Playing with Others

If you want to improve your guitar playing there's no magical device, or instrument or book or course that will suddenly make it all happen.  Bu there are two sure fire things that will accelerate your development:

  1. Play every day
  2. Play with others

I've written previously about the notion of guitar mastery and how to get more time to play every day.  For the last three years, I've played guitar about 360 out of 365 days a year.  Sometimes it's 15 minutes at the end of a very long day.  On occasion its in an airport or hotel with a travel guitar.  But it's not when I feel like it or when I have time; it's an every day commitment.  That's helped me get a lot of the basics down.  Today I'll focus on the importance of playing with others.  

Two years I started playing guitar with a blues workshop at Red House studios in Walnut Creek.  Every Monday we get together and work on blues songs.  We've had some people come and go from the workshop, we've split up into two different bands, we've tackled classic blues as well as some rock songs that really have nothing to do with the blues (mostly my fault).  But the important thing is we play together as a band.  There's a drummer, a bass player and usually more guitars than we actually need.  And we don't just jam or fool around; we work on songs that we'll perform live in front of an audience.

I've also been getting together every few fridays with my buddy Rob for the last 10 months and occasionally we've been lucky enough to have Chorus Dave join us on bass as part of the Electric Buddha Blues Band.  Rumor has it in 2012 we'll get a drummer.

There's something important that happens when you play with others.  It forces you to improve in ways that are more difficult, perhaps even impossible, on your own.  You can't really develop the skill of listening to others by playing by yourself.  With the right coaching from fellow musicians you learn how to not overcrowd others, how to leave quiet stretches, how to bring down the dynamics and how to deal gracefully when things go wrong.  

If you want to really improve your playing, I encourage you to find a couple of like-minded wannabe musicians and just get going.  As long as someone can hold down the beat, you're guaranteed to improve.  And if you're very fortunate, you'll actually create music and friendships along the way.

Below is a video of me, Rob and Chorus Dave doing an Albert King song "I'll Play The Blues For You."

Line 6 Holiday Backing Tracks


A couple years back, the good folks over at Line 6 posted some excellent tabs and backing tracks files for the holiday season with Silent Night, Deck the Halls, Greensleeves and more in Blues, Country and Rock versions.  These are mong the best holiday tabs and backing tracks you can find.  And they're the perfect excuse to get more time playing guitar over the holidays.  "Honey, I'm practicing Silent Night. For the kids, ya know."  Clever marketing and much appreciated.  And this is on top of the great free lessons with Wolf Marshall.

The MP3 backing tracks include full versions as well as backing versions without the lead.  My faves are the rock versions.  Turn up the reverb and prepare for your holiday stadium gig.  And there's still time to pick up a nice Pocket Pod or TonePort from Amazon for the holidays.  Merry Christmas guys!

Update: Line 6  has updated the site by adding more songs as well as Spider IV amp settings...

iPhone BackBeats App for Guitarists

This is a new application available on the iphone by Matthew Benney.  Finally a great set of drum tracks for guitar players.  You've got a range of styles (Rock, Blues, Reggae, Metal, Country...) as well as different times (4/4, 3/4 etc) and speeds.  Think of this as the best most fun metronome application you've ever had.  If you get bored with a standard metronome, this will get you more energized!


The only limitations to BackBeats are those inherent to any iPhone music app.  And that is, you can't have BackBeats playing it's drum tracks in the background while using a separate iPhone app such as AmpKit or Amplitube as your guitar modeling application.  

The long and short of that means that as useful as BackBeats is, you still need some other way to amplify your guitar.  If your amplifier has an input jack for an MP3 player, then that's a great solution.  Otherwise, I'm hoping that Matthew Benney can figure out a way to make his application play in the background.  Still, for under a buck, this is a great application and if you play guitar or bass, you should pick it up.

Blues Masters iPad App


Cherry Lane publishing has jumped into the iPad app business with an awesome Blues Master application created by G-Men Productions.  There are two versions: the Free Blues Masters app which includes a dozen licks from 8 top-notch blues players (Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, Albert King, Eric Clapton among others) and the $9.99 paid version that includes 16 artists and over 100 licks.  

Of all the guitar applications I've seen, this one has the highest production value.  Cherry Lane has really done a great job using the iPad interface to showcase the artists and then show off the licks.  You get the lick with a backing track, video (in some cases) and a tablature that animates.  Well, not exactly Guitar Pro style animation, but it does a pretty good job showing you where you are when the lick is being played.  Since all the licks are in the key of G you can mix and match to put together some interesting styles.

The free application is a great introduction to the full-blown app and it's useful in its own right.  Even if you're just starting out with the blues, you'll find some useful licks here that you can easily put into practice.

My only beef (and it's really quite minor) is that for beginning players it would be useful to provide some basic information about the key (G), and what Pentatonic shapes are being used.  It would also be nice to have some options to transpose the licks into other keys.  Still, that's not much of a knock on a great application.

As much as I love the TrueFire 50 Licks series of iPad applications, Cherry Lane has just raised the bar.


More TrueFire Guitar Apps for the iPad

A while back I posted a quick review of Truefire's 50 Blues Guitar Licks app for the iPad.  If you haven't picked it up, you really should.  For $5.00 that's 10 cents a lick.  Even if you just learn 10 things from this application it's a steal. 

TrueFire's not stupid.  They know that if you test out this application and enjoy it, you'll come back and buy other applications also.  They've also released several more "50 Licks" applications of the iPad including Blues Rock, Rock Guitar, Jazz, Shred, Country, Metal, Funk.  I've picked up several of these, and they are all terrific.  These aren't just crappy ports of their Mac/Window versions either.  They are nicely set up on the iPad and make the best of the iPad scree to show the video and tab on screen at the same time.

And if you like the iPad versions,  you might also be interested in their Mac and Windows applications.  I've picked up several and they're great.  

Elvin Bishop at National Guitar Workshop

NGW - Alvin Bishop

Elvin Bishop appeared at the National Guitar Workshop in Austin speaking about his introduction to the blues in Chicago.  He also played several blues songs with his guitar player Mike Shermer and with members of the NGW faculty and students.  Of all the guest artists I've seen present at NGW, this was by far the most interesting and lively.

I've posted some videos on YouTube including a jam where Elvin brought up several young students from the NGW class.  Very cool! 

NGW Student Performances


One of the best things about the National Guitar Workshop is that you get to work on songs during the day and then get up on stage in the evenings and play something.  While skill levels and musical genres vary widely, it's nonetheless a nervewracking experience when you're live in front of an audience.  There's no do-overs, no mulligans.  You make mistakes, you just keep going.  And believe me, we made plenty.  But we were definitely less nervous than in prior years. 

Here are some videos including our performance of "Mustang Sally" and "All Your Love." (Note there's a minute of intros before "All Your Love" gets underway.)  While we were a long way from playing flawlessly, it was fun and it occasionaly even sounds like music.  There are also plenty of other more talented students who got up and did their thing.  Special thanks to Pete Weise, Lynn Daniels and Ernie Durawa our instructors in this year's Blues class.  Also kudos to Ted Hall and John Horne for giving us a great musical foundation.

The photo above is with my NGW buddies Philippe and Bruce.  Cheers to Pete who couldn't make it this year, but was with us in spirit.  Or at least via interweb.

National Guitar Workshop 2011


Once again, I'm in Austin, Texas enjoying some BBQ and attending the National Guitar Workshop.  This is my third year and I'm fortunate that two buddies from prior years, Bruce and Philippe are also here.  This year we're in a "Play The Blues" ensemble class with a dozen students including a rhythm section.  The first afternoon was short & sweet, but very encouraging.  Not too much theory, just diving in and playing.

I've posted a few videos from the faculty concert.  The most impressive guitar player Sunday was Joel Gregoire a phenomenal shredder who played some insane instrumental songs.  Even though it's not my favorite cup of tea, it's truly impressive to see how fast his hands are flying.  I don't expect to get to that level of playing in the next 50 years, but it's still inspiring.  Ted Hall stole the show on Monday with a tremendous version of Black Magic Woman.

If you're looking to break through in your guitar playing, I strong recommend National Guitar Workshop.  No matter what your skill level, no matter what your age, you will come away as a better player and have a great time.

The National Guitar Workshop has sessions through the summer in Virginia, Austin, Texas, Connecticut and Montana. 

FTC Cracks Down on Fake Guitar Review Scam


Following on the 2009 FTC guidelines for bloggers to disclose commercial relationships when writing product reviews, the FTC has fined Legacy Learning Systems $250,000 for deceptive advertising practices.  Legacy Learning Systems, publishers of the "Learn & Master" Guitar course has been accused of planting phony reviews for years. 

According to the FTC:

The FTC charged that Legacy Learning and Smith disseminated deceptive advertisements by representing that online endorsements written by affiliates reflected the views of ordinary consumers or ‘independent’ reviewers, without clearly disclosing that the affiliates were paid for every sale they generated.”

"Whether they advertise directly or through affiliates, companies have an obligation to ensure that the advertising for their products is not deceptive," says David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

While the FTC settlement is a good sign, it's still a slap-on-the-wrist for Legacy Learning Systems.  The company generated more than $5 million in revenue through it's affiliate program.  

So if you want high quality guitar courses without scam reviews, my recommendation is Metal Method.  Doug Marks, the developer of this series, has always played it straight.  It's a great product and one that doesn't need scam reviews to promote it.  

This is definitely a win for the little guy!

Another Blues Gig


Apologies that it's taken me a while to post this write up on last month's blues gig.  Somehow the videos were hard to get hold of and some of the footage shot on iPhone rather than my usual Canon G9 left something to be desired.  Nonetheless, I've posted video of most of the songs.  (We had one near train wreck, which no one in the group wanted to see again.)

The gig was heled at Red House studios in Walnut Creek, where we practice on Monday evenings in a Blues workshop.  I think everyone was less nervous this time, but still a few things went awry.  In some ways it was a miracle that we even pulled off the gig as we had one person recovering from surgery and two others who earlier in the day were borderline as to whether they would be able to make it at all due to respitory ailments.  For reasons I cannot fully explain, we substituted one song about 20 minutes before going on stage.  In retrospect, that might not have been the best idea, since we had not played it together in many months.  

Nonetheless most of the gig worked out well.  We started with the 1977 Stranglers song "Hanging Around" which is about as far away from the blues as you can get.  Although the video doesn't show our awesome intro, it does a pretty good job capturing the energy of this song, especially the tremendous drums & bass from "the rhythm chicks" Holly & Lynn.  I'm singing vocals (occasionally off-key), James does a fantastic solo, and we started and ended together, so that was pretty cool.  I was more relaxed for my solo than the last gig, though I should have had more volume, as usual.  

I played on a few other songs ("Shakin' All Over," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Ain't no Sunshine") but to me the standout songs were "Messin' with the Kid," "Hurt so Bad," and "Juke Joint Jump," the latter featuring our ever-inspiring blues instructor Jeff Magidson.  

It's been fantastic to play with so many awesome musicians: Lisa is phenomenal on vocals (and guitar), Val is a brilliant guitar player, James is a superb showman, Tom has made major strides in the last few months.  Best of all, the whole crew are great to work with.  There's no doubt that playing at Redhouse has helped me improve my own abilities.  I don't know when our next gig will be, but we will continue to make progress gradually, week after week, gig after gig.  

iPad App: 50 Blues Guitar Licks

Screen shot 2011-02-22 at 9.22.14 PM
I'm always interested in new ways to learn guitar, whether it's playing live in the Red House blues workshop, or using the Metal Method DVDs, the Blues You Can Use books or whatever.  So I was intrigued by a new application I saw on the iPad: 50 Blues Guitar Licks You Must Know.  

This iPad app is from Truefire and it's based on their existing DVD / downloadable course of the same name.  Now, it's been optimized for use on the iPad, showing the tablature as well as onscreen video.  The videos are nicely done featuring instructor Jeff McErlain giving an intro and then demonstrating the lick several times and explaining it in detail.  He also provides a context and a bit of theory to help you understand how the lick might be used.  There's also a rhythm track player, which provides a built in drum/bass pattern for every lick.  While these are not the most exciting jam tracks (and there's no rhythm guitar) they are a good starting point and include the full 12 bar form with turnaround.  

So the app is not perfect: The tab is basically a static view of the music; it's not playing the music the way GuitarPro or Tab Toolkit does.  And I've yet to figure out how to play my guitar through the iPad.  Still, given the iPad form factor it works remarkably well.  The licks include a broad range of basics in the style of BB King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Clapton and many more.

I've been tempted to try out some of TrueFire's lessons in the past, but I was never quite sure whether to buy the DVD, the Data DVD, the downloadable version or even which lesson to get.  But this application is a no-brainer.  You get 50 Blues Guitar Licks for just $5.  That's 10c a lick!  Even if you get just 5 licks out of this it's worth it.  Heck, I can't even get a beer for $5 in a blues club, let alone a decent blues music book or DVD.  

In fact, TrueFire is selling the iPad app for less than the regular price of their standalone DVD ($29) or downloadable version ($19).  Admittedly, because the app is tied to the iPad, the content are effectively locked down; you can't move the backing tracks off the iPad into iTunes or the tablature into GuitarPro.  So if you want something more flexible, you may prefer the regular downloadable version.

If you've got an iPad and are wondering  if you can put it to musical use, I highly recommend TrueFire's 50 Blues Guitar Licks You Must Know.   

My Second Gig


A couple of nights ago I had my second live gig with a local Blues Workshop group.  We played at Red House studios in Walnut Creek, where we practice on Monday evenings.  Even though we played on the same stage we rehearse on, I was still way too nervous.  In fact, I was more nervous for this gig than I was for my first gig a few months back.  Maybe because I've not had as much time to practice since taking a new job or maybe because as a second gig my expectations were higher.

The set consisted of ten songs, four of which I played on.  We always have a surplus of guitar players, so we swap in and out of songs as necessary.  I played on the second song of the evening, "Early in the Morning," an old Louis Jordan Rumba.  The room was quite cold and I messed up my timing a bit on that one.  James, the singer (and a superb guitarist), was very gracious and we traded some licks at about 4 minutes into the song, which was fun, despite my nervousness.  We'd never done that before and I think James was trying to make things more interesting.  I wish I'd been able to venture a little bit further out of my comfort zone on that, but I was so afraid I'd screw up that I just stuck with first position Pentatonics.  "Bring Down the Curtain" (JJ Cale) was the next song.  Val, one of the other guitar players sings on this one and he developed a great rock arrangement of the song.  I was off stage for a while and came back up for "Give me One Reason" (Tracy Chapman) which came out quite good, due to some awesome vocals by Lisa.  We finished the evening with the classic "Sweet Home Chicago"(Robert Johnson).  The idea was to get everyone from the workshop up on stage and just have some fun with it.  I had a beer by that point and figured as long as things were noisy and chaotic everything would be ok.  

There's some video below from YouTube.  I'm the guy on the right hand side in the dark shirt. I also included our workshop's version of "Chain of Fools" which I think came out exceptionally well, though I don't play on it.  (And maybe that's why it sounds so good!)

I am sure other guitarists will recognize a certain amount of panic creeping into my playing that caused me to play too many notes or lose the tempo.  Nonetheless, the rest of the band are so good that it's a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.  So I'm proud of how we sounded.  

But I also recognize this is a long journey.  I couldn't have played this well on stage a year ago if I dared.  And I know I'll sound better a year from now, especially if I continue playing every week with this group and every day on my own.  But it's still a bit frustrating to feel like I didn't play as well as I could have.  But I guess if I can get another 100 gigs under my belt, then maybe I'll learn to relax more and be more confident.  Either that, or I'll get some liquid courage with a 24 oz tallboy.