The Classic 1234 Exercise

This is one of the first guitar exercises I ever attempted. It’s been 20 years and I still play some version of this exercise almost every day.

When I say 1234, I mean play a note with the 1st finger (index) on your fretting hand, then your 2nd finger, then 3rd, and finally your 4th finger (pinky). You can start on any string you like, and eventually play it across all six strings (Ex. 1a). And of course, what goes up must come down (Ex. 1b).

Click here for the examples in a free PDF

One of the nice things about this exercise is that you can start on any fret… the numbers simply refer to the order of your fingering. This allows you to move up the neck where the frets are a little closer together. In the beginning, you may not be comfortable playing frets 1234, so you could move up to frets 5678 as indicated in Ex. 2.

For further mental and technical challenges, change the order of your fingers. The table below shows all 24 combinations. The PDF also demonstrates two of these in Ex. 3 and Ex. 4.

1234permutations

This exercise and its variations can help with so many things… dexterity, hand strength, economy of motion, right/left hand synchronization, speed. At the very least, it’s a great way to get loose before tackling the rest of your practice session.

Time to get to work!

 

 

 

2 String Arpeggios (2nd Inversion)

The 2 string arpeggios (busted up chords) we’ve been looking at are all triads, which means they contain three different notes. Therefore, we have three variations (inversions) to explore:

root position C chord = C E G  

move the C note to the end of the line and we get…

1st inversion C chord = E G C   

move the E to the end…

2nd inversion C chord = G C E   

If we rotate the notes one more time, we’re back where we started… at the root position.

If you haven’t already, check out the previous lessons on the root position and 1st inversion arpeggios. This lesson on the 2nd inversion will not only round out the field, but hopefully squish it all together into arpeggio excellence. Keep in mind, though, that true excellence is never rushed, so take your time and look back at previous lessons if you need to. It’s important to have a solid foundation to build upon.

Click here for this lesson’s free PDF

Again, the arpeggios in the key of C are laid out on the first two lines of the PDF. However, no example patterns this time… right to the music!

Ex. 1 demonstrates the 2nd inversion shapes with a triplet pattern that we’ve seen before, while Ex. 2 utilizes a 16th note pattern. Our old friend, the C G Am F progression, is back for Ex. 3, Ex. 4, and Ex. 5. First, we attack it using only the new shapes. Then we give it all we got… root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion.

Honestly, at this point I’m not thinking, “Second inversion C chord, root position G, and so on.” That’s just too much mental juggling for me. And it’s almost impossible to play freely when your brain is working that hard. Rather, give each concept the time it needs to take root. Write things down in the beginning. This frees up your attention for technical challenges like picking, fingering, muting, and actually playing the lick. Before you know it, you may realize that you don’t have to write it down any more… you’ve actually internalized the information!

One of the typical extra credit challenges at the end of my lessons is to take the information and apply it to other keys. The final examples do exactly that. Ex. 6 is in D minor (great for drop tuned stuff) and Ex. 7 is in B minor (similar to Hotel California). And last, but not least, Ex. 8a and Ex. 8b use a chord progression in the style of Avenged Sevenfold. Play them separately, or get a friend and play them together for some cool harmony.

Extra Credit:

  • be able to play each example picked and legato
  • mix together different patterns and/or rhythms
  • apply to different time signatures
  • write several ways to play over the same progression
  • push the tempo and go for speed
  • take it to the other extreme and find applications in moderate and slow tempos
  • experiment in different genres: rock, blues, jazz, country, reggae, ska, house, etc.
  • apply to all keys

 

Quick Update!

I’m afraid I went the entire month of October without a new article. But rest assured, a lot of things have been going on behind the scenes! Here’s a quick look at how the wheels are turning:

  • The guitar scale and arpeggio resources are almost complete. Take a look and you’ll see what a massive undertaking this has been.
  • Five new lesson series are in development.
  • Three future interviews are in the works.
  • I will be incorporating more of my own photography into the site.
  • I recently purchased the Neck Diagrams program to provide a better visual representation of chords, scales, and arpeggios.
  • The bass page has been somewhat neglected, so I have taken it offline until I am able to give it the attention it deserves.
  • For anyone interested in private lessons, I’ll be adding information and online payment options for my teaching business.
  • A ton of organizing, planning, proofing, adjusting, and learning…

Don’t hesitate to let me know if you have requests or questions. The first 8 months have flown by, but they’ve been great. Thank you for your support!

 

 

 

2 String Arpeggios (1st Inversion)

If you played through the lesson on 2 string arpeggios in the root position, you probably noticed all of the side to side movement. And with all that movement, our speed and accuracy usually suffer.

Inversions to the rescue!

An inversion is simply a rearrangement of the notes in a chord/arpeggio. For example:

root position C chord = C E G

move the C note to the end of the line and we get…

1st inversion C chord = E G C

an inversion contains the same notes, with a different starting place.

Click here for this lesson’s free PDF!

As in previous lessons, the arpeggios are laid out on the first 2 lines of the PDF, followed by three example patterns (Ex. 1a-c). Drop these inverted arpeggios on top of a chord progression and you may get something like Ex. 2 and Ex. 3. Make some patterns and/or chord progressions of your own and you have nearly endless possibilities.

Now. Onward to Ex. 4. This is the gold. We’re going to start mixing it all together — root position and 1st inversion arpeggios — which may tie your brain in knots for a little while. Be patient and think of it as taking one step back in order to take a whole bunch of steps forward.

You may have noticed that Examples 3 and 4 use the same C G Am F chord progression, but we’ve reduced the amount of side to side movement by mixing root position arpeggios with 1st inversion arpeggios. It may or may not sound better to your ears, but there’s no doubt it’s much more efficient.

The final examples lead us to today’s extra credit.

Extra credit:

  • changing keys – Ex. 5 and Ex. 6 are both outside the key of C.
  • mixing patterns and/or rhythms – Ex. 5 does both.
  • different time signatures – Ex. 6 is in 5/4, a personal favorite.

Remember to write out your own ideas. They don’t have to be burners… with some minor adjustments, and open ears, these ideas will work at any speed. Have fun!

 

 

Tony Grey Interview

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATony Grey is a busy guy. His fourth solo album is due out in October, he runs an educational website, he’s constantly in demand as a sideman… add his dedicated practice routine and there’s not much room left in the schedule. Still, the bass extraordinaire was incredibly generous and made time to discuss his life, his music, and to share some advice for younger musicians.

 

You began playing the bass under rather unique circumstances.  What exactly happened?

I was in the Army back in England when I was involved in a terrible car accident that left me with a broken back. When I was at home recovering, my stepfather brought me home a bass guitar to help me pass the time. He could see I was bored and depressed, and he thought playing music would be fun.

It was strange why he chose bass above any other instrument. I don’t recall ever showing an interest in playing the bass, but I felt an immediate connection with this instrument. It was easy for me to get lost in this new world to take away some of the pain and trauma I was going through. 

 

How has that experience (the wreck, subsequent surgeries, etc.) shaped who you are today?  

Music was and still is an obsession of mine. But in those first 6 months, I was completely lost inside myself. I practiced from the second I woke up until I fell asleep. It was a great escape from reality.

The Army really taught me how to respect myself and how to work really hard. The accident taught me that life is fragile and that I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to chase my dreams. When I fell in love with music, I was just so determined to give it my best, try to be open to any criticism, and just keep growing and learning.

Also, I have some tendonitis issues which I think stem from the metal plates in my back, so I have to be very mindful of my body and try not to get too tense when I play.

 

Was there a specific moment when you knew you had to be a musician? 

It all happened so quickly for me. I had no ambitions to learn bass at all; I’d never dreamed of becoming a musician. When I started playing bass, it was like medicine and therapy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy father suggested that I send a tape of me playing to my uncle John McLaughlin, who I knew was a famous guitarist. At the time I really had no idea what Jazz music was, but when I heard it, something spoke to me. I felt like I needed to get into this type of music and learn how to express myself through my instrument.

The second I picked up the bass, it became a way of life for me. It was never a choice or a dream.

 

What do you take away from your time with the pop group Bliss? 

Bliss was an amazing experience for me. When I started playing bass, I was always fascinated by melody. The bass was simply the instrument given to me. So as an untrained musician, I didn’t really understand the space and roles of each instrument.

I auditioned for Bliss with drummer Alan Brown, my good friend. Somehow I got the gig. It was the first time I had to fill the specific role of a bass player, and I had to learn restraint and groove. Being a bass player in a pop band requires a lot of focus and a great ego check. It got me on the path of trying to play only what the music asked for, which is a challenge for anyone.

We played for enormous crowds in many different countries. We did lots of interviews and TV appearances. I also had to sing background vocals, which was really tough at first. This experience was invaluable, and it was a great insight of the music business and the pressures of being a musician.

 

You’ve collaborated with an incredible list of musicians… Hiromi, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, and John McLaughlin, to name a few. What kinds of preparations do you make before engagements/tours with other artists? 

I feel so lucky to have performed with some of my favorite musicians.

I have a strong practice routine that will bring me closer to being the musician I want to be. I am constantly trying to improve and grow so that I can handle any situation I find myself in. Of course, I prepare myself and try to learn and memorize the material as best as possible. I try not to overthink anything and trust that I’m in that position for a reason.

 

From your tours, do you have a favorite place to travel? 

I love touring and simply traveling in general. I learn so much from the different cultures I encounter. I feel a strong connection with places like Japan, Barcelona, and India. Having said that, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed everywhere I have been. It’s really what you make of it.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You also have 3 solo albums and a 4th on the way, correct?  What can you tell us about the new album?

The 4th album is a tribute to all the great guitarists I have been lucky enough to play with and who have inspired me so much.

The CD features John McLaughlin. John has been an unbelievable mentor to me throughout my life. He sent me to Berklee and he introduced me to an amazing world I didn’t know existed. When he asked me to feature on his CD, it was really a dream come true. So, having him on my new CD is the biggest honor of my life. Mike Stern is another guitarist who I have learned so much from. His enthusiasm for music still, after achieving so much, is very inspiring to me. David Fiuczynski has been a huge inspiration to me also. He gave me my first real gig as a Jazz musician. His belief in me was a huge part of my development. He would always record and listen to a show we played and constructively critique; he encourages melody, individuality, and less ego. He is definitely one of the most creative people I have ever met. Hotei Tomoyasu is a legendaryJapanese rock star who wrote the soundtrack for the movie “Kill Bill”. I was so lucky to meet him in Japan while I was on tour with Hiromi. Hotei is an amazing musician with a strong and amazing tone. He is such a humble and beautiful musician. He sat in with my trio in Japan and blew me away. Reb Beach is another legendary rock star I have been blessed to tour with. He is the guitarist for the bands Whitesnake and Winger. Reb is amazing—he is so humble, but as soon as he hits the stage, he turns into a wild animal. Nir Felder is a good friend of mine from our Berklee days. Nir has such a unique voice, being a guitarist. He is great fun to play with because his solos are like stories. He shapes them so beautifully; you have to really focus to help the flow and energy. Fabrizio Sotti is a great Jazz guitarist from Italy. I was really touched that he asked me to be a part of his project “Right Now” featuring many artists (Ice T, Shaggy, and Mino Cinelu, to name a few). I was blown away by his ability to be so versatile. Not only is he a great Jazz guitarist, but he is also an amazing Hip-Hop producer. The drummer on this project is my good friend David Throckmorton. To me, he is so easy to play with. He is so supportive and right in the music for every song. There are two other guest performers on this CD: the great Romain Collin on keys and the great Mino Cinelu as a percussionist. Romain is my long time buddy and roommate from Berklee. He is a great musician. For years and years, he has been my second opinion guy on anything I write. I trust his ears and honesty so much.  Mino Cinelu also guests on my CD. Playing music, hanging out, or simply just talking with Mino is a great experience. He is not only one of the greatest percussionists of all time, but he is a beautiful open human being from whom I learn so much.

 

Fodera recently introduced the Tony Grey Signature Model bass.  You’re well known for playing six string basses… why the switch to four strings on your signature model? 

Fodera is the best. They are like family to me, and they have supported and encouraged me for many years. I own five Fodera basses, and I love each and every one of them. I love the six string bass because it allows me to explore my love of melody and harmony a lot more clearly than on a four string. But saying that, I have gone back to the four string for a few reasons. For one, I find it helps me edit myself and become a better supportive bassist. I also get more inside the pocket on a four string, and it’s a great instrument for me to teach on. I talked to Fodera about this idea and they were completely supportive and excited about it. It’s an amazing bass with a great sound.IMG_1243

Here is a link to me playing the four string bass:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZW-SNcWbOU

 

Tell us more about the Tony Grey Bass Academy.  How did it get started?  What types of lessons do you offer?  How can people sign up? 

Since I started practicing and learning bass, I have always kept a document of the music I practice. I try to find the keys to practicing efficiently.

I feel I understand how to practice the right way and how to overcome some of the fears related to practicing.

In the Academy, the lessons are broken up in to categories (Technique, Ear Training, Melodic Development, Soloing, BeBop, Walking Bass, etc). In each chapter, there is a series of lessons. There are over 20 chapters with over 200 video lessons. Each lesson can stand alone, or be a part of the whole course. Each lesson contains a downloadable lesson plan and a play along track.

I am so proud of this. It took almost two years to build, and now it’s getting very popular with some great, serious students.

http://tonygreybassacademy.com 

Here is a link for some free Bass Lessons:

http://tonygreybassacademy.com/free-bass-lessons/

 

What is your personal approach to practicing? 

I am a big fan of practicing and trying to come up with the most effective way of learning and developing as a musician. My goal is to be limited only by my imagination. I think practicing and learning music should be a fun and creative experience. I think we just have to remember that we sound like how we practice. So never just go through the motions of practicing. Practice when you are hungry and focused.

 

tg 28Is it ever difficult to balance your musical goals (writing, recording, growth on the instrument, etc.) with the business of being a musician? 

It does get difficult to balance everything. I try to map my days out so that I can fit in my practice session and still leave myself enough time to work on other peoples’ projects, write, work on my Academy, and hang out with my friends and family. There are not enough hours in the day, so it’s really important for me to stay as organized as possible.

 

What goals do you have for the future? 

My goals for the future are to continue doing what I’m doing now. I want to work hard with my Academy and help as many students grow as possible. I also want to start touring more with my own project.

  

I teach private lessons and come into contact with a lot of young people.  What advice would you give the next generation of musicians? 

I’m a practice nut and feel guilty every day I spend away from my instrument. But the truth of the matter is we all need space and time away to absorb all the things we are learning. I try to remind myself of this when I can’t find the time.

To survive in the music business we need to learn patience, take criticism the right and constructive way, learn how to get focused and organized, be skilled in several genres, create goals for ourselves, be supportive of others, and have an open mind. Most of the time, bandleaders, labels, and managers are investing in us as humans, not necessarily on how good we are or how good we think we are. Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams, stay humble, and stay inspired is my best advice.

 

For more on Tony and the Tony Grey Bass Academy, check out http://tonygrey.com/ and http://tonygreybassacademy.com/.

All the best, Tony! Thanks!

 

 

Horizontal Moves with 2 String Arpeggios (Root Position)

We recently explored the A minor scale up and down the 1st string and 2nd string. If we organize those notes a little differently, we can create arpeggios. If the word arpeggio is new, never fear!

An arpeggio is simply when the notes of a chord are played one at a time rather than all together. They have also been called broken chords… imagine smashing a chord into little pieces the way Jimi Hendrix used to smash his Strats.

Check out the free PDF for this lesson here!

When you first look at the PDF for this lesson, the examples may not look like chords you know. Remember we’ve taken the ingredients that make up common chords like C or G and we’ve located those notes on the 1st and 2nd strings. Now… if music theory scares you, hold on. It’ll all be over soon.

Notes in the key of A minor are:

A B C D E F G        … easy enough.

The distance from A (the first note of the scale) to C (the third note of the scale) is called a third.

The chords in a key are formed by stacking thirds. For example:

A b C d E f g  –  ACE = Am

a B c D e F g  –  BDF = Bdim

a b C d E f G  –  CEG = C

and wrapping around to the next octave:

a b c D e F g A  –  DFA = Dm

Continue in this fashion and you should end up with these chords for the key of A minor:

Am   Bdim    C    Dm    Em    F    G

One last thing… root position. This means that the notes are in order, beginning with the root note. So, for Am, the lowest note is A, then C, and the highest note E. Yeah, we could jumble the notes up a bit, but that’s for another day.

The concepts in this lesson can be applied in a variety of ways. Arpeggios can be used to add texture (think U2) or they can be employed for all out shredding (think Yngwie Malmsteen). They sound great at almost any speed, in almost any genre.

The PDF lays out the arpeggios on the first 2 lines, followed by some common patterns. As always, use these as a springboard for your own ideas. Finally, take those patterns and move them side to side through the key.

For extra credit:

  • Apply arpeggio ideas to chord progressions from songs.
  • Play at various tempos.
  • Transpose to all keys.
  • Adjust to various time signatures.
  • Superimpose diatonic arpeggios over static progressions.

I’ve crammed a lot of theory into a small space, so I won’t be offended if you skim through and get right to playing. However, I would encourage you to develop an understanding of the things you play. It will take some time and effort, but the payoff is great. Music is an incredible language and the better you understand the language, the better you will be able to express yourself through it.

Have fun!

 

 

Horizontal Moves on 2 Strings

Time to build upon the ideas we introduced in the last lesson. If you missed it, Horizontal Moves in A Minor (Part 1) can be found here.

Like before, we’re going to take the A minor scale, make some short patterns out of the scale, and then move those patterns up and down the neck. However, now that we’ve added the 2nd string, the possibilities increase quite a bit. There are far too many combinations for me to include them all here, so try these out and use them as a springboard for your own ideas.

Click here for the BASS version of the PDF

Click here for the GUITAR version of the PDF

At first glance, the some of the patterns may look pretty similar. One pattern goes up the scale and the next descends the scale. Do your best to be patient here. Picking across the strings always raises the difficulty level, and each pattern is slightly different for the picking hand. Once your picking hand has these mechanics down solid, it will be much easier to change up the note choices in your fretting hand.

And now, right to the extra credit.

  • Reverse the rhythms. Play the triplet patterns as 16ths, and the 16th patterns as triplets.
  • Move your ideas to every pair of adjacent strings.
  • Move your ideas to non-adjacent strings, like the 1st and 3rd strings.
  • Replace one or more of the notes with a rest.
  • Use hammer-ons, pull-offs, and other slurs rather than picking every note.
  • Transpose to all keys.
  • Incorporate different scales.
  • Make some music!

 

Horizontal Moves in A Minor

One of the biggest breakthroughs in my playing came when I learned how to effectively move up and down the neck of the guitar.  Seems simple enough, but it’s all too easy to become trapped within pentatonic boxes and vertical scale patterns. If you’re wondering where you stand, ask yourself a couple questions. First, how many scales can you play on the 1st string? And now, what can you play with those scales?

Click here for the BASS version of the PDF

Click here for the GUITAR version of the PDF

Don’t worry if you’re starting from scratch in this department.  A few steps will get you moving around the neck in no time.  And for the more seasoned players, you may want to jump on down to the extra credit section at the end of the lesson… should be something there for you to sink your teeth into.

1.  Learn a Scale

Check out the free printable PDF for this lesson and you’ll see the A minor scale at the top.  We’re using A minor for a couple reasons.  First, the notes (A B C D E F G) are easy to remember and make a great foundation to build upon.  Second, this is one of the most commonly used scales in guitar-dom, which means you can put it to use immediately.

Spend a few minutes getting used to the notes of the scale.  It should be relatively easy to slide one finger up and down the notes of the scale.  Move around, get acclimated… you don’t have to be a shredder to have some fun with this stuff.

2. Learn Some Patterns

Now that you’ve got the scale in your head and under your fingers, it’s time to take it up a notch. Let’s organize the notes into small, repeatable patterns.  The second line of the PDF demonstrates 4 patterns – 2 triplet patterns and 2 eighth note patterns – but there are many more possibilities. Obviously, it’s easier to get a lot of repetitions with short exercises like these, so they can be a great way to develop dexterity and technique.  Once you’re comfortable with the example patterns, try creating some of your own.

3. Move the Patterns Around

When you are ready, take the patterns you’ve practiced and move them to different positions up and down the string.  The third and fourth lines of the PDF give a couple examples, and you’ll notice some 1′s hovering between the tablature and standard notation.  These are reminders to use your 1st finger (index) on the lowest note of any position. If you get tangled up, it may help to draw lines separating each pattern and position.

4. Extra Credit

  • Try skipping positions rather than taking them in order.
  • Move your ideas to other strings.
  • Check out other scales. Plenty to choose from here.
  • Transpose your ideas to different keys.
  • Insert rests and/or change up the rhythms.
  • Ramp up the metronome. Go for speed.
  • Test out your new skills with a band or backing track.

Click here for the BASS version of this lesson’s PDF

Click here for the GUITAR version of this lesson’s PDF

4 Keys to Effective Practice

Practice. We all know it’s essential, but I have to admit… many times I’ve picked up an instrument and thought, “Now what?” Other times I’ve practiced for hours, but failed to see any real improvement.

I think we all go through it at some point – spinning our wheels, losing interest, or even dreading the thought of practice altogether. The problem often lies in our approach. To put it simply, how you practice is just as important as how much you practice.

1) Practice Slowly

Remember when you learned to tie your shoes for the first time? How long did it take? I think it took me 3 days to tie my shoes that first time. Being young, impatient, and stubborn I wasted a lot of time fumbling around… tying and untying knots. It just looked so easy when everyone else did it.

How long does it take you to tie your shoes now? You probably haven’t even thought about it in a while, it’s so familiar.  For me, I finally slowed down and listened to my parents’ instructions. Once I got the technique down, I improved rather rapidly and I’m now quite proficient at shoelace management.

My point is this – take your time… especially when tackling new information. It’s better to do things slowly and correctly than to dive headfirst into a pool of mistakes and bad habits.

For example, if you are working on switching chords, go very slowly and watch what each finger needs to do to get from one chord to the next. Try to eliminate wasted movements. Get some help if you need it. Once you’ve wrapped your head around what’s going on and figured out all the moves, it’s time to reinforce those correct moves. To do that, it’s important to…

2) Practice Consistently

Think of it as an exercise program for your fingers.  Like any fitness routine, you will see more improvement from 20-30 minutes each day than from a 3-4 hour cram on the weekend. For more rapid improvement, you may want to try a couple short sessions throughout the day.  Steve Morse, guitarist for the Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple, has said that he gets the best results from this method.

For some, it helps to have a regular time set aside for practice. I’m not much for mornings, at least not pre-coffee, so I prefer a later time. Find what works best for you.

Keep a guitar on a stand or easily accessible. Five minutes here and there while waiting on a Hot Pocket to heat up or a string of commercials to finish is a great way to squeeze practice into our busy lives. And these spontaneous sessions are even more effective once we learn to…

3) Practice Specifically

Know what you need to work on and do it. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Two things standing in our way are:

  • Direction — Do you have goals for yourself? What are you trying to accomplish? When you know where you want to be, it’s so much easier to get there. For example, if your ultimate goal is to shred through Satriani solos, you’ll need to learn your modes, work on legato playing, and improve your overall technique. Strumming G, C, and D won’t get you there… it just won’t.
  • Organization — Speaking personally, I have notebooks packed with practice materials and stacks of instructional books everywhere I turn. The problem is I may have five minutes to practice, but it would take me at least that long to find what I’m looking for and get ready. Having that song/scale/lick handy allows us to get the most out of our time.

So, jot down some goals. Put them somewhere you will see them regularly… your phone, the calendar, etc. This will help you stay on track. Break those big goals (play like Satriani) into smaller goals (learn the tapping break on Surfing with the Alien) and even smaller goals (get the first 4 measures by Friday). Get organized… have your guitar, tuner, cables, music, etc. ready to go. Now we’ve got something manageable. Now we’re making progress!

4) Practice Patiently

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

A thousand mile journey begins with a single step.

Even Harry Potter had to spend 6 years at Hogwarts.

Go easy on yourself and remember that those guys you listen to — the ones that make it look so easy — have been in your shoes. We’re all beginners at some point. It’s unrealistic to think we will match their lifetime of experience in our first week, but if they can do it, we can do it. That’s what I love about playing music… if you want to be good, you can be. There are no height requirements, no age restrictions, nothing to stop us from making the music we love. Be patient and keep playing. It’s a long road, but the scenery’s great.

 

 

Fodera Interview (part 3 of 3)

Fodera-logo-310x150My recent interview with Jason DeSalvo of Fodera Guitars concludes with a candid discussion of pricing and their commitment to prioritize quality above profit.  He also took the time to address my students, and artists everywhere, as we pursue a lifetime filled with music.

You mentioned pricing… I don’t want to dwell on that, but I think a common misconception is that the high price of a Fodera means you guys are raking in the big money.

Yep, that is a very common misconception. The reality is that Fodera’s first two back-to-back profitable years were 2011 and 2012 and we averaged around a 10% profit margin.  So you are not getting rich building 300 instruments at a 10% profit margin.  Realistically, 3½ or 4 years ago we raised the prices to a level that would allow us that margin because until that point, the business was either below or right at break even. Vinny, Joey, myself, and the staff take salaries, but they’re not exorbitant.  If you look at Joey and Vinny and what they are in the pantheon of builders, they’re not paid an exorbitant wage at all.  We hope to one day become more profitable as we grow, but we do everything in a very thorough, time-consuming and (therefore) costly manner.

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Emperor II with Box Elder Burl top created for Felix Pastorius

All of our employees have fully paid health insurance and a 401k with a match that’s fully paid by the company. Real estate in Brooklyn is not cheap to lease.  The materials that we use are extremely expensive.  We go to our wood dealers and say that we want only the best. Even when they send us the best and charge us accordingly, we still send back between 10-30% of what they send us as being unusable. Some suppliers won’t tolerate that so we have to keep it and use it for firewood or throw it in the garbage.

There’s a very serious misconception that Fodera makes a ton of money. I was fortunate enough to have made my living in other businesses. If I wasn’t impassioned about this business — about bass guitar, and about what Joey and Vinny are doing — there’s no way I would have invested my money into this business. I knew that going in.  I knew that it was going to be as much an act of love as a business act.  The only way this business can make sizable dollars is with volume. It’s just not a high-margin business, no matter what segment of the business you’re in.  Whether you’re building $200 knock-offs, or you’re building $10,000 Foderas, the reality is that the costs scale according to quality and building at this level is incredibly labor intensive.  We have a lot of wasted material because we only use the best material.  Our preamp is expensive, our wood is expensive, our bridge is expensive, but the biggest thing is labor.  We have very skilled labor and we have a fair amount of it.  So yeah… that’s a very common misconception and it’s really sad.  There are a lot people out there in the camp of “Fodera’s are over-priced.” A couple of times we’ve been able to convince some of those people to come in and see the shop to watch Joey, Vinny, myself, and the team in action.

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Vadym, another master craftsman in the Fodera shop

For me, tomorrow will start at 5:30 when I get in my car to beat rush hour.  I’m in the shop by 6:30 or 7:00.  I’m pulling woods for people, taking pictures for people, and sending those pictures to them.  I’m completely covered in sawdust before most people have breakfast.  Joey and Vinny usually get in between 7:00 and 8:30.  They’re at their benches completely filthy and engrossed in work by 9:00.  Our day is spent with customers, with wood, with pickups, electronics, and strings.  Joey, Vinny, and me are all very actively hands-on.  The thing I would say to anyone who thinks that Foderas are overpriced is, “Come spend a day with us in the shop.  If you still think they’re overpriced at the end of the day and you just don’t get it, then Fodera’s not the right brand for you.” And that’s fine.  But 9 out of 10 people that come to the shop are blown away by how labor intensive and how hands-on it is.  I’ve not seen anything else like this in the modern age.  You have to go back to the 1800′s or early 1900′s to see things being built this way.

We have a CNC machine now.  We also have a PLEK machine, which is a CNC based machine. But the way in which we employ those things… there are certain things that machines can do, and certain things they can’t.  Say we’ve got to cut out the shape of a body 30 times for a Monarch 4 Standard.  The basic shape of the body, rather than doing that by hand on a jigsaw, is now done by a CNC router.  As soon as it comes off of there, everything else is done by hand from that point.  There are other shops that use CNC machines to get an instrument basically 99% done.  But that’s just not our ethos.  Every piece of wood is different and every piece of wood wants to be carved slightly differently.  “This piece is a little heavier; we need to make it a little thinner. This piece, because of the grain pattern, we want to carve a little differently.” It’s especially that way with the neck.

In the summer, there are people who are working when it’s 105 degrees.  In the winter, sometimes our shop is 45 degrees.  It’s a lifestyle choice.  It’s not something you do purely for economic gain.  Some people just don’t get that.  They think that Vinny and Joey are fierce capitalists that sit back and collect money, but it just isn’t so.

I have a lot of students, a lot of young people, who love music but for one reason or another are hesitant about making it into a profession. What advice would you give them about the challenges of pursuing a profession in the arts?

It’s a bit of a cliché but, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Now, the path to it is not necessarily straight, especially in this day and age — in a culture that doesn’t embrace art as much as I wish it would.  There’s a very different mindset.  You know, in Japan, Vinny and Joey are revered and their work is considered high art.  Our Japanese customers never negotiate our prices. They basically ask how much it is and pay it.  The American ethos is, “I can get a bass for $2000 that’s just as good.” It’s a very different cultural thing that we have in this country.  It really is antithetical to art and art doesn’t always make sense economically.  You don’t sit down to write a piece of music — at least if you’re a real artist — you don’t sit down and write a piece of music to get rich. You sit down to write a piece of music because there’s something that’s not complete if you don’t write that piece of music.  That passion… you have to start from your passion.  But you also have to be realistic with whether or not your passion will afford you a living. You may be an incredibly talented musician whose music is so “out there,” that no one digs it and it’s never going to be commercial.  So you’ve got to figure out a way to have that be a part of your life, but still put bread on your table.  You’ve got to be real with that.  You’ve got to be open to the fact that your art is a necessity for you to make, but it may not be a vehicle for you to earn a living.  And that’s the reality.  I think we see that in our own industry, as luthiers. There are a lot of really talented young luthiers today, but how are you going to make a name for yourself?  What are you going to do that’s different?  Ok, so you can make a perfect knock-off Fodera, but you have to charge $1500 for it because if you charge more, someone will want the genuine article.  You’re not going to earn a living that way.

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Vinny Fodera and his personal Imperial guitar

Something about the arts in this country and culture… the arts are not supported.  It’s not like Europe and even that’s beginning to change with the financial crisis.  But you make your art because you have to make your art.  I joined Vinny and Joey because I had to help this company survive. I felt that it is an incredibly important institution.  I have sacrificed financially, fairy significantly so, to do it. I could have taken the money that I made in my other entrepreneurial endeavors and invested in something where I would’ve worked one-third as hard and made ten times, or a hundred times, as much money.  But most days when I’m going to Fodera, when I’m at Fodera, and when I’m coming home — I’m smiling.  If your ledger is only a financial one, most artists are going to suffer because most art gives you joy in many ways that don’t involve the dollar.  So you have to be real with yourself.

For me personally, I was a bass player when I was 13.  I was reasonably talented as a musician, but not exceptional.  I made some really fun music that never became commercially successful.  I went back to business school, learned a trade, and then was able to do something with music and the bass guitar later in life because I had laid that foundation.  I did things that allowed me financial freedom, but there was always a part of me that felt like I was selling my soul when I was doing that.  I was working, making good money, and really doing a wonderful business, but also feeling unfulfilled in certain aspects of my work.  It’s hard.  You’ve got to be true to yourself.  You have to really look in the mirror.  They’ve [your students] got to be themselves.  What I would say to them is, “Ok, get some of Victor’s licks under your fingers, some of Marcus’ licks under your fingers, but then forget them. No one’s going to pay you to be Victor Wooten; no one’s going to pay you to be Marcus Miller.  If you have any chance of making it in the arts, it’s because people want you to be you, and because what you are doing is different and unique.  Be open to the fact that you do your art because it’s your passion and then think about the finances.  If you are fortunate enough to do your art and make money doing it, then that can be cobbled together in any number of ways — you can teach, you can record, you can tour.  But you also have to be honest with yourself if you can’t do those things. Think about how you can have art in your life, but still make a living.”  I played bass most of the time that I wasn’t involved in the industry per se because I loved it. But I was under no illusions that I was going to buy a big house on the hill with my talent.  I had to be realistic.

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A huge thank you to Jason and everyone at Fodera.  It’s been great working together on this interview.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to work together again, but this time towards a new bass and/or guitar.  All the best, guys.  Until next time.

Be sure to check out all things Fodera, including their latest creations, at Fodera.com.

In case you missed it, click here for part 1 of the interview.

And click here for part 2 of the interview.