term Fulfillment" written by George Leonard in 1992.  Since I was interested in learning about learning, I decided to pick up a copy on Amazon.

The book's central question is: what is it that sets apart mere dabblers from those who are truly masters, whether in sports, business or the arts?  After all, if you could unlock the answer, then you could develop a blueprint for improving performance.  And that's exactly what Leonard set out to do.

While the book could be dismissed as "self help" fluff, Leonard took an in-depth look at how people learn and develop skills. The results are fascinating and at-odds with the normal "quick fix" approach that is prevalent today, whether in books like "Learn Java in a Weekend," online guitar lessons or fad diets.

Leonard describes the stages people go through in learning and what sets apart the masters from the hackers, the dabblers and the obsessives.  A key take away is that learning (or more aptly, accomplishment) is based on achieving a series of plateaus, each of which may have the occasional setback.  With dedicated practice (and hard work) you occasionally break through to a new level, which is yet another plateau. Mastery is based on loving the practice of what you're doing and accepting that there will be long plateaus, occasional setbacks and perhaps rare breakthroughs.

As I was reading the book I was thinking back to my experience as a marathon runner. If you've ever run or even witnessed a marathon, you may be surprised to see the variety of runners shapes, sizes and ages at the finish.  But they all have perseverence and a love of running.  Even though I managed to run quite a few marathons, I never thought of myself as having any particular natural talent or ability.  But if you do enough running, and challenge yourself occasionally, you will become quite good at it.

I also hit my share of plateaus over the years.  For a while it seemed impossible to break a marathon time of 3:30 due to repeated injuries.  But I changed my training, pushed harder and ultimately was able to break through, qualifying for and running Boston Marathon a couple of years ago. While it took a lot of time commitment for early morning runs, speed work outs, and weekend long runs, the running itself was never a hardship. I loved going out and running 15 or 20 miles; for me it was meditative.

Last January, I decided to apply this "brute force" marathon approach to learning guitar, where I've been a "hacker" for 20+ years, never really pushing myelf and never breaking out beyond the basics.  So I decided I would play every day --even if it was just 15 minutes of scales.  I also realized I needed to put some structure in my learning and try new things.

After reading Leonard's book, I realize this "brute force" approach is more appropriate than I thought.  As long as you love the practice and stay committed to learning and improving, you will develop mastery.  In guitar, guys like Michael Angelo Batio, Sonny Landreth, and Kirk Hammett, may have had some innate abilities early on, but they sure as heck loved what they were doing, put in the long hours to hone their skills and had the humility and wisdom to never stop learning.

Metal_method_box_2 As part of my curriculum, I also decided to get off my butt and buy some instructional DVDs.  I didn't want to get some superficial course with a bunch of infomercial phoney-baloney hype.  I wanted something that was proven, that would give me a mix of skills and knowledge so I could keep learning.  It's not about learning riffs, it's about developing a framework for continuous improvement. 

I decided to order Doug Marks' Metal Method course.  It's been around for 25 years, has an active online forum and Doug seems to be a patient instructor.  (I'm not a metal head, and the course is more about classic rock than hard core head-banger stuff.)  I'm not through the entire course yet, but it's helped give me a context for what I'm learning and how the pieces fit together.  And it's giving motivation to play more.  So far, so good!


Don Felder Rips on Eagles in "Heaven And Hell"

Felder

Don Felder, lead guitarist in The Eagles for 25 years and author of one of their biggest hits "Hotel California" rips on his bandmates in his tell-all autobiography "Heaven & Hell: My Life In the Eagles."  I'm not a huge Eagles fan by any means, but Felder's guitar work is excellent and the book is worth reading if only to get a glimpse into the excesses of California rockstar life in the 1970s.

Coming from modest childhood in Gainesville Florida, Felder tells the tale of his early years crossing paths with the likes of Duane Allman and Tom Petty (teaching him guitar!) and ultimately being asked to join The Eagles in 1974.  At that time, The Eagles were the epitome of the Topanga Canyon Southern California country-rock sound, picking up where the Birds and Buffalo Springfield left off.  Felder was key to bringing an edgier rock guitar sound to the band. 

Although The Eagles was started as an "all equal" band with no sidemen, over the years, the de facto leaders Don Henley and Glenn Frey pushed out founding members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner.  Felder managed to live through it all by keeping a low profile and not angering "the gods" as he referred to Henley and Frey.  He was even there for the epic 2 1/2 year "Hell Freezes Over" reunion tour.  But at that point, with years of ego and acrimony, he gave it up.  Although Felder was a 1/3 share owner of the legal entity The Eagles Ltd, he was getting a raw deal from Henley and Frey when it came to the finances and he was fired from the band.  Felder sued and the matter was later settled out of court.  (It seems that Henley and Frey also fought to keep the book out of print---talk about controlling!)

At 350 pages, "Heaven And Hell" is a long book, but still a breezy read, suitable for the beach or a coast-to-coast flight.  For any Eagles fan, there's enough drama, drugs and mayhem to keep it interesting.  Just about ever few pages it seems there's a description of a coke fueled-recording session or "E3" (third encore) party full of groupies.  Felder also describes his role in writing the music for few of The Eagles most well-known hits including "Hotel California," "Those Shoes" and "Victim of Love."


Rock On by Dan Kennedy

Rockon

"Rock On" by Dan Kennedy, is one heckuva funny book.  Kennedy describes his tour year stint as a marketing puke at Atlantic Records in 2002 while the company goes through massive turmoil as the music industry heads into the biggest slump in its history.  Kennedy is a mid-30's slacker coming to grips with the idea of even having a career, let alone what he thinks could be a dream job in the rock and roll business.  But rock & roll fantasy quickly gives way to boring staff meetings, mediocrity, internal politics, layoffs and a fundamentally broken business model.  Somehow Kennedy manages to keep a hilarious internal dialog going with himself as he assesses and re-assesses what's wrong with the music business.   

Here's a short excerpt where Kennedy is about to give a presentation to senior level execs in the company as he gets introduced by a VP who was famous for signing the Canadian band Rush in the 1970s' and is christened Rush Hair by Kennedy.

I grab a seat at the conference table just in time.  These two enter the room in a sensible fasion.  They set up their PowerPoint.  Rush Hair is already here.  He gets up and tells the strangest story about how kids don't even go to records stores anymore, and how they're, get this, downloading music from the Internet these days.  Rush Hair tells us that the problem with this is that it's killing the industry, because... well, partially because the biggest selection of online music resides on illegal networks where people get it for free since the legal options are still scant, to put it mildly.  And even if people use the legal downloading option of the iTunes Music Store, it means they can download single tracks for a  buck a pop, which basically means the industrycan't sell a CD with only two or three good songs on it and get twenty bucks for it.  I mean, this is never said out loud in our little family.  I mean, maybe that kind of thing is said aloud in the upper reaches of the company, but down here it's all kind of one big elephant in the room.

"We are really excited about trying to figure out a way to sell albums online.  This is a really exciting time.  It's a challenging time, but it's an exciting time.  And these gentlemen are here to give us a sneak preview of just how we might go about moving forward," says Rush Hair.

He goes on to tell the story of how dangerous it is that kids are downloading from Limeware and these different peer-to-peer networks.  He gives the example of coming home to find his daughters downloading music illegally on the Internet and seeing pornographic pictures on the same network.  Note to self: apparently there is also free pornography on the peer-to-peer networks people use to illegally download music.  Dude, seriously?

It's a fast read and you can see the fundamental problem with the record business as clear as an iceberg off in the horizon.   Kennedy doesn't really offer a ton of suggestions beyond the obvious, but it's still a fun read.  That said, the last 40 pages after the story's climax could have been left out.


Andy Summers: One Train Later

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Andy Summers, guitarist for The Police, penned a very solid bio in 2006 before the band had even thought of doing their high profile reunion gig last year.  The resulting "One Train Later" is an interesting recounting of Summers' life as a young man growing up to become a professional guitarist and one of the most under-rated guitar heroes of the 1980s as lead guitarist in The Police. 

Summers had a career as a rock-and-roll gun-for-hire long before he joined The Police.  By the time he was 23 he'd already toured with UK's Soft Machine and Eric Burden and the Animals, sold his sunburst Les Paul to Eric Clapton and consumed enough drugs to sink the Royal Navy, finally settling in near LA.  At the risk of becoming another Laurel Canyon burnout, Summers hunkered down and studied guitar full time 8 hours a day earning a degree in music.  After a few years and with a chop shop Telecaster bought for $200 from a student, he headed back to London with his new bride and scratched out a living touring with various bands around the UK. 

When Summers joined The Police they were a band with no songs, no signature sound and no gigs.  They were bottle-blonde poseurs with little besides a faith in each other.  It wasn't until they blended the reggae style with Sting's pop song-writing sensability that they found a unique voice.  And it was Summers' subtle off-beat chords and open spacing that made room for Sting's melodies.  One can only imagine Summers' frustrations with the punk rock "no solo" ethos at the time.  Here was a guitar player who had jammed with Hendrix and was now subject to the narrow confines of punk rockers who didn't have the ability to play a 10 second guitar break.  Summers recounts the tale with candor including the ups and downs, the fame, fortune, drugs and divorce. 

For fans of The Police and aspiring guitar players, it's a good read about the years of hard work required to become an overnight sensation.  Also worth checking out are Summer's coffee table photo book "I'll be Watching You" and drummer Stewart Copeland's DVD home movie "Everyone Stares ".


Twenty-Eight Years of GuitarWorld Magazine

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GuitarWorld magazine seems like it's been around forever.   Well, maybe not forever, but 28 years --and counting.  That's a longer stretch than most bands, other than Led Zep and a few other classic rockers.  As a tribute they posted an online version of their first issue, published in July 1980.  It was around 80 pages and cost a mere buck and a half.  But it started what has been a long running love affair with guitar players eager to learn their craft from the best.

GuitarWorld has had a pretty storied history with some amazing columnists, interviews and reviews over the years, not to mention top-notch guitar tabs (now available online).  If you wonder what state-of-the-art looked like in 1980, take a look at the online version of issue #1 complete with original ads in all their splendor.  The user interface is a bit cumbersome, but it's still a treat to see some of those big sideburns and 'staches.  Also great articles on Merle Travis, Johnny Winter and up-and-comer George Thorogood.  They've also posted their 5th anniversary issue (featuring the first of many Jimmi Hendrix covers) and promise more back issues in coming months.

Hey, how about a reprint book: "The best of GuitarWorld Interviews?"  or "Classic Rock Lessons"?  People would be thrilled to have some of this material in book form.


Too Much Too Late

Spitz

I just finished Marc Spitz's rock and roll novel "Too Much Too Late."  Despite the promising circa-1979 cover art, it's about a fictional band called the Jane Ashers (don't ask) from the 1990's that implodes before success and then reunites again 13 years later as a bunch of middle-age misfits.  And then they implode once again. 

Spitz's background as a rock writer at SPIN magazine serves him well and he captures the excitement and chaos of rock and roll.  However, the story itself feels too convuluted and as its spread out over so many years, it doesn't have the intensity that it should.  Imagine if in the middle of watching The Commitments it paused for a ten year hiatus.  As a result you never really get any deep understanding of the characters.  He throws in some cliche's about drugs, missing fathers and lust for a teenage blogger, but it doesn't make up for the overall story.  Might make a good movie if they tightened it up.


Guitar Man

Guitarman

Guitar Man, is a non-fiction account of  UK writer Will Hodgkinson's mid-life quest to learn guitar, going from zero to a live gig in six months.  Hodgkinson is entertaining as he trots around London and then the United States seeking wisdom and inspiration from a cast of professionals including Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Johnny Marr of the Smiths, James Williamson of the Stooges, 84-year old southern bluesman T-Model Ford, british folky Davey Graham and the godfather of guitar, Les Paul.  Hodgkinson's book conveys the frustration and allure of learning guitar when you can't play a note. 

My only gripe with the book is the occasionally sloppy spelling which should have been caught during proofreading.  But for any middle-aged aspiring guitar wannabe, it's a fun read.